What I liked best about the summer holidays was that I didn’t have to get up early in the morning. But sometimes, if it happened to be playing on the radio, my grandma would wake me up with a particular song by Umay Umay about sleepless nights. Then she’d make some toast, which we’d slather in butter and honey, and we’d watch television as we dug in. I’d wash it all down with some tea she cooled down for me with a splash of water. One day as we were having breakfast, we heard the shouting of a woman. We both dashed to the window and peered outside. There was the plum tree overhanging our window, the towering walnut tree in the corner of the garden, and the mulberry tree over by the left wall, its berries constantly pattering down to the ground. We couldn’t tell where the scream was coming from or, for that matter, who was actually doing the screaming. Slipping on my sandals, I dashed out into the garden, still chewing my last bite of bread. I saw the neighbourhood kids huddled together in conversation under Auntie Emine’s grapevine bower, so I ran over to them. “Yasemin’s having another one of her fits,” they said. “Come on, let’s take a look.”
Just as every neighbourhood has its own nutcase, we had Yasemin. She lived with her granny on the top floor of a long narrow apartment building that was catty-corner from the side road. At first glance, her face seemed fairly young, but if you summoned the courage to move in for a better look, you could tell she was at least forty and had a notably freckly face. Summer and winter she wore the same overcoat and she wouldn’t go out without a deep green headscarf knotted under her chin. Her wavy hair, which spilled out from her scarf around her ears and the back of her neck, was mostly white. Every day she went out and we figured that she spent her time wandering the streets of Istanbul. As she walked, she’d stop every ten steps or so and mutter to herself for a while. We couldn’t understand what she was saying but the way she moved her hands in jerky gestures made it clear that she was agitated. Because she kept stopping, it took her hours to cover the ground that would normally take just a few minutes.
Zafer, the chief young rascal of the neighbourhood, taunted her every chance he got. Yasemin, who never hurt a soul, would get so riled up that she’d suddenly chase after him. It was a source of great entertainment for Zafer. As he clambered over a wall that was impossible for her to climb, the streets would echo with his laughter. When he was very young, he’d squirm out of the grip of his mother as she tried to give him a bath and sprint naked into the street. He’d grown so used to his mother’s beatings that he was now one of those boys my grandma called “steely little devils.” And while he was terrified that Yasemin might actually catch him one day, till then he’d managed to escape unscathed each and every time.
So that morning after we walked a little ways up the street, we saw Yasemin on her balcony shouting at the top of her voice, “Leyla, you whore! Leylaaaa.... Leyla, from the Orhan Apartments! Yeah, you! Get your ass out here, you whore!” Wide-eyed I stood there watching. Occasionally I glanced over at the Orhan Apartments but didn’t see any movement. Every time she shouted the word “whore,” all the kids in our group would burst out laughing as if it was the funniest thing in the world. Zafer was standing a few steps in front of us, intently watching Yasemin, and then he started imitating her, slapping his knees and crying out, “Leylaaa! Leyla! Leyla you whore, get your ass out here!” Like the other kids, I started laughing, which, of course, likely wasn’t the right thing to do. Some of our neighbours, probably those new to the street, leaned out of their windows to ask what was happening. Zafer shouted back, “Crazy Yasemin’s shouting, so why can’t I?” And then he went right back to his little performance.
There was a shy girl named Cansu who lived nearby. She hardly went out but when she did, she barely spoke a word to any of the other kids. Instead, she’d stand there watching the boys playing football and the girls standing around gossiping or skipping rope. I’d never seen her react much to anything but that day she bolted out of the door of her apartment building and ran up to us. “I’ve got something to say to you,” she said. Still doing his imitation routine, Zafer ambled towards her. Eyes flashing, she got up in his face, which startled him so much that he froze in his tracks.
“You may all be laughing now,” she said, turning to the rest of us, “but I’ve heard something about that woman.”
“And what’s that?” asked Zehra, one of the other girls in our group.
“Do you know why Yasemin lost her mind?”
We all exchanged questioning glances but no one spoke up, choosing instead to look down at the ground. Opening her eyes wide, Cansu said, “When Yasemin was a little girl, her mom and grandma got raped. Right in front of her. That was the day Yasemin went crazy.”
Zehra glanced around in confusion. “What’s rape?” she asked.
In the same chilling tone, Cansu went on: “It’s a terrible thing. Very, very horrible. And then they killed Yasemin’s mother in front of her very eyes.” That was all she said.
Holding his head between his hands, our friend Emre walked off towards his bicycle, jumped on, and sped away as fast as he could. A chill ran down my spine. Not just because of the fear I suddenly felt but also the sadness and bewilderment filling my heart. Images of that scene flashed before my eyes so clearly that they seemed to be from my own past. A few of us sat down on the low wall under the bower. By that time, Yasemin had stopped shouting and gone back into her flat, and we sat there staring up at the now-empty balcony. No one could bring themselves to say anything. I was startled out of my reverie when my grandma called out to me, “Time to come back inside.” I put my hand on Zafer’s shoulder, as I’d never seen him looking so glum before. “See you later,” I said.
All day long I was haunted by what Cansu had told us.
When I got home, my grandma kept asking, “Did something happen? What’s wrong?” But she couldn’t get a word out of me. I was so shaken by what I’d heard about Yasemin that I found myself rushing off to the bathroom so I could cry in peace, a lump rising in my throat as visions of that event ran through my mind. Keeping it all to myself and embracing the pain made me feel like I was growing up in a way. I sat in silence all through dinner. When it was time to go to bed, I gave my mother a hug, which I normally didn’t do. Naturally, she knew that something was weighing on my mind, but I think she was somehow pleased with the change that had come over me. Without saying a word, she kissed me on the forehead and turned off the bedroom light. My grandma and I slept in the same room in those days. As I was lying in bed, I glanced at the window curtains. They were glowing in the light of a streetlamp and the shadows of swaying tree branches were flickering across them. Gripped by a strange fear, I couldn’t bring myself to look away. At the time, my grandma was whispering her prayers. When I closed my eyes at last, images of that scene began swirling through my mind again. A jolt of pain shot up my back, exploding in my head. I got out of bed and walked over to my grandma.
“What’s the matter?” she asked. “Can’t sleep?”
“I want to sleep with you tonight.”
“Of course, sweetie.”
“Grandma, I laughed at Yasemin too. That was wrong of me, wasn’t it?”
“Don’t feel so bad. Everyone around here laughs at crazy people.”
While I couldn’t quite settle my head comfortably on my grandfather’s thick pillow, which was trimmed with satin, I sought solace in thoughts of him, eventually drifting off to sleep with the scent of old-style soap and mothballs filling my nostrils. The next morning as I was having breakfast with my grandma, Zehra from next door came knocking. Still nibbling on a piece of bread, I ran with her to the grapevine bower. Zafer was there, as were all the neighbourhood kids. News of Cansu’s story about Yasemin had spread like wildfire among them. We sat on the wall in silence. Some of the boys were toeing footballs, while others idly spun the pedals of their bikes. A shadow had fallen over the exuberance of our youth. Then a sudden shout made us all bolt upright. Yasemin was back on her balcony, cursing at Leyla of the Orhan Apartments. Her voice echoed up and down the street: “Get your ass outside, you whore! Leylaaaa! Get your whore ass out here! Leylaaaa, whore of the Orhan Apartments! I’m going to kill you! Die, you whore!” Zafer leapt to his feet and, after standing there thinking for a few moments with his hands on his hips, he dashed off in the direction of Yasemin’s apartment building, stopping only when he was standing right under her balcony. Then he spun around to face the Orhan Apartments and in the sternest voice he could manage, he shouted, “Yeah Leyla, you dirty whore! Get your ass out here, whore! We’re all waiting for you to come out! Leylaaaa, whore of the Orhan Apartments, get out here!” All at once we realized what we needed to do, and we ran over to join him. Everyone in the neighbourhood peered out of their windows in confusion as we stood there yelling, “Leyla, you whore! Get out here, whore of the Orhan Apartments!” Livid, we unleashed our rage on her. We all were just as serious as Yasemin about this matter and we all had a major score to settle with Leyla.