“Twelve Angels”—fiction from Ahmed Salah Al-Mahdi

3 December, 2023,
Reading Time :7 minutes
At the end of his life, frightened at the prospect of death, a man contends with the possibility of complete erasure, the idea that no trace of his existence will remain. 

 

Ahmed Salah Al-Mahdi

Translated from Arabic by Rana Asfour

 

As I lie on my deathbed, bathed in the sunlight streaming through the open window, and as the curtains sway gently in the refreshing breeze, I reflect upon the journey of my life with sorrow and regret. In truth, it hadn’t been an entirely bad life. With its ups and downs, its joys and sorrows, I’d say it had been a quiet, even tranquil life, overall. As I think back on my carefree childhood — the most splendid years — I discover an inexplicable yearning and a sense of nostalgia that bleeds into each subsequent stage of my life.

I turn my head and look around to gaze at the visitors surrounding my bed. The men wear black suits, while the women are decked out in black dresses. Everyone appears engulfed in sadness. Some sob quietly, others gaze back at me in total silence, while others bury their faces deep into their handkerchiefs, unable to suppress their overflowing tears. One thing is undeniable: the entire congregation is distraught. However, I cannot tell whether this show of sadness is real. Regardless the answer, it will bring with it no consolation, for I am going to die whether they cry me rivers of sorrow, or celebrate with exuberant dances of joy.

In this moment, it strikes me how terrified I am of dying despite years defiantly convincing myself otherwise. And now that it is upon me, I lie in its wake trembling in deep-seated horror.

What frightens me more than the prospect of death itself is the possibility of complete erasure in its aftermath, so that there remains no trace of my existence. The thought of being consigned to a dismal, unfathomable abyss of insignificance, with my opportunity for immortality squandered, deeply troubles me.

I shift my gaze from the teary congregants toward the ceiling, and that is when I see them. Twelve entities surrounding my bed, silent, and gazing down at me. At once, a feeling of serenity invades my heart and, for no reason that I can explain, I am calmer than I have ever been in my life.

I am well aware of who these visitors might be, despite the absence of the wings that I believed they possessed in a realm surpassing that of human comprehension. Despite continually morphing into different shapes before my eyes, they consistently retain a discernible pattern. Amidst this structured chaos, I feel a soothing sense of familiarity, as if something misplaced and forgotten, since time immemorial, has resurfaced.

“Who are you?” I ask, my voice barely audible. My lips haven’t moved although the words are forming in my head.

“You know,” says one of them. His voice resounds like the delicate chiming of a thousand bells echoing across a serene valley, gently accompanied by the whispering rustle of a tranquil breeze. His words delicately brush against a hidden recess of my subconscious, unearthing something I had consciously kept at bay.

“There is nothing to fear. This is not the first time we have been through this together,” says another, his voice imbued with gentleness and serenity, much like his companion before him. “Throughout your life, you have been consumed by a profound fear of death. Each loss of a loved one has only intensified this fear, leaving your soul scorched with an enduring wound. But, is dying truly so awful?”

“What happens when I die?”

“Eventually, all things will cease to exist, including ourselves.”

As I furrow my eyebrows, I imagine the wrinkles on my forehead deepening; the sounds of lamentations slowly recede. It seems as though a veil has descended, creating a divide between me and the mourners.

“I don’t understand. Who are you? Or rather, who am I?”

 “Open your eyes and your heart, and clarity shall follow. Delve into the depths of your consciousness, unearthing the memories that lie dormant,” encourages another one of the beings floating by my bed.

If only I knew what it was that I was supposed to remember. I’d already devoted the entire day dredging up my life, and come up with … My thoughts are abruptly interrupted by a flash of an image that appears to depict the moment immediately following my birth. I see my mother in the bed where I currently lie, her arms securely wrapped around me. And there, in the room with my mother and me, are all twelve entities surrounding the bed.

The trace of a smile plays on the lips of the one who hasn’t yet spoken as he now turns to address me. “I want you to imagine the following scenario: in a distant time, there existed a solitary man who lived in complete isolation. This man, who was older than the concept of time itself, experienced overwhelming loneliness and profound boredom, finding no solace amidst the infinite void that encompassed him, save for the planets, stars and nebulae around him. Then, one day, he sat down to conceptualize an entire world, within which he could reside temporarily before abandoning it once it no longer piqued his interest. He populated it with diverse life forms and all other necessary components to stave off boredom and ennui.”

I take a moment to process the information I’ve just heard, and as the full weight of its implications dawns on me, I am stunned. “So, you’re…” my voice trails off momentarily, my breath catching. “That I’m …” I exhale, imagining my eyes opening as wide as saucers.

I look around me in confusion. The grieving mourners appear to have dissipated into thin air, leaving me alone, the sole occupant of the room.

“Is this entire world constructed exclusively for me and no one else?” I ask, trying to comprehend the magnitude of the situation. The notion seems too implausible.

“Yes, for you alone,” replies the angel.

 “But how could that be? How do you explain all the world history before I was born?”

“Prior to your existence, there was an absence, a void, a nothing. The inception of everything commenced the very instant you entered the world. Consequently, everything you perceive is a mere manifestation of your own imagination.”

A deep sigh escapes me. “What comes next? I mean, after my death?”

“This wasn’t your first life and it won’t be your last,” chimed in another of the twelve.

“What do you mean?”

“You have been reborn countless times and met your demise numerous times as well. With each rebirth, you find yourself in a distinct world, living a life that diverges in form from all previous ones. However, on every occasion, you willingly cast aside your memories and embark on a fresh start. Nonetheless, remnants of your past experiences reside deep within your being.”

His words elicit a swift panorama of recollections within my mind. I witness myself standing solitary, a colossal entity amidst celestial constellations and cosmic orbs. Fragmentary glimpses of past incarnations, although inconceivable, materialize before me. The intricacies of these realms elude my capacity to articulate, rendering them effable. It appears that the sole unchanging facet amidst this kaleidoscope of existence always manifests in the convergence of the twelve ethereal entities encircling me. 

“So, who are you?” I ask one last time, turning to look at each of them in turn. I hold a strong conviction that I already have my answer, as the initial ambiguity has now dissipated, replaced by a sense of recognition.

“We are angels. Celestial beings that are embodiments of your consciousness, present in every world you forge. We bear the weight of your memories and emotions, tending to the world surrounding you. Nevertheless, once you depart, this realm dissolves, and we too depart. We stand by your side, escorting you to the realm beyond, assuaging your solitude between two worlds. In the new world, we shall remain by your side for we are an integral part of your being.”

“Will the next life I’m reborn into look like this one?”

“Each world is entirely distinct from the prior one. The appearance of your world solely relies on your imagination, for only you have knowledge of the form it shall assume. This realization will unfold within you during your journey between worlds.”

A bright white light envelopes everything around me and all that I can see are the twelve angels before me. My bed is suspended in an infinite void, where the darkness is punctuated by intermittent beams of diverse colored lights, intricately intermingling like a captured rainbow within a raindrop.

Is it possible that all of this is true? Am I truly destined to experience rebirth multiple times? Alternatively, could these visions be mere hallucinations stemming from an aged mind, fearful of mortality?

Eventually, the ambient light surrounding me starts to gradually diminish, and the cries and wails of the mourners fade away. The silhouettes of the angels become increasingly obscured and indistinct, until I can no longer discern them amidst the blurred surroundings.

It feels that the truth is within arm’s reach, mere moments away. There exists the possibility of a rebirth or the descent into eternal darkness, forever deprived of illumination. However, despite such uncertainties, what remains of my mind desperately grasps onto the hope of a remote possibility, however farfetched it may seem, of an alternate realm, awaiting my creative instigation, alongside my twelve celestial companions.

 

Ahmed Salah Al-Mahdi is an Egyptian author, translator and literary critic in Cairo who specializes in fantasy, science fiction and children’s literature. He has five novels published in Arabic so far. Two of them — Reem: Into the Unknown and Malaz: City of Resurrection — have been translated into English. He has published many short stories, poems, and articles published in various languages.

Rana Asfour is the Managing Editor at The Markaz Review, as well as a freelance writer, book critic and translator. Her work has appeared in such publications as Madame Magazine, The Guardian UK and The National/UAE. She chairs the TMR English-language BookGroup, which meets online the last Sunday of every month. She tweets @bookfabulous.

Egyptian novelistslife and death

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