Read an ExcerptThe Four Quarters of the World
By Karen Mercury Medallion Press, Inc. Copyright © 2006 Karen Mercury
All right reserved.
Chapter One The First Jumma's Own
August 6, 1866 Metemma, Abyssinian Frontier
"Company, fall in!"
The Takruries drilled in English. Delphine Chambliss was roused with patriotic zeal to hear her native language shouted in the commodious market square like that-whether zeal for the Stars and Stripes, or the crowned Abyssinian Lion, it didn't matter. "English!" she thrilled, shaking the arm of her towering purple-black consort, the runaway slave Abou Bekr. A formidable, fierce man with starry patterns of cicatrices embellishing his face, Abou was also Takrury, a Soudan pilgrim like the ragtag assemblage of a hundred men who were now commanded to "order arms!"
"Yes," Abou boomed. "They have served in the Egyptian army; that is where they learned to march."
Delphine giggled to see the coarse-haired ragged men with their wild array of old muskets, some shouldering arms, some on their left, some on their right, and some, apparently the conscripts who had never been in the Coptic army, not at all. They forward marched with zesty limbs akimbo, so out of step with one another that they soon jammed up like logs sweeping downriver. The fellows at the tail of the queue stumbled, and stepped upon the heels of the men in front of them, until Delphine was certain the entire row would collapse like dominoes.
"Oh, they're so funny! Are they equally as bad at fighting?"
Abou narrowed his eyes down at her. "They are Takrury, the First Jumma's Own! Geddai is the highest proof of courage. You have seen how I fight." For emphasis, he rattled the musket he'd been using as a walking stick, the better to prop himself up and stand on one leg like a stork.
Indeed, Delphine had witnessed the remarkable spectacle of an enraged Abou Bekr running at full tilt at a lion who had been molesting their caravan, thrusting his spear down its throat, and drilling the terrifying creature all in one motion. "Oh, but I do not doubt you, dear Abou."
Abou was not soothed. His shiny forehead furrowed with discontent. "You have not heard my doomfata," he grumbled. Since Abou and the gentle and handsome Adam Rajjab had been teaching Delphine the Amharic language, Delphine knew the doomfata to be a sort of boasting contest where one sang of one's kills. A man could brag of forty geddai, the murder of forty men, but if the other man had killed even one elephant, they were considered even. A lion was good for four men, and rubbing out a hated Galla was sufficient for a whole ballad.
Delphine said, "I should very much like to, as soon as we find another warrior accomplished enough to compete with you."
Again, Abou blessed her with his smile. "Maybe Emperor Tewodros."
The clownish antics of the troops did not dishearten the admiring crowd pressing in on the market square. They whooped and hollered in ecstatic support of their soldiers, the overly zealous among them hoisting spears and marching in imitation, and in a few cases firing off their valuable ammunition.
At the "about face" half the men turned and half didn't, with the result that many banged foreheads, and even Abou finally laughed.
"Did you not get many geddai during your war between the provinces?"
For Delphine had told Abou of one man she had been compelled to shoot in Kentucky. She had not told him of the others. "Yes, a few. Not as many as you, I'm sure."
"You are very accurate with your rifle. What about your fiancé? Did he not get many geddai in the land of Franks?"
Delphine had taught Abou the word fiancé, as it was the closest she could come to describing Anatole Verlaine, Abyssinians not having much concept of love or courting, or even marriage for that matter. They seemed to just come together for lust or convenience. Aside from the Christian marriage performed by a priest which very few chose, the difficulty of divorce putting the kibosh on their ardor, there was a civil marriage, but the bonds were so tenuous as to appear more like concubinage. "Oh, no, Abou. Anatole has not even one geddai, of that I am sure. Why, he is a poet from Paris." When Abou remained expressionless, Delphine added, "A poet is a writer of ... poems. Little stanzas that men recite." Abou raised one eyebrow slightly. "Such as little songs, that one would-"
"Ah! Like verses of the Qu'ran!"
