taken by Pentax K10D, at Istanbul
from THE CASTAWAYS
That Tuesday evening just seven days before he conceived the idea for the crime, Sami Baran, a political refugee who had lived for the past five years in Stockholm, was driving along an icy road that turned and twisted through the dusky forest. The beeches, pines and fir trees that shot skyward along either side of the narrow icy road were flashing past the windows of his old Volvo when it suddenly spun to a halt. The car was nearly ready for the junkyard; its once shiny navy blue finish, marred by patches of various hues, had faded to a dull cobalt. Having purchased it as a used car, Sami may have been—who knows—its eighth or even its tenth owner. The vehicle had been through quite a bit; it had suffered considerably from the long northern winters and was caked with rust from the salt continuously dumped onto the roads. By no means, however, was it a poor bargain for a refugee without a decent job, living off welfare from the Office of Political Asylum and Immigration and the 40 kronas per hour he occasionally made by driving a vehicle for the Department of Sanitation. The car provided a great escape for Sami. He never used it in the city because of the exorbitant price of parking, but it was perfect for driving headlong through the forests and lake-spotted countryside whenever that old chronic anxiety began to nibble at his insides. There were times he felt great pressure on his heart. As if squeezed into a lump that would then roll slowly upward as far as his throat, it left him scarcely able to breathe. Inwardly, he was collapsing. He would be on the point of exploding; there was a volcano about to erupt from his chest. With the onset of such an attack he knew of no other escape but to jump into his old Volvo and flee from the city as quickly as possible onto those deserted roads where he could press down hard on the gas pedal. At such moments he sensed an unbelievable relief in the spinning and sliding of his Volvo on the ice. Then whole streams of thought would spew from his lips.
Once he had jammed on the brakes as soon as he felt relief from a seizure, and what should he catch sight of in the rear-view mirror of his car—spinning out of control on the ice—but his own face dripping with tears. Although he knew very well that he approached a state of unconsciousness on each of these outings, that they pushed his mind to the limits and were extremely risky, how could he forego the unique relief they brought to his heart?
During the past few days Sami had been sitting around in the worn and tattered armchair in his small room in the student quarter of Kungshamra, from time to time inspecting his weary eyelids in the small mirror there and pressing his hand against his belly, where a worrisome and steadily increasing ache would slowly spread to the right and climax in a needle-like prick of agony.
All he could see from his armchair was a monotony of gray, an overcast, mousy grayness that reminded him of the puss under an infected scab, a gray cage composed of concrete houses with still more buildings behind them decked over by the low clouds that seemed to unite with the systematically laid out asphalt paving the streets. As if in a feeble attempt to spite this grayness, the window frames of the houses had all been painted bright colors: red, yellow and blue.
Sometimes Sami would walk on and on through the deserted streets of this silent quarter without encountering anyone but a woman or two on the way to the laundry or walking the baby. Everyone was at work. Cutting across the edges of the lawns as he rounded the corners of these narrow streets laid out at right angles and devoid of traffic, Sami enjoyed the feeling of the soft ground under his feet.
Perhaps the most irritating of all were pavements like those on the sidewalks and squares in Sergelstorg, the ones divided up into patterns of dark and light. He couldn’t help it; he’d choose one color and walk along stepping only on the black stones or only on the white, thus cutting a rather strange figure. If there were no contrasting colors in the pavement, he’d step only on every other stone—and when the pavement was laid of lozenge-shaped blocks, he could proceed according to any pattern his whim might dictate. Whenever he came to a picket fence or railing, it was the same. He had to run his finger along the row, touching each vertical paling. Woe, if one were missing! The rules were flexible; tapping every other one was also a possibility. Some people, he decided, must create routines like this from birth onwards whereas he had started only later in life. These strange habits were the gift of all that he had lived through, not to mention the long years he had spent here in the north. He couldn’t seem to do without these habits; after all, it was such little amusements that kept him going. His environment was hardly stimulating. Although he rather admired those who jostled past him on their way without paying any attention to where they were stepping, he couldn’t quite bring himself to do without this. Worst of all, however, was his state at home. Every once in a while he’d find himself spending ages picking every bit of lint from the chair he was sitting in. Every microscopic white speck must disappear from the worn dark blue velvet upholstery. The glasses on the kitchen shelves had to be in a certain order, and the plates, too.
Sami’s introduction to his new environment had been a sudden one. Four years and eight months before when he first set foot on the cold wet pavements of Stockholm, he had at once sensed a new and heavy atmosphere clinging to him as he gazed at the cars glittering under the rain and the streams of insanity flowing past on either side of him. It had been like stepping out of a time machine. Despite the brightly lit advertisements, the shimmer of flowing neon and the endless twinkling of headlights and stoplights, the city appeared cold and distant. Riveted to his feet in the midst of this and not knowing what to do next, he hoisted his small valise, turned on his heels and escaped back into the stately edifice of the central station; inside once more, he could feel a few drops of rainwater that had seeped under his collar trickle down his spine. The station, which he likened to a huge hangar, was lined with queues from one end to the other. Long-haired drunks with tattooed arms and leather thongs around their wrists, shuffled past, their wooden shoes clip-clopping against the concrete of the floor. Pointing this way and that with their forefingers, they interrupted the course of others scurrying by; their eyes seemed to be scanning something located on an infinite horizon. From the dome above the somber lamentations of the northern forests seemed to be echoing to Sami. Below the great arch—right in the midst of the hustle and bustle—he watched a man take a piss, swaying unabashedly from side to side. Proceeding to the telephone area, Sami was utterly dismayed to find a whole labyrinth of directories strung up behind the phones. When he attempted to consult a little old lady passing by, she’d simply waved him aside as if shooing off a fly. As he was leaving the area, that strange lamentation had accosted his ears once again.
The water that had seeped from the forest onto the road was frozen solid; at each curve Sami rounded, he felt as if he were teetering on a razor’s edge. For a couple of seconds—as the Volvo under him suddenly slid to the right, the tires glancing off the roots of the trees—Sami thought he had lost all control. The automobile seemed to bring itself around, however, and was soon back on the roadbed traveling upright. Even throughout this excitement the regular and uninterrupted whining that had been accompanying him persisted, a continuous lament in his ears. He then realized he was deriving a certain pleasure, as it were, from these incomprehensible voices.
While wandering among the houses of his student quarter with their red, yellow and blue window-frames now decorated with children’s artwork of colored chalk, their entries hung with homemade lanterns and brightened by the colored patterns on the linoleum runners laid down inside, Sami would try to ignore these colorful surroundings, brightened still more by the Christmas decorations. He took no interest in the colorful Laplander’s caps, the whittled wooden shoes and woolen socks — not even in the traditional carvings of Dala horses he saw in the windows. Despite these gay surroundings, Sami’s mind kept returning to the same question: “Do you suppose I have cancer?” That one spot at the right of his abdomen was beginning to ache from the spasms of pain he’d been having there. Every now and then he’d feel as if someone were jabbing him with a hatpin.
To the accompaniment of the rhythmic howling, Sami now turned on his headlights. The winter sky that never really brightened with the full light of day was now further tainted by the dusk of afternoon, and the high, dense forest on either side of the road made his route even more shadowy. The unbelievably cold temperature outside the car was dropping even further, benumbing everything in the surroundings; he felt encompassed by a lifeless tundra. All the wildlife of the frozen north must now be deep in hibernation.
From time to time he would gather a whole sheaf of newspapers and read every line, trying to make some sense of his situation. Then he’d head straight for the hospital, where his aches and pains would grow more acute as he waited to be admitted. From the white plastic social security card he handed them, the nurses would know just who he was. Once the doctor’s hands were grazing over his anatomy in the white pallor of the examination room, he’d start his tirade. “I’ve got a heart problem! It runs in the family; so many of us have died of heart failure. Sometimes I wake up at night and my heart is at a standstill—I don’t have any pulse at all. Then suddenly it’s just the opposite: my circulation starts racing. My lips are beginning to turn purple; it’s got be a heart problem.”
