from “The Lost Lands of Paradise”

Aram, I am but a poor, ignorant woman. I have no one. My grandchildren laugh at me. I hear the whispers of the people who come to visit me. "She lived too long. Let her die and be at peace already!" I am unlucky, ignorant, unfortunate, lonely, unhappy, resentful, and angry . . .

Aram, what would you do if you could see my miserable life now? Would you put me out of my misery with that shotgun you always had with you? Ah, Aram, the answer to all my questions. If only you knew how much I wanted to die . . . I craved death. Only, death would not come . . . I tried to die, but my uncle Simon stopped me. "Think about Jesus Christ!" he said. I waited all these years, thinking about the suffering of the Christ.

O death! It would not come; nothing I desired ever did. Aram, death never comes when it is desired, does it? It has a habit of showing up at the least convenient time for all involved. Hasan! I wonder if he is in agony now. I hope he burns in hell. Hasan, there is no way you’ll ever be able to atone for your sins. I will make sure that Mirza does not bury me next to his father. I want to be buried under the mulberry tree, where Aram is. Aram, the answer to all my questions, the source of my tears, my sun, O Aram! I am coming to you. While I was struggling to die, Hasan was trying to live for a thousand years. He would start each day with this insane desire to live forever. He would remove the stones from around the house, turn hills into vineyards, clear rough terrain for fields, and build stone houses and tall stone walls around them, designed to last forever; as if he was actually going to live for a thousand years. Those days, neither death nor that place that they called the afterlife crossed his mind. Molla Mahfuz would gently mock him, saying "No man can live forever, Hasan!" I can still hear his sarcastic tone. "Not even Suleiman the Magnificent did!" Things did not work out the way he hoped, either. The winds of fate shifted; his life, his body, ambitions, passion, and hope were destroyed. Illness conquered him. All those hospitals, shrines, sheikhs, and healers, they all diagnosed him with hundreds of different things, but he never got any better. His health deteriorated each day and his body, always so strong, could not take all the drugs and the pain. That mountain of a man, who could move rocks and melt stones with his touch, was reduced to a shriveled mess who could not even get up to go to the bathroom on his own, a man who pissed himself, who could not lift a glass of water to rescue himself from thirst, who could not get up from his bed if it were on fire. I was of two minds about him. On the one hand, watching such a strong man wither like that made me sad, but on the other, I secretly rejoiced—for it was divine retribution.

During his illness Hasan had expected compassion and affection from Mirza, the son he had always undermined and humiliated. Hasan, who had not thought to show Mirza any compassion or affection as a father, came to expect these from him as a son. Despite all the anger and hatred he harbored toward his father, Mirza wiped his father, bathed him, shaved him, and helped him get dressed. He never complained, not even for a moment. Witnessing his son's affection pushed Hasan deeper and deeper into shame.

"Ah Hasan! Ah! Ah!" I must have spoken aloud, for the women nudged each other and sniggered. "Poor woman. Calling out for her husband like that. Hasn't forgotten him, even after all these years. Poor thing, she must have loved him so much," said the woman with the humongous head, her grin a combination of mischief and malice. I turned my back to them and looked out the window. Hasan, all those fields, all those vineyards, stone houses; they all became but a painful memory in that sad, abandoned little village. I die a little inside each time I think about them.

That night at midnight, someone pounded fiercely on the door. A wave of dread washed over me. I was terrified, as if I already knew, as if I had seen the impending evil. We left the house in a hurry. When Mirza tried to resist them, I got angry and screamed at him, because I was afraid they were going to kill him. They had taken Molla Mahfuz from his house one night and killed him by the stream. So I was furious at Mirza for trying to stand up to them. I asked him to keep his mouth shut because that was how I had survived. I wanted him to survive as well. He fell silent. Rüstem looked around with sleepy eyes, watching that horrible night unfold. Once all the men, women, and children had gathered at the village square, the soldiers set fire to our houses with all our things inside. They burned down the barns with animals still tied inside them. That night, it was not just our houses, fields, and possessions that got burned down. We also lost our past, our memories, and our hopes. As I watched the flames engulf our house and reach up into the sky, I remembered my accursed wedding night.

I had sat under the groom tree, its branches heavy with fruit, sweets, and nuts, a freshly slaughtered red-and-black rooster hanging by the feet from the very top. The sight of blood dripping from the neck of the rooster, congealing on the branches, came as a shock. You were so happy under that tree at that moment, Hasan. People danced the halay around you. As soon as I reached the house, those who had been dancing began raiding the fruit, sweets, and nuts.

