Samer’s Dilemma by David Herz

Why settle for thousands of dollars when millions more could be had?

This thought tormented me as I lay awake on the rocky ground, staring up at the starlit sky. Aside from a few sentries, my hundred fighters slumbered around me, wrapped in their sleeping bags. We were camped in the wilderness of the Lebanon Mountains. A shadowy syndicate of foreign collectors had hired us to capture an idol from an isolated village nearby.

“It’s a statue of the Canaanite tree-goddess Ashera,” the syndicate’s agent, Anat, had explained to me during our first meeting in Baalbek two days before. “Meaning it’s at least three thousand years old. Something that ancient would be worth a fortune on the international market. I want you and your militia to escort me to the village, overcome any resistance and bring the idol to Beirut for shipment overseas. My employers will pay you twenty thousand American dollars upon delivery. Each of your men will get ten thousand.”

It was an offer I couldn’t refuse. Back then, in 1981, it would have taken years for the average person in Lebanon to make so much money. Yet twenty thousand dollars seemed paltry compared to the millions Anat’s employers would earn from auctioning the idol internationally. So I lay awake at night, thinking about killing Anat, taking the idol, selling it myself and pocketing all the profits. With civil war consuming Lebanon, there was much an experienced militia commander like me could do with millions of dollars. Instead of selling my services to holy warriors, smugglers and drug lords, I could hire my own army and rule the Beka’a Valley. 

But then, Anat’s shadowy employers might hire assassins or other militias to avenge any betrayal. They seemed rich and powerful enough. Perhaps, I fretted, it might be best to deliver the idol to Beirut and accept the money offered.

I tossed and turned on the rocky ground, caught between ambition and fear, until sleep inevitably claimed me.    


The following morning, my fighters prepared to march, clutching their assault rifles, clad in mixes of faded green fatigues and civilian clothes with sneakers. I walked among them, making jokes, asking about their health and families. They greeted me with cheers, hugs, and kisses on the cheek. Everyone bristled with eagerness, knowing this job would pay well.

Anat dogged my steps. She was a handsome woman, tall and thin with long black curly hair, clad in jeans, hiking boots and a long jacket.

“We’ll reach the village with the idol before noon,” she said. “Are your men ready to fight?”  

I stroked my thick moustache, smiling with bemusement. “Do you really expect much resistance?”

“Oh yes. The villagers worship Ashera. Her idol is sacred to them. They might fight to keep it.”

My eyebrows rose. “They worship a Canaanite tree-goddess?”

Anat nodded. “Pagans and heretics have taken refuge in these mountains for centuries. Many villages around here harbour the remnants of ancient, secret cults.”

“Hah!” I thumped my broad, muscular chest. “Those peasants will be no match for us! We’re the toughest, most fearsome militia in the Beka’a Valley!”

My fighters cheered.

The mountainous terrain gave us no choice but to continue on-foot. We’d left our vehicles in Baalbek the day before. Anat led us along winding trails flanked by tall cedars, crossed by cold, narrow streams. She alone knew the village’s location and had refused to share it with anyone else. I felt a pang of resentment at her clear mistrust, even if thoughts of betrayal filled my head.

The sun shined brightly in the cloudless, blue sky. It was unusually nice weather for winter, a welcome reprieve from the typical wet chills and miserable cold rains. Some of my men took it as a blessing, whispering that God Himself was easing our way.

Later that morning, Anat stopped and pointed. From a ravine, we stared up at a cluster of limestone houses on a rocky escarpment. A faded wooden sign named the village as Bab Al-Jannah, the Gate of Eden.

“These people must love trees,” I muttered. “They worship a tree-goddess, their village is named after Jannah…”

“An excellent observation, Samer!” Anat exclaimed, like a teacher lecturing a young student. “Many scholars believe there is a connection between the Canaanite tree-goddess Ashera and the Tree of Knowledge in Jannah. And many folktales say the Tree of Knowledge was hidden in these mountains after Adam and Eve were expelled from the garden. According to my favourite legend, a great northern warrior comes looking for the Tree of Knowledge. In exchange for one of his eyes, he is allowed to hang from the Tree’s branches and learn the world’s secrets. Would you give an eye for the world’s deepest secrets, Samer?”

