I had been frequenting the Oxford Fish and Chips Shop for several years now, even as I became increasingly vegan and health-conscious. But it was never about the food anyway.
Kaz, the old man who ran the place, had become something of a Sufi mentor to me. He was an absurdly jovial Iranian man in early old age, who, after four decades manning his post, had passed his duties on to his sons, and only came in to run the shop on the last day of the week.
They had been closed for half an hour, so there weren’t even any chips left. He offered me a soft drink instead as he sat his girth down on his upturned white tub.
“So. Tell me!”
…what to tell him?
“Oh. I attended a Su…fi… gathering last weekend! It was a handful of softly-spoken, ex-hippy English ladies in their early sixties.”
“Ah-hah. Are they Muslim?”
“I had wondered precisely that. It was all ‘I am love, I come from love, I was made by love’… ‘let us sing a song of Harmony’… So I asked them about it during the lunch bit. They were a little haughty about it, actually. ‘No! That’s not what Sufism is about at all. It’s the essence of all religions, the mystical truth which manifests itself across the illusory boundaries of space and time, at the heart of all traditions.’”
We both rolled our eyes.
His apologetics tended to be tedious. I spared us both by doing it myself.
“I recall someone citing Ibn Arabi to say: Islam is the best religion because Muhammad was the perfect man. We are human, and must thus approach God from an angle appropriate to our nature. And because Muhammad was the highest form a human could take, the religion he founded was the foremost path for any spiritual seeker.”
Mention of the Prophet made Kaz go dreamy and doe-eyed.
“Ah… ah… Such goodness… such perfection… ah… unbelievable… there is no one… no one else……… ah…… ah……….Do you know? When the Holy Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, came before the presence of God… he stood within two bow shots distance from Him! ….two bow shots…. Can you imagine? ……can you imagine?!”
We contemplated the glory of that most consummate of persons—closing our eyes, shaking our heads in wry astonishment, and smiling in silence.
Somewhere in that expansive moment, I heard a thump. It was as if someone had dropped a heavy object upstairs, only there was no “upstairs.” The shop was in a detached garage.
I forgot all about it as Kaz told me of the End Times, and the Call to Prayer heard across the world.
Finally, after much handholding and kissing of cheeks, I made my way out… but stopped short before I had my keys out of my pocket.
A blackbird lay prone, perfectly still, nestled beside the front wheel of my bicycle.
“Kaz. Kaz! There’s… there’s a bird.”
“There’s a what?”
He came out and cradled the creature to his chest.
“Oh, my dear. My beloved. What’s wrong? Do you think he’s dead?”
“I don’t know. Maybe it flew up against the sign and knocked itself out.”
“What do we do?”
I returned a blank stare tinged only with bemusement.
“We can’t leave it here. The animals will eat it.”
At that, Kaz began muttering prayers under his breath and stroking the bird’s belly with one thick finger.
An unnamable feeling of excitement rose in me—as in a movie, right before the string section starts to swell—swiftly followed by a sense of resistance, almost unwillingness.
My attention was turned away from my inner workings when the eyes of the blackbird crept open.
“You see? You see? Bismillah – alhamdulillah! Go! Go to the back of the shop. Get a cup, put water and some sugar.”
As I prepared the mixture and dropped drops of it down the bird’s throat, Kaz kept a running commentary of questions.
“Why could he have come? What could he have wanted here? Do… do you think it was the prayer? It heard the call of its Lord? Do you think the angels gathered, and it followed them, thinking they were its family? The angels flew through the walls… and it…”
At that, I softened-up my guard-dog rationality. For all my love of this merry old Sufi, who was so clearly happier, more centered, and less selfish than I was, I just couldn’t help but think:
It doesn’t work that way. You’re reading intention and purpose into things which simply do not function in that vein.
Other than opening its eyes, the bird still had not moved.
We were starting to feel a little lost again when Kaz looked up.
“Do you smell that?”
I wrinkled my nose. There was indeed a rotten scent, like vomit, in the air.
“Is it the bird?”
“It’s the bird, isn’t it?”
I stared—just blankly, this time.
“But then, why did it open its eyes?”
I was too tired to explain that, maybe, you know… it just… its eyelids just… retracted, because… tendons and… things.
We left it on top of the municipal garbage bin, beside the built-in ashtray. This way, the animals wouldn’t eat it immediately. Maybe.
Kaz’s prayers echoed in my head as I unlocked my bike.
I could never do that. Never. Surely.
I could never pray out loud to try and directly affect the physical world.
I would be too embarrassed should it fail, and I would never dare to tarnish my faith in an abstract good with such a concrete disproof.
I cycled the rest of the way home, returning one day older and still none the wiser as to who I was, what I believed in, or even whom I most resembled: the Sufi Fish’n’Chips vendor, the middle-class hippy English ladies… or the unbloodied bird.