Friday, February 22, 2008

A Salt Miner's Walk

The skins over Umar's shoulders tapped lightly against his chest and back as he walked through the blowing sands. While riding, the wind never bothered him, but on this long walk, it's sound robbed the naked desert of it's tranquility. His sandals scratched at the ground and and each footstep was quickly erased behind him.

Rain had fallen the night before. The men set up camp when it started and in the morning, unwrapped the salt blocks to dry. The blocks would crumble if they weren't give time to dry. Unfortunately, the waiting meant there would not be enough water for the two days remaining in their journey. Karaji gathered the skins and a short-handled shovel before laughing and sending Umar off to chase his shadow.

After walking nearly a kilometer, Umar crested a tall dune and watched the sand slip away in front of him as he descended down the other side. Below, dry scrub and hard ground marked the location of the well. The wind swept by overhead, but left the hollow bottom untouched.

He stepped across the hard ground and slipped off the skins before untying the shovel from his waist. He poked around at the lowest point, the hard packed sand was still slightly damp from the night's rain. He bent over and scooped out for a little while witht he shovel, then dropped his knees and trading off between the shovel and his hands.

The earth broke apart in his hands, but as he went deeper, each scoop held together a little better than the last. As the sun moved slowly across the sky, he dug with regular precision, gradually excavating several feet down. The sand began to crumble again, but was wetter in his hands.

As the sun shone brightly into the well, he could feel the heat coming up from the earth. And then, he noticed in the bottom a tiny pool of mud. He worked faster, until his hands were splashing around, pulling out silt and broadening the pool.

He climbed back above the well, pulling the skins and a plastic cup back down with him. He scooped the water, filling each of the skins, digging a bit more when the water got too shallow. When the skins were filled, he tied a rope around them and climbed up again before hoisting them out of the well.

He sat for a while, eating the dried fruit Sonji had sent with him. He was tired, but the sooner he returned, the sooner they could ride again. Finally, he pushed himself up, tied off the shovel, and crouched to slide the skins over his shoulders. He stood slowly, adjusting his burden to balance the weight.

Taking the most gentle slope part of the dune, Umar trudged back up into the wind. It was beginning to pick up. The sand beat against the skins and his robes as he navigated back by position of the sun.

Umar frowned as the horizon blurred and sand began swirling higher into the air. To the north, he could see it pitching like waves on a violent sea. It began to sting his eyes when he squinted to find the sun. He kept on, worried the growing storm would get worse, but even more worried to stop.

He leaned into the wind and looked for the sun less and less. His shadow was swallowed up in the brown air. The bright day faded into a dark cloud until his only guide was his internal compass. He began to doubt his sense of direction.

He looked up again, but the sky was as dark above as the ground was below. Umar knelt, huddling against the heavy skins. He would wait a little while. The camp was not so far from the well, but he could no longer guess how much distance he'd covered. He shut his eyes and thought about Sonji.

He could see her soaking reeds and thought about the way she sat up, trying to stay awake until he came to bed. He could see her as she soaked salt from his clothes and the care she took in wrapping the sores on his hands and feet. He could almost hear her voice, like a whisper when she knelt to pray.

Umar's eyes opened, slightly. He really could hear a voice. He shouldered the skins again and stood up. The shrill wind drowned out the voice, but between it's furious gusts, he could make out the midday prayer.

He could barely trust his ears in the storm, but it was better to follow slim hope than be buried alive. He again leaned into the blowing sand and trudged toward the sound. The voice came in and faded out, over and over. The sun hid away in the darkened sky. Umar stumbled and scrambled, feeling his way over dunes that slid out from beneath his feet with every step.

And then, the voice was gone.

Umar stopped in his tracks and felt his stomach tighten. In the swarming sands, he might easily pass right by the camp and never know it. He knelt again, huddling against the skins.

Slipping off his sandals, he thought to himself it was a foolish thing to do. He said his midday prayer, honoring the Prophet and Allah. He surrendered himself.

Huddled there, his thoughts returned to Sonji. He thought about her hard, worn hands. Hands that looked so much older than her gentle, dark eyes. They had always talked about making the pilgrimage when the children were older. He thought of the way she laughed and then would stop herself, going quiet with a smile still on her face. She never wanted anything for herself among the list of things he was to bring back from the market. Every time, he wanted to bring something back to her, but never knew what to get.

He drove the thoughts from his head. No. He did know. He shouldered the skins again and marched against the unrelenting fury of the sandstorm.

All at once, the shrill wind changed. The grains began to fall like rain and the swirling cloud settled on the smooth desert like a thick fog. In another moment, the sky was bright and the air turned warm.

Umar squinted as the horizon began taking shape again. In another moment, the sun shone on his shoulders and the sands blew off to the south. He shook himself off and walked up a tall dune as wisps of sand scattered, like little children trying to catch up to their mother, the tempest who had left them behind.

He crested the dune and saw below him the other merchants huddled by the camels. Karaji waved and hurried up the slope. Karaji took the skins from his shoulders and laughed. "A good thing you took your shadow to lead the way."

The others had already wrapped up the salt blocks. They loaded the camels, each giving Umar a pat on his sore shoulders. His camel lifted him into the air and each of the merchants fell in line behind Karaji.

All Sonji ever hoped for was his safe return. He could do that much. And perhaps he'd pick her up some silk, too.