By Sabahattin Ali / Translated by Aysel K. Basci
It was a hot, sultry day. I had just left a friend’s home, where I had spent most of the evening drenched in perspiration, listening to a load of nonsense, and was walking slowly along the Kordonboyu. During these sticky and moist İzmir nights, which are worse than its days, the sea does not bring cool air, but instead ushers in a mist permeated by the smell of filth and moss. The road was empty. The masts of sailboats that crowded the shore rose from the sea like dry tree branches, disorganized as if they had run into one another. Masts large and small moved very slowly, and the Greek conversations of Cretan sailors could be heard. A little further away near the ferry port were porters and horse coaches whose operators were sleeping in their places. Beyond that, bright lights and bad dance music poured onto the sidewalks from a building’s second-floor windows. I was in front of the port’s parade of four or five bars. Just to see something lively, I began to climb the narrow stairs of a sailors’ bar. Perhaps I was trying to get rid of the numbing effect of those nonsensical conversations I had wasted my time with at my friend’s home where I was staying.
Not all the tables were full, but there were four or five crowded groups. At a table near the jazz performers sat six young women whose long gowns were as wrinkled as their faces. Their clients were a mismatched bunch. A few young men in a corner behind the dim beams, probably single civil servants who somehow had managed to get a little money in their hands, were sharing beers, and every time the dance began, they rushed to the young girls’ table, thinking they were having a fantastic night being rakish. At a table in the middle, four sailors from Marmaris were racing to waste the money they had earned from their last outing on a motor boat—which they had purchased with their earnings from sponge fishing—buying back-to-back drinks for two fat women, one Turkish the other Greek. At one of the upper-level box seats, a middle-aged, gray-haired womanizer had three women sitting around him, no doubt because the bar owner was his pal, and he was trying to have one of the most pleasurable nights of his middle-aged years at the least cost.
A waiter with dirty fingernails and a dirty shirt leaned across my table and asked what I wanted to drink. I noticed his tuxedo’s sleeves were worn out. I asked for a beer and began to watch the dance that had just started.
Advanced drunkenness had overtaken many of the men present: some were well educated and cultured; others were illiterate and hadn’t had the time to get cultured because they’d been too busy earning a living at sea. But those with culture and those without it—the good and the bad—were in an identical state, their faces masked by ungainly, lustful grins. The women, by contrast, both drunk and sober, seemed collectively to be asking, “Oh God, when will this end?” It was clear that their wish related not just to that night or their current life, it related to everything. These women would smile at the men next to them because it was their duty to make sure their clients spent the maximum amount of money that night. But if the men tried to snuggle too closely or stick their unshaven, sweaty faces to the women’s cheeks, they would turn into cats whose tails had been pulled, and would push the men away with both hands. However, immediately afterward, they would put on moves for their partners to ensure they did not get angry and leave. These changes happened so quickly, the transformation in their expressions was so abrupt, that it was foolish to look for any real change in their feelings.
Feeling weird and crushed, I tried to look elsewhere. I noticed a blond young woman in a black velvet gown who was sitting alone at a table, her entire back, shoulders, and most of her chest were naked. And she was looking at me. Her face was not unfamiliar. But, over time, women in these places begin to look like each other, so I thought, “I must have seen her somewhere, or maybe she resembles someone I know.” Although I tried to leave it there, I found it odd she was sitting alone while a lot of men were in line waiting to dance with a female partner. She wasn’t very ugly. And besides, during these late hours of the evening, men do not look at the faces of the women they cling to while turning on the dance floor. They just search for a naked piece of flesh they can touch, and they need the strong scent of a woman to fill their noses.
When I noticed that the blond woman sitting alone was still gazing at me persistently, I became uncomfortable. I turned my head to the dance floor where a thin woman with straight black hair falling on her face, and whose eyes were half closed from being drunk, was exchanging slaps with a sailor in his 40s who had a very red face. The sailor’s shaved head and his uneven mustache, longer on one side than the other, were trembling from anger. While a waiter tried to separate those two, another waiter appeared next to me. He bent towards my ear in a friendly manner and made a sign with his eyebrow pointing to the blond woman sitting alone. He said, “The lady wants to come to your table.”
I responded, “My lad, you know I am not one of those wealthy clients!”
“No, she just wants to talk to you about something.”
“Okay, she is welcome!”
The waiter looked at her and beckoned. I too looked at her, trying to give an impression that I had agreed. She rose and, just then, I realized how drunk she was. As she walked she held onto chairs, tables, and the beams located in a row from one end of the saloon to the other. She was having difficulty standing up.
