The Fall of Bagdad

The Fall of Bagdad[1]

Don Pedro wakes this autumn day,
Descends the stairs to his bar,
And wiping down the rough-hewn wood,
Prepares to pour the drinks.

For years his cantina thrived on gold
That cotton transport culled
From slaves that Texas cruelly worked
Throughout the Civil War.

In fact, all Bagdad grew fat on their blood
Despite Old Mexico’s Laws.
Confederate cash, international trade:
The marketplace crushed all ideals.

Once camels and carts lined the streets
Of this town at the river’s mouth.
The Gulf fairly teemed with Southern ships
That waited months for their loads.

But two long years have come and gone,
And Bagdad begins to decline:
Just pirates and desperadoes now
Who wallow in waning filth.

Don Pedro throws open the shutters.
A wind swirls in from the south.
A line of black obscures the horizon
Above the bruise-colored sea.

A sudden gust brings the stench
Of rotten fish and disease,
And silhouetted at the door
Appears the Harbinger.

“We’re closed right now,” the owner says,
“But if you have the coin
And do not mind a little wait,
I’ll serve you when I’m done.”

The figure steps into the light.
His unkempt hair is long.
He’s dressed in Middle-Eastern robes.
His skin and eyes are brown.

His gaze surveys the grimy bar,
Dispassionate and grim.
“I am not come to sample vice:
I come to wipe it out.”

Don Pedro has to smile at this.
“So many men have tried,
But here the law obeys but gold:
The mayor’s and criminals’ greed.”

The stranger walks up to the man—
He stinks of fetid flesh—
And with his ancient, spectral voice
Intones his harsh decree:

“Each soul in Bagdad dies today
Whose love for greed is such
That they have wrought another’s death
Or profited from slaves.

“Behold the Harbinger of Doom
Is come to bring your end,
To raze your city to the ground,
To drown all evil fiends.”

Before Don Pedro can object,
The stranger takes his arm
And with ineluctable grip
He leads him outside.

There by the docks the boats now rock;
The white waves beat their hulls.
To south and east the sky is black
The evening sun bleeds red.

“For eighteen hundred years have I
Perambulated wide,
A tool of vengeance for the one
Who brought me back to life.

“Know’st Lazarus? That is my name:
Immortal living dead.
I sank Port Royal to the depths
I heralded the Plague.”

He thrusts a skeletal hand toward the sky
And snarls in some guttural tongue.
The air, encumbered with unseen force,
Begins to writhe and thrum.

Like hounds that race at their master’s call
To chase and trap their prey,
Across the waves the gray squalls howl
To burst against the town.

Don Pedro gapes in wordless dread
As sails grow fat with wind;
Like men in nooses, shop signs swing,
And loose tiles pelt the ground.

The gale’s moan rises to a scream
That’s underscored by cracks
As masts are sundered from their keels
And ships flung on the docks.

Pedro struggles to break free,
He longs to bar the door,
To close the shutters one by one
Against the tempest’s wrath,

But Lazarus won’t let him go,
He draws him closer still.
The storm surge flows about their feet,
Sucking at their clothes.

A cloud of seagulls rushes past
In harsh, infernal din:
Bleached psychopomps that come to drag
A thousand souls to hell.

“Release me, please!” Don Pedro begs
As rain begins to fall
In thick, opaque and frigid shrouds
That obliterate the world.

“I’m innocent!” the taverner screams
To the ancient, ruthless being,
And eldritch eyes bore to his soul
Regarding every crime.

“Where are thy daughters, Pedro Sainz?
What didst thou with those girls?
On their backs in some house of ill repute
To pay the debts thou ow’st.

“Thy drunkenness and lechery
Drove thy wife to suicide.
Art rotten to thy very core,
And like the rest, shalt pay.”

Then with a shriek the roof is torn
In ragged chunks from the bar;
Adobe’s blasted from the walls;
The storm claws at the bricks.

All around the shanties quake,
They collapse into splintered ruin.
Naught withstands but Lazarus,
Implacable as fate.

The waters wrap them roundabout
As graveclothes seal the dead,
The ancient man dives to the depths,
With Pedro in his arms.

Amidst the wreckage of his town,
Which eddies roil and swirl,
He sees the bodies of his girls,
Like flotsam, twist and turn.

He opens wide his mouth to scream
And water fills his lungs.
The Harbinger releases him.
The bleak world fades away.

But then he’s snatched from out his corpse
By Lazarus’ deft hand
And lifted high above the earth
To view the scene below:

The waters are receding now,
There’s nothing left but sand
And wine-black water stretching forth
To the horizon’s edge.

The gulls have gathered thickly,
In each beak a damaged soul,
And they soar into the darkness
Dragging every fiend beyond.

[1] In 1867, the Mexican town of Bagdad was completely leveled by a hurricane that seemed to spring up overnight. That port at the mouth of the Rio Grande had served as the major shipping point for Confederate cotton during the Civil War, cotton cultivated by slaves in Texas and throughout the South. This ballad speculates about the storm that avenged that crime.

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