When the last sluggish bird spread its weary wings and took off from the heated vault of Shah-i-Zinda, Sirin had already forgotten the ominous dream, which had rung out in his head like the cries of a child weeping behind an invisible wall. It was the last day of July in the year 814 by Hegirae*, that same morning when he had opened his eyes and felt lit up on the inside as if he were a cavern ransacked by Barbarians. Even his heart had twitched with a hoarse wheeze for a moment, but the voices of the muezzins were already flying up from the mosques, calling for morning prayer, and he felt at ease, because he felt Allah was protecting him.
The sun was slowly reaching its zenith, but the streets and the squares of Samarkand were still cool. This coolness, coming from the gardens and the vineyards, from the channels crossing the town with their emerald waters, was what the Iranians, the Turks, the Maures, the Arabs, the Armenians, the Greeks and the Jews breathed in, in order to fill with their shrill cries the Sand Place or Registan, as they called the cloth market in the ancient part of town.
The crimson flannel, for which Samarkand was famous, the Chinese silk and the Indian brocades had been unfolded for a while, and Sirin was now enjoying the berries of the famous Sahibi grape, when a noisy throng of fakirs, sword swallowers, fire-blowers, alchemists and magic lamp sellers rushed into the square with gleeful monkeys on their shoulders. The monkeys were no bigger than a man's fist and looked as if they were made of ebony. The motley current of people was kicking up an inconceivable racket and was absorbing in its mass even the Babylonian crowd of merchants with caravans arriving from all known parts of the world. Sirin sprang out of his initial languor and started gathering the cloths closer to himself, following the instructions of his master, the famous medical man Mavlono Nefis. His master had slaves who wove the crimson flannel in warehouses not far from the fortified walls. "Be on your guard," the master had told him, "because those crafty thieves are always looking for ways to charm your eyes. Guard my stock well and you will see, one day I will reward you."
Not much after he was kidnapped from Syria and sold into slavery, when he was barely four years old, Sirin had begun to see in his master the will of Allah. And he thought that Allah was merciful, because he had seen half of the children bought in baskets at the slave caravan abandoned to die at night on the sand, children too weak already to have any value as slaves. And his master Mavlono Nefis appeared to him merciful too, because he seemed to see goodness and obedience in the young man, and he had promised to free him the moment Sirin had bowed and asked permission to get married.
The young Syrian never dared to look over the high walls of the yard beyond which were the women's quarters, as this was punishable by death. But he was always watching covertly the folds in the clothing under which the supple bodies of the women moved with tiny steps, as the holy book ordained, so as to prevent from jingling the jewels spread out like carpets on their invisible heavy breasts. Lust and desire ruled behind the walls of the palace and this worried him in the secrets of his dreams. He knew that at night, behind the high walls of the harem with its green glazed tiles, there were fights between the concubines, the stories of which the eunuchs told on the following day with tired voices. The women hated one another and were in constant war. Most often they would stalk the branded woman in her bath or in bed at night, when a few of the pack would pounce upon the victim at once and tear her hennaed hair, lacerate her lips and flay her shaved pubis until the blood started running.
The name of the woman was Yun Lien and it was a miracle that she came as a concubine in the harem of his master. Only once did Sirin manage to see her eyes: gathered in a stillness before him, while her delicate fingers and wrists twirled in the air in front of his face, writing the words that her lips were warbling in sweet snatches of sound. He stood in front of the hollowed out marble grating, amazed by the mysterious hold women could have over men, without being able to understand it and not daring to take delight in it. Thus, Sirin entered the world of a love which thickened his Syrian blood like a poison.
The Chinese were certainly in the possession of some secret art of love, unimaginable even by gods, because the master took such a strong liking to Yun Lien that she, and only she, began to sweeten his nights. The other women heard the master say more and more often to her: "You are to me like my mother's back." And these words brought deathly paleness over their faces, because that meant the door to the man's bedroom was forever closed to them.
Thus Yun Lien, whose destiny had made her a concubine, found herself in the middle of a violent storm. In addition to the bath fights at night, which took place in blank silence, torn only by the piercing screams of the parrots, twice they tried to poison her by sprinkling the melons she ate at lunch with juice from plant leaves known only to women. Her young body quivered with terrible cramps, while a mucous green liquid trickled from her mouth. The other concubines hoped it was her corrupt soul. But Allah evidently watched over the woman, and the master of Sirin decided to free her and allow her to marry his slave, because she was beginning to cause a terrifying rebellion in the harem. Sirin was already feeling grateful for his luck, when he lifted his head and met the eyes of Death.
