He lifted up her coarse cotton gown and felt along her thighs and buttocks while she squirmed against him. In another year or so she would be ripe, probably sold in an arranged marriage to a wealthy sheepherder or carpenter. Ordinarily, Faruq would have raped her by now, just on general principles and because he had not had a woman in several weeks due to the fighting and the constant bombardment. He liked the very young girls. There was no chance of disease, and their skin was so soft. He liked the way their eyes widened in pain and shock when he entered them. Sadly, there was no time for this now.
He withdrew his revolver.
“Fahim, pay attention,” he said softly.
The man hung limply from his restraints, but his chest moved slightly, in and out, so he was obviously still alive and breathing.
“Fahim. I have Jamila. She is right here. Can’t you smell her? The sweet smell of innocence and purity?”
The victim, the thing that had once been a man, stirred.
“Look up, Fahim. This is the last chance you will have. You cannot save yourself, you are nearly dead already. But you can save Jamila. Beautiful young Jamila.”
Slowly, as if opening his eyes was physically painful, he raised his head to look straight ahead of him. What he saw nearly made him pass out.
The security officer was holding Jamila away from him, by her neck. He had his revolver jammed between her thighs.
“You will tell me where to find the Kitab al-Azif, and you will do so now. Otherwise, I will take young Jamila’s virginity in my own way. Do you understand?”
He drew the hammer back on the revolver, cocking it. The sound was loud, even in this cell beneath the embattled streets of Mosul.
Jamila began to wet herself, and the urine stained the barrel of the revolver, but the officer did not withdraw it.
Fahim looked up, pleading in his eyes, first at the officer then at Jamila.
Jamila’s eyes were shut tight, as much against the humiliation as the fear. “I will count to three. If you have not given me what I want to know by
three, then Jamila will be raped by the bullets of my revolver and I will
leave her body next to yours as you die slowly of thirst and starvation in this godforsaken hole in the earth.”
Fahim tried to form a prayer in his mind, but the words would not come. The images were fretful and fleeting. He knew that this time of horror would one day come, the time of facing his own death. He knew that he would be reborn in the garden of the Peacock Angel if he lived his life correctly. But he did not know if protecting the Kitab was more important than protecting Jamila. What was the worth of a book when compared to the life of an innocent young girl?
Normally, the answer was a simple one. A book had no value when compared to the life of a human being, any human being.
But his people had given their lives to save their own Holy Books, hadn’t they? They had been persecuted and murdered in large numbers because of their religion. Because of their texts.
Jamila kept her eyes shut. She did not want to see the pathetic figure of her father’s friend in the state he was in. She was horrified and humiliated,
but even more she knew that her secret had to be kept at all costs. Her family had been keeping secrets for generations. A secret was worth more than gold. But she could not control her body and the rush of urine from between her legs made her feel disgusting and unworthy of so sacred a task as this.
Fahim struggled with his decision. His people would never forgive him for betraying them to the Iraqi police. He knew the value of the book, but also knew that it must be kept out of the hands of those who would use it for the destruction of humanity. If he gave it up now, all would be lost and his name would be cursed for generations … if indeed there were generations left to curse him.
But then he felt a strange warmth take hold of his heart. Something like fingers—gentle fingers—had touched him inside with a sensation so profound he thought it was a physical touch. But nothing had moved in the airless cell. Maybe it was a heart attack. Maybe he was already dying.
He looked at the young girl, whose eyes were now open and staring directly at him, and into his own.
Jamila had made the decision for him: for Fahim and for the evil man with the gun between her legs, too.
