Drink, The Mountain Said
Part I: The City
They told him it would take days to cross the desert.
“Seven days at least! And that’s if your little one can haul enough water for both of you,” Yadhaq sneered. “And what of food?”
Jabal rode side by side with him. Yadhaq shoved a finger into the drawstring purse fastened around his horse’s neck and pulled out a dried fig. He bit into it and flecks of half-chewed fruit flung from his mouth.
“And where will you keep your goods? Surely the finest silks and fabrics in all the land deserve more than dangling off that little beast’s back, Jabal!”
Yadhaq laughed and kicked at his horse, spurring it ahead, leaving Jabal to ride on his own at the back of the group. Jabal’s mule trudged on at the rear of a long line of a dozen traveling merchants, the rest of the riders outpacing him on their horses and camels. The caravan marched toward the old city of Despina which grew in the distance.
Still riding at a steady pace, Jabal leaned over and whispered into his mule’s ear.
“He’s more of an ass than you are, eh Sadiq?”
Sadiq flicked his ears and let out a gust of breath through dripping nostrils.
Jabal unfolded his cloth map, struggling to keep it steady as Sadiq lumbered on toward the city. He found the dot marking Despina only a few fingerbreadths away from the other dots — the other cities in the caravan’s exhausted rotation. Sliding his finger across the map, Jabal traced a line from the cluster of dots across a great blank space to the east. Past the vacancy, a single dot sat apart from all the others, only paired with a small triangle — the city of Saraab nestled on the far side of a mountain on the opposite edge of the desert.
Arshad and Farooq slowed their camels’ pace until Jabal caught up with them, his little mule struggling to keep up. As they continued toward Despina, Arshad leaned across to Jabal, his eyes following Jabal’s stare to the far right side of the map.
“You know Yadhaq is right, Jabal. You think we’ve never been to Saraab without reason? There, look at the reason!”
Arshad held out his arm toward the great expanse to their right.
A gray sky floated across the colossal desert. In the darkening light, Jabal couldn’t see the peak that guarded the far city from sight, but he knew it to be there.
As they gazed across the wasteland, Arshad went on.
“Even if you did manage to fit everything you needed on your mule’s back, there would be no room left for you.”
“Then I will walk alongside him,” Jabal declared, patting Sadiq’s coarse fur beneath him.
“It’s not possible, Jabal,” Farooq interjected, shaking his head. “Don’t risk your life for this! If you must go so quickly, at least take a ship across the sea to the south —”
“I’m trying to make money, not spend it.”
“Then make it here in Despina! You think us all so foolish to sell our wares here? You think we would come here if we did not think there was money to be made?”
“Money to be made? From who, the beggars or the street dogs?”
Farooq clutched the reins of his camel with white-knuckled fists.
“Then let me pay!” Farooq dug into the pack strapped between his legs bouncing against his camels neck. He dangled a sack from his fist. “Let me pay for a damned ship so we can be done with you!”
Jabal broke Farooq’s resolute stare and eyed the hefty pouch of coins swinging from his fist.
Do not live by the pity — by the rule — of other men. Only you can quench the thirst in your throat.
The thought almost burst past clenched teeth, but Jabal swallowed it back. Searching for words, Jabal eyed Despina’s approaching gates. Close enough now to see the rust.
“If I took your coin, I would only become another wandering beggar. There are enough of those in Despina.”
“Then earn your coin here!” Farooq yelled. “We’ve barely even arrived at our destination and you already speak of leaving? For what? A thousand leagues of sand? Do you not see how foolish —”
“I cannot stand by waiting!” Jabal shouted back. “This is our third round to Despina in the last two months! Do you not recall how we bickered and fought just for the attention of those that walked by? And what other merchants have come through, peddling the same jewels, the same swords and spices as ours? Even if we managed to pass off our goods, it would be at a loss! Waste your time if you must, but do not waste mine!”
Jabal waved his hands above his head, yelling.