She collapsed in a chair that the waiter pulled out for her. She looked down for a while, turned her gaze at me, and looked carefully. In her eyes, I could not see anything other than a very drunk person’s extraordinary effort to come to her senses. When I looked at her up close, I realized this face with a slightly upturned nose, slightly slanted eyes, and especially those reddish freckles around her eyes and nose, was familiar. However, I did not force myself to try to figure out where I had seen her. She was silent and kept moving her face muscles in a futile effort to come to her senses. For the sake of saying something, I asked, “Why aren’t you dancing?”
With her hand she made sign as if to say, “Oh, forget it!” Then, she suddenly tried to get up and compose herself. With a voice that sounded sober, she asked, “Don’t you recognize me?”
At that moment a felt a little strange. A shiver traveled down my spine, as if I had malaria.
“Is it you! …You?”
“Yes, it’s me, Nigar!”
Then it all came back to me. It was in Aydın, at a school with lots of windows. There were many bright-faced students, and in the middle section of the classroom, sitting in the very front row, was a little girl with freckles, her hair in two long braids. It all came back to me. I taught them German. This mischievous girl, the daughter of a civil servant from Eskişehir who worked at the train administration, was learning the meaning of those foreign words faster than the other students, and memorizing them. And when she got up, she always looked at my face with a half mocking smile and with an expression that said, “Oh, this is nothing. I can learn so much more!” As soon as the bell rang, she would grab my hand and say, “Let’s play volleyball.” She would drag me out to the schoolyard, and although she was a short little girl, she would shoot the ball like an arrow behind the net. She must have been around 12 years old. She was fiery, and life sprang from her every movement. How many years ago was all this? I calculated. It was 14 years ago. Now, when I looked at her face, I didn’t see a drunk woman. I saw not just mine but the entire school’s darling, little Freckles! It was as if she had not changed at all. That nose, those eyes, her golden blond hair, and those freckles.
I tried hard not to ask that first question that comes to mind, “How did you end up in a place like this?” Just like I used to do in our light classroom, I tried to frown so I wouldn’t smile, looked at her face and waited. Then she said what I unconsciously expected to hear.
“You haven’t changed at all. You still look at me the same way!”
“You are the same Nigar!”
“No I am not!”
As soon as she uttered those words her face changed. I felt that the closeness which took us back 14 years was slowly disappearing, and I became sad. Nigar put her naked arm on the table and her head on my shoulder and whispered, “I don’t intend to give you a headache. If I did not have a problem, I would not have introduced myself… since you did not recognize Freckles even after looking at my face.”
She pulled her head away from my shoulder and leant against the table with her chest. Without any introduction and quite unexpectedly, she said, “I have a child; that’s why I came to you.”
I did not exactly understand what she was saying, but to show my empathy, I smiled as if to say, “Continue,” and shook my head.
Freckles said, “I will tell you.” And casually she told me the following, as if it were someone else’s life story, using back-to-back broken sentences and words that disintegrated even before coming out of her mouth.
As soon as she had finished middle school, at the age of 15, her father married her off to a 45-year-old man, an assistant to the chief of train administration. Nigar continued:
“What could I do? Was I supposed to stay with him? Anyhow, I did all those years! But then, in his fifties, his drinking got out of control. You may say other women have drunk husbands too, but at least they have children, from whom they take comfort.
“Mine didn’t even have the conditions for that. On top of this, he was crazy jealous! Remember, in our class there was a Kemal from Buldan? At that time, he was in medical school. Now he is a doctor! A real ass! Remember, he was a good-looking guy; he used to take me on rides with his bicycle? That Kemal. Anyhow, he was in Aydın for school break, and one day I ran into him at the park. I remembered our good old school days, so I said to him, ‘Why don’t you come over and visit us?’ and gave him directions to our house. What do you know? The news immediately reached my old man! He rushed home from the bar to fight with me. I was surprised because he never came home that early. Before I could open my mouth, the insults began, ‘You were seen talking to a young man in the park. Around here, I have my honor to think about, slut!’ He came at me. Well, I was at the end of my patience, and I said to him, ‘Asshole, I don’t know what you have, but I know too well what you don’t have! Enough of this putting up with a useless man like you!’
