“We need a pumpkin if you want to have ghapama” said Tatik, standing in front of the stove, her back to me.
I thought she looked thinner than usual, but it was hard to tell. As always, she had a wool scarf wrapped around her head, covering what was left of her hair. Her sweater was topped by a long woolen vest. Her thick tweed skirt had a blanket layered over it, tied clumsily round her waist. On her feet, slippers covered a pair of men’s socks that reached to her shins. The gap between skirt and socks was filled by a sturdy pair of opaque black tights, — hosiery probably older than the average Peace Corps Volunteer. It was only the end of October, but already Tatik felt the cold.
“We should go to Tatev to buy a pumpkin” said Tatik. “Call Gevorg before it gets dark”
“We’ll be here all night” I complained. Gevorg was not the most reliable of the Lada drivers
“Oh, I don’t think so” said Tatik, ever emollient.
I made the call and went to grab my coat and bag. Tatik was in the front seat by the time I got to Gevorg’s car.
“How are you Liz jan?” Gevorg asked as usual. As I climbed into the back I noticed he didn’t turn to look at me. Tonight he had a beanie pulled down low over his ears, touching the collar of his worn pleather jacket.
“Voch Inch” I said. “Not bad for the time of year.” It seemed hard to believe tomorrow would be the first of November.
The road to Tatev was shrouded in fog. We drove in silence though the cold, damp grey. There were no other cars on the road.
“Will the ropeway run on a night like this”?” I asked
“Oh the ropeway will run tonight” said Tatik chuckling. “You can stake your life on it”
Gevorg laughed grimly, his hand stretching for the gear stick as we made the last hairpin bend on the steep road to the cable car terminal.
“What happened to your hand Gevorg?” I asked, shocked at a glimpse of spreading patch of bloody sinew and naked bone.
“You’ll find out soon enough”
The car park was empty. I fumbled for my bag and shrugged into my coat as the other two left the car and disappeared into the mist. I hung back. No need for me to go to the ticket office. They could buy three local tickets and save a few dram. If I went to the desk, I’d be charged tourist price. I edged my way to the turnstile at the entrance to the ropeway, and checked my phone as I heard Gevorg and Tatik walk up behind me
“All good?” I asked distractedly
“Good as it will ever be”.
The ropeway cabin was empty as it swung into its docking station.
“No attendant?” I questioned. That was unusual.
“Not even a skeleton staff…” said Tatik.
“We can take care of it ” said Gevorg from just behind me. I could smell the vodka and garlic on his breath as he placed a bony hand on my spine to urge me through the gate.
I ran to the front of the cabin. I wouldn’t see very much in this weather, but it was still nice to have prime position for the ride across the gorge.
The cabin began its glide and I turned to ask Tatik to tell me the story of an abandoned village I knew lay far below.
The sight of two of them caused me to clutch the handrail by the cabin window for fear I would buckle and fall.
Their flesh had disappeared. Fully clothed, their bodies were nothing but bones and blood. Tatik’s one front tooth hung from raw meat where her gum should have been. Eyeballs moored by blood-soaked strings stared madly from her mud-grey skull. Gevorg’s finger, pale and knuckled, pressed on the button that powered the cable car. His other hand hung skeletal from his coat sleeve, clutching his beanie. His fine Armenian nose looked like a bird’s beak below the smooth dome where his hair used to be.
“Wha? What happened?” I cried, bringing my hand to my mouth. Tasting my own blood I reeled in horror. My skin too was gone. Very much alive, I looked like the walking dead.
“Voch Inch” said Gevorg and shrugged his shoulders with a terrible hollow rattle.
“Happy Halloween” said Tatik and the lone tooth lolled where her tongue should have been.
The cabin docked and I made made a run for the door, my trousers flapping loosely now my calves and thighs were no more.
“Gata, Gata” The village sellers cried from their stalls by the side of the pathway that leads to the church. Swathed as usual in aprons, sweaters, men’s coats and blankets, they too were skeletons studded with shreds of decomposing gristle.
“They don’t have pumpkins” I said, stupid with fear. “They don’t have pumpkins. We should go back home.” Back to where we’d be whole again. Back to the warmth of the kitchen and a world where craniums were covered, and flesh was reliably Shakespeare-solid.
“No turning back” Tatik was striding towards the monastery from where a long low keening could be heard.
Inside the church women stood with their skulls bowed, their lace scarves threatening to slide to the floor. Men fumbled in their pockets, wondering how soon they could clutch a cigarette between still-white metacarpals. Babies,cradled against clavicles, made fists with tiny nail-less hands, desperately looking for an earring or an ear to clutch. A skeleton priest failed to fill his capacious cassock. His elaborate hat, too big for his head without its thick black hair, had slipped over one eye. A horrible mix of ghoul and clown, he made the sign of the cross, candle light bouncing off his pearlised finger bones.
“How soon can we leave?” I tried to mouth to Tatik– a difficult maneuver without lips and tongue.
She shook her head dolefully. I could see her neck vertebrae turn like knobs on a stove. She pointed to a small dark door.
“Take the tunnel. ” she whispered “We must join the others at the abandoned village.”
I cupped my hand round the hole where my ear used to be, desperate to hear her.
“You’ll be okay.” She said “They can see you are an American from your clothes. You’ve got your purse with you, right? They’ll give you a good house I’m sure. I’ll be in a garage, close to the cadaver chickens. My pension doesn’t stretch far enough, even in the other world… ”
She shrugged and sighed, her breath frosting the church’s incense-scented air. It would take an eternity for the return cable car to come…
I hope my Armenian friends will forgive me for this story, written for a spooky story-telling contest organized by our Peace Corps Volunteers here. Halloween is not observed in Armenia, with many communities considering it the Devil’s Holiday. My intention is not to offend people with this belief, but to bring a little bit of American and Irish tradition to lighten this time of year. You will be completely safe if you visit Tatev monastery–but it’s true, there is an ancient, disused tunnel that runs down to the bottom of a deep gorge. Who knows what’s down there?