by Knar Hovakimyan
Night was still scary to her—still, even at this age. It wasn’t until the rooster sang that her heart sighed with relief. With the oncoming sunrise finally providing an excuse to get out of bed, she rinsed her face and ate a handful of dried fruits and nuts as light gradually seeped in through her windows. It was already another year today, so she slipped her sandals on and filled her bucket with water at the spout a few paces outside the shack. The water flows in steady spurts into the bucket.
Time flows in cycles for her. And cycles within cycles. The yearly visit to the grave was always a reminder of a reset; she was back at a road already littered with her own footsteps. And as she goes through the familiar motions of filling the bucket, she is all at once present, ten years behind, and ten years ahead—assuming she’s still around then. It’s a beautiful moment of alignment, this ritual—each year, she loses sleep the night before.
The bucket full, she waddles across the hills and canyons towards the village cemetery. It was far. She walks with an asymmetrical gait, water spilling left and right from the bucket. Now and then, she stops to wipe the summer sweat off her brow and let out a sigh from deep within herself.
When she reaches the gravestone, she begins the memorial process by cleaning. She bends from her hips to pull out the surrounding overgrown branches from their roots and uses them to sweep smaller plant matter off her husband’s engraved face and epitaph. She pours the water from her bucket onto the clear gravestone, rubbing it in with her flat palms. The water seeps into the porous stone which is suddenly darker and more alive; but dampness evaporates quickly. As her grandma used to say, the mountain sun is strong.
She takes out a few dusty rocks from inside her bra—yellow, semi-translucent rocks of hardened sap and flower oils. From the other worn-out cup, two cylindrical pieces of charcoal leave her right breast blackened. She kindles the charcoal with her lighter, lights a cigarette while she’s at it, and tosses the yellow rocks onto the embers. Thick smoke extends up and outward from the incense and wind carries it across the gravestone. The smoke smells sweet and pungent but she doesn’t notice it over the smell of her cigarette. Mountains tower dramatically behind her as she takes a few steps away from the grave and watches the smoke from a distance.
Her parents hadn’t been from the village—she’d grown up in the town twenty kilometers away, almost an hour on these roads. They’d only see her when she’d come by in mid-summer to sell apricots at the market. That was a cycle she’d escaped, the harvesting and selling of the apricots. She was too old to go into town now so she let the village boys come into her land and harvest the fruit to make a few kopeks for themselves.
She adjusts the bra under her heavy bosom. The mountain sun has pooled sweat below her breasts and under her arms. As the smoke by the gravestone dies down, she tosses her cigarette on the grass and walks away, leaving it to burn out on its own.
She walks back into the valley, heavy on her thick ankles. Around her now, dark obsidian shines through duller rocks in grassy hills. She crosses a weary bridge over a trickling stream, and finally, a few paces ahead is a small, dusty-orange building with elaborate crosses carved into the hefty porous stones by people long-gone and forgotten.
Inside, the church is a dark and dank cave. Although the room is small, somehow no outside light enters, and only the dim lights from the candles on the far shelf illuminate the scrawls of prayers on the walls. She leaves a silver and gold coin in the tray by the entrance and takes a single candle. She lights her candle with the flame from one of the others and buries its base deep within the sand-filled shelf. As the candle burns down, she mutters a prayer under her breath, holding a handkerchief tight against her chest.
It is only when something thuds against the outer wall of the church that she is moved from her position. She’s startled, but even in her rush to leave and be of some assistance to the person who surely, stricken by heat, must have fallen against the side of the building—a shepherd maybe—she makes sure to exit the building backwards, crossing her heart.
The outdoor light is fire; sun-bright after the dim cave, and her eyes take a whole dizzy minute to adjust. For what feels like a long while, she stands clutching the church wall in vertigo, but eventually she is able to see what’s right at her feet: a full-grown sheep, bloody and half-devoured. The shock pushes her to her knees and warm blood seeps into the worn and sun-faded fabric of her skirt. Her recovery takes a while, 30, maybe 50 breaths—but she is back.
