A warm, dry breeze rustles through the thirsting fields. It’s voice raspy and cracked, it whispers defiantly under the callous, summer sun. Briars and brambles, thistles and grass, all share in this misery of dearth, and all join in the susurrus of subversion. But they know that sound is all they can make, for they cannot change what they cannot break. They cannot bite or tear, they cannot urge or defy, they can only wait until the clouds reply.
“I’m going to start getting jealous of your typewriter, Atur.”
The click-clacking stopped. Out of the weathered, white bus parked curiously in the field came a dark, curly mane of hair peaking hesitantly out the window. Piercing blue eyes darted back and forth, perched between his long, mangled hair and scraggly, reaching beard. Through the sweat and dusty grime accumulated on his face, Atur recognized nothing amiss. The tall grass swayed over tangled brambles, stretching to the woodline and picking up on the hillside beyond. A few wisps of white cloud hovered overhead, while the heat of summer in Armenia echoed with the rhythmic thrum of the cicada, suffocating with its unseen melody. But nowhere in this scripted scene did he see Nairi.
It was early morning and the heat was already oppressive. Atur grabbed his pale
and headed down to the stream. He could use a break. And a wash wouldn’t hurt. Thoughts and memories darted as sporadically within as the flies and grasshoppers flew from his path without. He reached the woods that guarded the stream and passed with appreciation into the shade. He followed the path down to the bank and found the spot with a deep pool that eddied onwards. He filled his pale then poured the cold, mountain water quickly over his head. Exhilarated, he did it again, and again, and then he sat down.
“Please don’t make me sit in here by myself.”
He turned suddenly and there she was. Long, dark hair curling down her back. Milky skin dotted with endearing constellations of familiar freckles. Her coy smile hid playfully beneath keen eyes, as she waded expectantly in the deep, concealing pool.
“You’re not real.”
“I’m just as real as that incendiary literature you’re writing.” She said.
“But you can’t-”
“They know where you are.”
His stomach lurched. How could they know. No one knew where he was. At least no one who would...
“Yes.” Her eyes softened. “You need to finish, Atur.”
“I know I’m almost there I just-” he had looked away for a second and all he saw now was an empty pool.
“Nairi!” Birds skittered out of the trees, but no voice replied.
Atur had come to this valley with Nairi and two other people back in ‘72. They were young and they were poor but they had passion. Man did they have passion. Not just for each other, but for everything. They had the reckless hope of youth that makes anything seem possible, and the idea of a new Armenia, free from the chaffing shackles of Soviet oppression, drew them together. They started an anti-communist publication back in Yerevan that took off quicker than expected, but as more people noticed, so did those that shouldn’t have. Their grungy basement headquarters were raided but, tipped off in time, they managed to escape a balmy Siberian vacation. They sold almost everything they had to afford it, but soon they were cruising North in their very own Soviet issue PAZ transit bus. Hrayr had an uncle in Dilijan, an ancient village hidden by beautiful woodlands in the Lesser Caucasus mountains, where they could live safely away from prying eyes.
Nairi's warning echoed in his head, bringing Atur out of his reverie. He sprinted back to his home afraid he’d see it blazing before him after cresting the hill. His usual paranoia nearly doubled now as every shadow or sound became an accomplice to the enemy. He sat down in front of his typewriter and stared at it, forcing himself to think.
Hrayr that son of a bitch.
Stop. Focus. How does this end. How does this end. How the fuck does this end!
Hrayr was a great writer, a great thinker too, but he was always afraid. His fear festered within him, rotting him to the core until soon he stood like a tall oak whose leaves would never return. Fear turned to jealousy, jealousy turned to spite, and soon his hollow antics became intolerable to their cute, little commune. As much as Hrayr did to tarnish what they had, though, things were crumbling regardless of his assistance.
STOP FUCKING THINKING!
