Mandrake by Hande Ortaç


In order to reach the place where we’d find Mümtaz Kadri we had to go down some of the deserted passageways of the Egyptian Bazaar that I’d never been through before.  We turned down a narrow, shadowy corridor right next to ‘Commerical Healthfoods’ and after twisting and turning a couple of times the passageway led us out into a courtyard.  This hidden square had no roof and was surrounded on all sides by two-storey workshops.  Even though, above us, the courtyard was open to the air my senses were still struck by the overpowering, heavy scent of spices.   Even so, I couldn’t determine exactly which spices I could smell.

Above us, from the balustrade on the second floor dried red peppers, aubergines and a number of plants I was unable to identify were hanging down on strings.  Sack upon sack of a huge variety of spices from all four corners of Anatolia were stacked up next to each other, waiting to begin their journeys to far-off countries.  The red-headed lad took me up to the top floor.  The rise of each step was greater than the stairs I was used to in our apartment block.  I climbed up the staircase that had been built for people much larger than I and realised that I had no idea where I was and that no-one else knew that I had come here either.  If anything happened to me here no-one would be the wiser.  I suddenly felt afraid.  The little bird inside my chest once again began to beat its wings.  How brave I’d been, once upon a time, to imagine that I would come here, to Istanbul, and start a life in the music world.  I tried hard to remember that brave young girl but to no avail.  The person I’d become was such a coward that she was even unable to silence that little bird within.

I bowed my head to get through the low door and found Mümtaz Kadri bent double and busy at work in a gloomy cave-like room.  Upon the table in front of him lay many coloured powders in heaps, some red, some khaki, black, yellow, brown, grey and some even purple.  He separated a small amount of powder from each pile and once he was satisfied that it weighed the right amount he’d tip his preparation into one of the little bags before him.  The place smelled musty with an air of stale tobacco.  I felt a shiver run down my spine.  As the man slowly and deliberately raised his head I saw that one of his eyes was watering and trembling and that the place where his other eye should have been was instead an empty socket.  At that exact moment the door slammed shut as the red-headed lad left me in this dark little den with the one-eyed man.  It was then that I felt the blood leave my fingers and withdraw towards the centre of my body.

I quickly got on with it and told him why I had come.  I’d been working for a long time on a particular recipe that was as old as Noah the Prophet and that specified I should use a plant called mandrake.  I’d not been able to find it anywhere and had finally been directed here by my greengrocer.  The pupil of the man’s good eye grew wide.  He stared at me with the strangest expression on his face.  The tension I was already feeling began to grow again, quite beyond my control, and the bird that had made its home in my heart was trying to get the message through to my brain to run right out of here without a backward glance.  No-one had come looking to Mümtaz Kadri Bey for Mandragora Autumnalis, to be used in food, for a very long time.  His voice resounded nasally, projecting in stereo from his nostrils as it emanated towards me.

Due to its torporific effect, mandrake was not sold to just anyone and instead was only supplied to licenced medical professionals.  He scanned me up and down with his trembling, watery eye.  I think he was trying to judge whether I was a liar or not.  Did the recipe specify an amount or did it tell you to use a handful or judge it by the eye?  Straight away I told him that the amounts were all specified exactly.  He thought for a moment and blinked his eyes a couple of times.  Then in one swift movement he got up, pushing the chair away behind him.  He got up so suddenly that I involuntarily stepped back.  I felt sure he would suspect me now.  My embarrasment grew and I prickled all over with perspiration.

I could hear but not see the man as he searched for mandrake for me in the depths of his grotto-like workshop.  I could hear him taking two steps along before lifting something up to look underneath, opening and closing lids here and there before taking another step and moving on in his search.  Finally I heard the sound of something fairly heavy being dragged along.  Then came a triumphant shout followed by incoherent mumbling.

As I saw Mümtaz Kadri’s head appear between the shelves, the mumbling continued.  In his hands he carried something wrapped in threadbare pieces of sacking and he kept on grumbling as he placed the bundle on the table.  My fateful Mandragora Autumnalis was sitting, wrapped in tattered sacking, before my very eyes.  Just as I was about to reach out and touch it I noticed Mümtaz Kadri’s mumbling growing louder.  And then it dawned on me: he was praying.  He told me that because this root had the shape of a human figure you were supposed to recite a prayer as you handled it and I said yes, I promised I would say a prayer when I picked it up.  What wouldn’t I have given at that very moment to see what lay underneath those sack cloths?  I’d certainly have said a pray or even done a backflip if the occasion called for it.

I was about to see what kind of thing the mandrake plant was and I’d waited for this day for over thirty years, ever since my last day spent in my mother’s house when she’d given me the recipe.  Throughout all the intervening years I’d never been able to stop wondering about this plant and yet my mother had not felt that I was ready to know about it until the day I left home.  She’d hidden this most crucial thing from me until that day and she even wrote its recipe down in her own hand on the last spare pages of my recipe book.

The very last piece of knowledge that was being passed on to the next generation was concerned with poison.  The recipe we’d spent the most time on was the one containing mandrake, a plant that looked unremarkable at first, was both innocuous in appearance and good for you, and yet could also pack a deadly punch.  I said a prayer, the Bismillah as I opened the sack cloths and took in my hands the plant of the nightshade family whose root resembled a human figure.

from the short story ‘Mandrake’ by Hande Ortaç

Copyright: (c) Ayizi Kitap 2011

Translation copyright (c) Caroline Stockford 2013


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