Gönül Kıvılcım graduated from Bosphorus University in İstanbul with a degree in Economics. She also received an MA in Mass Communication at Bergen University, Norway. Kıvılcım lived and worked as a journalist in Berlin and Cologne, worked for the German television WDR. She worked for the newspaper Radikal.
Her first book “Small Town and Lies”, was a collection of stories, published in 2001.
Her other books are:
- 2002 “Razor Sinan”, Can Publishing House.
- 2004 “Kaleidoscope of Love”, Everest Publishing House.
- 2010 “Karaköy through Living Witnesses”, Heyamola Publishing House.
- 2011 “Crime Palast”, Destek Publishing House.
- 2012 “My Father’s Favorite Picture”, Ayrıntı Publishing House.
Her book Razor Sinan is translated into Albanian, Romanian and will be translated into Arabic soon.
Her story called “Small Town and Lies” from the book with the same title was translated into German for the short story anthology “Love, Lies and Ghosts”, Unionsverlag, Zurich 2006.
Her short story “Out of Reach” from Kaleidoscope of Love is translated into English for the Anthology, “The Book of Istanbul”, Comma Press 2010.
Kıvılcım now resides in Istanbul and has a son called Yakup.
For more information, please, visit: www.gonulkivilcim.com
NILÜFER HAD A close bond with the many corners of the island and a special affection for its cats and bougainvillea and wild gardens. But there was nothing to beat going down Panjur Street to the quay, to rendezvous with the water there. Panjur Street was a picture with its tabby cats, its empty demijohns, its Algida ice-cream umbrellas and the brooms for sale at the grocer’s. All the way from America came Haluk Bey, to complete the picture.
Ever since the young son of the house arrived home, Nilüfer’s daily life had become a trivial detail alongside the feelings that pierced a hole in her stomach. The ugly tablecloth bought in Egypt, the chats by the swimming pool sprinkled throughout with pearls of contempt.
Nilüfer sat down on the stone steps in Panjur Street. Silence all around. Except for the perpetual motion of the pump for the pool of the neighbouring villa. Just that. Never in her life had she suffered such pain. She envied the daylight that slipped through the shutters and stole into Haluk Bey’s room, the light free to touch his eyes drowsy with sleep, to envelop his body in its warm embrace, and to love Haluk Bey completely, not just bit by bit.
Really, she was used to the fact that anything her hand reached for was unattainable. She had spent all her life under the sheltering roof of others. At the age of twelve she fetched and carried for a man who had made a name for himself as a sculptor; at fourteen she changed nappies for a spoiled baby; at sixteen she cleaned up the crap for a bad-tempered ‘madam’ (and so bad-tempered!) and for the remaining ten years had worked as general domestic in Mistress Billur Hanım’s joyless household.
And still, the unbearable knowledge that three months later, at the end of summer, she would never see Haluk Bey again, strengthened her attraction to the family’s son who studied in America. Like the sudden collapse of the pine tree that had remained upright for years, Haluk Bey too would be lost and gone. When that time came, Nilüfer had no idea how she would preserve the feeling that had leapt from the hand of the young son of the house into hers and was like stomach-ache or a fit of delirium.
It all began the day the old pine tree gave itself up to the earth.
As though it had heard Nilüfer’s love-moans, the creaky hundred-year-old tree, rotten at the core, had toppled over and blocked the steps that led down to the summer-house. Now what? The thought that she would not see Haluk Bey again until the tree was removed made her envy it with its dead branches. She wanted to stretch lifeless beside it.
Standing by the tree, deep in thought, behind the garden gate that joined the white-shuttered house to the road, Nilüfer jumped.
‘What happened here?’ It was Haluk Bey.
‘Don’t ask,’ said Nilüfer. ‘The huge pine tree picked on us and just keeled over.’ They stood by the tree. That day, by a stroke of luck, the young man of the house who for weeks had never stirred from his seat, happened to have gone running with a pack of morning joggers. Now he and Nilüfer sat on the steps at the entrance with all that was left of the tree – its roots.
‘I’m ravenous,’ Haluk Bey muttered. Nilüfer showed him the eggs in her plastic bag.
