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Check out our February feature of folktales from the Qatari oral tradition.
from the October 2017 issue

The Canary

The plain sprawls, flat under the sky. Darkness settles over it; a gulping, tarry swamp. In the distance, a small fire. It licks and lights the air. It leaps as the women gather around, throwing dry brush onto the flames. Old Hatice Ana arches her eyebrows and her face grows taut. It makes her look nearly fifteen years younger. Her skin gathers at her forehead and neck. Some of her teeth are missing and her face sags. “My Hasan died here, in the mine,” she says. “Your husbands think it’s coal they dig for in the mountain, but it’s not coal, it’s flesh.” The women grow pale.  One can’t help herself and asks: “Were there a lot of accidents in the mine, in the past?” “Of course there were. Even our grandmothers used to speak of them. The more the men work the mine, the more lives it will take. In the end, your husbands will be little more than coal themselves.” Silence falls over the rolling plain. Hatice Ana’s eyes drift. Her face tightens like a chest full of breath, then creases again; she focuses. “A terrible day, it was. I was up at the crack of dawn, I’d just waved Hasan off as he left for the mine. And then, oh God! Booming, ringing. That sound, like it was pounding the ground as it came. It cracked the foundations of the houses and burst the plaster. We rushed outside. I thought my heart would drop clean out of my chest. We knew something must have happened in the mine, so we ran to look. The mine was smoking. I’ll never forget the tears pouring from my eyes. I couldn’t stop. The workers had gathered outside. The mine was raging and fuming, spitting ash.” She rearranges her headscarf loosely and tightens the knot. Her eyes search the ground. She recovers her train of thought and continues: “Then important men came from the mining company; they stood at the entrance to the pit, whispering to each other. Their faces were grim. The jandarma came next and cordoned off the mine. 'No one is to enter the pit. We’re going to get everyone out alive,' he said, and we believed him, too. There was nothing else to be done. We sat there and we waited. What more could we do, my girl? We sat together with tears in our eyes and I mourned for Hasan.” The women see themselves in Hatice Ana. They imagine the day when their husbands will die.

On the day of the accident, the mountain bellowed at the people gnawing away at its insides. The fire ceased and smoke began to rise. When the smoke and dust had cleared a little, the jandarma went into the mine. He walked round and round. It was empty. Where were all the men? People don’t just disappear. At last, they reached the top of the blind shaft. A hand was dangling from the roof. “Here, they’re here!” he shouted. The man grasped hold of the hand, tugged it and tumbled head first onto the ground. He looked at the hand in his; it was practically nothing. It stopped at the wrist. Bone jutted out at one end, sharp as a wolf’s tooth, white as rabbit hair. “God!” he cried, throwing it down. He leaned back against the wall. Something dripped onto his ear. Disturbed, he put out his hand: blood. He hung the lamp on the wall and peered closer. The bodies looked as if they had been split apart and reformed. The miners lay in pieces. He cried out and his belly shook. He ran to the mouth of the mine without looking back. They had all been destroyed. The walls of the mine had been reduced to rubble, the mountain was coal and nothing more. The jandarma ran all the way out to the dark forest.

Hatice was still a young woman back then. Chilled, her tears had run dry and her heart seemed drained of blood. Mourning burned through the village, ravaging the very soil. The mine owners grew sick of the laments and chased the workers’ wives away. “Except for me,” said Hatice Ana. One woman interrupted, curious: “Why?” Hatice Ana breathed hard. “Because I kept quiet; when the state representatives came to ask me about it, I said nothing.”

Behind them, the forest stood dark and dense. The faint sounds of animals hung in the air. The owl trained its eye on a mouse, dropped down, and cloaked it in its wings. The fox hid in the bushes watching the women around the fire. The snail trailed slowly back to its nest in the light of the moon. The women took their leave, feeling their own lives quivering inside them, and walked back in the light of the fire, which flared faintly, sputtering in the nighttime frost. It was nothing, of course. Zeyno cast about for some hint of death in the dry taste in her mouth. One day, we will die too, she thought, we will fade into nothing. Her gaze fell on her son, Aliş. His eyes were filled with tears.  Zeyno got up, kissed Hatice Ana on the cheek, and said her good-byes. Aliş made to sneak off through the bushes. “Aliş!” shouted Zeyno.  He stopped. “What are you up to my boy? Come on, run along home.” He came closer and she hugged him. “When did you turn up? Did you finish shelling those pine nuts?” “No.” “Oh, Aliş!”

