Dead Sea Blues

You ever been to the island in the middle of the Dead Sea?  It is not immediately apparent as you stare through the hazy atmosphere, the dry, lifeless shoreline and the mirrored surface of the water conspiring to bend the rules of reality.

However, it exists, and on special days it becomes apparent to observers on shore.  Its appearance follows no scheduled pattern or schedule; the island cannot be conjured or found through scientific or mystic means.

There seems to be only one being that is able to visit the island at will, make it appear, and bring others there: Lucifer, the former Celestial Prince, Beloved of Yahweh.  It is speculated that the island belongs to a special domain of Lucifer, a remnant of shelter dating to before he was cast out of Paradise along with half of the Heavenly Host of Adonai.

As Jesus wandered the wilderness after his baptism, the days and nights grated on both his body and his conscience.  He consumed nothing in the form of food or drink, but instead digested the prophecies he was destined to fulfill.  He struggled under the daily reality of mortal existence, the knowledge that if he was to continue on this mystic path of redemption for billions of ungrateful and destructive souls, he was to experience a yet-undetermined period of time in Hell itself, at the mercy of his former companion.

After Jesus spent ten days stumbling around the shoreline of the Dead Sea, Lucifer came to perform his task: tempt the Messiah.  Staring at the horizon humming with late-afternoon heat, Jesus became aware of an even greater heat behind him, cutting like a knife through his rough robes.  Although the blood red fireball of the sun continued its slow descent, Lucifer carried with him an absence of light that darkened not the vision of the eyes, but the inner vision of the soul.  There is little more to describe of Lucifer’s appearance; he was more of a manifestation that was felt, and any physical expression could easily be dismissed as imagined by the mind.  His presence was more related to sudden shifts of the spirit that are not normally detectable.  This was in contrast to Jesus’ very human physical form, which was gaunt, tanned, and carrying a thunderstorm of emotions behind dark eyes.  The Son of the Morning and the Son of Man stared at each other for what may have been hours, then they gave a collective sigh; there was a task at hand, so both God and Devil began.

We know the story of the Temptation of Christ, how Lucifer taunted Jesus for his assumed mortality (what could be more ridiculous than a deity as wrathful and removed as Yahweh sending Himself in human form?), for his insistence on faith (outrageous for a omnipotent being that could purposefully and easily demonstrate His existence in tangible ways humans could understand), and for the absurdity of his methodology of redemption (showing a pretense of humility and obscurity, when all humanity has known or ever will know is the language of power and authority).  Was perhaps Yahweh showing some signs of regret for the cruel context of human existence?  Was this an awkward attempt to bring His creation closer to Him, while stubbornly refusing to admit error or apathy?  Lucifer’s presence hovered next to Jesus over the next twenty-six days, speaking for the rational mind of humanity through his temptations.  Jesus, the Lamb of God, felt anger and rebuke rise in his throat, and rebuffed Lucifer through statements that resolutely insisted on ignoring any logic that humankind could understand.

There is a part of the Messiah’s Temptation that was not recorded in any gospel or testament.  On the thirty-second day, Jesus slipped and fell as he sought to escape the swarms of flies that materialized from no apparent source.  The fall bruised his ankles and drew blood from a legion of scrapes on his hands and ankles.  The blood darkened and congealed in the lifeless environment of rock, dust, and heat.  As he had done for all previous days, Lucifer stood by as Jesus’ face silently contracted in pain.  A slight moan escaped from the lips of the Messiah, and Lucifer fought the urge to try and help Jesus to a more comfortable position.  It would not work, of course, but in such a moment all celestial and existential polarities could be momentarily forgotten.

Stiff and in pain, Jesus huddled at the base of a giant rock vaguely resembling a ram’s head, staring out at the Dead Sea and laboriously exhaling through his nose.  The air still felt heavy, the noon heat oppressive.  He could taste the salt in the air, felt his head swimming from dehydration and chagrin.  Nothing felt real anymore, the sea before him evaporating and reconstituting itself multiple times.  The Dead Sea was deceptively simple; there was nothing alive within, it consisted of only rocks and corrosive water.  However, it played tricks with the mind, and one wanted to believe there was something in the middle, something underneath it, something to break the monotony of its impassive existence.  Jesus found himself giving into mortal emotions that wanted to see something different, some new in the still brine.  Lucifer lowered himself next to Jesus, fixing his gaze into the sea.

“Father thinks He had beaten me,” said Lucifer, using a transcendent word for “father” that predates any language known to this age, “He thought that casting me out of His presence, to roam to and fro on the earth, was an adequate defeat.”

Jesus shifted his chin. “There is nothing you can do about it, it is a decisive judgment.”

“Ah, but Sibling, there are still mysteries hidden from the most mysterious being in the universe.” Lucifer raised an enigmatic eyebrow.

“My Father knows all, He sees all.”

“Has he hidden this even from your eyes, then?” Lucifer was nearly whispering.  He lifted his hand palm upward, an indication that something was about to happen.

That is when the island appeared, floating out of the mist.  It was a rock shaped like a loaf of bread, its gritty surface the color of wet sand and crushed jade mixed together.  At the top of the island was rooted a single leafless tree, gnarled and black.  The tree’s branches seemed to reach out at the viewer, and Jesus knew that wherever he stood, the tree would continue to reach for him.  At once, Jesus knew the cosmic implications of this island.

“Shall we go?” inquired Lucifer, brow furrowed.

Jesus uncurled his limbs and slowly rose to his feet.  There was something here to confront, a new truth to be discovered and contemplated.  It was all so simple, and yet he could feel the ripples being sent through time.  Lucifer stood up as well, gazing upon his last sanctuary in the middle of the Dead Sea.

Jasmina’s Chamber

Somewhere in the desert, a cloaked figure sits atop of a mountain cliff and looks over the expanse of sand and rock before him.  His camel sits to his right, a small fire to his left, several bags piled up behind him.  The moon slides out from behind the clouds, revealing three other figures struggling across the dunes, some distance below the cliff.  The three figures below sit atop camels, with long-barreled Turkish rifles strapped to their backs.  The cloaked figure ponders the trio below him, formulating a way to scale the mountain and escape their searching eyes.  He knows that they will soon find him, that there is nowhere to hide in this stretch of desert.  The moon hides behind the clouds again, and the desert pan goes from silver to dark slate once again.  The cloaked figure thinks of a pink antechamber in Al Ainish, to the wine dark eyes of Jasmina, to a bowl of maracuja she holds in a golden vessel.  The camel behind him gives a soft grunt and turns her head.  A nighthawk circles over the cloaked figure’s head, seeking quarry between the ochre rocks.  In Jasmina’s chamber there was incense, laughter, and poetry.  Here, in the desert, there is only pursuit and the struggle to survive.  The cloaked figure crawls over to his travel bags, and fishes out a small leather sack, tied shut with a thick string.  He opens the sack, and deposits the Dragon‘s Scale into his hand.  Once again, the moon jumps out from behind the clouds and shines its accusatory face on the cloaked figure.  He raises his head suddenly and gasps, startled.  The emerald in his palm sparkles slightly.  The wind picks up and pushes at the hood of the cloaked figure, wanting to expose his face.  Down below, the three riders take a sharp turn and begin heading towards the mountain where the cloaked figure sits.  He sees them change their course.  He slips the emerald back into the sack and then into his robes.  He knows what he must do know.

Green Kandiyohi, Chapter II

On the third day, his hearing started to come back.  He could hear tiny scorpions skittering near his head, fleeing the camel’s hooves and the dusty carpet.  There was a hole wearing itself through the carpet, he thought he could feel the threads coming loose one by one.  Or, it might have just been the fever, giving him dreams again, the dreams where he stood as a mighty warrior atop the mountain, drawing back his bowstring and focusing an eagle eye upon his adversary.  These dreams came more frequently now, dreams of fires quenched with blood; the dreams of green Kandiyohi were fading.  He thirsted for soothing dreams more than he thirsted for the water that the Rider brought him.

On the morning of the third day, as the Rider once again dismounted and prepared for noon camp, he noticed the sheathed sword hanging from the camel’s saddle, its brass fittings reflecting the dhawwadin sun, the leather of the scabbard dull and scratched.  He watched a single scorpion begin to climb the camel’s tether, but then the camel turned its head and the scorpion tumbled off like a heavy grape.

The Rider still makes no sound, his eyes showing no expression beneath the tagelmust’s brim.  He could not even make out the color of the Rider’s eyes.  In the flashbulb noon sun all was but either searing light or shadow.  The hours pass, with the Rider sitting motionless, creating shade by unwrapping part of the tagelmust and propping it up with a stick, like a Turkish curtain.  He lays and stares at the blue and ochre pattern of the shelter above his head, ticking off in his head the sweet moments he spent caressing her ankles, in Cairo and Samarkand, the purple forests of the Steiermark, in that rowboat in Altacama.  Her eyelashes slowed down the moments, when holding her hand he heard nothing but her heartbeat.  When she finally walked away, the pillars of the temple came crashing down, the incense and ashes scattered from the altar.

This is what drove him so far into the desert, seeking both penance and respite, pressing his face into the sun until recollections could be burned away.  He saw leopards with fur like midnight, endured the fangs of cobras and the daggers of the Tulun-Wahad.  Desert towers crumbled to dust, he listened to the wails of djinn and felt the tears of God under the cataracts.  It erased his doubts, his guilt, the pain he carried.  Here he found resolve gazing into the hazel eye of fate.

