Other Men’s Fields

An American man on the verge of irrelevance sat in the garden of a teahouse in Kibrit, a small city on the Aegean coast of Turkey. His table backed up to a trellis that bore the weight of mature grape leaves; his perch was snug. As he sipped his tea, Octavian Highfield studied a tableful of Turks on the far side of the garden. They were sharing a waterpipe and stories. Octavian had been studying Turks for fifty years.

There were three thin men and one heavy one at the table. It was the heavy man’s turn to smoke. He had the bristling eyebrows of a tyrant. In the poise with which he took and held the mouthpiece of the nargile before putting it in his mouth, Octavian perceived the backward sweep of centuries. Ottomans. Seljuks. And, before them, hard men on small horses charging the steppe’s west horizon.

The weight of all that he knew had begun to oppress Octavian. More than scholar, more than historian, he was a translator. The work to which he had given his life involved digging for words in other men’s fields. Spend enough time doing that—spend your working years in Turkey—and you forgot what the fields of home looked like.

The heavy man inhaled smoke, beneath an empty table a white cat batted a fish head, and a ceremonious waiter in jeans and shoes with pointed toes brought Octavian his final glass of tea. It was April. It was the Aegean. The ditches running uphill along­side the road, past the teahouse, were full of red poppies. Above them, a vulture was outlined flat against the hot blue sky. For the moment there were no tourists, and Octavian could make of the Turkish landscape what he wished. Anytime now he would begin drinking.

The waiter had called him Grandfather. The honorific did him no honor. Octavian was getting it all the time now. Except at school. On campus at the university in Istanbul, it was always Hocam—My Teacher—with all the freight the title hauled in its train: the respect and the truckling, the acknowledgement of status, the tactical subservience. Well, they had sneaked up on him, old age and the moment to call for a drink.

Thinking about campus, he was obliged to think about his wife. Jean was back in Istanbul, in the cottage on the hill the university provided to the formerly celebrated author of The Stones of Istanbul. He knew that, at this hour, she would be fretting. She felt the change of day and the slow roll of an internal sea wave. He was far too familiar with the tortuous turns her mind took under stress. Was this not a consequential moment, she would ask herself, and what was she to do about it? Something important, if only she could bring it back. The Turkish woman looking after Octavian’s distracted wife was under strict orders. A single glass of wine, then hide the bottle. Distracted, is that what Octavian had just said? If only. The truth was, over the past couple of years, Jean had walked into a maw of forgetfulness from which she would not emerge. To get through the conversation that loomed ahead of him, he had to put her out of his mind.

“A bottle?” asked the waiter.

A bottle made sense. A bottle often made sense. But not today.

“Make it a double.”

“Right away, Grandfather.”

Octavian’s eyes teared for Jean, for himself. They had lived a splendid Mediterranean life. There was no useful perspective to be found, climbing the mountain of history and looking down; there was no consolation taking the long view. He raged within because everything was going away. The things he cherished, the things he despised. Loves, lusts and liberties. The euphoria of finding the right English word for a Turkish one that had eluded him. Gratifying secrets and onerous truths. The headstrong horse taking it all away had the wind at its back.

Only a coward surrendered without a fight.

Precision was called for. When Zeki Bey arrived, Octavian needed to be primed, not pathetic. In fact drinking was one facet of the problem the university had assigned Zeki to solve. There had been incidents. Some stood out. Most blatantly, last month’s reception for a visiting American scholar. A specialist, as if there were something special about being narrow. A new breed of historian, characterized by their small hearts. Bystanders at the reception got it wrong. They thought Octavian resented the man’s scholarly glow, as though his new luster would put out the older man’s light. Bullshit. Granted, Octavian was drinking. But grant, too, that a man who measured his responses would never understand immeasurable. When Octavian reached the ranting stage, the visitor displayed a cold smile, and Adem from the history department dragged Octavian away like a parent distracting a troublesome toddler. Have you met the new cultural attaché from the German consulate? She is really quite charming. Octavian fired a fine old Ottoman curse that settled like sticky dust on both of them.

The waiter was back with a copper tray. On the tray were a tall thin glass with ice, a bottle of rakı, a pitcher of water.

