That winter, the wolves came to the village for the first time in years, possibly for the first time in decades. They shot quick down the iced mountain stream, out of the forest and into town near the apartment buildings and vegetable markets. A man walking home late along the river road said he saw five in the dark. They were shadows, long-legged black streaks that blocked starlight and village light, with thick tails low behind them. Somehow he knew they weren’t dogs, he said. He could just tell from that shiver of moonbeam that glowed from behind the dark shapes as they loped along the banks, up the hill, and into the alley. In the morning, an old woman opened her store and found scraps of tissue and fur near the entrance. Children found the remains of three or four more street dogs later that day, patches of skin and hair in the bushes, brushed along the pavement and dirt, clumps of brownish red, threads of something that seemed innately biological and once alive. The whole town was talking.
“This isn’t good,” Tigran said. “The woods are dying.”
Tatevik understood: the woods were empty. They’ve been empty.
“Only dying woods bring wolves to villages,” Tigran said again, looking out the window. From behind, Tatevik followed his gaze. The clouds gently drifted and lingered in the branches of leafless trees (thirty feet? forty feet?) above their heads, while the mountaintops reached out of the gray mists and into the morning pink sky. The sunbeams backlit the mountain, and the high-altitude air was clear and bright.
Until that winter, Tatevik thought the wild animals had been hunted out of the woods a long time ago. She could count the number of times she saw a squirrel or a vole. Mostly she saw milk cows meandering through the forest in small groups with neither people nor dogs to guard and protect them from predators. There didn’t seem to be a need. The cows hiked sturdy-legged among oak and beech trees, up past the tree line to where the open meadows blanket the ridge. In the wintertime, her husband sometimes hiked these cow paths to the snow-capped peaks, occasionally returning with stories of wolf prints or bear prints, but Tatevik had always thought he was a liar trying to scare her. The bears and wolves and mountain goats retreated north through the mountain passes, the same route the Soviets took almost thirty years earlier, she said. Either that or they were eaten. “Are you sure they weren’t all killed and eaten?” she asked. It seemed that eating anything became more difficult after the Russians left and some of the borders closed. If the animals weren’t eaten, they must have gone to Georgia. Maybe all the way to Moscow.
When Gayane returned to the village, Tatevik told her about the wolves. Gayane was Tigran’s cousin and only a few years older than Tatevik, but Gayane left the village years ago. She moved to the capital as a young, single woman and returned to visit, years later, with a son the same age as Tatevik’s daughter.
Tatevik watched her husband’s cousin with admiration. Gayane tried to live freely where most other women could not. It was the twenty-first century, but the idea of a single woman living alone was unfathomable to most. Professional women in the capital, twenty-something-year-old journalists and young physicians could maybe get away with it. Most could not. They couldn’t afford it, or their families would not allow it. Even more extreme was a woman living with no one but a small child, a small child without a father, by choice. It was almost unheard of. There were choices most women did not and could not make.
Only the dogs were allowed to roam free, until they were shot and killed. Until then, they ate from dumpsters, eating plastic and licking old batteries, waiting for Tatevik to toss old bread to them. But when they approached her, even the black one with tan legs who pulled back his ears submissively and was her favorite, even when he galloped toward her, she ran into the house, slamming both gate then door behind her.
The dogs had fleas, and ticks, and tapeworms, and who knows what else—and when she fed them, they would follow her around all day if they could. Not just the tame ones, but even those who were half wild, barking scared in the streets all the time. When the wolves were there, the barking was even louder and the dogs could be heard running after each other, charging into the earliest hours of morning.
Sometimes Tatevik wished the dogs would go away, though she thought no one should be eaten by wolves. She did also think it was better them than her, until she heard one of the neighbors suggested baiting the wolves with the litter of puppies hidden in the weeds along the riverbed.
“I saw some of the bloodied fur,” Tatevik told Gayane. When she saw the blood-spattered tan hair, her heart lifted to her throat. There were so many village dogs, many were black with white chests, but not many had solid tan markings. “I thought it was one of mine at first,” she said, surprised by how sad she felt about the dogs she tried so hard to resist. To not get attached to. She did the best she could for the dogs, but she couldn’t save them.