The night was thick with frost as they crossed the plain and started up the hill ahead. Passing by woodland, they took the path to the village. Zeyno wrapped herself in her knitted shawl. “Are you cold?” she said, looking at Aliş. “No,” he replied, shivering. She hugged him to her, covering the two of them with her shawl. Before stepping into the garden of their house, Zeyno said, “Your father mustn’t find out about what Hatice Ana said, OK?” Aliş nodded, tears in his eyes. “I won’t say anything,” he promised weakly.

They found Yusuf in the large garden that surrounded the house, under the pergola beams strung with grapevines. He was smoking a cigarette with a faraway look on his face. The pure white smoke was bitter in the night air. There was no wind. The sky looked as if it had been nailed up. In the forest beyond, the fireflies were winking. Yusuf sat up. “Hello my sweethearts,” he said, “Where have my little adventurers been?”

“Just to see Hatice Ana. We chatted, shared some toasted seeds. Small talk, you know. Have you cut your lip again?” Yusuf looked up and smiled. “Oh, Yusuf” she said, smirking.

“I’ve just put some tea on. Come, let’s sit and have a glass,” he said, sitting up on the divan and crossing his legs.

“Aliş, I’ll heat up some milk for you,” said Zeyno.

“But I want tea!”

“No, Aliş! The two of you sit up drinking tea late into the night and then you wonder why you can’t get to sleep! Yusuf, are you hungry? I can bring a few things out.”

“Yes, I could eat something. It’s a long while till morning. I’m not going to sleep tonight.”

“What? You can’t go down the mine on no sleep!”

“We’ll see,” said Yusuf. He cheered up a little when he remembered Zeyno had made börek. “Zeyno, are there any börek left?”

“Yes, there’s a whole dish of them.”

“Great, bring them out. They’ll go well with the tea.”

Zeyno hurried into the kitchen and threw a couple of logs into the stove.  She would heat the börek on it. She bent to blow on the embers. The coals glowed like enormous globes of molten lava. Flames rolled and coiled inside the wood. Zeyno blew. The coals reddened, scattering sparks. She thought of mines exploding and mountains crying out. Still she blew. The fire flared up. Filling her lungs, she blew again. Ash fluttered into the three corners of the stove. Her hair and face were covered with it. The pinecones rattled as flames chewed and blackened the wood. Zeyno watched the fire for a while. She thought of nothing, not the börek, not Yusuf, not the food. After some time, she sighed, shook the ash from her hair, turned and placed the dish over the heat. She wiped the tears from her eyes.

Yusuf took his pouch of tobacco, weighed out a small amount, and rolled it up in a cigarette paper. He licked the paper to seal it. Aliş watched his father. “Aliş, my friend, how are your strawberries doing at the warehouse?”

“Well, I’ve given them plenty of water and I made sure that it’s warm enough for them. I also planted new seedlings and I wrapped them in a black plastic bag. I tied the bottoms with cotton. They’re doing really well.”

“Great! Sounds like you’ve been taking good care of your babies. Have you read the book I bought you?”

“Of course. And I learned about why strawberries go soft on the ground.”

“And why’s that?”

“The book says that they go soft when the leaves touch the soil.”

“Well, my friend, they sound a bit precious if you ask me. How come our neighbors manage to grow them in the forest and on the mountainside?”

“Well, they don’t grow very many, do they?”