“Shall I, Grandfather?”

“Go ahead.”

Octavian watched as the man poured a generous double shot of the clear liquor over the ice. As he slowly added water, just shy of the brim of the glass, the rakı turned cloudy, a humble miracle that had entertained beggars and bureaucrats, sultans and sea captains through those same swept centuries.

The waiter placed a small plate of black olives on the table in Octavian’s easy reach and a plate of nuts. Withdrawing, he bowed just the right slight bit. Honor to the man, the moment, the ritual.

Rakı was meant to be drunk slowly, and that was how Octavian went about it. He tried to anticipate Zeki Bey’s line of attack. Zeki Parmak was a mechanical engineer. The authorities often tapped engineers to run the universities. They were seen to be practical men, problem solvers. And Zeki fit the mold. He did not lead, but he administered quite well.

The vice-rector would come empowered to make concessions. A package, as it were. If Octavian retired without a fuss, the government would provide housing appropriate to his dotage. Not the lovely cottage on the hill, of course. The cottage was a gem, and their corporate consensus had it reserved for the next foreign luminary they enticed to teach. They would offer Octavian an apartment in an inconvenient neighborhood of the city. It would be small and drab, just the place for an old man to complete the trip downhill. What else would Zeki have in his pocket to bait him?

The men at the table with the nargile were smoked out. Octavian watched them stand in a lather of unfinished conversation and take their reluctant leave. A squishy feeling of regret made him wet. The flyaway end of one more inestimable human occasion. He cleared his throat and sat up straight in his chair, grateful for the warning. The last thing he needed to be with Zeki Bey was maudlin.

When the telephone in his pocket rang, he expected it to be Makbule, the woman looking after Jean. Jean would have done something foolish, something outrageous. She was intelligent and devious, and confinement chafed her. Once in a while she escaped her caretaker and made her way off campus into a city whose enormity required imagination to grasp. Thankfully, the Turks in the street who found her were invariably kind. But it was not Makbule, it was Sara. He switched off the phone.

Sara was an Izmirli Jew, one of the last heirs of a handful of prosperous families who had done well in the city the Turks called Infidel Izmir for its cosmopolitan ways. Sara had not taken a lover, all those years ago, until her husband began spending more money and time on a mistress than was sustainable from a financial-emotional point of view. The indignity burned. Sara was beautiful, a Ladino princess. She was socially adept in four languages and had shrewd things to say about Kafka. She was not a person to be spurned.

She attended a lecture Octavian gave, sponsored by the U.S. Information Service. After the talk, introducing herself, she asked for his help identifying a couple of very old books she had come across in a baúl that once belonged to her father. Her presumption, using the Spanish word for trunk, charmed Octavian. How could this literate man not know her people’s venerable tongue? Were the books valuable? Not that she would part with them, she was only dying to know their story.

Years. The husband was long dead. The Izmirli Jews had given way to a class of brasher Turks. Sara had aged well. She was a born lover, resilient and attentive, capable of grand feats of sexual slowness. But these days it was usually fear that motivated her calls. Conservative Islam was making itself felt ever more boldly in Izmir. Like her sisters, her cousins, she believed the day was approaching when it would not be safe to be a Jew in the city of her birth. Already they had learned to keep their voice down in a restaurant. But what could Octavian do for her? Listening was not enough. He could not save her.

He did not return Sara’s call. The decision—the calculation—shamed him.

It had been a mistake, agreeing to meet Zeki in Kibrit. But Octavian had been outfoxed. Zeki showed up at the cottage one afternoon at the hour of Jean’s cantankerous worst. She wanted a drink but could not remember the word for wine in any language, the word for urge. She put on a show. Zeki could not very well talk business in such circumstances. This was in March. Zeki proposed an April meeting in his office. Sorry, said Octavian, I’ll be in the Aegean doing a bit of research. Kibrit. It’s lovely there always, but particularly in the spring. Zeki feigned surprise and asked the dates of Octavian’s travel. What a coincidence. He would be in Kibrit at the same time. We’ll talk, said Zeki, trying not to make it sound like the reckoning that it was.

