Stories 1 Spring 2019

 

Near Vega

   by  Kenneth  Schalhoub

Grace Ellsworth, a woman past caring about age, watched the flashlight beam slowly vanish into the black. The person carrying the light source was Emma, her neighbor and tenant. She watched through her kitchen window at different times—day and night—the comings and goings of the woman living in her barn. The Montana farmhouse had become Grace’s last purpose in life. With no living relatives, she maintained the house as a museum of her past relationships. The woman living in her barn kept to herself, not that she was unfriendly, she always waved. They talked on rent day but otherwise rarely shared spontaneous conversations.

The woman vanished into a ghostly mist hovering over the dripping tall grass. It was Tuesday, not that it mattered, every day was the same on a farm. Grace watched until the woman disappeared into the brush that used to be wheat. She walked the twenty yards across the spotty crabgrass and placed the invitation on the barn door, walked back to the farmhouse, and waited.

At the exact time Grace had specified in the invitation, the doorbell rang. She peeked through the sheer curtains covering the window in the living room. The woman stood on the lighted porch casting an unusually long narrow shadow. When Grace opened the door a pale, oval face with short, black hair and cobalt blue eyes stared down at her.

“Hello Mrs. Ellsworth. Thank you for the invitation.”

“Oh please, it is my pleasure,” Grace said.

Emma entered the farmhouse for the first time. She had always left the rent check under the front door mat, never peeking through the sidelight. She walked through the foyer with each wall competing for her attention. Emma had never seen so many photographs, paintings and framed memorabilia.

“I’ve never seen so much history in one home,” Emma said.

“Just my memories.”

“Was this your husband?”

“He passed away five years ago after the accident.”

Emma’s gentle stare added empathy to the room.

“He left me the farm and money enough for me to live. We both tended the farm when we were young. But that was many years ago. When I was a child this farm was worked as were all the farms in this county. We had big picnics and town activities. All the people who have left me hang on the walls. Friends and relatives died or moved away. This foyer is all that’s left.”

Emma sat in the colonial glider thinking of asking about the people in the photos. But remained quiet. Grace brought a platter from the kitchen and placed it on the cocktail table made from a fallen ash tree that once shaded half the porch. The ivory teapot and matching teacups appeared to be from a different time.

“You do like tea?” Grace said.

“I do, thank you.”

Grace poured and immediately began talking. “I wanted to invite you here for dinner. Thought it might be nice to get to know each other. I’m quite alone here as I know you have probably noticed. My food deliveries are all I have to look forward to.” She offered her guest some sugar which was turned down. “My you have beautiful hands.”

“Thank you.”

“Such long slender fingers.”

Emma folded her hands in her lap.

“I see you every day and many evenings leaving the barn only to return hours later,” Grace said. “You always pay the rent, but I have been wondering what you do for a living.”

“I’m a scientist, mostly an astronomer, but I do like all sciences. I’m not from this region. I see many plants and animals new to me and I collect them or just observe them.”

“But how do you earn a living?”

“I don’t right now. I put away some money a few years ago. I’m living on that until I secure my next employment.”

“May I ask why here? Why live here?”

“I like the solitude.”

“Solitude means being alone and I’m just a bit tired of it,” Grace said. Her voice broke almost unnoticeably.

“May I ask how long you’ve been alone?”

“One thousand eight hundred and thirty-three days.”

Emma had never heard someone refer to lost time in quite such a way.

“And you’ve been by yourself all this time?”

“What choice do I have? My husband passed away, relatives are all gone. The town has changed for the worse. The young people have all left. Thank God I have you next door.”

Emma never thanked God for anything. Her mind stayed wrapped in the real. Yet she shared some understanding of Grace’s aloneness. After all, here she was in rural Montana living in a barn.

“Enough of my melancholy. I’m so happy we’re sharing a meal and it is time for us to eat. I’ve made homemade chicken potpies. Hope you like them.”

Emma had never had one before. When she broke the flaky browned crust with her fork, the aroma of cooked chicken and vegetables made her want for home. She ate as if she had never seen food before. Grace’s farmhouse was a home, something Emma had not experienced in a long time, something she liked.

 

They agreed to eat dinner together twice a month, always at Grace’s dining room table. Only after five dinners did Grace feel comfortable enough to ask Emma questions.

“We’ve had dinner together now five times and I still don’t know anything about you,” Grace said.

“I’ve had fun learning about your rich life,” Emma said.

“Balderdash. That’s just an excuse. I would enjoy hearing about where you’re from.”

