The twenty-fifth day of the crossing – the chameleon of the desert

I had just finished my prayer. It was still too early. With a cup of coffee in my hand, I sat on the sand to once again be amazed by the caravanner and his hawk. Perched on the thick leather glove the caravanner wore on the left arm, the bird seemed to understand the words he whispered. On his command, it would take off. It would fly high, in long circles, as if there was no haste, until it retracted its wings and dived at a tremendous speed to capture its prey on the ground. Serpents or small rodents were the most common. That time, it brought in its talons a chameleon. Contrary to what many believe, the desert is not devoid of life. Many species coexist on the sand, in an ongoing symbiosis, even though not always visible at first sight. I mentioned that to the caravanner. He said: “What the eyes don’t see does not mean it does not exist.” He paused briefly and added: “And even if the eyes see, it does not mean they understand.” 

I did not understand what he said. I thought it too enigmatic. I asked if he was referring to an animal. The caravanner looked at me as if I were a boy and was concise in his answer: “That too.” Disconcerted for not knowing what to think, I asked what species he was referring to. The caravanner pointed with his chin to the talons of the hawk and said: “The chameleon is the most typical instance.” Then, he turned around and went to the camp site. Camp was being broken, for another day towards the largest oasis of the desert. I kept that conversation on my mind. Even though any kid learns in their science class about the mimicry of some species, including the chameleon and its ability to disguise itself either as a strategy of defense or attack, the caravanner was customarily straightforward in the way he talked. This time, however, it felt like he had left a huge text in between the lines of his speech.

When I put my camel in line for the march, I was hoping that Ingrid, the pretty astronomer, would pair her camel next to mine. Even though I enjoyed her company, she had no longer positioned herself next to me since our last argument. I missed her. My eyes swept around the entire caravan, looking for her. I found her excitedly talking to a trader she was next to, ready for the march. The fire of jealousy burned my guts. I pretended I had not seen her.

Who paired his camel next to me on that day was another pilgrim who, like me, was also traveling to meet the wise dervish who lived at the oasis. Very kind, he started a conversation as soon as the march had begun. He said he was beginning to study metaphysics and that it was perhaps premature for him to be with the caravan, because he did not believe he was properly prepared. On the other hand, he said he had taken notice of me for some days now. He stated that an aura of deep knowledge enveloped me. A careful look and one would see I was the person the dervish would be most interested in talking to. Considering the jealousy that assailed me, those compliments were comforting. He said his name was Juan and he asked me a number of questions about esotericism. All of them were very basic and I had no trouble answering. Juan was amazed with my great knowledge. He said that I could consider myself a master, no question about it. The conversation continued, very pleasantly, until our usual stop in the middle of the day for a brief rest and a light meal. Juan noticed I was carrying a dagger inside my waistband. That was an old item that I had bought in Damascus, made with the well-known iron of that region. The handle was made of ebony, and had a valuable ruby encrusted on the bolster. On the leather sheath an Arab prayer was written in fire. 

He asked me if I used the dagger for personal protection. I said yes, but not necessarily for a physical fight, but to guard myself from hazardous vibrations. I told him that iron, when close to the body, is capable of absorbing much of the dense energy that surrounds us. I added that it is important to discharge the dagger on the ground at the end of the day. It works like a lightning rod, I said as an example. I went further to say that was a small esoteric secret; however, it was not essential that iron be used as protection because heart and mind, through good deeds and sentiments, were more effective shields. Juan was amazed with the teaching and asked to see the dagger. Having it in his hands, he was fascinated with that item that was ancient and probably had belonged to a wealthy sultan or a brave warrior. He asked if he could show it to some of his friends; he would soon bring me back. How could I refuse such a simple request by someone so kind? I consented, and asked him to be careful because, in addition to being expensive, that dagger had been in my possession for years.

Juan took a long time to return. When he did, the caravan was about to set off for the second half of that day’s stretch. I asked for the dagger. He apologized, but because of his friends who had also liked it so much, he had left it with them. But I should not worry because he would bring it back to me in the evening. Suspicion, an offspring of fear, percolated my veins. I tried hard to tame my emotions. Juan was a good person and deserved my trust. However, that situation made me uncomfortable for the rest of the day.

