Black Rose and the Greenskeeper
Here were the wild ancestors of many plants that had kept humankind beating hearts and weapons since time immemorial. On the lip of the Euphrates, where the Caspian tiger and Eurasian lynx came to forage and fight, Kara Gul lived amongst the ferns and black roses. She had lived there long, and yet she felt the space around her, so vast and expansive, so inaccessible to her gaze and her touch. She knew a great deal about the flora and fauna of the Euphrates, of the weeds and wildflowers that blanketed the valley with their bright colors and liquid-like grace. But not as much as Cansu.
Cansu had seen so much of the world, not by reason of having walked upon it, but because of his injury, and the myriad ways in which it had shifted his paradigm of the world like a broken kaleidoscope. He looked upon vistas that others could not see, he approached living things with a tenderness and curiosity that were bred of his brief foray into the realm of things not quite alive but not yet dead. Cansu was the only man that she knew that did not kiss her like he wanted to take something from her, swallow the contents of her body, penetrate the shrouded mist of her mind. Cansu was the only man that touched the folds of her body with the pads of his fingers rather than the space between skin and nail. Cansu was the only man that peeled the petals from around her and did not balk at what he found beneath. She loved him, in part, because for the first time in her life she had seen her own reflection in the moons of his eyes, and she had not known that she was so radiant and sublime.
Cansu came from a village crouched in the folds of a vast, blue bay. It was Turkey’s golden state, where purple strawberries and rich, buttery almonds grew in abundance, and cornucopias of flowers filled up the bellies of valleys and deserts both. The winds passed up through the warm south, into the sharp, chill of the north, whispering spells into existence and casting curses of ash and flame on dry branches in the summertime.
It’s because our little blue dot is frying, Kara Gul. It’s because people aren’t doing right by the things that they cherish most. We’re all melting or cracking or slowly wilting beneath a sun that’s only going to grow angrier. There’s a film above us, an opalescent sheet of air that you and I can’t see, that shelters us from everything out there. And it’s been crippled and crumbled and beaten to bits, like my head. And when it breaks, we won’t be able to fix it.
But your head is getting better, isn’t it?
Indeed, but it will not ever be the same. And it is fragile now, and each blow renders it more fragile still.
Cansu told her about a world that she could not see, but could feel. He told her about his home, about the golden place where he had been a child. He told her about another place where he’d made a home, a land splintered with canals, where the houses were painted different variations of burnt orange and the people had soft, pale hair. He told her about herself and how she had grown and blossomed the way she did, and pointed out the bits of her that were wounded and bleeding and touched them in just the same way as he did the soft and lustrous parts.
Look at me, he would say, don’t be afraid. You are beautiful.
And when he spoke, she felt her limbs adjusting to open the chasms of her body up to him. And she believed him. But she also knew that he himself was afraid. She could see it in the gentle tremble of his lips, the transient cinereal fog that passed over his eyes, dulling the celadon of his eyes. After the rain, drunk in afternoon sunlight, they would talk.
I want to brings things back to life, he would say.
“Like me?” She knew that he meant different kinds of things, but that she too, was a thing that he wished to bring life to.
Yeah. Like buildings and bodies, sacred places and hallowed ground. I want to ease the pressure and quell the pain and pull all of the poison from this consecrated earth.
Don’t go far, please. Don’t wander off and go too far.
Kara Gul lived behind a cemetery, with Deren, the gatherer of flowers. She knew Cansu because he worked for Deren, and he came by often, mostly, he later admitted, to see her.
Deren was the caretaker of the burial grounds, and was supposed to keep the earth healthy and rich with life. Kara Gul knew that Deren believed that the responsibility was not his, and so entrusted the task of caring for the flowers to the mourners and transient vagrants that passed through. Like so many others, he relieved himself of the burden of responsibility, and did not care to extend reprieve to those whose backs were broken beneath the weight.
Deren was handsome- a wide face, smooth and burnt butter brown, eyes curved and dark like the pits of nectarines. He was also sharp and clever, authoritative and assuming of others. He had cast himself as her caretaker, and as such, kept her wrapped and tucked away in her bed. And because of this he often forgot about her, was often blind to the collapse of her once limber limbs, the waning of light as it reached her, dampened and weighted with her pain.