How did the sheep end up in such a state? A wolf? She looks at the sheep’s rectangular irises and mutters a prayer, crossing her heart. She lingers for a moment longer, staring at the listless sheep. She herself feeling listless, is mesmerized by the bloodied creature. The sheep’s blood pools beneath its belly, and the branches of the red fluid merge into a single stream that trails towards a distant cave. She considers following the blood with her swollen feet.
She thinks about the thick red coating on the yellowing grass—not just about the strangeness of the blood in such a familiar place, but the eerie juxtaposition of glossy and dry textures. The blood does not dry out as quickly as water, even under the summer sun.
The blood leads her to a crevice that interrupts the rock face and she crosses beneath carvings of saintly figures to enter the cave. The darknesses and brightnesses of the day continue to be dizzying. She blinks hard a few times as her eyes grow accustomed to the lack of light. Still, nothing is visible. She steps deeper into the cave, her fingers dragging along the ground, following the trail of lukewarm blood. The cave’s darkness is different than the church, thicker somehow, pushing the summer’s warmth out, so with each step a coldness seeps into her muscles, sprouting goosebumps on her flesh. The blood trail gets colder as she follows it deeper, cold and congealed.
She might have been thinking about her father’s army stories, or reminiscing about the cold and dark years, or imagining the inside of her husband’s coffin. But she wasn’t thinking about what was at the end of the blood trail. She continues for an impossibly long time, bloodied wool and dead rectangles on her mind, until something compels her to stop. Was it the cold that caused the dark hair on her arms to stand up? Or the hollow sound of breathing?
She blinks, 20, 30 times. And remembers the lighter in her pocket. Carefully, fearlessly, she removes it and extends her hand forward, armed with the lighter. Did she feel warmth from a couple steps ahead? Her thoughts come racing back and she wonders why she isn’t afraid of the wolf. Maybe she was too old for fear, listless like the sheep. The lighter flicks on and casts light on the walls like prayer candles in a church, and dimly lit, a breath away, she does find a creature.
Though not a wolf.
The creature is smaller than her but reasonably human-sized. And if she squints and tilts her head just right, he looks like one of the village children, or her own child had she married young enough to bear one. Granted, the blood dripping from his hairless muzzle suggests more animalistic rather than human tendencies, but the long fingers and upright stance were overwhelmingly familiar.
It adopts her uneven gait on their walk back to her home as though it were a natural way for it to walk. Together they waddle amidst the dry summer hills as the sun beats down on them relentlessly. And she wonders, how does this surprise fit into her cycles? Was there anything in her life that had been entirely cycle-less? Another sigh to release the useless, garbled thoughts.
She and the creature settle in the shack peacefully, like they were long-accustomed to each other’s presence. After busying herself for some time trying to cater to her guest, Silva finally rests her weary body on the couch when a woman walks in. With the grating voice of a nosy neighbor, “Silva? Have you had coffee?”
“Come in Zabel jan, come in.”
Zabel enters the shack and goes straight to the kitchen, “I’ll make the coffee. Bitter, yes?”
“Put some sugar in it today,” Silva says, still sitting on the couch, droplets of sweat glistening on her temples.
The neighbor fills the little metal coffee pot with water and sets it on the stove. She adds two heaping spoonfuls of finely-ground coffee and half a spoonful of sugar. As the coffee bubbles up and rises in the pot, “Did you already go to the grave today?”
Silva gestures dynamically with her response, “I went when the sun was hardly up but already it was hot!”
“Why do you go all alone in the morning? If you waited a little we would have gone together. I swear, every year you leave earlier!”
Zabel brings the coffee to the living room and sets it on the table, spilling a few drops from each overfull cup. “Eh? Speak Silva jan.”
Silva looks at Zabel and shrugs. “What should I say, hmm?”
“Have you heard about Mko’s daughter? Married an American. Can you imagine? What luck!”