Jumping up and rushing out from his apartment to the hospital was becoming a habit with him. Each time he’d see a different doctor. “I think it must be a gall stone. It hurts just here,” Sami would say, “Especially after I’ve eaten. . .” or “I think it must be prostate trouble.”
Hearing no confirmation from the doctor, he’d start all over, becoming increasingly insistent. One he screamed at the top of his lungs that the young doctor was killing him, “Du ska doda mig!” and flung a heavy ashtray at the poor man’s head. Once a medicine he was given (he later learned it was a sedative) caused a severe drop in his blood pressure. His tongue lolled in his mouth, and his jaws and neck stiffened. “This is it,” he told himself, “I’ve come to the end of my rope.” When that particular doctor apologized for having prescribed the drug a bit too hastily, explaining that there were certain medications Sami must avoid due to an aberration in his system, Sami was satisfied. Finally an allusion to some abnormality had come straight from a doctor’s mouth. This was a victory. There was something wrong with him. He was ill. He felt grateful to that doctor.
In the dusky hold of a ship, amid smells of diesel fuel, oil, salt air, and fish both potent and fresh, Sami sees himself and Astrid, the only Swedish girl he had ever had, sitting at the end of a much-scarred wooden table lit only by the dim rays of a single porthole. She reaches out towards him with her dexterous hands… Then suddenly he is running underground; he must be in the metro—yes—on the escalator and now in the streets, surrounded by drunks, their puke and smashed beer cans, youths in imitation leather jackets jostling the old folks, porno ads, the clatter and clink of machines spewing out coins—handfuls of krona and ore — pimpled couples kissing one another’s lips that smack of hot dogs, mashed potatoes, and sweet-sour mustard. Cheaply dressed brunettes in high platform shoes in the foreign quarter, and others with the Turkish star and crescent on their chest, flash before his eyes. The squealing of brakes, the shouts, the laughter and guffaws reach a crescendo, then disperse into the air like powder—like the scouring powder used to make the hospital room so immaculate. Here they are giving him sips of foul-tasting medicine and turning him from side to side for some kind of x-rays. He tries to interpret the expressions on their faces.
“What is it?”
“Ask again in three days!”
They seem to be looking at him with some apprehension, or is it just his imagination?
The day he went to the police headquarters to apply for official status as a political refugee had begun with an interview by an officer sitting behind a metal desk, a man with the longest and thinnest face he’d ever seen. After quizzing Sami thoroughly about his passport, this official had pressed a buzzer to summon other policemen who then pushed him into an elevator and escorted him to a ward behind bars on the top floor. There three guardians had stripped him of his clothes and emptied the contents of his pockets into a plastic bag. That had been the moment when Sami first felt regret. Coming here had been a mistake.
For immigrants, Scandinavia was obviously not the land that the pages of the Norwegian author Knut Hamsun he’d read in Ankara had suggested. It was not that fairy-tale land of white-water rivers swirling beneath heavy-branched oaks and of torches with which one could illuminate the white virgin snow of a landscape inhabited by the prancing sylvan sprites of the north. He had suspected as much ever since his arrival at the central station; an awareness of this deception had probably first dawned on him at the very moment of his arrival, but it was now undeniably clear to him.
After every stitch of his clothing had been inspected, he was permitted to dress, and following the procedure of registration, he had been locked up behind the iron door of one of the rooms along the right-hand side of the corridor. The absence of an outside window here had produced a very strange effect on Sami. The room was in line with the guardians’ office, and a window-like aperture did open in that direction. Although Sami was sure that his room was against an outside wall, there was no window; he was closed off, walled up. He’d stretched out on the bed, made up with paper-tissue sheets and pillowcase, and pictured the snow falling outside, not even a meter from where he lay. From the guardians’ office at 3:00 p.m. he’d been able to see the white snowflakes contrasted against the darkening afternoon sky. Even if he left this place right that second and never again returned to this chamber, he knew he’d never be able to forget it. The very idea of such a room was repellent. It was as bad as an operation theater in the hospital! He nodded off and then came back to. He had visions; he must have been half asleep. At one point the little window in the iron door opened and a woman’s face appeared. “Turkish, a Turk!” he heard. She then came in and walked towards him, motioning for him to roll up his sleeves. He did as she indicated; only later had he realized she was checking his arms for needle-marks.
