Heavy Is The Heart started out as a completely different story. A friend of mine challenged me to write the tale of a person who winds up in the "wrong" afterlife. My mind reeled with possibilities. Where did I want to take this? A Viking in Nirvana? A Buddhist in Valhalla? There were so many good ideas to choose from, and each thought just spawned another. It could be spec-fic, comedy, horror... the potential directions to go were limitless.
But, at heart, I've always preferred stories of a darker bent. I knew early on that I wanted my story to revolve around a child. It would be about a young kid, a bully, who loved tormenting other kids. He would be irascible and horrible, all the things that make bullies so universally hated. Then I would kill him, and the dirty little twit would somehow wind up in heaven. I pictured the story ending with his shock turning into a smirk of mischievous glee as he imagines tearing the wings off the plump little goodie-two-shoes angels sitting on clouds and playing their harps.
I couldn't do it, though. I liked the idea of a picaresque antagonist, but there just wasn't a big enough payoff when the irredeemable actually won the day. I wanted something more visceral, something that held a greater promise of either redemption or tragedy.
As I was deliberating where to go with this, the concept for Abdul and his story popped into my head almost fully formed. He is still a kid, but more complex than a standard bully. Abdul possessed both innocence and guilt in almost equal measure, and I wanted those two opposing forces to pull him in differing directions, balanced on the fulcrum of his own maturing conscience.
I hope that I did him justice, whether or not he deserved it.
The silence was sudden and absolute. Have I succeeded? Abdul wondered. Am I truly dead, or just deaf from the blast? He tentatively wiggled his fingers, then his toes. He could feel them all right where they belonged, and he took that as a sure sign that he must be dead and restored to his spiritual body. It occurred to him that he could have dreamt the whole thing, but he dismissed the thought quickly. He felt sand beneath him, not sheets, and let the stillness settle around him like a blanket or a funeral shroud.
Abdul kept his eyes clenched shut for some time, still too afraid to see the market square that should be covered in bodies and blood, the little bits of him strewn about. He lay completely motionless and strained to listen, but he heard nothing other than absolute stillness. There were none of the screams or wailing he had expected to hear. There was no sharp smell of cordite, no bitter taste of blood or bile in his mouth, no pain from the body that should be torn to pieces. There was nothing but the quiet calm and, he noticed with curiosity, a very slight cool breeze. Abdul sat up and opened his eyes.
He had not been sure what to expect, but it surely wasn't this. The hot day's sun had been replaced by a clear star-filled night and pendulous moon. Gone entirely was the busy marketplace and all of the people who had been there; gone too was the entire city and all of its noisy cars, trucks, and scooters. It was as if all of Cairo had been swallowed by night so that only Abdul and the glimmering sand remained.
Around him, that sand stretched out in all directions, glowing an incandescent blue-white in the bright moonlight. The pristine wilderness of rolling dunes was unmarred by road or building as far as Abdul could see, but for the outline of the three Great Pyramids in their customary place to the southwest.
Confused, the boy followed the sweet scent of lotus flowers that came to him carried on a westerly breeze from the Nile.
* * * *
"Allahu Akbar! Now you say it. Say it boy!"
"Allahu akbar." Abdul repeated softly, seeking approval.
The hand came across his face with ferocious speed, and Abdul's head snapped to the side as the copper taste of blood welled in his mouth. Hot pain seared his cheek as the imprint of his father's hand rose in bas-relief on the tender skin.
"Never again let me hear you say the Takbir so meekly," Sayyid growled, "or I will tan more than your cheek. Our God is the Greatest God, and his name should be proclaimed as the roar of a lion, not the mewling of a lamb. Sometimes I wonder that you are my son."
Abdul Baqi al-Hatem fought back the hot sting of tears before turning to face his father. Sayyid al-Hatem was a giant of a man. He stood almost seven feet tall, his two-pronged black beard reaching almost to the beltline of his white thawb. Abdul, who barely topped five feet though he had turned fourteen just last month, had to look almost straight up to meet his father's glare. Sayyid's dark eyes smoldered in their hollow pits, but Abdul swallowed hard and kept his own gaze steady. He pushed aside feelings of shame and determined that he would make his father proud, just as his brothers had done before him.
