TRESPASSING IN AN OVERLOOKED PLACE.
Beside my house there’s a vast wooded lot which both fascinates and haunts me. It has a voice. Looking outside our side windows, I see tall, ivy entwined trees and long weeds obscuring a darkening western sky. This overgrown, unkempt expanse feels both beautiful and malevolent. One of the pines—old, gnarled and unforgiving as Chronos himself—looms over the gully separating our balcony, and regularly dumps branches without warning or even a whisper of wind. He’s like a neighbor who never smiles or meets your eye but wears a constant sneer.
Three weeks after we’d moved into our apartment one of our cats answered the nocturnal calls of this strange wood. As soon as we took up residence, the cat itself started howling out in a new voice, as if answering some inaudible cry that stirred from without. Despite the baying of dogs, and the fact that he’d previously lived a spoon-fed Nisantasi existence, Jarvis couldn’t resist the pull of this place. We never saw him again.
It’s something unusual this unkempt grove. It’s prime real estate, owned but not developed. I’m told that once upon a time it was slated for a project, but then the deal and the permission fell through. Usually, high fences, CCTV cams, barbed or even razor-wire deter wanders from such places, but this one only has a hedge. On occasion I see the odd Romani in the wood, usually represented by no more than a knit cap poking above the tall grasses.
Yesterday afternoon, I answered the call, and disappeared into the wood.
OPEN OR CLOSED? WHAT DOES THIS BREAK IN THE GATE MEAN?
First, I walk up the road to gain entry. There’s a shambling stone fence, no more than a meter high, which is easy to hop, but atop it someone has stacked bunched branches as a deterrent. Nowhere does a sign say: NO TRESPASSING, or its Turkish equivalent, it’s more implied by the old stone and makeshift barriers.
Just before the road forks, there’s a broken gate through which you can slip. But to be honest the house beside, all smashed and abandoned gives me a serious case of the creeps. After peering at the entrance for a moment or two, firing off a few pictures, I decide to go back down the road and climb the wall within sight of my home to gain entry.
It’s much less forbidding place to enter here, and the proximity of my house and living, breathing residents is reassuring. Once over the wall and inside the perimeter of trees I realize it’s not such a forest at all, that the trees deceive you somewhat. There are many clearings, where Romani or someone other secretive people are cultivating some crop. And there are more stone walls, either old fences or overgrown foundations. Whatever, it’s clear that people once inhabited and still use this land. The smell of wood smoke filters through the trees. Someone is still here, somewhere.
The guilty feeling of trespassing never quite leaves me. But, camera in hand, I feel somewhat less criminal. If challenged, a simple shrug of the shoulders, a gesture with the Nikon, and pointing back home should be enough, right?
That’s what I continue to tell myself.
As I probe deeper I make newer discoveries. Well hidden from view in every direction are what looks like makeshift miniature gecekondu (shanties) concealed inside a stand of trees. Someone’s making honey. I’m not sure I’d want these golden honeycombs though, as the hives are constructed from old peeling painted wood scraps, brick and roofs made from corrugated asbestos sheets. Organic honey? Not quite.
MAKESHIFT ROMANI BEE SHANTIES.
As I crouch to inspect and snap the hives, there’s a rustle over my shoulder. Unlike the sacred bees who hum along, ignorant or unconcerned by my presence, I’ve drawn someone else’s attention. I jump up and twist around at the same time, not a graceful or intimidating gesture.
Or, so I think.
Scrawny, shivering and far more pitiful than scary, the dog cocks its head at me in wonder. What are you doing here? is not so much the challenge, but the question suggested by its gesture. A simple “hello” knocks the dog back two steps.
One of the reasons I find this place so intimidating is the baying of dogs after dark. And I’m a certified dog-lover. I’m not afraid of, and am, in fact, quite fond of the street dogs I encounter during my daily walks here in Istanbul. But the dogs that belong to this wood are menaces, and have been known to corner people in our parking lot. At sunset, the call to prayer sets them howling like the hounds of hell.
GUARDIAN OF THE FORBIDDEN WOOD… ? NOT QUITE.
But this is no satanic canine, merely some scruffy, underfed dog. The click of the shutter makes her retreat three more steps. After taking a few more dog portraits, I go on my way, slightly emboldened. Unconsciously my steps take me back towards the abandoned house. There’s an old well, dark with brackish water. Perhaps this place isn’t so scary, after all.
Definitely maybe. Despite being close to the perimeter of this strange plot, the abandoned house once again quickens my heart. This building feels wrong. I’m not being scientific, that’s for sure, but how something feels is just as important to me as how something reasons. There may be a perfectly logical explanation for its continued dereliction … but I’m not perfectly logical, am I?
Still, my curiosity gets the better of me. Somebody lived here once. Where did they go?
WILL SOME GRIZZLED FACE APPEAR AT THIS SHATTERED WINDOW? I F____ ING HOPE NOT.
I’m kind of wishing for my canine companion from a few moments ago, but she’s disappeared back into the weeds. Bitch. Maybe she knows something I don’t? Still there’s something impressive about this old building, its texture … it’s kind of like a nobleman in rags, dilapidated but once proud. It tugs at you.
I snap several pictures from a distance of about 10-15 meters. Then I suck in my breath. The casement and the way the light and shadow wash across it are too appealing not to capture.
Finally, I draw close enough to peer through another window, this one slitted by rusted bars. The feeling that some head, grizzled and toothless, will pop up and at me, to cackle or scream at me, never goes away. What is so compelling about this place?
OPTICAL DELUSION: THE HOUSE SEEMS BIGGER INSIDE THAN OUT … AM I MAD? PROBABLY.
A strange notion takes me as I continue to gaze inside the house. It seems, or rather feels bigger on the inside than on the out. Suddenly I’m remembering a book I put down and never picked up years ago — The House of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski — not because it was bad, but because I started having intense nightmares. Its documentary-reality feel was far more terrifying than any Blair Witch Project.
I shake my head and move away from the windows. Get a grip, buddy. It’s time to take a last few shots of the broken gate from the other side. But a feeling that something is watching from over my shoulder persists, and after a few more hurried shots, probably not worth presenting, I slip out through the broken slats in the gate.
Once firmly footed on the solid asphalt I feel intense wave of relief. The sun is suddenly warm, and I’m relieved I passed the courage test. Well, sort of …
Anyway, don’t forget to take your imagination on a stroll this weekend.