Skip to content

The Secret of the Runes

December 15, 2013


It’s been nine months.  I don’t know why it would come to mind now, but it has.  I suddenly find myself wondering for the first time what in the hell the guy was thinking when he came up out of that bunker.  He must have known what was waiting for him.  The bunker was far enough in front of the targeted buildings that it wouldn’t have suffered any damage, though I imagine the sound and tremor of the attack must have been terrifying from inside.  The tanks had stopped firing three or four minutes before, long enough for those of us at the offset position to have driven down into the plaza area and for the commandos to have dropped from their vehicles and begun to clear the area.

I’ve reviewed it over and again in my mind – the seared image is surprisingly clear – and I can’t grasp onto anything that provides a clue.  Was it a panicked attempt to escape?  Was he trying to go out in a blaze of glory and earn martyrdom?  Did he just not get it and think he still had a chance to fight?  Did he believe he had no other option?  Or, was he simply not reasoning at all?

The manner of tonight’s treadmill time surely contributed to these thoughts.  I usually avoid holding on to the hand rails so that I can get my upper body moving a little bit along with my legs.  Unfortunately however, I fell down some stairs last Tuesday, giving my right foot a pretty good twist, and tonight had been my first attempt to get back on the belt.  I was taking it slow since the foot was still sore and wearing high-top sneakers for extra support, not especially conducive to fast walking (my preferred gait).  Treading so slowly, mainly just to stretch out the bruised foot, I opted to hold on to the rails and close my eyes throughout the 60-minute trek.  As per my usual, I had the lights out and the headphones on to stimulate “pondering.”  I imagine having the additional neurons freed up by using my hands to lock me into the correct place was the difference that carried my thoughts in an unexpected direction.

The idea that he was making some valiant last stand for Allah or country just doesn’t fit.  There simply wasn’t that sense in the air at the time.  We hadn’t seen many true believers in the region, be they religious or regime.  Sure, the party goons had built up an exaggerated sense of their own standing after the Marines opted to bypass them initially, but by this day the Brits had cleared out various checkpoints and strongholds and it had become clear that the “opposition” was neither well-organized nor strident.  Even the buildings in front of which our man’s bunker sat were found to be empty save a tiny cache of small arms.  There had not been a single casualty in the initial attack, a result of shooting a few warning rounds into the exterior walls and launching smoke grenades through the windows prior to the full-on strike to allow any poor bastards inside to get out before all hell broke loose.

Weighing against the likelihood of his having sought martyrdom or hero-status was the fact that he had a full second and a half between the time he popped out of the bunker with his AK-47 and the time he went down.  Maybe I’ve seen too many movies, but if he were seeking to go out in a blaze of glory, wouldn’t he have started firing or shouting out prayers or curses before he came barreling up out of the bunker to his certain doom?  In my perception, he had time.

Tonight’s pondering mood wasn’t solely the result of the sore foot.  It also reflected the evening’s music choice.  Rather than an upbeat workout option, I was listening to one of those CDs that probably no one else in my personal circle would tolerate.  As I tread, I assaulted my brain with the symphonic/opera metal that has increasingly appealed to me as I near forty.  Guitars are tuned low and fluctuate between dirge and thrash, while choruses of ladies and lords sing overwrought, stylized lyrics in languages I cannot understand.  Occasional interludes of baroque violins and acoustic guitar create a Lord of the Rings transcendent feeling.  Tonight it was Secret of the Runes by the group Therion, a series of “movements” – sung mostly in Danish, I think – each evoking one of 10 Norse runes, the stuff of Scandinavian legend and Viking romance.  While likely cheesy to some, I find it calming.  Why odes to Midgard and Nifelheim would send my thoughts reeling back to that particular day however, I do not know.

Therion - Secret of the Runes

I ask myself over and over: why didn’t he just give up?  By then he would have heard that thousands of regular army had been allowed to simply go home without any registering or questioning.  Disarmed former combatants were all over the town, unmolested.  Our man simply must have known that he had an option to give up!

He did not give up though, damnit!  He did not emerge slowly nor did he yell “don’t shoot” or anything similar in Arabic, English, or sign language for that matter.  His weapon was not over his head nor at his side; it was up in both hands and his finger was on or near the trigger.  He came bursting up out of that bunker like a bat out of hell.

There were actually two men in that bunker but I can’t wrap my mind around the existence of the other one as I never saw him.  The commandos reacted so quickly to the first threat that the second guy never even made it up out of the hole; he was hit before coming into my view.  Thus, only the first guy, the guy, etched his way into my memories.

