I first came to Gjirokastre, sometimes called the Silver City or the City of Stone, on business. I was working as an agent for a firm looking to invest in real estate in Albania, which was at that time only just opening up after her long experiment with Communism. Of course I went first to the coastal areas near the Greek island of Corfu, as these were the most accessible to tourists, but already the price of property there was rising, and so my employers asked me to visit some of the inland cities where they had heard there was potential for future tourism.
I drove to Gjirokastre in the old Fiat I had hired in Sarande, and almost immediately got myself into a most embarrassing situation. I should mention here that Gjirokastre is an ancient city set in the mountainous inland of Albania, and more or less set into the side of the mountains – almost every building, at least in the old part, is built of the grey, pink, white and black stones that may be found in the region. Even the roofs are built of it. When it rains, so I’m told, the stones glisten silver in the wet, and unwary walkers go sliding down the streets on their backsides.
In any case, unfamiliar with the steep and ill-maintained streets, I tried to drive up to my accommodation – a hotel ensconced high on the hill – and went a little too fast and careless. Halfway up I hit a hole in the road full of sharpened paving stones and with a loud pop my front tyre went flat.
I got out to look at the damage, and it seemed to me that half the population of the town gathered within seconds and began to offer advice and commentary. Since it was all in Albanian it was lost on me, but they seemed helpful – particularly when I found that there was no spare tyre in the boot nor equipment for removing the wheel. A barrel-shaped Albanian man came bustling out from his house, took one look at the problem and with gestures and smiles indicated that he could conjure a replacement tyre for me from somewhere in the area – and within half an hour he had, and the car was roadworthy again.
It was in this way that I met my first friend in Albania. He was a cheerful family man named Amar and that night he invited me home for dinner with his wife and three teenage children and told me all about the city and its history. “We have fallen on hard times here,” he said, “since the end of the war and the Communists, but Ali Pasha once held that fortress up there, and we were famous for our silver and goldsmithing. There are still some very fine houses to be seen, although the owners can hardly afford to live in them since Hoxha took all their money away.”
“Yes,” said his wife, Eva, “they call them the fortified houses. The old families were always fighting with one another and so they built great walls around their houses and gates that could be defended against each other in time of war. Those were the days of blood feuds, when the killings could go on and on for generations – thank God at least Hoxha put an end to that.”
Hoxha, you’ll recall, was Albania’s dictator for forty years after the war, and was now much loathed by almost everyone.
As it turned out, there was a lot of vacant property in the city which was both attractive and cheap, and so I stayed there for a number of weeks, negotiating on behalf of my firm. While I was there I deepened my friendship with Amar and his family and got to know the Gjirokastrians a little better. It was very much a man’s town, on the face of it – the bars were full of men, and old men would congregate wherever there was a flat space, a park or a bench, calling out to one another as they strolled past. It was clear that most people had known each other all their lives.
Which is why it was all the more strange when I was taking an evening stroll with Amar and some of his friends under the great grey walls of the castle and we passed an elderly lady, supported by her grand-daughter (or so I guessed) coming slowly the other way. The older woman was dressed, as many are here, in a black short sleeved dress, her silver hair elegantly confined in a bun. She was slim and fine-featured, but it was the girl I really noticed.
She was not particularly pretty, but from the first I was mesmerised. Like most young Albanian women she wore her hair long, flowing to the waist; in the evening dimness it seemed as black as the darkness behind the closed door of a cellar. Her face was narrow and angular, and her cheekbones stood out sharply under the smooth olive skin. But her lips were as full as over-ripe figs, and she had an absolute self-possession that struck me almost as a force, quivering through the air between us. And her eyes – they were light grey, slanted, and brilliant as a wolf’s.
“Who are they?” I asked Amar. “That woman and the girl?”
He and his friends exchanged glances. “No idea,” he said after a pause, and I knew he was lying. “Probably some tourist from the south.”
I raised my eyebrows. “Really? They don’t look like tourists.”
He shrugged. “Perhaps from Greece or Bosnia, who can tell?” and seemed to quicken his pace.
The next day I made a point of walking under the castle walls on my own, and sure enough I saw the old lady sedately strolling along, her hand on the arm of the lithe girl beside her. I gathered all my courage together – telling myself they could only ignore me, at worst – and went to introduce myself.
