Sunday, February 15, 2009

The Simurgh and the Nightingale (Part 9)

Chapter 15 
Algiers. 6th June 1632

Catherine had washed and dressed slowly. It was this aspect of harem life in particular that she had embraced most. The emphasis on bathing and personal cleanliness was in stark contrast to the remembered smells and odours of the unwashed bodies of her Northern-European heritage no matter how much they had tried to disguise it with heavily scented perfumes. Once ready she left the female sanctuary by an ornately carved ebony door that opened into a narrow passageway that linked the harem with Ali Bitchnin’s living quarters. Seeing her enter, the eunuch Suleyman Agassi began to rise gingerly to his feet from the narrow divan that served as his guard-post for the corridor. She stopped him getting up and then quickly checked the bandages she had applied to his feet the previous evening. Tears welled in his eyes, but he said nothing. Behind them she could hear the children’s playful banter as they began their first lessons of the day.
Once satisfied with the eunuch’s wounds she continued along the passageway but instead of turning into the living quarters took the exit that led her out into the main courtyard. She saw that Suarez the surgeon was waiting for her. By now his wooden leg had been replaced with a gold and silver artificial limb of the highest craftsmanship possible. It even allowed articulation at the knee and thus he could walk with a step rather than dragging the amputated stump around in an arc. 
“Thank you for waiting for me, Antonio.”
Suarez was smiling warmly as she walked towards him. “It is my pleasure. Always Catherine. What is the problem?”
Catherine’s attention was momentarily captured by a dove landing in the courtyard and starting to peck for grain. It was oblivious to the attentions of the nearby kitchen cat. “Tell me something about the eunuchs.”
Suarez was surprised by the question but answered anyway. “In the past only their balls were taken, but it is said that one of the Sultans observed a gelding horse mount a mare, and also hearing of the rumours of the pleasures afforded by some of the eunuchs to the women of the harem he ordered that they be fully castrated, so that all that was left was as smooth as the back of one’s hand.”
Catherine still appeared lost in her thoughts and asked in a uninterested tone “How do they pisse? ”
“They carry a special quill in their turbans for the purpose.” Suarez paused for a moment. “However Catherine, interesting as this is, the urgency of your call had surely nought to do with eunuchs pissing.”
Catherine looked at him. “I am sorry Antonio. You are right. Please excuse my distraction.” She hesitated for a moment, before continuing, “I am with child. My terms did not come and the mornings have become filled with retching. I will not carry the putrid fruit of a rapist’s seed and need to be rid of it. In this area I have no expertise.”
Suarez noted the cold almost detached determination in her voice. “A surgical probe is a death sentence for many Catherine. I will not bear that responsibility.” He took her hand and guided her to one of the divans that lined the walls of this partially covered inner courtyard where Ali Binchnin conducted most of his meetings and audiences. 
Once seated Catherine said nothing for a long time as she continued to watch the stalking cat. When it looked as if the dove was in peril she rose and shouted, frightening it into flight. She turned back to Suarez. “You must, Antonio.”
He was unable to hold her intense gaze and began looking at the ground. “No Catherine. Even my eternal debt to you will not persuade me of that course.”
The dove had returned and landed nearby. The cat was once again instantly alert. “Then what am I to do?” Catherine suddenly began to cry, the hot tears of anger scorching down her cheeks.
“There is a tribal healer, that I know of, who has a great expertise in this area, particularly as you are early in the time. Suarez held her hand tightly.
“But his instruments . . . the dirt. I have seen some of those places with you . . .” Catherine went pale at the thought.
“His only instrument is his ambi’aq or distillation kettle. Trust me, Catherine. I would never put you in danger. Come, I must go into the city anyhow and we will go and see him. No time like the present.”
They began walking across the courtyard. From the shadows Ahmed emerged to fall in behind them. Catherine turned to him. “Ahmed please remain here. I will be safe with Surgeon Suarez.”
“I am sorry Lady Catherine, but where you go, I go. Ali Bitchnin is not to be crossed. In any event I am used to walking in my father’s shadow.”
“Your father, what do you mean?” She caught Suarez’s eye, as he moved forward to greet the lad, and as they embraced, he winked at her and shrugging his shoulders smiled - the smile of a proud man.
“Come on, Catherine, we must go before the market closes.” 
They left the inner courtyard of the seraglio and once in the outer yard mounted Suarez’s small carriage and made their way towards the bab-el oued. Behind them, unseen by the departing trio, there was a flurry of feathers as the cat pounced and captured its quarry. Catherine noted, as they drew near the gate, that the bodies of both sailors still hung on the hooks but that mercifully there did not appear to be any signs of life in the second of the two. There were a number of small groups of travellers and traders entering at the same time, all moving very slowly as they gazed silently up at the spectacle. Once inside the city they made their way to the main souk where after leaving the cart Suarez guided Catherine down a small alleyway. 
Ahmed kept his hand on his curved sword partially drawing it from its scabbard. The sword had been a present from Suarez and its beautiful double-edged blade was mounted into a silver handle with a two-lobed leaf terminal. It had been made in Konya in the reign of Keyhusrev II - the last of the great Seljuk Emperors of Rum. “It is a sword to die for,” Ahmed murmured to himself as he watched every shadow.
They eventually stopped outside a small shop. Entering the dark recess Catherine was amazed by the number of baskets holding dead insects of all descriptions. She recognised the locusts and the rare Cantharide beetle which appeared on the olive trees in Spring. Suarez had warned her not to remove her veil. Presently a tall man appeared from the back of the shop and Suarez spoke to him in Arabic. After a short time he retreated to the rear again. She could hear him pounding a mortar. He briefly reappeared to take a handful of dead insects from a small basket near the backdoor. Catherine shook as she whispered in Suarez’s ear and pointed to the baskets. He lifted the lid of one and selected out the desiccated body of a locust, inspecting it carefully on the palm of his hand.  “The man is Abu ibn ’Souik from the Aures Mountains. He is a shawiya practitioner and a disciple of Daud el Antaki. The Aures people see the locust as a magic cure in that it digests all plants and so some good must come out of it. The Cantharide beetles that you recognised, are collected in April, put in a bottle and buried in dung for forty days. The maggots that result are crushed into a paste which is reputed to prevent wound infections. Shh . . . he returns.”
The Berber handed over a package to Suarez and accepted two gold coins as payment. He bit their edges to check their authenticity and at the same time fixed Catherine with a stare. He kept staring at her as he gave instructions to Suarez. When finished she tried to thank him but he turned away abruptly. Without a further word she and Suarez walked back to the souk where Suarez handed the package to Catherine. “The root of madder you must place inside you. In about fourteen hours you will begin to bleed. Remove the root and take the second mixture which is comprised of carrot seeds and the crushed bodies of rimosa beetles. This will cause intense spasms and complete the process. Ahmed will return with you to Binchnin’s as I have to attend the Dey but I will call on you tomorrow.”

With that Suarez remounted his cart and made his way towards the castle at the very top of the hill. Catherine watched him go, clutching the package tightly against her stomach.

Chapter 16 
Algiers. 10th September 1632

Djivo and another man - a Turk wearing a brightly coloured tunic and elaborate turban - stopped at the small fountain near the edge of the batistan. market. The Turk picked up a ladle and filling it brought the liquid to his lips. The water tasted pure enough and he gave Djivo a smile before passing the ladle to him. Both of them were returning from a meeting with the Divan where the Turk - who as chehelbeled was the Alderman and City Engineer - gave a report of Djivo’s work in restoring the old Moorish well outside the city walls and the repair of its aqueduct into the city. They had also informed the Divan that Djivo had managed to source another underground water supply a short distance from the southern perimeter. The Dey was well pleased with his progress and the chehelbeled basking in the acknowledgement of his supervisory role invited Djivo to go with him to the best hamam in the city. This was attached to the han reserved for the caravans that brought gold from the interior.
On entering the door of the hamam, they crossed a small outer courtyard and entered the camekan or outer salon. Here they undressed in small cubicles and were handed towels and slippers by the attendants. They then entered the first chamber or sogukluk for about ten minutes of gentle warming before the searing moisture-laden heat of the inner hareret with its domed roof welcomed them. After about twenty minutes Djivo had enough of the heat and he was just about to leave when a large negro attendant approached and led him to a raised central platform. The man took away his towel and pushing Djivo face down, naked, onto the marble slabs began to massage him. He thought this to be very rough and every sinew touched protested. Just as he was about to cry out in pain, the assault stopped and he felt his body being washed in cool water. Djivo was allowed to sit up for a brief respite before the attendant returned and began rubbing a rich earth into his skin with a kese cloth. By now the pain had disappeared to be replaced by an exquisite relaxation. The earth was washed off and the final part of the whole process was a manipulation of all of his joints. 
Rising, as if on air, Djivo left the hot-room and was handed a dry towel as he made his way back to the camekan to sit in one of the cool alcoves to await the completion of his companions treatment. ‘For this alone,’ Djivo thought to himself, all his efforts with the aqueduct were worthwhile. Because it was September and the summer heat had not yet dissipated, large roof-mounted fans were continuously agitated by two small boys. Presently the chehelbeled joined him and they were served some sherbet. “Djivo you know that I have some responsibility in negotiating the ransom of slaves particularly those whose duties are assigned to the city.”
Djivo nodded cautiously. He had learnt to be very wary of the boastful Turk.
“Well, the Dey has informed me that there is a Spanish boat in the Roads flying the white flag and they have entered into negotiations. Apart from a pox-ridden Duke who has rotted here, unwanted for years, it appears that they are inordinately interested in your release and have offered a very generous ransom. The Dey assumed, rightly, that your work is not yet complete and informed the envoy that they should return next year. He asked me how long I felt it would take you to finish and I said about ten months depending on the Winter we get.”
Djivo’s heart sank at the news. “Did the monks have any other news for me?”
The Turk looked at him with a puzzled expression. “Monks what monks? This was not a Trinitarian ship. You are obviously a very valuable captive.”
It was Djivo’s turn to look bemused. “I am not sure what you mean Chelelbeled!”
“The ship carried the envoy of the King of Spain. One of the Calatrava Knights, no less. A brave man for an ifrir to enter the city on such an errand.” The Turk was aware of a sudden discomfort in Djivo’s eyes.
