This short story began as eien_meru’s “A crow shook down on me”. I saw it linked as a Borgesian story—my favorite kind—and thought I could do better. When I had finished, I re-read it and realized I had written a reply to another story that had horrified me, Ted Chiang’s story about the Book of Job & the theodicy: “Hell is the Absence of God”. (Also worth reading as a reply is Ken Liu’s “Single-Bit Error”.)
And my world is a grid of sandstone columns, one meter apart. By this fearful symmetry, I can calculate the surface of the universe: sixty-five thousand, five hundred, and thirty-six square meters. Beyond, the sere breeze of the wild blue. In the middle, the last minaret, where I read the Quran in peace. And from it, I can see how the corners are discolored, though each pillar seems of a piece with its neighbors.
And I am the warden of these last men, these ashamed beasts who refused Heaven. I will never know their nameless faces. I imagine them crying out as their skin wears away. Maybe each day they feel a murder of crows pecking. Or they feel each day that they are less, with the memory of being more. Maybe it is not painful. As the long clock reckons, I call out the prayer to the faithful. None come.
And on that forgotten day when I became the caretaker of this graveyard, I calculated its decay to know the length of my durance. At every count, I weary and perhaps forget; yet I have at last finished. So I say with certainty that if I read but one verse of the holy book each day, before the end I will have read it more times than all the faithful have ever read scripture.
And did not Allah intend different messages for those different readers? So I have begun a new game—each time I read the Book, I make myself another. At the end, I will finally understand.
“The event itself is far too great, too distant, too remote from the multitude’s capacity for comprehension even for the tidings of it to be thought of as having arrived as yet…This deed is still more distant from them than most distant stars—and yet they have done it themselves.”