Angel of Babylon
Looking out over the desert revealed a clear and cold morning. The nearby hills ambered by the sun’s early rays. There was the track, leading off into the distance, and everywhere else was sand and rock. It was all very pretty. To Lawrence it looked dangerous.
‘It’s the wires. All I notice are the bloomin’ wires.’
“Ali, I bid you; help the men with the wires.”
Ali obeyed and nodded back at blond Lawrence with his smoldering Kohl-darkened eyes. Ali pried open his Webley. The gun-metaled blue cylinder, as smoke-stained as his teeth, was full of bright brass bullets. He clicked it shut.
That was the problem with cold desert mornings. The insulation on the wire stiffened and gave away its position in the sand, bending up here and there. The two Turkish look-outs riding on the cow-catcher would certainly notice. Then they’d trace the wire straight to the detonator. That would never do.
It seemed a travesty to break the morning desert silence with an oversized explosion of TNT. Like setting off a bomb in a cathedral. But trains are so heavy and mechanical and stuffed with troops. A few well-placed pounds of explosive could make them go wrong. There’s was nothing else to be done.
Metal parts would fly every which way and litter the pristine desert. Now it was like a dry slice of heaven, beautiful, contemplative, even spiritual. In mere seconds it would be the smoke and flames of Turkish Hell.
Such a mistake to break the silence! A horrid sin, really.
Mustafa, lying near the track, had his ear to the rail.
He stood up and reflected the brilliant blade of his Rinocerous-horn dagger in the sun. Ali acknowledged the flash.
“It’s coming, Aurens, it’s coming.”
Lawrence screwed the brass contacts down, pinching the copper wires methodically, one at a time.
Smoke appeared in the distance.
He raised the plunger. The mechanical steaming monster drew nearer, belching smoke and sparks into the azure sky. The terrible weight of its’ metal, verbally assaulting the tracks. Roaring like a hungry lion. Grinding and clattering over the spaces, rendering rhythm from the iron beneath it’s weighty wheels. Screaming with its whistle, rounding the bend, racing towards an appointment-- in Paradise.
Like in Death came to Bagdad, the tale from a wandering Sufi.
Instead, Death would come to a stretch of sand miles from the Wadi Safra, at the bidding of a man from a cold green island in the North Sea, at the hands of lowly Arab who meant less than nothing to the troopers of Ottoman Turks outfitted with Austrian armaments.
Hook-nosed dark Ali. Eyes-like-a-hawk, Ali.
Death has a sense of humor.
The dunes hung dangerously close like pale yellow desert-blown shrouds, tiny pins piercing their seams and shadows. Hardly noticeable really, in the early morning light.
And everyone of those pins? A tribesman’s rifle, bearing down on its target with terrible pressure, predicting the newborn should know only death. Newborn into Paradise, again and again. Praise be to the warrior who has a sharp eye and a steady hand and shows no mercy to his enemies.
The monster was breaking the silence itself.
The men readied their guns.
Lawrence was taught manners in Surrey.
“Here, Ali," he said deferentially. “It’s your turn.”
Ali moved his hands from under the folds of his kaftan and rubbed them together like an expectant child and smiled with a gleam in his eye, singing softly in the still desert air,
“Down goes the plunger!”
The noise! Iron rails twisted and smoked. The engine lifted into the heavens. Confusion and chaos reigned supreme. The men broke cover. Rushing the stunned and blackened Turks, their uniforms still smoking, the men plundered and robbed the train from one end to the other.Within minutes they disappeared back into the desert, their pockets stuffed fat with worthless Ottoman piasters and livres, and valuable boxes of Murad cigarettes.
Ali, reporting to Lawrence, showed him a gold Cartier lighter he took from an officer.
“ Besides this, there wasn’t enough gold to fill a tooth.”
“Then we’ll pay the men at Acaba.”
Acaba was a complete success. They had a port and a bridgehead, extending the line of supply. How they loved Acaba. One success was followed by another. Seasons changed and the men returned to their farms and flocks. Lawrence and Ali hid out in the caves near Derah with a few followers and lieutenants, bored out of their minds, waiting for the weather to change, and with it, the resumption of hostilities.
Ali paced restlessly back and forth.
Lawrence read a ancient battered copy of the Times from the third of April, 1895. The Crown vs Wilde, something related to Oscar Wilde having an affair with the son of the Count of Queensbury, Alfred Douglas. Under his breath he whispered, “... and Gomorrah.”
“ Ali, you miss home don’t you?”
“Of course I do, don’t you?”
“I’m not comfortable there. I feel stifled, restricted. They don’t much care for men like me. They passed laws against us years ago.”
“We’re both going crazy here. We need to get out.”
“I agree, I’m going to Derah,”
“Don’t talk foolishly. Your Arabic is good and your skin has burnt many times in the sun, but your eyes will give you away.”
Then they’ll have to assume I’m Circasian.”
“You may pass for a Circasian man. You’re certainly not pretty enough to pass as one of their women.”
Lawrence agreed. He’d read Byron’s Don Juan, in which the tale of a slave auction is told. He quoted:
“ For one Circassian, a sweet girl, were given,
Warranted virgin. Beauty's brightest colours
Had decked her out in all the hues of heaven.
Her sale sent home some disappointed bawlers,
Who bade on till the hundreds reached the eleven,
But when the offer went beyond, they knew
‘Twas for the Sultan and at once withdrew.
- Don Juan, canto IV, verse 114“
Ali, the desert fox,Oxford-educated Ali quoted back,
“I’ll do you one better Aurens, and farther back than that.
The legend of Circassian women in the western world is at least as old as 1734. That’s when, in his Letters on the English, Voltaire alludes to the beauty of Circassian women:
‘The Circassians are poor, and their daughters are beautiful, and indeed it is in them they chiefly trade. They furnish with those beauties the seraglios of the Turkish Sultan, of the Persian Sophy, and of all of those who are wealthy enough to purchase and maintain such precious merchandise. These maidens are very honorably and virtuously instructed how to fondle and caress men; are taught dances of a very polite and effeminate kind; and how to heighten by the most voluptuous artifices the pleasures of their disdainful masters for whom they are designed.’
It’s from his Letter XI, On Inoculation.
“Ali, you’re frightfully amusing, but I feel like walking through streets packed with men, listening to them grumbling about their taxes, or the war, or about the various virtues of opium vs. drink, not well-educated banter. I’ll go alone, and don’t worry, I’ll be safe.”
Ali looked after his friend. The heat shimmered across his figure walking down the mountain, like lakes of sparkling water, separating first his feet from the ground, then up to his knees, and finally his trunk and his head disappeared in the distance.
“Why should I worry? He lives a charmed life.”
to be continued...
© Copyright 2016 Steven Hunley. All rights reserved.