THERE WAS AND THERE WAS NOT a young woman once who lived in Artik [*]. She was strong and lively, the daughter of a rich farmer who had suddenly died. As a result her widowed mother had plenty of money, so the old woman did not spare anything on her daughter. Accordingly, when the girl grew up she liked the “sporting life,” as they called the bourgeois in the far-off city of Alexandropol [*], better than honest, hard work. Since her mother had no other children she allowed the girl to do anything that she pleased. She was seldom to be found at home, but if there was a carnival, or a dance, or a gathering of rowdy rough boys within ten miles of Artik then Nane Abandian could be found there with her shaved head and great 10-league boots. There have always been girls like this, those who seldom spend a night in their mother’s house, who love to be out rambling; in this Nane was no different, she took after the riotous Margaret of Soissons, who even today still scandalizes the old storytellers with her vulgar and smutty tales.
Of course this is what fuels gossip and soon it was said that it was many the scandalous kiss that Nane got and gave, for there was a certain oddity to her beauty that turned the heads of many a stammering boy and befuddled man, all up and down the countryside. It was for that reason that some rustic poet came up with a ditty about her—
Nane! She is a libertine / She wears men’s clothing / She knows how to kiss / She knows how to use a sword / She’s very shameful / This must be love —-
Nane! Na azatamit mard / Na hagnum arakan hagust / Na giti, t’ye inch’pes kareli e hamburel / Na giti, t’ye inch’pes kareli e ogtagortsel suser / Na shat amot’ali / Sa petk’ e lini ser —-
Նանէ! Նա ազատամիտ մարդ / Նա հագնում արական հագուստ / Նա գիտի, թե ինչպես կարելի է համբուրվել / Նա գիտի, թե ինչպես կարելի է օգտագործել սուրը / Նա շատ ամոթալի / Սա պետք է լինի սեր —-
Temperance has never been found in a bottle or where free reign is taken and as time went on Nane became more and more wild and unruly. She wasn’t to be seen day or night at her mother’s house, but always rambling or going out on her night adventures, “gisher arkatsayin,” [*] from bed to bed, from one drunken debauchery to another. Still, her mother never said one word about her “disgraceful habits,” as the old toothless people down in the village market square would say; she never punished Nane until it happened that one day the old woman was told that her daughter had broken the heart of Jhirayr, the little consumptive child who lived down the lane, with his sickly legs and full red lips and girlish dark locks and large, faun-like eyes, it was common knowledge in the neighborhood that the child had pined after the much-older Nane, with her hidden curves and saucy attitude, from his sick-bed window for many an endless night and, the neighbors reasoned, was not consumption proof of a broken heart? What was cholera, tuberculosis and typhus but the melancholia that the poets were always writing about? If the great poet Sayat Nova [*] declared it was so, then so it must be.
Nane’s mother finally grew angry. Unchecked venereal disease was one thing, but this? Many a maid went to her wedding bed with the clap, but who would find a heart-breaker remotely suitable? She called her daughter to her side, saying to her, quietly and reasonably: “Aghjik [*], you know that I have loved you up to this moment. You know that I’ve never stopped you from doing any fool thing, whatever moved you. I’ve kept plenty of money saved away for you, for I know one day you will settle down and be chaste and pious and I’ve always hoped to leave you the house and lands of my late, departed husband.”
“Um, do you mean father?”
“Hush. I said I would have given all that I had, as in past tense, but I heard a story of you today that has disgusted me with your thoughtless behavior. Fie and shame, girl, breaking poor Jhirayr-jan’s heart and giving him consumption! I cannot tell you the grief that I felt when I heard such a tale that has been told about you. I tell you now plainly that unless you marry that the boy to set things right I’ll leave house and land and everything to my sister’s daughter.”
“But I don’t want to marry an eight year-old, I —- wait! Sister? I was unaware that you had a sister or I an aunt.”
“Hush. We rarely talk but I could never leave my wealth to anyone who would make such bad use of it as you yourself have done and will do, causing little boys to cough up blood!”
“I don’t really think I am to blame for that.”
“Hush! Settle with your soul now whether you’ll sober-up, marry that poor weak-chinned lad and get my land as a fortune,” the old woman rose and strode to the door. “Or refuse to marry Jhirayr-jan and give up all that should be rightfully coming to you.”
