I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee
Edward J. Arapian, a.k.a. The Sponge King, b. Constantinople, May 1850, d. Key West, December 1920
For years, Arapian’s wife, Harriet, had held a party, famous throughout Key West, on his birthday. Then there was the war, and nobody expected a party, except there were the invitations, embossed on thick cardstock, delivered three weeks ahead of time, same as every other year. That was 1918, when Arapian turned sixty-eight, two years before he died, seven months before Harriet died.
In Key West, Arapian was known as the Turk, though he was Armenian.
The extraction of fingernails; the application of burning irons to the breast; the pinching of skin with burning clamps; boiled butter poured into wounds; the tearing off of genitalia; the penetration of orifices with swords, with brooms, with flesh; the sawing off of hands and feet, arms and legs; the bayoneting of babies; the slitting of throats, the exhibition of the massacred.
The difference between Turk and Armenian? The Turk extracted the Armenian’s fingernails. The Turk applied burning irons to the Armenian’s breast. The Turk pinched the skin of the Armenian with burning clamps. Or he had the Kurd do it.
Turkey for the Turks, they said.
In Key West, sponges made Arapian a millionaire, one of the richest men in America at the time, an immigrant from the Ottoman Empire, which would have killed him if it could.
Bow down to the almighty sponge! Either the highest order of plant or the lowest order of animal.
A Brief History of Sponge Diving
In the beginning, there were naked divers, each weighed down by a marble stone. The divers cut sponges loose with knives held in their hands. They tucked those sponges into nets tied around their waists. From time to time, they wedged their marble stones into the mouths of sharks.
No tanks, no suits, just the air in their lungs.
But then in 1865, Fotis Mastoridis of Symi Island bought a diving helmet in Berlin. He convinced his fellow Greeks of the suit’s safety by putting his pregnant wife inside and dropping her into the deep. Her feelings on the matter have not been recorded, but she surfaced unscathed, and the Symians took to the new suits immediately. Other islanders quickly learned their ways.
Divers were to go down only twice a day, to spend only five minutes on the sea bottom, to rise slowly, to breathe slowly. With every exhalation, carbon dioxide filled their helmets. With every descent, nitrogen spread through their bodies, a martini hitting them at every ten meters. But money was to be made, houses to be paid for, debts to be honored, rules—as ever—to be broken in the name of commerce.
Ten thousand divers died and another twenty thousand were paralyzed. Each year only half the fleet returned.
Women dreamt nightly of their unburied husbands, dropped to the bottom of the sea or stashed in a pile of stones on an island where the only growth was a crop of small wooden crosses.
The diving suit was banned by the sultan’s decree in 1881, but the ban was never enforced; it wasn’t even written down. (The word of the Sultan was supposed to be enough, but that worked only if you heard it.)
In the meanwhile, Symi grew rich, richer, richest. By 1900, it was the wealthiest port in the Mediterranean, a treasure of the Ottoman Empire, even if the empire was the enemy. Everyone on the island believed divers were rich, so the divers lived like the rich even during the months they were not paid. They imported luxuries from Istanbul; they built mansions; they adopted European dress. Then they dove in order to pay the debts they’d incurred—the nineteenth century’s well-paid poor.
It was Greek sponges that Odysseus used to wipe up the blood of Penelope’s suitors after he killed them. In Egypt, sponges wiped ink from papyrus. A vinegar-soaked sponge was stuffed in Jesus’s mouth while he hung on the cross. In Paris, women dabbed their skin with the softest of sponges. But it was the industrial revolution—so much machinery to clean—that made the American market.
In Key West, the waters were not so deep. Sponges were retrieved from the side of a boat with a bucket and a hook. All you needed was a sculler to hold the boat steady while the sponger peered through his bucket’s glass bottom trying to calculate, through the water’s shifting lens, where to plunge his hook. No helmets, no suits, no risk of the bends. They barely got wet.
In Key West, the sponge merchants—middle men in suits of a different sort—grew wealthy, but the spongers did not.
