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Red Hag
Yazan SadıK YalsıZuçanlaR   
11.06.2013 22:01
 I heard talk of Red Hag when my sister’s hedik-tooth pudding- was cooking.

My nana was boiling the wheat in the large copperd cauldron by the mulberry tree in front of the house. My sisters’s first tooth had broken through. The cauldron was coated with mud. Nana was breaking her back to make sure the pudding cooked right, running round the cauldron nearly her own height-her back was just beginning to bend then. Every once in a while she shouted at my mother or auntie, handing them the large wooden spoon she stirred the pudding with, and wiped her sweat on her skirt. She muttered to herself more and more. Sometimes she’d whisper some prayer. İ never knew quite what those where. One thing was sure; whenever we caught a cold and ran a fever, it was the Protection Verse that she recited constantly.

The hardest bit of this pudding had to be feeding the fire with branches of bushes that burned like hay:flared up and were consumed in one go. Nana’s hands used to bleed in streams.

What fuelled the fires for laundry, for boiling wheat, molasses and milk were the clippings from the hedges flanking the street.

Nana must have got tired: she muttered to herself at one point. The smell of boiling wheat permeated the air. Mum fetched two small copper bowls to stop us niggling; she asked, dishing out the pudding with wooden ladle, ‘Say something, Mother?’ ‘When they asked the camel,’nana crouched, leaning her back against the mulberry tree, ‘what it liked best, the climb or the descent? ‘What’s wrong with the straight?’ it replied!’ Mum chuckled. Grampa tapped on the window from where he was watching nana, who muttered, ‘That’s all I need…’ Grampa tapped again, mouthed something, and mum went indoors.

Nana collected the embers under the pudding for the brazier. She told us off for spilling the pudding. Mum came back out, carrying wraps for fresh bread. ‘What’s he want?’ asked nana. Mum replied, ‘Nothing. He’s dreamt Sister Refika had a nightmare.’ Nana said, ‘Fetch the intestines for me to clean here.’ She was about to cook bumbar, grampa’s favourite.

‘What’s night thingy, mum?’ asked my sister.

Mum said, ‘İ’ll clean it mother, don’t you tire yourself out now.’ Nana objected; no way would she put my mother – about to pop-into hard work, but also because no one did it as well as her. ‘No, no, don’t worry,’ she said, ‘just put the intestines into the bowl and bring them out.’ Bumbar was made with intestines small and large. Nana would first turn them inside out. İt took buckets and buckets of well water to wash. Then it was rubbed with salt and onions-, and washed again with clay. Once she was finally satisfied it was clean, she’d turn the fatty side in, stuff it with the mixture of bulgur, onion, mince, tomato sauce and powdered chili, and cook it in the tandoori oven. The aroma of cooking bumbar is one of those smells İ’ll never forgt.

My sister repeated, ‘Who’s a night doodah, mum?’

‘No one sweetie,’ replied mum as she came out with the copper pan. My sister collected a few soda bottle tops on her way to the courtyard where Auntie Hayriye’s two-storey house rose, her question brushed off.

İ got to know the Red Hag when mum had my sister.

Dad had fetched Fringie in the carriage on the day of the birth. The name Fringie had stuck when her bridal hairdo sported a particularly fine fringe. She was the midwife. Her face was covered in large freckles and moles. She hennaed her hair. She wore printed headscarves with apple blossoms, crested hens and all manners of herbs and flowers and beads. She was a friendly woman with an aquiline nose, blue eyes and a smoky voice. Her husband had been a train conductor. He died in a tunnel accident somewhere near the Gardens station at the age of twenty-eight. Her name was Zühre; people always called her sister Zöhre. But my family always referred to her as Fringie. She always smiled when we inadwertenly called her that. She’d never had chhildren of her own, but loved all the children she’d birthed. She was the one who’d named us all.

Ayper’s birth came at a July noon when the earth was baking hot. My father had made strawberry and rosehip ice cream. Mum had risen early as always on that day, fed the cows, spread the dung outdoors, dampened and wrapped the flatbread, soaked the winter cheese, lit the stove and woke us up. Grandma had said when mum’s belly began to grow, ‘God knows best, but you’ll have a daughter, your belly’s pointed.’ The food she longed for was another indication of baby’s sex: mum wanted lemon meatballs day in, day out. Another clue that the baby would be a girl. But her movements had slowed down. Nana told her off:’Go, stretch out a bit.’ Mum worked until about an hour before the birth. When the pain started, nana got grampa up, and soon after dad arrived, Fringie by his side on the carriage. What a hustle and bustle in the house…My mother’s sisters, our neighbour Auntie Remziye, Suset’s wife Munise, my father’s sisters, my mother’s brothers…No one could sit still. The baby’s cries mingled with mum’s. By the time Fringie came out, carrying the baby wrapped in a clean white cloth for my dad, my youngest auntie Dudu had already got the good news, so Fringie remembered to tell her off. Dad was delighted to have a daughter; this was his first daughter after three boys. He looked around and said, ‘Let’s call her Ayper.’ Our neighbour Uncle Hacı recited the call to prayer into her ear.

When İ entered the room redolent of new mother, bashful and happy at the same time, İ saw mum had paled. Both grandma and nana were by her side. Nana was praying non-stop. Mum was occupied with the Red Hag, shouting, ‘C’mon, get a move on!’ auntie Necmiye turned up, carrying a largish onion and a packing needle. Grandma recited three purification verses and the Fatiha sura, pushed the needle through the onion and nailed it to the wall above mother’s head. ‘There!’ she said, more relaxed now, ‘She can’t come now.’ İ stared at Auntie Fringie, Who? ‘The Red Hag, child,’ she said. The baby was lying down by mum. ‘Your milk’s late this time,’ said nana; ‘İt7ll come, god willing,’ replied mum, her voice barely audible. ‘Why can’t she come?’ İ asked Auntie Frinfie. ‘Who?’ she asked. ‘The Red Hag,’ İ replied. She finally gave in when İ insisted: ‘A crone with green eyes, black face, blue hair, fallen teeth, and saggy tits; she lives in the mud at the Visit.’ Visit was a place on the road between the Cirikpınar and İskender neighbourhoods, by the dirty stream to the left of the tyre factory- wich later became tobacco warehouse. By the hollowed out willow with the swollen trunk and new shoots. An unknown person’s monumental tomb stood at thhis place. İ used to scare myself with images of weird craetures teeming in Visit on my way to my aunt’s in the evening. An old woman, her hair down to her waist, her face ugly…Green cheeks, white eyes white, blue hair…

İn the house we moved to after my grampa’s, mum would spread out thick woollen mattresses on the living room floor for my siblings and me to line up on. Come night, the lights would go out, silence would descend all around, and all you could hear was the barking of the dogs. We all fought sleep for a while. But İ’d wake up during my mother’s postpartum confinement known as forty days sometimes to a tapping door, sometimes to a shadow silently passing over me, and sometimes to a shivering voice whispering my name. Despite trusting in grandma’s onion pierced by a packing needle, İ was sure the Red Hag would surely come when she was hungry for a lung, and so İ’d lie in wait. Each time İ heard any sound, saw any shadow creep into the living room, İ’d slip under the duvet in terror and hold my breath. Fringie had said the Red Hag lived in the swamp. All she ate was the lungs of new mothers. She arose from the mud at night, screeching, ‘İ have bread but no meat! İ have bread but no meat!’Her voice seeped into the eaves of the wooden and brick houses to the cobblestone streets, to the length of the deserted railway track, to the lives of the mansions, to the sweets, hay and wheat market, to the Five Mansions surrounded by the town baths and the New Mosque, to the deserted streets and dead ends, and to the branches of all the trees: apricots, cornelian cherries, plums, pears and poplars. The Red Hag would squeal all night long: ‘İ have bread but no meat! İ have bread but no meat!’ Until, that is, she ripped out the lungs from a new mother and returned to her swamp where she vanished slowly…

The Red Hag finally came calling.

İt was nana’s bath day; she’d left my paternal auntie at home, who’d lost track of time, chatting to Munise. We heard the screams as we were busy stealing plums from the large, welltended garden next door, by the stone house our neighbour İnfidel Hakkı had inherited from his father. His housekeeper scared us, but not badly enough to keep us away from the lure of stealing those juicy greengages and sour black plums: at the slightest opportunity, we’d sneak into the garden from the small mole’s tunnel we’d dug into the high hedge.

This time it was mum’s scream that gave us away. Some o f us leapt down from branches twice as high as we were tall, and the houskeeper brought the others down. After his usual threat of, ‘Catch you again, İ’ll break your legs,’ he let us go. İ ran home. My auntie was listening to mum, beating herself up all the while, ‘Oh dear oh dear oh dear, why oh why did İ leave you alone!’ mum’s face was ashen. Her lips had dried up and her voice trembled. She was nursing the baby, crying, and petting her, ‘My baby, my life, my hennead daughter.’ Her tale completed the images of Visit and what İ saw in my bed at night.

