Nightmare Stories

Our small select company was a group of carefree travelers. A week earlier we had come to Constantinople from Greece and since then we have walked up and down the steep slopes of the Persian mountains for fourteen hours every day, visited bazaars, climbed the roofs of minarets and made their way through hordes of hungry dogs, these centuries-old lords of the streets of Istanbul. Nomadic life is said to be infectious, and no civilization can destroy the charm of unlimited freedom after you have tasted it. A gypsy cannot be forced to leave his tent, and even an ordinary vagabond finds a special pleasure in his troubled life, a pleasure that prevents him from finding a permanent home and occupation. Therefore, during my stay in Istanbul, my main concern was to protect my favorite Spaniel Ralph from this infection and prevent him from joining the Bedouins of the dog family that are swarming like cockroaches in the streets. Ralph was a good dog, he was my constant companion and friend. I was afraid of losing him and so I kept watching him all the time. However, for the first three days he behaved like a decent, educated dog, always following me faithfully on my toes. During each brazen attack by his Muslim brethren, whether it was a display of hostility or an offer of friendship, he only whipped his tail every time and hid behind me or someone in our company with the appearance of humility. Since Ralph had been disgusted from the start with casual acquaintances, I had the certainty that he would behave himself, and by the end of the third day I was not so vigilant at all. Such carelessness, however, was soon punished, and I had to regret my trustfulness. At one point, when I was not looking at him, my spaniel heard the call of the four-legged siren, and the last thing I saw was his fluffy tail as he vanished around the corner of the curve, narrow and dirty alley. Very upset, I spent the rest of the day in vain searching for a dumb satellite. I offered twenty, thirty, forty francs as a reward to the one who would find him. And so about forty roaming Maltese made a real hunt for my spaniel, and in the evening at the hotel we were besieged by a whole group of these vagrants, and each of them had in their hands a mongrel of incredible origin, which he tried hard to pass off as my lost friend. And the more categorically I denied it, the more solemnly they swore to me that it was their dog that was my companion, and one of the vagrants even knelt down, pulled out from behind his sinus an old, greenish image with the Madonna and swore that the Queen of Heaven herself had pointed this dog at him. The noise intensified and it became clear that the disappearance of my spaniel could be the cause of the scuffle. Eventually, the hotel owner sent for the police and the whole regiment of bipedal and quadrupedal creatures was expelled by force. I became more and more convinced that I would never see my dog, and the words of the hotel receptionist increased my grief. This man, with the appearance of a noble bandit, who apparently spent some five or six years in the galleys, seriously assured me that all my efforts were in vain, because my spaniel is no doubt already dead and eaten by Turkish dogs who love the meat of their more peaceful and more fat English brethren. All this was happening in the street, right in front of the hotel, and I was about to abandon my search, at least for the night, and go to the hotel when an old Greek fanariot, who had heard all that tamaram from her porch nearby, came up to my inconsolable friends and suggested to one of them, Miss H., to ask the dervishes about the fate of Ralph. – And what would the dervishes know about my dog? – I asked her without the slightest desire to joke, though the offer was clearly ridiculous. – Sacred people know everything, madam,” she replied a little mysteriously. – Last week a new satin robe was stolen from me, which my son brought me from Broussa, and now, as you can see, it is on me. – Really? “Then these saints, among other things, turned your new mantilla into an old one,” said one of the gentlemen who accompanied us, pointing at a large hole on the back of the mantilla, sewn with large clumsy stitches. – And this is the most amazing thing in history,” the fanatic replied quietly, not at all embarrassed. – They showed me in a luminous circle a block, a house, and even a room where the Jew who had stolen my robe was going to tear it apart and cut it into pieces. My son and I barely had time to run to Kalindzhikulosek and save the mantilla. We caught a Jew cutting the mantilla off his back and immediately recognized him as the man the dervishes showed us in their magical moon. He confessed to the theft and now he’s in jail. Though none of us had the slightest idea what she meant by the magical moon and its shining circle, we were all completely stunned by her story about the insight of “holy men. Her manners, however, convinced us that the story was not entirely fiction. And since she had somehow managed to get her property back, we decided to go to the dervishes ourselves the next morning and see if they could help us. The monotonous screams of the muezzins from the tops of the minarets announced the afternoon when we, coming down from the heights of Perah to the port of Galata, could hardly squeeze through the dirty crowds of the city’s shopping district. Before we got to the port, we were half deafened by the screams and continuous piercing screams, the Babylonian crowd of languages. In this part of the city, it is pointless to navigate by house number or street name. The location of the house you want is usually determined by its proximity to a more or less prominent building, such as a mosque, sauna or European shop. Otherwise, you must rely on Allah and His Prophet. So we had a hard time finding an English ship supplies store, behind which there should have been a place to go. The guide, who took us from the hotel, knew the way as badly as we did, but in the end a little Greek, dressed almost as our forefather Adam, agreed to take us to the dervishes dancing for a small copper coin. When we arrived, we were taken to a spacious, dusky hall that looked like an abandoned stables. The hall was long and narrow, and its floor like that of a manege was covered with a thick layer of sand. The only source of light was the small windows, located quite high