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Authors: Kim Fielding

The Pillar

BOOK: The Pillar
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Author’s Note


is a fictional town, and although I have taken considerable liberty with the laws of the time, most of the details of life in
The Pillar
are accurate for Bosnia and Herzegovina in the fifteenth century. At that time, Bosnia was part of the Ottoman Empire, but then—as now—its people practiced a number of different religions, and its culture reflected a number of different influences.

I’d like to give special thanks to Alma and Amir, my Bosnian guides, who so graciously introduced me to their beautiful and fascinating country. I look forward to my next visit.

A note on Bosnian pronunciation: the letter
is pronounced like the English


Chapter One


and muezzins called the faithful to evening prayers, but Faris was not faithful. He didn’t even enjoy the haunting beauty of the songs. He remained bent over his book, squinting at the pages in the dimming light. Just as the last notes faded and Faris stood to light an oil lamp, rain began to patter on the roof, each drop noisy against the stone tile. Soon the plop-plop grew to a steady drumming and then a solid roar. The shutters clattered. If there was a God, Faris thought, he must be punishing those who dawdled on their way to worship. But Faris was warm and dry in his snug little house, where shelves full of herbs and ointments perfumed the air with a familiar medicinal scent.

That morning, the weather had been fine. Faris had left before dawn to hike into the nearby hills. When he came upon one of the tiny villages, he found an ancient woman sitting in the doorway to her house, her gnarled hands working an intricate lace pattern. He sat in the dirt beside her. A granddaughter or great-granddaughter brought them tiny cups of coffee, and as Faris sipped, he asked the old woman whether she knew of any plants with healing properties. She did—the old folks always seemed to and were pleased when someone valued their knowledge. Most of what she told him, he’d learned long before. But then she mentioned something new, a certain root she claimed was good for toothaches and swelling. And because Faris asked her nicely, she put down her lacework, grabbed her cane, and hobbled with him into the woods. They found the plant within a few minutes. Faris had never seen it before. He dug a few and placed them in his collecting basket before accompanying his guide back to her home. He gave her a bag of dried herbs in thanks for her help. “Make a weak tea of this and drink it before bedtime, Nana,” he instructed her. “It will ease the ache in your bones.”

Now as the storm rumbled and blustered, Faris smiled as he imagined the old woman sleeping comfortably. The herbal mixture he’d given her was one he’d perfected himself. He doled it out sparingly since some of the ingredients were hard to come by, but the elderly residents of Zidar were always grateful.

Faris removed the plants from his basket and set them atop his carved wood table. The herbs had thick leaves that had wilted only a little, which was good. Perhaps on the next dry morning, he’d climb the hill again so he could sketch the plants as they appeared in nature. For now, however, he spread out a fresh sheet of paper—one of his few luxuries—dipped his brush into a little glass pot, and began to paint.

He wasn’t a great artist. His master, Enis, had spent many patient hours with him, insisting Faris see all the tiny details of the plants he was meant to depict: the minuscule hairs on the leaves, the small gradations of color on the petals, the little nodules of the stems and roots. As a youngster, Faris had little patience for such things. All these years later, he was finally willing to
, but even so, his fingers weren’t always steady and his lines had a tendency to blur. His handwriting was even worse. But still he’d managed to accumulate piles of drawings and paintings, each with painstaking notes on where each plant was found and to what uses it might be put. He tried not to ask himself who would benefit from his work when he was gone.

The plants he currently observed had small white flowers. He was studying the arrangement of the stamens when a knock rattled his door.

“Go away,” he muttered. He hadn’t eaten yet and was hungry. Late-evening callers rarely meant good news.

But he put down his brush, stood, and walked to the door, flexing his fingers as he went. They had a tendency to cramp a bit, particularly when the air was damp. Scowling, he unfastened the bolt and opened the door.

“What are you doing out in this weather dressed like that?” he demanded when he saw who was there.

