1. Accidental Colors
That winter our lives would become entangled with disasters and iniquities like creeping ivy. While we were unaware of each other’s existence, chance events would bind us together. Our loves, sorrows, losses and desires would intertwine like thin, persistent ivy stems.
Not because I keep thinking such nonsense as coincidences being the atoms of life, but because I shaved my head three days ago and my bristly gray hair is trying to pierce through my almost transparent scalp, my head now itches. My beard itches like that too when it begins to grow. It itches so much that I want to rub my face against walls, window frames and banisters. Not when I am scratching like mad, of course, but when I shave off the rest of my hair like the bald patch on the top of my head, I liken myself to Picasso. Of course to resemble Picasso one must be able to give the same expression to one’s eyes. Such expressions are beyond me. Yet I actually met Picasso once. Now my eyes have met those of my reflection in the window. Can they be as expressive as his used to be? Never mind, let’s talk about something else.
Today, not knowing that it would be the last peaceful day of my life, I learned the name of the heavily pregnant woman who has appeared at the window of the house opposite for the past week. She was lumbering along the street carrying ugly plastic bags, when someone called out from behind her.
“Sedef! Sedef, what’s happened to you?”
She must have been a friend who had not known of her pregnancy.
Just that morning I had been watching the windows across the street when I saw Sedef and the man who I think must be her husband. They were both standing at the window, just as I was. But they were watching neither me nor the other windows on this side of the street. They were not interested in the ugly garden in front of their building, either. The husband was pointing at something on the windowpane. He seemed to be shouting at her, opening and closing his mouth angrily. He appeared fatter and balder than ever before. Sedef was like the shy woman holding hands with a pale-faced man in Jan van Eyck’s famous painting. You know, that marvel of perspective and skill, in which we see the painter reflected in the circular mirror behind them.
The name of the picture is “Portrait of Giovanni Arnolfini and His Wife.” Arnolfini was an Italian merchant who had settled in Bruges. This picture is thought by art historians to be the first depicting private life. Sedef’s pregnancy and her dress that I think is green reminded me of that painting. If our Arnolfini had not shouted at Sedef, but held her hand and smiled in my direction, at the portrait painter who was watching them from the window of his house across the stret, they would have appeared as happy as the couple in that famous painting.
As a portrait painter who has been unemployed for a long time-and so nowadays paints only for his own pleasure-I was perturbed. When I saw Sedef, the poor pregnant housewife, with her huge, swollen belly, in a dress that I took to be green, facing her husband who was obviously shouting at her, I wanted to paint her portrait and reverse her fate. In my picture the fire blazing out of the young woman’s mouth would make her husband tremble with trepidation.
Cars and people were passing along the narrow street between us. A man I had never seen before was wandering inside the empty ornamental pond in the garden in front of Sedef’s house. Dozens of sparrows were perched along the garden gate. Only she looked helpless and miserable.
While all this was happening my sister Hayal was with me in my studio, sitting silently drinking tea. Every day at the same time she climbs up to the top floor which I used as a studio in this century-old three-story house where we live together, and silently drinks her tea, whispering to me what the birds, insects, my cat and the figures on my canvas are saying. She is a catatonic schizophrenic. A sudden attack can freeze her to the spot all day with her teacup in her hand.
She has been ill for ten years. Ever since she came out of the mental hospital where we sent her in panic during the first year of her illness, I have painted her portrait every time she has an attack in my studio. I patiently counted these a few days ago. There are exactly three hundred eighty-six such portraits of Hayal. Not counting the three years out of ten she spent at the hospital, I found that I had painted fifty-five pictures for each of the remaining seven years. Four paintings every month, one painting a week. This means that while drinking tea with me in my studio, Hayal has had an attack every week for the last seven years. You can be sure that in these pictures I play the same game with Hayal, changing her fate by painting her portrait. In every one of her three hundred eighty-six portraits my sister is a happy, contented, and healthy woman drinking her tea.
Hayal, who can hear all the whispers in the world, said, “They are having a row because of a scratch on the windowpane.”
The cat stretched, rubbed itself against Hayal’s ankles, and walked away.
“Actually, they can’t be said to be having a row,” Hayal went on. “The woman isn’t saying anything. It’s only the man who is shouting at her. The cleaning woman did it. She scratched the window trying to scrape away specks of paint with a razor blade. The man has warned his wife several times to keep an eye on her on cleaning days but she didn’t notice it. She can’t say anything because the baby is trying to turn in her belly.”
