My teacher was standing at the entrance to the schoolyard, watching me as I walked away. Now finally I can hide the front part of me from him, and I unbutton my white smock collar, holding the ends together so it won’t fall off. I am sure blood will soon be gushing from my nose. The candy-store man has gone back into his cave-like shop. Caramel candy sticks wrapped in a cloth napkin lie piled like pieces of wood in the shop window. I’d love to stop and look at them for a long time. Mr. Candyman always comes out after a while and gives me a sliver of sweets. But I have to keep the promise I made to my teacher. Otherwise I’ll get a third reprimand and will be called “bad girl” for a whole week. I keep walking on and on, holding my mouth open as long as I can: A bite of dustcake crunches between my teeth. Heaven rains down bread in little hard crumbs of dough, and whoever catches them may either become happy or choke on them.
When I look up to spot some large crumb to catch, I see a furry pelt at a window in the top story of the house where the school principal lives. It bulges, it is alive, and suddenly it is thrown down, flies through the air, an animal tangle, a woolly ball, a pelt that now lies on the cobblestones in front of the house. Fulya stands at the open window, naked. She claps her hands.
“Look,” she screams. “There’s a delicious honey-bun between my thighs. Come and grab it!”
A man I know because he picks my mother up for prayers on Fridays immediately averts his eyes and asks the Lord of Punishments to manifest his power over indecent young womenfolk. Two veiled women bite into their chadors to keep them from slipping; they search for little pebbles in the dirt and throw them toward the naked Fulya. Their aim is poor and they don’t hit their target.
“You crows can have some too,” the girl yells from above. “My little honey-bun is juicy; everyone likes it, my delectable honey-bun. Toss up coins, you stupid birds, not stones.”
She blows kisses and praises herself, and then she drums on the little treasure that a girl may not show. Her mother, who has hurried back from shopping; utters a cry of dismay and in her anger drops her full shopping bag.
“You blasphemous she-devil!” she cries. “You’re my shame and my misfortune! Get dressed this instant, and move away from the window. Just wait, girl, I’ll give you something to think about! You should be ashamed of yourself! Go to your room, I tell you. You hear me? What a black day, My God!”
“Come on, Leyla,” Fulya yells down to me and spins around rapidly. “Show us your little honey-bun. You people, you men! You mice and crows! Applaud my juicy honey-bun!”
The veiled women walk away furious, they are no match for this little she-devil. The mother disappears into the house, and Fulya, knowing that she’s going to get a sound thrashing, revels in a last minute of her craziness.
“Sweetie,” I call up to her. “Better close the window now.
“Juicy honey-bun! Juicy honey-bun! Delectable honey-bun!”
“Your mother is angry with you.”
“Let her eat my little honey-bun,” Fulya screams, and then someone grabs her arm and she is pulled back into the apartment.
Even while she is being spanked, the little four-year-old devil continues to scream her funny children’s rhymes. Her mother quickly shuts the window, and I walk on. For the next few days Fulya will be quiet, but then she’ll again show herself naked at the window. Because of her, Senem Hanim has a reputation for being quite shameless. My mother says she should keep her bedroom door closed at night. The child listens and remembers every word. Senem Hanim insists that she really doesn’t know where her child picked up these unspeakable words. No one believes her, and she takes out her anger on Fulya. The windowpanes at the men’s café are steamed up; all I can see are heads and bodies, but not a single familiar face. I keep knocking on the door until the owner steps outside.
“What do you want?” he asks.
“Is Halid Bey inside?”
“You want to talk to your father? Just come on in.”
“No, no, I say, I’d better wait outside. Could you please let him know I’m here? My teacher will be angry if I stay away too long.”
He disappears inside the coffeehouse. A little later my mother’s husband appears–he looks at me as though his face had been rubbed with black soil from the cemetery. He takes off his felt calpac, scratches his head, and puts it back on again.
“What are you doing here, you stupid fool?”
“It’s because of this,” I say and show him the new school notebook. “Teacher wants to be paid for it. That’s why he sent me here to find you.”
