The boy couldn’t believe what he was seeing
The boy couldn’t believe what he was seeing: the oasis, rather than being just a well surrounded by a few palm trees—as he had seen once in a geography book—was much larger than many towns back in Spain. There were three hundred wells, fifty thousand date trees, and innumerable colored tents spread among them.
“It looks like The Thousand and One Nights,” said the Englishman, impatient to meet with the alchemist.
They were surrounded by children, curious to look at the animals and people that were arriving. The men of the oasis wanted to know if they had seen any fighting, and the women competed with one another for access to the cloth and precious stones brought by the merchants. The silence of the desert was a distant dream; the travelers in the caravan were talking incessantly, laughing and shouting, as if they had emerged from the spiritual world and found themselves once again in the world of people. They were relieved and happy.
They had been taking careful precautions in the desert, but the camel driver explained to the boy that oases were always considered to be neutral territories, because the majority of the inhabitants were women and children. There were oases throughout the desert, but the tribesmen fought in the desert, leaving the oases as places of refuge.
With some difficulty, the leader of the caravan brought all his people together and gave them his instructions. The group was to remain there at the oasis until the conflict between the tribes was over. Since they were visitors, they would have to share living space with those who lived there, and would be given the best accommodations. That was the law of hospitality. Then he asked that everyone, including his own sentinels, hand over their arms to the men appointed by the tribal chieftains.
“Those are the rules of war,” the leader explained. “The oases may not shelter armies or troops.”
To the boy’s surprise, the Englishman took a chrome-plated revolver out of his bag and gave it to the men who were collecting the arms.
“Why a revolver?” he asked.
“It helped me to trust in people,” the Englishman answered.
Meanwhile, the boy thought about his treasure. The closer he got to the realization of his dream, the more difficult things became. It seemed as if what the old king had called “beginner’s luck” were no longer functioning. In his pursuit of the dream, he was being constantly subjected to tests of his persistence and courage. So he could not be hasty, nor impatient. If he pushed forward impulsively, he would fail to see the signs and omens left by God along his path.
God placed them along my path. He had surprised himself with the thought. Until then, he had considered the omens to be things of this world. Like eating or sleeping, or like seeking love or finding a job. He had never thought of them in terms of a language used by God to indicate what he should do.
“Don’t be impatient,” he repeated to himself. “It’s like the camel driver said: “Eat when it’s time to eat. And move along when it’s time to move along.”
That first day, everyone slept from exhaustion, including the Englishman. The boy was assigned a place far from his friend, in a tent with five other young men of about his age. They were people of the desert, and clamored to hear his stories about the great cities.
The boy told them about his life as a shepherd, and was about to tell them of his experiences at the crystal shop when the Englishman came into the tent.
“I’ve been looking for you all morning,” he said, as he led the boy outside. “I need you to help me find out where the alchemist lives.”
First, they tried to find him on their own. An alchemist would probably live in a manner that was different from that of the rest of the people at the oasis, and it was likely that in his tent an oven was continuously burning. They searched everywhere, and found that the oasis was much larger than they could have imagined; there were hundreds of tents.
“We’ve wasted almost the entire day,” said the Englishman, sitting down with the boy near one of the wells.
“Maybe we’d better ask someone,” the boy suggested.
The Englishman didn’t want to tell others about his reasons for being at the oasis, and couldn’t make up his mind. But, finally, he agreed that the boy, who spoke better Arabic than he, should do so. The boy approached a woman who had come to the well to fill a goatskin with water.
“Good afternoon, ma’am. I’m trying to find out where the alchemist lives here at the oasis.”
The woman said she had never heard of such a person, and hurried away. But before she fled, she advised the boy that he had better not try to converse with women who were dressed in black, because they were married women. He should respect tradition.
The Englishman was disappointed. It seemed he had made the long journey for nothing. The boy was also saddened; his friend was in pursuit of his destiny. And, when someone was in such pursuit, the entire universe made an effort to help him succeed—that’s what the old king had said. He couldn’t have been wrong.
“I had never heard of alchemists before,” the boy said. “Maybe no one here has, either.”
The Englishman’s eyes lit up. “That’s it! Maybe no one here knows what an alchemist is! Find out who it is who cures the people’s illnesses!”
Several women dressed in black came to the well for water, but the boy would speak to none of them, despite the Englishman’s insistence. Then a man approached.
“Do you know someone here who cures people’s illnesses?” the boy asked.
“Allah cures our illnesses,” said the man, clearly frightened of the strangers. “You’re looking for witch doctors.” He spoke some verses from the Koran, and moved on.
Another man appeared. He was older, and was carrying a small bucket. The boy repeated his question.
“Why do you want to find that sort of person?” the Arab asked.
“Because my friend here has traveled for many months in order to meet with him,” the boy said.
“If such a man is here at the oasis, he must be the very powerful one,” said the old man after thinking for a few moments. “Not even the tribal chieftains are able to see him when they want to. Only when he consents.
“Wait for the end of the war. Then leave with the caravan. Don’t try to enter into the life of the oasis,” he said, and walked away.
But the Englishman was exultant. They were on the right track.
Finally, a young woman approached who was not dressed in black. She had a vessel on her shoulder, and her head was covered by a veil, but her face was uncovered. The boy approached her to ask about the alchemist.
At that moment, it seemed to him that time stood still, and the Soul of the World surged within him. When he looked into her dark eyes, and saw that her lips were poised between a laugh and silence, he learned the most important part of the language that all the world spoke—the language that everyone on earth was capable of understanding in their heart. It was love. Something older than humanity, more ancient than the desert. Something that exerted the same force whenever two pairs of eyes met, as had theirs here at the well. She smiled, and that was certainly an omen—the omen he had been awaiting, without even knowing he was, for all his life. The omen he had sought to find with his sheep and in his books, in the crystals and in the silence of the desert.
It was the pure Language of the World. It required no explanation, just as the universe needs none as it travels through endless time. What the boy felt at that moment was that he was in the presence of the only woman in his life, and that, with no need for words, she recognized the same thing. He was more certain of it than of anything in the world. He had been told by his parents and grandparents that he must fall in love and really know a person before becoming committed. But maybe people who felt that way had never learned the universal language. Because, when you know that language, it’s easy to understand that someone in the world awaits you, whether it’s in the middle of the desert or in some great city. And when two such people encounter each other, and their eyes meet, the past and the future become unimportant. There is only that moment, and the incredible certainty that everything under the sun has been written by one hand only. It is the hand that evokes love, and creates a twin soul for every person in the world. Without such love, one’s dreams would have no meaning.
Maktub, thought the boy.
The Englishman shook the boy: “Come on, ask her!”
The boy stepped closer to the girl, and when she smiled, he did the same.
“What’s your name?” he asked.
“Fatima,” the girl said, averting her eyes.
“That’s what some women in my country are called.”
“It’s the name of the Prophet’s daughter,” Fatima said. “The invaders carried the name everywhere.” The beautiful girl spoke of the invaders with pride.
The Englishman prodded him, and the boy asked her about the man who cured people’s illnesses.
“That’s the man who knows all the secrets of the world,” she said. “He communicates with the genies of the desert.”
The genies were the spirits of good and evil. And the girl pointed to the south, indicating that it was there the strange man lived. Then she filled her vessel with water and left.
The Englishman vanished, too, gone to find the alchemist. And the boy sat there by the well for a long time, remembering that one day in Tarifa the levanter had brought to him the perfume of that woman, and realizing that he had loved her before he even knew she existed. He knew that his love for her would enable him to discover every treasure in the world.
The next day, the boy returned to the well, hoping to see the girl. To his surprise, the Englishman was there, looking out at the desert,
“I waited all afternoon and evening,” he said. “He appeared with the first stars of evening. I told him what I was seeking, and he asked me if I had ever transformed lead into gold. I told him that was what I had come here to learn.
“He told me I should try to do so. That’s all he said: ‘Go and try.’”
The boy didn’t say anything. The poor Englishman had traveled all this way, only to be told that he should repeat what he had already done so many times.
“So, then try,” he said to the Englishman.
“That’s what I’m going to do. I’m going to start now.”
As the Englishman left, Fatima arrived and filled her vessel with water.
“I came to tell you just one thing,” the boy said. “I want you to be my wife. I love you.”
The girl dropped the container, and the water spilled.
“I’m going to wait here for you every day. I have crossed the desert in search of a treasure that is somewhere near the Pyramids, and for me, the war seemed a curse. But now it’s a blessing, because it brought me to you.”
“The war is going to end someday,” the girl said.
The boy looked around him at the date palms. He reminded himself that he had been a shepherd, and that he could be a shepherd again. Fatima was more important than his treasure.
“The tribesmen are always in search of treasure,” the girl said, as if she had guessed what he was thinking. “And the women of the desert are proud of their tribesmen.”
She refilled her vessel and left.
