Heart Of The World – Snippet 19


They all slept on the floor of the hall; the men had blankets and carpets but Daud lay down on the stone floor. He was afraid to sleep, as always, but sleep came over him, and he saw the eyes again, floating in the dark. He sobbed, in his sleep.

Then someone touched him; he startled, but he only came partway out of the dream; he thought his mother had come to console him. She murmured to him, she wrapped him in her shawl. He fell into a deep sleep and dreamed no more.

In the morning when he woke, Rasul was beside him, and Rasul’s blue coat was wrapped around him. He leapt up, and went away; he had to piss anyway.

They prayed again. Rasul brought him a handful of dates and some bread. The other men stretched and laughed; they put on the mesh shirts they wore, and over that their blue coats, lapped right to left. They spoke together in that other language. They stood close together, bumped each other, gripped each other’s arms as they talked. One turned to Daud and held out a handful of dates, and when he hesitated, banged their fists together, nodding and smiling.

He ate many of the dates. He loved dates.

The other men went into the courtyard and Daud followed. They all had bows in their hands, and they lined up at one end of the courtyard, jostling each other into rows. Then by fives they stepped forward, still in a neat line, and each five lifted their bows and shot, in unison, like a dance.

At the far end of the courtyard, three sacks stuffed with straw hung from the wall. These were the targets. Swiftly, in rows of five, the men stepped forward, raised their bows in a single motion, and shot. The straw bags filled up with arrows. Daud stood there, intent, watching. He saw Rasul, among the last five, go up, lift his bow, and shoot, and Daud ran toward him, not thinking, his hands out.

The grey-bearded man laughed at him. “Yes, yes! Here. Take the bow.” He held out the bow and an arrow.

Daud did not know how to do this; he gripped the middle of the bow with his right hand, and Rasul laughed again. “No. Here.” The other men were watching.  One called out something in that other language. Rasul stood behind Daud and put the bow properly into his hands.

“Draw with your thumb, like this.” Rasul held up his right hand, the three lower fingers curled tightly to his palm, and his thumb and forefinger crooked.  Standing so close he brushed against Daud’s body and the boy stiffened, but the bow fascinated him. He lifted it, the arrow in the string, and tried to draw it. His arm shook with the effort but he could only move the string back an inch.

“Draw toward your mouth,” Rasul said. “Not your shoulder. Elbow straight back. Hold your left arm tight as you can. Try again.”

He struggled, barely moving the string. Rasul laughed again. His hand clapped roughly on Daud’s back and the boy jumped and the arrow flopped off to one side.

Everybody laughed. Daud gave Rasul a hard look and went off to get the arrow. Over and over he tried to draw the bow but he could not.

Back in the hall, Rasul brought him to a chest, and opened it, and took out clothes. These smelled like dust and mold. Rasul shook out some loose leggings; when Daud put them on the bottoms puddled on the floor. Rasul rolled them up, and they tucked the waist around Daud’s waist and cinched it with a sash. Next was a shirt, like the others, too big, so Rasul folded it to make it fit.

He said, “We fix.” He took a leather pouch out of his coat, held it up, and with a tweak of his fingers pulled on a thread coming out of it; a needle followed after the thread.  Quickly he stitched up the folded bottoms of the leggings. Daud stood, shivering, the touch abhorrent. When Rasul stopped to get more thread he ran away. He stayed far away from Rasul.

In a little while they saddled up and rode out of the fortress. They gave Daud a horse to ride, a little mare, the color of dark sandalwood. They rode fast and he had to struggle to keep up. That night, when he finally slid down from the horse, he could barely walk.

They were camped by a well, in the open, and the men sat close together around a little fire. Daud was fighting off sleep. He listened to the voices around him that he could not understand. One of the men put a coat around him. One by one, the others fell to sleep, or went off to walk guard, but Daud kept himself awake until Rasul had lain down, and he could tell the older man was asleep.

Then he went over behind Rasul, and lay down with his back to the other man’s back, and curled up. And then he slept.


Rasul showed him how to pick up the little mare’s feet, clean her neat round hoofs, and trim off the rough edge. When he tried to do this Daud’s knife slipped and he cut himself. Rasul swatted him. “Pay heed!”

Daud gave him a dark look, and Rasul hooted. “Oh, what a look, little man!” and knocked him flat.  “For that, go haul water for all of us!”

Daud brought water for a dozen horses, all the while hot as a blister. His hand hurt where he had cut himself. They went to prayers; he went through the whole up and down, up and down, the bowing, but his mind boiled against Rasul.

He thought he would run away. But there was nowhere to go.

He named his horse Friend, although he never said that aloud. Rasul gave him a bow of his own, with its own case, and some arrows. He slept against Rasul’s back but during the day he would not let him near him, and Rasul stopped trying. At night when the eyes came he bit his sleeve to keep from screaming.

Another man, big heavy bearded Boglu, brought him bread and honey. “Come here, I will help you sew your clothes. You look like a harem doll in that.”

Daud trembled. Sitting down cross-legged beside him, Boglu smiled at him, and made a gesture.

“I am helping you. Don’t be a fool.”

Daud swallowed. Boglu’s eyes met his, steady and mild. Daud made himself stand; Boglu had a needle, and he gathered up the waist of the leggings and made many small looping stitches. “Turn,” he said, twice, and Daud turned. Now the leggings hung better, not flopping around his ankles.

His needle moving, Boglu said, “I was a boy, I was sold. Perhaps older than you. Sold as a slave. I was nothing. But then God found me and made me a Mameluke.” He gave Daud a deep look. “So, you see. You have your fortune.” He paused, looking around, his brows lowering. “This is not where we belong, this scrubland. You should see Cairo. Trees everywhere, the river, the gardens. And so full of life. Bazaars. Good things to eat, and women.” He turned back to the waist of Daud’s leggings and made a knot. “The panther will get us back there.” He bit the thread. The panther was Baibers.

Daud pulled off the shirt, which draped him like a tent, took the needle, and fumbled with the cloth. Boglu took the side, and folded it over. “Here, see.  Just run a seam along here, and we’ll cut off the extra. You can make that into a belt.”

Daud pushed the needle in and out of the thin, slippery fabric.  Boglu said, “We can’t go back to Cairo now because Qutuz hates us. Qutuz is the sultan. He wouldn’t be sultan save for us, but he’s forgotten that.” He sighed. “I dream about Bahri. Here, ku?uk, you have to do better than that.” He took the shirt and pulled out Daud’s raggedy stitching.


In the morning there was the same thing, they prayed, they ate, they shot their bows. He tried to draw the bow again, and this time, he got the string to his chin. The arrow sailed off toward the target, dipped, and skidded on the ground.  All the men gave up jeers and jibes, but Rasul smiled wide in his beard. “Better. You are doing better.” Daud swelled, light with pleasure.


Since he could not understand the Mamelukes’ language, the way they acted spoke to him like talking. Their hands made their own words, asking for things, telling jokes. Stopped for midday, he watched two men bristling, standing closer together, their noses almost touching, so near when they shouted they sprayed each other.

Then suddenly they were standing back, stripping off their coats, their shirts. The others gathered up. Their voices rose. The two in the middle rushed at each other, wrapped their arms around each other, grunting and thrusting with their legs. The watching men whooped and screamed names and cheers, thumped each other on the back, clapped hands.