Authors: Marina Fiorato
The fierce sun heated the casket in her hands until she could hardly bear to carry it further. But she climbed the hill on the Anatolian shore to Üsküdar, where the great mosque was being built above the city. She could hear herself asking for
the architect, the architect
; for she had been told to put the box only in the hands of Mimar Sinan himself.
It was imperative that she find the architect. She asked every mason, working on the fresh, sharp blocks of white stone, spinning each man around by his robe, looking into every bearded face. She was desperate. She had to get the box out of her hands, the gold was burning her. She was burning.
Where was the architect
At last she came to a door, with callipers carved into the architrave; the callipers were not silver like her father’s but gold, and curved – the callipers of a mason. The door opened and she saw him, a kindly, bearded old man. ‘Are you the man they call Saturday?’ she said. He nodded, and with relief she put the box in his calloused hands, pale with stone dust. He bowed to her. ‘Tell the Valide Sultan her mosque shall have a great dome,’ he said. Then Feyra was running, back down the peninsula, through the Bazaar and the Beltan, running, running back to Topkapi. She ran
through the inner courts and reached the Valide Sultan’s chamber. She pulled back the white bed curtain but her mistress was already a corpse, bloated and staring and rotting into the coverlet. Feyra reached out to close the eyes that were the colour of the sea. As she closed her mother’s eyes in the dream her own eyes, in her own dank reality, flew open.
Feyra ran her tongue round her desert-dry mouth, and struggled to sit up. She was still weak and sweating, but she knew that the contagion had passed. Her fingers, as she held them before her face, had returned to their normal hue. It must be night, as the cracks in the shipboard were dark and the lamp was back, hanging and creaking from the bracket, swinging with the ship in a queasy arc, throwing crazy shadows.
Her veils and hat had gone, lost as she had twisted and sweated on her makeshift bed. Her medicine belt was intact, but already loose at her wasted midriff. Feyra blinked twice and turned her aching head – her hair was a thick salty rope slithering between her shoulder blades as she twisted to see behind her. The impression of her body was pressed into the sacks beneath, dark with sweat where she had lain. There was an ugly black stain where the bubo in her armpit had burst and bled its dark matter out into the canvas; her gown, when she lifted her left arm, was likewise stained. She could not think what this might mean, for her attention was snatched, in that instant, by a voice.
She must still be trapped in her delirium.
The voice called again, hoarse as a crow’s caw.
Her skin chilled at once, for at the third time of repeating she recognized the word it uttered; a word that meant she was discovered. Feyra waited, tensed, for the sacks and
barrels to be thrust aside and for her sorry self to be discovered. But the raptor’s croak continued, that one syllable repeated.
Feyra herself thrust at the sacks with arms as weak as twine, and with a supreme effort freed herself from her prison. Once she could see all before her she noted with puzzlement that the hatch to the deck above was closed, and she was alone in the hold. She stood, unsteady as a toddling babe, and walked forth, her progress hampered by the weakness in her legs and the roll of the ship. She walked slowly, as if through sand, one foot in front of the other, like the callipers, marking the space between her and the curtain.
Halfway across; beyond.
She reached out to the white fabric, and with a sense of dread, drew it back. As she did so, the ship slipped silently through the dark archipelago of a thousand islands known as the Peloponnese, where a sea captain had once carried off a Venetian princess.
The point of no return.
Feyra looked down at the casket and she knew she was right – the voice had been coming from the box. Suddenly weak, she could stand no longer. Her knees buckled and bent and her legs collapsed beneath her. She knelt before the sarcophagus as she had once knelt before a Sultan encased in a coffin of ice.
‘Girl?’ it said again.
eyra spoke again, her mouth as dry as tinder. ‘Who are you?’
‘I am Death.’
She choked, thinking then that the fever had killed her after all, that she was in some otherworld.
‘What do you want of me?’
Dumb with horror, Feyra stared at the sarcophagus that spoke, trying to understand. Now she was close to the casket, she knew that she had seen the like before. It was wrought of pewter as she had thought and beautifully chased in jewel-coloured enamel. Geometric interlaced patterning in the Ottoman style twined with the gilded decorative calligraphy of
script. She had seen a coffin just like this when the Sultan Selim had been laid in state in the Sophia, directly underneath the great dome where his mournful subjects lined past to look their last on him.
Here in this dank hold it was different. To contrast with the glory of the box there was a dreadful, underlying smell of human waste, and pomades of myrtle were tied at intervals from the silver rivets, a herb which she recognized for its power to contain evil miasmas. In the Sophia the dead
Sultan’s face had been clearly visible through a panel of crystal – here the glass had been smashed away and replaced by a panel of opaque muslin, a weave broad enough to let air pass freely. The muslin drew in and out, periodically, vibrating slightly like the skin of a drum.
Something still breathed.
The thing within, despite his name, was alive.
A sigh emanated from the sarcophagus, and the muslin puffed and bellied like a sail. ‘I did not mean to frighten you. I meant only that I wanted a friend, a companion. Four days now I have been enclosed. I am lonely.’ The voice was male, and deep, it carried the rasp of someone who was wedded to his pipe, like her father. She began to be less afraid.
‘I heard your speech and song. I thought you were one of the sirens they tell of who hug the shores of Greece, for we must be in those waters by now.’ So Death was not ignorant of the sea. ‘Now I know you are a mortal. I heard you suffer as I have suffered. I am sorry for you, that you are here, but glad for me.’
Feyra reached out her hand and placed it on the pewter in an involuntary gesture of pity. She expected the metal to be cool, but it was warm to the touch as if some fever raged within.
‘What is your history?’
‘I must ask you a question first. Are you loyal to our beloved Sultan Murad?’
Feyra had a thousand answers to this question.
He is a murderer. He is my brother. He wanted me for his wife
. Instead she fell back on formula. ‘He is the delight of my eyes and the light of my heart,’ she answered carefully.
‘But are you
? For I cannot tell what I would tell, unless I know.’
Death was making a deal. Feyra had read the Persian tales, and understood the process – an exchange of clandestine stories as a testament of faith. A captive princess must bargain with her dark captor for her freedom. She had seen the illuminated marginalia of the texts in the Topkapi library; a dusky maiden, cross-legged in voluminous breeches, conversing with some monstrous chimera, her hands held high, her fingers spread like a fan.
Although she had never read of a lady gaming with Death before, Feyra knew what was required. She must tell him a secret before he would tell his. As if it were all a part of this unreality, she began, crossing her legs in the formal manner of the Ottoman storyteller.
‘On the twenty-first day of the month
in the year of 982, it so fell out that I was appointed
to our beloved Sultan’s mother, Nur Banu. When our beloved Sultan’s father Selim Sultan died – may he walk in the light of Paradise – it so happened that our Sultan Murad was far from the palace in the Province of Manisa, where he was then the governor. My mistress Nur Banu, knowing that his jealous brothers would attempt to take the throne, took the notion to conceal her husband’s death. She charged me with the task, and I caused the great kitchens to make a subtlety out of ice, a frozen coffin shaped just like the casket where you now lie, and in this way, in the heat of summer, we preserved his dead flesh. Over the next several days we took him out to prayer to be seen in his litter by the people, and even to the hippodrome to preside over the chariot races, propped in his golden throne. In this manner we preserved the fiction that he still lived. For twelve days Selim lived in his coffin of ice, for twelve more days than God had granted to his natural life, until Murad returned to
Constantinople. On Murad’s accession to the Ottoman throne, Nur Banu acquired the title of Valide Sultan for her pains, and Selim was placed in a casket of silver and laid in the Sophia for all to see and mourn. So, it may be said, it was my privilege to aid in securing the throne of our beloved Sultan. This I have never told a living soul.’
