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  • Writer's pictureAysel K. Basci

The Absolute Master

Written by Ahmet Hamdi Tanpınar (excerpted from his novelette "Evin Sahibi")

Translated into English by Aysel K. Basci


The truth is our house in Mosul had a kind of special religion whose believers consisted of only the members of our household. In this religion, a formidable snake was the only god. There were specific ways to worship, hold rituals, and sprinkle sherbets in every nook and cranny of the house after nightfall as offerings and sacrifices to this divine being who ruled our entire lives. My nanny was like the head priestess of this weird religion, organizing and presiding over rituals, and from her every movement it was clear she had a good grasp of every secret of this absolute master. My grandfather, myself, and the rest of the household were her devout subjects who did whatever she asked, at once and without question. Yet this religion must not have been restricted to the confines of our house because three times a year several sheiks traveled long distances, according to what we were told, to stay with us for weeks. During those times, our house was cleaned from one end to the other with blessed waters, and we were carried over various incenses. In addition, the room where we were told my mother died was opened and cleaned thoroughly under my grandfather’s close observation. Nevertheless, when night fell, none of these measures prevented that huge inescapable fear from taking our entire house under its wing, like a large bird.

Unfortunately, this was all based on an undeniable truth: A snake had killed my mother, and it had informed her of this disaster ahead of time; it had even warned her of larger disasters to follow. It was an unbelievably strange story. From the time my mother was a little girl, whenever she was alone in her room, a large black snake would emerge from a hole—which could never be found—and fix its eyes on her, staring at her for a long time. My mother would scream as soon as she saw the snake and, because there was no strength left in her knees from fear, she would faint right where she was. Despite the endless efforts of everyone in the household, the snake could never be captured. Over time, my mother became used to the snake, and some sort of friendship developed between them. Each day, she spent several hours with this impertinent and stubborn intruder. After imposing her friendship on my mother in this manner, the snake began to appear in her dreams too and, as this continued, she began to show unnatural behaviors, such as seclusion, irritability, deep pensiveness, and the like. To put an end to this disturbing situation, my grandfather sent my mother, along with her uncle and mother, to Istanbul where they would stay for a while. His duty as the Sultan’s regional representative who looked after state affairs meant he could not leave Mosul himself. While my mother was away, my grandfather sold their existing mansion and bought a new one, where I was eventually born. The Istanbul trip was highly beneficial for my mother; she had left as a child and, while away, had blossomed, becoming more beautiful than before returning to Mosul on the cusp of becoming a young woman.

Obviously, the snake could not follow her on this trip, and it disappeared; it also stopped appearing in her dreams. Only once, at a relative’s waterfront mansion in Rumelihisarı where they were spending the summer, my mother saw a dark silhouette one afternoon gliding just inside the doorstep that resembled the “dreadful creature.” Curiously, the next morning, the servants cleaning the house found a sloughed-off snakeskin right in front of the door where my mother slept, but they had been warned and did not say anything to her.

Two weeks after this incident, my mother’s behavior began to change: Her spirited days ended, she became absent, quiet, and gloomy, and she spent her days as if anticipating something unknown. She no longer enjoyed the boat festivities, the carriage rides, or the conversations with her friends, young women of her age whom she had recently befriended and liked a lot. She even stopped her tambour lessons, which she had only recently began. Instead, she continuously begged to return immediately to Mosul. At first, those around her did not pay attention, but when they noticed she was slowly becoming melancholic and really withering away, they took her to two different doctors. In addition, they treated her with various prayers and holy waters; but there was no improvement and, in the end, they had no choice but to depart for Mosul.

Interestingly, from the first day of the trip, everything changed; she became happy again, her health improved, and these improvements kept growing throughout the trip. Especially on the last day of the trip, her happiness turned into real ecstasy; her face was shining with joy. When my grandfather arrived at Tellafer—one day’s distance from Mosul—to accompany them home, he was very pleased; convinced that this was a sign of improving health, when they reached Nebi Yunus, he had several sheep sacrificed to express his gratitude. In short, my mother was welcomed back to Mosul by friends and acquaintances with festive celebrations, almost like a queen. My grandmother liked the new mansion a lot and, not wanting to be away from my mother, they began to sleep in the same room. Alas, within a week of their return, the snake appeared again. It was a late afternoon; my mother was sitting under a pomegranate tree near the pool, in the Harem’s garden, working on her embroidery, when she suddenly saw the snake and fainted. Years later, Maid Gülbuy, who found her there, was recounting the incident with these eternal words:

“Her two hands were around her throat as though she was afraid of getting strangled. But on her face, there was no trace of fear or stiffness that’s usually observed when one faints. When I arrived, she was sound asleep, her face covered with a sweet expression. That damned creature was there too, across from her, watching her. Its gaze fixed at her eyes; you would think it was in love…”

When the snake saw Maid Gülbuy, it left slowly without any haste; my mother woke up stretching with a smile on her face and began to describe her dream.