‘I was going to make you fried eggs.’
‘I can’t go down to the shops in this sweaty state. They’ll be worried about me at home, don’t you think?’
They were under the bougainvillea that spread and clung to the garden wall. Haluk’s lips opened and closed. She had a good look at his face, his long body, his lips plump as an almond, his eyes thoughtful as though planning a chess move, and the lock of hair, brown as a hazelnut shell, that fell over his forehead.
She was in no state to listen, but asked him about America, if only to make him say something, so she could see those almond lips opening and closing.
Desire was slowly rising in her body. She was overcome by panic, and had to hide her flushed ears, and her eyes as they admired Haluk Bey, lowering her head to an imaginary nosebag. She couldn’t listen. She was speaking fast to conceal her thoughts, describing the day the family went fishing in Salim Bey’s fibreglass motorboat: the motionless sea, how Salim Bey and Billur Hanım tried to seduce the fish in the sea, the köfte sandwiches she’d prepared for the people in the boat, how in fact her mind remained with the sea, how the smooth water was split in two by the boat, how sometimes forgetting her work, she hung overboard from her waist to see the huge jellyfish which fed on pollution, the shoals of horse-mackerel, the terrifying rocks at the bottom: in short, all that was hidden in the blue… when she was speaking of the sea Nilüfer was full of an energy that overflowed to her listener. Haluk Bey surprised them both with the following offer:
‘One day I’ll take you to the seaside, if you like.’
Nilüfer felt weak and on fire like the flaming sunset, and bowed her head humbly as though to indicate ‘anything you say’. They sat on the steps in silence. A youngish woman who knew her place and the man who was sowing seeds of hope in her heart.
To Nilüfer it seemed a month, to Haluk Bey a day, but in real time, free of emotion, it was only one hour before the neighbourhood watch let them know that the path was clear again.
It was time to move. Then a strange thing happened. In some indefinable way Haluk Bey was brought closer. It was Nilüfer’s numb leg – all pins and needles – heavy as marble, that bridged the deep social gulf between them, and Haluk Bey held out his hand to Nilüfer. Love leapt like a spark from the hand of this regal man into Nilüfer’s. And the days to follow would be described in the language of love.
The lonely morning hours. Nilüfer was gathering the bite-sized cherry tomatoes from the green centre of the garden. In the mansion they were all sound asleep, their sleep intensified by the humidity. Her hands full of the garden’s abundance, she hurried to the kitchen where she polished up the teapot before brewing the tea, then arranged the cushions, which she’d stowed under the eaves in case it rained, on the wicker chairs on the terrace, and on the glass plate she sliced the full-fat cheese she’d bought from the market. She knew every corner of the house like the palm of her hand.
The tea, sugar, coffee and all the kitchen paraphernalia in rows of glass jars aligned according to size… she knew the history of how every tablecloth that her mistress had forgotten came into the house: she knew the design of the cane set of furniture by the balcony door that led to the garden, and the seascape hanging in the centre of the bedroom wall that she looked at whenever she could steal a moment from cleaning. She too was part of the house, like the furnishings of the villa. A fixture. If she was gone even for a little while it was immediately noticed, like bread missing from the table.
Before the occupants of the house honoured breakfast with their presence, Nilüfer drank her tea tête-à-tête with the island. Two cups of tea were the only luxuries of her day.
But that day the tea didn’t taste as usual. Since Haluk Bey had shown up, a different atmosphere breathed around the villa. She was seeing the world through his eyes. She craved for coffee like him, and like him she was beginning to feel nostalgia for the country – the city-dweller’s longing to lie in the fields – and carried away by illusion, she began to imagine she was assimilating English from A to Z. If she opened her mouth she would suddenly become a grieving nightingale singing in English. She wondered if the affliction known as love was anything like what she was suffering. When she was aware of that jellyfish coiled up in her stomach, she would lean against every door Haluk Bey entered. When Billur Hanım’s son was in the kitchen she would linger at the counter and become a glass of water, and when he sat on the terrace she became a brush and would clean the newly-swept terrace again, and she wouldn’t wait for sunset but would hurry to the garden to water the flowers.
