It started with the stink of wet hay and eucalyptus swelling from the copper bowl in Seda’s hands. Melek’s breath fluttered against the red duvak, which tented out in front of her, casting a cardinal haze over the assembled women. That’s what they were: women, not friends. Friends wouldn’t be cutting the boards, assembling the gallows under her feet. Each woman dipped her fingers into the pot of henna, their hands turning rusty and stained. In turn, they leaned forward, swirling the paste over Melek’s wrist and palms. Here, the curve of the branch, there, the gaze of the nazar boncuk. Her hands turned cold under the mixture but sweat still slid down the curve of her brow. Inhale, watch the veil flicker towards you. Exhale, watch your world expand, inch by alluring inch. Surely, if she blew hard enough, the veil would push out, widening the expanse of space that was hers, only hers. Then, she would rise from the divan and drift in time with her breath, knowing that no one would dare violate her claim of sanctuary. Sanctuary under tradition. Melek breathed in, the shroud clung to the wetness of her lips. Out and it refused to billow towards the door. As the women moved to adorn the smooth skin of her feet, Melek lived in the distance between the thick tulle and her own dampening skin. Everyone around her was feverishly coloured like the wine they could not drink. They sat on a riot of contrasting kilim and laughed as the aunties gossiped. They couldn’t see through all the red. Couldn’t tell the difference between the salt of her sweat and the salt of her tears. As the women finished with her feet and began to slip gold bangles up the lengths of her arm, Melek counted the stitches in the fabric that hovered in front of her eyes. She counted 16 before the fabric shifted and she started again. She counted 14 and was sure the material was shrinking, tightening around her head like a vice.
When Melek entered the room, following the procession of older women, the cheers and ululations rolled over her. Someone started tuning a bağlama and she heard the distinctive crash of the tambourine and drum. Melek was silent, as she was supposed to be. Treading carefully, she peered through the cloth and watched the people part like long grasses before her. Suddenly he stood in front of her. It shouldn’t have surprised her, not really. She’d known that he’d be there. Knowing, however, was different. In knowing, she didn’t have to see the sharp hook of his nose or the black beadiness of his blown pupils. He turned to face her and the thick heat of his breath caused her world to dwindle to the length of an eyelash, her eyelash, as they pushed up against the cloth now crowding against her face. Melek blinked, watched the fabric ripple back. He breathed and it rushed in. Melek knew she would stand, a shrouded phantom, and be paraded around the stifling room for hours. But she had hours. She could wait.
As the door finally closed behind her, Melek didn’t bother to remove her veil as she knelt at the foot of her bed. She pushed her shoulder into the corner of the frame and heaved until the heavy metal shifted just a sliver. Digging her nails into the crack of the floorboard she'd now uncovered, she scrabbled at the grain until the plank relinquished its hold. Melek reached in the dirt pocket bellow and retrieved the leather valise, panting with the strain. Inhale, exhale. Watching as her world undulated as a turbulent sea of frothing red, she hastily flipped open the latches and took stock of the contents. Clothing? There, at the bottom. Soaps and oils? Yes. She grasped the golden bangles on her arms, letting them slide over her hennaed hands and fall, chiming like bells into her pile of possessions. She’d have to pay her way later, she knew that.
Hoisting the valise over her shoulders, Melek walked along the edges of the floorboards so as not to risk their protestations. She could hear the faint sound of voices downstairs. No doubt the women had been relegated to the kitchen while the men sipped çay and swapped conjecture over the trivial in the salon. It was the only time this would work. The only time she wasn’t being painted or advertised or bargained for like a market mule. She had changed out of her bindallı and finally, finally removed her veil, opening her world from the mere inches to which she had been relegated. She reached the bottom floor and pried open a window near the ground. She wriggled into the dusk, careful to not let the gravel betray her movements.
An hour. An hour she spent with her bag on her shoulders ducking through the shadowed streets of the village. Melek didn’t dare take the main road, lest a prying neighbour catch a glimpse of her. Better to disappear then to become a rumour. She soon left the village entirely, opting for the rocks of the valley that she clambered over. The skin of her calves and palms was left shredded but when she crested the final hill she could see the firefly glow of Selim’s cigarette bobbing in the distance. He stood beside his slumbering truck; he was supposed to have left for Erzurum and his city job but Melek had caught him before his departure and begged, begged him to smuggle her along. When begging hadn’t worked, she’d turned to tears. When tears hadn’t worked she turned to threats, reminding Selim that she alone knew that it wasn’t his lack of charm keeping him from securing himself a wife but rather his unholy actions that he so preferred to indulge in the city. Selim had acquiesced. One trip, he had said, the night before.