The 13th Warrior
We live in melancholy times. In the midst of the deluge we can only laugh apathetically at its raging torrents.We try to reclaim hope. It is hard work. There is no easy road ahead. Eternity knows no mercy, but man must live on. Clouds are gathering above our heads. It is the the best of times, and it is the worst of times; an epoch of wisdom and folly. Belief clashes with disbelief, light confronts darkness. Spring bears aspiration, followed by the winter of our discontent.
Dusk, drizzle and black asphalt was a dangerous cocktail. His eyesight wasn't what it had been. He hadn't bothered with the optician. He slowed down and thought of his colleagues at school. They were all on their way abroad while he would be spending his summer holiday in the old gamekeeper's cottage which he had rented for the past ten years. He didn't travel anymore. The world was out of joint; he had seen enough of it when he was younger, and now the tranquillity of the woodland was his vacation. Thoughts chased each other in his head, a life of hidden memories, a future full of uncertainties.
He saw the royal stag out of the corner of his eye, and for a split second time stood still. Strangely, he noticed the antlers adorned with eighteen points, then instinctively tugged at the steering-wheel to avoid hitting the magnificent animal, but to no avail; everything went black in the head-on collision between car and royal stag.
An elderly couple in their car behind him had seen the Range Rover trying to avoid the collision. They stopped and heard the futile screeching of brakes and saw the jeep topple over and role down a steep slope next to the woodland road. The woman staggered out of her car and looked down the slope where she saw the headlights of the battered old Range Rover light up the forest floor. She also saw smoke coming from the engine and fumbled with her phone to call the emergency services. She then ventured down the slope and was soon able to see an elderly, white-haired man with his seatbelt on. He was motionless. The airbag had been deployed, but she couldn't see if he was breathing. She tried the door, but it was stuck. The smoke from the engine smelled badly, and she decided to return to her car. But then, in the sudden light of an exposed summer moon, she saw the royal stag with his enormous antlers on the other side of the car. She perceived it as if he was staring directly through the windscreen at the white-haired man in the driver's seat. The stag uttered a rattle so melancholy that it sounded like a cry of woe in the bright summer night. Then the moon disappeared behind a cloud, and the royal stag was gone. Had she been dreaming? She was soon distracted by the sound of an ambulance arriving and she climbed the slope to tell her story to the employees of the emergency services. She decided, however, not to share her encounter with the royal stag with them. Her husband was asleep in their car, drunk from a party they had just left. Always missing out on life, she thought.
She was offered a cup of coffee by a woman who introduced herself as a journalist. The young reporter explained that her and her photographer's employer, Channel 13, was making a reality documentary about the emergency services, riding along in an ambulance. The rescuers were trying to open the door of the Range Rover. They used a tool that reminded her of a giant crab's claw. The sound of metal being bent grated on the ear in the cool summer night. Channel 13's photographer circled the staff from the emergency services like a little boy who deep in his heart knows that he is not supposed to be there, but who just can't help himself. Curiosity is man's ultimate motivation, even when facing tragedies of such dimensions that virtue must blush.
It is the ultimate nosing about in other people's business, she thought; the reality show with no rules of conduct, a return to unarticulated times when man's most ignoble instincts dominate the entertainment, passes the time and makes morality look like a used car nobody wants to buy. Suddenly a deafening roar sliced the silence of the summer night. It had to be the royal stag. Everyone down in the ravine stopped what they were doing for a breathtaking second and listened to the sound which felt threatening and dangerous but at the same time full of pent-up grief and apprehension. Then it was gone, the door was forced open and the white-haired victim was placed on a stretcher and carried up the slope and placed in the ambulance. The woman could see that the man's condition was serious. She didn't have to ask. She glanced at her husband sleeping it off in the car, sighed and got in, then drove off into the deepening darkness, away from an adventure, a sense of having witnessed something strange and extraordinary.
The royal stag with his eighteen points. His big almond shaped eyes and that look that no human can withstand; so piercing, full of innocence and an indictment so sharply pointed that one might as well make a full confession. What was the charge? That look from one of nature's crowned heads needs no interpretation. Eighteen points. And that look. Steadfast, innocent and perhaps a dash of empathy; but nowhere near enough to make you consider a defence for millenniums of neglect. Of our shared planet. That roar once again. Mea culpa. This is the second time I face that royal stag.
The odour of collision, smoke and steam; and the moon illuminating the silence of the woodland floor where a royal stag roars his fear and anger through the windscreen, at me and my dying humanity. A split-second of getting to know what it's all about. The light at the end of the tunnel; the fierce and almost unbearably crystal clear light, drawing and enticing with people and feelings of desire and comfort. The light drawing me towards the exit, or is it the entrance?
Mum and dad? What are you doing here? Why are you smiling, why are you waving, and who is the child squeezing my hand and leading me into the promised light?
I've got a pulse here! It's weak, but it's there!
Get that camera out of my face, enter the other way!
Oxygen! Give me a pulse.
Weak, but steady. No visible injuries. Support his head.
No. The National!
Why are you so young, mum and dad? Like photographs I no longer possess but remember. Wait a minute; I have no memories. How can I then remember? What did the stag want to tell me? Ten years after our first encounter. I can't control the images, they strike like an electrical storm. Where am I, why am I...
There's a license in the wallet. You're not going to believe this.
The guy's name. It says JOHN DOE.
What? Let me see. No date of birth. Yes, look. October 2000. Address looks okay.
October 2000? This guy is at least fifty, more likely sixty!
Respiration stable. How far yet?
10, maybe 12 minutes. Turn that bloody camera off!
Did you say John Doe? Like a corpse with no name? Strange.
The siren. Am I in Denmark? They don't sound like that in the Middle East, not even in Sweden. How do I know that? Why can't I see anything; why do I hear voices? Am I at school, have I fallen down? No, the stag has a message, but what is it? And why me, why now? Is it all over?
We're here. Get that bloody photographer out!
Yes, boss. Get lost, boy!
Just doing my job.
What have we got?
Elderly man, head-on collision with deer, pulse low but stable; no visible injuries, has not regained consciousness.
Okay. Take him to Trauma. Who's that geek?
Channel 13. I've got permission to shoot all of it, we...
Not in Trauma. Get lost.
Shit. Get out of the way. What have you given him?
Nothing. He's stable.
There's that light again, so piercing, but still kind of soft and friendly, drawing, alluring. Mum and dad,
you're waving, but I can't see the way clearly. Do you want me to follow you or leave you? I haven't seen you in forty years, you're so young, much younger than I am. The light is weakening. Mum, dad, don't leave me now. I can't move. I want to, but I can't. I can see myself lying in a big machine. I'm floating. The machine is moving. I'm in it. Moving. Now I'm out of it. The light is so piercing again, but it's not the same light. I think. I'm not sure. Not of anything.
Did you get the scan?
Yeah. Let's see. Okay. That area there, what does that tell you?
Some sort of blockage. Fluid. Maybe blood?
We've got to remove the pressure.
Let's ask the boss.
You're going to wake her? Not me, girlfriend.
Hi, boss, long time no see.
What have we got? Make it snappy.
A blockage of some sort.
Right. We've got to go in and relieve pressure and then hope for the best, otherwise he's
That's just it. Have you seen his name on the license. It says John Doe.
Who's the twit with the camera? Did you say John Doe?
I'm from Channel 13...
Shut up! Hm, I wonder. We had a guy, oh, ten or twelve years back. We called him John Doe. He'd lost his memory. We simply couldn't figure out who he was. He was given a new identity. Insisted on the name, actually. As far as I recall, he had been attacked by a royal stag. Lived in the woods somewhere in Northern Zealand.
Seriously? You know what happened here, don't you. He collided with a royal stag.
You're kidding. It was my late boss who was in charge. There must be a case record. Find it, but let's see if we can't save Mr. Doe first. A royal stag again, you say. Well, I'll be damned.
Who is that little boy on the bed? Look out, there's a scorpion on the bed-cover! But there are no scorpions in Denmark. We're not in Denmark. It's coming closer, help that child! Mum, you made it! And dad! Why are you saving a child from a scorpion, is that child me? But how? I don't remember. I remember nothing. After the stag I've been John, John Doe, a man without a memory. No memories of childhood, no youth, no friends or family, just an elderly man. But now...mum and dad...the little boy is me.
Isn't there a risk?
It's just as risky, if we don't.
The light in the tunnel, I'm walking forward, I'm coming now, mum and dad. I've waited such a long time for you! There's nothing to keep me here, I've taught children and lived in the woods. I remembered nothing, I didn't remember you, but you've been there all along, deep down in my subconscious. A stag... and now again. It was the same one. I'm certain of it. The light is so strong and warm...
Anaesthesia! Blood pressure is down!
Flat-line! Get going!
That's it! We have a pulse. Close him up and send the fluid to the lab.
Around the clock. I'll be down in an hour.
The light grows dimmer. I'm cold, mum. Why haven't I been able to remember you and dad for so many years? You've been there all the time, and why do I keep seeing the little boy? He's me. Don't go now, I'm so alone. I just want to go home, home where you are. I want to be that little boy again, don't leave me here in the dark. It's so cold.
DAY 2 – 40 (Extracts)
From here to eternity is a long way. Via calvery. For something I haven't done, born into existence under the supervision of a false angel. God in heaven and all the celestial hosts, where are they now, when I need their guidance? Is prayer the answer? Or is it simply a question blowing in an increasingly cold wind over a planet struck by global warming? Where's the light? It's cold here. Cold hands, is that you, Granny?
Hm. That's it. Just as I thought.
What is it, doctor?
The patient is now officially in a coma.
I'm loosing my mind, can't put my words in the correct order. They're like concrete boots on my feet, skating on a frozen lake; dad's on the sledge, I'm on his back, we're going down a snowy slope. A young and foreign father with a slightly foreign son in a foreign land where equality reigns. Just not thinking, they hurt a child. I must regain focus...
Ahmad thanks me for the game and whispers in my ear that he appreciates my gesture. I let him win in this our first tennis-match on Lebanese clay. He waves to the couple in the stands and introduces them as his cousins Khaled and Mira, then suggests that we go for a drink. Why not? The touch of her hand in a formal greeting, her averted, smiling eyes...why not?
Ahmad lives in a house the size of a palace on the main street, Hamra. Large and cool rooms in the oriental style with all the trappings of copious wealth and luxury. We end up in his rooms which are the size of my house in Denmark. He is having a bath when Mira enters. She smiles and tells me that she spends most of her life waiting for her cousin. That smile is an ice-breaker. I see, smell and feel her presence, even after she leaves the room for a short second. Ahmad returns from his shower and starts telling me about his family. His father is British and a Christian, his mother is Palestinian and a Muslim. That's Lebanon for you. That's Beirut, Paris of the Middle East. I'm sixteen and ready for anything. Ahmad chats on while I feel engulfed by Mira's sultry gaze every time I look in her direction. She says nothing, her brother Khaled insists on switching over to French and even Arabic, mostly to keep me at a distance...
At dinner I'm introduced to Ahmad's extended family. I feel a little like a poor relative, but the sight of Mira sitting opposite me soon drowns those thoughts. I'm chewing something I thought were crisps. Mira explains in a husky voice that I have just eaten small birds roasted in oil and garlic. I try to have a conversation with the lovely Mira, but Khaled obviously won't let me. He is very protective of his sister. But just before I leave, she presses a note into my palm and thanks me for a nice evening. Later in the car, Ahmad explains that his cousin likes me and has given me her number. Then he goes on to explain the politics of the Middle East which entail that everything sucks, but we are young and have to make the most of it...
I call her up the next day. It's her voice inviting me over. I run through the streets of Beirut, a fool in love. When I get there, she is nervous. Her widowed mother in black sits in the room observing. Mira keeps looking at her watch. My God she's beautiful, in an exotic and very undanish way. Then she suddenly tells me everything about her desperate situation, about her dead father, about her brother who wants her to marry and older Muslim man who she doesn't even like. I feel like a little boy, incapable of helping my beloved. I'm probably just a pawn in a game, but I don't care; I'm in love with this dark beauty, and I'm soon seventeen. She gets a grip of herself and puts on the newest and hottest record, A Whiter Shade of Pale. Then Khaled arrives with some Arab friends, and the moment is broken. He takes me out on the balcony and explains that his sister is going to marry an older friend of his as soon as the guy gets back from military service. So that's me told. I leave her that day with a pain in my heart. I know she's the love of my life...
I met Mira in a café in a part of Beirut where we wouldn't be recognized. She seemed sad and reserved and not the happy and optimistic person I had known for most of that summer. When I asked her about it, she just sighed and stared out into the traffic. Her hand was shaking, and suddenly I noticed a tear drop from her cheek. I felt powerless and depressed over not being able to help her. Suddenly she began talking and her words formed a despondent torrent. She was being forced to marry this guy ten years her senior, a man she didn't know or love. Her family wouldn't listen to her, not even her mother. I stared at Mira, offered her my handkerchief and asked if there was anything I could do. But I am seventeen, and so is she. We're in the Middle East, in the middle of a religious, cultural and political minefield. She shook her head and dried her eyes, blew her nose and then looked straight at me. She explained her situation to me in a very rational manner which only made me think of my country and the utter unfairness in hers. I stroked her hand and tried to comfort her, but the moment had passed. She just sat there like a little bird fallen from the security of the nest. I love her, but can't even hope that she would be able to entertain any notion of loving me, even if the world stopped rotating....
The students look tired. I go straight into Hamlets reflections over whether to kill the king while he is praying. Suddenly the door of the lecture room opens and a man dressed in black motions me to leave the theatre. I climb the stairs and exit into the hall where I am met by the British ambassador and two security guards also dressed in black. The ambassador leads me into a secluded room and shuts the door. Now I'm really worried. I've known this man since I was a little boy. I know this is bad, but I must keep calm, no matter what. Or I'll surely die. The old man looks at me with a look in his eyes that can only mean one thing. It's my father. His lips are moving in slow-motion. I hear and understand only in brief sequences. They are both dead. I can't understand what he is saying. An armed robbery on Stroeget, Copenhagen's main pedestrian street. One police officer shot. My father and mother were on their way home from the Opera. Tried to help the officer. Shot at point- blank. Three robbers. Masked. Surveillance camera. Got away. Three dead. At the National. Late last night. No witnesses. I can't take it in. No more. I'm fighting for my life. I'm drowning here. Stay calm. Get a hold, a perspective. Calm down. Fight. You can do this. This must be revenged, and revenge is best served cold. Cold as ice. Calm now. I'm calm. I'm ready. Whatever it takes. No matter how long it takes. I'm Hamlet. Another patricide in Denmark. Vengeance is mine. Shakespeare was right; there is something rotten in the state of Denmark. I'm ready. I'm calm....
Khaled tells me about his life, since we last saw each other as very young men. Thirty odd years has passed. He is now the leader of a Palestinian resistance group. After having talked for hours we leave the building and walk down the dirt road in the small village called Arafat in the Bekaa Valley. We are surrounded by twelve guards, and jokingly he calls me his thirteenth warrior. I have come here to teach the children, and I ask him who the other teacher is. He casually answers ”Mira” and begins to tell me about my lodgings. He invites me into a huge Bedouin tent where we sit down. We are alone. Suddenly the tent door opens and in steps a middle-aged woman dressed in black. The light in the tent is dim, I have trouble seeing the woman's face which is framed by a hijab. But then she comes closer, and those eyes I have seen before. It is Mira. The great love of my youth is standing in front of me with the face of an old woman. But her eyes are the same. I give Khaled a careful look, but he smiles and nods. Mira and I embrace for a short moment which threatens to stop my heart. I can feel her salty tears on my cheek. But then the moment passes, even though I can feel her body's longing through all those layers of clothes and time that separate us. Khaled get up and says he has to talk to one of his guards. He winks at me and leaves the tent. I'm alone with the love of my life, an old woman. I'm staring into the eyes of a girl I knew and fell in love with when I was seventeen. I haven't seen her for thirty odd years. And yet, her eyes tell me that it was only yesterday. Her voice is even huskier than I remember, but I don't care; I'm seventeen again. I could listen to her for the rest of eternity. She tells me that her husband died eighteen years ago, she has no children, since then she has kept house for her brother and taught the children in the village. They have moved around a lot, but now they have settled in Arafat, hoping for peace in the region. The light I saw in her eyes when she saw me is gone. Only the remnant of a glow is to be seen in those dark eyes I fell in love with in the roaring sixties in Beirut, Lebanon. We talk, two old people catching up, but worlds apart. We leave the tent together to go to supper, me and the woman I once loved and since have carried in my heart throughout all this time...
EPILOGUE – A YEAR LATER
He was alive. He was sitting in his rowing boat on the lake. The water was dead calm. All his life he had been fishing for the answer to the big question. Now he had it. A royal stag had appeared and looked deeply into his soul. He was at one with his life. He raised his eyes from the mirror-like surface of a Danish lake and glanced up at his house. On the porch he could see the outline of a dog and a woman. They now shared his life. All of it. He smiled and sensed a slight fragrance of cedar and destiny.