Death in the Desert

Hanging upside down the chicken squawked, extending its arms out wide, wired in defense. The sun caused its shadow, eloquently defined on the bare sand canvass beneath us. I had hoped all the blood rushing to its small head would place it in some elated state, its quietness suggested such. An empty riverbed would make for a place to rest. The syllable of "ch" was commanded three times in a trained attempt to encourage the camels to fold their gangley legs inwards and kneel down to the sand for our disembarkment. Such proud, nonchalant creatures; I could feel their eyes roll into the back of their heads as they bowed down, chewing and munching loudly in the process. We unpacked, unsaddled and the four of us walked over to a nearby tree. The men knelt down, the pocket knife flicked open smoothly as per design, a moment of silence and a prayer spoken before the sharp metal met its neck and blood squirted, a single speck on Mata's white singlet before draining out into a small pool accumulating within and staining the sand. The skin was pulled off, the feathers offering no resistance. I had prepared myself for horror, there was none; there wasn't a single tear shed. We returned to the campfire as three. Chai was served, I lay still thinking, staring up into the blue abyss above while goats meandered around me. J was in my distant vision tuning the guitar, the riverbank walls serving as a backrest, the sun a blanket of warmth over his bare chest that longed for its familiar love. The curry was prepared from scratch, as was the chapatti; the two complimented one another when their creation was final. My curry contained the liver. I shared it with the other two knowing what nutrients rest in this organ. I suppose someone consumed the heart. We carried on after lunch. The vast desert landscape our playground. We passed through gypsy villages where water troughs existed for the camels to quench their sure thirst and wells to quench ours. Children with dark kohl boarding their eyes emerged from the veil of dust that hid what lay a kilometer ahead; we would hear their cries for rupees before we saw them. We would hold our ring studded hands high as they wafted around our bodies looking for something loose enough to pry. Their hisses made me yelp inside. I knew they could suck from me whatever it was they wanted, so I lowered my gaze and held my camel close.

We spiced our chai with camel milk opium that evening. Perhaps that's what caused the campfire smoke to coil with such art, or the stars to glisten and speak with such intensity, our dreams wild as a result. I played with children among a rock bed when I saw my first tiger appear by our sides, they weren’t concerned and once I realised how natural it was, nor was I. I laughed at the thought of others journeying on safaris to view such creatures in their natural habitat when they are right here in front of us all along. As I turned back a lion leaped over us, its paws offering a sound as they met the ground. Its mane soft and thick. While I was meeting such beasts in my dreams, J was attempting to calm a tall, slender, dark gypsy woman that had journeyed from the horizon into his. Mata was offering a desert man chai and assuring him we knew our place out here. Three days passed, time elapsed, the sun rose and set and chai fuelled us. Wild female camels roamed freely and this made for tough terrain when our young male camels smelt their pheromones rising with the heat. My camel would froth at the mouth, he was tied tight, but he sought escape when we rested for tea or food. He did, we chased him, we caught him, he was punished and it broke my heart. I washed the dishes in silence, I was pissed off, I didn’t like the way his legs were bound with rope forcing him to hop and fall with each attempt to walk. Come afternoon we chewed on more camel milk opium crystals, they looked and tasted like small cubes of brown sugar, but that bitter ending taste reminded you of the contents. Its effect was never immediate for us like it was to Mata; it emerged only subtly in our dreams. Synthetic drugs hold no integrity in my eyes, but those born from nature do and I am open to what heightened understanding they can grant me, achieved in my opinion, through respect of their purpose rather than abuse.

Mata offered to take us to his village, but it was a journey too far. However, when “three hours to my village” suddenly turned to “one hour” there was ground for discussion. "What should we do J?” I called to the side, yet I was met by murmurs from a shadow of J’s former self swaying side to side behind me. We had no bearings, distances were determined by sand dunes or windmills and time by the sun, how could we have known what voyage lay before us. “Alright Mata, one hour, if only it will take one hour, then to your village we go.” In that moment Mata set the camels into a gallop and gallop we did on wards, short cutting through tall cactus fields, I had to flick my legs one side then the other to avoid scraping against their vicious spikes. Everything was spiky out there; everything was in defense against its harsh surroundings. One hour felt like many, many more and what pain we felt. We weren’t sure we could go on. Unlike a horse, no rhythm can be formed when riding a camel. It’s an awkward gait at best, let alone when set in galloping motion. I switched between yoga poses, stretching my thighs and re-positioning by bottom, but it was bone on bone. Mata stopped to take a phone call, J groaned in pain, I knew it was worse for him than I, J being of the male sex. But hell, I couldn’t go on in this state. I pulled J and his camel up alongside mine in order to pass the pocket knife between our hands, then gave slack to the rope and let them fall back into the shimmering landscape of sun and sand behind me. "DO NOT gallop the camels without my word Mata, understand?" I'd hoped he heard me over whatever conversation he was engaged via his phone. The wounds on our feet were struggling to heal, let alone an implanted knife in my groin. I slid the pocketknife between my skin and underpants, cutting vigorously until the material gave way and then I proceeded to cut the other side. I smirked with delight as I pulled what was left of my G-string out, shoving it in my boots that hung freely from the camels saddle and passed the pocketknife back. It felt invigorating to be free of such a layer, particularly in such a conservative culture. “You better wash my knife!” called J. “Fuck off!” I responded. Had my underpants continued to rub anymore there wouldn’t be much skin left to rub come the end of this seemingly epic voyage. Skinny kids, bony arses and camels ain't no easy ride. We collapsed into a meditative state until I finally accidentally dropped my camera cap and it just so happened to also be the point to “ch, ch, ch” the camels for the final time and walk the remaining distance into the village. A train of deer leaped before us, their hooves delicately kissing the sand. Vultures the size of humans supervised the carcass of an adult goat, yet it was a small puppy that gnawed at its remains. The gypsy children came running all dressed in white. A kite designed from a single plastic bag drifted aimlessly in the wind of their sprint. They snatched my Akubra from me as I drew close, the mother placing it on her child. It looked ill fitted against their dark olive skin and colourfully pigmented clothes. “Come come rest,” Mata requested. We plonked ourselves down on a woven mat and then I lay. The exhaustion was overbearing. Mata's Mother, like all intuitive Mothers must have seen through our guises and brought us a tennis ball size of something sweet. We divided it among ourselves and consumed. Masala, sugar, milk, oil, my mind wasn’t registering the spoken ingredients, but the taste buds were satisfied. Chai followed, I could feel my body come alive again, like a fleeting electrical shock that awakens all cells (I’d had plenty of those in Sri Lanka using electrical sockets exposed to the ocean elements). We were told to choose a goat for our lunch but a life needn’t be spared for our stomachs this time. “Just chapatti, please.” We ate, rested, sat, the women braided my hair and attempted to dress me as one of their own as I chopped potato’s with a swiss army knife and tried to see through my eyes that weeped from the heavy smoke caused by the burning of cow dung. I took the appearance of a purple Mother Teresa. We had no idea of our coordinates, but a jeep was on course to find us. We all sat side by side in the section of shade the roof granted, our backs against the mud and sandstone hut, our feet bathing in the sun. The children pulled old shoes by rope, goats drunk from the shared water can, women my own age nursed babies on their hips and sewed clothes, we sipped more chai and the mind felt as desolate a landscape as that vast sandy mirage we’d come walking on in from not so long ago.