“Voch’inch [*]! Mother-jan, you shouldn’t say that to me, you talk as if I’m already dead!”
But her mother passed through the door and was gone. Nane ran a bewildered hand across her shaven head. She knew with a sinking heart that her mother would keep her word. The young woman was greatly troubled, for as quiet and as kind as her mother was, she never went back on a promise. There wasn’t another woman in all the village of Artik who was harder to argue with than her mother.
“I do not understand this. If the boy had been poxed with crinkums, or somehow got the Turkish disease, then I am sure I would be to blamed as well. As it is, mother is being most unfair!”
Nane did not know just what to do. She pulled on her ox-hide jacket and walked out into the night to cool her over-heated brain, finding herself, at long last, on a road leading out of the village. The night was bright, the moon full. Lost deep in thought she walked until finally the freedom of motion began to make her forget her troubles. There was not a breath of mountain wind, the air was bewitching and calm. She walked on in the vast dark for nearly an hour, meeting no one on the road, when, suddenly, she realized that she did not know where she was. ““Voch’inch! I think I’ve gotten myself lost,” she murmured.
The murmur was hardly out of her mouth when she heard the queer sound of many female voices singing, as if from a far distance away. Then she could just make out the tramp of light feet upon the road before her. “I don’t know who could be out so late at night and in such a jolly mood,” said she to herself.
Nane stood listening, hardly breathing. The songs were all flowing over one and another but she could not understand the words. “That’s odd,” she said. “It’s not Armenian or Turkish that they are using; it can’t be that they’re Kurds, not out here.” She took a couple of steps further. She could see well enough by the light of the moon. Before her was a band of little figures heading down the road toward her. They carried something awkward and heavy between them; a sack of wheat, Nane thought. Then she felt the skin on her scalp crawl as when one is in the presence of a fell beast, for she saw that the mob was hurrying, pell-mell, toward her in great haste.
Nane looked at them again, amazed, seeing that there were about twenty naked, diminutive women —- women? children? not one was higher than three feet tall —- some appeared young, some a weird blue hue, some as ancient as the mountains. Her people called them the brave ones, since it was never prudent to anger spirits that could bewitch, bother or bewilder you. She looked again, but she could not make out what the heavy thing that they were carrying was until they came up to her, then they threw the it down in the middle of the road and Nane saw that it was a body.
It was a dead body. Very dead.
Nane stood where she was, staring aghast at what lay before her when a little blue Khach [*] came up to her, saying, like wind in the leaves, “isn’t it lucky that we met you, Nane Abandian?”
Poor Nane could not utter a single word, nor open her lips.
“Nane Abandian,” repeated the mountain faerie, once more, “isn’t it lucky that you met us?”
Nane could not answer her.
“Nane Abandian,” she said, “the third time makes the charm, isn’t it lucky that we met you?”
But Nane remained silent, for she was afraid to return an answer, least the Khach used her own words against her in some dark act.
The blue woman turned to her companions, there was delight in her bright little eyes. “Now,” she said, “Nane Abandian hasn’t spoken a word to us so we can do with her what we please. Nane, Nane,” she said, “you’re living a shameful life, causing little boys to cough up blood! We can make a pack-mule of you, for there’s no use in trying to fight against us. I order you, lift up that corpse.”
Nane was so frightened that she was only able to squeak out the word, ““voch’inch,” for she could think of no other word to say.
“Nane Abandian won’t lift up the corpse,” said the little Khach, with a wicked laugh, sounding, for all the world, like the peal of a cracked bell. “Nane Abandian won’t lift up the corpse —- but we shall make her lift it!”
Before the words were out of her mouth they had all gathered around the girl, talking and laughing.
Nane tried to run from them, but they tripped her up so that she was thrown in a heap upon the road. Then, before she could rise, the Khaches caught her —- some by her hands, some by her hair, some by her legs —- and held her tight so that she could not move. Six or seven of them raised up the corpse, a horrid thing with swamp-drudged hair, dragged it over to her, then lowered the nightmare down upon the poor girl. The breasts of the corpse were squeezed tight against Nane’s back and shoulders, the arms of the corpse thrown around Nane’s neck. Then they stood back from her, allowing the young woman to stand up. She rose unsteadily, shaking as if to throw the corpse off her back. But her fear and her wonder were terrible when she found that the two arms had a tight hold round her neck, that the two legs were squeezing her hips firmly, that, however powerfully she tried, she could not throw the thing off her.
