The Sumerain Woman
(Author's note: I recently had an interesting and productive dialog with another Writebuzzer on the topic of short story writing styles, and whether or not a SS author should 'explain all' as has been my preferred way of doing things up until now, or whether some deduction as to a story's full meaning should be left up to the reader. This then is an attempt at the latter style – you've got to think about this one! I cannot say if it works though, that is for you the readers to decide, all feedback on that point in particular therefore very welcome! 2,000 words approx. Genre: Adult Dark Fiction. Swearing: None. Sex: None. Violence: Once, but not graphic. This story is strictly for an adult readership.)
Northern Palestine, 26th September 1918
'When Allah made Hell He found it wasn't bad enough; So He created Mesopotamia; He then added flies'. Suleiman mentally smiled at the perceived wisdom of the old Arab proverb. Yet it had been upon the southern plains of Mesopotamia, in the lands between the watersheds of the Tigress and Euphrates rivers, that the first true civilization, that of the Sumerian people, had evolved. And from that same region five years previously he had first encountered, then taken, the Sumerian woman.
Oblivious to the spoked wheeled car's jolting progress over the stony, pot holed road, Suleiman fastidiously removed one of his staff officer's gloves and contemplated his immaculately clean and pared nails. Those trading vessels had always had pure white sails: Bleached by the sun, no doubt. As a youngster growing up in his uncle's village perched high upon a cliff on the Anatolian coast those gently gliding white sails had been his first conscious sight. Later, chained by the neck face down to the metal rings set in the dirt floor, knees bent double with his legs tightly roped onto the upward sloping board, he'd hard visualized those white sails again.
And yet ... Suleiman pursed his lips ... his experiences at the hands of his late uncle and father ... and their late village cronies ... had served him well for his job in military intelligence. Successful information extraction was owed to more than the appliance of physical coercion alone.
The latest Ottoman defeat at the hands of the infidel British colonial army pushing up from the south had resulted in the rapid loss of Megiddo, Nablus, Nazareth, and even Tiberius on the shore of the Sea of Galilee. And had precipitated this near rout toward Damascus. While over on this eastern flank Dera was itself imminently threatened by Emir Faisal's camel and horse mounted Bedouins, Howeitats and Hariths among them, rapidly advancing northwards with the Englishman the Arabs called 'Lawrence' at their head.
But worldly events would pass. He had given her his sworn word, and he intended to keep it. He would take the Sumerian woman with him. They had a unique understanding, he and Samira. And two destinies interwoven by the ordination of God, destined forever to endure.
Once again the raucous note of the open topped staff car's klaxon horn jerked Suleiman's thoughts back into reality. Above each of the vehicle's dented and mud spattered front wings a red triangular pennant bearing a white crescent moon encompassing a single white star fluttered and cracked in the stiff breeze. Up ahead the bottleneck of refugees, donkey carts, merchants and townspeople, plus elements of the hastily retreating Turkish garrison in their olive drab uniforms, reluctantly parted to allow the car passage through the narrow town gate. And from the shabby, mud brick buildings pressing in on either side hostile Arab eyes could be detected observing the panicked exodus. Like small, feral animals, Suleiman considered. You are still too strong for us to attack you just yet, but soon, very soon now, that will change ...
A few miles beyond Dera Suleiman ordered the driver to take the innocent looking track to west. The land was greener here and seemingly deserted. Low terrace sided hills, some with distant white painted villages clinging to their flanks, inter cut by deep wide valleys. A few slender palms; Giant ferns; And many massive cedar trees. Suleiman noted the driver's helmeted head in front of him, and stole a glance to the oversized leather holster which held his German made 7.63 mm Mauser C 96 semi-automatic pistol. Germany had been Enver Pasha's principle ally since 1914. Suleiman could recall in August 1916 seeing several companies of their light grey uniformed colonial troops disembarking at the port of Aqaba at the head of the Red Sea after transshipment from their east African bases in Tanganyika. And to their honour, Suleiman conceded, these light eyed Christian allies, cut off and very far from home, even now carried on their task of valiantly trying to shore up the rotting edifice of the dying Ottoman Empire in the middle east.
When the recently evacuated military post was eventually reached Suleiman ordered the driver to halt. Everything seemed very quiet. Arab snipers in the surrounding hills were a possibility, but not likely. Deserters too, singly or in groups, although most seemed now to be fleeing regardless up the main road to Damascus. As for Faisal's nearby Bedouin army, they would certainly be delayed by the capturing of Dera for a further day at least.
A group of vultures circled lazily in the pale blue sky some way further to the west. High, very high above, a few white fingers of cloud stretched across the blue.
The familiar thrill which never ceased to intrigue him came right on cue at the realisation of the Sumerian woman's nearness. He had left her well supplied. Bread, olives, dates, ginger, a goat's cheese, two skins of milk, and ample clean water. He took another careful, eye shaded scan around the silent hills. The driver, without seeking leave to do so, had left the car and was relieving himself against the wall of what until twenty days previously had been the guard house. Suleiman knew the man to be an army medical orderly, and quite possibly a deserter too, who had somehow got himself out of the filthy charnel house that had become of the Turkish military hospital in Amman before its abandonment to the advancing British. He once more glanced down to his holster, but stayed his hand, instead for the moment commanding the man to keep a lookout.
