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THE TURKISH MIRROR

2nd Edition

by
Lisa C. Murphy

Smashwords Edition

Published on Smashwords by:
Denny Creek Press
Kirkland, Washington

The Turkish Mirror
2nd Edition
Copyright 2018 by Lisa C. Murphy

LCCN 2nd edition: 2018900484

Originally published by
Crispin Hammer Publishing Company
Copyright 2011 by Lisa C. Murphy

All rights reserved. Without limiting the rights under copyright reserved above, no part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in or introduced into a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form, or by any means (electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise) without the prior written permission of both the copyright owner and the above publisher of this book.

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, brands, media, and incidents are either the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. The author acknowledges the trademarked status and trademark owners of various products referenced in this work of fiction, which have been used without permission. The publication/use of these trademarks is not authorized, associated with, or sponsored by the trademark owners.

Smashwords Edition License Notes
This ebook is licensed for your personal use only. This ebook may not be re-sold or given away to other people. If you would like to share this book with another person, please purchase an additional copy for each person you share it with. If you are reading this book and did not purchase it, or it was not purchased for your use only, then you should return to Smashwords.com and purchase your own copy. Thank you for respecting the author’s work.

Dedication

To my parents, O.T. and Carolyn Murphy,

who dared to take our family beyond where tourists go. You taught me to love adventure.

Contents

Acknowledgements

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Epilogue

About the Author

Excerpt from The Wyrmstone

Acknowledgements

This book touches on a transformative time in my life: a summer spent in Turkey when I was twelve years old. Heartfelt thanks to my husband Mark, who helped me find the buried seeds of that summer and grow them into fiction. And thanks, too, to my son Devin, who is ever my wise advisor on all things magical.

Many thanks to the critical readers of manuscript drafts who gave excellent feedback; Karen MacLeod, Craig Danner, Mark Jensen, O.T. Murphy, Carolyn Murphy, Dr. Jim Macon, Dr. Anita Peñuelas, Michael Peñuelas, Dr. Michael Martin, Dr. Adam Hirsh, and Betty Krier. Jiè’s London dialect would have suffered terribly without the generous help of James Willcox; may he never get caught in porkies or lose his dosh. I am grateful to my father, O.T. Murphy, for his advice on French grammar; tu est un vrai mec. And a warm Teşekkür ederim! to my Turkish consultant (who asks to be unnamed) for help with language and cultural questions.

Every Monday I found myself in love again with my writing group, Kay Morison, Karen MacLeod, Cindy Wyckoff, and Pam Binder. Dear friends, honest hearts, and ruthless editors; thank you for helping me untangle the knots.

Though the characters invented here exist only in my novel, generosity, kindness, and the love of a good story were alive and well, 1970 on the Turkish Mediterranean. Thank you Turkey, for unsurpassed hospitality.

One

Umut’s brown, callused toes touched lightly from rock to rock, graceful with excitement. Foamy hands from the Mediterranean grabbed his ankles, shocking blue green, frothing too white against his skin. That far out the jetty waves thundered from deep below, their curls surging higher, up his calves, hindered by boulders as he scrambled around to where the path was flat. Overhead gulls drifted, screeching harsh calls as inarticulate as the boy’s. I never understood Umut’s garbled Turkish, but I knew what he was saying: they were coming. From my place on the cliff I could see them. Around the thick jaw of rocky teeth that protected Incir’s bay came small wooden boats, painted blue and trimmed with red and white, diamonds of green and yellow on their cabins. Behind the boats, the sun descended into the sea, pouring blood red on the agitated waves. The fishermen were coming; spared by the sea one more day. Maşallah.

Children on the beach—digging holes with branches, tossing bulbs of seaweed like balls—glanced up. They saw Umut’s stick-thin arms waving and his tattered flapping trousers and they dropped their wood and seaweed. In a dash to be first they ran for the village, taking the goat path up the cliff, going home. Like so many crows, they took up the call: their fathers were coming.

Xiao Lian sat high on a rock at the root of the jetty that pushed into the bay. Xiao had been writing. A letter home. I knew because Mizou told me. His curled hand dipped brush into ink, forming character after character of elegant Chinese calligraphy, an inkstone balanced on the uneven rock by his knee. He took his eyes off the wind-ruffled page and peered down at Umut, leaping below him on the slippery boulders.

“Umut!” He waved, and the child looked up. Just un petit instant. Umut took his mind off his feet un petit instant— and he was gone. Slipped into the sea without a sound. Swallowed. Mon Dieu!

Xiao stood and dove: a fluid, singular gesture from sitting to swimming. He plunged without hesitation into brilliant Mediterranean blue, unconcerned for rocks that shattered the waves, or undertow, or the menace of that dreadful mirror.

His hands were the last that I ever saw of him. They thrust out of foam, gripping the boy’s waist. With a heave they threw the child onto black, wet rock: battered, frightened, bleeding. We never found any trace of Xiao Lian, though Incir’s boats searched coast and open sea, and the fishermen threw their nets where currents might carry him. I paced the jetty where he disappeared a hundred times in the next few days, wishing I had the courage to throw myself in after him.

But I didn’t. Because of you, my girl. Xiao’s death marked the beginning of your life, sweet daughter, and the end of my childhood.

• • •

“And now you know what became of your father, ma petite,” says my Maman. Maman is parked in her sumptuous armchair by the window, the gray light of Paris buffing color off her blonde hair. She closes thin lips and sucks in a stiff inhale, exquisite in her hoity-toity suffering. I stand over her, a towering six feet, too much of a biffa to ever come across so frail. Her porcelain skin, same white as mine, looks cold. I am so disappointed. Of all the things I dreamed my real mum might be, I never imagined such a ghostly aristocrat.

I’m not in a warm-hearted mood, having just stolen, lied, and done a runner from London with the police on my arse and this effing mirror in my rucksack. No mood to be sweet to this snooty nonstarter of a mum, even if it is the first time I’ve ever laid eyes on her. I yank out the mirror by its handle. It’s swathed in a snippet of silk the color of dead goldfish. Much as I fear that mirror, I love that red orange silk—royal orange in the sunlight, an eerie stain of red in the dark.