The boy went to the well every day to meet with Fatima. He told her about his life as a shepherd, about the king, and about the crystal shop. They became friends, and except for the fifteen minutes he spent with her, each day seemed that it would never pass. When he had been at the oasis for almost a month, the leader of the caravan called a meeting of all of the people traveling with him.
“We don’t know when the war will end, so we can’t continue our journey,” he said. “The battles may last for a long time, perhaps even years. There are powerful forces on both sides, and the war is important to both armies. It’s not a battle of good against evil. It’s a war between forces that are fighting for the balance of power, and, when that type of battle begins, it lasts longer than others—because Allah is on both sides.”
The people went back to where they were living, and the boy went to meet with Fatima that afternoon. He told her about the morning’s meeting. “The day after we met,” Fatima said, “you told me that you loved me. Then, you taught me something of the universal language and the Soul of the World. Because of that, I have become a part of you.”
The boy listened to the sound of her voice, and thought it to be more beautiful than the sound of the wind in the date palms.
“I have been waiting for you here at this oasis for a long time. I have forgotten about my past, about my traditions, and the way in which men of the desert expect women to behave. Ever since I was a child, I have dreamed that the desert would bring me a wonderful present. Now, my present has arrived, and it’s you.”
The boy wanted to take her hand. But Fatima’s hands held to the handles of her jug.
“You have told me about your dreams, about the old king and your treasure. And you’ve told me about omens. So now, I fear nothing, because it was those omens that brought you to me. And I am a part of your dream, a part of your destiny, as you call it.
“That’s why I want you to continue toward your goal. If you have to wait until the war is over, then wait. But if you have to go before then, go on in pursuit of your dream. The dunes are changed by the wind, but the desert never changes. That’s the way it will be with our love for each other.
“Maktub,” she said. “If I am really a part of your dream, you’ll come back one day.”
The boy was sad as he left her that day. He thought of all the married shepherds he had known. They had a difficult time convincing their wives that they had to go off into distant fields. Love required them to stay with the people they loved.
He told Fatima that, at their next meeting.
“The desert takes our men from us, and they don’t always return,” she said. “We know that, and we are used to it. Those who don’t return become a part of the clouds, a part of the animals that hide in the ravines and of the water that comes from the earth. They become a part of everything . . . they become the Soul of the World.
“Some do come back. And then the other women are happy because they believe that their men may one day return, as well. I used to look at those women and envy them their happiness. Now, I too will be one of the women who wait.
“I’m a desert woman, and I’m proud of that. I want my husband to wander as free as the wind that shapes the dunes. And, if I have to, I will accept the fact that he has become a part of the clouds, and the animals and the water of the desert.”
The boy went to look for the Englishman. He wanted to tell him about Fatima. He was surprised when he saw that the Englishman had built himself a furnace outside his tent. It was a strange furnace, fueled by firewood, with a transparent flask heating on top. As the Englishman stared out at the desert, his eyes seemed brighter than they had when he was reading his books.
“This is the first phase of the job,” he said. “I have to separate out the sulfur. To do that successfully, I must have no fear of failure. It was my fear of failure that first kept me from attempting the Master Work. Now, I’m beginning what I could have started ten years ago. But I’m happy at least that I didn’t wait twenty years.”
He continued to feed the fire, and the boy stayed on until the desert turned pink in the setting sun. He felt the urge to go out into the desert, to see if its silence held the answers to his questions.
He wandered for a while, keeping the date palms of the oasis within sight. He listened to the wind, and felt the stones beneath his feet. Here and there, he found a shell, and realized that the desert, in remote times, had been a sea. He sat on a stone, and allowed himself to become hypnotized by the horizon. He tried to deal with the concept of love as distinct from possession, and couldn’t separate them. But Fatima was a woman of the desert, and, if anything could help him to understand, it was the desert.
As he sat there thinking, he sensed movement above him. Looking up, he saw a pair of hawks flying high in the sky.
He watched the hawks as they drifted on the wind. Although their flight appeared to have no pattern, it made a certain kind of sense to the boy. It was just that he couldn’t grasp what it meant. He followed the movement of the birds, trying to read something into it. Maybe these desert birds could explain to him the meaning of love without ownership.
He felt sleepy. In his heart, he wanted to remain awake, but he also wanted to sleep. “I am learning the Language of the World, and everything in the world is beginning to make sense to me . . . even the flight of the hawks,” he said to himself. And, in that mood, he was grateful to be in love. When you are in love, things make even more sense, he thought.
