The following night, the boy appeared
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.