Desert of the Mind

desert

What in the world was I thinking?

 In the stillness of the desert I hear my long dead father mocking me: “Your days are spent standing in the scorching sun, searching for an enemy who will never come boy. Did you really think the Foreign Legion could make you forget?  Forget about your family, your lady-friend, sorry … ex-lady-friend, forget about how you squandered you life away?

 Can you forget?”

 I couldn’t have been more than ten or twelve years old.  The day was brilliant with jasmine and roses a bloom in mother’s garden. Old Henry, the stable man, hadn’t been much for saddling up Two-Socks for me but he was my friend and maybe a little tired of my begging, so in the end he did. At any rate, as I rode past the house I saw you father, sitting at your desk writing. I thought it would be grand to show you how well I’d learned to ride so I rode past several times, faster and faster, calling for you to look. I saw you slowly raise your head and as I raised my hand to wave, Two-Socks must have stepped in a hole of some sort and stumbled because suddenly I found myself being pitched off to one side … I remember thinking just before I thumped hard onto the grass: I hope father didn’t see. But when I raised my throbbing head from the grass, there you were. I could feel your fingers boring into my arm as you hauled me up while mother and nanny hurried toward us over the grass. It felt like a dream: Two Socks lying on the grass with Old Henry bent over her, the worried look on mothers face and nanny standing behind her wringing her hands while tears ran down her cheeks. But with all that I will never forget you face. It remains in sharp focus, even to this day; I had never seen it so red.

 “How could you be so stupid and irresponsible boy?” you shouted. I was stunned and bloody with tears blinding me and all I could do was look at Two-Socks laying on the grass and wonder why she didn’t get up.

 Old Henry quietly said Two-Socks leg was broken and she would have to be put down. You pushed me over to nanny, commanding her to take me out of your sight. Mother started to say something but you barked that she should mind her own business. Nanny pulled me so quickly toward the house I was compelled to run beside her. Then I heard it, the sharp crack of the gun, the sound that wounded deeper then your words ever could.

 ….

 “Feel that sun, burning your head, your shoulders and even your feet through the thick leather of your shoes. And the coarse fabric of your clothes, itching, like flees crawling over your skin as sweat trickles from under your hair, running down your neck and between your shoulders.

Oh and how about that sand?  It gets in everywhere, doesn’t it. Under your collar, in your trousers, even in your socks; scratching and irritating until you skin blisters. But the worst part is it somehow gets into your mouth, gritting between your teeth like poppy seeds. Remember poppy seeds? Bet you don’t see many of those out here.

 How’re you feeling now sonny?”

 Her name was Annabelle. She was a fair-haired, blue-eyed beauty if ever there was one. I was twenty-one and invincible when she was near. To know her was to love her and as I stood watching her carriage approach the house, I could almost hear you congratulating me on my good taste in women.

 The dinner table looked fit for royalty with white damask tablecloth, bone-china, silver cutlery and candles placed among roses on a silver plate. We ate in silence and as the meal progressed with just you, I, mother and Annabelle, the sweet aroma of the roses slowly, ever so slowly thicken, becoming through the course of dinner, the heavy odor of the crypt while the measured ticking of the hall clock grew louder, until every beat sounded like a bone shattering blow from the blacksmith’s hammer. I was suddenly very thirsty. I had to have something to drink. I watched my shaking hand, as if in a dream, reach for the wineglass. Then in horror, I saw it somehow miss it’s target. The droplets fanned from the glass as it rocked to and fro, turning on its base before clattering definitively to the table. In the ensuing hush I could not draw my eyes from the blood-red stain spreading over the pristine linen. I thought frantically: there’s still time, I can still stop this. But then the cloth, devouring it thirstily, seemed to mock me with ‘too late.’

 Annabelle jumped when you slammed your knife onto the table and, rising suddenly, overturned your chair … I don’t think you even noticed. The same red face from so many years ago had returned and with it those piercing eyes, riveting me down, making me into that small stupid child once more. This time not a word was uttered. Turning suddenly, you marched out. Shortly afterward Annabelle made some excuse to go home and the next day I received a note, on plain paper, saying she thought it best we not see each other again.

 …..

 “In the middle of the day there is no mercy from the sun. Maybe your eyes start to play tricks on you? Look … over there … in the distance … not too far away actually. There seems to be an oasis. An oasis where there are palm trees … and deep, cool shade. Feel it? And water … oh yes, fresh, trickling water. If you listen you can almost hear it, you can almost taste it.

 Too bad it’s not really there lad. Or is it?”

 Away I went, leaving you and mother in that mausoleum of my youth with only your footsteps to echo through the catacombs. In the city I found friends with whom I could go out every night and feast if I chose; and I did choose. So much so that my small allowance soon ran dry. The money lenders were willing enough … in the beginning. But soon the hounds were baying at my door and I saw no other recourse then to return home to ask … no ask is the wrong word, beg for an advance. I know mother would have given it to me, if it had been hers to give … but there I stood, in the middle of your study, head down, feeling like Shakespeare’s Fortinbras. You sat behind your desk looking at ships manifests, ignoring me. Finally without looking up you said: “you’ll have to find some sort of employment.”

 If only I had been Fortinbras, at least he received three thousand crowns with which he could ride merrily out and harass the Poles! Instead I found myself saying: “But father, I have no experience. Would you have me do?”

 To this you replied you would no longer continue to support my debauchery … remember? Standing quickly, once again your face reddening you continued: “Your mother and I have given you everything you desired here in life and this is how you thank us? Get out of my sight.” Oh yes, I remember it well … even if you don’t.

 As you know father … I left, and did not return.  I received a letter some months later informing me of your death. Just a few formal words: “Your father died after a short illness” was all it said. Typical for you, after all the numerous debts and leans were settled mother was left with nothing. Destitute, she was forced to live off the charity of her sister or become a lodger in the workhouse.

 ……

 “It’s so quiet out here. No birds, no animals, nothing; just the wind blowing across the sand … relentlessly moving … nowhere.

Sometimes though, the scent of water is borne on the wind … smell it? Of course you do. It must be from the oasis … just over there.

 You remember of course the oasis is only an illusion?

 No?

 Walk with me son, we have much to remember.”

 — Florence

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