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The city had swallowed us up. Kalaki had been everything to us, because I loved it, and Max loved me. He had a habit of looking up at me with the world-destroying enormity of his eyes and allowing me to overflow his consciousness with stories of places that neither he nor I had seen but to which one went, in other and more heroic times.
Once, he sat in the front row at my lectures; later, we took tea on the sofa in my office, and I made Kalakh pilaf and told him I’d gotten the recipe from a witch-woman who lived in the shadow of the old fortress. My stories thrilled him; sometimes they hurt him. Invariably, they ensnared him.
I told him about the old Black Sea Express train that went east from Constantinople to Kalaki. I told him half-remembered tales of affairs consummated in Haydarpasa Station and concluded before the dining-car reached the Caucasus. His face grew pale at my power and when he bit his lip I knew he loved me. That was how it was. I left my books and my husband and the well-dug roots of my domesticity and we set off to Kalaki on the evening train. I booked us a private cabin from Trieste. I kissed his eyelids shut every night for six days.
The porters assumed that I was his mother. It wasn’t only my age. With judicious kisses and well-timed tales, I had worked my magic upon his face until it came to match my own. I brushed my knuckles against the hollow of his cheekbones until I could anticipate how he would smile when I told him about the spice-sellers near the train station; how his eyes would grow dark and wide over stories of the bearded monks who still lived in the brambles at the foot of the old Arab fortress, eating nothing but pomegranates and grass. I did not tell Max that I had never been before.
On the seventh day we came to Kalaki.
We found an apartment the way the locals did, haggling and scribbling with old women on Revolution Bridge. We mimed out the fortress and the canal and sang liturgical chants in order to signify that we wanted to live in the Old Town, near the Armenian cathedral. They’d tried to convince us to take a flat instead in one of the foreigner districts that lined up like dominoes along the neo-Classical boulevards outside the rabati: where the street-names were in French and where we could be guaranteed electricity in the middle of the night. We refused. We wanted morning crows and midnight thunderstorms. We wanted to kiss in the bazaar among the figs and pick out bearskins on which to roll out naked on the floor.
The agent laughed in my face. “Madame,” he pleaded with me, “foreigners don’t live in the rabati. They get lost, Madame. They don’t come out. Only the Armenians can get in and out – and the Jews. They’re crafty. But you don’t look like a Jew.”
When Max first caught sight of the peacocks in the courtyard he turned to me, his face flushed and glorying in the beauty of all things; he wrapped his long fingers around the back of my neck and kissed me.
“Nobody knows we’re here,” he whispered, his voice trembling. “Nobody at all…I haven’t even told my parents!” He laughed – tentatively at first, and then, when the echoes did not answer him, longer and louder. He leaned out from the balcony and the wind swept his hair into his eyes. “I should have known,” he said. “When I met you. The girls my age, you know – they’d talk about going. But you, Lise – you went. You came. That’s why we’re here.” He caught my hand and held it. “You’re perfect.”
Here I was perfect. Here, where nobody knew me, I could lie before him on a moth-eaten tiger skin, wearing black satin and jasmine behind my ear, and luxuriate in the infinity we had built up between our four walls.
That first Sunday we walked hand in hand through the old city. We had a vague need to get to the Nouveaux Boulevards, where the expats shopped – we needed bleach for the floors and a clean sponge for the bathroom sink – but in the sultriness of the morning we could not bring our lips to articulate it. The map was meaningless – half the streets out of the rabati were closed for renovation; the lane behind the Patriarchate was blocked by a felled cypress, and Lermontov Caddesi had been renamed something nationalist and obscure after the collapse of the Soviet Union. We didn’t mind. We floated above cobblestones and stopped in carpet-shops to haggle. We bought our tiger-skin. We kissed on the riverbanks and stopped for samovar-tea at the Citadel.
“Who are we?” Max looked up at me. “I mean today, Lise.” The city sprawled beneath us. “Not yesterday. Who are we now.” He had left a girl behind in London. “Today we could be anybody.”
“Russian spies,” I said. “Writers. Poets. Vagabonds.”
