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The Whisperers

Prologue

The Whisperers
(US)
 
The Whisperers
(UK)

War is a mythical happening . . . Where else in human experience, except in the throes of ardor . . . do we find ourselves transported to a mythical condition and the gods most real?
   —James Hillman, A Terrible Love of War

Baghdad
16 April 2003

It was Dr. Al-Daini who found the girl, abandoned and alone in the long central corridor. She was almost entirely buried beneath broken glass and shards of pottery, under discarded clothing, and pieces of furniture, and old newspapers used as packing materials. She should have been rendered almost invisible amid the dust and the darkness, but Dr. Al-Daini had spent decades searching for girls such as she, and he picked her out where others might simply have passed over her.

Only her head was exposed, her blue eyes open, her lips stained a faded red. He knelt beside her, and brushed some of the detritus from her. Outside, he could hear shouting, and the rumble of tanks changing position. Suddenly, bright light illuminated the hallway, and there were armed men shouting and giving orders, but they had come too late. Others like them had stood by while this had happened, their priorities lying elsewhere. They did not care about the girl, but Dr. Al-Daini cared. He had recognized her immediately, for she had always been one of his favorites. Her beauty had captivated him from the first moment he set eyes on her, and in the years that followed he had never failed to make time to spend a quiet moment or two with her during the day, to exchange a greeting or merely to stand with her and mirror her smile with one of his own.

Perhaps she might still be saved, he thought, but as he carefully shifted wood and stone he recognized that there was little he could do for her now. Her body was shattered, broken into pieces in an act of descration that made no sense to him. This was not accidental, but deliberate: he could see marks on the floor where booted feet had pounded upon her legs and arms, reducing them to fragments little larger than the grains of sand and on which she now rested. Yet, somehow, her head had escaped the worst of the violence, and Dr Al-Daini could not decide if this rendered what had been visited upon her less awful, or more terrible.

"Oh, little one," he whispered as he gently stroked her cheek, the first time that he had touched her in fifteen years. "What have they done to you? What have they done to us all?"

He should have stayed. He should not have left her, should not have left any of them, but the Fedayeen had been battling the Americans near the Ministry of Information, the sounds of gunfire and explosions reaching them even as they sandbagged friezes and wrapped foam rubber around the statues, grateful that they had at least managed to transport some of the treasures to safety before the invasion commenced. The fighting had then spread to the television station, less than a kilometer away, and to the central bus station at the other side of the complex, drawing closer and closer to them. He had argued in favor of staying, for they had stockpiled food and water in the basement, but many of the others felt that the risks were too great. All but one of the guards had fled, abandoning their weapons and their uniforms, and there were already black-garbed Fedayeen in the museum garden. So they had locked the front doors and left through the back entrance before fleeing across the river to the eastern side, where they waited in the house of a colleague for the fighting to cease.

But it did not stop. When they attempted to return over the Bridge of the Medical City they were turned back, and so they stayed with their colleague once again, and drank coffee, and waited some more. Perhaps they had remained there for too long, debating back and forth the wisdom of abandoning what was, for now, a place of safety, but what else could they have done? Yet he could not forgive himself, or assuage his guilt. He had abandoned her, and they had had their way with her.

And now he was crying, not from the dirt and filth but from rage and hurt and loss. He did not stop, not even as booted feet approached him and a soldier shone a flashlight in his face. There were others behind him, their weapons raised.

"Sir, who are you?" asked the soldier.

Dr. Al-Daini did not reply. He could not. All of his attention was fixed on the eyes of the broken girl.

Dr. Al-Daini picked up on the nervousness in the soldier's voice, but also the hint of arrogance, the natural superiority of the conqueror over the conquered. He sighed, and raised his eyes.

"My name is Dr. Mufid Al-Daini," he said, "and I am the deputy curator of Roman antiquities at this museum." Then he reconsidered. "No, I was the deputy curator of Roman antiquities, for now there is no museum left. Now there are only fragments. You let this happen. You stood by and let this happen . . ."

