The following is a story from Kenan Orhan's I Am My Country. Orhan is a Turkish American writer and a recipient of the O. Henry Prize. His stories have appeared in The Paris Review, Massachusetts Review, Prairie Schooner, The Common, and elsewhere, and have been anthologized in . Orhan received his MFA from Emerson College and lives in Kansas City. I Am My Country is his first book.
The following is the opening section of a short story entitled “Three Parts in Which Emre Kills His Daughters” from Kenan Orhan’s short story collection I Am My Country: And Other Stories, out April 25, 2023 from Random House.
Here is a man named Emre who lives in the Kasımpaşa neighborhood of Istanbul in a small apartment with two bedrooms—one for him and his wife, Mirhiye, and the other for his three grown daughters, Adalet, Necla, and Ece. Adalet, the oldest, is tall, tall as a tree, with lips that can’t help themselves from frowning. Necla, the middle, is dark, much darker than the others, with teeth that gleam like mother-of-pearl. Ece, young and thin with limbs like a sparrow’s legs, is just finishing high school.
Today, like any other day, while his colleagues file reports on various insurance claims, Emre is trying to finish reading his book about the brigand Black Mustafa. But Emre must keep shutting his book away in the desk drawer. His supervisor is puttering around the office trying to get reports in early so everyone can go home before the riot police close the block. Emre hunches his shoulders over his small treasure to protect it from his supervisor’s gaze, then flips back to his place just as Black Mustafa is laughing at a girl he has snatched up from the nearby village. The girl is trying her hardest to climb a tree and knock free a hive dripping with honey, but the tree is too smooth. She keeps falling, while just beyond the hill, the police are shooting a storm of bullets into the sacks of sand Black Mustafa has dressed up as a decoy gang of thieves.
Emre’s supervisor places his hand on Emre’s shoulder. “The police are shooting gas into the street,” he tells Emre. Looking up from his book, Emre half expects to see sandbag dummies with haphazard grins along the windows of the building, but instead the office has emptied of his colleagues, and even the supervisor has left the floor for the elevator. Along the street, he hears the stray popping of canisters firing from short tubes. Emre keeps his finger in the book and rushes home without even stopping to look at the riot-squad wall. Growls like an earthquake pass through the city. The sun like boards on his back, Emre winds his way around Beyoğlu and cuts through the small stretch of green that is Sururi Park before finally reaching the steps of his apartment building, his lungs rattling like boiling kettles. He slips in the front door and walks in on his daughters arguing.
Young Ece is standing at the kitchen table with a spoon in her hand, waving it wildly overhead. Dark Necla is at the counter stirring sugar cubes into her tea and spinning spools of hair around one finger. Tall Adalet is lying on the couch with her feet hanging over one end and a book held closely to her face.
“It wouldn’t matter if you were bald,” says Ece. “These guys would pin you down and wrap your head up because they can’t control their penises otherwise. In two years, that’s where we’ll be: squads of men on headscarf patrol.”
“So what if a woman wants to cover herself,” says Adalet.
“I’m not immodest,” says Necla, “but these women are uncomfortable.” She gives up the cord of hair in her hand and touches her shoulder like she is cold, like she should be worried someone is watching.
“Necla, you’ve got good hair,” says Ece. “All I’m saying is that if you only concern yourself with how your hair looks instead of the concerns of the country, pretty soon it won’t matter because all us women will end up wrapped in veils and scarves looking like round pushpins stuck across Istanbul.”
“Oh! with your frenzy,” says Adalet over the top of her book, but she is not reading anymore. She can’t focus because as preposterous as she finds her sister, there are many sirens pleading down the street, many shouts and broken bones not far from them.
“Jealousy is an ugly shade for you,” Necla tells Ece.
Ece is worked up now, talking about chains to beds, multiple wives, child-birthing factories. Emre uses her commotion to tiptoe past the creaky floorboards of the hallway.
“What’s all this got to do with a few trees?” Necla asks of the protests happening in Gezi Park, the demonstrations that set Ece to boil in the first place.
Young Ece tells her sisters they don’t get it, they’ve got too much air in their heads. If Necla could look through a window instead of a mirror, if Adalet could read a newspaper instead of a fairy tale, maybe their heads would sink from the clouds.
