The road climbed gradually up the mountain. After the excruciating evening traffic around Levashinsky, driving was fast and easy. The sorrel-scented night air rushed through the cracked window. Kebedov had already turned off the highway onto a crunching gravel road and kept glancing at the glowing face of his watch. About forty minutes up the hill, beyond the spur, the lights of the village would come into view.
Should have left earlier, he thought.
But there’d been no getting away earlier. The entire day had been eaten up by a confrontation with the thugs from the mosque. These thugs ganged up on the local people, demanding they hand over their houses and land to the insatiable mufti. The mufti’s excavator rumbled through town destroying fences and verdant front yards, and these meatheads acted as his henchmen. They descended on peoples’ homes roaring “Allahu akbar” and tearing down the walls around them with their bare hands. For months, Kebedov had been making complaints but could get no justice against the mosque gang. Then, that morning, two of the mufti’s guys had burst onto his porch, knocking over a plant stand, breaking his wife’s potted ficus tree, and threatening over and over to “pound his ass.” His agitated wife, on a heavy dose of Propranolol, had emerged from their bedroom, yelling and cursing at them.
Kebedov frowned at the memory as, wheels skidding slightly, he turned onto a windy mountain pass that swam in his headlights. He couldn’t forget the scowling faces of his uninvited guests. He sensed that he wouldn’t be able to endure any more such attacks. That, in the end, he’d surrender both his land and the shop he was building to the implacable mufti. The mufti himself hid from the people in the depths of a brick mansion and in specially dug underground passageways, leaving his zealous young army to tame the remaining intractable few. These pious brutes smashed the limbs and ribs of anyone who stood up to them, as well as any cell phones or security cameras that captured their raids.
Kebedov suddenly felt guilty about his wife and her ficus. That tree was meant for their daughter. Ficus trees were supposed to help with conception, and his wife had been hoping for a grandson. They and their daughter had tried everything: leaving the area under the bed unswept, drinking rose quartz-infused water, observing the cycles of the moon, running to a faith healer for bear’s placenta. She’d been married four years and still no child. Though they’d gotten lucky with their son-in-law. He had a steady job, ran a workshop—a mechanic and clocksmith. The other day, Kebedov had asked him, “How come the hands of a clock always move one way, to the right, and not to the left?”
“I could make you one that goes in reverse,” his son-in-law had suggested, full of enthusiasm.
“No, just tell me: Why do they always go to the right?”
“It’s because of sundials. Because the sun casts a shadow that moves like this, and like this—clockwise.” He demonstrated the shadow’s movement with his fingers. And there you had it.
Kebedov had heard that, once upon a time, if a slave stepped on his master’s shadow he’d be executed on the spot. And also that if you wanted to beat someone in an argument, you should step on the neck of his shadow. Kebedov had thought of this with the mosque thugs and had even looked around for their shadows—but to no avail. They’d had none, like they’d withered up and died.
The car shook as it went around the bend. The switchbacks should be ending soon. Another half hour and the village would come into view. Kebedov was on his way to a prayer reading for the death of an elderly aunt, the sister of his deceased father. This aunt was born feeble-minded and lived her whole life a virgin, laying away knick-knacks for her dowry. Relatives had given the cheerful, naive old woman colorful plastic watches for children, which she’d worn all at once on both wrists, expecting suitors to arrive at any minute. Before her death, she’d suddenly become manic and unsettled. She’d run out into the courtyard saying that matchmakers were coming for her; a few days later, she’d gone out early in her best headscarf, sat down to wait on a wooden bench by the gate, and quietly died. Now her relatives insisted that, had she not worn all those watches, she would have lived longer. Clocks, it’s said, reduce one’s lifespan. Kebedov had meant to take part in the ceremony yesterday, the day of his aunt’s death, but hadn’t made it—things had gotten too hectic.
The switchbacks ended. A stone cliff hulked to the right of the road. As a precaution after recent landslides, it had been secured with steel cable so that loose rocks wouldn’t fall into the road. Kebedov stepped on the brake and advanced at a crawling pace. He should call the village to tell them he’d be there soon.
“Hello? Hello?” he shouted into the phone. His voice sounded strange, like somebody else’s, in the nocturnal wilderness.
“Hello!” came his sister’s familiar voice, then immediately broke off. He tried to call back but couldn’t get through—no signal.
“Oh well, I’ll get to an open area soon,” Kebedov thought, and pressed on the gas. Some indistinguishable nighttime creatures darted across the road ahead of him, then vanished in the darkness. A fox? Kebedov was startled and managed to brake in time. He had a random thought: Islam doesn’t prohibit eating fox meat. But, why was that? he wondered. Maybe because foxes don’t hunt with their fangs. With that type of animal—
But the thought was interrupted by a deafening boom, like thunder rolling in from afar. In a single deadly second, a portion of the cliff, which had slowly been loosening itself from the steel cables, fell and crushed the hood of Kebedov’s ill-fated car. A piece of metal rebar pierced his stomach. He cried out, and a little blood bubbled from his lips. Then he descended into yawning darkness.