“I’m not from here,” Emma said.

“And…”

“I should probably say it differently. There is no place on Earth that I can call home. I traveled a great deal when I was young, and continue to do so.”

Points of light filled the clear, dry summer night.

“Let’s go outside,” Emma said. “There’s something I want to show you,”

In this place—Montana—Emma could see and feel what she studied. They walked a few minutes through the brush to get away from the house lights. The moonless summer sky made way for thousands of stars. They sat on an old splintered bench peering into the forgotten prairie.

“See that bright star?” Emma pointed to the constellation Vega.

Grace nodded.

“Sometimes I wish I were there.”

Grace stared at the point of light.

“What are you saying?” Grace asked.

“Nothing really, just an astronomer’s dream.”

“It must be hard to study things you cannot touch,” Grace said.

Emma had never touched anything she studied, she only observed. But now she wanted to change that. It would be nice to be able to touch that star.

“Maybe my next employment will bring me closer to all the stars. That’s my love.”

Grace abruptly rose from the bench. “It’s getting chilly.”

“It was a fun dinner. See you in two weeks,” Emma said.

 

She did see Grace in two weeks for their final dinner together. Emma stood on the porch waiting for her landlord to answer the door. And as with all the past dinners, she walked through the foyer scanning the walls. She always saw something she had not seen in prior visits. This was the last time. Emma’s car was packed.

Grace prepared a special going away dinner: meatloaf with ketchup on top and brown gravy, mashed potatoes, and green beans.

“Where is it you’re going again?” Grace asked.

“JPL.”

“Sounds like a bank name,” Grace said.

“It’s part of NASA. I’m going to miss you,” Emma said.

“Yes, it will be lonely here without you. I grew to depend on seeing you from my kitchen window. Watching as you disappeared into the brush.”

“I’ll write,” Emma said.

“No you won’t. You’ll blend in with everyone in California and forget this forgotten farm and me with it.”

Sadly, Emma thought it might be true. Once dinner was over, returning the key was the last goodbye. Emma drove down the driveway at pre-dawn leaving behind the gravel dust.

****

Grace had watched Emma drive away into the orange lit sky. She had stopped keeping track of the time since Emma left. It only upset her, but not because she was afraid to be alone, no, being alone when she died was what she dreaded, feared. Emma had said she would write, but who really does? No one anymore.

Grace found herself standing by the barn at dusk hoping to see Emma’s gray outlined figure walking proudly from the abandoned field. Silly fool, she thought. The door was unlocked. The air inside felt old and unused. It had been less than a month but the once occupied room was now an abandoned cold space. The overhead incandescent bulb was all that illuminated Emma’s home.

Small items had been left scattered in odd places. A small notebook sat on the floor next to the vintage 50’s sofa bed. An empty coffee cup sat on the small table under the only window. A device that looked like a calculator had found its way between the sofa cushions. Grace lifted the notebook from the dusty rug, nothing was written on the cover. She hesitated, then opened to the first page.

Notes on learning #1

Grace read what seemed to be descriptions of what she was learning during her ventures beyond the immediate world of her landlord. The writing was large and had been neatly printed by Emma’s long slender hands. As she read through #2, #3, #4, and an incomplete #5, Grace felt a distant side of Emma, as if she were truly not from anywhere near the farm. The descriptions and musings were childlike in tone. Emma talked of others with whom she communicated, but never revealed who they were nor where they were from.

Notes on learning #5 ended with Emma’s whirlwind (at least in Grace’s view) decision to move to California and work for NASA. She knew there was much more to read; the notebook was quite thick. But she stopped, not wanting to learn something that might change the virtuous vision she still had of her former tenant.

The next few days found Grace thinking again of the possibility of a letter. She walked the fifty yards down the rutted gravelly driveway to her mailbox. Weeds had begun to encroach along the margins. She sighed silently as she watched her life being reclaimed by nature. Pulling the part-rusted, creaky door open, a single envelope sat in the shadow.

The late fall air forced an urgency on Grace to walk the fifty yards back quickly. With the envelope gripped in her left mittened hand, she looked down so as to not stumble. She could no longer depend on Emma if something were to happen to her. Stepping into the warm living room, her right boot kicked the front door shut in defiance of the weather she knew was coming. The cruel Montana winter air made her become a shut-in every year, although she preferred to think of it as a kind of hibernation. All the other animals on her property turned in for the season, why not her?

