It is snowing in Istanbul.
The first flakes dampened the hotel steps yesterday as Esma and I returned from touring the palace harem museum and the underground cisterns. All night great feathery wafers floated down from the storehouses in the sky, clumping at the corners of our window, heaping up on the tiny balcony, layering onto the rooftops that cascade down the hillside below us. This morning tropical palm trunks are plastered in the icy white of vapor incarnate, and thin arms of Judas trees shiver in sleeves of thorny frost.
"You'd think Uncle Murat would have warned me that it snows in Istanbul," Esma says after breakfast, as we bundle up for another day of sightseeing.
"Nothing like the blizzard we left behind." It's the wind that gets to me, not the snow. My seatmate on the first leg, flushed with sweat and fiddling with a rosary, had crossed himself on our takeoff from Toronto, but I just slapped the porthole shade down and stuck my nose into the airline magazine.
"Shame on you for bringing that weather with you to New York," she says. "The city was shutting down when I was still in the taxi. I'm glad we made it off the runway."
"No measly storm could keep us from our winter adventure."
It's our fourth in the decade since graduation, a leftover from the habit of midterm break. So far, we've done Amsterdam, London, and Rome. We usually soak up a week of summer heat in Syracuse, too. I drive around the nose of Lake Ontario southeastward through Buffalo and Rochester, she hops the Amtrak at Penn Station headed northwestward, and we meet in the middle to lounge on the boat dock at her folks' cottage—me in the shade smothered in sunscreen.
Esma and I have a history of meeting in the middle.
I button my collar, step to my ankles in snow, and wave away the doorman's offer of an umbrella. I like the way the crystals catch in my bangs and tickle my eyelashes, but Esma drapes her scarf over her brunette bob against the moisture.
It's a family heirloom, that scarf—faded indigo silk embroidered with pale flowers by the peasant fingers of a hopeful Ottoman foremother on her sea voyage towards the Statue of Liberty a century ago. Esma used it as a bikini cover-up until she got religion last year. Now she gives that tattered scarf the respect of her tradition.
We skid our way down the street overlooking the harbor, cluttered with barges and cruise ships and frigates oriental and occidental. We pass one other tourist and a dozen storefronts—some shuttered against the weather—and pause beneath a restaurant canopy to stamp off our feet. The menu is posted on a freestanding wooden pulpit, and someone—maybe the owner with his nose for patrons—switches on an interior light.
"Too early for tarhana," Esma says, moving away.
She's on a quest for the perfect soup recipe to take home to her uncle's bistro in Manhattan, and has also purchased sacksful of aromatic spices at the market—cloves and paprika, powdered cumin and beads of coriander, crescent-shaped fennel seeds and purple-black pepper with a brass grinder thrown in.
I'm not hungry yet, either, so we push on past shop-window displays of leather bags and olive oil soaps and jewelry, balling our fists and bunching our hands into our cuffs until bells clatter as a bearded man flings open the door of his establishment and bends in welcome.
"Selamün Aleyküm," he says before spotting me, tucked in behind Esma and pallid enough to blend with the snow. But Esma doesn't speak the language any more than I do. "Come in." His stilted English is laced with Arabic hospitality. "Please take some tea on this cold day and I will show you my famous carpets."
We tell him we're not buying, but he insists and we surrender and we're enveloped in a womb of warmth and color and pattern. Heavy hangings pad every wall, and rolled mats tall and short cluster in colonnades in the corners.
The man introduces his nephew, his father, and his father's sister—with threads clinging to her skirt—who appear from a back-room loom to flank him, to unfurl this plush carpet and that woven rug as he expounds on knotting and tying, on dyeing wool and silk and cotton with chamomile and walnut and pomegranate. The motifs have been handed down through centuries: the tulip, resembling a turban, stands for perfect love; the ram's horn depicts heroism and masculine power; the winged dragon guarding the Tree of Life symbolizes the desire for immortality born in the Garden of Eden.
"Doesn't everyone want eternal life?" His question is rhetorical, but I can't find my answer anymore.
