Sons of the Desert
By Daniel Kason
It was well past dark when the boys snuck out of their tent, untied two camels, and rode off into the desert. The night was cool, but Zachary knew that when the sun rose in the morning, the heat would come with it. They would have to hurry.
"Did anyone see us?" Joshua said, as they led their camels forward. They had been taught how to ride them only yesterday, when the Bedouin men hoisted them on the saddles and guided them through the desert.
"No," Zachary said. "They were still asleep."
They could see a faint blue light shimmering at the horizon, despite the night and the darkness. There were still a few hours left until dawn, and Zachary and Joshua meant to use those hours well.
"Which one?" Zachary said.
He could see the shapes of dunes and hills etched in black. There were patches of weeds, too, which the camels trod over. That, and rocks, but nothing else. Zachary spotted a mountain in the distance. Joshua must have seen it too.
"There," he said. "That’s where we’re going."
"It’s too far," Zachary objected.
"What, are you scared?"
Zachary looked at his brother. They were twins, but he was older, and he couldn’t show fear. "No. We just won’t make it back before dawn."
"So Mom and Dad won’t find us when they get up. But we’ll be back soon. Before they eat breakfast, even. They won’t miss us at all."
"Listen," Zachary said, "I’ll go with you, but you have to tell me what you said to Hannah last night."
"So you saw us," Joshua said, grinning. "Okay, I’ll tell you, but not yet. Let’s see how far we can get before we see some daylight."
Joshua hurried his camel along, and Zachary followed him. It had always been this way. Joshua had been the leader, and Zachary the follower. Growing up, Joshua had always been bigger and stronger, even if he was the younger twin. Somehow, he’d always gotten what he’d wanted, while Zachary was left with the rest. Now they were fourteen, and things were no different.
Zachary didn’t tell Joshua, but he’d seen Hannah open her eyes as they’d left the tent. She’d looked up at Zachary, but he’d put a finger to his mouth and shushed her. She’d understood then, smiling, and went back to sleep. Zachary was grateful. If she’d woken up her father and the other Golds, then pretty soon they’d rouse the Epsteins, and then his family would be next, and Zachary and Joshua would be facing a scolding right now instead of riding into the desert.
He wondered what the sunrise would look like when they were on the mountain. This was the middle of the Negev. There was nothing out there but desert for miles. Zachary wondered what it would be like, staring out into the emptiness, the sand and rock, like the bottom of the ocean but drained of all the water. He wondered if any water had touched this land in a thousand years, and if it had ever rained. There were never any clouds here; of that much, Zachary was certain.
He’d asked one of the Bedouin men about it the day before.
"The rain almost never comes," the man had said. "But it is best to be ready when it does. On those days, the desert is cleansed of all sins, great and small. The sand and dirt are washed away, and the lands are wiped clean."
The boys traveled for an hour, but the mountain seemed no closer than before.
Joshua was having trouble with his camel. The animal would stray from time to time, and he would have to take control again. Zachary’s camel was more obedient, but it still had a mind of its own. Perhaps they hadn’t watched the Bedouin men carefully enough.
Another hour later, light crept over the horizon, casting a pale glow over the desert. It was getting hotter, too. Already they had drunk half their water supply, despite their attempts to ration it.
Zachary thought again of what the Bedouin man had said about the rain. The desert is cleansed of all sins, great and small. This reminded Zachary of Hebrew school, and the story of the Great Flood. God had summoned the rain and wiped the land clean of every person in the world, only sparing Noah and his family. But God had promised never to do this again. Could a Small Flood cleanse the land of a small sin? Was this what the Bedouin man was talking about?
Zachary wasn’t sure. His family had come here to remind them of their heritage, but out here in the desert, he felt as distant from his family as he had before.
"How much longer?" Zachary asked.
The sun was rising now, and the mountain was inching closer, but slowly. "Can’t be more than another hour," Joshua said, his forehead covered with sweat. "We still have another bottle of water left. We’ll be fine."