“I’m Richard Temple,” I said, stepping in front of the girl so that she had to pause in her walking, “and my friends tell me you are strangers here, like me, so I thought I’d stop and say hello.”
The grandmother smiled graciously; the girl looked at me silently with those light unreadable eyes.
“Strangers?” said the old lady. “Who told you that? My family have lived here for a thousand years – I hardly think that makes us strangers.”
I began to apologise, explaining that I’d been misinformed, but she waved her hand. “It doesn’t matter. I am Princess Maria, and this is my grand-daughter Arjuna, and we are both pleased to meet you, aren’t we Arjuna?”
She explained, as we walked along, that she was the last scion of the ancient royal family of Gjirokaster, but that they had lost all their lands and wealth under Communism – in fact, she herself had only narrowly escaped execution as an enemy of the state. “I don’t stand on my rank,” she said haughtily, “for we are all equals now, but it is in the nature of people to resent us for what we were once. They can’t help it.”
That went some way to explaining Amar’s peculiar lie. I have to admit I was a little overawed by the revelation that I was speaking to genuine European royalty – and of such antiquity. However much of an anachronism they might be these days, I couldn’t help a visceral response of respect and admiration.
The next day, and the day after that, I deliberately chose to keep company with the Princess and her grand-daughter rather than with Amar and his friends. He was a little hurt, I could tell – but the Princess didn’t seem to mind – in fact she beckoned me to her as soon as she saw me and positively encouraged me to stay by them. The girl said nothing but her luminous eyes seemed to appraise me in the twilight, as if weighing my intentions towards them.
After about a week, Amar trotted up to me in the street, looking worried, and drew me aside.
“I see that you’re walking out with the Princess…”
“Oh so you do know who she is?” I said with a grin. “Why didn’t you tell me when I asked?”
He looked uncomfortable. “Because – because I have come to like you very much, Richard, and I do not think these people are good company for you.”
How odd, I thought. “Why not?”
“They are not your kind.”
“What do you mean?”
“The fly should not make friends with the spider.”
I laughed, a little shocked. “Are you calling that nice old lady a spider?”
“Her and the girl,” Stan pronounced, his cheerful face in unaccustomed lines of disapproval, “are vermin. They are like cockroaches – we try to get rid of them but still they come back to scuttle under our floorboards.”
I was startled at his vehemence. I had no idea that he harboured such strong anti-royalist feelings, but I suppose the legacy of Communism had left deeper marks than I knew. I was indignant, also, on the Princess’s behalf – she had been nothing but kind and gracious to me. And the girl – the truth is that I was already in love with her.
He had given me no good reason not to associate with the couple, but even if he had done, I would have taken no notice at that point. So instead of withdrawing from their company I actually redoubled my efforts to get to know them, and in particular Arjuna. I was very conscious that in a short time I would have to go back to France, where my employers were, and then who knows when I would see her again.
Matters progressed well, to the extent that the old lady would slow her step and drop behind, to allow Arjuna and I to walk together in the dusk. We talked about life in France – Arjuna had never left the stone city – and about the family’s trials under Communism – and eventually I asked if I could call on them in her home. I had in mind that I would make a formal proposal of marriage with Arjuna’s mother present – so entrapped was I already by the power of her presence. Arjuna seemed to feel for me something at least of what I felt for her – so I interpreted the brilliant, focused intensity of her gaze – but I thought that I had a better chance if I approached this the old fashioned way, given their royal status and traditional comportment.
“Home?” said the Princess, when I raised it. “Oh, I’m afraid we live in a dreadful ruin. I would be ashamed to invite you there.”
When she said this, I thought that she was politely indicating that it had been forward of me to ask, and couldn’t help looking a little downcast, but Arjuna, with a glance from her crystal eyes, stepped in.
“My grandmother is telling nothing but the truth – we live in a ruin. But you’re welcome to visit us there, if you wish.” And she gave me an address and a time – somewhat late in the evening, but then Albanians like most Mediterranean peoples stay up very late at night and are slow to rise in the mornings.
So the next night I found my way to the address given – and stood troubled and confused. For it was, literally and unexpectedly, a ruin. It had once, I could see, been a large and stately house – perhaps even a palace. It was set high up on the mountain, overlooking the valley, and had stout stone walls and a high iron gate. This in itself wasn’t unusual – as I mentioned, many wealthy old houses here were fortified as of old, against the Turk or rival families. But, pushing open the rusted gate, I could hardly see how the place could be inhabited at all. The roof was missing, the windows gaped, missing all but a few shards of glass, and rubble and rubbish littered the broken mosaic tiles of the outer courtyard.
