Sura of Blood by Marie Vibbert

(Wikimedia Commons: link)

Having failed to make the pilgrimage in life, I decided to do so in death.  It was easy to put off.  There was always next year or the next, but the news warned of biometric passkeys soon.  I’d spent enough of my life learning to fool machines.  I remember when the photograph was the new technology that was going to destroy us.

 Since a vampire possesses all the time she needs, I set out from home on foot.  Beautiful Aleppo, that had suffered so.  It is not true that we enjoy war.  It is as horrible for us as anyone, and for the same reasons.  But we are patient, and hardy.  Like weeds.  Now my city was fragrant with sawn boards and new gardens under the moonlight.  

I gave myself an extra month to travel, since I could not travel in daylight, and another week in case of delays.  I knew I’d have troubles once I left Syria, a woman traveling alone, but if anyone bothered me, they were in for an amusing surprise.  

That was not, perhaps, the most pious thought.  Better to say the Hajj was something I had always wanted to do, and eternity would be longer with regrets.

I met a cabdriver at a fuel station north of Damascus.  I rested my feet and studied the maps on my phone.  He asked me why I was going so early, when there would be large gatherings in a few weeks to start the pilgrimage.  I told him of my plan to travel the whole way by foot and alone.  He laughed.  “You can’t go on the Hajj alone!  It’s about togetherness, solidarity.  Besides, they say the passkey will be working by next month.  It will make things easier for everyone crossing borders.  Faster.”

“Bureaucracy bores me,” I said, “And I am enjoying my solitude.”

“Solitude!  As you near Mecca, there will be too many on the same road.”

“No one travels the same road,” I said, which was perhaps also not a very pious thought, but more western and nihilistic.  Existentialism is a common vice among vampires.  Like episodic television, it’s too convenient to our lifestyle.

“You never step into the same river twice,” he declared.  Perhaps cabdrivers are also prone to philosophy.  He walked with me as far as a small café, where he bought me a cup of Iranian sekanjabin.  The vinegar-sweetness went well with his blood.

I was properly contemplative, my hunger sated, walking along the highway toward the false sunrise of the city.  Cars flew by, headlights flooding and receding.  It was like a river, and I thought about the cabdriver’s journey to heaven.  He had tasted sinless, or so I chose to believe.

Crossing cities was easier than the countryside. I could meander and sightsee, confident when the sky lightened before dawn that I would be near some garage or barn.   All too soon, the heart of Damascus was at my back and the city crumbled and thinned, showing more of the scars of the past.  My beautiful country, still struggling to recover.  It was not a garden yet, but it was at least no longer a crater.

I’d like to say I walked through olive groves and vineyards, picturesque scenes.  I walked the dirt edge of the highway and ate the sellers of conveniences.  The dreaded countryside.  Every turn off the main road was a gamble, not knowing how far the next roof might be, knowing that an hour spent cajoling a farmer to let me in was an hour I couldn’t spend walking to the next likely house.

Largely, though, people were very accepting of pilgrims, and I ate well, with only a few close calls with my enemy, the sun.

I slipped into Jordan via a high scrubland pass because the line at the border was long and the sun rising.  I spent the day in an abandoned goat barn that was not particularly lightproof.  If I were not on Hajj, I would have wrapped myself in my veil for protection, but pilgrims are prohibited from covering the face.  So I lay looking at a stone wall, as close as I could, and piled rocks to my back.  I did not sleep well.

I had to waste most of the next night finding the highway again.  It was almost dawn when signs at last indicated that Amman was near.  I stayed awake most of the day in a cinderblock shed.  It protected some ancient electrical equipment whose purpose I could not ascertain.  I was hungry for traffic and lights and noise pollution.  

I made the outskirts before sunrise, and a farmer gave me sanctuary.  I stirred in my sleep, briefly sensing a room saturated with honey-colored light. I rolled into a tighter ball, farther from the window.  Bare feet padded down the hall.

When I awoke at sunset, it occurred to me what a foolish, rash thing I’d done.  What if someone had touched me?  Felt my lack of pulse? I could have been carried on a stretcher into the blazing sun!  I’d not done anything so brainless since I was ninety.

I owed my survival to the pleasant fact that the poor family was too busy to entertain guests.  A fact they apologized at length about, daughters and son and parents cutting each other off to swear they had checked on me.  They did not ask why I had come before dawn or what I did in their house all day while they worked.  They filled my canteen with water and gave me directions to the nearest town.  I left the family alive in gratitude.

There were more cars that night, and small groups chatting on corners as I entered the town. I saw men buying white pilgrim’s dress and wondered how many of the cars that passed me contained pilgrims.  It was still early, but not unreasonably so.  The distance before lay silent and daunting. It made me feel I was doing a great thing.

Amman is a lovely city for dining.  I ate a toothsome university student with poet’s eyes not far from the main road.

He had enough in his wallet to cover a night in a hotel.  I pushed my luck and passed four establishments before deciding to stop just before sunrise.  It was a low, long motel, the kind with each room opening to the outside.  Two identical buildings formed a V with a small hut for an office and a smattering of picnic tables under a sad-looking cypress.  An old woman in a rusting white chair stared at me as I paid for my room and chatted pleasantly with the clerk.  As I walked to my room, I heard her get up and follow me.

With my key in the lock, I turned to confront her.  She squinted at me, clearly unafraid.  “I hope,” she said, “that you aren’t planning on killing any of my friends.”

She was like me, her silence like my silence.  She smiled knowingly, crossing her arms over her ample, sagging bosom.  “There’s plenty of junk food down the road, but the people here have quality.  If they don’t, they don’t live here anymore.”

“I’ve eaten already tonight,” I assured her, and I glanced to the east, where the watery pre-dawn light intermingled with the dowdy suburban signs.  “It’s getting late.”

“It’s getting early,” she corrected, and patted me on the arm.  “We’ll talk at dusk.”

#

True to her word, she was at my door a second after sunset, with a coffee urn full of heated blood and a pipe of tobacco I politely refused.

She waited while I prayed, looking annoyed.

“But really,” I said, as we sipped blood from teacups at a picnic table, “who should be religious, if not those who know life continues past death?”

She pursed her lips.  “I knew a Jewish vampire, once, who insisted on only drinking from those who kept the dietary laws.”  Blood stained the corners of her mouth. She pointed at me around her cup.  “He went mad and walked into the sun.”

“A madman can be right.”

“A broken clock is right twice a day, that doesn’t mean it’s useful.”  She poured herself another drink.  “What about this pass-thing at the border?”

“Biometric Passkey.   It isn’t implemented yet.”

“Have you considered that if you get caught by that bio-key-thing, you’ll be showing them how to identify us?  All of us?”

“We adapted to photo ID and social media.  It doesn’t concern me.  The Hajj concerns me.”

She made a dismissive gesture.  “You’d do better to take yourself home.  You really think you’ll pass unnoticed?  How will you perform all the rites?”

“There are enclosed places.”

“The Tawaf?”

I scowled.  “One may circle the Kaaba at night.”

“And will you also run between the hills? Seven times?”

“I’ll think of something when I get there.”  It had been on my mind, but it seemed like a puzzle simply unanswerable until you were in a place and could see all the possibilities.

“Anyway, the whole thing is rubbish.  Sacrilege and rubbish.  You are killing people, aren’t you? On your holy pilgrimage?”

I didn’t like how loudly she said that.  “Your coffee is fresh.”  I rolled my empty cup in my hand.

“I’m not better than you, little girl. I’m just honest.  I hate to see a young vampire lose eternity to foolishness.”

“What is eternity, if not time enough for foolishness?”

She shook her head, seeing that I would not be swayed.  “I have offspring in Wadi Musa.  It’s near Petra.  I’ll give you directions.  They will see you safely to the Saudi border.”  She tore a page from a battered pocket calendar and wrote out street directions and sketched a map with an old-fashioned pen that bled charcoal ink.  “Perhaps my children know some damnfool vampire who has made the Hajj, and can give you advice.” She blew on the paper, folded it, and handed it to me.  “Now get out of my neighborhood, girl.”

For all she knew, I was older than her, but it’s hard to lose the habit of visual age.  I thanked her respectfully and went on my way.  Her little suburb was ugly, anyway.

The highway to Musa Wadi was desolate – scattered homesteads and dead fields.  Signs for tourists proliferated as I neared Petra. Promises of beautiful carvings and haunting vistas, but all around was dry dirt and low hills.

The main street of Wadi Musa held a huddle of motels before it curved down to the wadi below. A pair of vampires, handsome young men with thick dark eyelashes, waited for me where a side street broke off.  “We were afraid you wouldn’t make it before dark,” one said.  The other took my backpack without asking permission.  He was thinner and older-looking and I decided I didn’t like him.  

He said, “I hear you’re from Syria. Did you have trouble crossing into Jordan?”

“I’m old enough to know how to maintain a passport,” I said.

“Soon you’ll have to be young enough to hack a passkey,” the one I preferred, the handsomer one, said.  He also stuck his hand toward me. “I’m Halim.  I made the Hajj myself.  Before my death, of course.”

His smile was warm, but I didn’t like his implication that the elderly were incapable of learning.  “I’m surprised a hack hasn’t already been posted.”

The one I did not like hoisted my pack higher and strode ahead.  “I’ve heard of other vampires who have made the Hajj.”

My fist tightened.  It’s not that I thought I was the first… well, I might have thought it was possible I was the first.  I had hoped at least they would find my plan provocative.

Halim said, “I loved Mount Arafat.  I spent the night awake, talking with men I never saw again.  Wait until you see the Masjid al-Haram.   So many other people – you could feel how their bodies made the air warmer, more humid.  Of course, I went in the heat of mid-day.  Perhaps that’s why I don’t miss the sun.”  He put his arm around me.  “I don’t know how some people do!”

I spoke in level tones and hoped if I acted calm I would become calm.  “Pilgrims covet every hardship as a joy in memory,” I said.  “I admire that.  Anyone can talk obliquely about epiphanies and enlightenment.  It is a thing that must be done to be understood.”

“Yes,” Halim laughed. “That’s true.  Come, we’re almost safe, but the sun is also almost up.  We will hear the muezzin from our doorstep.”

 We did, indeed, hear the call to dawn prayer as we hurried inside the brothers’ small house.  We prayed together, though I got the feeling the brothers were only humoring me.  

I felt like I was humoring myself.  My mind wandered as my lips and body moved.  I began to worry that I would feel nothing special in my pilgrimage. What if I made it through all the motions, and all I felt were motions?  I asked Halim.  He just laughed again.  “It’s in here,” he punched his chest, and then touched mine.  “If you believe, it’s already in here.  The motions will shake it out.”

When I awoke at dusk, I wanted to drop my dream like the burden it was and flee home. But the older, less-handsome brother had woken early and met me at the door.  He had packed me a thermos of blood, and one of water. “Dehydration,” he said, “while not fatal to us, can still make our heads ache.  Please drink.”  My opinion of him softened.  The brothers walked with me all the way to the border, as had been promised, arranging sleeping quarters each day along Highway 15.  It seemed Halim knew someone in every village in Jordan.  He spent the last night typing notes into my phone – more friends and friends-of-friends to stay with.  

I did not knock on the listed doors or seek out his friends, but I picked his roads and exits.  A list of names pulled me forward, like gravity pulls a car downhill.  I had direction, and yet I was directionless.

As I waited at the Saudi border with my passport in my hand, I calculated the miles to go, the miles I made per day, and I felt the excitement of being behind schedule.  Of course, my schedule was padded, but I was starting to eat into the padding. Shedding that extra fat of time gave me the drive to move my feet past soreness.  It renewed my sense of purpose, of being in progress.  In a way, this was the beginning.   

No one mentioned the passkey initiative.  There was only a sign, promising that soon you could forget your passport at will, just sign up for your digital passkey.  Rather, the border guards were confused I still had a physical passport card instead of the app on my phone.  They shook their heads, digging out the barcode reader.

I thought about the old ‘handshake’ of modems or the tedious exchange of encryption secrets as long character strings.  We start to do things with technology before we can do them easily.  We climb mountains made of code so that we can build other mountains on top of them.  Until we are giants and the mountains are no longer noticed under our feet.  

Facial recognition.  Voice recognition.  What price anonymity when the future promised no more need for pockets?

The land was so different already from my home. True desert – harsh and rugged.  The sky seemed wider, the moon farther away.  So many more stars than I was used to, like spilled salt on the sky.  So much space for the sun.  I wondered at my own madness and began stopping for the day as soon as I saw any acceptable place.

Lingering heat underfoot spoke of the sun. The dryness spoke of the sun.  I could feel the memories of shadows, where a bench created cooler stone beneath.

I studied my maps and I slipped off the road, to run at my full speed lest the sun catch my heels. My clothing snapped and cracked in the wind so loud I wondered police drones didn’t chase me. 

I was in constant fear and hunger until I saw the signs announcing the highway exit for Mecca.  I couldn’t eat at all that night.  I forgot my plan to hold aloof, dark and mysterious, on the periphery.  I met a group of girls comparing maps on the side of the road who were also from Syria.  They’d lost their hotel reservations and were looking for alternative accommodation.  We talked half the night, wandering between hotels.

