Authors: Michael David Lukas
TO MY SIBLINGS
FOR REMINDING ME WHAT MATTERS;
“Ah, Stamboul! Of all the names that can enchant me, this one remains the most magical.”
Eleonora Cohen came into this world on a Thursday, late…
The Sultan of the Ottoman Empire, Servant to the Holy…
In spite of Ruxandra’s repeated efforts to shoo them away,…
The fate of Eleonora’s lessons was not a matter for…
Lifting his foot to the edge of his bed, Reverend…
Pressed in on either side by a scratchy velvet darkness,…
That next morning, Eleonora and her father sat together on…
The ceiling of the Sultan’s audience chamber was decorated with…
The remainder of Eleonora’s and her father’s days in Stamboul…
The morning came smothered in a heap of goose down…
A dull iron bell rang out from the church tower…
Lieutenant Brashov left camp at dawn, attached his saddle bags…
Summer slipped into Stamboul under the cover of a midday…
The Commander of the Faithful, His Excellency Sultan Abdulhamid II…
As Ramadan dragged itself through the hot, ever-thinning days of…
The termination of Eleonora’s lessons did not change much the…
As the Reverend approached the Gate of Greeting, he removed…
In the dream, she’s rowing. The clouds are dusty purple,…
Trimmed with gold and black rubber, the imperial carriage sat…
When the audience chamber was empty, Jamaludin Pasha rose from…
Eleonora sat alone at the head of the Bey’s shiny…
While Mrs. Damakan fastened the hooks up the back of her…
A steady dribble and tap of rain persisted to the…
Although she woke each morning with noticeably more vigor than…
By the end of August, Eleonora had recovered entirely from…
His Excellency Abdulhamid II spread a white cloth napkin across…
Eleonora’s third visit to the palace was rather different than…
On the thirtieth of August 1886, nine years and a…
Eleonora Cohen came into this world on a Thursday, late in the summer of 1877. Those who rose early that morning would recall noticing a flock of purple-and-white hoopoes circling above the harbor, looping and darting about as if in an attempt to mend a tear in the firmament. Whether or not they were successful, the birds eventually slowed their swoop and settled in around the city, on the steps of the courthouse, the red tile roof of the Constanta Hotel, and the bell tower atop St. Basil’s Academy. They roosted in the lantern room of the lighthouse, the octagonal stone minaret of the mosque, and the forward deck of a steamer coughing puffs of smoke into an otherwise clear horizon. Hoopoes coated the town like frosting, piped in along the rain gutters of the governor’s mansion and slathered on the gilt dome of the Orthodox church. In the trees around Yakob and Leah Cohen’s house the flock seemed especially excited, chattering, flapping their wings, and hopping from branch to branch like a crowd of peasants lining the streets of the capital for an imperial parade. The hoopoes would probably have been regarded as an auspicious sign, were it not for the unfortunate events that coincided with Eleonora’s birth.
Early that morning, the Third Division of Tsar Alexander II’s Royal Cavalry rode in from the north and assembled on a hilltop overlooking the town square: 612 men, 537 horses, three cannons, two dozen dull gray canvas tents, a field kitchen, and the
yellow-and-black-striped standard of the tsar. They had been riding for the better part of a fortnight with reduced rations and little rest, through Kiliya, Tulcea, and Babadag, the blueberry marshlands of the Danube Delta, and vast wheat fields left fallow since winter. Their ultimate objective was Pleven, a trading post in the bosom of the Danubian Plain where General Osman Pasha and seven thousand Ottoman troops were attempting to make a stand. It would be an important battle, perhaps even a turning point in the war, but Pleven was still ten days off and the men of the Third Division were restless.
Laid out below them like a feast, Constanta had been left almost entirely without defenses. Not more than a dozen meters from the edge of the hilltop lay the rubble of an ancient Roman wall. In centuries past, these dull, rose-colored stones had protected the city from wild boars, bandits, and the Thracian barbarians who periodically attempted to raid the port. Rebuilt twice by Rome and once again by the Byzantines, the wall was in complete disrepair when the Ottomans arrived in Constanta at the end of the fifteenth century. And so it was left to crumble, its better stones carted off to build roads, palaces, and other walls around other, more strategic cities. Had anyone thought to restore the wall, it might have shielded the city from the brutality of the Third Division, but in its current state it was little more than a stumbling block.
All that morning and late into the afternoon, the men of the Third Division rode rampant through the streets of Constanta, breaking shop windows, terrorizing stray dogs, and pulling down whatever statues they could find. They torched the governor’s mansion, ransacked the courthouse, and shattered the stained glass above the entrance to St. Basil’s Academy. The goldsmith’s was gutted, the cobbler’s picked clean, and the dry-
goods store strewn with broken eggs and tea. They shattered the front window of Yakob Cohen’s carpet shop and punched holes in the wall with their bayonets. Apart from the Orthodox church, which at the end of the day stood untouched, as if God himself had protected it, the library was the only municipal building that survived the Third Division unscathed. Not because of any special regard for knowledge. The survival of Constanta’s library was due entirely to the bravery of its keeper. While the rest of the townspeople cowered under their beds or huddled together in basements and closets, the librarian stood boldly on the front steps of his domain, holding a battered copy of
above his head like a talisman. Although they were almost exclusively illiterate, the men of the Third Division could recognize the shape of their native Cyrillic and that, apparently, was enough for them to spare the building.