“This city is a carcass! Picked over by vultures! There’s nothing left of it! The people are old and poor, beggars and paupers at best! They’re worthless to us —”
Jabal’s voice trailed off. They had just passed through the city gates and the people of Despina stared at him, murmuring. The rest of the caravan scratched their heads and avoided Jabal’s eyes and those of the Despinian citizens gathered around. The merchants continued along the dirt street to set up their stands in the main square.
Farooq jumped off his camel, his fists trembling at his sides. He led his camel away into the city without looking back. Jabal and Arshad dismounted their animals too, and Arshad took Jabal by the shoulders.
“We’ll move on from here in a few weeks, no more than the moon’s cycle at the most. When we hold our next meeting, if you vote for going to Saraab, then I will meet your vote with mine. But we must go around the desert instead of through it, skirting the valleys to the north. It will take us time, yes, but . . . our lives have been gifted to us by the grace of Allah, surely we should thank him by keeping them, no?”
Arshad brought his head close to Jabal and hung a loose hand on the back of his neck.
“Please Jabal, reign in your eagerness for once. Set an example for your mule. Don’t let him set one for you.”
Arshad patted Jabal’s back. He took his camel and walked it toward the square with the other merchants. Arshad smiled back at Jabal, beckoning him to follow.
But Jabal stood in place, watching Despina’s strangers mill back and forth around him until the sun began to set upon the dying city.
An elderly Despinian man agreed to feed and house the caravan’s animals in his stallhouse in exchange for a sample from each of their wares. Farooq gave the man a hammered silver plate and tied his camel to a stall. Arshad prepared the man a steaming bowl of his black chai mixed with fresh camel milk after tying his camel with the others. Yadhaq finally parted with a small dagger and arranged his stallion toward the front of the other horses.
The other traders gave similar goods: a scoop of bright red spice, a bouquet of dried herbs, a scroll with a sura from the Quran written in delicate calligraphy, strips of camel jerky, a quiver of arrows made from springy wood and hawk feathers.
The caravan’s horses and camels soon filled every stall save for two. Jabal tied Sadiq to the last open stall at the rear of the rickety stallhouse, the only mule in the shelter except for one other — the one belonging to the old man himself. The two mules only cocked their ears as the rest of the pack animals stamped and whinnied and tugged at their ropes.
Jabal promised a shirt made of silk to the old man and held a measuring string up to his chest.
“I think I’ll fix you a design I once made for the sultan of Leonia,” Jabal said with a wink. “I only make the finest products, so it will take time to make, of course. I can have it to you in a few days. What do you say?”
“Yes, yes,” the stall keeper said waving his hand and nodding his head. “I am in no hurry. I have time to wait.”
The old man stroked the two mules. With slow steps, he walked to his mudbrick shack behind the stallhouse, kicking up dust as he went.
The old man is foolish for thinking time is his to waste. Perhaps that is why he has let it catch up to him. But time does not wait.
Jabal held an end of the measuring string in each of his hands and pulled it taught, looking from one hand to the other. As the old man disappeared from view, Jabal crumpled up the string and let it drop among the dirty hay sprinkled over the stallhouse floor.
The merchant rose from his cot in the middle of the night and stood in the empty street while the other traders still lay inside patched canvases. Without the rambling people that came with the day’s light, as Jabal made for the stalls that housed the pack animals, he saw the city clearer than before despite the dimness. Cracks creeping up the walls of houses like ivy, the once ornate stone carvings decorating the square worn smooth by sand. The colored windows of mosques painted with dust.
The horses and camels kneeled in slumber. Jabal crept past the other animals and reached Sadiq who stood awake alongside the other ass. They both watched him tie numerous bags to Sadiq’s back and sides until they were all but covered. In the remaining gaps, Jabal strung up large waterbags filled from the well outside the merchant tents — as many as he could fit between his bags of silk and satin and dyes and his shears and many colored threads, needles and other tools. On his own back, he slung bags of hay and pouches of camel jerky, dried figs, and flatbreads.
Sadiq was no camel, but the creature had traveled further before with less food and water in his belly. The mule struggled to stay balanced under the weight of the packs until Jabal shifted some bags around so Sadiq could maintain his footing. As Jabal unwound the rope anchoring Sadiq to the stall post, the old man’s mule let out a sharp bray. The call cut through the night.
