Soot

by Selin Kubali
Soot

“Grudgingly, Emily printed her name on the paper, wondering for not the first time why her parents had given her a Western name. With her friends, she still stubbornly referred to herself with a Kurdish name.”

As Emily trudged to school, low grey clouds loomed overhead, a precise reflection of her sullen mood. Her backpack weighed heavy on her shoulders as her footsteps scuffed the slimy ground.  Looking down at her muddy, sandaled toes, she wondered if the backpack had been a splurge better suited to her feet.  The mud quickly dried and became unpleasantly hard, caking between her toenails and even fingernails as she tripped over a hidden rock.
At least this should be over by the end of this year, she thought grimly.  Her father said that she could work in the tobacco field with him once she finished tenth grade, and he would homeschool her.
On the other hand, I’m not looking forward to spending more of my time farming.
The few hours she spent a day helping her father in the fields were dull, though at least they weren’t as fraught with confusion and anxiety as her typical school day.
Arriving at school, Emily stepped over the threshold, painfully aware of the mud she was tracking across the linoleum floor.  She noted a new banner hanging across the doorway in bright colors.  The banner read something in Turkish.
Yedinçi Sinef Için Yeni Orğetmen
“Yedinçi Sinef”- That means seventh grade.  “Için” was “for”, and “yeni” was “new”.  The last word was lost on her.
“Or . . . orğet,” she breathed out, trying to fashion some kind of meaning out of the clunky sounds in her mouth.
“Move it,” a kid growled behind her in Turkish.  He was a Turk who had been born in Germany and moved here because of his parents, both of whom worked in the U.N.  They were nice enough; their kid wasn’t, still resentful about having to move to this cash-strapped place.
Emily quickly moved out of the way and muttered an insincere apology under her breath.

The bell rang, and Emily headed to her first class, where the teacher handed out a paper Emily could have sworn was meant to be gibberish and told them to write their name as the inspirational posters plastered over the peeling paint stared at her judgingly.  Simple enough, but Emily hated the task.
Grudgingly, Emily printed her name on the paper, wondering for not the first time why her parents had given her a Western name.  With her friends, she still stubbornly referred to herself with a Kurdish name.
 An American name won’t take away our poverty, so why bother?
She looked at the empty seats- two to her right, five in the front of the room, and four in the back,  Ten of the students in her class had dropped out of school to work.  The sixth had been kidnapped by the PKK, a radical Kurdish party.  Still safe, most likely, but Emily didn’t know for how much longer.
Looking around at the other five empty seats, Emily thought about how she’d be a member of that club in just a few months.  She was lucky, though: unlike the people in the five empty seats, she had a job she could go to, instead of trying to conjure one out of thin air.
She still wasn’t sure if farming was better than school.
Picking up her backpack for the next class, Emily went through the hallway, sticking close to the stone wall to avoid the jealous looks of the people who didn’t have predetermined jobs.  There were a lot.
In the next class, this one with a multitude of posters depicting each letter of the alphabet with a corresponding picture, Emily sat down next to her friend Aran, whose older brother also owned a tobacco farm.  The teacher began his daily mantra of  ¨In order to learn, you must speak Turkish fluently.¨
¨Yes,¨ murmured Emily to Aran in Kurdish, ¨Because it’s so easy to learn another language.¨
The teacher shot them a glare.
Aran giggled.
“You must pay attention to me,” began the teacher, cutting himself off when he realized Aran was giving him a questioning look.  “You must pay attention to to me!¨ he repeated, louder.
“I don’t get why he thinks that repeating the same thing louder is going to make us understand it,” remarked Aran.
“Because he’s a teacher,” replied Emily.  Which was true, in a sense.  All of the teachers in the school acted a lot like this one did.
On the way home, walking with Aran, Emily pondered possible responses for the teacher, until laughter formed inside both of them and bubbled out of their mouths, bubbles that burst as soon as they reached Emily’s home.
Most of the field was black and burnt, and, in the middle of it were the crumbling, sooty remains of her house.  A sharp scent of smoke filled the air.
Emily blinked, and blinked again.   As if the destruction in front of her was just a heat haze that would disappear if she wished hard enough.
She squeezed her eyes shut.  That’s not real.  That’s not real.  She opened her eyes,

