HY RU EN

Edik Baghdasaryan

The General

It seemed that nothing was happening in the city, there were no signs of life to be seen. He knew that in all the days of his life he hadn’t learned as much as in one single day of war. The long years of grief had gnawed away at his nerves. He didn’t want to hear any sound at all and even though he had effectively blocked off his street the noise made by the neighbors’ kids still rattled him. He thus decided to force his neighbors to sell their homes. This news spread throughout the neighborhood in a flash but no one spoke about it out loud, even though they all inwardly were opposed to the General’s decision.

The General noticed the fear on their faces. He saw the fear that lead to disgust when the fathers of sixteen families entered. These were the same type of men he would have lined up at the trenches during war and have shot, sometimes by his own hand and sometimes by a firing squad of soldiers who were following his every gaze. For a second he thought about having these fathers shot as well.

“Why are these men such cowards, why don’t they execute me instead? You force them out of their homes and they don’t utter a peek. The country is full of scum, gutless trash”, he muttered under his breath.

The men who had entered feared making any movement at all. Their silence was incomprehensible and long periods of silence terrified the General. He was then overcome by the desire to wail like a baby, long and hard, but he wasn’t able to. He felt that out there on the battlefield he had gone down to defeat. It was just that after each victory he simply didn’t feel such an emotion and that there wasn’t time to mull it over in his mind. He didn’t know what to think about. It was as if he had contemplated it all and that nothing was left to mull over. The folds of his brain no longer held any room to expand.

He wouldn’t think during the glory days, he only enjoyed them. He even enjoyed the losses sustained by his soldiers. Other commanders weren’t capable of such a thing because they sustained losses by retreating. The General, however, achieved victory and the losses sustained by his soldiers occurred on the road to victory. He enjoyed all this and would write letters to the parents of fallen soldiers. However, only the signature was actually his since he never learnt how to write; and the man was 45 year-old. “Your son gave his life during the righteous war in the defense of the fatherland.” These were the words he dictated to his adjutant. The General was convinced that their war was virtuous.

Time, it seemed, had failed to teach him anything. It was simply the case that back then he just didn’t think, or couldn’t think. He drove a freight truck and had nothing on his mind to contemplate. He’d haul stones and sand, get paid, and then head off for home to have fun with the wife, kids and his mother. It seemed that everything would continue to be smooth and easy except that one day war broke out. He couldn’t think but the flood of thoughts infuriated him. These were the same thoughts but now they simply came in waves. The weak folds of his untested brain were stretched to the breaking point and his head was just shy of splitting apart.

He went out on the street not knowing what fate awaited him. He sold his huge truck so that there would be some money in the house. He kissed his daughter and son and uttered a mere four words to his wife, “Look after the children.” He then headed off. He went away to fight the just fight. He really didn’t know much about Armenian history. He wasn’t much for studying and left school after the eighth grade, becoming a driver afterwards. He remembered hearing from his grandfathers that the Turks had seized Armenia. And another thing was that he knew all the anti-Turkish songs that his grandfathers would sing. This was the truth for him. He would sometimes sing these songs when he got drunk and for him this was the essence of the righteous war and nothing else. He didn’t know anything else besides singing those songs. That is, until the war started.

He went because it was impossible not to go. That was exactly what was in those songs; that war which awaited his grandfathers, then his father and now him. It seemed to him that if he didn’t accept this commandment of his people he wouldn’t be able to sing those songs anymore and that he wouldn’t be able to force his son to sing them either. He raised his head and looked at the sixteen men standing in front of him

- Do you know how to sing? -  He asked.
None of the men made a sound.
- So, you don’t even know how to sing. You’re good for nothing. - He mumbled, not getting an answer back.
 - On the battlefield I would have had you shot, but I won’t shoot you now. They’d call me a traitor. They wouldn’t have said such a thing back then. Back then I would shoot and kill.

The General once again became lost in thought, the flood intensifying in his brain. He tried to remember if he ever shot anyone who couldn’t sing. He couldn’t remember. From amongst all those men he couldn’t single out even one whom he might have shot for not knowing how to sing. Perhaps this didn’t prove that he hadn’t shot anyone.

“Too bad, they might have been like these guys. How is it that I didn’t ask”, he thought to himself. “Now listen up. Since we’re not in a war and I can’t shoot you, I want each of you to tell me how much you want for your houses and I’ll pay it. Fifteen days from now I don’t want to see any of you on this street. Now you can go. Come back tomorrow and name your price.”

One after the other, the sixteen men departed the room. The General cast a sidelong glance as they left. A note of pity was revealed in that glance but it lasted for just an instant. As the men departed down the hallway and through the entrance they remained silent. Each went off in the direction of their home, to tell the others about the news.

The comprehension of compensation had exhausted him throughout the years, then the months and then the days. Now, it exhausted him minute by minute. He felt that this was the end. His death, which had been announced years back, had finally arrived.