In London we’d grown used to hiding our walks. We had taken back roads, meandered mews and avoided anywhere in Bloomsbury where one or the other of us could be recognized. Here we sat on park benches; here we were visible. Here, shop-keepers recognized us, and women walking their dogs – we were the foreigners, and so we were known.
“We need to develop a routine,” Max said. “Oh, Lise, I don’t ever want to get used to things!”
“We’ve got to start from scratch,” I said. “That’s the beauty of it.” He believed me. “Now, from what I remember, the best bread is baked under the Orthodox seminary. And don’t go to the grocery shops for honey; you have to go to the Cathedral instead. The monks sell it next door in a little shop next to the candles.”
This thrilled him. It was one thing to take the night-train to Kalaki – already the phrase evoked for us everything dust-flecked and foreign and irremediably opposed to those uniform London cafes where one’s name and preference for sugar were immutable and known – but it was another thing entirely to craft our lives anew: to say that one could only get one’s morning bread from the clay ovens in the basement of the Orthodox seminary, that from now on, each afternoon at five o’clock we would go to the Persian chaikhana opposite the baths.
We built up a supply of beautiful things – market-trinkets and art nouveau statuettes and the pearl-encrusted boxes called skatulka one could haggle for, three for twenty lei. We filled the empty shelves of our apartment with dried flowers, vases, tea sets, wooden icons, wax candles – everything we could find in the alleys of the old town.
It was only when the toothpaste ran out that we realized that we’d never left the rabati.
“It’s romantic,” Max said to me, that first night, when our teeth were unbrushed and the floor had started to smell of grapevine and mildew. “I got some basil in the herb market, you know. We could chew that.” Our mouths tasted of basil and we didn’t mind the cold, the electrical outages, the rattling door.
We did not mind the spiders in the duvet, the tea-times we could no longer afford. We did not mind sitting by candlelight, reading the same book for the fourteenth time because the English section in the bookshop consisted of two worn copies of Thomas Hardy and a guide to Bulgaria. We did not mind, at first, when we had to throw out our clothes once the moths had gotten to them; when our kisses grew furious and Max remembered that he’d never finished his degree; when I remembered that my son was turning six. The tiger-skin had begun to stink.
We had the stars, after all. We had our terrace and the peacocks and the baker who recognized us now. I could forgive the smell, that vague filth on our breath and in our bed that permeated through the basil-leaves and through sex, because his eyes still grew glorious and wide when we whispered those words back to each other across the pillow:
“We took the night-train to Kalaki, you and I.” I told him that every night before we went to sleep. “Across the Black Sea coast, down towards Syria. Like Sir Richard Burton before us. The route Pushkin took when he was working on Eugene Onegin.” He could not sleep unless I reminded him that we slept on the final frontier of poetry, the last out-post of beautiful things and Circassian maids before one hit a wall of dictators and visa restrictions and could not run any further.
I could see him wither. I could see him pace the balcony and throw pebbles at the peacocks until sunrise. I could see him staring westward with the sunset towards everything we had loved and left behind. I lay naked on the carpet and stretched my arms out to him, shook out my hair and let my lips fall open the way they would have done in a seraglio. One morning this did not silence him.
“I can’t stand it. The smell in here – it’s horrible! For God’s sake, Lise – didn’t you get the bleach?”
I’d meant to. I’d taken the map and the telephone number and set off in the right direction. But I’d gotten distracted by the frescoes in the art nouveau entry halls near the synagogue – I’d started looking for one I’d passed the other day and gotten lost and gone to look at artefacts in the history museum and by sunset somehow I was no further from the edge of the rabati than I’d been at noon.
But hadn’t it been enough – the basil and the lemon-juice, the sweat and the leaky samovar and the weak sauce-like tea? Last week, it had been enough. Last week we had been adventurers; last week we’d ignored the smell.
“I forgot,” I said. “But Max – darling, listen, don’t worry. We’ll go today. Perhaps this evening, when it’s cool…we’ll go to the Nouveaux Boulevards and to the big department store and we’ll buy everything we need. But right now, oh, you silly boy – don’t get worked up, it’s too early. Can’t we just lie here and enjoy the morning together. If you’d stop whining we could hear the birds, you know.” We could hear the birds and the first echoing call to prayer. We could hear the church bells. What could we possibly need in that great, unromantic mess outside the rabati that compared to the labyrinthine mythos we’d created here in this room.