“Right then,” I say, “Dad died. But that doesn’t explain this bit of trouble, does it?” I chuck the mirror in her lap. She jerks away her hands, avoiding what just landed in the folds of her wool dress. The silk slides apart. Painted waves wash up the mirror’s handle and reach for the monster sculpted in mosaic tile on the back. “I want a full account, Maman. You owe me.”

She raises her eyes: fearless. Wealth is always fearless—Emma, George, the whole upper crust. Maman is as confident as her antique fauteuil, from which she can glance out the window, clock the spring buds on the trees of posh Square Barye. No matter how seriously I give it a go, I can’t rattle them. But I haven’t finished trying yet.

Her eyes lock onto mine and I dare her to hate me. Sixteen years after she abandoned me, let her tell me to my face that she doesn’t want me. Let her demand to know how I found her, and threaten to punish the lot who snitched. But she smiles with well-bred restraint and contends with the silk, righting the mirror’s handle under the cloth. She tops off her demitasse with coffee, then lounges back in the armchair’s crewel upholstery. I see that I’ve inherited my stubbornness from her—that steel that drives Emma into a dark room to suffer migraines.

Eh bien, I can tell you only half the story, as much of it took place in China.” She raises her cup, sips, and swallows. “China’s revolutions shaped your father, Xiao Lian Chin, scarred and raised him to the hero he was. Patriotism, sacrifice, torture…these were not things that made sense to me at the time. Mon Dieu, I was an artist, obsessed with beauty, a mere girl of twenty! I was lost, spoiled, furious…well, perhaps a bit like you, non?”

Non, I think, you don’t know a bloody thing about me. But I keep my gob shut. She sips again delicately, as if each taste in her mouth were a meal to be savored start to finish. So absoeffinglutely French, my Maman.

“And you will judge what I did, n’est pas? That is why you have come.” She laughs. I can’t tell if she’s having a laugh at me, or if I make her sad. Either way, it’s not a cheerful wheeze. Her gaze travels from the fine scar above my left eye, across my cheek to my ear where the cartilage thickens, having re-healed poorly after one of my fights. She studies my hacked off hair, dyed blue.

“Sit down, chérie. You look uncomfortable, standing there in those heavy field boots. This is a long story, so you may as well enjoy some coffee as I tell it.”

Then, as though the mirror were harmless, Maman scoops up the handle and lets silk fall away. She gazes at the inlaid tile on the mirror’s back, not a bit intimidated by the horrid three-headed beast who glares back at her, dog jaws slobbering. She sets the mirror in her lap. “I know how hard a child can be on a parent,” she says. “When I was young, I laid full blame on my father, your grandfather, the formidable Boris Trotoskov. Because of Boris I fled to the tiny Turkish fishing village of Incir, where I met Xiao.”

She leans back and closes her eyes. For a minute I worry she will have a kip, leave me wondering what she’s on about. Finally someone who knows my Chinese half—a hero of some sort, no less—and she’s ready for an afternoon snooze. But then she continues in a voice soft as a misty spray of golden paint.

Two

Incir. Now, of course, it is a famous tourist rendezvous on what they call the “Turkish Riviera.” But seventeen years ago in 1988, the first morning I woke in Incir, I opened my eyes to the sound of a braying donkey. I lay three rickety stories up in the only hotel in town: a tired, cheap pension. The wooden beams smelled of Lebanon Cedar. The boards of the roof bowed over my head under the weight of tile. Beyond the hoarse braiment of the donkey I could hear the sea, rustling like silk.

I turned my head on the pillow to look out the window and two black beads of eyes stared back into mine. Two antennae, long and finely segmented, bent towards my nose with a quiver of curiosity. Two gangly, folded back legs sprung delicately backwards.

Mon Dieu! I bellowed in fright and leaped off the bed. The cricket, startled by my unsociable reaction, took wing for the open window. Within a minute Mizou was knocking on my door.

Ça va ici? Are you all right, Mademoiselle?” She pushed open the door and peered through the crack that the loose chain lock allowed.

“It was a cricket. Right on my pillow. It startled me.” I leaned against the wall, buzzing with adrenaline.

Eh alors, a cricket. The last poor survivor of summer. You screamed as though barbarians from the Taurus Mountains had invaded.”

When Mizou had introduced herself the night before, she had claimed she was French. There is no doubt that her accent was flawless, but she made an error of gender—a female cricket, une grillon. Even you, Jiè, raised in London but tutored by Emma, would know that grillon takes the masculine gender.

“It was as big as my finger!” I stood trembling, thinking about the bizarrely large insect, humiliated by her scoffing.

“But still, she is smaller than you, non?” When I didn’t answer, Mizou took a softer tone. “Breakfast is on the table. Please come, the family wants to meet you.”

“I’ll eat it here. You will bring it to me.” Tu va me l’emporter.

Tu. It was out of my mouth without a moment’s thought. Tu is for children, familiars, servants, and inferiors.

You, my daughter, given the example of gracious and tactful Emma, you would not have said tu. You stand as big and defiant as your courageous father. You convince yourself that your teenage antics strike the world in the face. But when you smile—and you do smile, Jiè, despite yourself—you have Emma’s charm.

I, however, was raised by Boris Trotoskov.

Behind the semi-locked door, Mizou rested a beat in stony stillness. In my innocence, I interpreted her silence as a servant’s defiance. Imbécile! I should have feared an evil-eye curse to make my hair fall out and my teeth grow holes. Mercifully, she was merely rude.

“Then we will see you at lunch.” She used tu.

“Send someone to search my room for insects.”

“If you don’t like insects, close your window. It’s too cold to have the window open, quand même.” She turned, shuffling slightly as she padded down the creaky staircase that spiraled in the heart of the pension.

Though I waited expectantly, breakfast never came. Neither did lunch.