Arapian had connections in Paris, in Constantinople, in London. The perfect middle man, the man who knew everybody, everywhere. He came to Key West on a tip, and there, in Key West, he found Harriet (her uncle had been the first to send a shipment of sponges to New York), and there, in Key West, he stayed.
Every day at three, there was a sponge auction on the docks, the harvest cleaned and sold and shipped. Every day Arapian bought and sold, never at a loss. Eventually he had boats of his own. Eventually nobody could outbid him. By the time the Greeks began diving the Gulf and stealing his market share, he was too old and too rich to be bothered. He had no loyalty to sponges, only to the men who had manned his boats, stocked his warehouse, shipped his wares. And he believed he was good to those men. They had fought him only once, over the unions, but he had long ago forgiven that lack of loyalty. Most of his men were dead already anyhow; somehow he had outlived so many. At the time, Arapian thought he did not need forgiveness from the dead.
Arapian’s birthday party was known as the Wonders of the Sea. Each year Harriet served a six-course dinner, each course featuring a local catch. No Key Wester was ever turned away, though an official invitation was a particular treasure.
Harriet Ellen Kemp Arapian, b. Bahamas, August 1863, d. Key West, December 1918 (Actually 1909 but fiction must take some liberties.)
Harriet grew up in a house once floated on a barge from the Bahamas to Key West and furnished entirely with wrecker’s treasure: a fan made of ivory and roseate spoonbill feathers, shipped from New Orleans, meant for Spain, wrecked on the Florida Reef; a telescope shipped from Spain, meant for New Orleans, wrecked on the Florida Reef; a full set of china shipped from England, meant for Havana (not a piece broken, though the boat went down); and so much more—a piano always slightly out of tune, a gold coin bearing the head of Athena; a rhinoceros horn, a brass birdcage, a wooden dollhouse, a ship’s bell, a full wardrobe of French dresses, three Persian carpets, and a small gold cross, which Harriet wore around her neck her whole life. All wrecked on the Florida Reef.
Over the years, wrecking, sponging, cigar-rolling, turtle-hunting and tourism made many Key Westers—the Kemps especially—rich, and yet the poor remained a never-ending resource, always replenished, just like the sea.
Harriet’s insistence on holding Arapian’s party in 1918 was because of the money she wanted to raise for Anahid.
Anahid Restrepian, b. Ordu, December 1899, d. Los Angeles, February 1980
The famous survivor of the Armenian Atrocities. Her book, full of daring escapes and terrible nightmares, was a best seller. Soon there would be a movie, in which Anahid reenacted her own suffering. For the past year, Anahid had appeared regularly at cities across the country, but she had yet to come to Florida, and Harriet had arranged for her to speak at the party, which was to be a fundraiser for Armenian relief. Harriet, as her own death approached, was trying to shore up Arapian’s chances for an afterlife.
I was born in a killing station—Ordu, a port city on the Black Sea.
From the time Anahid arrived in America, she was no longer a body in the world; she was a story. America’s favorite suffering angel, 1917–1919.
This saved the Turks the trouble of marching my family across the plains in the grand pretense of deportation.
She gave speeches.
It saved the Turks the trouble of putting my parents, my brothers, myself into cattle cars and shipping us to the place where we would be killed.
She wrote a book.
A ride we would have been obliged to buy tickets for, by the way.
She starred in the movie of her own abuses—all under the instruction of the American couple who took her in, a Hollywood producer and his wife.
Instead, my father and my three brothers were put on a boat. And they were taken out to sea and drowned.
She delivered her speeches in English, a language she barely understood.
Except I can’t be sure, because I didn’t see it happen. All my mother and I could be sure of was they were taken to jail and they never came back.
The speeches were written by a Hollywood scriptwriter, which does not mean they were untrue.
My mother and I were bought by a Muslim man, who married us both. To protect us, he said.
Anahid was turned into a story the way Daphne was transformed into a tree and Actaeon into a stag.
I ask myself often, Should I tell my people’s story or keep my people’s secret?
Sometimes she was the fairy-tale princess rescued from capture, other times a wrecked soul never really to be recovered.
In the end, this man was able to protect me, but not my mother.
