I have come from elsewhere. In this place, I am a stranger, shaking the dust from my sandals, entering the tavern and removing my headdress as I sit.
I glance around me, surveying the room. It is not empty. Here and there men and women sit, some in conversation, some eating in silence. I ask for a warm drink. When it is given me, I sip, and compose my thoughts.
The parcel beneath my robe weighs heavily in this hour. It is difficult to imagine one so weighted as I. Sweat beads, drips down my face. My breath wishes to be heavy, but I restrain it, willing myself unnoticed.
My thoughts, however, are not fixed to this parcel. They are free enough to flit this way and that, to collect in little rivulets and larger causeways; wispy water flowing down a jagged heap of rock, conforming to the grooves and slopes of the stone, slowly wearing it down, weathering a mount into a mound.
I recall my Jasmine, her smooth bronze skin, long neck, emerald eyes. She visits me like a creature from an opium dream, as refined, as ephemeral as a poem. Her breath, I can smell it twisting through the steam of my drink. Its taste rouses my heart to a quicker step. It has been a month and a year since we exchanged anything of each other, and yet her fragrance, her touch, is as fresh as dew inside me.
But her voice, it evades me. It is her voice what has been lost in these lengths I have transversed, what has been lost and replaced by the hollow whispers of the wind, the clap of hooves on a hard road, the patter of birds and the chatter of men. It is her voice, its wingbeat dances through the latticework of language, its melting of word into a faultless lens through which I caught a glimpse of heaven, the promised heaven, our love the flowing stream, she the houri untouched by men. Even I, as a man, could not touch her: in our embrace I was elevated, purged of fault and fracture, given a speckles robe of white, of whitened silk finer than any caliph or king has worn.
It is the absence of her voice that pains me most, for without it, it is as if she, and the we that we shared, never was.
Ah, this heat! The dust in my nostrils, the stiffness of my gown, the reek from my armpits and lap all conspire to bring tears from my eyes. I am once again roused to near hatred of this life. It snatches up whatever virtues we seek to maintain, and reduces them to vanities. I must find a bath or, denied that, a storm. A storm not of sand, but of thick and cleansing rain.
When I am finished, I drop a coin onto the counter and make my way out the door. The sun undermines my vision. I reaffix my headdress while I wait for my eyes to adjust.
This is the town that my uncle spoke of. I take a moment to watch the people milling blindly through their lives, their movements shallow, their faces dim. Bleach spilt over the surface of a photograph. What separates me from them? I wonder. Surely, it is not that I am new to this place. It cannot be that I am a stranger here, because this place, this town, reeks of the familiar. I feel the parcel on my hip. I feel its weight giving me weight, keeping me from drifting from my purpose.
Purpose. That is what separates me from these, these cattle.
I touch the hilt of my saber, and think that my ability to rend, to fight, to destroy, also sets me apart. I hear the songs of war my brothers used to sing. Blood pours from the verses, pooling atop my tongue. There is no greater stimulant than blood.
I find the path that will take me to the house, to him. I grope for the story, the why, but it is all so unclear right now. I focus on my breathing, walk the path.
After a while of walking, I look up, for the path has disappeared. I find myself admits an expanse of rubble. Heaps of bleached stone, white as bone, jut from the dusty earth. The sun has become so strong that everything is a spectrum of white on a white field. I put a hand over my brow, search the ground for the thread that I lost. Or the me. A surge of fear inflates my veins with a tingling panic. I ignore it and retrace my steps.
Noon obliterates all direction. The sun at its zenith absorbs every iota of context, eats up one’s equilibrium, contorts time by pegging it to one still point. One cruel axis. Fire itself would be a shadow right now. If I could set fire to these stones, maybe I’d find a bit of shade.
I feel for the parcel, contemplate how close I am to my journey’s end – or in truth, its midway point, the crux between departure and return. I grope through my insides for a vial of smelling salt: Jasmine, Jasmine. Her eyes, her scent, her anything. Anything.
I see, not far from where I stand, a pair of oxen thrashing against each other, locking horns, exchanging grunts. Dark, almost purple blood is smeared across the ground and the stones nearest them.
They appear to be equally pitted, yet one has acquired a wound that before long will finish it off. His right flank is torn open, a few ribs showing through the heaving muscle. I am unable to look away from this wound. It is at once beautiful and vile. Like the act of sex performed while the mind is cold and analytical. Fascinating, grotesque. The beast does not seem at all weakened by its injury. It lets loose a sound not unlike a roar, and lunges at its enemy. My attention is snapped back into the battle.
Thrusting, gouging, snorting furiously, the animals contend. The wounded one gains the advantage when he is able to push his opponent off balance. It falls. I hear an audible snap as one of its legs is splintered. The other lets loose a roar as he backs up and charges. When he frees his horns from the other’s flesh, he backs up again, and again charges. The beast does this a third time. I avoid with my eyes the mess he has made of his enemy, all the while transfixed by his powerful body, muscles heaving with exertion, hide shiny and matted with blood.
The victor gives a final snort, and then turns, turns until he is facing me. His eyes smolder with a certain darkness, or knowledge. I shudder. He forces a deep note from his mouth, and lowers his bloody head. His right hoof, and then his left are scraped across the ground. His bulk is pulled back into itself, like a snake about to strike.
I hear a sharp, controlled explosion, and see a spray of red mist envelope the ox as it collapses.
I turn towards the voice. Standing on a pile of bleached rubble is a man in tan breeches and a white shirt, his sleeves rolled up. His face is long and handsome, with sharp blue eyes, small lips framed by a light goatee, a prominent nose. He is holding a riffle, its hilt resting on his hip, its barrel pointed to the sky.
“The sun drives them into a frenzy,” he says. Then, “What is your name? Why are you here?’
I reach into my robe and produce the parcel.
“I have come to give you this,” I say, offering it to him.
“How do you know it’s for me?”
My gaze does not stray from his. “I know,” I answer.
His mouth contorts into what I will come to interpret as a smile. He steps down from his perch, ignoring what is in my hand, and makes his way toward the oxen. I follow.
The air surrounding the beasts is fecund, the flies already amassing. I have seen my share of corpses, and have grown if not accustomed, then, in the least, tempered to their presence. But this scene does not sit well with me. My stomach clinches on itself, and I wish to turn away, but am loath to show weakness before this man so soon.
“Your name,” he states once more, removing a knife from his belt and kneeling next to the cadaver of the victor.
“Vul. Vul Anpin.”
“Vul as in vulture?”
He stares at me. “I am Walter. But you presume to know that already.”
Quickly, and without bloodying himself, Walter cuts from the ox its horns, inserting the knife between their bridge and the skull with a number of heavy thrusts. He puts his boot against the beast’s forehead and wrenches the horns free. The bones splinter like dropped soft boiled eggs.
“There is a well close by. You will help me wash our trophy.”
Trophy hardly seems the word, but I say nothing. He leads me through the ruins, I could not say in which direction. At the well, he gestures for me to assist him. There is a pulley that has no support, so I hold it as he lowers the bucket and pulls it back up.
He rinses off the horns, then hands me the bucket. Its water is muddy, unsuitable to drink. I set it on the rim of the well.
“How long have you been traveling?”
“ A little over a year.”
“What delayed you?”
“There was a war. Prisoners were taken, items were appropriated.”
I spit what saliva I have from my mouth. “Items were retrieved.”
“You have been busy then.”
“The road here is anything but straight, if what I’ve heard, and experienced, is at all accurate.”
I offer him the parcel once again. He waves it away.
“Later,” he says, reaching into his breast pocket. “Care for a smoke?”
“Thank you, no.”
“You sure? It’s not your normal smoke.”
“You don’t smoke it. It smokes you.”
“This heat is making me light headed. Perhaps later.”
He shrugs, withdrawing from the pocket a silver case. The flair of the match as he strikes it is like something mad, short-lived, potent enough to start a wild fire, a seed to sprout an ravenous beast, furious with the will to devour everything.
There is no wind. The smoke collects around us like the flies around those corpses.
“Like I said, it’s the sun. It teases the anger out of them.”
He wipes his forehead with the back of his hand. He smacks his lips, says “Some think of anger as a positive force.”
“As a motive, it rarely produces good results,” I say. “But as a motivation, it can be useful.”
“Yes. Fuel. I wonder if it burns clean, so to speak.”
“I suppose that depends on the engine.”
“Well put.” His cigarette’s ash grows impossibly long, dangling in the air like a pistil jutting from a noxious flower. I cough, blink my eyes.
“Have you opened it?”
The question offends me. I do not answer.
“It is for you,” I say evenly.
“Open it, damn you,” he hisses, tossing his cigarette over a pile of rocks. I watch it spin through the air, leaving in its arc a trail of white flakes that vibrate in tight knots. Like flies.
Flies, flies, flies.
I hear him pick up his rifle. I turn to face him.
“It is not for me to open,” I say.
“Do you know what’s inside it?”
I do not answer. He moves to strike me. I step aside. He cocks his rifle, pointing it to my chest. My saber is drawn, it’s blade against his jugular. One flick of the wrist, one twitch of a finger, and there will be flies everywhere.
But the sun displaces me. We are at the hub of a dial, and there is no shadow cast that is not at once evaporated into the light. We do not breathe, locking eyes like horns, grinding the tension between our teeth as if it were cud.
Is the parcel in my free hand? I am not sure. I dare not stir to reset my nerves. I dare not look from his eyes, nor into them too far. My journey rushes through my mind. I try to push it down, but its length is there, persistent, angry, demanding me to be done, to free myself of this parcel, to return home to Jasmine, who now is more a spectre than ever.
Our poise is unbreakable. We have lost our momentum, lost what it takes to move from the point of our contention. To tip the scales. I suppose that means we are equal. The unstoppable object, the unmovable object, locked in the bitter, anticlimactic tranquility which is their sum.
The bucket falls from the rim of the well, splashing muddy water over our feet. Walter lowers his rifle.
“This godforsaken sun," he says, his voice coarse. "We will tear each other to pieces if we don't get going. You have not opened it?”
The question is beneath me. I sheath my weapon, offer him the parcel, go so far as to bow my head half an inch.
“We will tear each other to pieces,” he repeats.
“Be that as it may, this is yours.”
He twists his lips. “You know what’s in it. It is not mine.”
“It is for you.”
He uncocks his rifle, slings it over his shoulder.
“I will take you to my house. You probably want a wash at the end of such a long trek.”
“The end, for me, is back where I began.”
“Well,” he shrugs, his eyes going distant, his face going blank. After a moment, he shakes his head.
I wipe my brow. He mutters, “We will tear each other to pieces.”