Heart Of The World – Snippet 04

Around Daud the people sank down, their voices failed. A low moan rose from them. Daud was gasping for breath. A prickle of terror ran down his back. He wheeled around, and ran.

He kept running, his breath a fire in his lungs. He could hear screaming somewhere.  Dust and smoke drifted in the air.  He slowed, at last, exhausted, by the Caliph’s Garden, and realized he was two streets down from Reb Moseh’s house.

That steadied him, to know where he was. He ran down an alleyway and across a little bridge and came to the street, and there was the house where his mother worked. The high gate was closed, but he knew how to open it — push the bar there, then lean on the little wooden door set in the side of the barrier. He went into the courtyard, panting.

It was quiet. It was as if nothing had ever happened, except he saw no one else. He crossed the empty courtyard to the kitchen house, where his mother would be. She was not there. The kitchen maids were not there.  The long room silent, cool, empty. Smelling of bad milk. The oven was cold. He went along the table; beneath that were baskets of fruit, of vegetables, and he took an apple and ate it. He could stay here. There was food here, and his mother would come back. He went out of the kitchen, across the courtyard again, to the main house.

That door was open. He went in. On the threshold he started to call out, but his own voice choked him.

He walked through the front room, the carpets neatly laid, the tables with their embroidered cloths. Nobody was there, but they would come back. The house was all ready for them. The silence was just for now. He would stay here and wait. At the foot of the steps he looked up. He had never been allowed to go there. He trembled to think of it. But he climbed the stair. The air grew warmer as he climbed. He could still smell smoke but only a little. He went up to the landing. The rooms opening off were empty. In one a loom stood, the beater still in the threads. A jug was turned over on the floor.

He went on, up the last flight, to Reb Moseh’s room.

Before he pulled back the curtain a bad smell reached him. He stood on the threshold, and saw there on the floor the old man stretched out on his back, his hands folded on his chest.  Flies buzzed around him. Daud’s stomach clenched. He could not move. The old man’s eyes were closed but if Daud moved surely the lids would fly open, Reb Moseh would look at him, would scold him. He whined in his throat. He could not stay. He had to go, he had to get out of here fast.

He went back downstairs, and back to the kitchen. Outside, as he was crossing the courtyard he could hear, again, the pound and crash of the catapults. In the kitchen he found one of his mother’s marketing baskets and went around filling it with food, figs and apples, some flatbread, a cheese. He ate cheese as he went around, looking for anything else. He took a knife from the wall. In a jug he found water and washed down the last of the cheese.

He hauled the heavy basket back to the gate. He had to find somewhere to hide. To keep his stock of food. He would come back for a blanket. As he went out the gate to the street, a dozen boys pounced down on him.

He shouted. Went to his knees. They tore the basket out of his hands and knocked him flat. He dropped the knife. Someone kicked him. He bounded up to his feet, and they swung fists at him and battered him down again. While they were doing that one grabbed the basket and ran off, and the others chased him. He crept off a little on hands and knees. The knife lay before him on the pavement and he snatched it up. Getting to his feet, he raced away down the street.


He walked, going nowhere, through an empty bazaar, the beggars gone, the rugs taken up and the displays, the shop doors shut. Beyond that, the rutted back street led him through orchards, between high walls. In a gateway a man with a sword leaned against the wall. When Daud came by, and slowed, the guard reached down for a stone at his feet, and Daud hurried off.

He saw a band of boys coming around the corner, and went the other way.

His stomach hurt with hunger. He was tired but if he tried to stop his legs soon drove him on again, urgent. The distant bang and crash of the war faded into the back of his mind. He thought of nothing but getting something to eat. He should have eaten more when he had had the chance. He trudged along, dreaming of food.

There were people in the street; as he passed, he looked, but he saw no face he knew.

A wavering voice called out overhead, and he twitched all over. Yearning, he turned that way. Old words came to him, blessing Mohammed who was calling him to God. He forgot most of the prayer, the words were always strange, not ordinary talk. He went in a gate. Other people everywhere, and he hung back. At the water fountain he waited for a chance to wash. Women and children were pushing one way, to the side of the courtyard, to another door into the mosque. He went in a tide of men through the main door.

The call to prayer went on above him. He thought, Mohammed, Prophet of God, blessings to you, give me something to eat.

They were calling the men to line up, inside the mosque. He sidled in along the doorway. There was no room, already hundreds of men filled the wide space, and now they were kneeling, all at once, a wave descending. He knelt down where he was, back in a corner.

Like a thunder, the voices rose, begging for salvation. He huddled against the wall, tired. The men around him bent and banged their foreheads on the floor and rose with their faces dripping blood. His stomach turned. He drew back as far as he could, and shut his eyes, and the giant voices rolled over him.

Then he was waking up, climbing up through sleep, a soft voice calling him.

“Daud. Daud.”

He opened his eyes. The prayers were a rumble in his ears. Before him, smiling, was the long pale face of his master’s daughter Dinah.

He sat up, making his obeisance, and she touched his face. “No need. How glad I am to see you. Here.” She pressed a wooden cup into his hands. Warm. He lifted it to his lips and drank the hot meaty broth. She was looking into his eyes, still smiling. She said, “Be well, little man. Here.” She leaned forward and kissed his forehead. “Be blessed.” She went away, carrying more cups, a big jug.

He finished the broth before he ended his hunger. But he sat up now. He looked around for Dinah and saw her across the mosque, giving food to people. He took heart; he got up, went out to the courtyard, washed his hands and face in the fountain.

Out in the street, several men stood in a clump, talking in low voices. Their eyes followed him, suspicious. Daud went on down toward the canal and walked along the street there. The day before, it had been running nearly full but now it was only knee deep. At the foot of the next bridge was a man selling from a wagon, strings of onions and fruit and herbs. On either side a big man held a sword across his body. Several people stood before the wagon, ready to buy, and more coming all the time.

Daud hung back. No one seemed to notice him. He had nothing to buy with. Quickly he looked back at the canal. His mother had given him treats for catching fish. If he caught some fish, or turtles even, he might trade them. He went to the edge of the canal and slid down the side.