But then she had met Cansu. The people of the next village had held a ritual bonfire, and the salt of the earth gathered there to become, for a night, brought before the windows of perception. Cansu was there already, sitting off to the side, the luminescent pallor of moon and fire bleeding up his face. All present reaped the harvest of the mushrooms that had been sown for this purpose, and sat themselves in a crescent moon around the fire, with Cansu off to the side like the lone star of the Turkish flag. All were drinking palm-wine and candied plums, but Cansu, placid and patient, kept his mouth in a soft smile and his gaze fixed on all that lay beyond the eyes of others. He was beautiful. And she was afraid of him because she did not understand what it was he was seeing.
She saw him again two days later. In the dead of night he came to hold her hand and kissed her gently and conjured the warmest parts of her from beneath cracked ice. Three days after that, he brought her a ring and wound it up her dry and crimson finger.
“So you’ve returned,” she said.
“I am not afraid of him, ” he told her.
“I know, you are afraid of something other. You are apprehensive about picking me, uprooting me, yoking yourself to me as one binds flowers with twine.
“Understand. That I am no gatekeeper. I am no patron savior. I feel that you will need from me that which it is beyond my ability to provide.”
“I need the morning dew, the halcyon breath of our Turkish skies, your hands to hold and your heart to harvest.”
“These needs and more shall be met by our union, and yet I continue to fear the days ahead. In the evening, I hear the tapering murmurs of insects, the footsteps of wildcats and Anatolian leopards fading into the forests with the fall of dusk. Animals intimate more than we from the whispers of the wind, the scents carried by the shrill ocean breeze. The birds no longer eat the bread and I have had to throw it away as is contrary to our custom. I worry that I have brought misfortune upon the household. Planting saffron this morning, I came upon a nazar tangled in the roots of a willow tree, its concentric circles of lazuli cracked and chipped away. An omen, most certainly.”
“Perhaps a harbinger of something to come. Something unrelated to you and I.”
Cansu’s mind was different because he had cracked its shell. He often had splitting, white hot migraines that open up the folds of his brain for clouds of nausea and pain to pass through. He told her the story and she laughed, but it was somber. Before, he had been one of the only men in conservative, Islamic Halfeti who drank alcohol; he lived off of bruised avocados and soft watermelon that he grew himself- and moonshine. He reminded her, she said, of Alaatin, an Armenian architect that she used to know, who had build the town’s mosque, and who climbed the parapets of the edifice at night. His friend Destan knew the story, and related it to Cansu.
One night, his friend Destan had told him, he even climbed up to the top of the minaret, and one could see his shadow dusting the village square below.
Naturally, Cansu perceived the tale as a challenge, and ventured to take on the task himself. It was neither the climb nor the fall that bruised his brain, but, ironically, the snap of Destan’s wrist and the slap across the face as they shared a nightcap together. Stupid, she had told him. That whole evening, you were marinating a broken brain in liquor and plum wine. He didn’t remember the evening, and this was before he had met her so she couldn’t bring those memories back to him.
She often would tell him about time. She would talk to him about the unfurling of afternoon hours, the centuries crashing together and steadily, relentlessly carving shapes into rock like the rapids of the Tigris. She had an almost spectral view of time, could see through the cracked dimensions of temporal eras that seemed to others to blend and weave themselves seamlessly throughout history. So she told him about the things that she could see. She told him of the Mesopotamian hills, rolling with thunder and alive with the calls of merchants and the moans of their camels. She spoke of the crocus and saffron, that had once peppered the spaces around her and now were so few and difficult to find.
The told him the story behind the remnants of a mosque that lay bare and stale like crumbs; how Armenians had built this town and its ports, and yet were slain in the shroud of night, taken from their homes, marched toward the mountains like ants, their movements slowing, walking through the brush like sticky, slick molasses, tumbling into mass graves by the dozens. For twenty-five days, she told him, the corpses of these people killed further up the Euphrates floated by, bent into strange shapes, skin swelling beneath the shimmering heat. Many of the buildings in Halfeti had been molded by Armenian hands, but the town’s community was long gone now, nearly eight decades later, and floods increasingly picked up the fossils of abandoned home only to dump them on foreign shores downstream. For a few lira, one could pay thieves and scrapyard dogs for the possessions of those lost to the rage of water and wilful blindness.
