Is the target of Mitchell’s satire Western culture or Muslim culture, or both?
⁓The Voice before the Void
The Last American
John Ames Mitchell
A startling discovery this morning.
By landing higher up the river we explored a part of the city where the buildings are of a different character from those we saw yesterday. Nofuhl considers them the dwellings of the rich. In shape they are like bricks set on end, all very similar, uninteresting, and monotonous.
We noticed one where the doors and shutters were still in place, but rotting from the fantastic hinges that supported them. A few hard blows brought down the outer doors in a dusty heap, and as we stepped upon the marble floor within our eyes met an unexpected sight. Furniture, statues, dingy pictures in crumbling frames, images in bronze and silver, mirrors, curtains, all were there, but in every condition of decay. We knocked open the iron shutters and let the light into the rooms sealed up for centuries. In the first one lay a rug from Persia! Faded, moth-eaten, gone in places, it seemed to ask us with dying eyes to be taken hence. My heart grew soft over the ancient rug, and I caught a foolish look in El-Hedyd’s eye.
As we climbed the mouldering stair to the floor above I expressed surprise that cloth and woodwork should hold together for so many centuries, also saying:
“These Mehrikans were not so unworthy as we think them.”
“That may be,” said El-Hedyd, “but the Persian rug is far the freshest object we have seen, and that perchance was ancient when they bought it.”
On this floor we entered a dim chamber, spacious and once richly furnished. When El-Hedyd pushed open the shutters and drew aside the ragged curtains we started at the sight before us.
Upon a wide bed in the centre of the room lay a human form, the long, yellow hair still clinging to the head. It was more a mummy than a skeleton. Around, upon the bed, lay mouldering fragments of the once white sheets that covered it. On the fingers of the left hand glistened two rings which drew our attention. One held a diamond of great price, the other was composed of sapphires and diamonds most curiously arranged. We stood a moment in silence, gazing sadly upon the figure.
“Poor woman,” I said, “left thus to die alone.”
“It is more probable,” said Nofuhl, “she was already dead, and her friends, departing perhaps in haste, were unable to burn the body.”
“Did they burn their dead?” I asked. “In my history ’twas writ they buried them in the earth like potatoes, and left them to rot.”
And Nofuhl answered: “At one time it was so, but later on, as they became more civilized, the custom was abandoned.”
“Is it possible?” I asked, “that this woman has been lying here almost a thousand years and yet so well preserved?”
“I, also, am surprised,” said Nofuhl. “I can only account for it by the extreme dryness of the air in absorbing the juices of the body and retarding decay.”
Then lifting tenderly in his hand some of the yellow hair, he said: “She was probably very young, scarce twenty.”
“Were their women fair?” I asked.
“They were beautiful,” he answered; “with graceful forms and lovely faces; a pleasure to the eye; also were they gay and sprightly with much animation.”
Thereupon cried El-Hedyd: “Here are the first words thou hast uttered, O Nofuhl, that cause me to regret the extinction of this people! There is ever a place in my heart for a blushing maiden!”
“Then let thy grief be of short life,” responded Nofuhl, “for Mehrikan damsels were not of that description. Blushing was an art they practised little. The shyness thou so lovest in a Persian maiden was to them an unknown thing. Our shrinking daughters bear no resemblance to these Western products. They strode the public streets with roving eyes and unblushing faces, holding free converse with men as with women, bold of speech and free of manner, going and coming as it pleased them best. They knew much of the world, managed their own affairs, and devised their own marriages, often changing their minds and marrying another than the betrothed.”
“Bismillah! And men could love these things?” exclaimed El-Hedyd with much feeling.
“So it appears.”
“But I should say the Mehrikan bride had much the freshness of a dried fig.”
“So she had,” said Nofuhl; “but those who know only the dried fig have no regret for the fresh fruit. But the fault was not with the maidens. Brought up like boys, with the same studies and mental development, the womanly part of their nature gradually vanished as their minds expanded. Vigor of intellect was the object of a woman’s education.”
Then El-Hedyd exclaimed with great disgust: “Praises be to Allah for his aid in exterminating such a people!” and he walked away from the bed, and began looking about the chamber. In a moment he hastened back to us, saying: “Here are more jewels! Also money!”
Nofuhl eagerly took the pieces.
“Money!” he cried. “Money will tell us more than pages of history!”
There were silver coins of different sizes and two small pieces of copper. Nofuhl studied them closely.
“The latest date is 1957,” he said; “a little less than a thousand years ago; but the piece may have been in circulation some years before this woman died; also it may have been coined the very year of her death. It bears the head of Dennis, the last of the Hy-Burnyan dictators. The race is supposed to have become extinct before 1990.”
I then said: “Thou hast never told us, O Nofuhl! the cause of their disappearance.”
“There were many causes,” he answered. “The Mehrikans themselves were of English origin, but people from all parts of Europe came here in vast numbers. Although the original comers were vigorous and hardy the effect of climate upon succeeding generations was fatal. They became flat-chested and thin, with scanty hair, fragile teeth, and weak digestions. Nervous diseases unknown to us wrought deadly havoc. Children were reared with difficulty. Between 1945 and 1960, the last census of which any record remains, the population decreased from ninety millions to less than twelve millions. Climatic changes, the like of which no other land ever experienced, began at that period, and finished in less than ten years a work made easy by nervous natures and rapid lives. The temperature would skip in a single day from burning heat to winter’s cold. No constitution could withstand it, and this vast continent became once more an empty wilderness.”
Much more of the same nature he told us, but I am too sleepy to write longer. We explored the rest of the mansion, finding many things of interest. I caused several objects to be carried aboard the Zlotuhb. (NOTE: These objects are now in the museum of the Imperial College, at Teheran.)
Continued in part 3.