Behçet Çelik

My Big Brother*
© Dimitris Tsoumplekas
Translated from the Turkish by Idil Aydogan**

Who would have thought, my brother called this afternoon. “We’re coming over tonight,” he said, without asking whether we’d be home or not. I didn’t ask any questions; I could guess why he was coming. His voice was cold, he kept the greetings and so on short, and the harsh tone of his voice upset me. I had been planning to get through all the work piled up on my desk, but I just couldn’t; I was glued to the spot. For some time I had been telling people that there was no one on this earth who could make me happy, and no one who could make me sad, and I kept complaining that people’s words are nothing but lies. All of a sudden I understood that despite everything, there’s always someone, someone whose words speak to you, from deep down.

I went shopping after work. I bought rakı, meat for the çigköfte, fruit and vegetables. I walked in one end of our neighbourhood’s open market (it was that day of the week) and out the other. But the parade of colours that always soothed me on my most agonizing days wasn’t enough to lighten the heaviness of my heart. The closer I got to home, the more nervous I became. The house had been a living nightmare for the past three days as it were. I hope to God my brother doesn’t make a big deal out of it. When I walked into the house, my wife still wore the same long face. I spoke my first sentence in three days. “My brother’s coming over.”
She spoke her first sentence in three days.
“I know.”

We worked in the kitchen without brushing against each other. My wife washed the onions, and as I chopped them up into tiny pieces, I was thinking that my brother would solve our problem. His visit alone would be enough, perhaps. Seeing as we had started cooking together before he even got here... For the past three days, we had practically been avoiding each other under the same roof, let alone doing anything together.

At around eight, when my brother and sister-in-law arrived, I had just started kneading the çigköfte. I had poured myself a glass of rakı, and was drinking it; the rakı glass was smudged with tomato puree and bulgur. My brother had a long face; I kept smiling. I wondered why on earth we didn’t see each other more often, and I realised how much I missed him.

The three of them sat at the table; I was still in the kitchen, slowly kneading the köfte mix. Was I buying myself some time? Or maybe I was doing this so my brother would come into the kitchen and talk to me; that is, if he was going to. He didn’t come. But his voice did; I heard him yelling from the living room:
“Where the bloody hell are those köftes!”
“Go ahead and start, don’t wait for me.”

One summer, the two of us worked together at my father’s kebab shop. As a child, I used to work there every summer, but that summer, my brother needed to behave. A relative of ours had whispered into my father’s ear, “Your boy’s drawing too much attention, it could spell trouble,” so my father had put him at the cash register to keep an eye on him. He’d be bored; he’d look out the window, onto the street all day. Startled by the slightest sound, he’d sit bolt upright, alert, as if he were about to make a run for it. He’d never drink in front of my father; he would run and hide in the kitchen, and I would be the one to hide his rakı and his cigarettes. I envied how he’d gulp down the rakı, and the moustache he had. The moustache he hasn’t had for a few years now.

The night his best friend was shot, he told my father he was leaving. My father’s eyes were ablaze. Unable to say a word, he just sank into the chair my brother had been sitting in for months. I was mad at my brother back then. Not long after that, two years later, when my classmate who sat next to me in class was shot the very next day after he had given me his worry beads, the only person I wanted to talk to was my brother; he was in prison. I was silent for days.

Here I was, silent again, for a totally different reason. Again I was convinced that the only person who could understand me was my brother. I was afraid, not that he would get mad at me and scold me, but that he wouldn’t understand me. He sounded irritated on the phone. He would go on about what an irresponsible, ungrateful arsehole I was. He was going to praise my wife, as if I didn’t know...
Once I had finished placing the köftes on the plate, there was nothing left to keep me from joining them at the table.

As soon as I sat down I asked, “So, how’s business going?”
He gave me a scolding look, as if to say, “You really think now is the right time?”
“Not too bad,” he said. I needed some time, and a few glasses of rakı.
“Were you affected by the downturn?” I asked.
This time his eyes were saying, “You’ll never grow up.”
“No, because we don’t do business with Italy. Last year we almost did a deal with the Russians; thank God we didn’t.”
I told him about the company I work for and how they were affected by the downturn, although he hadn’t asked. Was he mad at me for not working for his company? I’d always wondered. We had never talked about it. He had never offered me a job, and I had never asked for one. After I decided to settle down in Istanbul, I started working for an old friend of his. I wouldn’t have been given the job if it wasn’t for him. Whenever I got the sudden urge to run off and never look back, I would suppress it, to save my brother the shame it would cause him. If I had been working for my brother, nothing could have stopped me. When you decide to settle down somewhere, you want to cast your anchor into the deepest seas.
My wife and sister-in-law left the table and sat in front of the television. My brother raised his head and looked at me. He’d usually come home late, and as he ate the food our sister prepared, he’d look up at me and wink; I thought he was going to give me that look again. But no, he wasn’t smiling, wasn’t showing his dimple, the dimple on his cheek that looked like a blade cut, that startled you when he was angry, and which you envied when he smiled.