No matter what story Anahid tried to tell, she was turned into another.
“Pray for me,” he said on our wedding day.
She would come to recognize the false hope in the eyes of someone spotting a mirage.
I ran away.
And the last steps of someone already dead.
I feel foolish for it; I didn’t understand the things I would see.
She came to recognize the crouch of someone checking for breath, for food, for shoes, for anything at all.
Bodies were everywhere. You’d see a skirt hiked up, a shirt disarranged, and you’d want to fix it. But you were also repelled—the bodies are a horror, yet you want to love them, treat them with respect. But the bodies, they are monsters. You have never seen anything so disgusting. But sometimes it is your neighbor, your school friend, even your enemy and you want to love them…
Women were prostituted to the Ottoman soldiers, until the women caught venereal disease.
If the soldiers knew we were rich they put us in prison first, so that we’d bribe our way out.
Women with venereal diseases were poisoned.
They’d take our money over and over until we had none left. Then they killed us.
The grasping actions of a falling empire.
The gendarmes caught me. I was forced to walk with all the rest—toward the desert in Syria. Why they bothered with this pretense, I will never know. If we made it there, it was only to be killed.
The sword saves bullets.
Women tried to give their babies away.
Women tried to give their babies away.
For three lifetimes I walked.
But we are on the way to a happy ending—a story written by another.
At the beginning, a Turk bought me for eighty-five cents. For him that was a good deal of money.
In the end, I was bought by an American missionary for a dollar.
That is how I came to America. That is how I was saved.
All of that suffering and I only grew in value—here her audiences would begin their applause. Maybe I only grew in value by fifteen cents. And here her audiences would rise to their feet. But fifteen cents is something, isn’t it?
She was, it turned out, a very good performer.
Mrs. Vanderbilt herself suggested Harriet invite Anahid to Key West.
The Sea of Wonders
In past years, Arapian’s birthday party had been a full-service dinner for a hundred or more people under a tent, but when Arapian turned sixty-eight in 1918, his birthday dinner was a buffet. The food was plentiful—war did not stop the sea giving bounty. There were conch fritters, yellow turtle eggs, and turtle steaks, Bahamian conch salad scorchingly spiced, green turtle soup, crab gumbo, dolphin fillets, stone crabs, baked crawfish, mackerel, kingfish, and scallops. The food was endless. As if death would be kept at the door by gluttony. As if genocide could be countered by abundance. The guests couldn’t stop remarking on it. And they couldn’t help but notice, by way of contrast, how thin Harriet had become. How had they failed to notice until now?
She’d always been thin—long neck, long nose, spindle arms and spindle legs (though those were rarely seen). All her life, Harriet was elegant or childlike depending on how she chose to dress. Arapian was a shapeshifter too, able to perform European elegance or dockworker bravado as called upon. He had dressed to the hilt for the party—a tailored suit, polished shoes; his still thick, now white hair slicked back. Next to him, Harriet looked like a draped skeleton. People had to turn away, or look her only in the eye.
At first they stood together in the living room, greeting guests as they arrived. Harriet was waiting for Anahid, and Arapian was waiting for the Greek, his old business partner, who had recently sent him a letter requesting a five-thousand-dollar settlement for an invention they had collaborated on.
But after an hour, neither Anahid nor the Greek had arrived. The house was swiftly filling, and the party spread into the small backyard and onto the large front porch. Harriet took a seat on the couch, with a lesser Vanderbilt down from New York next to her, while Arapian stood over them. Guests came to the couch in a swirling rotation. Already it was hard for Arapian to hear anything but the buzz and hum of the party; he and Harriet didn’t even try to speak to each other. He knew they would talk later, after everyone had left.
Arapian’s was a brick house with a tin roof—a house that couldn’t be burned, to replace one that had. He hadn’t felt the loss strongly—he didn’t own mementos from his youth; he didn’t treasure books or pianos the way Harriet did. He didn’t care if people called him a Turk or an Armenian, a Greek or an American. He had what he needed to get what he wanted, which is to say, money. He wasn’t a bad man, but he wasn’t a fool either; he knew how money had protected him and Harriet and their son, William, and he knew how if he was smart, it always could.
