Through the small window in her mother’s kitchen, the back lot is barren. Treeless, grassless. Nothing grows. November is always cold in Iğdır, always gray. Her mother moves into the doorway. Ceylan can feel her, the disturbance of air.
“It would be nice,” her mother says, “to make aşure for Aisha.”
Ceylan nods, hoping that’s the end of it. She’s already washed and boiled the barley, chickpeas, and kidney beans. They sit on the stove, cooling in their pots.
“She was almost your mother-in-law.”
“Mother,” Ceylan says, leaving the rest unspoken. Her mother reminds her each year when she returns for the ten days of Aşura, as though expecting her to have forgotten what could have been, the family she would have joined.
“She might not recognize you this year,” she pauses. “It has never been this bad.”
Her mother moves away, and Ceylan feels the air shift once more, and thinks, if Aisha can no longer remember her, is she free to let it fade? She’s tired of embellishing a past that never was, wonders whether this year, this trip, she should explain to her mother and Aisha what she and Ilyas really were. The way her mother speaks about it, it’s as though Ceylan’s life, too, was taken with the roll and tumble of that bus down that gully.
There’s no scientific method for culling through memory and removing false growths. The only way, it seems, is to let it all go, the way Aisha has done. Leave nothing to linger on, joyful or otherwise. Unlike her mother, it almost seems as though Aisha has trained herself to shed memory, though Ceylan knows, of course, that she hasn’t. Alzheimer’s isn’t something you choose. Still, in this case it seems merciful.
“Iğdır,” Ceylan’s classmates in Ankara start, before trailing off. They’re doctoral students, aspiring scientists, and uninformed conjecture won’t do. They turn toward her, hoping for stories of danger or unrest in her descriptions of her hometown. But there aren’t any, really. There’s only dust. Thin wisps suspended in the air like a kind of prism, bending the appearance of things in ways that make them look different, however slightly, from past visits. Buildings and streets seem shifted. Each year the seventeen-hour bus ride from Ankara feels like a passage into a different time and place. She starts to wonder if she really grew up here. If the high school, for instance, was once hers, or if the goal posts behind it ever had a net, or even if that was really where she first kissed Ilyas, if this was the kind of town where such things were even possible.
Ceylan waits until her mother is busy before she leaves the apartment, makes her way across town. She imagines the shock on her classmates’ faces—a woman, alone, cutting through dark eastern streets without a headscarf. Women cover their heads here, almost all of them. Her mother expects her to, but she stopped covering up years ago. She’s a scientist now, she tells her, omitting other developments, the nights out dancing, the western boyfriends.
Yeni Sokak is a dim block, the last working streetlamp pulsing strobes of light as though each flicker might be its last. Aisha’s third-story window is faintly lit. She lives alone. Her eldest son has gone west, not likely to return, and Ilyas, of course, is dead. She never mentions their father, or what she remembers of him. A wife without a husband, a mother without her children. Left to fade into the walls.
From the street it’s impossible to tell if Aisha is up, but Ceylan knows she’ll need to see her, if not today, tomorrow. Until she tells her the truth, she’s the daughter-in-law that never was, the living connection to her son. Each year it’s more draining to lie, to fill Aisha’s slipping mind with false details. She stands in the street for a long time, wondering what it would be like to tell the truth, attempting to summon the energy, but she can’t, so she drifts away, to the blood-red nargile house at the end of the block, shedding its chipping veneer as though it, too, wishes to absolve itself of memory, to return to something nameless and indistinguishable.
Growing up, girls never entered. But Ceylan had always come with Ilyas, whose older brother owned the place. He let them in but shunted them to the backyard and its crabgrass, to one of three crooked lean-tos against the back wall, old carpets under the slanted metal roofs. He only ever offered the rustiest pipe, the oldest tobacco. Ilyas would always wait until his brother had reentered the house before making a show of indignation.
During Aşura, they’d smoke and stare at the strange faces around them, thrilled to be anonymous. So many out-of-towners converged on Iğdır for the holiday that every space was full, every shop and restaurant overwhelmed by the flood of families from the countryside, Shia who had moved from Nahçıvan and now lived in the surrounding province. They flooded the streets, the teahouses, the nargile house. The cracked square in the center of town with its makeshift Aşura tent, the dusty park beside it where locals had stopped playing backgammon on account of the cold. Ilyas’s brother sold the space when he left for Antalya, and it became a gaming cafe.
It’s crowded for a Tuesday night. Kids cluster around televisions, shooting zombies or scoring goals. A few eye Ceylan as she enters, wondering whose older sister has come to ruin the fun. She ignores their stares, moves toward the back door out of habit.
The backyard is quiet and empty. The rusting lean-tos sag in the darkness, just as they had the final time she’d come with Ilyas.
“Someday I’ll open my own nargile house,” Ilyas had said then. He sucked air through the hose, working to help the coals catch, the water in the pipe’s base effervescent from his effort.
“Here?” Ceylan asked.
He smiled. “Somewhere else. Somewhere sunny. Close to water.” He’d inherited his mother’s thick dark hair and brown eyes, which, unlike his mother’s, were not yet gray.
“Antalya?” she asked. “Bodrum?” She named the seaside resort towns on the other side of the country as they came to her. She too wanted to escape Iğdır, its rigid morals and unchanging rituals, the inscrutable forces that seemed to fix everyone and everything in place.
“Sure,” he said, after each one. “Just not here.”
She told him about his lungs, their millions of alveoli, how they absorbed smoke like little balloons, holding it long after he exhaled.
He laughed. “How do you know these things?” he asked.
She shrugged, embarrassed by her obsession with the functions of the body, the invisible processes happening within each without pause. Unsure how to share her news, the exit she’d secured. She would be leaving in the fall to study biology in Ankara. “It is my ticket to university,” she said, quietly, hoping he’d understand.
“Lungs?” he asked, laughing, feigning gasps.
“Lungs,” she said.
He smiled, inhaled deeply from the pipe. “So this,” he said, holding in the smoke, so that his voice came out raspy. “This will be in you long after you leave.” And he bent toward her, exhaled smoke into her face, and broke into laughter, and she smiled, breathed in his air, and wondered how long that might be.
When she gets home, her mother is watching one of her diziler. She has a hard time sleeping, living alone. Ceylan watches the light from the television dance on her mother’s pale skin, wonders if it would darken if she got out more. Her mother doesn’t mind the emptiness, the quiet, as far as Ceylan can tell, although sometimes she seems to be fading into it. One of these trips she expects to find her mother whispering from the cracked plaster, the rusted stovetop. Her father left when he found God, the Christian one, and moved south to help spread his newly found faith alongside the woman who’d converted him. He left a careful note on a page he’d ripped from Ceylan’s biology notebook. She found her mother holding it, rubbing the paper between her thumb and index finger as though testing its permanence, the ease with which it might disintegrate. When she saw Ceylan, she put it down on the stovetop, glided into the living room. Ceylan switched on the burner, and it caught, ashes tumbling on the air, rising in lazy circles toward the ceiling.
“You’re up,” Ceylan says.
“Did you stop in to see your teyze?” her mother asks.
“Her window was dark.”
“A shame,” her mother says. “She should leave the light on for you.”
Ceylan nods. She knows they’re close, knows what it is that brought them together. Loss, the men who swept through their lives. Ilyas and I weren’t what you think, she wants to say. Toward the end we weren’t even that close. When she finally told him about her scholarship for university, he stopped talking to her, started avoiding her. The summer before leaving for Ankara, she couldn’t find him anywhere. They didn’t speak for nearly three years, until the week before his trip to Bodrum, where he was traveling to find work as a waiter at one of the resorts on the Aegean coast. He was stopping in Ankara for a night and wanted to see her, as if those years hadn’t happened, the distance hadn’t calcified. When she asked him why he wasn’t following his brother to Antalya, he laughed.
“Listen,” he said. “I need to tell you something.”
“What is it?” she asked, worried.
He cleared his throat. When he finally spoke she could almost feel the heat from his blush through the phone. “I told my mother I’m coming for you.”
