The classic tragedy that is at the core of the story you’re about to read opens an amazing artistic dialogue between the Mediterranean culture/sounds/fragrances and that of the author's present home in Australia. The characters are drawing the reader into the depths of an archetypal setting where everyone is invited to get mesmerized, frightened and overwhelmed...
The Long Lonely Road is, as the author, Dmetri Kakmi, explains, “loosely based on a fable I grew up hearing while growing up in Turkey”.
Dmetri Kakmi was born in 1961 on the island of Tenedos (called "Bozcaada" since its annexation by Turkey in 1923) to Greek parents. The family migrated to Australia in 1971 when Kakmi was 10 years old. He returned to Tenedos 28 years later, and then only for a visit. His fictionalized memoir of growing up on the island titled Mother Land (2008) was shortlisted for the New South Wales Premier’s Literary Awards in Australia; and is published in England and Turkey. He edited the acclaimed children’s anthology When We Were Young. The ghost story "The Boy by the Gate" was reprinted in The Year’s Best Australian Fantasy and Horror 2013. "Haunting Matilda" is published in Cthulhu: Deep Down Under and was shortlisted in the Aurealis Awards Best Fantasy Novella category in 2015. His essays and short stories appear in anthologies and journals. He lives in Melbourne.
He writes a monthly column Pensive Prowler for The Drunken Odyssey.
And here you can read about the long road to publishing of The Long lonely Road. Thank you, Dmetri!
The Long Lonely Road
On an island, in a forgotten corner of the Aegean Sea, lived a boy. His name was Ali.
One fine morning he was dressing in his room. He and his mother were going to the country on an errand.
Ali bounded down the stairs, tucking his white shirt in his shorts. He sat on a stool and slipped on brown sandals, while his dog Olala frolicked at his feet.
'There you are,' Ali's mother said. 'Quickly, get on the donkey. We’ve lots to do today.’
At a mere four years old, Ali was too small to get on the donkey by himself. His mother had to hoist him on to the saddle that was strapped to the animal’s back. Two large wicker baskets called panniers hung either side of the saddle, grazing the backs of Ali's bare legs.
Off they went through the streets. It was eerily quiet. There was not a soul in sight.
The donkey’s name was Locomotive. He was a skittish beast, always on the look out for someone or something to bite or kick. It was said that he could outrun a train without trying.
Truth be told, Ali was scared of Locomotive. But he did not let on. He wanted his mother to think him brave; and his mother needed to believe that her son was brave, too, because Ali’s father was dead and they were alone in the world. The mother still grieved in the dead of night, sobbing quietly in her lonesome pillow. Yet Ali could barely remember the man’s face.
On the road that leads out of town, they passed the primary school. Coming from inside, Ali heard students reciting lessons in clear, sparrow-like voices.
'When can I go to school?’
‘You like learning, do you?’
The mother did not see her son nod because she was facing forward. Her sights were set on the mission at hand.
'Don't be in a hurry to grow up,’ she said after a while. Her long dark hair was pulled back in a light blue headscarf that fluttered at the nape.
They came to the edge of the village. The cobbles ended and the houses stopped. The narrow street became a dusty road that coiled to the horizon.
Ali's mother tugged the donkey's lead. With one step, they entered the countryside. Olala trotted ahead, flushing birds out of the shrubbery, happy as can be.
Ali’s mother had said they were going to the country house to clean up before moving to town for the winter. But Ali was confused. They did that last week. Maybe his mother had forgotten something, he thought, and contented himself with studying the bare hills that almost nudged the edges of the road.
Ali was rattled. When he looked at the back of his mother’s head, it was almost as if she had turned her back on him once and for all. As if she hated him and didn’t want him any more. Of course that couldn’t be true. His mother loved him and he loved her. And yet there was something wrong about her bearing that day. About the way she didn’t look at him and the way her mouth was set, like a stubborn line drawn with a ruler on the page.
At a fork in the road, they passed the smithy. It was an odd place and it fascinated Ali.
Aside from the high ringing sound of metal on metal, he loved the sparks that flew out the door and two windows. He imagined that a dragon lived inside, crackling blazes in its sleep. The ramshackle building seemed to have fallen from the sky one stormy night, thrown together with scraps of wood, rock, metal and bits of glass.
There were rumours about the man who lived there. Some said he was a djinni in charge of fire and dust. Others claimed he was the god Hephaestus, son of Zeus, come to earth to set up his divine forge. He was certainly ugly enough to pass for the gods’ blacksmith. Looking at the strange tumbledown house, Ali believed it was all true and it made his small frame shiver with pure delight.
He eyed the yard enviously. It would be nice to play there one day. First he needed to make friends with the blacksmith.
Ali's mother was not impressed.