But he was speaking as much to himself as he was to them, and the words turned to ash in his mouth. The remaining staff had left the museum on Tuesday. On Saturday, they learned that the museum had been looted, and the staff began to return in an effort to assess the damage and prevent any further theft. Someone said that the looting had commenced as early as Thursday, when hundreds of people had gathered at the fence surrounding the museum. They had broken in through the back doors, then opened the front doors to admit the others. For two days, they were free to ransack. Already, there were rumors that insiders had been involved, some of the museum's own guardians targeting the most valuable artifacts. The thieves took everything that could be moved, and much of what they could not take they attempted to destroy.

Dr. Al-Daini and some others had gone to the headquarters of the Marines and pleaded for help in securing the building, for the staff was fearful that the looters would return, and the US Army tanks at the intersection only fifty meters from the museum had refused to come to their aid, citing orders. They were eventually promised guards by the Americans, but only now, on Wednesday, had they come. Dr. Al-Daini had arrived just shortly before them, for he had been one of those assigned the role of liaison with the soldiers and the media, and had spent the previous days being passed up and down the military ranks, and providing contacts for journalists.

Carefully, he raised the head of the broken girl, youthful yet ancient, the paint still visible on her hair and mouth and eyes after almost four thousand years.

"Look," he said, still weeping. "Look at what they did to her."

And the soldiers stared for a moment at this old man covered in white dust, a hollow head in his hands, and then moved on to secure the looted halls of the Iraq Museum. They were young men, and this operation was about the future, not the past. No lives had been lost, not here. These things happened.

After all, there was a war on.

Dr. Al-Daini watched the soldiers go. He looked around and saw a swatch of paint-spattered cloth lying by a fallen display case. He checked it and found it to be relatively clean, so he placed the head of the girl upon it then wrapped the cloth carefully around her, tying a knot with the four corners so that he might more easily carry her. He stood wearily, the head now hanging from his left hand, like an executioner bearing to his potentate the evidence of the ax's work, for so lifelike was the girl's expression, and so troubled and shocked was Dr. Al-Daini, that he would not have been surprised had the severed neck begun to bleed through the material, casting red drops like petals upon the dusty floor. All around him were reminders of what had once been, absences like open wounds. Jewelry had been taken from skeletons, their bones scattered. Statues had been decapitated, so that the most striking aspect of them might more easily be carried away. Curious, he thought, that the girl's head, exquisite as it was, should have been overlooked, or perhaps it was enough for whomever had broken her that she be destroyed, enough to have removed a little beauty from the world.

The scale of the destruction was overwhelming. The Warka vase, a masterpiece of Sumerian art from about 3500 BC, and the world's oldest carved stone ritual vessel, was gone, hacked away from its base. A beautiful bull-headed lyre had been reduced to kindling as the gold was stripped from it. The Bassetki statue base: gone. The statue of Entema: gone. The Warka mask, the first naturalistic sculpture of a human face: gone. He passed through room after room, replacing all that was lost with phantasms, ghosts of themselves—here, an ivory seal, there a bejeweled crown—so that what had once been was superimposed over the wreckage of the present. Even now, while still near numb at the extent of the damage that had been done, Dr. Al-Daini was already cataloging the collection in his mind, trying to recall the age and provenance of each precious relic in case the museum's own records might no longer be available to them when they began the seemingly impossible task of recovering what had been taken.

Relics.

Slowly, Dr. Al-Daini stopped walking. He swayed slightly, and his eyes closed. A soldier passing by asked him if he was okay and offered him water, a small gesture of kindness that Dr. Al-Daini was unable to acknowledge, so grave was his disquiet. Instead, he turned to the soldier and gripped his arms, a movement that might well have ended his troubles on the spot had the soldier in question had his finger on the trigger of his gun.

"I am Dr. Mufid Al-Daini," he told the soldier. "I am a deputy curator here at the museum. Please, I need you to help me. I have to get to the basement. I must check something. It is very, very important. You must help me to get through."

He gestured at the shapes of the armed men ahead of them, beige figures in the darkened hallways. The young man before him looked doubtful, then shrugged.

"You'll have to let go of my shoulders first, sir," he said. He couldn't have been more than twenty or twenty-one, but there was an assurance to him, an ease, more appropriate to an older man.

Dr. Al-Daini stepped back, apologizing for his presumption. The name on the soldier's uniform read "Patchett".