After this incident, the wagging tongues, which had until then controlled themselves mostly out of respect for my grandparents, came loose and began to talk. The incident became legendary, and it was described like this: The snake, that evil creature, was in love with my mother. And just like that, the daughter of his excellency Raif Pasha, Suphiye Hanım (means Lady Suphiye), became the heroine of this unrivaled tale. Some warned, “Just you wait, soon the snake will appear to her in its natural clothes too.” Indeed, a few nights later, my mother encountered a dark young man in her dream. At first, he was standing in front of the banquet hall’s door with his back turned, so she didn’t see his face. As she was wondering who this stranger was, he suddenly turned around, and she immediately recognized his gaze and woke up. Other dreams followed, and once again, the snake began to dominate my mother’s days and nights. But this time it didn’t affect her health; she remained in good spirits and didn’t lose her appetite. One could say that my mother lived a natural life under the most unnatural circumstances.

Nevertheless, all this was highly disturbing to my grandfather—so much so that he became too despondent to say a word. In an effort to end this bizarre situation, he summoned multiple doctors from Bagdad and Istanbul; he also talked with his friends. Everyone was convinced that this was just ordinary hysteria and, as a solution, a single suggestion emerged: marry her off. The only son of a family friend, a civil servant, was identified as a suitable candidate, and the two were engaged to be married within a few months. On the eve of the engagement, the snake appeared in Suphiye Hanım’s dream again and threatened her, saying she must call off the engagement, that from then on she belonged to him alone, he would not allow her to unite with any man, and he would cause great disasters. He gave her three days to break off the engagement. The young woman cried for the next three days and three nights, begging, “Please don’t sacrifice me, you are playing with my life!” but no one listened. On the third night, the snake appeared in her dream again, but this time he was dressed as a sad young man; after gazing at her at length he said, “You will next see me when important things are about to happen.” And he disappeared.

Soon, unnatural things began to happen in the house. The members of the entire household were overtaken by a horrible fear. When night fell, with the threat of terrible and unknown things happening, with an electricity in the air, everyone began to shake spontaneously without knowing why. This situation even spread to the animals. The horses tossed their heads and nickered at the most unexpected times of the night, they pawed at the ground impatiently and tried to force open the stable doors. The birds flapped their wings, screaming loudly as if a savage animal had entered their cages. My grandfather’s large well-bred dogs, which had come from various places, began to howl in their places or stretched their heads under the door, sniffing around and then, with their bodies shaking like aspen leaves, tried to hide under a sofa, in shadowy places, or even near the feet of men who had never taken care of them before. A deer my grandfather liked a lot died one evening in its stall after a frightening episode of kicking and stomping. Fifteen years later, old Abdullah Çavuş was still shaking when he told me the story of that death. The majority of the servants spent that night near the horses, stroking them and trying to calm them down. On the door of the stall where the deer had died, they found antler marks resembling knife wounds.

But the weirdest thing happened with the cats: They all ran away one by one. Even our old cat from Van, which always slept on a cushion on the sofa and had never even once been to Selamlık, vanished. At midnight, strange noises were heard. This would start with a sudden noise that could be heard throughout the house and, after a while, it ended with a loud human scream or sometimes with human sobbing that could be heard clearly. In particular, nobody could pass in front of a salon with a pool in the Selamlık or the room located below my mother’s room in the Harem, because weird voices were always heard there, as if there was an unknown, unseen sick person moaning somewhere in the house. After many years, I sometimes heard those same noises and that same moaning. It was truly terrifying: At night we would wake up with horrible sounds resembling a man falling from the stairs and sit in our beds, our hairs standing straight up; in fear, we would look at each other’s faces. Escaping from these noises was in vain because they followed us. On such nights, my grandfather immediately came to our room and sat on my bed, consoling me, so we would not get scared.

My grandfather sent request after request to the government asking to be appointed elsewhere, away from Mosul; he explored all means available to get reappointed. However, each time his request was denied. He was also too proud to relocate to a new house, move a third time, so he tried to cope with these challenges, hoping they would eventually end.

Despite all this, the preparations for the wedding continued. Each day, package after package arrived from Aleppo and Istanbul. Many women worked at the house, trying to complete the preparation of the bride’s dowry. My mother, in the middle of this crowd and all the comings and goings, wandered around as if her entire livelihood was contained in her eyes, looking like a pale, tired ghost, day after day her face getting smaller under the weight of her brown hair, her fists always held to either side of her chin, a stranger to everyone, distant to everything other than her fate, which had turned her into a sacrifice and, just like all other sacrifices, her innocence was showing in every bit of her body, in every line of her face. She let the seamstresses take measurements, tried on the new clothes they were sewing, helped complete her wedding bed’s fancy decorations knowing she would not be able to enjoy motherhood like the other brides and, when she could not bear it any longer, she hid in relatively secluded parts of the house, her face buried in her hands, lost in an unknown dream. But she was no longer alone. To the extent possible, without her knowledge, two maids always followed her closely.

