Excerpts from The Mapmakers's Daughter

Topkapi Palace


Monday, November 7

I have always been propelled by deaths. No matter how they've grieved and ground me down. Eleven of them were worst of all, and among those were the boys'. Those deaths are the heart of everything. The Empire's order, now and to come. The Sultan's power and prospect. Who I am, and who I thought I was.

It's time I weigh their cost and worth. That they had—or have, or might have—worth is the crux and the story. I will tell it as far as I can see. For this is about seeing, not remembering.

Let me see, then. Let me see.

In what's left of my mind's eye I see this: a terrace, two mutes, blue bowstrings laid out on a ledge. I see five pieces of death disguised as string, as silk, as blue—one for each boy according to custom and to reason and to law. Chaos is poison. Competition is chaos. Each is a source of civil war. Fatih—the Conqueror—Sultan Mehmed established the law to stem it. And the ulema gave him strong support, maintaining its accordance with the shariʽa. And to whomsoever of my sons the Sultanate shall pass, it is fitting that for the order of the world he shall kill his brothers. That law has held us together; secured our Empire; made us who we are—here in Topkapi, across the waters I look out upon, beyond Anatolia, beyond Baghdad, beyond Cairo, and Mecca, too. On warfields and peacefields, in harbors, tents, and caves, that law has kept order. It has lifted us up. And it has bowed us low, as well it might.

Let me see? I see I'm in bed burning with fever. I see my toes are beginning to turn black. I see blood under my fingernails. What is this? No mystery, I guess. I'm an aging woman back from a very long journey, and I've simply fallen ill. But just when I discover my son's wife has a heart! And my grandson has a son! Just when life opens wide as the world, I find myself sick from head to toe.

I'm not sure I can do this. See what I need to see in order to understand. Esther says I can. "You have nothing to lose," she said. I told her I did. I think those were our first lies to each other—ever. "Do it," Esther said. "Do it."

And so I shall. My mind and heart are stretched like the parchment itself, and, on my back, I see things as they're meant to be seen—sideways. The movement of the Bosporus. The passage of time. Space and hours, end to end. Not stacked but stretched: The length of time it has taken me to be where I am. The length of time it will take me to see. Day by day. I will.

I know this before I put down one more word, though: the living, not the dead, prescribe the order. And mothers are the key.

Tuesday, November 8

All I did was cross a sill, and I was in a sphere without beginning or end. It was a world of paths and gates to more paths to more gates. A world of overhangs and symmetries off plumb. Space laid out like limbs of a rule. The yard was scored by stone walks that veered to a long portico, to a towered pavilion, and to a third gate that was in line neither with the gate we'd come through nor with the walk that connected them. The porticoes were the same yellow stone they are now, the columns the same white marble; the ochre pavilion had the same look of heavy sugar—its windows swirled in the gold that to this day makes the facade seem more word than wall. Gazelles in diamond anklets nibbled the grass, peacocks made noisy exhibitions of themselves, gold-fettered tigers disported modestly, and fountains on both sides of everything connected earth to sky. There was no need to understand. Seeing was enough.

Around the space, visible through slim black shadows, stood more people than I'd ever seen in one place: Janissaries, Around the space, visible through slim black shadows, stood more people than I'd ever seen in one place: Janissaries, I'd learn. The Sultan's elite infantry—celibate, Christian-born captives—massed six deep on all sides and at the palace on that occasion to collect their salaries. There must have been a thousand of them, girdled in purple, coated in blue, their heads identically topped with hats that drooped like elbowed sleeves. Their boots alone told their rank—red in front, yellow behind them, all the rest black. All was order. Faces trained to numbness. Dead silence. What system—what leader, I wondered—exacted such vital obedience?

On the other side of the last gate was the answer.