“I couldn’t believe how happy I was to see that dog running across the bridge later that day,” she said. “He just went to the trash like he always does, like the whole world goes on just the same.”
When Gayane visits, they talk about the dogs. Gayane somehow found money to open a dog shelter near the city. When she comes home to visit, she tells everyone, “Please, neuter your dogs,” and the men scoff.
“You can’t do that,” they say.
“It’s inexpensive and easy,” she says, but the men won’t hear it.
“Then spay the bitches.”
“Bullets are cheap and easy,” some laugh, but Tatevik knows not all are joking. The men are getting angry.
They always talk like this in the winter, when the sidewalks are thick with ice and the tree branches might hold an inch of snow. It’s beautiful, Tatevik always thinks, but the hard cold begins as soon as the sun starts to set. Old men and old women have been known to die in their cottage beds.
Tatevik never participates in these conversations. She is not from the village; she is not even from the country. She first found herself in these mountains six years ago when she came as a Peace Corps volunteer. She specifically asked to go to Armenia because her grandparents were born somewhere between Yerevan and the Turkish border but left during the Russian occupation. They moved to Los Angeles where Tatevik’s mother grew up and married another Armenian—a man whose family escaped from the genocide in a previous generation. When Tatevik was born, her mother named her after a childhood friend and said her name meant something like “give wings” or “God gave wings,” but Tatevik grew up speaking English.
“Look around,” the men say. “Everyone is poor. Heating costs too much. Food costs too much. We can’t take care of each other, and you want us to take care of the dogs?”
“Yes,” Gayane says.
“No, no, no.” The men shake their heads and walk away. They go into the forest to cut down trees for firewood. The forest is a protected park and logging is illegal, but the police are also poor. The bribe is cheaper than the gas.
Tigran does not cut the trees. He works as a guide for Russian visitors. Sometimes they come as tourists, and sometimes they come for business. They talk about development, but mostly they buy brandy and carpets. Before they leave, Tigran takes them on wilderness tours. He knows where to find the remains of old stone-carved crosses in the woods, and he knows the names of the birds and the kinds of calls they make. At another time, in another history, he could be the guide to show how to strap your boots, carry your picks, and help summit you to the top of Ararat, the ancient Biblical mountain of renewal. You can imagine the peak, maybe the day would be clear, past the tree line, past the clouds. Here’s where the world started over, you might think. At different times in history, the villagers might have spoken of invaders, but as long as history is known, they have lived along a portion of the highly traveled Silk Road, connecting east to west, north to south, borscht-eaters to tabouli-eaters, ballet dancers to duduk players. But the fact remains: Ararat is now on the other side of a border, a border where it once wasn’t. Ararat is on one side and Tatevik, Tigran and the others, the grandchildren of Noah, live on the other side, and Tigran cannot show you how to scale that rock.
But that is almost how Tatevik met Tigran. They met hiking to a thirteenth-century stone monastery that was hidden near the top of a mountain forest where it overlooked a long, fertile gorge. Tigran lectured on flora, fauna, and the theological disputes between the Roman Catholics and the Apostolic Church. Tatevik decided to stay in the valley just a bit longer, a week longer, then a month longer, and then several months longer. And then she and Tigran married. Everyone expected them to move to the US as quickly as possible, but then everyone was surprised when they decided to stay. Tigran continued his work. Tatevik, by that time, was fluent in Armenian and began translating for the bank.
Outside, Tigran straps skis onto the little feet of their daughter. The girl is barely old enough to walk, but Tigran wants her to grow up and know how to navigate where she lives, and that means not only knowing the village but knowing the forest as well. He teaches the girl to cross-country ski along the dirt road on the other side of the river where there are no streetlights; only the steel bones of the amusement park that was built when the composers and filmmakers used to come from all over the USSR. And sometimes from even farther away, making the web of forested village homes and apple, pear, and plum orchards a retreat for artists, a tiny cultural hub in a deciduous valley in a tiny country, but that was also decades ago. The artists stopped coming and their retreat cabins are overgrown with weeds and vines. No one regularly tends the rides at the park, though occasionally a man with a generator might arrive, operating one rusted ride at a time. Mostly you find teenagers sitting quietly on the benches, the spinning swings hanging lonely from their chains, while pregnant bitches find warmth in the overgrowth.
