The Alchemist Part-4
The boy had been working for the crystal merchant for almost a month, and he could see that it wasn’t exactly the kind of job that would make him happy. The merchant spent the entire day mumbling behind the counter, telling the boy to be careful with the pieces and not to break anything. But he stayed with the job because the merchant, although he was an old grouch, treated him fairly; the boy received a good commission for each piece he sold, and had already been able to put some money aside. That morning he had done some calculating: if he continued to work every day as he had been, he would need a whole year to be able to buy some sheep.
“I’d like to build a display case for the crystal,” the boy said to the merchant. “We could place it outside, and attract those people who pass at the bottom of the hill.”
“I’ve never had one before,” the merchant answered. “People will pass by and bump into it, and pieces will be broken.”
“Well, when I took my sheep through the fields some of them might have died if we had come upon a snake. But that’s the way life is with sheep and with shepherds.”
The merchant turned to a customer who wanted three crystal glasses. He was selling better than ever… as if time had turned back to the old days when the street had been one of Tangier’s major attractions.
“Business has really improved,” he said to the boy, after the customer had left. “I’m doing much better, and soon you’ll be able to return to your sheep. Why ask more out of life?”
“Because we have to respond to omens,” the boy said, almost without meaning to; then he regretted what he had said, because the merchant had never met the king.
“It’s called the principle of favorability, beginner’s luck. Because life wants you to achieve your destiny,” the old king had said.
But the merchant understood what the boy had said. The boy’s very presence in the shop was an omen, and, as time passed and money was pouring into the cash drawer, he had no regrets about having hired the boy. The boy was
being paid more money than he deserved, because the merchant, thinking that sales wouldn’t amount to much, had offered the boy a high commission rate. He had assumed he would soon return to his sheep.
“Why did you want to get to the Pyramids?” he asked, to get away from the business of the display.
“Because I’ve always heard about them,” the boy answered, saying nothing about his dream. The treasure was now nothing but a painful memory, and he tried to avoid thinking about it.
“I don’t know anyone around here who would want to cross the desert just to see the Pyramids,” said the merchant. “They’re just a pile of stones. You could build one in your backyard.”
“You’ve never had dreams of travel,” said the boy, turning to wait on a customer who had entered the shop. Two days later, the merchant spoke to the boy about the display.
“I don’t much like change,” he said. “You and I aren’t like Hassan, that rich merchant. If he makes a buying mistake, it doesn’t affect him much. But we two have to live with our mistakes.”
That’s true enough, the boy thought, ruefully.
“Why did you think we should have the display?”
“I want to get back to my sheep faster. We have to take advantage when luck is on our side, and do as much to help it as it’s doing to help us. It’s called the principle of favorability. Or beginner’s luck.”
The merchant was silent for a few moments. Then he said, “The Prophet gave us the Koran, and left us just five obligations to satisfy during our lives. The most important is to believe only in the one true God. The others are to pray five times a day, fast during Ramadan, and be charitable to the poor.”
He stopped there. His eyes filled with tears as he spoke of the Prophet. He was a devout man, and, even with all his impatience, he wanted to live his life in accordance with Muslim law.
“What’s the fifth obligation?” the boy asked.
“Two days ago, you said that I had never dreamed of travel,” the merchant answered. “The fifth obligation of every Muslim is a pilgrimage. We are obliged, at least once in our lives, to visit the holy city of Mecca.
“Mecca is a lot farther away than the Pyramids. When I was young, all I wanted to do was put together enough money to start this shop. I thought that someday I’d be rich, and could go to Mecca. I began to make some money, but I could never bring myself to leave someone in charge of the shop; the crystals are delicate things. At the same time, people were passing my shop all the time, heading for Mecca. Some of them were rich pilgrims, traveling in caravans with servants and camels, but most of the people making the pilgrimage were poorer
“All who went there were happy at having done so. They placed the symbols of the pilgrimage on the doors of their houses. One of them, a cobbler who made his living mending boots, said that he had traveled for almost a year through the desert, but that he got more tired when he had to walk through the streets of Tangier buying his leather.”
“Well, why don’t you go to Mecca now?” asked the boy.
