Serop Nalbandian’s Childhood[1]

But the new Nalbandian, Serop, was a bare handful of a child, just the size of a biggish palm, and not even the caricature of his illustrious forebear. Experts can take the measure of a man’s bones at his birth. A pinch of flesh, snorted Israel’s[2] women, who had already begun their badmouthing, seconded by other rich women in the village, newly recruited companions-in-jealousy from the village’s leading clans, who, because they set the tone there and ran the show, had still not gotten over the opulence of his christening. They added their beefing to Israel’s anathema and crucifixion. As far as they were concerned, the birth of this man-child proved nothing at all. In no sense did it overturn their verdict. They continued to believe their own desires, refusing to acknowledge this ludicrous scrap of a thing or, as they put it, this piece of snot, who would surely be carried off in no time by the first childhood diseases to come along. Taking their words to heart, his panic-stricken mother feared for her boy’s life. She would kiss the small, insignificant, button-like thing that seemed to buckle his thighs together—a withered string-bean that one could hardly be certain was the mark of his sex.

The village threw the floodgates of its shamelessness wide open. With aggrieved irony, it commiserated with milk-sop Gara, inviting public opinion to contemplate fatherly Patig, the sacked hired hand who had gone on a little too long about his “lady.”[3] What had he said? The usual gushing of a young man captivated by the aroma of a mature woman. He sees simple things and embroiders them when he talks about them with his friends. Hajji Anna denied everything just as vigorously and brazenly—so that it was not long before the multitude had taken the alacrity and vehemence of her denials for confirmation, and said so.

“If someone hasn’t eaten any, his breath doesn’t smell.” This on the pattern of the proverb about onions, the idea being that doubt was in order.

“If her mouth weren’t on fire, she wouldn’t open it so big.” Onions, again. The village gave as good as it got. Bits and pieces of songs began to coalesce. But life was harder now: people sang less and worried more about putting bread on the table. Despite Israel’s crusade, the scandal failed to spread. Quite the contrary: a month later, it resembled a baby who has been born dead. Just how much truth was there to what people were claiming?

“It’s a dark business, boys,” the old men said to each other.

“Judge not, that ye be not judged,” the priest would chime in. It was in his interest that the atmosphere remain peaceful.

“Let the Lord Himself judge,” concluded the experienced and the wise, sucking deeply on their pipes.

While fighting these battles without deferring to a soul—aided by her mother, who, with a fur coat on her back and, at last, an old woman’s well-merited glory, had moved into the Nalbandians’ house from the very first month of her daughter’s pregnancy—Hajji Anna devoted herself to her child. The two of them had no equals in this domain. The boy? But God gives children and preserves them as well. Such is the judgment of our women, who wrap babies tight in their swaddling clothes, leaving only their little mouths exposed, and entrust the rest to the warmth of a cradle placed at the feet of a grandmother who will rock it for hours on end. Did Hajji Anna depart from tradition? That isn’t what counts. Her heroism, unexampled in the village, allowed her to snatch this sham “adopted” by death—this little lizard, this freak stolen from the devil, who, they went so far as to say, had been rammed into Anna’s womb with a magic doll—from death’s sickle. Had some crackpot happened to recommend “lion’s milk,” Anna would have run all the way to “Hindustan” to fetch it. And so this last scion of the senior Nalbandian family, this fake, this non-entity, hardly distinguishable from the cloth and pillows in his cradle, managed to keep on getting bigger. Hajji Anna put other breasts alongside her own, exhausted by the tale of infinite thirst his lips told, endlessly sucking, sucking, awake or asleep, sucking to the point of altering the shape of his face, swelling his gums and making his mouth cave in, until he had a “platter-chin,” as it’s called. Where did he put Hajji Anna’s abundant milk? Next-door neighbors, simple, poor women, considered it auspicious to let a few mouthfuls of their milk pour into that insatiable maw. This practice of donating milk is quite touching, and a far cry from city calculations and cautions. Night and day, while he woke and while he slept, someone kept vigil over the cradle, plagued by a thousand-and-one suspicions. She feared evil spirits, the Nalbandians’ magic dolls (discovered at the garden gate), the surrounding air and the sky above. Before the year was out, you could discern the product of all this solicitude in the cradle: a man-child. With what effort had she managed to paste that little bit of a thing together! He was small but plump. He was white as light, as if they had taken milk and smeared it onto human skin. But the extraordinary vivacity of his eyes was striking. Wailing? Crying? Not a sound was heard for months.

“If you have to have a son, it had better be a rich man’s,” mothers said, whacking their whining brats on the nose.

A sob—small, damp, mixed with milk. That’s all; he was obedient and quiet as a mouse. “If only he had a God, and would leave us alone for days,” the young women would say, yanking their nipples from his mouth, which held its o-shape and then started sucking away at his fingers. And he played for hours with the bone cross hanging from his cradle, an heirloom of Hajji Sara’s. If you set your eye to the middle of it, you could see the Virgin dangling Jesus in her lap.

His father died a year later, withered, the last strip of flesh on his bones pumped dry, yet serene and happy, if one may say so, and not “staring backward,” in the people’s expressive phrase. No one mourned his passing. His coffee-house friends had forgotten him. Death, lurking constantly at his door, had eventually lost its meaning. People don’t believe in a reiterated horror. The one the least affected by this passing was doubtless his wife, Hajji Anna, for whom he had already “been absent” for years, with his bewitched, wormy loins and loathsome, impalpable bones. He had even disgusted Here-I-Stay’s wife[4] (who did the laundry) because he could not be “properly” ill.

