Horla Fiction (December 2020)

 

MIRAGE

by VIKTOR Z. NOIRCOER

ZHURMA looked into the camera, but the system showed nothing. Still, the customs officer found him suspicious. The woman’s piercing gaze sank profoundly into the architect’s eyes, hoping to find some hidden black truth. Zhurma however stood this optical test as he had nothing to hide. But then the suspicious glance slipped to his aquiline nose, from where it descended to his lips.

Finally, the customs officer analysed the architect’s moderately projecting ears, but found nothing out of ordinary. Secretly she even liked what she saw perhaps; she didn’t show this though. But what she surely didn’t like was Zhurma’s passport. Because on the cover of the little blue booklet, on the craw of the Quraish Hawk, there stood proudly the coat of arms of Syria. Nowadays a Syrian passport isn’t worth much, and it’s even worth less in Lebanon (owing to historical reasons).

Meanwhile, the architect watched the customs officer as well. He carefully examined her dyed blonde hair that she wore in a ponytail. Then his glance ventured on her visage, but he quickly turned his eyes lower to avoid getting into trouble because of this boldness. Thus, he rather studied her artificial nails, which shone in various colours and were drumming on the counter.

“Do you have your old passport?” asked the woman, suddenly.

“Yes,” answered Zhurma, annoyed. He hated that since the beginning of the war, Syrians, who hadn’t left their home as refugees, had to carry two passports all the time to prove their identity. He handed over the old, invalid passport.

The customs officer began to examine the passports, which took a while. The architect meanwhile submerged himself in his thoughts.“How long you gonna stay in Lebanon?” the loud, cutting question roused Zhurma.

“Uh… not for long. My taxi is waiting outside…”“HOW LONG YOU GONNA STAY IN LEBANON?” shrieked the customs officer like a siren.

“I-I’m leaving Lebanon t-today!” stammered the architect, feeling awful and humbled.“I’ll give you twenty-four hours!”

And as a judge strikes with his gavel to emphasise his judgement’s finality, so struck the customs officer with her stamp. Even her little booth trembled, as if the sky had thundered. Then she threw the passports back to Zhurma, as if he were contagious.

Outside, like the architect claimed, indeed a taxi was waiting for him. Although it didn’t look like a taxi. It was a four-door, battered and dark car. Only its licence plate denoted that it was a taxi. And it also betrayed that the car came from Rif Dimashq, the governorate of Damascus’s countryside.

The driver leaned against his car and was constantly swiping, pressing the screen of his mobile. His clothes were really fashionable and youthful. He himself, however, was not young at all. His forehead under his coal black hair was as crumpled as a sick man’s handkerchief. His eyebrow was a single black line as if it had slipped from his hair, above his green eyes. And a greying round beard framed his fleshy lips. The approaching steps made him look up from his mobile.

“Zhurma?”

“Yes, it’s me.”

“Muh name’s Jamal, your dad sent me. Jump on in, ’n will be in Al-Nabek in no time! Your papers are in order, right?” he asked as he extended his hand.

“Sure,” said the architect as he shook the hand. He didn’t find the driver likeable. And while he was thinking that whether the man is older one or two decades than him, he also determined that the driver wasn’t beautiful either, though that’s what his name meant.

“They stamped it?”

“Sure.”

They got in the taxi, Jamal front, Zhurma in the back.

“It’s not that sure ‘round ‘ere! They like to shittin’ us. An’ there gonna be some checkpoints at home too…”

“There won’t be any problems with my papers.”

“Alright. Then let’s go!”

The key was turned, the engine churned, the car was spurred. The driver, whenever he could, drove faster than the speed limit. He wanted to leave Beirut and Lebanon behind as fast as he could. Leaving the city, they turned toward the snow-peaked Qalamun Mountains. The verdant countryside soon paled and assumed the yellowish-brownish hues of rocks and sand. And the Syrians crossed the border without any problem.

Not far from Damascus, they reached a smaller checkpoint. The soldiers stationed there set to their duty listlessly. One of them stayed in safe cover while the other stepped to the taxi. After a quick check of the papers, the passenger was asked to leave the car. Jamal however, interrupted: “’e doesn’t ‘ave to!!”

“He HAS to get out so I can take a better look at his face,” insisted the soldier.

“’e DOESN’T ‘AVE to. Wanna see ‘is face? Check it through the window!” The driver lowered the window next to Zhurma with a button. “’ere!”