"Yes!" Delphine cried with relief. "He writes little verses."
"And he is so very famous that many people pay him to write verses?"
"Well, no. No, not many people outside of our salon ever fully appreciated the brilliance ..." Delphine resorted to muttering to herself. "The illuminated genius ... une horreur de l'hiver ..."
At that, Abou sank back into a consternated silence, and they observed the soldiers take a final half-hearted crack at marching to the rear. Delphine envied the soldiers their simple costume of closefitting knee-high white breeches and shammas, a sort of cotton toga, most with a red ribbon bordering the edge, all in various stages of decomposing from their original white to the desirable and dandified stained black. How she wished she could dress so! She had dispensed with all petticoats but one, and was now in the vanguard of French fashion in nothing more than a skirt and blouse over which she wore a basque-waist with a bolero flair to it, gold buttons, braided trim, and tassels on ropes hanging from the front breast and behind her neck. However, as it was the rain season, the rich chocolate velvet of her basque-waist "hug-me-tight" had sprouted indelible mold that couldn't be wiped away, and though they had moved from monotonous desert to the pleasant green valleys of the Abyssinian frontier, it was still swelteringly hot.
If she only had the gall to travel in the men's trousers that she adored so at home!
The populace erupted in cries of hysterical cheer, women trilled in the ululating elelta, and all went as one body racing onto the parade-ground to congratulate the future victors of Metemma. Delphine and Abou were quite dragged along, submitting with good humor to be nearly borne up into the air. Delphine almost poked out many eyes with her parasol, but the favor was repaid in kind by the propinquity of spears and lances brandished willy-nilly. Large wancha cow horns of talla, a sort of noxious beer Delphine could not be induced to try, were lifted high. Abou rudely grabbed a horn as it passed him by, as he had, along with everyone else, already paid either a Maria Theresa dollar or bars of salt for his share of the community feast.
Delphine breathed freely once most of the celebrants ran to see a cow killed. Abou was already on his second horn of talla, so she tore a chunk off her thick round hambasha loaf and handed it to him.
"Every Takrury warrior will eat and drink for his dollar," Abou shouted, so as to be heard over the caterwauling that passed for singing.
"We should leave, Abou. The caravan is resting up on the hill, and they will be much more refreshed than us if we keep eating and drinking down here." For the others in their party-some Turkish Irregulars sent by the Pasha to protect their twenty camels, some Portuguese and Indian servants, and some Massawa men for muleteers-were napping in the Imperial Residence, a barn loaned them by Sheikh Jumma.
"Yes, Curd Teeth."
Delphine had protested at this moniker at first, until she learned it was a compliment to be told your teeth were as white as curds.
Adam Rajjab pushed through the crowd, his well-made face the color of asphaltum oil paint lit with excitement, and he pointed.
Delphine caught sight of her Turkish Irregulars lifting horns of their own over by the dead cow, so she turned to where the Sheikh stood on the roof of a hut, shouting down through a cupped hand. People shushed each other, and Adam Rajjab translated the Sheikh's speech for Delphine.
"We are a strong and mighty people, unequalled in horsemanship and in the use of the spear and shield. The sight of our gunmen will strike terror into every nearby tribe." After some more of the usual long-winded bragging, the Sheikh concluded by suggesting a raid into Abyssinia would be just the thing. "We will take cows, slaves, horses, and mules, and please our master the great Negus Tewodros!"
The resulting roar of approval was so great it hurt Delphine's ears.
* * *
Djenda, NW Shore of Lake Tzana
Ravi was quite fond of Alitash for the way her bells tinkled when she moved. Her unblemished skin the color of coffee with milk was soft as an unborn calf, as was her voice, modulated sotto voce so as to excite the most prurient instincts of men.
