It was early Spring, the garden looked already beautiful, away with the general dampness of the late Winter. My olive tree seemed to glow in this pleasant afternoon, its shades of greens and grays resting the eyes against the stark blue background of the sky; I touched its bark: rough, warm.
The bell to the entrance door rang; I went back into the house via the kitchen, but my friend had let himself in. He was carrying a potted plant and, at hand, a card.
“Happy Birthday!”, he said in his usual deep voice, “I can’t remember how old you are, but you definitely don’t look it!”. “And you are early by a month?”, I replied.
As we sat outside the veranda, he put the plant on the coffee table, then said “Yes, a bit early. I am leaving for the amazonian forest Tuesday for three months. Charity work and research. And here is your present”. I took the potted plant, it had think long dark green leaves, slightly shiny or silvery, on a short stout stem; there were some oblong pods, each topped with a different nuance of white.
“It is specie PT-9473. We created this one in the lab last month. Completely harmless of course. I called it the Oniris, the dream plant”, he explained, “it is a mix of a South-American plant genomes and of our own manipulations.” I must have looked worried, because he added “Nothing much on this one, it flowers longer, it requires less water, and its roots have the peculiarity to grow very deep so as to retain soil. Also...”, he started to murmur, “I think it taps in the Gaia field and relays emotions to humans”. The Gaia theory has been en vogue for some time, and my friend was one of its proponents. Nothing scientific to go by at this stage, however our planet improved a lot after people followed this idea. I smiled to him, “How do I take care of it?”. He told me, we chatted on, then we finished our drinks and he left.
I followed his instructions, re-potted the Oniris once more, then carefully acclimated it to one part of my garden, sunny with a rich soil. A lot more required my attention at the time, so I did not think any more of it.
In a June evening, I received a phone call from my friend. “How was the Amazon?” I asked, “Wet like a virgin forest, and dangerous. I am still thereabouts, only taking some vacations in Argentina. How is the dream plant doing?” he said; “Fine, gorgeous and smelly by now” I lied. After the call, I went in the garden. The Oniris had grown taller, a decent size rose bush, the pods still there, little flowers that looked like lips, pink and white, were blossoming. It smelt like fresh water mixed with something acrid, a campari wine with brown sugar, however it did not overthrow you, that smell just titillated the nose then sent some chills down the spine in a new way.
That evening, the window to my bedroom was wide-open. I was laying in bed restless, various worries going on in my mind, telescoping each others in pangs of anxiety. Suddenly, I noticed the Oniris’ smell, amongst the other scents. It seemed to calm my thoughts, like ripples on a lake diminishing, and progressively, I went to sleep.
That night, I had the first vivid dream. And I was about to die.
The scene unfolded as I fell from a scorched sky; views of dunes, dark brown mountains like pillars of basalt, rocks and meagre vegetation. the air was gushing towards me, the ground had this telescopic effect of becoming larger and closer by the nanosecond! I kept telling myself it was a dream, only a dream. I saw a man, lying on the sand, dressed in beige with a dark turban, the destination of my intercept course.
The sun was high, mid day, my mouth felt dry. I was not sure for how long I remained unconscious, but I had to move on, to find some shades. I stood up and started walking, automatically balancing myself with my crook. The terrain seemed to be a gentle slope, which I followed for a while unit I reached an old river bed. No rivulet in sight, not one drop of water in months. It went southwards, and so did I. Eventually I reached a deeper and larger area, a small circus that offered the sparse shades of an acacia. A nice flat rock offered a convenient seat; feeling weak and shivering I sat, as my head became dizzy. My ankle was bleeding, I think something bit it or it got damaged after a fall.
The Earth opened in front my me. A djinn appeared in a whisp of smoke, as djinns do. It talked to me with a voice of honey and wine: “You are in trouble now, aren’t you?”; with difficulties I replied a murmured “Yes”. “Well, well, well... “, he said tapping his index finger on his chin, casting his shadow on me, “Would you accept some help from a lowly djinn?, Perhaps this would suffice?”, a water skin appeared in front of me, tempting, “My price is small”, he added as I was reaching for the skin. “What would it be dear djinn?” I asked, “I heard you have cattle... how about sacrificing half of it to me?” he wondered. My thoughts, though chaotic, were quick at the calculation: “My family would not survive this winter, so to your demand I cannot bow” I said. “Very well” said the djinn, as he disappeared, leaving the water skin to burst open over the soil, where all the water that was not swallowed by the ground, evaporated.
I gathered myself and wrapped my tunic around myself, trying to stay in the shadow as much as possible, moving slowly with the sun. The ankle felt worse than ever, after close examination I assumed it was caused by a bullet. As I waited, the ravine revealed itself more to my aching eyes: small shrubs and tiny plants were spread across the gravel and rocks, rapid movements caught at the corner of vision indicated maybe a lizard or a wasp.
Suddenly, the djinn was standing next to me. In his still sweet voice, he said “Wake up! Wake up!”; I looked up, I had fallen asleep again. “Still thirsty? Need some care, don’t we?”. I wanted to speak but a severe cramp to my legs made me scream instead. He lifted his hand, and I immediately felt better, no cramp, no nausea; a new water skin was put in front of me. “Listen”, he said, “Let’s do a deal here, forget about that cattle. If you give me some of your land, milk and have your wife weave the best fabric for me, I will help you. You are dying from the unfortunate events that led you here, why don’t you take your chance to make it up for them! My price is not high compared to the remainder years of life in front of you? For as many drops in this water, as many blessed days you will enjoy”. The offer was very tempting. “My family would not survive this regimen long, we need to cultivate and trade, so to your demand I cannot bow” I said. Angrily, he left. My pain resumed, both my legs aching with cramps, my hands numb. Strangely, I did not feel thirst anymore, as if my body was doing his last stand.
