A traveler sees a pair of headlights disappear near the Black Sea in Turkey and goes to investigate. This story was chosen as a runner-up of the Wrong Turns travel writing competition.
As usual, Reza is behind the wheel of his old Mercedes. He is not much of a conversationalist, and I cannot read without getting car sick, so I pass the miles either looking out the window or sleeping. Engaging with the latter, I drift off.
When I open my eyes again, the first thing I see is a cluster of three shepherds squatting on their heels. Around them several dozen fat-tailed sheep are foraging on the meager clumps of vegetation. Except for the slow turning of heads as they watch us pass, the sheep and their caretakers are motionless. Shepherds must think a lot as they tend their flocks. Aren’t they the ones who invented astronomy out here? Maybe a religion or two?
We are following the curves of the Black Sea’s southern coast. I find myself fixating on the surface of the pavement – they call it macadam here. It is higher than the surrounding land by half a meter, and in my dozy state, I convince myself our tires are rolling on the top layer of a stack of fossil roads. I imagine Alexander’s legions tramping over the bottom-most road, his warriors athwart battle elephants.
I see the first planet low in the western sky. It might be Venus chasing the sun. I bet those shepherds would know.
It is late to be finding a place to camp for the night when Reza turns off the lightly traveled coastal road and steers up a promising gravel track. We stop on the crest of a hillock covered with wildflowers. A low wall of stacked rocks crosses our modest Turkish summit. The site seems to have all the makings of a peaceful bivouac.
As the cooling engine crackles, something on the wall of lichen-splotched rocks catches my eye. In the fading light, I borrow Reza’s flashlight for a closer look. I discover several stones bearing weathered figures in bas-relief. Thinking Reza might know something about this, I call him over. He gives the stones a quick once-over and says, “I’ve seen these in Iran, too. When farmers clear rocks from their fields, they sometimes come upon bits from old civilizations. Whether Greek, Roman, or Persian I can’t say. I suppose it was just practical for them to incorporate this stuff into their walls.”
“It’s more than just stuff.”
“You think the farmers should call in an archaeologist every time they find a rock with some marks on it?”
I do not answer. I think the chiseled stones should be in a museum.
The air is redolent with the scent of wildflowers as Reza sets our little stove, rather impertinently I think, on a slab of rock etched with ancient history. I turn my gaze down the hill toward the Black Sea. The empty road is dissolving into an increasingly starry night. Beyond the macadam, the water is already invisible, but just knowing it is close is enough for me. I kneel, twist the valve on the small propane tank and, thinking once more of that old man in the souk, strike a match.
Not a single vehicle has passed since we stopped. Our hilltop is quiet. Reza is studying tomorrow’s route. I am staring at the blue flames hissing beneath our one-pan meal when a distant hum of tires on macadam draws my attention. A car is passing on the road below us, a pool of light following the highway’s curves. All at once the vehicle’s headlights go crazy, flashing left, up, away…and then the silence returns as if nothing in the world has changed. Did I actually just see a car run off the road?
Alarmed and a bit confused, I glance at Reza. The look on his face mirrors my incredulity.
“You see that?”
“Did a car just go off the road?”
“I’m pretty sure that’s what I saw.”
“We better check it out.”
I leap up and slip my feet into my red sneakers without bothering to tie the laces. Reza grabs the flashlight, and we take off fast-walking down the hill. Reaching the empty road, we jog across the two lanes and stop at the precipice where a car may or may not have gone over. A moan floats up from the darkness below. Reza sweeps the flashlight’s beam until it finds a car on its side at the edge of the Black Sea. I think I see steam rising from the shadowy hulk. Or maybe it’s smoke. When did my mouth get so dry?
I know CPR and a little first aid. I react with speed.
“Reza, stay here and flag down a car, get us some help. I’m going down there and see what I can do. Better if it’s you standing in the middle of the road in the dark.”
“A Jewish American woman flagging down Muslim men in the dark? Are you kidding?
If he replies, I don’t hear him. I snatch the flashlight from his hand and charge down the embankment accompanied by a landslide of pebbles and dirt. Somehow, I’m still on my feet, sneakers full of grit, when I arrive at the vehicle. It is a smashed-up Land Rover. It has come to rest, left side down, on the cobblestone beach. Dark water laps at the car. I hear more groaning. The flashlight reveals a semiconscious man in front, face bloodied. I see another person in back, totally unconscious, but at least I see no bleeding. Then, I smell petrol, and not quite panicking, I start moving faster. The passenger’s door is jammed. Shivering with adrenaline, I hurry to the rear of the car. Standing in the surging water, I pull on the back door. It resists. I set my feet and pull harder. Finally something lets go, and the door flies open. I jump back. One of my sneakers gets caught in the cobbles and slips off. It disappears into the liminal space between water, air, and shore.
At that precarious moment, the loom of headlights arcs across the darkness above me. Loud voices, strident and rapid, reach my ears. A few seconds later, Reza comes sliding down the slope followed by four men and a torrent of stones. In their rush, the men appear surprised to find a woman standing in the dark at the back of the crashed car. At first they seem to think I came out of the Land Rover, but then Reza says something that makes them all look into the car’s dark interior. I am planning on evaluating the victims’ injuries and maybe immobilizing their heads, but the four Turks have other ideas. They literally push me aside and start pulling the driver and his silent passenger from the car. I make a cautionary remark, but it is like I am not even there. A moment later, they are hauling the injured men up the slope.
Wearing only one shoe, I scramble back up to the road. Reaching the pavement, I see a taxi van, headlights on, engine running. The victims are already inside. Reza is talking to the Turks through the driver’s window. It is obvious they have no intention of including me in the conversation. A minute later, the crowded taxi-van speeds away with the injured men. The road is empty once more, and silence returns.
When we get back to our little camp, dinner is burned and smoking. In my haste, I forgot to turn off the stove. We scarf down jam and two-day-old flatbread before slipping into our sleeping bags.
* * *
The next morning, we drive off in the direction the taxi went. Ten clicks down the road, we come to a small town, where we park in front of a tiny, white-washed, cinderblock building with a large red crescent hand painted on the front wall. We go in, and Reza tells our story to the only medical person there, whether a nurse or aide I cannot say. We are only allowed to see one of the injured men, the driver. His face is bruised and bandaged, and he appears incoherent. I look at the victim’s chart. The circles and arrows seem to indicate a concussion and a dislocated shoulder. As we take our leave, I realize the nurse has no idea who we are, what awfulness befell the men, or how they got to the clinic. I feel like I am in an episode of the Twilight Zone.
As we are getting back into the car, I say to Reza, “Of all the places we could’ve camped, we happened to be right up the hill from where those guys ran off the road!”
“True. If we’d been looking any other direction, they probably wouldn’t be alive today, Insha’Allah.”
Reza returns to silent mode, puts on his mirrored shades, and relaxes into a slouch behind the wheel. He starts the engine, and we begin driving east again. The rising hum of tires on macadam sounds a lot like my destiny calling.