Arous watched from a distant tree as Qurban lay there in the searing heat. He had done nothing to deserve this; it wasn't his fault. He was taking her place…he was dying for her. She was the one that should have been lying there, taking the punishment. As her guilt continued to well up inside of her and her tears began to fall, she slid to the ground and rested against the tree trunk, thinking about the events that had led up to this moment….
Arous and Qurban had been betrothed to one another at a very young age. They'd grown up in Samyrah, a community that was large enough to defend itself but small enough to allow for idle tongues to speak as though they understood the details of everyone else's lives. And from the beginning of the betrothal, this is exactly what happened. No one could quite understand the match. Arous was known to be a stubborn little girl, with a tendency to be very willful and disobedient, while Qurban was naturally one to go out of his way for others. Never thinking of himself, the boy's first priority was always everyone else's well-being. Arous, on the other hand, was extremely selfish and only looked out for herself. In spite of the children's differences, it was Arous' parents hope that if the two were united, Qurban would rub off on Arous as they grew older.
Unfortunately, though the boy tried to be a good influence, this wasn't always the case. Over the years, Qurban had grown to love Arous deeply, but she often took his love for granted. Many times, when their parents would plan outings for the young couple, Arous would disregard her folks' wishes to only spend time with Qurban. She would find friends to pass the time with instead; other times she invited her friends to join them.
Though her behavior greatly troubled Qurban, he continued to love, patiently hoping for the day that she would return his love.
Just weeks before the couple was scheduled to enter into marriage, a stranger, Orpheus by name, came to Samyrah. Arous saw him at the marketplace and she was intrigued by him. There was a mysterious air about Orpheus that made him quite different from the men in the area. As he settled into community life, it became apparent that he liked to challenge the laws that had been in place for generations, all the while managing to come across as a concerned new citizen. His debating tactics, though subtle, could also be argumentative, which proved to attract Arous' attention more than it should have.
Orpheus built a hut near where Arous lived with her family, and she soon began spending much of her free time with him. Her parents would remind her that she was already promised to Qurban, but it was as if their reminders fell on deaf ears. Her blatant disregard for Qurban was evident, and the more time she spent with Orpheus, the less she cared for her future husband.
No matter how poorly he was treated, Qurban could not be deterred from his love for Arous. Because of their betrothal, he had every right to force her to end the friendship with Orpheus; he could also terminate the betrothal. But because he loved her, he did not want to force anything on Arous that was not her decision; nor did he wish to lose any contact with her. His love for her was the reason he continued to believe she would eventually come around.
Early one morning, just days before the wedding was to take place, Qurban was awakened by a riot going on outside his home. Rising from his bed, he crossed the room to look out his window. In his front yard, he saw the majority of Samyrah, led by Adal—the community leader—who was firmly holding Arous by her upper arm. She was vigorously trying to escape his grasp, all the while shouting that her life was of no concern to anyone else.
Qurban had a sinking feeling that something had gone terribly wrong. He knew, based on his understanding of the law, that a mob only formed outside a man's home when someone in his immediate family, including a future wife, had broken the law. The law required punishment, regardless of the crime, but what the punishment would be largely depended on Adal and his relationship with the people involved.
Adal and Qurban were not on good terms. As the leader of Samyrah, Adal had long felt that it was his right to have whichever women in the community he wanted, and he'd been quite in enraged when he was given the news, many years before, that Arous' parents wished for her to marry Qurban when the pair became of age.
As Qurban reflected on his relationship with Adal, his heart was seized with fear. Whatever it was that his beloved Arous had been accused of, the situation would end badly if he didn't intervene. Qurban ran out the front door, and as the crowd quieted itself, he began asking Adal what had happened. His heart started to break as Adal began to respond.
"Do you know where your woman was last night, who she was with, what she did? This woman"—Adal pulled Arous in between himself and Qurban—"whom you so deeply care for, spent the night in the arms of another man! What do you say to that?"
Given Arous' prior behavior, Qurban the news to be true, and he could not stop the tears from falling. For a few moments he was unable to speak; when he composed himself, there was only one question he felt the need to ask: "What will you do to her?"
A wicked grin crossed Adal's lips. "She will die…on the Hot Rock!"
The Hot Rock was a cruel, agonizing form of torture, generally reserved for criminals who committed more heinous acts than this, and it had never been used for women. While no one was entirely sure of its origin, the Hot Rock was certainly unique. No matter what time of year, no matter the weather, the Rock was somehow supernaturally, excruciatingly hot to the touch, and if a body was left there too long, it would literally burn to death. To ensure the criminals did not escape, there were stakes close enough to the Rock to tie the criminals' limbs to with ropes. The process lasted only a matter of hours, but the length of time varied, depending on the criminals' tolerance of pain.
