Read The Orphan Sky Online

Authors: Ella Leya

The Orphan Sky

Copyright © 2015 by Ella Leya

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In memory of my mother, Jane, and my son, Sergey—your dreams continue…


California, June 2002

Music seemed to flow out of the painting. Piano arpeggios in scarlet layers. Violin pizzicati in gold and silver brushstrokes. A dark D minor progression of chords sweeping by, trailed by a velvety soft harmony in white. Flutes spilling nostalgic blues and violets into the ever-changing palette of Rachmaninoff's
no. 3

I could see and hear music again; I could surrender to its colors and passions. Something I hadn't been able to experience in twenty years. Since I buried my heart in the past. Since the sea of my destiny took me far away from the land of my childhood and washed me ashore, an empty shell without the trace of a pearl.

The painting was exhibited at the Pacific Design Center in Los Angeles, on loan from the National Art Museum of Azerbaijan. The
art critic praised it effusively in his article:

The application of broken colors, mineral-based pigments, and silver; the dramatic Caravaggio-like shift from dark to light; the mystical objects depicted in the tradition of ancient Persian miniatures—all these induce an extraordinary emotional effect. The painting—signed Maiden Tower—is a true masterpiece, created by an artist who possesses brilliant technique and unconstrained imagination. And what everyone who's seen it wants to know is this: Who is this great master?

I knew. The moment I entered the showroom and saw the canvas, I knew.

Maiden Tower, obscured by the large crowd of spectators, dazzled by the relentless camera flashes, rose from the darkness of the stormy sea, fires breaking out of its sliver-like windows. A lonely princess—half human, half bird—standing on its crown, her wings reaching into the dome of the wakening sky.

And, appearing from behind the clouds, drowned in Caravaggio's light, the face of a girl.

My face.

Many years ago, I sat for Tahir in a dingy, dark Kabul hotel room. With the roar and the flashes of artillery tearing up the sky outside. With the moon—the only source of light—peeking in through the grimy window. I can still smell the paint, trace Tahir's strokes in the air. Painfully familiar, even after all this time.

A group of visitors, obviously VIP, approached, led by a short, stocky woman in a pink Chanel suit. I'd seen her before. The editor of a glossy magazine,
, published here in Los Angeles, and the curator of every Azeri event in America. She cleared space for her group, positioned herself firmly on her crimson stilettos, and began to speak in heavily accented English:

“Ten thousand years ago, the evil Shah of Darkness conquered the Land of Azerbaijan and ordered the building of a tower from the bottom of the Caspian Sea. When the tower reached the sky, every maiden was taken from her parents and locked inside to wait for the night of her wedding to the Shah. Darkness swallowed our land for many years until one morning when birdsong wakened the people of Azerbaijan. Fluttering vermilion feathers, the Firebird soared over Maiden Tower, leading the sun back to its rightful place in the firmament of the sky.”

The Legend of Maiden Tower—a tale from my childhood promising a triumphal finale at the end of a long struggle. Encouraging one to stand up to darkness and strive to reach for the skies. Something I had failed to do.

It was after five p.m. when I pulled onto the southbound 405 Freeway, together with the thousands of Angelenos heading back to their safe enclaves. Mine was Laguna Beach, a quaint California village of fishermen, artists, and jet-setters, lost between sunburned rocky canyons and the blue infinity of the Pacific Ocean. An ideal escape for someone running from the past.

I opened the door to my lonely villa and went to my spare room, empty except for the baby grand Bösendorfer buried in the corner under a thick cloak of dust.

How long had it been since I'd even touched it?

I wiped off the dust, lifted the lid, and stroked the keys, invading the mournful silence of the black-and-white keyboard. Playing the melody of the first theme from “Allegro ma non tanto.” Rachmaninoff's
no. 3

Wakening the shadows.


Soviet Azerbaijan, May 1979

By the time I turned fifteen, Communism had become my religion.

Of course, at the time, it would not have occurred to me to make any comparison of Communism to religion—the latter being Communism's most despised ideological rival in the battle for the souls and minds of the Soviet people, a battle that had begun in 1917 with the victorious Great October Socialist Revolution.

Temples of Communism with crimson banners and flags arose from the ashes of burned mosques, churches, and synagogues; hammers and sickles and red stars replaced crescents, crosses, and stars of David; and the philosophical doctrine of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union became the one and only source of truth. And God? Well, we had Lenin.

As a member of Komsomol—the Youth League of the Communist Party—I worked tirelessly with the younger kids, educating them in the high principles of Communist ideology. And for that, I was rewarded with the most wonderful task—to administer the Sacred Oath of the Lenin Pioneers to Baku's finest ten-year-olds.

The morning of the swearing-in ceremony, on May 6, 1979, couldn't have been more glorious. Just the day before, the gusty wind Khazri swept through Baku, scouring every crevice, leaving behind air so pristine that it sparkled in the ginger sun like my mama's favorite crystal vase.

“Azerbaijan, Azerbaijan,




I sang, together with the soon-to-be Lenin Pioneers, who packed the vast marble-and-granite 26 Commissars Memorial, ecstatic with anticipation of the ritual that was about to commence. Short, tall, thin, brown, blond pigtails, brunette porcupine haircuts. They were as different as the people of our country. But with their red Pioneer ties, dressed in white cotton shirts starched to perfection—the boys in neatly pressed black woolen pants, the girls in black woolen skirts and white knee-high socks—their differences disappeared, and they became a living image of the Soviet Union itself.

“Azerbaijan, Azerbaijan,




I strutted to the center of the square and took my place of honor next to the memorial depicting a slain Red Commissar coming back from the dead, his Herculean torso breaking out of the ground, an eternal flame blazing in his mighty hands. A symbol of the invincible power and triumph of Communism.

My own grandfather was a Red Commissar who gave his life for the bright future of our country. He died heroically in World War II and was posthumously awarded the Soviet Union's highest honor—the Order of Lenin. His name—Comrade Badalbeili—would remain engraved forever in the history of Soviet Azerbaijan.

I locked my eyes on the eternal flame. The remains of the Red Commissars lay underneath my feet, their blood flowing through the blue-and-red veins of the torch, fueling our faith. And their souls lived among us, guiding us to the gates of the Communist paradise.

I recited, first in Azeri, then in Russian—both the official languages in Soviet Azerbaijan: “In the presence of my comrades, I solemnly take this pledge.”

A chorus of a thousand voices echoed mine: “In the presence of my comrades, I solemnly take this pledge.”

“I promise to stand by my comrades in danger! I promise to protect my Motherland from Western imperialism!”

The granite bas-relief showed the execution of the Red Commissars in all the agony of their final moments—their life-sized figures maimed, blood gushing from their wounds, their faces frozen in blind determination.

“I promise to be fearless! With my life I will prove to be worthy of my Motherland! My Motherland—a garden of a country with no gods and kings. No rich and poor. Only happy Soviet citizens,” I pledged, embossing every consonant. “I promise to spread the ideals of Communism to the corrupt Americas, to Africa and Asia, to the Moon, Mars, and Pluto! How lucky I am to be born in my Azerbaijan! Soviet Azerbaijan!”

The brass of trumpets filled the Memorial, followed by the crisp beat of snare drums. I lifted high the crimson velvet banner, its golden hammer and sickle shining in the sun. At the head of the procession, I marched through the Alley of the Fallen and out of the Memorial Park.

The ceremony over, the crowd of new Lenin Pioneers thinned rapidly. Many boarded buses taking them back to their remote districts. The rest left with their parents.

I lingered in the shade of a cypress tree. Blossoms waved at me from everywhere, shimmering with pearls of dew: purple clusters of hyacinths swelled across the flower beds; orange-red petals burst out of the pomegranate trees; bridal veils of silver-white jasmine wound near my feet, filling the air with the sweet scent of glory.

I had everything I'd ever wished for: my place in my Soviet Motherland and my other source of glory—my music. My piano.

One of Azerbaijan's rising star pianists, I was a week away from the final round of the national competitions. A win there would take me to Budapest to represent my country in my first international piano competition. The very thought of the future made everything look bigger and more vibrant. The glazed-blue sky stretched wide and uninterrupted except for a tiny chiffon cloud fluttering away. And my city sprawled around me—an ancient amphitheater descending all the way down to the turquoise of the Caspian Sea, with kilometers of golden sand beaches and boulevards of chestnut and cherry trees. I squinted and slowly, blissfully inhaled.

“You disappointed me, Leila.”

The words hit me like hailstones. Comrade Farhad.

He was nineteen, four years older than me. Tall, with a full head of iron-black hair, the dark skin of a highlander, and deep-set eyes the color of a starless night. They could pin you to the ground. As could his words, always communicated in a loud, commanding voice. He spoke that way because he sometimes slipped into stuttering—a defect he had been working to overcome.

I first met him in the summer of 1978, when I arrived along with youth from the Pioneer Organization of Cuba at the seaside Camp Chaika, where Comrade Farhad worked as the head counselor. He welcomed us with a stirring speech at the opening flag ceremony, teaching us to become true masters of our lives, encouraging us to seek continuously the “next great Soviet purpose,” and inspiring us to expand our needs beyond ourselves. Charismatic, dependable, and alluringly impervious, he seemed to embody my grandfather's revolutionary passion, the same passion that once ignited thousands of Azeri proletariat to follow my grandfather in the storming of the oil barons' bastions. Comrade Farhad definitely possessed the same magnetism. From that moment on, the girls could not stop talking about him, about how handsome and masculine he was.

A few days later, an accident happened in the camp. The underground gas reserve exploded, causing the structure that contained the kitchen and dining hall to collapse. Thankfully, it occurred in the early morning hours while the campers were still asleep in their cabins. Calm and self-controlled, Comrade Farhad immediately lined up the camp population by the flagpole. Everyone was accounted for, except for the cook's helper. Ordering us to stay in place, he sprinted to the site of the explosion and returned a few minutes later with the injured old woman in his arms. She cried, chanting through her tears: “Allah give you joy and happiness. You saved my life, son.”

Comrade Farhad had been elected Secretary of the 26 Baku Commissars District Komsomol Committee and in the evenings took classes at the Baku State University, majoring in the history of Communism. I was astonished when I received a phone call from him six months after I first met him. He introduced himself, asked unassumingly if I remembered him, and then invited me to join his committee as a junior member.

“You disappointed me, Leila,” Comrade Farhad repeated. “Your deliverance of the pledge left me c-c-cold.” The last word betrayed him, and a tinge of pink traveled across his face.

“But, Comrade Farhad, I practiced for months.”

“Practicing is not enough. To be a true Communist, you must live and breathe the morals and principles of Communism.”

I frantically retraced every word of the pledge, every emotion I experienced while delivering the lines. All seemed fine. I tried so hard to be the best, to rise to Comrade Farhad's expectations.

“I have a few minutes before the meeting at Baku City Hall,” he said. “Walk along. We'll have a conversation. A vital conversation that will steer you in the right direction.”

Comrade Farhad himself was going to walk with me. My eyes still swelled with tears, but my heart was dancing the

We left the 26 Commissars Memorial Park, passed the Mirza Fatali Akhundov National Library, and turned toward Oilmen's Boulevard. All in silence. It was Saturday afternoon, and the streets were bustling. Barefoot boys played soccer in the middle of the road. An occasional car had to slow down to avoid running over the ball or hitting a kid. Some drivers cursed angrily at the boys; others stopped to watch the game and cheer the players. When the ball rolled close to Farhad, he unexpectedly charged ahead. With the dexterous skill of a soccer forward, he passed every player on his way, faked the goalie out of position, and kicked the ball. It rolled between two buckets that served as the goal. The crowd burst into applause. Comrade Farhad gave me a barely noticeable smile, and we continued. In silence. When was he going to start talking?

A foamy, cocoa-colored puddle spread across Zevin Street. A flock of women in chadors crouched down on the sidewalk. Shouting, laughing, rocking back and forth, they soaped a large Farsh rug decorated with camels chasing pheasants across its verdant field.

“You've missed two committee meetings this month,” Comrade Farhad said. “Is there any explanation?”

“But, Comrade Farhad, haven't you read my letter?”

“What letter?”

I felt as if the warm wind Gilavar had just blown away the sand sinking beneath my feet. “The one in which I told you about the competition.”

“What competition?”

“The Budapest International Piano Competition that will take place next March. And I'm one of the three finalists to compete for the honor to represent our republic.”

“Oh, yes, I remember now. And I'm proud of your music accomplishment, Leila. But you can't use your music as an excuse to disregard your primary responsibilities—your Komsomol duties. And that's what I must talk to you about. Disloyalty starts with the small things—missing Komsomol meetings, wearing fancy jewelry with religious symbols.”

Horrified, I checked my fingers for rings and my ears for earrings. Nothing.

Oh no! My ankle bracelet! A silver thread with a tiny blue bead—a
. A traditional Azeri guard against evil eye. I had it hidden inside my sock but the bead showed a little.

“And recently you've been posing and giggling in front of the cameras,” Comrade Farhad said, his voice dripping with distaste. “Like some sort of a royalty…

True. I
sort of oil royalty. That's exactly what Papa liked to call me—“my oil princess.” But it never struck me as anything negative. The opposite, actually. My papa was one of the most important oilmen in Azerbaijan. He hunted for the treasured crude oil reserves beneath the Absheron peninsula. And whenever he found a new well and the oil fountain gushed up from under the ground, he brought me to the field to let me dip into the black gold and leave my handprints stamped forever on the derrick.

“The handprints of a future virtuoso, our own Fre-de-ric Cho-pin,” Papa had said a week before when a TV news program taped the ceremonial opening of a newly discovered oil field. It sounded so funny the way Papa pronounced the name of my favorite composer and pianist—leisurely, one syllable at a time, as if reciting a poem. That's why I giggled, and the camera caught me.

“Playing piano and showing yourself off in public won't make you a valuable member of Soviet society. It won't,” Comrade Farhad said. “Hard work and dedication will. You're a lucky girl, Leila. You come from a most illustrious family of highly accomplished Communists. Your oilman father. Your mother, the surgeon. Your grandfather, Honorable Comrade Badalbeili. How many people do you think have a street in Baku named after their grandfather? Very few can pride themselves in having such an advantageous upbringing.”

I could hear a trace of sadness in Comrade Farhad's voice. I knew nothing about his family, other than that he was born in an
, a mountain village, and raised by an aunt in a communal apartment in Black City, Baku's industrial neighborhood. And through every season, he wore the same pair of black trousers, shiny from too many pressings.

A wave of guilt swept over me. “Comrade Farhad, more than anything else I'd like to prove my worth to society. Please give me a chance.”

He stopped, his eyes narrowed, evaluating me. The whiff of Papa's aftershave reached my nose. The sign of masculinity, just like the black specks of beard around his lips. I drew it all in, stealthily, little by little, until I felt like a sprout bursting out of its sheath.

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