“Afriki” by Nazli Karabiyikoglu
“She was a naked woman, born of a ruler.” She was an old friend. She was there when we played house on the rags in the basements of apartments, in the piss stink of kittens, chasing the ghosts of the haunted house of the street. I loved her, with her white lace sewed collar on her blue uniform, her panty hoses with holes between the legs, and the goosebumps she got while undressing in gym class. Inside the crooked hearth she scratched on the desk, our names were written.
She had nipples that rip of hard fabrics. People would mock her for it. Her buttocks would push up the pleats of her skirt, and under it there was magic, which people would pretend to drop pencils to see. She smiled at the age of eleven from quite a distant corner, as if she had already been bought and sold, had devoured men and unearthed their secret. We came firsts in exams, and shared a desk together again, but then the immaturity of the funny smelling erasers got us apart. While I was collecting note papers of different colours, she had her first kiss. Came and told me about it too. Showed the bleeding part of lip. At that moment I realized she was two spans taller than me, and gorgeous. My eyes left her shiny wet lips and looked at her feet. Then to my own feet. My flat chest, and fat belly. I sneaked away from her blond hair, and the blue of her eyes. Left her space. Never talked to her for the next seven years.
She found me in campus. She poured in my mouth from her tank top. I got sick of her eyes, now turning to violet. I acted as if I liked her. Played along the regular bittersweet childhood friend role. I stood by her as she smoked. Waited patiently as men swarmed around her. One day among files from primary school I came across that note paper collection, and I remembered. The next day I was distant. By the time college finished, she was also familiar with my excuses.
A year without a job, three years with minimum wage. Five years later, a salary enough to get by in a house, tons of debit cards. And at last I aimed at management, and saw her again at the third floor of the firm that I ended up in. She had black dress on, down to her knees, with a back cleavage. A paper flat stomach. She resembled a forest with tight, thick trees. She had millions of trees reduced to one in her body. The moment she saw me, she threw the file in her hands to a nearby desk and jumped on me. She almost kissed my neck. Either she had missed me that much, or I seemed nostalgic. Revival of the songs that were once worn-out of playing. My hand rested in the air at the level of her waist. I couldn’t hug her. I looked at her feet. Her pointy black stilettos. Then I looked at my feet. When I saw her again the next day, I used meetings as an excuse. She grabbed my chin with her cotton-white hands, brought up the shyness in me and said, “No running this time.”
I wasn’t any different than a fault line cracking. I cracked inside. An earthquake on my face. Ever since my childhood even the dream of this girl crushed me, and now I was offended by how much I lessened before her, again, in my thirties. First tear drop landed on her shiny skin on her feet. How embarrassed I was… I was an animal stuck to her hunter upon realizing there’s no escape. In the circle of her blond beauty, richness and intelligence, I was a fool who made the same mistakes over and over again, a loser who constantly feels to much in her skin, who keeps degrading herself every night when she returned home. I didn’t have memories to look back and smile to, nor lovers or triumphs. No life changing traumas, suffocating illusions, never-ending fights… My only situation was her. The one I couldn’t get over, my shadow.
She invited me to her house in Prinkipo. I took the ferry, I prayed waves to just stop, the ferry to sink, and the sea to take me.
I arrived at her garden, but I was afraid of its colours catching me, so I quickly went in her door. I saw a giant hall dividing into staircases on the sides, and massive rooms furnished with mirrors. She grabbed my hands and took me upstairs without lingering much around. Rooms led to rooms, I lost count of the doorsteps we passed. Ceilings had stories carved in. She told some of them as we walked, some she wanted me to find. I slid down soft rugs, let the grown-up attitude go. I saw her as my new pretty friend. At last she took me to her room. When I entered it hit me. It was as beautiful as her.
Veils of her bed net, the softness of her pillow dented in like the shape of her head, engravings on the four wooden legs, some clothes left seamlessly on the sheets; they were all reshaping her image in my mind. I moved one step forward from an innocent jealousy. Even if I wanted to press my face in the fuzzy pillows and suffocate, I would only be a child with fire coming out of her eyes. I understood her beauty, accepted it. I didn’t look much at the large desk and her green couch covered with authentic leather. She took me out to the balcony, I had other and islands and Istanbul beneath my legs. She always sees this I thought, not the dashed lines of skyscrapers. Definitely not mass housing. Not the streets where banana peels melt, beds from plastic covers. This. Where trees branch like those in Africa.
