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from the January 2012 issue

To the Islands

She hadn’t seen him since the day when she had bitten his nose and he had chewed on her ear, in a fight over secondhand books. So when, from her comfortable seat on the swing under the mulberry tree, Hazel saw Mutti appear that afternoon, pokerfaced, she didn’t know quite what to do. He came to her and, carefully maintaining his serious expression, said:

“I want to take you somewhere.”

Under ordinary circumstances, her price for fulfilling this wish of his—or any other—was half an hour of playing house together but, as a show of goodwill on her part toward reestablishing peace, Hazel decided to go along with him this time without any conditions. They followed the winding path lined by roses and hydrangeas, until they were out of the green garden gate. It was the hour when the sun struck most strongly over the dirt road. There was not a single soul in sight. They went silently past the old fig tree, then crossed the little stretch of asphalt which took them downhill. Soon, when the smell of the garbage cans of the nearby military camp had turned into a more intense one of fish and rotting algae, they stopped.

In the little boathouse, where the road came to an end, Hassan the fisherman stood in his usual position; naked from the waist up, caressing his belly button with one hand that was missing two fingers, looking at some faraway point in the horizon as if waiting for his huge armada to materialize at any moment.

“Can you get the boat ready?” said Mutti to him as he and Hazel stepped over the entangled nets on the ground. At the beginning of that summer, as a sign of recognition of having reached the manly age of thirteen, he had been given the right to operate by himself the little family boat with the five-horsepower engine attached to its back. Consequently, in his latest visits to the boathouse he had been acquiring a prouder, more authoritative air, somewhat akin to an old sea captain’s.

“It’s already on the water,” said Hassan, without interrupting the caressing of his belly.

“Be careful, children” he added then. “Don’t go too far.”

It seemed to Hazel a bit out of the ordinary that they should go out on the sea at that time, especially because Mutti had not taken any fishing equipment with him and the sea, at that time of day, was good only for fishing. But she didn’t say anything as they stepped into the boat, because she had already decided to follow him. Mutti rowed until they were out of the maze of parked rowboats and one-cabin yachts which made up Hassan’s real armada, while Hazel made herself comfortable at the prow, putting some order among the loose pieces of wood which lay around.

“It smells awful,” she said. “They probably used your boat for fishing again.”

“I don’t smell anything,” said Mutti impassively, “and I don’t mind, either.”

It was a clear, peaceful day. The sky was blue, with patches of violet clouds toward the horizon, and the sea was like a darker sheet with small wrinkles on the surface, which showed that the wind came from the south from the islands. Facing the front of the boat, those islands looked like distant, mysterious lands: half-legendary, hidden behind a mist which revealed only their main curves. But the two children knew that the islands could also look different: there were days when the play of the light made the houses of the first—easternmost—island seem almost within a hand’s reach. It was hard to know which of the two views was an illusion, since there were no ferry lines from that part of the mainland to the islands. As for the small boats, it was forbidden for the children, and unthinkable for the grownups, to go beyond an invisible line near the end of the bay with them.

When they had gone a bit more, Mutti put the engine on. He took off his shirt, stood up, started steering with one hand. Hazel played with the gentle foam that cut its way across the still water on the side of the boat. From time to time she took a look at Mutti, who stood rigidly in command, his body shining under the last strong rays of the sun, his eyes turned toward the horizon in search of details that ordinary people of the land could not see. The water which stroked her hand was surprisingly warm.

“There are sharks around here,” shouted Mutti, “careful with your hand.”

“Sharks? Here? What are you talking about?”

“Here, of course. A week ago Hassan’s son got one. Not too big, but enough to do harm. This big.” And he opened his hands, leaving about a meter of space between them; but as he had let go of the steering rod, he was just in time to grab it before the boat had turned around completely.

“It’s a lie,” said Hazel. “In any case, you can’t scare me,” and she dipped her hand deeper into the water. Five summers of playing goalie in the neighborhood team had left her almost immune to anything that boys said.

When the water got dark green and Hassan’s boats seemed to take up only a chunk of the coastline instead of all of it, she thought of telling Mutti to stop, but then she saw a strange, new kind of excitement reflected on his face; so she remained silent. Small waves were now hitting the prow of the boat, disappearing quickly somewhere under it. The sun made circles under the water without ever finding the bottom. Mutti looked ahead, steering with decision.