She was walking around the market in Samarkand with a despondent look, obviously bored with the noise and the crowd. The sword swallowers did not impress her, and when one of the miniature monkeys tried to touch her red turban, Death squeamishly drew back. At that moment she turned her eyes and met those of the wretched Sirin. Without a word, she wagged her finger at him, and then vanished among the dancing fire-blowers. Sirin suddenly remembered the cries of the child, which reached out of his dream, and he was filled with the feeling of impending doom. The firm hand of despair grabbed at his throat, but he couldn't even cry, convinced that fate had given up on him.
At the same moment, through the big gate of Shir-Dor, the beautiful building with the lions, as they called the religious school in Samarkand, there appeared Mevlono Nefis. The master slowly climbed down the twelve stairs and walked across the market. His stately figure cut through the crowd of the market like a ship sailing through water. When he came closer to his slave, he looked at his face crumpled with misery, and asked if Allah had embittered his poor servant's days.
"I saw Death, master," Sirin cried fervently. He fell on his knees by the ornate robe of Mevlono Nefis.
"Get up, boy!" the master tried to raise him by the shoulders. "Every day we see Death and we feel neither better, nor worse for it. She only reminds us that we owe to Life."
"No, master, it was not like that," Sirin cried out. "She stopped and wagged her finger at me. After that she turned and disappeared."
Mevlono Nefis examined carefully the dark eyes of his slave. He could read there the hopelessness of a failing mind. Then he lifted his head to the sun, which had already reached its zenith, and sighed:
"What can I do for you, boy?"
"Give me a horse, master," Sirin suddenly warmed up, "and I'll run away, I'll go to Mossul."
"Mossul is far..." Mevlono Nefis replied, while watching the rills of sweat furrowing the dark skin of the young Syrian. Then he felt sorrow in his heart and lifting the rosary in his other hand, he blessed the poor slave and said: "Go, and may you find the road which is calling you..."
Sirin ran to the stable of his master and saddled the best horse. He gave a sad look to the walls that separated the women's quarters from the rest of the house and thought of Yun Lien, her yellow skin and promised caresses. "I will come back," Sirin swore to himself, because he was sure Yun Lien's caresses would keep him forever on this side of the ridge of life. Today he only had to run away from Death. And he started to gallop down the hill to Mossul with all his might.
The horse's hoofs were throwing sparks on the cobblestone road of Samarkand and their clinking sound disturbed the age-long dream of the mausoleums, the cool stone chambers of victorious death. And when Sirin came close to the last gate, the people preparing for the noon prayer scuttered away under the porch of the mosque, scared by the hurrying rider. He galloped by the vineyards, the gardens and the channels around the blessed town, and soon he could see in front of him only the deserted, white road to Mossul.
Sirin was riding and thinking of Yun Lien. He knew, he was sure that Mevlono Nefis would grant him his slave and that the woman would illumine his days with those caresses that destine a man to strength and taste for life. He imagined her gentle breasts, formed with a sculptor's hand on her young olive skin, and he could hear her voice in his ears, her short words flying off like the sounds of a small brass bell. He thought of his future family, of which he dreamed in his lonely nights, the two sons he would have, strong and hard like stone, with dark skin and ardent eyes. His family would be like that, like the family he vaguely remembered from his childhood, before the slave merchants took him away.
The mane of the horse curled with the wind and its heart beat in time with Sirin's heart. He never stopped to rest in the fig forests, which every now and then appeared on the side of the road. It was near dusk, the wonderful Arabian horse was starting to gasp and the curb-bit was rattling fiercely between its large teeth. Sirin's eyes were burning from the salt of his sweat, and perhaps from the tears he shed for Yun Lien, but he wouldn't close them even for a moment, waiting to see the towers of Mossul in the distance.
In the meantime, in front of the stairway of the Shir-Dor school, Mevlono Nefis stood face to face with Death, who was still walking around the market with a bored expression, and he asked her:
"What have you done to my slave? Why did you scare him so much that he had to beg me for a horse and try to flee as far away as Mossul?"
Death, who was unconcernedly observing the copper towers of the mausoleums, grown blue with the humidity of the air, replied without turning her eyes:
"I didn't do anything to him, I just reminded him of our meeting tonight in Mossul..."
*Hegirae, "migration" – the night before 26 July 622 AD is the beginning of the Islamic calendar
Vesselin Stoyanov (Bulgaria) was born on the 13 April 1957 in Kazanlak, Bulgaria. He graduated from the University of Plovdiv and works as a correspondent for the national 24 Hours newspaper in his home town.He is the author of short stories, essays, plays and screenplays. His book Forgotten Settlement With God won the Bulgarian Chudomir Foundation prize. In 2008 his first novel Autopsy of the Corpse won the annual prize of the Union of Bulgarian Writers.