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from the December 2005 issue

from “Dear Shameless Death”

In memory of my mother

Huvat Aktas travelled for a whole day and a night, ending his journey at noon by the sheepfold in the village of Alacuvek. This time he brought a bright blue bus with him. The bus had collected quite a bit of dust along the way but it still stood gleaming like a mirror in the fiery rays of the sun.

At first the villagers were horrified by this outlandish contraption the likes of which they had never seen. But in that moment of pure amazement, while some blew prayers to the right and left or panicked and almost wet their pants, a few risked touching the bus gingerly. Huvat Aktas was so childishly delighted with the effect the bus had on the villagers that he didn't even mind that they ignored his smoke-colored suit and felt hat. With the help of the driver he embarked on a long explanation about the bus and its virtues. He opened the baggage compartment to show off its interior and lifted the hood so they could take turns inspecting the engine. Most of the villagers, however, except for a few adventurous souls, mostly children, refused to set foot in the bus.

Before then, the inhabitants of Alacuvek hadn't done much traveling, even on donkeyback. They only went short distances from the village. And to get to town, which they didn't visit all that often anyway, they had come up with an ingenious way to shorten the long trip. As soon as they left the village they used to break into a run as if a wild bull were breathing hard down their necks. Once exhausted, they would heave a huge rock onto their backs and trudge on for a while, puffing and panting. Then they would throw down the rock and, feeling as light as a bird, dash on again. So when they first saw the bus they weren't immediately able to shake their fear of it. However, once they had tasted its pleasures, they began to see how tiring and pointless it was to walk. Then they started taking the bus to the fields, the vineyards and even the sheepfold.

Of all the novelties Huvat had brought to the village up until then, the bus was undoubtedly the best. The first time he had shown up with a stove. He thought it was an important invention that would save people from having to crowd round the tandir oven all winter. But the villagers were so uninterested in the stove that Huvat lost his temper.

Before he had even wiped the dust off his shoes, he let loose a bellyful of words trying to explain the stove's benefits to those who had gathered around him. After burning up half a hayloft of vetch-grass in it, he grew so angry that he left the village, firmly vowing never to set foot there again. But one day he did show up again, this time with an enormous box under his arm. It was a talking box, and all of Alacuvek was thrown into an uproar over it. Everyone stopped eating, drinking and sleeping. Two women got so scared that they miscarried, and over half the villagers felt faint whenever they stood near the radio. But it wasn't long before Huvat arrived with something that made them forget all about the talking box. This time it was a woman with flame-red cheeks and milky skin. And her head and legs were bare.

For days on end the poor woman was surrounded by a crowd of women and children, who never stopped pawing her. They rubbed her face with the edge of their yashmaks moistened with spit to see if the redness was real and they tugged at her hair and skirt. She was soon worn down to skin and bones. Finally, she collapsed and fainted. Then they knew why three sheep had bloated up and died one after the other, why the hen who laid double-yolked eggs had stopped laying, and why Huvat's mother had fallen off the wooden veranda. All were caused by the ill-omened woman who was possessed by a djinn. Their first thought was to strangle her and dump her body somewhere, but they were afraid of her djinn, so they threw out her mattress and bedding and, after a lot of talk, shut her up in the stable.

On her first night in the stable the woman dreamed she was bending over an iron cradle to kiss a sleeping baby. Then she left through an iron door. From that time on, whenever she closed her eyes she had the same dream until she was having it while she was awake. This went on until a longhaired, snow-white talking goat charged at her. She shouted at the top of her voice, but the goat muttered some incomprehensible words instead of backing off and hurled itself straight at her. Just then, a ball of light dropped from above, and the goat's hair turned pitch black. Slowly the goat backed away and disappeared. From then on the saintly Hizir Aleyhisselam never left the woman alone in the stable. Sometimes he appeared as an old man with a radiant face and snow-white beard and as a ball of light at others. Sometimes he was only a voice. One evening, when the woman had been in the stable almost nine months, she was seized by stabbing pains from her waist down to her tailbone. She writhed about on the ground and bellowed like a calf, as tears streamed from her eyes. The pangs were so powerful that after a while her bones cracked open and her waters broke, gushing hot from her womb. And there on the straw at her feet lay a girl-child as big as the chimney of a paraffin lamp.

