The Woman Who Wouldn’t Forget
A full moon shone from a cloudless and frozen sky the night Aylin the midwife became the Wise Woman.
Two strong knocks brought Aylin from the warmth of her bed. Frost painted the insides of the small cottage windows. Shivering outside the door stood a worried husband from the far end of the village. ‘Our first two were stillborn. My wife heard you are the most skilful midwife. She won’t let anyone touch her until you arrive.’
Aylin said not a word, but followed the man to his tractor. Cold bit their faces on the half hour drive, making it hard to breathe. When they arrived at the house, worried women filled the room with their opinions – between them they had 60 children—but the woman in labour resisted them all. Aylin removed her shoes outside the room. The women were surprised to see such a big woman. One woman kept gazing at Aylin’s rawhide sandals, bigger than her own husband’s. Some of the women already mourned the baby, there was a lot of blood, and the rest kept shouting at the poor woman to start pushing. Aylin raised her large hand, and said ‘Everyone enough! The baby’s head is nearly there. Leave the room if you won’t respect this woman.’ The women felt Aylin’s strength, they muted and squeezed into the corner next to the stove and watched Aylin’s skilful hands slowly bring the baby into the world.
The baby didn’t breathe. It lay still as a doll, lips tinged blue. The baby’s mother cried loudly, a horrible agony of despair as she faced the possibility of a third stillborn child. She believed herself cursed, and despaired.
Aylin looked at the woman with calming, deep hazel eyes. A light shone from her eyes, enough light to illuminate the room if the gas lamp should stutter. The expectant mother noticed the light in Aylin’s eyes and stopped crying, and serenity spread through the room. Aylin put her hand on the baby’s chest, so gently, as if the baby was made of thin glass. Her hand covered his small body, still warm. She took the mother’s bare foot with her other hand, and closed her eyes while her lips moved. With her eyes closed, the room got darker and time stopped. The cluster of women held their breaths and watched the scene without a blink.
Aylin whispered in the baby’s ear. Her rough, large hand covered the baby’s forehead. It lay gentle on the baby’s tiny face. When she moved her hand, a miracle: the baby cried. None of the women in the room could believe what they had witnessed, and looked at each other to make sure what they saw was real.
The mother of the boy took Aylin’s hands and placed them against her own lips and forehead, a show of respect and gratitude. Aylin nestled the baby in his mother’s arms. ‘Now rest. Look after your boy; don’t let him be lazy.’ The women asked what Aylin had whispered in the baby’s ear. ‘It’s between the baby and God. Not my place to say.’ Aylin replied.
With tears in their eyes the women sang a ballad:
‘Let the path be yours, I’m in big pain, Let the honey be yours,
Come my courageous Mustafa,
Come on my darling, come’
The men waiting outside also joined in and started the celebratory dance, thumping their feet as strongly as they could, shaking the village. It was a night to be remembered, and its story spread from women in the room to women in the villages around, and from men waiting outside to men in other towns. And so became the Wise Woman.
Once Aylin was a young woman in love with a handsome, good-hearted young man named Ali. Together, they had seven beautiful children. When he died suddenly, she was only 41 and their youngest child, Leyla was barely walking. Aylin was alone.
Many people, including her three brothers, tried to convince her to re-marry but she was loyal to her husband with all her heart, even in death. She didn’t want to forget her strong, beautiful and reliable Ali. Together they had survived war, built a home and created a family, a family she was determined to raise, to feed and to educate as Ali would also have wished. Still, Aylin remained the Wise Woman, until her sons moved to a faraway village after marrying, leaving their mother’s house manless, with the young Leyla to raise. And people forgot she was the magical Wise Woman. They forgot she raised her children on her own. They forgot she was the wife of the respectable Ali who helped the villagers whenever they were in need. They forgot she was the first person to see their most innocent selves when they were born, even before their mothers. They forgot... And she became the widow of a young, beautiful girl, Leyla. Those who forgot the most were the men. For how could they remember? Their pasts were violent bloody secrets, locked away deep in their hearts, beyond the light. These men were the grandsons of men who fought with shovels and sickles, grandsons of women who carried food, shovels, and cannons into war. These men were the grandsons of women who became nurses, ignoring the bullets and the cannon exploding nearby so they could protect their husbands and sons. But the women couldn’t save them all.