It was noisy. A terrible noise that seemed to shred his eardrums. The rock had flown at Kebedov for an absurdly long time—what seemed like forever. Then, he had dropped down somewhere but resurfaced immediately into this unbearable scraping. One of his eyes was stuck shut by dust and dried blood, and he couldn’t unstick it. With the other, he just barely made out the sheen of his still-burning headlights on the pile of rocks that had fallen from above. A savage pain awoke stealthily deep inside him and began to toss about. He squinted at his wrist, which was jammed against the steering wheel. The glowing face of his watch, which appeared to have swollen to three times its normal size and drunkenly changed shape, said three in the morning. It hadn’t yet been midnight when he’d called his sister.
A scorching heat burned in Kebedov’s stomach and the drilling in his ears persisted. He tried to look down, but the soiled airbag was wedged against his chin. He moved his hands. The left one didn’t respond at all and the right one crawled jerkily, stiffly along the passenger seat, across the rocks that covered it. His half-numb fingers groped for his phone. A hospital? The closest one was an hour away. Maybe they could send a helicopter. Straining terribly, he unlocked his phone and, though at first his bloody fingers couldn’t find it, pressed the speed dial button for his sister.
There was no signal. Emergency calling should work, he thought, but it was becoming increasingly difficult to move his fingers. It was as though an enormous hammer had hit the crown of his head. The headlights grew stronger, swelling outward, and his stomach burned more than ever. Kebedov saw a glowing orb swimming in the darkness and flashes of light in the wobbly space around him. Images crowded his head. His deceased aunt, shining a mirror, sending splinters of sunlight darting about. His wife with a candle in her hands, young again, in a chintz robe, long-since discarded. Childhood and the country vegetable garden at night, dotted with huge fireflies. He’d heard on TV that the females flash their lights, imitating the pattern of another type of firefly, in order to attract unsuspecting males and then gobble them up—fluorescence. Humans had it, too. But a thousand times weaker than the eye could see.
The glowing spot drew closer, blinding Kebedov’s one good eye. “Who’s there?” he tried to ask, but only managed a squawk.
“Some mess you’re in, brother,” the spot of light said, clucking its tongue.
“He-elp,” Kebedov wheezed, summoning all his strength.
The spot shapeshifted and became a stranger. This man looked on in disbelief at the car’s shredded interior, casting a flashlight around and whispering an unintelligible prayer.
“My pho-one!” Kebedov wheezed, a little louder, fortified by hope. “Call! Over there! Reception! On the mountain—”
“It’s here, your ahir zaman—judgement day—yes. Va nauzubilliah . . .” the stranger continued his lamentation. Kebedov didn’t recognize him. Green skull-cap. Boyish face, stubble. A glass bottle in his left hand, water splashing in it. Water. He was thirsty. But just then the stranger drained the bottle, looked behind him, and, with a swing of his arm, threw it onto the road. The bottle shattered loudly against some unseen rock.
“For God’s sake,” Kebedov exhaled, the pain erupting slowly within him, “call someone. The hospital.”
The stranger seemed finally to understand. He got his phone out and began poking around on it.
“Up there! Recep-tion,” Kebedov said, staring dumbly into the darkness with his one watery eye. He remembered that if you went up past the fallen rocks—five or ten minutes on foot, tops—you’d reach an open field. There’d be a signal. Ten minutes, plus an hour for the ambulance to arrive. And there should be a paramedic in the village who’d help get him through. Just go up the hill and call. It was so close.
“I see, brother. You wanna be saved, right?” he heard the stranger say, through the noise gripping his head. “Want me to call the doctors?”
Whoever this stranger was, he was in no hurry and seemed to want to torment him. I think he actually took a picture of me, Kebedov thought, angrily.
“I feel sorry for you, brother, I do. You’re twisted up here, like a worm, and you think someone’s gonna save you,” the stranger said, smirking. “In the words of the prophet, sallalahu vallahi assalam, ‘The death which you flee will surely meet you. And afterward you will be returned to Allah Almighty, the knower of the Invisible and the Visible.’ It’s like they say: ‘Think often of Death, who devours all pleasures—’”
“Ca-all,” Kebedov said, nearly choking on his own bitter-tasting blood and beginning to despair.
“Driving here, did you know you’d die today? That a rock would fall on you? A rock! Can’t you see it’s a sign? The prophet’s Ansaris—”
“I’m a-live,” Kebedov wheezed. “Call! Please, ca-all!”
