By Joan Kerr
Harun al-Rashid, Mighty Defender, Kylix of Justice, was overcome by an unaccustomed fear as he looked into the eyes of the unknown woman who demanded his life. By what sorcery had she put into his hand the Black Pearl that said he must bring her the head of the Caliph Harun al-Rashid himself? He looked too at the seven silent figures sitting, in a semicircle around her, but none raised its head to meet his eyes.
“What offence of the Caliph has provoked your hatred, Princess?” he asked, searching her face for any sign that she had penetrated his disguise.
A light flamed in the fathomless eyes and she raised her slender arm, its gold and silver bracelets sending splinters of light into his eyes.
“Know,” she said, “that these seven men are my brothers. The first, as you see, is blind.”
The first man raised his face and with a shudder al-Rashid stared into two dead caverns where the flame of life should burn.
“The second is speechless.”
The second man opened his mouth and al-Rashid saw a raw, jagged stump where the living tongue should lie.
“The third, deaf.”
The man dropped his saffron hood and al-Rashid saw two deep scars where ears
“The fourth has no hands.”
Two bony stumps shrivelled into clubs lifted from the saffron folds.
“The fifth, no body below the waist.”
And the Caliph saw for the first time that the man was a torso only, balanced on the marble floor.
“The sixth has no heart.”
Drawing aside his robe, the ghastly figure displayed a deep bloody cavern where the living heart should beat.
“And my seventh brother, dearer to me than all the rest, has no head.”
Slowly the last saffron-clad figure raised its arms and, letting the fabric fall, disclosed a bloody neck with its vessels still throbbing as if the head had been cut off this very minute.
“These are terrible sights, Princess,” said al-Rashid, “and I weep for you and your brothers. But what has this to do with Haroun al’Raschid?”
As he spoke the name, thunder broke out around him and a dreadful thin wailing started up from the seven figures before him. The Princess flung her hands to her head and cried out, “Slave of the Thunder, speak truth.” The thunder died down as the sound from a beaten brass gong slowly fades into one long note, and in that one long thunderous note Al-Rashid heard, “His head to avenge the Seven Brothers. Fail not, Princess of the Lost.”
In the silence that followed the dying away of the terrible voice, al-Rashid dared to ask, “Who is it that summons you, o Princess?”
Bending low to the ground, she answered, “I serve the Slave of the Thunder, bringer of vengeance. Do as I command, stranger, and you shall have me and all my wealth. Fail, and you shall die at my brothers’ hands.”
“But how shall I know Harun al-Rashid? It is said that he goes under many guises and none but the most trusted know his true face.”
“By his eyes,” she answered. “You shall know him when you look into the eyes of a man who knows you, what you are and why you have come to him. And he will offer no resistance to your sword, for he knows whose messenger you are. Now go, and come back to me after seven nights, bearing his head.”
His fear was fading as the boat carried him secretly along the Tigris towards the palace. Surely he had little to fear from the brothers. How could he fear a blind man, a man with no hands, a man who was a torso only, a man with no head, a man with no heart? The deaf brother, perhaps, or the speechless brother, might do him harm, but he had never yet met a man who could equal him with the sword and why should they fare any better? They were as nothing compared to the passion that burned within him as he saw again the shadowy turquoise eyes under the exquisite slanting brows, the fall of midnight-blue hair, the rich treasure of the body ripe for a Caliph’s plundering. And yet he hesitated, as the deep vibration of thunder went throbbing through his vitals, and he stumbled as he stepped from his boat, as if the lifegiving air had thinned around him.
He was deep in thought as he entered his garden. In the golden light of dawn his fountains tossed silver coins of water into the air and the marble walks threw off a silky sheen. Brilliant birds were flitting from tree to tree sampling the rich red pomegranates and in the distance rose the curved cupolas of his palace, flashing gold back to the rising sun. Yet this beauty could not please his heart or soothe his raging senses or halt the ceaseless spirals of his mind as he cast about for an answer to the deadly riddle. He might perhaps deceive the maiden by presenting her with the head of another man, but how could he deceive the vengeful spirit that demanded his life in payment for crimes that were not his?
Before the great entrance doors stood a fountain carved from a single block of jade. He loved to gaze into its green depths and splash its verdant water over his hair and beard. But as he stooped to the fountain, in its waters his eyes met those of another man. With a gasp he stepped back, then crept forward and looked again. At first he thought he saw a stranger, then as a shallow ripple skimmed the surface of the water he saw his own face. He both knew and did not know himself. He clutched the smooth-milled edge of the fountain as he felt the water ripple through him, felt his face change to the face of a stranger, and in the distance he heard a low humming like approaching thunder.
“Harun al-Rashid,” he chanted aloud like the warrior he was, “no man on earth, no creature of the other world do you fear. Slave of the Thunder, I show my face to you.” And he tore away the covering he had wound about his head. “Do you not see who I am? What have you to do with Harun al-Rashid?” For he was a mighty man and accustomed to seeing even the afreet cower before him. But to his bravado there no response. He felt nothing, heard nothing but the wind whipping the unwound silk of his turban. Delving deep into his pocket he drew forth the black pearl and plunged it into the green depths of the fountain. “Slave of the Thunder,” he shouted again, “show your face if you dare.” The water surged into furious rills where the pearl had fallen so that the stranger’s face that was his own face was broken into dark fleeting flecks, and when it settled he saw nothing but the green sides of the fountain shimmering through still water. Of the pearl there was no sign.
