Watch your head


sirija

They took the third man from the room. Blonde and pale, possible from northern Europe or perhaps America. Who knows. He could have just as likely been born in Sydney as in Wroclaw. With his head bowed with sadness and with uncertainty in his eyes, he walked out, lead by his captors. Like the two before him, he had duct tape over his mouth, disabling him from speaking with the remainder of the men in the small, dishevelled, half-destroyed room of sticks, mud and stone in the semi-desert landscape of the Syrian interior. They removed the tape from his mouth only to allow him to feed and drink water. Though in these last days, that was rare. The previous two were Arabs in camouflage uniforms, likely militants from opposing groups. They too often ended up beheaded, though the world media did not report on them. Photographs of their bodies would be left in the mailboxes of their family and friends, and video uploaded to the web to allow every to see and believe the demonic forces penetrating among the army of the Islamic State. Daesh![1] the Arabs would say with disgust.

Since capturing him in the Aleppo region about six months ago, they had changed their location many times. So many times that over time, he no longer know how much time had passed or where they were. They drove them in trucks and buses, led them across the desert, their hands bound. As the American air strikes increased, so they began to hide more. The houses they stayed in would most likely be levelled with the ground in an attack. They had to stick to the remote areas.

That bright, yellow, relentless sun. The vast sand creating a fata morgana in the distance. Whey don’t I just die here among the nothingness and simply evaporate? How brutal will my death be and who will be my executioner? Will it hurt? he asked himself every day, every hour, every minute.

He thought he would go mad. Their abductors said nothing to them. They spoke amongst themselves, mentioning kafire[2], among many other, unintelligible words. Where are they taking us?

The two men in camouflage did not return. It is likely the third who just walked out the door would not either.

There is no doubt, it must be the head, he thought, losing every hope for a happy ending to this play, this dance of death; a slow waltz coming to its end.

The wind blew through the holes in the wall. He sat alone on the floor, motionless, hands and feet bound. It was likely his turn would come soon. Would they film him on camera like Foley?[3] Would he have to speak those words, blaming it all on his nation, on their lack of faith in god and on their heretic life under the dome of the sky?

He was not a religious man. It was difficult to understand the dogmatic beliefs and the capability to kill, murder and destroy in the name of those beliefs. How one could pass through life without any criticism, without any reason, taking only what was served, what someone had said long ago. But in most cases, common sense drowns very quickly under the weight of “higher” forces. No, he was not a religious man, but he was interested in the roots of things, and most of all that cursed conflict that had been smouldering for the fifth year now. [4]

He had read the Quran several times. And if they would only take that damned tape off his mouth, he would ask them several things. The first would be about Allah’s mercy. What did they think about that, and was He merciful? As Allah said, “And surely I am forgiving toward him who repents and believes and does good, then walks aright.”

The executioners have their own god. He can be shaped however suits them, as though he is of clay. They give him special powers and suggest to him what he should love, and what he should hate. Among other things, who should be beheaded.

In this case me. Damn it! he thought, now completely alone in the room, as another uncertain night began to fall.

A rat passed by his feet and scurried into a hole, far from the eyes of humans and the weapons thundering in the distance.

If only it doesn’t hurt, I swear. I cannot believe I will soon evaporate, that I will no longer be, that it will all come to an end. But like this? It may be spectacular, I might become a famous dead man, but I don’t want to die. How will it look later? Just fog, light? Or just blackness? Perhaps there is simply nothing. When you are here you are here, and when you are gone you are gone. And you don’t even know that you’re gone, so who cares. But you care while you’re still here. When you think about how you won’t be, he thought.

He thought about his own neck, about the blade dancing around his veins. He did not sleep that night. The Arabic words of his executioner wafted into the room, each sounding heavy and threatening, sharp as a knife. A desert animal, some type of coyote, howled at the moonlight, calling a mate. A mating call that would give rise to new life.

His mind was spinning. Images from children and passages from books he had read flitted through his thoughts. He remembered how the blood reaches the brain through two pairs of large arteries: the carotid arteries and the vertebral arteries. The carotid arteries carry blood from the heart along the sides of the neck, while the vertebral arteries carry blood from the heart along the back of the neck, within the vertebral column. These large arteries drain into a circle of other arteries, from which smaller arteries branch off, like side roads off a roundabout. The small branches carry blood into all the parts of the brain.