By the time Zeki showed, Octavian had taken one drink more than was prudent, which turned out to be exactly the right amount.

Zeki Parmak was a small man lacking frills. His inexpensive suits never quite fit. He combed his thin hair back and polished the lenses of his reading glasses with a pocket handkerchief prior to saying anything of consequence. Over the last five years, Octavian had watched him pick off half a dozen would-be rivals like so many flies.

Hocam,” he said, approaching the table, a concession to age since he outranked Octavian.

Then came the traditional pleasantries without which no conversation could go forward. Octavian asked whether they would speak in English or Turkish.

“Your Turkish is flawless,” Zeki told him. “I will not insult you, pretending my English is at your level.”

How stubborn the mind was, as stubborn as the heart that insisted on whispering to it at all hours, day and night. In the mantle of sadness that fell over his shoulders, Octavian was curious how the vice-rector would deliver the fatal blow. Directness was the form of courtesy he chose.

“Have you given thought to your retirement?”

“The mind does not retire.”

“Of course. Still, you must know that is the subject we are here to discuss. You are well past the legal age.”

“Have I told you about my new book?”

Zeki smiled to illustrate his infinite patience. He had tactical experience in abundance. The universities stood directly in the line of Islam’s march through Turkish society. The secular bulwark that had formed professionals like Zeki Parmak was under siege. To keep your job, to succeed in the system, you learned to straddle battle lines. What had been unthinkable—girls in head scarves attending classes—was now thinkable.

The waiter brought half a bottle of rakı and a plate of good white cheese. He appeared to have a sense of his patrons’ social stature, but that might only be manners.

Zeki said, “Tell me about your book.”

There was no book. There would be no book. Octavian was tired of digging in Turkish fields.

“It’s a history of the translator in Ottoman Turkey.”

“Hasn’t that been done?”

“Not the way I intend to do it.”

“Do you have a publisher?”

“My agent, sadly, has retired. Muriel was magnificent. Her successor and I are still getting to know one another.”

It would be a long process, given the fact that the damned woman did not respond to his emails.

“A man can keep up his work in retirement.”

The vice-rector was a drill, boring through Octavian’s resis­tance. The alcohol had gone to Octavian’s head, which was after all the preferred destination. He experienced a heightened aware­ness of mountain crags, purple in the imagination, on which rested birds of prey, their murderous eyes scanning the land below for opportunities. Şarap, Jean must be bellowing to Makbule by now, having recaptured the word for wine. Across the miles, his wife’s shrill insistence punctured the drum of Octavian’s ear.

He and Zeki fenced. It was an aggravatingly long match, because all Octavian could do was parry the vice-rector’s well placed thrusts, which were relentless.

Zeki polished his glasses. “There will be an apartment.”

“An apartment.”

“It’s the least we can do for a man who has made such a notable contribution to the nation’s scholarship.” He put on his glasses and turned his head to one side as if listening for something. “When I was in graduate school in Coventry, I remember everyone feverishly reading your book on the Young Turks, which had just come out in paperback. Well, as I was saying, an apartment, if that appeals. What about America?”

“What about it?”

“Any interest in going home? We can arrange the electronic transfer of your pension, which of course will not be huge. But you knew that when you signed on.”

“America wouldn’t know me if it saw me on the street.”

Another smile, flag of patience.

In fact he had given hard thought to going home. All three of their children lived there, and they would be helpful, taking care of their mother. But their determination to root themselves in American soil had always seemed to Octavian a kind of rebuke. By their choice they rejected their parents’ expat life with its voluntary rigors, its unique consolations. That rankled. More to the point, he could no longer imagine himself in the United States, which had shrunk in his mind to a stereotype.

From an invisible purple crag in his imagination a hawk lifted off, hunting. In his overexcitement, Octavian shivered, hearing the wings’ dry flap. What could it mean, except that he was getting older by the minute? The waiter was back, inquiring whether he could bring them anything. The half bottle was gone. Zeki knew how to knock back the stuff, although around campus he would be abstemious in the company of the conservatives, who took seriously their ban on alcohol and thought others ought to do the same.

