a date with carbon
Like a whip-kissed fresh-made scar that traced her course for months, the word “concentration” came to brand my face El Zorro-style. It is safe to say it was karmic, followed closely after my body felt the concrete upon impact in her absence. To solve for why I lost her grip I had to rewind past the moment I began to drool on Kaya’s back.
I know the chase began at dawn two days ago, right after my initiation. I had been dreaming I was crossing a bridge holding onto a rope but didn’t know where it came from or what I was about to do with it. A distant chant began to turn the rope into a living thing and I woke up to three shadows that tossed a veil over me and carried me by force, lifting me above their heads, to the back of the camp. I knew one would be chosen today but it’s not like this is something people volunteer for.
They landed me on a wooden board, the same we had chopped the oryx we had for dinner the night before. As they chanted verses about earth and fire, the black soot was smeared on my legs and feet, leaving me looking like I had been dipped in smoke. Carbon, they said, is meant to make me run faster and fool the beasts as if I was one of them. Then came a red pigment that tasted of salt that they spread across my lips and cheeks, all the way to my ears. This one was meant to bring water in my path, and for good luck.
“I probably look like a joke right now”, the thought came as quick as it left, as the eyes of the sages stared deep into mine to toss the humor aside with a gentle push. “You are welcome to laugh it off when you come back” one of them said behind me. “We’ll be looking after you, but watch out for the snakes. The drone will be close behind you, and Koro will be in range in case you pass out.”
Cool, bid your farewells, this is just the beginning. Before setting off they strapped me with a hunting knife and a leather pouch filled to the brim with enough water to give me an edge over her.
“Hurry, our scouts say she is a beauty, one of four that escaped the Beduin, and is just leaving the northern spring heading West.” It was still dark and I had yet to realize that there was no coming back on my own two feet.
I got to the spring just before first light, and my shadow pointed straight at the first tracks that would become my death row and life-line. Within the hour I caught sight of her. It was a young and wild golden mare, remarkably graceful to the point of hypnosis. Perhaps I was hypnotized after chasing her on an arrow-straight line westward across the plane.
“Concentrate on your breath, the mare, your step. There is no room for distraction, no coming back if you give up. No turning back. You rather fall than lose your place in the tribe. This is the chase you came to do. This mare’s fate and yours had been woven together from the moment you learned to walk the land. You cannot let go. You will not let go.” This dialogue, which belonged to all of us and none of us all at once, began to play in my head on shuffle and repeat as I battled with my energy.
By noon I began to question the seemingly impossible task. “Is this whole thing just a test? There is no way I can catch up to a fucking mare.”
“Silence”, the sage spoke in my ear, the memory of his eyes had come back to me. I felt a relief on my tired legs like I had just run water through them. My chest expanded and I regained a pace of breath I had by now turned to a gasp. “You are not this body, focus”. I kept going with a few walking rests in between whenever I’d catch her grazing, or if I had caught sight of a fig tree she hadn’t visited, and before long I was closing in.
At first she’d stare at me, and trot away indifferent. Then she seemed vexed, and looked around for more of me and start again. I was more attentive now as the clouds began turning peach, to rationing water and staying closer to her tracks. I’d turn my head to catch the sight of a black dot up in the sky, perhaps for fear I could collapse any moment now. But I didn’t.
Nearing dusk I began to think she soared through the plane and tapped the sand for a print just to keep me going. Is she playing with me? I thought, exhausted, and hopeful that I was gaining sympathy, but at each sight of me she would start again to the chase last light. Again and again she would start, leaving me with a hand reaching out with three plump ripe figs I had saved to greet her.
It got dark, and so was her shape. A moonlit silhouette that carried stars in her eyes. I was that close, but she would always fight my approach. I ran only to catch up and walk up gently, to see her again turn and walk away.
“I’m gonna pass out here…” I said to myself with a grave sense of fatigue.
“Silence, focus”, again the voice came, this time tapping my forehead. I ate a fig I kept for the mare and massaged my shoulders and thighs that seemed to be squeezed out of life then. Somehow the mare was just ten feet away now, and I ran to her with all the strength I thought I had just a second too late to even touch her. I was tired, but this sprint was all I needed to wake myself up. So I kept going, as did she. A sky of a thousand stars lit with colored hues of green and blue wrapped itself around the both of us runners, two dark shapes piercing through the sand.
The water pouch had been drunk empty and I began to feel my tongue shrink to the back of my throat. I was desperate for rest but this mare wouldn’t give in. I sat down staring at her, now a dark blotch within an arm throw in the darkest pitch of night. My legs gave in quickly to my craving for rest as they sank into oblivion. Within thirty seconds, my eyes had shut.
“How was she?” Farah asked across the fire. I was back at camp with the tribe. I choked on a drink they passed around I couldn’t tell if it was wine. My taste buds must have been asleep but I could barely talk without lubricating my esophagus.
“She’s mystic. A feathered gallop that would leave simple mortals eating her dust just to be nice.”
A hand felt the back of my neck in a firm grip, shaking my head like a maraca. It was Koro, smiling next to me in the pit. He then pointed to my legs. They were feeding the fire.
I woke up with a twitch, half-buried in cold sand. Disoriented and with no sign of the mare.
“Fuck. I lost her.” My eyes went to scan the sky for the drone. No sign of it. Would they have lost me too? Were they sending someone to get me? There was no way to know, but if they caught up to me, it was game over. The sky was lighter, giving me the impression I was just about an hour away from first light. I must have been asleep for a while.
“Go to her” again, the voice but now it felt that it was mine. “The tracks. I can’t find any of them… She’s been heading West this whole time. The Orion constellation… There! Go.”
My legs caught wind. I ran as fast as I could, now fearing getting caught before catching up to her. As the sky turned red behind me with first light I was going over a mound, burying my hands to climb across its golden crest that now was brimming with vibrance. She was right there, six feet into the mound, imposing, grand, dressed in golden light. Again, she started off.
“Is this a joke? I’ll die here.”
“Focus. What’s her name?”
My feet somehow aligned themselves to the tracks. I was no longer telling my legs what to do, they just asked for my concentration. My dried throat crackled with every breath, but I was determined to get closer. I still had a single round fig left that would be too hard for me to swallow, so I kept it in the empty pouch for Kaya.
With my eyes fixed on her, entranced, I almost slipped in the sand. I had stepped on something wet. Kaya was coming to a halt. She turned to face me. Did she hear me? No way. She felt me. I turned and saw that I had stepped on a rattlesnake. Inching closer, I noticed the skull had been flattened by a hoof. The blood still dripped droplets of crimson red in the sand. I took out the pouch and used the flat leather back to cut off the head, and took this snake to my mouth for a drink. I could imagine my crew in mid-gasp as they watched the live-stream. I had no intention of eating the snake but when survival kicks in your body more or less is placed on instinct-only autopilot. I tossed the excess to the side and took my body to her. I knew she was also on the edge of thirst.
For another hour we walked. Both, in silence, just a few feet away from each other. Like two drunken bodies walking the thinning hall of life in the sand, we both walked. Through the undulating mirages we caught a caravan heading just north of our position. So we gravitated towards them. By now I was walking next to Kaya, but I had forgotten all about my mission. Mounting her would have killed us both.
Then we witnessed an oasis, complete with a date palm tree. Is this even real? We did not dare to care. We had been beyond thirsty by then. I collapsed at the edge, drank my fill, and she laid down next to me.
“How about a date?”
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