THE LONG JOURNEY
“And I do not value solitude at all.
I do not value myself when I’m alone.”
Peter Handke, The Left-Handed Woman
The woman did not choose the man, nor the man the woman to accompany him on a long journey. When it was time for them to leave they looked first at each other, then all around them, and having no other option, set out together.
Until they left the city, they followed the roads they knew. When they arrived at the city’s edge they saw it was surrounded by silver soil. There was a narrow path before them. The man advanced quickly, but paused to survey the area, while the woman walked without altering her pace, with a dull curiosity.
The road neither narrowed nor widened. From the first day, it was narrow enough for them to touch one another when they walked side by side, an option they strongly rejected. When the sun came out, the soil shone so brightly it was a job to make out even a single path. At night, first the stars, then the soil, would light up and go out, the two blurring into one another. No one knows how much time passed in that way. After a long while the man said, Everyone’s left; they went on, listening to their footsteps, A long time ago, said the woman. Why did they leave us behind? I wasn’t able to choose who I went with, said the woman, I didn’t notice them leaving, no one told me. The woman paused. Haven’t we walked enough for today, she said, No, we might be able to catch up with them.
First the path, then all the soil turned into a shade of red never seen before. They continued walking without coming across a single footprint. After countless days the man said, Your silence is getting on my nerves, You’re silent too, said the woman, if you spoke I’d listen. Again they walked for days.
When they reached the waterfront they weren’t thirsty, but they drank. They sat down for the first time since setting out. They touched the red soil for the first time. When I was a child I killed a bird, said the man, I didn’t kill it, my friend killed it, he wasn’t even my friend, we just happened to be together that day. He said let’s eat it, we plucked its feathers, but still, when I bit into it I kept getting feathers in my mouth. Why did I go along with him? He stood up, reached out towards the water, drank, and turned, in anger, Why didn’t they take us? I, said the woman, wasn’t able to choose who I went with, You think you’re superior, that’s why, said the man, that’s the reason why you’re lonely, I watch you all the time while you’re walking, you think you’re even more superior than the soil you tread on. Your silence is getting on my nerves, I’d be better off by myself, at least then I’d know I was alone. I’m sleepy, said the woman, I think I’m going to have a dream.
In her dream the woman was moving through the depths of the water. There was no sign indicating where she was headed. She knew.
In his dream the man was at the tip of a slope. He knew he could fly. That was all.
When they awoke the woman was talkative, the man silent. I gave away all the books I loved, said the woman, I never gave away anything I loved, said the man.
The woman said, After this the path will disappear, we’ll have to choose where we go. You’re going to want to go in one direction and I in another. It won’t matter where we go, what will matter is that we stay together. The path will vanish, said the man, I’m going to want to go in one direction and you in another. If we go our separate ways then so be it. What will matter is where we’re going.
The red soil turned irremediably black, while the sky turned spectacularly white. When night fell, not a single star came out, nor did the moon. And if there were a path before them, it had disappeared from view. The man found the woman’s hand within the cloying blackness and pulled it, This way, he said, the woman was undecided, she acquiesced, they continued.
When the stars slowly began to appear within the relentless darkness, the man could not contain his cry of joy. Releasing their hands, they looked first at the sky, then at each other. The woman told the man that the stars had once been a large family all living together, but had separated after a quarrel that no one wanted to talk about and that, to avoid causing each other any more hurt, they had promised not to go within more than a certain distance of each other and spread themselves out in the sky. The man listened to the story, distracted, Let’s go, he said.
By the time the soil regained its colour, enough time had passed for them to forget what shade it had been. The straight road curved up a hill. They walked. They saw a tiny hut on the other side of the hill. They went in. It was the woman’s house. It was the man’s house too. Only they didn’t remember that. They sat down. Enough time passed for blue veins to sprout on their hands.
A noise. Dull shooting. At first it seemed to be coming from far away, then from themselves. The man stood up, he paced around the room. He listened to the room, to himself. When he headed for the fridge door he knew he would find a man curled up into a ball inside. It took so long, said the man-who-came-out-of-the-fridge reproachfully, I was about to freeze as I fought for all I was worth to get out of there. The man sat down again, the man-who-came-out-of-the-fridge stuck with them. His coldness shrouded first the room, then their bodies.
Although everyday life was disrupted during the first few days when the Ban on Stepping on the Street came into force by Statutory Decree, over time everything returned to normal.
Right from the first day, nothing changed for the people whose journeys consisted of going from one car park to another, and they were delighted to see the back of the pedestrian traffic. As for everyone else, they travelled to work by means of ropes suspended between apartment buildings. Although it took longer than it used to, somehow they still managed to fulfill their daily obligations.
Naturally, the population hadn’t taken the ban lying down. Many a columnist had used strong language to criticise the City Council’s decision, on the grounds that the streets were an important part of city culture and summoned the people to take to the streets in protest. However, the ban itself and the severity of the measures the City Council took against anyone who flouted it made it impossible for the summons to bear any fruit. The need to get to work weighed heavily on even the ban’s most vehement opponents, and people found ways of carrying on with their lives without stepping on the street.
Enough time passed for people to forget that stepping on the street was banned. With time, stepping on the street took on the status of one of the surreal events in the stories that grandfathers tell their grandchildren.
Like everyone else, Selim, who worked on the top floor of the city’s tallest skyscraper, had never stepped on the street. The closest he had come was when he had descended to a distance of some ten metres from the ground on a day when the ropes had grown slack in the heat.
One day, as he was smoking on the skyscraper’s roof terrace, he saw a bird. Given that he saw more birds than people in his day-to-day life he was used to them, but this bird was unlike any of the others that he saw. Its wings were so small, it was a miracle they had managed to carry it up that high. There was a black mark on its head. It eyed Selim without moving. Then it started flying somewhere above him and was out of sight in an instant. In the days that followed, the same incident recurred countless times.
That day Selim went to work with a rope with a longish hook attached to the end. When he went up to the roof terrace the bird was there again, staring, waiting. They gazed at each other for a while, then once again the bird flapped its wings towards the same destination and vanished out of sight. Selim swung the rope in the air. And with a sharp clang it hooked onto something. Anyone looking up from below would think the rope was hanging in mid-air, but as the hook had hooked onto something, it clearly led somewhere. He started climbing. He disappeared out of sight.
The next day no one noticed that Selim wasn’t at work. In the days that followed, one of his colleagues noticed the rope on the roof terrace hanging in mid-air, climbed up and he too disappeared out of sight. With time the number of people in the city tossing ropes up into the sky and disappearing increased.
When a ban on climbing up into the sky was issued by Statutory Decree there was hardly anyone left in the city.
PEOPLE LIKE YOU
It was morning when she reached the city. She could barely remember a thing. She had got on the bus and gone to sleep.
She got off the bus. She entered the station. There were lone individuals sitting on metal seats in the centre of the glass-enclosed building. No one spoke to anyone. Yet she could hear murmuring. She went out. She walked. She walked for a long time, in fog so thick she could barely see her footsteps. It was an effort to make out the buildings. They were all tall, greyish yellow, without balconies.
She made out the light, Hotel, she entered, One night she said, the man handed over the key without a word, she paid and went up to the room. Greyish yellow walls, a bed with a blanket, a table, a mirror. She locked the door and left the key in the lock. She drifted off to sleep.
She awoke to the sound of the telephone. I’m going to ask you to vacate the room, said the voice. Why, she asked. Did you come here for a rendezvous, we don’t allow rendezvous in this hotel. She didn’t remember if she had gone there for a rendezvous. Why, she repeated. I don’t know, said the voice, you don’t look like the kind of person who would come here. What kind of person did she look like, she didn’t ask. She looked in the mirror, first she made out her eyes, her nose. Then her lips, her wide forehead, her eyebrows, her cheeks. As she looked her face changed, instead of looking at her, the eyes reflected in the mirror searched the room uneasily. Her nose began to grow indistinct, her eyes disappeared into their sockets. All that wasted effort, she thought. When she drifted off to sleep, the fog had shrouded the room.
Once again she awoke to the sound of the telephone. You need to vacate the room, said the voice. No, she replied. I’m not asking you, vacate the room. She would not, besides, she couldn’t. She looked in the mirror, she tried to make out her face through the fog, there was nothing there. How long had it been, what had she looked like before, she couldn’t remember. But still, no one could evict her from the room for not looking like anyone. She drifted off to sleep.
She awoke to the sound of knocking at the door. Vacate the room, said the voice on the other side. I’m not going to ask where you came from, I’ll give you your money back, I’ll pay you extra if you like, as long as you leave. No, she said, but she couldn’t hear her voice. If you don’t leave I’ll smash the lock, you’re leaving no matter what. I’m telling you for your own good, people like you shouldn’t come here. She waited. She heard the footsteps growing faint. She drifted off to sleep.
She awoke to the sound of talking. It’ll cost you, said a voice, this is a sturdy lock, I don’t care, said the voice, just as long as you smash it. Under the blanket she waited for them to smash the lock. Some time later, she heard the sound of footsteps in the room. She must have climbed out of the window, said the voice. How, asked the other voice. I don’t know, said the voice, the only thing that matters is that she’s left.
By Sine Ergün
Translated from the Turkish by Ümit Hussein
Sine Ergün (1982) is a writer based in Istanbul, Turkey. She has published three books: Burası Tekin Değil (“It’s not Safe Here”, Yitik Ülke Publishing, 2010; Can Publishing, 2012), Bazen Hayat (“Life, Sometimes”, Can Publishing, 2012) and Baştankara (“Chickadee”, Can Publishing, 2016). In 2013, she received the 59th Sait Faik Short Story Award for her book Bazen Hayat. Her translation works, essays, interviews, poetry, and short stories have been published in several literature magazines, and Ergün herself has worked as an editor at Notos Book and edited Notos magazine. Since 2012, she has been working as the founding director of the art initiative maumau. She is currently preparing her next show as a curator as well as working on an anthology on Bartleby Syndrome – the Writers of No.
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Thank you to the European Union Prize for Literature for allowing us to republish this translation.