[from John Balaban's Path, Crooked Path, Copper Canyon, 2006]
Ibn Fadhlan, the Arab Emissary, Encounters Vikings
on the Volga River, A.D. 922
The Rus, as they are called, camped above the river
trading furs from a log hall, axed out by slaves.
The men -- tall as date palms, blond, tattoed --
had set a pole out front carved with gods
to which they offer things to bless their trade.
This was all I saw of their piety or conscience.
Caliph, they are the dirtiest creatures of God.
Each morning when the men stir out of sleep
a slave girl brings a bronze ablution bowl
first to the chief who washes his face, then
rinses his mouth, spits, and blows his nose
into the bowl which she carries around until
each has washed in the same filthy water.
When their lord died, a huge sahirra dakhma
(the witch who rules the slave girls) set them wailing
as they packed his corpse in black earth and
his men built a death ship with a funeral pyre.
They call this witch "Angel of Death," Malak al-Mawt.
She picked a girl to go with the dead lord, then
invited the men to fornicate with the slave girl
drugged and lost in crazy song.
Then the girl was led to the ship
where the lord, his corpse now washed,
lay on the pyre wreathed in flowers and fruit.
Then the woman stabbed the girl
in her ribs as a man crept behind her
with a knotted rope, strangling her cries
until she fell dead and they laid her on the pyre.
Torching the ship, knocking away its blocks,
they shoved it blazing in the river, singing
their lord to a life of pleasures they imagine.
Soon his ship was ashes swirling on the currents.
O Caliph, through forested lands, west and north,
one finds only infidels with vile habits.
Some are Christian. Nothing will come of them.
Path, Crooked Path