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11 Feb

Shell Game

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The streets are full of dust and ashes. Shutterless buildings claw at the sky like so many bleached bones. Tendrils of wind-blown sand coil through empty gardens. The desert tightens its grip.

I remember a late evening in the back room of my uncle’s workshop. The trader, with skin like cracked bark and blue eyes sparkling between the folds of his keffiyeh, laughing like a rattle of stones as a handful of cowry was tossed across the table. As a boy I had never seen such wealth! My uncle feigned nonchalance, but I could see the tremor of his hand and feel his exhilaration.
The city was scarcely worth the description, then. Far from the sea, a huddle of mud brick and sandstone slouched against the edge of the desert, existing solely because of the good farmland bordering the river. Grains and vegetables grew in abundance, and the river yielded fish, fowl and a little shellfish. My father raised goats that I would tend when I was not learning my uncle’s trade.

It is a long process, making the best cloth. The tall flax plants with their pale blue flowers must be cut and dried, then immersed in the slow-moving river water for a week or two, then dried for months and immersed again. Too short a soak will give you cloth that is rough and uncomfortable; too long will render the flax weak and useless. Next, it must be scraped and split and spun before it is finally woven and dyed. It is an art, and my uncle was truly an artist. The best cloth takes colour very well, and even though the city was not as large or as wealthy as others, we thought ourselves the best dressed!

Before the traders came, business was often done on a man’s word, for what man would be foolish enough to break his word? But a man’s word is as light as air when weighed against hard cowry. Their money brought us fine pottery, new spices and precious metals. And, from everywhere, it also brought us people!

I remember a market heaving with people, a fluttering patchwork of coloured stalls. Traders vied for the ear of the crowd in half a dozen languages: tools and wine and clothing and everything imaginable for a price. And the food! Hot and spicy. and never the same twice! The streets were alive with music and colour, and it seemed every week another family or group of labourers would arrive.

And so the city – and my uncle’s trade – grew. More and more of our farmland was filled with pale blue flowers at harvest time, and we built out into the desert, the better to conserve space for our crops. New houses were everywhere. Most were small and crude – the dwellings of field-workers and weavers and all the other little trades that clustered around the flax industry. But some were huge, with courtyards, gardens and many servants.

My uncle aspired to one of the big houses, but though his cloth was some of the best, real wealth was always held by the land owners, merchants and priests. It seemed as though every year the market lords would raise their fees, or there would be a new temple levy. Still, we did well from the extra trade, and before my uncle departed the world I had a young wife and a house of my own.

I remember the first time the harvest failed. We had sufficient stores of flax straw to tide us through a bad year, but food became very expensive at the market. The river was fished clean, and many goats had to be slaughtered. Then the crops were good again, and my wife bore me a healthy son.

With a few good seasons the merchants raised their rates, and the land owners were already charging so much that we were forced to plant two crops a year. The ground had little time to rest, and before long the harvest failed again. And again. The desert swallowed up the exhausted edges of our farmland, forcing us to rely more on less.

The number of beggars in the streets grew quickly. Listless and sunken, their plaintive cries could be heard across the city. Like so many, my only concern was avoiding their fate, and I bargained hard in the half-empty marketplace with my dwindling stock.

So concerned was I with my own problems that I failed to notice the first departure from the city. One of the big houses packed up and left, taking possessions and servants and leaving the house to be claimed by squatters. In another month a second departed, and then another, and suddenly they were almost all gone. So much of the wealth of the city went with them. Times were hard.
Only one corner of the market remained in use, and I went hungry for the first time since my childhood. We discussed leaving the city, but my wife and I decided to remain. A single good season was all we needed, and surely one would come soon. We slept and fasted and hoped. The months passed slowly, and more and more of our friends moved on. My hesitation  seems so foolish to me now.

I remember the night they came across the desert. Much of the city guard had left with the retinue of the merchants and landowners, and those that remained were simply too few. I remember the thunder of hooves, the crash of weapons, the fire. I remember my young son’s scream as they gutted him, and the heat of the fire as I fought to get to my wife. I remember the taste of blood and the sharp sting of the embers that burned through my clothes. I remember the sword, curved and bright, and the dark face of the man who took my eyes.
I remember the clamour of the market, the firm hand of my uncle on my shoulder. We have stopped to watch a man crouched in the centre of a small crowd. A game is being played. A date stone darts across the mat, appearing and disappearing beneath three chipped cups. The small crowd chatters excitedly, and some take up the bet.

“See how they crowd around” my uncle says. The man’s hands are a blur. “They think they have discovered the secret. But look well, my boy; those cheering the loudest are risking nothing, and only the one who controls the game ever wins.” He chuckles. “And as for the rest; their blindness will be their undoing.”

I remember, but my memories grow faint.

The desert tightens its grip. {w}

By Reuben Cox

Last modified on Sunday, 10 February 2013 14:10

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