The Rat Tunnels of Isfahan — Excerpt
It just stood there, a living statue, of onyx along the back, and the color of desert sand in the legs and claws. Its tail, of linked amber blocks with the aspect of unpolished jewels, tapered and grew darker along its length to the last segment, which glowed dull red as if it held a ruby inside. It looked hard, its shell unbreakable, its soul impenetrable. No longer than a fig, no wider than an apricot, it nevertheless might as well have been a jackal, for the way it seemed to take up all the space inside my cell, and commanded my full attention. In a senseless stupor, I felt myself actually drawn toward it — drawn by some perverse instinct to tempt Asi — Lady Fortune. Was I? I was: leaning my head and closing the distance between us by degrees, holding my breath, the scorpion’s perfect stillness pulling me closer. But I shuddered and, drawing breath, allowed my cautious nature to prevail over my morbid curiosity, and pushed myself back from the creature. Then I questioned my senses, because although I knew better, I feared that the scorpion had taken a few tiny steps in pursuit of me. Where were the guards?
The scorpion had wandered into my cell several minutes earlier, under the door perhaps, or through the narrow slit in the wall, high overhead. I didn’t see it enter; I only noticed it as it stalked to the middle of my cell. While its legs rose and fell in a coordinated haunt, its body, tail, and dangling ruby stinger seemed to glide across the ground like a leaf floating down a gentle river. Smaller than a man’s palm, with its eight legs flexed at sharp angles, it stood unmoving, its stinger poised and impossible to miss. This little khrafstra was known to all desert dwellers: the Red Scorpion of India, author of the Three-Day Death. I had to keep it in my sights, but I had to look away from it.
Shifting my gaze, looking past my unwelcome visitor, I glanced at the filthy bucket in the far corner of my cell. Behind it, I had in my possession a precious stash comprising one large rock and three small ones — for self-defense, not against the guards of course, but against other prisoners. Stones were hard to come by; the basalt walls and floor didn’t chip easily. But having them, especially a big one you could smash with, often made the difference. So I was glad to have them. And my big rock was just what I needed right then, but the capricious Lady Asi had to have her little joke; it was she who must have guided the scorpion right between me and my filthy bucket, and the precious rocks it concealed. Where were the guards?
The guards always came for us when there were clashes outside — tribal clashes, over pillaging and raiding rights along the trade route that connected Isfahan to Yazd; tribal clashes like the one that raged in the desert valley below. The horses, the chariots, the burly men and women flinging themselves at each other, laden with armor, swinging axes and swords… a pleasure to watch; our sole diversion in this forsaken, starless prison, this waiting room for death or madness.
Streaming through a narrow vertical gap carved at twice my height, a sliver of white light blasted the inner wall of my cell, telling me mid-morning had come. Where the sun hit it, the stone glowed silvery blue, while a dull, dark grey pressed in from all sides, and deep shadows haunted the corners. My cell had no bed; the filthy bucket was my chamber pot. The ceiling was high, and the cell measured seven paces by five, so there was ample room, but the tedium of staring at those stone walls from daybreak to nightfall was a yoke around the neck, fixed too tight, always squeezing the throat. On the hottest days, one struggled to draw breath. At night, the darkness in our cells was oppressive, and terror frequently set in; one heard screaming most nights.
I felt like screaming just then, my guts heaving and my chest constricting as the scorpion repositioned itself, tapping its many legs two or three times quickly and turning in a half circle. It felt as though my skin was shrinking and shriveling all over my body as the thing shifted from facing the door, to facing me directly. Was it watching me? Did it know I was watching it? I glanced away and strained to listen for the sounds of cell doors opening, or of guards in the hallways, but kept the beast in the corner of my vision. A man wailing, the sound of the wind in the hall, tribal men and women ululating outside and far below… but no guards. I looked back at my bucket. I could trap the scorpion underneath it, or I could try to smash it with my rock, but I would have to get past the scorpion first. How fast could a scorpion move? Would it beat me there? Would it attack me as I passed it? I was beaten and I knew it. I wasn’t crazy.
