by Mike Jansen

Rust brown is the color of the sand of the dunes that swallowed Karakum of the Golden Roofs. They are still there in the Great Erg, row after row of dunes, hundreds of feet high, their peaks blurry in the fierce wind that blazes along at those heights. It is rumored that the lost city reappears once every century for one long night. One single night in which the Djinn celebrate and hunt for preferably rotund virgins, for Djinn obviously have more than one hunger to satisfy. But those are old wivesí tales. Karakum is a dead city, long since lost, gone from the memory of even the most dedicated historians or village elders. Just like the disappearance of hundreds of boys and girl on a certain night in a certain year from certain villages all along the edge of the Great Erg.

Ghuz Gibrain was a salt merchant who made long treks with his mule caravan, all the way from the warm Malz Ocean in the south to the wide steppes beyond the Trafd Mountains and the Great Erg. The horse people there paid Ghuz silver and bronze for his salt. And according to the old traditions the much valued salt trader was never in any way waylaid or otherwise obstructed.

The trek through the Erg had lasted for almost a week. After the relative cool of the Trafd Mountains and the humid heat of the Malz Ocean, the blistering dry heat of the desert hit him like a slap in the face. By day Ghuz and his caravan rested beneath improvised sun roofs made of woven meander reeds. At night they travelled many miles by the light of moons and stars. Ghuz was alert to the sounds of the night. Although he feared no bandits, many wild animals hunted at this time.

Around midnight he heard the music, far away, teasing sounds of citers and bells. And straight ahead between a couple of dunes there was a soft, inviting light. Since it was on his way, he passed the rows of dunes and there before him, in a deep valley, was a city. The wall around the city was many dozens of feet high and as thick as two elephant lengths. In the many small white stone towers there was light and the scent of incense wafted towards Ghuz. And above it all the roofs glistened with their golden sheen that Ghuz recognized from a mile away. Greed immediately overcame any caution he might have had; after all, the life of a salt merchant was hard, lonely and not very lucrative.

The city was empty. His mules would not enter so Ghuz left them at the gates. The streets were narrow, the houses thin and high, and in many places stairs led up or down to different levels of the city. The music he had heard came from a number of artful fountains that pumped water through elaborate pipe systems such that almost continuously a sweet melody was produced. Lured by his first glance at the city, Ghuz mounted the many stairs until he reached one of the many roofs that decorated the city. Indeed his first thought was confirmed: the roofs were covered with thin plates of the precious metal. Using his knife he pried loose a number of them, heavy, square plates of gold, and made a pile of them. He took that heavy pile with him to the next roof where he again pried loose plates and added them to his loot.

When he had finished his hard labor after several hours and he had filled two large baskets with gold, he noticed the approach of dawn in the ever brightening sky. With him many other eyes noticed and broke off their hunt to return speedy as the wind with their captives.

The salt merchant meanwhile dragged his baskets along alleys and the many stairs of Karakum. Although he was not aware of approaching danger, he did feel a certain urgency to make haste and leave the city before sunrise. A noble cause which he might have succeeded in were it not for a fiendish wind that had suddenly come up and that struck the city with a full fledged sand storm such that every breath was torture and walking almost impossible. In the middle of all this the inhabitants of the city returned.

The sun touched the peaks of the dunes of the Great Erg, like every day. The peaks seem blurry in the rising heat and the wind that sprays up the sand. Rust brown is the sand of the dunes, but on this day the brown seems a little deeper than before.

Karakum was originally published in the Dutch language magazine Wonderwaan in 2009.

Mike Jansenís flash fiction, short stories and longer work have been published in the Netherlands in various anthologies and magazines. His Dutch debut novel De Falende God (The Failing God) came out in November of 2011 and the sequel, In Schaduwen van Weleer (In Shadows of Times Past) is nearing completion. He has won awards for best new author and best author in the Dutch King Kong Award in 1991 and 1992 respectively and some honorable mentions for English language contests. For more details, visit Mikeís website: www.meznir.com.

© Mike Jansen 2012

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