Chapter Three: Instanbul
Alone in his mental space, the hum of the city sounded far away while Marco Arrigoni stared out the open window of his office located on a quiet leafy side street. Experiencing a bout of writer’s block, he sought inspiration in the view from where he sat. Lack of original ideas seemed to be affecting him more and more these days. Burnout must be just around the corner.
He focused his eyes on the slender minarets of the Blue Mosque, named for the profusion of blue Iznik tiles that adorn the interior walls of this archetype of Ottoman sacred architecture. The cylindrical columns of stone crowned with cone-shaped caps poked high above the red-tiled rooftops, stark against the sweep of arching blue sky. Not unusual. Minarets were as common a site in his adopted homeland as steeples were back home in New York.
The stone-built minarets alternated between a pale beige and bluish-grey, depending on the position of the sun, or maybe it was the intensity of the sun. He wasn’t sure which. They sure beat staring at his computer screen all day. Today they were bluish-gray.
For close to seventeen hundred years, the Golden Horn, the strategic peninsula where he toiled away week after week, had been the imperial seat of three empires: Roman, Byzantine and Ottoman. Then, in well less than a century, the drums of war gave way to the beat of commerce, and Istanbul metamorphosed from imperial capital to holiday mecca, following the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire in 1922.
The city is proud of its imperial past and its place in the pageant of history. Its civic pride is not misplaced, a sentiment he supported. Throughout the year, like hosts of foreign invaders in days gone by, hordes of tourists from all points of the compass descend upon this ancient jewel of the Orient, not to plunder, but to sample its old-world charms.
Although he couldn’t see them or hear them from his office window, and though he wasn’t a gambling man (provided his raise came through next month, otherwise, all bets were off), he would wager that at this very moment, with summer still in full swing, tourists in their multitudes were thronging the covered laneways of the Grand Bazaar—one of the oldest shrines to shopping in the world. Begun in 1456 by Mehmet the Conqueror and expanded in subsequent years, the Grand Bazaar houses close to four thousand shops. A shopping mecca second to none.
Marco, however, rarely paid tribute to Mammon in that cathedral of commerce. Shopping wasn’t his thing. But if it were, he wasn’t paid enough to relieve the ennui of life with shopping excursions. Most of the time he was too consumed with work far more spiritual than commercial in nature (at least that’s what he told himself). Unavoidably so. He was the parish priest of Santi Giuseppe Church, a church which enjoyed a celebrated status among his flock. Legend had it, his church had been built over the tomb of a holy man sometime in the late tenth century when Istanbul was called Constantinople, the Second Rome, named for Constantine, the first Christian Roman Emperor. The local Catholics believed the holy man would protect them so long as his tomb remained undisturbed. Father Marco didn’t put much stock in the legend. Like his faith, it was just so much folklore.
Unexpectedly, she popped into his head. He pictured his friend clearly in his mind’s eye…Her smile. A fixation of shiny white teeth and glossy rouge lips, that smile...But her smile imparted friendship, not romance...So far as he could tell...Why do you torture yourself with thoughts of her? How many women fall in love with a priest? The answers wouldn’t come to him. He blinked and her image suddenly dissolved, the neural equivalent of a puff of smoke before a gust of wind. Once again he was alone in his mind, staring off into the distance.
Inspiration not on offer in the vista before him, he turned away from the window with a tic of discontent. Best get back to the daily beans-and-wieners routine he urged himself. Working at his desk in frustrated industry, papers and reference books piled without care on its cluttered surface, he reread the text on the computer screen for the fiftieth?...hundredth?...He had lost track of how many times. He was cranking out the Sunday sermon, his most important weekly task, and it was giving him trouble. Composing each sentence on the page was excruciating, like excavating a fossil. And he knew what that was like because he dabbled in archeology in his spare time.
His brow knit in concentration, Father Marco struggled to express in words a middle ground between faith and modern life, the theme of his sermon. His parishioners, blighted souls one and all in his opinion, were constantly wrestling with the conflicting demands of the secular and spiritual realms. (Wallowing in the muck of sin was more precise, but who was he to judge?) Thus, they were in constant need of practical guidance to help them navigate the stormy shoals of modern life. Between me and the wall, a slap upside the head would be more effective, but then a priest has to conduct himself within acceptable norms. Ever the optimist—or masochist, take your pick—he believed his sermon would deliver this essential navigation and, with the help of God, prevent his flock from running aground in the moral shallows. They needed all the divine help they could get. Deserved or not.
So absorbed in his work, he didn’t sense at first the faint motion of his padded seat. But as it grew in strength, he could no longer ignore it. His concentration broke, and his eyes drifted from the screen, concern in them. Rumbling’s too strong for a passing truck, he gauged. Icy fingers of alarm crept up his spine and his flesh crawled. In the next moment reality hit him.
