The Barricades of Heaven

1146 AD (The period between the First and the Second Crusades), The Principality of Antioch (Northern Syria)

She knelt at the altar in the chapel, staring straight ahead at the golden cross placed on the massive stone altar. It occupied the length and breadth of her attention. She did not even notice the cold from the rough stone against her knees, or the heat from the desert seeping through the two arrow slits in the semi circular room. The highest level of the citadel, this was the safest and most peaceful place in the castle.
She did not need the security of the castle though, her faith would keep her safe. Her conviction would shelter her. Her belief would preserve her. Her muttered prayers would reach the ears of God and he would send down his angels to protect her as they were protecting her beloved husband, the Lord of Saone, and the men he had taken with him to defend his charge. She bowed her head and closed her eyes.
She did not hear the grunts and screams of the few soldiers left to guard the castle as they fell to the arrows that arced over the walls. She did not hear the rattle of the chains as the gates were opened to let in the invaders. She did not hear the doors and windows of the houses in the little town slam shut. She did not hear the children whimper in the arms of their mothers. The sound of the hooves on the cobblestones below did not reach her ears. She was listening so hard for the word of God that she could hear nothing else.
Blood flowed down the curved grey steps of the citadel. Blood of the defenders and the attackers, both the same shade of red. Broadsword and scimitar fell on tempered steel and cured hide, tore through mail and flesh, clattered on the stone stairs.
The large oak doors, polished almost to the colour of night, opened behind her. Soft, measured footfalls and fervent muttered prayers echoed in the room. His baggy clothes hissing as he walked around the altar.
"Look at me", he said. His voice was barely over a whisper, sounded like a snake.
She opened her eyes and looked up at him, standing behind the cross on the other side of the altar. The desert had made his skin like leather, stiff and dry. A great black beard covered most of his face. The whites of his eyes gave the impression of two moons in the night sky of his face. He placed a helmet on the altar with both hands.
"You know this helm", he said. It wasn't a question.
She nodded, the gossamer trail of her headdress swaying behind her.
"He fought bravely", there was no sarcasm in his voice.
He bent his head slightly and placed a finger on top of the cross, tilting it slightly, dropped it to the ground. The corners of her eyes twitched as it fell to the floor. She fought the impulse to get to her feet and place the cross in its position of privilege.
He rounded the altar and placed the edge of his sword at her throat. The steel felt cold against her skin. She heard the screams of the women and children from the courtyard below. She smoke from the burning houses assaulted her. Her eyes glazed over with the tears she was fighting.
She asked, her voice quivering, "Why are you doing this?"
"For Allah," he replied, his voice barely over a whisper. "For heaven".
"And what will you do when they won't let you in? Will you storm the barricades of heaven?"
He twisted his wrist.


He smiled up at her as she tucked the blanket under his chin, her hands smelling of the honey she'd put on his ice cream just a few minutes ago. She gently brushed his cheek with the back of her hand and kissed him good night. Turning off the light as she walked out the room, softly closing the door behind her. He watched the sliver of light narrow until he could only see the outlines of the door. Throwing off the covers shackling him to the bed, he tiptoed to the door, his batman action figure in hand. Putting his ear against the rough wood he strained his ears. He heard the sound of footsteps retreating down the stairs and the TV being turned on.
A grin spread across his face like sunshine on a rainy day. In the blue hue of the night lamp he stuck his arm under the bed and pulled out his action figures, laying them out on the bed, making up his stories about how his superheroes fought to save his world, his city, his house ... his family. They flew around the room in the safety of his little hands, with a whooshing sound that sounded suspiciously like someone blowing. They spoke to each other in the shrill voices only a little different from each others'. They made plans to defeat villains in their cave hideouts or their clandestine space stations with quilted roofs and walls. The plans were always the simplest one, beat the snot out of them. All of this as quietly as possible so that nobody would realize that their puppet master was awake. Time passed and slurred conversations were interspersed with yawns, until finally the world had to wait until morning to be saved.
His little hands let go of their charges as he fell asleep with his head under the quilt cum cave at the foot of the bed.
He opened his eyes to thin slits at the slam of the front door, turned over and sought his dreams again. The sounds of shouting from below didn't touch his blanketed ears. His slumbering consciousness didn't heed the sound of shattering glass or of hurried footsteps up the stairs.
The door of the room adjoining his slammed shut, forcing him into a wanton state of waking. The sound of the bolt being thrown barely registered.
He heard the muffled screams of his father as he banged his fist against the locked door. The slurred speech a sign of how drunk he'd gotten. He heard his mother arguing with him through the door. Sobs held her words back as they tried to get free. He sat upright in his bed, back against the wall. Sleep, a distant memory. Dreams and illusions shattered against reality. He brought up his knees against his chest as the shouting increased in volume. He could hear what they were saying through the thin walls. The sound of his father's fists on the door. He wished they'd stop fighting. He hoped his father would pass out. The shouting continued. Sobs and Stutters against bellows and roars.
The crack of the bolt giving way startled him. He brought his legs closer to his chest, hugging them. His breath came out in laboured gasps close together, as though he'd been sprinting. He heard a sound he recognized all too well, the sound made by his father's belt when it touched flesh. He squeezed his eyes shut, the wrinkles in his eyelids making him seem older than his tender age. Rocking back and forth, his back to the wall, his head made a soft knocking sound against wall behind him.
With every crack of his father's belt he heard a whimper. After a while he didn't know which side of the wall it came from.