We were paraded across a courtyard scored by lines of dignitaries—foreign, it was evident from their very different attire—fitted and furred. At the center were four commanders in white headdresses that looked like Doge Gritti's except for little satin banners on little red poles that stood a foot above their heads. Barbarossa swooped in front of us from I didn't know where and waved the girls' line forward; we were suddenly a quaking chevron leading the parade. The viziers were crabbing away. The air was whirling like paint.

And then it cleared. Straight ahead, very near to where I stood, cross-legged on an ebony throne raised not one bit off the ground on which the Ottoman Empire stretched and its subjects toiled and thrived, sat Suleiman. Bent nose, minnow eyes, sloped cheekbones—there he was before me. A man like no other. His titles alone told the story. I knew them from my grandfather. Sultan of the Two Continents, Servitor of the Two Sanctuaries, Warden of the Horizons. Suleiman the Magnificent—man and legend combined. His beard was black as pitch at forty-three; his crimson robe voluminous, wild, sleeved to the ground and woven with giant tulips. In his hand was a red rose. His turban was wound high with an aigrette fixed by an emerald big as my fist, and beneath the mountain of linen was a face dotted with light. Suleiman. Imperial, mirthless, deadly pale.

No one stirred. The stillness was an airless cage. The world itself was the command to not move. The world itself death in a twitch. Then Barbarossa said Serenissima, meaning Venice. Then he said Veniero, my father's name, and something else I couldn't understand. The Sultan tipped the rose toward his narrow nose. The boys and girls were led away. I could feel the world firming around me. I was alone before Suleiman. And he was there and not there, and there was a space between the part of him that was present and the part that was not. I don't know if I sensed that that space would matter to me, but I knew that it mattered. And I knew this, too: I was being saved.

Wednesday, November 9

I realize now that it is a credit to my first teachers that I didn't hate or resent my education, because it—or rather, the goal of my being educated—was the cause of my worst early misery— being taken from Paros to Venice when I was five. My father had died, and my mother was free. With that freedom she was going to reclaim her authority. In Venice. For both our sakes. My mother—the first to save me.

I watched, in those final days, my life shrink toward the vanishing point. I tried to memorize it—the bougainvillea and gorse, the unloading of ambergris and glass, the fishermen and their boys sorting through the night's haul, mending nets, washing down the decks and the wharf. All of it was going, then more going, and then it was gone.

I cried for ten days—nearly the time it took to go the length of the Adriatic. It was the choking crying that comes from knowing you have lost something forever, and it was sharpened by my mother's changing before my eyes. Always loving and protective, she had seemed more sister than mother, and now she didn't. She seemed decisive. We were not out of Naoussa harbor before her bearing changed, her brow widened, and all the other parts of her that I hadn't realized were tight as little drums began to loosen and admit the fast-moving air and a future that she planned to affect. When she said that I could do anything I wanted, I knew it was a declaration of fact, not permission. I could tell from the way her sadness was turning to excitement.

When we heard through the fog the muffled closeness of the Dalmatian coast, my mother called me to her. Squinting, remembering, she rolled out to its ragged extent the portolan chart given to me by my father, and with her arms around me my mother encircled me in map. I examined the its swirling wind roses and the crosses that marked danger, I smelled the animal the parchment had come from, and I felt my mother becoming specific. I was feeling her become a mother. I believe I understood that could only be a good thing.

Then Venice came into view changing from bone to gold in the lifting mist. "There it is," she said, her voice full of promise. We sailed toward Venice's beauty as though it were a berth. Across the lagoon on the left, cypresses marked the outer edge of the Giudecca. Hard to our right, a little island, St. Helena, was so close I could smell the lemons on the trees. And straight ahead, forming itself, was a composition of shapes unlike anything I'd ever seen. One was a lace cliff; one a spear; the largest a tabernacle—gold upon gold pointing to God: the Campanile, the Clock Tower, the domes of San Marco. I could make out the church's doorways, deep as caves; the jeweled pictures above them; every detail sharpening as we approached so swiftly I was sure we'd run aground. But the lagoon is deep, right up to the architecture. There was no wharf, no transition. We were just there. New points on the trapezoid.

