01 January 1970
#WeekendReads

Short Story: Ararat

'Sudden relief mixed with anger made her curse the human shadow. What do you think you are doing, scaring me like that…this goddamned place is spooky enough….and you…where did you come from… her voice trailed off into a whisper,' --- A taut short fiction by Anjaly Thomas.

Ararat.
Ararat. Shutterstock

In the middle of somewhere, the car stalled and died. 

She leaned back in the driver’s seat, patted down her dress, adjusted her hair and spoke to no one in particular.

“I suppose only the good God knows where I am. Perhaps, HE will come forward to help? Now would be a good time for HIM to show up.”

As she said this, her phone buzzed. On the screen, a message flashed. 

Your destination is on the left.

While battling nature’s fury for the last few miles, it had slipped her mind that her phone map was set to Odzun Church, a thousand meters above the town of Alaverdi, on a plateau on the left bank of Debed River Gorge in Armenia. At least she knew where she was stranded, but that didn’t help very much. She looked out of the window and sighed. 

The evening was like a monochrome painting but not sufficiently dark enough to hide the maliciously churning skies and dangerously swaying trees. The silhouette of a Church appeared in the distance. Odzun. And somewhere beyond its dome was the outline of a mountain. Hell was brewing outside. Lightning flashed incessantly and rains would follow. 

She sighed again, a little more resolutely because an idea occurred to her. The car had, quite ironically, chosen this very place to die. Surely that meant something.

Aloud she said – “Now, if HE obliges, I could take shelter here tonight. What a night. What a bloody night. The devils must be partying tonight.”

With that, she fumbled in the backseat for her small backpack, retrieved the water bottle that had rolled under the seat and picked up a small bag of sweet red apples and stepped out. The unexpected force of the wind and cold shocked her. 

“If only the car had held on for thirty miles more…I’d be warm and safe in Vanadzor,” she thought as the winds whipped her dress around, making her shiver uncontrollably. “Oh wait, that rhymes… Thirty miles more…warm and safe in Vandazor…”

But the joy her lyrical composition gave her was short-lived. An eerie sound cut through the winds and floated towards her. She shivered again. The sound had a deathly quality to it. She debated returning to the car and staying inside when it came again, a little more desperate this time. It came from not very far away. Somewhere to her right, she judged and in three short steps arrived at the source. It was a cat with its head caught in the fence beside the Church’s broken gate. 

‘A prisoner in the House of the Lord,’ she murmured, gently freeing the cat, probably a Russian Blue and held it close, wondering how long it could have survived the elements had she not arrived. She then kissed the top of its grey head and whispered into its coat. “Where did you come from, darling? You are so cold, you poor little thing,” and tightened her embrace. 

“Perhaps you can keep me company tonight. Come on; let’s find us a warm and dry place. You’d like that, wouldn’t you? The cat purred. The arrival of this stranger was the best thing to have happened to it all day. 

Head bent low to avoid the winds from hitting her eyes, she quickened her pace. The earth was soft and overgrown and would easily dissolve into a puddle if it rained. Thunder rolled in. Only a sheeting rain was missing. Before she could be thankful for that small mercy, the first raindrop struck her on the cheek, then fell into her arms and disappeared into the cat. They cleared the ground and reached the safety of the Church three seconds before the skies opened.

The elements were behind her, but she couldn’t tell whether the darkness enveloping the Church was black, grey or blue. And despite the howling winds the Church was quiet - in a way only an abandoned Church could be. 

Darkness made it impossible to judge the distance, but ten feet away from where she stood was an open door. It was impossible to see what lay beyond it. No Holy Light shining upon me, she thought unkindly. Darkness will be my companion tonight. 

Then she saw it. A flicker of a far-off light. She blinked rapidly and stared again. The light was still there. 

She addressed the cat. “Shall we go in darling? We might find something of interest.” 

The cat purred.

Thus encouraged, she inched forward in the direction of light, lips mouthing the hymn she had sung as a child. Lead kindly light…mmm…lead thou me on…lead me…mmm…something…” and gave up when she realized she’d forgotten the rest. Briefly, her thoughts went back to her childhood. 

