The sun was a red orb over the worn hills to the west when Abu Fahd came to me.
“Abu Salman,” he said. “Come quickly. There is something you must see.”
I was at my command post, a map table and several chairs under a frame of wood covered with sand-coloured tarpaulin. I’d been busy planning the defences. In this desert of eroded bedrock, there was little enough we could do, but the enemy was closing fast, and our orders were to hold out as long as we lived. This would not be long; I had only eight brothers left, including myself. This morning I'd had eleven.
“What’s wrong, Abu Fahd?” I looked up from my map, where I’d been marking out possible defensive positions. The more I’d stared at the map the more hopeless the situation looked. This isolated ruin was surrounded by desert on all sides, and our only road out had already been cut.
Even if it hadn’t, it would have done us no good. Russian planes, blue specks in the burnished sky, had bombed us today, destroying our two remaining vehicles. Three of the brothers lay martyred in the smouldering wrecks of twisted metal.
There had been only one thing I could do, so I’d done it. We had been sent here to make sure that the ancient ruined fortress complex we were defending should not fall to the enemy. Clearly, we could not save it from falling to the enemy. Therefore the only thing left to do was to blow it all up, and that was what I’d ordered. The detonations had been shaking the ground for hours now.
“What is it, Abu Fahd?” I repeated. “They’ll be here by tomorrow morning at the very latest. We don’t have time to waste.”
“That’s just why you need to come.” In the light of the lowering sun, Abu Fahd’s face shone with sweat. I’d put him in charge of the demolitions, and suddenly I noticed that they’d stopped as well. “We’ve found something.”
“Where?” I abandoned my map with relief. I had been staring at it for so long that its symbols were dancing in my brain. “What have you found that’s worth stopping the work? By tomorrow whatever you’ve found will all be destroyed anyway.”
“Not this.” Abu Fahd rubbed dust from his beard, the yellow brick dust of the dynamited ruins. “This won’t be gone by tomorrow. And you have to see it.”
“All right, I’m coming.” Before coming out of the command post, I took a quick look at the sky. It was a habit that had saved my life more than once, revealing the glitter of sunlight on the long wings and whirling propeller of a waiting drone. But today there was nothing.
“The brothers are digging,” Abu Fahd said as I walked with him along the broken pathway under one of the half-tumbled walls. The flat yellow brick was ruddy in the evening light, the sinking sun painting the desert red.
“What are they digging?” The wreckage of one of the Toyota pickups bombed by the Russians looked as though it was bleeding. The charred corpse of the driver was still sitting behind the wheel. I forced myself to look away. “Where is it?”
“Under the old temple.” The temple was near the centre of the fortress. It wasn’t much more than a box of stone and broken brick now, open to the sky. We had never found out what deity had been worshipped within its crumbling walls; the few idols that still remained were so worn that they were almost featureless, and had not seemed worth the smashing. “You’ll see.”
“Under the temple?” I repeated. “What do you mean, under the temple?” I had only been inside the place once or twice, but remembered that the floor was of stone. “How can there be anything under the temple?”
“You’ll see in a minute.” We turned a corner, and Abu Fahd pointed. “It happened when we placed charges to blow up the temple.”
The ancient stone box of the temple looked as though someone had ripped it open with a gigantic can opener. One entire side of it lay in a tumbled pile of shattered yellow brick and pulverised stone. Inside, two of Abu Fahd’s men were shovelling rubble, clearing a space. They straightened up when they saw me.
“Abu Salman,” one of them said. “When we set off the demolition charge, part of the floor collapsed.”
“Yes, look.” Abu Fahd pointed. “There’s something underneath.”
I looked. The shadows had grown long and were clotted around the remnants of the walls, but I could see a patch of deeper darkness among the rubble. “There’s a hole down there,” I said. “A chamber? Have you brought me here just for a chamber?”
“It’s more than a chamber,” Abu Fahd said. “I stuck my head down there and shone a torch around.”
“And?” I was irritated. This was pointless. “What about it?”
“See for yourself.” Abu Fahd handed me a long silver torch with a big head and gestured. The two who were digging stepped back, opening up a space for me. Feeling like a fool, I knelt, turned on the torch, and shone its beam into the hole. About three metres below, I saw a stone floor.
“What...” I began.
