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Hovhannes Tumanian: The Construction of the Railway

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One evening in 1898, shortly before the opening of the railway from Tiflis to Kars, we were sitting about on logs before the house of Master Ohanes in a village in the Lori district, having a chat. Master Ohanes was telling us how the construction of the railway had begun. “One day our Simon and I were out cutting wood in the lower valley by the river,” he began. “Suddenly we saw several men wearing white caps making their way up the bank.” “Well, well, Simon,” says I. “What is it?” “Something’s afoot,” I says. “Why so? They’re just strangers going their way. Perhaps they’re lost.” “No,” said I. “Something’s afoot. You mark my words.” “When we got back to the village we noticed a white pole on the roof of Tersan’s flourmill.” “Well, well, Simon!” says I. “What is it?” “Now do you see?” I says. “See what?” “You wait.” I says. “You’ll see.” Not long after that we saw it announced in the newspaper that the railway was coming our way. “Well, well, Simon!” says I. “What is it?” “Now do you see?” I says. “I was right, wasn’t I?” “So you were, confound it!” cried the hunter Osep, interrupting Master Ohanes' story. “Why, now, what harm is there in a railway?” put in some of the villagers. “Harm, and nothing else! Why, it came hooting into the valleys and frightened away the deer. It’s as if they never were,” complained Osep. “It’s more than the deer, begad,” said a shepherd, leaning on his stick. “When I look down into the valley from the mountainside and see them blasting the rocks, my heart bleeds as if my own child were being disembowelled by the enemy and I were standing by helpless....” “There’ll be plenty of destruction alright!” some sighed in agreement. And an argument flared up about the benefit and the harm of the railway. During the argument one of the workers on the railway came up from the valley and approached us. “Good evening,” he said. “Good evening, Master!” “I need some flour. Will anyone sell me some?” the stranger asked, addressing us all. “Where are you from?” asked Master Ohanes. “I am from the land of the Ottomans.” “Master Ohanes, ask him what town he’s from, said a curious villager. — “What town are you from, my friend?” Master Ohanes asked again. “From Sivaz.” “From Sivaz!” Master Ohancs repeated wisely, lingering over the last syllable. “What did he say, Master Ohanes?” “Sivaz...” “May your house stand firm in Sivaz!” cried some of the villagers clapping their hands and laughing. “How many months’ journey is it from there to here?” Master Ohanes continued his questioning. “Three months.” “Phew!” they all explained in amazement. “Welcome, stranger! Sit down and do us the honour of eating with us!” “Thank you, kindly but I’m in a hurry. If someone’11 sell me some flour I’ll be going.” “Hey there! Bring out a pot of flour,” Master Ohanes called out front the door. “And fill it full!” One of the women brought out a pot of flour and went to pour it into the stranger’s bag but he would not let her. “How much do I owe you?” he asked. “Come. Pour it into your bag first!” urged Master Ohanes. “No. First tell me the price.” “Go on pour it in, and then we’ll tell you. If it’s too dear, you can always pour some back.” The stranger opened his bag, and the woman poured the flour in and returned to the house. “Right.... Now, how much do I owe you?” asked the stranger pulling out his purse from under his belt. “Nothing, stranger. You owe us nothing. It’s all yours for free. In our land we are not in the habit of charging strangers for food. We have no such custom....” said Master Ohanes, puffing at his pipe. The stranger was somewhat embarrassed, protested weakly and left. There followed a short silence then someone said: “A few days ago one of them came for yoghurt. The women offered him some. When he’d eaten it, he stood up and wanted to know the price. ‘The price of what?’ I ask him. ‘Of the yoghurt,’ he says. ‘My good man, enough of that,’ I says. ‘Stop such talk or the sheep’s milk may dry up.’” Well lads, what is to he done about it then? Are we to let them come and eat and take food away with them as long as they like? How many of them have been coming these last few days? Not so long ago I myself poured out a potful of flour for one of them. How long can this go on?” put in the younger brother of Master Ohanes. “If he comes again, give him another pot....” said Master Ohanes quietly raising his head. “May there always be plenty in your home!” exclaimed some of the old men. “Whoever comes, by thunder, from Sivaz or where have you, should we serve them with food free of charge, as if we work for them! I say welcome! Welcome to all! But if you want food, pay for it then take it!” said the younger brother. And they began to argue. Master Ohanes got all worked up and the din increased. “Toot, toot...” whistled the train down below. The railway had just entered our valleys.