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Authors: Celia Lottridge

Home Is Beyond the Mountains

BOOK: Home Is Beyond the Mountains
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Copyright © 2010 by Celia
Barker Lottridge

All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced or
transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including
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permission in writing from the publisher.

Distribution of this electronic edition via the Internet or any other means
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piracy of copyrighted material; purchase only authorized electronic editions. We appreciate
your support of the author's rights.

This edition published in 2011 by
Groundwood Books/House of Anansi Press Inc.
110 Spadina
Avenue, Suite 801
Toronto,
ON
,
M
5
V
2
K
4
Tel. 416-363-4343
Fax 416-363-1017
www.groundwood.com

This book was written with
the support of an Ontario Arts Council Works in Progress
Grant.

LIBRARY AND ARCHIVES CANADA CATALOGUING IN PUBLICATION
Lottridge, Celia B. (Celia
Barker)
Home is beyond the
mountains / Celia Barker Lottridge.
eISBN 978-1-55498-190-8>
I. Title.
PS8573.O855H65 2010
jC813'.54 C2009-906085-X

Cover photos of Hamadan
Orphanage courtesy of Jane Montgomery
Maps drawn by Leon
Grek
Design by Michael
Solomon

We acknowledge for their financial support of our publishing
program the Canada Council for the Arts, the Ontario Arts Council, and the
Government of Canada through the Canada Book Fund.

For
Louise Shedd
Barker
and
Marion Seary
who inspired me with their stories
and
encouraged me with their
listening

ONE

No Safe Place

Ayna,
Persia

July 1918

A SOUND, A VERY
quiet
sound, woke Samira.

What was it? She listened
but she kept her eyes tightly closed, hoping she could drift back into
sleep.

“We always hear noises when
we sleep on the roof,” she told herself. “It must be the donkey stamping its
hoof, or Papa snoring.” She put out her hand and touched her little sister,
Maryam, who was sleeping beside her. Maybe it was just a dream.

Then she heard it again.
Metal clinking against metal and then a voice, whispering.

Samira sat up. The sky was
clear and black. There was no moon, but the stars gave enough light that she
could see Mama lying on her sleeping mat on the other side of Maryam. Beyond
her was Papa and then her brother, Benyamin. They were all sleeping
quietly.

She listened, holding her
breath. Where had the sound come from?

There was no more clinking
but the whispering came again.

Samira pushed her thin
summer quilt aside and stood up. The clay floor was rough under her bare feet
as she silently crossed the flat roof.

She was sure now. The
whispering was coming from the garden behind the house. Boys from a nearby
village sometimes sneaked into Ayna to steal a few ripe melons. Well, she
would catch them this time.

There was a wall around the
edge of the roof, but by standing on tiptoe Samira could see over it and
over the wall that surrounded the village. The garden was on a hillside so
she could see the almond tree and the rows of peppers and eggplants and the
tangle of melon vines. Among the melons were three figures dressed in bulky
clothes and wearing strange peaked caps.

No village boy wore such a
cap, and these were not boys. They were men.

Then Samira saw a glint of
starlight on something shiny. There it was again.

It was the blade of a knife.
The man was lifting a melon and cutting it from the vine. He lowered it to
the ground and its pale round shape disappeared.

“They are thieves,” thought
Samira. “That man is cutting melons and putting them in a sack.”

The man stood up and lifted
the sack to his shoulder, and Samira saw that he had a rifle strapped to his
back. The knife in his hand clinked against the rifle barrel. That was the
sound that had wakened her.

Samira turned to call for
Papa but suddenly a hand gripped her around the ankle. She looked down and
saw her father crouched beside her. He let go of her ankle and pulled her
down and put his hand over her mouth.

He leaned close and
whispered so softly that she could hardly hear him. “Be quiet. They must not
know you saw them.”

Samira tried to open her
mouth to ask a question, but Papa held his hand firm and whispered again,
“I'll tell you in the morning. Don't stand up.”

She nodded and he let her
go. She crawled over to her sleeping mat. Papa pulled the quilt up around
her and patted her on the shoulder.

“Sleep,” he said without
making a sound. Then he moved away on his hands and knees.