At that moment, Hizir Aleyhisselam came to the baby's rescue, this time sending Akkadin, White Woman, in his place. For years Akkadin had been awaiting her day of fulfilment. "Hu Allah!" she would call in winter by the tandir and from the veranda in summer. She came through the stable door holding a bowl of milk and a lantern. Then she picked up the baby, snipped its umbilical cord and rubbed it with rock-salt. "May you have blood-red cheeks, a smiling face and a benign fate," she prayed as she daubed the infant's cheek with two fingers dipped in blood. Then she departed, never to be seen in this world again.

After the woman had her baby in the stable, the villagers saw that her fainting spells were really caused by the load in her belly and not, as they had thought, by djinns or sprites. So they moved the newborn child and her mother upstairs to the tandir room. And because she was confined, they wound a red cloth around the woman's head and hung a pair of scissors at the head of the bed. On the same day, with unheard-of ceremony, they named the child. They boiled up water in an enormous black cauldron, and the women and children of the village brought bunches of dried flowers and plant roots of every kind to toss into the boiling water. The disabled, the newlyweds whose husbands had died, and the infertile departed as soon as they had cast their flowers into the water. Those remaining drank up the water, cup after cup. Then they formed a line and spat in the newborn infant's mouth, one by one. "May you take after me!" each one wished as she bent above the baby's ear. That evening, the face of little Nugber-they had named the baby after Huvat's mother-turned red as a beetroot and burned feverishly for days.

Soon after this ceremony, Huvat returned to the village, this time with a water pump. At the villagers' request, he left it in front of the double-winged gate of his house. At first, the villagers gathered curiously around the pump but after a while they didn't even dignify it with a glance, as if it were a dead dog sprawled out on the ground. Their scorn so angered Huvat that on the morning he was due to leave, he got up before dawn and connected the pump to the well. Its awful creaking roused the whole village.

The woman Huvat had brought from the city turned out to be surprisingly clever. In no time at all she learned to bake bread in the tandir oven, to shear sheep, to dry cows' dung, to get the lambs to suckle and to bring on a miscarriage with a hen's feather. Her eriste pastry was as perfect as tiny pearls, and she outdid the young girls and women of the village at weaving colors into carpets. She even started composing dirges in houses where there was a death. After a while, her speech changed too, and she began to speak just like the other villagers. One thing she never learned, however, was how to stop and give way to the men she met on the road. Instead, she marched straight ahead with firm steps. After her daughter, she gave birth to a boy and at last settled in. As a reward for a son, Huvat brought her a sewing machine on one of his visits home. So she put aside the carpets, sat down at the machine and took in sewing in exchange for eggs, fat, or a bowl of wheat. When she had first seen Huvat, she hadn't much warmed to him because he was so dark. But later on, his name was always on her lips, and she made up turkus about him shamelessly. Whenever and wherever she felt like it she warbled out, "Oh, Huvat! My Huvat!"

Atiye-that was her name-was delivered of another son as big as a yearling sheep. And so she continued to bear children but she gave them no peace. The village children roamed about wearing nothing but a greasy bib, but she clothed her own in a very odd manner. Young Nugber gamboled about in the village dust and dirt dressed in nylon garments, with a ribbon in her hair and a dummy in her mouth. The boys climbed into the topmost branches of the walnut trees wearing dungarees held up with braces and they chased the oxen and donkeys with colored whirligigs in their hands. They were as confused by village games such as ball-pitching at stone heaps, pretend picnics and shooting slingshots as they were by hard balls, water pistols, balloons, plastic dogs and whistles. On top of all that, their mother had invented something called "soap," and once every two days she nearly flayed them alive scrubbing them with it. And then one day, instead of the slender father who had left them, a giant of a man returned and thrust something called "orange" into their hands. That did it. Nugber gasped once and lost her voice. Halit, the eldest son, caught a djinn. "Straws, red and green straws, women with swollen bellies!" he cried out as he thrashed about on the ground. Seyit, the youngest, was never the same from then on, either. He started to snap like a dog at anyone who came near him.

