Family Reunion – Prologue
Armenia, close to the border with Azerbaijan
A second after the high-pitched whistling stopped, the shell hit with a heavy, double ‘WHUU-UMP.”
The other side of the field, beyond the Institutes’s perimeter wall, a clump of olive trees rose into the air, hung a split-second, then exploded into a maelstrom of soil, rock and splinters that rushed towards the concrete building now standing alone, in the middle of the bleak landscape. But even as the deadly cloud spilled over the wall and through the pitted railings topping the brickwork, its momentum slowed, sharply, causing its lethal cargo to discharge back to earth in a clattering hail of debris and charred timber.
Even before the dust settled, manic whoops of glee-tinged-with-fear erupted from the building’s third-floor windows. Covered only by chicken-wire – the glass had gone long ago – the yells and cat-calls echoed over the once fertile river valley that, day-by-day, was turning into a war-zone.
‘Fuck ME, Melkon, did you see that?’ Antranig Koloyan’s cry mingled with the others as he turned to address his friend. But Melkon was down on his haunches, cowering against the wall, hands pressed to his ears.
Apart from The Monster himself, young Melkon was the only other inmate Antranig ever bothered with. Though his behaviour could be erratic, sometimes even as disturbed as the other shaven-headed residents of Ward G19 – particularly when he started with the howling – there were periods when he could pass for being as sane as Antranig himself – almost.
‘Now THAT was CLOSE. Come see, Melkon.’
But rather than accept the wild-eyed Armenian’s invitation, Melkon simply wrapped his arms even more tightly about his body and rocked back and forth on his heels. At the same time, a half-strangled wail – not quite the wolf thing – escaped him. When he looked up, his young face was full of fear.
‘Come away from the window, Antranig,’ he croaked, barely able to make himself heard over the clamour that had reigned since the shelling started up again. ‘You’ll get yourself killed.’
Intent on proclaiming his defiance, Antranig turned back to what was happening beyond the boundaries of what was the nearest thing to home most of them had ever known.
‘I don’t CARE. Come ON you bastards. I’m WAITING. Blow me up, you FUCKERS.’ As if in answer to his prayer, another blast, closer this time, rocked the building. Antranig threw himself to the side as a hail of dirt and debris hurtled through the windows, bouncing off the ceiling and walls to shower down over beds already covered in dust and ceiling plaster. Not as ready to welcome death as he was making out, Antranig decided a few moments respite were called for. He back-slid down the wall to squat next to his friend.
‘What do you think Melkon? Is this what we’ve been waiting for? The divine retribution that will cleanse us of our sins?’ His eyes rolled as he laughed and he threw his head back to reveal a mouthful of stained ivory.
‘Don’t say that,’ Melkon lamented. ‘Someone will come. They wouldn’t just leave us.’
The older man gave Melkon a pitying look. ‘Of course they would you crazy bastard. Where do you think the orderlies are? Do you see them?’
Melkon turned to look towards the barred gate that separated the ward from the corridor leading to the stark offices and barely-equipped treatment rooms. No one was in sight.
‘I tell you,’ Antranig continued. ‘The cowardly bastards have legged it. That’s fucking Kurds for you.’
‘But what if we escaped?’ Melkon grasped at another straw. ‘What if, He escaped?’
As if reminded to check there was no immediate prospect of such an unthinkable event happening, they both turned to look down the other end of the ward. The gate to the purpose-built cell in the far corner was still locked, its single inmate clearly visible through the bars.
Vahrig Danelian, known to them all as simply, ‘The Monster’, was sitting on the floor, his back against the wall, head down, sunken eyes closed. His grey-flannel covered legs were stretched out in front, arms loose at his sides. To all intents and purposes he was asleep. But even from here, Antranig could see the thin smile he recognised as marking the man’s ‘meditations’.
For a moment the smile Antranig had stitched to his own face when the explosions resumed, flickered and almost died. But he forced himself not to dwell on the potential dilemma Melkon’s question had raised. What did it matter? Even if He – any of them – did manage to get out, chances were they wouldn’t last five minutes. The Azerbaijanis roaming the countryside didn’t care who they killed. And a mad Armenian was still an Armenian.
So much for promises, Antranig thought.
‘What do they care?’ he said, dismissing his friend’s hope. ‘The only thing on their mind is staying alive. They don’t give a shit what happens to the likes of us, certainly not, Him.’
‘But I don’t want to escape,’ Melkon pleaded. ‘I just want the noise to stop. Make it stop Antranig, please make it stop.’ With that he curled himself into a ball and started to let out a long wail that Antranig knew heralded the wolf-howls that always reminded him of the mountain forests outside Odzun where he had grown up.
For a moment, the haunting sound rose above the cacophony of yelling and yowling and everyone stopped. But when they realised it was only young Melkon, they all returned to what they had been doing, responding to the situation in their different ways, praying, crying or simply shouting obscene defiance at the yet-to-be-seen Azerbaijanis. Some had already retreated into themselves in the way they did when the world around became too much to bear, crawling back into their cots and wrapping themselves in the thin, grey blankets that years of washing had made transparent.
‘That’s it, Melkon,’ Antranig said, grinning down at his friend. ‘Howl like the devil. That will stop them.’ But as he looked up, his gaze fell again on the cell at the far end of the room. A chill ran through him and his mood changed.
Though The Monster’s head was still bowed, the black eyes Antranig was sure were the devil’s own were staring right at him in a way he had seen only twice before.
The first was just before that time he went for the new orderly. It was the young man’s first day on the ward and no one had taken the trouble to warn him properly. Or so they all thought. It was only later that someone said that the man’s mother was half-Azerbaijani. They never saw him again. Word was he never recovered. The second time was the day they were visited by some Government Inspectors. Unusually, one was a woman. She looked good for her age and smelled nice in her neat grey suit and black shoes. As she stood outside the Monster’s cell with the other inspectors, the man they had made an excuse to come and gawp at, came up to the bars, pressed his face between them and stared at her, fixedly, as he was now doing to Antranig. Without him even saying anything, the woman fainted away and had to be carried out. She didn’t return either.
Over recent weeks, as rumours of trouble outside had grown, Antranig had finally succeeded, much to his surprise, in engaging the monster in what could almost have passed for conversation. As far as he knew he was the only person in the place, save perhaps for Doctor Kahramanyan, to have done so. But despite the dark matters they discussed, the gravity of undertakings given, Antranig now found the Monster’s gaze as unsettling, terrifying even, as anything he had ever seen. He was sure it contained a message, one that right now, he didn’t care to think about. It stirred him to action.
Jumping to his feet, he left Melkon to his howling and ran across to the entrance-gate, remembering to keep his head low as he passed the windows. Grasping the cold iron in both hands he shook it as hard as he could so that it rattled, loudly, on its frame. At the same time he yelled down the corridor.
‘SOMEONE GET US THE FUCK OUT OF HERE.’