THE DOORS swung open.
The room inside—the sanctuary? the throne room?—was immense, and filled with people, a heavenly choir of thousands, millions, maybe more, filling the floorspace, the balconies, the balconies above the balconies, and above those and above those, further than her eye could see.
She couldn't make out the words they were singing. They seemed to be in a foreign language.
She turned, and saw Maryam smiling with gentle confidence, and she knew in that moment that her plan to simply out-believe that centeredness, that quiet certainty, had been foolhardy from the beginning.
Their angel took several steps forward, through the doorway, then stopped. Maryam followed, stopping a step or two behind and to his right. Melanie hurried to stand beside her.
Three more angels appeared, one ahead and to Melanie's right, the other two behind them, so that the angels were at four corners of a square, with Maryam and Melanie at its center.
Melanie could see clearly all the way to the throne now, even though it should have been too far.
It was decorated with near-eastern patterns, and flanked by angels like and yet unlike the ones that surrounded herself and Maryam—only they were enormous, almost as tall as the throne room itself.
Between them, on the throne was a presence which Melanie could see clearly, but was at a loss to describe. He was light and darkness, time and space, larger than the throne room and the universe combined, yet managed, at the same time, to be an old man (though still somehow young) with a beard.
On the smaller throne, at his right hand sat a very human figure, who Melanie assumed must be Mohammad.
She moved closer to Maryam, and clung to her arm.
The prophet motioned, and the angels moved forward, Maryam and Melanie keeping pace.
She clung so tightly that Maryam laughed, then whispered to her as they walked.
"What are you afraid of, my dear? Of Hell? Of the fiery pit? It is only a metaphor, you know. Hell is not a place—not even a place in the afterlife. It is way of being, learned over all the years of ones life—just as heaven is.
"Every time we act in life, every decision we make, leaves a mark upon our soul—our self."
They were marching rapidly now—much more rapidly than Melanie would have thought she was capable of. She still could not make out the words of the anthem.
Maryam continued to whisper.
"Whenever we treat others fairly, when we extend ourselves to meet their needs, when we love, we make ourselves into the kind of souls that can receive love. When we are honest with ourselves and others we make ourselves into the kind of souls that can receive the truth. And when we enjoy the joy of others we become able to enjoy the earth, and heaven, and less able to be miserable in either place."
They were halfway to the throne, and moving faster every moment. Maryam leaned closer to Melanie's ear.