“Because it’s the thought of Mecca that keeps me alive. That’s what helps me face these days that are all the same, these mute crystals on the shelves, and lunch and dinner at that same horrible caf . I’m afraid that if my dream is realized, I’ll have no reason to go on living. “You dream about your sheep and the Pyramids, but you’re different from me, because you want to realize your dreams. I just want to dream about Mecca. I’ve already imagined a thousand times crossing the desert, arriving at the Plaza of the Sacred Stone, the seven times I walk around it before allowing myself to touch it. I’ve already imagined the people who would be at my side, and those in front of me, and the conversations and prayers we would share. But I’m afraid that it would all be a disappointment, so I prefer just to dream about it.”
That day, the merchant gave the boy permission to build the display. Not everyone can see his dreams come true in the same way.
Two more months passed, and the shelf brought many customers into the crystal shop. The boy estimated that, if he worked for six more months, he could return to Spain and buy sixty sheep, and yet another sixty. In less than a year, he would have doubled his flock, and he would be able to do business with the Arabs, because he was now able to
speak their strange language. Since that morning in the marketplace, he had never again made use of Urim and Thummim, because Egypt was now just as distant a dream for him as was Mecca for the merchant. Anyway, the boy had become happy in his work, and thought all the time about the day when he would disembark at Tarifa as a winner.
“You must always know what it is that you want,” the old king had said. The boy knew, and was now working toward it. Maybe it was his treasure to have wound up in that strange land, met up with a thief, and doubled the size of his flock without spending a cent.
He was proud of himself. He had learned some important things, like how to deal in crystal, and about the language without words… and about omens. One afternoon he had seen a man at the top of the hill, complaining that it was impossible to find a decent place to get something to drink after such a climb. The boy, accustomed to recognizing omens, spoke to the merchant.
“Let’s sell tea to the people who climb the hill.”
“Lots of places sell tea around here,” the merchant said.
“But we could sell tea in crystal glasses. The people will enjoy the tea and want to buy the glasses. I have been told that beauty is the great seducer of men.”
The merchant didn’t respond, but that afternoon, after saying his prayers and closing the shop, he invited the boy to sit with him and share his hookah, that strange pipe used by the Arabs.
“What is it you’re looking for?” asked the old merchant.
“I’ve already told you. I need to buy my sheep back, so I have to earn the money to do so.” The merchant put some new coals in the hookah, and inhaled deeply.
“I’ve had this shop for thirty years. I know good crystal from bad, and everything else there is to know about crystal. I know its dimensions and how it behaves. If we serve tea in crystal, the shop is going to expand. And then I’ll have to change my way of life.”
“Well, isn’t that good?”
“I’m already used to the way things are. Before you came, I was thinking about how much time I had wasted in the same place, while my friends had moved on, and either went bankrupt or did better than they had before. It made me very depressed. Now, I can see that it hasn’t been too bad. The shop is exactly the size I always wanted it to be. I don’t want to change anything, because I don’t know how to deal with change. I’m used to the way I am.”
The boy didn’t know what to say. The old man continued, “You have been a real blessing to me. Today, I understand something I didn’t see before: every blessing ignored becomes a curse. I don’t want anything else in life. But you are forcing me to look at wealth and at horizons I have never known. Now that I have seen them, and now that I see how immense my possibilities are, I’m going to feel worse than I did before you arrived. Because I know the things I should be able to accomplish, and I don’t want to do so.”
It’s good I refrained from saying anything to the baker in Tarifa, thought the boy to himself.
They went on smoking the pipe for a while as the sun began to set. They were conversing in Arabic, and the boy was proud of himself for being able to do so. There had been a time when he thought that his sheep could teach him everything he needed to know about the world. But they could never have taught him Arabic.
There are probably other things in the world that the sheep can’t teach me, thought the boy as he regarded the old merchant. All they ever do, really, is look for food and water. And maybe it wasn’t that they were teaching me, but that I was learning from them.
the merchant said, finally.
“What does that mean?”
“You would have to have been born an Arab to understand,” he answered. “But in your language it would be something like ‘It is written.’ ”
And, as he smothered the coals in the hookah, he told the boy that he could begin to sell tea in the crystal glasses. Sometimes, there’s just no way to hold back the river.
* The men climbed the hill, and they were tired when they reached the top. But there they saw a crystal shop that offered refreshing mint tea. They went in to drink the tea, which was served in beautiful crystal glasses.