Late in the afternoon I grew tired of observing charcoal clouds rolling over the ocean. Without paint, brushes, or vellum, the intriguing, ever-changing light became a taunt. An empty expanse of beach spread beyond the cliff beneath my window, too cold to entice a single person to walk in the crystalline waves. A southern wind blew bursts of rain onto shore, blackening rocks and turning yellow sand to a deep ochre. As far as I could tell, brooding out my window, when I ran from my father in Paris I left behind every living human soul.

Around dinner time a thin, ragged boy made his way out the slippery rocks of the jetty. He stood on the point, seemingly immune to the November wind. Still, as if frozen there, he watched the irritable turmoil of the sea. When the first boat showed a mast, a toothpick of a line plunging and heaving in the blue, he took up his cry. Toward the desolate beach he ran, calling, croaking, seeming to tug the boats after him off the wild water and into the safety of port. A ritual I would see a hundred times over the next year.

Finally hunger overcame pride and drove me downstairs. I remember feeling imperious as I strode into the small dining room, nose up, as if I stood tall enough to see over everyone’s head. I must have looked ridiculous.

The room was small and warm, lit by bulbs overhead that flickered when the electricity surged. Some clever hand had woven loose baskets to encase the bulbs, fracturing the light into an impressionist painting of tiny dots. The rugs on the floor were thick Turkish masterpieces, so old that they had faded to only a gentle reminder of color. The dominant piece of furniture was the dining room table, hacked from cedar planks, built to feed a fisherman’s family, not to grace a hotel. People on wooden chairs clustered around this crude giant. Boris’ housekeeper, Mme. Groseille, would have approved of the care to the wood—the table’s lumpy surface was polished to an oily shine. But she and my father would have agreed that the atmosphere was distastefully intimate.

The family gathered around the table stopped chatting, turning to me with cautious small-town curiosity. Suat Bey, old features crimped with amused wrinkles; Kemal’s frank, crass, fisherman’s appraisal; and little Damad, who merely looked surprised, as though I were a friendly fantôme. How do you say in English? Ghost.

Mizou rose, a stack of gold bracelets clacking around her tanned forearm, pendulous jewels swinging at her earlobes, and yards of a red orange silk rippling toward the ground. Aphrodite rising from the waves must have caused a similar undulation.

“We may not be in Paris, but we do ask that you dress for dinner.” She was cool and polite, this time using vous instead of tu. “Do you have an evening gown?”

At two am, escaping my father’s house, I had considered packing many things. I ran my fingers longingly over heavy tubes of watercolors. I weighed in my hands my album of Monet’s Giverny reproductions. I ached to bring my vellum sketch book. But my satin debutante gown had never crossed my mind. I was, I thought, running from ball gowns.

Non, I don’t.”

Mizou switched to English. “Della, take the child and put her in something more appropriate.”

I hadn’t noticed Della. The big American woman sat in the shadows, so eclipsed by Mizou’s presence that she seemed invisible. Until she smiled.

Della had a smile like the Nile River, running its lazy course over a huge continent, whole civilizations buried in her mud. When she stood, she carried shadows with her. A black velvet dress rolled over her ample hips and flaunted an Italian taste for cleavage. Without comment she swayed out of the room and led me up the scantily-lit staircase.

She paused at her door. “You speak English, honey?” Her words were heated and stretched in the style of the American South.

It is an old diplomatic instinct, well instilled by Boris’ training, to conceal one’s language skills until alliances and enemies were evident. “A little. You have no French?”

She put her bare shoulder to the door and pushed, her black gown strap spilling down her arm. The door scraped open. “Not much use to me, French. Charming, but useless. I don’t suppose you speak Turkish?”

Non.” My father didn’t consider Turkish a language of diplomacy, therefore it was not suited to a future head of state’s wife. “The Ottoman will not rise again,” he once said, “especially if they teeter-totter forever on the razor edge of civil war.” So I was tutored in English, Spanish, and German.

“Well, we’ll get by.” Della turned on what passed for a light and waved me into her thinly whitewashed room. Her bedroom was stark, facing towards the expansive bowl of a ruined Roman arena. A spare metal bed frame with a thin mattress was tucked against the wall. Her rickety desk and chair stood as empty as my own. And her window, with two large panes that could be thrown open like arms in the summer, was fastened tight as if expecting winter storms. While I had a petit backpack of jeans, shorts, and T-shirts flung on the floor of my bedroom, Della had dropped a monstrous blue suitcase upright in the middle of hers. And there it stood. Luggage that, by the look of it, had been tossed from trains and jammed into taxi trunks for fifteen of her thirty-odd years. Della laid this granddame of a suitcase flat on the floor and snapped open the lid.

“What colors do you wear? You’re so white, child. Yellow won’t suit you. Rose, burgundy, or dark blue?” Her large hands rifled swaths of folded cloth until she found the colors of a Renoir nude. “Try this, honey.” With a yank she pulled free several meters of magnificent silk, printed with blotches of rich pink. I took the fabric, wondering if she expected that I could miraculously transform it into a dress.

“Hold it to your face, now. Yes. Perfect. Take off those jeans. I’ll show you how to wrap it.” She stood waiting, as if to strip in front of her was normal.

I didn’t move. Mme. Groseille, who had waited on me my whole life, had the decency to turn her back after I was ten.

Offff. Don’t be ridiculous,” Della said. “I know you French answer the front door in your underwear. Hurry now, they’re waiting dinner on us, and the kapuska is getting cold.”

Embarrassed, I turned around and yanked my sweater and shirt over my head. Then I dropped my jeans, unnerved by her unabashed consideration.

“Here,” she said when I turned back around. “Hold this.” In case the American English wasn’t getting through, she shoved a corner of the slippery fabric into my fist and squeezed my fingers. Then she began to wrap. Several turns around my waist, then a turn that she hung loosely, pulling little pleats into a pretty gather. Under the skill of her fingers the fabric draped in concentric swoops, like so many necklaces below the small crescent of my bellybutton. She brought the fabric around back and bound my upper half; tight around my chest, soft over one shoulder, tucked and secured under an arm, back over the other shoulder. I could not have reproduced the gown for any gift on Earth. When she was done I was so smothered in drapes I was sure I’d never get the dress off. My severe, white satin debutante gown had made me feel like an ice sculpture. In Della’s dress I felt lush as a rose.

