Orphaned by the Adana massacre in 1909, Mariam and her siblings, together with their friend Kevork and his aunt, travel home to Marash hoping to find their remaining family still alive. Six years later, when the teens face deportation from Turkey, they are torn apart despite their best efforts to stay together. One thing sustains them throughout their horrifying ordeals — the hope that they might one day be reunited.
A sequel to the highly successful The Hunger, Nobody’s Child is a stirring and engaging story set during the Armenian Genocide, one of the twentieth century’s most significant events.
April 1909 — Adana, Turkey
They travelled on foot. That set them apart from the other migrant barley harvesters. The others travelled with donkeys or an oxcart. What also set them apart was that their group included women and children.
Mariam’s father and uncle kept pace a few steps in front of the others in their group, and right behind them walked Mariam’s mother. They each carried a cloth sack of supplies on their backs. They each brought their own large sickle.
As Mariam put one foot in front of the other, she kept her eyes fixed on the small glittering sickle looped into the left side of her mother’s belt. Mariam Hovsepian didn’t like to think that her mother, Parantzim, was only fifteen years older than she was. Would she look that old at twenty-five? Mariam closed her eyes for a second and then opened them again. The edge of her mother’s coarsely woven wool skirt was stiff with dirt from the road and there was a patch of sweat on her back. The gauzy veil that she wore to keep the sun off her head and face kept slipping off, and several times Mariam reached down and picked it up off the dirt and handed it back to her mother.
Onnig, Mariam’s four-year-old brother, was riding on Parantzim’s right hip. The sway of the movement had lulled him to sleep for most of the day, but now he struggled to get down. Parantzim held him firmly but gently in place and cooed in his ear. Mariam knew that her mother did not want to slow the group down by letting him walk.
Beside Mariam walked Marta, her little sister. She was seven years old, but tall for her age. Marta was built sturdily, and she wore her unruly hair tied back with a strip of leather. On Marta’s hip was balanced Bibi — her beloved rag-cloth doll.
“Are we there yet?” asked Onnig wearily.
This was their sixth day of travel. They had already stopped at several farms along the way, but nobody had wanted to hire a whole family of field hands.
“I told you we should have left them at home, Hovsep,” Aram said, in a voice filled with annoyance.
Mariam understood why her father’s older brother was upset. Last April, her father and uncle had been able to find good paying jobs in the barley fields within a single day of leaving Marash. And here they were now — so close to Adana that its distinctive stone bridge across the Jihan River could be seen in the distance.
And still not an offer.
What was her mother thinking, dragging the whole family on this journey with the men? She and her brother and sister would have been much better off staying at home with their extended family. And her mother should have stayed at home too.
But while she agreed with her uncle Aram, Mariam also understood why her mother insisted on coming with her husband. And also why she wanted to bring the children. Parantzim had heard rumours of political unrest. There was talk that the Armenian district in Marash was going to be raided while the men were gone for the harvest.
“Parantzim and your children should have stayed at home with our mother and my wife and children,” said Aram.
“We’ve been over this a thousand times, brother. What’s done is done.”
The conversation drifted back to Parantzim, and Mariam could see that her mother’s ears burned pink in shame.
As the little group reached a narrow dirt laneway of another farm, Hovsep said wearily, “Wife, children, rest here while Aram and I see if there is work to be had in these fields.”
Gratefully, Mariam sat down in a patch of dry grass and pulled the leather strapped sandals off her feet and gingerly rubbed the blister that had formed at the back of her heel. Marta plopped down beside her, and Onnig struggled down from his mother’s hip, full of energy and ready to play. Parantzim dug a water skin from the folds of her robe and sat down beside her children.
“Water, please?” asked Onnig, opening his mouth expectantly. So Parantzim squeezed a thin spray of tepid water into his mouth. Then she gave the skin to Mariam, then Marta, and then finally took a sip of water herself.
They had barely settled down when Hovsep came running down to them. “There is work for us here, even for you, Parantzim,” he said excitedly. “The boss is showing Aram where we can set up camp.”