Atur launched himself off his chair and shot out of the bus. His head was spinning with memories. He couldn’t write like this. No one could. The crops they tried to grow were meager, and the girls grew tired of flirting with neighboring farmers for cheese and bread. Hrayr and Atur got some extra work as farmhands, but, both being born and raised in Yerevan, neither of them were ever any good at it. All of this could have been tolerated, but after awhile, most of them just wondered what the hell was the point? They’d fought their Goliath, they’d had their fun, now it was time to realize this was no story. But Atur wouldn’t give it up. He just kept typing and typing and typing, holding up the mirror to remind Hrayr of the impotent coward he had become. “You can’t do this on you’re own,” Nairi would say. You can’t do this on your own you can’t..
His panting and writhing in the dry, itchy grass stopped. He sat up slowly as if rising from an afternoon nap. That was it. That was his ending! Thank you thank you thank you Nairi!
Atur catapulted himself back into the bus and assaulted the typewriter, afraid that the idea might disappear like a bubble on a blade of grass. He stopped for nothing as the crickets joined the chorus and the sunset blazoned over the undulant hills. Hunger and thirst became nothing more than gnats at a window, oblivious to the barricade that kept them at bay. Haggard and manic though he looked, the words that issued forth from his defiled fingers were beautifully wrought, but Atur knew he was only a vessel through which this mastery materialized. Deep into the night the typing finally stopped, and Atur took a breath that he had not since he was a child. It was a breath of elation, unbound and unexpectant, wanting nothing in return for its weightlessness. If there was no ceiling on this rusted old van, Atur thought he’d just float right out of it into the cool, silent night.
It shouldn’t be silent, though. Where were the crickets? Where were the cicadas? The parched grass rustled ominously, like the low growl of a cat, hair rigid on its back. He gathered his pages, awkwardly rolled them up, and tied them as if it was an ancient manuscript, then he blew out the candles and crept out of his home. To Atur’s advantage the svelt moon gave meager light, but he had to pause after a few paces to adjust to the dark. In those few seconds he could hear the brutish husk of whispered Russian rustle over the stubborn field. Crouched down and holding his breath, he stood mute and immobile as an ominous shadow lumbered over the hill. Those few suffocating seconds lasted a lifetime, but soon the shadow lumbered beyond, cursing and clawing at the knotted mass of twisted brambles clutching at his feet. Atur shuffled as silently as he could down to the woods, pausing periodically to check if he was alone. Satisfied, he proceeded on until he found himself under its protective canopy. He knew these woods, and they knew him, and so they guided him in the darkness of the night. A commotion behind caused him to turn, and in the distance the darkness gave way to unnatural illumination. Red flames licked the sky, and Atur knew his sanctuary, his home, was no more.
He approached the murmuring stream, adrenaline seeping. He knelt and drank, taking his first gulp of water since the afternoon. Hunger would prove a problem soon. But he didn’t know where to go. The streambed would take him to the village center, but he was sure they’d have a welcoming party for him there. The other direction led straight into the mountains, where the limit of Atur’s geography staunched. And he was no survivalist. He lived modestly in these hills because he could live off little, but now gaunt and shriveled, having given everything to his writing, he would surely die if he pursued such a path. If he followed roads or train tracks, leaving him open and vulnerable, eventually he would have to ask for help, and in his current state, help was unlikely. He had to call Nairi.
Although he didn’t like the idea of this at all, it was his only option; he would have to go to Hrayr’s uncle. His farm was on the other side of town, nestled high on an opposing hillside that gave it a commanding view of the valley. Because of its isolation, Atur had rarely visited with his friends, but he was sure old Babig would remember him. Well, once he told him his name.
Babig was a constant, firm and resolute. Some may have called him stubborn, but he was not inflexible, he was merely sure. This was a sturdiness of mind and body that only a life spent toiling the land could achieve. A life as equally embroiled in cultivation as consideration. Thousands of days performing monotonous chores mulling over everything there was to mull over gave Babig a humbling understanding of the world, dark though it might be. He knew why men did terrible things; he knew why others watched and did nothing; he knew why Hrayr had came back to Dilijan; and he knew there was nothing he could do to stop him.
Babig winced when he heard the knock. Hrayr smiled. It came from the firm dutch door at the back of the house. Steady as always, Babig made his way over. He gave the doorknob a firm twist and hefted it open, while Hrayr stood close by.
