Many years ago, a rich merchant in Baghdad sent his servant Hassim to the marketplace to buy provisions – some dates, oil, bread and wine. The sun shone brightly among the palm trees and the merchant did not mind that Hassim would often stop and play chess or drink coffee with friends before returning.
Hassim was not long gone when the merchant heard a muffled sound from the cellar. He called out from the top of the stone steps ” Hassim? Is that you Hassim?”
He lit a torch, and in its oily smoke, saw the ashen face of his servant, cowering breathless among the oil jars.” What is the matter Hassim” he asked” how long have you been here?”
Hassim shook but said nothing. The merchant clapped his hands. Farah the housekeeper appeared. “A drink for Hassim” said the merchant “Fetch wine”.
“Hassim you are frightened.” he said “What has frightened you my friend? Did you lose the money at the chess table? Have you been robbed?”
The merchant paused “It is a beautiful day and you have no business to be so frightened. Come my friend, tell me”
He held out an earthenware beaker of wine.
Hassim looked back and blinked. A mouse, scurrying among the grain baskets made him start. The beaker fell to the floor and broke.
The merchant handed Hassim his own beaker. Hassim looked up and their eyes met briefly. The servant gulped at the wine and felt its warming course. The merchant sat down beside him and for a moment they were old friends not master and servant. The merchant smiled.
“Master, I must leave you” he spluttered, as panic gripped him again “I must go now. I can’t wait. I’m in danger”.
“There is no danger here” said the merchant. “This is my house and you are safe from whatever has frightened you”.
“No master, I must leave. He knows where I lived and he will find me here. You cannot protect me”.
“I am a man of power and we have guards. There is nothing to be afraid of”.
“Master” said Hassim “if you had a thousand guards you could not protect me from him”.
“From whom? Baghdad is your city” said the merchant “You have no enemies here”.
“Master I went to the market as you asked this morning. I bought dates. I bought bread and wine. The market was crowded as usual and I looked for Ali to play chess. On the far side of the market I thought I saw him and called out. He turned and as he did so I noticed his hands, hands of a corpse.
Hassim shook and gulped the wine.
“He raised his arm and pointed to me. And as he did so, his keffiyeh fell away and I saw his face”.
Hassim shuddered violently. “I must get away now. I cannot delay. He will find me here”.
The merchant held Hassim’s shoulders. Be calm he said.
“But you don’t understand master, it was the face of death. The empty sockets, the skin dry and thin like papyrus, the teeth blackened and broken”.
Hassim screwed his eyes closed against the image. In a faltering voice he said slowly “he made a grimace. He was threatening me”.
Hassim gasped for breath. “He will come for me here. He knows. He will come here tonight. I have to leave now”.
“Master, I need a camel to take me away so he will not find me. I have saved money. I have shekels. Let me buy a camel, master to take me away from here”.
“Hassim” said the merchant gently shaking his servant “this is madness. Come. See”.
He helped Hassim to his feet ‘ Death is not here. See the goats suckling their young. See the lizards basking in the sun. This is life. Death is not here”.
“But he will come tonight. If I am here he will come for me”. Hassim ran upstairs and returned with a carved wooden box. With a clatter the shekels fell to the floor.
“Take them master. I must have a camel. I beg you”.
He fell at the merchant’s feet.
“Hassim, get up” said the merchant. “ Have I not shown you that you are safe here?”. Before Hassim could say anything, he held his hand up.
“I see not”. he sighed. There was a pause.
“Then you shall have my best arab stallion”.
“But I cannot buy the stallion, master”.
“Nor shall you. Hassim take the stallion. Ride to Samarra in the north. I have friends there and they will take you in. They will look after you. When you are ready, return to me and I will greet you with open arms. In a day, a month or a year”.
The merchant watched, eyes screwed tight as Hassim beecame a dusty speck near the horizon. Samarra was a hundred miles to the north. Even at this gallop, he would not be there before nightfall.
“God’s speed, my friend” said the merchant under his breath, “God’s speed”.
As the merchant turned away, a thought crossed his mind. “I am a man of standing, a man of power. I will not have my servant frightened. I will not have Hassim threatened by anybody. Of this world or the next. I will seek Death out and talk to him”.
The merchant called for his carriage and rode to the marketplace. The sun, overhead, beat down from a cloudless sky and the merchant wiped his brow.
The market was all but over. A few stalls lingered among the baked sand. The air was heavy with incense, overripe fruit and meats roasting on skewers. In the far corner Hassim’s friend Ali played chess and pulled on a hookah.
The merchant looked left and right, up and down, near and far. Two tethered goats bleated. Death was nowhere.
He took a seat near Ali. Head in his hands, he glumly called for dates and a glass of raki. He was hot and his journey was fruitless. He thought of Hassim, driven by his fear, galloping across the desert to avoid death. Here he was seeking death but unable to find him.
“Thank you” he said as the dates were placed in front of him. Only when the raki was poured did he notice the bony hand. Startled, he looked up and, in an instant, found what he sought in the sightless eyes. He jumped up, knocking over the raki and dates.
As the flow of raki slowed t o a drip, he stood face to face with Death. He felt his chest rise and fall and his heart pound. The flies stopped buzzing. Somewhere a dog barked.
“Why?” he asked.
Death leant forward and the merchant felt his cold breath as he spoke softly.
“This morning my servant Hassim came to the market and you pointed at him and grimaced. You terrified him. Why?”
Death smiled. “I did not mean to frighten him” he said “nor did I grimace at him. My expression was one of surprise”
“Surprise?” said the merchant.
“Yes. I was surprised to see him here in Baghdad” said Death “ for I have an appointment with him tonight in Samara”.
This is my retelling of “Appointment in Samarra” a short story by W. Somerset Maugham. Maugham’s version itself is a retelling of a far older version, recorded in the Babylonian Talmud, Sukkah 53a