“Arable Land1” was written by the great Armenian novelist, Raffi.
It was published in 1873 in the Tiflis-based Armenian newspaper, Mshak.
Translated to English by Beyon Miloyan and Kimberley McFarlane (2017).
A magnificent castle towered high over a beautiful green forest that was surrounded with villages. Its minarets, towers and jagged walls signaled the knightly glory of its prince. The castle, with marble fountains, colorful windows, and footpaths lined with flowers and evergreen plants, was decorated with all the worthiness of Persian luxury.
Reza was its prince.
In one of the nearby villages resided a group of Armenian women who tended one of the gardens surrounding the castle. The young prince often joked and made merry with them.
One morning, when the women were at work weeding, Reza approached a young woman named Sona.
“Whose wife are you?” he asked sweetly.
“I am the wife of one of your servants, Martiros,” answered the lady shyly.
“Why are you dressed so poorly?”
“This is how poor people dress, my lord.”
“Here’s some money, go and buy yourself some new clothes,” said the prince.
Sona was confused.
“Take the coins,” repeated the prince.
“What need is there for new clothes, my lord, when I live in poor conditions?” answered Sona.
“Well then, I command you not to work in these conditions, and I will provide you with the means to live as a lady.”
Sona did not answer.
“Won’t you accept the money?”
“Because, I just can’t…”
Sona and her husband Martiros were poor villagers. Their wealth consisted of a pair of goats, whose milk they made a living from selling; a spinning wheel that Sona used to spin and sell cotton; and a shovel that Martiros carried over his shoulder every morning as he walked to the village center where he waited for someone to hire him for a day’s work in the fields in exchange for a small fee.
Despite earning such a paltry living, the couple was satisfied when they were able to enjoy a good night’s sleep in their hut—a fortune that they seldom experienced.
One day, after the prince’s father had passed away and left his son to govern the land, the prince asked Martiros to meet him.
The pitiable villager was out of breath by the time he reached the prince, but seeing his joyful face, took some spirit, and bowing to the floor, venerated him.
“With what work are you currently occupying yourself, Martiros?” asked Reza.
“With what work does a peasant occupy himself, Master? I am the ashes beneath your feet; I work one day so that I may be able to eat the next,” answered the peasant, bowing again.
“You are a strong and healthy man, Martiros, I will give you a plow and some arable land, so that you may become a farmer.”
Martiros, still bowing, replied, “I am a poor man, Master; may I be your oblation.”
“Idiot,” he proudly cut off the villager. “Whom among my Armenian subjects is wealthy? But I give them land, seed and all the equipment necessary for cultivation, and they subsist on that.”
“You have always shown mercy toward your servants, my lord.”
“That is why I called you to see me. I know that you are a hard-working man, and I do not wish to see you live poorly. Go and see your landlord, whom I have ordered to give you all the tools that you need for cultivation.”
“May God give you a long life, Master, adding to your years what he subtracts from mine,” said Martiros, and departed gratefully.
It was the start of spring.
Martiros was heard singing from the field, where he tilled his soil.
Many weeks passed before his crop began to sprout, and in greater abundance than he had expected.
Summer passed and autumn came. Martiros harvested his crop and gathered an enormous quantity of wheat. He looked happily upon his yield, without yet realizing that it did not belong to him.
One of the prince’s collectors arrived, measured the grain, took one part as rent for the land, one part as rent for the equipment, one part for the loan of the seed, and one part as interest. Afterwards, there only remained a small amount of crop, which was not even enough to see the poor farmer through winter.
With a broken heart, Martiros returned home.
“Why are you so sad?” asked his wife.
He shrugged his shoulders.
“Tell me, what happened? Are you sick? What is it?”
“I worked so hard all year, I wore myself out, and was finally left empty-handed.”
Martiros then told his wife the story about how he had been robbed of his crop.
“Is your debt paid, at least?” asked his wife.
“No, the debt remained, as it was,” answered Martiros with a deep sigh.
“So what will you do now?”
“Let’s see, perhaps next year, by God’s will, I will be able to work and pay it off.”
A few years passed.
Outside of the village, Sona stood with her baby pressed against her chest. With tears in her eyes, she was seeing off her husband who would journey to a foreign land.
“I will go, Sona, from country to country; I will wear myself down, break myself if necessary, to work and earn enough money to pay off our debts and save our family from the creditor,” said the poor villager, and then kissed his son’s cheek, before being sent into exile.
It was a dark night.
In a sad and lonely hut, Sona sat waiting impatiently for her brother, Lazarus. Since her husband’s exile, he had been staying with her in the evenings so that she would not be left alone.
‘Oh! What happened? He has never run this late…’ Sona thought.
At that moment a few people surrounded her hut, silently, like ghosts.
“You, Jabbar,” whispered one of them, “you speak Armenian. Go near the door and pretend that you are Lazarus, the one we threw down the gorge a few minutes ago.”
Jabbar started toward the door of the hut.
“And you, Abbas and Nasir, keep a lookout. If anyone approaches, wield your daggers.”
Sona heard noises from outside her hut. Her whole body trembled.
“Who is it?” she said.
“Open up,” said a voice that resembled Lazarus’.
Sona happily opened the door, but she was struck immediately with horror when she noticed a man wearing a long black coat. It was the prince, Reza.
“I hope you’ll be so kind, Sona, to show your guest some hospitality,” he said, turning toward her.
Despite her panic, Sona mustered all her strength and answered, “What business do you have visiting a housewife’s hut at this time of night?”
He continued to approach her.
“Love, Sona, love. Do you know what love is? Love brought me here.”
“Love…” repeated Sona, “love brought you to the lady’s hut, who absolutely despises you.”
“You… despise me? What reason do you have to despise me?”
“There are many reasons… you tricked my husband into accepting a large debt, and then you forced him into exile, leaving his family behind.”
“I did all that for love… I did it so that I could distance him from you.”
“Distance the man whom I can never forget?”
The prince stayed silent for some time, then approached Sona once more and began to embrace her. Sona, in the grips of horror, seized his dagger and thrust it into his chest. He fell to the ground. Sona lifted her son out of the crib and left the hut from the back door, disappearing swiftly into the night.
She fled toward the neighboring village through a narrow gorge.
Her little boy, pressed against her chest, screamed in pain.
She approached the village lights on one of the hilltops.
“Finally…” she said to herself as she neared one of the huts and knocked on the door.
An old man opened the door, lantern in hand, and shouted in fright upon seeing his unexpected guest.
“Sona, it’s you…”
“It’s me,” answered Sona and stepped inside.
The old man was her father. Within a few minutes the whole family had gathered, surprised about Sona’s unexpected visit.
“Blood!” yelled her father in terror.
“I killed a man,” said Sona.
Suddenly, the prince’s servants entered and seized everyone.
“We have lost!” they all shouted in unison.