A black chunk of the roof fell off
Where was her father?
Oh!  He was working in the fields.  That was it; he had to be. There was no way his body could lay in the middle of that wreck.
Next to her, Aran whimpered.  “What happened?”
“I don’t know.”  Her voice was strangely free of emotion.
For several minutes, they stood in silence, watching the place Emily had spent half her life crumble to dust.
Emily stepped into the field and headed straight for the house.
“Wait! The house isn’t safe anymore!”
“And?”
“You might get hurt,” said Aran, with an equally puzzled and concerned expression.
Emily stalked off without bothering to answer.   A section of the house fell to the ground right before her.  Emily simply trod over it and continued on.
The inside was new-moon dark. Emily made her way through the shadowed hallways to what was- well, used to be-  her room.  Almost all of her belongings had burned.  She picked up all that had survived; a small, battered doll.   It had black hair, burnt by the fire, and tan skin.  Her heart felt like it had been scooped out with a rusty spoon, leaving the remaining part to fester.  Emily backed out of the room.  The soot and ash was making it hard to breathe.   She was already taking ragged gasps.  The smell of charred wood and fabric clogged her nose.  She fled down the hallway.  Her sandaled feet scuffed on the ashen floor.
Suddenly, her toes struck some sort of obstacle, sending her sprawling.  Clumsily she got up, looked at what she had tripped over, and promptly screeched.  It was a corpse, almost burnt beyond recognition, but the battered rusted necklace chain sticking out of his pockets, her mother’s favorite piece of jewelry before she died, was more than enough for her to identify it as her father.
A mixture of emotions churned in her heart gathered and coalesced into a giant lump in her throat.  She lay across the body and hugged it, moisture forming in the corners of her eyes.  She didn’t bother to fight it.
After a period of time that could have been a few hours or a few heartbeats, Emily reluctantly got up.
A glimmer in the side of the hallway cut off her train of thought.  She picked the source of the glimmer up, inspecting it in the palm of her hand.  It was a small, indented device with fins at the end.  Slowly, she recognized as a piece of a cluster bomb-her father had taught her about those-that was specifically designed to start fires.
She turned the object in her hand, suddenly noticing some words printed on the sides.  PROPERTY OF THE TURKISH REPUBLIC, it said.  Emily clenched it in her hand.  She felt the fire that had burned her house and father sear in her heart, scorching away the grief and frustration, all the while burning across the red-hot coals of her anger.
Emily emerged from the once-house, blinking at her bright surroundings.
“Are . . . are you okay?”  Aran asked tentatively.   She stood halfway across the field, the burnt tobacco reaching halfway up to her knee.
Walking to meet Aran,  Emily handed her friend the bomblet.
“Oh.”
Emily left.  Her urge to do something, to hurt someone, was overwhelming.  She didn’t want to drag Aran into it and hurt her.
The mud squelched beneath her feet as she walked away.  She had no idea which direction she was going, nor did she care.    The mud eventually gave way to grass, then to hard dirt.  The sun was filtered out by the canopy overhead.  The ground was rocky, but it looked inviting; she had been walking for who knew how long.
No, I can’t think of sitting down.  I have to get revenge . . .
Somehow.
The bus arrived perhaps an hour before the moon was due to touch the horizon.  It was small, filled with an acrid scent of exhaust and covered in graffiti, just like its station.  The bus driver didn’t seem surprised that his only passenger that night was a child covered in dirt and carrying no luggage.  He just asked for his money- it turned out the bus was going to Erzincan, which, she remembered from her geography lessons, was a city on the way to Ankara.  She handed him his fee, fifteen lira, and sank down onto the torn upholstery, trying to ignore the parched feeling in her mouth and the growling in her stomach. She fell into a light sleep.
A few hours later, the sun’s bright rays woke her.  She tried to close her eyes, but even then her eyelids were filled with an unpleasant shining red.  So she grudgingly blinked them open, wiping away the goop.
The bus halted suddenly, lurching forward.
“Sorry!”  the bus driver called out from the front.
Looking around, Emily noticed several other people had joined the bus.  A man sitting behind her was holding his nose over some offensive smell.  Emily hoped it wasn’t her.
But when the bus came to a stop and she got out, Emily was forced outside her reveries.  She had six lira left, she realized.  That would barely cover water.  She wouldn’t have enough money for food. And transportation?  Forget it.
She noticed with interest how people passed the beggars on the sidewalk. They either plowed ahead, gaze fixed on the horizon, or slowed to barely a crawl, head bowed.  Either way, all of them pretended they didn’t see the beggars.  Perhaps they didn’t.  Perhaps they were so used to the sight of beggars that the ratty clothes became just another blot on the sidewalk, with only their subconcious registering the faintest amount of guilt.
 Still, though, the beggars had somehow accrued some money.  Emily responded to observance with disgust.  No way!  I’m not going to beg!
 You could always take their money.
At this statement, she could almost feel her body divide and fight within itself.  On the one hand, she really needed the money.  On the other hand, taking valuable objects from people who also really needed them was morally questionable, to say the least.
She still really needed the money.
So against her conscience’s objections, she waited until the dead of night, when her stomach was screaming with hunger, and quickly snatched up a small plastic cup filled with lira next to a person stretched out on the sidewalk.  Her heart was palpitating, though there was no one in sight.
I have to get out of this place.  Nothing was going to be open at this hour, anyway.  She would have to wait to buy food.  There was a city, Sivas, she remembered, on the way to Ankara.  She knew there would one station for buses going to Sivas in the cluster of stations in the center of the city.
The moon began to rise and, as the sky lightened as she waited at the bus station, Emily got more and more fidgety.  While she knew there was no way she could be recognized as the person who took the money, that didn’t stop her guilty conscience from forcing wild dreams of the person’s vengeance on her.
 Once the moon touched the horizon, Emily got up and began to pace back and forth.
 Please come now, please come now, please come now . . .
As the sun arrived and as Emily’s heart began to reach a record number of beats per minute over the imagined possibility of an omniscient angry homeless guy, a bus came.  The doors had barely opened when Emily ran onto it, bouncing on her heels and glancing around.  She had gotten halfway down the mostly empty bus before she remembered to give the driver his fee.  Guiltily, she dug into the cup, careful not to reveal it to anyone, and handed the driver his fee, ten lira again.
As she made her way down the bus aisle, she noticed several people wrinkling their noses.  This time, Emily didn’t bother to hope it wasn’t her.  She had been wearing the same battered clothes for two days now, through mangled buses and filth-covered alleys. Of course she would be the source of the smell.
As Emily sat down, the bus lurched forward.  Bile rose in her throat.  If only she’d had enough money to take the train.

It took three hours to get to Sivas.  Three horrendous hours.  Emily tried to sleep, but her body decided that the few hours of sleep yesterday were plenty..  So she was left staring at the blue-with-a-purple-floral design fabric of the seat in front of her, doing her best to not descend into grief or despair.  She couldn’t think about going home and hugging her dad, or even just sitting in her room.  Most of all, she couldn’t think about why she couldn’t do that.
 That worked about as well as you’d expect.
 Just a few minutes into the bus ride, her emotions were churning once again, both freezing and burning her heart, until Emily decided that the freezing was far too uncomfortable.  So she let the coals burn, and exited the bus with a scowl and a searing heart.
 Apparently, the city center wasn’t too far far, because even at her weak jog, she reached what appeared to be the main plaza in a few moments.  But while the plaza and the mosques around it were intricately designed and beautiful by anyone’s standards, they weren’t what caught Emily’s eye.
A bit farther down, past the mosques and commercial buildings, was a building that wasn’t much more than ash, a building that reminded Emily of the place she had spent her life.
Blinking, she forced away the memories and approached the building in an almost trance.
Emily shook her head.
Okay, what did that?  The damage looked like it had been caused by a giant version of an incendiary bomb.
 Approaching the building, Emily saw that there were men giving out pamphlets that she assumed told about what happened at this site.  She glanced longingly at them, knowing that she wouldn’t understand a good chunk of the pamphlets, and chose instead to eavesdrop on a nearby tour.
It took just a minute or two of listening for her to glean that the building had been burned down because one religious faction had disliked another religious faction that was performing in the building.
Do extremists have nothing better to do?
She turned on her heel to look for transportation to Ankara.