“My wife never thought of this,” said one, and he bought some crystal–he was entertaining guests that night, and the guests would be impressed by the beauty of the glassware. The other man remarked that tea was always more delicious when it was served in crystal, because the aroma was retained. The third said that it was a tradition in the Orient to use crystal glasses for tea because it had magical powers.
Before long, the news spread, and a great many people began to climb the hill to see the shop that was doing something new in a trade that was so old. Other shops were opened that served tea in crystal, but they weren’t at the top of a hill, and they had little business.
Eventually, the merchant had to hire two more employees. He began to import enormous quantities of tea, along with his crystal, and his shop was sought out by men and women with a thirst for things new.
And, in that way, the months passed.
The boy awoke before dawn. It had been eleven months and nine days since he had first set foot on the African continent.
He dressed in his Arabian clothing of white linen, bought especially for this day. He put his headcloth in place and secured it with a ring made of camel skin. Wearing his new sandals, he descended the stairs silently.
The city was still sleeping. He prepared himself a sandwich and drank some hot tea from a crystal glass. Then he sat in the sun-filled doorway, smoking the hookah.
He smoked in silence, thinking of nothing, and listening to the sound of the wind that brought the scent of the desert. When he had finished his smoke, he reached into one of his pockets, and sat there for a few moments, regarding what he had withdrawn.
It was a bundle of money. Enough to buy himself a hundred and twenty sheep, a return ticket, and a license to import products from Africa into his own country.
He waited patiently for the merchant to awaken and open the shop. Then the two went off to have some more tea.
“I’m leaving today,” said the boy. “I have the money I need to buy my sheep. And you have the money you need to go to Mecca.”
The old man said nothing.
“Will you give me your blessing?” asked the boy. “You have helped me.” The man continued to prepare his tea, saying nothing. Then he turned to the boy. “I am proud of you,” he said. “You brought a new feeling into my crystal shop. But you know that I’m not going to go to Mecca. Just as you know that you’re not going to buy your sheep.”
“Who told you that?” asked the boy, startled.
“Maktub” said the old crystal merchant.
And he gave the boy his blessing.
The boy went to his room and packed his belongings. They filled three sacks. As he was leaving, he saw, in the corner of the room, his old shepherd’s pouch. It was bunched up, and he had hardly thought of it for a long time. As he took his jacket out of the pouch, thinking to give it to someone in the street, the two stones fell to the floor. Urim and Thummim.
It made the boy think of the old king, and it startled him to realize how long it had been since he had thought of him. For nearly a year, he had been working incessantly, thinking only of putting aside enough money so that he could return to Spain with pride.
“Never stop dreaming,” the old king had said. “Follow the omens.”
The boy picked up Urim and Thummim, and, once again, had the strange sensation that the old king was nearby. He had worked hard for a year, and the omens were that it was time to go.
I’m going to go back to doing just what I did before, the boy thought. Even though the sheep didn’t teach me to speak Arabic.
But the sheep had taught him something even more important: that there was a language in the world that everyone understood, a language the boy had used throughout the time that he was trying to improve things at
the shop. It was the language of enthusiasm, of things accomplished with love and purpose, and as part of a search for something believed in and desired. Tangier was no longer a strange city, and he felt that, just as he had conquered this place, he could conquer the world.
“When you want something, all the universe conspires to help you achieve it,” the old king had said.
But the old king hadn’t said anything about being robbed, or about endless deserts, or about people who know what their dreams are but don’t want to realize them. The old king hadn’t told him that the Pyramids were just a pile of stones, or that anyone could build one in his backyard. And he had forgotten to mention that, when you have enough money to buy a flock larger than the one you had before, you should buy it.
The boy picked up his pouch and put it with his other things. He went down the stairs and found the merchant waiting on a foreign couple, while two other customers walked about the shop, drinking tea from crystal glasses. It was more activity than usual for this time of the morning. From where he stood, he saw for the first time that the old merchant’s hair was very much like the hair of the old king. He remembered the smile of the candy seller, on his first day in Tangier, when he had nothing to eat and nowhere to go–that smile had also been like the old king’s smile.
It’s almost as if he had been here and left his mark, he thought. And yet, none of these people has ever met the old king. On the other hand, he said that he always appeared to help those who are trying to realize their destiny.
