The Valley

By Alfred Searls

Central Bosnia, February 1993

     Armies had marched through the valley long before it had a name, long before the first hardy souls had dared to call it home. Within the lee of its steep walls the Goths and the Gepids had flowed westwards, ever westwards, so they might challenge the Legions and find food enough to fill the bellies of their families. In time its thickly wooded slopes were contested by Byzantines and Bulgars, by Slavs and Franks, and the followers of the Cross and the followers of the Crescent. 

     For the most part the armies marched through the valley, so that they might do battle elsewhere, but some, like the soldiers of the crocked cross and the soldiers of the blood red banner, had stayed and fought and died, and in so doing they watered the rich, rocky soil with their blood, and their sacrifice gave nourishment to the legends of the nationalist and internationalist alike. 

     Now its oldest and most familiar conqueror has enacted its yearly reoccupation. The spruce and silver furs are white in its triumphant colour, and its deep, fertile silence holds sway throughout the valley. Yet this monochrome conquest is challenged, and its bitter stillness broken, by the arrival of the white, steel, Warriors.    

     ‘Victor Zulu six you are clear to enter the valley, over.’

     ‘Rodger that Victor Zulu.’ 

     The young officer in the turret raises his binoculars one last time. The thin, distant wisp of smoke is still rising over the white canopy into the heavy grey sky. He keys the platoon net.

     ‘All call signs, we are clear to proceed…’ and now his own vehicle channel ‘…driver, advance.’ 

     Idling diesel engines snarl then roar, as one after another the four white painted armoured vehicles lurch cautiously off down the narrow, slush covered road. From time to time their turrets slowly traverse, and the steel muzzles of their rapid firing cannons sniff the air for the scent of unseen others in the dense, dark forest.  

     The journey to the monastery takes just over half an hour. It is uneventful and the men in the back of the cramped carriers doze and think, and think and doze, and occasionally wish for things they can’t or shouldn’t have. As they approach their objective the officer’s voice comes across the platoon net.

     ‘All call signs. Two minutes to destination.’

     Dozing, and dreams of Old Trafford and a nearly new car are abruptly ended as NCO’s give final instructions, quick and curt. The pitch of the engines rises as a final burst of speed is laid on. Two of the section vehicles deploy either side of the tiny settlement, whilst the third, together with the command vehicle, takes up position outside the monastery of Saint Stefan the Blind.

     The three infantry sections deploy through the back doors of their respective Warriors, swiftly and with the minimum of fuss. The platoon knows its drills, it knows its business and in a few minutes a defensive perimeter has been established. Now, with the area secure, blue helmeted figures quickly but carefully search the half dozen burned out buildings clustered around the monastery church.       

     The smell of burnt wood fills their nostrils. For the newer men, fresh from the depot and fresh from childhood, the familiar smell brings comforting memories of bonfire nights past.  For the rest the overly familiar smell brings unwanted memories; memories of a score of other lost places, all with unpronounceable names and all with horrors hidden in their ashes. Mercifully, on this occasion, they find only evidence of ruined livelihoods and charred dreams, amid the civil detritus. 

     The platoon sergeant reports to his officer at the command vehicle. His breath clouds and lingers in the frozen air.

     ‘All clear boss.’

     ‘Not surprising really. Most of the other buildings were gutted months ago. But this…’ he turns to face the small monastery church ‘…this is new.’

     ‘Why now I wonder?’ 

     ‘Who knows? But we’d better have a look. We’ll take Cooper and Wells.’ 

     They enter through the ruined wall at the eastern end of the church, where the sanctuary is now completely open to the elements.  They advance with care, rifles held tightly to the shoulder, eyes alert for tell-tale signs of booby traps. The dome, from which the Christ Pantocrator had gazed down in golden majesty, has collapsed. The altar too has vanished and the crater where it once stood gives credence to an explosive ending. Yet despite the rubble, despite the smashed marble and the charred iconostasis, the job of destruction has clearly been bungled. 

     ‘Amateur hour again’ says the officer nodding towards the smouldering fallen roof beams.    

     ‘Aye, the explosion started a fire all right, but it’s put it out again too.’ 

     ‘How d’ya mean sergeant?’

     Private Wells is the youngest member of the platoon. He is possessed of a natural sense of curiosity which, so his comrades often say, only a bullet could settle.

     ‘The explosion weakened the roof bonnie lad.’

     Well’s looks again at the blackened roof timbers but appears none the wiser.

     ‘It brought the roof down and created a fire break, you Muppet.’

     After a second or two the eighteen year old has a light bulb moment and smiles at his comrade.