His kin came from Anatolia, near ancient Nicaea, generations ago, he says, but hauled their wares by donkey into the city long before that—back in the days of Constantinople's bloody battles and sieges, further back to the time the sultans still ruled the Empire, as far back as when the Persians, Greeks, and Thracians built Byzantium deep beneath Istanbul. In fact, his lineage can be traced all the way to Father Abraham himself, he boasts before the old woman stems his enthusiasm with the interruption of more tea. But, I wonder, wasn't Isaac rather than Ishmael the child of promise who lay prone upon the altar?
By now he's exhausted his spiel and so we all sip, without speaking, from clear glass cups with no handles, and my fingertips burn. I know by Esma's beatific glow that she's basking in the glory of this ethnic exchange, but I shrink under the solicitous scrutiny of our four Turkish hosts. The gent squints beneath bushy gray brows, the son and his nephew grin, the aged auntie just bobs her head during the awkward lull like a church lady at a funeral luncheon.
And suddenly I'm back again at the interment of my stillborn son—his father long gone, the ring not having had enough time to dent my finger—beneath the pitying gaze of distant relatives and do-gooder adherents. To make it worse, a couple of self-proclaimed prophets laid hands on me to beseech the Almighty in ecstatic tongues for comfort in my grief. I wouldn't bow my head or avert my eyes then, either.
And silently, silently the snow continues falling on the other side of the window, sifting down to fill in our footprints, whitewashing those old cobbles—tombstones marking ancient secrets of commerce and book burning, of jihads and crusades, of artists and iconoclasts.
The call to prayer shatters our hush. Father, son, and nephew scurry to pull on jackets, our salesman tossing a final plug over his shoulder:
"Don't buy at the bazaar—come to us to buy. They will cheat you over there." The men dash out, leaving the door open for the women to close, and sky-swelling chants float in with the cold.
The ezan is lyrical, eerie, unsettling. Its muddled syllables warble from the minarets of the city's three thousand mosques six times a day, the undulating chants of one muezzin overlapping the discordant stanzas of another, beckoning believers from all corners of the metropolis. Twenty-one times now the haunting minor key has prowled through the air around us. I've heard it twenty-one times, but how can I respond to a summons not meant for me?
"I'm going to prayer this time." Esma doesn't ask me but plunges outside, not looking back to see if I'll follow.
"They won't let an infidel pray!" My protest is swallowed up within the ringing intonations overhead, so I flounder behind in the snow, losing sight of Esma in the twisting alley.
Men bolt from stores and passageways in a burgeoning convoy that jolts me along to a colossal structure of heaped-up domes surmounted by six soaring spires. Once through the narrow gateway the horde spreads out in the courtyard and Esma finds me again, is jerking me towards the faucets in the portico of ablution. She splashes her face, her arms, imitating the men. They turn their cleansed faces away from me.
"Where are the women?" I whisper to her.
"Mostly at home." She yanks my hood over my head, then kicks her shoes off and motions for me to do the same. "Come on."
The majestic main dome lined in celestial blue dominates the interior. In a kaleidoscope of color, hundreds of windows illuminate arches and cupolas, massive marble columns, kiosks, and arcades. I'm overwhelmed by the brilliance of countless ceramic tiles, dizzied by the unending circular repetition of flowers and fruits and trees, of enigmatic shapes abstract and geometric recurring over and over again, interspersed with the great, looping, consecrated scrawls of calligraphy. What the muezzin's refrain has done to my ears, the flaming spectacle does to my eyes: it's calling me to something but I'm not sure what.
Below the splendor, men are worshiping on the floor—a mass of backs and haunches and barefooted soles bending and flexing as one to the cadence of the imam's recitations.
A guard frowns at me but Esma, shawled and subservient, shrugs an apology at him and prods me to enter an antechamber behind a wooden, rood-like screen where a few pious women, wearing drab hijabs and hidden from general view, prostrate themselves in veneration. Mimicking their husbands in the great hall, in docile compliance they kneel, bow, touch foreheads to floor with shrouded buttocks in the air—positions deemed harmful temptations unacceptable to the susceptible eyes of all those men.
