A Syrian father weeps over the body of his son killed by suicide bombers in Aleppo. [Manu Brabo/Associated Press]
Many storytellers are familiar with "The Appointment in Samarra." I've told it on a number of occasions; but in the version I learned the merchant was a father and the servant was a son.
For some reason I've had this story on my mind as day after day I witness incomprehensible death in Aleppo. These losses seem to track some of the death and destruction that is part and parcel of my working life as a litigation consultant.
Maybe we have appointments with Death. Who am I to say? But do we really want to act in ways that deliver each other to the meeting?
Here is a version of the story as retold by W. Somerset Maugham in 1933:
The speaker is Death: "There was a merchant in Bagdad who sent his servant to market to buy provisions and in a little while the servant came back, white and trembling, and said, Master, just now when I was in the marketplace I was jostled by a woman in the crowd and when I turned I saw it was Death that jostled me. She looked at me and made a threatening gesture, now, lend me your horse, and I will ride away from this city and avoid my fate. I will go to Samarra and there Death will not find me. The merchant lent him his horse, and the servant mounted it, and he dug his spurs in its flanks and as fast as the horse could gallop he went. Then the merchant went down to the marketplace and he saw me standing in the crowd and he came to me and said, Why did you make a threatening gesture to my servant when you saw him this morning? That was not a threatening gesture, I said, it was only a start of surprise. I was astonished to see him in Bagdad, for I had an appointment with him tonight in Samarra."