'What an eyesore,' she grumbled. 'What a din! Oh, my ears. Let's get out of here.'
Olala barked, a high, shrill offering to the air. She really did seem very happy that day.
The blacksmith came to the door. As Ali's grandmother liked to say, he was not the sort of man you want to meet in a dark alley. He was giant of a man. The eyes glinted out of a begrimed face. Red hair flamed from the crown of his head, stiff as the straw on a broomstick. Standing there, filling the doorway with his huge frame, it looked like he was made of stone and fire.
The apprentice, a beanpole of a boy with coal-black hair and big dark eyes, stood behind the blacksmith.
Ali waved to them but the men merely stared in his direction. The blacksmith muttered something. Then he pushed the apprentice inside and slammed the door.
Ali was crestfallen. He really wanted the men to be his friends. Olala dashed to the smithy and barked at the closed door. Ali knew she hated it when someone hurt his feelings.
‘Get away from here, you devil’s cur,’ the man shouted from inside.
‘Olala, come here at once,' Ali's mother snapped.
The white terrier trotted back, ears flattened to her skull. Ali's mother put down her head and kept going.
Ali turned in the saddle. ‘See you later,' he called to the blacksmith and his apprentice.
'Be quiet,' his mother hissed. 'Talking too much is a sin.'
His mother shrugged. 'I don't know. It's what they say.'
From there on, they were in open country – the four of them, sliding between wedges of silence that slipped down from the steep hilltops to invade the empty valley. Fields, vineyards, orchards and olive groves went on for miles, grazing the flinty shore where sea met sun-burnished soil.
The sun rose high in the sky. It beat down like an anvil.
‘Where’s your hat?’ Ali’s mother said, turning to look at him.
‘I forgot to bring it.’
The mother removed a yellow bandana from a cloth shoulder bag and tied a knot in each corner. She placed the makeshift hat on Ali's head.
‘You don’t want to get sunburned.’ She kissed him on the forehead and then went back to take hold of the donkey’s reins. They set off again with an encouraging word to Locomotive.
The sun rose higher and higher. It was almost at its peak. And it burned, almost as hot as summer.
Ali was drowsy. The sound of hooves on dusty road, the squeak of the swaying saddle, the movement of his mother's head as she walked, moving from one leg to the other, the seesawing landscape, everything made him very sleepy.
His eyes drooped. He tilted forward in his seat. And then he tilted sideways. Olala barked a warning and Ali's head snapped back. His eyes flew open and he sat up straight in the saddle. He had almost fallen asleep on the donkey’s back. That's dangerous. You could fall off and then what?
After a while, Ali's eyes fluttered again. The swaying saddle reminded him of his mother singing a lullaby while he slept in the crib that swung back and forth, back and forth from two sturdy ropes tied to the wooden beams in the ceiling of their house, when he was a baby. It seemed so very long ago. Yet he remembered it as if it was yesterday.
His eyes closed and he slept. His body lolled from side to side, and tilted dangerously forward.
As he slowly descended into the netherworld that takes all for a few hours every night, Ali felt a pressure on his heart. It was as if someone had placed a heavy rock on his chest. His lungs almost burst and he struggled to breathe. He thought that he might be suffocating, but by that stage he was well and truly asleep and in another world.
This time Olala did not bark. She was chasing skinks in the sunburned grass. And Ali's mother watched the road ahead, not her boy.
Ali’s hands released their grip on the saddle handles and, without making a sound, he toppled off Locomotive’s back.
Ali’s mother said something about the fig trees in Uncle Atlas’s property. When Ali did not respond, she turned and froze to the spot. The saddle was empty. Her son had vanished.
She let out a yelp. Locomotive’s head jerked back, startled. Olala yipped and rushed over to see what was happening.
'Ali!' the mother called. She ran hither and yon, searching the roadside.
There was no answer. Only silence and empty sky. Insects in the long grass.
Being more or less a young girl herself, she was frightened out of her wits. She tied Locomotive to an almond sapling and raced helter-skelter back the way she came, calling her son's name and searching ditches. She was sure he had fallen off and was lying unconscious.
After the loss of her husband, she couldn’t afford to lose her son as well. What will people say? That she was careless, she supposed. And that she got what she deserved. Bad woman that she was.
In this way, she ran more than half way back to the village. The island echoed with her lamentations. Everyone heard. Women in the village poked their heads out of windows and men in fields straightened their backs to see what was going on. Dogs howled in backyards.
But no one came to her aid. They had seen all this before and they knew better than to interfere.
Exhausted, Ali’s mother collapsed by the roadside and started to cry. She was almost at the blacksmith’s door.
She might as well face facts. Ali was gone.
'Where could he be?’ she wailed, throwing dust in the air and rubbing it in her face and hair.
Olala bounded beside her, yipping, trying to tell her something. But the poor woman did not understand dog. Only the language of man.
'Find him, you wretch.’ She pushed the dog away. 'What good are you?'
Meanwhile, Ali woke up. He was squashed in an uncomfortable position, and his face was pressed against a hard, scratchy surface. Where could he be? He had trouble breathing. He gasped for air and tried to open his eyes. They were sticky as glue. His mouth tasted bad and he felt as if he was rising to the surface from great oceanic depths known perhaps only to his fisherman father.
Then he heard his mother’s voice. She sounded faint, distant, as though she was in another world.
He opened his eyes and took a desperate gulp of air. His lungs almost burst. They hurt inside his ribcage. And for some reason, he was upside down, stuffed in a confined, narrow space.
With difficulty, he managed to turn around and climbed to his feet. The top of his head popped out first, followed by his eyes. He was inside a basket. He had not fallen to the ground after all. He was inside one of the big wicker baskets on Locomotive’s back. If his mother had searched, she would have seen him immediately.
Ali looked around. His mother was gone. So was Olala. He was alone, inside a basket on Locomotive’s back.
The animal glared at Ali with open hostility. Then he began to bray and tug at the reins. Thankfully, Ali's mother knew how to tie a strong knot.
Ali leaped out of the basket and scooted away from the flying hooves. Straightening the bandana on his head, he looked around.
'Mum?' he said, anxious and afraid.
There was no answer. He had to face facts. For some reason, his mother had abandoned him, like children in fairy stories left to fend for themselves in wolf-haunted forests. And like the children in fairy stories, he knew he had to prove himself by making his way home. He could walk, but he didn’t want to leave Locomotive. Someone might come along and steal him.
Ali had an idea. This was a test. Even though he was terrified of Locomotive, he had to be strong and ride the animal home. That way his mother would know of her son’s bravery and she would never leave him alone again.
He checked his pockets for an apple or a carrot with which to bribe the animal. There was nothing. A nearby apricot tree was bare.
All right, Ali thought, I have to rely on my wits.
He took a deep breath and faced Locomotive. They eyed each other with great suspicion and mistrust, the animal and the boy.
After many failed attempts, falls and scuffles in the dust, Ali managed to clamber on Locomotive’s back. It was not easy. First he had to stand on a log while the donkey shimmied and skited away and tried to bite with big yellow teeth.
When Ali was finally in the saddle, he grabbed the handles and held on. Then he leaned forward and carefully untied the reins around the sapling.
Locomotive bolted as if he had been shot out of a canon, madly bucking and braying, all the way back to town.
Ali held on for dear life, his eyes shut tight and his mouth open in a high-pitched wail.
Ali's mother heard. She leaped to her feet. It sounded as if Ali's voice had fallen from the sky. Surely her son wasn’t calling from heaven. Then she heard the shrill cry again. It came from a distance to be sure, but it was definitely coming from solid ground. Not paradise.
Drying her tears, she pulled herself together and raced in the direction of Ali’s voice.
In no time at all, she saw a huge dust cloud on the horizon. It gathered force and sped her way, covering the road from one side to other as it twisted and turned, like boiling clouds before a storm.
She froze to the spot, mystified. What could it be? And what was the horrible noise coming from inside the white mass?
A scream. Her horror doubled. A djinni had Ali in his clutches, for sure. She ran faster, her arms outspread as thought to embrace the world and undo the undoable. She would do anything to save her little boy and she was mightily sorry for leaving him alone.
The dust cloud and the woman raced toward each other from opposite ends of the road. As they came closer, she saw frightening, bewildering shapes moving inside. It was a vision from hell, a terrible djinni with many flailing limbs and wings, emitting unearthly cries from a huge jagged maw. She knew without a doubt that it had come to punish her for her sins.
When the dust cloud was almost upon Ali's mother, her courage failed. She hesitated and stepped aside. In that instant, the cloud swirled by in a pandemonium.
Seconds before she closed her eyes to stop dust from getting in them, she saw Ali go past at speed, raised several feet from the ground.
'Maaaaaaa,' he wailed.
'He-haw, he-haw, he-haw,’ brayed Locomotive.
The mother was relieved. It was not a djinni after all. It was her boy on the donkey’s back. She cursed herself for her folly and raced after them. But she didn’t stand a chance. Locomotive was too fast. Try as she might, she couldn’t catch up.
As if the sight of Ali clinging to the back of a crazed animal was not enough to drive her crazy, she now saw something far worse.
A giant with flaming red hair appeared out of the maelstrom and ran towards the donkey and the boy. The ifrit, for surely that’s what it was, held a green plant in his hand; and, as he charged at Locomotive, he flicked a thick hairy wrist and released a spray of water from the glistening leaves.
