Declare

9,080
07.03.2019

Through the jolting, dust-powdered windscreen he squinted around at the Jabrin basin. Though some of the tracts of palm trees were still flourishing in orderly rows, most were decimated and choked with wild acacia bushes, and several stretches showed only toppled, dry trunks. Until the jeep clattered down to the level of the oasis he could see the broken walls and foundation-lines of ruined buildings.

Salim bin Jalawi's party was camped on a flinty steppe by three well mounds, and out of sheer mercy for their eardrums Hale tromped on the brake pedal when he was still a couple of hundred feet away; and at long last he switched off the jeep's laboring engine.

The shrill whine of the generator blessedly squeaked to a halt, but in the sudden desert silence he felt even more conspicuous. He climbed stiffly out of the driver's seat and plodded around to the back, and as he unstrapped his two cases he squinted over his shoulder at the campfire and the tents and the humps of camels grazing beyond, and his nostrils flared at the warm aroma of boiled rice and butter on the alkali breeze.

The three men by the fire had stood up when the engine died, and Hale straightened the dusty kaffiyeh on his head and then hefted his cases and stepped away from the jeep. In spite of the head-cloth's protection and the cloudy sky throughout the long day, he could feel the sting of sunburn on his nose and forehead.

He trudged slowly across the gravel to the fires, noting that the camels had already been watered-the nearest well mound had been cleared of sand and its cover of lumber and skins had been pulled away, to be conscientiously replaced before leaving tomorrow morning, and the mound, a cement of sand and a hundred years of accumulated camel dung, glinted with muddy moisture in the firelight.

"Al Kuwa," he called. God give you strength. These men knew he was English-a Frank, a nominal Christian, a Nazrani-but he wanted to say nothing to emphasize it.

"Allah-i-gauik," the three of them replied, civilly enough. God strengthen you.

"You camp right at the well?" Hale went on in Arabic when he had laid down his cases and embraced bin Jalawi. From one of the other men he accepted a small cup of hot coffee made from the well water, and drank it-it tasted fresh, but he knew that a laboratory analysis would show high concentrations of albuminoid ammonia, indicating contamination of camel urine in the well water.

"We are on the border of the desolation of A'ad," said the man who had handed Hale the cup. He was a lean, black-haired 'Al-Murra tribesman with a leather cartridge belt over his shoulder and what looked like an old single-shot.450 rifle propped against a camel saddle beside him. "Even the Saar tribes will have the sense to stay out of the Rub' al-Khali in these nights." He laughed quietly.

"Or even in the days," said bin Jalawi helpfully, crouching to sit by the fire again. "Men's hopes are confounded when angels bend their courses down to earth." Squinting up at Hale, he said, "I'll wager the dibba came to Hufuf, after we left?"

"Yes," Hale admitted. Dibba was the Arab term for locusts in the wingless, crawling stage, and armies of them often followed the airborne migrations. "Nothing extraordinary." In fact the dibba had advanced on Hufuf from out of the southern desert in a front four miles wide and two miles deep, and black masses of them had stripped the date trees so bare that they appeared to have been burned. When Hale had driven out of town at dawn, he had seemed to be driving over crunching black snow, and on the road he had seen half a dozen dog-sized monitor lizards springing up in the chilly air to catch strays from the low-flying last wave of winged locusts.

"'Nothing extraordinary,'" echoed bin Jalawi in a thoughtful tone, and the other two Bedu muttered to each other as they spread their robes and sat down. "Perhaps to the Franks the end of the world is nothing extraordinary."

Hale found a place to sit on the windward side of the fire, and he accepted a plate of rice ladled from the pan that would recently have served as the camels' drinking trough. He dug in hungrily with his right hand, licking his fingers, for he had brought only bread and cheese to sustain him during the day's jolting drive.

"A few million bugs don't make the end of the world," he said to bin Jalawi around a mouthful of rice.

"It is metaphorical," said bin Jalawi, using the English word.