A bit later a grumpy-faced old man brought him his dinner: raw fish in a yellow sauce with a slice or two of sweetened bread. Without even tasting it he lay back down. It was then that he became aware of a distant whine that had been keeping him company here almost like faint background music. The volume seemed to increase; the sound was pulsing from the walls, ceiling and door. Listening closely, he traced the source to the ventilation duct near the head of his bed, but this did not allay his irritation. Even when he buried his head under the pillow, he could still hear the sound; it reminded him of a dentist’s drill. Presently the door was opened to admit the grumpy-faced old man, who distinctly reminded Sami of a bulldog, his cheeks hanging in folds to either side of his mouth. His grayish eyes, buried deep in his wrinkled face, resembled two glass marbles. The man went on and on explaining something in Swedish, of which Sami understood not a single word. When the old man finally realized that Sami was not following him at all, he took a deep breath and puffed out his chest, which he then patted with his left hand. Interpreting this as advice not to sit and sulk but to liven up a bit, Sami rose to his feet and filled his chest with air as well. Now the guardian repeated himself, taking an even deeper breath. Within a few moments the two were doing calisthenics in the room, Sami still somewhat suspicious that he hadn’t picked up on the old man’s message. As the man swung his arms into the air, he’d follow suit, opening and closing his arms, inhaling and exhaling deeply. Apparently disappointed at his failure to communicate, the elderly guardian retreated from the cell, only to return a few minutes later with a young officer who could inform Sami in English that it was exercise time. Thankful that his English—as rudimentary as it was—had enabled him to understand, Sami brightened up somewhat despite his shame at the thought of what ridiculous antics the inept old bulldog had induced in him there in the cell.
The exercise area was on the roof, partitioned into triangular compartments that couldn’t have measured more than three square meters, closed over with metal mesh—like cages! This provided Sami with his first real empathy for zoo animals. The flooring was simply concrete. The lamps shone like giant candles with the snowflakes forming a white halo around the bulbs. Sami had felt tears welling in his eyes. This was a necessary routine in his application for refugee status; he’d had no choice. He’d have to stay there until investigation into his past had been completed.
By now the Volvo had reached quite a good speed; unable to remain straight on course, it wove back and forth like a machine out of control. The forest roads were deserted; once out of the city, Sami hadn’t encountered even the least spark of life, let alone a car. There was only the icy road with the dark trees flashing past on either side. It was becoming darker and darker.
After his experience with the police Sami Baran had finally received his blue U.N. passport with Fraemlingspass inscribed across the cover. For months thereafter he had awakened every morning in the pitch dark of pre-dawn to face the artificially lit corridors, kitchens and common rooms of the Immigrant Housing Development. He was pulled into the flow of the other immigrants roused too early from sleep, but getting ready for their day, brewing coffee in the kitchen, devouring sandwiches that had been prepared the night before and spooning flingor—cornflakes — and milk into their mouths. Once they stepped out the door, their lungs had been stung by the bitter cold that prickled like a thousand needles, and the streetlights planted between the concrete structures glared on the white snow, dazzling their eyes. The packed slush would be frozen hard as glass, a crystalline mass refracting the light. Shivering in the cold, the immigrants made their way through the streets like shadows—step by step—careful not to slip and fall. They passed like stooped shadows, wrapped from head to toe, their heads—in colorful stocking caps and furry hats—hunched down between their shoulders and their necks buried in woolen scarves. In the morning dark there was always a crowd at the bus stop. Sami had now received his very own public transport pass—just like everybody else. At the last stop, he’d get off the bus and follow the crowd into the metro and down the escalator, down seven flights into the bowels of the earth. These underground passages hewn out of the bedrock, damp with beads of condensation and reeking of motor oil, were as cold as a grave; one could feel the breath of the archangel Gabriel swirling from one end of the labyrinth to the other. All the commuters looked two shades paler here than above ground, and the cruel florescent lighting would reveal sags and bags under the eyes of everyone waiting for the train. As soon as it arrived—like a blast of wind from the mouth of the tunnel—all piled on, squeezing into whatever space was available.
