When my twin brother and I were small children, we would take turns sitting on our grandfather’s lap. There he would grab the rope- like rolls of baby fat that would pool at our waists and bounce us on his knees, cooing, “Big belly, big belly, big belly.” This was meant as an affectionate, grandfatherly gesture, not his subtle way of suggesting that if we didn’t lose weight, we would wind up as Jenny Craig testimonials. Just for the record, there is also a chance that when my brother was being bounced on Grandpa’s lap, he was wearing a white turtleneck shirt and red velvet knickers. This is the outfit my mother often had him wear when we visited our grandparents, because this was the getup that in her opinion made him look most British— and he had to look British, since she was going to make him sing the 1965 Herman’s Hermits pop hit “I’m Henry the VIII, I Am.” The song had been popular four years earlier when she’d given birth to us, and in some disturbingly Oedipal fashion she had come to view it as their song.
Yup, a fat kid in red velvet knickers singing Herman’s Hermits with a bad British accent. How is it that no one beat him up?
I, in turn, would be expected to sing “Both Sides Now,” which was marginally more timely— the song had been popular only a year earlier, in 1968— though not really any more appropriate. I was four years old and had no opinions at all on love’s illusions.But I did, despite the great dollops of Armenian DNA inside me, have waves of blond spit curls, and so my mother fixated on the lyric “bows and fl ows of angel hair.” I wore a blue miniskirt and white patent leather go-go boots. No one was going to beat me up,but it is a wonder that a social welfare agency never suggested to my mother that she was dressing her daughter like a four- year- old hooker.
My grandfather— both of my grandparents, for different reasons— was absolutely oblivious to rock and roll, and I have no idea what he made of his grandchildren decked out for American Bandstand. Moreover, if 1969 were to have a sound track, invariably it would have depended upon Woodstock, not Herman’s Hermits or Judy Collins. Nevertheless, the only music I recall at my grandparents’ house that year— other than my brother’s traumatizing refrain, “Everyone was a En- er-e (En- er-e!)”— was the sound of the oud when my grandfather would play Armenian folk songs or strum it like a madman while my aunt belly danced for all of us. And why my aunt was belly dancing remains a mystery to me. The only time Armenian girls belly danced was when they were commandeered into a sheik’s harem, and it was a choice of dying in the desert or accepting the tattoos and learning to shimmy. Trust me, you will never see an Armenian girl belly dancing on So You Think You Can Dance.
Regardless, the belly dancing— as well as my grandfather’s affection for his chubby grandchildren— does suggest that their
house existed beneath a canopy of playfulness and good cheer.
Sometimes it did. But equally often there was an aura of sadness,
secrets, and wistfulness. Even as a child I detected the subterranean currents of loss when I would visit.
That belly dancing may also give you the impression that my
childhood was rather exotic. It wasn’t. Most of my childhood was
unexceptionably suburban, either in a tony commuter enclave outside of Manhattan or in Miami, Florida. But my grandparents’
house was different. My aunt really did belly dance until she was
forty, and there really were hookah pipes (no longer used, as far as
I know), plush Oriental carpets, and thick leather books filled with
an alphabet I could not begin to decipher. There was always the
enveloping aroma of cooked lamb and mint, because my grandfather insisted on lamb chops even for breakfast: lamb chops and a massive cereal bowl fi lled with Frosted Flakes and Cocoa Puffs, eaten with yogurt instead of milk. My grandfather loved American cereal, a culinary quirk that my grandmother embraced because it made her life easier. After sautéing the morning chop, my grandmother would refer to my grandfather’s breakfast as a “king meal.” My sense early on was that anything with lamb was a “king meal.”
And yet despite their beginning the day with a big bowl of Cocoa Puffs, there was also a relentless formality to the house. My
grandfather was an immigrant who, like many immigrants from
the early part of the twentieth century, never quite mastered the art
of Wasp casual cool. He was the polar opposite of his Presbyterian
in- laws from Boston (and the genetic wellspring of my blond hair).
