Christmas under the Crescent

- a Gothic story

by Marco Schuffelen

You might want to narrow this window for easier reading.

Weathered, grey highrises emerged from the high dead grass, untended bushes and leafless trees. Soundlessly Frank de Regt ran among them, a wiry middle-aged man, his breath forming little clouds in the winter air. Hearing a noisy patrol he lay down and froze, but equally hating the cold the bearded men in white passed by quickly. Stiffly, the runner moved on. He knocked softly on a window, a door opened a crack.
"Knauen tag," he whispered. He was led to a room where a carpet had been rolled back, a trapdoor opened. Descending a ladder he entered a complex underground structure, long and winding corridors, some newly constructed after entrances that had fallen under suspicion had been cut off. He passed by dozens of rooms for language and history classes, religious services and bible stories, even a small Jewish cemetery. There were duckboards to walk on, the uncovered walls were sparsely decorated with pine and holly branches; sounds were muffled and it smelled of damp earth.
In one of the rooms he joined a small group for the weekly hour of new rock from America: Neil Young still going strong, and several songs by Jimi Hendrix with Arthur Lee, The Everlasting First, freshly unearthed from a deep vault over the ocean. Small radios for news were fairly common, but music-grade sound systems had almost disappeared. Music dulls the mind, because it involves pleasure and ecstasy, similar to drugs; to hear a woman sing is to see her naked. Western music has not exalted the spirit.

When the music was over, a man in a sweater picturing a swimming lion took the group to a festive meeting in a room behind a hall showing porn videos. Oddly, in the midst of all the throbbing pink some men were quietly playing chess. Frank watched the screens for a moment, fascinated yet repelled. The video machines must have been about the last of their kind outside the Institute for the Study of Western Decadence: Frank de Regt had worked the elevator there for a while, daily shuttling hundreds of joyless, severe men from their studies to prayer and back again. The Institute was housed in the former Welfare Department: poetic justice would have assigned this building to the Diwaan, the office for the distribution of revenues among the warriors, but in the real world the military's prestige had netted them the lush former State Department.
For a moment the sad events came to mind that had driven him underground on a day like this, when he should have been at home playing with his children, enjoying a nice meal, a lighted Christmas tree. He remembered, almost heard Darlene Love sing, wildly: `The grass is green, the orange and palm trees sway ... There's never been such a day in old L.A.'

On a quiet Easter morning a new Armada had landed thousands upon thousands of young men with no future in their own part of the world, their fifth column ready and waiting on the beaches and in the streets. Promised the girls and comforts either of paradise or of the lands to be occupied they methodically and ruthlessly plunged the country into chaos, priests and ministers were shot at services for sheer terror, within a few days most cabinet members and other politicians had been murdered, the young king a prisoner, his car collection abducted, the queen disappeared. The country was spinning out of control, faster and faster until no one was left standing in the middle, the center emptied: moderates from both sides disappeared or slid to the fringes, and in the civil war victory was for the merciless. Make war upon them until they pay the tribute readily, being brought low. Xenocracy.
Escape hatches and the presence of armed guards made Frank realize that some important people must be present at the banquet, and indeed underground leader Klaas Burgers rose and spoke of happier days. Before the invasion he had stood up for refugees and he had been an advocate for illegal immigrants' rights, but still the new rulers had taken his wife and all he owned, and he had been taken in chains to the enemy capital, where one of his eyes had been removed and his brother killed.
"Once we were a great nation," he spoke, "Draining the bogs and reclaiming the land, shovels for arms, levees our armor! With the involvement of the common people in the water boards we pioneered democracy in the West. Our shipping cheap with small crews and windmills sawing boards, we became the greatest trading nation in the world, the highest Gross National Product per capita from 1550 to 1750. We threw out the bloody Inquisition and licked the mighty Spanish Empire in our war of liberation, even if it took eighty years. We were the first to salute the revolutionary United States --- though the English revenge nearly finished us off. Unfair trade practices banned our ships and the English and French professional navies got the upper hand. We were only a small nation, our warships were refitted merchantmen that still had to earn their keep. But remember when Piet Hein (his name is short) hit the jackpot, capturing the Spanish Silver Fleet off Cuba: that year the West India Company paid 75% dividend. And our famous tolerance! We were known all over the world for our tolerance! The lion is struggling, but it will rise again!"
"A toast to our great nation!" Harry Pekel shouted. Muscular, young, with very short blond hair, the former pig farmer was the wild man of the resistance. "We captured this liquor in a raid on El Kameh's yacht, the supposedly invincible Alamut." He spat the name out triumphantly. "But the governor was spending the night with a lady friend on shore, or we would have had him here tonight too, roasting with the pig on the barbecue!" he snorted contemptuously.
"You're all dreamers and barbarians! Those days are over," someone said quietly, and all heads turned to the fat yet distinguished-looking Jan Engerman. Frank remembered a newspaper picture of him talking to the governor. "We have lost, these people are here to stay. We can't help ourselves and no one is going to deliver us. It's not a law of nature that victory goes to the Good. The Nazis lost because Hitler was so foolish as to attack Russia and to declare war on the U.S.A.. Had he not done that they would still be here and our country would be part of Germany now." Engerman rose from his seat. "We will have to make the best of a bad situation. If we accept their supremacy they'll grant us certain rights, as their law prescribes. By giving in to their demands we may be able to save something. If we stop the raids and our resistance they may relax and we might have a life again. El Kameh said that if we drop the House of Orange we can have some hours of our own language in the schools. I think we can do without the king." Chairs being pushed back screeched and a crowd gathered around Engerman, shouting, arguing heatedly.

