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from ‘The Runiad’ book 7

< from Books 5 & 6               from Book 8 >

A Fortnightly Serial.


ANTHONY HOWELL writes: My own romantic notion of myself has encouraged me to attempt an epic. It will have 24 books and be the same length as the Odyssey. Each book will be approximately 24 pages long, with three seven-line verses per page. I have completed a clean draft of books 1 to 7, which I publish with Heyzine here, and to this file I will add each new book as it is completed.

from Book 7

(Erotic section from Agape or Eros)

So I’ll endorse erotic love for all its risks of mania, possessive rage
And merely ludic dalliance. At least its peaks and pitfalls entertain.
Take the case of Mohamed Granje who had many concubines:
And besides the wives the Prophet grants to believers,
He was blessed droves of slaves. His favourite wife, Kharmaglia,
Came from overseas and the Sultan had acquired this queen
From Syrian traders. Clearly of Circassian blood, with a milky skin,

Flaming hair and eyes as green as chrysolites,
She had used the serpentine enticements of her hips
To charm a husband famed as a scourge of Christian knights
(Albeit getting on in years), and made this despot slave
To her demands, while she herself possessed a temper
With a cruel flavour. All the other wives and concubines resorted to
The most abject flattery, desperate to win her favour.

Her Sultan tyrant also had a penchant for a Moorish page:
Souluk, a sweet, well-mannered lad his master valued highly
For his loyalty and for his meticulous attention to his duties.
The boy was deaf and dumb and this pathetic circumstance
Elicited the sympathy of everyone, so that none objected
To the boy, as bearer of his Master’s orders, freely going
In and out of the women’s quarters where the harem ladies

Made a fuss of him, and petted him, and chatted with the boy,
Knitting with their fingers in the language of the dumb.
One afternoon Souluk had gone into the chamber of Kharmaglia,
Bringing her a note from her Lord, and waited there to take back her reply.
The Sultana yawned as she read: she was alone with the page
And now she appraised him, feeling bored. Then what caught her eye
Was that Souluk was no longer a child. How could she not have observed

How nicely developed he was? His features, carved from ebony
Were delicate and finely cut, his muscled arms a delight!
His waist was slim. His thighs those of a champion athlete.
Earrings, bangles, anklets were set off by his matt black skin.
And since he was still kneeling there at the end of her long chair
She stretched a leg out lazily, touched his turban with a toe.
The boy thought that the Sultana desired him to kow-tow

And bent to touch the carpet with his forehead, but her hand
Clutched him by the neck as if he were a kitten
And dragged his head to rest against her knees. Her arms were all around him,
Her green eyes close to his, mesmerising, with aroused wide irises
Arousing him. He soon learnt what to do. And this intrigue
Was going on, much to their satisfaction, when its intimacies
Were brought to a halt by a conceited demon from the Sudan.

This fraud who liked to meddle in other people’s affairs,
Possessed of a smattering of hocus-pocus, came to the Court
And was struck by the appearance of the page and by his charm.
He saw how fond the Sultan was of the boy and he thought,
If I could make him speak, or if I could just make the savage old brute
Believe that he could, I might live in clover here. He therefore sought
An audience at the throne and bowed there with accomplished smarm:

“Mighty Obliterator of each and every crusader,
With my arcane spells, I could render young Souluk here talkative.”
The Sultan stared at the trickster and asked him how he could work
Such a feat. “That is my own affair, O Mohamed Granje,
Its Ring of Troth I won’t disclose, for verily my lips were sealed
By the Prince of Darkness with an oath. All that is gained
Would be lost if ever such a secret got revealed.

But if you’ll be so kind as to commit your page into my care
For about three weeks, I assure you I will bring him back to
The foot of your throne with a loosened tongue
That will sing the praises of the invincible Sultan, the Blessed One,
The Prophet’s bloody messenger, the well-honed Scimitar of Islam.”
Then the Sultan sent for Souluk and uttered the command,
And the sorcerer hurried away, leading the page by the hand.

In the meantime, starving for Souluk’s caresses, the Sultana
Had been driven crazy and in order to assuage her itch
For satisfaction and give vent to her desires, cruelly flogged
The softest parts of her favourite, calling her a bitch
As if she were flogging herself. And one night when the Sultan
Was in her chamber and asked her to give him back
An ancient Koran he had lent her, she undertook to send him

The sacred book as soon as Souluk had brought her a note
As he normally did. Mohamed Granje then informed her that for a spell
She would not see the page: great marvels were astir, he said
On Souluk’s behalf. At first her Lord was loathe to tell
Her what he knew and kept on saying that if he disclosed
What was going on, Eblis, Prince of Evil, would summon the dead
To attack him, but Kharmaglia, nestling in his aged arms

And with her wiles enticing him, managed to wheedle
Out of him the story of the boy who in a week or so would gain
The use of speech. Kharmaglia bit her lip of course,
And forced a laugh to prevent her husband noticing
How the news had startled her and how upset she was.
She doted on Souluk’s endowment, on the masculine aspect of this boy
And his impassioned kisses, but, of all his numerous charms,

The certainty he would never speak, never boast of his employ,
Was what she valued most of all. And now a pest from the Sudan
Was going to jeopardise a business she’d arranged so shrewdly.
And while her Lord was praying for this crook to work his miracles
And the lady fumed, consumed by apprehension just as much as lust,
The Sudanese was busily training Souluk. But of course, the man
Was never able to restore speech to the dumb. However he possessed

An enchanted parrot capable of several magic tricks.
This extraordinary bird had actually never been hatched,
But was a malicious djinn forced into a parrot’s shape.
It had mastered every language spoken by the sons of Adam
And could answer with sound sense any question put to it
In a pleasant voice. The bird was bullfinch sized and pert.
Souluk was taught to carry it concealed beneath his shirt.

