Baghdad

Rikart braced his hands on the rail of the balcony, looking out. The City of Peace spread away before him in its orderly array, green with orchards and gardens. The blue stripe of the Great Canal crossed it like a sash.  Among the packed houses a hundred minarets pointed up into the sky. A fringe of palm trees hid the walls of the Round City, on its hilltop at the center of Baghdad, but above the fronds the gold dome of the House of Wisdom shone like a rising sun, and beyond that the green dome of the Palace. The people moving through the streets seemed all one being, slowly flowing along through the markets and alleys, in and out of the buildings, the lifeblood of the city.

Rikart loved Baghdad. His mother had brought him here when he was ten years old, after his father died. He had grown up here, the greatest city in the world. Now a shadow was creeping over it. The sunlight still shone down clear and bright, but out beyond, where the city ended, the air churned with yellow dust. This had begun that morning in the north and the dust cloud was moving swiftly west and south and now stretched almost to the river on the southwest, turning the sun pale.

“You were right,” the old man said, behind him. “They’re here, after all.”

Rikart kept back the anger in his throat. He said, “You’ve got to come with me. Now, before sundown.”

“I can’t.” The Reb shook his head. His hands went to the sash of his robe. “I am too old. But you go. And you must take Dinah.”

“You have to come,” Rikart said. “You’re why I came back here.” He cast another look out over the city toward the dust. “You don’t know what’s going to happen next. The Caliph can’t stop them. Nobody can stop them.”

The old man said, “Swear to me you will save my daughter.” He was untying his belt.

Rikart faced him, thinking he might carry the Reb away in his arms. He would bring Dinah to help him. He looked past the old man, the little room with all its books, the table in the middle piled with scrolls and papers, with maps and pens. This place of peace. “I’ll talk to her. Get ready.” He went in two long strides to the curtained door, and through to the next room.

This room was the highest in the house. On the stairs below the landing, two of the servants huddled, muttering. He went by them, going down, but before he came to the bottom of the stairs, Dinah had come out to meet him.

She was a tall girl, not pretty, with thick dark hair.  Younger than Rikart was, maybe 17, she had managed her father’s household since her mother died and she seemed older. She wore a married woman’s headcloth and lately she had taken to holding her hand over her lower face when she talked to him, which he thought was ridiculous. She did it now, veiling herself, and she said, “What is this? Where is my father?”

“It’s what I told you yesterday,” he said. “The Mongols have come. We have to get out, now.”

Behind him, on the stairs, the women wailed. Dinah said, “Look what you’ve done,” and went by him to them.

He followed, ready to argue, but she was sending the two women off on chores. This made them happy and they left. Rikart caught her elbow. “Listen. Reb Moseh is refusing to go. We may have to force him.”

She frowned at him. “How little you know my father.” But then she turned her head, as if she heard something, and her face flattened. She went on up the stairs.

Rikart followed her. On the landing, he looked out the window toward the east, and saw there more of the dust boiling into the sky. He wondered if they had waited too long.  Then from the next room Dinah let out a wail like a stab to the heart.

He went into the old man’s room. The table was overturned. Where it had been, Reb Moseh was hanging from the beam, the sash of his robe wrapped around his neck. Dinah was clutching him, trying desperately to lift him up, off the pressure of the sash. She turned to Rikart. “Help me! Help me!” But the old man was dead.

He said, “The river is our best chance. Meet me at the quay on the canal. I have a boat.”

Dinah’s face was slobbered with tears. He put an arm around her, holding her up on her feet. “He wanted you to escape. You have to try. Pack what you need. I’ll be back.” He hugged her against him; she smelled of lilac. Her body was slack against him. What would happen to her if they took her? He went on down the stairs to the door and out onto the little street.

He had not been here for years but this place was baked into his bones. He remembered everything, the warmth of the air, the peeling wall, the paving stones underfoot. The city was oddly quiet. He walked down to the canal. A boat full of watermelons was tied up at the quay. The sweet-seller who usually perched on this corner was gone. Someone called out from a house across the way and a shutter banged closed. He went down along the canal, past the edge of the Caliph’s gardens, toward the Tigris. A dozen speckled peahens were pecking in the grass under the palm trees. He smelled jasmine and oranges.

He was planning this out as he went; they could go south on the river to Maniyyurah where he knew people. There were Jews in Maniyyurah who would take in Dinah. Where the canal came down to the river, he stood a moment, watching the boats as they went back and forth. The water shone in the afternoon light. A flat-bottomed riverboat slid out of the canal, wobbling in the tangled current, and started south. Down there, the bridge crawled with people crossing toward the west.

He went upstream a little way. Days before, when he first came back, he had hidden a riverboat on the bank, pulled it up high out of the water and buried it under palm fronds. He hauled it down to the river, fit the scull into its socket, and climbed in. The current took the boat down toward the canal again. Across the city, first one voice and then another and another took up the midafternoon call to prayer.

“God is greeeaat—” The long syllables quavered out.

Just above where the canal came boiling into the river he steered the boat to the bank, got out, and wading along the edge of the canal towed the boat up against the flow.

The call to prayer still hung in the air but somewhere far off, a thin whistle sounded. His hackles rose. A moment later he heard a distant crash. He did not see where what was struck.  He bent to the work of pulling the boat against the river’s flow.

The quay was just ahead. In the western sky, the dust and smoke climbed up over the setting sun; the light was yellow as sulfur.  Dark against that, Dinah stood, with a crowd of other people. He had not reckoned for that. He should have known she would try to save them all. He turned to look over the boat. Maybe it could carry four people. He wrestled the long narrow boat into the lee of the quay.

