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Fiction

No Other Life

Istanbul, 1569

Cities like her make men leave their hearts on their shores. “Seeing you,” the men say, “I want no other life.”

Each night, as the diadem of the Bosporus drifts into slumber, violet shadows drape the narrow streets of Eminönü. I watch the window, thinking of you moving through the sleeping city, your footfall silent as the breathing of dreamers. I imagine you slipping velvet mist over your shoulders, sweeping past mosque and meyhane, sleeping beasts and sleeping houses. Full houses. Empty houses.

I was born in this city, raised on a tongue of land embraced by swift straits and glittering seas. My grandparents were not. They taught me, their only granddaughter, ladino songs rich with the silt of the Guadalquivir, thick with longing for a west that fell too soon into twilight.

It was my singing that drew you to our house in Tahtakale that autumn night. I sensed you before I saw you, as a bird senses the gaze of the garden cat from the shadows. I was drawn to the door, unlatching it with slow hands so as not to wake my grandmother.

It was dark. I saw no one. And yet the raised hair on my arms, on the back of my neck, told me someone was there.

My breath died in my throat.

Won’t you invite me in?

Your ladino was old, throaty and smoky as frankincense. Because of it, I told myself the voice had to come from one of my grandmother’s friends. I opened the door wide, invited your voice across the threshold.

Nothing but a shadow slipped into the house.

My fingers trembled as I shut the door. Perhaps I had imagined it. Perhaps I was seeing things.

I turned, and my heart tumbled.

For there you were, gleaming like a Byzantine idol in the flickering light of the candle. Your eyes were fixed on me.

Our neighbors whispered of shadows in the alleys, of once-healthy children going moonlight pale and vanishing with the dawn. Obur. Their lips curled over the word in fear and disgust, their fingers knocking wood and brushing prayer beads. Vampire.

I should have cried out for my grandmother, but I couldn’t. I could do nothing but stare at you: your wild black hair loose of any covering, tumbling over firm shoulders. The whisper of your dark dress against the floor as you stepped toward me, as you beckoned with a long, pale hand. You moved too comfortably in a stranger’s home, your gait too sure.

I asked who you were. A sharp smile swept across your face.

An old friend, you said. A new friend. Someone who wants to hear you sing.

You drew no closer, but my feet followed you to my bed as if you had drawn a thread from my nightgown and pulled, coy and playful.

My heart raced, sending white panic buzzing in my ears. I knew we were cat and bird, predator and prey. Yet you—this shadow woman before me—were so still, delicate as the falling of night. Sharp as the darkness behind stars.

Won’t you sing?

I could obey so easily. Bend and give you anything you wished. And yet I held firm—

“What will you give me in return for my songs?”

For a moment you did not answer. What do you want from me? you asked, one brow raised.

The curiosity in your voice was a warning. An invitation. A note that should have sent me fleeing from the house, a note that fell so heavy in my chest, it rooted me to the spot. “I want to know who you are. Where you came from. Why . . . why you speak the way you do.”

A breath of breeze; the candle died. Your eyes were black and luminous in the dark, glinting like an animal’s. No one has ever asked me that, you said.

And you answered. You spoke of a half-remembered life in Córdoba, growing and dying long ago in the time of a golden caliph. You spoke of lonely travels east, of your search for solace, companionship. In this city you found a place in a cold court of others like you, in glittering caverns deep beneath Ayasofya Camii, deeper underground than the ancient Byzantine cisterns. Your words wove images like vines through my mind: you were the city, the city was you. Every night you became as old as the city, every night you grew younger than the city. You were as much the roots of its fresh cold springs as you were the hills that formed its crown.

At last you fell silent.

And, as promised, I sang. Low enough not to disturb the dark or my grandmother sleeping upstairs. Low enough that I could hear you shift closer, hear my own pulse throb as you brushed cool fingertips up my arm, over my collarbones and the hollow of my throat.

Low enough that it melted into a gasp as you dipped your face to my neck. Lips met skin; a sliver of pain. A thick rush that left me losing my hands in your hair, pressing you against me for the first time as if it were the thousandth time.

You taste like oranges. Your voice was soft as wonder against my throat. Oranges. I have not thought of oranges in four hundred years.

Moon rose above minaret. Silver drenched the sea. When I woke to the weight of blue morning and the cry of the gulls, you were gone.

Still half-asleep, I touched my neck. My fingertips came away scarlet.

It was not a dream. You were not a dream. I should have been paralyzed with dread, but whatever fear turned in my stomach was drowned by the humming in my limbs. My hands shook as I adjusted my hair to hide my neck.

My grandmother’s beetle-black eyes were sharp, her wiry brows drawn together as she pinched my cheek.

Kerida, my darling, are you well? My face was too pale, she said. My eyes too bright.

Too dizzy to speak, I replied in song.

• • • •

You returned the next night, and the next, and the week after. Each time I welcomed you over the threshold, your smell of hyacinths and iron, the warm, salty iron of bitten lips and aching throats. You took me in strong arms and said I was your cypress, fresh and fragile as supple branches. How could I not lose my heart to you?

I begged you to take me with you, back to your cold court beneath the Golden Horn.

I cannot, you said. Only your kind walk those caverns.

But I had heard the legends. “So make me your kind,” I begged. Never again would you leave my side. Never again would I spend another empty night watching the window, waiting for you, alone in the city and apart from it at the same time.

You brushed hair away from my face with tender fingertips.

No, kerida, you said. Four syllables strung on smoky regret. You are so young. I won’t let you make such a choice. Your life is so new—let it choose its own path.