     ‘Oh right. Cheers Coop.’

     ‘S’alright.’

     ‘Shut it the pair of you. And while you’re at it get back outside and circle round to the other end. Check the main door and see if it’s wired from the outside. When you’re done report back to me and sergeant Canning.’ 

     ‘Sir’ they chorus.

     Canning watches them as they scramble through the rubble, a thin cloud of dust rising in their wake. As they disappear into the grey light beyond the breach he pulls a pack of Players out of his field jacket.

     ‘Boss?’

     The officer shakes his head.

     ‘You were waiting till they were gone weren’t you?’ 

     ‘Course I was’ he replies, lighting up.

     ‘Tight arse.’

     ‘Bloody right I am. I’ve got three kids to feed I have.’ 

     The officer smiles.

     ‘Nice to know you can still do that boss.’

     ‘There’s not so much to smile about in this country.’

     ‘You’re alive, your knackers haven’t been blown off, and it’s payday on Friday. How about them three for starters?’

     Again the younger man smiles his weary smile. 

     ‘You’re tired boss, you need a good rest.’

     ‘We all do.’

     ‘True enough’ says the sergeant, taking a heavy drag on his cigarette. 

     The officer folds his arm though the sling on his rife, and gazes about the ruined church. For several minutes the two of them stand alone in the sacred silence.     

     ‘You know, this place is well over four hundred years old. It’s seen Shakespeare and Schubert, Edison and Einstein, all come and go.’ 

     ‘Aye, well it’s knackered now, and there’s nothing you can do about that. So best not to dwell on it boss, eh?’

     His eyes move slowly over the sullied walls, lingering on a fragment of mosaic, a sliver of golden halo. This luminescent refusal glows with the energy of a star amid the nothingness of the smoke blackened walls. 

     ‘You’re quite wrong you know.’ 

     There is a squawk in the receiver clamped to his ear.

     ‘Victor Zulu six come in please’ the East End Essex is unmistakably Lance Corporal Cooper.

     ‘Go ahead.’ 

     ‘Request you come round the front sir.’

     ‘What is it?’

     ‘Best if you see for yourself boss.’

     Given the antiquated, insecure nature of their radios the two men simply accept the junior NCO’s recommendation. They pick their way through the gloom and the rubble, past the quietly growling Warrior and around the ancient stone walls. 

     Cooper and Wells are waiting for them by the main entrance, the former doubled up and retching, the latter standing stiff and still, starring fixedly at the tall Romanesque archway.  For the first time both sergeant and officer catch sight of the great door, inset in the cold stone wall.    

     ‘Easters come early this year’ says the laconic lance corporal in a quiet, half-hearted voice. 

     For long moment’s they stand in sickened, reverent silence, their eyes filled with the sightless apparition and their ears with the sound of Wells being sick in the snow.

     ‘Jesus Christ…’

     ‘No…not quite’ he says, his soul suddenly becalmed. 

     ‘…Jesus Christ!’

     He reaches out and lays his hand on his sergeant’s upper arm. Canning turns and after a few seconds his eyes gradually refocus, losing their protective anaesthetic mist, and the sergeant slowly remembers himself in the calm, tired eyes of his officer. 

     ‘Wells! When you’re quite finished double round and tell my driver to bring my wagon up. Got that?’

     Well’s straightens up and wipes his mouth on his sleeve. 

     ‘Yes sir.’ 

     Canning takes out his pack of players and he and Cooper light up whilst the officer stares at the sightless man. Several minutes pass silently by before the sound of an engine, on the far side of the church, breaks the dark spell.  

     ‘Who do you think he is?’ says Cooper.

     ‘It’s the prior.’ 

     The officer turns towards Canning.

     ‘How do you know?’

     ‘I saw him briefly before Christmas sir, when they sent you away on that UN course on international law.’

     ‘Are you sure?’

     ‘As sure as I can be under the circumstances.’ 

     ‘What the hell was he still doing here?’

     ‘He said he just couldn’t leave the place, though he sent everyone else away mind. He said it was his duty to stay.’

     ‘Well he died for it, I’ll give him that.’ 

     ‘No…no he didn’t. He died for our sins.’ 

     ‘Our sins?’

     ‘Yes Cooper. Their sins of commission. And ours of omission.’

     But his last words are drowned out by the rising clatter of the command Warrior as it rounds the corner of the church. Once clear of the building it picks up speed before it lurches to a stop a few meters from the group. Here it changes gear and rotates until its back door is facing the church. The engine rumbles for a few seconds more, then with a final shudder the Warrior falls silent, leaving only the metallic taste of exhaust fumes to linger in the frigid air.   

