Friday, January 14, 2011

Dog Star

I woke up and read a Chekhov story, lying on my new futon and listened to a song I used to listen to in Armenia before going to work; a song I used to try to play on guitar, back when I lived in my own self-contained apartment. In Armenia, I lived in a studio of sorts. There was a living room with a pullout couch, a small kitchen with two large and cracked windows, one with a rain-soiled bed sheet hanging over it. I spent all my non-working, non-wandering hours between the walls of this Brezhnev block apartment, looking out over the cemetery and the stone carver’s and the dogs that lived up there, playing in the day and howling in the night every time someone walked by. One of them a dog I never named, but loved nonetheless, who just disappeared over the course of a summer. A huge sheep dog that was terrifying to behold, white, ragged and bear-wooly as he would come up the first hill of the cemetery, appearing, flashing for a moment against the starry sky and the grey stones to come bolting down to the street.
We would play in the street, in the dark. Sometimes we would take walks, up to the Genocide memorial Khatchkar where water could be heard running into the nearby dump and sheep would bleat from tumbledown barns. Once, I remember walking to the futbal stadium and lying down in the middle of the unkempt grass, like the grass in any other field, only recently mown. The dog lay to the left of my feet, quiet. He did not get up or whine though I must’ve stayed there at least 20 minutes, smelling the lilac smell that drifted from a cluster that grew nearly four blocks away.
The dog and I had such excursions nearly every evening in the Spring and Summer of that year. Sometimes, I would go over to the garezmanots (cemetery) and call for him, sometimes I would see him downtown scrounging for food with a few other strays, but like all the other dogs he wouldn’t come into the company of people until the sun was setting and the kids and their rock-throwing proclivities had gone in for dinner. When I would see him anywhere other than the cemetery, where it seems he was used to me calling for him, he would come to me as if trying to cover the most tremulous excitement with obsequiousness. As large as a wolf, covered with lacerations, mostly on the neck, ears docked, tail half-docked, dried blood bristling in his hair, he would come, nearly wedged against the store fronts, with his tail tucked between his legs, waggling his backside uncontrollably, as if he thought the tail would be presumptuous but could not help but to wag something.
We would meet and go tumbling through the dark streets, if there was a store still open I would stop in and buy some basturma for him, sitting on the curb while he ate it. When I went home, I would usually bring any leftovers I had out to him. Such behavior eventually brought him out of the garezmanots at night to the area beneath my window, though I lived four stories up in the building. A few times I remember talking on the phone, pacing back and forth through my kitchen and living room with the windows open, I would hear a whine from the street below: a response to my own lonely voice.
Perhaps the association with me, with a person, was bad for a dog in a place where most people are afraid of dogs. The dogs in rural Armenia are either huge shepherd dogs who have been trained to heartily discourage anything that is not their master or a cow from getting anywhere near wherever they happen to find themselves in the fields that roll up to meet the mountains, dogs that would come bounding out of nowhere like some forgotten, and therefore much more minatory, militsia guard left to watch the empty fields after the Collapse, a sinecure.
Other dogs were kept chained up to little boxes, slapdash hammered together, or just chained to a post. Some of them barked constantly some of them lay in the dust quietly, lifting an eyelid, and nothing more, to watch someone pass by.
Outside the capital no one had pet dogs that they walked around town with. The large city centers of the former USSR that had been first to declare themselves bastions of the proletariat were the first to return to bourgeois afflictions after the first confusing years of independence. In Yerevan, all kinds of stupidity was to be seen. Ads for AKC Pit bulls, Huskies and all kinds of lap dogs. The countryside was overrun with stray dogs. In Gyumri, I was told, people had been paid to shoot them. I had heard, early in the morning, gun fire, yelping. People in the capital thought of dogs no differently than those in the countryside did: as accessories. In the provinces, one found a puppy, locked it to a three-foot width of chain and fed it scraps. In the capital, one locked a puppy to a gilt collar, a golden chain and to one’s outfit for the day.
In western society the people have come to think of dogs as animals worthy of their emotions, perhaps even emotions that they feel uncomfortable displaying to people. In America, people leave their entire estates to their dogs. Loners move out into the wilds of Alaska alone but for their dogs. Couples take in dogs when they begin to feel desirous of children. Shut-ins talk to their dogs incessantly throughout the day and feel awkward when they have to go out and talk to the bag boy at the grocery store. Here dogs have spas. Walt Whitman wanted to “live amongst the animals.” There are bumper stickers that proclaim “only my dog understands me.”
In Armenia such things would be ridiculous outside the capital because people still depend on each other. The people there live constant emotional flux and they dress themselves in these emotions, they call them from street corners, they pour them into each other’s coffee, they roll them into dolma. Human emotions are a human experience. Those who live amongst sheep see the sheep for what they are, they don’t idealize them, float them on idylls, they heard them and return to their family at night, happy to have someone to which to relate their thoughts of the day. Much emotion is not invested in dogs because it must be invested in people. It follows from the way of life.
This is why I came back from work in a summer camp to find the dog gone. He couldn’t have been of any interest to the people who lived in my town. As long as he stayed up in the cemetery hills he was peripheral and he could exist on the fringes of society. The moment he began coming to my apartment building he began to intrude. There were children, babies who played in the packed-dust alley during the day. Old ladies cleaned vegetables and washed sheets out there when the weather was nice and the men played nardi out there in the cool of the evening and in the heat of the day. No one had any use for a dog with half a tail and a bloody neck.
The American in me reels at the idea of killing an animal that has not done anything, just because it has been seen out of its proper place. But after living in rural Armenia I can understand it. To the people there the dog serves no purpose, it is nothing more than a nuisance and potentially threatening to their worlds, that it to say their children.
I don’t know exactly what happened to the dog. Every time we had met he sported fresh wounds, some of them fairly deep. It is possible that he finally met his match in a larger, younger dog. He may have been hit by a car or, the possibility I like most to entertain, he simply decided to move on, there was a dump about 6 km outside of town that I think he would’ve been happy in. But, most likely, he was seen too often hanging around the apartment buildings and was shot.
I’ll never know what happened. After being gone about three weeks in the summer I came back and he was gone. I called for him nearly every night when I heard the sound of paws scuffling along in the dust outside, awaiting the sound of his plaintive whine in response. It never came, but I continued to call. Even into the next Spring, almost a year later, I would still pass the cemetery at night and call to him, just to be sure he wasn’t up there again, eyes sparkling in the dark, docked tail waggling between his legs in a fit of excitement.
I have been back in America for about 4 months now, yet I still think of this dog and the landscapes that we crossed together, places that became so familiar to me. It has become a period of my life that is being fast buried under new impressions and experiences. I am amazed that I am still able to be so impressed by life here in America, though I have lived in it for decades already. Perhaps it is only now that I am able to combine what I learned about life in Armenia and apply it to life here that I am able to see American life in a truer light.
The sun is out now, it is late in the morning. It is Friday and my classes start on Monday, the last semester of a four-year program. There is so much on my mind but no decisions to make, just things to consider and pass by, it is the view of cluttered landscape from a fast moving train and, the barely discernable whine of a friend I never gave a name to in the background.


  1. Summer nights in your kitchen with the window fully open, listening to the night below and beyond. For some reason I just really like that image of a memory - and reading this post brings me there pretty quickly.

  2. I couldn't agree more. Whether it was drinking coffee in the morning staring at your "Doctors w/o Borders" map or sleeping in an arm chair, it still brings back some of the best memories I've had. Good luck with classes!

  3. When I hiked Aragats last February there was a pile of dead dogs outside the village on the road to the mountain. I understood entirely why it had been done, but was disturbed nonetheless.