Web Site: Kabul
Adventures, excitement, romance and the Buddhas of Bamiya all come together in this fast-moving tale where all the characters fall into the social maelstrom that is Kabul circa 1969.
“Kabul Dreams, Buddha Weeps”
by Burgess Needle
Early spring wildflowers blanketed the lower steppes of Afghanistan’s Bamiyan Valley. Sunlight reflected from the ice on the upper peaks and blinded those who glanced too high. As they entered the valley from the parched land and graveled mountain passes to the east, the pilgrims marveled at two enormous Buddhas that dwarfed the surrounding landscape. The taller image had sculpted robes colored red, while its smaller companion was dressed in brilliant blue. With gilded arms and hands in a posture of reassurance, the images wavered in the distance as if flickering in and out of existence. Paintings on nearby cave walls, decorated in gold leaf, represented the stages of Prince Siddhartha’s evolution from unenlightened human to Gautama Buddha.
Yehuda Rebanni felt some comfort in seeing the towering Buddhas. Their presence meant his painfully acquired maps were correct and that he was, in fact, leading his people to a safer place than the one they’d left
behind. He stretched his sinewy body up and over the camel’s head as he studied the terrain. With green eyes and skin as dark as his kinsmen, Yehuda’s lineage set him apart. As a member of the Rebanni clan he was also related to a unique gene pool that routinely produced leaders who ruled not only by intelligence, but also by their powerful empathic gifts.
No startled game or camouflaged figure caught Yehuda’s attention and his followers watched the tension in his rigid posture slowly dissipate. When he smoothly dismounted, they began to murmur among themselves. They had kept pace with him for months over mountain passes and scorched plains on the basis of a vision and a promise. His powers of persuasion had saved them more than once from hostile, roving bands of animists. Ahead, was legendary Kabul and security enough to pack their tents away and start a community with solid walls and a temple.
Buddhist monks prostrated themselves in silent prayer while the Jewish merchants who accompanied them waited quietly. A tantalizing mélange of scents seeped out from containers that had bounced about within woven nets of hemp. Carrying a wisp of myrrh, a delicate breeze drifted from the lead camel’s baggage and enveloped Rebanni who, though accustomed to its aroma, still inhaled deeply as if that particular scent empowered him. Men who stood closest to him wore the distinctive black turbans, a symbol of mourning for the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem. In common with the other members of his tribe, Rebanni’s hands were colored light blue from years of working with the indigo used to dye their merchandise of silk and cotton fabric.
Originally part of an ancient community in Islamabad, the Jews of the caravan had been peaceful merchants for hundreds of years. Then, they felt the inexorable pressure of Islam’s growing power to conform, to assimilate and convert. They realized they’d lost the luxury of reflection when a rabbi’s headless corpse was found propped against the temple’s door. Under Yehuda Rebanni’s leadership, their vague plans for eventual relocation became immediate preparations for departure. By the time the mullahs had the locals properly agitated and their anger directed at the neighborhood surrounding the temple, the Jews were gone.
April 28, 1969
After two years of doing the Peace Corp’s bidding in Thailand, helping
the locals build straight roads, Victor Reuban took the long way home through Afghanistan. After an all-night binge that involved hash-soaked cigarettes, too many cans of warm beer and prostitutes old enough to be his mother, he emerged from one of Kabul’s garbage-strewn alleys in search of coffee but found Cassie instead. She also had been in Thailand, but as a volunteer nurse. Several times her path had crossed Victor’s, but he kept her at arms length. Even then, she’d sensed his tenderness and vulnerability beneath years of enforced cynicism. In spite of his protestations, she cleaned him up and shared her bed. They had a slow courtship. Victor kept disappearing, returning to his cot at the Bamiyan Hotel, reluctant to make any promises.
He stared at himself in the cracked mirror and had an early morning epiphany. Cassie might be right after all. Perhaps it was time to leave Kabul. True, the drugs were potent and cheap, but so was life.
Cassie seemed to know what he needed, but did that mean he’d stop getting what he wanted? The showers worked for a change and he relished the tepid water, soaping himself down over and over to get the landscape of the countryside off his skin. The face in the mirror was still too angular and the eyes too cynical to do more than remind himself of who he used to be. Maybe a superficial change would make him feel better.
Fresh clothes, combed hair and cologne made Victor brave enough to try the American Embassy and cash one of his $100 traveler’s checks. Inside the cold, squat building with faux-Moorish touches was the standard government issue furniture. Few Americans were in sight. No one deigned to notice him. An open manila file was on the desk in front of him: USOM DATA FiLE: Code Lion Vii. An American Embassy official was on the phone, “Wolf yellow - repeat -November boys now over red. This is wolf. Do you read?”
The cashier accepted his check and paid him 7,421 Afghans mostly in denominations of 500.
“Where can I exchange some of these back into dollars?”
Her kohl-circled eyes flicked over him.
“Why don’t you just spend it locally? A few good meals, one or two tours, some trinkets for friends back home and it will soon be gone!”
“I don’t need this much local currency,” he persisted. “I only want to know where I can change it?”
“Go to Mahall-i-Jehudiyeh. Now if you’ll excuse me I’m very busy.”
Several false starts later he found Kabul’s black market and a young man who had an air of authority. Victor’s neutral gaze reflected off hostile eyes of the deepest blue he’d seen since California.
“What do you want?”
“I’m trying to find Mahall-i-Jehudiyeh.”
“Why do you want the Jews!”
“Mahall-i-Jehudiyeh means the place where the Jews live.”
“Someone told me that’s the place to change money.”
“Of course, for that you see the Jews! They will exchange anything.” Abruptly, he smiled. “Do you need a driver? Have you a place to stay?”
“That’s very kind of you, but I’m staying at the Bamiyan Hotel and...”
“Bamiyan? You stay at Bamiyan?”
Victor nodded. Did they have something in common?
“You are the garbage of the world!” he spat and walked away.
A man with enormous biceps sang to himself as he turned mounds of homemade pistachio ice-cream over and over in a dented copper bowl. The tune fell in a limited range that reminded Victor of the portion of the Torah he’d read at his own Bar Mitzvah.
The bowl danced over a bed of crushed ice. Victor handed him a few coins and he was served a huge scoop of green ice cream on a piece of old china. It tasted rich and sweet with chunks of pistachios. So strange to be at this point in space not far from his own tribe of money changers with green ice cream in his mouth.
Up ahead, he saw an area of sturdier buildings with actual plate glass fronts and swirling advertisements in several languages: the money changers.
Dark clouds scudded between earth and sun, leaving him chilled and nervous. He pushed the nearest door open, stepped on to an oriental rug as a pleasant chime announced his entrance.
An elderly, bearded man with soft, green eyes looked up and smiled. There was something almost familiar about him. He wore layers of white and red robes and an embroidered skullcap.
“Good afternoon, young sir. My name is Yusuf Rebanni. How may I be of service to you?”
As he spoke, there was a subtle nod of his head on every other syllable. Victor felt his own body responding in rhythm when he responded.
“I want to exchange some of this for dollars,” he said, and pulled out a wad of currency.
“But, I have plenty of Afghan bills,” Rebanni said, smiling, as if this conversation was only the beginning of an elaborate joke. “If you want to trade that for dollars I am afraid the rate would not be to your advantage.”
“It doesn’t matter. I’m not planning on staying here much longer and dollars will be more helpful for travel.”
“I can offer you only $100 per 7,500 Afghans.”
Victor dropped a pile of 500 Afghan notes on the glass counter.
The man sighed, rubbed his fingertips, quickly counted the money, reached below to slide out a small stack of $10 bills.
The exchange took less than thirty seconds. Victor glanced over at shelves of books. Every other volume seemed to be in a different language. He saw his reflection bounce off brass urns, twinkling tea services, jewel-encrusted samovars, ornate hookahs and a gleaming Menorah.
As he turned toward the door, Victor nodded his head slightly as a sign of respect.
“Aleichem Shalom,” Victor responded.
“You are Jewish!” Yusuf Rebanni cried out.
Then, arms apart in welcome, the man urged him to return.
“Yes,” Victor said, picturing a burning bush. “I’m Jewish.”
“Sara! Come quickly. Bring tea. We have a guest.”
Rebanni related how he and his family had been in Kabul for centuries.
“Maybe you’re a member of one of the lost tribes?” Victor suggested
“Of course I am,” Yusuf nodded. “And, so are you.”
They sipped tea and nibbled on baklava.
“Are there many Jewish families in America?” Sara asked, leaning forward.
“More than in Israel.”