Until he was a dying, bedridden old man and his wardrobe had
shrunk to pajamas and a Scotch plaid bathrobe, I never saw him
wearing anything but a shirt and a vest and a tie. He might strip off his jacket when he would play his beloved oud or trim the hedges
or clean the oil burner in the basement, but he was still very likely to be wearing a white dress shirt. This is a guy who never owned a V-neck tennis sweater. When I study the pictures of him in old family photo albums, my memories are corroborated; in almost every snapshot, he is wearing a suit. There is even a series of him on vacation at a bungalow by a lake in upstate New York, sitting with his legs extended into the tall grass before him, his back against a picnic table, wearing a gray pinstripe business suit. In one of the images, he is at that picnic table with other Armenian men in black and gray suits, and there is a cluster of closed violin and oud cases on the wooden tabletop. The men look like Prohibition era mobsters on the lam.
And it is interesting that even in 1928, when he was building the elegant brick house in a New York City suburb that may have been my favorite of all the houses anyone in my extended family ever lived in when I was growing up, he looked almost as bald as the very old man I knew in the late 1960s and early 1970s. I presumed until he died in 1976 and my father corrected me at his father’s funeral that the man I called Grandpa had been born a senior citizen.
“No, Laura,” my father said, “he wasn’t born old.”
That evening, when we returned home to Bronxville after the reception that followed the interment, my father for the first time told me small bits and pieces of my grandparents’ youth. Soon my grandmother would tell me more. And so while I have begun this story with a moment from 1969, the reality is that I could have begun in 1976. Or, like all Armenian stories, I could have begun it more than half a century earlier. I could have begun it in 1915.
Nineteen- fifteen is the year of the Slaughter You Know Next to Nothing About. The anniversary of its commencement— its centennial— is nearing. If you are not Armenian, you probably know little about the deportations and the massacres: the death of a million and a half civilians. Meds Yeghern. The Great Catastrophe.It’s not taught much in school, and it’s not the sort of thing most of us read before going to bed. And yet to understand my grandparents, some basics would help. (Imagine an oversized paperback book with a black- and- yellow cover, The Armenian Genocide for Dummies. Or, perhaps, an afterschool special.) Years ago, I tried to write about it, never even mentioning my grandparents, and that manuscript exists only in the archives of my alma mater— where my papers are stored. I was never happy with that book and never even shared it with my editor. Only my husband read it, and he came to precisely the same conclusion that I did: The book was a train wreck. Didn’t work in the slightest. It was too cold, too distant.Instead, he said, I should have shamelessly commandeered my grandparents’ history. After all, they had been there.
He didn’t know the details of their story then; neither did I. Once we knew the truth, years later, he would change his mind about whether I had the moral authority to exploit their particular horror. By then, however, I was obsessed and unstoppable.
And so now I am indeed telling their stories, once more focusing on a corner of the world most of us couldn’t fi nd on a map and a moment in history that— though once known— is largely forgotten. I begin by imagining the mountains of eastern Turkey, and a village not far from a picturesque city and a magnifi cent lake called Van. I see a beach in the Dardanelles. A town house in Boston’s Back Bay. And, most often, I see Aleppo and the absolutely unforgiving Syrian desert that surrounds it.
I am making my family’s history sound downright epic, aren’t I? I probably shouldn’t. My sense is that if you look at anyone’s family in 1915— an era we see through a haze of black- and- white photographs or scratched and grainy silent film footage, the movements of everyone oddly jerky— it will feel rather epic. And I honestly don’t view my family’s saga as epic. If I were forced to categorize it, I would probably choose romance. Or, when I look at the photos of me in my miniskirt or my brother in his red velvet knickers in a living room that looks like the Ottoman annex at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, I might even suggest comedy.
But for my grandparents in 1915 and 1916? Their sagas looked very different. When they met, my grandmother was, quite literally, on a mission. She was an essentially directionless young woman from what had to have been one of Boston’s most priggish families, suddenly witness to relentless slaughter, starvation, and disease. She had a spanking new sheepskin from Mount Holyoke and a crash course in rudimentary nursing when she accompanied her father into the inferno. She could speak, thanks to Boston dogooders in the Friends of Armenia, a bit of Turkish and a smattering of Armenian.
Meanwhile, my grandfather, after enduring all of that slaughter, starvation, and disease— after losing almost all of his family— would fi nally fi ght back. He would enlist in an army, joining men who knew little of Armenia and cared mostly about defeating a dying empire for reasons that had nothing to do with a blood feud. And neither of my grandparents would have seen anything romantic or comic at all in the world that summer of 1915. If they had been forced to categorize their stories at the time, I am quite certain they both would have chosen tragedy.