Sr Rita! How she had tried to make me learn the Psalms and the hymns. 

‘Had I paid attention, I could have sung my way into light,’ she thought, her eyes fixed on the distant light, when without warning; the cat wriggled out of her embrace, dropped to the floor and vanished. 

“You little wretch,” she cursed aloud. “Ingrate...” She quickly checked herself. “No good will come of cursing at the Church door. I suppose the good lord didn’t hear that?”

She was not, strictly, a believer, but this wasn’t the time to rationalize that sentiment. The occasion required her to invoke the blessings of the unseen power that resided somewhere above in the churning skies.

***

Suddenly she had a feeling of being watched. A quick prayer – that was what she needed to renew courage but crossed herself instead. That act was somewhat comforting. If needed, she would cross herself again. There was nothing to fear.

Her right foot was in the doorway when a shadow and floated towards her, waving its hands wildly above its head. 

A vampire. 

She screamed soundlessly. The vampire had seen her. It was her dress. It was too white. Too conspicuous. Even the darkness couldn’t conceal the whiteness. She was about to cross herself again when it occurred to her that a vampire had no business in a Church. They simply could not exist here. But despite that logic, she trembled. The Vampire grew bigger before her eyes and filled the doorway. 

She turned around on her heels when it spoke - 

“Hello. Welcome to Odzun.” 

Sudden relief mixed with anger made her curse the human shadow. “What do you think you are doing, scaring me like that…this goddamned place is spooky enough….and you…where did you come from…,” her voice trailed off into a whisper.

“Who are you? What are you doing here?”

Silence. 

“You see, my car broke down and I am afraid there is nothing much I can do until this thunderstorm passes. What weather! No hotel nearby I assume? I wonder if I may come in. I should be glad for a place to escape this.” 

The shadow lowered his arms and stepped aside, leaving enough room for her to pass through without bumping into him.

“I am the priest here and I welcome you to Odzun Church,” he said in a slightly Armenian-accented English. He had the voice of someone who had worked hard to get it right. Like her. It was impossible to tell where she came from if one only heard her speak. The priest paused to let that information sink in before saying what she wanted to hear - “You may spend the night here if you wish. It is a very strange night.” 

A lightning flash followed this announcement briefly lighting up the area where she stood. It was an arcaded portico and was in shambles.

Like the priest had said, it was a strange night indeed. 

“Thank you, kindly sir, erm…how shall I address you? Father?”
“Hayr Ararat,” he said with dignity.
“Ararat, like the mountain?”
“Yes. The mountain. Please come inside.”
“Angela – my name is Angela.”

She couldn’t think of a name more suited to the situation. 

“Like the angel,” he said softly, almost inaudibly. “The angel in white.” 

Her earlier impression of the vampire returned. There was no way the human eye could see the whiteness of her dress in the dark. She wanted to shake his hands, just to be sure but stopped herself. She would soon know. 

Angela stood inside the door, adjusting to the new darkness, sensing the unity between earth and heaven in such a manner that she couldn’t say where one ended and the other began. This was a place that asked for respect. A place where prayers were answered and miracles happened. 

She was beginning to relax when the priest floated past her. Without a word she followed the soft rustle of his cassock, treading the stone floor carefully, afraid to break the silence. The light grew stronger as they approached the candlestand beside a stone pillar on which three long candles burned unsteadily, filling the small area with a yellow light. 
 
In the candlelight, Angela saw an old woman seated gingerly on the edge of the bench with hands resting on her lap and face turned heavenward. Her lips moved wordlessly. The light threw small shadows across her face and the old woman alternated between looking virtuous and like a witch. Her raven’s nose aligned with the latter appearance. 

Suddenly her eyes fluttered open. The witch turned her head sharply towards Angela while her lips moved in prayer. In her eyes, the battle between the desire to size up the odd visitor and continue her communication with God, raged.

Then at last, she spat out at Hayr Ararat. 

“You make sure the candles don’t go out tonight. It is not a good night. It is dark and evil. It’s the devils’ night to dance.”