These grandparents became the broken generation, parents to sons and daughters who learned to protect and honour their parent’s silence. To live as if the war never happened, that their parents, siblings, uncles and aunts never existed. Memories buried with the dead. And so, these children grew up without a past just as their parents had.
But women still had a connection with their ancestors. When they grew up to be mothers, every time they felt birth pain, history restored through pain. The girls couldn’t remember the stories, but pain united them with the nameless heroes of their families. And so still they protected their sons from pain, following their traditions.
When the boys grew up to be men, protected from their own tears, they felt lost, they felt weak, they felt frozen. Their strength was taken from them when their ancestors’ pain was forgotten. So the men stayed in their small villages, afraid to travel even to the city. Their fear grew in them. They couldn’t even imagine working. How could they? They were not only cut off from pain but from the bravery of their ancestors. So they spent their days at the teahouse in their small villages, the only place they felt safe. And when their fear anchored them to their chairs all day, their fear grew. And they forgot more. They forgot their strength. They forgot their mothers’ sturdiness. They forgot how their mothers went back to work, caring for their families, the day after they gave birth. They forgot how women turned wheat into delicious bread. They forgot how their mothers and wives skipped lunch so that their children and husbands could eat more when there was not enough food on the table. They forgot how women unify and look after the orphans of the village all together.
The men didn’t want to see, they didn’t want to accept the loving hearts of women, and the strength they received from those women’s hearts. They couldn’t feel women’s pain. How could they, when the men were not allowed their own tears?
So when Aylin’s sons moved, the men of the village got scared. And when they heard that the widow had decided to send Leyla to secondary school instead of marrying her, they grew terrified. And when they heard that the wise woman had rejected a new marriage, they felt threatened. The idea of a manless house, with a young girl left them sleepless. ‘What if the widow could not control her daughter?’ ‘What if the daughter got onto wrong paths?’ ‘What if men from neighbouring villages hear of the beauty of the widow’s daughter in a manless home?’
The men of the village grew sick with fear.
The men lacked the courage and the energy to offer support to Aylin, the hardworking wise woman. So they hid behind their traditions, and decided amongst themselves that the girl should be married instead of going to school. The men craved comfort, familiarity. They just wanted to return to the teahouse in peace again, so they tasked the three oldest men of their village to speak with Aylin’s brothers. When the three elderly men arrived in the brothers’ village they headed to the teahouse. The brothers were aware of the rising tension in their sister’s village, so the old men’s visit was no surprise for them. Still, they were scared, not for their niece, nor for their sister, they were scared of feeling weak in front of other men. Their hearts filled with shame, and they forgot how much they loved their sister and their beautiful, joyful niece, Leyla.
The three old men entered the teahouse with gazes dropped. They came with terrible news, and wanted to make sure the brothers understood the case. The brothers felt so relieved to be a step ahead of them when the three old men sat at their table, eyes still on the floor. Mehmet, the eldest of the brothers, ordered tea and explained that they were aware of the reason for their visit and the matter was to be taken care of soon. The old men’s body postures changed with relief. They felt light thinking they could bring some good news back to their village. They glimpsed victory.
The brothers didn’t share the details of their plan, and asked the men not to mention anything to others, especially to their wives. ‘Women talk, they spread news faster than a tractor spreads seeds.’
That night, Aylin couldn’t sleep. She felt the shape of the bad thing coming, but couldn’t name it. Her heart sat heavy in her chest. When she fired up the oven outside to bake fresh bread before sunrise, even the sharp morning air didn’t give relief. When she woke Leyla, caressing her shiny black hair, the girl gave her mother the biggest smile, making Aylin’s heart melt. She kissed her cheeks and gently combed her hair.
As they passed the teahouse on the way to school, the pain in her heart increased, becoming so heavy it weighed her down. The men at the teahouse dropped their gaze when they saw the widow and her beautiful daughter. Aylin didn’t notice their silence as Leyla was telling her one of her made up stories. Aylin was noticing the laughter in her daughter’s beautiful eyes instead.
