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The Literary Groong - 01/08/2011

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THE APRICOT FLUTE

By Aksel Bakunts

Translated by Nairi Hakhverdi


I am leafing through my travel notes and between the pages I find two
leaves of marjoram, dry and gray like extinguished ash. I lean over
the page and my nostrils flare at the scent of marjoram and I leaf the
journal tremblingly...  Then I take the whip, which is tight as a
braid, off the wall. I stroke the whip and Tsolak looks at me with
sagacious eyes. It looks at me and reproaches me. Why did you flog me?
The whip turns into a black snake that lashed the smooth flank of the
horse.

I am leafing through my journal again and I feel a sense of serenity
drifting into my heart. Tsolak neighs cheerfully and flaps its ears.
We are continuously ascending, passing rocks and cliffs. The sweaty
horse digs its muzzle in the white froth of streams and sucks the icy
cold water through the metal bit of its bridle. The more we ascend,
the closer the sun is, and the sun burns face, clothes, and hands. The
streams are so cold, the air is crisp, and one can hear the soft
buzzing of dazzled bees in flowers.

Tsolak neighs and steps up its pace. The road widens. Here is a field
with a stone wall. The newly grown wheat rustles in the mountain
breeze. The village is close. The horse snorts through its nostrils
and vigorously bites its bridle.

Farther up the road, on the slope of the hill, someone is watering
dark green alfalfa. I listen to the way the heavy shovel clangs
against the sand in the stream. And whenever he raises his shovel, the
sun illuminates it and it looks as if there is a burning torch on the
waterer's shoulder.

`Is this the road to Dzyanberd?'

The waterer neither lets out a `yes' nor a `no.' I repeat my
question. The man plants the shovel in the sand of the stream and
walks over to me.  The closer he comes, the taller he looks. I look at
his bare chest: it looks as if his voice should boom mightily. The
waterer extends his broad and heavy hand toward me, says `bless you,'
and moves his hand to his forehead.

His voice is not at all mighty. On the contrary, it is light and
sweet. He is an old man: not only are his beard and eyebrows white,
but so is his chest hair, which reminds one of a tousled thicket.

I repeat my question.

`Yes,' he says, `it's our village... Turn over there...'  and he takes
a tobacco pouch out of his pocket. I offer him a cigarette. He smiles,
as if to say that the thin cigarette is too fragile for him, but takes
it anyway and slides it behind his ear. Then he rolls a thick `smoke'
the size of his finger.

`Is the alfalfa yours?'

He sucks on the smoke with relish and swells up his chest. His lungs
squeak like dry leather. As he lets out a stream of smoke through his
nostrils and mouth, he nods.

`A respectable chairman brought it last year. It's a sweet plant.  Its
seed (wheat) is also ours,' and with his head he points to the rocky
mountain slope where tiny wheat fields give off a green color. I'm
having a hard time discerning his field, but I know that the waterer
can recognize even the red dots on his field from a distance.

`Our luck is tied to watering... Our fields are spread out. Ah,
instead of bread we ate a lot of blood. Now that we sow seeds, the
seeds grow, and we can live again.'

A sack with straws hangs from his shoulders. What does he need straw
for at this time of year? And why is the sack hanging from his
shoulders?

He tells me that he is the village waterer and that it is he who
distributes stream water to the small and dispersed strips of land at
night.

`What about the straw?'

The straw serves as a water meter. The waterer sprinkles the golden
straw on the stream to measure the speed of the current and the volume
of water.

`Muro-o! Mu-ro-o!' a shrill voice calls from above. `My water has run
out!'

`Okay, boy!'

The old man takes his shovel and runs up, probably to the water's dam.

And then Tsolak and I turn `over there,' descend into the dale, ascend
again, and see the mountain village appear on the plain, without any
trees, without any gardens, but enclosed in green meadows and open
streams whose waters flood at sunset, clamor in the deep valley at
night, and fall silent when the sun awakes - those streams that flow
down from the ice on the mountains.


				* * *


We entered the courtyard with a white ox. The ox moved to the only
door, above which dirt was pasted and, on the dirt, a cross made of
painted eggshells. The ox went inside through the only door and we
followed it. We walked through the dark passageway. A door opened to
the left and the ox disappeared in the dark. Following the ox was my
exhausted horse, which longed for the clean air of the mountains, but
was unwillingly inhaling the pungent stench of the barn.

Then a door to the right of the passageway sang with the same tune
and, in the light, through the smoke, a girl with golden tresses
appeared: Azno, the daughter of my old acquaintance with whom my horse
and I were to stay the night.

