Pulp.net - Sun Eating Gypsy

The Online Home of New Fiction

November 2008

Buket Uzuner
There is hardly a boy in the world who, having once seen a bike, does not want one of his own.

I did not.

I could not conceive of another living creature to take the place of my gentle, doe-eyed mule, so the idea of spending my evenings riding down the bank of the stream on a mechanical gadget was impossible. For days the bike stood in our yard like a foreign object. A hostile creature! One that threatened to take my best friend, that most stubborn of the world’s beauties, my mule, away from me…

I told my mother I could not love anything that did not have eyes. I could tell if a creature was good, kind and loving by looking into its eyes, but the bike had none.

My mother gazed at me and smiled wearily. ‘How do you see the eyes of ants, Oguz?’

I was taken aback. Baffled. I did like ants. I got all confused, and piped down. I still don’t know how to ride a bike. Kids who grow up fatherless don’t know what it’s like to count on their dads during fights. I was one of them.

When I got beaten up, the thing that hurt most was my lack of a father. Anger and sorrow would flare up inside me, and burn like a red-hot iron. When I cried, my tears gave off the sickening smell of water sizzling on a hot grate. The smell permeated my shirts, and could only be extracted if they were boiled clean. To this day, extreme sadness makes me perspire with the same odour.

At such times, I would skulk off to my secret spot by the water and cry, certain that no one could see me. A six-year-old kid who first discovers his personal life on the banks of a stream will forever remain close to nature.

I would sit crying on the bank and race twigs in the water. One twig would be the good guy, and the other the bad one. On the days I got licked, the bad twig would beat the good one and win. When I got home, my mother could tell more from my sorrow soaked shirt than from my bruises that I had been in a fight.

My mother was a midwife. She was beautiful: twice as beautiful as any mother, for she was both mother and father to me. She was brave, she was hard-working. She used to put me in the saddle and travel to other villages on horseback for births. I never knew when she grew troubled, or depressed, when she despaired, for she always wore a tired but patient expression. She listened to all my tales of flying horses, talking streams, men who swallowed their own tongues and grass that tore its hair out. My mother loved, raised and regarded me as a mother humours her strange son.

Once circumcised, boys begin to differ in personality from girls, their sexual identity having been clearly established for the first time.

The villagers had arranged a great feast to celebrate the circumcision of their beloved midwife Seniha’s fatherless son. A flutter of excitement ran through the crowd when even the head district official showed up with his family. I can still see the young girls with their trays of sherbet, the old aunties in headscarves carrying stacks of cookies, and my mother beaming with pride. The crowd, the heat, the noise, the young girls carrying trays of sherbet, drums and pipes, the crowd, the crowd… My body soaked in the sweat of the Aegean heat, between my legs the bandaged, painful circumcision that seemed both funny and sad at the same time, the crowd, the fervour, the banging drums, the young girls carrying trays of sherbet… My absolute conviction that all men had to be circumcised… For that is what it takes to be a man!

‘Oguz has become a man at six.’

‘Mister, are you going to circumcise my mule too?’

My mother bustling about joyfully, smiling through the perspiration… Her big boned, sturdy body quivering every time someone said ‘if his father could see him now’… The heat, the beating drums, the giggling girls scurrying back and forth with their trays of sherbet…

The older, plump-cheeked Emine, whose father worked at the State Monopoly, perched on my bedside in her white dress and took my hand.

‘I’m going to ask you something, Emine Abla, but you have to promise not to tell anyone.’

When she smiled, Emine became the most beautiful girl in the world.

‘My mum told me that before people believed in God they worshipped the sun. And idols, fire, mountains and rocks… Then the Prophet Mohammed came and destroyed the idols with his sword, and everyone believed in God.’

Emine nodded and squeezed my hand.

‘So, Emine Abla, does that mean that the sun was God when there was no God?’

The heat, the crowd, the religion… So very hot, so very crowded, so very loud… Will these girls ever stop carrying those sherbet trays? It hurts so bad, and all I want to do is sleep but the heat makes it impossible…

‘Ask whatever you wish from me my ram, my brave son, my only Oguz.’

‘I want the sun, mummy.’

I wonder what the sun was like when it was God. Was it shaped like an egg or an eggplant? Was its colour the pale green of a stream or the thick gold of sundown? Did it perhaps flush and roll over from sadness when God took its place?

‘Mummmy, I want the sun…’ I cried my eyes out. I wailed and whined for hours; from the heat, the crowd, and the pain. In the evening my mother walked up to my bedside and scolded me: ‘You’re a man now, learn to give up things that you can’t reach!’

That was the day the bike arrived at our house; a hand-me-down from the district official’s son.

Kids who do not succeed in school are not stupid; school was an institution that intruded between me and the things I loved. My obstinate mule, the stream where I raced twigs, the grass on which I lay daydreaming, the sun I plotted to capture, and my mother. I could not bring myself to enjoy sitting at a desk, thinking and speaking within established perimeters. I could not get used to memorizing the writing in books, accepting other people’s truths…

After I learned to read and write, I remained the laziest, most wayward kid in every class. Yet I loved to journey with the Captains Turgut and Barbaros in books that Emine gave me, to live in mountains with the Efe of Chakirca whom peddlers spoke of, and to star in the tales of ‘the Prophet Ali’s Sword’, which Imam Effendi told whenever he came to collect manure from us. Absorbent as the Aegean soil in July, I read every book I could lay my hands on. But school was a chore. We moved to town so I could attend junior high, but my attitude did not change. I dropped out during my first year of high school. After that, my mother and I never discussed the matter again.