“Hello Babig it’s Atur, Hrayr’s friend. I’m sorry for waking you so late but I’m… in some trouble.”
There was an awkward pause as an expectant silence hung heavily between them. Babig’s eyes screamed at Atur, but the kitchen light hanging behind him left his only voice in shade.
“Why don’t you say hello, Uncle?” Asked Hrayr. “You’re not trying anything you shouldn’t, are you?”
Babig took a step back to face him, letting the revelation hit Atur. The man’s shaggy mien distorted from terror to hatred, twisting and knotting like the arid brambles that surrounded his home.
“You fucking coward.”
“Ah, it’s good to see you too.”
Atur, still standing in the doorway, took a step back.
“Please, Atur, stay awhile. I can assure you it’s safer in here then it is out there right now.”
Babig nodded his agreement and waved him in. His leaden steps, as if already fettered, trudged across the kitchen boards. Hrayr slid a chair back from the quaint kitchen table, and Atur sat down. The others followed.
“What do you want, Hrayr?”
“Don’t play dumb. You know what I want.”
“Why? Curious to see what good writing looks like again?”
“Cut the shit, Atur. Where is it?”
“It was in the bus you just torched. Remember, the bus we used to live in together when we were all loyal friends who didn’t sell each other out?”
“We checked every corner of that piece of shit. I’m a patient man, Atur, but don’t push me.”
“Or I’ll have my nice Russian friends give Nairi some fun memories before they throw her on a bus to Siberia where she’ll spend the rest of her short fucking life moving rocks in -40 degree weather. How does that sound, Atur?”
“YOU WILL GIVE ME THE FUCKING PAPER!”
Atur’s reply sailed across the table and struck Hrayr square in the face, dribbling down his malignant sneer. He jumped from his chair pulled the gun from his waist threw Atur’s right hand onto the table and put two bullets successively into his open palm. Atur’s shrill cry echoed through the night as Hrayr calmly went back to his seat. A pool of blood stained the table between them.
“Hrayr?” Said Babig, gruff voice breaking the silence.
He looked at his Uncle, whose somber gaze betrayed the shame Hrayr had been so good at locking away.
“What happened to you, Hrayr?” Atur asked.
“I grew up! That’s what fucking happened. There’s no beating them, Atur. They’ll just kill you and everyone you know and nothing will change. Nothing will ever change in this fucking country!”
“Then why do you want my book so bad.”
Hrayr’s eyes leered at this brazen fool he once so desperately wanted to be.
“Dmitri, get me the phone.”
A hulking man in a black suit emerged from the shadows of the neighboring room. In his right hand he carried an olive green rotary phone which he placed on the table in front of Hrayr. He picked up the receiver and began twisting the dial, until you could hear the line ringing in the anticipatory silence. Finally, it clicked.
“Put her on.” That smile again. He got up from his seat and brought the receiver up to Atur’s ear. She was sobbing, sobbing uncontrollably on the other end.
“Nairi! Nairi it’s Atur it’s ok I’m gonna-”
Hrayr yanked the receiver back and slammed it down on the base, trigger clicking with violent satisfaction. Atur’s face went white. As the blood seeped from his trembling visage, so did all the defiance issue from his heart.
“She had nothing to do with this, Hrayr. You know that. You all left me here. All of you. She had no more to do with this than you did.”
“And yet here she is.”
Atur’s eyes dropped to his lap, where his hand was soaking through its feeble wrap. This was it. He had him.
“Promise me. Promise me she’ll be released.”
“I give you my word, Atur. Now where is it.”
In the few seconds he took to reply, he felt all the years spent toiling on this work.
“It’s in the mailbox.”
“Ha! You clever little shit! Thank you, Atur!” He got up and started clapping like a yuppie at Wimbledon.
Atur just sat there. “Call them,” he said. “You made a promise, Hrayr.”
“Ah yes, about that. I’m sorry Atur, but Nairi is already dead. That was simply a recording of what they’d already done.”