Caves

Marissa Mazek

Every morning, while Fatima and little Necati are still sleeping, Selim goes to the yard to feed Eşek, the donkey. Eşek has to eat first thing every morning, or he'll bray all day, and the baby won't sleep, and Ahmet from down the road will complain. Ahmet's wife gets the kind of headaches that leave her in bed for days at a time, and the donkey's wheezing brays can set them off or make them worse.

Eşek's wandering around the path behind the house. Selim doesn't see a need to build a fence to keep the animal in, for he never goes far. He seems tethered to the property, as if he's afraid that, by traveling, he'll lose his home.

Maybe the donkey's right. Selim's only left rural Cappadocia twice himself. He went to the closest city, Nevşehir, once, and found it too loud. He couldn't get over the tall buildings, their roofs shamelessly sticking above the highest minarets. His other trip was to the graveyards of Gallipoli, but Selim doesn't like to think about that.

Donkey fed, Selim now needs his tea. The dusty road is quiet at this time of day, before the tourists pour through the village on their way to the famous formations of ancient ash and  rock—the fairy chimneys and cave homes. In the late mornings and afternoons, the road in front of his house is crowded with little white tour vans and a few larger buses, bringing foreigners to the sites.

Selim thinks about the people who lived in Cappadocia before him. Thousands of years ago—he's probably never had a thousand of anything and doesn't quite understand what that means—his ancestors made their homes in the soft stone hills that fill the region.

Selim's spent his whole life among the cave homes and fairy chimneys. He knows the dry, yet soft, beige-gray rock better than anything. He knows how to lift himself up into the old dwellings and how to crouch so he doesn't hit his head. Selim doesn't mind getting the pinkish dust all over his knees, or the rocky half-light inside. He's always thought of the caves as his real home.

Precarious as they may be, to Selim the fairy chimneys were the first minarets. They were made when rocks and lava slid and crashed around, more years ago than he can fathom.  Selim finds something holy about the spires. He likes the noble way the fairy chimneys stand; their dark, cone-shaped boulders, balanced quietly on narrower posts. Sometimes, Selim likes to sit in the caves, look out at the chimneys and know that his ancestors had the same view. There's always been something in how the sun hits the formations, something in the way the rock receives its light, that feels right.

Now Selim has a home of his own that he must leave every morning. Like most of the men in the village, he doesn't work. There's never been a factory, or more than a few small stores—just the fields and the tourists—but this village has endured. Selim has some orange trees growing behind the house, so he'll sell juice to tourists in the summer, and Fatima is one of the weavers.

As Selim approaches the tea house, he thinks of his wife. Fatima will be awake and leaving soon to go spend her day making thousands of knots out of thread. She was lucky to be chosen as a young girl to learn the trade of making rugs, lucky to have thin, quick fingers. Selim's proud that his wife is becoming one of the more accomplished weavers—the one her boss has the tourists watch when they come into his shop.

By now, Fatima's mother is there to take care of Necati. Selim thinks about returning to the house and saying no, I'll take the baby today, but he's too far from home now and, besides, none of the men do women's work. He wouldn't know how to look after his own child all day, anyway, and he is expected at the tea house.

The men who live closer are already there. İyi günler, good day, all around, and to Burhan, who nods, always a little grim, as he brings Selim his tea. Selim thinks about how many cups he must drink in a week, in his lifetime. Maybe it's a thousand, thousands, even, like the number of years ago his people used to live in the caves.

As far as Selim knows, his family has lived in Cappadocia forever. Since there has been a village, his father, and every father before him has lived here, walking the same road as Selim, going to the same tea house nearly every day. Except during the war, when one of them died at Gallipoli, far away along the Dardanelles. These men before Selim probably sat at the same wooden table he's leaning on now, but not in the same seats, for Burhan got new plastic chairs a few years back.

Selim takes his usual spot, in a corner not far from the window. His regular table mate, Mehmet, isn't there yet. Mehmet probably had to go get his own father, who's approaching eighty and starting to look it, but still insists on living in the cramped house he's shared with his wife for sixty years. While he waits, Selim cradles his glass of tea in his hands, warming them. He swishes the spoon around inside, adds a cube of sugar and watches it dissolve.

The other men are talking, passing yesterday's Hürriyet around. Burhan hasn't turned the TV on yet to see the latest news, and Serkan grumbles about why they can't get the paper on the day it comes out, the way his cousin in Istanbul does. Mehmet and his father come in, and Selim stands to greet the older man before helping him to his spot alongside the other aged ones. Burhan brings Mehmet his tea with the same wry nod he gave Selim.

