Sunday, May 22, 2011

#SampleSunday: "We love the desert life because it is ours."

(This is an excerpt from my epic historical novel, Daughters)
When he awoke alone, Samir looked at the tent ropes that held their horses but only his mare was there and he knew without looking further that his father had left him and returned home. Why? His heart throbbed with anger and confusion and he sat trembling.
The camp came to life with clouds of smoke from several cooking fires and little clumps of children, puppies, and lambs huddled together. Women sat on the dusty ground shaping rounds for bread. He had the doomed feeling that no one knew him.
He mounted his horse and guided it in the direction from which he had come, riding slowly, remembering the hidden guards with their carbines and half expecting to receive a bullet through the heart. Once free of the camp, he galloped confidently northwestward, elated by the thought of his escape. He would ride home.
After two hours, the landscape was so unchanging he began to doubt his direction and dismounted. He stroked the horse’s damp flesh, noting with a slump of will that the animal was tired and thirsty.
There was no sound save his own breathing. A bustard flew down in the distance to peck on the wooly red desert caterpillars and he was so thrilled to see another living thing that he watched until it flew away.
The sun was not moving in the expected arc to confirm his direction. He was lost and certain to perish from dehydration or starvation, if some wolf didn’t attack him first. He covered his face with both hands and cried.
There was a sound. His crying half obscured it, and it was so unexpected that he jumped mightily, which caused laughter. Laughter! Stranger than the laughter was the sight of who had laughed. A boy. Smaller than Samir and with no part of him showing – he was swaddled in the most suffocating costume – except a round glowing face and confident eyes. His short legs barely gripped the animal.
“Where did you come from?” asked Samir.
“Same as you. From the camp of the Rualas.” His voice was very high.
He’s just a child, thought Samir. “You’ve been following me?” Now we shall both die, he thought ruefully. This baby boy and myself.
“Of course. You’re in my keep. I’m responsible for your welfare,” he said loftily. “Why are you crying?” he asked with chagrin, as if it were a reflection on him.
Samir ignored him. “Where is my father?”
“Your father left before dawn to return to your home.” Samir swallowed hard. Here was proof positive of his sentence. “Why did you ride out this morning?” asked the boy with a quizzical frown.
“I was returning home.”
The boy struggled with what he had to say. “You are riding in the wrong direction.” There was an embittered silence during which Samir adjusted the straps of his food pack and refused to look at the boy. “You are meant to remain with us. My name is Marwan and you, I know, are Samir. Come,” he coaxed, “let’s return.” Grudgingly he followed the little horseman who took off confidently.
There was still only the beige vastness but now the sun illuminated one portion of the sky from beneath dark clouds that threatened rain. Imminent moisture imbued the air with incredible freshness and Samir took huge gulps. The knot in his chest loosened. At one point, Marwan stopped and pointed down to some animal tracks that appeared to have been made by a large paw and presently they saw the owner, a huge black cat, licking himself in the shade of a stunted bush.
“Panther,” said Marwan, his childish face full of concern. He held out a palm to keep Samir from continuing, rummaged in his garments and brought out a Mauser. With little preparation he aimed and shot the animal in the throat. “Hullus,” he said softly. It was done.
He brought out a long knife that he plunged into the animal’s chest with surprising strength. “Would you care for a paw as a souvenir?” he asked Samir.
Samir shook his head. He was amazed by the marksmanship. The smug indifference he had felt was no longer appropriate. Marwan had saved them from certain danger for the panther could have easily overtaken them. From time to time he stole a disbelieving look at the courageous little fellow and rode with him obediently to safety.
In the days that followed, Marwan was his tie to life and the only buffer from desperate loneliness and homesickness. He was four months younger and half a head shorter than Samir with six fine braids that reached his hips. He had to guide his horse with his thighs for his legs were too short but he was amazingly agile and a fine shot. He ate with his family but otherwise seemed to live entirely without supervision even though he was the sheik’s son.
Marwan was unbelieving when he learned that Samir had spent the last six years learning to read and write, to handle a knife and fork and to play soccer. He was shocked that he didn’t know how to make a fire, slaughter a lamb, hunt game, fire a rifle, or use the rhumb, the knife that was like an eleventh finger to Marwan.
From dawn to dusk, the little wild creature taught Samir the skills of survival. “You must know how to shoot,” he would say seriously as if danger were at hand. They worked with flat pebbles and a crude sling aiming for the wooden pegs that held down the tent ropes. When they progressed to the Mauser – Marwan’s most precious possession – Samir was already a decent marksman. Marwan showed him the likely places for game and how to stalk and kill. There was a precise spot on the neck and a proper angle at which to plunge the knife. One needed strength. One needed a fierce mental attitude. “The idle and cowardly lose their wealth,” piped the boy in his high voice. Samir wanted to smile because the lofty words hardly went with the stature. “The brave and energetic prosper.”
“Why do you choose to live like this? Samir asked. It had occurred to him that Marwan’s father was wealthier than many of the villagers, yet this life held relentless hardship. They slept on the stony ground, chilled to the bone by night and suffocated during the day. Water was precious and rare for these were the driest days of the year and it would be two months before the rains began to replenish the water holes. Food was monotonous. The frothy salty camel milk fresh from the udder was repulsive but there was nothing else and he reluctantly began to tolerate it. The occasional meat was cooked so rare he couldn’t touch it yet the young men fought for the raw heart of any animal that was slaughtered. They guzzled the blood believing it gave them strength and virility. “Don’t you yearn for a different life?”
“Where else would I live? I was born here as was my father and his father before him.”
“But it’s so difficult. There’s a much easier way.” As he said this, anxiety rose in him. Would his father come back to claim him? And when?
Marwan laughed. “Easier for whom? We welcome the hardships of the desert. We love them.”
“But why?”
He answered with an innocence that made Samir ashamed for questioning. “We love the desert life because it is ours.”
But it is not mine, thought Samir with sadness.
One early morning, after the moon had set but while it was still dark, Marwan shook him. “We must ride into the wilderness,” he said and handed Samir a waterskin and some dried dates. Each rode a dromedary while two riderless mares cantered at their side and held by lines to the camel girths. A few miles out of the camp, Marwan, rifle in hand, flung himself from the camel onto the back of his mare, unslipped the line and raced off in a cloud yelling wildly. Samir made three attempts to do the same but fell twice. He couldn’t ride bareback and found himself gripping with his thighs for dear life. He reached Marwan who was casually pitching stones at a pile of bleached animal bones.
“I thought you were in danger,”’ shouted Samir.
“You were supposed to ride as if danger were near,” said Marwan coolly.
“I almost broke my back. Who ever heard of riding a blasted horse without a saddle! And jumping on him at that!”
“It’s the way it is done.”
“It’s a good way to kill yourself.”
“It’s the way we ride for the gazu, the raid,” he said stubbornly. “It is the way we move our camps. It is the way we protect our grazing areas and our flocks. In order to survive in the desert you must be ready to move swiftly from the camel to the war mare. It is the only way to be a man. We must try it again until it is as easy as walking.”
Samir rubbed his back. He thought: I’m never going to be in a raid. I’m not going to move a camp. One day I will return to my home. Yet Marwan was already retying his line to try again. They worked all day on the maneuver and Samir was enticed by the spectacular look of the transfer when it was accomplished properly. Using the left wrist to launch himself, Marwan lifted both legs up and to the right then swung gracefully between the two animals and landed squarely on the back of the mare, unhitching the line at the same instant he spurred the horse. Then came the wild yell of freedom. The thrill of speed atop the most splendid horses in the world, the “drinkers of the wind.”
They rode back to camp at dusk, weary and hungry. Marwan sang all the way. “We sing on a long ride,” he said. “It makes us feel more cheerful. And it comforts the animals.”
A few days later, Marwan awoke him again, but this time with more food and water than was necessary for a day. “We’re going to hunt the wolves that are attacking our herds,” he said. “Will you ride with us?”
“Of course.” This was the first real occasion to use all his new experience. They were part of a large party of young men on their horses. Several of them were armed with a slender lance. All of them chanted or yodeled merrily as they rode. Marwan was fondling the Mauser, which he wore in his belt.
“Will you shoot the wolves with that?” Samir pointed to the gun all too aware that he lacked such a weapon.
