My younger brother, Saleh, and I have stolen Saddam's camel which in turn was stolen by berbers to use as milk or to slaughter, sell as fur. Before them, I heard rumors that the camel was mistreated by looters in
Saleh had tied a red cloth around the camel’s neck. When we catch up to the camel, we will know her by that marker. He named her
We trudge through ripples of cascading sand that leaves our souls gaping, our noses bleeding. At times, the sand grains, flurrying in the wind, pokes our faces like so many pins sent from Allah, perhaps to test our fortitude. Side swept by a dry wind from the north, we cover our faces with scarves.
In Ar Aut,bah, an old woman in black sequined Hijab, takes pity on us, and invites us to stay in her hut. There, she feeds us mazze and khubaz. To be polite, we stuff our bellies before she eats. Outside her hut, an old man plays a oud that reminds me of desert stirrings, or the yearning voices of young women, voices that ascend higher than the Cheekah Dar mountain top.
Have you seen a stray camel with red cloth around its neck, I ask this woman. Yes, she says, but it belongs to Abu Bakr, the potter. She points to his home and we walk, even though we can no longer walk. Is it a mirage, asks Saleh, who squints and pants. No, I say, it must be the same camel. Who else would tie a red cloth around her? But I throw my palm to his chest, saying, wait until no one watches, then we will retrieve her.
Our kind host entertains us for days, while we secretly watch the camel, its comings and goings. I now know what Abu Bakr looks like. At some point, he unties the red cloth from
One afternoon, I spot a man in a white flowing thobe tether a leather bag to the camel's neck. I check to make sure there is no dust in my eyes because he is not Abu Bakr. As soon as the man leaves, Saleh runs out and I traipse after him. He is curious; I am wary. I call out to him to get back, that someone might be watching, that he will expose our intentions to steal the camel, too soon.
And in seconds, if seconds could be an accurate measure of endless sand flecks, she explodes, and the smell of metal and powder must linger, linger for days, the scent of burnt flesh, camel or otherwise.
Saleh has been blinded by the explosion, and I have suffered only minor flesh wounds. After leaving the hospital in Ar aut,bah, I thank Umayma, who was untouched by the explosion, and bid her farewell. Saleh has fresh scars around his eyes, pinkish and red.
Holding Saleh by the arm, I guide him across pitted and pockmarked roads in Anbar, past houses, stacked or heaped alongside. I tell him that once we cross
We reach a stretch of endless desert, cragged hills and glistening waves of sand. I must squint it is so bright. Saleh walks ahead of me and says he sees it--the camel. There is no camel, I say. But he insists there is. Tell me what you see, I say.
He begins to describe the desert, the hills in front of us, the low clouds overhead, their puffy and belly-like shapes. I do not understand how he can see. Perhaps, he is recounting from memory.
But where is the camel? I ask.
He trudges ahead, past the red-rippled hills of sand, and standing at the summit of one, he points. “Look for yourself,” he says. I call out to him to be careful not to fall.
I climb up next to Saleh. There is a faint wind stirring, one that caresses our faces like a mother’s whisper at bedtime. There is a lone camel standing several meters ahead of us. I do not know if it is a mirage or a gift delivered from the prayers of the old women. She wanted to see us safe. Saleh runs down the hill.
I watch him approach the camel. He stands next to it, petting the fur, running his hands over the large hump. He turns around and cries “You see?”
Maybe from this distance anything could seem real. I want to believe, but I can’t. I want to touch this camel, but I am afraid. I am afraid that both it and my brother will disappear.
Or. . .
Or is it I who has grown blind?
KYLE HEMMINGSlives in New Jersey and currently works full time in health care. He has recently completed his MFA degree from National University's online program. Kyle says his other passions include cooking, baking, cartoon art, and listening to old Beach Boys records. Even though winters tend to be tough in New Jersey, he’s still waiting for an endless summer.