The following short story was written in response to a prompt served up on my Facebook feed by one Ms. Pippa Bailey. The prompt: ‘Tell a story about a funeral from the perspective of the one being buried.’ It isn’t precisely that, and I took some risks and might take some flak for this piece, but fiction should encourage a thoughtful response or emotional reaction, shouldn’t it?
Without further ado,
By Joshua T. Calkins-Treworgy (copyright 2017)
Rajit rubbed one hand over his cheek, trying to make sense of what he had witnessed over the course of the last thirty or so minutes. The coarse scrape of his dried, callused fingertips through the thicket of bristles on his face could not be imagined or illusory, no, for it was just as real as the sense he’d had that morning when he awakened to prepare for the day. Likewise, the splendid aroma of various teas brewing behind the dusty wooden bar top a few feet away could not be faked, not without the help of either illicit drugs or the presence of scented candles, neither of which would be tolerated in such an establishment.
He should know; he’d been a patron at this very café more times than he would care to try counting.
More puzzling than what his fingers and nostrils informed him of, however, was the sight of the fellow seated across from him, if indeed it was a fellow at all. For all intents and purposes, the figure who served as Rajit’s companion at the table was little more than a dark gray hooded robe, the top pulled forward far enough to cover the entirety of its wearer’s head, concealing any facial features in impenetrable shadow within. The only other clues Rajit could spot, which had caused his heart to hammer away like a keyboard button someone has errantly left their finger down upon, were the figure’s hands, folded together patiently on the table in front of him.
They were skeletal. Not ‘the skin is stretched so thin that anybody could make out the details of his knuckles’ skeletal, but completely, as in no flesh, no meat, no blood vessels. Leaning against the wall of the café beside this robed figure was an ancient-looking scythe, adding to Rajit’s apprehension. The 47-year-old engineer, who had been born and lived his entire life in Afghanistan, was seated with Death himself, it would appear.
“This cannot be real,” Rajit breathed, absently scratching his cheek once more, casting about the clustered café, trying to meet someone’s, anyone’s, gaze. Yet all eyes seemed to slip away from his, as though the people in the café with him felt compelled to look elsewhere.
‘YOU KNOW VERY WELL THAT IT IS, MR. AL-SHEBARI,’ came a depthless voice from within the hood of the cloak across from him. ‘AND YOU KNOW WHAT IT MEANS THAT YOU AND I ARE SEATED TOGETHER HERE, THAT WE CAN CONVERSE.’ Rajit tried to clear his throat, found it drier than the desert he’d lived surrounded by his whole life.
“I am dead,” said Rajit.
‘GIVE THE MAN A GOLD STAR.’ Rajit once more looked around the café’s interior, blinking rapidly. Somehow, in the span of only a few moments, an entirely new group of customers had come to occupy the space. ‘TIME TENDS TO MOVE A BIT STRANGELY AROUND ME. DON’T GET USED TO IT.’
“I still do not understand,” Rajit said, shifting uncomfortably in his seat. “I remember working on a generator over at the Dai-fa Building, and then a great deal of shouting nearby, getting closer. Then there were people running past me, and I hollered at them that they had no business being back there,” he said, trying to recall exactly what he’d witnessed before coming to in this café.
‘GO ON, YOU’RE GETTING THERE,’ Death intoned.
“And then, there was more shouting,” Rajit said slowly, eyes unfocused from the Now, locked into the realm of Ago as his recollection took control. “But this new shouting was in English, not Arabic. Soldiers, I think.”
‘AND THE MEN WHO HAD COME INTO YOUR WORK AREA AHEAD OF THE SOLDIERS?’
“They did not look like soldiers, but they had guns,” Rajit said. “I tried to escape, but they all started shooting at one another. I thought I got outside, through the back doors,” he said, looking imploringly at the dark stranger as one of the skeletal hands reached gently out and rested on his own forearm, exposed from the elbow-down from the way he rolled up his workshirt sleeves.
‘I AM VERY SORRY, MR. AL-SHEBARI, BUT YOU DID NOT MAKE IT OUT. A STRAY BULLET TORE THROUGH YOUR CAROTID ARTERY. YOU DIED ALMOST INSTANTLY.’ Rajit looked down at the bone-hand upon his arm, and though its touch was arctic, he took a strange comfort in it.
“Then, if I am dead, what am I doing here? Are you really, um, well, who I think you are?”
‘YES, I AM DEATH,’ the depthless voice echoed from within the shadows of the robe’s hood. ‘NOT PRECISELY WHAT YOU HAD IN MIND, I IMAGINE.’
“That would be putting it quite politely.”
‘YOU STRIKE ME AS A RATHER POLITE MAN, MR. AL-SHEBARI. NOW, IF YOU WILL FOLLOW ME,’ said Death, grasping the instrument of his duty and rising from his seat in one fluid motion. ‘YOUR FAMILY HAS BEEN NOTIFIED, AND HAVE COLLECTED YOUR BODY. IT IS PRESENTLY AT YOUR RESIDENCE.’
Rajit rose and followed behind the spectral figure, moving to avoid the patrons within the café, yet noting the fascinating way that they all seemed to naturally move out of the path of his guide and himself as they exited the squat building. Outside, the people in the streets moved in a herky-jerky manner, their every motion seemingly sped up to an unnatural pitch, and the barrage of sounds and scents around him buffeted Rajit harshly as he followed Death through the streets.
“What is happening to these people,” the electrical engineer asked, the hairs on his arms standing on end as he brushed by half a dozen people in his attempts to keep up with Death, who simply passed right by or through everything before him.
‘NOTHING IS HAPPENING TO THEM, MR. AL-SHEBARI. AS I INDICATED BEFORE, THE PASSAGE OF TIME, OR RATHER, ITS PERCEIVED PASSAGE, IS OFTEN A BIT DIFFERENT IN MY PRESENCE. YOU NEEDN’T WORRY YOURSELF OVER IT. WE WILL ARRIVE IN PLENTY OF TIME.’
Rajit huffed, his humble white shoes kicking up dust and sand as he ducked and weaved around pedestrians in an effort to catch up to the Reaper ahead of him. “Arrive where, O angel? In time for what?” Everything around him ceased to move altogether, the world abruptly cast in shades of gray, the color drained out of everything as Death wheeled about in his robes, a menacing skull just visible in the shadows of his hood, bloody crimson pinpricks of light gleaming balefully down at the Afghani man as he loomed over the human.
‘I AM NO ANGEL, MR. AL-SHEBARI,’ the Reaper snarled, his previously formal, flat tone dangerously edged, steel-like in its sudden fury. ‘ANGELS HAVE MASTERS TO WHOM THEY ANSWER. I ANSWER ONLY TO MY DUTY.’ The spectral figure seemed to shrink then back to its previous, man-like stature, the skull fading back out of view with its twinkling lights, and the world began to flow in normal time around them again. The Reaper’s free hand reached down to smooth out his robes, an oddly pedestrian thing to do, given what he was. ‘ANYHOW, LET US BE ON OUR WAY.’
Rajit followed behind once more, opting to keep his mouth shut for the time being. After all, he thought, did not the Prophet say ‘Whoever is silent will be successful’?
When they came into view of the humble two-story structure that had been the home of his family for nearly a decade now, Rajit felt the scalding itch of tears welling up around his eyes. He stopped in his tracks, dropping to his knees in the middle of the sun-blanched street, shaking his head. “I cannot,” he murmured, seemingly to himself. “I cannot.”
‘CANNOT WHAT, MR. AL-SHEBARI,’ asked Death, the bottom hem of his robe and one skeletal foot inching into Rajit’s view as he sat there with his eyes cast down upon the street.