The thought of Arous going through that sort of pain was more than Qurban could bear. Taking her by the hand, he gently pulled her away from Adal, placing himself between his beloved and the community leader.
He spoke quietly but firmly; the determination in his eyes could not be missed. "Take me instead."
Adal wasn't sure he'd heard right. "What did you say?"
"Don't make her die. I'll take her place."
Whispers began to ripple through the crowd. Never before had someone offered replace another on the Rock. No one had ever willingly died for one who was guilty. Yet here was Qurban, who had every right to watch Arous burn because of what she'd done to him, and he wanted to die for her.
At first Adal couldn't believe what he was hearing. His original intent was to kill Arous, so as to keep Qurban from being able to marry her. But as he pondered Qurban's offer, Adal realized that this would be better. If Qurban was dead, Adal could present himself to Arous' parents as one willing to marry her.
Without taking his eyes off of Qurban, Adal snapped his fingers, signaling some of his henchmen. Adal didn't trust Qurban to follow through with his offer, and he wanted to make sure it happened.
As two of Adal's men began attaching ropes to Qurban's wrists, a question came to Arous' mind. She wanted to know why he was doing this for her. She started to ask, but before she was able to get the words out, Adal and his men took him away. The crowd began to follow; through the people, Arous could see Qurban look back at her, not struggling against his captors, and even from where she stood, Arous could see a single tear drop from his eye.
She followed from a distance, careful not to let anyone see her following the crowd. She walked in silence, pondering what Qurban was doing for her. Arous was so deep in thought that she was startled to hear Orpheus say something to her.
"Where are you going?" he asked as he fell into step beside her.
As surprised as Arous was to see Orpheus, she was even more shocked to feel a twinge of guilt as she looked at him. The thought of how she'd willingly slept with him the night before –the very thing that Qurban was going to suffer for—was making her nauseous.
"Do you know what's happening? I should be on my way to die right now, because of what I did with you last night. But I'm not, because Qurban turned himself in to Adal instead. He did absolutely nothing wrong, but he's going to die for me."
"You're free to go, so why are you following him?"
In all honesty, Arous wasn't sure. Orpheus did have a point; she didn't have to go to the Rock. She could go wherever she wanted and do whatever she pleased, yet she was following behind a man that was going to die.
But he's no ordinary man. He's going to die even though he doesn't have to. I'm the one should be going to the Rock to die.
After a few silent moments, Arous stopped in her tracks and looked at Orpheus. "He's dying for me. He's willingly giving up his life for someone that doesn't deserve it. How could I not follow him? You're more than welcome to join me, but if you'd rather not, then get out of here."
Without waiting for a response, Arous continued following the crowd. She started out by walking fast, but when she was sure that Orpheus wasn't going to join her, she slowed her gait so as to put some distance between herself and the crowd. She needed some time to think.
Why was Qurban so willing to die for her? He'd done absolutely nothing wrong. Everything that could possibly have been done wrong had been done by her. The thought occurred to her that he'd always been right there, waiting and hoping for the day that she would love him, and after today, he'd no longer be there. She would never be given the opportunity to tell him that she realized she'd taken him for granted, that she was sorry for all the things she'd done, that maybe—just maybe—she loved him after all.
The crowd finally reached the Heat Rock, and Arous stopped at a tree far enough away that she could see without being seen.
The henchmen that had led Qurban away carefully lifted him up over the head, in order to lay him on top of the Rock. Once they were sure he was high enough, they tossed Qurban on top of it. As he landed, he gave a blood-curdling yell because of the pain the heat caused, but he did not fight as the henchmen cautiously reached up to tie his hands and feet to the stakes.
As the hours passed, Qurban never once struggled against the ropes; he never fought to loosen them. Though he would scream out in pain, he did not argue that he was innocent, that he did not deserve it. He knew that it was true, but he remained quiet because he wanted Arous to have another chance at life, even if it meant that he wasn't part of it. He loved her enough, and that was why he'd taken her place.
Maybe someday she'll look back and realize why I did this.
Qurban could tell his was quickly nearing the point of death. The Rock had done its job, and the intense heat had taken its toll on his body. With the little bit of strength he had left, Qurban couldn't help but let out one final pain-filled scream, and with that he drew and exhaled his final breath.
Though the crowd would remain for a while, Arous knew that she was not up to staying another minute. Rising from the ground and wiping the tears from her eyes, Arous ran home, ready to begin a new life without the man she'd realized she loved.
Though anxious to pay a visit to Arous' parents, as the community leader, Adal was not allowed to leave the area until after he'd examined the body. It was required of him by law to ensure that Qurban had indeed died.