She dropped the envelope onto the reading stand next to the only chair she ever sat in. It was a letter. Grace stumbled to put on her reading glasses with her still-mittened hands. There was a return address:

Emma Smith

2975 Santa Anita Ave.

Altadena, CA 91001

She took a deep breath, pulled off her mittens, hung up her coat, and boiled water for tea. The wool hat stayed on her head. “Precious heat is lost in cold weather through one’s head.” Emma had told her that last night, almost as a lesson from parent to child. When the first northern cold snuck in weeks ago, she put on her wool hat for the season.

Grace watched the teapot, anticipating the whistle, and thinking about the contents of the missive, sitting on the table, waiting to be slit open and read. Why was she waiting to read it? Once read, it would be over and the waiting for the next one to arrive would begin. It was a foolish way to think, but she was old and there was no one to judge her. With hot tea on her chairside table, the warmth of the fire steadied Grace’s hands just enough for her to use the letter opener. The stationary enclosed in the envelope contained a government header. Emma was working at NASA. On the formal stationary were the hand printed words.

Grace read the letter three times, then sat back and closed her eyes squeezing the tears onto her cheeks. Her friend said she was busy, but Grace only felt loneliness coming from the words. She could not completely understand what Emma’s job was. Seems she was working on a type of telescope called Kepler. It did not matter. Grace took a deep breath and wrote back.

 

Grace appeared to be a simple woman to the casual observer; the unkempt farm was more about her disinterest rather than her ability to manage the acreage, which she had done quite successfully for a few years after her husband died. But she lost interest and let her history die. She kept the notebook, with the letter tucked inside, on her side table; the place where she kept all important information. She had avoided the vast passages in the notebook that followed the five “Notes on Learning.” The temptation to look past those first pages became overwhelming, so much so that one morning she turned the page past Notes on Learning #5. The writing was less formal. Grace read the technical words and ideas Emma had left in the second half of the notebook. One word caught her attention: lightyear. She had seen it before and knew but did not know exactly what it meant. Oddly she felt anxious each time she read the word. References to a distant home confused her. How distant? Europe? Asia? She did not look Asian.

What would Emma’s next letter say?

Who was she?

The day might have been a Tuesday. Grace no longer kept track. It had been two weeks since she sent Emma the return letter. The yellow-orange sun sat low in the sky when she heard the mail truck at the end of her driveway. The crisp fall air and long shadows sent a shiver of apprehension through her. The long Montana winter was on its way and Grace would have to face it alone. All she had now was the anticipation of Emma’s letters and the possibility of learning more. Grace waited until she heard the mail truck tires kick up the lonely gravel. As before, a single envelope with the same return address sat in the mailbox.

She began reading; her stomach tightened when Emma wrote about the notebook. She stopped reading and placed the single page on her lap. Her veined and crooked fingers sat gently on the words. Had Emma been this evasive when they shared dinners together? Why would Emma believe she would not be able to understand a person coming from a faraway place? Grace remembered the tall, slender, almost pale appearance. And the hands: slender fingers and palms with no life lines. Her eyes fell to the written words sitting on top of her apron. She continued reading and again stopped after a few paragraphs. Emma seemed lost in her new world at NASA. She felt disappointed that Emma did not trust her enough to be more specific, not make her life sound like a mystery. She let her eyes drop to the last sentence:

I have to convince my colleagues to listen to me.

Your dearest friend,

Emma

Grace wrote a one sentence note. There was no company for the solitary words:

What is happening to you in Pasadena?

Grace

It took Emma three weeks to answer. Everything was still unclear, but when Grace read the final few sentences tears again filled her eyes.

NASA and I do not agree on some fundamental issues. Complicated things of which I will not bore you. My energy is low. I may be back to the barn soon if it is available. I need the cold Montana winter. It reminds me of home.

Your friend,

Emma

Grace finished her tea and re-read the letter.

****

Grace wanted to learn more; she returned to the notebook. The nervous excitement of reading Emma’s hand-written pages prevented Grace from seeing the true nature of Emma’s life as recorded each day in the notebook. It seemed to Grace as if Emma had been dropped onto her farm and told to learn everything about the land. She spoke sometimes in a way unfamiliar to Grace. She could not put her finger on it. Emma always seemed formal and distant. Grace was used to rural informality. Maybe she was Swedish. Grace had read some years ago, that Swedish people spoke excellent English and had a calm formality in their behavior. That settled it, Emma was cut in the Swedish mold. It fit. Emma was tall and slender with large hands, bright blue eyes, large oval face.

