In a dream as deep as the waters of lake van, fifteen-year-old Meryem was flying through the air, her pale naked body pressed against the neck of the phoenix. The phoenix was as white in color as Meryem’s own slender form, and it flew as lightly as a feather, carrying her smoothly and safely through the clouds.
Clasping the bird’s neck, Meryem felt full of bliss. The cool breeze gently caressing her bare neck, shoulders, and legs made her shiver with happiness.
“O bird!” she whispered to herself. “O holy bird! O blessed bird!”
This was the bird of her grandmother’s stories; the bird praised nightly by that tall, thin woman, whose looks terrified everyone. The bird had come at last, gliding through the vast infinity of the sky, to land right in front of their house. Picking out Meryem from among everyone else there, the phoenix had risen into the sky, carrying her on its back.
Meryem knew from her grandmother’s tales that the phoenix must be given milk when it squawked and meat when it sang. If these conditions were fulfilled, it would carry you from one land to another without stopping, but if it did not get what it wanted, the sacred bird would become enraged and fling you from its back. Meryem had often heard this and knew it must be true.
Far below glittered the blue waters of Lake Van. On its shores there rose a great city, resembling, by all accounts, the city of Istanbul, about which Meryem had heard so much. She could hardly take her eyes off it.
Suddenly, the phoenix squawked, a sound that reverberated stridently in her ears.
“Where can I find milk for you, blessed bird?” Meryem wondered. “What can I find to milk in the sky, supported by a thousand pillars?”
The bird squawked again.
“Where in heaven’s name am I going to find milk?” she asked again. “The sorrel cow whose full udders I milk each morning isn’t here.”
The giant bird squawked even louder, frightening Meryem, for the bird shook itself angrily, as if it wanted to hurl her from its neck.
“Please!” she begged. “Can’t I give you milk when we get back to earth? I’ll milk the sorrel cow and give you as much of its sweet milk as you wish.”
At that moment, it occurred to Meryem that if the cow had huge udders, she had her own small breasts. Squeezing one of them, she saw that drops of milk trickled from the rosebud nipple. She bent forward, wetting the bird’s head with her warm milk. Suddenly the flow increased; the first few drops became a stream, then poured out in a copious fountain.
The sacred bird drank the warm milk that dripped down its neck and was appeased.
As the cool breeze caressed her body, Meryem floated on without a care. She felt weightless, as if she were one of the pure, white clouds drifting along beside her.
After a time, she heard the voice of the phoenix again. It was now singing sweetly.
“Ah, my dear bird, where in the seven circles of the universe am I going to find meat for you?”
The bird repeated its song, and once more she began to plead with it—this time she really had nothing to turn to. The phoenix then screeched so hideously that Meryem felt the end of the world had come.
“O glorious bird! Holy, blessed bird!” she cried. “I beg you, please don’t throw me down!”
Her fears were not realized. The phoenix did not fling her from its neck.
Meryem saw that they were approaching a mountain piercing the sky with its towering summit. The mountain was so high that the clouds hung below the serrated cone cutting through the white mist. The bird placed Meryem on the sharpest rock of this lofty peak, which seemed to stab into her back. Her slim, naked body shook violently, shuddering with cold and fear.
Without warning, the phoenix began to change. Sprouting coal-black feathers, its white head turned to darkest ebony, and its beak lengthened into a pair of bloody pincers. The phoenix screeched, jarring heaven and earth, and all the other birds fled away in fear.
Meryem was terrified. “I know it wants meat,” she thought. “It must have meat, so it must want to eat my flesh. First it drank my milk, now it’s my flesh it wants to devour.”
The giant bird plunged its bloody beak between her thighs—into that disgusting and accursed place of sin. “I’m just imagining it,” Meryem reassured herself. “It’s just a nightmare, that’s all. It can’t be real.” But this thought brought her no comfort.
Meryem struggled to push the bird’s coal black head away from her thighs, but the phoenix was too strong for her. It took no notice of her tiny hands, but kept digging into her, ripping out pieces of her flesh.
Suddenly, in a flash, the bird’s head became human, and she saw a man’s face covered with a dark growth. Meryem recognized her uncle with his black beard.
“Uncle, please give me back what you’ve torn out,” she begged.
The bird with the human head and bearded face gave her the mangled pieces of flesh and flew off into the heavens.
Meryem was left alone on top of the mountain. She gathered the pieces one by one and put them back where they belonged. Each piece adhered to its place and healed immediately.
With a start, Meryem suddenly awoke.
“I don’t want to wake up,” she thought. “I don’t ever want to wake up!” Her dream had frightened her, but the reality was more horrifying.
She opened her eyes—the eyes that everybody in the village talked about. Large, unusual eyes, where a thousand and one different shades of green and hazel blended, those unseeing eyes, which had inspired admiration in some and in others enmity. Her grandmother, before she died, had often embraced her, saying, “This girl’s eyes outshine the sun.”
Meryem realized she had been clasping the place between her thighs so tightly with both hands that it hurt.
In one respect, at least, it was good to be awake. At least she no longer felt so afraid. She had wiped the thought of her uncle from her mind; now it was the phoenix that replaced him in her memory.
She no longer remembered the hut by the vineyard at the edge of the village where she had gone to take her uncle his food. She no longer recollected how the man had thrown himself on her and violated her; nor how she had fainted; nor even later, when she had come to her senses, how she had rushed out of the hut and ran madly down the road. It was all buried deep in the shadows of her mind.
Two young men had found her near the graveyard, her skin scratched by thornbushes, dried blood on her legs. Delirious with fright, she had fluttered like a wounded bird. They carried her through the village marketplace and brought her home—where everyone was stunned into silence. Too afraid to discuss the incident, Meryem’s family had locked her in the damp and dingy outhouse they called the barn.
Meryem spoke to no one about the rape in the vineyard hut, nor did she reveal the identity of her attacker. In fact, she began to doubt it had ever happened. Perhaps it had just been a dream. Her memory was blurred, and she could not remember what she had done after regaining her senses. It was all so confused, so impossible to think of, though she could not imagine ever saying “uncle” to him again. She thrust the event to the farthest corner of her mind. Yet, even there, out of conscious reach, it still lay lurking—ready to surface again in her dreams.
The barn, where her thin mattress lay on the ground, was dark. Feeble beams of light from the courtyard flickered through the cracks in the aged wooden door and the tiny hole in the ceiling. In the dimness, the shapes of discarded saddles, saddlebags, halters, harnesses, a pitchfork abandoned in a corner, bundles arranged in rows on the wooden shelves, a bag used to store dried phyllo dough, thin sheets of sun-dried grape pulp, and grain sacks were all indistinguishable, but Meryem knew by heart the place of each and every one of them.
She had spent her entire life in this place on the shores of Lake Van, this place half town, half village. She knew each house, each tree, each bird there. Every detail of the abandoned Armenian house, two stories high, in which they lived was stamped on her mind: the granary, the simple bathroom, the earthen oven, the stable, the chicken coop, the garden, the poplars, and the courtyard. Even with her eyes closed, she could easily find the smallest thing, as if she had put it there herself. On the wooden door of their house were two knockers—one big, one small. The larger knocker was used by the men and the smaller one by the women who visited the house. The women of the household understood from the sound who was at the door, and when they heard the banging of the bigger knocker they had just enough time to cover themselves for the male visitor.
Since Meryem had never left the village or even seen the other side of the hill that was always there in front of her, she sometimes thought she knew nothing of the world. But this did not bother her. After all, she could go to the city of Istanbul anytime she liked; whenever people talked about some acquaintance or other, they always seemed to remark, “She went to Istanbul” or “He came from Istanbul.” Meryem was certain that it lay just beyond the distant hill. She had always believed if she climbed to the top, she would see the golden city about whose glories the villagers never tired of telling.
To go to a city so near might not have been difficult, but now it was quite impossible. Quite apart from going to Istanbul just over the hill, now she could not go even to the fountain, the bakery from which she used to fetch bread, the store full of sweet-smelling, colorful cloth she had been taken to by her elders, or the public bath where once a week they used to spend the whole day. She was now imprisoned in the barn into which her family had thrust her, then locked the door. An outcast, she was in solitary confinement.
Meryem could not even go to make water with her aunts and female cousins anymore. On summer evenings, after the evening meal, the women used to gather in the far corner of the backyard, squat down, and urinate—gossiping together all the while. She remembered the evening when everyone else had finished but her gentle splashes continued without stopping. “Listen to that.” Her aunt had laughed. “Meryem’s so young, yet she has so much pee!”