Adal watched as his henchmen carefully cut the ropes and pulled Qurban off of the Rock. Adal stepped forward, and the closer he got to the body, the more he could feel the heat that radiated from it. He could see the tissue damage and burns the Rock had left. Adal told one of his men to bring him a long enough stick to poke the body without having to get too close to the heat.
He reached for the stick that was brought to him and jabbed the carcass in the ribs at several different angles. When Adal was satisfied that Qurban was truly dead, he ordered his men to take the body to the burial ground, and have the keepers dispose of it.
Adal began walking away, and as he did so, he looked up at the sky to determine that position of the sun. He saw that the noon hour was approaching. Within Samyrah's culture, the big meal of the day was served at noon, and it was considered impolite to interrupt another family's meal, except in the case of an emergency. Adal realized, somewhat bitterly, that Arous' parents would not consider his reason an emergency. Adal would wait until mid-afternoon to pay them a visit.
As the burial groundskeepers began to prepare Qurban for disposal, one commented on the burn marks. "He doesn't seem as burnt as others we've buried in the past. I wonder why that is."
The other man shrugged. "Who cares? Let's just get this over with."
"Don't you find it odd? With the others, no matter how long they were on the Rock, the marks were always the same color. Qurban was there the average amount of time, and his burns are lighter than the others. Not to mention, his body has cooled much quicker than the others have. How do you explain it?"
His companion gave him a somewhat impatient look. "I can't, but I'm not going to spend my afternoon trying to. Now are you going to help me or are you going to stand there with your wonderings?"
The pair worked in silence, until a groan was barely heard.
The one who'd been curious about the burn marks asked, "What did you say?"
"I was going to ask you the same thing."
They heard it a second time, and looking down at Qurban's body, they saw his chest rising and falling with breath.
The first man backed away, eyes wide. "I told you something right. He isn't dead—he's alive!"
The other stood frozen. "That's impossible! I watched him die on the Rock. I know he was dead!"
The keepers watched in awed silence as Qurban's eyes blinked open and his arms and legs began to move. He slowly sat up, then stood and smiled gently before walking out of the preparation hut and away from the burial ground.
There was a rapid knocking on Adal's door, and he'd no sooner opened it than the keepers rushed in and began talking over one another.
Not understanding a word either was saying, Adal motioned with his hands for them to stop. When they were quiet, he pointed at one and said, "Why are you here instead of at the grounds? And make it quick; I have an appointment to keep."
"He's alive! Qurban is alive!"
Adal shook his head negatively. "I don't have time for this. Get back to work."
The second man spoke up. "It's true. We saw him get up and walk away. He's alive."
Adal's anger rose. "It can't be—I checked him myself. He was dead." A thought occurred to him at that moment. "Which way was he going—did you see?"
The keepers exchanged glances before the first man responded, "He was headed towards Arous' hut."
Adal pushed the pair aside as he ran out of his front door. Even if he was only playing dead, Qurban was on that Rock for hours; how far could he possibly get, and how fast could he possibly move?
Arous had not joined her parents for lunch. Her heart had been broken, and she was grateful for the time alone when they went to the marketplace.
Shortly after they left, someone knocked at the front door. Arous did not move to answer, hoping that whoever was continuing to knock would soon give up and go away.
The incessant knocking finally did stop, which Arous was glad for, but she froze when she heard the door open, followed by a voice cautiously asking, "Hello? Is anyone home?"
It was a voice Arous recognized but she knew it couldn't possibly be who it sounded like. She called out, "Who is it?"
Silence came with footsteps down the hall. A face filled her doorway, and Arous' tears started afresh at the sight of Qurban. Rising from her chair, she ran into his arms, wrapping her own around his neck.
They held each other for several moments before she pulled away to took him in the face. "I don't understand…the Rock…I watched you die. At least, I was so sure…And why'd you do it? It should have been me on that Rock."
"Love is the greatest power on earth, and not even death can overcome it. Don't you see? That's why I took your place—because I love you."
"Oh Qurban, I'm so sorry. For spending more time with my friends than you, for ignoring you, for what happened with Orpheus—I'm sorry for everything. Can you ever forgive me?"
Qurban gently kissed Arous' lips, and as she returned it, she knew he had forgiven her before he'd ever died for her.
Adal made it to Arous' hut and saw that the front door was open. He walked inside and heard voices coming from down the hall. He quietly walked in that direction, and just as he reached the doorway, he saw exactly what the keepers had seen. Qurban was indeed alive, and he'd come back for his bride.
He couldn't explain it, but Adal knew that he'd somehow been beaten, and once word spread about Qurban's return to life, Adal would no longer be in control.