The accommodation was little more than a barn. And when the girls and their mother stepped inside, they were welcomed with rude sexual hoots and guffaws from the other migrant workers. Mariam looked over at her mother and noticed that her expression was frozen into a mask of indifference. With forced dignity, Parantzim turned to her husband and addressed him formally. “We will sleep under the stars, Hovsep-agha. It’s too filthy in here for humans.” And she turned her back on the loud catcalls and stinking humanity.
Her sister rolled out a carpet on one side of Onnig and Mariam rolled hers out on the other. Aram collected some twigs and brush to make a fire, and Hovsep drew water from a nearby well. Parantzim broke into their thin store of food yet another time. She filled a pot with water and threw in a cupful of dried wheat berries. She rooted around in the food bag and found an onion. She peeled it and added it to the pot.
While the pilaf cooked, Parantzim untied the large cloth that held a stack of dried Armenian flatbread. She removed two platter-sized pieces of the bread, then tied the cloth back up. She shook out another cloth, spread it onto one of the carpets beside the fire, and placed on it the flatbreads side by side. She squirted some water onto each piece of bread and then quickly distributed the droplets of water evenly over the surface with the palms of her hands. Within minutes, the bread was moist and fresh and ready to eat. She knew her family was too hungry to wait the hour it would take for the pilaf to cook, so she took out what was left of a salted roast of lamb, cut a few slices, and set it out.
While the pilaf cooked, Parantzim ripped off bits of flatbread and wrapped each one around a slice of salted lamb. She gave one small wrapped sandwich to each family member to stave off hunger pangs until the pilaf was ready.
Mariam’s wrap was finished in two quick bites. She was so tired that she didn’t think she’d be able to stay awake long enough for dinner, but as the pilaf cooked, the savoury aroma bubbling out of the pot made her stomach grumble.
Everyone received a piece of flatbread and they ate the pilaf family style, each breaking off bite-sized pieces of the bread and dipping it into the communal pot. Mariam dipped every last piece of her bread into the pot, savouring each bite. She was fast asleep moments after finishing.
She dreamed of a soft bed and food to eat and servants to cater to her every need. What a grand life that would be. But when the sun beat down on her in the early hours of the morning, she opened her eyes and found that she was still just the daughter of a lowly migrant worker.
In the morning, Mariam awoke to the aroma of fresh coffee. Her mother had lit a fire just big enough to boil a bit of water in the long-handled pot and then threw in a handful of freshly ground beans.
“You’re old enough now,” said Parantzim, handing her oldest daughter a chipped demitasse cup of the rich dark brew.
Mariam nodded gravely, then breathed in the heady aroma before taking her first sip.
Parantzim gave Onnig and Marta each a piece of flatbread and a dried apricot and they ate quickly, quenching their thirst from a stream nearby.
Mariam savoured her coffee to the last dregs, then she did what her mother always did: she turned the demitasse upside down in the saucer and gave it half a turn. Parantzim sat down beside her oldest daughter, balancing her own demitasse of coffee. She regarded Mariam’s inverted cup resting on the ground beside her.
“Would you like me to tell your fortune?”
Mariam’s eyes sparkled. “Yes,” she said. And she handed her mother her cup.
Parantzim placed the pad of her index finger on the bottom of the upturned cup. “It’s cool enough now,” she said. She turned the cup right side up and peered inside.
Mariam looked in too.
The coffee grounds had made a pattern of black-brown rivulets down the side of the cup. Parantzim pointed to a splotch just below the cup handle. “That’s you,” she said.
“You are surrounded by people who love you.”
Mariam smiled. She knew that.
Parantzim frowned. “They all love you,” she said, “but the people on your left love you for your good heart, while the people on your right love you forà I can’t make it out.”
Mariam looked at her mother. “What do you mean?”
“I don’t know,” said Parantzim, frowning. “There is much love. Yetà” She set down the cup. “This is all nonsense, anyway,” she said. “I never believe the coffee grounds.”