When he lingered a long time in the bathroom she missed him so much she could hardly stop herself opening the door on the pretext of fixing the toilet paper.
What things flooded her heart? They stopped her from working, eating, sleeping. She almost forgot her own name. In the narrow dark trousers she hadn’t worn for years and the aubergine top that suited her freckled skin, she drifted aimlessly about the neighbourhood. In her daydreams she saw Haluk Bey’s wrist as he struck the ball.
She used to compare the island house to a witch’s castle. Now it troubled her that everything had taken on a different meaning. She was forgetting how contemptibly she’d been treated in this house she had entered at eighteen, the scoldings she’d had from the day she started work, and what her mistress had said when she poured the bleach through the tea-strainer. And at the age of almost thirty she was still a virgin.
And how many sleepless nights she had suffered from the tactless things Billur Hanım had said before her guests. ‘I lay the tablecloth I brought from Egypt and Nilüfer takes it off. What do you imagine was in her head – did she think that my beautiful table shouldn’t be covered? If these people stay in one situation for any length of time, they begin to want the upper hand and insist on their rights. After ten years our one began to get above herself. Give them an inch and they take a mile.’ When she went on like that, Nilüfer was already writing her letter of resignation in her head. But love conquered and overcame her annoyance. Nilüfer was like softened dough, worked on by the yeast.
She wanted Haluk Bey to keep her desire warm. His face, fingers, mouth; eating, being silent, opening for love; his lips whispering of far-off lands, and his badminton arm. Nilüfer carried his empty coffee-cups back to the kitchen. But her eyes refused to cross the threshold. They stayed glued to Haluk Bey’s badminton arm; to his strong wrist, developed by sport. His wrist movements reminded her of the elegance of handmade chests beside the crass crudity of ready-made furniture. She mooned around Haluk Bey all day like cats that haunt the butchers’ shops.
For Billur Hanım the plunge into the tumultuous Thursday crowd, which gathered just in front of the district office, was as good as going to Istanbul. Especially near noon when the crowd got denser. As the path opened for her between the congested stalls, in the hoarse voices of the market traders touting their wares, in the fruits of all colours that weighed down the scales, in every new path that revealed their dizzying variety, and in the crowds sworn not to come home without the best bargain; in all of this, she felt the rapid beat of Istanbul’s pulse.
The traders from Yalova1 had set up their stalls early, and were eyeing the islanders’ way of pouring fresh vegetables mixed with fruit into tins, coffee-pots, and decorated kitchenware. The neighbourhood echoed with young schoolboys shouting ‘Carts available’. They’d carry the customers’ baskets up the island’s steep ramps, a task that required a good strong pair of lungs. As she piled up the boxes of tomatoes and grapes in the handcart, Billur Hanım realized she had lost count of her shopping and had bought too much. She was thinking of her son who would soon turn up on the island, and at the same time having a kilo of petals weighed, delicate as lace. Ah, Kalçunya!2 She’d forgotten the almond cake. Nilüfer was sent post-haste to the island’s pâtisserie. ‘Hurry up, Nilüfer dear,’ said Billur Hanım, who could sweet-talk when she liked. ‘We forgot my Haluk’s special treat.’
The unwilling Nilüfer, one foot forward, the other lagging behind, set off for the pâtisserie. If she’d had any inkling of the future she wouldn’t have complained. She was thinking, ‘One more mouth to feed in the army of the hungry in this house.’
Sometimes life was so demanding.
But as soon as she stepped indoors she completely changed her mind. She would have run to the pâtisserie a thousand times to relive the moment when Haluk Bey took the packet from her hand with such pleasure; on the flight, he said, what he’d missed most were the island’s special pastries. He practically fell on the fig-tarts. It was so good to be acknowledged! To be met by Haluk Bey’s innocent smile, which had never been sullied by the uncouth filth of this world! Nilüfer’s eyes shone.
The market shopping had gone badly for Billur Hanım, whose arms had turned to jelly and now hung useless. Leaving the room to the young ones, she escaped to the bathroom to hide her annoyance.
Finally, at midnight when the inhabitants of the house were asleep and the neighbouring streets were deserted, Nilüfer was able to confront that strange feeling she had experienced. All day his eyes were veiled behind his laughter. Her body would not be able to endure this torment much longer. Her temperature rose to 39?
