Buried Treasure: Krikor Zohrab's The Nun
Translated by Jack Antreassian
April 1, 2019 | by Alec Mouhibian
“My code of ethics: Between the real and the imaginary, choose the real; between truth and falsehood, choose truth — at all times, everywhere.”
Those are the words of Krikor Zohrab (1861-1915). Easier said than done? Yes, but neither are they easily said. Shopping around in the flea market of ideas, one is always more likely to find variations on the words of Lionel Hutz, the intrepid attorney of The Simpsons: “What is truth, Marge? If you follow.”
Zohrab was a lawyer, too, and unlike Hutz a great one. He lived up to his code in the courtroom, and later the Ottoman parliament, by successfully defending droves of innocents who were accused of political and other crimes in the degenerating madness of the Ottoman Empire. Recognized by his enemy, he became one of the earliest victims of the Armenian Genocide. But it’s not as martyr, or legal wizard, or community leader that his voice lives on. He was also a writer, what some call the master of the Armenian short story, and as a writer he examined falsehoods of a more eternal kind. For example: the kind of falsehoods that show up in cases of love, where fraud and truth are usually friends.
“The Nun” (reprinted below from the collection Voice of Conscience) presents one such case, with evidence that literature is the only arena where love can be given a fair trial.
— Alec Mouhibian
Early in 1884 I was admitted to the German hospital in Pera for a minor operation. They told me I would be there for fifteen days. Actually my stay lasted for three months. The reason, more than my illness, was my reluctance to leave. Has a patient ever been known to prefer remaining in the hospital after he has been cured? Boys might pretend to be sick to get out of going to school. But one does not often see a healthy young man forego the freedom of his life outside for months of confinement to a hospital bed.
That is the choice I made. Eventually they were able to see through my pretense. My regular pulse beat, my ruddy complexion, and finally the demands of a healthy appetite, conspired to expose my design. But even more than these, it was my indiscretion that betrayed me; and at last they told me there was no reason to keep me there any longer; the hospital was, after all, not a hotel.
They had operated on the fourth day as I recall. The anesthetic spared me any awareness of the ravages of the scalpel. When I came to, I felt only weariness and perplexity. If it had not been for the white bandages that covered my wound, or the exhortations not to move whispered by the sister of mercy, I wouldn’t have believed that anything at all had been done to me since entering the hospital.
As the anesthetic wore off, I began to feel a discomfort that turned slowly to pain, the pain of bruised nerves and scarred tissue, becoming increasingly intense, driving everything else from my mind, making me want to leap out of the bed. The reaction was apparently anticipated since the nurse, at my side every minute, kept trying to soothe me.
“It will pass soon. Be patient, my son. Try not to move. The wound might open, and that would be very serious.”
The words did not diminish my pain. My moans filled the room, my voice broke into sobs and screams.
Seated in a wooden chair beside my bed, the sister continued her comforting speech, her manner practiced, the words surely learned by heart and delivered a hundred times before.
“It will be over soon. It’s really nothing. You are all better now.”
Better? How, when the pain was shivering wildly through me at that very moment, when I felt the almost uncontrollable urge to claw at the sutures that were holding me together, and reach into my body and rip out the flesh and the organs that were torturing me? But the slightest stir evoked new and sharper warnings from the sister.
“Don’t move. No, you mustn’t,” she said, getting up. “You will make me angry.”
I looked straight into her eyes. Was she crazy? Didn’t she have any understanding of the pain I was suffering? It was hard to believe. What I saw on her pale face was not compassion, but signs of pleasure, it seemed; and the curve of a happy smile on her small mouth.
Even with the pain and the moaning, I couldn’t take my eyes away from her, so strange and inappropriate did that exhilaration appear to me. She looked like a delicate flower, tall and thin, her pretty head tilted a little, the extensions of her white nun’s bonnet seeming like the wings of a dove about to take flight. There was the blue of a damp sky in her large eyes. Her dark green habit had no style or elegance, but the simplicity suited her handsome figure and, though she wore no corset, the thinness of her waist was striking.
My pain must have abated a little if I was able to examine this woman so carefully. Barely noticeable trances of maturity marked the paleness of her face. More than anything, the joy that illuminated her expression impressed and disturbed me.
Someone in pain wants the people around him to have a sense of pain as well. Suffering is the one thing we have that we are willing to share, even insist on sharing, with others. And here sitting beside me was a woman appearing to delight in my torment. Reflections of an inner joy could be discerned on her ashen face, even while the reassuring words spilled from her lips, just as the color of a lantern’s glass can be distinguished when the wick is ignited.