Friday, November 11

I heard the money in his pockets before I saw his face. I heard the money even over the wind and over the snarling of the lank creature who goaded me. The fortune in gold ducats in the right pocket and the countless pieces of silver in the left were just as my grandfather had described—donatives the Sultan conferred in the course of a day on loved ones, supplicants, passersby. I heard the jangling coins over the frenzied waters where the Bosporus and Golden Horn churn each other down and hundreds of carracks and oared boats vie for right-of-way. On the far side of the Golden Horn hunched the stone berths of the shipyard. In the middle of the Golden Horn waited the imperial barge, its decks dotted with red-clad oarsmen moving in unison to keep the bow, upon which perched the waiting throne, clear of the swirling seas. The Sultan was going boating. He was taking a day on the Bosporus for the beauty of it. And I had been summoned to his presence along the way. In no one's memory had such a thing happened.

He was a dot, then a spot, then the shape of a man, then a man. How close do you have to get before perspective is gone and the size of the man is the man himself? He was standing in front of Tower Kiosk—a small, purple twist of tiny chambers that he had designed himself. The midday light looked like ice as it fell on the water behind him, and the part that fell on his robe made the mohair shimmer like a leaf. I slowed my step. He broadened his shoulders and straightened himself to a great height.

This man was more than a tree or a mountain. He was an army, an education, a code of law. Suleiman was the dynasty itself. He was the Empire, too. He had fought and won in Baghdad and Tabriz, in Belgrade and Mohacs, on Rhodes and Paros and the islands all around. Tireless, he'd taken 100,000 soldiers, 20,000 horses, and 10,000 camels two thousand miles—eastward and back, westward and back. And he'd done it many, many times. Suleiman had shown the world what majesty looks like. He'd shown his own people, too—through the schools he founded, the buildings and bridges he commissioned, the arts he fostered, and discoveries he enabled. Life in the capital vibrated with Suleiman's advances. Across the continents of the Empire, his achievements inspired awe, admiration, and thanks. Beyond the House of Islam, they engendered envy and fear.

I had been aching to see him since the only moment I'd laid eyes on him a year before. Through hard work and obedience I'd been striving to find a way into his presence. I wanted—I needed—to test what I had felt that day. An energy of some kind. I couldn't have said what. But I knew he had ignited it. And I knew he'd ignited it by saving my life.

And here is what I know now, lying here, still. What Suleiman awoke in me was an awareness of power—my own. And that power's source was my mother. Yes, my father's name had put me on the deck, not in the hold, of Barbarossa's ship. But my education was the ultimate term by which Barbarossa had identified me. And Suleiman saved me because of that. If neither he nor I knew that at the time, it doesn't matter. What I'm writing, now, is certain, and true.

The Mapmaker's Daughter by Katherine Nouri Hughes

“[An] absorbing historical novel… compellingly interlaces public history and intimate conjecture.” The New Yorker

Sunday, November 13

Days of heaven, of hell. Days that change everything. I call to my mind a certain summer morning in 1539, and it feels now exactly as it felt that day. I was clearing the threshold of the Gate of Felicity. Beyond it—the Forbidden Abode. No one goes past that plinth without approval from the Sultan himself. My conveyance didn't pause. I was heading inward. I closed the curtain. When the palanquin came to rest there was no instruction. No one peered in. I climbed out and into the semi-dark. I was in the harem.

A quick-tempoed clicking, the high-heeled step of short legs, announced her arrival down the corridor. Red announced Hurrem, too, emerging from the shadows. Yards of it trailing from the silk-covered cone that peaked a foot above her head. The color was all around her as she entered.

A bloody tangle was my first impression of her. The second was of night—a face shaded and slivered like the moon's. Slim arcs of brows, of the upper lip, of the hairline that met in a black point on her forehead. Her shoulders had the same shape, sloping into short arms that curved into hands and fingers pressed tip-to-tip to form a pointed basket that seemed to contain something alive that she might make appear at any time. She had a strange quality of smoothness, as though she were made not of flesh and hair but of a single thing—water or stone. A single smoothness, except for the lower lip, which in the slanted rooftop light I saw was gnawed to a purplish pulp. This was the Sultan's wife.