"Allahu Akbar!" Abdul yelled, his voice cracking. But before Sayyid could slap him again, Abdul bellowed with all his might. "ALLAHU AKBAR!" he roared it this time, and he felt his chest swell with pride at the power of his own voice. Saying the words louder did not make them any more true for Abdul though, whose heart, already far too heavy for his young years, sought to be filled only with the love and approval of his earthly father.
Sayyid grunted, and with an uncustomary smile slapped the boy heartily on the back. "You may just make a worthy Mujahideen yet, boy. Now come, we must pray and then I will speak to you of a very important task"
* * * *
Abdul felt neither hunger nor thirst as he made his way eastward across the rolling dunes. It seemed he had been walking for days, but always the moon shone bright in the star littered sky. He took his complete lack of bodily desires as proof of his arrival in Jannah, the Paradise that he was promised, though he wondered at the unending night. Where was the warm eternal sun? Where were the Prophet (peace be upon him) and his winged white donkey to greet Abdul and usher him into the endless gardens of delight? Where were the seventy-two virgins his father had promised would be the reward for his sacrifice?
These thoughts troubled Abdul, but he knew that some clerics believed that even a martyr like himself would need to enter Paradise through one of the eight sacred entrances, like the one at the mouth of the Nile. Perhaps the Prophet would be waiting for him there. This must explain why he awoke in this night-side reflection of his beloved Cairo, so that his undying spirit could make the journey and prove its worth as his sundered body had done in life.
Something about this seemed familiar though, and Abdul vaguely recalled reading that the Ancient Egyptians, this land's original inhabitants, believed the soul separated from the body at death to undertake some kind of journey. But it had been many years since his father had banned any book but the Koran in their house, and the memory slipped away before it fully formed.
A clicking rustle from above caught Abdul's attention, and he turned his head skyward. In front of the moon a large silhouette bobbed in clumsy flight, wings outstretched as it made its way in the direction of the Nile. He strained to see but could not quite make out the details. The body appeared to be round, almost oval in shape. He thought it might be an owl but something just didn't seem right about that. Anyway, Abdul knew of no such myth involving an owl in the afterlife. It must be the Prophet's blessed donkey, Abdul decided, come to guide my way.
"I see you al-Barach! Praise be to Allah, I see you! I'm coming!" Abdul called out to the retreating shadow. The creature banked sharply and darted off in a sudden burst of speed as the moonlight fell full on it, illuminating the creature's ovoid form and glinting on its chitinous carapace. Abdul shuddered, whispered a hushed prayer, and watched in confusion as the form of a giant black beetle sped headlong into the East, toward the mouth of the Nile.
* * * *
Abdul's heart hammered a staccato rhythm against his ribs, and the lump in his throat was the size of one of the six F-1 grenades strapped tight across his chest and abdomen. He scanned the crowd and reminded himself the words his father had spoken so many times: these people were all infidels who deserved to die. He tried not to look too closely at the eyes of any one person in the throng, though, especially not those of the children close to his own age who ran and played or sat in doorways beating a rat-a-tat-tat on their colorful doumbek drums.
The grenades in their homemade bandolier hung heavy on Abdul's small frame, and his shoulders hunched under their weight. The long white thawb, so much like the one his father always wore, sagged loosely but covered the lethal mechanism. Abdul tried to ignore the clammy sweat that sheened his face despite the morning's arid heat, and squaring his shoulders as best he could he moved toward the center of the milling crowd.
Abdul knew he should be filled with pride that he was chosen for this righteous duty, but all he felt was a hollow fear and a deep sadness. All he had ever sought was his father's approval, and now that he was about to earn it in blood and pain, he tried to convince himself that the cost was worth the reward.
Six months ago, his older brother Fadi had driven a car bomb into a hotel, killing dozens. Fadi had been seventeen years old. Every night since then, their father had praised Fadi's heroism at mealtime prayer. A year before that, his eldest brother Hanif was killed in a firefight with US soldiers in Iraq where he fought alongside the other Al Qaeda warriors. Daily his name was venerated throughout their household. Hanif had been nineteen. Now, for the first time, Sayyid would speak Abdul's name with pride too, as would his two younger brothers.