For a long time the Alacuvek folk didn't know what to make of all the tales Huvat told them or the things he brought with him and left in the village. Eventually, they came to believe that he had captured Kepse. "Come on, tell us how you collared that djinn!" they begged as they rubbed his back. The djinn Kepse was invisible at first but later it appeared as a fever, followed by sweating and shivering. Finally it pounced on your chest and sat there, a black ball with neither hands nor feet, and with eyes like lentils. If, just at that moment, you were quick enough to reach out and grab Kepse, it immediately became your faithful servant. But if you missed, and it escaped, you never got another chance.

"I swear, if I were able to catch Kepse, I'd bring all the places I've ever seen right here to the village!" Huvat declared whenever the villagers brought up the subject of Kepse. "May I be blinded for life if I could catch Kepse or anything else!" he vowed again and again. But one day he happened to say, "If you think I've been pulling your leg come along and I'll show you." All the youngsters who loafed about the village throwing stones at the walnut trees followed him. And that's how over half the inhabitants of Alacuvek came to set foot on city soil. Some became central heating installers, some housepainters, and some whitewashers. None of them returned, except for Huvat.

After a while Huvat's bus, with its fiendish whistle and bright polish that mirrored the dry plain with its wild pears, henna-colored rocks and shrubs with prayer rags, became a mangy cur limping along the roads with a wounded paw. It could no longer take the slopes without stopping for breath. Even on a flat road, the engine boiled, and the bearings started to seize up. One by one, its mirrors, wipers and door handles dropped off. Finally, its driver finally gave up one day and abandoned it. So the bus settled back against the garden wall and sat there peacefully at rest.

After the bus, which he had brought to the village with so many hopes, had collapsed, Huvat went into a sulk with the villagers. Only a very few people were lucky enough even to have set eyes on a bus, he said. The villagers had actually had a chance to ride in one and even to take it out to the sheepfold and the pastures, but they had never really appreciated it. For days he paced angrily about his house, shooing away those who called to wish him good health instead of worries. At last, irritable and worn to a shadow with brooding, he started plucking hairs from his nose until suddenly it swelled up like a drum. In his grief, he sat in the garden under the cypress trees, from morning until night, gazing at the mountains and sighing. Then he would break off a big branch, chew off all the leaves and spit them out on the ground. After that came a time when he couldn't be approached because of the smell of gunpowder. He shouldered his gun at dawn, set out with his dog and returned at dusk with blood dripping from his game bag. He ate only the flesh of hare and, in the evening, when he had eaten enough and rested a little, he aimed his gun at the doors and walls. Atiye grew tired of picking up empty cartridge casings everywhere, of cutting out paper discs that would fit into the casings, and of filling the shells with buckshot. She grew tired of villagers constantly showing up at the door to ask for some hare fat to cure their sore ears. Finding that she couldn't feed her animals properly, bake bread in the tandir, or get on with her sewing, one night, after she had soothed and stroked Huvat to sleep, she gathered up all the cartridges and threw them down the well. The next day Huvat searched everywhere, shouting and pleading, but after a long sulk with Atiye he calmed down and built a pigeon loft on the roof. He also took to rearing partridges in a corner of the garden. All day long he shuttled between the garden and the roof, and in his sleep he started to sing like a partridge and coo like a pigeon. Atiye grew anxious, concerned about her husband's condition. First she plucked three hairs from his beard and asked the hodja to recite a few prayers over them. Next, without Huvat knowing, she had some charms made and concealed them in the pigeon loft and the partridge pen. "Such doting isn't good for you! They say it's a sin!" she warned, trying to pry her way into his thoughts. The charms saved Huvat from his passion for pigeons and partridges, but soon he started to play the egg game. He competed with the young men each night and bashed eggs together until morning. "My egg's a good one, yours is rotten," he wagered, losing sight of everything but the game. Huvat was so enthralled with the egg game and singing its accompanying turku that when his eldest son turned up at his side one night and pleaded, "Dad, Mother's calling you. She's given birth!" he snapped, "Get out of here, you lying pup!" and shooed him away.