“Let me be the one to choose my life’s path,” I said. “Let me choose you.”

If only you could, was all you said.

• • • •

Cities like her make men carve letters of conquest on their hills, raising stone on stone, raising minaret above dome.

In your long life, I think you have forgotten how quickly the tides of mortal lives rise and fall. Sometimes you came every night for a week, sometimes I watched the window for a month, heavy with longing so desperate and sweet it made my bones ache.

I was sixteen, then seventeen, and between one of your visits and the next, my grandparents gave me to a stranger with fine clothes and calloused palms.

It will do you good, my grandmother assured me, too kind to be pitying. Her soft, age-spotted hand squeezed mine. It will improve your health.

I knew in my bones she was wrong.

Still, I went to the stranger’s house on the eastern side of Tahtakale, closer to the chaos of the docks and briny breezes off the Haliç, and never returned.

The stranger’s eyes were kind and his hands were gentle.

But I wanted to choose you.

Through winter nights I learned to appreciate the warmth of his body next to mine, to match inhalation and exhalation. But my eyes stayed on the window, waiting, until the cry of the muezzin drew red dawn over the wooden roofs.

You never came.

Perhaps I know why. My bed is no longer mine own to share. My home is no longer my own. This life is no longer my own.

But through spring, and now summer, I watch the window. Every night I choose to fight sleep and wait, I choose you.

What are you waiting for? the stranger asks.

I hear a roll of distant thunder, the crack of stone on stone, of a storm that will never break over the city. I do not know if he can hear it too, or if, like your stories of cold courts and the smell of your hair, it might be all a dream.

“Rain,” I lie.

• • • •

Cities like her make men pass verses from hand to hand, throat to throat, until morning bleeds golden over the hills of Üsküdar. “Seeing you,” they say, “I want no other life.”

It is said this city was the apple of Fatih’s world. It is said she was the apple of a caliph’s eye, long ago. I know I will never see you during the day, but I dream of you as I leave the Grand Bazaar. As I sink my teeth into sun-warmed Rumelia apples, as taut flesh splits and gives, as juice slicks my lips and chin.

Sun beats down on the veil over my hair. I should return to Tahtakale, but I am so close to the Ayasofya Camii. I walk towards the Byzantine cisterns and pace the ground above where you told me cold courts glitter. Are you there, beneath my feet? As the sun sets, I think of the drip of water, of cool walls and your cool hands against my skin.

I turn back as night falls, dry and itchy as wool. The tightly-stacked wooden houses of Tahtakale moan in the strong wind from the west, their shutters straining against hinges, the dark offering no reprieve from the heat.

I sense eyes on my back. The hairs on my arms stand on end. I whirl.

There is nothing but shadows. Nothing but darkness.

The low breeze tugs my skirts, beckoning me back to the stranger’s house.

I hesitate. Perhaps you are there, melting into the night.

But perhaps it is nothing at all.

• • • •

Cities like her make men lay their lives in their ashes. Even as match is set to kindling, even as she folds in on herself with sighs and sparks. “Seeing you,” they say, “I want no other life.”

That night, when the stranger shakes me awake, the diadem of the Bosporus is already studded with live embers. Fire devours the tight alleys of Eminönü, sweeping past mosque and meyhane, cries of beasts and cries of houses. Empty houses. Full houses.

We tumble across his threshold, wet cloths covering our heads and faces, into the inferno. The buildings uphill of ours collapse in on one another, filling streets with waves of oven-hot air and shrieks.

For a moment I cannot move. I was born in Tahtakale. I lived all my life in here. Never again will I walk its dusty streets, smelling its sun-warmed roofs, listening to the jumble of dialects from every corner of empire.

Tahtakale will be my grave.

The stranger is shouting. He grabs my upper arm and takes off at a run, wrenching me through the hot bodies filling the street, over burning wood, over burning flesh.

Through the chaos, through the cries, I sense you before I see you.

I know you are there the moment my hair stands on end. The roar around me fades, and we are cat and bird, predator and prey. I know you are there, and even though the inferno is alive, a demon with ravenous white arms, reaching ever farther with each sweep of the wind from the west, I stop running.

The stranger’s hand slips from my arm. He is lost to the bodies pressing forward. Gone.

Sweat pours down my neck as I turn, and squint against the blaze.

You are there, a shadow silhouetted against red rippling heat.

One moment you are far, the next you are at my side. Nothing else exists as your arm snakes cool around my waist, as your lips brush my face.

I thought I lost you, I thought I lost you, you say.

“Take me with you.” My throat is dry as kindling, my face aches with each wave of heat from the burning buildings behind you. Tahtakale is haze and flames and the screams of horses in the distance. “This life is gone. Let me choose you.”

A long moment passes. Then determination sets your beautiful face ablaze. Your wrist meets your mouth, white teeth flash long and sharp as you sink them into your flesh. Darkness pours forth, dripping down your sleeve.

Your wrist meets my mouth. Iron and salt slick my parched, cracked lips: the taste of a new life.

Drink, you breathe. Then we run.

I obey.

Sighs like yours make me leave my heart on your shore.

Tasting you, I want no other life.

Isabel Cañas

Isabel Cañas

Isabel Cañas spends her days writing YA fiction and working on her PhD in late medieval Islamic history and literature. A 2018 graduate of Clarion West, she divides her time between Chicago and London. To learn more about what Isabel is up to, including recent and forthcoming publications, see isabelcanas.com.