Samira reached for Maryam
and pulled her close. For a long time she lay with her eyes open, listening.
But it was quiet now, and after a while she fell asleep.

When she woke, she was
alone. She sat up and looked around the roof that covered her house and the
connected house where Uncle Avram lived with his family. On warm nights both
families liked to sleep on the roof, out in the fresh air.

But now the sun was high in
the sky. Everyone else would have drunk their tea and eaten their morning
bread and cheese. Benyamin had probably gone to school, and Papa would be
out in the garden.

Suddenly Samira remembered
the dark figures stealing melons. She scrambled up, pulled on her skirt and
blouse and climbed quickly down the ladder.

In the house it was
bread-baking day. Mama was kneading dough in a big bowl while Maryam played
with her doll as she always did while Mama worked.

But this morning Papa was
there, too. He had a basket in his arms. It was empty except for one pale
green melon.

“Samira,” he said. “I let
you sleep because you were disturbed by the men in the garden last night. Do
you remember anything about them?”

Samira closed her eyes,
trying to see again the figures in the starlight.

“There were three of them,”
she said. “They wore stiff jackets and caps that covered their ears. They
had knives and they were cutting melons.” She opened her eyes. “And they had
rifles. Who were they, Papa?”

“Uniforms and guns,” said
Papa. “They were soldiers, not ordinary thieves. I've heard that deserters
from the Turkish army have come through the mountains into Persia. They
don't want to fight in the war anymore but they don't mind stealing. They
were hungry and our melons are just getting ripe. This is the only one they
missed.”

“What if they come again?”
said Samira.

“We must stay quiet and be
watchful. I told Benyamin to come straight home after school. No one should
be wandering around the countryside. I'm going out to the garden to pick
whatever is ripe or nearly ripe. If the soldiers do come back they won't find
much to steal.”

He handed the melon to
Samira and left.

Mama set the bowl of bread
dough to one side and said, “Get some bread and cheese for your breakfast
and take Maryam next door to play with Ester and Negris. Sahra will come
soon to bake bread with me, so I'm going to uncover the oven now and build
up the fire.”

The oven was a round hole
dug into the earthen floor of the house, lined with smooth clay and covered
with a lid. The fire burned at the bottom and most days an iron pot filled
with the day's stew was set to cook down inside the oven with the top almost
closed. But on bread-baking day the cover was left off. It would be too easy
for Maryam to stumble and fall in.

Aunt Sahra and Mama would
pat the bread dough into big thin ovals. Mama would slap the ovals onto the
hot sides of the oven. In just a few minutes the bread would be brown and
bubbling. Aunt Sahra would lift it off with wooden tongs. By the end of the
baking there would be a pile of lawash flatbread, enough to last both
families for a week or more.

Samira took Maryam out onto
the terrace. There was an oven out there, too, and in the summer Mama and
Aunt Sahra always baked bread outside. But today things were
different.

Maryam tugged at her hand
and the two girls walked to the next wooden door and into a house that was
almost exactly like theirs. There was just one room, square with whitewashed
walls. The only furniture was a big carved chest where sleeping mats and
quilts and clothes were stored. The floor was covered with beautiful rugs and
there were cushions to sit on, though the children usually sat on the floor.

Aunt Sahra was busy tidying
up. As always she moved quickly and talked even faster.

“I want you girls to play in
the house today,” she said. “There are too many strangers around.” So Samira
knew that she had heard about the soldiers in the garden.

When all the breakfast
crumbs had been brushed away and the tea glasses washed, she looked at the
four girls.

“Ester and Samira, I want
you to take good care of your little sisters,” she said. “If anything
strange happens, call me at once.”

She didn't pick up her
basket and leave until Ester nodded and Samira said, “Yes, Aunt Sahra.”

Samira wondered what her
aunt was thinking. Bread-baking day was always the same. But it would be
easy to let Aunt Sahra and Mama know if anything did happen. There was a
hole in the wall between the two houses. It was just above Samira's head and
big enough for her hand to fit through. Most of the time the hole was blocked
by a roll of cloth, but the cloth could be removed. Then people on either
side of the wall could talk to each other.

The hole was open now. They
were not really alone.

