Early in the morning, after a sleepless night, Solomon, barefoot and miserable, stood on the marble floor of his bathroom. What he saw in a heavily gilded mirror was reassuring, the muscular body of a man fully equipped by nature to meet the challenges of the world. This man was raised, as was custom in his society, to be invincible against all odds - and always honor tradition.
Contemplating his own reflection, Solomon saw lanky limbs, broad shoulders, a thin face, andburning dark eyes filled with despair. What was happening to him? Losing his night’s sleep over a woman! He knew himself well, so well he believed he could neverfall in love again. After one tragic incident of his early years, love sounded like an empty word, used by those who knew nothing about reality. There was no place left for love among the burnt stones of his past.
The young girl came into his life so unexpectedly he never had time to think twice. The situation was not what a man in his position was used to. He traveled on business often, and it was a custom to bring a beautiful companion to dinner with his business associates after negotiations. Usually, she was a local model, sometimes a famous one, a celebrity. At dinner, his partners’ wives would chat with her, a mindless conversation about fashions and parties, but nothing of importance. A natural beauty, always an outsider, never one of them, the girl was regarded as a part of the dinner scene, an orchid in a tall fancy glass on the table.
He knew that the model, in accepting his invitation, was mesmerized by the mystery of a powerful heir to the dynasty of oil moguls - a very handsome one. Solomon, enjoying his meal, joked with his associates and slightly teased his date, in anticipation of the sensual dessert to follow later. There would be the after-dinner drink in the posh piano bar where he and his gorgeouscompanion were respectfully ushered to the best table. More chit-chat, sipping of wine and light kisses, and they would proceed to a five-star hotel,to spend the night there.
Solomon was a passionate lover but aloof and reserved, and he never talked about feelings. Anyway, his enjoyment of sex could be interrupted by an urgent business call at any moment. He always promptly answered the phone and resolved the issue on the spot. On occasions he did not even remember the girl’s name in the morning.
The young tycoon liked women but did not take them seriously. All of them were to him the same pretty doll chatting happily away when he took her shopping the next day. He was generous, and his ‘dinner partner’ always left with a nice memoir, a tiny but expensive trinket. Happy with the sparkling reminder of their short acquaintance, she secretly hoped that it would turn into something more, but it never did.
The reason was that the teenage boy who once loved and tragically lost was still there, lurking in the twilight alleys of Solomon’s memory. That boy was a victim, but he thought of himself as a murderer. He could not fall in love again.
Solomon and Fatima, Sali and Fati as their parents called them, were the beloved children of a mysterious father who traveled on business for months. His flourishing oil companies around the world required constant attention, and he entrusted his wife with son and daughter’s upbringing and education. He knew he could rely on her, a woman of great wisdom and commitment.
While father was making deals in a world where oil meant ultimate power, at home his wife was raising their offspring in a traditional way. The children attended a private school where the boys were seated separately from the girls. The teacher was held in high respect, towering majestically over their bent heads while they were struggling with math problems. It was always very quiet, with only the sound of scratching pens and the rustle of pages disturbing the peaceful flow of the lesson.
During the break, in the schoolyard, the boys formed circles around their unofficial leaders, fighting for their attention. The girls run and played happily with their classmates. Dressed in colorful frocks, they all wore sharovars, silk pants covering their legs, a traditional homage to modesty. Their braids swaying with the breeze, they enjoyed the passing days of summer, the last glimpse of their childhood. Soon the day would come for a girl to arrive at school with her eyes puffy, her head covered with a long unforgiving scarf. Having reached puberty and embarked upon the strenuous road of womanhood, she could run free no more.
Being a young female meant to remain on guard constantly, for reputation was everything, more precious than the riches of her father. Marriages were arranged by parents. No girl would dare go out with the boy she liked, let alone become intimate before the eternal matrimonial bonds were firmly secured.