She gasped, looked at her husband, took a deep breath and continued.
“We have a grand-daughter...”
“Sara!” her husband broke in.
“Never mind,” she said, waving him quiet. “This young man may help us. The Moslems always say the Jewish community sticks together, but we’ve seen precious little of that in our lives. Rashad Singh-Levy is still so angry with you about your plans for the new prayer books he won’t even write his relatives in Calcutta about assisting our Rachel. I believe it is time we made our own contacts.”
“Please, Sara, the young man’s not interested in local feuds just yet.” He smiled. “We should, perhaps, give him more of your delicious desserts and then when his guard is down, present him with our situation. Another piece, my friend?”
“Honestly, I would love to be able to help you, but my talents are mostly those of civil engineering. So, unless you need someone to do a survey of your land, I’m afraid there’s not much assistance I can offer.”
“Survey our land? These days who can be sure what is their land or someone else’s? No, no, young man, we know perfectly well how many hectares are temporarily ours to claim. That is not our problem. More tea?”
“No, thank you.”
“Ah, well then. As you can see, we are too old to make a fresh start. Our sons and daughters have moved to Greece and are doing well. Other relatives have made a home for themselves in India, but as Sara told you we are not on the best of terms with them. Our blessing is also our worry. Her name is Rachel and she is our only precious link to the future. Because she was too sick to travel with her parents to Greece, they left her in our care. She is a smart, strong and healthy child, but there is no place for her here. Religious zealots will soon be fighting the Soviets and I fear what few Jews remain will be crushed in the war. We would like her to be with her parents, but the authorities are making it difficult for any of us to leave. Rachel is very...sensitive. We had to have her educated at home because the others taunted her and called her names. In Greece, she would be reunited with her brothers and sisters
“Rachel has a special gift,” Yusuf said. “All she has to do is look at someone and she knows them! Well, I don’t mean to say she suddenly knows everything about them, only what they’re feeling at that moment. Even the few Jews remaining here in the congregation won’t let her attend service. They say she has the evil eye.”
The old man’s voice trailed off as he stared more closely at Victor.
“What? What’s wrong?”
“I could almost say you have her eyes,” Yusuf whispered. “What did you say your family name was?”
“Ah, Reuban. How far from Rebanni is Reuban?”
“As you say, we’re all from one lost tribe or another. But, my grandparents came from Germany, not Afghanistan.”
“And my ancestors came from Islamabad, not Jerusalem. But at some time, my young friend, they all came from Canaan.”
Yusuf stared at him until the silence became unbearable.
“So,” he continued, “if Rachel left with an American like yourself, we would feel much better about her safety.”
“Now, wait a minute...”
“She has her own passport and if money is an issue...”
“No, it has nothing to do with money. It’s just that I’m already traveling with someone and we have no plans to go to Greece.”
“You’re married?” Sara asked, glancing at his left hand.
“No, just a girlfriend.”
“No, she’s Methodist.”
They looked puzzled.
“It’s a kind of Christian.”
They looked at each other and sighed.
The heavily beaded curtains parted and a young girl entered. She was also dressed in white and had dark and deep set eyes. There was a halo of serenity about her that belied her age. A wind of myrrh suffused the air.
“There are many here who could use your talents,” the girl said. “The roads are very bad and they have need of good civil engineers.”
Victor paled. The girl had the same green eyes as her father. Although the voice he heard was undoubtedly that of a child, it had an adult tone within its youthful pitch. Her diction was too clean and when she spoke Victor felt each word sink within his mind.
“Please, do not be uncomfortable.” the girl said, as if detecting
Victor’s unease. “I quite agree there’s no room for someone like myself in your itinerary.” She closed his eyes for a minute. “You should stay with Cassie. She is good for your soul. She has a plan to take you somewhere that will help you transcend your...” She raised her hand and slowly rubbed it across her face. “...your conflicts!”
Victor sighed and a lost memory came back: he was sitting on a high, metal stool behind the marble counter of the neighborhood drugstore. His friend Charlie, without asking, was adding vanilla flavoring to his Coke. The floor was a pattern of small, white tiles. Several fans turned slowly overhead. He was young and worried about a math test. Nothing else mattered...what conflicts?
“Is that right?” he murmured and glanced up at the strange girl with sad eyes who seemed to know so much about him. Outside, long shadows formed.
“Perhaps I’ll see you again before you leave?” the girl asked.
“No, I don’t think so,” Victor said, but the girl’s expression made him feel suddenly uncertain.
“Well, these are troubling themes,” Yusuf broke in. “Tomorrow, especially, will be dangerous for foreigners. The Russians may try to take advantage of all the celebrating.”
“Tomorrow is a national holiday. In English it translates as ‘the Victory of the Muslim Nation.’ There will be parades of competing political parties and the Russians here will try to turn it all into chaos. Fighting has already broken out among the tribes and new alliances are being made and broken every week.”
“Thank you for telling me. I had no idea.”
“Where are you staying?”
“The Bamiyan Hotel.”
Yusuf and his wife appeared stunned.
“That is a noble name for an ignoble hotel,” Yusuf said. “Did you know, the city of Bamiyan stands on the banks of the Kunduz River, about 230 kilometers from here? It has been a a center for Buddhist learning...”
“There are some statues there you should see,” Rachel said softly.
“Ah yes, the statues,” Yusuf said. “Do you know about them? No? Part of this country used to rest in the very middle of the ancient Silk Route and Buddhism has been here since before the Christian era. I believe the first members of the Rebanni family were merchants carrying glassware and silk who traveled with Buddhist monks. Scholars believe it was during this time that the concept of Buddhism acquired a human form. A most magnificent example of that concept are the two giant Buddhas of the Bamiyan Valley. Sculpted out of the very mountains, one painted blue and the other red, these visions of the great Teacher have greeted visitors for over fifteen centuries. Rachel is right, you should go there.”
Victor listened closely and at the same time felt a sense of detachment as if all parties present were chess pieces on a strange terrain.
“Look at yourself!” Rachel proclaimed. “Tall and healthy...the world is at your feet! You’ve straightened roads, but you’ve helped few travelers along their journeys. Consider what you have not yet done with all your possibilities.”
Victor backed away from them and turned to the door.
“Shalom Aleichem,” Yusuf Rebanni murmured. “Be careful, my friend...oh, and your name, please! What is your given name?”
“Ah, the victor!” he smiled at Rachel as if this name explained everything. “Shalom Aleichem, Victor. Until we meet again”
“Aleichem Shalom,” Victor replied, and walked back out into the street.
The air smelled of kerosene lanterns and diesel exhaust. Determined to start a new life, Victor imagined going to the youth hostel, picking up Cassie, and traveling to the ancient town of Istalif. He’d been told there was a palace nearby where the Afghan royal family used to make seasonal pilgrimages to escape Kabul’s dust and summer heat. The heat had yet to arrive, but simply getting out of the city sounded suddenly attractive. He’d read that the city was located above the Shomali Plain Istalif and was famous for its view of the Hindu Kush mountains. Although Victor had no idea whether the palace still existed, the image of Istalif with its clear waters and historical aura breathed new strength into his resolve and he stepped quickly through the city.
After a while he found himself before a wrought-iron gate with a plaque declaring a building behind it as the central police station. A large cloud of dust emerged from the back of the building and he heard the sound of hoof beats and men crying out. Curious, he walked the long way around until he faced an open field. Hundreds of men milled around the perimeter. Riders wearing thick, leather-plaited hats, long leather coats with tufts of fur showing through, colorful boots that ended just below the knee and elaborate scarves wound tightly about their waists urged their horses into mad, circular runs.
Scanning the crowd, Victor spotted a familiar head of red hair. It was a young man he’d bought drugs from at the hotel. He cautiously made his way toward him. From the size of the dilated pupils, Victor realized the man had taken more than a little of his own product.
“How’s it going?” he asked, lightly touching his shoulder.
“Friend or foe?” the man muttered.
“Customer. I’m okay.”
Victor recoiled when the man turned his way to reveal an ugly, raw slash that traversed his face.
“Don’t get too close to the horsemen, dude. You get too close and they’ll whip you good.”
“Why'd they do that to you?”
“Because I was too fucking close, man. Who knows with these dudes. Amazing thing is, this is just practice! In a few days there’s going to be a really big game at Ghazni Stadium.”
Three riders came thundering directly at them, whipping each other furiously as their frenzied horses kept pace with each other.
In an explosion of sand the riders crashed to a stop just feet away.
