On Discord Arising from the Excessive Love of a Hat
For numberless years a myna had astounded travelers to the caravansary with its ability to spew indecencies in ten languages, and before the fight broke out everyone assumed the old blue-tongued devil on its perch by the fireplace was the one who maligned the giant African with such foulness and verve. Engrossed in the study of a small ivory shatranj board with pieces of ebony and horn, and in the stew of chickpeas, carrots, dried lemons and mutton for which the caravansary was renowned, the African held the place nearest the fire, his broad back to the bird, with a view of the doors and the window with its shutters thrown open to the blue dusk. On this temperate autumn evening in the kingdom of Arran in the eastern foothills of the Caucasus, it was only the two natives of burning jungles, the African and the myna, who sought to warm their bones. The precise origin of the African remained a mystery. In his quilted gray bambakion with its frayed hood, worn over a ragged white tunic, there was a hint of former service in the armies of Byzantium, while the brass eyelets on the straps of his buskins suggested a sojourn in the West. No one had hazarded to discover whether the speech of the known empires, khanates, emirates, hordes and kingdoms was intelligible to him. With his skin that was lustrous as the tarnish on a copper kettle, and his eyes womanly as a camel’s, and his shining pate with its ruff of wool whose silver hue implied a seniority attained only by the most hardened men, and above all with the air of stillness that trumpeted his murderous nature to all but the greenest travelers on this minor spur of the Silk Road, the African appeared neither to invite nor to promise to tolerate questions. Among the travelers at the caravansary there was a moment of admiration, therefore, for the bird’s temerity when it seemed to declare, in its excellent Greek, that the African consumed his food in just the carrion-scarfing way one might expect of the bastard offspring of a bald-pated vulture and a Barbary ape.
For a moment after the insult was hurled, the African went on eating, without looking up from the shatranj board, indeed without seeming to have heard the remark at all. Then, before anyone quite understood that calumny so fine went beyond the powers even of the myna, and that the bird was innocent, this once, of slander, the African reached his left hand into his right buskin and, in a continuous gesture as fluid and unbroken as that by which a falconer looses his fatal darling into the sky, produced a shard of bright Arab steel, its crude hilt swaddled in strips of hide, and sent it hunting across the benches.
Neither the beardless stripling who was sitting just to the right of its victim, nor the one-eyed mahout who was the stripling’s companion, would ever forget the dagger’s keening as it stung the air. With the sound of a letter being sliced open by an impatient hand, it tore through the crown of the wide-brimmed black hat worn by the victim, a fair-haired scarecrow from some fogbound land who had ridden in, that afternoon, on the Tiflis road. He was a slight, thin-shanked fellow, gloomy of countenance, white as tallow, his hair falling in two golden curtains on either side of his long face. There was a rattling twang like that of an arrow striking a tree. The hat flew off the scarecrow’s head as if registering his surprise and stuck to a post of the daub wall behind him as he let loose an outlandish syllable in the rheumy jargon of his homeland.
In the fireplace a glowing castle of embers subsided to ash. The mahout heard the iron ticking of a kettle on the boil in the kitchen. The benches squeaked, and travelers spat in anticipation of a fight.
The Frankish scarecrow slipped out from under his impaled hat and unfolded himself one limb at a time, running his fingers along the parting in his yellow hair. He looked from the African to the hat and back. His cloak, trousers, hose and boots were all black, in sharp contrast with the pallor of his soft hands and the glints of golden whisker on his chin and cheeks, and if he was not a priest, then he must, thought the mahout, for whom a knowledge of men was a necessary corollary to an understanding of elephants, be a physician or an exegete of moldering texts. The Frank folded his arms over his bony chest and stood taking the African’s measure along the rule of his bony nose. He wore an arch smile and held his head at an angle meant to signify a weary half-amusement like that which plagued a philosophical man when he contemplated this vain human show. But it was apparent to the old mahout even with his one eye that the scarecrow was furious over the injury to his hat. His funereal clothes were of rich stuff, free of travel stains, suggesting that he maintained their appearance, and his own, with fierce determination.