Yet his son survived, safely negotiating all the expected, routine diseases: smallpox and measles, pneumonia and whooping cough, diarrhea and the ague, not to mention minor temperatures and toothaches.

He survived all this, Hajji Anna believed, in order to bring Israel’s ungodly expectations to naught. Only those who have been through the experience know the worth of a child raised under fire. His mother hedged him round with an armored surveillance. At the crawling-on-his-belly stage, she refused to let him venture beyond the big yard and out onto the street to stretch his legs in the sun and sleep with other babies his age. Later, she wouldn’t let him go play with his friends. She forbade him to set foot in his cousins’ homes. By dint of severe punishments, meted out amid tears, she trained him never to take things from strangers or buy anything at the store, not even the roasted, sugar-coated chickpeas for which children, including me at that age, would have sold their souls. She filled his little heart with her hatred for Israel, winding it so taut that he would stiffen with rage, like someone who sees a devil, whenever a son of Israel happened across his path. In the bathhouse or at church, she would hold his little hand fast in her broad, sturdy grip, oblivious to his fatigue or the pain caused by the pressure on his soft young muscles. She heightened this surveillance with each passing year. For fear of dark conspiracies, she didn’t leave him alone even in the spacious yard with the always locked gate: mouse poison doesn’t look much different from sesame candy. Israel—was it not Israel that had thrown over the God of its fathers? The priest had never understood the New Israel. She shut up her ears to all the mockery and the free advice. A mother’s instinct is rarely wrong. She contemptuously ignored the whole village, which, from the Nalbandian brothers on down, maliciously and tartly mocked this doomed affection.

“Let her keep him in her drawers,” they would say to each other, laughing; or, “she might as well pickle him.”

But he grew up. And he reached school age, although he was rather too thin and, especially, on the short side for his years. Yet his mother was well pleased. In her eyes, her son was as tall as a titan.… He was engaged before he turned ten.

Meanwhile, his mother’s new career had long since begun. For women of her mold, a husband is, for better or worse, an umbrella over their heads, who at the very least protects, if not their lives, then at least their skirts from scandalmongers or, at least, the law.

Widows. A beautiful widow, a widow from a rich family is a mystery and a prodigy. Free your image of her of the dull, sad fetters of city ways. In our towns, a widow is at least a body that puts on black and coats her white skin with oil and powder. She uses her children as pretexts for putting that body on show. And she finds someone, with or without a wedding. A tradesman’s widow is of course always a man. She thinks of nothing but her children. And in the villages? You shall learn that now.

After burying him, Hajji Anna found herself facing life’s thousand-and-one exigencies all alone. Her consternation was understandable, for life was attacking her on several fronts. Cruelest and most shameless were, again, the Nalbandian brothers, who, on instructions from ignorant muftis, officially intervened in her affairs, fetching a judge and mullah from the capital to make an exhaustive inventory of the late “Emimi-oghlu’s” estate, from his renowned olive groves down to his wooden garlic pestle. Pity? Solicitude? They convened the parish council, and she had to appear before it, in the presence of turbaned government clerks, Serop in her lap, to give an account of her “moldy gold”[5]—that is, the coins in her possession bearing the cipher of earlier sultans; the account was to be rendered to the new one. She defended her orphaned son’s rights using whatever she knew or had heard, much more capably, of course, than Israel’s ravenous dogs. For no other reason than to spite Israel, she refused to take an oath not to remarry, although she had not the least intention of doing anything so dumb. A houseful of girls and a prince of a boy—was that not enough? What need was there to wrest from life a thing that, once acquired, no longer matters? That is why widows are so energetic. She didn’t fall into the trap set for her senses by a thickset, big-shot agha whose wife had died in childbirth, an influential man with political connections and money to spare who, pursuing his latest scheme, had spun the imbroglio around Serop. The woman didn’t give an inch. Exposing the mighty agha’s designs “before the assembled tribunal” until his reputation wasn’t worth a cent, she refused the guardianship over which he was to have presided. Once she had gone through this baptism of fire, she was invincible. Counting on a certain elasticity in the defense of the law or, more exactly, on her good looks and fur coat, she put herself and her son out of harm’s way. Then, heartened, she spread her skirts over house and estate.

[1] The title has been supplied by the translator. The notes are the translator’s.

[2] Like the village priest, who is fond of Biblical language, the narrator refers to the two warring factions of the Nalbanian clan as “The House of Israel” and “The House of Judah.” Serop represents a threat to the “Israelites” because, if he grows up, a larger portion of the clan’s estate will go to his side of the family.

[3] Gara Nalbandian is Anna’s insignificant husband. The villagers believe that, in order to produce male offspring, Anna and her husband arranged for Anna to sleep with the family’s hired hand, Patig.

[4] Anna’s mother.

[5] Popular name for specie which, because of the periodic debasements of Ottoman currency in the nine teenth century, was in principle subject to compulsory redemption but in prac tice often ille gally traded or hoarded, since the reduction in the gold or silver content of the new issue raised the market value of older coins above their face value.