20 Oct

“Istanbul is full of evil forces,” frowned the man called Ismail the Syrian, “but I believe that I have a means of ferreting out the worst of them.”

The pair stood together in flowing green robes and high turbans on the balcony of a government building overlooking the harbor. The eyes of the director of the Sultan’s secret police were a bottomless black. Ismail’s were pale hazel, with minuscule flecks of yellow in them.

“How did you come by such an uncanny indicator of a person’s true condition?” inquired Daud Bey, the official.

“It is a long story, effendi. I came across the extraordinary stone while on special assignment in the Vilayet of Bosnia. It was sold to me in the city of Sarajevo by an old scholar well-versed in the history of possession by snakes.”


“Yes. He had spent many years studying them. The term refers to both the person bearing the snake internally and the serpent itself. The mind and soul of such a human being fall under the unbreakable control of the demonic reptile. All his life, the yilan must serve and gratify the inner resident. Only with death does the snake leave its host. The immortal monster then goes elsewhere, to a new home in someone else. Often it is a small child or a baby.”

“It hungers for flesh and blood, does it not?”

“The fiendish creature obtains an unknown nourishment from living substance and organic fluids. Since it needs the host as its home, the snake leaves him intact.”

“I find all of this incredible!”

“Yes,” nodded Ismail. “It is uncanny, but true. The yilan, with its hidden snake, is a threat to normal people, bringing rapid death to them.”

“You have had experience hunting down these devils in Bosnia?”

“Only a minority of the inhabitants there have so far converted to Islam. The Greek and the Roman Christians still predominate. There are many false Muslims who secretly adhere to their old faith. They are pretenders who only want to avoid the head tax on non-believers. Infidel beliefs survive in the recesses of their homes and families.

“The situation there is ripe for yilan possession, of course. Nowhere else are yilans so common as in Bosnia. Their danger was very hard to combat until I obtained a soulstone that can identify the pretenders when they hold it in their hand.”

“You must give this fabulous stone of yours a test in Istanbul,” commanded the director of secret police. “I suspect that our capital holds a great number of such yilans in it.”

Ismail the Syrian belonged to the corps of undercover agents in the imperial city, the chokadars who kept watch over the public and private behavior of the population. It was now an especially dangerous season because Istanbul was at the start of a seven-day celebration in honor of the Sultan’s newly born son.

The markets, inns, and government structures were brilliantly illuminated for the first night of the holiday. All the great city’s mosques were festively decorated. Every minaret displayed colored lanterns that were to burn all night. Shops and stores stayed open, but there were to be no sales or purchases. Trade was halted for the seven days. Varied goods on display served only to give the lengthy celebration added color and splendor. No serious work was permitted during the hiatus from daily routine.

There was much for a chokador like Ismail to keep his eyes on the first evening of the gala week. He strolled the crowded streets on the lookout for signs of suspicious behavior.

What might he uncover if luck was with him this special night?

The houses of the rich and powerful were open to the public on the occasion of the birth of the Sultan’s son. As he passed by, Ismail saw crowds entering and leaving the magnificent residences. In their large halls and reception rooms, the notables of the metropolis were greeting both the high and the lowly. Ordinary street people enjoyed the temporary privilege of sitting on the sofas and divans of the wealthy. Even the Grand Vizier himself had opened his grand palace to the city’s hoi-palloi. All who entered were received with politeness by the mighty, in honor of the newly born prince. Sweets, fruit, and cool drinks were distributed by uniformed house servants to all and sundry, whoever they might be.

Ismail recalled the old legend that the early sultans would attend these public receptions in disguise to observe for themselves how the ordinary people were treated. In Ismail’s time, the secret police still reported on these matters to their superiors. A team of special chokadars was at that moment collecting data on hospitality and generosity. Bureaucratic demotions could result from what the undercover agents saw or heard that night. Stinginess on imperial holidays was known to have ruined many a career in the civil service. But open-handedness was a sure step toward promotion and success.

The Syrian knew that for the next seven days arrests would be rare in Istanbul. Investigations of crime had to wait till the end of the festive period. Debts could not be collected, for all the courts were closed. Many prisoners won temporary release from jail, on their promise to return when the week was up. Only the chokadars stayed on duty, keeping track of who said or did what for these seven days. That meant no time off for Ismail and his colleagues. During the day, they had to cover the horse races at the public tracks and the matches of wrestlers or swordsmen paid for by the Sultan. At night, detectives mingled in the throngs watching fireworks over the Golden Horn and the Bosporus.