She backed up to look at me. “Well, hon, the face won’t win any beauty contests, but the body takes to silk like a catfish to grasshoppers. I wish I had a mirror, I’d show you.” She considered me a moment, then asked, “Child, why are you here?”

It took me a beat to translate the question because she said ‘here’ in two syllables: he-yah. When it dawned on me what she asked, I shook my head, pretending that I didn’t understand.

“Well, no matter. No one comes to Incir: they run from somewhere else.” She ushered me out her door and followed me downstairs.

Despite the gowns, Mizou’s dinner was hardly a formal occasion. I knew the difference between wealthy starch and middle class pretension; I’d been raised a Trotoskov. In the prime of his manhood, my father became the French ambassador to China. He went to Shanghai during Mao’s Great Leap Forward, to throw a weighty politique de balancier against the hefty Soviet gift of steel furnaces. My mother, Fleur, comfortable in her salon, stayed in Paris. My sister, Emma, was born Christmas, 1962, and never saw Boris until she was six.

• • •

I choke on Maman’s fabulous coffee. “Emma is your sister?” I splutter. What an unfair load; Emma, warm as cooked mush, pretty beyond decency, every wealthy man’s wet dream with her puddin’-pie eyes and her dark curls so long they cuddle her thighs. And there sits Maman, plain and thin as a trickle of white paint, dried and tough to her core. For a moment, I pity her.

If Maman cares, she hides it well. With regal dignity, she lifts the mirror and secures the silk firmly around it. When every inch of its horror is frocked in that dead-goldfish silk, she sets it on her swish coffee table. “Of course Emma is my sister. Do you think I would entrust you to a stranger?”

I blink in the chill of her smile. How in the effing hell should I know? She gave me away; what’s the difference if Emma was my aunt? I’m too gutted to say anything. Maman brushes flat the folds of her dress, then kicks off her shoes and tucks her slender legs up underneath her. She looks content, which stings all the more.

“When the Cultural Revolution came your grandfather was driven from his château de luxe in Shanghai, sacrificing his famous Chinese chef and several concubines to the bloody chaos of Mao’s reforms. I was born in July, 1968 a year after he barely escaped alive. Alors chérie,” her eyes train on me like a torch, “do you wonder how these convulsions of great nations came to burden you?” Right. I give a nod, cautiously. “Then I shall continue my story.”

• • •

I was allowed at my first diplomatic dinner when I was ten. It was the year my flawless sister turned sixteen, and my father insisted that she return from my mother’s home in Marseille to make her debutante. He had great plans for Emma. She was beautiful enough to marry a prince, gracious enough to hold warring kings to good table manners, and smart enough to never openly cross him. He put out feelers among the sisters and mothers of great men; Emma Trotoskov was available. She might found another Hapsburg dynasty, or go east and marry an emperor.

I sat stiff and insignificant at my sister’s debutante soirée, and it prepared me well for my first supper in tiny Incir. When Mizou’s hands, heavy with rings, broke a pinch of bread and sopped up cabbage and lamb stew, I did likewise. When she halved a stuffed pepper and offered it, I held out my plate. When she scooped pilav, neatly containing every slippery grain of rice on her serving spoon, I tried not to shame myself by spilling on Della’s silk. I drank water, because when Kemal tried to pour me Raki I put a hand over my glass as Mizou did, refusing the absinthe. Having established that Mizou was not a servant, I treated her like a head of state. That was how the world was divided, n’est pas? Servant and master. I ran from my father, but I could not leave him behind.

I had crossed the line with Mizou, but she was too Turkish (no matter how French she claimed to be) to abuse a guest. My father’s well-traveled friends had told me stories of Turkish hospitality: sick travelers, stranded in small towns and aided by passing strangers; expatriates, alone in empty apartments in Istanbul and plied with gifts by neighbors. So Mizou smiled at me charitably, served me first, and conducted at least half of her conversation in French. The rest of my conversation she left to Suat Bey.

Suat Bey was a wrinkled little hot pepper of a man. His hair was white except for two patches of eyebrow, square and rusty red, shaped like Charlie Chaplin’s. He never stopped moving, nervous energy shaving him as thin as a julienne strip. His mustache tips, scraping his chest, had worn into points. He could have been any age from seventy to one hundred and five. He spoke fluent French, heavily accented, a cross between the guttural rs of a Russian special envoy and the musical smoothness of an Arab prince. With effort and leaning forward, I could understand what he said. It was well worth the struggle.

Seeing my unease at this family gathering, Suat Bey fired up his protective gaze and spread it over me. “Let me tell you about my renowned ride into battle,” he said, patting my hand with his wrinkled skinny one, lower eyelids damp with emotion.

Kemal, across the table, scoffed and rolled his eyes.

“Don’t let my elder son fool you, Princess. I was decorated by the Sultan himself.” His French pronunciation of Prrrincessss was a hearty kiss; he growled the r and hissed the ss as an old bear might. I felt, under his chivalrous care, more like a princess than I’d ever felt in a ballroom. Entranced, I surrendered my full attention.

“You think I’m not that old? What does a gamine like you know about old? It was in 1913, the year the godless Balkans torched Viero and burned all of her blessed villagers. I was a cavalier in the Turkish 10th division.” He poured himself another three fingers of Raki, clear and pure from the bottle, white and poisonous as it mixed with water in his glass.

Damad, whose French was rudimentary, smelled a story nonetheless. He was a tiny child with eyes that belonged on a beautiful woman. Supple as an octopus, he slipped out of his chair and stood at Suat Bey’s side.

“Out of the Rhodope Mountains poured ten thousand Bulgarian soldiers, like hands sliding over dark breasts. Oh la, Mademoiselle, you should see the curves of the Rhodope mountains!” Suat Bey put his nose to his squat glass and sucked in licorice vapor, then sat back and closed his eyes. A moment later, his eyes popped open and skimmed sideways to see if I was watching. It had always been difficult to raise my gaze to Boris; he wanted nothing from me but submission. But I couldn’t take my eyes off of Suat Bey.

