There was a story in the village of Bjni that went like this: When Armenia declared its independence from the Soviet Union, there were two types of people—Armenian A, who sold his Soviet state-subsidized goat, spent all his money, and had to beg for the rest of his life, and Armenian B, who bought Armenian A’s Soviet state-subsidized goat, bred it with his own state-subsidized goat, and wound up having to feed Armenian A for both of their lives.
Ashot, my neighbor, was a man of the second group. Every year, he bred his two goats, sold the calf, and bought seeds, bread, meat, and the occasional bottle of vodka. Ashot always had a surplus of goat’s milk and brought the sloshing pails to my door as a gift. He often stood there for several minutes before knocking, his gray-white stubble and potato-skin ears quivering somewhere between impatience and insistence. I could not bring myself to drink goat’s milk, and when I tried to turn it into yogurt or cheese, the waxy, yellow-frothed liquid became a gooey, inedible curd.
One day, when Ashot brought the goat’s milk, I decided I would tell him to give it to Hovig, the shepherd who ate nothing but crackers and goat’s cheese, or to Vartan, the corpulent mechanic who was always clutching a jug of minty yogurt-drink. However, when I saw Ashot standing outside my door, preparing to knock, I sensed something was wrong. His usual morning ruddiness had dissipated and his posture was bent and weighted. I invited him in for coffee and, after chatting about the unseasonably wet weather, the leaks in his house, and the leaks in my house, he became very grave. He told me that he had been feeling aches and pains all through his body, pains which he had long attributed to arthritis, aches that the doctor had just informed him were from an aggressive cancer that had already spread to his liver.
There was a story in my village of a man, who, after Armenia became independent from the Soviet Union, slaughtered his last state-subsidized goat, threw a lavish birthday party, and, afterward, being too proud to take handouts, starved to death.
A few days later, Ashot and I were drinking coffee when my other neighbor, Anahit, appeared at the door, her body so large that her shadow was cast through the side windows. She was looking for her goat, which had wandered off. When Ashot told her about his cancer, she hugged him, cried, wiped her eyes, and asked if she could buy his two goats.
“My goats are becoming too old to breed,” he said with a slow shake of his head. “And we haven’t had a party since Armenia’s independence. I would like to slaughter them for everyone in Bjni to eat.”
Anahit was visibly distraught. Ashot might be her neighbor and friend, but he was breaking a taboo. He was, in fact, killing not one, but two goats, all for a party. With a cluck of her tongue, she reminded us—in a somber, shame-filled tone—about the story of the man who killed his last goat for a birthday party and starved to death.
There was a story of a woman in our village who was a Kurd and was therefore not entitled to a Soviet state-subsidized goat. Every day, this Kurdish woman went around and bought leftover goat milk, which she mixed, cultured, and eventually sold as cheese. Just days after Armenia became independent, this Kurdish woman’s husband died. Using her husband’s savings, she bought an old state-subsidized goat from an Armenian, made cheese, sold it in the market, bought another goat, made more cheese, began selling it in the capital city of Yerevan, and eventually became wealthy enough to buy a farm.
Anahit told everyone in the village about Ashot’s plans, and controversy followed. The men sitting at tables and in chairs along the road, or in each other’s kitchens, gave their opinions freely. When the preparations began, though, everyone set aside their opinions. Artur and his seven sons carried sacks of grain to mill. Lusine and the widows milked the goats, mixed the batter, and kneaded the bread dough. Gor, the woodcutter, chopped the wood, and his cousin Armen heated his stone oven with the wood to bake bread. There were the smaller men, like Vahik and Hakob, who sacked the reserves from the granaries, soaked the kidney beans, crushed the spices, hauled the pots and pans, shined the plates. There were the stronger men, Hovannes and Tigran, who dug out the pits, sharpened the spits, and hammered the legs into the dining tables.
There were Alex and Nayira, who baked lavash in their stone pit, slapping the thin dough vertically against the heated oven walls and, minutes later, peeling it off, crispy and freckled. There were the young girls, Ruzan, Yester, and Sosig, who hiked up to the springs and filled jugs full of carbonated spring water. There was the delivery van driver, Andranik, who traveled three hours each way to bring the best vodka and sweet wine from the Ararat valley.
There were the small-handed women, Arpa and Tamar, who rolled the dolma. There were the widows who cooked kofta; the hermit, Levon, who brought jars of sweet, green walnut preserves; and the Hrazdan dam operator, Edgar, who strung pearls of dried apricots stuffed with brown sugar. And finally, there was the scoliotic boy, Avet, who slept by the goats at night and made sure that they were calm before the slaughter so that their meat would be soft.
Anahit offered to teach me how to turn Ashot’s goat milk into cheese. She came to my house, poured Ashot’s goat milk in large tubs, took over my kitchen, and spoke of bacteria in cheese as if they were sensitive children who needed tender care. She soothed and caressed the curds, and then, almost cooing the microbes to sleep, salted and sacrificed them.
There was a story in my village of a widowed man who gave his Soviet state-subsidized goat to his brother so that his brother could feed his children cheese every day. But the goat missed her owner and wandered back home. When the goat showed up at her owner’s door, the widowed brother found her to be pregnant. Instead of giving his brother the old goat, the widowed man was able to give his married brother a baby calf instead.
