Spring 1999 (7.1)
World War II
The Pistachio Tree
Azeri version of the story
War looks different through a child's eyes. At home, shielded from danger, the story's narrator sees war as an exciting game to play with his friends. But he can only be oblivious for a short while. He realizes that war is not a game as he begins to witness the pain and suffering it creates. His whole community is affected, experiencing a more immediate, symbolic loss-the loss of a pistachio tree.
Photo of Magsud Ibrahimbeyov
During the war [World War II] not a single bomb fell on Baku.
Of course, no one in town wanted such a thing to happen-no one, that is,
except for the kids in our neighborhood.
- Magsud Ibrahimbeyov
During the war [World War II] not a single bomb fell on Baku. Of course, no one in town wanted such a thing to happen-no one, that is, except for the kids in our neighborhood. We all wanted so much for at least one bomb to be dropped on our block. Our dream didn't come true. We used to sit on the roof of our building until midnight, but all in vain.
There was a wooden plaque hanging on the wall. On it were clearly written instructions of what to do during an attack. We knew those words by heart. But for nothing. That plaque hung on the wall during all those war years, but no one had to refer to it.
During the war, there was only one thing that entertained us kids. That was when someone from the Apartment Control Office would come once a month to change the water in the metal tank that was affixed on top of our building to be used during a fire. The water in that tank was dark green and sometimes even looked black. The chief of the Apartment Control Office had promised us that a tadpole would appear in the tank. We waited for a long time. We'd go and look inside the tank every single day, but we never saw any tadpoles.
The chief was a nice person. He never used to bother us. When we built ourselves a military headquarters in the yard, he walked around it, kicked its wall with his foot and told us to leave the top open like it was. He said that if an accident happened, the roof might crash down on our heads, somebody would get hurt and he would also get in trouble for it. But he let us use what we had built as our headquarters. We didn't cover the top. It wasn't necessary anyway. We gathered in the headquarters to solve military problems and kept our weapons in the cellar.
We had various kinds of arms. We used to make our own swords by pulling the metal rings off of wooden barrels and trimming off any unnecessary parts with a chisel. Then we would make the edges thinner by sharpening them against other metal. Finally, we would tie a rag to make a handle, and that became our sword.
We gathered most of our other arms from a place called Salyan Barracks. There in the meadow was a pile of various kinds of arms: a gun muzzle, a grenade, a tank and two planes with German insignias. People said that if we searched carefully, we might find a machine gun and a mine for blowing up a tank. We searched and searched but could never find a mine or a machine gun. But we did find lots of strips with ammunition clips, plus a grenade without its fuse. We gathered the clips in boxes and cans. Then we would make a fire, throw clips in it, run and hide behind a stone wall and wait to see what would happen.
Every time there was an explosion in the cellar, frightened neighbors would run out of their apartments into the street. They couldn't understand what was going on. We acted like we didn't know anything. But after a couple of days Aunt Sura started saying that traders had begun living in the cellar: "At night, they fight and shoot each other." Some neighbors even believed her story.
Once when the clamor in the cellar became so loud, patrols appeared from out of nowhere and almost caught us. We couldn't understand how they had discovered our secret. It was really strange. They weren't able to catch us, but they did tell our school about it. We never blew up those ammunition strips again. But we did continue playing the game that we called "fight-fight." 1
Our apartment complex was a beautiful, big, two-storied building. On its second floor there was a long passage extending from one end of the building to the other. In our yard there was a huge pistachio tree. It was so large that it even cast shade on the second floor. When we played "fight-fight," we used to climb up in that pistachio tree and hide there. No one was able to find us, no matter how much time they spent looking. Had you gone all around Baku and looked for such a tree, you would never have found one like ours in any courtyard. In autumn, the pistachios would ripen. We used to gather them and divide them equally among the neighbors. At first, we would carry the nuts to our headquarters and pile them in a heap. Then we would start filling up bags and delivering them to neighbors. Each apartment was given a bag full of pistachios. Everybody liked that.