Angela had had that very thought a short while ago. “It is impossible for two people to think alike,” she thought. “That woman is a witch alright. First, that vampire-priest and now this mind-reading witch. This Church is haunted. I am sure of that.” 

The witch rose from her seat and stood for a full minute staring at her as if daring her to say a word. Then, with a curl of her lips, she dragged herself out of the circle of light and vanished into the darkness. Like the cat. 

The Church was cool and dry with a distinct scent of wax and frankincense and something else. More subtle.  

Myrrh. The smell of Church.

Angela put down her bag on the bench the old woman had vacated, pondering over the witch’s command. Make sure the candles don’t go out tonight, she’d said. What a strange thing to say. But she was right. They needed the candles burning all night. 

Angela looked heavenwards in silent contemplation.  If HE is up there…Where is Hayr Ararat?

He spoke.

“I will bring more candles. Please make yourself comfortable.” 

He too, was a mind reader. 

***
 

Aarat
The fresh candles hissed and lit up, creating a wider circle of light.  Shutterstock

Angela was watching the smoke from the candles carrying the witch’s prayer to the heavens when the Hayr returned and beckoned her to join him at the candle-altar. No words were spoken. The fresh candles hissed and lit up, creating a wider circle of light. 

They saw each other at last.

He was not old. Her age, perhaps, but taller with downturned eyes, thick brows and a long, straight nose. His hair and beard were dark brown or black and skin the shade of olive. 

Like Jesus Christ. 

While Angela was sizing him up, Hayr Ararat was drawn to her eyes. In them he saw dark secrets and unfulfilled desires. He was careful in his appraisal of her soul. “This woman has seen much,” he thought. “She has rarely known peace. T’vogh na khaghaghut’yun gtni.”

He picked up a candle and said quietly. “Come with me. I will show you the Church.” 

She obeyed. 

Ararat, Ararat – the name was significant. It was not just the name of a volcano shooting into the skies in the East of Armenia, it was where Noah’s Ark has washed up in the Great Flood. She did not believe that story, but neither did she believe in vampires and witches, but she could have sworn she’d seen both a few minutes earlier. Beliefs were transitory.

“Please wait while I shut the door. We must keep the cold out.”

She mumbled a reply that was lost in the sound of the door falling in place. 

That done, he lowered himself beside an old, withered metal cross and touched it gently as if trying to heal it. He let some light fall on the cross revealing its rusted metal arms with pointy ends twisted out of shape. Spear-shaped protrusions showed on the end of each arm. There were four other arms, smaller, probably meant to represent rays signifying the light and glory that comes from the Cross. 

There was no body of Christ on it. 

His voice tinkled in excitement. “From the fifth century,” he declared, warming up to the subject. “It was discovered very recently, you know. Like these…” he pointed at the barely visible row of old bricks covered in timeworn designs reposing against the wall. “From the recent excavations around here. There are many more to find. Soon we will. They are very important.”

“Interesting,” she murmured appreciatively. She had never taken refuge in a Church nor seen a fifth century cross that looked like a weapon of destruction, but she wouldn’t let that come in the way of her appreciation of it. 

I am going to hell for this, she thought, trying to think of nice things to say to Hayr Ararat determined to draw her into the history of Odzun. “…from the fifth century, you say. Now, that is old! How very interesting indeed.”

Her mind had wandered to a more demanding situation. It was cold. She needed something to wrap around her. 

The priest straightened himself and moved forward, waving his candle from left to right, pausing briefly over the walls with beautifully preserved carvings that shone dully, then turned to the pillars and lastly the floor, relishing his role of the Church-guide. The Church was cavernous and ascetic. Angela made fitting replies and threw in half-finished sentences into the conversation as though stuck by speechlessness at the sheer beauty of the Church. But mostly, two simple words “ah, interesting,” was enough to convey appreciation, joy, awe and wonder and keep Hayr Ararat going. 

When he thought that she was sufficiently hooked to his narration, he announced grandly - “The swaddling-cloth of Christ is buried in the grounds by Thomas the Apostle,” and waited for her reaction.

