The House as Storyteller

By Alev Lytle Croutier

 This is an excerpt from the novel Seven Houses, a novel that follows four generations of women from the last days of the Ottoman Empire to 21st century Turkey.  Publishers Weekly says, “Croutier’s shimmering prose integrates a heady potpourri of poetic imagery, elements of magical realism and finely honed characterizations.”   And Isabel Allende calls this work, “an exotic and beautiful story”  told by each house the family inhabits, as their fortunes change.

Asena Yildirim on Unsplash

I was built in Smyrna in 1890, the year of Esma’s birth.   A slender, many-roomed Victorian dwelling of wormwood, snuggling against an unworldly, umbrageous rock—obsidian, rumored to have been lowered down from the sky, the rock that gave the district its name.  Karatash, or Black Stone.

Some believed that the myrrh tree in the garden was the actual Adonis trees.  They believe it was sacred and left votives and humble offerings on the double altars of its fracture.   Others took it to be an ordinary myrrh cracked by natural forces.

For the first twenty-eight years of my life, a Pasha lived here with his harem—three wives, servants, and various offspring.  The Pasha himself stayed in the boathouse annex, conducting otherworldly business – an unscrupulous and selfish rich man concerned only with his vanities –cultivating the white opium poppy and belittling the unfortunate.  After the exile of the Sultan, the Young Turks, declaring him guilty of unspeakable crimes, exiled him to the purgatorial ice land of Kars where they say, he committed even worse things. They say, old dust never settles.  That’s another story.

But the women in his harem, suddenly finding themselves with no sustenance ad nowhere to go, and no resources to keep me, had to flee in a terrible hurry, abandoning their splendid clothes, fine china and priceless furniture.  It was at this juncture that Esma arrived, just at this instant of their imminent departure as if on a theatric cue.

A hazy winter afternoon. Shrouded and veiled in black, she arrived with a go-between, walking three steps behind her older brother Iskender, her identical sons—Cadri and Aladdin—clinging to her skirt. (You can always tell orphans.)  And three paces behind followed her two maids, Gonca and  Ayşe, heads down, furtive steps.

Like an apparition, Esma shuffled from room to room as if talking to the invisible faces on the walls, touching and smelling objects that caught her eye, chanting prayers.  She opened the doors to every room cramped with dusty episodes, the basement resonating with the constant sound of dripping water from the hamam.  Tip , tip, tip.  How to fill the emptiness, revitalize the neglect.  Yes.

Our the back window of the third story, she saw the black rock, the cracked tree…She had come home.  Love at first sight.

“The house could be yours for nothing,” whispered the go-between, who followed her into the attic strewn with the indulgences of women from a distant era – balloon pants, satin slippers, gauzy veils.  “Number One Wife desperate to get rid of it all. They have nowhere to go. They must leave the house by dawn.”

Esma ignored her and returned to the harem apartments where the women offered her coffee and confections.  They watched intently as she removed her kid gloves, squeezed a sapphire ring the size of a hazelnut – a last vestige of her dwindling jewels—and slid it on the Number One Wife’s finger.

It fit perfectly.

 “Payment for the house,” Esma told her.

The older woman began to weep, tried kissing her hand in gratitude, which Esma would not allow.  Esma put her arms around her until she stopped sobbing.

From that moment, we were inseparable. Even after death.

 

Women of the Turkish harem. By Franz Hermann, Hans Gemminger, Valentin Mueller (Austrian)

The picture of the stern gentlemen in the white turban, old enough to be her father, instead belonged to Esma’s husband, recently deceased.  Forced to sell her finest jewelry in order to survive after his death, except a precious stone or two and a few yards of sumptuous crepe d’amour, crepe of love.  Genuine silk. The finest of all for a wedding gown.  But never to be her own or her daughter’s—at least on her wedding.

How do I know these things, these inconspicuous things that fill the space between the walls? I listen. I listen to everything, their synchronous breathing at night, the whispers hissing like snakes on all floors, the sounds of their dreams, the impact of cat paws against the cool cellar leading to the subterranean catacombs under the city.  I listen to the children’s voices echoing and expanding in the tunnel beneath; as if the Minotaur of the cave is flashing fire out of its nostrils. Or the streetcar tooting its horn like a capricious siren each siesta afternoon; and at midnight, the night watchman’s stick striking the cobblestones.  Tap,tap,tap.  Rap, slap, clap.

 Every night, when the town sank deep into slumber, the distant voice of a woman’s singing seemed to be rising from the depths of the Aegean. “Dandini, dandini, danali bebek.  Elleri kollari, kinali bebek.”  My little babe, whose arms and hands are hennaed, oh my sweet little babe. She was singing a lullaby to an infant resting in a secret place nearby.  Gone mad when the baby died, she’d buried it in a golden cradle, then offered herself to the waves.

Esma always lay in bed listening to this lullaby, muffled from having to pass through a curtain of fog—itself an apparition.  The lullaby stole quietly into her room, wrapping her entirely in its fluid warmth, whispering, “Dandini, dandini, danali bebek.”

When the boys asked if it was the sirens singing, she told them, “There’s no such thing.  I once thought I heard the sirens, too, when I was a child, but later, later they disappear. Ignore them; they’re nothing but the spit on the devil’s tongue.  Their songs wreck ships and those they lure meet unspeakable deaths. Once, a man named Odysseus tied his men to the mast so the sirens’ voices could not entice them.  It was the only way.”

 I listen and peer into their lives—the most private moments when they close their doors and retreat into their private dreams. I even see those dreams. I read their thoughts. Make judgements.  Even manipulate situation when I can. I, too, have frailties.

I look in on the boys sleeping in the room they share.  And just outside, Gonca, the ageless odalisque with the mustache whose eyebrows meet in the center, the one who dries bat wings for good luck and pulverized sea horses, sleeps mattressless on the floor—the only way she knows to sleep—and breathes in harmony with the children.  After a while, their exhalation takes on colors, continuously dissolving into new shapes and spiraling into a common dreamworld and fall, fall, and fly, fly, and float.

Before retiring, Gonca always locks up her sister Ayşe.  The moons makes the young girl wild and frenzied,  As if in heat, Ayşe stirs like a boa, aroused by her own writhing.  Her bed in the night, always drenched. Her jasmine vapor, always steaming.

On the third floor, Esma untangles her waist long hair, her sunken eyes flashing like jewels in the dark, her heart flying, and her mind alert.  She parts the curtain, seeing no one. Suddenly the muezzin’s voice rises like a raptured bird as he begins the midnight prayer.  Esma covers her hair, rolls out her prayer rug from Ushak.  Stands facing the East, joins her fingertips, and mumbles incomprehensible incantations.  She rubs her face slowly, her willowy figure crumbles, her forehead kisses the floor.

The curtains billow in the winds, he balcony doors part and wearing a fez and a pelerine, Suleyman arrives like a Valentino sheik.  His hawk nose bespeaks of his wild nomadic ancestors who once cross the Urals and the Altays. He is the like a lean mountain gazelle, open chested, his heart pulsing with his smile.  Pearl white teeth, searching eyes.

Quickly, Esma rolls the prayer rug under her bed.  Adjusts her hair.  Süleyman’s the only man to see her without her veil outside of her family.  He removes his fez and bows to her.  Then, they sit on the heirloom Louise Quinze couch, to watch the moon, if there is one in the sky. If not, the stars, if it’s a clear night.  Their heartbeats harmonize.  And their breath.

Now and then, distracted, they glance at each other instead of the sky…He ask her, “Esma, Esma, why won’t you become my wife?”

Esma casts down her eyes. Still in widow’s black.

“Once there was, once there wasn’t,” she begins with the words that begin all stories. “Once, a nightingale loved a rose. And the rose, aroused by his beautiful song, woke trembling on her stem.  She was white, as all roses were in those days. But she had tears of dew.”

“The nightingale came ever so close and whispered, “I love you, rose,” Süleyman continues where Esma left off, “which made her blush, and instantly pink roses burst out of their buds. Then, the nightingale comes closer.  Allah meant the rose never to know earthly love but she opens her petals and the nightingale steals the nectar.  In the morning, the rose, in her shame, turns red, birthing red roses.”

“Ever since then the nightingale visits her nightly to sing of divine love, but the rose refuses, for Allah never meant a flower and a bird to mate.  Although she trembles at the song of the nightingale, her petals always remain closed,” Esma pauses.

A moment of silence.

“Three apples have fallen from the sky,” they then recite in unison. “one belongs to the storyteller, one to you, and one to me.”

And one to the walls that can hear and see all.

Jan Jannson, Amsterdam, 1660. Istanbul. Viewed from the village of Scutari, the City is shown with all its fortifications, the original Genouse district of Galata on the opposite bank of the Golden Horn to the right. European galleons and Turkish galleys fill the seas of the Bosporus and Golden Horn. The great buildings of the 16th Century Istanbul during the reign of Suleiman the Magnificent can be clearly seen, including the "Suleymaniye Mosque" and the "Topkapi" palace. The lower center is filled with a parading Turkish horseman and troop of Janissaries.

In the daylight, legitimate this time, Süleyman arrives again, rowing his cayique. Şükrü, the running boy, greets him at the dock and leads him to the Learning Room—piled with old maps, peculiar medical instruments that once belonged to the boys’ father — a great scholar, everyone says—the serried, dusty volumes, almost murmurous with accumulated meaning, arranged meticulously along the high walls.

But the most compelling objects for the boys is a skeleton for their anatomy lessons.  It’s of a very short person they have endearingly named “Yusuf.”  They tell stories of him before he became a skeleton.

Dressed in their black suits, they approach Süleyman and kiss his hand.  He pulls their ears affectionately; then all of them sink down at the low table with intense male seriousness.  Süleyman knows how to draw them to himself.

The boys wait silently as their teacher slowly stirs his tea.  Clink, clink clink.  Slurp.  Cadri always dreamy,  Aladdin restless, twirling his pencil.

They recite verbatim the previous day’s history lesson.  The conquest of Constantinople.  How their Great Sultan, Mehmed the Conqueror, stretched oiled sleds across the Galata inlet and slid his ships into the Golden Horn, vanquishing the ancient city of the Byzantine Empire.

“And when did this occur?” Suleyman asks.

 “1453,” Cadri effortlessly replies before the question mark.  “When the crescent broke the cross.

“Does anything make that date special?”

“Yes, that was the event that ended the Middle Ages.  The Islamic people overpowered the Christians. They turned the churches into mosques.”

Or they recite how their great admiral Barbarossa was losing his fleet in the Mediterranean until a crescent and a bright star, Venus really, formed in the sky, a divine omen that changed the course of history. It takes a heavenly incident like this to change fate.  Any fate. Anywhere.

Or the story of the croissant. How the Turkish invaders were advancing toward the gates of Vienna with their crescent and star banners and how the bakers of the city concocted crescent-shaped rolls to warn their people to mobilize.  Odd, how this common breakfast pastry once save Europe from the Sons of Allah.  If the Turks had succeeded in passing through those gates, imagine what could have happened to the Western civilization!

Suleyman makes them repeat:  Calligraphy is a spiritual geometry manifested by a physical instrument or device, strengthened by constant practice and weakened by neglect.

Cadri copies the words slowly in ornate calligraphy—from the back of his notebook, to the front—and from right to left, the way his mind moves, from right to left. The way it would be the rest of his life even when everything changes.  From right to left.

But Aladdin’s eyes, they wander far, counting each ship leaving the harbor.  Forty-seven. Forty-eight.  Forty-nine.  Words don’t interest the boy.  The magic of numbers forming and reforming themselves.   He is already far into his calculus. Eyes drifting across continents, across constellations. 

…So this is daily life here, more or less, day after day, but today things are slightly different because Iskender is visiting from Bursa.  He has come to persuade his sister to take her boys and come back to the silk plantation in Bursa where he is convinced they would be safer since there are rumors that the allied forces intend to occupy Smyrna.

Meanwhile, he is doing a bit of business.  Ferret, an associate who comes to call on him, steals into the washroom on his way up the stairs, peeks into the hamam through a hole on the wall that he himself has pried.  His arteries burst as if filled with noxious gas.

For months, he’s been pursuing Esma’s scent through the corridors, inhaling the rooms she had recently walked through, licking the walls, fondling the drapes.  A man of such lickerous and unsavory intentions…

Iskender has invited the Ferret for mezes and raki—the transparent liquid that the dervishes call “white writing” or invisible ink.  The Ferret, squishing the seeds out of a bowl or olives with his fat fingers, watches out the window, the boys waving at Süleyman’s disappearing cayique.

“The boys need a better education,” the Ferret tells Iskender.  “Why don’t you send them to the Sultaniye school?”

“My sister prefers a private tutor. Süleyman is a clever lad.” Educated. Inventive. The Boys like him.”

“But an empty pocket,” Ferret says. “With holes in it. Hair down to his shoulders, clothes like those degenerate Frenchmen.  Libertine ideas admittedly borrowed from the Young Turks. Bad example for the boys whom I myself hope someday to parent.”

“Ah!”  Iskender takes a long sip of his raki, avoids the insinuation.  He won’t disclose to this impudent bastard his plans of taking his sister back.  “Suleyman is a fine lad. Sincere. Honest.  Well mannered. Nice.”

“Only if one is blind to vice.”

“Meaning”

“Well, there’s talk…” A wry smile.  The Ferret whispers something in Iskender’s ear.

That night, Iskender reclined in front of a blazing brazier,  smoking his secret affliction while he watched a ghostly procession parade endlessly across an invisible screen.  His pain stopped, all edges dissolving into a continuous flow.  Whispers throughout the city stretched like taffy. Strains of music in distance rooms, runaway phrases.  Deep bass of the fog horns.  The lamenting woman’s lullaby as she rocked her golden cradle.  Invisible hands reached out of the walls and caressed him.  Everything he touched became an extension of his own extremities.

All night long, as he swam through a corridor of silk, as the children and the servant girls slept,  Suleyman arrived as the usual hour at Esma’s room.  They sat across from each other whispering because they knew of Iskender’s sentience, that he could sense things in other rooms.

Iskender indeed heard them although he could not make out the words.  Their poetry sounded to him like the seventeen year locust falling from the sky, he had heard in the Far East.  He had journeyed to Isphahan where he joined camel caravans to the distant reaches of the Silk Road, Samarkand, Tashkent, and Bohara, carrying The Travels of Marco Polo under his arms, searching for clues on the origins of the Turkish civilization. He had even dared cross the Takla Makan, the desert of irrevocable death dreaded by all travelers, journeying to Uygur—thanks to his camels, possessing a secret knowledge of springs, who led him to mysterious sources of life-giving waters and eventually to the great wall of China.  There he had been stricken with an ailment that made him delirious and he was treated with strange needles they stuck into his body, as well as opium, an affliction that accompanied him through the rest of his life.

At dawn, still awake, Iskender rose absently to the sound of prayer and looked out the window.  Against the cool darkness of the obsidian, he saw a the silhouette of a man gingerly ascending the invisible steps.   So much poetry in that vision,  but as a patriarch he had obligations.  He could not allow the family to lose face.

Esma was kneeling down in prayer when she heard the firing—three shots.  She ran to the balcony.  The smell was familiar to her, the smell of burning gunpowder seasoning the night.  The smell of her father’s factories. The smell of her childhood.  Saltpeter and sulfur.

Who? Who? Who?  She heard the golden owl.  Her beloved’s totem.   A rifled silhouette barely discernible stood above the obsidian.  No, dear God, no!  Then, she saw Iskender descending.  Pain filled her chest. All the doors to the outside closed. All expression locked inside her. She passed out.


Alev Croutier was born in Turkey and lives in San Francisco. She is the author of the internationally acclaimed bestseller Harem: The World Behind the Veil, translated into 28 languages.  She has written and directed award-winning independent films and was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship (the first ever for a screenplay) for her work on Tell Me a Riddle by Tillie Olson. 

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