Feyra waited for the ensuing silence to end. In the tradition of the sagas, the maiden would either be taken to the underworld, or another tale would be told in return.
‘On the seventh day of this month of
in this year of 983,’ she heard, with some relief, the voice from the sarcophagus begin, ‘it pleased God that I fell deathly ill in the mountains on the way home from a long journey. There was no one to assist me but a shepherd. He put me on a hurdle and dragged me to a hilltop temple where the imams were skilled in physic. They looked at me but once before they gave me my own chamber and left me for dead. But when I woke from my fever I found myself attended by the Sultan’s doctor, Haji Musa himself.’ Feyra heard the name of her mentor with a jolt. She also registered the note of satisfaction in the voice; Death, it seemed, could still be proud. ‘He came to me and asked me if I would embark upon a very important mission for the Sultan. He was afraid, I could see it in his eyes. I thought at first he was afraid of the Sultan, but it turns out he was afraid of me. Of what I had. It was the Plague.’
Feyra chilled. She knew, of course, of the dread pestilence of Constantinople in the year 747, when thousands of lives had been lost. The disease which had lain dormant for centuries, had, it seemed, returned. ‘The Black Death?’ she whispered.
‘Plague, Black Death, it has many names. Although it had
not been in the city for many years, I knew the tales. I knew then that I was finished. The doctor knew it too. He made me promises; gold for my wife, preferment for my sons, good marriages for my daughter. He seemed to know all about me. He knew I had been at Lepanto.’
Feyra leaned forward a little. So Death knew the oceans, just like her father.
‘He told me that if I agreed to the Sultan’s plan I could defeat our old enemy single-handedly. He laid it before me thus: I could either die in that lonely hilltop place, and my family would live on in poverty never knowing my fate, or I could be a hero like the ones in the sagas, my name writ down in scrolls and sung in songs, while my family would live in riches. There was no real choice to make.’
Feyra heard a thump and rustle from within the coffin as Death shifted his weight.
‘Could you give me some water? I am dry from my tale. There is a can by your side. Sometimes the sailors remember, sometimes they do not.’
Feyra looked down and saw a silver watering can with a thin pipe of a spout, curved like a billhook – like the ones the ladies of the Harem used to cleanse themselves. She applied it to the muslin panel and poured a thin stream through the cloth. She could only imagine the monstrous features beneath, but heard the smacking of lips as Death found succour.
‘They took me in a litter down the hills, to an icehouse near the bay. It took a long time for they took a route well beyond the city walls. I did not see the doctor again but was attended by certain of the Sultan’s men dressed in a black livery with black turbans and face masks. I never determined whether they were soldiers or priests, for as much as
they talked about their mission and their war, they talked also of Paradise and their sacrifice.’
They were Janissaries, black-clad, fanatical elite of the Sultan’s soldiers. Taken from their Christian homes as boys and turned to the true faith, they were even more devoted to their adopted God than those who had been born into the bosom of the Prophet. But Feyra kept her peace and let Death speak.
‘These soldiers of God placed me in this coffin. There was wadding of wool beneath my hips for my human functions, dried meat by my hands for my sustenance, and I would be watered from time to time. The box is large as you see, and I can move and turn, but I will not conceal from you my terror when they first nailed the lid over me. I thought I was never to leave my living tomb; but I was instructed that I am to emerge from it one last time. If I am still alive, I will rise from my casket at the end of our voyage, mingle among the people and give them my gift. In Venice.’ He said the name of the city reluctantly, almost as if it pained him.
Feyra listened grimly. This was terrible confirmation of all Nur Banu had tried to tell her. The Sultan must be a monster indeed to contemplate such a dreadful scheme. She felt such nausea in her innards and bile rising to her throat that she might have assumed that her malady was returning, but she knew what ailed her was a moral disgust at what one human was planning to do to an entire city. She tried to keep the condemnation from her voice. ‘And if you do not live so long?’