Gayane took out her phone. “Tatevik jan, you won’t like this, but you should see it,” she said.
The video footage was taken from the front seat of a car that followed an old Lada. Tatevik could tell neither car was moving very fast. Then she noticed something attached at the bumper. Two things attached at the bumper.
“They’re dogs,” Gayane said. The video stopped and she brought up another. It was recorded on another phone. In the video, Gayane is yelling at the man, telling him he can’t treat animals with such barbaric cruelty. “It’s illegal,” she is saying. The man says he doesn’t know what she is talking about; he didn’t do any such thing. Tatevik watched the Gayane in the video pull out her phone, the same phone they were holding, and show the man something.
“There is a third,” Gayane said. She found another video and handed the phone to Tatevik. The screen showed Gayane walking two dogs and putting them in her car.
“We took them,” she said. “Somehow he didn’t kill them. They’re at the clinic now, and we’ll take them to the shelter as soon as they’re ready.”
The Mayor and City Council called a town hall meeting. There was only one thing to do: hunt the wolves. They wanted Tigran to go along. He and shepherds who lived closer along the ridgeline knew the woods and the wolves better than anyone else in the village, but the shepherds were old men, and they had their animals to attend.
“Are you going to go?” Tatevik later asked. She didn’t like the idea at all. She had no desire to see wolves killed, and she certainly didn’t want Tigran to be a part of it, but she also remembered the panic she felt as she walked home with her daughter as dusk settled into the valley late in the afternoon. She rushed her daughter down the road, quickly looking over her shoulder behind her, glancing along the banks of the road, in the vegetation along the river, in the trees just a few hundred feet from where they walked. She hoped her daughter wouldn’t notice when she shoved her through the gate and barred them in the house. If the woods were really dying, the wolves would be back, and they wouldn’t limit themselves to street dogs. They’d kill pets, livestock, and maybe young girls and their mothers as well.
“Don’t worry,” Tigran said. “They’re afraid of people. They wouldn’t touch you.” And Tatevik knew he was a liar for sure.
“What wolves normally do and what wolves who are starving do are two different things,” Tatevik said, “and they stopped acting like normal wolves when they came down the mountain and started walking down the roads.”
Tigran sighed. It was dark, but he went outside saying he needed to go for a walk.
When left alone, Tatevik wondered if staying in this place was the right choice for her, for her daughter. What life could she have in a forest of wolves lingering among the ghosts of Soviet musicians, deer and boar. She tried to tell herself that the wolves in the village meant the return of all animals, as if their presence were a sign of hope and fertility. The Russians would invest. The town would prosper. No one will need to cut down the trees, and the hospitals will be clean. Tourists will come and hike the mountains, drink the coffee, eat the grape-candied walnut soujuk. But Tatevik knew returning wolves did not saunter into the first village center they could find. They were passing through because they were desperate.
That evening after Tigran returned, they heard the wolves howl. It was the first time Tatevik heard wolves, and she knew what it was like to live in this very mountain village one hundred years ago, to hear the chorus of predators and know that outside is dangerous. To leave the group is dangerous. To live without fire and go into the dark is dangerous. To go into the woods is dangerous. Stay home with your mother and father, the wolves warned.
“They are miles away,” Tigran said.
“In another village?”
“Maybe,” Tigran said, “That would make them someone else’s problem.”
“Will they come back?”
“I don’t know.”
But they did come back. They tracked through the snow and killed a calf, dragging and tearing it almost half a mile down the slope of the hillside.
They say the shape of nature is a spiraling gyre, and it seems to be the shape of everything in the world, a kind of cycle that moves forward in time. Not long ago, there were the Russians and Stalinists. A century ago there were the Ottomans and a genocide. Before that, the Persians, and before that, the Romans. It’s always the people with the biggest sticks, and there was a time when the Armenians had the biggest sticks. But that was a long, long time ago, except the spiral circles and pushes forward. The previous spring, an American newspaper published a photo essay on the domestic violence in their villages. Tatevik and her husband looked at the pictures of the dead women, women laid in caskets, women with smashed noses, but dressed in the most delicate white lace. In the photos, older women and men sit around a young girl’s body with expressions that might say, “What is to be done?” while younger men appear to weep and wail. Tatevik and Tigran might have known any of these women had they taken only a few different turns down the streets, if the women stopped in their village for gas on the way to the city. They might have run into them at markets or passed them on the windy road of the mountain ascent. Families called them “accidents” and everyone else suspected husbands and mothers-in-laws. Tatevik saw the photos, and she’d heard enough herself. There was a reason why Gayane raised her son alone. Still, she didn’t want to say it, yet she knew children who would stab puppies in the neck with pointed sticks or club them in the face, bludgeoning snouts, watching the blood splatter.