That particular night, Ismail was assigned to the more riotous, often illicit, celebrations going on away from the main streets. There were twelve thousand targets for the secret police to cover: inns, taverns, low dives, and the places called “houses of pleasure.” Many of their proprietors were Christians. The customers were most often green-turbaned Turks out on a spree far from their home neighborhoods and relatives. Forbidden wine and liquor flowed here. Ismail had in the past seen men dressed and made up as attractive young women, playing musical instruments and dancing suggestively. He had often made reports on who was attending these wild performances.

It was the duty of a chokadar to hunt for games of chance where bets were involved. Card-playing was a more serious crime than selling alcohol or prostitution. The agents of the secret police kept a watchful eye on Janissaries, once the imperial guards but now a class of idle loafers. It was common to have fights break out among these roughnecks in taverns and the public baths.

Few operatives in his line surpassed Ismail as an eavesdropper. He was expert in picking up valuable leads in criminal cases.

It was near midnight when he entered a seedy-looking cafe for a cup of coffee. His sharp ears quickly picked up the name of someone who excited his interest.

“He has become a very strange bird, that Omer Hasan. I do not understand him at all any more.”

Another voice continued. “He keeps to himself and does not go out at all. What has happened to him?”

After a pause, the first man answered.

“Omer has become a puritan. He does not drink or frequent taverns. The man no longer associates with his old friends. I have heard that he spends his evenings reading old books of religion. That can be dangerous if they are erroneous works. I pray that Omer has not joined some bizarre, secret cult or sect.”

“Omer the heretic! That could be disastrous for his jewel business. Who wants to deal with a religious lunatic?”

The subject was dropped by both speakers.

“Let’s order some wine,” said one of the conversationalists.

Hearing no more about the strange puritan, Ismail paid his bill and left.

He now had a likely suspect to investigate.

Omer Hasan’s surprise was enormous when three armed guards came into his jewel shop the first morning after the end of the holiday period. Tall and thin, he was also strong and muscular. Living in Istanbul had not fattened or softened him. His coffee-colored eyes did not blink as he was escorted away.

Though a member of the Janissary Corps, Omer had no military duties whatever. At first only the wounded had been given permission to go into trade in the capital. But with time multitudes of healthy warriors won the right to engage in commerce. Many of them, still free of state taxes, grew very rich.

Omer was one of these fortunate Janissaries who were now wealthy.

What do the police want with me? he asked himself as he was led into the dungeon-like headquarters building near the harbor. Into a long, narrow interrogation room the guards led him.

Left alone for a considerable time, the jeweler had a chance to think more clearly. What had he done to cause this to happen? Could the arrest have some connection to his private spiritual strivings? Was he suspected of heresy?

Two wooden stools were the only furniture in the room. Omer paced back-and-forth, not sitting down. What had he done wrong? Why had he been brought to a place of dread and terror? he wondered.

The door opened and a man with hazel eyes entered. He looked Omer up and down. “Please be seated, effendi,” said the chokadar.

They both took the stools, facing each other directly.

“Your examination will not take long,” began Ismail the Syrian. “I wish you to take part in a kind of test.”

“A test?” responded Omer, his brow furrowing.

From a pocket of his robe, Ismail removed a little box, handing it over to the surprised prisoner.

“Inside the wooden box is a special stone,” muttered the Syrian. “Do you have any idea what a soulstone is?”

“No,” answered the perplexed Omer. “I do not.”

Ismail leaned his head forward. His voice fell to a whisper.

“Open the box and have a look at it.”

Inside was an oval, egglike white stone covered with tiny flecks. The latter looked dark purple.

“Take it in your right hand and hold it tightly, please.”

Omer did as told, squeezing the object in a firm grip.

The chokadar provided an explanation for what was going to happen.”What you hold is an ancient soulstone that reveals what is in the mind and heart of the one who holds it. The color of the specks indicates what rules within his invisible soul.”

“That is incredible!” murmured the Janissary.

