Munjid Al Salam turned from the shade at the first hint of a breeze. The sun, strongest at this hour, slapped his old face, forcing him to lower his blind eyes from the heat. Nearby, leaves chattered against the bark of the lemon tree like hysterical monkeys.
It had finally begun.
His valet described the scene in a hushed voice, thick with tension. “It is a dust demon that comes, a Djinn of the air circling the sandy ground beside the fountain.”
Munjid listened, but heard no sound save the muted bubbling of the fountain waters. A slave whimpered beside him, mewling like a kitten who could not find its mother.
“Are the others hidden?” He tugged the sleeve of Staba’s robe. He hoped the man realized the importance. This could be Munjid’s proof, his sign from God a decade in the desert had not been wasted.
“Yes, my master. We are all concealed, but…”
Munjid had heard Staba’s objections already, and had dismissed them as superstition. Were they not cloaked in the Glory of God, protected by the Majesty of the Prophet himself? At his age he feared nothing, neither man nor beast. The very reason he’d fled Mecca so many years ago had been to stand closer to God, to see His wisdom and might. The great city had become corrupt, decadent. The word of God had been reduced to a whisper with the coming of the European Crusaders, and at a time when He should have been heard most clearly.
So, in his eightieth year, in a time when he should have been enjoying his children’s children, Munjid had returned to the desert with a heart saddened by the absence of God. He spent his days listening to his servant recite from the Qur’an, and his nights in prayer wishing fervently for a sign God had not forsaken His people.
Now, it seemed, Munjid may have his sign.
“The air boils.” Staba whispered, his breath hot in Munjid’s ear. “As if invisible bubbles form and dissolve rapidly, but only to the left of the fountain, the eastern side.
Munjid could hear it now. The air filled with a faint chopping sound, as if a paddle were churning water furiously in some distant river. But the nearest watercourse was some many miles away from this desert oasis, and even his heightened hearing could not pinpoint the source of the sound.
He fingered the tiny Qur’an hanging from a gilded chain about his neck. The book, with its almost transparent pages of beaten gold, was an unyielding source of comfort. He took power from that.
“Ready them.” He croaked.
Then it happened, the liquid pop and soft thud reminding him of an elephant tramping very near. Men shouted. He lost his grip on Staba as the slave jerked away. Somewhere a scream, high-pitched and womanish.
“What! What’s happening?” A hissing whistle filled the air. The nets. He’d almost forgotten. Did they have something?
Agonizing moments passed. Diminishing sounds of struggle, punctuated by a series of staccato barks like the ravings of an angry dog, exploded around him. He reached out, suddenly afraid.
“Master.” Staba whispered breathlessly from his left. Munjid whirled, heart afire. Then, embarrassed, his fingers regained their grip on the marble-like smoothness of the acacia branch he used as a cane.
“It is done?”
“Yes, Master.” Staba took hold of Munjid’s hand. The slave’s fingers slid over Munjid’s flesh, moist and hot. “We have him.”
Him? A man then, and not a ghost. Only a man…
Munjid allowed himself to breathe again. “Is he fearsome? Describe him to me.”
“A man, Master, as you or I. He is unremarkable in aspect, although beardless and wearing clothing that catches the light in an odd way, as if the colors are not quite sure of themselves. His face is round, his skin as light as the infidels to the north.”
“What else,” Munjid said impatiently. “What of his manner of transport? On what camel has he come?”
“I see nothing.” Staba mumbled. It was obvious he feared Munjid’s displeasure nearly as much as the strange man who’d appeared from nowhere.
A magician? Some kind of fakir employing small feats of legerdemain to break into Munjid’s secluded compound, steal a few lemons, and vanish into thin air? Because lemons were the only items unaccounted for, three ripened lemons from a lower branch of the tree nearest the fountain.
When Munjid had first been informed of the strange sounds, frightening lights, and other peculiarities occurring beside his fountain he’d been skeptical. What could it mean? When he’d learned of the missing lemons, he nearly laughed. What thief would trudge through the desert to this isolated oasis merely to steal fruit? He’d assumed a monkey must have gotten loose in the gardens. But the lights, the sounds…
Munjid’s thoughts had turned heavenward. Was this the sign he’d sought, clouded and incomprehensible to his mortal mind; but who would pretend to understand the intricacies of God’s plan? Or was it an omen, a portent something more was to follow?
