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Fiction

The Pilgrim and the Angel

Three days before Mr. Fareed Halawani was washed and turned to face the northeast, a beatific smile on his face, he had the unusual distinction of entertaining the angel Gabriel at the coffeeshop he operated in the unfashionable district of Moqattam in Cairo. Fareed was tipped back in his monobloc chair, watching the soccer game on television. The cigarette between his lips wobbled with disapproval at the referee’s calls. Above him on the wall hung the photograph of a young man, barely eighteen, bleached to pale blue. His rolled-up prayer mat rested below. It was a quiet hour before lunch, and the coffeeshop was empty. Right as the referee held up a yellow card, a scrub-bearded man strode in.

“Peace to you, Fareed,” the stranger boomed. “Arise!”

Fareed laughed and tapped out a grub of ash. “Peace to you. New to the neighborhood?”

“Not at all. I know you, Fareed,” the stranger said. “You pray with devotion and give generously to the poor.”

“So does my neighbor,” said Fareed, “though that hasn’t helped him find a husband for his big-nosed daughter. Can I get you a glass of tea?”

“The one thing you lack to perfect your faith is the hajj.”

“Well, with business as slow as it is, and one thing and another . . .” Fareed coughed. “Truth is, may God forgive me, I’m saving up to visit my son. He’s an electrician in Miami. Doesn’t call home. What would you like to drink?”

“I have come to take you on hajj.”

“I’ve got too much to do without that,” Fareed said. He had quarreled half the night with Umm Ahmed over their son, whose lengthening silence his wife interpreted as pneumonia or incarceration or death, though Fareed supposed it was simply the cheerful thoughtlessness of the young. He had washed six stacks of brown glasses caked and swirled with tea dust, his joints sour from four hours’ sleep, before unrolling his shirtsleeves and sitting down to his soccer match. But for the rigorous sense of hospitality that his own father had drummed into him, nothing could have stirred him from his chair, his chewed cigarette, and the goals that Al-Ahly was piling up over Zamalek. His bones clicked as he stood. He reached for a clean glass.

But the angel spread his stippled peacock-colored wings, which trembled like paper and made the room run with light, and said again, simply, “I am taking you on hajj.”

Fareed choked on his cigarette. “Now? Me? Are you crazy? I have customers to care for!”

Gabriel glanced around the deserted shop and shrugged, his wings dipping and prisming the walls. Then he vanished. The prayer mat propped against the wall fluttered open and enfolded Fareed. While he kicked and expostulated, it carried him headfirst out the door and into the clear hard sky, to the astonishment of a motorcyclist sputtering past.

“Sir! Sayyid! Are you djinn or demon?” Fareed called out. “Where are you taking me? What have I done?”

“I am taking you on hajj!” the angel said joyfully from within the rug, his voice muffled, as if by a mouthful of wool.

“If you are taking me anywhere,” Fareed said, struggling against the tightening mat, “make it Miami. And you have to get me home by midnight. Umm Ahmed will worry, and I have to shut up the shop.” He finally freed his arms from the grapple of the prayer mat. Below them, the countryside zoomed by, green and very distant. Fareed blanched.

“I can circle the globe as fast as thought,” said Gabriel. “Of course we’ll have you home by then.”

“Perhaps a little slower, I have a heart condition,” Fareed said, but they whistled up like a rocket, and the wind hammered the next words back into his throat.

• • • •

When he dared to look again, the silver trickle of the Delta flared below them. Then they were gliding over the shark tooth of the Sinai and the crinkling, inscrutable sea.

“This is really not necessary,” Fareed shouted. “If I sell my shop I can buy an economy-class Emirates ticket to Jeddah tomorrow. You can send me home now.”

“No need to sell your shop!” the angel said. “No need to wrestle suitcases through the airport and sit for hours with someone’s knees in the small of your back. No need to worry.”

“Right,” Fareed said miserably.

By the time they reached the Arabian Peninsula, the dry, scouring wind had become unbearable. “Water,” Fareed croaked. “Please, water.”

“So spoke Ishmael in Hagar’s lap,” Gabriel said within the mat. “She had nothing to give him but prayers and tears. But I heard her crying out. I struck the ground with the tip of my wing, and water poured forth.”

“Water!”

“Yes, water as clear and cool as glass. That was the well Zamzam. I shall take you to drink from it.”

Fareed groaned a sand-scratched groan, then shut his eyes and muttered over and over the suras of the dying.

“Here we are,” Gabriel said, what felt like hours later, lofting a red-faced Fareed onto a heap of sand. “That’s Juhfa in the distance. Come, put on your ihram.”

“What ihram?” Fareed said.

But as he spoke, a bright, cold stream boiled up from the ground, and the prayer mat unraveled and wove itself into two soft white rectangles, which settled like tame doves at his feet.

Fareed gulped the sweet water, washed himself as well as he could, then peeled off his shirt and trousers and wound the white cloths about himself. The stream receded as silently as it had sprung up, the dark stain it made in the sand drying at once to nothing.

He had barely caught his breath when his white drapes shut like a fist and lifted him high into the air.

Wonders upon wonders, Fareed thought. But why him? Why an indulgent father, an inattentive husband, whose kindnesses were small and tea glass sized? Why would any angel bother himself with someone so unworthy?

Guilt niggled at him like a pebble in his shoe as he sailed over towns and sandy wastes. He could see Umm Ahmed rolling her eyes and shaking her head, hands on hips. Angels? You say angels took you to Mecca? This is why you left the shop unlocked and unwatched? What kind of a layabout husband did I marry? You want me to call you Hajji now? Are you kidding me? It filled him with a terrified kind of love.

“What am I going to tell Umm Ahmed?” he moaned.

“The truth! That your piety and prayers have been recognized. That Gabriel himself has led you on pilgrimage.”

“She will throw shoes at me,” Fareed sighed.

“Look,” the angel said, as if he had not heard. They were descending through glittering skyscrapers and moon-tipped minarets. The Grand Mosque loomed before them, a wedding cake of marble that stunned Fareed to speechlessness.

He had always imagined making the pilgrimage as a fat and successful old man, cushioned by Umm Ahmed’s sarcastic good humor and Ahmed’s bright chatter. Now he had neither. Loneliness shivered and rang in him like a note struck from a bell.

Fareed barely had time to stammer the talbiyah through parched lips as they flew around the Kaaba, once, twice, seven times, his body cradled in the unseen angel’s arms. His mumble was swallowed up in the susurrus of prayer rising from the slow white foam of pilgrims below. Fareed knew he was in the presence of the divine. He was humbled.

“Here is your Zamzam water,” the angel said. A plastic pitcher ascended to them, revolving slowly. Fareed grasped it and drank.

“Now hold tight,” the angel said, although Fareed had nothing to hold on to. The pitcher tumbled away like a meteor. “Over there is the path between Safa and Marwa, paved, enclosed, and air-conditioned now. Very comfortable and convenient.”

“I don’t suppose—”

“No! We shall take the path as Hagar found it, the hot noonday sun beating upon her head. Think: your child dying in exile. Think: how strong her faith, how deep her despair.”

Fareed and the angel swooped seven times over the crenellations and cascades of white marble. As they hurtled over the walkway, dry air whipping their faces, Fareed imagined the rubble and grit below the elaborate masonry. He saw in his mind a thin dark woman plunging barefoot over the stones, tearing her black hair, her child left beneath a thornbush to suck thirstily at shadows. He thought of Umm Ahmed’s reddened eyes and weary, dismissive waving—leave me alone, my son is gone—and of the phone that shrilled and yammered all day but rarely spoke with his son’s voice. The image he held of his son was the photograph of Ahmed in uniform, taken during his mandatory service, when he was still a boy and anxious to please.

“Now—” the angel began, but Fareed spoke first, flapping his arms as he hung in the air.

“Enough! Enough!”

“But you haven’t—”

“Give me my clothes and my shoes.”

“Your faith is incomplete without the hajj,” Gabriel remonstrated. “What answer will you give the other angels when they question you?”

Fareed felt cold despite the thick sunlight. His chest tightened. “Where are you taking me?”

“On hajj.”

“No. Take me to my clothes.”

The angel swerved out of the mosque. They returned to the desert place where his shirt and trousers lay folded beside his shoes. Only a little sand had accumulated in the heels. As Fareed stooped for them, his ihram fell away and became once more his threadbare prayer mat.

Beside him, the angel coalesced into a bluish glow containing edges and angles and complex, intersecting wings. Only the vaguest suggestion of a face shimmered in the chaos. He was painful to behold.

“Shall I bring you home?”

Fareed straightened, dust swirling and settling in his damp garments and sweat-sticky hair. A decision crystallized on his tongue. “If this is real and true, and I am not dreaming—if you are truly an angel and no evil spirit—then you will please take me to see my son.”