Parantzim finished her own coffee, and Mariam noticed that she didn’t invert her cup. Her mother stood up, then brushed stray bits of dust from her gown. “It is time to go to the fields,” she said. “Keep an eye on Onnig and Marta.”
Then she and Hovsep and Aram gathered their tools and walked towards the fields.
Mariam liked to pretend that she was Onnig’s mother, so she balanced him on her hip. Marta balanced her doll on her own hip and then the two sisters wandered away from the campsite to pick the colourful spring anemones that grew so abundantly under the wild olive trees that dotted the meadows. Mariam was amazed by the vast variety of spring flowers. Being a city girl from Marash, she was used to cultivated flowers, but not these lush wild ones in every imaginable colour. She made a long chain of giant daisy-like pale mauve flowers and draped it around Marta’s neck. Marta grinned with pleasure at the adornment.
“Let’s explore further,” Mariam suggested.
In the distant horizon, they could see a strip of deep blue sea and the outline of an ancient Crusader castle. The sight took Mariam’s breath away. She had heard tales of the Crusaders since she was little. What must it have been like to live in such a splendid place so many centuries ago?
“I want to go there,” said Onnig, pointing to the castle.
“It’s much further than it looks,” replied Mariam.
Not too far from the flower-covered meadow was a barren rocky area close to the farmer’s fields, and the children were drawn there. They found a series of shallow caves and even more patches of spring flowers and fragrant wild grasses. Onnig was restless, so Mariam let him down from her hip.
While Adana itself was miles away, when Mariam stood on one of the big rocks, she could see a patch or two of flowering bushes, and if she breathed in deeply, she could catch the faint spicy scent of mulberry blossoms. This area was known for its cultivated mulberry trees. She had never tasted the berries, which were reserved for the precious silk worms. The scent was marvellous enough.
She shielded her eyes from the sun and looked in another direction. There was a small village within easy walking distance. Perhaps there were other children down there, she thought. Maybe they’d be able to find someone Onnig’s age and they could play together. With her eyes, Mariam motioned to her sister.
“As long as we avoid the Turkish quarters, we should be all right,” Mariam reasoned with her sister.
The children had learned early to always avoid the Turkish area of any village or city. It was common knowledge that Turks considered Armenians barely human, and retribution came swiftly to Armenians who got out of line. Mariam had never questioned this attitude. It was a fact of life.
The trio headed down.
The first thing they saw when they stepped through the stone gates was a haphazard row of clay one-storey homes that looked just like those in their own neighbourhood in Marash. Each home had a flat roof that doubled as a terrace, and each had a walled-in fruit and vegetable garden where a goat or a few chickens could run free. Just as in their own neighbourhood, the streets were narrow and maze-like, with dead ends and twisty turns. Mariam saw a photograph in a book once of a street in London. It amazed her that the houses were lined up uniformly along either side of a wide paved street. The strangest thing about the foreign English houses was that they were so far away from each other that you would never be able to walk from roof to roof. In virtually any town Mariam had ever been to, it was possible to travel blocks without ever setting foot on the ground. That’s probably why they have wide streets, mused Mariam. They needed them for all their walking. Some day she would love to travel to London and see that strange city for herself!
The children walked through the maze of streets, backtracking several times when they reached a dead end. Then, suddenly, the street they were on opened up to a wide square. There was a communal well, the church, and open-air stores. Several wives gossiped by the well, while husbands watched two elderly men play a board game of dama under the shade of a tree.
Mariam knew it was the Armenian section right away because there were many women out in public, and the bottom half of their faces weren’t covered with veils.
Mariam could hear the shrieks of children playing. She squinted her eyes from the sun so she could see beyond the well, and saw that a game of “Turks and Armenians” was in progress.
“Look, Onnig,” she said, lifting him up so he could see better. “Would that be fun?”
Onnig grinned. “I want to play.” He struggled down from her arms, then grabbed one of her hands and one of Marta’s. “Come on,” he said excitedly, pulling his sisters towards the other children.