“He struggles? Bring him to me.” If this were simply a man, and a thief at that, he’d be dealt with quickly. Munjid had followed this lonely and secluded path for the better part of a decade in search of a sign from God. He’d grown old, very old, and did not have time left for interruptions.
The slaves hauled the man before him, nets and body making a soft grinding sound as they slid over the polished tiles. Munjid waved a hand in the direction of the commotion. “Can you be trusted not to run, or shall I have you shackled?”
There was no response.
Munjid sighed. This was not beginning well. He had hoped, and a silly hope it now seemed, his thief would be something more than a man. He didn’t know where this thought had originated. Perhaps he’d been too long in the desert, too far from Mecca and other Imam. Perhaps, with age came desperation, an unreasoning need to vindicate himself and prove God still watched.
“Speak, thief.” Munjid growled, his patience growing dangerously thin.
No answer, just the soft splashing sound of the fountain in the distance and the occasional scuff of a slipper on stone as one of the slaves shifted balance.
“Enough!” Munjid had given the man abundant chances to plead his case. There were better things, more important things, Munjid could be doing.
After all, he hadn’t really expected much of this little diversion, had he? Secretly, he admitted to himself, the answer was yes. He fingered the gold book hanging from his neck, trying to draw wisdom from its cool solidity. His disappointment had grown great, as did his bitterness toward this unknown man who’d stolen his hope as well as his lemons.
“Away with him.” Munjid wiped his hands on his robe, unconsciously wiping his hands of the whole affair. Almost as an afterthought, he shouted to the retreating slaves. “Take his hand for thievery, and then throw him into the desert.”
“I must remain within these walls.”
The stranger’s voice, spoken softly, filled the air from all directions like music heard through glass. It was unlike any voice Munjid had ever experienced. His heart softened, and he allowed himself to wonder if this was indeed merely a man.
Then, as if in reply, the stranger roared.
Munjid heard a meaty slap followed by the grunt of a slave. Shouts exploded, echoing from the low walls around them. A fuzzy squeal ripped the air, rich with the crackle of static like the portent of lightning. Then a cry.
“He vanishes.” Staba’s frightened tones made Munjid clutch his staff tighter.
“What? If he’s escaped, find him.” The air smelled of ozone, and something Munjid couldn’t place. “Find him before he runs too far.”
“But, Master, he has not run. The stranger broke free of Aamil’s grasp, spun with the grace of a dancer, and faded from my sight as if he’d unraveled like a ball of many threads.” Staba’s voice was barely a whisper. “I have never seen the like of this.”
Munjid’s mouth had gone dry. He licked the air with his tongue, tasting the breeze, feeling for a hint of the stranger. It was intolerable. A man simply could not vanish, not in front of a dozen witnesses. A man could not.
“Find him.” By the shortness of his breath and the tingling at the tips of his fingers Munjid knew it would be an impossible task. Something unnatural had indeed occurred.
He reached into his dishdasha, grasping the golden book. It burned as if heated from within. Munjid hissed as he let it go, uttering a prayer. Why had God forsaken him? Why had He brought a stranger into Munjid’s home, and then taken the man away in such a fashion. He turned, feeling the sun on his face, and stepped onto the path leading to his apartments.
A sudden chill crossed his blind features. He felt it as a cool kiss across his cheek, an absence of radiance from the hot sun. The book around his neck grew heavy, and with a touch he confirmed it had grown cool. Had he received his answer?
“Master, I am here. The slaves have fanned out. All are searching. We will find this daemon if he can be found.” His servant rushed closer, grasping Munjid’s wrist with cool dry fingers. The sensation of frost evaporated as Staba approached, as if a cloud had rolled by.
“The sky,” Munjid said. “It is overcast? Does the sun play games with us this day?”
“No, Master. The morning is as beautiful as God’s glory; warm, bright and clear.”
“Something isn’t as it should be.” Munjid frowned. “Guide me to my apartments. I must write a letter to a colleague in Mecca. I will need guidance.”
“No!” The voice growled, a faint echo of sound against the background murmur of the fountain.
Munjid stopped, swiveling as he stretched his senses. The Holy Qur’an at his throat pricked his flesh, warming. “Did you hear?”
“I hear nothing, Master.” The trembling in his servant’s voice matched the quavering of Munjid’s fingers as he caressed his staff and waited.
“No.” It came again, a faint breath of sound.
“The thief is near!”
“He is not,” Staba said. “We are alone. I swear this.”
“Do not contact the outside world.” The wind kissed his ear.
“Why?” Munjid faltered. His own voice held a hollow reverberation, suddenly strange in his ears. “Why should I listen to a… a dust dervish?”
“Master?” Staba’s tone implied he thought Munjid mad, and it might very well be so, for who speaks to echoes? In his defense, Munjid mused, the echo does not often speak back.
“Where have you come from?” Munjid asked.
“I cannot say.”
“How did you get into my home?”
“I must not tell.”
“Why are you here?” Munjid shouted in frustration, his hands shaking badly. “Answer me.”
“Lemons,” the voice replied.
Munjid cursed softly, for the Prophet forbade strong language. This man spoke in riddles and lies. His words meant nothing. “Why are lemons of so much import?”
“I cannot divulge that.” The voice has softened, seeming to come from right before him.
Munjid reached out, grasping air. His Qur’an burned. Then his fingers brushed cloth, warm and electric. “I have him! Staba, assist me!”
A rough hand clutched him just above the wrist. He squealed. His heart leapt as he recoiled, stumbling on the cut stone pathway. Other hands grabbed him. He yelled, flailing as he lost purchase and fell to his knees.
“Master, it is your faithful servant.” Staba’s voice cut through Munjid’s rising panic. “Please, do not fight me.”
“I had him?” His words spilled out as a question. Had he really touched the stranger’s robe? Munjid sagged, allowing Staba to lift him from the hot ground. Fear drained like a bucket of cold water poured over his head, leaving only weariness.
“You need to come inside,” Staba said. “The heat, the sun is too much for you.”
“Nonsense.” Munjid shook off the servant’s grasping fingers. Staba had a tendency to mother him, especially in the last year or so. He resented it, as any proud man would, but the slave had been getting his way more and more. Munjid didn’t know when age had finally overtaken him, but the years had gone so swiftly. So much time wasted, so much lost.
He took a deep breath. The trembling in his voice and the prickly feeling in his extremities lessened. He would not let a ghost best him. “Staba, put two men near the fountain, and have the rest move across the compound with outstretched arms, fingers to fingers. He will not elude us. Do you understand this, my lemon thief?”
“I must depart.”
“There!” Munjid pushed the nearest servant towards the lyrical sound. Sandals scuffed stone, but no man could catch what he could not see.
“Lead me to the tree, Staba.” Dejected, Munjid clutched his acacia staff. This man who walks unseen could not be the sign from God he’d so long sought. The Prophet would never have sent an infidel and a petty thief, would He?
“Are you a religious man, stranger? Do you follow the word of God?”
Staba led him to the lemon tree and placed his right hand on the cool rough bark so he would know its touch. Munjid’s fingers probed the uneven surface, searching for clues, praying for clarity and the wisdom of patience.
The voice tickled his ear. “I am not sure I can say.”
Munjid shook his head. A peacock squawked in the distance, and it sounded like laughter.
“All things are known by God.” The scent of jasmine filled Munjid’s nostrils from shrubbery surrounding and shading the fountain. “Speak freely, for it is no shame to love the Almighty. First, tell me how you cannot be seen. Then explain to me why you have not run.”
Staba clicked his tongue beside Munjid, a noise he made more frequently as Munjid grew older and more forgetful. His faithful servant must think him truly mad.
More earthy aromas replaced the fragrance of jasmine as the light breeze changed direction. Munjid listened to the conversation of a pair of doves who thought themselves hidden in the bushes behind the fountain as he waited again for a reply from his strange visitor.
“It doesn’t really matters anymore.” His tone carried a dirge-like resonance so deep Munjid nearly tore at his robes in foreboding. “The damage is done. I’ve failed, and I’ve nowhere to go.”
“Who have you failed, my son?”
“My people.” The voice trembled.
“How have you failed them?” Munjid’s concern had grown. Despite himself, he felt pity for this unusual man, this lemon thief.
“For that, I must tell you a tale.”
The air squealed. Ozone filled Munjid’s senses. The stench of burning oil covered his tongue, and Staba yelled.
“We have him… again! He has made himself known. He is ours.”
“Bring a chair for our guest.” Could this stranger really be the sign he’d yearned for? Munjid prayed for the answer. “And a cushion for me as well.”
The stranger spoke of a land where plants no longer grew, where the air tasted of ash and the water of acid. It was a place choked with humanity, teeming with swarming masses with nothing to eat. The sun shone as hotly as desert noon all through the day because there were no clouds. He cried in his musical voice as he told Munjid of babies born with terrible plagues of the flesh, and of parents forced to endure. Despair sat like a fat ox on the heart of the land, and throughout all was a feeling of utter hopelessness.
Such was the man’s tale that Munjid wanted to weep. In all his knowledge of the world, he’d never heard of such a land. Although his eyes could no longer see, he longed to read the words of the Holy book, to immerse himself in the truths of God and forget the wickedness and horror he’d just heard.
“Where is this place, that even your neighbors would forsake you? It must be far from the reach of Islam. The true children of God would never allow suffering such as this. The Prophet says, ‘Do not turn away a poor man… even if all you can give is half a date. If you love the poor and bring them near you… God will bring you near Him on the Day of Resurrection.’”
“I cannot divulge its location.”
“Is there nowhere your people can go, no refuge they might seek? I’d be happy to shelter those I could within these walls, and within my compounds at Mecca and Jeddah.”
Munjid’s offer was legitimate. This stranger’s story had touched his heart. He pitied these blighted people, and would see at least a few reprieved.
“Alas, no.” The man spoke slowly, his voice lowering to blend with the burbling of the fountain. “Your offer is kind, but my people would wreak havoc on you and your lands by their mere existence. I fear we must solve our problems in the time they occur.”
A curious turn of phrase.
“So, you are unwilling to accept help, but can justify petty theft to achieve your aims?”
“Not unwilling, but unable to accept aid. It’s not as simple and straightforward.”
“No, I suppose not.” Despite his pity, Munjid felt ill used. Surely, the plight of this man’s people justified any measures, but his secretiveness did nothing for his case. What if it were all a story? Perhaps the stranger was, after all, no more than he appeared. But what was that? There were elements of the supernatural clouding what should’ve been a simple judgment. And why lemons?
Munjid hadn’t realized he’d been speaking out loud, but the stranger had already begun to answer.
“Lemons were expedient. I was fortunate enough to have arrived within reach of your tree. I did not choose this place, it was chosen for me, and it is the only location possible. No matter where my journey begins, I will always return to this spot.”
“Surely you did not travel the length of the desert merely for my pitiful lemons alone?”
“In truth, I’ve traveled much further for far less.”
Munjid sighed. “You cloud your meaning, stranger. Can you not tell me more?”
The chair creaked, indicating the man had changed position. Was he making himself more comfortable, perhaps in preparation for confession?
“I’d hoped with what I had taken to provide a means to ease my people’s suffering. Now, all is lost.”
A glimmer of understanding surfaced. The man hadn’t wanted the lemons exactly, what he required was the lemon seeds. He sought a means to feed his whole people, not merely himself. An admirable goal, but if he’d only come to Munjid instead of trying to steal what he desired…
“Staba.” He motioned his valet near. Then with a few whispered commands, Munjid sent his servant off to do his bidding.
“You would be as happy with what lies within the fruit, wouldn’t you?”
“I took what I was able to carry in time.” The man laughed, his musical voice suddenly flat. “Now, it seems, I am out of time.”
More riddles. Munjid wondered if he would ever fully comprehend.
“If I were to give you what you sought, would you return home?”
“I’m not sure I have a home to return to,” the man replied. “You know of me now. I believe this is what prevents my returning.”
“Do you fear me following?”
A cackling guffaw, suddenly not musical at all, rang through the courtyard. It echoed from the low roofs, causing several species of bird to squawk in reply.
“Forgive me.” The man chuckled. “No, you could not track me. But you are a learned man. Your impressions of this meeting will go far. It’ll spread, and as the story of what occurred here spreads, it will blossom. Flowers of truth will spring forth. Knowledge brings change, and change will follow time, as it must already have done.”
“By your tone I understand you think this to be bad,” Munjid said.
“An individual may change his own destiny at will. With effort, a small group can have their paths altered with the proper direction. A whole people is different. Like the ocean, it reacts with the wind and the seasons, but cannot be forced to a specific course. Our meeting here has set us on a trail that cannot easily be altered.”
“But surely, given time…”
The stranger laughed deeply, interrupting Munjid’s thoughts.
Just then Staba returned, tugging his master’s sleeve. “It is done.” The slave slipped three small packages into Munjid’s hands. Munjid, in turn, handed the little cloth-wrapped parcels to the stranger.
“What are these?” The man demanded.
“A gift,” Munjid whispered solemnly. “Take them, for your people.”
He heard the soft rustle of fabric, and then a gasp as the man unwrapped the first package.
“Yes.” Munjid smiled. “Those are the seeds of the lemon; as well as the seeds of the grapefruit, fig, pomegranate, cantaloupe, rice, wheat, and the date palm. It is a meager selection, but it’s all we have about this place.”
The man sobbed, his voice a broken wreck like shattered crystal when he finally spoke. “I thank you. This would be a treasure beyond comprehension had I a way of returning.”
“On that I have a thought.” The lemon thief had stressed over and over Munjid’s knowledge had doomed him. Somehow, if others knew of him he would not be allowed to return to his own place. It was a simple matter, really.
“I have one last gift for you.” Munjid rose from his chair, removing the chain which bore the Holy Qur’an from around his neck. The weight of the small book dangled like a ripe fruit.
“Staba, place this on our guest.”
A few seconds later Munjid heard a soft musical exclamation, and the sound of slippered feet shuffling across the tiled walkways.
“What is this?” The man asked.
“The Glory of God. Please, take it. Teach your people there is a greater truth and a greater joy,” Munjid said.
“If only I could.”
“Return to your people, my friend.” Munjid took a deep breath. He’d found his sign. He knew what he must do.
“Staba, I desire a walk. Have the gates opened. Take the others and retire to the Masjid. My thoughts must go with God.” Munjid tapped his stick, making sure he was on the right path. He seldom traveled beyond the compound’s walls, and never alone.
“Master, no! I forbid it!” Staba yanked him back.
Munjid spun, staff lifted in anger. Had he been able to see his target, he surely would have struck. “Obey me in this!”
“Master… it is death.”
Munjid dropped his staff, realizing what he’d been about to do. Age had stolen much of his patience.
“I’m sorry, old friend.” He reached out in search of his valet’s shoulder. “I must do this. It is His will, I feel it.”
“I don’t understand.”
“Nor should you. It is enough for you to think an old man has merely gone crazy.” Munjid lifted his faced to the sky. The sun caressed his cheek like a lover, but soon enough it would turn on him.
“You understand, don’t you?”
“I do.” The musical voice of a man from another time whispered beside him.
Munjid turned and began picking his way along the path toward the main gates. His lips worked soundlessly as he vowed to the Prophet and to God Himself he would be strong. A breeze kicked up out of nowhere, sending small missiles of sand against his body. He heard the thrum of a far off paddle thrashing water, but continued to pray.
He longed to turn back, but dared not. The path ended. His sandals dug into sand, and he stumbled, but pulled himself up and continued into the rising heat.
Had he done the right thing? Only time would tell. At least he’d furnished the seeds that might someday change a people. He smiled as he reached up absentmindedly to search for the book that was no longer there.
BIO: In February of 2015, D. A. D’Amico underwent emergency open heart surgery. The event, including a slow and painful recovery, profoundly altered the author’s vision of life, the universe, and everything. This story reflects that altered state.