The Dangling Conversation

She walked up the pitted concrete stairs into the dilapidated building hoping it wouldn't fall down around her ears. The sounds that normally occupy the afternoon seemed conspicuously absent from the apartments in the building. Wondering how many were still occupied she walked down the dark corridor with its single flickering tube light at the end. She walked away from the sun, unflinching and confident towards the unsteady light of flickering tube that wouldn't even be able to serve as a child's night light.
The brown paper bag in her hand seemed to move in the opposite direction she was moving in, the inertia of the coffee cups inside pushing and pulling it, rending it apart. She didn't notice though, all too consumed with the thoughts and ideas playing hide and go seek in her head. Fleeting images, sounds and smells that seemed to stay only long enough to bring up another memory. All of the things she wanted to forget but couldn't. All of the things that had once made her happy and now hurt. All of the things that she hoped to fix here today, perhaps build on. Maybe laugh about a few years from now. She didn't think that would happen.
Turning at the end of the corridor she climbed the aged wooden steps up, unsettling the film of dust that had collected there as the planks creaked under her weight. Her breath came in soft, laboured gasps that exertion had nothing to do with. Her anxiety seemed to multiply with each step she took. Climbing one storey had never been that hard. The checkered tiles on the floor brought back images of long rainy afternoons spent poring over a chessboard with numerous cups of coffee. Her shoes displaced the grime as she moved two squares forward and one to the right ... knight in a tweed suit. The thought brought a smile to her face. An extremely nervous knight.
The green door she stood at was cracked along a groove in the wood, the paint falling off in flakes, collecting at the bottom of the door. Nobody had stood there in some time, the cake of dust at the foot of the door was testament to that. She could hear music through the door, barely audible.
Trembling, she knocked on the door, barely creating any sound at all, knowing that it wouldn't be loud enough to hear. Looking for an excuse not to go in. She gathered up all of her courage with a deep breath and knocked louder. This time more sure of herself, or so she hoped. She heard scrape of furniture on the floor and then nothing. The sound of breaking glass and a muffled curse from within.
She heard the latch being unfastened and saw the door open up a crack. The room inside was almost pitch dark. A bloodshot eye looked out over the chain holding the door in place, the pupil constricting, adjusting to the light. Rage brought the eyebrow down as recognition dawned. The door had almost reached the frame before she put her hand against it.
The eye behind the door shrank, reflecting the force behind the door. She stood holding it back with all of the strength that she could muster and some that she couldn't, as though her desperation had taken physical form. She stood with a pleading expression on her face, looking through the small opening in the door. Finally, small sigh and a few seconds later the pressure on the door stopped. S took a step back. The sound of the chain being unfastened seemed almost like music. A gasp escaped from her mouth as the door opened.
The frail form of a young girl stood in the doorway, standing out against the shadows behind her. The black t-shirt with yellow stains made her pale skin look almost like alabaster. The impassive expression completing the illusion of a statue. She leaned against the door frame with her arms crossed. She looked emaciated, as though she had stopped eating altogether. The tips of the fingers on her right hand had bandages on them. The drum of a crack pipe stuck out of the pocket of her torn denim shorts.
She looked at the alabaster youth, willing herself to say something. An ocean roared in her ears, keeping time with her racing heart. She took a deep breath and just as the words were about to roll, Sirha held up her hand. Bhuvna Naik's eyes were rooted to Sirha's hand and the words she was about to speak stopped cold in her mouth, her promises and assurances never made it out of her head ... out of her heart. She cast her eyes down and noticed the marks on Sirha's arms, the small red dots standing out against the alabaster skin. The places where the clots had healed seemed just a little lighter than the rest of her arm. What was she into this time?
Ms Naik looked up into the eyes of her onetime lover and the love of her life to find only rage and resentment staring back at her. The door closed and once again reasserting the borders of their lives. Taking her fountain pen from her jacket pocket she scribbled a message on one of the tissues from the brown paper bag and put them down at the door. She walked away with a tear spoiling the makeup on her cheek, the sound her shoes made echoing down the hallway.
The tissue fell from its place atop the paper bag, the ink still drying. "Whenever you're ready".
I first introduced Ms Naik and Sirha in "A Pinch Of Soul".
Approximately 5% (200 million people) of the worlds population is addicted to an illegal drug.