A little farther out, they saw the first fishing boats: a big one-cabin boat and a smaller one with a portable engine like theirs, drifting toward them with the effect of the current. Men stood on each of them shaking their rods furiously. A noisy crowd of seagulls circled around the boats.

Rastgele,”* shouted Mutti.

Rastgele,” answered several of the men, waving.

One of them shouted something else but the noise of the engine drowned out his voice. He was quickly out of earshot. The current was stronger than it seemed.

“Where are we going?” shouted Hazel then.

Mutti just made an experienced marine’s gesture with his hand, indicating the open sea.

“No use going further. The fish are here. Do you have any rods, anyway?” she said, beginning to get slightly upset. But he wasn’t answering. Worse, he still had on his face the same expression of his father’s, on the days when he took the children, without any previous warning, to the most awful horror movies, and derived sadistic pleasure out of their fears.

“He will soon get tired of playing captain,” thought Hazel. She watched the houses of the military camp, the big tower. It made her feel safer to see the section of the bay which still remained close, to think about the people who lived in those houses. Under her feet, the boat was shaking and creaking as bigger, stronger waves were beginning to hit it. Mutti took on a considerable load of water sideways first, and then a full shower head-on. He was left soaked but he managed heroically to remain on his feet. When they had left the tip of the military camp behind, and the more distant coast of the next bay with its lighthouse had come within their sight, she felt sure that something was wrong.

“Stop immediately,” she shouted.

“Not yet,” he said. His hair went in all directions. There were patches of dried salt all over his skin and on his pants.

“I’ll know what to do to you when we get back,” she said, “if you don’t stop now.”

Definitely, it had been a mistake to have been so soft on him. From now on, she wouldn’t have any pity at the time of dictating her conditions. Once they stepped on land, he would see. He was playing his usual stupid game, trying to see who would get scared first.

“I know your game,” she said.

“I can’t hear you.”

She didn’t want him to notice the disturbing dizziness she felt when she looked in his direction and saw that Hassan’s boats had become a conglomeration of barely visible white dots. So she fixed her eyes on the water, which was now black, opaque, and unfriendly.

Mutti, meanwhile, was surveying the coast. “Cape Kennedy,” he thought, “5,000 kilometers from the landing point. From here, the Earth looks very different. Soon, we’ll be out of orbit. Maintain radio contact.”

The sun had gotten lower in the sky. Under its orange light, the dark silhouettes of the fishermen seemed to be performing a silent dance with only the shouts of the seagulls providing the occasional music. The end of the heat had been like a declaration of a temporary break in all the struggles of the day. Mutti felt the peace and the beauty of being all alone under the sky, surrounded by the silence, rocked by the waves. Hazel, invaded by the same feeling, was playing with the seaweeds. In her mind, she followed a tune that the constant humming of the engine brought along.

The ferry to the islands appeared in the east.

“The ferry,” said Hazel.

Mutti nodded.

“It looks like it will pass really close to us,” she said.

That made her dizzy again, and restless.

“Possibly,” said Mutti.

She looked at him. It didn’t look like his feigned impassivity would last much longer.

They both knew that the trajectory of the ferry was beyond the invisible borderline.

“Let’s go back,” said Hazel, trying to sound as matter-of-fact as possible.

“Let’s see the ferry, and then we’ll go back.”

Ha! thought Hazel. He was giving in. There was uncertainty in his eyes. He had reached the end of his rope. No more bluffing.

“Fine,” she said. That would be her own last concession to him, then. Besides, she admitted to herself somewhat surprisingly that she was also curious to see just how far away from them the boat would pass.

The ferry got bigger and bigger on their right, until they could see its yellow chimney and the captain’s cabin below it.

“It’s coming straight toward us.” said Hazel.

“I doubt it,” said Mutti, but he didn’t look convinced.

A long, unreasonable silence followed, which none of the two dared break. The big passenger boat continued, unmoved, on its course toward them. Instead of acting swiftly, they remained paralyzed. When the ferry was so close that they could discern the passengers on its lower deck, they realized that it would pass wide, but not by much.

“Apollo to Ground Control,” thought Mutti, sighing with relief, “Out of orbit now. First contact with outer space. Everything fine.”

The ferry, indeed, went by so close that they could see the passengers and almost hear the shouts of the vendors inside it. Some of the passengers waved at them. Moments later, the big wave that it produced threw the little boat around like a peanut; but it was just one wave, and when it was gone the sea was relatively calm again.

“Now, we go back,” said Hazel.

