ARKOTXA, Aurelia:
Septentrio

Marco Polo's Dream

I, Marco Polo, born in Venice in 1254, son of Niccolò Polo and nephew of Maffeo Polo, now in this Year of Our Lord 1298 prisoner in this Genovan jail, now I will tell you how beautiful the world is, and how great. For it is much more vast than you think and more marvelous than you could ever imagine. Such are Lesser Armenia and Greater Armenia, Persia, Tartaria, India, Katai and Cipango Island. And many other miraculous lands whose names have never been pronounced by Christian man.

Thanks to the pen of Rustichello of Pisa, who is imprisoned with me, the wonders in this book will be read and heard. Thus will you know the beauty of the lands I crossed for twenty-six years blowing endlessly in the wind as the ambassador of the Great Kublai Khan.

Thus did Rustichello of Pisa begin writing of the lucky voyages of Marco Polo. On an afternoon yet warm, in a locked room behind the thick walls of the Genovan jail, Marco's low voice and the scratch of Rustichello's pen on paper could be heard. And they continued so until the light that came in through the window was lost. Then all was quiet and Marco was overcome by sleep. And he had a dream that he never mentioned to Rustichello.

I

You must cross a desert that will take eight days to cross, and know, friend Marco, that there are no trees there, nor animals, and you would do well not to drink any of the stinking water, unless you want to burn your guts. So heed my words: do not drink the water there and carry with you the food and drink you will need for eight days.

At the end of eight days, you will reach a place called Tonokam. In the meadow of Tonokam stands the Only Tree. Some also call it the Sere Tree. It gives a hollow nut like a chestnut. Its bark is yellow and its wood is one of the strongest there is. In the hundred miles surrounding it, you will find no other tree, except here and there, one every ten miles. The old people say it was on that field that Alexander and Darius gave battle.

They are very rich places, neither too hot nor too cold and the natives are beautiful.

As the dream was coming to an end, the Only Tree, bored of its solitude, asked the dream to go on. And there came to it then this dream that it would never tell to Marco.

II

In Muluhidah there is a wondrous garden called Paradise, hidden between two tall mountains. It is enclosed and well cared for. The whole year round, the most beautiful flowers there are and the ones with the sweetest smell grow there. The whole year round, the best fruits are there for the tasting. Four streams cross the wondrous garden every which way, one of water, one of milk, one of honey and one of wine. In the shade of the tress, which are always covered with leaves, the songs of young boys and girls can be heard here and there. Accompanied by the viola, the lyre, the harp, the drum or the fiddle, others dance in the sun.

With the music, the laughter, the murmur of the fountains and the sweetness of the shade, the garden fell asleep and had a dream, one that it never told to the only tree.

III

The name of the king of the wondrous garden was Aloadin. He had led the people to believe that this wondrous garden hidden between two mountains was the Paradise described by Mahomet. Without Aloadin's permission, none could enter there, and with that in mind, there was at the only entrance to the garden a tremendous castle that no one could capture that he had caused to be built at the very beginning.

He was in the habit of inviting to his court, from time to time, the local twelve-year-old boys who wanted to be knights. And he told them the story of Mahomet's paradise, and they believed him.

When the boys were completely dazzled, he offered them a drink as strange as it was sweet and they fell down fast asleep where they were. Then he had them taken in groups of ten, six or four to the wondrous garden hidden between the two mountains, and as they awoke, they saw the most beautiful flowers in the world, they tasted the most delicious fruit, they heard the most splendid music... and when they saw the four streams, one of water, one of milk, one of honey and one of wine, how could they not believe that this was truly Paradise?

Aloadin, needing an Assassin, turned to the men he had in his garden. He caused the one he chose to fall asleep and had him brought to the castle, where he said to him:

-Kill thus and on your return you shall win my Paradise, and if by misfortune they kill you, my angels will take you there.

And this is how Aloadin went about killing all his enemies with the help of his Assassin.

One afternoon, as he was napping in the apple orchard in the wondrous garden, he had a dream. One that he never told to the garden.

IV

Aloadin, my prince and my lord, once you have crossed a province five days wide, you will arrive at Karaian and from there you must head toward ursa major another eight days to arrive at the province of Zardandan, which is surrounded on all sides by fearsome forests. The natives of that land have no gods, no idols, no church. They know not how to write and they keep slaves captured in the wars they wage daily.

Among the slaves there is a sweet maiden named Kogatra, as beautiful as can be. Her hair is black as night, a dark stream flowing down to her waist. Black eyes, two long almonds. Small nose and mouth like a rose. Milky skin, slender body, fine waist as flexible as a willow. Small breasts visible under her light silk dress. So let all the obvious things be said; I know not, I could not say about what is hidden? And her sandals, with what grace they kick up the dust on the road as she carries the water!