The little blue woman came up to her again, saying, “Now, libertine, you didn’t lift the corpse when I told you to lift it, so we made you to lift it up. Perhaps when I tell you to bury it you’ll won’t want to to be buried along side it?”
Nane’s brain raced. She knew there was a way out of this —- hadn’t she been raised on stories of the odd jinn-like Dev and crocodilian Torx and thunder-snakes called Veeshab? But fright and confusion clouded her memory —- she hung her head. The little woman laughed again. “You’re becoming quite obedient, girl,” she said. “Listen to me now, Nane Abandian. If you don’t obey me in all I’m telling you you’ll regret it. You must carry this corpse to Lmb’atavank [*], the Church of Saint Stephen. You must carry it into the churchyard itself, then make a grave for it in the very middle of the floor. You must raise up the stones and put them down again in the exact same way. You must leave the place precisely as it was when you first entered so that no one can know that anything has happened. But that’s not all. Maybe you will dig down and find someone else has already been buried in that spot. The dead do not let strangers sleep in their beds. If that is the case you must leave Lmb’atavank with the corpse still on your back. You must carry it on to Pemzashen [*], bury it in the churchyard there; and if you don’t lay it to rest in that place then take it with you to Yerazgavors [*], where King Smbat was once crowned; and if that churchyard is full, then take it to Karachanta [*]; and if you’re not able to bury it there you can bury it at Bashgyugh [*] without problem. If you do this work justly, quickly, with a good heart, we will be thankful to you; but if you are disrespectful and lazy, then believe me this shall be your last night upon the earth, regardless if you have made a promise to a sickly boy half your age.”
“But I —-”
“Hush! Can’t you hear that we’re singing your song? Listen.”
When the blue little woman had done speaking, the other naked fairies laughed and clapped their hands together, beginning to sing words suddenly Nane understood:
Come, sit down side by side, corpse bride / I’ll take you home to be my wife —-
Ari nstenk’ tsalaptik, diaky harsnats’u / k’yez vorpes hars tanem mer tun —-
Արի նստենք ծալապտիկ, դիակը հարսնացու / քեզ որպես հարս տանեմ մեր տուն —-
Then the Khaches drove poor Nane down the road, who was obliged to walk fast, for they gave her no moment to gather her wits. The night was at times extremely dark, so that whenever a cloud crossed the moon she could see nothing, causing her to stumble with the terrible burden on her back. Sometimes she hurt herself in her falls, but regardless, she was obliged always to rise and to hurry on. Sometimes she would look behind her and see the mountain faeries following. She heard them singing amongst themselves and knew that if she was to save herself that night she had to understand what they really wanted from her.
She did not know how far she had walked, when at last one of them cried out to her, “Stop, Nane Abandian, stop!” She stood, panting, while they all gathered round her.
“Do you see those trees over there?” asked one of the ancient Khaches this time. “Lmb’atavank is among those trees. You must go in there by yourself, for we cannot follow you. We must remain here. Go and do not be caught.”
Nane looked about herself. She saw a high, pink stone wall that was in places broken down. Beyond it lay an ancient stone church with its octagonal walls. Sighing, she was obliged to go forward. She was a couple of hundred yards from the church, but she walked on, never looking behind her until she came to the gate of the churchyard. She turned then to see if any of the brave ones were following her, but a cloud covered over the moon and the night became so dark that she could see nothing. She went into the churchyard, she walked up the old grassy pathway leading to the church proper. When she reached the door, she found it locked. The door was large and strong, she did not know what to do.
““Voch’inch,” she murmured to herself, “there is nothing more that I can do. The door is shut, I can’t open it.”
Before the words were out of her mouth a voice said in her ear, “search for the key on the top of the door, or perhaps along the wall.”
Nane started in fright. “Who is that?” she cried, turning around and around; but she saw no one. The voice said in her ear again, “Just what I said, search for the key on the top of the door, or perhaps along the wall.”
“Who the hell is that?” she cried, the sweat running from her forehead.
“Hello! It’s just the corpse on your back that spoke to you!” said the voice.
