“We ask them our name but they tell us their own”
Summer. We were at our house in the neighborhood down the hill, where we lived with my uncle, aunt and cousins. The two-story stone house was huge, and it even had a stable downstairs. An old heavy wooden door led to a short flight of stairs which opened onto a large courtyard. At the end of the courtyard there was a cool dark grotto, a tafana, which I always imagined led deeper under the earth. In the middle of the grotto there was a wooden beam from which hung a large skin sack. The fur hadn’t been removed, and it hung there like a plump sheep. The sack was filled to the brim with cheese, but there was something miraculous about it; no matter how often people reached in to filch a piece of cheese, the sack was always full. A small pen where the lambs were kept occupied a dark corner of the grotto. Bleating, they continually tried to escape. But that day, everything was silent. No one was at home. My father and older brothers had gone to the Kızılöz River. It was harvest time, and all our animals were out at pasture.
My mother was sweeping in front of the house with a large besom broom. It seemed like the dust that rose into the air was the only living thing on the steppe. I was reading a book in the recess behind the carpet loom near the entryway. Summer and winter that was my secret hideout, concealed by the strands of wool looped over the loom. Everyone knew I was there all day long, but they never said anything. I’d nod off and wake up, and whenever I got hungry I’d poke my head out. That day, I’d drifted off to sleep while reading. I woke to the sound of a stick clattering across the small paving stones outside. The sound drew nearer, and stopped in front of our house. I heard a woman speaking with my mother, who went into the kitchen and brought out a clay pitcher she’d filled with water; and I slid out from under the loom and padded to the front door. I’d never seen that woman before. She was quite old, and seemed to be blind. She sat on the front step of the house, leaning on her cane. Slowly she drank the water my mother had bought, down to the last drops. I watched as the water that spilled from the edges of the pitcher flowed like the meandering lines of a map over the tattered, dusty kerchief around her neck.
“Blessings upon you for the water,” the old woman said, smiling. “May you be rewarded in the future.” As my mother reached out to pick up the pitcher, the woman placed her fingers on my mother’s wrist and asked: “What’s your name, dear? Which family are you from?”
“The Köse’s,” my mother said gently. “The daughter-in-law of Cemelli.”
The old woman sat in silence for a moment, and then her face relaxed.
“Is that so, my dear? Then you must be the daughter of Hacı Mehmet the butcher. Good for you. In the end, you’ve done well for yourself. But if someone asks your name, don’t tell them. Say the name of your mother-in-law. You’ll save yourself some trouble.”
It didn’t make sense to me why it would be good if my mother didn’t have a name. Perplexed, I returned to my hideout and my reading.
Thursday was market day in the village. As usual, there was a thronging crowd at the door of the clinic. Kasım was shouting at them like always but no one listened. These people that Kasım tried to strong-arm with his authority were actually his neighbors. In the evening, they would sit in front of the door, drinking tea and talking. The shouting match was just a farce, and even while yelling they would sometimes break out in laughter.
Mesude, who had been a nurse there for years, passed out numbers to the people waiting in front of the clinic so that they could be summoned in order. By the fifth patient, however, the plan went to pieces. They began calling in whoever happened to be standing closest to the door.
Towards noon, the door opened and in walked a young girl and a deeply tanned middle aged man. He was holding a document issued by the registry office, so I knew they had come to get confirmation of his daughter’s age. If the children hadn’t yet gotten an identity card by the time they were supposed to attend school, the schoolteachers would send them with their parents to the town so they could get one. In turn, the director of the registry office requested that we issue an official report stating the age of the children based on an examination of their bone growth.
Of course, we would ask the fathers the age of their children: “So. How old is your child?”
Their time frames were usually quite generous:
“She’s coming along. Somewhere around six. Maybe nine.”
I’d learned to not bother asking again for a more definite answer.
“Mesude, note this down. Based on an examination of the child’s bone structure, it has been determined that she is seven years of age.”
The man who’d just come into the office held out the forms he’d been given at the registry office. Mesude took them, and as she began filling them out, I looked at the man’s daughter. She had large dark eyes and lingered behind her father’s back, looking around.
“Yes doctor, I am writing down her age as seven.” With a nod, I signaled my approval.
Still writing, Mesude asked:
“What’s your daughter’s name?”
But the man just stood there, as though the question hadn’t been addressed to him.
“Your daughter’s name. What is it?” she asked again.
This time it registered. He turned and looked at his daughter, who was quite pretty, and then at us. Then he turned and looked at the girl again, gazing at her for a while. An odd smile spread across his face, and he cleared his throat and said:
“Well, she doesn’t really have a name.”
Silence fell over the room. Taken aback, I joined in the questioning:
“What do you mean? Didn’t you name her?”
He nodded ambiguously.
We stood there, looking at each other. My curiosity was piqued:
“How do you call her? For example, when you’re at home. What do you say?”
His face suddenly lit up:
“Tawny girl. That’s how we call her: tawny girl.”
“But she needs a name, doesn’t she? For her identity papers.”
He just stood there, speechless. The girl cowered behind her father’s back, blinking in fear as though something rather unpleasant was going to happen to her. We were awoken from our daze when a scooter puttered loudly past the door of the clinic.
“Doctor, why don’t you give her a name?” Mesude offered nonchalantly.
I glanced at her in surprise. Indeed, she wasn’t joking.
“Well okay then. Let’s give her a name. What should it be?”
Smiling innocently, the man listened to our conversation, clearly thinking that it had nothing to do with him.
Leaning lightly against the chair, I gazed out the window at the plains stretching into the distance. I thought of my father’s friend Mehmet Özgül, who had visited us once and brought along his translations of stories by Chyngyz Aitmatov, the best gift I ever received in my childhood. For months I lost myself in his enchanting stories of the steppe. And above all, I was bewitched by the character Cemile.
“Let’s name her Cemile,” I said. The man didn’t respond at all, as though he hadn’t heard. The girl burrowed deeper into the folds of her father’s coat. In the last remaining blank on the form, Mesude wrote “Cemile.”
 From a poem by Turkish poet Edip Cansever.
Ercan Kesal, author, is a doctor, actor and writer. Born in Avanos, Turkey in 1959, and graduated from Ege University’s Faculty of Medicine in 1984 and went on to work at state hospitals, village clinics and in the private health sector, in which he has founded various clinics. In 2006 he received his graduate degree in the field of Applied Psychology, and he is currently working on a PhD in Social Anthropology. He acted in Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s film Uzak (Distant) and then co-wrote the script of Bir Zamanlar Anadolu (Once Upon a Time in Anatolia) together with Ebru and Nuri Bilge Ceylan; the script was nominated for “Best Script” at the Asia Pacific Screen Awards. Over the years, Kesal has won numerous awards for his acting and scriptwriting. He has published numerous essays and stories in Turkish magazines and newspapers; after the Turkish version of Peri Gazozu (Fairy Soda) (2013), he has followed in 2014 by Evvel Zaman (Times Bygone). The former will be out soon in English.
Mark David Wyers, translator, grew up in Los Angeles, California and received his B.A. in Literature from the University of Tampa. He went on to complete his M.A. in the field of Turkish Studies. His book “Wicked” Istanbul: The Regulation of Prostitution in the Early Turkish Republic, a historical study of gender and the politics of urban space, was published in 2012, and a number of his Turkish to English translations of short stories have been published in collected works. He has translated numerous Turkish novels into English as well, including Selim İleri’s Boundless Solitude (2014), and his translations of Emrah Serbes’ Hotheads, Murat Menteş’s Ruhi Mücerret and Şebnem Burcuoğlu’s Spinster at Thirty are slated for publication in 2015/2016.