from the ground. The dervishes had already finished their morning performance and were resting from their exhausting work. They looked completely exhausted, some lying by the walls, others sitting with their legs folded and staring into the void, busy, as we were told, meditating, contemplating their invisible deity. They seemed to have lost all ability to see and hear, as none of them reacted to our questions until a thin figure of a man in a large turban appeared from a far corner, which made him seem unusually tall. By letting us know that he is their head, this giant made us aware that the holy brethren usually receive orders for additional rites from Allah himself, so they should not be disturbed in any way. However, when the interpreter explained to him the purpose of our visit, which was only for him, because he was the sole steward of the “pillar of oracle”, he stopped objecting and extended his hand to demand reward. When he got what he needed, he said that knowledge of the future could only be trusted to two people at once. Then he turned around and led Miss H. and me. We dived after him into some kind of semi-subterranean corridor. Through it, we walked to the base of the high access staircase that led to the room under the roof. We climbed the stairs after our escort and ended up in a pathetic, medium sized attic, with bare walls, no furniture. The floor was covered with a thick layer of dust, and the rags of the old cobweb were hanging heavily from the walls. There was something lying in the corner of the room. At first I took it as a pile of rags, but it soon moved, got back on its feet, came out into the middle of the room, and stopped before us, being the most unusual creature I had ever seen. The sex of this creature was clearly female, though it was impossible to decide whether it was a child or a woman. She was a disgusting dwarf with a huge head, shoulders of a grenadier and corresponding waist, but this body moved on thin, spider legs that seemed physically incapable of carrying such monstrous weight. Her face was curved with the laughter of satire, her cheeks, forehead, chin were decorated with inscriptions and signs from the Koran, painted bright yellow. A bloody red crescent was shining on her forehead, there was a dusty fez on her head and wide Turkish trousers on her legs, the body could hardly hide white muslin. This creature fell rather than sat in the middle of the room, and when her body touched the bending boards, a whole cloud of dust rose and we began to cough and sneeze. Before us was the famous Tatmos, also known as the Oracle of Damascus! Without wasting time on empty talk, the dervish pulled out a piece of chalk and circled around a sitting girl about six feet in diameter, then, pulling twelve small copper lamps out of the door, he filled them with some dark liquid from a small bottle that he pulled out of his sinus. After that, he arranged the lamps symmetrically along a magic circle. Then he took a piece of wood from the frame of a half-broken door, which kept the traces of many similar actions and, taking with his thumb and forefinger chips, began to blow on it at equal intervals. He blew on it a little, started whispering some strange spells, then blew again and whispered again until suddenly, for no apparent reason, a spark appeared on the chip and a piece of wood lit up like a dry match. The dervish then lit twelve lamps with this self-inflammable fire. All this time Tatmos was sitting perfectly still, with no interest in the people around him. She took off the yellow slippers from her bare feet and, throwing them into the corner of the room, showed us her pride – the sixth toe on each crooked leg. At that moment the dervish entered a magical circle, grabbed the dwarf’s ankles and yanked her as if he was lifting a stump with grain. He lifted her by the legs with his head down. Then he stepped back one step and shook her, as usual shaking the sack to settle its contents, and he did it easily and rhythmically. Then he began to swing it to the right and left like a pendulum until, having gained the right speed, he let go of one leg and, holding two hands behind the other, with a powerful effort began to spin it in the air like an Indian baton. My companion, in alarm, retreated to the far end of the room. Dervish was spinning everything and spinning a live mace. She remained completely passive. The speed of movement was increasing and increasing, and soon the eye could not follow the movement of the body. It lasted, perhaps, about two or three minutes, until the juggler gradually slowed down the movement and, finally, stopped, put the girl on his knees in the middle of the illuminated circle. This is the eastern method of hypnosis as practiced by dervishes. Now the dwarf seemed to be in a deep trance and completely forgot about everything around. Her jaw loosened and her head fell on her chest, her eyes glazed and looked forward. Without seeing anything, she became even more disgusting than before. Then the dervish closed the shutters of the only window in the room, and we would have been in total darkness if there hadn’t been an opening in the shutters through which a bright ray of light was penetrating the room, which was falling on the girl. Dervish set her up so that the ray of sunlight would fall on her name, and then, gesturefully asking us to keep silence, he folded his hands on his chest, stared at the bright spot that the sun ray formed on the girl’s head, and froze like a stone idol. I kept staring at the spot of light and thinking about what would happen next and how this strange rite would help me find Ralph. Gradually the bright spot began to soak up, as if through a thin beam, the bright sunlight falling on the house from outside. The bright spot accumulated this light and turned into a dazzling star, from which, as from the point of focus, the rays came out in different directions. There was a curious optical effect: a room that had previously been illuminated by a sunbeam became darker and the star became brighter and brighter until we felt that we were in total darkness. The star was shivering, shivering, and turned, first slowly as a wolf, then it wrapped up faster and faster, and with each turn its size increased until it turned into a dazzling bright disk, behind which we could no longer see the dwarf, which seemed to be absorbed by the glow of this