In our village, boys were not given surnames at birth. Instead, naming ceremonies were held on their fifteenth birthdays. On that day, a boy would demonstrate aptitude in any skill he wished. Our village elders judged his efforts and granted a name if he showed sufficient proficiency. If his performance was deemed poor, he would remain nameless for another year. I knew many incompetent boys who fled our village to avoid that shame.
My father’s father was named Tsgnorsian, or “he who fishes.” Ever since he was a young man, rumors had circulated, even as far as Baku, about the restorative powers of the fish that he caught. People said that if you ate a fish caught by my grandfather, it could cure illness and increase stamina. Even the Ottomans patrolling our village used to pay for Tsgnorsian’s fishes. Our village elders would boast that they had known Tsgnorsian was gifted from a very early age. My grandfather was an orphan from Tarsus, which is where everybody said the gods lived. His mother, supposedly, had been Astghik, the water goddess. My grandfather never confirmed these stories, but he never corrected them either.
My father and his younger brother knew that they would be deemed unworthy as fishermen compared to their father, and when they came of age, they chose to pursue hunting. In the winter they sought out fur, or the hides of deer and goats. In the summer, it was smaller animals, like raccoons, and sometimes even otters. My father was named Gaitzagian, or “strikes like lightning,” and his younger brother was Makoormortian, or “clean scalper.” When they were boys, my father and his younger brother made a pact: if either of them had a son, then he would be the one to take on the title of Tsgnorsian. By that time, they reasoned, their father would be too frail to continue claiming ownership of the name, and the family pride could be carried on to another generation. But something peculiar happened: as their father aged, he became even better at catching fish. My grandfather said that his vision worsening had forced him to adopt a firmer grip, and that his eyes had been holding him back. He never allowed anyone else into his boat with him, but I used to watch him many times from the lakeshore. The gray tufts above his eyes were furrowed together in one long, unbroken line. He was still as a tree, his whole body waiting to detect even the slightest movement of the hook in the water.
No one asked me what I had wanted to demonstrate; I was never given a choice. I had interests that did not involve killing. I preferred to bake lavash. Our village built its ovens in a particular way. They were buried into the ground like wells. My mother would take me with her to work whenever my father hunted. The breadmakers in our village were all women, and they would reminisce and gossip as they kneaded the flour and water with salt. When the dough was pliable enough, a small chunk was spread out thin against a flat paddle. The breadmaker would kneel next to the firepit and slam the dough against the side of the hot oven. If you did it correctly, your dough would stick to the clay walls, and after a few moments, you could scrape the bread off and set it aside to cool. Their warmth filled the room, and the smell, like an aromatic incense, made me giddy. But if you made a mistake, your dough would slide into the fire, and while no one would say anything, you knew that they were keeping a tally of how many you had ruined. It was not an easy task, and I enjoyed its deceptive need for speed and strength. My mother, Armine, was one of the very best breadmakers. She was patient with the younger girls and with me, and she did not speak poorly of others. She kept her long black hair tucked into a bun so that she could move more nimbly. None of the women were what I would call delicate; their hands were chestnut colored from having plunged into the flames after so many errors. Unlike them, my mother’s hands were smooth and soft. But she caught an illness one winter and passed away before I turned ten.
My father and his younger brother tried to make me a man by forcing me to learn how to fish. Toward the end of my fourteenth winter, as soon as the lake thawed, my father wanted his father to begin training me. Becoming a fisherman would mean a good life, my father claimed. If I could become our village’s new Tsgnorsian, I wouldn’t need to work hard. Just “a few fish a season,” and I could earn enough money to take care of my needs. He ended these speeches with the same proverb from our village: “Remember that the path to wealth is luck.”
But my grandfather was not interested in becoming a teacher, much less a babysitter.
“No one taught me what I learned,” he insisted, during one of the many times my father begged him to teach me what he knew. “It would cheat the boy out of experience.”
I am now older than my grandfather was then, and I think I understand his reticence. Perhaps he wanted me to earn my pride by working hard. Still, one spring morning, before even the roosters had risen, my grandfather stood over my bed, shook me awake, and led me outside, where a copper stallion stood waiting. “You will walk behind me and Dorgom,” my grandfather said. “Carry our gear.”
“Gear?” I asked, letting out a yawn.
“For fishing!” he roared, pointing at a bulky sack with a pair of poles and a rifle sticking out of it. I recognized it as my own, a gift my father’s younger brother had given me years ago.
Along the road to the lake, we passed a pig-killer and his apprentice, their leather-sheathed knives swaying at their sides. I overheard them whispering that my grandfather was cruel for making me walk behind the horse while he rode atop it.
