The room was dingy; morning sunlight failed to infiltrate the narrow, dirt-smeared windows. It never did, at any time of day. Cobwebs festooned the low ceiling; jagged remnants of a solitary light bulb dangled from flex thick with the dust of hot, unswept streets. Close to the fitting, a large, black spider completed delicate adjustments to the complexity of its web, finally settling at the center, motionless, to await its prey.
The room was small, devoid of furniture. Stale urine stained flaky whitewash where men relieved themselves against walls and thought nothing of it. In one corner, a lone housefly buzzed frenziedly around human excrement, still wet, glistening in the dust of a baked earth floor. A sure sign men had been there not long ago. Soon, the heat of the day would dry it out.
The room was empty now; except for him. The men were gone. They would return. He was sure of that.
The filth and gloom barely affected him for he was blinded. The stink told all. He’d given up attempts to breathe without inhaling the putrid stench. It was not possible. Instead he concentrated on his stomach. He must stop himself from retching. With every inhalation it contracted, attempting to relieve itself of the morning’s breakfast cereal and coffee. He must not vomit or he would choke; asphyxiate.
It was easier now. The lining of his nostrils de-sensitized over time. The putridity became less obvious.
He swallowed bile in his throat. Bile laced with regurgitated coffee. Breakfast in his apartment. He paused, gauging time; probably less than two hours ago. He could see then. He could enjoy the gaily colored prints on his kitchen wall; the pattern of the chintz curtains; minute specks of dust dancing in the beams of early morning sunshine rising over the domed mosque toward the far end of the street. That world had ceased to exist for him. Now he was blind, in a filthy stinking hovel. And the men would be back.
His shoulders ached abominably. He tried to lean back against the wall, but the pain increased. His hands were numb. At first there were cramps, then pins and needles; now numbness. No chance of breaking free. He couldn’t feel the duct tape anymore; at least, not that binding his hands behind his back. The tape they’d dragged viciously around his eyes and mouth still hurt like hell. It held his head rigid. Sweat ran down along the sticky edges causing him to itch and burn. He remembered he hadn’t shaved that morning.
The need to urinate overpowered him. He wriggled in the dust. His bladder hurt from where they’d kicked him, hurrying him to the vehicle. He was sure it was damaged. Couldn’t hold it much longer….Oh, God! The warm wetness drenched his loins unchecked; relief, tempered by the discomfort of wet clothing; trousers that would dry soon and begin to smell. Did it really matter? Could anything truly matter any more?
It was evening when the men returned. He heard nothing through the day, other than the occasional hoot of a distant taxi-cab. No voices or other indications of human existence to stimulate hope. He knew it was them long before they set foot in the room. The engine noise was familiar, the timbre of their voices, even the scuffle of heavy boots on the dirt road. It was them.
Involuntarily, he cowed towards the floor as they entered. Three, he thought, maybe four. They jabbered to each other, laughed raucously, probably at him. Aramaic? The language was Aramaic. He recognized the sound, but not the words.
The spider, sensing vibrations in the room, moved imperceptibly within the web; eased position in readiness for a kill.
They were all about him now; close. He could hear their breathing. A sudden, sharp, bruising pain under his ribs; cruel fingers twisting his hair, forcing his head backwards; the dribble of saliva down his face as one of them spat. The pain of the kick forced a groan to his throat. More laughter; brutal, merciless laughter, as his body crashed sideways to the floor. Defensively, he reined his knees to the fetal position, only to experience searing, mind-numbing pain as a heavy boot crushed his genitals. They laughed more raucously at that. Then, shuffling noises; a banged door, chains rattling; an engine fired into life. Had they gone? He listened intently. Please God let them be gone. Only when he was sure, did he force his tortured muscles into action and fumble, inch by agonizing inch, back to a sitting position, back against the wall. Slowly first, then ever faster, sobs erupted deep inside him. Convulsing, breath-snorting sobs borne of desperation; total hopelessness. His nostrils clogged with mucous; he blew viciously to clear them. Blocked nostrils meant death; his mouth was useless to him now.
They had gone. They would return.
Time meant nothing. He lay, half conscious, one ear cocked for the sounds of their coming. Thoughts of his daughter, back in Colorado, drifted through his head. He tried to shut them out, stifle the pain, but they returned. His wife was dead, victim of the Airbus that burnt itself to dust on Queens, New York, not long after 9/11. He was left alone to raise their daughter, thirteen now, and fast growing to a woman. It was two years following his wife’s death when he decided to work in Baghdad, after American troops had subdued the city, or said they had. He needed money. It had taken his job and hers to pay for the house in Colorado, and the private school for Emma. Now there was just his wage. They said it could take ten years for the courts to settle compensation claims. Halliburton paid good money in Iraq. It was because of the danger, he knew that. Yet, it seemed so safe. The bright little apartment; the kitchen with its chintz curtains; the Iraqi with his Kalashnikov on guard outside.
But the Iraqi was not there that morning and they had known; and they had come. They had seized him as effortlessly as a pack of wild dogs take a sheep.
