The Natives

By Aysegul Savas

Before I moved back to Istanbul to live with my mother, whose escalating illness was getting in the way of daily tasks, I lived with my boyfriend, a Canadian student of mathematics, in a small university town in New Hampshire. Though I pretended otherwise, most things were new to me then. And my mind was rigid.

I had found a job at a bakery, and worked there in the mornings, after which I was free for the rest of the day. Such jobs — working at cafés, bookstores, bars — were fashionable among my peers, and it was partly for this reason that I had picked the bakery, even though I could easily have found work as a secretary, or a research assistant for an anthropology professor at the university.

The idea of a university graduate doing a menial job would have seemed absurd to my mother and so I told her, in our infrequent phone conversations, that I was looking for jobs. She would reply that I should just come home, as if I were in New Hampshire out of stubbornness.

After my shift at the bakery, I would spend the day reading in one of the town’s cafés and then go to the grocery store to shop for dinner. I prepared elaborate, time-consuming dinners from old cooking books that I had gotten at a secondhand bookstore. Even though I knew how to cook simple Turkish dishes, I always looked for new recipes that were foreign to me. They called for ingredients like spelt flour or rutabagas and I would go each day to the store to find them, always getting enough for a single dinner — a cup of flour from the bulk dispensers, three rutabagas — so that I could shop for and make a dinner from scratch the next day.

I read many books, though not always carefully. I had decided that I would read “the classics” — some of them, at least — that I had identified without method. I read Balzac, Nabokov, Camus, and others, moving quickly from one to the next and sometimes forgetting completely my impressions of the book I had just read — a steady, hungry consumption, like our daily changing meals. But I was eager to read these books, to surround myself with their weight, like protective spells. I felt that I was digging my way towards something; I did not know what it was.

My boyfriend and I had befriended several people from the university and formed a group, although we were not so close that we saw each other individually. We met in the evenings and the polite distance we retained had the effect of drawing us closer together. We intrigued each other with the mysterious facades we presented. And we must have intrigued ourselves, too, with the possibilities of characters we could take on.

One of our friends, a Belgian philosophy student, Quentin, had moved to the town around the same time as me. His wife, Andrea, was a Colombian documentary maker and was making a film about dairy farms outside of town. Even though they were our age, they had gotten married so Andrea could get a visa. They did not wear rings, and had none of the habits of a married couple. When we met, they would sit apart and would not support each other during conversations.

Like Andrea, I was also keen on giving the impression of being independent. And like her, I often exaggerated my eccentricities: at times acting more nonchalant, other times more impatient than I really was. I sensed that the two of us were in a competition — of which only we were aware — though this mild rivalry only brought our group closer. It was the two of us who decided on the group’s gatherings and we were always eager for an occasion to be together and good-humoredly play out our power dynamics.

Andrea and Quentin had introduced us to a geology student, Kyle, who interested us at first because of his good looks and then his talent with the banjo, which we had heard him play in the evenings at the town cafés. Kyle was apologetic about being American and admired the things about our lives that were unusual to him, such as my insistence that everyone take off their shoes before entering the apartment. There was also Orhan, a Turkish student my boyfriend knew from the math department. For some time, I felt uneasy about Orhan’s inclusion in our group, not wanting to be tied down to specific expectations and responsibilities of one Turk for another. Perhaps I was afraid of being found out, unauthenticated in my eccentricities. I was pleased, however, that Orhan had none of the oppressive camaraderie of Turks living abroad. He did not talk nostalgically of life back home, the foods he missed, or try to engage me in memories of Istanbul and old songs that our parents sang.

We often met for weekly dinners in our apartment because I had lots of free time to cook and enjoyed hosting. I was proud of the apartment, which I had decorated with an assortment of mismatched furniture and fabrics. The couch and armchair were covered with big Indian quilts. There were candleholders of all shapes on tables and the bookshelves. Pots of herbs lined the two windowsills. The place had the feel of old eccentrics’ dwellings, as if we were eager to be aged in our youth.

We had our dinners on the floor, on cushions assembled in a circle, our knees touching. I would plan for the meals for days and often cooked things that seemed pleasing to me as ideas, the types of meals one would read about in books, like vivid still lifes, whose description was more appetizing than their reality. I might cook a vegetable tagine with nuts and raisins; borscht soup and scallion biscuits; sardines baked in vine leaves. After dinner we would have coffee and almond liqueur and I would bring out a tray of fruit and chocolate, raising cheers from everyone.