“Oh, Mother!” her daughter Fatma objected. “What’s the connection between being young and peeing?”
Meryem had no mother. The poor woman had died a few days after giving birth to her. Despite the protests of Gülizar, the village’s elderly midwife, who knew how little strength her mother had left, various treatments had been inflicted on her. She was hung upside down by her ankles, breathed on by the village imam, and subjected to the many folk remedies prescribed by all and sundry. After a few days, she had expired and was laid to rest in the old, overgrown graveyard outside the village, the haunt of snakes and centipedes.
In the afternoons, Meryem’s aunts and stepmother would lie on their beds in the two-story stone house. Resting their heads on soft cushions, they chatted for hours. With the exception of her mother’s twin sister, all of Meryem’s aunts were fat, their buxom bodies bulging in every direction without any definite shape.
No longer could Meryem listen to their gossip, join them in the garden, or share their meals in the kitchen. She had no right even to eat the fish from the lake. In fact, the waters of Lake Van were so alkaline no fish could live there, but the mullet caught near Erci?, where the river flows into the lake, were delicious. Canned fish were eaten throughout the year. Meryem was now cut off from everything that might be termed enjoyment.
Her father’s third wife, Döne, brought her food occasionally, and she was permitted to relieve herself in a secluded corner of the garden. But that was all. She had no other link with the outside world, and no idea what was to become of her. Once or twice, Meryem had plucked up the courage to ask Döne, who was near to her in age, about this matter, but always received the same malevolent reply, “You know the punishment for what you did.” This only served to frighten her more; the next time Döne came, she mentioned Istanbul.
Meryem had not seen her father since the incident when the sinful part of her body had been violated. Her father was quiet and withdrawn, and her uncle dominated the family. No one, not even Meryem’s father, dared to speak freely in front of him. He was highly regarded, not only in their village but throughout the neighborhood, and visitors, bearing gifts, would often come to kiss his hand and pay their respects. Strict, quick-tempered, and intimidating, he recited verses from the Quran, invoked the hadiths of the Prophet Muhammad, and acted as a guide in all matters of daily life. As he was the head of the religious sect of that area, he had many followers, even in Istanbul on the other side of the hill.
It was Meryem’s uncle who had confined her to the barn. She could still hear his furious shout, “Lock up that accursed, immoral whore!” and the memory of his cruel words made her tremble even more.
As Döne was quick to tell her, Meryem had thrown the family honor into the dust. No longer could they walk through the village with their heads held high.
“What happens to girls who get into trouble like this?” Meryem had asked her stepmother.
“They get sent to Istanbul. Two or three have already gone there.”
Meryem’s fear lessened. Her punishment would only be to go over the hill there behind them. But then she noticed Döne’s expression—as if she were saying, “You’ll get what you deserve, my girl!”
Döne had always despised Meryem as much as the sin she had committed, and the sneer on her face sent a chill through Meryem. As she walked out of the barn, Döne added, “Of course, the ones who hang themselves aren’t sent away. Some have solved their problems by finding a rope.”
After her stepmother had gone, Meryem gazed at the braided halters and coiled ropes lying in heaps on the floor around her. Had they shut her in the barn so she could hang herself? The beams on the ceiling, the cross timbers, the ropes, all were ready there at hand. If someone wanted to hang herself, the barn was just the place to do it.
Meryem began to understand the implication behind Döne’s cruel words and sneering face. She must have discussed the matter with Meryem’s father. As his youngest and newest wife, who had given him two children, she had influence, while the second wife remained barren.
So this is what her family had decided her punishment should be. Meryem was to hang herself in the barn quietly, without fuss, and soon all would be forgotten. Who in this place would think of inquiring into a young girl’s death or suicide? When, previously, two young girls had hanged themselves, everyone, assuming the false mask of grief, had gossiped about it endlessly in every detail.
Meryem picked up a coil of rope that lay in one corner. The plaited cord, old and worn, unraveled in her hand. She looked at the sooty, cracked beams above, black as the deed itself. She had heard talk of how it should be done: Throw the rope over the beam and fasten one end of it with a knot, climb up on a log, make a noose in the other end, and slip it over the head. All that remained to do then was to kick the log away. Her neck might hurt a little at first, but in a couple of minutes everything would be over. Death must be like the sleep she had awoken from a little while before, but a sleep in which she would never see that terrifying phoenix.
