Extract from The Stallion:
IT WAS ON THE OUTSKIRTS OF THE SOUK that I first glimpsed it: pure white, a stallion, flared nostrils exhaling steam. Elemental, a figure out of the foundry of hell itself.
It trotted past the great trunks of the Caliban trees, weaving a pattern between them that paralleled their movements. Its eyes glinted red and wild in the sunlight, meeting mine with a knowing gleam and innate insolence. My pulse flared and the blood trembled in my veins, yet I couldn’t look away. Despite my fear the horse’s beauty caught at my heart.
The grey disappeared around the edge of the forest where the Calibans grew more thickly, and for several moments I stood staring after it.
I remember that morning well.
“Hurry up, Bashir – we’ll be late!” my father had snapped. He’d moved so quickly that he was already waiting in the yard, muttering to himself, by the time I’d pulled my cloak around myself and hurried after him.
It was still dark outside. Stars were embedded in the sky like gems, winking down at us: provocative and mocking, unfulfilled promises in a galaxy of broken dreams.
“If the ships had come back when they said they would, we could’ve had everything irrigated properly by now,” Father grumbled. “Even desert people have less chance of survival when they’re just abandoned. Chance of a better life on Thargos IV – huh!”
“Maybe they couldn’t come back. I wonder if other colony planets got what they needed?” I drew in a deep breath. “Maybe they’ll come soon –”
“When the horses return?” he snorted.
Resentment stormed my heart. We’d had similar conversations before. What can I do about the ships not coming back? I’m just a child, I thought. I can’t make everything right for him. And why try to make me feel as bitter as he does?
I’ve since realised that I wasn’t old enough to bear his concerns as well as my own. But I was a good Muslim son; I’d never dare answer him back. So I swallowed my anger. As we brought the gra-mule into the yard the silence stretched between us.
Father was first to break it. “Ah, no use thinking of what might have been, boy! We’re done for this time. The storm ruined everyone’s crops.”
Two nights before, sand had blasted over the fields – and not for the first time, but worse than any previous storm. Wind had roared around the house and defied any living thing to venture out into its fury.
Father was speaking again. “Ali doesn’t know how he’ll feed his family, let alone have crops left to sell.” He sighed again. “I’ll get some skins from the butchers today and cut some more sandal and purse pieces. You can help me sew them up while we’re at market.”
So – I’m not to go to school this market day either, I thought. I hated sewing the skins, though I knew the animals they came from were already dead. Though leather goods were my father’s livelihood, I’d have saved every single creature.
But Father hadn’t finished. “All we can do is hope the desert doesn’t make us suffer for too long.” He sighed. “Here, take the halter – you can always get the mule to behave.”
Horses were rare and expensive. Camels hadn’t adapted well to Thargos IV. Sheep and cattle were used for meat and milk, wool and hides. So three years before, Father had reluctantly bought a gra-mule, one of few indigenous types of animal which could be partly-domesticated. He’d regretted it ever since; I sometimes fancied, as it looked sideways at us, that it resented the arrival of us upstart humans. But it was better than carrying heavy leather goods to market on our backs.
Father loaded the panniers while I held the animal’s halter, and talked and patted its neck the while. Its scales felt smooth; it was in the mood for work today. “Graah! Graah!” it brayed. It watched me with only an occasional sour glance at Father as he secured its loads. Then we set off along the track to the souk.
I drew in a lungful of crisp, dry, cool air as we walked; the dust had yet to rise to clog nostrils and throat. I smiled, but didn’t let Father see. This was my route to school, and I always drew the same pleasure from the journey. All three continents of this world were dry desert for the most part, for they lay above and below the equator. But I loved the place. It was my home, where I was born.
Father had arrived from Earth with the first group of colonists. The second group had never arrived, nor the irrigation equipment or the ships. Twenty-six years he’d been here, with no hope of leaving. And I honestly believe that while I had nothing to compare my life to, he regretted coming here. He’s pained by its resemblance to the Earth, I realised, and permanently short of temper. He always said this land took everything he ever had.
In the distance, dawn brightened the horizon’s edge. Scrub, red dunes, and a few gra-mules and smaller animals were the desert’s only population, with maybe a herd of horses if you believed old Sadiq’s tales…
Ahead lay the forest: huge trees with scaled trunks towered over the track. Calibans, the first exploratory team had unkindly called them, for the strangeness of their appearance. The name had stuck. Squat and splay-branched, their foliage drooped in sparse clusters far above us. Every morning all the trees’ limbs pointed west, towards the rising sun, while sundown saw them point east. During the day, massive boughs, which stretched high above our strung-out settlement, sometimes interwove in a slow-motion dance, and raised a wind to stir the sand. I’d watched them as a child, kneeling to pray on my mat in the yard.
A breeze stirred now. Insects buzzed in the scrubby underbrush that grew between the bare trunks. We trudged on, the gra-mule ambling between us. The Calibans’ pendulous leaf-rods, which had surely elongated again these last few days, swayed as if to voluptuous rhythms unsensed by Father or me.
<Man is a mere insect,> their wind-dance whispered to me, <a late-comer to this our land. We have been here since the start of time. And we will still be here when awareness flees the universe.>
I was startled for a moment, then dismissed the ideas in my mind as mere fancy.