By Melisa Kesmez
Translated by Ralph Hubbell
The woman on the ferry must have spent all sixty-something of her years on the Bosphorus—Istanbul was simply shining in her eyes. She was explaining something to another woman beside her, who I guessed was her daughter since she listened just as one would listen to a mother.
“Nothing’s the same anymore,” she said. “How do I know? From the tomatoes. The tomatoes in this city have completely changed.”
The ferry’s tea-seller then passed by, light on his feet and his tray piled high with restless clinking tea cups, molten toasts and glasses of fresh orange juice whose pulp had already sunk to the bottom. The women asked for two cups of sahlep and the man ran off to fetch them, leaving the abandoned tea to cool on his tray. They waited there in silence.
They didn’t look like they saw one another very often. That familiar mother-daughter strain had disappeared, maybe while the girl had been away living on her own, which would have tempered their feminine anger and allowed their relationship, like a flower planted into a larger pot, to draw a breath and bloom. They seemed to have missed each other too, they had that tenderness of two people who’d missed each other very much. The way they sat across from me, it was like they’d forgotten all their quarrels in their time apart, forgiven everything and allowed the heart to soften now that it was stripped of the weight of human flesh.
The sahlep arrived. The woman I took for the mother stretched her delicate trembling hand towards the jar of cinnamon and sprinkled a dusting over the cup’s sweet fragrance. Then the tea-seller left. The two women sipped their drinks, savouring that reminiscent taste of childhood. They must have been recalling something lovely. Soon the mother broke the silence.
“Because tomatoes are important,” she said. “Tomatoes matter.”
She said this somewhat to herself too. The woman beside her smiled. Unlike her slender mother she was a little plump, she probably resembled her father more than her mother, as all the daughters of beautiful women do—and she liked her sahlep without the cinnamon.
I was about to study them some more when I suddenly noticed that their similar hook noses were in fact exactly the same. And if a hook nose isn’t the most authentic thing a daughter can inherit from her mother, then what is? It made me smile to think there were two distinct people wandering this earth with that kind of a likeness, despite the miles and miles of difference between the slant of their eyes, or the unshapeliness of their feet, or the colour of their hair. But to allow for two of the same nose, while failing for that matter with every other part of the body, to be so insistent on the transfer of a nose’s genetic code over that long and tortuous road from mother to daughter, to be so unutterably stubborn over the continuation of a nose’s lineage as to produce its exact duplicate in a completely different body—who decided this?
Years ago, as a woman who didn’t resemble her mother in any way, I’d sat with Can at the wedding table, leaned in close to inspect our signatures and was surprised to see that I’d missed a crucial detail about myself—I realised that my left forefinger was as identical to my mother’s as a twin’s. How does a person’s forefinger escape her attention? How had this finger, which I looked at a thousand times a day, never caught my eye?
Right away I found my mother in the crowd. Amid all the plain figures packed in the hall for our ceremony, she was glowing. She had on a simple silver dress and her straight auburn hair, which couldn’t have been more different from my jet-black curls, was fastened in a bun at the back of her ivory neck. She looked soft, round and white, like a loaf of bread fresh out of the oven.
I’d tried to get a look at her hands but I couldn’t from my seat. I was signing off on the biggest mistake of my life, but what a relief it would have been, knowing that I hadn’t arrived yet at the age when I could bravely declare something like that aloud, to have seen her hands. I’d never been so sad. Even so, a glance passed between us and an invisible tunnel opened in the murmuring crowd. My mother smiled at me from the other side of that tunnel. It was as if she knew about the belated regret inside of me and said with her smile, “Never mind, honey, what can you do, that’s life,” while still declaring that she’d always be by my side. I felt proud then. I thought, “I am this woman’s daughter.” Deaf to the marriage registrar’s soulless memorisations, I looked at my forefinger and felt again that reassurance at being hers.
What a wonderful thing to be a woman’s daughter. Even if just a hook nose or a forefinger that doesn’t look like anything but itself, it’s one of life’s miracles that we get to carry all the way to death those sacred gifts endowed to us by our noble mothers. With these secret marks they’ll always tell us, “You came from me,” from my clay, from my soil, from my roots. We are the fruits of the same garden, the same blooming flower, the same leaf growing from the tip of a branch of a cherry tree that has only just shot up from the ground.