The young woman, twenty- one, walks gingerly down the dusty street between her father and the American consul here in Aleppo, an energetic fellow almost her father’s age named Ryan Donald Martin, and draws the scarf over her hair and her cheeks. The men are detouring around the square near the base of the citadel because they don’t yet want her to see the deportees who arrived here last night— there will be time for that soon enough— but she fears she is going to be sick anyway. The smell of rotting flesh, excrement, and the July heat are conspiring to churn her stomach far worse than even the trip across the Atlantic had weeks earlier. She feels clammy and weak- kneed and reaches out for her father’s elbow to steady herself. Her father, in turn, gently taps her fingers with his hand, his vague and abstracted attempt at a comforting gesture.
“Miss Endicott, do you need to rest? You look a little peaked,” the consul says, and she glances at him. His brown eyes are wide and a little crazed, and already there are thin rivulets of sweat running down both sides of his face. He is wearing a beige linen jacket, which she imagines to be infi nitely more comfortable than her father’s gray woolen suit. She brings her free hand to her own face and feels the moisture there. She nods in response to his question;she does need to sit, though it embarrasses her to admit this. Still, it may be a nonissue. She can’t see where she might on this squalid street. But Ryan quickly takes her arm and guides her from her father, leading her to a stoop on the shady side of the thin road. He wipes off the squat step with his bare hand. There is a ramshackle wooden door behind the stoop, shut tight against the midmorning heat, but she presumes that whoever lives there won’t mind if she sits. And so there she rests and breathes in deeply and slowly through her mouth, watching the women in their headscarves and long, loose robes— some hide all but their eyes behind burqas— and the men in their ornate blazers, their voluminous, shapeless trousers, and their fl owerpot- like fez hats. Some of the men glance at her sympathetically as they pass, others with a brazen want in their eyes. She has been warned.
“There’s a nice breeze today,” Ryan says cheerfully, and while she appreciates the slightly cooler air, wafting along with it is the stench from the square. “Before you arrived, the heat was just unbearable.”
She can’t imagine it being hotter. At the moment, she can’t imagine anywhere being hotter. And yet she found their apartment last night unexpectedly comfortable after the endless weeks aboard a ship, then a horse- drawn carriage, and fi nally two train cars that boasted only wooden seats. It was warm, but she had stood at her window for nearly half an hour in the middle of the night, gazing out at the row of statuesque cypress on the hill beyond the American compound and the bower of trees just inside the walls. She saw more stars than she ever saw in Boston, and the half moon seemed to dangle eerily, beautifully close to the earth.
Her father is surveying the rows of sand- colored two- story buildings that curl toward an alley, his arms folded across his chest, his face stern, and then she notes him arch his back suddenly and stand up a little straighter. Ryan sees what he sees and murmurs just loud enough for her to hear, “Oh, Jesus, no. Not more.” Both Ryan and her father glance down at her, but they realize there is absolutely nothing they can do; there is not a way in the world to shield her from what is coming. Besides, this is why she is here, isn’t it? Didn’t she volunteer to be a part of this aid mission? To chronicle what she sees for their organization, the Friends of Armenia, and to volunteer at the hospital— to do, in essence, whatever she could to help? Still, discomfort leaches from both men like perspiration,and she finds it interesting that they are as embarrassed as they are disgusted. If they had been here alone— if she had remained back at the American compound— her father and the American consul now would be experiencing only rage. And so she presses the palm of her hand against the wall of the house, the stone unexpectedly cool, and rises.
Approaching from down the street is a staggering column of old women, and she is surprised to observe they are African. She stares, transfi xed. She thinks of the paintings and drawings she has seen of American slave markets in the South from the 1840s and 1850s, though weren’t those women and men always clothed— if only in rags? These women are completely naked, bare from their feet to the long drapes of matted black hair. And it is the hair, long and straight though fi lthy and impossibly tangled, that causes her to understand that these women are white— at least they were once— and they are, in fact, not old at all. Many might be her age or even a little younger. All are beyond modesty, beyond caring. Their skin has been seared black by the sun or stained by the soil in which they have slept or, in some cases, by great yawning scabs and wounds that are open and festering and, even at this distance, malodorous. The women look like dying wild animals as they lurch forward, some holding on to the walls of the stone houses to remain erect.She has never in her life seen people so thin and wonders how in the name of God their bony legs can support them. Their breasts are lost to their ribs. The bones of their hips protrude like baskets.
“Elizabeth, you don’t need to watch,” her father is saying, but she does. She does.