“They will all be in there by now,” Rajit said. “My sons, my brothers, my father. They will be cleaning my body.”
‘WITH WATER AS WARM AS THEY CAN GET IT, TO SANITIZE THE FLESH AND PROTECT THE LIVING FROM INFECTION OF ANY KIND,’ said Death. ‘THE WOMEN-FOLK WILL NOT BE ALLOWED TO SEE YOU LIKE THIS, OR PARTAKE OF THE CLEANING.’ Rajit looked up at Death, his head cocked to one side quizzically.
“You know of my people’s ways, then?”
‘I MAY LOOK LIKE A WESTERNER’S CONCEPT OF, WELL, ME, BUT THAT DOESN’T MEAN I POSSESS THE SAME TYPICAL IGNORANCE OF YOUR CUSTOMS AS THEY, MR. AL-SHEBARI. THE FUNEREAL CUSTOMS OF ALL PEOPLES FALL UNDER MY PURVIEW. IT IS MY DUTY.’ Rajit walked alongside the Reaper then, all the way to the front door of the house, at which he paused.
“Um, how do we,” he began, jumping back as the Reaper simply strode right through the door, disturbing it not in the slightest. Rajit took a tentative step forward, one hand held out before him. The moment he expected his hand to make contact, to feel once more the familiar grain of the wood under his fingertips, he instead experienced a sensation of emptying, as though his hand and arm were ceasing to exist entirely. With a shocked grunt and the utterance of several colorful cuss words, he fell forward through the door like an amateur tumbler warming up to try out for the circus, landing ultimately in a botched sitting posture. Death stood before him, his free hand held down to the Afghani man.
‘TERRIBLY SORRY ABOUT THAT. SHOULD’VE WARNED YOU, THE FIRST TIME IS ALWAYS A BIT DISORIENTING,’ he said as Rajit grasped the bones and hauled himself upright. The living room, which the front door opened upon normally, was just as he had left it when he exited the house just that morning to head off to work, arranged tastefully by his wife over the course of their twenty-seven years of marriage. She sat alone on one of the two couches that dominated the middle of the room, her face buried in her hands, shoulders hitching as she wept as silently as possible.
“Oh, my Fatima,” Rajit moaned, taking a step toward her, hand outstretched. The wicked curve of the Reaper’s scythe shot through the air, coming within a hair’s width of his searching fingertips.
‘YOU CANNOT, MR AL-SHEBARI, NOT IN HER CURRENT STATE.’
“But she needs me,” he said, looking resolutely at the grim specter in its robe.
‘NO, SHE DOES NOT. SHE NEEDS TO GRIEVE, SIR. DO NOT ROB HER OF THAT. TO GRIEVE IS PART OF THE HUMAN EXPERIENCE. NOW, COME.’ The blade pulled away, and after taking one more look at his beloved wife, Rajit tore himself away, following the Reaper through the living room and down a long, narrow hallway off of the north side of it.
The pair could hear murmurs as they neared what had been Rajit’s bedroom since moving into the house, and the electrician found his own body, ashen and waxy-looking, his privates covered with a plain white cloth, laid out on the queen-sized bed he shared with Fatima. Seated beside the bed was his eldest son, Mussef, soaking a plain blue rag in a metal basin of steaming water to his left. His second son, Chara, presently scrubbed between Rajit’s toes, while in the corner farthest from the doorway, Rajit’s father, Tasim, stood like a carven statue of wood, one hand held up over his mouth, eyes narrowed angrily. But the fury in Tasim’s eyes was not directed at his son, who lay dead before him, no; instead, it appeared to Rajit’s soul-eyes to be aimed at the younger man in the opposite corner, right across from door.
“Jelal,” Rajit rumbled, his lips peeling back in a snarl.
‘A PROBLEM, MR AL-SHEBARI?,’ Death asked from where he stood against the wall between Tasim and Jelal’s corners.