The explosion rocked the tiny cell, dislodging the iron pipe so that Fahim fell free, his hands still tied but no longer attached to the cell. There was a fog of dust and plaster everywhere. Piles of debris. He felt a small hand take his own in a darkness made absolute with the termination of all electric power in the city. He dragged himself upright, as best he could, his legs shaking and threatening to fail him at every step. He stumbled when his feet struck the body of the security officer, who did not move. Incredibly, Fahim thought, I have outlived the man who was going to kill me. If even for a moment, I have survived. His brain tried to make sense of what had happened. He knew it was an artillery shell, or a rocket fired from one of the Crusader’s gunships, demolishing this house or the house next door. But how to explain that sudden determination in Jamila’s eyes, or the warm hand that held his heart in its palm only moments before the blast?
Dazed, he let Jamila lead him out of the cell, out of the basement, and eventually all the way out of Mosul.
Red Hook April 15, 2014
At the same moment, but exactly nine years later and thousands of miles away, Gregory Angell—scion of a long line of Rhode Island Angells and great-grand-nephew of the celebrated but long-deceased George Angell, professor of Semitic languages at Brown University—woke from a restless sleep in his basement apartment in the Red Hook section of Brooklyn, drenched in perspiration. He turned on the lamp next to his bed and stared up at the water-stained ceiling for a long, anxious moment. Was it the scurrying of rats in the walls that woke him? Or was it the scuttering of old nightmares through festering holes in his porous, paper-thin dreams? A young girl. A starving man. A darkness that seemed to breathe poison. Iraq.
His left hand rubbed the sleep out of his eyes. His right hand held the gun he kept under his pillow.
Through the flimsy plasterboard walls he could hear the radio in the apartment next door. It was the morning azan, the Muslim call to prayer. His neighbors were Syrians, from Damascus. They were also the supers of the building he lived in. It was the azan that woke him up. The warbling, floating cry of the muezzin roused feelings and memories in him that he preferred to have left buried, back in the frontier between Iraq and Turkey. Kurdish territory. No man’s land.
It was the land that gave the world the three great religions of Judaism, Christianity and Islam.
And it was the land where he lost his faith in God entirely.
Instinctively, he checked the automatic’s ten round magazine. With one in the chamber he had eleven shots ready for whatever would come through the door or lurked in the shadowy corners of his book-congested apartment. Nothing ever did, of course. Not in the more than seven years since the massacre at Mosul where God died, buried there with the women and children who were dragged off the bus in front of his eyes and machine-gunned in the street. Yezidis. Kafirs.
It was about four a.m. The worst time of the day for him, that sliver of dubious existence between night and day, between darkness and light. It was the hour when shadows took on substance and where function, impossibly, followed form. For a man who no longer believed in God, he was more than afraid of ghosts.
He felt his pulse, and slowed his breathing, counting off the seconds. Ten seconds in, hold for ten, exhale for ten, hold for ten. Ten seconds, ten rounds. A ten count. It was how he lowered his blood pressure. That, and his Glock 9mm, was how he got through the night.
Sweating. Trembling like a man suffering from the DTs. Glock tracing an arc through his small apartment, looking for a target of opportunity. A flesh-and-blood target to stand in for the invisible, creeping thing he could not name.
He cradled his head in his hands. There was a longing in the music now coming from the room upstairs, a longing that he felt as acutely as if he had lost the same love at the same time as whoever had written that song, or as whoever was listening to it now in order to ease the pain of distance or loss. Their distance was his distance, their loss was his loss. The music
—the plaintive sounds of Syrian-accented Arabic lyrics against the yearning strain of the oud—could have been wrung from his own heart.
It was a love song, and it was being sung by a man to a woman who had left him for another country forever. A lost love. To Angell, it was still a love song: not to any human woman but to a presence once as strong as the most cherished sweetheart, the most adored spouse.
It was a love song to a dead God.
Angell knew he was losing his mind. He heard things that weren’t there. He saw things out of the corner of his eye that could not possibly exist. Shadows. With guns. And when he closed his eyes against the pressure of too much sight, the image—that image—of an afternoon in Mosul was conjured up before him like a monster from the pages of some suppressed grimoire. Instinctively, Angell knew that conjuring a demon from Hell had been forbidden by the Church not least because, once raised, that demon could attack God, kill him, and change the world forever. After all, that is what happened to him.
