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Authors: Faisal Ansari

The Pestilence

BOOK: The Pestilence
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The Pestilence

Faisal Ansari

Copyright © 2015 Faisal Ansari

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or criticism or review, as permitted under the Copyright, Designs and Patents

Act 1988, this publication may only be reproduced, stored or transmitted, in

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To my girls, for their love.

Chapter 1
Time to the Pestilence: 16 days

THE radio filtered the news of peace in the Holy Land through Samuel's dreams. The smell of ful madammas and grilled flatbread greeted Samuel's blinking eyes and waking half smile. His mother Dalia sang as she prepared breakfast: A little honeycomb and yogurt to celebrate the sweetness of peace; the bitterness of olives for the years of loss and suffering.

***

Timeline: The Pestilence minus 14 days. Information source: Published interview with Dalia Srour, mother of Samuel Srour. Interviewer: Bill Irons.

Bill Irons: What was Samuel like as a child?

Dalia Srour: He was a good boy, always reading but very quiet. He was the youngest. His two big brothers were strong and boisterous, so loud, shirking their chores, yearning for the world beyond our home. With Samuel it was different; he looked after us, helped us, especially with the farm. He would just quietly get on with the things that needed doing. No fuss, no bother. He was good with his hands. He would help fix up the barns, tend the animals, you know, do something helpful.

I knew out of my three boys he would be the one who stayed. The others ran away to war or for love, but Samuel looked after me and when I got old, he looked after the farm. Selflessness is in his nature.

Bill Irons: How did he do at school?

Dalia Srour: He was a popular boy. He was a smart boy, the smartest of my sons but also the least interested in school work. I never understood why he didn't apply himself. He loved his books but didn't love school. He wouldn't study, do homework, or prepare for exams. With all that reading, all that knowledge going into that brain of his you would have thought he would have done better, achieved more but it was the same thing in all his school reports; Samuel needs to stop dreaming.

Bill Irons: How did the loss of his brother affect him?

Dalia Srour: Every family in our village has lost someone in that war. I expect that most families in the country have lost someone precious, someone loved. So in that respect, Samuel's pain, our pain was no different to anyone else's.

Bill Irons: Is Samuel religious?

Dalia Srour: Not at all. My family going back a few generations on my mother's side were originally Jewish and Samuel's father was Christian but we as a family don't observe either faith; I suppose we wear the cloak of religion very lightly. I have left my children to choose their own paths. My other boys had some interest, but Samuel had none. You know, he read everything, history, art, fact, fiction, but for all his reading, all the hours with his nose in a book, I never saw him read a single religious book or text. Even after his brother passed, he didn't lean on faith.

Bill Irons: Where were you when your farm was destroyed?

Dalia Srour: Thankfully, I was in Haifa. With the war over I was visiting my grandchildren. I saw the lightning in the sky, the same as everybody else. Then we watched the news and found out that our farm, our home had been destroyed. That airstrike left us destitute; we have nothing now. At that time I had no idea what had happened to my son.

Bill Irons: What do you make of it?

Dalia Srour: It's a miracle. You know whatever happens, whatever he does, however he helps others, he is still my son and for that I am grateful. I guess now I have to share him a little more.

Interview ends.

***

DESPITE Dalia's levity, for Samuel this day of peace was little different to the many others preceding it. The uprising, war and its resolution had touched almost every aspect of this land but for Samuel his life had barely changed since school. Most mornings would be dedicated to the daily chores on the farm. As his mother aged and his brothers left, Samuel increasingly shouldered that burden. Late morning would see him fetching out the goats and driving them through the date and olive groves into the Western Hills to water at the creek. He did love the simplicity of his life and his connection to the rhythm of the land. How the hyacinth, crocus and narcissi quickened the break of winter, how the rockrose and spiny broom blazed pink, white and yellow to invigorate the spring and how the honeysuckle crept through the searing heat of summer.

Samuel knew of the world, a conversation mainly held though his books, the stories of friends who travelled and returned, or through the television and Internet. He felt no desire to leave this place, to die in war or pursue a career like his brothers. He felt no desire to abandon his responsibilities to his ailing mother and their ailing farm.

