Extract From Forthcoming Volume 10 of The Morning of the Mogul (Chapter 6 opening).
I couldn’t see the Sheraton’s towering, strong, reassuring walls, the lush green of the trees, or the soothing blue of the sky. As fruitless and pointless as they are, the few landmarks I had gathered throughout my brief stay in the city allowed me to trace evidence of my existence and postulate that I am, in fact, the man I think I am, damaged and fading away. I was sprinting through the bituminous, damp, congested streets of an unknown city with flocks of people, bustling wrathfully and grappling with the upsetting aught that I didn’t notice I was soaked from head to toe. A fine drizzle was splattering the pavement, the walls, the shop windows and the trees, and murky grey water was trickling down the pavements in flakes and thin streams. Although the dense crowd had dissipated, I could still hear the snickering of bullets, mob cries, and the ululations of police sirens and ambulances. We were racing in clusters, and the rain was pelting our faces. I shifted my gaze backwards. Long red tongues of fire clambered, danced, and stretched obscenely in humpy dumpy clouds of black smoke hauling and hitching about the roadway. I carried on running.
The grim aftermath of the city’s turmoil unfolded before my eyes. Storefronts lay shattered, engulfed in flames as parked cars became unwitting torches, and the tumultuous crowd swept through the streets, wreaking havoc and leaving destruction in its wake. I found myself darting from one street to the next, desperately seeking refuge from the chaotic mob and the heavy-handed police presence, but sanctuary proved elusive. Doors were firmly shut, and building entrances sealed off. Law enforcement officers obstructed every escape route, resorting to live ammunition against protesters, no longer aiming at their feet. The result was a grim procession of casualties, with wounded individuals crawling amidst the chaos and the survivors inadvertently treading upon lifeless bodies strewn across the desolate asphalt. The rain-soaked pavement, once innocently splashed by our hurried steps, now bore a haunting crimson hue. Barricades, fashioned from the wheels of any available cars and buses, obstructed the paths of both rioters and police alike. When the authorities advanced, these makeshift barriers were set ablaze, hindering their progress. Unfortunately, the fires soon spiralled out of control, engulfing nearby structures. Terrified residents were forced to abandon their homes, navigating the streets with trepidation. In their desperation, they found themselves entangled with the police, who, with little hesitation, opened fire, often mistaking these innocent civilians for rioters in the chaos.
The scene before me resembled a chilling tableau straight out of a horror film. It was as if humanity had regressed to a primal state, with women and children falling victim to unforgivable violence, akin to rabid beasts. It was too late for the police to prevent this nightmarish tragedy from unfolding. As I approached the harrowing scene while still in a sprint, I couldn’t help but contrast it with the hypocritical and discordant metropolis it had once been. Instead, I witnessed again the beloved yet battered ‘Ouja, marred by rampant arson and unparalleled unrest.
Just a few paces away, a young mother lay sprawled on the street, cradling her newborn child tightly to her chest. Strikingly, she was not veiled. I came to an abrupt halt and knelt beside her, observing that she was still breathing, though her words remained inaudible. She appeared to be in her early twenties, not much different in age from Dalila. I attempted to gently pry the infant from her grasp, but she clung to the child with a fierce determination, as if he were a lifeline in the tumultuous sea of violence that surrounded us.
“Are you alright?” I inquired with genuine concern, though the absurdity of my words was not lost on me. Nevertheless, she offered no response. Desperate to assist her to her feet, I made a futile attempt. It was then, as I grasped her shoulders in an attempt to prevent her from collapsing, that she raised her head and regrettably expelled a horrifying spurt of blood. I gazed upon the baby’s pallid and bloated visage. His eyes, devoid of life, stared vacantly, and his tiny mouth was agape, frozen in a silent sob, as if on the verge of crying. It was the same bullet that had pierced his mother’s chest that had now lodged in the baby’s heart, silencing his potential cries forever. With the mother’s head tilting back, there remained nothing more to bear witness to in that tragic moment.
Slowly, I rose from my crouched position, a morbid fascination lingering as I withdrew from the sombre tableau I had just observed. After covering a few meters, I turned back to face the two lifeless bodies, locked in a final, unyielding embrace even in death. Raindrops pelted their now skeletal forms as people scattered in all directions to escape the terrifying storm of bullets raining down upon them. The police closed in, their gunfire echoing in my ears so closely that I momentarily believed I had been hit. Reacting instinctively, I fled the scene, raising my hand to shield my ear as if seeking solace in that futile gesture of self-protection.
I lost all sense of time and place; my direction was unknown, and I followed the fleeing crowd blindly. The street stretched endlessly, or perhaps it did end, only to lead us to another or even back to where we began. Were we trapped in a never-ending loop? I now recall seeing the lifeless bodies of that woman and her baby multiple times as I sprinted through the chaos. It was inconceivable that they could have been shot down on every street corner; it defied reason. Perhaps I was hallucinating, perhaps it was a different woman each time… But such a notion was implausible! I couldn’t convince myself otherwise. I’m certain that as long as I ran, that haunting image persisted. Periodically, I encountered a lifeless woman lying on the rain-soaked pavement, clutching her child with an unyielding grip, their pallid faces bathed in a grim mixture of rain and blood. Gradually, my flight ceased to be from the police bullets; instead, it became a desperate escape from the relentless sight of that woman cradling her baby, reminiscent of Mary holding the infant Jesus. I can’t explain why their presence filled me with such dread that I averted my gaze when I sensed their presence on the opposite side of the street, as if they lay there in their tragic tableau of rain and blood, waiting for me to approach and futilely attempt to raise the mother to her feet. In vain! She would gaze at me, her expression one of helplessness, and instead of vomiting blood, she would break into hysterical laughter. Her head would then fall back, and I would hastily rise to my feet and scurry away, only to stop and glance back at her. I would resume running, bullets whizzing past and the endless street stretching before me, the city opening its gates like a gaping furnace, ready to consume me. The rain relentlessly pounded my face, and I felt ensnared in this desperate escape.
I was no longer aware of time and space; I did not know where I was heading to; I saw people running and I heeled them. The street seemed never to end. Maybe it ended; maybe we turned into another, passed by a crossroads, or came back to the same place. Were we turning about a vicious circle? I remember now that I have seen the corpses of that woman and her baby several times when I was running! They could not have shot down a woman with her baby at every street; this is madness! Maybe I was hallucinated. Maybe it was a different woman each time… But this is impossible! Maybe I did not see them again. No… I am sure that as long as I was running, the same image came to my sight like an obsession. Every now and then I saw a dead woman lying on the wet macadam, gripping her baby with both hands, while rain and blood were bathing their livid faces. Soon, I was no longer fleeing the bullets of the police, but the sight of that woman holding her baby, like Jesus in the arms of Mary. And I cannot explain why I grew so frightened by their sight that I turned my head to the other side of the street whenever I thought that they were out there, on the opposite side, lying in their muddy flake of rain and blood, waiting for me to stoop again, grab the shoulders of the mother, and help her rising to her feet… in vain! For she would stare at me helplessly and instead of vomiting blood, she would laugh like a mad, then her head would fall backward; and I would stand up and scuttle away, then stop and turn my head to have another look at her. Then I would run, and the bullets would rain around me and whistle about my ears, and the street would seem endless, and the city would open the gates of the huge furnace and swallow me; and the rain would hammer my face, and I would feel trapped into that despairing escape.