Terms like unspeakable horror and loathsome putrescence were used by pulp fiction writers as shorthand for things they had never really seen. But
Angell had seen them. Angell knew what unspeakable horror was: he saw it committed on a side street in the Hell that was Mosul. He knew what loathsome putrescence was, because Iraq was a museum of rotting corpses, clouds of flies, and the stench of death that never left you. Not even on the flight home to the land of deodorant and mouthwash, washing machines and frozen margaritas, cable TV and hot showers.
Most of all, he knew with a deadly certainty that God was dead. He knew that humanity was alone in the vastness of space, on the brink of extinction on a tiny planet in the middle of a nowhere galaxy, where science and technology were exactly as Carl Sagan had characterized them: as candles in the dark. Cold comfort when the apocalypse was upon them. More like “whistling in the dark.”
Better to let your eyes get accustomed to the eternal night.
Angell kept his madness from seeping into his daily life, into his classes at the university, by staying alone as much as he could so that others would not notice his sudden loss of attention, his gaze drifting to a point somewhere in the distance, his inappropriate comments, his “lack of affect.” To many he was just the stereotypical absent-minded professor, an eccentric who had nonetheless served his country as an advisor in Afghanistan and Iraq, a man fluent in strange tongues and living in a world of ancient faiths. He was allowed those moments when he seemed to disappear into another world. He was indulged in his little insanities.
They didn’t know about the Glock.
It was the nine millimeter that kept him sane, for it was his way out. His ticket home. He relaxed into the peace that the presence of that weapon gave him, for it was right there, like a promise he knew would be kept. Any time it got to be too much, the solution—the escape route, the exit strategy—was there. Not like God, who was not there.
It was fully-loaded, but that was just for show. He knew he would need only one bullet.
Pretty strange lifestyle for a professor of religious studies at Columbia University.
The sciences, each straining in its own direction, have hitherto harmed us little; but some day the piecing together of dissociated knowledge will open up such terrifying vistas of reality, and of our frightful position therein, that we shall either go mad from the revelation or flee from the deadly light into the peace and safety of a new dark age.
—H. P. Lovecraft, “The Call of Cthulhu”
738 C.E./120 A.H.
Before the Grand Mosque. Steps away from a shrine containing the head of John the Baptist. In the blinding sunlight of noon, reflecting off the stones of the mosque and the stones of the plaza before it. A man. A madman. In rags, holding a scroll of paper. He is chanting something incomprehensible. It may be poetry. It may be a prayer. It may be divine. It may be blasphemy. A crowd gathers.
It is Ramadan, the month of fasting and of forgiveness. No one has sipped a drop of water since before the sunrise azan. Men and beasts are crazed with piety and thirst.
There is dry, nervous laughter. The Umayyid Caliphate is in its last days. Within twenty years, it will be gone. Like the desert sands in a windstorm. The Law of the Prophet—Peace be upon him—has rooted out the demonolatry of the pagan tribes and replaced it with the scented pages of the Holy Book, the Qur’an. But some members of the Quraish—the Prophet’s tribe—still hold to the old ways, in secret, worshipping the dead gods and pouring libations onto the broken stones of a dead faith. They have rescued the idols from the Ka’aba—and from the Prophet’s wrath— and built hideous altars in the mountain caves north of the city. Altars bathed in the blood of sacrifice.
The madman is not of the Quraish. He is a Sabaean, of Yemen, and they say he is a cousin of the false prophet ‘Abd Allah bin Saba, the Shi’a heretic who proclaimed the divinity of Ali, and who will soon be executed after revolting against the Caliphate from his sanctuary in the sacred city of Kufa. Others, that he is an adherent of the Mazdaks, an ancient cult that existed before Islam, obsessed with the manipulation of numbers and the