Muhammad kicked the kinks out of his leg and reached for a cigarette. Everyone in the jeep sat puppet still, even after he’d climbed out. They knew he was dangerous from the way he’d hurtled the jeep down the steep side of the dune, relishing their terror. Stealthy as cats, the five passengers slid from the jeep, paced and prowled nearby. Muhammad ignored them as he ignored the flies that spiraled around us, the only stir in the feverish desert air. I took the cigarette he offered, bent to the flame cupped in his palm.
“Where are we?” I asked. We were surrounded by dunes as tall as the one we’d plunged down.
“In the Rainbow Range,” Muhammad said. “Look.”
A halo of pale pinks, mauves, corals, amethysts, and the yellowest topaz colored the dunes and the light around them. The dissonant glint of a strange color, blue as sapphire yet mottled to lapis in the shade, flashed like flecks in an opal. Standing on a floor of gold as yellow as twenty-four carat, ringed by the glitter of bejeweled dunes, I felt as if I’d entered a Shahrazade palace.
“Mother of god,” I said. “Why doesn’t everyone come?”
“Quicksand,” Muhammad replied. “Very few can tell where it is.”
No one could identify quicksand according to the British explorer who’d charted these sands, but then he was not from desert stock, neither Arab nor Badu, and Muhammad was all three. “Shall we set up camp? Muhammad asked.
“Samir has the heaviest equipment.” Samir was the other driver in our two-jeep caravan across the perilous desert the Beduoin called The Empty Quarter, my business partner in this East-West amalgam of adventure travel.
At the mention of Samir, my bearing grew unconsciously affectionate and Muhammad stepped into its warmth. “He’ll be here,” he said.
To strand a friend in the desert violated a code of honor I knew the two men shared, and yet the plaintive sound of the honk honk I’d heard before Samir and his jeepful of tourists faded from the side-view mirror echoed in my ears.
We set up what equipment there was, which included the big dining tent, stripped of its luxurious rugs and cushions, a latrine shelter, and materials to build a fire. Muhammad knew what he was doing, but did things alone. When we had to cooperate, the negotiation about method took longer than the job. Tension with a flirty edge thickened between us. I kept glancing into the distance for a cloud of dust, hoping Samir and the others would arrive before the scenario went too far, for I did not trust Muhammad and flirted only to palliate the danger he posed.
Knotted near the jeep, people’s conversation sounded skittish and tense. A random mix of nationalities and backgrounds, my half of the tour group had jumbled together a British expatriate couple who’d lived all over the Middle East, an Egyptian academic who had written an infamous book about the brothelization of life in Arabia yet covered her head to show her allegiance to Islamic values, an American political scientist whose mother was a Holocaust survivor, and Nell Houston, who’d never hiked past her own backyard but had filled a set of hand-blown glass beads with the seven colors of the desert sands.
“I miss the green already,” Nell had muttered to me on the flight. She gazed across her husband’s bulky form out the porthole at the deep desert where we now were to camp.
I stared at the glittering palette of burnt colors, the dizzy swirl of unfamiliar desert forms, and mused, “I feel like I might spy a bizarre color, a bronzed sapphire, say, or a silvery melon.”
Nell gave me a funny look, her small face, under the halo of frizzy red wisps, porcelain-doll pert, even when daunted. Her husband had been vaulted into an executive position by his Texas oil company employers; a Middle East position paid sky-high wages these day because of the risk. Nell improvised a gay little laugh which changed to tears before she managed to ask, “What’re you doing, honey, going to the end of the earth?”
"Snatching the job opportunity of a lifetime,” I’d told her, though it didn’t feel that way tonight.
Muhammad pounded the tent stakes as if he could drive his aims into the group’s prattle, then tried to bark them into calm. Fearful of an incident, his temper became my primary concern. If it hadn’t, perhaps I would have noticed what was happening in time to prevent it.
The travelers had gathered in the shade of the big awning, wanting the comfort of nearness. The light had been changing for a while and its influence altered the mood of the group. An affinity seeped through them, an alliance. In the succor of attachment, each one of them grew more distinctive. The light seemed to generate the difference, as if its odd pastel radiance empowered this melange of accidental nomads. We sat peacefully in this semi-meditative state, our communication easy yet honest. A few people sipped drinks, though the effects of alcohol seemed subdued. The wind ruffled around the dunes, carrying odd, distorted sounds on its currents. Once, it seemed to call my name. Emma, implored the wind. Ehhmmaa. An eerie, distorted faraway sound. A while later, it keened again. This time it no longer sounded supernatural. I scanned around to see if anyone else had heard it. Muhammad’s ear was cocked to the wind. I caught his eye and we both listened. Ehhmmaa. It was real, alright. Someone was calling me.