Grace felt better. Emma had a nationality, whether it was true or not. Now she looked forward to letters from Emma. She wanted to understand what was happening to her only friend. They came every week, always on Monday. The letters transformed her. She felt younger each Monday morning when she awakened. Reading Emma’s words kept Grace from aging. She believed it.

The months became the first year, then the second year. By the third year Emma’s discontent seemed to be paralyzing her. The letters focused more and more on thoughts and ideas Grace could barely understand. The tone of the letters made Grace want to cry. Emma never wrote about friends or colleagues anymore. One thread wove its way into every letter: wanting to go home. On the next Monday the letter came in a small flat envelope containing one small sheet of paper.

Dearest Grace,

Time is short. They have discovered what I knew would happen. My colleagues are calling it the Alien Megastructure. It does not matter. It has been found. Now I can go home.

Your friend,

Emma

Did Emma mean the farm? And what was that odd description, alien megastructure? Grace was beginning to feel as if she never knew anything real about her former tenant.

Grace stopped going to the mailbox. She heard the gravel each day and pretended it was just a passing car until one day the crunch did not grow distant but rather grew louder. A car was driving up her unused driveway. She peaked from her kitchen window and saw the Honda.

****

I couldn’t work there anymore.

Those words stayed with Grace. The day Emma arrived back she parked at the same spot next to the barn but walked—a bit stooped—toward Grace’s front door. She watched from the side window as a weary-looking Emma landed on her porch. The subtle change saddened Grace; she saw aging in her friend’s face. The wrinkles of worry consumed a once smooth forehead.

Grace opened the door.

“I’m here,” Emma said.

“Are you home?”

“I want to be here,” Emma said.

“Why?”

“I couldn’t work there anymore. Aren’t you happy to see me? I was hoping you would be.”

Grace did not know if she was happy. She certainly was not sad. Guarded would be more accurate.

“I’m confused about you, Emma. I thought I knew you a bit from our dinners. But your letters became very odd.”

“You needn’t be concerned—”

“Please, let me finish,” Grace said. “I still don’t know where you’re from, where you call home. I fantasized you were from Sweden. It seemed reasonable. You look a bit Swedish. But I don’t suppose I am correct…”

Emma smiled as she looked down.

“I read your notebook, the one you left in the barn.”

“I left it there for you,” Emma said.

“So many things unanswered, things I know you will not answer now,” Grace said

“Grace, I don’t fit in here. I don’t belong here. Until I leave, I prefer to be alone.”

“Can we have our dinners again?” Grace asked knowing the answer.

Emma gave Grace a kiss on the cheek and left the porch.

 

Life for both seemed as if time had gone in reverse. Emma made her daily trips into the new prairie that was once a thriving farm. Grace watched from her window. Weeks passed without change until the one day she found a business envelope in the mailbox. It had the JPL insignia printed in the upper left corner.

Emma was on a discovery walk; Grace left the letter at the base of the barn door and quickly walked back to her house. The autumn air was once a blessing to be anticipated. At this point in her life the air represented another solitary year. She waited for Emma to return.

A soft knock startled a napping Grace. The setting sun left behind its orange smudge on the horizon. She opened the front door.

“May I come in?” Emma asked.

Grace noticed the opened envelope in Emma’s hand. She smiled and welcomed her friend.

“They want me to come back,” Emma said.

“Do you want to?” Grace held her breath waiting for the answer.

“No.”

 

It had been a month since Emma’s tires flattened the fledgling weeds among the gravel. Grace spent time each day looking at her hall of time; the pictures of her life all displayed in the foyer. When, on this particular day, she reached the area that represented the most recent past, she realized Emma was missing, or more accurately, she had never been on the wall. Grace had no pictures of Emma, no record of the person in her barn. And on this morning as the sun began to threaten the pre-dawn, a knock on the front door caught Grace’s breath.

Grace opened the front door. Emma stood with a leather portfolio in her arms and hugged Grace softly. They walked through the foyer together as close to arm-and-arm as Emma would allow.

“Sometimes it seems I have an overwhelming amount of information I want to tell you, and then other times I realize it isn’t that much at all,” Emma said.

Grace looked at Emma with puzzled eyes.

“That probably didn’t make any sense. I know, sorry. It boils down to something very simple. I believe an important discovery has been made by the telescope I’ve been working with. The JPL team is skeptical. The disagreement made things a little uncomfortable.”

“But why?”