“Calatrava, are you sure ?”
The Turkish engineer stiffened at the question. “Of course, how dare you question it. Nitla’ barra. Where are my clothes?” The Turk abruptly stood up and began dressing. Djivo followed him, angry that his surprised response had caused a tension between them. Once dressed, and having paid the bath keeper his baksheesh, they left the hamam and began climbing the hill towards the bano. 
Djivo was deep in thought and he suddenly stumbled on a small step. At that very moment, as he put out his arms to break his fall, he saw a puff of smoke emitting from the shadows of a nearby cikmaz or cul de sac and almost instantaneously heard the retort and felt the scorching heat of something hitting his chest and throwing him backwards. Two of the chehelbeled’s escort - who had been waiting for them outside the hamam - immediately ran into the alleyway. There was another shot and the sound of shouting. Just as quickly it all went quiet and the two soldiers emerged carrying a dripping head. Djivo ignored this spectacle and struggling to his feet went to where the decapitated body lay. There were still spasms of movement and apart from some gold Spanish reals in the man’s pouch there were no papers of identification. By this time Djivo was coughing blood-stained sputum and he felt weak. His breathing became laboured and he barely made it back to the street before collapsing. The Turk knelt at his side. 
“Take me to Ali Bitchnin’s hospital, please,” Djivo whispered before lapsing into unconsciousness. 
The Turk nodded and immediately ordered his escort to take Djivo to Bitchnin’s bano. 

Once deposited in one of the small rooms of the hospital, Djivo recovered somewhat and was relieved to see Catherine coming in. For a moment he thought, before it all went dark again, her face showed the concern of a lover rather than that of a surgeon.
It was darker still when he awoke. He could not remember where he was but could only feel pain - its intensity made worse by moving and breathing. Djivo tried to suppress a cough but could not and cried out with the effort. An attendant rushed in carrying a lamp and he could hear voices in the courtyard. Catherine entered.
“You must try not to move. I will give you some more tincture.” Catherine spoke in Italian as she leant forward to give him a small cup to sip. She then lifted a lamp to check the bandages, pleased that there was no fresh blood staining them. To Djivo she had the face of an Angel.
“I must be in heaven . . .” Djivo murmured as he collapsed back on his pillow. Their hands touched.
“What did you say?” Catherine looked at him but did not withdraw her hand. She leant forward to hear him.
“You . . . I must be in heaven.” Djivo was smiling at her until another coughing spasm wiped it off. She smiled back. “Scoundrel. No more opium for you. Rest now and I will see you in the morning.” Catherine left, trying to hide her blushing face from the nursing attendants.

The morning could not come quick enough for either of them and when she saw him sitting up and taking some tea she laughed for the first time in what seemed an eternity. “You must have the constitution of an ox.”
Djivo looked up, she was wearing a flowing blue robe and was more beautiful than he had ever imagined. “Thanks to you . . . What happened?”
Catherine sat on the bed and began unwrapping his bandages. Once satisfied she remained there until the dresser had re-covered the wounds and left. He held out his hand and she took it, squeezing it gently. “The bullet passed through the apex of your lung and lodged in the shoulder blade. I was able to prize it out and thankfully there was very little air or blood lost from your chest.”
Djivo tried to bring his other hand forward but it hurt too much. “Catherine, I . . .”
“Shh . . . Djivo, later.” With that she leant down and kissed him, ever so softly on the lips. It was a kiss of promise, a kiss of kindred spirits without the need for explanation. She left him then and both had tears of joy welling in their eyes. 

©R.Derham 2001,2009

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