Eh alors?” I prompted.

“We waited on our horses, telling ribald jokes, pokes at each other’s manhood, military swagger, and such. Not things I would repeat to a lady.” He took a drink, rolling pungent liquor around on his tongue.

“Don’t be an old fool, Papa,” growled Kemal. “There were no cavalry on horses in the First Balkan War.” Kemal had clearly baked on a fishing boat under the hot Mediterranean sun for years. He gave the impression of tanned leather, stretched over powerful and practical muscles, and a mind that was used to tricky currents.

“What do you know, you potato of a fisherman? In 1913, you were not even a throb in my manly parts.”

Kemal jerked his chin toward the ceiling and turned away, pretending to listen to Mizou and Della talk about shopping in Manavgat.

Damad gripped Suat Bey’s skinny arm and shook. “Go on, Papa.”

Suat Bey, apparently satisfied that Kemal no longer eavesdropped, began again. “The Bulgarians were better armed by far, and magnificent they were, too, in their red capes and embroidered boots. When they waved their silver Kiliji, blades drawn and bloody—”

Kemal obviously couldn’t stand it. He gave up his pretense of listening to the women and rounded on his father. “That war was fought with manually loaded rifles, not swords. What a load of fish guts you’re feeding the child!”

“Hush, boy. Don’t interrupt your father.” Suat Bey punctuated this with several words in Turkish that caused Kemal to rise, gather up his dishes, and skulk out of the room.

“Now, you can hear the story in peace, Princess.” Suat Bey lifted shrewd, sparkly eyes to the door Kemal had slammed, and gave it a final, exaggerated glower. “Where was I? Ah, oui, the Bulgarians were coming, engraved swords bloody and nicked from hacking bones and loping heads. Have you seen a Kiliji, Mademoiselle?”

I shook my head. Damad shook his head.

“A sword, long as a man’s arm, and curved at the end to bring width and force to the fatal crack.” Suat Bey swung his arm and dropped forward his chin; the crack was a head, separating with a startled shiver from its neck. I shivered. Damad shivered. “They shine silver in the sun, with gold at the handle where the holy carving lies. Not that the Bulgarians are capable of being holy.” He spat on the ground. Damad spat, too. I suppressed the urge to spit. “As they thundered down upon us, our courage wavered. Our joking sputtered and choked, our manhood withdrew. It was going to be a rout.” He measured out the gravity of their situation, the certainty of their doom, with three solemn bangs of his glass on the wooden table. Damad’s gorgeous eyes grew wide with fear. I gripped my hands together in my lap; I couldn’t bear to think of him defeated.

“And then—” he took a long, slow drink and swallowed hard, tears pooling in his watery rims. He shook his head, clearly expecting me to beg him to continue.

Courage, Monsieur, go on, go on,” I pleaded.

“It gets worse!” He threw up his arms to heaven, his cry a sharp bark of anguish. “My horse, restless in the summer heat—” he waved his hands like a tail, “—was bitten in a most unfortunate place by a horsefly. The poor creature bolted straight into the oncoming thunder. Oh la la la la, what a dilemma, Mademoiselle.” One hand reached to tug pensively at a scrap of moustache. “To retreat in the face of the enemy would bring shame upon all Turks. But I was saddle-sore, you see, from a night of passionate love with a shepherdess. To sit on a galloping horse was excruciating, more than a man could bear.” He looked at me mournfully, entreating me to understand. “I did the only thing a man could do: I stood in the saddle, raised my sword, and charged!”

With this he sprung to his feet. One hand waving and the other hand whacking the rump of his imaginary steed, he bounced on his old knees into battle. “My regiment followed me, to a man, and what a battle we won. To Turkish honor!” He swooped up his drink and raised it high. In his enthusiasm, a splash of Raki slopped on the wooden table. The liquid beaded up, and white clouded its surface. All around the table, conversation stopped, and everyone waited, silent. I grabbed my water and clinked rims with him enthusiastically.

Suat Bey recoiled into his chair, wiry and bent, grinning. “And thus I became a hero of the First Balkan War, decorated by the Sultan and honored by the ladies. Here’s to The Republic of Turkey!” He drained the rest of his Raki in one swallow.

Damad reached for Suat Bey’s arm, tugging on his pressed, white sleeve, begging in Turkish for something. Suat Bey shook his head. “Non, mon petit,” and he finished his refusal in Turkish. He stooped and lifted the child by the arms, handing him off to his wife.

“It’s late. My youngest son must go to bed,” he said.

His son? Damad was five at the most. And Mizou was at least sixty, en fin, closer to seventy! Mizou took her child in her arms, his head resting against the silk of her gray braid, and carried him from the room.

Suat Bey turned glistening, watchful, eyes on me. “Would you like more olives? Do you care for dessert?”

Non. I’ve eaten well, thank you.”

Mais non, you have hardly eaten at all.” He pressed the plate of olives into my hands. “Now, you must tell me how you came to our little town of Incir.” He leaned forward, ears peeking between strands of the white hair flowing to his shoulders.

The glow of Suat Bey’s story faded, and I looked away.

Non? No matter. You bestow honor on our poverty stricken house.” He stretched even closer and whispered, “All secrets are safe in Incir, Princess.”

When I look back, nothing in Incir generated more warmth than Suat Bey. Not the sun, when the depression of clouds finally lifted and the baking began. Not the sand where the old women warmed their arthritis. Not the curry Yurda made, that even Suat Bey could not eat without a gasp after each bite.

I lay in bed that November night, my window shuttered against frost and insects (the crickets were, in fact, gone until spring). In my chest I felt a hole, filling my ribs to bursting. A chest wrenched empty by the final battle with my father. A hole darkened by my fearful escape. A heart near frozen from the loneliness of hiding in a place too small to be on the map.

I was desperate for warmth; a hundred years of one hundred degrees in the roasting sun would not have been enough. You must understand, ma fille, that one by one my family defied and abandoned Boris Trotoskov. Even my mother Fleur, as insubstantial as vapor, managed to slip through his fingers. I alone stayed by him, twenty lonely years. But we must all find something to love, you see; it is the human way. We choose, and commit; a heart without passion is merely beating. I? I loved no one. Nothing gave life meaning but my art. Have you ever felt so alone, Jiè? I hope not.

Three

I’ve not told anyone; not Emma or George, who still come along presently, after I’ve gone to bed, and dim the Tiffany light. Not Chander, who squeezed my ribs in a drowning clutch that last night we had a sleep in his storage container. And certainly not Maman, because she would be chuffed if she knew and have another laugh at my expense. So no one knows that even at sixteen I won’t sleep without Little Cricket. There is no one to read to me, now that I’m six foot or more, so I keep it in my rucksack and most nights I read to myself.

Tonight, after Maman has knackered herself telling stories, she snaps off the light in her drawing room, and the ceiling is lit only by the wobbly lights of passing lorries. I sneak to my rucksack and find my shabby little book, frayed and gummy from a child’s fingers. I curl in the dark under the blanket on her settee and whisper to myself, holding the book’s thick cardboard binding to my heart.

Little Cricket and the Terribly Hungry Cat
By T. Chin

Chinese calligraphy trails down the right border of the title page. When I was small and trying so hard to be Chinese, I translated it. I will always love you. It took me four flippin’ weeks to suss out the characters with a Chinese dictionary. How do I learn to be Chinese? Chinese class. That’s kiddie logic. I thought Emma—Mum—must have written the characters, because no one else loved me no matter what. And there was a fair bit of no matter what to loving me, even before I started graffing. Back then I called Emma ‘Mum’ because she ruffled my hair, kissed me good-night, and made lunches, so that made her my mum. More kiddie logic.

Then, at around ten, I puzzled out that she was five foot, Caucasian, and as breakable as her Louis XV china. Dad—George—was five-nine and thickly blonde. And I was hugely, aggressively, Chinese. Without question I was pale as milk, but my features looked like I should get off the underground at Leicester Square and slog home to a flat above some chinky bun shop south of Soho. Which meant that I was not only adopted, but that Emma was not really my mum. Somehow I hadn’t gotten it into my kid-sized loaf that adopted meant they are not your parents. Brilliant. Nothing dafter than a bit of kiddie logic. Fast on the heels of this revelation, I began to muck about with serious trouble.

Little Cricket poked her nose out of cozy hole. She liked the hot sun and the frisky smell of spring. “Mum, I want to go out and see the world.”

Mum wrapped three fat wheat seeds and an acorn of water in her handkerchief, and snuggled the corners together in a knot. “Then you must take your lunch,” she said.

“Thanks, Mum.”

Mum stood in the doorway and watched Little Cricket spring from grass blade to grass blade. “Be back before dark,” she called over the wide green field.

Crackle said the new grass as Little Cricket landed, clickity-sproing went Little Cricket’s legs as she leaped.

The sunshine was as warm as sand.

“I think I’ll touch the sun.” Little Cricket jumped as high as she could.

Crackle clickity-sproing, crackle clickity-sproing sang out over the grass. Crackle clickity-sproing all the way to the edge of the field, which could have been the edge of the world.

Once I doubted that Emma was Mum and George was Dad, I doubted everything. Maybe they were wide of the mark about bedtime. Maybe I shouldn’t wear that vomit-colored school uniform. Maybe my hair looked super when I cut it myself with George’s straight razor. A wide crack of possibilities opened under my feet.

Funnily enough, there was nothing Mum or Dad could do about it. As far as I was concerned, life was cushdy. I skived off school. I smoked ciggies (Pekelo put a stop to that). I took a five-finger discount on anything I liked in stores. I learned words that were not in Dad’s city vocabulary. Emma and George were just so sweet I could tell them all kinds of porkies, cry when I got caught out, and then do it all over again. After awhile making trouble was easier to tuck into than hot fish and chips.

Little Cricket was hot and tired. She stopped in the shade of an oak tree and found a cool nook between two roots.

“A fine place to eat,” she told herself. She untied Mum’s handkerchief and took out a wheat seed. She was about to take a nibble when she heard a nasty purr.

“What have we here, then? Lunch.” Two slit yellow eyes glared down at her, and a paw-full of claws crept toward her nook.

“Good day, Mr. Cat.” Little Cricket backed closer to the roots. “Would you like to share my wheat seed?”

“No, I’m looking for a fine, crunchy cricket. Have you seen any about?”

Now, Little Cricket’s mum once told her that cats think they know everything. So she sidled out into the open and gathered her legs underneath her. “I heard one singing in the field a while ago…singing a secret.”

The cat settled onto his belly and licked his lips. His slit eyes followed Little Cricket with interest.

“I’ll wager you don’t know her secret,” said Little Cricket.

“What did this delicious cricket say?” asked the cat.

“Close your eyes and I’ll sing it for you.”

The cat twitched and fur lifted around a claw. “No. If I close my eyes you will hop away, and then I won’t have lunch or a secret.”

“Then turn your ear toward me, because I’m just a little thing and I can’t sing very loud.”

The cat twisted one ear toward Little Cricket, and in that instant Little Cricket leaped.

It was this book that made me fancy being a graffiti artist. The cricket had me at the outset, because she’s drawn in such detail that she quivers: one antenna bent like a scar she’ll always carry; the hairs on her legs shift with updraft and undertow; and her triangular face keeps a canny smile, as if clued up on something we’d all like to know. And she gets on anywhere—even under the glistening saliva on a cat’s teeth, she’s ready to have a go. She clickity-sproings through those slashes of oriental grass so spare and simple they take my breath away. Now that was my caliber of Chinese. The whole grimy lump of London would stop and gawp, gobs hanging open, when I splashed that cricket against the brick and brownstone walls. Maybe the author of Little Cricket, T. Chin, would even notice. But paint is expensive; I needed financing.