With chairs flying and bottles crashing around him Frank went out to the video room and watched the seemingly willing flesh again. Unhappy he left to walk the dark streets of the old city. On a bridge over a canal he rested his head on his arms, then put his forehead to the cold handrail. There seemed to be no decent future above ground, nor in the catacombs; and the underground thing was bound to collapse or be penetrated someday anyway; soon, impotent hate would be all that was left. Furry animals swam and played in the smelly water under the bridge. A curfew patrol might have picked him up for all he cared: maybe mindless, hard labor would take his mind off the emptiness inside.

Mercifully, a light snow began to fall, as if to cover the ugliness. For the moment the snow melted on touching the earth, but as Frank noticed it was getting colder he realized he had to make haste if he wanted to get anywhere without making clear tracks. He hurried over the old cobblestones to the cracked asphalt of the outskirts, moving in the shadows of the houses. All over town white towers had been erected for the call to prayer that sounded five times dayly; because the country was taken by force the criers were armed, and some of them were quite good shots.
The brick midrises from the fifties stood like a breached medieval city wall, then fields stretched to the forest on the horizon. The shortest way to the old ceremonial hill would have been through the neighborhood where he was born, but only the new rulers and their servants were allowed to go there now. He crossed the beltway and ran into the fields. With the new taxes much of the land was left fallow, and more than once Frank heard animals scurry for cover from his path.

"Was gangith thar?" the soft challenge from the forest felt like a courteous welcome.
"Frijonds," he answered.
"You're just in time."
In a clearing at the top of a sunken road a group of twenty or so was gathered around a boy in a white robe who was sprinkling something from a small bottle on a straw-wrapped wheel. It was put upright, a match struck and burning the wheel was rolled down the sunken road. It bumped a few times, sparks flying high, but it didn't swerve or fall, its flames disappearing on a straight course. The crowd muttered, nonplussed. "Something unexpected will happen," said an unpleasant voice.
As the priest took off the robe Frank realized it was a woman. She was very pretty and had a wonderful figure, but her short hair and boyish air must have made her escape the occupiers' attentions. Her magical dance left the worshippers greatly strengthened.
She came up to Frank. "I hear you're crossing over tonight? Let me give you something for the journey." She picked up a small stepladder and took him to an old oak tree.
"You can't really see it very well, this time of the year," she said, pointing a long finger at a fork in the tree, "But those twigs are from a parasite. Being not of the earth makes it special." She produced a plastic cutter from the folds of her robe and handed Frank a piece of fabric. Standing very close to him, she suddenly snapped: "Hey --- it's not mistletoe ---" It sounded as if she was going to add `pal,' but she didn't.
"Sorry," she said, touching his elbow. "One gets so coarse up here."
Quickly she climbed the ladder. "It's a charm to keep you on your way. Please catch it on the sheet," she called, "It's not supposed to touch the earth."
"Remember, when you're out there," she lectured Frank from the top of the ladder, "The old Germanic culture came not only from the aggressive Indo-European herdsmen and warriors, but from a fusion with a more settled, possibly matriarchal farmer society."
Once down, she put a finger to his lips, pressing a little too hard. "Be careful," she said. A heavy sadness for the way of life gone forever settled over him, a paralyzing despair. For a moment neither of them moved, then the priestess shook her head as if to derail a misdirected train of thought.
She pressed his arm and repeated, "Be careful." Softly she chanted: "Jah ni bringais uns in fraistubnai," don't lead us into temptation.
"But I don't know where to go," he said.
"Don't worry, you'll find a way," she said. "Follow the wheel." From the dark someone called her name. "Please go now," she ordered the hesitating Frank. From the dark the unpleasant voice called her name. Impatient voices called for her again.
"Please go," she said, "Maybe we'll meet again when it's all over."
"I'm not so sure."
"Quickly, now," she said, "Please remember me like this." Patting him on the back she set him on his way.