At first, the Gezi Park protest was a handful of environmentalists preventing the bulldozers from clearing away one of the last strips of grass and trees in the city. Then the students heard, then the antigovernment groups, then the academics and lawyers and journalists, then anyone with a son blown up in Syria, then anyone with a sibling in jail, then anyone who hated the Kurds, then anyone who supported the Kurds, then anyone against animal cruelty, then anyone with a grievance as small as a pothole unfixed in the neighborhood—they all heard that you could go to the square and expel in one grand catharsis every issue taken with the government until one half of the city watched on their televisions the other half of the city shout and chant until their throats were red, and sing songs, and grill kebabs by bonfire as a form of protest.
Ece had never seen anything so beautiful, anything so worthwhile. She is young, after all, susceptible to the heartstring-strokes of freighted moments. Everyone everywhere had dust masks or scarves or shirts tied over their mouths and noses or around their heads. Thousands of phones constantly rang with alerts from Twitter and Facebook. Journalists shouted into microphones as swarms of people with TV cameras captured the boil. Oh was it loud, oh God was it a clamor without bounds that filled you up in the chambers of your heart! Everything seemed grand, as though the protest threw long shadows over the square and its people to make them look giant and changed into a booming magnificence of red sheets, white crescents and stars.
Behind the noise, policemen stood in knots with great gravity, some waiting in blue uniforms and some in black body armor with white helmets and shields, some waiting with truncheons and some with rifles. Their liquid movements were out of a dream. Residual smells of tear gas blew across the square. Behind this, the handful of gray police tanks with water cannons atop their turrets waited in the white sun. She was there, Ece felt so bound up in the television, the headlines, the notifications from social media, the racket rumbling down the street, she felt she was there.
“Stupid girl,” Necla says to her younger sister. An ambulance screams by and the three of them measure their breaths.
At first, they don’t notice Emre sneaking down the hallway to his bedroom. He throws off his jacket and bag and shuts himself away in his room. Then, Emre’s daughters, having sunk into biting silence, hear him sniggering at his book, and they (curious about his early return but equally relieved not to be alone in the house) come scratching at his door, the three of them mewing along the gap underneath, asking him, “Aren’t you coming out of there? Tell us what happened at work. What’s going on outside?”
He shushes them and sticks his nose right back into his book. The police are on the trail of the brigand, the mountainside erupts in gunfire once more—volleys cut trees and split rocks.
“I have a new dress, Daddy,” says Necla. “I had my friend make it, but you’ll think it’s wonderful. Come look at it. I’m going to have some people over.”
“Is Ayla in there with you?” asks Adalet.
“What are the streets like?” asks Ece.
As Emre reads of the brave police captain steadying his rifle, taking careful aim so as not to hit the young girl, who should spring ghostly onto Emre’s dresser but Ayla the housecat, cheerful and mischievous. The cat swipes her tail this way, then that. The cat watches him, her mews mixing with the voices of the sisters through the door: “Dad, I said: didn’t you bring any more books back from the library . . . ?” “Enough fiction, look outside . . .” “It really didn’t cost so much to make, but the pattern . . .”
Craving attention, Ayla the cat stalks over to the flower vase on the dresser and nudges it to the edge. Emre wags his finger at the cat as if she would understand, but she nudges the flower vase again, so he hops out of bed and springs to the cat. “Pesky, pesky,” Emre says to the cat as he picks her up, swings open the door, and tosses her into the hall, her mouth opening and closing silently. Adalet catches Ayla as, in a chorus, all three daughters continue their entreaties for their father to join them.
“Where is your mother?” asks Emre.
Emre’s wife has gone to the spice market for cloves and cinnamon with the other wives of the building, who will then retire to one of their homes for afternoon tea, their tinkling teacups keeping time with the conversation like a metronome.
The windows shudder in their frames from the force of far-off clashes with police. The daughters—one body with a mess of henna-black hair, three heads, six arms, six legs, six eyes, ninety-six teeth like pearl hammers beating Emre’s eardrum—stand in Emre’s doorway, demanding his focus, demanding his abandonment of paperback bandits.
“My dress, Daddy . . .” “You promised we could go watch today.” “Come read with the cat and me.”
“Enough,” says Emre to all of them. “Out, out of here. Leave me be, huh? I came home early for peace, and let me have it.” He lies down on his bed and starts reading again.
Necla, the middle child, turns immediately, hiding her face from the others, no longer concerned with the flow of her yellow floral dress as she runs out the front door, probably to her friend’s apartment. Adalet, the oldest, puts the cat down and follows her sister out of the apartment. Ece goes to the kitchen table to pout, as this is the place with the most commanding view of their home. Like a bellows she will keep huffing, will boil the air between them into thick blocks of suffocation. She finds it distasteful to be so captured by fiction. She shouts down the hall to him that there’s a country out there that needs him. All this reading and he doesn’t know a thing. She sends him articles and videos and images, but the emails sit unopened. She’s asked him to subscribe to a few policy and cultural magazines. Yesterday he promised to take her to the park to watch the demonstrations (she can’t go alone, no, they are dangerous). He promised to read her college entrance essay.
