The horses started downhill, taking the steep angle of the road in a slow, practiced way. Our tour group swayed with the rock of our carriage as it lurched forward. I watched the Hill of Hope bounce from view in the rear window.
Yusef said he hoped we had a nice time exploring the island’s peak. Everyone murmured their thanks. On our descent, he told us about the island’s historic wooden homes and the campaign to reopen the seminary. The steady shutter of an impressive camera punctuated Yusef’s limp narration.
My eyelids fluttered with sleep. After a few days in Istanbul, I felt an exhaustion so complete it thrummed in my bones. I let myself nod off for a moment.
A sharp clatter of hooves startled me awake. The sound came not from our horses but those leading our twin carriage, which carried the other half of the tour group. We pressed to one side, angling for a view, and watched it take on a frightening speed.
As their horses blitzed, their cab, a wooden box of shrieks, swerved behind. We lost sight of them at a bend in the road. A cloud of kicked-up dust made our horses snort.
“Okay,” Yusef said, a new sternness in his voice. “Please remain calm. There is no need to worry.”
The cries became muffled in the distance. But one rang out with near clarity. Someone calling out for their God or mother. I plugged my ears with my fingers.
Zeynep and I would riff about the motherland, squeezing the little humor out of the word. Our banter would make a tight line of our mother’s lips. “Be thankful you were never there,” she would say. Even as the sincerity snuck into our voices, us urging her for a grain of backstory, she would tell us to stop being beggars.
Our father fed us his family history, the long line of Glens and Lynns and Denises that had rooted us to the American midwest like a trail of dandelions. My sister once asked how we wound up Zeynep and Senem and he told us we were named after my mother’s best school friends. It was one of the only things we knew of her childhood, aside from her leaving Turkey altogether.
When my mother knew she was dying, she hid herself away, retreating from the world the way animals do. She must’ve thought it a gift to us. We buried her in a grave facing east. Her sister in Ankara, who we had never met, pleaded with us to. I ached to be where it pointed.
A year later, I found myself in Istanbul, following the path that loss laid out. Zeynep didn’t have the money to go, and besides, she said, mom would have disapproved. I went alone, feeling both dutiful and disobedient at once.
I had no itinerary apart from a visit to the island with the horses, a treat for my last day. It would be enough to roam the city, wandering where she might have decades before.
Full of jetlag, I sleepwalked through my first day and barely held a memory of it. I surrendered to the plush, king size bed that took up most of my hotel room. It must have held thousands of bodies, I thought, and now me, another temporary occupant, a tourist, a ghost. I was a novelty to myself.
Waking up on the second day felt as though I had arrived for the first time. April was chillier than I expected and I kept a hand gripped at the neck of my trench coat. All the shops on Iİstiklal Cadessi were still closed. My reflection in their broad windows followed me as I walked.
I took notice of every woman with deep set eyes and high, knobby cheekbones. The lady preparing bread in the shop window. The hotel concierge. The women walking in slow strides down narrow streets. I felt like a daughter of the city.
It began to needle me, how this place was kept from us. How my mother had collapsed our family’s hundreds of years in Turkey and insisted upon the curses that drove her out. “Senem,” she’d say, darkly, “I could not run far enough.”
Our distance from it only made Zeynep and I fabricate our family history. We were exiled royals, we were a band of plunderers, we were outcasted intellectuals. From our twin beds, we drew Istanbul in the likeness of our own town, only with more color and size. It was impossible to put aside the Istanbul I designed as a child even while standing in the city’s main artery.
I followed the curving roads until I stood small against the next soaring, dome-topped site. Bands of pigeons flew in formation overhead, landed together, and cooed as loudly as the revving traffic. I took photos on my phone, inching backwards to get everything in frame. A car nearly clobbered me when I unknowingly stepped off the curb.
None of the roasted chestnut stands were serving but an ice cream shop had just opened its doors. How my mother would have suffered to know I was there, shivering, licking a cone in the early morning. I rubbed my raw fingers together to bring the warmth back in.
Zeynep had tried to track down the address of the house where my mother was born, her last home in Istanbul, but she found nothing. In house windows, I imagined the plump baby I had seen in the few photos she had kept of herself. Every new street, I debated whether her steps and shouts ever reverberated off the walls. I walked softly as though I would trample over any markers she left.
In the evening, I woke from a nap to the throb of dance music from the nightclub across the street. I put on my only dress and a minute later, I found myself in the swirling laser beams of the entrance.
Inside, the walls were lined with bored-looking men. A group of them, clustered around a table, were in the midst of some drinking game. As I waited for my beer at the bar, one leaned toward me, and in accented English, asked if I had ever seen so many drunk drivers before.
“Sorry, what?” I shouted over the music.
“We are a racing club,” he said, smiling widely at his punchline. The men had the red flush of far gone drinkers. A cheer rose up. Someone had won the round. “Here for a competition. What are you doing in Istanbul,” he asked.
