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Garni-Geghard

The summer before I turn eighteen, I fly back to the country of my birth because that is what you do when you’re Armenian. You watch the capital city of Yerevan appear from outside your dark airplane window and you lean back into your seat as your mother reaches across your body to put her palm over the pane in desperation. As the plane begins to descend, she brings that same hand to her mouth, kisses the tips of her fingers, and then crosses herself left to right.

I wanted to write an essay about the Armenian faith, but I see that I’ve begun, yet again, with my mother. So be it: there is a natural order in place, after all. If there is such a strange thing as Armenia, and such a strange thing as God, let it be written that, for me, they each came to exist first through my mother.

But there are other women here, in this origin story. Three others, to be exact, not including me, for I am not yet eighteen. Seated between my mother and my motherland, separated by metal invention and human impossibility, I am a child.

So there are three other women: my aunt, and my aunt’s two sisters-in-law. Three unrelated women married to three brothers. I will give the women’s names in due time. And then there are the other women, the other women whose names and faces I do not know, have never known, but certainly know to exist (or to have existed, God rest their souls). Mistresses, undoubtedly beautiful.

And there are ghosts, three of them: these three women’s husbands, these other women’s lovers. Three dead men. Real ghosts, with graveyards to show for it now. The summer before I turn eighteen, two are still alive but ready to go, to follow the first one into the unknown—to heaven I hope, as they must have hoped.

Once there were three brothers, you see, and now there are three widows.

But let us return to the beginning, and start again. My mother crossing herself with pinched fingers. My country outside the window. Prayers for a safe landing. Ground hard beneath my feet.

 

We are staying with my Aunt Vergine, my father’s sister. Her twenty-something-year-old son is barely home—he is roaming the streets of his city with a cigarette in his hand and young male confidence in his blood—so we are really staying only with my aunt. Her husband has been dead for three years. My uncle was a big man around town, director of the local conservatory, very bourgeois in this small country that spent most of its recent history under Communist rule. He was the eldest of the three brothers, and they were all big men, with big booming voices, but my uncle was an artist—a musician and a poet, a man who loved to drink and toast. I knew this from the videotapes, from the pictures, from my parents’ stories, and from my older sister, who, at thirteen, traveled with my paternal grandmother to Armenia as a gift from my parents for being valedictorian of her middle school. My parents encouraged me to go too, then—I was twelve—but I feared the plane would crash because my mother was not on it. This was the kind of simple, strange logic I carried with me in secret those years. When my uncle died three years later, I was asked—in one of my mother’s cruelest moments—how I was going to live with that regret.

My uncle had loved us when we were young and lived in Armenia, and he loved us from afar as we were growing up in America. He had gotten the chance to love my sister again, more deeply, but I would never know the force of that love. When my parents talk about this man, there is a kind of awe directed at him that I can never quite share.

He was a womanizer, my uncle, and he had kidney disease, and his wife—my Aunt Vergine—spent the best years of her life loving and nursing this man, and watching him stumble home late at night, smelling of drink and another’s sweet perfume. Yet no one really talked about this. From their whispers, from their small, quick gestures—a woman’s eyes turned slightly toward the floor, the dismissive shrug of some male relative’s shoulders—I learned the worst about my uncle only after he died. It was his greatness, however, they loved to discuss out loud. How his voice boomed when he stood at the end of the table to toast to the dead or sing without accompaniment or warning. The serious intelligence in his dark eyes and white beard. The whole city knew his name.

My uncle has been dead for three years when my mother and I go to Armenia, and my aunt speaks of him and doesn’t speak of him, in the way that widows do.

But she is thrilled to have us, have people in her home again. Ever since her husband’s death, the number of her friends has dwindled. No one stops by for a cup of coffee now because no one expects a handout anymore. She has learned this too late: her husband was generous, which has left her with very little. In a few years, she’ll have won the lottery—a Green Card to America—and despite the fact that she has children and grandchildren in her country, it’ll be an easy decision. She’ll tell herself it’s so that she can find work, send home some money, put clothes on her grandchildren’s backs. She’ll tell herself, and she’ll tell us, but we will know better. There is nothing left for her there.

