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04:17 a.m, February 6

Art by Leya Jasmin

A winning story of the ORB Short Fiction Prize TT23.


In memory of Gökçe A.

This city is a phoenix, an Atlantis, a land of resilience. Time after time, it was born out of its ashes. It has been home to numerous wiped-out civilizations and lives underneath. Its most popular street had a street within—a portal, a fractal, a reminder that life always, shamelessly, continues. On the night of the 6th of February 2023, birds fled the impending burst, screeching. Then dogs started barking over a prudent terror that made the cats' eyes bulge, their hackles rise, and their backs arch. They roamed in droves, in terror and anguish, down alleyways and the seaside. They gathered where they always gathered to prune and trim. But this time they gathered to bark collectively like a choir so that their message could find its way through the dusty construction sites and the deep-in-sleep Antakya people. That morning around 4 a.m., the dogs scattered like glass beans pouring out of a mesh bag, never met at the peak again, lost their tracks and floated around like headless chickens. Closer to home, windows, glass display cases, and never used plates in cupboards shook in a low wail beyond human hearing. Water shuddered, too, in concentric rings inside bedside tables, pitchers on tables, and plastic buckets in bathrooms. All colors dropped an octave at once, and darkness filled the room. Hills became pale and scarce. They looked shaved. Like heads of old women in an asylum. The ones who were awake could hear the ground cracking, feel the air's changing temperature, and sense the irreversible and fundamental molecular shift in their city. They could even feel their own skin as it pressed against itself, grounding them in the stark reality of the moment. Later the wrinkle that pierced their soul would come to surface. They soaked it like a sugar cube in coffee. They became less; less of themselves, one with whatever was going to happen.

04:00 a.m: Laundry is drying. Children are growing up. Seasons are passing. Dogs are howling. Something must be wrong. 04:05 a.m.: An omen? Or is my imagination overworking? 04:12 a.m.: Some obscurely colourful lights twinkle in the sky, aurora Borealis of the Doomsday. My mind is playing games with me. 04:14 a.m.: A stickiness in the air despite the winter. Something is about to break. 04: 7 a.m.: 04:18 a.m.: 04:19 a.m.: 04:20 a.m.: 04:21 a.m.: My hands dug at the carpet, straining for something to hold. I crawl like rust. I feel achingly ancient. I thought death would arrive like a laughter from the next room. But here I hear the strands of pain in wounds that cross borders, lands, and seas. 05:12 a.m.: Dawn, silence, something lonely to the bone. 07:00 a.m.: Alarm clocks are beeping under the soil. I remember now: It is a day. People are screaming but their words are gospels lost by prophets. Nobody is here, and nobody is answering. My body is a chronicle for those departing. Read in the name of your Lord who created you from clot.

07:12 a.m.: It starts to rain. Rain washes my forehead as I sigh. The moist fountains of Orontes River. Water is occluded. My hair grows out darkly at the break of the morning. Their resins flow into fluctuating ends, and they seem like colossal columns of granite. These are the hairs of a dying one. 07:47 a.m.: A haughty column, white polished plaster wall. That corner of the bedroom has never caught my attention. Many years ago, I glanced at the mythological figures painted on the moldy, light green ceiling and quickly forgot their unpleasant fleshy appearance. It is worse than I remember, this strange work of my father’s, and all of it is executed with the utmost arrogance. Having dropped out of art school, he used his bag of tricks over and over again; poor me and my mother had to stand his career resentments all our lives. The ceiling was covered with a plethora of different dramas, but the one that caught my eye was Narcissus and Echo, an imitation of a mosaic piece in the Archeology Museum. In comparison to the synaptic lightning that flashed all around it, the ceiling's movement towards me is pitifully slow. When the ceiling finally falls on my head, it shatters my skull, ploughs through my brain and chest, sending fragments of bone stitching the surface of my right and left brain lobes. Is that what a toy doll with its mouth sunk into its face feels like? Trillions of broken atoms swirling within my body, my body once reduced to a mere commodity in the agenda of strange men, navigating realms of order, dystopia, utopia, and blueprints. Once on my head, the ceiling becomes a stage for my thoughts, and I have plenty of time to reflect on the scene, watching my life like a time-lapsed film. I cannot recall my first love, whom I had loved, truly loved, nor could I recall my most recent lover and what I had most ardently loved about her before things got sour, as they always do. But I do remember one thing about the first. Many years ago, when we were still quite young, we made the decision to end our lives together and even made a diligent plan for how to go about it. Now looking back, I'm pleased we didn't follow through with that stupid idea because those were the country's final few decent years before the worst was yet to come. I cannot remember any of the hundreds of poetry I had memorised as a teenager so I could give myself the chills at the convenience of my memory, my memory which is failing me now.