The Frank reached two long fingers and a thumb into the wound in his hat, grimaced and with difficulty jerked out the dagger from the post. He turned the freed hat in his hands, suppressing the urge to stroke it, it seemed to the mahout, the way he himself would stroke the stubbled croup of a beloved dam as she expired. With an air of incalculable gravity, as if confiding the icon of a household god, the Frank passed the hat to the stripling and carried the dagger across the room to the African, who had long since returned to his bowl of stew.
“I believe, sir,” the Frank informed the African, speaking again in good Byzantine Greek, “that you have mislaid the implement required for the cleaning of your hooves.” The Frank jabbed the point of the dagger down into the table beside the shatranj board, jostling the pieces. “If I am mistaken as to the actual nature of your lower extremities, I beg you to join me in the courtyard of this house, at your leisure but preferably soon, so that, with the pedagogical instrument of your choice, you may educate me.”
The Frank waited. The one-eyed mahout and the stripling, wondering, waited. By the door to the inn yard, where the ostler leaned, whispered odds were laid and taken, and the mahout heard the clink of coins and the squeak of a chalk wielded by the ostler, a Svan who disdained the distinction between turning a profit from seeing to the comfort of his guests and that of turning one from watching them die.
“I’m sorry to report,” the African said, rising to his feet, his head brushing the beams of the sloping roof, speaking in the lilting, bastardized Greek used among the mercenary legions of the emperor at Constantinople, “that my hearing shares in the general decay of the broken-down black-assed old wreck you see before you.”
The African yanked the shard of Arab steel from the table and with it went in search of the Frank’s voice box, ending his quest no farther from the pale knuckle of the Frank’s throat than the width of the blade itself. The Frank fell back, bumping into a pair of Armenian wool factors at whom he glared as if it were some clumsiness of theirs and not his cowardly instinct for self-preservation that had cost him his footing.
“But I take your gist,” the African said, returning the dagger to his boot. On the ostler’s slate the odds began to run heavily against the Frank.
The African restored the shatranj board and pieces to a leather pouch, wiped his lips and then pushed past the Frank, past the craning heads along the benches and went out into the inn yard to kill or be killed by his insulter. As the men trooped after him into the torch-lit courtyard, carrying cups of wine, wiping their bearded chins on their forearms, the weapons belonging to the combatants were fetched from a rack in the stable.
If because of his immensity, the span of his arms and his homicidal air, and despite his protestations of senescence, which were universally regarded as gamesmanship, the betting had been inclined to favor the African before the weapons were fetched, the arming of the two men decided it. The Frank carried only a long, absurdly thin bodkin that might serve, in a pinch, to roast a couple of birds over an open fire, if they were not too plump. The travelers had a good laugh at “the tailor with his needle” and then pondered the mystery of the African’s choice of sidearm, a huge Viking ax, its haft an orgy of interpenetrating runes, the quarter-moon of its blade glowing cold, as with satisfied recollection of all the heads it had ever lopped from spouting necks.
Under the full moon of the month of Mehr, with the torches hissing, the African and the Frank circled an ambit of packed earth. The Frank minced and scissored on his walking-stick legs, the tip of his bodkin indicating the heart of the African, glancing from time to time at his own fine black boots as they threaded a course through the archipelago of camel and horse turds. The African employed an odd crabwise scuttling style of circling, knees bent, eyes fixed on the Frank, the ax held loosely in his left fist. The awkward, almost fond way they went about readying themselves to murder each other moved the old mahout, who had trained a thousand war elephants to kill and so recognized the professional quality of the interest these two combatants were taking in the fight. But the other travelers jostling under the eaves and archways of the inn yard, who knew nothing of the intimacy of slaughter, grew impatient. They jeered the combatants, urging them to hurry so they could all finish their suppers and file off to bed. Half-maddened by boredom, they doubled their wagers. Word of the duel had reached the village down the hill, and the gate of the inn yard was lively with women, children and sad-faced lean men with heroic moustaches. Boys climbed to the roof of the inn, shook their fists and hooted as the Frank and the African emptied their heads of last regrets.