The private couldn’t take it lightly that a civilian was giving him orders. He pulled his assault rifle’s cocking handle back aloud and ostentatiously. Jamal guffawed.

“Ya think I didn’t do my milit’ry service? Ya should first turn the safety off on that Russkie machine-musket of yars instead of making it clap like an empty garlic crusher! Ya won’t frighten me with this!” The driver made a resigned gesture.

“But he does frighten me!” interjected the architect, about whom the quarrellers completely forgot as they measured their pride.

Zhurma got out.

The soldier looked at him thoroughly, and after a few questions he let him sit back in the car. Then the private said a few artless praises. Jamal was ready for another bout of quarrel, but his passenger firmly calmed him. The next instant they were on the road again.

“That’s ‘ow you need to speak with ‘em! You mustn’t be a wimp! Or else, a foot soldier like ‘im gonna think ‘e’s the field marshal…” the driver began.

“They were just two bored soldiers who were trying to do their duty. There’s still a civil war waging after all! And he didn’t even order me, but asked.”

“Alrighty, if you say so…”

Silence descended between them. Only the monotonous noise of the voyage could be heard. The taxi’s atmosphere cooled down.

The architect lost amongst his thoughts as the car lost amongst the peaks of the Qalamun. He was thinking about his family. The war separated them. He recalled the happy times before the chaos so that his mind could find a certain, consoling point in this uncertain, unhappy and stormy madness. These memories drew a faint smile on his lips. Soon however, unpleasant experiences followed in the manner of railway carriages following an engine.

Yet these bad memories couldn’t torture him for long. Jamal suddenly stepped on the brake and Zhurma almost flew forward.

“Check that out!” the driver pointed toward one of the peaks.

The architect sizzled some choice swears under his breath about Jamal, then his eyes followed the stubby finger’s pointing. The vague silhouette of an edifice loomed in the distance. Zhurma’s scolding brows separated and they lift off in surprise like a pair of birds. The architect was well versed in architectural styles, but he had never seen anything like that before. Under weird cupolas, organic elements mingled with undeterminable styles, which were threatening, repulsive and yet attention-grabbing and alluring at the same time. But the edifice, or rather the phenomenon, flittered so vaguely in the distance that it seemed like only a figment of imagination.“Mirage!” declared the passenger. “Can we go now?”

“That’s no m’rage!” contradicted the driver, ignoring the question. “It’s surely there!”

“I’ve never seen a building with such style. That’s only an optical illusion! Let’s go! I want to get home…”

“Let’s go, but we’re gonna check this ‘ouse out first!”

Jamal trampled the accelerator, the momentum pushed Zhurma against the seat. He was sulking, eyes rolling, because he knew well he couldn’t dissuade the driver. Neither did he like the detour, the only thing that consoled him was that he was right. Because that edifice couldn’t have been other than just a mirage.The taxi left the pale grey road to take the gravelly path leading up to the mirage-haunted edifice. The path insidiously serpented up to the mountain. The pebbles and sand crackled under the dusty wheels of the car. This detour upset the passenger’s stomach a bit as well.

At length, the taxi reached the end of the path. But nothing was there besides the monotonously yellowish-brownish rocks and sand. Jamal trampled the brake pedal again.

“I told you it was only a mirage!” said Zhurma, wiping the beads of indisposition from his forehead.

The driver didn’t reply. He just couldn’t believe his eyes. He rather got out. Nervousness shook his muscles as if he had caught cold. He lit a cigarette. After the first couple of drags, he not only got toxins into his body, but some peace as well. He looked around, but saw nothing. His senses had never deceived him before. This troubled him a bit. Faint-hearted thoughts struck him: maybe this happened because of his age. He took a few more drags to calm himself. As he got back in the car, something flashed into his eye. One of those weird cupolas rlected the light. He shut the door, threw the cigarette out of the window and started the car.

“Finally, we can g…”

Began the passenger when the momentum of the throttle blip shoved him back against the seat again. Zhurma had never shouted so many swears before in his life. He spat his angry words toward Jamal.

“Calm down! We’re almos’ there! And you gonna see that ‘ouse wasn’t justta m’rage!”The taxi turned into a narrow rock corridor, which was barely visible. The tyres gently sank into the sand, but the momentum quickly pushed them on to the gravels. And the driver kept steering the wheel with the skill of a rally racer. It seemed as though he had to drive amongst such difficult conditions every day.