The balcony fit the amazing view it saw. Quite big with venous marble. Ornaments in its balustrades. She took my hand and walked me a little. She stopped when we arrived at a statue.
The statue had a childish face, but had the perfect form of a woman. A thin waist, wide hips, big breasts. Her face surrounded by curly hair looked up to the sky over her right shoulder. Her expression was like she was blindsided by something she saw, or like she stepped on a snake and couldn’t figure out where it hurt. One of her hands on her chest, the other curved on her crotch. For a moment I didn’t know whether to laugh or not at the black and white fabric that plaster wore. Which was funnier, the bow tie around the neck of the statue, or the suit that covered its body?
“Did you put these on her?”
“It’s from last night, I pinned what I was wearing. Isn’t it pretty?”
Very pretty. Lonely indeed. Solid plaster.
“Did you sculpt this?”
Ashamed, she looked down. “Who do you think it resembles?”
I would rather be starving for days than answering the question, and still wouldn’t break my silence. I would sleep in the dent in the lips of the rock face, wouldn’t drink any water, and not a single word would come out of my mouth. I would look at myself in the mirror a thousand times. Mark the matching parts, measure the ratios. Realize that I am beautiful too, combine the holes in the curves of the statue to my holes. It would run down my eye troughs, curl on my forehead, turn pointy at my ears but I still wouldn’t answer her. Swiftly I eliminated any words that would confess and underestimated her intelligence. I lowered my voice and said:
“I don’t know,”
She stood up right in the wind that covered the balcony, she raised her hand to her stiff neck. I sensed a hand over mine, shivered, I turned.
“A voodoo/icon?” she said.
It’d all start without saying her name out loud. Eyes, and words would stand by her hair, her eye, her waist. She’d win from the beginning. She’d never worried or felt anxious. She was just entering adolescence when she knew her deal. Her achieving without working hard, winning everything and everyone with her eyes. The reason behind that hidden first kiss at a corner, and why second and thirds followed it so quickly. Her bleeding, not bleeding, and bleeding… The phallus she pursued was actually pursuing her. The reason, of her hair, so long and shiny. Was it just too much? Compliment, parallel/replies in kind, abstraction, simile. What about those she beat with her wits? Not every observation could be turned into a compliment, a statement without support. She too had some fundamentals; people had just added a thousand more when exposed to her beauty. Still, they hadn’t seen beyond her mind. The way silvery trays she often chose not to eat reflected over the sea, spirit of salt touches her forehead or the very source of the island drips from her bones. The way she alienates – is alienated – from people she know, just because she’s pretty.
The ugly one stinks. She’s done before taking a look at her face. Nose, eyebrows go up. Already biased. The way she stinks already destined her to be without a shape. Not splendid, not curvy. But sour. Ugliness is the illness of finding some element to love on a face. Saying “But she has cute eyes.” “And the shape of her nose, it’s lovely.” Finding a place in her arms, burying your face in her armpits despite the essence she emits.
You could know her from the drought of her bed though. The way she pulls her legs up to her stomach, search for a cure. She’s alone at the other side of a kiss—nobody could tell. They said she let people in her crotch at eleven, the rest at 13. Boobs at sixteen. Those who didn’t touch would be lame, not enough. At her 25, she’s still admired from afar. That shiver, blood leaving veins. Placenta, blood. Who knows which of the cells in her belly, got frozen and taken away? Its father will never even get to see her hair. In her stud farm, where horses are let go. Crowded hills of the island. In her arms spread open, the scream of detaching. She indulges the excess fat that covers her Apollo’s belt and she is dripping from her thighs, draining herself out before a familiar face.