By the time I turned twenty I had learned the printing trade, and Izmir had become too small for me. I took my mother and headed for Istanbul. A beautiful woman always makes an impression, but if, on your first meeting, she happens to be at her most vibrant, lively and uninhibited, then she is nothing less than stunning. It was April of 1960 when I came to Istanbul, and students in the big city streets were demonstrating for freedom of speech and real democracy. The street fights between police and youth were quite wild. I was stunned.

There is a mechanism of the human brain that helps keep a person adjusted by blocking out sharp and painful memories. If I were to relate everything that befell me between the ages of twenty and forty-five, it would not amount to half of my childhood memories. Two marriages, poverty, one job after another, disillusionment, pain, my mother’s death, and so on… With the exception of my son’s birth, I can think of nothing good or exciting that happened in those long, yet fleeting, twenty-five years.

I stashed my poems away in a drawer together with everything else: the twigs I had raced in the stream, the hours I had spent skipping class and dashing about with my mule, the trips I had taken in the saddle with my mother, my desire to own the sun, my hopes, and all my dreams.

In the meantime I went to work at the print shop and the stationery store like serious, settled, and supposedly normal men. I returned home in the evenings to eat dinner with my sweet-tempered, pretty wife who spoke impeccable Turkish, chatted with a few friends in the evening, spent time with my son (who loves school), and still I felt my mother hovering above me, telling me, ‘Stop asking for things that you can’t reach, Oguz.’

It was only when I was reading books, only when I could breathe freely in their wide open spaces that I could find the strength to stand up to my mother, and frown. —Stop! Keep your dreams alive. Everyone, at all ages, must have dreams. A man who has killed his dreams is one who is buried alive. Just as I had started thinking ‘ten more years of this and I’ll be dead’, —Lift your head; look, the sun is up there. Reach out your hand, and take it. But remember, as long as you hold the sun in your hand, people this side of you will remain in the dark…

Just as I was growing used to my greying hair, and glazed weary eyes, just as I begun practicing the proper mood that went with them, —Let us walk along the stream, let the stream be the Bosphorus, and the twigs be the ferryboats. Let’s make them race. Let the grass that tore its hair out be the streetcars. You can be the man who swallowed his own tongue, and I’ll be Emine Abla… Just as I had resigned myself to wearing the face of Businessman, Father, Husband, Friend, and Trusted Pal, to wearing the long face… —Laughter, just like tears, can be cleansing and relieving. One should take laughing and crying seriously. The same with dreams… A person is barren who does not know how to dream, to nourish himself with dreams.

A twenty-six year old woman with raven hair. Is she beautiful? I can’t say. To me, she is lovely. I don’t know how she would seem to others. She paints. Images of the sun: yellow, purple, pink, green, turquoise suns… Dozens, hundreds, millions of suns in one picture… I search for the painter of these pictures, I have to find the person who created all these suns, I must, I have no choice! My friend, the owner of the gallery, points her out:

‘There, that’s the woman.’

A twenty-six year old, raven-haired woman. She looks you straight in the eye. Everything is clear in her face, everything is legible. Like pristine waters, you can see the very depths. Translucent. Bright as the sun. —When I was a kid, I asked my mother for the sun as a birthday present. On my sixth birthday. I cried for hours. Yet the house was full of all kinds of presents. You know, Oguz, I always think about people who worshipped the sun. If I worshipped anything, it would be the sun… ‘I too was six years old, when as a circumcision gift…’ A twenty-six year old woman with raven hair. —There is nothing that cannot be reached. It’s all in your head. Never, ever limit your imagination. Take your poems out of the drawer, stretch your hand towards the sun…

‘The stream, the stream of my boyhood is all dried up. I visited the village last year. Everything’s changed, but the stream is what really got me. Dry as a bone. I won’t be able to race twigs anymore…’ —You have to find other streams. Each stream that dries up must lead you to another, running stream, and so on forever… A twenty-six year old, raven-haired woman. Is she beautiful, I can’t say. To me, she is lovely. —Ants have eyes, Oguz. Eyes only big enough for children to see. Grown-ups can’t see small things without microscopes.

‘I’ve been seeing strange things ever since I met you. There’s a fortune-teller woman, a gypsy. She appears frequently in my dreams. She eats the sun for breakfast. She looks at my fortune, says I’ll fall in love with a woman named Gunesh, after the sun.’ A twenty-six year old woman, a woman who has not slain her childhood.

‘I saw another muddled dream last night. My mother, just as she was when I was a boy: Seniha, the large, sturdy midwife. I introduced you to her. ‘See mum’ I said, ‘see, I’ve finally found the sun.’ She stared. Then she got mad. ‘Stop asking for things you can’t reach, Oguz!’ she said, and scolded me.

A twenty-six year old, raven-haired woman. ‘I have to go now,’ she said. My shirts were permeated with the stench of sadness.

My wife could tell I was despondent when she washed my shirts. She did not ask. My wife never asks. The raven-haired woman packed her bags. Threw them over her shoulder. Boarded a plane, and left. Now and then she drops me a line. I don’t keep my poems stashed away anymore.

© Buket Uzuner

Translated by Pelin Ariner Thornhill.