Written by Raffi in 1878
Translated and Annotated by
Beyon Miloyan and Kimberley McFarlane
Venus had just risen on the horizon, and dawn was breaking when the young man opened his eyes, shivering from head to toe. Realizing that he had failed to make progress on his journey after sleeping through a large portion of the night, he hurriedly grabbed his rifle and spear, and continued on.
As he passed through the highlands of Aghbak, he saw the Armenian villages dispersed in the morning smoke. But this smoke was not like the smoke that is emitted from the roof of the peaceful villager’s hut: it was an ominous kind of smoke that sometimes mixes with gun smoke. Passing by one of the villages, he saw that the homes had turned to ash, and bloodied and burned corpses were scattered here and there. Once again, he felt all of the distress that had been inexplicable to him the night before. The fires that had horrified him in the darkness had been the cause of the destruction of all the Armenian villages.
These horrific scenes, that would have struck anyone else like a lightning bolt, failed to shock him. It was as if he had known this would unfold, like a prophet who, through the eyes of his soul, had already witnessed all the bloody scenes that were now a reality, and having read far in advance this mournful event, his heart had lamented enough and he had no more tears left to shed. To an observer, it would have appeared as though he was looking upon the ruins with indifference, upon the heaps of rubble where women, children, older people and young men were piled on top of one another.
The heart of man is wondrous. Sometimes it resembles the infinite and encompasses the entire universe; at other times it resembles a full vessel, the contents of which are fixed and cannot be displaced. It is all the worse when that vessel is full of love, and every new import seeks an opening. The young man’s heart was not empty.
He looked again and again around the smoky ruins before pressing on. He came across many such scenes throughout his journey—often they were villages that had turned to ashes, either completely destroyed or full of bloody corpses—yet all of those encounters only made a fleeting impact on him.
The sun continued to rise and its rays played upon the white clouds like snow, giving them a yellowish hue, but light had not yet penetrated the valleys of Aghbak. The young man continued his journey through frightful passes, with narrow gorges and rocky precipices beneath. He was heading directly for the village of Yeresan.
Finally, he arrived. Fire and sword had extinguished the dwellings and inhabitants. He roamed for a while among the corpses, as though he was searching for something. Then he stood before a fallen hut that was still burning and looked upon it in silence. That was the home in which he had spent his childhood, where his parents, sisters and brother had lived. At that painful sight he shed a few tears, which rolled down his pale face.
Tears are a marvelous expression of emotion, shared by sadness and happiness alike. But awful are the tears that spill from anger, and the young man’s were of this variety. Such tears are like the rain that falls from the heavens with thunder and lightning.
Next to the burning hut he noticed a few objects that the pillagers seemed to have found useless and left behind. They looked familiar to him and evoked old memories. His old father used to sit on that rug… he had slept beneath that blanket… he had given his mother dough in that tray… his sister had milked the sheep using that bowl. One by one, he picked up the objects and placed them in the flames of the burning hut; it seemed as though he was trying to intensify the fire.
Two Kurdish cavalry soldiers arrived, bringing a few horses behind them.
“Why are you burning those objects?” one of the soldiers asked. “We’ve returned to collect them; we didn’t have animals for transport earlier, so we had to leave them here.”
“There is plenty to take,” the young man answered coldly.
The Kurds dismounted their horses to prepare their loads.
“Don’t go near those!” the young man yelled. “I need to burn them.”
“I will burn you too, if you try to stop me.”
With that, he drew his heavy sword and struck one of the Kurds’ heads with it, then fired his pistol into the chest of the other. They both fell. The young man threw their corpses into the fire. He then took the better of the horses and rode away.
It is not clear why, having traversed some distance, he dismounted and let the horse go free to continue his journey on foot. It may be that he could not navigate with a horse through the narrow passages that he had chosen to travel by.
As he continued his journey through the highlands and had traveled quite a long way from his native village, a dark spot, discernible through the rays of the rising sun, captured his attention. It was far away in the distance, and the closer he got, the larger it grew. It looked as though it was suspended high in the air. He changed direction and headed toward it.
As he approached, the dark spot began to multiply in number, with each new spot taking the shape of a scarecrow, which was strange because these scarecrows kept away neither birds nor animals. Instead, the young man saw that crows, vultures and even singing magpies happily flapped their wings, fluttered, and landed atop the scarecrows before flying off again. Jackals and hyenas were laughing too, as if they had gathered around a grand table.
When he got very close, all was revealed: the scarecrows were human corpses that had been crucified at the hands of the barbarians. There were three of them, whom the young traveler recognized as priests. This was an example of the most horrific type of massacre that could be performed in the name of religion: nailing living humans to crosses, while yet more slaughtered people were scattered around the crucifixions. The scene seemed more perverse to the observer than the animals picking on their remains.
Suddenly the young man heard deafening wails, like the agonizing lamentations that men make in the throes of mourning. He hurried toward the noise along a barely perceptible track, following the trail of blood drops that led him to the source. His knees suddenly weakened and he fell to the ground, taking a white-haired old man into his arms. He and the dying man remained there silently for several minutes.