He thought that he’d wake up at that point. That his arms and legs had fallen asleep. Maybe he had the flu. And now he was trapped in this nightmare. But he needed to do his best to wake up. His struggles with the mufti—no, if he could just wake up. But how? He’d cover his nose and mouth and try not to breathe. If he didn’t suffocate, then it must be a dream. Or he could look in the mirror. See how his reflection behaved. If it changed shape from second to second, then he was definitely asleep.
His watch! It should look peculiar. Show one hundred and two o’clock and eighty-two minutes. A star shape instead of a circle. People dancing. But, alas. His watch read three o’clock on the dot and looked the same as ever. Except that its outline quivered, as though it were lying at the bottom of a well and Kebedov was looking at it from above.
“You’re gonna see two angels now, all right? Munkar and Nakir. And they’ll ask you: ‘What do you know about the Prophet, salallahu vallahi assalam.’ And you say, ‘I know nothing.’”
“I’ll say, ‘bismil-lahirahma-nirahim…laila-ha-illa…lah Muhammad…rasulullah.’ Ca-all, for God’s sake! You’re Dage-stani, aren’t you?”
“You believe this guy?” the stranger said, flashing his teeth. “Says anything—just so I’ll return him to his sinful life. Thinks only of doctors. Not the Prophet, salallahu vallahi assalam—only himself.”
“The pro-ph . . .” Kebedov began, holding out his cellphone to the stranger imploringly. The stranger accepted it primly with two fingers, got a handkerchief from his pocket and began to meticulously wipe it clean of blood and dirt.
“My sis-ter . . .” Kebedov wheezed. “Ca-all! Are you . . . from here?”
“No, I’m no local,” the stranger said, shaking his head. “Well fine, fine. You’re a wacko, you know. I’ll call. But don’t think the angels won’t see through all this. They’re watching right now. You’re a faker, that’s what. Reciting the Shahada and thinking about the hospital. About carnal pleasures. Your wife and possessions, right? You think the angels don’t know? Think they’ll keep widening your grave until judgment day? That it’ll be nice and bright there? No! They’ll know you’re a rat. And they’ll command the earth: ‘Come together!’ and it’ll draw up, crushing your ribs. And you’ll writhe there until Allah, creator of all things, resurrects you.”
“Yes—” Kebedov began submissively, hoping the stranger would finally go call, but was too weak to finish. Through his clouded eye, he watched as the stranger dissolved into the darkness, and the wandering beam of his flashlight carried on, past the landslide, where reception and salvation lay. This man was clearly out of his mind. He wasn’t right. Perhaps a shepherd from a neighboring area. I am the gate for the sheep. And now, to wait.
Kebedov’s mouth was burning from dryness and thirst. His right arm was no longer responsive and he was overcome by weakness. He became agitated and his hopes were stifled by black, asphyxiating panic. Would the stranger return? Would he call? Would they arrive in time? And what lay within Kebedov, in that frightful mess of flesh? His land: His wife would never be able to hold the mufti off on her own. They’d take the shop. Would she ever have any grandchildren? At home, hidden in his nightstand, were photos from a co-worker’s birthday party. Bad photos—with some women they’d met at the seaside. His wife would find the photos and get the wrong idea. And just yesterday he’d paid a bribe at the office so that his nephew could get a job there. They might back-pedal now, deny it, claim they’d never received it to exact more.
The beaming flashlight danced back along the side of the road. Was time so condensed? Had the stranger already called and come back? He wished he’d kept track. Kebedov should have been delighted, but just then he became acutely aware of his shoulder blades. They cramped sharply and the pain, which until now had wavered timidly deep within him, grew and thrust itself violently and unceremoniously into his body, drilling him to bits. Kebedov gasped inaudibly, moaned, and, for a second, felt an almost joyful buoyancy before falling back into darkness. This time, forever.
The stranger approached and shined his flashlight into the car. Seeing that Kebedov’s soul had left his body, he shuddered, spat on the ground, and began to recite the Yasin. When he’d finished, he stood for a moment, then walked away. He’d already gotten rid of the dead man’s SIM card. The smartphone was nice—expensive. He planned to keep it as a talisman. To remember the night when Allah had shown him divine retribution. A sign. A true, irredeemable sinner. For who else would God crush with a fallen rock?
The stranger disappeared, and the beam of his flashlight drifted off with him. On the road in his car, beneath a pile of fallen rocks, Kebedov rested. Alarmed when he didn’t show up, a party of his relatives had already left the village in search of him. His wristwatch kept ticking. And in the bushes, a little fox rustled playfully.
© Alisa Ganieva. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2021 by Sabrina Jaszi. All rights reserved.