The Mosque in the Clouds
by Emily W
“I think she is waking up.”
It took a moment before Abby realized that the voice was not something in the dream she had just experienced but came from the outside. This helped to wake her up. She opened her eyes and immediately saw an immense field of light blue. She quickly realized she was looking up at the sky and brought herself up to a sitting position. There were three women gathered around her.
She must have fallen asleep. But how did she end up falling asleep on the ground? Very quickly Abby realized she had no idea where she was and felt a sudden disorientating sensation, not too dissimilar from losing one’s balance and falling from a high space.
“Are you all right?” One of the women was kneeling down next to her with a concerned look on her face. She looked to be in her mid-twenties, Hispanic, and very pretty.
“I feel ok, I suppose.” The woman helped Abby stand up.
The four women were standing on the middle of a large stone circle connected to a stone pathway. There were grass lawns and trees everywhere and out of the corner of her eye she saw a large stone wall.
“Where am I?”
The woman who had helped her up frowned slightly.
“We do not know. Each of us woke up as you did, on a stone circle in the courtyard. We have been walking around finding each other. My name is Sofia.” The young Hispanic woman was dressed in a white t-shirt and jeans.
“Hello Abby. This is Esther and Jiao” Sofia gestured first to a white woman in a dark blue sweater with dark black curly hair and then she gestured to an woman with the appearance of someone from Eastern Asia dressed in a business suit.
Abby said hello and at the same time each woman mumbled their own greetings.
“Is there anyone else here?”
“We are not sure. We have only just finished searching the outside grounds, we have not tried looking inside yet.”
Sofia gently took hold of her hand and led her a few paces forward. With each step it came more into view. There was a large building not too far away. It was made out of pure white stone. The center had a large dome and there were four large columns at each corner. Abby stood marveling at it for several seconds. There was certainly nothing like this in the small town in Ohio that she lived in.
“Does anyone remember how we got here?”
Sofia shook her head. “No, we all remember doing things and then our memories become fuzzy and we remember waking up out of dreaming to find ourselves here. We were hoping that maybe you knew something.”
“I’m sorry, I don’t remember anything.”
“Are you sure?”
“Yes, I said I don’t remember anything!” As soon as Abby said it she felt bad for snapping at the girl. “I’m sorry.”
“It is all right. We are all having a hard time.”
The group of four women walked along the stone path. As they approached the massive building the path intersected with a circular path that surrounded the building. The group took the right fork and were soon at the front of the building. In it were set two huge doors, more than three times the height of a person. Looking closer Abby could see that there was a smaller door set within one of the larger ones. Up this close the building loomed over them like a giant.
Abby looked in the opposite direction and saw that the wall that enclosed the grounds had a wooden gate in it.
“Has anyone tried seeing what is outside? Maybe there is something that can give us an idea of where we are.”
Jiao stepped forward. She seemed reluctant to talk but finally spoke. “I did try looking outside when I first woke up, before I found anyone else.”
“What was out there?”
“Perhaps it would be better if I showed you.” Jiao walked down the path to the gate and the three other women followed her. When they reached the gate she took a hold of it and slowly pulled it inwards.
At first it looked like there was a heavy smoke or fog covering the ground outside. Abby was startled when she realized that they were clouds! She stepped forward to peer down the ledge.
“Be careful!” Sofia hissed.
Abby saw that a couple of feet beyond the wall the ground dropped of precipitously and disappeared into the clouds. She stepped back and Jiao close the gate much to her relief.
Jiao looked down at the handle on the gate for a moment before looking back at everyone. “I think it is reasonable to assume that we are somewhere really high in elevation.”
A thought occurred to Abby and she pulled out her cell phone. To her dismay she saw that it was devoid of bars.
For lack of any other option the five young women walked back to the building. It was during that walk that Abby realized she did not have shoes or socks and neither did the other women. They gathered around the small door set in the larger one. After some hesitation they opened it and stepped inside.
Inside was dark blue carpet. There was a wide hallway that led strait forward to a huge space underneath the dome. To their left and right were smaller hallways that seemed to run along the edge of the building and had many small doors along it. The women began walking forward and as they emerged from the wide hall into the room under the dome they were awe struck.
The interior of the dome seemed to be solid gold. Along the ground floor walls, delicate writing had been carved in. There were three other wide hallways, each leading to the dome from a different side of the building. In the center of the room was an elevated platform with a table on top of it and some things placed on top of it.
The women lingered for a while in the building before exploring the outer hallway. The doors along it led to several smaller rooms. Some of them were very plain bedrooms, there was a library, they even found a small kitchen with a simple dining table. There were were also storerooms filled with all manner of things.
After exhausting every conceivable option they eventually came to the conclusion that they were alone, at least for the moment.
“Someone else must have been here, how else could we have been brought to this place?”
“So you think we were kidnapped?” Esther asked.
“Well, it seems like the most likely explanation doesn’t it?” Abby said.
“If we where kidnapped, where did our kidnappers go? For that matter how did they get us here?” Sofia asked.
“I’m not sure. I would suspect they used a helicopter.” Abby said.
“Well that would explain how, but why were we brought here?” Jiao asked.
“Maybe we were kidnapped in some sort of sex traffic ring. The only thing is that that does not make sense. Sex traffickers do not fly their victims up to some palace in the Himalayas or somewhere and just leave them there.” Abby said.
As the women were stumped about trying to explain their situation they continued their exploration of the building. Eventually Sofia must have become hungry and went to the kitchen to start cooking. Abby found her in there working over the wood fire stove. The ingredients were all of Middle Eastern origin but Sofia’s style of cooking was Mexican inspired which led to an interesting and tasty result.
As the sky became dark the women gave up the idea of being able to leave that day. Instead they settled into the various bedrooms. The interior of them were simple white stone. Abby went into the adjoining bathroom which she discovered had a large bath in in. She returned to the bedroom and sat down on the edge.
So far this had been unlike anything she had ever experienced. She tried to jog her memory to get some clue how she had come to be in this place. Many minutes passed of her slowly reconstructing the events of the last day she could remember. Frustratingly things became fuzzy before she could remember anything in particular.
Slowly she lowered herself down on the bed and closed her eyes.
Until that moment she had been able to busy herself with the mission of finding a way out of this place. It was only now, when she was relaxed, that the tears began to stream down her face. She wondered if she would ever see her family or home again.
When Abby woke up the next morning she reluctantly got up and out of bed. She left her bedroom and went down the hallway to the kitchen where she found Sofia already cooking and the other women at the table. Abby sat down to join them.
“Sofia was just telling us about her life on a large cattle ranch in Mexico.” Esther said.
Sofia blushed at the stove but then continued to discuss her life’s details.
Next Jiao talked about what life was like as a banking executive in Shanghai. Esther shared her experiences as a paralegal in New York and eventually it was Abby’s turn and she shared what life was like working in a small shop in a small town in Ohio.
“Well, we have put off deciding what we are going to do long enough I think. Does anyone have any plans?” Jiao asked.
“I think we should continue looking around to see if we can find any clues.” Abby had to admit it sounded like a weak plan but clearly none of the other women had a better one as they agreed to it and they soon scattered to search for some clue as to what this place was and why they were there.
While the other women were searching inside, Abby returned to the outside. She began by following the entire stone path. She returned to where she had awoken the previous day. The stone circle she had woke up on was a smooth flat surface. She turned around and went back to the circular path around the building. After continuing along it the path branched out again. It led to another circular piece of stone only this time it was not blank. Instead, the Star of David had carefully been carved into it. Abby stared at this for a minute and then continued on. The next branch off the path led to a circle that had a wheel carved into it. Abby thought that maybe it was the Buddhist wheel.
The sound of footsteps came up behind her and Abby turned to see Sofia approaching.
“Have you found anything interesting?”
“I’m not sure. I was just looking at these different symbols carved into the stone,” Abby said.
“Yes. There was one where I woke up,” Sofia said.
“What was it?”
A thought occurred to Abby. “Are you Christian?”
“Yes, I was born in the Catholic Church.”
Sofia was Catholic, Maybe Jiao was Buddhist and if Esther was on the previous platform maybe she was Jewish. “I think the platforms we woke up on might correspond to our religions.”
Sofia furrowed her brow a little. “Your platform did not have anything.”
“I’m an atheist.”
“Oh. Well, do you want to go back inside and see what everyone else thinks?”
Abby nodded and they proceeded back inside the building. They found the other two women inside the domed room. When Abby shared her speculations they were quick to respond.
“I am a Buddhist,” Jiao confirmed.
“I have been a Reform Jew all my life,” Esther volunteered.
Jiao seemed to be thinking deeply. “You believe that maybe our respective religions has something to do with why we are here.”
“I do not know,” Abby confessed.
Esther opened her mouth as if she were about to say something but then closed it again. Abby looked at her for a moment and then said, “What is it Esther?”
“I…it was something I noticed yesterday but chose not mention it. I took a class on comparative religion when I was in college, so I recognized as soon as we came here. On top of the dome and the minarets were crescents. That would suggest that this is an Islamic building, maybe some kind of mosque,” Esther explained.
“So, you think some Muslim guy might have kidnapped us? To make us part of his harem or something?” Abby asked.
“I really have no idea. Just consider this though, there was no Muslim woman included in our group,” Esther said.
Abby stopped to think about that. It did some how seem significant but she could not place her finger on precisely why. The women paused to eat and then resumed their search.
About the only other thing of interest was when Jiao brought her to the table on the platform in the middle of the domed room. On it was a stand holding the book. The book was titled “The Holy Quran.”
“I think that might lend some proof to the thinking that a Muslim was responsible for this,” Jiao said.
“Perhaps,” Abby responded. For the first time she really bothered to read the words cared in the walls of the domed room.
Surely the men who submit and the women who submit, and the believing men and the believing women, and the obeying men and obeying women, and the truthful men and the truthful women, and the patient men and the patient women, and the humble men and the humble women, and the charitable men and the charitable women, and the fasting men and the fasting women, and the men who guard their chastity and the women who guard their modesty, and the men who remember Allah much and the women who remember-Allah has prepared for them forgiveness and a mighty reward.
She thought about those words but could not find a helpful clue concerning how she ended up here. Later Esther added further ammunition to the theory by mentioned that when she briefly looked into the library that the books on the shelves all seemed to have titles related to Islam.
Eventually the women exhausted their searching. After another meal they mostly went back to the rooms they had stayed in the previous night. She looked into the bathroom and decided she wanted a bath. She got up and pulled a lever that made warm water start to fill up the tub. She looked down at her clothes. She did not have an extra set. She did not like the idea of getting dressed in dirty clothes after cleaning off in a bath. An idea struck her and she went to the closet to see if there were any clothes in it she could use.