“It smells like a fucking carcass in here, Lise.”
It was only the tiger.
“At least wait until breakfast, won’t you?”
“I’m getting it now!” His face was white and his eyes no longer lingered on me. “Just wait until I get back, won’t you? I’m getting bleach and a mop and lightbulbs and everything normal fucking people have.” Nothing was good enough for him.
When he had slammed the door I leaned over the balcony into the courtyard, waking the neighbours and scattering the peacocks and making stray cats yowl.
“Don’t forget the toothpaste!”
The sun rose and set without him. I paced the room and watched the stars blink alight one by one. I cleaned and smashed our jugs, our vases, the little cameo we’d gotten off a Russian duchess. I ordered and reorganized every beautiful thing I’d bought for him. I spat in his pewter mug and waited.
I had always known he would betray me. I had known it since that first night on the London train, when we had whispered poetry across the berth to one another, and let the words vibrate through the carriage.
“We shall take the night-train to Kalaki.” I had known then, with that fatality I still associated with the East and long journeys, that he would disappoint me. They always had; my lovers always believed in me – my raw and prophetic utterances, my maps, my walking-boots – until the moment we stood on the platform at St. Pancras and looked at one another and known, in our deep practical hearts, that we could not step on the train.
Max had just believed me a few days longer than the rest.
He returned shortly after midnight, pale and breathless and shuddering so violently that the beads on my rosaries shook on the walls.
“Did you get it?”
His eyes grew wide once more; his cheeks were hollowed; his face was terrible. “I’ve gone,” he began. He put out a hand to steady himself; the wall creaked. He lurched forward. “I tried to get out.” He looked up at me and before I could comfort him he vomited on the carpet. “I took the map. Went towards the New Town. But there was building work – this house collapsed on Kars Street. I had to take another route. But the streets all looked the same. And I walked for hours and I kept getting lost – I kept turning…”
He buried his cheeks between my palms.
“I kept walking and then I got dizzy and turned around and suddenly I was back here – right here. So I went the other way. I walked and I kept on walking and I went straight so that I knew I’d make it somewhere. Town. Somewhere where the maps work.”
“The maps don’t work.”
“I know the maps don’t work!” He lifted my fingers to his lips and kissed them; he covered my wrists with tears.
“And then I was here,” he said.
“At your door. In the courtyard. With the peacocks.” He laughed, a grotesque burlesque of a laugh that stank of basil and made my gorge rise. “So I tried again. I ran as far as I could go! And here I am… again.” He lifted his shoulders to heaven and let them fall.
I closed my eyes and gave thanks to my saints. They had brought him back to me; they had let me soothe him. They had kept him at my breast for another day; they had kept him here with the salamanders and the peacocks and the salt air from the Black Sea.
“Silly Max,” I told him. “You were just lost – you were just drinking a bit, weren’t you? And you got spooked?”
He remained with his chin in his hands, staring out into space.
“It won’t let us leave,” he said. “We’ve come, now. We’ve cast in our lot. We can’t go back.”
“Of course we can’t go back.”
“We can’t go back,” he said again, and shuddered.
He slept in my arms that night, and for many nights after. We did not speak of what had passed between us, of his wanderings, of our argument. We returned to life as normal in the rabati – airing out the tiger-skin, washing the floor with old rags, chewing mint-leaves we found growing in the courtyard garden. I went to fetch the morning bread; he stocked our shelves with honey. I held his cheek against my stomach and stroked him; I could no longer sleep. I weathered sunrises, one at a time and then dozens, waiting for the benedictions that came with morning, when all was promised, all would be well.
In time he grew sun-burned and learned the language and passed for a native in wintertime, when we all huddled in dark cellars and ate meat dumplings with our fingers, and it was dim enough that nobody could tell the colour of his eyes. He forgot the girl he’d left behind and the guilt that bore down on him and remembered that I had stolen him, that he’d loved me.