From the couch, Harriet and Arapian could see William through the window, no longer young, a little drunk and worrisome, out on the porch. Arapian had taken, in retirement, to writing long letters to William, full of instruction on the making of a man, letters he hand-delivered, but that neither of them ever discussed. The letters seemed to be having little effect, at least not a positive one.
Upstairs in a bathroom, refusing to come down and bear witness, was William’s wife; their two children were asleep in Arapian and Harriet’s bed—a problem to be solved later.
The living room was full of young men: navy men who’d been brought to the party by local girls, as well as the sons of Arapian’s old friends and employees, most of them underemployed and eying the mainland, or underemployed and eyeing the navy. In the kitchen were their mothers, talking loudly, as if they didn’t see each other most days. Their fathers were largely missing, most having died years ago, in what had felt like a sudden mass extinction. Only the Greek, not yet arrived, was left from the old days.
The Greek’s father and his two uncles had all been Symi divers mangled by the bends; none of them had lived to turn thirty. Still the Greek had followed them into the family business; and then he had followed the family business to Florida. He became Arapian’s engineer, always looking for, and often finding, ways to improve the boats, the nets, the warehouse. Arapian liked to say that the Greek’s ingenuity made him his fortune. Arapian liked, too, to say, that he had made the Greek.
They hadn’t been close since they took opposite sides on the issue of the union twenty years before, when Arapian threatened the men who tried to organize. But still the Greek’s letter had come as a surprise, and Arapian had yet to answer it.
“I don’t think he’s coming,” Arapian said loudly in Harriet’s direction, and her response was to rise from the couch and go to the telephone to find out what had happened to Anahid.
At first Harriet had thought Anahid was simply running late, not so unusual given the sometime difficulties of traveling to Key West from the mainland, but when she called the hotel a nurse picked up and said Anahid was lying down a minute before setting out. She wasn’t feeling well.
Anahid had not been well for some time. How nice it would be if this story could present her as otherwise, but Anahid was in the midst of a complete emotional breakdown perhaps brought on by wartime starvation, by rape, by the loss of her entire family, or maybe by the fact that she now lived in a country where she knew almost nobody, or by the fact that the American couple acting as her benefactors had become increasingly demanding, and in answer to Anahid’s requests for a break in her touring, had begun referring to her contract, a document she had no memory of signing.
Remember, she was only nineteen.
At the time of Harriet’s call, Anahid was lying stiffly atop her still-made hotel bed sobbing, holding the hand of her Armenian-American translator, Lucintak, Lucy for short, a girl of seventeen who had been traveling with Anahid for the past month. The nurse who had answered the phone, Mrs. Brown, was an employee of Near East Relief, and Anahid’s chaperone. She was trying to give Anahid a shot that might calm her.
The room felt damp. All of Key West felt damp, but inside the hotel room the damp felt as if it had pooled in the corners, as if it clung to the walls and the carpet, and Mrs. Brown’s skin.
“You will feel better outside, both of you will,” Mrs. Brown said, as she tried to shift one girl aside in order to catch the then flailing arm of the other. But the girls had wrapped each other in a tangle, and eventually Mrs. Brown gave up and crossed the room to sit in an armchair, also damp, and wait out the hysteria.
Mrs. Brown hadn’t been east herself, but she had seen the photographs of orphan camps and starving women and deceased men. She understood that Anahid needed care, or at least rest, but she had also seen the response of the crowds when Anahid spoke. She had seen the donation receipts, and the shipments of food, medical supplies, and workers funded by those receipts, and she had decided the sacrifice of this one girl might well be acceptable in light of the greater cause. Mrs. Brown was a Christian woman and she believed in sacrifice.
After a time, the crying quieted, and the two girls became separate beings again, lying side by side—and as Mrs. Brown looked at them there on the small motel bed, how close they were in size and manner, she was the first to realize that Anahid did not always have to be the one to be Anahid.
“Get up,” Mrs. Brown told Lucy, who looked at her with sudden alarm.
