Entrance to Dervish Lodge, Galata Tower, Istanbul Photo: Bronwyn Mills
MOON Bronwyn Mills
One day, walking back together after work, I noticed six little piles of cat food, evenly spaced along the side of a wall. "Ö.," I asked— "Why do Turks love cats so much?"
"You know." Ö. began, "The Prophet had a cat. Because she meowed and made certain distinct noises, he named her 'Muezza,' after the Muezzin who in the old days climbed the many steps to the top of the tower next to the mosque and sang out the call to prayer.
One day while the Prophet was at his table, writing and contemplating the mysteries of the faith, Muezza curled up next to him and went to sleep on his sleeve. Finally, when Mohammed finished and wished to go and refresh himself, the Prophet, seeing the sleeping cat and not wanting to disturb her, cut off his sleeve."
The next day, it snowed. It snowed all that day and all that night. It snowed so heavily that, as morning passed and what appeared to be the last snowflake had fallen, trucks drove out with water hoses, spraying to clear the main streets. All along the smaller byways, people pried up packed snow with crowbars, leaving great chunks to the side, so that everyone had to walk down the middle of the street. I lived in a basement apartment near the Spoonmaker's Tomb; according to Turkish law, it is illegal disturb ancient tombs, the graves of veterans, and other graves considered to have a high, often spiritual, value. Thus, where the Spoonmaker's final resting place jutted out, Fındıkzade's solution was a dogleg just short of my building. The small space was planted with a rose bush, bearing roses in the summer, becoming dry thorned twigs in the autumn, and resembling the skeleton of a stork leaning up against the Spoonmaker's turbaned tombstone in the winter.
From my windows I could see feet passing by and hear their susurrating steps on the cobblestones, their voices conversing in the softened accent of Istanbulu Turkish. And that day, I also heard and saw something else—a bedraggled little kitten yowling and trembling in the depression in front of my windowsill. Since I could hardly leave the poor creature out there in that condition, I put on my coat and my boots, and went outside to rescue it. It seemed tame, purring and then yowling, and then purring again; and so I cleaned it up and gave it a small bowl of milk that it lapped up in a flash.
To make a long story short, that was how Moon—pure white like our earth's satellite, fluffy like the first snow that brought him—that was how Moon came to live with me. But as I found out, the Turks have another saying about cats: cats don't belong to people; they belong to houses. Though Moon stayed by my side for the rest of my time in Fındıkzade, woke me uncannily at the first call to prayer, slept when I went to work, chirruped cheerfully at me when I returned, he also exited into the garden behind our building to do his business and catch mice. He either came back in by scratching at the same window that had provided him an exit or, perhaps by some feline stratagem, managed to get the attention of another resident in the building. I suspected the retired teacher who addressed me as "Madame," as Turks often called foreign women, and who attempted to speak to me in halting French when we met on the doorstep. In any case, I soon heard Moon yowling at my door.
I like to think that in some way, Muezza was the direct ancestress of Moon. He was not corpulent, but he grew to be a large cat, perhaps appearing even larger because he had long fur, not like the Van shorthairs, also white, though they had more likely contributed to some of his gene pool. August but wily, I suspect Moon managed to convince more than one occupant of our building that somehow the Yabancı downstairs, the foreigner, forgot to feed him. In fact, on weekends, I heard more than one door open with a funny Hoş geldiniz!, as if welcoming a very sombre child, the sound of a dish set on the floor, a feline chirp and a Turkish cooing, before that door shut once more.
Now, in the process of helping me find my apartment, Ö. had first introduced me to the kapıcı, Abdurrahman—the building's combination super and doorman. The man had stuck his face inches from mine, said something very loud in Turkish, and, as I instinctively pulled back, Ö. quietly tapped him on the shoulder. As Ö. told me later, he had informed Abdurrahman that "Madame," would think him too close. Through Ö., he later apologized.
Abdurrahman was an odd fellow. Thin, all angles, gruff and even in a language I did not then understand, apparently without a single sentimental bone in his body. His duties consisted of making minor repairs, running small errands, the most civilized of which was picking up the coins tenants left in a bag hanging from their doorknobs, replacing them with the daily newspaper and freshly baked simit, a most delicious sesame seeded bagel-shaped roll. Ah, simit!