“Do the dead dream?” Meryem wondered. No one had ever returned from the dead, so no one could know the answer to this question. Perhaps her mother was dreaming of her now, watching reproachfully as she prepared to kill herself. Of course, what mother could bear to watch her daughter commit suicide?
Meryem fingered the rope for a while before flinging it to the ground as if it were a poisonous snake.
“Go away!” she shouted.
At once she felt relieved. Something soothed her fears, and her reaction was to giggle at herself for talking to the rope.
“Don’t cry, Mother,” she said softly. “See, I didn’t kill myself.”
Then Meryem realized what it was that had changed her mind—Istanbul. According to Döne, the girls who did not hang themselves were sent to Istanbul. In that case, Meryem, like those others, would simply go over the hill to that magnificent city. “If they’d let me, I’d walk there now, all by myself,” she thought. She could probably reach the city by the end of the day, but she could not go at all unless her uncle commanded it. She would not think of running away, because he was all-knowing and had demons that told him everything, down to the smallest detail.
According to Meryem’s uncle, all human beings were sinners but women were especially accursed. To be born a woman was punishment enough in itself. Women were devils, dirty and dangerous. Like their forerunner, Eve, all of them got men into trouble. Get them constantly with child and regularly give them a good hiding, for they are a disgrace to mankind. Meryem had heard this continually as she was growing up, and so she hated being a woman. She would cry out bitterly, “Dear God, why did you make me a woman?” and constantly question it—until she was up to her neck in sin.
Life used to be easier when she was a little girl, thin as a beanpole with scrawny arms and legs. She played with the other children from dawn to dusk, running through the streets of the dusty township of stone and mud-brick houses, through the middle of which ran a polluted stream, and where broken wagons with wheels leaned against garden walls. With her cousin Cemal, who was four years older, his best friend Memo, and the other girls and boys, they even went to the lake, where they ran along the shore and splashed each other as they stood knee-deep in the water. She splattered the sides of buildings with handfuls of mud, squabbled over the skeleton cars they made from old pieces of wire, or climbed up precipitous walls to demolish bird’s nests.
When her chest sprouted twin buds and her body found its curves, when the bleeding started between her legs, she knew she was different from Cemal and Memo. They were human, and she was a transgressor. It was considered proper for her to cover herself and hide away, to serve others, and to be punished. This was the way things were. She was now one of those creatures called women, for whose transgression the world was doomed.
So Meryem’s head was covered. With a scarf on her head and every inch of her body enveloped in thick clothes, none of which she was allowed to remove, she sweated out her punishment in the heat of the sun, which in summer sometimes reached a temperature of 120. On the day she stepped into womanhood, she also understood why she had no mother. Her mother must have received her punishment by dying in childbirth. God would not have punished her if he had created her a man, because then she could not have given birth and died.
Now Meryem herself was enduring the punishment of being a woman. It must be that place of sin that was responsible for all the trouble women had to go through and all that happened to them. Meryem knew this must be true. It was that which caused sin. It was for this that punishment was given. She had prayed to God so many times to take that aperture away, hoping to find on waking up one morning that it was closed shut and gone forever. Yet, every morning, her hopes were dashed when she realized that the ugly hole was still there.
When Meryem was little and wet her bed, her aunt would always threaten to burn that part of her. Once she even lit a match and brought it close to Meryem’s legs but changed her mind at the last moment. Later, Meryem regretted that her aunt had pulled the flame away.
Meryem’s problems had all started after the visit to the tomb of ?eker Baba’s, a holy figure to whom the villagers prayed for their wishes to come true. They visited his tomb to pray and pour out their troubles, beg for cures, and leave votive offerings. When Meryem was a little girl, her aunts had taken her to visit the shrine. They even let her ride on a donkey so that she would not get tired. She must have been four or five years old at the time. The journey up the crooked path to the top of the arid hill where the tomb was located seemed to last forever as she swayed backward and forward in the saddle. When they finally reached the shrine, they found people sitting on the ground all around it, eyes closed and palms stretched upward. Bewildered, Meryem asked her aunt what they were doing but was hushed with the reply, “Ssshh, we’re going to sleep now.” Pointing to the women sitting with their eyes shut, her aunt had added, “Look, everyone’s sleeping. Go on, close your eyes and take a little nap.”