At once Dinah was pushing people into it, two children, an old woman. Rikart held the gunwale to keep the boat from tipping under their weight. “They can’t all go—there isn’t enough room!”

She ignored him. She was handing in another child. Two more women waited—her maids. Rikart pulled his shirt off; it was warm for a winter’s day. He tossed the shirt aside. The people sat in a line down the center of the boat, knees up, the children on laps, and Dinah got in.

Rikart climbed over the stern, took the scull, and pushed them out into the flow of the canal. Other boats rowed past them, pulling hard. Rikart held his boat in near the bank, where the rip would be less, and nudged them out through the mouth of the canal. With the scull he held the boat steady, feeling for the edge of the wave.

The Tigris was running full and the rip current caught them at once. The long narrow boat creaked. One of the women wailed, and they all clutched for the gunwales. Dinah began to sing, a high cheerful note, which calmed them. Rikart eased the boat along, riding the high side of the wave, steering out of the way of a big barge paddling hard for the east bank. All along the river between them and the bridge, boats thrashed along. Most were moving east. He thought that would not help them. He let the current take them on south. The sun had disappeared into the smeared dust of the sky. An early darkness came.  The bridge spanned the river on its seven piers. Rikart steered them toward the space in the middle and leaned on the scull, holding the boat at the edge of the standing wave there, and they swooped on through the momentary darkness under the arch.

The old woman at the bow with Dinah let out a scream, but Dinah cheered, and so they all cheered. Rikart moved them back toward the west bank, where the river ran slower. The river curved to his right. Up there he saw the top of the old Al-Shams mosque, gold against the last light.

Now they were coming to the al-Mansur bridge. Beyond the long arched span, he knew, the river ran broader, out past the walls, past the mouth of the New Canal, out across the plain between the fields and gardens. He thought if they passed through this bridge, they would escape.

The bridge crawled with people. He steered the boat down toward the second arch. In the dark he could just make out the women and children huddled in the boat, clutching each other. Downriver a sudden burst of light shone. For an instant the bridge, outlined against the red light, was a creeping black line across the river.

Thin and far away, but coming closer, a thin shriek like a flock of piping birds reached his ears. He clenched his jaw. Too late. They were sweeping down toward the archway through the bridge, and then a roaring torrent of rocks hammered down out of the sky.

Almost overhead, the center span of the bridge collapsed, flinging people down as it went, and the river heaved and churned and the boat swung around. Rikart fell out. People bobbed in the water around him, dead, alive. He swam hard after the boat, which was drifting off sideways toward the bank; against the last pale sky he saw Dinah in the bow, the old woman hunched at her feet. The scull swung idle. The boat rocked in the violent water.

Rising out of the water ahead of him, a long arm seized hold of the boat. The old woman struck wildly at it and the boat tipped and rolled over.

The wash broke over Rikart and he swallowed greasy water. The current was dragging him off. He kicked out and his feet struck something floating behind him, something wooden. Not the boat.  He could not see the boat. Heads floated in the water around him. He looked for Dinah. A canal opened in the bank here and in the back eddy above it, the boat was wallowing upside down. He swam to it, searching the water around him for Dinah. People screamed. A corpse floated beside the boat, the shirt full of air like a bubble over the water.

He pushed the boat ahead of him into the shallows. High overhead, the shrill shriek sounded again, high and coming closer. He sank down deeper into the water and a blazing red ball flew out of the dark and plunged into the middle of the Tigris. For an instant he saw nothing but the wash of light. Then the river out there began to burn and the whole sky turned blood red.

He smelled the hot oily smoke, the smell of sea coal. They were firing naftun. He thought, Baghdad is gone. He cast another broad look around him for Dinah, and then heard the whimpering under the boat.

He dove down, and came up beneath the overturned hull, into a pocket of air, dark as pitch. “Dinah,” he said.

Then something leapt on him and clutched him, sobbing, wrapped itself around him. He pulled himself loose enough to grope over this body. Not Dinah, too small. He wrapped the screaming child in one arm and dove again, out and up to the surface of the river.

This was not wholly dark. Red flickering light streaked across the river, glittered on the waves, glowed in the rolling smoke just overhead. His feet struck the riverbed here, and he stood to his shoulders in the water and fought through the churning water his way up to the canal gate. In his arms the child was gagging and coughing. He heaved the body up on the bank beside the canal and pounded on its back to knock out the water. He could smell the fire burning on the scummy water. Another thunderous crash echoed out.

He went along the shore, looking out at the filthy, churning river. Cupping his hands around his mouth he screamed her name. Twenty feet off shore in a red patch of fire a body floated, burning. Not Dinah. Other things bobbed in the glow.  The catapults whistled again, and he backed away, and down out of the sky came a rain of stuff that hit the water and burst into flames.

The child had followed him—a scrawny boy. Rikart said, “We have to get out of here.” He put his hand on the boy’s shoulder, pushing him back the way they had come. At the canal gate a stone stair went up the bank. “What’s your name?”

The boy whispered, “Daud.” He was shivering.

“Come with me. I know some people here.” Rikart with a hand on his shoulder steered him into the city.

✽✽✽

Daud was nine, small for his age. He had no father. He had worked in Reb Moseh’s house, carrying water, hauling wood, because his mother was the cook. Now his mother was gone. Everything was gone, except Rikart the Frank beside him in the dark.

He ran to keep up. They went on away from the burning river, along the street by the canal. The light from the river flickered around them, ahead of them. Rikart got him by the arm and pulled him back under the palm trees. Three horses galloped by them; the riders carried spears. Daud was wet to the bone, and cold. He thought of his mother. He had been reaching for her when the boat went over. He tore his mind away from that. They moved through the trees. In the square beyond that lots of people crowded around a mosque and the high drone of prayers sounded. Rikart went around the edge of the square, and down a lane. At a door in the stone wall he knocked.

His teeth chattering, Daud went in close against him, to the shelter of the wall. The door opened, letting out a shadowy lantern beam. A deep voice said, “Rik! I thought you had gone. Come in. Quick.”

The Frank pushed Daud on ahead through the door. In the warmth and the light, he stood blinking. The men talked  over his head.

“I thought you had escaped.”

“I tried,” Rikart’s voice said. “They’re sealing the city off, even on the river.”

“Then you can join us. The Caliph has ordered me to gather the city guard.  Tomorrow, by the will of God, we will save Baghdad.“

“So the old fool has finally realized what this is that’s happening.” Rikart’s voice cut.

“Yes, you were right. But now we have to save Baghdad, somehow.”

That man was tall, stocky. Daud knew that the jewel on his turban meant something important: he was an amir, a soldier.

Rikart said, “There are a hundred thousand of them, Ra’is. They have machines. They have greasebombs. They won’t let anybody live.”

“If you’re with me,” the stocky man said steadily, “I can give you a sword. Otherwise, get out of my house.”

Rikart flung his hands up. Daud saw he was angry. Rikart said, “Very well. Give me the sword.”

The soldier struck him across the shoulder. “I knew you would stand up.” He went across the room, and Rikart followed him, and Daud got up and went after. Through an archway they went into another room, smaller,  where on the walls hung swords and shields.

“Nothing matters but the will of God,” the soldier said. “Here, arm yourself.”

Rikart took a sword from the wall, held it a moment, and put it down and took another. He looked around for Daud. The soldier had gone out.

“You can stay here.”

“No,” Daud said.

“They’ll take care of you.” Rikart balanced this sword a moment and laid it aside also, and looked back at the wall full of blades. “Better than I can.”

“No, please,” the boy said. He imagined another ripping away of everything, this time all. “I want to go with you.”

The Frank turned and knelt down and put his hands on Daud’s shoulders. “Boy. Listen to me. This is as far as you can go with me. Tomorrow we will go out to fight. You are too young to do that. You have to stay here.” He gave the boy a little shake, his eyes fixed on Daud’s. “You’re lucky, little brother. Stay that way.”

Another shake, and his tone changed. “You need some dry clothes,” he said. He stood up, turning back to the arms on the wall.  His gaze sharpened; he reached down into a chest below the swords, and took out a tunic of fine white cloth. He laid this on top of the chest and smoothed it with his hands; on the breast was a red cross, like a splash of blood. Rikart stroked his hands over it. Without looking up from it, he said, “Go ask for Umm Maryam, she will take care of you.” Daud turned, wooden, and walked back to the next room.

✽✽✽

Rikart went into the garden, into the back where no one would see him, and  standing with his face toward the wall, his feet apart, he stretched his arms straight out to either side like a cross. He did not pray. He had no one to pray to. His God had failed. The Muslims had won that war, and now in turn the Muslims would lose. He saw no sense in this. His arms began to ache but he held them outstretched. He thought of the old man hanging from the beam, of the bodies floating in the river. The boy, clinging to him, whom he could not save. The thin shriek of the catapults. His muscles were burning, his body shaking with the effort of holding his arms out. Some order in it teased the corner of his mind but he could not grasp it.  Maybe he was unworthy of it. He lowered his arms to his sides.

✽✽✽

Something pounded in the distance, not coming closer, just a steady far off thud. Daud, leaning on the palm tree, thought he could feel the shudder of it through the tree’s skin. Smoke drifted in the air even here at the heart of the Round City. He began to climb the tree, his hands on the boll, his feet walking up the slender trunk.

As he climbed higher he rose above the level of the wall around the palace, and he could see the hundreds of mounted men lined up on the pavement there. Rikart was one of them, somewhere. He looked for the white coat with its cross, in a sea of white coats. He swallowed a bitter taste in his mouth. Rikart had said he would take care of him and then had abandoned him. He climbed higher.

Now he could see the porch of the Caliph’s Palace. On the balcony there a man in a big white turban was waving his arms and speaking. Now and then the crowd watching gave off spurts of loud noise. They thrust their arms into the air. The horses reared and danced. There were very many of them, he could not pick Rikart out among them.

His eyes stung. Rikart had cast him off.

Now a great shout went up from the army—“God is God! God is great—!”

All around the city, behind Daud and on either side and all over, other voices rose. “God is great!” as if the whole of Baghdad cheered. His heart swelled, part of this great power.

He put his cheek against the palm tree. God would save them. Rikart would come back a hero and Daud would go to him and they would be friends again. Brothers, as Rikart had said.

Now they were turning, the whole army, swiveling in place, still in their lines, and riding toward the gateway. In his plumed turban the amir led the way. “God is great!” all the people shouted, and Daud scurried down from the palm tree and ran around the side of the palace, toward the great street there.

Crowds packed the side of the street; he had to worm his way through them to get to where he could see. He squeezed in between two men shouting God’s  name. Down the broad pavement the mounted horsemen rode in their ranks, and the ground trembled under them. Daud let out a cheer. He saw Rikart, there in the first row, and waved, and ran along the edge of the street, keeping up. The roar of the crowd rolled like thunder. The horsemen waved their hands, and their horses capered, dancing, their eyes flashing. A girl darted out of the crowd and cast an armful of flowers in the way of the army. Daud cheered again, exalted. Ahead was the gate; he worked his way off through the crowd again, down to the wall, and up the stair along the wall to the parapet.

A boardwalk ran along the wall just below the top of the parapet and from here he could see, out there on the plain beyond the Canal, the whole long dusty mass of the enemy, an indistinct shifting cloud. People crowded in around him, so close he had trouble keeping his feet. The walk groaned under their weight. Everybody was jumping up and down, shouting and waving their fists. He leaned on the wall to keep his place. Below, the broad brown water of the New Canal flowed by, pent between the city wall and the high earthen dike.

The Southern Gate opened out here, leading over a bridge across the canal. As the army came out the gate they had to slow, narrow their ranks to four abreast, edge their way onto the bridge. The howling crowd urged them on.

And out there, even the enemy quailed at their approach. The dusty cloud was backing away, giving up the broad plain beyond the canal. They were afraid. Daud yelled and could not hear his own voice in the uproar. He beat his fists on the wall.   The Caliph’s army was crossing the bridge, was forming up its ranks on the far side. The Amir with his feathered turban held his arm up. In the screaming of the crowd Daud could hear nothing, but then the Amir dropped his arm.

The army charged forward, the front rank stretching out to either side, broad as a blade. Behind that the rest of the horsemen pushed up to fill the gaps. Their cloaks fluttered. The manes of their horses rippled like banners. They swung their lances down to level, and bolted across the level ground at the enemy, which was shrinking back, retreating.

Under Daud’s feet the ground shook, slightly, and a low boom reached his ears.

He leaned across the wall, trying to pick Rikart out of the mass of charging men. Then someone near him wailed, and pointed, and he swung around—they all swung around—and saw, up beyond the bridge, the dike of the New Canal collapsing, and the water gushing through onto the plain.

The charging army wavered. Daud called out, sobbing. It was too late. The tide of water was sweeping down along the plain, flooding the low ground, cutting the horsemen off from the city. And now the cloud of the enemy was wheeling back, closing in. From all sides they pushed in against the Caliph’s army, a dusty horde, a whirlwind, a storm. They filled the air with their arrows. The Caliph’s army broke into bits, running men, running horses, and the enemy swarmed over them, and they were gone.

Around Daud the people sank down, their voices failed. A low moan rose from them. Daud was gasping for breath. A prickle of terror ran down his back. He wheeled around, and ran.

He kept running, his breath a fire in his lungs. He could hear screaming somewhere.  Dust and smoke drifted in the air.  He slowed, at last, exhausted, by the Caliph’s Garden, and realized he was two streets down from Reb Moseh’s house.

That steadied him, to know where he was. He ran down an alleyway and across a little bridge and came to the street, and there was the house where his mother worked. The high gate was closed, but he knew how to open it—push the bar there, then lean on the little wooden door set in the side of the barrier. He went into the courtyard, panting.

It was quiet. It was as if nothing had ever happened, except he saw no one else. He crossed the empty courtyard to the kitchen house, where his mother would be. She was not there. The kitchen maids were not there.  The long room silent, cool, empty. Smelling of bad milk. The oven was cold. He went along the table; beneath that were baskets of fruit, of vegetables, and he took an apple and ate it. He could stay here. There was food here, and his mother would come back. He went out of the kitchen, across the courtyard again, to the main house.

That door was open. He went in. On the threshold he started to call out, but his own voice choked him.

He walked through the front room, the carpets neatly laid, the tables with their embroidered cloths. Nobody was there, but they would come back. The house was all ready for them. The silence was just for now. He would stay here and wait. At the foot of the steps he looked up. He had never been allowed to go there. He trembled to think of it. But he climbed the stair. The air grew warmer as he climbed. He could still smell smoke but only a little. He went up to the landing. The rooms opening off were empty. In one a loom stood, the beater still in the threads. A jug was turned over on the floor.

He went on, up the last flight, to Reb Moseh’s room.

Before he pulled back the curtain a bad smell reached him. He stood on the threshold, and saw there on the floor the old man stretched out on his back, his hands folded on his chest.  Flies buzzed around him. Daud’s stomach clenched. He could not move. The old man’s eyes were closed but if Daud moved surely the lids would fly open, Reb Moseh would look at him, would scold him. He whined in his throat. He could not stay. He had to go, he had to get out of here fast.

He went back downstairs, and back to the kitchen. Outside, as he was crossing the courtyard he could hear, again, the pound and crash of the catapults. In the kitchen he found one of his mother’s marketing baskets and went around filling it with food, figs and apples, some flatbread, a cheese. He ate cheese as he went around, looking for anything else. He took a knife from the wall. In a jug he found water and washed down the last of the cheese.

He hauled the heavy basket back to the gate. He had to find somewhere to hide. To keep his stock of food. He would come back for a blanket. As he went out the gate to the street, a dozen boys pounced down on him.

He shouted. Went to his knees. They tore the basket out of his hands and knocked him flat. He dropped the knife. Someone kicked him. He bounded up to his feet, and they swung fists at him and battered him down again. While they were doing that one grabbed the basket and ran off, and the others chased him. He crept off a little on hands and knees. The knife lay before him on the pavement and he snatched it up. Getting to his feet, he raced away down the street.

✽✽✽

He walked, going nowhere, through an empty bazaar, the beggars gone, the rugs taken up and the displays, the shop doors shut. Beyond that, the rutted back street led him through orchards, between high walls. In a gateway a man with a sword leaned against the wall. When Daud came by, and slowed, the guard reached down for a stone at his feet, and Daud hurried off.

He saw a band of boys coming around the corner, and went the other way.

His stomach hurt with hunger. He was tired but if he tried to stop his legs soon drove him on again, urgent. The distant bang and crash of the war faded into the back of his mind. He thought of nothing but getting something to eat. He should have eaten more when he had had the chance. He trudged along, dreaming of food.

There were people in the street; as he passed, he looked, but he saw no face he knew.

A wavering voice called out overhead, and he twitched all over. Yearning, he turned that way. Old words came to him, blessing Mohammed who was calling him to God. He forgot most of the prayer, the words were always strange, not ordinary talk. He went in a gate. Other people everywhere, and he hung back. At the water fountain he waited for a chance to wash. Women and children were pushing one way, to the side of the courtyard, to another door into the mosque. He went in a tide of men through the main door.

The call to prayer went on above him. He thought, Mohammed, Prophet of God, blessings to you, give me something to eat.

They were calling the men to line up, inside the mosque. He sidled in along the doorway. There was no room, already hundreds of men filled the wide space, and now they were kneeling, all at once, a wave descending. He knelt down where he was, back in a corner.

Like a thunder, the voices rose, begging for salvation. He huddled against the wall, tired. The men around him bent and banged their foreheads on the floor and rose with their faces dripping blood. His stomach turned. He drew back as far as he could, and shut his eyes, and the giant voices rolled over him.

Then he was waking up, climbing up through sleep, a soft voice calling him.

“Daud. Daud.”

He opened his eyes. The prayers were a rumble in his ears. Before him, smiling, was the long pale face of his master’s daughter Dinah.

He sat up, making his obeisance, and she touched his face. “No need. How glad I am to see you. Here.” She pressed a wooden cup into his hands. Warm. He lifted it to his lips and drank the hot meaty broth. She was looking into his eyes, still smiling. She said, “Be well, little man. Here.” She leaned forward and kissed his forehead. “Be blessed.” She went away, carrying more cups, a big jug.

He finished the broth before he ended his hunger. But he sat up now. He looked around for Dinah and saw her across the mosque, giving food to people. He took heart; he got up, went out to the courtyard, washed his hands and face in the fountain.

Out in the street, several men stood in a clump, talking in low voices. Their eyes followed him, suspicious. Daud went on down toward the canal and walked along the street there. The day before, it had been running nearly full but now it was only knee deep. At the foot of the next bridge was a man selling from a wagon, strings of onions and fruit and herbs. On either side a big man held a sword across his body. Several people stood before the wagon, ready to buy, and more coming all the time.

Daud hung back. No one seemed to notice him. He had nothing to buy with. Quickly he looked back at the canal. His mother had given him treats for catching fish. If he caught some fish, or turtles even, he might trade them. He went to the edge of the canal and slid down the side.

Made of fitted stones, the bank sloped easily at first but then turned steep, and he slipped and slid most of the way, grabbing for handholds on the rough wall. Halfway down the dry stone vanished under slick wet green weed, crusted with sand and shells. Yesterday that had been under water. He skidded through it, down into the ditch, his feet sinking into the muck and stones of the bottom. He began to work his way up the current, watching the water, looking for anything he could catch.

Ahead of him, something plopped into the water. Maybe he could sell frogs. Nobody ate frogs. The dark water flowed slowly along, bending over the waving floating carpet of the weedy bottom. A patch of scum floated toward him, evil smelling. He drew back, his stomach gripped. Looking up he saw the sky above him, a blue arch between the high walls of the canal, and then far off, up in the air, there came a sound that stood his hair on end, a thin distant shriek coming closer.

He scrambled toward the far wall. A little way down, a round hole opened in it, a culvert through to the next canal, and he made for that, struggling through the thigh-deep water. A crash of rocks shattered the air above him.  The sound rocketed eerily around in the canal and another thundering downpour came and another, not into the canal, but striking just beyond, into the street.  A few rocks bounced down into the canal and Daud reached the culvert and dove into it.

The sound boomed inside this space, stuffed his ears. He clutched his knees to his chest. A horrible smell reached him. Halfway down the tunnel a body lay on its back. His stomach rolled. He had to get away from that, and inched toward the opening, but then another barrage struck just outside the tunnel. Dust sprayed him. He shrank down. Whatever that was, behind him in the tunnel, it was dead. It wouldn’t hurt him. Another crash and boom of rocks. He buried his face against his knees.

The rolling crash went on and on, long after, he thought, the stones stood falling. He went up to the edge of the tunnel and looked out. A heap of stones lay along the foot of the far wall. He sat there a long while, waiting for more, but no more happened.

He was thirsty. He crept down out of the tunnel and out along the canal. The water was murky, littered with new stones. Where the water ran clear he knelt to drink but before he could even dip his hand into the stream he saw a dead man lying face down a few feet away and he lurched backward, his heart racing.

He staggered on, crossed the canal beneath the bridge, and climbed up on the pier. At the top, he stood still for a moment, unable to move. The main barrage had struck here. The air was filmy with dust. Two men lay on the ground in front of him, battered to bloody rags. The wagon that had sold figs was half buried under rocks. He bolted, running as fast as he could past the bodies, dodging past another in the street. The screaming kept going on. He ran into the courtyard of the mosque, where the fountain had been.

The fountain was gone, lost under a pile of rocks, although the water still bubbled up through the rubble. Other dead people lay around the courtyard. A woman knelt by the gate sobbing a prayer. Dazed, Daud looked for the mosque, and could not find that either. Finally he realized that the wall still stood, but the dome was broken in like an eggshell.

Dinah, he thought, and for a moment could not think at all. He knelt down at the fountain, and drank the water. His hands were shaking and his stomach hurt. He went off again to the street, toward Reb Moseh’s house. Little groups of people stood around the street, muttering ton each other. There was no litter of stones in the street here, so far inside the wall, Daud thought, this was out of range. He wound his way quickly through the thin crowds.  Going by the Caliph’s garden he smelled smoke and saw fires, back under the trees.

He found Reb Moseh’s house, but someone else lived there, now. The gate was barred, the windows shuttered tight, even the balcony covered up. He walked back up the canal street. Night was coming. He could not stop shaking. There were people ahead of him at the bridge, already groping through the rubble for the vendor’s goods, rummaging around the dead. They gave him piercing looks as he went by them.

He crossed over the bridge in the dark, going toward the wall. The streets here were battered with rocks but there were no people. He found a place out of the wind and slept. Every few moments, he woke, his body clenched like a fist.

✽✽✽

In the morning, going in close under the city wall, he climbed over a locked gate and into an enclosed courtyard.  The whole compound had been bombarded and bits of rock strewed the courtyard and the roofs of the buildings were crushed in. He saw no bodies. These people had run away when the barrage started. He looked for a kitchen house, found a hall with ovens and tables, but no food. Somebody had already taken everything. An ewer, empty, on the floor.

Across the way was a bedroom, opening onto the courtyard. The roof had come down inside, burying most of it, but he uncovered cushions, finely stitched, and a blanket. He dragged these into an angle of the courtyard wall—he wanted to be outside, where he could run—and made a bed. His stomach ached with hunger. He took the ewer and went out through the ruins, over the gate again, to the canal, and filled the ewer with water. The canal was only a shallow stream here. Maybe the water was going away all over Baghdad. He had not thought of that. He remembered the dike breaking. Maybe soon even the canals would be empty. Sitting, exhausted, hungry, on his new bed, he faced the far wall, where there were rows of shelves, like Reb Moseh’s book shelves. Some bits of pottery still on the shelves. He lay down, but he did not sleep; he fell to brooding.

After a long while he saw a huge rat crawl along the bottom shelf, pick its way through the debris of pots and stones to a hole in the wall, and go through.

Daud thought about that a while, and then he went over to the shelves. These were boards, held up on the wall with metal braces poked into the seams of the bricks. He felt over the shelf the rat had traveled. Some of the braces were loose and he worried the holes wider with his knife, so that the braces sagged. He loosened the braces on the shelf above that one. Taking out a board higher on the wall, he cut pieces of that and braced up the bottom shelf with them, where the rat had run,  so it wouldn’t come down too soon.  Then he went around the courtyard and gathered all the stones he could, and piled them on the upper shelf until it groaned.

He went off, morose. It would not work, it was too obvious, the rat would see. He wandered off into the broken rooms. Under the dust the floors were tiled. In a tiny back room he found a lamp full of oil and a striker to light it. He thought these people had been rich, even more than Reb Moseh. In a corner there was a chest, full of clothes. The smallest thobe was too big for him. He fingered the embroidery around the neck, the fine shell buttons. Finally he cut off the bottom and put the garment on over his head, rolling up the sleeves.

Beside an overturned bed he found a little wooden boat. Some boy had lived here, a boy like him. He wondered where that boy was now. His stomach hurt from hunger. Dark was coming. He had found nothing to eat for days. Finally he went back to his space, curled up against the wall, and went to sleep.

The crash brought him up out of his sleep like a shocked bird. It was dark. The moon shone down into the courtyard in a silver flood but the far wall was in a pit of shadow. Something was shrieking, across the way, venting tiny screams. He pulled out his knife and went toward the noise, which got higher, the thing knowing he was coming. In the dark he plunged the knife down toward the noise. The blade skidded on something hard and down into something soft, and he twisted and hauled at it, both hands on the hilt, until the tiny screaming had stopped.

He dug the great furry stinking body up out of the rocks and carried it out to the moonlight. He would make a fire. He had the lamp, with the striker, and there was plenty of wood. He cut the rat open, the warm, smoking coils of its guts spilling silvery as fish into the moonlight. Without thinking he knew what he was going for. He had seen his mother cut up chickens. He knew the heart, the nugget of blood and meat, at the middle of this. He found that, and put it into his mouth, still hot with life, and gnashed it down, delicious, before he skinned the rest of the rat and cooked the flesh over his fire.

✽✽✽

The city wall made the back wall of his compound, and climbing up onto the roof he could see all the way to the Basra Gate with its two towers. He sat there a while, watching. The Mongol army was off on the far side of the plain. Between them and the wall the flood from the dike had drained away into glassy puddles. On this mucky groundsat monstrous wooden frames, like horrible birds, with necks that craned back and forth, and spat rocks.  The rocks were crashing into the Basra Gate. He could see people swarming all over the top of the gate, but now someone was running toward him along the parapet, wailing.

“Lost! Lost, we’re lost—

Up there, the near gate tower suddenly swayed like a dancer. Daud drew in a hard breath. Dust rose all around the tower, and the stonework collapsed into the dust.

Then from the great churning mass of the Mongol army, on the plain outside the wall, there went up such a howl that Daud himself yelled out. They were charging in toward the new gap in the wall, a raging torrent, as if the whole plain dissolved into horsemen. He wheeled around and jumped down to the courtyard.

Outside, on the street, people streamed by him, running, a woman with children clinging to her, a man pushing a two-wheeled cart. Boys raced past. A tiny child stumbled along, alone, its face twisted with sobs. He went to the edge of the canal. People rushed along the street on the far side, too, but down at the bridge he saw a knot of men.

Pushing against the current of the fleeing crowd, he went on down the street and across the bridge. On the far side some people were throwing up a barricade across it; they had already hauled a boat up to block the bridge’s mouth. Daud jumped over it. “I’ll help—Let me help—“ They were piling on chunks of rock and he hauled stones, and with two other men found a wagon abandoned down the street, all together lifted it, and heaved it on top, to make a  wall as high as his head.

The man on the far side of the wagon gave him a quick, hard look and a nod and a wave. Daud followed him across the street, where a big woman in an apron was chopping with an axe at a wooden gate in the wall.

More people ran to join them. The uproar at the Basra Gate was swelling toward them like a rolling wave. They heaved up chunks of wood onto the barricade and the first of the Mongols appeared at the far end of the bridge, small men on little horses.

The woman with the axe let out a scream. She wore no headcloth, no veil. Her great breasts swelled the cloth above her apron. The rest of them surged up beside her, Daud one of them, his hands full of rocks. He scrambled up onto the wagon on top of the wall. The Mongols charged across the narrow bridge, and everybody at the barricade hurled rocks.

One of the horses went down. Daud screamed in triumph, waving his arms in the air, and then the woman was shoving him down into the shelter of the barricade. The air whistled. Something struck the broken gate right before him, and the tip of an arrow like a wicked snake head poked through, still shivering. The woman, panting beside him, said, “Watch out for that.”

She reared up again, the axe canted back over her shoulder, and he rose beside her. Just over the barricade three horses were scrambling up on the boat part of the wall, smashing the thin hull strakes with their hoofs. The little horse closest to Daud, lunging forward, drove one foreleg through the boat, and hung there, stuck. The rider jumped off. Under the round metal cap of his helmet the slits of eyes looked out from a flat inhuman face, dark as leather.  The woman struck his knees out from under him with her axe. On Daud’s other side an old man swung a long Mameluke sword and blood sprayed across the barricade. Daud could reach nothing with his club and the horsemen were falling back now. He shrank down away from another wave of arrows. The woman flung an arm around him.

“Noble boy! Noble boy!”

The ground under them shook. He pushed himself up to see a dozen horsemen charge toward the barricade. He reared up to meet them. With the chunk of wood he laid around him as they surged onto the broken wood. Something struck him from behind and he fell.

✽✽✽

He struggled awake. He was dead, he thought. He could not move and around him was only darkness. His neck hurt. He turned his head a little, to ease that. He was not dead, he was pinned down under something. Under a body, he thought, still warm, spread above him like a blanket. He could hear screaming, but there was always screaming. He slept again.

He woke when the weight above him suddenly shifted away, and the light shone in, and someone grabbed him. He struck out with his fists. Above him a face goggled, a thin Baghdadi face, not Mongol. “This one’s alive!” he backed away, his hands up. “I didn’t mean—I didn’t—” He went away, quickly, following some others down the street.

Daud sat up, still heavy with sleep. Beside him lay the woman with the axe, her face sliced in half, her apron sodden with blood. He felt the ground shake under him and flung himself down again into the shelter of the body. A stream of horsemen galloped by him. He heard a whoop; they had caught the looters. Daud lifted his head slightly, looking around.

Down the street a tight knot of horsemen was striking down with swords at something in their midst.  Closer, three dead people lay on their backs. Across the canal, he heard a crash, and twisted to see; a string of Mongols rode along the row of gated houses there, and at each gate, two men with axes smashed it in.

Another band of horsemen raced across the bridge, carrying torches. They passed within arm’s length of him and galloped off down the street.

Daud crept back down among the bodies and the wreckage of the barricade. He knew where he was; the bridge was just below him, its footing only a few yards away. He had hidden there before. He wormed his way along, sliding past the woman with the axe. She still had the axe clutched in her hand and he thought of taking it. It belonged to her. He crawled under a section of the broken gate to the edge of the bridge, and waited there a long while. He could see most of the two streets here, one on either side of the canal, and they were full of people and horses. Two buildings were on fire. Just across the way from him, a man on the rooftop flung a body over the edge, which twisted and screamed down into the canal. Down the way, smoke began to rise from the roof of a house.

The canal had run dry, but down the middle of it now a little stream began to flow, a dark trickle.  He had a momentary idea of the whole city bleeding. The air smelled bitter.

Shimmering red, the sun was sinking down into a haze of smoke and dust. He lowered himself feet first down the side of the bridge platform, got a foothold on the structure underneath, and swung down into the close space between the span and the bank of the canal. The bridge shook overhead, more people passing over it, they stopped in a pounding of hoofs and a sharp exchange of orders, and then suddenly the rest of the barricade was showering down over the side of the bridge into the canal. The bloody woman fell by him, splayed out, the axe still in her hand.

He huddled in the dark, his arms around his knees, all the long night. Up and down the canal, fires bloomed. The coppery light flickered along the canal wall, now and then dimmed in rolling dark smoke. The smoke made him gag, reeking of burnt meat.

In the morning, he went along under the bridge and along the side of the canal. There was no water in the stream bed but there were puddles of blood . He went through another culvert and into the canal that went by Reb Moseh’s street. Even before he came up to the street he saw smoke and the flicker of a fire and heard the flames crackle. The Caliph’s garden was burning. In the street before him a woman’s body lay, stripped naked. A sword stuck up between her legs. He went quickly along the side of the street, keeping close to the wall. The clatter of hoofbeats behind him warned him to duck into a gateway. A stream of horsemen went by him; they rode right over the body in the street. One of them in passing pulled out the sword.

Pressed to the wall of the gateway arch, he turned to look inside. The house was still smoking, inside its brick walls. Its hollow windows gaped, its door only a hole to a black emptiness. His stomach heaved. In the burnt ash and char that lay thick as a blanket on the courtyard he saw the outlines of bodies.

Somewhere a woman screamed, “No—Please, no—”

He went on through the street. The flames from the big trees in the Caliph’s garden were crinkling the air and embers and ash floated by him. He stepped over things in the street that he did not look at. He did not look into the gateways. At the corner he stood and looked across at the wreckage of Reb Moseh’s house and knew it only by the wall, the last thing standing.

In the next street he heard a crash, and a howl of voices, and he walked the other way.

There was no water. The canals dry, the fountains dry. He went toward the Tigris. In a little garden tucked behind a wall, where rocks had smashed the trees, he found water in a basin. He rummaged through the broken trees and found oranges. He heard someone coming and went back over the wall again, and down a long narrow arcade into a bazaar. On the far side of the little courtyard, while he was eating the oranges, he noticed the arcade he had just come through, a stretch of shelf along the wall. The roof beyond was tilted, and all the fallen rocks had rolled down onto the top of the arcade, which groaned on its buckling wooden posts.

He went along this, looking at it. Picking up a chunk of wood he swung it at a post, and the wood cracked and part of the roof sagged abruptly.

He went back out to the canal street again. The smoke was rolling thick along the street, and he had to go a good way along the street to find any Mongols. He heard the howling ahead, and looking in a gateway saw three or four men inside, still on their horses, hammering at a door with poles.

He picked up a rock and threw it at them, threw another when they turned, and took off running back the way he had come. They came whooping after him. In the smoke he slowed a little, to make sure he did not lose them, and they came charging after him, yipping like dogs. He dodged into the arcade and they followed. In the narrow space the horses collided, grunting, only a few yards behind him. He ran along. Not caring if he fell, he shoved at the columns as he passed and smashed into the last one shoulder first, drove it out into the courtyard, and the roof came down with a long rumbling roar.

He got to his feet in the courtyard. The falling roof and the rocks on top were burying the three horsemen. He could heard whimpering, and under the heap of stones something thrashed and more stones fell and then the crying stopped. He went closer. He saw, among the dusty stones, a horse’s tail, a limp hand. He went on down the arcade toward the gate.

The last rider had nearly escaped. At the end of the arcade he sat to his waist in a pile of rocks, his back to the wall, his horse crumpled under him. Dust covered him, his skin and hair grey as a tombstone. Blood leaked from his head, from his ears and his mouth and nose, bright against the grey dust. His eyes glistened. He looked across the narrow distance at Daud, and their eyes met. Daud did nothing, said nothing. He watched the shining eyes dull into stones. After a while, Daud went back out to the street, toward the little garden, to gather more nuts, but the Mongols had been there in the meantime and the place was torched.

✽✽✽

He stood on the roof of his compound, a while later, and looked out over Baghdad. The air was grimy. In columns like trees, in long filmy veils, the smoke lay all over the city. There were no real trees. There was nothing green left. The wreckage of the houses stretched out before him like a desert. Above the broken roofs the smoke gathered, and the wind caught it and blew it away.

Where he had walked on the roof his footprints showed black in the pale ash.

The Caliph’s palace still stood, out in the middle of the city, but the domes were broken in. The House of Wisdom was a blackened husk. Nothing moved in Baghdad. It was dead, it was empty.

In the distance, the yellow dust cloud of the Mongols was drifting away. They had been marching out all morning. They hadn’t even wanted Baghdad, only to destroy it, and now they were going somewhere else.

He got down off the wall. Crossing the bridge, he went to the Basra Gate. One of the towers had come down in a tumble of rock and the other leaned like an old woman. As Daud got nearer, birds rose up from the ruin in a cloud. The guards had defended Baghdad until they all died, and they remained, rotting in the new sun, already half-eaten. The stench made his stomach heave. He walked among the dead and out to the road, and crossed over to the plain beyond. One foot after the other, he walked along the road.

✽✽✽

He was lying on his face in the road. He could not remember falling. The heat on his back. His eyes were full of dust. His mouth. The ground under him trembled. Something was coming. He could not move out of the way.

Something touched him. He could not open his eyes. He was lifted up. A cool wet rag passed over his face, he gasped, trying to lap at the wetness, and he blinked his eyes open, saw a beard, two dark eyes. Smiling. A flask came to his lips. He gulped at the taste, sweet and mild, of milk. He opened his throat and let it pour down into him and flood him. The man lifted him up again. He sank down into a close space with woven sides. A basket. The warm rank shaggy smell of an animal enveloped him. A moment later the basket was rocking along, carrying him along. He slept.