The Prisoner

She woke up long before the alarm. As though wanting to make sure the night was over, she blinked for a while in the dawn. She'd slept a total of three hours, but the night, full of tossing and turning, and full of realistic dreams, dreams far more painful than reality, had seemed to last forever. An endless waiting...

For hours, she'd lain like a chained ghost, ears pricking up at the slightest sound, afraid to budge, knees bent to her chest. Unable to cry, unable to sleep, not even lighting a candle in the darkness. Her belongings had seemed to keep their eyes open along with her; faintly, she could see them fidget uncomfortably.

With a sense of duty that she couldn't quite figure out, she bolted out of bed. The cold inside the house enfolding and sedating her, she thought about absolutely nothing. She repeated the daily ritual: prepare some tea, empty the ashtray, splash your face with ice-cold water, look for your pack of cigarettes! The smoke warmed her insides with devious compassion, a sensation similar to happiness! Suddenly, with a pungent nausea that rose from the very depths of her body, she remembered the day that waited in ambush. Everything she tried to hold at a distance thronged toward her consciousness. She rushed to the kitchen.

She opened and closed drawers, cupboards, rummaged through shelves. Last night's cheese börek and biscuits were finished. Despite knowing full well that the fridge was empty, she searched every inch. Somewhere in the back, she found a forgotten honey jar. With a child's appetite, dipping her stale bread slices into the tea, she ate them with the honey. She was neither truly hungry, nor truly full. "What a void there is inside me!" she said, rubbing her belly. And so, at that moment, for the first time, she remembered her baby.

Whereas every morning, upon waking, she'd think about the baby in her belly, believing it was thinking about her at the same moment. Sometimes, she'd conjure an artless image: a university student, laughing sweetly, walking, her hair blowing in the wind, for instance—a mirage reminiscent of the continuity and authenticity of life. Sometimes she'd envision, as in the ultrasound, its hands already formed, a miniature human—a human-shaped stain. Mostly, she'd think of her long-lost youth, a charmed, fogged-up mirror that transported her beyond her time. People with no thoughts of tomorrow don't search the future for what is known, but for what is familiar. It was as though she'd had no future until now, even when she was young. Even then, all she had was her futile youth. This may be the first time the future was taking shape, a rough sketch that kept growing, finding a body. A vibrant, living, quivering being, formed as much from the unrealized dreams of her past as from her blood. An expectancy. A miracle. "I am a woman expecting a baby," she'd say at every chance, out of nowhere, to random passersby. As if she couldn't quite believe it herself.

The room, full of mishandled objects collected from here and there, from acquaintances or second-hand stores, had trouble breathing underneath all the sweaters, blankets, and newspaper stacks. The dust that had gathered for weeks made this eternally gloomy basement-floor apartment look like a mausoleum slowly being buried in sand. This house where she'd spent three cold, lonely winters looked abandoned; it reflected nothing about her, gave not a single hint as to her past. She stayed away from photographs, knickknacks, vases, from anything that could possibly evoke a memory or spark an emotion, as if touching them would scorch her hands. That way, she avoided treating herself like a woman. The abyss between this sanctuary—which she could abandon at any moment, without looking back—and the "baby shops" that she'd started to glance over at, was terrifying. She kept letters stamped "Seen" in a Chinese box decorated with red and black swallows. These letters seemed written in order to be kept forever, read and re-read, seemed to wait to be framed in their entirety and hung on a wall. The voice that came from among the walls, deep, sad yet never complaining... When she felt strong enough, she'd open the letters, nourish herself from them as from serum, and pay with her blood. A little more each time...

The night before, she had ironed the only skirt and jacket she could wear, a dark green suit she'd bought as a university senior. With the jacket hanging on its back, the chair looked like a sulky, bowlegged civil servant. A light green, round-collared shirt from the same era, and under her slit skirt that didn't fit, too short as it hugged her swollen hips, a pair of high-heeled brown boots . . . That way, she could hide the run in her stockings. A fancy coat sent by her sister in Stockholm, which she hadn't touched in years and looked brand new, still a size or two too big . . .

