There is a lightning storm in the distance and a hint of coolness in the air. The weather wasn’t much different when I visited that other city. It was raining. But I don’t really know if there was any lightning on the horizon. My room faces a concrete patio. Tall structures rise in all four directions and obstruct the view. I have to lift my head to see the sky, though it just feels easier to look down. I look at the stone patio. Every house has a balcony. A whole slew of things they haven’t any use for is tossed out here. Atop each item rests a flower, turned pale from the dust. In the morning I see old ladies on the balconies. They all look alike. Their hair has turned gray. They wear clothes with short sleeves. They beat the carpets out on their balconies early in the morning. I always wake up to their sounds. I don’t understand what they talk about. Which is another kind of noise. Later I discovered that my windows had wooden shutters on the outside and wooden covers on the inside. I started closing them before going to bed. I found that sleep is the best form of escape in this big city. The landlord is a very old woman. But she doesn’t have a moustache yet— most of the old women I’ve encountered on the streets or cafés here did indeed have moustaches. They would chat at length on street corners with some old friends or with their elderly husbands—most of them had hats and canes—and together, they would go to a café, settle at a corner table and look around doing nothing, saying nothing, and after a while, they would waddle out of the café arm in arm.
My landlord was too old to leave the house. I told her about the old folks I had been seeing at the café. “I walk so slowly that everybody stares at me,” she said. This big dark house has a number of rooms. Everything inside is aging and about to die along with their owner. A dark, long hallway. Creaking doors. Antique iron bedsteads in the bedrooms. The paintings on the wall —it’s all dying. Tall trees on the street block the windows at the front of the house. You can hear the lonely noise of the endless flow of traffic. Nobody shows up at the house but the doorman. Birds gather in front of the bedroom window and fly away after eating the food left there by the old woman.
I find these birds rather dumb, she said to me.
I didn’t quite understand what it was that she meant to get across to them. In the evenings we would sit at the corner of her table. The lights were dimmed. The room was filled with antiques. A big clock hung on the wall. She straightened the clock with her cane from where she sat. We share a language but being hard of hearing she does not really hear me. And whatever she hears, she forgets right away. What a blessing. She learned this language a long time ago. She tells me the same things everyday. Occasionally, she happens to summon a new word or a new line, and she gets a kick out of it.
Do you hear, she asks, words are returning again from a distance. She says it is all coming back to her. She is a little kid in every story that she tells. I see her glasses and trembling lips. Her pale face is very wrinkled. She has a big nose. A black shawl rests on her hunched back. This woman was just as old in her childhood, I think to myself. For the most part she can’t speak either. Today I’m losing the words, she says.
When I retreat to my room late at night everything rests in silence. The city I lived in, like all the other cities I had lived in, would get erased, not even my childhood would survive. Only, I couldn’t stop picturing this old woman lying on a big bed with an old man just like her, both their bodies are languishing and they’ve forgotten everything, and at times they crawl on the floor to get to the windows and feed the birds and they don’t eat a thing, and crawling again they might come all the way to my room and without understanding who or what I am they both will suddenly lean over me and smile and god forbid they’ll cling to me. This would give me a fright. I am just lying on the bed. A black, narrow hallway. Stuffy, empty rooms with an old-house smell. A wooden cloth-hanger next to the street door which is not being used by anyone in particular. Pitch-black silence. I hear the old woman coughing as the morning nears. Afterwards, nothing.
I wake up to car noises creeping all the way underneath my bed. Now my room is dark just like the night. The old landlord is not coughing. She is probably sitting by the window now, sewing the yellowed shirt that she sews everyday. And she has probably put the jam, which the doorman brings every morning, in the kitchen and is busy spooning it out of the jar. Spooning the jam could very well be one of her most important daily occupations. I know the streets. The cars which make all that great noise are now everywhere in this city and in this country.
Today is Sunday.
When I first came to the square it was late at night. It was raining, so right after stepping out of the car I bumped into a waiter with an umbrella and ended up having to walk into a café. They do the same thing at the stations on rainy days, greeting people with umbrellas and taking them to the most expensive hotels. It was fairly busy inside. Some people were standing in front of the bar, drinking. On the corner was a staircase leading upstairs, where a group of actors who had just come from a play were drinking. This was an enclosed square. Secret.
