The Desert

Ever since he was a kid, he felt a great disconnection from the people of the city in which he was born and bred. Every activity, chore, every waken minute, seemed purposeless and empty of meaning and when he asked his mother and father about it, he received tasteless answers and a slap behind his ears.

“Go hang those wet clothes in the tree in backyard, or go throw the leftover to the pigs instead of asking stupid questions!”

That’s how he learned to stop speaking his mind. But then again, he has always been quiet, so nobody really noticed what had happened.

The only moment that made him feel alive was the stories. He would wait for Altaïb, the mailman, to come around in his rundown truck to hear about the stories of the Moving Sand tribes.  Altaïb would gratefully oblige, filling up the young man’s mind with intoxicating tales of harshness, treachery and illusions and their lessons of strength, beauty and wisdom. Altaïb explain that the friendly tribes he encountered talked with much passion of a certain place in the desert, a mount on which a sole tree was flourishing. The legends varied from tribe to tribe, but as they were compiling them, they came to the understanding that the tree was in fact the origin, a place out of time and space from which everything originated. Some stories stated that it was guarded by mystical creatures, some said that touching the tree made you insane, some stated that the taste of its fruit would opened a world of wonders from which you were not interested to come back. No one did, ever.

The young man quickly disassociated himself from the city, from the community’s teaching and the people that once has been his family and friends. He started to build his life around the dreamy world of the desert, with its creatures, wise or bloody people, and magical tree. His eyes and his mind were set out West; on the desert. It was calling out to him and just like his own loneliness, he would subdue it and make it his own. He would find the tree of the legends. See it for his own self.

Nothing in his life has ever filled him with that much vitality and vigor. That’s all he ever truly wanted.

It was a surprise to no one that, as soon as he was of age, he asked Altaïb to drive him out of the city and into the desert. The old mailman, tried to give him a concerned look, but his wry smile betrayed his real intention:

“I always had lot of admiration for the men that took on the tedious crossing of the desert, but you know, it is not a journey for everyone.”

The young man didn’t answered, just like he was taught as a child, as he watch the city getting smaller and smaller in the rear-view mirror. His heart felt at peace as he was plunging into the vastness of white that would be the end and the beginning of him. He listened carefully as Altaïb gave him some last advices on how to survive the heat of the days and the cold of nights,  and how to avoid the scavenging animals, the dangerous tribes and wandering warriors of the sand.

“Beware of illusions. They will get you if you don’t get them first!” he said, as a last goodbye.

The young man’s heart didn’t flinch as he watched the last tie he had with his past wear off into the distance. He set out into the vastness of white, walking, taking breaks when he needed some, hunting and eating lizards, venturing into small oasis to get a drink of water and fill up his gourd without leaving traces. He followed Altaïb advices to the letter but also made his own improvements, noting them in his booklet. He took note on where he was, trying to map the territory he knew and the one he discovered.

He met some other travelers like him, making their way to different cities. They would ask him: “where are you heading?” and he’d always answered “I’m looking for something”. They would share a laugh, exchange some information and be on their way. He was looking forward to each and every impromptu meetings but each time, his resolve was tested. Many times, kind travelers offered him a place in their procession and each time he seriously considered going with them. But he never did. With each separation, the young man would find himself lonelier than before, but in him, a sturdiness would grow, and along with it, his will to find the legendary tree.

It had been nearly four years of wandering in the desert when he came across a very singular oasis. The scenery had accents of strangeness that he never had encounter before in his travels. It was the most complex landscape he had seen in a long time. Set between two monstrous mountains of rocks, the patch of green was surrounded the ghastly sight of countless pillars of stones, spurting out of the sandy soil. The wind had striped them naked but the remaining cores were solid material, showing no signs of erosion. He immediately sketched the scene into his notebook. From where he was drawing, he saw absolutely no sign of activity. Human or animal. The scene felt undisturbed, untouched for millions and millions of years. But such an eerie place was bounded to be made by man, he thought. It occurred to him that it might be a mirage. His eyes had been fooled before…

He wondered still as he set foot into the haven.

The shade of the palm trees and wild foliage felt very real against his skin. It was much bigger than what it looked from the outside. He gasped as he realized there was pathways, ancient and overtaken by the vegetation, He decided to follow the paths and map them, to draw everything that he saw. His heart was pounding, for he believe that he had found what he was looking for: the mystical tree that the many tribes of the Moving Sands talked about. He considered himself on a holy ground, so close to his goal.

A sudden terror took him as he heard a sound of branch cracking in the distance. He waited for a while, his tired knife in hand, for a mystical creature to spring out of darkness and eat him whole. But nothing came, the forest was quiet again. Was that a predator, stalking its prey or was that the first sign of insanity, that the legends spoke off?

The young man’s heart wavered ever so slightly, but the journey that he endured had made him strong. He thought back on the moments where in the depth of his journey, he cursed Altaïb for accepting to take him into the wilderness. He thought back on all the nights where he wanted to go back so badly he punched the ground until his fist were red and the delicious merchant’s daughters that aroused his fire and his earthly instincts to protect and build and settle down. All of this, all that could have been, he had to gave up in order to be the ruthless wanderer that he was, the master of his very own self, undisturbed, indestructible. He walked in the oasis as a lord into his kingdom. Yet a terrible sadness assaulted him as the tree of legend was nowhere to be seen.

At what it seems to be the center of the oasis was a large pound of fresh water. He carefully kneeled to have a sip, and as the ripples wore off, he caught his reflection staring right back at him, a sight that had not seen in many years. He saw a frail man, his skin bake by the sun, his long hair and beard wrapped around his neck in the fashion of a hangman. On his face were the scars of the many times he thought he’d die of dehydration or at the hands of the sand pirates.

He plunged his whole head in the water. As it slid off his face, his heart begging started to feel lighter. Out of exaltation, he took a plunge in the lake. He felt the dirt leaving him along with the harshness of the years. He stayed a long time, adrift into the water, naked, cleansed, light as a breeze.

He thought about where he was, how far he had walked and how any of it didn’t really mattered. He had forgot about the ruthless wanderer, the sacrifices, the wait, the expectations, the loneliness. It occurred to him that nothing ever was in the first place except beauty and the walk, as he remember his father teaching his sister how to swim and him, looking out west to the desert.

***

When Altaïb heard that one of the Moving Sand tribe’s chief was looking for him, he immediately set off into the desert. When he sat foot in the settlement, he realised that it might have been the furthered he had ventured into the desert.

He entered the main tent where a man dark as coal, almost blue, welcomed him. He said, in a language that the old mailman could approximately decode, that they had found an object that he felt was of great value, but they were unable to understand it themselves. He handed him over a tired white booklet. The chief didn’t understand the scribblings or the language, but the images had peaked his interest and he wanted to know what it was all about.

Altaïb started translated the content, his hands started trembling and the voice breaking as he thought of the young man he had drove out years ago into the desert and all the fantastical stories that he had made up about the magical tree.

Not only did the young man had made his way into the heart of the desert and into the desert of his heart, he had created the tree, and the world of wonders from which he would never come back.

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