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the caravanserai at Ashgabat

I wake to the stink of camel fart and the gravelly sound of Bulbul preparing his morning phlegm.

“I had a strange dream.” I say, pulling the blanket around me against the chill mountain air. Bulbul shoots his spit onto the ground.

“Go on, entertain me Boy.”

“I dreamed I was a girl sleeping in a bed as soft as a marshmallow. It smelt as sweet as lavender and...” “Enough!” Says Bulbul, “Don’t let anyone hear you talking like that. This is a caravan, not a hareem.” But it is too late. Aadi the mahout overheard. I watch his face break into a smile before he runs off to where the elephant is bedded down. Bulbul walks into the bushes shaking his head, and squats,.

The softness of my dream is a stark contrast to these long days as Bulbul’s camel herd. This is a new life for me, my first time travelling West. These last days have been hard. We diverted South over mountains to trade. Now we head West again. I enjoy the high ground but Bulbul and the camels do not. This morning Bulbul's mood has improved, but he keeps his scowl and a wary watch on the crags above.

“See to the camels, Boy. Tonight we rest in style at the Caravanserai Ashgabat. Say nothing more of your dream.”

Two more caravans arrive at Ashgabat the same time as us and the place becomes a chaos of animals and loads. Neither of the other caravans has an elephant and we are a curiosity. One is from farther east even than Kabul, and contains a troupe of players. After settling the animals and securing the loads, I watch the end of their show. I am mesmerised. There is dancing, comedy, music, and costumes of every description. We had nothing like this back home. Bulbul sits near the front and smiles for the first time in days. After the show, he finds me.

“Come with me to the Hall.” He says. “You will attend to me. Sit by the colonnades with the other boys. If I need you, I'll call. Otherwise stay put.”

When we arrive, the men are reclining on cushions. At the centre is Teke, the Turkic man in charge of the Caravanserai. Left and right of him are merchants like Bulbul. They applaud when the Eastern man who led the players arrives in his flowing robe, jewelry and white face paint. After a short hubbub, Teke claps his hands.

“Gentlemen.” He says. “Let us tell stories. Who has a story?”

There is a silence broken by Aadi’s master.

“He does.” He points at me. “The Boy has a dream to tell.”

“No, he doesn’t. It’s not worth the telling.” Say Bulbul. “Let’s have a proper tale.” “He dreamed of being a girl.” Shouts Aadi from further down the colonnades.

At this, the white-faced player with jet black hair smiles and claps his hands in front of his face. “How marvellous.” He says. “Do tell.”

I look at Bulbul, who shakes his head, but Teke intervenes.

“Tell us your dream Boy, Eto wants to hear. After his fine entertaining, he deserves something in return.”

Bulbul nods. I stand and take two steps from the group of boys. Setting one foot slightly in front of the other, inhaling a deep breath and puffing out my chest, I do my best to mimic Eto’s players.

“Last night I had a dream.” I hear my voice project into the large room. It sounds strong. “My dream was not a dream of today. It was a dream of many tomorrows. It was not a dream of here, or anywhere a camel could walk in a thousand days. It was a dream of the distant West. I slept in a bed as warm as the embers of a fire and as soft as a marshmallow, its scent as sweet as lavender. Outside were woods rich with mushrooms and a chariot that moved as fast as the wind but needed no horses. Gentlemen, the strangest part of my dream was that I became a girl. A girl as slender as hay in a late summer meadow and with hair just as golden.” I pause. “But when I woke there was only rock beneath me. All I smelled was camel fart, and all I heard was Bulbul coughing up his morning phlegm. When I checked my cock remained a cock.”

I step forward a pace and clutch my crotch. Laughter and applause fill the hall. Even Aadi claps.

“Well, how about that?” Says Teke, “What do you think, Eto? The Boy could be a performer.”

“I am always searching for good-looking boys who dream of being girls.” Replies Eto with a smile.

“Well, what say you Bulbul? Shall we give him to Eto? I’m sure we can find you another camel boy?” Says Teke.

“I can’t do that, Teke. I know the lads’ father. He needs to stay with me.”

“Oh, come.” Says Eto. “What if I sweeten the deal?” He takes off a ring with a red stone. “I take the Boy, we find you a more experienced camel herd, and you take the ring.”

Bulbuls eyes narrow. He is thinking. I have a curious floating sensation. My future is in the balance.

“No, Eto. I can’t do that. I know the lad’s father and I said I’d take him West and back.”

“Come.” Says Teke, “I’m sure there is a way.” Bulbul shifts in his seat. I sense both his discomfort and Teke’s interest in it. “What if the boy took a wager?” Continues Teke. “If he wins, he stays with you. If he loses, you take the ring, and the boy goes with Eto. You can’t be held to account for the Boy’s wager. What do you think?” He says to the room. “Shall we have a wager?”

They take up the cry for a wager. I realise I have underestimated Teke. He is the one who holds the room. He points at a boy with a plate of food and ushers him forward. It is a plate of sweet treats.

“What did you say, Boy? The bed was like marshmallow? How’s this for a wager? If you can eat this full plate of sweets, I give you this silver coin, and you stay with Bulbul. If you can’t, but I’m sure you will because all boys like sweets, you go with Eto and Bulbul gets the ruby ring?”

He takes the plate of sweets from the boy and holds it up. Aadi starts the chant.

“Eat it. Eat it. Eat it.”

All the power has gone from Bulbul. Strain plays across his face. Teke has control.

“I’ll take the wager.” I say. “Pass me the plate.”

My first is a honeyed pastry as long and slender as my thumb. Its sweetness is delicious. I follow this with a marshmallow, sunflower seeds coated in sweet yoghurt, Turkish jellies, a nut brittle, and a honeycomb. Even I underestimated the hunger worked up over days of walking. I pop two more honeycombs into my mouth.

They cloy.

My spit has run dry.

“Water.” I request.

“No water.” Says Teke. “Just sweets.”

My pace slows. Each sweet sticks and clings to my mouth. Sickness rises from my stomach. I swallow it back with each mouthful. Sweat runs from my brow.

“He’s not going to do it.” Says Aadi.

“Your boy is going to be a girl in a troupe of Eastern players.” Says Aadi’s master. “His father won’t like it.”

“Eat Boy. Eat.” Says Bulbul.

I continue. Marshmallow, honeyed pastry, nut brittle, honeycomb, Turkish jellies, sunflower seeds. Each sweet an ordeal. My jaw aches. The hardest to digest are the nut brittles. They fracture in the mouth and suck all the moisture from it as if I am chewing dust.

At last I have one left. A single honeyed finger coated with a crumb of pistachio. Aadi takes up his chant again. Everyone in the room joins with him him.

“Eat it. Eat it. Eat it.”

I have the curious floating sensation. My future is in the balance. The room falls silent.

“Eat it Boy.” Says Bulbul.

“I can’t.” I say.

“You must.” Says Bulbul. “It is the last one. You are so close. You must be able to finish!”

I scan the room. Teke has a mischievous half grin on his face. This is excellent sport, but he is indifferent to the outcome. I pick up the final sweet. Eto’s white face displays a kindly disappointment. Aadi is open-mouthed. Bulbul has a look of desperation and I realise for all his gruff exterior he is a good man. I consider my father.

“I can’t.” I say and push away the plate. “I am finished.”

“But if you’re finished…” Bubul stammers, but does not end his sentence.

“I know.” I say.

The left corner of Eto’s kindly white face flickers upwards and he winks at me. It is so subtle a movement that no one but me sees it. I suppress an urge to smile back. The curious floating sensation leaves me. My future is settled.

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