Once a year, my neighbour Dudu’s land becomes a hive of activity. It often catches me unawares. I return from a walk with Rotty to hear the crashing of plastic crates, and men and women shouting amidst the trees. It’s pomegranate season on Turkey’s south coast. Throughout the summer we watch these green orbs swell, their weight eventually pulling their spiky branches asunder. The fruit slowly turn amber, then as red as large cricket balls. Around mid to late October, the pomegranates are quickly harvested before an untimely hail storm destroys them. This week, as I watched the truck load of Dudu’s pomegranates heave its way up the boulder-filled track, I was reminded of a night three years prior when I knew little of the pomegranate, or its life cycle. I was still living in my tent; a virgin of rural Turkish life. There was no Rotty, no earthbag house, no solar power, just the stars, or a bewitching full moon, and sometimes the odd lunatic drummer.
It must have been midnight. But the nights were still warm. The flap of my ‘front door’ was peeled back, so that I could survey the speckled face of the night sky and the winking lights of the seaside village in the distance. Not that I was looking at anything at that particular juncture; my eyes were shut fast, and I was probably snoring with the peace of mind of an earth-lover who believes their land is watching over them. Until something smashed through my open-air slumber . . .
Bee boo bee boo wah wah wah. Bee boo bee boo wah wah wah.
It was a car alarm. Now, had I been living in New York, Istanbul or any given suburb of Essex, this might not even have roused me. But half-way up a Turkish mountain without asphalt? It didn’t make sense to my ever-watchful subconscious, and I awoke with a jolt. Grumbling and rubbing my eyes, I hoisted myself up in my sleeping bag and gawped through the mosquito net. I squinted in confusion. Careering along the winding lane just below my land was a vehicle, lights flashing wildly as though on its way to Casualty. I pulled my hair back, frowned and looked closer. Then my own inner alarms began ringing.
The car appeared to have drawn to a halt at the land below mine in front of a couple of greenhouses full of capsicum. The lights ceased their flashing. The racket of the car alarm cut out. All was once again silent, save the trilling of the crickets. The pale glow of a full moon illuminated the tips of the olive trees and bathed the slope of my land in an eerie silver light. There were shadows where normally there aren’t. Things were both visible and invisible at the same time.
It was then that the drumming started. Rat a Tat Tat. A Rat a Tat Tat. It sounded like a large metal tin being hit with a pair of wooden spoons. One by one, the hairs on my head stood up on end. Everything was in the wrong place at the wrong time. There are no drums up here at midnight, no nightlife, no parades. What was going on? I felt my heart begin to thud. I had no idea what the noise was. It fitted into no mental framework, evoked nothing familiar. All I could think was, ‘Why would anyone roar up in a car to the base of my land at midnight and begin banging a drum?’ And the only explanation I could find was they were either drunk or mad.
I’d no sooner reached this conclusion than things deteriorated. The drumming began to beat closer, and now it was accompanied by wild human shouting. It was a terrible wailing and it echoed round the hills. I sat without moving a muscle and listened in terror as Rat a Tat Tat reached the border of my land. I turned off my torch and froze. Then something peculiar happened to me. It always happens when I’m scared out of my wits. I cruised out of normality and clicked straight into survival mode.
Extreme stress is well documented for pushing us out of our more analytical frontal lobes and into our ‘old brain’. Suddenly, there is no larger picture, no reasoning or weighing up of possibilities. It’s just us and life and death. And how determined we are to survive! In a second, everything had changed. My senses, in particular my hearing, became incredibly acute. I could clearly discern the crazed drummer was moving along the lower border of my land. Obviously he was coming for me, of that I had no doubt. The possibility that he could have been doing anything else was never so much as entertained because I was now reasoning with the brain of an iguana. A mad drunken drummer was coming for me, and I was going to live to tell the tale, come hell or high water. Without turning on the torch, I quietly slid out of my sleeping bag and pulled out the machete.
There is no creature on Earth more dangerous, destructive or stupid than a frightened human being. Just watch the mind-bogglingly irrational decisions you make when panic sets in. This is why policy-making on ‘the war on terror’ has been so catastrophically incompetent, time after time. It is driven by nothing but fear, and fear is a dullard.
Back in my Turkish mountain, I began my own war on terror. Slowly, oh so slowly I pulled up the zipper of the front door and slid commando-style onto the ground. I crawled behind my tent. The full moon had transformed the top of my property into a white floodlit wonderland. If I walked across it, I’d be as easy to spot as a snow leopard wandering over tar sands. So, I crouched behind bushes and made for the only shaded spot; under the olive trees where my hammock was hitched.
After a nerve-wracking bush crawl worthy of the Special Forces, scratched and dirt-smudged I reached the inky darkness of the hammock. The drumming continued. Rat a Tat Tat was now inching up the right side of my land, walking in the small gap between my border and Dudu’s. I flexed my fingers round the hand-forged iron handle of the machete and waited. I wondered how to maim the attacker without giving him chance to grab my weapon, because he could well be stronger than I. I’d have to hit him from behind. Perhaps the best ploy was to climb a little way up the tree and then launch myself onto the brute. I held my breath.
But before I could so much as leap into a Bagua Zhang stance, for no apparent reason the drumming changed course. Rat a Tat Tat began to move up the slope, braying madly as he went. From the hammock, I saw the light of Dudu’s house flash on in the distance. I watched the feeble flicker of the drummer’s torch winding toward her house. ‘Good God!’ I thought. ‘Is he going for a little old lady? Has the world deteriorated to that extent?’
I heard Dudu call out over her pomegranates. The drummer stopped. I could make out the pair of them chatting. Apo the dog began howling into the night. After a minute or two, the drummer shouted, ‘Come on Apo boy, bark, bark! Chase those damn pigs out of the valley!’
Wham! The truth hit me. I all but fell out of the hammock in relief. Of course! The pomegranates were ripe. They were delicious targets for wild boar who ploughed through the orchards this time of year wrecking the trees. I dawned on me, the crazed drunken drummer was none other than the owner of the greenhouses below. He had a few pomegranates of his own littered about. Later, in a more rational daylight discussion, I’d learn the men of the village would take it in turns to go on pig duty during the months of September and October. They would wander the orchards banging drums, shouting, or firing blanks to scare away the boar-pests.
Feeling ashamed, I slouched back to my tent, the fear sliding off me like useless prehistoric gunk. As I stretched out on my sleeping bag and watched the moon slink below the mountains, I sighed. I closed my eyes and thanked both my and the drummer’s lucky stars. I thanked them I didn’t own a gun.
Atulya K Bingham
Sick of the screen?
You can now get a beautiful, illustrated paperback edition of Mud Mountain.
"Beautifully written and inspiring." The Owner Builder Magazine.
Want to follow my journey?