I do not remember converting to Christianity just to get the money they put in the Bible on Sunday services which paid for university. I do not remember the first orgasm I had and how I drew my legs together to try to keep my climax from claiming my heart. I do not remember the vast cavities (money, career, music etc.) I spent my life trying to fill, no, not exactly.

This is what I remember instead. Humid summers. Ashes in my beer. Blue vault sky of the Mediterranean. The bee sting that made me sick for three weeks. The crimson velvet bedhead of my parent’s bedroom which worked as a backdrop for my childhood playtime. My father replacing all the religious books at home with the Communist Manifesto. Turbulence in an airplane and the same mental pressure to think of the best moments. The smell of lilies and sea breeze. The first time I caught a fish with my mouth. A literal one. The handmade playlist I listened to with my best friend. How we had memorized every scratch on the CD, knowing precisely when Nick Cave's voice would sound like a coughing horse. The symmetrical gardens of some European cities. The joyful chaos of the Eastern celebrations in the Armenian village Vakıflı Köy. A baby once occurred to me in my dream. A street child, protected by a bigger truth, cautiously gathered papers from a garbage bin teeming with discarded razors. How my mother cradled me in her arms during an earthquake when I was 4. How her grip was tightening as we both gasped for breath for eight seconds. How prepared I was to peacefully depart this world with her, sheltered beneath her shadow. How unexpectedly content I was as if I were riding a rocking horse, swaying in the midst of a comforting uncertainty.

I see that my memories do not come in waves but they are a tide.

07:51 a.m.: Our house is not a building anymore, not one of architecture but of morphology; scattered, melted, mummified, one room here, one room over there, one room beyond and a corridor in me that cannot connect two rooms. There is already a ceiling on me, and I cannot keep escaping it. In the end, it will fulfil its purpose. There is only a couple of seconds left. Not enough time for the shadows to lengthen on the grass but enough time for coming out from a mother’s womb, headfirst. Enough time for the shame felt in front of big crowds. Not enough time to see a revolution in my country.

Echo is on my left knee while Narcissus is gazing at me.

Our city is falling like slaughtered goats.

I'll now speak the language of stones, becoming one with old knives and forks, mossy plastic tyres, rusted copper coffee pots, discharged guns, the remnants of a crime, beneath the waves, I’ll now merge with them. I no more radiate fear and terror. I won’t be able to comprehend what is recent and what is ancient because all will be covered with mud. As the swarms of rats explore their new home, I will be unaware.

Is there any other way to wear a body?

I understand it now. Life was a spindly veil that concealed the terrible silence of matter. Vibrations from beyond the shutters reach my ears as I lay in my grave, like the remembered sounds of a life that had passed. Car horns, the sea crashing against the shore, how could all these sounds be so insensitive, how could they vibrate their own wavelengths, as if nothing had happened?

I feel an eternity as I hug death tightly. I sense the overwhelming realization that although a disaster is unfolding, impacting all of us collectively, my own experience stands as a solitary reminder of the fragility of everything. This city is a Necropolis, and so am I.

We are falling upright.

ÇAĞLA ARIBAL is a writer and poet based in Berlin, Germany, originally from Turkey. With a BA and an MA in English literature, she is lecturing creative writing and fostering a writing community in Europe. Her focus is particularly on supporting writers who have experienced displacement. Her literary works have found publication in various magazines in NYC, Berlin, Zurich and Istanbul. She is currently self-editing her debut novel and a poetry collection. The piece titled "04:17 a.m. February 6" is an excerpt from a chapter of her forthcoming novel.


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