Naira Kuzmich was born in Armenia and raised in the Los Angeles enclave of Little Armenia. Her fiction and nonfiction can be found in Ecotone, The Threepenny Review, Michigan Quarterly Review, West Branch, Ninth Letter, The O. Henry Prize Stories 2015, and elsewhere.
There was once a composer. Or a critic. She did not remember exactly. Like the color of her wedding dress—only that it had not been white, only felt that way, thin and fleeting. Perhaps it had been summer. The smell of apricots in the air, like a young girl’s blush, rising, its sweetness darkening the ground under everyone’s feet. It was not white because she had not married in a church. Because he was a Communist and she played the harp. Perhaps her dress had been golden to match, to belong to her in some meaningful way, the way she now belonged to him. Or perhaps it had matched the color of his eyes, but she did not remember that either. There are photographs, the granddaughters tell her. Look into this mirror and tell us what you see.
No, it is not the same. What Arsen Ketiyan had in his head was not what the famous composer—or was it a critic?—had in his head in 18th century Russia. But her husband had liked this connection to the past, the small republic of Armenia and the small conductor of the state symphony, small reminders of a great power’s glory.
All the private music in the head. All that music and all that followed.
He thought himself a savant, tortured and loved by God, but she knew the composer, or the critic, had stopped listening to music when it began to hurt him. There were differences between the men, but, My wife, her husband would say, that was the difference between you and me: you do not believe in romance, in God, in the majesty of man seized by the violin, the trombone, your beautiful harp. He would speak like this. His words were like music, too, and it hurt them both to hear it. He told her to play on, play loudly, play wild and loud, play until string cut into skin, but her life was not like his life; it couldn’t end simply because music began, because music began to break the spell in the head that kept man standing upright, that kept his breathing measured, his mouth filling with words and only words.
What no one tells you, and what Lusineh Ketiyan never tells anyone, is how tender your own female body is after you have moved a man from his back and onto his side, after you have raised his heavy head onto your lap, that softest part of you, your stomach pressing into his scalp to keep him steady, and the blood from his tongue, hot, pooling into the gap between your thighs, where once, just once, he had placed his mouth and came away stunned, knowing suddenly what you believed you’ve always known: that man and woman breathed the same air, tasted the same bitterness in their mouths. O, just how tender your body is! Not like the first time you make love, not like the labors of your first child, but something altogether different. Something only the man convulsing knows when he wakes minutes later—but you, you have been awake for centuries.
. . .
There was a term for it, a diagnosis, but the doctor didn’t quite believe in it when he let it fall loose from his lips. She remembered his bemusement, foreign and strange on his pink round face, in that white, white room.
Perhaps it is the nostalgia of it all, he had considered. He asked if it was only familiar songs that left him in fits. And her husband had bellowed that they were not songs. Songs! He was forty-two then, she twenty-nine. She towered above him, but he bellowed.
Perhaps it is the pitch then, the doctor said, and of course she had asked the only question a wife could ask: So if he doesn’t listen—
Then he doesn’t seize.
Lusineh Ketiyan remembers this: the hateful expression directed at her, her husband opening his jaw wide, like he would when devouring grilled beef, wanting to put it all in before it cooled. How could I have ever loved you?
How could he have ever loved her? Lusineh Ketiyan wonders this question when she lights a candle for him every Sunday and the grandchildren patter all around the kitchen linoleum floor, asking her what she is doing, and why is she doing it again, and doesn’t her nose tickle and her eyes tear when she stands so close to the flame?
And just what can she answer the poor darlings—even if she did know?
. . .
Arsen would tell her, wiping the blood from his mouth, disoriented and exhilarated: It is like something swelling in me, and I think I am close to discovering something, something very, very important, and at the precise moment when I think I have it, I have my hands finally around it, I fall into a darkness and then I open my eyes to see you.
You don’t want to open your eyes, she had said, to see me?
I wish my eyes were my ears only, my sweet, so I could see you better.
This was why she had loved him, this magical, magical man, who thought there was something special in her playing, and he had been right, hadn’t he? For it had been her instrument, her hand, that brought his face so neatly to the ground, shattering his nose in three parts—or had it been four?