He left without saying good-bye to the crystal merchant. He didn’t want to cry with the other people there. He was going to miss the place and all the good things he had learned. He was more confident in himself, though, and felt as though he could conquer the world.
“But I’m going back to the fields that I know, to take care of my flock again.” He said that to himself with certainty, but he was no longer happy with his decision. He had worked for an entire year to make a dream come true, and that dream, minute by minute, was becoming less important. Maybe because that wasn’t really his dream.
Who knows… maybe it’s better to be like the crystal merchant: never go to Mecca, and just go through life
wanting to do so, he thought, again trying to convince himself. But as he held Urim and Thummim in his hand, they had transmitted to him the strength and will of the old king. By coincidence–or maybe it was an omen, the boy thought–he came to the bar he had entered on his first day there. The thief wasn’t there, and the owner brought him a cup of tea.
I can always go back to being a shepherd, the boy thought. I learned how to care for sheep, and I haven’t forgotten how that’s done. But maybe I’ll never have another chance to get to the Pyramids in Egypt. The old man wore a breastplate of gold, and he knew about my past. He really was a king, a wise king.
The hills of Andalusia were only two hours away, but there was an entire desert between him and the Pyramids. Yet the boy felt that there was another way to regard his situation: he was actually two hours closer to his treasure… the fact that the two hours had stretched into an entire year didn’t matter.
I know why I want to get back to my flock, he thought. I understand sheep; they’re
no longer a problem, and they can be good friends. On the other hand, I don’t know if the desert can be a friend, and it’s in the desert that I have to search for my treasure. If I don’t find it, I can always go home. I finally have enough money, and all the time I need. Why not?
He suddenly felt tremendously happy. He could always go back to being a shepherd. He could always become a crystal salesman again. Maybe the world had other hidden treasures, but he had a dream, and he had met with a king. That doesn’t happen to just anyone!
He was planning as he left the bar. He had remembered that one of the crystal merchant’s suppliers transported his crystal by means of caravans that crossed the desert. He held Urim and Thummim in his hand; because of those two stones, he was once again on the way to his treasure.
“I am always nearby, when someone wants to realize their destiny,” the old king had told him.
What could it cost to go over to the supplier’s warehouse and find out if the Pyramids were really that far away?
The Englishman was sitting on a bench in a structure that smelled of animals, sweat, and dust; it was part warehouse, part corral. I never thought I’d end up in a place like this, he thought, as he leafed through the pages of a chemical journal. Ten years at the university, and here I am in a corral.
But he had to move on. He believed in omens. All his life and all his studies were aimed at finding the one true language of the universe. First he had studied Esperanto, then the world’s religions, and now it was alchemy. He knew how to speak Esperanto, he understood all the major religions well, but he wasn’t yet an alchemist. He had unraveled the truths behind important questions, but his studies had taken him to a point beyond which he could not seem to go. He had tried in vain to establish a relationship with an alchemist. But the alchemists were strange people, who thought only about themselves, and almost always refused to help him. Who knows, maybe they had failed to discover the secret of the Master Work–the Philosopher’s Stone– and for this reason kept their knowledge to themselves.
He had already spent much of the fortune left to him by his father, fruitlessly seeking the Philosopher’s Stone. He had spent enormous amounts of time at the great libraries of the world, and had purchased all the rarest and most important volumes on alchemy. In one he had read that, many years ago, a famous Arabian alchemist had visited Europe. It was said that he was more than two hundred years old, and that he had discovered the Philosopher’s Stone and the Elixir of Life. The Englishman had been profoundly impressed by the story. But he would never have thought it more than just a myth, had not a friend of his–returning from an archaeological expedition in the desert–told him about an Arab that was possessed of exceptional powers.
“He lives at the Al-Fayoum oasis,” his friend had said. “And
people say that he is two hundred years old, and is able to transform any metal into gold.”
The Englishman could not contain his excitement. He canceled all his commitments and pulled together the most important of his books, and now here he was, sitting inside a dusty, smelly warehouse. Outside, a huge caravan was being prepared for a crossing of the Sahara, and was scheduled to pass through Al-Fayoum.
I’m going to find that damned alchemist, the Englishman thought. And the odor of the animals became a bit more tolerable.
