Where We All Slowly Die

This story has been drawn from the Anniversary issue of the American Reader, available in our Shoppe, as well as in independent bookstores and Barnes and Nobles nationwide. The story was translated from Turkish by Aysegul Savas and David Gramling.

The way the sun-charred asphalt has smelted the blood running from the man’s head, and how it makes the blood no longer blood and the asphalt no longer asphalt, has aroused some doubts among the heterogeneous crowd surrounding the lifeless body. The sounds issuing from the crowd are various; they harbor no particular unified meaning, only the left-over grunts, snarls, and sullen complaints that remain when the city airs all its emptiness into space. Among all the sentences spent amid this chaos, only one seems easily audible, perhaps because its frequent use keeps it closest to the surface: Where on earth is the ambulance? The police are coolheaded, all quiet and undemonstrative in the face of blood, even taking on an air of transcendence over the fretful horde before them. Like connoisseurs accustomed to removing bodies from the ground every day, their very being seems to bear the vainglorious question: Come on, is this really the first time you people are seeing blood? The herd of five hundred some-odd people arresting the body with their eyes seem—as the police are poised to indicate—infinitely feckless and inert. For one, they don’t have the certifications required to get involved in this affair. More importantly though, they lack that one vital piece of knowledge: how to lift a dead body. How, then, are they any different from that outstretched body cooling motionless before them? Could it be that the only thing separating them from the dead is their curiosity? Take away that idle sentiment, and you wouldn’t hear a squeak—might as well bury the lot of them. The cops quickly cordon off an area and invite the uncertified to stand outside of it. The request is issued politely, but several impertinent uncertified ones, trying to set themselves apart from the passive crowd by moving closer to the corpse, cannot escape a swift chastening from police batons. Is it really safer within the demarcations of a secured perimeter, next to so many policemen and a bled-out body, or in the infinite space beyond?       

Whenever an unspeakable incident takes place, there must be a newspaper on the scene. Such as it is, every industry has its subtle calling. But these oblivious cops carrying out their unsubtle duties don’t make a habit of carrying newspapers with them, and so an opportunity arises for the uncertified bystanders. From the front rows, a white-haired, immaculately dressed middle-aged man—by the looks of it out for groceries—hands over his neatly folded newspaper to the police. As he executes this gesture with his little arms, or perhaps a bit thereafter, he casts a self-satisfied look behind him, as if to document: It was I who provided the newspaper. The police take the paper and… The police take… Which police? Mesut can’t figure it out; the effect of the government uniform, to unify and homogenize, flouts any attempt to distinguish one policeman from the next. He had never thought about this before: how thick a word polis is! All at once singular and plural…The police, spilling all the coupon inserts out onto the ground, pull out a page from the newspaper and cover the corpse with a tenderness somehow at odds with their thick, crude hands. And with this, the newspaper has carried out its primary mission—broadcasting truth in all its nakedness, declaring to the public in the most basic terms possible that this man is dead. But which newspaper? Mesut can’t figure it out; the effect of the government uniform, to unify and homogenize, flouts any attempt to distinguish one newspaper from the next. Now, at least, there is no reason to believe that the dead man isn’t dead. Now that the newspaper has put a point on it, it’s senseless to debate further whether he is or isn’t dead. The only sensible thing to do now is to mull over in what manner he died. Did someone strike him in the temple, did he fall and split his head open, or did the rich and vulgar Don Juans of Nowhereport pummel his body into bits while out for a drive? Bless Ivan Ilyich’s soul, but this wretch didn’t fall to his death hanging curtains. In fact Mesut has known from the very first moment, before the newspaper arrived on the scene—perhaps from the eerie air, or the police’s general demeanor—that the poor soul had certainly kicked the bucket. The crowd’s shifts and pulses further confirmed Mesut’s presentiment. The crowd, longing to be just an ordinary, run-of-the-mill crowd no longer, threw itself forward, united in a single cause, inching its nose bit by bit as if a single person. Dead indeed, Mesut thought to himself, the community never meddles in a catastrophe still in progress. Before him now assemble all the flavors and feelings of an Independence Day ceremony, and—duly inspired—he says aloud: homeland, homeland, the place where we all slowly die. Standing next to him, one of the more socially eager among the uncertified was clearly curious to hear the continuation of his words, and maybe even an interpretation of them. Mesut realized he heedlessly gave voice to his bemusements. He became irritated by this unctuous man whose watering mouth looked as if he had bitten into a wild pear. Fine, so he is a bit wrinkled, but why does personal space between people immediately have to vanish? Mesut was disgusted by the oblivion that characterized his countrymen, and quickly stole away from the nosy, uncertified one. You’re all so curious, he thought, and yet you are still dropping like flies, unaware of your assassin. He pushed forward, hoping to get closer to the matter. Usually disinclined toward lifting a finger for any cause at all, Mesut can nonetheless quickly transform into an agile hawk—once a matter starts to matter. He digs a Mesut-wide tunnel through the human pile in front of him and approaches the wretch for a closer look. What’s happened? Has he been shot? The nation—with its ephemeral, greasy troubles. Mesut is here on a nobler mission. Because there’s a story here. A question of literary importance occurs to him: Is there life before death? Mankind, after all, believes all manner of crap. And once he believes, he sees traces of life all over. Homeland, he says, this time making sure to think inwardly to himself, is what feels insufficient when no one croaks in its name. And this, for Mesut, is the plot, in all its flourishing perfection; here is the story he has always been waiting for. Especially if the thing that extinguished this poor soul lying on the ground is indeed the government. Then Mesut will really be overjoyed.