“Goodness me, that must be it then: the dirt is turning them soft.” His gaze drifted past Aliş. “It’s the same with us, isn’t it Aliş?” Aliş looked at his father, uncomprehending. “Coal’s a tricky thing, too. The more you dig for it, the harder it is to get.” Aliş didn’t look at his father. “But we have coal to thank for the food in our bellies tonight. Thank God we have food on the stove.” Something caught in his throat. He swallowed hard and went on. “Why don’t we have a little chat while your mother’s out of the way, man to man?” Aliş guessed what his father wanted to say and winced. “Look, son, Aliş, my boy, promise me you won’t go down to work in the mine. Just read your strawberry book. Learn. Grow your business. One day you could have huge greenhouses filled with strawberries, you could escape all this. Sell crates and crates of strawberries if you like, but never touch coal. Don’t be like me, living a half-life down in the mine.” Aliş didn’t move. He stayed fixed to the spot, as though his father might turn around, look and not be able to find him. “This job is no joke and you’re sick. You wouldn’t be able to stand it.” Aliş’s eyes glistened for a moment as though a bright idea had dawned on him and he said, “You should stop working in the mine too. We can grow our strawberries together.” Yusuf said nothing. Zeyno’s voice came from inside, rough. “Your mother’s coming, not a word,” said Yusuf.

Zeyno appeared under the pergola. “Aliş, run and get the börek. Be careful though, they’re hot!”

In the distance, crickets wailed and shuddered in the forest’s chill. In the village, the same thought was on everyone’s minds. It flitted through their brains every night before bed. It flickered and faded. Death. Every night before they went to sleep, the people of the village imagined their own deaths. The worry was like a pin in the throat, like clippers wrenching the nails from their fingers. It ate away at them and after months, and months, and months like this, their hearts grew sick with it.

It was the morning after one such night. There were no footsteps, no voices to be heard. No sound at all. Yusuf rolled over in bed and sat up heavily. He wolfed down the fried potatoes and lentil soup that Zeyno had made. He watched Aliş in his bed, as he did every morning.  He left the house and prepared to hand himself over to the hell of the pit. This cursed coal, he thought. It’s a scourge. It puts a man to sleep, drowns him, knocks him down, and changes him. The same image came to Yusuf as he walked to work each morning. He imagined death differently from the others. Death was a huge hand made of coal that stretched skyward; it would reach out and grab the dozens of workers out in the street, crushing them mercilessly until they suffocated. That morning, Yusuf imagined the giant hand just as he did every morning.

Between one hundred and fifty and two hundred men gathered at the pithead in the early hours of the morning. Sad, sleep-scented faces. They went into the mine to start getting ready. They chatted as usual as they changed into their work gear. One of them, İleş Ahmet, was not too keen on washing. “Your clothes are filthy already, son, why bother changing?” Âdem quipped. The men grinned at each other. İleş Ahmet picked the sleep from his eyes and grunted: “What do you expect? We don’t all have a wife at home like yours.” From a distance, Yusuf spoke up: “Ahmet, how much have you saved now, pal? When’s the wedding?” “Not for a while. Damn, I counted it the other day but I’ve forgotten.” Çamur Osman chimed in: “Pal, you’ve really kept her waiting! The woman’s already past it, you’ll never get her now . . . ” Osman raised his arms and began to mince daintily around the cave, cavorting in the thin air. The entrance to the mine rang with laughter and the men smiled. “You just leave it to me,” said Ahmet, grinning. Yusuf’s gaze fell on Daver. He had seemed distracted while they were getting dressed and there was an anxious look on his face. “What’s the matter, Daver? You’re a bit quiet today.” “It’s nothing, Yusuf Abi. You know how it is.” Daver was a little different; his eyes slanted and he was a smart, sensitive boy. His grandfather was one of the village’s holy people. He saw the future in his dreams and had the power to predict whose baby would be a girl, who would die and who would recover. Davud Usta had taken him on so that he could get a wage and earn enough to eat. He didn’t work at the mine face. His sole duty was to walk around the mine and keep an eye on the canary in its cage.

Rows upon rows of men crammed themselves into the cages and descended into the pit. They piled down the main shaft. Davud Usta stopped at each cross brace and tested the frame with his adze. The men mined and the mountain reeled. And when the black creature awoke in its lair at the heart of the mountain and made the earth swell, nobody heard it. It wanted to roar, beat its pitted chest, and destroy the sickness worming through its body. But it couldn’t.

Some men mined while others loaded lumps of coal onto wagons. Others dug new tunnels. Slowly, they scraped at the earth while the chock bore its weight above them. İleş Ahmet swallowed, “Damn it, Âdem, make sure you check the chock as you go. We don’t want it caving in.” “Just dig slowly, it will be fine as long as we don’t overload it.” Çamur Osman looked at the coal in the chamber. He wasn’t pleased. “Most of this is waste, there’s hardly any coal in it. There’s not much output here. Let’s tell Cemal Usta to cut the workers on this section.”