When Mrs. Brown and Lucy arrived on Arapian’s porch, Mrs. Brown ushered the girl past a bench full of uniformed navy boys, who barely had time to open their mouths before Mrs. Brown had Lucy safely inside. Immediately she and Lucy were surrounded by Arapian, Harriet, the lesser Vanderbilt, and two local girls Harriet had hired to help out. Each seemed to be trying to force a drink into their hands, and Lucy shrank against the side of Mrs. Brown, who automatically wrapped an arm around her shoulder.
“We’re so glad you were able to make it. You look much recovered,” Harriet said, first to the shrinking girl and then to Mrs. Brown, who unexpectedly found herself holding a plate piled with conch fritters, yellow turtle eggs, and a tiny turtle steak.
“Yes, of course,” Mrs. Brown said with a glance at Lucy, who took a deep breath.
“I’m so glad to meet you,” Harriet said softly as she clasped Lucy’s hand in both of hers. “This is my husband, Edward,” she said gesturing to Arapian who in response took a step back, and out of the orbit of Harriet’s arm, which tried to draw him in closer. His retreat had been in response to the stern manner of Mrs. Brown rather than out of reluctance to meet the pretty young girl in front of him, but still he did not step forward again. He had forgotten how tired these parties made him.
“Hello,” Lucy said, remembering to speak Armenian as Mrs. Brown had instructed. Arapian took another step back. “Thank you for your hospitality.”
Mrs. Brown squeezed Lucy about her shoulders, and Lucy said, “Thank you for helping our people,” this time directly to Arapian, who took yet another step back. His steady retreat had become so noticeable that Mrs. Brown actually took a step forward, drawing Lucy who was under her arm, and Harriet, who still held Lucy by one hand, along with her. The four of them were so close to a serving table piled with food that Arapian accidentally brushed his hand against a pile of buttered shrimp. He held his greasy hand out to the side, careful not to touch his suit.
“Oh dear,” he said, a smile engulfing his face, as everyone turned their eyes from his hand to him. “I’ve always been nervous around young ladies.” He looked to Harriet as if for affirmation, but the expression on her face did not serve his purposes, and so he changed tack. “It’s been a long time since I heard the language of my parents,” he said in Armenian, to Lucy. “I’m sorry for your suffering,” he added, and Harriet and Mrs. Brown both nodded as if in approval, though neither understood what he’d said. Lucy looked at her feet.
I have to be Anahid, she thought. Lucy, too, had seen the donations and the photos of orphan camps that Mrs. Brown had seen. I must do the things Anahid would do, and yield the same results, she thought.
At the hotel, alone at last in a quiet room, Anahid sank deeper and deeper into her bed. She felt the balmy air through the window Mrs. Brown had left open in an attempt to combat the damp. In the distance, she could hear the sounds of people talking—the party she was missing perhaps. A sound that made her room seem more silent.
Anahid’s despair spread over the room’s silence. Alone and quiet, alone and quiet, the very things she had wanted, yet she sank deeper and deeper.
What to say here? How can you expect me to know her suffering!
Each night for 379 nights, Anahid had taken the shadow that filled her each day, and folded it and folded it and folded it until it became a tiny black seed inside her, which she delicately coughed into her hand. Each night, so that she could sleep, she placed that black seed in a glass cup she kept by her bedside. Each morning, she tipped the seed back into her palm and swallowed it, where inside of her it unfolded and unfolded and unfolded, so that once again it became the whole of her, and she began again the process of refolding it and refolding it and refolding it, so that it wasn’t the whole of her.
But that night, try as she could to contain it, Anahid felt the shadow spread across her skin, covering her nails and her hair and every inch of her. Alone and quiet was no cure. She got out of bed, left the hotel, and walked toward the sound of the party.
Lucy had her first drink—ever—at Arapian’s party: a glass of champagne that appeared in her hand while people were asking her questions—it was surprising how free people felt to ask her questions—and at some point she found herself separate from Mrs. Brown, out on the porch, speaking entirely in English, flirting with sailors, and laughing as if she had never heard of suffering. Lucy did not feel she had stopped being Anahid, instead she had become the Anahid she wanted Anahid to be. Why couldn’t Anahid forget all she had been through and be happy?