"Ah, now, my Soft Lips," Ravi growled into the moistness between her breasts. The sun on the red silk tent imbued her with a happy gleam, as though she radiated amber. Most of the silver chains and amulets she wore around her neck were already slung back onto the silk pillows. He had to move the blue cord of her mateb, the sign of all Christians, from her bared nipple in order to moisten it with honey that he dipped from a pot. "I heard that you declined to lie with Fitawrari Hasani. Why is this?"
Alitash squirmed and giggled. "Because I only want you, Basha Falaka."
This pleased Ravi, though if it became known one of the favorites preferred only him, he would be in for an extended lecture at least, and all manner of underhanded subterfuge. When he lowered his head to lap at Alitash's nipple, she gave a squeal of joy, causing Ravi to murmur, "Ah ... El hazzaz."
"Oh!" she squeaked. "That is your Hindoo language of love that I don't understand."
He continued in Amharic, "I have let them see the effect of a subtle shadow, spinning like an everbusy spider." His penis stiffening again inside her, he began to move ever so slightly. "They said to me 'how long will you go on?' I answered them, 'I will work till I am dead'."
Laughing delightfully, Alitash flung her hands around his buttocks and urged him onward. "You will work till you are dead, Basha Falaka."
"Until I have satisfied El hazzaz-oh, Isgyoh! What now?"
A Galla eunuch kneeled obsequiously on a carpet inside the tent's door. "I do not mean to intrude, Likamaquas. But Azmach Michael says it is urgent."
"Yes." Ravi turned back to Alitash to utter his regrets, but apparently Azmach Michael imagined his issue of greater urgency, as by the time Ravi had disengaged and was wiping his erect penis with a cloth of rosewater, the annoying muttonhead had already marched his way inside Ravi's tent.
Misha stood solemnly, stolidly, as was his wont, looking as usual completely ridiculous in the shamma. Some foreigners could wear it with ease and grace, but Misha wasn't among them. With hands behind his back, he stared at a spot on the tent wall somewhere between Ravi's shield and a wooden liquor cabinet. In English he reported, "Sorry to interrupt, Rav. But there's a situation."
Ravi had stepped into his narrow tight-fitting white breeches, and had his own situation arranging his stiff penis inside the crotch. "This better be important, Misha. Not like that time you swore you saw the hyena wearing the earrings."
"No, this would be entirely unlike that time, Rav."
"Alitash here was just sharpening her pair of tongs."
"Her ...? Oh, your Hindoo love."
Donning the long white European shirt, Ravi now nudged Misha to take hold of one end of his belt while he backed across the tent to unroll it. Ravi's own belt was fifteen yards in length, but some chiefs or soldiers in the throes of super-dandyism wore them as long as sixty yards. A warrior was wound up like a top inside his belt from waist to armpit to act as armor against spear or shotel. Ravi thought it looked absurd that way, like a mummy who had taken it into his mind to start walking the face of the Earth again, so he wore his around his hips. "Yes, Hindoo love. You can learn a lot from it, Misha."
"No thank you, Rav. You know I have no heart for those strange religions. I'm just here to report that Alemu Mariam has presumed to mount a forage party into Zage."
Having cinched the belt, Ravi twirled toward Misha to wrap himself up. "Zage? Why, in God's name, when we already stayed there for three months just last winter? There's nothing left to forage."
"Exactly, which is why you need to talk to him before he sets off."
"Can you go down and stall him? I'll be right there."
Arranging his toga-like shamma over his clothes, Ravi would not be seen in public without the betoa, a silver gilt hinged cuff enclosing the right forearm, or his lion's mane mantle, arranged attractively about his shoulders. He wore his Persian shamshir, a saber with a blade inlaid in gold with long passages from the Qu'ran. The leather-covered steel scabbard with gold mountings was worn on the right, in other words the wrong side according to Europeans, so as to project out dashingly behind him, like a lion's tail. And of course, even when confronting Amharas of his own tribe, he must buckle at least one Remington into a hip holster.
