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The Dervish House
By IAN McDONALD
Copyright © 2010 Ian McDonald
All right reserved.
Chapter One Monday
The white bird climbs above the city of Istanbul: a stork, riding the rising air in a spiral of black-tipped wings. A flare of the feathers; it wheels on the exhalations of twenty million people, one among ten thousand that have followed the invisible terrain of thermals from Africa to Europe, gliding one to the next, rising up from Lake Victoria and the Rift Valley, following the silver line of the Nile, across the Sinai and the Lebanon to the great quadrilateral of Asia Minor. There the migration splits. Some head north to the shores of the Black Sea, some east to Lake Van and the foothills of Ararat; but the greatest part flies west, across Anatolia to the glitter of the Bosphorus and beyond it, the breeding grounds of the Balkans and Central Europe. In the autumn the stork will return to the wintering grounds in Africa, a round-trip of twenty thousand kilometres. There has been a city on this strait for twenty-seven centuries, but the storks have been crossing twice a year for time only held by the memory of God.
High above Üsküdar, storks peel off from the top of the thermal, wingtips spread wide, feeling the air. In twos and threes they glide down towards the quays and mosques of Sultanahmet and Beyoglu. There is a mathematics to the wheeling flock, a complex beauty spun out of simple impulses and algorithms. As the stork spills out from the top of the gyre its sense for heat tells it there is something different this migration, an added strength to the uplift of warm air. Beneath its wings the city stifles under an unseasonable heat wave.
It is after the hour of prayer but not yet the hour of money. Istanbul, Queen of Cities, wakes with a shout. There is a brassy top note to the early traffic, the shrill of gas engines. Midnotes from taxis and dolmuses, the trams on their lines and tunnels, the trains in their deeper diggings through the fault zones beneath the Bosphorus. From the strait comes the bass thrum of heavy shipping: bulk carriers piled high with containers edge past Russian liquid gas carriers like floating mosques, pressure domes fully charged from the terminals at Odessa and Supsa. The throb of marine engines is the heartbeat of Istanbul. Between them scurry the opportunistic ferries. Sirens and horns, call and response; motors reversing and burbling as they warp into Eminönü's quays. Gulls' cries; always gulls. Dirty, conniving gulls. No one builds platforms on their chimneys for gulls to nest. Gulls are never blessings. The clatter of roller shutters, the bang of van doors. Morning radio, pop and talk. Much talk, of football. Champions' League quarterfinal. Galatasaray/London Arsenal. The pundits are in full flow from a hundred thousand balconies and rooftop terraces. Pop, football and heat. This is the tenth day of the heat wave. Thirty-three degrees in April, at seven in the morning. Unthinkable. The climate-pundits speculate on whether it could be another Big Heat of '22 when eight thousand people died in Istanbul alone. That was insane heat. Now some witty phone-in caller is fusing the two punditries together and speculating that if it flattens those pale English footballers, can that be such a bad thing?
Over all, through all, the chorus of air conditioners. A box in a window, a vent on a wall, an array of fans on a rooftop-one by one they spin up, stirring the heat into ever-greater gyres of warm air. The city exhales a subtle breath of spirals within spirals, updrafts and microthermals.
The stork's pinfeathers feel out the rising airscape. The city's waste heat may save it those few wingbeats it needs to carry it to the next thermal or away from the stooping eagle. Its life is an unconscious algebra, balancing equations between energy opportunity and energy expenditure. Black feather tips flutter as it slides down across the rooftops.
The explosion goes almost unnoticed in the greater roar of the waking city. A flat crack. Then silence. The first voices are the pigeons and gulls, bursting upwards in clattering wings and shrieks. Then come the voices of the machines: car alarms, security alarms, personal alarms, the hip-hop of call tones. Last come the human shrieks and cries.
The tram has come to a halt in the centre of Necatibey Cadessi a few metres away from the halt. The bomb detonated at the rear; the blue roof is bellied up, the windows and doors blown out. A little smoke leaks from the back end of the second car. The passengers have made their own escapes onto the street and now mill around uncertain about what to do. Some sit on the ground, knees pulled up, deep in shock. Pedestrians have come to help. Some offer coats or jackets; some are making cell calls, hands trying to describe the scene; more stand around feeling the need to offer help but uncertain what to do. Most stand back, watching and feeling guilty for watching. A few without guilt shoot video on their cepteps. The news channels pay money for citizen journalism.
The tram driver goes from group to group asking, Is everyone there? Is anyone missing? Are they all right? And they are all right. She doesn't know what to do either. No one knows. Now come the sirens. Here are people who will know what to do. Lights flash beyond the press of bodies; the crowd parts. It's hard to tell victims from helpers; the blood is smeared everywhere. Necatibey Cadessi is a street of global banks and insurance combines, but the ripples from the blast have spread out along the lines of the light rail system. Station by station, street by street, tram by stalled tram, Beyoglu seizes up. Everyone knows about the bombing now.
