Went back to our old house today.
I walked, which took me across central Yerevan and then up the Cascades. (That's several hundred feet of climbing stairs, but I needed the exercise.)
Some things had changed: a new highway running along the old rail line, where I'd walked along the tracks back in the day. Most things had not: the big, half completed housing development around the corner is still half complete. The communal garbage bins are still overflowing. The little vendor where we used to buy chocolate surprise eggs for the boys was still there.
The house was empty: scabs of unshoveled snow in the driveway, drifts of unraked leaves around the courtyard. I opened the front gate, went up to the windows and looked in. Someone had been living there -- dishes washed and piled beside the sink, an ironing board glimpsed in the living room -- but not recently.
There were a lot of magpies around.
Magpies are very variable in appearance and behavior. Biologists are still arguing about which groups are subspecies and which are truly separate birds, but even a casual observer can see the differences. Magpies in Armenia get more social in winter, gathering in groups, while the German birds (so far) continue to keep to their separate territories.
The whole area around the house was festooned with little memories. There is the big puddle the boys loved to splash in after rains; in colder weather, they delighted in cracking its ice. Here's the dentist's office around the corner (STOMATOLOG, in Armenian and Cyrillic) where I would sit in the mornings with four-year-old Alan waiting for the bus. There's where I cut down the cherry tree in the garden; I knew just how long it took to shovel two inches of snow off that driveway. There were the mulberries, there the Russian olive, there the rosebush that kept obstinately pushing its way into the driveway and forcing me to prune it back. One of the dishes I saw through the window was a small bowl with a brown pattern around the edge; I had a sudden physical memory of drinking sweet-and-sour Chinese soup from it -- not very good soup, but hot.
The neighbors noticed me hanging around and came out to greet me -- good Lord! It's Doug! Hello! (The teenage boy who drove Claudia crazy hanging around our yard in the summer of 2006 is a young man now, stubble cheek and baritone.) We had a rather one-sided chat for a few minutes -- my Armenian has not improved, nor their English -- and then I made my apologies and escaped.
Magpies swirled in a circle around the house, chattering and creaking. They landed in a tree, took wing again, split up, came back together. You know the rhyme for magpies?
One for sorrow, and two for joy
Three for a girl, and four for a boy
Five for silver, and six for gold
And seven for a secret that can never be told.
I didn't encounter that rhyme until I was an adult -- there are magpies in the western states, but none in New York or New England -- but it's stayed with me. I tried counting, and finally came up with: ten, the most I'd ever seen at one time even in Armenia. Does that take you out of the pattern? Or do you get two silvers, or five joys, or a boy and a secret?
With the setting sun behind it on a hazy winter afternoon, Ararat is just a purple silhouette against the sky. Down in Yerevan the lights were coming on. I tucked up my collar and started walking back.