Overlooking our village were the remains of a Roman fort. Like all feasts in our village, Ashot’s goodbye party would be held inside the Roman fort, because there were hearths for the fires, nooks in the wall for torches, a stone floor for slaughtering animals, and a sluice that carried the blood down to the river. Near the fire pits were a set of rocks, smoothed over hundreds of years, like giant mood-stones. The stones were added to the pots, softening the wiry goat meat as it boiled and cooked over the course of a day. The fortress walls also kept out the wind and created an amphitheater for Haik, who performed at all the parties, playing traditional Armenian songs on his Casio keyboard.
Since I was Ashot’s friend and a treasured guest of the village, he asked me to do the honor of killing his two goats. On the day of the party, Avet led the two animals to a cobbled clearing near the edge of the fort. The stones in the clearing were darker than the rest. In this very spot thousands of goats had been sacrificed for thousands of weddings, birthdays, funeral parties.
Straddling one of Ashot’s goats, I looked out past our village, where the Caucasus Mountains kneeled to the plains and where, far in the distance, Mount Ararat loomed, white with snow. When Ashot nodded, I lifted the goat’s chin and dragged the blade across its windpipe. The goat did not move, did not cry out. It was as if Ashot’s two goats were accepting their fate as easily as their owner was accepting his own.
There was a story in our village that went like this: When Armenia declared independence from the Soviet Union, three types of Armenians were created—Armenian A, who sold his state-subsidized goat because he believed that the Soviet Union would always provide; Armenian B, who sold his state-subsidized goat because he believed that God would always provide; and Armenian C, who bought Armenian A’s and Armenian B’s goats, then turned around and sold goat meat to both of them.
The night of Ashot’s pre-funeral party the fort was aglow with torchlight. Two enormous metal pots steamed with cubed goat while the rocks rolled and clanked against the sides, and bonfires, spread as if anchoring the festivities, spewed pebbles of light. Women were singing, kids climbing the walls, men drinking and setting the tables.
I was stirring a pot of bulgur and drinking a glass of sweet red wine. As I listened to the conversations, I heard a story forming. It began like this: There was once a man who was dying of cancer and instead of selling his goats, he had a beautiful party and fed the whole village.
Ashot appeared by my side, eating a piece of bread with the cheese I had made, buried under a pile of herbs. He said I made good cheese and patted me on the back. He then took a bottle of clear liquid from his pocket, waved for me to follow, and led me to a small entrance in the Roman fort, down a flight of stairs, and into a dark pit. I could not see him, could not even see my own arms and legs. He helped me sit on the ground, which was cold and moist.
“Many, many years ago,” he said, “Saint Gregory the Illuminator was put into a pit for trying to proselytize Armenians. The Roman guards did not feed him, but he did not die either. The saying goes that for twelve years Gregory lived without food or water. Why? Because God provided for him. The fact that Gregory was alive the whole time convinced the King, Tiridates III, that there was a Christian God. This is why Tiridates III released Gregory. He then asked Gregory to baptize him. This is how Armenia became the first Christian country in the world.”
I could hear Ashot filling glasses with vodka. He lit a single church candle, handed me a glass; we toasted, drank, then cooled the burn with cucumber slices.
“When I was a boy,” Ashot continued, “I had so many questions about Gregory’s story. I wondered what kind of food God gave Gregory, was it vegetables and if so what kind? If it was bread, did God bake it? And if it was goat, who killed it? Or why was it a goat and not a pig or a cow? I went to see the priest. I told him that I wanted to believe in the story of Gregory, but I needed to understand the details. The priest laughed and kissed my head. He said that it did not matter what Gregory ate. What was important was that Gregory survived and was freed and thus converted Armenians into Christians. But the priest saw that he had not settled my concerns, so he told me another story. He said that when Noah landed on Mount Ararat, the Armenians approached his boat. After many days surviving the flood, they were starving. So Noah said to them, These goats are a gift for you to eat. The Armenians, however, shook their heads and refused his gift. The Soviet government provides all the food we need, they said. But you are starving, Noah said. I can see that myself. The flood has wiped away your crops. You must eat or you will die. The Armenians again shook their heads. If the government sees that we are eating the last two goats on the planet, they will send us to the mines, which is worse than starving to death. So Noah asked them if the Soviet government would be mad if they ate Foosarians.”
Ashot wrapped his arm around me and studied my face. The crook of his nose had been broken several times, and his eyes shined around the uneven cartilage.
“What are Foosarians?” I asked.
Ashot held out his shot of vodka. “This is the point, my friend. What are Foosarians? No one knows anymore. No one knows if they were real or not. Not even the Soviets, who know everything. But what we do know is that the Armenians are real and that we did survive.” In the darkness, his glass clinked against mine.
There was a story in my village of a man who had two goats that kept him alive long after Armenia declared independence. When the man found out that he was going to die of cancer, he had a big party and the whole village ate his two goats. When the man died a week later, the whole village came to his funeral, and there was still enough goat left to feed everyone again.