“Because the scientists, my colleagues, are trained to be skeptical. They’re not ready to hear the truth, accept a new reality.”

“About this discovery?” Grace asked.

“About everything. They want me to come back and work with them and learn to be skeptical.”

“Can’t you convince them?” Grace asked.

“It’s too late and I’m too tired. I know what I know to be true and that’s enough. I’m leaving for my home tomorrow.”

Emma reached down for the portfolio. She opened the flap and pulled out a simple bound notebook and a photo.

“I’ve got this picture of me in Malibu. Thought you might like it for your wall. The notebook is for you. It’s a mixture of journal and personal history.”

Emma placed the photo and notebook on the side table and stayed for a while longer. When they found themselves at the open front door, Grace had one more question to ask.

“Will you write?”

“If the situation permits, I will.”

Grace watched as Emma walked back to the barn. Her gait was uneven and fatigued, not quite as tall.

There had been nothing to wake Grace that night. Only the natural sounds of the prairie made their way through the open bedroom window. Yet when Grace woke the next morning and peered out the kitchen window toward the barn, no sign of Emma remained.

Grace sat in her reading chair that day, and for many days after, sipping tea and reading the journal.

****

Am I to take Emma’s words seriously? Grace asked herself. Alien megastructure, associates from “off-world,” wanting to go home, but where. This was what Grace had been reading for uncounted days. The off-world idea, what did that mean? Emma described the odd observations around a star in the direction of the constellation Vega and said they were due to this so-called alien megastructure. Grace became lost in the dreamlike ideas of her friend. She could not accept Emma had imagined everything, could not believe she might be insane. Her colleagues were wrong. Grace was convinced. How could she not believe her cherished friend?

It was time to put the journal down. Grace had learned as much as she could understand. She thought about their first dinner. It had taken Grace months before she felt she could invite Emma for an evening together. Now she wondered why it took her so long. And although her friend was gone and the barn was now empty, Grace planned to keep it clean and ready. There would be others coming.

Darkness extinguished the burnt orange western sky of the man-made prairie. She walked into the brush. Her heart beat increased slightly, but not as much as would be expected for a woman Grace’s age. Grace gulped the crisp autumn air with enthusiasm reaching the spot she had shared with her friend. She pointed to the northeastern sky. “There,” she said out loud. “Vega.”

She felt Emma’s voice within her. Yes, Vega.

 

Bio: Kenneth Shalhoub is a part-time fiction writer focusing on short stories. He has a science background and enjoys delving into science fiction that is light on the technological side and easily readable.  He also writes short stories that deal with real situations in sports and everyday life. 

 

 

The Quiet Camel

  by Tom Sheehan

 

It was on the way from Al Fashir in the Sudan to Cairo in Egypt in the year 1838 that Ba-jeeha, a camel with two humps, first refused to talk.  Ba-jeeha was a seven-year old Bactrian camel and was owned by a dark, evil-looking man in a grey turban and grey cloak whose name was Addis Hamad. Addis Hamad, as everyone along the caravan route knew, was a slave trader, and no man eviler ever lived or crossed the Great Sahara Desert.

Ba-jeeha did not like his owner. He saw in his eyes that black flame of hate and greed which all evil men have. He saw in his hands how the cruel biting whip with steel tips on its thongs could open the back of any man. He heard, in the voice of Addis-Hamad, the sound of cruelty which made all the slaves flinch and cower in terror of their lives. And though Ba-jeeha was a camel, though he could go for three or four days without a drink of water on the great desert, though he was thought to be a stupid beast by Addis Hamad, he was a creature who, strange to say, had a heart as big as his three stomachs.

And it was on that day in the year 1838, one year before the great sandstorm raged across the whole Sahara Desert for three weeks, that Ba-jeeha promised he would never talk again until he helped the slaves to escape their horrible fate.

Ba-jeeha had seen the auctions. He had seen slaves sold on the open market as if they were logs of wood. He had seen families split up; seen fathers go one way, mothers another way, their children sold to a third party. It made Ba-jeeha's heart ache with a great and lasting pain.

When a little slave boy, who had given Ba-jeeha water, was beaten by Addis Hamad, Ba-jeeha bolted from his place in the ranks and it took hours for Addis Hamad's men to recapture him. The men brought Ba-jeeha back to Addis Hamad. The cruel slave trader stood in the heat of the sun, his legs spread wide, a fierce and wild look on his face, and the great whip in one hand. Not a sound echoed in the desert. Not another camel barked or said a word to each other. The slaves, hundreds and hundreds of them, from a hundred different tribes scattered throughout Africa, stood silent, their hearts heavy with sorrow for the camel who was to be whipped, heavy with sorrow for the slave boy who had been whipped. Even the men of Addis Hamad's command stood with their heads hanging and their eyes on the ground. They knew it was a terrible thing for any man to beat a camel.

