Holy War — Excerpt

holywarTHEY HAD BEEN SHELLING so long André could not remember, could not think. There was no air in this sweaty fearful cave where somebody had vomited and the sewer main was broken in the wall, and there comes a point, he realized, when you just no longer care, when the next shell comes down straight for you. It was coming now, loud and angry, won’t miss this time, you already know how it’ll feel, how it will blow you apart or knock the building in on you, squashing you an inch flat between concrete floors. Is that what happened to you, Yves? Is that why they’d never tell us?

In between the falling shells and the searing jet runs with their awful crunch of buildings and crackle of anti-personnel bombs you could hear the screams of people trapped in a building somewhere, more and more frantic, till either they got out, André decided, or the fire overcame them.

Shells were coming down in tandem now, several batteries, shells hitting two and three a second, their constant, uneven whamwham wham making the ground shake crazily. Things kept falling but still the building hadn’t been hit. Maybe it’s good luck, he thought, to hide under a place that’s sure to come down.

“It’s them again,” wailed an old woman in the dark in front of him.

“Quiet!” someone hissed in French. “Grandma hears something.”

But everyone could hear it now, the double-thrusting jets, the fiery air screaming over diamond wings, another Mirage on the same run, low over Christian East Beirut and up the hill into the West. “It’s the big one!” someone yelled, and for two or three seconds there was just the jet’s departing roar then everything crashed in, crushed in his head, sucked out his mind, into the white.

THE AIR WAS HOT, hard to breathe. Something huge and heavy lay on André’s chest, crushing him into the floor. Chunks of concrete stuck into his back. When he realized where he was, the terror made him thrash and beat at the concrete slab but he could not move it. You’re down here forever, he thought, entombed.

“Don’t fight,” a woman whispered. “Uses air.”

What?” He could barely speak, he was shaking, so crazy with fear of this concrete slab on his chest.

“Calm down,” she said. “They’ll find us.”

He took deep breaths, trying to calm. “Where are you?”

“Over here in the corner. The floor—or something. It’s bent down on us. Where are you?”

“On the floor. There’s a floor on my chest. Who’s with you?”

“Two kids.”

“The others?”

“The building fell in. I think they’re all dead.”

“How are the kids?”

“They’re fine. I’ve told them exactly what’s happened and that we must be quiet and save energy for when the rescuers come.”

The madness returned and André couldn’t stop his hands from smashing at the concrete, his spine from trying to arch, pry it up. Finally beaten and exhausted, he lay gasping, head twisted to one side.

She was hitting a rock steadily against the wall behind her. Tunk, it went, tunk tunk. “I had friends in Rue de Mexique,” she said. “Their building fell in on them and they were caught in a basement like this, curled up in a shower stall, the caved-in floor on their shoulders. It took three days to find them. All the time they kept signaling, like this.”

He licked sweat off his lips, couldn’t bring his arms up his sides.

“If you fight it,” she said, “you won’t last.”

He listened to the steady cadence of her knocking, like an arrhythmic heart. “How are the kids?”

She said something in Arabic, one answered. “Fine,” she said.

“I don’t know how they stand it.”

“They already have ten years of war behind them.”

“What do you tell them?”

“Pray to Allah.”

“You’re Muslim?”

“They are.”

“You’re not their mother?”

“Their teacher. The shelling started while I was running them home. We ducked in here. You live here?”

“I live in Paris. Down on a visit.”

“Must be nice, Paris. Peaceful.”

“We had a bombing last month—Muslims.”

“One bombing a mouth—that’s Paradise.” She cleared her throat. “We shouldn’t talk so much.”

“You thirsty?”

“A little.”

“You have to drink each other’s urine. You can last a day longer—”

“That’s silly.”

“It’s true. They told us that, the Army. They wouldn’t lie.”

She kept up the steady knocking. “When we get out of here, I’ll buy you champagne.”

“If we get out of this…” He did not finish, not knowing what to say. What had happened to the dog?