Their culture was ruthless where tradition and obedience were at stake. Far away in the desert, the abandoned wells, dry and empty, were filled with spiders crawling up and down the stones of their ancient walls. Some of those bottomless graves kept the secret of a disgraced father whose underage unmarried daughter lost her virginity and paid for her young passion with her life. When the time came for the girl to receive her first official document, her identity papers, the other daughter close in age would appear at the office posing as her sister, following her father’s orders. Wrapped in heavy scarves, silent and subdued, they all looked the same.
Solomon and Fatima were blessed with parents who would never demand obedience to the point of cruelty. Even so, as a respectful daughter, Fati would not do anything to upset her father - tradition was strong and safe with her. Solomon, however, enjoyed his unsupervised freedom to its fullest.
A born leader, he was always followed by his friends, and even those who envied his popularity and family’s wealth chose to pretend that they were on his side. For he was known to be fair but intolerant of his adversaries, backed by his powerful father and uncles who would not let their boy, the apple of their eye, get hurt by anyone.
He inspired awe and admiration already when he was very young. Exceptionally strong, in every schoolyard fight he emerged the triumphant winner. His bruises healed fast and he never bore a grudge, for he anticipated bigger challenges and more meaningful fights in his future.When the boy turned thirteen, his father hired a private tutor, a retired professor, with a salary that exceeded by far what he had earned in ten years teaching economics at a famous business school. The role of this seasoned academic was to introduce the boy to the intricacies of world trade, with emphasis on the oil business.
Sali eagerly dived into the ocean of figures and charts, and books on the history of trade, fascinated by the stories of tenacity and ingenuity. It had taken nearly a century for his family to establish themselves as international oil tycoons. The boy, a quick study, had an inquisitive mind, an excellent memory, and the eagerness it takes to master a complex subject. In just three years, his understanding of the family business amazed his father, and he was asking questions that puzzled even his teacher.
The heir to the throne, he was now more closely supervised, although he was completely unaware of it. His parents wanted him to feel independent and free to go wherever he wanted, but the family could not take risks - there was too much at stake. If something happened they needed to know immediately to get him out of trouble, and he would be grateful one day. While his father was away, the boy’s uncles and cousins kept a vigilant eye on their cherished teenage tycoon. There was a place the boys from the rich city would secretly visit against the wishes of their parents, the old settlement to the north of Azareth. It was one of those villages where poverty ruled in streets lined with crumbling buildings, where children ran barefoot and unattended - for in each household there were too many.In a strange way, the village had its own fascination. Everywhere, the air was filled with a strong aroma of coffee prepared in dzezve’s, small tins with long wooden handles immersed to the brim in heated sand. On occasion, women kept trays of raisins and dried fruit on the flat roofs of the houses, where children climbed to help themselves. After a long hot day, they slept on torn mattresses thrown on the floor of one room. When the trays were empty, they went to sleep hungry, but they were all brothers and sisters and this kept them alive.
Another irresistible attraction was a ruined old fortress outside the village. The children used to play hide-and-seek there, careful not to step on the snakes and spiders finding shelter from the heat under the rocks. In the honey-filled air of a golden afternoon, the walls of the fortress echoed their laughter, mixed with the sound of their quick feet against the stones.
Out of breath, tired and hungry, they would run to the old fig tree, spread a cloth in its shadow and bend on it, anticipating a snack some of them brought to share with their friends. Biting into pitas filled with hummus, they kept silent but not for long. There were jokes and laughter again, the boys telling stories to challenge each other, looking up to Solomon, their leader, for approval. The girls cast shy glances across the cloth - there, out of the sight of their parents, tradition kept them at a respectful distance from the boys.
In this world of childhood verging upon adolescence, no rich and poor existed, only the innocent sense of a growing friendship among the ruins. This is when, basking in the fleeting sunrays of the late afternoon, in the blue shadows chasing the declining sun and cooling down the stones, Solomon saw Sahara, and he fell in love for the first time.
How could be anyone born in the desert so much likened to the bloom of peach trees, fresh and fragrant, nurtured by the mountain rains? Everything in Sahara spoke of water: her shiny hair streaming down a graceful neck to her waist, and her eyes the color of deep oceans graced by the dew of unshed tears. Her slow movements of an exotic river animal made the boys wonder, and forget all about the heat in the oasis of her presence.
This girl was a daughter of Bedouins, desert vagabonds who lived in tents made of cotton canvas, endlessly moving with their camels through the wastes of hot white sand. Sahara learned to walk on it without burning the soles of her tiny feet, and she could spot a snake half a mile away. She knew how to catch a desert lizard, a reptile fast as quicksilver that leaves its tail in the hand of a silly hunter, only to grow another as good as new.
Sahara was orphaned very early, and lived with her elderly aunt, a woman half-blind from many years of embroidering women’s frocks. The handicraft of making patterns was passed down with little change from generation to generation of Bedouin females. For hours, the girl and her aunt sat on a faded rug with their heels tucked under, applying red stitches to the garments for married women, white and yellow stitches for the maidens. They eased the monotony by humming tunes that were centuries old and slightly swaying from side to side.
On the weekends, the ornate frocks were sold at the suk, an open market in the city. If no one wanted the frocks, fruit vendors took pity on the women, filling the pockets of their well-worn aprons with ripe peaches that would not survive another day. Poverty was a dark shadow tagging along everywhere. They taught themselves to live with it, finding joy in little things – and the juicy peaches were delightful.
When Solomon met Sahara, he saw only the sun-kissed apples of her cheeks and waterfalls of unruly hair escaping her ivory headscarf. What he failed to notice were her fingertips, hardened and forever damaged by the daily pricks of little needles. His enchanted stare missed the silent grief in her eyes, and the tiny holes forming the hem of her modest dress.
He believed she was purposely avoiding him when he was seeking her among the ruins of the fortress, roaming its narrow passages. She hid well; but when he found her kneeling behind a huge rock, she lifted her eyes at him and his heart sank in the dark blue sea of her sadness. He took her by the hand, and she rose to her feet.
When a sixteen year old boy falls in love, he sometimes plays hide-and-seek with his own feelings. He stubbornly refuses to admit a change in himself, the awakening of his masculinity. Solomon quickly went away but then came running back, faster than he had left. Sahara was still there, leaning against the rock, waiting for him.
Without saying a word, they left the noisy crowd of their companions and kept out of sight in one of the nearby houses abandoned by its owners. From now on, for months, they would secretly meet there, away from the inquisitive glances of their friends and the harsh judgment of the adults. The dwelling of an outcast would become their secret place, the home of their own making.
Solomon often got carried away talking about his ancestors and what he had learned from the books and his teacher. Sahara was a good listener - her eyes opened wide as she basked in a tale so fascinating she could follow it without end. Her knowledge of the outside world was limited. The school she attended was so overcrowded and unbearably hot that girls sometimes fainted at their desks. She did not have much to say, but her quiet admiration was more than Solomon could ask for.
Slowly and gradually, they were drawn to each other. Talking was not enough. Solomon longed to brush away the unruly lock from her forehead, gently caressing with his fingertips the tender skin of her cheek. With him close to her, Sahara’s pulse raced and she felt warmth filling her whole body. When Solomon first touched her lips with his, she awkwardly responded, unpretentious as nature itself.
Soon, hamsin came, the time of year that lasts fifty days. A desert wind saturated with invisible grains of hot sand blows day and night, it is palpable and feels to the palm of the hand like a wall. The wind brings with it such oppressive heat that even scorpions and snakes hide from it. When the air becomes intolerably heavy and suffocating, people stay at home, and couples shed their clothes in a bedroom finding solace in each other’s arms.
This is when, driven almost insane by his passion and the wind, Solomon made love to Sahara for the first time.
Who can teach lovemaking to a teenage boy - no one but himself. Solomon was exploring Sahara’s body, marveling at the smoothness of her olive skin and the aroma of peaches filling its every pore. One by one, he learned all the secrets of her lithe and passionate being by pressing his strong body against hers, and then abandoned himself completely to loving her.
Tradition was now a word belonging to others - Solomon and Sahara became the outcasts. What was happening to them was so overwhelming that they could hardly wait, skipping classes at school, avoiding their friends. The whole universe seemed to shrink to the size of an old house on the outskirts of the village, the house that had had no visitors for ages. Now it was filled with laughter and emotion, and sometimes tears when the two had little arguments. Yes, even this love was tested on a daily basis. They had to keep it a secret, sneaking out of their homes like thieves, and it was not easy.
The wind had blown for fifty days and subsided, leaving the earth and its creatures exhausted and thirsty. The rain came, it watered, nourished, and revived the living, and gave birth to a new generation of plants and animals. And like the earth saturated with rain, Sahara felt a new life taking roots inside her own body. A nature girl, she would not conceal the truth -and sheshowed off her fertile belly to her beloved by firmly placing Solomon’s hand on it.
At that moment he felt happy and proud. Worries and doubts assaulted him later. In the middle of the night, he tossed and turned in his bed at home. Solomon’s parents were more tolerant than most. If the girl were of a good family, known to them and approved by them, their wedding could be speedily arranged, and immediately afterwards the young couple would be sent away on a prolonged vacation. Everything could be fixed, as long as the girl was lucky to survive the rage of her own father.
There was no question that what he had done as a challenge to tradition - conceiving a child out of wedlock - was made much worse by who the girl was. When Solomon’s father came back from Europe, he would be more than devastated. “A Bedouin girl from the village! What a shame upon the whole family! The heir to the dynasty!” After investing so much in him, all their hopes and plans for the future would be ruined by his disgrace.
The boy retreated into his lonely soul, for he could not reveal the truth to anyone. Slomon did not show interest in his studies anymore. Withdrawn and absent-minded, he was losing weight and his confidence, locking himself in his room for hours. His mother and sister knocked on his door in vain, holding trays filled with his favorite grapes.
Despite all that, Sahara and Solomon’s love grew stronger, struggling to break through the cracks and creases of the desert sandstone. They spent every moment they could together. Sahara’s grief had left her eyes, and they sparkled in anticipation of the miracle of their baby.
Everywhere around the house, there were little garments she was secretly embroidering when her aunt was asleep. The woman was so old and blind she wouldn’t notice anyway - but the others would, and soon. Solomon felt he did not care anymore. His father would disinherit him, and he would have to work hard to provide for his young family. And why not? They had love, they were strong and healthy, they would survive.
Solomon grew up and became a man in just a few months. He assumed his new responsibility with joy, without complaint. In his world, men mature early, and women at home do not ask questions - a man has the right to his privacy even if he is only sixteen. The boy escaped from his mother’s worried eyes and his sister’s innocent remarks whenever he could, and rushed to the house hidden among other abandoned dwellings. He brought pitas and dried fruit for his beloved, to nourish her and their soon-to-be-born child.
In their secret home of outcasts, the two of them felt much happier than they would in a king’s palace. They made fire in the old stove and baked potatoes on its heated stones, probing them with a thin wooden stick till they were ready. After they ate and talked, Sahara sang a tune, an ageless song composed by her forefathers. In the darkness, in the flickering light of the candle, Solomon took her in his hands and lay down with her. When he created his own ocean in her, he went for a swim for hours, till they were both exhausted.
There was nothing Solomon and Sahara desired more than to doze off in each other’s arms and keep the embrace till the sunrise. It would happen soon, they told each other, just one more month…In a month, when his father comes back home, Solomon will tell him the truth. He will confess his love, ask for forgiveness and bid goodbye to his parents, his sister, and the world he knew before Sahara. He had made up his mind - there was no life for him without the girl who would never be accepted by his family.