During our dinners, the four boys would be content simply chatting and joking, but Andrea and I usually introduced a topic of discussion and moderated the ensuing conversation. “Would you rather live a harmonious life, or one of extreme happiness and melancholy?” Andrea would say, or I would ask something like, “What is the noblest profession?” Sometimes we would instruct one of the boys to tell us about their fields, asking them superficial and exciting questions. What rock had the most fascinating formation? Did mathematics exist in nature or was it invented? And if it was invented, how could it be a perfect system? How would philosophers make a case for dictatorship as a more logical system than democracy? During our hypothetical debates, I would bring up peculiar customs practiced by tribes that I had studied in anthropology classes, to support our relativist inclinations. I would enjoy myself greatly if the conversation became heated.

But we were careful about our passions and even the most heated of conversations never became a defense of ideologies. Another generation, having a similar gathering, would have defended their ideals to extremes. But none of us would be willing to admit strong allegiance to anything. We were not political, we were not religious, we did not associate with any group. We would be embarrassed to quote authors, lest we sound pretentious. Our discussions were always hypothetical, dependent on our logic, and fiercely excluded the names of any thinkers who might have articulated our ideas before us — who, in fact, might have lent us those ideas.

What seemed like sentimental topics were never discussed. Religion, except as a cultural phenomenon, did not interest us. (Had our parents really sat around debating the existence of God?) Pure love of family seemed naïve, and was never expressed as such. Instead, we would talk of our native cities and our family lives like anthropologists articulating field notes. Patriotic feelings, even of a non-threatening nature, were tasteless.

We were interested in everything, but always at a distance. “I came across this in the library,” Quentin had said one evening, showing us a collection of Rumi’s poems. Some years before, when I was not so conscious of curbing my passions, I had read Rumi’s Masnavi devotedly and carried the book with me at all times. It was an old copy that had belonged to my mother, given to her by the Sufi sheikh whose gatherings she attended. She was part of a group that had stayed tight over the years and met every week at the sheikh’s austere apartment. (I had been brought along to the meetings as a child and remembered the bare floors, the clean, white walls, and the simple servings of black tea.) At university, I would often quote lines from the Masnavi to my boyfriend at the time, and even knew several of its passages in Farsi.

I told Quentin coolly that Rumi’s work was not only poetically compelling, but offered some interesting interpretations of Islam as well.

It was as if we were trying to prevent ourselves from articulating the spirit of things, denying their essence beyond what we could observe.

One morning, I heard a story at the bakery, told to me by the boy who stood at the register. He had overheard it from two women who regularly came to the bakery for coffee.

A house outside of town had just gone up for sale. It was a beautiful, modern house, with large, curved windows overlooking the fields. It had been built by an architect from New York, who used the house for his weekend retreats. The architect, who was married to a woman and had a happy marriage, would spend his weekends in the house with his male lovers, and then return to his wife in the city.

He arrived on Friday afternoons and spent the rest of the day cooking. His brunches were extraordinary, though I might have imagined this part. He would bake bread, and pastries. He would make platters of crepes with smoked salmon, with orange sauce, with mounds of berries and soft cheese.

One Saturday morning after the man had prepared the food and laid out the table and was waiting for his friends to arrive, he was stung by a bee. He must have been allergic and never known about it; he died.

And the strange thing, the woman at the bakery had continued, the strangest part — though this was easy enough to say after the death — was that she was driving by the house a week before the incident, and she had seen a black car pull up to the driveway. She had the feeling that it was a funeral car, but then she drove past without inquiring, and the man had arrived as usual that weekend. But she had had the premonition, a week before the death, that death was to visit the house. This is how she put it, and I was pleased with her clever articulation: the appearance of death in the form of a car.

At our next gathering, for which I had cooked a thick bean stew to eat with rye bread from the bakery, I told the story to our friends. I started with the woman who had seen the car outside the house. I then took my time telling about the man’s life, embellishing the lavish weekends, the food, and his good taste. When I finished recounting the story, my boyfriend ran his hand up and down his arm. “That gave me goose bumps,” he said. I didn’t know whether he was serious or joking.

