”Florica and the Sipahi’s son” is a local legend from Margina as told by Mrs. Mărioara Ceaușescu. After the fall of the fortress of Timișoara in 1552, the Banat became a Turkish eyalet until it was conquered by the Habsburgs in 1716. The almost 200 years of living side by side most probably lead to a lot of stories springing up following the interactions between the Muslim occupiers and the Christian population. There probably exists a rich vein of such stories kept from those times passed on amongst the elderly, especially since in the Middle Ages Margina was a market town, which enabled frequent interactions between the diverse populations living in the area.
”Florica and the Sipahi’s son” is a love story with a tragic ending, between a Muslim boy and a Romanian girl. Almost ”Romeo and Juliet” where instead the feud between Capulet and Montague, the reason for tragedy is religious faith. I tried to retell the story in a plausible setting, as it might hold a kernel of truth.
Ebrahim Esfahani, the timariot of the Land of Făget, was a man at peace with his lot in life. His akinci bodyguards called him Khamush, The Silent One, and the deeper Esfahani’s silence became, the harsher the punishment. The Romanians knew him as The Sipahi and couldn’t stand him.
He wasn’t a bad man, but his 60 years, out of which 40 had been spent on campaign, had hardened him. He had three sons, but two were far away, in other corners of the Exalted Empire, and he hadn’t heard from them in a long while. It seemed to him like an eternity. He didn’t know what had become of them. His youngest he kept close by, because he reminded him of his wife, the only one who could take him out of his deep silences.
Thrown away by the Sultan far from civilsation in the Demșivar Eyalet, he found himself after a life of service surrounded by infidels, disconsidered by the behlerbey who was running the whole province, burdening him with impossible tasks and ruining him with invented taxes, with his wife dead of the cholera which had roamed the country-side 10 years before, right after the war, with his battle wounds partially healed and nagging him in the harsh winters, thinking of Isphahan, the city of his childhood which he would probably never see again, galled by the concerns of old age, Ebrahim looked out his castle window towards the forest of Groși.
The people there were probably out panning gold from the streams that flowed into the woods, descending from the hills. The man stared into the distance wondering where his crazy son might be, as the boy hadn’t been home in days. His only treasure was his youngest, but that one gave him more head-aches than a Christian army knocking at his gates would have.
The rolling hills spread all around, dark and covered with ancinet woods, haunted by strigoi, fairies, werevolwes and other fantasies the locals thought up of, as the boy, who had just turned 17, was telling him.
Ebrahim was more worried about the gangs of Serbians and Romanians plundering the country-side like wolf packs, living in the forests and robbing merchants on the open road, but the boy could care less about bandits. Or about the military arts that his father was trying to teach him without success.
The boy was fascinated by the stories he heard from the locals, collecting them as he went from place to place. Harun had learned the language as a small boy from a Jewish merchant from Margina that had been hired by his father. The boy had a pleasant smile and almond-shaped eyes, green and large, black curly hair. He was thin and jolly, visiting villages with his leathern bag full of parchemnt and goose feathers slung over his shoulder, his fingers full of ink stains, trading stories with those who had the courage to speak to him, not knowing he was the Timariot’s son, but knowing he was a heathen.
In Fârdea he met secretly with Florica, the child of Baba Safta. Baba Safta had 6 children – Florica and 5 boys, and she wasn’t an old woman yet. But the people in her village called her one because she had been through a lot and therefore knew lots. And her word was the law. She had turned gray while she was very young. Her life had not been kind and Baba Safta was not a kind woman. But she knew stories and knew how to tell them and the people came to listen to them.
Florica loved her mother’s stories and always wanted to hear more. Because she went to see Harun often in the hollow of an old oak tree, far away from the village, in the middle of the forest. She was a 15 year old child and was bewitched by the olive skinned boy who was telling her of djinns, efreets, goofy hunchbacks, old children, Sheherezade, Shah Rhyar and Alf Layla wu Layla, the thousand nights and one night.
Harun’s voice was warm and clear and sometimes he sang to her, and Florica slowly grew fond of the boy. One night Florica received a rose from him as a gift, together with a piece of parchment with a poem written on it, and the girl sped home showing her mother the flower she had received, hiding the piece of parchment with the curly writing she could not read. She was to meet Harun again in three days. But she would never make it.
Baba Safta understood instantly from where her daughter had received the flower. Everyone spoke of the rose garden at the Sipahi’s castle, close to Vineyard Hill, in the meadow of the Icuiu stream, past the Long Fields. All went there in the Marketplace of Margina to pay their tribute in cattle, wheat, wine, timber, leather or gold dust.