Next week, without a murmur, she was rolling out the puff pastries of meat and cheese. She was spreading the dough with her rolling pin and while it was thinning she inwardly repeated the English words she’d promised herself to learn. Don’t ask where it came from, this desire to learn English instead of serving perfectly browned pastries. The class Nilüfer belonged to not only decreed the quantity of possessions she could own, but profoundly shaped the kind of relationship she could have with another. She couldn’t foresee that her love of English might lead her into absurd situations. On the contrary, she thought it was child’s play to jump on the trampoline of knowledge and rise to the heights she longed for. This naïve belief had led her to dive headfirst into the English business. Like everyone else in the house she could manage English more or less in two weeks, perhaps two months. So she thought.
To reinforce the word ‘stomach’ she repeated it aloud a few more times. But the baking tray was almost full. Distracted by the tapping of the rolling pin, she couldn’t concentrate thoroughly on the lesson and while she was fixing the words in the English grammar book in her head, at the same time she was making a tour of Haluk Bey’s face. ‘Mouth’, ‘lips’, ‘nose’… If love hadn’t distracted her, perhaps her work would have been easier, but everything her five senses perceived led her back to Haluk Bey. Haluk Bey’s mouth, Haluk Bey’s eyelashes, Haluk Bey’s nose…
Her ear caught Billur Hanım’s voice. ‘Overnight she became the old Nilüfer,’ she was telling the household. The very idea that her condition could activate channels of acid in her stomach set her insides on fire. Thanks to Haluk Bey she was becoming sensitive to her stomach. Ever since the impertinent young man had increased the island’s population by one, her gut was either sour or burning, and at night when she thought of him she writhed with cramps.
This time her insides went sour because English words wouldn’t come into her head.
What was that English word for ‘mide’?
She emptied the rubbish and with the rubber shoes on her feet (produce of the market) she approached the house as quiet as an angel.
‘Stomach.’She reflected that the devious language of that distant island had created problems. Two hard consonants, a hissing ‘s’ and a chubby ‘t’, didn’t sit prettily back-to-back in her mouth. What an elegant word ‘mide’ was, smooth as butter. Moreover, if you asked Nilüfer, between the word ‘stomach’ and ‘mide’ there was no harmony at all.
If she could concentrate on the book she was holding, perhaps life would be easier, but when thoughts of Haluk Bey were added to the foreign language sessions, her memory worked well on the level but left her on the hill.
1. Yalova – A city south of Istanbul on the eastern coast of the Sea of Mamara
2. Kalçunya – A traditional Greek pastry.
Sunset on Panjur Street meant the ragged pink of oleander, the cyclamen colour of bougainvillea, the fresh green of the teagardens and the reddish colour secreted by the eucalyptus tree in its trunk.
The yellow of the daisy, of the pine pollen, of the mimosas; the monarch of all yellows, all the tones of pink, the degrees of grey, the splashes of purple and a handful of dark blue, harbinger of evening.
As the sun continued to sink to the horizon, Nilüfer examined his mouth. It was the fourth week since he’d arrived. The joker of the mansion was opening and closing his mouth. Like a suction cup she grasped words, chewed them politely, rolling the crumbs down her throat, until she heard that word of three syllables, her own name: ‘Nilüfer, come and look at this.’
Haluk Bey was pointing to the sun setting out on its melancholy journey over the island hilltops. Nilüfer couldn’t get enough of looking at his mouth crammed with words: even if they weren’t about the sunset, they poured into the world syllable by syllable and she noticed again the shape of his lips, bright pink as though they’d just come from a painter’s brush. Till then she’d been deaf, but now suddenly her ears opened, as though she’d lent the words to someone and instantly they’d all come back. And while Haluk Bey went on at the centre of that divine scene, with his long sentences, Nilüfer changed back to her other self, and as he was enjoying the sunset, she rushed to empty two cups of water into the body of the coffee-machine. It was very important to her that her own little hands should be involved.
As the man sipped his coffee, he caught something like the sadness of sunset in Nilüfer’s mood. In her hair as it flamed in the sunset, in the way she looked at one with eyes tired from a day that was ending; a dark melancholy, indescribable, that seeped into the flavour of the coffee he held in his hand…
Some things are always being added or removed from the picture of love.
Love always consists, in a way, of these gains and losses. What they had felt together about sundown on the island and its indefinable spell, had changed Nilüfer. Haluk observed her freckles, so appropriate to the summer heat, little dots sprinkled over her shoulders and face like a light make-up. An attractive naturalness compared with the repulsive artifice of the women he knew. Suddenly he was in the mood. Now the young son of the house had entered the story physically.
This game, the hunting game, a little less wild than nature’s, but one to which he was accustomed, was a refuge he had sought unsuccessfully. Now the game of catch-if-you-can had begun, and he felt like those children who seldom left the city and fell on a few plums on a branch by the roadside, as though they’d never seen such things before. It made the summer worthwhile.
He accompanied Nilüfer to empty the rubbish. The deserted white mansion, its balcony occupied by crows, a typical island house with the bay window overhanging the street, an abandoned lodge, which became history from the spark of a moment … They reached the foot of the hill where Nilüfer got rid of the rubbish. Two local ladies of Panjur Street were discussing the weather. The eye-catching one with the silver waistcoat grumbled, ‘It don’t half change fast!’ and the other agreed, ‘Wot a mornin’, but just see now!’
They returned, inhaling deep draughts of the smell of honeysuckle.
One last time. Lips opened and closed. Then and there Nilüfer realized that she loved this face in any language in the world. Even if she couldn’t master English or speak a single word of the language to him, her longing sighs would still continue. And yet, if only she could say something like your mouth and the sun, or even better, proclaim her love in lines of English poetry. Come on, let’s give her a hand. Imagine if she could pour out,
‘At the violet hour, the evening hour that strives
Homeward, and brings the sailor home from sea,’
then things might speed up.
But never in her life could Nilüfer find words like those.
Haluk’s face was creased in a frown, not like someone contemplating pleasant thoughts, but like someone planning to lay a trap. He grasped his cheek as though he wanted to clutch the very roots of his teeth in his hand.
‘My tooth hurts,’ he said. ‘What’s ‘wisdom’ tooth in Turkish? It’s rotten, I guess.’
Quick-witted Nilüfer solved the problem. ‘The one at the back? The yirmi ya tooth,’ she said.
And now they began to enjoy comparing the English and Turkish words for Haluk’s sore tooth. Haluk Bey couldn’t explain why the English ‘wisdom tooth’ should be named ‘the twenty-year-old’ tooth in Turkish, nor could Nilüfer explain the Turkish for the tooth which sooner or later bothers us all, even though it doesn’t appear till we’re twenty.
‘So,’ said Haluk, ‘if my tooth is going to be pulled out soon, I’ll be neither wise nor young.’
Nilüfer giggled. She didn’t notice the implication of his words. She could have listened to him for ever, talking in any language in the world.
They had just returned from the beach. That day the water was cleaner than it had been for weeks. Even Haluk swam, who for fear of jellyfish hadn’t dipped a toe in the water since he arrived.
They showered. Wet bathing costumes and dirty towels were entrusted to Nilüfer on the quay. They were all as hungry as wolves.
The usual things happened; far out a sailing-boat went by, seagulls began the day with their usual shrill screams and the sun dutifully warmed the garden, first the back then the front. Between meals, Haluk passed the time in the hammock, enclosed like a tent by the pine-trees, turning the pages of the same kind of books with the same kind of subjects, none very serious. Nothing unexpected would shake life from its usual routine, no accident or disaster would spoil the monotony.
Perhaps one should stay close to the fire. For some time he had noticed the change in Nilüfer’s attitude. So did he have to feed the fire? It was better than dying of boredom. He sprang up from the hammock and landed by Nilüfer, like a stone.
Now, when Nilüfer hears him say, ‘I’m going for a little walk, do you want to come too?’ just imagine how she feels.
She was grateful for her healthy physique that she didn’t capsize, but her soul fell into a sad state.