Now I am looking for this place again. I use a church to find my bearings. But there is a church on every street. Every street is narrow. I suddenly arrive at a river. A body of water with a confused stream. There are numerous bridges on top of it. I walk back and pass by the back door of a theater. There is a dark pub packed with men watching soccer. Antique stores, all closed. A priest with a long brown robe and sandals on his feet. Narrow streets again and suddenly I am back on the square.
I walk into the same café. There are eight different streets leading to the square. I look at them one by one. This is an is oval-shaped square. There are old doors all around. A church, a few restaurants, and two cafés. Two identical large fountains on either end. Water gushes from the human statues placed around the fountains. Right across from where I sit are red structures with faded façades. In the middle, a column on top of human figures and horses, and a third fountain. An elderly man is sitting on a bank. A beggar walks by with his barrel organ placed on a carriage. He plays it briefly and walks away without collecting any money.
I come here every day. Each time I have difficulty finding the square. It either just appears or keeps me walking up and down the narrow streets. Sometimes when I leave the square to go back home, I try to find the main street but end up making my way back to the square. I come here like I am going to work. I just sit and look around. Right across, a fleshy woman sits in a kiosk. She doesn’t seem to care much about selling newspapers. She is always chatting with someone through the little opening. American tourists on carriages – most of them older and with blankets spread over their legs when it is chilly outside – flash smiles all around and do single laps around the square. Children gather around the fountains in the afternoon. When it gets warmer the square starts to lose its quiet. But it seems like the structures around the place are still quite empty. And the water from the fountains gushes with the same unhurried motion. People come here from all around now. The Germans fly balloons and parade around the square in their roadsters. The Dutch come here in long buses and take over the square like ants. The English arrive in double-decker buses and head to the square one by one. The Americans have stuffed the restaurants, eating forever. Children don’t stop playing around until late into the night. Photographers take pictures of the Americans on carriages. Cars tour around the square sounding their horns. Children blow their whistles. Even the priests drink wine at cafés until late and then start walking back and forth between the fountains. Everybody is delighted.
I leave the square. The noise of the people there does not travel beyond the enclosed
I never leave my room. I walk so slowly that people are staring at me. I can’t even pull back the curtains. They are old and tear apart. My father got them. When I was little. My father had birds. A roomful of them. Ismail used to look after them. Gilda was younger than me. And she was really beautiful. I had adjusted the ringer volume of the phone to be able to hear it. But when I pick it up, I can’t hear what they are saying. What could anyone say to me? Whom could I possibly hear? My jam gets delivered everyday and I take it to the kitchen to spoon it out of the jar. I read in the newspapers that men with long hair are roaming the streets. Maybe they are women? Oh, how I would have loved to see the men with long hair! I wish I could go to the storage room at the end of the hallway and bring the ladder here. To wind the clock. But I fear that I might fall and break my leg. Gilda had broken hers. Then she died. Or was that the other sister? I use my cane to wind the clock but I am afraid of breaking its minute hand. I figure out the day and the month from the clock. I don’t know how I do it exactly but on the rare occasion that I get hold of a newspaper, I always have the date right.
It all happened outside of me, I only knew the days and the hours. We used to head over to the café on those sunny Sundays. She was very chatty. Everything is frozen and it is all happening outside of time. But why am I reaching for the clock with my cane? They say that men with long hair are roaming the streets. I lie down on the bed in the afternoons. I don’t know if I manage to sleep or not. I spread a newspaper over myself. I don’t take my glasses off. My body feels so languished that to be able to feed the birds I have to crawl on both arms and legs all the way to the window.
It is difficult to stick my hand out the window while standing on my knees. I spill half the bird food all over myself and then crawl about among the furniture.
I lick the spilled jam off the floor. The old landlord is not coughing. Maybe she has
been dead for a while now. I have my glasses on. I see her there. I enter through the half-open door. There is her black shawl on her hunched back. We crawl closer and try to put the bird food into each other’s mouth.
Translation by Melih Levi