Zachary wasn’t so sure. "We should go back. This is taking too long."
"What, are you tired?" Joshua teased him. "You don’t think you can make it?"
"I can make it."
"Good. Then let’s keep going."
Zachary remembered another story from Hebrew school: the one about Jacob and Esau. They were twins, too. Esau was older, but Jacob bought the birthright from him for a hot meal, and later tricked their blind father into giving it to him. Zachary knew Jacob was supposed to be the more worthy son, but he felt bad for Esau all the same. It wasn’t his fault he was older. It wasn’t his fault he wasn’t his mother’s favorite son.
Zachary rarely thought about stories from the Torah, but he was in the Holy Land, after all, and this was the place to think of such things.
The Bedouin had their stories, too. Their host had told them one after serving them Turkish coffee. The story was about a man who had three days to find a wife or be killed by a monster. After stubbornly refusing to marry the various women he met, on the last day the man had no choice but to marry the only female he saw: an old woman. But the old woman was magic. By day, she was frail and weak, but by night, she turned into a beautiful young lady. Zachary didn’t understand the story very well, or its lesson.
The coffee had been bitter. At first, Hannah had pretended to enjoy the coffee, but Zachary wasn’t fooled.
"You really like it?" he said. "Did you get to the bottom? It’s all mud."
She laughed and pointed to his cup. "But you drank all of yours!"
Zachary shrugged and motioned to Joshua, who had emptied his cup in the dirt. "It seemed better than spilling it out."
The mountain was growing now, but so was the sun. Their clothes were drenched in sweat, and the heat was unbearable. This was not Tel Aviv, with its sandy beaches and air-conditioned hotels. This was not the Golan, with its wineries and cool mountains and chilly nights. This was the Negev, where there was only desert, and the rain waited years and years to come and wash away their mistakes.
They were nearing the mountain now, but the sun was high overhead. They had almost no water left, and Zachary could see that his brother was about to collapse just as he was.
"Josh, we have to turn back," he said again, almost believing that this time his brother would listen.
"We’re so close now," Joshua said. "We missed the sunrise, but imagine the view when we get to the top!" He was no longer trying to pressure Zachary into continuing. He even seemed reasonable. Ahead was the shadow of the mountain. Zachary ached to lie in that shadow, away from the sun.
"Okay," he said.
When they reached the base of the mountain, both boys were tired enough to fall off their camels. They took a break, reclining in the shade, while they tied the camels together.
"Isn’t this better?" Joshua said.
Zachary hadn’t realized how weary he was. "They must be looking for us by now."
"It doesn’t matter. We’ll be back before they know it."
"We were supposed to be back before breakfast."
Joshua shrugged. "We’re here now. We might as well make the most of it."
"What did you and Hannah say? That night by the fire. You both looked at me. I saw you. What did you say?"
Joshua grinned. "I said you liked her, that’s all."
Zachary felt like hitting him. "What did she say back?"
"She said she doesn’t like you. She said she likes me better."
Zachary had little energy left, but he had the strength to jump on his brother and hold him down.
"No, she didn’t!" Zachary screamed. "She didn’t!"
Joshua fought back, using his greater size to turn Zachary over and pin him down. Zachary fought, but his brother was too strong. Joshua waited until he stopped struggling against him, then he let him go.
"Yes, she did," Joshua insisted. "So stop crying about it and get some rest. We’re going to the top soon."
Zachary wanted to pounce on his brother again, but he knew it would be useless, and he needed to save his strength. But he’d heard what Joshua had said. He just didn’t want to believe it was true.
The mountain was too steep to ride atop the camels, so the boys pulled them along instead. Joshua’s camel fought him at first, but he forced it to obey. Zachary’s body ached, but he told himself that it was almost over. They were almost there. He just tried not to think about the journey back.
When they reached the top, the brothers sat down at the summit and threw rocks to the bottom. The sun was directly overhead, but Zachary was glad just to sit down. He felt lightheaded, and missed the shade of the Bedouin tents.
