On the night she fell in love with Ezeqiel’s mongrel bastard, Ezra accidentally downed a bottle of ascorbic acid tablets while trying to overdose on Paracetamol. It was the abyss. For all her well-intentioned efforts, the abyss always ate back.
Three failed drafts at a suicide note later, nausea hit and nature began to call urgently. Her gut rumbling like the motor of a 1967 Sunbeam Rapier, which hadn’t been serviced in over a decade, Ezra legged it to the No.100. When she eventually managed to come out she only had to go back in again. This scenario repeated itself six times, before all the vitamin-C got flushed out of her system. When she was done, Ezra was still under the illusion that she was dying, slowly but surely. Who knew it’d be so exhausting? She abandoned the notes altogether; scrunched up in pathetic paper-balls on the floor, that even Küldane-Hatun turned her whiskers up at. And falling into her bed, she was out like a light.
It was a peaceful sleep that followed without dreams. But the peace was short lived. At the witching hour, Ezra’s consciousness broke the surface of sleep, effortlessly buoyed upwards. She lay with her mind suddenly aware, her ears straining to catch a repeat of some sound that may have woken her. There was none. Had someone shaken her? She sensed a presence in the room, but put it down to Küldane-Hatun.
Ezra reached for her phone. The time on it read one minute past three AM. The night’s chill had set in at the apartment and there was the light sound of rain falling into the ventilation shaft outside her window. Turning over to resume where she’d left off, Ezra tried to pull the bedcovers up to her chin, only to find they were being weighted down by something. She raised herself onto her elbow with a mind to tell Küldane-Hatun she’d gotten much too fat now. But then there he was: a shadow sitting at the foot of her bed, one leg pulled up with his arm resting casually on its knee, peering sideways at her. Initially she thought it was Barış from the parallel apartment, sat in the dark against his bedroom window across the ventilation shaft. Then she realised with a start that her curtains were drawn, and she remembered that she’d morted herself.
“Now you’ve done it, Ezra” she said, and then started reciting the testament of faith. “Ashhadu an la ilaha illa-llah, wa ashhadu-”
“Pack it in, daughter of Adam. You’re not dying,” the shadow cut her off. His was an unfamiliar voice that struck an obscure chord in the recesses of memory. Like an olfactory remembrance, it was vital, pressing, nostalgic. And it frightened the shit out of her. If he wasn’t Barış-from-the-parallel-apartment, and he wasn’t the Angel of Death, then who was he? Ezra lay petrified. Her eyes a pair of fortune stones in the darkness. Her mind riffling desperately through the events of that day for some answer, any answer. But of course it had all began before. Gathering mass over years and months and weeks to reach its crescendo with freak weather in Istanbul, in the last week of March.
That morning, Ezra had woken from a frightful dream to a dull throbbing in the back of her jaw where her left wisdom tooth reared its head bi-annually. She should have had it removed long ago, but every month there was something more pressing to pay for. Now again, her bank balance was in the minus. And outside it was grey with a cutting frost in the air.
Ezra peeled herself out of bed and phoned the office to call in sick. Still bleary eyed, with hair like a murder of crows, she started rummaging around her room for the £50 note she’d received in a birthday card from London, two months ago. She’d just found it page-marking halfway through Malory, when the phone rang.
“Have you lost your mind?!” Think of the devil.
“Babaanne. How are you?”
“I’m not well, may Allah make me better. My legs are swollen, my knees pain me, Gülbahar has fallen into a bad way, and now you’ve gone and got yourself a cat!” Gülbahar’s fate was doubtless the latest development in one of Grandma Remziye’s Turkish soaps. Ezra could never keep track.
“Actually it was the cat who got us,” she tried a dry giggle but Grandma Remziye failed to share her mirth. Küldane-Hatun had been dumped on her sister, Leyla by the ex-pat copywriter Leyla was hired to replace. She and Ezra had kept her under wraps for a year, but Grandma Remziye found out. She always found out. Now on the receiving end of her wrath, all Ezra could think was that they didn’t really like Küldane-Hatun and she didn’t seem to like them, so why was she here?