I stole a bracelet from one of those homes once.
What happened to it?
I gave it back. I do not even understand why I felt compelled to possess it in the first place. As with most things, I was hungry for something, for anything at all.
She had been with Deren for as long as she could remember. It seemed to her that his mercurial, violent nature was simply a manifestation of that which she felt she deserved. She watched him as he plunged into her, his lithe arms and the acrid smell of his saliva, pickled by drink and desire. He would finish with a sigh, laced with frustration and resentment.
I love you- the words had the metallic taste and the cool glimmer of a lie.
Afterwards, he would make her tea, black and strong and watch her skim the steam with her breath. It was then that he made her most angry. His mournful eyes dripping with constructed feeling, the emptiness behind the careful gestures. His gentle touch- the way he slid his fingertips beneath her clothing, leaving stinging, almost cold patches of his sweat on the nape of her neck, the space beneath her breast. It made her sick. He would leave traces of himself on her and then dissolve into the penumbra of the desert nights.
Sweet dreams, kid.
At night, when he fell asleep, she would bake bread and drink gallons and gallons of tea and plunge her fingers down her throat. She would watch the bile darken the earth and think about the flowers being fed by her pain and anguish.
There were many like her in Halfeti, girls who had been picked apart and torn to pieces, reduced to frail and wilted things. It was common to tell a story amongst young women and hear the familiar echo of recycled words being recast in different scenarios. But no one else had a man like Cansu. No one else had anybody even a little bit like him. Gentle in an almost otherworldly way, like he was a Nepalese monk, trying to avoid hurting things that other people didn’t even notice. A boy that moved through air like water, leaving ephemeral eddies in his wake, gently guiding those around him towards better places. There was something within him important in its own right, like a vestigial bone or an inedible flower. Somehow he was more than all of his characteristics put together, and that piece of him seemed to fit seamlessly into the jagged edges of her, mending things that she had not even known were broken.
On the day that the flood came, they had found peace. Through bitter smoke, with glassy eyes, they spoke of what was to come. He was drawing up the plans for a state project; a dam that was to halt the Euphrates and allow for the smooth passage of ships laden with spices and silk. Construction was well underway, but the dam was not sustainable, he said, and he felt uneasy about the continuation of the project itself. One more, he spoke of fear and she asked him, again, what it was that he was afraid of.
This supposed fear, he said, may be a fear of reaching the top and realizing that there is nowhere to go but down.
Then we shall hold hands and slide down to the bottom together.
He had been drawing a picture of her; finishing up his almost photographic vision of her: a deep, rich, wine-red filling in the black contours of her petals and stem. She was waiting patiently for him to crumple up the paper, as he often did, for him to return to her and she to him. But he did not.
In the winter times, the Euphrates would rise with the snow and molten rain and would withdraw, water lines painting the banks of the river, little by little. Cansu would plant cucumbers and watermelons in the garden, where Kara Gul could see and touch them. And then, with a shiver and a snap, the dam collapsed into the water. The last thing that Kara Gul saw before the flush of water beneath her eyelids was Cansu’s hand in hers, the spokes of his veins straining against soft, pale skin. It seemed to her, as she felt him plucking her at the roots, dragging her limp body up to higher ground, that flowers of black and blue perforated their hands, woven together and feeding the grasses that grew there.
The year is 2001. In the town of Halfeti, a ghostly minaret peers from pools of crystalline water. The shingles of roofs and alabaster tiles glimmer beneath the diaphanous ribbons of currents passing through. Beyond the bloated blue dome of a mosque, a cemetary. Upon the corroded spires of a gate submerged, a cast iron ring of cerulean opalescent stone. With the passages of currents through ivory headstones, choked with lichens and bruised by algae, the ring moves along the spire on which it is caught. The sound can be heard only if one is to dive to the depths below, and listen to the gentle tol of a love passed through and beyond.