There were always lingering threats of violence. Snipers stalked the border to the northeast of the village. The state road that dipped across the line was to be avoided more often than not lately. There were street protests and riots: gas prices were too high, elections were rigged, the Constitution changed, the President quietly relinquished more territory. The country was getting smaller and smaller, and we know what happens when the predators have less land to roam. When ex-soldiers stormed the police station and confiscated its weapons, most civilians were quiet. The former soldiers had their respect but not their support. But when the President refused to speak and when those who were on the streets demanding his resignation were arrested, a fire began to burn even more fiercely.
Gayane was there. She sent photos and videos back to Tatevik and Tigran, and the news followed the growing protests for days. The men in the station held it for more than a week. Eventually, they were arrested and the President did not resign, but Gayane found someone to adopt the dog who stayed with them in the streets, who became their mascot, who followed the crowd from the central square to the suburban quarter that was closest to the most ancient part of the city, to the place where anti-government protests became riots—the dog kept walking. The dog stayed present.
After the calf, the village men decided to drive as close as possible to the ridgeline. Then they would hike the lip of the mountains looking for tracks and a wolf den. Tatevik tried one more time to convince Tigran not to go.
“It’s almost spring,” she said, “The snow will melt. They’ll have more food. They’ll be gone.”
“What if they aren’t?” Tigran asked.
“The shepherd will have to train his dogs to look after the cows better.”
“What will the wolves eat then?”
Tatevik knew Tigran could be gone for several days, but they had good camping equipment, warm sleeping bags, and he knew how to watch the clouds and pay attention to the wind. Tigran knew his way around a mountain, and he was never foolish enough to forget the mountain could kill them all easier than any of the wolves could. They would be fine. They would drive longer than they should over potted roads, roads the government said could not be repaired because the money was needed for the soldiers at the borders, but they would get there eventually, and those who were not used to sleeping outside would be uncomfortable, but they would be okay. Except for Tigran, most spent half of their days sitting at picnic tables in the snow, playing backgammon and chess and avoiding their wives. They didn’t go in until they were ready for sleep.
Tigran was never like that. Tigran wanted her company. He was a good man, and Tatevik knew many other good men, she reminded herself. She thought of the young chemist who was both intelligent and compassionate. He worked in the capital, but he was from the village and returned frequently. He was the kind of man she would trust her daughter with should something happen to her or Tigran. Her husband had a mutual admiration for the man, but the two men were nothing alike. The young chemist was not an outdoorsman, and he certainly wasn’t a hunter. He would not be going to look for the wolves. And the other men? The men who shoot dogs in the streets because they can? Bait wolves with puppies? Shove their wives face-first into walls? What did Tatevik know of this life? Very little. But she knew this: the man she married was from the same village the others were from, yet he treated their daughter as some men treat only their sons. Their daughter would grow up knowing she could live her life in the way she chose because that’s what people do. And the other men? Life was hard and most people wanted to do the best they could, the best they should, and sometimes they forgot. Tatevik was sure she sometimes forgot as well. Maybe Tigran did, too, but he was always a partner in her life, never her commander. He, and the chemist, and the others were of the same ilk. Even her namesake, the one God gave wings to. Perhaps all angels must be saints and devils at the same time.
Tigran was only gone for two days, but while he was gone, Tatevik found her tan-legged dog bloated on the side of the road. She hadn’t seen him for a few days. She was with her sleepy-eyed daughter who was dragging her feet, stumbling into potholes, crying because she was tired. The little girl didn’t see the dog at all. Tatevik barely noticed it herself, she just saw something dark near the river wall. She thought someone left a bag filled with dirt. When she got closer, she realized it was an animal. Closer still, she realized it was the animal she resisted loving. He was covered in blood and flies, even in this cold winter, but his body was not decimated. No wild animal did that. Only a person would do that. Tatevik was glad her daughter didn’t notice. She hated the whole village in that moment. The dogs were being killed. The wolves were going to be killed. The pig she talked to every morning when she passed it on the way to work was butchered a few days ago. She saw two men hacking at its body on the table.