No one has anything new to say; so Mehmet starts up with his usual complaint. “My goat's not eating again.”

Timur pipes up from across the room. “That's what you said last week. Did you give it rakı like I told you?”

Rakı won't do anything except get him drunk. You know that.” Someone in the far corner makes a crack about drunk goats.

Ahmet passes yesterday's Hürriyet over and Selim stops listening to the conversation he hears a dozen times a month. He wonders about that math, too. What's a dozen times a dozen times the fifteen years he's been coming to the tea house as a man? How many more times will he have to hear about Mehmet's goat? If he reads slowly, the paper will distract Selim for an hour or more. 

Mid-morning, the imam plays the recording of a muezzin's call to prayer he got from some religious store in Istanbul. The men all rise at once, and there's a small clamor of chairs being pushed in, and clinks of glasses set down in a hurry. Inside the mosque, everyone does ablutions in their regular places, Selim next to Burhan now, who's a minute behind everyone else because he has to lock up.

Together, the men from the tea house, and a few bus drivers who'll join their ranks after prayers, stand, clasping their elbows. Together, they bend forward, straighten up, go down to their knees, touch the ground with their foreheads, sit back up. Heads down, stand back up, stay still, fold, straighten, knees down, head to ground, sit on knees, head down, sit, still, rise, fold, heads up, down to ground, sit, head down, sit, rise, again and again. A few old women pray in the balcony.

After each man returns to his seat, and Mehmet's father complains about how cold his drink has gotten, then Burhan runs around and pours more tea into everyone's glasses while his oldest son brings out the food. Everyone eats the manti Burhan's wife has cooked in the back kitchen. There's a small yard between the tea house and Burhan's home and, at some point in the morning, his wife and daughter crossed the yard and cooked for the men. If some of the other women ever join them to help, Selim doesn't know.

Selim does know that Fatima isn't a part of the women's rhythms anymore. Now that she has the baby to take care of and her job, she doesn't go to her friends as often to gossip. She stays at home after work to make Selim's dinner and feed Necati. Then, on warm evenings, she sits on the step in front of the door with a glass of tea. Fatima always tells Selim that the heat helps her fingers. Sometimes, her hands get so cramped that Selim puts his glass down and massages his wife's fingers, one by one.

Selim doesn't know if the other men sit with their wives in the evenings. Many of them have children, but nobody speaks much about their spouses. In the tea house, women are almost forgotten.

Food done, Burhan finally turns on the TV. There's a story about the fighting over in Syria, about how many refugees crossed the border during the night. Timur's brother starts the conversation. “You know they'll end up here.”

“I doubt it.” Ahmet now. “We're so far from the border.”

“You never know.”

“I hope they don't come here. We're already poor enough.” Burhan talks while he collects everyone's plates.

Mehmet thinks Turkey should let more refugees into the country, but Serkan disagrees. A grandfather lectures for a long time about why the Syrians should stay where they are, and somebody else pipes up in support of Assad. A few of the men have seen the videos the rebels put online and argue in favor of guerrilla tactics. They go on like this for most of the afternoon.

Selim wants to say something, but doesn't. Instead, he wraps his hands tighter around his glass and remembers.

 

 

Selim's great-grandfather, Emre Aslan, was the only member of the family to leave the region for longer than a few days. Young Emre had been a member of the Ottoman Army, sent to fight the British and the Anzacs at the Gallipoli Peninsula, not far from the city of Çanakkale. He was given the last name Aslan, “lion,” posthumously, an Atatürk-era acknowledgement of his sacrifice.

The battle's seventy-fifth anniversary came when Selim was a boy. His father, Farhat,  wanted to see the place where the grandfather he never knew had died. Farhat saved up his money by selling a couple of donkeys and spending a few months driving tourists to and from the airport, and had enough for two plane tickets and a two nights' stay in a one-star hotel in Çanakkale. They couldn't afford to visit on the anniversary itself, so they went a few weeks after.

Together, Selim and Farhat took their first flight, from the Nevşehir airport, in the middle of Anatolia, to Çanakkale, on the Dardanelles. When the plane started rushing far faster than any car Selim had ever been in and lifted its nose into the sky, Selim closed his eyes. Once the plane settled, he turned to the window and watched his country sliding before him. It emerged not knot by knot, the way weavers make the images on carpets, but in big chunks of different colors and textures. They flew over the country's dryness, which turned to greens, and then, suddenly, the sea.

