How did I get here? How long have we been marching? The ground is firm, like midwinter on half of my steps; the other half my boot sinks into marshy grass, though it hasn’t rained in days. Mud created from the still-warm blood of fallen soldiers? I can’t think about it, I keep moving, ever northward.
The glowing sprites of anti aircraft gunfire at night is mesmeric. It’s rhythmic in a way that could lure you into falling asleep. Persephone’s pomegranate seed, the song of the Sirens. I took shelter in a village last night or was it the night before? If the way remains clear of others, I’d just as soon keep moving tonight.
I feel like I already know Ra’s when he makes the rendezvous at the prescribed time and place. He has a talent for numbers and languages; he tells me that he is the man who fomented the Great Arab Revolt.
He has an extraordinary look. He is at least part Chinese, but he has an Arabic name, and the complexion and accent of an Egyptian – no doubt why the Brits took interest in the first place. He’s very charismatic, and he can tell a story that will while away any tribulation, for a time at least. He charmed a dairy farmer to keep a roof over our head.
This village is idyllic. It is untouched by the war, save for the absence of any men of fighting age. While I slept comfortably on a rug, warmed by a handmade quilt and the embers of a dying fire, I felt Ra’s tiptoe off in the early morning hours. I had no difficulty finding sleep again with the unmistakable sounds of passion serving as my lullaby. Even now, we are eating a hearty breakfast, and the farmer is smiling at Ra’s like a bride for her groom.
I don’t remember when we first started sparring, but my partner is an adept in multiple styles. He teaches me maneuvers that I wouldn’t have believed if I hadn’t been the victim of them. He says his family has been in North Africa for six hundred years, and we enjoy banana tea while recuperating between rounds. In another week’s time, we’ll be leaving Ra’s childhood home, though it’s more like a fortress by modern standards, to connect with the Egyptian Expeditionary Force.
There is a submerged cavern here, and it is flooded by a natural spring, but the water needs to be treated before being drunk, or, Ra’s says, it causes madness. He insists we remove our shoes before venturing into the cave. Outside, the sun makes the sky orange, pink, and purple, and little fires are being kindled in and out of doors in the buildings of this fortress. It is twilight, and we are barely three steps into the cave when our ankles are submerged. Each step emits blue light, and Ra’s tells me that his grandfather told him that this was the cave where the story of Lazarus truly happened, only to be later adopted by Christianity. He says the names Ba’al and Osiris were corrupted into Lazarus, I don’t mention that almost all religions have stories of resurrection, nor that Eleazar is a common name in the Middle East, because Ra’s tells the tale with such enthusiasm.
We are waist deep in the water now, and Ra’s has turned off his electronic lamp. Drops of water falling onto ledges echo in the darkness of the cavern around us, and I can only see Ra’s by the light of the magical waters. He hands me the lamp, and he plunges both arms into the water. His arms close in on his body, like he is hugging this spring, and the entire cavern comes to life with the brilliant blue light.
I have no words for the beauty of what I am seeing, so I say nothing, and Ra’s laughs like a delighted child.
We’ve joined up with the EEF, maybe a week ago? Maybe more? General Murray calls us his ‘diplomacy attache.’ Anymore, I have blood on my hands. Ra’s negotiates in Arabic or Turkish, or escorts Ms. Bell from camp to camp. I clean up Colonel Lawrence’s messes with Abdullah and his people.
After dark, I negotiate with fewer words and a bayonet. I start to pick up on some Arabic, less Turkish, but the people here are better at picking up on English.
A boy in the village where we are stationed, Benan, calls all of the men here except Ra’s “baba” which means father. Ra’s he calls “Büyük baba” which means grandfather. I think he must be an orphan.
I am leading a spy into a grotto to kill him. I have become too numb to this evil, it comes too easily. I don’t know his name, but perhaps at one point I did. I feel like I’ve forgotten it. I am in front of him, but somehow watching him behind me unsheathing a large, wavy dagger – a kris. Being stabbed with a straight blade feels like getting punched – that is until shock sets in.
The pain isn’t what it should be; it takes longer to register that I’ve been stabbed. I am confused by this, because the blade is rippling with waves. Especially because I knew it was coming. Even more especially because he’s stabbed me before. In this same grotto, with this same knife.
He doesn’t know about the carbon dioxide lake. He doesn’t know that the floor of this fallen temple will kill him if I don’t do it first. A punch to his neck and he’s down, but his grip on the kris slips, and the blade twists in my leg and I fall to the ground, and pain should shoot through me in nerve shattering agony, but it doesn’t come like it did the last time…the first time. The spy will die, being knocked out is fatal in this place, in time, he will suffocate, drowned in the carbon dioxide.
And I will too if I don’t stand up. I can see the light at the entrance to this dark gate, and I am pulling myself toward it when I am thrust under water in a sparkling blue baptism, it is hot like a sauna, and Ra’s pulls me to safety.
“Pennyworth!” he cries out into the hole of death. There is a stone in his way, but he clears it with only his loud voice “Come out!”
Alfred Pennyworth bolted upright in his bed, screaming. He was covered in sweat from head to toe, and the sheets of his bed were soaked through.
In the distance, he heard sirens screaming through the night. He took four deep breaths, and hopped out of the bed, stepping gingerly for fear that the twisted blade would still be embedded in his thigh. He examined the wristwatch by his bedside. 4:13 a.m.
“I may as well put on a pot of coffee,” he said to no one in particular.