Goris fills with fog in the winter. It comes down from the mountains to the north, through the village of Verishen above, along the Goris River, here no larger than a creek. The leading edge of the fog bank huddles close to the loose skin of the water, sending out tentative tendrils, until it hits the city and rapidly expands and you are blinded with white in every direction. In the mornings, the fog freezes on the streets, leaving a slick trail behind it and people shuffle along the asphalt, walking beside the buckled and pitted sidewalks.
I cross the river into Old Goris, at a low bridge built where the height of the bank of the newer city, built in 1876 on the broad plain to the west of the river, begins to diverge from that of the lower bank of the older one, built among the hills and valleys to the east. I come here often, to leave behind our dark Soviet-era apartment with its celadon green bedroom with white moldings applied at haphazard to the joins between walls and ceiling and its dirty pale slate blue living room. To reach the bridge, I walk past the dark grey-burgundy stone church of Grigor Lusavoritch, Gregory the Illuminator, with its tall spired cupola on a square drum, to where the street ends in a T. I walk left, along a tall wall that looks like an irregular jumble of stones pierced with barred glassless windows that look in on a small roofless, grassy field. I follow this road, paved with worn dirt, its gravel foundation beginning to show through, and take the first right, a trail that leads down three switchbacks to the floodplain of the river, where the vegetation is different, taller and more abundant, in a lighter shade of green.
The trail to the bridge is dry, founded on packed soil, and I stop to watch the quick water flowing beneath it among the silt and marsh grasses. In the spring, I might see someone standing here in tall boots gathering herbs in the alluvial mud by the rushing water, swelled with snowmelt. After the bridge, there is a wide, leveled dirt road that leads around the base of the hills of Old Goris to the abandoned church of Saint Hripsime, whose interior is rectangular and whose exterior is in the process of being swallowed by the eroding mud of the hills in their largo motion down to the river, which is bearing them away a handful of dirt at a time. You can walk out on the grassy roof of the church from the hill above without realizing where you are until you notice the small roof lantern there in the middle of what looks like flat earth. Inside Saint Hripsime, I sit to rest on one of the two long rectangular slabs that are placed at the head of the nave in the shape of a V pointed at the chancel, on the bare floor where a fine, chalky powder rises up in clouds at every step. You breathe dry dust and wax in this long room. In the shallow alcoves, people have placed photos of holy women torn from magazines, bibles, and candles, whose orange wax runs down the walls to the floor.
There is another chapel above, with an old cemetery running up the hill to it like stairs. It has no door, there is no glass in its one small window, and one of its ornate carved flagstones has been cast out on the grass by thieves looking for a secret compartment in the floor. Armenians of another time decorated this stone with a relief procession of figures ringing its perimeter and carved Armenian text in its center that is faded into illegibility with age. The headstones of the graves scattered around appear to date from the same period as this stone, or at least they share the same pattern of worn reliefs and carved writing. But down the hill, nestled in a small valley in among high ground, there is a more modern cemetery, with some headstones like obelisks bearing medallions holding yellow photographs of the graves’ occupants and others carved out of black marble with portraits of the occupants laser etched on them; on some of these the means of death is also depicted: a car heading off a cliff on one, a military uniform and an assault rifle on another.
Old Goris is filled with caves. There are rounded holes visible in the tall basalt formations that come out of the hills like irregular teeth out of a green jaw; these open up within to what once were at first dwelling places and then became storage areas for houses built with their backs up against the rock. But in the seventies, the Soviets brought gas, electricity, and running water to the west side of the river, the newer part of the city, where the administrative buildings are and which is laid out in a gridlike pattern of streets and the people moved, some moving their houses stone by stone across the river.
In Old Goris there are wild-growing herbs such as a local minty- or marjoram-flavored thyme and nettles, which are gathered up at the base of the hills in spring, summer, and fall and brewed into an herbal tea or baked into small, flat loaves of doughy bread.
In Goris proper, I walk uphill to the north end of town on a long, straight street to visit the Tigranyans. My wife and I lived with this family for a year and maintain close ties. They are six in the house, two grandparents, two parents, and two children: Valentina the nurturing gossip, who seems to know everyone in town and to know everything about the ones she doesn’t know and who takes care of us and ensures we have everything we need; Vladik the patriarch, who greets us by raising his hands, putting them together over his head, and giving them a two-fisted shake, like a world champion in some unknown event; Edik, their son, who is disappointed in life and is not running the auto repair shop that his father founded but who is trying his hand at selling washers and spark plugs in a storefront downtown; Lilo, his wife, who seems never-endingly harassed with work around the home and who has a habit of walking into a room where you are watching the television, changing the channel, and walking out; Ani, their younger child, who has graduated from high school and had put old posters of Eminem and Justin Timberlake covering the door of what was our room when we lived here, after and before it was hers; and Tigran, older than her, always impeccably dressed in all black with pointed shoes, and who runs a game center in the family’s disused garage, charging his friends and neighbors by the minute to play his video games.
