T’s Nov. 11 Travel issue is dedicated to a series of five fairy tales written exclusively for us — the kinds of stories that will inspire your own adventures, if not of the body, then at least of the mind. Read more in our letter from the editor.
BEYOND THE VILLAGE, to the east, there is forest. It is very old. No one remembers its name. It has belonged to several countries, empires and tribes, and it has remained unbelonging, its own nation. Inside are the first trees of the world, whose leaves have learned broadness to collect light. Leaves that know when to fire and when to fall. The forest can be crossed in a day on foot, half a day with a steady horse or a donkey cart, faster if there are wolves. Whenever there are wars along the border, more wolves come.
In the middle of the forest, where the green is richest, like the blood of hung game, lies a sacred well. It sits like a funnel in the floor, sloping sides, moss-lined, with a small stepped wall on which it is possible to sit and rest and peer down the hole, where space becomes dark sound. There is no rope, no bucket with which to draw and drink. The Well of Simeon, or the Well of Mevlana. The oldest villagers just call it the Well of Souls. They do not come here. Whoever built it, whoever raised the spring, danced, performed reversals or miracles — no one is sure. The walls inside are one hand-width wider than the tallest man’s arm span. Its stones are the blue of other regions, carved and carried in. Blue as buried bone. Or sea related. Or star fallen. And its water — so clear, so cold. It might bleed from the heart of the earth.
In the spring and in the autumn, the young men of the village come. Ahmet, Selim, Hamit, Nazim, Adnan, maybe with a younger eager brother or a visiting cousin. They come with beer and salad, instruments, a bleating lamb, homemade raki. As many as can fit in the cart come, riding backward, legs dangling. The trumpet player, Necmettin, blue-eyed and endlessly teased, plays tunes as they ride. These are good friends, childhood companions. The well celebration is an old tradition told by grandfathers and grandmothers, forgotten for a generation but now lived again.
Sometimes, the young women of the village come for the first part of the evening, on borrowed horses or on foot, single file, taking turns to trample the grass. Eyes held for long moments, the exchange of scarves, sweet tarts and sips of beer, the freedom of twilight. This is a country between dictators, a country, for now, of festivity and hope. There might be dancing. Someone might whisper a beautiful line in an ear: The wound is the place where light enters. Or sweet, promissory names. Balim, sevgilim. All this before the tyranny of in-laws and children and a realer world, but why not? The forest is an internal place, after all, a place of wild exposed desire. Once inside, we are only our true selves. Usually, before the raki, the women ride home again, in darkness, carrying burning torches, scorching the low trees, leaving the young men to their longing and their headaches.
What the women do when they come to the well alone, at other times of the year, nobody knows. Talk of witches, body splitters, child removers, though their mothers walked them innocently through the woods as infants, gathering hazelnuts. On the last day of her first blood, it’s said a girl can smell truffle deep within the soil, blind, an intuitor of earth. One lumpy, fungal skull dug up, weighed and sold to a chef in the city, and there’s a fortune for her family. She might even throw it in a sack and run, never go home, get away from goats and children, try her hand at a bar in Kadikoy — why not? It’s also said that women see things here, in the Well of Simeon or Mevlana, in the Well of Souls. What do they see? Futures. The only useful thing.
THIS SPRING, IT begins with a coin. Ahmet, the oldest, married for two years, with two children already — his wife smells so good to him, he smells so good to her, they just can’t stop — has for the last few seasons hosted his friends before the journey to the forest. A preparatory meal is taken. How much ravioli young men eat! So many pieces that he and Halime are rolling and drying and stuffing and folding all week. It’s like feeding an army. Enough! What they need is a system, he tells the boys when they arrive: rotational, fair. So, in one of the hundred pieces of ravioli, a coin has been sealed, tucked up like a baby in a crib. Whoever taps his tooth on it must declare himself a week before the next celebration and host dinner. You can keep the money, he says, buy a sack of flour. Agreed? The ravioli has a touch of nutmeg, steams in the bowls — a Bulgarian grandmother’s recipe. It should not cool. Yes, yes, sure, sure, they say, and the forks begin to move.
Halime watches them eat, her youngest baby drowsing on her breast. She seems a little sad, a little withdrawn. Perhaps the given coin has made her nervous. She watches the apprentice men around the table, laughing, joking, eating like their wives and mothers never fed them, eating like the end of a fast. Would-be butcher, laborer, vintner, clerk, an almost soldier, storyteller and a falconer, though what’s the use in birds? Blustery and unmade. One with blue eyes, one so shy he cannot look her in the eye, one so calm it seems his world is reconciled. Weak and cunning souls, strong and humble. Which of them will leave the village? Who will prosper, who will fail? Who will call the fate of others? The women talk of it when they gather for the washing or for prayers.
