In the heat of the desert noon, the dunes shimmered, their edges shivering and dancing, and the sky was white with haze.
The woman ignored the heat. She had been travelling a long way, and the heat had been such a constant companion that she had learned to adjust to it. In any case the temperature did not matter. She was of the desert, and she would bear whatever she had to.
At first, at the beginning of her long trek, the woman had followed the old trail across the desert, but the road had long since vanished under drifting sand. Now she merely walked according to her memory of where it had been, the times she’d been this way, long ago.
From her looks, it was impossible to tell how old the woman was. The sun and the sand had long since turned her skin to a colour akin to the desert itself, and her face was ageless, the flesh stretched over the fine bones. Her body, under the enveloping robes, was slender and moved with agile grace, like a gazelle; but her eyes were watchful, and deep with experience and ancient knowledge.
Though the sun was high overhead, and she had been walking since the previous evening, she kept trudging through the sand. Ordinarily she would have stopped hours ago to wait out the heat, but today she kept on, because she knew her destination was near, and the closeness made her impatient.
The cheetahs could sense her impatience and eagerness, and though they looked longingly at each scrap of shade, they loped along by her side. They were brother and sister, and were young enough that they had not yet lost all of their kitten proportions. The woman had found just after beginning on her long journey, wandering together through the desert. What had happened to their mother she never found out. They had been barely weaned then, and almost starving; she had shared with them what food and water she had, and over the months that followed they had become almost a part of her, attuned to all of her moods.
Far ahead, shimmering in the sunlight, the woman could make out something, though in the haze it wasn’t possible to judge how far away it was: a spire of stone jutting out of the desert, bleached white like a broken bone from the skeleton of a buried giant. She knew that spire of old, and it confirmed that she had not lost her way, and that her destination was near. The end of the long trek was at hand.
All of a sudden her strength seemed to give out, and she swayed and might have fallen. The larger of the cheetahs, the male, was by her side instantly, whining and rubbing his dappled side against her knee. She bent and rubbed his neck, forcing herself to breathe slowly and evenly until she had control over herself again.
“I’m all right,” she told the cheetah. “It’s just that I’ve come such a long way, and I need to get my second wind.”
The cat nuzzled at her hand, his rough tongue licking at her palm. They stood together, the thin woman and the long-limbed predator, and each seemed to draw strength and reassurance from the other’s presence.
The female cheetah came close, too, and lifted her small, beautiful head to look the woman in the face. She whuffed, and tried to sit down on the sand, but it was too hot for comfort.
“Don’t worry,” the woman informed the pair of them. “I’m not going to drop now. After all, we’re almost there, and, besides, I’ve got the two of you to think about.”
The cheetahs looked at her out of their amber eyes and did not reply.
The sun had gone down in a welter of red and pink, and the shadows were covering the desert, when the woman passed the spire on her right. Seen close to, it was clearly artificial, a stone tower which had stood sentinel over the highway across the desert for unknown hundreds of years. But it was old now, and broken, the jagged edges pointing accusingly at the star-spangled sky.
The woman stopped a moment and looked up at the spire. A troubled expression washed over her face for a moment, as though she was suddenly unsure of why she was here, and why she had come back all this way, after all these years. Then she shook her head slightly, and smiled.
“A little too late for doubts,” she murmured to nobody in particular. “Too late and too far to turn back now.”
A little later she rested, and fed the cheetahs from her dwindling stock of food, though she ate nothing herself. So close to her destination, she felt no hunger or thirst.
“Tonight,” she told the animals, and told the night. “We’ll get there sometime tonight.” And though it had been a day since she’d rested, she felt no exhaustion when she began trudging on again.
The night grew colder, and the wind began to rise, whipping stinging sand off the desert, but the woman and the cheetahs walked on through the darkness. Now that there was no further doubt about where she was, the woman had stopped worrying about the way, and burned with impatience to reach her destination. From time to time, she reached down with her hands to fondle the cheetahs’ ears, as they flanked her on either side, but otherwise she noticed nothing of her surroundings.
Sometime about midnight, when the wind had long died down and the sky overhead was hard and bright with stars, the woman paused and looked up towards a long ridge which lay like a sleeping crocodile against the horizon. Just beyond it, she knew, was the place she’d been seeking for so long, the place to which she had walked so far to return.
“There,” she thought, her lips moving, but not making any sounds. “There, just over the ridge, and I’m there.”
