I’m not sure if it was my daughter, my mother or I who, one fall day after school, threw hollyhock seeds over the fence to see what would happen. By the spring, 23 hollyhocks had grown so high, they had outgrown the fence itself, taller than us all; skinny pink skyscrapers in the flatness of the shrub. The whole neighbourhood would stop by the fencing and stare at the towering beauties that had suddenly graced the yellow-grey Gutter in long upward floral sweeps. Hollyhocks are meant to be perennials, but they didn’t appear the following year nor the next.
We had lived our whole lives in a hot dusty town right next to the Gutter. As children we’d each of us run sticks across its ‘do-not-pass’ fencing on our walks to school and back home. We’d each of us graffitied, over and over, the worn-down blue signs that had once said ‘Warning: Buffer Zone’ in five different languages. And on the ever-rarer clear days, we’d each of us looked past the fencing, over the flat wild phrygana behind it, past the miles of low dry wild shrubland, terebinths and thyme and seen, in the distance, the mountains of territories unreachable.
The Gutter was the nickname that stuck for what politicians and cartographers called ‘no man’s land’: as if, because no one was allowed to live there, it belonged to no man. As if, because it held no shade, no water, it could sustain no man. I’m not sure if it was my daughter, my granddaughter or I who, in disgust at this falsity, explained to the other two that the Gutter’s coarse, low-lying shrubland was four millennia in the making. That this, all this (our hands gestured outwards), had once been thick with indigenous oak forest, how some of the first traces of written language were found in caves here, how over the centuries humans had brought an influx of goats and sheep, how their farming had ruined the topsoil, how this wild ‘no-man’s land’ was nothing less than millennia of man-made depletion.
But few people grew up knowing the deeper grooves of the Gutter’s history. Rather, we grew up knowing that there were still mines hidden beneath the Gutter, old but active, the soil still pocked by modern warfare. We knew the apocryphal story of the peacekeeper who stepped on one of these mines, felt the soft deflation beneath his feet. How he knew not to step off because that would trigger the lethal explosion. How he stood on the mine for eight hours, unmoving, never shifting his weight, waiting for a team of experts to come, dig around him and deactivate it.
We wondered if we could have done the same. Motionless for half a day. Muscles and joints screaming for release. Would we give up? Would we choose certain death for the relief of a split-second of movement? Or would we hold ourselves together for eight hours and, once let free, leave the Gutter and run, jump, skip, fall to the ground, faces in the soil, and let the wail release from our bellies into the dry earth, like an upside-down adhan?
These were questions we mused upon within the warm confines of our home. Our kitchen fragrant and messy, our bathroom stuffed with toiletries and make-up. Our living room stacked with archived magazines, technical books, books of story, history and poetry. And our garden wild with lavender, passion-fruit vines, sour orange trees, blue-flowering flax and overbearing jasmine bush.
I’m not sure if it was my mother, my grandmother or I who, at 10 years old, took the seeds from a passion fruit ripe from our vines and planted them by the Gutter’s wire fencing. One seed took hold, clambered and grew, curled long tenacious tendrils around the wires. Its leaves fanned out, wove through the diamond-shaped openings, reaching out into the Gutter itself. The season turned and the fruit arrived. They were sucked, sliced and picked by school children walking past on their way to and from school. Their tongues turned yellow and pink from the juice. The small black pips they spat out made a portolan of criss-crossed paths that wound around the various roadblocks leading away from and then inevitably back to the Gutter’s fence. The fruit left unpicked on the other side of the fence heaved with fullness before falling straight into the dust, mush and moisture of the untouchable earth.
But the passion fruit tree shriveled up in the heat and dried out into a waterless stump. ‘Nothing new survives the Gutter,’ we said. And then: ‘How will we survive crossing the Gutter?’ bolt cutters in our hand, bohçalar on our backs. The dark filled with dust and humidity and smoke, the mountains invisible. One, two, three people. We wove through the hole in the fence.
This is a sequence we can still recall, one we count to each other while surrounded by the terebinth bushes.
three women who lived together
three left their home and went through the fence
one two three we entered the gutter
one we brush up against the terebinth leaves, two press them into our hands and three we fall into the heavy musk of the oil fall into loss fall into terebinth fall flat into everything
Before the water cuts became permanent and the hamams ran dry, before the dust winds grew more prolonged and the shops ran out of supplies and before the militias set curfews and patrolled the streets, we lived together in a small house in a cul-de-sac, half a mile from the Gutter.
As the years passed, the house became sparser, harder to keep up. Things broke and couldn’t be fixed. Light bulbs ran out. Living there became harder in a way that wasn’t entirely unexpected. Centuries of tumultuous history were unlikely to lead to a peaceable present. And so, any semblance of our wealth, like the rest of the town’s, began to fade. The university closed. One of us lost her professorship there while another of us was left without a scholarship or a classroom. And then the last of us lost her job when the AFP closed down the local branch, stating lack of projects, budget cuts for photographers and, when an empty parked car exploded outside their offices, the ‘precarious’ work environment.
‘The jasmine needs more water, or it will die,’ the youngest of us said one day.
The three of us were sat under the only split-unit in the house, reading. The cold dry air stroked us with bursts of protection against the unbearable heat seeping in from under the door and past the single-glazed windowpanes. The slow rise of the day’s third adhan filled the air, and the eldest of us waited for it to quiet before answering.
‘It will have to die, agapi. We barely have enough water saved in the tank to wash our clothes.’
It wasn’t long after the jasmine died that we picked up our linen bohçalar—we had packed them months earlier, like the dying do—and affixed them to our backs. Outside lay the prickling silence of violent absences. When we cracked open the back door, curtains twitched in the dark of the neighbours’ houses, and we prayed that no one would call anyone to come take us away.
The nights were still hot. Dust rode thick in the humidity and pushed into the back of our throats so that it hurt to breathe.
‘Do you think we’ll get caught?’ We asked as we snuck through still, watchful streets.
The town lights had long stopped working.
‘There’s no one left to catch us,’ we replied.
‘No,’ we said. ‘But there are those who would kill us just for our belongings.’
We grimaced in agreement. Shoulders hunched.
‘That it has come to this,’ we muttered. ‘Life valued less than the things we carry.’
We grabbed one another’s hands. Strong granddaughter fingers, hard motherly palms, entwined with gnarled arthritic ones.
We didn’t look back. There was nothing left to look at. Just a hole where the word home had once been. Our street now filled with the charred remains of flaming tire blockades. And ahead, a terrain that we thought we could navigate. An old minefield, a buffer zone between occupied lands, a crossing that would lead to the foothills of the rising peaks in the distance: a vague promise.
Crossing the final road to the Gutter, we passed the newly bombed-out mosque that had once been a shot up church that had once been a razed site of worship that had once been the resting space for bodies buried with stone-carved spinning whorls that was still sacred under its concrete rubble and fallen minaret. Deep below it ran one of the subterranean rivers that no civilization had been able to tap. It moved slowly, wearing down rock and stone, constant and unwitnessed.
From behind the mosque came two young men, dressed in their uniform: black berets on their shorn heads, pistols nonchalantly strapped to their waists.
‘Stop,’ said the one with the mustache. His voice quiet, aware, even in his youth, that he needn’t shout to command attention. His hand played with the gun on his hip.
We stepped close to one another.
‘It’s past curfew,’ he continued. ‘You ladies should be home.’
His accent made our skin tighten. He wasn’t from around here. He spoke like a mainlander, his consonants clipped the same way primary school teachers encouraged the local students to talk.
‘Leventi,’ we said, with the ease of an old woman who’d seen it all. ‘My daughter, granddaughter and I are doing no harm. Why don’t you and your friend here let us walk on in peace.’
The men walked closer, heads tilted as if sniffing the air.
‘Looks like you’re doing more than just taking a walk,’ said the mainlander. He reached out and pulled on our bohça. We stood motionless, eyes fixed on him. ‘What have you got in there?’
‘Where do you pray?’ Spat out the other man, quickly, unable to contain himself. His words came out in thick local dialect. The youngest of us wondered if she knew him, had ever played with him in the streets when we were little, wanted to ask him which friends we might have had in common. One of us laughed ruefully, but the local man rammed his face right up against us and grabbed one of our arms in a twist.
‘You laughing at me? Ah?’
We moved gently, defensively.
‘Son, relax; no one’s laughing at anyone here,’ we said, placing a hand on the man’s hand.
He shook us off, letting us go.
‘I’m not your son, you stupid fucking crone.’
The mainlander smirked. Stepped back and pulled his partner back with him.
‘C’mon ladies,’ he said. ‘It looks like you’re running off somewhere. But where is there to go? The Gutter? That’s no place for three women. Let us walk you home.’
‘Let them run to the Gutter,’ said the local man, his delight uncoiling. ‘I know what they are. Let them starve, or better yet, let them walk straight into a minefield. Let them die the moment they step on those hidden bombs. I’d love to watch.’
‘We won’t step off,’ we said quietly.
‘What did you say?’ said the man, our maybe childhood playmate.
‘If we step on a mine, we won’t step off. That way, it won’t explode. And you will watch us for hours for nothing.’
The men barked with laughter.
‘You stupid bitch,’ said the local man.
‘Oh, you sure have some stupid ones over here,’ said the mainlander, his tongue licking his mustache.
‘Mines explode the moment you step on them,’ said the local man, bringing his face close to ours. We could smell his cigarette-stained breath, see the dust that had settled in his pores. ‘Believe me, I know. I’ve seen it. Do you want to know what it looks like? Limbs fly off; sometimes heads just decapitate. There’s blood and flesh, falling through the air like rain showers. You can hear the sound of body parts hitting the ground—THUMP.’ He clapped his hands and we started. ‘You think I don’t recognize you? You, your traitor-fucking mother, your pathetic grandmother? You think I don’t know where you live? Don’t know who your father was? That you’re the worst kind of mixed-blood whore?’
We pressed our hand on our youngest’s back.
‘Let us go,’ we said shakily. ‘Just let us leave.’
An explosion rang out. We felt it shudder through the soles of our feet, up into our bellies, spreading out in a mushroom cloud of vibrations that took our breath out for a split second. Then the night filled with the light of roaring flames. Followed by the sound of screaming.
The men looked at each other, their eyes lit with fire.
‘Is that one of ours?’
‘It might be. Let’s go; we should go.’
‘And the women?’
‘Leave them. Let them go on their suicide mission.’
‘May their filthy flesh splatter the Gutter’s ground.’
The local man spat at us, and together the men sprinted towards the chaos of the night fire. We stood together, our hands reaching out for one another, our feet a closed circle. Below us, the underground river flowed in the direction of the Gutter. And soon, our breath coming easier, we took that same direction. We reached the wire fencing and took the bolt cutters out of our bohçalar. We fashioned a hole that was big enough for us to duck through. And one after another we slipped into the wide expanse of the Gutter. We walked away from our town, away from our land, towards the mountains, for as long as we could, till the haze of the dust and humidity enveloped us and we could no longer see what was behind us or ahead of us. Till there was nothing but gutter.
We once knew the sequence of things. Could see time straight as a hollyhock shooting up out of the shrub. Could mark it in stitches or notches. We didn’t know that the Gutter, constrained by all we’d tightened around it, had finally buckled under the weight of our wars and our languages and our crossings. It and time fell flat within the fence, like stone worn down over centuries. And when we walked into it, we too became smoothed over, lost our sense of now and then and when.
Here, the clocks and phones don’t work, but if you reach for it, the call to prayer is still here: a long constant, a murmuring that lulls us, grows ever thicker with the layers of voices that join in (there are so many of us now), the Gutter’s ground roiling beneath us all in pleasure. We inhale the fragrances of terebinth and thyme and trace out our imagined shapes of the Gutter in the dry dirt.
Here it is no man’s land. Land claimed back from human occupation. A prehistoric forest grows thick and gnarly. A long extinct fallow deer grazes in front of us. The humidity and dust of old is gone, in its place the salted air of a coastal halcyon. We feel the rumble of tectonic shift, the slow move of a mountain heaving up from beneath water. We flicker, and then it is us and a peacekeeper who steps on and off a mine readying for death. It is us and the 23 hollyhocks swaying strong in the dust storms that roll across the unbroken plane. It is all of us who left for the mountains. It is us and the passionfruit vine growing out of the wide open pain of our human fractures, its fruits ripening with our mixed blood.
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