I stood uncertainly in the ornate, crumbling gateway – and then to my relief Arjuna appeared. She was alone, and did not seem in the least abashed by my discovery of the squalor in which – could it be true? – they lived.
“You came,” she stated coolly. “Well, now you see what we’ve come to, that used to be rulers of this place.”
So saying, she led me in over the broken tiles and through the doorless entry – guarded by blackened gargoyles – down a set of crumbling, ancient stairs, and at last, when I was thinking that the two of them must sleep amongst the stray cats that stalked amid the rubbish, mewling, into an inner chamber, black as ink. She lit a lantern – evidently the place had no electricity – and by the illumination I saw two mattresses laid out on the stone floor, and a black dress hung on a nail in a corner.
“My grandmother is out,” she explained, in the tone of someone who has brought a friend into a perfectly normal living room, “I hope you don’t mind.”
“Not at all,” I said, “But I’m so sorry to see that you’re reduced to living in these circumstances. You should be living like a Queen, with the best that money could buy and yet you are here, in this…”
“Yes,” she said calmly, “I would wish better for my grandmother, at her age, but…we manage.”
For the life of me I could not see how. There was no bathroom – although there was a crumbling well in the courtyard – and no heating for what, I’m sure, would have been fiercely cold Albanian winters. And yet in appearance they were both elegant and in no way unkempt. I didn’t know what to say – so after a short silence I just blurted out what had been on my mind, as soon as I set out to visit this peculiar home.
“I don’t want you to have to manage – for you, for anyone to live in these appalling conditions, it’s not right!” She raised her thick dark eyebrows. “And…well, there is something I’ve been wanting to ask you, Arjuna. I did mean to ask you in the presence of your grandmother but since she isn’t here I’ll just come out with it… Will you marry me?”
For answer she swayed close to me, slid her slim, strong arms about my neck and pressed her lips to mine. It was the sweetest, most intoxicating kiss I have ever experienced – as if I had taken some drug. Almost I felt that some of the power of her – her strange, mesmerising wildness – leaked into me at that moment through the richness of her lips, and I was lost. Before I quite knew what was happening, we had sunk on to one of the mattresses and she was half-naked beside me, clinging and coiling about me, sinuous in the lantern light…
And then I heard the sound of heavy feet in the rubble, and the shape of a man appeared in the black doorway. Arjuna quickly – but with the grace of a cat – rose to her feet, and I scrambled up beside her, feeling terribly vulnerable and embarrassed. Could this be her father? And if it was, he’d probably react like any red-blooded Albanian patriarch and murder me on the spot!
I could just make out his features – they were strong and handsome, if a little rough-hewn, and he had a great black moustache that curled fiercely over his lip. He seemed too young to be her father, I thought – and then he said,
“Who the fuck are you?” in an accent that wasn’t Albanian at all, but perhaps Italian.
I looked at Arjuna, whose eyes were fixed on him in what seemed to be an icy stare.
“What business is it of yours?”
“I’m her fucking husband.” He took a threatening step forward, and I prepared to defend myself, but Arjuna glided between us.
“Antonio, leave him.”
If I’d been her husband, those words wouldn’t have stopped me from punching my rival in the head, but Antonio stopped at once – in fact he froze, as if turned into a stone statue. Only his eyes watched me, with a terrible resentment. Mixed – strangely – with fear.
“I’m sorry, Richard. I can explain,” Arjuna said in her harsh yet sibilant voice, and taking my hand she led me out past him, leaving the injured husband standing there like a spellbound bull.
Of course, as soon as we were in the courtyard, I faced her and asked why she had never told me she was married. Since I hadn’t asked, the whole thing was my own fault, really – but I felt I had a right to an explanation. Arjuna, fixing me with those predatory eyes, put a finger on my lips.
“I don’t love him,” she said, moving close to me. “He is a nuisance to me now. I wish he were dead. It is you I love.”
I pushed her away from me. “That’s all very well but he’s not dead and you’re married to him and I – I wish you had told me.”
She let go of me then, frowning, and before I could say another word, she disappeared like a shadow back into the darkness of the empty, ruined house.