I wasn’t crazy. Not like most of the tortured souls I shared the prison with. Some wandered, muttering and bumping into walls. Some sat unmoving for hours, staring into a darkness even the desert sun couldn’t penetrate, their eyes seeing but not seeing, ears hearing but not listening. And a sad few would break; they would weep, and rock, and cry out. These were the broken: shuffling from place to place, barely eating, barely drinking, numbly watching the flesh drip from their bones, oblivious to the blood slowing in their veins.
One of these, an older prisoner called Jangi the Brave (a joke by the guards) struggled to eat on his own, and was at times prone to fits of abject fear and panic. They were cruel to this one. I used to help him eat, placing bits of food on his tongue, tilting his head back and massaging his jowls until he swallowed. Once, when I tried bringing him water in my cup, a guard who hated Jangi struck the cup from my hands and then struck me in the gut for good measure. I was refused a replacement for the cup, but when they weren’t looking, I brought Jangi water anyway, carrying it carefully in my hands. In rare, lucid moments, he told me about his life as a guard in the court of the cruel prince Shapur.
“He ordered us to beat men who were already in chains. Had us burn the feet of those he deemed his enemies, ordered us to cut out their eyes and tongues, even to scalp them. This is not the Persian way,” he said.
“However did you come to be in this place?” I asked him once.
“The prince,” he replied, speaking cautiously, searching, pausing after certain words, “declared as his enemy a small child.” His lower lip trembling, Jangi cleared his throat and continued. “The son he was, this boy, of a nomad who followed his Sheikh into battle against us.”
“What did the prince order you to do?”
“His father: killed before the boy’s eyes. The boy was no more than 5.”
“And the prince’s order…?”
Jangi only shook his head. “Not the Persian way.”
“You refused to carry out his order,” I said. He lowered his eyes and lifted one of his gnarled hands an inch or two from his lap. The hand shook as he tried to make a fist. Jangi opened his mouth to speak, but only a pinched groan issued from his throat, which I knew to mean that he was fading from his thoughts again.
The guards stopped letting me help Jangi. One day, he spat up a bit of rice, and it landed on a guard’s foot. Infuriated, the guard ordered him to be taken to the Pit for punishment — As they wrenched him from his chair, one of the guards parted the hair behind Jangi’s head, and there, on the back of his neck, was tattooed in black ink the aleph:
Gesturing at the symbol, one guard barked an order, and another produced a short knife, its folded-steel blade glinting in the bold light that streamed through the slit in the far wall. In rough, brutish strokes, the guard sheared Jangi’s white hair until only a few close-cropped patches remained. His scalp bled in several places, where the guard’s careless cutting had nicked and sliced the skin, as they dragged him out of the chamber and into a dim tunnel leading deeper into the mountain.
One of the prisoners, a devious jailer’s pet with more teeth remaining and more flesh on his bones than any other inmate, recognized my perplexity. He smiled with a contemptuous curl of the lip and said, “He is marked. You were a fool to be kind to him.” Stroking his belly, which paunched through his gleaming white jubba, the man observed me, seeming to enjoy my distress at watching Jangi being taken. I turned back to face him and he chuckled. He added, with derision and disdain driving his gravelly voice down in pitch, “He has been to the Pit once before, and they marked him that time.” My hand went to the back of my own neck. Caressing the skin there, I felt the raised bumps of my own aleph tattoo. The jailer’s pet broke into sensuous laughter.
“You also have been once to the Pit already? Then you were even more foolish to help the old, brave soldier.” Drawing a deep breath, he stepped closer to me and, his jaw trembling with delight, he pointed after Jangi and said with relish, “And now they shave him and see he is marked. So, your friend is lost — unless his hair grow back before he die from the wanting of water, no?” He cackled so that his warm, fetid breath bathed my face. “Your beloved dôst will not return from his second visit to the pit.”
He was right; I never saw Jangi after that.