Mariam smiled as she watched two children play the familiar game. It could involve two or twenty children, as long as there were enough for two teams. No one ever wanted to be the Turks, however, and so straws would have to be drawn. Then the children would make a pile of stones in the middle of the play area. This was the “fortress.” And then each team fought for possession of the fortress. The children on the Turks side would call their opponents “infidels” and the children on the Armenian side would call their opponents “curs.” It was all in good fun, Mariam thought.
A boy and a girl, both about her sister’s age or maybe a bit older, were chasing each other for possession of the fortress, screaming “cur” and “infidel” at each other as they ran. There was a woven carpet spread out under the shade of a tree where a woman sat with a girl younger than Onnig at her feet. She was keeping one eye on the older children playing while she shelled almonds into an earthen bowl. The little girl was making a pyramid of nut shells in the dirt beside the carpet.
Mariam, her sister and little brother in tow, walked over to where the woman sat. “My name is Mariam Hovsepian, and this is my sister, Marta, and our brother, Onnig.”
The woman met Mariam’s eyes and smiled. She was about the same age as Mariam’s mother, and she had the same kindly work-worn look about her.
“Are you with the barley workers?” she asked.
“Yes,” said Mariam. “We’ve travelled all the way from Marash.”
“Sit down,” said the woman, patting a space on the carpet beside her.
Mariam sat down, but Marta stayed standing. She was more interested in playing “Turks and Armenians” than talking to an old married woman.
Onnig looked uncertainly at the little girl on the carpet playing with the nut shells, but didn’t make a move to sit down. The little girl looked up and smiled at Onnig. Then she noticed Marta’s doll.
“Dolly,” the girl said with excitement. She reached out to touch it.
Mariam noticed the frown that was beginning to form on Marta’s brows. Before her little sister could say anything, Mariam asked, “Would you like to hold it?”
The girl grinned.
Mariam gave her sister a meaningful look. Marta sighed, then handed the doll over. “Just be careful with it,” she said.
Then she ran over to play ball with the older children, Onnig in tow.
“My name is Anoush Adomian,” said the woman, extending a callused hand to Mariam. “And this is my daughter, Arsho.”
Arsho was so busy admiring the rag doll that she barely looked up when she heard her mother use her name. “And that is my son, Kevork,” she said, pointing towards the boy playing ball. “The girl is our neighbour, Taline.”
Mariam found it cool and pleasant to sit under the tree with Anoush. It was a welcome relief after so many days on the dusty road. Anoush was full of questions about life in Marash, and Mariam answered her while keeping one eye on Onnig. She listened to Anoush’s comments with half an ear. She wasn’t worried about Marta at all. Marta was certainly old enough to handle herself, but Onnig was much younger than the others. She was just waiting for a crisis. Any minute now, he would burst into tears and run to her arms for comfort, full of stories of how the big kids were picking on him.
It surprised her, then, when it didn’t happen. Instead of ignoring the little boy and playing around him, Kevork and Taline made a point of including both Marta and Onnig in their game. They both seemed genuinely delighted to have other children to play with, even though one was so young.
“àso it surprised me to see you,” continued Anoush.
“I’m sorry, what did you say?” Mariam asked.
“With the unrest,” said Anoush. “It’s not a good time for women and children to be away from home.”
“My mother wanted us all to stick together right now,” explained Mariam.
“I have heard rumour of massacres,” said Anoush. “But I don’t believe it. Who would get the grain in if the Armenians were killed?”
“Indeed,” said Mariam.
After that first day, Mariam made a point of taking her younger siblings to the village whenever she could so that they could play with the other children. There were chores to do at the camp, like washing clothing, preparing food, and gathering kindling. Sometimes Kevork and Taline would walk up to the camp to find Onnig and Marta. Whenever they did this, Mariam was happy to let them all play while she did her chores, as long as they kept close enough for her to keep an eye on them. It was hardly necessary, though, because the children were so good with Onnig.
One morning in the middle of April, Mariam finished her chores, then gathered Onnig and Marta and headed down to the village.
