The Black Cube

2016-06-23 - 1686 words, approximate reading time: 8 minutes

The entity is all-knowing, all-watching. It exists outside of space and time, everywhere and everywhen. It sees everything you have done, and knows everything you will do.

The centre of the world is the cube. You always know its direction from where you are. The reason you learn the points of the compass are so that you can use one to orient yourself to it. Millions of humans across Earth whisper words they don’t understand in it’s direction every day.

We had the windows down in the taxi on the way in to the holy city. A sign in the desert on the way in read “believers only from this point onwards”. We had our documentation checked on the way in.

“As a believer, you’ll know when you see the sacred temple” my mother said. “You’ll feel it in your heart, there it is” she said, as she pointed to the just-visible towers in the windshield of the taxi.

I saw the towers. I might have felt something.

We stayed in a hotel close to the sacred temple. There was a McDonalds at the bottom floor. You could look upon the house of the entity while chowing down on a fillet-o-fish value meal.

If the entity exists outside of time, could I be punished for something I haven’t done yet? Could I be rewarded for some good deed I’m yet to do? Perhaps something horrible will happen to me to make up for me being born to a good family?

I was excited, and nervous to see the cube. I didn’t know what to expect. I didn’t know what was inside. I did know that a rock that fell from heaven was housed next to it. I wanted to see this rock, and touch it if I could get the chance.

We visited the sacred temple on a quiet day, so we could get quite close to the cube. This was more out of laziness than piety. The rites called for walking around the cube seven times. The closer we were to the cube, the shorter each walk around it would be.

The cube had a crowd of a few hundred people around it, tightly packed against it, moving slowly in a circle around it. We joined this crowd. Men wore the customary two towels, and women were covered head to foot in black. Elderly pilgrims of some wealth were carried around the cube in palanquins by teams of men.

We moved into the crowd and became a part of it. It smelled like sweat, miswak, and cologne. I was holding my sisters hand on one side and my mothers on the other. This struck me as sub-optimal. If I lost my mother then the two of us would be alone. If I lost my sister then… well that didn’t bare thinking about.

Pushed along by the crowd we completed a few circuits and said the words. I was hit in the head by one of the palanquin handles twice. We were still together, though there had been a few moments where the crowd had put us out of view of each other. The floor of the sacred temple is marble. Moving in a densely packed crowd means you’re shuffling more than you are walking. I was surprised to feel something like an arm or a leg under my foot. I stopped and looked down.

An ageless woman looked up. I don’t remember her face. In my dreams she never has her own face. She takes someone else’s. She says some words to me that I don’t understand. It may have been some dialect of Arabic. Her skin was dark, so maybe somewhere from South India. Perhaps Sri Lanka? Maybe East Africa? I had no idea. She was disabled, perhaps with polio or some kind of spinal injury that meant she couldn’t walk. She was trying to drag herself around the cube.

She was being crushed by the swirling throng. By me, by my sister, by my parents, by the palanquin teams trying to get their charges off their backs as quickly as possible, by all the believers from all walks of life who’d come to the sacred temple today to perform the rites.

We had locked eyes. I didn’t know what to do. I had to keep moving. I had to keep my sisters hand or she would be lost to the crowd. There was no way for me to help her.

We went around again a few more times. I didn’t see her again. On the last circuit I stepped on something. It was some bloody combination of flesh and bone fragment, crunching and tearing beneath me.

Later I would ask my family about the woman.

“Some disabled people come to the cube to pray for a better life” my mother said.

“She was worthless, she did the right thing by ending her life here” someone else said. “Now at least she has guaranteed her place in heaven”.

Afterwards, or before, we were encamped in the desert, five kilometres to the East of the holy city. The encampment was in a valley surrounded by mountains. There were thousands of large, white tents, neatly arranged in rows. It was cool at night and blistering hot in the day.

On our first night, the sky was filled with stars. This was one the few moments in my life where I’d see a sky so full with the cosmos. I remember thinking that this was the same sky the messenger would have seen fourteen hundred years ago.

The encampment was filled with pilgrims from across the world. The group we travelled with had a few of my father’s friends from university, and some other people we didn’t know.

On one day the men from our group sat in a tent for hours talking. It was mostly in languages that I couldn’t understand. Some Arabic, some Sindhi, and a bit of Urdu from what I could tell. Many of the men cried, my father included.

A few days into our stay, word spread that there was a fire. We didn’t know where it was and whether we should be concerned. Over the next few hours panic spread, and people had started leaving their tents and walking back towards the holy city.

We left our tent too, with nothing but the belongings we could carry in our hands. The pilgrimage called for men to wear clothes without seams, so pockets unfortunately weren’t an option.

The wind was hot. We could hear steady stream of popping noises in the distance. These were gas cylinders exploding. Tents were catching fire, and the fire was spreading towards us quickly. We were on the road heading back towards the holy city, with tents stretching out to the horizon on each side. The popping noises turned to deep, pounding thuds. More and more of the tents around us caught fire.

My mother, father, sister, and I were together. We tried to find people from our group and told them we would walk back. If we had stayed any longer though the fire would get ahead of us on both sides.

The entrance to the encampment was a tunnel through the mountains. We would have to walk through the tunnel to leave the encampment. This would be perfectly safe at any other time, but right now five million pilgrims were fleeing for their lives. It was either certain death by flaming inferno or possible death by stampede.

We walked through the tunnel. Some of the crowd started running. We held hands in a chain, walked steadily, and kept going until we found ourselves on the other side of the tunnel. An older man in our group had made the journey barefoot. His feet were covered in blood when we met him on the other side. He had to be carried the rest of the way.

Later we would learn that there was in fact a lethal stampede in the tunnel, but we had missed it by about twenty minutes. A coach arrived to pick up our group and shuttle us to apartments in the holy city. We were living about ten people to a room, but we were safe.

That night I saw the woman in a dream. This time she’s speaking English. She looks up at me and tells me that I should have helped her.

I woke up and I knew that the entity had chosen me to help that woman that day. That was why our eyes met. It was a test for me. I could have said or done something to help her. I had failed the test, and this dream would always remind me of it.

Official reports stated that no more than a few hundred people had died in the incident. No reasonable person could stand on the highway between the tents in that fire and believe so low a figure. Unofficially, two thousand people were reported “missing” in the fire and the resulting stampede.

I felt ill as I heard the news. Was this my fault? Was this punishment for how I had failed to help the woman so close to the cube? Was this punishment for everyone who had failed to help her? Had I failed the only test, the only direct communication that the entity had ever made with me?

I have the dream once or twice a year.

Sometimes it’s just me and the lady in the sacred temple. I’m stuck further away from the cube, she drags herself around it and I have to watch.

Sometimes she’s able-bodied, and it’s her hand I’m holding as we walk through the crowd.

In the worst version of the dream her eyes are black and she’s shouting at me in a deep, guttural voice. Her words are unintelligible, but she’s angry, and I know she thinks her predicament is my fault.

Sometimes the dream is a replay of the events. Only that she takes the face of one of my aunts, or a servant from my childhood. The black cube always sits in the centre.