Nights of Plague

Orhan Pamuk is a Nobel Prize winning Turkish author, with celebrated books including My Name is Red, Snow and The Museum of Innocence. His latest epic, Nights of Plague – one of its opening chapters shared here, translated by Ekin Oklap – imagines a terrible disease devastating the fictional island of Mingheria, the twenty-ninth state of the ailing Ottoman Empire. Murder, myth, religion and fear are deftly woven to form a faux-historical tapestry that feels both urgent and contemporary

Artwork Salvatore Fiorello

Chapter 3

When Bayram Effendi had felt the first symptoms of illness five days ago, he had not taken them seriously. He had developed a fever, his heart rate had sped up, and he’d felt shivery. But it was probably just a cold he’d caught that morning from spending too much time walking around the Castle’s windy bastions and courtyards! In the afternoon the next day his fever returned, but this time it was accompanied by fatigue. He had no desire to eat anything, and at one point he lay down in the stone courtyard, looked up at the sky, and felt that he might die. It was as if someone were hammering a nail into his skull.

For twenty-five years Bayram Effendi had been a guard in the prisons of Mingheria’s famous Arkaz Castle. He had seen long-serving convicts chained up and forgotten about in their cells, watched handcuffed inmates walk in a line in the yard for their daily exercise, and witnessed the arrival of a group of political prisoners Sultan Abdul Hamid had locked up fifteen years ago. He remembered how primitive the prison used to be in those days (though in truth it still was), and wholeheartedly trusted and supported the attempts that had recently been made to modernise it, to turn it into an ordinary prison or perhaps even a reformatory. Even when the flow of money from Istanbul was interrupted and he had to go for months without pay, he wouldn’t rest unless he had personally attended the prisoner count every evening.

When he was struck again the next day, as he walked through one of the prison’s narrow passageways, by the same shattering exhaustion, he decided not to go home that night. His heart was beating alarmingly fast now. He found an empty cell, where he lay writhing in pain on a bed of straw in the corner. He was shivering, too, and had developed an unbearable headache. The pain was located near the front of his head, in his forehead. He wanted to scream, but he was convinced that if he kept quiet, this strange agony would somehow disappear, so instead he gritted his teeth. There was a press, a roller, upon his head, squeezing it flat.

So the guard spent the night in the Castle. He would do this sometimes—when he had a night shift, say, or if he’d had to deal with a minor riot or a scuffle—instead of going back to his house a ten-minute ride away on a horse-drawn gig, so his wife and his daughter, Zeynep, were not concerned by his absence. The family was in the midst of various preparations and negotiations for Zeynep’s imminent wedding, which meant there were quarrels and long faces at home every night, with either the guard’s wife or his daughter ending up in tears.

When Bayram Effendi woke up in the cell the next morning and inspected his body, he found near his groin, just above and to the left of his perineum, a white boil the size of his little finger. It looked like a bubo. It hurt when he pressed on it with his thick index finger, as if it were filled with pus, but reverted to its original shape as soon as he took his finger away. The bubo didn’t hurt unless he touched it. Bayram Effendi felt oddly guilty. He was lucid enough to know that this boil was connected to the fatigue, the tremors, and the deliriousness he had been experiencing.

What should he do? A Christian or a government clerk or a soldier or a pasha in his position would go to a doctor or to a hospital if there was one. When there was an outbreak of diarrhea or contagious fever in a prison dormitory, that dormitory was quarantined. But sometimes, a defiant dormitory chief would put up a fight against quarantine measures, and his fellow prisoners would suffer the consequences. In the quarter century he’d spent in the Castle, Bayram Effendi had seen some of the old Venetian-era buildings and courtyards on the seafront used not just as dungeons and jailhouses but as customhouses and quarantine facilities (known in the olden days as lazarettos) too, so he was not unfamiliar with these matters. But he was also aware that no quarantine measure could protect him now. He could feel that he had fallen into the grip of some uncanny force, and he slept and slept, moaning and raving in his terrified, unconscious state. But the pain kept returning in waves, until he realized despairingly that the force he was grappling with was far greater than he was.

The next day he managed to briefly gather some strength. He joined the crowds at the Blind Mehmet Pasha Mosque for midday prayers. He saw two clerks he knew and embraced them in greeting. He tried with much effort to follow the sermon but struggled to understand it. He felt dizzy and nauseated, and he could barely sit upright. The preacher didn’t mention the disease at all and kept repeating that everything that happened was the will of God. As the crowds dispersed, Bayram Effendi thought he might lie down on the mosque’s carpets and kilims to rest for a while and suddenly realized he was drifting out of consciousness, about to faint. When they came to wake him up, he summoned whatever energy he had left to hide the fact that he was unwell (though perhaps they already knew).

By now he could sense his own imminent death, and he wept, feeling that this was an injustice and demanding to know why he had been singled out in this way. He left the mosque and went to see the holy man in the neighborhood of Germe who handed out prayer sheets and amulets and was said to talk openly about the plague and the mystery of death. But the fat sheikh whose name Bayram Effendi couldn’t remember didn’t seem to be there. Instead, a smiling young man in a lopsided fez issued Bayram Effendi and two others, who, like him, had come from the midday payers, a consecrated amulet and a prayer sheet each. Bayram Effendi tried to read the writing on the prayer sheet, but he couldn’t see properly. He felt guilty about this and became agitated, knowing that his death was going to be his own fault.

When the sheikh eventually arrived, Bayram Effendi remembered that he had just seen him at the midday prayers. The holy man was indeed very fat and had a beard as long and white as his hair. He smiled kindly at Bayram Effendi and began to explain how the prayer sheets were to be used; at night, when the plague demon manifested itself in the darkness, one must recite thirty-three times each the following three names of Allah: Ar-Raqib, Al-Muqtadir, and Al-Baaqi. If the prayer sheet and the amulet were pointed in the direction of the demon, even nineteen repetitions could be sufficient to repel the scourge. When he realized how gravely ill Bayram Effendi was, the sheikh drew back from him a little. This did not escape the prison guard’s notice. The sheikh explained that even if there was no time to recite the names of God, he could still achieve a good result by wearing the amulet around his neck and placing his right index finger over it just so. More precisely, he should use his right index finger if the plague boil was on the left-hand side of his body, and his left index finger if the boil was on the right-hand side. The sheikh also told him that if he began to stutter, he should hold the amulet in both hands, but by that point Bayram Effendi was finding it difficult to keep track of all of these rules and decided to return to his home nearby. His beautiful daughter Zeynep wasn’t there. His wife started crying when she saw how sick he was. She made his bed with sheets fresh from the linen cupboard, and Bayram Effendi lay down; he was shaking uncontrollably, and when he tried to speak, his mouth was so dry that the words would not come out.

There seemed to be a storm breaking inside his head. He kept twitching and jerking where he lay, as if someone were chasing him, as if something had startled or angered him. His wife Emine wept even harder at the sight of these strange spasms, and when he saw her tears, Bayram Effendi understood that he was going to die soon.

When Zeynep came home in the early evening, Bayram Effendi rallied for a time. He told them that the amulet around his neck would protect him, then fell back into a delirious sleep. He had a series of strange dreams and nightmares; now he was rising and falling with the waves of a roaring sea! Now there were winged lions, talking fish, and armies of dogs running through fire! Then the flames spread to the rats, fiery demons who tore rosebushes apart with their teeth. The pulley of a water well, a windmill, an open door kept turning and turning, and the universe contracted. Drops of sweat seemed to be falling from the sun onto his face. He felt restless; he felt like running away; his mind alternately raced and froze. Worst of all, the hordes of rats that just two weeks ago had shrieked and wailed their way through the dungeons, the Castle, and all of Mingheria, invading kitchens and devouring all the straw and cloth and wood in their path, now seemed to be chasing him through the prison corridors. Worried that he might recite the wrong prayer, Bayram Effendi tried to outrun them instead. He spent the final hours of his life shouting with all the strength he had to make himself heard to the creatures he saw in his sleep, yet he struggled to make a sound. Zeynep was kneeling beside him now, trying to contain her sobs as she watched over him.

Then, like many who fell ill with the plague, he seemed to make a sudden recovery. His wife served him a bowl of hot, fragrant wheat soup with red chilli, a recipe that was popular across the villages of Mingheria. (Bayram Effendi had only ever left the island once in his entire life.) After he’d had his soup, sipping at it slowly as if it were some kind of elixir, and recited some of the prayers the fat holy man had suggested, he felt better.

He must go and make sure they didn’t make any mistakes with the prisoner count tonight. He would not be gone for long. So he’d said, as if he were talking to himself, when he had left his house for the last time without even a farewell to his family—as if he were merely heading for the privy in the garden. His wife and daughter did not believe that he had recovered and wept as they watched him go.

Around the time for evening prayers, Bayram Effendi first made his way toward the shore. He saw horse-drawn carriages, doormen, and gentlemen in hats waiting outside the Hotel Splendid and the Hotel Majestic. He walked past the offices of the ferry companies that operated routes to Smyrna, Chania, and Istanbul and around the back of the customs building. When he reached the Hamidiye Bridge, his strength ran out. He thought he might fall over and die. It was the time of day when the city was at its liveliest and most colourful, and under the palm trees and the plane trees, on the sunny streets, and among all those people with their warm and friendly faces, it seemed that life was, perhaps, quite good after all. Under the bridge flowed the Arkaz Creek, its waters a celestial shade of green; behind him was the historic covered market and the old bridge; in front of him was the Castle whose prisons he’d guarded all his life. He stood there for a time, quietly weeping until he was too exhausted to do even that. The orange light from the sun made the Castle look even pinker than it was.

With one last effort he walked in the shade of palm and plane trees down the dusty street with the Telegraph Office, and all the way back to the shore. He crossed the old city’s meandering alleys, near the buildings dating from the Venetian era, and entered the Castle. Witnesses would later say they saw the guard attending the prisoner count outside the door to dormitory number two, and drinking a glass of linden tea in the guards’ recreation room.

But no one saw him again after nightfall. A young guard had heard someone crying and screaming in a cell on the floor below around the same time the Aziziye was approaching the port, but had forgotten about it in the ensuing silence.

Nights of Plague by Orhan Pamuk (translated by Ekin Oklap) is published by Faber, out now

Artwork Salvatore Fiorello

This article is taken from Port issue 31. To continue reading, buy the issue or subscribe here