     ‘Cooper, fetch a bag will you. And a claw hammer and crowbar from the toolkit.’

     He sees Wells emerging from the back of the Warrior, looking more composed now.

     ‘And tell Wells I shall need a couple of blankets, a roll of tape…oh and the camera.’

     ‘Sir.’

     ‘Got your notebook sergeant?’

     Canning pats his right trouser pocket, nods and takes out a little spiral bound book and a pencil. He opens it on a fresh page and automatically makes a note of the date and time. The officer takes a deep breath and holds it for a few seconds.

     ‘The victim is believed to be a Serbian Orthodox priest, and the prior of the Monastery of Saint Stefan the Blind. He has been nailed to…no, he’s has been crucified…crucified to the main door of the monastery church. He is held in place by nails through both hands and feet, and supported by…’

     He halts, searching for the right word, for he is unfamiliar with the lexicon of modern crucifixion. 

     ‘What would you call those?’

     The sergeant turned scribe looks up. 

     ‘Brackets maybe?’ he shrugs ‘Or Clamps? As long as we get a picture I don’t suppose anyone will mind.’ 

     ‘No, I suppose not.’

     Again he pauses. Since first beholding this mindful sacrilege a part of his mind had been screaming obscenities at him, and now, momentarily, it is all he can hear. He reaches for his only defence in the matter and re-embraces the banality of the police report.

     ‘Clamps it is then. He is held in place by metal clamps, nailed to the door, over his arms and legs. His torso is further supported by steel cabling, which is also secured by clamps of the same design.’

     He is interrupted by the arrival of Cooper and Wells. 

     ‘You can leave all that next to me. Cooper, start taking pictures. First get shots of the whole scene, then the details, including the wounds. And take multiple shots of everything. You know the drill.’

     Cooper does indeed know the drill; after all he’s had enough practice on this tour. In fact recently he sent off for his own camera, a smart new Leica, and when the battalion finally goes home he is secretly planning to do an evening course in photography.

     ‘Will do boss.’

     ‘Where was I?’

     ‘The cabling on the torso.’

     ‘Right, yes.’

     He coughs, looks at his boots, and for a few seconds pretends to carry out a visual inspection of the equipment now lying next to him before forcing himself to look at the lifeless old priest. 

     ‘The victim has had his tongue cut out. It is hanging around his neck on a piece of string. Also, his eyes have been gouged out, but there is no sign of them at the scene.’ 

     His mouth is dry and he feels very cold now. He doesn’t want these words.  

     ‘The victim…the victim also has coils of razor wire pressed into his head.’

     He doesn’t want these words in his head; he doesn’t want them in his mouth.

     ‘A crown of thorns fit for modernity’ he murmurs. 

     ‘Do you want me to take down that last bit?’

     ‘No, best not.’ 

     He runs his eyes over the naked, thin, frost covered body and silently curses this land, which has taught him the meaning of duty and despair in equal measure.         

     ‘The victim also has multiple lacerations to his body, as well as a large stab wound in the centre of his abdomen.’ 

     He sighs heavily and looks up at the low grey sky. 

     ‘So, not quite full marks for authenticity there then’ he says, recalling the countless crucifixes of his schooldays, the familiarity with which had, until now, inured him to the true horror of this ancient mode of murder. He casts a look at his lance corporal.    

     ‘You got what you need Cooper?’ 

     ‘Yes sir.’

     ‘Right then, let’s get the poor bugger down.’

     Over the next thirty minutes they lever, pull and drag the crucified man down from the door, with as much dignity as the splintering of bone and the tearing of flesh will allow. When they have completed all the stations of their collective cross, and the grey figure has been loaded into the heavy grey bag, the sergeant and the officer, the boy soldier and the would-be photographer, all share in a ritual scared to their tribe. And when they have finished their tea they return to their respective vehicles and prepare to depart.

     The Warriors form up on the road, engines gunning. They are eager to be off, eager to be done with this place. Inside them the men of the platoon dream and doze; and doze and dream; but not of the valley, not yet. 

     The officer stands in his turret and casts a final glance down the line. Satisfied, he gives the order.

     ‘Driver, advance.’ 

Alfred Searls has spent the last decade building up a grimly successful career in PR and Marketing, during which he began to develop a keen sense that he was becoming a character in a Kafka novel.  As a result he’s enacted a fiendishly clever and wholly original plan to escape the corporate cage by writing his way out, which so far is still a work in progress.  

http://www.northernsoul.me.uk/author/alfredsearls/

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