The execution notice tacked to a wooden fencepost flapped in the wind as early morning light crept through the tree branches. Soraya tried not to slow her pace or even to glance at it. She already knew the details and her heart grieved for her only son. Pulling the faded cotton scarf tighter around her head, she walked in a hunched-over manner befitting her age, taking a circuitous path to make sure she was not being followed. The Janissaries had posted notices of the execution for today. They intended a very public message that rebellion and insurrection would not be tolerated. The Sultan of the Ottoman empire had spoken.
The route from the sloping farmlands down into Jaffa town proper was muddy from spring rains. The rich, loamy soil clung to her leather boots as Soraya tramped through the pastures, avoiding the main trail. As the mother of the condemned, she was a clear target as well and could not afford to be stopped and searched. The Janissaries had already raided her modest stone home in Jaffa several times, looking for seditious materials.
They did not know about the dilapidated farmhouse in the countryside housing her departed mother’s old herb collection. Hurrying away from it now, she hoped nobody did.
A leather pouch at her waist slapped against her thigh with each muddy step. The familiar animal smells of the farmlands offered a steadying counterpoint to the drumming in her ribcage. She snatched off bunches of wild thyme and mint and chewed them to a pulp to sooth her nerves, the heat and the tang mixing together in a sharp combination.
So alone at the end. The thought of her son in the prison waiting for this final reckoning stabbed her in the gut. He had risked so much out of love for his people.
She wondered which member of the inner circle of rebels had betrayed him. And for what price.
Slowing her pace, she entered the market—the heart of the town. The fishmongers jostled crates of their fresh morning catch from the Mediterranean among the heaps of produce and housewares, and seagulls called and dove for scraps. Life seemed almost normal, but Soraya detected a tension among the vendors and many of her old acquaintances turned their glance away when they caught sight of her flushed face.
Unquenchable anger burned within her.
This will not pass, she vowed to herself.
Taking the alleyways to her home, the pungent smell of cardamom scented coffee wafted out of open windows. The bakery displayed fresh baked bread as if this was just another morning. Soraya bought a loaf and hurried on her way. She needed to keep her strength up.
Arriving at her house, she was relieved to see it still standing. Part of her had believed it would have been torched by now. The Janissaries were known to be thorough in exacting their revenge.
She let herself in and surveyed the interior, as if for the first time. Looking at the well-worn furniture and wall hangings she felt like a stranger visiting a new neighbor. Was this her life? Was all this really happening?
She collapsed onto a cushion and felt the tears coming.
No time for that, she admonished herself. Time to prepare for the worst. The beheading was scheduled for the noon hour and the sundial showed less than two hours to spare.
She emptied the contents of the leather pouch onto the kitchen table and set to work combining the herbs from the farmhouse as her mother had showed her so long ago, hoping she was remembering correctly. Her hands shook and she could hear the blood pounding in her ears. Time was definitely running out.
The town grew quieter as the noon hour approached. Children were called in from the street and shops closed early. Elaborately outfitted Janissaries on horseback rode through the alleys towards the center thoroughfare, looking for signs of defiance. The townsfolk melted into the background.
Soraya tidied the already tidy kitchen with a sickening feeling in her stomach, listening to horseshoes clattering on the cobblestones outside. The sun rose in a cloudless sky.
When it was time, she left the house and locked the door with a sense of finality. She wore a long black headscarf wrapped tightly over her white hair and the pouch from the farmhouse hung at her waist. Groups of people were heading in the same direction, towards the central plaza, speaking in hushed voices. Soraya walked alone, her head held high.
By the time she reached the town square, a crowd had already gathered. A hastily constructed wooden platform dominated the space, supporting a wooden executioner’s block against which a gleaming scimitar had been laid. A bystander murmured that the block had been brought all the way from Istanbul on horseback. Another bystander muttered back, “The Janissary garrisons all have these. This is the first thing they train their new conscripts on, how to carve them from a solid tree trunk.”
Soraya joined the crowd, standing towards the back. Covering her face with the scarf, she could just see the platform. A row of ten guards cordoned off its base. A hush fell over the crowd as a drum in the distance announced the approach of the procession.
The crowd parted before the riders on horseback: eight soldiers, the Vizier, the hooded and black robed executioner, and in a rough wagon, the condemned.