The horses towered over them, crazy-eyed with excitement, white foam hanging from their mouths. The riders continued to slash at each other with short, rawhide whips, screaming curses until, as one, they turned and galloped away in the opposite direction.
“This is all just practice?”
“Yeah, man. These guys aren’t even playing with a dead goat yet.”
“A dead goat?”
“They cut off the head and feet of a goat or a calf and use what’s left of the body as a kind of ball. The game can go on for days, but the winner gets money, new clothes, and who knows what else.”
“What do the other players get?”
“They get to say their prayers that evening and thank Allah that they didn’t get crippled, scarred or killed.”
Two roughly-formed teams claimed each side of an irregular circle. Several others erected a free-standing pole and gestured to the teams that the pole was well-set in the ground. Something bloody was thrown in the air and with whoops and screams every rider crashed into the center.
Victor realized his new friend was walking away. he reached out and held him back.
“I’m tripping too fast, man. Don’t hold me back. I don’t know why I dropped acid. Really stupid. They’ve got spies everywhere. They know who we are. We have to get out of here!” He screamed the last words.
“What’s going on. What’re you talking about?”
“My last name’s Goldstein. It’s on the hotel register. Stupid. Why didn’t I write Winthrop or some other fucking wasp name?”
“Who are you talking about?” By this time Victor was shaking him.
“Them! The radicals. They think all the Jews have made a secret deal with the Russians to help them take over. They’re coming for us. Watch out! They’ll end up using us as a ball in Buzkashi.”
He yanked himself free.
“What’s Buzkashi? What do you mean being the ball?”
“The game they’re playing right now in front of you, you fucking moron! Usually, they use a goat, but I hear they’ve been known to use the heads of their enemies.”
“You’re kidding, right? I mean, they wouldn’t go after tourists, would they?”
By this time, the man was far ahead. He turned and yelled back:
“Only if your name is Goldstein!”
‘Or, Reuban,’ Victor said to himself.
Back at the Bamiyan Hotel there was music in the hallway: harmonicas and drums beat out a staccato rhythm while a shrill flute cuts through it all with startling riffs. He thought again of the palace at Istalif .
“Istalif,” he said the name aloud, emphasizing the second syllable. “Tomorrow, I will go with Cassie to Istalif!”
April 29, 1969
National Unity Day
Morning brought chills and fever. There was no way he could travel to
Istalif. A camel brayed. There was enough light in the room to let him know it was mid-morning, He slowly sat up. The taste of last night’s lamb and a few
grains of sand stuck to his tongue. Throwing off his sheet, he flexed his shoulders and stood up. Maybe he wasn’t that sick. Although his breath reeked of onions and garlic, he felt clean inside and filled with energy. Was he actually hungry? What did he do with that piece of chocolate? He reached into his pockets and found a blue, wrinkled piece of paper that had a yellow drawing of a smiling sun embossed on one side. In the middle of the circle were the letters LSD. Rachel’s face suddenly appeared before him. Real? A mirage? She was frowning. Someone was always telling him what to do. Fuck them! He put the paper in his mouth and swallowed.
The first time he tripped, back in Boston, he’d floated in an almost endless cave that had a tiny pinpoint of light off in the distance. He kept moving his arms through the air as if he could swim to the light and safety. But, this was different. This was the dreaded sensation of wanting to stop his own heartbeat. This was the almost irresistible impulse to climb over guardrails and fall into oblivion. This was the craving to blow apart the torturously-gained self in return for blank peace.
Victor flopped back on the bed and tried not to move. His home, friends, all the bodies he’d ever embraced were thousands of miles away. He would never again smell his father’s cigars, know the scent of his mother’s perfume or hold Cassie in his arms.
The question was: how long had he been lying on his cot without moving? Had he been wrong? Was it nothing but a harmless, stained piece of paper. Perhaps, move his toes as a test...oh jesus, jesus, jesus! The infinitesimal movement initiated a rush along all his nerves, toes to scalp, and he sat up, eyes wide-staring at the swirling colors of the room. Standing rigid, he thought he was straight, but the way the others were staring at him made him think he was, in fact, leaning. Was he no longer perpendicular to the earth? He could see primary colors coming from people’s mouths as they spoke. If only his hands stopped shaking he could pass among them all, befriend the world and ask for help.
“Excuse me, my friends,” he would say. “But I seem to have lost something.”
And they would look him up and down and ask what he’d lost.
“My mind...it’s gone!” He’d tell them. ‘But, it’s only temporary.”
He wanted to cry, but could not close his eyes. He knew his hands were
shaking, but when he looked at them they were quite still. Small fires broke out over his body, but the flames disappeared when he looked at each spot. He had to look at them all fast enough to keep them from burning through to his bone.
“Are you...?” someone stood in front of him, but all he heard were the words, “Are you...” over and over.
“Leave me alone!” Victor screamed at him, but all that left his mouth was a red flame that charred the other’s face.
“Sorry! Really sorry!” he cried and ran down the hall.
Music. Guitars and sitars, drums rolled in heavy cadence, then back to guitar riffs. He stood transfixed before the door and knew with a certainty that his sanity hung on every note that emerged from the room. He knocked. the music softened. Footsteps padded toward him as his hands fell to his side and he prayed whoever opened that door understood what had happened to him. He prayed the last words every Jew is supposed to say just before death: Shma Yisroel adonoi elohanu adonoi echod : Hear,Oh Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is One!
The form before him was thin as Ulrich, the morphine addict back at the hotel, but the eyes were fierce and penetrating as the Afghanis on the street. Sensuous lips traced an enormous mouth. The man before him was bald except for two whorls of sideburns. A crimson robe with pale yellow trim, blocked out at the neck, hung loosely on a thin frame. Victor was unable to take his eyes away from the man’s neck where a swollen artery pulsed.
“Are you in trouble, my brother?” the voice emerged a deep rumble, as if from a tape player at too low a speed.
Before the man spoke, before Victor fully registered some sort of arrangement was about to be struck between them, he was filled with a sense of foreboding. Deep inside his bones he felt a grating as if of metal on metal, an irregularity in the universe, an aura of something to be feared without question. The image of a woman in a white robe hovered before him, but, the drugs blurred her away.
“Enter, please. I am Reynaud. Perhaps it is my fate to help you.”
The room was small, square and immaculately clean. A rug on the floor had a deep pile and a design of complex geometric shapes. In one corner, a stereo played the music that held him rooted to a tenuous reality. Next to that was a stack of records and beside that, in a rainbow-colored sari, was an emaciated woman sitting still in a lotus position. Lines of scar tissue that resembled cuneiform ran from her neck out along each shoulder and down each arm. Through the sheer material that covered her, Victor saw metal weights that hung from each nipple. Her facial bones stuck out clearly beneath white skin. She stared, unfocused.
“My brother will be seated,” Reynaud motioned.
He lowered himself to his knees and peered into Victor’s face.
“There is no need for fear. You will regain your senses soon and you will remain safely here, with Ariadne, until you breathe familiar air.”
The woman’s fingers drummed and twisted, played along to some silent anthem. Victor felt his stomach slowly settle; inside his head he continued to soar and fall. The smallest movement or noise lured him away and it took giddy moments for him to sink back to the rug. Reynaud turned down the music and beckoned to Ariadne with a brief nod. She burst into song, trilling at a higher octave than Victor thought possible.
He ached at the silence when she stopped. So beautiful. He wanted more, but could not speak.
“Très charmant, n’est-ce pas?”
Victor remained frozen, but he knew his eyes were wild.
“There is no need to speak,” Reynaud said. “I know where you are. Yes, you have slipped past the borders of your own people and long to be embraced by the tendrils of Siva. Ariadne has told me everything. Ah, your pupils are dilated!”
Reynaud gently rubbed the arterial pulse he felt on either side of Victor’s head until he sensed a shift of relaxation.
“Yes, Siva hovered over me, too, for days, until I realized freedom would require a quest on her behalf. Almighty Siva, Goddess of Death, has chosen me as her consort. I am helping her and I will help you until you realize that what you need most is something to believe in and someone to follow. And, when you accept the fact that I am the one you need to keep you centered and satisfied a great burden will be lifted from your shoulders. Life will become pleasing because it will be so simple. All you need do is follow me, anticipate my wishes and everything will become clear. No longer will your full-moon-fears lead to an abyss that drops away to nothingness and...ah, ma petite oiseaux is all a-twitter. What? What is it?”
Ariadne whispered to him. Reynaud nodded and got to his feet.