“He does not belong here,” Rajit snapped, jabbing one trembling finger at his cousin. “He is a troublemaker, one who perverts the Quar’an for violence! He heeds the council of the clerics who wish to make of us all murderers and martyrs! He is not a man of peace, and should not be near me or my children!”
Death turned slightly toward Jelal, a lanky, angular figure in his corner, his garb filthy and oversized on his narrow frame. The spectral creature seemed to levitate closer to the cousin, brushing within kissing distance from him before wheeling on Rajit and swooping toward the dead man.
‘SO THAT WHOLE BIT ABOUT KILLING NON-BELIEVERS, WHAT’S THAT TO YOU, MR AL-SHEBARI?,’ the Reaper inquired softly. Rajit did not back away, but felt himself instead filled with the same righteous anger he ever felt when hearing his countrymen and fellow Muslims suggesting violence as a course of action.
“It says in the Tawrah, in part that was not a falsehood or addition of misguidance, that to wish harm upon another man without being under threat of harm from the same, is as good as committing the act itself. It says that to slay a man in one’s mind, in one’s heart, is to attempt the murder of the world. What you say, what men like Jelal claim, this is false. It is a misunderstanding of the Sura of the Sword, which states that idolaters be arrested, ambushed in all ways, and slain, if they do not keep with their accords with our people. Can we not, thinking on this lesson of the Tawrah, arrest these idolaters, then, and think violence upon them only, and still be faithful to the Prophet’s command? For to think and wish in our hearts for their demise, we as good as commit the act, but leave the true meting of justice to Allah, in whose hands alone belongs the greatest measure of vengeance.”
The twin lights shone out from under Death’s hood once more, but not crimson this time, rather, a muted cerulean hue. ‘THAT IS NOT THE WORST WAY I’VE EVER HEARD IT VIEWED, MR AL-SHEBARI. FOR AN ELECTRICAL ENGINEER, YOU SEEM WELL-VERSED IN MATTERS OF THEOLOGICAL PHILOSOPHY FROM YOUR OWN FAITH’S VIEWPOINT.’
“Many would disagree with you, and I do not often share this idea,” the dead man confessed, letting out a sigh of relief. In eerie silence he and Death remained in the room as the cleansing was completed. Several family members and neighbors came and went during this time, all male, most extending their condolences and wishing the protection of Allah upon the family in their time of mourning.
As the evening wore on, Rajit found himself wondering about one of those visitors, a middle-aged man whom he did not recognize in the slightest from the neighborhood. Rajit’s family had become fairly popular in this part of the city, due in no small part to his boys being athletically gifted soccer players, frequently organizing pickup games in the streets and in the scrub fields just outside of town. Rajit and his wife had become familiar with most of the locals as a result of being spectators at many of this impromptu matches.
Yet the stranger among the neighborhood visitors left no impression of familiarity upon him, only a passing sense of oddity. “Excuse me, Death,” Rajit said, tugging on the Reaper’s sleeve and leading the spectral figure toward the hallway. He whispered, out of habit, as he continued. “There was a visitor here, about an hour ago,” he began.
‘WHOM YOU DID NOT RECOGNIZE,’ Death supplied.
‘DO NOT CONCERN YOURSELF WITH THIS,’ the cloaked figure replied. ‘NOW, COME. THEY HAVE WRAPPED YOU IN THE PLAIN WHITE COTTON GARMENT. SOON, THEY WILL CONFER YOU TO YOUR GRAVE OUTSIDE OF THE CITY.’ Rajit followed the Reaper once more, pausing for a heartbeat near the kitchen archway to breath deeply the comforting scent of his wife’s ministrations over the evening meal.
Twilight had fallen upon the realm when they exited the house, and for the trip out of town with his corpse, time once again did that queer slippage the Reaper had told him about. What would normally have taken them twenty-five minutes to walk passed in a few blinks of an eye. Soon enough, Rajit watched as his father stepped down into a deep hole that had been dug out earlier by Rajit’s brothers, each of whom stood beside the grave. His father had a tightly rolled ball of soil in his hand, which he carefully set aside in one corner of the grave.
