At each stride of the camel’s long legs, I can feel his muscles contort and sway with languid movement. There’s a heavy rhythm to his steps. As the sun melts away, the sky turns to amethyst streaked with orange and yellow. These brilliant colours splash across the dunes before reflecting back off the sand’s crystalline structure. We continue on, searching for a suitable campground. When we reach the hillcrest, the desert opens forth before us like a sea of gold, dazzling despite the onset of darkness.
I’ve been travelling towards the city for a long time now, its splendid white marble forever the object of my compass. Our caravan has grown much larger in that time. When I look around I can see how long the procession of glassy-eyed wanderers now stretches.
They all gaze out towards the same point on the horizon.
I watch with them as a plume of smoke rises over the city like a winding road. I can practically taste the tang of salt on the breeze and see the swelling sails in the bay. It makes me realise how much I have grown to hate camels, always spitting and sighing under their burdens; but then again, who can blame them for being so bad-tempered?
I would be too if I were forced to run a fool’s errand for years at a time.
Our procession stops suddenly. The women begin to dismount and set up the camp in pairs. Their faces remain half-hidden by veils embroidered with animals. They open their packs and lay out the food, the scent of exotic spices and rose water filling the dry desert air as the cooking fires come to life around us.
The men secure their belongings. Some are guarding gems as large as fruits while others attempt to conceal silks and gilded bowls in their bloated packs, their sabres glinting dangerously at their sides. For years these travellers have been collecting luxuries from different towns and cities, trading and bargaining for their treasures.
Me, I have only one belonging worth saving.
Hidden in an ivory tube is a painting, neatly rolled like a scroll.
One evening as I scrambled through the ruins of an ancient city, I came across it hanging on the wall of an old palace chamber. It depicted a young woman with the hint of a smile across her pale lips. I looked at her portrait for a long time, wondering how the artist had managed to paint her expression so that her eyes appeared to laugh as though she knew something that I did not.
I sat down on the crumbling floor, my eyes prickling with tears.
She continued to stare at me with that same knowledge concealed in her beautiful dark eyes. Finally, I stood up and pulled the picture from the wall. It never occurred to me that the painting should have rotted into oblivion by now, as exposed as it was to the elements in this deserted place.
And so I took it without a second thought.
For nearly a decade I’ve been unrolling that same sheet of paper to gaze at her now-familiar face. I have committed every detail to memory. Somehow that knowing look in her lovely eyes never loses its ability to fill me with joy and, at the same time, break me into pieces.
I don’t question why that is.
As the campfires turn to embers and my fellow travellers disappear into their tents, I look to the east once more to watch the windsocks flapping in the shadows of that great city. It never seems to get any closer. Every night I dream of the sea’s fresh embrace. I dream of the taverns in the port roaring with laughter as the voices of adventurers tell their tales. I dream of beautiful women brushing their hair as they look out from windows that guide me home with their warm flickering light.
Dreams are such fickle things.
I look to the stars, glinting in the sky like silver fish. They remind me of her beautiful laughing eyes, teasing me with glimpses of something I may never understand. I silently bid her goodnight before dropping away into another dream.