The village mayor had already taken his fourth wife and had seven children with her (Mansur, Yakup, Hajer, Kasım, Gülhan, Şerif, Mukaddes). In total, the Mayor had twenty-seven children, that is, if we don’t count the ones who died, which he didn’t.
Four of his children (Yakup, Murad, Bedirhan, Abbas) were married, that is, if we don’t count the daughters, which he didn’t. His sons had twelve children from their first marriages. Yakup had two, Murad four, Bedirhan three, and Abbas three. Three of Murad’s children, two of Bedirhan’s, and one of Abbas’s had died. None of Yakup’s children died. Though who knows why, he had stopped at two. His wife had not delivered any for the last three years. Which made Yakup start thinking of a second marriage at age twenty-four.
The Mayor started thinking that he was an old man, that he would soon leave this world. These mud-brick houses stacked against one another were like a maze, and at times he would lose his way walking from one to the next. In his dreams, he saw an immense house, like a palace. Built of stone. Two levels. Maybe even three. Why not?
Yet there was no mason around these parts who could build his dream house. The architects and stone masons who built those large buildings in the city had come from other cities and left once they completed the job. The Mayor had heard about the beauty of the Mardin houses, about the Mardin stonemasons, their fine skills and knowledge. One day he couldn’t resist and described his dream to Yakup, his eldest son, and asked him to bring a master mason from Mardin. Yakup had never been to Mardin. But he was his father’s favorite, plus he needed his father’s help to take another wife.
An immense house. Like a palace. Made of stone too. Yakup also lost himself in this dream.
A kitchen with five stoves. An oven so big that it could bake bread for the whole village. The rooms bright and warm . . . Yakup went to Mardin. He saw that the city was full of stone houses like the ones that filled his father’s (and little by little his own) dreams.
The locals sipping tea at the inn where he was staying asked him what he’d come looking for, and he told them that he needed a stonemason. They gave him at least ten names. The next day, Yakup found these master masons.
(Mardin was bigger than his village but still small enough that everyone knew one another.)
Some listened smiling. Some asked how much Yakup would pay. (The matter of payment had not occurred to him, nor had his father mentioned anything about it.)
Only one of them (Mirza, as he was called) said, “I heard a lot about your parts but never visited, might as well go and see first.”
They set out together.
Once in the village, Mirza showed no sign of surprise. The Mayor, not quite sold on this scrubby Mardin man, decided he’d host him overnight and, after dinner, described his dream house to Master Mirza.
The more he described, the more his enthusiasm grew. The Mardin man listened quietly.
“What do you think?” asked the Mayor. “Can you build me a house like this?”
“I’m a stonemason,” Mirza replied, his voice almost a whisper. Did he mean he could or couldn’t?
No, he could build it. “But is there a stone pit around these parts?” he asked.
The Mayor looked confused. This was the first time he was hearing “stone” and “pit” uttered side by side.
“We have stones and we have pits,” he said. “But what is a stone pit?”
Couldn’t he see—the mountains were covered with stones. The Mardin man smiled. “You can’t build the house you want with those stones.”
The Mayor was still confused.
“To build the house walls, you need special stones excavated from stone pits. These stones here are good for garden walls.”
(The Mayor hadn’t heard this one either.) “But if you built the house walls with them, they’d collapse.”
The Mayor felt as if he’d fallen off a horse.
Where did Yakup find such a strange fellow!
He couldn’t even speak their language well; the Mayor wasn’t sure he understood most of what he was saying.
Caught in the Mayor’s exasperated stare, the Mardin man said, “You could use mud bricks and build a big, multistory house, but not with the soil you have around here.”
“And what’s wrong with the soil?”
The Mardin man smiled. “That, I’ll tell you tomorrow.” He took out his silver tobacco case and rolled a cigarette, handing it to the Mayor, then he rolled one for himself.
They lit their cigarettes and smoked in silence, just eyeing each other.
That night, the Mayor, his son Yakub, and the Mardin man slept in the same room.
When they woke at dawn, their guest had been out, taking a walk around the village. The Mayor performed his ablutions, while Mirza inspected the walls of the houses. He scoped the mountain slopes. At the village fountain, he rinsed his mouth and drank a couple of palmfuls.
Back in the house, he noticed that the Mayor had waited for him to sit for the morning prayer.
“I already prayed,” he said.
That day, he described to the Mayor and his son how to mix the mud bricks for a large house, how many arm spans the foundation needed to be, how thick the walls . . .
“I can’t keep all this in my head,” the Mayor said, and called for the Teacher, asking him to write down everything that the Mardin man specified.
The Teacher wrote everything down. The dimensions of the windows. The height of the ceiling. The floor beams. The type of lumber to use. Once he was done with all the specifications, Mirza took the pencil from the Teacher and sketched a plan. Then he called the Mayor outside. Pointing at the southern slope, he said, “If you’re going to build your house, build it there. If you follow my instructions, your house will outlast you, even if it’s made of mud bricks.”
“It will?” the Mayor asked. “A big mud-brick house, even a very big one, even two or three stories high, would outlast me?”
“You can build a château with the right kind of mud bricks, if you want.”
The Mayor had not heard this word either.
At lunch, they ate rabbit stew—the rabbit shot just this morning—pilaf, and yogurt. Then they drank tea.
His work done, the Mardin man was ready to leave.
The Mayor felt that he had to pay him for his work (not that he had done much—besides coming here from Mardin, staying three days, giving some instructions, drawing a sketch, showing where to set the house, and so on). But the Mayor didn’t have money, and he wasn’t keen on parting with one of the fourteen gold coins he kept in his sash to pay this man called Mirza, a mason from Mardin.
“For your troubles, would you settle for a ewe and three yearlings?” he asked.
“It was no trouble,” the Mardin man replied. “A ewe and three yearlings—that’s too much. It’d be a hassle to take them all the way to Mardin. The ewe should be enough.” The Mayor picked the skinniest ewe in his pen, but he made sure the women prepared a food sack for him.
As he was about to leave, the Mardin man said, “I’d heard of a roundaround somewhere nearby. Might as well see it while I’m here.”
The Mayor was hearing this word for the first time, too. Mirza described what a roundaround was: A labyrinth, a structure made of stone walls and pathways built to confound the visitor who gets lost and sometimes can’t find his way out.
The Mayor and the villagers understood what he was looking for.
From The Wounded Age and Eastern Tales by Ferit Edgü, translated by Aron Aji. Used with permission of the publisher, NYRB. Translation copyright © 2023 by Aron Aji.