Azno, Azniv...[1] When I now browse through my travel notes in my
journal, between whose pages I find dried flowers and marjoram leaves,
I take a long, long look at the wings of the field butterfly, whose
golden dust shines like that day when the butterfly sucked on the reed
flowers in the meadow.  On the wing of the little butterfly I read
`Azno'... And I think that Azno goes to school now and no longer sings
with a high-pitched voice from the rooftops:


Like the moon from behind a cloud
You fetch water with a pair of jugs.


And no longer will she respond in the way that she did on that day
when we were sitting together on their high rooftop and the naïve girl
was answering my questions:

`Azno, have you ever seen a movie?'

`Sure I have. A cloth was hung on the wall and it showed a horse, a
girl, a miss, and a potato.'

`Have you heard of the Red Army?'

`The Red Army is a piece of cloth that has been put over the flag.'

`Azno, is there a god?'

`Of course. God is a green sparrow.'

`Then what about heaven?'

`Heaven is a chain tied around the horns of an ox.'

`Azno, what do you want to be when you grow up?'

`A teacher.'

Azno, Azniv...

Fire was rising from the deep fireplace, the air was wailing through
the chimney, and it seemed as if the ground was wailing under the
might of the fire, under the puffs of black smoke that twirled around
the fiery walls and stretched all the way toward the cold stars of the
mountainous sky.

My old acquaintance was sitting by the fire and telling about the
water and the waterer, about the rocky soil and the fields.

`What happened, happened, and passed. We turned into bulls and locked
horns with each other. Black rain poured down and blood flowed in
streams.  We freed our steel collar from the land of Motkana, from our
Talvorik grounds.  Pain and suffering, day and night, naked, hungry,
bare. Lenin gave us freedom. Only the border of our lands is too close
and that bothers the people. There are rocks and cliffs on the borders
of our lands. The rocks bother the people. Our souls belong to the
government, and so do our bodies...'

He hoped that the lands of the inhabitants of Dzyanberd would be
expanded, that the rocks and cliffs would be covered in green, and
that they would be able to build reservoirs and mountain lakes on the
mountaintop under the ice sheets so that the ice water would no longer
flow down at night through the valleys without fruit.

He said that the two sides in the village, `thin' and `thick,' were
reconciling little by little and a new generation was coming into
existence that neither considered itself from Motkana, nor Talvorik,
but from Dzyanberd. And when the elderly are by themselves, they
remember their valleys and plains, where grass grew so high that it
touched the cow's udders and so high that cows would give birth to
calves in the middle of the grass, and it was only by following the
trace of the cow that one could find the calf sitting in the grass.

`Yesterday was cloudy. Today is bright and sunny...'

My acquaintance told me such things about the highlanders that even
now, when I leaf through my journal, my heart fills with sorrow and
rancor. His generation has seen fire, war, massacre, migration. When
they were driven to the south, they were battered from both the south
and the north. A forest was ablaze, and they, like a flock of deer,
hewed their way with horns through burning trees. They were driven to
the west and then they turned the heads of their horses toward the
north and settled on this high mountain.

My acquaintance told me that some of the members of the older
generation refused to till the land of Dzyanberd, because Turks are
buried on its borders. For many years already they have descended to
the field villages from the mountains carrying their deceased on their
shoulders in order to bury them within the walls of the old
monastery. He told me that I would see a lot of crosses in Dzyanberd:
above doors, hanging from the horns of oxen, on clay jugs, around the
edge of fireplaces, and even on the chests of those mounted animals
that are set up in fields to scare away sparrows.  He also told me
about mute Sevdon, who lives in Dzyanberd, puts on his fuzzy shoes, or
`kharuk' as they are called in the land of Motkana, and who `has
nailed a horseshoe over his mouth' and does not speak to those who are
not from Motkana.

There is only one man in Dzyanberd before whom Sevdon bows. That man
is Hazro, as my acquaintance called him, the best man of all the
mountain villages.

But our conversation was interrupted by the noise of bleating sheep.
Azno jumped up and went outside. The rest followed, and so did I.

The smell of goats and sheep came down over the village from the
mountains.  What spirited noise it was! What gaiety! Calls, howling of
dogs, clanging of copper milking pails, lowing, bleating, whistling of
shepherds! It was as if war trophies were being brought to the
village. Women, girls, children, young men were driving goats, sheep,
and calves to the courtyards through the streets.

>From my acquaintance's high rooftop I was looking at Dzyanberd and at
the Ararat plain, where the verdant villages were slowly submersing in
the darkness of the evening as city lights became brighter.

Whenever I remember that evening, the city lights, and the descending
night on the plain, I see a man on a lower rooftop in Dzyanberd, his
back toward me, toward the summit of the mountain, facing the plain,
and I hear the best man-made music of the mountain villages.