I left, confused and despairing, and on my way back to my hotel I passed Amar’s house, and saw that the lights were still on and the door open. I could see Eva, his wife, cooking inside. I followed my urge and knocked on the door.
Eva welcomed me gladly, and set a generous slice of honey cake in front of me and a glass of some strong local liqueur, flavoured with mountain herbs.
“Now what is the matter with you?” she said, sitting down opposite me, “You look like you’ve fallen down a well.”
I was aching for someone to confide in, so I told her all about it – including Arjuna’s husband – and she reached forward and clasped my hand in sympathy.
“So you love this girl?”
“More than my life,” I said, realising that the cliched words were, in fact, true – I would have gladly died under that glittering gaze.
“Enough to wish a man dead?”
I knew at once what she meant. “To wish a man dead – yes – but not to kill him. Even if I could – I’m not a murderer.”
She nodded. “So. Let me tell you a secret of that family. You have heard of blood feuds, perhaps? In this country, when a man of one family kills a man of another, or rapes a girl, then the other family must kill or rape in return. For a thousand years this has been the custom, and for most of those years, the family of Arjuna has ruled over us. It so happened that many centuries ago a prince of the royal family raped a girl from one of the other noble families, and so the head of that family swore to rape the royal princess in return and slaughter her brothers to avenge her honour. The royal princess at that time was called Arjuna – it is a family name – and she went of her own accord to the head of that other family one night and said that to avoid further bloodshed, she was willing to give her virginity and her life. Well, the head of the family took both, and then he slaughtered the princes anyway, all except for one, who escaped to take a terrible revenge. But it is said that ever since that time a curse is laid on this city, that the stones themselves must have blood, or the rivers will dry up and the city be laid to rubble.”
“But it seems a very peaceful place now,” I objected, thinking of the old men greeting each other in the bars, and women going about doing the shopping, and the tourists beginning to come with their euros and cameras.
“Yes,” said Eva – and she sounded oddly regretful, “But until the death of Hoxha there was still much blood shed in this place, and the stones drank of it. Now all that is done with, Albania is a modern country – but still the city needs blood to live. You have only to ask for his death, and the curse will supply it.”
I was shocked and incredulous – but she insisted that the curse was real. “All you have to do,” she told me, in a hoarse whisper (for Albanian women often have a rasp in their voice, whether from smoking or some quirk of the language I don’t know) “Is to go to Arjuna’s house at midnight and wait there for what will come. You won’t have to murder anyone, I promise – and by morning Arjuna will be yours, if you wish it, and free. But don’t tell Amar what I’ve said. He’d be very angry that I told you the stone city’s secret. He doesn’t understand true love.”
She said this with a laugh, and I answered her with a hollow laugh of my own, for I had no intention of going back to that ruined house at midnight, on the strength of a bunch of superstitious and bloodthirsty claptrap. If Arjuna wanted to be free of her husband,, she only had to divorce him, I thought – it’s the twenty first century, not the fifteenth!
But somehow, by the following night, I had changed my mind. Whether it was the memory of those heady kisses, or those light-filled eyes, or her serpent-smooth body against mine – I don’t know, but against all rationality I decided to go back to that derelict mansion, and try what came of it.
Midnight found me standing in that windswept, dark courtyard, the gargoyles of the gate sneering down at me with their cracked and filthy stone faces. The place stank of cats, and absence – there was no sign of anyone there at all, neither Arjuna, nor her grandmother, nor the man who claimed to be her husband. I picked my way carefully towards the inner room, and switched on my torch – for I’d come prepared – but even the mattresses on the floor had disappeared, together with the black dress hanging in the corner. I didn’t know what to do – so I sat down by the door to, as Eva had told me, await whatever was to come. Coming there, I’d been frightened and nervous – but now I was there, even though the night was black as a dungeon, I was calm. A strange lethargy took hold of me, and after a while, without realising it, I fell asleep.
When I woke it was even darker, if possible, than before. The moon had disappeared from overhead, and the stars seemed obscured. I felt, rather than heard or saw, a presence in the room. Now all my fears came rushing back. I thought, what if Eva’s tricked me, and set me up here so that Arjuna’s husband Antonio can come and murder me? That’s what this is all about, not some stupid story about a curse! I was suddenly certain of it, and so I jumped up and scrabbled for my torch, but it had become lost while I was asleep, and so I blundered into a wall, and put out my hand to steady myself – and the wall was wet.
