The boy spent a sleepless night
The boy spent a sleepless night. Two hours before dawn, he awoke one of the boys who slept in his tent, and asked him to show him where Fatima lived. They went to her tent, and the boy gave his friend enough gold to buy a sheep.
Then he asked his friend to go to into the tent where Fatima was sleeping, and to awaken her and tell her that he was waiting outside. The young Arab did as he was asked, and was given enough gold to buy yet another sheep.
“Now leave us alone,” said the boy to the young Arab. The Arab returned to his tent to sleep, proud to have helped the counselor of the oasis, and happy at having enough money to buy himself some sheep.
Fatima appeared at the entrance to the tent. The two walked out among the palms. The boy knew that it was a violation of the Tradition, but that didn’t matter to him now.
“I’m going away,” he said. “And I want you to know that I’m coming back. I love you because . . .”
“Don’t say anything,” Fatima interrupted. “One is loved because one is loved. No reason is needed for loving.”
But the boy continued, “I had a dream, and I met with a king. I sold crystal and crossed the desert. And, because the tribes declared war, I went to the well, seeking the alchemist. So, I love you because the entire universe conspired to help me find you.”
The two embraced. It was the first time either had touched the other.
“I’ll be back,” the boy said.
“Before this, I always looked to the desert with longing,” said Fatima. “Now it will be with hope. My father went away one day, but he returned to my mother, and he has always come back since then.”
They said nothing else. They walked a bit farther among the palms, and then the boy left her at the entrance to her tent.
“I’ll return, just as your father came back to your mother,” he said.
He saw that Fatima’s eyes were filled with tears.
“I’m a woman of the desert,” she said, averting her face. “But above all, I’m a woman.”
Fatima went back to her tent, and, when daylight came, she went out to do the chores she had done for years. But everything had changed. The boy was no longer at the oasis, and the oasis would never again have the same meaning it had had only yesterday. It would no longer be a place with fifty thousand palm trees and three hundred wells, where the pilgrims arrived, relieved at the end of their long journeys. From that day on, the oasis would be an empty place for her.
From that day on, it was the desert that would be important. She would look to it every day, and would try to guess which star the boy was following in search of his treasure. She would have to send her kisses on the wind, hoping that the wind would touch the boy’s face, and would tell him that she was alive. That she was waiting for him, a woman awaiting a courageous man in search of his treasure. From that day on, the desert would represent only one thing to her: the hope for his return.
* * *
“Don’t think about what you’ve left behind,” the alchemist said to the boy as they began to ride across the sands of the desert. “Everything is written in the Soul of the World, and there it will stay forever.”
“Men dream more about coming home than about leaving,” the boy said. He was already reaccustomed to desert’s silence.
“If what one finds is made of pure matter, it will never spoil. And one can always come back. If what you had found was only a moment of light, like the explosion of a star, you would find nothing on your return.”
The man was speaking the language of alchemy. But the boy knew that he was referring to Fatima.
It was difficult not to think about what he had left behind. The desert, with its endless monotony, put him to dreaming. The boy could still see the palm trees, the wells, and the face of the woman he loved. He could see the Englishman at his experiments, and the camel driver who was a teacher without realizing it. Maybe the alchemist has never been in love, the boy thought.
The alchemist rode in front, with the falcon on his shoulder. The bird knew the language of the desert well, and whenever they stopped, he flew off in search of game. On the first day he returned with a rabbit, and on the second with two birds.
At night, they spread their sleeping gear and kept their fires hidden. The desert nights were cold, and were becoming darker and darker as the phases of the moon passed. They went on for a week, speaking only of the precautions they needed to follow in order to avoid the battles between the tribes. The war continued, and at times the wind carried the sweet, sickly smell of blood. Battles had been fought nearby, and the wind reminded the boy that there was the language of omens, always ready to show him what his eyes had failed to observe.
On the seventh day, the alchemist decided to make camp earlier than usual. The falcon flew off to find game, and the alchemist offered his water container to the boy.
“You are almost at the end of your journey,” said the alchemist. “I congratulate you for having pursued your destiny.”
“And you’ve told me nothing along the way,” said the boy. “I thought you were going to teach me some of the things you know. A while ago, I rode through the desert with a man who had books on alchemy. But I wasn’t able to learn anything from them.”
“There is only one way to learn,” the alchemist answered. “It’s through action. Everything you need to know you have learned through your journey. You need to learn only one thing more.”
The boy wanted to know what that was, but the alchemist was searching the horizon, looking for the falcon.
“Why are you called the alchemist?”
“Because that’s what I am.”
“And what went wrong when other alchemists tried to make gold and were unable to do so?”
“They were looking only for gold,” his companion answered. “They were seeking the treasure of their destiny, without wanting actually to live out the destiny.”
“What is it that I still need to know?” the boy asked.
But the alchemist continued to look to the horizon. And finally the falcon returned with their meal. They dug a hole and lit their fire in it, so that the light of the flames would not be seen.
“I’m an alchemist simply because I’m an alchemist,” he said, as he prepared the meal. “I learned the science from my grandfather, who learned from his father, and so on, back to the creation of the world. In those times, the Master Work could be written simply on an emerald. But men began to reject simple things, and to write tracts, interpretations, and philosophical studies. They also began to feel that they knew a better way than others had. Yet the Emerald Tablet is still alive today.”
“What was written on the Emerald Tablet?” the boy wanted to know.
The alchemist began to draw in the sand, and completed his drawing in less than five minutes. As he drew, the boy thought of the old king, and the plaza where they had met that day; it seemed as if it had taken place years and years ago.
“This is what was written on the Emerald Tablet,” said the alchemist, when he had finished.
The boy tried to read what was written in the sand.
“It’s a code,” said the boy, a bit disappointed. “It looks like what I saw in the Englishman’s books.”
“No,” the alchemist answered. “It’s like the flight of those two hawks; it can’t be understood by reason alone. The Emerald Tablet is a direct passage to the Soul of the World.
“The wise men understood that this natural world is only an image and a copy of paradise. The existence of this world is simply a guarantee that there exists a world that is perfect. God created the world so that, through its visible objects, men could understand his spiritual teachings and the marvels of his wisdom. That’s what I mean by action.”
“Should I understand the Emerald Tablet?” the boy asked.
“Perhaps, if you were in a laboratory of alchemy, this would be the right time to study the best way to understand the Emerald Tablet. But you are in the desert. So immerse yourself in it. The desert will give you an understanding of the world; in fact, anything on the face of the earth will do that. You don’t even have to understand the desert: all you have to do is contemplate a simple grain of sand, and you will see in it all the marvels of creation.”
“How do I immerse myself in the desert?”
“Listen to your heart. It knows all things, because it came from the Soul of the World, and it will one day return there.”