Octavian took a different look at the waiter. Twenty-five, maybe, with a mustache that needed work, and a hangdog look about him that would harden to tragedy once he acquired the bitter experience to justify it. There was something pliable about him, or something impressionable. Fuck it. If Octavian was going to crash, let it be a hard landing.

Rakı,” he told the waiter.

Zeki smiled. He could keep up. He kept drilling.

“We’ve hired an American.”

What was Octavian?

“Finlay is the name. He’s been teaching business at Wharton. He begins next semester with a year’s contract. That gives us time to see whether we like him, and of course he may or may not like us. You should know that we’re assigning him the cottage.”

“That won’t work.”

On the bus ride from Istanbul, thinking about this conversation, Octavian had thought he would not be too proud to beg. One more year on the faculty, in the cottage. One more book, or a couple of articles in one of the good journals. One more year to come up with an escape plan that safeguarded their self-respect. For Jean’s sake, he could humble himself. He would grovel. But now, when the moment for begging had arrived, he found he could not. The best he could manage was to sidestep, and sidestep he did as Zeki came at him again and again with his rapier of reason. At appropriate moments the vice-rector stopped to polish his glasses.

At a certain point, when the rakı had imparted a sheen of stateliness to his manner, Octavian understood as if it were rare insight that Zeki would not get up from the table without an acknowledgement. Until Octavian capitulated they would sit there getting drunker, quieter, more stubborn. The question was, would Zeki be satisfied with silence? If Octavian kept his mouth shut, would he take it as the tacit acceptance of defeat? For a long time the question seemed to matter in the direst way.

And then it didn’t. Octavian could not recall with exactitude when Zeki left, or what might finally have been said by whom. He called the waiter.

“The bill, please.”

“Vice-rector Parmak has already seen to it, Hocam,” the waiter informed him.

Hocam? Zeki must have said something to the man. The respect with which he spoke the word seemed genuine. This was the Turkish way, strewing Octavian’s downhill slope with flowers.

“Do you enjoy your stay in Kibrit?” the waiter wanted to know.

“It’s not a vacation, I am here to work. Research.”

“May I ask on what subject?”

“Soil. I have a particular interest in the dirt of the Aegean.”

“Our dirt is just dirt,” he said. The untidy mustache was part of a comprehensive grimace. “Only dirt, that’s all it is.”

Octavian’s back was up now in the worst way.

“Nonsense. I have been digging in the fields of this country since before you were born. I assure you the soil is of considerable interest.”

It was obvious to the waiter that rakı had addled the American’s brain.

“I will call you a taxi to take you back to your hotel.”

“No. I want to walk.”

Walking was tricky, though. One foot in front of the other, resisting the urge to make it a metaphor. He had a damp head and a disconcerting feeling of freedom on a leash. At the small hotel a block up from the beach, he discovered that Zeki had arranged more courtesies. There were fresh flowers in the vase in his room, and a note from the manager offering a complimentary meal at the time that best suited him. He removed his blazer and hung it on a chair back. He removed his shoes, and then his pants. What had he done to his legs to make them complain so? He lay down with the telephone in his hand and called Sara in Izmir.

“You’ve been drinking,” she greeted him.

A diagnosis. She was good at them.

“What makes you say that?”

“You are slurring your silences. Never mind. I wanted to tell you about a taxi driver.”

She had flagged him down in Kemeraltı near the clock tower. It was a short ride from there to her apartment in Alsancak, just enough for the taxici to go off on the Jews, the Jews, the perfidious Jews. When she told him she was a Jew, thinking to shame him, he only heated up, spouting endless vitriol as if her presence in the back seat of his Falcon confirmed the conspiracy.

“I have to leave Turkey,” Sara said.

“Where will you go?”

“Nowhere. I can’t afford to.”

She sniffled, and Octavian felt the passing of an era, which was tearing off at a gallop. The country he loved had managed to be secular and mysterious at once, exuberant and fatalistic, neither Eastern nor Western but a life form unto itself. Now, lines were hardening as identities did. He promised to call her in a couple of days. They both knew he would not. Their friendship had survived the end of the affair. Now, without needing to say the words, they were laying both to rest.

He hung up. With dread, he called Makbule at the cottage on campus back in Istanbul; home, for lack of a more accurate word.

“Any problems?”

She was from the East so might have been expected to be fundamental in makeup, but Makbule was a realist with a sense of humor. She wore traditional baggy pants, and a kerchief partly covered her hair, inexpertly dyed to hide the gray.

“She keeps telling me about her dream.”

“What’s in the dream?”

“A boat, the sea. An island. Men are fighting with swords over her honor.”

“And what do you say to her?”

“May the best man win.”

A sensible answer. Octavian was relieved. He told Makbule to call him if Jean acted up, pressed the end button, and fell to sleep immediately.

It was dark when he started awake with a feeling of panic. He was late. For what? It was over. The career. The cottage. The deliciousness of love, the spice of enmity. Though not perhaps life itself. He was 75 and came from people who lived long. He might well continue to reside on the planet. But he was finding, upon examination, that he was not well equipped for change. One read about the equilibrium of the elderly, the wisdom they packed in their overnight bag, traveling light. To Octavian that sounded like the theme of a marketing campaign. He wasn’t buying.

He dressed and left his room. In the lobby, a greeting from the round young woman behind the reception desk came at him as a taunt. Outside, on the street, the night was black and chilly and he wanted a drink. Even more, he wanted to walk. He went down the cobbled block to the beach. Fishermen kept their boats high up on the coarse sand as if change were an illusion; they were their own grandfathers, and their grandfathers’ grandfathers. He sniffed the air, picking up the whiff of carnage from Homeric wars that was always on the wind. The moon appeared in a break in racing clouds and then disappeared; a tease.

He walked to the edge of the water, waves wetting his shoes as they exhausted themselves on the packed sand. He recognized the old urge to plunge in, to forget by erasure, and felt privileged to reenact an ancient desire. Not everyone was so fortunate. The little bit of euphoria that came with the recognition powered him back up the beach and into the town. Somehow he had stumbled across another moment of significance so was not surprised when the afternoon’s waiter appeared before him.

“Good evening, Hocam.”

A lightness. There it was; something drained, something lifted. The waiter’s name was Adnan. He gave Octavian a cigarette, lighting it for him as Octavian cupped his hands to protect the match. Adnan was from Trabzon on the Black Sea where the woman he loved had laughed in his face when he proposed to her. After that, how could he stay?

Işte,” said Octavian. “You are in exile.”

Adnan nodded. “Like yourself. Come.”

He turned up the collar of his jacket against the wind. Octavian followed without asking where. It turned out to be a third-floor apartment in a building on a crooked street outside the fashionable zone. Everyone drinking there was forty years younger than the American, or more. His speaking Turkish was like a dog walking on its hind legs, and he obliged them with a performance.

They were working people, seven men along with two women whose mothers would not have been caught dead in such company. Octavian longed to see them as people of secure identity who carried no burden of history. But in fact he had no idea who they were; all he could say was that they partied loud. It was hard to make oneself heard over the pounding pop music. They smoked as if lung cancer were an old wives’ tale, orbiting around a muscular alpha male named Faruk. He wore a striped shirt and had just come back from Istanbul, where he worked in construction. Faruk was an authority on everything that came up. He was hilarious, and generous, and his big expressive hands told stories anybody with eyes would want to hear.

It had been a long time since Octavian drank so steadily, as though he had never learned the basics of pacing, the consequences of excess. The Turks tolerated him, drawing him into their happy, noisy circle. They honored his age and commended his facility with their language.

“The gentleman is a professor of history,” Adnan told his friends, proud of what he brought to the party. “Our history.”

Faruk was impressed. He signaled one of the women to serve Octavian a drink. When the glass was in Octavian’s hand, the construction worker asked him why the Ottomans fell.

“They got old,” Octavian said. “They grew tired. When they were tired, they allowed themselves to become dissipated. Nothing stays the way it was, you see, nothing ever stays.”