As they approached the village gates, they didn’t stop to notice the eerie silence. The little one-storey clay homes all seemed empty. Even the goats and chickens were quiet. The children walked down the street all the way to the well without meeting a soul. The dama table was abandoned, although it looked like a game had been in progress just moments before.
The open-air market stalls were unmanned, although there were some lemons, wicker baskets, cheese, and other goods that had been in the process of being laid out for display. Mariam looked over at the church and noticed that the doors, usually kept open, were closed tight. She walked up to the church door and put her ear to it. She could hear frightened whispers of people inside. She put her hand on the elaborately carved wooden handle and pulled, but it was locked, so she knocked on the door and called, “Is anybody in there?” The frightened whispers stopped. Mariam could almost hear a collective gasp of fear.
Suddenly, Mariam could feel vibrations rumbling at her feet and she heard a sound — something like thunder — in the distance. It was coming from the direction of the village gates, and when she looked that way she saw a cloud of dust and angry-looking men on horses. Some of them carried bayonets, and some carried torches.
Mariam ran to Onnig and picked him up in her arms, then she ran down the street. “Marta, follow me,” she called.
Marta looked at her sister, then at the rumbling of men, and she ran to her sister.
There was only one way to go, and that was in the opposite direction of the village gates. They ran through the maze-like streets, past the house where Taline lived. Then past where Kevork and Arsho lived with Anoush, and past the bathhouse. They passed another common courtyard area, and soon they were in a part of the village they had never seen before.
Suddenly, a gunshot pierced the silence. Mariam instinctively placed a hand over Onnig’s mouth.
A woman’s scream.
Onnig struggled in his sister’s arms, trying to cry out in protest, but her hand remained clamped over his mouth. “We have to hide,” Mariam whispered to her sister.
There was a bush not too far away, so they ran to it and fell in a heap behind it.
“I dropped Bibi,” whispered Marta, glancing tearfully out into the courtyard at her doll.
“Forget Bibi,” hissed Mariam.
At that comment, Onnig bit Mariam’s fingers and wailed. “I want my mommy!”
“Shut up,” Mariam whispered frantically. But Onnig kept on wailing. Mariam was about to slap him hard across the face but stopped, her hand poised in mid-air. “You must be quiet, Onnig. They’ll kill us if they find us.” Onnig’s eyes were suddenly round with fear, and he let out one loud sob, but then covered his own mouth with both hands. Mariam breathed a sigh of relief. She was glad that Onnig understood.
Once she got her bearings, Mariam realized that the bush they were hiding behind was in front of a mosque. They were in the Turkish district. Even on the best of days, Mariam would have been reluctant to be seen in the Turkish district, and this was certainly not the best of days. A shuffle of movement could be heard inside the mosque. Mariam realized that there were people hiding in the mosque just as there had been people hiding in the church at the other end of the village. She froze in fear. What if someone stepped out now and found them?
How can we get out of this mess? she thought in desperation. She took a deep breath to calm herself. She was the oldest, and her parents trusted her to look after Marta and Onnig. She looked up at the roof of the mosque and noticed that it was not much higher than the houses in the area. It wouldn’t be that hard to get on top of it. Better yet, she noticed that this was a very old style of mosque that had recently been outfitted with a new flat roof of tin, unadorned by domes and minarets. With calmness she didn’t feel, she turned to Marta and whispered, “If you climb onto my shoulders, can you hoist yourself up to the roof?”
Marta looked up uncertainly, then looked back at her sister in panic. “There are people inside. What if they hear us?”
“Do it quietly,” replied Mariam unhelpfully. Then she squatted down and hiked up her sister like she’d done dozens of times when they had been playing. Only this time the reward wasn’t forbidden figs: if they were lucky, they might not be killed.
With difficulty, Marta silently scrambled onto the roof, scraping her hands and knees on the sharp metal edge of the corrugated rooftop in the process. Mariam looked up and saw her sister standing on the roof, mesmerized by something she saw in the Armenian district.
“Grab Onnig,” Mariam hissed.
