The Red Girl

ILLUSTRATION: CEM KIZILTUĞ

February 29, 2012, Wednesday/ 17:32:00

Our three bibis (aunties) were talking the other day about something that happened back when their great-great-grandfather, Kaplan, lived in their village in Erzurum.

They are our baba’s younger sisters; Baba is 82, so the story they were telling is very old indeed. The three ladies, Bibi Sevim, Bibi Sayda and Bibi Mayda, live in Ankara, Darıca and Erzurum, respectively, so it was unusual for all three to be together in the same home (Darıca, in this case); they spoke of the past, filtering old memories, adding and correcting details, and consulting their brother for confirmation. The amazing story they told was as follows.

Kaplan, their great-great-grandfather, was one of the oldest men in the village and lived with his son, Bekir, and his family. First thing every morning, Bekir went to check on the family’s precious horse, whose value was immeasurable; the faithful beast pulled wagons, carried burdens and dragged the plow in the fields all day long. He was loved and treasured by his clan, as was normal for village horses. But Bekir noticed something odd one day -- his horse was sweaty and breathing hard, as if he were ill or had exercised all night. Bekir thought he must have been overworked the day before, and put him out to pasture for the day. The next morning brought more concern, because in spite of his day off, the horse was once again exhausted, wet and breathing hard. Bekir told his father about the mystery and asked his advice.

Kaplan was very wise and experienced, and he suspected right away that one of the Al Kız tribe, an Al Kızı, had been secretly borrowing the horse. The Al Kızları, or Red Girls, were horrifying creatures known to assault young women who had just given birth, afflicting them with Al Basması, a fever often fatal to mother and child. He recommended putting some zift (sticky tar) on the horse to try to trap the Al Kızı in the act.

The next morning, sure enough, there was a very flustered young woman stuck tightly astride the horse the very next morning. She was very beautiful and had long yellow hair. (“Did she have clothes on?” “No, she was naked!” “Disgusting!” “How did she stick to the horse, then?” Baba chimes in: “She was hairy like an animal! Her hair stuck her to the zift.”) Following wise Kaplan’s instructions, Bekir and his family put a metal ring on her finger, put clothes on her and put a pin in her chest, so she couldn’t run away. The horse went back to normal, pulling his wagons and his plow.

Al Kızı tries to get away

The Al Kızı (the Al Kızları are one of the fairy tribes) settled into village life, helping Bekir’s wife, Telli Nene, with her chores, the laundry, drawing water, cleaning and baking bread. But though she worked hard, every day the Al Kızı wanted only to escape and get back to her own people. One day she went to the creek to do some laundry. There were no adults around, only some children playing. The beautiful Al Kızı asked the children in a very pretty voice to please help her take the pin out of her chest so she would be more comfortable. They did, and she disappeared!

There was a lot of discussion amongst the modern-day bibis as to what happened next, but here are the two main endings: In one, she disappeared into a pool of water, and the water turned the color of blood because her tribe was angry with her for living with humans; she was disgraced, and so they killed her. The other ending is much better: She disappeared but she went immediately to her own people, who asked where she had been and how she got back. When they learned of her escape, they told her she had to go back to the humans and get their permission to leave. (“She didn’t want to go back, but she had to.” “She had to make things ‘halal’ with them, known as ‘helalleşmek.’”) She reappeared to her human family and asked their permission for her to depart from them and for forgiveness for any wrongdoing she may have done. Again, wise Kaplan had an answer ready: “We know what you Al Kızları do; you come to our women in childbed and bring them Al Basması so they die. If we let you return to your people, you must promise us that you will never visit any of the women from our clan, not for the rest of time. Promise us this and we will let you go in peace.”

The Al Kızı was so happy to hear this she cried and thanked Kaplan, but she had one thing more to tell him: “I will promise and obey, Kaplan Efendi, but I can only make the promise for the women of your blood. For the wives and future wives of your sons and grandsons I can promise nothing.” Kaplan and the others accepted this, and gave her their blessing, whereupon she disappeared again, this time forever. When the women went to bake bread for the day, they used dough the Al Kızı had prepared before she escaped. The dough was never-ending -- it re-grew itself in spite of the women having baked from it for days. They were tired of baking and had other chores, so the old people told them to cut the dough in half and throw it on the ground, and it would lose its regenerative capacity. So they did, and the dough allowed itself to be used up.

Ever since this happened to Baba’s great-great-grandfather, the women of Kaplan’s line have never been cursed with the dreaded Al Basması. In fact, Kaplan-blood families with brides from outside the clan, as well as people from other clans entirely, would come to Kaplan’s house and ask for bits of cloth belonging to the family to pin on their brides’ pillows to protect them during childbirth. As years went by, they started to “borrow” female children of the clan to attend troubled births in the village. In fact, Bibi Sinem, who now lives in Ankara, was one of these children, and on several occasions was called out to attend to some poor girl having a rough birth. Sevim grew up to become a trained, licensed midwife who retired after long service with the government. I wonder where she got the idea!

Boy, I loved this story! I have always been fascinated by folklore and legends, and through study have sometimes read about a real event or person who may have originally inspired the tale. There are so many themes and icons imbedded in this story someone could write a research paper on it, and may have already. I say “already,” because after the three bibis had satisfactorily (except for the two endings) wrapped up the story to their memories’ satisfaction, our mother, Sanye, who comes from a village in Kars a full day’s horse-ride away from their village in Erzurum, looked right at the girls and said, “That’s funny; the same thing happened in my village a long time ago.”

Of course my trusty researcher, my husband, looked this all up for me on the Internet in Turkish, while I did the best I could with English-language sites, and sure enough the Al Kızı story, similar in many respects to the one the bibis told about an Erzurum village and to one from our mother’s Kars village, also happened to a fellow named Etem Ağa from Çorum in Central Anatolia, next to Samsun and Sinop. I also found it referred to in a collection of Kurdish folklore. Lütfü even found a physician who wrote that he believes the dreaded Al Basması, the affliction brought by the Al Kızları, is childbed fever (puerperal sepsis), long the number-one killer of women in childbirth all over the world. The word “al” means red in old Turkish, and people with fever get very flushed, so the connection of a disease with a supernatural woman -- it wouldn’t do for a male of any stripe to enter a childbed room -- who is described with the color of her deadly gift isn’t too far a stretch. The part about the bread that accompanies, in some form, all versions we were able to look at is interesting, too. Just to mix it up a little more, in some versions of the story an imam or a shaman’s presence makes the Al Kızlı disappear.

But explanations notwithstanding, the bibis’ story could be true. And whether the Red Girl came first to Erzurum or Kars or Çorum, take your pick. But just to be on the safe side, it wouldn’t hurt to pin a piece of red cloth on the pillow, just in case.


*Elsie Alan lives in Gebze with her husband.