The Alchemist Part-6

The boy approached the guard at the front of the huge white tent at the center of the oasis.

“I want to see the chieftains. I’ve brought omens from the desert.”

Without responding, the guard entered the tent, where he remained for some time. When he emerged, it was with a young Arab, dressed in white and gold. The boy told the younger man what he had seen, and the man asked him to wait there. He disappeared into the tent. Night fell, and an assortment of fighting men and merchants entered and exited the tent. One by one, the campfires were extinguished, and the oasis fell as quiet as the desert. Only the lights in the great tent remained. During all this time, the boy thought about Fatima, and he was still unable to understand his last conversation with her.

Finally, after hours of waiting, the guard bade the boy enter. The boy was astonished by what he saw inside. Never could he have imagined that, there in the middle of the desert, there existed a tent like this one. The ground was covered with the most beautiful carpets he had ever walked upon, and from the top of the structure hung lamps of hand-wrought gold, each with a lighted candle. The tribal chieftains were seated at the back of the tent in a semicircle, resting upon richly embroidered silk cushions. Servants came and went with silver trays laden with spices and tea. Other servants maintained the fires in the hookahs. The atmosphere was suffused with the sweet scent of smoke.

There were eight chieftains, but the boy could see immediately which of them was the most important: an Arab dressed in white and gold, seated at the center of the semicircle. At his side was the young Arab the boy had spoken with earlier.

“Who is this stranger who speaks of omens?” asked one of the chieftains, eyeing the boy.

“It is I,” the boy answered. And he told what he had seen.

“Why would the desert reveal such things to a stranger, when it knows that we have been here for generations?” said another of the chieftains.

“Because my eyes are not yet accustomed to the desert,” the boy said. “I can see things that eyes habituated to the desert might not see.”

And also because I know about the Soul of the World, he thought to himself.

“The oasis is neutral ground. No one attacks an oasis,” said a third chieftain.

“I can only tell you what I saw. If you don’t want to believe me,

you don’t have to do anything about it.”

The men fell into an animated discussion. They spoke in an Arabic dialect that the boy didn’t understand, but, when he made to leave, the guard told him to stay. The boy became fearful; the omens told him that something was wrong. He regretted having spoken to the camel driver about what he had seen in the desert.

Suddenly, the elder at the center smiled almost imperceptibly, and the boy felt better. The man hadn’t participated in the discussion, and, in fact, hadn’t said a word up to that point. But the boy was already used to the Language of the World, and he could feel the vibrations of peace throughout the tent. Now his intuition was that he had been right in coming. The discussion ended. The chieftains were silent for a few moments as they listened to what the old man was saying. Then he turned to the boy: this time his expression was cold and distant.

“Two thousand years ago, in a distant land, a man who believed in dreams was thrown into a dungeon and then sold as a slave,” the old man said, now in the dialect the boy understood. “Our merchants bought that man, and brought him to Egypt. All of us know that whoever believes in dreams also knows how to interpret them.”

The elder continued, “When the pharaoh dreamed of cows that were thin and cows that were fat, this man I’m speaking of rescued Egypt from famine. His name was Joseph. He, too, was a stranger in a strange land, like you, and he was probably about your age.”

He paused, and his eyes were still unfriendly.

“We always observe the Tradition. The Tradition saved Egypt from famine in those days, and made the Egyptians the wealthiest of peoples. The Tradition teaches men how to cross the desert, and how their children should marry. The Tradition says that an oasis is neutral territory, because both sides have oases, and so both are vulnerable.”

No one said a word as the old man continued.

“But the Tradition also says that we should believe the messages of the desert. Everything we know was taught to us by the desert.”

The old man gave a signal, and everyone stood. The meeting was over. The hookahs were extinguished, and

the guards stood at attention. The boy made ready to leave, but the old man spoke again:

“Tomorrow, we are going to break the agreement that says that no one at the oasis may carry arms. Throughout the entire day we will be on the lookout for our enemies. When the sun sets, the men will once again surrender their arms to me. For every ten dead men among our enemies, you will receive a piece of gold.

“But arms cannot be drawn unless they also go into battle. Arms are as capricious as the desert, and, if they are not used, the next time they might not function. If at least one of them hasn’t been used by the end of the day tomorrow, one will be used on you.”

When the boy left the tent, the oasis was illuminated only by the light of the full moon. He was twenty minutes from his tent, and began to make his way there.