In July 2006, my mother and I are tourists in the place we were born, and my aunt is our guide in the country she will soon leave.

 

When my Aunt Vergine tells me we are going to Garni-Geghard, I think this is one destination, which means I really think it is one church, yet another church, for Armenia is a land of rocks and churches. The country is landlocked, no access to the sea. Most of her neighbors are Muslim states, but borders in this region are never written in stone. From stone, however, Armenians have made their homes, and they have made their places of worship. Churches scatter this land like pebbles on a seashore—there is one always underfoot. You turn the corner from the market, and there one is. You cross another street to go to the post office, there is another. You go to the shopping district with high-end boutiques that cater to tourists far more American than us, and a church beckons you between French lingerie and Italian-made boots.

I like these churches. Orthodox churches are big and cold and dark, murals fading—they feel ancient, as deep-rooted as time; they feel like they’ve been here far longer than humans. It is only from outside, when I gaze upon their domed roofs and sharp edges, that I think of humanity’s labor to get them standing.

But greater in number than churches in Armenia are cross-stones, or khatchkars, elaborately carved crosses that decorate almost any small patch of grass visible in the city, and blanket the graveyards that are far too many in such a small country as this. I come upon them as ruins, lying on the earth, flat on the same dirt from which spring forth flowers and trees, and not reaching for the heavens the way Orthodox churches do. Something about this strikes me as odd, even though I know that cross-stones must stand upright too, and that they are intended to point in all directions. As I walked through Yerevan, trying to refamiliarize myself with this city I left when I was five, the cross-stones, some of which date back hundreds of years, felt like natural souvenirs, offered up by the land itself and not the men and women who had lived upon that land.

What I knew then about Armenia is what Armenia wanted me to know, that it was the first nation to embrace Christianity as the state religion in 301 AD. Christianity for Armenians is synonymous with being Armenian. Almost all Armenians in the world, if they believe in anything, believe in a Christian God, and most of them follow the Orthodox Church (also known as the Armenian Apostolic Church). Armenians are as proud of their relationship with God as they are of the fact that they have survived when greater powers wished them annihilation. For these two things are not so different—they are my hand and my mother’s hand. It is no leap to say that the genocide the Armenians of the early twentieth century faced at the hands of the Ottoman Turks brought Armenia closer to its Christian roots. We had survived. Even when more than a million of us had not, we, as a people, had survived. And who to thank but God, even when our people were being herded into our churches and set on fire?

I am happy to go to Garni-Geghard, I say to my aunt innocently, using the singular, and this tells her that I know nothing about where we are going or what kind of country we are in or the kind of people we really are.

 

The two locations are only seven miles apart, which means tourists see the ancient pagan temple and the famous Christian monastery on the same day. Aunt Vergine hires a driver because she doesn’t have a car or a son who is really present. Our driver is like many middle-aged men in this country, working multiple jobs, whatever jobs he can find, always scraping by. He tells us this as we drive, my aunt in the front seat next to him, my mother and I in the back, she looking out one window, I another, with Anahit, the second of the three other women, in the middle.

Anahit is married to the middle brother, and she is a thin and fragile-looking woman, not as sturdy and statuesque as my aunt, who carries her excess weight convincingly, always with her back straight, her head held high. Anahit sits in the middle because she is thin, and has already seen the world outside our windows.

Anahit’s husband will die second, from the same disease that killed the first brother, my aunt’s husband. The remaining brother, the youngest, will die forty days later. Some will say from heartbreak.

Armenians have a forty-day mourning period, called karasoonk. Mourning for the dead is supposed to end on the fortieth day. That is what our Armenian faith demands, but our Armenian fate, I’ll learn, is stronger. So perhaps Anahit sits in the middle because she is the middle wife, and knows her place in this story.

