Heart Of The World – Snippet 09

They brought more. She washed down through a crust of dirt, to the sunburnt skin of face and arms, and then — with a glance at the women watching her — she peeled off the rags of her dress. Her underthings were gone. She washed her body, her legs.

They brought more water, and some cloths. She washed between her legs, the blood caked on her thighs, everything still sore.

They brought her leggings of thin leather, and a long coat, blue, with a front that crossed one side over the other and buttoned on the shoulder. The gap-toothed woman said, “Sit down, here,” and sat behind her and took a comb to Dinah’s hair. 

The comb stuck in her hair. One of the daughters murmured. The mother muttered to herself. Dinah could see the comb full of broken hair. Finally the woman got up and went to the cart.

She came back with shears, and Dinah cried out, “No!” and put her hands to her head. Under her fingers a mass of filthy straw. One daughter seized her wrists and held them out in front of her, and the other gripped her head by the ears.

It was terrible; it was like the other time, when they held her, and she thrashed and screamed and wept. They kept her fast. They cut her hair off, and let her go, and she sat there panting.

The gap-toothed woman said, “You are done, now. Be calm.”

Dinah wiped her cheeks with her fingers. She touched her head, the hair stubbled like a beard. She said, “I will never be done. It will never be done.” Her breath came short; a scream gathered down in her throat.

The gap-toothed woman shrugged. “Your hair will grow back.”

Dinah ran her hand again over the burr of her skull. The scream never came up. The woman brought her some of the sour milk to drink. She sat and watched while they went back to unpacking the cart. They took everything into the round tent, boxes, bowls and pans, stacks of cloth, rugs.

Being clean was astonishing. Dinah’s skin felt soft and new as a baby’s. Drowsy, she was half asleep when the Mongol rider came back.

He rode in among them; he spoke to them from the saddle. She could not remember seeing him ever off his horse. He turned to her, and said, “Stand up.”

She stood, moving away as she did. He nodded. “Good. You look much better.” He spoke to the other women in a laughing way, and they bowed and he gave them something from his belt pouch. He turned to Dinah.

“Come with me.” He kicked loose a stirrup and bent down, one arm out.

She saw he meant her to get on behind him. She slid her hands behind her. “Where?”

“To see my mother,” he said. “Now, come on, nice as you look now, I don’t want to muss you up getting you there.”

She was afraid; she looked around as if somehow she might be able to escape. They were all watching her. She remembered them cutting her hair, the hands gripping her wrists and her head, and how she could not fight back then. And so not now. She gathered herself, went up to him, and took his arm, and tried to put her foot into the stirrup. He swung her up behind him, and before she was settled the horse galloped off.

She held onto his belt with both hands, jouncing painfully on the back of the saddle, but almost at once they were slowing down, coming up to another tent. He dropped her down on her feet, and for once dismounted from his horse.

The tent was a great circular wall made of heavy cloth, with a pointed top. It was much bigger than the one where she had bathed, and she saw it had a kind of floor under it laid down of wooden planks. People bustled around it.  Some were unloading carts and carrying goods into the tent but many were just standing around. They wore coats like her new coat, but of fine shining fabric; they had fur hats on their heads. When her Mongol came after her, they burst forward toward him from all sides, everyone shouting.

“Noyon! Nikola! Noyon!”

He tramped through them, got her by the elbow, and steered her forward, through the door of the tent. Inside, he stopped a moment, still holding on to her, and said, “I am Nikola. You are–“

She swallowed.  She wanted not to tell him, but she did not want to lie. She looked away. “Dinah.”

He muttered at her, but she was looking around her now. She stepped into a wide round dim space. The noise from outside died away. Rugs covered the floor of the tent, like a bazaar. The space was open, with only a few thin columns for the roof. In the middle of the room in a hearth of iron were red glowing coals. Nikola nudged her onward, through people carrying in boxes and cloth to either side of the big room. A soft light filtered down through the cloth roof, mellow as honey. Nikola pushed her on across the room, across the soft cushions of the rugs, around the hearth.

In that space was a low table, with, she saw, astonished, a crucifix on it. Behind that, almost to the tent wall, stood an empty chair.  Someone put a table down beside it. Two men struggled setting up a folding screen behind it. 

The table, the column holding up the roof, the chair were all carved into intricate patterns. As she went by the column she saw in the carvings the glimmer of gold. One hand on her arm, Nikola forced her forward, toward the chair. The men with the screen stood up straight suddenly, and the man with the table also, and toward them all came a woman.

Dinah stopped. The woman was no taller than she was but facing her Dinah felt much smaller. Pale eyes in a dark face. Her coat was sleek as spidersilk, lined with fur. On her head a fur cap. Her ears were rimmed and ringed with gold and around her neck were chains of gold. She stood with her head thrown back, as if she looked far off. Then she was turning toward Nikola, and he gave her first a sweeping bow and then embraced her, and Dinah saw this was his mother.

He said, “Girl, this is the Khatun Dokaz.” He spoke to his mother in another language, but Dinah heard her name.

She bowed. The Khatun said, “My son tells me you are a Jew.”

Her heart clenched. Now they would murder her. She lifted her face, eye to eye with the Mongol woman, and said, “Yes.”

“The Great Shaman began as a Jew. You are a favored people. I am honored to have you among us. Come and talk to me.”

Dinah went loose limbed. The Khatun waved Nikola away. She turned to the carved wooden chair and sat down. Dinah did not move. She pressed her hands together. The three-paneled screen behind the chair was painted with birds. Beside the chair was the small table, the top a shining panel of wood inlaid with loops and curls of gold. Someone brought over a gold tray with a pitcher and some cups and set it carefully on the table. There was a little chest next to the pitcher. Besides that, a tiny brazier on its own metal feet.  Dinah looked back wonderingly toward the woman in the chair, who smiled at her. The chair itself was carved and figured with metal and with jewels. Set into the high back was a silver medallion — she saw at once it was a map of the world.

“Idrisi,” she said. “That is Idrisi’s map.”

“It is.” The Khatun leaned toward her. “You recognize it? Tell me your name again.” She spoke slowly, carefully, as if the language were new to her.

Dinah cleared her throat. She wondered what she should say. “My name is Dinah, my lady. My father was Reb Moseh ben Maimon, of Baghdad –“

When she said that, suddenly, her heart burst, and she began to weep, not for herself, nor even her father, but for Baghdad, gone to dust. She put her hands to her face.