Part 3 (2/2)

Black Milk Elif Shafak 70440K 2022-07-22

Laden with curiosity I ask, ”Since when do you read about the lives of novelists?”

Little Miss Practical's readings are based solely on two key criteria: efficiency and functionality. How to Win Friends and Hearts, The Key to Unwavering Success, Ten Steps to Power, The Art of Knowing People, Awaken the Millionaire Inside, The Secret to Good Life . . . She gobbles up self-help books like popcorn, but never reads novels. Fiction, in her eyes, has no function.

”If it's useful, I'll read it,” she says defensively.

”And what is the use of the wolf woman?”

She turns a disparaging dark gaze on me. ”That lady of yours used to write orders to her servants on of paper. What needed to be done, what dishes needed to be prepared, which dresses needed was.h.i.+ng . . . She would write them down. Can you imagine? They lived under the same roofbut instead of talking to them, she wrote to them. . . .”

”Well, we don't know her side of the story,” I say meekly.

”Everything was her side of the story. She was the writer, Sis!”

I don't feel like quarreling. With a ruler in her hand, a calculator in her pocket and plans in her head, Little Miss Practical is used to measuring, calculating and planning everything. I take the list she has prepared for me and leave in a hurry, still feeling uneasy.

I spin the wheel again. It stops at letter E. This time, I walk east.

There, in a city as spiritual as Mount Athos, beyond a wooden door, sits Dame Dervish-her head bowed in contemplation, her fingers moving the amber prayer beads. On the tray in front of her there is a bowl of lentil soup and a slice of bread. Her thimble is full of water. She always makes do with little. On her head is a loosely tied turban that comes together in the front with a large stone. Patches of hair show from beneath the turban. She wears a jade dress that reaches the floor, a dark green vest and khaki slippers.

Seeing she is in the midst of a prayer, I sneak in and listen.

”G.o.d, Pure Love and Beauty, may we be of those who chant Your name and find restoration in You. Don't let us spend our time on Earth with eyes veiled, ears deafened and hearts sealed to love.”

I smile at these words and I am still smiling when I hear her next words.

”Please open Elif's third eye to Love and broaden her capacity to grasp the Truth. Connections are the essence of Your universe; please don't deprive her of Your loving connection.”

”Amen to that,” I say.

She flinches as she surfaces from her thoughts. When she sees me standing there she breaks into a smile, lifting her hand to her left breast in greeting.

”I need your help,” I say. ”Have you heard the question Ms. Agaoglu asked me? I don't know how to answer it.”

”I heard it indeed and I don't know why you panic so. G.o.d says He sometimes puts us through a 'beautiful test.' That is what He calls the many quandaries we face in this life. A beautiful test. There is no need to rush for 'the answer' because all answers are relative. What is right for one person may be wrong for another. Instead of asking general questions about motherhood and writing, ask G.o.d to give you what is good for you.”

”But how am I supposed to know what is good for me?”

She ignores my question. ”Whether you have children, write books, sell pastries on the street or sign million-dollar business contracts, what matters is to be happy and fulfilled inside. Are you?”

”I don't know,” I say.

Dame Dervish takes a deep breath. ”Then let me ask you another question. Are these novels of yours really yours? Are you the creator of them?”

”Of course they are mine. I create them page by page.”

”Rumi wrote more than eighty thousand splendid verses and yet he never called himself a creator. Nor did he see himself as a poet. He said he was only an instrument, a channel for G.o.d's creativity.”

”I am not Rumi,” I say, a bit more harshly than I intended.

Our eyes meet for a second and I look away, uneasy. I don't want to confer the authors.h.i.+p of my books to another, even if it be G.o.d.

”Let me tell you a story,” Dame Dervish says. ”One night, a group of moths gathered on a shelf watching a burning candle. Puzzled by the nature of the light, they sent one of their members to go and check on it. The scouting moth circled the candle several times and came back with a description: The light was bright. Then a second moth went to examine it. He, too, came back with an observation: The light was hot. Finally a third moth volunteered to go. When he approached the candle he didn't stop like his friends had done, but flew straight into the flame. He was consumed there and then, and only he understood the nature of the light.”

”You want me to kill myself?” I ask, alarmed.

”No, my dear. I want you to kill your ego.”

”Same thing, isn't it?”

Dame Dervish sighs and tries again. ”I want you to stop thinking. Stop examining, stop a.n.a.lyzing and start living the experience. Only then will you know how being a mother and being a writer can be balanced.”

”Yes, but what if . . .”

”No more what-ifs are needed,” she says. ”Did the moth say 'what if'?”

”Okay, I am not Rumi, I am not a moth. I am a human being with a mind and four mini women residing inside me. Surely my way of dealing with things is more complicated.”

”Uh-huh,” says Dame Dervish, chewing her bread.

It is the kind of ”uh-huh” that can mean only, ”You aren't ready yet. Like a fruit that needs more time to ripen, you are still hard on the inside. Go and cook a little, then we'll talk again.”

Shuffling my feet, I take my leave and walk toward the south.

There, in a city as crowded as Tokyo, behind a thrice-bolted door, is the relentless workaholic Miss Ambitious Chekhovian. Four and a half inches in height, ten and a half ounces in weight, she is the skinniest of all the finger-women. She is always eating away at herself, so naturally she doesn't gain any weight.

”Time is not money, time is everything,” she is fond of saying.

In order not to lose time, instead of cooking supper and setting a table she munches on crackers and chips and takes a lot of vitamins as supplements. Even now, there is a pack of biscuits, tiny cubes of cheese and a minuscule box of orange-carrot juice in front of her. There is also a vitamin C tablet and a gingko biloba pill beside her plate. This is her dinner.

Of all the statements made by men and women since time immemorial, there is one by Chekhov that she has taken up as her life's motto: ”He who desires nothing, hopes for nothing, and is afraid of nothing, cannot be an artist.” That is why she is a good Chekhovian. She desires, hopes and fears, all abundantly and all at the same time.

Today, Miss Ambitious Chekhovian is wearing an indigo skirt that reaches just below her knees, two strands of pearls around her neck and a matching jacket with an ivory silk blouse inside. She has a tiny bit of foundation on her snow-white skin and is wearing dark red lipstick. Her chestnut hair is held back in a bun so tight that not a single strand of hair manages to get loose.

Every inch of her is groomed, clipped and buffed, as always. Her porcelain teeth gleam in their straight rows like expensive pearls. She is determined, resolute and hardworking-excessively so.

”Miss Ambitious Chekhovian, will you please help me,” I say. ”You heard what Ms. Agaoglu asked. What is your answer?”

”How can you even ask?” She frowns at me with her thinly plucked eyebrows. ”Obviously, I am against you having a baby. With all that we have to do ahead of us, it is hardly time for children!”

I look at her with puppy eyes.

”But I was next to Dame Dervish a minute ago and she said that there is no point in running amok in life.”

”Forget that crazy finger-woman. What does she know? What does she understand of worldly desires?” she says offhandedly. ”She has lost her mind somewhere inside those prayer beads of hers.”

She pops a biscuit into her mouth, then a vitamin pill, and takes a sip of juice to wash it all down. ”Listen, dear, let me summarize again my philosophy of life: Did we ask to be brought into this world? Nope. No one asked our opinion on the matter. We just fell into our mothers' wombs, went through arduous births and voila, here we are. Since we came along in such an accidental manner, is there anything more sublime than our desire to leave something worthy and lasting behind when we depart the world?”