I could see. The dress that I supposed to be green was moving as if filling with air. It only lasted for a moment.
“The woman is crying,” Hayal said. Then she repeated herself loudly as though describing a disaster, “The woman is crying.” Jumping up in agitation she came to the window and stood beside me. The tea in the porcelain cup I knew was dark blue and gold rocked violently and splashed. The hem of her long velvet skirt trailed in the spilt tea on the floor. She rested her face, now unmistakably that of a madwoman, against the windowpane. Her corn-tassel hair pinned up on her head was touching the window frame. How can her pupils become so large and her eyes roll so wildly? Is it because they are the eyes of a madwoman? Thank God her eyes have a bright, intelligent look in the pictures I paint.
“Her tears are falling on the table. Pitapat. I can hear them.”
Hayal’s drooping index finger, bent in sorrow, hung in the empty space between us, pointing at Sedef.
“I’m trying to listen to her heart,” she said. Then she shook her head as if in anguish.
“Her childhood, her adolescence were filled with sorrows like this. Poor woman! Poor, poor woman!”
After saying this, Hayal froze in front of the window, stricken by grief. For a little longer I watched Sedef sitting weeping at the table with her huge belly. The man who had been walking in the empty ornamental pond got out and went away. A car parking in front of our house smashed the headlights of the car behind. I drank another cup of tea from one of those ugly dark blue cups in which the color of the tea is indiscernible. Anyway, I can’t tell the color of tea any more. Then, I settled down to work.
As I have told you before, I am a portrait painter. I paint the portraits of dead parents, bosses people are trying to ingratiate themselves with, narcissists, rich women who are bored to death, and esteemed piano teachers. Nobody has the patience to sit for their portrait. Since the economic crisis people have not had the money, either. Money has become too precious to be spent on things like portraits. People wanting their portrait painted usually bring me a photograph that they like, and I paint their portraits looking at those spiritless photographs. Most people want to look younger, more beautiful, or in some way different, never as they really are. Not one among them looks candidly at their reflection in the mirror, a pool of water or a shop window from one day to the next. Lack of awareness is a disease that ravages all of them. Even the poor catatonic schizophrenic frozen in front of this window has a deeper consciousness than they do.
At the moment I am painting the portrait of my doctor. I don’t suffer from a disorder of the stomach or the prostate; mine is a neurological condition which becomes an artist very well. Achromatopsy, inability to identify colors, a kind of colour-blindness. It was diagnosed a short time ago. It got worse as I was finishing the portrait of a woman bedridden with obesity who lives in Bebek and inadvertently farts all the time. I call her “The Queen of Farts.” That was when I first started to confuse colors. It is impossible for me to explain this illness exactly. In a way that it is impossible for me to describe I see colors but cannot distinguish one from another. It is like knowing what you are eating but not tasting it. An embarrassing situation I found myself in made me realize that I couldn’t resist my illness any longer. I had painted our family lawyer’s face purple. According to Hayal his eyes were red. And the ears, which I was taking great pains not to make as large and prominent as they really were, lavender.
When the lawyer found out he insisted that it was not important. “Not important at all,” he repeated over and over.
Then he had a fit of that instability-perhaps insidious madness-which had led him to look after the affairs of a family like ours for years, and was all of a sudden convinced that I had done it deliberately. He made the remark that led to our mother dismissing him from our house:
“That’s typical. Everyone in this house is mad.”
“Madness is honorable,” my mother shouted.
She was right. Madness was the honour of our family. My father died honorably in this respect forty years ago. He died of lung cancer but he believed that my mother was poisoning him. That was why he refused to take his medicine. Perhaps what really killed him, made him vomit blood, was this doubt that he could not get rid of. In that dark room where, vomiting blood, he waited for death, my mother would stand by his bed murmuring, “You are vomiting my blood.”
As my father coughed his lungs in pulpy fragments she would say, “My blood. It’s my blood. The blood that spurted from between my legs that day you took my virginity by force is pouring from your mouth now.”
Nurses could not stand all this for more than two weeks. My mother took from their hands the damp towels they had been using to wipe away the blood from my father’s lips, and instead held to that mouth spouting blood a child’s dress so darkened with dried blood that the original colour was indiscernible.