Upon their return to the world above, the passengers found the darkness just as intense as before, but lights were aglow in the school where Sami would find his classmates from Uruguay, Chile, Greece, Japan, and Iran already gathered at their desks waiting for Swedish lessons to begin. Although so different and distant from one another, their postures and attitudes conveyed only a striking similarity. Their red-bearded instructor, who one could easily imagine had stepped directly out of a medieval peasant community, had exhibited the patience of a saint as he had them repeat over and over again the Swedish syllables that they could not seem to twist their tongues around.
With the continuous wailing growing ever stronger in his ears, Sami entered the next curve without letting up on the gas. While savoring the chilling threat of death mingled with his anticipation of the car’s pulling itself out of the next sideways slide, one that was going to swing the tail of the car right off the road, he suddenly became aware of a large brown object directly in his path.
Despite a flash of freezing paralysis in his brain waves, his foot was already directed toward the brake pedal. Even before he actually pressed down, however, he knew he couldn’t stop in time. Every bone in his body knew it; the blood in every tiny capillary from his toes to his fingertips froze with the realization that this heap of iron under him was going into an uncontrollable spin, and that there was absolutely nothing he could do to control this terrific amount of centrifugal force.
He saw a huge pair of limpid eyes seemingly suspended in the glow of his headlights, and directly towards those eyes—above which he could picture a pair of gracefully forking antlers—he was hurtling at full speed. Then Sami felt the sudden jolt, his shoulders and spine quaked, and he was sure the sound of the crash must have been traveling to the ends of the earth. The old Volvo, dragged along under its own momentum, swung about and gradually shuddered to a halt sideways, its headlights shining into the forest.
The trees shone white with snow. The surroundings were bathed in a deep silence. It was as if the whole world had frozen to a standstill. There was not so much as the snap of a twig to be heard. It was an eerie silence. Sami opened the door and stepped out. His cheeks felt the bite of the frosty air; his lungs seemed to fill with ice with every breath he took. Only then did it occur to him to look back. There was something dark on the road with a smaller something in slight animation beside it. He got back into the car and swung it around so that the Volvo’s headlights shone back in the direction he had come from. Lying on the snowy road he saw a colossal doe, and beside its fallen head a fawn, licking it and nudging it with its tiny muzzle.
Sami’s heart froze! Unable to believe his eyes, he crawled out of the car once more and walked towards the deer. A huge brown deer that would probably have stood a meter and a half high on foot lay silent on the ground! One of its antlers was broken off just above the root, and blood trickled from its mouth. Sami knelt down beside it. His heart bled, overflowing with pity for this creature with death throes reflected in its limpid eyes. In the corners of them he could see a few drops of blood collecting. The deer, its mouth filled with a froth of blood, cast its injured eyes quite hopelessly up at Sami. He stroked the forehead of the magnificent creature and felt the firmness of the skull with the warmth of life about to fade away. At that moment he felt the warm wet tongue of the little fawn upon his hand. The baby deer was rubbing against him and licking his hand with its tiny warm tongue.
Sami, sure his heart would explode if he remained there one second longer under the gaze of the deer and the nudging of its fawn, snatched his hand back from the deer’s head in sheer panic and escaped at a run toward the Volvo, not daring even to glance at the baby. In an indescribable haste, he jerked on the steering wheel, spun the car around, and stepped on the gas in mad flight. Now he was traveling even faster than before. Tears poured from his eyes till his cheeks glistened. The whining laments seemed to increase in both pitch and tempo. As if in a delirium Sami began to accompany the rhythm of these unintelligible moaning voices; as he did so, the lines of an old Anatolian folk song bewailing the death of fallen deer came to mind. One of the refrains described an animal with bloodstains to its knees and ants swarming in its eyes. Later in the song came “Run and hide, my gazelle, with your fawn—the alien hunter has come.” Damn it all, hadn’t he tried his best to save this doe and her fawn from the whims of his Volvo? If the deer hadn’t jumped to one side at the last minute, he’d have hit her head-on—and probably would have been dead himself right now. The doe had spared him even if she hadn’t been able to save herself. Now the animal lay there on the icy road, awaiting certain death. What would the fawn do then, he wondered. Would instinct tell it that its mother had died and would never rise to her feet again? Would the baby give up hope and wander away, or would it remain at her side the whole night, licking her, comforting her, and hoping to coax her to her feet?
