“The Bride of the Dead,” Alsatian folktale

(Originally posted on Patreon in October 2020).

“La fiancée du mort,” collected by Anatole Le Braz in La légende de la mort chez les Bretons Amoricains, 1902.


In Bégard, the title of “handsomest peasant’s son that ever lived” fell to René Pennek, son of Ervoann, and the “prettiest girl in ten leagues around” was Dunvel Karis, René Pennek’s sweetheart. The two youth loved each other ever since they had met on the pews of catechism.  Both were from good families. Yet the Penneks possessed double the wealth of the Karis.

Consequently, Ervoann Pennek could not look upon his son’s affection for Dunvel without being opposed to it.

On his end, Juluenn Karis, Dunvel’s father, had a proud disposition; nothing in the world could compel him to take those first steps towards Ervoann Pennek, whom he treated as an equal and maybe even with a little contempt precisely because he knew himself to be inferior to the man in regards to their fortunes.

This did not stop the two adolescents from giving each other a “private summons” at every excuse for a rendez-vous, such as at every uttered pardon, or at harvest festivities, or frikadek bolc’h.

The townspeople were pleased to see them together, as they seemed made for one another.  Often people would ask them in a bantering way: “When’s the wedding?”

Then Dunvel would blush beneath her coif and respond sadly, “When it pleases my Lord God.”

But René would rectify this with, “One thing is certain,” he would say, “that it will happen despite everything and everyone.”

This was the way things were, when one morning Ervoann Pennek said to his son René: “I sent laborers to cut down the beeches on our land at Mézou-Meur.  I would like you to go supervise so they will do the job quickly.”

René Pennek obeyed his father’s request without thought. He went to the stables, saddled the stallion who was the best trotter in the countryside, and set out on the journey.

Mézou-Meur was a terroir situated in Louargat on the far slope of Ménez-Bré.  It belonged to Ervoann Pennek by way of the steward of his wife who came from there.  René, in order to get there, had to travel four whole leagues.  And, at the time of which I’m telling you this story, the roads barely resembled those of today.  The road to Ménez consisted only of water-carved tracks. From there it was necessary to ascend the mountain slope by way of ravines that were dried-up riverbeds, then descend by the opposite slope, more dangerous still than the climb.

“An entire day of being out there,” René said to himself, seated in the saddle.  By that he meant it would be an entire day without seeing his sweetheart.

To ease his heart, he doubled back and passed by the Karis’ courtyard. Dunvel was on the lawn close to the house in the middle of spreading out their laundry.  René Pennek held her in his arms then took up his journey again, whistling a merry tune.  As for Dunvel, she seemed sad for the rest of the day, without her even knowing why.

The sun had reached noon when René Pennek arrived at the terroir of Mézou-Meur.  Up until then, his trip had been no trouble.  The stallion, during that whole stretch, had been perfectly docile.  But it would not remain the same, alas! at the end of the journey.  As he approached the place where they were felling trees, the young man had to squeeze the flanks of his horse and hold its bridle high. The noise of the hatchets chopping into wood had the horse’s ears pricked forward. Suddenly a beech fell just across their path.  The stallion leapt in fear.  And René fell…. He fell so badly that he was killed on impact.  His head had struck a rock buried in the embankment.

The workers ran to him.  They improvised a stretcher with some branches.  The poor, dear young man was laid to rest in the lodging of the clog makers whom his father had brought in to work the hewn logs.

They went in search of a cart at the nearest farm, then drew lots to see who would bring back the news of the corpse to the old parents, because no one wished to be the messenger of such terrible news.

Night had only just fallen when René returned home to his parents, “dearly departed.”

Meanwhile, at the Karis’ household, everyone had gone to bed that night, as usual.  They had not gotten wind of the misfortune that had occurred.  Dunvel, alone, could not sleep.  She could only toss and turn in her bed, as if tormented by fleas.  A lover’s heart has extraordinary presentiments.  She wondered, especially, why René hadn’t come to wish her good evening as he had promised to do that morning.  Because, she thought, he should have already been long since returned from Mézou-Meur.

As she was reproaching him in her thoughts for not fulfilling his promise, she felt an intense joy:

A horse’s hoof sounded on the paving stone of the courtyard; and, almost immediately afterward, three vigorous knocks shook the wood of the door.

Without a doubt: it was him! It was René!

The house’s clock, at that very moment, struck midnight.

Dunvel waited for the hour to finish its loud tolling before answering the stranger’s appeal. “Is that you, René?” she said.

“Yes, of course, it’s me!”