At lunch time, they sat down to eat together, setting up a makeshift table and splitting an onion between them. Daver couldn’t swallow a single bite. Instead, he fed the bird in its cage. Âdem looked at him. “You given it a name yet, pal?” he said. Daver turned and looked at him for a while. “No, I can’t, because it’ll die anyway.” Yusuf breathed, “If you look after it properly, he’ll be fine.” “No, it won’t. I can hear strange noises, it sounds like something’s boiling up there.” The boy swallowed hard. A moment later, he heard Ahmet’s voice trembling, “The bird . . . ” It lay dead in its cage. It didn’t move. Davud Usta snapped into action: “Leave everything where it is and walk to the exit.” The men made for the main shaft on the double. “Calmly!” shouted Davud Usta, frightening himself with his own voice. “Walk slowly,” he added hoarsely. They joined the throng of workers making their way along the shaft. The structure began to shudder. Earth and pieces of rock fell from the roof as the walls around them shook. They stopped and stared at one another. “Stop,” said Davud Usta. “Come back. We’ll head down to the lower levels and wait for help. Quick!” The men turned and ran down the shaft. But the sound died in their ears as a scorching wind swept through, echoing around the chamber, accompanied by a strange smell. Turning to look, they came face to face with the black creature inside the mountain. It bounded straight for them, its gigantic body gleaming black and white. Then it changed shape; white smoke poured from it like milk, coiling and curling, and took the form of huge animals. At the front stood terrible horses, nimble bears, followed by deer, wolves, and foxes  . . . The herd came stampeding over the miners and they groaned. One man in front cried out at the top of his lungs: “Get on the ground!” and many threw themselves down. The animals dispersed in a puff of soot and drifted over the men like an avalanche.  Some were caught on their feet. The toxic fumes leached into their bodies, making their lungs bleed and their hearts burst. They fell to the floor with blood streaming from their eyes and noses. Yusuf lay on the ground, covering his mouth and nose with the collar of his sweater. In the smoke and dust, chaos reigned. There was no fresh air left in the mine. Later, choking and retching, Davud Usta called out again, “Wait a moment, then get up.” When the smoke had cleared a little, Yusuf saw in the light of his headlamp that İleş Ahmet had fallen; blood was trickling from his nose. He watched the flakes of ash sticking to his face. The blood was black, like a thick and filthy worm creeping into his nostril. Its tail dangled close to Ahmet’s lip. Yusuf feared it would crawl into Ahmet’s nose and eat away at his lungs. He reached out, swiped at the worm and saw that the blood had been wiped away. Then he looked at his hand. Blood. Finally, he came to his senses. He ran with the other men down toward the lower levels. A little while later, they heard Davud Usta’s voice again. “Find a piece of clothing, a handkerchief, anything, and tie it over your faces.” Yusuf held his breath, took off his sweater, and tied it tightly around his face. He found Osman collapsed at the edge of the mine. Ripping off part of his shirt, he tied it around Osman’s face. He threw Osman’s arm over his shoulder and ran down to the seventh level with the other workers in search of fresh air.

The smoke thinned as they descended, but the men were panicking, running to and fro. Davud Usta tried to stop those attempting to leave the mine, but they were so overcome by fear that none would listen. “Don’t go! It’s hell up there! We have to keep walking down until help comes.” Davud Usta saw he was wasting his breath. Many of the men had fallen onto the ground and bodies lay scattered along the main shaft. Davud Usta looked to see if any were breathing. He kept one eye on Yusuf, Osman, Daver, and Âdem in front. When they reached a clearing, he noticed the birdcage was still gripped tightly in Daver’s hands. The bird’s body was filthy from rattling around the cage. Keep steady, Davud, don’t lose your nerve, think how many years you’ve been foreman of this mine. We’re going to get out of here alive.

