By Hassan Bahri
When you ask somebody to describe a beautiful village, I think many people might say it’s a cluster of small country cottages, set in a wood with tall trees, resting on the bank of a small river, and sheltering amongst mountains.
And maybe not far from the sea, which can be seen from the doorsteps of the houses.
I remember when I was still in primary school, I used to draw villages like this on my sketch pad, but I used to add some farm animals to the view.
Now, it is all far away, just a distant memory, but this was reality. It was a village, a Mediterranean village. It used to go to bed, if there were any beds, early to wake up with the birds. Its inhabitants, who number no more than two hundred, were in the habit of gathering to follow with their eyes the long white trails, which the airliners leave behind over the sea, high in the late afternoon sky, just before sunset. Moreover, their hens could make them happier by laying more eggs, or their cows could do the same by giving them a little bit more milk.
If it happened that you met one of them, he would revive everything true in your human nature, simply by the way he would greet you and ask about your health, by insisting that you have a rest and a cup of tea or coffee, or maybe even spend the night with him. He would tell you about his land, and his children.
Like all countrymen these villagers were hardworking people, and they had been so for generations; at least since the early days of the century before, when they were still under a feudal system. Their landlord owned their land and all the land around it, as well as all the other villages around. All the villagers worked hard for him, ploughing his land, planting it, growing crops and harvesting them. They did all this just to see him smile, when he paid his visit to them, once a year.
He was a good landlord; they said so, and they liked him.
Years went by. They worked and he collected, the more they sweated the more he smiled, and both sides were happy.
But the evils of the first half of the last century touched most people in some way, and this village was no exception. For a couple of years there was not enough rain, and disease also made their lives more difficult.
Moreover, a few years before, all the men in the village had been forced to take up arms and go to unknown fronts, to fight unknown enemies. They never returned. However, rumours spread everywhere about defeats, and about blockades of the ports, and about massacres against the Armenian people. Within days, the villagers had to believe most of the rumours, especially when they began welcoming Armenians fleeing from the north, starving, naked, and desperate.
But bad things, like good ones, never last.
The cycle reversed, with plenty of rain again, bigger harvests, more weddings, and more smiles on the landlord’s fleshy face.
The villagers had been told the landlord was coming to the village and wanted to see them in the house of the village Chief.
He came, riding a white horse, and before and after him two men riding mules. As soon as they arrived they met the assembled villagers. They ate much, and smoked even more, before they got down to discussing their plans for the next year: what would be the best harvest to plant, and where to plant it. The village had many odd pieces of farm land, but they were scattered on the flanks of the surrounding mountains and in the deep valleys. And every piece had its name, derived from its location or from some event that had happened on it or round it. So you would hear names like ‘Distant’, Deep’, or ‘Rocky’ popping up in their conversation.
One of the farmers started talking about the various tracts of land and suggested planting some kind of fruit tree in ‘Rocky’, because it had too many small stones and rocks on it for arable plants, but its site was good, protected from the frosty northern winter winds. His reasoning was good, and the landlord, happy to embrace the idea, interrupted him, saying:
‘You know the land better than I, and I have no orchards in this village. So let’s plant ‘Rocky’ with peach trees and plum trees, half and half.
Then another farmer, rolling his cigarette meticulously between blackened fingers, said:
‘That kind of tree is very sensitive, and’…
But the landlord cut him short, saying:
‘Then plant native (more vernacular, ‘indigenous’ unlikely in dialogue) strains, they yield less but withstand the climate here better. Their fruits fetch high prices on the market. When I was in
The second farmer felt he was losing his argument, so he added, still trying to light the cigarette:
‘Even if we do plant them, I think Khatoun will not leave any fruit on them. She will eat them to the last fruit.’
‘Who’s that? Asked the landlord, with enraged contempt.
‘Khatoun, my lord.’
‘Who is she, this Khatom? Bring her to me!’
Khatoun was a desperate woman, sorrow on two legs, an Armenian whose black fate had thrown her onto roads she did not know, fleeing alone from the indiscriminate killing far to the north. She hurled herself at the first door she reached in the village. She was starving, and her clothes were decayed rags. Although she was still young, her hair was already snow white.
She arrived carrying a little bundle over her left breast. The villagers gave her food to eat and clothes to wear, and she stayed there a week or so, but she would never be parted from her bundle. Nobody knew her true story. They tried to speak to her, but she did not speak their language. Moreover, she was crying all the time, hugging and lulling the bundle, sometimes whispering sad songs, sometimes yelling aloud.
After a week she left, though everybody wanted her to stay. She left, but she kept coming back to the village from time to time, carrying her bundle. Everybody there felt sympathy with her. She came, ate, got some rest and some clothes, and went back to the valleys. They knew she was sleeping in the forest on good nights but in shrines or in ruins around the place when rain came. By day she used to pick plants and collect fruit from the farms to live on, and she began to understand some words of their language.
She was the local mystery. She and her bundle nourished the villagers’ imaginations; they began to figure out her story, and they were generous with their speculations
where there were gaps in their knowledge. Some said she was a mother of two and she had survived some massacre. Her husband, one child and all her family were killed. When she returned from their distant farm carrying her little baby, and saw nothing but a huge fire consuming the village houses, she ran there, only to find her people killed. Thereupon, she lost her mind, and fled with her baby. The rest of the story was too painful even for them to ask her about, or to fill in with something from their own previous griefs.
And this black luck even dragged her now to the village, to appear on the landlord’s wanted list. Soon she was standing in his presence, surrounded by his men. He asked her straight away:
‘Is it true what they say, that you would eat my peaches and plums if we plant them in ‘Rocky’?
From his entire phrase she understood one word, ‘eat’, nothing else. It was hunger, which had thrown her at the doors of strangers, and ‘eat’ was the magic word, which was the first she would, understood. So she hurriedly replied:
Then the landlord, his face even redder, found a new use for his walking stick. In a fit of frenzy he lashed her again and again, repeating his question, would she indeed eat the peaches and plums he planted?
The last century faded away.
The landlord died long ago, the farmers are still there sweating to please different landlords, but Khatoun with the bundle still refuses to leave their stories.
Even though she left this world, with her bundle, not long after she had cause to regret learning the word ‘eat’.