I also discovered Abdurrahman was not at all what he seemed. Among his hidden soft spots, was his love of flowers. Abdurrahman loved and cherished pots and pots of them—roses, tulips, lilies—in the garden behind his apartment. And when I found out that one of Abdurrahman's duties was to care for tenants' plants and pets when they were away, when I went home on the first of my annual visits, I asked if he would do the same for me. I remember first opening my door to my potential pet sitter: Moon peered out from behind me. Abdurrahman gave a little gasp—aww!—and all his harsh features melted. They knew each other. Another soft spot: Moon had made a conquest. As for me, I no longer worried about how my cat was doing when I was gone.
Time passed, of course. Ö. moved to Ankara. I took another job at another school, moved to a more fashionable neighborhood, and found Ash, the poet, to babysit Moon when I went away. My career bloomed, ever so briefly, and I left Istanbul to take a fellowship to a place where I knew Moon would not be welcome. He stayed behind with friends. After that, I took a job back in the States, and had just settled in, when one night I received a long-distance, international phone call. It was Ash. We caught up on all the gossip: besides Ö., Soandso had moved, Soandso was still in the same old rut, Soandso and Soandso had divorced, I've written a new poem: would you like to hear it? and, "I don't know how to tell you this, but Moon has disappeared— we think he went back to Fındıkzade."
"Cats hate change," I answered. I supposed that Moon was just trying to avert it. But the news made me far more sad, and not a little more guilty, than I let on.
When I had moved to Tophane, though it was then a more authentic neighborhood than fashionable Galata, Moon had never warmed to the other side of the Horn; and every now and then, he would go off on a feline journey that left me calling and calling for him. Once I had even called Abdurrahman— "Evet, yes, Madame." Moon indeed was there; and I made the journey back to the street of the Spoonmaker's Tomb to retrieve him. How had he crossed the waters of the Horn? More often, Moon would finally return on his own, bedraggled and hungry and sleep all day.
It was another year before I was able to go back for a visit: the country and the city had changed. Istanbul suffered from some nasty terrorist attacks, yet another friend had moved—to a small village along the Aegean—and the government had banned open air cafés where people sat and drank and discussed into the wee hours of the morning—nearly all those in front of the restaurants in Beyoğlu where many foreigners lived. Nonetheless, the funny Kemalist hotel where we often met for our drinks, with its portraits of Ataturk and its vintage coal stoves on prominent display, with the parrot who hid behind the curtains and made startling imitations of smokers' coughs—the Buyuk Londres was still in business.
I waited in the huge lobby near the parrot's hiding place; and as the bird was warming up with imitations of car alarms, Ash wandered in. After we'd had a few drinks, I wasted no time, "C'mon. We're going to find Moon." "That cat must be dead by now." " No, he's not. He'll just be bigger. I know he isn't dead."
And we hailed a cab to take us to my old neighborhood. Through the ruins of the old Valerian aqueduct, up past the late Ottoman valide's mosque, past the neighborhood where, I was told, most of the Natashas—Russian sex workers—plied their trade, up a few blocks short of the old city gates. The taxi let us off in front of the hotel where, in the past, I had seen so many men and women dressed in pilgrim's white, resting, en route to make their hadj. Turning down a side street, we found our way past the yoğurçı—yogurt maker's—shop, past the Spoonmaker's Tomb, and up the steps of my old building. Red curtains, which I never would have had, were drawn tight across my old basement windows. Though we rang the kapıcı's bell several times, no one answered. We asked around, and finally I saw the retired teacher who used to try to speak to me in French coming out of the building. Now, ever polite, he spoke to us in English— "Oh yes, shortly after you moved, Madame, Abdurrahman retired." "Did he have a cat?" "Oh, yes, that white cat with a funny name, 'Ay,' but it was 'Ay' in English, I think. It used to wander a lot, and I am almost certain it did not go with Abdurrahman. We heard you had moved back to America, Madame: I think it missed you, but it would also miss us. The cat cannot leave; he is a Turk, Madame, a true patriot—" He paused— "Remember, Ataturk said, Blessed is he who calls himself a Turk, Madame." Dammit, What an odd thing to say about a cat-- Ash, never one for much overt sentiment, patted me on the back— "There, there."
"Moon" is from a work in progress, provisionally titled By the Spoonmaker's Tomb andbased on time spent living and working in Istanbul, Turkey.