Meryem sat down, held out her hands, palm upward like the others, and closed her eyes, but it was impossible to fall asleep like the others because she needed to pee. She wriggled around in a desperate effort to keep from wetting herself and tried hard to keep the pee from coming.
Meryem opened one eye and glanced around. Everyone had her eyes shut and appeared to be in a deep trance. She could control herself no longer, and she felt the warm fluid pour out, soaking her legs. She again opened one eye and looked around to see if anyone had noticed. Thank God, they were all still sleeping and had noticed nothing. Now she could go to sleep comfortably, too. Hands opened to the sky, she closed her eyes and fell into a daydream.
A short while later, Meryem’s aunt roused her from her reverie. “Come on,” she said, “we’re leaving.” Meryem was not sure whether she had really fallen asleep or not. But then, as Meryem was mounting the donkey, her aunt noticed what had happened. “What’s this?” she hissed. “Couldn’t you have found another place to pee?” She went on to tell Meryem at great length how those who urinated at ?eker Baba’s tomb were punished horribly, how the place between her legs would break out into sores. On the way back, her legs became chafed from riding on the donkey. Her aunt’s words had frightened her so much that, for a long time, she could not rid herself of the idea that evil spirits would curse her, or the red devil would come to snatch her away, or festering sores would open in the sinful place. Her eyes became swollen and bloodshot from constant weeping.
From that day on, Meryem had no doubt that ?eker Baba would punish her on account of that shameless, unwished-for place of sin, and something terrible would happen to her. And, in the end, it had. The bird had ripped into her sinful body, and now she sat in the barn awaiting a more severe punishment. Where would it end? Would she be sent to Istanbul like other girls whose sinful parts had been pecked at, or was something worse in store for her? It all depended on the head of the family, her uncle.
Even Meryem’s father, Tahsin Agha, gentle and good-tempered, always busying himself with duties on the farm, went in fear of his elder brother, who had the advantage over him in age and also in religious standing and therefore was to be respected. Tahsin Agha, a grown man, never smoked in front of his brother. If he were accidentally caught smoking a cigarette, he would quickly stick it in his trouser pocket or extinguish it in his palm.
Meryem’s uncle devoted most of his time to religious matters and to the followers who visited him. Thus, the burden of running the family farm fell on Meryem’s father. He had to supervise the collection of the crops gathered from the land rented out to sharecroppers and to see these got stored in the granaries, as well as manage the livestock and take care of the shepherds and day laborers.
The old farmhouse, which was large enough to accommodate all the members of the family, had originally belonged to an Armenian named Johannes, who was remembered affectionately by the villagers for his willingness to lend a helping hand. One day soldiers had come and ordered all the Armenians to collect whatever belongings they could carry and assemble on the outskirts of the village. Frightened and weeping, the Armenians obeyed and were led off, casting backward glances as they trudged away from the village. Not one of them returned. According to rumor, the soldiers had taken them to a distant land, yet nobody dared to say this aloud. Some of the Armenians had entrusted their valuables to their Muslim neighbors, hoping to come back to retrieve them. Decades had passed, and no one had ever returned.
There was another strange rumor connected with this. It was whispered that some of the older village women were, in fact, Armenian. During those languid, soporific afternoons when Meryem’s aunts would chat together, this was a frequent topic of discussion. They would tell how, on that ominous day so many years ago, having no idea of what fate held in store for them, some Armenian families had left their daughters in the care of their Muslim neighbors. Such names as Ani or Anush were changed to Turkish names like Saliha or Fatma, and their adoptive families raised these girls as their own, eventually marrying them off. The gossip in the village was that, as they had never converted to Islam, it was questionable whether it was right for them to be married according to Islamic practice. Even more disputed was their right to a funeral and a final resting place alongside Muslims.
At a funeral, the imam asks those who gather to pay their last respects, “How did you regard the deceased?” The mourners reply in unison, “We considered her a good person,” invoking God’s favor upon her. The imam then pronounces, “In favor of the deceased woman,” and starts the namaz. Perhaps the Muslim men of the village who followed their imam in the ritual prayers for one of these dead women were performing it for a Christian—that would, indeed, be going too far!