Ba-jeeha was tied to a stake in the ground. The great whip was raised in the air and the sun flashed brilliantly on the steel tips which Addis Hamad had tied to the thongs. The evil man stretched his arm high over his head, ready to strike the first blow. Every camel and every person could feel the sting of that first blow. They all held their breaths.

Then out of the middle of the slaves the little slave boy rushed.

He threw himself at the feet of Addis Hamad. His back was covered with blood from his own beating. "Master," he yelled. "Master, beat me again! Beat me again! Spare the poor creature. It was I who caused the trouble. Beat me again and spare him and there will be no more trouble for you.  I beg you, master. I beg you."  And he knelt before the horrible whip, his little body shaking with fear, the blood still running from the wounds on his back.

Addis Hamad was truly a cruel man. He knew the greatest pain he could inflict on the camel was to beat the boy again.

The whip flashed in the air. The sun struck at the steel tips. The steel tips struck deep into the boy's back.  The boy did not cry, but a long, painful moan sounded across the desert as the most unholy cry any man ever heard. It was the union of two voices; a gasp from the camel, a moan from the boy. Those who heard it never forgot it.

In the ranks of Addis Hamad's men, an omen of ill-fortune swept like a tidal wave. And Ba-jeeha strained at the mighty rope holding him to the stake. He pulled with all his strength. He yanked his head this way and that way. He tried to bite the rope. Nothing would budge it, it was almost like a chain of steel. And inside the great heart of the camel a pain that might have no end began to build.

Ten times the sun caught at the steel tips. Ten times the steel tips caught at the boy's back. Ten times the little slave boy's body shook with pain. Ten times Ba-jeeha's heart almost broke. In the dry hot air of the desert nothing sounded except for the swish of the whip as it cut the air, as it cut the boy's back.

And Ba-jeeha made a promise that he would never talk until he could help the slaves go free.

That night, Ba-jeeha's brother, Apor-kinad, said, "You were very lucky today. If it hadn't been for that foolish boy, you would have been whipped very badly."

Be-jeeha looked at his brother with shame. "Have you nothing to say?" asked Apor-kinad.

Ba-jeeha shook his head. He loved his brother, but he sometimes could not understand him.

"Look, silent brother," said Apor-kinad, "we have water to drink and food to eat.  We get rest sometimes. What more can you want? Is there any more to want out of life on this hot, dry desert?"

Ba-jeeha nodded his head in answer. He wanted to talk, but a promise was a promise. It took courage to keep a promise. It took a greater courage for the little slave boy to get beaten by Addis Hamad for the second time. Once would have been enough for any man, for any camel.

Apor-kinad walked away from his brother shaking his head. "Such a foolish brother I have," he said.

In the darkness of that night, with the great moon hidden behind a greater cloud, Ba-jeeha heard a sound nearby. His eyes opened. In the blackness of night, he saw nothing, but the sound was coming closer.  Ba-jeeha was still tied to the stake and could not move. Maybe, he thought, it is Addis Hamad with the whip! But a soft hand reached out to touch him and a palm leaf full of water was placed by his mouth.  In one quick gulp, the water was gone. Ba-jeeha was very dry.  

Then a voice said, "It is me, great camel, Telaturan."

It was the slave boy!  Ba-jeeha's heart filled with wonder and with love.   Such a boy! Such a little boy to have such great courage! Ba-jeeha nuzzled his great mouth against the boy's hands. He wanted to talk to him, to at least bark at him the way all great Bactrian camels do. But a promise was a promise.

"My wounds will heal, great one," said the boy. "They will get better. One day they will be gone. Do not feel sorry for me. What I did was for you. I have seen the pain and the sorrow in your eyes for my people and for me. I will not forget it. I do not dare to untie you now because I would get beaten again. If I am beaten again, I will not be able to escape. That is most important! I must escape tonight! That cruel man knows you are more valuable than I am. He will not send his men out for one little slave boy, but he would hold up his whole caravan to search for one camel."

Ba-jeeha pushed his nose into the face of the boy. If only he could tell him how he felt. But camels only talked to other camels.