It wasn't the sea. Someone in Çanakkale made that clear, but Selim and Farhat had never seen so much water before and didn't know the difference. As soon as they got to their hotel, father and son walked to the waterfront, past the rows of tea houses and little restaurants with English names. A few places were named after the other great battle that occurred in the area thousands and thousands of years before, at Troy, and Selim wondered just how many men had ever died along the shores of the Dardanelles.

Across the strait lay the land where Emre Aslan had died: Gallipoli. From the lights of Çanakkale's boardwalk, the peninsula glistened, but on it lay more ghosts than Selim or his father could count.

The ferry trip was another first. He couldn't believe that the boat could hold both cars and people and still move. When the ferry shakily pulled away from the dock, Selim was glad he was holding onto the railing, for he almost lost his balance. Gallipoli's shore approached them with a surprising speed. The peninsula was covered in scrubby plants on sloped hills leading down to the water. A giant Turkish flag had been placed somehow along the cliffs. Selim looked up at the twin flag streaming above the ferry.

As the boat docked, some boys a few years older than Selim came by selling bronze key chains in different shapes. His father bought him one shaped like a gun. When Selim pulled the trigger, a knife blade popped out.

“That's a bayonet,” one of the vendors told him, “They used those in the battle.” Selim shoved the key chain in his pocket.

They saw graveyard after graveyard. Farhat had written Emre's name down, and their guide helped them find his burial spot. They visited a few others first: one cemetery up on a hill surrounded by cypress trees, another with some flags near a monument quoting Atatürk, and a third with a statue of a Turkish soldier carrying an Anzac. Selim lost count of all the headstones. Two-hundred-and-fifty-thousand men died in the battle, the guide said.

Then they came to Emre Aslan's cemetery, down by the water. He was a few rows back from the shore, in between a teenager and someone in his fifties. Emre had been thirty-five. Selim and Farhat stood behind the graves, facing the water. Silent, father and son looked at the tombstones together, while Selim tried to count. He gave up around forty, but there were many more. Selim asked his father why men did this.

Farhat thought for a moment before replying. “Because that's what happens when too many men get around each other. They can't help it.”

 

 

Selim wants to tell the men in the tea house about all those graves. But someone's talking about what he would do if he got a hold of Assad, and the others are adding in their own ideas of barbarity. Somebody wants to shoot him, another to pull all his fingernails out, another to violate his wife in front of him, and then are those men who want to do the same thing to the rebels, to the Americans, to Erdoğan. They'd do that to each other if they could, Selim thinks, and gets up out of his chair. He walks into the late afternoon sun.

Outside, Musa is starting his van. He has to go pick up some tourists at the caves in Göreme now and take them back to the Nevşehir airport. Without asking any questions, Musa gives him a ride. Musa had an accident as a child and doesn't speak much, but he's the best driver in the area.

They ride out of the village. The road flattens out for a kilometer or so, and the men stay silent as the blue and white evil eye hanging from the rear-view mirror clanks against the glass. Some of the fairy chimneys are up ahead, and one of the abandoned cave villages that hasn't yet been inspected. Once a government official's visited, it'll be opened to tourists. But for now, it's empty.

Musa lets Selim out, waves and drives away. In the lowering dark, Selim examines the rocks. He hasn't been to this set of dwellings since before he married Fatima. The stone seems solid in its softness, and it's quiet.

There's a cave home Selim can climb into. Inside, there's just enough space for him to lie down. It's cool and dry. Above him, the low ceiling is a light gray.

Selim imagines filling the rock with his things. The bed he shares with Fatima will fit in one corner, Necati's crib in another. He's not sure what they'd do about lights, but has heard that the cave hotels in Ürgüp have full electricity, so something could be done. He gets up and moves to the door. Below, the dusty yard has room for the donkey. Selim sits with his feet hanging out of the doorway, pulls the old bayonet key chain out of his pocket and throws it into the dust below.

Necati will be going to bed soon, and Fatima must be worrying, but Selim decides to spend the night in the rocks nonetheless. The sun is almost set now, and it'll soon be too dark to walk home. In the morning, though, Selim will get his wife and son, and bring them here. They'll spend the entire day in the caves, and the night.

Author Portrait

Marissa Mazek is a first-year Creative Writing MFA student at Hollins University in Roanoke, Virginia.  Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in The Rampallian, The Birch and Cargoes and is forthcoming in The Emma Press Anthology of Homesickness and Exile. She received an Honorable Mention in Glimmer Train's December 2013 Fiction Open and was the recipient of the Howard M. Teichmann Writing Award at Barnard College, where she attended, graduating in 2010.