“How old are you?” she said.

“Twenty-seven.”

“Married?”

“No. You?”

“Twenty-two. I was married but my husband died.”

“Wait! Stop! That sound!”

She stopped. There was nothing but the dullness of the great weight leaning down on top of them. Then in the distance tick tick like the sound of someone’s watch in another room. “It’s them!” she said. “I told you!”

THE TINY TICKING NOISE had vanished but the teacher kept beating her rock against the concrete wall until the rock broke into pieces and then each of the pieces crumbled. “I can’t see my watch,” André said. “Do you know what time it is?”“Mine’s broken.”“Must be daylight out.”

“They’ll be coming. They always do.”

André tried to envision this mysterious they who would at great danger to themselves dig down in shattered buildings to retrieve survivors pinned under loose sliding tons of concrete and stone. “Unless there’s new shelling. Anyway, they’ll have lots of people to dig out, after last night. It’ll be a long while till they get to us.”

“Do you remember what street this is? Were there any buildings knocked down, blocking it?”

“It’s off Basta. They hit every building on this street. Never have I seen such bombing.”

“It was much worse in eighty-two. Every time they got some Palestinians cornered, they’d drop a vacuum bomb.”

“Last night, some of that was Syrian.”

“And Christian. We Christians are the worst. We started this by not sharing Parliament although the Muslims were the majority.”

“You could say we started it, the French. There’s always a million guilty for everything that’s wrong.”

“It’s people,” she said. “That’s what’s wrong.”

The tink tink sound of steel on concrete had returned. “They’re back digging!” she cried.

He tried not to talk too much, thirsty, stretching it out. “When we get out—we’ll go up to the Casino. Have dinner. Looking out over the bay—”

‘Stop! Don’t do this.”

“What would you eat, right now?”

“I would’ve said lobster, but have you ever seen them, the poor things, thrashing in the pot?”

“If you worry about that, Anne-Marie, you’ll starve.”

“People are digging!” She hammered louder, in rhythm, waited; the other skipped a beat, followed the rhythm. “See?” she kept saying.”See?”

André told her the Morse code letters for SOS and she hammered them out and the others repeated them note for note.

“They don’t know what it means,” he said.

“They’re just repeating,” she stopped knocking, “everything I do.”

“Buried,” André said. “Just like us.”

Later she said, “Do you think there’s something after this?”

He was getting thinner, André realized. He could slide a little towards her, under the slab. “I’m a Catholic but I don’t think there’s anything more.”

“I keep wondering, will I see him? My husband. Will I ever see him again?”

“You’ll see him, Anne-Marie. If we die, you’ll see him soon, but I don’t think we’re going to die because the shelling’s stopped again and soon they’ll dig us out.”

I’m starting to believe in them, he thought. On the boat coming from Larnaca it seemed strange that people would build a boat for others to travel on, perfect strangers. And now I’m dreaming that others will dig down into this mountain and find us.

The tick tick was back and he wanted to slap out at it, silence it. What right did they have, wanting to be saved?

Anne-Marie was talking to the two girls in a low throaty Arabic that made it seem impossible this same voice could speak French.

“What did you tell them?” he said.

“One’s getting very feverish and we’ve nowhere to pee, we’re in our own wet…”

“That’s fine. That’s who we are. Now we know what it’s like to be human.”

“It’s not so bad, being human. I want to live, want these girls to live!”

“What was he like, your husband?”

“He was afraid all the time—” She stopped, spoke to the girls. One was arguing back, plaintive. “He was a photographer and had to go out every time there was a street fight, a bombing. He tried not to show it, but at night he’d tremble. All night beside me in bed. Trembling.”

“It’s all right, Anne-Marie. It’s all right.”

“The bombings broke his heart and the fights scared him to death.”

“Why didn’t he quit?”

“He thought if people saw his pictures of how awful the war is maybe they’d want to stop it.”

You don’t learn about war in the newspapers, he started to say, but there was no point. The newspapers only printed the nice shots. The bodies under blankets, trailing a little blood.