Angela let out a delighted cry almost bordering on sincerity. “But that is marvelous. Indeed marvelous. Imagine that. Swaddle-cloth of Christ. That’s something, isn’t it.” This revelation justified a sincere appreciation. After all, how many people would ever know that? 

The brief spell of excitement didn’t stop her from asking a question. “Would that cloth have disintegrated? It’s been so long, isn’t it? Could it have survived the centuries?”

Refusing to indulge her impertinence, the priest continued the outpouring of information, much of which bounced off the cold walls and the pews. He touched upon the history of the Church, its numerous renovations, and its future, sometimes slipping into his native tongue, but Angela had escaped into another plane of logic. Occasionally, she caught the words astvats bari e. She knew what that meant.

They approached the nave when the intoxicating aroma of frankincense overpowered her. It was emanating from him. Psalm 45:8 had mentioned the return of Christ in a sweet-smelling whiff of myrrh and cassia, she thought, wildly aware of soul-stirring sensations the smell produced in her. 

Myrrh and frankincense. The odour of sanctity. 

The Christ had returned.

Hayr Ararat held up his candle. The light did not reach the top of the high columns or rounded arches but beyond the arc of the candlelight something caught her attention. Her eyes drifted to the end of the nave above the altar. There is in the place of a crucifix, the icon of the Virgin Mary with baby Jesus shone in its own special light.

“Of course,” Angela slapped her forehead. “Of course! This is not a Catholic Church, but of course. Silly me. That explains the missing body of Christ on that cross by the door.”

She stared at the ceiling. The Hayr followed her gaze curiously. 

“It is beautiful, yes?”

“Yes,” she replied sincerely, her eyes trying to follow the patterns on the dome on which rains were doing a steady dance. 

“Why are the windows so high up?”

He picked up his narration. “Those are the sunrise-facing windows. In the morning they fill this Church with beautiful sunlight. Now, if you will follow me, I have something more to show you.”

“Yes, yes, but of course.”

He moved two steps sideways with the ease and familiarity of movement and pointed at a patch of darkness towards the right side of the window. “Up there is a very unusual sculpture – of angels holding two snakes decorating the bust of Christ,” he said. “You may see it in the morning when sunlight fills the Church. The snake represents evil and is never found in the same space as Christ – and that is what makes this Church special.”

Angela saw nothing but she found herself magically drawn to the mystery of this unorthodox occurrence.  She was taken aback therefore when her thoughts flew into the Garden of Eden. And Lucifer. And apples. Sweet, red apples.

Her heart erupted in a frenzy. Unknown to him, Angela was battling two powerful forces – of faith and lust. Faith had the upper hand, but she was afraid that Faith, the son of light would lose to Lust, the king of darkness. The smells were weakening her moral values and making her desirous of a celibate priest who resembled Jesus Christ. Watching his lips mouth the words made her ache. She wanted to touch him. 

Suddenly the annoying sound of rain sounded musical. Lust was winning. She tried hard to feel nothing but failed to suppress the longing rising in her breast. A tinkle sounding in her ears as the first wave of passion washed over her. The sound of passion wasn’t soft, it was noisy and turbulent. 

I believe I have turned against one of the seven heavenly virtues in the very presence of the Almighty.

Irony had no alternative existence.

“Angela?” he broke into her thoughts. “You are very quiet. Would you like to see the library?”

“The library? A library? Here? Yes, of course.”

She pulled herself back to the present. Maybe the sight of books would restore her sanity and save her from temptation. Maybe. 

“It is not the library the way you imagine,” he said, proceeding in the direction of a door tucked behind the chancel, faintly visible in the candlelight. The door looked heavy and except for the sign of a cross on it, it was plain.

“That room contains all the recent finds and some objects not fit to be displayed yet. No one is allowed in there, but I think you will find it interesting. Follow me.”

He unfastened the door. It creaked on its hinges and slowly swung inward. A sharp, musty smell like that of a restless soul hit her. She waited for him to enter. The priest marched into the dark, windowless room and stuck his candle next to an old lamp on the corner of the battered table. She hesitated only slightly then followed him into the room. The old lamp had never cast light in decades and looked as though it’d like to challenge the candle.

