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from the June 2020 issue

Elfiye

A couple takes a drastic step after discovering their daughter’s relationship with another woman in this short story by Nazli Karabiyikoglu.


I.

Elfiye was planning to invite her friend over at some point, which she more or less had to do, actually. Pelin had lured her into it by asking all those questions about her family, and now she was caught in her trap. Elfiye waited a week, putting Pelin off until the day her stepmother met with her friends to give each other gold. These Gold Days happened once a month, and her stepmother never got back until evening. In the living room, Elfiye took her girlfriend’s hand. “You’re the first person I’ve brought home,” she said.

It was true. All through high school she’d never joined any of the ritual girls-only sleepovers because she thought she’d be a burden on the party. Maybe if she’d asked her father if she could have some guests over he’d have said it was fine, but Elfiye knew everyone would feel uncomfortable. It would have been a ridiculous suggestion—she didn’t even have her own bedroom. Instead of inviting people into her lopsided life, she preferred to spend her high school years as a kind of half loner.

They sat in the leather armchairs in the back room where her father worked and her stepmother hung the laundry. They kissed each other furtively. As she got up to make the coffee, Elfiye heard the clicking sound of a key turning in the door, then that high-pitched voice, and she panicked.  

“Ah,” her stepmother said, looking from one of them to the other. “Hello, honey?”

 Pelin jumped to her feet and firmly shook the woman’s hand. She looked at Elfiye, then turned back to Elfiye’s stepmother.

“How are you, ma’am?” she said. “Elfiye has told me so much about you!”

Her stepmother’s theatrical laughter and false hospitality always annoyed her, but Elfiye had no choice but to put up with it. Her stepmother made the coffee herself. When Elfiye saw her offer Pelin a cigarette, she went over and sat with them.

“If you’d told me you were having a guest, I would have prepared something, Elfiye honey,” her stepmother said.

“I didn’t want to interfere with your special day.”

“Serpil’s house flooded, remember?” she said sarcastically. “You’d think people would take the trouble to call, but what do you expect, she’s as clueless as her husband.”

With secret glances, Elfiye tried to convey that they needed to leave the house right away, but Pelin kept deepening the conversation to endear herself to her stepmother, patiently answering every question the woman, with her heavy makeup, asked her. She couldn’t get enough. Her stepmother said she wanted to make some tea, and Pelin, persisting, followed her into the kitchen. “This fuss better end before my dad comes home,” Elfiye thought.

Pelin didn't notice Elfiye's uneasiness until she saw her pouring the still-steeping tea. “I’ll have to drink this and go,” she said. “My mother has a medical exam at four.”

“Ohh.” Elfiye’s stepmother tried to make her disappointment obvious, even though it was fake. Her voice rose a pitch when she said she wished Pelin could stay for dinner. “But you come again,” she said, then added gruffly, “not for Elfiye, you come to see me.” Her words rang up through the narrow vacant atrium in the middle of their building.

 

II.

February 17, 2008

Death, for me, would be wonderful. I want to get closer to the end, and I want to be the one to decide. The rest is easy, I’ll manage it somehow. Because I just lived through the worst day of my life today. (I’ve always wondered if it could get any worse. Turns out it can.)

After Pelin left I went into my room. Then we ate dinner, and my father called me back for some fruit dessert. They were both sitting in different chairs than usual. Aşk-ı Memnu was on the television, but the sound was off. Of course I knew something was wrong, because my stepmother would rather commit murder than miss an episode of that show. My father started to say something, but my stepmother kept looking at the screen from the corner of her eye, her fists in her lap.

“We’re going to have a talk, Elfiye,” he said, and I looked at the TV. Behlül and Bihter were in bed together. “Look at me,” he said. His voice was harsh. “Yes, Dad,” I said, thinking about what I’d do if he said anything about Pelin. I sounded so guilty, it was like they’d seen us kiss! “You’re a smart girl,” he said. “And if you stay smart, you’ve got a good life ahead of you.” Please, God, I thought, let this be about how I have to stay back a year, let him be upset over that, but he just angrily crossed his legs. “Decent people make society decent,” he said, yet again.