Still I could not sleep. The peacocks kept me awake and the crickets kept me awake and even the sound of the rain against the corrugated tin of our rooftop kept me away. The streets and alleys of the rabati tightened around my neck and one by one the cobblestones smoothed and the faces of the gargoyles and griffins melted into one another so that every street came to look the same. By February I had read all the books in our apartment three times. It rained mud for days and we could no longer keep our windows open to let loose the noxious combination of mint and rotting carcass and lemon-juice and drinkable gasoline to which we had become accustomed. Max didn’t notice, of course. Since the night he came back to me he had lost the will to escape. Kalaki had taken possession of him, shifted beneath his feet and left him reeling on his hands and kneels on my still-uncleaned carpet.
He had come back to me that night; he had come home, and that night I whispered to him that we had taken the night-train to Kalaki, and that nothing could touch us now.
The Kalakhs have a saying, a curse and a shrug that, translated literally, means “God knows it,” but which means so much more than that. It means roadside funerals for murdered sons and the flickering-out of electricity on the afternoon it is needed most. It means that fate has decreed that life is life, and one’s lot is one’s lot, and there is nothing to do but leave the questions to God who alone can answer them.
The first time Max shrugged his shoulders in the way, cursing in that native tongue that still after so much dreaming remained foreign to me, I smelled it all at once: the dinginess of our flat, the shit of the peacocks, the silverfish in the icons, a smell like the uncollected trash on Bethnal Green Road – like the Styrofoam kebab containers intermittently seized and torn apart by foxes in the night. The same stink that had stuck to my clothes from London until at last, in a fit of romantic pique, with Max, over ice-cream and sea-foam, I had taken ten minutes in Trieste to throw my suitcase into the sea.
I left him sleeping that night, crept down the splintering stairs in the moonlight. Kalaki choked me; from the station to the citadel it choked me. The jasmine smelled like piss; stray cats yowled at me as I passed. I had to get out. I could not bear the city’s stillness, the meretricious promise of its cellars or its samovars. I craved the forward motion of the train; I craved London and Trieste and endlessness and the look of glorying wonder I had once seen in Max’s eyes.
I walked and then I ran; I turned left and right and scratched up my map with my fingernails as I sought fervently what had once been Lermontov Caddesi, which had another name now. The streets blended into one another; they doubled back on themselves, alleys were blind.
The first day, I half-remembered, we’d come from a train station – there had been a train station, and with it a sense of direction, a road that had once in some other life brought us into the rabati, which could surely bring us out again.
Or perhaps it had not. Perhaps there had never been a rail platform, nor ever had there been a night-train from Istanbul. Perhaps we had grown up here in the old town like its weeds or its cats; perhaps we too had sprung fully-formed from the belching heart of the city like its ghosts.
I kept on running – past the tea-house and the citadel, past the ruined Arab fortress and the synagogue – and I knew already what Max had known, what my saints on the wall had known and promised me.
When I stopped it was not quite morning, and I was standing before our courtyard. The air was cool and the sky was negotiating its blueness with the sun, and the smell of those first fruits of morning washed over me all at once along with the scents, half-remembered, of things I had once recognized: bread and motorcycle exhaust and rotting meat and London, which I had known in the life before. Then came the daytime smells, the Kalaki ones, the cardamom, the dandelions that poked up between the cobblestones.
All that day and another night I wandered, my legs at first aching and then finally bleeding with the effort. I took every direction, every alleyway, every possible permutation of streets, each time pleading, each time sobbing, each time begging the city to break apart its walls or unclasp its hands or vomit me up or set me free. Each time, I knew the outcome would be the same. The roads that sloped and looped and plummeted in their constellation of directions would lead me back to the same place. They would lead me home.
About Tara Isabella Burton
Tara Isabella Burton's work has appeared or is forthcoming in Arc, The Dr TJ Eckleburg Review, Guernica, and more. In 2012 she received the Shiva Naipaul Memorial Prize for travel writing. She is represented by the Philip G. Spitzer Literary Agency of New York; her first novel is currently on submission.