He was ill at ease as he sat at his banquet that evening. In vain did his favourite caress him, in vain did the cithars and the dulcimers sound. He longed to feel again the dark shape of the pearl weighed in his hand. He longed like a sick man for the moonlit garden of the Princess of the Lost. Dismissing the servants, he went alone to his chamber and, stretching out on his couch, fell instantly into a waking sleep in which he saw a man in a saffron cloak come softly into his chamber and hold out two bleeding stumps where hands should be. As he watched, hands formed on the ends of those stumps. The figure clasped its hands in front of his heart, bowed low, and was gone. Sitting up, he found his own hands were dripping with blood, and in his palms lay the black pearl.
As dawn broke he summoned his vizier, Yahya, and to him unburdened his heart.
“I am a good man,” he said, “and rule justly. Why should I dream that my hands are drenched in blood?”
Yahya bent his face to the ground and was silent for a long time. Then he said, “Harun al-Rashid, mightiest of men, the blood of thousands is on you.”
The words echoed in al-Rashid’s ears like a stroke on a great brass gong, and he clutched his head, maddened by the long drawn-out note. His hand fell to the hilt of his sword, and without knowing what he did he drew the sword and held it over Yahya’s bent head. The old man lifted his head to look calmly into his master’s eyes, and, ashamed, he let the sword fall. Without trusting himself to speak, he pointed to the door. He sat for a long time in silence looking at the unfamiliar bony hands that lay in his lap.
At nightfall he went again to the garden. Dismissing the guards, he stood by the jade fountain with the black pearl in his hands, and again he challenged,
“Slave of the Thunder, show your face to me if you dare.”
He bent over the waters of the fountain and there he saw the face that was his and not his. Slowly he lowered the pearl into the water, and as before it broke into furious ripples, breaking apart the image until there was nothing but sheer water. Of the pearl there was no sign. That night in his waking sleep he saw the blind man enter his room, and as he watched the bottomless hollows began to shine fitfully, like water, until the man stood fixing two clear eyes on him. As before, the figure clasped its hands, bent in obeisance and was gone. When he sat up on his pillows and put his hands to his eyes he found them streaming with tears. In one hand was clutched the black pearl.
As night flowed into night, the strange ritual went on. Every morning brought a new change in his body – another man’s hands, another man’s eyes, another man’s ears, and another man’s tongue so that his speech sounded thick and foreign to him. His gait, that had been lithe and muscular, became stilted, and he seemed to watchers to drag one foot a little.
As the seventh day dawned, he woke with another man’s heart, a heart that burned and raged against the unjustices of the rule of Harun al-Rashid. He saw the faces of the poor, who begged for bread while courtiers spurned the choicest meats. He saw young girls scooped up carelessly for his harem, and the tears of their helpless parents. He saw the sword falling on the necks of the ignorant and those unlucky in the game of life. And he said to himself, that night Harun al-Rashid must die. Gladly would he deliver the head to the Princess, though now he had little thought for the reward she had promised him.
As night fell he stood once more by the fountain. Once more he called on the Slave of the Thunder, once more he placed the black pearl into the swirling water. When the water cleared and he saw the face of al-Rashid looking back at him, he drew his sword and cleaved the water, once, twice, till it was red with blood and he could see no more. When he awoke the next morning after a sleep like death he held in his hands his own bloody head. In the mirror he saw a stranger’s face.
Muffling himself in a dark cloak, he kept to his room all through the long day, burning for night to cover the earth. As the crescent moon rose in the blueblack sky he made his way to the garden of the Princess and her Seven Brothers. There by the rippling music of the pool he saw her, clothed in silvery garments that flashed back the light of the moon, and beside her sat six strong men. In silence they watched as he approached with his bloody bundle.
“Princess, I have done as you commanded,” he said, laying the bundle at her feet. “I bring you the head of Harun al-Rashid.”
“Do you claim the reward?” she said, and her voice was like the murmuring of deep waters in the caverns of the earth.
“I claim it.”
“What man are you, stranger? Tell me your name.”
“I have no name.”
And it seemed to him that he walked in foreign places and sailed unknown seas, that he wept the death of children he had never had and the lost embrace of women he had never met. He felt the winds beat him as he rode at the prow of a ship, he felt the desert’s dry breath tear his throat, he lay in bitter snow with a black mountain above him. He felt the blows he had dealt – had he dealt them, or healed them? – to the seven brothers. From the veiled head that lay before him there rose a figure, and there before him stood the seventh brother, with the face of Harun al-Rashid.
He bowed before the terrible face, pressing his palms together as the low hum of coming thunder filled his ears.
“Slave of the Thunder, Soul of the Mighty,” he said, “I have done as you asked. Now let me go.”
Harun al-Rashid, the familiar stranger, stretched out his hands.
“Stay with me, brother,” he said.
“I have taken your burden, I have given you mine,” said the man with no name.
With that, he rose and left the garden, and there was none to stop him on his pathless way.
Copyright 2012 Joan Kerr (Australia)