I frowned.

“No,” she continued. “You don’t strike me as the type who cares for secrets. You care more for wealth and power. I’ve seen your walled compound in Baalbek with its marble mansion, and the way people tremble and scrape when you and your fighters walk by. The civil war has treated you well.”

“So what? I grew up poor, an orphan in the slums. The war brought opportunity. With enough cunning and toughness, anyone can rise when chaos rules.”

I bristled, wondering if Anat was trying to antagonize me. Yet there was no judgement in her tone or expression. Only cool observation. She smiled and nodded at the village. “Let’s get the idol.”

Bab Al-Jannah looked like a typical poor mountain village, yet certain things were missing. It had no mosque or church. There were no cucumber patches, olive groves or flocks on its outskirts. How did these people live? I wondered. Such questions drifted to the back of my mind as my fighters surrounded the village and rushed into its dirt streets. We rounded up the villagers at gunpoint and herded them to the main square. They walked quietly, with no defiance.

So much for resistance, I thought.

The village’s mukhtar, a tall, thin, white-haired man with hollowed cheeks and sunken brown eyes, stood before his people. He wore an old brown suit and clutched a thick, polished wooden cane.

Anat pointed at him. “He must know where the idol is.”

I nodded. “We’ve come for an ancient Canaanite statue. Surrender it and we’ll leave you alone.”

The mukhtar spread his hands. “There is nothing like that here.”

“Liar,” Anat said.

I drew my pistol. “Surrender the idol, or we’ll kill your people one by one.”

The mukhtar blanched. “I’ll take you to it.”

“Squads one to five, come with me,” I ordered my men. “The rest stay here, keep an eye on the villagers. Stay alert for any trick or ambush.”

The mukhtar led me, Anat and forty fighters down a razorback path carved into a steep mountainside, to a rushing stream with sheer cliffs on either side. We waded through the knee-deep snowmelt, until we reached a narrow grotto. We stepped from the frigid water and scrabbled onto the cave’s dry floor. The grotto widened into a spacious cavern with more than enough room to hold us.

Rocky spikes rose from the cavern’s floor and hung from its domed ceiling, like the jaws of a great stone beast. A pillar stood among them, like a bone stuck in the beast’s throat, sculpted in the form of a tree trunk. Its top bulged out, featuring round breasts with arms folded beneath them. A head with a smooth, featureless face perched upon its thin neck. Long, twisted hair flared up and out like tree branches.

There stood my key to astounding wealth and the power that would come with it. The statue was four-feet-tall and made of clay. Four of my men would be able to carry it on a stretcher. I pointed at the statue, trying not to sound giddy. “Seize it.”

Anat stood beside me, looking excited, practically salivating. My ambition won out over my fear. I aimed my pistol at her head. She faced me calmly and smiled. “Aw, Samer, are you double-crossing me?”   

My finger hovered over the trigger. Several of my fighters advanced upon the clay tree, shoving the old mukhtar aside. I expected him to beg. Instead, he watched us, as if waiting for something to happen. Alarm bells went off in my mind.

“Wait!” I shouted.

The twisted strands of the idol’s hair lashed out, uncoiling and splitting into a thousand arms, fast as snakes. One surged past my upraised hands and coiled around my neck. I thrashed and struggled. Something pricked my upper spine. Numbness spread through my torso and limbs. My body froze. I hung limp. My pistol fell to the ground.

The idol’s multiplying branches seized my fighters about the neck. Clattering echoed through the cavern as rifles and packs dropped from paralysed hands or slid off frozen shoulders. My men stood still. Only their wide eyes frantically shifting and their chests rising and falling gave any sign of life.

My heart hammered. I hadn’t known such terror since getting beaten in the orphanage as a child. The mukhtar stood, still gripping his wooden cane.