When Aylin gave her daughter a hug before sending her into school, she had to fight an urge to bundle her daughter in her arms and run. Escape. Leave everything behind. She didn’t understand her own feelings. She wondered why her hands were cold and trembling.
At midday, Aylin headed home to cook and wait for Leyla. But she couldn’t breathe, she couldn’t sit and she couldn’t feel anything other than pain. So she cleaned the house, which always gave her peace. She opened all the windows and doors against the freezing cold, but even the smell of ammonia didn’t wake her soul. The house grew smaller and smaller making her feel stuck. When she couldn’t fit in the house any more she ran to the school, to her Leyla.
When the teacher said Leyla had been picked up by her uncles after the first lesson, Aylin collapsed. The teacher gave Aylin water, tried to comfort her, and soon she rose. Anger replaced despair and pain in her heart. Anger towards her brothers, but mostly anger towards herself... How could she have left Leyla alone, ignored her instincts? That night, Aylin’s brothers arrived at her house to find her struggling like a fish on a hook in the middle of blood-reddened snow. There was a violence in their sister that they’d never seen in a woman. They watched in awe as she hit the ice, again and again. Seeing the fury in their sister, the men became scared of Aylin. The eldest brother, Mustafa, tried to explain. ‘Everyone was talking Aylin. We had no other choice but to save your daughter. So we did what was necessary.’ As the words left Mustafa’s lips they seemed to evaporate like mist in the air. They became meaningless.
Aylin cried with anger. How could they take her daughter? How dare they believe they had the power to come between mother and daughter? How could they be so heartless? How could her own brothers betray her? Why did she leave her little girl today against her instincts? Her anger grew larger than the whole village; it could destroy all the houses if only she could shout her daughter’s name. But she couldn’t, she couldn’t dare speak the name. So she kept hitting the ice, tearing off her skin with every blow.
Aylin’s world had collapsed. The men touched her shoulders, but she didn’t feel them. So they grabbed Aylin by her arms and dragged her in the house. The smell of ammonia burned their throats when they shut the door behind them. Veli, feeling desperate to be heard, splashed some water in her face, while Mehmet loaded wood into the stove to warm Aylin’s shivering body underneath her damp shalwar and cloak.
When Aylin regained herself, her eyes were clear as frozen smoke and the men felt naked. They were sure Aylin saw all the sins and weaknesses in their souls. They felt a hard line of cold run down their spines.
Veli, unimpressed with his older brother’s weakness, spoke for him; ‘She is now in the city, with a family who cannot have children. She will live with them from now on. They are wealthy, with a big house. They promised to look after her like she was theirs. We can’t tell you their names, nor where they live. We swore on our honour. But you will be able to see your daughter soon, they promised.’
Aylin had heard stories of daughters being given to rich families with a promise to let mothers see them, and how those families disappeared with the girls the next day. She recalled the painful ballads of mothers yearning for lost children. Her blood pulled from her body. She opened her mouth for the first time with a voice devoid of feelings, a voice from the grave. ‘Tell me where my Leyla is. Now.’
The men‘s blood froze. They felt trapped. They feared losing their honour, but they also feared losing the love of their sister. They never had any compassion from their father, and their mother died when they were young. It was Aylin who had healed their childhood wounds. Their sister banished the shadows in the room when they couldn’t sleep. But no one caressed their hair like a mother. They had long yearned for a mother’s compassionate hands. Their pain became so big that it erased their childhood. So they forgot. They forgot how they loved their selfless sister who raised them like a mother. So when Aylin begged them to tell her where her daughter was, they became angry. And when Aylin’s desperate cry for help filled the room, their hearts ached, and men hated to feel their hearts.
So their fury deepened.
And as the realisation grew in Aylin that if she didn’t find Leyla that night she stood to lose her forever, so too did her rage grow.
‘I was a mother to you, I cooked your meals, I fed you when you were babies, I cleaned you, I sewed your clothes, I gave you my own bread when there was not enough food. When did your hearts turn to stone?
Take me to Leyla or I will go to the city and shout her name in every street.’
Aylin was out of breath when she finished her words. Flames had replaced the tears in her eyes. She had grown bigger and bigger before the men, filling the house with her rage. She examined their faces one by one, but the men wouldn’t dare look in her eyes. They realised they were trapped with a wounded tiger in a cage. They looked at each for courage. With their glances, they made a silent pact to prevent her from leaving the house, knowing there’d be trouble if she made it to the city.