“It’s not possible, Jabal!” The sound transformed into Farooq’s angry voice. The mule brayed again.
“Reign in your eagerness for once!” This time, the call rang in Jabal’s head with Arshad’s accent.
Jabal ignored the animal’s warning and doubled his speed. He fled down Despina’s quiet main road leading Sadiq as he peered back toward the tattered tents. The tent flaps swayed in the easy air, but no angry heads poked out of them. Jabal prayed the biting call of the old man’s mule would work its way into the dreams of the merchants instead of waking them. Dreams of selling foreign fruits barely above their worth. Dreams of haggling the price of exotic spices with errand boys instead of selling full price to kings.
Jabal tightened a small pack on the side of his mule and walked the creature toward the city’s broken walls. Somewhere behind him, the other mule cried out again, now in the voice of the stall keeper.
You do not have time to wait.
The merchant gazed back and tried to find the source of the cry, staring through the darkness, his eyes searching for something to focus upon. After a moment of silence, Jabal whispered into the perked ears of his own mule, ushering it through a rotting city gate and toward the desert beyond.
As light broke from the skyline, Jabal stood atop the last hill outside the old city to his back and surveyed the boundless stretch of sand before him.
The landscape presented itself like a living portrait, each part flowing through time at its own pace. Though the clouds streaked through blue overhead, the ground laid still like in an hourglass that had been tipped over. Had they not been stuck in time, the dunes would rise and fall just like waves swell and crash upon themselves in the ocean. Between the earth and sky, the sands mixed with the wind and twirled above the yellow tide until a greater calling took them in another direction, ever dancing.
Floating in the center of it all, a mountain stood in shadow beyond passing clouds. No larger than a petty ore of gold and half-hidden by sand whisking through the air, it still ranked bolder than all else on the skyline.
Jabal pulled out his map and found Despina. He rotated the map so his destination was directly in front of him: Saraab. Untouched — ready for the taking. With bells ringing in marble towers and gardens growing flowers of paradise. No more than a dot on a map, yet one that held his soon-to-be fortunes. Just before it was the little triangle. He looked up again at the distant mountain.
Only you can quench the thirst in your throat. Drink your fill or someone else will. And they will leave nothing for you.
With none but his mule, the merchant took his first steps into the desert as morning sunrays streamed out from behind the horizon.
Part II: The Desert
With each step he took, sand claimed more of the world. Even the weed grass and wither trees — those which thrive where none else could — tapered off and vanished as the desert grew in their stead.
Sadiq walked alongside Jabal, the packs strapped to his back bouncing with each step. Jabal untied a waterbag and held it up to Sadiq’s mouth. After Sadiq would accept no more, Jabal finished the rest.
You are making good pace. Just be sure to drink.
He wrung the last drops from the waterbag over his mouth and then cast it aside like a shriveled date. Less to carry meant an easier journey for them both. Jabal pointed Sadiq’s wet muzzle toward the mountain across the wasteland. In the distance, the dark shape jutted into the sky, barely larger than when Jabal had left the city hours before.
Jabal scanned the tips of the golden waves, searching the empty expanse for other landmarks.
You will not get lost out here. There are no other sights to distract you.
He closed an eye and held a finger up in front of his face, concealing the black peak from his view.
He imagined the people in Saraab looking up and seeing that the mountain had disappeared for them too. Imaginary children played in the streets when the great shadow lifted from above them. With the city bathed in light, the children cried for their mothers, the mothers screamed for their husbands, but the husbands would only stand stricken with mouths agape. The merchant lowered his finger and the mountain appeared again. The people in the distant city would rub their eyes and go back to their chores, brushing off what they had seen, waiting for their lives to shift before them again like sand in the wind.
Those dancing gusts worked against him now, stirring sand into the air in great swarms, whipping his exposed flesh like slave mongers did their wares. Though Jabal was also a trader, he sold goods far more honorable and among nobler circles — sharifs and viziers and even a few khans and khalifah — and he was treated well for it.
Once a nobleman had even given Jabal a direct invitation to dine with him in his alcazar. Other merchants from unknown cities across the world bartered their sparkling jewels and strange creatures with wide eyes. While these foreign men sold their goods, they offered entertainment of every kind — some singing of adventurous tales or blowing great blasts of fire from their throats. As did the nobleman to his side, Jabal drank deeply and fixated on the bright colors and loud noises and belly dancers swirling around him. All the while, boys in chains would fill their cups over and over again.
As he went, Jabal continued to succumb to his thoughts — his only relief from the stifling heat and the emptiness around him.
Though the desert’s harsh sanctions bore down upon him with each crawling minute, there was a softness in his ears. The steady pant of his mule beside him. Water sloshing in goathide bags. Light linen wrapped around him brushing against itself as he marched. Breeze easing over it all, mixing the separate parts of the world together. Feet slipping into sand like garden spades — black iron ones like his mother used to plant flowers outside their home.
As a boy, Jabal worked with his mother in her garden. She dug little holes and placed seeds in the ground then covered them with dirt, showing Jabal to pour water on them.
“And we will give them more water tomorrow. If we give them enough water, they will grow and grow each day.”
Jabal nodded up at his mother and squatted in the dirt. He held a bucket of water at the ready, staring at the ground.
“Tomorrow,” she said, laughing. “If we give them too much now, they will drown.” She placed a soft hand on his shoulder and guided him into their home. “It will take time. But when spring comes, we will have beautiful flowers to greet us in our garden. Just like this one.”
She gestured to a single red bloom standing in a clay vase on their table.
In the morning, his mother found Jabal in the garden. He sat in an inch of water, a wooden bucket overturned beside him. Between his legs, a red flower jutted out from the ground in a mound of mud.
A pang of thirst brought Jabal’s thoughts back to the present.
No flowers grow here in the dead heat. Plenty of sun, but never enough to drink.
As Jabal walked through the desert, the sun cooked him from above, reddening his dark skin. Where it touched the burning sand, his flesh blistered and bubbled and filled with yellow liquid his body could not afford to create. Jabal opened a pouch on Sadiq’s back and pulled out several bright scarves and wrapped them around his arms and head.
Together, Jabal and Sadiq shared water, ate, and rested, watching the sun burn low in the sky.
Impossible to drink too much in this heat.
Jabal took another swig.
By the end of the first day, the sole landmark besides the peak ahead was the city behind. As night approached, his mind had cleared of the distractions of the day. Instead of raw skin or memories of flowers, the only image in his head was the huddling city somewhere ahead and the great monolith that shadowed it. Its people standing in their doorways looking out over the ridge of the mountain, yearning for a taste of the world. Waiting for him to deliver it upon them. To shower him with gold and adoration.
Behind him in the waning light, Despina was no bigger in his mind than it was to his eyes — a brown speck, a mite of dust settled on a small mound of earth to his rear. He could brush the old city away into the wind.
Jabal sat on a silk sheet high atop a golden dune and rested his legs and his lungs, watching the speck darken as night fell and as sleep inched its creeping fingers over him.
The sun set like an ember dropped from the sky. As the sphere sunk into the sand, the city left behind became a silhouette between him and the glowing sun. His eyes fluttered and the old madina became a burnt black shape, the shadows of its fallen arches and failed walls stretching toward him in despondent agony as the sun sank deeper. His eyes fluttered again, heavier now, and the dying city burned alive. Sleep overtook him as hot gusts of air carried frightened brays of the city’s people.
In the morning, the city was gone.
Three more days passed like this. Each sunrise, the trader fought to find the strength to stand and untie a waterbag from his pack mule. As the sun soared overhead, Jabal stumbled and sweltered through the desert with Sadiq until they dropped from exhaustion. In a daze, they would wilt beneath the sun until it fell upon the land they had just traveled, digesting it.
Throughout the days, Jabal drank until his head stopped throbbing with every slow beat of his heart, offering what was left to his mule. Sadiq barely lifted his head to drink.
Do not allow the failure of others to rob you of your future. Only you can quench the thirst in your throat.
The mule wobbled his head and let it drop. Jabal stroked the sand-caked fur between his ears and they walked until the sky turned dark and collapsed upon them again.