“Haven’t I taught you, you miserable brood, that there is a fixed time for everything? A time for humility. A time for obedience. And a time when you may come and see the master of the house. You want to collect some coins? Here, I’ll give them to you.”
His blackened face is suddenly very close to mine; the breath that streams out of his maw touches my forehead; the back of his hand smashes into my nose. Maybe he wants to squeeze the life out of me, or he wants me to do the children’s skipping dance and can’t ask me to do it. After two disciplinary blows he disappears. My smock collar sticks to my neck, red and wet. Red and wet, I turn around. Sometimes Yasmin sings me to sleep with “A little lamb stumbles in the clover,” and when I sit up, curious, she pushes me back down on the bed, still singing. Red and wet I walk back to the school gate; there my teacher is waiting. He looks at me, the pupil who has returned so quickly, and since he doesn’t say anything I say, “I fell down on the way and I also lost the money for the notebook.”
“That is not important anymore, he says. We’ll make believe that I received the money from you. What do you say to that?”
I say, “Yes, that’s nice.”
“I’ll take you to the secretary; she’ll clean you up, and I think she’ll also give you a new collar. Are you happy now?”
He takes my hand; after two steps I stop and pull myself free. I’m certain they’ll ask me all sorts of questions; I must always hold my tongue when they want answers that I’m not allowed to give. M”y school bag is still in the classroom. I can’t, I can’t.” And I run away; my teacher calls after me. “I can’t.” I jump over some large stones one might easily stumble over. My mother says, “You’re enticed by trash and trinkets, and she calls me a trash monkey. You’re a trinket monkey because you collect magic from heaven on the streets and bring it home. Hold still, don’t be so fidgety. I can’t, I can’t.”
A mountain stream flows through the garden behind our house, God’s scratch mark in which water has collected. Each house has its rivulet. Whenever Jenghis wants to annoy me he tells me this short fairytale: “Once, when He was in a bad mood, God spat there, and we human beings drink God’s spittle, and so our thirst always reminds our Lord of the hour of His displeasure, but in any case He never forgets anything or anybody.” I can’t believe him.
The walls of our house are made of straw and mud. We live on the ground floor. Another family has built a layer of floor over us and our lives, thereby giving us a ceiling and sealing us in with it. Sometimes they watch me from above, but today no curtain is moving at any of the windows. Bent low, I skip around the outside of the house in childlike hops, lie down on my stomach, my lips touch the moving water, and the first swallow tastes like caramel in my mouth. Like a mouthful of sugar cubes, a mouthful of sweet dough; it is like powdered caramel sugar in my mouth. I dip my school collar into the stream in front of me; the dried nose-blood comes off in thin streaks, pink pale snakes that become blurred, discolored, and vanish. My head in the stream: my blindness in the water is darkness.
Jenghis is using his cigarette lighter to singe the hair off his upper arms. He rubs off the black knobby hair ends; the burnt crisps stain his fingertips. American movie heroes aren’t hairy, and the beautiful neighborhood gazelles desire downy young men. Tolga thinks making his body conform to the ideas of those dapper dandies is not worth his while. He sits next to his brother, watches him perplexed. He can’t be pleased with his new shoes, the kind that are available cheaply in the bazaar but only in a standard size. He has opened the seams at the heels, but the leather presses on his instep, and from long habit he curls his toes. “Next year God will be more generous,” Mother says. She enters the room now, servant, maid, beggar-woman. Since the thrasher hasn’t made us wear humiliating donkey ears, and we needn’t fear that evil will rain down on our heads, we are quiet. “He has left,” she says. “He’s tending to his business.” After taking a long look out of the window, my mother sits down on the ottoman; dipping a dry crust of bread into some water, she sucks and gnaws on it until she can tear off a bite. It is this morning’s breakfast for her.
Yasmin and Zelda are taking courses in needlework; they attend the Institute for Female Handicrafts. At first my mother’s husband said he didn’t want to send them off into prostitution. But Senem Hanim came to him and said, “Your daughters are good at hand sewing, let them work for me. My daughter Fulya’s dowry is not complete. They can help me out of this predicament, and all the piasters they earn they will hand over to you, the master of the house.”