The aura of the hyena is said to be aphrodisiac, and the head of the hyena is attached directly to the spine so the animal has to turn completely around in order to look back: Hurrem was said to have kept a pair of them. She was also said to be a witch—though that was not true. Hers was the power of an astrolabe, not a sorcerer. Hurrem didn't make things what they were not. She supplied bearings and determined direction. As far as Suleiman was concerned, she determined the length of the day.

Wednesday, November 16

I have never done this. Thought this. Gone where I am heading. I have never let myself see what I had better see now.

It is a day in late summer. It is morning. Mehmed has taken his favorite bow and gone down to the river to hunt quail. The ground is wet from the night, and it is layered with mulching leaves. Poking through a heap of them at the bottom of the embankment is a grayish object. It is the size and shape of a head. Mehmed, the only person I ever adored, the Sultan's favorite son, is alarmed and intends to inspect. His Chief White Eunuch calls out, points up the river, says he thinks he sees the rest of the body. Mehmed signals to him and the others—there are several on the outing—to stay where they are. He wants to protect them. He starts down the hill. Agile though he is, Mehmed loses his footing on the leaves, then on the roots. He slides down the bank, which is long and steep at that part of the river. With the force of the steepness, Mehmed hits the object, which is not a head but a nest of wasps. He lands on it with both feet and crushes it. Mehmed's eunuchs shoot down the hill after him. They try to free his feet from the hive, but the scarlet killers are filling the air, making it dark and harrowing, and they can't get near Mehmed. In a moment his face is covered with wasps. At no time does Mehmed make a sound. The eunuchs call out his name. They fear he can't see them. They use their sleeves as bats and when they're able to get close they use the edges of their quivers as blades to scrape the wasps off him, but Mehmed is paved with them—face, neck, hands, inside his tunic, too. He is swatting at his chest limply, trying to make them stop stinging him. He rolls from side to side on the bank, his foot buried in the sticky hive, and his eyes are sealed with what is killing him, and then he comes to rest. His feet jerk up, hive and all, then back, and then he stops moving. The eunuchs stare while Mehmed continues to not move. Then they withdraw to their haunches and repeat his name in a frantic chant until Mehmed's body begins to inflate—his eyes, lips, hands, all of him—and before he bursts the eunuchs fall silent.

When I watched my mother die, sinking into the hem of her Ascension Day dress, I thought there could be no worse thing to see or know. There had still been a breath left in her when they hauled her onto Gritti's barge; her bosom still was heaving, but unevenly. I heard them say that she was drowning inside herself. That she was trying to breathe but the water wouldn't let her. She knew what was happening. I could see the pain. She turned her head from side to side. Someone said they heard her say Now. And the moment she went—the moment her life became her death—I believe she knew that, too. One would know such a thing. One would feel the about- to-be difference and know when it arrived. One might feel relieved at that moment—if one had been thrust there by pain. Or one might feel terror. I am beginning to understand. Lying in this bed, not getting better, I understand. I believe my mother felt sorrow. She was leaving me. Watching her beautiful face change so quickly from rosy to gray to green, from soft and full to stony and sunk, that was the worst. Not for her. Just for me.

And then there was the death of Mehmed. And it had no equal. Not because he was attacked by a million poison needles launched by fate and nature. Not because it was needless and perverse and hideous. Not because I didn't see it, wasn't there, couldn't hold him in my arms or have him hear my voice as he let go of his life. Mehmed's death was worse because he had become my hope. And my love for him and his for me would have put me on a path that would have been happy and good and sane.