We usually ate breakfast at school. It consisted of either spaghetti or various kinds of pastries. They gave us kissel 2 to drink at school and we would take the spaghetti and pastries to our headquarters where we'd sit and have breakfast together with all the other kids. My mom used to say that the pastries weren't edible at all. She wondered why they gave them to us. It's true, maybe they were really starchy, but oh, if you only knew how delicious they were!
We carried on all our work at the headquarters. If any of us got any money, he would go to the store on Bazarny Street and buy a shoulder strap and a star. We used to bestow ranks on our friends-the ones who displayed "heroism." Soon there were no private soldiers left in our yard, as we had been quite generous with these positions. Soon everybody had become "colonel," "general" or "marshal." Two girls-Namira and Tosya-received the rank of "nurse-general." Everybody knew that a girl couldn't be a general, but we knew that if we didn't give them a rank, they would never have bandaged our wounded men.
We fought with kids on our street from two different courtyards. Everyone used to go out into the street and fight with swords. Everybody used to watch us fight. Neighbors would look out of their windows. Sometimes people got wounded but they never cried. After the fight we would exchange prisoners. Mostly the kids from our courtyard won. We had experienced "colonels" among our "fighters". I can say that we played "fight-fight" nearly every day.
Somewhere there was a real war going on. We heard about it from the adults. But the war didn't frighten us at all.
Then new neighbors moved into the block of apartments in our courtyard. There was a girl and a boy among them. They were little; we didn't even know their names. They used to sit on the stairs and watch us practice with our swords.
An apartment had been given to them on the ground floor. They lived there with their mother. I don't think their mother worked anywhere, because she was always at home sitting under the shade of the pistachio tree and washing clothes. She never seemed to get tired. Sometimes she used to pause and rearrange the hair that had fallen into her face, and then she would continue working.
Other neighbors said that this woman got clothes from the mill, washed them and took them back, and that she was paid for it. Otherwise, how could anyone have so many white clothes in one house? She hung the clothes out to dry on the clothesline that was tied to the door. And if someone touched the stuff that she'd washed, she would swear at them. This woman was so hot-tempered that even her own children were afraid.
It became difficult for us in our courtyard-not only because we wanted to play "fight-fight" and build a fire in the courtyard in the evenings. That was impossible. The neighbor would complain that the black smoke and soot from the fire was settling on her white clothes.
After washing the clothes, the woman would pour the dirty water out on the ground around the pistachio tree. It's a good thing that the water wasn't soapy. Soap was really hard to find during the war years.
It's true that such work was hard for that woman. Sometimes we tried to help her, but since she had such an unpredictable, moody nature, we soon learned to keep our distance. My mom used to say that when one's life is difficult, that person's character changes and becomes nervous and temperamental.
During the war, life was full of difficulties and suffering. My mom used to work all day long. When she returned home, she'd see that I had washed the dishes and cleaned the floor. She'd smile, and her tiredness seemed to disappear in a flash just like a spring mist. I used to think that if everybody had the character of our new neighbor, you would have to run somewhere far away from such people.
The neighbor woman continued washing clothes every day and her children continued living in deep grief. They carried the dirty water and emptied it at the foot of the pistachio tree. One day a worker from the Apartment Control Office scolded the neighbor for doing this. She rinsed her hands in the water and said something rude to him. He turned red and walked away and didn't come back to our yard for a couple of days. Everyone wondered what our new neighbor had told the worker. Aunt Sura said that it was impossible for her to repeat the word that the neighbor had said to the worker. Aunt Sura was ashamed of saying it, and no one asked her to repeat it. It was clear, however, that Aunt Sura relished the idea of people asking her about the incident.
On Saturday after classes, we made plans to continue playing "Fight-fight" in the courtyard of Block No. 28, but then decided to play near the pistachio tree instead.
In the morning, we gathered in the yard before heading to school. Suddenly one of us looked up at the tree and let out a yelp. We all turned toward the tree, looked at it carefully and saw that it had dried up. We couldn't believe our eyes; it was as if we were in a dream. The tree was completely bare. All of its leaves had fallen overnight. Only clusters of pistachios were hanging from the dry branches.
Such an uproar rose from our courtyard. What a racket! We hadn't had such a racket in our yard since the summer night when one of our neighbors had told another that she was a fascist and they had almost had a fight. Everybody was yelling, but it was impossible to understand anything. I heard one neighbor say: "You've destroyed the tree, such a beautiful tree." Someone else said that an agriculturist should be called, maybe it was possible to save the tree.
The new neighbor came out of the building, curious about the noise and furor. She listened quietly to what the people were saying, but it was as if this problem didn't concern her at all. Then she went into her apartment and slammed the door behind her with all the force that she could muster. The same day, an agriculturist came. He looked at the pistachio tree and concluded, "We can't do anything. It's not only trees that are dying these days." And then he left.
That day was Saturday. We didn't fight the kids of Block No. 28, but it didn't worry us at all what they would think of us. We gathered at the headquarters and started thinking about what we would say to the new neighbor. Finally, we made a decision to tell her just exactly what we thought of her. We would tell her that she was a stupid woman, and that we didn't want her to live in our courtyard. We all went to her place and knocked at the door. Nobody opened it. We knocked again, and when nobody came out, we decided to go on in.
The woman was sitting on the bed and was starting to cry. I've never met a person in all my life who cried like she did. She covered her face with her hands-the hands that were white and scratched from washing all those clothes. She went on crying without paying any attention to us. Her kids were frightened. They looked at us in surprise. Then they started crying and ran toward their mother.
We-the colonels, generals and marshals-stood in front of her. Everyone wanted to say something, but the words got stuck in our throats. We wanted to tell her that no tree in the world, no matter how beautiful, was worth human tears. Probably, we would have said something like that if we had been grownups. God knows what grownups say when they face such situations.
We returned to our headquarters, took the money that we had saved for buying stars and bars and we made our way toward Kubinka. The kids of Block No. 28 followed us. It took us a long time to find the place where they sold trees. Vendors offered us shirts, bacon and canned food. We said that we didn't need anything except for a pistachio tree. After searching for quite a while, we finally arrived at the place where trees were being sold. We approached the person selling them and told him that we needed a pistachio tree.
"A banana tree?" he asked, winking at his friend.
We gave him the money that we had collected. The seller picked out a tree from among those lying on the ground and gave it to us. He promised that it was a real pistachio tree and advised us to water it very often after it was planted.
We took the tree and, by taking turns, managed to carry it home. By evening, we had dug a hole, planted the tree, spaded and loosened the dirt around it.
Then together we went to the new neighbor's apartment and told her that we had planted a new tree. We asked her not to cry any more, but warned her to be careful this time and not pour the dirty water at the foot of the tree.
She hugged all of us and asked us to leave, otherwise she would insist on paying for it. Her voice was really scary as if something had happened to her. Tears were streaming down her cheeks, but she still looked beautiful. It seemed as if she had been crying when we went to get the tree because we could hear her voice in the distance.
When I got home that evening, my mom told me that our new neighbor's husband had died on the frontline. She had received the note about her husband's death yesterday.
The tree that we had planted grew. Of course, it turned out not to be a pistachio tree. We didn't even know what kind of tree it was. We all took turns watering it-even our new neighbor.
Well, not really "new." As I sit writing this story, 20 years have passed since she became our neighbor. Now all our neighbors gather and chat under the shade of the tree that we planted. Nobody complains that it's not really a pistachio tree.
Translated by Vafa Mastanova
From Azerbaijan International (7.1) Spring 1999.
© Azerbaijan International 1999. All rights reserved.