He was alarmed by what had happened. He had succeeded in reaching through to the Soul of the World, and now the price for having done so might be his life. It was a frightening bet. But he had been making risky bets ever since the day he had sold his sheep to pursue his destiny. And, as the camel driver had said, to die tomorrow was no worse than dying on any other day. Every day was there to be lived or to mark one’s departure from this world. Everything depended on one word: “Maktub.” Walking along in the silence, he had no regrets. If he died tomorrow, it would be because God was not willing to change the future. He would at least have died after having crossed the strait, after having worked in a crystal shop, and after having known the silence of the desert and Fatima’s eyes. He had lived every one of his days intensely since he had left home so long ago. If he died tomorrow, he would already have seen more than other shepherds, and he was proud of that.

Suddenly he heard a thundering sound, and he was thrown to the ground by a wind such as he had never known. The area was swirling in dust so intense that it hid the moon from view. Before him was an enormous white horse, rearing over him with a frightening scream.

When the blinding dust had settled a bit, the boy trembled at what he saw. Astride the animal was a horseman dressed completely in black, with a falcon perched on his left shoulder. He wore a turban and his entire face, except for his eyes, was covered with a black kerchief. He appeared to be a messenger from the desert, but his presence was much more powerful than that of a mere messenger.

The strange horseman drew an enormous, curved sword from a scabbard mounted on his saddle. The steel of its blade glittered in the light of the moon.

“Who dares to read the meaning of the flight of the hawks?” he demanded, so loudly that his words seemed to echo through the fifty thousand palm trees of Al-Fayoum.

“It is I who dared to do so,” said the boy. He was reminded of the image of Santiago Matamoros, mounted on his white horse, with the infidels beneath his hooves. This man looked exactly the same, except that now the roles were reversed.

“It is I who dared to do so,” he repeated, and he lowered his head to receive a blow from the sword. “Many lives will be saved, because I was able to see through to the Soul of the World.”

The sword didn’t fall. Instead, the stranger lowered it slowly, until the point touched the boy’s forehead. It drew a droplet of blood.

The horseman was completely immobile, as was the boy. It didn’t even occur to the boy to flee. In his heart, he felt a strange sense of joy: he was about to die in pursuit of his destiny. And for Fatima. The omens had been true, after all. Here he was, face-to- face with his enemy, but there was no need to be concerned about dying–the Soul of the World awaited him, and he would soon be a part of it. And, tomorrow, his enemy would also be apart of that Soul.

The stranger continued to hold the sword at the boy’s forehead. “Why did you read the flight of the birds?”

“I read only what the birds wanted to tell me. They wanted to save the oasis. Tomorrow all of you will die, because there are more men at the oasis than you have.”

The sword remained where it was. “Who are you to change what Allah has willed?” “Allah created the armies, and he also created the hawks. Allah taught me the language of the birds. Everything has been written by the same hand,” the boy said, remembering the camel driver’s words.

The stranger withdrew the sword from the boy’s forehead, and the boy felt immensely relieved. But he still couldn’t flee.

“Be careful with your prognostications,” said the stranger. “When something is written, there is no way to change it.”

“All I saw was an army,” said the boy. “I didn’t see the outcome of the battle.”

The stranger seemed satisfied with the answer. But he kept the sword in his hand. “What is a stranger doing in a strange land?”

“I am following my destiny. It’s not something you would understand.”

The stranger placed his sword in its scabbard, and the boy relaxed.

“I had to test your courage,” the stranger said. “Courage is the quality most essential to understanding the Language of the World.”

The boy was surprised. The stranger was speaking of things that very few people knew about.

“You must not let up, even after having come so far,” he continued. “You must love the desert, but never trust it completely. Because the desert tests all men: it challenges every step, and kills those who become distracted.”

What he said reminded the boy of the old king.

“If the warriors come here, and your head is still on your shoulders at sunset, come and find me,” said the stranger.

The same hand that had brandished the sword now held a whip. The horse reared again, raising a cloud of dust.

“Where do you live?” shouted the boy, as the horseman rode away.

The hand with the whip pointed to the south.

The boy had met the alchemist.

*

Next morning, there were two thousand armed men scattered throughout the palm trees at Al-Fayoum. Before the sun had reached its high point, five hundred tribesmen appeared on the horizon. The mounted troops entered the oasis from the north; it appeared to be a peaceful expedition, but they all carried arms hidden in their robes. When they reached the white tent at the center of Al-Fayoum, they withdrew their scimitars and rifles. And they attacked an empty tent.

The men of the oasis surrounded the horsemen from the desert and within half an hour all but one of the intruders were dead. The children had been kept at the other side of a grove of palm trees, and saw nothing of what had happened. The women had remained in their tents, praying for the safekeeping of their husbands, and saw nothing of the battle, either. Were it not for the bodies there on the ground, it would have appeared to be a normal day at the oasis.