“No.” Marwan smiled slowly, as if the question was preposterous. “One doesn’t use a Mauser on wolves. We use the rumh, the lance. Here,” he handed him one of the slender bamboo spears that were about fifteen feet long with a triangular steel head. “You carry it sideways and you spear your wolf like this.” He leaned to the side and with a single mighty thrust embedded the spear in the ground. “But I carry this gun with me always. There are enemies of my father who would like to have me dead.” His face grew somber and briefly there was fear in his eyes. “Before I was born, he lost three sons.”
Several of the men with rifles had ridden ahead to the foothills to cut off the retreat of the wolves into the mountains. At last these men flushed out two wolves and Marwan and Samir gave chase. “You must get ahead of him to thrust,” warned Marwan. Suddenly Samir felt the front right leg of his mare give way and he went headlong over its neck, landing face down. Marwan had to return for him and he felt mortified. “It’s not your fault.” said Marwan. “Moles have undermined the ground. Look at Jebra!” He pointed gleefully to one of the slaves. “His horse disposed of him as well. He took a toss. And look there, another one.” Samir felt a pudgy hand dusting off his chest and his embarrassment diminished.
They mounted again and rode about twelve miles to a spot where, it seemed, everyone was off in a different direction chasing a wolf with a lance. Samir was thrilled when he spotted a wolf and went for his bushy tail. His horse was as eager to follow the bandit and together they galloped madly, finally overtaking the animal. With an exhilarating burst of energy, Samir executed a stab so violent that his spear acted as a vaulting pole and threw him in the air. Fortunately, the ground was soft and he was unharmed. To his amazement, the wolf was impaled through its middle. Marwan was grinning wildly. “You have the brave heart of a lion, Samir,” he said soberly. “I wish to make you my blood brother.” He caught a few drops of the blood from Samir’s scraped arm and rubbed it between his eyes. Then he clasped him in a fierce embrace.
In the weeks that followed Samir’s passion for the Bedouin life caught fire and he became an obsessed pupil. He forgot about reading and writing. He had come in October and now it was February. He couldn’t recall his father’s face or his mother’s or that of the half sister he loved. His old life was no more than a meaningless dream. The desert was everything. His beautiful dark hair fell below his shoulders and he allowed Marwan’s sister to braid it into lovelocks. He grew at least three inches and knew by the coming of spring that he had passed his thirteenth birthday. The muscles in his arms and back and legs were taut and had he had a mirror he would not have recognized the wiry boy he had become.
He grew to love the feeling of riding fast, his long locks and head cloth fluttering, his camel’s hair cloak – a precious gift – flapping, a carbine balanced on his lap. He could vault onto the back of his horse with a single swing over its flank and twist of his body. He learned not to expect his stomach to be full. No future delicacy would ever taste as good as a mix of wild honey with a dollop of goat butter floating on top spread on freshly baked herb cakes. Best of all, he learned to love the sweet stillness of night and the silver sand reflecting that most magical vision – starlight.
Often he and Marwan sat in on the councils where the tribal heads planned their strategy and settled squabbles and conducted business. The nomadic tribes bartered their camels, wool, cheese and butter for tent fittings and saddles, cloth and foodstuffs. When the fine days of spring finally arrived, the mood of the camp changed dramatically. There was laughter and singing and playfulness.
“From now on we will be on the move,” said Marwan one magnificent morning and the next day the women pulled up the tent posts, rolled up the unwieldy cloths and loaded them on the camels. The entire tribe with their flocks and herds and horses began drifting to their permanent watering holes. The rain had awakened the earth all at once creating an overnight sensation. A rich green haze tinged with silver was the backdrop for delicately colored blooms. The camels and flocks are greedily making up for the barren months.
When they made camp the young men went about the real business of the Bedouin life – the gazu, the raid for camels, the true measure of a man’s wealth. They were now full of purpose, eager to make the forays in the stealth of night, exhilarated when they unhobbled the camels silently and then drove them home, half triumphant, half fearful. Samir saw a change come over Marwan. He was no longer the gay companion. He was itching to be on a mission. He wanted to ride his mare fast and find an enemy, any enemy against which he could prove himself.
“But suppose he kills you?” asked Samir, who could not appreciate the desire for something so dangerous. One moment of glory that could snuff out your life. He was frightened but wouldn’t dare admit it.
“They would not shoot me nor I them,” Marwan said. “Raiding is honorable. Only common robbers kill you.”
