My local writers group set us a 200-word piece, ‘down but not defeated’, to coincide with the anniversary of the re-sinking of the ship Rainbow Warrior, and our NZ defeat of the America’s Cup. The piece is due Nov 2nd. I still am uninterested in the nautical theme, and while pondering how to give it a twist, came up with this … forgive me …
In a desert kingdom long ago, a tribe living within a walled settlement was governed by a Khan of a most humorously malicious demeanor. He ruled strictly, governing every aspect of his people’s lives. His people respected his justiciary decisions, while wrong-doers feared his punishment.
No sinner was humiliated by being paraded through the market-place, targeted with rotten produce, or through the town naked. Nor did he impose capital punishment: no beheadings, no spearings, no hangings.
Yet there was a gallows in the town, atop a pyramid of stone steps before his palace’s grand entrance, tall enough so the Khan, standing at his doors, could look the criminal in the face. The one being hung – a criminal of the worst – would be tied up by his feet, his head hanging level with the Khan’s. There he would remain, unwatered, unfed – in the chill of the desert night and the bake of the day’s sun, skin peeling and withering as fluid sweated from his body. Daily, the Khan would come to the doors, and talk to the hung man, who could end his discomfort by a simple confession and a renewed oath of loyalty and obedience to the Khan. His misery would end quickly, with one swift sweep of the Scimitar through the ankles, dropping the reformed sinner to the ground, to be given the best of herbal remedies and searing of blood vessels, ever more to live as a cripple with a suitable honest trade.
In spite of the Khan’s justice being well known, some citizens still turned to trickery or thievery to earn their livelihood. One young thief, Abi Tisankh, was a pickpocket – the quickest in the city. Abi one fine day spotted an unusual thing- a palace handmaiden, in her finery, out in the marketplace unaccompanied by any male to guard her honor. Abi saw she carried a large pouch, and watched her draw a bulging coin purse from it when she made a purchase.
He moved close, close, closer, until he had the chance to reach quietly, quickly, his hand into the pouch to remove the purse. Aiee! The button on his cuff caught her veil, pulling it from her face. Now his crimes were doubled – from theft to exposing a woman in public. But he was smitten by her beauty.
She in turn, shocked and ashamed to have her face seen by all, was struck by his handsome good looks. It was instant and mutual love.
“Forgive me, maiden,” whispered Abi. “I wanted your purse only, not your honor. I am Ali, and I think I am now in love.”
“I am shamed,” she replied, whispering hastily as she could see palace guards approaching. She wondered why Abi did not run. “You need to go, Abi, quickly. Give me back the purse, so I may be avoid punishment for losing mistress’s money.”
Abi tossed it to her, turned to run – too late. He was firmly grasped by two burly, brawny guards, and dragged off to the palace. The young maid called after him,
“I am Latishah! Ask for me to speak at your hearing!” And she rushed to complete her messages and hurried back to the palace and her mistress.
At Abi’s hearing in the Khan’s weekly court, it was told how he had picked a coin purse from a palace servant’s pouch, and had dishonored her by pulling her veils for her face.
“Speak, thief and lech,” commanded the Khan. “Bad enough to steal a palace purse. Worse, to dishonor a palace maidservant”
“May I ask for the maidservant to speak for me, your Highness, oh wise and loving Khan,” Abi looked boldly into the Khan’s eyes, which was not correct protocol in the court. The Khan took no offense. Indeed, he wondered if perhaps this young thief did have some redeeming point which deserved to be heard.
“Who is she whom you wish to have speak for you?” he asked (knowing full well, as court scribes had made a list of all who were involved in the crime).
“Thank you, Lord. I believe her name is Latishah.” And so, for the first time in this Khan’s court, a woman was permitted to enter to speak.
“Tell your Khan what you will of the crimes of this young man,” the Khan said gently (for he obeyed the faith and honored all women).
“The purse snatching was gently done, hurting me not at all, Lord. The removal of my veil was an accident caused by a cuff button. The thief, Abi, at once apologized for unveiling me. I do not believe him to be an evil thief, just a young man trying to make a living in the only way he knows yet. Perhaps, Lord, with your gentle wisdom, you could find a place among the palace staff in which he could earn an honest living?”
The Khan had watched her closely as she spoke, and his cleverness gave him more knowledge than Alishah had intended. He noticed Abi had fixed his eyes on Alishah all this time, but without any lascivious intent.
“You are in love with this Abi,” he stated. “Abi, you are in love with Latishah.”
“Yes, great Lord,” Abi declared quietly.
“Your Highness is correct, Lord,” Latishah modestly whispered.
“The second crime is a serious one, however,” the Khan insisted, “and must be punished. Guards, take Ali to the gallows.”
Latishah whimpered softly.
“Worry not, young maiden,” the Khan had more words for the court. “Abi removed the veil by accident, and apologized. He knew and still knows that a maiden’s virtue is sacred. It was a slip of the fates. I have more to consider in private on this matter.”
And so Latishah returned to her duties, silently sobbing inside for worry of what would befall Abi. Abi was taken out of the palace entrance, down its stairs and up the steps of the gallows pyramid. He did not struggle, nor hang his head to avoid the eyes of the public watching. The guards were impressed with his quiet acceptance of his fate, although neither dared utter this aloud.
The ropes were bound around his ankles, and the hangman cranked the turn wheel to lift Abi above them all. And so his upside down nights and days began.
Over six days, the Khan visited Abi every morning. On the fourth day he began to also visit in the evenings. After the customary questioning about his crimes, and the offer of a Quick death or a crippled lifetime, the Khan began to question young Abi about other matters.
He learned Abi had not always been a thief, but had spent his early days in the school room of his father, learning to read and write, to count and record figures. Ali had, after finishing his learning, would help his mother at her weaving stall, at which they sold her small but charming woven goods such as pouches, bags, cushions or babies’ bedding.
“How, then, did you become a thief?”
Abi told how in the year of the grey sickness, both his parents had died of the painful gut twisting sickness that had come ashore with fruits from another country far away.
“I thought the country – four weeks sailing distance – would have been too far for the fruits to still be safe to eat. I made my parents angry by refusing to eat any with the grey on them. My parents said they could not afford to waste scarce money by throwing the fruit to the monkeys. Mother cooked it, and they would eat it. But I was stubborn.
I came home from tending Mother’s stall, and found father already dead on his bed, and mother dying, kneeling at his side and weeping. She died that night.”
“The Gods gave you great hardship. How old were you?”
“I was eleven years, Lord.”
“What did you do?”
“If your Highness remembers, there were palace staff charged with collecting bodies, and burning the houses in which the grey death had wrought such tragedy”
The Khan nodded, and turned back inside.
Over the next few visits, the Khan posed problems for Abi to solve: numeric calculations, papers to read aloud. Secretly, he sent a guard each night out to Abli with water, and cooked meat.
On the evening of the sixth day, there was the usual public crowd around the pyramid, the hangman and the blade man standing at the gallows, and the Khan’s guards edging the terrace at the palace entrance. The Khan at last stepped outside, with Alishah following him, close to tears. The crowd went down to their knees and bent their foreheads to the ground. On the Khan’s wave of greeting, they arose, to listen and watch.
“This young thief has been a thief by force of unfortunate happenings. Who among you lost a loved one by the grey death, some years ago? Ali here, at only eleven, lost his parents. Picking chances at wealth was his trade only perforce. For this reason, I, your Khan, decree he will not be permitted a quick death – indeed, he has not begged for it. He has convinced me he knows well how wrong his life has been, how unworthy was his unveiling a maiden.
And so he will be cut down, and will marry the young woman he insulted. He will work within the palace, as a scribe.”
The crowd waited for the Khan’s signal to the blade man gripping his scimitar firmly, ready to cut through bone, sinew, flesh and blood in a single swoop, precise and clean through both ankles.
As expected, the Khan held his forearm horizontally across his chest to indicate the path of the blade – but did not nod in command to the blade man. Firstly he raised his forearm, still flat across, above his head then nodded.
The blade man fully understood – he swept the blade across, in the horizontal path indicated, but – above Abi’s feet, slicing only the rope. Abi tumbled to the pyramid’s platform, and down it’s many steps to the ground. The Khan nodded to Alishah, and she ran down the palace steps to reach Abi, and hold him tight.
He was down, but not de-feeted.
Terrible, isn’t it. But, “such fun!”