She swallowed. A part of her hated that he was using her like this, sharing his burden, implicating her in his cowardice. Still, she’d always known one of them might one day use the other, if necessary, to help them leave. It was a central tenet of their friendship, part of what had kept them as close as they’d been. She listened to his explanation.
“I’m her last son,” he said. Once he left, she would be alone. He couldn’t leave her without something to comfort her. He needed this lie, needed his mother to imagine him, in the wake of his absence, setting off for Ceylan.
“Can I still visit?” he asked. When she didn’t speak, he continued, “One night. Then I’ll keep going and you’ll never see me again.”
“Don’t be dramatic,” she said, finally. She asked him how his mother responded.
“That she knew I would end up with you,” he answered.
Ceylan laughed. It felt good to be speaking to him again. She asked him how he’d break the news—that he would be living and working on the coast, a day’s bus ride from the hazy sprawl of Ankara.
“Who knows,” he said. “I’ll figure it out.”
She told him she’d see him at the station. And that was it.
“A shame,” her mother says again, pulling Ceylan from her thoughts. She presses her thin hands against the folds of her headscarf. Even at home she covers herself. “I might have been a grandmother by now,” she says. She keeps the conversation from sputtering so she can remind Ceylan how Ilyas was on his way to Ankara to ask for her hand, how he would have brought her back, how wonderful it would have been to have them both in Iğdır, to have grandchildren across town to visit, adding to the imaginary sequence of events that has had yet another year to take shape in her mind. A tumor growing in the dark.
In the morning her mother asks her to take her to the grocery store. She needs some figs for the aşure. Ceylan has stopped asking why they still do this every year for Aisha. Ceylan and her mother were never very religious, though her father claimed to be. He’d come back wild-eyed and full of sorrow after whipping himself in the square along with the other men. It might have helped him live with himself and the way he treated her mother, the ten days of mourning and self-flagellation, promising her more as she cleaned and dressed his raw back. Now, without him, she seems rubbed thin. It’s hard to remember the mother she knew growing up.
In the streets groups of men wander past, looking all around. Ceylan smiles, remembering her first walk through Ankara, the vastness, buildings reaching toward the sky. One of them catches her eye, and her mother looks at her harshly. The central square is packed. Green headbands wrapped tightly around foreheads, Ya Hüseyin scrawled at a severely tilted angle, some already tinged with blood. She knows the story. Ilyas walked her through it almost every year. He loved Aşura. Not the holiday, exactly. The whole thing is about death, about commemorating the killing of Imam Hüseyin and his followers, Shia who died fighting the Sunni armies of Yazid in the battle of Karbala. What Ilyas loved was the air of urgency, the electrical charge brought by so many people converging on Iğdır from all across the province, from villages that seemed more like rumor than reality. Aside from the nights they would meet for nargile, she hardly saw him, catching glimpses of what she thought was him all across town in the flocks of children bending and flexing like giant hands.
They move through the aisles in the Migros, almost every one, and Ceylan thinks about Ilyas’s trip to Ankara that never happened. She was going to take him to her favorite nargile house, in the old part of the city, nothing more than a covered alleyway with swinging chairs and a pool table and a blinking jukebox and a fridge of Efes. She was even going to bring Martin, the German graduate student she was seeing at the time, who had become more than just a lab partner. When she told him about Ilyas’s visit and her plans, he wanted to join, to meet someone else from the east.
When Martin asked how they knew each other, she struggled to explain. They were in her bedroom. It was May, but already Ankara’s summer heat had slunk in, shedding its unbearable presence in every corner of the apartment. Martin had just showered and was wearing her old, oversized robe. He wore it sometimes when he stayed over. He stood in the doorway, half in the bedroom, half in the bathroom, using the mirror above the sink as he plucked his eyebrows with her tweezers. He had a careful way of preening himself, seemed more complete to her than the men she’d known in Iğdır, more complete than Ilyas, even.
“A friend,” she said. “From home.”
“Ah,” he said, his deep voice at odds with his slender frame.
“Looking for work in Bodrum,” she said. She knew Martin would know where this was. Most Germans who found their way to Turkey knew about its resorts. The Aegean coast was scattered with them. It wouldn’t be hard for Ilyas to find work. He just had to get there, connect with someone from Iğdır, spend some days living in a shabby room with pirated electricity, make some money, move into an apartment, and find what he wanted, what he couldn’t find back east.
