At the highest point in Tarifa
At the highest point in Tarifa there is an old fort, built by the Moors. From atop its walls, one can catch a glimpse of Africa. Melchizedek, the king of Salem, sat on the wall of the fort that afternoon, and felt the levanter blowing in his face. The sheep fidgeted nearby, uneasy with their new owner and excited by so much change. All they wanted was food and water.
Melchizedek watched a small ship that was plowing its way out of the port. He would never again see the boy, just as he had never seen Abraham again after having charged him his one-tenth fee. That was his work.
The gods should not have desires, because they don’t have destinies. But the king of Salem hoped desperately that the boy would be successful.
It’s too bad that he’s quickly going to forget my name, he thought. I should have repeated it for him. Then when he spoke about me he would say that I am Melchizedek, the king of Salem.
He looked to the skies, feeling a bit abashed, and said, “I know it’s the vanity of vanities, as you said, my Lord. But an old king sometimes has to take some pride in himself.”
* * *
How strange Africa is, thought the boy.
He was sitting in a bar very much like the other bars he had seen along the narrow streets of Tangier. Some men were smoking from a gigantic pipe that they passed from one to the other. In just a few hours he had seen men walking hand in hand, women with their faces covered, and priests that climbed to the tops of towers and chanted—as everyone about him went to their knees and placed their foreheads on the ground.
“A practice of infidels,” he said to himself. As a child in church, he had always looked at the image of Saint Santiago Matamoros on his white horse, his sword unsheathed, and figures such as these kneeling at his feet. The boy felt ill and terribly alone. The infidels had an evil look about them.
Besides this, in the rush of his travels he had forgotten a detail, just one detail, which could keep him from his treasure for a long time: only Arabic was spoken in this country.
The owner of the bar approached him, and the boy pointed to a drink that had been served at the next table. It turned out to be a bitter tea. The boy preferred wine.
But he didn’t need to worry about that right now. What he had to be concerned about was his treasure, and how he was going to go about getting it. The sale of his sheep had left him with enough money in his pouch, and the boy knew that in money there was magic; whoever has money is never really alone. Before long, maybe in just a few days, he would be at the Pyramids. An old man, with a breastplate of gold, wouldn’t have lied just to acquire six sheep.
The old man had spoken about signs and omens, and, as the boy was crossing the strait, he had thought about omens. Yes, the old man had known what he was talking about: during the time the boy had spent in the fields of Andalusia, he had become used to learning which path he should take by observing the ground and the sky. He had discovered that the presence of a certain bird meant that a snake was nearby, and that a certain shrub was a sign that there was water in the area. The sheep had taught him that.
If God leads the sheep so well, he will also lead a man, he thought, and that made him feel better. The tea seemed less bitter.
“Who are you?” he heard a voice ask him in Spanish.
The boy was relieved. He was thinking about omens, and someone had appeared.
“How come you speak Spanish?” he asked. The new arrival was a young man in Western dress, but the color of his skin suggested he was from this city. He was about the same age and height as the boy.
“Almost everyone here speaks Spanish. We’re only two hours from Spain.”
“Sit down, and let me treat you to something,” said the boy. “And ask for a glass of wine for me. I hate this tea.”
“There is no wine in this country,” the young man said. “The religion here forbids it.”
The boy told him then that he needed to get to the Pyramids. He almost began to tell about his treasure, but decided not to do so. If he did, it was possible that the Arab would want a part of it as payment for taking him there. He remembered what the old man had said about offering something you didn’t even have yet.
“I’d like you to take me there if you can. I can pay you to serve as my guide.”
“Do you have any idea how to get there?” the newcomer asked.
The boy noticed that the owner of the bar stood nearby, listening attentively to their conversation. He felt uneasy at the man’s presence. But he had found a guide, and didn’t want to miss out on an opportunity.
“You have to cross the entire Sahara desert,” said the young man. “And to do that, you need money. I need to know whether you have enough.”
The boy thought it a strange question. But he trusted in the old man, who had said that, when you really want something, the universe always conspires in your favor.
He took his money from his pouch and showed it to the young man. The owner of the bar came over and looked, as well. The two men exchanged some words in Arabic, and the bar owner seemed irritated.
“Let’s get out of here” said the new arrival. “He wants us to leave.”
The boy was relieved. He got up to pay the bill, but the owner grabbed him and began to speak to him in an angry stream of words. The boy was strong, and wanted to retaliate, but he was in a foreign country. His new friend pushed the owner aside, and pulled the boy outside with him. “He wanted your money,” he said. “Tangier is not like the rest of Africa. This is a port, and every port has its thieves.”
The boy trusted his new friend. He had helped him out in a dangerous situation. He took out his money and counted it.
“We could get to the Pyramids by tomorrow,” said the other, taking the money. “But I have to buy two camels.”
They walked together through the narrow streets of Tangier. Everywhere there were stalls with items for sale. They reached the center of a large plaza where the market was held. There were thousands of people there, arguing, selling, and buying; vegetables for sale amongst daggers, and carpets displayed alongside tobacco. But the boy never took his eye off his new friend. After all, he had all his money. He thought about asking him to give it back, but decided that would be unfriendly. He knew nothing about the customs of the strange land he was in.