“You need to bend further, Abu Salman,” Abu Fahd said. “You can’t see it unless you put your head into the hole and look around.”
Feeling more like a fool than ever – was this their idea of a joke, to make their commander grovel? – I crouched down until my head and shoulders were through the hole. It was a tight squeeze, but big enough for me to be able to turn the torch around.
For a very long time, it felt, I did not say anything. Then I carefully pulled myself out and sat back on my heels.
“A passage,” I said at last.
Abu Fahd nodded eagerly. “And it’s a good, long one, too.”
“You realise what this means, of course.” I paused briefly, the implications whirling round my head.
“Yes,” Abu Fahd said, still nodding. “We can move into it and wait them out. They can’t stay indefinitely. They’ll move on again.”
“Let’s not get ahead of ourselves,” I said. “Let’s first see how far it goes.”
“That’s why we’re enlarging the opening.” Abu Fahd nodded to the two with the shovels. “What about the others, Abu Salman?”
I considered the four other brothers, whom I’d ordered to dig firing pits and whatever trenches they could scrape in the stony ground. “Tell them to come,” I said. “There’s little enough they can do outside once it’s dark, anyway. Make sure they bring their tools.”
While Abu Fahd went to fetch the men, I leant against part of the wall which was still standing and closed my eyes. I had had virtually no sleep for days now, and my eyes felt inflamed and gritty behind my eyelids. The scrape of shovel on stone was almost soothing.
Eyes closed, I fell into a waking doze. The blood red light of the sinking sun on my eyelids merged into the memory of blood, spilt blood painting yellow stone. The surroundings faded away. What was then became indistinguishable from what was now.
I was standing, once more, on the slick stone of the steps above the well. The pit below was already half-filled with corpses, the water that sloshed over them scarlet with the blood. The sun overhead beat down like a hammer, my face under my balaclava streaming with sweat. My right arm ached, the fingers weary with the weight of the heavy pistol they had been gripping for over an hour.
We did not need the water in the well any longer, since we were about to pull out. Nor did we need prisoners. We were, accordingly, both getting rid of the prisoners and making sure the enemy could not use the well.
Blinking at the burning salt sweat trickling into my eyes, I watched as yet another man was pushed down the steps by one of the brothers. It was Abu Adam, who had been later martyred by a murtadd sniper. The man was a little older than the others, perhaps thirty. He was quite pudgy, his lime green T shirt bulging over his belly, the black cloth tied over his eyes digging into his cheeks. He balked, trying to turn and go back up the steps, and Abu Adam cuffed him hard across the back of the head.
“You want water, don’t you?” Abu Adam asked. “You were asking for water, weren’t you? So go down and drink your fill.”
The man couldn’t see anything through the blindfold, but he couldn’t have failed to hear the shots from my pistol, and the reek of blood was so heavy in the air that it was difficult to breathe. He struggled, and Abu Adam struck him again, so hard that he stumbled down the stairs and fell to his knees at my feet. My hand rose in a movement that I’d already repeated so many times that by now it had become a reflex, the pistol barrel pointing directly down at the crown of his head, my finger squeezing the trigger. It should have been a clean kill, but at the last moment he jerked his head back, and the bullet slashed down his face, ripping skin and flesh and fat from bone, and went into his upper chest. He began to fall backwards on to my legs, but Abu Adam lashed out with his boot just in time, sending him tumbling forwards into the well. He was still alive, thrashing in the water so that he turned over on his back, his face turned up towards me. The bullet had ripped the blindfold from his face, and his one remaining eye seemed to glare at me accusingly, as though he could still see me. And then the bloodstained water closed over him.
“Stupid bugger,” Abu Adam said. “Made it hard on himself.”
“Yes,” I agreed. My shoes and trousers were splattered with blood and tissue. “How many more?”
“No more.” Abu Adam had wiped his hands on a handkerchief and thrown it down into the well, to float on the blood and water and corpses. “That’s the lot, Abu Salman.”
“Abu Salman?” Someone touched me on the shoulder. “They’re here, Abu Salman.”
My eyes snapped open. It was Abu Fahd. “They’re all here.”
I nodded, blinking. What had made me remember that execution of all things? It had only been a little episode, which I’d long since forgotten. “Oh, right. Help enlarge that hole. And look for something to cover it up when we get down there, so nobody else finds it.”
