My mom and I like to take afternoon walks, usually down Saray Arkası street (‘Behind the Palace,’ though the palace is now the German Consulate), then around the corner and up Çiftevav. Halfway up the cobblestone hill, mom stops where we’ve never stopped before.
“Are you catching your breath?” I ask, amazed because she always walks twice as fast as I do.
Without answering, she turns and starts down this staircase next to the road I’d never noticed before. It isn’t one of the broad, rainbow-painted staircases everyone uses to walk from Taksim Square above us down to the Bosporus below, it’s narrow with a sketchy metal banister. I call after her, but she just beckons for me to follow.
At the bottom of the staircase, the alley seems little more than an asphalted path. I don’t think the sun ever reaches all the way down—maybe only when it’s directly overhead, and only a few minutes a day. “Ebe Hanım Alley,” a sign on the corner building says. I catch up with my mother.
“Where are you going?”
“It’s just here.” She heads for an entranceway on the right and presses the bottom buzzer. The lock clicks. Mom holds the heavy door open and gestures as if she’s a royal doorman. I step into the cool dark and pat the wall to find the light switch. When I click it, a wan bulb illuminates a tiled hallway. We walk to the end, towards the small elevator, but then mom turns and descends down the curving staircase. It smells like kids have been lighting sparklers in here. Next to where the stairs end, there’s an open door.
“Sara?” A voice from inside the apartment calls my mom’s name. “Buyrun”—‘come in.’ We step inside and take off our shoes, putting on slippers from a long row stretching down the hallway. A small woman with big, round eyes stands at the other end. “Gel, gel,” she entreats us. I’ve never seen her before in my life, and as I step forward, she shakes my hand vigorously. “Ebe Hanım ben,” she introduces herself.
I’m just about to ask if she’s named after the street when she says her name means ‘wise’ in old Anatolian Turkish. That’s so strange, I think, because today ‘ebe’ is the person who’s 'it' in hide-and-seek.
She smiles. She’s missing one of her two top-front teeth.
You know how there are people you immediately like and then there are others who kind of creep you out? Well, Ebe strikes me as both, simultaneously. She takes my hand and pulls me into the living room. My mother follows.
Across from us, two large windows look out on a small, dirt backyard. I realize the slope of the hill means that the front of this woman’s apartment is underground while the back is ground level. Sunlight reflects off the windows of the apartment across the back garden.
On the right is a typical Turkish couch of stiff padding covering tight springs. But it’s what’s across the room that really puzzles me—a table with a two-burner range-top, some ladles, a cooking pot, and an open bottle of water on it. The gas cannister for the range sits off to one side.
That’s odd enough (who cooks in their living room?) but at the same time, that smell of sparklers is everywhere. A mix of fire and metal.
Ebe gestures towards a wooden dining chair in the middle of the room with a thick, black shawl draped over the back. Next to that is a sturdy-looking kitchen stool. Ebe puts on what looks like a welder’s apron and out of the pocket, she pulls one of those cheap, long stove lighters you get in the bazaar. Then she turns a gas knob and lights the burner.
‘Mom,’ I mouth, ‘what the hell?’
She puts up a finger. 'It’s okay,' she mouths back. Then she walks over to the chair and takes the shawl off it.
I step closer. “Let’s get out of here,” I whisper in English.
But instead of grabbing my hand and sprinting for the door, mom sits down in the dining chair. She gives me a little smile before draping the shawl over her head and torso. I stand there, frozen.
I watch Ebe pour water from the bottle into the pot—a glass or two worth.
“Sara, ellerin eşarbın altında kalsın ama hazır ol, tencereyi tutacağın,” she says to my mother as she turns and brings the pot over.
Mom does as instructed, reaching her hands up but keeping them under the shawl. Ebe steps on the stool by the chair and places the pot on mom’s head. Through folds in the shawl, mom holds the pot steady.
After she steps back down, Ebe picks up a steel ladle, thicker than any ladle I’ve ever seen. She rests it directly over the flame. Pulling a dull hunk of something out of her apron, Ebe holds it aloft so I can see it. “Kurşun,” she says over her shoulder.
That’s lead, the metal. I finally understand what is happening—this woman will ‘spill lead’ over us. I’ve read about this ancient Turkish custom in old novels, but I’ve never heard of anyone actually doing it. Ebe stands back from the stove and covers her mouth with her forearm. In a muffled voice, she reassures us there’s nothing to worry about—that lead doesn’t put off dangerous fumes until it's much hotter than it will get today. That definitely doesn’t set my mind at ease, and I find myself stepping between the two of them.
Ebe turns, holding the ladle carefully before her. “Çek kızım,” she admonishes. I want to say something, to put a stop to this, but as she approaches with the molten lead in the ladle, I step back quickly.
The liquid lead is shiny, nothing like the dull grey hunk she showed me a moment ago. Ebe steps smoothly up onto the stool.
Again she covers her mouth with her left arm, bringing the ladle slowly towards the mouth of the pot.
“Hiç kımıldama,” she says. Mom doesn’t move a muscle. Neither do I.
In one smooth motion, Ebe tilts the ladle. The viscous lead rolls into the water in the pot. It hisses and pops, steam rises, spreading across the low, stained ceiling. Ebe hangs the ladle off the breast pocket of her apron as she takes the pot. She steps down off the stool, putting the pot on the floor. Mom pulls the shawl off, her face flushed, and stands up.
“Şimdi sen,” Ebe says to me, gesturing at the now-empty chair.
A picture forms in my mind of me showing up for my first day in college tomorrow with molten-lead burns up and down my arms. But mom holds the shawl open. I sit in the hard chair. She drapes the shawl over my head and the world goes black.
You’ll never believe what flashes across my mind—falling off the wall in front of our building earlier today. That instant of rigid panic. Before Vedat caught me.
The pinprick of sweat starts on my forehead under the stuffy shawl. After a moment, mom says, “Raise your hands and get ready to hold the pot.”
The stool creaks as Ebe steps onto it. Then I feel the pot on my head, and I grip the bottom through the shawl the best I can.
I lift my chin. There is a long hiss. I feel some warmth in my hands and on the top of my head, but it isn’t as hot as I thought it would be.
Ebe tells me I can let go now, and I realize she is lightly tugging on the pot. I had no idea I’d clenched my fingers so tight. The stool creaks, then I hear Ebe put the pot on the floor. Only now do I raise the shawl.
“Otur,” Ebe says as she puts the ladle back on the table. Mom and I sit on the couch, sliding together in the middle—an involuntary, single laugh erupts from both of us at once. Ebe lays a towel with a frayed corner on the floor between her and us, and places the lead on it.
First, she points to my piece. Curled, like a corkscrew. She smiles as she says this means everything is changing for me. The clean edge and the nice loop of the lead mean angels are watching over me. I shouldn’t worry, the transition into the next phase will be smooth.
“Temiz bir kız,” she says, and that simultaneous positive and negative feeling rushes back as I wonder if I really am ‘a clean girl.’
She wraps the now-dry piece of lead in a piece of newspaper. Placing it in my hand, she looks straight in my eyes. Bury it somewhere ‘sihirli,’ she says. Somewhere enchanting, secret.
Now she turns to mom’s lead, which has broken in two. The pieces are much darker, nearly the same color as the unmelted chunk Ebe showed me when all this started. She pats mom’s hand.
“Ciddi bir durum bu.” A serious situation.
“Ah?” Mom raises an eyebrow.
Her lead didn’t curl. The larger piece is a bumpy morass, the other looks like a grey walnut. Placing the misshapen lumps directly in mom’s hands and closing them around the metal, Ebe says, “sıkıntılı.” ‘Problematic’ is what pops into my mind, but that makes it sound academic. She means ‘squeezed’ or ‘wrung out.’
“Bayağı çekiyorsun, değil mi?”
What does she mean, mom is suffering? Because I’m going to college? It will be tough, but no need for the melodrama. I expect mom to laugh it off, or at least crack a smile, but she opens her hands and stares intently at the pieces of metal there. Throw them in the sea, Ebe tells her. Ebe ends the reading by talking about how at least the darkness of mom’s lead shows it has absorbed some of the pain.
As we walk out, Ebe asks my mother to come back again in two weeks. At the door, I hear something behind me and when I turn around, Ebe is hugging mom close and tight. I can’t tell from her back, but the way it took a moment for mom to stretch her arms around Ebe in return it seems she’s been caught off guard. They pull apart and I hear mom agree to come back. Then I hear Ebe’s hand close on a number of crisp banknotes.
Outside, mom wipes her face with her hand. I ask if she’s going to pay again to have lead spilled over her.
“No, you can only do it once in a great while. I’ll just go back and have tea.”
“Mom, do you really believe in that stuff?”
She opens her palm and I see she still has the hunks of lead in it.
“You know the old Turkish saying, ‘Don’t believe in fortunes, but don’t go without one.’ Think about it Eser, it’s a ritual that’s been around for more than three thousand years. Must be a reason, right?”