Âdem was gasping for breath. His insides boiled; his throat felt dry and scratchy. His heart was pounding. The more he struggled to get air into his lungs, the more trapped he felt in the narrow mineshafts. “I can’t take it any more, I can’t breathe!” he cried. In a fit of madness, Âdem tried to undo the cloth tied around his face. Yusuf seized his hand. They were at the heart of the mine. “Stop it! If you take it off, you’ll die! Just a little longer. There’s fresh air further down. See, there’s a cool breeze here.” Meanwhile, the ground above them was shaking again. The sides of the shaft trembled. “There’s a fire up there, run down!” Davud shouted, determined, shoving them down toward the lower levels. At that moment, Cemal Usta appeared with a group of men. They were black all over; in the lamplight, they looked like monsters, burned, blending into the mine; they were at one with it. They clung to Davud Usta and tugged at him. Cemal shouted at the top of his voice: “It’s going to kill us, Usta! Let’s pull the hogties and cave in the path or we’ll be boiled alive in the damned darkness!” Davud Usta couldn’t understand why Cemal was in such a hurry. He spoke again, with difficulty, swallowing: “The fire’s spreading above us, abi, they’re using pressurized water to put it out but it’ll heat up in the fire. If we don’t close off the path, we’ll be boiled alive!” Keeping as calm as he could, Davud Usta gathered his men around him. He shouted to the workers making for the upper levels: “We’re going to cave in the tunnel, run this way!” They managed to warn ten or fifteen people. The ground above them was trembling with the ferocity of the fire and the explosions. The pressurized water filtered through slowly at first, then started to gush. “Shut off the path!” cried Cemal Usta. The men worked as one, pulling the ties, then they ran all the way down to the scaffold. The mine seemed to be laughing, puckering; the path snapped like brittle bones and the roof shifted. The tumbling rocks formed a wall where the path had been. They swallowed, thinking of the men trapped on the other side. The water and smoke seemed unable to penetrate the wall. It was vital to use the little air coming from the blind well channels properly. Making good use of it, they reached the bottom of the mine. They stopped in a chamber where they found a little fresh air. Yusuf encouraged them all to sit down. “It’s getting smoky in here. Crouch down, it’ll be easier to breathe.” Âdem caught his breath and the pain in his lungs eased. Daver’s legs were trembling. He had vowed not to leave the bird behind, his stonelike fist still closed over the cage’s handle. At last, he collapsed like a pile of hundred-year-old rocks, his mouth a spike, his eyes like creatures made of bone.

The workers sheltering in the lower corridors of the mine looked out from under their thick eyebrows, eyes wide like rabbits escaping a wolf’s clutches. Alert. The fear was sharp and coursed through them like poison. They knew that if they didn’t keep it under control, their hearts would burst, ripping open their chests. Daver sat in the half-lit chamber, transfixed by muffled noises coming from below. His eyes searched the ground; his ears trained, listening. “There are people down there, Yusuf Abi,” he said.

“Are you sure, son?”

 “Yes. I can hear someone digging.”

The air supply in the chamber was dropping constantly. They decided to move on. They split into small groups and ventured off down separate routes.

They walked straight down. Daver looked at the canary: feathers lay strewn where it had been tossed around in the cage. At that moment, a wild wind blew in, scorching his cheeks. It swept the dust before it into a whirlwind and blasted the hair out of his face. When Daver looked up in the lamplight, he saw that the roof of the cave lay far in the distance; it had been carried away. Not only that, but it had transformed into enormous pine trees, until there was an entire forest hanging above their heads. And now, Daver and the others found themselves upside-down, walking in the sky with the forest below. Daver gazed open-mouthed as the pines swayed beneath him. Then came the birds, flitting into the forest in their thousands. Enchanted, he saw plants dripping with bright yellow buds, bobbing in the sunlight; animals roamed beneath the trees. Then he realized he could see the mouth of the mine; hundreds of people were standing in front of it. He saw his mother crying. Tears welled in his eyes and he let them fall, it didn’t matter now anyway. He wanted to leave the darkness of the mine behind and go into the forest, he wanted to hug his mother. Daver took the dead canary out of its cage, opened his hand and watched the bird drop away into the trees like the cool raindrops that fell from the roofs of the houses in the village. And now, Yusuf saw the bird take flight. He looked up and saw the mighty forest hanging from the ceiling. Sensing the ground beneath his feet had disappeared, he turned and clung to the wall. He looked again. Daver watched Yusuf for a long time; “I want to go into the forest and see my mum,” he said. Before Yusuf had the chance to reply, Daver bent at the waist and began to fall. He tumbled away into the forest and disappeared. Yusuf watched him fall. But I can’t do that, he thought, I can’t go into the forest. I can’t just leave Aliş and Zeyno, and sink like a stone into the trees. Just bend your knees and take a step forward, he thought. No, step away, Yusuf, come on, step away, stay in the blind shaft a little longer.

