Reprinted from The Mapmaker's Daughter, copyright © 2017 by Katherine Nouri Hughes
I have always been propelled by deaths. No matter how they’ve grieved and ground me down. Eleven of them were worst of all, and among those were the boys’. Those deaths are the heart of everything. The Empire’s order, now and to come. The Sultan’s power and prospect. Who I am, and who I thought I was.
It’s time I weigh their cost and worth. That they had—or have, or might have—worth is the crux and the story. I will tell it as far as I can see. For this is about seeing, not remembering.
Let me see, then. Let me see.
In what’s left of my mind’s eye I see this: a terrace, two mutes, blue bowstrings laid out on a ledge. I see five pieces of death disguised as string, as silk, as blue—one for each boy according to custom and to reason and to law. Chaos is poison. Competition is chaos. Each is a source of civil war. Fatih Sultan Mehmed—the Conqueror—established the law to stem it. And the ulema gave him strong support, maintaining its accordance with the Shari‘ah. And to whomsoever of my sons the Sultanate shall pass, it is fitting that for the order of the world he shall kill his brothers. That law has held us together; secured our Empire; made us who we are—here in Topkapi, across the waters I look out upon, beyond Anatolia, beyond Baghdad, beyond Cairo, and Mecca, too. On warfields and peacefields, in harbors, tents, and caves, that law has kept order. It has lifted us up. And it has bowed us low, as well it might.
Let me see? I see I’m in bed burning with fever. I see my toes are beginning to turn black. I see blood under my fingernails. What is this? No mystery, I guess. I’m an aging woman back from a very long journey, and I’ve simply fallen ill. But just when I discover my son’s wife has a heart! And my grandson has a son! Just when life opens wide as the world, I find myself sick from head to toe.
Hamon wanted to send for Murad the day it began. He’s a worrier, Hamon. Who could blame him? He’s a doctor, after all—Imperial Physician since before I was born. Plus, he’s a Jew. Expelled with all the others from Cordoba in 1492. That’s right—Hamon is very old. They got what they deserved, though—a safe haven here—because this dynasty is capable of wisdom. Very great wisdom. Imagine favoring Jews.
Still, I don’t want to have Murad brought back from Edirne. He’s hunting. He loves to hunt. He needs that time and entertainment. I just wish I’d seen him before he left. God, I do. I’m dying to thank him for his gift. It tells me so much that I didn’t know—about him, about me, about what we have to look forward to. It’s a whole universe, that gift. And I don’t exaggerate—life is extreme enough. The journey I’ve just taken is quite a case in point. I encountered things I thought were gone from the world. I saw what I first laid eyes on and trusted and loved. I learned I should assume nothing about anyone—whether they’re dead or alive, bad or good, wrong or right, someone else or me.
I know, too, that captivity is worse than death, as Esther always said, and as she’s just troubled to remind me. She’s like that. Not a qualm about rubbing things in. I told her about Murad’s present and the joy it has released. And the turmoil. Yes, I told Esther about that, too, this morning. Murad’s gift has made apparent a whole new realm of regret. So much time has been lost to misunderstanding. To not knowing what has been true all along. And time is running out. Even if I’m less sick than Hamon thinks I might be, time is running out. I know it. I feel pressed. Very, very pressed.
I told Esther all of this and that I didn’t know what to do about any of it, and her answer was, “Understand it.” I raised my hand to give her a punch, but Esther is very fast. She grabbed it, held it to her chest, and daubed my blistering forehead with all the love in the world. “It’s time you write,” she said. “All of it.” It was a command. And to see that it’s carried out, she left, came back, and handed me a stack of parchments pungent as the calves they’ve come from. Damp as their little cadavers, too.
I’m not sure I can do this. See what I need to see in order to understand. Esther says I can. “You have nothing to lose,” she said. I told her I did. I think those were our first lies to each other—ever. “Do it,” Esther said. “Do it.”
And so I shall. My mind and heart are stretched like the parchment itself, and, lying on my back, I see things as they’re meant to be seen—sideways. The movement of the Bosporus. The passage of time. Space and hours, end to end. Not stacked but stretched: The length of time it has taken me to be where I am. The length of time it will take me to see. Day by day. I will.
I know this before I put down one more word, though: the living, not the dead, prescribe the order. And mothers are the key.
There have been days of heaven and days of hell, and among them days that have changed life’s course. I’ll begin with the day I lost my mother. The day my grandfather showed his worth.
I am in Venice. It is 1537. I am eleven and sound asleep. My mother slips in, quiet as thread, and wakes me with her presence, her direction, her purpose and love. It is the Feast of the Ascension, and my mother has come to life. She says something about Paolo, our family’s boatman, being ready since dawn. She opens the door to the balcony. There is the sound of wet rope slapping on stone. And a trumpet. My mother tells me her father’s wish that we wear red—she and I. Blue outlines her slight frame as she comes close to kiss my forehead. Blue offers an account of her father’s success with her and shows what she thinks of caprice. “You decide,” she whispers. Then out she floats, and back I slide to dreaminess. Red, blue. Out, in. I listen to the covers’ rhythmic hush and think about my breath making the world move, and a flutter augments the air. I believe an angel appears. Its wings are familiar, more flesh than feather, and on the banner floating above the angel, a message appears as if by virtue of my gaze. None of this surprises me. Choose, the rippling fabric says. I can see only that word. A feast day message, no doubt. It is the Ascension, after all. Christ is risen of His own accord. Anything could happen. That is the point. That He has done that unimaginable thing. And that we know that He has. I get up, and the day begins.
My mother shuns public displays of all kinds, but this one—the day that commemorates Byzantium’s recognition of Venetian supremacy—is her one exception. The ceremony reenacts the marriage of Venice to the Sea, and she loves it—probably because this is a marriage that makes sense. My mother’s blue dress is billowy as a bride’s, and her look could have inspired Crivelli. Her almondine face set with acceptance. Her large-lidded, knowing eyes. Her exceptional fingers. I wear blue to mirror her. But I don’t wish to resemble her, beautiful as she is. And I don’t know why. Not then, I don’t.
“There you are!” my grandmother gurgles, grabbing fistfuls of skirt. She holds out her arms like railings for the attendants to grab, and as she settles herself into our family’s feast day gondola, my grandfather takes his own steps into thin air and, unaided, lowers himself into his favorite possession that isn’t a book. Sparing myself a command from him, I speed across the slick stones while my mother advances in her own way, like a piece of silk or water.
“What do you think?” my grandfather is saying to his fingers. He is stroking the lynx that’s all over his chest. I hop on the vessel.
“Very grand,” I assure him. The voices of castrati fill the air. My attention is on the cloudy water we’ve begun to slice— we, the occupants of that lacquered hull. “Avanti,” Nonno calls out. He’s agitated. “Subito, Paolo. Subito!”
“Calm down,” my grandmother says helpfully. She pats my grandfather’s collar. “You will see him.”
And he does—just as Doge Andrea Gritti is emerging from the basilica on his canopied litter. Scepter in hand, essentially regal, the Doge is God’s intermediary, after all—though not so trusted he is allowed to even open a letter in private—ah no: checks on power in Venice are legion, warranted, effective. Still. If there is any doubt about the Doge’s backing by God, one need only consult his retinue: the Ducal Sword Bearer, the Republic’s Senate, the full diplomatic corps. Nonno stands in homage as we all process toward the baubled barge into which Andrea Gritti climbs. The Doge is clad entirely in gold: velvet puffy pants, dragon-scaled waistcoat, buckle set with a ruby the size of a clam. Gold, gold, and more gold. And on his head, atop the red linen cap that covers his ears and brow, is the curved golden camauro. He looks like a bird that’s become a plant.
There he is that scorching festa noon, empowered and enthroned as boats amass by the thousands, waiting for him to lead the way. The barge’s gold-painted bowsprit, Justice, juts her breasts eastward past the Lido to where the lagoon meets the sea. “This is our city at her best,” my grandfather proclaims of the entire scene. The staves of his own jutting chest bend with pride.
From every parish, citizens are coming out, many of them, too, draped in marten, miniver, and lynx. Encumbered, expectant, they row in the Doge’s wake. Then they form many circles around where he drops anchor to propitiate the sea with holy water, a ring, and a vow, renewed each year. Desponsamus te mare, in signum veri perpetuique domini. We espouse Thee, O sea, as a sign of true and perpetual dominion. I can see the tautening of the Doge’s old neck as he lifts his voice above the slap and clatter of waves and oarlocks.
