IN THE DESERT
I spent the night in my new friend’s study. Arrow took off, going to do whatever falcons do when they don’t deliver homunculi to strange places. I shared a breakfast with the Rabbi. I have to say that Kelley’s approach to food was more to my liking, since it involved a lot of roasted meat. These vegetables I was served were surely healthy, but almost inedible, as far as I was concerned. I quietly hoped it will get better as the day moves along.
“We will need to get you ready,” Rabbi said after we finished. I got some more cloths for you. I skeptically observed the white robes he presented.
“Do you think they will make me blend in?” I asked.
“Probably not,” he smiled, “but they are practical. You will feel less hot in the desert. Meantime, I will get the cook to prepare you some food, and here is a skin with water.” He produced a small leather baggie. I lifted it.
“It is heavy,” I said doubtfully. “The more water the better,” Rabbi said. “Now, the promised gift.” He produced a papyrus and rolled it open.
“A spell?” I asked. “What is it going to do?”
“Not a spell,” he corrected me. “I am just making sure it is right. Eat this.” He picked up a small vial and dripped some liquid on a spoon. I eyed it suspiciously.
“It is not a poison, is it?” I attempted a joke.
“Certainly not,” he said. “You will sleep a little, though.”
I sighed and then opened my mouth and drank. My last thought was a feeling I was falling down into a black abyss.
When I woke up, Rabbi stood at the window.
“The caravan will be leaving in one hour,” he remarked. “I talked to my friend and he will take a package for me to Baghdad. It is a small chest containing some precious fabrics for my beloved niece. Here.”
I checked out the box. It was made of wood and free of ornaments. He opened it. I caught a glimpse of silk.
“It is from the East,” Rabbi said by way of explanation. Extremely rare. Nobody knows how they make it.
“They use worms,” I said.
“Surely not!” He exclaimed in surprise. “How can a worm make this beauty? Perhaps spiders?”
“Worms,” I confirmed.
“If you say so,” he gave up. “I wish I could see the process. But now, hop in. I made holes in the sides, so you can breathe. I also made sure that one of the sides comes off easily when you push on its side. You can get out anytime you wish.”
“What about the gift?” I remembered.
“Listen,” he said.
“All I can hear is some arguing of your servants outside on the roof,” I said.
“I have no servants,” he said mildly.
“Well, someone is arguing,” I said.
“Why don’t you have a look?” He proposed with a little smile. “Here, I will help you.”
He put me up on the windowsill. I looked out. The roof was empty, except for a pair of raven ladies. How did I know they were ladies? I had been a witness to a female row only once, but it left an unforgettable impression. Now I heard it again, except it was produced by a different species.
“It is mine,” screeched the bigger one.
“It is my roof,” objected the small of the ravens just as loudly. “I have come here earlier.”
“I was here last year, you little ***,” the bigger yelled back. “Before you were even born.”
“So?” The younger one said. “You moved out and now it is mine…”
The battle cry of the big raven announced that the little discussion was over. I thoughtfully turned away from the flying feathers.
“Do I understand only birds or does it work for any other animals?” I asked.
“For all of them,” Rabbi said seriously. “It will help you on your way and will compensate for your small size. Now, let me put you in box. I can hear the messenger coming. He is a Christian by the way. My friend, Hadji Nassreddin, is a Muslim, a Turk. I cannot send one of my servants to take you over there because he would not want to be seen to be friends with Jews. His Muslim servants may object coming to my house. So we use a Christian servant of his as a go-between."
He gently lifted me up and placed me onto the layer of silk. The lid closed, and I was left alone in a semidarkness of the box. I checked out the holes. They were big enough to see outside, although they were too small for me to climb through. I attached myself to one of them and observed the new visitor.
"Take this to your Master," Rabbi ordered. He did not respond and studiously ignored Rabbi. He wordlessly picked the box, placed it on his shoulder and extended one hand. Rabbi gave him a few coins. I was carried away and the movements of the box made me feel queasy. I hope I don’t get sick. I cannot imagine how I would survive the trip in such a smell – before I finished the thought, we stopped and I heard snorting from camels. The box was attached to a side of one of the animals. The camel rose to its feet amid general groaning these desert chariots produce when they are about to start a journey. Amid the shouting and yelling of the riders, we set off.
The caravan passed out of the Jerusalem in a few minutes. It was not a large town. I buried myself in my silky prison and made myself so comfortable that I could even enjoy my dinner. I chewed on the date Rabbi gave me and settled for a long wait.
When I woke up, the caravan stood still. I felt a little cold too. Peeking from one of my peepholes, I discovered that we stopped for the night. Tents rose around us. I smelled food being cooked on open fires. I felt hungry again. Everything was quiet, though. The travelers must have already settled for the night and all that was left out there were their dinner leftovers. That would be enough for me. I carefully pushed on the side of the box which the Rabbi said was loose. It noiselessly opened. I tried to close it again. It worked. Satisfied, I climbed out. My camel lay down on the desert sand and slightly turned my head to me.
“Just going for a walk,” I mumbled.
“As you wish,” he responded. Startled, I waved at him and sneaked around his side toward a nearby dying fire. There was a large pot out of which emanated the delicious smell of cooked meat. Now, how do I get in? There was another one nearby, turned upside down. If I could only push it over, I could climb on top of it and perhaps get some food from the first pot. I pushed on the rough metal side of the overturned vessel.
“Help!” A tiny voice cried out. I stepped back. Something was in there. “Who are you?” I asked.
“Bo,” it said in a tiny voice. That did not help much. I picked up a stone and fit it under the edge of the pot. It slightly rose leaving a tiny space under it. I found a bigger stone and widened the hole. After a few trips, there were perhaps two inches high opening under the pot. I squatted. Two yellow eyes stared back at me and a reddish snout stuck out from under the pot. I patted it. It was cold.
“Help,” it said.
“OK,” I worked for a while until the owner of the nose finally crawled out. It shook itself. It looked like a tiny fox with huge ears. A fennec, I remembered. It was but a baby.
“Hello, Bo.” I said. At this time I got used to my new ability to switch to whatever animal language was used at the moment.
“Hi,” it said. A girl, I decided. She looked delicate.
“What are you doing here? Where is your Mom?”
“I don’t need my Mom around,” it objected vigorously. “I am a big guy now.” So a boy after all.
“Who are you?” He asked.
“I am Alex,” I said. “I am a man, only a little one for now.”
“Will you grow up?” He asked.
“I hope so,” I said. “Were you looking for food?”
“Yes,” he said.
“It turned over.” He added unnecessarily.
“OK,” I said. “Now run around, so your Mom doesn’t miss you.” He considered it briefly, then he reached for me, licked me noisily and disappeared in the dark desert. I turned back to my dinner. Finally, I picked a piece of meat of the remaining pot and dragged it out. I chewed as I went back. The camel observed me calmly as I climbed back into my temporary home.
“Good night,” I said.
“Peace be with you,” it answered.
I woke up with a start. Shrieks, yells and shouts permeated the air. Where was I? It was still dark. Then I remembered. My box shook as the camel rose to its feet. I rolled to a peephole. There was light outside, so it must be morning. What was this about? Then a man stumbled by, holding with both hands an arrow, which stuck out of his chest. I heard the unmistakable ringing of swords and sabers. We were attacked! Don’t we have a guard to protect us against bandits?
The noise of the battle slowly died down and my camel snorted as someone passed by that I could not see. “Questo è,” said a rough voice. This was not Arabic! What happened over there? Were we attacked by Crusaders? No, Crusades happened hundreds of years ago. I decided to wait. If I don’t make any noises, I will not be noticed. I buried myself under the silk. They will not be able to see me even if they open the box. This theory was tested soon enough. I felt the box being removed from the camel’s side and carried away by a heavily breathing man. Finally, they dropped me down on the ground. I braced myself for the investigation and slid all way to the bottom. The lid squeaked and let in daylight. “La Seta,” someone said, satisfaction dripping from his voice.
“Apage,” someone said roughly. Hands buried inside the silk, I frantically crawled into a corner.
“Where are you?” I heard a growl in Arabic. He tossed out the top layers of silk revealing my minute self. I looked up to the face of the Father Angelico. He grabbed me and brought me up closely to his face.
“So? You thought you got away my pretty?” He turned around and shouted: “We have what we wanted. Bring me the cage.” One of his servants – an Arab! – ran toward him. He was carrying a small bird cage.
“You will be safe there,” Father Angelico told me. “You will not get away until I say so.”