Herding the women forward through the town are half a dozen young men, two on horseback who look nearly as weak as the women, and four walking beside the group. All of them have rifles slung over their shoulders. They, too, don’t look any older than Elizabeth, and it crosses her mind that the pair nearest her can’t be more than fi fteen or sixteen; their moustaches are wisps, a boy’s attempt to look like a man.
Just before the group reaches them, the gendarmes guide the women down the narrow street that will lead eventually to the square beneath the citadel, where they will be deposited with the deportees who arrived here yesterday. The men are shorttempered and tired. They strike the women when they move slowly or clumsily. They yank them back to their feet by their hair when they collapse. Elizabeth tries to count the women as they turn to the right and disappear into the alley, but refl exively she looks away whenever one of the skeletons meets her eye. Still, she guesses there are at least 125 of them. She verbalizes the number aloud without thinking.
“I assure you, Miss Endicott,” says Ryan, “when that group left Zeitun or Adana or wherever, there were at least a thousand of them.”
“Why did the Turks take their clothes?” she asks him.
He shakes his head. “They don’t usually— unless they’re planning to kill them. Sometimes they take the men’s clothes immediately before executing them; they worry the clothes of the dead are defiled. But I have no idea why they did in this case. Degrade the survivors, maybe. Perhaps increase the chances they’ll die on their own in the sun. But don’t look for reason in any of this.”
“And where are the men?”
He dabs at his forehead with a handkerchief. “It’s safe to assume they’re dead. Either they were—” He doesn’t fi nish because her father glares at the consul to be silent. To be still. Her father is hoping to introduce her to this world gradually. In increments. They discussed it little on either the ship or the train. Generalities of Ottoman history only.
Later this month, the two doctors in their party will arrive and they will start work. They— along with a returning missionary named Alicia Wells— telegrammed that their ship was going to be delayed leaving Boston, and might then take a more roundabout course to avoid U-boats. But whether the physicians are delayed two weeks or three might make all the difference in the world for some of the survivors who are brought here. These women, she presumes, will be long gone by then, marched back into the desert to one of the resettlement camps to the southeast. So will the group that is already in the square, the women and children who staggered in from the desert yesterday.
In the meantime, Elizabeth can’t imagine what in the name of God she— what anyone— can do for them. Still, after catching her breath, she and her father and the American consul decide that instead of spending lunch discussing the conditions in Aleppo and planning for the arrival of the rest of their group, they will follow these woeful deportees down the alley and into the square, and there see what they can do to help.
Ryan Martin leaves to find rags for the women to wear, but by the time he returns with a wagon of tattered dresses and blouses— remnants from the dead who have passed through Aleppo that summer— the newly arrived deportees already have been clothed by the other refugees. In the meantime, Elizabeth and a nurse from the hospital pick at the vermin on the women and clean the gaping wounds on their legs and ankles and feet. They ration the little calamine lotion and olive oil they have for those women whose sunburns have not seared deep into their fl esh, and gently wash the wounds of those whose skin— especially on their shoulders and backs— has peeled off like a snake’s. Within minutes they fi nish off the one large bottle of iodine the nurse has brought. Elizabeth gives the deportees water and bowls of thin bulgur soup to eat, because it is all they can scare up at the moment. There may be bread tomorrow. She feels helpless. When she was given her nursing training back in Boston, no one prepared her for dysentery. For gangrene. For feet with bones splintered from weeks of walking barefoot, the toes and heels swollen and mangled and deformed.
Most of the women are clustered underneath makeshift tents— canvas pulled tight on tottering wooden poles— but there are more women than there is room, so they spread out beyond the tent when the sun is no longer overhead and there are long stripes of comforting black shade. The children— among whom the only males in this new group can be found— remind her of dead sea horses she once saw on the beach at Cape Cod: The children, like the sea horses, are curled up on their sides and their bones seem as brittle and sharp as the shells of the dried pipefi sh. Perhaps a quarter mile away is a hospital, primitive by Boston standards, but a hospital nonetheless. It infuriates Elizabeth that there is, apparently, no room for these women there, and so far not a single doctor has emerged from the building and offered to help. Ryan has tried to mollify her by telling her that the vast majority of the beds there are filled with Armenian women and children, but this reality, too, has left her seething inside.
The number of deportees who speak either English or French surprises Elizabeth, though most are too tired right now to talk. Nevertheless, there is a woman who looks to be in her fifties but Elizabeth suspects is actually half that age, who murmurs “thank you” in English as she takes the bowl of soup and brings it to her lips.
