(The prequel to this post is Fire Fire!)
“If the house has burned down, I’ll go to India.” Zeynep, was curled next to me on a floating wooden platform. She lives in a wooden cabin at the lower side of the forest bordering my house. Mountain spring water gushed below us, a cool, splashing solace. “Oh no! I left my passport in the house!” she said, slapping a delicate hand to her forehead.
It was the Sunday of the fire, and along with a good few in the valley, we had fled to a series of trout restaurants on water. Frankly, in the panic it seemed the safest place to wait. Zeynep’s cat was scrunched in a plastic crate in front of us. Rotty the sick dog was lolling unhappily by the river, nose oozing. The platform was a raft, an open-air Noah’s ark.
“Ah, you can get a new passport. It’s not hard,” I said, and wondered what I would do if my house was now a charred heap of clay. Go to England? Find a van and drive? But what about Rotty? She really was too sick to move.
A waiter arrived and shunted plates around. We stared aghast at the heaving table of food in front of us. No one was in the mood to eat.
The trill of a phone sounded. It was incongruously cheery on this most heavy of days. Zeynep fumbled in her bag and picked out her mobile.
There was a silence. Then a nod. “Really? Are you sure?” She spoke slowly, curls bobbing.
Once the call was over, she pulled her sunglasses from her face, and looked at me. “The wind changed at the last minute apparently, and the fire jumped the road and over to Musa mountain.”
“Nope. We’ve been saved. For now. We’ll give it an hour and then we’ll go home.”
And just as quickly as my home was snatched away, it was handed straight back to me. But I had already let it go. Perhaps that was the design.
That night, I returned to my mud home and slept, albeit it fitfully beneath the stars. The smell of smoke scratched at the inside of my nose. Musa mountain burned on, the fires gouging orange holes out of the darkness like satanic torches. Rotty the dog wheezed and puked beside me, the parasite inside her wreaking some invisible havoc. She was no more than a basket of fur-covered bones. And I felt oddly bitter. Because if there had been a choice between my dog and the house, I’d have burned that house myself.
The next morning the temperature dropped. But the humidity was a clammy veil that clung to everything. I stepped into my kitchen dragging Rotty behind me. For the second week running I cracked an egg in a glass. Stooping, I pried apart her canine mouth and poured the egg in. I wondered if Rotty could talk, whether she would tell me to back off, to let her die. She swallowed the egg with a blink and a gurgle.
Rotty’s parasite required a harsh chemical treatment, one not available in Turkey and which necessitated an extensive amount of wheeler-dealing to obtain. A week earlier, thanks to connections in the animal protection world, my local animal welfare group located a bottle, and worked round the clock to get it to me. It had arrived in a mysterious package at my vet a few days prior. I had driven to collect it on my motorbike feeling I was in possession of some secret cure for cancer.
I hated administering that poison. Rotty hated taking it. But after a week of being deep fried in a 40–degrees-in-the-shade heat wave, the upheaval of the forest fire, plus the unexpected sorrow I experienced for my dog, I was incapable of any reasonable decision. Thus, I followed the mainstream advice. Rotty was to drink this poisonous elixir for 28 days non-stop. Any failure to complete the cycle would mean the parasite would gain resistance, and she would probably die.
Around midnight the next night, Rotty and I climbed under the mosquito net and onto my gazebo. I had just administered the poison. My little dog slumped onto the carpet and promptly vomited all over it. I was so tired, so in dire need of sleep, I turfed her out of the net. I heard her next to the platform, coughing and spluttering.
A few hours later, at the crack of dawn I awoke. Sitting bolt upright, I peered through the mesh hunting the shape of my dog. But I couldn’t see her. Scrambling out of my duvet, I clawed at the netting, throwing it over my head. I scanned the land. No sign of my dog. A well of panic opened inside me, fathomless and murky with the faint but lingering whiff of death. I began running this way and that, hunting for a tuft of fur, the brush of her tail, an ear. There was nothing.
The sun pushed up pouring its heat over the treetops in a burning torrent. Breathing hard, I ran to Dudu. This was Rotty’s favourite haunt, though I simply couldn’t envisage how she could have made it all the way across the orchard. She could hardly walk.
“No, she hasn’t been here. If she had, she’d be sitting right there in front of the gate wagging her tail.” Dudu pulled a plastic stool out and poured me a glass of water. “Perhaps she wandered off and fell.” She patted me on the shoulder sympathetically.