A few minutes later, the rock corridor ran under a round, tapering tower or bastion, which was the gate of the mirage-haunted edifice. It gaped like a dead man who exhaled his soul. Through that they arrived to a great sand, dust covered court. The edifice seemed like an undiscovered ancient fortress. Its high walls, which claustrophobically hugged the court, were erected from half-translucent bricks. But such bricks cobbled the court too. Here and there were socles, on which only ghastly lithe and porous statue stumps stood. And the greyish-purple, bladder-like cupolas crowned glitteringly the buildings.

The car stopped in the middle of the court. Zhurma looked around bewildered and agape. Jamal was swivelled around surprisingly too. But this odd fortress had an effect on him only for two seconds. As right after the first awe, he took his mobile and was looking for the perfect backgrounds for his selfies.

It almost made the young architect’s head ache to puzzle out the mash of architectural styles he saw in front of him. As he was sure that this wasn’t a new, unknown architectural style, but rather the blend of many others. Then he just turned his attention toward the used materials. He stepped to the half-translucent wall, behind which the blurred blueness of the sky could be seen. Its surface was uneven and cold to touch. Zhurma pressed one of the bricks to check their massiveness. The brick’s surface broke, his hand sank into a burningly cold, but soft substance. He quickly pulled his hand out violently in pain. And as if the brick had been made of some kind of memory material, it turned back into its original form. However, he couldn’t figure it out what sort of material was this.

“Let’s go in! I wanna shoot some selfies inside too!” shouted Jamal and began to walk toward the largest building. The architect hurried after him as he was interested about the interiors too.

The building was adorned with a sophisticated pattern of reliefs that cast web-like shadows in its walls. And the entrance was hiding in this shadow-web as well. It was deliberately painted or camouflaged so that it could mislead the superficial observers. And so the two men couldn’t see the entrance either at first. The driver however, if he wanted something, could become very keen-eyed. Thus, such optical trick couldn’t fool him for long.

Jamal tried to open the gate, but it didn’t budge. Zhurma helped him, and the gate yielded to their joint effort. It didn’t jar nor squeak. It hissed, as if it had sealed the building hermitically. The driver and his passenger finally entered.

Some light dribbled into the place through the thousands of little holes of the cupola, which seemed to ape another world’s night sky. This light was so weak that it gave more space for fantasy than for real perceptions. Their glance could penetrate into this half-gloom only two or three metres ahead. Still, they could determine they ventured into a peculiar colonnade. The irregularly placed columns were twisted and gnarled just like the roots of a tree. Zhurma even touched one of them, as he thought it was indeed a real root and not carved stone, and it had a tingling touch.

Meanwhile, Jamal took his pictures. In the flashes, these columns gave uneasy impressions. The irregular, chaotic forms seemed to be the embodiment of physical and mental torments. The driver asked his passenger to take his photo in front of a gigantic column. Jamal tried to smile. But his muscles didn’t obey. This frightened him, though he didn’t show it, yet his voice trembled when he thanked the photo.

The columns had their effect on Zhurma too. He found them interesting and hideous at the same time. Marrow-bitingly abhorrent feelings gnawed at his heart whenever he tried to think about something else while looking at them. Then because of their roughed-up imagination, or because of their disturbed senses, they began to see human-like shapes and faces in the twisted features of the columns. Hence they rather hurried on.

There was only one way out of this dreary colonnade other than the entrance. It was a round doorway. Beyond this lied a stairwell. A set of winding stairs whirled dizzily into the dark depths, which exhaled the smell of mould at them. The architect examined the stairwell and the stairs with interested and analysing gaze. Both were built of the same translucent bricks, behind which mossy-mouldy green-black walls were visible. He noticed too that various concentric circles decorated the bricks. The longer he studied them the more certain he became that these circles were some kind of writing. Since there were many different kind amongst them, yet there was a returning pattern in them as if they had been letters of some sort.

The driver meanwhile was waiting impatiently. Jamal was a man of action, and not of examining analyses. Thus when he grew tired of looking around, after about two minutes, turned on the torch function on his mobile and began to descend on the stairs. Zhurma didn’t want to be left alone in the half-gloom, no matter how interesting the bricks and text on them were. He too turned on the torch function on his mobile and followed his companion into the depths.

The spiral stairs whirled them to another chamber. The air was damp and was heavy with the dirty smell of mould. In this long chamber once again a faint half-gloom glowed. The light trickled through the smaller and bigger holes of the walls. Some fresh air came through them too. The architect assumed that these feeble lights were coming from light wells high above, behind the walls. But he couldn’t ponder much about it because the driver nudged him, pointing toward the ground. Myriads of gemstones blanketed the floor. Amongst the heaps and valleys of these, the choked light trembled on the surface of rotten underground water.

The unusual gemstones fascinated both of them. They have never seen anything like these. The stones were roundish as if the sea or a river had been washing them. And their colours were extraordinary. Some luminesced in cerulean hue, yet their core darkened reddishly. Others broke the faint light into the colour cavalcade of a rainbow as if their surface had been oily. But there were too many kinds of gems in that chamber than there’s room here to describe them all.

As they entered the chamber, its silence was broken by the gemstones creaking under their steps. Jamal was humbly picking the stones at first, but soon he was greedily filling his pockets with them. Zhurma also pocketed some gems, but his professional curiosity was greater than his greed. Hence he ventured further and further into the chamber as he studied the holes. He discovered that through these holes cold and warm currents of air flowed inside making various sounds. And the further he ventured so these noises changed. From barely audible hums and faint whizzes they turned into susurrations. And sounded like mutterings on a foreign tongue.  But the most shocking experience for the architect was that it seemed he wasn’t hearing them with his ears.

The voices sounded as if they were whispering straight into his heart and mind. And the darkness, at the other end of the chamber surrounded him more and more as he went on. He forgot to use his mobile as a torch, though it was in his hand. And thicker the darkness became, his mind numbed more and more too.

e looked back then. He didn’t see his companion, only the gloom. Then in this blackness he discovered a pair of faintly flickering green gemstones. He felt an irresistible urge to get them, to take them home to his mother. He began to walk towards them.

In the same darkness, the driver also discovered a couple of brown gems. He too had that urge to get those browning stones. He reached out for them, but those evaded his greedily grasping fingers. If the spirit of the place hadn’t numbed his mind, he would have been surely surprised by that. But he wanted those gemstones. He tried again.

Meanwhile Zhurma was struggling for the greenly glowing stones. But in vain, he couldn’t grab the subjects of his desire. Then he could barely breathe. Soon he realised: something was strangling him. It also clawed his face. But he didn’t care about it, especially now when those gemstones got closer. And the closer they came, the harder he breathed, and deeper the clawing sank in his face. Then abruptly, the bleeding pain restored his mental faculties. He sent only one determined punch toward the gemstones. His fist hit something. And the gloom that covered his vision and his brain cleared into a semi-darkness. And Jamal fell back by his punch.

The realisation that they hadn’t seeing gems, but each other’s eyes was a painful and redly burning feeling. They almost managed to gouge each other’s eyes out. Their mad clawing left crimson marks on their faces. The driver splashed some rotten water into his face. The architect followed his example, but soon they stopped that as the water stank.

Let’s get outta here!” ordered Jamal as he sprung to his feet.

“Where did you learn to ‘it like this?” he asked while he was caressing his aching jaw. “Like if Mustapha ‘amsho ‘imself ‘ad showed me what a real punch is.”

“I’ve never learned it. You’re the only person I’ve ever hit as an adult.”

Really? I think you’re talented in it…”

“Great! But who’s Mustapha Hamsho?”

“Famous Syrian, middleweight ‘e was. ‘e lives in ‘merica now…”

“Ah, so that’s why his name didn’t ring a bell… I’ve never watched a box match in my life.”

Zhurma once again turned on the torch function on his mobile because it went off during the fight. They lit up the darkness at the end of the long chamber. Their cold light beams revealed a raw, natural and irregular shaped passage. The earlier artificial, polished and regular lines disappeared. This passage wormed about like a maggot and breathed crypt-cold air at them.

Through this passage, they reached a spacious cave. A blindingly white stone stand rose in the middle of it. Even without light, it almost faintly glowed in the dark. Its shape was like two cupped hands, drawing water. Not water was in them, but an orb. Its colour could have been compared to black. Yet its tone was so profound that it swallowed and imprisoned everything. Even the piercing glances cast at it.

The architect and the driver stared at it motionless like statues. At first, it reminded them of the Black Stone of the Kaaba Sanctuary. Then they felt as though their thoughts and memories had perished into the black nil. And when they saw the orb’s surface ripple, realisation struck at them. The orb wasn’t placed in the middle of the cave to be seen and touched like the holy stone of the Muslims. But so that the orb could touch, or rather taint the souls of many with its deserted and utter emptiness. Because this emptiness was not death. It was worse than death. Many religions claim that death is sort of a gate, a liberation. The nil of the orb didn’t promise such thing. It was an eternal prison that swallowed and locked up everything. Even the very memory of ever existence of the thing or being, which it had devoured.

Zhurma tried to tear his mind off of the immeasurable emptiness. In this effort, beads of perspiration studded his forehead. Soon one of them rolled into his eye. The burning sensation broke the all-consuming power of the orb. He turned around immediately. Then showing his back to the orb, retreated to Jamal and turned his head away too. As soon as he managed to do this, a bell-toll like boom echoed through their souls, as they were certain they didn’t hear it with their ears. They knew they had to flee. They felt that something was after them, something that didn’t want to let them go. They didn’t even dare to look back.

They dashed out of the cave like madmen, and ran through the gemstone chamber. In their flight they kicked the heaps, which burst like splinters. They mounted the spiral stairs almost on all fours. They were already in the eerie colonnade when they noticed that the holes of the cupola began to turn dark above them. And that this darkness, or rather the living nil was crawling toward the egress. They strained all their muscles to run faster. The architect overtook the driver who began to tire and lag behind.

Then they saw as the murkiness shoved the gate. The light of the outside world almost went out right before them. But Zhurma managed to wedge himself into the exit. Jamal was almost out too when suddenly cried out. Something grabbed his body. He reached out with his hands as if he could hold on to the air. And when he thought everything was over, the architect grabbed his hands. This gave hope to the driver. He fought on for his life. Both of them were fighting for it with all their might. And for a moment they believed they both could escape. But soon they realised: they had no chance together.

Zhurma hoped to find a weak point on the living blackness. He thought it was some kind of a material thing. He was confident they could defeat it. But no human can be triumphant over something, which he can’t even fathom. Jamal realised this sooner however:

“Run!”

He bawled on the top of his voice, but it was barely audible in the living emptiness. He even shook one of his hand free from the architect’s grasp. Then the driver yelled again on a vocal cord ripping voice, but only the final breath could be heard of it:

“Run!”

omething hit Zhurma’s face, he clutched his head, releasing Jamal’s other hand, and the darkness devoured it. The architect looked at the ground before he could realise what had just happened. The keys to the taxi had hit him. Zhurma realised the driver’s greatest sacrifice only now. If he had had time he would have shed some tears of gratitude or shout in his impotent wrath. But the outside world’s light grew fainter, something moved the gate again. The architect couldn’t let Jamal’s sacrifice be in vain. He grabbed the keys and jumped out of the building.

Springing to his feet, he ran on. The mirage-haunted fortress began to fade. The earth quaked and began to wave like a storm-lashed sea. He almost fell once or twice, and through the translucent cobbles he saw the black emptiness quick with life, throbbing in the depths. Yet he had no time to panic. He just ran until he reached the taxi. The key was turned, the engine churned, the car was spurred.

The waving court almost crashed the car against the tower-gate, but Zhurma avoided this, manoeuvring adroitly. When he was under the tower, as if it had wanted to chew on him, began to fall. The car was faster, however. Perhaps even too fast. It arrived into the rock corridor with such speed that it climbed on its side. The architect clung to the steering wheel as he tried to control the car. Finally, he managed to leave the rock corridor safely.

He was halfway down the snaking path when the outlines of the fortress began to wave, and an all-consuming darkness sprung forth from it, like from an open wound. This phenomenon didn’t last longer than a blink of an eye.

The mirage-like edifice with a part of the mountains, the rock corridor and with the path leading to it disappeared. The taxi was not skidding down on the path, but on the naked mountainside. A jutting out rock threw it up then. And the car somersaulted, fell back on the grey, dusty road. Zhurma, from the wreck of the car, looked up once more at the peaks of the Qalamun Mountains. The mirage vanished. And the healing blackness of unconsciousness fell violently on his mind… the same way as the car had just crashed from the mountain.

 

 

***

Viktor Z. Noircoer is a writer from Budapest temporarily living in Istanbul, with a keen interest in weird and macabre literature, as well as culture and history in general. English is his second language. He operates a blog where he posts when time permits. Some of his stories can be found there as well as his own English translation of poetry by Arthur Rimbaud. noircoer.blogspot.com

Title photo – Devin Avery on Unsplash

Horla standard disclaimer – image has no direct connection with the fiction