“Fracking hell!” Nane cried, feeling the dead arms tighten around her neck. “Can you talk?”
“Now and again,” the dead woman said. “When the mood strikes.”
Nane searched for the key, finding it finally on the top of the wall. She was too much frightened to say anything more. She opened the door wide, as quickly as she could, and the two went in with the corpse clinging to her back. It was as dark as fiddler’s rosin inside. Standing in the dark with such a monstrosity on her back, poor Nane began to shake and tremble.
“Relax, warm child. Light the candle,” the corpse bride said.
Nane put her hand in her pocket, as well as she could, then drew out a small box of matches. She struck one, lit a burnt rag that she found upon the ancient stone-cut floor. She blew it until it made a flicker of flame, peering all around. The church was deserted, part of the outer wall had been broken down. There were long trays full of sand where the pilgrim could light prayer candles and in one of these Nane found the stump of an old candle, which she lit. She was still looking about herself when the cold corpse whispered in her ear, “Bury me now, warm child, bury me now.” Nane looked to where the bony arm pointed and saw a spade lying beside the altar. She took it up, placed the flat side of the blade under a flagstone, then leaned all her weight upon the handle. Slowly, slowly, the stone’s rough edge raised up. With the first stone raised like a broken tooth it was not hard to raise up the others. She labored and sweated. She coughed as grave dust billowed up from the sanctified ground. She moved three or four stones out of their places. The boggy clay ground that was under the stones was soft and easy to dig through, but she had not thrown up more than three or four shovelfuls when she felt the iron —- the one thing that the mountain faeries cannot touch —- broke through something soft like cloth and bone. With fingers digging through the wet dirt she saw that it was another body, a girl, perhaps, only fourteen, that was buried in the same place.
“I am afraid I’ll never be allowed to bury your body next to hers, little as she is,” Nane said. “Bride, there on my back,” she said, “will you be satisfied if I bury you with a maid who has never known pleasure, only the evil that men can do?” But the corpse bride never said a word. “That’s a good sign,” Nane said to herself. She tossed the wet clay she had dug up down once again, smoothing everything down. Then she laid down the flags carefully as they had been before. “No Christian will be able to tell the difference,” said she to herself, knowing she was right.
Nane left the church then, her heart was sad, but she shut the door and locked it, leaving the key where she found it. She sat down on a tombstone that was near the door, thinking hard. She didn’t know what to do. She buried her face between her hands, crying, since she was certain that she would never come home alive. She made another attempt to loosen the hands of the corpse bride that were squeezed round her neck, but they were as tight as ever and the more she tried to loosen them the tighter they squeezed. She was going curse loudly when the cold, horrid lips of the dead woman said to her, “Pemzashen,” and she remembered the command of the brave ones to bring the corpse bride with her to that other village if she should be unable to bury the dead.
She rose up, looked about her. “I don’t know the way,” she said.
As in response the dead woman stretched out her left hand that had been tightened round Nane’s neck, kept pointing, showing the girl the route she had to follow. Nane went in the direction that the fingers were stretched toward, striding out of the churchyard in her 10-league boots. That part of Armenia is a series of amazingly tall foothills and soon Nane found herself on an old rutty road, upon which she stood, not knowing which way to turn. The corpse bride stretched out its bony hand a second time, pointing out another road that wound around the hills as if leading her to a barrow wight’s grave. Nane followed the corpse bride’s directions for many hours. Whenever she came to a new road or goat path the rider on her back always stretched out its hand and pointed with its two fingers, showing Nane the way she should take.
After what felt like a long night of heavy walking Nane came upon the old burying ground of the village of Pemzashen; but there was neither church nor chapel nor any other building to be found. the corpse bride squeezed Nane tightly. “Bury me, warm child, bury me in this holy ground,” said the dead woman.
Nane drew over towards the old burying place, her feet making slish-slish noises, so tired she was, but she was not more than about twenty yards from the consecrated ground, when, raising her eyes, she saw hundreds and hundreds of ghosts —- women, men, children, victims of an Ottoman pogrom —- sitting on the top of the wall, or standing on the inside the burying place, or running backwards and forwards, pointing at her and that which she carried on her back, while she could see their horrible mouths opening and shutting as if they were singing, though she heard no words or tune or melody.