At first I thought, someone from Samir’s group was calling from the other side of the dunes. Then I realized, Nell was gone.
People had been coming and going, disappearing into their tents or to relieve themselves. Nell had left, when? when? I pulled up a picture: Nell leaving in light the color of pale honey; nearly two hours earlier. Sunset was just now beginning, the sun’s sphere tumescing as it began its long descent towards the rim of the sky. Quietly, I checked Nell’s tent but she wasn’t there. Nor was the equipment she used to gather sand for the miniature crystals she filled to make necklaces.
Of course! I thought. Nell’s gone to collect the blue sapphire sand. Nell had no idea how unforgiving the terrain was, how the sameness of the landmarks befuddled the senses. It looked so simple out there, friendly as a sandy beach. And then, there was the quicksand.
Muhammad was waiting outside the tent. He had done a quick survey of the rest of the camp and found no sign of her.
“What will we tell them?” I said.
“Tell them that no one is to go out there alone, ever.” He instructed me to wait while he retrieved some equipment from his tent. “Such stupidity offends the law of the desert,” he muttered, as he disappeared.
Of course every member of the group volunteered to come, but only someone with Muhammad’s expertise could track in the desert. “We need a contingency plan.” The English expatriate spoke in a tone quiet enough to convey enough urgency that he didn’t have to say, in case you don’t come back.
He proposed himself as contingency driver and his wife as navigator; both of them had extensive desert experience and fair enough skills, but they needed a location and a route. Muhammad had changed into an odd pair of shoes, slung a pack over his shoulder, and returned to the fringe of the group. He slipped forward when I beckoned and stood beside me, scanning the expedition map I’d spread out on the camp table. On the map, our location was not far off course, though in an area Samir had explicitly planned to avoid. Muhammad zigzagged a finger along a circuit and explained how to get around the tall dunes and back to the known byways. At least four of the group memorized every word.
Before we left, I drew the political scientist aside. His suspicion of Muhammad had been palpable during the trip and I thought he might have the knowledge or connections to understand what was at stake without explanations. Sure enough, he had a satellite phone of his own. He had, he assured me, plenty of contacts he could raise.
Muhammad was pacing around the edge of the encampment, studying the sand for signs of Nell’s footsteps, like an antediluvian tracker from the era of silk and opium. I scrutinized the mountains. None of the dunes was particularly distant; a novice could hike to them without difficulty. Nell would not have attempted it otherwise; she wasn’t courageous. But that blue sapphire sand would have magnetized her by its exquisite beauty, overridden any dread. A saddlebacked dune to the west looked as if an alpine pool had spilled pendulously from its edges, a frozen sandfall of blue gems. Nell would have beelined for it. I called to Muhammad. “I think she’d have gone that way.” Surprise cast a shadow across his face. He had just identified tracks that led in the same direction.
We set off, me trailing slightly behind to avoid kicking sand over the faint marks he was tracking, though I felt certain that unless denser veins of color marbled another dune, we needed only to head for the blue sapphire fall. “What’s in the pack?” I asked. Mine contained a skeletal assortment of gear: microchip compass, army knife, headband lantern, flares, trail food, water pouch, microfiber sleeping bag, jacket, but his bulged with equipment. Rescue gear, he explained: a coil of rope to pitch to Nell if she needed it, a sand anchor, titanium stakes whose tips flared into hooks, emergency blanket, extra water. He also had this large apparatus that looked like a scuba tank with a pump arm. It turned out to be an instrument devised to spew a stream of heavy sand into the pockets of space in quicksand, to firm it into a hanging sand bar and create a temporary bridge, which, like logs on water, would eventually drift away and disintegrate.
Why was this visionary piece of equipment not listed in any of the gear catalogues, I said, intrigued but skeptical too; all those hours of searching. His family had developed it from a system used by some of their ancestors, he explained. Slinging rocks with precision could force a stream of sand into an area where a man or a camel had become stuck, so they could scramble to safety.
“It had no use except in the deep desert,” he said. “It is like the Badu.”
Human beings had walked on the moon; the Americans and the Russians had staffed an outpost in space; microchip technology had engineered instant communication, yet the Poles and the desert remained unconquered. I said as much to Muhammad.
He looked at me. “The place conquers the man,” he said.
There was an illusion wilderness expeditions evoked that hard travel made participants rugged and invincible. I asked him to explain.
“The land calls us. It sings to us. And we must go.”