The tree branches hadn’t touched Anat.

“War brings opportunity, Samer.” She smirked, staring into my panicked, bulging eyes. “It lets us harvest large numbers. One hundred people might disappear, and the conflict would be blamed.” She walked to the tall mukhtar. “You played your part well, Father.”

He kissed her forehead. “And you’ve brought Mother fine offerings, Daughter.”

Anat laughed. “I showed them a trail to riches. They followed like sheep.”

You! My mind screamed. You, you, you –

The mukhtar faced the clay tree, arms outstretched. “Mother, you asked for instruments. We’ve brought them.”  

The tendrils gripping my neck quivered.

“Tonight, I will sing the song of ages,” I said. “We will dance for the dead skies!”

I spoke, but the words hadn’t come from my mind. While the voice was my own, its manner was different—soft, lilting, feminine. Nor was I the only one who had spoken. My men had all said the same as me, at the same time, in the same tone.

My fear turned into all-consuming terror. I wanted to gibber and shriek, but my body wouldn’t respond.

The mukhtar pounded the butt of his cane on the ground. A sound echoed through the cavern, but not the tapping of wood on stone. It was deep and throbbing, like thunder, or the booming drums played at weddings. Each beat made the cavern tremble, shaking my whole being. The tree’s arms dragged me and my men across the ground. Jagged rocks slashed me, but I felt nothing. We soon stood in a circle. The mukhtar continued beating the ground with his cane, until the cavern quaked with the rumble of a thousand drums.

Between drumbeats, I heard splashing and steps echoing on the cave’s floor. Hope flickered in my breast. The fighters I’d left in the village must have heard the booming and rushed to investigate. We were saved!

Instead, the villagers filed in, gathering along the cavern’s wall, brimming with excitement.

“A show!” they chattered between drumbeats. “Mother Ashera will play for us!”

Where were my men? I wondered desperately. Blood and gore streaked and spattered the villagers’ clothes, faces and hands. Had these unarmed yokels killed my fighters? How? The accursed mukhtar’s thunderous cane rose and fell. Crushing despair filled my being. 

My men and I joined hands. We lifted our feet, stepping to the rhythm, slowly at first, then faster. Our feet followed simple patterns that grew more complex. We tapped, kicked and turned, moving with force and grace. We leaped through the air and bounced on our toes. We spun like dervishes, joining hands, then letting go. Our eyes begged for mercy. The mukhtar increased the tempo.

The villagers watched us dance with avid interest. Hours passed and we continued twirling, slaves to the idol’s will in a demonic dabke. The sun set and darkness fell. The villagers gleamed with strange light, bathing the cave in a silvery glow. They grew to gigantic size. Their heads, crowned with fire, brushed the cavern’s domed ceiling. Inhuman energy crackled in their eyes.

Within my imprisoned mind, I prayed for the first time since my tormented childhood to every deity I knew. Had I not fought for each in the civil war? I had; and betrayed them all in turn, moving from client to client. My mind wailed.

The tendril around my neck tightened its grip. My mouth yawned open. I chanted with my men. The melody was dissonant and the language bizarre. Yet images flashed in my mind. I sang of a great black dragon, vast and timeless with trillions of limbs, until a cancer of stars slew it, burning it from within. I sang of glittering cities beyond the dragon’s void, where mighty queens wore time like pearl necklaces, strung out in chains of infinitesimal moments. I sang of cataclysms, of flight and tumbling through fiery gates to exile in the dragon’s dark, cold corpse universe. I sang of ecstasy and worship in colourful temples—dim reminders of what had been lost. I praised the sweet smell of souls rising up in the smoke of burned offerings.

My mind couldn’t grasp half of what I saw. I detached from reality, save for the mukhtar’s staff rising and falling. The throbbing rhythm was my heartbeat. Its rumbling became my world.

I danced and sang, until the arm gripping my neck released me. Pain and fatigue wracked my body. I collapsed, breathless and aching. My men continued dancing and singing, still held by the tree’s limbs in an awful marionette. Anat towered over me, clothed in light and flame.

I gripped her ankle and wept.

“You’re a murderous brigand,” she said. “It might be a mercy to let you die here. But you deserve unending shame. Go now, back to the valley.”

Unable to walk, I crawled over the jagged ground. My men continued singing and dancing. Their accusing eyes tracked me as I slithered from the cavern. For all I know they are still dancing and singing, trapped in a demonic dabke until their bodies break or whither, the tree’s puppets to their dying day. 

I collapsed outside the grotto by the cold stream. My strength somewhat recovered when I awakened hours later, around noon. Shaking, I retraced my steps downstream, giving the village a wide berth. Here and there, I found the remains of fighters I’d left to guard the villagers. Their shredded bodies lay twisted on the ground, caught in tree branches or smashed against cliffs, as if gigantic creatures had hurled them far and wide. Their dead eyes stared, frozen in disbelief.

Returning to Baalbek took several days. The winter rains suddenly returned, drenching and chilling me. I teetered on the brink of starvation, eating berries and nuts. Yet worst of all was the ache of leaving my men behind.

I stumbled into Baalbek filthy and ragged. People gaped at me. “Is this truly Samer?” they asked.

I suffered constant humiliation. “There goes Samer the Fool,” people said. “He marched into the mountains with a hundred fighters and got them massacred by yokels.” I babbled about demon trees, old gods, cosmic visions and dancing, trying to explain what had happened. Everyone laughed. My career as a fighter was finished. Clients and allies abandoned me.    

I should have left town. That, however, was easier said than done. I was traumatised, broken. After days of wandering in the cold rain, barely eating, I fell ill. I lay alone in my now unguarded compound, shivering with fear and sickness on my canopied bed. Several nights later, voices came from my front yard. I squealed and hid under my bed. Footsteps echoed through the house. Hands grabbed my ankles, dragging me out screaming. I lay on the marble floor, staring up at my fighters’ families.

Some spat in my face. Others kicked and punched me.

“Where are our fathers and husbands?” they demanded. “Where are our sons and brothers? Idiot! You lead them to their deaths!”

“The gods killed them! The tree took them!” I curled up and whimpered. “They’re dancing! I swear!”

“Mad fool!” they jeered. “We’ll spare your life if you give us this lovely compound and all your money. Otherwise, we’ll tear you apart.”

Weeping, I signed a fake sales contract for the compound and gave them the keys to my safe. No one would question anything. The courts and police barely functioned due to the civil war.

I wandered the streets, battered, homeless and ashamed. For a time, I feared a rival militia might kill me. But I was no longer worth the trouble. My enemies were too busy fighting each other. The city echoed with gunfire.


Decades have passed since then. The civil war ended long ago, although its conflicts fester beneath an always fraying peace. I remain in Baalbek, an old broken man smoking hashish. My days are spent at the ancient pagan temples in the heart of town, begging tourists for spare change.

Sometimes, while I sit forlorn among the temples’ majestic colonnades and broken idols, the wind carries voices from the mountains. Dance for us, they whisper. Dance, sheep. Thunder rumbles in the clouds around snowy peaks overlooking the city. Mist rolls through the valley. A giant creature looms on the horizon, a vision unseen by anyone but me. Her many arms stretch towards Baalbek. Doomed mortal warriors dangle from her, their feet kicking the air. Cold winter rains lash my face. I drop to my knees and scream, sobbing.

Tourists trickle through the ruins, snapping pictures. They point and call me mad, but I know better. I am prey to strange deathless powers. When war returns, Anat will come to Baalbek again, seeking new sacrifices.


About the Author

David Herz is an author based in Montreal, Canada. Fantasy and science fiction have been his passion since stumbling upon a dog-eared copy of Dune in his high-school library. When not spending time with his family or working as an engineer, he can be found typing away, striving to create unique, mind-bending stories.


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