We stood on the balcony that smelled of freshly cut wood and putty, with grit of construction dust under our fingertips, feeling the stem of wine glass grate crisply against the rough unpolished balustrade. Once upon a time, the gardens in front of us were designed by a Versailles gardener, to the refined delight of the Mukhrani princes, descendants from one of the oldest royal dynasties in the world.
A world by now irrevocably gone, it would seem, but for that brief moment –with the moon angling itself a particular way against the cellophaned windows– your senses having grown suddenly keen and alert, sending that spinal animal shiver along your meridians.
Time twisted itself, stretched, an awning, the black cat of Schroedinger, or even Bulgakov’s Begemot, eavesdropping on the sounds of party still going strong in the palace grounds. The music echoed and grew distant, exiled from another epoch, and even my partners in crime receded into the shadows— and I was left one on one with the pitch black palace, not daring to look — into the dark void of human memory and emotion, filled to unbearable brim.
Hours before, after a jolly ride from Tbilisi, catching a fleeting glimpse of the Jvari monastery on the way, we had stepped onto the palace grounds in good spirits. The mountain wind blew too hard and too steeply, but the tinsel warmth of champagne on an empty stomach lingered. We pottered about, took pictures and mingled amongst the well-heeled crowd. The palace itself, a looming shape of snow-white octagonal towers, glittered against the steadfast blue of the sky. So it must have stood, no doubt, over a century ago, when sparkling wine flowed from its fountain (legend says) and the Russian emperor scooped it up with a gem-encrusted chalice, heedless of his own tragic fate; and not very much later — pillaged by the Bolsheviks, and left to disentangle itself, slowly, deliberately, into ruin under the same adamant sky.
We huddled into the wine cellars, grateful for the shelter, eager for the wine tasting, paired with Georgian cheese and a special kind of Georgian sweet, churchkhela — walnuts lovingly nestled inside the rubbery glaze of thickened grape juice. The party went on as the Caucasian night dropped its heavy-lidded gaze, to be briefly punctured by fireworks — before finally claiming us for her own.
We found our way inside the palace that had been closed off during the day, but now lay open for us, curiously inviting in its abandonment. All was dark but for the feeble light from a fridge filled with champagne bottles, which stood randomly in what must have been the anteroom. We explored the floors as much as we dared and certainly much more than we were allowed, no doubt risking a broken ankle at best or a broken neck at worst, with a flashlight. We settled ourselves on the balcony, somehow no longer cold, watching the gardens steeped in black, spying on the lone guest ambling towards the washrooms.
And then it was over — as quickly, as unexpectedly as it began. We took the bus, ran towards the hotel (courtesy of small bladders), and woke up to find another day, now firmly set in its own space-time, with its velvet curtain pulled shut. We drove back to Yerevan, my companion and I, hauling Georgian mandarin oranges and stopping to try some homemade Armenian food at a small joint by the road. The mountains covered in threadbare lace of the trees, almost leafless, turned purple — layer upon layer in giddy relief.
I reached my hotel after dark, tired and thirsty, and somehow glad. My mind pleasantly empty from the excitement of the previous days, I walked across the marble of the hotel lobby, exchanging friendly greetings with the staff, unlocked my room and garnered enough willpower to unpack without much effort.
All good things come to an end, after all, and it is a good thing that they do.