As the sun rose, Jabal rubbed grit out of his eyes and poured the night’s collection of sand from his slippers. He sat up on the stretch of silk he had laid out. Once worthy of resting upon a sultan’s shoulders, the patterned sheet was faded and rough, now the only separation between the merchant and the heat of the desert waking beneath him.
Jabal grunted and rubbed his neck and, without a word, Sadiq came to stand beside him. The merchant ripped a waterbag from Sadiq’s side and squeezed its contents past chapped lips — and the water near boiled his tongue. Jabal choked on the steaming water and, in a panic, clutched at his mouth, dropping the hide bag into the swirling sand.
“What devil — !”
Still sputtering, he dropped to all-fours and yelped as he touched the scorching ground. Despite the pain, his limbs were locked in horror as he watched the ground suck a day’s worth of rations into its depths, robbing some of the little water they had left.
Jabal coughed past a raw tongue. “Who has cursed us, Sadiq?”
His mule squealed at him, an echo of the mule that called after him in the city. Not a warning this time, but a rebuke.
You were in no hurry. You had time to wait.
“We are close, Sadiq!” Jabal shook his hands to ease the searing pain. “Do not think we will fail because others have or because others want us to.”
The mule nudged the waterskin as the wind drove the sands to absorb it.
They would have no hope of finding more water among the dunes. Oases and ancient wells built by nomads — these were fantasies travelers traded as they went from place to place. The only option was to keep on toward the invisible city somewhere ahead in the distance. To keep toward the mountain.
The dark peak crept closer each night, revealing its newfound size at dawn. A rotten tooth one morning, a chunk of jagged coal the next. An ant nest, empty and forgotten. The trunk of a juniper tree petrified in ash. A dead king’s tomb. Always darker, always growing.
On the sixth day, the mountain was nearly upon them, blacking out the world beyond.
The merchant woke from meager sleep to a thud. Exhaustion kept his eyes closed and the the sound floated over Jabal, stolen by the incessant wind. After a moment, a soft whine came, then a squeal. Jabal’s eyes snapped open.
Sadiq lay beside him, his hind legs and back buried in sand, the desert already working to consume them. The animal’s front legs jutted into the sky, waving askew as if the ground had been pulled out from beneath him, his swollen tongue crusted in sand.
Jabal tried yelling out but his throat was near welded shut, blocking the word from becoming anything more than a raspy bark. He struggled against the gusts pushing him down and rushed to uncover Sadiq, plunging his hands into the burning grit surrounding his friend.
As the wind egged it on, the sand swallowed more of Sadiq’s tired body — his belly then his front legs then his trembling neck. The mule’s brown eyes were stuck wide in horror. They flicked from the merchant to the mountain to the surrounding sands even as the earth engulfed him.
Jabal shoveled at the sand in desperation to uncover the animal and the many packs strapped to his back. Despite Jabal’s choking cries, the desert worked faster and stronger than he could fight back and, within minutes, the scene turned from gravesite to memory.
Jabal knelt in the churning sand and ripped his hands from beneath the burning surface. Shaking, he held out flaring palms face-up in prayer as tears streamed halfway down his grimy face before evaporating in the fervor.
His fabrics, his food, his water. His only companion. All devoured by the desert.
A buried treasure for the next fool to wander the dunes.
Without fabrics to sell, the merchant became a beggar. He would arrive at Saraab the same way he had arrived at Despina — with nothing to sell. And without food or water, Jabal would not arrive at Saraab at all. Instead, like his mule, the ground would swallow him whole.
Without Sadiq, Jabal’s only counterpart was the one watching above — grim and reticent and closer than ever. A black wall marking the edge of the world.
The wind died down and the sands settled. The scene became still. Had there been any birds flying overhead, they would only see a dot of dirt flicked upon a spanning golden canvas. A painter’s mistake soon to be covered up by darker colors. But there was nothing to witness him except for the mountain.
It towered above more a part of the sky than a part of the earth. Black and unmoving.
As Jabal watched it through streaming eyes, a brilliant light grew from somewhere beyond the black monolith, peeking out from behind — the morning sun eclipsed by the mountain.