I put my hand on his shoulder and squeezed tightly. He shook his head. It wasn’t a gesture of sympathy or anger; it was a gesture addressing himself, not anyone else.
“It’s not right, what you’ve done,” he said. I didn’t answer him. I looked him straight in the eye and stared.
“It’s not right,” he said again. He was the one to look away.
I looked at him. “I haven’t done anything wrong,” I wanted to say, “I still keep the secrets I was trusted with, like precious stones. I never told anyone about the secret safe where you kept your gun. And no one else but me knows about how you used to secretly meet up with Zeynep.” There was a letter my brother sent me from prison. If I went digging for it, I’d find it somewhere. At the end of the letter he had written, “Say hello to her.” He had never told me before that there was someone he loved, but he knew that I knew. Zeynep was a pretty girl. She had big, black eyes. For days I waited outside her house, anxiously. One morning, I caught her on her own as she was going to the marketplace and said “hello.” Her face lit up when she saw me. Once again, I was proud of being my brother’s brother. I said, “My brother says hello.” She blushed. “Tell him I say hello too,” she said, and quickly walked away. I wonder where Zeynep is now.

The longer my brother remains silent, the more I sweat. Rakı always makes me sweat anyway.
“How’s the spice in the köfte?”
“Good.” A single word. A single word is worse than silence. You can guess that a person who is silent doesn’t want to talk. But the meaning of a single word reply is apparent: “Shut up!”

The longer he was silent, the more drunk I became. “Please talk to me brother,” I begged him silently. “Say something. Hear my testimony. Scream and shout at me. I’m not going to lie to you; I couldn’t. I lied to my wife because I didn’t want to hurt her, to upset her. People nowadays are so strange brother. Someone wasted no time telling her. I’d been seen with another woman. ‘Who said so?’ I asked. ‘It doesn’t matter,’ she replied. The guy at the reception desk looked quite suspicious. Could it be him? Why on earth had I argued with him? How could I have guessed that the bastard would go and do this...”

I wish we had met, just the two of us, instead of him coming over with his wife. Then perhaps we wouldn’t have fallen silent, but talked. About father, mother, Zeynep, the old days, today. I would tell him about my lover, and how much I still love my wife. I would tell him about how my friends found this strange and said, “You can fool yourself, but you can’t fool us,” and about how I consoled myself, saying, “My brother would understand me, he and I share the same cells, the same strange genetic code.”
“Say something brother. Tell me, is your heart like mine? I toss and turn in bed at night; I think of one when I turn to the left, and the other when I turn to the right. When I’m with one, I miss the other. I know you’re just like me. There’s something about us, something excessive, or something lacking, in us... I don’t know.”
I’m sure my brother knows what’s going on inside me. That night, he could hear what I said, but he remained silent, to punish me.

They stayed until midnight. My brother and I drank, we drank a lot, but we didn’t talk. Even his face was tense. It was like he’d start crying if he just let go a little. He sat there with a stone-like face, and drank.
As they were leaving, “Family, family is what’s important,” he said. We were seeing them off at the door. Nervous, I reached out for my wife’s hand, which I thought she would pull away; her hand was sweaty. My brother had silently solved our problems. His presence was enough. I was looking at my brother, my eyes full of gratitude. I hadn’t let go of my wife’s hand; I was holding on to it tightly when I saw the look my sister-in-law gave my brother; there was resentment in her eyes; I ignored it. At that moment, I wanted to hold my brother tightly in my arms.

I may not have known how to be silent, how to comfort others in silence, the way he did, but I did know how to touch.
It didn’t happen. He said, “Take care,” and walked out the door.

* Original title: ‘Agbim’. From the collection Herkes Kadar, Istanbul: Iletisim Yayinlari, 2002.
* * The translator would like to thank the participants of the Cunda Workshop for Translators of Turkish Literature 2009 for input and contributions.

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