Sunday, 8 June 2008

Crossing the desert

When I came to crossing the desert, I worried that I hadn't read enough philosophy. I wasn't even half-way through when I concluded that in fact, I'd read too much. What I saw on that journey has stayed with me for the rest of my life so far, and I doubt I'll forget any of it now. There are days though when I wonder if I'm still crossing the desert, and just hallucinating that I've crossed it; but there are other days when I can't get out of bed because I know I died in the desert and can't possibly be here now.

I think those are my good days.

I had been alone in the desert for four days when I met a man who painted round his eyes with something bright, that sparkled in the sunlight and kept me from seeing his eyes. He was older than me, probably in his late thirties, wore a khaki shirt open at the throat, dusty blue shorts and battered brown sandals. His skin was golden brown, lighter than I'd have expected for anyone out in the desert, and he had a rucksack that held bottles of ice-cold water. He tied an orange scarf over his head to protect himself from the sun, and when he smiled at me all I could remember where his teeth; white and even and somehow evoking the quintessence of toothiness.

I was walking across sand at that point, one of the patches of shifting sandy desert that were part of the whole expanse, but on the horizon I could see the bare brown branches of trees, and that was where I was headed. I had a rucksack of my own, and bottles of water enough for six days, but in the desert it is better to be near water than not. It was hard walking, my feet slipped in the white sand, and where it mounded into dunelets, my calves burned as I struggled to the top. The sunlight glared off it, and I squinted until the muscles around my eyes hurt as badly as my calves. Then a shadow fell across my face, and I looked up, and at the top of the latest dunelet was a man who's face glittered and shone like a biblical angel.

He introduced himself as Mordechai, and tried to shake my hand. I had reached his level though, and had raised my hand to shield my eyes and see him properly, so his hand missed, and he didn't offer again. I wasn't worried. Four days of my own company and my own thoughts had made me understand the metaphor of crossing the desert for investigating my own soul, and then understand that it was nothing more than a metaphor. Thinking like that would let the desert kill you.

He told me that he lived a couple of days away on the edge of the desert, and I asked why he was so far out. He was an artist, he told me, he sought inspiration, and he sought artifacts from the desert to use in his work. He took some smoky glass from his pocket and showed it to me: fulgurite, he said. It was formed when lightning struck sand, and was uncommon in the desert. I admired it for him, but it seemed unimpressive to me. The sand particle occluding it seemed to spoil it, and his argument that it was a part of the desert trapped in solid form and made durable didn't convince me.

He walked along with me, sparkling in the afternoon sun, his gaze sweeping across the sand looking for found-things to turn into art, and I didn't object. At first it was night to have company again, and a few hours later, it was interesting that we were still talking and had not exhausted our conversation reservoirs. When the sun sank behind the horizon abruptly, as it likes to do in the desert, and a chill wind sprang up out of nowhere, I stopped. The stars appeared as fast as the sun had vanished, and a cold light let me see my footsteps, but not the trees in the distance. I did not want to stray from my course in the dark; I was already aware that without a fixed reference the wanderer in the desert will walk in circles.

Mordechai evinced surprise that I was stopping, but when I freed the lightweight tent from the bottom of the rucksack and released the catches on the elastic poles to expand it, asked if he could beg shelter for the night as well. I could find no convincing reason to say no, and so he stayed.

Something, and I don't know what, woke me some hours before dawn. The desert has its nighttime noises, but I had already accepted them, and had slept well both night previously. I woke, lying on my back, and then sat up to stretch. I turned slightly, intending to lie back down and go to sleep again, and saw Mordechai, lying also on his back, his arms akimbo. In the dark, in the tent, with no light source to illuminate them, the stuff around his eyes still sparkled slightly, a softly phosphorescent glow, that I could clearly see now were tiny little tentacles like those of a baby squid. They waved, perhaps filtering the air around them, and the eyes sockets they surrounded were dark and empty, mere holes into a man's head.

I rose quietly, slipped my sandals on, and sat outside the tent for the rest of the night, shivering in the desert's chill, building collapsing walls of sand to try to keep the breeze at bay.

Mordechai left in the morning when the sun came up, not saying a word, and I was as silent. I packed the tent, checked my water, and headed off towards the trees, and tried to forget whatever it was I had walked in the desert with that day.

No comments: