Night-roaming Girls

 

(From Gecegezen Kýzlar by Tomris Uyar)

 

Night-roaming Girls immediately entered the night. She was used to it.

 

Outside, twilight was still in progress: sunset lingered for a while longer on the rooftops, on the trees along the waterfront, on the hinterland, on the vast, looming wilderness.

 

In the city in which Night-roaming Girls lived, night was an earthenware dish painted in pastel colors. It was old. Utterly old.

 

Outside, lowlanders were making their way home from work. Villagers in the marketplace were gathering up their displays of produce and were making ready for the return trip. With its eternally fresh breath, the wind whipped laundry hung crosswise in alleyways, caused TV antennas to hum, brought the odor of humble vegetable stews being cooked. Wind was daytime. It was fast.

 

Whereas night was long, weightless. Within it one could easily go everywhere, anywhere. Feet sank immediately into its softness; blindman’s buff hands stretched out and fingered the emptiness.

 

Night was an undershirt stripped off, emptied of its body. It was everyone’s.

 

Night-roaming Girls first fingered the glistening earthen threads of the dish, probed them, forced them, and then passed through a tiny crack that time had opened. In the utterly old and familiar night she advanced warily: just as she did every night.

 

Having traversed the first level of the nine-story city, she turned from her left to her right. Her lips trembled. She pricked up her ears: for a while she listened to the commonplace buzzing of a bee set inside an amber tube.

 

For a while she felt a dull ache in one of the membranes of her body: the pain of passing into true sleep. Her feet touched the water at the shore.

 

The turbulent water of the channel had gathered and come there from its secluded caverns. With its raveled tongue it lapped at her naked calves and at her thighs where her nightgown had laid them bare. Sea, which once had denied passage to the mighty ships of Emperor Xerxes and for which act his noble enemy had meted out a punishment of receiving no fewer than three hundred lashes with silver chains, drew near to her and grew tame. Night-roaming Girls caressed Sea’s head. Sea purred and withdrew. And as he withdrew he also pulled Night-roaming Girls along with him. The gates of the channel opened in both directions:

 

This dream was of a  brown city.

 

From out of the milk-white crystal that completely enfolded the city, tendrils of agate blue and of blood red intruded into the brown here and there.

 

This globe of Murano glass had left the city gasping for air.

 

There was a rotten stench in the wind.

 

Night-roaming Girls sensed that the ancient city was buckling beneath her feet. Water stinking of sewage was rising incessantly; mechanical cranes were scurrying downhill and up; frescoes were being renewed. And like all ancient cities, the more this one was restored, the more it foundered: the city was being engulfed by the depths.

 

It reeked of amber, silk, and spice; of alum and poverty food.

 

It reeked of merchandise that had become corrupt and shabby from having changed so many hands; it reeked of splendor, of commerce, of plague.

 

Night-roaming Girls saw a transparent youth with silky blond hair at the door of a church. Instead of heading straight for him, she stopped. She was an enlightened girl: she could sense that, in this city of go-betweens, a youth could appear before Death in the traditional garb of a crown prince. But just let him come upon a wellhead or a fountain and that incomparable beauty would shed its disguise and turn into the Grim Reaper.

 

The dream was shattered.

 

In the distance, Night-roaming Girls spied a man who had hanged himself from a balcony: his barely discernible figure swung slowly, untroubled by the wind.

 

A mezzo-soprano voice in the church was singing a lament.

 

Unemployment must be rampant again.

 

Then Night-roaming Girls returned to Sea and mounted him. She clutched at his deep blue mane and pouring out her soul she begged him: Would he take her to a city in the Middle Ages where she could stay for the night? Just this once, just this night? She was so tired.

 

Sea nodded “yes”.

 

Night-roaming Girls could hear footsteps behind her. She did not turn around to look.

 

After traveling a great distance, she was surprised to find herself back in front of the same church.

 

The same ornate facade, the same buttresses.

 

Apparently the ancient city, now breathing its last breath, had been wrapped up in priceless fabrics and safely frozen in mummified form here.

 

The church’s clock had stopped: its hands pointed to midnight. The shops had stopped at the same hour: laces overflowed from their display windows.

 

Daytime’s last rustlings had vanished as completely as if it intended never to return.

 

The streets of this city smelled of lace and flour. They were utterly deserted.

 

Night-roaming Girls ascended the steps of the church. A caretaker was busy sweeping up centuries of papers and pages. He’d heaped them all up in front of his broom, with which he was flinging them into the air.

 

“Is there something you wanted?” he asked.

 

With astonished glances, he took stock of Night-roaming Girls.

 

“I… Well, it’s been a long time since I’ve seen a young girl out on the street at this time of night” he added.

 

 “I come from a long way off” said Night-roaming Girls. “Where is everybody?”

 

“It’s a long story” sighed Caretaker. “If you like, come on inside and have something hot to drink. You look tired. I’ll introduce you to the old man.”

 

Night-roaming Girls got down from Sea and walked into the church. Its interior gleamed with the flickering light of votive candles.

 

Together they slipped quietly into a cellar, coming to a room with an iron door.

 

Caretaker tapped on the door three times.

 

An aged man, white of hair and with a long, white beard opened the door.

 

Surprised, first he gave Night-roaming Girls a look-over.

 

“Don’t be afraid” said Caretaker. “She’s not one of us. She’s a stranger. Comes from a long way off. I thought you might talk to her. And look at her: she’s tired, hungry.”

 

Meanwhile Old Man recognized Night-roaming Girls:

 

“Welcome, Helena” he whispered. “Please do come in. I lost track of you after the last war. I was distraught with worry.”

 

“But, my name…” said Night-roaming Girls.

 

“I know, I know. Don’t argue with me now” said Old Man testily.

 

Night-roaming Girls entered the little room. She went over to the fireplace and sat cross-legged beside it.

 

After directing an anxious glance into the dark passageway, Old Man closed the iron door and shot its bolt.

 

Inside the room was a huge desk on which were thick books, an inkstand, and a pen case as well as a tobacco pouch.

 

“I’ll put some tea on” said Caretaker. “You two go ahead and talk.”

 

Night-roaming Girls was staring numbly at the fire in the hearth. A flame quivered momentarily and the room became transparent.

 

“I’m glad that you managed to escape, to survive” Old Man said in a whisper. “As you know, everything there was burned and destroyed.”

 

Night-roaming Girls was overcome by a sudden dread:

 

“When I set out tonight” she said “everything was just fine.”

 

“What day was it when you set out?”

 

“It was evening” said Night-roaming Girls. “A summer evening in 1982.”

 

“Those summer evenings never do seem to end” said Old Man. “They’re deceptive. They paint everything in twilight.”

 

For a while they said nothing.

 

Caretaker brought in some jasmine tea, which they drank. Night-roaming Girls rested her cheek against the rim of the porcelain cup. She missed her Sea. A feeling of homesickness filled her up inside.

 

Caretaker had picked up a dust cloth and begun polishing a shield, some armor, and a helmet hanging on the wall next to the only bed in the room.

 

“I’m tired and worn out” he was saying as he wiped away his sweat. “This is no kind of life.”

 

“Whose armor is that?” asked Night-roaming Girls.

 

“Mine of course” said Caretaker. “During the daytime, I serve as a knight in the city.”

 

“I’m quite confused” said Night-roaming Girls. “Where am I? Can you tell me?”

 

Old Man fixed his eyes upon hers.

 

“We’re in the reign of Philip the Fair. Not long ago, there was a revolution here too. In a sense, I mean. The guildsmen seized power. But even still, everybody is still fearful. You must have noticed that all the streets are deserted. Nobody is celebrating this great victory because we all know that it won’t last long. That’s been our experience.”

 

“What work do you do?” asked Night-roaming Girls.

 

“I’m actually a monk. But nowadays I try and chronicle events. I try and establish links between the past and the future. I want to leave my knowledge and memories of this Dark Age for the benefit of future generations. That is why I am forced to work in secret. At night. During the daytime I also practice geomancy in addition to serving as a knight. One has to make ends meet you know…”

 

“How do you keep the things you write safe? From your enemies, I mean.”

 

“Often I will write the same things over and over again every night. I try and memorize the things I write. Once I’ve got them memorized, I hand the papers over to Caretaker, who sweeps them up and casts them to the winds. In that way there is at least the hope that one piece of paper will reach some place where it may be of value. At the same time, I’m also protecting myself against the inquisitors and book-burners that are apt to pop up at any moment.”

 

Caretaker had finished polishing the helmet.

 

“Whew” he said. “Well that job’s done. What I’m really afraid of is those Crusade things. When one of them gets started, I can’t convince anyone that I’m just a pretend-knight for this museum-piece of a city. They won’t even listen. That’s nobles for you. On the one hand they insist on keeping their memories and their ancient cities intact but when there’s any actual work to be done, we’re the ones that get pushed forward to take care of it.”

 

“If I had some knowledge of history, I might have a better understanding of what you’re talking about” said Night-roaming Girls with embarrassment. “But I didn’t study beyond primary school. The only things I remember of history are a few names and dates.”

 

“Now it’s our turn to ask questions” said Old Man.

 

He took a drink of tea after which a kind of softness came over his face.

 

“What work do you do, then?”

 

“I work in a canning factory” said Night-roaming Girls. “We clean green beans all day long. We’re two girls.”

 

Towards Old Man she stretched out fingers that had been roughened and darkened by cleaning vegetables.

 

“But you do make good use of the nights, from what I can see” said Old Man. “That makes you one of us. Anyway isn’t what they call history just a passing parade of dreams seen and of images dreamed about all night long?”

 

“I really wanted to stay in school” said Night-roaming Girls. “But it wasn’t to be. My father put me to work at the canning factory because of his gambling debts.”

 

“Everything that you earn you hand over to him, don’t you?”

 

“Yes.”

 

“And even still he frequently comes by the factory and threatens you, doesn’t he?”

 

“Yes. How did you know that?”

 

“A situation we have frequently encountered” Old Man said.

 

He rose from the desk and stroked Night-roaming Girl’s hair.

 

“Mind you now, don’t ever let go of your dreams” he said. “And don’t you let anyone snatch your private dreams away.”

 

“But I keep thinking that there’s someone after me all the time” said Night-roaming Girls. “I’m so terrified that I can’t even turn around and look.”

 

“It might be someone your father has sent to keep an eye on you” said Old Man. “But it might also be Death. Don’t be fooled. Things are added to your body from every city that you night-roam. In time they become a part of you. Look, an enameled highlight has already been added to that bead at your neck. A moment ago I noticed that while you were talking to me, two tiny golden earrings suddenly settled on your ears. And the blood-red band that your own city set on your forehead has become darker tonight. In the same way, the cities that you night-roam also bear your own imprints: they’ll never forget the clicking of your heels. You are the daughter of a city of strife. You must be aware that your every journey, your every expedition entails a cost–a cost for both sides. Don’t be afraid. And don’t be upset if I call you “Helena”, all right?”

 

“All right.”

 

Caretaker spoke up suddenly:

 

“Were I to come your way one day–even if it was as an enemy soldier–I would show you what real knightliness is. But I’m much too old for that now. They probably wouldn’t even use me.”

 

“I ought to be going. I’ve kept you from your work” said Night-roaming Girls. “Thank you so much.”

 

“Don’t forget” Old Man said as he opened the iron door. “You mustn’t entrust your dreams to anyone and don’t let anyone steal them from you. There’s still a lot of time until morning. Since you’ve come down this far already, I say why not take a crack at the last level as well? You’ll find a touchstone for gold and silver there.”

 

Night-roaming Girls found Sea worn out by his long wait for her. So she didn’t mount his back but instead grasped hold of his seaweed and began to swim herself.

 

A strong, bitterly cold current welled up from the depths.

 

Night-roaming Girls surrendered her body to the cold water. She tried to wash away the markings on her forehead, her neck, her ears. But the stains would not come off.

 

As morning approached, the water grew warmer and brought the scents of distant islands.

 

Night-roaming Girls no longer concerned herself with the footsteps drawing closer and closer behind her. She was no longer afraid.

 

A light turned on before her. Like the meaning of the name of the city at the very bottom, it was a red that was as soft, gentle, tender, and motherly as it was fraught with passion. But it was growing paler and becoming more solid. In the end, it turned into Copper.

 

Then Sea grasped her by the hand and drew her up into the heights.

 

The dream was shattered. The sound of the factory’s whistle could be heard.

 

Night-roaming Girls sensed that she was being dragged higher and higher in the water, to its surface, and then through the waves and towards the shallows and shore.

 

At the last moment, before reaching shore, she encountered the usual night-dream of Her Mother. It was a dream that turned to gold no matter where you touched it: purest gold.

 

Night-roaming Girls did not even extend a hand towards her. She knew that the pile of green beans to be cleaned would never grow smaller the whole day long; that several more tons of beans would be heaped up in front of them just before quitting-time; that a bean could never turn into gold, not even if it were cleaned. She wasn’t fooled.

 

She was distracted only for a second. She bid Sea goodbye. For the time being…

(English translation copyright © Robert Bragner 2003.)


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