				* * *

His homeland had been rocky Sasun, that silent country's most silent
corner, where the valleys become gorges and the peaks of mountains,
cliffs.  In the hot gorges, on the banks of mountain streams, the wild
grape grew and its vine crept over the copper-colored cliffs. Wild
cornel also grew, and sometimes even figs. And on the heights, where
their poor hovels were scattered over the cliffs, they sowed millet
and young wheat. When the millet had grown, beasts would ascend the
valleys. The people lit bonfires on the edge of the fields so that
bears would not destroy the millet.

He had played on those cliffs as a child. Like a faun, that young man
played a flute in the shade of those caves and his simple songs echoed
through the valleys. Sometimes it was hail that crushed him, sometimes
it was rocks that scratched his face, and it was the cold and the sun
that had scorched his chest like they had the mountain slope. He
fought against beasts and against those who drove cattle, sheep,
kidnapped women and children by firing guns.

It seemed as though he would live on those cliffs until he died and,
like his ancestors, sow millet, descend to the valley in the autumn,
gather fruit and firewood, and listen to old stories in the winter
about Vocal Ohan, Egyptian Melik, and Tongue-Tied Manuk.

But war broke out. There was conscription and violence. The field
villages were burned down and the arsonists ascended the valleys to
the peaks of mountains and to their poor hovels. Rifles rattled and
swords glistened.  Instead of clouds, the smoke of blazing villages
perched on the cliffs. The fire reached the yellowed fields and
guzzled both seed and sower.

Hazro took his wife and daughter and walked from mountain to mountain
and cave to cave through crevices and over chamois tracks. He ate
legumes, haws, and rosehip. Then, exhausted, with terror in his eyes,
he turned south, acting sometimes as a Kurdish shepherd and sometimes
as a hungry wolf.  Finally he reached an unfamiliar world where there
was neither mountain, nor clear mountain springs. It was a hot lowland
with yellow rivers in whose waters those blue streamlets that flow
down from the ice of mountains were not visible.

He took out his apricot flute - that reddish fife, on which the songs
of the blue mountains had been played - and his fingers started to
move over the apricot flute. Hazro enveloped the flute's mouthpiece
with his sunburned lips in the same way that people in the mountain
villages drink water from clay pitchers. His music, a song from the
highlands, gurgled like water on the hot lowland.

His wife cried. His young daughter fell asleep on her mother's knees,
and Hazro also cried. Then a sense of lightness drifted into his
heart, just like the blue cloud that perches on the high mountain of
Maruta. Then he wiped his tears, lifted the girl on his shoulders,
took his wife, and looked back. Dust had settled on the distant
mountains and their high mountains were not visible.

Hazro said to his wife:

`Today there is fog over our mountain. Tomorrow the sun will come out
again.'

They took a road, got lost in a thousand places, and then, when white
hairs had already grown out of his head, Hazro found his new home on
this high mountain.


				* * *


The evening noise of the village was abating.

The white ice caps of the mountains reflected light. The meadows
diffused the scent of mint. The thin moon quavered and under its light
the snot of oxen oscillated like silver rings. The quiet oxen were
dozing and in the moonlight they looked like marble statues.

The tired farmers of the village have gathered on the rooftop below.
In the evening darkness they look sturdier, like fat oxen.

I go up the rooftop.

There are four little girls and one boy there. A tall man is keeping
them busy. The girls attack the small boy. The boy pushes them and
they mingle and roll about on the rooftop. The man laughs
boisterously. The conversation of the others quiets down and the fiery
eyes of the highlanders look at the children's fight. One of the girls
screams in pain and runs toward one of them sitting on the rooftop -
in this case, her father's lap. Her father laughs:

`But of course, my girl, it's fighting and beating.'

The tall man separates the others and picks up the boy who fought like
a cub against three girls his age.

`Dear me, enough,' the man says. But the boy continues to kick in the
man's grip as if he is about to jump on the dismayed girls.

Someone orders the girls to go home and they descend the wooden
staircase.

Silence falls. Only the tall man with the boisterous laugh soothes the
boy:

`Dear me, it wasn't only the girls' fault, was it?'

`I didn't hit her until she started hitting me,' the boy protests.

`Hazro,' someone sitting in the shade calls out, `play!'

So, this tall man is Hazro about whom my old acquaintance has told me
so much.

`Mother-in-law, Mother-in-law...'

`Beloved Hustle...'

The boy quickly jumps off his lap and runs down. Hazro approaches me
and extends his hand.

`Pleased to meet you.'

He has a broad forehead that has a copper shine in the moonlight,
white hair, and a curved aquiline nose. His eyes sparkle with youthful
vigor.

`Will you play?' He looks at the others.

I will never, never, forget that moonlit night in that mountain
village, Hazro's rooftop, his music, and the giants' old dance.