The colours over the small ridge were dark orange on a dark sky, the long shadows were covering most of the river bed. I was holding my chest, breathing the still warm air slowly. I was lying on the ground, looking up at the fist evening stars. My body shook again, a tremor coming from Earth itself. I called for the djinn. “You summoned me, Master?”, he said in an ironic tone, his face was looking down on me from the sky, filling it with his smirk. “What if you were to help me now, djinn?” I croaked. “Your ills are almost beyond my powers. The price... the price would be your first born I am afraid”, his suave murmur descended like a light summer wind on me. I managed a frown of disapproval, “To your demand I cannot bow” I cried. As I said this, a comet silently crossed the sky, and I felt suspended in heavens for the briefest moment.
Then I laughed and laughed, the pain withering away; I saw through his eyes the man I was, and then I saw the sky, and then I saw through the djinn that he never existed, then his face shattered in millions of stars, and it all made sense.
My mind cleared up, the desert thirst and mine became one in my dying body. As the world grew dimmer around me, my final dream left me to go in every rock, every shrub and every speck of dust of this river bed. It flowed from every pore of my skin.
I dreamt of running water for everyone, fountains like no other, flowers growing in the mud, tall leafy trees, dark greens and bright blues chasing each other in a lake’s reflection. I willed all this and much more in my last breath. Finally, I embraced the land and I embraced my death.
I put the glass of water back on my bed side table. It has been a week since the dream visited me, so real, so gripping and sad. It left its imprint on my daily life, I was foreign in my own quarters, expecting dunes of sand around corners, my body feeling strange pains I did not recall having.
I opened my eyes, I was in the body of an old woman, inside a dim-lit shack. “Afandi! Afandi!”, I cried, “Where do you think you are going?”. He said “Mother, I need to find him. He left one week ago, and he has not come back, something must have happened to him! I will be back soon, before sundown.” I threw my arms around him. Scarce resources and years of deprivation made the tribes fight each other, raised man against man; the land was crying tears of sand and rocks, it was unsafe to travel and just not enough to farm: our cottage sat on the line of an invisible disaster. Maybe it was written.
I let him go to retrace my husband’s steps. Most of the cattle had come back on its own, one lamb missing. After I closed the pen, I came back to the house, and stopped to look at the wooden bench he built last year; “As long as this bench stays, we will always have wood to burn” he had said in a smile. The view from there opened on a small expanse of land where some meagre vegetables grew. A few acacias marked a drop of the hill, a threatening river of rocks leading to a large flat valley and more hills opposite.
Afandi was on his way, the same swagger as his father’s. They both shared the same love for this land, the same sadness for its present and the same mad hope for its future. It was written than his son would be as talented and beautiful as my husband.
As still as the burnt landscape, I sat on the bench, my eyes to the horizon, waiting.
The sun eventually set. A nice burnt-orange warmth comforted me for a while, then the first evening stars appeared. Looking up, I saw a shooting star, and wished that one day my husband’s dreams would come true. I knew it was written, that he would see for himself the land healed.
Footsteps on our path, Afandi, alone, quietly sat next to me, reaching for my hand. A desert grew in my heart.
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 on 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!
The Oniris has been growing for 3 years now, and for 3 years I had lucid dreams about the desert. The dreams came and went unexpectedly, leaving a faint feeling of regret: the regret to not be able to know these people and times better, to help them in their struggles. Their hearts and mine were no different, we belonged.
The door bell rang. My birthday was coming up, so I thought I would invite some neighbours and colleagues for a party. My partner went to the door: she welcome in my old friend, the one who had brought me this marvellous plant, he was early, as usual. He introduced us to each other two years ago, they had worked on the same research site, for the institute.
The veranda was wide open, there were random chairs scattered around the rugged coffee table. A spring rain had left the air smelling fresh and anew, the sun was daringly warm and brilliant, a perfect moment. We sat down, looking out at the garden. She brought back my friend’s favourite drink, almond milk mixed with honey and orange flower water.
I told him my latest dream, he nodded his head, listening to the story. “It is so frustrating... never able to be there for real! I could feel everything they felt, from despair to hope, pain and joy, everything!”, I said, “In the morning, this”, I showed the house, “seems to be the shadow of another existence, not that I don’t want to be here of course”, I added looking at my partner; she smiled back, she has heard my stories before. “I miss meeting them, I wish I was there to give them a hand; If only I could travel back in time!”, I said; “That, you can’t”, my friend replied, “these people are long dead if they existed at all, although I retold some of your dreams to an archaeologist friend of mine, who was able to check their veracity. Some were nomads, others were migrants, and eventually a few became our ancestors, we could venture that guess. They did disagree with each other a lot though, back then, dissent and violence were rife, human rights unknown. And see!”, his arms opened as to embrace the whole landscape, “this is them...”. Beyond our lush garden, a few young trees lined the street - it was a new suburb -, silent electric cars zipped through, the community park spread further down in the rainbow of its water works, further still, the mountains shone ochre and red under the sun light, with patches of green where new resource modules were deployed, the large white limestone vein on the cliff side looking like the bone of a giant. “That landscape, it could be anywhere on Earth” I thought. “The best time is always here and now”, said my friend as if he happened to read my thoughts, “my little plants cannot take you then, nor could you travel there”, he pointed his finger at the sky, “you, me, all of us, are both the link and the linked with all this, so whatever you do, however small, will affect everyone.”. I understood his point quite well. He then added: “For example, just telling your dreams already started a movement.”
Before I could answer that, the door bell rang again. “I am going to help with the drinks”, I said with a smile, “for now”. I stood up and left them sitting in the veranda, my partner caressing her pregnant belly.
|Petroglyph inscriptions from the Wadi Rum (Jordan)|