Emre is enrapt with the story playing over the black of his mind. He stands in the crowd gathered around the firing squad. The brigand Mustafa is strapped to a post, unblinded, falsely accused of shooting the muhtar. Emre starts to hear a hum—in his kitchen, behind Ece, the refrigerator starts humming. Outside, you can hear the buzz of bees weaving the air. They are hungry. The buzzing swells. Like thick raindrops, dense bees begin pelting the window. It sounds like small shouts. They grow in number until a little cloud of them blocks out the window completely. A grist of bees is somehow leaking through the insufficient squares of the bug screen. They will get in. They are bottling up between the screen and the panes, busy and cramped like a cross-section of a honeycomb. They will press through the glass, squeezing like water drops.
Then they are no longer there; the bees have disappeared. In the room, the humming becomes silent, an apian vibration only felt, imperceptible to the ear. Emre looks back from the window clear as day. He’s been turning the pages without reading, and he is filled with that deafening type of silence that comes after listening to something very loud now gone quiet.
“Why don’t you come along?” Ece asks. “Don’t make me walk the neighborhood alone.”
He doesn’t say anything to his daughter—did he hear her?
“Don’t you care? Are you afraid?”
What could he tell her? She would never understand this small pleasure. Emre’s father never learned to read. His whole life he would sit at the breakfast table before going to a job site, watching his wife with the paper, asking What? What is it? each time she furrowed her brow or snorted in disgust or approval at the latest political event. He ate each breakfast nervously like he was being left out of a joke. He made Emre read to him at night while his wife cooked dinner. If Emre read too fast and capably, his father would smack the side of his head. His father was dependent on someone else for everything he did not personally experience. Emre reads now with the greed of making up for the poverty inherited, to do with vigor these things his parent could not. How could he say to his daughter: Dearest, I am full of life.
“Don’t you hear me?”
She thinks about what he might do at the protest in the park. She thinks how out of place her father would look with a mustache and reading glasses and a blazer with worn elbows—lost among the dark bodies painted by the sun, lost among the gyre of the crowd wearing fatal smiles. She’s asking him to join her in this ideal, to take an interest, at least for her sake, in the tragedy of their country. Don’t be melodramatic, Ece, he would say. So she steals one of his paperbacks from the bookcase along the wall and very carefully begins tearing pages from it and ripping them into little squares.
“I’m going to the protests,” she says.
Adalet comes through the front door then. She kicks off her shoes and dumps her tote bag on the kitchen table. Ece huffs weaker than her mother’s tea. It is a desperate huff, encasing pleas that cannot be translated. There is a dictionary that exists for the performances of the heart, but alas, Emre has not seen this volume.
Adalet takes a novel to the couch where Emre cannot see her. The sky outside is a flawless blue—a promise—above a cloud of fog or smoke in the alleyway. There is the flick of conversation like scraps of paper still in the air, still being thrown at Emre. He’s sleepwalking through life, spellbound as he reads. The slam of a door is hardly noticed, and he’s alone again.
The phone in the living room rings. Emre puts down his novel and answers. A soft click comes crawling through the receiver. It repeats a few times, then stops, replaced by a pressure. Emre thinks to call out to his wife, but the pressure is distracting, muffling, slipping through his ear and into his throat to silence him. The pressure is cold, smells of snow. The phone clicks again, and the pressure evaporates. There’s nothing, not even the sound of a dead line. Emre hangs up. Through the window, he can’t tell if it is evening or overcast afternoon, and there is in him a great dread of the passing of time.
Adalet is reclined on the couch. The cat is on her lap, purring.
“What are you doing?” he asks. “What happened to all that talk of action?”
Emre looks at his daughter, trying to find that greed of life flicker through her.
“Ece’s gone. Out the door as I came in.”
Emre looks at the cat a moment. He points at Adalet. “You and I were talking.”
He thinks to join his daughter in the living room now that she has calmed down, now that she has gone back to their shared pastime. His wife arrives with a bag of groceries and says they are expecting company. A cloud of tear gas quits the alley.
The policemen come for him like any other retrieval, with a few short knocks at the door so that they could be anybody—the building manager or the upstairs neighbor with an extra plate of börek—but no, they are policemen without gifts. They say they are sorry. “Your daughter, Ece, was taken to the hospital in a bad state. There’s nothing they could do, you know?”