In the beginning I ascribed this impression to my own self-pity. I felt resentful perhaps because she did not appear sufficiently sympathetic. The truth was that nothing was lacking in her care. She was always present when my bandages were changed, and she attended to my medication with her own hand. The scar was healing as expected, and I was improving every day. But the nun’s happy smile, like the rays of the sun withdrawing behind the hills at night, seemed to diminish as my health returned. She no longer remained with me as before, but ran instead to the side of others whose tortured cries penetrated the thick wall and filled my room. The joyous smile was there again on her return, but seemed to fade as she approached me.
Sister Emily, the nun who took care of me, had a reputation as a courageous and competent nurse. The doctors relied on her completely. She was assigned to assist in the most difficult operations, where she performed admirably unperturbed by the confusion of blood and flesh. One might have thought of her as the goddess of screams and supplications. There was not a patient whose sobs and complaints she had not heard. She was everywhere there was a plea for help, or a protest against pain, but primarily for the male patients, fulfilling her role as guardian angel with unruffled determination. How had this bold energy found a place in such a delicate body, emphasized by the pallor of her face streaked by the golden wisps of hair escaping from under her white headdress.
I was making satisfactory progress; and as I improved there were opportunities to have long talks with her. She seemed to enjoy my rash pronouncements which, while they might not always have been reasonable, at least had the sincerity of conviction, and she used to listen with quiet toleration. She was perceptive and intelligent, and obviously well educated. Whenever we discussed serious matters she seemed to escape her status as a nun, and expressed herself freely and frankly.
She was from a prominent Munich family. She could paint and sing, in addition to possessing other graces of a thorough education. This background made it even more surprising that she was here, immersed in the thankless work of a Constantinople hospital, serving, binding wounds, and eating pain, when one so well endowed could have a reasonable expectation of a fuller life. The charm of an authentic heroism was part of her attraction.
I felt humbled beside her, and soon moderated my empty blustering. I looked forward to her appearance. Her white headdress was a crown of enlightenment, and I could picture the rays of her golden hair under it.
She became the object of all my thoughts. I could recognize her light steps in the corridors, even when she was some distance away. When she came into my room, my whole body trembled with joy.
I was no longer the garrulous braggart, but a stammering boy and on occasion a poet in ecstatic flights; it was somewhere between these two extremes that my unexceptional personality lay hidden.
She brought me books to read, among them a volume by Schopenhauer from which she cited a quotation.
“To work and to suffer in order to live. To live in order to work and suffer.”
Was this all there was to life?
When she departed, the light and air in my room diminished. I got drowsy and uninterested in anything. My life seemed to stop in her absence. I waited only for her return, bereft of any other will or desire. Though my window opened on the diversions of the Marmara, my gaze wandered over the scene without interest or enjoyment. All I desired, all I loved was in this hospital room, with its unadorned white walls, its stark bareness. To live in some proximity to this woman was all I wanted.
The doctors certified my recovery. And in fact I was well, but for my ravaged spirit, a new affliction which had not escaped Sister Emily’s perceptive glance.
“My son,” she urged me, “you must get up, walk around, get some air.”
I stuck stubbornly to my room, not wanting to see anyone, or to have to talk to anyone, wasting time pointlessly when I could devote all my dreams to her.
I finally admitted to myself that I was madly in love with this woman who was my nurse, whose nationality, age, religious calling, everything actually, made any hope utterly impossible. But the impossibility itself seemed to intensify my love. My desire to fling myself into the abyss seemed to grow as its depth loomed larger in my consciousness.
In all that time it never once occurred to me to utter a word, make even the slightest allusion to the feelings she had stirred in me. But she knew.
“My son,” she said to me one morning when I was insisting that she stay a little longer, “I know what’s the matter with you. You are torturing yourself with an idiotic dream.”
I felt embarrassed, like a boy discovered in some mischief.
“I am a nun, and you’re a young man who, thank the Lord, is completely cured and no longer has any reason to stay here; you must most particularly dismiss from your mind those boyish longings that torment you needlessly.”
I suddenly thrust aside all timidity.
“It is not only from my mind that I must dismiss them, but from my heart.”
Those two words were intended to express all my feelings; but just as blood surges from the smallest puncture of a wound, all my emotions poured out of the opening those words offered.
