He could find no hatred in his heart as the anesthesiologist slowly squeezed the plunger. The liquid going into his arm made him feel limp, and far away. He breathed softly, slowly, in the mask. The world faded into nothingness.
Some time passed, how much he could not say. All he knew was that some period of time had passed. He felt unreal. He could hear voices, faintly, as if from far, far away, echoing and attenuated by some distance, muffled and confusing, yet with the odd word coming in perfect clarity. But he couldn’t understand the words, even though he knew who was speaking. It was the doctor and his team of surgeons, the anesthesiologist, the nurses, the students observing this new, dangerous, and experimental heart surgery.
With a surge of awareness, he realized that he was looking down into the room as if the ceiling had been stripped off, open to the azure sky above. If he was awake, why did he not feel them poking and cutting into his body? Was he dead? Yet they all seemed so calm, even in this strange perspective, looking down on their heads and necks, the tops of their shoulders. The cool tones of their voices told him he was still very much alive.
Dr. Weinberg cut and clipped, and inserted long shiny metal things into his open chest as he watched. The only man in the whole world who could do this operation; a quiet codicil to a proposed ceasefire agreement between their two warring nations.
Weinberg had cheerfully agreed to the request, and he himself had submitted to the ministrations of the infidel doctor with few misgivings. Weinberg was known world-wide to be the best. At this point in history, his own life was a symbol, his own right to live or die transcended by the political reality; and the urgent need for peace. He watched in admiration as Weinberg’s long, spatulate fingers ardently probed with the caress of a lover, massaging the new assistance-pump into position near the aorta. The noises of the machines in the background, pumping blood through his very brain, confirmed whatever reality he was seeing. He was firmly convinced that this was reality of a kind.
He had heard of people being awake under sedation, but he could feel no pain, and no panic. He felt only peace and a kind of passive curiosity. Whatever it was, he could do nothing about it, and all would be revealed to him, perhaps? Perhaps…when he should have felt physical symptoms of fear, there was nothing…only nothing…there was no dread at the thought of death, merely a kind of dull longing for peace.
The room faded from his view, and for a moment or two, he found himself spinning and rotating slowly, as if he were floating in space above the Earth. Everything about him was blackness. There was no up or down, there was no dizziness, there was no need to breathe. It was amazing in its calm; one would have expected the fear-of-falling response, like when a person has a bad dream. All his physical fears were gone.
Was he dead then? He marveled at the thought, only half believing it. It was still unbelievable, that part seemed hard to take in. Did everyone feel like this, when they died? He wondered if his spirit was reluctant to move on, and he wished for release if that were so. The thought that he might be dead, and that was all there was to it, was something of a relief. Was the fear of death really nothing more than the fear of uncertainty, or dissolution? Or the most basic, animal fear, the fear of pain?
In the distance, he found a spot of discoloration, which slowly swelled and spun into a dot of dim white light, pale and diaphanous in his blurry vision. His sight had nowhere the clarity of the earlier vision of the operating theatre. He had no idea of what to expect, and yet he had preached what to expect for most of his adult life.
The pride-fullness that he must have exhibited in the eyes of God daunted and humbled him in its venality. But perhaps God could understand that it was all in His name, all in His good works? He had never really asked for anything for himself…not very much, anyway. All he had ever asked, was for the tools, the power to do God’s works, and to spread the truth of God.
He wondered if he was supposed to try to move toward the light. Merely thinking the thought brought him closer. Slowly the light spun closer, getting much brighter now. He could discern a figure, one that shimmered, wavering back and forth and then it oriented itself upright in relation to himself. Once again he marveled that he felt no fear, no dread, no guilt, no anticipation…nothing. The bearded figure beckoned to him.
The eyes, the mouth, the manly, joyful countenance of the Apostle of God hovered before him.
The Imam didn’t know what to think or to say. He suddenly realized that he had in fact doubted this moment all of his life, and that somehow much of the stridency of his message had been based on fear—his teachings were all the result of generations of fear, and anger.
“Move towards the light.” The figure of a man, a bearded man, with sparkling eyes greeted him.
He tried to obey, but the only thing he could do just then, the only thing he could seem to feel just then, was guilt.
“I—I’m sorry,” he tried to say, but he knew he could not say it without a mouth, a body.
Would the figure understand just how penitent, just how contrite, and genuinely confused that he was? And how could he enter paradise without a body?
“You are welcome here. You are forgiven.” Upon hearing those words, he wished that he had eyes, and tear ducts so that he might cry.
“I am not worthy,” he tried to say. “I have been so wrong, so mistaken, so arrogant.”
He was going backwards, fearing immediately that he had caused it himself. He could not stop it either. Somehow he knew that right away. He was in the operating room again, this time floating around at the same level as the eyes of the staff. He watched them hurriedly sew up some things and then try to start his heart. They tried again and again, and for one brief moment, amazing in its intensity, he hoped they would fail. Then he was back in his own body, and he was lying on the bed in the recovery room, and all was fuzzy and warm. Somebody was speaking softly to him, or about him, just a half-meter or so away from his right ear.
“Gave them a right scare during the operation, but he looks stable now,” he heard a female’s voice right above and beside him.
Someone with a hard, dry, strong hand squeezed his own. He heard a familiar voice, poignant in his ears due to his own new revelation. His faith in himself had been destroyed in the same moment his faith in God had been reaffirmed…he had been forgiven. He, who had never once thought he required it.
“Imam. Imam. Can you hear me? Squeeze just a little.” It was Ali, his aide, friend, and confidant of these many years.
Half a century had passed since he had begun to mentor the lad, and groom him as a protege. Had he failed Ali? How could he tell Ali that he had seen Mohammad, who had greeted him at the gates of paradise? He could taste the bitter salt tears, sighing in anguish at the thought of how little time he had left to try to do better. His eyes were open now. Ali was gazing down at him in wondrous joy at his recovery, and filled with the news that the operation was successful.
The Imam’s lips parted and he spoke.
“Scholars tremble when they hear the name of God, for God is mighty, and forgiving.”
He squeezed Ali’s hand as hard as he could, knowing that the pressure was almost indistinguishable. He was as weak as a new-born kitten.
“You’ll feel better in a few days.”
“Inshallah! As God wills it.” The Imam's voice quavered in shock, and humility, and shame.
Peacefulness stole over him, and then he slept.
Ali sat watching over him and holding his hand, grateful to a bountiful Providence that the hope of their nation lived on in the heart of this frail old man.
Note: Originally appeared in Danse Macabre, Nevada's pemier online literary magazine.