“This is serious. Don’t you know cats make you sterile?”
“That’s not true.”
“It’s true. You know what your mother would say?” She didn’t, but she was about to find out. Ezra’s mum and Grandma Remziye didn’t used to get along very much in the past. But after mum died, the two seemed to always be in agreement. “You must get rid of the cat and come back home before its fur-balls clog up your womb!”
Ezra caught sight of herself in the full length mirror and looked away. She could hear Granddad Efē in the background, making irrelevant asides that she couldn’t quite make out. She realised she missed him.
“He’s fine. But your father is concerned. He wants to know if you’ve found a man yet.” This was what Leyla would call Grandmother bullshit of the highest order. Ezra’s response was a cold and curt ‘no’. “He also wants to know if you’ve found a proper job yet.” Her response to this was a more pained ‘no’, because ever since they moved to Istanbul, Ezra had been slaving for peanuts at a publishing house up in Levent, which ran a bi-monthly English city guide. It didn’t pay the rent. Leyla did. “Then why are you still there, in that God-forsaken country?” Grandma Remziye demanded.
Trying to change the subject, Ezra told Grandma Remziye the family that lived on the top floor of Barış’s apartment building, kept a rooster on their terrace. It woke everyone up for Fajr prayer before the local muezzin did. Grandma Remziye failed to see how this was a justification for anything, and started berating them for living in a village. “Get rid of the cat and come back home so you can find husbands and proper jobs!”
The call eventually ended, albeit on a bittersweet note, and Ezra took her exhaustion outside. Wandering through the streets like a myopic in an opium parlour, she made a series of failed attempts at running one errand after another until she crossed the Haliç and ended up in Eyüp, looking for an exchange bureau. She found one just as they were pulling down the security shutters. We open after Cuma namazı, the guy told her apologetically, and made a dash for the mosque.
Aimlessly, Ezra followed the crowds until she reached Eyüp Sultan. With the mosque packed for Friday Prayer, the congregation had spilled out into the plaza. Barefooted on plastic mats, they held ranks in the freezing weather. As the Imam wound to a close his sermon on loudspeaker, Ezra made her way to the inner courtyard, ablaze with the turquoise and ultramarine of china tiled walls. There, shaded under a colossal sycamore maple, the female congregants stood side by side in the open air. She placed her boots on a piled rack nearest the arched doorway. The cold of the marble under the sheets bit through her woolly socks. Before joining one of the back ranks, she stopped to pay her respects at the tomb of Eyüp Sultan. But no suras came to her. No prayers. Not even words. Nothing penetrated the tumultuous bickering of doubt in her mind. Had it she may have asked, why?
Two years ago she’d left all that she knew to come here, in search of her mother’s Tasawwuf Murshid. He would have been her last link. But he’d died the very week of her arrival, leaving her with no last meeting, no parting advice, only a cold trail. So here she was trying to start over again at age 30 with the paltry motions of life, in a country that was strange to her. Why? Was this pride, still clinging onto a moment of poor judgement?
That’s when it had begun to snow. Large flakes falling softly, like cherry blossoms carried on a light breeze. Stillness descending. The voices fell quiet. And for all her fuck-ups in life, her shortcomings, the ever-rising tides of her abyss, Ezra felt that in that moment she was exactly where she was meant to be.
When the crowds dispersed after the prayer, she stayed, sat on the cracked, retaining wall of the sycamore. When her fingernails started turning blue, she went inside the mosque and sat some more until the call for Asr prayer broke the quiet. She clung to that stillness like one holding a breath. Clung even more desperately on her journey home.
Leyla’s music greeted her at full volume when Ezra got in. In the living room, her sister was lending a keen ear to a track that merged electronic with soaring vocals, which made Ezra stall in the entre to listen while removing her shoes. Then the bass dropped, and her appreciation dissipated as spontaneously as Leyla’s enthusiasm kicked in.