***

Timeline: The Pestilence minus 16 days. Information source: Note found in the remains of the Srour family farm.

Samuel

I also left you a voicemail. Wanted to remind you I will be back from visiting Khalid on Thursday.

When you get time, the holes in the chicken netting need to be fixed and the pump from the watering trough needs a new intake valve. Check to see if we have spares in the barn otherwise you will need to go into town and pick one up.

The electricity company is sending some men to work on the power lines. I gave them your number. They said they would give you a call to let you know what time they are arriving. Mariam also called to wish me a safe trip and said she would be over to see you later today. I have left some food for you both in the fridge.

Love Mama

***

SAMUEL shrugged off his shorts and T-shirt and slipped into the creek. The cool water washed the heat of the long hot walk from him. Samuel's argumentative flock grazed in the shelter of the giant pistachio trees that shaded the riverbank. Unseen, Mariam watched Samuel swim. He was not a man of outstanding beauty or great majesty. He was broad of back, strong in the arms but had surprisingly soft hands for a man who worked the land.

Samuel dried off after his swim lying on the patchy grass beneath a pistachio tree. Mariam sat with her back pressed into the trunk of the tree, her laptop closed on the turf beside her.

“When did you get back?” said Samuel reaching up and pushing strands of stray hair from Mariam's face.

Mariam said nothing for a moment and looked out over the shimmering waters of the creek.

“Two days ago. I wanted to check in at home before I came up here.”

Mariam's words tore at Samuel's heart as he struggled to keep the disappointment from his face. She was with him now and for that he was grateful.

“Work gave me some study leave to write my paper. I have a mass of data from the telescopes to analyse and I figured I could think a lot and write a little up here with you.”

“You could have given me some warning, so when you arrived I—”

She interrupted him with a smile. “You weren't swimming naked in a river surrounded by goats?”

“Something like that.”

“I happen to like you naked,” she said leaning over to kiss him.

By late afternoon the sun had moved past the Western Hills leaving the creek in shadow; the temperature eased, making the walk back to the farm an easier undertaking. Mariam was curled round her laptop while Samuel lounged with a book, one foot dipping in and out of the waters of the creek. Mariam stood and stretched with her usual unhurried elegance. “Samuel, I want to head back soon, my laptop is almost out of power.”

Samuel nodded. “Let me just finish this chapter.”

Looking down at him, Mariam changed her mind about leaving. “Are you going to just sit there reading all day?” she said, slipping out of her shirt, untying her hair and letting her dark curls fall onto her bare shoulders.

***

THEY arrived back at the farm in the early evening, the shadow of the Western Hills now enveloping the farm itself. Mariam drove the goats while Samuel carried her laptop and research notes. Dalia's great-grandfather had won the farm in a game of cards and the family often wondered who had been the luckier of the players. On the outskirts there were a few ancient olive groves but as an arable farm the land was meagre, mostly fallow scrubland turned over occasionally to grazing animals. Samuel's family had once tried cultivating bees in the scrub and enjoyed four summers of splendid honey. In the year after Samuel's older brother was taken by the war, the bees abandoned their hives and disappeared. Dalia said that the bees had been chased away by her sorrow.

Walking in through the olive groves Samuel spotted the electricity company's truck parked in front of the south barn. He had picked up Dalia's voicemail as he came down from the hills. The electricity company's pick-up truck looked surprisingly new; shiny white paintwork with the logo on the door. The truck's headlights were pointed directly into the barn illuminating the three men working inside. Mariam headed into the farmhouse to shower and charge her laptop. Samuel, once he had penned the goats, made his way over to the south barn where the foreman came over to greet him.

“Hi, need anything, guys?”

“Hello boss. We are good, almost done for the night but we need to come back tomorrow.” The foreman, a squat, powerful man, had a measured, neutral tone to his voice. “We are going to leave some machinery here.” He pointed over his shoulder to the brown tarpaulin. It resembled a disjointed rectangle with one side about half as high as the other and was roughly the size of a small car. “It's pretty dangerous boss, so you should keep clear. Also keep the animals away from it.” As he locked his gaze on Samuel his eyes seemed to be trying to gauge the impact of his words.

Samuel looked over to the other two men as they stretched warning tape around the brown tarpaulin. They both studiously avoided eye contact with him. “What is it?”

“We need to monitor the flow of the current overnight and this machinery does that. It's hooked directly into the mains but has no safety switches so boss, don't go messing with it.”

“Okay, understood. Just let me water the animals in here. If you keep your headlights on it would speed up the process.” The foreman stood uneasily watching Samuel tending the cattle while his men packed up the last of their equipment. The moment Samuel finished squaring away his animals they cut the headlights and plunged the barn into semi darkness. Walking back to the farmhouse Samuel had a general feeling of unease about what the foreman had said but it wasn't enough to temper his enthusiasm for an evening with Mariam and he quickened his pace towards home.

***

SAMUEL was dreaming of his dead brother. He watched him climb out of his trench alone and charge headlong towards the advancing enemy. He looked on as his brother ran into a hail of heavy-calibre machine-gun fire. He wept silently as bullets the size of fists ploughed through his brother's body. Despite his horrific wounds his brother somehow summoned the will to continue his destructive charge. Moments later a grizzly puff of red mist exploded out from the back of his head and his body finally fell to the earth.

Samuel was now fourteen-years old and standing in the farmhouse kitchen. His brother walked in, newly risen from the dead and embraced his family. Khalid and Dalia were present, but his father was absent as ever. Mariam also stood in the kitchen, but she had her back to the family looking out at something in the farmyard. Samuel rushed to join the embrace. He held his brother, his body nothing but bones and sinew. Samuel was suffocated by the fear of his brother crumbling away in his arms. He wiped away his tears and looked for the first time into his brother's eyes. His brother's face had been blasted away, only a huge macabre hole remained. Samuel could see through the hole out of the window and into the farmyard beyond. Squatting in the farmyard was a disjointed rectangular structure, covered by a brown tarpaulin with one side about half as high as the other and roughly the size of a small car.

The explosion that shook the farmhouse startled Samuel out of his dream. He instinctively reached for Mariam and found only a vacant space in his bed. While Samuel slept, Mariam had crawled back in front of her computer to continue her analysis. She now stood at the window looking at the obliterated roof of the south barn. The absolute silence in the aftermath of the explosion was broken only by the wail of frightened animals.

Using his blanket as a makeshift cloak Samuel ran downstairs and shot out of the back door racing for the barn. Mariam followed urging caution. As they entered the farmyard they were stopped in their tracks by the deathly howling of a fleet of Katyusha rockets blasting out of the south barn. The rockets passed through the blown-off roof illuminating the land for a few seconds before carving a deadly trail into the night sky. The rockets soared far above the Western Hills arcing towards Israel.

Within seconds of the explosion and the subsequent rocket launch the farm had been transformed into a maelstrom of choking heat, dust and flames. The animals that could get free ran blindly through the smoke. One of the family's few breeding bulls hurtled towards them, his magnificent back and hind legs blazing. As the bull ran the fire caught the rest of his body, transforming the animal into a searing fireball. Crazed meat, bone and gristle crashed into the farmhouse wall.

“Take the scooter and go,” screamed Samuel. “Go back to the village. It's not safe for you here.” Mariam stumbled towards the scooter which had been blown over by the force of the explosion. She stood over the tired machine; grey-blue paint mostly chipped, neither of the wing mirrors intact and the seats held together with ancient electrical tape. She thought of the hours they rode together before she left this place; her hair laced by the wind, her arms encircling him, the strength she drew from him and the comfort he gave her.

Mariam shook her head, trying to clear the final remnants of her shock and stupor. Mariam's rational mind began to reassert control. She thought through the sequence of events and realised that the destruction wrought by the Katyushas were the least of their worries for approaching over the Western Hills a great vengeance would soon be upon them.

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