My mother was born into a family that believed in all kinds of superstitions. Growing up, whenever we were alone, I’d watch her pray to her Gods and perform small rituals to be protected from evil. She would never place two mirrors facing each other for instance, believing that the infinite reflections in each mirror would open a gateway for the devil. If she accidentally spilled some salt, she’d take a pinch of it and throw it over her left shoulder to undo the bad luck and repel the devil. She would change her way if she saw a black cat on the street and knock on wood every time she or someone else mentioned something unfortunate, such as accidents, illnesses, or bad fortune.
“It wasn’t just my family,” she told me once. “Everyone in my village believed in them. They lived their lives accordingly.”
One of these superstitions was that the Gods would not allow a soul into the Otherworld if there weren’t enough people who would cry for the dead during their funerals. Rejected at the threshold of the gargantuan gate made of torn flesh, broken bones, and rotten blood that opened to the Otherworld, they said the dead would be forced to drag their souls in the mundane world forever, haunting the people they knew before they died.
Last night, my father died. Tomorrow, he will be buried. Since this morning, my mother has been worried about the number of people who will cry at my father’s funeral.
“What if there won’t be enough people there to cry for him? What will we do then?” she fusses and frets.
“It’s just a superstition, Mother,” I say. I’m fifteen years old, and I haven’t called her ‘mama’ ever since I was five. I’m not allowed to. Calling your mother ‘mama’ is for sissies, was what my father beat into my head with his heavy hand. Are you a sissy, boy? Are you my son or not? Cause if you’re not, then what are you doing under my roof, sucking my marrow and bones? Ha? “I don’t think it’ll actually happen,” I add, blinking away the memory.
“Of course, it’s gonna happen,” my mother answers. “It happened to our neighbor when I was a little girl. He had a wife who was mean-spirited. Nobody liked her. When she died from illness, nobody cried for her. Now, our neighbour didn’t believe in any superstitions either, so he dismissed it, but her spirit was rejected at the Gate, and stayed behind to haunt her old house. She sucked the life of her husband’s new wife. The poor girl faded more and more every day and finally died while she was giving birth, taking her baby with her. After that, nearly all the villagers cried for them, so they could have a safe passage through the Gate and be at peace in their death.”
I sit on the chair next to the window and listen to her voice as I peer out. For a moment, I hesitate to say what I really think. I don’t believe there will be anyone at the funeral, crying enough for my father to pass through the Gate. A side glance at my mother’s face is more than enough confirmation to show that she thinks the same. Nobody will cry after him. Not even us.
“What are we gonna do?” my mother asks, absentminded. Hers a question without an answer.
“We’ll bury him,” I answer. “It’s the only thing we can do.”
My father wasn’t a good man. He didn’t just muddy his shoes in the sins he committed in moments of weakness, as most do, or had a tough childhood that taught him the good and the bad in rigid lines, hardening his shell so that every harsh behaviour he displayed had goodwill lying underneath. There were no excuses for who or what he was.
It was ironic how my mother tried to repel evil with her little rituals all the while we lived with the devil himself. Bullied by him ever since I could walk, I was taught his arbitrary rules the hard way. He hit me, heavily, whenever he didn’t have the patience to tell me something because I was supposed to understand and abide by his wishes without him taking the trouble to tell me what they were. He didn’t care how little or clueless I was, and strongly believed that everything about life can be beaten into one’s skin. Soon, my body became a map of his life lessons, covered with bruises and scars that were lashed, carved, and burned onto it.
It was the same with my mother if not worse; she simply breathed to serve him, although he punched that air out of her lungs every day. He didn’t use the belt or the burning cigarettes on her as he did with me. He only used his fists to punch, and his legs to kick, reveling in beating her this way, like a person who would enjoy working with their hands in their garden without handling any tools, using their fingers as a rake, and their palms as a shovel.
He was also a powerful man. By cheating, threatening, and using people, he took possession of many houses, farms, and land, and established his power over others. Anyone who ever defied him either went on missing or died in mysterious accidents. As all these examples that were made of dangled in front of the eyes of the whole village, people came to realize that it was better to submit to him than stray away from the flock to meet their creator sooner.
Once this belief settled in the minds of the villagers, everything my father wished for became ripe for the taking. For instance, everyone knew that he killed his childhood friend two years ago so that he could have his friend’s newly wedded, young bride for himself, even though the official claim was that Father’s friend had committed suicide. Two days after his husband’s funeral, the clashes, screams, and cries had risen from the widow’s house around midnight, waking her neighbors up, stirring others who lived further in their sleep. However, nobody came to help or even got out of the safety of their warm beds to see what caused the commotion through their windows. Instead, they put their heads under their pillows to drown the noise and shut their eyes tight. They all knew who made the widow scream. They all ignored it.
My mother too was aware of these events, yet she had to turn a blind eye. When we heard that the young widow wasn’t able to walk properly, which didn’t prevent Father’s midnight visitations to her house, Mother secretly talked to the village doctor for treatment and handed some money to an elderly village woman to look after the widow during the day. She knew Father would kill her if he ever got an inkling of her actions, but it didn’t stop her.
Then, this morning, we woke up to a day when Father wasn’t alive anymore. Apparently, he was stabbed to death in the middle of a street just before dawn, on his way home from the widow’s. There were no eyewitnesses, and no one heard anything. There were no indications as to whom the culprit could be. No murder weapons were found nearby the body, either.
We hadn’t heard what happened until we were called to the gendarme commander’s office early in the morning and told that Father was murdered during the night. As the commander explained the situation, I started to tremble, not knowing how to calm down. Mother also seemed shocked at first, but after one glance at me, she gathered herself quickly. She told the commander that a person mad enough to kill Father must have already fled the village and we had no wish to burden the gendarme by requesting them to pursue the killer beyond the village borders. “Let’s leave both the dead and the living in peace,” she added. We could see that the commander wasn’t eager for a further investigation either — nobody liked Father, including the gendarme — so, he reluctantly agreed, saying he would reopen the case if any evidence would turn up, and repeated his condolences.
I couldn’t believe the fact that Father was dead. I couldn’t get my mind around this notion for it was beaten into my bones and skin that nothing could happen to him: only Father could happen to other people. Therefore, as I was digesting the news when we left the commander’s office, still dazed, I couldn’t see the change in Mother until after we walked for a while: Instead of talking in a hushed, urgent voice as she always did, she gained a calm and strong voice. Her shoulders, sunken with the weight of fear and disquiet all the time, were now raised, correcting her posture, so for the first time in my life, I noticed that my mother was tall. My head was swimming in the air; I was waiting to snap out of this dream at any moment, but we arrived home, and I didn’t wake up. We both felt tired, so when I suggested sleeping a bit, Mother agreed.
When we woke up to a world without Father for the second time today, noon was setting. It was then Mother came and told me about the belief that belonged to her village. I didn’t pay much attention to her at first, since it was around time for Father to come home for lunch, and torture both of us like he did every other day, but no one was kicking the door, pushing Mother out of the way as they threw their muddy shoes randomly in the middle of the room. No one was squatting at the table, on a chair very close to mine, reeking of alcohol and sweat, scraping through my face with rusty rakes for eyes, and trying to decide on some random excuse to fall on me like a ton of bricks. Nobody was coming to set on us with the horror of a nightmare you couldn’t wake up from.
For the first time in fifteen years, I was free.
Mother’s murmurs start to rattle me a bit. Even though I don’t really believe this superstition –I was beaten hard to be sensible, after all– the thought of being haunted by Father, and having our lives sucked out of us not only mundanely but also supernaturally, is unnerving. You think you can get rid of me boy, ha? I’m your father, and you’re nothing without me. Nothing. You couldn’t live without me one more day. Who’s gonna discipline you, if not me? Who’s gonna punish you for your sins? That’s why the Gods sent me back. You’re so twisted that you need a good fix. And the Gods knew I’m the only man for the job.
I give up and turn to face Mother. “If what you say is true, Mother, then I couldn’t do it,” I say. “Now that I tasted a tiny sliver of a life without him, I couldn’t go back. You need to know that if it really happens, I’ll kill myself.”
Mother’s intense gaze on my face is burning, kind of like when you turn your face to the summer sun. Without saying anything, she stands up from the couch, wears her coat, grabs her bag, and starts toward the front door. I hear her say, “I’ll be back in a couple of hours,” before the front door slams after her.
She returns late in the evening and wakes me up for some bread and cheese where I’ve fallen asleep on the couch while waiting. She doesn’t say anything about where she went. Only tells me to go back to sleep after I eat since the funeral is tomorrow morning.
I watch her as she cleans the table but can’t bring myself to say something to relieve her from the words I uttered this afternoon. I was serious, and Mother knows it. So, I don’t say anything and go to bed to lie awake for hours. I don’t hear her going to her bed.
With the first light of the morning, Mother wakes me up. She is already dressed in black, putting out my black funeral clothes for me. “Wash and scrub your face and hands clean,” she says. “We’re leaving in an hour.”
When we open the front door, I’m surprised to see people crowding our front yard. The undertaker is unloading Father’s coffin from a carriage with the help of six pallbearers. The clergyman, who will officiate the funeral, stands near our door. In his hands, he carries a book full of religious sutras, on his face, he wears an indifferent mask. Yet, I don’t know who the other men standing in our yard are. There are nine or ten of them, all wearing the same sad expressions. One of them starts toward Mother, then gives us his condolences, followed by the others. I’m drawing a blank and cannot understand who these men are. I look at Mother, but she’s talking to the clergyman. The undertaker approaches me, carrying something, which he jams into my hands when I least expect it. I look down to see what it is and startle. It is the only picture of Father I’ve ever seen. He gazes through his frame, locking eyes with mine, looking frightening as ever. If I didn’t know better, I would think that a sorcerer must have imprisoned him in this frame, and he is there, alive, seeing and despising me.
What the hell you’re looking at boy? Ha? Just wait till I get out of here. Then you’ll learn the real taste of blood and sweat.
“You’re the son,” says the undertaker. “It’s your duty to carry his picture.”
I nod, trying to swallow the raising bile down.
The clergyman walks in front of the funeral convoy. Right behind him are Mother and me. The undertaker and the pallbearers walk behind us, carrying the coffin, and after them follows the group of ten men, who start to cry soon as we leave the front yard and walk down the street. They cry louder and louder, pulling their hair, beating their chests and legs, calling Father’s name, whimpering that he has left us too soon. What is more, their reaction, tears, and pain are so real that I feel like someone is vacuuming all the air inside my head.
I get so baffled that I forget to walk. I freeze in my steps and sway. That’s when I feel my mother’s hand gripping my arm firmly:
“Keep walking,” she orders me. “Don’t stop.”
I look at her. “But who are they, Mother?” I ask, pleading. “Who are these people? How can they cry like that?”
“They’re your father’s friends. Now, keep walking.”
I can see that I’m disturbing the whole funeral convoy, so I force myself to walk again, wiping my tears with my sleeve. “Father doesn’t have any friends,” I say to her, under my breath.
“Shush!” she says, again with that firm voice. “Don’t disrespect the dead. They know your father. He helped them. They’re grateful. That’s all you need to know.”
I nearly stop in my tracks again, but I manage to keep going. That’s when I notice that we are walking down the main road of the village. On each side of the road, from their yards or windows, the villagers watch the funeral convoy passing them by. They all have the same surprised look on their faces caused by the commotion of the grieving men on our tails. Some acquaintances try to catch our eyes as if to ask. Mother doesn’t return their gaze. Her jaw clenched, she looks directly forward, ignoring everyone around her. I follow her suit as the looks begin to bother me.
Yet, my eyes catch the sight of the only window where no one peers through to see our convoy. The thick curtains are closed tightly, and nobody moves behind them. From the outside, it seems like this small house could be abandoned, but I know it isn’t. I know who lives there.
The way the curtains are closed so tight so that even a tiny single light can’t find its way in, tells me how much the young widow hates Father. He is dead, but she doesn’t even peek out to see his corpse carried to the graveyard to bask in that scene even for a moment. I imagine her in her bedroom at the back of her house, away from the front yard, hiding in her bed. Under the airlessness and the darkness of the blanket, she is praying for the nightmare to go away. She doesn’t want to take a good look at his coffin to assure herself. She just prays him away, even when he is dead.
Or maybe she doesn’t need to see the coffin. The hatred she’d been harboring for these past couple of years must have been rotting her insides, just like it did with our hearts and feelings. We could never be that strong, but maybe the young widow was? Maybe she let him take another piece of her one last time, showing no resistance, then grabbed the bone knife she had been sharpening, followed Father in the dark for a while, barefoot, so he wouldn’t hear a thing. And just when they arrived at a secluded road, she ran with all her might, not stopping until she felt the tip of the blade slide into his back, easier than she thought, pushing all the way in. She reveled in seeing his appalled face when she pulled the knife back and stabbed him for the second, third, fourth time. She felt joy when the life spark was extinguished behind his despicable eyes.
My thoughts are interrupted when we all stop. I look around to see that we are finally at the graveyard, standing next to a deep pit that will swallow Father’s remains soon. Upon receiving the undertaker’s instructions, the pallbearers hurry to descend the heavy coffin into the open grave. The coffin shakes a bit as it descends, then a satisfying thump rises from the grave. The pallbearers retreat, allowing the clergyman and the deceased’s immediate family to come closer and stand over it.
The clergyman starts to read sutras in a language we don’t understand yet are familiar with still; it is the unconditionally accepted tongue of our religion. The men keep crying, sometimes even loud enough to drown the clergyman’s flat, indifferent voice. I wish they would stop. My arms begin to ache from carrying Father’s picture, and the urge of throwing it at the grave and running away grows in me.
When the clergyman’s prayers come to an end, a grave worker approaches to hold out a shovel to Mother. She grabs its wooden handle awkwardly. She stabs the freshly dug up earth piled next to the grave with the shovel, fills it up, and throws the earth on the coffin. She repeats the action twice more. Then, she turns to me and hands me the shovel. I put the framed picture of Father at the edge of the open grave and fill my shovel with dirt three times to throw it on Father. One of the crying men approaches, takes the shovel from me, and attacks the pile of earth. The other criers also find shovels to join their friend in burying Father.
I see an opening and using the commotion, I slowly push Father’s picture with the toe of my shoe, enough to send it tumbling down in the grave. Either nobody notices my action, or nobody cares. When the burial is complete, the picture is also safely buried.
Then, there is nothing left to do. Mother and I start toward the entrance of the graveyard. Coming up on the entrance, the clergyman, the undertaker, and the pallbearers go their separate ways, but the criers follow me and Mother. Though not as fiercely as before, they still cry, praying loudly to the Gods so they would allow Father to the Otherworld, saying how great a man Father was, how he helped them when they were going through hard times, and how he was a blessing in disguise of a man. I can’t believe my ears.
“Why are they following us, Mother?” I ask, on the way home. “Where did these people come from?”
Her eyes fixed on the road ahead, Mother answers, “They need to come to our house for the wake and eat the halva I cooked this morning for the dead.”
“Is this really necessary?”
“It’s the proper way to go through a funeral.”
“Will they really leave after eating the halva?”
Mother looks at me. “What do you think? That they will start to live with us?”
“How should I know?” I retort, “You don’t tell me anything.”
“I already told you what you need to know. As for the answer to your question, yes, they will leave right after they eat their halva. They are from my village, and have a long way back.”
I kick a pebble and glance at her sideways. “You didn’t say that they were from your village.”
“Does it matter?” she asks. The weight of the day has already set in her voice.
“So, Father helped all these men when he spent time in your village for your wedding preparations?”
She tenses. “Something like that.”
I want to ask more, but something in her tensed posture stops me from going further. For a while, accompanied by the hiccups of the criers, we walk in silence. We pass the young widow’s house, in the opposite way this time, and I see that the curtains are still tight shut.
“What are you looking at?” Mother asks, searching my face. “Nothing,” I reply. She traces my gaze to the young widow’s house, then turns to me again. “What is it you’re thinking?”
“I’ll tell you later,” I say.
She tenses again and doesn’t talk until we reach our house. She invites the criers in, showing them seats inside the house, then goes to the kitchen to heat the halva.
I have no choice but to sit with the criers for a while, listening to their whimpers, their words about how great a man the deceased was. That is a notion so lost on me. I can’t ever imagine Father doing a good deed, or simply uttering a kind word, so, I try to ask them why they are so grateful to him.
They don’t seem to hear me over their noise at first. I repeat my question a bit louder while touching the arm of the man sitting next to me so that I can get his attention. He seems surprised behind his tears, faltering for a moment, then proceeds to tell me that Father’s good deeds are so many that they can’t begin to tell. I try asking more, but he starts to cry even louder that I give up.
Mother comes in with a tray and begins to serve halva to the guests on small plates. After she finishes serving them, she takes the empty tray back to the kitchen. Halva seems to have a soothing effect on them; the more they eat, the quieter they become. When Mother comes back to the room, I see her hands are empty. “Aren’t we going to eat any halva?” I ask. “There was only enough for our guests,” she says.
Something shines in the corner of my eye. I turn just quick enough to see one of the criers picking up a gold bracelet he dropped on the floor. His eyes dart around before he hastily slips it into his jacket pocket.
I don’t understand. I look at Mother. With a blushed face, she avoids my gaze, then moves to collect the halva plates from the guests. Not one of them is crying now, but as they hand their empty plates and spoons to Mother, I catch one or two others slipping shiny things into their pockets. I open my mouth to say something but meeting my eyes, Mother’s gaze holds me in place. I shut my mouth, she hands me the dirty plates. She doesn’t need to tell me what she means. I take the plates back to the kitchen and hear the now silent visitors leave. Mother’s voice raises as she thanks them. Then, the door closes and Mother’s footsteps approach.
She doesn’t say anything, instead, she starts to wash the dishes. I watch her swift, accustomed movements. Understanding takes a toll on you, so I stay quiet for a while before I talk.
“You gave your gold wedding bracelets to those men,” I say, finally. My voice is not accusatory, I’m just stating a fact. “They were buried inside their halva.”
She doesn’t say anything. Her hands move swifter.
“Did you hire those men to cry for Father at the funeral?”
She rinses a plate. “Does it matter?”
“It doesn’t?” I ask, surprised how indifferent she is. “Isn’t this cheating?”
“Yeah, you’re cheating the Gods!”
She puts a plate down in the sink a bit too loudly that it makes me jump. Then she turns to face me.
“Stop talking about the things you know nothing about. I’m not cheating the Gods, how dare you!”
“But paying people to cry for a stranger–”
“They weren’t strangers,” Mother cuts in. “They are all people your father hurt in one way or another. He stole from them. He left them stranded. And now, he paid them back when they needed money.”
“You paid them, not Father,” I say, weakly.
“They believe your father died so they could be paid. They are grateful. Their tears were genuine. He should be accepted into the Otherworld. That’s all there is to say.”
“But Father didn’t want these people to benefit from his death. He didn’t want to die either,” I say, and stop to take a breath. It’s now or never. “He was killed by that young widow.”
Mother looks at me with genuine surprise. “You mean that poor bride of his late friend?”
“How do you know she was the one who killed him?”
“She must be the one. Who else? Only she didn’t have anything to lose. Ever since Father broke her, I don’t think she’s been really living either.”
“And how on earth do you think she killed him?” Mother asks, squinting.
I tell her what I imagined on the way to the funeral. I tell her how the young widow hid all day, with curtains shut tight, without peering out once. I tell her how if it was me, I would surely want to see his coffin to be sure that he’s gone from this world forever. Unless I saw him die first.
“You’re being ridiculous,” Mother says when I finish, turning back to washing dishes.
“Why?” I ask. “Is it really impossible?”
“Yes. She couldn’t do it. I can’t imagine what your father did to her, but I know that she can’t walk without a cane anymore. And very slowly, with a cane. So, she couldn’t have run as the way you described.”
I think about it for a while. “Then who do you think it was?” I ask.
“Your father had many enemies.”
“Yes, but no one would dare to kill him. So, it must be her,” I retaliate. “He was coming from her house. Maybe she poisoned him and–”
“Stop this,” she cuts in. She turns to me with a newly rinsed bone knife in her hand. “Gods know she’s suffered enough. Stop saying that poor woman killed him. You know she didn’t. And you won’t repeat this nonsense anywhere.”
“But don’t you need an answer —?” I try to go on, as my eyes get caught on the big, sharp knife. Mother registers the familiarity of the blade twinkling in my eyes. It is here somehow, clean and shining as new. She found it, I think, as I feel the floor swaying under my feet. She knows what I did.
She grabs my arm tenderly to help me regain my balance. “No,” she says, her eyes piercing into mine. “I don’t need an answer.”
I feel tears running down my cheeks. She squeezes my arm, then lets it go, turning her back to put away the knife in the back of the bottom drawer.
Ecem Yucel (she/her) is an Ottawa-based Turkish writer, poet, and translator. She holds an MA in World Literatures and Cultures and is a Ph.D. candidate in Translation Studies at the University of Ottawa. Her writing has recently appeared or is forthcoming in Kissing Dynamite Poetry Journal, Cypress Poetry Journal, Ayaskala Magazine, Wine Cellar Press, Alien Buddha Press, and Boats Against the Current Magazine. Her poetry book The Anguish of an Oyster is available on Amazon, Kobo, and Barnes & Noble. You can find her at www.ecemyucel.com or on Twitter @TheEcemYucel.