Marta squatted down. She draped a portion of her long skirt over the sharp metal edge to protect her baby brother. Mariam had Onnig balanced precariously on her shoulders, his eyes round with fear and his arms flailing in the air. Marta reached down and grabbed him under the arms. The sudden weight of her brother made her almost pitch forward.
“Boost him to me on the count of three,” she called down to Mariam.
Mariam had her arms firmly gripped around her bother’s waist. At the count of three, she lifted him as high as she could, his feet dangling in the air. Marta pulled him towards her and she fell backwards. He flew through the air and landed with a thump on her chest, knocking the wind out of her.
Onnig was shaking with fear, and a loud sob escaped from deep in his throat. The sound of the sob sent Marta into panic mode. What if the people in the mosque heard?
She held up a finger to her lips and said, “Shhh.” Onnig gulped back another sob, then nodded to his sister. He lay still beside her on her spread-out skirt and clamped his hands across his mouth. She could only pray that the people inside didn’t think too much about the noise.
Marta looked over the side of the roof to see how Mariam was doing. Mariam had managed to find a piece of wood and had propped it against the wall. Stepping onto the top of the wood, she gingerly scrambled onto the roof. She spread out her skirt on the hot metal, then flattened herself down on the other side of Onnig and closed her eyes. There the three children remained, baking in the sun, for what seemed like hours, listening to the sounds of screaming in the distance. To the sisters’ relief, Onnig was silent.
The door of the mosque was pushed open. One man came out and walked to the middle of the road. He shielded his eyes with his hands, then peered out towards the Armenian district. “It is done,” he said.
When the man walked back towards the mosque, Mariam cringed in fear, hoping that he wouldn’t see them. Mercifully, he didn’t look up.
He opened the door to the mosque and she heard clearly what he said to the people inside: “It is safe to go home now.”
Mariam heard the rustling of silks and more footsteps as the mosque emptied. She caught snatches of conversation.
“This isn’t right,” a woman’s voice said. “They should never have come right into the village for the killings.”
“But how else to get to the infidels?” asked another voice. “After all, the Sultan gave permission for these killings. They were only doing their duty.”
As Mariam listened to the bits of conversation, hearing words like “traitors” and “outsiders,” she tried to piece together what was going on.
The children stayed still long after the last footsteps echoed in the distance. Finally, Mariam stretched out her cramped body and peered over the edge of the roof. “It’s safe,” she whispered. She stood up on the roof. “Follow me,” she said to Marta. Then she picked up Onnig and placed him on her hip.
As they walked across the Turkish roofs, Mariam was startled to see that houses that had looked so plain from the street were actually quite opulent within their gates.
Marta caught up with her. “I want to walk in the street,” she said, her eyes round with concern.
“It’s safer up here,” said Mariam.
Marta’s eyes filled with tears. “But my dolly is in the street.”
Mariam opened her mouth to argue, then thought better of it. Who was to know what they would be losing today? If she could minimize that pain for her sister by just a little bit, then why not?
“Okay,” she said. “Let’s get down.” Onnig scrambled off her hip and stood beside Marta.
Mariam lowered herself over the side of the house, using a window as a ledge, then dropped down into a vegetable patch. As she reached up for Onnig, Mariam’s eyes were directly in front of the window. Through the latticework, she was startled to see a woman’s eyes staring out at her. Mariam stared boldly back, as if challenging the woman to do something, but the eyes disappeared. Mariam reached up and Marta carefully placed Onnig into her arms. Marta jumped clumsily down and landed with a thud in the garden. The garden gate was fastened with a large hook, so Mariam undid it, then she and her brother and sister walked out onto the street.
It was eerily silent.
As they walked down the middle of the street, there was more than one set of eyes staring out at them, but nobody stopped them.
Marta’s doll was still in the street, exactly where she dropped it. She picked it up.
The children walked towards the burning Armenian quarters, Onnig compliant and trembling on Mariam’s hip. The wooden gate on the courtyard of Anoush Adomian’s house had been kicked in. There were no chickens and no goat in the garden.
