Short Story, 2021
Suat has been in the tube for only an hour, but it already feels like an eternity. For the first thirty minutes he kept himself busy by studying his fellow travellers. Once he became bored of seeing the naive excitement on their faces, he shifted his attention to the seat pocket in front of him. Digging around blindly in the dark crevasse he suddenly felt a sharp corner hit the back of his hand. Shocked at this sudden intrusion, he pulled the object up into the pallid florescent light of the cabin. An empty package of the strongest cigarettes on the Turkish market. Upon further, somewhat more cautious, excavation, he discovered a plastic water bottle and a magazine titled MANZARA. Given its grimy looks, he thought it must have been an ancient issue, but, to his surprise, the date on the cover disagreed — July 2053. The poor thing was only two months old. All of the crossword puzzles had been solved seemingly decades ago, almost every face had been given a ridiculous moustache, the most vibrant smiles were already blackened with aggressive pen strokes. There was nothing left for him to do. He wondered if what made him envision the remaining eight hours as being nearly unendurable was either 1.) The depressing subterranean darkness he has to endure until reaching Rize, 2.) The penetrating odour of his gaunt seat mate, or 3.) The fact he had run out of things that can distract him from thinking about how he conned himself into a new life.
“Sir, excuse me? May I ask you a question?”
Now that his seat mate had spoken, Suat could successfully identify from which of his bodily orifices the lethal stench was emanating. The young man’s pale face was covered with sweat, his translucent skin was revealing purplish veins that looked like they were about to burst open at any minute. The content of his question hit Suat as a wave of stale breath mixed with barely hidden annoyance and disdain for Suat’s comfort:
"I don’t mean to upset you, sir, but would you mind putting your shoes back on? I am dealing with motion sickness and I am afraid the smell of your socks is not helping me to cope with it.”
After a pause that was slightly too long and some quick reflection on the potential outcomes of a brazen answer (most of them negative), Suat decided to reply with an awkward nod. With the help of his hands, he slipped back into his black loafers. He wondered if his seat mate had noticed the scars on the fingers of his right hand that he had carefully tried to conceal with his shirt sleeve. This habit of concealment had become second nature to Suat over the last year. Although the scars had now lost their saturated pink hue, they were still visible, circling around the entirety of each boney finger that once belonged to another body. Given their look, Suat could only assume that their previous owner, Adem Naziroglu, might have been someone whose life was greatly affected by anxiety and stress. Each fingertip of his right hand showcased nails that were nearly bitten down to extinction. Strangely, seeing how the previous owner cared for his fingernails compelled Suat to begin nibbling away on them as well. Just as hiding the scars became habitual, so did the chewing. If anything hiding the scars were a bigger burden. Suat couldn’t not see the scars, whereas the chewing was hardly noticed because the transplanted fingers hadn’t yet regained feeling after the surgery. This minor homage however only extended to the right hand. Suat did this intentionally. Keeping the two hands separated by habit allowed him to briefly convince himself that he and Naziroglu both still had fully intact extremities.
Before the transplantation, it was made sure that Naziroglu had no criminal past, but Suat kept pondering what could have possibly lead him to give away both his identity and digits. It was like willingly throwing away winning lottery tickets. One way or another, it just doesn’t add up.
To be born in Rize means survival. It grants you entry to one of the few left places in the country that despite climate catastrophes and social uprisings still offers economic stability and fresh air to breathe. Behind the heavily guarded city walls lies a multimillion dollar biotech, hazelnut, and tea industry. Endless meadows where the inhabitants can practice a self-sufficient lifestyle. The most exciting thing to Suat is that there are forests. Lush evergreen forests on top of mountains. Smaller, sparse woods on the valley bottoms, often covered by thick fog. At times the forests are cleaved in two by clear streams. Then again there are ones furrowed with a silent army of mushrooms. The forests are all fragile, but still they are there.
Suat closed his eyes to remember his stay in Camlıhemsin 13 years ago. A time where tourism was still allowed, at least for fifty lucky lottery winners chosen each year. A time long before the earthquake in Istanbul. The big one that everyone had been fearing for decades. The one that finally shattered the city and left the population of 90 million in a state of collective despair.
He remembered being woken up at dawn by the muezzin’s velvety voice, amplified and bouncing between the buildings, a house call reminding everyone to pray on this particular first Friday in May. Three dates, a cup of freshly brewed black tea and a small portion of muhlama later, Suat left the small room in the chalet where he was staying. His feet were now taking him towards the nearest forest. Walking in the early morning hours on this day required special navigation skills because heavy fog and misty rain obscured everything more than half a meter away. Each step felt like stepping into the unknown. It was a loss of control that Suat had consciously been yearning for. Back in Istanbul his life took place mainly between three districts. He knew them like the back of his hand. Even out of his known environment, there was never a moment of disorientation. This is due to being equipped with the latest smart glasses that show all the most up-to-date maps with navigation, as well as about any other information one could ever desire. On that particular Friday though he intentionally left them in the upper drawer of his wooden nightstand.
After what felt like an hour of walking up and down various inclines and declines, the fog and mist began to capitulate to the heat of the morning sun. For the first time, Suat could now roughly orientate himself. Not being used to nature and distance, he had no idea how many kilometres he had gone so far. All he could safely establish was that the chalet was a small dot blending into the scenery behind him. In Suat’s survey of the landscape, he spotted the silhouette of a young man some distance in front of him. Every so often his brick red sweater peaked through the fog that was still hanging in the valleys. Suat walked faster so as to not lose track of the man, but he also didn’t want to catch up with him entirely. Meeting another human in the desolate wilderness, Suat realised, might also be a shockingly frightening proposition.
