Saturday, June 23, 2012

Thirty-eighth excerpt from 'Twelve Towers'

Gwilym was stumbling and blind from lack of air so he stopped for a few minutes, with hands on his knees, pulling air into his bursting lungs. He willed his body to obey the strident orders of his mind: Get to Huish and protect his sons. As soon as the oxygen returned to his leg muscles, he set off again toward Huish.

Once again, he remembered Mecca, his bewilderment at his predicament: Twelve years old and alone in the Meccan bazaar. He knew the language and customs of this place and knew that, as a headman, Escalbor had power in this town to hunt him down and kill him. His light coloring and height made him stick out, even in this trading town, so he must escape now. But leaving town meant either walking through the desert to the next town or joining a camel train. Both would be expected and he would be easily discovered by the sheik’s men. No. He needed to hide in the bazaar somehow, but not with any of the people that the sheik knew. He had to find someone right now who could protect him yet owed no allegiance to this sheik. He wished he knew enough about the local politics to know which clans hated Escalbor’s people.
Just then he saw the fringed garment and side-locks of an observant Jew crossing an alley nearby. Of course! Here was his chance. He ran after the man and followed him into the building. It was the back room of a trading establishment that bought goods from the caravans and sold them to local Meccans.
The man turned around and looked with surprise at Gwilym. “What do you seek, young man?” he asked.
“Sanctuary, Rabbi,” begged Gwilym and he told the man he was being hunted by Escalbor’s men.
The Jew looked frightened and ran to the doors to see if Gwilym had been seen entering his house. Seeing the vacant streets immediately to the rear of his store he became calm and listened to Gwilym’s story.
He introduced himself as Shebna ben Eliud and he promised Gwilym protection if he would stay inside and not make himself known to anyone else. Gwilym promised. Then the enormity of what had happened this morning hit him: his father murdered, himself hunted, his life and this Shebna’s life being in danger and he ran to the corner of the room and threw up. He burst into tears at the shame of defiling this savior’s house. Then he felt a comforting arm around him, a damp cloth on his face, wiping away his tears and vomit and he was led into a back room by the man’s wife. The woman sat Gwilym on a stool by the table.
The man explained the situation to his wife in Hebrew, not guessing that Gwilym could understand their tongue. “The boy’s father was murdered by Escalbor. He was that crazy Christian who asked about Joseph a few weeks back. We need to protect the boy until we can get him safely out of here.”
The wife nodded and turned to the stove where she produced some soup, ladled it into a bowl and sat in front of Gwilym, spoon-feeding him like a baby, murmuring calming words. Before long Gwilym grew tired and was taken upstairs to sleep.
He stayed with this family for three months, never letting on that he spoke Hebrew for fear of embarrassing them that he had understood their first words. He helped out in the back room, organizing their stores and learning the inventory system. He learned about the camel trade routes from China to Constantinople and Cairo. The two talked about their trades with merchants and customers and Gwilym learned all about how to negotiate the best deal. “Remember, Gwilym,” Shebna had told him, “The most money you make per hour are the last few shekels you add to a deal at the very end.”
In the evenings he talked with the couple and learned their story. They had been married for forty years and their children had long since moved away. Their oldest son lived in Jerusalem and was one of their trading partners. They were part of a small Jewish community in Mecca who were at the mercy of the whims of the sheiks and their families. The community had lent money to the man for some of his expeditions and he owed them but they knew that Escalbor’s father had once cancelled the debt and killed many Jews who objected. It was a tense relationship.
“Why did you protect me?” asked Gwilym of the man one day.
“Our people have been oppressed by others for most of our history and often have received sanctuary from the unlikeliest sources. This is our way of paying back past kindnesses.”
After three months, Shebna told Gwilym that he would be transporting him, along with a shipment of slaves to his son in Jerusalem. This motley group of various races was pulled from many countries to the south and east and was being brought to the slave market in Cairo. Shebna blackened Gwilym’s face and hair, told him to act mute and to trust the caravan leader. In this way Gwilym left town and was set free in Jerusalem.

To read the entire first draft in one shot, click here:

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