The merchant stood up to face it.
He would climb. Even if he failed to crawl down the other side to the hungry city behind, he would climb. He was not a merchant anymore. His possessions were lost, but his desire to
survive was not.
Only you can quench the thirst in your throat.
He would not be beaten by gravel and stone. If he drew his last breath atop the mountain, at least he would die above it.
Blinded by pain and light, Jabal made toward the mountain.
Part III: The Mountain
He woke to an ache drumming in the back of his head and eased his eyes open. He lay in the center of a deep cavity in the sand — as if some great giant scooped up part of the earth and dropped him inside it. Above, an endless black wall hemmed him in from all sides.
Jabal rolled over and pushed himself up onto wavering legs. The beating throb in his head doubled as blood rushed back into it. His eyes blurred for a moment then filled with inky blotches and many-colored stars of light. His vision swam as he collapsed onto all-fours.
As he regained focus, his eyes settled on the only other object in the hollow — a rock twice the size of his head and covered with peculiar markings. It sat dead center of the pit.
The merchant crawled closer. Lines of dark sediment raced across it in a dizzying yet organized pattern. A dark red patch splashed across half of the rounded rock with small tufts of black hair sticking to its worn surface.
Jabal reached to the back of his head and withdrew his hand again. Blood and sand stuck to his fingers and the ache in his head twinged. Another pain echoed in his middle and he dug at his empty pockets for a scrap of jerky or a withered waterbag.
The merchant searched for a way out.
Not a merchant anymore. Just a man.
The lowest slope of the pit was more than an arm’s reach above his head and each side as steep as the mountain looming above. He knew the desert would find a way to put an end to him just like it had poor Sadiq, so Jabal set out as fast as his failing body would allow. He worked his hands and knees until they brought him to the foot of the incline. As he crawled up, the sand beneath him slid back to the bottom of the cavity and carried him with it. Jabal moaned as sand poured down from the top of the slope and filled in the shifted sands, and more sand poured in from beyond the pit replacing that.
He let out a murmur and flipped over with his back to the loose wall, resting his weary frame. His tongue scraped the inside of his mouth, searching for moisture. Jabal eyed the yellow bubbles full of liquid on his calloused hands and feet, but he forced his eyes up and away until the thought drifted.
On the upper edges of the pit, heat waves flickered back and forth. Jabal sensed movement beyond the burning air. As he stared through them, splotches of brown and black spun into shapes and, as the colors drew closer, into figures. Within moments, the figures revealed themselves to be men. They made way toward the mountain above him.
Despite the pain in his throat, Jabal called out.
“Ho! Help me! Don’t fall in! Help!”
A dozen men hurried toward the pit and gathered around the edge, peering down at him. They kneeled in silence.
He called out again. “Please! Please help me, I cannot get out!”
They watched him, trading glances at each other.
These men. The other merchants from the caravan. Your friends.
“Arshad! Farooq! It’s Jabal! Please, help me! Water! Food!”
Farooq stood up, peering over the edge. “You are a fool, Jabal.”
Laughing, Yadhaq kicked sand into the pit but it dissolved before reaching Jabal.
Arshad sipped from a steaming copper mug. “You think we never went to Saraab without reason? There, Jabal. Look. There is the reason.”
Arshad pointed across the pit at the dark foot of the mountain.
“No, no, I am so close. Please . . . Give me water. We can all go, we’re almost there.”
The old stall keeper squatted on his haunches at the edge of the pit and and scratched at his chest.
“We? Where is my shirt? You promised it. Cloth fit for a king, you said, no? I will help you as soon as you pay your debt. I am in no hurry. I have time to wait.”
The old man held his wrinkled hand out in front of him, waiting for repayment.
Jabal’s mouth hung open, searching for the right words to say.
The merchants stood in the hot air billowing from the ground, their eyes drifting from each other and back down at Jabal. A few men stepped back from the edge and turned away.