One apologized to me.  “It’s just awful that you’ve fallen in with us – we’ll likely not get to sleep before dawn!”

“It will be as it was meant to be,” I said.  

Like an answer to my prayers, we found open room at one of the temporary hostels for pilgrims just as the sky was starting to grey.  It was a tent, air-conditioned but terribly light.  I hung a cloth over my bed.  When my companions rose to leave in the mid-day, I pretended to be sick to stay behind. It wasn’t hard convincing them, a vampire waking in the day looks frightfully ill.  I would miss their company.

By evening, I was ravenous.  If I did not eat before sunrise the hunger would drive me mindless.  The roads were full of people. Excited pilgrims hardly sleep, and I left late because my Saudi hosts would not let me leave the hostel un-escorted.  I had to find someone to claim me as a relative.  It was deeply awkward.  I led my escort through alley after alley, pretending to be looking for a particular address.  It seemed every nook had too many witnesses.  I finally managed to kill him behind a roadside privy; too hungry to taste the first gush of warm blood.

I caught up with my new girlfriends after some inquiries in Mina.  They were joyful at my “recovery.”  I discussed my desire to do the Tawaf at night.  There were many opinions on how to avoid the worst traffic, which they assumed was my concern.  How lovely they were.

There had been a certain perverseness in my intent when I set out. I liked the idea of my dead body being at once reverent and a sacrilege.  I barely recalled the emotion. 

The point of a pilgrimage is to tread the same path as others.  Like a rioting mob at a football game or a stampede of cattle or a choir singing one perfect note, you become a cell in a greater organism.   If I failed to make it to the Masjid al-Haram before sunrise, would I walk into the sun, just because those around me did?

There was a glut of foot traffic ahead, people were stopping.

“We chose this road for the passkey,” my friend told me.  “It was supposed to be faster, but I think these people are turning back because they don’t have it set up.”

I tried to turn back.  Her arm tightened around mine.  “We have enough time before we get to the front.  I have a bio-recorder.  Does your phone have a signal?”

I had lied gleefully a thousand times to strangers and loved ones. A vampire must be a fraud.  I could not bring myself to come up with even the simple, offered excuse that my cell phone was not functioning.  She was already holding hers up to record me.  “Your phrase can be anything. I will type it in for you.”

“God is great,” I said, praying for deliverance. 

She shook her head.  “Everyone picks that.  But okay.  Now here, just put in your passport number.” She handed her phone to me.

We were being drawn inexorably forward.  My passport was of course a fake.  I felt dizzy – I should not have fasted a day and then gorged.  We do vomit, and it is as offensive a sight as it sounds.  

When I would not type in my number, my friend helpfully took her phone and my passport.  She frowned.  Everyone was moving forward.  There were uniformed men in sight, now, holding out small wands, stopping each person, who spoke a phrase and then passed on.  Others turned to leave, jostling my shoulders.  I wanted to kill and I wanted to cry.  “Let me go.  I … I’ll go another way.”  I reached feebly for my passport, but it was too late, we were at the front of the line.

“It’s not working for her,” my friend said to the man with a wand.  She showed him her screen and my passport.

This would be it.  His equipment would scan for the unique pattern of blood vessels under my skin to match my voice and find nothing, no match, no record, nothing recordable. I and all my kind would be undone by my foolishness.

He squinted at my passport and grimaced.  

“I’ll just go,” I said.  

The crowd was pressing.  He spoke to a colleague.  I looked for a break in the bodies, the best way to run.

He handed me back my passport and waved both of us past.

The street was clearer on the other side of the checkpoint, the air cleaner.  The group of women re-formed, laughing and talking, my passport error already forgotten.  My new friends swept me forward with them, and I laughed.

All my worry, and I’d forgotten – a technology is only as useful as its users.  Was it a miracle, or a coincidence?  A sign God approved?  At that moment, I would have walked on into the sun itself.

It would be a benignly beautiful way to go, but all the same, I was glad to stand under the holy darkness of night when I beheld the Kaaba. 

God is great, even to his dead.


If you enjoyed this short story, read Marie Vibbert’s exciting first novel, GALACTIC HELLCATS!

Marie Vibbert has been a medieval squire (SCA) a defensive lineman (WFA – The Cleveland Fusion) and a computer programmer. She and her husband are on a (frequently stalled) quest to ride all the roller coasters in North America.

Her work has been called “everything science fiction should be” by the Oxford Culture Review.



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