Song for the Asking

He scratched the beard that covered most of his face, the patch over his left eye taking care of the rest. His dry lips cracking in the recesses of blackness, trying to hold onto the mouthpiece of the saxophone. He leaned with his back against a wall, decorated with graffiti, cracked, old, dirty ... he felt a kinship with it. They supported each other, a certain symbiotic relationship that started so very long ago. His coat swung around as he looked at the people milling about him, trying to catch their eye, but they gave him as much attention as they did the wall he was holding up. Pulling his thoughts away from his faces made of stone, he focused his breath into the mouthpiece, trying desperately to hold onto the melody he'd started with. The black case lay open in front of him, still empty except for a few small coins. Looks like he was going hungry tonight.
The setting sun tried hard to peep out from behind the clouds. He played with his eye closed, surrendering to the rhythm his mind created,. The rhythm his fingers and breath translated into music, as though they were acting of their own accord. The dented yet smooth surface of the sax felt warm under his palms. The keys, smooth with age, felt familiar as his fingertips caressed them. He poured his soul into the blues. The notes, tangible in his mind, felt soft ... soothing, yet cold, somehow distant, incomplete. Behind his wrinkled dancingeyelid he watched the notes climb to the clouds, saw them lose their way and vanish into nothingness. Losing his place again, he opened his eyes, greeted by a few more coins, worn with use and age, like him, and a little girl staring up at him.
Her pink satin frock with the white sashes, against the drab background they were set in, swayed as she moved, dancing slowly. The brown teddy bear with blue eyes and a black nose that she hugged seemed too big for her little hands. Her big brown eyes, wide open with curiosity, staring at him with wonder in their eyes. He raised his head in a questioning gesture, wondering why she was staring at him.
She shuffled her feet under his gaze, drawing circles in the dust, buying time. She took a deep breath.
"Mister, I don't have any money to pay you, but could you please play 'Humpty Dumpty' for me?"
Her voice was like honey, oozing with innocence and sincerity. She suddenly seemed woefully out of place in her gray surroundings. She reminded him of the patch in the clouds where the sun seemed to be trying to get through.
He smiled his crooked smile, "Sure, sweetie, my name's Thompson. What's yours?"
She looked at him through narrowed eyes, hands on her hips. "My mom used to tell me not to give my name to strangers, so I'm not going to tell you."
Laughing, he put the mouthpiece to his lips. The notes came clear, loud, steady, for the first time in long time. She sang the rhyme in her honey voice, loud, clear ... sweet. He closed his eye and leaned against the wall behind him, losing himself to the music. Her voice faded into the myriad of notes.
He opened his eye to a world a little less gray.