kabikaj: A talisman added to the frontispiece of an Ottoman text that is believed to protect the manuscript; a book spell.
Najib brought his hands, soaking wet with sweat, together. It is quite cold. He is travelling on a dirt road, being shaken around as they keep going. The wheels of the carriage are occasionally caught by large rocks. And occasionally the horses –as if on their own volition, just to make the passage more unbearable– stumble on the large rocks. Najib’s ears ring with a piercing whinny. It is followed with the grumbles of the coachman. Najib opens his mouth to grumble himself, but he changes his mind quickly. What is done is done.
It is uncommon in this cold to feel his heartbeat in his palms. His body is shivering under his heavy costume but his palms are ablaze. When he breathes out, a trail of smoke escapes from a pair of lips he couldn’t hide beneath his adolescent moustache. A fugitive sight that dissipates immediately. Taking deep breaths is Najib’s only momentary consolation.
Now, take, taaaaake
A deeeeeeeep breath.
Now let it ooooooout.
That was the thing his master had told Najib. “When you are feeling anxious, start taking deep breaths.”
“What would people do if you seem anxious?” “You have to be calm; if you feel nauseous, you have to keep it to yourself. Anything might happen at any moment,” he had said. That’s what his master had said, but Najib was helpless, his hands were tied, and his heart was the fist of a creditor, bellowing.
Najib pulls at his collar. The tassel on his fez is slightly askew, so he fixes it, and places his clammy hands on his knees. He is sitting ever so vigilant now. Such an impossibly long road, he thinks. The rocks that hit the horse shoes infuriate him again. But the coachman beats him to the punch. A whinny is heard. The horses are used to being chastised like this.
It is an eight year-old girl. That’s what his master said, as Najib was packing up his bags in haste. His master was seated on the divan, with a heavy cardigan that reached to his ankles. His throat was scratchy, he said, and he felt slightly feverish. Not to mention the infirmity that reached all the way to his ankles, like his cardigan. “If I were to visit her myself,” said his master, “I could infect the child. Besides, she is already sick. She has the pox. She is covered in pustules all over, and she has a fever. It would not be right for me to go. You must go alone. And her dear father is so despondent. She had lost her mother not too long ago.”
Najib prises his thin, long fingers from his knees. His palms do not feel so clammy now. The creditor fist in his heart takes a breath. It is the first time Najib is visiting a patient by himself. First time he will be taking care of a patient without his master present. He sees in himself the privilege to make a mistake. After all, this is his first case. He wants to prove himself, however. But –what luck, for Najib’s fortune is legendary– he ends up having to prove himself with an eight year-old girl with pustules all over her body who has just lost her mother. Najib cannot make a mistake. Not today.
He checks his bag all over again. He tallies the supplies:
- Barley, lettuce and chicory root. All three shall be boiled. The girl will be administered the resulting concoction.
- A sherbet from sheep’s sorrel and sour citron. This will be administered once in the morning.
- For the pustules and spots, barley meal, quince seed, rose and mastic oil (not too much, four drops each) shall be mixed into a balm. The balm will be applied twice daily, mornings and evenings.
Najib would have liked to have the balm in advance, but he does not have the time. Still, he has plenty of supplies. He will prepare the balm there, and show them how to do it themselves. Their home is far away. Najib cannot visit them often. They cannot visit, either.
The carriage shakes violently. Again. Must have been a big one, thinks Najib. None of the horses stumbled this time, and no whinnies are heard. Probably the coachman’s error. Najib stares out of the tiny window of the carriage. A sunny winter’s day. They are not far from the city. A few kids are passing by the street, joking around without taking notice of the cold. A woman; she is walking along the edge of the road with anxious steps, holding her skirt by the hem, considering the possibility of falling down, wearing a pair of thick stockings in her feet. Two lads; engaged in jovial conversation with both faces smoothly-shaved and pink from the cutting frost, one shoves his hand in his pocket, checks his watch. No signs of hurry in his face. Not the time to part yet.
Somehow, the fist in his heart awakens Najib. A watch stirs Najib from his sleep. The fist in his heart is oblivious to why. He takes a deep breath and leans back. Again. Why did it occur to him now? Wherefrom did it come and lodge itself in him? Was this really the time, thinks Najib, to himself however. To the fist in him and the pocket watches. The shaved faces and perfumed colognes. Inside pockets and the photographs hidden in the inside pockets. “Was this really the time? Why bother?”
One day his master spoke to Najib thus: “The world is composed of four elements. Fire, water, earth and air. The balance and harmony of these are crucial. If one was missing, the world would lose its balance altogether. Every human being is a world in itself. Each is composed of four fluids. These fluids are called humours. Black bile, phleghm, yellow bile, and blood. If one was deficient or excessive, the entire balance of the body would be lost, one would be confused, not being able to make a decision or even take one step. Our duty is to maintain this balance in the body. For that is true health.”
Najib often thinks about which fluid is deficient/excessive in him. Especially at times like this, when he stumbles, and loses his footing as he does. Must be an excess in black bile, he says. Sawda, or melancholy. Melancholy that is black bile, and the melancholy that provokes the heart, the soul, and the mind. It cannot be helped, that is Najib for you. These winding roads, this malaise, these inside pocket watches all hollow him out, deeper still, with a huuuuge fist. First thing upon his return, Najib will balance out his fluids. That is decided.
The carriage comes to a sudden halt. Najib staggers. That is good, helps him come to his senses and pull himself together. He fastens his bag, checks his fez, wipes his face.
Now, take, taaaaake
A deeeeeeeep breath.
Now let it ooooooout.
He slowly descends the carriage. He greets the piercing cold first with his face, then with his hand. Thankfully he’ll be indoors soon. He remembers his master’s words. “Before anything else, take a good look at their home, my lad. Approximate their living conditions. If they are in penury, never mention any payment, nor accept any if they try to give you some. Just say, next time. If it is not so bad, wait for them to pay you first. Don’t ask, even if they do not look inclined. Tell them to bring it, whenever they can, to Mehmet Fevzi, Physician, and that everyone will know. Perhaps they will pay you, perhaps they will bring it themselves. Whatever will be, will be.”
With its decrepit wooden walls, discoloured window ledges, a rug by the door that is half-burnt and half-frayed, and a chair with a leg missing, the house did not well-kept from the outside. Najib returns to the coachman who is busy fastening the harness of his horses, tells him that he is going to be an hour at the most, and that they will go the same way back. The coachman nods at Najib, and returns to work.
Najib softly taps the door. He immediately hears a rustling. “Coming,” says the voice inside. “I will be right there.” A tall young man, whose youth is overshadowed by his melancholy, answers the door. His shoulders have collapsed and the weightloss has left its hollow mark on his face. He has not combed his hair for a while, and stopped shaving a while ago, it seems. He opens the door reluctantly. Najib believes this man to be the father. His wretched state touches him. He will leave him some tonics so that he may pull himself together, he decides.
“Come, please come in. We have been expecting you. My daughter is feeling very poorly. Her fever won’t break and there are big watery wounds all over her body. We can’t fathom what it is. Some say it’s pox, others say boils. We are rather frightened. Oh! You’ve come all this way and I didn’t offer you some water. I’ll get it right away, right away.”
Najib finishes his water in one go. He must have been really thirsty. He asks permission to wash his hands. The man indicates the lavatory with nervous hands and tired face. Najib tries to wash his hands with an old copper jug and a bar of soap frail from use, but changes his mind. He does not touch the soap so as not to finish it. He brings out his own soap from his bag. He washes them for a long time. Najib splashes some water on his face, he needs it, and is not affected by the cold inside the house. The fist in his heart would erupt if he let it. He leaves another bar of unused soap wrapped in cloth in the lavatory.
Najib and the father are inside the girl’s room now. It’s a damp, decrepit room. No furniture to speak of, except for a bed and a small table by the bed. Najib doesn’t know where to put his trembling hands. His wide brow is more prominent with the anxiety and his thin moustache is a heart above his lips, silently beating. The girl is shivering under her blanket, her teeth are chattering. Her blonde hair is dirty. Her lashes are stuck together. Her face, half-obscured under the blanket, is covered in open pustules. Najib takes a step towards the girl, and lifts the blanket gently. Her body, wherever it was bare, had the same pustules. It’s pox. He feels the girl’s brow; she is quite feverish.
“Hello young lady, do your wounds itch?”
The little girl nods her head. Najib continues in an approving manner.
“Please do not touch your wounds, even if they may itch. Especially those in your face. Or there will be scars. It is pox. It is a contagious disease commonly seen in children your age. I will give you some medicine. If you use them regularly, you will be all right in a couple of weeks.”
“And sir, please do not cover her, even when she is feverish. Wash her with tepid water. That will relieve her.”
Najib believes the hardest part to be over, and that it went better than expected. He removes the supplies from his bag. He asks for a clean copper bowl from the father. Then he begins to prepare the balm. The father is watching Najib quite closely. He is observing the things he uses, how he uses them. “Should you,” says Najib, “run out of balm before two weeks, you may prepare the medicine yourself. Just make sure that you preserve well the supplies I leave you.” He rummages inside the bag. He brings out three vials. He uncorks them and sniffs them one by one. He goes, “Ah,” after one of them, “here it is.” He drips four drops of rose oil inside the balm. He stirs again. Then he adds four drops of mastic oil. He can easily distinguish mastic oil from its colour.
Najib rummages his bag again. After a few false starts, he finds the right vial. He turns to the father. “And this is for you,” he says, “two drops in your water every morning, taken before breakfast. You will feel much better.”
His father looks red in the face. He thanks Najib with embarrassed, watery eyes. Najib accepts the man’s gratitude without answering the father’s look, as he had learned from his master. The father wants to say something, he looks down, he shrinks and shrinks. He utters a few illegible words. Najib immediately understands and intervenes. “Not to worry, you will pay the next time.”
His master would have been proud if he were here. Najib is quite certain of that.
Najib leaves the house. He approaches the carriage with small steps. The man has fallen asleep waiting for Najib, and he looks cold. It hasn’t even taken an hour, so the coachman’s state is inexplicable. Najib pokes him twice. He yawns loudly as he wakes, at Najib’s face, without recognizing him. In a couple of seconds, he comes to. “Oh dear, sorry about that, I must have fallen asleep.”
And so Najib returns to the gravel road. The blazing flame within him has gone out. The creditor fist inside his heart, having gotten what he wanted, is quite still. The coachman is still sleepy, and doesn’t bother with the rocks they stumble on.
Najib thinks of his master, his advice and the stories he tells, which bore him sometimes. He thinks of pocket watches, of young men he spots on the streets and what places a smile may take him. He thinks of the girl, the pockmarks in her face, her body. Would that they were flowers in reality. That they were narcissus flowers with green stems and white petals, and a yellow centre that resembles the sun and the pollens within that yellow. Then he thinks of the father; the father who has a large stone inside him that draws him below, like gravity.
Despite all books and masters, Najib believes that human beings are composed of but a single humour.
FATMA NUR KAPTANOĞLU was born in Marmaris in 1993. She completed her undergraduate studies at Eskişehir Osmangazi University in Turkish Language and Literature. She received lessons in pedagogical formation, as well as lessons in playwriting from NOTOS and in short film direction at Bahçeşehir University. She worked as an author, editor and teacher. She published her first story collection, Kaplumbağaların Ölümü (Death of Tortoises) in 2017. Homologlar Evi (House of Homologues) is her second collection.