“Right. Shine the light here, Abu Jandal. Give me that mattock.”
Four of them, including Abu Fahd, began clearing and enlarging the hole. I split the remaining brothers into two teams of two, to get all the water, batteries, food and ammunition we had over to the temple so we could carry it down into the passage. The sun had set and night had fallen like a slamming door, dark and already chill. The sky on the northern horizon flickered and flashed. I could not decide if it was heat lightning or enemy artillery.
“Abu Salman,” the brother who was with me said, as we were carrying over one of the last loads of our provisions to the temple. “I’m scared.”
He was very young, only fifteen, the youngest of the unit. We’d conscripted him from a village in Raqqa. “It’ll be all right, Abu Yahya.” I didn’t know if it would be all right. “We’ll be safe down there.”
“It’s not that,” Abu Yahya said. In the reflected light of the torches I saw he was trembling. “I don’t want to be...down there. I’m scared of tight spaces.”
“It’ll be all right,” I repeated. It would not be all right, not if he began panicking down in the passage. “You’ll see.”
He lasted till the last trip we made, to retrieve the final load of rifle ammunition. I’d decided to abandon our light mortar and the Dushka machine gun; down underground they’d be useless and just a burden. I’d picked up a bag of bullets and turned to go back, when I heard a scrabbling noise behind me. I turned quickly, in time to see Abu Yahya scrambling away across the desert, stumbling over his own feet in his clumsiness.
There was no question of mercy. If he fell into the hands of the enemy he wouldn’t last thirty seconds’ interrogation before telling them exactly where we were to be found. The bag thumped on the ground, my AK was off my shoulder, and Abu Yahya rolled over and over as bullets crashed into him, until his blood was black on the light sand and the rifle was clicking on empty.
The brothers had paused in their work and were staring when I returned. “What was that shooting?” Abu Fahd asked.
“It was just me,” I said, dropping the bag of bullets on the pile. “Are you finished?”
“Where’s Abu Yahya?” Abu Fahd may have seen something in my face, because he nodded. “Yes, we’re almost done.”
The pile of supplies was already diminished, and I watched Abu Jandal handing down a package into the hole, which was much larger now. “Did you get something to cover it?”
Abu Fahd gestured at a cracked slab of stone, which I recognised as part of one of the walls blown up this morning. “That’s the best we can do.”
It would have to do. I helped pass the remaining supplies down into the passageway. “It goes a long way,” Abu Bahram said from down below.
“I don’t know, Abu Salman. We haven’t found any end to it. We didn’t go far.”
“All right.” I was about to say something more when I heard something. I glanced at the others. “Tank engines.”
“Yes.” In the light of the torch Abu Fahd’s face looked pale. “They’re coming.”
“At least they gave us some time,” I said. “Help us get that slab pulled over, Abu Jandal.”
It was heavier than I’d imagined, and by the time we’d pulled it partially over the hole the squeak and clatter of tank treads had grown so loud that it was obviously only a matter of minutes before the enemy reached the ruins. I hastily scattered some debris over the drag marks as Abu Jandal and Abu Fahd squeezed through the small space that was left. Last of all I got down as well. Using a thick plank, Abu Jandal pushed and prodded at the slab until it crashed roughly into place.
“What will they do when they don’t find anyone?” Abu Bahram asked. “Do you think they’ll just assume we’ve withdrawn and go away?”
“No,” I said, picking up one of the large cans of water. “Not when they find Abu Yahya.”
The awkward pause was broken by Abu Fahd. “There’s a bend in the passage up ahead, Abu Salman. Once we’re past it they won’t be able to see our lights, or hear us.”
“Unless they come down here.”
Without delaying further, we carried the things down the passage. The air was cold but not too musty, the ancient stones of the wall butter-coloured in the wavering light of the torches. It was a narrow passage, only about broad enough for two men to walk side by side.
Time passed. The noise of tank treads had long since ceased.
“If they do come down here,” Abu Jandal said at last, “we can defend ourselves well enough. It’s too narrow to rush us.”
“That’s true,” I agreed, “but there might be other entrances they could use to take us from behind. We haven’t found them, but they might.”
“What can we do about that, then?” Abu Fahd’s frown, in the light of the torch, made his eyes vanish into pools of shadow.