It was clear that the man was aiming for the entry into the same forest that Suat was aiming for. By the time Suat was nearing the tree line the distance between the two had shrunken to about fifteen meters, allowing Suat to study the tall and rather slender hiker in front of him closer. Despite the man’s strong pace on the bumpy ground, he carried himself smoothly, seemingly floating over the track. His hands were buried in the front pockets of his black cotton trousers. Like his chin length dark hair, the fabric was waving in the morning wind. Suat couldn’t detect the frame of a pair of smart glasses from behind, making him wonder if the man was a local or if he was also just in need of exploring the unknown. When Suat accidentally stepped on a branch, the hiker briefly turned around and examined his follower in a quiet manner. Suat stopped and gave him a shy nod, hoping he wouldn’t come across as a possible danger. He estimated the stranger to be in his mid twenties, around his own age. Moments after stopping, the young man turned back around and proceeded into the woods, albeit at a slightly slower tempo. Suat didn’t know what excited him more: to finally be in the forest for the first time in his life or to share this moment with the young man.
Upon entering the woods they were surrounded by trees as tall as buildings that seemed to embrace each other with their intertwining branches. It was like having entered a sacred private space. Each step on the the damp forest ground caused the soil to slightly give way under the soles of his boots. Rather than giving up and allowing the footprints to remain though, the forest floor rebounded as soon as Suat lifted his feet, leaving no trace that it had ever been disturbed. It reminded him of a firm ergonomic mattress, the ones costing a small fortune. Those that he couldn’t afford yet.
Overwhelmed by the forest, Suat wasn’t sure in which direction to shift his attention. There was the intense earthy scent of the damp woods, a warm and pleasant smell previously unknown to him. Then there was the interplay of various peculiar sounds: creaking trees, the chirping of birds, rain droplets from the night before falling from one leaf to another, and the rustling foliage under the unknown hikers and his own feet. To be clear, it wasn’t like Suat hadn’t heard similar sounds before. He has played dozens of simulation games that amongst other things, sampled audio material of forests. Their promise was always to offer the ultimate immersive nature experience. In the end though the simulations only resulted in an overstimulation of all five senses, leaving one nauseated and unsatisfied. Now he knew that in the end nothing compared to actually being in the forest. It was an inherently different encounter, with a subtle quality no game and no movie could ever emulate.
Suat wasn’t alone in his child-like curiosity. From time to time he peaked over to the stranger, now walking almost side-by-side, though with a respectable distance between them still. The young man’s previously stern expression was replaced by one of excitement and wonder. He was crumpling soil between his long fingers, touching tree trunks, and smelling blossoming shrubs. Now Suat knew without doubt, he wasn’t a local.
Suddenly the stranger paused in front of a tree, resting his hands on his knees. He was staring up as if he was starstruck. With a small hand gesture he signalled Suat to come over to him. Suat noticed a humming sound that grew increasingly louder the closer he got to the young man. “Look up’’, said the stranger with a contagious smile, revealing a tiny gap between his two front teeth. Suat’s eyes searched for the source of the sound for a few seconds, but then he found it.
It was a bee swarm the size of his arm, hanging off a branch three meters above their heads — a vibrating mosaic of insects that seemed to be inseparably glued to each other. Bound not through conscious decision but rather fate. Like a planet forms in the vastness of space, rock and debris come together first by chance, but, once a critical mass is reached, gravity does the rest. All the separate parts become one, indistinguishable and transformed through universal forces.
To remember Halil when they first met, not buried under their collapsed roof, but rather in his prime, made Suat twitch. He decided to just keep his eyes closed until he reached his final destination. Upon closing his eyes Suat could do nothing but imagine for the millionth time what he could have done differently on the day of the earthquake in order to save Halil.
In an attempt to get his mind of these thoughts, Suat listened carefully to the snoring of his seat mate, trying hard to detect a pattern to make sense of something. To Suat's surprise, the man’s guttural snoring put him in a meditative sleep-like state that made the remaining hours until arrival fly by. The train was just about to reach the end station in utter darkness, when a chaotic and expectant atmosphere came over the wagon. Travellers were exchanging friendly jokes, clicking on their smart glasses to save each others contact information. Some passengers were annoyedly grunting at their seat neighbours for blocking their way out of the table seat, while kids were frantically running through the aisles, generally exacerbating the whole situation in the least annoying way possible.
Suat slipped in the queue to exit the train. Once the door opened, people rushed into a wide mirrored corridor leading from train to the massive city wall. The city wall itself was made out of white concrete and almost 15 meters high. Together with the bright, cloudless sky and the yellowish dirt the wall was sitting on, it was a surreal sight travellers looked up to with reverence.
Suat’s eyes were still trying to get adjusted to the sudden change of brightness as he watched the first few people walking up to the eight wall mounted monitors. Each person placed their hand on the screen and was scanned in order to enter Rize. One of them was his fellow seat neighbour. Whenever the system successfully identified its citizens the wall became permeable and people could pass through what looked like dry water. Now it was Suat’s turn.
He looked up to the observation and defence systems positioned on the edge of the wall, ready to wipe any trespassers out of existence. Suat closed his eyes one last time, remembering what he said to himself on the train. He would open them again when he reached his final destination. He thought to himself maybe this time it won’t just be an empty promise. Eyes still closed, he stretched out his left hand and pressed his fingertips firmly against the scanner. The lasers reading his fingertips felt warm to the touch, the sensation reminded him of a secret shared between lovers.