The declaration of the ceasefire was the first major blow for the General. He was more annoyed by the fact that none of the authorities had bothered to take his views into account. They didn’t even bother to ask him, the General who won so many victories in their war. He was wounded and crawled into his bunker dug into the dirt opposite the enemy’s positions. He didn’t leave for three straight days. He tried to write a letter to the people but later saw that it wasn’t happening. He couldn’t remember the letters of the alphabet. At noon on the second day he called for his adjutant and dictated a few lines but left it unfinished. He realized that it was senseless to petition the people. What were the parents of five thousand sacrificed soldiers to say in response? On the third day he left his bunker. The color from his face had gone and there were bags under his eyes. He called his officers and told them to prepare for an assault that night. He wanted to exact revenge on all those generals sitting up at headquarters making decisions without asking his opinion, General Arshaluys Hakobi Vardanyan, so triumphant on the battlefield. During those three days in his bunker he even thought of returning all those medals. He remembered his mother and son and how they would show off those medals to those visiting their home and how they would get annoyed at him if he returned them. And of course he didn’t wish to annoy his son. Remembering his son, he tried to smile but was unsuccessful. He waved his hand in the air, realizing that he couldn’t even crack a smile. He got up from the rocking chair that his uncle had made for him and had brought to the frontlines, to give to the heroic son of his brother. The chair remained with the General all throughout the war years. The chair became a sort of talisman for him, insuring victory on the battlefield. He would sit in the chair and make his decisions on the course of the war. On a few occasions, when he got overly depressed and believed that all was for naught, the General considered burning the chair. The first time this thought entered his mind was exactly twenty-two minutes after he heard about the signing of the ceasefire. For some unknown reason he remembered that well. Three days after the ceasefire, during the night, his troops went on the offensive and captured a string of enemy villages and towns. All the captured homes were torched on his command. There was a cloud of smoke for tens of kilometers all around and fires raged throughout the night. Panic stricken, the enemy was fleeing. However, there was an even greater sense of panic back at army headquarters. Confusion reigned among the countries who had served as intermediaries to the ceasefire; their signatures appeared on the bottom of the document.

All attempts by headquarters to radio the General in the field were useless. He wasn’t answering any such radio transmissions. One evening, five days after the ceasefire accord, while his soldiers were digging new positions, a group of cars suddenly appeared on the scene. The General was in his bunker at the time. In the convoy of vehicles were the Defense Minister and officers of the General Staff. All had been thrown into a panic by the General’s actions.

The General did not leave his bunker. Rather, the Minister entered the tent. The General was sitting on his rocking chair, his back facing the entrance. He didn’t make a move. It seemed he didn’t even notice that the Minister, from whose own hand he had received the Hero’s Gold Medal, had entered the tent. He appeared totally indifferent to the entire matter and knew that this visit had nothing to offer him and that he couldn’t undo what had been done. He remained seated in the semidarkness. Upon seeing the motionless General the Minister was taken aback and didn’t know how to start the conversation. You would have thought he was afraid to do so.

“I have lost six thousand soldiers in the course of five years. I have written six thousand letters to the parents of soldiers. In just one day all of you have spat on the memory of my soldiers”, the General declared, carefully pronouncing each word in succession.

“You are hereby relieved of your position by a decree of the President and can no longer command our army. You will be replaced by General Mikayelyan.” stated the Minister in a dour tone.

The General never did like the Minister. The vindictive nature in his eyes never appealed to the General. He remained silent as the Minister took his leave.

The General remembered that he had consumed what must have been countless thousands of chickens during the war years. He had no stomach for store bought chickens and preferred village-raised birds. The kitchen cook Zarmik always had a fresh stock of chickens to satisfy the General’s palate. The birds would be fed leftover table scraps. For some strange reason he remembered both Zarmik and the chickens.

The army was in high spirits and awaited the General’s next order. The army was prepared to march to the ends of the earth.

The General spent a few more somber hours sitting in his rocker. Later on he thought it was his obligation to address his officers for the last time.

“I am leaving. You did exactly what had to be done. We haven’t been traitors during this war. Those political whores have taken our victory and sold it. Always remember that you fought alongside General Arsho. I shall not forget you. Go now. You have an obligation to fulfill; do so with honor.

After the sixteen men had left the General fell into complete despair.

- All is finished for this nation. There was not one man among those sixteen who had a single thing to say to me; to me, a retired General. My nation has fallen prey to scum and rabble.
This was the last thought he brought to mind with alert awareness. Then he felt the flood that was crushing his brain He felt how thoughts intermingled with his circulating blood. He felt how quickly they moved about. He removed the pistol, placed it to his head and pulled the trigger. His mother was the first to enter the room. The General was sprawled on the rocking chair, his head dangling off to one side. The rocker was gently swaying back and forth, leaving a trail of blood in its wake. His mother tried to stop the chair from swaying but failed. Taking her son’s blood-soaked head into her embrace she too began to rock back and forth.