Next morning, there were two thousand
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.”