Silva doesn’t show much interest or offer much of a response and, within this silence, the atmosphere turns. A nervousness comes over Zabel, as though it were late night and she was left home alone, with her husband still off in the hills. The young woman stiffens, her tightened muscles trying to protect her vulnerable body from the unknown threat. Zabel slowly looks around herself, and initially all is as expected until finally, within a shadow, she notices something grotesque propped lopsidedly against the corner of an armchair.
“Silva, what is that?”
“He’s fallen from the sky.”
They both stare at it and it seems to stare back although they can’t tell for sure. The respected older woman looks at the creature peacefully, and seeing Silva with this sense of security, Zabel’s muscles, too, relax a little.
“What do you mean Sil?”
“He comes from the stars.”
The neighbor considers this for a moment, “Which stars?”
“You know the star that flickers red on clear nights in the spring?”
“That’s his home.”
“So why is it here?”
Silva shrugs. “The boy doesn’t speak.”
Zabel looks at the creature, but only fleetingly since the colors and textures of the thing are difficult for her to stomach. He is all at once overripe, mold-soft yet covered in a scab-like crust.
“Eh, I thought, looks kind of like Hakop’s son.”
They both laugh until their cheerful echoes die down. Zabel looks at the old woman’s listless eyes, almost rectangular in shape, and she thinks about the tired hips walking this thing home...
“Has he eaten?”
Silva motions to the table they’re sitting at. “I set a whole table: lavash, cheese, fruits, tolma... he won’t touch a thing. But when I found him he’d left behind half a sheep.”
“So maybe he is ready for tea? And dessert? I’ll get something ready.”
Silva releases a long, slow sigh. “Thank you Zabel jan, I haven’t baked in years.”
Zabel dashes into the kitchen, happy to help the old woman, but also glad for an excuse to leave the room. She begins opening drawers and cabinets while her coffee cup is still rattling on the table.
“Hold on, I think Sarine has my rolling pin.”
She runs back through the living room, and before even reaching the door, Zabel cups her hands to her lips: “Sarineee!”
And Sarine materializes immediately, before Zabel has a chance to get back to the kitchen and throw bowls and wooden spoons and cutting boards on the counter.
“Hi Silva jan, Zabel jan. Did you need the rolling pin?”
“Yes! Bring it here, bring it to the kitchen, we’re making gata!”
“Good, let me have some coffee first.”
Sarine drops off the rolling pin in the kitchen and goes to the living room. She picks up Zabel’s coffee cup, still rattling from all the uproar in the house.
“So, Silva jan, did you go to the grave today?”
“Yes, I went early in the morning and it was so hot! The sun was somehow already straight overhead!”
“This heat is intolerable, completely intolerable!”
For a moment, the two women just sip on their coffee quietly while Zabel bangs around in the kitchen, but finally Sarine begins to feel the eyes that have been staring at her relentlessly and she turns to stare back. She finds herself looking at the creature, who is still sitting quietly in his corner.
Silva does not wait for a question. “Yes, yes. I found him outside the church this morning. He comes from the stars. He looked like a kid and he looked hungry so I brought him here.”
“Did he eat?”
“No! I set this whole table but he didn’t touch a thing!”
“So that’s why the girl is making gata?”
“She thinks maybe he’ll want dessert.”
“Why did you just leave him on the couch like this? Send him out to sit with the men!”
“The men? What do you mean? He’s just a boy.”
“He needs to get off the couch. What other choice is there? You want to leave him wandering out there around the kids?”
“Okay I’ll take him out. Help Zabel, yeah? I feel bad for her working all alone.”
By the time Silva actually leaves the shack with the creature, her kitchen is filled with village women baking and complaining and laughing. The women’s husbands have congregated because of talk of a curiosity at Silva’s, and they’re settled outside for a smoke, waiting for the commotion in her home to die down.