Panicked, he dove beneath his desk with only his stomach-churning dread for company, and the rattling increased to a terrifying racket. While he huddled in terror on the bone-jarring floor, the acid taste of fear in his mouth, his thoughts vaulted back to memories of the last major earthquake that had stricken Istanbul.
When was that? he asked himself as he quivered on the floor...August 1999, he recalled after a rapid heartbeat or three, answering his own question.
That earthquake had been a powerful one. Thousands of people had died in it. The epicenter, which had been further east, on the Asian side of the city, had caused significant damage to Istanbul’s infrastructure. As items crashed to the ground around him, adding to his already considerable distress, he prayed for divine deliverance from such a fate.
Not ready to pass through the Pearly Gates just yet, my Lord.
His prayer (and the prayers of many others) must have been answered because, as if on cue, his office became eerily quiet and the floor ceased shuddering, the giant jackhammer pounding the earth stilled by a mighty hand. Car alarms wailed in the distance and dogs bawled. Still wary, thinking what could have been, he poked his head out from beneath his desk, unsure if it was safe to leave his improvised shelter.
Now he knew how the bells on a Turkish belly dancer must feel. Actually, he knew exactly how they felt, but it was best if that peccadillo stayed between the walls of the confessional.
Dishevelled, he took stock of himself. Shaken, he was otherwise unscathed. He stood up, brushed himself off, combed back his dense, black hair with his fingers, and expressed an unspoken prayer of gratitude.
Exhilaration infused his central nervous system, like an athlete mounting the winner’s podium. He had won. He had cheated death—unharmed! But not his office he noticed and his features tweaked in displeasure. A bookcase, which he had meant to level but hadn’t gotten around to doing, was face down on the stone floor next to the desk, its contents strewn about, and framed items, which once graced the bare stone walls, now lay shattered on the floor. And a bust of Lincoln, his favorite president, lay in pieces, mixed in with the books and shards of glass, too small to glue back together. An edgy stillness hung over the room.
His eyes fell upon a framed picture of his mother and sister lying atop the debris. Somehow it had survived intact. He blew the dust off the glass and stared at the picture, forgetting himself for a moment in a memory of the past. He graced the picture with a kiss before placing it back on his desk.
He glanced around and nodded in satisfaction. Appears we lucked out. Hope the rest of the church did, too. Can’t afford any downtime. Damn sermon isn’t going to write itself…Unless procrastination succumbs to desperation and you slip an old sermon past them. The mischievous idea brought a grin to his face but was quickly erased by concern for his church.
It was a weekday afternoon so the nave was most likely empty of parishioners making devotions. No surprise there. Nevertheless, Father Marco strode from his office with urgency in his step, the chance of injury, even death, still a possibility. He marched through the north transept into the crossing aware of the thump of his racing heart, and the echo of his thick-soled shoes on the ancient flagstone floor worn smooth by centuries of use telegraphed his progress into the cavernous nave, the main body of the church.
He entered the nave in a state of apprehension while motes of dust hitched a ride on broad blades of sunlight which pierced the lancet stained-glass windows above, decorating the vast open space in a panorama of colorful stripes.
Holding his breath, he completed a quick survey of the church. Much to his delight, only the pews were dislodged and a few unlit candlesticks on the high altar table had toppled over. He permitted himself a long relieved sigh and the tightness in his chest relaxed. The church, based on his superficial inspection, seemed to have withstood the tremor.
Appears you’ll have to finish that damn sermon after all.
He didn’t see or hear any injured worshippers flailing or wailing about and his heart swelled with gratitude for small mercies. The sight of blood distressed him even though he had seen plenty of it in his former life. Hands clasped behind his back, he rocked on the balls of his feet and, in spite of his irreverence, soaked up the visual splendor of his church in solemn silence what thousands of other awestruck worshippers had likely done over the centuries. The very grandeur of the space mocked whatever out-sized measure of self-importance he possessed.
Every architectural detail in sight proclaimed the power and glory of the Almighty. A gilded coffered-ceiling, framing ornamental rosettes in bold relief in its recessed panels, soared high above him and successive rows of lofty yellow and white marble columns, ramrod at attention, flanked both sides of the nave from front to back, while faithfully-rendered biblical scenes, exploding with color and exuding a deep degree of spirituality, painted with adoration on the far walls left and right, carried his thoughts to another dimension. A visual symphony of form and function exceeded only by that of Saint Peter’s Basilica in Rome he felt compelled to admit.
His meditative state was interrupted, when, almost beyond the range of earshot, he heard off to his left a groan. Now what? he thought with barely concealed irritation. He turned toward the direction of the eerie sound, cocked an ear and deliberated whether the church itself was the source of it. He caught the moan again, in the right aisle, among the rows of columns.