"Do you have some identification?" asked Patchett.

Dr. Al-Daini found a museum badge, but the lettering was in Arabic. He searched in his wallet and found his business card, Arabic on one side, English on the other, and handed it across. Squinting slightly in the poor light, Patchett examined it, then returned it.

"Okay, let's see what we can do," he said.

Dr. Al-Daini had two titles in the museum. As well as being deputy curator of Roman antiquities, a job description that did insufficient justice to the depth and breadth of his knowledge or, indeed, the additional responsibilities that he had shouldered unofficially and without renumeration, he was also the curator of uncatalogued items, another name that barely hinted at the extent of the Herculean labors involved. The museums inventory system was both ancient and complicated, and there were tens of thousands of items that had yet to be included. One part of the museum's basement was a labyrinth of shelves piled high with artifacts, boxed and unboxed, most of them, or at least most of the tiny fraction that had been cataloged by Dr. Al-Daini and his predecessors, of little monetary value, yet each one a marker, a remnant of a cilivization now changed beyond recognition, or departed utterly from this world. In many ways, this basement was Dr. Al-Daini's favorite part of the museum, for who knew what might be discovered here, what unsuspected treasures might be revealed? So far, in truth, he had found few indeed, and the trove of uncataloged items remained as great as it ever had, for with every shard of pottery, every fragment of a statue that was formally added to the museum's records, ten more seemed to arrive, and so, as the body of what was known became greater, so too did the mass of the unknown. A lesser man might have regarded it as a fruitless task, but Dr. Al-Daini was a romantic when it came to knowledge, and the thought that the store of what remained to be discovered was forever increasing filled him with joy.

Now, flashlight in hand, the soldier Patchett behind him with another light, Dr. Al-Daini passed through the canyons of the archives, his key redundant, for the door had been smashed open. The basement was stiflingly hot, and there was a sharp smell in the air left by the burning foam that the looters had used as torches, since the electricity had stopped working before the invasion, but Dr. Al-Daini barely noticed. His attention was fixed on one spot, and one spot only. The looters had made their mark here too, overturning shelves, scattering the contents of boxes and crates, even setting fire to records, but they must have realized quickly that there was little here worthy of their attentions, and so the damage was less. Yet some items had clearly been taken, and as Dr. Al-Daini moved deeper into the basement, so his anxiety increased, until at last he came to the place that he had sought, and stared at the empty space on the shelf before him. He almost gave up then, but there was still some hope.

"Something is missing," he told Patchett. "I beg of you, help me to find it."

"What are we looking for?"

"A lead box. Not very big." Dr. Al-Daini held his hands about two feet apart. "Plain, with a simple clasp and a small lock."

And so together they searched the unlocked areas of the basement as best they could, and when Patchett was recalled by his sqaud leader Dr. Al-Daini continued to look, all that day and into the night, but there was no sign of the lead box.

If one wants to hide an item of great value, surrounding it with the worthless is a good way to do so. Better yet if one can swathe it in the poorest of garbs, disguising it so well that it can remain in plain sight and yet not attract even the slightest of glances. One might even catalog it as that which it is not: in this case, a lead casket, Persian, sixteenth century, containing a slightly smaller, unremarkable sealed box, apparently made of iron painted red. Date: unknown. Provenance: unknown. Value: minimal.

Contents: none.

All lies, especially the last, for if one got close enough to that box within a box, one might almost have thought that something inside it was speaking.

No, not speaking.

Whispering.

***

Cape Elizabeth, Maine
May 2009

The dog heard the call, and came warily to the top of the stairs. She had been sleeping on one of the beds, which she knew that she was not supposed to do. She listened, but picked up on nothing in the voice to suggest that she might be in trouble. When the call came again, and she heard the sound of her leash jangling, she took the stairs two at a time, almost falling over her own legs with excitement when she reached the bottom.

Damien Patchett quieted the dog by raising his finger, and attached the leash to her collar. Although it was warm outside, he wore a green combat jacket. The dog sniffed at one of the pockets, recognizing a familiar scent, but Damien shooed her away. His father was over at the diner, and the house was quiet. The sun was about to set, and as Damien walked the dog through the woods toward the sea, the light began to change, the sky bleeding red and gold behind him.

