Whenever my father would upset my mother, I would always go to Toronto, where there was an old worn bed with a metal frame placed on top of bee hives, and by its headboard, a bookshelf that practically reached the sky, filled with countless books. In Toronto, I would sit on the biggest mushroom that had grown between the floorboards and I would look at the waves of the three long hairs that fell from my grandpa’s bald head, which shivered from the hot steam rising from the cup of tea in his hand.
“Now we will drink tea and eat lokhum together,” my grandfather would say, patting my head. “Don’t worry, everything will be fine.”
“I don’t want to, grandpa. Tell me about your bees,” I would say.
“In Toronto, the bees know how to talk like people. They can also sing, recite poems, they help and heal each other, they learn foreign languages… You believe me, don’t you?” he’d ask, setting his teacup down on the table.
“Yes grandpa, I believe you. But the bees in our hives, why don’t they talk?”
“Ehhhh, my child, people don’t listen to our bees. And when nobody listens to them, they get upset and never speak again. They choose silence and hard work.”
“Where are we now, grandpa?” I would ask him again and again.
“We’re in the forest, and in the heart of the forest lies Toronto. I’ll show you.”
My grandfather would lean his body on his cane and stand up. He would pull the thickest, largest book off the bookshelf and open it from the middle. “Come close, my child, closer…” With bated breath, I would approach my grandfather and hug his leg, which rattled like a train. I would look at his hand. From between the pages, my grandfather would take out a huge leaf, a lush, green leaf that made rustling noises.
“Do you see? Look carefully. Here is Toronto.” His glazed eyes would light up the entire surface of the leaf. Tears would pool in the whites of his eyes. “Give me your hand. Come on now, your hand.” Slowly and a little timidly, I would extend my hand to the stem of the leaf and hold it. “Good… hold it tightly, my child. Do not be afraid. When your father slaps your mother, Toronto gets drawn on her cheek. Come, kiss the leaf. The pain will go away. Toronto will heal the pain.”
Then, with his faint voice like a breeze blowing through a fir tree, he would add, “When you are sad, remember that you are not alone. Toronto is always with you. At night, if you can’t sleep, repeat 50 times in your head: Toronto, Toronto, Toronto… until your eyes close and the Seneca people float by you in their canoes, and like snowflakes, the birds of the forest come and rest on your shoulders, the angels on bicycles, the roosters with carts, the tiny donkeys, no bigger than grains of sand sitting on the streetcars, and finally, the talking bees, who will sing the sweetest song for you and recite the most profound poetry. They will become your closest friends…”
As my grandfather spoke, the mushroom would grow, until my feet were lifted off the ground. Holding the leaf tightly, I would rise, almost reaching the sky, and I would see the highest shelves. When I would look down for a moment, my grandfather would look as small as a bee, his cane happily rejoicing in the air…
The three hairs on his head flutter like a white flag. His tea has probably gotten cold.
The quivering of the cane reminds me of soft twinkles. Now and then, the circular outlines of the knots in its wood come into view. I lose him in the ink-coloured layers.
My eyelids are closing for the last time, like heavy gates.
It’s been about a month now that I’ve been packing my bags. I’ve taken the biggest suitcase in the house, put it out on the balcony, let it air out in the sun, and changed the old, worn lining. On the left side, near the corner, I’ve glued an excerpt I ripped out from a big encyclopaedia when I was in school:
Toronto, city in eastern Canada, provincial capital of Ontario. Pop. 3.1 million (including suburbs, 1984). Port on Lake Ontario. Industrial, financial and cultural centre. Two universities. 19th century historical monuments. Founded in the 18th century. Was inhabited by Natives in the 17th century, became a French trade hub in the 18th century, and officially became a city under British rule in 1793. Was called York until 1834. 1793-1841, administrative centre of British colonial Upper Canada. 1837-1838, site of rebellion against the British.
I’ve glued it so that it’s the first thing that catches my eye when I open the suitcase. Layer by layer, I stack my underwear, socks, toiletries. I choose my green shirt instead of the grey one. I think in Toronto, they’ll like my green shirt and I’ll get a job. I pack a few articles of warm clothing, it will get cold at night. I also take one pack of cigarettes, a teacup, a spoon, one loaf of matnakash, one bag of potatoes, a radio, a few small souvenirs, some medications: Analgin and Valerian. You never know, in Toronto I might get heart palpitations from the excitement. I’m worried. The suitcase is getting stuffed. I change and rearrange the clothes and other articles in it almost every day, early in the morning and late at night. I also want to take my father’s winter boots with the snakeskin over the toes. As I stroll down the streets of Toronto, I’ll slow my step and pull up my wide-leg jeans so that everyone can see my snakeskin toes. Say, a chubby lady walking next to me eating a pear will notice my shoes and pear in mouth, will freeze and exclaim, “Oh my God!” The clear-rimmed glasses of the gentleman walking towards me will slide down to the tip of his nose as he mutters discreetly, “O mon dieu.”
And finally, I’ll hear that hoarse, throaty, familiar voice, “Vakh, hors arev… ”
But unfortunately the shoes are too big. I would have to leave out a few very valuable things because of them. So I’ll have to go in my running shoes.
She is sprinkling the low shrubs of a houseplant with a watering can and scrutinizing me through the corner of her eye. “You’re the one who submitted the application, right?”
“Yes, I am.”
“Do you have a specific reason for applying, or…”
“I’m going to Toronto.”
“Toronto? What have you lost in Canada… Are you going to sightsee?”