The dying man spoke first, with a trembling voice, “Now, Lord, take my soul, because I am dying in the arms of my son.”
The young man still did not move.
The old man added, “My son, who has been gone for ten years, now sees his father’s eyes shut for the last time.”
The son’s head rested limp on his father’s chest. The father lifted his beloved son’s head with his hand and said, “Sarhat1, one-of-a-kind Sarhat, let me bless you then let me die.”
“Before you die, you must first hear your son’s damnation,” the young man said angrily. “Yes, your son who was gone for ten years must now see his father’s eyes shut for the last time. But who was the cause of the son’s vanishing, if not his father? I was not a mischievous son, I was not an idiot or a drunkard; I only liked guns, horses and hunting. My pleasures were modest, but you hated them all. You left me in the monastery to become an ascetic, to pray.
“I ran away, and thereafter you offered me a shovel and spade, scythe and sickle. I accepted these but did not relinquish my rifle because I saw that the Kurd was stealing our crop, and there is but one way to defend against theft. You disapproved and advised me to be good, to respond to evil with kindness. You told me, ‘We are Armenians, we must bow our heads, we must not speak, we must not lift our hands against others…’ Those were your sermons, but I thought otherwise. When I bowed my head, they would beat me more; when I did not speak, they cursed me more. I saw that when I did not lift my hand, they took all that was mine, and I remained poor and hungry. But you left everything in God’s hands, and ordered me to be patient…
“I started to disbelieve in God when I saw that all types of evil were done before his eyes, and yet he remained indifferent. That was when your anger reached its limit. You exiled your immoral son from his father’s home, because he did not act according to the ways of his forefathers, because he hated slavish humility, and because he did not like to kiss the feet of his oppressor.”
“Where did you go after that and what did you do?” the grieving father asked.
“I became a wanderer and a hunter. But it only takes one step to go from killing beasts to killing men, so your son became an outlaw and started slaying people… and why shouldn’t I have, when I saw that those people who did the same were more fortunate and respected? On the contrary, I saw that good people who were not outlaws—who did not have the heart to kill even an ant—suffered and failed to be the masters of their families, their property and even their minds…”
The young man fell silent. Then, having caught his breath, he continued:
“Do you see, father? You, too, were a good man, submissive like a lamb, but your goodness did not help you. And those priests, who were crucified, and those fallen corpses around them—they were all good people, too. I know them. But they fell to evil, and their goodness did not help them either. One must be evil against evil people, and good with good people: this is demanded by the injustice of humanity.”
“Do not torment me, son. Let me die in peace,” the old man said in a feeble voice. “Your words are more painful than the spear of the Kurds.”
“No, you are not allowed to die in peace! He who did not live in peace is not allowed to die in peace. Peace is not for us, neither for our homes nor our graves.”
“Did you go? Did you see our house2?” the father asked.
“I saw it. It was burning down.”
“And your mother? Your sisters? Your brother?”
“No one was there. There were only corpses in the village.”
“And you did not hurry to arrive a day sooner and lend a hand to your helpless father to save your family?”
“I was not thinking about that, although I knew it was only a matter of time until this place became fodder for fire and sword. In any case, what was I to do? One hand cannot do anything against countless hands, and who can help a people who sharpen the swords of their enemies with their own hands? More so than the tyrant, we prepared the chains of slavery for ourselves. Our forefathers forged their weapons and enslaved their children. Let them be cursed for seizing all of our metal and weapons and giving them away. Let them be cursed for taking our heart and putting a piece of dead meat in its place. Let them be cursed for teaching us to be good, obedient and patient…”
And in this way, the young man brutally cursed his poor father and the sacred memory of his forefathers, right at the moment when the old man was about to die. It was as though, like a devil, he was trying to steal the last breath from the father who had given him life.
“Enough,” the old man cried with great difficulty. “Did you only come here to spill your curses on us?”
“No, I did not come for that. Our fathers are not even worthy of that. What brought me back is a heart that once loved me. I came to save her. She loved a son whose father, mother and relatives had neglected him. She loved an outlaw, from whom hell itself is horrified; and she loved that villain, who is hated by angels and demons alike. I came to save her.”
The old man’s head fell over his son’s limbs, and he did not hear those last words. “You have cursed me, but I bless you,” he said, and his eyes closed. His lips were still moving, however, and he muttered something that sounded like a prayer before he uttered his final words, “God, forgive my son…”
The young man did not let go of his father’s lifeless body for a long time, and the tears from his eyes fell onto his father’s bloodied snow-white wavy hair. That was only the second time he had shed tears after leaving his native land.
He lifted his father and placed his body in a ditch, raked out some soil with his dagger and covered his corpse. Taking a few fragments of rock from the nearby cliffs, he placed them atop the soil and said, “Rest in peace as a good man, and may your grave be close to that sacrificial altar, where our people were killed. Let this slaughterhouse be an eternal reminder to future generations of their devastating past and urge them to establish the present on stronger foundations. Then, perhaps, the blood of our forefathers will pave the way for the salvation of their children…”