Near Al-Khattabi, he turned his head and beheld the sandstorm bearing down on him, sucking away the daylight and growling at him with darkness and vengeance.  When the sandstorm had lifted, he was left partly buried and feverish, merely a few steps from the cavern where he could have found shelter.  He was whispering her name when the Rider found him, almost as if it called the Rider out of existence.  In Cairo, she warned him of the sandstorm of her heart, hers was not a heart to be tamed, nor her attention diverted away from her passions, goals, and purpose.

The Rider’s judgment of the sun, the pattern of the desert, this is what keeps him alive.  As the sun falls on the third day, the Rider stirs and quickly gathers up the camp.  A kestrel soars overhead observing the tableau, as the Rider moistens his lips one more time, bundles him onto the carpet, and mounts the camel once more.  The kestrel veers off to the south, further into the desert where statues of lesser pharaohs lie suppressed by centuries of sand.  Your hidden heart, he says quietly, I never understood it until now.

He sleeps, the Rider looks out onto the pan of midnight, the camel trudges further along.

Green Kandiyohi, Chapter I

Lberd, lberd, he says as the carpet is dragged through the desert.  He complains of the cold in Arabic, trying to remember what she said to him the last time he saw her in Cairo.  The camel’s hooves thump upon the tightly packed sand, mere inches from his head.

Being dragged across the desert on a carpet pulled by a camel is not a bad way to see the end of the world, he thinks.  This camel has unctuous eyes, but a bellow that shakes the distant mountains (or perhaps it is just his head that is shaking).  He cranes his neck to look above him to see who is riding atop the camel, but all he sees is an amorphous pile of dark clothing bobbing gracefully with each step.  There are crimson ropes wrapped around this carpet, holding him so he does not slide off.  He thinks he has fallen off a few times, but can’t correctly recall; sometimes he feels he is floating several feet off the ground, after all.

This ship guides his bound form past brambles and pitted pumice, their shape becoming clearer as the first streaks of dawn begin to race past the horizon.  In that last moment in Cairo, the anise liqueur spilling from the cup onto his hand, he watched her walk out through the beaded curtain and into the sultry night.  Her eternal absence grows and grows with every second ticking past on his battered wristwatch.

Now, about three months after that moment, something made of gold peeks over the pipe organ rock formations, wyverns of shadow banished by the lion’s eye sun.  He shades his eyes from the sun, feels the warmth begin to rise in his forehead.  I am running out of knives, Mavis, he mumbles.  He recalls her feet dangling in the creek, back in green Kandiyohi, the catspaw breeze lapping the hair off of her ivory shoulders.  She turns and smiles at him, and thus the memory abruptly dissolves into mist.

As the sun begins its ascent to the pinnacle of the sky, the camel stops, and its rider dismounts.  The Rider constructs shelter and shade, holds herbs and water to his burned lips.  The Rider’s face is obscured by a tagelmust, but he can make out a compass hanging from the Rider’s neck.  That’s my compass, he gasps, before he chokes and coughs to the point where he is no longer able to speak.

Jeremiah wept for his people in exile, yet there is no weeping here where these three beings make their way through the desert, one walking, one riding, and one being dragged along on a Fehruz carpet, bound in scarlet rope.

Al Khattabi 1937: The Madman Speaks

We learned to disappear into the shadows.
Listen to the whispering voice of the wind, make our tents one with the languid sands, move under the guidance of effervescent star and impassive moon.  We find our path through the shifting dunes, skirting villages and mud hovels dotting the desert.  We are phantoms that haunt the mind, the unknown dreams and ghastly visions that disappear into the night.
In the desert I denied myself the pleasures I had known in my former life, living as an ascetic who sought to quench the fires of bitterness with blood.  The wind and sand erased the memories, making all days seem as one.  Under a tyrant sun we performed the work of our Maker, dispatching souls to Him with knife and saber and rifle.
Entire caravans of troops disappeared under our hand, fortresses fell and burned into dust.  I let time slip between my fingers like grains of sand.  I gaze into the hazel eye of fate and refuse to blink.

Three Djinn

Somewhere north of here, there is a group of men huddled by a fire, surrounded by groaning camels.  They are camped next to a tangled, twisted tree, the only landmark for miles.  Their faces are covered by tagelmusts, their bread is gritty from being baked in the sand.  The moon is only half-full, and from time to time they glance at it, if only to reassure themselves it is still there.  One of the men is certain that the tree holds three vengeful djinn, at least that is what a marabout told him in a village not far from here, albeit many many years ago.  The others mutter in disbelief, but the root of fear has already taken hold in their minds.  The fire dies down, the men all go to sleep one by one, and once the moon is covered by a black cloud, the three djinn appear, ghostly shadows swirling around the gnarled tree.  However, they are not vengeful spirits, as suggested by the toothless marabout so long ago, but are rather indifferent to vendettas and drama.  The three djinn whirl around for a few minutes, then disappear as the moon reemerges, unseen by human eyes.