The Arax River was the life blood of our village, the cistern its heart; it was there the three of us would gather; first as rosy-cheeked babies on our mother’s hip, then as little girls pulling at our mother’s skirts, and later as young women carrying heavy jars on strong backs.
At seventeen I was the eldest, the most studious, a leader in our class. Ani was round-faced, from a big family, fluent in the jibber-jabber of Marash gossip. Sima, with her coal-black curls, took care of her father, Nahabed, a demanding widower who was fond of drink.
At the cistern, villagers siphoned what they needed, but the three of us liked to tarry, removing our shoes and stockings, climbing down the steep bank, dry yellow reeds prickling our pale soft skin, the late spring air fragrant with rosemary and lavender.
“There’s a boy.”
Of course, Ani had been the first to learn of the scion of an Aleppo merchant family, sent to Marash to choose a proper wife. There were few men left in our village, fewer still of marriageable age. She swooned over his wavy brown hair and eyes shaped like almonds.
Sima’s hand danced over the surface of the water. “Maybe he’s a prince.”
“I believe he wants to live near you, Myriam,” Ani teased.
I felt the heat rise on my cheeks. He had taken a spacious apartment under the watchful eye of my neighbor Mrs. Yohanian, with whom we shared a courtyard. My mother and I lived next door in one cramped room, the best we could do after Pa disappeared. He’d been rounded up with the others and marched away. We waited for his return, but as the months became years, my mother rarely spoke of him, so I knew not to.
“Which of us will be his bride?” Ani draped her shawl over my head. Sima sprinkled me with water droplets, a blessing.
When the orchards filled with pears and cherries, the three of us chirped like happy birds, filling our baskets with ripe fruit and weaving pink blossoms into flower crowns. I plucked the season’s first fruit and pictured the boy’s delicate lips, his strong white teeth biting into its sweet flesh.
“Have you met him, Myriam?” Sima asked softly.
“Of course.” Though I hadn’t. The boy and I lived under the same sky as strangers, but I didn’t dare speak to him. Marash girls were modest. It was the reason his parents had sent him to our village. We all knew that.
Shortly after settling in, the boy, a painter, set up his easel in the courtyard. After our school was shut down, I began to sew God’s Eyes in exchange for fuel and food, and I managed to convince my mother that this same light-filled space was also the best place for me to embroider finery. Though I was perched not more than thirty feet away, he focused only on his painting and never seemed to notice me or any of our other neighbors for that matter. Every day the boy layered precise strokes of color, pausing only to sip lake water Mrs. Yohanian said he preferred over ours. Lake Sevan water was supposed to be an elixir with magical properties, though few Marashi dared consume it.
My busy needles flashed in the dazzling summer sun, while in his corner the boy painstakingly recreated kestrels and flowering pink quince, the mulberry tree, the pearl white sap, the small dark worm whose silk thread would be transformed into a veil for his beloved, the object of his desire. I worked steadily and my spiral grew more and more intricate and I hoped what? To catch the boy in the web I was spinning?
One afternoon the boy set his cup down next to his tidy palette, wiped off his brushes, and stepped away from a depiction of Mount Ararat he had been working on for weeks. It was a conventional scene but not without skill or flourish. He rested his hands on his hips and sighed. Sunlight flickered over the cobblestones and he gazed over at me for the first time. I snipped off a thread and dropped my God’s Eye in my lap.
He walked over.
“Miss? Miss? You will excuse me?” Polite. Courtly. He spoke in a high but pleasing voice. I tried to keep my lips from curling in a smile. “Perhaps you will allow me to paint your portrait?”
I glanced up at our window, checking to see if my mother was watching, though she’d given up sentry there long ago. The sun blinded me as I looked back at him, all I could see was his long gray shadow, but I sat up straighter and nodded.
He bent down and pressed his warm hand on my lap, covering my God’s Eye. Was I mistaken or did his hand linger? I felt something familiar. Doubt. And something unfamiliar I couldn’t name at the time. Desire.
The next day I awoke at sunrise, noiselessly, so as not to wake my mother. I took extra care with my grooming, released my hair from its plait, smoothed it flat, and spilled drops of my mother’s precious rose oil on my wrists. To slow my pulse? To please him? I practiced a mild expression, my lips pressed together, my hands folded, my slim ankles crossed. I could hold this pose for hours, for days. Solemn stillness.