“You will stay here and guard this bird of mine who is afraid of the men in the hall. I have been conditioning her since her arrival in Kabul. Now she knows deep in her heart that nothing will ever be more frightening to her than my wrath and Siva’s power. For the moment, she has had to retreat to a private place, but she will return some hour and be there to sustain my every need,” he shrugged, “but until then, she needs to be buffered from those outside forces. Stay still, listen to the music, I will return soon with food that will anchor you back to a more familiar reality.”
Once he left the room, Ariadne turned on all fours and raised her ass in Victor’s direction.
“Baisez-moi,” she said. “Please, do it to me now!”
Victor stared at the cross-hatching of scar tissue across her buttocks. The floor became the ceiling as he got to his feet and stumbled toward her. Planting a hand on either side of her cheeks, he tried to push against her.
“Ayyy, do me...take it out. Do me!”
He undid his belt and let his pants drop. There was no resistance as he entered, feeling her heat and wetness as if that part of her encompassed his entire body. She pressed back against him, panting. He cried out in pleasure. Their pulses beat simultaneously and she drew from him everything he had to offer. She collapsed beneath him, sobbing and hitting her forehead on the carpet. With each dull thud she cried out, “Nah...nah...nah.”
He pulled away. The door suddenly opened, brushed over the rug, made a shhhhhh sound and he quivered. Reynaud was by his side. Victor looked at him, petrified. Ariadne was still crouched over, semen draining down her thighs.
“It is nothing!” Reynaud assured them. “Rien! Less than nothing. Get dressed, the two of you. After all that you must be hungry, eh?”
As he opened a large bag, the wrinkled paper sounded like dozens of crackling explosions. Victor looked left and right trying to stay focused on the music. As Ariadne returned to her former position, Reynaud pulled items
from the bag: wedges of cheese, a loaf of French bread, chocolate bars, sausage links, small jars, olives, pickles, jellies and dressings.
He made a meticulous slice along the side of the loaf and placed layers of food inside until the offering was complete. Finally, he closed his eyes, lifted the enormous sandwich in both hands above his head and said a prayer in a language unknown to Victor.
“Eat!” he commanded. And Victor ate.
I must be coming down, he thought. I must be forgiven, I must be saved and my brother, Reynaud, has rescued me.
“Eat, my brother. Remember all the pleasant times from your former world. Return to the familiar. Eat!”
Oh God, he was back at last. So happy. He ate, started to speak, was overcome with emotion, and looked around.
Ariadne slowly got to her feet and peeled away the silk layers until all her scars and piercings were revealed. Victor felt himself becoming aroused again. She was shaved and above the cleft her taut abdomen glistened. Suddenly, there was a ‘crack’ and a red welt appeared across her midriff, then another and another.
“Not for something you’ve done...unh!” Reynaud said, whipping her again. “Not for anything you’ve ever done...unh! Simply a taste of what you desire most...unh!”
The man, Monsieur Reynaud, Victor’s brother, his savior, continued to whip her. She threw her head back and forth in a sexual frenzy, touching herself as he raised the whip again and again.
Victor felt bile in his mouth. He heard the voices of ancestors from a distant past call out to him, urging him to leave. He crawled across the rug to the door, managed to open it and lurched to his feet in the chilled hallway.
He happily inhaled the smell of lamb drifting up from the first floor and knew he was back in his own room. He saw Ulrich sitting calmly on his filthy bed, eyes unfocused, as he tied a rubber band around his left bicep.
“Would you be so kind as to do me a favor?” he asked as he pinched something into a spoon.
Victor nodded in the dim half-light of the room. Ulrich held the spoon over a candle until something burned and bubbled.
“Would you get me a few local oranges. They’re actually called blood
oranges,” he smiled, as he casually maneuvered a hypodermic needle over the spoon and pulled the plunger out. “I could tell you were someone to be trusted from the day you walked in here with your little button-down collars. Yah, definitely you were someone to be trusted...hmmmm? But, look at you now! My, how you’ve assimilated.”
He nodded once then fell back asleep. Victor stared at him for a while, trying to tell if he was still breathing. His eyes blinked once, twice, and he was gone. Several Afghanis burst into the room, looked around and left just as quickly. Victor remembered Goldstein and involuntarily rubbed his arms. Okay, there was no rush. He’d get the damn oranges and then decide what to do.
He exited the building. It was the start of a new and brilliant day. Shouts and screams echoed from off in the distance. Fruit and vegetable vendors lined side streets. He sucked in the crisp air of the moment and felt his lungs ache and stomach twitch. Camel hooves came clackity-clack behind him and as he instinctively stepped aside a wad of dromedary spit flew past. Atop the beast, an old man cackled at the look of surprise on his face, then cried out,” Go away! Hey you! New York Yankee go away!”
“I’m with the Red Sox!” Victor screamed back, then ran into the nearest alley where he found what he’d forgotten he’d been seeking: gigantic pyramids of oranges. A sample fruit was halved on display and its insides were crimson. The mythical blood oranges! He bought two, stuffed them down his shirt and headed back to the hotel.
Young men carried a red banner with the black hammer and sickle. Russian soldiers in their gray woolen uniforms and red star caps stood at attention as the crowd passed. More screams. Another group of men approached carrying Afghanistan national flags. They looked just as fired up and unhappy as the first group. Victor cut through alleys to reach the hotel Just his luck that the two demonstrations met each other less than a block away. Someone fired an ancient rifle in the air. Panic. More screams. A man ran by him bleeding from a gash on his neck. Crouching in the doorway, Victor wrapped his arms around his knees and rocked back and forth with his eyes closed.
He could picture a telegram: SON FOUND SLAIN IN KABUL ALLEY. STOP IF REMAINS DESIRED SEND $500 TO AMERICAN EMBASSY STOP NARCOTICS
INVOLVED STOP NEED IMMEDIATE RESPONSE STOP
Jehovah or Allah saved his ass and as the street quieted down he cautiously got to his feet. Nothing but a few blood-stained turbans. The sound of rusted metal-on-metal alerted him to the old man straining to push open the grate of the Bamiyan Hotel. Victor ran through the opening, oranges bouncing against his belly as he leaped for the stairs. As he ascended, three Afghanis came down sharing a meager weight. They awkwardly held the end pieces of a stained, gray sheet that partially shrouded an emaciated form. One obscene, pale arm scarred with track marks dangled loose. Ulrich would never get to eat his blood oranges.
Victor headed straight for his bed, wrapped his arms about himself and shut his eyes to the world. He saw Rachel hovering in space, arms opened wide enough to take him in.
He rolled out of bed, walked over to a communal teapot and poured himself a cup. The shadow of a large-framed man filled the doorway.
“How ya doin’, mate? Local food not agreeing with ya?”
The sinewy Australian with wild blonde hair and a mischievous grin that showed a few missing teeth, had to duck to enter the room.
“Not doing too great,” Victor agreed, hoping Mr. Cheerful would just go away.
“Name’s Walter Dupree, fresh out of Brisbane, Australia,” he said, holding out a meaty right hand. “You travelin’ alone?”
Victor tried to give his hand a fast shake, but Walter refused to release him and the two men locked eyes. There was an intensity in Walter’s expression that unnerved him. Drawing a deep breath, Victor forced himself to relax. He sensed a probing intelligence mixed with curiosity and…was it fear? Acting intuitively, he drew from some wellspring of his deepest self and allowed a gentle wave of friendship to flow from himself into the other man’s eyes.
Walter’s grip relaxed and he smiled.
“Now, that was something, mate. Mind telling me what you just did?”
Confused, Victor attempted an expression of innocence.
“What d’you mean?”
“You did some weird mind-reading shit a second ago. That’s what it felt like. Don’t tell me you don’t know what I’m talking about.”
Victor, feeling dizzy, managed to make it to one of the cots before collapsing.
“I...I don’t know what you mean. Just, you know, trying to be friendly.”
Walter examined him with fresh interest.
“You really don’t know, do you?”
“No, I don’t”
“Well,” he laughed. “That’s good! Hope you never do! Whew, well, anyway there’s so much hash smoke in this room it’s probably all my imagination. Semi-contact high, right?”
“I’ll bet. So, you were saying?”
“Just checking if you were flying solo. Wondered if you’d like some company? What d’you say?”
“Yeah, I’m alone,” He said, unable to keep his eyes away from the freshly turned mattress in the corner.
“Hope you weren’t with the bloke who was over there, were you? Heard he had a bit of a needle problem, eh?”
“No, I wasn’t really with him. We just talked a bit”
“Couldn’t imagine you were too close,” he went on, relentlessly upbeat. “Shooters like that pretty much keep to themselves. Boy! I think he soiled that bed a bit before...”
“Will you just....just stop it!” Victor waved him away.
“Hey, well, nothing ventured, nothing gained, eh? Didn’t mean to get too -- okay? So, well then, you and I seem to be the only ones about. I was thinking of taking a stroll up the local hills. What d’ya say? You look like you could use some fresh air.”
“You know what, Walter? It’s some kind of fucking local holiday and the Afghanis are killing each other off. So, in answer to your question, no I don’t want to stroll around and get shot. Wait a few days. It’ll be safer.”
“Safer? Out there?” Walter pointed to the window. “It’s not going to be safe out there for another thousand years, mate. Today, the commies and the nationalists are having at it with one another. Before that, the bloody Moslems were killing Buddhists, Christians and Jews. Tomorrow, it’ll be the Orange Tribe against the Yellow Tribe. If you wait here for it to be safe, you’ll rot. Listen, mate, I’m not talking about going bloody shopping or anything. We’ve got hours of good light, so there’s a chance for a little healthy, outdoor adventure. Up the tapa they call it. Not the fuckin’ mountains. Tapa just means hills. What d’ya say? Not too far, mate. Come on, it’ll be brilliant!”
Victor looked around once more at the room. Dust motes danced between himself and the window.
Once past the vendors, they picked up speed and within an hour they’d made it past the edge of the city and over the rubble-strewn plain that gradually sloped into the first of the outlying hills. Both of them coughed and wheezed ragged exhalations that condensed in the fast-cooling air.
“Time for a pick-me-up,” Walter said and pulled a brown cigarette from his shirt pocket. “Turkish tobacco and bits of local hash. This stuff’ll get us to fuckin’ Mount Everest.”
They shared the smoke until Walter burned his fingers on the last drag, then turned around and saw Kabul spread out before them, an ill-planned crisscross of brown buildings, blue-domed mosques and the distant radio spires along embassy row. Shepherds, small children in rags and bare feet, surrounded them with their sheep. They seemed young and vulnerable at first glance, but closer inspection revealed tightly set jaws and suspicious, narrowed eyes that trained at once on their flock, the two foreign intruders and the whole wide universe of their daily terrain.
They continued climbing in the direction of a knoll at the very peak of the nearest hill. Panting and spitting, they managed to stumble into the remnants of an old battlement worn round and smooth by time and wind. Victor could see black holes piercing the mountainside. Caves! A furtive movement from one of the openings held his attention, but then it was still. Snow-frosted peaks for three hundred and sixty degrees. How far back have those caves been inhabited? Was he looking at some ancient ancestor’s back yard? His own?
On the other side of the hill, a small town rested by the edge of a body of water composed of several blue-green inlets. Dozens of one-story mud buildings, so small and cracked they appeared to have grown from seeds, dotted the terrain. Walter took off his shirt and did an impromptu dance. His cries echoed around them and made Victor nervous. He looked back up at the
“Time for another joint, mate.”
Walter took out a comb and tissue paper and surprised Victor by churning out a powerful harmonica sound. Victor fell down laughing. The mountain moved in synchronous rhythm around them.
“Oh man, this is great,” Walter said. “Now, if we only had a few munchies, it’d be perfect.”
Victor pulled out the two oranges.
“No, blood oranges.”
“Well, bloody fuckin’ blood oranges. You’re a genius.”
They tore the fruit apart, splattering themselves and the ground with red juice and then had a seed-spitting contest in the direction of Kabul. Walter’s seeds were blown out with extraordinary aerodynamic thrust and sailed into the ether. The sun was about to fall behind the higher peaks as they slipped and slid along the loose gravel and shale back to the city.
Walter handed him a few black crumbs.
“Last of the hash, mate. Waste not, want not!”
As the bitter crumbs went down he felt the very earth beneath them push up and a thunderous noise poured down from overhead: a commercial jet coasted over them as it floated down for a landing. On their backs, they looked up and gasped at the miracle of flight.
Scrambling slowly down the hill, they passed elements of the environment they’d ignored on the way up: gnarled trees hanging to the slope with exposed roots, tender green shoots of minuscule vegetable gardens and the simple mud homes that betrayed the bare-subsistence of their occupants by what did not appear out front -- no toys, garbage pails or mailboxes. Still, wisps of smoke trickled out from a chimney here and there and wary children played on the hard-scrabble earth with twigs, pebbles and wood scraps. Here and there a door suddenly opened and sunlight reflected briefly off the metal fittings of a water bucket being emptied.
That was the population Walter waved to below and soon dozens of them stood outside their homes and stared up at the two crazy foreigners. Victor started singing and Walter played the comb. A curly-haired boy approached, beating a small drum, skipping gracefully from stone to ledge until he reached them, turned, and shouted some words back to his neighborhood. Soon, other children joined him along with women carrying babies and sullen teenagers who soon flashed their white teeth in big smiles. It was an audience they sang and played in rhythm to as the boy drummed. Even more of a throng stepped out into the fading sunshine covering the lower slopes, staring up at them appreciatively, clapping along. Walter laughed and pointed behind them where another crowd emerged from the very ruins they’d been exploring. Hundreds of Afghans above, below and around them clapping and singing their own songs. The smallest of the children were cut loose from whatever held them back, boys and girls with enormous dark eyes and infectious grins. Walter picked up a stick, held it to his mouth like a flute and began to dance his way back down. The children of Afghanistan followed Walter the Piper all the way to the edge of the city where they sadly parted company.
“Those oranges were pretty good, mate, but I’m still hungry enough now to eat a roasted camel.”
Although there were no more banners or demonstrators, masses of men wearing leather jerkins and headgear of various shapes and sizes smiled and hugged each other with abandon. Was it still part of the national holiday? And where were the women and children? Walter began greeting everyone with a cheery, “Hi ya, Bing! How ya doin’? Abdul, my man, long time no see.”
Although Victor feared the worst, everyone either shook his hand or returned his bow. Even the ones with cruel scars, half-closed eyes and mutilated lips made way for them with dramatic hand-sweeps.
“Salaam Aleichem!” Victor said, to an elder, touching his right hand to his forehead.
“Aleichem Salaam!” the elder answered.
“Salaam Aleichem!” several men cried in unison.
“Okay, I think I’ve got it down,” Walter said. “On the count of three now...one, two, three! ALEICHEM SALAAM!” they shouted back at them.
They were both laughing when they saw what was left of Reynaud sprawled against a hitching post. Both hands had been severed, his groin was a bloody mess, and his face had been slashed with a whip.
“Jesus, mate...will you look at that!” Walter said.
Victor stood in mute shock while the people ebbed and flowed around them. Abruptly, he sensed an aura of danger and furious anger. “He was a thief!” someone exclaimed.
A young man with blue eyes confronted them.
“Because he stole, he lost his hands. Because he committed unnatural acts with a woman, he was killed!”
He spit on the ground.
“You people think you can come here and have your way with us and perform your abominations on each other in the shadow of our hospitality, but we shall no longer allow it. That man lying there is an animal and he was slaughtered the way animals are slaughtered. He will never be buried. His bones will be picked by dogs in the field.”
“What happened to the woman?”
The man glared at Victor and ran his tongue along his lower lip.“What do you know of his woman?”
“If there’s no one to care for her, I’ll make sure she returns home safely.”
“Hah! Surely, you wish it; however, that will not happen. The woman will be taken to the hills and entrusted with a holy sect who will cleanse her. There is no need for you to sacrifice your schedule.”
Walter started to drag over an old horse blanket to cover the body, but a man who grasped an ivory-handled blade motioned for him to back away. They turned and walked toward the Khyber Pass Restaurant. A few streetlights blinked on, the last wisp of sunlight was absorbed by the night and a chilled breeze swept over them.
“Whatever that poor bloke did, he didn’t deserve that,” Walter said.
Victor, remaining silent, wasn’t so sure.
“So, what do you say, mate? My stomach’s empty enough to swallow any guilt about that poor bugger back there. What do you say to a little grub?”
“The thing is,” Walter said, mopping up the last stain of gravy from his plate, “we’re in a great position to make a lot of money here. Both of us have good passports and I promise that with a haircut, shave and a good suit the two of us can be as presentable in appearance as the next guy. Each of us could fly out of this mess with enough Afghan hash to live like kings for a long, long time. What do you say? Are you in?”
“For Christ’s, sakes keep your voice down!” Victor hissed. “There are guys in this city who’ve had their hands lopped off for shoplifting. I don’t even want to think about what they do to drug dealers.”