“No — no, no, please help me — please no —”
Farooq, Arshad, and Yadhaq followed, as did the old man, all flickering in the heat. Before they could escape Jabal’s sight, the figures loosened into shapes and dissolved back into obscure colors. A gust of wind blew the stained patches away, across the pit and up the mountain.
Jabal cupped his cracked hands over his face and screamed into them.
One last trick of the desert.
His breathing slowed. Jabal began crying, though his body afforded him no tears. The sloping wall of the pit caught his shrunken head as he traded consciousness for sleep.
The merchant’s eyes snapped open to the wind whistling in the dark. A yellow moon shed its light into the pit and onto the mountain hovering over him. The hulking slab glittered in the light, up and up, mixing with the white stars floating in black far above. Up and up and up until the mountain met the sky. Swallowed it. Replaced it.
He watched the stars go out in a wave as the mountain consumed them, growing until only the mountain remained, casting the entire world below into a void.
Jabal woke from the nightmare in a stupor. The moon remained floating overhead outlined by white flecks.
Thirst clutched at his throat as he sat up. Hunger tore at him from inside. He moaned.
Do not whimper in front of Shaitan, kissing his feet and begging for death.
Jabal forced himself to stand in the moonlight. He found the large rock near the center of the sand cavity and heaved it to the lowest edge of the pit. He stepped one foot on top of it but slipped off its curved surface before he could plant the second. After catching his breath, he tried again — he fixed one leg atop the stone then the other, balancing on its slickness. His entire body shook in fatigue as he raised his arms above his head to grasp at the edge of the pit, now only inches from his reach.
Teetering, Jabal focused all remaining energy into his limbs. As he sprung upward, the rock beneath him shifted under the abrupt force and Jabal only grasped at the edge. He crashed back down into the pit and his breath disappeared, his lungs paralyzed for a moment.
Wheezing, his frenzied eyes fell on the rock — and saw it tremble. Shuddering, as if cold or frightened.
In horror, the wasting merchant’s gaze followed the stone as it crept along the bottom of the pit toward him.
In a shallow pool of moonlight, the rock revealed its leathery legs and neck and two sparkling obsidian eyes. Dark lines carved its shell into fissures across its back, branching but connected. A slit beneath its pointed snout grew.
You have wrung water from stone. Now drink it.
The tortoise stepped forward and Jabal’s body erupted in anguish.
The gash on Jabal’s scalp widened as if an invisible someone shoved shears into his skull and pried them open. While Jabal’s vision stuck to the tortoise approaching, a voice behind him whispered, pricking his ears.
“Our city is not what you thought. It is dead, too. The marble towers have fallen. Replaced by black fragments stolen from the mountain, pieced together into feeble huts. Gardens growing rot. We have no lust for foreign trappings. Once, we desired the likes of you. Now we only desire absolution.”
The voice faded and the tortoise stepped closer. Its scaly legs pushed against the ground but left the sand unmarked. With a crack, Jabal felt the world groan and the desert burst into action in a heartbeat.
Torrid wind dropped into the pit raking millions of particles from the desert. A golden haze layered the air and the moon burned red through it. The wind pressed in and swirled the desert around him into a vortex, twisting, blurring the world outside the pit into oblivion. Only the mountain cut through, taunting.
Sand boiled in his lungs. Jabal drew his tattered sleeve over his face, fighting for breath that wasn’t infected with sand. Still, the tortoise remained, unfettered by the sudden storm.
The creature stepped again and the edges of the cleft beneath its hollow eyes flickered. Inches from Jabal, the tortoise stretched its neck from the hidden depths of its shell and unhinged its mouth. The rank stench of burnt hair and carcass rushed into Jabal’s nostrils as the gaping hole grew wider and wider. As waves of air distorted by heat poured from its mouth, a vision of the tortoise feasting upon Sadiq’s bloated body flashed in his eyes. Jabal sat blinking and the tortoise extended its maw around Jabal’s withered foot and snapped it shut through his flesh, crushing through his bone.
Jabal gurgled in shock. The tortoise drew its mouth back from the stump as blood gushed from the end of it. Jabal watched in terror as the end of his leg glowed orange, cracked and smoking like cinder at the end of a stick. As his charred limb burned, wind wisped the ash away until all evidence of his limb had vanished.