The parrot spoke when the boy gave a tug to its tail
And the page learnt to look at people’s lips so as to understand
When they were speaking and choose just when to prompt it to respond.
Exactly then, Souluk would begin to open and shut his trap.
After intense rehearsal, how could this possibly fail
To convince the court that Souluk could speak? As a matter of fact,
As ventriloqual effect this was a convincing act.

With the bird well hidden in the pit of the stomach of Souluk
The trickster led the page back into the presence of Mohamed Granje.
“Here, O mighty Sultan is your slave again,” the swindler said.
“Speak to him, O Protector of the poor, speak to him and he will reply.”
“O Souluk,” the Sultan cried, starting to his feet,
“Can you really speak like all the sons of Adam can?”
“‘Yes, my Master,” said the parrot. “Yes — thanks to this magician —

At long last I can speak in Arabic and listen too,
At long last I can sing your praises, benefactor of mine,
Sultan of all Sultans, whose welcome face dost shine
Like unto the amplest moon seen in a cloudless sky!”
“Praise be!” said Mohamed Granje plumping down on his throne,
“This is the day of Ogh Magogh, day when the dead arise
From the tomb, the dumb speak and the barren crone

Is got with child!” And stumbling down now from his dais
He took Souluk in his embrace and kissed him on each cheek.
“Tell me, page, how has this holy person managed to let loose
Your tongue?” “Now, O precious Father of mine, fair Restorer
Of the true Faith, allow me to rest for a while,’ said the parrot,
Speaking through its hidden beak and coming to a conclusion,
As it had been told to. “This is the first time since the Tarot

Cast my destiny that I have spoken, and I get quite easily
Fatigued.” The Sudanese chimed in that the boy needed to engage
His voice cautiously at first, so as not to overwork his larynx,
And the Sultan, overwhelmed with joy, dismissed his articulate page
And gave the wizard silk and velvet cloaks to wear, a ring
With a huge ruby, a silver breastplate bossed with precious stones,
A ewer in the shape of a phoenix and a sack of golden coins.

That night the Sultan, still in a daze, went to Kharmaglia’s rooms.
He could speak of nothing else but the sweet voice of Souluk,
And she, now frantically eager to know exactly what the boy’s
Voice sounded like and what he had said harassed Mohamed Granje
With a perfect storm of questions. How she longed to meet the page,
To speak to him, to hear this voice of his with her own ears,
Although this new ability aroused in her unforeseen fears

Of what it might let slip, this voice. After what seemed like an age
Souluk appeared (three days later), bringing her a note
From her awful husband, which she took with trembling hands
And jotted down an answer while she scrutinised the lad
Kneeling on the carpet, with his usual humble smile
Lighting up the darkness of his face as did the whites
Of his eyes. “Is it true, Souluk, that you have acquired the gift

Of speech bestowed upon all other sons of Adam?”
“Yes, O sensual mistress of mine,” sang the parrot.
“A powerful Magus has loosened my tongue so that my spirit delights
In praising Allah the Merciful for having lit up the moon
Which is no more than a carrot compared to the composite boon
Of your versifiable features fashioned so as to beguile
Every son of Adam, Madam, giving the wings such a lift!”

Now the Sultana stared perplexed straight into the page’s
Inexpressive face with its mouth that simply opened and then shut.
Surely in his way of speaking there was something counterfeit?
While his voice was loud and clear, the lips moved as if mumbling.
Squatting on the carpet in front of him, she clasped him in her arms
And greedily, ever so greedily, began to kiss his yielding mouth.
The parrot, squeezed between his chest and her encroaching knees,

Panted, “Queen of Mercy, do not crush the life from me in this
Embrace that is the open gate to bliss.’ She started at this voice.
It was as though Souluk had addressed her with his belly;
How had he managed to utter a word when her lips were fastened
To his mouth? She tore apart her lover’s shirt and shrieked
When she saw the parrot fly across the room and perch upon a shelf.
With an unfeminine oath, the woman, learning the truth,

Darted after the bird who, scared to death, had left the shelf
By now and was attempting to escape through the window.
With a leap she grabbed it and flung it into a tankard of palm-wine:
For in defiance of the Moslem law this Circassian woman drank,
And often, when no one was about, her favourite would sneak
In with this tankard full of the palm’s fermented sap.
Now Kharmaglia snatched up a crop and rushed upon Souluk.