“Wait . . . wait . . . we still have time,” said Mutti, who seemed to have recovered his poise.

The engine kept roaring.

“Why don’t we go to the island?” he said all of a sudden. “We must be near.”

Hazel couldn’t believe it. Could this be the real meaning of that funny expression that had been on his face right from the beginning?

“You’re crazy,” she began to say, “the sun will set.”

But she stopped. She didn’t want to be a coward. He was bluffing. He wanted to make her beg, cry. She knew it.

“Fine,” she said, “let’s go to the island.”

The ferry was about to disappear in the west, under the sun, which was now a big, red ball in the sky. There were no more fishing boats left around them. Hazel felt deeply sad. Bluffing or not, Mutti had obviously lost his mind. They were too far from the coast now, and the island was still a vague shape behind the mist. She felt alone in the middle of nothing, in completely unknown territory, kidnapped by a maniac. She wanted to cry. She thought of her parents, of her brother, of her cozy little room. That made her want to cry more. But she kept her tears to herself. She watched the sea as if it were the only solid thing around that she could hold on to.

Soon, the waves were hitting harder. The wind, as if it had abruptly been woken up in the middle of a pleasant sleep, lashed its fury upon them from all directions. Hazel thought it was all a joke, that the sea looked calm from the coast, that the wind would stop in a second. At the helm, Mutti went on for a while playing his game, but at every hit of the waves that the boat received he was prodded back to reality. When two huge waves lifted the propeller out of the water momentarily, a grimace of frank fear appeared on his face.

“Are you all right?” shouted Hazel.

“Why don’t you come sit here, to balance the boat?” said Mutti.

The breaking of the silence which had reigned between them since the beginning of the bad weather had a somewhat magical effect. Hazel stopped thinking of ominous scenes of shipwrecks. Mutti overcame his fear, grabbed the engine tighter, and faced the waves.

“Spaceship to earth,” he thought, “some turbulence out there. But we’ll get out of it.”

Ahead of the boat, the mist lifted and between two waves afforded a view of the island that no mortal from the other side of the line had ever seen before them.

“The island,” shouted Hazel.

“We’ll go there,” said Mutti, his excitement overriding his fatigue, “it’s closer than the coast.”

The vision disappeared again. The wind, however, continued blowing, as if to say it would tolerate no more diversions. But Hazel preferred to think of the sea and of the waves as friends who were temporarily irritated, but who were not really capable of doing them any harm. The sun had set and a long, deep blue twilight had begun. Hazel kept arranging planks inside the boat which got thrown about with the effects of the impacts. Then, she noticed a very disturbing silence. The engine had stopped.

“What’s happening?” she said.

“I don’t know,” said Mutti, who had bent over to check the propeller, “It stopped.”

Somehow, Hazel couldn’t help feeling that he was still joking, although she knew he was not.

“Can’t you fix it?”

There was no answer for a while.

“The island is not far. We’ll row until we get there,” Mutti said finally.

The island had, in fact, become a big chunk of land which covered most of the horizon; but it was still only a dark shape. Serious and determined, Mutti started rowing. Although the wind had changed direction and was now blowing from behind them, the shape of the island remained nebulous after what seemed like a long time rowing. Hazel watched Mutti struggle, sweat, strain his small muscles until he couldn’t any more; at that moment, she felt like giving him a big, big kiss.

“Wait,” she said, “I’m coming.”

She took one of the oars. They rowed in silence.

“Spaceship to Ground Control,” Mutti thought, trying not to pass out, “we are in orbit but we can’t really figure out the landing position.”

Suddenly the fog gave way, and they were facing a row of boats docked in a quay, with two-story houses in the background. Mutti, so tired that he could not react at all, was slightly disappointed to see that it all looked very much like the coast that they had left behind.

Hazel was the first one to break the silence as they were docking:

“I hope they’ll have something good to eat in this place,” she said, “I’m very hungry.”

But Mutti pushed her away with one hand:

“I’ll be the first one to land.”

“Go ahead,” said Hazel, convinced that his craziness hadn’t totally been cured yet.

Meanwhile, Mutti was putting the finishing touches in his mind to the speech that he would give on this historic occasion.

When he was done, he extended his right foot and put it slowly, deliberately on land.

Not even Neil Armstrong had felt so much emotion.

*Good luck.

“Adalara Dogru” © Alber Sabanoglu. First published in ADAM Oyku, May-June 2002. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2012 by Alber Sabanoglu.

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