Shake the puppet a little, shake off the dust, drag her to the mirror. Wipe the traces of tears off her face, put on her daily mask of severity, prepare her to go out among people. Conceal her deathly pallor with powders, eyeshadows, and layers of color, else she won't be able to penetrate the world of humans.

Her outfit looked painfully out of place, although the colors matched. Her hair, which she'd washed in the middle of the night but couldn't dry when the power went out, had puffed out into haphazard curls—a centuries-old wig. She turned on the fluorescent light above the mirror, held her breath, and looked at her face.

Being a woman meant wearing a costume to be displayed for everyone's approval. It meant shouting, at every moment, "Someone see me please, see me and turn me into an image they wish to store in their memory forever. Just as I want to see myself." On this day in which she had to melt into the crowd, she awkwardly painted her cheeks, her eyelashes, concealed the dark circles under her eyes, drew uneven lines on her trembling lids. Painted her own caricature. With savage pleasure, she watched the uniqueness of her face disappear, its natural lines clumsily emphasized; she watched herself dissipate, step by step, into an anonymous female mask. She looked at her legs through her slit like they were someone else's. The last remainders of nature, the thick, yellow hairs on her chin, she plucked one by one, surprised at how much she enjoyed the pain.

She dried her hands with the soft—almost greasy-soft—blue towel. The only thing he'd left behind. Warmer than his passionate touch, than the memory of his touch, and more affectionate, a cheap Bursa towel! It was here this morning, too, it hadn't disappeared, always close at hand, accessible, waiting there, with the collective fate of objects that witness human loneliness. With its endurance and sea blue kindness, it reminded her less of the man who'd left her behind than of his absence; strange, the towel seemed to grow every day, too. "I bought it at the bus station," the man had said, rummaging through his small bag, the night he'd appeared months later, "I thought you might not even have a towel." "I have tons," she'd replied, offended.

The doorman had failed to drop off her newspaper again. He refused to acknowledge the woman living alone in the basement unit—to smell helplessness is the most ancient instinct. Before angrily slamming the door, she stretched and put on the flat cap she wore every day.

Like a sleepwalker, she climbed the damp, airless staircase lined with melted candles; from the pathway whose holes, dips and bumps she knew by heart, she walked toward the main street.

Raindrops still sparkled from the storm that had ruled the city last night. The colorless but bright spring sky, lifeless and apathetic as an empty mirror, spread out before her. It looked like a narrow corridor between two horizons that could be erased any moment. The city's vertical face was wet, tired, shaky, shimmered with metallic glitter. The last rain clouds passed, slow and sad as in a funeral procession.

She moved forward, ignoring the piles of mud. Listening to her heels clank, speeding up, putting one foot in front of the other with unwavering determination... Revised, renewed, resuscitated... The distant, muffled sound of car horns, a stalled engine, a garbage truck, an electric drill... The world's repetitive, humanless sounds...

Soon, a crusade would move toward businesses, offices, highways, and schools. Drowsy soldiers, following the dreams they wanted to prolong, would take over the area—wistful, agitated, quiet, nervous, angry faces. They'd rush through the streets, restless as bridled horses. Forge paths between the stones. In a net where thousands, tens of thousands of fates, ambitions, desires, and battles intersected, overlapped, tangled, without ever glancing at one another... They'd fight ruthlessly to get a role in other people's plays, bargain and skirmish, strive for a share of this already partitioned world. After they were gone, only crumpled paper tissues, blowing in the wind, would remain.

The roads, the hard pavement, the crowds, others... Night was over, and day, which made one yearn even for night, had begun. She quickly merged with the city.

***

The woman jumped like she'd been whipped. She'd seen her face in the mirror, her rouged lips reminiscent of an open wound. Bloody, loud, bawdy... She couldn't stand the sight of herself, so she moved to the window streaked with rain.

The power had just been turned on in the neighborhood. The dull white, painful fluorescent light suddenly lit up the café like a tardy winter sun. She was the only customer. The throngs, who'd rushed toward buses and bus stops like it was a matter of life or death, had arrived at their destinations. As for people like herself—the unemployed, those who didn't contribute to history even if they didn't slow it down—they were still in bed. The younger of the two waiters, tired of suspiciously eyeing the woman, covered the tables with burgundy tablecloths. The woman in fancy clothes sat crosslegged as though she belonged in a display window; he left her table uncovered. The other waiter sat distractedly in front of the television. He looked like he'd been jolted awake from his winter sleep and was trying to remember the dream that had slipped through his fingers. She hadn't come to this café in three months. The waiters were new; she could tell they weren't used to taking orders from women.

"I should've ordered a large," she sighed as she drank the last cold, sugary sip. "I'm just a regular woman sitting by herself! Can't they see I'm pregnant?"

"Would you refill my tea?"

There was nothing to distract her in the newspaper. Internal politics, world politics, the economy, trading, the weekend's artistic and cultural events... The section titled "Life." A war was going on somewhere again; every war had economic, political, and historical causes, the imperialist powers we all knew, battles for profit, the oppressors and the oppressed... Only the women caught her eye. Attractive, well-dressed women, looking like they'd caught a disease of endless youth-and-beauty, gazed at the camera as though gazing at eternity. They wouldn't eat, drink, wear, or say anything unbecoming. With the ease of winners who led tragedy-proof lives, they shared their thoughts on human relationships. They stared the future in the face, fearlessly, without looking away. They, too, were retouched. One must learn to think positively—if you can't change the world, change your views. One must love people; forget about people for now, take care of yourself, in any case it's always others who die. The crossword puzzle had a clue about an egg-shaped instrument. The daily horoscope promised a day full of social activities, but warned not to use harsh words. A bubbly young lady, brimming with vitality and stretching her long legs across the stairs, complained of not finding true love. (So make do with facsimiles, pretty one!) Grimacing, she put down the paper. She was surprised to see how much she resented the real world—let's put it this way, she could neither turn her back on it, nor be a part of it.

"I asked for a tea," she said, her voice sounding far louder, more cracked and bossy than she'd intended it to.

(She'd managed to be forgotten again!)

"Okay, miss, as soon as the water boils!"

Unable to wait any longer, she opened the package. She devoured the cheese pastries and fresh, greasy buns frantically, as though stuffing a garbage can. This was the only way she knew how to cope with the void lurking deep inside her, gnawing at her insides like a wild animal.

A disturbing odor pervaded the dirty yellow walls, the tiled floor, and the stained curtains. A dry, algae-infested aquarium stood below a sign that read "Gambling Is Prohibited". Two or three porcelain vases, some framed newspaper cut-outs, a painting of the sea, and a bulky, doilie-covered radio, probably from the sixties, gave this flat, lifeless place a warmer feeling than her home. She felt bored. Her eyes fell upon a model ship; once upon a time, the most beautiful ones were made in prison. She started at the sound of gunfire coming from the TV.

She suddenly wanted to bolt from the table and run outside. Increasingly since she got pregnant, she felt this desire to leave and not look back. Once, she'd spent five days hopping from bus to bus, never staying in a single place for more than a night. Actually, her intention had been to return to the city where she was born and raised, to see her mother. She wouldn't mention the baby, would abort as soon as she arrived in Istanbul. But she remained stuck in the bus station, ticket in hand, unable to make that first step that launches every journey. For hours... One tea, another tea, in any case it wasn't the last bus, one coffee with milk—there was no milk—cream, another cigarette... Then five days, five nights went by, with her rotating between towns, quickly passed through and forgotten, noisy, stinky bus stations, tea cups and ashtrays that kept filling and emptying, bare, whitewashed motel rooms... Until the nausea began.

Now, the terrifying—in a word, terrifying—nausea was just about over, as were the gag reflexes, the morning sickness, the hypersensitivity to odors, the pain in her breasts. Only now, she got hungry more often; in fact, she never felt full, and she felt cold easily. But her skin looked flawless and fresh, an adolescent fullness to her cheeks softened her sharp features and severe expression. This winter, she'd felt much less cold than in previous years. She'd just started to enjoy a feeling of commitment, of sacredness, of responsibility. Admittedly, she was smoking again, but at least she hadn't smoked during the first two, critical months, and she didn't take any medicine or alcohol...