In the twilight Hale could see several of the ruined forts of ancient Jabrin silhouetted against the purple sky. He knew that Jabrin had been a prosperous city long ago and that at some point the citizens had been driven out into the desert by a killing fever; the illness had abided at the place like a curse, and struck all the Arabs who had periodically made the attempt to live here since then. Oddly, travelers who stopped at the oasis never contracted the malady, and now the Bedu visited Jabrin only to use the wells and gather dates from the hundreds of date palms, which no one ever tended anymore.

Butterflies fluttered around Hale's face as he ate-little orange and black painted ladies-and bin Jalawi nodded somberly when he saw Hale brushing them away.

"You know better than to inhale one of them, bin Sikkah," he said, using Hale's Bedu name now that they were in the sands, rather than the city name Tommo Burks. "But don't crush them, or needlessly knock them into the fire."

"Poor ghosts," agreed one of the 'Al-Murra tribesmen. His gaunt face was sculpted into chiaroscuro gullies and prominences by the firelight as he too glanced around at the horizon notches that were the old forts. He wrung his hands for a moment as if washing them, then spread them to the sides, palm down. "At least they're the ghosts of men. South of here will be ghosts of other things."

Hale had read in the Hezar Efsan about ghosts of the A'adites. "The walking stones," he said.

"Uskut!" the man exclaimed; the Arabic word meant shut up! "Name them not!"

One of the butterflies had landed on bin Jalawi's palm, and he breathed softly on it, ruffling its wings but not dislodging it. "If you can hear," he said to it, "and think, remember us in your morning prayers; even the Nazrani."

Hale smiled sourly, but he was sure that if the butterflies were indeed ghosts, they were fragments of identity too minimal to be capable of thought. He sniffed the stone-scented wind and thought that there was no sentience at all in the miles of dark desert surrounding them; far away to the north and south might be hidden isolated clusters of warm Bedu tents, with perhaps overhead in the dark sky the astronomical distortions that indicated the passage of djinn through the Heaviside Layer, but the Jabrin region felt empty.

He knew that the desert south of them would not be empty; and he tried to pray, but in spite of his best efforts he found that his mental Pater Nosters quickly degenerated into a sterile recitation of the London Underground stations. Once again he envied Elena her faith.

"Bug," he said in useless English to the fluttering nullity on bin Jalawi's palm, "in your orisons, be all my sins remembered."

When he had finished the rice and scoured the plate with a couple of handfuls of sand, he wiped his hands on his dishdasha robe and then unzipped the longer of the two leather cases he had carried from the jeep; he lifted out of it a slim Mannlicher 9.5-millimeter carbine and a canvas bag of loaded stripper-clips, and another canvas bag that contained four custom-machined iron ankhs, wrapped in linen cloths to prevent clinking. Doubtless his Bedu companions imagined that the second bag contained spare cartridges on clips like the first-they would be scandalized by the sight of the devilish ankhs-and Hale decided not to trouble them with an explanation of the Egyptian looped crosses until the party had reached the regions where their protection would be necessary.

Hale didn't have to goad his Bedu companions to ride hard during the cool January days; his only worry was that one or even all three of them might be missing at prayer time one dawn.

The wind was steadily at their backs from the north. When the sun was bright and there were high dunes to be crested-with the wind casting long dazzling streamers of sand from the topmost ridges, and the camels plunging single-file down the lee slopes to expose streaks of lighter-colored sand under the dark tan top layer-Hale dizzily felt that somehow they had climbed up into the sky and were plodding across the top surfaces of clouds. And when they crossed the desert's gypsum stone floor between dunes in thrashing rain, with the camels' hooves clattering among primordial seashells, he imagined he was in the vanguard of the Pharaoh's army, pursuing Moses across the floor of the Red Sea in the moments before the unnaturally sustained walls of water would break and crash back in.

And he came to appreciate the expertise of his guides; most of the covered wells were mounds identifiable by the camel tracks that led to them and the camel dung and date-stones that paved their surroundings, but several times he saw one of his guides ride directly to an anonymous sand hummock in a trackless landscape and confidently dismount and kick away drifted sand to expose the hides and timbers that covered a hidden well. Some of the wells they found had deliberately been left uncovered, either by raiding parties or by home tribes wanting to keep invaders from getting the water, and these wells had been filled in and covered by the drifting dunes. He was told that clearing the sand out of the shafts was not an impossible task for a tribe, and that in fact all the well shafts in the desert had simply been found, and cleared by the Bedu, rather than actually bored; the wells, cut straight down through red sandstone and white limestone, were reputedly the work of a very old civilization that had flourished in the days when great rivers had flowed across the Rub' al-Khali.

On the sixth day out from Jabrin they watered the camels and refilled the water-skins at the wells of Tuwairifah-and then they had left the last known wells behind, and they took extra care to strap the water-skins high up on the camels, secured against accidental bursting or puncture.

Under emptied blue skies the party of eight camels zigzagged onward southeast through the parallel dunes of the vast Bani Mukassar, keeping to the gravelly desert floor and crossing the dunes at shallow gaps that notched the mountains of sand like passes. All four of the travelers preferred to ride during the day, when the sun blotted out the malign stars, but twice when they had had to march for a long distance along a dune to find a crossing place, they made up for the lost time by riding at night-and though on one of these long, plodding nights there was no moon, the planet Jupiter glowed brightly enough in the sky to cast shadows on the dimly glowing sand, and Hale could see a faint luminosity around his companions and the camels. His party was now very far away from any outposts of men, and when he looked up at the stars of the Southern Cross in the infinite vault overhead, or gauged his course by the position of Antares in Scorpio on the southern horizon, it seemed that the postwar world of London and Paris and Berlin was astronomically distant and that he and his companions were the only human beings seeing these stars.

Riding or camping, they always spoke quietly at night; and even in the noon sun the oppression of the region kept his guides from indulging in the falsetto singing with which Bedu generally filled the time on long marches. They took turns standing guard while they were camped, and Hale saw that in the mornings one of his guides always paced out across the sands looking for the tracks of any stones that might have crept up out of the darkness to investigate the heat of their fire.

Hale saw a couple of larks and noted that the birds did not fly, but hopped along over the sand; bin Jalawi told him that this was to evade birds of prey, which would notice the moving shadow of a bird in flight. "They know better than to draw attention," bin Jalawi said ponderously.

Several times his companions shot hares, and though the Bedu only squeezed out the contents of the intestines before adding the carcasses to the rice pot, leaving the stomachs filled with whatever desert grasses the hares had grazed on, Hale found that his hunger outweighed his fastidiousness. Several times they saw foxes bounding across the gravel plains, and Hale dreaded the thought of eating one; but though desert foxes were considered lawful to eat, bin Jalawi told him that it would be madness to kill one in the region around Wabar. "Here they might be the old citizens," bin Jalawi said. "'Honor him who has been great and is fallen, and him who has been rich and is now poor.'"

Hale's party reached the three wells of Um al-Hadid at sunset on January 27. The wells were in the bottom of a sand basin, and though they were recognizable by their characteristic mounds of stratified camel dung, the desert sands had filled them in long ago, and Hale saw no litter of date seeds around the mounds.

"The wells are long dead," said the elder of the 'Al-Murra guides, "but we camp here. Wabar is only half a day's ride farther."

They were not able to find any bushes or roots at all for a fire, and so their dinner consisted of dates and brackish Tuwairifah water. In the fruitless digging for roots Hale did find a broken ostrich egg; he pointed it out to his companions, for ostriches had been extinct in Arabia for fifty or sixty years.

"I'll bet it was laid and hatched right here," Hale said, turning over a piece of shell as he squatted over the find.

"Probably it was broken by fire-worshippers," said one of the guides grimly. "Bird eggs are anathema to djinn, and the fire-worshippers curry favor."

Hale was reminded of the story "Aleiddin and the Enchanted Lamp," a late and enigmatic addition to the text of the Thousand Nights and One Night. In the story, Aleiddin was at one point tricked into asking an obligated djinn for a roc's egg to serve as a dome for his palace; and in reply the djinn angrily refused to kill the Queen of the Djinn. Hale had never understood why the fetching of the roc egg should involve the death of a powerful djinn, and he sensed that he had found a clue to the explanation here, in this Bedu's remark-but the Bedu refused to say more, and Hale was too exhausted to press him. He thought of distributing the ankhs, but decided that it might now seem too much like the fire-worshippers currying favor, and he decided to hand them out tomorrow, before approaching Wabar.

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