A young Arab, also loaded down with baggage, entered, and greeted the Englishman. “Where are you
bound?” asked the young Arab.
“I’m going into the desert,” the man answered, turning back to his reading. He didn’t want any conversation at this point. What he needed to do was review all he had learned over the years, because the alchemist would certainly put him to the test.
The young Arab took out a book and began to read. The book was written in Spanish. That’s good, thought the Englishman. He spoke Spanish better than Arabic, and, if this boy was going to Al-Fayoum, there would be someone to talk to when there were no other important things to do.
“That’s strange,” said the boy, as he tried once again to read the burial scene that began the book. “I’ve been trying for two years to read this book, and I never get past these first few pages.” Even without a king to provide an interruption, he was unable to concentrate.
He still had some doubts about the decision he had made. But he was able to understand one thing: making a decision was only the beginning of things. When someone makes a decision, he is really diving into a strong current that will carry him to places he had never dreamed of when he first made the decision.
When I decided to seek out my treasure, I never imagined that I’d wind up working in a crystal shop, he thought. And joining this caravan may have been my decision, but where it goes is going to be a mystery to me.
Nearby was the Englishman, reading a book. He seemed unfriendly, and had looked irritated when the boy had entered. They might even have become friends, but the Englishman closed off the conversation.
The boy closed his book. He felt that he didn’t want to do anything that might make him look like the Englishman. He took Urim and Thummim from his pocket, and began playing with them.
The stranger shouted, “Urim and Thummim!”
In a flash the boy put them back in his pocket.
“They’re not for sale,” he said.
“They’re not worth much,” the Englishman answered. “They’re only made of rock crystal, and there are millions of rock crystals in the earth. But those who know about such things would know that those are Urim and Thummim. I didn’t know that they had them in this part of the world.”
“They were given to me as a present by a king,” the boy said.
The stranger didn’t answer; instead, he put his hand in his pocket, and took out two stones that were the same as the boy’s. “Did you say a king?” he asked.
“I guess you don’t believe that a king would talk to someone like me, a shepherd,” he said, wanting to end the conversation.
“Not at all. It was shepherds who were the first to recognize a king that the rest of the world refused to acknowledge. So, it’s not surprising that kings would talk to shepherds.”
And he went on, fearing that the boy wouldn’t understand what he was talking about, “It’s in the Bible. The same book that taught me about Urim and Thummim. These stones were the only form of divination permitted by God. The priests carried them in a golden breastplate.”
The boy was suddenly happy to be there at the warehouse.
“Maybe this is an omen,” said the Englishman, half aloud.
“Who told you about omens?” The boy’s interest was increasing by the moment.
“Everything in life is an omen,” said the Englishman, now closing the
journal he was reading. “There is a universal language, understood by everybody, but already forgotten. I am in search of that universal language, among other things. That’s why I’m here. I have to find a man who knows that universal language. An alchemist.”
The conversation was interrupted by the warehouse boss.
“You’re in luck, you two,” the fat Arab said. “There’s a caravan leaving today for Al- Fayoum.”
“But I’m going to Egypt,” the boy said.
“Al-Fayoum is in Egypt,” said the Arab. “What kind of Arab are you?”
“That’s a good luck omen,” the Englishman said, after the fat Arab had gone out. “If I could, I’d write a huge encyclopedia just about the words luck and coincidence. It’s with those words that the universal language is written.”
He told the boy it was no coincidence that he had met him with Urim and Thummim in his hand. And he asked the boy if he, too, were in search of the alchemist.
“I’m looking for a treasure,” said the boy, and he immediately regretted having said it. But the Englishman appeared not to attach any importance to it.
“In a way, so am I,” he said.
“I don’t even know what alchemy is,” the boy was saying, when the warehouse boss called to them to come outside.
* “I’m the leader of the caravan,” said a dark-eyed, bearded man. “I hold the power of life and death for every person I take with me. The desert is a capricious lady, and sometimes she drives men crazy.”
There were almost two hundred people gathered there, and four hundred animals– camels, horses, mules, and fowl. In the crowd were women, children, and a number of men with swords at their belts and rifles slung on their shoulders. The Englishman had several suitcases filled with books. There was a babble of noise, and the leader had to repeat himself several times for everyone to understand what he was saying.