All of a sudden the weariness returned, so strongly that her legs finally gave out and she collapsed on the sand. It seemed a Herculean effort to climb the low ridge and down the other side, and she wondered if she could do it at all. She felt old and worn out, and as dry as the desert whose sand was gritty between her fingers.
But then the female cheetah came to her and nuzzled her, and gently licked her face and eyes, so that she laughed and cried a little and finally clambered to her feet. “Yes,” she told the animal. “I know I shouldn’t give up now. Thanks for reminding me.” Then she started the long climb up to the crest of the ridge, stopping frequently to gather her breath. The night was very cold, and she felt as though ice was eating into her bones.
Sometime in the hour when the stars began to dim, she stopped on the downward slope over the ridge and peered down into the dark. In daytime, from here she would be able to see down to the city, but at this hour its ancient walls and streets were wrapped in darkness.
Somewhere, a jackal howled, and she felt the cheetahs tense and growl questioningly, the hackles along their backs rising. “It’s all right,” she told them. “It won’t bother us.” She murmured it over and over until they relaxed, and then she led them down the slope and towards the town she had known so well so many years ago.
Just before dawn they finally reached the town, the old earthen walls silhouetted against the sky. The great gates were crumbled away, sagging on their pillars, and when the woman walked through them into the streets beyond, her feet sank up to the ankles in windblown sand. The houses which had once been the envy of the caravans from all the corners of the desert were tumbled and gutted, and the great Temple at which she had worshipped was a roofless ruin, only the pillars poking up at the sky.
It was no more than the woman had expected, but she felt a profound sadness wrench at her inside, and wished she could weep for all that had been and was lost beyond recall. But she had things to do, for which she had come so long a way.
Walking through the streets, she came finally to the great square in the middle of the city, where once the women had gathered of an evening round the wells, and shared gossip. Now it was an undulating sea of sand, and though in the brightening light of morning she could see the broken stones of the old parks, not a trace remained of the flowers and trees that had once grown here.
The cheetahs looked at her, and growled, puzzled, sensing that they had reached their destination but not understanding why. The woman smiled at them. “It’s all right,” she said. “I just have some things to do.”
Laboriously, she stripped off her clothes, heedless of the sun beginning to burn down on the square. She dressed in the light wrappings she took from her bag, and squatting in the sand, prepared to begin.
One by one, she began to sing the ancient songs of the desert, the songs of wind and sand, of the dusty green of the oasis , the howl of the jackal and the scent of the lion. She sang of the wind beneath a vulture’s wing, and of moonlight painting the dunes, and as she did, she found her mind beginning to clear, the doubts falling away like crusted earth.
When she chanted the verses, the past opened up in her mind, and she saw the lines of the caravans pass, the slender-legged horses with their riders, the heavily loaded camels, bringing merchandise from across the world. She saw tall men and pretty women, and children watching wide-eyed the wonders of the world, and she sang of them, too, of their hopes and aspirations.
As she sang she lost all sense of herself; she was the song, the music of her voice and the words no longer something just sounds, but the reality of her world, and she sang of all that she had known, of the years that had passed, and the changes that had flowed over the world, like a tapestry of history opened before her.
And, finally, she sang of herself, of growing up in these streets, of growing up and going away, but coming back, at ever-increasing intervals as the years passed and the caravans grew smaller and fewer, and the desert swallowed the highways and filled in the oases, as the desert claimed the world for its own. And she sang of herself, lonelier and lonelier in the great outside, where the skies of the night were red like blood and one could not see the stars.
And she sang of homesickness, of the pain of a life left behind, until it became unbearable and drove her across the wastes of the desert, just one last time, to her beginnings, to find what she could of the past, and finally let it lie.
It was dusk when the woman finally stopped singing, her voice sinking to a whisper. The hours of song seemed to have drained her body, and she looked shrunken, like a doll, her face suddenly wizened and limbs stick thin. With a sigh, she lay down on the sand and made a perfunctory attempt to draw the light wrap over her body.
“I’ll rest a little,” she told the cheetahs, who had sat watching her through the day, unmoving. “I’m so tired – I’ll rest a little, and then we’ll go on, and find a place to live. Somewhere out in the desert. I promise.”
The cheetahs waited, watching her, listening to the papery rustle of her breathing. They didn’t understand her purpose, but they thought she might need them; and so despite their growing hunger and thirst, and despite the jackals which howled outside the ancient walls, they waited, patiently. They waited for her to wake and to talk to them.
After all, now that she bid farewell to the past, they were all she had.
Copyright B Purkayastha 2012