Oddly, reciting the foreboding doomsday verses had restored my calm. I was bones and dust now, but soon I would remember who I was and what I had done. The verses were not grim warnings, but a merciful promise. Finally, this was to be the day when ignorance and oblivion would end and I would know where I fit in God’s plan when I was alive. Does man think that he will be left aimless? I recited the Koranic promise out loud over and over again. This was to be the day when God would unfurl the carpet he had woven from the threads of individual destinies. Today, I would point to a knot on the rug and say, “That is me—that has been my meaning in the Universe.” Even one destined for Hell would not be denied this knowledge, for separation from The Divine Plan is a punishment that God in his mercy does not inflict on any soul. That is the only meaning of Divine Mercy: letting you know who and what you are! All else is just your assigned address in eternity, Heaven or Hell.
What would I remember of my deeds? As in my dream, was I a father who had turned his back on God’s gift of a daughter? Who would rise from this dust to testify against me? How many had felt the influence of my actions? As I took refuge in the promise of Divine Judgment, my fear subsided and I ceased to struggle for my identity. I submitted to whatever here and now my awareness offered, and waited for whatever may come.
Having regained control of myself, I noticed Halsa holding my hand, gently consoling me. “Welcome back,” she said.
I took my time catching my breath. “This is the Day of the Decision,” I mumbled hazily.
“Not yet,” she teased. “You were just ‘Jinn -struck’ for a moment.”
“But isn’t this the end of the world?”
Halsa laughed. “Quite the opposite. Perhaps your Sheikh has trained you too early in the mysteries of the Koran. It has disoriented you.”
“Right now, am I bodily in the presence of this sheikh, being instructed? In the trance of a Sufi dance perhaps? “Please Halsa, I know I have a family. I had a dream last night about them; a dream about a father who had a son and a little girl. There was a shrine where the father buries his own daughter.”
“Don’t dwell on dreams,” Halsa said. “It will not be good for your auditioning.”
“Aren’t you even curious to know what my dream was about?”
“I already know what your dream was about.”
“How could you possibly? I never told you?”
Halsa seemed exasperated with me. “I am Jinn,” she said stomping her foot.
“You have seen the whole dream, haven’t you? And you are keeping me from remembering all of it!”
“I may be keeping you from remembering a thousand other dreams that you have no idea about? What makes this dream more important than all the rest?”
“Because it makes me think I killed my own child.”
Halsa paused her walking and looked upward as though doing arithmetic in her head. “’And when the one buried alive is asked for what sin she was killed,’” she recited from the Koran. “You still think this is the Day of Judgment, don’t you?”
I was on the verge of falling on my knees and weeping. “Just tell me, I am not the father of the little girl who was called to the shrine?”
“If I tell you, do you promise you will stop asking questions and get on the donkey? We are late.”
“All right, I promise.”
Halsa sighed and shook her head seemingly in irony. “You are not her father,” she said, grabbing the rein of the donkey to hold it steady for me.
“Then I must be the son, her brother” I started to say, but Halsa quickly raised a cautionary finger as a reminder of my promise. I mounted the saddle and helped her up in front of me. “Where is this damned audition anyway?” I grumbled.
A few hours into the ride, the steep climb suddenly relented, and a vast valley spread far beneath us. The sun was sinking behind the distant mountains on the other side of the valley. On this side of the altitudes, chilly gusts of wind were blowing the darkness our way. We dismounted by a small pool of snowmelt where I performed my ablutions for the sunset prayer. By force of habit I looked up to the stars for the direction of prayer. The Milky Way was not there, and the constellations seemed to be a mixture of summer and winter skies. Halsa sliced the air with her hand in the direction of the qiblah, and I faced that direction, performing my prayers quietly.
After I was done, I asked Halsa, how she had determined that the qiblah was to the West.
Halsa smiled. “You are wondering if you keep walking in that direction you will reach Mecca, and from there you can find your home, wherever that is,” she guessed.
“It comforts me to think that this place is somewhere in the real world, ” I said.