Late afternoon, when we stopped to set up camp and spend the night, Juan moved away, with the pretense of fetching the dagger. Time passed. Because he did not return, I decided to look for him. I looked everywhere, to no avail. When I got near a group of men who were crouched down, playing dice, I saw one of them showing my dagger to another. I told the man that the dagger was mine and asked it back. The man said he had received it as payment for an earlier bet he had won. I reasoned that no one could make a payment with something they did not own. The man said he did not know me and advised me to speak to the person whom I had allegedly given the dagger to. I made a motion to grab the dagger, but a thug stepped in, with an attitude of veiled menace.

I continued to search for Juan. I was distraught; hatred is capable of that. I was being nourished with my worst feelings. I saw Ingrid, the pretty astronomer, talking excitedly with a group of people. When she saw me, she noticed there was something wrong, and, concerned, came to talk to me. She asked what was going on. The jealousy of her I had felt for days now surfaced. At that moment, my jealousy was boosted by my hatred. I was rude to her in my reply, saying that was none of her business, which led her to retreat, scared. I felt even worse. I asked many people about Juan, but no one had seen him. Confused, I stopped in the middle of the camp and looked all around; there was no sign of Juan. I turned around and the caravan seemed to be a blurred mass of people, tents and camels framed by sky and sand. This is when I saw someone looking at me from afar, a bit farther away from camp. It was the beautiful woman with lapis-lazuli eyes.

I went up to her. I spilled out all my outrage and anger for what had happened. The woman listened to me with a composed feature, as one who listens to a child telling a piece of sad news. I told her that my problem was that I trusted people. I added I would never again trust anyone else; I stated I was disillusioned with humankind. The beautiful woman with blue eyes reasoned, in a Socratic way: “Is it possible to be happy without trusting in the relationships we have built? What type of person I will become if I don’t trust other people? Is it possible for one to have a true relationship without trust?”

I lowered my eyes. In my core, I knew that was not possible. However, I still was not willing to admit.

When we don’t have the support we expect, we become more annoyed; and as our annoyance escalates, our arguments descend a few notches. I said it was easy to have a generous, altruistic discourse when we are not the victims of a fraud. She nodded in agreement and said: “This is why victims should be prevented from judging their tormentors: the emotions cloud the best gaze, that needs clarity for an assessment devoid of passion”. 

I asked her if she would like to be in my shoes. The woman shrugged and said: “Compared to being in Juan’s shoes, yes. It is a thousand times better to be the fool than the swindler.” I said I was not talking about that. I asked what she would do if she were in my place. “I would use the energy of my shadows in my favor”, she said.

That baffled me. I asked her to better explain what she meant. The woman suggested we sit on the sand, because that was not going to be an easy conversation. Once we had made ourselves comfortable, she said: “To begin with, you must understand what your role in this situation is.” I immediately disagreed. I thought it ludicrous to blame the victim for the crime. She shook her head and explained: “This is not what I am talking about. Before any reaction, you must understand how much you collaborated with the situation for it to reach this point.” I said all I did was to trust Juan, nothing more. This time, it was she who disagreed: “If you want to be fair, you must admit it wasn’t as simple as that. No question, you were duped by Juan. He acted in bad faith, but you also fell victim of your own shadows.” 

I asked her if she meant my shadows had been co-conspirators of the crime he had perpetrated against me. The woman nodded in agreement: “That is precisely so. Your shadows did collaborate with Juan. By showering you with compliments, by praising you for your alleged knowledge of metaphysics, he made you feel important, powerful. He activated the pride and vanity that dwell in you. These shadows make you feel mighty and powerful. But they are short-lived, and their effects are never beneficial. The emotional comfort pride and vanity provided you with prevented you from seeing Juan’s personality and intent. Your shadows hid them from you. Without their help, he probably would not have deceived you.”

I was about to continue stating my disagreement, but I realized there was no point in that. The woman with blue eyes was right. The delusion of believing I was powerful had turned me into an easy prey. Immediately, the conversation I had with the caravanner earlier in the morning came to my mind. Yes, chameleon and mimicry. Juan had shown to be a good friend only to deceive and steal from me. I told this to the woman and went further to say how “chameleons” are dangerous and harmful. She smiled and countered: “Don’t be hasty in your conclusions. There are ‘chameleons’ that surprise us positively. For instance, people who live covered by infinite humility, simplicity and generosity and who are seen as unimportant, in face of cultural conditionings that twist reality and make us short-sighted to the truth, when, in fact, they carry in them the great power of life. While others, who are filled with accolades, fame or social influence but who are oftentimes empty in their core, receive our applause and admiration.” She paused, and then added: “There are all sorts of chameleons, and it is wise to pay attention to them.” 

I remained silent for a while, thinking about the lesson I just had. Then, I asked her to explain what she meant when she said that I should use the energy of my shadows in my favor”. The woman patiently explained: “Within us, the best and the worst feelings coexist. There is no exception. To ignore your shadows is to weaken yourself by relinquishing a part of yourself. It is refusing to be whole. To suppress them is to cultivate a garden of grievances. To illuminate them is to be liberated from suffering.”

“How can one illuminate a personal shadow? Wishing that it just went away is something only fools do. To illuminate a shadow, as the verb states, is to make it operate in favor of light. How to do that? You should treat it like a prodigal son. Do you care for him or do you prefer to kick him out of your home? Embrace the shadows with love, as you do with a nasty boy; then, show it that it does not have to act that way, because it is always possible to do differently and better. Like a good father does to a son. To illuminate is to educate towards light.”

“How to do that, in practice? All shadows generate a huge discharge of energy. It is so strong it even prevents us from sleeping. We fight when we are angry, we take revenge because of jealousy, we curse because of envy, we blame others because of disappointments, to mention only a few of many instances. All these types of behavior are from a soiled source that leads to even more suffering. No exception. In the end, after the turmoil, we feel exhausted, and empty inside.”

“The way to handle that is to divert the primary energy of the shadows rather than repressing them, denying them or, even worse, letting them flow. It is essential to redirect and re-dimension the energy of the shadows towards light. Use your conscience as a transformation device, like water-power plants that use the force from water flow to create the magic of electricity.”

“The energy generated by the shadows will no longer be wasted or used in a destructive way but will now be transformed into light.”

I asked her to give me some examples. She obliged, giving me quite a few: “There are those who are angry and break everything around them, and there are those who will use the energy of their anger to do a good training workout; there are those who are aggressive because of jealousy, and those who will grab their guitars to write songs; there are those who increase their list of complaints with each frustration, and those who will do an act of charity. There are those who, because of an offense, step hard with the boots of pride, and those who will take advantage of the gale to fly with the wings of humility. There are those who live in vanity and those who understand the dimension of their frailty and are healed by simplicity. There are those who blame the world for their setback, and those who use the setbacks as lessons for them to improve themselves. There are those who are offended by everything and everyone, and those who use the same situations as mirrors to better know themselves. By knowing themselves, they find truth. And truth carries, in it, the power of plenitude.”

“Those who do not know how to love suffer.”

“Thus, all those who learn to love, rather than yielding to the shadows, are strengthened by them. They become bigger because they tear the armor that prevented them from growing. The shadow is the shell that prevents love from flourishing, but it can also be the fertile ground that will help love germinate. The shadow can be either an enemy or an ally of the light. It is about the gaze, the understanding and finally, the choice.”

The shadow as an ally of the light? That was something new for me. But, how can I direct the energy they emanated? That was disconcerting to me, but at the same time that was genius. I asked her where she had learned that. The woman shrugged and answered: “In the desert, with the chameleons. They are not always what they seem to be.”

I looked at the stars for a while. I had to make sense of the new ideas. I had to let them mature in me. They seemed to be consistent and sensible. When I looked back to my side – I had so many questions to ask – the customary surprise: the beautiful woman with lapis-lazuli eyes had vanished into air. I remained seated for a while longer. My mind was turning over finding a practical application for those words. Little by little, the new ideas appeased my heart. Until a big hubbub in the camp caught my attention. More restrained now, I went over. I found Juan held by his arms by two members of the caravan crew. He was accused by other people of having swindled them, just like he had done to me. Other crew members were also holding the dice-gambling group. Among them, the man who had my dagger and the thug who acted as his bodyguard. They diverted their gaze when they saw me. It was a big mess; everyone was speaking and no one was listening. I decided not to say a word, only to observe. 

Until the caravanner arrived. Silence fell. A member of the crew was about to explain the facts, but with a sign of his hand the caravanner showed it was not necessary. Then, he spoke: “Everyone will be able to talk. No one will be allowed to interrupt anyone. I only ask that you do not lie, even those who have erred. Truth will always protect you.” From the victims to the gamblers, everyone could speak up. While some claimed they had been duped, others stated their innocence. Juan could also defend himself. He confessed he was a victim of his gambling addiction. He regretted the harm he had caused. He seemed to be sincere. Would that be another chameleon mimicry? At that moment, it didn’t matter. One way or another, he suffered for being who he was. The compassion I felt for that man enveloped me in lightness and freed me from him. Yes, until a while ago I was a prisoner of a hatred that handcuffed me to Juan and consumed my joy of living.

I recalled that, before our departure, the caravanner had told me that during the journey he had the right over the life and death of all members of the caravan. That was the law; that was the only law. I feared for Juan’s life. After everyone spoke up, the caravanner pondered for a while. Then, he passed his sentence: “Order is necessary to restore peace to the caravan. Justice is necessary to set the heart in peace. Therefore, I determine Juan’s camel be seized and sold immediately to anyone interested, for a fair price, and the victims reimbursed for their loss. The money left will be given back to Juan, who will complete the journey on foot, at the end of the caravan line.”

The caravanner looked at me and asked if I wanted to say something. I summarized the facts that had occurred during the day with Juan and pointed out who had the dagger. The man defended himself claiming he had honestly gained it in a bet. Therefore, the dagger was his, and that I should sort it out with Juan. The caravanner addressed me: “There will be money left from the selling of the camel. You can be reimbursed if you ask a fair price for the dagger.” I reasoned that there are things in life whose value is not measured in money, whether little or a lot; there are other types of value. I added although I was very fond of the dagger, the man could have it. I said I had received enough on that day. Even without fully grasping what I meant, the man seemed pleased. 

The caravanner gave me an odd, deep gaze, as if he could see my soul. Then, he turned to the man and stated: “The product of a scheme cannot belong to anyone but the rightful owner. Those who have learned to give up everything in favor of others, as long as it is not their essence and what is essential, deserve the sweet breeze of the desert. Therefore, hand the dagger over to him.” He was referring to me. The man frowned and was about to complain, but gave it up, seeing how firm the caravanner was. I grabbed the dagger, put in on my waistband, nodded to the caravanner and left. I did not wait for the sale of the camel and the reimbursement of others.

A thousand thoughts were frantically moving in my mind. I needed quietness for them to settle in their right place. I moved away and sat in a distant spot, so that silence could speak to me. I thought about the metaphor and the lessons of chameleons as hidden masters of shadows and light. I thanked the teaching opportunities I had had on that day. Now, I had to learn how to direct the force of dense energies towards good, so that, little by little, they would become subtle vibrations. I had just experienced the new possibility of living according to my choices. Finally, I recalled the words the caravanner said earlier in the morning, while training his hawk: “What the eyes don’t see does not mean it does not exist. And even if the eyes see, it does not mean they understand.”

For the first time, I felt I was in command of my emotions. However, I knew I was a long way from having them properly pacified. The journey was long, but that had been a good start. I took a pencil and a small notebook from my pocket. I decided to write Ingrid a poem. I would say how chameleonic my feelings were, both for myself and for her. My heart smiled to me.

I fell asleep right there, a quiet sleep, protected by a blanket of stars, under a crescent moon. 

Kindly translated by Carlos André Oighenstein.

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