What Abby found was a number of clothing items of Middle Eastern origin. As she looked through them she found long black clothes with veils. She put these back in and decided to just reuse her own clothes.
After her bath she was sitting on the bed when there was a gentle knock on the door. Upon opening the door she found Sofia outside.
“I am sorry to disturb you Abby, may I come in?”
Sofia stepped inside the room and seemed to stare at the wall for a moment before turning around. “I was curious how you are feeling Abby.”
“I don’t know. I guess I’m not so much scared as frustrated. There does not seem to be any clue as to why or how we are here and I cannot figure out how to leave,” Abby said.
“I understand Abby. I was feeling very sad in my room. I miss my family terribly and would give anything to just be on the ranch again.”
The two women talked and comforted each other for a while before Sofia went back to her room.
After those first couple of days life began to take on a routine. Since they had exhausted every conceivable possibility for searching they mostly settled in to a life of communal living. Some of them would lounge about in their rooms. Others would go outside and walk through the gardens. Picking a piece of ripe fruit or just admiring the beauty of it. A couple of times Abby would go to the gate and open it. She would strain her eyes hoping to spot something, anything that could give hope of escape. Every time she closed the gate, the disappointment weighed on her shoulders.
Sometimes the women would spend time exchanging life stories and Abby had to concede that she found each one of her fellow captives to be immensely interesting. It was fascinating to have companions from all over the world. And yet, something about it bothered her. She could never exactly work out in her mind what it was but it was still there.
The days passed in this monotomous routine and Abby had begun to wonder whether the hypothetical men who had brought them here had died in a helicopter crash when she heard a startled scream. She was quickly on her feet and out into the hallway. The other women joined her. They looked at each other and Abby realized that Esther was the one missing when the black haired girl emerged into sight from the entrance of the building.
“What is it?” Abby asked.
Esther worked her mouth but no words emerged. Instead she just pointed down the hallway to the open doors of the entrance. These were the large double doors, not the smaller inset one they had been using. The other women cautiously approached. As they joined Esther they were able to see down the hallway and out of the building and what had startled Esther.
The gate that led to the clouds was open and a person was standing just inside of it. Presumably it was a woman because she wore the long black clothes of a Middle Eastern woman. There was a piece of black gauze fitted over her eyes which in addition to her black gloves meant that not a single part of her was visible.
Abby stormed out of the building.
“Be careful!” Jiao screamed.
Abby felt no fear. “Ok, I want some answers. Who are you? What is this place? And why are we here?!”
The woman turned to face her. She looked straight at Abby. “I am Zainab. This place is in between the world you came from and the next one. You are here to learn about Islam so that you can leave.”
Abby found the answers to be so unexpected that she was stunned silent for a moment. “That is ridiculous. World in between? Learning about Islam? What the hell are you talking about? Are you saying that we are dead?”
Abby did not believe his answer, but the fact that this woman covered in black was so sure of it when she spoke it forced her to pause so she could ponder whether the woman was a lunatic or not. She looked at Jiao and Sofia who had joined her outside but they were as perplexed as she was.
“Now listen here, I don’t know how you got up here but you are going to show us the way out.”
The woman nodded. Of course all Abby saw was her black shrouded form bend a little forward and then back. “You are correct, I will be showing you the way out. It is not through the gate, but through the Quran and Hadith. You were not a Muslim when you were alive, but you must become one now that you are dead.”
Abby stormed forward. “Listen you, I do not know what is going on but I know that I am not dead!”
“How do you know that?” It was difficult to tell when the woman was completely unseen, but the steadiness in her voice suggested that she was not affected by Abby’s anger.
“Because look at me, I am alive!”
“How can you be sure?”
Abby paused, “How?” The word was spoken like it was some strange new term.
“Yes, how can you prove to me that you are not dead and in some place beyond life.”
Abby thought about for a moment. “Because I am a living, breathing person. So are the other three women here.”
The black figure stared towards her for a long moment. At least, Abby thought she was staring at her. With the gauzy fabric concealing her eyes it was difficult to be certain what she was looking at. “You have spoken with your companions?”
“You understood all of them?”
“How can you understand all of them when two of them do not speak English.”
Abby felt like she was falling. That was it, the thing that had been bothering her. She could have slapped herself she felt so stupid for not even thinking of it. However, the dire implications overrode every thought. Jiao was from China and Sofia from Mexico, and yet she had understood everything they had said with perfect clarity. The rational part of her mind tried to find some way to explain it.
“That does not prove that we are dead.”
The veiled woman stared at her for another long moment. She then turned to face the endless haze that surrounded them. The four women watched with undivided attention as the clouds dissipated. The sight they were greeted with was almost too powerful to comprehend. Beyond the entrance and off in the distance where numerous floating islands. Each had walls around its perimeter with a building in the middle consisting of a dome and minarets…just like the one they had been staying in.
All Abby could do was turn her back and run. She fled to her room and after closing the door behind her she collapsed on the bed and began crying into her pillow.
After a little while there was a gentle tapping on her door and it began to open. Abby turned to face the door expecting to see Sofia but instead it was Jiao.
“Are you ok Abby?” she asked.
Abby wiped away her tears and without answer she stood up.
“The woman in the black veil is waiting for you to return. She will not answer anymore questions until we are all there,” Jiao said.
