This is a wonderful story by my husband Allen Milewski, who, over the years, learned and appreciated Turkish culture. His short story about Bensu reflects a bouquet of life in Turkey tied with strong family relationships. And, he created the name “Bensu”.
Bensu by Allen E. Milewski
Bensu was a fisherman. Rather, Bensu IS a fisherman, though he has not thrown out nets for almost five years. A fisherman in Kekova holds that title forever. Unlike the workers at fish-factory ships sailing under many other country flags, fishing is a profession in Turkey- with all the responsibility and trust of every other profession. When the village women come to buy fish in the mid-morning after most boats have putt-putted their way back into harbor, they may haggle about price and argue about weight, but they do not mistrust the freshness or the tastiness of these fish. These are sweet fish with crystal-clear eyes staring out, surprised, as if one minute they were in their own blue underwater world, inspecting some tasty morsel and the next minute they are laying on their sides gazing at the chattering women as they pass by with their baskets.
Bensu is short but stocky. He has the leathery face and squint of wind and sun. His moustache is a bit bushy and hides the origins of the cigarette that permanently stabs out of his right lip. His preference is a cap sometimes called a worker’s cap, or in very different circumstances, a golf cap. Not a knit cap for Bensu, not even the sailor’s type, and certainly not the Greek Fisherman’s cap popular elsewhere on the Mediterranean. Bensu doesn’t enjoy spending his time, like most of the other older men do, playing backgammon outside the Tea House. He chooses, instead, to sit on the dock and tell stories with the other fishermen. His walk is short-legged and hurried, the forearm-chugging gait of someone who gets things done. It seems all fishermen have this stride. There is little fat on Bensu’s wiry frame, although more than there was when he was younger. During those days he was well-known for his strength. Once, the huge stone his mother-in-law used to press olives into oil slipped off its tree-trunk axle. The donkey whose job it was to trudge along the endless circular path to turn that stone wheel stared at it indifferently as he chewed the remaining hay in his mouth. The wheel was lodged between the axle and the huge stone bowl that collected the thick, pungent oil so the donkey had quickly given up trying to move it. Bensu climbed into the bowl, ankle-deep in greenish muck and lifted the stone back into place. By this act, he should have been considered a hero since it permitted them to continue to produce the oil that they depended on for income. But, Bensu’s mother-in-law was not an easy woman to get along with and not the sort to let a chance for ridicule pass. So, instead of thanking him, she began a chiding that spread across the village for weeks: “does this olive oil smell like Bensu’s feet”? or “what is that dirty line across Bensu’s trousers”? Eventually he recovered, but if the truth be told, he didn’t seem overcome with sadness two years later when the old woman passed on.
While Bensu is his name – and he will not answer to any other – no one knows for certain if it is his original name. It means “I am water” and while that seems absolutely in tune with his profession, it is not one of the common Turkish given names. Further suspicion about its origins comes from an often-repeated story about Bensu when he was a young child. He lived in the village locals called Kale and loved to play around the Lycian tombs and other ruins. But what he loved most was to play at the water’s edge- especially on the small dock down the steep hill from his house. His mother, trying to be a good, careful mother, scolded him furiously every time she found him there. She even punished him with whipping and by denying him Pekmez, the thick grape molasses, with his breakfast bread. But, still every day or two, some villager would walk Bensu back to his house, having found him on the dock talking to the old fishermen or watching one beat an octopus on the wood to make it tender or hanging over the edge of the dock waving his arm in a circular pattern as he propelled a toy boat made of a twig tied to a string. His mother would thank the neighbor and then swat Bensu on the bottom and scream “stay away from the water. You will fall in and then I will be without a child… and lonely as can be! No one to take care of me when I am old”!
Of course, that had no effect on Bensu who already would be planning his next trip to the dock. This time he would take his new boat- a slipper he had found behind old Mehmet’s house. He had tried it- it floated. And, it had an inside to it so he could load it with cargo or stones acting as people. The next chance he got, he went directly down to the dock and launched his prize possession. But the string broke almost immediately and, as he reached quickly for the slipper-boat, he reached too far out and fell with a splash into the water. He was scared, but not of the water. He was scared what his mother would do to him when they fished him out and walked him up the hill to her. So, instead of splashing around and trying to escape to dry land, instead, he stayed half submerged and moved under the shade of the dock. The initial noise of him falling in did attract the attention of one or two fishermen on the dock, but they were busy and no one had actually seen the cause of the noise. Since it didn’t continue, they went about their work sorting the nets. And, Bensu found himself all alone under the creaky wooden structure. Occasionally, someone would walk along the dock and Bensu would see their feet and legs tromping above him. But, every time he thought about calling out, he would remember the swatting and yelling that was sure to happen if he did. So, he stayed put… and silent.
As time came for dinner, of course his mother become worried and then frantic and soon most of the village was looking for Bensu. He saw this happening, at least the searchers walking above him on the dock, and he began to realize that the more that they searched, the more trouble he would be in. So, he stayed put and even more silent – even his breathing. Soon, one of the fishermen recalled the earlier splash and reported it to Bensu’s mother and others. That resulted in ten or twenty people rushing to the dock and peering over the edge into the water. Now, Bensu was really scared and his natural reaction was to wrap himself even tighter behind the rocks and even less visible to the searchers. Even when Ilker dove in to search under the water, Bensu stayed tight in his hiding place. He stayed there while the searchers left sadly. He even stayed while he heard his mother wailing in grief with the other village women. He stayed while the sun set and the coolness of the underdock promptly turned into coldness.
Finally, he could hide no longer. He was cold and hungry and even the fear of a harsh swatting could no longer rule over him. He paddled out of his hiding place and over to the rocks. As he pulled his wet body out of the water, he could see millions of stars all coaxing him home. And, home he went: up the hill toward the wailing of his mother. He quietly opened the door onto a small group of grief-filled family members sitting around the table in the warm, stone house. He stood for several long minutes watching them as an outsider- as if he, indeed, was dead. But finally his mother looked up and recognized her boy standing by the door- sopping wet. She cried out , not able to make a full sentence: “who….who?” The boy looked down guiltily at the small lake he had dripped beneath him and responded in kind: “Bensu!”
Of course he was forgiven and spent the night eating pekmez with bread and kaymak and from that day on he was Bensu.