Besides, wasn’t Lucy also a survivor? Hadn’t her parents had the good sense and the good fortune to leave the Ottoman Empire years before the atrocities—as Arapian himself had—and didn’t that give all three of them—Anahid, Arapian, and Lucy—reason to be happy? Lucy resolved to stop crying with Anahid, to stop embracing Anahid’s pain and trying to absorb Anahid’s story; instead she would teach Anahid to be an American, to start over and lift herself up—to be happy.
It was then, as Lucy reached this conclusion, that Arapian saw her through the window, laughing on the porch of his sturdy home, and he felt pride at the resilience of her spirit, he felt a sense of accomplishment, as if somehow by bringing her to his house he had been the one to save her.
From the street, Anahid also saw Lucy laughing.
How young she was.
Anahid had a long history of laughing, of course, but long histories sometimes have abrupt endings.
“You’ll recover,” Anahid told herself in the voice of her benefactor. “You’re young,” she told herself in the voice of Mrs. Brown, and then in that of her benefactor’s wife. You’re young you’re young you’re young. Just then Lucy caught Anahid’s eye and abruptly froze, but Anahid put a finger to her lips and gave a soft smile.
Lucy started to move toward Anahid, who was on the porch steps then, but Anahid quickly shook her head, and Lucy stopped, frozen again, while the men and women all around her kept laughing and talking.
Anahid slipped into the party quiet as she could. Right away, she was handed a glass of champagne by a girl who looked run off her feet—it was just time for the toast.
Arapian, though Anahid did not know that name or anything really of this party she had been asked to attend, was at the center of the living room, in his fine suit, waving his now clean hands, calling out, “Gather round, everyone, gather round.”
“Anahid,” he called out loudly—to Lucy on the porch, of course, but Anahid shrank slowly into herself anyway. She had learned to project invisibility.
Lucy came slowly in through the front door with all the denizens of the porch crowding behind her. If she’d stopped, they would have surged ahead, knocking her over. She sought Anahid out with her eyes, but Anahid gave another tiny shake of her head, and Lucy looked away. Soon Mrs. Brown appeared beside Lucy, her eyes even wider than Lucy’s at the sight of Anahid stock-still in the middle of the living room in what appeared to be her nightgown.
“I’m so grateful to you all,” Arapian began once Lucy and Mrs. Brown were beside him, “for gathering to celebrate my birthday. As you know, it is my wife Harriet who does the work for this party, so first, as always, we toast her.” At that, the majority of party guests raised their glasses—a ritual with which they were familiar.
“And,” Arapian continued, “I raise my glass to God, who has granted me another year, and I raise my glass to all of you who have made Key West my only home—”
At this, the Greek came in the door.
“Especially to you, old friend,” Arapian said smoothly. The Greek nodded, perhaps begrudgingly but in accordance with old times. He had learned that Arapian paid his friends, never his enemies, and the Greek had grown old without growing rich.
“Tonight,” Arapian continued, “I will not give my usual speech but will instead turn the floor over to our special guest, Anahid Restrepian, who has found refuge and safety in our great country, and who is here to ask for your support for those who have not found refuge or safety. A pretty girl like her,” Arapian said, and here he paused as if he had lost his thought, “she deserves our attention.”
“Speech,” Arapian called out suddenly, and the whole room, including Anahid, turned to Lucy. Lucy gulped visibly, and the real Anahid put a hand to her face and, behind it, smiled.
Mrs. Brown had told Lucy to speak only in Armenian, and very little at that, but what with the champagne, with the sudden embarrassment of being placed at the center of the crowd, and with the responsibility of having to speak for Anahid in front of Anahid, the poor girl panicked.
“I don’t know what to say,” she said in English.
“No,” Arapian said, “it is we who don’t know what to say. It is we who cannot imagine what it would be like to be in your shoes. You must tell us.”