“I am the warden in a home for flies,” he said in reply and left, chased off by the wit of a woman who knows how to deal with illiterates.
Yasmin inserts a piece of fabric into the embroidery ring. The warp and weft threads form a woven latticework, running into each other at right angles. She stretches the linen over the inner ring with the pattern on top, puts the outer ring over it and presses it down. Then she tightens the screw; the material becomes taut. She separates the loosely twisted Kelim wool into single threads; from a small flat skin-cream tin that holds the needle threaders she takes a pre-cut strip of paper. She folds it over the end of the thread and pushes it through the eye of the needle; then with her left hand she pushes the needle through the material, takes hold of it from below with her right. “Needle in, needle out.” This is how she explained it to me. “She will use a feathered braid stitch to form the leaves, a knotted overcast stitch to bind the edges, and the patterned areas she will fill in with an overlapping satin stitch.”
Zelda’s specialty is small pillows made of white batiste that she fills with aromatic herbs and cotton. She dips the ends of the string into melted candle wax to keep them from fraying. At present she is working on a pink handkerchief border with a wavy lacy edging and cutout work in the corner. At her feet lie knitting patterns and crotchet instructions on glued-together sheets of paper. I suck on the sugar cube in my cheek.
“Our delivery date is a few weeks from now,” Yasmin says without raising her head; it looks as if she were talking to the linen.
“The coverlet,” Zelda whispers.
“And how are we going to do that?”
“The coverlet consists of twenty-five rosettes,” Zelda says. “We’ll crochet the first rosette according to the instructions, and after the second rosette we’ll chain the others on to the previous rosettes.”
“We’ll never manage to do it in time,” Yasmin says, plunging her needle down into the fabric; in addition, Senem Hanim also wants crocheted curtains with zigzag bottoms and flowery ornamental vines and pillow panels on which we are supposed to crochet flower garlands.
“I have already finished one panel and sewed it to the top of the pillow.”
“I hope you put it on the side marked as the top.”
“Yes, of course. She wants lace-edging inserts on the bed sheet.”
“For that we’ll need boilfast cotton thread,” Yasmin says. “It’s expensive; we can’t lay out the money for that.”
Jenghis puts his lighter into his bulging pants pocket, looks around the room. A muscle at his temple, always tense, twitches briefly.
“That daughter of hers,” he says. “What is her name again?”
“Fulya,” my mother says, and then she repeats, “Fulya, Fulya.”
“All right then, Fulya. The men tell strange stories about her. Is it true that she dances naked through the streets?”
“No,” Zelda says. “Or you would have seen her long ago. The little girl undresses and shows herself at the window. That much is true.”
“Fulya is sweet,” I say. Jenghis looks at me angrily, and I lower my eyes.
“I don’t know,” he says. “Maybe she’s too young to have evil thoughts. But she has to be kept from doing that.”
“From doing what?” Yasmin asks.
“It simply isn’t proper behavior. Little girl or big girl–what you see is always the same.”
“You are saying indecent things in front of our mother,” Tolga says.
She smiles, our mother; she is chewing on the crust of bread, our mother, allowing the moments to go by until she can pass on to the next day of her life. A crumb clings to her pale, firm cheek; it will fall off, and then another moment will have passed.
“Senem Hanim is taming the wild girl,” Yasmin says. “Even though she can’t handle a needle, she handles her daughter and her household with devotion and care.”
“My thoughts have no business intruding on other households. This Hanim must be quite kindhearted if she will take your needlework off your hands.”
Yasmin lays her needle down on the embroidery hoop, closes her eyes, and takes a deep breath. A fat vein bulges on her neck. The cries of the Lokma vendors selling fried balls of dough dipped in syrup resound outside on our street. Tolga pinches the crease of his trousers. It is still early enough in the day for us to hear the wind that blows the voices over from the cemetery.