“Why must you be so perfect then,” I asked, “if it is forbidden to admire and love you? What will you gain by remaining inviolate in your loneliness, which is a kind of surrender? Do you imagine that I planned to fall in love with you? No. And now that I am more seriously afflicted than when I came here, you want to cast me out, without even a word of compassion. It is an easy matter to point out the impropriety, the impossibility of my love. I have done as much a thousand times. But i swear that I want nothing, nothing at all from you. I was stricken, and will remain that way. Just let me live here near you, without hope of recovery, but at least without the absolute certainty of dying.”
“Dying? You think you will die if you leave me?” There was scorn in her smile. “You won’t die, there’s no fear of that. When you leave here, you may be unhappy for three days. And you may think about me for another eight or ten days. In fifteen days you will have been sufficiently consoled. And in a month I will be no more than a sweet, vague memory. By next year you will feel only surprise at the thought that you were in love with me at all.”
I shook my head.
“I know about these infatuations; they evaporate as quickly as champagne bubbles.”
A sudden change came over her, as though she had emerged from the dour constraints of a nun’s garb; she was an alluring seductive woman, her voice a gentle caress.
“Because you must leave tomorrow, and you will leave; and because you are a likeable young man, capable of controlling yourself, or so you have appeared to me, I will say to you openly that I don’t believe in your love, or the love of any man. I sacrificed my name, my family, my wealth, all the tender expectations of a 20-year-old woman, to a man who, like you, pledged eternal love, only to deceive me. I refused other marriage proposals, ignored the entreaties of my parents and, like a hunted criminal, stole out of my home at night to join my lover. My family disowned me; they had a right to disown me. It hardly mattered to me. I was happy with the man who loved me. But it mattered to him, though no doubts were able to penetrate the blindness of my love. Soon his weariness and regret began to show.
“And when it happened it was like a high, solid wall collapsing on me, the bricks hammering my head and body, left insensate and helpless beneath the rubble. One day, putting aside all pretense, he said to me:
“‘You must reconcile with your parents. We can’t live in such poverty any longer.’
“A year had been enough to drain that inexhaustible love which was to have endured to the grave.
“All uncertainties vanished then. I left him, just as I had left my father’s house the year before. I gave him back his freedom, the freedom to deceive still other women with his lies. I don’t know whether it was the pain or anger that did it, but from the moment my heart hardened into stone. I swore I would renounce all worldly pleasures, and become a nun. It was like the destitute giving alms to the needy. I devoted myself to easing the aches and discomforts of others, at a time when I desperately needed solace myself. But since it was not my destiny to enjoy the world, I tried to help others enjoy it, with a minimum of pain. They were able to benefit from my deprivation.
“But beyond this, there was an inner joy for me, one supreme happiness which I am going to summon the courage to confess to you. I want you to know me and not think me any better than I really am. I wanted to be assigned with surgeons, and it turned out that way. I help them, serve them, and in the process become a witness to the pain and misery of men. I have the pleasure of attending the recital of the terrible music of their screams and sobs all hours of the day. And listening to the sounds of their suffering eases the suppressed ache in my heart. I know that it is a cruel and spiteful kind of satisfaction. So it was to hear your cries and laments that I came to your room. Another nurse would not have been able to endure it as well as I. They all congratulate me. And when I am alone with my conscience...”
Her voice faded to a murmur.
“... I despise myself. It was delight in such misery that has made me old. And I am not thirty yet.”
After a moment she went on.
“You see that I am not the kind of woman you imagined. I am very far from that, just the opposite in fact. I am not one to be loved, but one to bear the burden of a bitter destiny.”
I protested of course, insisting that nothing she said could affect my feelings, and that I would be bound to her memory always.
She stopped me, allowed me to hold her hand while she added:
“Leave here tomorrow, and believe me that all this will be forgotten soon. I helped you in your recovery like a sister, imagine that I am your sister. And if you happen this way in a year or so, stop by and ask after me.”
I don’t know what she told the mother superior after she left my room. All I know is that they decided to discharge me the next day. I took my time with the final arrangements, hoping to be able to see her for a last time. But I wasn’t able to. And strangely, everything happened as she had predicted. My anxiety to see her diminished soon. My daily concerns, life’s customary struggles, crushed and dried this dream too, and turned it to dust, along with all the flowers of my heart.
But the memory of Sister Emily remained, some of its color faded, like a leaf pressed between the pages of a book.
A year later when I happened to be in the Taksim district again, I went to see her at the hospital, as she had advised.
Only a month before she had succumbed to a contagious disease after an illness of barely a week.
“We’ll never have another nurse like her,” the mother superior told me, shaking her head sadly.
This was the extent of her eulogy.
Alec Mouhibian is the co-writer/director of 1915 The Movie, and Creative Armenia's VP of Programs and Productions.