It was early. I hurried to the courtyard but of course no one was there. I sat on my stool, too anxious to do anything, but trying to look busy. It seemed to take forever, but when he finally arrived, he laid out his paints and brushes as he had every other day. I dare not move, waiting for his summons, but he resumed his painting of Mount Ararat.
At midday, Mrs. Yohanian brought him his peda, his comb of honey, and though I was parched and hungry, I still did not dare move. The boy ate vigorously and when he was finished wiped his sticky hands on his breeches. Now, at last. I ran my tongue over my dry lips. He squinted up at the pure white sky. Was there a flock of birds, scuttling clouds, perhaps? Was he searching heaven for divine inspiration?
Now he moved quickly, crushing red calyx and cobalt, wielding the brush like a sword, waging a frenzied battle against the canvas, thrusting and swaying. Stabbing. Again. Again. Vibrant hues. Shifting shapes. Undulating lines. Was that Mt. Ararat? Was that the Arax? How was it that he could see things that I could not no matter how hard I tried? I needed to see what he saw, to feel what he felt, but I was unable, a heavy stone, earthbound. How was it that he, even in his mind’s eye, saw the invisible?
He sighed. He moaned. He abandoned the brush, clawing at the canvas with his bare hands like a wild creature. Oh, how I desired those purple-stained hands stroking me with every color on his palette. The evening sky turned pink, orange, violet and the canvas was saturated in blue, and though it lacked discipline, order, meaning, I could not take my eyes off it. When there was barely a smudge of light remaining, he snapped his kit, went inside, and closed the door.
I waited for him at the courtyard the next day, but he did not return on that day or the one after. Had he abandoned his art? The jars needed to be replenished, food put up, but the boy still invaded my thoughts during the day, my dreams at night. I imagined his deft touch, my innocent flesh transformed with his supple fingers. Such sinful thoughts. I had trouble sleeping, awaking feverish with hollowed eyes circled in violet, damp curls clinging to my cheeks like an old woman in the baths. I fretted about my appearance and spent hours appraising myself in the mirror. My mother scolded me for being immodest. Being lost in dreams ends badly, my daughter.
I tried to complete my God’s Eye, but when I reached the outer ring, I tore it out and started over, my fingers raw and bloody. I knew it must be tighter, finer, though why bother when the traders had little discernment?
The summer was coming to an end. The days grew shorter, and the weather would be turning soon. A week passed. Two. Finally, one cool morning the boy emerged with an ornate mother-of-pearl game board tucked under his arm; he took long purposeful strides through the village as he made his way to the coffeehouse where the village men drank bitter coffee and played tavli as they argued politics. Mrs. Yohanian laughed that he’d dedicated himself to mastering tavli with the same single-mindedness he once applied to painting.
In Autumn, Ani and I wandered through orchards painted gold and crimson. We swung our empty baskets since villagers had already picked over the lower branches for firewood. The apples that lay on the ground were soft and the worms had come and gone before us. I paid little attention to Ani’s breathless complaints about her troublesome sisters, their petty jealousies and annoying habits. She heard school might reopen soon, and though this might have pleased me once, I now felt as if I had been away on a long journey. What did I care about any of that? I found one red-cheeked, unblemished apple and rubbed it clean with my skirt and took a bite. I puckered my lips at the sourness.
“I hear the boy has a new passion.” Was I mistaken or was there a sly tone in Ani’s voice?
“Hmmmm.” I feigned disinterest. “Tavli.”
“Tavli?” Ani stared at me, incredulous. “Tavli?”
“He loves the game.” I shrugged. “He plays day and night.”
“Not all night. No, not all night, Myriam. Haven’t you heard his tremolo ring out over the valley? Serenading Sima on his oud?” Ani clicked her tongue like the pear-shaped instrument.
“The boy is besotted.” Ani’s pudgy cheeks flushed.
“He and our Sima are a match,” Ani squealed. “Imagine her wedded life! The boy’s mother and father welcoming her into their palace in Aleppo! The elaborate feast! The bridal portrait painted by her beloved!”
