The sun was high, shining straight down in the well, but I had to keep digging. My instinct told me water was near. The noise of the pulley was the only noise to be heard, beyond a faint buzz of insects. We moved in this place a few months ago, I wanted to leave much of my life behind and to start anew. No one was living here, not anymore, old settlements had all but vanished, buried in the sand, a century ago. Older dwellings, carved in the mountain rocks, could be visited, bare shells as reminders of long absent tribes.
I decided to make my way back home, a glorified trailer. We landed, so to speak, on a little plateau, overlooking a large flat valley and more hills opposite. Our view: a small factory on these hills, the line of electricity pylons, the dusty road with the occasional truck. Our garden finished abruptly in a cliff, encased on each side by mountains. The trailer emerged like a futuristic ruin from the ground, a spacecraft crashed on Mars.
My wife was talking to three men, their horses loose. One wore the Bedouin-style attire, the others were casual. When she saw me, she waved. “Here is my husband”, she said, “we have recently moved here as I explained.” We exchanged salutations. Their attitude clearly showed we were not welcomed in the area. “This land is ours”, said the tallest man, “you have no right to be here”. My wife showed him the property act, “This is the act, we bought this land from the government. It is rightly ours!”; he took the paper from her hands and tore it in two, “There is only you and us here”, he added, looking at me straight into the eyes, “and soon, only us.” They turned around briskly, mounted their horses and left.
Our children came out of the caravan. “Who were these men?”, they asked. “Our new neighbours”, I replied.
The sun was high, shining straight down in the well, but I had to keep digging. And I had been doing so for over a week since we had the ‘visit’. Tired, I threw down my sweaty cap on the sand, walked to my horse and let it find home. My wife was waiting for me, looking anxious. “They children have disappeared”, she cried, “I think they kidnapped them!”. “Calm down!”, I said, “What makes you think this?”. She described how they played this morning, then just before lunch she heard them shout, amidst the noise of horses galloping; she ran to them, but they were not there anymore, no trace of fighting on the floor, no evidence except for a jambiya in a simple wooden sheath, left in the dust. “How did this get here”, I exclaimed. “This is the evidence, they kidnapped my daughter and son”, explained my wife. I put the dagger in my belt and went inside the house for my old army gun. Jumping on the bed, I added “Call the police if I am not back tomorrow”. She kissed me goodbye.
Their houses were not too far, and before sun down I had reached the outer limit of their dwellings. Goats were roaming freely, eating whatever their tough gums could get hold of; the low stoned walls were still radiating the day’s heat, drips of water around the olive trees located downhill. The settlement was unfinished, missing a rooftop there, proper windows here, plaster. The only signs of inhabitants were the protruding TV aerials. I unmounted, took my gun out and checked its safety, thinking that this term was really a misnomer, and made my way for the largest house, where all the villagers were gathered, from the music I could hear from the distance. A plan started to form in my mind, I would irrupt in the middle of them, and seize any child I could, an eye for an eye.
“Where are my children?”, I shouted, aiming my gun at one of the men, one who came to visit us a week ago. In my arms, I had a little girl, possibly 8, my daughter’s age. A circle of children, men and women were staring at me with horror and in complete silence. “Are you crazy? What are you talking about?”, asked the man; “You know... today some of your men came and took my children away!”, I replied. “This is ridiculous”, he said, “Why would we do this? We are not brigands or murderers, look around you!”. This was a perfect setup, I was made to look like the aggressor. “Here is my evidence!”, I showed them the dagger, inadvertently releasing the child. They all murmured at once; the man opened his arms to me and said: “Look, this jambiya does not belong to us, we do not wear them”, and effectively I could see this. “However”, he added, “I know where this one comes from... but I will not discuss it with a gun pointed at me”.
“On the ground, you said?”, he asked, giving me back the dagger. We sat in the backroom, on cushions around a low table, dimly lit by a few candles. A woman had brought tea. “This is a special gift to you. The spirits of the mountain bestowed it to you”, seeing my incomprehension, he added: “This jambiya will take the shape of what you want it to do, the hilt would change into silver if so you wish, the blade would transform into diamond, it will mirror what you want the most, it will make it come true. To a price: your children”. I started laughing, this story was unbelievable, he was only trying to buy time, maybe to hide my children some other place. His hands clapped, silencing me. The woman came back, bringing a small tray with burning incense, she placed it in front of us. After she had left, the man resumed talking: “Look, look in the smoke my friend...” My mind wandered and I started to make out some shapes out of the patterns whirling in the air: the moon crescent, a hook, a cigarette, clouds, spirals, but a dark shape, absence of smoke, suddenly lashed at me, making me gasp.
“This one was an old friend of yours”, the man said, “you did your army with him; he died next to you, you killed him by accident, didn’t you?” No one knew about this. “Who told you?” I asked, suspecting the answer. “You did. The spirits just relayed this to me”, he candidly replied, “you must now follow me”. He stood up.
The night had fallen by now, we both silently mounted our horses and started our journey. He explained that we were heading for the disused caves. Soon enough, we stopped and made the final part on foot, the track to narrow and steep for our mounts. The entrance to the cave was large and dark, the moonlight did not reach much deeper into it, as if its light was swallowed by the cave’s depths. I could hear some faint crying inside, my children! I rushed in, despite the man urging me to wait. There was the light of a campfire, an old man sitting there, with my children next to him, lying on the floor, possibly asleep. It was not crying, but a bizarre chuckle I had heard, coming from the old man; his skin was parched like the sand, shadows playing on his face. “The time for choice has come”, he said waving at the children, “what is your wish?”.
I felt numb, thrown into a kind of nightmare fairytale, where all the traditional characters were present but twisted. My hands were clammy, so I automatically wiped them on my shirt, where they found the jambiya. I took the dagger out and pointed it at the man, “Release my children now”, I said; he did not budge. I slowly stepped to my right around the fire, and check on them: they were slowly breathing. In a resonating voice, the old man said “Your wish? A sacrifice is required now the blade was drawn!”. The villager had followed me into the cave, he stood by the limit of the light and shadows, he said “In our tradition, blood must be drawn if the blade was drawn”.
“This is mad, I never wished for anything, why me? Why my family? I did not call for whatever spirit world, nor did any ritual! Why?”, I asked, looking at both men. The old man spoke: “Your ancestors all wished for it, dreamed it, and eventually were heard. Today is the arrival and the reunion.” He then continued: “The choice must be made.” Suddenly, my hand got a life of its own! The blade, however hard I tried to restrain it, slowly advanced to my son’s throat. “There is nothing you can do”, the spirit said, “what is the wish?”. Panicked, I screamed “Peace! We want peace!” The spirit started laughing, “This, I cannot give you”, he said. My hand was so near the throat. “Wait!” I heard, as the man jumped in the circle of light and, holding me by my shoulders, spun me around. The dagger pulled my hand inside his chest, reaching for the beating heart; blood splattered the ground. He fell down onto his knees, then onto his side, his eyes already gazing at whatever beyond there might be. I turned around, the spirit had left.
The sun was high, shining straight down in the well, but I had to keep digging. My instinct told me water was near. As usual now, some of the villagers had come to help us. Our children were playing together, sharing card games and stones and laughter, and I felt suspended in heavens for the briefest moment, and my heart was filled with awe, and a joyous fountain suddenly sprung from the ground!