A Moment of Peace

It was in 1837 that I was appointed as a doctor and naturalist on the ship The Marine Maiden, which was bound on a journey along the Western shore of Africa. I was more interested in the biological diversity I would get to witness during this journey than in the living aboard a ship. However, since it was a necessary component of my job, I had to endure it. Most of the sailors and the crew struck me as superstitious, vulgar, and to the say the best about them, plain and ordinary. Not the sort of people in whose company I would find pleasure. Their knowledge extended only to some tales from the Bible and to the preposterous yarns they were so fond of telling. Nevertheless, they were a hardworking lot and that is what mattered to the Captain. The Captain was a relatively cultured man, and though he wasn’t very social, I found him a dedicated and affectionate person, who conveniently became strict and stern when the conditions demanded it, and such conditions were not so uncommon in a life spent aboard a vessel in the sea.

Unfortunately, the Captain was shot in one of the encounters with the pirates on an island. We managed to escape with no damage to the ship, but the Captain was severely wounded. I took out the bullet in an operation I performed to the best of my abilities, and hoped that the body would heal… but the injury was too extensive, and the condition only worsened with time. I was helpless; I could do nothing but watch.

One night as I was making an entry in my journal about an odd specimen of an insect I had discovered which could well be a candidate for a new totally species, when the cabin boy came running and told me that Captain’s condition was terrible and he was calling out for me. I immediately got up and went to see the Captain.

When I approached his bed, I could clearly see that he was in physical pain, but what was even more obvious was his mental distress. I could see the agony in his eyes and facial expressions. As I came near, he clenched my hand and pleaded, “Doctor! Please save me from dying! I don’t want to die!” The psychological agony in his voice was unmistakable. I was surprised to hear these words, because I had the impression of Captain as a man of great courage.

“But why are you so afraid of death?” I asked as I sat on a chair beside his bed, my hand still in his clutches.

“I am not afraid of death, doctor, I am only afraid of what would follow after it,” he said miserably. I nodded my head sympathetically to indicate that he should continue.

“I have been a very bad man, doctor. I have sinned greatly in my life. I have never cared for God. I have always cared for my own pleasure. I have told lies and I have killed men. I have drunk and I have fornicated all my life. I shouldn’t have, but I was weak. But the time for redemption is now past. If I die, God would surely throw me in hell. And I would burn in it for an eternity; I’ll smolder and cry, and shriek and choke forever… such is my fate.”

“But think of all the good that you have done in life. You have done your duty to your ship, to your men, to your country. You have served them well. And you have always behaved with them justly and fairly.” I tried to console him.

“You don’t know, doctor, my sins far outweigh my meager virtues. God knows it, God surely knows it, and he would punish me for them,” he was almost reduced to tears. His physical pain was nothing in comparison to the turmoil of his mind. It was shocking to see what religion could do to men; how it could inculcate a sense of sin in them so strong that it could destroy any pleasure to be gained from this life.

I patted his hand and said softly, “Captain, let us fantasize, let us dream… imagine a world without heaven or hell, imagine a world without sin, image a God to whom it doesn’t matter what you do in your private affairs, in how many women’s company you have been, and how many church prayers you have missed. Imagine a world in which death is the end of life, in which when you die, you pass into nothingness, an eternity of rest and oblivion. Just imagine.”

“Yes… yes,” he said weakly, with a strange shine in his eyes, which were staring into the air, “how beautiful, how peaceful…”

And these were his last words as his soul left his body, and my hand became free from the grip of his limp fingers. I took a sigh and closed his eyes. I do not know whether he is burning in hell at the moment, or what God decided to do with him, but I feel happy in knowing that I gave him a moment of peace before he died.

Muhammad Awais Aftab
27 June 2007


Hammaad said…
Man, you'll go places!
Awais said…
My brother described it as a cross between "Master and Commander" and Richard Dawkins. He is probably right. :D