“Stay out of other people’s business,” he shouted at them.
We reached the lake just as the sun was coming up. Rather than sand or silt, the shore was made up of rocks and boulders. In the distance, a single boat was turned upside down and tied with rope to a metal pole. My grandfather instructed me to untie it as he secured Dorgom to a tree. I approached the boat slowly, tapping each rock before me with my toes, investigating their stability before stepping onto them. My arms had become sore from carrying the supplies, and I couldn’t easily pull the knot apart. I noticed that the boat had writing scrawled on its side in faded white paint. I heard my grandfather yelling, but I couldn’t hear his words over the waves. Just as I loosened the rope, a wave rushed toward me, pushing water up to my ankles. I lost my footing and slipped on the rocks. As the water receded, I was lying on my stomach, a sharp rock jabbing into my left thigh. Next to me, the unmoored boat lay on its side. The word on the boat was “Lucine,” the name of my father’s mother.
“Opegh-tsapegh,” my grandfather roared as he ran up toward me. “Don’t you pay attention? You don’t listen? Go and dry yourself while I check on the boat. Quickly!”
I collected as many branches and sticks as I could find. As my hands shook, I sparked a flame with two rocks and continued to feed it until it grew strong. My grandfather rolled the boat right side up; as I warmed myself, I watched him sweep out the dirt and water from inside it. He dragged one hand up the side, slowly scooping out the debris. Then he rubbed his hands together and repeated the process.
It was my first time stepping off land, and I stepped carefully into the boat. My grandfather had me untie the knot; then he pushed our wooden vessel into the water, bringing along an oar that he had tucked underneath the single plank clumsily nailed in the middle of the boat. I tried not to get sick as I sat across from my grandfather, who paddled madly toward the distant mountains. Dorgom was left tied up on the shore. The poor beast was probably hungry, unable to wander through the forest in search of a meal. My grandfather stabbed a worm with his hook, stood, and cast his line. Then he pulled out his tobacco pouch and papers and began to roll a cigarette. I poked myself more than a few times trying to get my own worm onto the hook. It was wriggling in every direction, and I couldn’t figure out how to get him to accept his fate. Then I couldn’t quite flick my wrist to cast a line, so I unspooled thread from the reel and simply hurled the hook as far as I could throw it. It dove into the water with a satisfying plunk.
We passed our first day together side by side. My grandfather said that I would only be allowed to eat whatever I caught. He caught two tareks within the hour, then another three over the next; I caught none. Each time my grandfather caught a fish, he threw it back. When the sun was low, my grandfather caught one last fish for his dinner, then we rowed back to shore.
In those days, I was a decent hunter. I could track animals and shoot them from a distance that was about average. While my grandfather finished setting up our lodgings, I went into the woods with my rifle. Not long after, I crouched low, following a rabbit. When I came upon its burrow, I stuck my rifle in to try and scatter it out, with no luck. I didn’t want to return empty-handed, because I couldn’t stand to hear my grandfather’s judgment or my stomach’s howls. I continued in search of other prey. And that’s when I came upon an enormous mouflon. Its rear was turned to me, and the setting sun had turned its red fur ablaze. A young male, pompous and eager to let its arrogance roam free. I kneeled and waited until it turned its head to me, and then my nostrils filled with the rifle’s sulphur smoke.
I hoisted the beast above my shoulders and staggered back to the camp. When I returned to my grandfather, I was bleeding all over from scraping against thorns and roots.
“Where the hell — ” my grandfather began, then stopped, recognizing the mouflon. His mouth stayed open. “What have you done, boy?”
We had been skinning the animal in silence for some time when my grandfather finally spoke. “I haven’t had mouflon since I was younger than you. Lucine never approved it. She said it was a magical animal, and it would be bad luck to kill.” He paused for a moment, his knife in mid-stroke. “I suppose we had bad luck anyway.”
After we peeled off its enormous pelt, we hung it on a line across two trees. My grandfather built a larger fire for us, but not expecting such a meal, he had only prepared one small spit. We cut the mouflon into small pieces and made a sort of barbecue of its organs. We wrapped the rest of the meat in netting and weighed it down at the bottom of the cold lake with a large rock. We gave the fish to Dorgom, who seemed very excited, producing billows of dust as his hooves clopped against the dry earth. We three ate across from each other, tearing off pieces of cooked meat. It melted in my mouth like butter and tasted surprisingly sweet.
“Dede,” I said. “What was Lucine like?” I had never heard my grandfather use anything remotely close to the word “love” when speaking to or about his wife. I wanted to know why he had named his boat after her.
“She was a good, reliable woman.”
“I mean, will you tell me about her?”
