Heart Of The World – Snippet 05

Made of fitted stones, the bank sloped easily at first but then turned steep, and he slipped and slid most of the way, grabbing for handholds on the rough wall. Halfway down the dry stone vanished under slick wet green weed, crusted with sand and shells. Yesterday that had been under water. He skidded through it, down into the ditch, his feet sinking into the muck and stones of the bottom. He began to work his way up the current, watching the water, looking for anything he could catch.

Ahead of him, something plopped into the water. Maybe he could sell frogs. Nobody ate frogs. The dark water flowed slowly along, bending over the waving floating carpet of the weedy bottom. A patch of scum floated toward him, evil smelling. He drew back, his stomach gripped. Looking up he saw the sky above him, a blue arch between the high walls of the canal, and then far off, up in the air, there came a sound that stood his hair on end, a thin distant shriek coming closer.

He scrambled toward the far wall. A little way down, a round hole opened in it, a culvert through to the next canal, and he made for that, struggling through the thigh-deep water. A crash of rocks shattered the air above him.  The sound rocketed eerily around in the canal and another thundering downpour came and another, not into the canal, but striking just beyond, into the street.  A few rocks bounced down into the canal and Daud reached the culvert and dove into it.

The sound boomed inside this space, stuffed his ears. He clutched his knees to his chest. A horrible smell reached him. Halfway down the tunnel a body lay on its back. His stomach rolled. He had to get away from that, and inched toward the opening, but then another barrage struck just outside the tunnel. Dust sprayed him. He shrank down. Whatever that was, behind him in the tunnel, it was dead. It wouldn’t hurt him. Another crash and boom of rocks. He buried his face against his knees.

The rolling crash went on and on, long after, he thought, the stones stood falling. He went up to the edge of the tunnel and looked out. A heap of stones lay along the foot of the far wall. He sat there a long while, waiting for more, but no more happened.

He was thirsty. He crept down out of the tunnel and out along the canal. The water was murky, littered with new stones. Where the water ran clear he knelt to drink but before he could even dip his hand into the stream he saw a dead man lying face down a few feet away and he lurched backward, his heart racing.

He staggered on, crossed the canal beneath the bridge, and climbed up on the pier. At the top, he stood still for a moment, unable to move. The main barrage had struck here. The air was filmy with dust. Two men lay on the ground in front of him, battered to bloody rags. The wagon that had sold figs was half buried under rocks. He bolted, running as fast as he could past the bodies, dodging past another in the street. The screaming kept going on. He ran into the courtyard of the mosque, where the fountain had been.

The fountain was gone, lost under a pile of rocks, although the water still bubbled up through the rubble. Other dead people lay around the courtyard. A woman knelt by the gate sobbing a prayer. Dazed, Daud looked for the mosque, and could not find that either. Finally he realized that the wall still stood, but the dome was broken in like an eggshell.

Dinah, he thought, and for a moment could not think at all. He knelt down at the fountain, and drank the water. His hands were shaking and his stomach hurt. He went off again to the street, toward Reb Moseh’s house. Little groups of people stood around the street, muttering ton each other. There was no litter of stones in the street here. So far inside the wall, Daud thought, this was out of range. He wound his way quickly through the thin crowds.  Going by the Caliph’s garden he smelled smoke and saw fires, back under the trees. 

He found Reb Moseh’s house, but someone else lived there, now. The gate was barred, the windows shuttered tight, even the balcony covered up. He walked back up the canal street. Night was coming. He could not stop shaking. There were people ahead of him at the bridge, already groping through the rubble for the vendor’s goods, rummaging around the dead. They gave him piercing looks as he went by them.

He crossed over the bridge in the dark, going toward the wall. The streets here were battered with rocks but there were no people. He found a place out of the wind and slept. Every few moments, he woke, his body clenched like a fist.


In the morning, going in close under the city wall, he climbed over a locked gate and into an enclosed courtyard.  The whole compound had been bombarded and bits of rock strewed the courtyard and the roofs of the buildings were crushed in. He saw no bodies. These people had run away when the barrage started. He looked for a kitchen house, found a hall with ovens and tables, but no food. Somebody had already taken everything. An ewer, empty, on the floor.

Across the way was a bedroom, opening onto the courtyard. The roof had come down inside, burying most of it, but he uncovered cushions, finely stitched, and a blanket. He dragged these into an angle of the courtyard wall — he wanted to be outside, where he could run — and made a bed. His stomach ached with hunger. He took the ewer and went out through the ruins, over the gate again, to the canal, and filled the ewer with water. The canal was only a shallow stream here. Maybe the water was going away all over Baghdad. He had not thought of that. He remembered the dike breaking. Maybe soon even the canals would be empty. Sitting, exhausted, hungry, on his new bed, he faced the far wall, where there were rows of shelves, like Reb Moseh’s book shelves. Some bits of pottery still on the shelves. He lay down, but he did not sleep; he fell to brooding.

After a long while he saw a huge rat crawl along the bottom shelf, pick its way through the debris of pots and stones to a hole in the wall, and go through.  

Daud thought about that a while, and then he went over to the shelves. These were boards, held up on the wall with metal braces poked into the seams of the bricks. He felt over the shelf the rat had traveled. Some of the braces were loose and he worried the holes wider with his knife, so that the braces sagged. He loosened the braces on the shelf above that one. Taking out a board higher on the wall, he cut pieces of that and braced up the bottom shelf with them, where the rat had run, so it wouldn’t come down too soon.  Then he went around the courtyard and gathered all the stones he could, and piled them on the upper shelf until it groaned.

He went off, morose. It would not work, it was too obvious, the rat would see. He wandered off into the broken rooms. Under the dust the floors were tiled. In a tiny back room he found a lamp full of oil and a striker to light it. He thought these people had been rich, even more than Reb Moseh. In a corner there was a chest, full of clothes. The smallest thobe was too big for him. He fingered the embroidery around the neck, the fine shell buttons. Finally he cut off the bottom and put the garment on over his head, rolling up the sleeves.

Beside an overturned bed he found a little wooden boat. Some boy had lived here, a boy like him. He wondered where that boy was now. His stomach hurt from hunger. Dark was coming. He had found nothing to eat for days. Finally he went back to his space, curled up against the wall, and went to sleep.