“There are a lot of different people here, and each has his own God. But the only God I serve is Allah, and in his name I swear that I will do everything possible once again to win out over the desert. But I want each and every one of you to swear by the God you believe in that you will follow my orders no matter what. In the desert, disobedience means death.”
There was a murmur from the crowd. Each was swearing quietly to his or her own God. The boy swore to Jesus Christ. The Englishman said nothing. And the murmur lasted longer than a simple vow would have. The people were also praying to heaven for protection.
A long note was sounded on a bugle, and everyone mounted up. The boy and the Englishman had bought camels, and climbed uncertainly onto their backs. The boy felt sorry for the Englishman’s camel, loaded down as he was with the cases of books.
“There’s no such thing as coincidence,” said the Englishman, picking up the conversation where it had been interrupted in the warehouse. “I’m here because a friend of mine heard of an Arab who…”
But the caravan began to move, and it was impossible to hear what the Englishman was saying. The boy knew what he was about to describe, though: the mysterious chain that links one thing to another, the same chain that had caused him to become a shepherd, that had caused his recurring dream, that had brought him to a city near Africa, to find a king, and to be robbed in order to meet a crystal merchant, and…
The closer one gets to realizing his destiny, the
more that destiny becomes his true reason for being, thought the boy.
The caravan moved toward the east. It traveled during the morning, halted when the sun was at its strongest, and resumed late in the afternoon. The boy spoke very little with the Englishman, who spent most of his time with his books.
The boy observed in silence the progress of the animals and people across the desert. Now everything was quite different from how it was that day they had set out: then, there had been confusion and shouting, the cries of children and the whinnying of animals, all mixed with the nervous orders of the guides and the merchants.
But, in the desert, there was only the sound of the eternal wind, and of the hoofbeats of the animals. Even the guides spoke very little to one another. “I’ve crossed these sands many times,” said one of the camel drivers one night. “But the desert is so huge, and the horizons so distant, that they make a person feel small, and as if he should remain silent.”
The boy understood intuitively what he meant, even without ever having set foot in the desert before. Whenever he saw the sea, or a fire, he fell silent, impressed by their elemental force.
I’ve learned things from the sheep, and I’ve learned things from crystal, he thought. I can learn something from the desert, too. It seems old and wise.
The wind never stopped, and the boy remembered the day he had sat at the fort in Tarifa with this same wind blowing in his face. It reminded him of the wool from his sheep… his sheep who were now seeking food and water in the fields of Andalusia, as they always had.
“They’re not my sheep anymore,” he said to himself, without nostalgia. “They must be used to their new shepherd, and have probably already forgotten me. That’s good. Creatures like the sheep, that are used to traveling,
know about moving on.”
He thought of the merchant’s daughter, and was sure that she had probably married. Perhaps to a baker, or to another shepherd who could read and could tell her exciting stories–after all, he probably wasn’t the only one. But he was excited at his intuitive understanding of the camel driver’s comment: maybe he was also learning the universal language that deals with the past and the present of all people. “Hunches,” his mother used to call them. The boy was beginning to understand that intuition is really a sudden immersion of the soul into the universal current of life, where the histories of all people are connected, and we are able to know everything, because it’s all written there.
“Maktub,” the boy said, remembering the crystal merchant.
The desert was all sand in some stretches, and rocky in others. When the caravan was blocked by a boulder, it had to go around it; if there was a large rocky area, they had to make a major detour. If the sand was too fine for the animals’ hooves, they sought a way where the sand was more substantial. In some places, the ground was covered with the salt of dried-up lakes. The animals balked at such places, and the camel drivers were forced to dismount and unburden their charges. The drivers carried the freight themselves over such treacherous footing, and then reloaded the
camels. If a guide were to fall ill or die, the camel drivers would draw lots and appoint a new one.
But all this happened for one basic reason: no matter how many detours and adjustments it made, the caravan moved toward the same compass point. Once obstacles were overcome, it returned to its course, sighting on a star that indicated the location of the oasis. When the people saw that star shining in the morning sky, they knew they were on the right course toward water, palm trees, shelter, and other people. It was only the Englishman who was unaware of all this; he was, for the most part, immersed in reading his books. The boy, too, had his book, and he had tried to read it during the first few days of the journey. But he found it much more interesting to observe the caravan and listen to the wind. As soon as he had learned to know his camel better, and to establish a relationship with him, he threw the book away. Although the boy had developed a superstition that each time he opened the book he would learn something important, he decided it was an unnecessary burden.
