Buried Treasure: Leonid Hurunts
And his powerful short story about the eternal land
January 24, 2020 | by Anush Ter-Khachatryan
We lose the trajectory of some treasures not because they are buried in history, but because they are in the outer orbit. “I am like that astronaut who, having entered orbit, is no longer subject to gravity. I am happy from such freedom, as if I have grown wings, and I fly without knowing the hindrances,” wrote Leonid Hurunts (1913-1982), expressing his refusal to write merely for his times. He knew the power of language, its secret lanes toward the truth — and that’s where he landed.
Published in Russian and Armenian, the son of Karabakh became the voice of Karabakh, click-clacking its sufferings onto his paper with a synchronized and stubborn touch of the “poet of prose,” as he was often referred by fellow writers.
Hurunts ensured his place on the Soviet blacklist by peeling back the truth with his Karabakh poems. Still, he went on writing and publishing his works, among which were Karabakh Crossroads (1981), Stones of my Hearth (1959), Mountains High (1963).
He wrote of his homeland, he raged against the injustices staggering in the land, he passionately fought for the survival of mulberry trees in Karabakh, and planted the seeds of the Karabakh movement.
Presented below is a short story from Hurunts’s last work In Solitude: How My Cries Can Reach the Next Generation, a collection of notes written in the late 1970s in the veranda of his house.
— Anush Ter-Khachatryan
By Leonid Hurunts
A wise man said that in these times of rapidly developing communications the world is squeezed down into the size of a football. And here is that football, in my palm. I see every corner of the world on it. Every city. Even our tiny Stepanakert. I see so clearly when I look at the world from the rooftop of my native Norshen house.
Yes, I see far from my Norshen roof. From here I travel toward the distant lands of Mongolia, the northern stretches of our country, to the Far East or to the near Zangezur, but also to Karabakh, toward the people of my land. Of course here I can not simply be a traveler. And if at any point I see anything good or bad in an exaggerated manner, that’s because of love.
Here’s my Norshen, higher and higher, right under the clouds, spread over the mountaintops with its white-stoned, tightly-packed houses: softly shining, rusty tin roofs assembled upon each other. Here is the road to the village with the bumps that I have known since childhood. The road that stretches through the mountains and fields connecting us to the world. The narrow mountain path trampled by the hooves of horses, battered by the axles of arabas, green on both sides — this is my Norshen road. My origin, which has illuminated my path for many, many years.
A quartet of oxen, pair by pair, drag the little plow. The wild pigeons waddle on the steaming furrow and take wings to start a fight, skillfully plucking at worms in the furrow. They’ll reach the end of that viscous furrow, only to return and start the hunt again.
A boy is sitting on the first ox. He’s a little boy, as they say, but a brisk one — already a farmhand in his second year as a plowboy. He’s sitting all serious, a bit pompously. It seems he enjoys his work and mischievously whips the back of the oxen for no reason. The face of the boy is barely visible. The self-made sun-faded straw-hat covers his eyes. Only his peeling nose and chin are visible, weathered and sunburnt to blackness.
Sometimes the plowshare gets tangled in the roots and rings with tension. If the root is strong, the plowshare can’t immediately overcome it and the oxen will press onto the soil, leaning on their front feet and dragging with all their might until the root surrenders with a crunch.
Sitting upon the yoke, the boy is also undergoing a variety of transformations. First his hat flies off. Then he flies over the oxen. The oxen are back in the furrow and the plow resumes its tiresome song, which consists of monotonous crunches, and the boy whose head gets buried in the hat jumps back on the yoke with the same pompous seriousness, as if nothing had happened. He and the hat are used to such awkward situations.
The plowboy is me.
Here the boy is gathering blackberries on the mountain slopes. He wears white boots on his bare feet. They have whitened because of spider webs that at this time of year get enmeshed in everything around — blackberry bushes, junipers, burdocks, rocks, and crevices. The blackberry, that dark purple fruit is so sweet and juicy that it makes the teeth ache. To pass the bush and not taste the blackberries is torture.
On the mountain slope, the boy is not so much gathering as he is devouring the berries, stuffing palmfuls in his mouth.
His lips and teeth are purple. From the berries. And his hands and feet are all in scratches. Also from the berries. That’s the price for self-hospitality and dreamlike delight. The blackberry bush has unbearable thorns that vigilantly protect the sweet fruit from animals, beasts, and even birds — from everything that comes to mind, except for the country boys who spend all day in the mountains, on its most unreachable slopes. In fact the blackberry grew in all parts of the country, but we used to hike the mountains where the fruit was harder to gather and was therefore sweeter and more tempting. We were tempted by everything that was hard to get or forbidden. The grapes of someone else’s garden, the black mulberries which was a rarity in our parts. Those would also give your lips and teeth purple color.
The blackberry-gathering boy with white boots is also me.
The araba moves up to the village, peacefully rolling the unoiled wheels on the village road. In the back of it lies a half-dead boy. A misfortune has happened to him. Boasting in front of his peers, he has mounted a horse unaccustomed to riders. And the horse, indifferent to the boy’s motives, has thrown him over its head and disgraced the inexperienced rider. That boy whose silly boastfulness has smashed his arm is also me…
We all have got plenty of everything in our life — plenty of kindness and evil, sadness and joy — but why am I, who’s lived a long life, returning again and again to my first steps and searching in them the answers to the questions tormenting me?
I am rarely noted for my sensibility when the question is about Karabakh. Now, as always, I can not be unbiased toward it.
People of my age are very well acquainted with the song, “Rise high like campfires, you blue nights!” This song still shakes up our memories, takes us back through distant years toward the very first campfire when the words of the pioneers’ oath burned in our hearts like fiery coals.
Norshen glows for me now like those campfires, like the oxen quartet dragging the little plow, like the blackberry bush that scratches my arms and legs to the point of bleeding before it grants its fruit, like the spider web that dressed me in white boots and covered my childhood in a soft silver veil.
I cannot imagine myself being born elsewhere, my childhood spent under another sky… and if you, my reader, haven’t been born in Karabakh, that’s alright. You were also born somewhere, your childhood was also spent somewhere, and that somewhere is your universe.
Here is the road, my childhood road, trampled by the hooves of horses, battered by wheels, now worn out by the tire tracks. The mountain road which begins God knows where and stretches to who knows what.
Through this road, my ancestors have delivered their message to Peter The Great. In that message, Karabakhtsis asked for Russia’s support in the defense of Karabakh from the Eastern invasions. Wasn’t it through this road that on July 18 of 1805, Atabekians, Vani Yusbashi, and his brother Hakob — the residents of Kusapat village — crept up to a small besieged regiment of Russian soldiers and led them to safety? Two brave hearts, to whom the military historian V. Potto would later refer as the saviors of the detachment. On the same road, centuries before this, prince Vachagan saw beautiful Anahit and was stunned by her wisdom. According to the folktale, Vachagan was captivated by the lady’s mind, married her, and was happy.
My childhood road! By this road, my friend, my companion Vasak Poghosbekian left for the Great Patriotic War and never came back. Many people left, many Norshen residents… Their names are engraved on the marble near the village entrance. I carry that wound in my heart and it never heals…
No matter how long a Karabakhtsi might live abroad — it’s been tested — Karabakh is eternal for him, the Carthage that is not easily destroyed.
Forty years have passed since the day I left Norshen, but there wasn’t a single moment of doubt that I would come back.
Now I live in Yerevan, which is rightfully considered one of the most beautiful cities in the world. I like to see how it grows day by day, how it develops, how it gets more beautiful. But despite everything, I will never forget my Karabakh. I am a Karabakhtsi, and that says it all.
People may object, saying: “Will your Carthage continue to shine for centuries when each year the powerful city gains ground and takes its people? What about your Norshen? Perhaps almost nobody lives there, the population has decreased by half.”
Yes, that’s true, the population of the village is decreasing. But it’s also true that no matter how much the city calls and takes away its people, the land remains a land, it continues to feed and need feeding, as people continue to need bread and harvest. And if that’s true, then my Carthage will still stand, and there will be those devoted to it…
Now everything is settled and it’s clear why I sketched my return to the first colors of my childhood and once again climbed up the roof of my Norshen house. When you have a roof, something everlasting, the Earth is squeezed into a football, the size of a globe, which you can hold in your palm.
Pioneer — A member of Vladimir Lenin All-Union Pioneer Organization, abbreviated as Young Pioneer. A member of a Soviet Union mass youth organization for children of age 9-15 that existed between 1922 and 1991.
Anush Ter-Khachatryan is a writer living in Yerevan.