Today's Stories: Coal
Pelin Buzluk

28 March 2023

Inspired by the exhibition Istanbuls Today, Today's Stories series starts with Pelin Buzluk's story "Coal"!

This series gathers short stories written by authors encouraged by the photographs in the exhibition.

 

Veysi is asleep on the sofa. The sun is still up high, but the dark clouds have not cleared. Dark shadows descend inside the house. The flies are no longer interested in Veysi; they stand still in the gloom. Clouds of dust run amok in the garden. The southwestern wind is getting worse. The branches of the apricot tree start beating on the window: “Click, click, knock, knock...” Veysi dreams of this sound, he sees that moment again. The machine that snatches his fingers, his hand, and his wrist, and shatters his bones and flesh up to the elbow. He freezes. He can’t pull his arm away. He wants to shout, but no sound comes out. His pupils flutter rapidly under his eyelids. He is breathless. Just as he’s about to jump up, he makes a move as if to lean on his forearm, which is no longer there under his elbow. He falls off the sofa. He stays on the ground for a while in shock. Fortunately, his mother is in the orchard. Otherwise, she would have come running and start crying again. Veysi sits down and pulls his knees towards his belly. He starts sobbing.

When the wind got stronger, the people on the coast took shelter inside the coffee shop. Cigarette smoke grew heavy inside. Teaspoons cling on the glass cups as they stir sugar, rummikub sets appear and the tiles are distributed. Hamza is sitting at one of the tables by the window with his old friend Ali from the factory. They have the union newsletter and a few duplicate statements in front of them. Hamza does not look at them, instead runs his finger over the cigarette burns on the broadcloth. They don’t talk about Veysi’s situation anymore. They light one cigarette after another. When his bosses heard that Hamza would be a witness in favor of Veysi, they threatened him, and when he testified, they let him go. The union couldn’t help it.

The music broadcast on the city radio is interrupted for a moment; the meteorology report of a storm warning is being delivered. The noise makes it difficult to decipher: “The downpour… in the coastal areas… a thunderstorm… if it turns to heavy rain… a storm is expected… that it may cause… due to rip currents… warned citizens that there may be loss of life…” Just then, the downpour begins as if it was waiting for this news report. A couple of people raise their collars and leave the coffee shop with the thought of getting home before the storm hits, and after watching the rain for a moment by the coffee shop door, they jump off and run away, sinking into the water and mud on the street.

Veysi’s mother leans on the house door to push it open, drags the big soaked basket full of vegetables that she brought from the orchard, and leaves it inside. Her eyes search for her son in the darkness of the house. Veysi is sitting on the sofa, watching the rain from the window now. His tears have dried up. His mother brushes off her wet kerchief, squeezes the water from her hair, shakes her hands, turns on the kerosene lamp, stops for a moment and looks at her son. She goes out again and lets the donkey in, which is waiting at the barn door.

The people in the coffee shop have paused their games and are now listening to the sky that blows and rumbles. A muhayyer kurdî saz semai begins to play scratchily on the radio. Those who collect coal from the sea after every storm are talking about when the storm will end and when would be a good time to go. With one eye on Hamza, Ali puts out his cigarette in the ashtray. He gets up and puts on his jacket from the back of the chair, leaves one copy of the papers on the table and puts the rest in his pocket. His hands still on the table, Hamza does not move. “Are you going for the coal, too?” asks Ali. In response, Hamza gets up from the table.

 

 

Those who do not own a digger or big nets to dump into the sea, but can only collect coal by hand with a basket on their arms are in a hurry to reach the coast before everyone else, in order to catch those coal grains before they sink to the bottom of the sea. The sea has no mercy; the current can pull them in and take their souls. The gatherers need to take heed, listen to the weather carefully, and to know the mood of storms. Still, there are those risk takers who take swift action, moving in when the storm begins to subside, in order to arrive before others.

Veysi’s mother starts the cooker. She looks at her son from under her eyebrows as she arranges the wood she had placed by the door in the morning, in front of the stove so they can dry. Veysi gets up, lays the table cloth on the floor, he is still a rookie with one hand, and his half arm is thrown forward, wanting to work. Her mother’s heart is aching as if on fire; she holds back as she’s about to say “I’ll do it”, she doesn’t want to offend her child. Veysi places the board and the tray. He sits cross-legged and pulls the tablecloth to his knees. While his mother is filling his bowl with the soup, the door opens; it’s Hamza. Veysi is not happy to see him. He does not hide his annoyance. However, Hamza has been his best friend since childhood. But now everything has changed and is ruined. Hamza saw Veysi as his arm was being torn and shattered, he ran but couldn’t reach him in time, despite running past all those workers who had frozen still, there was blood everywhere by the time he made it to the machine, turning it off… Hamza is not the old Hamza anymore, he can’t be. That’s why Veysi can’t look at him. On his face he saw his own blood, skin, flesh, tears mixed with them all. This image comes alive every time he looks at Hamza and reminds Veysi that his left arm is now half. Hamza is a different person now, a bit of a stranger, even though he witnessed that horror right next to him, what happened is so heavy that Hamza is now afar, just like the rest of the world. Now he is whole, Veysi is armless. Hamza is shamefaced, it is as if he is aware of all this. He couldn’t do anything, what good did his testimony bring? Now, they are both unemployed. He comes and sits in front of Veysi as if apologizing, trying not to look at his half arm. Veysi holds his arm close to his body.

Hamza catches Veysi’s gaze as his mother takes out pastries from the cooker oven. He makes a gesture as if he is throwing coal into a basket with his hand. Veysi hasn’t worked since the accident; he couldn’t even get up from the sofa let alone work. He leans towards Hamza and asks angrily: “How?” Actually, Hamza doesn’t know how. He just wants to bring his friend back to life. “Leave it to me,” he says. Veysi’s mother rejoices when they say that they will be going out for a walk. She wipes her hands on the sides of her skirt and smiles gratefully. Hamza feels guilty.

They put on their tarp overalls on the beach. There is no one else coming to collect coal other than them. They are trying to predict how things will go by looking at the sea and the sky. Hamza nervously gnaws on his mustache. He ties Veysi’s basket tightly to his left armpit. Veysi likes this activity, it’s like he is starting to relax.

 

 

“Hey! Hamza?” When they turn around, they see the old men, ignoring the strong wind, and setting a table with the crates they lay under the trees in the distance. Two of them are trying to stretch a tarp over the branches, while the one who is calling out is standing one step forward.

Hamza stares for a moment. The old man runs towards Hamza and Veysi: it’s Hamza’s father.

“Are you crazy? The sea is still raving…”

“But dad, you are also setting the table... which means the sea is calming down, we are children of this sea too, we will be careful.”

“Look who’s talking… How can getting in the water be the same as setting a table to have a few drinks, my son… If there is a downpour, we can get up and leave, see, the pick-up is just there. But what will you do if the current pulls you in? Does the sea ever calm down in the evening, it gets worse.”

“It’s not evening yet, dad, it’s fine for us to just get on for a little while.”

 

 

The wind slows down for a moment. Hamza pats his father’s shoulder as if to say all right. His father grabs Hamza’s arm. He looks at Veysi for a moment and leans into Hamza’s ear: “Son, please don’t do this... Look, this kid can’t swim, he can’t save himself.” Hamza, afraid that Veysi will hear him, shakes off his father and says, “Dad, let go of me!” Knowing his son’s stubbornness, he stops with one hand on his heart. When he turns and looks at his friends under the tree as if asking for help, Hamza gets angry and says, “Dad, just go.” In desperation, the man takes a few steps back, but he can’t leave. He watches them go in the water.

Veysi is smiling for the first time in months. Hamza is also happy; it means he did the right thing. Quickly, they start collecting. In a short time, their baskets are almost full. The wind starts getting stronger. The waves are getting bigger. It becomes harder for them to stand. Hamza approaches Veysi: “Shall we go out now?” His father is standing on the shore with his friends. It seems they have lost their appetite. Veysi looks at his basket and says, “Okay, just a little bit more.” There are large chunks of coal floating half a meter ahead. When Veysi takes a step in that direction, he sinks into the water. When the tide recedes, he goes topsy-turvy. In horror, Hamza throws his basket and goes in to get Veysi out. He is also sinking. The wave comes and goes, pulling the sand beneath them. The water is cloudy; Hamza can’t see anything.

The elders panic. Hamza’s father takes off his parka and jumps into the water. But he can’t get past the waves; the water spews him off to the shore along with the baskets. His friends struggle to pick him up. One of the men takes the baskets and unweetingly tries to collect the pieces of coal that are scattered nearby.

Hamza is struggling to stand up. He is drifted from one side to the other. He’s got sand in his eyes, he can’t see well. He barely makes out that Veysi is resting one foot on the sand below. He reaches for his life, trying to grab his arm, but when he can’t get a hold on, he sinks once again, this time swallowing a lot of water. He’s about to get choked, but he doesn’t want to let go. Veysi disappears again. He can’t let him go, not again. He sees the old men waiting on the shore for a moment. His father looks devastated. Seeing him in that state, Hamza feels like it’s bad news, maybe it’s all over, he loses hope. At that very moment, something grasps his arm with force. It is Veysi. He has managed to stand. Hamza gets strength from him and straightens up. Finally they are making their way towards the shore. Hamza’s father rushes towards them. The other two join in to help. They’re pulling the kids out. They collapse onto the beach in coughs.

Veysi and Hamza are dozing off as they lean against each other in the back seat of the pick-up truck. The three elders are cramped in the front seat. “Whoa,” says Hamza’s father cheerfully, “you fucked up our fun, you assholes!” The car drives headlong away from the beach towards the houses. There are two almost empty baskets in the trunk.

 

 

Pelin Buzluk is a graduate of Middle East Technical University, Department of Environmental Engineering. Her first short story book Deli Bal (Crazy Honey, Can Yayınları, 2012) won the Yaşar Nabi Nayır Short Story Award, her second story book Kanatları Ölü Açıklığında (Dead Span Wings, Can Yayınları 2012) was awarded the Selçuk Baran Short Story Award, and her latest story book, En Eski Yüz (The Oldest Face, İletişim Yayınları, 2016) was awarded the Sait Faik Abasıyanık Story Award. She is currently working as a screenwriter and editor.

Photographs:
Kerem Uzel
From the series Awaiting Transformation, 2020

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