What had she been playing that evening—for it was evening—and why? This she can never recall, and when she thinks she has an answer, her daughter’s daughters come tugging at her skirt, waking her, Grandma, fix us a meal. We are very hungry.
. . .
She was not his only woman, Lusineh Ketiyan tells her daughter one morning, as she watches her get ready for work. Her daughter has a bobby pin between her teeth and her hands in her hair, revealing her long brown neck, and Lusineh Ketiyan wants suddenly to touch it, place her palm flat against her skin, her daughter’s skin which was once her own. Instead she tells her daughter of her father’s mistresses.
You’re delirious, Sona says. Don’t start this again, ma. I’m going to be late.
Lusineh Ketiyan clasps her hands in front of her and feels the bones ache. She can no longer feel the pain of her aging body, but she can hear it, those harsh cracks, and she knows that the bones ache, even if she does not.
Did you forget your medication today, ma?
She looks up at her daughter, but it is as if she is in a dream, and in this dream she is underwater, and under this water she cannot see.
It is like I am blind, Lusineh Ketiyan tells her daughter, or hidden away.
Her daughter takes her by the elbow. Go back to sleep, mama.
. . .
He was the director of the conservatory and she was his student. He was the conductor of the state symphony and she was his muse. There were worse things. He had two jobs that felt like one, and her work never ended. How often she lay nude on the divan, cold because he didn’t have the brain for remembering things like bringing home the wood to put into the fireplace. How often she lay nude on the divan and listened to him recite all her favorite foods, dates warmed in hot milk, honeyed pistachios, custard mixed with mulberry preserves. He recited as he leaned close, his ear so very close. The body makes sound, he said. Yes, you are talking, she replied, smiling gently at the texture of his cheek on her soft belly—his beard all white before he turned forty, but growing with the youth of a pubescent boy, so that he had to shave every day, for by night, by the time she removed her robe and lay down for him, the hairs pushed forward from his skin like eager rabbits jumping for a man’s finger. Other men’s fingers were orange and brown and dirty from the kind of work most men did in this republic. Most men. Arsen Ketiyan was a director, was a conductor, and she lay before him nude on the divan and listened to him love her and waited for him to move his pale pretty hands above her, control her, follow her, guide her to the deep end.
. . .
Her parents were pleased to see her go, the eldest child of seven mouths. They put everything she owned into one small suitcase and they put the suitcase outside their door and then they shut the door and closed the drapes of their windows. This was the way these things were done when the bride’s family was from the village, when the bride’s family was grateful, when the bride’s family slaughtered a sheep, boiled it in salt water, and said to their eldest child of seven mouths, Eat, daughter, eat, learn to swallow what comes for you from the earth. No white dress, but there was a dress, whatever color it may have been, and she had that, didn’t she? Gratitude was a gift people like them always received under their tree, even when there was no tree—there was life. You were alive, still. You are alive. God has blessed you. Now daughter, know that we are dead to you. Do not look back, do not come for us, do not expect us to miss you, to dream of you in our sleeps. You are the lucky one. You are the one leaving. Do not curse our God with your longing. Do not dance this dance so many have danced. You play the music now. You play for your man. You play for your future child. You play this part you were born to play.
Look at you, so beautiful.
. . .
Her daughter’s daughters are four and five and in this new country they belong. They walk hand in hand down the street before their mother and their grandmother. They say hello, good afternoon, how are you, to all who pass by and they do not blush when strange men and strange women praise their loveliness. They speak the tongue their mother learned at eighteen, when she decided to marry the first man who asked, and the man who had asked was an American tourist. The man asked, was bold to ask, for the hand of Arsen Ketiyan’s daughter, because he did not know better, because he did not know Arsen Ketiyan. He did not know to be timid, to wait in the shadows of the city until Arsen Ketiyan called for him, until Arsen Ketiyan let Yerevan know that he was now ready to give his daughter away. Lusineh Ketiyan forgets the American’s name, but she knows that she had wanted to forget it. Whose fault was it that their daughter wanted to leave the house so badly that she didn’t even marry in the church, when they finally could have? No more Communism, no more excited neighbors with suspicious eyes—if the American had loved her, he would have married her in the church. When she told her daughter that, Sona had only shrugged her shoulders with that terrible indifference, and calmly asked, What do you know of love? And how could Lusineh Ketiyan defend herself, defend the life that she had made, when her daughter was so desperate to leave?
