by Ilgin Yildiz
We spend our days in a preconceived pattern, and nobody questions it.
I do chores, mother reads, grandfather stares.
Mother always tells me to be dutiful and attentive. And I obey her wishes, knowing all too well, if I’m idle and inert, she will be disappointed in me.
I wake up at six a.m., wash my face, make my bed, make coffee, prepare breakfast, for myself and mother. Grandfather doesn’t eat that much. He likes to drink his evening tea.
Most mornings I take a walk in the bush. Being alone in nature gives me a sense of solidity and comfort. I walk for a couple of kilometres and breath in the fresh air. I feel it easing my persistent thoughts about time—the past and especially the present.
Out in the bush, I sometimes pick flowers for my mother, too. When I give them to her, she doesn’t say anything and looks at me all too knowingly, like I’m busted for being sentimental and soft. Being soft isn’t approved of in our house. It is frowned upon, since softness is weakness, and weakness is a bad choice.
I do my chores. I start with cleaning the windows. Mother is especially rigid about the windows. “They should be clean and transparent,” she says. They are the eyes of our house. They should always be clean to allow us to see everything crystal clear. When I’m finished with the windows, I open them wide and invite the fresh air inside. I scrub the floors and change the sheets. Mother likes fresh sheets every day.
Grandfather is very sick and almost always in his bed. His ‘chair break’ starts when my mother has to help him get up and sit on his rocking chair, and then I change his sheets. When he is sat on his rocking chair, he looks like a mannequin, a frozen thing affixed to a pendulum, swaying slowly. He doesn’t ever move or lift a finger, but his eyes are mostly alive, and they watch me while I work. The moist and glossy stare follows my movements while I’m washing the dishes. It is thoughtful and pensive.
I try and guess what he thinks about. He was in the army once, so perhaps he thinks about his army mates or how they shot people upon raiding one place or another. I try and imagine how his commander looked like. Maybe he had specific mannerisms or mimicry that set him apart from all the other army men my grandfather knew. Maybe grandfather was timid and afraid of his commander, and his mates teased him for that. They also teased him for his love of poetry, and inability to shoot at people comfortably, without any trace of guilt. Grandfather might have been scolded for his lack of dutifulness and attentiveness. Of course, I can’t be sure about any of these because he doesn’t speak.
Sometimes, before I start preparing lunch, I approach grandfather’s rocking chair and ask him what he wants to eat. “Grandfather, shall I make some lentil soup? Would you like some eggs or yogurt?” Even though he never answers, I always wait for a response just for a few seconds.
Mother doesn’t approve my attempt to talk with grandfather. She reckons it’s futile, a waste of time. She lifts her head from her book and gives me a curt nod. She nods when she doesn’t approve, and even if this might be strange to an outsider, I always understand her and stop what I’m doing at once.
Nights are always beautiful in our part of the hills. I don’t know about the other parts because I’ve never seen them. I don’t know if I should be curious. Mother believes in patterns and predictability. Her world is rather formulaic, and I like how she tells the world to me, how clear her language is. It leaves no space for curiosity.
I like sitting with her in our garden and look up to the stars. She doesn’t look up to the stars like me. She always has a book in her hand, lost in another world. I watch her while she reads, with that little book lamp she bought at the town market. Some nights, I want to ask her about the sky, why one patch of the night sky is darker than the other and why the stars look like they’re moving. I want to ask her about the nocturnal creatures and the meanings of their diverse sounds. I wish she would tell me if they fall in love or know they’re fated to die. But mother leaves no time for conversation of any kind, reads all through the night, and when she gets tired of reading, kisses me goodnight and goes to bed.
I like being alone in the garden with my questions. It gives me courage and a sense of belonging. I wonder if nocturnal animals can sense that I’m alone and might appear suddenly near the garden gate, specks of black in the night. I wouldn’t be able to tell their presence were it not for their luminous eyes. But the nocturnal animals don’t appear at all or perhaps I can’t see them in the darkness. Still I sit, not being able to rip myself apart from the sky, trees, sounds.
When I lay in my bed, I’m exhausted and like to feel how my body starts getting numb with the approaching sleep, my consciousness slipping away, leaving a vague trace of myself, a thing, lost and content.
I dream strange dreams, and they’re almost always difficult to remember when I wake up. I dream of myself, mother, grandfather, and father who is long gone. Mother tells me father has always been curious about ‘the world.’ She says he never felt content to live in the hills with us, has always invented vague tasks for himself just to get away from us, go to the city or even to another one far away from here. I like to think about my father as a traveler exploring other worlds, living out a curiosity.
Grandfather has run away again.
“His mind wanders,” says mother. His body is a cage, his mind a rare bird.
I hate when this happens because it leaves me with an ambiguous feeling I can never fathom. It feels like waking up to a stormy day—I know it’s day and it’s supposed to be light but it’s dark as night, and I feel lost all alone, needing a guide to show me somewhere safe.
Grandfather has run away, mother went searching for him and the house is empty. I don’t wash my face, drink coffee, prepare breakfast or change the sheets. I don’t clean the windows. Being alone in the house makes me feel as if I’ve always lived here alone and mother and grandfather are just figments of my imagination.
I pick up the book with all the plants in it, Species Plantarum, and flip through the pages while I sit on grandfather’s rocking chair and surrender to its rhythm. Before long, sleep takes me hostage and I dream strange dreams. I am on a ship, one quite large, and everyone on the ship is gathered on the deck to watch the dolphins leaping out from the waves and doing all kinds of tricks. One dolphin has a ball on his rostrum, and it throws it up in the air, and even though the ball should land on his rostrum again, it disappears and is nowhere to be seen. I wait for the ball to drop. I wait.