Slipping and sliding Frank plodded doggedly through the mud and dirt. He halted as shots and explosions sounded from a cleared strip. Hearing movement close by he went up cautiously, but as the man looked vaguely familiar and did not have a gun or radio he went up to him.
"Knauen tag", he said.
"Ah - raihtis," the man said.
"By the way," Frank said, "Raihtis doesn't mean `right', although it sounds like that in English; it means `already' --- ah well, never mind."
"Yes, yes," the man said. "You look familiar - you must be one of the Gothic people. Great stunt to make the Religious Council believe that the Arianism of the Goths was closer to their monotheism than the usual Christian trinity; it gave us a breathing space and a cover to organize under. Well --- I hope we can make a new start on the other side and leave all that stuff behind us." He sighed. "Did you bring something to eat? We'll have to wait for the dark to cross to the tunnel. We may be glad the people from the other side come out every night to wreck the automatic firing machines." Frank gave him an apple. They dozed through most of the day, till the firing got worse again at twilight.
Frank's companion woke up in a bad mood and got himself going with a bitter tirade. "To think that we allowed these people to preach at our community centers ... we simply didn't know what went on at those so-called `prayer' meetings. It is of course none of our business if someone wants to worship, dress or diet in his own way, but for them the spread of their beliefs by arms is a religious duty. Cleverly they exploited the Western fear of being intolerant and narrow, and their leaders knew that crass imperialism would simply be incredible to Western public opinion, in the same way that the Nazis were able to discount reports of the death camps as horror propaganda. Cynically, they used the Multiculturalism they themselves did not respect, for they are supremacists. Have you seen what their book says about the Jews? `Wretchedness and baseness were stamped upon them ... devouring people's wealth by false pretenses ... you will discover treachery from all save a few of them ...' It is not much different from Mein Kampf.
"While we were concerned about Neonazi rioting in Germany these people killed hundreds of Christians in Egypt; while we worried about Bosnia they led a holy war that emptied the Sudan of unbelievers, a cleansing on a much larger scale. `Those who deny freedom to others do not deserve it themselves ...' Didn't Abraham Lincoln say that?
"Proudly, arrogantly they deny Christ's divinity and portray His crucifixion as a mirage, but this poor Indian who made a few jokes about their prophet had to die." Excited, he got to his feet, shaking a fist. "We let in a wolf in sheep's clothing ... waiting in vain for a Luther who would restrict the ideology to the spiritual and personal ---" A sharp, painful whistle and a heavy explosion close by stopped the speaker short.
Dazed, Frank de Regt saw blood on his left hand; he burned his fingers when he picked out a small shell fragment. Blood pulsed from the back of the man who a moment earlier had been speaking sensibly and eloquently. When Frank turned him over the wounds looked hopeless. "Hammer," the man murmured, "A hammer." In his companion's agony Frank finally recognized the official who had greeted Governor El Kameh at his installation with a barked Allah Akbar and the Hitler salute. When the moaning stopped, Frank threw some soil over him and ran.

"You look awful, man," was the greeting when Frank emerged from the tunnel. "Have you ever seen one this dirty?" Squinting against the light Frank saw a very big man in rags, his thinning, long blond hair dirty, a few smaller men around him. "We'll have to clean you first," he said with a chuckle and hosed him down with water that mercifully wasn't too cold.
"Welcome," he said, and slapped Frank on the back, so hard he had to cough. "I am Karel Spijker, holding the line. Ah --- the pretty priestess." He touched the twig still in Frank's mouth. "Hope we can welcome her here someday, so far we only know her from her songs. Hey --- take a shower and put on some dry clothes."
On the Line small windmills silently generated electricity or drove various machines directly, exercise machines powered TV sets. A large boat went by, propelled by one man pushing pedals like an old bicycle. The man called out to him. "Aren't you Frank de Regt? You were with the conservatives when we were students? Hadn't expected you to come up here." He sat down for lunch at a table with several people he had known before and who all looked puzzled by his presence. Invariably, they exclaimed they had never dreamed to see him there.
The messroom emptied out after the meal. Frank shivered, the clothes they had given him were not very warm. He said goodbye to Spijker and moved on. Looking back, nothing made the Line stand out from the empty landscape and soon his clothes were as dirty as before.