After the Armenians had been taken away, Muslims took over their houses, fields, and workplaces. The house now belonging to Meryem’s family was one of the largest of these properties in the village. Meryem had for a long time believed that her great-grandfather, Ahmet the Wrestler, had won it for himself through the strength of his arms. In that area his splendid physique was still talked about and had become the subject of legendary stories. These were still some of Meryem’s favorites, especially the one about the cream.
According to the tale, when her great-grandfather was small, his mother would always give his brother the cream off the milk. Although he resented this, Ahmet never uttered a word. One day when his mother was out, he led their donkey out of the barn, lifted it, and put it on the flat roof of their two-story house. His parents returned home from the fields to find the donkey on the roof. They could not find a way of getting it down from there. Knowing her son’s strength, Ahmet’s mother begged him to take the animal off the roof. Grinning, he responded that whoever ate the cream should bring it down.
The story would stop there and up until a few years ago, Meryem would recall great-grandfather’s exploit whenever she gazed up at the roof of the family home, wondering if the donkey was still up there. But when she grew older, she realized that their house could not be the one in the story—there was no donkey on top of it.
When Meryem asked if any of the villagers’ tales were true, her aunt assured her that those about the forced departure of the Armenians were certainly false. Instead, she declared, a miracle had caused them all to disappear in a single stroke. The wind had blown so fiercely one stormy February day that the minaret of the mosque toppled down, trees were uprooted, and roofs flew off houses. At the same time, the storm must have swept up all the Armenians in the village and blown them away into the sky. One could not question God’s mercies. The divine wind had not touched a single Muslim, but every Armenian man, woman, and child had been taken up into the heavens. Maybe the Armenians were actually God’s favorites and had ascended to heaven like Jesus, may his name be praised.
Meryem preferred to think that they were up in the sky. She would close her eyes and try to imagine the Armenian girls flying across the sky. Their parents would call out to their children flying joyfully here and there, “It’s getting late, children. Come back to your clouds!”
Although most of the family members lived in Johannes’s former house, Meryem was glad her uncle was hardly ever at home during the day. He usually went to the hut in the distant vineyard, where he would welcome visitors with their offerings or pray by himself in deep solitude. The children of the family would take him baskets of food. Even Meryem’s father saw his brother only in the mosque at the hour of prayer.
After the prayers at sunset, the women of the house would spread a cloth on the floor and serve dinner to the men and wait on them. Only when they had been fed and the table cleared away could the women gather in the kitchen to eat the leftovers. If any of them talked or lingered too long over their food, Meryem’s uncle would become angry. According to his understanding of religion, eating could be an act of sensuality. One ate in order to live. It was a duty to be carried out in the least possible time. So the women rapidly spooned down hot soup, stuffed their mouths with meat and pilaf, and caused the baklava to vanish in the twinkling of an eye. After the meal, it was time for the bedtime prayers. Meryem’s uncle, as imam, would lead them and Meryem’s father, and her uncle’s son, Cemal, would stand in line behind him. During the holy month of Ramadan, after breaking their fast, the men would go to the mosque for special prayers.
Tahsin Agha’s first wife had died while giving birth to Meryem, his first child. His second wife was barren, so for many years he had had no further children until he took Döne as his wife. She had given him two children, one after the other, but both of these were still very young. Meryem’s uncle and his wife had three daughters and two sons. The older boy, Yakup, had gone to Istanbul two years before with his wife Nazik and their two children. According to Yakup’s infrequent messages, they were prospering and doing well in the “golden” city. When the younger son, Cemal, went to do his military service and was posted to the southeast, and the two daughters, Ay?e and Hatice, married, the large house became quite empty. Cemal’s mother, who was a miserable, lusterless woman oppressed by her tyrannical husband, was barely perceptible in the house. Whether she existed or not did not make much difference.
Cemal was with his commando unit in the Gabar Mountains, where he was known to be fighting against the Kurds. His father made constant invocations asking that “the power of God, the Almighty, protect his son from all evil.” Since he had forbidden all “non-Muslim inventions,” including radio and television, to enter the house, the family could not learn the names of the soldiers killed daily in action, and they had little news of Cemal other than his letters, which came at rare intervals.
Copyright © 2002 by O. Z. Livaneli. Translation copyright © 2006 by O. Z. Livaneli. Translation by Çigdem Aksoy Fromm. All rights reserved.