The boy brought the fife from home - that apricot flute that was only
a little longer than the usual fife of our shepherds. He stood on the
edge of the rooftop, turned the flute's mouthpiece toward the village,
and little by little, like sunrise in the mountains, `Beloved Hustle'
awoke. He began slowly and softly. Gradually the volume grew louder
and the beat hit faster.  Then, with a savage yelp, the waterer jumped
up and stood in the middle of the rooftop. Another man followed suit
and so did a third. Soon two rows were formed that struck against each
other like colossal cliffs with hands, knees, and chests. The music
thuds louder. The beams of the rooftop shake.  It's as if two armies
are crashing against each other. The strikes of their hands make the
sound of steel and their infuriated eyes spit out sparks.

Women and girls are watching the dance of the highlanders from
neighboring rooftops and courtyards. When one row pushes back the
other with slaps of the hand or a firm thump of the chest, those who
are pushed back charge with renewed force to avenge their disgrace and
defeat.

Hazro plays his apricot flute and with renewed vitality he plays that
song that the young faun had played in his native caves where clouds
drift lower than the hovels and valleys light up for a second when a
bolt of lightning strikes.


				* * *


They left.

Hazro and I stayed on the rooftop. The little boy, his grandson, also
went home. I observed his reddish flute in the moonlight. It was heavy
and looked as if it had been forged from heavy metal. I held the flute
against the night breeze and it made a soft metallic sound.

And Hazro was telling that the biggest blow he had received in his
life was the death of his wife. His daughter got married in the field
village.  The little boy, his first grandson, often stays with his
grandfather.

The Ararat plain had sprawled under the stars and the moon. The
reflections of the snowy white peaks of the Ararat cast their light
into the depth of the sky. In the distance, the Armenian mountain
range had stretched out like a camel caravan.

`Do you see that village on the left side of the fires?'

On the left side of the shepherds' fires, in the field, a black dot
was visible.

`My wife is buried there.'

Sometimes he goes down from the mountain village, takes dry firewood,
and lights a fire at the head of his wife's grave. He sits there until
the fire goes out and then dolefully, dolefully plays the apricot
flute and those songs that he played in their distant land where he
was a shepherd and his wife a village girl. And then with a relieved
mind, he goes to his daughter's house, listens to the noise in her
house, plays with his grandchildren, and takes the road back to the
mountain, to his bright hovel in the mountain village, alone.

`Hazro, did you live well in your village?'

`On our cliffs?' and he falls silent.

`Oh, dear youth, how you flew away...'

And again he picks up his flute.

This time he plays not the song of the highlanders' courage that makes
one's blood boil, but a distinct shepherd's song. There is both
melancholy in that song, as if someone has gotten lost in deep valleys
and is sobbing sadly, and spirited happiness, as when the sun shines
on the mountains, smoke rises, and the farmer goes to work. Finally,
it has strains of both homesickness and of return and final hopes.

`I would like to see our rocks, our valleys, our high Maruta mountain
again; to take my apricot flute, gather the people, sit on the sweet
grass, let the lamblike people sit around me, play those peaceful
songs of mine, for the good and loving people to embrace each other
like brothers, for there to be neither master, nor servant, nor sword,
nor violence; to blow in my apricot flute, for smoke to rise out of
chimneys again, to drink from our clear springs, for my sweat to drop
on our rocks, for our high mountain cloud to lick my white bones...'

`And, Hazro, to whom will you give your apricot flute?'

`I'll give my flute to my brave grandson.'


				* * *


The street is quiet.

The exhausted people are sleeping and the city houses and their black
windows sway in the light of the street lanterns. A freshness descends
from the mountains onto the city and the night breeze brings with it
the fragrance of marjoram, the crisp air of the mountains, and the
sound of clear water.

I close my journal with its two marjoram leaves, dry and gray like
extinguished ash. My horse neighs on the mountains with unrestrained
bliss, like a white waterfall that falls from the heights, slashing
fields with a crash, merging with a turbid river, and flowing to a
shoreless sea with other waters.

Dzyanberd, Dzyanberd...

You become an indestructible fortress. The peaks of your high
mountains have awoken and the songs of victory reverberate on your
slopes.

A mighty apricot flute, without old fears and with new revelry, gives
voice to our fair songs.



1933



[1] Azniv is a person's first name, but it also means honest.



--
AKSEL BAKUNTS (Alexander Stepani Tevosyan), born in Goris in 1899, was a
writer, journalist, and agronomist. In the early days of the Soviet Union,
he traveled around Armenia as an agronomist and journalist writing short
stories that reflected the condition of the people at that time. One of the
greater themes that runs through much of his writings is that of the hapless
villager caught between powers beyond his or her control. Like many of his
contemporaries, Bakunts was arrested and executed by the Stalinist regime in
1937. His works were banned in Soviet Armenia until the 1960s.


--
NAIRI HAKHVERDI is a translator and lecturer. She teaches literary
translation at Yerevan State Linguistic University after V. Brusov.

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