Not the heads on bayonets, the women slit from jaw to crotch, the disjointed limbs of children. “I wish I’d known him.”

“You don’t need to say that.”

“I don’t have any friends like that. I wish I’d known him. I wish you had him still.”

“If he was here, he’d dig right down, get us out.”

“What happened to him?”

“A car crash. In the rain. Hit by a truck. Going up to Dora for some meeting.”

One of the girls was weeping almost silently; the other joined in. “Don’t let them,” he said.

“Why not? Why can’t they feel what they feel? It’s such an awful death.” She too started to cry. “It’s such an awful death…”

“After we go to the Casino we’ll drive up the coast—”

She halted through her tears. “It’s bad luck, saying that.”

“It’s good luck. Showing God we want to live.”

“Have you ever been to Byblos?”

“When I was a boy. I remember ruins and cliffs, down to the sea.”

“With the golden Phoenician city and the Crusader castle and wild poppies and the water so warm and sweet in the bay… André, it’s the loveliest place on earth. If we ever get out, I swear it, we’ll go there.”

“And we’ll make love in the tall grass going down to the sea, Anne-Marie. I swear that too.”

“You shouldn’t say that.” For a moment she was silent. “Yes, maybe you should.”

“I promise you, Anne-Marie. I promise God. If we get out, we’ll do that.”

“What are you like?” she said. “Are you tall?”

“Two meters. Almost.”

“I’m one eighty. I was two centimeters taller than my husband, even in flat shoes.”

THEY CAME QUICKLY when they came—bulldozers shaking the earth, the concrete slab creaking over him. She kept hammering the wall and stopping and hammering and stopping, and someone hammered back.

A shovel or pick, clanking the earth. Every time they stopped, she hammered. Every time they started they were closer.

“Tell them,” André called, “not to shake this slab.”

There was the rat-tat-tat of a jackhammer and the nearer clank of shovels, then something crashed down on the slab making him scream out and the air was full of dust and he realized he could see. Gray grainy light making him blink.

“André?”

“Can you see?”

She was calling out in Arabic, the same word, over and over. The noise stopped. A voice, a man’s voice, coming down a tunnel from far above.

“Please!” André couldn’t help himself. “Please get us out.”

“They’re coming!” she called. “I’ve told them not to shake the slab. They’re going to dig in from next door.”

They came through the next basement and jacked up one side of the concrete slab an inch so André could slide out. He tried to stand and fell down. “Get her.”

“We’re fine,” she called. “Don’t worry.”

They tried to jack the floor up higher but it was pinned by debris above. Someone wrapped him in a blanket and gave him hot sugared tea and bread. They dug a trench out of the floor with the jackhammer but could go no further because the hose wasn’t long enough. André crawled back under the slab, past the place he had been pinned, but could not reach her.

The concrete was rough like sandpaper and cold as the bottom of the sea. He was sure it was going to fall on him. “Anne-Marie!” he called.

She did not answer. Someone came in with another length of hose and a short skinny crippled man dragged the jackhammer further under the slab.

“He’s going to shake it down on us,” André said. The others were sliding in pieces of plank to jam on top of each other and hold up the slab.

The jackhammer was banging, the hoses hissing, the generator in the street outside revving and dying down. The jackhammer thunder changed and stopped, the slab shivered, slid lower. Voices echoed under the slab: hers, the jackhammer man’s. They grew louder, Anne-Marie’s voice coming towards him, and he took her hands as she crawled out from under the slab, a tall, pretty, short-haired woman squinting in the generator lights, two little girls behind her.

A camera flashed. “That’s forty-two today!” someone said in French, slapped André’s shoulder. The jackhammer man came sliding out, dragging his tool and hose.

“Thank you,” André said to him. “Thank you, God!” He knelt and Anne-Marie with him. Hugging each other and the two little girls, they wept and prayed in French and Arabic to God and Allah for their salvation.

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