As they reached the bottom of the mine, the workers following Davud Usta faltered in a delirium of fear and poisonous air. “Let’s wait in the chamber up ahead. There’s more fresh air there,” said Davud Usta. Whatever happens, they’ll come, he thought, they’ll get us out of here. Entering the mine’s bottommost chamber, Âdem recoiled. He stood petrified, as if he had glimpsed monsters and flames, seething worms. He looked back at his friends behind him. Filing into the chamber, they saw three men with their backs to the entrance. The men had tools in their hands and were scraping at the wall. Davud Usta was speechless. The men were heavy with coal. “If we dig down, it will earn us some time,” they said. One of the three turned to face Âdem. The pickaxe slipped out of his hand and fell. Its handle bore distinct marks where it had been gripped tight. It clanged as it hit the ground and the sound reverberated in the chamber. Âdem’s ears rang; he couldn’t stand it and covered them with his hands, writhing in pain. Blood began to stream from his ears. The two other strange men still had their backs turned; they had noticed the men come into the room. Âdem looked into the face of the man standing opposite him and saw that it was himself. Yusuf looked at the second man: his double. He looked furious. A single tear ran from Yusuf’s eye, like a horse with a chestnut coat. He wiped it away and smelled blood. Then Davud came face to face with the third man. He looked just like him, right down to the clothes and the scar on his face. The men put down their tools and peered at each other. None of them said a word, but there was no trace of surprise on their faces. They could hear faint rattling sounds. Yusuf reached out and touched his double; the man opposite was alive, real. After a little while, the sound of pickaxes could be heard from beneath their feet. Yusuf turned and looked at Davud Usta. They listened to the sound of men still digging down below, their picks hitting diamonds, hoping to find their way back to their children’s faces by digging in the opposite direction. Hope-flecked, determined hands groping in the blackness.

Down, down and down they dig, hundreds, thousands, maybe millions of men. In the black breath of the mine, dead men turn to coal and their blood congeals and oozes inside the mountain. Flesh fuses with coal, coal with mountain. Yusuf can no longer tell which is which. He thinks about the börek that Zeyno cooks on the stove, the strawberries Aliş keeps warm in the warehouse, and his mind reels. I’ll never eat strawberries again, he thinks. Aliş’s strawberries. All I have is coal to eat. I’ve never tried it. I ate dirt once. Aliş, does it rain in the mine? I wish we could fly out of here. I want to leap up over the fire and breathe in the clean air. If I could just see Zeyno’s face again, he thinks, or see Aliş standing there, as large as life. But you’re nothing now, Yusuf, says a voice inside him. You’re buried deep underground. Just lie back, deep below the surface of the earth and slip away into nothing, Yusuf. The more you want to exist, the less you do. You are alone, you are small, and you are nothing. You are nothing now, Yusuf.

The mine workers’ legacy was their offering to coal. The children of the village had been born to die and took up their fathers’ trade without question. And so did their children. The mountain cried out for endless death, but nobody heard it. The workers’ bodies became the blood in the veins of the mine and streamed out, coal-stained flesh. The canary rolled out like a ball. It took off and flew up the road that led to the mine. It skimmed the fire, beating its wings and making the flames quiver, before flying on into the forest. Zeyno and Aliş didn’t see the spirit leave the pit. The mine rattled and rang like a maniac for three days and three nights, and then it cooled, like the cinders in Zeyno’s stove. A human life is faint and thin, like a line drawn in the dirt, until it turns cold, like the bones buried beneath.

From It Gözü. Published 2015 by Can Yayınları. By arrangement with the publisher. Translation © 2017 by Ayça Türkoğlu. All rights reserved.

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