Two friends, much younger than myself, had a strange proposal for me.
‘Would you like to come to the bar with us one evening? You can see the new fashionable place to be.’
As I answered, ‘why not?’ they looked at each other and smiled. I understood that there was some other purpose behind this proposal. I gazed at them questioningly, whereupon they decided — with a glance at each other to confirm — to tell me, one of them completing the words that the other had begun, about a third friend, also much younger than myself.
I was distantly aware of the history of this third friend, and I was only ignorant of the last few stages. The parts that had entered the sphere of my knowledge were thus. This third friend was one of those hopeless wretches who the creator, choosing the greatest thrift in portioning out those physical characteristics that could be termed beautiful, had thrust into existence. He was tall; as he walked, or as he sat, he seemed unable to find a place to set his arms and legs. His face was covered in pale yellow, and occasionally dark yellow splotches, and the eyes in which there was no spark of intelligence, gave his whole being a sense of deep foolishness. Whereas, in fact, this youth was a creature with the greatest tendency to delicacy and sensitivity, and the intellect that always seemed to be hidden behind a curtain shrank from coming out into the open, as if he took pleasure in diving deep, in wandering among, and digging into the impressions that had been gathered within himself. Then, as if wanting to be avenged on his belief that he was unloved and unloveable, he had such a hunger to love life, the world, and in particular, women, that he would be embarrassed to show it, and remain silent, and hide the beauty, the goodness of his soul like a shameful secret, as if in the belief that as he was unworthy of being loved, he would also be considered unworthy to love.
Once you burrowed a little, and discovered the good and beautiful things that lay hidden under the ugliness, it was impossible not to love this man. It was for this reason that I and the two friends who began giving me detailed explanations of his history loved him so much, and pitied him because he was so difficult to love. I knew that this man’s longings for love that never seemed to be satisfied had swelled and swelled until one day they had suddenly overflowed, and gathering themselves, had broken upon a particular young girl. A marriage followed this occurrence. We, who knew him, all said, ‘poor thing!’
Poor thing! For this ugly man, with a delusion that covered his ability to predict the inevitable end of the task at hand, had taken a girl who had been left in the open, dependant on the care of this or that uncle, from a family that was respectable, but that had fallen on hard times. We, along with the members of a particular class of Istanbul, knew and recognised this girl well. She had a beauty whose lustre spread out in waves, blinding by its brilliance as it spread, and a coquettishness that well became this beauty. The even, white teeth that her thin lips always left half-bare gave her such an eager look, as if she wanted to bite and devour anything that life offered in the name of pleasure, that no one had found the courage to be caught in the coils of the lasso of the allure that overflowed from her being.
He found that courage. That was why, having no difficulty in foreseeing the difficulties this marriage would engender, we had pitied him.
The unfolding of events proved grounds for our pity. One day, I received news that this woman, who did not stint, by any measure, to serve him the fate that was allotted him, had left him in order to scatter the pleasures of her beauty around her, to this and that, to anyone she chanced upon, boundlessly, immeasurably. And he, in a lightning flash that laid the whole truth before his eyes, had somehow found the strength to leave her.
I had not seen him since that day, and had not learned the rest of his story. I heard from my young friends’ lips that the woman, after five months, three weeks, and two days of associations that kept her shut away here and there, had suddenly, one day, without losing anything of her merriment, or the hunger that kept her looking for bountiful fodder to feed her pleasure, with a greater ease for her desires to have fun, even as the disappointments in life grew in number, had begun to show herself in bars. Almost every night, they would witness her dancing and drinking until she laughed wildly, well into the early hours of the morning, and then notice her leave, leaning against this or that person, clinging to the body of whatever man happened to be around.
That unhappy man who, when she was not around, buried his sorrow inside himself, and disappeared, the perseverance of this once-loving husband, upon seeing her thrust herself into bars, had all of a sudden failed. Now he too was following her around the bars. Wherever she was, there was he in a corner, drinking continuously; following, with vacant eyes, that woman who was swept up by a passionate wind and swirled in the arms of this or that, until finally, when she left with whatever man was last, he would stagger away and be erased like a black cloud.
Such was the story they told me. And what they wanted me to do.
“He would listen to you,” they said. “Save this man, send him away somewhere, somewhere far from here. We think he is on the edge of a precipice, about to tumble over, he needs a hand to pull him back. Might this hand not be yours?”
While not believing in this at all, I agreed, and that night we went to the bar where it was thought that this husband and wife might be found.
As they had said, he was sitting alone, drinking in a corner, while she, in the air of a tango that rocked the emotions in a cradle of love, in the arms of a man, with her head leaning lightly on his shoulder, her lips slightly parted in the intoxication of a deep pleasure and with the expectation of an even greater pleasure, engulfed him in the waves of warmth that spread from her body as she passed by that unfortunate man.
We sat quietly at his table. He greeted us with an attempt at a sweet smile. The meaning of this smile was: “this is how it is, every night!”
We wanted to talk to him. I began speaking of this and that, and he replied in a word or two, always with that smile that tried to be genuine, but his eyes were always on that woman. Wherever she went, his eyes were drawn there, as if by a string. The woman did not once look at him.
How long did this go on? Quite a while. During this time, filling his glass each time it was emptied, and each time asking us, ‘would you like some?’ he sat without looking at us, his eyes ever on the woman, calm, and preferring to keep silent. Then suddenly, at a most unexpected moment, a most unexpected event occurred.
The woman was in the arms of a handsome, showy youth, my eyes, too, without wanting to, were following her: at one juncture it looked as if the woman’s lips and the young man’s lips drew close, as if they met, and at this instant, we heard a clatter at our table, right by our side.
He had seen the youth and the woman’s lips on the verge of meeting, just as I had, and the glass he had held tightly as he sat, gnawing at his agony, unable to find the strength to let it overflow, had slammed against the marble, and as the blood flowing from his hand mixed with the rakı and dripped down, he, collapsing upon this scene of the ruin of his misery, began to weep soundlessly, but with his shoulders heaving up and down.
Then the woman pushed the young man aside, and came straight towards us. Dragging an empty chair, she sat opposite this man, this man whose face, until then, she had refused even to glance at, she took out a little handkerchief that had been tucked in her sleeve, and tried to wrap his dripping hand, and with one hand tried to stem the bleeding. Then she brought her other hand to his head, with a feeling of great mercy and affection, slowly, as if trying to soothe a sick child, she began running her hands through his hair.
He, his shoulders heaving even more violently, was weeping with his head on the table. And then the woman leaned in, and as this woman’s claws on this wretched man’s head tried to calm him, she said, with what momentary womanly pity, in a voice he could barely hear, ‘get up, let’s leave together. Tonight you shall be my guest…’
The three of us looked at each other, and without saying another word, leaving them to themselves, that wretched man’s head under that woman’s claws, with a painful knot in our hearts, we went out.
Original Title: Kadın Pençesi (1939)
Writer: Halid Ziya Uşaklıgil
Text: Özgür Yayınları
Translator: © 2021 Eva Deverell