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FICTION

Before Bodies by Madeehah Reza

On the authority of Abū Hurayra, the Messenger of Allāh ﷺ said: “Souls are like conscripted soldiers: Those who are like qualities are inclined to each other, but those who have dissimilar qualities, differ.

“Souls feel an affinity with others according to the nature in which they were created, good or evil. … It could be that what is being referred to is the beginning of creation in the realm of the unseen when, it is reported, souls were created before bodies, and used to meet one another and express their pessimism about the future. When souls have entered bodies (come to the physical realm), they may recognise one another from the past, and maybe on friendly terms or otherwise based on that past experience.’” – Imām ibn Hajar al ‘Asqalānī

Dirty shadows wash over the peeling wallpaper in my room. I light a candle and place it on top of the pile of botany books beside my desk. Moments later, vanilla and honey float through the air, but the small flame isn’t strong enough to ward off the gloom.

A sharp cramp weakens my hand, so I put the pencil down for a moment. I’ve drawn the same petals dozens of times in a hundred different arrangements. It’s never been right, never perfect, but I suppose I’d better keep going.

A sharp wind cuts through the draft in the windows just as the pencil lead cracks and breaks. I grumble as I rummage for the sharpener in my desk drawers until I find it tossed on the floor. While I sharpen, I stare at the page with tired eyes. 

It’s always a hurried mess, a childish scribble. There are pages and pages of those same petals in this sketchbook, and several others in my room. But this is another dead end, and I want to chuck the sketchbook out the window.

Instead, I put my head on it and close my eyes. I can’t remember what the flower looks like—not completely anyway—and nothing seems to have helped.

It’s probably time for another trip to the library, I decide, so I blow out the candle and take my sharpened pencil with me.

*

We were sitting on the edge of a mountain peak beneath a brilliant sapphire sky. There were several of us lounging in a circle. Some rested against large boulders that sprouted on the surface of the peak. It was always this little group of ours that gathered.

Few others climbed up here as most favoured the bigger mountain views. This particular summit wasn’t the tallest or broadest. It didn’t have much vegetation growing on it and was eclipsed by its sibling peaks along the range. The view of the surrounding hills and rich, green valleys with rivers flowing in between was often obscured by the angle of its peak. But its view of the sky and its everchanging colours—I could have gazed upon that for an eternity.

“It won’t be like this when we’re born,” you said. “We’ll never see the sky like this again.”

A gentle breeze whipped around me, as if someone whispered a secret into my ear. I lay against a boulder with my arms cushioning my head.

“What do you mean?” I asked. “There’ll be a sky over there.”

“But it won’t look like this.” 

You laid down next to me. Warmth spread over us as a sweet-honeyed haze, like the momentary bliss after rousing from slumber. 

“It’ll be a pale comparison,” you continued. “Dull blues and starchy yellows; only an impression of this masterpiece.” 

I turned to look at you, but you stared straight ahead, eyes fixed above. 

“And what else?” I asked, teasing.

Tension creased your face, gripping the space between your brows. We weren’t meant to be tense here—that was all for the next life—so I wondered what made you feel so worried. 

Every one of us knew our time was limited. It was never meant to last—those deep ravines and quiet waterfalls; trailing paths and green mountains; the scents and sounds of endless comfort and love. And all the souls we loved. It was to be a secret hidden in our minds, buried deep, waiting to be excavated.

“We won’t know each other,” you said. “And if, by whatever miracle we did meet, then we won’t remember… all this.” Your hands lifted in the air, gesturing at the glorious scene in front of us.

“Why is this bothering you now?” I asked. “We all knew it was coming.”

You said nothing once more. I didn’t ask again.

*

I clutch my coat tight against the icy cold since the zipper broke some days ago. I hope that the bus will come soon.  Traffic builds on the other side of the street, a bottleneck of miserable cars and flashing lights with the occasional beeping horn.

When I lean against the bus shelter’s Perspex frame, I spot two small cornflowers growing at its side. I crouch and poke at their lovely blue petals, glossy in the dim light. They look a little drowned in all the rainwater and I almost want to scoop them into a pot and take them home.  

As I straighten, the bus edges closer in the sluggish traffic and I wave it down. Across the road at the opposite bus stop stands a figure swathed in an oversized raincoat. They’ve seen me crouch and look at the flowers, but now they’ve looked away.

On the left of the bus, I try to find that figure through the steamed windows, but they’ve disappeared behind a van. It’s a ridiculous hope—I know it’s not possible—but I wonder if it might have been you.

*

On the last night, you asked me if I would remember you. I laughed, then saw the seriousness etched in your eyes.

We were lying on a hill that overlooked our favourite meadow. There were fewer people there and we had left our group behind on that mountain peak. The soil was warm and soft, and from it rose the delicate scents of a mother’s love. Stars burned brilliantly in the sky, a sky so wide and open I wanted to fall into it and swim in its vast depths.

“You’ll forget me, and I’ll forget you,” I said. “We might end up meeting again, or we might not.” 

There was no guarantee of a reunion in any realm, only the merest possibility that our paths would cross. If I had been completely honest, I always knew our friendship wouldn’t last. It was nothing to be happy or sad about, but with your persistent worrying, a tremulous wave ran through me. I shivered. 

“What if you knew you would remember?” You sat up to face me. “Without any doubt?” 

I didn’t laugh—though I wanted to; it was such a silly idea—and twisted myself to lay on my side. “If I had a choice, I wouldn’t forget any of this. No one would; it’s too wonderful!”

As I spoke, you took my hands in yours. Your eyes widened with worry and your hands, despite being soft, felt cold. For a brief moment, I wondered if you would keep the shape and depth of your lovely eyes, but I knew we would all look different.

“You know, as well as I do, what’s coming next will try to break us.” Those same eyes darted across the grass. “We need something, anything, that’ll remind us of this. It’ll help us to keep going.”

“Why are you so worried?” I asked.

“Because I don’t want to lose you!”

I took my hand back as confusion bloomed within me. “What’s so special about us?”

You hesitated and refused to meet my gaze. Silence eroded our conversation, or perhaps you just couldn’t find the words that made sense.

Then, you plucked a flower and held it up to me. It was a common bloom in this field, with two sets of three loops that formed large, translucent petals. One set was a deep blue and the other a shimmering violet. In the centre sprouted its carpels, several long filaments with buds at the end that glittered in the light. At night, it seemed as if these flowers were their own stars. 

“Let’s start small. Just remember this flower; its shape, colours—everything.” You handed the flower over to me. 

I stared at it, not knowing what to do with your doubt. “This is silly.”

“Fine, I won’t force you.” You stared across the hill and muttered quietly. The nameless flower twinkled all across the meadow. “We’ll all be looking for people like us. But as soon as we’re in another body, that’s it. Our memories will disappear.”

I fiddled with the stem in my fingers. The flower swung from side to side, a pendulum in my thoughts. 

“What makes you so sure I could remember anything with a flower?” 

You shrugged and lay back down to watch the sky. “I don’t, but it would be worth trying, don’t you think?”

I sat next to you, and I think we fell into our final sleep that way, though I can’t quite remember how.

*

No one remembers having an ancient life. It’s all about here and now, not the time before we had these bodies.

Today the weather cannot make up its mind. I’m at the top of a hill in the park near the library. I sit in a quiet spot in the rays of a cold sun. Groups of young people sit on picnic blankets scattered across the greenery. Amidst them are a few couples, enjoying the sudden change in weather. Several children weave in between, chasing each other with imaginations bigger than what the world can contain. 

It’s lunchtime and the park is filled with probably forty or fifty people, and it’s only the tiniest fragment of the world’s population. And yet, I find myself meticulously studying each person.

You might be sitting in those forty or fifty, or you might be cycling just outside the park. Or you could be half a world away in another country; worse, you could have died just as I was born.

My phone beeps. It’s the girl I keep bumping into at the library, only she wasn’t there today. I thought she might have been from our little group, might remember sitting on top of a silent mountain. We’d exchanged pleasantries at first when checking out books, which gave way to a gush of conversation and a stream of text messages. 

We meet up for coffee every now and then, but it’s kind of dwindled. For the second time in two weeks, she’s cancelled on me. I might give her a call later. Mind you, she’s never mentioned anything about flowers.

Despite this being a nice area, I don’t stay in the park too late. I walk back to the bus stop and pass an electronic billboard overhead advertising a new romcom that’s out. 

It seems that everyone’s looking for their soulmate, their other half, but I’m not quite sure we know what that really means. The billboard changes to show a glimpse of the two leads, both typically gorgeous and plain at the same time. 

This is the abridged form of love, all banter and butterflies and eventual intimacy. If this is love, I think, it’s too rushed and compressed.

How different would it be if we could meet those we’d been with countless millennia ago? To find those you had travelled with through vast lands and sat with, under skies of astonishing constellations. How wonderful would it be to brush fates with a soul because their rich history was threaded through yours?

At the bus stop, I pull out my sketchbook from my bag and flick through its pages. It’s nearly full. 

That nameless bloom first came in a dream, then became a permanent fixture in my thoughts. I don’t know why I remember it, whether it’s a blessing or a curse, but it’s here to stay.

I keep trying to draw the flower, draw its two sets of three loops, its glittering buds, but it never comes out right. If I see it in real life, I know I’ll recognise it. I’ve scoured the Internet and some libraries and even visited Kew Gardens a few times just to check, but I still can’t find it. 

I can’t find that stupid flower, and I can’t find you.

Madeehah is a pharmacist and freelance content writer. She writes short stories and creative essays and is currently studying for an MA in Creative Writing. You can find more of her work through twitter @madeehahwrites

By Timi Sanni

Muslim fiction writer