He spread his arms then, and smiled, in a way that suggested he had no idea of the world. And then, perhaps Lucy did feel like Anahid. She looked directly at Arapian and started. “If you were in my shoes,” she said, “you would have been arrested and then killed because you were thought too old for the labor battalions—which is where your son would have been sent.” She looked at William, irreparably drunk and sprawled next to his mother who sat ramrod straight on the couch. “Your son would have been forced to construct the railroads, which would then be used to transport other Armenians to towns where they could be more conveniently killed. His children, your grandchildren, would have been told to march—with or without their mother”—Lucy looked at Arapian’s daughter-in-law, perched on the stairs, only halfway down from her hideout in the bathroom—“who probably would have been killed or raped sometime earlier.” At that, the daughter-in-law fled back upstairs, and Lucy turned back to Arapian. “Your grandchildren would have marched until they fell, dead of starvation, or until they froze in the night, or until they had their heads bashed in by a soldier who had suddenly grown irritated at the sight of them.”
The Greek stepped toward her then, perhaps to stop her, but Arapian reached out and grabbed the Greek’s shoulder, clutched it, his fingers pressing deep into his friend’s soft flesh. Arapian had had a sister once. She had stayed behind, in Constantinople, with their parents.
“Or maybe you,” Lucy looked at Arapian, then William, then Harriet, then all around the room, “maybe you would have been one of the lucky ones who slipped away, who found a cave to hide in, or a sympathetic family to shelter with.” She paused. “But probably not. Probably you wouldn’t have been as lucky as you think you are. Or maybe your grandson would be one of the orphans—unsure what happened to the rest of you—”
It was Anahid who stopped her. Anahid who put a hand on her arm, as good as putting it over Lucy’s mouth.
The seed folded and unfolded inside of her.
The two girls stood in the center of the room, at the center of the room’s attention.
“Maybe,” Harriet said, slowly rising from the couch, then turning to Mrs. Brown who had stepped close to her girls still holding the full plate of food she had never felt comfortable eating or putting down, “you ought to take Anahid home now.”
“Yes, of course,” Mrs. Brown said, handing the plate off to Harriet, with an odd smile.
It was, Mrs. Brown would think later, one of the proudest moments of her life, though why she should lay any claim to it, she really didn’t know.
As Lucy and Mrs. Brown stepped out the door, Anahid trailed after them without a word.
Not many guests stayed long after that, though most of them made any number of donations and pledges. A few tried to make remarks about the ways of teenagers and foreigners; William offered a stirring defense of Lucy/Anahid’s spirit, but by then everybody was too embarrassed by his behavior to listen to him.
Neither Arapian nor Harriet said anything about the toast or Anahid. They seemed to give up on their charitable effort the moment the women went out the door. They accepted the money that was handed to them with generous thanks, but nothing more. At the end of the night, they passed the donations on to the lesser Vanderbilt, who would deliver them to New York.
Eventually they found themselves alone on the porch, the position they had taken after every party thrown in their house since it was built. William and his wife were upstairs, engaged in a hushed argument meant not to wake their sleeping children; the two local girls were in the kitchen cleaning up; and everyone else had gone home or gone to continue the party elsewhere.
“Did I ever tell you about the woman who was my nanny?” Harriet asked.
Arapian shook his head. How moved he had been when he’d first met Harriet. This serious young girl who wanted so much to talk to him, who was so overjoyed to see him whenever they met.
“She was an obeah woman.”
“In Nassau,” Arapian said.
Harriet’s great-grandparents had fled the Americas when the Revolution began. Like so many Tories they took refuge in the Bahamas, where they profited, until they found their way to Key West, where they profited even more.
“She took care of me when I was very little. She used to give me medicines without telling my parents.”
“How can you remember that?” Arapian said with a laugh. “You were just a baby.”
“She was tremendously tall,” Harriet said.
“To a baby,” Arapian teased, but Harriet refused to respond in kind.
“She was taller than my father; I know that much.” Harriet paused, “She told me once how to kill a person.”
Arapian waited. Sometimes he misheard things.
