On other days, the dryness of the land would reach out to the body’s interior and cause the parched tongue to hang up mouth’s roof. Until water came, whether it was by the oasis, or the precious scatterings of rain. And the rains were only an occasional phenomenon, even in the middle of the year.
The air was arid on that day too, when Amal set out with his donkey for Bayt Ansar, that far-flung town which seemed to have much more of everything than Maqaas ever possessed. It was one of those things which had bothered him into getting unto desert roads. The drought was particularly bad this year; only the oldest of Maqaas’ men could recall anything like it. The trail of the traveler’s route was decorated by numerous carcasses, obscene and haunting as could be. The beasts of burden had many times failed to bear thirst much more. They had fallen, along with many other lesser creatures.
The march of death was now upon the gates of man himself.
Sandstorms cut short Amal’s advance many times. The scourge of the heat was perennial and ubiquitous; and the waves of dryness was trouble to skin and soul. It seared, it depressed, it weakened. Though there were stopovers at makeshift shelters and little lonely villages, those nights were by no means comfortable. The rest was intermingled with thoughts of coming sights of monotony, of emptiness, and of hopeless horizons seemingly without end.
On this night, Amal stopped over at a tiny village. He had been on his quest for three days, had conquered more than half the swath of territory he needed to overcome to get to that priced reward. But he was feeling tired and even a little sick. There was little to fall back on, except an ancient bed in a poorly lit room graciously offered him by an old friend who lived there. His frame was ragged, his face lined with the many signs of many worries, all connected to the quest, and to home.
He was beginning to think about retreat.
The harshness of Maqaas had not been in the weather alone. It was everywhere, and in everything. The ringing calls from the top of domed constructs, their minarets shining, announcing along with loudspeakers that this land was Lorded over by compulsion. The passion, the fierceness in the voice of he who roared to the faithful, who looked in the corners to see that the law was kept, not broken. The chants of children narrating the tale of enforced devotion, in the nearest shade, instructed by a whip-wielding master many times older than their mothers. And mothers in silent space, behind the black veil, seeing the world via distorted vision. The threat of death, which the violent zealots roaming the streets were all too willing to execute. The blood of the disobedient was that which quenched the thirst of the earth.
Thirst. Maqaas had so much ‘piousness’, but left much to desire. It held people bound, it promised to make them straight. But stiffness to mercy and a firing up of vain passions was the end result. For there were hidden parlours and corners of open secret in which the very men who appeared saintly by day would seek to quench their thirst by night.
Amal shook his head. The way back was long, and the way forward was a hard thing. But he was also dying of thirst. He was dying to live. He could go back to Maqaas, where he could live the schizoid life and get sunk by the misery and guilt of personal contradiction; or he could move forward and somehow get to Bayt Ansar, where the faithful were also free, and where thirst was unheard of. He retired for the night, overwhelmed by the great confusion.
But by morning, Amal had made up his mind. It had drizzled a bit while he was asleep, and the weather now was a bit clement.
“If this is what its like being this close to Bayt Ansar, I wonder what it’ll be like over there”.
He went into the open with his friend, thanked him for his hospitality, and bade him goodbye. Then he rode into the distance, more determined than he had been before.

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