He became friendly with the camel driver who traveled alongside him. At night, as they sat around the fire, the boy related to the driver his adventures as a shepherd.
During one of these conversations, the driver told of his own life.
“I used to live near El Cairum,” he said. “I had my orchard, my children, and a life that would change not at all until I died. One year, when the crop was the best ever, we all went to Mecca, and I satisfied the only unmet obligation in my life. I could die happily, and that made me feel good.
“One day, the earth began to tremble, and
the Nile overflowed its banks. It was something that I thought could happen only to others, never to me. My neighbors feared they would lose all their olive trees in the flood, and my wife was afraid that we would lose our children. I thought that everything I owned would be destroyed.
“The land was ruined, and I had to find some other way to earn a living. So now I’m a camel driver. But that disaster taught me to understand the word of Allah: people need not fear the unknown if they are capable of achieving what they need and want.
“We are afraid of losing what we have, whether it’s our life or our possessions and property. But this fear evaporates when we understand that our life stories and the history of the world were written by the same hand.”
Sometimes, their caravan met with another. One always had something that the other needed–as if everything were indeed written by one hand. As they sat around the fire, the camel drivers exchanged information about windstorms, and told stories about the desert.
At other times, mysterious, hooded men would appear; they were Bedouins who did surveillance along the caravan route. They provided warnings about thieves and barbarian tribes. They came in silence and departed the same way, dressed in black garments that showed only their eyes. One night, a camel driver came to the fire where the Englishman and the boy were sitting. “There are rumors of tribal wars,” he told them.
The three fell silent. The boy noted that there was a sense of fear in the air, even though no one said anything. Once again he was experiencing the language without words… the universal language.
The Englishman asked if they were in danger. “Once you get into the desert, there’s no going back,” said the camel driver. “And, when you can’t go back, you have to worry only about the best way of moving forward. The rest is up to Allah, including the danger.”
And he concluded by saying the mysterious word: “Maktub.”
“You should pay more attention to the caravan,” the boy said to the Englishman, after the camel driver had left. “We make a lot of detours, but we’re always heading for the same destination.”
“And you ought to read more about the world,” answered the Englishman. “Books are like caravans in that respect.”
The immense collection of people and animals began to travel faster. The days had always been silent, but now, even the nights–when the travelers were accustomed to talking around the fires–had also become quiet. And, one day, the leader of the caravan made the decision that the fires should no longer be lighted, so as not to attract attention to the caravan.
The travelers adopted the practice of arranging the animals in a circle at night, sleeping together in the center as protection against the nocturnal cold. And the leader posted armed sentinels at the fringes of the group.
The Englishman was unable to sleep one night. He called to the boy, and they took a walk along the dunes surrounding the encampment.
There was a full moon, and the boy told the Englishman the story of his life.
The Englishman was fascinated with the part about the progress achieved at the crystal shop after the boy began working there.
“That’s the principle that governs all things,” he said. “In alchemy, it’s called the Soul of the World. When you want something with all your heart, that’s when you are closest to the Soul of the World. It’s always a positive force.”
He also said that this was not just a human gift, that everything on the face of the earth had a soul, whether mineral, vegetable, or animal–or even just a simple thought.
“Everything on earth is being continuously transformed, because the earth is alive… and it has a soul. We are part of that soul, so we rarely recognize that it is working for us. But in the crystal shop you probably realized that even the glasses were collaborating in your success.”
The boy thought about that for a while as he looked at the moon and the bleached sands. “I have watched the caravan as it crossed the desert,” he said. “The caravan and the desert speak the same language, and it’s for that reason that the desert allows the crossing. It’s going to test the caravan’s every step to see if it’s in time, and, if it is, we will make it to the oasis.” “If either of us had joined this caravan based only on personal courage, but without understanding that language, this journey would have been much more difficult.”
They stood there looking at the moon.
“That’s the magic of omens,” said the boy. “I’ve seen how the guides read the signs of the desert, and how the soul of the caravan speaks to the soul of the desert.”
The Englishman said, “I’d better pay more attention to the caravan.”
“And I’d better read your books,” said the boy.