“The desert is stronger than the man,” I murmured.
“This is what happened to Nell,” he said. “She was not prepared for its seductiveness. She could not say no.”
Periodically, Muhammad inserted markers into the sand, colorful iridescent flags attached to what looked like titanium poles, inflated like bulbs at the base, that seemed to float half-immersed in the sand like buoys. When one of them refused to stabilize, he turned to me, “She doesn’t seem worth this much risk,” he said. I assumed it was because she was American, an infidel, bilking the geyser train, but when I asked, he said it had been Bedouin custom to calculate risk versus gain. Three of us could die to her one.
The blue dune grew more radiant in the waning light. Sand lapped over our feet and filled our shoes, lacerating the skin and making each step heavy. The dune was further than it looked and the distance seemed to elongate as we walked, yet the sand’s radiance drew us like a physical force, the siren call of the desert. Sand from Muhammad’s boots spilled back onto the desert; they were vented with tiny chutes that reversed the influx, another family invention probably, certainly a piece of gear unavailable in the commercial market.
The wind had ceased its eerie moaning chatter. No longer did it carry my name, elongated into a spectral aria; in its place was silence, a voluminous black sound as dense as night.
Suddenly Muhammad stopped and cupped his hand over his ear. “Listen,” he mouthed. “Listen.”
I cocked my ear to the wind, but shook my head. He moved towards me, his hands curved into a trumpet, which he placed gently over my ear and tilted in the direction of the blue mountain. A faint human sound of crying became audible.
Muhammad moved swiftly. The desert was his terrain and he knew how to cross it. Like a gazelle or an oryx, he was fleet and at home, and it made him beautiful. Stumbling along behind, I said, “Go without me. Go.” He turned, his jaw set in silent refusal, and sprang towards me, removed the pack from my back, and tossed it into the sand. Beside it, he dropped a turquoise marker. “She’s not far.” He snatched my hand. “She’ll trust anything you tell her to do.”
He guided me along, until I almost skimmed along the top of the sand. It was as if he could change his center of gravity, move it upwards to lighten his weight on the sand and create spin from the force of the earth’s pull, an inner levitational wave that enhanced his momentum and flexibility. Centuries of evolution had gone into that motion, I thought, as I watched him bound along like a featherweight cat. At the foot of the dune, he squinted in concentration, pinched samples of sand between his fingertips. “From here on up, it’s treacherous,” he said. “You wait and listen. I’ll call to you when I need you to speak.”
I could hear the crying without assistance now. It was a broken, discontinuous sound. “I’m coming,” I said.
“The sand will never bear both of us. You have to stay. Keep the end of this rope in your hand, so you can guide me back, if I need. Keep a light on.”
In the North, I could have insisted but this was not my terrain. Though it would have been foolish to go, I was surprised how sad it made me. I asked what to do.
“I’ll either be able to rescue her or I won’t. If I’m not back in an hour, return without me. The markers will guide your way. Do not, under any circumstances, try to find me or Nell on your own. Do not deviate from the markers. Understood?”
“You will be able to hear every sound either one of us makes. Do only what I tell you. Do nothing else, even if she begs you.“
My eyebrows made their own little dunes. Surely, if Nell wanted encouragement, if hearing my voice could provide strength or comfort, I would give it to her.
“Even the sound of your voice can interfere with what I may need to do. The very pitch of the sand can give me a crude sense of its density and pull.”
I raised my hands in surrender. “I promise, I promise.” But was it true, what he said?
He was deft, yet slow, careful to examine the sand with each step as he climbed. Quicksand was just sand in motion, vibrating and colliding at high velocities. In most places, it was no more than a few feet deep and by letting your body float and paddling, anyone could escape. But quicksand was odd here, unpredictable. A rainfall from years earlier could have oozed to great depth or an aquifer reserve seeped gradually upwards. According to lore, currents of wind could create this fluxing effect, tremors of earth. Quicksand here could be deep enough to drown someone, especially if they panicked and flailed, as Nell probably had.
Muhammad had to traverse the trough between dunes, where at any moment the sand might not support his weight. His buoyant gait seemed to positively toss him from the ground, as if he could walk on air or water. The crying sound had started again and it was mixed with mumbling, like a toddler giving herself courage when no parent was nearby. Hold on! I wanted to call, we’re here, but I pictured the sound of my voice making Nell struggle and sink deeper. Muhammad had disappeared around the circumference of the dune. The light from the last rays of the sun wavered like a guttering candle. I waited for the cry of Muhammad’s instructions, grateful we had found Nell before it was too late.