From one moment to the next, the wind changes direction. It scuds across the canal as the boats fan to right and left of the Doge’s, and it catches one of the vessels, the Carusos’, from starboard. It fills its thick sail and makes the boat jibe— always a huge motion and, in this case, a violent one owing to the sudden shift. The boom slams from left to right, and because all eyes but mine, it seems, are on the holy beaker, only I see Carlo Caruso, a boy my age, thrown over the stern. He goes over back first. Black velvet pooling where it was never meant to be.
“A boy’s gone over,” I call out, getting to my feet and lunging forth. My grandfather yells at me to sit down. “Carlo. Carlo Caruso has gone over,” I yell back, scrambling ahead.
My grandfather’s lion head snaps left and right to see what I’ve seen. Then Carlo’s hand reaches out from the water to grab the rim of the boat. “He’s there.” I am set to dive.
“Cecilia!” my mother cries out.
For one second, there is Carlo’s pleated cap, soaked and askew. But then the boats on each side of him, his own and a larger one, clap together hard, about where his hand is. The last thing I see of it is a palm without fingers. My grandfather has covered his eyes for the collision, and he keeps them covered as though he is trying to understand a problem, as though there is nothing to see or do. “Hold on to her,” my mother orders Paolo as she pushes on his shoulder for thrust.
“I’m going, too,” I yell.
My mother’s eyes are on the Carusos’ boat. “You stay there, Cecilia,” she commands. In an instant, she is on the boat next to ours, on the one next to that—they’re rafted tight in solidarity and respect for the occasion—and then on the stern of Carlo’s boat where his father, Jacopo Caruso, who once proposed marriage to her, is turning in circles like a dog trying to find where his son is. My mother dives in, blue and gold, skirt and sleeves.
My grandmother stands up, draws a breath from the bottom of the lagoon and shrieks, causing my grandfather to open his eyes and to finally watch and see.
Paolo holds me fiercely. My mother is down. And still down. And still. My grandfather looks on. No one says a word.
The first head to emerge is Carlo’s—his eyes open and milky. Then my mother’s breaks the surface. She is coughing and tangled in Carlo’s clothes and holding him around the chest.
“Thank God,” my grandmother cries out when she sees her. My grandfather closes his eyes again and bows his head. He makes the sign of the cross with his thumb on his lips.
Carlo’s father needs help to haul in his dead boy. When he is in the boat the broken nobleman takes him in his velvet arms, falls to the floor and rocks him, screaming like a woman.
Then all eyes are on the water again to where my mother is, or should be.
“Where is she?” My grandmother is waving her arms wildly. “Violante!”
“Mamma,” I scream and pray. “Mamma!”
“Get her,” my grandfather commands Paolo, as he takes me by the upper arm—his hand encircling and crushing my arm—exactly as the only other person who would ever again hold me forcibly will do four months later. Never mind the different motives. The gesture is the same. A grip that announces death. “Go. Go!” my grandfather yells at Paolo. Paolo grabs the cork belt stowed for emergency, leaps onto the boat next to ours, and dives in. My grandfather watches. He does nothing.
By that time, the Doge himself is aware there is trouble. His bucintoro is being rapidly oared clockwise, and he is moving toward the prow to see for himself what has happened. Others row close to the Caruso boat, which is rocking sharply in time with Jacopo Caruso’s doubling grief. Beside it Paolo keeps coming up for air, again and again, each time without my mother. “Mamma,” I am crying, my arm weakening in my grandfather’s alarming grasp. Still, he does nothing.
“Find her,” Doge Gritti calls out to nearby crew. They tear off finery and boots, they grab flotational gear—bundles of reeds, cow bladders pumped with air—and jump in the lagoon. Its just-quelled waters are chopped and foamed from all the arms and sputtering mouths. No one can swim. They’re just doing their best.
My grandfather calls out, “Look.” He lets go of me to point to the Doge. Gritti has torn off his gold hat and is struggling to rid himself of his huge belt and is about to jump in when my mother’s head, fanned with skirt, breaks the surface not far from Gritti’s barge. One of his men catches hold of her. Strapping his arm across her chest, he frees her from her misplaced garments. Then he looks with horror upon her face.
Of my mother’s funeral I remember only the ride out to Murano. We each go alone. My mother is first in our everyday gondola. She is in a box that appears to be part of the hull that carries it, but it’s not. It’s a coffin. Shiny, black, sealed without a seam. I wonder if my mother’s eyes are open in that black place. They were open when they hauled her onto the deck of the Doge’s barge. I wonder if she saw him even though she was dead. I wonder if she knew that the Doge was bowed in his glory over her, stunned, clasping her hand between his own. He had admired her. He’d had reason. I wonder if she can see me from inside her coffin. Can she see that I’m alone with Paolo? Does she know I refuse to ride with my grandfather? That her mother won’t attend her funeral at all? Does she know what sort of parents she had? Can she help me understand what is happening? Make stop the uncomprehending panic of knowing she is dead? Not that I believe that she is dead. I do not. Her hand was on my forehead one day before. Her magic voice—always saying what was true—was alive. Now it is not. Now it is gone, and it is worse than gone. It is gone forever. I have no idea what that means. I had no time to understand any of this before it happened. No time to prepare. As though that were possible.
And the second death. Nine weeks and three days after my mother’s. I am back on Paros, and it is my birthday. Sylvana’s— her fifty-fourth—was the week before. Birthdays have been dear to us all the years we’ve lived together. Sylvana, my mother, and I have celebrated them as though each belongs to the three of us. To this day, I feel I have three birthdays. While some, over the years, have been no cause for celebration, that one, my real, true twelfth, is the worst. My birthday without my mother.
“A day like this should not exist in the world,” I tell Sylvana. “There should be no such thing as a child with a dead mother. My birthday is over.”
“Certainly not,” Sylvana says. “We will honor it, this evening— in Naoussa. I have something special for you. Furthermore, your birthday will be honored always. I will make sure. And you know what I think about always. Rare as an eclipse.” Succinct by nature, Sylvana also knows her stars, the workings of the heavens.
The day I was born was the best day of my mother’s life. That’s what my mother told Sylvana while she watched Sylvana cut the cord that joined us. Sylvana says she’d never seen such an easy birth. No screaming. No agony. Just me slipping into her ready hands—which placed me in my mother’s happy arms. Sylvana tells me these things on the birthday I have no wish to celebrate. She doesn’t want me going through life hating a day I’ve always loved.
The heat has closed in very tight this morning, and we’ve come down early from the little place Sylvana built up in the hills after my mother and I went to Venice years before. We take the plain slowly but still arrive before noon at my father’s castle on the north coast’s harbor. Naoussa harbor is a gift of nature. Paros’s Golden Horn, you might say: a crocodileshaped peninsula protecting it on one side; the shoulder of the island shielding it on the other. That is where my father’s house is—in the lee of that shoulder. And that is why we don’t see what is coming.
If we were at his other residence, the east-facing castle on the cliff at Kefalos, we would see from a distance what is on its way. If we were even at Marpissa or Pounta, we would see. But we aren’t. We are at Naoussa in a howling hot wind, and we don’t notice the thirty-six galleys, their decks mounted with guns, their prows fitted with rams. We don’t hear the thousand oars grinding in their iron locks. We don’t see a fleet of warships.
Sylvana and I are on the terrace mindful only of each other and of the surprise she is going to give me that evening and of the pleasure of being together—for we have been separated for a very long time. Seven years.
I have been back on Paros since June. I have found a way to think about my mother without feeling I am choking. I’ve told Sylvana exactly what happened. How my mother died; what my grandfather did and did not do. I’ve also told her what I studied and learned in Venice; the churches I went to, and why. I’ve told her about Egnatius.
Sylvana has told me about her life and about Paros since my mother and I left it. She’s taken me to the house she has built on the hill. She’s told me about the crops she’s put in and about the siroccos that whipped across from the Levant this past spring and made the animals crazy for weeks. She has also spoken about her past—about her family and patrimony; about my father, whose family was close to hers; about his achievements and about the losses and confusions he sustained. “It is important, to the degree possible,” she’s said solemnly, “that children know their parents.” She pronounced this as an expert not a seer. I have not told Sylvana what my grandfather revealed to me on this very subject the last day he and I were together. I intend to, though. Once I understand it. If I can understand it.