“Really? I don’t think they give a shit one way or the other. I’ve covered more than a few square miles of this place and I can tell you there are more fields cultivated with poppies than any other crop.”
“Walter, come on! Think about it. This is their country, their crops and their connections. Maybe they don’t seem to pay much attention when non-believers smoke a joint or two, but smuggling out bricks of the good stuff is reserved for their own guys. Maybe you’re right, that they don’t have any moral qualms about drugs, per se, but they sure as hell have a strong sense of someone else making big bucks on their hash.”
“Hey, don’t just dismiss the idea, mate,” he said, getting to his feet and dusting off a few crumbs. “For the record, I happen to have made a few contacts here and I can guarantee you as many kilo bricks of local hash as we can carry. Cost us less than $20 each.”
“Does he have curly red hair?”
“Well, I’ll be damned! You know him, too?”
Victor walked along with him, shaking his head in disbelief.
“Walter, my man, you are one amazing dude; but, believe me when I say you have no idea who the fuck you are dealing with here. I wish you the best, but please don’t mention my name to the local cops when they start working you over.”
“Easy enough request, mate, since I don’t know your bloody name. Just for the record, what is it?”
“Your name, mate. I don’t believe I ever heard it.”
“It’s Victor,” he said, holding out his hand.
“Okay then, Victor, it’s been a pleasure...”
As Victor held his hand tightly, he felt a brief shudder of fear pass between them.
“Whoa, don’t you start doing that shit with me again, mate!” Walter jerked his hand free. “Just because you’re afraid of my lovely plan, doesn’t mean you should go and get me all jittery.”
“Sorry, I didn’t mean anything. Just a natural worrier.”
“Worry away, then. People spend lots of time worrying, but not me. See ya around the world, mate.”
The two parted company and Victor thought of Cassie. He found her back at the youth hostel hanging laundry out to dry.
“I know you’re always unwilling to take advice simply because it makes sense,” she told him, pinning a black bra under a clothespin. “ But, believe me, Victor, when I say we have to get out of this city!”
“You’re probably right and a big part of me does want to leave with you this minute. But, why would you take me back? You haven’t even asked me where I’ve been, what I’ve been doing, how…”
“Because we’re a couple, damn it!” she said, stopping him cold. “And no, I don’t want to hear about anything else. Okay? OKAY? And if it’s not okay, then look me in the face and say, “I don’t love you, Cassie. I never want to see you again, Cassie. Say those words, right now, and I’m gone. Go ahead, say them!”
She started to cry.
“Cassie, I don’t...”
“Stop it!” she screamed. “I don’t believe you.”
“I don’t want to leave here without you,” he said. “You’re my love, my one and only and...”
Flinging herself into his arms, she said, “That’s enough. Stop right there.”
Holding each other under the dappled sunlight of a small patio, they ignored the throngs of passing men and the hostile glances cast their way.
“Victor, let’s go back to the hotel, get your things and move to the hostel where I’m staying.”
“So that’s it. You think we should just leave. We’ll never be back here again, you know. Never! You and I have done all the shit we were supposed to do and ended up helping people who won’t even remember our faces never mind our names a few years from now. So what if there are a few hundred miles of road in northeast Thailand that run a little straighter than they might have without me. That doesn’t feel like enough to me! Do you really want to leave this crazy place where anything can happen in exchange for a regular job and a lawn? Do you really want to leave before you’ve been part of at least one big event or see one miraculous site you can talk about for the rest of your life?”
“Is that why you’re here smoking dope and sleeping in that toilet? We are in the middle of a great adventure. Afghanistan! There are miracles here we can see together; they just don’t happen to be in or near the Bamiyan Hotel.”
“Oh, really? I suppose you know some place in particular?”
“Yes, Victor. I’m talking about the Valley of Bamiyan!”
“Yes, the Buddhas! A pair of miracles for us to actually witness. Let’s do it! Victor, I love you so much. I know you kept me at arm’s length the whole time we were in Thailand and I don’t pretend to understand why, but I thought in the end we’d be closer. The two of us are not part of anything else now except ourselves. When we die, there’s not going to be a parade mourning our passing along some street in New Orleans. We are living everything we have right now. Why squander it in hash dreams?”
Her face was flushed with the crisp air and her own excitement. Without thinking he cupped her face in his hands the way his mother used to do to him and kissed her. Within the physical kiss he experienced something else reaching out to touch him, some silent tide of her love that broke his cynicism and emerged through his eyes as tears.
“Listen to me,” she said, breaking away. “I’ve met another American couple at the hostel. Even though they’ve only been here a few days, they don’t like the feeling of so much violence in the air and want to drive overland to explore some ruins, see the great Buddhas and then on to Greece! They have this huge Land Rover and they plan on taking a route that parallels the old Silk Road. They’re nervous about doing it alone and when I told them about you and your background in civil engineering and your ability to find your way to or from anywhere they sounded really interested. I think they’d take us with them. What do you think? Please say ‘yes’ Victor.”
Fine dust rose in clouds about them as they embraced and he inhaled the perfume of her hair. For the first time since he’d arrived in Kabul, people flowed around him.
“I have to get my stuff at the hotel.”
They walked quickly in the direction of the Bamiyan.
In front, on the cracked sidewalk, the old man in a lambskin coat was still there slowly turning pieces of lamb on a spit over a charcoal fire. Every
few seconds he brushed sauce over the crackling meat and caused an aromatic fog of sweet lamb juice to hang about him. He stared their way, indifferent, but made a gesture to suggest the meat was for sale.
Victor nodded, pulled out a few coins and dropped them in his palm.
He handed Victor an entire wooden skewer of lamb. Cassie tugged off one braised segment for herself and they each took a bite.
“Ummm,” she said smiling around a mouthful of food.
The vendor looked at her with the beginning of a smile.
“Do you speak English?” Victor asked.
“Little,” he said. “Little English.”
“What do you call this?”
The man’s eyes lit up. “We call this ‘shish-ke-bab’!”
They laughed so hard they almost choked on the meat.
“What do we call this?” Cassie asked in a deep voice.
“We call this shish-ke-bab,” Victor replied.
When they kissed each other’s greasy lips, the vendor shielded his eyes.
What more could he have than this? Victor felt her softness as wave after wave of sheer happiness rushed through him. He’d been such a fool. He made a promise to himself: never forget to tell her again how much he loved her.
As they climbed the stairs to his old room the wood creaked more and the hallway to his room smelled far worse than he remembered. They could hear the sound of people laughing inside, so without a thought Victor opened the door.
Walter stood naked in the middle of the room while two men carefully taped bricks of black, Afghan hash against his inner thighs.
“Jesus!” he cried, and cupped his crotch. “Nice of you two to drop by, but a conventional knock would’ve been nice. Who’s the sheila?”
Cassie clung to Victor’s side, but looked away.
“I’ll be in the hallway,” she said, releasing her hold.
“Her name’s Cassie. I’ll be leaving the city with her.”
“You’re not flying out by Afghanistan Ariana Air, are you?”
“No, we’re driving overland to Greece. Why?”
“Plenty more where these came from,” he said, looking down at the
bricks of hash. “And your little friend there could hide all kinds of stuff in places they’d never think to look.”
“You know what? Even for an Australian, you’re out of your fucking mind! I might ever try to get past those airport dogs carrying bricks of hash.”
“What d’ya think, mate?” he asked, Victor, holding up two different cans of cologne. “Should I use the French or the American scent? Either one guaranteed to hide the sweet odor of illegal merchandise.”
Without waiting for an answer, Walter cheerfully used up both cans, sprayed himself indiscriminately from his toes to his crotch then up to his neck. His buddies took the cans and liberally sprayed him everywhere else until they finally paused for a second to direct a double-hit against a large, red tattoo of a clown’s face emblazoned on his right buttock.
“Hey, be careful of that artwork” he cried. “That’s my personal statement to all the powers-that-be.”
Victor stared at the cartoon face and felt a rush of dread as Walter pranced around the room and slapped one of the bricks.
“They’re not bloody bombs, mate. Not to worry!”
Victor repressed his sense of foreboding and smiled at him. Walter put on fresh underwear, a newly ironed shirt, a dark blue Italian suit and black patent leather shoes. Someone handed him a tie. “Windsor knot...what d’you think? Yeah, definitely Windsor,” He giggled, making the knot tight against his throat.
“So, what do you think, Walter? Going to just try for Athens or the big bucks in London?” someone asked.