The grey remains of a small campfire, a passing Arab herdsman's most probably, lay close by the track.
Suleiman commenced the hundred yard scramble up to the interrogation cells. It was not that the Sumerian woman was especially beautiful: She must be close to forty years of age. And her dusky toned face was pock marked, her nose somewhat prominent.
The car carried enough fuel to reach Damascus and beyond. And the gold Suleiman had stashed in the two crates hidden beneath the floor of what had been until recently his headquarters building would be more than sufficient once they were across the Persian border.
No, it was her Sumerian eyes, those incredible pools of darkness which held such antiquity, such knowledge, such understanding, such insight! They would be permanently together now, their lives forever orbiting like the sun and the moon, wholly different yet metaphysically bound for the whole of time.
There were six subterranean cells in all, arranged in two opposite groups of three, and entered via an underground corridor whose heavy, locked outer door was approached via a deep cut in the rock slope. High up in the flat roof of each cell was a small barred opening, the sole source of light and air. The tops of the six barred openings were set in two parallel lines of three in the paved surface of a small courtyard immediately above the cell block. Each of the openings possessed a hinged steel lid which could be closed from above. Suleiman approached the outer door in the rock cut. It had been battered in.
Quickly he made his way up to the courtyard area above the cells. A considerable quantity of wind blown sand now dusted the stone paving slabs. The steel lids of five of the cell openings were shut down. The tongues of those prisoners, Pro-British Arab spies from the small coastal settlement of Tel-Aviv, would be forever stilled now. The lid of cell number six remained open, just as he had left it. He walked cautiously over to it, conscious of the sudden loud squeaking of his officer's boots in the heavy silence.
A different sound just as suddenly broke the same silence: Suleiman turned. Below, the car was making a rapid U turn before setting off back the way they had come, a long cloud of sand coloured dust swirling in its wake.
One of the iron bars had been pryed completely away from the masonry securing it. The two bars to either side had been bent back. The knotted end of a frail looking and frayed rope was attached to one of these. Removing his leather gloves Suleiman knelt down and pulled on the rope. Only a couple of feet or so in length, the raw fibres of the new break clear to see. Above him the warm sun hung some little way passed its midday zenith. He peered down into the gloom.
No reply. He repeated the summons. Silence. He thought he detected a slight movement from the margins of the shadows down there.
He made his way back to the shattered entry door. Unholstering the Mauser and swiftly checking its ten round magazine, he squeezed past and into the short cell corridor. The stale heat within the body of the rock was oppresive, flies buzzed, and the strong, pervasive odour made Suleiman's nose crinkle. It took his eyes some little time to adjust to the sudden transition into near darkness. The solid steel doors to the individual cells all appeared fully intact. Including that of number six. He went up to it. “Samira ...?”
A low, instantly recognizable whimper came from the other side. “Bey?”
He extracted the ring of keys from their special pocket in his uniform tunic, selected the correct one, and unlocked the cell door. Quickly returning the Mauser to his right hand again he pushed the cell door open with the toe of his boot. She was standing in the rectangle of the light coming down from above. The outsized pistol suddenly felt heavy in his trembling hand. That she was alive was enough. Allah be truly praised! He took a first step toward her and the back of his skull seemed to crack open.
He was propped against the cell wall. He was naked. His wrists were manacled with the two foot chain as Samira's had been. Likewise the eight foot chain ran between the ring in the cell wall and the locking iron neck collar which he now wore. Invisible flies buzzed noisily around the wooden lidded cess pit. He looked up. A pitifully small rectangle of pale blue sky gazed uncaringly back. After a long while pair of figures came up to the edge of the opening. One of them he could see was her. She had donned the hijab but appeared unveild. The other, a much larger figure as he could tell even at such a steep viewing angle, he did not recognize. The larger figure seemed to be holding an arm around her shoulders. Her two arms seemed to be clutching tightly around the larger figure's waist.
“I came back for you. As I promised.”
Suleiman watched as the two figures slowly separated. The larger one ... very gently ... or so it seemed ... placed something in her hand. She stretched out an arm, but did not look down. Like a single golden raindrop, a tiny object came hurtling down into the cell and landed upon Suleiman's naked thigh. Uncomprehendingly he picked it up and slowly turned it over between his finger and thumb. The back of his head throbbed painfully still, dried blood from the untended wound staining his left shoulder. He was aware of the unnatural weight of the rusty manacles and chain.
A gold coin, an unfamiliar crest on one side, an incongruous representation of an elephant on the other. And a date. 1916.
A voice from above: Male, foreign, and obviously very young: “Funfzehn rupien. Deutsch Ostafrika. Schweinhund!”
They moved away. The metal lid was not shut down. She had spurned him. For an infidel. In defiance of God.
Suleiman glanced once again around the squalid little cell. They had cleared it of everything. Thirst then, or the Bedouin. The former might be preferable. No white sails. She had spurned him and she had betrayed him. Only the ghostly wails of the tortured souls for an eternity of sorrowful damnation remained. And the flies.
Copyright Terence Hugh Hazelton, 2009
Published on writebuzz®:
> Stories & Scripts