Outside, Yerevan is minute after minute of dilapidated Soviet-style housing, in the Khrushchyovka style, the colors of the streets muted, homes brown and gray and tuff-red. We cross ourselves at the start of the drive, as we always do at the beginning and end of any long journey. When the road gets a little bumpy, we cross ourselves again. A small, gold-plated cross hangs from the driver’s rearview mirror, and I watch it twist and twist.

I’ll tell you what my mother is thinking as she gazes out her window. I can tell you because I am a child, her child; my blood swirls in her blood and her blood surges in mine. She is thinking about her father. She is always thinking about her father, her great love. Her great love is sick, slowly dying in Los Angeles, and my mother is thinking, Is he dead now? Now? Is he dead now? She is thinking, No one will tell me if he’s dead, not while I’m in Armenia. No one will want to ruin her first trip back home since she left thirteen years ago. Her first vacation, actually. She’s earned the right of having no one tell her that her father has died—if he’s dead. This is how Armenians think: death will be waiting when you return. This is what my mother is thinking as she looks out upon the land that is no longer hers.

We pass villages on our way to the Kotayk region, scattered homes and scattered sheep, green pasture that’s more brown than green, more dirt than grass, more rock than anything. In the distance is Ararat, our mountain which is not our mountain. Ararat, once within our borders, is now in Turkey, and it is what Armenians see when they look up to the heavens searching for their God. In the distance, it is a fist in the sky. In the distance.

 

Garni Temple is not like one out of ancient Greece, but out of an American film about ancient Greece. It is spectacular and spotless. Its portico is made of six Ionic columns, with another six down each of its sides. In the cornice are the lifelike heads of lions. Made from a gray basalt, the temple seems to alternate its various shades in a powerful symmetry that feels both intentional and mystifying, a pattern without greater meaning. There are several stony steps that lead up to temple itself, and they are impossibly high. From where we stand below, we can see the tall opening to the cella, and it is black and mysterious and waiting for us.

We are standing there at its foot, after having paid a small entrance fee, and looking up at this temple, when an old man appears beside us. He takes off his hat, holds it against his chest, and nods kindly. This Hellenistic temple was reconstructed in the seventies, he tells us, but was most likely originally built in the first century AD, which meant it was here before Christianity came to Armenia.

I listen gratefully and nod at all the right places, for it seems like we are in the right place at the right time.

I’m surprised to find this pagan place of worship here in Armenia, but also to find myself here. Why it’s still here, and why we have come here, I don’t ask, because I don’t want to sound stupid. At this age, most of my energy is dedicated to not coming across as stupid. So I listen gratefully and nod at all the right places, for it seems like we are in the right place at the right time, too: this man must be another tourist, who has done his research and prepared for his trip. Solidarity of Armenian tourists in Armenia—it’s quite moving, I think, to help each other understand this place we should’ve naturally understood already.

Situated at the edge of a triangular cliff, the temple, originally dedicated to a sun god, is laid bare to the sky as it looks down at all the material of earth. We walk around the compound—cuneiform inscriptions, royal baths, ruins that suggest a building to house the garrison, and cross-stones and cross-stones and cross-stones. The old man tells us to look closer, and we see crude fishes engraved in the rock. I think a fish is not so strange a symbol for us to find in Christian Armenia, but our new friend tells us that this is not a fish, but a dragon. I narrow my eyes, not believing him. Dragon cults were popular in pre-Christian Armenia, he says, but once these stone carvings were found during the early Christian period, they had to be either destroyed or converted. Converted to what, I ask, and he points at the khatchkar, the very cross-stone we are examining. We must thank God, he says, that we didn’t destroy all these beautiful things. We only gave them new meaning.