Fell. The thought took but seconds to spawn a family of terrible imaginings. I sat down and burst into tears. “If she doesn’t turn up by tonight, she’ll have missed her medicine. She’s so sick. She’ll die,” I sobbed.
Within ten minutes I had left Dudu’s. When I pulled the gate it scraped on the concrete, and I caught Dudu’s expression, one of utter dismay.
As the sun thundered over the eastern half of the sky, I began the greatest dog hunt my valley has seen. I have no idea how many kilometres I walked that day, but it must have been a good ten at least. Charging over the rocky landscape, I crawled through brambles, stumbled into ditches, and shinned down every water gulch I could find. No Rotty. My smock stuck to me. My trousers turned from purple to dark brown.
The sun burned westward and the shadows stretched ominously. I carried on searching. As evening spread its gloom over the vale, my heart began to crack. I phoned my local sound healer friend Yvonne. “She’s gone. She’s gone!” I spluttered into the mobile. My friend agreed to treat her from afar.
Finally at nine pm on Wednesday night, I fell under the mosquito net and onto my bed. The exhaustion pulled at every muscle. But I slept little. As the sky turned from black to grey, dread plumbed my guts. Rotty had missed her medicine. The parasite now possessed an advantage. But perhaps that was no longer the urgency. Perhaps she had broken a limb somewhere and was slowly dehydrating.
Three days passed and they opened and closed like heavy, rusty gates. I spent most of them, machete in hand, going not-so-quietly barmy. Sometimes I enlisted friends to the cause and we hacked through the area searching each tiny goat trail. But each day ended exactly like the first. Once night had strangled the last drop of light out of the sky, I would collapse under my mosquito net, whimpering on and off.
At last I gave up. Three full days without food or medicine in temperatures over 40 degrees was hopeless. I made a little funeral for Rotty and said my goodbyes. I honestly didn’t know anyone could feel so much grief for a dog. It stretched on and on as far as I could see, a bleak and colourless moor without so much as a rock of meaning or a peak of hope. I no longer wanted to travel Europe in a van without my furry companion. I no longer wanted to make mud homes. All had been subsumed into the Nowhere again.
Yet even there, I could sense something else. It was far far away. Like the faintest glimmer of dawn at the farthest most point on the horizon. A strange sort of liberation. Because when it’s all gone, you are free. Free to be anything or anyone you please.
Four days and nights after Rotty had left, I cleared out her things; pillows, leashes, bones, and stuffed them all in a bag ready for the dustbin. Her kennel squatted there mocking me. I placed some flowers in a bowl of water, and laid them inside, so at least I had something new to look at instead of thinking about her face poking out.
It was one in the afternoon. Scorching. I walked into my house and turned my computer on ready to broadcast this miserable news on Facebook. The computer whirred and flicked to life. Then my phone began ringing. I almost ignored it. Absently, I pulled it toward me and spied Zeynep’s name.
“Hello?” I spoke tentatively into the speaker.
A heightened voice poured into my ear. Zeynep was nearly screeching with excitement. “Kerry, Rotty’s here! I’ve looked three times because I couldn’t believe my eyes. But she’s here. Sitting under one of my bushes!”
It took a moment for me to find words. When I did I hurled them into the phone in random clumps. “You’re kidding! Oh God..! I’m coming... Now!”
Five minutes later I was staring at my pup in utter disbelief. She was flaked out in the shade wagging her tail. On inspection I saw she was skinny and had scraped her leg somewhere. But apart from that? I had to say she looked healthier than when she left. Her nose was completely clean. No puss or blood. And it was gleaming wet.
Once again, within a week, life gave back what it seemed to snatch away. As if to remind me how tenuous it all is. And that within this all-obliterating chaos, miracles continue to swirl.
My vet was so happy to hear of Rotty’s return, he drove up to the mud home to give her some intravenous assistance.
“She hasn’t eaten a thing, but she must have found water somewhere,” he said feeling each inch of her abdomen and squeezing her flesh between his fingers. And I smiled at the serum bag hanging from one of the wooden limbs of my gazebo.
“What’s her chance of survival?” I asked. But I was calm now. Because she was home. And I’d already given her a funeral, so everything from here on out a gift.
The vet inhaled and exhaled. “Honestly, I don’t know. It’s all about her liver. If that recovers, she’ll be OK. And you’ll know if the liver is healing, because she’ll start eating. She’s fighting. You’re fighting. But it’s anyone’s guess.”
Four more days passed. I should have ordered another bottle of the poison. But my heart wasn’t in it. If she was going to die, let her die in peace, I said to myself. And I swear she winked at me when I uttered those words. But she refused to eat. I tried everything, fresh meat, eggs, fish, milk. She was beyond disinterested.
Then suddenly, she deteriorated. She was listless. Her eyes distant. This time, however, I had reached a smoother plateau of acceptance. No more chemicals. No more forcing. Perhaps she’d just come back to say goodbye. Besides, now I believed in miracles again, so I decided to call on the Great Unknown, the mysterious and unprovable.
“Can you give her one final healing?” I asked my friend Yvonne over the phone as the sun slipped behind Grandmother Olive.
“Sure, I’ll let you know as soon as I’m done,” she said.
At 7 pm a message pinged into my phone to say the session was over. At 8 pm I placed a small bowl of liver in front of Rotty. And to my complete amazement she stood up, albeit shakily, and chomped down the lot.
She has eaten every day since.
What a garden of surprises our muddy planet is. Things live and die, and rise from the ashes. Fires can randomly change their course. A dog returns from the dead. A teacher might lose her way and camp on a hill, only to wind up building herself a mud home. Five years later she hears the wisdom carob whisper "Let go of everything," it says. She doesn't want to. Because her space is intoxicating. Precious. Then the bulldozers come. She wavers. The fire comes. She acts. The morning she goes online to put her house up for sale, she learns there has been an attempted coup. So she waits two days. Posts the ad. 45 000 people visit the page in three days...
And as darkness rolls through this beautiful land, it's not hard to see why The Mud Home attracted so many. The diamonds of this country are right. It's time to run to the hills.
Life on planet Earth is a wilderness unto itself. A Great, sometimes terrifying, Unknown. Yet within that chaos there is a road. It winds this way and that, through forests and vales, leading us to safety. But that road isn't tarmac. It's made of dirt. Or earth. Sometimes even mud.
Sometimes life throws it at you. The last week of June was as unpredictable as it was calamitous.
“Erm. I feel I ought to let you know. A second fire has started in the valley and it’s moving in your direction. Very fast.”
I held the phone to my ear. As with every morning, I was sitting typing into my computer. A thick drape was fixed over the front window; a fabric aegis against a molten barrage of sun. Did I hold my breath as I walked to pluck back the curtain? I don’t remember.
Now, I knew there was a forest fire. Who didn’t? Since the 24th June, an insatiable orange-tongued hydra has been hissing and spitting in the mountains behind my mud home. It is goaded by the wind, which whips those tongues into a tree-devouring frenzy. Thousands of hectares of forestland had already been decimated by the time I took the phone call. I could hear the helicopters slicing across the valley ferrying water over the brow. But until that moment, the fire had limited its rampage to the other side of the mountain range. Our valley had been protected.
I yanked the curtain from its hook. The breath inside me seemed to stick to the walls of my epiglottis. Because there, just over a small ridge, what looked like about five kilometres from my home, smoke was churning into the air.
Let it be known, it is unwise to consume a cafetière of strong filter coffee minutes before you discover you’re bang on the path of a forest fire. There were a number of sharp spasms in my chest, and I started whirring round and round my mud circle like a trapped wasp. I drank water. I breathed slowly and cursed the caffeine. Because I needed to focus. Get calm. Get straight.
This isn’t my first forest fire. I’ve seen a few. But not driving full throttle in the direction of my home. Five kilometres is nothing in forest fire terms. If the wind continued on its incendiary path, I guessed I had half an hour to save myself, my sick dog who couldn’t walk, and... and...? To add spice to the challenge, I don’t own a car. Only a motorbike. My belly lurched when I remembered that. Shaking, I picked up my phone and called Dudu, who is as automobileless as I am. She was unflappable.
“Oh yes, I can see it. The kids are here so don’t you worry,” she said.
Ramazan who owned the greenhouses below me was less stoic. “We have five minutes. Five minutes! And it will be here.” His voice broke down. Because the fire signified the end of livelihoods, the end of homes, and the end of lives as well.
Places like Turkey (you know, Muslim, Middle Eastern places) get a nasty rap in the Western media. And that media is ignorant. One beautiful thing about this land that Westerners from afar might not grasp, is that you are never truly alone here, no matter how odd or misshapen you might be. I could have pretty much dialled any number randomly, and as long as I omitted the Istanbul code, someone would have come to save me, or sent someone else to do the same. Within minutes I had two offers of escape. While I waited for one of them to arrive, I began packing. For the most part it was easy. Though later that evening when I unpacked my rucksack again, I did ponder on what exactly I planned to do with my sander. Especially as I only remembered the head.
The reason I could squash my life in a bag in less than fifteen minutes, was due to priorities. Nothing mattered much except my dog. Everything could go up in smoke. My home could become the world’s largest cob oven. My kitchen could disappear. It would all be OK. I’ve lost and left homes before. They can be rebuilt. But my dog had to survive. I love her desperately. Everyone around me knows it.
Now, I’m not partial to these “there are two kinds of people” statements. But sorry, there really are two separate clans regarding dogs; Those that love them and those that can't see what the other group are so obsessed about. Until three years ago, I was part of the second group. I was a nature lover, but never understood how anyone could become so attached to a four-legged fur ball that couldn’t even speak, never mind discuss the meaning of life or appreciate an art gallery. I was one of those who found this pet-nurturing lark rather a lot of over-sentimental tripe. I was also one of those who would exclaim outraged, “People care more about their dogs than they do their fellow humans!” And stalk off righteously.
Hmm. Life. I love how it prevents us from clutching any belief for too long, before mashing it into porridge and forcing-feeding it back to us piecemeal.
People care more about their dogs than they do their fellow humans! The implication in this outburst is that we should save all humans first, and then move onto the animals, and then the trees, in that order. The statement is founded on extremely dubious logic, namely that there is a hierarchy of importance in which humans reign at the top. The thing is, the entire premise of hierarchy is a man-made fantasy, not a truth. And it’s the reason we’re in the environmental and social mess that we are. Because it’s nonsense. From a universal perspective, a human is no more or less valuable or worthy of existence than an ant or a tree. When we’ve killed every ant and tree, we will understand this truth wholly and profoundly.
Still, whatever our philosophical and moral standpoints, in reality the personal always trumps the ideological. When we interact with something, anything, a physical, energetic and emotional connection is formed. If personal connection is experienced on a daily basis, the connection becomes a bond which is painful to sever. And once that happens ideologies and logic fly out of the window faster than British politicians are currently vacating leadership posts. This is where dogs are rather more switched on than humans, because as a species they’ve worked that out.
Truly I have no idea how it happened, but by some devilish crook of evolutionary genius my dog managed to sneak her way so deep into my heart, I am as attached to her as most people are to their children. Certainly, I’ve spent many a star-studded night pondering why. The truth is, despite all the fear-mongering, terrorising, morale-wrecking and cynicism-spawning agents about us, we humans just love to love. Even when we shut out the world and run up a hill, we are craving it. Searching it out. Like a mirage in a desert, we see it here, there and everywhere. Because we know it’s within us, we can’t help but project it. Anything can be the mirror, or engage in that feedback loop.
First I found love in the dirt of this land. Then I inhaled it from the trees and the bugs. Later I felt it toward my neighbours Celal and Dudu. Finally three years ago, Rotty the dog appeared. With a grin and a tail wag, she scooped out a cubby hole in my heart, and curled happily up within it. Yes it felt good. So good.
And then she fell sick...
Three weeks ago, a parasite took over my little Rotty and attacked her internal organs. She grew thinner and thinner. Blood and puss poured out of her nose. Her rib cage swelled. She gave up walking.
“Have you had a dog before?” The vet said with measured deliberation, as I stood stroking her paw in the clinic.
“No,” I said. “She’s my one and only.” It didn’t escape me that the vet looked away.
I left the clinic in tears and with a prognosis of fifty fifty. Suddenly from one day to the next the Nowhere was yawning before me again. It was a well of nothing. A vast all-obliterating lightlessness. Slowly I began swimming through it, stroke by heavy stroke. The days passed. Rotty deteriorated. And the next thing I knew it was Sunday the 26th June. Smoke was bubbling over the pine ridge beyond my land. The valley was on fire.
“Hello Kerry! I’m here.” I snapped my head back to see my saviour-friend peering in my window. I waved before spinning round and gaping yet again at the smoke. It was no longer dark grey but an awful moiling brown. I took a deep breath. Then the two of us quickly and furiously shipped my life out of The Mud and into her Toyota Corolla.
Soon enough we were driving out of The Mud. The Toyota chomped at the dusty incline of my track, struggling to digest the slope. With Rotty curled on the back seat and two rucksacks in the boot, I watched the roof of my home disappear from view. Beyond it flames appeared on the horizon.
I gritted my teeth and prepared to lose it all. Because let’s face it, it wouldn’t be the first time.
To be continued...
Atulya K Bingham
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