“Your father and his brother have said everything you need to know, I’m sure.”
“Actually,” I murmured, “my father never mentions her.”
“I don’t know how I raised such a horrible child. Every son should love their mother.” Then he froze, as though he had just come upon an object he had been searching for. It seemed as if my grandfather had just remembered that my mother had died several years earlier, because his body softened, and he leaned back against the log he sat on.
“Lucine was the daughter of a blacksmith. She was beautiful, with long black hair that reached her waist and dark brown eyes that pulled you in. No suitor was acceptable enough for her father. His arms were scarred with burns and his hands were gnarled from gripping tools. I would often meet her in the afternoons — me returning from the lake with whatever I had managed to catch, her heading to the lake to fetch water for a meal or to make clay. I knew her father would not approve of anyone, least of all a poor orphan, so my conversations with Lucine were quick and superficial. But one afternoon, we made a pact: if I could catch enough fish for her and her family, she would cook it for us in her home. I prayed with all my might for a fish to appear, and the next morning, lo and behold, the largest tarek I had ever seen leapt out of the water, right onto my boat. A miracle. That night, as Lucine and her mother cleaned the fish and prepared the meal, her father and I sat across from each other. I was uneasy, and he, taking delight in his power, took advantage of the situation by asking me all kinds of questions about my intentions with his daughter. Finally, the meal arrived. Lucine and her mother had baked the fish in lavash, sealed together with butter. Her father took one bite of the meal and nearly collapsed out of his chair. ‘Boy, you caught this fish in the lake?’ he asked, and I nodded. He looked at his wife, who was beaming, and then he gave me permission to marry his daughter.”
I went to bed satisfied, imagining the joy on my father’s face as I showed off the pelt. That night, I woke up from a deep slumber with a need to relieve myself. My grandfather wasn’t lying next to me. I went into the woods, and, after I finished my business, I looked for him. The amber glow from my grandfather’s cigarette helped me identify his figure on the shore. He was lifting rocks around a specific spot. After he cleared a circle, he kneeled and dug a hole in the wet earth with his hands. It seemed as if he was speaking into the hole, but I was too far away to hear. Then he covered the hole, stood, and looked out across the water for some time. I didn’t want to disturb him, so I returned to the campsite and went back to sleep.
The next day, I vowed to move exactly as my grandfather did. I managed to prick my worm without bleeding in the process. I still couldn’t cast my line very far, but I was able to hurl it into the water all the same. We sat in the boat for hours, our backs against each other, and my grandfather did not yell at me, but continued catching his fish. The sky blushed, then burned, then chilled. After my grandfather reeled in his twelfth one, he brought his pole into the boat. I began to reel my line in too, but he put his hand on my shoulder and squeezed.
“You’re not finished,” he said.
“But they’re not biting.”
“And what about this?” He pointed to his catch. “Fishing doesn’t start when you cast your line. That’s when it ends. You must want the fish to bite the hook. Your attitude is what leads to disappointment or satisfaction.”
So, I sat there for a while longer, thinking about the fish in the water, hoping that one would want to join his brothers in the boat. I thought to myself: fish fish fish fish. Nothing happened. Long after the sun went down, we rowed back to shore. I could tell my grandfather was disappointed because he wasn’t chastising me. I sat next to him by the campfire, clutching my stomach while he ate his fish. It was he who finally broke the long silence.
“What’s bothering you?”
“Tsh,” my grandfather let out, but he may have only been spitting out a bone. “I know why you’re here. It’s because your father and his idiot brother feel guilty for becoming hunters. And now they’re going to try to place the responsibility for absolution on you. If you succeed, their souls are clean.”
I thought I saw a tear on his cheek, but it may very well have been a shadow from the crackling flame. I pushed forward with another question. “Last night’s mouflon,” I began. “You said it was bad luck to kill. Why?”
“That is what Lucine believed.”
“Of course not. There’s no such thing as magic, or luck.”
We didn’t say more the rest of the evening. Our trip was to last two more days. On each morning we rose before the sun did and rowed out to the lake. By that point, I had become immune to pain whenever I pierced myself hooking worms. Whereas baking bread required swift movement at a moment’s notice, I was learning to sit still, lest any disturbance scare the creatures beneath the surface. But I still did not catch even one fish; meanwhile, my grandfather caught many, and threw each one back except the last of the day. He did not teach me, or scold me, or comfort me. I returned to the woods every night, but perhaps my grandmother Lucine was correct, because I couldn’t find any other animals to hunt. Instead, I scavenged for berries and insects, while my grandfather ate his conquests. We exchanged few words. The only voice I heard came from my own head, a low chant repeating the word fish.
