Unknown Author, “The Guileful Wife”, a Kabard Folktale. Part II

The Guileful Wife (Kovarnaia zhena)

[Pages 5-8]

It just so happened that Pachabrozhev returned a few moments [after their conversation]. The youth, coming up behind his, [Pachabrozhev’s], wife, and having hid behind one of the gates, dashed at Pachabrozhev just as he appeared. But he slipped, and fell against the other gate instead of Pachabrozhev, cutting it in two like cheese that has just been made. Pachabrozhev quickly turned the shashka around and cut the youth in half from the shoulder. After that, he calmly wiped the shashka and put it in [its] sheath, put the horse in the stable and, having returned to [his] wife, ordered her to find an iron shovel. Having ordered his wife to go to bed, he went by himself to the storeroom (which was attached to the bedroom) with a candle and shovel, and dug a deep pit in one corner. At the end of this task, he took the corpse of the slain man, along with the sashka and everything that was on [the body], wrapped them in a burka, and buried them in the pit, [seemingly] not curious about the identity of his enemy. Having covered the floor and made the pit level to the floor so that it would not be noticeable, he returned to [his[ wife, not suspecting any change in her, assuming that the attempt to kill him was made by the prince himself, the ruler of the aul, who had long born enmity towards him, or by a subordinate. He ordered his wife that due to unforeseen circumstances it was necessary to hide the fact that he had returned home, and on pain of death to say nothing of it to anyone. Having rested a bit, he returned to raiding before first light.

Of course, on [her] husband entering the room, his wife realized that her beloved youth had met his death at the hands of [her] roguish husband. Constrained by the fear that [her] husband would guess her secret, [assuming] he didn’t already know, she used all her force of will to keep calm and not give herself away by any unconscious gestures.  But on her husband’s departure, she gave way to her concealed grief. Inconsolable in her grief, she soon dug up her lover’s skull, reasoning that on looking at the thing, calling him out from memory, it would be as if he were standing before her. She hid the skull during the day, bringing it out at night and placing it in front of her, wept mournfully. The neighbors, seeing her constantly crying, assumed that she grieved because of the long absences of [her] husband and tried to entertain and comfort her, saying that her husband was a man and couldn’t sit [at home] with her and that nothing would happen to him, he being such a notable adventurer.  He would soon return with great riches. She would answer such consolations hypocritically, [saying] that his absences never lasted so long and thus she feared that something had happened to him. At the same time, however, she was thinking how [she] could take revenge for [her] lover, how to get rid of her husband. She [finally] formed a plan about [how to do] this.

Summoning the best silversmith who lived in the aul, she told him that she would enrich him greatly, shower [him] with gold, if he would undertake the job which she intended to give him and follow in full the conditions that she dictated. Of course, the silversmith readily agreed to work for her. She then made him swear to perform the work in such a manner that no living soul would see it or learn for whom he worked. Handing over the skull, she first gave him a handful of gold, not in payment for the job, but to insure that he worked diligently and well. She then gave him another handful, this of silver, with which to coat the skull, from which she ordered a cup to be made. But [she ordered] the skull to be coated entirely and only with silver so that it would be impossible to determine if the cup was pure silver or made of some other material. The silversmith, beside himself with joy, swore again to fully obey the lady. With the approach of night, when everyone in his home had lain down, the silversmith made his way to his workshop and began working. Having coated the skull with silver and gilded it, he fashioned it into a beautiful cup, detailed with the most intricate arabesque. Working only at night, from the fear that someone might discover him, the silversmith finally [finished and] presented the bowl to the lady, who admired his work. She gave him another handful of gold and sent him home. Having made a cover for the cup, she hung it by the head of the bed so that she would have it to hand at all times, often crying over it, drinking water from it and so forth.

After a long time, [her] husband finally returned with lots of wealth, consisting of rare silks, gold, silver and such. In the morning, still lying abed, the husband asked [his] wife for something to drink. [His] wife gave him water in the cup made of her lover’s skull. Pachabrozhev was immediately struck by the richness and beauty of the cup’s detailing. Admiring and examining it, the husband asked [his] wife where she had gotten such a rarity. His wife said, “How could I, poor wife [that I am], acquire it? As with everything else you own, it came to you from God and your own good fortune.” She continued, “Not long before your return, there was an unremarkable guest, he claimed to be from Kumyk[1]. Learning that you were gone, he asked [us] to say that he had come to see you, and he would visit once more after your return, and left this bowl to be given to you.” “It is surprisingly good work,” said Pachabrozhev, taking the bowl up again and appraising it. “I’d like to know if it was entirely pure silver or if [the silver] covers something else. No, likely it is only of silver. Otherwise, it would be impossible to set a cup, of wood or another material, so skillfully in silver. “No,” answered [his] wife, “it isn’t only silver. Although I am [just] a woman and have seen almost nothing in my time, I have figured what the cup is made of. How can you, a man, and an experience one at that, not guess what this is?” Pachabrozhev began to name different kinds of wood and other things from which it was possible to make a cup. He couldn’t guess, of course, that the cup had been made from a human skull. [His] wife began to believe that all his [mental] efforts were useless and he would never be able to figure out on his own what the cup was made of. And she went so far as to offer a bet. Pachabrozhev, struck by [his] wife’s sneers and smugness, accepted the challenge and asked what she would do if he won [the bet]. [His] wife answered that she would hand over to him her dyshrik[2], which consisted largely of peasants. “And I, if you win, will give you however much…” said Pachabrozhev, “Fie, [are you not] embarrassed to be equal with me!” replied [his wife]. “Oh well, [I’ll go] double in that case!” retorted [her] husband. “No!” she said. “I don’t want to decide on any [sort of] present. Promise me that if I win you will do anything I ask of you.” He willingly agreed to this. They agreed that he would lose if, after a month, he couldn’t guess what the cup was made of. Having accepted the oath required by [his] wife and placing the cup next to [his] bosom, Pachabrozhev went out, as was his custom, to his receiving room.[3]

[1] Writer’s footnote: Instead of the land of the Kumyk, they say only Kumyk.

[2] Writer’s footnote: A wife’s exclusive property.

[3] Translator’s footnote: The word used here is kunatskaia. This was a front room meant for receiving male guests and relatives.

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