That night Atiye put her faith in the Almighty and gave birth to another girl. They named her Dirmit. They were cheered that the baby was born healthy and whole but they also beat their breasts because it wasn't a boy. For a long time the villagers tried to soothe Huvat's troubled heart. "Man, your family's got all the boys it needs!" they consoled him. But the truth of the matter lay elsewhere. While still in her mother's womb, the baby had twice cried out in the voice of Atiye's mother: "Mother! Mother!" Atiye was sifting flour in the storeroom at the time. "May death take you!" was all she could mutter, when she heard the voice from her belly. Then her jaws locked tight and she collapsed over the sieve. They fixed her a sherbet, fed her a few drops, and then shouted in her ear, sprinkling water on her face while slapping her a few times. But no matter what they did, Atiye didn't move. "We might as well call in Djinn-man Memet," Huvat said to his mother. "That cursed bastard will bring down his pack of devils on us," she replied. But Huvat ignored her warning and set out to fetch him. When Djinn-man Memet arrived, he shut himself up in another room to compose a charm. Then he threw the charm in boiling water, blew his mutterings on the water as he spooned it into Atiye's mouth and opened her eyes. Before he left, he carved a notch in the pastry board. "Aha!" he announced. "Mark my words! If the child is born healthy and whole, there's no telling what'll befall it!" From that day forth, Atiye carried in her belly an ever-growing fear that nudged and shifted. At night, she awoke from dreams of a noseless baby with eyes on top of its head and, during the day, she listened to the devil, thinking that if the baby wasn't born healthy and whole, she would turn it face down and smother it. When at last Atiye felt the first contractions, her heart heaved and missed a beat.

Atiye gave birth, and, three days later, djinns strangled Djinn-man Memet on the mountain. His body was dragged down and dumped in the middle of the village. His smirking face had gone completely black, and the bastard looked the very picture of the devil. He had raped many wives and young girls after tempting them up the mountain with a charm. "Black fiend, struck down at last," said all those who spat on his face. And all those who spat felt the chill of relief.

But then one evening a man who looked exactly like Djinn-man Memet showed up in the village. Wearing a black suit and hat, he smiled as he walked by under the curious gaze of the villagers. Without saying a word, he went up to the men's lounge at Corporal Durdu's. That evening, everyone in the village was invited to dine there on arabasi.

"On this side of the village there's a mine on Tacin Mountain," the man announced. "We're going to open a pit there, build a school and lay asphalt roads for the village. We're going to plant sugar beet in all the fields and gardens, pour tons of fertilizer right at your doorsteps, and pile oil-cake before your animals." To celebrate this news, sheep were sacrificed, musicians were called up from Circassian villages, and everyone danced the halay. One village competed with another at horseracing or playing jereed.

"Atiye, girl, I was the first to sign up for the Party," Huvat said after coming home one day. Another time he didn't even let her finish her meal. "Quick, sweep up the men's lounge," he said. "It's going to be a school." That day, her endless work began. She cooked arabasi, rolled and squeezed manti pastry and spread out beds for the male visitors from seven villages, who flocked to her doorstep every evening. "Come on, Huvat," she finally pleaded, too weak even to raise her arms. "Leave the Party. I can't manage." But she couldn't stop the people parading in and out. "Curse the man who brought all this down on our heads," she said of Corporal Durdu. At last, falling ill, she took to her bed. Her eyes popped open when a swelling as big as a turkey's egg slipped out of her belly and down her legs. "Snow! Snow!" she raved for days. If the schoolteacher Bayraktar hadn't told them to take her to a doctor, Atiye would have been done for, leaving four children behind her.

As Atiye recovered, Huvat coddled her for a while, waiting on her hand and foot. He helped her by milking the cows, setting the lambs to suckle, and running back and forth from the stable to the oven to the well. He won back her heart, and Atiye was soon with child again. She took naps wherever the mood struck her, using her arms as a pillow. Huvat let her sleep and went back to his egg games, ring games, and Party business. Dirmit followed his lead and turned away from her mother's breast, finding the milk too bitter. Now Atiye's hands lay empty now and, with no one at her side and left alone with nothing but the fear that had racked her while she was pregnant with Dirmit, she looked for a means of abortion. She tried everything from eggplant root and hen feather to broom bristle. She pressed on her belly as hard as she could with both hands and tried lifting heavy stones but couldn't shed the child from her body. In the end, she shut herself in the storeroom with a big bar of solid black dye. She worked at it all day long and by evening it was worn down to a fine point. That winter she gave birth to a boy as black as black could be, like a baby rat. Huvat was so delighted to have another son that, when he heard the good news, he got up from his game and went down to the tandir room, where Atiye was lying. However, he had no sooner uncovered the child's face than he covered it back up again. "Girl, let's name this boy after your father," he said, then left. So they named the boy Mahmut. "Most likely this child won't live, though God willing, his name may bring him luck," said those who came for the naming. But they also started to worry, afraid that this baby ratboy's birth wouldn't augur well for the village. Later, when Bayraktar was attacked by djinns, and the school closed down, they blamed it on Mahmut.

* No sooner had Mahmut opened his eyes, rolled them around and fixed them on the ceiling, shrieking like a crazed sheldrake, than word spread that schoolteacher Bayraktar had pissed on the djinns in the ash-heap. The villagers met together and headed off to see Bayraktar, who lay in the ash-heap with his mouth and eyes all twisted up. As the villagers gathered around him, he crouched like a rabbit, frozen to the spot. He lay ill for days afterward in Huvat's men's lounge. Although Huvat sent word to Panni, Bayraktar's Circassian village, no one turned up either to inquire about him or to claim him. For a while, Bayraktar wandered about in the fields and dales, twittering like a starling. Then, one day, he fell in love with a fairy girl. With a pickaxe on his shoulder and a length of rope swinging from his waist, he set off to look for gold so he could marry her. He dug in the mountains and hillsides, using his feet and arms to measure the base of one rock after another. After spending more than a year measuring the land around Alacuvek, he finally stopped at the bottom of the hill by Grimy Rifat's field, where water was plentiful, and built a house for himself out of pebbles. Tying a black dog to the door, he swore and flung stones at whoever came by, or swung his pickaxe and sang sad songs. One day, by the side of the well he had been digging, he breathlessly started dancing the "Lousy Shepherd." That's how the villagers knew that he had struck gold. Bayraktar secretly carried the gold to the fairy girl, and they were married at the end of the harvest. After once more dancing the "Lousy Shepherd" up and down the burned-off fields, he escorted his fairy bride to the pebblestone house at the bottom of the hill.

The fairy girl bore Bayraktar a son and a daughter. He sometimes took them by the hand to the village to visit Huvat and Atiye. "Come on in, have a seat," the villagers urged, prodding him to talk. "Look, look!" he exclaimed as he dug ancient coins from his pocket. But they snatched them away, making him weep. Then they made him strip off his clothes and dance to their clapping.

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