Something was tugging at her shirtsleeve.  It was annoying and insistent.  But Emily couldn’t be bothered to summon up the effort to turn around and look at the source.
 “Tired,”  she mumbled thickly.  The word was heavy in her mouth.  She vaguely remembered having stumbled into an alley in Ankara and falling into an exhausted sleep.
 The tugging continued.
 Grudgingly, Emily looked up.
 A man was towering over her.  His features were blurry, but slowly coming into focus.
 “Ma’am, I’d like you to come with me,” he said.

Emily’s eyes snapped open.  “Why?”  she asked defensively.
He stared at her.  Sunlight glinted off a gun he held in his holster.
Emily gulped and stood up.
“All right, I’ll come.”

Not like I have much choice, she thought, eyeing the gun warily and wondering what sort of place would require an armed escort.
The place she was being taken, unsurprisingly, proved to be as unpleasant as the escort, a building comprised of not much more than a large room full of beds and peeling green paint.  Most spots were occupied, marked by dirty grey blankets and a sour stench.  She was pushed by the guard to an empty bed in a corner.  Not knowing what else to do, Emily plopped down and waited.  No thoughts crossed her mind.  The guard left the room.
She sat for hours on the edge of the bed without thinking. Even when a man dropped a bag full of toiletries and clothing on her bed, she took no notice. The sun had started to set before a single thought appeared in her mind:  What am I doing here?
She had set out with the vague goal of revenge, but it had been well-fueled, and still was.  Emily scowled.
A small, rational voice in her head began to criticize Emily’s choice, but was quickly overridden by the wave of emotion that went They killed my family!
Cold seething anger was really good for plotting.
Emily began to consider her revenge.

She listed in her mind all the options she had to inflict the most possible harm before realizing that she had no weapons nor any idea how to get one.
Well, fists were good enough.
And she knew where she wanted to go: the main government building.
The only trouble left was trying to figure out how to get inside the building, a bit of a problem, mainly because Emily didn’t know where the building was to start with.  Well, that can wait until later, Emily thought, lying down on her bed and falling asleep without bothering to clean herself up.
It seemed like seconds later that the sun began streaming through the window.  Emily simply rolled over and went back to sleep.  After all, while she had something to do, she also had all the time in the world.

The sun was halfway down the sky when Emily finally got up and cleaned herself.  The soap was scant, she noticed, but it would do.
With some glee, she noticed a map.  That should tell her exactly where all the buildings were.
She opened the map quickly, fumbling with the paper.  At the the top was a warning about the PKK.  Didn’t I see that before?  Emily thought.  Oh, well. She had other things to do.
The map was rather simple.  It took about a few minutes for Emily to locate the closest major government building, and it would only twenty more for her to walk there.  The trouble was now getting in.
But leaving the shelter, Emily noticed something.  A heap of smelly blankets on a bed, moaning softly.
She promised to herself that she would never become a pile of blankets.
At the building, Emily decided to tag along on a tour of extremely well-dressed people.  They entered the well-dressed hallways.  The tour guide pointed out various portraits and decorations and the meanings behind them, which Emily didn’t care for.  Finally, the tour guide mentioned that there was an “important government meeting” behind the door on her right, which Emily did care for.  She hung back, pretending to observe the walls, until the tour was out of sight. She stared at the door that rich officials sat behind and pulled her lips back in an animal-like grimace.  Her heart felt like it would explode with the sheer force of hate.
 You’ll pay.
 She barged through the door.  There was a table full of crisply dressed people, all wearing suits and yelling unintelligible words.
 Emily punched one.
 On second thought, that hadn’t been a very good idea.
 It should have been expected that there were guards of some sort.
 It should have been expected that the guards would fire on what was clearly an attack.
 There certainly wasn’t time to dodge, but there was time to think.
 To notice the chart in the corner talking about the PKK.  To remember that the PKK was an organization currently fighting the government.  The one on the map, and the one on the second cluster bomb.
She hadn’t been targeted.  Just caught in the middle of a war.  And she hadn’t been seeking revenge, either.  Just escaping.  Escaping from the life she had thought to be trapped in, then escaping from the sooty remains of that life.
 Bullets didn’t travel that fast after all.

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