"I know what is in your heart, great one," said Telaturan. "And this I will promise. One night, in the deepest of darkness, when the moon lies in bed on the far side of the world and the sky is thick with a blanket of blackest clouds, I, Prince Telaturan of the Great Tribe of the Shambe-Mongalla, will come for you and we will lead many slaves to their freedom. I will need a great camel to ride and you are the greatest camel I know."

A sound popped close by. Teleturan said, "I must go quickly! But remember, on some dark night when the whole desert is asleep, you will hear a whistle sounding from the edge of the camp, and it will be me calling for you. Do not run away from Addis Hamad until I come for you. This is the only trail he uses. I will be able to find you easily."

Telaturan put out his hand, patted Ba-jeeha on the nose and said, "Goodbye, my great one. I will come back for you." And like a gentle whisper he disappeared into the night.

There was a great commotion in the camp on the following morning. Addis Hamad walked up and down the camp with the whip in his hand and great curses coming from his mouth. Fire seemed to leap in his eyes, the black fire of the evilest man who ever lived in the Sahara Desert.

But one little slave boy was not enough to hold up a caravan, just as Telaturan had said. The caravan moved off in the early sun. And though Ba-jeeha did not talk to the other camels, he became a model camel and caused no more trouble to his evil master.

In the following year, when the greatest sandstorm that ever blew across the desert came with howling winds and fearful shrieks, Ba-jeeha was one of the camels that did not desert his master.

Apor-kinad and Ran-ikuy and Solzen-api and a dozen other camels wandered off in the second week of the storm and were never seen again.

Ba-jeeha, on the other hand, remained by the tent of the evil Addis Hamad, closed his eyes to the sand and sat still. Most of the camels, knowing the quiet one was really their leader even though he never spoke to them, chose to remain with him.

So, for hundreds of nights, especially those when the moon was sleeping on the far side of the world, Ba-jeeha sat beside the tent of Addis Hamad, waiting for a whistle to sound. Many times, his heart grew heavy with longing for the little slave boy. Many times, he almost wandered off, but in his mind, he could see the little boy kneeling on the sand and the steel tips of the whip cutting into his back. The courage he received from this vision made him able to endure all loneliness.

All this time, the trade of Addis Hamad grew in great bounds. One of his caravans had two or three hundred slaves. But he became even more greedy and the caravan grew to be the largest caravan ever to cross the desert. And he had many men working for him. All of them carried rifles. The caravan of Addis Hamad came to be known as the Walking Fort of the Desert.

Then, in the thirteenth year of Ba-jeeha, when the caravan was near the oasis of Ad Dabbah and had over a thousand slaves in its camp, strange lights of other campfires glowed on the far horizon.

"What do you think it means, master," asked one of Addis Hamad's men.

"It is only the fires of another slave trader," said the evil one. "We will talk to him in the morning!'  And the camp went into its long night's sleep. The thousand slaves slept under the trees. They did not need to be tied because if they ran away, they would only die of thirst in the desert.  Besides, the guards walked about with their rifles over their shoulders ready to shoot any slave who tried to run away.

Ba-jeeha, as always, slept beside the tent of Addis Hamad. He was drowsy. Two of his huge stomachs were full of water and he felt comfortable. He prepared to settle down for the night. As was his habit, his ears remained open and he could hear a little breeze whispering in the leaves of the palm trees. He would never give up hope of one night hearing the whistle of Telaturan. He looked up to the sky. It was dark. In the distance, away from the fires burning on the horizon, dark clouds were in the sky and he knew a sand storm was growing.   This, he thought, would be a great night for the escape.

Ba-jeeha was almost asleep.  The night was dark and a silence hung in the air. It was almost too quiet! Ba-jeeha stirred nervously. It was a strange night. Truly, the moon was asleep on the other side of the world; and, black clouds were getting bigger in the sky. But the strangest thing of all was the utter silence hanging over the whole desert. Incredibly, the camp was as silent. Even the slaves, who often sang sad and dismal songs in the darkness, were quiet.

And Ba-jeeha's head went up!  A sound! Faint at first, hardly a whisper of a sound; it seemed to tickle at his ears. The breezes were a little stronger in the palm leaves. He put his head down. He was so comfortable.

Then it came again! Way out on the edge of the desert! It was not the breeze in the leaves. It was not the sand storm. It was something different! Slowly, trying not to make any noise, Ba-jeeha stood up.   The sand fell off his body in a rush that reminded him of an avalanche in the far mountains. He dared not breathe. The sound came again! It sounded at first like a flute or some other instrument he had heard the guards playing many times.