A few minutes later, Rajit’s body was conferred down to Tasim and Kalib, Rajit’s older brother, and the two men positioned him carefully so that his head was pointed in the direction of Mecca. Kalib gently lifted Rajit’s head, and under it Tasim placed the ball of soil he had set aside. Next, Kalib set another under his chin. Lastly, Rajit’s eldest son clambered down into the grave, and set one final ball of soil under his father’s shoulder silently. All three men then climbed up out of the grave, joining the others in assembling around the grave for final prayers before the grave was to be filled in.
‘IT IS A LOVELY CEREMONY,’ Death breathed, and Rajit, sensing a hint of sadness in the Reaper’s voice, turned aside from the sight of his own funeral to behold the shadowy figure. The right hand, skeletal though it was, appeared to be gripping the shaft of his scythe with an effort, as if to cease it from trembling.
“What is wrong, my friend,” Rajit asked. “Is this not the time when I shall ascend into the Heavens?” Death’s cowl shifted slightly, and the faint blue lights shone into Rajit’s own eyes.
‘UNFORTUNATELY, I HAVE ANOTHER TASK HERE, MR AL-SHEBARI. YOUR COUSIN, YOU SEE, IS A FAR WORSE TROUBLEMAKER THAN YOU KNOWN.’ The Reaper’s left arm rose, a singular finger pointing off into the distant sky. Following the line of the fingertip, Rajit gazed off into the middle distance, where he spied a flashing glint of steel, bearing with horrific speed right toward the funeral site. ‘THE VISITOR YOU DID NOT KNOW WAS AN INTELLIGENCE OFFICER, SENT TO CONFIRM YOUR COUSIN’S LOCATION.’
Rajit understood the lethal implications in the blink of an eye, his chest feeling as though it had been pressed flat under a caved-in roof. “But, these other men, they are innocent,” he gasped.
‘AS WERE THE SCORES OF PEOPLE JELAL HAS KILLED IN THE NAME OF ALLAH.’ There came then a blinding flash, and a howling as of all of the minions of Hell shrieking as they received parole from the realm of Satan’s command. Rajit felt himself flung away, followed by a weightlessness, and a brief period of nothingness before once more coalescing into perception.
He found himself standing on the lip of a smouldering crater, surrounded by the stench of ashen, burnt flesh and human matter. Off to his right, the Reaper led a procession of men, the same men who had been present to bury a humble family man and electrical engineer who had never sought to harm anyone. They strode along behind the Reaper, sheathed in a gauze of milky white light, and when they caught sight of Rajit, their faces broke into wide smiles.
As Death approached at the front of this gaggle, Rajit looked down into the crater, his attention pulled down there by furious, terrified gibbering and curses. What he saw there, in the base of the crater, was the soul of his cousin, Jelal, wobbling and staggering back and forth as if drunk. “And what of him,” Rejit spat, thrusting an accusatory finger at his cousin, his entire spirit-body trembling with righteous indignation. “What of he whom brought this ruin upon my family?”
Death at first said nothing, using his scythe instead to guide Rajit’s attention up over Jelal’s head. There, two shimmering angels in flowing white robes, holding massive warhammers in hand, streaked down toward Jelal, who spotted them at the last moment and began to howl in terror.
‘HE WILL GET WHAT HE DESERVES, MR AL-SHEBARI, FOR CORRUPTING YOUR GOD’S WORDS. AND DO YOU KNOW WHY THAT IS?’ Rajit kept his eyes upon the angels and his cousin, who crumpled beneath the brutality of the angels’ blows, which rained down again and again, driving him deeper into the ground, until there was almost no sign of him.
Finally, Rajit nodded. “I do know why, my friend. Allahu Akbar. For God is Great.”