And so, Sylvana and I are done with questions. Our great happiness is to say nothing as we sit in the sun.
I have been reading and put my book aside. Sylvana is sewing, putting on a button. I am marveling, as I always do, at how it works: the needle’s diving into the heel of a sock or a cuff and coming up, every time, in exactly the right, tiny spot, something so very subject to error always coming out right. It is as though she is allowing the needle to sew. To be a needle.
Sylvana is facing the water and the sun, and I am facing her. Salt spray has misted her old, beautiful face and gotten in her eyes. She closes them, but she doesn’t stop sewing. “How do you do that?” I ask.
“Do what?” She is squinting. I point. “Oh. This.” A faint harrumph acknowledges and dismisses her skill. “I don’t do anything.”
Inside the house something clatters. Sylvana blinks fast. “Probably the flowers.” I picked her a vaseful that morning. More clatter, closer. Then a hand, immense and gloved, floats down on Sylvana’s shoulder. The hand is all I can see. The rest is in the black shadow of the doorway. I know from how Sylvana lays down the mending and from the spell-like way she keeps her eyes on mine that she is gathering herself for something fierce, and when the “rest” steps into the light, Sylvana sees confirmed on my face the worst fear of every Christian man, woman, and child in the Mediterranean. That hand isn’t a warning. It is confirmation. Our island is under siege.
“Do not move,” Sylvana says to me, grasping the hand on her shoulder, pressing herself against it. She rises and turns. I stand, as though I’m tethered to her. “Capritta,” she says, my pet name sounding the alarm. Sylvana is facing an oxlike marauder whose beard does not conceal a look of demonic pleasure. She thrusts her arm back and lands her fist against his groin. Without a pause he strikes her in the jaw and knocks her to the floor. Her head hits last, like the tail of a cracked whip, and it makes a thick, wet noise that takes a long time for me to stop hearing.
It is over.
“What have you done to her?” I scream, lurching toward Sylvana heaped in her purple skirt. Her eyes are open, and she cannot see me. I know it. Before I can throw myself on her to gather her up and make her be alive, the gloved fingers are inside my collar yanking me back, snapping me around, gagging and binding me—all one gesture. The attacker has done it a thousand times. I can tell.
He loads me on a cart, locks me in the chainlike clutch of a man whose lap is hard. Something bad, I know, is against me in his middle—something that connects to his mouth, open on my ear, and to his heaving breath, and to the sharp donkey sounds he makes as he clutches me and the cart pitches over rocks and ruts on the road to Kefalos. That I can’t scream Sylvana’s name is the worst part of all. Nor can I move, but I can see. Women being hauled from their houses. Churches being stripped bare—carts heaped with their contents—reliquaries, chalices, icons of Christ and His Mother. And I see the children. The ones coming down off Lefkes and Prodromos, the ones coming over the middle hills from Parikia, and the ones from Piso Livadi and Logaras on the coast. Boys and girls, little and big—children of fishermen, quarrymen, and farmers— hundreds of them, screaming in the wind as they stumble across the plain to the coast where the Ottoman standard can be seen flying atop the masts of three dozen warships.
I am handed over at the shore and swung into a tender by men wearing rings with huge colored stones. They have jewels on their ears, knives at their waists. They wear turbans. These are not sailors! They don’t look able to love the sea or the wind or a ship. They are unctuous, heedless, haters of Christians, and especially Christian children.
I know who they are. I have heard from my grandfather when I lived in Venice. All my life, Turkish corsairs have been ravaging the Mediterranean coasts—off Spain, France, and Barbary, up the Adriatic and down the Aegean. They have a mighty leader. I have heard that, too. He is feared and famous everywhere for doing the unexpected every time—defying winds, tides, seasons; raiding coasts with unthinkable daring and force. Barbarossa, he is called—for his red beard. He has turned a collection of ships into a navy, and the Sultan has honored his effort by making him Admiral of the Fleet.