I don't know what Esma prays, but I don't pray. I don't pray when I'm afraid of flying, and I don't pray when I'm mourning a lost child, and I especially don't pray in obligatory, ritualistic words I can't understand behind men who turn their backs to me.
But I used to pray.
We emerge from the mosque into a hoary cocoon; the snow has stopped but fog has swept in to obscure the tops of buildings and seep into alleyways and rest in pristine puffs on casements and lintels and doorposts. I fill my lungs with the cool, moist air.
"Wasn't that incredible?" Esma stumbles in the whiteout, bumping into a bench in the square before brushing against a cloaked figure passing by in the mist. "Reds and greens and all that blue—it took my breath away!"
"Passion and envy and sadness.."
"What?" Esma faces me, her eyes focusing now.
"I was just thinking about the meanings of color, like red for love—or rage."
Her eyebrows rise. "You didn't like it?"
"No, no—it was beautiful." I mean this. "But I can't remember if white is the presence or the absence of all color."
She blinks. "Well, you were the fine arts major."
"I suppose it depends if we're talking about pigment or light, two different systems." It's all coming back to me now. "You can't mix white, you know, on a palette, even if you have the purest tints in the widest range. In that context, white is the absence of color."
I haven't painted a canvas in two years—haven't attended a show or submitted a piece or cleaned a brush. For a while, all I could think about was the blood bathing a tiny corpse, and I haven't yet even picked up a roller to cover the yellow of the nursery. Yellow, the color of hope—or cowardice.
"But if we're talking about light, that's another matter," I say. "White light can be broken down by a prism to show that it's comprised of color, the spectrum of ROY G. BIV—invisible made visible." I look over at Esma to see if she gets it, but she's tugging a brochure of Istanbul's eateries out of her pocket, folding open the glossy page.
"Want to try this lokanta the concierge suggested?"
I wait a beat and then nod. It's a vacation, after all, not Art Theory 101.
Shops are opening and other pedestrians appear now that the snow has settled into saturated swags on tree branches, is plopping in wet pillows to the ground, is resurrecting in wisps from the pavement—solid, liquid, and gas one coexistent substance. By the time Esma and I are seated under the eaves of a rooftop restaurant with a good view of the harbor, the fog is clearing and water is running freely in the streets below—I can hear it through the open window.
I touch her hand. "Thank you, Esma."
"For what?" The warmth of her burnt-almond eyes startles me, as usual—these eyes of hers that have filled and spilled with tears during my bereavement, that have steadied me with honest courage during my faltering.
"Reminding me that we all have faith in something or other," I say.
Just then the last of the mist lifts, and the sun's rays break through the crust of the sky over the strait, and for a moment—not long enough to point it out to Esma—I'm sure I see the faintest promise of a rainbow stretching across the Bosphorus, bridging continents.
I squeeze my eyes shut and see the arcing aura again on the inside of my lids, a pledge, mirroring that rainbow, of an inner bond able to reunite my divided soul. Is it possible to bring together again the two halves—the longing of what should be with the reality of what is? Might hope and trust once again direct my paths? I cross my arms over my chest and hug myself.
"You're chilled," Esma says. She takes off her antique scarf and, as though it's a baby blanket, swaddles my torso and gives me a little squeeze. That frayed shawl is of the softest weave with the most delicate floral embroidery. In fact, on closer inspection I realize it's not monochromatic at all; the sunlight shining into its darkness picks up a hint of peach in one tiny blossom, a blush of rose in another, a strand of citrine, a filament of violet.
And as the snowmelt sluices the stones of Old Istanbul, flushing the gutters down to the waterway out to sea, I feel baptized, too. Esma scans the menu but I fix my gaze on the horizon where sunbeams stream through clouds. What is this veil of fear that's barred me from the chapel of my own blood-washed heart? What shame keeps me from standing bare-headed and naked before the white-robed Man of Sorrows—Light of Light, Only Begotten, my Comforter—in the sanctifying peace of His presence?
"Oh good, they've got tarhana," Esma says. "What are you going to order?"
Without checking the specials of the day, I realize I'm ravenous and answer, "I have a taste for lamb."
This story subsequently won The Word Award from The Word Guild.