Not with water – I could tell by the heavy, sticky feel of it – but with something else. I raised my hand to my face and smelled – it was the rich, sickening tang of new blood, I recognised it instantly. I noticed then that when I lifted my feet from the floor there was a sucking, glutinous pull. Now the smell of blood was all around me, in my nostrils, nauseating. Horrified, I turned towards the courtyard and the outside gate, wiping my hands on my jeans, gasping in my disgust.
Just then I stumbled over something, and fell. Reaching out in the darkness, my hand touched rough cloth – but inhabited by something, warm and heavy and very still. To my terror, I realised that it was a body, whether dead or not I didn’t know, but it didn’t move at all even when I pushed at it in panic, unable to think of anything but my desire to get out of there.
Then – thank God – my foot bumped against something which rattled and bounced on the stone, and reaching down I realised that it was my torch. In relief I turned it on, and saw, in the sudden cold white light, the strangest and most chilling sight.
The tiled floor of the room behind me was moving – with fat, pinkish creatures which seemed to slide and undulate across it, and there were hundreds of them. They were on the walls, too, and among the stones of the courtyard – in fact, I saw more of them emerging from the well as I looked, plopping over the edge like so many maggots. As they crawled they seemed to suck and lick at the substance which oozed from the very cracks between the stones – and it was blood. More blood than could possibly have come from one person – and yet there was Antonio, slumped on the floor, and he was most definitely dead. He was very pale under his dark tan – it looked odd against the coarse vigorous facial hair – and his skin had a strange withered appearance, as if he had been mummified. He looks, I thought, as if he had been drained.
The creatures were crawling over him, and over my feet, and they were everywhere, growing plumper and redder by the minute. I couldn’t help it – I screamed.
And then she was there – Arjuna – and in a moment, as if by magic, they had all disappeared. In the light of my torch she stood there, naked, but more curvaceous than I remembered, and rounder in the face and belly, as if she had eaten a large meal, perhaps, or several. She licked her full, dark-red lips, and smiled at me.
She put her pale, plump arms around my neck, and her salt-tanged lips against mine, and pressed herself against me, hungrily. As she kissed me she whispered, “Now you’ve set me free.”
Something came over me, something murderous and lustful and cold, all at once. I carried her to the wall, still soaked with Antonio’s blood, and would have made love to her there against the bare stone, drugged with her strange bloated beauty – but just then the darkness was split by a blinding light, and there stood Amar and a half dozen of his friends, with Eva behind them. They all had strong torches, and were shining them directly towards us.
Arjuna hissed in my arms; suddenly her body felt extremely hot, as if with a fever, but also wet and slippery. She looked into my eyes, hers fierce as a white wolf’s, and then it was as if she melted – like some heated liquid, she burned against my skin and then coiled outwards and into the stones of the house, insubstantial as mist. And indeed a faint, pink mist did linger there, coating the stones like an infected sweat…
“I warned you, but you wouldn’t listen,” Amar said, somewhat smugly, stepping into the courtyard. He prodded Antonio’s body. “He is dead. It is not good, for sure – but it is only what happened to the one before, after all. I am glad that it is not your turn, my friend.”
I staggered and almost fell to the ground. To tell the truth, the night’s events had been too much for me, and I was half faint with shock. He held me up, and guided me out to where a taxi was waiting – owned by a friend of his, I think.
“You had better leave the city of stone, my friend,” he said as he helped me inside, “while your luck holds.”
“But Arjuna – what happened?” I murmured.
“The Princess and her kind will be looking for a new victim soon,” he assured me, his round and cheerful face somewhat grim. “for the stones demand blood. But not yours, I think.”
I left Gjirokaster, and Albania, the following day, telling my employer I had an illness, and have never been back. Since then, the country has become much more popular, and my employer’s investments extremely profitable. I hear from Amar occasionally, and he and his family seem to be prospering.
But I often wonder what happened to Arjuna, and her grandmother – and what really happened that night with Antonio and those horrible slug-like creatures. Did Arjuna find another hapless tourist to snare in her web – and did she suck him dry, like a spider does a fly, in that ancient house under the rock? Or have I been fooled into half-believing the myths of the place, when there is some simple, if brutal, explanation.
I will never know – and I don’t care to think of it.
It is enough, as Amar said, that it was not me.
Like this story? You can find more like it in What Are You Afraid Of?