“For the followers of orthodox, official Islam, the specks are green ones. But in the hand of an open or secret Christian, they turn blue. For Jews, they become golden-yellow, even if the faith is hidden from view.

“There are also special colors that reflect the presence of various heresies.”

“Heresies?” gasped Omer, almost jumping up on his feet.

“Give me the stone, please,” said the interrogator.

Opening his fist, the prisoner looked down at the ovoid.

But before he could determine the hue of the flecks, Ismail grabbed the stone out of the hand of the confused jewel dealer.

“You have nothing to be concerned about, sir,” announced he chokadar with a grin. “There can be no doubt of your loyalty to the Islam of our Beloved Sultan.”

Before Omer realized what had happened, the tester placed the stone back in its box, pocketed it, and left the room without a further word.

What color had the flecks turned? worried the tall bachelor.

Had the chokadar uncovered his true beliefs?

A guard opened the door. “You may leave whenever you wish, effendi,” he told the puzzled, fearful jeweler.

That evening a figure wearing rags appeared at the entrance to the home of Omer Hasan. He refused to give his name to the servant who opened the door.

“I must see your master. It is urgent that I speak to him at once.”

“He is busy with his books.”

“Tell him that I am the man with the stone that reveals everything.”

“Wait here,” said the servant, turning about and closing the door.

In a few seconds he was back. “Follow me,” motioned the domestic with his head.

The strange, uninvited visitor walked through luxurious halls and corridors to the door of a small, private sanctum.

“Go in,” said the servant, turning away and disappearing down a darkened hallway.

“Come in,” said a voice inside the room. “Welcome to my home. I did not expect you to come here this evening, not at all.”

Ismail entered a study lined with bookshelves, closing the door behind him,.

The owner pointed to a cushioned chair beside the writing desk he sat at.

As he sat down, the tall man in rags began to speak.

“I thought it best that no one know that I came here, so I put on a disguise.”

“I was released and told I could return home. What, then, is my present legal status?”

The secret police agent gave a cat’s smile.

“My report concludes that I found nothing subversive of public order in you. No further action need be taken in your case. The file will be closed now. The investigation has ended.”

“What color did the specks become in my hand?” demanded Omer in an insistent tone. “You must reveal that to me for my peace of mind. I have to know.”

The Syrian continued to grin, making no immediate reply.

“Why did you lie in my behalf?” asked Omer. “Why did you protect me?”

Ismail moved his right hand under his ragged outer garment, bringing out the familiar wooden box. Opening it, he removed the small stone egg.

“Watch what I do,” he told the startled jeweler.

Ismail clenched his right hand about the soulstone and squeezed it tightly. Moments passed. At last, Ismail opened his fist and handed the object he was holding to the one watching him.

All the specks were gone, making the stone a solid white.

There were no markings whatsoever on it.

Omer now rotated the stone about in his own right hand, examining it on all sides, from different angles and directions.

All of a sudden, from the pressure of his forceful touch, flecks appeared on the white surface. They were a deep, rich purple.

“I do not understand what happened,” gasped the stunned jeweler.

Ismail placed the stone in its box and returned the container to his inside pocket.

“The purple hue indicates belief in the doctrines of the Christian heresy of the Bogomils,” explained the investigator. “Where did you learn their teachings? They were once widespread in the Balkan lands, but the followers of that sect were persecuted by the Christian authorities. Most of their descendants have become Muslims.”

Omer drew a deep breath, then made a confession.

“I was born in Bosnian Sarajevo. My family was simultaneously Muslim and Bogomil. Outwardly, they professed and practiced the faith of the Prophet. But in their secret thoughts and acts they held to the ideals of the Perfected Ones. My relatives gave me many forbidden books to read.” He pointed a finger at the shelves behind his desk. “I brought all their spiritual treasures with me when I came to Istanbul years ago. They have guided my search for inner enlightenment.”

For several moments neither of them spoke.

“Did you notice how my hand turned the flecks to pure white?”  inquired the Syrian.

Omer nodded that he had.

“I adhere to the theology of the Batinites of the Islamic East,” whispered Ismail. “We seek the enlightenment of the soul, like the Christian Bogomils. Both strains are oriented toward the mystic dimensions. As they have their Perfects in Bosnia, we have our holy men we call shaykhs.” He paused and stared at the nearly entranced Janissary. “I myself have become a shaykh who is able to lead others like you to the plane of universal wisdom. Do you understand what I am telling you? With me as a guide, teacher, and master, you can become capable of practicing the highest, most esoteric art ever known to human beings. The wisdom of all the ages will be open to you, if you will become my student, my murid. Your soul will receive the Sublime Light.