She was smiling. A nervous smile. A grimace that revealed a struggle to control herself. The thought of Billur Hanım losing her son to Nilüfer caused an involuntary titter that was dying to turn into a laugh.
As they walked, the whoops from the ferryboat sirens were dispersed into the blue arch of the sky. From the quay, a warm breeze blew away announcements which landed at their feet.
‘Some people are like the island,’ said Haluk, ‘they’re loners and can’t communicate with others. They’re better with wind and water. And some are just the opposite, they can’t set foot on the island. Many of my friends are like that, their souls can’t stand the isolation of an island.’
On the way that wound down from Panjur Street to Pervane the man she desired was beside her with his hand and arm, with all his body and inaccessibility. Nilüfer swallowed him with her eyes. Haluk had no objections, he too was diving headfirst into Nilüfer’s eyes. He knew that salvation didn’t lie that way. For there were depths, immeasurable depths that leave you paralysed, with no choice.
He descended two more metres, and right at the bottom he met his mother and he admitted she was right, to give her her due. She’s not my equal. We shouldn’t plunge to depths we can’t survive, it would be an irrecoverable disaster.
Suddenly Haluk Bey’s eyes changed… He announced he would go to America sooner than expected. And Nilüfer wasn’t able to ask why.
The world had rules.
Love had rules.
It wasn’t up to them to change the rules.
Nilüfer was like a broken branch that can’t bear the weight of snow heaped upon it; shouldn’t one take note of the tree that can’t refuse the ivy climbing over its trunk, or of the leaves obedient to nature in autumn?
That moment she made up her mind. She would bring the unattainable within reach.
If Haluk Bey had been able to guess his little companion’s intentions, wouldn’t he have preferred his boredom to a walk?
Panjur Street was alarmingly silent. While everyone slept, Nilüfer’s thoughts sneaked into his room like a wind whirling through his window with its opened shutters. She felt the bed whose sheet she had changed with her own hands. So this was love. This ignorance and lack of self-knowledge. To pitch a tent opposite parts of the body and just sit there. To touch that body in dreams. To give it uninterrupted attention from end to end until it cries, ‘What’s happening to me?’
Life was dangling over Nilüfer’s mouth like delicious grape-clusters descending from heaven. Past, present and future were in that room, gleaming in his body.
She couldn’t take her eyes off Haluk’s face, from his chest rising and falling with rhythmic breaths, or from his legs, legs like a water-way lit up by street lanterns. Lights pierced the deep blue of night. There she saw the reflections of police patrolling and tourists strolling idly by. As her eyes roamed over his body’s contours, she was enjoying the pleasure of possessing a man who lay asleep, dead to the world. She touched his eyes, drowsy with sleep, and his defenceless body on the bed. As she stroked his wrists, and glued her eyes to the groove of his lip, there was no escape for the man who feared his heart might be taken from him.
But conscience knew their love was unsuitable, and warned her to turn away.
She dwelt for a long time on his wide-apart eyebrows. She kissed the dimples that caved in when he smiled. And standing there watching the presence she would soon lose, she realised there was something other than wealth that she wanted. It was Haluk Bey’s own self. She knew for the first time that she was able to bring the man so close to her because she could love him, not in parts but as a whole.
To be able to possess the man, to love him with all her heart, she must know about sleep and how to make him cross its threshold. Only then could she possess the body she loved, for ever and completely. Nilüfer stepped back from the brink.
The weather was the same summer weather, the same cursed damp from the mountains creeping by night into the livers of the islanders. The same old stringing the beans and cracking them apart. But Nilüfer had changed. While the morning prayer was being recited, in an island mansion there was a woman who was going to make the world acknowledge her desire, however much it cost.
She would show the world what she could create with her passion. It came into her head during their walk. It couldn’t wait. She would make it happen. She would carry out her idea and keep a part of him with her for ever.
On her day off, she went away to the island of Kınalı, mulling over the memories of her former life. The gently sloping garden of the old sculptor’s country estate, the outhouses where the dear old watchman sheltered, the peach trees and mulberry bushes in the orchard. Remembering, she grieved for the years wasted there with him. But for once in her life, Nilüfer wished to make up for the hardships of her past.