Mariam looked over to Marta with a question in her eyes, and Marta nodded imperceptibly. Mariam let Onnig down off her hip, and he grasped Marta’s hand. The two younger children waited in the courtyard while Mariam stepped into the central corridor of the house. “Anoush?” she called. No answer. “Kevork?” No answer.
She stepped into the main room. There were two ovens. One was the tonir — an oven dug into the middle of the earthen floor that was for warmth and family gathering, not for cooking. On top of the tonir was a flat, raised, table-like top covered with a large carpet. The Adomians’ sleeping cushions were still in a circle around the tonir, and there was a half-eaten piece of flatbread and a handful of figs on the table-like top in the centre.
The other oven was the cooking hearth, or ojak, at the side of the room. Mariam saw that a knife had been dropped on the ground in front of it, and a big clay cooking pot full of stew had smashed to the ground. The juice of the stew had sunken into the dirt floor, leaving scraps of nut and vegetable scattered about. A carpet loom had taken up a large space in front of the fireplace, but now it was mangled, and the half-finished carpet had been sliced to shreds. Arsho’s cradle had been cut from the rope that suspended it from the ceiling and it had fallen precariously close to the fire. Mariam stepped over to it and looked inside. Empty.
Bile rose in her throat as she imagined what must have happened to her friends. She walked back out the door.
When Mariam stepped out of the house, Marta looked at her with a question in her eyes, but Mariam just shook her head.
Next, they checked in Taline’s house, but no one was there, either.
They walked further down the street to the common area in the Armenian district. The market stalls had been kicked in and burned, and the dama board was knocked over, game pieces scattered in the dirt.
The worst was the church. The elaborately carved doors had been bolted from the outside so that no one could escape. And then it had been set on fire.
Some people tried to save themselves by jumping out the windows, but the Turks had planned for that.
Mariam gripped Onnig to her tightly as she looked at the faces of the corpses around the church. Some she recognized. There was the lemon vender, and one of the old men who played dama.
Mariam felt Onnig suddenly gasp. She looked at his eyes and followed his gaze. He was staring his dead friend Taline, her head at an awkward angle with a boot mark on her face. Onnig covered his mouth with both hands and stifled his sobs. Mariam rubbed her brother’s back, trying to calm and comfort him, but where was there comfort? Certainly not here.
Hugging her brother tight, Mariam walked away from the church and continued down the road and out through the village gates. She had to find out whether her parents were all right. She didn’t turn to see if Marta was following. She knew that her sister was right by her side. She could hear her gasping back her sobs.
The fields were littered with threshing tools, but not a worker was in sight.
Mariam’s eyes scanned the fields. She spotted her mother’s sickle. On it was a single drop of blood. Mariam picked it up and wiped the blood off with her finger, then tucked it carefully into the back of her belt as she had seen her mother do.
“Maybe they had time to hide,” she said hopefully, searching the area for possibilities.
“What about the caves?” asked Marta.
They walked, hearts pounding, toward the first cave. Marta held Onnig firmly on her lap while Mariam peered in, calling, “Mairig? Boba? Are you there?”
She looked at her siblings’ anxious eyes. “I can’t see anything,” she said. “It’s too dark.”
The children went back to the camping area and found a candle and matches. Mariam didn’t tell her brother and sister why she was doing it, but she also rooted through her mother’s rucksack and withdrew a vial of oil and all three of her mother’s packed veils. She put the container of oil in her pocket and tied all of the veils around her shoulders, on top of her own. They returned to the cave and again Mariam entered. The cave was empty.
In eerie silence, they searched cave after cave. Finally, they approached one that was far away from their camping area. This one looked large enough to hold many people. Marta held Onnig close, caressing the back of his neck to calm his trembling, while Mariam lit the candle, then entered.
The cave was huge and wide at the mouth, and then it narrowed into smaller pathways. As Mariam approached one of the smaller openings, she stepped into something slick and had to grip onto the side of the cave to keep her balance. She lowered the candle to her feet and saw that the slickness was just as she feared: blood.