“I’ll just watch him,” he said to himself. He knew he was stronger than his friend.
Suddenly, there in the midst of all that confusion, he saw the most beautiful sword he had ever seen. The scabbard was embossed in silver, and the handle was black and encrusted with precious stones. The boy promised himself that, when he returned from Egypt, he would buy that sword.
“Ask the owner of that stall how much the sword costs,” he said to his friend. Then he realized that he had been distracted for a few moments, looking at the sword. His heart squeezed, as if his chest had suddenly compressed it. He was afraid to look around, because he knew what he would find. He continued to look at the beautiful sword for a bit longer, until he summoned the courage to turn around.
All around him was the market, with people coming and going, shouting and buying, and the aroma of strange foods . . . but nowhere could he find his new companion.
The boy wanted to believe that his friend had simply become separated from him by accident. He decided to stay right there and await his return. As he waited, a priest climbed to the top of a nearby tower and began his chant; everyone in the market fell to their knees, touched their foreheads to the ground, and took up the chant. Then, like a colony of worker ants, they dismantled their stalls and left.
The sun began its departure, as well. The boy watched it through its trajectory for some time, until it was hidden behind the white houses surrounding the plaza. He recalled that when the sun had risen that morning, he was on another continent, still a shepherd with sixty sheep, and looking forward to meeting with a girl. That morning he had known everything that was going to happen to him as he walked through the familiar fields. But now, as the sun began to set, he was in a different country, a stranger in a strange land, where he couldn’t even speak the language. He was no longer a shepherd, and he had nothing, not even the money to return and start everything over.
All this happened between sunrise and sunset, the boy thought. He was feeling sorry for himself, and lamenting the fact that his life could have changed so suddenly and so drastically.
He was so ashamed that he wanted to cry. He had never even wept in front of his own sheep. But the marketplace was empty, and he was far from home, so he wept. He wept because God was unfair, and because this was the way God repaid those who believed in their dreams.
When I had my sheep, I was happy, and I made those around me happy. People saw me coming and welcomed me, he thought. But now I’m sad and alone. I’m going to become bitter and distrustful of people because one person betrayed me. I’m going to hate those who have found their treasure because I never found mine. And I’m going to hold on to what little I have, because I’m too insignificant to conquer the world.
He opened his pouch to see what was left of his possessions; maybe there was a bit left of the sandwich he had eaten on the ship. But all he found was the heavy book, his jacket, and the two stones the old man had given him.
As he looked at the stones, he felt relieved for some reason. He had exchanged six sheep for two precious stones that had been taken from a gold breastplate. He could sell the stones and buy a return ticket. But this time I’ll be smarter, the boy thought, removing them from the pouch so he could put them in his pocket. This was a port town, and the only truthful thing his friend had told him was that port towns are full of thieves.
Now he understood why the owner of the bar had been so upset: he was trying to tell him not to trust that man. “I’m like everyone else—I see the world in terms of what I would like to see happen, not what actually does.”
He ran his fingers slowly over the stones, sensing their temperature and feeling their surfaces. They were his treasure. Just handling them made him feel better. They reminded him of the old man.
“When you want something, all the universe conspires in helping you to achieve it,” he had said.
The boy was trying to understand the truth of what the old man had said. There he was in the empty marketplace, without a cent to his name, and with not a sheep to guard through the night. But the stones were proof that he had met with a king—a king who knew of the boy’s past.
“They’re called Urim and Thummim, and they can help you to read the omens.” The boy put the stones back in the pouch and decided to do an experiment. The old man had said to ask very clear questions, and to do that, the boy had to know what he wanted. So, he asked if the old man’s blessing was still with him.
He took out one of the stones. It was “yes.”
“Am I going to find my treasure?” he asked.
He stuck his hand into the pouch, and felt around for one of the stones. As he did so, both of them pushed through a hole in the pouch and fell to the ground. The boy had never even noticed that there was a hole in his pouch. He knelt down to find Urim and Thummim and put them back in the pouch. But as he saw them lying there on the ground, another phrase came to his mind.
“Learn to recognize omens, and follow them,” the old king had said.
An omen. The boy smiled to himself. He picked up the two stones and put them back in his pouch. He didn’t consider mending the hole—the stones could fall through any time they wanted. He had learned that there were certain things one shouldn’t ask about, so as not to flee from one’s own destiny. “I promised that I would make my own decisions,” he said to himself.
But the stones had told him that the old man was still with him, and that made him feel more confident. He looked around at the empty plaza again, feeling less desperate than before. This wasn’t a strange place; it was a new one.
After all, what he had always wanted was just that: to know new places. Even if he never got to the Pyramids, he had already traveled farther than any shepherd he knew. Oh, if they only knew how different things are just two hours by ship from where they are, he thought. Although his new world at the moment was just an empty marketplace, he had already seen it when it was teeming with life, and he would never forget it. He remembered the sword. It hurt him a bit to think about it, but he had never seen one like it before. As he mused about these things, he realized that he had to choose between thinking of himself as the poor victim of a thief and as an adventurer in quest of his treasure.
“I’m an adventurer, looking for treasure,” he said to himself.