Cities of the East


Michael Edwards

...The young man with flaming red hair and piercing green eyes was led in chains to the center of a small village in West Africa, where he was tied to a large tree that marked the village square.  The village was deserted, and the houses surrounding the square were in a state of decay.  A tall man, who appeared to be the leader of the men who captured him, moved forward to address him.

"Do you know why you're here?" the man asked in English.

"Of course," the prisoner answered matter-of- factly.  "Because I trade in slaves."

"That explains why you were taken prisoner - not why you're here," the man offered.  "Look around," he said.  "What do you see?"

"Nothing," the prisoner replied.  "Just some deserted houses."

"Yes: nothing," the man confirmed.  "Because nothing is left of what used to be a flourishing village.  It was destroyed by those like you who, after half a century of peace and freedom, decided we were a nation of uncivilized savages who, like our ancestors, were fit only to serve the white man."

"I never thought that," the prisoner admitted.

"Then why did you take us as slaves?"

"For the adventure," the prisoner answered unhesitatingly.

"You destroy our homes, steal our young men and women, leave our children and our parents to fend for themselves, or else kill them outright - all for adventure?  Not even for profit, or because you felt yourself our superior?  For adventure?"

The prisoner looked puzzled, as if his captor were challenging a creed he had taken as self-evident.  He had no answer, other than to question the concept that rocked the foundation of everything he believed.  But he had no words for his question, only a blank stare that begged for an explanation.

"I have no means of expressing my way of life," the prisoner finally said.  "So you may as well go ahead and kill me now."

The man raised the spear he was carrying and thrust it to within inches of the prisoner's chest.  Then he withdrew it.

"You show no fear," the man observed.

"I've never been run through with a spear," the prisoner explained.  "I've seen others run through, seen the pain in their faces, heard their cries.  But I've never experienced it, so I have no fear of it."

"You will know fear before the night is over," the man warned.  "When you took those who protected this village, the animals that share this land with us sensed it.  Our people became easy prey for them in times of hunger, when their natural prey was scarce.  Such a time is now.  Leopards and panthers now roam this land freely, and visit this village nightly in hopes of finding yet another to prey upon.  They will return tonight.  They will find only you.  You, who preyed upon us, will become their prey tonight.  They may kill you quickly, or they may fight over you, tearing you apart piece by piece.  I hope you die quickly, rather than suffer for hours as some of our parents did.  Why I hope it, I'm not sure, except that I believe you have no idea how evil your way of life is.  I should hate you more for that but I pity you instead, to bring so much misery to others without the slightest idea how abominable it is.  Now it is almost dark; it is almost time.  May your God, who sanctions the enslavement of my people a second time, have mercy on you - because my gods will not."

Soon the men were gone, leaving their prisoner alone, tied with thick ropes to the tree.  He watched as the last of the day's light was absorbed into a thick black gel, from which came a thousand sounds from all around him.  The sounds of night, which had taken the place of daylight as the dominant expression of life.  Some of the sounds, in the strength of their cadence, momentarily obliterated lesser sounds, then died down, allowing other sounds to again come forward.  This went on for several hours before another sound, different not only in pitch but in the quality of its creation, drowned out every other sound - not because of its volume but because of its significance.  It was the sound of footsteps, soft, almost inaudible, yet pounding against the prisoner's eardrums to where he could hear nothing else.  It was the walk of night cats, on the prowl.  And they had found the village square.

They grew louder and louder, these steps, as the leopards and panthers drew closer, though the paws that made them moved so sure-footed through the jungle they seemed to barely touch the ground.  But the prisoner heard them; and though they knew he heard them they still approached softly, as if to surprise their prey.  He heard them closing in on him, then he heard them all around him.  Then they stopped.  He could sense claws being unsheathed, reaching out into the night.  Then he felt something sharp at his back, then at his chest, his legs, his arms, his neck, and finally his throat.

In the morning the men who had tied the prisoner to the tree returned.  They found him lying naked on the ground beside the tree.  His tattered clothes, along with the torn and frayed rope, lay heaped around him.  This was unlike anything they had ever seen.  They approached to get a closer look, then leaped back as a strange noise arose from the ground - a noise as familiar as their own names made suddenly strange by the circumstances of its creation.  The sound of breathing.  They looked around but saw nothing.  Then they again approached the prisoner, still unable to comprehend what lay so clearly before them.  There were no marks on him, neither scratches nor gouges; there was no blood covering him or on the ground beneath or around him.  Then he stirred.

He rolled over onto his back and yawned, slowly opening his eyes.  Looking up, he saw the men staring down at him as if seeing some strange new kind of species.  He flashed a brilliant smile and started to get up.  The man who had addressed him in the twilight before leaving him to be eaten extended his hand.  The prisoner took it and was helped to his feet.

"What has happened here?" the man asked.  "The night cats ate anyone they found.  They even broke through our doors to eat our parents.  Why were you spared?"

"They only killed the weak and helpless," the prisoner explained.

"You were helpless," the man reminded him.

"They had work for me to do," came the reply.  "If I live," he added, looking at the drawn spear.

The man immediately threw his spear down.  "No one in this land will lift a hand against you," he promised.  "You are blessed."

"You will not regret it," the prisoner, in turn, promised.  Then he reached down, picked up the spear, and, taking it in both hands, slashed his own throat deeply enough to draw blood.  Then he returned the spear to its owner.

"I have no right to leave this place unscarred," he said.  "My wound is nothing compared to the wounds I inflicted on your land.  I will never return to my old ways.  The big cats made me see it was evil.  They made me promise never again to hurt your people.  I swear to you - on the living souls of my brothers - that I will fight this evil till the last day of my life!  I will not rest so long as one single ship carries one single slave across the sea.  May my blood turn to sand if I ever go back on my promise.  I would dishonor not only you and your people but my own brothers as well."

The man nodded his acceptance of everything the prisoner said.  "We, who have lived here since the beginning of time, have only come to understand the ways of the night cats by watching them over the centuries," he told the prisoner.  "But, in a single night, they revealed their very souls to you.  You are indeed blessed.  What will you do now?" the man asked.

"Find my way back to the sea," the prisoner replied.

"But your ship sank," he was reminded.  "You were washed ashore miles from here."

"There are other ships."

"Slave ships like yours," the man said.

"I'll find one that's not," the prisoner promised.

"You must come with us to our camp," the man decided.  "You must be fed and clothed before we can let you leave.

The young man was led to a place deep in the jungle, where he stayed for three days before setting out to find another ship.  His captors accompanied him almost to the shoreline before turning back.

"Our lives have been enriched by meeting you," the man said.

"And mine has been changed forever," said the young man.

Just as he was readying to depart, the man took one final look at this young man who had metamorphosized from his enemy to become his prisoner and, finally, his protector.

"It is customary to give someone who has blessed us with his presence a special name, that has magic powers," the man related.  "I can find no name more magical than the one you have.  Share your name with us as you have your blessings."

The young man with flaming hair smiled at his captors.  "I am Sandy," he told them.

"Then Sandy will be our most magical name from this day on."