Martin smiled. A secret smile, deep and private. “This Ilyas,” he said, and stopped, leaving what was unsaid to sink into the heat of the apartment. His English gave Ceylan the sensation of driving down a gravel road, rocks pinging the car without rhythm. It kept a certain distance between them, this fear of being struck with something she couldn’t anticipate.
She walked over to the doorframe, rested one hand on the wall, the other on his shoulder blade, feeling its slight protrusion through the faded fabric of her robe. How could she explain? In Ilyas she could see reflected back her hope to make something of herself outside of Iğdır. The parched soccer pitches, the old men pedaling shabby bicycles, it was all drenched in the same sort of light she’d spent her earliest days avoiding. She’d made a life in the shadows with him, plotting, dreaming. The kiss by the soccer goal more an audition than anything else. An act to spur each other on. Neither wanted to be tied to anything, not yet, so how could it grow into more? They wanted to fade and be forgotten. She looked at Martin, staring back at her from the mirror, and felt it again. That desire to go unnoticed, to disappear. It had taken on a separate life inside her, one she could no longer control.
He raised his eyebrows.
“An old friend,” she said. She smiled and left the room.
Two days later Ceylan got the news. Seven voicemails, all from her mother, all hysterical. When she called, her mother whispered into the phone, her voice wavering with the fate of the Iğdır Turizm bus. When Ceylan asked her mother where she was, she hissed that she was with Aisha, and in that harsh whisper Ceylan heard the echoes of their lie, understood its permanence. She would be connected with Ilyas for the rest of her life. Any explanation of the truth would lessen him, turn him into every other man who’d abandoned Iğdır. Aisha would lose the solace of the son who never deserted her, Ceylan’s mother the image of the son-in-law on his way to bring back her only child.
In the years that followed, Ceylan became a living memory for Aisha, as though if she loved Ceylan well enough she could find her son’s echoes in her. Ceylan started returning for Aşura each year to accompany Aisha on the final day’s procession to the cemetery, where she wept with her, as well as she could, over Ilyas’s gravestone. Later, when Aisha’s condition worsened, Ceylan would simply sit with her in her living room. Sometimes they’d go through pictures, and she’d remind Aisha about her son. His mother didn’t always recognize him. The last time Ceylan visited she felt illicit, standing outside Aisha’s metal door, its blue paint chipping, revealing blooms of rust underneath. When she knocked, she could hear faint movement inside, almost see the shadows readjusting themselves along the walls as Aisha moved through the apartment, pressed her ear against the door. It had no peephole.
“Who is it?” Ceylan heard her ask, her voice soft, frail, as though it, too, was leaking from the world.
“Aisha,” she said. “It’s me.”
When the door creaked open, Aisha seemed not to believe it, the simple fact of her presence. She reached out and touched Ceylan’s smile, pulled taut against her face by some unseen force. She moved her hands over her nose, her cheeks. Ran her fingers through her uncovered hair. It was clear her eyesight was failing, alongside her memory. Ceylan thought about telling her right there, explaining that she and Ilyas were never what Aisha imagined them to be. She was about to, just inside that doorway, when Aisha moved away, into the kitchen to prepare tea. By the time she returned, Ceylan was at a loss. How could she begin to tell her she was mistaken? That she and Ilyas had drifted away from each other? That his trip to Ankara was one final favor and nothing more, an ill-advised misdirection to shield Aisha from the truth?
It was never supposed to work so well.
Her mother works silently, preparing the aşure.
“You should learn,” she says, stirring the ingredients floating in the simmering pot, bringing the heat down.
“I washed the barley,” Ceylan says.
Outside, the afternoon light dwindles. Night falls quickly here, pressing down like a flood. Ceylan knows that by the time the aşure is ready, the square will be overflowing, the largest gathering until the procession to the cemetery the next morning. Her mother finishes, waits patiently as Ceylan tries to reason with her, staring with what seems to be patient resignation into the bowl in her outstretched hands, as though aware that neither she nor Ceylan can provide what Aisha needs, but that they still must try.
“The tent will be packed tonight,” Ceylan says. “I want it to be special.” She hopes she doesn’t sound as unconvincing as she feels. Her last visit had felt worse than any before, a violation of Aisha’s growing forgetfulness and the solace it might provide. She wonders if she can do it again. Her mother knows she’s delaying, and waits. Finally, Ceylan accepts the bowl, wraps a plastic bag over it, and leaves.
In the square, men burn an elaborate sculpture of metal wiring wrapped with paper, the flames licking up into the night sky. Ceylan edges around a group of women at the entrance of the tent, their eyes fiery with the reflection of the burning sculpture. Inside, families cluster around tables toward the front. In the back is the diorama of the desert battle of Karbala, red dye clumped in splotchy circles around figures splayed on their sides, Imam Hüseyin and his followers dead at the hands of the figures surrounding them, their miniature swords daubed with red ink.
Beside the diorama, behind a table with an empty plate and an enormous tank of tea, Aisha sits slumped in a folding chair. “There is tea,” she says, as Ceylan approaches, her eyes fixed in a practiced stare on something in the middle distance. They look grayer, lighter, emptier. Ceylan searches the lines on her face for some insight into her current state of forgetfulness. She seems worryingly slight in the folds of her black çador.
“Aisha,” she says. “It’s me.”
She moves her eyes upward, slowly. Everything she does, she does slowly. She eyes the bowl in Ceylan’s outstretched hands, the faded bag covering it. She seems to be waiting for Ceylan to explain her presence.
“Aisha,” she says. “I brought aşure.” She holds it out.
Aisha tilts her head. “There’s only tea,” she says again.
“A gift,” Ceylan says, placing it on the table. “For Aşura.”
“Ah,” Aisha says, the routine stirring some worn memory. She nods once, an act so deliberate it is hard to affix any meaning beyond the gesture, the movement itself. She sighs.
Ceylan waits for Aisha to ask about Ankara, about when she plans to return to Iğdır. “It isn’t much,” she says, when Aisha doesn’t speak.
Aisha nods again, pulls the bowl from the bag and places it beside the tank. “For the children?” she asks.
Ceylan shrugs, tries to smile.
Aisha thanks her, stares at the pudding as though it will explain her presence.
“It’s good,” Ceylan says, searching. “Would you like some?” She looks around for a spoon, but there doesn’t seem to be much in the tent, which is mostly empty now that the Imam has started preaching. His voice bleeds faintly through the canvas, like a distant radio program.
Aisha smiles a smile that betrays no sign of recognition, and it seems as though the forgetting is complete.
Ceylan turns to leave. This is what she’s hoped for, all these years. To return one day to namelessness. No history, no ties. No Ilyas. It’s a strange feeling, joining the ranks of the disappeared, knowing her absence will continue to grow, fill her mother and Aisha with the kind of solitude that uses people up here, their only solace the lie she cannot dispel, the false hope that had Ilyas lived he would have stayed, would have kept her here, too. In that lie rests the redemption her life will not provide. It is all she has to offer.
“Wait,” Aisha says.
Ceylan stops, half-turned, Aisha’s face a flicker in the corner of her vision.
“Did you know him?”
“Who?” Ceylan asks, feigning uncertainty.
“My son,” Aisha says.
She searches Aisha’s stare for something to guide her response. “I’m sorry,” she says, finally.
“You did,” Aisha says, the wrinkles deepening around her eyes.
Ceylan can sense the implication. She watches Aisha reach for a memory, watches her struggle to hold it for as long as she can before it drifts out of reach. Wonders what it is she is seeing—Ceylan and Ilyas together, or Ilyas, or something else entirely.
“Yes,” she says, after a long pause. She smoothes the folds of her çador, slowly, deliberately, ceases to see Ceylan in front of her, and whatever it was she briefly imagined.
Ceylan leaves Aisha with the aşure. Outside, she has never seen the square so full. As she forces her way through, she thinks about turning back to sit with Aisha in the empty tent for a while, but in the crush it already seems impossible. She tells herself Aisha will be okay. That someone, at some point, will need tea, and she won’t be alone.