A massive noise broke out. Flames shot up into the sky. As the roof where the groom tree had stood on my wedding day collapsed, I grabbed Mirza by the arm and dragged him away from our burning house, possessions, and memories. Bınevs had taken her wooden doll with her, and was cradling it as she watched the all-consuming flames. A soldier stormed over, ripped the doll from Bınevs’s grasp, and was about to throw it into the fire when another soldier intervened. He took the doll from the first soldier and gave it back to my daughter.

Fatma took my hand in hers and said: "Mama, look who's here." I turned to look at the newcomer but could not recognize her. "Don't you remember her?" said Fatma. "That's Dilan, the daughter of our neighbor Abbas. She visited you a few times in the hospital. She's just got engaged." Then, stealing a glance at Zeynep, who was reciting the Yasin, hoping to arouse her envy, she added: "These things are just luck sometimes, aren't they?" When Dilan bent down to kiss me, her face flushed, I looked at her necklace, bracelets, earrings, and ring. Then I smiled. "How are you doing?" she asked me in that high-pitched voice of hers. As soon as I nodded my head to indicate that I was all right, she hurried away from me; God forbid she catch my infectious "old age." I closed my eyes tightly so I would not hear their voices and whispers, trying to shield myself with my sorrow, hoping to fall asleep.

Hasan had had a shave and a haircut that day. He was wearing a jacket several sizes too big for him. His expression was one of nervousness and excitement. I was at the barn, eating what he had given me, while he kept looking at his feet and fidgeting. Our eyes met for a brief moment before he quickly looked away. Then just as suddenly he peered into my eyes and said: "Hatice, you're going to be my wife. You and I will get married." I could feel my insides churning. Aram's mutilated body on that tree had grown larger and larger in my mind. I did not know what to cry for. What was I going to cry for? That my name, Almast, was now Hatice? That a Christian was now a Muslim? That my father, older brother, and sisters had been killed and left to rot there on the mountain? That I was to be married to a man for whom I harbored no love? For which of these should I weep? I did not know. I had run out of tears already, from so much crying, so much mourning in secret. I remained silent. I just looked into his eyes and said nothing.

The next day Hasan took me out of the barn. I did not know how much time had passed. I just remember the leaves had turned. Some trees had barely any leaves left on them. I tried to figure out how much time had passed by looking at the changes around me. The light hurt my eyes, which had grown accustomed to darkness. We went upstairs. Hasan's mother Xecê, who had come down to the barn only two times, sat in the middle of the room, staring at me spitefully. It was then that I understood I could never be friends with my mother-in-law. For her, I was just the daughter of an infidel. I bore a sin that could never be washed away, a dark mark that could never be forgiven or forgotten.

There could be no atonement for me. Hasan went on with all the preparations for the wedding. Unbeknownst to me, these had been going on for days. I remained at the house, doing anything anyone ordered me to do. I never questioned anything. I might as well have been dead. I cooked, cleaned, made beds, brought water. Anything. I had made my decision. I was going to live. I was going to do whatever it took to ensure that I stayed alive. However, when I went to bed at night, everything I had been forced to live through, everything I had kept bottled up all day, came back to me. I cried until daylight.

On the day of the wedding, Hasan's relatives filled the house. Hasan introduced me to his guests as the daughter of an acquaintance in Aleppo. I was in no state to tell anyone what I had experienced anyway. Old women came to examine me and admire my eyes, hair, neck, hips, height, hands, and feet. One of them pointed to the beauty marks on my face, commenting on how many of them I had. She reached out and touched the one next to my lips. The women looked away from my beauty marks and whispered. I remembered how Aram used to talk about the beauty of my hair, my eyes, and the beauty marks on my face. Once, I had asked him nervously, "How much have you missed me?" Aram had been startled by the question. He had looked at me for a long time. "How can I put it? No! No! That's too little. This is also too little. No, no; I missed you so much more than that!"

The old women went to talk to my mother-in-law and sing the praises of my beauty. My mother-in-law, who looked like someone mourning the death of a loved one, grew furious. "Look at her!" she shouted. "She has spots all over her face! You call that beauty?" She humiliated me. "Look at my Hasan and then look at this spotted bride!" When I heard her voice, I lowered my head, thinking about Aram and my beauty marks. Aram had named each and every one of the beauty marks on my body. I touched the ones I could reach, reciting their names: "The pomegranate, the fig, the harp, the swallow, Adam, Mary, the star, the partridge, the sky . . ."