The droplets of water flew through the air in slow motion, each bead a sparkling world with a rainbow inside it.
One and then two beads of water hit Locomotive on the forehead. The donkey howled and came to a sudden halt.
Ali froze on the animal’s back, eyes wide open.
It turned out the ifrit with the red hair was the blacksmith, half naked and grimy with soot; nonetheless, he was fearsome as a demon as he dipped a sprig of basil into a small jar in his other hand and sprayed more water over the scene, shouting prayers in a loud voice.
Ali said, ‘What are you doing?’
Summing up the last of her strength, Ali’s mother ran up, scooped the boy in her arms, and backed away from the blacksmith.
‘Go back to hell,’ the blacksmith yelled. ‘Leave this town in peace.’
He dipped the basil in the jar again and flung water on Ali’s mother. Some of it hit Ali’s cheek. It burned, causing his skin to flake and peel.
Ali’s mother stared at the man in mute horror. ‘Please…’ she managed to say.
‘Be gone,’ the blacksmith cried. ‘Release us from your spell, demon.’
‘Have pity,’ the mother cried, but already Ali felt an enervating coldness in his bones. In seconds he was transparently blue and fading fast as mist in the morning sun, so that the light passed through him and fell on the stones visible through his mother’s transparent feet. Locomotive turned to grey gauze and faded with a faint bray. There was a loud bang, like thunder. His mother’s head bloomed into a large crimson flower, a hibiscus or an iris, and lashed insanely from side to side. It wavered on the stalk of neck before blowing away in the breeze. Her arms did not release Ali so much as simply ceased to hold him. She stepped back and vanished.
Floating five feet above the ground, Ali had time to lock eyes with the blacksmith before he too vanished. In the instant before all sight ended for him, he found himself atop a rocky crag, looking down the steep hillside towards the bluest sea in creation. A tall man waved to him from a familiar fishing vessel.
Then that too faded and Ali was no more.
Olala came to sniff the ground at the blacksmith’s feet. He stamped his foot and shooed her away.
The dog tucked her tail between her legs and scooted off.
‘What in the name of God almighty was that?’ cried the apprentice. His body trembled inside the threadbare clothes on his back, despite the heat.
The blacksmith said, ‘It’s a sad story, lad. Happened years ago, before you came to this accursed village for your apprenticeship…’
‘But what was it, Uncle?’ the boy persisted. ‘Those things. Were they ghouls?’
The blacksmith shook his head. ‘Ghosts,’ he said.
The apprentice muttered a prayer under his breath and said, ‘Ghosts, in daylight?’
‘The mother went mad after her husband drowned at sea,’ the blacksmith continued as if he hadn’t heard the boy.
‘She took her son out to their country house and smothered him. Then she pretended bandits kidnapped him. The police found the poor kid a day or so later. He’d been suffocated and stuffed in one of those cane baskets you put on a donkey. When the police came for the mother, she shot the donkey with a shotgun and blew her head off. Heaven knows how the dog escaped.’ The blacksmith shook his head before adding: ‘Her name was Ebru. The boy was Ali. He would have been about nine if he lived.’
The blacksmith cast a wary eye at Olala.
The white terrier crouched under a carob tree and watched him speak the familiar names: Ali, Ebru. Yes, she knew the names well. They were burned in her memory. There was a time when either one of those names spoken aloud would have caused purest delight. She would have shoot to her feet and come running. But the owners of the names were now gone and who knew how long she, Olala, would last? She was getting on in years herself. All she knew was that they came back once a year for a brief visit, before going back to wherever they came from.
‘That cursed dog knows when they’re coming back,’ the blacksmith went on. ‘She alerted me to their presence this morning. When she went past, I knew we were in for a hell of a day. So I armed myself with holy water from the Zamzam well. It wards off evil spirits, you know.’
‘Will they come back?’
‘You can bet on it,’ the older man replied, letting the basil slip from his fingers to the ground. ‘Every year to the day, like clockwork.’ He laid a hand on the boy’s shoulder. ‘Let’s get back to work. We’ve lots to do today.’
The blacksmith and his apprentice went back to the smithy. The basil sprig wilted in the sun. A northerly wind swept the land, causing a spiral of dust to rise in the midday sun and dance along the road as it coiled towards the higgledy-piggledy building, there to break against the stone fence.
After a while, Olala came out from under the carob tree and made her way to the ruined windmill on the hill, there to wait for that glorious day when Ali, Ebru and yes even grumpy old Locomotive will call her name.
‘Olala, where are you? Olala, come quick. We’re going to the country.’
Photos credits of the island of Tenedos/Bozcaada - Unknown. All efforts have been made to trace the copyright owners.