The waiter approached with heavy, strutting steps, his eyes fixed on the woman's lips. He seemed to want to ask something without daring to; maybe he was secretly enjoying himself. She remembered the Chinese box decorated with swallows, the stamped envelopes, and the letters that went on for pages, waging a battle against silence, the letters that never caught a fresh breeze, that smelled of dust, ash, mold, and dried blood. The paper's ink-colored marks, carefully chosen words, run-on sentences, exclamations, semi-colons, and èetc.'s seemed not to come from a ballpoint pen, but suddenly to have risen from the bowels of the earth. So distant, despite all those earnest, artful words of love! Amid all that pain, loss, and tragedy, so cliché, cliché and banal! They seemed not to call out to her, but to a mirror on the horizon. Whereas, more than anyone else, she wanted to hear, to listen, to absorb... Maybe because she felt guilty for not taking enough responsibility, not daring to bear his burden... The feeling she got from the letters she'd memorized was one of airlessness, breathlessness, suffocation. Still, they were so heart-wrenching! The words blacked out by the prison censors, that she searched for and found one by one, like a gravedigger, had turned into a symbol of their relationship. It wasn't what the words said, but what wasn't said, the thick, jet black swathes thrown over them... The waiter snatched the empty cup in front of her and walked toward the kitchen even more struttingly.

Perched on the edge of the human world, in her dark brown coat, she sat there like an eye-catching but unsuccessful painting. She seemed to belong to a long lost era. Her cold, sad, detached, intense gaze made her look like she'd lost her sight, but gained a much sharper, darker faculty. She examined her swollen fingers, their yellowed tips, her nails devoid of polish. The role she played had taken over her, changed her way of sitting and standing, her expression. She sat up straight, smoked more elegantly, pushing her lips forward when inhaling, rolling the smoke around in her mouth; now, she could look herself in the mirror. But this change had further darkened the sadness that coiled around her eye sockets like a black snake. In the gloom that enrobed her like funeral clothing, the unfashionable outfit, the mini-skirt, felt strange, tragic, and mournful. Behind the face covered in streaked make-up and framed with curls, she was utterly naked, utterly broken. Her thin lips, whose cracks the red lipstick couldn't quite cover, kept trembling.

Hers was a deep, dark, painful loneliness. It always attacked from an unexpected place, from her memory. She had raised and cared for her loneliness, nourished it with her blood. Now, when she had no choice, she got her nourishment from it. This absolute loneliness was like the bandages that protected the mummy from disintegrating. But no matter how tightly it wrapped itself around love, it couldn't stop its decaying. In the growing silence of her memory, love was an echo she may or may not actually be hearing. Recollections took memory's place—revamped, perfected recollections, consumed down to the bone marrow, to the bones... Blown upon so many times by a tired breath, they revived to the point of no longer being recollections... A crystallized sorrow and yearning, a desire burrowed in the body, secretly keeping its bitterness alive.

"What was the movie called?" the waiter with sleepy eyes asked apathetically.

"I forget."

"Is it good?"

She looked like a thoughtful, preoccupied woman. Chain smoking, scribbling some things on the newspaper... She eyed her blurry reflection in the table. An introverted, uninteresting, giant blemish of reality! Hidden, fugitive, nervous... This appearance was a slapped-on lie, a sheath to prevent her being scattered to pieces by an internal explosion. Otherwise, her real self would fall to the floor and escape, crawling away, leaving behind muddy traces.

(Where to?)

Outside were trees, roads, a forgotten sea. Others, crowds whose shadows overlapped... The stone building stood there like a mountain. Hard, colorless, lightless, mute. Tightly covered windows, carbon black air holes. Like rows of eyes looking down, scrutinizing the world of people with their eternally shut lids. She felt sick to her stomach—stomach, heart, soul. She bit her lip, the taste of lipstick spread across her palate, her eyes started to burn.

Two separate life struggles were taking place inside her body: the one that belonged to her and the one that didn't, the past and the future, the long lost and the not-yet begun, dizzyingly intertwined. She felt something primitive, wild, and wonderful growing—something she couldn't name—and along with the baby, it raised her, too. The baby, asserting its independence with kicks, giving none of its other secrets away, increasingly wanted "to be." To be itself, to be everything. On the day it would be ready for daylight, ready to breathe alone, to shriek, ready for that first, irreversible severance, it would scamper into the world, transforming its surroundings into a lake of blood. It would be born.