It shouldn’t hurt. At least due to the state of shock, at least due to those short seconds that will pass. Quickly. Unconsciousness and finally death. The initial cut will be sharp and hard, but later, god willing…. What god?!

When people were beheaded on the guillotine, some said that the eyes still winked seconds later, that the brain was still aware of all that was happening in its surroundings. Even when you chop a chicken’s head off, it continues to run “like a chicken with its head cut off” for half a minute, not knowing what to do.

Will people at bars say, yes I knew him? Will the grief last just as long as elsewhere, just for a night, or will someone grieve for longer? I’m sure they will. What about the people who truly care, how will their pain subside? Will someone write something on Wikipedia, will they ever find my body?

He remembered how as a student he had learned about a tribe in the South Pacific. They were advanced enough to develop sharp metal instruments, tools and weapons. They designed a special sword that could cut off a head in a single swing. Their practice was to bend a tree over, and fasten it down in the form of a catapult. Just at the end of that bent tree, they would conduct death by beheading. The head would fall onto tree, triggering the catapult to release, and casting the head high off, and in those final seconds of their consciousness, the beheaded would feel as though they were flying through the sky.

The feelings of fear and hatred consumed his being as he lay on the flood of the unsightly shack, as the first rays of light softened the desert sands in the distance, and finally reached his forehead, through a crack in the wall. He couldn’t move. He knew that his time had come. The doors of the shack opened, and in walked the same man (or perhaps not) with a black hood over his face. He had seen no one’s face in all this time.

He entered with the same gait as the three times before. Certain in his intent, extending his large arms towards him. The captor raised him up, and placed a black blindfold over his eyes. He spoke not a word. All was black.

Outside, he immediately felt the burning of the hot sun, he felt as though his skin was on fire. It was difficult to walk, as it is when walking through sand, similarly as walking through snow. He walked for a half hour for sure, and nothing happened. His executioner led him silently. The blackness before his eyes did not lessen. It must be that the final site is in another place, in another town.

They walked for three full hours, when all at once he felt firm ground under his feet, and the hands of his executioner allowing him to stand on his own. The blindfold remained unmoved on his eyes, and he expected either gunfire or a knife at his throat. He came to terms with his fate.

Just let it end, and spare me this misery.

Nothing happened. There was not a single sound for what must have been an hour. Then he heard a machine, like a drill in the distance. When the sound cleared, it became clear that there was a vehicle nearby, perhaps a truck.

Someone came over and removed his blindfold. Before him, he saw a road in the middle of the dessert and a large bus filled with passengers. The driver who had taken off his blindfold said that they were going to Damascus. It’s 300 kilometres away, he had added, looking with amazement into his eyes.

*

In Damascus, he was questioned for a week in the premises of the secret services, before receiving a permit to leave the country. He found himself 100 kilometres away, in Beirut, in safety, with money in his pocket from the excellent story he had written for Der Spiegel. It was his luckiest hand of poker, the one he had invested the most in, and received twice as much in return. That afternoon, he must have hit every bar in the Gemmayzeh quarter. He bought drinks for passersby and celebrated his new birthday, his flash of fame and his luck to again be living this exciting life.

Beirut is again turning into the Paris of the Middle East, with modern and tall buildings and skyscrapers, as though someone had pushed them into the ground. They are constantly being built with the money of the Arabian rich and businessmen of various provenances. In passing through the streets and looking up, the Sun blinded him as it danced around the skyscrapers under construction. The asphalt sizzled and he felt dizzy. On the 51st floor above, workers were raising a five ton stone block. Even the crane itself looked unreal.

Something unhooked and went wrong, and even before the worker managed to yell out “Watch your head!,” the block fell and crushed his head and body and all. Money flew out through the air and down the street, carried by the force of air caused by the falling block. Car alarms started to wail as the sound of the ambulance became louder as it approached.

From the future collection of short stories by Hrvoje Ivančić

[1] Arabic name for Islamic State (IS)

[2] The unfaithful in Arabic

[3] James Foley – an American journalist who was beheaded in front of cameras in 2014. The recorded raised reactions around the world.

[4] The civil war in Syria began in 2011.

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