Sandstorm
Natalie Sharp


Somewhere in the tourist-trampled sands of Tlos, in Kalkan, Turkey, lies the tomb of Bellerophon. Outside, a crumbling façade bears a relief of the legendary Greek warrior astride his winged horse, Pegasus.

I have never ridden a horse. At first they seemed like the stuff of little white girls’ dreams, always puffy and pale with technicolor manes. Eventually, I outgrew the age where the desire for a pony seemed most natural, though I would sometimes open a worn oak cabinet in our living room to study a photo: my mother and father on horseback somewhere in the Bahamas, leaning in to kiss. I thought that maybe one day someone would take me to transparent waters and press their mouth against mine in time with the aperture. What I mean is, I hoped to be exposed.

In 1995, Martin Parr snapped a picture of an obvious visitor—holding a clunky camcorder, dressed inappropriately for the desert—being led through Kalkan. The visitor sits atop a mud-colored horse, his white legs lightly gripping the floral-print saddle cover. I wonder, looking at the creature’s downturned gaze and bowed posture, when horses lost their wings. What I feel most drawn to in this image is neither the mountains nor the men, but the fence posts. I imagine them so dry it hurts to stand, turned jagged by a land of conflict and the impulse to defy sky.

When I was six, on a day so bright it burned at the edges, my father’s brains got smashed in by a tank. I don’t remember crying until someone was watching expectantly. That someone, the Army messenger with the worst job, handed me a ham and cheese sandwich on white bread. I have always hated white bread, and I secretly wonder if this disappointing sandwich, rather than the loss of the man, was the culprit behind my tears.

What happens is that reporters start to die and disappear. The Reporters Sans Frontières website reminds me that people have lost their lives doing Parr’s work, for trying to prove that in the warzones reduced to military jargon like “collateral damage” and “casualties,” other humans were there.

Bellerophon is said to have slain the Chimera by suffocating her with lead. Maybe the wings of Pegasus came to sound like battle drums as they beat the air. Maybe the Chimera resented being an errand of reputation, choking on Bellerophon’s efforts to clear his name. Either way, Bellerophon was the grandson of Sisyphus. His unfortunate genetic inheritance meant that he would never amount to much more than a rock and a mountain.

Regarding the women in my lineage, I know that both my mother and my father’s mother have maiden names like jazz. What I know of myself is that my name, itself a note, has always gotten in the way. I know two things about my paternal grandfather: He died of cirrhosis in 1971. He had beautiful white teeth.

I don’t think anyone means to end up with an alcoholic. But after Desert Storm, my father could finish a six pack by himself in one sitting, could argue with my mother in the adjacent room for hours. And in the tradition of nothing good ever happening in the desert, he died alone in the California sand.

The (at least) 2,552 deaths since mid-2015 in the conflict between Kurdish (PKK) and Turkish forces barely reach Kalkan, where the white sand beaches and red-brown mountains still draw mostly UK tourists to this day. Only two PKK fighters have been “neutralized” in the region. Visitor websites and reviews say, “unspoiled,” “secluded.”

Shortly after my fourteenth birthday, in one of the quiet back bedrooms of my childhood home, my older stepbrother pushed his wet hips forcefully against my ass. Even then, I thought, He’s too big to fuck a virgin this way—but I didn’t fight him, and anyway, there was no blood. I wanted the validation of a man who would engage in the taboo for me, some proof that, See, I’m pretty too. Mostly I feel guilty, like I made a war out of another black boy. His daughters have nice teeth. I never look his wife in the eyes.

Once while driving “Big Black,” his F-250, my stepdad swerved around a plastic bag in the road. The thin bag followed us like an amorphous white threat on the heels of his third and final R&R, or “rest and relaxation.” It’s funny because “R&R” is the two weeks Army men get between deserts. It’s funny because he rarely slept.

The surviving fragments of Euripedes’ Bellerophontes suggest that, seeing the injustice of the world, the inactivity of the gods, Bellerophon ceased to believe in their existence and became one of the first atheists. He attempted to storm Mount Olympus with his winged companion, motives unknown, scholars say, but Zeus thwarted Bellerophon, taking Pegasus and hurtling the proud hero to the cracked earth. Euripedes wrote a wounded Bellerophon returning to the stage. He repented of his blasphemy. Then he died.

I imagine my mother carried cartoonishly forward by the scent of sex emanating from the other side of the house. Finding me freshly unknotted from her new son, she cried, called a friend—These stupid motherfucking kids—screamed, beat me, put a sleeping bag by her bed and my pillow at the head of it. I lay awake every night with old words of hers singing through me. All we really want out of this life is love.

In December 2015, International Crisis Group published a briefing entitled, “A Sisyphean Task? Resuming Turkey-PKK Peace Talks.” In it, ICG notes that “during the 2.5-year ceasefire, when peace talks were ongoing, both sides simultaneously prepared for fighting, in case negotiations failed.”

I made the invitations, place cards, and programs in Photoshop for my mother’s second wedding. She and my stepdad married on base, 100 feet or so from a display helicopter. In one photo, he holds her and she kicks up a leg, smiling girlishly. I colorized it, graying out his dress blues, their glowing skin, leaving only the red untouched.

By the time the ICG published its briefing, PKK forces had barricaded portions of the cities where they lived, declaring their autonomy. In the streets of southeastern Turkey, the Patriotic Revolutionary Youth Movement skirmished with Turkish security forces. ICG cites at least 219 deaths of individuals between ages 16 and 35.

As each of them turned 18, all three of my stepbrothers joined the Air Force, signing on beyond the four-year minimum. In their official pictures, they are not men, but rather expanses of brown in service of the state. Even the youngest one, three years my junior, looks hardened with all his hair cut off, unsmiling eyes against the US flag. I would like to think my father’s first military picture carries, rather than rigid patriotism, an air of innocence. But I have been known to show bias. I have been hurtling toward a blinding sandstorm since I was six years old.

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