She had condemned another—her own child—to live, knowing full well she could protect it neither from the past, nor from the future. Whom had she ever protected anyway? She was transferring a tragedy she'd turned into her destiny for thirty-two years—one she'd taken over from her mother—to her child. Had she kept the baby just so she could attach herself to life with a thin, immortal, unbreakable cord? So she could utter one final cry of victory against loneliness, hang the future from the end of a long anchor chain? From her own wounded heart, she had sheared a heart for the baby. Now she was indestructible, immortal, invincible. This was the letter she sent to the mirror on the horizon, to everything she had lost or would lose, everything she had and hadn't experienced... Underneath her skin, in the depths of her body, an unfulfilled decision seeped out irreversibly, instantaneously, a mystery, an accident. A miraculous human-shaped stain! Soon it would say, "I'm alive, I'm not a mummy... I want life itself."

"Here's your tea. Sorry, it just brewed..." The young waiter stood next to her, too close, his expression either polite or mocking. The smell of soap emanated from his hands. His remarkably dark skin and large, coarse wrists carried an invitation, a provocation.

She was not on good terms with words. Like an animal chewing cud, she rolled words around her palate and spat them from the corner of her mouth. "I don't want it anymore," she said, looking up with difficulty from her reflection in the table full of fingerprints.

"Excuse me? Okay, but—"

"I don't want it anymore. Please bring me the check!" She'd placed her hands on top of one another on the table, her wide open eyes looking up. Taken aback, the waiter gaped at the shady, wet circles under the woman's eyes. Had she been crying? He turned his back. His back was young and wide, clearly unaffected by such capriciousness.

She took a deep breath and leaned back. Like an actress peeking out at the stage, she watched the street. Buses ran, bus stops filled and emptied, lines formed in front of ATM machines. Her city awaited a day full of social activities. Everyone seemed pleased enough. With themselves, with everything...

Women, windowshopping with savvy eyes, had taken over the streets. Bargaining queens, whose place in the noisy, angry world was determined. Their hands were hard-working, their breasts perky beneath their bras. They gave birth to, nursed, and raised children; stocked their homes with various cheeses, framed photographs, porcelain vases for flowers; didn't refrain from snapping at waiters, doormen, sales clerks, and especially at other women. They silently locked their actual grief and humiliation inside their bosom, hiding them like a secret so they could believe their sorrows weren't in vain. They clung to life with the long, colorful nails that concealed their defeat; dug, dug, dug, with the patience of saints; licked the stardust that sprinkled their fingers like parched goddesses. (Whereas she was waiting for the opportunity to sue life. If she could only find a single witness...) And them, were they happy by any chance? To what mirrors on the horizon did they call out? She folded the newspaper on which she'd doodled kites, arrows, and distorted female faces, and arranged the contents of her bag. She dried her eyes, straightened her stockings, pulled down her skirt. She looked at the stone building. Inside it waited so much honor, darkness, solemnity, and gravity. It hadn't disappeared overnight, hadn't bled into blackness like tar. It rarely forgave. Unshakable, untouchable, unignorable. Still, like everything claiming to speak for God, it couldn't hide its earthliness. That's what made its commands all the more painful. To read a death sentence on a sheet of detail paper...

A strong wind circled around the garden that, though trodden many times over, harbored no trace of humanity. The wind was haunted, cursed, demonic. It made the trees tremble, blew about the papers, the plastic bottles, the nearly identical men and women, as though trying to sweep them away. The crowds had given themselves over to an irresistible, merciless will, they rushed toward the building. Like fish in a suddenly pulled-up net, they quickly formed a line, to be swallowed, two or three at a time, by the doors. Now they could flounder, thrash about, clamber over each other all they liked! The building easily crushed everyone who fell into its net. Countless lives, years, seasons, hours, sliced up by the weather vane, innumerable sleepless—It was time! Not yet. No! Now.

