Sunday, May 03, 2015

Live from Holy Cross: Arthur Nersesian reading Krikor Zohrab's Magdalene

Click to hear the audio segment.

Arthur Nersesian - photo by Khatchik Turabian

by Krikor Zohrab

The heavy make-up on her face could not quite hide the natural beauty of a girl barely seventeen years of age. The flamboyance of her careless attire—the gaudy blues and reds of her dresses, the black loose stockings that had to be constantly hitched up—was, it seems to me, her own simple-minded way of avenging herself by offending the sensibilities of ladies. When she gazed at you with those large and luminous eyes of hers you almost felt a velvety touch on your skin. The tresses of her abundant and artificially blond hair which were nearly always in disarray, tumbled down about her shoulders giving her head a slight backward slant as if by their weight.

She ushered me into her tiny apartment on the fourth floor of a tenement building and assuming the droll air of a barker drumming up customers, she showed me her bed—a big, wide, deep bed that occupied nearly half of the room—and the clean white sheets and pillowcases; after which she forced me down on it and laughing all the while like a street urchin, took hold of my head and said: “Won't you give us a kiss then?'”

She was an experienced girl and in her earnest efforts to dispel the timidity of a raw youth, she overwhelmed me with proofs of her affection. There was something inebriating in the aroma emanating from her body.

“I am the youngest tenant in the whole building," she said. "I'll be seventeen on Easter Day.”


She sat curled up beside me, making herself as small as a kitten, her head nestling against my chest. I had known her for only five minutes, yet she spoke as if we were old, intimate friends, wanted to know all about me, asked endless questions, but before I had a chance to answer any of them, she began telling me her own story—the usual sad story of her kind of unfortunate girl that may be summed up in a couple of sentences.

“My poor little mother died two years ago,” she began, investing that word ‘little’ with such tenderness that it pierced my heart. “I never got to know my father. I have a younger sister aged fifteen, and an even younger brother; also a grandmother. They are all I've got. My sister and brother go to school. I support them.”

She delivered the last phrase with evident pride, as if to say: I am the head of this family; I am responsible for them; they depend on me.

“Enough of this talk,” she suddenly burst out trying to dispel the gloom that her words may have created, and for an instant I felt the entire weight of her body on top of me, her lips pressing very hard against mine.


That was as far as things went that day however. She stubbornly refused to satisfy my youthful ardor. “Nothing doing,” she kept saying. “Today is Good Friday. What are you, an infidel?” It was indeed Good Friday. I must confess nonetheless that I was taken aback by her piety.

“Do you plan to take communion?” she wanted to know.

“I don’t know… I guess so," I mumbled. “And you?”

She gave me an astonished look as if I had asked an impertinent question.

“They don’t give communion to the likes of us!”

“Why don’t they?”

“Because we can't repent knowing that on the next day we will be committing the same sin. And if I don’t sin, who will look after my brother and sister, and my old grandmother?”

She seemed to be familiar with all the rules and regulations of the Church and spoke with the self-assurance of a priest and was even more unsparing on herself than a priest would be, I thought. I remember to have reflected then that if the Church’s regulations were applied consistently, businessmen, shopkeepers, journalists, and lawyers should not be allowed to take communion either because they too were compelled to sin every day by lying and deceiving for professional reasons.

“How old are you?” she said,


And as she went on hugging and kissing me, I kept raising all kinds of objections against the Church’s discriminatory practices. The Church was, after all, a human rather than a heavenly institution, I thought, and like all such institutions, it was bound to be riddled with all kinds of inconsistencies and injustices.

“I'm going to church now,” she said after giving me a last, dismissive kiss. “Come back after Easter. I’ll be waiting for you. We are still friends, aren’t we? Promise you won’t see another woman in the meantime.”

I promised—the promise of a twenty-year old.

After that we loved each other for about a year. She may have been unschooled and plebeian, her love may have been of the mercenary kind, but she was herself a thoroughly honest and decent person, which may explain why she enjoyed wide popularity among men of all ages, nationalities, and classes.

When I got to know her better, she would occasionally express embarrassment over her lack of education, but never her work. And all the while she took care of her little brother and sister from a distance and did so with such exemplary selflessness that I am sure it never occurred to her that she was sacrificing anything by selling her body to total strangers.


There was a mob at the entrance of her building and I recognized among them thieves, murderers, and similar riffraff jostling one another in their efforts to get in and satisfy their curiosity. A couple of policemen stepped out with pen and paper in their hands—probably having just registered the crime that had been committed earlier that day. When I asked the people nearest to me the reason behind this commotion, I was told: “They hit one of the girls in the building.”

My premonition, which never fails me in such moments, sent a cold current down my spine. Breaching the wall of humanity that stood between me and the entrance, I rushed up the staircase and into her tiny flat which was now jammed by tenants. I saw a doctor leaning over her bed. And there, lying in her bed, I saw her for the last time.

Contrary to her habit, she was now dressed in white—a white as pure and as dazzling as snow. Only on her left breast I noticed a red stain, like a rose in an immaculate field.

As soon as she caught sight of me she tried to smile. I heard the doctor stating that her condition was hopeless. She expressed a final plea to take communion, at which some people ran to the nearest church, but returned soon after saying the priest had refused to come. A little later she breathed her last and except for her little brother and sister, no one shed a single tear for her.


Years later, when I recounted this incident to a church dignitary, a theologian, he explained in some detail the doctrinal reasons why she had been refused the sacrament, pointing out the difference between adultery and promiscuity on the one hand, and prostitution on the other, adding that in the first instance the Church was prepared to make certain allowances, but in the second, it must take a more uncompromising stance.

Though I could not refute them, his explanations seemed to me specious as well as cruel and unconvincing.

And never, I shall never forget her lying there in that wide and deep bed of hers, with a red rose on her breast.

Krikor Zohrab, “Magdalene,” in Ara Baliozian, trans. and ed., Zohrab: An Introduction, Cambridge, Mass.: National Association for Armenian Studies and Research, 1985, pp. 61-66.

No comments: