A fairytale for my grandma, who remained a free woman until the end.
By Eda Naz Gokdemir
Art by Izzy Lust
On the twelfth full moon of her eighteenth year, she considered walking into fire. She knew she could not emerge from the flames untouched; she was long past the age when she believed in the myths of her ancestors. Yet she still refused to walk into the waterfall and let the water wash away the pieces of earth on her body: sequoias on her back, ladybirds on her arms, thundercloud tears on her hands, sunshine on her chest, fallen leaves on her feet, the grass on her legs, kisses of her sisters on her cheeks … What would remain of her if she surrendered all that she had once touched? Who would she become if she let go of all that once belonged to her?
“A woman loved you will be,” her elders kept repeating, their skin as clear as the sea at dawn, only their eyes reflecting the depths of age. Traitors, she would hiss in her head. You betrayed us and yourself; you betrayed your skin.
“Don’t be ridiculous,” her siblings kept saying. “Who wouldn’t want to be loved?”
But I already love you, she insisted.
“You love us like you love the sky, the earth, the fire.”
What was wrong with that? She loved them as they were, with the traces of breeze on their faces, tear streaks underneath their eyes, and echoes of laughter around their lips. She learned to recognize the unique pattern of rain and sunshine on their limbs. She loved their freedom, their unbelonging, and their ever-changing nature. They would have to wash away all of that as if it never happened. And for what?
“The warmth of a fireplace in winter, the security of a home, the love of a man.”
An unfair exchange, she said. No man will ever love you the way I do; they will only see your body as an empty field to conquer.
“Your love is not the same,” they said, “because it does not belong to us only.”
As if love is that scarce.
“What do you want from us?” one of the girls complained. “To go mad in the woods with you?’’
The myths warned of women who retreated into the forest, who became so tainted by earth that they started to believe they had become trees themselves, the moonlight dancing on the pond, and the wolves running wild in the night. Every now and then, someone would catch a glimpse of the women of the wild.
“Their skin was of tree barks, their faces wrinkled as dry earth, their hair white as pale moonlight.”
What happens to them later, she used to ask.
“They become one with the earth,” was the usual reply.
Isn’t that what we all become, she kept thinking, we all go back to where we came from.
“You will keep growing even after your death because your children are your seeds.”
She had found it silly. I will keep growing after my death even if I don’t have kids, because my body will belong to earth from which new sprouts will flourish.
“You already sound mad,” some had laughed.
She did not think she was losing her mind. She knew that others did not truly believe that either because she caught glimpses of a longing in their eyes when they looked at their own bodies and each other’s, already missing the traces of a lifetime lived together. Would you keep your skin as it is if a man would accept you as you are? The little girls had shouted yes when she asked; her peers had sighed; the old women had merely smiled.
“What makes you think I haven’t kept it?” her grandma had replied.
She had looked at her grandma’s pale white skin with nothing but white reflecting off its surface, no fingerprints of the earth.
“Just because you cannot see it does not mean it is not still there,” her grandma had said.
She had heard the stories of the women of the old, their mythical ancestors, a thousand times, but when her grandmother told it, the words crackled like fire in her ears. She heard the fury of their ancestors in her grandmother’s voice, women who refused to marry the men of their warring tribes who were bickering over pieces of land. “Silly how men need to own the land to feel safe,” her grandma would laugh. We change, we grow, we adapt, was their mantra. When the men of the warring tribes threatened to use force, their ancestors did not hesitate to step into the fire and emerged from the flames unburnt with their tattoos ablaze with vibrant colors. The men’s fingertips caught fire when they tried to touch their skin; her ancestors vowed to remain untouchable until men stopped laying claim over the land and their bodies. Only then did her ancestors step into the water and extinguish the flames on their skin.
“We love because we choose to do so.”
She knew that she no longer believed in those myths; life was never as simple as the stories made it out to be. For one thing, there was more to people than simply being men or women. Many of her siblings refused to fit into either title. The elders granted them their freedom to leave and live as they liked, but there was rejection in their tolerance. “You can exist,” she imagined them saying, “but you do not have a place in our stories.” Like women born in a man’s body, or men born in a woman’s body. You tell me my body is not everything, but you act like it defines us, she thought. Who dictates what is natural?
Who says I should only fall in love with men?
But no one talked about loving, at the end of the day. To be loved was all that mattered. Yet she could not blame them. After all, she was also afraid of being unloved, of being left behind by her siblings for the affection of a man, sitting lonely in the shades of trees that they once shared. She had come here every summer with the women of her tribe: celebrating the siblings who got their first tattoos, who bled for the first time, who nurtured another human life inside of them, who were passing into old age, who were welcoming death, and who were now of age like her. To pass through the waterfall was the tradition, a way of honoring their ancestors and their sisterhood. To stay in the forest would be to watch all the women she cared for leave without her. What would remain of her if she abandoned the ones she loved?
On the twelfth full moon of her eighteenth year, she followed her sisters to the waterfall. The moonlight reflected off their skins, their scraped knees, sunburnt cheeks, calloused hands, and cracks of old wounds. She watched as her sisters stepped into the waterfall, their skin glowing briefly before they disappeared into the curtain of water.
“I love because I choose to do so,” she whispered as she followed. And she emerged from the water with her tattoos bright with colors: untouched.