Let her go, Arsen had said, and play something long and joyful.
She hated him. She hated him. She hated him even when he continued: Let her go with our blessing, with music in her heart, with something greater than God echoing.
. . .
The second time he seized, her hands were fixed around rods like batons, but smaller, thin, and piercing. She was knitting a child’s cap, idly humming a folk tune, and Arsen had looked up from his book, his feet crossed over the knee, and smiled. She remembered the smile. It was a special smile especially for her. He smiled and then stiffened and slipped straight down from his chair and she threw down the needles and rushed to him on the ground and he was there and not there, floating between heaven and hell, screaming first and then not, which was worse. It was a wild animal sound and then that wild animal was silenced and in its place was a forty-two-year-old man, small in stature with white hair on his face and none on his head to cushion him, shaking as a fish would do, pulled from the wetness of home and forced to survive on land, in the air, struggling against dirt and stone and sky.
Just how does the female body know what to do? To put her softness under his hardness? To move his body onto its side, against nature, facing neither up nor down? To lock her thighs around his ribs so that when he wakes, minutes later, and complains of the terrible soreness in his chest, she does not know if it was his disease or her love that had caused it?
When he came to, he didn’t know who she was, he didn’t speak a human language. She started to cry and explain, but he had looked at her so dumbly, threatened and heartless, all confusion and instinct, and she turned her face away from his strange eyes, and toward the knitting needles. But then, her name. Her name on his lips. Her name a question. Lusineh? And she had thrown her arms around him and wept.
Something’s wrong. Something’s wrong. And he had said: Everything is all right.
. . .
But the first time he seized Lusineh Ketiyan could not remember, or the first time he seized she did not want to. What difference? What difference?
So she braids her grandchildren’s hair, waits for their mother to come home—their mother, her daughter. How quickly things can change. When Arsen died, their daughter traveled back to Armenia for the funeral, and she came alone but she came with a proposition. Come live with me, with us. And the us was a smaller number than Lusineh had expected, despite how much she disliked the American. Gone after a few years, wherever it was that men like him go. Her own man had not been a deserter, though he had bedded other women, which was what men like him did. And women like her, women like her pushed their softness under their hardness and prayed that they would open their eyes and come to.
She had known, from the beginning, that he would not be loyal, but she had believed in something else—her own power, her beauty, her beautiful harp. He had said her hands could play him like a child, and perhaps she could have. Withheld her love, turned away from his touch in the evenings, let the house grow cold, the fire unstoked. She’d grow resentful, hateful, dangerous, and a man like him—a man like him could not resist. He was a child or he was a dog, he was Arsen Ketiyan, chosen to experience both heaven and hell, music like God’s word bringing him to Eden and kicking him out. The boldness of his confidence: that his disease was a gift. That’s what he had believed in. A gift he had not yet fully understood, but a gift she could not even come close to receiving. She did not want to hurt him. Never, never, never. No. Never. Never. Never. She did not understand why he just didn’t stop. Pleasure had its limits: when you fell flat on your face, when you looked into your wife’s eyes like a stranger—she didn’t understand why he didn’t just stop. But she doesn’t understand—or can’t remember—why she didn’t either: when it mattered, why she, Lusineh Ketiyan, didn’t put a stop to it.
When her daughter comes home from the hospital—a nurse, a nurse, she could’ve been a doctor in this country—Lusineh sits quietly on the divan while the little girls play by her feet and she hopes her daughter has something to say to her, something meaningful, not how her day was, not what was for dinner, but how did you come to be where you are now, ma? She wants her to ask because maybe then there will be incentive to remember. She will share the best and the worst of herself with her daughter, the way she once had with her husband.
. . .