He was gaunt, bloodied and clothed in rags, but he was very much alive. He scanned the crowd for familiar faces, ignoring the taunting chatter of the soldiers guarding him. He kneeled upright in the wagon, hands tied behind his back with rope, his silver-gray hair plastered to his forehead with sweat.
As the wagon approached the platform, his eyes locked with Soraya’s for a brief moment. His expression was grim, but Soraya felt a calmness emanating from him, a quality for which he was famous. He was still alert, uncowed. A jolt of pride shot through her body, pure and unadulterated.
Her son. Marwan Jabari, the leader of the failed underground revolt against the Ottoman overlords. The famous shipbuilder of Jaffa.
He had the rugged profile of his father, the square jaw, the bristling eyebrows. For a moment, Soraya saw him as he used to go out to the shipyards in the early morning, broad shouldered, carrying a sheaf of rolled up drawings and plans. Laughing with the children. Flirting with the women. Then in the evening, riding off with his comrades to discuss politics and eventually revolution around a campfire out in the countryside where no eavesdroppers could hear.
How she had worried over him even then, when it was all just talk, trying to hide her anxiety. How proud she had been of his commitment and charisma. A natural leader.
The crack of a whip brought Soraya back to the present with a start. Marwan stumbled to his feet, swaying from the impact, a line of red opening up on his back. The soldiers closed in around him, forcing him out of the wagon and up onto the platform, behind the block. A soldier cut the rope binding Marwan’s hands behind his back.
The executioner dismounted and made his way toward the platform.
Soraya squinted her eyes in concentration, blurring out the rest of the details of the scene before her. She focused not on Marwan, but on the executioner. Something about his gait was strange and unexpected. Was this one of the traditional Romani executioners? Or some other?
Soraya could just make out the shoes of the executioner — red slippers with gold tassels. The hem of his black leggings caught momentarily on the steps to the platform, revealing a glimpse of yellow silk stockings underneath.
Soraya grimaced as a flash of recognition hit her. This was no Romani. The Sultan had sent somebody higher up to carry out the execution, in violation of the empire’s own edicts restricting Muslims from executing Muslims.
The executioner reached the block and Marwan stood silent, looking out over the crowd which was almost completely quiet. A few onlookers wiped tears from their eyes, but most tried to look stoic to avoid punishment for showing sympathy with the condemned.
Soraya spit into her hand and then reached into the leather pouch at her waist. Crushing the leaves and powders inside into a quick paste, she palmed the wad and swallowed it. An intense rush of energy kicked her insides, and her vision sharpened. She stared at the executioner, who pulled a hood out of his robe and put it on the block, motioning for Marwan to put it on.
Soraya’s lips moved in a silent chant. She swallowed another mouthful of the paste and redoubled her concentration. She prepared herself for the switches. She wanted to reach into Marwan’s mind to warn him, but she didn’t want him to startle and tip off the guards. So, she let him put on the hood. She let him kneel down at the block. She let the executioner take a long stroll around the platform. And then she used every power in her being to invoke a triple jump.
The crowd saw Marwan put on the hood and kneel down at the block. They saw the executioner take a leisurely turn around the platform, while the Janissary guards mocked Marwan. They saw the executioner raise the evil scimitar and bring it down with a vengeance. They saw the head fall to the floor of the platform in a spray of blood. They saw a Janissary guard remove the hood and grab the head by the hair to display it in victory.
A triumphal shout went up from the crowd. The head was not Marwan’s. The head was that of the Grand Vizier of the Sanjak of Jerusalem.
The Janissaries looked at each other in astonishment. The Vizier screamed: “We have been bewitched. Find out who did this!”
The people in the crowd began to run away. The Janissary guards tried to hold them back, using whips and scimitars, but many slipped away, especially at the back of the crowd.
One startled onlooker found himself dressed in his mother’s clothes, face completely covered by a long black headscarf, a leather pouch slapping against his thigh.
The executioner watched the chaos unperturbed, completely drained. She knew that when she removed her own hood, the Janissaries would set upon her and she had no power left to escape them. She felt her son struggle with the meaning of all this. She willed him to live his life. He had brought honor to himself and to the family. She could end her own life satisfied with that knowledge.
She took off her hood.