‘Hands can carve up a person, hands can speak of our loneliness, hands can be a part of love.’ Isn’t that what he had said? She was going to visit the sculptor who lived alone, summer and winter, on the island slopes open to the north wind, who worked alone, ending the day without having uttered a single word, and considered those moments when he wasn’t being creative a waste of time.
Faces and hands; reshaped with every love, changed with every touch.
Nilüfer was lucky to find the artist still resident on the island. She hurried through the deserted streets of Kınalı.
The artist who for a long time had found his loneliness unbearable was delighted at Nilüfer’s visit, and tried everything to make her stay a little longer. Although he had lost his looks, he tried his luck with any young woman who happened to come his way. ‘I wonder what’s happened in your life,’ he said.
But she gave him no encouragement. He wanted to do a charcoal drawing of Nilüfer, but ‘I haven’t the time,’ she said.
‘You’re my guest, I’m at your service. Stay and let’s make the most of what God sends us,’ he insisted.
Again she took no notice, then the old sculptor’s voice, rough with nicotine, suddenly asked, ‘What would you like to do?’ Nilüfer squirmed and, evading the question, cunningly led him round to the subject of the garden.
‘Nature here hasn’t changed,’ he said, ‘perhaps the weeds have grown a bit more, and the vine that smothers the trellis is stronger. Everything else is the same.’
She narrowed her eyes. ‘We don’t have all the time in the world like you people,’ said Nilüfer, ‘There’s work. There’s the lady of the house,’ she hesitated, ‘and there’s the son of the house….’ For him to be always with her was what Nilüfer wanted. Even if it was only in parts.
Nilüfer made her final request to the artist, who was on the threshold of old age.
‘For years I dealt with your letters. I was the one who found you the best clay, I was the one who mixed your plaster-of-Paris. Now do me a favour and, without asking too many questions, tell me how to carry out the thing you said was “so simple, my dear”, how to make a mask of someone’s face.’
They were in the laundry room on the top storey. Haluk and Nilüfer. She looked at him. Once more. Again and again, hovering about him. He had come on the ridiculous pretext of asking her to iron his shirt. While he knowingly pulled it over his head, undid the buttons and wickedly peeled the slightly sweaty garment off his skin, she prayed he would fall and his life become a prison, and he would need her care for weeks on end. And all the while she was still doing her duty. She took the shirt. And when she allowed him to touch her arm jokingly with a man’s usual boldness, the touch set her blood on fire. This she allowed, because eventually she was going to send him to sleep, not with curses and evil wishes but with a glass of water.
It was the best phase of the work. The most exciting moment of the whole summer.
While he slept, surrendering to sleep like an innocent, defenceless child, even the shadow she worshipped was hers.
He was hers. Her willing model.
Master and servant had exchanged rôles. She laid him down. As he lay there like a dead man she watched him, holding her breath, reckoning that the effect of the drug would last another five or six hours. She must move fast. Every passing moment was working against her.
It was difficult.
God had given the man the beauty of water. Nilüfer could hardly control her palms. But as she covered his eye-sockets with them, her fingers wandered over his eyelids and she was reminded of the winding paths of the island. When she found the groove of his mouth she felt like a hedgehog. She crossed her arms and drew in her head and became a little ball.
Ahh! There she wouldn’t go near. When she took his hands in hers his muscles contracted in spasm. Haluk was dead to the world. He was asleep, captive of a woman’s desire that gradually grew and spread. One by one Nilüfer drew out the knives of desire from her body.
The next step was to touch his back. There by the ironing board she embraced him (how often she had dreamt it!). She felt light, wandering the island on the crest of trees, jumping from the tip of one pine to another. She was leaping round her lover, free of rough work like sweeping floors and shaking rugs. She had assumed the form of a beautiful djinn.
She couldn’t stand it. One by one she undid his shirt-buttons. Only moments remained before the contact with his skin she had imagined for weeks. She closed her eyes, afraid. She leant over his body. He was on fire and the heat of his core poured into Nilüfer’s body.
So, by the end of two hours when they lay together she had taken possession of him, she had assimilated the bones that shaped his face, the cartilage that shaped his nostrils, every single pore, until her eyes collapsed in their sockets. Even their palates and eye-sockets exchanged places. Now she was Haluk. She looked at the world through his eyes.