“You’re welcome,” Elizabeth says. “I wish it were a more substantial meal.”
The woman shrugs. “You’re American,” she observes, a statement. She is wearing a man’s shirt and a skirt that balloons around her like a sack.
“Yes. My name is Elizabeth.”
“I’m Nevart,” the Armenian offers, and Elizabeth carefully rolls the name around in her mind. A small girl sleeps beside the woman, the child’s collarbone rising and falling ever so slightly with each breath. Elizabeth guesses that she is seven or eight.
“Where in America?” Nevart asks.
“Boston,” Elizabeth answers. “It’s in the state of Massachusetts.” The woman’s nails are as brown as her skin. “Sip that soup slowly,” she adds.
Nevart nods and places the bowl in her lap. “I know where Boston is,” she says. “I heard you speaking Armenian a minute ago.How much do you know?”
“A little. Very little, actually. I know mostly vocabulary. I know words, not grammar.” Then Elizabeth asks the woman, “How did you learn English?”
“My husband went to college in London. He was a doctor.”
Elizabeth thinks about this, imagining this wraith of a woman living in England. As if Nevart can read her mind, the deportee continues, “I wasn’t with him most of the time. I have been to London, but only for a visit.” She sighs and looks into Elizabeth’s eyes. “I’m not going to die,” she murmurs, and she almost sounds disappointed.
“No, of course, you won’t. I know that.” Elizabeth hopes she sounds reassuring. She honestly isn’t sure whether this woman will live.
“You’re just saying that. But I know it because I was a doctor’s wife. I have survived dysentery. Starvation. Dehydration. They . . . never mind what they did to me. I am still alive.”
“Is that your little girl?” Elizabeth asks.
The woman shakes her head. “No,” she answers, gently massaging the child’s neck. “This is Hatoun. Like me, she is unkillable.”
Elizabeth wants to ask about the woman’s husband, but she doesn’t dare. The man is almost certainly dead. Likewise, she wonders if Nevart has lost her children as well, but again she knows no good can come from this inquiry. Wouldn’t the Armenian have said something about her own children if they were with her now— if they were alive?
Over the woman’s shoulder Elizabeth spies her father in the distance. He is ladling out the soup from a black cauldron and handing it to the women strong enough to stand and bring it to those who are collapsed under the tent. His sideburns and his beard, so much thicker and grayer than the thin whorls of cinnamon atop his scalp, look almost white in this light. They are expecting flour and sugar and tea in the next day or so— the first of two shipments they have arranged this month— though Ryan has warned her father and her that it is likely only a small fraction of what they have acquired will actually arrive in Aleppo.
“Where do we go next?” Nevart asks her. “They brought us here, but they won’t let us stay.”
“I’ve only been here a day myself, so I don’t know very much. I’m sorry.”
“The people of Aleppo, they don’t want us in their square. Would you want us in yours?”
“I do know there’s an orphanage in the city for the children,” Elizabeth answers, trying to be reassuring. “I haven’t seen it yet.”
Nevart offers a hint of a dark smile. “I am sure there is,” she says. She balances her bowl on her knee with one hand, and strokes Hatoun’s hair with the other. “Soon there will be nothing but orphans.” She gazes down at the girl and then, carefully, takes another sip of her soup.
Ryan Martin has warned Elizabeth that in the desert there are thousands and thousands more. Sometimes the gendarmes bring the deportees here to Aleppo, but other times they will march them east another week, following the Euphrates River until they get to the camps— though the word camps, he stresses, is a misnomer. “I am told that slaughterhouse is more apt,” he says.
Now he is sitting on a pillow on the floor of a restaurant, across from her father and her, as a plump boy with a lazy left eye brings them tall glasses of watery yogurt and mint. Away from the emaciated women and children in the square, Elizabeth feels relief and guilt simultaneously. She accompanied her father to this corner of the Ottoman Empire because she felt this would be a meaningful culmination of her studies at Mount Holyoke, especially given her school’s existing outreach in eastern Turkey. Prior to the war, Mount Holyoke had had both a school and a seminary in the Armenian quarter in Bitlis. If Europe had not been a battlefield, she might simply have followed the path of her older male cousins and taken a grand tour of London, Paris, Rome, and Berlin. That had been possible just a few years ago. No longer.
“Will we go there, too?” she asks, hoping the tremor she is feeling inside her has not crept into her voice.