What’s more, the older you get the further this story scatters over the vast soils of your life and takes deeper root. One day when you catch yourself talking like your mother, when you see in a shop mirror that familiar hump in your back, when you open the kitchen cabinet and all the empty yogurt containers you’d collected come tumbling out, when your two eyebrows merge together like hers, or when your mother’s laugh lines appear etched in the same place on your own face, you’ll take that claim you’d clung to, the one about never turning out like her, and you’ll tuck it away in the pages of history. When the man in your life leaves you like your father left her you’ll realise then too that you are your mother’s daughter. When you start taking your tea like she does with a single cube of sugar, or when you end up with that mealy salt-and-pepper sweater of hers that you always hated and you put it on and you feel wonderful wearing it even though it’s even older than you… One morning when you wake up and look in the mirror, it will be your mother standing there in front of you.
This road from one woman to another, it’s a long and ancient one. It’s no different from the conversations we’d have among the dishes of that secret world of the kitchen, which the fathers and the husbands, who we’d leave in the living room on the pretext of making coffee or taking the warm börek from the oven, would never know. And when we’d come back with our mouths closed and the coffee tray in hand, or with the flower-print plates and the square-cut börek placed right in their centre, we’d settle back into the chairs we’d only just risen from, as if whatever we’d said moments before had never left our lips.
Groundwater flows from mother to daughter, rivers thin as thread coursing from woman to woman. Men don’t see these rivers. One day you’ll understand this, only you, quite suddenly, when you see that the sediment of the things that belonged to your mother are finally collecting on the shore. At first you’ll be astounded—then you’ll be pleased at how something has endured and survived, at how something has grown. Your sense of being hers will return to you, and you’ll never throw away those yogurt containers because you know one day you’ll need them.
The tea-seller came back for the empty glasses. I was now absolutely certain that this was the woman’s daughter, because she leaned her head on her mother’s shoulder. She didn’t live in this city. She’d be leaving soon, and they’d go back to missing each other. It would do them some good, though, the nonsense and the chaos that comes with everyday life wouldn’t make its demands on their relationship, the storms that used to burst out from under the same roof would become inaudible from afar, life’s trash would sort itself out and only the good things they had to tell one another would remain.
With the ferry docking soon, the mother took a small tightly-bound pouch from her purse. She offered it to her daughter, who held it in an effort to figure out what it could be. A cloud seemed to pass in front of the childlike pleasure she’d found in her sahlep a moment ago.
“Tomato seeds?” the girl said. “What for? Where did they come from?”
“We emptied out your grandmother’s house the other day.”
The girl was about to speak but her mother immediately started to explain, as if doing so would cause her daughter a little less sadness.
“I didn’t want to tell you. There’s nothing you could have done being so far away, it would have only made you upset to know.”
They fell into a short silence. The woman began to caress her daughter’s hand like it was a soft fabric.
“After she passed away we couldn’t bring ourselves to touch the place, you know. We ended up leaving it like it was, we didn’t have the heart to disturb that beautiful harmony. But apparently the house is about to collapse. I mean, it’s made of wood, it needs upkeep. What could we do? We hardly had a moment’s notice… Ah, but the things that came out of that house.”
“I wish I could have seen it one last time.”
“Me too. But it’s better this way, darling. Even us, we weren’t able to really look it over. And it killed us to see it emptied like that. We asked Mr. Ramazan for his help and he kept an eye on everything while we took it out. Who would have thought that all the furniture Mrs. Müzeyyen had taken such good care of would leave the place one by one and end up shoved inside a dusty storage room?”
“If I was here I would have taken everything. Maybe one day… I mean if I come back.”
“Well, don’t think about that now.”
“What about these seeds?”
“We found them in one of the drawers.”
The girl looked at the pouch again and smiled.
“These are heirloom seeds,” her mother said. “They’re very valuable.”
“And they’re my grandmother’s?”
“They are. These are the same seeds that gave us her famous tomatoes. All those summers we watched that tomato juice drip down your elbows! You grew up in that garden.”
They fell quiet again and the woman brought her hand to her daughter’s bangs. She brushed them aside, touching them like they were something she’d put inside a silk handkerchief years ago and hid away in her bedroom chest.
“This scar of yours here. Do you remember the day you fell out of that walnut tree? We were beside ourselves thinking it was worse than it actually was.”
The girl lifted her hand and touched the scar. What she touched, though, was more than a scar. It was her childhood, it was the mischievous adventure of a seven-year-old. It was the enormous tree she’d seen from a distance when she’d said, “I think I’ll climb that.” And it was a hero’s tale.