From the eye of a white stork riding in from the Bosphorus the paralysis can be seen spreading out from the heart of the outrage. Its eye has no comprehension of these things; the sirens are just another unremarkable note in the clamour of a waking city. City and stork occupy overlapping but discrete universes. Its descent carries it over the bombed-out tram surrounded by flashing blue lights and into the heel of the next thermal. Then the rising heat plumes of Istanbul spiral the stork up in a wheel of white bodies and black wings, up above the eastern suburbs, up and onwards into Thrace.
* * *
Necdet sees the woman's head explode. He was only trying to avoid more direct, challenging eye contact with the young woman with the good cheekbones and the red-highlighted hair who had caught him looking in her direction three times. He's not staring at her. He's not a creep. Necdet let his eyes unfocus and wander mildly across the passengers, wedged so politely together. This is a new tram at a new time: twenty minutes earlier, but the connections get him into work less than an hour late, thus not upsetting Mustafa, who hates having to act the boss. So: his tram-mates. The boy and girl in their old-fashioned high-button blue school uniforms and white collars that Necdet thought they didn't make kids wear anymore. They carried OhJeeWah Gumi backpacks and played insatiably with their ceptep phones. The gum-chewing man staring out the window, his mastication amplified by his superb moustache. Beside him the smart man of business and fashion scanning the sports news on his ceptep. That purple velvet suit must be that new nanofabric that is cool in summer, warm in winter, and changes from silk to velvet at a touch. The woman with the curl of silver hair straying over her brow from under her headscarf and the look of distant rue on her face. She frees her right hand from the crowd, lifts it to touch the jewel at her throat. And detonates her head.
The sound of an exploding skull is a deep bass boom that sucks every other sound into itself so that for a moment after the blast there is only a very pure silence.
Then the silence shatters into screaming. The tram jerks to a halt; the momentum almost throws Necdet from his feet. To go down in this panic is to die. Necdet can't reach a handrail and steadies himself against the bodies of roaring passengers. The crowd surges against the still-locked doors. Their bodies hold the headless woman upright. The man in the fine velvet suit shrieks in an insane, high-pitched voice. One side of his purple jacket is dark glossy red. Necdet feels wet on his face, but he can't raise a hand to test it or wipe it away. The doors sigh open. The press is so tight Necdet fears his ribs will splinter. Then he spills out onto the street with no sense of direction or purpose, of anything except a need not to be on the tram.
The tram driver moves from group to group asking, Is anyone missing, is anyone hurt? There is nothing really she can do, but she is a representative of IETT so she must do something, and she hands out moist wipes from a pull-tube in her large green handbag. Necdet admires that her tram has been suicide-attacked but she's remembered to bring her bag with her.
The wet wipe smells of lemon. To Necdet the folded cone of white is the purest, most holy thing he has ever seen.
"Please move away from the tram," the driver is saying as Necdet marvels at the little square of cool citrus white. "There may be another explosion." She wears an expensive Hermes headscarf. It links Necdet to that other scarf he saw around the woman's head. In the final moment he had seen the wistful regret on her face resolve as if she had received a revelation into some long-rooted family woe. She had smiled. Then she had touched the jewel at her throat.
Passengers crouch around the schoolchildren, trying to ease their crying with words of comfort, offered hugs. Can't you see the blood on your faces is scaring them all the more? Necdet thinks. He remembers the warm, wet spray into his own face. He looks at the wet wipe balled up in his hand. It isn't red. It wasn't blood.
Everyone looks up at the beat of a helicopter. It slides in over the rooftops, defying talk and phone calls. Now sirens lift above the morning traffic noise. It will be the police before the ambulances. Necdet doesn't want to be near police. They will ask him questions he doesn't want to answer. He has ID; everyone has ID. The police would scan it. They would read the carbon debit Necdet used to buy his ticket that morning and a cash withdrawal the night before and another carbon debit that previous evening at eighteen thirty. They might ask about the cash. It's grey but not yet illegal.
And is this your current address?
No, I'm staying at the old Adem Dede dervish house in Eskiköy. With my brother.
Who is your brother? Here they might find they had more questions.
Ismet had replaced the padlock with the new one he had bought. Bright brass, a golden medal on a chain. The tekke's shuttered wooden balconies overhung the steps; this was a private, shadowed entrance, behind the industrial steel bins of the Fethi Bey tea shop, miasmic and greasy with the ventings from the kitchen extractor fans. The door was of old Ottoman wood, grey and cracked from centuries of summer heat and winter damp, elaborately worked with tulip and rose motifs. A door into mysteries. It opened onto gloom and the acidic reek of pigeon. Necdet stepped gingerly into the enfolding dark. Light fell in slats through the closed and barred window shutters.