“You and I will go and look for other ways in,” I said. “If we do find any, we can distribute our forces. We need to find out where this passage leads, anyway.”
“Right. Abu Jandal, you’re in charge until we get back.”
Taking a torch each, Abu Fahd and I began down the corridor. It turned again, at a right angle, and began sloping gently downwards.
“The air is still fresh,” Abu Fahd observed.
“Yes. There must be some opening or other for ventilation.”
The slope steepened, the corridor turning once more, and suddenly we found ourselves with a blank wall ahead and our torches shining down a flight of stairs.
Abu Fahd turned to me questioningly. “Well?”
“We go down, of course,” I said.
“I don’t know, Abu Salman. There’s been nothing happening for a while. Perhaps they’ve gone away, and...”
The blast of sound was so loud I was stunned. A second later a pressure wave smashed into me, knocking me flat. The air was filled with dust, and for a long minute I could not see.
“Abu Fahd?” I shouted, pushing myself up on my elbows. I could barely hear myself. “Abu Fahd, where are you?”
“Abu Salman.” I felt his hand on my shoulder, helping me up on to my feet. “Are you hurt?”
“I can’t feel anything wrong,” I mumbled. “What happened?”
“Something blew up.”
“Abu Jandal and the others.” The air was beginning to clear, and in the light of the torch, Abu Fahd looked like a ghost. “What happened to them?”
We turned back, but not for long. Just past the second turning the passage ended in a mass of shattered stone and rubble. Sandy soil dribbled between them, promising more collapse to come.
“The bastards knew we were in here,” I said. “Instead of sending soldiers in, they blasted the passage down.”
“What can we do now, Abu Salman?” Abu Fahd said. “What can we do?”
There was an edge of panic in his voice, and I wasn’t far from it myself. “Shut up!” I snapped. “We still have the stairs. There may be other ways out. We aren’t finished yet.”
Dimly, I felt more than saw him reach out to try and pull at the rubble. “But...”
“Don’t touch that! The roof may come down at any moment.”
We retreated quickly towards the stairs. I could feel Abu Fahd shaking, like Abu Yahya earlier. “The air is still fresh,” I said. “There must be another way out.” This was of course not necessarily true, air might be filtering through cracks and fissures far too small to let anyone out. But I needed Abu Fahd to calm down. “We can’t stay here anyway.”
We started down the stairs, Abu Fahd in front. They were even narrower than the passage, and quite steep. The stone was darker here, the yellow giving way to a deeper brown-black. When I touched the wall, it felt cold as ice, but completely dry.
That was another problem – what were we to do about water? All of it lay under tons of rubble up in the passage. I shook my head, trying to push away the thought for the time being.
As we descended the stairs, the air grew colder, the silence total except for the soft tread of our boots and Abu Fahd’s harsh breathing.
Under other circumstances, I’d have been intensely interested in who had built these stairs and where they were taking us. Once upon a time, before all this, I’d been interested in archaeology. I hadn’t then been taught that only that which was sanctioned by the Caliphate was halal and that all other construction, no matter how ancient, was fit only to be destroyed.
Now, perhaps, if only to myself, I could have freed my mind enough to wonder – if not for the imperative of survival.
All of a sudden Abu Fahd stopped, so abruptly that I bumped into him. “What...” I began, and then saw what he was staring at.
The stairs had ended in a flat, low platform. Before us was a forest of columns and walls, growing up from the stone floor and vanishing up into the darkness. Pushing past Abu Fahd, I tilted my torch upwards. The ceiling overhead seemed immensely far away.
“Abu Salman,” Abu Fahd said. “What is this? Is this hell? The abode of Shaytan?”
“Don’t be ridiculous. It’s an underground temple of some sort. You can see for yourself that it’s dead and abandoned.” I stepped off the platform, Abu Fahd following reluctantly. “We’re probably the first people to be here in three thousand years.”
“I don’t care if we are. I want to get out of here.”
“So do I.” I could hear his teeth chattering, though whether through fear or the intense cold I couldn’t tell. “We have to look. There may be a way out somewhere.”
The columns were all around us now. They were as thick as date palm trunks, smooth and round except where they were carved at the base. I would have liked to examine some of these carvings, which were intricate, but couldn’t spare any time. Between the columns were walls, all of the same dark stone, which divided the space into large and small rooms.