A scar was all it took to get the film rolling, and there she was, a kid in her grandmother’s house once again. If she lowered her eyes she might have seen among the things she’d bought from the market those blue bathing clogs with pink fleshy feet crammed in them. The ghost of her braided hair would have hung from both sides of her head, but she’d probably cut it short in her late adolescence, and it now swayed about her unreachable shoulders. She turned her head towards the water, then towards her mother and took her hand.
“That garden has my fingerprints all over it.”
Her mother rubbed at a tear that slid down her own cheek, ashamed, as any mother would be, to lose her composure in front of her child.
“These seeds are something to remember your grandmother by, but also me. So take care of them.”
“Oh, don’t talk like that, like your saying goodbye… You’re making me sad.”
The girl carefully put the pouch, this holy relic, into her purse. After a short silence she tried to push the conversation towards a less melancholy place.
“Well, what will happen to the land when the house comes down?”
“A lot of people want it. It’s in a high-priced area and everyone has started selling their property. There aren’t many neighbours left, since the deeds have gone to their kids. Otherwise they wouldn’t have budged. Your uncle doesn’t want to sell. Neither do I. But we’ll have to wait and see.”
“But the house is still there, like it always was, right?”
“And the garden?”
“The garden’s a bit of a wreck. Your uncle was stopping by once a month, but there’s no point if you can’t look after it every day.”
“Do you mind if we go over there tomorrow? Before I leave?”
Her mother paused. It seemed she couldn’t quite decide.
“Who knows how it is in the middle of the winter but… why not? I haven’t gone over in a while either. All right, we’ll go take a look tomorrow.”
And just like that, they’d managed to squeeze a life into a single ferry ride. In the time it took to drink a sahlep they’d called in at a few of a lifetime’s most treasured ports and brought me with them. When the ferry docked they would pass by and I would never see them again. But something had been lived over there across from me in the middle of the water, far from where we’d come and far from where we were going. I was probably the only one who’d seen it. What I’d come across was a massive boulder, slowly nudged along by the wind, the rain and the air that warms and cools, by the invisible power of a thousand years of life itself, and now here it was, gradually rolling down.
The ferry sidled against the dock with a shudder. The mother and daughter stood up and went arm-in-arm down the stairs. After a few short quick steps they disappeared into the crowd.
The moment I lost sight of them, a strange desolation fell over me. I might have stayed until someone came and found me there, like a passenger’s umbrella left behind in the rush to disembark. Then I felt overcome with a spiritless fatigue. They could leave me there and I would make do, the sun would rise over me and set behind me, winter would pass, summer would settle in, and I would stay rooted to my seat.
The man who’d brought the sahlep a little while before walked up and down the aisles picking up after everyone, getting everything in order before the next passengers came aboard to spoil the ferry’s silence. With the empty glasses collected on his tray, there was plenty of room on the ferry for the next round of steaming teas. Where the old stories had gotten up and left, there was now a place for the new. How many lifetimes would come and go with a sahlep? How many paths would intersect before branching apart again on the opposite shore?
A pair of sweethearts, for instance, might soon end up in the seat across from me, where the daughter and her mother had been. The boy will clumsily take the girl’s hand. When their fingers touch she’ll look around in a panic, thinking she’s done something wrong, but her cheeks will blush to the colour of a pink rose. As for my seat, an old man will sit here and furrow his eyebrows at their bold display—when it comes to love, this is a city where they brandish the drubbing stick from behind a velvet cloak.
The tea-seller and I caught each other’s eyes. He looked at me as if to say, “Aren’t you getting off?” I nodded softly and got to my feet. I went to the stairs and paused before going down. Then I looked back at the empty space where I’d been sitting, pulled the glove off my left hand and kissed my forefinger.
Melisa Kesmez has published two works of fiction, Bazen Bahar and Atları Bağlayın Geceyi Burada Geçireceğiz, through Sel Publishing. She has also translated a variety of work from English, including NippleJesus by Nick Hornby and a collection of Truman Capote's early stories. She lives in Istanbul with her cat, Keriman.
Ralph Hubbell‘s translations have appeared or are forthcoming in Asymptote's Translation Tuesday, The Hopkins Review and K1N. After living in Istanbul from 2007 to 2015, he now calls Baltimore home.