Emma had in excess of ninety necklaces, thirty bracelets, and a shedload of earrings. It’s really not on to have so many; even if she went to one formal dinner a week, or entertained George’s banker friends every night, she’d be knackered under the strain of wearing them all. And George collects the most worthless gubbins I ever saw: a snow globe from every city he ever opened a bank branch in, antique fishing rods that he won’t notice again until the summer holidays. And the undertaker will be knocking closed the nails on George’s coffin before anyone misses the silver clock he mislaid in the back of his wardrobe. So at about twelve years of age I started nicking Emma and George’s stuff, and peddling it to Alton at his eBay brick and mortar.

I bought my first spray paint by mail order. I tried Doluxo: perfect junk. No coverage, the white is as bright as a police torch, and glare destroys the picture with highlights. I wasn’t even hacked off when someone tagged over those pieces. I tried White Bishop: junk with bells on. Pressure’s so high you feel like you’re blowing a hole in the concrete instead of painting, and the whine of the nozzle can be heard by any interested fella from two blocks away. A girl alone in an alley at two am doesn’t want any interested fellas. Threw those cans away. Somewhere about a year into it and one hundred walls later, I discovered Belton Molotow—hands down the best paint ever made. About then, I was good enough that taggers started respecting my work.

Sproing. The cat snarled and swiped a killing blow, but Little Cricket was gone.

Crackle clickity-sproing, crackle clickity-sproing trilled Little Cricket’s legs. Crackle clickity-sproing, bounding towards Cozy Hole where Mum waited.

“I never tell my secrets,” sang Little Cricket. “And someone else will have to be your lunch.”

But by then the cat was too far away to enjoy Cricket’s joke.

Little Cricket skipped and soared home in a rush.

“Back so soon?” asked Mum.

“Yes, I’ve seen enough of the world for today.”

“I’m glad you’re home.” Mum hugged her Little Cricket close. “But wherever you are, Little Cricket…”

“…I will always love you.” I finish the last words, roll onto my tum, and close the book. A heavy ache settles with the blankets on my back. Maman thinks she stands guard over the world’s stockpile of loneliness, as if she managed to hoard it all in her childhood and there wasn’t a shred left for the rest of us. But years ago, when that crack opened under my feet, I realized: I had always fancied T. Chin was my mum, and that she waited for me in Cozy Hole. Not on your nelly was anyone, anywhere, going to stand in for that. I had quite the loyal little heart. It hid as the rest of me ran off to pretend about Emma and George. Someday, that little heart whispered, I’ll leap into the wide world and I’ll find my real mum: T. Chin.

Instead, I’d found Maman.

Were you even more disappointed than I was, Maman? Bloody unlikely. Hands down, I got the worst of this flogging. Fair enough, Maman gave me away and looks none too pleased to have me back again. But I always, always wanted T. Chin to come home to, and in my fantasy she wanted me, too.

My Little Cricket book is imprinted with the artist’s Chinese chop. The stamp skids, a smudge down the page, as though pressed with emotion. Possibly with regret. Maybe T. Chin knew that there comes a day when you do something so outrageous that you can’t go back to Cozy Hole. Society has another kind of hole they want to put you in, one with a lock and key. Then’s when you need mates. Loyal mates, like Alton, who don’t care what you’ve done for God knows they’ve done worse. They may not love you no matter what, or even love you at all for that matter, but they can track down a French maman, even a disappointing one.

It’s the next morning, and even though I wake early, Maman is gone. She’s left a bowl of apples on the coffee table, and tossed a velvet duvet over me as I slept. As if I need her mothering now, having done without, all of these years. I throw off the cover and ignore the fruit, even though the apple is beautiful, a ray of sun slicing across its red roundness like a blade. I need air, so I step onto her balcony and look down on the view from Ile St. Louis. Old women pull wheeled shopping bags down the sidewalk like donkeys with little carts. High rent, tan stone buildings stare down the rest of the city from behind the moat of the Seine. Black filigree balconies supervise the long blank concrete wall that squeezes the river. The quai is miraculously clear of graffiti; not a single tag scrawls across that virginal expanse of concrete. How best to piece that wall, given a moonless night? Hanging from rope off the railing? No, too difficult to bolt. I’d nick a rowboat, and plan on swimming if the police turn up.

If I knew for sure that Chander was safe, I’d just run. I could steal some of the expensive rubbish cluttering Maman’s flat to pay my train fare. Alton said Maman was the best artist in Paris. He hopes I’ll nick Maman’s drawings to sell on eBay. Like as not that’s why he gave me her address. It’s a dead cert he’ll be disappointed; I’ll not take a thing from her, ever. I’ll not even give her the satisfaction of stealing from her. She owes me more than a few odds and ends. Then again, who am I to fancy that I have ethics and morals, while the police search for my brilliant arse? Maman could never turn round my disappointment anyway, so why not take what I want and go? I’d be to Spain by tea time. Stop in Barcelona and hang around Las Ramblas, see if I could find a fight, make some Euros. Even down there they’ve heard of Cricket, trained by Jaxon Pekelo; worth betting on even when she fights a bloke. Maybe I could earn enough to get to Mumbai, to Chander. I hope Chander’s mum was well enough to travel and wasn’t harmed by their trip home. I hope Chander will think ever so hard when he arrives in Mumbai—remember what he stands to lose by leaving London.

No, I won’t go, because I’m worried about that mirror. And that means staying to hear Maman out. I don’t need her otherwise. Maman was lonely because granddad was a bastard. Bullocks. Lots of kids don’t get the parents they mail ordered—a royal screw-up, for example, when they replaced T. Chin with Maman! Emma and George aren’t a bad lot, really, just a bit baffled by it all. They’re useless, when you get down to it. At least Maman tells a hell of a story, so I’ll give her one chance to make it up. Everyone deserves one chance.

I start to spit off the balcony railing, and then I see it, same as on the back of the mirror. Same as when I came round the corner at Alton’s eBay. But it’s grown since I saw it in London—bigger than me now, likely outweighs me by a few heavy punches. A foul creature, and this time instead of slouching in a doorway, it suns its hideous backside in Square Barye, serpent tail curling and uncurling. Its doggy gut is in the dust. Tufts of hair grow out its holes-for-ears, feeling in my direction, as if listening for my heartbeat. One furry head rests on sleek brown paws, eyes closed; one head dangles on an arched neck, staring west out over the water; and one head has two red eyes, trained bang on me.

