Heart Of The World – Snippet 07

The canal had run dry, but down the middle of it now a little stream began to flow, a dark trickle.  He had a momentary idea of the whole city bleeding. The air smelled bitter.

Shimmering red, the sun was sinking down into a haze of smoke and dust. He lowered himself feet first down the side of the bridge platform, got a foothold on the structure underneath, and swung down into the close space between the span and the bank of the canal. The bridge shook overhead, more people passing over it, they stopped in a pounding of hoofs and a sharp exchange of orders, and then suddenly the rest of the barricade was showering down over the side of the bridge into the canal. The bloody woman fell by him, splayed out, the axe still in her hand.

He huddled in the dark, his arms around his knees, all the long night. Up and down the canal, fires bloomed. The coppery light flickered along the canal wall, now and then dimmed in rolling dark smoke. The smoke made him gag, reeking of burnt meat.

In the morning, he went along under the bridge and along the side of the canal. There was no water in the streambed but there weres puddles of blood. He went through another culvert and into the canal that went by Reb Moseh’s street. Even before he came up to the street he saw smoke and the flicker of a fire and heard the flames crackle. The Caliph’s garden was burning. In the street before him a woman’s body lay, stripped naked. A sword stuck up between her legs. He went quickly along the side of the street, keeping close to the wall. The clatter of hoofbeats behind him warned him to duck into a gateway. A stream of horsemen went by him; they rode right over the body in the street. One of them in passing pulled out the sword.

Pressed to the wall of the gateway arch, he turned to look inside. The house was still smoking, inside its brick walls. Its hollow windows gaped, its door only a hole to a black emptiness. His stomach heaved. In the burnt ash and char that lay thick as a blanket on the courtyard he saw the outlines of bodies.

Somewhere a woman screamed, “No — Please, no –“

He went on through the street. The flames from the big trees in the Caliph’s garden were crinkling the air and embers and ash floated by him. He stepped over things in the street that he did not look at. He did not look into the gateways. At the corner he stood and looked across at the wreckage of Reb Moseh’s house and knew it only by the wall, the last thing standing.

In the next street he heard a crash, and a howl of voices, and he walked the other way.

There was no water. The canals dry, the fountains dry. He went toward the Tigris. In a little garden tucked behind a wall, where rocks had smashed the trees, he found water in a basin. He rummaged through the broken trees and found oranges. He heard someone coming and went back over the wall again, and down a long narrow arcade into a bazaar. On the far side of the little courtyard, while he was eating the oranges, he noticed the arcade he had just come through, a stretch of shelf along the wall. The roof beyond was tilted, and all the fallen rocks had rolled down onto the top of the arcade, which groaned on its buckling wooden posts.

He went along this, looking at it. Picking up a chunk of wood he swung it at a post, and the wood cracked and part of the roof sagged abruptly.

He went back out to the canal street again. The smoke was rolling thick along the street, and he had to go a good way along the street to find any Mongols. He heard the howling ahead, and looking in a gateway saw three or four men inside, still on their horses, hammering at a door with poles.

He picked up a rock and threw it at them, threw another when they turned, and took off running back the way he had come. They came whooping after him. In the smoke he slowed a little, to make sure he did not lose them, and they came charging after him, yipping like dogs. He dodged into the arcade and they followed. In the narrow space the horses collided, grunting, only a few yards behind him. He ran along. Not caring if he fell, he shoved at the columns as he passed and smashed into the last one shoulder first, drove it out into the courtyard, and the roof came down with a long rumbling roar. 

He got to his feet in the courtyard. The falling roof and the rocks on top were burying the three horsemen. He could heard whimpering, and under the heap of stones something thrashed and more stones fell and then the crying stopped. He went closer. He saw, among the dusty stones, a horse’s tail, a limp hand. He went on down the arcade toward the gate.

The last rider had nearly escaped. At the end of the arcade he sat to his waist in a pile of rocks, his back to the wall, his horse crumpled under him. Dust covered him, his skin and hair grey as a tombstone. Blood leaked from his head, from his ears and his mouth and nose, bright against the grey dust. His eyes glistened. He looked across the narrow distance at Daud, and their eyes met. Daud did nothing, said nothing. He watched the shining eyes dull into stones. After a while, Daud went back out to the street, toward the little garden, to gather more nuts, but the Mongols had been there in the meantime and the place was torched.


He stood on the roof of his compound, a while later, and looked out over Baghdad. The air was grimy. In columns like trees, in long filmy veils, the smoke lay all over the city. There were no real trees. There was nothing green left. The wreckage of the houses stretched out before him like a desert. Above the broken roofs the smoke gathered, and the wind caught it and blew it away. 

Where he had walked on the roof his footprints showed black in the pale ash.

The Caliph’s palace still stood, out in the middle of the city, but the domes were broken in. the House of Wisdom was a blackened husk. Nothing moved in Baghdad. It was dead, it was empty.

In the distance, the yellow dust cloud of the Mongols was drifting away. They had been marching out all morning. They hadn’t even wanted Baghdad, only to destroy it, and now they were going somewhere else.

He got down off the wall. Crossing the bridge, he went to the Basra Gate. One of the towers had come down in a tumble of rock and the other leaned like an old woman. As Daud got nearer, birds rose up from the ruin in a cloud. The guards had defended Baghdad until they all died, and they remained, rotting in the new sun, already half-eaten. The stench made his stomach heave. He walked among the dead and out to the road, and crossed over to the plain beyond. One foot after the other, he walked along the road.


He was lying on his face in the road. He could not remember falling. The heat on his back. His eyes were full of dust. His mouth. The ground under him trembled. Something was coming. He could not move out of the way.

Something touched him. He could not open his eyes. He was lifted up. A cool wet rag passed over his face, he gasped, trying to lap at the wetness, and he blinked his eyes open, saw a beard, two dark eyes. Smiling. A flask came to his lips. He gulped at the taste, sweet and mild, of milk. He opened his throat and let it pour down into him and flood him. The man lifted him up again. He sank down into a close space with woven sides. A basket. The warm rank shaggy smell of an animal enveloped him. A moment later the basket was rocking along, carrying him along. He slept.