The Koreli by Bill Beatty
One story in Making Their Own Law
The Evil Eye had surely struck down the gypsy family.
Wails rolled out from the unnumbered building ahead. Wails crushed National Police Detective Veli Yaziz with the weight of obligation. He hadn’t wanted to return here to his old neighborhood of Ulus, a labyrinthine city squeezed onto the cone of a hill within the modern city of Ankara.
But how much more could one family endure? Three weeks ago, it was the father. Today, the youngest child…a baby girl, but even so…
Yaziz elbowed his way up the sharp pitch of the street. Gossiping voices murmured around him.
Not even his superior, the chief of Ankara’s police force, wanted him to waste his time with this neighborhood. Not when Yaziz could be stalking the mansions on the other side of the capital, tracking down plotters against the Grand National Assembly. Plotters were always a threat during these uncertain times.
Yaziz, too, would rather work across town than here, anywhere but here, but he could no more turn his back on his old neighborhood than he could’ve renounced his duty to fight in Korea five years earlier.
Which made him koreli. A title of privilege. A privilege that made him almost as wise as a hodja. But he knew the truth. He was no wise man. He knew, instead, about survival. In truth, honoring that koreli honor was only another obligation that weighted him down.
The wooden buildings that clung to the side of the hill formed a canyon, funneling welcome shade to the cobbled streets. The walls above Yaziz’s head tilted downhill like a box of timber resting upon a stone foundation. He ducked into the plaster-scented air of one doorless entry, an address without a number. He knew this hole in the wall well enough by now.
The shady gloom of the central stairwell was a cool, damp kiss compared to the parched heat of late summer outside. Yaziz sighed through chapped lips. Since the interior was empty except for a few stray cats, he lingered a moment to mop his brow and soak in what he could of cool relief.
He carefully folded his handkerchief, sweat and all, in the meticulous way he had learned during his university days in America, and stuffed it into his trouser pocket next to his tespih. Worry beads that he needed close at hand.
The wooden steps squeaked as he climbed them, tickling up through his legs in tandem with the squeak of his polished shoes. Keening hysteria from above resounded on each wall, each step, shrilling above his rhythmic squeaks. Someone’s supper of mutton — not lamb — drifted to him on a stale air current.
He crested the top of the stairs to face a thin, wooden door that stood open onto the second-floor landing. Inside the apartment, four gypsy women huddled together, their head scarves wrapped around them as if to smother the grief that spasmed from their breasts like sour belches.
He paused in the doorway, waiting until the women would notice him there — he wasn’t in a hurry. Haste was an un-Turkish concept. Haste was the force that drove the west, not here. Not even Atatürk could’ve changed that. He’d changed most everything else during the days of his swift reform that had yanked Turkey from its Ottoman past into its western present of Menderes’s regime.
Still, Yaziz had learned in America a limit to his patience. He stepped into the room, steamy with afternoon sun, and softened his voice. “Which one of you is the mother of the stolen baby?”
The women shuddered apart in one collective breath. The most withered pair of them flapped their kerchiefs, swooping moth-like into a second room where children watched with silent faces as round as apricots and eyes as wide as mulberries. The two women left to deal with Yaziz cast their gazes down, away from him, as if waiting for him to banish them from his male presence.
But he had no intention of doing so. He repeated his question, even though he recognized the new widow from his visits three weeks ago — Tereza. One could never be entirely sure, however, when it came to Tshinghiane, Turkish gypsies. They all looked alike to him, all displayed the same aloof air of disconnect, either ingrained on their faces or radiating through their indifferent posture. They belonged to no world Yaziz knew, not western nor eastern. Not modern nor traditional. They survived suspended between two worlds.
As he himself did.
“We can take care of ourselves,” said the woman who was not Tereza. Mistrust gleamed from her eyes like smoldering coals. “We do not need the National Police.”
“We’ll see about that,” Yaziz said.
The other one — Tereza — sighed. “Defying Kismet will only make it harder for the children. I must protect my son, for he is my only hope now.”
Tereza, the mother, was hardly taller than the children hiding in the second room. Her face was miniature too, that is, what he could see of it, since she scrutinized the uneven floorboards beneath her bare feet, fragile as a bird’s. Tereza tightened her grip on the ends of her scarf that hooded her head and draped round her neck, leaving Yaziz with a momentary impression of a noose. He blinked the image away and fixed on the tight balls of her fists, where fringe dripped from the white knuckles of her fingers. The scarf left her face exposed — praises to Atatürk for women’s unveiling — revealing sun-browned skin that would one day become as leathery and worn as the moth-women’s.
The wails and breast-beating and babies squalling and stray cats wandering in and out along with drifting smells of urine delayed the process of retrieving the information Yaziz needed, but he knew their background from previous visits. They were a family of gypsies who’d fled Nazi persecution in the Balkans and found their way ultimately to Ankara. The huddle of women and children in this apartment belonged to a subset of the family that chose to settle here in the old city of Ulus, which was a scrabble of survival left over from the BC days of the Hittites. Gypsies blended into the poverty that prevailed in this cramped neighborhood while the modern capital blossomed around them. The family — until recently — had consisted of the missing child and her siblings, her parents, her aunt, her great-aunt, and her great-grandmother.
Then, three weeks ago the father’s body had been found at Atatürk’s Tomb, his spilled blood desecrating the honor of the Father of Turks.
That case had stalled, thanks to American intervention, but this new complication might revive it. A junior officer assigned to surveil the family had called Yaziz, the koreli of Ulus, when he learned of the missing child. Koreli were considered next wisest to hodja, holy men who were outlawed in these modern times of the Republic. Therefore, the most perplexing puzzles fell to Yaziz.
The child woman turned loose of her kerchief at long last and extended one fist to him, uncurling her fingers to reveal what lay there on her delicate palm — broken bits of blue beads and frayed pieces of string.
“The baby’s?” Yaziz asked, scooping the pieces into his own callused hand.
The young mother nodded. “What will become of us now?” she said, choking on a sob.
Tereza had done what she could. All good mothers pinned or tied or somehow strapped blue beads to their children to protect them from the Evil Eye that roamed freely about, waiting to strike. Children and animals were the easiest targets, and so it was imperative by custom that they display protection, usually in the form of tiny, blue beads.
That the missing baby’s blue beads had been removed and left behind, crushed, told Yaziz that the evil he was dealing with knew no fear, respected no tradition. A shudder rippled down his spine, but he stood firm.
“Do you have a photograph of the missing child?” he asked.
Tereza shrugged. Yaziz hadn’t expected one, but still, he’d learned that even those who could not afford shoes for their older children would forego a meal to record the memory of a precious babe. This family had already found the means to acquire a stringed instrument, nicked with use, but not home-made, and leaning against a stack of cushions on the far wall. Gypsies always found a way.
Yaziz sighed and pulled a worn notebook and pencil nub from his shirt pocket. “Name and age?”
Their whisperings jerked his attention from the curled page, and he repeated the simple question. He did not wish to delay his afternoon visit to the nargile salon, but judging from their hesitation, delay appeared likely.
Tereza jerked her head back, indicating an emphatic “no,” but the other woman, slightly taller, brushed her off, then float-stepped toward Yaziz with the grace of a dancer.
“We called her Reyhan, and she was six weeks old today.”
He scribbled a note. “Description?”
“What is there to say?” the taller woman shrieked. “She was a baby.”
He waited for another wave of wails to subside, while the comforting vision of his afternoon water pipe slipped farther into the future. “And you are?” he finally asked the taller woman.
“Meryem.” Her chin tilted up, and the black cotton of her head wrap slipped from her shoulders, revealing a glimpse of apricot silk straps and olive flesh. Hastily, she rearranged the heavy folds, covering up her supple contours.
Yaziz turned sharply on his heels and marched to the single window at the back of the room, a divider between a brazier and a pile of cushions. Mainly, he wished to hide his face, as he felt a flush rising to his cheeks. How would this household of women survive now without a man?
To his right, the simple brazier rested idle, yet still smoky from a forgotten meal. Brass edges were black and dull with tarnish and cooking coals. Faded cushions, too flat to provide any comfort, stacked up to his left and reeked of body oils.