But there was a strange, wild tone to it that never came from the guards' instruments.

His ears went straight up the way rabbits do. In his huge chest, the blood fled through his heart and his veins the way cars speed on a racetrack. And then, in a moment he’d remember all his life, there came to his ears the unmistakable whistle of Prince Telaturan! His heart gave a great leap as if it were a drum beat by a huge hammer. He had not forgotten! His little slave prince had come back.

Ba-jeeha knew a joy he would never know again. But he did not know what to do!

He waited. The whistle came again, faint but crisp. Slowly, his large feet touching on the sand like padded cushions, Ba-jeeha moved toward the sound.

"Look," said one of the guards with a rifle on his shoulder, "it is the master's camel. I've never seen him leave the tent of the master."

"It's nothing," said another guard. "Maybe he wants to get another drink. Let him be.  He will not go far." 

And the two guards went about their rounds. When they were out of sight, Ba-jeeha slipped out of the camp. The whistle still came out of the darkness and he followed it.  On the back side of a large sand dune, Ba-jeeha and Prince Telaturan came together.

"Great one, it is I, Prince Telaturan. You have been a true camel.  Now it is our turn to face the evil one!"

Out of the darkness, came an army of men. Their prince gave orders in a very quiet voice and one by one the first of the army slipped off into the night toward the camp of the evil one.

Addis Hamad never heard a sound. One by one, his guards were taken and their guns seized. Soon the camp was surrounded by the other prince's army and not one weapon was raised against them. Even the slaves still slept.

Prince Telaturan stood before the tent of Addis Hamad. His voice rose over the desert like the voice of a huge volcano. "Addis Hamad! Addis Hamad, the evil one!  Wake. I tell you! Wake, evil one. Prince Telaturan has come for your whip!"

Out of the tent came the evil one. His eyes flamed with a black hate. "Where are my guards? Who are you, strange one, that you dare to wake me from my sleep? The gods of the desert will haunt you all your life." 

Prince Telaturan spoke again in that deep voice. "Addis Hamad, I am the god of this desert! And I bear great scars on my back to show that I have earned the right to denounce you as the evilest man who ever lived." 

Somehow, though Telaturan was six years older, Addis Hamad knew who he was.  Fear leaped through his body. He looked about again to find his guards. Not one man stood to assist him. He wanted to run away, but there was no place to go.

Telaturan came forward and put his hand out.  "The whip, evil one, the whip."

Frightened more than he had ever been in his life, Addis Hamad, the great slave trader, handed his steel-tipped whip to the man who once had been his slave. Instead of being black, his eyes were pink and white and were as large as drachmas.

"You may go your way, evil one. But this I tell you. If I ever come upon you again, I will beat you until there is no life left in your body. Now go while you have your life."  

And the great slave trader, Addis Hamad, slipped off into the desert and was never heard of again.

Telaturan called to one of his men.  "Wake all the slaves. Tell them Prince Telaturan of the Great Tribe of the Shambe-Mongalla wishes to speak to them."

All the slaves came about the prince. "I am Prince Telaturan. I will see that you all get back to your villages.  We have water enough for the journey. But I will ask this. My army is small. I need many more men to join me in making war on all slave traders. I ask for volunteers.”

Many men came forward and knelt before him. One man came up and said, "All my children and my wife were killed by the evil one. I will serve you as my master." 

Prince Telaturan was sad but angry at the same time. He said, "Rise up, freeman, and be slave to no man and let no man be your master but yourself."

Back toward the heart of Africa went the caravan and for the first time in six years, Ba-jeeha, carrying Prince Telaturan on his back, spoke. He said to the other camels, "This truly is my master."

And to this day they tell the stories of the great army under Prince Telaturan that made endless war on the slave traders. And they tell of the great camel who came when the prince whistled and who later carried a great warrior safely out of hundreds of battles.

 

 

Bio note: Tom Sheehan’s 37th book was Alone, with the Good Graces and soon comes Jock Poems for Proper Bostonians, both from Pocol Press, and just received the first copy of his latest book, Small Victories for the Soul VII from Wilderness House Literary Review. In submission process is Beneath My Feet this Earth Slips into the Far-end of Another’s Telescope and Poems Found from Fallen Pages. He has multiple works inRosebudLiterally StoriesLinnet’s Wings, Frontier Tales, and many sites/magazines. He served as a sergeant in the 31st Infantry in Korea 1951-52.