Lavash: What Armenians ate if they could get it (excerpt #16)

In my previous entry “Chaotic Consequences: Now and Then,” posted on July 2, 2016, I referenced the aftermath of recent disastrous battlefronts–floods of desperate Syrian refugees trying to find safety.

I likened that scene to one that occurred in December and January in 1915. When the Russians decimated the Turkish army in the Caucasus Mountains, the Turks weren’t the only ones who suffered. Their commandeered Armenian porters did, too. There was no organized retreat for the fifteen percent of those who survived the battle. It was every man for himself. Escaping the battlefront and heading in the right direction toward home was only part of the challenge. The trek home had to be done in the dead of winter, across hundreds of miles, without adequate clothing or food, on foot, and often alone.

Annie and the rest of the Gregorian family have no knowledge of the battle pitched hundreds of miles away from their farm and town in central Ottoman Turkey. All Annie knows is that she hasn’t heard from her oldest brother, Mesrop, in months. He doesn’t even return home in time for one of the most important times of the year, early January’s Feast of the Theophany. Annie wonders. Mesrop is a student at an Armenian college. Surely the war with Russia has nothing to do with him. What has happened to him? Why haven’t we heard from him? Where is he?

Two weeks after the Feast of Theophany, Annie and her father go into town with a cart of farm products and set up a booth to sell them in the bazaar.

While I was measuring out a couple of kilograms of flour into a customer’s sack, a skeleton of a man staggered up to me. Looking up from the scale I held in my hand, I stared at the man’s matted hair scantily covered by a rabbit skin tied over his head. I ran my eyes down the rags he wore. Their faded hues reminded me of clothes I had helped make for… The man’s blue lips moved. A cracked voice whispered, “Annie!” The ragged frame collapsed at my feet.

Dropping my scale, I knelt next to the heap on the snow. Putting my hand under the man’s head, I gently turned it so I could see his face.

“Mesrop!” My scream brought Hyrig and other vendors running.

“A cloak! Someone get a cloak. Some hot tea. Quick. Where’s the doctor?” Voices around me called to each other.

I sat in the snow and dirt, cradling my brother’s head, weeping, calling his name.

Someone thrust a warm cup in my hand. “See if he can sip this,” a woman’s voice said. “My husband’s gone for the doctor.”

Lifting Mesrop’s head, I tipped the cup to wet his lips with a drop of the broth.His eyelids fluttered. His tongue licked the drop. Sip upon sip brought slight color to his face.

A rattle of cart wheels and clop of donkey hooves drew my gaze up. Hyrig stooped to gather his boy in his arms. Gently, he laid Mesrop in our donkey cart. A hand offered a cloak. It was from the coppersmith that Mayrig had defended months ago.

“Thank you,” Hyrig said as he tucked the warm garment around Mesrop. “Annie, pack up our stuff. We need to get him home.”

Sensing the urgency of the voices around him, the Gregorians’ donkey hustles back to their farm. Shortly after Hyrig carries Mesrop into the house, the doctor arrives.

Mesrop revived enough to answer the doctor’s questions. “Mesrop, you’ve made it home. We’re all relieved to see you. Where have you been?”

“The Russian front. With Turkey’s 3rd Army Corps. The army conscripted all of us male students from my college. We were porters.”

“What happened at the front?”

“Blizzard. Lieutenant Mahmoud killed. Ran out of food. Many dead. Frozen. Sick. Shot. Tried to help. Long walk back. Alone.”

“Are you sick?”

“Don’t think so. Just hungry. Very tired. Sooooo cold.”

Turning to my parents, the doctor said, “Your son needs warmth, food, and rest. Best start with cleaning him up. Do you have a wash tub and warm water?”

Mayrig took the hint. “Hyrig, let’s get him out of these filthy rags.”

“You should burn them outside,” the doctor instructed. “Shave his head. Burn the hair, too. May be infested with critters.”

Mesrop makes it home. Most of the Turkish soldiers and Armenian porters don’t. Nor is this scenario of missing persons the last to be set in motion by the government in Constantinople in 1915. A mere two months later, Annie’s hyrig goes missing. (See excerpt #13, posted April 23, 2015.)

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Lavash: What Armenians ate if they could get it (excerpt #14)

The serious illness of a beloved family member will rearrange both priorities and the schedule of any caregiver. That was true for my entire summer. The only writings I did were lengthy emails as I struggled to drive between hospital and home or between rehabilitation center and home to help with the care of my husband and still maintain our home–without wearing myself out. My husband is a senior citizen and so am I. He wouldn’t have benefitted if I had gotten sick, too.

So plans and purposes had to be set aside–for a time.

The same would have been true for Anahid Gregorian in Lavash: What Armenians ate if they could get it when her elder brother, Mesrop, collapses at her feet in front of her family’s booth during a January bazaar day in Kemahcelli. Annie and her family hasn’t heard from Mesrop for months. Yet here he is, more dead than alive.

After the town’s doctor comes to their farm to assess her brother’s condition, warns the family about lice and the typhus those critters often carry, and gives directions for Mesrop’s care, Annie willingly responds to her mayrig’s plea.

“Annie,” Mayrig called me from the kitchen where she was washing her hands. When I stood next to her, she whispered, “I need you to take over Mesrop’s care. Winter’s hard enough on the baby. We can’t risk Mary getting sick, too.”

“Don’t worry, Mayrig,” I said with a smile. “First I was a school girl, then a carpet knotter, later a kilim weaver…now a nurse.”

She smiled back. “Good girl.”

After supper, I climbed the ladder to my bedroom. Kneeling for a moment on its kilim, I prayed, “Thank you, Lord God, for answering our prayers for Mesrop’s return. Please heal him; strengthen his body. In the name of the Christ Child. Amen.”

Throwing my rolled bedding over my shoulder, I returned to the main room. Before I crawled under my blanket next to Mesrop, I touched the inside of my wrist to his forehead. As a child growing up, I’d watched Mayrig do this so many times. For the first time, I understood why. Like her, I was checking for a fever. Warm. Not hot That’s good.

That night, the thrashing of my brother in his sleep interrupted my slumbers. I reached over to nudge his shoulder. “Mesrop, what’s the matter?”

“Huh! What? Who’s there?” He sat bolt upright, arms raised in front of his face, looking ready to defend himself.

“It’s me, Annie.”

“Annie? What are you doing here? This is no place for girls!”

“Mesrop, relax. You’re home.”

When he lay down again, I said, “You must have been having a nightmare.” I reached over to cover him carefully.

“Thanks, Annie.”

“You’re welcome, Mesrop.” I prayed silently, Father God, please heal my brother’s mind, his memory, too. He’s probably seen some awful things.

At dawn, I went to the hen-house for a few eggs.

Annie’s departure for America to join her husband – to – be has already been postponed. When Mayrig delivered Gregorian child number six, Mary, Annie was needed to help with the baby, the farm work, and the weaving.

Once again, Annie’s departure is pushed back for months while she is the main caregiver for her brother, Mesrop. Priorities and plans must yield to the urgent.

Nor will this be the last demand. It is January. The year of 1915 has hardly begun.