I will remember this fish-dragon, and when I go home, I will do my research: the ichthys. Before Christianity adopted the fish, it was known by pagans as a feminine symbol, linked to the idea of birth and rebirth. This will stay with me for years, like the inevitability of my uncle’s and his brothers’ deaths. The dragon of ancient Armenia transformed into the Jesus fish of modern Armenia. There on the grounds of Armenia’s most famous pagan site, a cross-stone with its left arm in the past and right arm in the present, and my mother, my aunt, and her sister-in-law, three women in different stages of their lives, wondering what their futures hold. And I, the forever child, imagining alongside them.

Behind the temple are panoramic canyons and orchards, and down below the Azat River. I stand near the edge of the cliff with my arms above me to let the cool air dry my skin, and the man mistakes my gesture for reverence. He laughs at my figure, tells me that the real beauty is inside the cella, to go climb the tall steps if I really want to witness perfection.

Count the stairs, the old man says, and we count nine. Nine is the most sacred number, he tells us, because it is three times three, a marker of the Holy Trinity. And the columns, he asks. We answer “six,” like schoolchildren. He nods: the number of perfection: three plus three.

But this is a pagan temple, I tell him, and my aunt shakes her head like she can’t believe what she is hearing.

“It is an Armenian temple,” she says. “Don’t you understand, Naira?”

The old man smiles at her in respect while I struggle to make sense of it. How can it be all these things at once?

The belief that God created the universe with a mathematical plan in mind is a popular one in Armenia because it is one of the ways that Armenians connect physical nature to the divine. Numbers in Armenia are like names, imbued with meaning. The firstborn son. The first Christian nation. But there is also the 1915 genocide. One point five million dead. The 1988 earthquake. More than twenty-five thousand dead. Forty days of mourning.

At the dinner table, my mother’s father used to toast: May we not decrease, but multiply.

We thank the man in Garni for his time, then proceed up the temple’s stairs. I am wearing wedge platforms and they help me find my balance; I am walking on air as I climb. When we all find our footing at the top, we are arrested by haunting, trembling music. The most recognizable sound for Armenians—the wail of the duduk. The duduk is a double-reed instrument, and it has a low, low drone that is elegiac in impression, full of a longing that suggests great love and great sadness. The duduk is most famously used in films about Roman gladiators, during great battle scenes where the hero falls. It does not have a timeless quality—it does not sound modern, but quite old, as if recently found under the earth and dusted off and brought to the lips of a respected town elder.

I burst into goosebumps, as I always do at the first note of the duduk. Legend has it that the first duduk was made from bones—a woman’s, a mother’s, which is why it can cry just so. But now it is almost always played by a man. Outside of the great composer Khachaturian, it is Armenia’s greatest contribution to the world of music. The duduk is largely recognized as the sound of Armenia, just as Ararat is largely recognized as the sight of Armenia, and Armenians like myself cannot quite separate one from the other. When we gaze upon our mountain which is not our mountain, it is the duduk we hear. When we listen to the duduk, it is Ararat we see.

Ararat, where Noak’s Ark landed. Another origin story.

My mother reaches for my hand, and we make our way into the cella, but we are not alone. In the darkness of the interior of the Garni Temple are three other people: an old man seated on the ground in the farthest corner, feet tucked into the back of his knees, the duduk floating in front of his weathered face, head moving slowly with the power of his instrument; and, watching, a young couple near the entranceway, standing before us, beautiful even from the back, the man tall and strong, with a thick neck, and the woman delicate in a long white dress and long black hair. The woman has her head on the man’s shoulder and she is swaying slightly, dancing faintly, as if she is in a trance.

I close my eyes and listen. I am thinking about Ararat, and then I am thinking about a mountain of a man, my grandfather, and I know my mother is too. My grandfather was a big man, but heart disease has taken its toll. In Garni Temple, listening to this man play his duduk, I know that everyone around me is full of a love they cannot isolate from its devastating hurt. The couple in front us, they have each other, but I know that this will one day change. My aunt beside us with her new widow’s loneliness, and old wife’s hurt. Anahit, this woman I don’t really know, except that she is like my aunt too—and she will be even more so, in two years’ time—forever attached to a man who desired power in a country that had little to spare. And my mother, who loves her father, who cries like he cries, at any old thing, at any display of kindness or joy or hope, a dance recital by preschoolers, Olympians lighting the flame on television, my fat girlhood dreams of being a gymnast—my mother, there beside me, wondering if already her father is gone and no one has told her the news.

