“Well, there is precedent,” Pravuil said. “I mean, if you look at it in a certain way.”
I asked him what he meant. He said, “Elijah and the priests of Baal.”
Atid kept writing, but Raqib lifted his pen from his scroll for a moment and looked up. “That’s not precedent,” he said.
“Not scared enough,” Atid muttered, still scribbling.
“He’s remarkably brazen,” Pravuil said, agreeably. “Though he might be insane.”
“You don’t know?” I asked.
They all looked at me. “Of course we don’t know,” Pravuil said. “How would we know?”
“Well, you’re the Recording Angels,” I said.
“That’s right,” Raqib said. “We’re the Recording Angels. We record what people say and do. We’re not mind-readers. I don’t think even Gabriel can read minds.”
“Anyway,” Pravuil said, chewing the end of his quill — the others resumed recording — “the whole concept of a prayer duel is pretty interesting. If it weren’t for the case of Elijah you’d have to say that the thing is impossible.”
He pointed his quill at me. “Because in a ‘prayer duel’ you’re not really praying, are you? ‘Hashem, prove that you’re on my side’ isn’t exactly a prayer. It’s testing Hashem, and we’re warned against that.”
“Not that different than most prayers,” Atib said, bending towards his parchment. “And there’s a real point to this duel, since presumably the results would show whether Islam or Christianity is favored by Hashem, who, also presumably, cares about such things.”
“Ahmad calls himself Messiah,” Raqib said. “And has challenged a number of people to prayer duels. It’s a thing for him. When people question whether he really is Messiah, or whether he’s even a true Muslim, he challenges them to prayer duels or ‘spiritual duels.’ A lot of the debate is about whether Jesus is dead or alive. I can’t say that I understand the details very well.”
“Dowie should accept the challenge,” I said. “After all, as Pravuil said, Elijah had a prayer duel with the priests of Baal, and Dowie calls himself Elijah the Restorer.” They looked at me again. “I read it in the Chicago Tribune.”
“Don’t believe everything you read in the newspaper,” Pravuil said. “Though in this case the paper is right. Dowie calls himself a great many things, all of which are meant to coerce people into giving him money.”
“Nasty piece of work,” Raqib said.
“Of course, Ahmad is something of a megalomaniac,” Pravuil said, “but he’s not a con man. At least not in the lining-his-pockets way Dowie is. And while he’s dismissive of Christian claims he’s not on the kind of crusade Dowie pursues against Muslims.” He grinned. “See what I did there?” Then he composed his face to look serious. “Look, I don’t want to take sides in the larger debate,” he said, nodding towards Atib. “I’m not sure Hashem is on anybody’s side.”
“Sort of like Treebeard,” I interjected. Everyone ignored me. Though they must know who Treebeard is.
“But maybe,” Pravuil resumed, “this is one of those cases where it would be better for all concerned if someone put a thumb on he scales. Not literally scales in this case, this isn’t the Iliad, but … Go talk to the Sisters, would you?”
“Me?” I said. “But I —”
“Just talk to the Sisters. It’s not like you have anything else to do.”
So I went down to see the Sisters. They had to have been a little surprised, but they didn’t look up. Unlike the Recording Angels, who at least paused from time to time, the Sisters never look up, as far as I can tell.
“There’s this prayer duel,” I said, but almost before I could get the words out Morta said “Nowt to do with me,” in a Yorkshire accent. I don’t think she’s from Yorkshire, she probably heard it on TV or the radio. Anyway the phrase was appropriate, I guess, since I expect they get a lot of visitors who want some kind of exception or intervention. “Pravuil sent me,” I said. They didn’t respond to that, which I took as a willingness to hear me out. So I told them the story about the prayer duel, how Ahmad challenged Dowie but Dowie refused.
“Who are these people?” Decima asked. So, as best I could remember from what I’d read in the Tribune and what the Recorders told me, I explained about Ahmad’s peripatetic career as a preacher and lecturer and debater and (for lack of a better phrase) spiritual dueller. And then I told them about Dowie’s claims to being a faith healer and the reincarnation of Elijah, and about his founding of the city of Zion and all his money troubles. Also his obsession with Muslims and how wicked they are.
Nona said, “Ahmad is a good bit older than Dowie. You’d expect him to die first in the natural order of things” — the three of them chanted that last phrase in unison, creepily I thought. “But let’s take a look at these threads,” she said, and spun out a length of slivery string, and then another length. Decima placed her ruler — it wasn’t an ordinary ruler, it was a kind of slide rule, with lots of obscure markings and a clear plastic slider — alongside them and moved things about in a calculating sort of way. “Well …” And then I saw a quick glint of a small knife.
“Whoops, my hand slipped a bit there,” Morta said. “Nowt to do with me,” Nona said. They all giggled at that, and then resumed their work.