A city stands on the horizon. It glitters against the hazy background of a desert, enticing you to come near, to relieve yourself from this afternoon heat and revel in the shade of its skyscrapers. You consider it. You’ve considered it for a good portion of your life.
But that is not your destination. You turn in the opposite direction and begin walking, ignoring the burning grains of sand that dust your feet. Even as the sun burns another layer of brown over your skin, you walk on. There is something in the depths of nowhere that you search for. That you ache for.
The camel beside you brays. It is a tall, proud thing, rarely letting the reins in your hand guide it. Upon its back are clay pots and dishes that clatter against each other with every step. Mirages of water litter your path into the center of the desert. Your camel protests to go near, but you know better than to fall for such simple illusions.
Eventually, you come across a watering hole. You consider whether it’s another mirage before giving in to your basic needs and stopping there, anyway. Your camel escapes your tired hand and trots to the shimmering pond before you. No grass or trees grow here, and there is no relief of shade to be found. You crouch and give in to your thirst. It satiates you, but its taste leaves you longing for something else. You feel guilty. So you move on quickly with your camel.
There are other such oases along the road to your destination. Every time, you stop only because your feet are sore and your throat is parched and you can no longer bear the agony of the heat. Rarely do you stop, and only because it is hard not to. And each time you drink, you feel emptier.
But—perhaps after a dozen or so times—you come across a beautiful lake and force yourself to move on. As much as your throat and your camel protest, you continue on, unwilling to give in to the minute despair of succumbing to your thirst.
After that, you come across a watering hole and see someone standing there.
They are dressed in all black. They are not wearing a niqab—there is no slit for the eyes—nor are they wearing a burka—there is no window for the face to see through. It’s as if they wear a single black cloth over their body, formless and large. It’s hard to see where they end and the night begins.
“As-salaamu’alaikum,” the figure says.
“Wa’laikum as-salaam,” you respond.
Unlike you, they do not seem concerned or even aware of the sustenance at their feet. You bend over and fill a cask with water but refuse to partake, enamored by this strange figure. They say nothing, and neither do you. It’s hard to tell whether they’re watching, but you feel their neutral gaze on you. They don’t move from where they stand, all while you watch each other.
You move on.
But your thoughts come back to that figure, day after day, minute after minute. As you trek through the desert, you contemplate this stranger’s existence. For what were they searching? Did they seek the same elusive mystery you did?
You stop at every oasis along your path, no longer seeking relief, but for this stranger. But you never see them again, and you become more and more impatient with every watering hole missing their presence.
Eventually, you find them again.
You greet each other the same as last time. There is no difference between their appearance now and before. They still wear black and are still indistinguishable from the dark background of night.
This time you avoid the water entirely. You stand expectantly, waiting for them to say something. To do something. They do nothing. They say nothing.
You approach them. They don’t move. You grab a fistful of the cloth covering them, ignoring how rude you feel. But they continue to stand still and remain silent. So you do the unthinkable and pull the veil off the figure.
The veil slips off smooth and easy like milk skin, sticking to the figure momentarily before coming off entirely. It hangs in the air for a moment before dropping into folds on the sandy floor.
You’re met with empty air. Confused, you reach out to see if this is some invisible person and find no resistance. There is no one there.
You move on.
But your journey becomes more conflicted. Before, you were overwhelmed with thirst. Now your feelings are a storm and you can’t understand what has happened to you or why. Your mind is consumed by the invisible figure. You pull your camel along mindlessly. You stop at the next watering hole and quench your thirst, only to watch the pack on your camel tip over and fall into the depths of the oasis.
“No, no, no!” you cry out. You sink your hands into the water, but everything in your possession is gone. All that’s left are the clothes on your back and your willful camel. Your knees sink into the earth and your gut wrenches with anxiety.
Sand shifts around you. Your camel brays in the distance, as if it can sense your loss. The sky is pitch black, and you can barely see the path before you. You stand up anyway and begin walking. You don’t bother coaxing your camel towards you, but it follows you obediently for once.
You follow a moonless sky into the desert.
What are you searching for? Who are you searching for? You begin to question the pointlessness of this whole endeavor. Your camel whines behind you, trotting to keep up. When it reaches you, you lift your hands up to untie its reins.
“Go,” you usher. It protests. You try again, but your camel is insistent to stay with you.
Such is the nature of things. Now that you want to let your camel go, it refuses to do so. The more tightly you hold onto something, the more easily it slips through your grasp. The more you long to forgo it, the more it sticks to you. Eventually, your camel obeys. You watch it disappear into another blip on the horizon, another grain of sand.
Now, you sit by a pond completely alone. The night sky hangs above you, its gradient of black and blue dotted with stars.
You feel strangely warm, even without a fire nearby, even in the dark of the desert. The water beside you laps gently. You lean your face close and inspect your reflection. It has been a long time since you’ve seen yourself, and you’re not sure what you like about your face, but the sight of it sets you at ease. And then you notice something else.
No one else sits beside you, but there is another reflection in the water.
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