I come in and am greeted, the women are standing, apart from Ani, who sits embracing her father on the couch. Valentina and Lilo keep a slight distance from me, standing to the side as I enter, and I grasp the hands of the men one by one, in descending order of age, Vladik and Edo on the couch and Tigo in the orangish overstuffed chair at the head of the room. The women bring out a table and food, you must feed guests or at least give them coffee and homemade cakes or other sweets, and I receive a thin soup made with tomato paste and vegetable ghee with a leg of chicken and potatoes that are boiled to the point where they are beginning to dissolve into their constituent starch. There is a plate of pickled cabbage and another of pickled beet stalks. There are greens on the table: parsley, dill, tarragon, and these can be put in the soup or eaten as is wrapped in bread. The bread, lavash, is a foldable flat bread baked on a long form like a padded ironing board and is a requirement for any meal. I talk with Edo about recent geopolitics and he asserts that the United States and Georgia are friends, rubbing his extended index fingers together lengthwise to illustrate his meaning. Vladik has reached that stage in life where he only wants things to be well, and he says lav, lav, it is good. The business he built in his youth came on hard times with the fall of the Soviet Union, because cars ceased to be affordable for most people, and now, under his son-in-law, it does a fraction of the work it used to. In the house he built, the pipes of the steam heating system he installed throughout sit cold because the gas to operate it is no longer within the family’s budget and in winter they sit all together in the living room around a tin wood stove with the doors off the living room shut. After coffee, after people have gotten up from the table, Valentina sits next to me on the couch and asks me about my work, dropping small morsels of information about people I work with and relating to places I have gone.
Outside, as I walk back south down the street a little, a group of older men in cloth caps with shallow brims are sitting on a bench against the exterior stone wall of a house, with their sticks between their legs. They turn their heads to watch me as I got past, eyes firmly in the center of their sockets, with eyes slightly widened, focused directly on me, with no indication given that they are aware that I am seeing them as well as they are seeing me. They exchange muttered remarks, which I cannot quite catch, on my dirty, unpolished shoes, on the backpack I am carrying, on the fact that I am walking down the hill instead of taking a taxi.
I feel as though I am on stage before these men now and every time I go out to go anywhere. The strange foreigner with his odd habits, with his unkempt hair and mismatched clothing, with his goofy stride and odd grin. But I have come to realize, after long enough here, that I am not an exception, that these men watch everyone walking by as if they were on television, as if their gaze means nothing for the world they are watching, and they exchange observations about everyone, the ones they know and the ones they do not, where they have come from and where they are going to, what they are carrying, how they are dressed.
They bench they are sitting on is two boards painted blue-green, suspended on two pieces of granite, and there are a dozen benches like it on both sides of this street running downhill nearly the length of the city. The men lean forward, there are no backs to the benches, away from the stone walls, made of rounded stone mortared together in a distinctive way. Instead of the stones being carved and shaped to fit one another, they keep their original, lopsided shape, and the mortar is thickly laid on to fill in the large gaps and present an even, ordered surface of visible stone. The walls made in this way connect from house to house, all along the street, with the effect of a long running fortification, over the tops of which the residents can look down from their raised patios.
Dominating my view to the south as I walk, and dominating all southward views no matter where I am in the city, is a tall green hill shaped in a nearly perfect pyramid, with a squared-off, flat top. You can ascend this hill, Lasti Khut, on its back side, where the slope is less steep and there is a sandy depression like an incipient ravine that you can ascend by zigging and zagging your way to the top along it; or you can follow one of the network of narrow cow trails that make wide lazy arcs to the top.
Once you reach it, Goris is laid out before you like a carpet, gently running up toward the northern mountains, with its straight streets lying there like a network of parallel and perpendicular pipes. Up at the top here there are six or eight large rusting metal tubes, about three times the height of a person, lying on the upper plateau, the relic of some intended construction project. There is also a shallow pit here used to grill khorovats, pork on skewers with potatoes and onions. Old cold ashes remain in the pit together with congealed meat drippings. Behind the hill is the garbage dump, where there is always a fire smoldering and where the wind has taken trash and scattered it around in a quarter-mile radius on either side of the long, winding south road to Iran.
You can watch the snow fall on the city, in its pulses over weeks in the late fall. It descends first on the mountains in the distance, extending the white of their tips halfway down their length; then it recedes up again, then down; then it dusts the hills surrounding the town, whitening the trees on the west and the high fields in the east, the snowline coming down and rising again as if it was on an elastic string, and then it falls in town and Goris becomes even quieter, as smoke rises from its thousand chimneys in the east and in the west and the air begins to perpetually smell of warmth and burning.
The cowherds and shepherds come through the city in the morning to collect the animals of the residents who pay them in flocks or herds and, walking them through the streets, take them to the bare pastures above Old Goris. Following the cow trails, which form a tan spiderweb mesh thrown over the green hills, up to the flat tablelands, I surprise them and they, the cows, sheep, and goats, rear and leap away from me in a reflexive twitchy motion and then return to grazing on the dew-moistened grass. The noise of a herd, unseen, ascending under the brow of a hill, is like an advancing army on the march, with their hundreds of chewing mouths making a uniform ongoing crunching noise like a thousand boots in the distance walking on hard ground.
There are certain places where a trail leads to a small grassy flatland at a cliff edge and there is a sudden expansive view, Goris is ringed with views, of the entire city, the dark brownish-stone buildings of Goris State University to the northeast, houses up the steep slopes to the west, the ribbon of road leading south to Kapan, and the long slope of the valley, punctuated by short homes and taller apartment buildings surfaced in pink tufa stone, to the northern mountains.
Patrick Findler is an academic editor now living in Portland, Oregon. He spent seven years working as an English teacher and teacher trainer in post-Soviet countries. He was born in Arlington, Virginia. His work has been published by Catapult and is forthcoming from upstreet magazine.