In preparation for the drastic change in his life, Solomon was tying up loose ends and silently saying goodbye to the comfortable luxury of his parents’ home. He now spent more time at school and with his private teacher, catching up with his studies. For soon he would be on his own and need every piece of knowledge he could gather.
In the twilight of one late afternoon, Solomon was running to the village with a heavy paper bag full of food in his hand. He was delayed - he had stayed with his teacher for an extra assignment in preparation for the exam. Longing for the deep blue seas of Sahara’s eyes and the warmth of her caressing embrace, he anticipated her happy laughter. “Look what I brought for you - your favorite peaches!”
Solomon pushed the door open, calling out her name. In an instant, the smell of burnt wood hit him when he stumbled upon what looked like a heap of old rugs on the concrete floor.
Under the torn rugs, white and motionless, lay Sahara. Her eyes, now the color of black ink, were wide open, staring into space. Her clothes were torn to shreds revealing her body, and her blood was everywhere except on her pale face. Her thin arms, her legs, and even her little feet were soaking in blood, still warm, but her life had already drained away.
Screaming in agony, Solomon shook Sahara’s body, calling out for her. The reality simply refused to sink in. Just yesterday, she laughed and joked with him and chased him around the house, complaining about the heat. Now her lips did not return his kisses, they were silent and cold, as cold as the icy winters of the northern countries she would never see.
The only pieces of furniture in the house, a couple of low tables and a stool, had been dashed against the walls, their broken parts scattered about. Sahara’s embroidery was cast aside. Upon hearing voices she had run outside, only to be dragged back, to the horror of her own death on the hard floor. Her assaulters attempted to cover up their crime by setting fire to the house but had to leave in a hurry. The wind extinguished the flames, leaving only a few burnt stones and a handful of ashes.
-“Who could do this to a sixteen-year-old girl who never even hurt a fly?” Solomon dreaded the answer that crept into his mind against his will. In the chilling darkness, he froze for hours in one spot near her body. Then he started swaying from side to side, mourning her, mourning their love, letting his mind go blank. Very early in the morning, he got up, lifted Sahara’s body, with her head on his shoulder, and walked out of the door.
She felt at first light, then heavy, then light again while he was carrying her far out into the desert. The soles of his feet were numb and did not feel the sand heating up to the point of scalding them. After several hours of walking, he carefully lowered her to the ground. Then Solomon started digging with his bare hands a deep hole in the sand.
Sahara’s rivers of grief commenced their flow to the core of the earth, she was sinking in, her tortured body and calm face melting, blending with the hot white sand. Sahara means desert, and now she was returning to her own self, to the world where there are no rich and poor, no murderers and victims. There is only tranquility in her world of sandy hills, and the peaceful ocean of her love for Solomon.
He would return home, his soul dead and his eyes empty, blaming himself for everything, for failing to guard their secret. He would not talk to anyone or ask questions, but he would avoid his friends, father and uncles, never tohave to look them straight in the eye. He would immerse himself in his studies for weeks and months without a break, driving himself into a state of forgetfulness to end the torture of his guilt.
For years, no matter where he was, when the season of hamsin arrivedin his home country,he grew restless for fifty days and mourned Sahara. In every city he visited, for business or pleasure, he wished she was with him and mourned Sahara. In every woman he met, he sought out Sahara’s features but never found them, and mourned her over and over again.
And now, for the first time in a long series of sleepless nights, she waived at him from the other side of the mirror, smiled gently and began walking away. He wanted to follow but he could not, he stumbled and cried but she was gone.Solomon, glued to the marble floor of his bathroom, clutched his head with his hands. What was happening to him, she was staring back at him – now she had golden hair. He blocked his ears, but the whisper was coming from deep inside –
“There is always hope, Solomon, there is always hope”.
© Copyright 2017 Ro Slade. All rights reserved.
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