“You did well to come tell me good night.  I was beginning to think you were nothing more than a deceiver. The idea soured my blood. But now that I’ve heard the sound of your voice, I will be able to sleep peacefully.”

“This is indeed about sleeping.  I’ve come to find you in order to bring you to my home and make you my wife.”

“Are you dreaming, René? Do you know what time it is?”

“The time doesn’t matter!  All time is mine. Get up, Dunvel, and come with me!”

“Then your parents consent?”

“They can no longer refuse, now.  Hurry, if you do not wish me to tire of waiting.”

Dunvel arose, but taking a step like this, at an hour so-unchristian…. The strangeness of it would not relinquish her.  Before opening the door to René Pennek, she went barefoot to her mother’s bedside and woke her gently in order to seek her council.

Mothers are none too happy to find a place for their daughters.  Dunvel’s mother deplored the pride of her husband, which, even more than the Pennek’s wealth, was the major obstacle to her child’s happiness.  She said to her daughter: “If René Pennek came looking for you in the middle of the night, it’s that he’s finally wrangled his old folks’ consent and that he hopes to strike while the iron is hot.  Go with him, if he’s beckoning to you.  It’s the worst of foolishness to turn one’s back on a favorable star.”

“But isn’t your presence necessary, as well as father’s?”

“Do not pain yourself over nothing.  I will prepare Juluenn Karis for this event that he wishes to see happen as much as I do, for all he doesn’t admit it.  You may go on ahead, with your promise.”

Dunvel did not need to be told twice.  Her mother’s words reassured her troubled imaginings.  She quickly pulled on her skirt and bodice, pinned her coif, seized her clogs in one hand and turned the lock with the other.

“At last!  Then you’ve decided!” exclaimed the voice of René Pennek on the threshold.

Dunvel’s mother waited for the gallop of the horse taking away her daughter and her daughter’s fiancé to fade into the distance.  Then she nudged Juluenn Karis who was sleeping at her side from the deep sleep of those who, during the day, have worked hard in the field.

Juluenn Karis did not need to be pleaded with much.  His wife had told the truth: the announcement of the marriage of his daughter to the son of Ervoann Pennek filled him with joy.  He let himself be clothed in his best without any protest, and, with his “old woman” dressed as if for Easter Sunday as well, set out on the path for Quinquiz where the Penneks lived.  The boy who saw to their cows led the way with a lantern because the night was black as mortal sin.

Arriving at the fields of Quinquiz, they saw the ground floor brightly lit. They knew for certain there was to be a regal event.  The others were only waiting on their arrival to sign the contract and begin the pomp and ceremony.

So they were entirely surprised when, stepping through the doorway, they heard them reciting the “litanies of the dead”….

On the kitchen table adorned with a white tablecloth that touched the floor, they saw the body of René Pennek laid out.  He had a slit in the middle of his forehead, and in this crack, they could see his brain exposed.  At the foot of the table was placed a napkin where a boxwood branch was dipped in holy water with which the dead are sprinkled.  On either end of the hearth, the father and mother of the departed wept in silence.

Juluenn Karis and his wife did not dare question it.

The same thought struck them both.  René Pennek had met his death between their manoir and Quinquiz.

But what had happened to Dunvel?

In vain they searched with their eyes among the women on their knees reciting funeral prayers.

What had happened to her was this:

René Pennek, or, if you prefer, his ghost, had first set her to ride pillion behind him, then the horse had taken off, fleet as the wind.  This horse had a mane so long that in the speed of its flight, it whipped Dunvel’s cheek till it drew blood.  Of the sort that she cried out many times: “René, my love!  Don’t you think we’re going too fast?”

But at the young woman’s complaint, René Pennek only knew to answer: “It’s necessary, my darling!  We must go!”

“René, my love!” Dunvel tried again, “Are you sure this is the way?”

“Every road, my darling, leads to where we must go!”

“René, my love! Is it really to Quinquiz that you are taking me by this route?”

“I am taking you to my place, sweetheart!  Do you not long for it as I do?”

Such were the words they exchanged in the night.

Suddenly Dunvel saw standing before her like a big black thing, the town church.  The cemetery gate was wide open. The horse raced down the path, leapt over four or five rows of tombs, and stopped at the edge of hole freshly dug.

Before she knew what was happening, Dunvel Karis was lying at the bottom of the pit.

“Here is our wedding bed,” said René Pennek, and he stretched himself out over her.

The next day, when the gravediggers came to bury the sole heir to Quinquiz, they drew back in horror.  The crushed and disfigured body of Dunvel Karis was lying in his grave.

(Told by Françoise Omnès, Bégard, September 1890).


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