It was too terrible, to overwhelming to contemplate. At first Abby had fled from it, and now all she could do was meekly go to her fate. Abby joined Jiao in returning to the gate. The other two young women were still there. The black ghost remained standing in front of them. Once Abby had joined them they proceeded to start asking questions that clearly they had been waiting to have answered.
Esther spoke up, “Where are we going after this place?”
The black figure looked at her, “Once you have successfully learned what you need to know and accepted what is required of you, you will enter Paradise.”
“Is there a Hell?” Esther asked.
Abby’s head raised in alert. She was an atheist which meant that she was not in the best of condition no matter which religion was right.
“Yes, but none of you need worry about that,” the veiled woman said.
“Why is that?” Esther asked.
“Because none of you will be going there. Hell is only for those who have done great evil in their lives. None of you have done that. You are all good people who were judged by the weight of their actions. However, you are not ready to enter Paradise yet.”
“Why not?” Jiao asked with a suspicious voice.
“Because the paradise that awaits you is only for Muslims,” the woman answered.
In response to that Sofia made disapproving sounds. Esther tried to keep her face emotionless but seemed disturbed regardless. Jiao seemed impassive and Abby found she was unsure how she felt.
Jiao spoke up now, “So to enter Paradise we must become Muslims?”
“Yes,” the Zainab answered.
“I don’t understand, if one has to be a Muslim to enter Heaven then how come we are here and not in Hell?“ Abby asked.
Zainab turned towards Abby. Even though her eyes were concealed by dark cloth Abby could feel them penetrating her.
“Do you feel that you should be in Hell?”
The question was unnerving to contemplate. Abby had never believed in God. There just wasn’t any evidence for him. She sometimes thought about the dire consequences if she had been wrong. Some of her Christian friends had even tried to bring it up in conversation before. Of course now she saw that she had been wrong, but so had her friends. She would never in her life have guessed that the Muslims had been following the right religion. Everything she had seen on television about Islam had been related to violence and wars and terrorism. How could a religion like that be right? Yet here she was, having to answer for herself.
“Well…no. I don’t feel like I did anything wrong.”
“You are right. You were a good person who was honest and tried to do good things. You can not be going to Hell.”
“But I wasn’t a Muslim. I am…I was an atheist.”
“Yes, you were an atheist. But an atheist is simply someone who has not become a Muslim yet. That is why you are here. You are good enough to enter Paradise but before you do you have much learning to do.”
Sofia spoke up next. “But I am a Christian. I thought I had to be a Christian to enter Paradise.”
Zainab’s black form turned to the young Mexican woman. “You are eligible to enter the Christian paradise, Yes. If you have been taken to the limbo in the domain of the Christian paradise you would have entered automatically, just as Muslims automatically enter the Muslim paradise. It is fortunate for you that at the time of your death we were able to bring you here.”
Esther stepped forward. She seemed more composed than earlier and when she spoke her words were steady.
“Zainab, this is a lot of use to take in. I’m Jewish and I am being told that the Muslims were right but that I am still going to paradise anyway. And now you are telling us that there is a Muslim paradise and a Christian paradise. I am having trouble reconciling this with everything I’ve learned about religions. Is there a Jewish paradise?”
“Then why am I not going there instead of being in this place?”
“Each of you was taken by us so that you could enter Muslim paradise. Each paradise has the chance of claiming souls to fill its fertile worlds. Typically each paradise concentrates on claiming the souls of its followers, but all souls are available to be claimed.”
The four women looked at each other, their faces ranged from confusion to dismay to deep thought.
Esther spoke again, “So…is there a hell for each paradise?”
“No, there is only one Hell. All wicked souls go to the same Hell no matter what faith they ridicule by numbering themselves as a follower of.”
Abby felt her stomach become unsettled. Even though she had been told that she was not going to Hell, to have confirmation that such a place existed was still frightening.
Esther continued on. “May I ask who is going to Hell?”
“Of course. Those who choose to do bad things are the ones who are going to Hell. The rich man who sees his poor neighbors starving but keeps his wealth to himself and laughs at their misfortune. The man who beats and rapes a woman. The man who blows up women and children with a bomb.”
“What if a Muslims blows someone up with a bomb?”
Abby felt her stomach drop. She wondered if Esther was trying to get herself in trouble. However, Zainab did not seem angered. She simply replied.
“Any man who murders women and children can not call himself a Muslim, nor can he call himself a Christian or a Jew or a Buddhist.”
The assembled women all seemed to respond positively to the sentiment.
“Ok, so there is one Hell. But I am still having trouble with the multiple heavens. I’m sorry, but I still don’t understand why I am here waiting to enter a paradise for Muslims when I am a Jew.” Esther seemed to have steadied herself so much now that she was able to engage their veiled visitor with an almost academic interest.
Sofia, who had been quiet during much of the conversation dared to speak up, “And why am I not going to the paradise for Christians? I am a Christian, not a Muslim.”
“Yes, you were a Christian just as Esther was a Jew. In life on Earth all the faiths compete with each other for followers. What happens on Earth is mirrored here. Each paradise competes with each other for souls. The more souls that dwell within a paradise, the more glorious it is for us. When all four of your died we were able to take you for our own paradise.”
Esther’s face was in deep thought. “Do the other paradises take Muslim souls for their own?”
“Yes. And they also compete with us for souls that have no paradise, such as atheists.”
Jiao and Abby looked at each other with the same uncertain faces.
“Well, why was I in particular taken for the Muslim paradise and no the Jewish one?”
“What happens on Earth affects what happens up here. The more followers a paradise has, and much more important the amount of believers they have in that paradise gives that paradise more power in collecting souls. As you might be aware there is waning belief amongst Jews and Christians. Many people still identify themselves as such, but do not attend services nor give it much thought. By contrast, many Muslims dedicate themselves to Islam. This gives us the power we need to collect not just the souls of Muslims, but also Jews and Christians and athiests, Buddhists and Hindus as well. The Jewish and Christian paradises are sufficiently weakened that they can no longer devout much effort to collect Muslim souls. What they have already collected are secure in their paradises. However, they must concentrate what remains of their fading strength to collecting as many of their own faith’s souls as they can. However, their ability to do this diminishes all the time. An ever increasing number of Jewish and Christian souls are being retrieved for Muslim paradise. All of the mosques you see behind me are filled with souls similar to yours.”
The four woman again looked at the seemingly endless number of floating islands.
Jiao now took the lead in speaking, “Each of those buildings houses people?”
“Yes, some have four or three women, others have a single man.”
“Why the difference in numbers?”
“Because of the rules Allah has for marriage. A man may have four wives, but a woman may have only one husband. Each person who enters Paradise will be paired with a spouse, and Allah knows best who should be paired with who. The men who convert will be paired with a Muslim woman already in paradise. The women who convert will be paired with a Muslim man. It was decided that you four would be married to the same man.”
The four women looked at each other with concerned faces.
“What if we do not want to marry him?” Jiao asked.
“You will marry him when you enter Paradise.”
Abby thought about the implication of what was just said. She would be forced to marry a Muslim man, and the three other women trapped here would be her sister wives, all trapped in the same polygamous marriage.
All of the women were silent for a long period of time. The weight of what was said hung over them and they could not even bring themselves to look at each other. Finally, Jiao raised her hand.
“What if we choose not to become a Muslim?”
All eyes went to Zainab, waiting for her response. “You will remain here until you are ready to enter Paradise. It may be for several days, it may be for thousands of years. When you are ready, you will enter.”
Esther now spoke, “What if this man is not someone we wish to marry?”
“I will be able to take you to places that will help you to understand. I can help you to learn more about the man.”
“You mean we will be able to leave this place?” Abby asked.
“In a way, yes.”
There was a perceivable energy in the air. The prospect of leaving his place captured the imagination of every woman present.
“When will we leave?”
“We can leave at anytime. But first you must be dressed.”
“I don’t understand. We are already dressed.”
“No you are not. In each bedroom you will find the clothes you must wear to make the journey.”
Abby thought back to the closet and the black clothes in it, the same sort of clothes that this woman was wearing.
“You mean we have to be dressed like you?”
“Because it is what Allah wants.”
Abby found herself in the bedroom. The black clothes from the closet were laid out on her bed. She felt a conflict inside of her. She had to put these on in order to leave this place, but she did not want to wear them. In Muslim countries women were forced to wear the veil. It had always struck Abby as wrong that women should be subjugated in such a way. Now, here she was about to put on the very symbol of that subjugation.
Abby steadily removed her clothes except for her underwear. First she pulled up a pair of long black stockings onto her legs. She stared down at her black shrouded legs for a moment before pulling on a pair of black trousers. This was soon followed by a black long sleeve blouse. Abby could feel her a nervous energy running through her legs and arms. Soon she would be putting on the far more oppressive garments. The abaya came next. After adjusting the head covering she soon found herself almost totally submerged in black. She put on a pair of black sandals. Only her hands and face remained uncovered and soon these disappeared as a pair of long black gloves covered the hands and a veil was brought over the face, leaving only the eyes uncovered. A flip of the hand and soon a semi-transparent material covered the eyes as well. For Abby the world became much darker.
She remained standing for a moment. She looked down at her black covered hands, it was difficult to see through the veil so she really just saw the dark silhouettes of her hands. How was she suppose to learn anything if she could barely see?
Abby slowly made her way to the door. She cautiously reached out with her hand and took the handle. Soon she was in the hallway, making her way gradually to the main room. She spotted a black mass ahead of her and realized that it was one of the other women. She did not know who it was, even without her veil she would not have been able to tell one black ghost apart from another. The other woman was clearly having as much trouble seeing as Abby because her movement was just as slow and cautious.
Eventually they made it to the central room and were joined by the two others. Zainab was still in the room, waiting with what Abby thought might have been eternal patience. As the five women gathered together they spoke to each other, each trying to determine the identity of the others.
Before long all four women were settled down and Zainab spoke, “Our journey begins.”
At first nothing seemed to happen, but then Abby realized that the room was getting darker. She had not noticed it at first since everything through the veil seemed dark. However the room was noticeably growing dimmer. Eventually all was completely black.
Before any of the women could say anything, light slowly returned. Through the filter of the fabric over her eyes, Abby could see a desert landscape. A vast endless stretch of sand was before them. Soon Zainab was walking and the four women silently followed behind her. They walked for what seemed like an eternity but also no time at all.
Soon they had reached a small village. A single paved road that carried the occasional car ran through the village. There were people going about their business, many of the women wore all black abayas and quite a few wore veils over their faces. The small party of women entered the village, Zainab guided them forward.
Eventually they stopped outside a small house. In front of it was a small Arab boy who was playing with some toys. He moved them around on the ground and made sound effect with his mouth. Zainab walked behind the boy and kneelt down behind him. He did not seem to be aware that she was there.
“This is Muhibb. We will be following him during his life. You will see him experience many things. You will see the sum of his actions. You will see him grow into a man. You will see such things so that you may become familiar with your future husband.”
Abby watched the young boy playing on the ground and wondered what he would look like when he was older. Before long she began to see him grow. The women watched him attend school, play with his friends, begin working on a construction crew, attend mosque and pray. Gradually he grew older and older until he was in his thirties and then he grew ill one day and died.
Soon they were gone from the village and were back in the endless expanse of the desert. They walked a great distance until they had reached a small stone building. Zainab entered the building and the four women followed her. It was dark inside, almost black. Soon they found themselves in an entirely different desert, one with many hills and mountains and lots of sagebrush. They also saw Sofia, or rather a depiction of Sofia as the real Sofia was standing with them. This image of Sofia was wearing jeans and a white blouse. She was working on her family’s ranch in Mexico. Above her a glowing cross hovered. The image of Sofia before them seemed unaware of the glowing cross that hovered above her head or of the presence of the veiled women.
The women watched as Sofia was lifting up a pile of boards to reveal a rattlesnake. It struck out at her and bit her before slithering away. Sofia looked at the bite mark on her arm for a moment and began walking towards a nearby truck. She stumbled, and then got up. She stumbled, and then got up. She stumbled…and then collapsed.
As she lay on the ground the cross hovered three feet above her chest. Soon four women in abayas and veils appeared out of nowhere. They stood in a square around Sofia. The four women then kneeled and reached out with their gloved hands and took hold of some invisible thing. Soon a white cloth had materialized under Sofia. The four veiled angels then pulled their respective corners towards Sofia and wrapped her body up in the white cloth. As they did this the cross disappeared and was replaced with a crescent. They then lifted the cloth and carried her soul away while leaving her body behind.
They then saw a similar scene played out three more times. They saw Jiao rushing to make an important meeting only to be struck by a reckless driver. Again the four veiled angels appeared and performed their ritual. The Buddhist wheel above Jiao turned into a crescent and then her soul was carried away. Esther was at home when she began suffering heart pains and she died in an ambulance on its way to the hospital. The veiled angels arrived and the Jewish star above her changed into a crescent. Abby then watched in morbid fascination as she saw her own death, she was driving home in a snow storm only to have her car spin out of control and crash into a river. The veiled angels arrived and as they wrapped up her soul a crescent appeared above her body.
Eventually they returned to the mosque from which they had begun the journey. Zainab explained that she would remain there and would be available to teach them at any time. Once they had learned some basic information about Islam and the etiquette that would be expected of them in Paradise, they had merely to take the Shahada and they would enter paradise. The soul of Muhibb would be waiting for them there. He would take over guardianship of them and help to teach them more about Islam so that they would each become the ideal Muslimah.
The women left the room in silence, their minds weighed down by heavy thoughts. As the days began to pass Jiao eventually began taking lessons from Zainab. This surprised Abby at first as Jiao had always seemed the most rational of the group. However, that rationality now forced her to accept that there was no exit from their situation. Esther soon followed her and began learning the basics of Islam from Zainab. Eventually Jiao took her Shahada and Zainab led their through the gates and clouds before returning some time later. It was not long after that that Sofia finally gave in. Abby watched them from a distance occasionally but she mostly sat numbly in her room. Esther left next and eventually Sofia joined her and Abby was left in the mosque, alone except for Zainab who patiently waited for her. Eventually Abby walked into the central room and asked to be taught. Zainab taught her about the five pillars of Islam, showed her how to perform prayers, instructed her on how to protect her modesty when they arrived, and emphasized that she was to obey her new husband in everything. Abby did not agree inside her heart to many of the things Zainab taught, but what choice did she have?
Eventually Abby said the Shahada and followed Zainab out of the gates. After passing through the clouds she discovered that they were on a stone path that was suspended in the sky. It led from the floating mosque to the ground below. Abby did not feel any fear of their great height, she simply followed Zainab as they slowly descended to the ground.
Below them were villages scattered everywhere. Each was surrounded by lush fields of crops. Their stone path led to one of the villages that was near the coast line. As they descended towards it Abby looked at, at least as well as she could with the black fabric over her eyes. Her body was completely covered in black, she was to not even speak in public.
The village they entered was made of simple stone buildings and looked like something out of the middle ages. The men wore turbans and simple white clothes while the women went around entirely covered in black. Eventually the two of them stopped in front of one of the homes. It was a modest two story structure with a high fence behind it. Zainab knocked on the door. A moment passed and then the door slowly opened, another figure completely covered in black appeared. She regarded the two figures before her for a moment and then closed the door. Several more moments passed by and the door opened again, Zainab entered and Abby behind her.
Once they were inside the door was closed behind them and the black figure who had answered it removed her niqab. It was Jiao! The Chinese woman looked at Abby closely, staring at the black fabric over her face, or staring through it.
Abby removed her niqab and the two of them hugged. Jiao then turned to the stairs and spoke a little louder, “It is Abby, she is here.”
There was the sound of footsteps and two more black figures appeared. It was Esther and Sofia, who were covered in black except for their hands and faces. They came forward and Abby hugged both of them, or at least gave them a partial hug. Esther was holding a small infant in her arms and Sofia’s belly was so large that there was no doubt that she would soon be holding one as well. Abby wondered about what she was seeing. Had she really remained in the mosque in the clouds for so long? The emergence of a toddler showed that it had been even longer than she realized. The little boy waddled over to Jiao who picked him up with motherly affection.