In Garni, my grandfather is alive and dead, my mother floats between heaven and hell, a woman dances, a woman grieves, a woman waits, and aged apricot wood cries in a man’s hands.

Inside the cella, the duduk’s sound echoes, climbing up the walls, sinking through the stone, embedding itself in every part of us. I put my head on my mother’s shoulder like the young woman has done with her lover, and I begin to cry. When the duduk player finishes and slowly raises himself up, one hand on his knee and then the other, the young couple claps gently and turns toward us, the entrance, wanting to exit.

Later in the car, we throw out our hypotheses, suddenly jaded and cynical, relieved, weirdly, to be away from the gripping power of Garni. Did the young couple hire this old man to give them a memorable experience? Was it included in the temple’s entrance fee? Was this additional package called “Mysticism of the Third World”? Was the duduk player hoping for tips?

Then my mother exclaims, “Oh, no! That man outside who told us so much about Garni—he wasn’t a tourist, was he? Of course he wasn’t a tourist! A beggar acting as our guide, Jesus Christ! We should’ve tipped him!”

She looks at me accusingly, and I reel back as if slapped.

“It didn’t cross my mind,” I tell her. Then I get angry. “Why didn’t it cross your mind? It’s like you’re not even from here!”

My aunt turns her head back and tells us not to worry. “With all those tourists coming to Garni every day, he is probably doing better than me.”

My mother deflates, exhales so loudly I think she’s going to become a puddle—nothing left of her in her skin.

“God’s not going to hold it against you,” the driver says, surprising us. “But if you’d like to make it up, you can tip me extra.” He looks at us through his rearview mirror and I smile at him in gratitude. My mother is quiet, lost in her own guilt, and then Anahit, from her seat in the middle, slaps her knee and tells her that the day is only getting started.

“In Geghard,” she says, “you can unburden your conscience.”

I’ll tell you what I was thinking as I looked at Anahit’s reed-thin body and recalled her husband’s solid frame: I wondered what sounds she made as she cried, as she prayed, danced, as she sang. I had never heard her sing.

 

To be a man in Armenia means to not be a woman, and it is really as simple as this. But to be a woman in Armenia is to be Armenian. Put that in stone. To be a woman in Armenia is to be Armenian, and to be Armenian is to be faithful even when faith abandons you. Especially then.

 

The monastery at Geghard stands at the head of the Azat Valley, with a surprising green fullness among the towering stone cliffs. From the adjacent rock, many of the compound’s churches and tombs are built. Carved directly into the stone: that is Geghard. Locals boast that winter is the best season to pray here. Surrounded by stone and snow, touching with bare, frostbitten fingers the crosses engraved fifteen centuries ago into the mountain, breath coming in slow and hard—what better time to pray? Even nonbelievers find something holy here, the driver tells us as we exit the vehicle. Even Hetanos, he says, and everyone laughs but me.

Later I will understand the joke. Hetanos, or Heathens with a capital H, are Armenian neopagans who organized after the fall of the USSR in 1991. In this chaotic climate of Armenia trying to recreate itself out of the ashes of Lenin’s Communism, many Armenians looked to the old ways for structure and stability, to galvanize collective spirit and consciousness. Everything old became new again: the names of Armenian gods and goddesses surged in popularity, holidays celebrating the power of water and fire multiplied, and the Garni Temple became an active holy site where traditional ceremonies are still held.

According to Christian tradition, Geghard, short for Geghardavank, was founded by Gregory the Illuminator in the fourth century. Besides the natural and surprising architecture of the compound—the ornate crosses carved deep, deep into the stone of the cliffs, like doors opening into both nothing and everything—the monastery is famous for purportedly once housing the Holy Spear, which pierced the side of Jesus on the Cross. But before Christianity came to Armenia, this place was home to a sacred spring located inside a secret cave deep in the mountains. The pagans were not only here in Geghard, but they drew the Christians here with word of their sacred water.

We have left Garni to come to Geghard, a twenty-minute drive. We have not really left. We have come to Garni-Geghard.

We buy candles and enter, and we blink rapidly, adjusting to the dark. Suddenly we are on our own. I still do not know how it happens. But there I am, wandering apart from my family, and I am trying to make out the inscriptions, trying to make out the images, trying to find something I can recognize. Rectangular chambers and high reliefs, intersecting arches and thick columns, cupolas decorated with angular animals, flowers and fruit, geometric motifs. There are stalactites on the surfaces, or what seem like stalactites, or what are supposed to resemble stalactites. I feel as if I am both in a cave that has never been seen by humans and in a church that is visited by more than a hundred thousand every year. Four large columns buttress a stone roof with a small hole at its heart and I stand right underneath it and look up. The midday sun finds its way through the hole and it’s blinding. I want to see but I keep closing my eyes. So I let it warm me instead.

Wandering again, I run into my aunt. She takes my hand and together we find my mother and Anahit. Then my aunt points: “See?”

She is whispering. It only feels natural to whisper here.

“See the dragons?”

And there they are again, making up the tails of two lions in a relief carving right above our heads.

 

I do not remember if the third woman and her husband take us to dinner before or after our trip to Garni-Geghard, but here the order does not matter—what comes before, what comes after.

What comes, comes.

The third woman wasn’t part of our journey to Garni-Geghard, but she is part of this story, my origin story. She is no ghost. She survives, and her name is Silva. Silva and her husband—the third brother, the youngest, the last to die—take my mother and me out to dinner in a part of Armenia that was destroyed by the 1988 earthquake. The place where the three brothers were born.

Did I say that I wanted to write an essay about the Armenian faith? Because what I really meant was destiny.

In a small restaurant in Leninakan, we have fresh fish and red wine, and my uncle’s brother sits me down next to him and drinks and cries and cries and drinks, and tells me that if it were his brother in his place—the eldest, my uncle by blood—he would not be crying, but singing.

And where would you be? I ask, in the way that children do.

Not here, he says. Not here.

His wife, Silva, sits opposite us, beside my mother. My mother’s hair is dark, Silva’s hair light. Their foreheads press together and they speak of things only women can know.

 

At Geghard, we light our candles. Candles in Orthodox churches are always placed close together in the stands, even if there is plenty of room, plenty of sand to spare. It’s pleasant to look at, these skinny, yellow figures huddled close together, some candles shorter than others, having been lit longer. I like to imagine entire families lighting these candles, each stick of wax a branch, a body.

When your candle-thread is aflame, you push it down into the sand as hard as you can, as low as it can snake down without hitting the metal tray of the stand. You need to ensure that the candle won’t move, that it is steadfast in its position. It cannot be swayed by wind, by the blast of air that comes in through the church doors every time someone arrives or departs. It cannot be swayed by your own breath, by the power of your small human prayer.

In Geghard, my mother and I light our candles side by side. My aunt and her sister-in-law frame us. My aunt lights the first candle, then my mother, then I, and then, finally, Anahit. I don’t remember thinking there was a meaning to this order then, and I don’t know if there is any meaning now, but I liked how we waited for the other to finish, how we watched one another plant our individual candles down, deep, deep into the sand, in patience and silent agreement, and then how we lit our flame with the flame of what came before. It only seemed natural, for things to go this way.

 

Back at my aunt’s house in the center of Yerevan, the air is warm. She and my mother grab beers and chairs and sit outside on the balcony. Anahit is back at home with a husband and young son who will soon move away from her and from each other in heartbreakingly different ways. I lean against the wall and breathe deeply. The smell of apricots is in the air, rising from the dirt. It hides the other smells, garbage and sweat, stray dogs and men. My aunt and my mother clink their glasses and sip, and suddenly they are talking. They are talking and talking and they can’t stop. They have so much to say to one another. I give them the semblance of privacy by leaning deeper into the wall, toward the country in front of me. The stone is cold against my stomach, but soft, too, almost crumbling like bread. You can see stars here, and factory lights, and domes of churches and high-rise hotels. From my aunt’s balcony, I see everything.

Anahit, named after the pagan fertility goddess. Silva, short for Silvart, meaning to love a rose, thorns and all. Vergine, named after the Virgin Mary. Tagui, my mother, meaning Queen.

And I, Naira, the child, a variant of Nairi—the old name for Armenia.

My heart surges, and my stomach knots.

My blood is women’s blood.

I know in Armenian women’s silence there are songs waiting to be uncovered. I know that, in English, fate and faith may sound similar but they mean entirely different things.

Standing on my aunt’s balcony, I am only beginning to understand that my history is a record of dances and prayers, paganism and Christianity, women and men—all balancing acts. Some of us have to believe in the things that are there, no longer there, or had never existed. We believe in blood, and something beyond blood. We pray to a mountain. When I close my eyes now and try to remember what it was that I felt so strongly at Garni, I see myself standing, instead, in the middle of Geghard. I know now that when one brother dies, two are bound to follow. That a man slowly dying dies for his daughter a million deaths. I know, too, the women’s names, like I know now the name of Sahakadukht, the eighth-century com­poser of religious songs made modest, asked to teach behind a curtain. Sahakadukht, the woman who sang in Geghard behind a curtain. I know in Armenian women’s silence there are songs waiting to be uncovered. I know that, in English, fate and faith may sound similar but they mean entirely different things. Armenian women know them as xakatagir and havatk, and to our ears, the words sound exactly alike.

Behind me, my aunt and my mother continue to converse in excited tongues, and I turn around to listen.

My aunt is saying that she lights a candle for her husband, that she prays for him always, she visits his grave and crosses herself, that she loves him and she hates him, and she thinks he was cursed.

When my uncle was dying, my aunt went to see a local witch-woman—a clairvoyant of sorts, a healer of sorts, a mediator between the living and the dead, a female shaman. My aunt went to see her not for herself but for a friend, as a support system. But this woman took one look at my aunt, and said that there was a curse on her husband. Listen carefully, she told her. Listen. There is a knot in your house. Someone has made a knot. Someone has twisted strings together to destroy your happiness. You must find it before it is too late. You must find it and unravel it.

And my aunt doesn’t believe her and believes her, in the way that I now know Armenians do. She goes home and tears the house apart. She searches everywhere. How big is this knot? How small? A knot of what? Thread? Cloth? Ribbon? Cords? The kitchen, the bathroom, the bedrooms. The balcony and hallways, the trash receptacles. For days she searches. She searches until the man in question dies. She buries him. She weeps over his body. She lets mourners shake her hand inside her husband’s church, reconstructed after the earthquake. She falls on the bed. One hand drapes over the edge. A finger touches the parquet. Something strange fills her, something mysterious and old, something loud and beating, something like her heart or the heart of the world. She gets off the bed and goes down on her knees. She peers. She puts out her arm and reaches for something she both knows and doesn’t know is there. There is contact. The world goes quiet or the world goes loud, a sudden rushing in her ears like sea­water. She removes her hand. Her palm is clutched into a fist. She opens it slowly. A small piece of thin black string, the length of a thumb. She brings it close to her face. There, looped in its center, the smallest of knots. She touches it, feels the tiny lump like a stain on her finger.

Under her bed. Under their bed. All of that time.

“My God,” my mother whispers, and it’s like we are back in Garni-Geghard, everyone pointing at dragons.