The only tribesman spared was the commander of the battalion. That afternoon, he was brought before the tribal chieftains, who asked him why he had violated the Tradition. The commander said that his men had been starving and thirsty, exhausted from many days of battle, and had decided to take the oasis so as to be able to return to the war.

The tribal chieftain said that he felt sorry for the tribesmen, but that the Tradition was sacred. He condemned the commander to death without honor. Rather than being killed by a blade or a bullet, he was hanged from a dead palm tree, where his body twisted in the desert wind.

The tribal chieftain called for the boy, and presented him with fifty pieces of gold. He repeated his story about Joseph of Egypt, and asked the boy to become the counselor of the oasis.

*

When the sun had set, and the first stars made their appearance, the boy started to walk to the south. He eventually sighted a single tent, and a group of Arabs passing by told the boy that it was a place inhabited by genies. But the boy sat down and waited.

Not until the moon was high did the alchemist ride into view. He carried two dead hawks over his shoulder.

“I am here,” the boy said.

“You shouldn’t be here,” the alchemist answered. “Or is it your destiny that brings you here?”

“With the wars between the tribes, it’s impossible to cross the desert. So I have come here.”

The alchemist dismounted from his horse, and signaled that the boy should enter the tent with him. It was a tent like many at the oasis. The boy looked around for the ovens and other apparatus used in alchemy, but saw none. There were only some books in a pile, a small cooking stove, and the carpets, covered with mysterious designs.

“Sit down. We’ll have something to drink and eat these hawks,” said the alchemist. The boy suspected that they were the same hawks he had seen on the day before, but he said nothing. The alchemist lighted the fire, and soon a delicious aroma filled the tent. It was better than the scent of the hookahs.

“Why did you want to see me?” the boy asked.

“Because of the omens,” the alchemist answered. “The wind told me you would be coming, and that you would need help.”

“It’s not I the wind spoke about. It’s the other foreigner, the Englishman. He’s the one that’s looking for you.”

“He has other things to do first. But he’s on the right track. He has begun to try to understand the desert.”

“And what about me?”

“When a person really desires something, all the universe conspires to help that person to realize his dream,” said the alchemist, echoing the words of the old king. The boy understood. Another person was there to help him toward his destiny.

“So you are going to instruct me?”

“No. You already know all you need to know. I am only going to point you in the direction of your treasure.”

“But there’s a tribal war,” the boy reiterated.

“I know what’s happening in the desert.”

“I have already found my treasure. I have a camel, I have my money from the crystal shop, and I have fifty gold pieces. In my own country, I would be a rich man.”

“But none of that is from the Pyramids,” said the alchemist.

“I also have Fatima. She is a treasure greater than anything else I have won.”

“She wasn’t found at the Pyramids, either.”

They ate in silence. The alchemist opened a bottle and poured a red liquid into the boy’s cup. It was the most delicious wine he had ever tasted.

“Isn’t wine prohibited here?” the boy asked

“It’s not what enters men’s mouths that’s evil,” said the alchemist. “It’s what comes out of their mouths that is.”

The alchemist was a bit daunting, but, as the boy drank the wine, he relaxed. After they finished eating they sat outside the tent, under a moon so brilliant that it made the stars pale. “Drink and enjoy yourself,” said the alchemist, noticing that the boy was feeling happier. “Rest well tonight, as if you were a warrior preparing for combat. Remember that wherever your heart is, there you will find your treasure. You’ve got to find the treasure, so that everything you have learned along the way can make sense.

“Tomorrow, sell your camel and buy a horse. Camels are traitorous: they walk thousands of paces and never seem to tire. Then suddenly, they kneel and die. But horses tire bit by bit. You always know how much you can ask of them, and when it is that they are about to die.”

*

The following night, the boy appeared at the alchemist’s tent with a horse. The alchemist was ready, and he mounted his own steed and placed the falcon on his left shoulder. He said to the boy, “Show me where there is life out in the desert. Only those who can see such signs of life are able to find treasure.”

They began to ride out over the sands, with the moon lighting their way. I don’t know if I’ll be able to find life in the desert, the boy thought. I don’t know the desert that well yet.

He wanted to say so to the alchemist, but he was afraid of the man. They reached the rocky place where the boy had seen the hawks in the sky, but now there was only silence and the wind.

“I don’t know how to find life in the desert,” the boy said. “I know that there is life here, but I don’t know where to look.”

“Life attracts life,” the alchemist answered.