“What does his cooking have to do with his death?” Orhan asked, clearly disappointed by the story that had not come to a close with fully tied threads.

“It’s absurd,” Quentin said. “All that exuberance suddenly ends with a single visit.”

“Not so suddenly,” Kyle said, “if death had passed the house a week before. What a strange story.”

“Everyone has one of those stories,” Andrea said. “It’s part of the repertoire — like an embarrassing uncle story, or a nightmare travel story. We all have a ghost story.”

“What’s yours?” Kyle said.

“I once spent a summer in a beach town, with underwater ruins,” she said, without hesitation. “My friends and I spent the evenings drinking at the beach. One of those summers of intense bonding. One night we heard some strange sounds from the water, like a submarine was about to come out. Then the tide rose, and we had to go back to the hotel. In the morning, we saw that the waves had washed up hundreds of stones from the underwater ruins.

“The strange part was that the stones were arranged in an almost perfect circle. But there was something more bizarre — you may not believe me. Later, we learned that those ruins were tombs.”

“Everyone does have one of those stories,” I said. “But they usually become supernatural with time, when enough is forgotten that what remains is a mysterious chain of events.”

“I’m sure there is some reason why stones are laid out in a circular pattern at high tide,” Orhan said. “Just because we’re ignorant doesn’t make it a mystery.”

“Maybe it was the underwater spirits,” my boyfriend said, cutting himself a slice of bread.

“That’s what we thought, of course,” Andrea said. “It made our vacation so much more exciting. The next night, we even tried calling the spirits.”

“I bet they were dying to talk to you,” I said.

“We were all a bit drunk. So if they came, I didn’t see them. Maybe they were circling around us, trying to communicate.

“You know,” she said, “we could try it now. We could hold hands, and chant or something, to see what’s lurking in our subconscious.”

“We could make a board,” I said.

“Unless we had something to hide,” Kyle said.

“That’s exactly why we should try it,” Andrea said.

A festive mood descended upon us in anticipation of this activity. We must have had in mind the atmospheric séances from past centuries, held in wood-paneled, thick-carpeted libraries. My boyfriend lit the candles, I opened a bottle of wine and refilled the emptied snack tray with crackers and grapes and cheese. Andrea had draped her shoulders with a scarf from her bag and was arranging the cushions on the floor in a circle. Quentin, Kyle, and Orhan were making a board, under my supervision, on a large piece of paper.

To cheer us up even more, rain had started outside, and pattered on the windowsills. I opened one of the windows, and drew the curtains shut. Cold air entered the room, pushing through the heaving curtains, and flickered the candlelight.

Sometimes, I remember that strange and sweet-scented New Hampshire air. Rain would pour, unexpected. The sun, when one had given up hope of seeing it, would appear unassumingly. I even recall, perhaps falsely, the birds singing when the light swept the surrounding hills.

In Istanbul the weather always makes itself known. The sky is heavy before the rain, oppressive and dense before it gives way. The sun gets hotter with a steady beat, hour by hour, until it stifles.

After my return to Istanbul, I would take the ferry across the city, to go to work at the insurance job that a relative had found for me. I only worked half of the day and returned home in the afternoon before the nurse left. At that time, the ferry would not be crowded and I always sat outside, on the narrow benches by the edge, drinking bitter black tea.

On cloudy days, I felt trapped by the city’s moodiness, which seemed unchangeable. But when the sky was clear and the silhouette of the city was chiseled on the skyline, it seemed that the light would not cease; no fate would be too much for the city to bear.

We sat on the floor, knee to knee, and placed the board in the center. A circle was drawn in the middle of the letters, in which Kyle placed a coin, and we all put our fingertips on it. As we waited, our fingers rested too heavily on the coin and made it jerk. I told everyone to keep their fingers light, but even so, nothing happened.

After a while, Andrea spoke in the direction of the open window in invitation. Outside, we heard the speeding sound of a car, unusual in our neighborhood.

In the silence that followed, it seemed that the coin beneath our fingertips was becoming lighter, as if at any moment it might glide, or disappear. As if an eruption might occur.

We watched it slide towards “I.” Then, smoothly, as we knew it would, it told us it had arrived.

Aysegul Savas is a Turkish writer living in Paris. She is currently working on her first novel.