Bloody hell. I step back and my fists go up. I’ve got tingling in my armpits and a dizzy fear. I’m already panting, anticipating a drubbing. Anything that ugly is vicious, like as not. I size up the park for bystanders, see if anyone else is in for a bit of trouble. The old ladies with shopping carts must have legged it for the boulangerie; the pavement under Maman’s balcony is empty. No kiddies with au pairs romp under Square Barye’s trees. As I stare over the balcony the creature dissolves, melts into wind, nothing left but a salty damp smell. Have I gone round the twist? I rub my eyes, then check carefully; it’s not slouching against an iron railing or lurking in the cedar shrubs. Flippin’ spooky. I retreat inside and lock the balcony doors.

Emma was right, just this once: I should never have nicked that mirror. I can still picture Emma collapsed in the foyer, all that dark hair plastered by tears to her cheeks. Why in bloody hell did you go and steal your mother’s mirror? Why not just take the best silver? All of those years stealing from Emma, and I never considered the silver! And Alton could have fenced it so easily. Bad luck to take that vile mirror instead. But I needed the money. A feeling like too much brown paint swirls in my middle, as if some darling backed me up against the ropes and threw a solid elbow into my guts. I needed to prove to Chander how much I loved him. I just couldn’t let him go. I still can’t. We’ve stuck our heads in the plastic bag of love, and we’re fast running out of air. Now I worry something horrid might happen to him, like what happened to Xiao. I turn round and scan the room but can’t suss out where she’s put the nasty thing. Locked it up, I imagine. Brilliant. Lock and key won’t stop it.

Maman comes home and slams the door and I jump like a rabbit. She steps out of ugly, ankle-length black bloomers, hangs them in the closet, then lifts off a black head covering and lays it, folded, on the hall table. She clocks my face for a moment, then says, “You saw it, oui?”

Oui.” I try to look as stouthearted as she does.

“He is playing with us, le connard.” Swear words sound official when Maman hisses them, as if the beast were condemned to be a son of a bitch by international decree.

“What in friggin’ hell is it?” I ask.

“Don’t they teach Greek mythology in your fancy London school?”

I narrow my eyes. “I don’t spend a good deal of time in class.”

She turns her back to me. “It’s Cerberus, Hades’ creature.” She takes a fat, leather-bound tome off her bookshelf and plops it in my lap. Without another word she goes to the kitchen and rattles around in a ferocious din, making breakfast as if giant, misshapen hounds were an ordinary, if unpleasant, part of her day.

The book’s as worn as my Little Cricket, and I wonder if she spent her childhood with it, maybe still takes it to bed. The inside is annotated in French with a pencil, the writing nothing a kid would do: straight upright, and as skinny as a teacher who expects you to pay attention. The whole book is on the Greek gods, and the colored plate of Hades shows a muscular, bearded man, dragging a screaming girl into the split-open earth.

Bloody hell: that crack. For a moment I can feel it opening under my feet. Sheer panic as I’m yanked by an arm into bleak eternity. No second chance. No, “Wait a bit, luv, I’m not yet done here.” My moment in the light is gone and I don’t even know who I am yet. I wail with the ghosts by the river that forever separates the living from the dead, and a three headed dog with a serpent’s tail stalks the banks; there’s no getting round him. But he’s not real. Not panting by the Seine. Not scaring me witless in 2006 while lorries rumble by and pigeons scratch on the windowsill. I slam closed the book.

Maman carries in a tray: a bowl of hot milk and coffee with slices of bread. Lots of good plum jam in a crystal bowl. Silver butter knife. I watch her with my heart racing. She sits in her fauteuil by the windows that face the park.

“What do you paint?” she asks.

I take a breath. I would have thought, given that she’s asking questions, she’d go for the obvious one: What in effing hell is Cerberus doing here? I spar with fear, trying to collect myself. Finally I say, “Explain about the god, the dog, and the mirror.”

Maman butters her bread. “I’ve been telling you. It’s a long story, you’ll have to be patient.”

“Don’t you think we should hurry it up a bit?”

“It’s me he’s after, not you,” she says sharply.

That’s a relief, felt all the way to my toes. She’s calm for a woman with a dismal future chasing her. You have to admire her self-possession. She doesn’t look like she could fend off a toy poodle; I wonder what holds the beast at bay.

Have it your way, then, Maman: we ignore the mirror until a three-headed dog sinks its bloody teeth in your knickers. So I ask, “How do you know I paint?”

“I saw sketch books in your knapsack, spattered with drips of color.” She sees my expression and adds, “The sac was open quand même, I didn’t dig in it.”

Sure she didn’t. Emma and George had their faults, but they didn’t poke about in my things.

I make her wait a few sips of my café au lait before I answer. “I paint sidewalks, roads, garbage cans. Walls when I can get them, but in London most of the mint places are all pieced.”

“And you write on these walks and walls?”

“No, I don’t tag. Only a flippin’ idiot scrawls their name on things. I paint hope, dreams: what neighborhoods long for. I’m an artist, not a homie.”

Ah oui, I see.”

She rises from her armchair. With her first ever hint of nervousness, she paces to the window—a view she could have seen sitting—and stares out. She has a remarkably stiff spine as she studies the shadows flickering over bare dirt in the park. Then she turns, backlit by the pale spring sun.

“It’s your turn to tell me a story,” she says.

“Take a hike, Maman.” The phrase pops out of my mouth in Alton’s American slang, so she either doesn’t understand, or she doesn’t care that I refused her.

She says, “Painting under threat of arrest must have interesting moments. Tell me a story about creating your art.”

I never talk about graff with anyone (except Chander, of course). Not in person, not online. Graff chat rooms are full of cack, and photos of men’s hard-ons. Who wants to see that? Even the site that’s supposed to be for girls is tagged with a shedload of male trash. And most blokes think graff is just vandalism. But I want to ruffle her up, put a crease in that meticulous wool dress she’s worn two days in a row, flat and curve-less, as though it’s still on the hanger.


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