Once he seized in the middle of a performance and no one knew. Sometimes his seizures were like that, so far deep in the head that it barely located itself in the body. No one knew, of course, except for her, watching from the front row, like she always did. Before, she used to watch for pleasure. Now she anticipated pain. She recognized it in the back of his neck—his head inched down slowly, like he was trying to withdraw into his chest, and his shoulders narrowed. In his hands, the batons continued their movement, but the world between them was smaller now, and the orchestra hastened to keep abreast of this new changing world. The back of his head, so bare and pale, folded over so that all she saw was neck, a headless man swinging his hands whichever way they’d go.
After these kinds of seizures, he was distant in a different way, not excited, not exhilarated from the closeness of death—heaven, he’d say, or hell, or God, but never Death—no, he was not exhilarated but saddened. He felt small, he once had explained, small in a way he had never been, despite his size. He felt vulnerable, like a child being let go of his mother’s hand at the schoolyard. How could music ever make me feel that way, he had asked. How could something I love—and she had stopped him to answer: Every mother must let go of her child’s hand. Look where your hand is now, he had said, and it was there on her stomach, even though their daughter was upstairs asleep or awake and quiet in her crib, and had been for the past eighteen months. You haven’t let go, Arsen had said. Not yet, she had said, though her hands did not move away from their resting place.
No, no, he had said. It is why I love you. You can never let go.
But the way he had said it? Had it been a demand? Or was it the demand of the declarative—the lack of any other way? This she cannot remember: if it was his confidence in her needing his love or her needing his love that she would begin to hate.
. . .
We had a child, Lusineh tries again another morning. Her daughter is sitting on her bed, rolling the pantyhose over her calves, wide and strong, with gentle, pinched fingers so the fabric doesn’t run. We had a child, and it was you.
Her daughter looks up, almost embarrassed, her lids lowered.
Ma, she begins.
Listen, Lusineh says. But don’t let me talk too much, or you’ll be late.
Her daughter sighs, and it’s layered with a note of guilt, it’s through the nose, too heavy in the mouth, and Lusineh feels ashamed, for having shamed her daughter so.
But she doesn’t have much time, or memory now. Let her know, let her know, so that I can know something, too, before I die. Did what I do hurt you? Did you do what you did to hurt me? Why would you hurt me? Why would you want to hurt me?
Lusineh asks her: Do you have the time?
I don’t want to do this, ma. Not now, not ever.
Do what, she asks. Talk to your mother?
Whatever you need to say, whatever you’ve kept from us, let it stay inside you.
How could you say this to your mother?
Why do you want to say what you want to say to me, ma? Sona stands up, hikes the band around her waist. I’m not here to relieve you of your guilt, or your hate, or—
Or your memories. The ones you still have, maybe you’re supposed to. You can’t just pass them onto me.
Lusineh Ketiyan brings her hands into a fist and brings them to her side. You don’t want to know your mother.
I know you, ma. I hear you in your sleep.
Lusineh Ketiyan, the color of the wedding dress she didn’t wear, the color of nothing, of no one. You were hearing a ghost, she says.
Maybe you were talking to a ghost, Sona says. Maybe you were apologizing.
Another day, then, Lusineh says. When you are thinking straight.
. . .
Her daughter is different now, Lusineh Ketiyan thinks, now that he is dead. They are all different, not only the dead. Her daughter who was so quick to leave, who once asked her mother why didn’t she just leave him, why did father come home with a shade of another woman’s lips on his cheek. Why, she had asked. Why. A cruel accusation. Lusineh Ketiyan knew her daughter knew, she knew all of Yerevan knew, she knew, she knew, and yet how could that knowledge help her? What could she have done with that knowledge? When has knowledge ever helped anyone? Arsen would’ve hated being loved now more in death than he was when living—she wants to tell her daughter this. He was not a saint, you remember this, she wants to cry, your father was not a saint. Remember how you roared your music when he came home late in the evenings? The whole house shaking with your love and rage? Remember the awful songs you would sing under your breath as you passed him asleep on the divan, asleep still into the late hours of the afternoon? But the way Sona silences these conversations makes Lusineh Ketiyan sometimes doubt her own mind. How saintly, how saintly, a man trembling, a man alive and dead, a man with music in the blood and disease in the brain.
He never saw things—at least, she doesn’t think. He never told her. But perhaps he did. But perhaps she did, too. Did she hallucinate all those women? Did she dream up scrubbing the underwear she had found in his coat pocket? Was it a dream when she brought it close to her face, and then to the light, to see if she had cleaned it just so? Her hands smelling of soap and another woman’s power. A dream letting it dry alongside her daughter’s own underclothes, hand over hand bringing in the pulley hours later, leaning through the window, listening to the children downstairs laugh and play, her own daughter’s joy rising like heat, drying the dampness in her hands? It did feel like a dream when she put the underwear back in the coat pocket, if not a memory.
What did he see every time his head told him to shut his eyes, to shut down his body, to close everything up so that only it could reveal the truth to him? He was always close, he said, close, but then, at some point she cannot remember, he stopped explaining. Sometimes he would fall in the middle of the street, and the neighbors would bring him home, all of them laughing a little, drunk with common pleasure, thinking this man was like them, drunk like them, this conductor, this director, Arsen staggering inside with a wave of the hand behind him, going straight to the bedroom to change into nicer clothes. The neighbors smiling with relief at her, telling her that he was a good man—they were all good men, then, yes?—and by the time she convinced herself to smile back at them, Arsen would reappear, fixing the watch on his wrist, touching the back of her waist in goodbye.
He always came home—she should be thankful for this, yes? However late it was, he always came home. And she was there on the divan, sitting upright and clothed, back hurting, back breaking, and she’d be relieved—my God!—she’d be relieved that he wasn’t dead.
. . .
She cannot know, or remember, when things first changed, for things were changing even before they married. The doctor said that perhaps he had been suffering from seizures all of his life and didn’t know it. Did you ever feel different, peculiar, he had asked. Lusineh sitting nearby folded her hands over her blossoming stomach and frowned. What a question! Many artists suffer from epilepsy, the doctor suggested, but very few suffer from the very art that they create. Are you sure it isn’t nostalgia, he asked. You are not missing something in your life that you had before, or believed that you had? Sometimes this feeling of deep longing suggests a deep meaning that epileptics spend their entire lives trying to decipher. It takes them into the tunnels of their memory, so that everything feels weirdly familiar—the French have a word for it: déjà vu.
He has everything that he could possibly want, Lusineh had said loudly and Arsen turned to her and laughed. He put his hand on her head and ruffled her hair. My little wife does not lie, he said. Do you, little wife?
She is not a liar, Lusineh Ketiyan thinks. She may not remember, but she does not imagine.
To her grandchildren she asks: Who am I to you?
They say, Grandmother.
To her grandchildren she asks: Who am I to you?
They say, Blood.
When the grandchildren sleep, Lusineh Ketiyan watches for a change in their breathing, for sounds, for the sudden stiffening. After Lusineh Ketiyan is convinced the children are safe for one more night, she visits her daughter in the next room. Her daughter’s sleep is not restful, and every motion frightens Lusineh, every sound a cymbal crashing, and she wakes her daughter and wakes her daughter all through the night, telling her to sleep on her side, until Sona, exasperated and delirious, gets up, pushes her mother out of her room and locks the door, all three locks.
Some things do not change. Her daughter at sixteen, at seventeen, blasting records loudly from her room, trying to hurt her father the way he hurt her mother. It was a noble effort, sweet, but at sixteen, at seventeen, a child does not understand who gets hurt most. And at thirty-six—or was she now thirty-seven?—a child does not understand who gets hurt most.
. . .
It has been how many years since he has died? Many. The longer he is gone, the closer she is to death. Closest most when she closes her eyes, closest to him. It is a difficult thing, this kind of love, to almost be relieved. In death, as in dream, perhaps they would find what they had been looking for all their lives. She hopes, certainly, that Arsen has found it, so that when the grandchildren shake her awake one afternoon, telling her with extraordinarily cartoonish eyes, large and white and shining, that they thought she was dead, she was so quiet, she thinks maybe he was reaching from heaven or from hell, wherever he was, but he was reaching, and he was reaching for her, for once.