Innocence. Childhood. Name it however you like. She sought satisfaction in the hole of the panty hose, an image stuck to her memory. She didn’t question, but came close to acceptance, then turned back and hugged the imaginary girl she kept running into. No phallus, no hips mounting it. Only stiff skin whispered words. Wetness in her ear. Disgust, pleasure, the funny side of frenzy. A river she wanted to dive into.
She put this icon in her balcony when she was twenty. She’d been longing for her for ten years.
When she thinks her getting wet, the incomplete, unsatisfied face in her there She would rip into her flesh. A cave to go back to their childhood. Rot you’d say. You’d laugh. If you saw her face at the end of the tramway. She got old so fast, but she’s still beautiful. You’d say. If you were to describe—and own—her, you’d say: She was a tale of our time. She fits me that much.
A shiver it was, which we didn’t grasp, and our parents let.
We stood by the statue. Shadows slid over the stone, whistle of the last ferry arriving, the moment when acceptance interrupted my escape. Everything you could ask for, for years, laid before me and I didn’t even ask for it. We united beyond idolatry. All of our bodies, together, forward and backwards.
I grabbed her chin. I tried to compensate at least some of my longing of her face, from which I had been away for so long, because of her. I had secretly saved this expression of her eyes half closed, bottom lip twitching, cheeks tensed, while it was others who were touching her. Imagine the discomfort of the moisture you’d have on your back, after laying on the grass even with all the clothes you wrapped yourself in. The annoying dilemma of either walking around outside, waiting for it to dry off, or sneaking back in and running to the bathroom. The same urge sat on my chest. I felt my pulse in my temples as even the wind waited for me to address the elephant in the balcony, the remains of my grudge. Reaching and touching her, meant more than just facing all the things I ran from all these years, it meant entering that house that I stayed away for years, and sneaking in which was extremely difficult. When and if I passed the doorstep, I was going to have trouble using the vocal ways of communication. I didn’t even have anything to say to keep me from that doorstep. I pressed my palm on her cheek. It was my first word.
I held the inside of her wrist. I took courage from pressing my thumb on her skin. I steered her so that she was forced to sit under the statue. I could see everything that moves in her eyes. Yellow dots passed right by black holes. I looked at them, alone, and I felt the motion of the cosmos. I forgot my distorted mouth and approached her nose.
I saw her pulling her panty hose up. Folding twice in and once out. Her groins. I looked at her feet. Splayed but thin. I looked at mine. Splayed but thin. A far cry from what I had seen before.
At first, I took advantage of idea that she was in need of my touch, while she was the beautiful one. I boosted. In the fractions of seconds while she laid still under me, I thought that I owned her, then I thought a million times more that I needed her. Then, my breathing calmed. I realized; how pathetic it would make me to prevail only once in decades. How ridiculous it was for me to be a part of the hegemony that I anxiously ran from, because of my basic instincts. I kissed her, with my lungs. I finally found the way to speak with her, it was this language.
Pure beyond beautiful. No imposition.
The thinner the peel, the sweeter the fruit.
Me, a whole new me, it’s the only adjective I can have after this night, as I entered in time of my missing childhood, as I will certainly change.
In that windy balcony, where her shapes turned to plaster, my mouth found her breasts. My ugliness—that I never knew—found her beauty.
© Nazli Karabiyikoglu
About the Author: Nazli Karabiyikoglu is a Turkish author, now full-time resident in Georgia, who recently escaped from the political, cultural, and gender oppression in Turkey. She helped create the #metoo movement within the Turkish publishing industry, from which she was then excommunicated. With an M.A. in Turkish Language and Literature from Bogazici University, Karabiyikoglu has five published books in Turkish and has recently completed translations of two new books for international publication. Having won six literary awards in her country, she has been actively writing for magazines since 2009.
About the Translator: Eylul Deniz Doganay was born on May 24th, in 1996, in Istanbul, Turkey. She discovered her interest in the English language at a young age, and therefore focused on foreign languages and translation. She is currently continuing her higher education at Bilkent University, where she added French to her working languages and aspires to become an interpreter. She took on her first long-term project when she began translating the works of Nazli Karabiyikoglu in the summer of 2018, as she believes in the particular work and its universal value, and the translator’s mission to convey that value.