Yes, they saw. They most certainly saw. Their sense of gone glory was palpable. A timid woman with green eyes brought the American a plate of meze. Was she being solicitous? Did she think the alcohol needed sopping up? Weighty questions, the questions of the age, in Octavian’s unmoored mood. Then they were piling into cars, and Adnan wanted to know if Octavian was tired. Like the Ottomans? He never felt better, never felt stronger, and a brief erection came to him like grace, sitting squashed against the timid woman in the back seat of a small Renault, driving to the sea.

A cove, actually, its high-breasted beach luminous in the late moon. The clouds were gone. Above the beach, olive trees in old rows looked chaste climbing an unsteep hill. Someone had brought a drum. Someone else had a sipsi, something like a clarinet. There was no end to the rakı and the food to sop it up.

They danced. They talked. They argued in companionable style. Their contented voices scraped the under-plate of Heaven. Octavian danced a little, as befitted an old man. Mostly he talked, he listened. He strolled on the sand, he drank. He praised the obedient stars in their cosmic course, the deep black space that kept them from colliding. So much brilliance, theirs for human beholding. All they had to do was look up.

Once, Adnan took him by the arm, his black eyes pools of liquid pain. “This woman.”

“The one who would not have you.”

“She is a knife. The knife has pricked my heart. I will not love again, I will only bleed.”

Octavian felt like a prophet, a member of the fraternity of truthtellers, predicting to Adnan with calm certainty, “Your exile will go on. But it will come to an end. You will love, and you will be loved.”

The man from Trabzon appeared satisfied with the answer. He poured rakı into Octavian’s glass, and after an unmeasured while Octavian found the right rhythm that brought it all into humming alignment. The ecstatic Turks, the pulsing stars, the hungry, lapping waves, his own thoughts and memories and sensations. Here was where he was meant to be. Why, then, was Faruk suddenly in his face, pissed off and growling?

It took Octavian a few moments to sort out that the wind and the topic of conversation had changed. The United States of America, that was what they were talking about. America’s bombs. America’s contempt for the world it sat astride, shitting ordnance and oil, all kinds of filthy waste on the heads of Muslims everywhere. It was clear to Faruk, it would be clear to all of them any minute, that Octavian Highfield was to blame.

The moon was lowering. Make it stay, Octavian muttered to himself. Make the damn thing stay. He knew he was being petulant but needed to go on seeing the bright beach, Adnan’s tragic face, the stripes of Faruk’s shirt. He felt a flat, strong hand against his chest and was shoved. He fell backward onto the sand, which was cold. It was not the place to surrender. He sat up and would not say what was expected of him, that he was not to blame for the actions of the American government.

They closed in, forming a hostile circle around him. Adnan was part of the circle, tears in his eyes because Octavian had been his friend and because women were cruel and because it was in the nature of things to go fatally wrong. The timid woman stood behind Octavian. He felt her there, holding her breath. So, she too was cruel. They had gone silent, and the soft waves sounded loud. So much for venerating old people.

“Get up.”

Coming from Faruk, an order was an order. With difficulty, with dignity, Octavian got to his feet. Anytime now they would lose the moon. Contrary to expectations, it would not come back. Octavian’s intelligent bones told him this was the last night. From here on out everything would change, and the change would not be predictable. Lap, waves, lap; eat the beach while you can. Who were these people?

Faruk pronounced sentence. “America is the enemy of Turkey.”

The circle tightened around Octavian. They did not want to kill him, only to humiliate him. That would be enough, it would be enough and more.

“The Yemen song,” he said, trying to address not just Faruk but all of them, each of the seven men and two women individually. “Do you know it?”

It was a folk song. It had been written after none of the Turkish soldiers sent to Yemen in the First World War to fight the English came home. It was somber, thick, and slow, a Turkish dirge. The song had gotten inside Octavian fifty years ago and stayed there. Its desolation never failed to move him.

It did not fail now. With the name of the song, the ugly thing that had been growing snapped. The tide of hate crested, receding quickly. The drummer hit the davul, the sipsi player put the instrument to his lips. They knew the words, they all knew all the words. It was like chanting, and as they chanted they swayed together. Without his noticing, Octavian joined the swaying circle. The Turks sang. Octavian sang with them. The moon as they sang went implacably down.