“Abby, this is Ali.”
Abby looked at the young boy, his face a blending of Jiao’s Eastern Asian features with a Middle Eastern twist. “Hello Ali,” Abby said.
The boy shyly buried his face into Jiao’s chest and Abby smiled at how cute he was. Esther then introduced Abby to the slumbering Aisha in her arms.
“So…we can have children here?” Abby asked in confusion.
Zainab spoke, “Yes, in a way. In order to replenish the mortal world with souls, children are made here. When they become an adult they leave here to be born on Earth. The more Muslims born on Earth the more children that can be conceived here.”
Abby caught up with her three friends and before long Muhibb arrived in the house. Zainab introduced him to Abby and then left. Muhibb and Abby looked at each other for a long time. Abby had to admit that in his own way, the adult Muhibb was very handsome. Their eyes were locked for several moments and then he finally took her in his hands and kissed her. The moment she felt his lips on hers she melted. It had been so long since she had known any sort of intimate contact. She realized she was returning his kiss.
“Welcome home Abby. I am happy that you are here. I wish to get to know you better, but first I must take the fish I have caught to the market,” Muhibb said.
After Muhibb was gone Abby asked a thousand questions of her fellow wives. They told her all about life in this place. They were living in a village of several thousand people. Technology was as it was in the 7th century during the time of the Prophet. The fields were fertile and the seas were full of fish. Everyone lived in the austere manner than Islam required of them. For the most part Muhibb’s wives remained inside so that they could concentrate on improving their Islam. When they did go outside the house they were completely concealed in black. By their accounts, the other women had been living in the village for a couple of years. It had not seemed that long for Abby, but she had to admit that time could seem very different under the circumstances.
Muhibb soon returned with a bag of different foods. He gave it to Sofia who began cooking the meal. While she was doing this Muhibb spent some time playing with Ali. When he was done playing his son he spent some time with Esther and his infant daughter. Abby watched them closely. The sight of everything happening in the home slowly sank into her. She saw Esther look up lovingly into Muhibb’s eyes, the infant Aisha cradled lovingly in her arms. Jiao was busy preparing the table for dinner and Sofia, her belly heavy with the child growing in her, was cooking at the kitchen. All of these women had been non-Muslims in their lives, but in the after life they had become Muslim. And Abby was one of them.
Abby thought about the circumstances she had found herself. It felt so strange to be here. In many ways it still felt like a dream. She had awoken to find herself in that mosque in the clouds. There had been the other women there. They were visited by Zainab who had taken them on a journey beyond imagination. And then the revelation. To discover that they were to become the wives of a man in the heaven for Muslims. Abby had been the last to relent, but she had finally given in.
After dinner Muhibb led them in prayers. Abby was familiar with the movements, Zainab had taught her all the procedures she would need to know. It was a strange sort of knowledge, she knew how to do it but she did not truly feel anything from it. She had said the words to become a Muslim, but she did not think she had truly meant them. As She knelt and bowed she realized that she would be performing these actions for the rest of eternity.
Before she went to bed Muhibb visited with her. He promised that he would help her to become as close to the ideal Muslimah as he could. He also let her know that when she was ready to receive him in her bed that he would be ready to fulfill his obligations as a husband. He then left the the small bedroom that was to be Abby’s living space. She remained seated on her bed for a few moments after he had left and then laid down.
The cloth of the bed was a simple homespun piece of cloth. Staring up at the ceiling Abby’s mind drifted from one thought to another. How strange it seemed, that heaven would be a simple village like something out of the Middle Ages. At least this, Muslim, heaven was like that. She did not know what the other heavens were like. Would things have been different for her in either of them? She supposed that they would have been similar, just with different customs. Eventually Abby drifted off to sleep.
Abby was woken up before daylight so as to perform prayers. She got out of bed and joined her husband and sister wives in ritualistically cleaning their face, hands, and feet. Once they were done each member of the household set about their respective duties. Muhibb prepared for fishing on the sea. Sofia was busy cooking and Abby was assigned to help her. Jiao busied herself with preparing the table and some other chores that needed to be complete. Esther was busy babysitting Ali and her own Aisha.
Once breakfast was over Muhibb said his goodbyes to each of his wives and kissed each one of them. After pressing his lips to Abby’s he instructed her to remain in the house until he returned. Abby nodded, more out of acceptance of her situation than acknowledgement of his order.
Once Muhibb was gone Abby helped Sofia with cleaning the dishes. The beautiful Mexican woman smiled widely while they worked.
”What is it?” Abby asked.
”I am just so happy that you are here. I missed you very much when you were gone.”
Abby smiled back at Sofia. She felt a spring of happiness inside. She was not sure how she felt about being in this place, but she was glad to be back in the company of the people she knew. A thought occurred to her.
”Sofia, how much time passed before I arrived?”
Sofia’s brow furrowed slight as she seemed to be concentrating hard.
”I am not sure, maybe two years. It is difficult to tell. There are no calendars in this place. The days passed one after another. Jiao’s son is the only way for me to measure time, really. How long did it feel for you?”
“I’m not sure,” Abby admitted. “It both felt like a really long time and no time at all. I don’t remember being there for two years, but it was long enough to feel lonely.”