Yes, yes. Emre must have known that these policemen were coming with malice on their tongues. He wants to tell the two of them that of course he knew his daughter was dead; what kind of a father wouldn’t know, wouldn’t feel the void the way a sleeping limb has gone dark to all senses? But this is not true. He looks up at the policemen and realizes that he didn’t feel a thing in the last few hours but the gravity of a folktale. There is a mistake then, these policemen are at the wrong house, collecting the wrong father. Emre’s daughter is still out at the protests, sitting on a park bench in the sun taking in the view, he tells them. “What could she have been doing at a hospital?” he asks them.
The two policemen lift him to his feet and take him to the squad car parked downstairs under the shade of an acacia tree. They take him alone because his wife, Mirhiye, is out somewhere again, temporarily severed from this confusion. A third man is in the car, sitting in the back with Emre, which makes him think about opening the door and flinging himself out onto the highway.
They are at the hospital in no time. They take him to the morgue in the sub-basement where the light feels heavy, poured from a crucible. A doctor and a technician are waiting for him by a metal table where draped under white sheets is the body. The doctor and the technician remove the sheet and ask him if this is his daughter. They tell him how things played out.
With the end of a pen the technician describes the fatal curvature along the body’s skull: the impression of a gas canister. With the end of a pen the technician describes the bruising around the ankles. A man dragged her away from the police, by the legs, along the gutter of the street. Everywhere people were dragging bodies with eyes open to the blue-soaked sky. By the scrapes and the damage to the brain they say she must have convulsed the whole time, she must have rattled right there in the gutter.
“Is it because she is young?” Emre asks. “Is it because she is too young, you think? Too young to be going to the protests?” “Always the young go to these things,” says the doctor.
“The old too, though,” says the technician.
This can’t be his daughter, the first stone of his kidney, lying on a slab of metal before him. His daughter is ferocious, and this body is static. His daughter is surely back at home now, having come safely from the protests. She will be curled up by the AC unit, tearing strips of paper from the pages of a book and holding them up to the light with scrutinizing eyes. Who is this before him? He knows—it is his daughter with her skull caved in, red like a split watermelon in the sun, but there is no room in him for such grief.
Next week, Emre is walking to work. The city is born every morning in the sunlight that blooms over the domes on the Asian side. The glass buildings of the city dazzle high overhead. Emre hums a tune like those of the brigands from his books. He stops in the bakery at the end of his block and buys simit and cheese. Back on the street, their cat, Ayla, mews at him, her tail slinging in slow curves back and forth. Emre tosses her a bit of cheese and tells her to head home, but the day is so lovely that she follows Emre all the way to work.
At his cubicle he hides his book in the open drawer of his desk, stealing time to read it while he hears his coworkers in other cubicles say things like: “The tear gas is incredible.” “It’s like a village there. All of them acting like Romani, like they’ve got to be so melodramatic, so sentimental. It makes you wonder, I suppose.” “People want to live decently. Is that sentimental?” “They’ve blocked YouTube. Twitter too.” The government will go on to censor newspapers, ban Wikipedia, close up dissident outlets, arrest a few journalists, and play videos of violent protesters on the state-run news channel.
Emre wants to hush up his coworkers, tell them that he can’t focus on his book with all their prattling on. Between the cubicles, Ayla slowly pads. The talk dies down when people start to notice Emre. He shuts the drawer and pulls a file from the stack on his desk. He goes over a claim report that has already been read by three others.
He’s halfway through when his supervisor comes to his cubicle. “Is this your cat in here? She’s terribly loud, you know.”
Outside a streetcar shambles by with a screech of its wheels. Taxis zip through alleys. People are talking without care. Somewhere in the city, a person is screaming and waving a flag.
“I know it’s a tough time, but there are people here with allergies,” says the supervisor.
Emre closes the file, keeps his hands on his desk, and watches his supervisor with a polite amount of attention.
“Really, you should be home, Emre. Think of your family.”
Emre thinks of his wife. He thinks she is probably preparing a light lunch right now, still making a serving too many—it has been only a week, after all. But she is not at home; she and some people from the apartment building are going to the supply closet in the basement to look for old pipes, bottles, rags, and gasoline.
Excerpted from “Three Parts in Which Emre Kills His Daughters,” from I Am My Country: And Other Stories, by Kenan Orhan, published by Random House. Copyright © 2023 by Kenan Orhan. All rights reserved.