“Just here on vacation.” I took a sip of beer and looked over the room, nodding.
“Come join us. We’re playing this very stupid game.” The man laid a meaty hand on my shoulder and gave me a hard steer toward the table.
I spun out of his grip, like some clever animal. I said, “Let me just find my friend,” and made a line for the exit. Back in the hotel, I threw the double curtain across the windows. The music pulsed into my room. I realized I still had the bottle of beer in my hand.
In those first few days, I tried to better attune myself to the city. In the shops, I practiced the words merhaba and teşekkürler with the clerks. I stopped to appreciate the pigeons that flocked overhead then nestled into the grooves of buildings. I took my tea sugary. It made me sharper.
On one of my afternoon strolls, a man shouldered next to me. He offered a tour of the Blue Mosque. I turned him down with all the generosity I could muster. Through his wan smile, he mentioned he had a good price on rugs, too. Then he looked me square in the face, as though he had just arrived. “You look like my daughter,” he said. “You could be Turkish.”
“I’m half,” I said.
He brightened. “I knew it.” He handed me his business card and said, “Whatever you need, call baba Ahmet. Your Turkish father, yes?”
As I walked away, I smiled graciously, hoping he wouldn’t follow. It felt silly but I held onto the card, my souvenir, my inheritance.
On my last full day, I boarded a ferry to Heybeliada. Zeynep had spotted the excursion on a travel blog. “You have to see this island with the horses. Senem, look,” she said, tapping her phone screen.
“Mom hated horses,” I said, scanning over the photo of a quaint carriage ride. “Remember? She ran away from the horse pen? When we went to Utah that summer?”
Zeynep nodded. “I was laughing so hard. The guide telling her to saddle up. She was like, ‘What am I, a bride?’ I never knew what she meant.”
As the ferry pulled away, the mainland, with its minarets and domes, shrank into the horizon. Our boat left furrows in the cobalt colored strait. It took an hour to reach the island.
I waited at our meeting location, counting the dull red roof tiles of a squat building. The shops lining the port advertised English candy and American soda.
Soon, two horse-drawn carriages came to a stop nearby. Each coach driver brushed their pair of steeds. The tour guides arrived, greeting the other coolly.
I remembered my set of plastic ponies from when I was little. Their knees half crooked in perpetual step. I made them journey throughout our house and voiced them with noble tones. The horses on the island were broad and bored and intricately tethered.
One of the guides coned his hands around his mouth and asked for those on the tour to step into a carriage, six in one, six in the other. Slowly, the others that had been lingering in the square came forward.
We settled ourselves in, facing each other, adjusting our postures against the hard wooden seats. Our heads nearly touched the roof.
Our guide hunched into his seat and slammed the thin paneled door behind him. He said his name was Zehab and that he would be showing us around Heybeliada. He called out countries and we raised our hands to show where we came from. “Now, we are family,” he said, clapping his hands together.
The coach driver took his perch and clicked his tongue for the horses to start up the path. Our carriages lumbered side by side. I watched the shops of the square disappear behind us.
“Heybeliada is home to more of these,” Zehab said, pointing toward our horses, “than people. You may have noticed, there are no cars on the island. We get around by horse or bicycle.” I bobbed my head as though interested.
Every few paces, Zehab dealt us a new fact. “Did you know this island was a refuge from the plague?” The Irish tourist nudged her companion, testing his attention. “The island was once a rich source of copper,” he said, as an old foundry sailed by our window. The Canadian asked if we would be seeing the old orphanage. Zehab shook his head. “That’s on Büyükada. You’re on the wrong island.” The Argentinian couple, in their thin coats, huddled together for warmth.
We braced in our seats as the road became steeper. The path was verdant with greenery and its sameness repeating through the windows made me dizzy. We passed a defunct school, then, a naval academy that was on holiday break. When we slowed to a stop, Zehab said, “We have reached the top of the island. We call this the Hill of Hope. Hill of Hope.”
He gave us time to explore the abandoned monastery and take photos of the sea from above. Both of our tour groups converged, waving to one other like old friends. We walked in the middle of the road, stretching our arms.
A woman from the other carriage wandered next to me. I had seen her on the ferry watching the water churn white in its wake. She said her name was Samar, that she was from Saudi Arabia but had been living in Switzerland. She was on holiday, traveling alone, like I was.
“This was a gift to myself,” Samar said, and her eyes, two peridots, swept across the overlook. We took in the expanse of the Sea of Marmara. From up high, it resembled a wrinkled shroud draped around the island.
Samar asked if I would take her picture so she could send it to her parents. I aimed her mobile phone and imagined what the photo would look like as a glossy print in a gilded frame.
