by Jeff Gibbs
An end-of-February dusk, and the weather’s too warm. Spring is harried, breaking too early. Blooms have already opened on the almond trees. White petals litter the ground. Rushed to fall. Rushed to leaf.
The older American man and the younger descend the steep stairs from the tea garden to the seaside promenade. The younger one tugs behind him two cocker spaniels, one black, the other gold. On the grass, under the leafless acacias, groups of young people drink beer wrapped in black plastic bags. The two Americans cross toward the line of boulders that form the sea wall facing the historic peninsula on the European bank.
They have known this westward view across the water for over a decade. The glamorous panorama of history book empires, of the kinds of names that don’t die. Once it inspired them to take photos but now the older man finds himself skimming over the the turrets of the Seraglio and the smog-drowned profile of the pink Aya Sofia to the surface of the sea—a rippling screen reflecting the leaden rain clouds as they swell and darken. Cormorants and gulls ride the violent roll of waves. One strip of pale yellow rips a hole through the gray on the horizon. A line of bright stars ascends into it, planes breaking away from Atatürk airport and out of the city, out of the country.
“Let’s sit on the rocks,” the older man says.
On the water, cutting through the whitecaps toward the straits, is a red freighter. A smaller ship passes her, shining a white light against her flanks. Searching. Cyrillic letters.
The older man goes first. He climbs out on the sea wall, the younger man behind him moving somewhat reluctantly with both dogs in tow. The gold one is fat and hesitates to leap onto the rocks. She paces back and forth, whines. The younger man picks her up and places her on the first boulder. She eagerly wags her stub of a tail, sniffing the stone at her feet.
“It’s cold,” the older man says and zips up his brown leather jacket. The younger man does the same. Their jackets are nearly identical. The jackets of all the men walking the promenade are nearly identical. After so much time, there is nothing left of either man’s American wardrobe. Everything they wear is local. They both blend in and don’t; they run the current with the others but then spin swiftly off into isolated eddies.
The older man pulls a Guinness and a pack of corn chips out of a black plastic bag. The two spaniels bark and struggle at their leashes, trying to reach the food.
“Suleyman, Roxy, knock it off,” the younger man scolds. He yanks on the leashes.
“So you told the school you’re not coming back in the fall? It’s done, kaput?”
The older man scratches the head of the black cocker who is wholly focused on the chips. “Hard to believe your masters are ditching us here,” he says to the dog. He tries to keep the emotion out of his voice, to make it sound like a joke.
“Not my decision.” The younger man pulls out a bottle of Bomonti and pops the top off with a lighter. He puts on a cowboy accent. “The old lady says it’s time to get the hell out of Dodge.”
The older man raises his Guinness and salutes each spaniel with it. “Well then, to Roxelana and Suleyman and better adventures in the States.” Then to the other man, “And to the end of a long hard day in our great war against the malevolent middle schoolers.”
They toast, can against bottle, and take long, greedy swigs.
“Dude, I’m beat,” the younger man says. “Dealing with those kids just sucks the life out of you sometimes, doesn’t it? I’m more than ready for a change.”
“So fuck it, then. Why wait? Just drop everything and leave next week.”
“Don’t be stupid,” the older man says.
“You sound pissed.”
“I’d be an ass if I were. I’m happy for you. Moving up and out.”
“Hell, I’m sure I’ll miss the students. I know I will. But right now, I just feel…done with this place. With this whole country.”
“When I think about it,” the older man says, “tomorrow’ll be ten years to the day since I came here.”
“Shit. Your golden anniversary!”
“I don’t think we’re that far yet.” He pulls out his phone and runs his thumb over the surface. “Let me Google it.” He puts a wry smile on his face, but his fingers type the letters in harsh jabs.
“The silver then? Copper? Styrofoam?”
“Says here it’s the tin.”
“The classiest of the cheap metals. And we came a year after you did. Hard to believe we’ve been friends that long.”
“Ten years is a healthy chunk of life. Especially here.”
They drink again and eat more chips. The eyes of both dogs follow the movement of their hands to their mouths. The older man chews and looks out toward the sea. The freighter is still there, paused at the entrance to the straits. He thinks he sees something black floating where the prow touches the water, two dark shapes, cutting swiftly along the edge. Not boats, not birds.
“I’ll be the lone foreigner once you guys bolt,” he says. “I’ve watched everyone go one by one over the past few years. You’re the last.”
“Hey,” the younger man laughs. “Don’t be so gloomy, man. It’s still like four months down the road.”
“Yeah, still pretty far away,” he agrees, thinking that might be a long time to someone just turned thirty but for someone forty-five it was less than a blink. You could close your eyes at night and open them the next morning to find yourself plunged years ahead, the stars at new alignments, the kids grown and gone, everything changed.
“Abi,” comes a quiet voice behind them. The younger man, rigid, keeps his eyes stubbornly forward, the dogs keep theirs on the chips, but the older man turns. It’s a wiry dark-skinned boy, eleven at most. He has long black bangs and soot-smudged cheeks. He wears a faded Spiderman t-shirt. One hand is out and nudges the older man’s shoulder.
“Spare a lira?” he says in Turkish.
The boy sees the dogs, his eyes widening slightly.
“What kind of dog is that, abi?”
“Can I pet one?”
“You’ll have to ask this guy.”
He looks at the younger man, who doesn’t move. “Can I, abi?”
The younger man doesn’t answer, but simply loosens his hold on the leash so that the dogs can scamper farther away from him. Both launch at the chips bag but don’t have quite enough slack and hang just inches away. The boy steps around and kneels, tentatively reaching out a hand to the gold spaniel’s head. The dog cuts her eyes briefly at the boy, then back to the food.
“Will she bite?”
He scratches the dog too hard and she ducks away, tail wagging nervously.
The boy laughs and stands. He watches the two Americans for a moment, calculating at something, then pulls a paper airplane out of his jacket pocket. It’s made of yellow lined paper and is a little crumpled.
“Looks awesome, doesn’t it?” he says, holding it out to them. “It’s not a plane but a glider. I make them better than anyone I know.”
Before either of them can answer, he throws it seaward and it nosedives into a crevice between the rocks. He dashes after it, sending two cats scurrying from their hiding places. The dogs start barking hysterically.
“Don’t worry,” he shouts back at them. “I’ll find it.”
Over the head of the boy, the older man seeks the freighter. The dark things in the water have increased somehow, maybe a dozen or more. They fan out along the hull. There’s something insect-like about them, the way they seem to clutch at the ship.
“I’ve had bad luck with these Gypsy kids and the dogs,” the younger man says, lowering his voice.
The old man looks thoughtfully at the legs of the boy sticking out of the rocks. “He just seems a little lonely.”
“Last time one of them wanted to pet my dog, he grabbed Suleyman’s penis and started pulling.”
“It was fucking bizarre. And then all his brothers or friends or whatever gathered around like they were all going to have a turn.” His lowers his voice. “Either way, I don’t trust him. You know they use them as informers.”
“The beggar kids? Who says?”
“The biology teacher from school. What’s-her-name, Serpil.”
“Give me a break. That’s more than a little paranoid. He can’t even understand us.”
“Have they started taking people based on what they actually say all of a sudden?”
The boy scrambles out of the crevice with the glider in hand. He holds it out to them, as if they had been concerned at its loss. It floats there, on his fingers, damp and scuffed.
“When you get to Boston,” the older man says, pointedly changing the subject, “you’ll have to go to a Sox game.”
“One of the first things on my list.”
“I took Dilan to the Devil Rays the last time we went back. She wanted to do the baseball ritual. You know, hot dogs, cracker jacks. The whole works.”
“Not Celine. I used to make her go back when we lived in Atlanta, but she’d bring along a stack of magazines. And she’s American! Yours is Kurdish but still gets it.”
The boy has been observing them talk, still holding his glider. There’s a moment when they think he understands, then he drifts slowly away toward the next group down the rocks. The older man watches him go.
“After my mom’s big stroke, I don’t know. No trips or ball games this year, most likely. I have a feeling we’ll be hanging around the house mostly. She sometimes doesn’t even remember who we are at this point.”
“That sucks, man.”
“You know, it’s funny. I took her to see the latest Star Wars when I was home over break. She loved it. We bought popcorn and cokes and snowcaps, the whole nine yards. And afterward she said, ‘I wish I was going to be around when the next one comes out. I’d like to know what happens.’”
“But she’s doing okay, right?”
The older man waits to answer, grimacing at the water lapping the base of the rocks. “We said the same thing about my dad a few years ago.”
The boy has come to a place outside a circle of teenagers maybe five yards away. A bearded kid holding a guitar sits with his back to the sea. He sings for the others, a mix of pretty girls and high school boys who look much like him, beards and brown jackets. The beggar boy seems to stand just outside the noise, as if thinking of rushing a border. He looks at his glider, throws it and watches it dive again among the boulders. This time he doesn’t get it, but walks up to a girl with long curly hair and holds out his hand. She shakes her head without looking at him and he lingers behind her, turning the begging hand over so that it hovers just above her shoulder.
“Poor kid,” the older man says. “I think he’s legit.”
“If we go straight home in four months we’ll arrive mid-season. I have this fantasy of just kind of hanging out in the yard, barbecuing burgers and listening to a Sox game on the radio. Something extraordinarily ordinary.”
“Ordinary.” The older man’s voice is distant, his eyes full of sea and raincloud.
“But I’ll miss this place. Some things, at least. You and Dilan. The neighborhood feel. And the way–I know it’s fucked up–but I’ll miss the way everything that happens seems so important, you know?”
The older man’s voice drops. “You might want to hide the bottle.”
A line of flashing red lights proceeds up the esplanade, slowly moving toward them from the direction of the ferry docks. Some stop and policemen leap out of the cars and charge the rocks. One of them drags a girl from the sea wall, her boyfriend stumbling after her as the officer swings his club to keep him off. Another car stops beside a bench and pushes a bearded man in a fedora into the back.
“Six squad cars,” the younger man says.
“Eight. Two more are coming from the other direction.”
“I’ve never seen so many here at one time. Fuck.”
The older man drops his eyes to the rocks. “I really think you’d better hide that bottle,” he warns again.
His own can is wedged between two rocks below the one he sits on. They keep their gaze on the sea as the police cars pass slowly behind them. They’re foreign, and they know this should protect them. But only as long as they don’t acknowledge what’s around them, as long as they don’t blend in.
The freighter is surrounded by the black objects. There are too many to count now. They make the water seem to boil. The older man squints. What are they? One of them starts to crawl up the side of the ship, slowly, like a snail. Another follows. He sees one or two appear around the other boats. One more stops in front of a ferry crossing to the islands.
“They’re taking your Gypsy,” the younger man says.
The older man doesn’t look directly. Everyone knows not to look directly, but he turns just enough to catch what’s happening out of the corner of his eye. The teenagers have stood up—their own bottles are out of sight. They are arguing with a cop who holds the boy by the nape of his neck. The boy struggles, arms flailing wildly.
“Why don’t you leave him alone!” says the kid with the guitar.
“He’s a terrorist,” the cop answers flatly. “If you’re protecting him that makes you terrorists, too.”
One of the girls laughs. “You’re so full of shit.”
The cop points his billy club at her. “Be careful, girl.”
She says something to this, but her voice is carried off by a hard gust from the sea and the older man cannot make it out. The cop lurches toward her, as if he’s going to jab her in the stomach with the club, and the Gypsy boy seizes the opportunity to twist free. He launches away from the cop and is crossing to the next boulder, back toward the two Americans, just as the club catches him in the temple. The boy jerks backward and folds into the kid with the guitar, who drops his instrument, barely catching the crumpled body in his arms. There’s a cacophonous clattering and off-key twang as the guitar bounces toward the water.
“We should say something,” the older man whispers to the younger. “Maybe our foreignness would help somehow.”
“Don’t be stupid.”
“He’s not moving.”
He draws in a breath, thinks, Call out now! Tell him to stop! He watches mutely as the cop drags the boy by the wrist over the rocks to the sidewalk, and then tosses him in the car. His black hair is matted with blood. The red lights flash and the young people stare after it, then turn inward back to their circle, closing in a bit more tightly, shoulder to shoulder now. The bearded kid climbs down and fishes out his guitar as the line of cars rounds the curve behind the tennis courts and passes out of sight.
“You’ve got to move back home, too,” the younger man says. “It’s time already.”
And that is how you disappear, the older man thinks, ordinary life closing over the wounds. He stares at two women in white jumpsuits playing tennis, leaping back and forth across the court. “I don’t want to leave. This is home now.”
“It was home for me for a long time, too. Now’s the time to get the hell out.”
“Then it was never home for you.”
“How’s that? I’ve been here as long as you.”
The older man pictures his mother’s face, illuminated by the flashing colors of the film. And then he imagines the beggar boy launching his glider. The images strain against one another, superimpose. “You’re both foreign,” he says. “Half of me is here. Dilan’s whole family is here. My family.”
The freighter has completely stopped now, blocking the view of the sultan’s mosque. The minarets jut up behind the piles of freight like smoke stacks. The older man feels a heaviness coming over him at the thought of his last friend leaving. It should be fear or grief or a mix of both, but it’s not. It’s more like when he’s steeling himself for a long run in the winter and it’s dark and sleeting outside. How he stands at the door thinking of the cold and the staring neighbors under the streetlights and not wanting to go out, but knowing he must. And the next night, and the next. Forcing himself to put on the shoes. To set a stride. It’s just labor now, a matter of surrendering to a rhythm to keep running forward, breath by breath.
What will it mean to finally navigate this country with just him and Dilan alone against the red lights and batons and blood? Without a presence, a vessel who will hold all the things that cannot be said and still not break? And not just the things that the police take you away for either. Those, too, yes, but also the other kind brought from a distant homeland. Together they breed below the surface, hybridizing, multiplying, layer after layer, year after year, accumulating in such numbers over time that even if it were safe to speak them all, it would be impossible to identify the species that would emerge, to teach someone new the Turkish and English names of each.
Like the time when they lived in the same apartment and the older man had found a stray kitten in the back garden. It had been around the first time Dilan was arrested. The kitten was mewing among the rose bushes, barely old enough to walk. Its mother was dead or lost and he’d come down at night to feed it milk through an eye dropper. There’d been no reason for the secrecy except spite. At the time, the Leader was praising those who took care of street cats, for they, he said, followed in the footsteps of the Prophets. You could build your clout like that, a bulwark against the later times when opinion turned against you.
The kitten had liked to play. She would bound out when he appeared, claw her way up his shirt and perch on his shoulder, trembling at the height and her own daring. When she died a week later, he laid the tiny body in a grave under one of the rose bushes.
There is no trace of her now—no one else but the younger man who knows what lies under the dry peat and why he sometimes sits on the steps at night for hours and smokes, lost in thought, why the secrecy might be something to pause over and consider.
A sharp, hysterical barking jolts him out of his thoughts. The younger man and the dogs are looking out over the water and he follows their gaze. There are hundreds of black shapes now crawling up the hull of the freighter. A swarm. The dark waves roil. The shapes are scaling the sides of the ferry, too. Over all the boats on the Marmara Sea. The dogs back away as if something might suddenly rise up out of the water and sweep over them.
“What is it?” the younger man asks. “What are those things?”
And the older man has a feeling he knows, but he won’t answer, because the other one is leaving. Because who else will witness what comes next?
The dogs growl, their eyes at the place where the surf meets the rocks, bracing.
Jeff Gibbs is originally from rural Florida. He received his MFA from the University of Arizona and currently lives in Istanbul where he has been working on a series of dystopic short stories about the city, some of which have appeared in Word Riot, Eclectica, Opiate and Little Truths Big Fictions.
Even though the two of the men never moved from where they were, I felt the lively environment around them while reading. Scenes are very vivid. And the suspense at the and totally matched the older men not knowing what was coming next with the reader’s feeling of not knowing what the black swarm was.