2010 Runner-up: Holding Joy by Audrey Pearl Saltarelli

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Audrey Pearl Saltarelli is a runner-up in the 2010 Litro & IGGY International Short Story Award for Young Writers.

Based on a true story.

My mother drew another sharp ragged breath.  She draped one clammy hand over my narrow, ten-year-old shoulders and the other over my little sister Pearl. Exhausted with diphtheria, she leaned against me. “Tzakus,” she lovingly lisped the Armenian sentiment for “My child.” Gingerly, I laid her on the scorching sand, risking my life by doing so.  What did I care?  My mother was about to die.

Six year old Pearl had witnessed too much already.   Wishing to spare her, I sent her away. Fighting to memorize every detail of my dear mother’s face, I gazed at her intently.  “Be strong,” I told myself, as the tears trickled down my face.   Suddenly a firm hand pressed my shoulder.   Dread washed over me as I turned around, hoping it was not our Turkish oppressors.   Instead it was one of my distant relatives who bent down to pick up my mother. “What are you doing with her?” I screamed.

One of my aunts held me back and told me, “You are too young to see your mother die,” as I writhed and thrashed about.  Now it was my little sister and me, alone and hated by the world.

The next morning Pearl and I huddled together as we marched through the Syrian Desert. Why were we marched? Why were we hated? Why were we killed? Because we were Armenian.  The Ottoman Turks were intent on wiping us out and had nearly done it so far.  They killed my brothers.  I saw a whole rifle empted into their bodies.  They marched my other two sisters to death and beat my best friend until she was lifeless.  Now my mother too had been snatched from me.

“I’m hungry,” Pearl whined, pulling me from my resentful brooding.  We couldn’t stop to eat; rules.  I dug around in my knapsack for our meager supply of dried fruit.  It is the same thing we ate yesterday and it is the same thing we will eat tomorrow.   It is one of the few things we grabbed when the Turks forced us from our home.   We were quietly going about our business that day, when all the sudden the doors were beat down. We had ten fleeting minutes to grab our things before our house belonged to them.

They yelled and screamed at my mother cruel words like, “dirty rat,” and “good for nothing.”  I tried to comfort my two wailing little sisters, but one of the men pulled my long, black hair and punched me in the face.

“Outside now!” He barked and motioned to the door with his huge gun.

There had been seven in my family when we started the Death March.  My Three brothers and some of their friends had dressed like women because the orders were all men must be shot.  Donning some of my mother’s old clothing they had tried to save their lives.  But one of my brothers’ friends had ratted on them.  By divulging their true identity, he supposed his life would be spared.  However, they dragged my brothers and their friends out and murdered them all. They also shot my sister Nuvart’s husband before the march. The Ottoman Turks hoped by killing our men, we women and children would be tractable.

When the sun finally set and the desert had grown as cold as our captors’ hearts, we were allowed some sleep.  Some of the other families grabbed tents when forced from their homes, but in the rush my mother was not able to. Sparsely wrapped in an old coat, Pearl and I attempted to stay warm. Her boney body poked me as we snuggled together. I could hear her softly crying and I tried to suppress the same urge welling up in myself.  I had to be strong for her because I was the only person she had left.  “Tzakus,” I whispered as I stroked her hair, hoping my mother’s words would sooth her.  Sleep slowly surmounted me, while the coarse sand bed beneath shifted every time we moved.

We awoke at first light. The heinous Ottoman Turks ordered everyone up. Time to move again. An old woman who had been lying next to me did not get up. One of the soldiers kicked her stomach, swollen from malnourishment, but she did not even stir.  The abuser just walked away glad for one less person to deal with.  The Turks were in a noxious mood that morning; it was whispered because the march was almost over. Consequently, they made us march nude today.  It was so humiliating for us all to bear but I held my head high so Pearl would not see the embarrassment I felt.

I started to miss my sisters again. Nuvart, my older sister, had been a second mother to me.  She was always looking out for me and making sure I was taken care of.  Collapsing one day, she died of absolute depletion.  One of the hardest things I have ever done was abandoning her body in the sand because we were not allowed to pause to bury people.  Witnessing the death of my other little sister, Victoria, was the most heart-wrenching.  Driven nearly insane by her thirst, she ignored my mother and drank some filthy water. The dysentery consumed her small body and she died within a few days.  Poor Pearl was even more heartbroken then the rest of us. Victoria and she had been almost inseparable.

