Part 3 (1/2)

Black Milk Elif Shafak 70440K 2022-07-22


And that is how they remained . . . apart.

Outside on the street, behind the half-drawn curtains, the wind speeds up, rustling the leaves of the acacia trees through the slanted evening light. Simultaneously, time speeds up. It now flows so fast that I feel a surge of panic as though I'm late for something, but what exactly, I don't know. How old am I? Thirty-five. Numbers start to go up like the spinning digits on a gas pump. Thirty-six, thirty-seven, thirty-eight, thirty-nine . . . How many more years can I postpone the decision to have children? The clock on the wall, the clock inside my head, the clock in my heart, the clock in my uterus, they are all ticking at once. Suddenly I undergo a strange emotion-as if all these clocks were set to go off at the same time: now.

It is precisely then that the mini women inside me begin to bang against the walls of my chest. They all want to get out. They all want an urgent meeting.

Doing my best to look confident and collected, I jump to my feet. ”I am sorry, may I use the restroom?”

”Sure, it is up there to the left,” says Ms. Agaoglu, scrutinizing my face with those dark brown eyes of hers.

But I have no time or wish to explain. I dash to the bathroom, lock the door behind me and turn on the faucet to scalding water so that Ms. Agaoglu doesn't hear me talking to myself.

”Okay, you can come out now,” I whisper.

Dead silence. On the counter in front of me there is an aromatic candle that smells of green apples. I watch its flame bob with the draft of my movements.

”h.e.l.lo? Come out already!” I know I am yelling but I cannot help it.

That is when a liquid voice drenched with lethargy responds, ”Oh, stop shouting like you have a stomachache, will you?”

I wonder which one of them she is, but prefer not to ask.

”Why aren't you coming out? I thought you wanted to have an urgent meeting. Because of you, I've locked myself in the toilet in a house where I am only a guest.”

”We had wanted to meet, but then we realized it was dinnertime. Everyone went home to grab a bite, so we can't come outside just now.”

”Oh, great!”

”Don't be cranky. I'll tell you what, why don't you get yourself down here, dear?”

Unlike Alice in Wonderland, I do not need to drink some magic potion and shrink to thumb size in order to travel to another realm, because it is not my body but my consciousness that is doing the traveling. I can take on any shape I want and still have no shape at all. Knowing this, I take a deep breath, grab a candle and start descending the mossy stairs to the dungeons of my soul.

It is time to have a serious talk with my four finger-sized women.

The Harem Within It is dark and foggy down here. With its labyrinthine alleys and secret pa.s.sages, my soul is a perfect setting for a gothic novel or a vampire movie. As I look left and right, I realize that I am completely disoriented. So many times I have walked these cul-de-sacs and dimly lit side streets, and yet I still get lost.

Far ahead there is a crossroads from which four separate paths spill. Blinking repeatedly, I lift the candle up to eye level and peer into the thick, uninviting fog. Which way should I go? I try to think of a giant, round machine, something between a compa.s.s and a wheel of fortune. This is a mental exercise I visualize when I am indecisive, although I am not sure if it really helps. In my mind's eye, I spin the wheel as fast as I can until it slows down and comes to a stop at the letter W. I quickly determine that this means West, and dutifully head in that direction.

There, in a city as neatly organized as Brussels, in a chic and modern flat furnished minimalist style, lives Little Miss Practical. She is the side of me who has great common sense and even greater pragmatism. I press her doorbell and, upon being screened by a camera, hear a buzzer that lets me inside. She is sitting at her desk, looking sprightly and sporty. On the plate in front of her is a sandwich of goat cheese and smoked turkey on wheat bread. Beside the plate is a thimbleful of Diet She has been watching her weight for as long as I can remember.

She is four and a half inches tall and weighs barely thirteen ounces. She wears casual, comfortable clothing: a breezy beige s.h.i.+rt, red boneframed and a pair of brown linen pants with lots of pockets to keep everything at hand. On her feet are leather sandals; her dark blond hair is cut short so that it doesn't need extra styling. Was.h.i.+ng (shampoo and conditioner all in one) is good enough. Drying her hair would be one step too many.

