The Death of
A Moth
Anatolian minstrels (flute and tambourine players) believed that Satan used the name Akshany Yasir Ibn for a while and that he appeared under it before one of the most celebrated lute players of the 17th century, Yusuf Masudi. Ibn Akshany was himself a very deft player. There exists a written record of his fingering for a song, so we know that he used more than ten fingers to play his instrument. He was a good-looking man; he carried no shadow, and his shallow eyes were like two trampled puddles. Although he declined to make public his opinions about death, he conveyed them indirectly through his tales, advising people to read dreams or to gain knowledge about death from dream hunters. Two proverbs are ascribed to him:

(1) "Death is the surname of sleep, but that surname is unknown to us;"


(2) "Sleep is the daily end of life, a small exercise in death, which is its sister, but not every brother and sister are equally close."

He once wanted to show people how death operated, and he did so by using a Christian military commander whose name has been preserved: he was called Avram Brankovich, and he fought in Walachia, where, Satan claimed, every man is born a poet, lives like a thief, and dies a vampire. Yabir Ibn Ashkany spent some time as a guard at the turbeh of Sultan Murat, and it was here that an anonymous visitor wrote down some of the things that Akshany said:

The guard locks the gates of the turbeh, letting the heavy sound of the lock fall into the dark interior, as though leaving the name of the key inside. Dispirited, like me, he sits down on the stone beside me and closes his eyes. Just when I think he has dozed off in his part of the shade, the guard lifts his hand and points to a moth fluttering above the entrance to the tomb, having come out of our clothes or the Persian carpets in the turbeh

"You see," he says to me casually, "the moth is way up there by the white wall of the doorway, and it is visible only because it moves. From here it almost looks like a bird high up in the sky, if you think of the wall as the sky. That's probably how the moth sees the wall, and only we know it is wrong. But it doesn't know that we know. It doesn't even know we exist. You try to communicate with it, if you can. Can you tell it anything in a way it understands; can you be sure it has understood you completely?"

"I don't know," I replied. "Can you?"

"Yes," the old man said quietly, and with a clap of his hands he killed the moth, then proffered its crushed body on the palm of his hand.

"Do you think it didn't understand what I told it?"

"Now, imagine," he went on, "that there is somebody who knows about us what we know about the moth. Somebody who knows how, with what, and why this space that we call the sky and assume to be boundless, is bounded --- somebody who cannot approach us to let us know that he exists except in one way --- by killing us. Somebody on whose garments we are nourished, somebody who carries our death in his hand like a tongue, as a means of communicating with us. By killing us, this anonymous being informs us about himself. And we, through our deaths, which may be no more than a warning to some wayfarer sitting alongside the assassin, we, I say, can at the last moment perceive, as through an opened door, new fields and other boundaries."

§     §     §

For a while, Yabir Ibn Akshany lived the life of a vagabond, carrying with him his instrument made of white tortoise-shell. He roamed the villages of Asia Minor, played his music, and shot fortune-telling arrows in the air, stealing and begging two sieves of flour a week. He met his death in 1699 after Isa.

He was buried in Trnovo by the Neretva River, at a spot that is still called Satan's Grave. A year later, a Christian from the Neretva area who had known Akshany well went to Thessalonica on some business. There, he entered a store to buy a two-pronged fork for piercing two kinds of meat --- pork and beef. When the shopkeeper came out to serve him, the man immediately recognized Akshany, and asked him what he was doing in Thessalonica when he had been buried a year ago in Trnovo.

"Well, my friend," Akshany replied, "I died, and Allah condemned me forever and a day, and so here I am, a merchant, and I have just about everything imaginable. Only don't ask me for a scale, because I can no longer weigh anything. That's why I sell sabers, knives, forks, and tools, things that are counted, not weighed. I'm always here, except on the eleventh Friday of the year, when I have to be in my grave. But, listen, I'll give you whatever you want on loan if you give me a written promise that you'll return it all as agreed."

The Neretva man accepted the offer, although it was a day when pipes fizzle and won't draw; he wrote the chit for a date after the eleventh Friday, in the month of Rabi-al-awwal, honed his black cane as sharp as buckwheat seed, and left for home, taking with him all the merchandise he wanted. On his way back, by the Neretva River, he was attacked by a huge boar and only just managed to fend it off with his cane, but not before the animal had torn off a patch of his blue silk belt.

When the month of Rabi-al-awwal came around, just before the eleventh Friday, the Neretva man took a pistol and the fork he had bought in Thessalonica and dug up Satan's Grave, only to discover two men lying there. One lay on his back, smoking a long-stemmed pipe, and the other lay sideways, saying nothing. When the Neretva man aimed his pistol at them, the one with the pipe puffed smoke in his face and said: "I am Nikon Sevast. You can't harm me, because I am buried by the Danube." And, with these words, he vanished, leaving only the pipe behind in the grave.

Then the other one turned around, and the Neretva man recognized Akshany, who now said to him reproachfully: "Ah, my friend. I could have destroyed you in Thessalonica, but I didn't, I gave you my help. Now you have come to do me in with your faith...." With these words, Akshany smiled and the Neretva man saw the patch of blue belt in his mouth.

§     §     §

According to another legend, Yabir Ibn Akshany never died at all. In Constantinople one morning in 1699, he tossed a laurel leaf into a pail of water and dipped in his head to wash his pigtail. It wasn't for more than a few seconds, but when he lifted his head from the water and took a deep breath, Constantinople and the empire in which he had washed were no longer there. He was now in the Kingston, a luxury Istanbul hotel, the year was 1982 after Isa, he had a wife, a child, and a Belgian passport, he spoke French, and all that was left floating at the bottom of the sink made by F. Primavesi & Son, Corella, Cardiff, was the laurel leaf.

--- From The Dictionary of the Khazars
Milorad Pavic
Translated from the Serbo-Croatian by
Christina Pribicevic-Zoric
©2007 Vintage International Books
[Our thanks to Barbara Gallant
for bringing this book
to our attention.]

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