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Forgotten Fireby Adam Bagdasarian
My name is Vahan Kenderian. I was born in Bitlis, a province of Turkey, at the base of the Musguneyi Mountains of the East. It was a beautiful city of cobbled streets and horse-drawn wagons, brilliant springs and blighting winters, strolling peddlers and snake charmers. Beyond sunbaked mud-brick houses were fields of tall grass, rolling hills, and orchards of avocado, apricot, olive, and fig trees. Steep valleys of stone climbed sharply to grassy plains and pastures, and higher still to the slopes of snowcapped mountains where every summer evening the sun set in deepening shades of red and blue.
On your way into town, you would walk on crooked sidewalks past houses so close together that a small boy could easily jump from one roof to another. Weaving your way through a tangle of pedestrians, you passed veiled women sitting on stools selling madzoon, and in shop windows you would see merchants dressed in baggy pants and vests, sipping small cups of black coffee. You smelled the lavosh bread from the bakery and stood aside as the cab driver in his two-wheeled horse-drawn cart drove by. Walking home at sunset, you would see the lamplighter carrying a torch in his hand and a ladder on his back. And as darkness fell, all the flat-roofed, tightly packed houses would become one great house where a thousand small lights burned.
As far as an Armenian from Bitlis was concerned, Bitlis was the center of the world: Her mountains were the highest, her soil the most fertile, her women the loveliest, her men the bravest, her leaders the wisest. Of course, not every Armenian from Bitlis was praise-worthy. Some drank, some begged in the street, some swindled their employers, some were vain, careless, licentious, or lazy. But, for the most part, they were a hardworking and honorable people. At least the ones I knew.
In 1915, I was twelve years old, the youngest child of one of the richest and most respected Armenians in Turkey. I was small for my age, stocky and strongly built, with curly brown hair, excellent posture, a firm handshake, and a brisk, determined stride. I walked with the confidence of a boy who has grown up in luxury and knows that he will always be comfortable, always well fed, always warm in winter and cool in summer.
My father was afraid that I lacked character and discipline. And he was right. As far as I was concerned, character and discipline were consolation prizes given to the meek, the unadventurous, and the unlucky. Mrs. Gulbankian needed character because she was a widow and lived alone. Mr. Aberjanian needed discipline because he worked twelve hours a day selling groceries. Most adults, it seemed, needed character and discipline because their lives had long ago ceased to either amuse or fulfill them. "You'll see," they would say to me with knowing smiles, as though disillusion were a law as inevitable as gravity. But I knew better. I knew that time and destiny were my allies, the twin magicians of my fate: Time would transform me into the tallest, strongest man in Bitlis, and destiny would transform me into one of the wealthiest, most admired men in Turkey. I did not know if I would be a lawyer, like my father, or a doctor or a businessman, but I knew that I would be a man of consequence. When I walked down the street, people would say, "There goes Vahan Kenderian," and I would smile or not smile, depending on my mood that day.
Unfortunately, I was an unlikely candidate for greatness--at least by conventional standards: In school I threw wads of paper at my friends Manoosh and Pattoo, spoke out of turn, fell asleep at my desk, and was generally the first one suspected whenever anything out of the ordinary happened anywhere on the grounds. Twice I had been sent home for wrestling in the halls, twelve times for skipping school, once for falling out of my chair, and once because I had given one of my teachers "a look."
"What kind of look?" my mother asked me.
"I don't know. I just looked at him."
"How did you look at him?"
"I don't know. Like this. Like I'm looking at you."
Father Ossian said I had a poor attitude.
Father Nahnikian said I was looking for attention.
Father Asadourian said I should be disciplined as often as possible, preferably with a stick.
My father gave me chores to build my character. When I forgot to do them, he would take me into the living room, sit me down, look me in the eye, and say, "What kind of man do you think you are going to be?" My father had black hair, a black mustache, and black eyes that could see through anyone or anything. He was the disciplinarian of the family, who, by example, tried to teach his children the laws of honor, integrity, and self-reliance. He was a man to whom others often turned for money or support, and he was always trying, in vain, to draw my consciousness beyond the long white wall that surrounded our property, to open my eyes to the challenges of the real world. The real world, as far as I could tell, was a terrifying place where half-dead men and women labored, bore children, grew old, grew ill, and died--a drab, inhospitable place where the grim and bitter read to one another from a book of woe. Naturally, I had no interest in that world, and no intention of ever becoming one of its citizens. In my real world, cold would always be answered with warmth, hunger with food, thirst with water, loneliness with love. In my real world, there would always be this house I loved, the laughter of brothers and sisters, uncles and cousins. In my real world, I would always belong, and I would always be happy.
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