In the day’s last light the glowing lake
In the day’s last light the glowing lake below the palace-city looked like a sea of molten gold. A traveler coming this way at sunset –this traveler, coming this way, now, along the lakeshore road–might believe himself to be approaching the throne of a monarch so fabulously wealthy that he could allow a portion of his treasure to be poured into a giant hollow in the earth to dazzle and awe his guests. And as big as the lake of gold was, it must be only a drop drawn from the sea of the larger fortune–the traveler’s imagination could not begin to grasp the size of that mother-ocean! Nor were there guards at the golden water’s edge; was the king so generous, then, that he allowed all his subjects, and perhaps even strangers and visitors like the traveler himself, without hindrance to draw up liquid bounty from the lake? That would indeed be a prince among men, a veritable Prester John, whose lost kingdom of song and fable contained impossible wonders. Perhaps (the traveler surmised) the fountain of eternal youth lay within the city walls–perhaps even the legendary doorway to Paradise on Earth was somewhere close at hand? But then the sun fell below the horizon, the gold sank beneath the water’s surface, and was lost. Mermaids and serpents would guard it until the return of daylight. Until then, water itself would be the only treasure on offer, a gift the thirsty traveler gratefully accepted.
The stranger rode in a bullock-cart, but instead of being seated on the rough cushions therein he stood up like a god, holding on to the rail of the cart’s latticework wooden frame with one insouciant hand. A bullock-cart ride was far from smooth, the two-wheeled cart tossing and jerking to the rhythm of the animal’s hoofs, and subject, too, to the vagaries of the highway beneath its wheels. A standing man might easily fall and break his neck. Nevertheless the traveler stood, looking careless and content. The driver had long ago given up shouting at him, at first taking the foreigner for a fool–if he wanted to die on the road, let him do so, for no man in this country would be sorry! Quickly, however, the driver’s scorn had given way to a grudging admiration. The man might indeed be foolish, one could go so far as to say that he had a fool’s overly pretty face and wore a fool’s unsuitable clothes–a coat of colored leather lozenges, in such heat!–but his balance was immaculate, to be wondered at. The bullock plodded forward, the cart’s wheels hit potholes and rocks, yet the standing man barely swayed, and managed, somehow, to be graceful. A graceful fool, the driver thought, or perhaps no fool at all. Perhaps someone to be reckoned with. If he had a fault, it was that of ostentation, of seeking to be not only himself but a performance of himself as well, and, the driver thought, around here everybody is a little bit that way too, so maybe this man is not so foreign to us after all. When the passenger mentioned his thirst the driver found himself going to the water’s edge to fetch the fellow a drink in a cup made of a hollowed and varnished gourd, and holding it up for the stranger to take, for all the world as if he were an aristocrat worthy of service.
"You just stand there like a grandee and I jump and scurry at your bidding," the driver said, frowning. "I don’t know why I’m treating you so well. Who gave you the right to command me? What are you, anyway? Not a nobleman, that’s for sure, or you wouldn’t be in this cart. And yet you have airs about you. So you’re probably some kind of a rogue." The other drank deeply from the gourd. The water ran down from the edges of his mouth and hung on his shaven chin like a liquid beard. At length he handed back the empty gourd, gave a sigh of satisfaction, and wiped the beard away. "What am I?" he said, as if speaking to himself, but using the driver’s own language. "I’m a man with a secret, that’s what–a secret which only the emperor’s ears may hear." The driver felt reassured: the fellow was a fool after all. There was no need to treat him with respect. "Keep your secret," he said. "Secrets are for children, and spies." The stranger got down from the cart outside the caravanserai, where all journeys ended and began. He was surprisingly tall and carried a carpetbag. "And for sorcerers," he told the driver of the bullock-cart. "And for lovers too. And kings."
In the caravanserai all was bustle and hum. Animals were cared for, horses, camels, bullocks, asses, goats, while other, untamable animals ran wild: screechy monkeys, dogs that were no man’s pets. Shrieking parrots exploded like green fireworks in the sky. Blacksmiths were at work, and carpenters, and in chandleries on all four sides of the enormous square men planned their journeys, stocking up on groceries, candles, oil, soap, and ropes. Turbaned coolies in red shirts and dhotis ran ceaselessly hither and yon with bundles of improbable size and weight upon their heads. There was, in general, much loading and unloading of goods. Beds for the night were to be cheaply had here, wood-frame rope beds covered with spiky horsehair mattresses, standing in military ranks upon the roofs of the single-story buildings surrounding the enormous courtyard of the caravanserai, beds where a man might lie and look up at the heavens and imagine himself divine. Beyond, to the west, lay the murmuring camps of the emperor’s regiments, lately returned from the wars. The army was not permitted to enter the zone of the palaces but had to stay here at the foot of the royal hill. An unemployed army, recently home from battle, was to be treated with caution. The stranger thought of ancient Rome. An emperor trusted no soldiers except his praetorian guard. The traveler knew that the question of trust was one he would have to answer convincingly. If he did not he would quickly die.
Not far from the caravanserai, a tower studded with elephant tusks marked the way to the palace gate. All elephants belonged to the emperor, and by spiking a tower with their teeth he was demonstrating his power. Beware! the tower said. You are entering the realm of the Elephant King, a sovereign so rich in pachyderms that he can waste the gnashers of a thousand of the beasts just to decorate me. In the tower’s display of might the traveler recognized the same quality of flamboyance that burned upon his own forehead like a flame, or a mark of the Devil; but the maker of the tower had transformed into strength that quality which, in the traveler, was often seen as a weakness. Is power the only justification for an extrovert personality? the traveler asked himself, and could not answer, but found himself hoping that beauty might be another such excuse, for he was certainly beautiful, and knew that his looks had a power of their own.
Beyond the tower of the teeth stood a great well and above it a mass of incomprehensibly complex waterworks machinery that served the many-cupolaed palace on the hill. Without water we are nothing, the traveler thought. Even an emperor, denied water, would swiftly turn to dust. Water is the real monarch and we are all its slaves. Once at home in Florence he had met a man who could make water disappear. The conjuror filled a jug to the brim, muttered magic words, turned the jug over and, instead of liquid, fabric spilled forth, a torrent of colored silken scarves. It was a trick, of course, and before that day was done he, the traveler, had coaxed the fellow’s secret out of him, and had hidden it among his own mysteries. He was a man of many secrets, but only one was fit for a king.
The road to the city wall rose quickly up the hillside and as he rose with it he saw the size of the place at which he had arrived. Plainly it was one of the grand cities of the world, larger, it seemed to his eye, than Florence or Venice or Rome, larger than any town the traveler had ever seen. He had visited London once; it too was a lesser metropolis than this. As the light failed the city seemed to grow. Dense neighborhoods huddled outside the walls, muezzins called from their minarets, and in the distance he could see the lights of large estates. Fires began to burn in the twilight, like warnings. From the black bowl of the sky came the answering fires of the stars. As if the earth and the heavens were armies preparing for battle, he thought. As if their encampments lie quiet at night and await the war of the day to come. And in all these warrens of streets and in all those houses of the mighty, beyond, on the plains, there was not one man who had heard his name, not one who would readily believe the tale he had to tell. Yet he had to tell it. He had crossed the world to do so, and he would.
He walked with long strides and attracted many curious glances, on account of his yellow hair as well as his height, his long and admittedly dirty yellow hair flowing down around his face like the golden water of the lake. The path sloped upward past the tower of the teeth toward a stone gate upon which two elephants in bas- relief stood facing each other. Through this gate, which was open, came the noises of human beings at play, eating, drinking, carousing. There were soldiers on duty at the Hatyapul gate but their stances were relaxed. The real barriers lay ahead. This was a public place, a place for meetings, purchases, and pleasure. Men hurried past the traveler, driven by hungers and thirsts. On both sides of the flagstoned road between the outer gate and the inner were hostelries, saloons, food stalls, and hawkers of all kinds. Here was the eternal business of buying and being bought. Cloths, utensils, baubles, weapons, rum. The main market lay beyond the city’s lesser, southern gate. City dwellers shopped there and avoided this place, which was for ignorant newcomers who did not know the real price of things. This was the swindlers’ market, the thieves’ market, raucous, overpriced, contemptible. But tired travelers, not knowing the plan of the city, and reluctant, in any case, to walk all the way around the outer walls to the larger, fairer bazaar, had little option but to deal with the merchants by the elephant gate. Their needs were urgent and simple.
Live chickens, noisy with fear, hung upside down, fluttering, their feet tied together, awaiting the pot. For vegetarians there were other, more silent cook-pots; vegetables did not scream. And were those women’s voices the traveler could hear on the wind, ululating, teasing, enticing, laughing at unseen men? Were those women he scented upon the evening breeze? It was too late to go looking for the emperor tonight, in any case. The traveler had money in his pocket and had made a long, roundabout journey. This way was his way: to move toward his goal indirectly, with many detours and divagations. Since landing at Surat he had traveled by way of Burhanpur, Handia, Sironj, Narwar, Gwalior, and Dholpur to Agra, and from Agra to this, the new capital. Now he wanted the most comfortable bed that could be had, and a woman, preferably one without a mustache, and finally a quantity of the oblivion, the escape from self, that can never be found in a woman’s arms but only in good strong drink.
Later, when his desires had been satisfied, he slept in an odorous whorehouse, snoring lustily next to an insomniac tart, and dreamed. He could dream in seven languages: Italian, Spanish, Arabic, Persian, Russian, English, and Portuguese. He had picked up languages the way most sailors picked up diseases; languages were his gonorrhea, his syphilis, his scurvy, his ague, his plague. As soon as he fell asleep half the world started babbling in his brain, telling wondrous travelers’ tales. In this half-discovered world every day brought news of fresh enchantments. The visionary, revelatory dream-poetry of the quotidian had not yet been crushed by blinkered, prosy fact. Himself a teller of tales, he had been driven out of his door by stories of wonder, and by one in particular, a story which could make his fortune or else cost him his life.
Excerpted from THE ENCHANTRESS OF FLORENCE © Copyright 2011 by Salman Rushdie. Reprinted with permission by Random House Trade Paperbacks. All rights reserved.
The Enchantress of Florence