“Sima? You are mistaken, Ani. But she can hardly care for a home or—”
“Oh, Myriam,” Ani laughed. “Sima was chosen for her fine figure more than her skill with a needle or her way around the stove. You know the saying. The girl married the boy and they celebrated for seven days and seven nights…” She squeezed my hand. One of us had been chosen.
I hurried down the dry-as-dust road to the coffeehouse where women were not permitted. I pressed my ear to the door and listened to the idle gurgle of hookah and the sound of dice tumbling like clattering teeth. I recognized the elders’ sound of defeat, the boy’s muffled whoops as he eliminated them one by one, until finally only Sima’s father, Nahabed, remained. O Hayastan, the anthem to freedom rang out, a hoarse coda.
Soon after that, the boy and Sima vanished in the fading white light of Marash. Ani and I missed Sima. Yes. Yes. Our missing piece. Dead dry leaves clung stubbornly to the trees before they finally fell, leaving brittle branches bereft. Frost blanketed brown fields and the land was a wound, the Arax a gray trickle.
There were no traders that year and I pierced my Gods Eyes with my needles and put them away. We needed water to stay alive and God’s eyes were closed. My mother and I tried to preserve what little water we had for drinking and since we could no longer bathe, we grew as moldy as the roots in Mrs. Yohanians’s cellar. We grew weak, our spirits as hollow as our clay jars. It was a time of want; hunger for food, of course, but something else, something that I couldn’t name? Something unspoken. This gnawed at me, but I had no words for what it was, only that it was growing. I was no longer certain of the time, of the season, it made no difference. I was no longer attuned to the sky, the blue light, its filter through iridescent clouds, the fierce spectrum of colors, undertones of gold, of silver, the cast of blue shadow, blood red stars, purple heavens. My mother pressed the holy book into my hands, but it held no answers, no comfort. The flame that was desire, the flame that was hope, the flame that was belief had all been extinguished.
Spring was a time of renewal. When the rains finally came our precious Arax swelled. A hearty wheat harvest promised sacks of grain, milled flour, plumes of blue smoke rising from ovens, bread on the table. Marash rejoiced; spirits lifted. My mother and Mrs. Yohanian collected seeds and planted a small garden in the sunniest corner of the courtyard.
After the rain had cleansed the air, all of Marash gathered at the river. My mother urged me to join them, and I made my way with the others. Several times I was too weak to continue and set my jar down. Singsong voices rang out all around me, hopeful, full of promise. School would reopen, conscription would halt, curfew would be lifted. Ani waved to me, but I could tell from her troubled eyes that I appeared unwell. She held my arm and guided me along the brush strewn banks, to the familiar patch of grass where she and I and Sima always sat, but it felt different now. Ani and I peered down into the river’s blue-green depth, not facing each other.
“I wonder how Sima—”
“Do you know, Myriam? Have you heard?” Ani interrupted.
“Sima is back.”
I raked small stones into mounds with my fingers. “With her husband?”
“There is no husband,” Ani whispered.
I shivered. Oh, the shame of it. The boy from Aleppo would never be seen again. I knew this. “Did she displease him? Did she displease his mother?”
Ani shook her head. “Surely not.” Left unsaid: A Marash girl was chosen and found wanting? Impossible. “Nahabed must take her back. Myriam we must go to her.”
“Yes. We should go to her.” Something caught in my throat. A cruel stone. I had no need to curse Sima because Sima was already cursed. I selected the largest pebble, threw it into the river, watched ever widening gyres. “But you know, Ani, she is bespoiled.”
Had I said that aloud? Memory plays tricks.
Later, when the river sparkles silver in the moonlight, Sima will try to swim back to Aleppo. The Arax will cradle her on white crests, blanketing her in gray foam, and she will drift along with the current until it turns from brown to gold to amber to red. The river will change just like people change, just like everything changes, and she will wash up onto the riverbank, her pockets full of stones. The river will shout in a deafening roar. It will murmur. And then it will be still, silent down to its darkest depths. A river that both gives and takes life; a constant reminder that we will never see Sima again.
About the Author:
Vicki Derderian lives and writes in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. Her fiction has been published in The Michigan Quarterly Review, The Louisville Review, The Fourth River, LEON Literary Review, The London Reader, and Litbreak. She is currently working on a collection of short stories. Find her on Twitter: @VickiDerderian
Feature image by Jené Stephaniuk/Unsplash