“A thousand-times-a-thousand lace stitches that will take many hours that I’ll have to deduct from my life span,” Yasmin says. “Your sister and I, we are embroidering our youth away and what do we get in return? A maidservant’s wages! We crochet edgings on batiste handkerchiefs; we crochet ruffled edges on pillowslips, we embroider placemats and table runners. Senem Hanim places the order; we do it. Senem Hanim pays little; we do it. And then on top of that we have to listen to some young man tell us that we are supposed to grovel on the ground. Why? Because the lady is kind I can well believe that you value her kindness.”
“What is that supposed to mean?’ Jenghis asks.
“Whenever you meet her, your eyes don’t stay where, out of decency, a man’s eyes ought to stay. They jump right out of their sockets; have a life of their own.”
“Be quiet,” my mother says. She has finished the dry bread but is still hungry; she swallows her saliva. And she watches at the window: it is possible that in a sudden rage the thrasher will tear up his papers and forms and hurry home. Here he can sit in judgement.
“God who breathes life into the spirit and Who gives us life will provide sustenance,” she says. What does she mean by that? Should I simply go outside and stand there with my mouth open like a yawning beast of prey to snatch God’s crumbs? Yasmin argues with Jenghis; Tolga calls on them to behave properly; Zelda angrily outlines ribbons in the air with her crochet hook. I stare at the crochet instructions for a little doily pattern. On the back of my favorite diagram it says: “1. Triple treble crochet, next pull thread through two loops only three times; 2. Then incompletely pulled through triple treble crochet into the next two points of insertion; 3. Pull through all the loops, pull through the remaining loops two by two.” It doesn’t matter that I don’t understand the meaning of the words, one word sounds to me like a nickname for a turtle, another word like the beginning of a prayer of love that an archangel would address to his emerald god. Two words keep buzzing in my head, words you’re not allowed to speak, and so the secret remains a houseguest inside my head. When I softly repeat a sentence and stop midway, I imagine the cotton eyes of a doll. Points of insertion–the phrase conjures up an unpleasant image, it makes me think of mangy fur.
An addition sign, like a crown on top of three tent pegs to each of which three boards are nailed, that is what my favorite pattern looks like. I stare at it for a long time. I am going to scratch it into the damp soil in front of our house. I haven’t used up my supply of luck.
“She is a mature woman,” Jenghis says. “She could be my mother.”
“A mother’s love for her son is different from the love that this woman has in mind. Don’t act so indignant!”
“One wrong word and the gossips will be saying vile things about me. Pretty soon I won’t be able to show my face in public anymore because of you, dear sister.”
“It will be your own deeds that will cause you problems,” Yasmin says. She becomes absorbed again in her handwork and pursues the argument only half-heartedly.
“So you want to forbid me to say hello to Senem Hanim?”
“For all I care you can say hello to her in the morning, at noon, in the evening, and at all the times of prayer. It will make her happy. Her face lights up whenever you cast amorous glances at her.”
‘Let’s go,” Jenghis says. “They’re making fun of us here. Father is waiting.”
He storms out of the house. Tolga trots after him reluctantly. Mother admonishes them not to listen to the curses of the vendors in the train station. My brothers will be standing on line for hours in front of the weighing station, and maybe they will have to sleep on the sacks because it is unwise to give up one’s place in line. My mother’s husband won’t allow them to leave; often they can’t go to school the following morning. He makes up excuses for them, saying they have incurable diseases like malaria, typhus, and cancer. The teachers call Jenghis and Tolga veritable miracles of nature. They don’t get any pocket money; the commissions all end up in Halid’s pockets; he has income and expenditures. He feeds the family.
“Fifteen rosettes ought to be enough,” Yasmin says.
“On top of everything, why should she also want to set deadlines for us? Or maybe she intends to marry Fulya off at the age of five. It’s the sort of thing I’d expect of her,” Zelda says, bursts out laughing, and has to stop what she’s doing.
From Leyla by Feridun Zaimoglu. © 2006 by Verlag Kiepenheuer & Witsch Köln. By arrangement with the publishers. Translation © 2006 by Margot Bettauer Dembo. All rights reserved.