Their number is terrifying—twenty thousand, it turns out. They have come from Corfu, which, I’d learn many years later, they’ve nearly destroyed but failed to take. Enraged by their defeat, they’ve pressed down hard, around the Peloponnesus and up, taking Ios and Patmos, Skiros and Naxos, which is directly across the strait. They have washed across the islands like a tide, and now they are swarming on our hills, capturing the children of Paros, rowing us across water we know and love and swim in, out to the windowless holds of black and red warships gleaming in the sun.
The galley I am rowed out to looms like a cliff, and from a long row of fist-sized openings halfway up the hull come other voices of misery: those of the most unfortunate among men—captives from previous ventures of the Ottoman fleet, enslaved rowers sweltering below board, waiting for God knows what—maybe for the relief of rowing.
I don’t even wish for a choice. With no one left to my name, I wish only to be dead. But that is not my captors’ plan. I am hauled up in a hemp sling that swings madly above the water, hitting the hull hard as the ship pitches on the whipped-up sea. “Veniero,” my captor yells from the rowboat. “Veniero,” he says again, making a horn of his hands, then pointing to my father’s castle. I am throwing up before I reach the deck. I’m gagged, choking on vomit. The deck is blistering hot. I believe I am about to die. Suddenly it is no longer what I wish for.
An old man is there—waiting, apparently. His face is taut and warted, his orange beard is meager. His turban is darkened with sweat above his brow. He signals a minion to remove my gag. I cannot stop throwing up. Barbarossa’s eyes water as he watches the spectacle of my sickness and, when it is done, he hands to the minion the rolled-up chart he has clamped under his armpit, slides the tip of his knife under the thick panes of hemp, and frees my hands and feet. Then he takes me under the arm and pulls me to my feet, not gently but definitely with care. This enrages me—the taking care with someone he’s just stolen—as though one thing makes the other less wrong or as though there are rules of conduct for stealing people. It makes me so mad it pulls me back together and gives me a force I can feel even before I use it to crouch and, with the crown of my head, ram him in the crux of his body—right where Sylvana struck the raider she tried to fell. Then he isn’t careful. Barbarossa’s hands snap around my skull as though a trap has sprung. He holds my head there like a part of him, and I beat furiously against the back of his legs. With one motion, he curls his hands, solid callus, around the tops of my arms, presses me farther into him, and muscles my face up the front of him till we are eye to eye.
On the deck, men all around are shifting in their stinking boots muttering compliments about their commander’s might. He puts me down. I take a step back. He looks as though he hasn’t slept in a year, and he probably hasn’t, with the kind of dreams he would have. He draws his knife and points it toward the cross on my chest. I lean forward to connect him with it, to make it easier. “Kill me,” I yell at him, very surprised by what I’ve just said. He closes one eye and keeps the other on my chest. “Kill me, too!” I say, exaggerating with my mouth so he’ll understand. But he doesn’t understand. He narrows an eye and consults the others.
“Tchsk,” they all say at once, tilting their chins up.
Barbarossa indicates a line around my neck with the tip of his knife, slips it under my necklace—just as he slipped it under the hemp—and jerks it hard. The gold holds firm. I yank free of his assistants and undo my necklace. “Keep it!” I say thrusting it toward him. He takes it with his knife. “What have you done with the other children?” I wave wildly toward the tenders returning to shore for second and third loads. “Where have you put them?” is the last thing I say before two men from behind bind my hands again, yank a rag around my mouth, and haul me to an unvented cabin on the main deck just short of the stern.
Of what happens in that hideous closet over the next four days at sea—I believe it is four—I can say only this for sure: I am alone in heat that should have killed me. I am fed horribly, but fed. And, with nothing but time to think, I reckon that if God would take my mother and Sylvana—the best people in the world and the ones I love the most—and take them one right after the other in the ways He has, then He cares nothing for me. I am cut from all that’s ever held me in place. I don’t have any reason to want to be alive.
This is how I endured the journey. And it is how I mourned Sylvana. By wishing and praying to be dead myself. And I see now, lying here—sick though hardly dying—that included in that wish was my grief for my mother. For being back in Sylvana’s world and in her care that summer allowed me to put off that grief. To put it off until I was a mother myself. And to put it somewhere awfully deep. I wonder if this is how all children grieve—by harboring the death and wanting it to be their own.
Reprinted from The Mapmaker's Daughter, copyright © 2017 by Katherine Nouri Hughes