By Zhanar Irgebay
Tales of the ghost of the bride of the steppe plagued the village for generations. When the kids returned to their yurts at the end of the day, excitedly talking about the woman who took her life the night before her second wedding, their grandmothers sighed, hoping the story would stop at their lips. But the story will continue to be told even when the nomads lose their way of life and the vast Asian steppe ceases to breathe with their seasonal migrations. The story will become a folk tale when the Sun God Tengri turns his back on their strayed souls. Every howl, every whistle of the wind, will be attributed to the cries of a young girl whose story was so distorted that even her name is impermanent. Some called her “Shaizada,” others “Sholpan.” Only a few remembered her real name, Shirin.
When another group of kids gathered one summer afternoon to play Assyk, a game in which the young took turns knocking out dried out sheeps’ knucklebones with their own supply, the young Bakyt, daughter of the old Alykhan, relayed what her mother told her the night before.
“She loved her husband too much to marry his brother,” Bakyt recounted, proud that her story-telling appeared to be more interesting to the kids than Asylbek’s winning streak. Many liked that version of the story; it was far easier than recognizing the truth. That her husband Alan’s younger brother had only turned twelve when Alan was slain in battle and Shirin could not bring herself to go through with the custom of giving herself fully to a child. It took her years to get used to Alan’s calloused hands; how would she lay in his brother’s hands, unmarred by violence, clean of blood, free of a woman’s touch?
“Erlik, the God of the underworld stole her soul and her body,” Bakyt continued, “then he forced her to haunt the villages that settled at the place of her death as punishment.”
It is true that Erlik wanted to bring Shirin to his underworld, Tamag, but Tengri’s daughter Umay pleaded with her father to let her save Shirin.
She won’t make it to Ucmag. Umay cried. As soon as her soul turns into a bird and makes its flight here, her wings will break, and she will plummet to eternal damnation. She does not deserve such a fate.
She does not belong in Ucmag. Only the righteous come to spend their eternity in heaven. The Goddess’s father was firm.
Then allow her to serve me, your daughter, Goddess of virginity and fertility. Umay pleaded. She will not step a foot into our palace.
Just as Umay had said, once Shirin’s soul began its desperate flight to the blue skies, clouds obstructed her sight and the crack of thunder deafened her senses. But still, she flapped her wings and flew, praying to the Gods that they would have mercy. Seeing that Shirin would not give up, Tengri directed a bolt of lightning at her small, fluttering form to break her wings and spirit. Shirin let out a howl loud enough to be heard across the entire steppe. She continued to flap what was left of her wings until every bone in her tiny body ached with pain. Even once she plunged down to the cursed earth, she continued to beg Tengri to save her. Have I not served Alan well? She cried. But only a high thrill came through her beak.
Umay heard her pleas and with her father’s permission, she caught the injured bird. Once Shirin turned back to her human form, she found that the Sun God had permanently disfigured her arms. With no other choice, she agreed to serve the goddess.
“My mother told me that it was Umay who saved her. And that she doesn’t haunt villages! She protects women during childbirth,” Asylbek interjected.
“My grandmother said that she can hear her cry every time a child dies,” the youngest, Zhaniya, said. Two older girls snickered at her attempt to join the conversation.
“Erlik will have her haunting the steppe, going from village to village, from yurt to yurt until the end of time, and Tengri will allow her suffering because she took the life that he granted her,” Bakyt said, smiling. Proud that she was the one to finish the story.
But ultimately it was Asylbek who was the topic of conversation in every yurt that night, and those whose pride was hurt by their losses begged their parents to kill another of their sheep so that they could have better odds with more knucklebones.
After five hundred years of loyal servitude, Shirin called out to Umay. How much longer will you have me wander these lands? How many more girls do I have to watch wail as they give birth to sons that will die under the blade of their enemies? How much longer will you expect me to listen to the young girls cry as they are taken away from their parents to serve the families of their husbands?
My sweet Shirin, Umay said to the bride. You have served me well. My father and I have agreed that it is time that you rest. But you cannot fly to Ucmag, look at your broken arms.
I know, Shirin cried. Just let me rest.
And so Tengri turned the young girl into a tree, allowing her to be born once more. Her branches gave souls rest as they made their flight to Ucmag. Those who have unknowingly had the honor of passing by Shirin tell stories of the loud rustling of her leaves. Some tell of the unnatural way her leaves stay still during thunderstorms, as if frozen in fear. With her new life, Shirin was granted many new arms and she liked to flutter them — pretending like she was finally able to fly to heaven for her eternal peace.
Zhanar Irgebay was born in Kazakhstan and raised in Philadelphia. She hopes to amplify Central Asian American voices, experiences, and stories through her work. She holds a bachelor’s in literature from the University of Pennsylvania and a master’s in international relations from the University of Chicago.