Halfway through the meal — click — the hard edge is bitten, the coin discreetly transferred into a pocket. Once the bowls are emptied, donkey tacked to the cart by strops of old leather, the bottles rattled on board, the men loaded, the trumpet unsnapped from its shabby case, buffed on Necmettin’s sleeve and sounded, they are off. Yarak! Laughter. These are friends for a lifetime, they think, friends who could survive battles, even with each other. Through the village, they ride — past the church, past the mosque, past the paddocks of bearded goats. Jokes about sisters, jokes about last year’s raki — who got sick, who fell over? Neco! But he’s not allowed to stop playing the trumpet and speak his own defense. Past the firestone where Fatma is patting dough, as she has for 60 years. She holds up her hand — three fingers like three horns. Past the first magnificent trees, their trunks turned and twisted like art forms, like a mad curator’s dream, and into the ancient, green light of the forest. Lamb led behind on rope, bleating like wolf bait.
Adnan has the reins; he’s that type, getting ready for action, military papers sitting on his father’s desk. Selim is wondering if Nermin will come, how will she wear her hair, up and off her shoulders or loose? Did the girls say that they were coming? Hamit has a book of verse and reads while the trumpet rests. My eyes can’t get enough of the trees. It is respectfully appreciated. Young men are nothing if not understudy poets — imams, kings, despots, loafers, all of them. The trumpet sounds again, popular songs, almost in tune, then becomes quiet. For the forest has its own music. It is played by the wind like a thousand reeds. There are birds, lilts and trills. Even the momentary silence is orchestral. The donkey, dumb and obedient, trots on, takes the uphills and unevens without fuss, pauses, defecates, continues.
EVENING BEGINS TO SMOKE between the branches. The leaves are luminescing, lit by the sun’s daylong love. The men are quiet now. The lamb is quiet, too, tired, given over to its destiny. Shadows seem to follow in the trees. The glimmer of an amber eye. But the shadows do not lope like hunters, they simply melt away. Nearly there, to the Well of Simeon or Mevlana, the Well of Souls. Some of the women might already be waiting, with cut cucumber and mint and tomatoes, with smiles. The honey of hope, Hamit quotes, the heart’s speculation. Thank you, Baba Hikmet. The beer is getting warm. The knife is blind, needs sharpening. Soon there will be a fire.
It is very green in the clearing by the well: There might be lamps of tsavorite hung between the branches. There might be spirits in the air above the void. They arrive and marvel for a moment. But time is getting on. They unload. The donkey is released, let loose in the tender grass to chew as many mouthfuls as it likes. The men set to, preparing the ground, whittling a spit, rigging the fire and setting it alight. They put blankets down, just in case. Nazim, the butcher’s boy, 23, runs the knife along a steel. He steps to the side, trips the lamb, drags it struggling only a little, and sits astride. He tells Hamit to hold the bowl below the neck, finds the gentle spot. Bismillah. A few kicks and its head bucks back, the quick, bright river is released. A different kind of poetry, my friend, he says. Then the dismantlement begins — legs, shanks, ribs, liver put to float in the red bowl like a prize, indifferent head. Not much will go to waste. The others watch, with varying degrees of keenness for the suffering, then resume their occupations in the camp.
And the well waits. Waits, with its deep, invisible eye, its patience of saints, the patience of eternity. Until! The warm beer! It can be lowered and cooled to perfect temperature in that ice-cold water. Good idea, Ahmet! It seems, today, he’s full of them. They load the bottles in a sack, cast about for rope like sailors in a fever. Surely there is some? No? Yes! The lamb’s lead! It’s dry, a bit shabby, but long enough and good for this purpose. It is wound around the sackcloth’s neck and knotted, the clinking clanking load sent across the wall and down into the borehole. Down, down it goes and disappears into the dark. A telltale splashing echo when it meets the water. Give it half an hour, Ahmet says, it will be like drinking frost. Meanwhile, the fire’s flames have lifted and have settled. The first meat is skewered on the spit and roasted on the charcoal. But where are the girls? Aren’t they coming? Will they dance?