All things are not equal, Tatevik told herself. A pig is not a street dog is not a wolf is not a girl in the woods in another country.
After the four-day war with Azerbaijan, Tatevik wanted to leave. She wanted to take her daughter and her husband and move to the US. They would figure it out from there. They would make it work. But Tigran wanted to stay. And after it became known the borders had shifted again, he wanted to stay even more.
“Why stay?” Tatevik asked. “To what purpose?” She was thinking of her daughter and the choices she wanted her daughter to be able to make. How to avoid snipers and war was not among the things she wished for her daughter.
“I can’t expect you to know what it’s like to feel you are possibly among the last of your family to live in their homeland,” he said. “You’re Armenian, but you’re even more American. Everyone you have known lives in the United States. Most of the ancestral homeland is gone, home to others. Most of us are gone as well.”
What does it mean when most of your countrymen live in Moscow or Los Angeles? What does it mean when most of your countrymen are no longer literate in their own language, your language, when they read English or Russian, when they know foreign alphabets better than their own?
“You couldn’t know,” Tigran said, “and that’s okay. You shouldn’t have to know. No one should.” He paused before adding, “But I want to stay.”
Tigran called to say he was on his way back, and Tatevik waited up for him. She made a pot of oregano and mint tea; their daughter was already asleep. Driving anywhere always took longer than expected. There were few lights on the roads in that part of the hills and the condition of the pavement was terrible. Months later, they heard that the money that was being saved by not repairing the roads was not being used to support the soldiers who secured the border either. It was all a scam, so it seemed.
When Tigran arrived, Tatevik asked if they had found the wolves, though she already knew the answer.
“They were starving. Even with all that fur, you could see their bones when you got up close enough.”
“And the den?”
“Were there puppies?”
“They never would have made it to spring.”
Gayane had gone back to the city before the wolves were killed. She ran the dog shelter and harassed neglectful and abusive pet owners until they handed over their dogs. She harassed government officials and tried to influence law and policies on animal abuse. There was a brown bear held in a cage near a restaurant, and her goal was to see it released to a sanctuary.
On the phone, Tatevik told Gayane that the men who shot the wolves were selling their pelts. She wasn’t stupid and knew a wolf in the village was not good for anyone, but knowing they were dead did not make her feel safe, or happy. She felt sad and tired.
Tatevik thought of Gayane living in the city. It had been a few months since she last visited. It is a city of artists, of musicians, of dancers. Renowned Russian companies perform in the opera house, and local companies perform for the cost of a ticket that even a student could afford. The house is always full. On clear days, you can climb the steps of the outdoor sculpture museum and see Ararat. It’s about twenty-five miles away, in another country.
They might not have Ararat, Tatevik thought, but these mountains are where the flood waters first receded, where people and animals first stepped out the ark and spread across the mountains, planting grain and making wine. Some chose to move onward; some went to Egypt, but others stayed. If you believe the myth. And if you don’t, maybe it doesn’t even matter, because that’s not what myths are about.
Months later, people took to the streets again, and this time the people got what they wanted. This time the man who was President gave up his post. A short while later, Gayane called to say she was thinking of coming home; she wanted to run for office. She wanted to make policies that would penalize any abuse of power.
Tatevik couldn’t vote, but she asked Tigran if he would vote for his cousin, a woman. He seemed surprised when she asked. He had just called their daughter over to him. They were going to spend the afternoon hiking to one of the caves, and Tatevik handed over a sack with bread and fruit, cheese and a chocolate bar. Tigran packed the food into his backpack and looked back to her. Their daughter waited by the door.
“Of course,” he said. “Of course.”
Heather Momyer is the founding publisher of Arc Pair Press. Her fiction chapbook, How to Swim, was published by Another New Calligraphy, and her stories and essays appear in The Forge Literary Review, The SFWP Quarterly, Tahoma Literary Review, Puerto del Sol, Psychopomp Magazine, Bennington Review, and other journals. She lives in Tacoma, WA.