by William Michaelian
Each morning, when the bright yellow sunlight paints itself upon the stone surface of her garden wall, the old woman known to everyone as Naneh goes outside to greet the world, and to ask herself what sort of madness lies in store for her that day. While she waits for an answer, she smokes a cigarette and admires the things she has planted � the delicate parsley, basil, and mint within easy reach, and the taller, more rugged tomatoes, peppers, and eggplant behind.
After making note of their progress, she turns her attention to the tiny house from which she has emerged. For good reason, she is always surprised to find it still standing. Over the years, it has shifted and settled many times, leaning first one way and then the other, until the roof is where the eaves used to be, and the eaves themselves are as crooked and wavy as her unplucked eyebrows.
Seeing the house again makes her smile and think of her dear, hard-working husband, who has been dead for so long she sometimes can�t remember his name. When Hovagim was still a young man, he built the place in a hurry, because their first child was on the way. Later, he planned to build his wife a real castle, with separate rooms for everything, including a place for her to cook and a place for them to sleep. This never happened. Six children later, they were both too busy and too tired not to be grateful for the house they had.
While their family grew, the city also grew. The fields and meadows surrounding their home were replaced by streets and houses. People were everywhere, walking, playing, and shouting. To help their husbands make a living, many women began selling tomatoes, eggs, and flowers in front of their homes. Naneh�s specialty was bread. As soon as her daughters were old enough, she involved them in all aspects of its preparation. It helped her, and it gave the girls something important to do.
For many years, Naneh�s bread was famous. The smell alone was enough to lure people from other neighborhoods. Best of all, her bread came with advice. Naneh was wise. She understood people�s problems, and helped them see the contributing factors, which were most often the result of their own short-sighted behavior. At the same time, since she had bread to sell, she never blamed anyone directly. She always said �we� instead of �you,� and made it sound as if the problem was hers as well. Then, after her customer had gone away happy, she would say to one of her daughters, �Look at her. There she goes, poor creature,� or, if it was a man, �The world is on his shoulders, right where it belongs.�
Life kept changing. The children grew and left home. Grandchildren were born. Then, without warning, Hovagim died. Friends and relatives filled the house. Later, after spending many long, lonely hours watching over her husband�s body, a procession formed in the street. First came the priest, then Hovagim in his coffin made of wood, then Naneh and her children and their families, and then everyone else. While the priest sang, the procession wound through the neighborhood and up a hill until it reached the cemetery where Hovagim�s body was laid to rest. Twice, Naneh tried to throw herself into her husband�s grave. Her grief reduced everyone, including the priest, to tears.
But that is all in the past. Also in the past is her year of mourning and the black dress she faithfully wore, and her subsequent decision to be happy once again. In the past, with great devotion, Naneh helped care for each of her grandchildren. In the past, she summarily dissolved all disputes among her daughters-in-law by reminding them how short and how precious life was. In the past, on the rare occasions when this approach failed, she straightened them out with her wit and sarcasm. In the past, her kind heart and powerful mind inspired the people around her.
And now she is old � so old she sometimes hears voices whispering to her in the night. They tell her many strange things, and many amusing things as well. As she lies sleeping in bed, the walls of her house spring to life. They come nearer in the dark, then faces appear. Hovagim. Hovagim�s mother. Her own mother and father. Even the faces of strangers, of men walking behind carts pulled by oxen, and of women carrying their jars of water back from the well. She sees the dusty streets of her childhood, and the storm of blood that ran through them, carrying everyone away. She sees a river full of drowned bodies, and wild-eyed children clutching their swollen stomachs with the hands of skeletons. She sees a sun afraid to shine on brothers and sisters who have gone mad with hunger, outrage, and despair. She sees a moon lost forever in an abyss, and stars that no longer shine.
In her dream, apple blossoms fall. Icy water tumbles over rocks and forms pools of laughter. Girls wear flowers in their hair, driving the young men mad. The purple mountains sigh. The grassy slopes where shepherds roam unfold like God�s forgotten smile.
It is all so beautiful, and so real. And then the sun of today rises and calls Naneh to the window.
She opens her eyes. �What do you want?� she says. �Can�t you leave this tired old woman in peace?�
But the sun answers, �Naneh, come outside. Please talk to me, I feel lonely today.�
Or it says, �Naneh, dear, it is time to play.�
The crazy sun. It always says something. And Naneh always listens. And believes. When the bright yellow sunlight paints itself upon her garden wall, and when the morning breeze stirs the leaves, she goes out to greet the 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.