"An artist cannot fail; it is a success to be one."
~Charles Horton Cooley

Welcome to the Mortar & Pestle Literary Magazine! We are an undergraduate organization established in Fall 2002 at The George Washington University in Washington D.C. This magazine features the work of undergraduate writers and photographers from universities within the D.C. area. Because of this, Mortar is only available online.

The Mortar & Pestle editors can be contacted at gwmortar@gmail.com

Monday, February 1, 2010

Aram, by Jennifer Tchinnosian


Jennifer Tchinnosian

There is a yellowing class picture in Budapest, displayed in a hallway of a school that has seen more than anyone can remember.

Long gone are the days when he would ski down the mountain to school, when he would spend weeks exploring the trees and rivers in his backyard. Long gone are the days when they placed a snake in the neighbor’s mailbox, hiding in the bushes to watch her surprise.

On a rainy night, years before, his sister’s biggest fear was the sound of a flagpole wavering in the wind of a storm. He got her bicycle in exchange for “protecting her” by the window all night, saying, “Kaki,” every 30 seconds to demonstrate he was still awake.

Such worries were short-lived. World War II knocked on their door and childhood, in its innocence and beauty, leaked away, replacing wooden toys with loaded grenades, nature excursions with ammunition findings.

Childhood playthings were no longer toys. He remembers the day when his friend, having found a bazooka, placed it on his stomach to shoot into the trees. The big hole through the friend’s torso instantly revealed that the weapon should have been placed on his shoulder.

“We argued about who would go home and tell his parents that their son had died,” he says. “Nobody wanted to do it.”

The scenes from the battleground slowly began seeping into the city. A soldier is used to walking through dead bodies, and the time came when that experience was shared by the citizens of Budapest as well.

“I would skip through the spaces between the bodies while I was walking home,” he says, as if it were a common practice. His eyes betray only a small glimmer of emotion.

“War is tough, but you get used to it.”

The human soul hardens after seeing and living such things. After seeing a couple shot down in the street for not wearing the Jewish star, a starved family killing horses for food, and people vanishing, never to come back.

His mother was of pure Hungarian blood and had inherited the house her family had lived in for generations.

“The walls were this thick,” he says, showing the length of about a foot between his hands. “And the garden was nine hectares, in the middle of a residential area, you could see it on the map of Budapest!” he boasts.

His father, an Armenian businessman had not been fondly regarded by her family of doctors, as both his nationality and profession were considered inferior.

They married and had two children, Aram and Eva Kalpakian who carried the same blond hair and blue eyes as both their parents.

“You think my eyes are blue,” he says. “You should have seen my mother’s, they were real blue, blue blue, like the ocean.”

His father set up a shop in Budapest selling Persian rugs. Eventually, the store would be closed down and used to hide friends, a Jewish family.

While that family was offered a home on their property, others were not welcome. Yet thirty-five different families were forcibly placed in his house by the communists. The home of four became the home of hundreds, as plots of land got divided and distributed to new owners.

“Everything! In every room there were two or three families,” he says.

With the war getting more and more dangerous, his family and several others retreated into cave for protection. They would live in that bunker for five years, boiling small parts of a chicken each day to make a soup that would feed several families.

“The feet of the chicken? That was food,” he says. “You could put that in boiling water and feed the soup to dozens of people.

“One day, Russian soldiers came in and saw our supply of chickens,” he continues, “They ordered us to cook everything we had by lunchtime the next day.” The soldiers would feast on their meager supply of food, leaving them with nothing.

One at a time, people would be sent out of the cave to search for food. Sometimes they would hunt something. Sometimes they would buy something (“my father sold his gold Rolex in exchange for a loaf of bread”). Other times they wouldn’t make it back.

Though their bunker was raided again, they had nothing left to offer. One of the soldiers identified the Armenians at their mercy and exclaimed, “I am Armenian too!” He returned the next day with supplies of food for them. “Probably stolen,” Aram says.

He can’t recall what they did everyday inside the cave. There wasn’t much to do. He does remember the lice. “I would lift the edge of my collar, like this, and there would be a hundred lice! In that small space!” he says laughing, his face explaining the surprise he still experiences when reliving that situation.

His native languages of Hungarian and Armenian would soon be joined by a third: German.

Jennifer Tchinnosian is a senior majoring in Journalism. You can find more information at her website at http://www.jennifertch.com/.

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