Emma! He felt the softness of her young body in his arms; her whisper in his ear, “I love you, Daddy.” He stroked her long dark hair, tasted its scent in his nostrils. She pulled away, laughing; ran out through the door to fetch a drawing she had sketched earlier; to bring, to show him. Then she was gone, and his tortured mind returned him to the pain. Wretchedness; despair gushing from the certain inevitability of death. They would kill him quickly, if he were lucky.
The fly, no longer attracted by the drying, shriveled excrement, buzzed aimlessly around the room, searching.
They would return, and they would slaughter him. He was sure of that.
It was early morning when they came again. Just as he began to hope he might die before their return. It was hard to remain conscious. Once, earlier, he had tried to hold his breath, asphyxiate himself once and for all. But the body’s need for life is stronger than the mind, and eventually his lungs exploded down his nose. His body fought to live, involuntarily, his nostrils flaring to the unmet demand for air, his mind in blind panic, his body convulsing, thrashing all over the floor, sapping all his remaining strength in its fight to stay alive. It was twenty minutes before he could breathe normally once more. His body won a fight he had desperately wanted to lose.
He heard the engine noise; the rattle of unbolted locks. He lay on his side in the dirt, feigning unconsciousness. They would know he was not dead, for surely they would hear his heartbeat.
The fly, noting a disturbance in the room, flew higher, instinctively away from danger. One wing hooked the edge of the spider’s web. It stuck. The fly struggled to release itself, and the spider stirred.
They were not laughing now. One barked a command and the others grabbed his arms. Too weak even for token resistance, he felt himself dragged onto his knees. He would have fallen forward, but they pinned his arms. The duct tape covering his eyes and mouth was being unwound. At first he was confused by what was happening, then searing pain as hair and skin ripped from his face and head. Suddenly, for the first time in twenty-four hours, light stabbed dilated retinas and momentarily he screwed his eyes to shield the daylight.
Far away, as in another world, he heard the barked commands of their leader; felt his head dragged forward, bowed towards the dirt. He opened swollen eyelids slightly but could see only dirt floor and the legs of the man in front of him. Two legs, one foot; the other a wooden stump.
“Spare me; spare me,” he croaked, knowing the futility of the plea even as it left his lips. The one-legged man ignored his words; instead began a strange, intoning chant that rose and fell, echoing eerily from the mud walls.
He had heard a similar sound before; a chant of the mullahs calling their faithful to worship. From his apartment, he had listened to the sound each morning, drifting through his windows from the mosque down the street. Only then it had been a thing of beauty, ebbing and flowing through the Baghdad dawn. Now it was harsh and cold, escalating to frenzy. His other captors joined in, their wailing cries soaring to a toneless crescendo seeming ludicrous under disparate circumstances. He was aware of the one-legged man moving to one side of him, just outside of his peripheral vision.
He sensed this was the time. There could be no escape; no alternative finale. No last reprieve. No Seventh Calvary bursting through the door, guns blazing, in those final, nerve-tingling seconds when cinema audiences perch atop their seats, erect, till melted ice-cream cold on hot, clenched hands restores reality. Hollywood movies bear little resemblance to real life, or death, he thought; then wondered if all victims consider such mundanity just prior to death. His only pain was Emma. He would die at peace if only she could know his last thoughts were of her. God, how he loved her! He forced his mind, one final time, to focus on his child; forcing energy across oceans, hoping desperately that maybe, somehow, his last thoughts might reach her. The sounds of the Lord’s Prayer were in his head. A flash of brief surprise ran through his mind. He’d never been religious. Then, almost absently, he noticed the words spilling from his own lips; quiet and calm; a still small voice amid the cacophony of the room. . If only……
The spider hesitated. A premature move might shake the web, release the prey. In the blink of an eye it struck; poisonous fangs sank deep into the body of its victim. The fly struggled briefly, and was still.
The heavy knife cut through his neck almost severing the vertebra. He felt the blow, like he’d been hit by a railway train. Searing excruciation was momentary, as the knife sawed through his backbone; an explosion in his brain that sped him to oblivion. He was unaware of his body’s convulsing; bowel and bladder muscles ejecting their contents; semen spurting down his legs; vomit oozing past the knife blade slicing his esophagus and windpipe; for by then he was already dead.
The one with the knife pressed it hard against his lips, tasting warm, fresh blood. His companions darted glances at each other, and giggled nervously at their leader. The peg-legged man reached down towards the floor, grabbed the severed head and raised his trophy. His eyes spewed euphoria; wide, dark, manic. Spittle oozed through grimaced lips, ran in a steady stream to dribble from his chin. Allah was good; Allah was great; Allah had bestowed on him the best job in the world!
The room is empty now. They dragged his corpse into a plastic bag and took it with them. A puddle of congealing blood sinks slowly into the dust on the dirt floor. A fly, scenting nourishment, buzzes round the room.
It is late afternoon in downtown Colorado. A young girl lounges on her bed, sketches disinterestedly, and wishes that her daddy would come home.
On an election podium in Ohio, encircled by a heaving sea of adoration, a politician grins lopsidedly at all his followers, and proclaims, “We are winning the war on terror.”
In a dingy room in Baghdad, a spider repairs its web, and waits.
© Copyright 2004 R J Adams