Thursday, November 17

I was given a day. On the night of the day after arriving in Manisa, I was summoned. The air was thick with incense and amber, lanterned light. The room was large and wrong for its purpose. The mattress was adrift in the middle, and on it was something very big. A fat boy covered by a blue sheet. He was still and shapeless, and I was on my way to him. There was no going back. Not to anything. "I can't," I said to the attendant when she lifted the sheet off the boy's feet which were turned inward. Selim groaned like a big, old dog.

My robe was somewhere behind me then. I had walked out of it, I knew the rule. The floor was cold, my breasts were hard, my hair undone. "Now," said the attendant. And now was the only possibility.

"Now," the attendant said again, turning Selim's feet outward in preparation.

Then she lifted the sheet higher, and I was inside the tent, unable to see over the mound of Selim's hairy middle, able to see, in fact, nothing but the problem, and, because I had stalled, he lifted the sheet from his end and peered around his stomach, and he said, "I beg you." Our introduction. His face was wet and sad. Even at that foreshortened angle, it seemed the face of an old person.

Before I began I said, "Shhhhh." I imagined a river rushing over its volcanic bed. I imagined its cold water around me, its bank holding the shape of Mehmed's body. Then I did what I had been taught. With my mouth, with my hand. It did not take long. And then. The thunder of him was in me. A sickening, tidal pumping. Salt seeped from Selim's scalp and brow, sluiced around the family nose, and dripped through hair and spit into my mouth. "Thank you," he whispered and kept going as I enclosed myself around him.

Wednesday, November 30

What holds anything—a tree, a hair, an intention—in place? A tangle of roots? The underside of the flesh? A law?

If I fell the tree, if I tear my hair against the force of nature's will to cloak me, if I subvert my own intention with someone else's, then what?

I will tell you. I bring what was beneath the crumbly mool into the light of day. I destroy one order with another.

It is dawn. I have not slept. Across the Bosporus the sun looks like a red dome atop the mosque of Asia. In an instant, it has lifted itself above the hills and sucked itself into something smaller and less red.

The eunuch enters my room without a sound. He is almost upon me before I see him. He looks discharged. He has no color, and his hands are dangling, the backs of them against his thighs, in an unnatural way. I sit up, and I say, "It is the Sultan." The eunuch stands there. "What has happened? Where is he?" The eunuch is barely able to stand. "Oh God. Who is with him?" The eunuch is banging a fist on his chest.

I reach for the comb to hold back my hair, go into the hall without it. Then I hear the water—a sheet of it sliding across the marble. It is already moving into the Golden Way, the architectural spine of the harem. There is light in the corridor, but I go forward like someone in the dark who is heading toward life's never being the same. You can do this, I say to myself. You can do this.

Selim is on the floor. He is splayed: his limbs are out at angles they never would be at in life. He is puckered and huge, and his head and neck are propped at a broken angle against the overflowing tub. Water is washing over his eyes, which are half- closed. Water is washing down the bridge of the family nose, washing into and out of the man I belong to. He is naked. He is larger than ever. He is huge-boned except for his little feet, but even they already have become big, his toes melded. His knees, his sex, everything is bluish-white and withered from the water and everything else that has happened to him since I last laid eyes on his body, before our son was born. My balance is gone. I kick off my slippers, reach to close the spigot, and my back foot slips out from under me, and I am on top of him, across him like an X, and it is not fearsome or awful. It is normal and warm, and I think, I have missed you, Selim. I stay that way, and when I sit up I do not take my eyes off him. If I keep my eyes right where they are, I think I believe he will still be there. Not alive. But not any more gone than he is at that moment. Selim, where are you? I am saying. Can you hear me from there? Hear me. Help me, Selim. You are what has protected me from what is coming. I should have said that to you. You would have stayed longer, if you had known.

Let me see, indeed.

Reprinted from The Mapmaker's Daughter, copyright © 2017 by Katherine Nouri Hughes

The Mapmaker's Daughter by Katherine Nouri Hughes

“[An] absorbing historical novel… compellingly interlaces public history and intimate conjecture.” The New Yorker