The eighteenth day of the crossing – the temptation of the desert

It seemed the eighteenth day of the crossing was going to be different, exciting. We were to make a small detour from our course towards the largest oasis in the desert to stop at another one, smaller, so that the caravan could pick up food and water supplies necessary for the continuation of the crossing. It had been scheduled from the beginning. People from many parts of the world lived at that oasis and, as a trading post, it supported itself from the commerce with the caravans that stopped by. At that stretch of the crossing, after many days in the desert, it was always necessary to replace provisions that were depleted. At the oasis one could have alcoholic beverages, forbidden in the caravan, in one of the bars set up in tents, in addition to fine delicacies that delighted one’s taste, impossible to be served in the simple, however healthy, meals prepared by the caravan staff. On that day, since quite early, people had been excited by the prospect. I also overheard conversations of traders, seasoned desert-crossing travelers, who, between whispers and laughs, maliciously talked about the beauty of many women who worked at these bars. Shortly before arriving at the small oasis, the caravanner gathered everyone to warn about the dangers. He said there were reports of unpleasant events, whether from the intake of alcohol or with the local people, particularly traders and women who worked at the bars. He mentioned theft, robberies and even the vanishing of travelers, probably murdered. He added that no one was forbidden to loiter around the oasis, but each one would be accountable for themselves. We said that we could set up camp close and advised that money and documents be left on camp, under the guard of the caravan staff. 

We arrived early in the evening. While members of the crew set up camp, many travelers were eager for novelties and off they went to the small oasis. I separated some money for occasional expenses and joined a group of excited people. I was surprised with how luxurious the tents were and how kind were the locals. Most of them were fluent in French and English, dressed elegantly, and politely invited us to visit their tents, where they sold miscellaneous articles, from the basic staples, safety razors and medication to fine clothes and exquisite jewelry manufactured by local tailors and goldsmiths. It was all too expensive, but the ambiance was seductive. The group had scattered among different tents and, alone, I entered one where a restaurant was in operation. I made myself comfortable around a table, reclined on silk cushions and appreciated the dazzling desert sunset while looking at the menu. I decided to treat myself to a nice meal and a bottle of red wine of excellent vintage. It wasn’t cheap, but I thought that after so many days under desert elements, it was worth it. I was served as if I were in a luxurious restaurant. The server was attentive and soon brought some delicious appetizers. With the beginning of dusk, a tremendous number of candles were lit around the tent, reminding me of the Thousand and One Nights, a classic of Arabic literature. Pleased, I felt so relaxed from the wonderful time I was having that the words of the caravanner fell into oblivion. Dinner was hearty and delicious. I observed a uniquely beautiful woman with black hair and swarthy skin sitting at a table not far from mine, having a drink, her gaze lost in the sunset. I tried to have my gaze cross hers, but she seemed not to notice me. I insisted, to no avail. I asked the waiter to invite her to have a glass of wine with me. I saw when the woman shook her head, refusing the invitation. The server looked at me and shrugged, as if indicating there was nothing he could do. I continued to sip my wine, my eyes traveling from the desert sky stars to the charms of the beautiful brunette. Not wanting to leave the place, I asked the waiter to open another bottle of wine. I mustered my courage and went to her table. I asked if I could sit. She denied me, politely. I insisted and asked if I could sit for just a few minutes, so that we could exchange a few words. After that time, if she still felt uncomfortable with my presence, I promised I would pay my bill and leave. She said I had five minutes to change her life or disappear for good.

Excited with the prospect, I sat before her. I mentioned that she had melancholic eyes. The woman said she had become a widow a few months ago and had lost track of her life. I said that perhaps it would be good if she travelled for a while. I said that the caravan was going to the big oasis, where I would try to meet the wise dervish “who knew many secrets between heaven and earth”. I invited her to join me. I argued it would be good for her to breathe fresh air, meet new people, experience another reality. When the caravan returned, she would decide whether she wanted to remain in that small oasis or come with us to Marrakesh. The woman said she was born in that small oasis, had never left and enjoyed living there. She had the chance of meeting and talking to many people who passed by and she did not need to “go to the world” because the world came to her. Yet, she confessed she had dreamed of traveling to other places and wondered what big cities would be like. I said her chance was there and insisted that she come with me. She only needed to pack lightly, and I would arrange her a camel. The woman looked deeply at me and said she was afraid. I started a speech about the virtue of courage and the need to pursue our dreams, to go beyond the walls of social and cultural conditionings, the automation of existence I added that each one draws the limits of their lives. Without realizing, the five minutes had already elapsed, and she listened carefully to the words that would, allegedly, change her life.

As the evening passed, the woman would crack some smiles at me, and I felt more and more in charge of the situation. Our conversation became livelier and looser. At some point, she touched my hand, said it was getting late and asked me to escort her to her tent. I immediately asked the waiter for the bill. I was shocked with the price they charged; it was almost all the money I had, but I did not want to waste precious minutes discussing the price of dinner. That was being a memorable evening, I thought. I would remember that dinner forever. I paid without complaint and, when we were about to stand up and leave, she grabbed my hand and said, “My fee is one thousand dinars.” 

Surprised, believing I had understood what she meant, I said I would never pay to get laid with a woman. The woman said I had got it wrong. That fee was for the time she spent talking to me during the evening. If I wanted to end the night in her tent, I would have to pay an additional thousand dinars. The enchantment was immediately broken. Disappointed, I felt like going away at once, back to the caravan camp.  So, I thanked her for the offer and explained I would refuse it. I said good-bye politely. She said I was free to go as long as I paid the thousand dinars I owed. Before I could argue that I owed nothing, I noticed two huge, shady-looking guys approach. I swept the restaurant with my eyes looking for an employee who could help me out but didn’t see anyone. The angel-like feature of her face was gone. I explained to the thugs that I had not been warned in advance nor made any deal to pay for the conversation with the woman. Maliciously, she said in contempt that I had spoken with her for over five minutes. Now it was time that I changed her life, referring to the money I allegedly owed her.

I told her I did not have that much money on me. I wickedly suggested that they came with me to the caravan camp, where I knew I would be safe and could change the game. The response was a punch in my face. It was a way of saying that if there was a sucker there, that was me. I started to be certain of what I already suspected. To pay the price was the only way to avoid the worst. I put my hands in my pocket to grab all the money I had, a little over two hundred dinars. I told them they could keep it all. One of the men pointed to my watch. It was of a famous Swiss brand and had been given to me by my father shortly before his journey to the stars. In addition to being extremely expensive, way more than a thousand dinars, it was priceless to me. However, I had understood that, at that moment, the best of arguments would not support any reason. 

When I was about to take the watch off my wrist and hand it to the men, a voice interrupted my motion: “No!” It was the caravanner. “He will come with me”, he said, with an assertive voice, to the hoodlums, referring to me. He was by himself; however, his self-assured gaze was enveloped in an aura of authority that made it seem formidable. The hoodlums became indecisive for a moment. As soon as they realized they were superior in number, one of them was about to charge the caravanner. This is when the caravanner grabbed a candle that was lit on a table and raised it close to the fabric ceiling of the tent. The facial expression of the caravanner showed his decisiveness in setting a fire and causing a tragedy of unforeseeable consequences to prevent my personal downfall. A fantasy short story came to my mind about an angel who had to go to hell to rescue an unwary soul despite the dangers that the angel himself had to face. Angels are also guardians.

Those few moments seemed an eternity. The men stared each other face to face, their eyes like threatening daggers, attentive to the slight gesture that would show either fear that prompted a retreat or courage to charge forward; whether the hoodlums or the caravanner. 

This is when the owner of the restaurant came, with the server that had waited on me. He complained that the caravanner was meddling in his business. He said I had paid for the meal and the wine, but not for the woman, for the time spent entertaining me. The caravanner retorted: “And you are meddling in my business.” And explained: “I am in charge of taking him to the big oasis. As long as he does not put himself in the way, I will do it.” He paused and went further: “Moreover, I am sure the menu of the restaurant does not indicate the price of the conversation with the woman.” The owner of the tent objected, pointing at me and saying that only a fool could be so innocent. And he insisted in receiving the payment. The caravanner looked at him gravely and stated: “Lack of clarity about our true intentions is a seed of evil. If I did not sow it, I don’t have to reap it.” 

The caravanner kept the candle lit inches away from the fabric ceiling of the tent, firmly like his gaze, unfaltering as his resolve. The owner of the restaurant thought for a few seconds and decided we could go, and threatened me if, in the future, I entered any establishment he owned. Still under stress, I passed by the hoodlums having in my mouth an unpleasant taste of blood from a broken tooth. I glanced at the woman for the last time. She looked at me with contempt and anger. Despite the fear I felt for still being there, I felt sincere compassion for her and the others. For the miserable existence they had chosen to lead.

I followed the caravanner among the tents, on our way back. We exchanged no words. When we were in an open area close to the caravan camp, I apologized for the trouble I had caused, and I said how sorry I was for not listening to his advice. I added I had been naive, and that the world was dangerous and filled with temptations. The caravanner admonished me: “Naivety is to be ignorant of one’s passions that set choices in motion and determine destiny. Temptations are only a threat if I invite them to dance. My greed will determine if temptations are dangerous or mere landscapes of the world.” He paused and added: “There is more danger inside us than outside.”

I said we could not be afraid of living. He was firm: “It is true, it is impossible to live in fear; risks are part of life. However, temptations have nothing to do with fear. They are about light. Temptations show us how close or how far we are from the light, in the precise measure of what attracts and seduces us.”

We passed by the caravan camp’s security crew. The caravanner went to his tent. I lay down on the desert sand. A whirlwind of thoughts was stirring in my mind. Yes, the caravanner was right. The level of attraction that temptations, whatever they are, exert over me determines the level of danger I am exposed to. The farther I am from the light, the closer I am to the fall. What pushes me are not the temptations of the world, but the greed, lust or vices I have. My choices foretell my destiny.

Sleepless, I prayed that the beautiful woman with lapis-lazuli would show up to talk to me for a while. On that night, she did not come.

Kindly translated by Carlos André Oighenstein.

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