When it came time to join the raid, Samir rode without euphoria. There were certain things about the Bedouin life that would always remain a mystery to him. The certainty of purpose – there was no indecision in their character.
He didn’t shrink from danger – that would have been unthinkable – but he didn’t take pleasure in riding over rocks and rubble to outwit their pursuers or crawling on his belly to reach the prey unnoticed. At night, when they made camp and lit a fire with ghada sticks and that magical stillness settled over the violet-colored dunes, he yearned to go home and resume his life. Homesickness, held at bay for so long, now wrecked his powers of concentration. He dreamed of home and his father. He held imaginary conversations with his sister speaking aloud when they were riding fast and no one could hear him.
“How long am I meant to stay with you?” he asked Marwan one day.
“You could have left anytime,” said Marwan but he seemed surprised and hurt by the question.
“You mean I could have left right away?” Samir was shocked.
“Yes. If you really had wanted to.”
“But you didn’t tell me that.”
“But you never asked.”
It would have been the most natural thing in the world to say right then that he wanted to go home now but he knew Marwan would take it personally and he couldn’t hurt his friend. He would tell him soon but not right away.
The next night Marwan awoke him before midnight and coaxed him to ride with him alone on a raid. “We’ll bring back a camel each. We can do it.”
“Your mother and father would be heartsick to find you gone alone, Marwan,” he said stalling for time. It was a foolhardy idea.
“If you don’t wish to go with me, I will go alone,” he said.
“Wait and go with the men.” Samir tried to sound casual and reasonable although he didn’t feel casual at all.
“If you don’t go with me, I will go alone,” said Marwan defiantly and Samir rose wearily from his cozy sheepskin and cursed the lack of supervision for this hotheaded boy.
“I will go,” he said, hoping that they would find nothing and return to camp by morning.
They rode for three hours without seeing any campfires or other signs of life. As dawn was approaching, Marwan drew rein and came up next to Samir. “Now we must hide or we will be seen and our mission will be obvious.”
“Why is it obvious?” said Samir. “We could be just two boys with nothing on our minds.”
Marwan was insulted. “That’s impossible.”
They dismounted and hid out behind a sand dune and had just pulled out a fistful of cheese when Samir saw a shadow cross in front of him. Two savage figures approached and stood just a few feet away.
“How did you arrive,” said Marwan, stunned.
“We didn’t arrive,” said one of the men derisively. “We were here all along.”
Samir remembered something Marwan had told him. Unmounted wayfarers are usually robbers and murderers.
“What do you want? Asked Marwan and his voice was tremulous.
“You tell us,” said one man and laughed.
“Ask God,” said the other.
“What tribe do you belong to?” persisted Marwan.
“Beni Nufud,” replied the man and this time both laughed.
This insolent answer seemed to settle it for Marwan. He pulled out his Mauser and shot twice felling both the startled men. However, one of them, his face full of rage, was able to pull out his own pistol and shot back. Marwan cried out defiantly, “La! No!” and his boyish hand shot out to ward off the bullet that exploded in his face. Before the robber could shoot again, Samir grabbed the Mauser and emptied it in both the men. His heart seemed to be racing up and down his body and found no spot that could accommodate its violent beating.
He felt uncontrollable anger toward Marwan. “You little fool. You little fool. Why did you have to come here? Why? Why? He shook his blood brother willing him to respond. Marwan just lay still his life fluids soaking into his clothes. He rode back to camp with Marwan propped in front of him, cradled in his arms. It was slow going but he couldn’t have left him there alone.
Throughout the ride, he crooned the cheerful songs Marwan had taught him. He must hear me, he thought. He must. He didn’t have a clear memory of all that happened next. Only that they wanted to take the body from him and he resisted with all his might. He felt horribly responsible for the tragedy. He should have asked to go home and this would have distracted Marwan from his quest for danger. He shouldn’t have given in to Marwan and ridden with him. He should have persuaded him to stay at the camp. He could have saved his friend. Over and over, he heard that startled cry, “La! No!” and saw that small palm thrust out, pushing death away.
Within days he was returned to his family. He asked for Marwan’s curved knife, his rhumb, and kept it close to him day and night. It had the smell of Marwan and the sweat of his hand on the handle. It was the last thing Samir touched at night and the first in the morning. Even in later years, when his months with the Bedouin were nothing more than a distant memory, touching the knife gave him comfort.

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