The sisters lived on the fourth floor of an old apartment building, on one of those narrow little streets that crawl into themselves, just off Kumbaracı Yokuşu. Beyoğlu in general was comfortably multinational, but their immediate environs were overrun with underprivileged Turkish families who were curious, socially intimate and very set in their traditional ways.
Their building, like their neighbourhood, was alive with character. Alive with the muffled arguments of neighbours through the walls; the smells of cooking wafting through the ventilation shafts and stairwells; the pitter patter of children’s feet which sounded through the ceilings above; and colours, strings of pepper and aubergine dried out over the summer by diligent housewives, hanging across balconies like winter decorations.
The apartment caretaker was Fatma Abla, an old village woman who came weekly to mop the stairs and landings. She had a face bereft of wrinkles, hair like pişmaniye, the biggest şalvar pants in the history of the world and the mental age of a 15-year-old. Ezra suspected her of being meczup –secretly enlightened in her madness. Fatma Abla was often frightened by Leyla’s music.
Leaving her sister to bop with pleasure, Ezra went to empty her bladder. When she vacated the bathroom, Küldane-Hatun fatly rushed in like she’d been desperate for the toilet. Küldane-Hatun didn’t like closed doors in the apartment. She especially felt like she was missing out on something every time someone shut her out the bathroom.
Ezra found the kitchen in a state. The leftovers had all been consumed with a desperate and naïve appetite –because he who hasn’t had the minaret built, thinks it grew out of the ground. A jar of Nutella sat apologetically in the middle shelf of the bare, little fridge. And on closer inspection its innards proved bereft of hazelnut, chocolate spread. “Why do you put empty jars back in the fridge?” Ezra yelled with some annoyance to get her voice heard. She succeeded.
“You’re back,” Leyla appeared still swaying to the beat.
“And you’re encouraging false hopes.” She handed her the Nutella jar. Leyla put her index finger to her lips and shushed as if the two were in connivance and they ought not to make any more mention of her blunder lest a third party should hear. Ordinarily this made Ezra laugh. “Bin it please,” she said.
“Naber, Kanka?” Her enthusiasm barely dampened, Leyla did as she was told. Had the sisters ever employed the use of traditional, familial honorifics, Leyla would have to call her older sister Abla. Growing up in London had thwarted that. And ever since they’d moved to Istanbul, Leyla had been picking up Turkish slang with some enthusiasm. Lately she’d started calling everyone kanka, short for kan kardeş, which meant blood-brother. “Did you see the snow today?” Did she see it? “Crazy awesome!” What Leyla really wanted to ask was if Ezra was feeling better. But the question would have been effete. Lately, Ezra had been looking more and more like those votive, Byzantine murals that decorated the Haghia Sophia. Framed in ochre by a natural glow, which illuminated everything but herself.
Ezra put a pan of water to boil for lentil soup. As she was chopping onions, Küldane-Hatun fatly got up onto the kitchen table and scowled at her, long and hard. Küldane-Hatun thought she was a person. She felt plagued by the inanity of her family’s antics even at the best of times. But this Ezra had hit a new low of late. Burdened with cat senses, she saw everything. She heard everything. And she didn’t like any of it.
As Ezra served lentil soup in a stupor, Leyla spoke about her day. With tightened jaw but a genuine light of interest behind her eyes, Ezra listened. She listened like the playground idiot that watched the other kids but didn’t know how to join them. And Küldane-Hatun, on the kitchen floor, stared. She liked to stare when people were eating. She liked to make people feel uncomfortable, because often there were food accidents, which were advantageous.
The events of Leyla’s day culminated with an awkward episode where she’d caught Barış in mid-dress earlier in the evening. With Ezra’s bedroom window looking onto the ventilation shaft in between their apartment building and the next, it afforded her a view of the window belonging to the neighbour who shared her fate. Said neighbour was Barış, who Leyla had a resentful crush on. Were Barış to open his curtains during bedtime, it’d be like he and Ezra were having a sleepover. That’s how intimate the setup was.
According to Leyla, she’d gone into her sister’s room to borrow a lighter because they’d suffered another power outage and she needed to make tea in the samovar, on the stove. It had been dark, but she’d seen enough and he’d seen her see it. Leyla scowled unconvincingly. Leyla’s crush was a resentful one because she was petit in stature, whereas Barış was tall, and Leyla had pride. Despite her general chirpiness, she could be feisty and unforgiving when her pride was compromised. Scorpio characteristics, their mother used to call it.
“Does he have washboard abs?” Ezra teased, then failed to duck the lemon slice Leyla chucked at her face.
“Kanka, I’m sorry,” Leyla pleaded. “Are you ok?” She was. It was just the tooth. She’d bit down on it in surprise. She smiled weakly, and Leyla caught herself wondering if her sister used up all her words at night so there was nothing left by the morning. She’d heard her talking in her sleep again.
Before bed, Ezra tried to get back the stillness by doing the Ders her mum had taught her. Eyes shut and wooden prayer beads in hand, she sat seiza stance on her prayer mat. ‘True Ders is taken from the Qur’an,’ mum had told them, relating her Murshid’s words, ‘but we need to wind this clock every day for it to keep ticking.’ But with Ezra’s faculties to tune in so blunted, the dhikir failed to control her breathing and her wandering mind. When she tried to make a connection with her mother’s Murshid, she hadn’t the faintest idea where to start. She’d never seen the man in life, and now he was dead.
Embittered disappointment, and the abyss slouching forth. It drove her to the medicine cabinet in the kitchen, where Ezra accidentally downed that bottle of ascorbic acid while trying to overdose on Paracetamol. She prayed Isha; made three failed attempts at writing a suicide note; spent an hour and a half trying to get out of the toilet; and then lay herself down to die.
Ezra feigns sleep, nay, wills her own mind to believe it. Behind her eyelids, she senses movement. She feels the words on her face: “Now you’re just being rude.” Braced for the worst, she opens one eye first, then the other. At the end of her nose is the face of a young man shadowed in darkness. Head cocked slightly to one side, he’s observing her impatiently.
“Please go away,” she whispers.
“It doesn’t work like that, daughter of Adam,” is the response. “You can’t just will a Jinn away and expect him to comply.”
Jinn. The word ought to sound alarm bells in her mind but instead Ezra’s terror becomes tinged with fascination. Carefully she sits up and the Mongrel raises himself from his crouch to full height. Looming tall with a graceful ease, one would never guess he was dithering over whether or not to sit on the edge of her bed. He’d rather be anywhere but here. Still, he gives her a long, caustic glare like he has every right to be, and she is the one being unreasonable.
“Who are you and what do you want?”
No response. Instead he holds up the first draft of Ezra’s abandoned suicide note and reads it to her, “I might say no hell that awaits can be worse than the one I’m living with in my head -but honestly, I’m not sure about that. In any case, this is probably a cry for help…”
Mortified, Ezra tries to grab at it but he whisks it away and starts reading the second draft: “Childhood was no fun. Growing up is no fun. I’ve failed at everything. I’m sorry.” No comment, but his gaze tells her all she needs to know: it’s insipid.
“Will you give those back!”
“I have grown old looking for you in the faces of strange men.” A raised index finger, not appealing but commanding her silence. “Empty, waiting for you to show up one day, and tell me, sorry, I got held up.” This last one took the cake for going off on an unanticipated tangent. Despairing in her humiliation, Ezra buries her face in her hands. “I know, that even if you came to me tonight, on a balmy summer breeze, with wild hair and childhood sweat on your upper lip, the time for such things has long past. Because I have grown up, and you are still as you were. As though nostalgia were some spell against time, which preserved you in innocence and awe. You do not belong to this world, and I no longer fit yours…”
“Listen, I’m sorry if I’ve unknowingly done something to offend you or your kin but-”
“This one was addressed to me I think.”
“This note. You wrote it to me.”