Aylin made for the door. Veli blocked the exit, startling Aylin, but she didn’t stop. She had to escape and kept repeating in her head. ‘I will get the tractor from the reeve I will go to the police in the city and explain the situation. They are fathers and sons as well; they will help me.’
Aylin lunged for the door, Veli tried to push her aside, but Aylin’s legs were nimble, Veli’s hands hit the air and he stumbled. Aylin opened the door and managed a single cry for help, knowing the women would find it in their hearts to help her against their men. Veli pushed her inside. She didn’t fall, but opened the door again. She found her wrists restrained and couldn’t move. Veli, furious, ashamed at being pushed aside by a woman, shoved his sister with all his strength. They stumbled to the sofa. Mehmet and Mustafa joined in. Fists were thrown but not once did Aylin give up. All she saw was her daughter Leyla, her scared eyes, her broken heart and feeling of abandonment. Whenever Aylin felt weakened by her struggle, she thought of Leyla shaking with fear. ‘You cannot get out! Give up, woman! You will see her later! It’s for her own good!’ But Aylin would not give up. Not ever.
Time stopped in that house that night.
When the sun rose, the siblings were devastated, it wasn’t only their bodies that were worn out, but their souls. Aylin lost half her soul that night. The brothers lost the joy of victory forever, and felt even more lost in life. They had broken their only mother figure that night, and Aylin would never open her heart to them again.
Aylin didn’t only shut her heart to her brothers, but to everyone. The women of the village and her daughters kept visiting her with tears in their eyes. They felt her pain, they all knew how hurtful it was to lose a child. Maybe the stories were forgotten, but every woman is born with the link to the pain of their ancestors.
But Aylin’s ears were sealed to anything but Leyla’s last words to her. ‘Mamma, I love you so much.’ How could Aylin forget that warmth? How could she go back to her normal life? Her daughter’s trust in people, in life had been crushed. Her beautiful, warm heart broken and abandoned. Her little, fragile Leyla.
The women tried to make her move, but how could she? If she moved even one inch, she would turn to dust and dissolve into thin air. When the day finally came, Veli knocked on her door, lacking the courage to enter that house again. The women washed and dressed Aylin like she was a baby. Brother and sister sat in silence on that long, dusty mini bus ride. When they arrived in front of the six-floor building where Leyla now lived, Aylin felt small. When they entered the flat, Aylin smelled the clean, lavender scent and felt even smaller, thinking of her small house and its smell of ammonia. The man of the house greeted them and showed where to leave their shoes. When Aylin took off her man-sized rawhide sandals, next to the tidy row of expensive leather-heeled shoes, she felt cheap. When she sat on the velvet armchair, Aylin didn’t know where to put her hands. She sat mute. “Maral and my wife had some errands to run. They should be back any minute.” said the man while serving tea in thin, crystal glasses. Who was Maral? Veli and the man chatted while Aylin’s hands trembled.
The door opened.
Leyla had a fancy haircut, wore new clothes bought from a shop, and shiny black shoes that matched her beautiful hair. Aylin searched for something familiar about her daughter, but found nothing.
Aylin wanted to run to her daughter, to get her out of that big building and take her home. But she couldn’t move. Leyla wanted to run to her mother and kiss her soft cheeks. But her heart was so broken, it cemented her to where she stood. The girl couldn’t open her heart and risk abandonment again. She could no longer trust the woman who she loved the most. She would rather repress her yearning than be hurt again.
So Leyla forgot. She erased all her past. She erased her own name. She forgot the warm house she grew up in, she forgot her father, she forgot her siblings and she forgot her mother and everything about her. She got the shopping bags from the floor and walked slowly to her room, leaving her mother, and her name in the living room that day.
Aylin went back to her small, ammonia-scented house, leaving her soul and her wisdom behind in that living room. When she entered her house, she couldn’t face the ghost of Leyla in every corner, so she married a man in a faraway village. She never smiled again, she sang only one song, and she never, ever forgot.
‘Leyla, my Leyla They took you from me They took my heart from me My Leyla My beautiful Leyla’