Trafika Europe Corner by Andrew Singer

Hello and Welcome to our second installment of Trafika Europe Corner. This month, we’re featuring a story by the late, great Turkish author, Sait Faik Abasıyanık.

Trafika Europe brings you some of the best new literature from Europe, with our quarterly literary journal. . . and featuring (from Autumn 2015), Europe’s literary radio station! Trafika Europe wants to be your meeting point for great new literature from across the 47 Council of Europe countries. You can also follow us on Facebook and Twitter.

Poet and prose writer Sait Faik Abasıyanık is considered by many as the finest Turkish short-story writer of the 20th century. A volume of his prose is finally available in English translation: A Useless Man: Selected Stories, has just been published this year by Archipelago Books. From their description:

“Many stories are loosely autobiographical and deal with Sait Faik’s frustration with social convention, the relentless pace of westernization, and the slow yet steady ethnic cleansing of his city…Nearly every Turk knows by heart a line or a story by Sait Faik.”

Here we present one story from this new collection in English, with kind permission of Archipelago Books.

The Bohça

by Sait Faik Abasıyanık
(translated from the Turkish by Alexander Dawe and Maureen Freely)

I remember the first day she came to our house. I was sitting under the mulberry tree, telling the neighborhood boys about my day in the water. My voice was shaking as I described my adventures on the coast. My passionate report had them rooted to the spot; none of these boys knew how to swim. Their eyes brimmed with questions. But I was feverishly certain that I could read their thoughts so I didn’t give them a chance to say a thing.

I heard someone calling to me from the garden gate. And there she was.

To hide my surprise, I kept on talking.

“Then I couldn’t touch the bottom. I was swallowing water. But I wasn’t at all scared. I was thinking of my next move.”

“Young man, your mother wants to see you.” That’s what she said.

“I’m coming,” I said.

And I went right on telling my friends about how I nearly drowned while learning how to swim.

After they had left, I turned back to the garden gate. She was still standing there waiting, but her eyes were on a finch that was singing in the quince tree.

“Is that a nightingale?” she asked. “No, girl, that’s a finch.”

She refused to believe me.

“I’m nobody’s fool,” she said. “That finch already flew away.” She had a rough way of speaking.

“Shut up, girl. Don’t you have any manners? Don’t joke like that.” She set her sad eyes on me and gave me a long, hard look.

I went into the kitchen. She followed me in. I tortured her with questions. Why was she here? “I used to be a wet nurse at Major Hidayet’s,” she said. In those words, more or less.

I can’t tell you what a despicable little bourgeois brat I was in those days. I was set on making her suffer. There were bruises all over her olive-colored skin, and cuts. She had small, twisted hands with slender, purple-veined wrists that were covered in scratches.

There were times when I spat in her face, times when I slapped her. In spite of all the abuse I hurled at her, she never stopped being kind to me. According to her birth certificate, she was one year older than me. The two of us were just scrawny kids full of mischief, and pretty much out of control.

One winter night she came to me in a dream. She was wearing a black dress, and her sun-bleached hair was draped over her chest, or, rather, it clung to her long and supple neck. Her breasts were no larger than turnips, and how pale her face, despite her olive skin, and such perfect feet. In those days there was a man I saw in my dreams whom I first identified as my grandfather, and later understood to be the old dervish saint, Nurbaba, or Father Christmas. In this dream, he took my hand and hers and joined them together.

“You two must stop fighting,” he said.

With that, the old man lowered his bushy eyebrows until they touched the tips of his lashes. From then on we never quarreled again. It was the dream that did it – I want to make that clear. Yes, it was a dream. A dream that changed us.

We were holding hands under the mulberry tree. The finch was warbling in the quince. The sky above us sparkled with giant stars. A moon as large as a pebbly, reedy cove was hanging over the horizon and a lake. As we walked toward the moon, it merged with the shore.

That’s as much as I can remember. Anticipation is clearer and crisper than the thing that lingers on our tongues. But as the dream began to fade, I did almost taste the strange fruit that once drove a man from paradise. Or so I recall.

The next morning I found the real sun hanging in the sky. I broke the ice in the garden fountain and I washed my face. But I still felt like I was dreaming.

Then I saw her in the courtyard, holding in her right hand a cloth we used for polishing shoes. Her face looked unwashed. Her almond eyes were swollen and there were spots on her neck that looked like flea bites. I leaned over her as she polished my shoes and when my lips touched her hair I was gripped by a hunger I had never felt before. I pulled out a few strands of her hair, and as I walked to school I examined them, very closely. I might still have been dreaming. Half of each strand was jet-black, and the other half a warm yellow.

My conversations with her went something like this.

“Girl, you haven’t polished my shoes.”

“I swear I did, my young sir.” “I just said you didn’t!”

She’d look at me standing there with those strands of hair in my hand – half black, and half yellow – and she would freeze. And collapse into silent tears. The more she cried, the angrier I would be.

“Girl, did you rip this?”

“I swear to God I didn’t, my young sir.” “I say you did!”

I never gave her the chance to deny it twice. “I was looking at the pictures, young sir!” “Why?”

“Because I like them.”

There was something I wanted to say to her one day, after she told me that. I can still remember the words. It went something like this: I like you, too, girl. I like you more than those pistachios I so adore but never share with you. But do I crack open the shell and eat those sweet green nuts, just because I love you?

“Girl!”

“What’s wrong, young sir?” “Nothing . . .”

“Young sir!”

“What’s wrong, girl?” “Nothing . . .”

We were standing together under the mulberry tree. We never did have a chance to talk to each other about nothing being wrong. But it seemed as if we both felt we had. She had her head in my lap, and her scent all around me. It was a summer afternoon when mother caught us there. I scrambled through the garden gate, ran down to the shore and stayed in the warm water till evening. Later I was back in the garden with the boys from the neighborhood. But this time, I had nothing to be excited about. Pretending to listen, I kept glancing over at the garden gate. But she never came out for me. Eventually the boys left. I walked back into the house. I went to look for her in the kitchen, but she wasn’t there.

Everyone knew that she kept her bohça in a corner of the storage room. When something in the house was missing, it was the first place we would look. Without saying a word, we’d go through her bohça with its patchwork of red, white, yellow and navy blue squares.

I went into the storage room, heavy with the scent of oil. I looked for the bohça, but it was gone.