We Become Nothing

“We had come to see the underground cities and bright-painted cave churches, jewels of Cappadocia. We hadn’t come to lie sick in hotel rooms by ourselves.”

Human settlements carved into a mountain

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We got off the bus in Göreme and found a room in the Kervansaray Otel. I was sick. The Kervansaray’s owners, a father and son both first-named Kemal, were troubled by my presence, alone, when Luke left. He said he was going to find me some crackers and bottled water, but he was gone for what seemed a very long time. We were the hotel’s only guests.

The Kemals walked up and down the hallway, checking on me. I lay shivering and burning up in bed and being sick into a T-shirt because I didn’t want to go past them to the bathroom. I watched their shadows against a sheet of textured gray plastic in the corridor wall. That plastic was compensation for having no window to the outside; it let some light in, but it also trapped me in place because I couldn’t hide. I even saw one Kemal bend down to peer through the keyhole, which was the old-fashioned kind with a big gap. I was sure they thought there was something wrong beyond the usual illnesses that seize tourists, and knowing that they suspected this made me feel guilty, even though I had done nothing.

The Kemals were relieved when Luke came back and took charge of me. I was relieved too. His breath smelled like sesame seeds. I rinsed my mouth with the bottled water he’d brought me.

“Better,” I said. “Better.”

The Kemals fetched glasses of tea for both of us. We stood in the plastic-lined hallway and drank politely, smiling warily at each other.

Luke and I had already had tea all over Turkey, given us by hoteliers and merchants and, yesterday, an elderly couple in Ankara who beckoned us into their plywood shack during a sudden snow flurry. Their çay might have been the reason my stomach was churning now, or at least part of the reason. I’d also eaten some carrot shavings with a kebab, though I’d been warned that fresh vegetables were dangerous. I thought I’d been to worse places and had ingested dirtier things.

When our glasses were empty, Luke did not want to stay inside. “Let’s take a walk,” he said. “Get you some fresh air, see the sunset. There are caves up the hill.”

“I don’t know how far I can go,” I said. Having him back and drinking some tea had settled my stomach a little but not enough.

The Kemals encouraged us. The son said, “The path is called Hill of Dreams.” The father said, “Some peoples lives in the caves.”

We had come to see the underground cities and bright-painted cave churches, jewels of Cappadocia. We hadn’t come to lie sick in hotel rooms by ourselves. So I changed into a long skirt and my last clean shirt, and I tied a scarf over my dirty hair.

“Good-bye,” the Kemals called after us in English. “Good-bye, good-bye!”

The hotel was on the edge of town. Luke and I walked up the Hill of Dreams, toward a giant silhouette of Atatürk done in black wire. His portrait was everywhere because he was the father of modern Turkey. We found a rock that would let us gaze through Atatürk to the sunset, and Luke took off his sweater and folded it for me to sit on. He put his arm around me in that way the guidebook told us not to do where we could be seen, and we leaned into each other.

On this trip, we had been highlighting Rumi’s poetry: The wound is the place where the Light enters you. And Your task is not to seek for love but to find the barriers that you have built against it.  And Become nothing, and he’ll turn you into everything.

We were ready. To become everything, because we knew how it was to be nothing. We were making ourselves into new people in a place where almost all temptation was banned. Military police strolled the city streets in olive fatigues, and we were constantly afraid of being arrested. We knew that we hadn’t yet shed that wild-eyed, hungry look of people on the brink. We also knew that if you’re in the habit, you always know where to find more. Miles and miles of poppy fields stretched across the interior.

There were no police on the Hill of Dreams. It was the most alone we had been since landing. Luke kept a casual hold of my shoulders as if I did not need him to prop me up, and I tried very hard not to be sick.

When the sunset began to edge the clouds yellow and pink, Luke reached in his pocket and dropped a box into my lap. It was covered in coarse red velvet and it looked to me like a small, bloody animal.

 “I found it in the village this afternoon,” he said. “When something is perfect, you don’t wait.”

What should a person say to that? “We agreed on a year.”

Luke misinterpreted. He said, “Don’t think you aren’t lovable, because you are. By me.”

We had been told that my insecurity was as big a problem as any other addiction. I wasn’t sure I believed that, but I was insecure enough not to question it. On this trip, Luke had given me some encouragement every day, usually in a way that reinforced a bad feeling: Don’t think you aren’t lovable felt like Nobody but me will ever love you. I supposed he would promise something like this in his vows.

“Go on, look inside!” Luke picked up the box and was about to open it himself when a coincidence came along.

An old man, or possibly one in late middle age, shuffled quiely up the path with a steadiness that must have come of a lifetime treading unstable ground.  He wore a black fez and pants baggy to the knees, with a long, once-white shirt. Everything about him was loose and thin and barely held together.

I shrugged my way out of Luke’s embrace; I didn’t want to offend with public touching. But the man did not look at us. He came very close, yet kept his face pointed forward.

At first I was glad for the interruption, and then I was gladder when he stopped a few yards up the path. He made a clicking sound and flicked his fingers toward his body.

“Let’s go,” I said. I handed the box back to Luke. It was unlike me to be so impulsive, but I wanted to be anywhere the proposal was not.

Luke was torn. He mumbled, “I think I saw that guy in the village today. He was at a café or something.”

Anytime Luke was vague, I worried about what he did not want to tell me. He didn’t seem to have the same concerns about me, and that worried me in a different way.

Up ahead, the stranger waited. He flicked his fingers toward himself once more.

“Come on,” I said, “when are we ever going to meet someone like him again?” Even the old couple in Ankara had worn T-shirts, and they had a television.

Luke put the box back in his jeans. “Okay.” He helped me stand and we followed the stranger. It was good to be moving around, though I felt wobbly.

The man led us to a slope of crumbly karst, onto which he stepped as lightly and surely as a carpet. I hesitated. The slope was steep and I was tired from being sick; there was a perfectly good path we could have taken instead.

I tried out the languages of which I knew a little: “Français, Deutsch, español, English?” I wanted to ask about the path. “Yok?” I finished. No, nothing?

He didn’t answer. Luke took a step onto the karst, slid down, stepped up again, and held out his hand. I didn’t want this adventure anymore, but I felt I had to go too, since I had started it.

In this circumstance, it was all right to touch. We held hands and slipped and skidded, but our guide barely dislodged any pebbles.

It would be natural to seek one of Rumi’s lessons here, in the accidental encounter, the silent old man passing lightly through life. I tried. I was tired but I tried because I really wanted to believe that all of this meant something. I still didn’t feel great.

Luke pulled me the last few feet, onto a flat, terraced area. Incredibly, what we saw was worth all the effort. An old red-and-yellow wooden cart was parked there with a couple of goats tied to its wheels, and a handful of women in dark skirts and headscarves sat on the edge of a well, smoking cigarettes. They were surrounded by skinny cats twitching their tails like dogs. Behind, the cave mouths expanded as the sky colored orange. It was a picture from a fairy tale, a scene printed on brochures to lure tourists.

And it was here that our host at last showed his face. He turned to us, spreading his arms as if in a blessing.

I tried not to be sick again. The side we hadn’t seen was a knot of scar tissue and collapsed bone. It glowed vermilion in the dying light. And he had no left eye.

I remembered that line of Rumi: The wound is the place where the Light enters you. And I thought, What bullshit. What utter bullshit. I could not begin to imagine what had happened to this man, and I wanted to sympathize with him—but he frightened me.

We pretended we were merely tired. I took off my scarf to blot my face dry. Luke brushed the dirt off the thin cloth of my skirt.

The one-eyed man watched him touch me. So did the women.

I thought, Maybe one of them is his wife. I tried smiling. If they called out a welcome, then I would feel okay. I would stop feeling self-conscious and scared and that other emotion that was creeping in. Foreboding. Shame — the old excuse for so much I’d done.

The women stared stone-faced at the sky. They were not welcoming us. I looked at Luke, pleading; the stranger looked at him too.

Luke pointed down a trail that hugged the hillside and the line of caves, and he asked slowly, “You … live … here?”

So that was where the man took us. I didn’t want to go; I lagged behind as Luke set off. Then the old man wrapped his hand around my wrist. He tugged. I wanted him to let go, but when I pulled away he pulled harder toward, and Luke was already well down the path.

I was glad to escape from the women, at least.

We marched past a series of small caves. The doorways were low and didn’t always have actual doors in them; smells of cooking and mildew and smoke lingered around the openings, and what we could see of the dark interiors was all furnished with stacks of crates and clothing hung up on poles. Luke fell behind, peering inside each one. When I tripped, it was the stranger who steadied me.

“So cool!” I heard Luke say. His voice echoed; he was speaking into somebody’s home.

I wanted to shout at him to hurry up. And shut up. But would that have helped?

Suddenly we were at the last cave, or at least the last we could see. It was isolated around a curve and its path had crumbled away. Even from the outside it reeked of urine.

The one-eyed man ducked inside. I ducked, too, just in time to avoid knocking my head hard on the rock as he pulled me after him.

In the past, our habits had taken Luke and me to some dirty squats and alleys, but none had made me as queasy as this. Maybe some of them should have, but back then I’d been just too far gone to know what to feel. You might think places like this would have nothing you want, but in our experience they were the only ones that did.

The cave was a home. Or at least it was a crash pad. It had a blanket on the floor, and a pillow, and a few plastic crates packed with clothes and bottles. The floor was all dirt. The ceiling was low.

My stomach lurched. The old man had swung me around and now stood between me and the door.

Now he spoke for the first time, in a voice that was low and rough and missing some tones. It came as a shock. I could not recognize a syllable and I had never been so afraid.

“Que voulez-vous?” I tried. “Was möchten Sie?” I mangled the phrase Turkish waiters said in cheap restaurants: “Ne istiyorsun? What do you want?”

I got the words out just as Luke slid in and stood next to me, bumping my shoulder in a gesture that was just friendly but I hoped would look protective.

In English, the old man said, “Mon-ey.”

In a way it was a relief.

“He thinks we’re rich,” I said to Luke. “He must have seen you in town today.” That might have been mean of me to say, but it was true; Luke could get careless when excited, and he did like to impress people.

What I did not say was that the stranger thought we were addicts. I did not need to say it. We could not have been the first people he’d lured up the hill, and we were addicts.

Right now I wanted nothing more than to sink into it again. My nerves stung with craving.

Mon-ey!” the man repeated impatiently. He seemed to grow larger, filling the space between us and the cave mouth. He flicked his fingers in that Come here gesture. This time I thought it meant Pay up.

I dug into my skirt pocket. Luke let go of me to search his own pockets, but I’d have bet they held nothing but the red velvet box. I found a few coins and a bill worth one thousand lira. Maybe I could just hand that over and go. We wouldn’t take anything; we’d just pay.

The coins hit the ground. “Yok!” Our host had smacked my hand hard.

Then he reached into his own pants. He pulled out coins of his own and threw them at me. They bounced off my shoulders, my breasts, my arms. They slid down my clothes and my skin.

Oh, I thought. Oh.

I couldn’t speak, couldn’t look at Luke now, could only feel so full of longing that it made me retch. The one thing that would stop the retching was the thing I had vowed not to have.

“Yok!”

I had been digging in my pocket again, hoping to find it suddenly full. The one-eyed man grabbed my arm and shook hard. Then let me go, so he could make a circle with one thumb and forefinger. He plunged the other index finger inside.

At the height of our habit, I had been careless with my body and Luke did not mind. He encouraged it, in fact; he expected it. I had been lovable (he’d told me so even back then, in the worst of it) but my body did not matter. So I had been an easy trade for whatever was on offer.

Now things were different. Now we knew this: The body is not hidden from the soul, nor is the soul hidden from the body.

I felt in my bones that this was the moment. The moment at which we would have to become everything to each other, because Luke had to fight for me as he’d fought for his own life.

But he didn’t. He stood agape, staring at the coins in the dust.

A hand closed on my crotch. I felt it through the thin skirt, bruising me. The old man was faster than he seemed.

“Evet,” he said, “bu.”

Yes, this.

Almost the worst part was getting away. Tripping and sliding and battering myself against the cliffside, aching all over, and not just where I’d been grabbed, where the feel of a strange hand would linger long after I’d escaped. Vomiting into the dirt and my own hair, scattering the underfed cats. I tried to run past the women, who stared frankly through the smoke of their cigarettes; they knew exactly what had happened, or they thought they did.

Luke stumbled along a few feet behind me. He was the one who was crying. He called out to me that he was sorry and he hated himself, over and over, like a chant. What he needed was for me to say I forgave him and to take the blame, but I didn’t. I lurched away.

So I fell down the Hill of Dreams toward a purple, star-speckled sky, where Atatürk’s profile was lit up in red neon and held the most beautiful moon inside.

The Kemals brought me tea and some bumpy crackers. They brought warm wet towels and looked away as I washed the blood from my cuts. They did not ask questions, not even about Luke. He had vanished somewhere behind me; I suspected he was looking for a café that sold anisette raki or some other drink. He wasn’t choosy.

The Kemals brought a telephone.

“You call to your father,” they told me. “You call to your mother.”

They wanted me gone so badly.

I thought they must know the strange man. They could have told me who he was, how he lost his eye, how many other fools he’d led up to his cave. How many women he’d wrestled to the ground, how many times he’d succeeded. Mon-ey. It had extra meanings here.

I didn’t ask. I knew that no matter what I told them, they would think this was not the old man’s fault. In all other eyes, fault was ours, for being what we were. Maybe the Kemals had even steered us toward the caves, thinking I needed to stop a withdrawal. Maybe they had told the old man to go find us. No one seemed safe to me now.

I called Turkish Air and found out I could take a bus to Antalya that night and then a plane home. It would cost everything I had left, and in a way I was pleased. Now I would have all I deserved; I would have nothing.

While I was packing in the light of a dim one-bulbed lamp, Luke turned up at last. His face was flushed and he reeked of anisette. That much was inevitable.

But somewhere he’d discovered that he still had hope. He watched me stuffing my laundry into my backpack, and he tossed the red velvet box on top.

I tossed it back, but it fell inches short. I was still weak. “Take it,” I said. “Return it.”

He picked up the box and stood, wiping it off on his jeans. I noticed that they were torn at both knees. He held it out to me again, his heart, on his palm. “I got it for you.”

Because he implied I was lovable, because he had bought me a ring, he thought I would absolve him not just for today but for all the times we’d been in danger but too far gone to realize it. And he thought that if we came out of this engaged, we would truly be all right.

I would not take the box. I said, “You need the money.”

“I’ll throw it away.” He raised his fist as if to hurl it right then.

“That’s your decision.”

“I’ll spend it on — ”

“I don’t care.” I really didn’t. Except that I wanted him to spend it all and be ruined too. I wanted him to fail.

I said, “It is not my job to rescue you.”

Luke drew his hand back to throw the ring, probably at me. Neither one of us was lovable now.

Just then, the Kemals pushed the door open. They had heard our voices raised; they had seen the shadow of Luke’s fist through the plastic panel. “No, no,” they said. “Not the lady, not the miss. You go now.”

They meant both of us. Both of us should go. One of them took Luke outside and the other one carried my backpack to the bus stop.

My Kemal and I waited in silence until a bus came. I think he was the father. He hoisted my bag into the bus’s underbelly and we bowed to each other, curt and without touching. I climbed in, and the bus groaned, and I was on my way, past the riddled hills.

It had been a whirlwind. And I thought, Whatever we know will blow away: up to the sky, to the moon and stars. But it will not happen soon. Not soon enough to stop breaking our hearts.

The red profile on the Hill of Dreams grew smaller and smaller, till it was swallowed up in the sky and I didn’t care to watch anymore. And that was it; that was Göreme, that was Luke and me.

Featured image by Mehmet Turgut Kirkgoz on Unsplash

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Comments

  1. You are most welcome, Susann. Thank you for YOUR comments, which I love! I definitely looked up Cappadocia on YouTube and agree with Amira. I’d love to see Turkey too. A hot air balloon above the caves and beautiful scenery over there otherwise is very appealing. Definitely have your people get in touch with the Post people for any future stories. By the way, you’re a very attractive woman.

  2. Beautiful. Haunting. I love this, Susann, and want to make sure to get to Cappadocia some day.

  3. Fiction,I was mislead,
    I don’t waste my time reading
    somebody’s lies-intentionally….

  4. Poor Luke,mislead by you,
    What became of him in that den of sin.
    Turkey is a different place under Erdogan,
    when I visited several times,Americans
    were treated like family,even better.
    All my stories have happy endings.

  5. Well, thank you, Mr. McGowan. Disbelief is interesting, because the central incident is ripped from the headlines (of my journal) … It felt pretty unreal at the time, and also as if it could become all too real forever, if you get my meaning. But this is fiction, so characters have been compressed and reinvented around that moment. Thank you very much for reading and giving me a much-needed, generous boost!

  6. I have to hand it to you Ms. Cokal, telling quite an uncomfortable story here that frankly left me in disbelief at what I was reading more than once! I love your writing style and phrasing of things too that delights the mind and makes you think at the same time. Some of it may make you queasy and feel uneasy. That’s a good thing nowadays. It definitely succeeds in getting one’s mind off what hideously terrible times these are for awhile. Thou hast done a remarkable job. Thank you.

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