And decent people make a moral difference, I finished his sentence in my head.

I wasn’t wrong. He looked at my stepmother for encouragement, but Behlül had just pulled Bihter right up underneath him. My stepmother took a deep breath.

“What are you doing with that freak?” my father said.

“She’s my friend,” I said, and he asked me how long we’ve been friends, and what Pelin does for work, and what her family’s economic situation is, and why her father doesn’t have a job, and whether or not she has any sort of plan to go to university. Then he said:

“Why did you bring her here?”

 I mumbled something.

“Were you going to have sexual relations?” he said.

“No, Dad, don’t be ridiculous.”

“Is she a man?”

“No, she’s a woman.”

“Well, she certainly shook my hand like a man,” my stepmother said.

“She’s not a guy?” my father said.

“No,” I said. “She’s just a masculine-looking woman.”

“She a tranny?”

“. . .”

“Does she have a—you know?”

“No, Dad, no.”

He stood up. He told me that if I was going to keep running around with trannies, I’d have to move out. My stepmother turned the sound back on.

“She had a mustache, honey—a mustache,” she said, and Adnan Bey paid off his mother-in-law’s debts on the TV.

I’ve never felt so unloved by them until now. But I couldn’t just stand there and lecture them on homosexuality. They wouldn’t understand anyway. They know how to live their lives without questioning the bodies they’re confined in. They looked at me like I was sick. They’ve stuck me in a dark room inside their minds. And it’s cold.

 

III.

Not long after this, my stepmother took me to a hodja who performed exorcisms, to interrogate the perverted sensibilities inside me.

The hodja told me to sit on a cushion on the floor, and I crossed my legs. She slipped behind me, crouched to her knees, and held my shoulders with her two hands.

You made sure she washed herself? she asked my stepmother, who sat on the divan behind her.

I did.


A ‘ūdhu billāhi minash-shaitānir-rajīm
A ‘ūdhu billāhi minash-shaitānir-rajīm
A ‘ūdhu billāhi minash-shaitānir-rajīm


Relax, close your eyes, and whatever happens, don’t open them,
          the hodja said.
I nodded.
 

Lā haula walā quwwata illā billā-hil ‘aliyyul ‘Azim
Lā haula walā quwwata illā billā-hil ‘aliyyul ‘Azim
Lā haula walā quwwata illā billā-hil ‘aliyyul ‘Azim


she held my shoulders so tight and blew on my neck
gather now, by the seal of the Prophet Suleiman, by the will of
          Hizir, peace be upon him—come!
kneeling behind me, she rocked us together to the same
          rhythm, back and forth
she wasn’t so awful actually, she was even young, a pleasant
          scent rising from her muslin headscarf, her hands
small and cool, a chill passing
through my sweater to my flesh
gather yourselves, quick! she shouted, and she began to rock
          me faster
let’s go, all of you, every one of you, we must have been in a
          hurry
because she sounded angry, this woman named Gül, about
          whom we were told
there was no sickness her forceful breath couldn’t cure.


ye, saf, dīsh, she said and clutched the nape of my neck, then
          into my right ear, bikatlamedeyīsh,
and again into my left ear, ye, saf, dīsh
then we stood, motionless, until she pressed down on the
          back of my head and jammed my chin
straight into my chest, I don’t know if a breeze swept through
          or if she’d begun to blow on my head, but we stood
          there silently
what she was doing behind me I couldn’t tell, nodding I guess,
          one hand on my neck
the other on my head, and it felt like the bare divan and the
          old RCA TV and everything else in the room
was whirling around through my hair
then Gül Hodja shouted, wa ‘alaikum selaam!