Safta smiled at the girl and started questioning her, and Florica told her mother eveyrthing, even the place she was to met the boy. But Florica had no clue he was the Sipahi’s son and Baba Safta didn’t even suspect it. The woman imagined some unwashed bodyguard from the Timariot’s retinue had laid eyes on and had thoughts about her only daughter. The goose of a lowly Albanian akinci Muslim could be easily cooked. And she had the boys fit for the job.
Baba Safta sent Florica to bed and called her sons. She told them everything and told them to watch the oak in the woods, catch the hapless soul and punish him as the law demanded. That no heathen could court a Christian. The middle son tried persuading her otherwise, that it was not prudent to deal with one of the Sipahi’s men, but Safta advised them to do as Serbian highwaymen did when dealing with the Turks they caught at night at the croassroads, hanging them up in a tree somewhere far away from the village, letting the birds pick at the corpse. Her boys consented and Baba Safta locked the child up in the house, letting her cry until her tears ran out. Florica dreamt of Harun, haunting the forests, his green eyes blazing with pain, watching her through the night with werevolf eyes. Calling her to him.
Two whole days the brothers stalked the oak and on the third they saw the boy coming slowly towards them, bag over his shoulder, smiling.
Esfahani received in the great hall of his castle the bare footed old man. It had been a week since Harun had left home and was nowhere to be found. The man feared the worst. The old man had come to complain that someone had hung the flayed corpse of deer from one of the trees in his orchard. He was begging that someone come and take it down, as he was too old and could not do it. And his boys had left for the hunt. The old man bent over to kiss the Sipahi’s coat but almost pulled the cloth clear off the table. His sight was bad, it was easy for the Timarioat to see. He had probably reached the castle’s hall by the mercy of heaven and that of helpful fellow travellers. But it wasn’t the old man’s predicament that was troubling the Sipahi. He was thinking of ridding himself of the old one, but at the same time something was whispering into his ear he should go to the orchard. See the corpse for himself.
Ebrahim could feel the sting of a thousand needles pricking the back of his neck, and his uneasiness was goading him into action. He was thinking of Harun. But it was a fleeting thought. He called his retinue, 50 strong, mounted a young mare and they all set off for the old man’s orchard, the old man holding on tight to a one eyed Macedonian who had taken him on his horse so that the old one could show them the way.
The odor was heavy and slimy, but Ebrahim had gotten used to the stench of carrion. Only the corpse hanging from the tree was not that of an animal. But that of a man. Poor soul. Flayed alive by a band of highwaymen by the looks of it. All around pieces of parchment and goose feathers littered the ground while swarms of flies were buzzing about unpleasantly. Esfahani could feel his vision go dark. He ordered that Harun’s body be cut down from the tree and brought back to the castle. He turned about not uttering another words and galloped home. He didn’t shed a single tear.
The region fell deadly silent. Esfahani had sent his men to scour the surrounding villages, look for highwaymen and string them up on the tall crossroad trees, but the bandits had melted into the night. An evil wind was blowing and the sky had darkened as if a storm was brewing. He hired Gipsy executioners to scare the folk and threaten them with torture, but the people were silent and shrugged. The Romanians looked him straight in the eyes – men, women and children – shrugged and turned their backs to him, heading home. The Sipahi was convinced that whoever had killed Harun had fled far away.
A month had passed since they had buried the boy, and Esfahani was staring over his son’s parchments. The stories of the infidels was all that was left of the boy. But he didn’t have the heart to read them, he was just looking at the forms of the letters lost in thought, imagining the boy’s hand holding the feather while he was writing down the words.
One day a girl came to the castle gates. She was dressed in black, with an odd haircut. Escaped from some monastery. Probably insane. She was yelling her lungs out, demanding to see the Sipahi. Esfahani received her and the girl handed him a withered rose and a piece of parchment. Florica told him she knew who killed his boy. And whispered into the Silent One’s ear.
Ebrahim told his servants to care for the girl, called his boyguard and left for Fârdea while the sun was still climbing up into the sky. The Silent One burned the village to the ground, putting men, women, children and animals to the sword. The only ones spared were those out in the fields. Baba Safta was gathering mushrooms in the forest. Her sons and their families were mowing grass, away from the village. When they came back they found only ashes.
The Sipahi returned after dark, but the girl was gone. The servants told him they had seen her gobbled up by the forest leading to Groși, taking his son’s parchments with her, looking for Harun, talking to herself.
This story was initially published in the MOVING FIREPLACES. 2017-2018 book.
Photo credit: Flavius Neamciuc