“After all of this? After I brought you in my arms to the Honored City, to Masjid al-Haram itself—you want to go to America?”

“Especially after all of this,” Fareed said. “If you are capable of these marvels, you can transport me to Florida as well.”

The angel extruded a finger from chaos and curled it around his chin.

Fareed said, “Hagar burned and tore her feet as she ran in search of water for her son. Did you not hear her weeping?”

“That I did.”

“And out of pity for her and her child you caused water to flow from barren rock.”

“That is true.”

“Then perhaps pity will move you to carry me to Miami,” said Fareed. “I have not seen my son in three years.” He folded his arms. “I did not ask you to come. I did not ask to be taken on hajj. I did not ask to be hauled out of my shop without so much as a note to my wife.”

“Also true.”

Fareed put one hand over his breast, where a dull ache was growing. “So take me to see my son. This once. It’s the least you could do for me. Considering.”

Deep inside the blue matrix of the angel, polygons meshed and disentangled with a sound like silver bells.

“All right, enough, let’s go,” Gabriel said, dissolving. “Back on the prayer mat with you.” The rug rose from the sand and hovered an inch above the ground, undulating smoothly.

Fareed looked at it and made a small, quiet, unhappy noise. He resolved that if he ever made it home, he would buy a new, less willful prayer mat, perhaps one of the cheap ones with a pattern of combs and pitchers that were made on Chinese looms.

• • • •

Rolled up in his prayer mat, Mr. Fareed Halawani of Moqattam, coffeeshop owner and pilgrim, came to an abrupt halt in front of the Chelsea Hotel in Miami. The carpet snapped straight, and Fareed spun once in the air before hitting the manicured lawn.

His son turned away from his pickup, shouldering a wreath of wires. He wiped sweat and wet hair out of his eyes, blinking against the sunlight and the mirages wavering out of the pavement.

“Dad?” he said, surprised.

Fareed stared up at the blue sky, bottomless as the one over Cairo, and listened to the strange, extravagant hiss of the lawn sprinkler. A single defiant dandelion bobbed above his nose, drifting in and out of focus. His stomach was still roiling from the rough flight across the Atlantic.

“That’s it,” Ahmed said, putting the back of his hand to his forehead. “I’m seeing things. I’m going crazy.”

“You could pretend to be happy to see me,” Fareed said.

“You can’t possibly be here. You can’t. I must have heatstroke.”

“Go drink some water. I’ll still be here when you get back.”

His son extended a browned, broad hand and flinched when Fareed grasped it. But he helped his father to his feet.

“Do you believe me now?” Fareed said.

“What are you doing here?”

“Visiting you. You don’t call home often enough.”

“How did you get here?”

The prayer mat lay meekly upon the grass.

“An angel brought me, I think.”

“An angel.”

“Maybe an ifrit, it was horrible enough. We went to Mecca first, then came here. I insisted.”

Ahmed stared. “Are you all right?”

“Of course I’m all right.”

“Did you hit your head? Do you feel feverish?”

Fareed frowned. “You think I’m lying.”

“No, I—” Ahmed shook his head. “I’ve got a job to finish here, okay? You can come with me while I do it, then we’ll take you home and I’ll—we’ll figure out what to do with you.” He picked up his black toolbox in one hand and offered the other to his father.

“I don’t need to be supported,” Fareed said. “I feel fine.”

• • • •

The truck’s tires squealed as they pulled off the highway onto a narrow, shaded road. Beards of gray moss trailed from the trees and brushed the top of the truck. Ahmed lived in a pleasant white box, its postage-stamp lawn planted with crimson creepers and edged with large, smooth stones.

“No visa, right?” Ahmed said, unlocking the door. “No passport?”

“Nothing. Very unofficial, this visit. But I don’t think you have to worry about getting me home,” Fareed said. He felt the rug twitch in his arms.

His son’s house contained only things that were bright and new: chairs and tables in colorful plastics or upholstered in triangle prints, a glass bookcase stuffed with calendars and phonebooks, two photos in chromium frames on the wall. One of the photos was of Fareed, his wife, and Ahmed, taken seven years ago in Alexandria. The other photograph—

“Who is she?” Fareed said, nudging the frame so it hung askew.

His son flushed. “She’s, I met her, ah, a few months ago—”

“I see.”

“A year, actually,” Ahmed said, looking away. “She’s really nice. Very sweet. Really.”