“To the camps in the desert? Yes, if they’ll let us,” Ryan says.
“But that’s no sure thing. I am in discussions with the governorgeneral here— the vali— as well as with some of his underlings. If I do garner the necessary permissions, it will be no small accomplishment, I assure you. The Turks don’t want any foreign aid brought to the Armenians— nor do they want us to witness what they’re doing. They haven’t even allowed the Red Cross to visit.”
There is a commotion at the door, and she turns to see two young German soldiers, their uniforms immaculate despite the stultifying heat outside, and a third man, a Turk, in wool trousers and a white linen shirt. The soldiers remove their caps and hold them deferentially before their hearts, and the heavyset woman who owns the restaurant emerges from the kitchen behind the drapes and seats them at a low table beside the American diplomat and the Endicotts. The soldiers are blond, but the Turk has a thick mane the color of creosote and eyes that are just as dark. They are, like all soldiers in her opinion, brash and happy and a bit like well- meaning big dogs that get their muddy paws on the couch. She knows intellectually that they kill people; it is what they have been trained to do. One even has a long, thin scar running along his cheek from his ear to his nose— a longitude line on a globe. But she will never witness the sort of violence that leaves a man dead in a trench or his face forever disfi gured. Instead she sees soldiers only in moments like these, when with good- natured bonhomie they descend like tourists for their coffee or beer or— here— the aniseed- fl avored arak.
“I can tell that you people are Americans,” says the soldier whose face has not yet been marked by battle, his accent heavy, but he has pronounced each word with care. She has met other Germans since crossing into the Ottoman Empire earlier this week. He is a lieutenant. Then he extends his hand to her father, who takes it uncomfortably. “My name is Eric,” he says. “This is Helmut and this is Armen.”
They nod as her father and Ryan introduce themselves. The diplomat evidences marginally more enthusiasm than her father, but both are barely more than cordial. “This is my daughter, Elizabeth,” her father adds simply.
“I have a sister named Elli,” says the lieutenant, apparently oblivious to the chill in her father’s voice. “That’s like Elizabeth, isn’t it? Are you ever an Elli?” He raises an eyebrow mischievously as he inquires. “Like you, she is very pretty.”
“I could be an Elli,” she answers, aware that her father might try to quash the flirtation, but still desirous of taking the risk. “So far, however, I’ve always been Elizabeth.”
“Or Miss Endicott,” her father says fl atly, and he seems about to say something to the soldiers that will signal that their brief exchange is finished— perhaps then turn his back to them, even if it means moving awkwardly on the thick pillow on the floor— but then the Turk with the eyes darker than night speaks up.
“You’re here for the Armenians, aren’t you,” he says, his accent different from the others’.
“Yes, we are,” her father answers. “We are part of a small philanthropic expedition.”
“Thank you,” he says, the corners of his mouth curling up ever so slightly. “We can always use . . . philanthropy.” And that’s when it dawns on her. He’s not Turkish; he’s Armenian. Ryan has gleaned this as well, swiveling so quickly that he almost upends his yogurt with his knee. And before she can reply to the fellow’s remark, the American consul jumps in.
“You’re Armenian! I suspected it, but I didn’t want to be presumptuous. I thought, perhaps, I had heard your name incorrectly when you were introduced. But it was Armen, wasn’t it?” he says, speaking with that same frenzied, unguarded tone he uses whenever he is excited. She wonders whether her father, with his reserve and meticulous cadences, will ever warm up to Ryan Martin. She doubts it. “Where are you from?” the consul asks Armen.
“Van, really? How in the world did you get out?”
Armen seems to think about this— about how much information he wants to share. Finally he shrugs, his face growing a little taut. “My brothers and I fought,” he says evenly. “And then, when it was time, we left. There were three of us.”
“And your brothers—”
“One is fighting somewhere with the Russians— at least that was his plan— and one is dead.”
“I’m sorry,” Ryan says.
“I am, too,” he agrees, and then adds, “Thank you.”
“And yet you’re friends with these—” The diplomat stops himself midsentence, aware that he is on the verge of saying something profoundly impolitic. But the German with the scar on his cheek— Helmut— rescues Ryan from embarrassment.
“Germany and Turkey are allies. Armen is a Turkish citizen,” he says.
“Although I am an infidel. At least technically,” Armen adds.
“That does mean a second- class status in Turkey in this life and— so I am told— a pretty nasty experience in the next one.”
“Regardless, he has never fought against the German Army,” Helmut continues. “Besides, we’re infidels, too.”
“How did the three of you meet?” Ryan asks.
The lieutenant slaps Armen hard on the back: “He is an engineer, like us. Maps for the railroad and lays track— at least he used to. Helmut and I have been working on the railroad spur from here to Nusaybin. We met at the telegraph station around the corner last week.”
Elizabeth eyes the Germans carefully. “So you don’t approve of what your ally is doing to the Armenians?”
“Heavens, no!” the lieutenant tells her.
Helmut folds his arms before his chest, and Elizabeth realizes for the fi rst time how very broad his shoulders are. “It’s barbaric,” he adds. As he speaks, his scar stretches ever so slightly. “Ask Armen here what he’s seen.”
“Yes, tell us!” Ryan says, his voice so urgent that if a person didn’t understand his motives, he would presume the man was merely a ghoulish voyeur.
Armen glances at Elizabeth and their eyes meet for a brief second before he gazes back down at the low table. His skin is the color of coffee with cream, at once inviting and exotic in her mind. His lips are thin beneath a raven moustache, and his chin, though masked by a ripple of dark stubble, has the trace of a dimple. His forehead reminds her of her father’s— a little high— but it is his moist, burdened eyes that keep drawing her in. His eyelashes are long and unexpectedly girlish.
“There is too much to tell. I wouldn’t know where to begin,” he says finally, speaking to the group as a whole. Then he turns his attention on her. “I would rather hear more about why you’ve come to Aleppo— or your world, Elli.”
“Elizabeth,” she says, aware of her father’s scrutiny.
“Elizabeth,” says Armen apologetically.
“Please, I understand you have been through a great deal,” the American consul insists, his voice animated and impassioned, his fingers on both hands splayed as if clutching a large stone. “But people need to know what the Turks are doing! The Turks have—” He stops abruptly, remembering where he is, and grows silent. And so one of the Germans jumps in.
“To our brave ally! To Talat Pasha and the Committee of Union and Progress!” Eric says— his voice, like Ryan’s, also far too loud for the small room— and he raises his glass in a mock toast.
“Hear, hear!” And once more Elizabeth fi nds herself imagining these soldiers as overly enthusiastic, absolutely unaware big dogs. Or, worse, as boys. But then, perhaps, they are one and the same.
“If your mother were with us,” Silas Endicott says to his daughter, unsure precisely how to convey what he wants because it involves his daughter and men, and there is absolutely no subject in the world that makes him more uncomfortable, “I am sure she would offer good counsel.” He had always presumed that he understood Elizabeth, but then last year she had surprised everyone by rejecting Jonathan Peckham, a perfectly reasonable suitor from a very good family. Silas would have welcomed the fellow quite happily into the bank. And, after that, he had heard something unpleasant about how Elizabeth had kept inappropriate company with one of her professors in South Hadley. A widower who, apparently, had a history of taking a fancy to one of his students each year.
Now she is sitting before him in the American compound’s living room, in a high- backed armchair that is too gaudy and too ornate for his tastes. The cushions are purple and have gold tassels. There is an animal’s face that appears to be a lion carved into the end of each armrest. It is unseemly. Belongs in a palace. He stands with his hands in his jacket pockets, hoping he exudes calmness and reason. “She would remind you that although we are in a different world, decorum remains constant,” he says. “That is especially true when you are around soldiers. Soldiers on leave—”
“They weren’t on leave, Father,” she corrects him.
“Soldiers, period, tend to presume that they can take liberties. I want you to remember yourself— and to be wary.” He is glad she is with him; she can do good here and see how she has been blessed. Then she can return to Boston, marry, and settle down. Her life will resume a proper course.
She rises and kisses him at the very edge of his sideburns on his cheek. Already his forehead has started to burn. “I will remember myself,” she says to him, smiling. “Thank you. Now, I am going to go and write down what we saw today and all that we did. Good night.” As she climbs the dark stairway to her room, she finds it interesting that her father assumed she had reciprocated the attraction that the German soldiers seemed to feel for her. But, then again, perhaps she should not be surprised. They were tall and blond. Still, the truth was that she hadn’t thought much about that pair at all. She had thought almost entirely of the Armenian.
Excerpted from The Sandcastle Girls © Copyright 2013 by Chris Bohjalian. Reprinted with permission by Vintage. All rights reserved.
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