I startle with the sound of the door closing and open my eyes to find mother and grandfather before me. Mother looks frustrated, even angry. She doesn’t have to say anything. I quickly rise from the chair and help her take grandfather to his bed. He went searching for something, wandered around, without purpose or recognition of his surroundings. Mother has found him walking this or that way, yelled at him for scaring her again, and brought him home. I’m not sure why he always searches for whatever he is searching not inside but outside. Outside, he will most assuredly lose his way and without someone to guide him, he won’t be able to make his way back home. Mother tells me his actions can’t be explained logically because logic has no substance or authority in his inner world. And I feel that her anger stems not only from grandfather’s attempts at running away, but also from mother’s past. I reckon the reason she always reads is to find the right words to explain things that have happened to her when she was a kid. She couldn’t really do this with the first book she wrote—she told me so. She also told me that she will write another book in the distant future.
I feel guilty when grandfather runs away. I’m all too aware that this has nothing to do with me, since I always look after him, care for him, and be the best granddaughter I can be. But this doesn’t ease my guilt. Perhaps grandfather wants to be outside because his daughter does nothing but read and his granddaughter is practically a friendly stranger, bringing him his tea, changing his sheets, rarely talking to him since she doesn’t know what language he speaks.
When guilt becomes intense, I read to him. Mother doesn’t say anything when she sees me browsing her books. She doesn’t approve even though she knows why I do this. Knows that grandfather will be calmer when I read to him, his eyes will lose that agitated spark, the remnant of his attempt to respond to the call of the wild.
I choose The Star Rover by Jack London, since grandfather’s eyes react to his words more fervently, sparkling as if he just saw an old friend. I read the last three pages since grandfather loves the end of the book. “Here I close,” I read. And with that sentence, his lips are pursed, his eyes expectant.
I can only repeat myself. There is no death. Life is spirit, and spirit cannot die. Only the flesh dies and passes, ever a-crawl with the chemic ferment that informs it, ever plastic, ever crystallizing, only to melt into the flux and to crystallize into fresh and diverse forms that are ephemeral and that melt back into the flux. Spirit alone endures and continues to build upon itself through successive and endless incarnations as it works upward toward the light. What shall I be when I live again? I wonder. I wonder…
When I finish reading and lift my head from the book, mother looks at me like I’m conspiring with grandfather against her. There is disappointment, anguish, and fear in her eyes. I wait for a bitter comeback, a critical remark or at least a painful smirk but she doesn’t respond in any way. She chooses to be silent which is punishment enough by itself.
In the morning, mother says she will prepare grandfather’s tea herself and I don’t object. She tells me what she needs and sends me off to the bush.
I climb the hill and feel the misty air touching my face. The crooked branches of the trees drop amorphous shadows on the vegetation. I long for that comfort which always finds its way to my heart when I’m alone in nature, but it doesn’t appear. It leaves me utterly and incurably alone.
I think about our life in the hills. I try and think about death, which, I realize is impossible, since I don’t know death, haven’t experienced death, and only can know of death. All my thoughts about death are really referential, just like my thoughts about being born. I don’t remember being born, I can’t think about it. I haven’t experienced death, I can’t think about it. So, they are basically the same, I think. I can’t ever think about them, and if I’m here right now, if I was born, maybe this means I’ve already experienced death.
I walk a few kilometers, hypnotised by the enigmatic sounds of the bush, knowing I will forever be an alien to them, and them to me.
I see the belladonna. Its black berries radiant, defying the morning sun, toxic and deadly.
I wonder, I think. I wonder…
Sitting on his chair like a wooden puppet, grandfather follows me with his eyes. There I am dusting. There I am mending a skirt. There I am hanging the laundry. His stare carries an ancient weight and I wonder if he’s thinking about his army days again. Or perhaps he’s thinking about his wife, long gone, lost in another world.
Mother is reading a book, Thirsty Weather. She lifts her head up to look at me. Her eyes dark, her stare a stigma. She watches me doing my chores. She watches me as if she’s seeing me for the first time. Her eyes have wonder, excitement, fear, courage.
I finish hanging the laundry, sit on the carpet, and stretch my body. I fix my stare on mother as I bend forward to touch my toes and stretch my hamstrings. I feel a shrill pain as I do it but don’t stop. I try to explore a space in pain. Mother waits for me to find it.
I don’t do the rest of my chores. I take a book from the bookcase, the one with all the strange birds in it, Rara Avis, sit on the divan and look at the pictures.
Mother leaves her book aside, goes to the kitchen, and takes out the pot to prepare grandfather’s tea.
In our garden I sit alone and watch the stars. Mother isn’t here. She isn’t sitting beside me and reading. She is inside with grandfather.
I think about the plants, animals, stars. About how it isn’t a miracle at all, our existence, and no accident either. How our bond to one another is at once loving and hateful, and how it is inevitable to decide when to start and when to end everything, when necessary. Because when you leave things to fate, if you choose it over your willful action, it will forsake you. It will punish you for choosing it. It will fly away and leave you an empty cage.
Mother comes outside. She doesn’t have her book. She has cried. The garden light emphasises the moist paths of tears on her cheekbones. She stands upright, arms crossed. She is a determined statue. I search for an expression on her face to no avail. Her sculptor has never cared for expressions. I wish I could tell her something nobody knows. That would make her happy.
I think about how we all resemble passing ships on a vast ocean. And when we come across one other, it is a short but blissful moment, for there is always comfort in knowing you’re not completely alone in this vastness.
And it’s a feeling to live for, however fleeting it may be.
About the Author
Ilgın Yıldız is a writer based in Istanbul, Turkey. She has studied English Literature and Writing and Literature. She has published two short story collections.
From the Editor
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