The room stood in a decomposed way, as if it had chosen solitude and found peace in decay. It smelled of dust and earth. No air ever got in here. A mere spring -cleaning would do it no good. She eased her way around the table, touching strange-looking objects and imagining their history. The stones felt stagnant to her touch. The room needed to breathe, to express itself, like the restless force that touched her when the door opened.

She felt the walls. They were made of solid stones and kept the two worlds, one that smelt of myrrh and wax and the other of decay and earth, apart. This room was like a virtuous man’s guilty secret. 

The Hayr suddenly ceased his narration. Silence reigned. Angela was afraid to draw breath for fear of breaking it. She stood still, somewhere in the middle of the room, trying to appreciate the wealth around her. A sensory experience induced by the sight of relics and a small arc of candlelight transported her to some plane beyond herself.

And then she saw him transform. In the place of a priest was a man who watched her intently. His eyes danced wildly as he ran his fingers over the dusty artefacts, his jaw moving soundlessly. He was a vampire. Her desire returned. 

And suddenly the sound of his soft breathing exploded in her ears. He was close. Too close. 

Close enough to smell him. He smelled of dust. And earth. She brushed her hands against his, deliberately. Desperately. 

The candle flickered and went out, leaving a thin trail of smoke that quickly dissipated. Darkness reigned heavy, oppressively heavy.

The night is like that yellow candle, melting away but its flames carry on as desire. Oh, sweet red apples…

She felt his eyes on her. She moved closer to him. Then he slowly raised his hands and circled the musty air as if warding off unwanted thoughts and murmured. 

“In the morning, I will show you the graves. There are graves of important and useful people around the Church,” and hurried out of the room leaving her alone in the dark.

Sweet, sweet red apples. I bite into you expecting sweetness, but get a mouth full of bitterness…

Angela floundered in the dark but managed to shut the door behind her.. Darkness didn’t scare her any more than the souls of objects in the library they’d just left, but she feared plummeting into the dark recesses of imagination her mind was leading her to. She leaned against the door and breathed deeply. His footsteps trailed away. The Hayr was gone.

Something of her desire had been communicated to the Man of God through that deliberate touch. Unlike her, Hayr Ararat was afraid to sin.  “Hadn’t Jesus been lead into temptation too? It is another thing that HE did not act on it. A thought is not a sin,” she reasoned with herself, taking her place by the candlestand. “I suppose Ararat will not return to me.”

For a long time, she watched the last candle breathe its last. Soon, she would be in complete darkness. Warmed by her thoughts of Ararat, Angela listened to the subdued sounds of rain. The moment was ripe with possibilities, depending on the choices they would make. She had made hers. She would let the king of Darkness win. She was no Christ.

He walked in on her thoughts, holding a thick white candle burning steadily. She looked into his eyes, trying to read what was on his mind. Finally, it dawned on her – he was not Jesus Christ. Not a Vampire. He was Ararat, a creation of God. A man.

Angela knelt before him, like the only time she had at the confessional, driven by hunger for the man behind it. Then slowly she hugged his knees and buried her face in his cassock. 

Ararat held the candle steady over her head and waited. 

I seek forgiveness for the thoughts I have. Forgive me, Ararat, I yearn but for a few moments with you. Lay me down on this cold, hard floor. Choke me, caress me. Let me know fear and ecstasy. 

The candle dropped from his hand and rolled away. Only darkness was witness to the way emotions played. 

***

It was still cold when she woke up, stiff from lying on the bench. Despite the bodily discomfort, there was an overwhelming feeling of inner harmony. Her soul was elevated. 

Darkness still clung to the corners while the young and playful sun tried to push its way through the sunrise-windows. 

A shadow fell on her. 

It was an old man in black cassock.

“Hello, who are you? How did you get in here? The door is closed.” 

“Hello to you too. Who are you?” 

“Hayr Ararat. The priest of Odzun Monastery.”