“I’ll be darned! He grabbed his umbrella from behind the door and started to hit my head and face with it. Wouldn’t you know, just at that moment, Kemal showed up! When he saw the situation he tried to leave, but I yelled behind him. I didn’t know any better, just my foolishness. I said, ‘Don’t go, all this is happening because of you.’ My old man got stuck to these words. He dragged my name everywhere and humiliated me to the entire town. I could not get anyone to believe I did not have a relationship with Kemal. Sir, you know me, I am just an erratic girl. I still don’t know how I lasted with that man for seven years! As I said, I was foolish. My blood boiled; I shut the door in his face and left. Of course, there was no Kemal to be found anywhere. Apparently, he escaped while I was yelling behind him, and that evening he returned to Buldan. Under the circumstances, I couldn’t go to my parents’ home either. I was tired of all their nagging and didn’t want to hear them nag again about what had happened. That night, I went to a friend’s house. The next day, I had my belongings fetched from home; I sold my gold bracelets for cash and came to İzmir. If you want to know, a few days after that, I came here. This was three years ago. At that time, I worked for six months.
“I didn’t care about anything! What’s the big deal? Isn’t that life? One can live in a house or a bar. What difference does it make? However, one day, Kemal showed up at the bar with a bunch of his friends. As soon as he saw me, he ran to my table and began crying and sobbing. He kept saying, ‘You are in this situation all because of me! This guilt is killing me.’ Of course, it was all ‘drunk talk.’ But one wants to believe it! When he pleaded, ‘I can’t leave you here. Let’s go, you will leave with me, and we will get married,’ I believed him. I quickly settled my account with the owner of the bar. He owed me some back pay, but I let all of it go. In exchange they let me leave without any trouble. We lived together for five or six months. He kept saying, ‘As soon as I get permission from my father, we will get married.’
“I didn’t give a damn whether he married me or not. Except, one day, I discovered I was pregnant. He said, ‘Get rid of it, immediately!’ I tried to object and asked why. He said, ‘No way, impossible! I don’t want a child out of wedlock.’ Then I realized his real fear was that I would tie him down; he was just playing the honor card with me. He fell greatly out of favor with me. Don’t they take you for a fool? That really hurts! I said, ‘Okay, don’t worry. I have a few doctor acquaintances in İzmir. I will take care of it without much expense or noise.’ I got on the boat and came here directly. Right away, I started to work at the bar to make a little money.
“It has been eight months since I gave birth to a beautiful bouncing baby. I wish you could see him… I hired a woman who is taking care of him. She breastfeeds him too. Here, we are always drunk. And the milk of drunk women is not good for babies. Kemal doesn’t know my address. He has school and can’t come. Besides, it is questionable whether he actually wants to come. What was I saying? Yes, my baby is getting wasted in hotel rooms. When I saw you, I remembered that you know a lot of people in Ankara. There is a nursery there. Can you help place my son there? When he reaches the age of two, I will take him back. Even if they wanted, I would not leave him there! But for now, he needs a normal life.”
“I will do all I can my dear girl,” I said. “But why don’t you inform his father?”
Perhaps because of the seriousness of the story she was telling me, a much less drunk sounding Freckles looked at me in anger.
“Of course not!” she cried. “Why would I inform someone who did not want his own baby? I gave birth to him, and I will bring him up. The idiot will not even know.”
She looked tired. But in her eyes was that almost fierce light that shines when mothers talk about their children.
“Sir, you will do this for me, won’t you? I know you used to like me a lot. But I shouldn’t bother you…”
She rose and propped her hands against the table. Then, she bent and as if whispering in my ear she said:
“Sir, you will see. I will not eat; I will not drink. I will bring up my son and make something of him. One day, while walking in the road with my son, we will run into his father. I will ask my son to walk away. Then, I will confront his father and say, “Look bastard! That son you thought was not born has grown into a healthy, good-looking young man. But, he will not know you and he will never call you ‘father.’”
She turned her back and, as if her earlier drunkenness had returned, she staggered off holding onto tables and beams. Eventually, she got back to her table and sat down.
Author: Sabahattin Ali (1907-1948) was a prominent Turkish novelist, short-story writer, poet and journalist. His short novel “Madonna in A Fur Coat” (1943) is considered one of the best novellas in Turkish literature. This novel’s translations have recently hit the best seller lists and sold record number of copies. With this novel, Sabahattin Ali became one of the two Turkish novelists whose works became Penguin Classics.
Translator: Aysel K. Basci is a nonfiction writer and literary translator. She was born and raised in Cyprus and moved to the United States in 1975. Aysel is retired and resides in the Washington DC area. Her writing and translations appeared in the Michigan Quarterly Review, Adelaide Literary Magazine, Entropy, Critical Read, Bosphorus Review of Books, Aster(ix) and elsewhere.