Where she was heading was dangerous. Nilüfer had turned aside from her goal. For one last time she touched the man’s face. While he slept, the light of loneliness fell on his face. He was unaware that this light – and the anatomical facial structure peculiar to himself – was in the possession of a woman.
She mixed the plaster of Paris to a creamy thickness and, following the maestro’s instructions, smeared Vaseline on the unconscious man’s eyebrows. She would make a mould of his face. Vaseline was essential to prevent plaster sticking to the skin and facial hair remaining in the plaster. Starting at the chin, she smeared a fine layer of plaster over the whole face, on forehead, cheeks, eyelids. Then as it was setting quickly she moved on to further layers. ‘You must take care that the cast is not too thin, or it will distort and you won’t be able to get it off’. Working fast, she went over in her mind the sculptor’s instructions ‘The more delicately you work, the more accurate the shape will turn out.’ Surely that’s what he said.
When the first layer dried to a skin she proceeded to the second and third layers. Then she had to turn back from under the corner of the eye, the cheekbone and under the chin. ‘Imagine you’re pouring plaster into a cognac glass with a narrow mouth.’ the maestro had warned her. You won’t be able to remove the plaster without breaking the glass: the human face is such that if you go towards the ear you can’t remove the cast in one piece.
The little details of practical information given her by the wretched sculptor, like the length of time the plaster took to cool, and the plastic tube stuck in the nostrils to facilitate breathing, were immensely useful as she carried out her project. Without his advice she wouldn’t have known black from white, but thanks to him it would all be as easy as putting a tin of beans on the stove.
If only excitement wouldn’t distract her and make her clumsy. A privilege to be able to touch him, the mind-boggling flesh… In her desire to remove the mould she cracked the plaster. It must have been put on too thin. But she was sure she had done everything to the letter. Back to square one.
She began at the chin, smearing on the plaster and pausing at the aching wisdom tooth. She touched it and thought he might be awake. I wonder if it aches while he is sleeping? She rubbed her cheek as though her own tooth was sore. One more layer of plaster.
She was startled by the heat the cast gave off. She had forgotten that the ice-cold plaster would warm up in time, a sign that everything was going in the right direction and that the negative was ready. For a moment she panicked, thinking that Haluk was stirring in his sleep. She still had to clean the inside of the negative with soap and water, and pour plaster in its liquid form into it to make the model. And she must slip away at the latest before Billur Hanım returned from her game of bridge.
Clearing up and bringing everything back to its original state would take half an hour. She must not leave any traces or Billur Hanım might go to the police and accuse her of stealing. She thought fast as she wiped off the Vaseline with soap and water. Whatever happened, the struggle would be worthwhile. For once, love would be on her side.
But things were not going well, something was absent. The beauty enhanced by the power of love, the mysterious meaning of a man’s eyes, the noble whiteness of his skin, his mouth indescribable as the well of desire, the provoking curl of his lips, in short all that Nilüfer thought of as Haluk’s attractions was missing.
The island’s gentle air, the quiet hours of Panjur Street, were not woven into the fabric of the mask. Love’s ardour, its power to make a paper bird fly, had not been poured into the plaster.
Nilüfer had been sure that all those lines and shadows of care and anxiety in the man’s face would pass into the portrait, but it had not turned out as she hoped.
The cast had been made, her wish fulfilled. She stood alone on a hilltop on the island, holding the mask that was meant to immortalize her beloved’s face. She was looking at the mask of an ordinary man. She went on waiting for it to reveal a miracle, for her desire to flare up, to catch fire.
But there was nothing.
The man was still where he’d cast anchor three months ago like a ship tethered safely to the harbour. Still there.
And Nilüfer was alone with her obsession.
His divine beauty – the essence that Nilüfer had failed to capture – had come to an end, reduced to that mask.
Love was still out of reach.
A hand remained, a face, and the end of a dream.
© Translation by Ruth Christie
“Out of Reach” first appeared in English in “The Book of Istanbul” (Comma Press, 2010)
Published with the permission of Gönül Kıvılcım