She swallowed back fear and sadness and anger and bile. She was the oldest, and she had to find out if her parents were here. She stood up and extended the candle in front of her as far as it would reach. Suddenly, the opening was illuminated. Armenians hacked to death. All men. She made herself look carefully at the faces. Neither her uncle nor father was in the group.
Although they were dead, there was still one last thing she could do for them. She drizzled a bit of the oil from the vial onto the tip of the index finger on her right hand. She made a circle with her thumb and index finger, and made a sign of the cross in the air. She untied one of the veils and lightly draped it over the corpses. She bent down and scooped a small handful of pebbles from the ground and scattered them on the veil, and then she recited the traditional Armenian prayer for the dead.
Not a proper burial, but at least their souls would rest in peace.
With the candle to guide her, she looked for another opening. The next one she found had no blood at the entrance, but she shone her candle in just in case. A single migrant worker dead. One of the leering men from the barn.
Because there was only one, and she could step in closer, she dotted the man’s brow and hands and feet with the oil in a sign of the cross, and then she ripped a strip from one of the veils and draped it over him — symbolic of a shroud. She finished the ritual, then backed away.
Her gruesome journey of discovery continued. Difficult as it was, she had to find her own parents. She knew it immediately when she finally found them. When she shone her candle into the opening, the first thing that set this group apart was her mother’s dirt-encrusted wool skirt. She was curled into a tight ball and she looked like she was sleeping, except for the slit across her throat, and all the blood. Her father and uncle were crammed into the crevice in front of her, as if they had tried to protect her to the death.
Mariam reached in. She touched her mother’s face. Then she reached to her father’s face and closed his eyes, then she did the same with her uncle.
She could see the skin of water still fastened around her mother’s waist, so Mariam reached in and unfastened it. With the water, she would be able to perform a more complete burial observance.
She ripped off a strip of cloth from the already ripped veil and saturated it with water. She dabbed her parents’ and uncle’s faces and hands and feet with the wet cloth in a ritual cleansing, and then anointed the brows and hands and feet with oil in the sign of the cross. She had her mother’s last veil left, and so she lovingly draped it across the corpses.
Mariam had a feeling like being out of her own body and watching down as this strangely calm girl-woman went through the motions. She was beyond emotion, and in some ways she felt that she was beyond death. There was only one thing she could think of at the moment, and that was to give her family the traditional Armenian burial they would have wanted. A shiver went through her as she dropped pebbles onto the veil. For a moment she thought she heard her mother’s voice saying, “Look after your brother and sister.”
She said one last silent prayer, then left the cave.
Her eyes took awhile to adjust when she was finally out of the cave again, and the first thing she saw was the strained looks on the faces of her brother and sister. She nodded grimly to them. “They’re dead,” she said. “But they are in heaven now.” Is there a heaven? she wondered. Wherever they were, it was better than this.
Onnig and Marta enveloped her in their arms. The children fell into an exhausted sleep.
Mariam heard dogs howling in her sleep and woke up with a start. She looked around her and saw that it was still broad daylight and very hot. Onnig was soundlessly asleep, but Marta was whimpering. Mariam gently shook her sister’s shoulder until she opened her eyes.
“We should cover the mouth of the cave,” said Mariam. She didn’t want to say out loud what her fears were — that wild dogs would tear apart the flesh of their dead family. The thought was too gruesome to share.
Marta looked at her older sister and nodded. “Yes,” she said.
In a frenzy of energy, the sisters gathered stones and twigs and piled them up at the mouth of the cave. Marta fashioned a crucifix from two straight sticks, then leaned it against the front of the cave. Mariam placed a lit candle in front of it. Then they roused Onnig, and the three children prayed.
“This is historical fiction at its gritty best, with compelling characters, heart wrenching choices and unspeakable horror. … Highly recommended”
on Resource LInks:
“In this heart wrenching sequel to the highly successful The Hunger, Nobody’s Child poignantly exposes a twentieth century genocide, the Armenian massacre in Adana. … Armenian cultures are vividly brought to life, as the audience is implored to join this perilous journey.”