Nane was afraid to go forward, despite the threats of the Khaches, so she stood where she was, the corpse bride slowly tightening herself around her throat. At the moment she grew quite all the ghosts who surrounded them ceased moving as well. Then Nane understood that they were trying to keep her from entering the old burying place. She walked a couple of yards forwards, immediately the whole crowd rushed together towards her. The dead stood so thickly together that it seemed to Nane that she would never pass through. But she had no courage to try such a trick. She turned and staggered back, broken and dispirited. When she had gone a couple of hundred yards from the burying ground she stopped once again, for she did not know what way she had to go. She heard the voice of the corpse bride in her ear, saying, “Yerazgavors,” and the skinny hand was stretched out once again, pointing her down a road that neither the living nor the dead could see.
As tired as she was, Nane had to walk on and on, the road being neither short nor even. The night appeared to be darker than before. At last she saw Yerazgavors in the far distance, one more pink-stone village, with the graveyard of the church off to one side. Here, though, she saw no ghosts nor anything else sitting upon the wall. Nane rejoiced, thinking that she would never be hindered from laying her burden at long last in the cold clay. She moved over to the church’s gate, but as she was passing through she tripped upon a stone in the threshold. Before she could recover herself invisible hands seized her by the neck, by her hands, by her legs, pinching and bruising her, lifting her up, throwing her more than a hundred yards from the gate, where she rolled and rolled head over toes, with the corpse bride still clinging to her neck.
Groggily Nane rose up, bruised and sore, but afraid to go a second time to the church, for she had seen nothing but something had thrown her down on the ground all the same.
“Corpse bride!” Nane said, “shall I try to enter the churchyard once more?” —- but the dead woman refused to answer her.
Nane was now in doubt as to what she ought to do next when the corpse bride spoke in her ear, saying, “Karachanta.”
“Skank!” Nane cried, uttering a fearsome curse, “must I be your jack-ass all the way across the countryside? If you keep me like this I’ll fall under you and then you’ll have to carry me.”
Sighing, Nane went in the direction the corpse bride pointed out. It felt like hours that she had been trudging when, with a gagging jerk, the dead woman suddenly squeezed Nane’s windpipe and whispered, “There!”
Nane looked and saw a little low wall made out of pink tufa stone that was so broken down in places that it was no wall at all. They crossed over into a great wide field —- save for only three or four great stones at the corners, that were more like boulders than stones, there was nothing to show that neither graveyard nor church had once stood there at all.
“Is this Karachanta? Shall I bury you here?” Nane said.
“Yes,” said the voice.
“But I see no grave or gravestone, only this pile of stones,” Nane said.
The corpse bride did not answer, but stretched out its long fleshless finger to show Nane the direction in which she was to go. The girl went on accordingly, but she was terrified, for she remembered what had happened to her at the last place. When she came to within fifteen or twenty yards of the little low square wall a flash of lightning —- bright yellow with blue streaks in it —- exploded about the wall until at last it became like a bright ring of flame surrounding the old graveyard. Round the flame went, blue sparks leaping out from it as it passed by, although at first it had been no more than a thin, narrow line, getting broader and higher, it increased slowly until it was at last a great broad band. Nane was amazed; she was half dead with fatigue, she had no courage left to approach the flaming wall. She was obliged to sit down upon a great stone to recover herself. She could see nothing but the light, she could hear nothing but the churr of enchanted fire as it shot round the edges of the ancient stones.
As she sat there on the stone, the voice whispered once more in her ear, “Bashgyugh,” and the dead woman squeezed Nane so tightly that the girl cried out. She rose again, sick, tired, trembling, went forward as she was directed. The wind was cold, the road full of holes, the load upon her back was sickening. Nane herself was nearly worn out. At last the corpse bride stretched out its hand, said to her, “bury me there.”
““Voch’inch,” Nane mumbled and thought to herself, “and the little blue Khach woman said I’d be allowed to bury her in here if I couldn’t bury her anywhere else. Finally I can put my burden down.”
“Make haste, make haste!” the corpse bride said. The first, faint streak of day was appearing in the east, but where Nane stood it was darker than ever, for the moon was set, there were no stars in the sky.