He squatted next to the reposing Alitash. Lifting her delicate foot to his mouth, his tongue traced a line down her instep stained with insoosilla, a root that produced the same red tinge as henna of the East. He shook her foot a little, rattling the girdle of silver bells that encircled her arch and heel. "Stay; rest. I will be right back."
The imperial camp was situated on the most prominent conical hill above Lake Tzana, the great reservoir of the Nile. The Emperor's musketeers and spearmen blanketed other smaller eminences to the very summit. Ravi briefly glanced up at the Emperor's red flannel tent and his white silk pavilion, flanked on the right by the church tent, on the left by his favorite of the day, at the moment Woizero Yetemagnu. Down the hill in descending order of importance were the tents of the Ras Engeddeh, the Dejazmachs, the martial Fitawraris, and the commanders of the left and right. He saw no sign of stirring save the millings of valets and attendants-he knew it would be so at this time of day, already well into the afternoon. Of late Tewodros had taken to napping after noon, drinking arrack and striking fear into those around him, so very few ventured near. One never knew in what mood he would emerge from his tent-ebullient, demanding entertainment, or dark eyes flaring with rage.
As Tewodros's Likamaquas, a sort of chamberlain and commander of horse who dressed as him in battle to draw enemy fire, Ravi was one of the few who still broached the Imperial threshold. Today he didn't bother mentioning Alemu Mariam's expedition to Tewodros, especially as swarms of black-bottomed anvil clouds were sweeping up the valley, casting forked barbs of lightning behind the sunny buttes.
In his horse-tent he accepted his horse from his groom, and loped down the hill past officers' tents, cooking fires, goats and chickens scattering in his path. He found Misha, Alemu Mariam, and about seventy soldiers on the lip of a butte that dropped off into the lake. Hailo brandished a shotel obtained from the body of a dead Tigréan, a ridiculously flimsy hooked blade one could only inflict injury with by ducking and bouncing in awkward ways.
"Likamaquas." Alemu Mariam touched his sword to soil and made a small bow. "Azmach Michael says you have some ideas for my expedition. I wish to hear them."
Not bothering to dismount, Ravi bellowed, "That is a new tactic coming from you, Alemu Mariam. I did not see you wishing to hear my ideas when you stood on one leg reciting the Book of Job."
Laughing with new confidence, Alemu looked at the men. "It is well-known that the Likamaquas is not a religious man. He doesn't keep the Sabbath or fast, and he eats hare and wild boar."
Only a few men were bold enough to nod. Ravi smiled imperiously. "That is well-known. There is nothing more savory than a hare stew with cayenne pepper and rice." More men nodded with enthusiasm at the mention of food. "And we will find no hare, nor cattle, nor teff flour if we follow this holy man who thinks he can set fire to his enemy's camp a mile away with a cheap burning-glass."
Two dozen soldiers now had the gall to guffaw aloud, Misha among them. "Yes, yes," chortled one, shaking his neighbor's arm. "He thought a tiny glass could start a fire down on the plain."
"Because he burned some ants with it ..."
"Enough!" snapped Alemu Mariam, rattling his shotel, but the men kept chuckling. "What does this have to do with my expedition to Zage?"
Ravi could smell the rain before it hit them. He was fascinated with how it darkened the sheet of lake like an advancing wall of locusts, as though closing the door on the sun. "Because there is no food left in Zage. The good people gave us all they had last winter." That was a neat misrepresentation-they had looted and pillaged the province forty-six ways to Sunday. "There hasn't been enough time for them to grow anything. No, I propose a forage party in a new direction. All men with fire feet meet back here in an hour; we travel in the rain, with no women." He looked pointedly at Alemu Mariam when he said, "The man who handles a lance and does not come to this expedition is a woman and no more a man."
Excerpted from The Four Quarters of the World by Karen Mercury Copyright © 2006 by Karen Mercury. Excerpted by permission.
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