disk. Gradually gaining an extremely high speed of rotation, like a girl in the hands of a dervish, the disc began to spin slower and slower until its rotation began to resemble a faint oscillation, like a game of moonlight on a river ripple. Then the disk blinked again, emitting the last few flashes, and became dense and shiny as a dear opal, stopping at a stationary position. Now the disk shone with moon-like light, soft and silvery, but it, this light, did not illuminate the attic, but seemed to only increase the darkness in it. The edges of the circle were not foggy, on the contrary, they were clearly delineated, like the edges of a silver shield. Now that everything was ready, the dervish, without saying a word or taking his eyes off the disc, found my hand in the darkness and pulled me toward him, pointing to the glowing disc. Looking at it, we saw large spots, similar to the spots on the moon, they gradually turned into figures of people who, like the relief in natural color, began to move on the surface of the shield. They did not look like a photograph or an engraving, even less like a reflection in a mirror. The disc was like a cameo, and the figures kind of grew on its surface and then got movement and life. To my surprise and fear of my friend, we suddenly recognized the bridge from Galata to Istanbul through the Golden Horn, which connected the Old and New City. People were hurrying to and fro over the bridge, steamboats and cheerful Turkish boats were gliding on the blue surface of the Bosporus, many beautiful buildings, villas and palaces were reflected in the water, and the whole picture was illuminated by the midday sun. This view passed before our eyes like a panorama, but the image was so clear that we could not understand whether we were moving or not the image was moving before our eyes. Life was bubbling in front of us, but not a single sound disturbed the heavy silence. The picture was silent, like a dream. It was a ghostly vision. Street by street and block by block passed before our eyes: here in front of us is a bazaar with its narrow rows of small shops under awnings, here is a coffee shop with serious, hookah smoking Turks, and when we slid past one of the coffee shops, or it slid past us, one of the smokers overturned the hookah and the neighbor’s coffee, and we were amused by the flow of silent curses. And so we traveled around town until we found ourselves in front of the big palace where I recognized the Finance Minister’s palace. In a ditch behind the palace, not far from the mosque, in a puddle of mud lay poor poor Ralph! Heavily breathing and melting on earth, he seemed exhausted and dying. And around him gathered a rather pathetic sight of mongrels lying in the sun, blinking and catching fleas. I saw what I wanted to see, though I didn’t say a word to the dervish about the dog, and I came rather out of curiosity, not hoping for success. I couldn’t wait to go and get Ralph back, but my companion asked me to stay a little longer, and I reluctantly agreed. The painting on the disc disappeared, and Miss H. took her place next to the dervish. – I shall think of him,” she whispered in my ear in that hot voice as the young ladies usually say of the man they love. A long strip of sandy shore and blue sea with dancing lambs appeared on the disc. A huge steamboat is moving along the sea in the bright sun. It goes along a deserted coast, leaving a milky-white trail. There is life on its deck: there are sailors doing something on the bow, below from the hatch there is coke in a snow-white hood and apron, there and there naval officers in uniform pass by, passengers crowd on cupboards, or, sitting in folding chairs, flirt or read, and a young man, whom we both recognize, comes to the edge of the deck and looks far away. That’s She. Miss H. takes a break in her breath, she blushes and smiles, and then she concentrates again. The image of the steamer disappears, the magic moon remains empty for a moment, then new spots appear on its glittering surface, and we see a library appear from its depths. It is a large library with green carpets and curtains, book shelves are everywhere on the walls, and in the middle of the chair at the table under a hanging lamp sits and writes an old gentleman. His grey hair is combed back, his face is cleanly shaved, it expresses kindness. With a quick movement, the dervish demanded silence. The light of the disk trembled, but then shone again, and for a second its surface remained empty. And here we see Constantinople again, but now from the pearl depths of the shield appears our own hotel room, papers and books are laid out on the bureau, my friend’s travel hat lies in the corner, and the ribbons hang on the mirror. On the bed is the same dress that she changed before coming here with me. Every detail pointed exactly to where we spent the night, as if it was important for someone to prove that what we saw was reality, not just a figment of our imagination. And as final proof, there were two sealed letters on the dressing table, written in handwriting that my date immediately recognized. They came from a relative of hers. He was very dear to her, and she had waited a long time ago, back in Athens, to hear from him, but had never waited. The painting disappeared, and we saw her brother’s room. He himself was lying in a chair, and the servant was washing his head, which, to our horror, was bleeding. An hour ago we left the boy in full health, and now, having seen such a picture, my companion let out a cry of horror, grabbed my hand and dragged me to the door. Downstairs in the long hall, we joined our chaperone with friends and hurried back to the hotel. Young H. fell down the stairs and opened his forehead quite strongly, and in our room on the dressing table there were indeed letters that had arrived in our absence. Both had been sent to us from Athens.  Having ordered the crew, I immediately went to the Ministry of Finance and there with the escort hurriedly went to the ditch, which I saw for the first time in my life in a shining disk. There, in the middle of a puddle, all dirty, disheveled, half-dead from hunger, but still alive, lay my handsome Spaniel Ralph, and around him were the same blinking mongrels who indifferently caught fleas with their teeth.

Е. P. Blavatskaya. From the “Nightmare Tales” series.

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