“Should we go make a wish?” Samar asked, pointing to the small fountain. I found two pennies at the bottom of my purse. She closed her eyes and held the coin up to her forehead in a mock prayer. “Three, two, one, go,” she said. I should have been casting a wish but could only think of how my mother’s purse always rattled with change.
We headed to the monastery and toured the classrooms and bunks that were swept clear of people decades before. Samar sang a long note in the empty dining hall to hear its echo. I took photos on my phone.
A bell rang out, a signal to regroup. Samar and I were the last to arrive. Zehab hustled her into his carriage so I found a seat in the other.
I settled next to a lady, smiling wide, calling out in a thick German accent, “Yusef, Yusef, look how the sun came through the church windows.” She shoved her phone up close to the guide’s face.
“Beautiful,” he said, looking quickly. “Everyone, take your seats as we go back down to the square for lunch. Then bye-bye.”
We did not see the coach overturn on the side of the road but we heard its cacophonous finish echoing off the hillside. Yusef thumbed at his phone. In quick Turkish, he instructed our driver, who moved us into a gallop.
We rounded a bend to find a trail of bowed wood and metal. The rubble made it seem as though it had once belonged to something majestic. “Where are they?” I wondered aloud.
A few paces ahead, we found their coach driver sitting in the road, dazed and battered, tearing at his hair. He watched us roll past. “Will we not stop?” a man asked, incredulous. He tutted in shame.
At the next bend, we found the carriage laid on its side like a hulking, wounded animal. Nothing stirred inside.
“Are they alive or dead,” the woman next to me wondered. As our horses quickened down the path, she pleaded, “Yusef, Yusef, we need to stop.”
“Please hush as I deliver you to safety,” Yusef said. “Someone is coming for them. I sent an alert. There is nothing we can do.”
We were soon beyond the wreckage. All was quiet except for the polite clop of our horses’ hooves. The woman across from me tucked her face into the crook of her partner’s neck and sniffed as though she had been crying.
The path narrowed and we soon shared it with the two untethered horses. Their massive heads, still crowned with leather bridles, were ducked in the tall grass that edged the road. Up close, I was transfixed by their articulated musculature. They clomped where they pleased. Our carriage made a cautious pass. Inside, we were as somber and still as a funeral coach. I was sure everyone was quietly hoping our horses would not be inspired by their comrades.
But then, it was all behind us. I tipped my forehead against the window and stared out at the wooden homes in the hills. They sagged in disrepair, some merely frames and beams, some entirely reclaimed by flora. The sun glimmered over everything but nothing shone.
Stray cats roved nearby, ghouling around, nosing their unruly kittens. A propped up panel of milky glass served as their shelter. It struck me once again that I was in Turkey. My home, all those hours and thousands of miles away, seemed unreal, mythological.
We arrived back in the square and Yusef ushered us into a cafe where a long table awaited us. He whispered to the waiter, who quickly picked up six of the place settings. Our group sat without speaking, all wearing the same look of shock. The waiter set down bowls of cold spreads and charred vegetables but none of us could stomach it.
“In Turkey, we say afiyet olsun,” Yusef said. “Good appetite.” He sat with his coat on and kept his mobile gripped between his hands. One of the women asked if there was any news. Yusef said they were rescued by ambulance and were ferried to the hospital on the mainland. Someone had broken their leg. Another had punctured–”what’s the breathing organ,” he said–a lung.
“When can we go back to the city?” I asked.
“The next ferry is in two hours,” Yusef said dispassionately. “After lunch, you are free to explore the island on your own. Please let me know if you would like recommendations.”
Our group disbanded, leaving the table of food untouched. I found a place to sit overlooking the port. A sun-beaten fisherman threaded little fish to a drying rack. He tangled them into tight rows and their iridescent bodies shimmied in the breeze. I held my coat at the neck and braced against the coastal wind.
All I could think about was what it was like, in that carriage, screaming down the hill. And what sort of shape their bodies were in. And what my legs would have looked like, mangled. And how I was still in one piece while I should have been in two, if not from a carriage wreck, then from a car wreck in the city. And how many pieces I could have been found in if the men of the racing club had gotten a hold of me. And which direction my grave would point. And which of the warnings my mother gave was the closest to being right.
On the ferry ride back to the city, I watched the island slowly shrink behind us, its stance more ominous than before. The Sea of Marmara’s brilliant, undulating blues were too much for my eyes. I wished the ferry would go faster, go somewhere else entirely.
When the ferry spat me back onto the mainland, I wandered around like a stray. The quiet knowingness I thought I once shared with people in the squares was gone. I rushed through the throngs back to the hotel and threw the door behind me. From my window, I could see the streets starting to turn over with nightlife.
I searched for nearby hospitals on my phone and called one. My English stammering confused the clerk on the line, who repeated the same sentence in Turkish until I hung up.
I stared into the floral wallpaper of my room for a while. Before I fell asleep, I deleted the photos I took on my phone. It was years before I told anyone I went to Istanbul.