She approaches the three crooked-nosed men and hands off the creature to Sako, who proudly takes on the task of watching it. Once each of the men gets a chance to thoroughly inspect the thing, they allow it to sit at their feet as they transition to a game of backgammon to fill the time. Silva lingers outside with the men to enjoy a cigarette.
Sako stands above the backgammon board, watching the other two men play. His back hunched, he stares at the game board and slowly releases smoke from his lungs with a sigh. Sako’s voice, raspy and brisk, “But why did he come here?”
“Why? Our village has the best drinking water in all of Armenia. In all the world! Straight from these mountain springs.”
“You are talking like idiots. He didn’t choose to come to our village, he just ended up here. If he had a choice, he’d be in America.”
“God makes these decisions.”
“No, no, I mean why did he come here to Earth?”
“God makes these decisions. These are not questions for you to ask.”
“What if he’s dangerous? He’s already killed a sheep! That’s two I’ve lost this summer! We have to protect our people.”
“Dangerous? What stupid things you say! Look at him! He’s hardly a boy. More of a boy than Hakop’s son even!”
All three of them let the conversation be interrupted to laugh at the expense of Hakop’s son. Silva herself hardly stifles a giggle.
“Look at us laughing. This is what he wants. It’s an act to get us off guard. He came here, disguised, to see what’s happening, scope it out. He’ll return to his masters and they’ll all come down here. This won’t be the first time our lands were taken over and our people killed. Like I said, he’s already killed a sheep! And he hasn’t eaten anything. Did Silva tell you that? Not a single thing.”
“Oh, be quiet Sako. Enough of that.”
They are all quiet for a while. Although Armen was immediately so dismissive of Sako, even he was harboring some fears that sunk into his bones within the silence.
“Where is he from?”
“Silva says he fell from the stars.”
“She’s just saying random things. He’s not from the cosmos. For all we know he’s some deformed kid some family abandoned in the forest a few years ago.”
“He’s not a kid. Okay, we joked about it, but if we’re being serious, you really would call that a kid?”
“I wonder what his world is like.”
They all quietly imagine. Not one of them has a good enough idea to share out loud. And not one of them has noticed that the creature is no longer sitting at their feet. Silva herself doesn’t notice—she’s lost in a reverie, initially imagining the creature’s home, then returning to the mutilated sheep from the morning, then finally settling on her dead husband, his grave, his coffin.
The sun moves towards setting as the silence drags on. And as darkness gradually sets in, the stars begin to reveal themselves, bringing the creature’s reality closer to their own. Goosebumps settle on the flesh of the men. The children have moved their games indoors. The women are on their third cup of coffee, eating gata fresh out of the oven. Vahag clears his throat and brings them all back to the moment, to conversation.
“This is a test. We each must think carefully about what we do in this situation. God is testing us.”
“Why do you think God cares about you personally so much that he would design such a test for you?”
“You know what, he’s testing Silva too. And look at her, she’s doing great. What better way to be a human than to take someone in and feed them, without wasting time asking questions that are not for us to ask?”
Vahag’s statement affects Sako and Armen more than either of them would like to admit. They get up, intent on doing something useful and finally notice the absence of the creature. Silva insists on going after the creature on her own, so the men start up a fire for a barbecue, at least to feed themselves and their families.
Silva goes off to look for the creature, but they don’t run into each other, even as they both wander over her land. She thinks about the festivities in her home, a party on the anniversary of her husband’s death. She is unsure whether she’ll clean up before she goes to bed or once she wakes up in the morning. Her friends will offer help before they leave. She needs the help, but she will deny it. The sun is almost fully descended and Silva’s lost in an evening cycle without much analysis.
In the morning, there is no sign of the creature and she can’t remember if they ever were able to find him or convince him to eat anything. And before she has a chance to think about it, she rinses her face and eats a handful of dried fruits and nuts.
Knar Hovakimyan is an artist, born in Armenia, raised in Los Angeles, and currently residing in Boston. She grew up in a community of Armenian immigrant artists and studied art with them, both formally and casually. When she’s not painting colorful abstract works, she’s painting portraits.