Water Cats by Mustafa Ziyalan


I heard about water cats for the first time in a coffee house in Kasımpaşa [1]. A friend of mine who was on medical leave from the front of the civil war had seen them mentioned in the writings of Pliny while researching minerals. At that time the things he thought most awe-inspiring were the revelation that agates were nothing but silicon dioxide, and these water cats. Much later, Tycho Brahe, although he was an astronomer, was also talking about water cats. Water cats were mentioned in Şifalı Bitkiler ve Emraz [2], also. My friend thought that this creature could be a common thread connecting many people, many stars. These thoughts occurred to him during a firefight with tracer bullets one night.


The water cats would show up when the fish in an aquarium were in distress. Particularly when the betas and the goldfish with flowing tailfins were in their last throes, a water cat would suddenly appear. This would suggest its close proximity to death. It was the size of a kitten. At times it would hold its own kitten on its belly, at times it would swim on its back like a beaver. It was quiet. My mineralogist friend told me that its belly could be pink, perhaps turning red when the circumstances became dire. The touch of its whiskers had healing properties. It had powers over metals that were hard to believe. Once a water cat, in front of my friend’s very eyes, lifted and held a spoon in the air and hopped on it. The spoon was floating in the air—just like that.


My friend said water cats were like dolphins full of sorrow, moles with eyesight, baby bats fallen off the back of their mothers, duckbill platypuses. Perhaps, even if they were animate, they were reminiscent of the odradek [3]. I had never heard these things before; I had never seen any of these in my life. I had no idea.


He said he would never return to the war. We knew this could mean he would be executed.


We were very hungry; we went to eat çiğ köfte [4].


I never saw my friend in the flesh again.


[1] Neighborhood in Istanbul that used to be famous for its tough guys.

[2] Healing Plants and Illnesses, a perennially bestselling book in Anatolia.

[3] A creature, as described in “The Cares of a Family Man,” a story by Franz Kafka; an object with no clear purpose or apparent use.

[4] Literally “raw meat patty”, a raw meat dish very similar to kibbeh nayyeh and to a lesser extent to steak tartare.



Mustafa Ziyalan’s poetry, short fiction, essays and poetry translations have appeared in many literary periodicals, anthologies (including New European Poets) and in book form. Istanbul Noir, an anthology of short fiction he co-edited, came out in 2008; his book of poetry Rüyacılar Kitabı (Book of Dreamers) and his book of prose Alengirli Filmler (Handsome Films) in 2012.