“All this must have been carved from the living rock, like Petra,” I said, but I might as well have been talking to myself. Abu Fahd was trudging along beside me, his head sunk between his shoulders. He seemed not to hear.
The columns went on and on. This place was gigantic, and it was impossible to go on in a straight line. As we passed one of the rooms I shone my torch inside. The face of a carved stone woman gazed sightlessly back at me.
I never knew precisely when or how it happened. All of a sudden I realised that I was alone.
I didn’t panic. Abu Fahd had been at my heels all the time. He’d switched off his torch, at my orders, so that only one set of batteries would be depleted. He couldn’t possibly be far away, and he couldn’t fail to see the light of my torch.
“Abu Fahd!” I called. My voice echoed and re-echoed from the stone walls, filtered through the columns, bouncing off stone carvings and the roof overhead. “Abu Fahd!”
Nothing. I switched off my torch, to see if I could see anything of his. Pure, liquid blackness flooded in. I hastily turned the torch on again.
“Abu Fahd!” My voice was harsh, my throat dry. Except for the echoes of my voice, I heard nothing.
Perhaps he had fallen into a pit I hadn’t noticed, and was lying there, too badly injured to call out. I had to go and see. I remembered Abu Fahd when I’d first met him, friendly and jolly, far from the gaunt man he’d become in the last weeks. We had been through a lot together.
I turned back, and knew at once that I was lost.
It was impossible. The forest of columns seemed the same in every direction, the walls all looked identical, and the stone floor, unmarked and smooth, bore no footprints.
“Abu Fahd!” I called.
I don’t know how much time has passed since I came down here.
Long ago, I stopped trying to keep track of where I’m going. It’s perfectly possible that I’m going round and round in circles. It’s impossible to tell. I’ve even stopped thinking about the thirst that is gnawing at my throat. The only reason I don’t sit down at the bottom of a pillar and give up is that it’s easier now to go on than to stop.
My torch’s batteries have begun to drain, the beam weakening. I’m afraid to turn it off, because it might not come on again. And, of course, if I turn it off, I might miss a way out. When I think of that I want to laugh. A way out!
It is when I feel I can go on no longer that I suddenly come out into an open space.
It’s so sudden that I almost stumble. The space can’t be very large, but after the forest of columns it seems gigantic. The centre of it is a dark square, and as I come closer I see it’s a sunken tank, like a small swimming pool. My torch lights up steps leading down into it, and when I look down, I see there’s water.
“Abu Fahd!” Is this voice mine? It sounds like whispering dust in the wind. “Abu Fahd! I’ve found water!”
I walk down the steps, to the water, the water reflecting my torch, closer and closer, the yellow light of the torch on the red water...
It’s not water. It’s blood, blood filling the tank and washing over the steps, like blood filled a well, long ago.
I gasp, jerking back so quickly that I almost fall, catching myself just in time before I tumble into the blood. But there’s no blood and no water. How can there be water after so many thousands of years?
The torch shines on dry stone.
Time has lost all meaning.
Twice I have come to the tank of blood, or maybe there are many tanks of blood, and perhaps there is really blood. The torch is almost gone. I have already thrown my rifle away, and my ammunition vest. Soon I will throw the torch away too, and then I can find a way out, maybe.
Maybe in the dark I can find my way out. The voices will tell me which way to go.
I have been hearing the voices for some time now. At first I thought it was the voices of the brothers, Abu Jandal and the others, who have managed to get out somehow from the demolished passage and found their way down here. Then I realised these were different voices, voices that belong to this place. They call to me, but I do not understand them. But I will understand.
Here, I will sit down here now, next to the tank of blood, which I have found for the third time. The voices may find me here when they come.
Someone is coming. I see movement from the other side of the tank. The torch is too weak to reach that far. Perhaps it is Abu Fahd. I wish I could still call to him. But he will see the light and will come to me.
It is not Abu Fahd. And it is not one person. There are others behind him. Many others. I hear them laughing.
The last instant of the light of the torch shows me the lime green T shirt, the ripped black blindfold, the shattered face, the single staring eye.
Sitting in the dark beside the tank of blood, I listen to the laughter close in.
Copyright B Purkayastha 2017