General Fiction posted September 9, 2018 Chapters:  ...9 10 -11- 12... 

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Chapter 11 - Flight from the Hindu-Kush

A chapter in the book The French Letter

The Shadow of Darkness

by tfawcus

The author has placed a warning on this post for violence.

Helen has been woken by a nightmare and, at Charles's prompting, she fills the dog watch hours before dawn by beginning to relate the tragic tale of her past life.
If I thought that giving Helen a little space to compose herself was going to work, I was wrong. The boiling kettle screamed, like the disembodied wail of a demon. I returned to find her eyes as wild as those of an animal at bay. Her knuckle was white, and I could see the faint imprint of teeth marks on her index finger as she took the steaming cup.
Eventually, after a few sips, she pulled herself together enough to say, “I don’t know.” Her voice was barely a whisper. “I don’t know where she is. We became separated in Thailand.”
“In Thailand?”
“Yes, that’s where we ended up. We were lucky to escape with our lives, and we wouldn’t have done if it hadn’t been for Kayla’s quick thinking.”
I waited for her to continue.
“My parents took us to the Catholic Church that morning. My mother hated it. It wasn’t her religion, and she only went out of a sense of loyalty to my father. We all knew it was dangerous, but his faith was strong. ‘God will protect us,’ he used to say. Well, he was wrong. Halfway through the service, the doors at the back of the church burst open. Kayla turned to see a group of masked Jihadists standing there, with AK-47s trained on the congregation. In the split second before the firing began, she pulled me down with her, below the level of the pew.

The noise was deafening. We clung to each other in terror as the relentless thud of bullets splintered wood and tore through human flesh. Our mother crumpled and fell across my shoulders and our father was slumped over the pew, the side of his face completely shot away. Suddenly the shooting stopped and there was a loud explosion, followed by a deathly hush. A grenade had blown the pulpit away.”
I knew Helen was recounting an actual event, for I recalled the blaring headline, one more atrocity to feed the news machine before becoming yesterday’s discarded sensation, but the image accompanying this one was more memorable than most. In the fractional moment before the priest slithered to the ground, a photographer had captured the outline of his blood-spattered body spreadeagled against the stucco wall behind the pulpit, like a Christ on the cross – a particularly gruesome propaganda shot, callously designed to publicise the power of the Jihad.
I could well imagine the kind of silence Helen described.  I had experienced it myself, thirteen years earlier, when on assignment in Bali, the playground of Indonesia. While researching a travel article, I had been dining at Raja’s in the busy downtown area of Kuta, when a Jemaah Islamiyah terrorist threw a bomb into the restaurant. The explosion had been, literally, deafening.  It took a minute or two before I became aware of the agonised groans of the wounded and it was several weeks before I recovered full hearing in the ear that had taken the blast’s full impact. My mind flashed back to the acrid smell of concrete dust and the nauseating aroma of burning flesh. I remembered, too, the indefinable, metallic taste of death.
As Helen continued her story, I could visualise the two girls, cowering and terrified as they watched wisps of incense fading into the vaults of Heaven, carrying away the last prayers of the faithful.

"When the smoke cleared, we summoned the courage to get up and run. We were just two more figures, fighting our way through the panic-stricken crowd. No-one even noticed us.
“We made our way home, half running, half stumbling. When we got there, Kayla took control. She said to me, ‘We have to get out of here. Put on fresh clothes, and pack your things.’ I tore the blood-stained blouse from my body with revulsion, but I shall never be able to strip it from my mind. It is always the most traumatic image in the nightmare.”
Helen started to shake uncontrollably. I put my arm around her and drew her body towards mine. For a while, her head rested on my shoulder and my senses were again swamped by the tantalising scents of night jasmine and cardamom. Was it really less than twenty-four hours since we had left Le Rendez-Vous des Amis, arm-in-arm? It seemed a lifetime ago.
We remained in this close embrace for a short eternity, our heartbeats uniting as an ostinato pulse, to soothe away the dissonant minor chords of memory. Eventually, Helen raised her head, letting her lips brush softly against my cheek as she disentangled herself, and she continued, like Scheherazade, to tell her tale.
“Kayla soon came back with our passports and an envelope full of US dollars, which our father always kept in the bottom left-hand drawer of his desk in case of emergencies. ‘One can never be too careful,’ he used to say. She had already called for a taxi to take us to the airfield, two miles north of the town, and she was now ringing to check on flights. ‘P.I.A. have a scheduled departure to Karachi in less than two hours. We may just be able to catch it,’ she said. ‘Come on! There’s no time to waste.’
“The taxi was already waiting when we reached the front gate. We recognised Ibrahim, for he had often picked up our father. ‘Where are you girls off to?’ he asked, with a friendly smile. We told him we were meeting an aunt in Karachi. ‘Well. We’d better hurry then, hadn’t we?’ Kayla and I clambered into the back, and he took off at breakneck speed, up the main road alongside the swollen torrent of the Chitral River.
“We soon arrived at the short airstrip, and saw the familiar shape of a Fokker Friendship parked by the terminal. We’d travelled in it many times before. Kayla purchased our tickets at the P.I.A. counter and was told by the clerk that we would have three and a half hours in Peshawar before our connecting flight to Karachi. ‘It will be 7 p.m. before you get there. Do you have somewhere to stay?’ We assured him that we would be all right. He looked at us carefully, and said, ‘There have been some disturbances today. You should wear your hijabs. A head covering is a wise precaution – even for those who are not of the Islamic faith.’
“We knew he was right.
“As we taxied out across the asphalt on the first stage of our journey, the huge shoulders of the Hindu-Kush towered above us, dwarfing our tiny aircraft.”
I had heard tales of those mountains. The tallest of them, Tirich Mir, stretches its giant claw 25,000 feet up into the sky. It is one of the highest mountains in the world, an austere and jagged peak. Some people call it The Shadow of Darkness. I couldn’t help wondering what ominous shadows it would cast over these two frightened and fleeing sisters in the days that lay ahead.


Book of the Month contest entry


P.I.A. Pakistan International Airlines.

Cast of Characters:

Charles Brandon: The narrator, a well-known travel writer
Helen Culverson: A woman of mystery, also purporting to be a travel writer
Kayla Culverson: Her older sister.
Madam Durand: A French magazine editor, who was involved in a serious accident
Dr. Laurent: A veterinary surgeon in Versailles
Madam Lefauvre: An old woman living in Versailles - the town gossip
Francoise Gaudin: A woman living in Versailles
Alain Gaudin: brother of Francoise
Estelle Gaudin: deceased mother of Francoise
Suzanne Gaudin: recipient of a letter posted in 1903 - presumably now deceased (possibly, but not necessarily, related to Estelle and her two children)
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