Leaving a generous tip, she turned toward the door. Time, which had been stubborn all night, stopping as if stuck behind a floodgate, had broken the levees now, and rushed forward like floodwater, taking along everything that got in its way. The seconds hand had changed ranks and was on the attack, it sprang forward without pausing for breath. "Calm down, girl," she said to herself, "Calm down, baby! Don't you dare let me down!" Her whole body tried to curl itself into a ball; breath didn't reach her dry throat. Opposite the stone building that smiled widely, bearing its gums, she felt like a lone bug hurtling from the airholes. She rubbed her eyes, pulled at her skirt, and walked slowly, painfully, ploddingly. As though dragging a gigantic tail behind her.

She remembered the name of the egg-shaped instrument: ocarina!

"She forgot her hat," said the young waiter. "Who?" "That strange lady sitting by the window for hours! She kept talking to herself!"

That night, she'd dreamt of an endless swamp. Bulrush and ivy taller than man, gnarled plants, trees that trembled like old women, dangling their scrawny hair... Clouds low enough to touch the ground... The man ran away as fast as he could. Slipping in the mud, tripping, falling, rolling... he ran, ran away. Smeared with blood and mud. The packs of dogs approached, the ring narrowed. Hopeless, he lifted his head to the sky, as if to pray or protest, maybe to look at the sky one last time, and saw a ladder descending from the clouds. A massive, transparent, sparkling ladder made of raindrops, an unhoped-for gift of the skies. When he started to climb, it broke, shattering to the earth in a thousand shining pieces.

That's when the Woman appeared. The Goddess of the Swamps. She rose from the dead, rowed through the black waters with her hands. Buried thigh-deep in mud, her roots went deeper, down to the earth's memory; algae, dead leaves, and leeches hung from her hair; her eyes were fishmeal for the swamp's creatures. She hid the man under her skirt, in the soft, warm, sticky mud. When darkness fell, the hunters and dogs all left. No one could spend the night in this terrifying swamp that glistened with green flashes, where thousands of poisonous eyes shimmered like stars, where thousands of roads simultaneously appeared and disappeared, where no sound could be heard except for the hoarse wind. Except for the Woman. She belonged here. This was her real world, this wind, this silence, this solitude. This swamp night, where the dead and the living called out to each other, and the darkness of earth was indistinguishable from the darkness of people. Embracing all those who were lost or defeated, whispering the dreams of subterranean waters... In the weak moonlight, without a sound, her flesh tearing, she brought the man back to the world. Smeared with mud and blood. Something had gone wrong, she'd given birth to a freak of nature, with arms where his legs should be and legs where his arms should be. The man lurched and continued to run away, falling and scrambling up, floundering, struggling... The Woman extended the ladder she'd woven from her hair towards him. "Take this road!" she said, showing him the track forged in the water by her large, heavy, muddy tears.

She stood in the middle of the sidewalk. Straight, unmoving, like a goddess statue on a rock. Open to abuse... Her face expressionless, her gaze steady. She settled her empty eyes on an imaginary horizon, pressed her bag to her stomach. She'd lost her voice. The wind blew her hair, shook her like a cypress tree caught in a storm. Here, on this sidewalk, she could light herself on fire, scatter her smoke. She had turned into a challenge, a summons, an entreaty: COME. "Even just once, for even a second, appear! Otherwise, I can't return to that long, agonizing wait. To that void... I can't take it anymore."

Until the prisoner was taken out of the stone building and brought to the patrol wagon, she stood there. Straight, inaccessible, mute. Blowing about in the wind. Open to abuse. She saw it all: the momentary light in the man's pupils which showed surprise, or joy, or gratitude, or love, or none of these; the slight movement at the corners of his mouth; the vague greeting he made by lifting his cuffed hands to his chest; the sign his forefingers made—just at that moment, a police officer hit the man hard, cursing—him hitting his head while being stuffed into the wagon with the others. She saw it all.

Even after the patrol wagon had long gone, she stood there, immobile, rubbing her forehead as if it was her head that split open.

Translation of "Mahpus." By arrangement with the author. Translation copyright 2008 by Deniz Perin. All rights reserved.