“No… I’m going… I want to live…”
She sits on her office chair, takes some papers out of the drawer… “Live? How? Do you have family there? Sign here.”
“No, I don’t have any family there.”
“Sign under this paragraph too… Then how are you going? What are you going to do?”
“Nothing. At least I’ll be close to Gould’s chair.”
“Sign here too… What do you mean, nothing? Nobody goes to Toronto just like that. Try to sign in the right place or we’ll have to start over.”
“I’m not going to Toronto for anything in particular.”
“Just a minute…” She takes a new sheet of paper from the drawer, sort of like a ticket. “Sign here too… Hey, do you want a coffee? I’ve only had one cup today. Don’t have a free second with this damn job.”
“No, thank you.”
“Sign here too. Ah, no, no, a little lower… there you go. Why are your hands shaking?”
“I don’t know.”
“Okay, done. You’re free. Happy travels to you and good luck. You know, you’ve got it right. If my husband agreed, we’d leave today. Have you said goodbye to your coworkers? I bet they’re jealous.”
“Yeah, we got together yesterday, we sat, had champagne, I said goodbye to everybody. You be well, too. Try to get out of this hellhole as soon as possible. Bye.”
“Thanks, bye. Have a safe flight.”
The envelope is yellowed and torn. I bought it three years ago. I remember well, it was March 2nd, 2003. The weather was warming up. I walked towards the booth at the sports institute and bought the envelope for 120 drams. At first I put it in my pants pocket, but I got anxious and afraid that the edges would get wrinkled in the narrow pocket. I walked between the five-storey buildings, stopped in a hidden spot and took out the envelope. At that moment, a man passed by me. He was wearing a white coat, probably a butcher or a dentist. I immediately hid the envelope so that he wouldn’t see it. Once he had gone quite a distance, he turned into the third entrance. I quickly took out the envelope and put it in the wide and deep breast pocket of my jacket. At home, I wrote in thick red pencil on the face of the envelope: Toronto (ticket price).
For three years, the envelope would be in a constant state of flux, swelling and draining. It would appear in all the likely and unlikely corners of the house: in drawers, in pillowcases, under the loose parquet tiles, even in the crack in the elevator ceiling. Toronto (ticket price), all that’s visible now is the last part in brackets. Mind you, the price is the important part. 15,600 drams. I pick up the old envelope and put it in my suitcase, cramming it between the pack of cigarettes and the teacup, so that it won’t fall out if it’s moved around. It’s the last day. Tomorrow it’ll all unfold. Tomorrow I won’t be here. Just a few hours, and that’s it. I go to bed. I lay my head on the pillow.
The light goes on. “Get up, get dressed. Your dad hasn’t come home.” My mother’s polka-dotted nightgown flows loosely away from her body. Half of her pale chest is looking at me mournfully. She hasn’t even noticed that she’s wearing her nightgown, that she ever put it on in the first place, that half of her breast, with its stretched nipple, is showing. My father is gone. He’s always gone. He shows up once in a while around noon, like a dead man’s ghost, betraying his presence in our lives. He shows up to say that he is miserable. I don’t believe him. I scare him. I tell him that if he keeps it up, I’ll leave home, that I’ll go to Toronto and never come back, that he’ll be left alone. He doesn’t believe me, and doesn’t even hear my voice anymore because he’s not in the room, he’s gone away. He has appeared just to disappear. Now it’s my turn. I’m going to hunt him down, going to set my trap, sharpen my vision, my hearing, keep my hand on the trigger without trembling, without doubt, without fear. I go everywhere, through wide and narrow streets. I go to the hospital, leave the hospital. I walk down the roads that have been the only roads of my life. I return down the roads that have been the only roads of my life. I go to the morgue, I go home, I go to the cottage, I go to the hospital… I come and I go, just as the power would during the years of the blockade, switching off in one building, then on in the next. I come and I go, like the seasons of the year, like a shameless cat. He is not here, not anywhere. I start to think, maybe he never was, but there’s not time to think. Thoughts are like those familiar roads to me, where I come and go…
That’s it, just a few moments and…
I can barely lift the suitcase off the ground. I’ve added new things, in particular my notebooks filled with drafts and finally, after giving it a lot of thought, I’ve decided to take my father’s worn boots. They’ll just look so good.
It’s quiet and dark outside.
I turn the key twice. The cellar door creaks open. A muddle of smells hits my face. I go inside. It’s a tight space. My suitcase barely fits. I somehow manage to set it down next to the preserves. I flip over the drawer that’s meant for winter pickles, sit on it, and close the door.
The plane still has a long way to go before reaching Toronto. I may even order an alcoholic beverage. Everything will be all right now, everything will be great. You lean your head against the cold wall. It’s quiet and dark inside. The weather is surely perfect in Toronto, nice and cool. The weightless wind carries the pleasant mist of Lake Ontario and the distinct smell of its moss. You can’t sleep. Your grandfather’s words come to mind:
“…when you can’t sleep, repeat 50 times in your head Toronto, Toronto, Toronto… until your eyes close and the Seneca people float by you in their canoes, and like snowflakes, the birds of the forest come and rest on your shoulders, the angels on bicycles, the roosters with carts, the tiny donkeys, no bigger than grains of sand sitting on the streetcars, and finally, the talking bees, who will sing the sweetest song for you and recite the most profound poetry. They will become your closest friends…”
They’re knocking on the cellar door…
From the photo story "The Ghost House" by Anahit Hayrapetyan