I wish I could say I learned how to fish. I wish I could say my grandfather passed his knowledge onto me. But I became neither a fisherman nor a breadmaker. I am a waiter at a restaurant that serves a renowned bouillabaisse. I live in a small city close to the Méditerranée. The smell of fresh grass has been replaced by car fumes; purring sirens have become my lullaby. I never had enough money for myself; I never could afford a family. There were women, of course: co-workers, tourists, lonely friends. But never could I manage to make them stay. Don’t misunderstand — I survived the pillaging of my village and three wars. I am grateful to be alive. I only wish my life could have been different.
On our last day at the lake, I woke up before my grandfather and went to the shore. I picked up a stone and hurled it into the water. It made a terrific crash, and so I began to look around for more rocks to throw. If I could not catch my own fish, then perhaps I could chase them away and prevent my grandfather from catching any. I was afraid of him, but my hunger made me angry, and my anger made me bold.
As we sat in the boat together, I desperately tried to clear my mind and thought of nothing but the look of satisfaction on my grandfather’s face as I held up my own tarek. My grandfather, of course, continued to catch fish after fish. Exhausted from the hunger, angry with my father and my father’s father, and terrified of being nameless, I yelled: “What the hell’s the trick, dede? Are you just lucky? Are you cheating?”
My grandfather twisted his eyes toward mine. “You can’t cheat at fishing, boy. And I told you, luck doesn’t exist. At least, there’s no such thing as good luck.”
“But everyone in our village says — ”
“I know what they say,” my grandfather interrupted, pulling up his line. Hanging at the end of it was a magnificent silver tarek.
It only made me more furious. “What were you doing in the sand the other night? Have you made a deal with the devil?”
“Lucine asked me to bury her ashes here,” he said, glaring, “and I make sure to speak with her whenever I come here.” He unhooked his kill and flung it into the boat. “Before I caught that fish for her, I had visited this lake for years. I studied how the fish moved together. When they need to spawn, they migrate as a group” — he pointed at a mountain on the horizon — “towards a river over there. Every season, after the lake melts, I row out to their travel route. Whenever I cast my line out, I aim it towards the mountains, and I wait for a group to come by.”
“That’s the big secret?”
“It wasn’t me who said it was magic.”
“But I’ve been sitting right next to you this entire time. Why haven’t I caught anything?”
My grandfather laughed so hard he began to cough. “Boy,” he said, “you really don’t listen. You don’t want to be here, and the lake is responding.”
“That sounds like magic to me,” I muttered.
“You believe that just because you need to catch a fish, you will. But what you need doesn’t make a difference. You’re never in control of what happens next. Nature will decide whether it will let you take from it, or not.”
That evening, I walked alongside Dorgom, carrying our gear and the mouflon back to our village. Throughout that season, I returned to the lake many times to practice fishing, but my grandfather never joined me again. I did eventually manage to catch three fish, a quantity far short of what the elders would’ve considered outstanding, had I gone through the naming ceremony. By the following spring, the Ottomans decided they no longer wanted my people. When rumors began circulating that soldiers were burning villages, my father bribed a mule driver to hide me beneath the hay in the back of his cart. I barely escaped. Even now, I cannot put a blanket over my head without the fear of being smothered.
I arrived at a port, where I found a sea captain who took pity on me. He gave me passage across the Black Sea to Sevastopol. A church there was known as a place to reunite separated families, and I held hope that my father or his younger brother would join me as days passed into months. I slept in an alleyway alongside other refugees. Most of them were children half my age. All they did was cry. One boy would start, and then another, and soon their howls echoed like a pack of wolf pups. The adults around us were fleeing, but we didn’t know where. The war was everywhere around us. Someone would hear a rumor that a certain town was unmarred, or a certain region was far enough from the frontline, and then we would never see them again. One day a soldier rounded us up and told us that he was taking us somewhere where we could be looked after. I did not trust the tsarists any more than the Ottomans, so I snuck onto a cargo ship. I ate whatever I could find — rats, mostly — and I siphoned water from the barrels around me. When I arrived on land, I reeked of piss and sweat. I wandered the streets of a strange land, returning the look of horror in people’s eyes with the whimpering of a wounded mongrel. A passerby made the sign of the cross and spoke to me in his velvety language. After much confusion I understood that he wanted to know who I was. Already knowing that I had become an orphan, I named myself Vorputian.
I have remained in Marseilles ever since. Eventually, I realized I would find peace only after removing the frustration within me, like a surgeon cutting out a tumor. Whether I learned to bake bread or became a skilled fisherman would not have made any difference. My future had already been decided before it had even begun.