Evil spirits? he asked himself. He went rigid and fingered the large crucifix dangling from his neck. I wonder if the crucifix can ward them off…He stole across the nave as if he were about to be pounced on and peered between the shadowy columns.
To his surprise—and relief—he spied the feet of his custodian beside a column, sticking up on the cold floor next to an overturned footstool. No evil spirits after all!
“Dimitri,” Father Marco cried out.
In a flurry, he dashed between the columns, nearly tripping on the hem of his soutane. He had forgotten about the cranky caretaker. Which was difficult to do most days. For good reason. Nonetheless, sickly guilt pinged his conscience.
Kneeling on the floor beside him, Father Marco said in Turkish, his voice raised, “Dimitri, my dear. Can you hear me...?
Dimitri stirred and his eyelids fluttered.
“Don’t yell. I’m not deaf.”
“I wasn’t yel—”
“What happened?” he said as he brought his hand to his head.
“You don’t remember?”
“I’m just asking for the hell of it.”
Father Marco’s mouth flopped open, then it clamped shut for a beat. “An earthquake hit us. But not a bad one, thank God.”
A brief smile flickered at the corners of Dimitri’s mouth and Father Marco wondered at this. But not for long because Dimitri said, “See what I have to suffer for this job.”
“No one—” he held his tongue, and not for the first time “—Never mind. Are you hurt?”
“I was meditating before you interrupted me,” he snapped. His eyes then adopted a searching look as though he were taking a mental inventory of his body. “My head hurts.”
Father Marco was tempted to ask, “Can I knock some sense into it?” but let it pass and opted for “May I examine it?”
Dimitri moved his head in a sluggish manner which Father Marco guessed—correctly—was a gesture of consent. With a delicate touch, he examined Dimitri’s pumpkin-sized head and felt on the back of his skull a small knot beneath bristly gray hair.
“Hmmm,” he intoned with all the gravity of an ER doctor.
“It’s never been done before,” Marco said out loud, pretending to be in deep discussion with himself.
Dimitri became agitated. “What’s wrong!”
“I think we have to amputate,” he said with a serious look.
“Amputate?” Alarm showed in Dimitri’s eyes. “Amputate what?”
“Your skull,” and he let go of the laughter he was suppressing.
Dimitri’s alarm flipped to anger. “Now that you’ve had your fun at my expense, help me to my feet.”
He managed to get Dimitri into a sitting position.
“Don’t be rough with me.” Father Marco rolled his eyes heavenward.
Little by little, he helped Dimitri, a stout man, rise to a standing position, requiring no small amount of effort on both their part. Once on his feet, he swayed like a sailor after a night on the town…Make that several towns.
“Take a seat,” Father Marco advised, indicating a pew, “while I go scrounge for something cold for that bump.”
“Don’t trouble yourself, Father,” he said, slumped in the pew.
“It’ll reduce the swelling.”
Dimitri palpated the bulge with his fingers. “The bump isn’t big,” and he winced.
“It will also numb the pain,” he added as an inducement.
“It doesn’t hurt much.”
“It’s what’s best for you.”
“I said—” He stopped himself short, realizing who he was addressing. “If you must,” he relented.
“Don’t move. I’ll be right back.” Father Marco turned away. Touchy, touchy. What’s biting him? He never pretended to fathom his crankier-than-usual colleague in any depth though they had been working together going on twenty years. His custodian liked to keep to himself. You’d think the old grouch would show some appreciation for my concern, he griped as he made his way to the small kitchen. Maybe a kick in the pants would straighten him out. The notion of corporal punishment lightened his mood while he prepared the icepack on the counter.
He returned a few minutes later and presented Dimitri with an improvised icepack wrapped in paper towel. It was the best he could do under the circumstances.
Dimitri pulled a questioning look at him. “Yogurt?”
“Don’t worry. It’s frozen—and it’s fat-free.” Unlike that head of yours.
He backed down and mumbled, “Well, you did say it was fat-free,” and he grabbed the frozen container and set it against the lump...“Thank you, Father.”
At an age when most men were well into retirement, Dimitri was one of those rare men who worked and stayed active. Why was anyone’s guess.
“Did the church suffer any damage?” Dimitri asked.
“It’s still in one piece.”
“So now you’re a stone mason?”
Father Marco caught himself before replying. “I suggest you take the remainder of the day off, my dear,” he said, hoping his paternal tone masked his exasperation.
“Let me rest a bit. This wooziness is only temporary.”
“You shouldn’t push yourself.”
“I’ve been in a lot worse situations.”
“But you’re not a young man anymore.”
“I could still give you what for,” he said with a cocky air.
Weeks later, fate would give him his chance.
Father Marco allowed himself a grin. If only you knew. “No one said you couldn’t.”
“Made your diagnosis haven’t you?”