And then the boy understood. He loosened the reins on his horse, who galloped forward over the rocks and sand. The alchemist followed as the boy’s horse ran for almost half an hour. They could no longer see the palms of the oasis–only the gigantic moon above them, and its silver reflections from the stones of the desert. Suddenly, for no apparent reason, the boy’s horse began to slow.

“There’s life here,” the boy said to the alchemist. “I don’t know the language of the desert, but my horse knows the language of life.”

They dismounted, and the alchemist said nothing. Advancing slowly, they searched among the stones. The alchemist stopped abruptly, and bent to the ground. There was a hole there among the stones. The alchemist put his hand into the hole, and then his entire arm, up to his shoulder. Something was moving there, and the alchemist’s eyes –the boy could see only his eyes-squinted with his effort. His arm seemed to be battling with whatever was in the hole. Then, with a motion that startled the boy, he withdrew his arm and leaped to his feet. In his hand, he grasped a snake by the tail.

The boy leapt as well, but away from the alchemist. The snake

fought frantically, making hissing sounds that shattered the silence of the desert. It was a cobra, whose venom

could kill a person in minutes. “Watch out for his venom,” the boy said. But even though the alchemist had put his hand in the hole, and had surely already been bitten, his expression was calm. “The alchemist is two hundred years old,” the Englishman had told him. He must know how to deal with the snakes of the desert.

The boy watched as his companion went to his horse and withdrew a scimitar. With its blade, he drew a circle in the sand, and then he placed the snake within it. The serpent relaxed immediately.

“Not to worry,” said the alchemist. “He won’t leave the circle. You found life in the desert, the omen that I needed.”

“Why was that so important?”

“Because the Pyramids are surrounded by the desert.”

The boy didn’t want to talk about the Pyramids. His heart was heavy, and he had been melancholy since the previous night. To continue his search for the treasure meant that he had to abandon Fatima.

“I’m going to guide you across the desert,” the alchemist said.

“I want to stay at the oasis,” the boy answered. “I’ve found Fatima, and, as far as I’m concerned, she’s worth more than treasure.”

“Fatima is a woman of the desert,” said the alchemist. “She knows that men have to go away in order to return. And she already has her treasure: it’s you. Now she expects that you will find what it is you’re looking for.”

“Well, what if I decide to stay?”

“Let me tell you what will happen. You’ll be the counselor of the oasis. You have enough gold to buy many sheep and many camels. You’ll marry Fatima, and you’ll both be happy for a year. You’ll learn to love the desert, and you’ll get to know every one of the fifty thousand palms. You’ll watch them as they grow, demonstrating how the world is always changing. And you’ll get better and better at understanding omens, because the desert is the best teacher there is.

“Sometime during the second year, you’ll remember about the treasure. The omens will begin insistently to

speak of it, and you’ll try to ignore them. You’ll use your knowledge for the welfare of the oasis and its inhabitants. The tribal chieftains will appreciate what you do. And your camels will bring you wealth and power.

“During the third year, the omens will continue to speak of your treasure and your destiny. You’ll walk around, night after night, at the oasis, and Fatima will be unhappy because she’ll feel it was she who interrupted your quest. But you will love her, and she’ll return your love. You’ll remember that she never asked you to stay, because a woman of the desert knows that she must await her man. So you won’t blame her. But many times you’ll walk the sands of the desert, thinking that maybe you could have left… that you could have trusted more in your love for Fatima. Because what kept you at the oasis was your own fear that you might never come back. At that point, the omens will tell you that your treasure is buried forever.

“Then, sometime during the fourth year, the omens will abandon you, because you’ve stopped listening to them. The tribal chieftains will see that, and you’ll be dismissed from your position as counselor. But, by then, you’ll be a rich merchant, with many camels and a great deal of merchandise. You’ll spend the rest of your days knowing that you didn’t pursue your destiny, and that now it’s too late.

“You must understand that love never keeps a man from pursuing his destiny. If he abandons that pursuit, it’s because it wasn’t true love… the love that speaks the Language of the World.”

The alchemist erased the circle in the sand, and the snake slithered away among the rocks. The boy remembered the crystal merchant who had always wanted to go to Mecca, and the Englishman in search of the alchemist. He thought of the woman who had trusted in the desert. And he looked out over the desert that had brought him to the woman he loved.

They mounted their horses, and this time it was the boy who followed the alchemist back to the oasis. The wind brought the sounds of the oasis to them, and the boy tried to hear Fatima’s voice.

But that night, as he had watched the cobra within the circle, the strange horseman with the falcon on his shoulder had spoken of love and treasure, of the women of the desert and of his destiny.

“I’m going with you,” the boy said. And he immediately felt peace in his heart.

“We’ll leave tomorrow before sunrise,” was the

alchemist’s only response.