The tortoise bent its bloodied mouth into a grin.
In a daze, Jabal could only watch as the creature inched closer, its eyes reflecting faint light from the red moon. The tortoise lowered its wrinkled jaw into the splash of Jabal’s blood, taking long, labored drafts. A black tongue lapped the sanguine puddle, fluttering like a dying fish.
As the tortoise drank, Jabal hunched over, shaking.
It raised its head from the blood-clumped sand and caught Jabal’s eyes.
When was your last sip?
A surge of pain shot up his spine like lightning, straightening his back and sealing the walls of his throat shut. His insides spasmed, stretching and turning in on themselves, ripping at his gut.
Jabal placed his arms over his stomach in an attempt to hold in the pain, but numbness licked at his fingers and hands and along his arms.
Peering down through streaming eyes, Jabal saw his arms sunk into a hole formed in his middle. Jabal screamed, but the sound stayed locked behind his swollen throat. His face turned blue as the hole swallowed at him, pulling his arms deeper.
You have sold patience for ambition. Was it a good trade?
Anger welled up inside him. In a fury, Jabal wrenched his arms from the hole in his middle and pulled free. In his hands, he held a heart, quivering and gasping for blood. As the sand continued to whirl around him, the beating muscle caked in sand and hardened, its thumping pattern slowing until stopping completely. Within moments of pulling the heart out from the hole, it had turned to stone as tough and black as the mountain above.
The merchant judged the creature before him. With a terrible furor, Jabal held the heart high above his head with both hands and brought it down with all of his might. He raised it again and bashed at the tortoise, sending shards of rock and shell across the pit. The creature’s head and limbs retreated into its dome as Jabal heaved over and over. With the last of his will, he swung the hardened heart down in a final blow.
Meat and shell fragments lay in a heap before him. He set the heart upon it. A gust of wind dropped sand from the top of the pit and caked the mass into a mound. It dissolved into the ground and, within moments, Jabal sat at the bottom of the pit with nothing but the sand beneath him.
Now there is nothing left to be done.
The voice spoke in his head once again — and Jabal realized it was not his own. It never was.
Do you know my voice now? I have been with you for many years.
Jabal gazed up at the mountain, hypnotized as it continued to speak — not down from its peak, but from inside him.
I have watched you cross my desert.
Many have attempted me. I was with them as I was with you. A veiled voice in the back of their minds goading them from inside. Showing them their folly, masking it as potential.
You trod upon them as you journeyed toward me, their bones ground into dust by these endless churning sands. Some lay upon my chest, crushed like flies by my might. Some plummeted down my jagged back. You failed to even set foot upon me. No matter; none will ever conquer me.
Such is always the fate of the poison men call pride. They all drink their fill, yet none find an end to their thirst.
Jabal’s vision faded as blackness crept around him. With the world in a haze, images from the past flooded into his head.
Picking flowers with his mother. Trading a month’s worth of coins earned by sewing intricate linens to purchase Sadiq. Laughing with Arshad over a cup of tea in a busy market. Racing on back of Sadiq with Farooq just behind on foot. Clashing wooden sticks while sparring with Yadhaq. Drinking in bed at the grand palace of the nobleman, a sleeping belly dancer at his side beneath a sheet of his silk. Walking the twisted paths of foreign cities just to learn their histories, their ancient architecture telling enigmatic tales of allure and intrigue without speaking a word. Cities like Valdrada and Baucis and Leonia and Marozia. Cities like Despina. All lost.
The morning came and called Jabal to his feet like a corpse risen from its grave. He stood at the bottom of the pit as straight as his fading body would allow. The merchant hoisted a limp arm to block the sun as he gazed over the peak but, instead of sunshine, a gray cloud loomed behind the mountain filtering all but a dull light. A flash of lightning burst from the cloud upon the unknowable city lurking somewhere below. Roaring thunder followed, rolling around the mountain and down into the desert.
Jabal gaped up at the mountain and the cloud beyond it, his swollen tongue lolling out of his mouth. His pulse drumming inside his skull with every beat.
There is water. Go. Drink.