"Son," Sayyid had said moments before as he adjusted the cords that connected the grenade pins together, "you will be the youngest al-Hatem to spill the blood of the enemy. Rejoice, knowing that you avenge all who have been trampled under the heel of these Devils." The grenades, originally taken from the corpses of Russian soldiers during the Afghani revolution, were cold and oppressive against Abdul's skin. They felt of death and, despite their age, Abdul had no doubt that they would work. Sayyid al-Hatem was a respected member of Al Qaeda; there was no chance the ordnance would be defective. Abdul swallowed hard as his father's large hands deftly looped the ends of the cords around Abdul's small thumbs. "Just remember, pull them both out from your body at the same time. And, above all else, you must proclaim the glory of Most High Allah for all to hear. It strikes fear into the hearts of the non-believers."
Abdul resisted the temptation to check the loops around his fingers, he resisted the urge to turn and run into the desert and spare the lives of all these people, he resisted the urge to simply curl up on the floor and pretend this was all a dream. He knew what he must do. As the dark skin of his face streaked with tears Abdul cried out "Allahu Akbar - God is the Greatest" as his thumbs shot away from his body.
The line drew taut and all the pins came away from their grenades in a quick succession of hard metallic clicks. Faces around Abdul froze in horror as the implications of his words and actions sank in. Three seconds stretched into a near eternity as the world slowed to a crawl. Abdul watched, frozen in shock at what he was about to be responsible for, as men and women dove to the ground or ran, scrambling to cover enough distance to keep themselves safe. He noticed with immense sorrow a woman covering a small infant with her own body.
Abdul wasn't surprised to note that he was not filled with the fire of righteousness nor electrified by the power of holy vengeance. Instead, he was possessed of the same profound sorrow and constant loneliness that had consumed him for most of his young life. He knew his father would be proud of him though, and that knowledge was the only comfort he had. With heavy heart, Abdul whispered softly, "I am so sorry," just before the first of the linked explosions tore into him and the assembled masses.
* * * *
At length, Abdul reached the mouth of the Nile. In the distance, he noticed a strange depression in the landscape. As he got closer, the image clarified into a stone staircase, leading far beneath the shifting sands to a darkened archway. Sitting at the top of the steps was the strange winged beetle he had seen earlier, and as Abdul approached with trepidation, the creature clicked and spread its wings before making its way down the steps toward the darkness below. Abdul followed, hoping this was the entrance he had been seeking.
Down he went, the surrounding sand solid as any wall, until he came to the great archway. Abdul was dwarfed by the opening, which was easily the height of three men. Inside he saw a faintly guttering light, as of torches, and barely made out what looked like hieroglyphs along the walls. Pushing past his fear, Abdul stepped through the threshold and into the long, dim hallway.
The hieroglyphs looked ancient, but their colors were more vibrant than he had seen in the old books and magazines. They showed a birth scene, and Abdul stared in amazement as he realized that he was looking at what could only be his own mother and father, Sayyid's long black beard unmistakable even in this two-dimensional rendering. Wonder replaced his earlier fear and he made his way slowly down the hall toward an archway in the distance.
All around him, Abdul saw his life etched inexplicably into the ancient rock walls. There he was suckling at his mother's breast as an infant. Abdul paused a long time at that pictogram before moving on. The next was of her funeral, when Abdul was just a toddler and too young to understand any of it. He lingered there too, and hoped that he would see her again very soon. The hieroglyphic narrative of his life continued; there he was listening to his father reading from the Koran to he and his brothers as young boys. There he was at the marketplace as a child, the same one he had just... Abdul looked away and quickly moved on. There he was at Hanif's funeral, and again at Fadi's.
Abdul came finally to the end of the hall and stood at the threshold of another dark archway. Before walking through, he examined the last hieroglyph. It showed a vicious explosion and the foul red splatter that was left of his body. He stared at the flat representations of dozens of people torn apart. Men, women, children. He looked closely and saw the boys his age who had been playing the drums. One of them had been eviscerated by shrapnel, intestines steaming at his feet. Another was clutching his eye as crimson red seeped from behind the blackened hand. He saw the mother who had shielded the infant; she cut in twain, the tiny child in pieces. Abdul doubled over as violent spasms rocked his stomach, and he retched into the sand at the doorway to eternity before walking through into the deep shadows of the room beyond.
