Pera Museum Blog is launching a new series of creepy stories in collaboration with Turkey’s Fantasy and Science Fiction Arts Association (FABISAD). The Association’s member writers are presenting newly commissioned short horror stories inspired by the artworks of Mario Prassinos as part of the Museum’s In Pursuit of an Artist: Istanbul-Paris-Istanbul exhibition. The series kicks off tonight at midnight with Berk Yaltırık’s “Witches’ Sun” story. The stories will be published online throughout the exhibition. Stay tuned!
I walk over rocks hot as iron under the September sun. I can make out a few lines in the distance, and a few cracked rocks, but apart from those, not a single tree, not one plant. I have walked until I reached this hill, in the trail of the letter that hurled me once again to my home town. I guess the correct way to put it would be to say my old home town, which used to be my home town. After the Balkan wars it’s not clear which valley belonged to the Ottomans and which to the Bulgarians. The southern parts of the Rhodope Mountains were patrolled by Turkish resistance, and the north by Bulgarians. Some Ottoman officers even formed their own separate government in the south. The sad fate of the Balkans. States within states…
I entered the Kingdom of Bulgaria as a French reporter in the aftermath of the last Balkan War. I had taken French citizenship, relinquishing my Ottoman citizenship after the political investigation before the proclamation of Liberty. What brings me to this place of torn down villages and hastily buried mass graves, filled with the smell of death, is a letter. Being a reporter is cover – there’s something else I’m after. It’s not a smart thing to do, and neither are the things written in the letter. The only explanation is ties of friendship and honor…
Agah Nadi had helped me escape to France and get settled there, and the unrepayable moral debt dragged me here, where death walks hand in hand with the resistance and the bands.
Agah Nadi had two preoccupations, and both of them got him into trouble. The first was that he was too involved in political matters. I had contacted him through an acquaintance because he had fled to France years ago. It was thanks to him that I was granted asylum and was naturalized. He was also interested in French politics but out of respect for his pen, he was rarely investigated. This preoccupation wasn’t all that bad, leading only to reports by informers in France, if indeed there were any. It was the other preoccupation that spelled trouble…
Despite being a rational man, Agah Nadi became interested in spritism, which was slowly turning into a fad in the West, during his first years in France. His interest turned into enthusiasm and then to passion. Along with Spiritism, he got involved in magnetism and finally in sorcery and mediumship, both discredited today as superstitions. When we met, he had already gone beyond those, and was deep into Swedenborgianism and Neo-Platonism, trying to figure out the great beyond. He received letters from all around the world, and followed newsletters and books published on the subject. He was also in contact with the strange societies filled with members interested in this kind of thing. His passion could not be described merely as an interest or an enthusiasm – it was true fascination. A deadly fascination with communicating with the other.
During one of our conversations, I inadvertently said something like “The old wives’ tales of Balkan immigrants,” he told his family (he had marred a French woman there) he was going on a short business trip and disappeared. When a month passed with no news of him, I inquired about him here and there, to no avail. He came back shortly before the onset of the Balkan War. He said he had wandered through the Balkan lands, visiting many graves and ruined buildings following the lead of scary stories. When signs appeared that the rumors of war would soon become reality after Montenegro attacked Novi Pazar, he had come back. I asked him whether he had seen anything concerning the afterworld in those graveyards and ruins, but he refused to say anything other than that the results were negative.
We thought his obsession would lose its fervor after this trip, but it got worse. There were more letters, and his interviews with strange societies got more frequent. When I pressed him, he told me what he was after. He was looking for a place the foreigners called a “cult area,” where people experienced a supernatural force and made wishes, conducting rites for their desires. He didn’t know the exact location of this place except that it was in Rumelia, but he had found out what it looked like, and in his letters he often asked about it. There were rocks with strange figures painted on them, a high hill almost covered with such paintings, and dense cypress trees at the otherwise bare top, as if there were a graveyard there. He never told me what was happening at this ordinary wishing place. There were many such places throughout the Ottoman land, shrines where people made wishes or said votive prayers, rocks with candles were placed on them, or trees with rags tied to their branches.
He almost gave up at one point when his search yielded no results. And if it weren’t for that cursed letter from Greece, telling at great length the story of the cult area and its whereabouts, he probably would have. The letter talked about a place on the Rhodope Mountains, a cult area dedicated to Hecate, the goddess of witches and sorcerers in ancient times. There apparently was a hill that infidels as well as Christian Bulgarians, Turks, and passersby climbed since the days of ignorance to draw their wishes using cinder or by engraving. After that letter, a new bout of correspondence began. When the president of a spiritism society in England wrote Agah a letter saying some cult areas did emanate a kind of spiritual power, which could be the sort of place Agah was looking for, things changed radically. Agah Nadi was convinced that the place he was looking for could be such a cult center.
The tragic events began after the short letter written by a Bulgarian professor describing the location of the hill. This professor, who studied folklore and especially superstitions, wrote that there was such a hill called “Witches’ Hill” in a certain part of the Rhodope Mountains, where people who wanted to cast an ill spell on someone drew their wishes on the rocks and that they didn’t have to climb much. What really piqued Agah’s interest were the last lines of the letter. Apparently, the people believed that whoever climbed to the top of the hill would become part of the world beyond (like the world of Djinns in Islam). Agah believed that this was too good an opportunity to miss in his quest for taking a look at the world beyond.
Both his wife and I implored Agah not to go to those parts just because of some uncorroborated claims. We knew that he would once again head towards the Balkan mountains. And although he said he couldn’t go even if he wanted to on account of the Balkan War continuing with severe intensity, we had our eyes on him. One day towards the end of the Balkan War he disappeared. He had taken the important letters and his personal notes with him, so we didn’t know where he was headed. We had no choice but to wait once again for his return.
Months passed after his disappearance; the Second Balkan War began, and one day we received a letter from Agah Nadi, and it still baffles me how it made its way from a mountain village in Bulgaria to us during the hectic days of the war. He described his location exactly and explained why he couldn’t come back and said his search was almost over.
“These lines I write at a derelict inn in the village of V… will give you the impression that I have gone mad. You do know, however, that I never believe something unless I see it with my own eyes, and that this is why I have undertaken such an impassioned investigation. The search of a lifetime is finally over. I have succeeded in seeing, albeit only briefly, the doors leading to the world beyond. I have witnessed a witch wedding! I have seen the imaginary gatherings and merrymaking mentioned often by the Balkan people in the accounts of superstitions concerning djinn weddings! Here, witches and djinns not only open the doors to the world beyond, they also cut through the curtain separating the two worlds and cause the other sun to rise. The dark and scary sun of the djinn world. Even the things I have seen from a distance transfixed me. I still see the images of that strange event. But I have to gather my courage. I have to see it more closely. I send you this letter so that you will not worry about me, for it is uncertain what I will see after I go up that hill… One of the youth of this village told me he will go to the town to mail this letter. Agah Nadi.”
It took the letter more than two months to reach us on account of war conditions. By then, Agah was either on his way back home, or had stayed there. I couldn’t be expected to sit and wait. I procured the necessary documents and went to the Kingdom of Bulgaria.
At first, I was afraid I wouldn’t be able to find the hill even though Agah Nadi had described its location, or that I would meet the corpse of my friend, or not even that. As I got closer to the Balkans and passed through ruined places smelling of death, I began to fear totally different things. On the sides of mountain tracks were dead bodies of immigrants, files of migrant wagons on muddy roads, the loud noise of the resistance who lit bonfires in village squares, villagers who stayed where they were but were afraid a new war would break out…
I was speaking in French, and presented myself as a French journalist (I had written a couple of short stories in the publications where Agah Nadi’s writings appeared), but I thought I had lost my touch long ago. And yet, all the pain I witnessed and the fear of being persecuted due to my old identity made me remember many of the things I thought I had forgotten. I was in danger, just like my friend I was trying to find…
The strangest part of my trip were the people I spoke to while searching for the location of the hill. First I came across those who easily gave me directions because they had seen the hill once, from a distance. As I got closer, I met others who weren’t at all that comfortable with telling me where the hill was, and in fact tried to scare me and even threaten me so that I wouldn’t go there. Every mouth I met told me a different and skin-crawling story in half-Turkish half-Bulgarian.
It was on a morning that I found what I was looking for. The sun was rising, the sky had grown red, and there it was, a white, bare hill. Covered with lines and cracks, adorned with these like the work of art of a giant. At the top, there were cypresses swaying ominously in the wind.
I first arrived at the village Agah Nadi wrote about in his last letter, which was quite some distance from the top. When I walked into the inn and described Agah Nadi’s face, I was told that they had last seen him two months ago. The kid working there (he was the one who took the letter to town) said he hadn’t seen him in two months, and the last time he saw him he was climbing the hill. That was when I noticed a horrible detail. In places far away from here, people easily said the words “Witches’ Hill.” But as I got closer, I heard them less and less. Just like the Turkish folk who used euphemisms for owls, pigs, wolves, and djinns, these people almost never mentioned the name of the hill. When they had to talk about it, they called it “that place” or “that hill.” Even the resistance, who kept springing up on me from behind rocks, had suddenly disappeared on the road to the hill.
I rested at the inn until sundown. When I woke up when the sun had almost set, I was warned not to go, but I need to at least find whatever is left behind from my friend, if indeed anything is. The way the villagers acted and the things they told really scared me, but my conscience outweighed my fear.
Now, under the September sky, I walk among rocks that are as hot as iron, having been beaten for hours by the sun and still not cool though it’s getting dark. I realize that the lines and cracks on the rocks I had seen from afar were drawings and paintings handmade by the people. Desires and wishes since the days of idolaters. But what strikes me are the bad wishes, the curses. Some drew enemy families, some drew the women they loved; I noticed the dried blood stains on them. The anger and hatred of thousands of people have been imprinted on this hill for centuries. Even in the destroyed villages I passed through on my way or on the roads filled with corpses I did not see such violence and blood. There is not a single plant at the top, and this may be why – their shoots could not live. The death wish on the hill probably gave them no chance.
I reached the top of the hill. It is already dark. There’s a strange-looking expanse before me, and cypresses that look innumerable. Hundreds of cypresses making up a dense forest that reminds me of the cemeteries of my country. In the dark, each seems to have a face, they all look alive. They are looking at me with their horrible faces. They seem to be ready to embrace me with their branches that look like open arms. In the dark, I try to find a trace, a sign of Agah Nadi. I walk under the shadows of the cypresses with trepidation. Then I come to a clearing in the midst of the cypresses. This is almost like a town square. I feel eyes watching me in the darkness of the cypresses. I write that down to my mind playing games with me and try to muster courage.
Until I begin hearing those sounds…
Drums beating in the middle of the night, horns blasting away, playing random notes… A racket that defies explanation… Are they coming?
The shadows of the cypresses now appear safe and protective. I hide behind one of the trees and watch the clearing. It is really them. Under the coat of the night there come shapeless, distorted faces, arms skewed by curses and maledictions, crooked legs that have carried them here from the beyond… Drums and horns, laughter that sounds like clappers, a mindless festivity… They are gathering in the clearing, surrounded by darkness. A crazy pandemonium endues – all the djinns have come here! The witches of the eponymous hill have arrived!
They gather and mingle with such ecstasy that I can’t even close my eyes in face of this terrifying scene. Fear has conquered my body. As I watch them, a ray of light appears in their midst. No stars in the pitch black sky, the moon has disappeared. The door to the world beyond is cracked open. The light at the center of the festivity becomes brighter. This is a brightness that does not soothe – it creates fear and anxiety, pushing the limits of the mind.
Then it rises. The witches’ sun! The doors to the beyond are open! A scarlet sun that sucks out the light and spews out darkness. Its color seems to come from all the blood shed by the maleficent wishes and curses here. It rises from the ruckus of the djinns, on their crooked hands. It seems to get larger.
Wait – what is that?
I see a face in the sun. A silhouette that seems to have suffered the pain of a thousand tortures. A face that has started to lose its contours as it passed from our world to theirs. A man in pain! A countenance that evokes pity but then immediately frightens, terrifies!
Face to face, I can’t take my eyes off of it. An uncanny similarity. I think I have found what I was looking for. I’m looking at the face that once was Agah’s, or perhaps it is myself that I watch in the light of the witches’ sun. My own soul. My unfortunate soul who has shared Agah’s fate by coming to this godforsaken place…
I had never imagined I would see the doors to the world beyond.
Now I am there.
In this indescribable place where the crooked and sinful bodies are forever scorched by the sun of witches and djinns.
Mehmet Berk Yaltırık
Translation by: g yayın grubu