Meanwhile, in a small gray stone house near the top of East Hill, Leah Cohen was heavy in the throes of labor. The living room smelled of witch hazel, alcohol, and sweat. The linen chest was thrown open and a pile of iodine-stained bedsheets lay on the table. Because the town’s sole trained physician was otherwise disposed, Leah was attended by a pair of Tartar midwives who lived in a village nearby. Providence had brought them to the Cohens’ doorstep at the moment they were needed most. They had read the signs, they said: a sea of horses, a conference of birds, the north star in alignment with the moon. It was a prophecy, they said, that their last king had given on his deathwatch, but there was no time to explain. They asked to be shown to the bedroom. They asked for clean sheets, alcohol, and boiling water. Then they closed the door behind them. Every twenty minutes or so, the younger of the two scuttled out with an empty
pot or an armful of soiled sheets. Apart from these brief forays, the door remained closed.
With nothing for him to do and nothing else to occupy his mind, Leah’s husband, Yakob, gave himself over to worry. A large man with unruly black hair and bright blue eyes, he busied himself tugging at the ends of his beard, shuffling his receipts, and packing his pipe. Every so often he heard a scream, some muffled encouragement to push, or the distant sound of gunshots and horses. He was not a particularly religious man, nor superstitious. Still, he murmured what he could remember of the prayer for childbirth and knocked three times three times three on wood to ward off the evil eye. He tried his best not to worry, but what else can an expectant father do?
Just after twilight, in that ethereal hour when the sky moves through purple to darkness, the hoopoes fell silent. The gunshots ceased and the rumbling of hoofbeats whittled to nothing. It was as if the entire world had paused to take a breath. In that moment, a weary groan choked out of the bedroom, followed by a fleshy slap and the cry of a newborn child. Then the older midwife, Mrs. Damakan, emerged with a bundle in the crook of her arm. Apart from a soft infant gurgle, the room was silent.
“Thank God,” Yakob whispered, and he bent forward to kiss his daughter on the forehead. She was magnificent, raw and glowing with new life. He reached out to take her into his own arms, but the midwife stopped him.
He looked up at the tight line of her mouth.
“There is some trouble.”
Leah’s bleeding had not stopped. She was gravely weak. Just a few hours after giving birth, she succumbed. Her last word
was to name her newborn daughter, and as she spoke it, the sky opened.
It was a downpour unlike anyone in Constanta had ever seen, an endless cavalcade of rain and thunder. In torrents, waves, and steely sheets, it strangled fires, erased roads, and wrapped the town square in a blanket of wet smoke. Through the worst of the storm, the hoopoes concealed themselves in entryways and the hollows of dead trees. For their part, the men of the Third Division rode south toward Pleven, their plunder lashed like spider nests to the backs of their horses. It rained for four days straight, during which time Mrs. Damakan and the young woman, her niece, cared for the newborn child. Leah was buried in a mass grave with a dozen or so men killed trying to defend their property, and Yakob filled the house with wails. By the end of the week, refuse clogged the harbor and the town square was strewn with soggy cinders.
Life, however, must continue. When the clouds finally retreated, Yakob Cohen took a coach to Tulcea and sent two telegrams: one to Leah’s sister in Bucharest and the second to his friend and business partner in Stamboul, a Turk by the name of Moncef Barcous who had recently been granted the title of Bey. The first telegram informed his sister-in-law of the tragedy, and requested any assistance she could provide. The second message was sent at the behest of Mrs. Damakan, and recommended her and her niece for any open positions Moncef Bey might have in his household. As with most of the Tartars living in the villages around Constanta, Mrs. Damakan and her niece planned to leave soon and seek a new life in Stamboul, which would be more hospitable to Muslims. In the meantime, they agreed to stay with Yakob and assist him as best they could.
Moncef Bey’s response arrived a few days later. In it, he indi
cated that he would be glad to meet Mrs. Damakan and, in fact, was in search of a new handmaid.
The reply to Yakob’s other telegram came a week later, in the form of Leah’s older sister, Ruxandra. It was six o’clock in the evening when her carriage pulled up to the harbor. An angular woman in traveling clothes and a dark green felt hat, Ruxandra was possessed of a sharp nose, a weak chin, and a mole in the middle of her left cheek, which looked like the tip of a volcano on the verge of eruption. Portmanteau in her left hand and a sweaty, crumpled telegram in her right, she disembarked, paid the driver, and began up the hill to her brother-in-law’s house.
Mounting the front steps of the Cohens’ house, Ruxandra adjusted her hat and peered back at the sheen of bird droppings coating the front walk. She glared at the flock of purple-and-white hoopoes perched in the plane tree overhead, then turned back to the door and knocked. When no one answered, she knocked again, leaning forward to listen for any stirrings inside. Again, there was no answer. Not one to wait outside in the cold, she straightened her hat and let herself in.