Food was prepared and devoured, the halay performed, gunshots fired. Then, all too soon, the wedding came to an end. One by one, all the guests went home. My mother-in-law took me by the hand and led me to the room. My face was covered by a red veil. There was a large bed in the middle of the room. They made me sit down on it. My mother-in-law, a demon from hell, bent down and lifted the veil from my face. She looked me in the eye and told me how I was to behave that night, described what was to happen in great detail. She gave me an embroidered cotton cloth, told me to use it, then covered my face again with the red veil and left the room. It was as if my soul, too, had departed from that room. I could hear voices but could not understand a word. When my mother-in-law left, I looked through the red veil at the cotton cloth and felt a shiver of fear run down my spine.

An army of shouting, yelling, singing, clapping men was approaching the room. They came to a halt in front of the door. The voices, songs, shouts, jokes . . . everything clashed in my head and confused me. The door opened abruptly and Hasan was thrown into the room amid all the shouts and people clapping and punching him in the back. The laughter and the thunderous clapping persisted.

Mirza's voice woke me from my daydreaming. Zeynep kept on reading the Quran out loud by my side, her voice passionate and her eyes moist. Dilan passed around water. She also gave me some, supporting my back while she tipped the glass against my mouth. When I spilled water on my neck and my chest, she took a piece of cloth from my bedside and used it to gently dry me. As she eased me back onto the bed, I could hear voices coming from outside.

Voices! The sound of voices faded away like a subsiding wind, until all was quiet. Hasan stood next to the door in clothes that were too big for him. I looked at him from behind the red veil. He looked like he was wearing someone else's clothes. He pulled at his jacket and cleared his throat. When he produced a golden necklace from one of his pockets and came closer to put it around my neck, I thought back once again to that night when we were attacked by an armed band of thieves. I remembered the way they took all the jewelry from the women. I could also hear the sound of a rat being killed in the barn. The night they attacked, Meryem had not wanted to give them her gold necklace and resisted; one of the bandits aimed his gun and shot her. He had then looked down at her body in contempt and knelt down to rip the gold necklace off her.

Hasan lifted the red veil from my face. I listened to the fading footsteps and shouts. Hasan was sitting next to me on the bed, looking at his feet. He then stood up and took off his jacket, trousers, and shirt. Someone else's clothes. His sweaty hands were shaking as he tried to unfasten my red sash. I put the piece of white cloth my mother-in-love had given me on the bed underneath me. I looked at the ceiling, trying not to look at the image of Aram forever burned on my pupils. The more I tried to make him leave, the clearer the image of his face and the sound of his voice became in my mind. As tears rolled down my cheeks, I recalled my family, stripped naked and shot like animals. I thought of the armed men who took all their clothes before they left. I was drowning in a sea of images and voices. Then Hasan went to extinguish the lamp. When the quivering flame went out, the darkness, which had been creeping about us all night, invaded the room. I continued to look at the ceiling with eyes accustomed to darkness. I remained silent.

***

Aram! Aram, I am on my deathbed now. My son, my grandchildren, my sons-in-law, and all my friends are gathered around me. Everyone is looking at me with love, pity, and sorrow. They even seem a little happy that they are not the ones dying. When I look into their eyes, I can see that they are thinking about my death; that they think death befits me, and that I am already dead, although I am still breathing. Everyone looks stressed and anxious. Rüstem looks at his phone every two minutes and then texts something. Maybe if I were not on my deathbed, he would be in school now. Everyone—those who have been here for days and those who have just arrived—looks at my face, begging me to let go already. Zeynep and Dilber have been reading the Quran all day, as if willing my soul to leave my body faster. I can tell that they are tired and think that it is very stubborn of me to still be holding on. The impatience of the crowd gathered around me blows through me like a constant wind. They reek of nervousness, impatience, and anxiety; it makes my head spin.