As his mind cleared, his conscience began to whisper to him that he had indeed committed a serious crime. All right, hitting the animal had been an accident. Let’s say there’d been no possible way to avoid it, but this was hit-and-run. He was deserting the baby there on the road beside its dying mother. “How many babes have you left in the hands of the hunters?” continued the lyrics he was murmuring. Actually, he shouldn’t be running away at all. He was fleeing from his own sudden wave of pity that had pierced his heart as swiftly as a switchblade. Quite the contrary, it was courage one should show in such a situation. There might be some way to soothe the pangs of the wounded animal; he could at least take her little one to a place of relative safety.
He now regretted what the fear and panic within him had prompted him to do. Although by now he was quite far from the scene of the accident, he made up his mind: he was going back to help the two deer. It was only right. Again he spun the Volvo around and drove back in high gear, eating up the kilometers he had put between himself and the animals. However painful it might be, he had to face the situation. One way or the other he’d never be able to forget the accident. It was engraved on his memory.
In the darkness each curve looked like the next. At each bend in the road he’d slow the car, hoping to glimpse the deer and her fawn, but there was nothing to meet his eye on this icy road. Slowly and carefully rounding each bend in constant anticipation of meeting the deer, Sami had now retraced a long stretch of his route. He finally came to the conclusion that he must have passed the scene of the accident long ago. The deer was nowhere to be seen, and the fawn was gone, too!
It was much too dark to walk along the road searching step by step for traces of blood, so Sami returned to the curve he thought most likely to be the spot where he’d hit the animal. Sure enough, this was it. On the road he could see the tire tracks and skid marks left by the spinning automobile. This is where he’d struck the doe, but neither she nor the fawn were there! Nor was there any blood. Could someone else have come along and rescued the animals—perhaps notified the authorities and had the deer and her baby taken to safety? Or perhaps the deer—not really so critically injured—had regained consciousness and struggled to her feet, taking her little one—after a severe bawling out and an adamant warning never again to come anywhere near this perilous road—back into the familiar security of their deep dark woods laced with frozen streams.
Otherwise, none of this had happened at all. Couldn’t it possibly have been merely a figment of Sami’s imagination? The deer and the fawn and the crash all nothing but hallucination? No! Even now he could still feel the warmth and the firmness of the doe’s forehead! It must have been real. The way the warm tongue of the fawn had licked his hand! His hand had been wet. To conjure up this much in one’s imagination, a person would have to be stark-raving mad, and that was one thing Sami wasn’t. He might have his various complaints, but–God be praised—this northern exile hadn’t succeeded in pushing him over that fine line between sanity and insanity!
A few minutes of rationalization brought Sami to his senses; there was a simple way to resolve this dilemma: all he had to do was to inspect the Volvo for damage. Traces from the crash would be the one physical proof still at hand to confirm the reality of it all. He walked straight to the front of the Volvo to have a look. Running his hands over the ice-covered hood, he felt for the scar, but wouldn’t you know, despite all the dents and scrapes accumulated on the body of the Volvo, on the nose of the car there was not so much as a scratch or a bruise. The hood was like new!
It was then and there, in the cold of the northern evening, that Sami inhaled deeply of the freezing breezes and with this icy blast of air upon his lungs decided that his next trip to the hospital would not be in vain. His condition was much more serious than he’d ever imagined.
The loneliness on the road now greatly irked him, for the first time he was scared of the icy road; he felt a new flutter in his heart: fear. Upon Sami—just as upon the rest of mankind—the timeless deity Pan had bestowed a generous share of his gift of panic.
Bir Kedi, Bir Adam, Bir Olum (2001). Istanbul: Remzi Kitabevi, pp. 7-21.
translated by Jean Carpenter Efe