The Red Hag was sure to call on a new mother within the week. Galo’s Auntie Remziye had told mum to wear red frocks. Auntie was wailling, ‘Oh, if only we’d listened to her!’ The Red Hag hated the smell of onion, the colour red and incense. Packing needles scared her.

Mum felt dizzy, her eyesight grew cloudy. The light vanished from her sight. She saw sparks flying in the eyes. Her eyesight grew cloudy and she began to see double. Her ears roared, the roaring grew; she thought she was going deaf. There were flies flitting about. Then all of a sudden, a sharp pain stuck her abdomen and she began to shiver. A dark shadow oozed in from the window, some jelly-like thing. Looked neither human nor beastly. Carried a broom and wore a man’s jacket. Mum was most scared of her eyes in the dark.’

The bale-woman came to the neighbourhood from time to time. She’d bring bales of cloth, flannels, printed cottons and silks all wrapped in striped bed sheets. She’d sit down on the beaten earth courtyard, spread her bale out, sing praises to her wares, and manage to sell something to everyone present. So the Red Hag carried a bale just like her, on her back. Mum insists, ‘She was so thin, so thin!’ Auntie, as if it was she who’d seen the Red Hag, never stopped telling everyone for good while. The Red Hag slowly approached mum, fixing her eyes on mum’s, and before she finished asking, ‘What’s wrong, child? Why are you so pale? İs your husband dead? Have you lost your mother? Have you no one now? What a pretty little thing this is! Will you give me this baby?’ mum yelled, ‘No!’ That must have been the yell we heard when we were stealing plums. Mum had yelled fit to bring the house down. ‘Then you’ll give me your lungs, saiud the Red Hag. Mum clutched her baby to her chest and said,’Take anything but my baby!’ When the Red Hag’s fingers reached out, long nails claw-like, mum fainted. She was crying. ‘No! Don’t take her! Take my life, but not my baby!’

‘When she saw me,’ said auntie, ‘She screamed like she’d seen the angel of death, ‘Get lost, hideous witch! You won’t take my babe!’ she was screaming.’

Mum never stopped telling the story, always adding something new, or changing a detail or two. The Red Hag was mum’s only topic throughout her forty days.

Whenever anyone came to visit the baby, or brought some dish in a small copper pot (‘to help you make milk’) lemon meatballs or anything similar, mum began her tale.

Some would say, ‘Sprinkle rock salt on egg whites and drink that for three days,’ others, ‘Place some frankincense on a piece of paper, pour some spirit and burn it, and place it on your back whilst still warm,’ or, ‘Never leave the baby’s nappies out at night, not good as sending an invitation out to the Red Hag, your babe get a rash if nothing else,’ or,’Have you had a prayer amulet made for your babe, lass?’ mum believed everything she was told, and made sure to do as she was told so long as grandma approved.

Auntie Refika offered the most appealing advice of all, ‘Tell your husband to sleep here until your fourty days are done; the Red Hag doesn’t enter any room where there’s a man’ Sadly there was absolutely no way anyone would dare mention his particular suggestion to dad.
Mum saw out her forty days this way: the baby was washed with strained water. When she cried a lot, grandma said, ‘This one will be the most intelligent of the lot.’ Nothing in her view would take the place of a daughter. Even if she were to move to strange parts, ‘twas your daughter who’d give you a drink of water at your last breath. The birth prayers were recited. We got the best part of the delicacies on offer: biscuits, Turkish delight and cornelian cherry sherbet. Nana weighed the baby against dung, which she then donated to the poorest in the neighbourhood- no matter that they might be less poor than we were: tradition was  tradition. They were instructed to burn the dried dung on a holy night. Ayper was washed carefully in the bowl. Salt water sanctified by prayers was poured over her head. She was dried. She screamed when a few drops of lemon juice were dropped into her eyes. She shut up again when mum nursed her. Grandma circled her head with wild rue, which she then flung into the tandoori. The carriage set off for the willow mosque. Before going to grandma’s house, the baby was passed under the ancient plane tree, her head tapped against the wall three times- but not dallying so we wouldn’t annoy dad who was sitting int the carriage. Grandma gave the second quarter sovereign to my uncle so he’d piun it to the baby’s pillow with a ribboned hairgrip. She displayed the boots, jumpers, tiny bed and duvet she’d knitted for the baby, one after the other.

 

Translated by Feyza Howell

 
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