The entire preparation period, with the exception of these peculiarities, went by quietly; the snake didn’t appear, and it also stopped invading my mother’s dreams. Only the day before the nuptials, while the maid was cleaning up my mother’s room, she informed Raif Pasha that there was a black snake coiled under her daughter’s pillow. Hoping to end this horrific saga that had been dragging on for years from its root, Raif Pasha, who had not been leaving the house lately, went into her daughter’s room with two Kadiri sheiks. They captured the snake, but for some unknown reason, instead of killing it there with their hands, Pasha had it thrown into a large fire built quickly in the Selamlık’s courtyard. Based on what my nanny and Maid Gülbuy later described to me, the snake was not totally asleep. Yet it did not put up any resistance until the last moment. Just as it was getting scorched and about to die, instead of recoiling, it suddenly stood upright and looked around for a while, almost like a human, before curling into the flames. Just then, from the direction of Harem, my mother screamed, “Oh no, you ruined me …” and she fell down as she fainted. When she came back to her senses, a horrible fever took hold of her, and she was bedridden for months. The entire time she was sick, in a state of delirium, she kept describing the snake’s death scene in the fire, which she had not witnessed.

The wedding could finally take place the following year. They enjoyed two years of relative happiness. However, on a spring evening a few months after I was born, Abdullah Çavuş saw a long black shadow enter the house as he was closing the Selamlık’s door. He ran after it, but tripped and fell; when he got up, the shadow had disappeared. According to those who later described it to me, that night my mother saw the snake in her dream again. It was the scene right before it burned and died: It stood upright, fixed its gaze on my mother for a while, and then returned to the flames. My mother woke up from this dream very scared and insisted that my father cancel his work-related visit to the villages in the Altınköprü region scheduled for that morning, but she was dismissed.

One morning a week later, they brought my father’s body home on a horse. His face was swollen, full of bruises and unrecognizable. On their return from that trip, while passing through a dried stream bed, they had suddenly heard a big noise and saw a huge water wave rushing toward them, dragging stones, trees, logs—whatever it found in its path. Some of the horsemen rode toward the shore ahead, just five or ten feet away, while the others rode back to where they had started from. Only my father couldn’t control his horse and, instead of running away from the large wave approaching, with his horse in front of him, he ran toward the wave. Despite this, he was able to get close to the shore, but before reaching it, his horse suddenly became startled and reared up, whinnying; then, dragging with it my father, who had fallen, it dove into the waters. After searching the whole day, his friends found my father’s body an hour away from where the incident occurred, between a rock and a log that the waters had carried there, covered in mud and reeds. My poor dad! Aside from his tragic death, I know very little about him.

Those who saw the incident could not understand why my father, who was a good horseman, had become confused and unable to control his horse before getting lost in the waters. Some of the servants described the following when telling the story: While all this was happening, a black snake was moving like an arrow on the shore and, just as my father’s horse was coming ashore, it rose up before the horse, scaring it and causing the catastrophe. My mother received the news unexpectedly calmly, but after that, she became even quieter, moving around in the house like a ghost. No matter how hard they tried, my grandparents could not get a word out of her. This situation continued for approximately two years; there was no happiness or joy left at the mansion. Then, my mother slowly started to get better; she even began to dress up, smile, and talk, and she once again became Raif Pasha’s one and only daughter. Until then, she did not care much to see me, but from then on, she wanted me to sleep in her room and would attend to all my needs personally. Nevertheless, when she was alone, she would still hold her face in her palms and fall into deep thoughts. What worried the members of the household more than these deep thoughts were the sweats she would break into after these deep thoughts. At such times, her eyes would enlarge as if looking at something horrible, her lips would tighten, and her hands grabbed the nearest furniture, her fingers locking tightly. To those who asked, “What is wrong?” she responded, “I don’t know, I see awful things!” And then she would have me fetched immediately so she could kiss me repeatedly.

One afternoon exactly three years after my father’s death, they found my mother dead in her room. It was a beautiful summer day. She spends the whole day by the pool, enjoying herself with others, then goes up to her room to rest, but never comes down. At dinnertime, one of the maids goes to her room to fetch her; with the terror of what she has seen, she comes down crying her eyes out, unable to talk. Everyone rushes up to my mother’s room screaming. She is lying out straight, a large black snake wrapped tightly around her neck, much like a rope tied around a ship’s mast, forming heavy loops, its head is held upright, staring at those entering the room with eyes like two drops of fire. Despite the horror of the scene, there is no sign of terror on the face of the dead. In fact, with a small curl on her lips, she even gives the impression that she is smiling and happy. A small wound above her breast marks where the snake bit her and, while everyone is fussing, the snake clears away without anyone noticing.

My grandmother was only able to bear this tragedy for a year, and I was left alone with my grandfather. I did not get to know either my mother or grandmother. The only recollection I have of the latter is an old woman reading prayers from Yunus as she cried. I also know a song which I later heard the maids sing frequently. Her white headscarf, dress made of heavy cloth, prayer beads, prayer rug—all these details, just like the song, are memories I formed based on what I heard later. It was almost as if my childhood, which I spent with several old women, was dedicated to the three who died.

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