As he entered, the room flooded with light. At its center was an enormous sandstone table, upon which sat a large set of scales. One scale was empty, but the other held a brilliant white feather. Behind the table towered what looked like a tall muscular man but for his head, which was in the ebon likeness of a thin desert jackal. At the creature's foot, a monstrous crocodile snapped its jaws and swished its mighty tail. Abdul knew these images, recognized the jackal faced man as Anubis, the Ancient Egyptians' Judge of the Dead, who guarded the entrance to their Afterlife. The crocodile must be Ammut, a vicious and angry goddess who had terrified Abdul as a boy, before he was told that they were only myths. And Abdul recalled that there was something very important about the feather, but he couldn't remember quite what.
None of this made any sense. Were these not dead gods, fallen and discarded as false idols before Allah? The only power they now held was over the imaginations of children and tourists. Abdul felt sure that he should be standing at the entrance to Jannah, not in some moldering tomb with these remnants of his ancestors' beliefs.
"Abdul Baqi al-Hatem." A mighty voice interrupted Abdul's thoughts as the jackal head leveled its gaze at him, rumbling the chamber, sand spilling down like tiny waterfalls from the walls and ceiling above. "You have seen the deeds of your life etched into the undying stone of these eternal walls." A downward flick of Anubis' hand and young Abdul's robe ripped down the center as if a knife tore through the fabric. Abdul could see his beating heart visible through his chest as if it were resting just under the surface of his skin. It pumped at a frantic pace, and fear surged through him as understanding finally dawned.
"Father!" Abdul wailed and beat at his chest with his small fists. "Father, what have you made me do?" he cried. "What have I done?" Abdul looked at the scales and the feather as remembrance of the old stories finally flooded back. His heart was to be weighed against that feather, the feather of Maat, Goddess of truth. If his life was not pure, his heart would be heavier than Maat's feather, and Ammut the crocodile would devour his heart, along with his soul. Abdul would be locked in death eternally, never to see the light of paradise.
If his heart was heavy, and he knew that it was. Abdul fell to his knees, overcome with tears, and whimpered a weak "Allahu akhbar - God is the greatest" between his sobs.
"Not here." Anubis intoned solemnly. "I have seen many Mohammedans stand where you are now, and many others from faiths far and wide." Anubis paused and peered down his long muzzle at Abdul. When Anubis continued, Abdul thought his tone held a note of sympathy. "Canaanites, Buddhists, Hebrews, Christians, Greeks; you all call to your own presumed gods as if being in our presence is not enough to convince you of your error. The children of the world, you never learn until it is too late.
"But we care not who you pray to" the great god continued as he carefully examined the mechanism of the scales. "Truth is absolute; it is not encumbered by the shackles of faith. Now, let us see if your heart is pure."
With that, Abdul fell to his knees as a tide of agonizing pain surged through hum. He saw in horror as his chest split open and his heart, so full of grief and fear and confusion and longing, flew through the air to the outstretched hand of Anubis, who placed it opposite the feather. It sank like a stone as the scales clattered against the tabletop with the weight of it. Blackness overtook him as Anubis flung the heart into Ammut's vicious maw. The hungry wet snapping of the crocodile's jaws was the last sound Abdul heard.
* * * *
I grew up under an ever-present canopy of neon-tinged fog in San Francisco. It's a living city, and I owe my love of creativity to the upbringing I got there. Not at home, but in the grimy alleys and backrooms of darkened clubs; one vice at a time. San Francisco was a Mecca for all things exotic and profane, and I acquired a taste for both while I was there.
Creativity has been in my blood since I was a kid. I cut my teeth in music before moving on to poetry and other forms of wordplay. I've only recently redirected my attentions to fiction; mostly horror but I like to play around in lots of different genres. I love exploring the opposing forces of tragedy and redemption, but I definitely spend most of my time playing in the tragic end of the pool.
In addition to fiction, I also write a monthly column at www.sheneverslept.com and I keep a very rarely updated blog at www.corpse-to-be.blogspot.com that deserves far more of my attention than I actually give it.
Penumbra's next issue will be released on January 1, 2012