Occasionally, a no-fly-zone patrol flew over leisurely, some planes doing rolls and loops. At nightfall he saw the glow of campfires at the horizon and after a few hours under a waning moon he stumbled into a settlement. There were a few wooden houses, a couple of tents and some turf huts, but, hard to believe, most of the inhabitants were living in dugouts. The streets were unpaved, though a few had wooden boards for a sidewalk. The dogs' barking brought out a guard who escorted Frank to a barracks at the side of the village. A freshly painted shield stood next to the door.
"Someone just came in, Sir," the guard said to a man who looked very much in charge of things. When he looked up from his dinner, Frank recognized Harry Pekel.
"You were there when we silenced Engerman, weren't you? A good day for our nation. But you must be hungry. Grab a bite." He cut off a piece from the chunk of meat on the table and poured Frank some beer. "Give this man some potatoes!" he shouted.
As Frank took a bite of the meat, Pekel said: "It's from a horse we sacrificed in the morning."
"Horse sacrifice!" Frank cried. The server almost dropped the bowl of potatoes. "Humoring a beautiful priestess is one thing, but killing a horse for no reason is disgusting. You'll have human sacrifice next."
"We thought of that but the people won't accept it," Pekel said. "You know, we have to create a ritual and mythology for the people to rally to. We're no longer in the twentieth century."
"Are you also checking newborns for defects?"
"The one we'll show tomorrow is perfect." Pekel said.
Showing a baby? They certainly dealt in mixed images, Frank thought.
"Take your time," Pekel said, kindly. "I wish it was different, I'd rather work my farm, watching TV at night, but they leave us no choice. Peaceful coexistence has been proven impossible, you have seen where tolerance has got us. We gotta throw them out. Fight fire with fire."
A few minutes later he added: "Please join us soon. Someday you'll have to act: you can't stay on the sidelines forever."
As the barracks was filling up Frank found a back seat. Someone made a long, dull speech about the past national glory, and another speaker said a few words about meetings with the French resistance. Their entertainment standards obviously low and their minds blunted by the copious flow of beer, the audience sat obediently through a presentation by a fuzzy, burly academic that was meant to show Harry Pekel's descent from an old Germanic royal family. Frank thought it all highly questionable, but the crowd roared at the conclusion: "As I have proven without a doubt that our beloved leader Harry Pekel is of noble birth, all obstacles to his being elected War Leader have been removed!"

Frank woke up at early dawn. Festive lights had been kindled all over the settlement. A group of women ran around, shouting: "The virgin has brought forth --- the light is waxing --- the sun is reborn." One of them held a baby that was shown to everyone they came across. Frank doubted that it would work.
In the afternoon the fat professor repeated dim highlights from his talk on Harry Pekel's lineage, and with a lot of shouting Pekel was duly elected War Leader. There seemed to be no other candidates. He was raised on the painted shield and paraded through the settlement.
"My name-of-war is Harm!" he shouted, exhilarated. He drank beer from a skull and passed it around. "We need more skulls! Bring me more skulls!"
Frank de Regt left the group at the smoking campfire and walked off. But where to go? And what for? "Lausei uns af thamma ubilin," he muttered angrily, deliver us from evil.

The next stop was at the foot of the mountains.
"A cup of tea, Sir?" the lone attendant at the checkpoint asked. "Please write a book before you leave. I'll clear a desk for you." But Frank declined politely and walked straight on.

© Marco Schuffelen, 1992-1993 / All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

Last Christmas in Siberia
Pulp (Going to Pieces)


Was the page useful to you? Did you hear or learn something new? Were you entertained? Your time well spent?
A small percentage from anything you order at starting from the box at right will benefit the website.
Amazon Logo

Or visit: Donate to Hear Dutch Here or Buy CD-ROM or USB memory stick of my website