"We shouldn't be doing this," Necdet whispered. It was an architecture that commanded whispers. "People live here."
"Some old Greek and a married couple at the front. And an office girl on her own. And that shop for blasphemies in the old semahane. We'll sort that eventually. This end's been left to rot for fifty years, just falling apart." Ismet stood proudly in the centre of the floor. It was his already. "That's the crime here. God wants this to be what it was before. This is where we'll bring the brothers. Look at this."
Ismet flung open a matching door across the dusty room. Colour flooded in and more than colour: a growing verdure of clipped box; the perfume of sun-warmed wood; the burble of water and the sudden song of birds. Ismet might have opened a door onto Paradise.
The garden was six paces across, but it contained a universe. A shady cloister walled with floral Iznik tiles ran around the courtyard affording shade or shelter in every season. The fountain was a single piece of sun-warmed marble, releasing water over a lily-lip into a basin. A jewel-bright lizard started from repose in the sun and dashed along the scalloped rim to vanish into the shade beneath. Herbaceous plants grew tall and cool in small box-bordered beds. The soil was dark and rich as chocolate. A green place. House martins dipped and bobbed along the eaves of the wooden gallery directly above the cloister. Their shrills filled the air. A copy of yesterday's Cumhuriyet lay sun-yellowing on a marble bench.
"It's all still here," Ismet said. "The redevelopers never got around to the back. The old cells are being used for storage-we'll clear them out."
"Someone looks after this," Necdet said. He could imagine himself here. He would come in the evening, when the light would fall over that roof onto that bench in a single pane of sun. He could sit and smoke blow. It would be a good place for a smoke.
"We'll be all right here," Ismet said, looking around at the overhanging balconies, the little rectangle of blue sky. "I'll look after you."
Necdet can't let the security police know he has moved into the dervish house that his brother intends to make the home of the secret Islamic order to which he belongs. The police think secret Islamic orders blow up trams. And if they look at his old address, they'll see what he did, back there in Basibüyük, and why Ismet Hasgüler took his brother of the flesh under his care. No, he just wants to go to work quietly and soberly. No, no police thank you.
The air above the still-smoking tram thickens in buzzing, insect motion. Swarmbots. The gnat-sized devices can lock together into different forms for different purposes; above Necatibey Cadessi they coalesce like raindrops into scene-of-crime drones. The sparrow-sized robots flit on humming fans among the milling pigeons, sampling the air for chemical tracers, reading movement logs from vehicles and personal cepteps, imaging the crime scene, seeking out survivors and photographing their blood-smeared, smoke-stained faces.
Necdet drifts to the periphery of the mill of survivors, haphazard enough to elude the darting drones. Two women in green paramed coveralls crouch with the tram driver. She's shaking and crying now. She says something about the head. She saw it wedged up under the roof behind the grab-bars, looking down at her. Necdet has heard that about suicide bombers. The head just goes up into the air. They find them in trees, electric poles, wedged under eaves, caught up in shop signs.
Necdet subtly merges with the circle of onlookers, presses gently through them towards the open street. "Excuse me, excuse me." But there is this one guy, this big guy in a outsize white T-shirt, right in front of him, with his hand up to the ceptep curled over his eye; a gesture that these days means: I am videoing you. Necdet tries to cover his face with his hand, but the big man moves backwards, videoing and videoing and videoing. Maybe he is thinking, This is a couple of hundred euro on the news; maybe, I can post this online. Maybe he just thinks his friends will be impressed. But he is in Necdet's way, and Necdet can hear the thrum of swarmbot engines behind him like soulsucking mosquitoes.
"Out of my way!" He pushes at the big man with his two hands, knocks him backwards, and again. The big man's mouth is open, but when Necdet hears the voice say his name, it is a woman's voice speaking directly behind him.
He turns. The head hovers at his eye level. It's her. The woman who left her head in the roof of the tram. The same scarf, the same wisp of grey hair coiling from beneath it, the same sad, apologetic smile. A cone of light beams from her severed neck, golden light. She opens her mouth to speak again.
Necdet's shoulder charge sends the big man reeling. "Hey!" he shouts. The surveillance drones rise up, fizzing at the edges as they prepare to dissolve and re-form into a new configuration. Then they firm back into their surveillance modes and swoop around the flashing blue lights that have only now made it through the citywide traffic jam rippling out from the destruction of Tram 157.
Excerpted from The Dervish House by IAN McDONALD Copyright © 2010 by Ian McDonald. Excerpted by permission.
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