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A Long Day's Evening

Bilge Karasu


He turns to look ahead. He must be getting close to the island, since the dark imposing mass of its rocky peak has grown more distinct in the advancing dawn. His exhausted arms pull the oars with the numbed ease of a body that has grown indifferent to thought or will. He can hardly hear sounds. The oars plunge into the water, withdraw, plunge again; the sea tears open, yielding to the boat, mends itself in the morning calm. He turns to look again. The island, getting larger as he approaches, appears to shrink in the glow of the sun rising from behind it. The first rays are about to touch the surface of the sea. A soft breeze makes Andronikos shiver, carrying the whisper, the scent of pine needles from the island. It has been a very long time since he experienced a new scent, different from everyday scents or even last night’s smell of fish, seaweed, salt. Still, Andronikos has no time to enjoy such distractions, though his soul craves them. He knows it shouldn’t but can’t say why. An indistinct grin settles on his lips, which would have been considered a smile of sorts in the monastery, in Byzantium.

Once upon a time, when he used to belong to a community, more precisely, until yesterday — when he finally realized that he had made himself believe all along, that he had deceived himself into thinking that he believed he belonged to a community. No, it wasn’t yesterday but the day before. Morning is breaking; yesterday is already more than a day ago. From now on, he’ll have time. Abundant time. To die,to live, to experience new things. In fact, so much time that it will have no intrinsic meaning or value. How best to use this time? He ought to do something. Perhaps create something. Yet to create, to find the strength to create something.

Andronikos laughs. He still can’t resist the seduction of such nonsense, such absurd reasoning. This deceptive, good for nothing, impotent. No, not impotent. Such reasoning shouldn’t even be called impotent. He shouldn’t forget that he accepted impotence from the start. So that he could use the word “love” often, freely, with dizzying abandon, until he made believers of others, made them nauseous with his play on words, until he convinced himself, too, that love is the mainmast of the universe, he accepted impotence from the start.

He releases the oars to keep his palms from bleeding too much. How often he has had to release them since the start of his journey, he’s lost count. (Why even count? He should stop counting at least for now.) He plunges his hands into the water. He can hardly feel his battered palms, as though they’re not his, except for their pain, a sharp, hissing pain — like water spilled in scalding oil. This, too, will pass, he thinks, this exertion at the oars. Soon he’ll have to carry stones. For the next few days or just hours perhaps. He doesn’t know. Yet to create something, one must first believe. Above all else, believe… .He is caught in the snare of impotence, worse still, in the void of his circuitous thinking. But what if he is? What would be the harm, given that being caught or being free have become equally meaningless now? Even if he were willing to relive the past two days, even if he were to descend again into the swamp to start over, Andronikos would still fall prey to his reasoning. Impotent or not.

He is thirty-three years old. The same age as the peasant who at the end of his life was nailed to a cross on a hill in Palestine, unaware that he had changed the world… .But Andronikos shouldn’t be thinking of him at all.So much has happened, so much is happening still, it seems, on account of the crucified one. No use in deception. Events are happening not because of the one on the cross, but because of the strife among his believers on both sides who equally believe that they are his true believers. What’s the use of assigning blame? Today, of all days. He settles back to his impotence. Now the sun ushers in a soft breeze, combing the water. He can see the sea floor glistening under the deep, resonant shade of green — like glass, like fresh fruit, like ice. Exhausted, Andronikos doesn’t want to turn his head to see that the island is saturated with the ever more intense sunlight. He knows that it is, he doesn’t want to look.

Although the air is getting warmer, he feels a slight chill, the residue of last night’s cold that is only beginning to subside with the rising sun. Andronikos is pleased with himself. It’s good to take note of real, tangible details, small sensations like these that keep one distracted. He shouldn’t fall asleep yet. The water turns dark suddenly, assuming a deeper shade of green with streaks of black, yellow. Andronikos pulls in the oars. He’s not a sailor; one could almost say that he learned to use the oars during the passage last night. But when the water turns dark, one pulls the oars in — a bit of common knowledge that requires no prior experience or reasoning. The undulant weeds spread out like flower stems, rising to the surface. Now the rocks emerge. It’s time to look behind to figure out where to bring the boat ashore.

He steers slowly, cautiously, in order to avoid grounding the boat. He’s not familiar with the rest of the shoreline, but here, on the island’s west side, the shore is quite rocky. What matters is that he has arrived. The water swells almost imperceptibly. He stands up; the boat wobbles. There’s a narrow clearing among the rocks — visible under the water — leading to a gravel bank. He’ll try to follow the clearing. Darkness lifts as the island’s once looming shadow recedes with the rising sun. Close to its edge, the water gives way to gravel. From beneath the boat comes a rasping sound, at first faint, then harsher, like wood being forced against its grain. Andronikos is unsure whether he should use the oars since he doesn’t want to damage the boat; he decides it would be safer to get into the water instead. He lifts his robe, puts one foot in the water. It’s cold. He laughs, amused by his sense of decorum, then lets his robe fall in the water. Carefully, he manages to bring his other foot over the edge without tilting the boat too much. Then he plunges in. It’s deeper than he estimated, deeper than it looked. The seabed feels slippery; seeking flat rocks with his toes, he tries to move forward step by cautious step, pulling the boat along. The water feels warmer now that his legs have gotten used to it. His robe that first swirled around his waist then clung to his knees now clings to his calves. He emerges from the water, hauling the boat, its bottom grating the rough sea floor. The stones hurt his feet.These are large, round, flat stones; even so, walking on them is not easy. Andronikos keeps pulling the boat away from the water, far enough that the waves won’t sweep it against the large rocks. The safest would be to move it up to the higher end of the shore. He pulls, pushes, drags, struggling to avoid damaging the boat. Now he gathers up his provisions, his shoes, his rope, his knife, the hammer he bought two days ago in the market, his chisel, the ax. Then the round of cheese, the flour sack, his jar of honey.

Staring at the not-insignificant pile of his belongings, he laughs again. Will he find water? He must. He places the oars inside the boat, which he thinks will be safe here.If it rains, the rocks rising high above the boat will shelter it, channel the rainwater away from it. The elevated pebble shore will bar the tides or threatening waves. Pirates? If they come, they come: Andronikos can do nothing against them. Best to leave the boat here, he decides. He puts everything he’s just piled on the ground into in his sack. Putting on his shoes, he wraps the laces around his ankles once, then ties them. He’ll leave the sack behind. He can come back for it later. First, he has to find a path, perhaps tracks, water.

He tucks the sack under the boat, just in case. But he may need the knife, the rope. He pulls the sack out, unties it; taking out his knife, the rope, he pushes the sack back under the boat. The knife’s handle has a ring through which he passes the rope; he ties the rope around his waist. His hands are free. For a very long time, his hands haven’t felt as free, as liberated. When he wasn’t holding the cross, he was holding the icons, the censer or the hands of the blind, the cripples, the children, their mouths, their lips, candles, bibles, rosaries. The oars, sleepless, invincible oars.

He shakes himself. It’s not time to fall asleep. He scans his surroundings. The rocks are too steep, yet he must climb them, open a path for himself. He can’t remain on the shore. He has to climb the hill. Whatever way he can find to do it. Above the hill the sky is luminous. He decides to turn right, since to his left the rocks looming over the boat appear discouraging. Even if he starts climbing, he won’t be able to get very far, since he can’t see even a single crack to grip or use as a foothold. To his right, perhaps, there is a way.

He walks the narrow arc of the pebbled shore, alongside the tall cliff, until he can go no further when he finds himself standing at the mouth of an inlet. Wedged between tall rocks, the water heaves toward what appears to be a hole. His eyes fixed on this hole, Andronikos notes that it isn’t entirely submerged. He removes his shoes, lays them high on a rock, throws himself into the water. His feet hurt as if burned; each time he moves them, a wisp of blood mixes with the water. What he did was foolish. He should have noticed the jagged lime deposits, the sharp shells covering the rocks. He’s more careful now, but it’s already too late.

The salt water soothes his cuts. He moves cautiously. The rocky sea floor begins to narrow. He should tie the rope a round his waist, disrobe, dive in naked to bathe his whole body. He lays his robe to dry on the shore, securing it with a stone. He crawls into the water carefully, to avoid hurting his knees, palms, belly. Soon he reaches the mouth of the hole. He has to decide whether to go in. He’ll try it. He listens. Each time the water heaves through the opening, he hears reverberations in the distance. Maybe the hole leads to a cave. He should try going in. When he was a child, in the years before he entered the monastery, he used to go outside the city walls to swim with other neighborhood children. He had learned how to swim well, how to dive. Now he’s about to do something he hasn’t done for years. Taking a deep breath, he plunges through the opening. Seaweed brushes against his belly, his thighs. There are no shells. As the opening narrows, he has to stretch his arms over his head in order to pass through. But he can’t. He’s out of breath. He shouldn’t drown. He has to go back. Back, farther back, faster… . Until he’s surrounded by light. He thrusts his head above the water. Feeling dizzy, he takes another deep breath, dives again. This time, he stretches his arms farther. Gripping the rocks, he pulls his body through the narrow opening. He knows he won’t survive if the surface is rough. But it isn’t. His hands come out of the water, then his head emerges. He stands up. Inside an immense cave.

The entire space is drenched in translucent green. In the center of the cave is a pool, its water the deepest shade of aquamarine, its bottom coated with slick, soft, immaculate white stones. Sitting on the edge, Andronikos scans the surroundings. One could live here for a while. But the difficulty of access makes the idea uninviting. Besides, he is neither running away nor afraid. Why should he stay here? The water was warmer. Andronikos begins to feel cold. Perhaps because he hasn’t slept yet. He has to stay awake for a while longer. He’s not sure where the light is coming from. A certain amount is seeping through the opening, but the actual source of this breathtaking translucent green has to be some place else. Perhaps there’s another opening. Another mouth, another inlet, another.

He gets back into the water, takes a deep breath, then dives. His arms moving more freely this time, he passes through the opening. Crawling briefly, he comes out of the water. The sun has risen. The air feels warm. He wipes the water off his naked body with his hands. He picks up his robe from the rock. It has dried. Good. Very good. He feels invigorated. I should come down to swim every morning, he thinks, then catches himself: In order to come down, one must first climb up.

He scans the tall rocks surrounding this end of the pebbled shore. In the past, the nobles of the city used to come to this island for excursions. The regal, splendid boats probably didn’t moor on this side of the island, even though it’s closest to the city. Maybe today he should rest. Tomorrow he can row to the other side to search for an old trail to climb the hill. Whatever it takes, he ought to climb the hill. From the top, he’ll be able to see the entire island, perhaps spot a building once used by the courtiers who entertained on the island. Even among ruins, it’s conceivable that he’ll find a habitable corner. Or bricks or tiles he can use. Andronikos isn’t sure. Others may have found shelter in those ruins, or fishermen might have settled there. Still, not too many people would take the trouble to climb the hill. Andronikos decides he’ll try.

He puts on his shoes. Right above the cave, he sees a flat rock that will receive his first step.The sun has risen further. His back is burning. He must reach the pine grove, whatever it takes. His exhausted body won’t endure the heat. One could sleep under the pines, even eat a morsel of bread. Sometime last night, he had torn off a piece of the loaf, chewed it for a long while. He hasn’t put anything in his mouth since then. Once he’s standing on the rock, the climb seems more manageable. Right above, he spots another flat rock like the one under his feet. Each time his hands try to grip the surface, rock fragments crumble down. It’s impossible to hold onto the soil. Maybe if he scratched it with his knife? The soil slowly yielding to the blade’s tip, a notch begins to emerge. He needs to dig deeper before he can close his hand on it. His knees begin to sting. If he can find another notch, he’ll pull himself up. Some more exertion.He grabs an exposed root. The rest gets easier. Andronikos is amazed at himself when he reaches the next flat rock. He wasn’t sure that he would be able to.

From here on, the slope is less steep; he’s able to reach the top of the cliff by crawling on his knees along a path covered with dried pine needles. One can’t be too careful with them. Soon he’s standing among the trees. They look like black candles grown soft with heat, bent, twisted. A grove of giant candles with broad, sprawling flames, dark green. He keeps walking. The ground is almost level now but still slippery. If he loses his footing, he’ll grab onto tree trunks or roots. He has enough bread in his pocket to curb his hunger, at least for a while. The piece left over from last night. Later, he’ll have to descend for provisions. The thought of descending discourages him. But he’ll deal with it later; for now, he needs to think of nothing else but climbing. That is, he needs to find a way, or make a path, to continue climbing.

Excerpt from A Long Day’s Evening by Bilge Karasu, translated by Aron Aji. Reprinted with permission of City Light Books.