Aloadin, my prince and my lord, if you had such a maiden in your Paradise, she would be the most beautiful of pearls for she is a fine musician and singer and can also tell and write the most beautiful love poems of greatest regard among the Sufis. It goes without saying, Aloadin, my lord and master, that the cruel king of Zardandan is mad for Kogatra. Of all the women in his harem, she is the one he loves best, she is the one he desires above all others. She is also as rebellious as she is sweet, an untamable animal, beautiful and wild. Since the king of Zardandan has a different woman every day for his pleasure, he can afford to be patient, sooner or later, he tells himself, Kogatra, like all his other women, will offer her untouched body to him. The king who is so cruel in war is known to be a good lover in times of peace.

To tell the truth, that is what those who fear him say, Aloadin, my prince and my lord. His unlucky women think of nothing but their desire to escape.

However, as the days pass, seeing that he will have nothing from Kogatra, the cruel king of Zardandan has decided that, whether she will it or no, he will soon take possession of the young girl's body for his pleasure. Then, he has decided, he will offer whatever is left of her beauty and rebelliousness to the wild animals of the forest.

This, Aloadin, my prince and my lord, is the sad story of the beautiful and wise girl, Kogatra.

In the meantime, Kogatra, hidden away in the attic of the harem of the cruel king of Zardandan, looks out the window. She need not sleep to dream and she will certainly never tell her dream to the cruel king of Zardandan nor, should the loathsome king die, to the Assassin, who will quickly come to save her.

V

Six years ago, the Great Kublai Khan called me to him, saying:

-Kogatra, best loved of all the maidens of my court, Bolgara, who was Argon?s wife, has died, and Argon seeks a new wife. As you know, the new wife must be of Bolgara's lineage, for that was the late queen's desire. You, Kogatra, best loved of all the maidens of my court, most beautiful and wise of all maidens, you are the wife I have chosen for Argon.

He introduced to me the three ambassadors sent by Argon, Ulatai, Apuzka and Koia, with whom I would journey to Argon's land. My heart was heavy for I did not want to leave my family forever, but no one could cross the will of the Great Kublai Khan and if he were not obeyed, my family would suffer.

Three days passed in celebration, for the Great Kublai Khan gave Argon's ambassadors a magnificent reception. After a few days had passed, he called me to him again, saying:

-Kogatra, most beautiful and wise of all the maidens of my court, loved above all others, here are your new travel guides chosen by Argon's three ambassadors. These three men are the most cherished friends of my heart, the Polo brothers and Marco, son of Niccolò Polo. They have worked for me for many years. Marco has just arrived from India and when he told me of the wonders of that faraway land, I was amazed, for no one had ever told me of such things before. With these three men, you risk nothing; I know, for I have every confidence in them, that you will reach Argon's realm safely.

That very day, that very moment, did my fortune and misfortune begin.

Since then, Marco, when I rise, when I lie down, you are always on my mind.

You were a beautiful man, slender of body; your travels had neither toughened you nor made you fat. There was a certain youth to all your gestures and postures. Your eyes were what first captivated me, for they were clear as the sky, many-colored, like the ocean. Later I would see that they were as changeable as the ocean, sometimes lighter, sometimes darker. I remember your sweetness and your strength. You were like a brave knight to me.

The journey to Argon's realm was known to be extremely long, but it was too short for me since I was in love with you, even though I had been chosen for another.

Since then the forest has bloomed six times over, and come out in leaf as well, as it does so many times, summer and winter, winter and summer. You are always on my mind, though I know I may never see you again, for tomorrow, I will be raped by the cruel king of Zandandan in his attic decorated with brocade, dressed as a lady in gold cloth and sable. And then he will take me to the darkest corner of his forest to be devoured there by wolves, bears and dragons. This will be my fortune, that very night, if Aloadin's men do not take me to the Paradise hidden between two mountains. At least there, in Aloadin's Paradise, I will be held only to play the viola, dance and sing of love, for that is the desire of the Assassin's prince.

At that very moment, as if he sensed something from so far away, Marco woke in the Genovan jail in the middle of the longest dream of his night with the only tree of Tonokam, the wondrous garden, Aloadin, the Assassin's prince and the evil desire of the cruel king of Zandandan jumbling in his mind.

Only Kogatra remained in his heart. The passing years could not extinguish her love. He need not sleep to dream of her. Who knows, some day, if he gets out of prison and makes his way from ocean to ocean, from sun to sun, to the court of Kasan, son of the late Argon, will he be able to tell Kogatra, perhaps, some time, what he has never dared tell another?

© Arkotxa, Aurelia. Septentrio, Alberdania, Irun, 2001.

© Translation: Kristin Addis.

© Photo: Alberdania