“Two hundred bucks a kilo in Athens and four-fifty in London - what do you think? I’ve got a one-way, BOAC ticket from here to London. Only one stopover in Munich. Never leave the plane. Long as I don’t make anyone pass out from my cologne, I’ll be the Golden Boy of Saville Row by this time tomorrow.”
Victor faced him, one hand holding his own backpack, the other extended out.
“I should be giving you a great bear hug, mate, but I’m afraid of wrinkling the gear. Hope you and the sheila have a fine time together.”
“Good luck, Walter. Be careful.”
“Oh Jesus God in heaven, anything but that!” he cried and kissed Victor
wetly on the forehead.
Back in the hallway, he took Cassie’s hand and they walked back down the stairs.
“Do you think he know what he’s risking?” she asked.
“Yes,” Victor said. “He knows and he doesn’t care.”
After Victor and Cassie left, the other men in the Bamiyan Hotel turned back to focus their attention on Walter.
“So, what do you think, Walter? Not expecting any problems with those airport beasts?”
“Not a whiff. No pun intended. Well, wish me luck, lads.”
And with that, he scooped up his carry-on and blew them all a kiss.
After the door closed behind him, the others remained nervously silent, breathing in the dissipated cloud of his cologne.
“Out of his fuckin’ mind, he is,” a voice with a Cockney accent said. “Those bloody dog’s will pick him up before he makes it to the counter.”
“I hear Turkey’s the place with the worst prisons.”
“Oh yeah? Ever hear any horror stories about Afghan prisons?”
“Yeah, right. That’s because there aren’t any. Nobody ever gets out.”
“This the place with the open bed, lads?” asked a pale-faced, young man. He stood at the room’s entrance with a backpack in hand.
“Over there in the corner,” someone pointed at Ulrich’s old spot.
“Right, then.” he walked over and bounced on the mattress a few times. “Anyone got some dope?” he looked up, expectantly.
As morning’s sunlight filtered through the dirty panes above them, Victor and Cassie awoke in each other’s arms. Dressing took longer than it should have because they kept stopping to kiss. Kit and Frances Newcombe were already well into breakfast when they joined them in the common room. Kit wiped a stray crumb from his chin and waved them over.
“So, is this the famous scout we can depend on?” he asked Cassie.
“Yes, it is,” she said. “Victor’s had more adventures and experiences in Thailand alone than I’ve had my whole life.”
Kit eyed him, skeptically. Tufts of thick hair protruded from between
the buttons of his shirt and his forearms were matted with more of the same. As if to compensate for that, the hair on his head was cropped short and flat, military fashion. His wide-set, brown eyes reflected a deep intelligence, but long years of outdoor work on archeological sites left them hooded, almost slit shut.
As he walked over to take a seat, Victor caught a glint of shrewd appraisal in the man’s expression.
“Everything Cassie said about me is true , except for the adventure and experience,” he laughed alone. “Okay, well, I have had more than my share of local village brews and if you trust me on this little go-around, I’ll make sure we connect with whatever good stuff the Afghanis ferment out on the plains.”
“We don’t drink,” Kit said, flatly.
As Cassie squirmed in her chair, Frances asked, “Did you two know each other before Thailand?”
“No, we actually met in Thailand, although we didn’t have a chance to be together very often because our jobs were so different.”
“That’s so romantic. After you realized you were serious about each other, where did you get married? Don’t tell me Bangkok, because I’d be so envious. Did you ever see the Temple of the Emerald Buddha? Now, that’s…”
“I don’t think they’re married, dear,” Kit broke in and murmured to Victor, “She’s always leaping to romantic conclusions.”
Frances’ pale lips tightened, but she did not acknowledge her husband’s comment. Tossing back her thin, sandy hair, she looked down at her bowl of yogurt.
“Frances and I met at Brigham Young University.” He paused to noisily sip more of the honeyed tea. “Both of us were majoring in anthropology and started talking to each other on some of the field trips. When we moved on to graduate school, both of us realized we were more interested in archeology and changed course. I think much of what we’ve been studying until now has been preparation for this trip.”
“Except we were supposed to go to Iran,” Frances said.
Victor found himself staring at an extended red welt that ran just above her upper lip. Strange. Almost as if it was the only spot on her face to get sun burned. He quickly turned away when she raised her hand and covered her lower face.
“Yes, until this period of hostilities erupted between Iran and Iraq, that was the plan. Afghanistan should do just as well for the type of ruins we’re seeking.”
“And, those are?” Victor asked.
“Do you plan on finishing your bread? Thanks. “ He reached for the rest of Victor’s food. “I’m especially interested in the Hellenic influences on mid-eastern architecture and Frances somehow got caught up in, I guess you’d call it, archeo-astronomy…the structures ancient peoples erected to study the stars and how it all ties in with their religions and mythologies.”
“I think that’s fascinating,” Rose said. “We ought to have some great conversations on the trip.”
Turning her small, blue eyes back to her husband, Frances said, “I told you this would work out well.”
Victor got to his feet.
“We should get going. Are all the supplies loaded? Those tanks on the top of the truck all filled with water?”
“Some of them. I figure even though we have plenty of water purification tablets, best to play it safe with as much carry-on water as we can. Hope we don’t get hit by a stray incendiary devices, though, because some of the tanks are filled with gasoline.”
That was when an echo of the first explosion rocked through the area.
“Jesus, what was that?” Victor looked toward the city.
A plume of black smoke Cassie from the western horizon. Off in the distance they could hear screams and scattered rifle fire. A series of smaller explosions followed.
Victor grabbed a paid of binoculars from the truck and peered intently in the direction of the smoke.
“Shit, I think that’s coming from the old Jewish quarter.”
“Well, I guess you were right! This does seem like an excellent time for us to leave,” Kit said, moving to the truck.
“Wait a minute!” Victor placed a hand on Kit’s shoulder. “This is asking a lot, but someone back there needs my help. I made a promise and now I have to keep it. Will you let me borrow the Land Rover for a few hours? I promise I won’t take any unnecessary risks, but I have to do this.”
“That’s going in the wrong direction,” Frances said. “Why don’t we wait for you here? I mean, it might be more dangerous in the vehicle. They might be attacking anything foreign.”
“Or, anything Jewish,” Victor replied. “But, maybe that’s not a big concern of yours.”
“Come on,” Cassie said, grabbing his arm. “We don’t have time to argue about this. Frances might be right. It shouldn’t take us too long to run over there and see what happened.”
“No!” Kit said the word loudly enough to make them all freeze. “The truck’s loaded, we’re ready to go as it is, so let’s all just get inside and do this good deed together.”
As the Land Rover bounced over the weathered road leading into the center of the city, swarms of people ran toward them. Fearful at first, they quickly realized they were facing crowds of frightened citizens trying to escape. After several false turns, Victor finally directed Kit to the Rebanni’s store.
“You and Frances wait out here and guard the truck,” Victor told them. “I’ll take a fast look inside. Maybe someone is still there.”
“I’m going with you,” Cassie insisted and followed him to the door.
Shards of glass littered the front and no chime sounded when they entered.
“Oh, my God, look at this place!” Cassie cried. “Are you sure this is their store?”
Victor looked around and nodded. There was a sound of glass breaking toward the rear. Cassie clutched his hand as someone coughed, then, a shadow flitted across the back doorway. The young girl, Rachel Rebanni, calmly stepped into the room and greeted them with outstretched arms.
“My cousin, Victor!” she cried. “And, this must be the beautiful Cassie. I knew you would return; yet my heart is still happily surprised. Cassie, I told this man we would meet again soon, and here we are.”
The child’s familiar tone startled Cassie into silence. She stared at her, mesmerized.
Rachel wore the same robes and skullcap and her face was chalk-white as before. There was still an unfathomable aura of serenity about her and a lingering scent of spice. Frozen en tableau the three figures stood as
mannequins in a bombed-out window.
“Are you alone?” Victor managed to ask.
“Yusuf and Sara are no longer with us. Before all this they were good people in bad circumstances; now they are good people in better circumstances: Perhaps they are eating fresh dates in a Jewish heaven or ... it may be that they are with us at this very instant.”
She smiled, sadly.
“I can never quite make up my mind about that.”
“Both your grandparents were killed?” Cassie murmured.
“They were elderly, but still taken before their time. There has always been a place reserved for them behind the synagogue and after the mob was through with them, some of our neighbors returned and carried their bodies to sacred ground. I was hiding back there when the zealots broke in and I was still there reciting the Prayer for the Dead when some friends buried them. Please do not cry for me. Tears have been shed and many more will fall, but our own time here is not yet over and for that we must be grateful. We should not endanger life by grieving death.”
“Rachel, we’ve met another couple who plan on following the old silk route across the plains. They have a large, four-wheeled vehicle that can carry all of us. Since there is nothing more here for you, why don’t you join us? The others may want to stop along the way to examine some ruins and see the great Buddhas, but they will eventually take us all the way to Greece. Salonika, Greece!”
“Aiiii, Salonika!” Rachel fell sobbing to her knees.
Kit and Frances burst in.
“What’s going on? The truck’s secured, but we were worried about you. Who’s the girl? Is she hurt?”
“Her only relatives here have been killed by mobs and she needs a way out of this place.”
“Is that why she’s crying?”
“They’ve taken them all,” Rachel cried, her body racked with sorrow. “The bishops gave them lists. The priests pointed them out in the market. The peasants showed the soldiers all the secret places. In the end, they found them all. Herded them like cattle into those trains and took them to the camps never to return. So many lives gone too fast for the others to even say the prayers for the dead. Hundreds of years in Salonika and they torched it all.”
“What camps? Do you know what he’s talking about?” Frances asked.
Rachel slowly got to her feet and dried her eyes. The others stared at her, waiting, wondering what she was about to say.
“Treblinka,” she whispered. “They all went to Treblinka.”
“Come on,” Victor said, moving to her side. “It’s time to go.”
Grabbing a blanket from behind the counter, he wrapped it about the girl as he ushered her from the store. Kit and Frances slid on to the front seat and Victor settled Rachel into a secure spot between himself and Cassie in the back. There was another muffled explosion and a figure ran by the store carrying a red flag with a hammer and cycle.
As they drove through the city’s commercial district, heavily armed police began to appear at intersections. The crowds dispersed and except for the distant screams coming from the direction of the sports stadium, Kabul seemed relatively quiet. Rachel fell into a troubled sleep, tossed and turned, cried out fragments of speech in several different languages before she finally curled into a small ball and lay still. She was still sleeping when they bounced off the last stretch of fairly smooth road and, leaving Kabul in their wake, roared northwest into the setting sun.
On the outskirts of Kabul, two men methodically attacked the remains of an old fence and carefully retrieved spent bullets from the wooden posts. They were in no rush. There would be plenty of time to melt the lead and make new ammunition.
“Jesus, time to get the bloody hell out of here,” Walter thought.
He walked quickly, trying hard not to break into a run. Where were the fucking taxis when you wanted one? His new shoes were already scuffed and the shiny attaché case he carried, filled with cheap clothes and toiletries, banged against his hip.
Several vehicles raced by, honking. Ahead, he could see cars, trucks and people streaming to the open plain behind the police station. He desperately wanted to get a ride to the airport. Judging from the sound of screams and hoof beats, he realized he was close to the Buzkashi practice field. Looking more closely at the faces around them he saw his glance was met with defiance and eyes that said, ‘Fuck you! Now, it’s our turn!’
He tried to force himself to one side of the crowd that spilled into the stadium, but found that he was pinned between two burly policemen just back after a morning harangue from their commander. For some reason, Walter felt light-headed and keenly aware of the mens’ body odor, the rough texture of their clothing and the taste of copper in his mouth. Oh shit, he thought. It’s as if I’m going to hang and everything’s coming into focus. Okay, Walter, be cool. This is not going to be your final exit.
“You gentlemen seem to have a major mistake, I’m afraid…” he began, when the larger of the two men casually reached over and squeezed his testicles so hard he lost his balance and was carried by them for the remainder of his brief journey.
The men holding Walter had just been told that their country was being turned into the drug capital of the middle east. Foreigners, non-believers, and sodomites walked the streets of Kabul freely. These scum dealt with the lowest garbage of the city in order to buy drugs. What was unspoken, but immediately understood, was the fact these heathen by-passed the accepted chain of command and paid few if any bribes to the appropriate parties. Sweeping them up from the streets and disposing of them would be nothing less than good business and, if truth be told, an honorable endeavor in the name of Allah.
They carried his twitching body on to the stadium grounds, deep within the shadows of the bleachers. He tried to think of something light, something funny, when the other policeman hit the side of his face with a heavily callused fist. Falling on to a warm pile of camel shit, his first thought was to save his new suit. He rolled over and found himself flush against the battered face of another westerner with a vaguely familiar set of features topped by a mass of curly, red hair. The eyes were open, but the pupils were fixed and dilated.
“Godless devils do not even deserve the death of righteous criminals.”
Walter heard them speaking down at him in their own language and realized even if he could speak they probably didn’t understand English. ‘I’m fucked,’ he thought. If last words meant anything at all, those were his.
The horsemen rode swiftly around the field. This time, they followed a routine that took them past the distant pole in the ground and then back into
one of the circles. A great cry went up as one of the riders intentionally slammed into the leader and with a mighty lunge managed to grab some bloody, heavy weight from the man’s saddle. Those closest to the inner circle leaned forward and as the horseman galloped by they saw slung over the saddle a pair of blanched, white buttocks that clearly showed the tattoo of a clown.
Back at the Bamiyan Hotel, two Frenchmen stared out the broken window. The Scandinavians paced the floor and feverishly talked to themselves. A drugged-out young man lay sprawled on Ulrich’s bed. Three women in heavy burqas dragged a struggling Ariadne up the hills to a cave.
Hours later, their headlights piercing the darkness of rural Afghanistan, they deduced they were parallel to the great Paghman Range and approaching the outskirts of Charikar. Seeing the few twinkling lights ahead, Kit slowed down and Rachel finally awoke.
“We are away?”
“Yes,” Victor told her. “We’re definitely away. Are you hungry?”
Kit overheard the dialogue and took that as reason enough to pull over and stop.
“Amazing,” he said, peering into the pale perimeter of his headlight. “There’s no way to tell for sure if I’m still on the road or not.”
Four of them got out of the vehicle, stretched and tried in vain to see anything around them.
Inside the Land Rover, Frances squinted her eyes under the dim light of the interior lamp and tried to read a map.
“I’m pretty sure we’re right at the base of some pretty tall mountains,” she said. “But, they’d have to fall on us to know they’re out there.”
“Please,” Kit cautioned her. “Don’t phrase it like that.”
Rachel stood perfectly still, hands by her side, and stared upward.
“People are watching us,” she said, calmly.
Victor whirled around, peering into the night.
“Not there,” Rachel corrected him. “Up there,” she pointed.
All of them slowly turned and looked in the direction he indicated.
“I can’t see a damn thing,” Victor announced.
“I’ve never seen so many stars,” Cassie said. “I’m so used to seeing black spaces between the constellations, but here the stars are so compacted I can hardly recognize anything familiar.”
“If you stare long enough you can see Orion. There’s Betelgeuse at the shoulder,” Frances said. “ Rigel at his foot and...yes, there’s Orion’s Belt.”
“The three stars were named by people of the desert many centuries ago,” Rachel spoke softly. “In Arabic, they are called: Alnilam, which means ‘string of pearls,’ Alnitak and Mintaka, which means ‘sheath’.”
“Does the name Orion itself come from the Arabic?” Victor asked.
“The name may derive from Sumerian mythology,” Frances cut in, not to be outdone by this strange girl. “They had a God they referred to as ‘Uru-ana’ which translates as ‘Light of the sky.’ I admit it sounds like a bit of a reach, but Orion could have come from Uru-ana.”
Off in the distance, Victor thought he heard the faint echo of a flute.
After a breakfast of dried figs and strong tea, they pushed ahead, pausing occasionally to stare at the broad sweeps of the lower plains. Several days later, after starting off before dawn, they came to pause at a legendary spot.
Early spring wildflowers blanketed the lower steppes of Afghanistan’s Bamiyan Valley. Sunlight reflected from the ice on the upper peaks and blinded those who glanced too high. Because they had entered the valley from the parched land and graveled mountain passes to the east, Victor and his companions were in a perfect position to marvel at two enormous Buddhas that dwarfed the surrounding landscape. The images wavered in the distance as if flickering in and out of existence. Bare remains of paintings on nearby cave walls, once decorated in gold leaf, represented the stages of Prince Siddhartha’s evolution from unenlightened human to Gautama Buddha.
As the sun Cassie behind them, its rays fell on ancient faces staring out at the valley. The travelers stared, mesmerized at the impact of light on stone.
“Oh, my God,” Cassie cried. “Do the rest of you see what I do? The expressions are so sad and I can see what look like tears rolling down from the eyes.”
“They see the future,” Rachel said. “They know what is coming.”
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