Then the ax, humming, seemed to drag the African toward the belly of the Frank. Its blade caught the torchlight and scrawled an arcing rune of fire in the gloom. The Frankish scarecrow dodged, and watched, and ducked when the ax came looking for his head. He dropped to his shoulder, rolled on the ground, surprisingly adroit for a scatter-limbed scarecrow, and popped up behind the African, kicking him in the buttocks with a look on his face of such childish solemnity that the spectators again burst into laughter.
It was a contest of stamina against agility, and those who had their money on the former began with confidence in the favorite and his big Varangian ax, but the African, angered, grew gross and undiscerning in his ax-play. He shattered a huge clay jar full of rainwater, soaking a dozen outraged travelers. He splintered the wheel spokes of a hay wagon, and as the solemn Frank danced, rolled and thrust with his slender bodkin, the berserker ax bit flagstones, shedding handfuls of sparks.
The torches guttered, and the tinge of blood drained from the moon as it rose into the night sky. A boy watching the fracas from the roof leaned too far out, tumbled and broke his arm. Wine was fetched, mixed with clean water from the well and handed in bowls to the duelists, who staggered and reeled around the inn yard now, bleeding from a dozen cuts.
Then tossing aside the wine bowls, they faced each other. The watchful mahout caught a flicker in the giant African’s eyes that was not torchlight. Once more the ax dragged the African like a charger trailing a dead cavalryman by the heel. The Frank tottered backward, and then as the African heaved past he drove the square toe of his left boot into the African’s groin. All the men in the inn yard squirmed in half-willing sympathy as the African collapsed in silence onto his stomach. The Frank slid his preposterous sword into the African’s side and yanked it out again. After thrashing for a few instants, the African lay still, as his dark–though not, someone determined, black–blood muddied the ground.
The ostler signaled to a pair of grooms, and with difficulty they dragged the dead giant out to a disused stable beyond the present walls of the caravansary and threw an old camel skin over him.
The Frank straightened his cuffs and hose and reentered the caravansary, declining to accept the congratulations or good-natured japery of the losing bettors. He declined to take a drink too, and indeed melancholy seemed to overcome him in the wake of the fight, or perhaps his natural inclinations toward Northern gloom merely resumed their reign over his heart and face. He chewed his stew and took his leave. He wandered down to the stream behind the caravansary to wash his hands and face, then slipped into the derelict stable, doffing his ruined hat as if in tribute to the bravery of his opponent.
“How much?” he said as he entered the stable.
“Seventy,” the giant African replied, stringing the laces of his felt bambakion, its counterfeit bloodstains washed away in a horse trough, to the horn of his saddle. He rode a red-spotted Parthian, tall and thick-muscled, whose name was Porphyrogene. “Enough for a dozen fine new black hats for you when we get to Rhages.”
“Don’t even say the word ‘hat,’ I beg you,” the Frank said, gazing down at the hole in the high crown. “It saddens me.”
“Admit it was a fine throw.”
“Not half so fine as this hat,” the Frank said. He laid the hat aside and opened his shirt, revealing a bright laceration that ran, beaded with waxy drips of blood, across his abdomen. Flows of blood swagged his hollow belly. He looked away and gritted his teeth as the African dabbed at him with a rag, then applied a thick black paste taken from a pot that the Frank carried in his saddlebags. “I loved that hat almost as much as I love Hillel.”
At that moment the animal in question, a woolly stallion with a Roman nose and its neck a rampant arch, stubby-legged and broad in the croup, the product of some unsupervised tryst between an Arabian and a wild tarpan, gave a warning snort, and there was a scrape of leather sole against straw.
The Frank and the living African turned to the door. Expecting the ostler, thought the old elephant trainer, with their share of the take, which included four of the mahout’s own hard-won dirhams.
“You mendacious sons of bitches,” the mahout said admiringly, reaching for the hilt of his sword.
Excerpted from GENTLEMEN OF THE ROAD: A Tale of Adventure © Copyright 2011 by Michael Chabon. Reprinted with permission by Del Rey. All rights reserved.
Gentlemen of the Road: A Tale of Adventure