“You know it. And you should let a doctor inspect your head.” Preferably by one schooled in psychiatry.
“Let’s sit here a while longer,” he said to stall.
Father Marco joined him on the pew and they made small talk.
Dimitri finally gave in. “Think you can manage this place in my absence?”
“It’ll be difficult without you.”
Tone-deaf to Father Marco’s sarcasm he said, “Don’t let the church fall apart while I’m gone.”
“We’ll miss you.”
Dimitri rode a taxi home instead of a bus. Later that day, passengers on the bus celebrated their good fortune.
Father Marco spent the remainder of his day rearranging pews and putting his office back in order. When done, he sprawled out in his office chair, his energy spent. He hadn’t felt this drained since chasing frisky nuns around at the start of his ministry.
Aah, the advantage of youth. Age is gaining on me. No matter how much I exercise or how well I eat.
His eyes coasted over his messy desk and noticed a pile of folders he had stacked on it during the cleanup. His chin dropped to his chest and he heaved a weary sigh. You should put those files where they belong. They aren’t going to get there by themselves. Maybe the angels will do it for me. Dream on.
Still too beat to move, he resisted the urge to rise. Minutes ticked by and his eyelids grew heavy. Better move or you’ll fall asleep, he prodded himself. Hands on the armrests, he pushed himself to his feet, gathered the files in one arm and trudged to the stairs that led to the archives.
The air grew cooler with each step he descended on the stone stairwell into the bowels of the ancient church and it revived him. Upon reaching the landing, he strode along a narrow, weakly-lit passageway tailed by his shadow on the rough stone walls, his footsteps ringing out in the subterranean space, until he came to a secure metal door. He keyed himself into the archive with his free hand, and a rush of cold, musty air grabbed at him. He groped for the light switch on the wall to his left and flicked it on. While he stood transfixed in the doorway, gripped by a scene of mayhem that stretched to the far wall beyond, he felt a curtain of despair zip across his face. Filing cabinets and shelving units lay toppled over, their contents vomited onto the stone floor.
He groaned inwardly, overcome by the chaos. Now I have to clean up this kuffing mess, pronouncing the gerund of a popular profanity backwards. I’ll never finish my sermon on time.
Snapping out of his funk, he picked his way to the center of the archive and unburdened himself of the folders he was carrying. The groined vault room being quite large, the naked overhead bulb laboured mightily but failed to illuminate the entire storage space, surrendering to the shadows in the far corners.
In the feeble light, at the rear of the archive, he noticed a lone filing cabinet leaning at an odd angle. It nabbed his attention. What gives? His curiosity aroused, he crossed the floor to investigate, but halted abruptly several feet away from it. The cabinet had sunken into the floor.
Ho-lee Mother! The floor isn’t built on solid rock. He puzzled over this for a few beats…Too late to sue the builders, I bet, and he grinned at his own humor.
Out of an abundance of caution, he approached the area on cat feet and tested the floor around the cabinet. Assured the floor was firm, he tried to shove the cabinet onto solid ground. It wouldn’t budge, not even an inch.
Dammit. Now I’ll have to empty it. Like I don’t have more important things to do with my kuffing time.
With an air of resignation, he got down to the unenviable task of clearing out the cabinet’s drawers of their precious contents, mostly birth and baptismal records and marriage and death certificates, the milestones of people’s lives chronicled for posterity on reams of paper and parchment. He spent precious minutes stacking items in neat piles, cursing all the while under his breath. All but the bottom drawer were emptied.
I should be able to budge it now. Here goes…
He gave the metal cabinet a good shove, and it screeched in protest against the friction with the floor as it escaped the hole’s maw which had attempted to scarf down more than it could chew. He sniffed at the musty air, then stooped to peer into the gaping cavity. Nothing was discernible in the gloom.
I wonder what’s hiding down there. Buried treasure? he kidded himself. Well, you won’t discover anything without better lighting.
Possessed with visions of treasure and the opportunity to wrest it from the pit, he ignored the disorder around him and went to fetch a flashlight from Dimitri’s storeroom.
With flashlight in hand, he returned to the archive room, chockfull of excitement and a spark of adventure in his eyes. He knelt before the void and shined the powerful beam of light into the darkness. Dust floated on the conical beam of light which illuminated large chunks of rock on the floor of the cave directly below him. Unworthy of further scrutiny, he swung the light beam to his left but failed to discover anything of special interest. His initial excitement began to wane. He played the flashlight in the opposite direction, ever hopeful that something of value would be captured in its beam…Nothing…Wait a sec. He ducked deeper into the cave.
What the hell!
Without warning, he reeled backwards, almost dropping the flashlight into the hole. Bug-eyed with fright, Father Marco frantically crossed himself, more out of reflex than conviction.
“The legend is true,” he murmured aloud. “By God.”