“You? I don’t know you.” She deals the statement like an insult. And where there ought to be relief, the Mongrel suffers the blow with a stabbing disappointment that derails his confidence. “I’ve never met you or anyone like you in my life. And if you don’t leave now I’ll scream bloody murder.”
“No you won’t,” he says simply and dangerously. As he says it, Ezra feels her throat constraining. She gasps, but the gasp gets caught half way. No sound comes out. She tries to speak, and it’s like trying to cry out in sleep paralysis. A panic begins to rise in her. Then the pressure eases, relief –like a pair of hands gently setting her back down on solid ground. “You’ve left yourself wide open, you know that?” A hint of the male show-off. Not because he could best her, but because he wouldn’t. “You’d think a girl would grow up some.” His criticism hits the mark.
“What do you think you know?” she demands darkly.
“You,” is the impulsive response. Then with some reluctance, “I knew you.” The Mongrel knows that there isn’t a chance in all the eighteen-thousand worlds that Ezra would remember him… unless some deeper consciousness of hers picked up on his once presence. Is that what he came here to claw at?
Silence then, as both fall short on words. He, overwhelmed by a combination of remorse and disappointment…but in whom? Her? Him? This? And she, overwhelmed by an intense desire to get away from him. Ezra gets out of bed and pads over to her chest of drawers for that box of Winston slims her friend Defne left behind.
“That’s not going to make you feel better,” the Mongrel remarks, as Ezra opens the window and starts smoking into the ventilation shaft. Barış’s window is also open. He starts dreaming that his blanket’s on fire. “And you’re clearly not a smoker.”
“Is there anything you don’t know?” she quips, taking a spiteful, defiant drag. The sensation of his supernatural grip around her gullet still lingers in the memory of her flesh. Ezra touches her neck and slowly exhales. Nebulous plumes waft into the night’s chill. Chaos is this, her dad told her once as a child, when she asked him what the word meant. She catches herself wondering if she ought to be wearing hijab in front of this creature, then decides it’s probably a grey area.
The Mongrel takes a seat on the edge of Ezra’s bed. In the process, he accidently brushes against Küldane-Hatun’s rump, sending the cat flying fatly across the room with a blood-curdling yowl.
“I didn’t do anything to her,” he reassures, a bit defensively, and for the first time there’s a softness in his voice. Ezra, who’d mentally been summoning up terms like Marid and Ifrit and Ghoul, decides that her unwanted guest might belong to a more benign race of Jinn.
“Küldane-Hatun is OCD,” Ezra stubs out her cigarette. “She’s repulsed when people touch her. It’s not something you did.” In the centre of the room, Küldane-Hatun makes a big fat, OCD show of cleaning off any trace of the contact. Growling complaints under her breath with furry-furrowed brow. “For argument’s sake, lets say you did know me.” Ezra considers the butt before chucking it down the shaft, and then turns to the Mongrel, fixing him with an open gaze. “Why did you come back to see this?”
As if he’d been chucked a ball without warning, and he’d caught it on reflex, he holds her gaze. In that brief moment of honest surprise she sees a light in his eyes that’s painfully, vulnerably human. And there it is. Eight years and a counter-planetary domain wide of the mark to be deemed appropriate by any standard. Ezra is indubitably, inexorably in love. And he, who knew he would one day fall for her the moment he broke her fall, 19 years prior… he would never admit it to himself.
The moment passes. Sinister as an eclipse, his gaze darkens again, and Ezra remembers the dream she woke from that previous morning. To her question, the Mongrel doesn’t have an answer. Guilt and curiosity –wouldn’t cut it. I damaged you and I’m here to make amends –wouldn’t go down so well. So he lies. If only to buy time. Because though he’s disappointed and frustrated with himself, the guilt and curiosity are still there. They’re always there.
“I came back because you need to guess what my name is,” he says.
“I’m not in the mood for this.”
“Guess my name, and I’ll leave. You’ll never see me again.”
His mouth curls mischievously at the edges. The first hint of a smile. Devilish, like a boy with a secret. “Promise,” he winks.