”Yolla, Big Self,” she says cheerfully. ”What happened to you? You look awful.”

”Yeah, thanks,” I grumble.

”What's up, yo?” she asks. For some reason beyond my comprehension, she loves speaking in rapid-fire sentences peppered with slang, sounding like a street kid by way of Tucson.

”Oh, Little Miss Practical, you've got to help me,” I say.

”Nema problema! Help is on the way.”

”Did you hear the question Ms. Agaoglu asked me? I don't know how to answer. Is it possible to be a good mother and good writer at the same time? Do I want to have kids? If not, why not? If so, when, why, how?”

”Hey, be easy, Sis,” she says as she pats her mouth dry with a napkin. ”Don't sweat the small stuff. One can be a writer and a mama, why not? All you need to do is to trust me.”


”Yup. Here's what we'll do. We'll split your time into two chunks: writing time and nursing time.” She pauses with an impish smile, measuring my reaction. ”That means you'll have to start wearing a watch.”

”You know I never wear a watch,” I say. ”Watches, the color white and wasabi . . . The three Ws I'd rather stay away from.”

”Well, there's a W word you might welcome,” she says mysteriously. ”Because it happens to be the answer to your problem.”

”What is it?”


Seeing me draw a blank, she laughs. ”Separating the grain from the chaff,” she remarks. ”That's exactly what you need to do.”

Again I look vacantly: Again she smiles with confidence as if she has the pulse of the world under her finger.

”Think of it this way, Sis. The human brain is like a set of kitchen drawers. The cutlery is placed in one drawer. The napkins in another. And so on. Use the same model. When you are nursing, open the 'motherhood' section. When you are writing, pop open the 'novelist' one. Simple. Close one drawer, use the other. No confusion. No contradictions. No fretting. All thanks to winnowing.”

”Wow, that's splendid, but there is a small detail you left out: While I'm writing, who will take care of the baby?”

”As if that's a problem,” she says with a snort. ”h.e.l.lo. The age of globalization is here. Snap your fingers. You can find a nanny. Filipino, Moldavian, Bulgarian . . . You can even choose her nationality.”

Little Miss Practical thrusts her hand into one of her pockets and produces a paper. ”Look, I've made a list of all the information you'll need. Phone numbers of the nanny agencies, babysitters, nursery schools, pediatricians. You should also get an a.s.sistant to answer your e-mails. It'll make life easier. And if you get a secretary and a tape recorder, you can stop writing altogether, ya' mean?”

With a heavy heart I ask, ”What do you mean?”

”I mean, instead of writing your novels, you can speak them. The recorder will tape your voice. Later, your secretary can type up the whole text. Isn't it practical? That way you can finish a novel without having to leave the kid.”

”Just curious,” I say as calmly as I can manage. ”How exactly am I going to afford a nanny, an a.s.sistant and a secretary?”

”Oh, you're being so negative,” she says. ”Here I'm offering practical solutions for material problems and you see only the downside.”

”But money is a material problem,” I object, my voice cracking. For a brief moment neither of us says a word, mutually frowning and sulking.

”Besides, even if I had the money,” I say, ”I still couldn't do what you suggest. It goes against my sense of equality and freedom. I can't have all those people working for me, as if I were a raja or something.”

”Now you're talking nonsense,” snaps Little Miss Practical. ”Don't you know that every successful female writer is a raja?”

”How can you say that?”

”How can you deny that?” she asks back. ”Remember that wolf woman you adore so much.”

Just when I am about to ask what wolf woman she is talking about, it dawns on me that she is referring to Virginia Woolf.

”Do you think that lady of yours had only a room of her own? No way. She also had a cook of her own, a maid of her own and a gardener of her own, not to mention a butler of her own! Her diaries are full of complaints about her many servants.”