“Let's play school,” said
Ester. She was seven, just two years younger than Samira. Like Samira she
longed to go to school, but so far no teacher for the girls had come to the
village. The Assyrian Orthodox Church ran the boys' school, and the priest
had promised that one day the girls would have a school, too.

Samira and Ester thought
they would probably be grown up before this happened.

Sometimes they peeked into
the schoolroom next to the church, so they knew that the teacher should have
a chair and a table and big board to write on. The pupils should have little
boards and chalk so that they could copy what the teacher wrote. And there
should be a book for the teacher and some pages with writing on them so that
the pupils could practice reading.

All of this was easy to
pretend. Samira was the oldest so she was the teacher. She sat on the
fattest cushion. Ester and Negris, who was five, were good pupils. They sat
quietly on the rug and listened to the teacher and practiced writing with
their fingers on flat pieces of wood. Maryam was only three and she was not a
very good pupil, though sometimes she would sit with her doll and listen to
a story. Today she wanted to sit very close to Negris. Maybe she had heard
something in the night, too.

Samira stood up and turned
to the wall behind her cushion.

“Today I have something
special to teach you,” she said. “Last Sunday when we were waiting for Mama
and Papa to come home from the church, Benyamin taught me the first three
letters of the Syriac alphabet. He promised to teach me more, but this is
the beginning.”

She pointed at the wall.

“This is the board where I
will write the letters. Watch closely. This is
alap
, the first letter.” With her finger she made
a straight bottom line with a dot above it and a curved line that connected
the dot to the line.

Of course, her finger made no
mark on the wall, but she hoped the little girls would get the idea. She
drew the letter again and then stopped.

Through the hole in the wall
she heard Aunt Sahra's voice clearly. It was high and fierce.

“Even if you do go, I'm
staying here. Or I'll go to the city with the girls. But army or no army I'm
not going far until Avram comes home.”

Avram was Sahra's husband.
He had set off on a long journey to the city of Tabriz across Lake Urmieh to
inquire about taking his whole family to America. He said Persia wasn't safe
anymore.

Samira suddenly realized
that the other girls were staring at her, waiting for her to draw another
letter. Sitting on the floor, they hadn't heard Aunt Sahra's voice. And now
Samira couldn't hear it, either. Her mother must have reminded Aunt Sahra
that walls have ears. Now there was no sound of voices, only the slap of the
bread against the wall of the oven.

“You're the teacher,
Samira,” Maryam said. “You have to talk.”

Samira blinked.

“Yes,” she said. “I was just
thinking about the second letter. It's
beet
and it looks like this.”

When the bread was all
baked, Aunt Sahra came back. She set down her basket filled with a stack of
lawash and tidied up the cushions the girls had used, just as she always
did. But she was so quiet that all four girls became quiet, too.

Samira wanted to ask Aunt
Sahra what she meant when she said, “Army or no army.” But she didn't.

Suddenly her aunt noticed
that her nieces were still there.

“My goodness,” she said.
“You and Maryam should go home now, Samira. There is work to be done and
your mother needs your help.”

Then she remembered to hug
them quickly before she opened the door and gave them a little push toward
home.

AT HOME THE FLOOR
was
covered with baskets of eggplants and squash and peppers. Papa had done just
what he'd said he would do. He had picked everything in the
garden.

Mama was standing among the
baskets shaking her head.

“We have to cut up all these
vegetables so we can spread them to dry tomorrow,” she said.

“The squash are so small,”
said Samira.

“I know. It's too soon to
pick any of this. But we have to keep it safe or we won't have enough to eat
in the winter. Now go and get a knife so we can get started.”

Samira nodded and went to
get a small knife from the shelf. She had questions but she knew this was
not the time to ask them.

By suppertime the baskets
were filled with neatly sliced vegetables, and the stew that had been cooking
in the oven was ready to eat. The family sat in a circle around the big clay
bowl and took turns scooping up the savory stew with torn pieces of fresh
lawash.

They were all quiet. In
summer they usually ate on the terrace, and the children finished quickly so
they could play with their friends before darkness sent everyone to bed.
Tonight no one wanted to move even when the bowl was empty.

BOOK: Home Is Beyond the Mountains
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ads

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