If the account of Palace Chronicler Dead-eyed Cuma Bey presented in his piece entitled Kamûsü’l Desais is indeed true, there was at the time an ageing attendant at the Mehmed Paşa Bath-house who was most aptly known to all as ‘Ohannes the Drunk’.
Many years ago, if the story is to be believed, this erstwhile sacristan had been unceremoniously thrown out of the Church of St.Pierre for stealing a considerable sum from the collection plate as it did its rounds at Sunday Mass. Although Ohannes, who roamed the Galata streets accompanied by his donkey, was occasionally employed as a masseuse at the Cadıkazık Bath-house, he was as adverse to water as a Communion wafer and had not washed for at least six months. His cleanliness of soul, though, was another matter and whenever he acquired a coin or two he did not hesitate to purge himself of sin by imbibing quantities of wine: the Blood of Christ.
Ohannes was, one should say, considered most pure by a majority of people due to his wheezy chest – an occupational hazard – and his having been baptised at birth and set free from the weighty burden bestowed upon Man by our first father Adam when he fell tempted by our Mother Eve and tasted of the forbidden fruit in Paradise. However, I digress…!
One day, as Ohannes and his donkey were passing Galata’s Tersane Jail, a poor galley-slave -condemned to hard labour and chained hand and foot – began reeling his way and embraced him in mid-fall. The considerable legacy of fleas bequeathed to Ohannes at this encounter caused him to itch to a degree that remained entirely unassuaged by the purifying powers of Bozcaada, Edremit and Ancona wines. Despite raising twelve glasses of Nasira wine to each of Jesus’ disciples Ohannes still could not rid himself of this itchy affliction. It was in such a state, with hands fairly ringing with tremors and not having imbibed a drop of liquid other than wine for days that Ohannes encountered the Crazy Carpenter at the Inner Azap Gate. The woollen smock of this unearthly and wildly hirsuite man was seething with lice and fleas. And as for the shirt on his back, it was so full of grease and filth that it looked more like oilskin than cloth.
Ohannes was immune to such indelicacies as stink and sin due to his having been anointed with chrism so many years ago. His eyes took on a strange glimmer, as here before him, at this time of night, stood a prospect whom he could cleanse from sin and grime in return for benediction and a fair few coin. For despite the fragrantly forthcoming odours of vinegar and grease transpiring from this man’s armpits, crotch, curly-nailed feet and other unsavoury parts, nothing could hide from the expert nose of Ohannes the sweetest smell of a small fortune in silver secreted upon his new acquaintance. The strength of this silvery smell suggested that the Crazy Carpenter was the carrier of no less than 247 silver akçe.
Ohannes the Drunk immediately fell into character, dropped to his knees and clung for dear life to the hem of this enigmatic man’s smock: “Oh noble sir, bearer of great sin and evil!”, he declared, “I am but a poor god-fearing man who was excommunicated from my church for devoting my piteous life to fighting the Devil. My brothers in the church knew at once that I would win my great war – and what did they do? They drove me out of the congregation in an instant. You see they realised that, were I to beat Old Nick, evil would vanish from the earth. With no confessions to hear the Priests would soon become as poor as church mice. Such is the vicious circle in which I became embroiled dear sir. And I know, I can feel in my heart, that you are weightily laden with sin; and I feel within me a burning and unquenchable desire to relieve you of this oppressive load; so heavy that mountains would crumble beneath it. I beg of you – do me a good deed! Confess your sins to me! That my good deed my secure my own salvation! That I might rise up to heaven and pray for your soul when my last few years on earth are run.”
The former sacristan of the Church of St Pierre began to cry on the spot. Although he sobbed and wailed, it was quite remarkable that no tears fell from his eyes. Perhaps the poor fellow, by this stage in his life, had cried all the tears he could cry. No sound was heard from the mysterious sinner; so on Ohannes implored:
“Oh noble sir, who has fallen into the hands of most evil powers! If you accept my humble offer, I will not only cleanse your soul of sin, in addition, I will scrub your body clean as well. You see I am also a bath-attendant . I will not leave a solitary speck of dirt upon your being sir, for a small consideration..!”
Chief Pilot Azrail Dede tells us that the Crazy Carpenter accepted the ex-sacristan’s kind offer. What is more, Kılbaz Beşir Efendi attests – should we choose to believe him – that the burden of this man’s sin was so weighty he was later adopted as Patron Saint of street porters.
The two men passed through the Inner Azap Gate, turned left and presently arrived at the Cadıkazık Bath-house. The Carpenter proceeded to divest himself of his clothing until he stood in the outfit he had worn on the day of his birth. Ohannes collected up the pile of grimy clothes and threw them into the bath-house fire. The dense and stink-laden smoke that proceeded to come out of the bath-house chimney and spread its smoggy fingers over Galata caused the street dogs to pelt howling and hollering all the way to Tophane and Kasımpaşa.
Now, the law of the time proscribed that any person not of our Prophet’s flock must draw clear attention to their presence in a bath-house by covering their modesty with a special cloth. So the former sacristan of the Church of St Pierre then wound about his own waist a loin cloth sewn with small bells that jingled and tinkled with his every step.
The sacristan sluiced down the strange man with buckets of hot water and laid him out on the hot marble slab to loosen the dirt on his body. He then honed the razor and shaved the man’s head and white beard, leaving only a tuft on the top and a puff of white moustache on his upper lip. He then doused a small piece of cotton wool in methylated spirits, lit it with the flame of a nearby candle and proceeded to burn off the hairs from within the man’s ears. Next he put on the exfoliating mit and scrubbed the man’s skin with as much force as he could muster. With each sweep of the mit great curlicues of greasy dirt rolled off the man’s back.
Sacristan Ohannes stood wheezing from his exertion for a while before he declared, “Now, not an iota of dirt remains on your body. The time has come for me to absolve you of your sins. The people aboard Noah’s ark did not prefer fresh water but holy water. This is why they survived. What is more, the Israelites on their journey across the Red Sea – as a race of baptized people – were not consumed by the waters of the lake as was the Pharoah and his army. Now that I have cleansed your body of sin with wordly water we must proceed to the absolution of your soul. For this great deed I will charge you but a miniscule fee. I trust that you will not refuse to pay this purely symbolic amount. What is more, all my services come with a guarantee. And should you have any problems after that please don’t hesitate to come straight to me. May I be damned if I do not fully earn my fee. I do this job better than any Bishop. Because my heart is without stain of sin.”
Perhaps it was to steady the tremor in his hands that he then raised the bottle of methylated spirits and took a few slugs. Shortly his cheeks took on the ruddy glow of heath and his face lost all traces of woe. He walked up to the stone basin and said, “I baptize you in the name of the father, the son and the holy spirit in my hand!”, before pouring three more basins of hot water over the already rufescent man. He then went to the bag that he carried with him everywhere and pulled out a deeply black pair of shalwar, a pure white shirt and the red cloth headdress of an Ottoman sailor. After the Crazy Carpenter had put on these white clothes and tied his money belt at his waist the sacristan spoke again:
“You are now absolved of your sins. And now we have come to the moment when we must eat the body and drink the blood of Jesus the Messiah. And I pray to the Almighty that you have sufficient coin in your purse for the purpose. Now as I am not allowed to attend the church to take wine we will have to call in at the winehouse of Uncle Mihalaki.”
A short time later they found themselves in one of the winehouses located between Galata’s Kürkçü and Azap Gates. Ohannes the Baptist called to the patron, “Hey, uncle Mihalaki! Even in my driest hour you would not spare me a single glass of wine. Well, now that I have money in my pocket you can show me how you will treat your best customer! Lay up a fine table for us! What fish do you have? It’s not quite their season but throw three bluefish on the coals! And don’t forget the mashed roe and spiced lamb’s liver! Today is a sacred day for us. So you’d better make us some Pope’s Ragout as well. Come along! Bring us the wine! Fill up our glasses! Oh yes! And bring us a loaf of bread, doesn’t matter if it’s stale. Just let it be cheap, that’s all. But I’ll have a fresh loaf myself, the whitest and freshest you have!”
from AMAT by İhsan Oktay Anar
Translation copyright (c) Caroline Stockford
For rights inquiries, please contact Amy Spangler at AnatoliaLit Agency (email@example.com).
Copyright: (c) İletişim Publications, 2005, Istanbul. Currently in its 12th edition.
|Yayın No||İletişim – 1116|
|Dizi||Çağdaş Türkçe Edebiyat – 155|
|Baskı||12.Baskı Şubat 2013, İstanbul (1.Baskı Ekim 2005, İstanbul|