“Will you join with me? Together, we can pierce the outer veil and partake of the highest truth. I promise to lead you to divine spiritual wisdom.”

Omer gazed at the older man, dumbfounded and in a trance.

“All that you describe I have dreamed of learning and mastering since my mind awoke years ago. My goal has been to find out the deepest truths and illuminate the path of my life with that light.”

“I can direct your advancement into wisdom the right way,” breathlessly promised Ismail. “All your hopes can be realized with my tutelage.”

“For many years, I have studied the old Bogomil texts, but there remains so much that I do not know. I have had no mentor to lead my inner development. Never before have I had contact with a truly enlightened individual like you.”

Ismail extended his right arm, taking Omer’s hand and holding it tightly.

“Become my disciple,” he solemnly told the jeweler. “I shall take you to the farthest limits of Batin knowledge.”

“Will the path be a difficult one, sir?”

“Not at all. I assure you that with concentration and steadiness, success will come to you, Omer. The highest possible wisdom shall be yours.”

Every night for a month, Ismail visited the residence.

One evening, the instructor appeared concerned about some matter.

“Istanbul is full of hidden enemies seeking the destruction of our Empire and the Sultan. Only I know how to protect us from the bite of the evil snakes.”

Omer looked puzzled. “You speak of crawling serpents?”

“No. These are the ones on two legs that seem to be human. Only I know how to arm the city against these demonic creatures. You shall learn from me how to spot and deal with the yilans.”

“I will?” gulped the trader with amazement.

“My position in the Sultan’s secret police allows me to hunt down the serpents in our midst with the force of the law behind me. I make use of my soulstone in the search for them. You will learn the secrets of my craft, Omer. But it takes time to become skilled at it. Eventually, you can be given you own soulstone to work with. It is an important weapon that I use.”

The two looked at each other in silence for a time.

“Your instruction as a yilan hunter begins tonight,” announced the chokadar.

Omer quickly absorbed everything told him about the soulstone.

“It is our duty as mystics with spiritual knowledge to uncover and destroy the devils who are the enemies of the Supreme Being,” insisted Ismail. “The war against the abomination of the yilans has gone on since the time of the creation of man. It is Satan who employs the snakes to seduce the unwary. The battle is an unending one, till the end of our present world.

“The yilans hide within the bellies of their carriers, coming forth out of the mouth of the possessed to eat flesh and drink blood. Their crimes are hideous outrages.

“As a chokadar, I have the authority to carry out investigations throughout Istanbul and surrounding districts. My success has been considerable, yet the peril continues and grows greater. The damned creatures are everywhere, from the Sultan’s palace to the forgotten alleys of our city. The yilans know how to conceal themselves among us. No one is as clever as one of them.

“My hope, Omer, is that you can help widen the scope of my net.”

“How is that possible, sir?”

“Dealing with jewelry in your shop, you are able to pass the stone into a countless number of hands. Test after test can be made in the course of your everyday business.”

Omer was unable to suppress a grin.

“What are the signs of the presence of a yilan?” he eagerly asked.

“When they touch the soulstone, the flecks turn an ugly pembic pink, like the stomach of an animal. That is the color of the coils inside a snake. It is the sign the reveals their true identity. You will know at once when you come across one of them.”

Now I know what to look for, the disciple said to himself.

His training completed, Omer took the stone from Ismail and placed it among his most expensive merchandise. The customers who entered his store were encouraged to handle it as much as they pleased. No one offered to buy it, though.

“This is a magical amulet, the master gem of all my cevahir,” boasted the Janissary. “Whoever puts the stone in their hand is certain to enjoy good fortune and great luck,” he lied convincingly.

High officials and wealthy notables, accepting the claims of Omer, followed his advice and took hold of the ovoid. All were amazed at the color changes. But no one would pay the incredibly high price asked for the item.

Ismail continued to instruct his pupil every night.