Yaziz leaned against the plaster edges of the window and flipped through the curled pages of his notebook until he found the information he was looking for. Meryem: sister of the slain head of this household.
She’d been absent during the initial interviews regarding her murdered brother. “Working,” the family had explained. Yaziz drew a circle around her name.
The window was nothing more than an open hole that overlooked a dusty patch of weeds, a “yard” where hawkers penned their donkeys overnight. Flies rode free on the animals’ sweating backs and drifted now through the open window to buzz in tight circles above Yaziz’s fingers that clutched a pencil along with broken blue beads.
He flicked away the fly and turned to ask Tereza, “When did you last see your baby — Reyhan?”
Meryem answered for her sister-in-law. “Last night around ten o’clock, when I put her to bed.”
“Do you usually put your niece to bed instead of the child’s mother doing it?”
“I did last night.”
He studied Tereza and noticed wet spots showing through the front of her bodice. “Where were you?”
“Downstairs.” Her breathless voice left her words sounding like jabber. “Gathering ashes to douse the coals.”
“And the old women?” He nodded at the second room where they hid from sight. “Where were they?”
“Already asleep,” said Meryem with an indignant click of her tongue.
Yaziz stroked his chin and glanced from Tereza’s engorged breasts to Meryem’s…dry, but pleasingly curved profile. It seemed to him that the women had their chores backwards the night before, but what did he — an unmarried man — know about such things?
“When did you first notice the baby missing?”
“This morning,” said Meryem, “when the children woke me up to ask about their little sister. She was gone, and only her beads were left behind in her bed.”
“You heard nothing in the night? Not even the baby crying?”
Meryem’s eyes blazed, and her jaw muscles quivered. “She was a good baby.”
“She does not sleep with her mother?” Yaziz paused his chin stroking long enough to examine the broken beads in his palm. He bent closer to the blue pieces and caught a whiff of something pungent.
Tereza shrilled a sob that wrenched Yaziz’s heart, then ran from the room.
Yaziz straightened, preparing to follow her, but Meryem glided across the room and pinned him against the window’s edge. “Leave her. She blames herself, thinking she did not love the child enough.”
He blinked with surprise, contemplating Meryem, wondering how she’d learned such swiftness. “Why does she not love her child?”
“I did not say that, only what she thinks. Kismet decides everything.”
“But she is less devoted to this child than to the others?”
Her use of the past in referring to her niece left a bad taste in Yaziz’s mouth. “Different…how?”
“Because of her skin, with spots like eggplant. I told Tereza they would fade before the child reaches an age to be married off, but my sister-in-law would not listen. It is a great burden to be left in charge of little ones and have no husband. She is naturally worried.”
An interesting choice of words, Yaziz thought.
An eşek brayed from below, and Meryem released Yaziz, who stared thoughtfully down at the yard. The donkey threw back its long ears and spilled a series of high-pitched snorts, as if in protest of the dry weeds that were its supper. Or the wicker baskets still strapped to its back. As Yaziz watched, a thinly mustachioed man under a peasant’s cap appeared in the yard, ticking his tongue to quiet the animal. He unstrapped the baskets, and as he lifted them to the ground, he caught sight of Yaziz watching him. His hand shook, bumping off one of the lids of his basket. Inside were bundles of dried bulbs.
Garlic? Yaziz sniffed again at the broken blue bits of Reyhan’s charm that he held in his palm.
* * * * *
The next day Yaziz followed the garlic hawker, a young man scarcely out of boyhood whose name was Husamettin. According to Yaziz’s informants, Husamettin had drifted to the capital from a Cappadocian village last year, trying to earn his way in the city. For the price of his garlic and help with the sheep, he rented a room from the neighborhood butcher.
Husamettin’s rounds today took them across town to Kavaklidere, a neighborhood of mansions, cement apartment buildings, and a frenzy of construction. It was a neighborhood of real street addresses, where hawkers could peddle their wares and services for a few lira in exchange for their trouble.
The first stop was at the pink mansion of a Turkish general, retired but never idle. He formed part of the cadre who attended sessions of the Grand National Assembly. Although not delegates to the Republic’s governing body, this was the old military’s way of exerting its pressure to ensure that Atatürk’s policies were still followed nearly twenty years past the Father of Turkey’s death.
Yaziz crouched behind a neighboring wall to consult his notebook while Husamettin waited by the general’s wrought-iron gate.
The general entertained lavishly, usually once per month. But in the last three weeks, he had held four dinner parties, inviting his retired colleagues from the military. Yaziz wondered how much garlic had been consumed recently along with the finest cuts of lamb.
The gate screaked open under the gnarled hand of an old soldier, dressed in the khaki uniform of a private. Yaziz leaned forward, but he was too far away to overhear their conversation. Still, words were not necessary to hear, not as long as he could see the old soldier’s wild gestures. One arm swept a wide arc away from him and his head reared back, meaning a definite “no.”
Hawkers usually called out their offerings as they slowly ambled along the street. They had no need to stop unsolicited at someone’s gate unless that customer had already placed a standing order. Someone had misunderstood, in the case of the general’s house. Husamettin, apparently. Yaziz made a note.
The maid at number twenty-two, the yellow stucco house next door to the general, scurried out into the street — pavement, not cobbles on this end of town — to buy fresh garlic for the American diplomats who lived there. Yaziz made another note, then rubbed his clean-shaven chin.
He tugged on his ear and remembered…the American Embassy’s interest regarding the events at Atatürk’s Tomb. That day three weeks ago when the baby’s father had been found dead.
Done with twenty-two, Husamettin led the eşek to a vacant lot where the donkey grazed on abundant milkweeds and the man drank from a water can.
Yaziz moved down the hill and sat on a step to the neighboring apartment building while he flipped to another page of his notebook to review his notes. The American woman and child who’d witnessed the murder resided at number twenty-two.
He shaded his eyes, gazing back up the hill at the yellow stucco house, and decided that as soon as he was done with the garlic hawker he would pay the Americans a visit.
In a neighborhood such as this one, where streets were wide enough to accommodate cars, it was ironic that clip-clopping donkeys and creaking carts made up most of the traffic. So it startled him when he heard the distant purr of an engine navigating through the neighborhood. The noise increased to a stuttering rumble as the vehicle advanced closer, then with a squeal of brakes, a blue bus — American Air Force — stopped at an intersection at the bottom of the hill.
Yaziz looked up from his notes and listened to children’s whistles and calls as little feet clattered to the pavement. The bus lumbered on with a groan, leaving behind three girls in flowery dresses who crossed the street, moving toward Yaziz. Each one carried books and a square pail decorated with American cartoons that brought back fond memories for Yaziz of his years of study in Indiana, curtailed too quickly by a duty that had called him to Korea.
The little girls chattered as they climbed the hill, and as they drew closer, their words about Girl Scout badges made no sense to Yaziz. Two of the girls — twins, as brown as Tshinghiane — clambered past Yaziz on his step, gave him a curious stare, then turned to wave at their friend. The girl left behind on the street was fair and freckled with thick, red curls. Yaziz had met her three weeks before in his downtown office. Priscilla. He remembered the child’s name even without consulting his notebook.
“I’m going to use Mrs. Gerard’s new baby to get my badge,” said one of the twins as she skipped inside the cement building.
Yaziz stiffened on his step and tried to shrink into the shadows. But it was too late.
Priscilla waved to her friends, then stared with open recognition at Yaziz. “I know you,” she said in Turkish, holding her books tight as a shield. “You’re that Turkish policeman. Why are you here? Have you found the bad guy?”
Yaziz thought he detected a flicker of panic in her green eyes, but why not? The missing baby’s father had died at this American girl’s feet, snatching the eight-year-old out of her safe world. It wasn’t her fault that she’d been born into wealth that brought with it an assured measure of safety. Now where was she?
Compassion swept through Yaziz. He wanted to embrace the child with comfort. Instead, he bowed his head to study a lonely ant struggling up the cement steps beside him. That’s how he felt — separated from his colony and reaching for the impossible.
He shrugged and clicked his tongue.
“You think he’s here? In Kavaklidere?” Priscilla’s voice rose in pitch, and she glanced up the street, toward the yellow stucco house where she lived. “That’s why you’ve come, isn’t it?” Her roving gaze stopped on Husamettin tending his donkey in the lot that separated them from her home. “You don’t think he did it, do you? He’s my friend!”
Yaziz lifted his eyebrows. “No.” But he had considered it a possibility, of course. He tried the sound again in a softer voice, mostly to convince himself. “No. How well do you know that man?”
“His donkey wears the Evil Eye. Isn’t that funny?”
Not really. Yaziz suppressed his irritation at the way she made light of their tradition, and reminded himself that naturally the child would be confused. Sometimes blue beads, sometimes a round blue eye — they both protected the wearer from evil.
“And his donkey’s name is ‘Kemal’,” Priscilla said.
Yaziz felt his heart thud. A man who would disrespect Mustafa Kemal Atatürk would also be capable of child theft. Yaziz kept his face impassive and waited for Priscilla to go on.
When she didn’t, he probed further in the American way. “Have you ever seen the garlic man with any children? Perhaps a baby that he brought here to this neighborhood?” Yaziz held his breath in anticipation.
Priscilla’s lip jabbed out. Red curls flounced atop her shoulders as she shook her head. “I have to go home.” She whirled around and ran up the hill toward the yellow stucco house.
Yaziz sprang to his feet and watched her race past the empty lot, startling Husamettin and Kemal who were heading out onto the street once again. Yaziz stepped behind a low wall sprouting iron spikes and listened to the hawker’s sing-song voice:
“Garlic! Fresh from the fields!”
Something wailed, as if answering Husamettin’s cry, and Yaziz peered around the columned post at one end of his wall.
The gate at number thirty-one opened, releasing the catching, coughing sound of a baby’s cry. The American woman who belonged to number twenty-two stood in the doorway of thirty-one, as if she were mistress there, too. “Priscilla!” she called in a sharp voice to the child fleeing up the hill. “Can you come here a minute, dear?”
The red-haired child glanced in Yaziz’s direction, and he instantly sank to a squat. He heard the patter of her steps scrape to a stop on the other side of his wall.
“What do you want?” she asked, closer to Yaziz than to the American woman who’d called to her.
“Run after that man who sells garlic and bring him here to Mrs. Gerard. She wants you to translate something for her.”
Priscilla sounded exasperated. “Do I have to?”
“Remember what I’ve told you about politeness, dear.”
“But — “
“Go on, hurry, before he gets away.”
The gate slammed shut, and Priscilla scampered away. Yaziz stood, feeling a twinge of pain from the old wound in his right leg. Priscilla rounded the corner at the bottom of the hill, and Yaziz crossed over and slipped through a neighbor’s open gate. He climbed over the neighbor’s wall and crouched behind a bush beneath an open window to Mrs. Gerard’s house.
The sobs he’d heard evaporated in the blistering air. Or had Yaziz imagined them? High-pitched laughter now wafted out the window instead, and he moved aside a leafy branch to peek inside. A pair of American women in backless sundresses sipped martinis and shuffled cards at a table in the center of a cluttered room.
A truly well-traveled man, Yaziz recognized the furnishings in the American home — U.S. government-issue furniture they called “blonde.” He even knew what was the mysterious contraption pushed up against one wall — a silent box with a sightless window. He remembered television from the States, but only because he’d lived there briefly. A television set was useless here, since television had not yet reached Turkey in 1957.
The true mystery was why the Americans brought such useless items here. Perhaps it was to fill the gaps in their lives, as these women must experience. They had nothing to fill their hours when their husbands left for the embassy each day. Nothing besides their bridge games and martinis and gossiping friends and martinis and dead televisions and martinis…
Mrs. Gerard opened the front door for the little girl, who returned out-of-breath. “Where is he?” Mrs. Gerard asked while counting rumpled bills of lira in her hand.
“I don’t know,” Priscilla said. “I couldn’t find him.”
“Are you certain you looked hard enough?” Mrs. Gerard’s voice snapped.
“He must’ve gone home with his donkey.”
Mrs. Gerard gasped and staggered backwards. “Oh dear! Now what am I going to do?”
Priscilla’s aunt put her arm around Mrs. Gerard and patted her. “The garlic hawker will be back next week.”
“But I can’t wait until then! I’ve made a big mistake, and I have to get it back! Before Lloyd comes home!”
“Get what back?” Priscilla asked, tilting up her head.
“Never mind. You’ve got to find him for me.” Mrs. Gerard held out one of the bills to Priscilla.
Priscilla’s aunt took it away and handed it back to Mrs. Gerard.
Closer to Yaziz, one of the women at the card table whispered to the other one. “Do you know what that man has to do with it?”
The other one nodded. “He arranged the adoption.”
“Poor thing. She was so desperate, she even thought garlic would make her fertile.”
Yaziz couldn’t help grinning. These women had confirmed his suspicions. Husamettin had stolen the baby and sold it to the unfertiley bored American woman, Mrs. Gerard. An early resolution to this kidnapping case would mean a relaxing visit to the nargile salon.
Meanwhile in the entry hall, Mrs. Gerard was pleading with Priscilla to find Husamettin for her. “Oh, what am I to do? It was Lloyd’s lucky ball! Find that man and tell him he has to bring it to me. Ask him how much he wants for his trouble. He must have a price.”
* * * * *
Yaziz climbed the hill of Ulus to the unnumbered hole where the gypsy family lived. Satisfaction warmed through him with the same glow he felt inhaling moist puffs of tobacco that gurgled in a water pipe. He’d solved the case — a simple matter, really, once he understood the key to it was separation.
The childless Mrs. Gerard had only wanted a baby to love. She’d thought garlic would make her fertile, but when it didn’t, Husamettin, who was lonely for his family in the country and eager to go back to them a wealthy man, saw his opportunity. Tereza’s husband had left her a widow, unable to provide for all the mouths to feed. A little give, a little take, an exchange of a healthy pile of lira, and one bored American woman had bought her amusement.
Yaziz imagined the happiness that he would restore to the gypsy family when he brought them little Reyhan. The baby had slept all the way here from the Gerard house, thanks be to Allah, and it was true. She looked like an eggplant that had remained on the vine too long. Odd, he thought, that such a baby brought happiness to one family and sorrow to another.
Yaziz smiled, anticipating the justice he would finally bring to this household for a change. After returning the baby, he would find Husamettin in his rented room and drag him away to prison, charged with kidnapping. The naïve farm boy must’ve thought it would be easier to steal a fatherless child than one with a father. He hadn’t known — couldn’t have known — that the koreli would figure it out.
He shifted the fragile bundle in his arms, not knowing how to hold it, and knocked on the numberless apartment door.
When Tereza opened the door and saw the eggplant baby he cradled, she gasped and stepped backwards. She blinked fast, but not fast enough to hide the revulsion that passed across her face.
Yaziz followed her inside, waiting for her — or someone, anyone — to unburden him. Yet, the gypsy family seemed otherwise occupied by their new-found wealth. Sitting cross-legged on new cushions were Husamettin and Meryem, dressed in apricot silks and sashes and lace. A new wooden cabinet graced one wall, and sitting atop it was a bowling ball, mottled blue. Yaziz had seen them in America, so he recognized the useless item. He’d even played the game a few times, although he didn’t understand how its destructive purpose served as a form of relaxation. Like the television set, it would also sit idle in this land of no bowling alleys.
Tereza saw him eyeing Lloyd Gerard’s lucky bowling ball, and she cried, “I only wanted it to protect my son! How am I supposed to take care of another baby? Reyhan would’ve been better off with the American. They have more to give than I have.”
The bowling ball was another useless American item. But with a new purpose, it took on a new life of importance. This ball was the largest blue bead to ward off the Evil Eye that Yaziz had ever seen.
Yaziz felt crushed by the weight of his duty. His arms tightened around the eggplant baby, sold — not stolen — in exchange for a charm.
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