One afternoon last year my husband and I crossed the Bosphorus, as for years – decades – we had planned to do. Our dream of traveling this storied strait that connected ancient seas was coming true. Surprisingly cold spring gales buffeted the boat and us on deck. We warmed our hands on the porcelain cups of hot almond brew that the ferryman had sold us for two coins. The lather of the drinks scorched our throats with honeyed foam, and we were happy.
We were lone passengers on the ferry from European Istanbul to Asian Istanbul. The billows between continents were solely ours to ride – and ponder. So we recalled histories of empire and conquest, homes lost and rebuilt. We reminded each other that we could only barely envision the habits and loves carried away by the displaced and those planted by new arrivals. All roots were torn from their soil or their fruits harvested by each successive Rome.
The day before we had visited the Hagia Sophia. Entire eras of life and religion remain hidden in its depths and recesses, with careful slices revealed here and there in the peelings of its walls. We were simultaneously awed and dismayed to recognize how histories are stilled in this cathedral-mosque, with Christian and Muslim sharing architecture, plaster, and paint.
Yet into its arches thought upon thought have been leavened; they are like choral notes soaring into the heights of the dome.
To us the Hagia Sophia became an edifice of caution as well as of hope; it haunted us on our dream voyage on the Bosphorus.
My husband is from Boston and, ages earlier, England. I am from New York and a generation separated from India. My mother had feared that our marriage would not last, that my identity would be lost or that it would all end in the big D, or “Dheeborce,” as she pronounced it. Love and intention are not enough, she had cautioned. “Only her words now resound,” we have lamented during these three years since she unexpectedly passed away. Her views and voice are now like the philosophies and discourses that are eternally ensnared by the breathtaking symmetries of the Hagia Sophia. We imagine, sometimes hear, the echoes but no longer can inhabit them. Loss is eternal; whatever we retrieve is approximate.
Yet my mother may know that we knead from her proofs daily fare that our son cherishes.
At dusk we crossed back to the European side. We sat in a café, leaning back to reflect on our day. Through windows trickling with moisture as happens when heat meets cold, we see a Syrian man and woman on the plaza. Refugees from a place that can no longer be sustained as home, they are fatigued exiles, and young but etched old. They hawk little things from pockets, sacks, bags. Their girl, in a thin other-worldly dress and cardigan has long limp hair that flies about as she hops a dance against impatience, time, and the sharp evening breeze.
When we finished at the café and walked by the family, I poured into her hands all our coins. My fingers were made electric by the graze of her skin, yet there was nothing I could fathom in her eyes, so brown and soft.