her jinns must have arrived, had encircled us
and would soon pore over all the things I kept inside me,
          how much
I hated my stepmother and how little I loved my father
how often I touched myself and what I thought about when
          I did
that I hid my pens but claimed I’d lost them
what I’d dropped, what I’d broken
all of it returned to me, revolved around the room
and gathered itself at my knees.


get it out! she commanded them from behind me,
           but what?
get it out, now! and she spread my arms to the side and
           held them parallel to the floor
take it out of her, all of it, get it out, get it out, get it out,
          I could feel my stepmother
watching breathlessly nearby, what was I supposed to get out?
suddenly a hand opened my mouth and pulled down on
          my chin, hard
open up, Elfiye, she said, open your mouth!
I clenched my eyes tighter and opened my mouth so wide
I thought my jaw would detach itself from my skull, seeing that
a demon lived inside me and it had to come out
tear it up, tear it up, tear it all up, you, and you, and you keep
          what’s left
this constant gyre of orders, my mouth was going dry
my heart was rattling, so then the spirits and the fairies
          had finally shown up, ah—!
and I still hadn’t been told the ancient legend of
          the Karakondjolos.


gather all of it up, up, up, hold on to it tight and don’t let it
           get away


in you, oh God, we seek refuge from the scourge of
          Lot’s people
amiiin, my stepmother said
in you, oh God, we seek refuge from sexual confusion!
amiiin!
do you dare commit abomination such as no creature
          ever did before you?


say that you repent
                                     I repent


you really have given up on men, and now you’re lustfully
          inching closer to women. it’s true,
you’re the descendant of a lecherous people


say that you repent
                                     I repent
                                                 say that you repent
                                                                                         I repent

by the rod of the Prophet Lot and the seal of the Prophet Jonah,
          bismillāhir-rahmānir-rahīm and she plunged her hand
           all the way
into my stomach
grabbed whatever
perverse and lecherous thing
lurked down there
and pulled it out


make yourself vomit!


I forced up what was left
of my breakfast, the bread and jam, the tomato omelet
the more I vomited, the more I let myself go
heaving harder
she kicked me in the back


tear it up by the roots! she ordered me and her jinns


throw it up, she said, up, up, up, until there’s nothing but bile,
          repent, say that you repent, take hold of the filth that’s
          soiled her faith and tear it up by the roots


I let it pour out of me, the taste of her hand still on my lips
I heaved and gagged and started to cry
 

A ‘ūdhu billāhi minash-shaitānir-rajīm
A ‘ūdhu billāhi minash-shaitānir-rajīm
A ‘ūdhu billāhi minash-shaitānir-rajīm


then in a single breath she told me three times to pick it up
and pulled me back and pressed my head to her chest
gather it up, don’t leave it behind, take it and go,
whatever it was that had come out of Elfiye the jinns would
          carry away


I opened my eyes


my heart had nearly stopped
I was expecting to see
angels, fairies, and leshies
or jinns with backward-twisted feet, tiny heads
and torsos made of light
but the only tangible thing was what I’d brought up from
          my stomach,
and the burning feeling running down my throat


barakallahu minkum wa ‘alaikum, godspeed! Gül Hodja said
          and she blew her jinn friends back to where they’d
          come from


That should do it, she turned to my stepmother. The poor thing was possessed by a perverted jinn. She needs to say twenty basmalahs every night until her period, and when she’s menstruating she does it six hundred sixty-six times, then she prays after a full ablution.


I tried to count the banknotes that passed between them, but I couldn’t. As Gül Hodja fixed her headscarf, a young girl came from the back room with a bucket, apparently to clean up my mess. But keep an eye on her, Gül Hodja stood behind me, cautioning my stepmother. If the issue gets worrisome again we’ll have to do a séance with fire, so bring her back right away.


Elfiye walked out of the damp, foul-smelling building
and left her childhood with her vomit on the floor
because she was an iron-hard girl no jinn could ever possess


From Elfiye. © Nazli Karabiyikoglu . By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2020 by Ralph Hubbell. All rights reserved. 

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