Friday, August 31, 2012

Short Story: Lost in the Desert


Dr Abe V RotorOasis at Sunset, acrylic painting by Miss Anna Christina Rotor, circa 2002

He has been there for some time now filling up a well he made in the sand with water from the sea.

“What are you doing?” I asked nonchalantly, knowing what a silly thing he was doing. I acted like a teacher with the critical nature of one showing up.

“You know, you can’t really fill your well, or empty the sea either.” I said with an aura of authority.

He looked up at me and beamed a smile in the sun. He was not just pouring water into his well; he was decorating it with seashells, seaweeds, corals and plants growing nearby. He was making a landscape.

Fish were not biting that morning so I folded up my fishing rod and passed by the boy's well again.

Why it was an oasis model he made! Complete with a sandcastle, a pathway, a retaining wall and waterhole.  The boy was no longer there.

That was a long time ago when I had the luxury of spending a whole day or two fishing, when weekend is a day of leisure and unwinding from pressure of work.

Who cares about one boy out of millions of boys building oases and sandcastles? What is the boy’s name? Oh, the only thing that lingers in my head under graying hair is his lovely innocent face and charming smile.

Years later, in my last year in government service I was sent to Israel to attend a Food and Agriculture Organization sponsored conference. What a luck! A pilgrimage to the Holy Land!

Tourists in general, love to take side trips, and I am no exemption. After touring Israel “tracing the footsteps of Christ,” I decided to continue on to Egypt where the Holy Family, according to the bible visited. So I joined a tour from Tel-Aviv to Cairo via the Sinai Peninsula, crossing the Suez Canal.

In the middle of the desert, we the passengers were told to register somewhere at the border of Israel and Egypt, before reaching the Gaza Strip. We left our bus and proceeded to an isolated police headquarters. The inspector looked at my passport and started questioning me in Arabic. I didn’t understand a word. He presented me to the officer-in-charge who spoke a little English. He said they are on a lookout for terrorists who attacked a tourist bus. After examining my papers which included those about the conference I had just attended, he sort of apologized and let me go.

Outside I met a blinding sandstorm. I lost my way to my bus. When I saw it, it was already far and moving away. I ran after it shouting until I was exhausted. Was it a mirage?

When the sandstorm subsided I found myself alone. “Where is the station, the road?” I was talking to myself, feeling abandoned.

In the desert the reference for direction is the sun, and at night the moon and stars. I remember the pilot lost in the desert in The Little Prince by Antoine De Saint-Exupery. And Coleridge’s Water, Water Everywhere about a mariner lost at sea.

The sun was now going down. I reckoned, “If you go west, you will reach the Mediterranean.” So I walked toward the sun. Sand trapped in my shoes made my feet sore. “Surely there are buses, cars and people around,” I said, always keeping an eye on the horizon.

But there was none. I remembered what the tourist guide said, “Vehicles travel on the Sinai in convoy. You can’t travel alone on the long stretch of sand.” What if my bus was in the last convoy for that day?

I had never felt so hungry and thirsty in my life, and now fear was creeping in. I was empty handed; I left everything in the bus. “Now where is my hand-carry bag? My medicine? My camera? I had left them, too. Why did my bus leave without me? They should have made a roll call, at least a headcount.” I was in soliloquy. I was like the old man in Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea talking to himself in the middle of the sea. “But he had a boat. I have none.”

I used to tell tall stories, “You know, I was assigned in very dangerous places,” referring to Cordillera and Samar island, bailiwick of bandits and rebels. But here the enemy is different - it is emptiness. And I would continue, “You know, I was twice taken hostage by dissidents and never gave in to their demands.” What if they tagged me an Arab terrorist! Here courage just turn into bravado, a kind of bahala na stance. I began to despair.

Sitting on top of a dune I imagined Alexander the Great searching for the Oracle at the Oasis of Siwa near Cairo. According to history he got lost, but how can a man destined to conquer the world get lost? That’s legend, and legends are for great people. And here I'm but a lost soul.

Oasis! That’s a bright idea. I could almost hear the melody of the song, The Desert is Hiding a Well. Yes, if I find date palms and olive trees, there must be an oasis nearby.” And perhaps people living there, and travelers passing by.

Climbing on to the crest of a taller dune reminded me of Golgotha. "I would rather die on top of sand dune than be buried under it." So I stayed there straining my sight to where an oasis might lie. Again I remembered the Little Prince, not the story but what he symbolized – inner vision, unending hope. I needed any kind of encouragement now. I was desperate.

Suddenly, something reflected at the foot of a crescent dune, hidden by another. Water?

Eureka! Eureka!

And down the dune I ran, sliding and tumbling, and in a record time reached a greenery of date palms and olives, a waterfall pouring into a small lake, its water shimmering with the rays of sunset. I cupped the precious liquid with my hands and immediately quenched my thirst. And slept.

I saw a boy repeatedly filling up a well he made in the sand with water from the sea.

“What are you doing?” I asked. “You can’t succeed filling your well, or emptying the sea either.” He looked at me, his face beamed in the sun, and continued with his craft.

When I returned I found a beautiful landscape - an oasis!

When I woke up I was in a clinic, in the same headquarters I was earlier interrogated. A search team found me unconscious of dehydration and delirious with high fever.

“What is the name of that beautiful oasis?” I asked. The attendants just looked at each other. One of them wearing a stethoscope said, “You need more rest. Tomorrow we will take you to Cairo”

Today, I care about that boy, and millions of boys making oases and sandcastles.

What is the boy’s name? It does not matter. For the best thing that lingers in my head under graying hair is his lovely innocent face and charming smile, and a lovely masterpiece he made. ~

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