Heart Of The World – Snippet 08
In The Ordu of the Il-Khan
Dinah ached, her whole body a single burning pain, her bottom half ripped and ruined. Lying on the hard ground in the dark she shivered, thinking she might be pregnant. Some horror growing in her.
No matter. They would kill her soon. They would kill them all soon.
She had always been the one to care for others. She had always had that power. Now she needed care and no one. No one.
She cried, lying on the ground. Around her, the others cried. On the far side of the room a woman called out, “No — No –“
It was not happening now. It had happened before, outside. They would kill them all soon. She had seen them killing all the people, even the children. The babies. Broken like loaves of bread.
She had lost her mind then, gone mad, or partway died, she remembered nothing, only waking, here in the dark among so many others. Her body throbbed. Torn open. No seed could flourish there. Pray to God no seed would take there.
She cried again, hopeless, wanting to die.
Instead they came and made her stand up. Short men, stocky, narrow eyes. Skin like leather. One nudged her. “Hey. Christian? Christian?” He poked her breast, laughing. “Christian?” She plodded on, uncaring now, it was not her body now.
Then hands pushed a cup of water into her hands. She grunted. The inside of her mouth puckered. She had not known how thirsty she was. She lifted the cup and drank.
She was outside, in a street. Smoke drifted by her. The wall before her was broken in. With a dozen other women she stood on the pavement, with horsemen all around her.
The hands took the cup. The man behind them gave her a bowl full of a tasteless gruel.
They were all eating. The other women. She saw their rags and clutched at her own dress, torn from the waist down. Stiff with dried blood against her legs. Their hair wild and frizzy, and she lifted her hand to her hair, matted and crusted with dirt.
A short brown man on a horse rode in among them. “Listen to me! All you women. You are spared because you are Christian. The Khatun Dokaz herself has gone before her lord the Khan and begged for your lives. Thank God for this.”
Dinah shivered. He was looking straight at her as he said this. She said, “I am not Christian.”
The horsemen were moving them all toward the gate, herding them along like sheep. The man before her shifted his horse to block Dinah’s way. “Someone said you were, or you would not be here.” He spoke stilted Arabic. In his broad dark face his teeth suddenly gleamed. “Maybe better you are, so?”
She said, “I am not a Christian.” She was crying again. That was all she had left. She would not lie to save her life. She said, “I am a Jew.”
He said something under his breath in his own language. The horse sidestepped, restless, the other women were filing off, and the countless riders all around them, out the broken gate. She thought, I will not leave Baghdad. Die here. She felt comfort in that.
The Mongol rider said, “I’m tired of killing people. I say you are a Christian. Go with them.” He reined his horse around and rode away.
They trudged on after the army, their little band of women among hundreds moving, masses of people and animals going on across the plain. There were seventeen of them, a few young girls, one old woman, the rest of middle years. The horses ahead of them kicked up a dust that yellowed the sun. After them came a train of carts. Dinah thought they were crossing fields, put under for the winter, but nothing grew here now. The ground beaten to flour. They came to a canal and had to wade it. The carts took longer to get across and fell behind them. Horsemen trotted busily up and down, swerving past them, but paid no heed to them, except to bring water and food.
The other women watched her. One said, “She’s not one of us. You heard her.”
She pretended not to hear them but the skin crawled on the back of her neck. The Mongols brought them bowls and a jug, and she licked her lips, hungry.
She stood back. They were passing the jug, full of the thin clear stuff the Mongols drank, that tasted like sour milk. She waited until they were all done, and sipped up the little left in the bottom.
That night they slept on the ground. Before dawn the horsemen roused them up and started them off again. Soon after the old woman sat down where she stood, and they all walked on and left her there.
Dinah turned to look over her shoulder; in the dust the woman was a disappearing lump on the plain behind them. She thought, I could do that. Escape like that.
The Mongols fed them all more of the sour milk, bread, a handful of figs. She thought of Persephone, but she ate it all.
The days blended together. A horseman brought her a blanket — she thought he might be the same man who had talked to her in the ruins, young, a round face, high cheekbones, slits for eyes. The other women would not let her eat with them. One shoved her away and another threw stones at her.
The flat ground was rising, and ahead, hills lifted from it, long ridges like waves they walked along the valley between them. During the day she wrapped her blanket around her like a skirt and at night she curled up beneath it. The other women spat at her. They tried to keep her from getting any food at all.
They came out of the valley onto a broad grassland, stretching off long to the horizon. From the height of the pass she looked out to what seemed the edge of the world. Great herds of horses grazed on it but the enormous sky made them seem little. There were no clouds. The wind ruffled along the hillsides, turning over the grass in waves.
A dozen riders came up to the women, and with their horses herded them all together, as if they were sheep. Dinah hung back, wary of the other women, until a horse struck her from behind and bumped her forward into their midst.
The tall woman wheeled and slapped her. She turned to the horsemen and shouted in Arabic, “Take her away! She is not one of us, you heard her — the dirty Jew! Take her away!”
The horse behind her brushed up against her again. She turned, trying to escape, and the rider got her by the arm and hoisted her like a child up in front of him. He slung her across his saddlebows, face down. She clutched at the air, at the horse, at the stirrup by her shoulder, and the horse bounded forward and she was sailing off along with it, the grass sweeping by her, a foot from her nose.
They stopped, abruptly, in front of a round tent. The Mongol lifted Dinah by the arms and slid her down feet first to the ground. He shouted something; his horse backed a few steps away from her. It was that same boy, she thought, who had first spoken to her in the church.
In front of the tent was a two-wheeled cart. Three women stood there, their arms full of cloth and boxes, staring at them. When the Mongol boy shouted again, one turned, set her load of boxes down, and came up toward Dinah.
Dinah backed away; she could not stop herself. The woman stopped. She spoke to the Mongol, who answered her with a shrug and some words. Turning back to Dinah, she said something in another language, and then, suddenly, in Arabic, “You want water? To wash.”
Dinah’s mouth fell open. She said, “Yes, please.”
The Mongol boy galloped off. The woman — lanky, a lean face, a gap tooth in the middle of her mouth — brought out a basin of water. The other two were younger, maybe her daughters. They stood watching her; when she looked up one smiled and nodded and made sweeping motions toward her face. Dinah set the basin on the tail of the cart. Bending over it, she washed her face, and the water turned to mud.