“Does she cook well? Is she a believer? Are you engaged?” Fareed stared at the picture. “Does she have a name?”

“Rosa.” Ahmed shifted from one foot to another. “What do you want for dinner? I could make some fuul—”

“You do know your mother and I have been trying to find you a good Egyptian girl? Aisha’s a sensible woman, thirty-six, steady job at the bank—”

“That isn’t necessary.”

“Apparently not.” Fareed raised an eyebrow at Rosa, who beamed innocently from the frame. “You might have told us.”

“I was going to.”

“When was the last time you called, anyway?”

“I’ve been busy,” Ahmed mumbled.

“I can see that.”

“Business has been good.”

“I’m—glad,” Fareed said, glancing around the small room. The odor of newness filled his nose and made his chest twinge.

“Midnight,” the angel whispered in his ear, faint as a breeze. “Five hours. You’ll make a mess if you stay, you know. Hospital bills, no identification, no papers.”

Fareed clasped his hands stiffly behind his back. “So, Rosa. Do I get to meet this woman?”

His son’s silence hurt more than he expected.

“Is it my clothes? I’ll change—”

“No.”

“You can translate for me. Shouldn’t she meet her fiancé’s parents?”

“Fiancé? She’s not—” Ahmed flung up his hands. “It’s too complicated, Dad. Listen. If you paid someone, to bring you here—”

“I didn’t,” Fareed said quietly. “You have nothing to worry about. I’ll be gone soon.” He paused, studying his son. “If I let you do what you wanted when you were younger, it was out of love. Not wanting to see you caged up. I wonder if that was wrong of me.”

“It was fine.” Ahmed began to open and shut the cabinets.

Fareed sighed. “Do this for me,” he said. He had spotted the black telephone on the counter, winking with unspoken messages, and now he lifted up the handset and held it out to his son. “Call your mother tonight. Just one phone call. Just one. She misses you. She needs you.”

Ahmed hesitated, then nodded reluctantly.

“Don’t worry about dinner. I should go.”

“No, stay, please. I’ll cook for you. You’ll be impressed.”

His son was different and strange in this house, taller and stronger than the boy Fareed remembered. He had worked confidently at the hotel, snipping, stripping, splicing, and now he conjured up knives, pans, chopping boards, a blue gas flame with the casual swiftness of experience.

To Fareed’s surprise, Ahmed, who had never cooked or lifted a finger at home, made fuul with eggs and lemon-sauced lamb on rice. After cleaning the last crisp speck from his bowl, Fareed wiped his mouth on the back of his hand and pushed back from the table.

“It is very good.”

Ahmed fixed his eyes on the floor, embarrassed.

“Two daughters,” the angel said. “Three years apart. One will have your strong chin. One will have Umm Ahmed’s singing voice.”

“Call your mother,” Fareed said. “And give Rosa my regards. I should be going.” He glanced toward the sofa, over whose arm he had draped the prayer mat. A corner of the cloth fluttered, although there was no breeze in the room.

• • • •

In their small flat in Moqattam, in the hours before dawn, Umm Ahmed rubbed a track in the floor with her pacing. Dinner had gone cold on the stove and moved uneaten into the fridge. The coffeeshop had been empty and unlocked. She had groped blindly over the lintel for the spare key and found it untouched, checked the register and found it still full. A thoughtful patron had turned off the television on his way out, though the ashtrays and water pipes still trailed gray ribbons in the air. Through the dimness of the shop the picture of Ahmed in fatigues, long faded to blue ghostliness, gazed down on her.

No one knew where her husband was. No one had seen him since morning. No one knew what had happened. She dropped into a kitchen chair, exhausted, and put her head in her arms. Stars and green neon lights glowed outside the window. Automobile engines roared through the night. She had the sinking sensation of being perfectly alone.

Then, on its cream-colored cradle, the phone rang and trembled, rang and trembled.

“Hello? Ahmed? Habibi, it’s been so long—how could you—how are you—?”

Outside, like a scrap of burnt paper, her husband’s prayer mat, wrapped around a dark, heavy form, drifted down to their doorstep.

E. Lily Yu

E. Lily Yu received the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer in 2012 and the Artist Trust/LaSalle Storyteller Award in 2017. Her stories have appeared in such publications as McSweeney’sBoston ReviewF&SF, Clarkesworld, and Terraform, among others, as well as multiple best-of-the-year anthologies, and have been finalists for the Hugo, Nebula, Sturgeon, Locus, and World Fantasy Awards.