Nane hurried forward as well as she could to the graveyard, which was a little place on a bare hill, with only a few graves in it. She walked boldly in through the open gate, finding nothing to block her path. She came to the middle of the ground and suddenly perceived what startled her greatly —- a newly-dug grave yawning open right before her. She moved over to the edge, looking down saw that there at the bottom lay a coffin. She clambered down into the hole and lifted the lid, found it empty. She had hardly gotten the lid open when the corpse bride, which had clung to her for more than eight hours, suddenly relaxed its hold of her neck, loosened its shins from round her hips, fell down into the open coffin.
Nane slowly pulled herself up through the mud and fell down on her two knees at the brink of the grave. She made no delay then, but threw in the freshly dug clay back over it with her two hands. When the grave was filled she smoothed the plot over with her feet and then she made her way out of the graveyard.
The sun was fast rising as she returned to the road and, looking for a public house to rest, found an inn at last. The proprietor was dubious about giving a room to a single woman, wandering the road and unchaperoned. But when he saw the grave dirt under Nane’s fingers, the bruises around her neck and the haunted, frightened look in her eyes —- looking for all the world as if she had just crawled out of ground from her own hanging —- the old man crossed himself and gave her a room. There Nane lay down upon the bed and slept until nighttime. Then she rose and ate a little, fell asleep again until day break. When she awoke in the morning she hired a horse and rode home. She was more than one-hundred and twenty-six miles from her mother’s house, how she had crossed such great distances with that dead body on her back in one night she had no idea.
All her neighbors back home thought that she must have been murdered and were much surprised when they saw her come up over the hill on a hired horse. Everyone began asking her where she had been, but she would not tell anyone her story except for her mother.
She was a changed woman from that day on. She swore off drink; she let her hair grow out and though she still refused to wear a ruffled dress and carried her rapier with her everywhere she went she gave up on staying out late by herself on dark nights.
As for the sickly Jhirayr, the boy who had been in love with her for so long, she took to visiting his sick-bed, where she allowed him to read to her the many curious stories he had, newly translated and brought at expense from far-off lands like England and France —- the mad and bad poet Lord Byron, the island of Caliban and the prometheus built out of dead bodies —- and that was as far as Nane Abandian ever wanted to encounter the otherworld.
I was told a version of this fairy tale when I lived in Gyumri, Armenia (1995-97) and have changed several aspects of the plot; originally it was a about a Persian prince who refused to marry a serving girl he got pregnant, or as my translator explained it to me, “gave her the female complaint.” All the villages here are real, Artik (Արթիկ) being a charming village in the Shirak Province of northwest Armenia I visited on many occasions. Whether or not changing the Prince into Nane works will remain to be seen. As for the other words and phrases I marked anything difficult with a [*] so that the reader might know there is an explanation … somewhere. Cheers!
Alexandropol (Ալեքսանդրապոլ) —- Older, Russian name for the city of Gyumri (Գյումրի), second largest city in Armenia.
Gisher arkatsayin (Գիշեր արկածային) —- Night adventure
Sayat Nova (Հարություն Սայադյան) —- Armenian poet, musician and mystic who lived sometime between 1722 and 1795.
Aghjik (Աղջիկ) —- Daughter
Voch’inch (Ոչինչ) —- Literally meaning, “nothing,” but used in Gyumri as an expression similar to the French, “comme ci, comme ça.” (not too good, not too bad)
Khach (Խաչ) —– plural, Khaches; in Armenian mythology the Khaches were cousins to European fairies. Their name means “the brave ones,” which is similar to the Celtic reference of the “Good Folk,” addressed to spirits whose powers and intentions one could never be sure of. Modern folklore scholars have declared that the Khach were males, whereas the Javerzaharses (“perpetual virgin brides”) were their female equivalent; though with no scholars writing about them prior to the 18th century they seem a completely modern invention, perhaps borrowed from the Houri, the “modest and chaste” pleasure spirits who dwell in Jannah (paradise) in Islamic myth.
Lmb’atavank (Լմբատավանք) —- 7th Century Church of Saint Stephen, located on a hillside southwest of Artik.
Pemzashen (Պեմզաշեն), Karachanta (Արեգնադեմ) and Bashgyugh (Բաշգյուղ) —- Villages all found some distance from Artik with the Shirak valley, all with their own 4th-7th Century churches.