Gesaria, June 15, 1914.
My dearest sister,
The map of Europe hangs at the front of the class, as it does every Monday morning, but instead of staring at France like I usually do, at the star that marks Paris, and imagining Papa at the Café Métropolitain, writing a poem or arguing politics with his friends (without a thought to the family he has left behind), I keep glancing at the edge of the map, at the uncoloured patch that is Anatolia.
How far are you from us now? Are you close enough to the mountain that you can reach out and touch it? If the railway had been built, the one that almost bankrupted Grandfather Stepanian, you’d already be far away from us, your face pressed against the train window, your eyes wide with everything you were taking in. It’s of little consolation that you are still so close, that it will take you many days to reach the station at Ulukişla.
I paused in the doorway for a moment. As long as you didn’t turn around, we had time. And time is all I wanted.
You waved at someone in the courtyard and stepped away from the window. I slipped behind the screen before you turned around, before you realized I was there. I wasn’t ready. I would never be ready.
You gathered the dark clothes Mama had left for you – the ones that were supposed to make you look like a man, that were supposed to keep you safe, the clothes I had fancied myself wearing, mounted on a fine horse, a Karabakh like the one Papa rode when he began his journey away from us.
When you crossed the room and dropped the clothes in front of the looking glass, you were so close I could’ve touched you. I was sure you would hear me breathing on the other side of the screen.
I should’ve shown myself then or greeted you at least, so you could’ve asked me what I was doing there, spying on you like a servant girl, so we could’ve laughed about it as we sorted through the clothes together. But I couldn’t bring myself to move or speak. I watched as you slipped into the black cotton shirt and the pantaloons, as you puzzled over the ties on the loose jacket. As you braided
your hair and coiled it under an old cap of Papa’s.
Mihran strode into the room from the other doorway and you showed off your disguise, turning slowly in front of him, your arms outstretched, your hands lost in the long sleeves, and when he knelt down to tie the pantaloons around your ankles, I couldn’t bear the way he looked up at you, the way his hand lingered on the back of
your leg. You were so intent on each other you never saw me step away from the screen. Never saw me leave.
How could you marry Mihran and move so far away from us, so far away from me, when we were supposed to marry brothers and live under the same roof? (I can’t even be mad at Mihran because he had brothers and now they’re all dead.) It’s unfair, I know, to hold you to a promise we made years ago, before we knew anything about
marriage or the misery of living under someone else’s roof.
I’m sorry I wasted the time you had set aside for us to be together. I was counting on riding in the wagon with you as far as the city gate but Ovsanna was crying, Dalita and Tsangali were clutching at my skirts, and I couldn’t leave Mama standing there, her hands tucked under her apron, holding the sadness in her belly like an unborn baby.
When you reach the farm tonight, you’ll find the letter I slipped into your bag before it was loaded onto the wagon. I didn’t want you to spend your first night away from home without words of mine next to your heart. For words are what we’ve shared the most, aren’t they? Words whispered in bed, shouted at play, spoken on the way to school. Words and the absence of words, for we had to learn to be quiet once we moved into Grandmother’s house, where our words were greeted with scorn.
Our dear teacher lets me scribble furiously on this, the first day of our separation. She didn’t wait for me to hang the map this morning so it clattered to the floor twice before she could balance it on the hooks properly. I will stop now and help her with the little ones. May God keep you safe on the long road to Ulukişla.
Your loving Shoushan