Suddenly, one of the hawks made a flashing dive through the sky, attacking the other. As it did so, a sudden, fleeting image came to the boy: an army, with its swords at the ready, riding into the oasis. The vision vanished immediately, but it had shaken him. He had heard people speak of mirages, and had already seen some himself: they were desires that, because of their intensity, materialized over the sands of the desert. But he certainly didn’t desire that an army invade the oasis.
He wanted to forget about the vision, and return to his meditation. He tried again to concentrate on the pink shades of the desert, and its stones. But there was something there in his heart that wouldn’t allow him to do so.
“Always heed the omens,” the old king had said. The boy recalled what he had seen in the vision, and sensed that it was actually going to occur.
He rose, and made his way back toward the palm trees. Once again, he perceived the many languages in the things about him: this time, the desert was safe, and it was the oasis that had become dangerous.
The camel driver was seated at the base of a palm tree, observing the sunset. He saw the boy appear from the other side of the dunes.
“An army is coming,” the boy said. “I had a vision.”
“The desert fills men’s hearts with visions,” the camel driver answered.
But the boy told him about the hawks: that he had been watching their flight and had suddenly felt himself to have plunged to the Soul of the World.
The camel driver understood what the boy was saying. He knew that any given thing on the face of the earth could reveal the history of all things. One could open a book to any page, or look at a person’s hand; one could turn a card, or watch the flight of the birds . . . whatever the thing observed, one could find a connection with his experience of the moment. Actually, it wasn’t that those things, in themselves, revealed anything at all; it was just that people, looking at what was occurring around them, could find a means of penetration to the Soul of the World.
The desert was full of men who earned their living based on the ease with which they could penetrate to the Soul of the World. They were known as seers, and they were held in fear by women and the elderly. Tribesmen were also wary of consulting them, because it would be impossible to be effective in battle if one knew that he was fated to die. The tribesmen preferred the taste of battle, and the thrill of not knowing what the outcome would be; the future was already written by Allah, and what he had written was always for the good of man. So the tribesmen lived only for the present, because the present was full of surprises, and they had to be aware of many things: Where was the enemy’s sword? Where was his horse? What kind of blow should one deliver next in order to remain alive? The camel driver was not a fighter, and he had consulted with seers. Many of them had been right about what they said, while some had been wrong. Then, one day, the oldest seer he had ever sought out (and the one most to be feared) had asked why the camel driver was so interested in the future.
“Well . . . so I can do things,” he had responded. “And so I can change those things that I don’t want to happen.”
“But then they wouldn’t be a part of your future,” the seer had said.
“Well, maybe I just want to know the future so I can prepare myself for what’s coming.”
“If good things are coming, they will be a pleasant surprise,” said the seer. “If bad things are, and you know in advance, you will suffer greatly before they even occur.”
“I want to know about the future because I’m a man,” the camel driver had said to the seer. “And men always live their lives based on the future.”
The seer was a specialist in the casting of twigs; he threw them on the ground, and made interpretations based on how they fell. That day, he didn’t make a cast. He wrapped the twigs in a piece of cloth and put them back in his bag.
“I make my living forecasting the future for people,” he said. “I know the science of the twigs, and I know how to use them to penetrate to the place where all is written. There, I can read the past, discover what has already been forgotten, and understand the omens that are here in the present.
“When people consult me, it’s not that I’m reading the future; I am guessing at the future. The future belongs to God, and it is only he who reveals it, under extraordinary circumstances. How do I guess at the future? Based on the omens of the present. The secret is here in the present. If you pay attention to the present, you can improve upon it. And, if you improve on the present, what comes later will also be better. Forget about the future, and live each day according to the teachings, confident that God loves his children. Each day, in itself, brings with it an eternity.”
The camel driver had asked what the circumstances were under which God would allow him to see the future.
“Only when he, himself, reveals it. And God only rarely reveals the future. When he does so, it is for only one reason: it’s a future that was written so as to be altered.”
God had shown the boy a part of the future, the camel driver thought. Why was it that he wanted the boy to serve as his instrument?
“Go and speak to the tribal chieftains,” said the camel driver. “Tell them about the armies that are approaching.”
“They’ll laugh at me.”
“They are men of the desert, and the men of the desert are used to dealing with omens.”
“Well, then, they probably already know.”
“They’re not concerned with that right now. They believe that if they have to know about something Allah wants them to know, someone will tell them about it. It has happened many times before. But, this time, the person is you.”
The boy thought of Fatima. And he decided he would go to see the chiefs of the tribes.