The dog tugged at the leash, unused to being restricted in this way. Usually she was given free roam on her walks, and she indicated her displeasure by tugging hard. She was not even allowed to stop and sniff scents, and when she tried to urinate she was dragged along, causing her to yelp unhappily. There was a nest of bald-faced hornets in a birch tree nearby, a gray construct now quiet, but in the daytime a buzzing mass of aggression. The dog had been stung earlier in the week when she went to investigate the tree's sap lick, where a yellow-bellied sapsucker had cleared the bark to feed, leaving a useful source of sweetness for assorted insects, birds, and squirrels. She began to whine as they drew close to the birch, desirous of giving it a wide berth, but he calmed her by patting her and changing direction, easing her away from the site of her mishap.

As a boy, Damien had been fascinated by bees, and wasps, and hornets. This colony had formed in the spring when the queen, roused from months of sleep after mating the previous fall, began to mix wood fiber with saliva, creating a pole of paper pulp to which she gradually added the hexagonal cells for her young: first the females from the fertilized eggs, then the males from her virgin eggs. He had kept track of each stage of its development, just as he used to do when he was a boy. It was the aspect of female rule that he had always found most interesting, for he came from an old-fashioned family where the men made the decisions, or so he had always believed until, as he grew older, he began to recognize the infinite subtle ways in which his mother, and his grandmothers, and various aunts and cousins, had manipulated the males to their satisfaction. Here, in this gray nest, the queen could be more open in her government, giving birth, creating defenders of the hive, feeding and being fed, even keeping her young warm by her own shivers, the warm air created by the actions of her body trapped in a bell-shaped chamber of her own creation.

He stared back at the shape of the nest, almost invisible among the leaves, as though reluctant now to leave it. His sharp eyes picked out spider webs, and ants nests, and a green caterpillar scaling a bloodroot, and each creature gave him pause, and each sight he seemed to store away.

They could smell the sea when Damien stopped. Had anyone been there to see him, it would have been clear that he was weeping. His face was contorted, and his shoulders convulsed with the force of his sobs. He looked around, right and left, as if expecting to glimpse presences moving between the trees, but there were only birdsong and the sound of waves breaking.

The dog's name was Sandy. She was a mutt, but more retriever than anything else. She was now ten years old, and she was as much Damien's dog as his father's, despite the son's long absences, loving both equally just as they loved her. She could not understand her younger master's behavior, for he was tolerant of her in ways that even his father was not. She wagged her tail uncertainly as he squatted beside her and tied her leash to the trunk of a sapling. Then he stood and removed the revolver from his pocket. It was a .38 Special, a Smith & Wesson Model 10. He had bought it from a dealer who claimed that it had come from a Vietnam vet who was down on his luck, but whom Damien subsequently discovered had sold it to feed the cocaine habit that had eventually claimed his life.

Damien put his hands to his ears, the gun in his right hand now pointing to the sky. He shook his head and squeezed his eyes shut. "Please, please stop," he said. "I'm begging you. Please."

His mouth curled down, snot running from his nose, as he removed his hands from his head and, trembling, pointed the gun at the dog. It was inches from her muzzle. She leaned forward and sniffed it. She was used to the smell of oil and powder, for Damien and his father had often taken her to hunt birds with them, and she would bring back the bodies in her jaws. She wagged her tail expectantly, anticipating the game.

"No," said Damien. "No, don't make me do it. Please don't."

His finger tightened on the trigger. His whole arm was shaking. With a great effort of will, he turned the gun away from the dog, and screamed at the sea, and the air, and the setting sun. He gritted his teeth and freed the dog from her leash.

"Go!" he shouted at her. "Go home! Sandy, go home!"

The dog's tail went between her legs, but it was still wagging slightly. She didn't want to leave. She sensed that something was very wrong. Then Damien ran at her, aiming a kick at her behind but pulling it at the last minute so that it made no contact. Now the dog fled, retreating toward the house. She paused while Damien was still in sight of her, but he came at her again, and this time she kept going, stopping only when she heard the gunshot.

She cocked her head, then slowly began to retrace her steps, anxious to see what her master had brought down.

© John Connolly 2010


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