The door opened. Bınevs's little girl, my granddaughter Stran, came into the room in a white dress, her hair in a braid. She had a pained expression on her suddenly pale face as she took in the women reading the Quran, my strained breathing, Rüstem, who kept texting something or other on his phone, and Mirza, who was looking at Stran with affection. Our eyes met as her mother pulled her to her lap. I tried to smile. She looked away and fell silent. She seemed scared. She pointed at me and hugged her mother a little tighter. Pervin, our neighbor’s little girl, whispered something into Dilber's ear. I saw Pervin looking at me out of the corner of her eye and tried to read her lips. It was just as I suspected. Dilber turned to her and said: "She's at least a hundred years old! Maybe more!" Pervin seemed surprised. She looked at me with curious eyes. "Such a long life! Masha'Allah! May God take her now and let her rest in peace!" she said. Dilber nodded in agreement. "Yes. She has suffered so much. If she died, she wouldn't be in pain anymore. That's destiny for you!" I turned my head and squeezed my eyes shut, trying to block them out.

Aram, everyone thinks that I am afraid of death and would like me to die as soon as possible. However, I am not afraid of my eyes being filled with dirt. Nor am I afraid of worms gnawing on my insides, my flesh and bones dissolving and bugs crawling on my lungs and heart. Nothing could be further from the truth. I am not afraid of any of this. All I can think is that when I die, I will get to be with you again, that death will deliver me to you as your bride.

The apple of my eye, the solution to all my problems, the answer to all my prayers, you, Aram. All these years I kept you a secret, first from myself, then from all the others around me. But now I can neither carry that burden nor take it to the grave with me. I haven’t the strength. It hurts me to breathe. Every breath I take is like a searing fire in my chest. I can feel my soul slowly leaving my body. I become lighter with each passing minute. All my friends and family are around me, here in this distant, lonely land, looking at me with good-byes in their sad eyes. Zeynep is reading the Quran by my side to make sure that my soul leaves my broken body without suffering.

Everything is going dark. Yes, these must be my final moments. I gesture at the people in the room to make them leave. I can hear them talking in whispers as they stand up and begin to exit the room. "I hope God takes her poor soul soon. Death would be her salvation. Thank God for death." Yes Aram. Thank God for death. Thank your lucky stars that it exists. If there were no death, how could I come to you? People depart, leaving their whispers, impatience, and anxiety behind. Only Mirza and Rüstem are in the room now. We look at each other, nervous and afraid; the last three teeth in a mouth, distant yet belonging to one another. Rüstem is absorbed by the scene on the tapestry: Ibrahim getting ready to sacrifice Ismail to God. He is carefully examining Ibrahim, Ismail, the white ram, and the winged angel. I look at him hopelessly but he insists on diverting his gaze.

I beckon Mirza and Rüstem to come over to my side. Rüstem sits on my left, Mirza on my right. I look at my son and grandson. I take their hands in mine, squeeze, and ask them to come closer. Mirza leans in closer to my mouth to hear my attempts at speech. Then loud music blasts in the room. Mirza looks angrily at Rüstem, who is about to answer his phone. "Turn that thing off!" Rüstem takes the call anyway: "Dearest, I'll call you later." Then he returns his father’s angry look as if to say "You just don't understand!" Mirza looks at his son with a mixture of anger, sorrow, and desperation, then leans in close to my ear again. I sigh "Aram! Aram!" into my son's ear. When I whisper the name, it makes me feel a little better and I’m able to take a deep breath. I pull Mirza in closer and speak: "My son! My Mirza! Listen to me! Listen to what I have to say!" The effort leaves me breathless. My throat is dry. I take another deep breath. "My boy! Mirza!" Mirza seems not to hear me. Then he starts to recite the shahada loudly. I raise a hand to silence him. I struggle to pull him in even closer. His mouth touches my ear now. I tell about Hasan, Aram, and my final wish. "Bury me there. It is my final request. You will not have my blessing otherwise." His face grows pale as if he’s choking on a hair in his throat, and he begins wheezing. He tries to say something but I stop him, covering his mouth with my hand.

"If you are my dear son, my brave son, bury me there, my Mirza. Promise?”

"Yes, yes! I promise!" he says, squeezing my hand.

As I slowly close my eyes against the flickering images, Mirza is looking at his son with conviction. Rüstem does not understand what has happened. He looks sad. My final request is like a crime I have committed against them. Mirza's troubled and sorrowful expression disappears from his face only to appear in Rüstem's. Mirza now wears an expression of determination and rage. Even as my tongue swells in my mouth I continue to sigh, "Aram! Aram!" Before long, my voice is left suspended in the air of that room I would never see again.

From Cennetin Kayıp Toprakları. © Yavuz Ekinci. Published 2012 by Doğan Kitap. By arrangement with the author. Translation ©2013 by Kardelen Kala. All rights reserved.