A crack of thunder reverberated through the air, as loud as a gunshot. What a horrible time for a desert downpour! The sand would get slick, the quicksand would worsen, the trail markers would be knocked off their pins, hypothermia would endanger the exhausted Nell: everything would quadruple in difficulty. Worse yet, a sandstorm could blow up, a gloomy winter quwas or a southwesterly suwahillih. I gazed balefully at the darkening night sky. The dim sparkle of an early planet pulsed near the horizon, the stars still ghostly augurs of brilliance to come, but I could see no signs of a storm. There was no storm. It must have been a gunshot.
The crying sounds had ceased. I strained and strained and strained, but could hear nothing. She doesn’t seem worth this much risk.
The flies would ravage Nell. They swarmed over anything here. She would sink into the sand, her head upturned, flies all over her face, feasting on the moisture of her eyes, darting into her nasal passages, her open mouth, onto her gums, her palate; turning all her orifices black and maggoty. They would swarm the wound too, swill the ambrosia of her blood. Nell Houston: the innocent of the group; the babe. Were the rest of us condemned too? Had I made some horrible mistake by coming here, meandered as naively as Nell into a lethal struggle I couldn’t understand?
The soft fall of sand mooshed, Muhammad returning more quickly than he had gone. He materialized beside me, his final approach as silent as annihilation. Sapphire sand flecked the rope hanging from his belt.
“It’s okay,” he said. “She’s alive.” He reached out to steady my trembling arm, but stopped inches away, his hand hovering like a drugged moth. “She was stuck but the quicksand wasn’t very deep. It was not difficult to pull her out, but I couldn’t bring her all the way back. She needs food, water, a little rest. Then we can take her back to camp. She’ll be able to walk with support.”
“Thank God,” I said. Thank god, thank god, thank god. I looked into the enigma of his eyes. “And thank you.”
“We must go to her,” he said. “Seeing you will give her strength.”
Nell was just around the flank of the dune. A single track of footsteps, already receding into ridges and hollows, wound upwards. Muhammad must have carried her down.
Nell wept when she saw me, a hoarse sound like the cough of an alley cat, but Muhammad cautioned her not to talk. I dropped to my knees and wrapped her in my arms, cooing, stroking her hair, then took the supplies Muhammad handed me and spooned protein drink down her mouth, hydrated her with electrolyzed water from a nipple bottle. Color seeped into the scared whiteness of her face and dappled the blue on her lips.
Supporting Nell between us, we started to trudge back. Muhammad beamed the flashlight to and fro in a wide hypnotic arc. I paused at a marker, but Muhammad shrugged no and I decided to leave them as artifacts that might endure beyond our scraps of mortality. Nell mumbled something unclear and then lapsed back into a half-coma, unable to apprehend a word we said.
I watched Muhammad buttress Nell’s weakness with strength and delicacy. I examined his small-featured profile, the meaty lips, the vague stretch of chin under the beard he seemed to have grown since our first meeting at the ranch. This was the face of a terrorist? A man willing to execute innocents for a cause? He could easily have killed either of us or made us hostage to his cause. The only witnesses in the desert were the lizards and the flies.
“If you could not have rescued her, would you have . . . her?” I made a garroting motion across my throat.
“In quicksand, suffocation is slow. It is without mercy.”
“So why fire the gun?”
“She needed adrenaline.” He pushed his face around Nell’s body to make it clear he’d registered my mistrust.
“That is the real desert,” he said. “When it’s stripped of your visitor’s romance.”
A dome of blackness thickened the night around us. Masses of stars like distant torches lit the way. On the far horizon, the glow from a bonfire released a column of smoke like a signal: come home weary travelers.
“You would not have questioned me, if I weren’t Arab,” Muhammad’s tone was ruminative as much as accusing. “And Muslim.”
“I wouldn’t have doubted Samir,” I contradicted. But I might have wondered just a little. Nell made a small whimpering sound.
The half-quadrangle of tents was no more than a few hundred yards away. A supersized fire shot flames of yellow and orange into the sky, conquering the blackness and warming the cold. Compared to the desolation of the dunes, it looked like civilization.
Muhammad must have heard me mutter for he waved a hand around him. “Imagine the cities that were once here. Imagine buildings dyed in the colors of the sand, blue sapphire and gold, saffrons and cinnamons, colors that stir reverence like firelight and sunsets. Imagine rivers like the Tigris and the Euphrates running all through the land, their banks luxuriant with trees. Flowers everywhere. Eden was once in the Rub al-Khali; it’s what we dream of when we die.”