“Beyond the zahir of the outer veil lies the profound batin of inner truth. Only a few reach the deep wisdom that underlies the world before our eyes. It takes long, strenuous mental and spiritual exercise to find the Oversoul that created all that is.”

The secret police agent concentrated his gaze on the expectant student.

“As I myself have dived into the wisdom at the foundation of everything, so shall you. But it will take time. This is not at all easy.”

“I depend upon you for the saving enlightenment,” whispered Omer.

One day, a minor official from the Treasury named Adin came into the shop. Fat and short, he appeared bored by the wares on display in glass cases until he saw the soulstone there.

Omer gave him the devised story of its beneficial power and invited Adin to hold it in his hand.

“Look!” cried out the astounded customer. “The specks are turning pink!”

The two men stared into each other’s eyes.

“I must have it, whatever the price. This magic stone must be mine.”

Omer realized the hunt was over.

“I can bring it home for you, if you will give me your address. The money for the stone can be paid me at the same time.”

That agreed upon, the happy buyer left. Omer himself soon did the same, heading for the cafe where Ismail went to eat every afternoon.

The policeman stopped consuming his fish plate of balik.

“It must be done tonight, by you. The yilan has to be exterminated as soon as possible. That is your duty and has to be completed at once.”

Ismail studied the face of his pupil for any hesitation but found none there.

“Here, take my dagger and use it,” whispered Ismail, removing the knife from his inside belt and handing it to th Janissary.

The pair soon parted, Omer returning to his shop for a long, uncomfortable wait.

As if moving without thought, the jeweler walked through empty streets to the building where Adin rented an apartment. The latter met him at the entrance and led his visitor into the front parlor.

“May I see the stone?” asked the excited, impatient bureaucrat.

With a broad smile, Omer reached into his inside pocket.

Instead of the soulstone, though, he brought out the dagger resting beside it.

Horror filled the face of Adin as the sharp point plunged toward his heart. Shock overwhelmed him as his fat body fell to the carpeted floor. His breathing came to an end.

The deed had been quick and easy.

Breathless, Omer heard a noise behind him that indicated someone was entering through the front door of the flat.

Spinning around, he recognized the familiar tall form of his shaykh, the man who had guided him in the hunt and the murder of this yilan.

Without a word, Ismail moved forward  and bent over the lying corpse.

His right hand went to the throat of the latter in order to make certain Adin had been killed. The body was still warm with the blood continuing to circulate very slowly.

But then Omer witnessed the inconceivable.

The yellow head of a wet snake emerged out of the mouth of the bent-over chokadar.

A blazing red tongue shot out and made its way into the still open mouth of the dead man on the floor.

Ismail, in an eerie state of trance, was not conscious of what he was permitting to happen in front of himself.

His disciple watched in awed paralysis.

I can do nothing, the horrified Omer said to himself. Ismail himself is a yilan, just like Adin. They are of the same nature.

The jeweler realized a truth never related to him by his teacher: that a yilan human being can be ignorant of his own essence. He is, in his own mind, unaware of the evil committed by his internal resident snake.

Such ignorance has to be total in its scope. It is lifelong and absolute in one such as Ismail. The two of them, both killer and victim, share the same horrible character of unconscious yilans.

The police spy hunts down yilans, but does not realize that he also is one.

The soulstone does not work on its owner, only on others.

The mystery is too difficult and complex for anyone to understand completely.

Driven by undefinable emotion, Omer stepped toward the bent form of his instructor. His right hand reached down and grabbed the dagger in the heart of Adin. A rapid, strong motion removed it, then plunged the weapon into the back of the still doubled-over Ismail.

Already the killer of one person, Omer could see no reason to avoid the murder of a second.

Both victims had surely been ignorant of what their real character was.

Ismail the Syrian keeled over, onto the floor.

The yellow snake eating the flesh and blood of Adin would now have no home to return to. Its resident body was no longer alive. The snake was doomed.

No movement or breathing came from either of the two corpses.

Slowly rising and heading for the door, Omer sensed one question remaining in his whirling head.

If yilans can live with no knowledge of their true condition with an interior snake, is it possible that I myself am also one like them? he asked himself as he fled the scene of the deadly evil catastrophe.

When and where will my own inner serpent, if I have one, spring forth out of my mouth? Shall I never become conscious of it? Will it forever remain unknown and unrecognized?


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