Chapter 11: Turnip Soup
Later that Day
Basha sat with her grandmother, Baba, in the kitchen while they ate chicken and turnip soup.
“Did I ever tell you the story of Little Jan Tovich?” Baba asked as she sucked some of the soup from her wooden bowl.
“I don’t think so,” said Basha as she looked sadly into her own bowl. Usually she loved Baba’s chicken soup but on that night she missed her father, and she grieved for Joseph and her appetite had gone.
“If you want that baby in your tummy to keep growing, you’d better eat something,” said Baba. “Little Jan’s family, they wouldn’t have said no to a bowl of chicken soup. Do you know the story of Little Jan?”
Basha shook her head.
“It was a year like this one. It had been a wet summer, a lean winter and a hungry spring. Jan had a sister and mother and a father. And his father he went hunting and caught a hare. He took it home to his wife and asked her to cook it for him. So his wife put the hare into the pot. She had a few things saved away, a pinch of Russian salt, a cut of wild parsley, some leaves of spring garlic, and even one droopy little turnip. Into the pot it all went.
“Now as the soup began to boil and then to simmer, its aroma filled the good woman’s nostrils and she thought to herself, it is very near ready, and I had better just taste the hare to make certain sure it is soft. And soft it was. She was very hungry and she thought she had better taste more to make sure it was soft all over and before long she had tasted it all away. All of a sudden she realised what she had done. There would be no food for her husband or her children, and she was sure that her husband would give her a terrible beating. So she called out to little Jan, and when the boy came into the kitchen, she cut his throat, skinned him, gutted him and threw him into the pot. The good man enjoyed his super very much and so little Jan was eaten by his father and that was the end of him.”
“Grandmother,” said Basha, “that’s a horrible story. Is that supposed to give me my appetite back?”
“It’s supposed to warn you,” said Baba, “about what people are capable of when they’re hungry enough. Now something is on your mind that you’re not telling me. Now, spit it out and eat your soup.”
Baba chewed back a mushy turnip with her toothless gums. “That man is a steaming pile of pig shit,” she said.
“Grandmother, maybe he can be reasoned with. Maybe there is something he wants.”
“What he wants,” said Baba, pointing a chicken bone at her granddaughter, “is to get inside your cunny. And once he’s used you foully he’ll have your father dance the gibbet just the same. I know his type. Don’t think about visiting that pig eating brute.”
“But, grandmother, could he not be tempted by some of Papa’s gold.”
“You listen to me, child,” said the old woman. “I was once a pretty wee slip of a thing like you. One year the harvest was bad, the folk were hungry, and then there was a pox. It was a bad year. And I tell you when the times are good the Christians are filled with smiles and silver for your wares. But when the times are hard something changes in them. They look at you like it was you to blame, even though you may be hungry too. They become like animals, beasts, and he who once would smile at you on the street will spit at you and call you a witch and a Christ killer. He’ll take from you everything he can and he’ll give nothing back. Now eat up your soup, child, and for the love Yahweh don’t look at it like that. There are no bits of babies floating around in it. I have no mind to prove Christian nonsense true.”
Peter was cleaning his teeth with a stick, when Sokol entered his tent accompanied by a dirty weaselally looking villager.
“He insisted on coming to see you,” said Sokol, “says he has something for your ears alone.”
“Very good,” said Peter, “what have you to tell me?”
The peasant fell on to his knees. “I wanted to thank you my lord, for the mercy you showed to our village. In exchange I bring tidings of interest.”
“I’m listening,” said Peter.
“I was wandering in the woods this morning. I poach rabbits on the king’s land. Now the forest, lakes and hunting grounds there belong to the Turks.”
“Go on,” said Peter.
“When I went up to the forest this morning, I saw a pavilion. It was like something from a dream, cloth so light, and so bright a colour I’ve never seen. And there was a Turkish lord, richer than any Christian I’ve laid eyes upon. It was like his body was covered in gold and gemstone. He was hunting. He had men with him, but not so many. I would think, if a noble, Christian warrior like you were to ambush him you would win enough wealth to buy your heart’s desire. I can lead you there. I know the path.”
As the man fell silent the late summer rain blew from the north, and the sound of a hungry, crying baby carried through the rickety village.
Ibrahim Pasha sat in his tent, enjoying the warmth of the night. What a fantastic idea to survey the newly won lands, hunt in its plentiful forests, and dispense charity to its suffering poor. A slave entered and prostrated himself before Ibrahim
“Here it is master,” the slave pushed forward a black lacquer box, “the finest Persian hashish, infused with sugar and rosewater.”
The heady aroma of the intoxicating resin filled Ibrahim’s nose. A quiver of excitement ran through him. He took one of the dark round balls and put it into his mouth. The sugar and rosewater did little to mask the oily, dirty flavour of the hash but Ibrahim quickly swallowed.
The slave poured him tea. He watched as the red liquid swirled in the glass cup.
Ibrahim had lost track of time. He was walking in the forest when he realised that the hashish had been fully digested. This realisation came simultaneously with the revelation that he needed to write more. There were so many things in the world that needed to be illuminated – Ibrahim’s own journeys and discoveries, the battle against the Christians, his observations of the moon. Future generations might read what he had written. What greater legacy could he have than that? With this firmly in his mind Ibrahim set off back toward his tent.
He did not at first see the slight, elegant figure that hastened to intercept him.
“Where, Great Pasha, do you go with such urgency?”
Ibrahim looked at her in the moonlight through hashish-glazed eyes. She was indeed beautiful, this long dark haired princess of the distant Anatolian steppe, Nuray, Bright Moon.
“My prince.” She held out her hand to stroke his face. “I have waited many nights for you. Will you not come to me now.”
Ibrahim wished he could say yes, but the hashish had quelled his manly spirit and sent a thousand voices of devilish doubt into his mind. “Nuray,” he whispered, “Tonight is the holy night of Fatima the wife of the prophet. Tonight I can not come to you, but by the Beard of Mohamed, tomorrow I shall come to you, I swear it, by all that is holy.”