“All you have to do is wish them dead,” Harriet said. “You can kill someone by wishing them dead.”
Arapian stayed quiet. He did not want the night to end this way. He wanted Harriet to be pleased with her success.
“I’m very tired,” Harriet said. “I’m ready, you know.”
How he wanted her to look at him then and smile. How he wanted, one more time, to feel desire pass between them—that unacknowledged friend of theirs which had gone missing in recent years.
“I want you to know that,” Harriet said, as she stood and turned to enter the house. “I’m okay with what you wish.”
But this last remark was so in line with how Harriet always was, her usual accommodations, that Arapian failed to notice what she was asking, and one more chance for generosity passed him by.
When Arapian died, two years later, he left half of his money to Near East Relief, a fact that gave his son very complicated feelings of bitterness, anger, and shame. His cause of death was lung cancer, though Arapian never knew it. A cancer probably brought on by the constant cigars he and his men smoked to cover up the terrible smell of the sponges, which, after all, were living creatures beaten to death with clubs before they were bleached.
Lucy never forgot Anahid, of course; but she did not stay on with her. Lucy went back to her family in New York, she found work in a factory, she married a boy who was too young for the first war but not too old for the second, which he did not survive. Lucy became a nurse then, after that.
When Anahid’s movie, An Armenian Girl, came out, just a year after the events in Key West, Lucy saw it with her parents and her sisters, who treated Lucy as if she herself were the star.
Lucy tried every chance she got to tell Anahid’s story. For years she raised money for the orphans from her friends and coworkers, who gave what they could, not because of the orphans but because they cared for Lucy.
As to Anahid—her strange story was not yet over. After the great success of An Armenian Girl, her benefactors decided the necessary sequel was for Anahid to save a child. So they adopted an Armenian orphan as a gift for her, for her to raise. But this, Anahid was sure, was not in any contract she had ever signed. On the day of the arrival of the orphan, Aram, Anahid could not be raised from the four-poster bed provided for her by her benefactors. Her eyes were open but her mind clearly closed. When Mrs. Brown lifted Anahid’s arm, it dropped. When Mrs. Brown lightly slapped Anahid’s cheeks—what choice did she have?—Anahid did not respond.
Many attempts were made to wake her, most regularly by placing the young Aram on her bed, but none succeeded until finally Anahid was moved to a hospital and the whole orphan endeavor was dropped. There was some discussion afterward if Aram could be placed elsewhere, but in the end Anahid’s benefactors were not so cruel, they took him in and spoiled him just as they had their other children.
Anahid was the only thing Aram remembered of those early years. Lucky him.
What sights he had seen by then. What sensations he had felt. Thirst, hunger, seasickness—but all he remembered was a fairy tale come to life: Sleeping Beauty in her bed waiting for the proper kiss.
Eventually Anahid moved on her own to Los Angeles, where she worked for a film studio, though it never suited her. In the end, she found work as a photographer—family portraits mostly. She died in 1980 in California.
Sometimes she was happy, sometimes she wasn’t. She married, she had children, she did not hide her story, nor did she tell it.
Indeed, for all of Anahid’s years in America—more than sixty—she thought the Turkish government might still track her down and kill her.
Silence was so important to the Turks, more so every year. But Anahid never understood why.
Even she, the one who lived her story, sought ways not to believe it.
In the end, nobody remembered much of Arapian’s party, not with the darker consequences of the war still to come, the terrible downturn in nearly everyone’s economic circumstances. People would remember the starving Armenians, but more as a chastisement to eat their own dinners than to sacrifice those dinners on the Armenians’ behalf. If any of the guests saw the movie made of Anahid’s life, which raised a million dollars for Near East Relief, they never noticed that the girl who was the star was not the girl who spoke at the party.
What people remembered was how thin Harriet was, how long she lingered in her illness, how difficult it became for her, and how grateful they felt not to be in her circumstances. That and the food.
Ayşe Papatya Bucak ’s stories have been selected for the O. Henry and Pushcart prizes. Her debut collection, The Trojan War Museum and Other Stories, has recently been published by W. W. Norton.
I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee