Qualified Entry: Fiction Category
By: Lisa Clark
Diyarbakır, in the Kurdish region of Turkey
All five stiffened at the single, horrifying blast. Then emotions stretched taut by a two-day wait released.
An invisible creature seemed to suck the breath from seventeen-year-old Bili. Then guilt, anger, and fear all fought their way to the surface as they clenched upward from his gut to his throat.
Through blurry eyes, Bili saw seven-year-old Roj’s lower lip jut out as he reached for Suzan, his sister. They fell into each other and sobbed, he onto her shoulder, she into his hair.
Bili’s parents turned grimly toward each other. Their eyes met for only a moment before Jeliyan lowered her head and returned to sorting stones from the beans.
“Suzan, Roj.” Asa’s voice broke before he breathed out, “Shhh.”
“But, Karin,” Suzan’s words were nearly indecipherable as she answered between convulsive breaths. “She’s… she’s dead. Isn’t she, *Baba?”
Asa squatted in front of her and brushed aside the hair that stuck to her cheek. “It’ll be OK, Suzan. Our family will be all right now.”
Suzan’s chest visibly rose and fell as she blinked her eyes hard.
“We’ll make it through this. You’ll see.” He rose and pivoted toward his wife. “Right, *Ana?”
Jeliyan wiped her eyes again in a hurried motion. A throaty moan was her only answer.
“Jeliyan?” The word sounded like a plea.
Her fingers pressed into her eyes.
“Bili?” Now Asa’s voice and eyes begged his son for support. Without answering, Bili ducked his head and yanked open the door. A dusty blast of wind slapped him, allowing him a few seconds to think of something besides his dead sister.
“Bili!” he heard his father call before he pulled the door shut.
He couldn’t bear to listen to his brother’s and sister’s sobs. To see the anguish on his mother’s face or hear the desperation in his father’s pleas. Then the guilt that the gust momentarily obscured surged with renewed force. This was his fault. All of it.
* * *
Five months earlier
Asa Toren dropped his business documents onto a small table and uncharacteristically took the stairs to the family room two at a time. Bili was sitting cross-legged on the divan, an opened textbook on his lap, headphones plugged into his ears. With eyes closed, his head and shoulders moved rhythmically.
Asa tiptoed toward his son, making his way to the spot directly in front of Bili then landed a heavy hand on the boy’s shoulder.
“Ahh!” Bili shouted, eyes popping wide.
Asa grinned broadly and chuckled.
“Baba! Why’d you do that?”
“Because I have a surprise for you.”
Bili yanked his earbuds out and turned off his MP3 player.
“Okay. I’m ready. What is it?” His voice was flat and disinterested.
“You, my boy, are going to see camel wrestling!”
Bili’s eyes widened. “Really?”
Asa first told his son about camel wrestling when he was nine. “Some believe that caravan owners of long ago pitted their camels against others,” he had explained, enjoying his son’s interest. “Now, only the most splendid specimens are groomed and trained for the yearly matches. First, the owners parade their prized animals around town, bedecked with ornate saddles and jingling bells. Accompanied by a band of drum and bagpipes players, the camel owners boast of their animals’ assets. Some are bold and brave as a hawk swooping toward his prey. Others skillfully maneuver themselves in order to overturn their opponents. Another type possessed the stamina of an ox in early morning; such a one can outlast others. Aware of the eyes around them, the owners garb themselves in colorful costumes, including cornered caps and specially crafted boots.”
Now Asa’s heart smiled. He could fulfill one of his son’s cherished desires.
“But the wrestling is far away.” A shadow of worry crossed Bili’s face.
Asa laughed. “Don’t worry. This is not any empty promise. Soro Allak, my new partner, has relatives who live in Mugla and will put us up. Our two families will travel together.”
“When do we go?”
“In January. We’ll travel together by train.”
Bili punched the air with his fist.
Asa smiled; he’d finally been able to do something that might strengthen his relationship with his son. It seemed like such a long time since the last time he’d won his son’s admiration and thanks.
* * *
During the long train ride, Bili and Miro, the nineteen-year-old son of Soro Allak, spent many hours talking. They had only met each other the previous day and were initially tentative. Bili felt the two years difference in their ages had erected an invisible barrier between them. When their conversation turned first to sports then music and movies, their friendship finally began.
The two explored the train’s recesses and various cars. At the caboose, they dared each other to lean over the small fence, then howled like madmen when the wind whipped their clothes and hair into wild abandon.
A little guiltily, Bili remembered Karin, his fourteen-year-old sister. Since the time she had sneaked out of the house as a small child and followed Bili to a nearby sweetshop without his knowledge, her parents had chastened and schooled Karin in appropriate behavior. Then, when Bili learned of honor killings, his voice joined his parents’ in scolding Karin for even minor offenses.
When the curves of her body became more apparent even under loose clothes, he grew even more vigilant. “Karin,” he’d hissed at her when he was walking behind her after school one day, “keep your eyes down.”
When she reached the door of their home, she waited for him, fear blanching her features. “You won’t tell Baba, will you?”
“Tell him what?”
“That my eyes were raised.”
Bili forced a chuckle. “No.” Instead of comforting her, his quick dismissal only seemed to fuel her anguish.
Her eyes begged him for a better reassurance before she dropped her gaze to the ground. “I’m not stupid,” she said. “I’ve heard about what they do when girls do even the smallest thing wrong. One I heard about was killed for looking at a boy. One for wearing her skirt too short. Another for requesting a love song on the radio. And another for wanting to go to the movies.” Karin raised her eyes. “The girl didn’t go. She just wanted to.
“The absolute worst, though, was the man who killed his three-year-old daughter to prevent the shame she might bring to the family when she grew older.” Her head and shoulders quaked. “And I don’t understand why families kill their daughters because someone raped them. How is that their fault? Why don’t they kill the rapists instead?”
“They’re punished too, Karin.”
Her eyes narrowed as she replied, “But they’re not killed,” she bit the last word out.
Bili didn’t want to hear any more. He’d also heard stories about the fate of such girls. The tales traveled around school like flies that flit from person to person, landing just long enough to bite. Some girls were shot; others were strangled or stoned to death. He’d heard of one who was buried alive.
“Just be good, Karin. Baba loves you. I love you. We wouldn’t let anything like that happen to you. Okay?”
She stared into his eyes for a long moment, sadness slumping her shoulders. Then, in a voice ghostly as a vision, she whispered, “Okay.”
* * *
The sun’s rays stabbing through a slit in the dark curtains woke Bili to the promise of fair weather on the day of the camel wrestling. Rushing through breakfast, the two families squeezed through narrow streets along with hundreds, perhaps thousands, of excited fans.
By ten o’clock, spectators filled the bleachers. Around the perimeter, families and groups of friends had wriggled and wrangled to secure positions closest to the field.
Nearby, vendors sold beverages and food to the bubbling crowd. Some people gathered for the zeybek, a traditional dance. Men leaned their heads toward each other and argued over the strengths of their favorite competitors. Though not officially allowed, Asa had explained to Bili that many men bet on their choices to win.
Wrestling camels were more formidable and impressive than others Bili had seen. “That’s because,” Asa explained, “the owners breed camels specifically for wrestling. Unlike the much smaller beasts we normally see, these camels can weigh up to a thousand kilograms.”
Standing with their families on the bleachers, Bili and Miro stretched their necks to catch in the activity around them.
Finally, the moment arrived. One handler led his cow camel onto the field. “She’s in heat,” Miro explained, whispering close to Bili’s ear. “Now you’ll see the power females possess over males.” When two wrestling camels entered the field and whiffed the cow, their heads flung up and they began prancing. With foaming mouths, they grunted their desire along with a challenge to the other bull. “Even normal bulls camels have killed men in order to reach females,” Miro added.
Bili unconsciously held his breath when the two oversized competitors began by butting. Soon they were throwing their bulk onto each other while the crowd cheered on their favorite. After ten minutes of sustained pressure, the dominant bull forced a scream from the other. The defeated beast stumbled backwards, but soon regained his balance and began to run toward the bleachers, seemingly blaming Bili and Miro and the others for his defeat. The crowd’s sudden burst of terror shook the wooden slats beneath the boys, knocking them sideways. Spectators on the three levels below Bili and Miro scrambled to flee the upset behemoth. Left without the buffer of others, the two clutched each other for balance.
At the last moment, when a meter further would have meant crashing through the flimsy wire fence that separated the bleachers from the field, the camel veered from his reckless course, slowed to a trot then to a walk. In the end, he stood wagging his head from side to side as nonchalantly as a pickpocket after filching a wallet.
The displaced crowd returned to see a man drape a small rug onto the back of the victor; a trophy for his win.
Cheers rose for the next competitors.
* * *
Karin closed the outer door and pried her plain shoes off by the heels. She shifted her books to one arm to yank off her headscarf. While shaking her hair loose, a small piece of paper worked its way out of a notebook and fluttered to the floor. Without noticing, she bounded up the stairs, glad to be home.
“You look happy,” her mother said, looking up from a book.
“I had a good day. Perfect score on my history test.” Karin plopped on the divan next to her mother. “Good girl! You know, you may be as smart even as Bili.” She gathered Karin’s long, wavy hair into a ponytail, then wound it around her fingers, fashioning it into an impromptu chignon. “And you’re as pretty as he is handsome.”
Karin dipped her head with a smile.
“What will you do for the rest of your day?”
“I dunno. I have to write a paper by Friday. I guess I’ll start working on that.”
“That’s how my girl got so smart!”
* * *
Asa was next through the door. He, too, removed his shoes. Grabbing them to place in the cupboard, he spotted Karin’s dropped paper and picked it up.
“Meet me by the main market at the regular time. Miro.” Asa shrugged.
As he climbed the steps to the family room, he heard his daughter. “Ana, did you see a little piece of paper? I must have dropped it somewhere.”
Confusion scrunched his brow for a moment. He opened his palm to look again at the note. No. This could not be what it appeared. Could it?
When he bolted up the last few steps, his wife and daughter turned toward him, startled.
“Is this what you’re looking for?” Anger had appeared in his voice and surprised even him. Well, he thought the next moment, why shouldn’t he be angry? If this note was any indication, Karin had done the unthinkable. How could she?
Her head bent downwards, but Asa could see her eyes move back and forth, as though searching the floor for an appropriate response.
“Answer me,” he commanded. “Is this yours?”
“Y-yes,” she said in a voice so tiny he could barely hear her.
“What’s wrong?” Jeliyan asked.
“This note is what’s wrong. It’s from Miro.” He turned to face Karin. “Who is he? Your boyfriend? ”
Asa could see the worry in his wife’s eyes as her glance passed from Karin, to him, then back to Karin again.
“N-n-n-o,” Karin stuttered. “Miro’s not my boyfriend, Baba.”
“Then how do you explain this note?”
He could see his daughter fighting tears. No matter. He could not, would not, ignore this note.
“It’s a note for Bili from Miro Allak, Mr. Allak’s son,” Karin choked out. “It’s not for me.”
“Don’t lie to me. Why would you have a note from Miro for Bili? It makes no sense. No. You’re receiving notes and meeting him secretly.”
“No, Baba. I would never—”
“How could you dishonor us this way?” His eyes grew dark as they narrowed. “Get up. Now. Get out of my sight until I decide what to do with you.”
* * *
Bili had to make his father understand.
“Baba. Listen to me,” he insisted. “The note was for me. Miro’s sister Silvana goes to school with Karin. My cell phone’s broke, so Miro gave the note to Silvana to give to Karin to give to me. That’s all.”
“You expect me to believe that?” Asa could hardly take in boy’s audacity. He never recalled Bili trying to hide the truth. How could he lie so adamantly now? Karin must have convinced him to do so; no other explanation remained. “Miro attends the university. Why would he want to spend time with a high school student? And, if he needed to see you so urgently, why wouldn’t he just call you here at home?”
Bili’s face turned a deep red.
“You’re angry?” Asa said. He could feel his own ire mingle with amazement. “I’m the only one who should be angry here. How dare you lie to me?”
Without answering, Bili turned and left the room.
* * *
“Their stories coincide,” Jeliyan said in the darkness of bedtime that night. “What if the note was for Bili?”
Asa groaned. “What if it was? We’re Kurds, not Turks. We hold to a higher standard. You know that even the suspicion of impurity will destroy our family’s name. The shame would ruin us. I’ve already consulted with my brother. Soon the whole community will know.”
“But what if you prove to them that she’s done nothing wrong? Can’t you talk to Soro? Maybe if he speaks with his son—”
“Soro won’t help. He denies everything. He denies it without even trying to find out the truth. ‘I’m sorry your daughter has brought you dishonor,” he said when I called him, ‘but please leave my son out of it. Why would he have any interest in a fourteen-year-old girl? The very idea is absurd.’”
“It doesn’t matter!”
Jeliyan’s argument poked at Asa long after her voice silenced and she fell into a troubled sleep. He should never have told his brother about the note—or at least should have waited. But no. Anger—or was it pride?—led him to respond rashly. Now Karin, his sweet, loving and respectful child, would likely face death. All because of him. And he could find no way around it.
* * *
Without knocking, Bili pushed open his sister’s door. Slipping inside quickly, he silently closed the door behind him. Karin, lying on her bed with her face toward the wall, didn’t seem to notice him. With his fingertips, he touched her shoulder.
“Go away, Bili.”
“Shhh,” he warned, pulling Karin onto her back so he could see her. When she met his gaze with puffy, bloodshot eyes, he wanted to cry with her.
“I’m sorry,” was all he could think to say. What peril had he inadvertently brought on his sister?
“It’s not your fault.” Her voice was dull, emotionless.
“How is it not my fault? You were delivering Miro’s note for me.”
“I shouldn’t have dropped it,” she said, her voice hardening. “I was stupid and careless. It’s my own fault.”
“I tried to explain, but Baba wouldn’t believe me.”
“I know. He never listens.” She blew her nose and knuckled the tears from her cheeks. “Bili, why didn’t Miro just call you on our home phone? No one cares that you two see each other.”
He squeezed Karin’s hand then stood. “Try not to worry.” Easy words to say, he knew.
What had he done to his sister?
* * *
Within two days, Bili joined the men of his extended family in their kitchen. Crowded close, the odor of their dark, damp, stinking bodies and clothes pressed down on Bili. He wanted to flee, to stop his ears from the horrible pronouncement he feared. Why couldn’t thinks go back to what they were before that stupid note?
“We all bear the shame of Karin’s behavior,” one relative said. “I say she should be killed.”
“But she didn’t do anything wrong!” Bili blurted out. He would not remain silent. He needed to convince them of Karin’s innocence.
“Bili, be quiet!” one uncle commanded. “We all love your sister. Nevertheless, the family’s honor must take precedence. The entire community feels our shame. Until we deal with our problem, our family will be socially banned. None of us is willing or able to endure that. Our only question is how to deal with the problem.”
The man’s tone left no room for arguments. Bili could see that. Inside, he felt his stomach churning. He was going to be sick. What else could he say? He could conjure up no words. His brain, however, had turned black, empty, hopeless.
“It makes sense to have Bili shoot her,” one man offered. Several others nodded their heads or grunted their agreement.
Bili’s head shot up. No, no, no. How could they even consider such a thing?
“Bili?” Asa blurted. “No. I put my foot down. I will not commit my firstborn son to life imprisonment. You all know of the changes to Turkey’s Penal Code. Before Turkey is admitted to the EU, we must comply with their terms.”
“Asa,” another relative said in a comforting tone, “no one here would give the boy up. Am I right?” All mumbled agreement.
“There, you see? Bili will be safe,” the man said, laying his hand on Asa’s shoulder.
Wide-eyed, Bili spat out, “No! I won’t do it.”
Asa glanced at him then straightened. “And I won’t let him. I’m already losing one child. I will not risk losing two. Find another way.”
There was one other way: Karin would have to kill herself.
When the men settled on this solution, Bili’s wild gaze passed from one set of eyes to another before rushing from the room, fully convinced these men would accomplish their goal.
* * *
The text messages on Karin’s cell phone began shortly after the meeting broke up.
“You are filth. Kill yourself and relieve us of our disgrace.”
“You have blackened the family name. Cleanse us of our shame. Now.”
“Show the world you repent of your great sin. End your life.”
“You have no right to live. Die.”
“Only death can redeem you.”
Each new message added to Karin’s despair. Her own family had given her up. The mother who bore her, the father who had provided for her. Even the brother she had idolized as a child. Her larger family no longer wanted her alive. In their eyes, she was a stain and blemish.
Karin was allowed out of her room only to use the toilet. No one delivered food. Nobody came to talk with her. Upon her return to her room after one trip to the bathroom, she found three items on her bed: a rope, rat poison, and a gun. Acid ate her stomach as she contemplated ending her despair.
How could delivery of an innocent note have lead to this? This was Bili’s fault, no hers. Well, but she had been the careless one with that stupid note. But so what? She was guilty of no wrongdoing. How could such a cruel fate have fallen on her? She had always tried to be a good girl. She was a good girl. Wasn’t she? Of course there had been times when she’d done wrong. But hadn’t everyone? She was no better than others, but she was also no worse. But what of those hateful text messages that appeared on her phone? Perhaps they held a seed of truth. What if, by living, even if she were not guilty of any wrong behavior with Soro Allak, shame would fall on her family and relatives? Karin could not live with that. Which led her to conclude that her uncles and cousins and even grandfathers were right after all: she alone held the power to clear the family name. She resigned herself to her fate.
Two days later, she decided how she would die.
* * *
Bili sat on the edge of his bed. A pistol—the same one Karin had used—lay on his lap. He felt its heft, its metallic smoothness. He held it up to the side of his head, his finger on the trigger. Then he moved it forward and stuck the barrel into his mouth. He wondered how Karin had shot herself. Relatives forbade Bili’s family from seeing her body. One of his uncles had collected her remains. Several aunts cleaned the blood- and gore-splattered room before others repainted it. It was now pristine. Just like Karin.
It had been two weeks since his sister’s death. At first, whenever he or his little brother or sister dared to utter Karin’s name, Asa and Jeliyan responded as though they’d blasphemed Mohammed. Within a day, the lesson had stuck; no one even mentioned Karin’s existence.
But they couldn’t drive the memory of what had happened from Bili’s head. All because of that stupid note. For him. Because of his broken cell phone.
“I’ll just call you on your home phone when I’m free again,” Miro had said the last time they’d seen each other.
Miro laughed. “What are you so worried about? No one knows. It’s not as though I’m going to say, ‘Hey, I’m calling to set up a rendezvous with my lover. Is he there?’”
When Miro put it that way, it made Bili feel sick. He couldn’t let anyone know about the things he had done with Miro. They’d been hiding the truth since shortly after the camel-wrestling trip. Bili’s head hurt when he thought what the truth would mean to his family.
“No, Miro!” Bili had answered fiercely. “You can’t. They’ll find out. I don’t know how, but they’ll find out.”
“Okay, okay. I’ll send a note through my sister.”
That note. And no one besides him and Miro knew the truth. Bili had been too cowardly to admit it and now Karin was dead. Guilt devoured him. Shame overwhelmed him. If his relatives thought that innocent Karin had been a blot on their family honor, what would they think of him?
Bili’s sin was greater than he—or his family—could bear. He lifted the gun again, sticking it hard against his forehead. Slowly, he pulled the trigger.
* * *
Downstairs, Asa and Jeliyan exchanged confused glances.