“Cough up your blood on to this. The blood of my maidenhood that you tore to shreds poured onto this dress too. I was only twelve. I was playing in the garden. Do you remember?”
My father didn’t want to remember and we didn’t want to listen. The screams of my mother as a child spilled out of the dark cellar and trailed from room to room in the house.
“They heard but they didn’t come.” My mother always ended the story of that dreadful day with this sentence. She said that her mother, who was the cleaner, was upstairs in this room with my paternal grandmother when she heard my mother screaming as she was being raped in the cellar. Her mother wanted to run downstairs and save her but my paternal grandmother stood in front of the door:
“Leave them alone. The children are amusing themselves. If this goes on, they may get married one day.”
“It happened several times that day,” my mother said. I didn’t want to listen to this horrifying story, every word of which struck a punch in my stomach. I wanted to run out of the room. But my mother stood in the doorway just as my paternal grandmother had done years ago.
“Share my agony! Listen to me!”
In the end I learned how to listen to this story without feeling anything. No, learned is the wrong word. I managed to do it. When I was studying art in London, I closeted myself in the school studio for three weeks and painted this story. I still remember that picture. It was displayed in the school’s annual exhibition and, believe it or not, was bought by the matron of an institution for the homeless.
Whenever my mother starts to tell her story the image of that picture I painted when I was twenty-six comes into my mind and and I still wonder at how I was able to paint every detail without missing a single thing. A dim cellar, a little girl screaming, on top of her a man whose great buttocks appear above the trousers peeled down to his knees, rice sacks tipped over, their contents scattered all over the floor, bloody fingerprints on the immature breasts of the little girl, my mother. What our Russian art teacher insisted on seeing in our pictures-movement.
I remember this too. The teacher’s name was Vlademir Starov. “Where is the movement in this horrific picture?” he asked. There was inert movement in that picture. The hardest movement to paint. The little girl who is being raped-my mother-was struggling to push away the man on top of her-my father-by taking strength from the ground-just like a lever-with one foot. She was trying to push that body bearing down on her away from her bloodied body, and for a moment it seemed that she had succeeded. Yes, if she had not drawn strength from the ground with one foot it would have been impossible to see the momentary separation of that huge body in the act of rape from the body of the child, and thus to see her bloody vagina, her breasts stamped with bloody handprints. That was the inert motion in the picture.
While I was trying to explain my inert motion to Mr. Starov, I must have told him-in my agitation I suppose-that the rapist was my father and the twelve-year-old girl who was being raped my mother. I think that was why he kept mopping the beads of sweat that formed on his forehead, and without commenting on my picture said only, “Let’s get on.”
It was in those years that the desire to change the fate of the things I painted arose in me, in my fingers holding the brush. In that picture there was a chubby angel holding a sledgehammer standing on the flour sacks in the spot my twelve-year-old mother was staring at. My mother naturally expected the angel to come to her side with a flap of the wings and hand her the sledgehammer so that she could smash in my father’s head with it. But the chubby angel was watching the rape in amazement, maybe even with interest. If you ask me he had no intention of giving the sledgehammer to my mother because he was the destiny of my sister and me. At that moment he was only a hope. It took me a week to paint over the angel with the sledgehammer I had placed on the flour sacks. To paint an explicit surrealistic symbol in a painting that was supposed to be realistic might have meant failing and facing another dreary year at school in London. How my classmate, my beloved Celine, had ridiculed my painting, calling it “Chubby Angel with a Sledgehammer.” According to her the angel was my father, whose arse could be seen in the picture, and the sledgehammer was his swollen penis and testicles.
Probably I am boring you by dragging out the subject but my mother always started telling her dreadful story with these words: “God had spared me until that day. I had had neither cut nor bruise. I hadn’t even scraped my knees. Not a drop of pus had oozed from my body. At the age of twelve I was immaculate, just like an angel.” Then she would say something like this: “What your father, that devil, did to me that day was worse than killing me. All the food in that cellar was dyed red with the blood that spurted out between my legs. We fought. We fought for a long time. I was astonished at my child’s strength. My futile kicks and punches only split open the rice and flour bags. A sharp searing dagger gouged my inside out over the rice grains scattered on the floor. I kept screaming even after I had given up hope of help. ‘Stop screaming now. Nobody is going to rescue you,’ he said, but I didn’t stop. If I had I would have heard his gasps, his groans, the sound of that brutish breathing. My screams proved I still had strength left, that I could still endure pain. You know, my screams burst one of that devil’s eardrums. He always used to say, ‘That day you ruined my right ear.'”
The purple-faced, red-eyed, strange portrait of our dismissed lawyer was hung in a corner of the living-room, and when a new candidate for the job of managing our financial affairs, collecting rents and handling the tenants in our office buildings, and occasionally helping us to sell some property, arrived, the first question the raw graduate, fresh out of his traineeship, would ask was, “Have you lived in this house long?” This question alone was enough to start my mother narrating her dreadful story.
“Yes, I have been living in this house since the day my husband raped me when I was twelve. My mother was the cleaner and I used to come and go with her. Then, after that fateful event . . .”
“Would you like a cup of tea?” Of course this question was not sufficient to stop my mother.
“Be quiet, don’t interrupt my story!”
“It’s not the only story of your life, Mother!”
“It certainly is. My life is nothing but this horrifying story. Every life is made up of one terrible story. A single moment. My whole life is being soaked in blood in that cellar at the age of twelve. Don’t interfere.”
“What is the point of telling a man whose only job will be to give you the rents he collects every month how you were raped by a man who was later to become your husband?”
That is my life. There is no escape from any memories. Forgetting is not like closing your eyes to avoid seeing something.”
Of course I knew what other people thought about us. We who lived in a chaotic house in Cihangir in the center of Istanbul, where the furniture hadn’t even been shifted for a hundred years, and where the carpets, curtains, furniture and paintings were all covered with the dust of years. A half-mad mother, a sister who is a catatonic schizoprenic. I can guess what is said about me, too: the crazy artist, the sick artist, the weirdo. O, I know very well that madness is contagious. What is more, everyone is potentially mad. Our vulnerability to madness depends on our memories, facts we cannot erase from our minds, and of course our genes, our deficient proteins. I am as much in control of my mind as I am in control of my canvas and the portraits I paint. But I no longer have power over colors. I can distinguish one color from another only by giving them numbers.
Well now, what about Sedef at the window across the street? Is she aware of her life? How did I become aware of this unhappy pregnant woman? Sedef, who sways in a strange rhythm from side to side as if to music.
Watching windows is a habit I picked up in London. I watch not only windows but people. I used to do this in London because I was a shy foreigner there. Out of loneliness. But the reason I still travel to Paris to watch Celine, the love of my college days, who lives there, and watch her secretly from a distance has nothing to do with loneliness or habit. That is another story. You may be sure I see nothing particularly amusing from my window in Istanbul. This cannot be called voyeurism because I do it amateurishly, with the naked eye.
Somehow, ever since the first day, I saw Sedef as a pregnant animal confined to that apartment. An unhappy, troubled pregnant animal that walks about with a strange rhythm in that large, characterless living room. From here, from the window of my studio, I can feel her helplessness, her misery. The day they moved in she sat in a yellow-flowered armchair for hours. She never stirred while the porters were heaping their possessions in the living room. She was almost as motionless as Hayal is during her attacks. It is obvious that the living room will not have curtains and those horrible reproductions resting against the walls will not be hung for a long time.
Today I learned her name and saw her outside in the street for the first time. A few hours after that row with her husband she appeared at the top of the street, lumbering slowly along with that heavy weight in her belly, holding those ugly plastic bags. If her friend hadn’t called out after her I would have helped her with the heavy bags, and when we arrived at her apartment building I would have pointed my window out to her. But I just walked past her, thinking that at least I had learned her name. She stopped and started chatting with her friend. I went into the Savoy Patisserie a little further along the street to buy some sugared almonds for my cat. I know very well what the albino cashier at the cash desk was thinking. “Their cat must be as mad as they are. That’s why it eats sugared almonds.”
If I didn’t say they were for my cat every time I bought them they wouldn’t have paid any attention of course. But I used to buy three packets of sugared almonds whose colors I could not distinguish for my cat. It didn’t like the green ones, which are probably peppermint flavored. After I started confusing colors I also started asking which were the green ones.
Just as I came out of the patisserie with three packets of plain sugared almonds, Sedef passed by me. In a couple of quick steps I caught up with her.
“Let me carry your bags.”
“It’s not far, thank you.”
“I know where you live. My house is opposite yours. Let me carry them for you anyway. In your condition and with those bags . . .”
