Butter, Bullets and Bacon

9 minutes read

Selim stepped carefully over a bundle of carelessly placed mining supports and drew abreast of Melih, who was absentmindedly, shuffling his feet across the dust and dirt.

"The banners,” Selim demanded of Melih.

“Okay,” said Melih, and gave a sidelong nod towards the artillery line in the camp. They trudged along it, pushing their way first to the camp cooks, and then to the Janissary baggage handlers, where they were told to check with someone in the artillery camp who might have been someone’s cousin or neighbour from somewhere.

Selim was tired, but sufficiently irate to have resolved to witness the decay of everything he was supporting through the mediocrity and sheer incompetence of its leaders. It made every waking moment of watching everyone go to war like they were going to tend to their fields, ambling along, chatting, a little more sickly hilarious. He was just drawn to the banner and needed to see them. He needed to see for himself just how idiotic and helpless things had become. He felt a sick and self-satisfying urge and satisfaction knowing that he was better and smarter with the people ruining everything around him.

It was midday and he was boiling under his robes of office. The air was still and the smells of a camp after months of siege hung there: the smoke, the disease, the gunpowder, the malaise, the anger. It followed them then, stirred, mixed behind everyone that walked by: bashi bozouk irregular, artilleryman, doctor, hodja. Each carried with them a different smell and a different sweat, all cooking together in a stew of a camp where they were set to rot for months on end. Selim pushed through Janissaries, irregulars, camels, horses, geniuses, fools, unbelievers, thieves and psychopaths, all milling about as if there were no war on. Some wore bandages, a few just sat cross-legged on the ground in the dirt with blank looks painted on their faces, a couple were missing limbs – an arm here, a leg there – yet there they were, milling about eating sunflower seeds and spitting out the shells. They all stank. You could smell that no one gave a shit anymore. A Janissary came ambling back from behind a tent hoisting his baggy trousers up and fiddling with his crotch.

The tent of the artillery ağa was propped open by part of a broom on one side, and a pike on the other; oddly, the broom was bloodstained and the pike wasn’t. Inside, the ağa was seated on the ground by himself, at a low table. He was surrounded by scrolls and scrolls of charts, eating loudly and snorting, wiping his nose. He ate with a slow determination that most men couldn’t muster.

Selim and Melih entered, and the ağa invited them with a wave to sit with him on the floor, wiping crumbs from his mouth and greying beard as he did so.

As he sat down, Selim noticed that the low, sprawling table was covered by intricately woven cloths of thick, silky black velvet edged in gold piping. They were war banners, beautiful in every necessary way for a battlefield for a Sultan to lead the Soldiers of the Divine Light to glory. They were almost the height of a man and four times as long, and flowing across them was the beautiful embroidered script running and twisting on itself. They must have taken weeks to make.

They were beautiful, and they were now carelessly crumpled and folded up to be used as table cloths, covered with various baked goods lying tossed on the turns and sweeps of the calligraphy.

“What is this?” asked Selim, his eyes bulging, head crooking forward as he crouched down at the low table and traced the lettering with his index finger, looping through and through.

Melih shifted about, his hands behind his back.

“What, these old banners?“ asked the artillery ağa. ”They were being used to make an awning for one of our commander’s tents and then he got sick of them. The black isn’t so good in this sun – too hot, you know. So we started using them. What’s it to you?”

“This is what we’ve been reduced to,“ Selim said, sweeping his hands across the banner in slow agony. ”Look at this! Like there aren’t enough bad ideas spreading like cholera in this camp – now we now can’t even use art properly.”

“What art?”

“What you have your, your lunch resting on.” Suddenly, all the fight went out of Selim. He shrank there in the tent. He was the height of ants.

“Oh, this? Well … I don’t know, really.” The ağa shrugged his shoulders.

“What do you mean, you don’t know?” Selim’s head drooped helplessly and his words trailed.

“I can’t read this. The script. I can read a little Greek—“

“I suppose it doesn’t matter.“ Selim stopped him. ”Nothing really matters, does it, with this bullshit? Oh, my fucking days, it just doesn’t matter does it?”

“Listen, calm down, calm down, bey,“ the ağa said, with friendly puppy-dog eyes. ”It’s going to be okay. Here, have one of these rolls.”

Suddenly, Selim wasn’t listening. “What, what is that?” he whispered, unable to take his eyes off the offering held out by the ağa.

“What does it look like, pen pusher? It’s bread.”

“B-but that is no o-ordinary bread,” Selim stammered. He hadn’t stammered since his days at the medrese. “Where did you get it?”

The creation in front of him was talking to him. He suddenly forgot the banners. The breads, twisting and turning on themselves like the calligraphy beneath them, began to shine with a light from within: something unholy and yet so heavenly delicious was inside … there was butter and sweetness mixed with something he could not resist but knew he should. He started muttering prayers to himself, trying to remember the words that were supposed to steel his soul but never did – the words had never worked when he was a kid, and they worked less since.

The glistening roll appeared in his hand as if by magic, and Selim eyed it suspiciously. He could feel its energy, its flour, its beauty, its grease. It looked perfect, unlike anything he had ever seen before. Its crust was golden, ringed with brown, like the autumn leaves outside his boyhood home. Shaped crudely like a cross, it was intricate, woven in a sort of braid, in on itself. It took some time to do, that much was clear. Its scent had a life of its own – a strange mix of savoury and sweet that drew him in, and which he knew he should resist.

“What is this? Where did you get this? Why are you giving it to me?” Selim demanded. He was lost, swimming in the moment but moving his arms and legs to no avail. He could smell every minute that had gone into it, every slathering of butter that dripped out of it, its glaze a casing of sweetness against the airs of this cruel war and everything in it.

He wanted to cry.

“It’s a roll. Austrian. Well, Carinthian, I reckon. Styrian maybe? Don’t matter, I suppose. It’s got bacon in it I think, as well. You know how hard it is to get bacon around here?”

“Bacon? What?”

“You know, bacon. Like smoked pork. The back cut. The really good bit.”

“Who are you? Do your superiors know about this?”

“I am the superior. Calm down, its fine – I’m Christian.”

“Can someone tell me how it is we’re supposed to be in some big fucking jihad against the infidel and, sure enough, we have infidels fighting for us?” The world made no sense to Selim. He was looking up at the surface.

He wanted to be inside the roll.

“I’m Orthodox. Serbian, actually. Practically this whole artillery unit is. Fuck these Catholics and their Pope. We’ve been fighting for the Sultan for a while, all of us – the Wallachians, Hungarians, well, the Lutheran ones at any rate … whoever. But I’ll be damned if they can keep us away from bacon.”

“Take this away from me.”

“Oh come on, pen pusher, try it. Just try it. Smell it, just smell deep…” He made a big sweeping motion, starting at the back of the rolls, wafting the air towards Selim, where he still sat on his haunches.

“By God, this is evil. I want it so bad.” Selim’s head was melting. The shame of his temptation made him want to be on the front, charging out over the top of some shit-laden trench, no musket, no sword, no grenade, just stripped to the waist running into the breach.

“Try it, try it. It’s okay – all of you guys eat pork. It’s fine.“ The Serb dropped his voice. ”Everyone’s doing it. It’s fine.”

“Where did you get this? Answer me. Please.” Selim was getting even more nervous. It smelled like Heaven. It was talking to him. He still held it delicately, like a flower in the palm of his hand – as he imagined God would hold him, if he cared about him.

He looked over at Melih, who was absentmindedly munching away on one.

“I have people,” replied the soldier.

“What people? Where?” Selim looked at him, eyes wide.

“In there." The Serbian nodded out of the tent and to the walls and bastions in the distance.