Sofia looked down at the ground, her expression was almost sad. “I am very sorry Abby…for leaving you there,” Sofia said.
“You don’t have to apologize.”
“Yes I do! I am so sorry. I did not mean to leave you alone. I feel like I owe you an explanation.”
Abby took a hold of Sofia’s hands and gave them a reassuring squeeze. “You do not owe me anything. But if it would make you feel better to talk about it, I will listen.”
Sofia looked up from the ground and smiled briefly.
“To be honest, I was surprised that I made the decision. I come from a very devout Catholic family and I have always looked forward to going to heaven…..at least how I understood it. So, when we found ourselves in that situation…it was devastating. I felt numb and lost.”
“Are you happy you did it?” Abby asked.
Sofia again seemed uncertain of the answer. “I do not know for sure. It is not what I would have expected or wanted out of an afterlife. But it is not bad. Muhibb is a good man and I think he really does love us. We have everything we need. And…..” Sofia paused and brought a hand up to her swollen belly.
Abby brought up a hand. “May I?” she asked. Sofia nodded and Abby reached out and felt Sofia’s belly through the black cloth of her Abaya. Sofia’s skin felt taunt. Abby marveled at the life that was growing inside of her.
“Are you happy about this?”
“Yes. I always wanted to have children. This is not the way I imagined, but I am happy nonetheless. And Jiao and Esther’s children have brought them happiness.”
Abby’s gaze drifted over to Esther who had pulled her abaya up and was nursing Aisha. Abby contemplated Esther, who had been a modern, professional woman. Now she was engaged in the ultimate act of domesticity and femininity. Esther was totally focused on the infant suckling from her. She looked calm, peaceful.
Abby returned her attention to Sofia. “How do you feel about how your child will eventually leave this place? He or she will be reborn on Earth as a Muslim. Do you know if you will ever get to see them again?”
Sofia shrugged her shoulders. “All parents have to watch their children grow up and leave at some point. Perhaps I will see them after they have returned?”
Sofia and Abby finished cleaning the dishes. At this point most of the chores were done. Once Aisha was asleep Esther and Jiao took turns looking after Ali while the other engaged in study of the Quran. Sofia led Abby to her room, which was similar is size and appearance except that a wooden cradle was present in a corner of the room. Sofia took out a small jar from a box and handed it to Abby.
“Can you help me with this?”
“Of course, what is it.”
“It is an ointment for my skin. Jiao and Esther both used it when they were pregnant and it was very soothing for them.”
Sofia adjusted her dark black clothing so that her belly was uncovered. She then laid down and waited. Abby looked at Sofia’s pregnant form for a moment and then opened the jar. She poured a little bit of the ointment in her hands and began to apply it to Sofia’s skin. As her hands rubbed over the taunt skin they left behind a glistening sheen. When Abby was done Sofia slowly sat up and thanked her.
“When you are expecting I will do the same for you,” she said with a wink and smile.
Abby’s mind was suddenly flooded with images of herself carrying a child. In these images she was completely covered, from head to foot, in black. Her large belly was noticeable under the black fabric but otherwise her form was a mystery for others. She then pictured Muhibb coming up behind her. He wrapped his arms around her, his hands resting on he pregnant belly. He held her close. Abby felt her heart quicken and she excused herself from Sofia’s room and returned to her own.
Abby paced around the room for a while, an anxious feeling grew, then dissipated. Abby broke from this routine and approached the window in her room. There was an intricate lattice pattern that dimmed the view considerably. She supposed this was to keep strangers from looking into the home. Peering through the small openings in the screen Abby could watch what was happening in the street below.
There were several men who were walking about. Some carried bags over their shoulders or some smaller items in their hands. Some men were working in the open, either building things out of wood or metal. There were a couple of women outside, but not many. They were completely covered in black. These black forms were practically invisible. They followed behind their husbands and made no attempt to interact with others. Abby took pity on them, having to endure such patriarchal conditions. They were subject to their husband’s commands and when they were outside they might as well not even exist as the world was concerned.
Then Abby recalled that she was just such a woman. She looked down at her black attire. Only her face and hands were uncovered and if she went outside the gloves and niqab would change that. That assumed that she would ever go outside. Her husband had instructed her not to leave the house. She could always disobey him, but what would be the point? What would she do outside?
A strange compulsion came over Abby. She took out a mirror from a box near her bed and set it against the wall. She then took out her gloves and niqab. She slid the gloves on and then adjusted the niqab over her face. She did not flip over the gauze yet. Instead, she approached the mirror and looked at her reflection. The narrow slit across her face revealed her eyes. Those lonely eyes stared back at Abby. Whose eyes were those? They were her eyes. But who was she? She had been a strong, independent woman and an atheist. Was she that anymore? She still had thoughts like such a woman might have. But that was not how she felt in her heart. She thought back to the rush she had felt when Muhibb had kissed her when they first met. There was a hunger in Abby, the need for human contact.
That night Muhibb joined Abby in her bedroom. They made love that night, Abby submitting herself to the intentions of her new husband. As their bodies joined she felt a calmness wash over her. Occupying the place of a devout and obedient Muslim wife for all of time did not seem like a bad prospect. She had been an atheist in life, but here she was a Muslim. She had not believed in heaven but she was in heaven now, or rather she was in a heaven. When Muhibb climaxed inside her she wondered whether the result would be a child. A child who would grow up into a soul to be born on Earth to help advance Islam.