She grew up knowing how to share; she slept in a bed with four siblings. She took a sip of vegetable soup from her spoon and then passed the spoon to the right. The only thing she did not share was the harp, found abandoned on the dirt road leading from the village to the city, strangely upright, and she took it home and cleaned the strings with a wet rag and then she moved her fingers along those lines and it was like the lines were already imprinted on her palm. See, there they are, still. But where was the harp? This harp was hers. And then, Arsen, charmed by her amateur playing perhaps in the way that older men are charmed by sincerity—Arsen shared this love of music with her. Shared his love. But he had a lot of love to share.
People forget. People die and others forget. Lusineh is not the only one.
She looks at her grandchildren and says, When I am gone, you remember me right. You remember that I love you.
Her daughter’s daughters look at one another with big, knowing eyes and then embrace each other, begin to weep with a strange, strange commitment.
Lusineh Ketiyan watches, lonely, lonely, lonely.
. . .
Her heart is slowing down. Each morning she awakes, she is surprised. She goes through the day. She brushes the grandchildren’s hair, fixes them butter and jam on toast, while their mother showers, rushes out the door. She goes through the mail, squinting at the strange, block letters—sometimes mail still comes for her daughter’s American husband, but her daughter will never know. She lightly dusts the coffee table and, tired, turns on the television. The girls chatter and chatter and squeal like little piglets. Next year they will go to school. They will learn at some point that their father left their mother when she was pregnant with them, that though he loved her, had married her—even though it was not in a church—he hadn’t wanted to love what could come out of her: two little piglets chattering, chattering and squealing. He couldn’t afford that love; he did not have enough love to spare. Lusineh Ketiyan will be glad to be dead before this useless knowledge passes on. She listens to her heart, putting her hand over her chest, and it’s slow but it’s louder than the television. She hears it in her ears, like her heart is beating from somewhere outside her chest, and she searches for the location of this heart, and it’s right there on the screen. Confused, Lusineh Ketiyan starts to cry. She raises the volume on the control so the grandchildren do not hear, but it only makes her heart beat louder on the TV. On the screen, there she is, young and beautiful and with new life in her. She hadn’t told Arsen yet. Lusineh Ketiyan watches as Lusineh Ketiyan with small unknowable Sona in her womb waits on the divan for her husband to come home. Between her thighs the harp waits with them. She is naked. She wants to be a vision for him, remind him of what he had first seen and suggest what is to come again. She begins to strum softly, mindlessly, and she is taken by the melody she has stumbled upon. An old nursery song. How natural it was for this to extend out of her. How natural it was for her to sit there with a miracle inside of her and music in her hands. This part she was born to play. When Arsen walked in, she smiled lovingly at him, and didn’t shift from her seat, continued to play, hoping he would realize, make a move toward her. Hoping he would realize everything. She had the whole world under her hands, under her breasts, and she was going to share that world with him.
But Arsen looked at her funnily, like he understood what she was trying to say—to shout, to sing, to play—but didn’t quite believe it. No, no that was not it. Lusineh Ketiyan leans toward the television screen, presses the pause button on his face, rubs her eyes and looks. It is there, jealousy, that she sees, but why, she does not understand why. A longing for something that she possessed, but what? And then he collapsed. There, by the doorway, after taking off his shoes, turning to her with that peculiar look, and there, on the floor shaking like a fish for the first time, water spilling from his mouth, from deep inside him—ah, so that was what was inside of him.
Lusineh Ketiyan sits back in her chair, exhales loudly, and it’s like a sea rushing between her ears. She watches herself stop playing. She watches her eyes grow big the way her grandchildren’s eyes grow big. She watches her watch and watch, she watches her watch.
The woman behind the glass isn’t rushing to her husband. She is in shock, she is paralyzed, horrified—believe what you believe, for Lusineh Ketiyan has, and for so many years. But the woman behind the glass doesn’t move, aside from moving her fingers to her belly. There is a beat there that’s louder than the man’s strangled movements on the ground, than the sea rushing between the ears of the older woman behind the screen. Lusineh Ketiyan remembers what she once realized and then forced herself to forget: that man and woman breathed the same air, tasted the same bitterness, but knew nothing of the life that went on inside the other and knew nothing of the life that they dreamed up for themselves.
She watches herself watch and watch, she watches her watch.
Then, after what is a lifetime—after how many years of marriage?—Lusineh Ketiyan rises from the divan and goes to her husband. •