“I must look very pitiful,” she said and held out the bags.
Yes, Sedef was a frank woman. Then and there she had made a realistic comment about herself. We walked on in silence. The baby was the only thing I could ask her about.
“When is the birth?”
“Very soon. At the end of this month.”
“So these are the last days.”
“Yes, it’s nearly over.”
“Are you afraid?”
“No. Who’s afraid of childbirth?”
“I’d be afraid.”
Sedef didn’t laugh at my answer. It wasn’t amusing anyway. But what she said next was very illuminating. A statement powerful enough to be written in a novel.
“People are probably afraid only of dying. But not of dying in childbirth.”
We had then no idea of what would befall us that winter. We stopped in front of her building, and stood there in the gentle light of the late afternoon. The last bright rays of the sun spilled onto Sedef’s shoulders, arms, and fingertips. She seemed bathed in holy radiance. Her coat that I supposed to be gray did not cover her broad abdomen, revealing beneath it her long dress that I thought must be green. But everything was masked by that unearthly light. I couldn’t help exclaiming, “What beautiful light! How bright it is for a winter day!”
“It must be reflecting off something, probably off the glass walls of that ugly hotel.”
She was right. It was impossible for sunlight to fall on that spot at that late hour of the day.
“It’s fake light,” she said smiling. As she smiled I could see her gums. “That’s why it’s so beautiful.”
She took the bags from me gently.
“I knew you lived here,” I said.
“And you live over there,” she replied, pointing to the window of my studio. I’ve seen you there a few times. You were looking out of the window.”
“I was watching you. You were crying this morning. My sister Hayal was upset about it.”
“I see,” she said softly. As she said it she bent her head. “The one who is still standing at the window.”
“That’s my sister Hayal. She has been a catatonic schizophrenic for ten years. She can stand there like that all day long.”
“I see,” she said again. This must have been her way of expressing surprise. I see, I see, but in fact I have no idea, I understand nothing. I don’t know how happy or unhappy I am. Only that like all odd people my perceptions are keen. I perceive everything. The people who watch me from the window, the people who see me crying.
Poor Sedef. Were such thoughts passing through her mind?
I asked her to have tea with us one morning.
“Around ten and eleven I sit with Hayal in my studio and have a cup of of tea.”
“Perhaps one morning . . .” she said. That fake, holy light still encircled her. Without dispersing anywhere else, without even touching the garden gate where the sparrows perched, it wrapped itself around her thin body and big belly. She went through the gate and the sparrows took wing and flew away.
Hayal was no longer at the window of the studio. She must have collapsed on the floor when the attack ended. An attack can happen anywhere and she sometimes collapses on the stairs or on the terrace in the garden. Because she falls unconscious afterward she has several times broken bones badly. There are always bruises on her body that never heal up. I cannot tell their color any more but I know they are purple.
I rushed into the house to lay Hayal down somewhere soft. As soon as I got through the door cat wound itself about my ankles. As I was running up the stairs my mother called after me, “Where are the cat’s sugared almonds?”
I laid Hayal down on the bed. She was moaning with pain. I gently massaged her back and shoulders. Standing motionless for hours left her with excruciating cramps throughout her body. I covered her up and returned to my studio. First I looked across at Sedef’s window. She was there, holding up a packet of sugared almonds to show me. When she saw me she took out a sugared almond that I knew to be white, holding it up in the air between two fingers, tossed it into her mouth and smiled. I smiled back at her.
Then I sat down to work. I finished the portrait of my neurologist. I had painted his portrait without a photograph. I had always had a good memory for people’s faces. But my illness might deprive me of this ability, too. Painting the doctor I last seen a fortnight ago and whom I would see that evening from memory would be a good way of checking whether my condition was getting worse or not. For the moment colors were my problem. I tried to sense which was which. The doctor would not be annoyed if I painted his hair green.
Oddly enough, red has always attracted me. I could no longer discern it but whenever I thought I was dipping my brush into red paint my hand would burn with feverish heat. Then I would feel sure it was red. I could still distinguish red. That was a fact sufficient to upset me. A fact more painful than remaining an unknown and mediocre portrait painter in a corner of Istanbul, and more painful than being unable to cast looks like Picasso whom I had had the honor of meeting and befriending.
It was a fact formidable enough to make me weep: that red was the only color I could recognize.