“Halt!” the jolting words pierced the thick air.  What would happen?  Last time we had been stopped in the middle of the day, twenty people had been massacred just on a whim.  This time instead the Turks did the unthinkable: they told us we were free.  A strange sensation raced through me.  We had been oppressed for so long it seemed surreal.   Pearl and I numbly reached for our clothes and slowly dressed ourselves.  I would later find out how fortunate we were.  In subsequent death marches the Turks shot all survivors. “Where will we go?” I wondered aloud.  It was just my little sister and me, alone and all by ourselves. I clung to the thought that at least we still had each other.

We stood there for a long time stupefied.  Then Nuvart’s mother-in-law approached us, which surprised us because she had never been kind.  Never once had she offered food to us even though our bones protruded.  Neither had she let us sleep in their tent or share a blanket.  Even when our mother died and she saw her left in the sand, the cold lady offered not so much as a sympathetic glance.  Now she limped over and patted Pearl’s head.  I shot her a look of disgust. Why the show of congeniality now?

At her stinging words my heart sank lower than it ever had before. “You will come and live with me now,” she told my precious sister. “You will be my “Tzukug.”

“What about Zuvart?” inquired Pearl, “Can she be your little girl too?”

Frigidly, the lady shook her head, “I do not want her; she is too old for me.  She will be just fine at the Danish orphanage in the nearby town.”  Starting to cry, Pearl vociferated that she did not want to leave me.  Heedlessly, the lady dragged her away.  I began to kick and hit at the lady but some of my aunts held me back.

“It is for Pearl’s own good,” they consoled me.  But I knew their words held no truth.

I was truly alone for the first time in my life. Curled up in a ball, I passed my last night in the desert whimpering to myself. The pain was so intense it resonated into the deepest corners of my soul.  Would I ever see my baby sister again? Would she even remember me? Who would tell her how much I loved her?

Dread encompassed my first waking thoughts.  My sister was gone forever and I was headed to the orphanage.  The same horrid aunts that held me from my sister began the long walk to town with me.  They tried to convince me that I would love the orphanage and be very happy there.  Secretly, I think they said those things to ease their guilty conscience because they would not take me to live with them.  Not that that would have been any better.  I stuck my tongue at one of them spitefully.

When we reached the orphanage, two plump jovial old women, Mrs. Jacobson and Mrs. Peterson, greeted us. They looked affable, but I was too bitter to really notice.  We walked single file down a long, darkly tiled hall to the admissions office, my bare feet not even making a sound.  Zuvart Michahailian, I announced with feigned boldness when they asked my name.  But when one of them inquired if I had any living relatives, I could not temper the tears. I thought of Pearl for the millionth time that day and wondered if she was as miserable and lonely as me. When my aunts saw my tears they left in an embarrassed rush, not even giving me a backward glance.

I imagined myself always lonely in the orphanage, for I was without hope.  One day I could not hold back the lamentations any longer.  I sprawled on my bed, drenching my pillow with stinging, angry puddles. Why did my mother have to die and why was Pearl taken from me?  Eventually able to compose myself, I went down stairs.  Mrs. Peterson beheld my blood -shot puffy eyes and tenderly inquired about the problem.  She pulled me into her office and sat with me on an overstuffed couch. “Why have you been crying, my dear?” she questioned. The story that I had held inside so long came gushing out.  I told her of the life we had before the Death March, how my brothers and sisters had perished with so many others, how my dying mother had been taken from my arms, and lastly how my little sister had been stolen from me.  Mrs. Peterson quietly listened as I poured out my grief.  Then she did something I did not expect; she embraced my scrawny little body and hugged me.  Lovingly, she stroked my hair and said, “It will be alright child.” I did not think anything had ever felt so good. I felt that hugeasing some of the anguish.  She told me that time would heal my wounds.  Most of all, she wanted to make sure I knew that she and Mrs. Jacobson loved me and that I had sisters in the other girls at the orphanage.

