The two men sat stoically as their van cruised down a thin dirt road, an umber chalk line on the flat and featureless landscape before and behind them. Well, the van wasn’t theirs, exactly. It belonged to the driver, who was hunched forward slightly and who gripped the rusty steering wheel with thick, scarred hands that reminded his passenger of potato skins. Neither of them had spoken a word since the ride began. They didn’t even know each other’s names, if indeed either had a name to know. One drove, and the other rode. They had never needed to learn anything else.
After several hours, the Sun was directly above them in the cloudless sky when the road ahead was swallowed suddenly by a wave of blinding white that only seemed to intensify as their tired eyes struggled to adjust to it. Less disciplined individuals might have reflexively screamed in agony from the burning, throbbing pain the two men endured in their heads before the wave transmogrified into rows of cubes of differing heights. When the pain began to subside, they could see that these cubes were limestone buildings that flanked the van on both sides. Counting them was impossible, although distinct rows could be seen for miles. Each building had a large rectangular hole that served as a doorway. Above these were pentagonal high reliefs featuring intricate patterns of squares and circles. Some of the larger buildings had square holes on either side of their doorways that were occupied by thin sheets of latticed stone, all of which were bordered by thicker carvings of various leaves and flowers.
Both men ignored the buildings and their decorations. The driver never reacted much to anything as a matter of course, but his passenger was more concerned with the city’s emptiness than with its appearance. Theirs was the only presence on the road, and if there was anyone or anything inside any of the buildings, nothing indicating as much could be seen, heard, or smelled. He glanced at the rear-view mirror and saw there were no tire tracks in the dirt. This was all unusual but not entirely unexpected. The van slowed slightly, and the passenger returned his focus to the road, which branched off into right turns at two different places about 100 feet apart. The turn closest to the van was in an alley of sorts between two buildings, while the other was on the exterior edge of the last building he and the driver could see. Time was of the essence, so they not only had to quickly make a decision, but their decision also had to be correct.
Using just enough gas to keep the van moving, the driver rolled down his window and sniffed the air as a dog does when meat is being cooked. His senses were more acute than those of his passenger, who looked at him out of the corner of his eye until he saw the driver’s nose wrinkle, something that would have been imperceptible to anyone else. A decision had been made. Sure enough, the driver accelerated and turned the wheel sharply, noiselessly easing the van into the closest turn. The walls of the two buildings seemed to extend into the sky for miles. As the van passed through the opening they created, the wall on the driver’s side mercifully yet briefly provided respite from the glare and heat of the Sun. The men soon emerged into a rectangular clearing. Aside from a row of buildings in the distance, to their right was nothing but flat land slightly darker than sulfur. The van slowed again as the men noticed what was to their left.
They could have been confused for mannequins or statues. Not unlike the buildings in which they worked and lived, hundreds of men and women were arranged in rows. Each was prostrated on a patternless, maroon rug and clad in white, shawl-like garments. All of the men wore a matching topi (prayer cap), while the women wore the hijab. Their skin was darker than crude oil, which made them seem shadows made flesh. They didn’t move. They didn’t even seem to breathe. By all appearances, this was a silent, outdoor Jumu’ah, aside from everyone praying together in the same space, side-by-side. It was unorthodox, but to the men in the van, it was also irrelevant. They continued passing by the congregation until they were next to the imam. He was also prostrated, and his back was facing the van. The driver bowed his head slightly before leaning out of the window and cheerfully calling out, “As-salāmuʿalaykum,” using his first spoken words that day to wish peace upon him.
The imam tensed slightly, startled, before rising to his feet and turning to face the driver, ready to admonish him for interrupting his prayer. As soon as they made eye contact, however, he fidgeted unconsciously and instead returned the wish and greeting in a rushed mumble: “Waʿalaykumu s-salām.” He heard the passenger of the van stifle a laugh, and he struggled to suppress a rush of anger. He needn’t have bothered, however, since it disappeared when the two locked eyes. In its place was a sudden nausea and an inexplicable fear that was unrelated to but wasn’t helped by the unnatural paleness of the man’s skin. He shifted his gaze to the ground, determined not to look at either man again if he could help it. The passenger didn’t bother stifling his laugh this time. It seemed to echo in the imam‘s ears. There was a steadily intensifying pounding behind his eyes, and he thought he had never heard a worse sound in all of Creation.