The entirety of the Cohens’ house was not much larger than the dining room of Ruxandra and Leah’s childhood home in Bucharest. There were three bedrooms, a pantry, a kitchen, and a living room, the walls of which were bare apart from a small charcoal drawing of Leah’s above the hearth. In one corner of the main room was a cupboard and a pockmarked birch dining table covered with a nest of dirty dishes. In the other, a pair of worn leather armchairs sat watching the fireplace. The floor of the living room was drowned in a sea of oriental carpets, laid out with no discernible regard for color or style, and sometimes as many as three deep, like an ancient city built on the ruins of even older civilizations.
Stepping gingerly over the threshold, Ruxandra set her portmanteau down and closed the front door behind her.
“Hello,” she called out. “Is anyone there?”
Yakob had been sitting at the table the entire time, his head in his arms behind a stack of papers. When he stood to greet her, it was apparent how badly Ruxandra’s assistance was needed. His frock coat was stained in a number of places, his beard had gone to seed, and his eyes were shot through with red.
“Ruxandra,” he said, shocked to see her standing in his living room. “Please, sit down.”
She pulled a chair out from the head of the table and sat.
“You requested assistance,” she said, flattening his telegram on the table as proof. “Here I am.”
“Of course,” he said. “How are you?”
“Considering the circumstances, I am fine. Thank you. But it has been a long journey and I would appreciate very much a cup of tea.”
As Ruxandra spoke, Mrs. Damakan pushed backward out of the kitchen, a thread hanging from her mouth and Eleonora swaddled in the crook of her arm. She was sleeping, Eleonora was, her eyelashes fluttering like dragonfly wings, and hands clasped serenely at the center of her chest.
“She has her mother’s mouth,” said Ruxandra, bending over the bundle. Then she looked up. “This is her nurse, I assume.”
“Yes, in a way,” said Yakob. “Mrs. Damakan and her niece attended Eleonora’s birth, and they have been good enough to assist me for the past few weeks.”
“I see,” said Ruxandra. “Mrs. Dalaman, is it? Would you mind fixing me a cup of tea. Strong, if you please. It has been a long journey.”
Ruxandra retook her seat and watched Mrs. Damakan step out of the room.
“In general,” said Ruxandra, “I prefer to come at things directly, whether or not that is the most polite route. This is something you should know about me.”
“I received your telegram,” she began. “And I have come to offer the assistance you requested. In that role, I am prepared to stay in Constanta for at least a month, to help with general housekeeping and such.”
She looked around the living room.
“You said that Mrs. Dalmatian will be leaving soon?”
“Yes,” said Yakob. “She and her niece are moving to Stamboul.”
“A filthy city,” Ruxandra spat. “Filled with Turks.”
“They are Turks themselves,” said Yakob. “Tartars, to be precise.”
“Well, whatever they are,” said Ruxandra. “They will be gone soon, won’t they?”
“They are planning to leave at the end of the week, though their arrangements are somewhat tenuous.”
“As I mentioned,” Ruxandra said, “I am happy to stay here for a month, perhaps even two, to offer the assistance you requested. However, if you expect me to stay more than a few months, I should think that we will need to be married.”
Ruxandra had always been the selfless one, the dutiful daughter. She had nursed her parents through sickness, old age, and death while her younger sister went to school and married herself off. By the time their father died, a bit more than a year previous, Ruxandra was dangerously close to thirty, wrung out by life, and profoundly resentful. In spite of the sizeable dowry she
had inherited, she had been unable to find a suitable match. At this point, she had no pretensions to romance. She just wanted a hearth of her own and a competent husband to exchange pleasantries with after dinner.
“You won’t mind,” Yakob said, after a long silence, “if I reserve my response until I have had some time to consider.”
“Not at all.”
“And what about your things? Is this all?”
Ruxandra smiled and looked at the small, leather-covered chest resting against her shins.
“There’s no need to worry about my things,” she said. “I’ve already made arrangements.”
The next morning, two steamer trunks arrived from Bucharest and Ruxandra began to make herself at home. After unpacking her trunks in the second bedroom, she enlisted Mrs. Damakan’s niece to help her scrub the countertops, wash the windows, beat the carpets, dust the bookcases, and sweep the fireplace. When they were finished with these chores, Ruxandra washed the front walk and attempted to shoo away the flock of hoopoes that had taken up residence in the plane tree next to the house. As much as she waved her arms, however, as many rocks as she threw, the hoopoes were devoted to their roost. And three days later, the walk was covered again with bird droppings. In spite of this minor annoyance, Ruxandra settled well into her new situation. She cooked, cleaned, and when Mrs. Damakan and her niece were otherwise engaged with planning their voyage south along the Black Sea coast, she cared for Eleonora. When the midwives left, at the end of Ruxandra’s second week in Constanta, she assumed entirely the duties of the household. At the end of her third week, Yakob knocked on her bedroom door and said that he agreed, in
the interest of everyone involved, that it would be best if they were married.