Talking with Mrs. Peterson helped some.  In fact, I started to view the orphanage in the light she cast.  I began to notice how nice the girls around me were.  They all truly cared about me and tried to show it in little ways. I also began acquiring different skills like sewing, cooking, and cleaning.  I relished the satisfaction I got from a job well done.  But even though I was starting to climb my way out of the pain,  I still couldn’t forget what I had  been through or my sister Pearl,  nor did I think my loneliness  would ever fully disappear.

Time went quickly once I learned to enjoy my life a little. Then one day, I was called into Mrs. Peterson and Mrs. Jacobson’s office. They had a letter from a young Armenian man in America who was looking for a wife of his same race.  His name was Hovenes.  They said they thought of me immediately because of my gentle disposition and willingness to work.  An attractive man with the accustomed dark features of our race greeted my face when they showed me his picture. Skeptically, I peered at the photograph, but both of the kind old ladies urged me to seriously consider his offer. Confusing thoughts swirled in my head as I contemplated, “Was I ready?”

Life in America was supposed to be wonderful and I knew I didn’t want to live in this orphanage forever.  But what if he was irascible or slovenly?  What if I just didn’t like his personality?  Or he mine? If I accepted his offer and went to his country there would be no turning back.

I wrestled with my thoughts a long time. Part of me wanted to get married and start a new chapter in my life story but on the other hand I was afraid. I replayed the conversation with my “mothers” in my head.  If they thought it was a good idea then I would do it. I trusted them more than anyone in the world, but it would be hard to leave my orphanage family behind.

On the boat a few months later, loneliness engulfed me.  I do not think I cried that much since my sister was taken from me.  It was like losing my family all over again.  Solo for the first time in years, I felt extremely small in the middle of the vast Atlantic Ocean.  After all I was only sixteen and small of stature for my age.  My correspondence with Hovenes had made me believe he was a kind man but I still had my doubts.  Would he like me?  Was I everything he hoped for?

As the boat pulled into the harbor, my heart raced.  This was America.  My eyes were greeted by crowds of people of all different races. Timidly, I smoothed my tousled hair.  How could I ever find my betrothed?  Then I saw him yelling and waving more than anybody else and I shyly waved my handkerchief at him.  He certainly had a lot of energy.  I descended the ramp almost overcome by nervousness.  Thank goodness I had the rope railings to steady myself.  He rushed forward and grabbed my bags.  “Hello,” he confidently greeted me, but I couldbarely hear him over the din. We slowly weaved through the crowd to his Model T.

Alone in the car, the silence overtook us.  Even though I was going to spend the rest of my life with this man, I couldn’t think of anything to ask him. I guess his former courage faded because he was quiet also.  Was this a foretelling of our life together, not a word, and sly embarrassed glances?  He broke the stillness finally by telling me of his time in the military, fighting in the First World War. They were interesting stories and I began to slowly grow more relaxed.  Then a grim thought struck me.  At the same time Hovenes was fighting for freedom, our family had been fighting for our lives.  While he had hundreds of people dying around him for a noble cause, I had hundreds around me dying from sheer cruelty.  There was so much pain I still carried with me.

I began to adore my new husband very quickly.  He was very kind and a hard worker.  In fact, I grew to trust him so much I was able to tell him my story.  He promised me I would never know loneliness again because I had a husband who loved me and would always take care of me.  He also vowed to do everything in his power to locate my little sister.  Tragically, years of trying were to no avail. I finally accepted that I would never see Pearl again nor would I find out what happened to her when we were separated.

Eventually we were graced with four children. With each addition to our family my happiness grew.  It seeped into the crevices of my pain and soothed my tender wounds.  When I was handed my fourth child, a baby girl, for the first time, I realized my joy was tangible and I was holding it in my arms.  Snapshots of memories flooded my mind.   My baby’s cooing brought me back to the present.  “Pearl,” I remarked aloud, “What a perfect name for my newest blessing.”  I pressed my baby closer to my chest.  “Tzakus,” I whispered, not feeling lonely at all.

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