“What did the stars tell you?”
“Parts of the sky are familiar, but everything is in the wrong place. Whoever my Sheikh is, he is not an astronomer.”
“The true Mecca cannot be found with star charts or maps, but it always takes you home,” she said. “Take comfort in that.”
By now, the valley below us had turned into a vast sea of darkness. Halsa pointed to a light sitting on the skirt of the distant mountains. “That’s Safieh’s palace,” she said. “That’s where we’re going for the audition.”
“Will we be there by tomorrow night?”
“We will be there tonight,” Halsa said. “Do you have the pearl?”
“Yes, but there’s no one here to sell us wings to fly with,” I said, handing her the pearl.
“Step back,” Halsa ordered, as she placed my pearl on the ground between us. It slowly grew to the size of a walnut, then a melon. Soon it was a sphere as tall as our donkey. Its shiny surface mirrored in miniature the mountains and scenery around us. “Do you see Safieh’s palace in the reflection?” Halsa asked.
“It’s just a tiny light,” I said.
“Keep your eyes on it, and don’t look at anything else.”
The sphere grew larger and larger, engulfing us. All the while I kept my eyes on the image of the palace, which was now being formed by the concave interior of the pearl. Soon I could make out the individual lights coming from the village around the palace. As the sphere grew, I could see the hundreds of windows adorning Safieh’s palace like diamonds held up to the moon. “There are so many lights,” I said. “Which one should I keep my eyes on?”
“That large turquoise blur,” Halsa said. “That is the Eastern Gate.”
As soon as I focused my attention on the turquoise light, the image of the gate lunged at us to a huge magnification. Its rush stopped abruptly less than a step from engulfing us. Dizzy with vertigo, I my lost my balance and stumbled forward into the image. An immovable object caught my fall face first. The image of the gate was made of solid wood and metal.
“Here we are,” said Halsa, still wobbly on her legs.
I rubbed some of the feeling back into my nose. “You could have warned me,” I grumbled.
“I did not wish to spoil the fun by telling you what to expect,” Halsa said, not even trying to hide her smile. She was following my eyes upward along the gigantic arch of the gate.
“I hope you have told Safieh’s to expect us so early.”
“Yes, in fact, she expects to hear you play right away.”
“No; I don’t care who everyone thinks she is; I’m not playing for anyone until the audition.”
“Tonight is the audition.”
“What! It can’t be,” I shouted. “ Is the other contestant even here yet?”
“Yes, your competition has arrived,” Halsa said.
“Not fair! I have not had time to rest. I am exhausted.”
“Then play as though you are tired,” said Halsa impatiently. Before I could protest further, a section of the gate opened and a colorful crowd of greeters, male and female, poured out to engulf us with cheerful gestures of welcome and salutation. Celebrating and dancing all around us, our entourage swept us like rose petals onto the garden path leading to one of the larger domes of the palace. There, inside an alcove beneath the floor of the dome, attendants washed the dust of the journey from our feet while we sipped honeyed rosewater tea. Fine clothes were brought for both Halsa and me while our attendants began fussing over our appearance. Meanwhile, I could hear a crowd gathering upstairs inside the dome. I felt my breath deepen with stage fright. I was not ready.
“Where is the other contestant, Halsa? In a separate room? Then she must be female. Did Safieh send her a guide like you?” I babbled nervously. “What if she is as good as Safieh? Then I do not stand a chance. Who will perform first?”
“You will,” said Halsa, calmly buttoning the sleeves on her shiny new clothes. “And stop being so nervous. You are very good, and Safieh likes your playing.”
The tips of my fingers began to tingle. How could I perform when I could not even feel my fingers?
“Take a long time announcing me,” I said. “It may buy me a few moments to pull myself together.”
“You do not need an announcer. Everyone knows who you are.”
“Then why are you dressing?” I asked. She looked luminous in her bright green stage costume.
“I have a performance to do,” she said, twirling in her new outfit. “You asked about your competition. Well, here I am.”
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