He quickly discovered he couldn’t help looking at the men, after all. They began to speak in unison, and he was enthralled by their words. He had never heard the language before, but he somehow mentally translated it into Arabic. They told him who they were and from whence they came. He did not ask why they had come because he already knew the answer. He began speaking to them excitedly. His thoughts were in Arabic, but the language he spoke was theirs. His discomfort was forgotten. Like his speech, it no longer belonged to him. Other emotions soon followed, but he didn’t notice. He kept speaking. Control no longer belonged to him, not that he minded. Opinions no longer belonged to him. Afternoon turned into evening, and evening turned into night. His congregation was still frozen in prayer. Perception of time no longer belonged to him. Sight, soon to be joined by his other senses, no longer belonged to him. Awareness of others no longer belonged to him. He spoke until his thoughts no longer belonged to him. He spoke until his faith no longer belonged to him. He spoke until he relinquished everything he had to the men in the van, and then he spoke no more.
It was early afternoon when the two men left the imam in the clearing, but they did not leave him with nothing. First, they returned his life. Then, they returned his faith, his thoughts, his awareness of others, his senses, his perception of time, his opinions, his control, his emotions, and his speech. They also returned his memory, although it wasn’t intact. From it, they kept the van and themselves. They thus took from him truth and knowledge. These they returned to their compartments inside the worn, octagonal leather box from which they had been taken and then removed a clear sphere from the box’s only remaining compartment, placing it in one of the imam‘s cold, rigid hands. They closed the box, and the passenger pulled a brass padlock out of his left pocket, while the driver unclasped a tarnished copper key from the silver chain around his scarred neck. One inserted the key into the almond-shaped hole on the bottom of the padlock, and the other threaded the shackle through a loop on the edge of the box’s lid and closed the padlock. There was an octagonal groove on the floor of the van positioned directly between the two men. Together, they gingerly lowered the box into the groove until the top of its lid was level with the floor. The driver looked at his passenger, who returned the look with the slightest of nods. Nodding himself, the driver turned a key (half copper, half brass) already in the ignition. Slowly, the van’s engine began to breathe.
He was prostrated before his congregation and before Allah. He rose to a sitting position on his knees, performed the necessary recitations, and concluded with taslim, saying, “As-salāmuʿalaykum wa rahmatullah (Peace and blessings of Allah be unto you)” while facing right. He repeated it while facing left, and then he stood. His congregation stood with him, and each person shook hands with those on either side. They gathered their prayer rugs and dispersed, leaving the imam alone as they proceeded to resume their duties for the day. He made no attempt to follow them. He raised his gaze skyward, staring into and beyond the azure abyss as tears he did not feel streamed down his face and evaporated upon touching the ground. Every time he finished praying, he normally felt fulfilled, and he did now. However, there was another feeling he did not understand, an emptiness. He felt as if he were mourning the loss of something irreplaceable and of immeasurable value. He couldn’t be sure if the feeling was sudden or if it had been with him for his entire life. Both seemed true, and that scared him.
Dropping to his knees, he decided against praying. He didn’t know whether to pray for guidance or for answers. Would he be able to handle either? Did he even want either? That last question was important. This feeling could be a blessing, but it could just as easily be a curse meant to lead him astray. He could be risking, if not guaranteeing, eternal damnation. For all he knew, he was already damned just for entertaining the thought. He told himself the fate of his soul didn’t matter. It became a mantra repeated in his head until he believed it. Tears fell again, and this time, he felt them. He relished them. They were tears of joy. He understood that he had been given a gift. He didn’t know by whom, but he offered praise and thanks to Allah all the same. Returning to his feet and picking up his prayer rug, he turned and faced the opposite edge of the clearing, admiring the radiance of the buildings in the afternoon sunlight. He blinked and then saw nothing.
The city and its people were gone.