When I’m on the treadmill, all feels right and relaxed.  I focus on the music and my consciousness drifts peacefully.  Afterwards, I often head to the pool to just float easily and cool down.  By the time I head in for bed, I am enjoying a serenity and lightness often absent in my normal mental mess.  I consistently note that “this is good” and make personal resolutions to exercise more, eat right, stop being so damn angst-ridden, and get back to being the happy person I pretend I used to be.  While work-related stuff sometimes drifts passingly through my wandering thoughts, the contemplated goals and contented plans never have to do with work itself, a part of life that seems unimportant during these moments of crystal blue.

The steps leading out of the bunker exited towards an area where there were no troops.  I saw him rush out and clearly remember thinking “oh shit, he’s gonna get shots off at the Brit kids,” which is the reason I know he should have had time to fire.  The commandos moved like a well-oiled, Swiss-engineered machine, or a ballet or…. something.  Smooth is fast and they were smooth.  I don’t remember actually seeing them shift but suddenly they were shifted and the man was going down.  The commandos had rotated on their pivots and were right where they needed to be with no big gestures at all.


Even the shots themselves were silky and surreal, no rat-a-tat-tat of automatic firing but a series of five or six individual, precise trigger pulls.  I’d swear I saw two bullets come out of the man’s torso; they must have gone in just behind his right arm and come across diagonally and toward the front.  The sensation was that of seeing mists of air puff out of his chest as each bullet exited.  He started to fall forward only after the two bullets I saw – I swear I saw them – had passed through.  The man kept hold of his weapon and simply fell forward on top of it.  There was no effort to put his hands out to break the fall or any other reaction I could see.  I assumed he had died instantly and that was why there was no reflex action, but who knows.

Quickly as it began, the moment was over.  The bulk of the machine turned its attention back to securing the broader area, while a few troops proceeded to check the bodies and remove the weapons.  There was no yelling or even talking that I can remember.

My foot had swollen up pretty good by the morning after my fall but by tonight, five days later, the swelling was generally gone save for a small area at the front of my ankle.  I didn’t feel any pain or tenderness while on the treadmill, although I could find the soreness by rotating the foot side to side.  The funny thing – or the probably physiologically perfectly natural thing – is that it has only started to bruise up now.  I guess the blood – ‘cause that’s what makes a bruise, right? – has begun washing downwards with gravity and pooling up under my ankle bones and out by my toes.  My wife and son think the bruising between the toes is humorous.  They’ve both been good enough to give me a few quick foot massages that really make it feel better.

There were crowds of people all around watching the aftermath of the initial attack.  It reminded me of people coming out to watch firefighters put out a fire or construction workers undertake a demolition job.  There was a great calmness, with people idly chatting, pointing, or just staring.  I don’t recall any difference in the crowd before and after the man came up out of the bunker.  As the body lay there, I looked around and remember noticing that there were no indications of shock or grief or outrage or surprise or fear or excitement or joy among the crowd of onlookers; instead they all seemed to remain unmoved and unfazed.


I didn’t do it tonight but I often place a candle in the room and then do my hour on the treadmill while the candlelight flickers.  I don’t use the flowery, scented candles though, just a simple wax job.  I like them to be inside painted glass or some other colored holder so that the flickering is muted and textured on the walls.  I have also found that music from speakers, no matter how loud or how good the quality, does not do it for me when I am treading.  It really has to be headphones.

Which reminds me, I’ve been wanting to rent that old movie “Altered States” about the guy who builds a sensory deprivation tank and proceeds to go on weird mental trips.  I remember when it first came out it was the talk of the high school hallways. (“It’s like drugs, man.”)  I haven’t seen it since then though and I’m a bit afraid that its effects/story won’t have withstood the years and it won’t live up to my memories.  That would be a bummer.

— originally written early 2004


From → Daydreams, Music

  1. Wow, I can’t even imagine seeing something like that, although I’ve heard a lot of terrible stories from my uncles about WWII that will haunt me for the rest of my life. I admire you for being tough enough to do what you’ve had to do.

    I also admire you for doing a whole hour on the treadmill. I do forty minutes, and halfway through, I get off and lie miserably on the floor for a few minutes before I can make myself finish, heh heh. But I do the headphones thing like you and a lot of my ideas for my blog posts come to me during that time.

  2. Memory, music, military training, numbness, exercise, a candle dance, a foot massage;
    So many altered states. So many deep blue ripples. So many seas, Ulysses.

  3. I realise I haven’t offered any compliments today. Perhaps I hope the act of spending time gets the message across. Maybe the depth of your writing, and this piece in particular, makes brief commentary fatuous.
    I’ll say this, though. Your awareness and deployment of structure is simply brilliant. I really hope you have a long-form manuscript tucked away somewhere.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: