by William Michaelian
Old Bedros walked from one village to the next with a long stick made smooth by many years of use.
In our village, the boys usually saw him first, washing himself in the river. They were fascinated, as boys will be, with the old man’s body, with its forest of white hair as thick as wool, and with the part of him that hung down when he walked out of the water.
Bedros himself was unashamed. When he saw them watching from behind the plants and the trees, he would call to them and tell them to come and talk to him. Sometimes, the younger boys would be afraid to come out, and would remain in hiding. They would watch as their older cousins and brothers and friends stood with Bedros and laughed at the things he was telling them.
For a long time, Bedros would sit on a rock and let the sun dry him off. He would tell the boys stories and sing to them. Some of the songs they knew, because they were sung in the village. But Old Bedros knew many songs from many villages, even some of the villages that had been destroyed by the Turks when he was young.
After he was dry, and after the boys had brought him some berries to eat, Bedros would put on his clothes, and then he would walk with the boys to the village.
In the village, Bedros would be given food to eat — fresh bread with madzoon made from the milk of oxen, walnuts, olives, grapes, and cheese. Also he would be given many glasses of oghi, which the men make from mulberries. Each time he would drink some oghi, Bedros would be asked if it was not the best he had tasted in the village. Always, he would say, “No, it is the best in the world.” This way he was sure to receive another glass.
Bedros was a hermit. He lived in a small cave in the mountains. But for him, “the world” was really the whole land of Armenia — its trees, its icy rivers, its stone hearths, its monuments, its sons and daughters.
When he was younger, he would not be seen for as many as three or four years, and then all at once he would appear, looking like a wild man.
When he got old, and was in his nineties, he began to come out and look for people, and to talk to them.
Perhaps he was lonely.
Perhaps he was getting ready to die, and he wanted to say farewell to his people.
For a long time, Bedros got older, but he did not die. He was like an olive tree, or a river. Other people died — many of them also survivors of the Turkish massacres of 1896 and 1915 — but not Bedros. Bedros lived.
Some said this was because he was a messenger from God.
Others said Bedros did not die because long ago he had made an agreement with Satan.
Our village priest, Der Tatoul, said, “All of us must die, unless God decides otherwise. Even His Son was crucified. Therefore, it is safe to assume Bedros will one day close his eyes and not open them again.”
But once, after watching Bedros drink three glasses of some very strong oghi, Der Tatoul smiled and said, “Perhaps God has overlooked this man. We shall see.”
Finally, Bedros came to live in our village. Two or three times a year, he would send some boys to his cave in the mountains to chase out the animals, but he himself remained behind. His muscles were stiff, and his body was bowed with age. In the winter, he moved very slowly. Some days, sitting near the fire, he did not move at all. Then, in the spring, like a frozen river, Bedros would slowly come to life, and his hands and face would be given new color by the warm sun.
One summer, Bedros came to our house. Outside, he found my father working. He said, “Everything is in God’s hands. If you can find a small corner for me where I may sleep, I am willing to work.”
My father replied, “Bedros, this is your house,” and went to open the door.
Inside, he called out my mother’s name. “Mariam,” he said, “Bedros is here. He will be staying with us.”
My mother appeared, carrying my youngest brother, Hovig.
“What work do you have for me?” Bedros asked her in a serious voice.
My mother laughed. “We have seven children,” she said. “And you ask me what work I have?”
Bedros smiled. He was missing his teeth in front.
On that day, Bedros was made a guest in our house. Of course, we knew he was unable to work, but this was unimportant. In Armenia, a guest brings light to a home and holds a high place of honor. When that guest has attained great age, he is revered. My mother, especially, understood this. This is why, for as long as Bedros remained with us, she treated him as she did her own grandfather.
Most of the time Bedros would spend talking or singing. He did not sleep at night, but at odd times his eyes would close, his mouth would open, and his head would fall to his chest. When this would happen, my mother would say, “At last, our baby is sleeping.” This always made my brothers and sisters laugh, the idea that Bedros could be a baby. They did not understand that my mother meant this also in a sad way. I was older, and this is why I understood, though I know I did not understand everything as she did.
At night, when my brothers and sisters were sleeping, I would lie in the dark and listen to Bedros. For some reason, his tongue never grew tired. Perhaps this was because his heart and his mind were always full, even when his body seemed to be growing roots in the ground. At times, I thought, “Bedros is more than a man. Bedros is a village.” And his voice would answer with a song about the ancient stones of our land, weeping for the blood of Armenians that was spilled in the Euphrates River.
So much pain.
So much sorrow.
And I began to understand how Bedros could decide to live alone in a cave in the mountains.
Better to live with the spiders and the animals.
Better to drink from cold springs than rivers filled with blood.
Better to hear the wind in the trees than the crying voices of one’s suffering people.
My father said, “It is true, Bedros lived away from us, but not so he could hide. By being alone, he was able to see our pain more clearly. Our sorrow, the long sorrow of the Armenian people, was his sorrow as well. It remains so.”
There is an old saying: Long ago, God gave sorrow to the mountains; when the mountains could not bear sorrow, God gave sorrow to man.
In my mind, I can see Bedros. He is walking in a desert filled with bones. Reaching down, he picks up one of the bones, then holds it up to the hot sun. At this moment, God appears. When Bedros tries to give God the bone, God begins to weep and will not take it. And Bedros says to God:
“Let sorrow be our fate.
“Let our people belong to sorrow.
“We are not afraid.
“We will sing, but with sorrow in our voice.
“We will work, but sorrow will share our bread.
“We will laugh, but sorrow will occupy our hearts.
“We will praise You, with hymns of sorrow.
“We will love, in sorrow.
“We will marry, in sorrow.
“We will bring new children into the world, in sorrow.
“Our lives will be baptized in tears.
“So shall it be.
“But see if we do not also make sorrow our teacher.
“See if we do not make sorrow our friend.
“See, in the end, if sorrow does not help us survive.”
Old Bedros lived with us for two years.
Finally, he became blind, but his tongue never stopped working.
Once, before he died, my father and I were with Der Tatoul in the village. Joking, my father said, “Der Hayr, tell us. Is Bedros a messenger from God?”
Der Tatoul looked very serious. In a quiet voice, he said, “Perhaps Bedros is God. How can we know?” Then he smiled.
A few days later, Bedros died.
Everyone in the village came to our house, then followed us to the cemetery.
After the funeral, I helped my father and some other men bury Bedros.
If he was God, he was also an old Armenian man with long, white hair, a crooked body, and no teeth.
If he was God, he also lived in our village and in our house.
If he was God, he also sang to my brothers and sisters, and told them stories.
Of course, we know that Bedros was only a man. But he gave us hope that Armenians can survive in this crazy world.
William Michaelian’s newest releases are two poetry collections, Winter Poems and Another Song I Know, published in paperback by Cosmopsis Books in San Francisco. His short stories, poems, and drawings have appeared in many literary magazines and newspapers. His novel,
A Listening Thing, is published here in its first complete online edition. For information on Michaelian’s other books and links to this site’s other sections, please go to the Main Page or visit Flippantly Answered Questions.