But Souluk seized the note she’d scrawled, rescued the parrot, and fled.
He got to his room dishevelled, his shirt torn from neck to navel,
Changed, combed his hair and bound a new silk turban round his head.
Then he attended to the bird. With its feathers soaked in wine,
The parrot lay on the table limp and clammy, but it wasn’t dead,
For Souluk felt its heart beat against the palm of his hand.
Patiently the page dried its feathers, wrapping it in a towel,

Cleansing it from tail to head till it wearily lifted an eyelid,
Belched and, darting surly glances at him, blurted out a word or two.
But since the boy was deaf he couldn’t hear what the parrot said.
Souluk, with the bird installed again, went towards the throne
To hand Kharmaglia’s note to his Imam. Mohamed Granje was alone
“What has the Sultana said, my boy? Wasn’t she overjoyed
At hearing how you’ve learnt to speak?” Souluk twitched his lips.

Not a word came out of his mouth. Startled now, the Sultan
Fixed him with uneasy stare. ‘Are you tired, Souluk? I fear you have
Gone and strained your tongue: the godly man from Sudan had warned…”
“Tired, me?” a husky voice croaked with a coarse guffaw.
“You’d have gone and drowned if you’d been steeped in wine!
May Allah burn the stinking whore alive and the blasted cuckold
Who thinks that he’s her owner.” Struggling not to go under

In the tankard full of wine, the bird had managed not to drown,
But bobbing up and down, it had taken aboard so much of what it floundered in
That now it spoke at random, not knowing what it was saying, while Souluk,
Deaf to the rant of the drunken bird, kept mumbling and smiling.
“What are you saying?” stuttered the wonder-struck Sultan. “Tell me of whom
Are you speaking?” “Of whom? Of that red-headed bitch of a witch
Who wanted to drown me in booze; of the lush hussy who uses her pussy

To dance you like her puppet, while she jolts and writhes in the arms
Of all the brawny gamecocks she can find…” The Sultan in a rage
Sprang on his page, shaking him like a rag-doll by the shoulders:
Then he punched him in the face, punched him and punched him again, until
The parrot fluttered out of his chest and perched on the doorway’s lintel.
Now the Sultan paused, hand upraised, unable to believe his eyes
While the enchanted bird with the persistence of a drunkard

Went on upsetting the applecart with the most foul-mouthed abuse:
“You shallow-pated fart, you didn’t know I was nesting in her lover’s heart!
D’you think fair harlots see the embraces of some ancient ape
As anything more than a tiresome rape that they have to put up with?
Withered old fool, you’re blinded by a pair of tits!” Suddenly the sultan
Gathered up his wits. With a jerk, he unsheathed the scimitar he loved to hone
And the page’s severed head bounced down the steps of the throne.

The poor boy died without a clue as to what had occurred or why.
All bespattered with blood, the Sultan swooped down on his harem.
Horror again ensued. You can imagine what became of Kharmaglia.
As for the magical parrot, the bird had fallen asleep above the door
And, on waking up, no longer drunk, it was the head of the page it saw
Staring up at the ceiling from the floor. This unpleasant sight
Made it decide that now was the appropriate time for flight.

And so the bird flew back to the Sudan, and to its old
Master the magician who had fled the court, with cloaks and jewels
And so forth, as soon as he could load them onto camels
And get out of there — well aware his fraud would be discovered
Soon enough. In his native village he acquired a pleasant house
An orchard, a herd of cows and a shapely maiden from Sennaar.
When the parrot joined its master, it was welcomed heartily.

In the evenings, after a meal, they used to retire to the orchard.
There the bird would perch on the limb of a tree and over and over repeat
What had happened at Mohamed Granje’s Court: it mimicked
The Sultana’s lazy voice, the Sultan’s rage, and its own belching guffaws
When, drunk as a lord, it had told the tyrant what an ape he was.
The Sudanese rocked back and forth, the tears streaming down his face
And the girl from Sennaar split her sides with laughter, panting for breath.

—This is the fourth installment of The Runiad.
See previously
Extracts from Books 1 & 2
Extracts from Books 3 & 4
Extracts from Book 5 & 6

Anthony HowellANTHONY HOWELL, a former dancer with the Royal Ballet, was founder of The Theatre of Mistakes and performed solo at the Hayward Gallery and at the Sydney Biennale. His articles on visual art, dance, performance, and poetry have appeared in many publications including Art Monthly, The London Magazine, Harpers & Queen, The Times Literary Supplement. He is a contributing editor of  The Fortnightly Review. In 2001 he received a LADA bursary to study the tango in Buenos Aires and now teaches the dance at his studio/gallery The Room in Tottenham Hale. He is the author of a seminal textbookThe Analysis of Performance Art: A Guide to Its Theory and PracticeDetails about his collaborative project, Grey Suit Editions, are here. In 2019, his exploration of psychic chaos, Consciousness (with Multilation)was published by the Fortnightly’s imprint, Odd Volumes. His latest collection is From Inside (The High Window).

Image credits: Drawings by Anthony Howell. Top image from Burak Basturk.

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