Ibro smiled, revealing the gaps where his milk teeth were missing. “I run too fast for the raindrops to hit me.”

“Your wet hair and clothing say otherwise.”

“They’ll dry.” The boy lifted his chin. “Mama says you should come.”

Faris’s stomach clenched, and he shook his head. “No. I’ve told her—I’m done with this.”

“Mama says. She says I shouldn’t come back without you.” He crossed his thin arms over his chest and shivered dramatically. “It’s cold tonight. Don’t make me stay out here.”

Faris reached for him, but Ibro danced away and placed his hands on his hips. “Come with me or I’ll climb on your roof and howl like a wolf until you do.”

“You’ll slide off my roof and break your head on the cobbles, and I won’t help you a bit.”

“And then Mama will be angry with you, and you know you don’t want that.”

Faris scowled, swore, and gave in to the inevitable. “Wait inside while I get ready,” he said impatiently. When Ibro hopped over the threshold and slammed the door shut, Faris hastily added, “Don’t touch anything!”

Ibro grinned.

Eager to get the boy away from the fragile containers of herbs, Faris hurried. He shrugged his black woolen vest over his tunic, then donned his cloak, which always smelled of green things and oils and had bits of bark and twigs stuck among the embroidery. He pulled on his boots, plain and mud-stained but warm and waterproof. He settled his black cap on his head, knowing his dark curls would inevitably spring loose and look ridiculous. Finally, he shouldered his worn leather satchel and stomped to the door.

Ibro darted outside ahead of him and shouted over his shoulder as he ran away. “I’ll run ahead and tell Mama you’re coming!”

“But I won’t
anything!” Faris called after him. And then he added more quietly, because Ibro was already too far away to hear, “I’ll just sit for a while. That’s all.”

The storm had grown lighter, but water still ran in small rivers down the cobbles, and he was grateful for the sand scattered at the steep Old Bridge to keep horses from slipping on the slick roadway. In the summer, boys would leap from the bridge to impress girls. Faris had done so himself, but long ago and not trying to catch a girl’s eye. Now autumn was well upon them, and not even the bravest of youths would dare the icy water of the river below, not even on a sunny day.

On the other side of the bridge, Coppersmith Street snaked its way uphill. The shops were all closed now, the smiths no doubt tucked away in their homes upstairs, perhaps still sharing meals with their wives and children. Even the cats that usually wandered here had disappeared, some into homes, some into whatever dry crannies they could find.

But when Faris turned another corner, he saw lights shining through the cracks of the shutters at Mirsada’s kafana and heard snatches of conversation, despite the patter of the rain.

He turned left to enter the kafana from the back side, deliberately avoiding the public square at the front entrance. As soon as he entered the stone building, the usual odors filled his nose: coffee, liquor, wet wool, smoke, sweat.

There was no sign of Ibro, but Mirsada made eye contact at once. She was in the middle of setting a tray on a table crowded with men, and without pausing in her actions, she gave Faris a long look. He looked away.

Faris chose his usual small table very close to the back door, with a buffer of empty tables around it. He hung his cloak from a hook on the wall, then placed the strap of the satchel over it. With his shoulder facing the crowd, Faris sat on his stool and stared into the flames of the big fireplace as if he could read them like a book.

“Coffee?” Mirsada’s voice was the only soft thing about her. Her hands were hard from years of grueling work, and beneath her long skirts and blouse and vest, no doubt her body was hard as well. But her will was the firmest thing about her. Her husband had died in the war, leaving her a young widow with two children to raise on her own.

“Yes,” Faris replied. “But that’s all. I’ve told you—I’m through with this.”

She swept away without answering and returned a few moments later with a copper tray, which she set in front of him. He nodded his thanks, stirred the small pot to break up the foam, and carefully poured the coffee into the tiny cup. No sugar; Mirsada knew him well. The liquid was strong and bitter, and he nearly burned his tongue when he took the first sip.

Mirsada had already hurried away to tend other customers. She didn’t come near Faris again, and Faris mostly watched the fire. The room was loud with talk, but he let the words flow over and around him as if they were rain and he was a slick, rounded cobblestone.

“Good weather for your business.”

Faris started. His attention had been so focused on the flames that he hadn’t noticed the man approach and seat himself at the table.

“What?” Faris said.

“Good weather for your business. With rain like this, by tomorrow everyone will be knocking on your door, needing cures for coughs and fevers.” The man was about Faris’s age, with a thick mustache and beard, and with no hair visible around the edge of his red cap. Mehmed. That was his name. He had a woodcarving shop near the bridge.

Faris shook his head. “I don’t think rain makes people sick.”

“I never get sick. This keeps the bad spirits away.” Mehmed dug in a pocket and showed Faris a small glass-and-silver talisman that vaguely resembled a staring eye. “My nana gave it to me when I was a boy, and I’ve always been healthy,” he said, tucking the object away.

“You’re very fortunate.”

Mehmed smiled. He looked over Faris’s shoulder, and seeing he had the full attention of the men at a nearby table, he raised his voice a little. “You haven’t found a wife yet, my friend?”

Faris stared stonily at him, but Mehmed was unfazed. “I have a cousin, Dino, who has a daughter. She’s plain as a mule and a little on the dim side, but she works hard. And I’d bet she’d be willing to overlook her groom’s little… faults.” He laughed, and his friends at the other table joined in.

Through gritted teeth, Faris said, “I’m not looking for a wife.”

“Sure. You have your medicines and your books. But they can’t do everything for you, can they? Not
.” Mehmed made what was undoubtedly a rude gesture near his crotch, although the table mostly shielded it from Faris’s view.

“Enough of that!” Mirsada said sharply. She waved her hand at Mehmed. “Can’t you leave a man in peace? Back to your pack of hyenas.”

Mehmed’s pals roared happily at her response, but Mehmed stood and gave Faris a small bow. “She’s called Samra. Let me know if you change your mind.” He chuckled and returned to his former table.

Faris poured the rest of the coffee into his cup, careful to avoid the grounds. He used to believe men like Mehmed were tormenting him out of cruelty, and he used to get very angry. Over the years, that emotion had faded to annoyance as he realized the teasing really wasn’t intended to be mean. Zidar was a small town, and entertainment was hard to come by. Faris was a bit of a novelty, a man who sat alone in kafanas on the rare occasions when he came at all.

His cup and pot were empty, but Faris still had a glass of water, which he sipped as he watched the flames dance. After a while, Mehmed and his friends left, as did most of the other customers. Only a few men remained, their conversations quiet as they nursed their drinks.

Mirsada came over and gathered the coffee things onto her tray. “He won’t last the night,” she said quietly as she turned away.

Faris’s reply was short. “Better for him.”

But Mirsada had already crossed the room to refill someone’s glass.

He felt old and stiff when he stood, his tongue thick and dry in his mouth. His back stung. He placed a coin on the table before putting on his cloak and satchel. And then he paused for a moment, caught Mirsada’s sharp look, and exited through the front door.

The rain had stopped while he was in the kafana, but clouds still shrouded the sky. The square was lit only by the tendrils of light that escaped through the kafana’s shutters and, off to one side, a lamp that hung over the entrance to the small mosque.

But even in the dark, Faris knew what surrounded him. Over near the mosque was a small grassy plot where a few wealthy families had paid to have themselves buried, their white gravestones glinting slightly in the lamplight. Beyond that, the covered well where people could wash before prayers. On the opposite side of the square, a shop that sold cured meats and another that offered rugs of mediocre quality. The fourth side of the square held an odd-shaped building where men might buy a midday meal—trout and boiled greens, perhaps, or a meat-filled pastry. Like the other shops and the mosque, it was closed for the night.

BOOK: The Pillar
8.75Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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