Crimson and Steel

I forced a bright smile as I opened the door to the green Bulgarian pastures, the sheep dotting the hillsides that sloped up from my cottage. Petar, my little eight-year-old boy, waved goodbye and clutched the small sack of bread and cheese that I had given him. Teodora, his thirteen-year-old sister, swung her wooden cane in her hand, the one that her father had helped her whittle a few years ago. “Let’s go, Petar,” she said, her plump cheeks already beginning to turn pink from the brisk autumn air.

As they left, I closed the door on their retreating backs and settled down onto my rickety wooden chair. My spinning wheel lay in front of me, but the wool was forgotten as my spine lay against the chair’s back and my eyes closed. I tried to block out the world around me, to forget for a moment the heavy weight that constantly pressed down on my shoulders and my soul. Ever since my husband had died of the plague, life had been hard. We still traveled to the city each month to sell our wool and handicrafts, but it was not enough. Our bread was stale, our savings meager, and our cottage sparsely furnished. I didn’t know how long we could last like this.

I opened my eyes and began to spin the wool once more, spurred by the thought of my children, hungry, their ribs jutting out from their chests. My own dreams, those flickering blazes of my youth, were gone; at least I could set up Petar and Teodora for a better life.

After a few minutes, I began to sink into the rhythm of spinning, my fingers wearing raw and red around familiar blisters from the abrasive wool. Feeling an urge to check on my children, I walked to the window and felt a tentative smile stretch the corners of my mouth for a moment. They looked so content. Teodora prodded one of the sheep with her cane and said something to Petar. He laughed, his green eyes squinting with amusement, his uneven teeth showing in an earnest smile. The two children followed the sheep down the first rise, nearing the small stream where they took the animals to drink each morning. 

Their health and their happiness were my only aspirations.

I settled myself back onto my rigid chair and got back to work, filling basket after basket of spun yarn.

A sound came from the corner of my hearing, a man’s foreign yell. Fearing for my children, I leapt up, wicker baskets and spools of yarn knocking onto the floor. Oh, no… it couldn’t be. They couldn’t find us here; we didn’t live in a town, or even a small village.

I opened the door and ran outside, my face falling as my suspicions were confirmed. Two men walked briskly toward Petar and Teodora. They wore Ottoman soldiers’ uniforms. Severe, crisp, official. Opulent gold braid and slick crimson, ironed flat. Steel swords sheathed at their sides. It was the blood tax.

I sprinted as fast as I could to the hill on which my children stood with the sheep, their bread and cheese spread out on a small bolt of white fabric that they had taken with them. The Ottomans approached them, speaking calmly and brusquely in Turkish, like this was a routine job for them. Something they did every day. They probably did, I realized.

Breathing heavily, I reached the base of the hill and laboriously began to make my way up. I would never make it there before the soldiers, and even if I did, there was no way to save Petar. He would be taken to Constantinople, converted to Islam, forced to join the military, and he would never come back to me. My eleven-year-old nephew had been taken just last month, a sensitive, mild-mannered child who balked at the mere sight of blood. He, and now my own cheerful, sweet Petar, would be forced to kill, to serve the Sultan. 

Petar would wear the crimson with the gold braid.

In a haze of anguish and terror, I reached the top of the hill. One of the Ottoman soldiers was holding Petar by the shoulders. My son was shaking, chewing on his lip. “Mama!” he shouted, his voice echoing off the stony mountain faces and pastoral, green hilltops.

“No, you can’t, you can’t!” I shouted in Bulgarian. “Please, I beg you!”

The older soldier, the one holding Petar, spoke to the other in Turkish. 

The shorter, younger-looking soldier nodded briskly at him and walked up to me. “Hello,” he said in smooth-sounding, rural-accented Bulgarian. “Don’t try to resist us. We’re taking all of the boys from this area, and your son is no different.” 

I thought I detected a hint of sympathy in his voice. “You can’t take him,” I repeated shakily. “I need him. You are a Bulgarian; you must understand.” I tried to make my tone measured and level, but even I could hear the desperation bleeding into my words.

“Yes, I was a Bulgarian. I was taken by the blood tax when I was just ten years old. I am happy. I have an estate, and servants of my own. I’m a powerful man.” He paused. “Just as your son will become.” The soldier’s expression was mild, unchanging.

“I don’t want Petar to be powerful!” I gave up all pretense of calm and let rage and despair soak into my words, infusing them with the brokenness that I felt so acutely. I was completely shattered. “I… I just want my son to stay here with me.”

“He can’t,” the soldier said, and this time I felt no sympathy coming from him, no hint of humanity or kindness. To me, he was a monster. His green eyes were shadowy, traitorous.

I marched over to my son. The two soldiers did not move, but the younger one stood ready to restrain me. “Petar…” I said, my voice breaking. “Petar, I love you.” In the background, I heard Teodora weeping from ten paces away. “Teodora, go,” I said firmly. What if these men took her away too, to be a maidservant or, worse, some kind of concubine?

She scampered away, still clutching her little shepherd’s cane. 

“Petar, please be safe,” I told him, using my thumbs to wipe away his silent tears. “Come back someday, and remember me.” I tried to smile through my misery, to be strong for him. I imagined my grown son, strong and sophisticated, coming here from Constantinople. Noble, respected, cultured. An eminent Muslim soldier, but a slave nonetheless. 

What would his new name be? No, I couldn’t think about that. To me, he would always be Petar, my beautiful son.

“I will.” Petar’s voice was hoarse, almost a whisper, a silenced cry for the salvation that I could never give him. 

The soldiers, those merciless demons with the hard, gleaming eyes, let go of my son’s shoulders and commanded him to come with them. Petar obeyed. He looked back at me, then at his sister, who had given up on running to the cottage and was curled up under a tree, her head resting in her hands.

My son was lost to me forever, stolen from these rolling, green hills into a world of crimson and steel.

And I was utterly powerless.