Whenever someone bites the dust in this country—downtown, in the middle of a street, in a village square, or in some other godforsaken place—it’s always a white car you see driving off. Not escaping in haste, but stealthily, like a coquettish bride. A license to kill in the glove box, the exhaust coming from its smoking gun-barrel. Children’s eyes get shielded from the white Renault, as it drives off into the distance. Because sorrow is all it leaves behind, and turmoil. He who sees inside the car sees paradise, for the world has never again laid eyes on anyone who enters it. Mesut, expecting to see the celebrated vehicle at the crime scene, steps out onto the pavement and scans the street like an investigator, shading his eyes with his hand. No dice. This is the first let-down in the tale he’s been concocting. Where is that government of ours? he grumbles to himself.

The streets are scorching, the air still, but the weather can of course turn on a dime. The newspaper covering the corpse might fly off at any second. From experience, the police know that averting this danger requires placing weighted objects on the corners of the paper, but they’re too busy coping with their collective inability to find even a single stone so far for the purpose. The weather doesn’t seem eager to change today though, and even the tide down at Nowhereport beach is calmer than usual. Still, all the official vehicles, guilelessly circling around the neighborhood, herald unsavory developments. The fact that an oil tanker under Yemeni flag has drifted a bit closer to the beach than necessary triggers certain natural processes—like shuffling of feet and rotation of postures among the uncertified, quickened inhaling and exhaling among those up close in the front rows, and the visible surging and puffing of emotional concern among those in the back, all of which gives rise to a slowly escalating artificial wind. As everyone has feared, the newspaper finally lifts up off the corpse for a little outing. Seeing the levitating newspaper, the distressed police chase after it like children on a butterfly hunt. But which police? This time Mesut knows—the one who is sweating more than the others, even though he’s wearing the same uniform; the same one who arrived on the crime scene uncomposed and clearly can’t control his panic in moments of crisis. The newspaper retreats farther away from the scene. Unbuttoning his shirt and collar, the police officer is now divesting himself of the uniform the government has dressed him in. Drenched in sweat, he chases after the free press. In such an instance, what is necessary is for someone with a good eye to photograph this gorgeous tableau. But the aloof reporters, still just arriving, are not interested in the fleeing newsprint, only in the exposed corpse. And so the ironical handiwork of art must wait another day for its shot at rebirth. Finally, the newspaper’s travels are cut short by a passing food vendor. The policeman sighs with deep relief and attempts to make himself presentable again before returning to the corpse, holding the newspaper with his teeth to prevent it from flying off again. There is laughter and some elbow-nudging. Surely, the sight of a policeman tugging at his undershirt with a newspaper in his mouth might be a fine occasion to loosen up, but there is little place for horseplay when death is on the docket. The citizenry, alleged to be treating this crime scene like an open-air theater, are now sustaining an angry scolding from the police chief. The people in the front row turn crestfallen and pale, which is certainly not what the police wanted to bring about. Not at all. The chief tries a milder approach; he reprimands the community kindly, like a loving father. It’s of no use. The civilians are still unconsoled. The chief clearly will make no headway like this, so he cedes the upper hand altogether, and with the fathomless tenderness of a mother who’s nursing, he sidles up to the front row and, softening his tone even more, embarks on a humanistic oratory, asking: What is a mindful person to do under such circumstances? What is a human anyway? How many kinds are there? His strategy is backfiring. Now that the public’s humanity has also been questioned, all remaining cheer is turning to vapor. Accepting defeat, the chief abandons his cause and grabs his walkie-talkie. Once again, all eyes turn to the corpse. The prevailing expectation is that the policeman, whom Mesut can now properly identify, will cover the corpse again once he has reached it. But instead he just stands there and waits. There are a number of uncertainties: what if the newspaper flies off again and he’s forced to run after it? Is this a mere fatuous eventuality? No, it is not. We live in a dynamic, ever-changing public sphere. An unforeseen wind, a breeze of unidentified provenance can create unpleasant complications for the civil servant, and this would provide just the type of entertainment the public is always after. The policeman cannot muster up the strength to fight back. With his embarrassment on the rise, his stature diminishes markedly before the crowd. If it were up to him, he would certainly sacrifice himself for the task, but such gestures would cause the government to fall into shambles. Surely it’s strange that, in a city made entirely of concrete, he can’t find a single stone, any random weight to place on the paper’s edge. He searches effetely in his pockets, opens and closes the trunk of the police cruiser, then grabs his walkie-talkie in one last-ditch hope. But the solution comes, once again, from the people… The government expects everything from the people. And so, just as before, the white-haired, middle-aged man comes to the police’s rescue. Having earned trust and proven his credentials in the newspaper incident, and having also maintained and even improved his standing in the front row, the white-haired figure now places two fingers between his lips, letting out a robust whistle that resonates along the entire street. He then waves the police over with a series of hand gestures. The policeman abandons his reluctant efforts entirely and runs, sweating, toward the man. In measured, cautious movements, the white-haired figure entrusts the policeman with two small jars. The crowd is reinvigorated—whether by the jars, or by the aged man’s whistle, is as of yet unclear. The policeman now secures one end of the newspaper—re-draped carefully over the corpse—with pickles, and the other end with sauerkraut. The crowd lets out the breath it has been holding onto all this time, and the police stand down. The dead man is now secure.

 

This selection will appear in Ersan Üldes’s forthcoming novel Hindi’nin Ruhu.

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