There’s talk of opening the raki, but that is foolish talk. Not before the food, boys! Necmettin plays the trumpet again, something fast to speed the cooling process of the beer. Twenty minutes? Good enough, and they are thirsty. Selim and Ahmet take up the rope and begin to pull the prize. Clink, clank, go the bottles. The sack is wet and heavy, heavy as a pig! They heave. They haul. Up, up, the thing comes dripping, swaying, almost to the wall. But look, the knot at the sack’s neck has slipped — none of these men know how to perform murder yet, only to imagine — and its throttle hold softens, opens. The rope goes slack. The men stagger back. The beer splashes down again, into the well of Simeon, Mevlana, into the Well of Souls. Now all of them are gathered at the wall. Can anyone see the bottles? Are they lost? Are they floating? That’s a lot of beer! Hassiktir! Now what?
It is Adnan who volunteers, of course. He will go in and get it. Can’t have their last week’s wages go to waste. The others aren’t so sure. The well is wide, its stones are smooth, polished by some prehistoric mason’s hand, or by the sea, or rubbed imperviously by heaven — it can’t be climbed. Adnan is not a spider. So lower me then, he says, it’s only water. Serious, somber, ready. His face, as any enlisting man’s might be, is on the brink of something. He picks the rope, puts it around his waist, threads it through his legs and round his balls. Laughter. Jokes about opera, and doesn’t he want children? No, I want a beer, he says, before the army dries me out. Fair enough, who wouldn’t.
He climbs across the wall, clings and braces. His friends take up the strain. The rope goes taut. He tests it, tugs and bounces, faces the dark tunnel. Hazirim! Then, hand over hand, the boys release their burden, and down goes Adnan. Heavier than a pig! Jokes about ravioli. How many pieces has he eaten? One hundred? Laughter. And the gold, he calls. Gold, comes up the echo. What’s that, captain? Gold, gold! The rope sings uncertainly against the wall, its strands begin to struggle. It was me, he shouts. Me. Me. I got the coin. The coin. The words come up from nowhere, like a confession from a dungeon. The others cheer and send flocks of birds fluttering from the treetops. Hand over hand, steadily, they send their friend into the world below the world above. The rope is running out, fraying and unraveling — get a move on, boys. He must be nearly there, about to secure the beer, a hero for the day, if not the century. The borehole swims in darkness; there is no light inside this wound. The unreflecting surface seems to wink. The rope, by choice or by collusion, breaks, and Adnan is released. The men fall back and over, one on top the other, scrambling to get up and calling out and calling down. Adnan! Adnan! Tamam? But there is only silence. Strangest silence. Silence, like the spirit’s worst suffering. And in their dreams across the years, they’ll never hear a plunging cry, a shout for help, not even one small ripple, as if that fall is endless.
MEANWHILE, WHERE ARE the women? Still no sign. They are not riding those noble steeds bred from Arabian horses, bowing low under the heavy trees. They are not weaving through the forest, one behind the other, like wolves, taking turns to flatten down a path. They are at home. They are sitting around Halime’s table, perhaps discussing their lives and their children, the children they would have or the men they might marry, the roads out of the village or the wars their grandmothers endured, the usual things.
No. Not this time. Tonight, as the moon rises above the roof of forest, they are sitting quietly, holding hands. They have, on the table, an unopened bottle of raki, glasses, a jug of ice water that will charm the solution milky. They have, on the table, a coiled length of rope. Good rope, fit for any purpose, salvage, cattle, the binding of wives and daughters by an uncivil army, the hanging of those who will not change their names. Who sees? Who pays? Always the women. They have agreed. If one of them breaks hold of her sisters’ hands, they will all stand, and they will go immediately, as fast as they can, into the forest, as if late for a party or an accidental rescue. It is hard. One of them is his cousin. They played together when she and he were small; she thought that it was play. How can the weight of a single man go on to break a country? How can knowing be unseeing? Their grip is tight. Their knuckles white and risen. Fatma, half-handed, death-signed, daughter of the last violence, says to them, do not, do not ask to be forgiven.
And in the Well of Souls, the water is so cold that it can shatter bones; it can sting the brain and seize the heart within a minute. It is so clear that it can strip the body of all reason, rob the mind of all possession and ambition, stop those who are, as if they never were, so they will never be. Extraordinary, intolerable, uncorrupted water. Water, born from the middle of the earth, that pure and secret place no sun or human hand has ever warmed. Water, come from the past, in one form or another, rain, river, sea, thoughts like tears in clouds, as old as it is new, designed to serve no purpose other than its future.
Retouching: Anonymous Retouch. Photographer’s assistants: Karl Leitz and Caleb Andriella. Set assistants: Adam Kenner and Hannah Black
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