When the evening came, my captor settled in a tent fit for Arabian nights. The walls were red and a thick carpet covered the ground. My cage hung from one of the supports, about four feet above the ground. I was not alone as there was another cage holding a sad-looking parrot. Father Angelico said in a lushly padded chair. Next to him stood a little stand covered with a red cloth. He observed me with an unpleasant grin.
“You are even smaller than Pope here,” he told me and nodded to the parrot. “I wonder if he would eat you if I put you guys together?”
“What do you want from me?” I asked.
“Let me show you,” he said. He picked up a glass of water and patted on its edge a large ring he wore on his right hand. A tiny lid opened in the ring and a purple powder fell into the water. He stirred it, opened the door of the Pope’s cage and filled the parrot’s bowl.
“Observe,” he said. Pope studiously ignored the purplish water.
“He knows if he drinks it, he dies. This is the problem with the real Pope as well. No matter what I do, he avoids all my gentle nudges that should send him on his way to heaven.”
“So you want to kill the Pope?” I asked.
“Indeed,” he agreed amicably. “It is time for a new Lord of Christendom. Even Muslims agree with me as you could see. They helped me to hunt you down. Them and my spies, of course, including those in the house of your friend the Rabbi. I know where you were going.”
“Why are they helping you?” I asked.
“I offered them a few gifts,” he said vaguely. “Sicily, Venice…, places like that. Nothing of interest to you. What is important for you is that you will help me to do what I did. You will deliver to Pope a little gift from me. Secretly, of course. Big men failed. It is time to try a homunculus.”
“I can help you here,” I said cautiously. If he wants me to do it, he has to let me out of his sight. Let him think I will do it.
“So agreeable, aren’t we?” He grinned. “You must think I am an idiot and probably think you will run away once I let you out. I got a little insurance to make sure you do exactly what I want you to do.” He turned to the little table next to him and pulled off its red cover. I stifled a scream. On the stand sat a head of a blond-haired woman. Its eyes were closed, but its face was that of Marie.
“See?” Father Angelico said triumphantly. “I know who you are. That sorcerer, Kelley, is watched by my spies. You will do what I want if you want to go back to your time.”
You will never let me, I thought to myself glumly, as I observed him to leave the tent.
He ignored me for the rest of the day which his little army spent looting the caravan treasures. When the dusk settled down, I was still alone. Not completely alone, though. I looked at Pope. He was quiet all day.
“Hi there,” I said. “Can you talk?”
“You bet,” he answered promptly. I thought parrot don’t really know what they are saying? Then I realized we spoke in, well, Parrotian.
“Don’t drink that stuff,” I told him.
“I know,” he said irritably. “Have not you noticed?”
“How did you know it is a poison?” I asked.
“He tried it once before,” he said. “I was sick all day.” A scratchy noise from below attracted my attention. I looked around the tent. A pair of enormous ears stuck from under the chair.
“Bo!” I called gently.
“A friend of yours?” Pope observed.
“Yeah,” I said. “Bo!” He came out.
“I cannot reach you,” he said. “I cannot jump that high.” I hesitated, then I turned to Pope.
“You know, we could get out if you help.”
“I thought you would never ask,” Pope retorted. “If we just swing those cages, we could catch each other’s door and work on the lock.”
“Let’s try that,” I said. A few seconds of hard work did the trick. Pope held the bars of my cage in his beak and I feverishly worked on the cute little metal bar which kept Pope’s cage closed. I lifted it up and the cage’s door swung open.
“I could do it myself,” Pope said, “except I could not reach the bar from inside.”
“Can you stop it and open mine?” I demanded. Finally, my door was open. I listened to outside noises. They were having dinner out there, and a hell of a time. That was fine with me. I jumped. The carpet softened my fall. Bo came and sniffed me over.
“I am fine,” I said.
I turned to Pope. “How will you get out?”
“I will just wait when he comes in and opens the flap. Then I fly out before he knows what happens,” he said. I waved at him and dived under the tent’s edge, where Bo dug a hole to get in. I took a deep breath of the desert air once I got out. Now, which way to Babylon? I found the North Star. Babylon must be toward East. I hesitated, then I asked Bo: “Are you coming with me?”
“Of course,” he said.
“Does your Mom know about it?”
“I am big…,” he started indignantly.
“Yes, I know,” I quickly agreed. “In this case, do you think you could carry me?”
“Like a horse?”
“Like a horse,” I agreed. He pulled himself taller.
“Hop on,” he said. I mounted my new ride.
“This way,” I said. We were off.