"We made it," Joshua said.
The view almost made the trip worthwhile. In every direction, the desert sprawled out to the horizon. Hills, big and small, curved along the world’s edge. There were no trees, only patches of grey, shrunken shrubs. Zachary and Joshua sat at the best vantage point for miles. They could see the blue sky touching the barren earth in every direction. There were no clouds. There were never any clouds here. It was as if these lands had never known the rain, as if the same rocks, weeds, and dirt had littered this desert for all eternity without ever having been swept away.
Had the Great Flood never cleansed these lands as it had the rest of the world?
"What do you think?" Joshua was asking him, but Zachary could barely hear him. "Zach? Zach?" But Zachary had sunk to the ground, his eyes shut.
It was hours later when he awoke. The desert was ahead. It always was. His body rocked up and down, taking step after step, but the steps weren’t his own. He coughed.
Joshua lowered him to the ground, and Zachary stood on his own.
"Zach, are you all right?"
He had trouble standing for a moment, but he stabilized himself. The light was terribly bright, but Zachary got used to that, too.
"I’m okay," he said. "What happened?"
"You passed out. I didn’t know what to do. I thought maybe you needed water. So I sort of gave you the last of it."
"There’s no more?" Even in his altered state, Zachary was perfectly aware of how dangerous it was to trek through the desert without water.
Joshua shook his head sadly. "None."
"The camels," Zachary said. "Where are they?"
Joshua looked down. "They’re gone, too." Zachary stared at him stupidly. "I’m sorry, Zach. I didn’t mean to. I was trying to get you awake. I took you down the mountain, into the shade. I tried to make the camels stay, but I couldn’t take care of both of you at the same time. I’m sorry, Zach. I really am." He waited for Zachary to say something, but there was only silence. "Now what do we do?"
His twin met his eyes. Joshua was stronger than him, and more confident than he would ever be. Nonetheless, even after Zachary had collapsed from lack of strength, and even after lugging his unconscious body down the mountain, Joshua was appealing to his older brother for help.
Yet Zachary knew of no better way to overcome the desert than he did.
"Now," Zachary said, "we go back."
So they walked. The boys quickly learned how valuable their camels had been, and how much they missed them. The sun was as oppressive as ever, the heat threatening to strike them down where they stood. Several times, Zachary felt himself about to collapse again. But each time he told himself that he must go on.
To conserve energy, the boys did not speak as they traveled. Zachary looked at his brother from time to time, and he saw hard determination on his face. Joshua was tougher than him. He would have to summon the courage to match his brother’s strength. Even in the middle of the desert, even with his life threatened, Zachary was worried that his brother might beat him. He used this fear as motivation.
He thought of his family. He thought of his mother and father waking up to see their boys missing, and alerting the entire camp of their absence.
He thought of his thirst and hunger, and how badly he wanted to lie down and sleep.
He even thought of Hannah, and realized he knew nothing about her at all.
And for whatever reason, Zachary thought of his brother. He thought of all of the times he had been jealous of him, all of the times they had argued and fought, and he laughed. None of that mattered now. Only the desert mattered. Only what it would take to get to safety.
"I’m sorry," Joshua was saying as they walked, and the day grew even hotter. "I’m so sorry. I’m so sorry."
For what? Zachary wanted to ask him. For making me come with you? For losing the camels? For Hannah? But Joshua had already said enough. It was not like him to apologize for anything. The heat must be getting to him, Zachary decided. Yes, that was it.
Not long after that, Joshua fell. For a moment, Zachary stopped, dumbstruck with horror.
This was not supposed to happen. He was the one who was supposed to fall. Not Joshua. It was always him.
When he overcame this shock, Zachary rushed to Joshua’s side and tried to shake him awake. But his brother would not move.
How had Joshua lost his strength, while Zachary was still standing? It didn’t make any sense. It defied everything he had ever believed about himself or his brother.
Zachary looked around him, as if the desert would provide him with the answer, but there was nothing. Only the dry dirt, the rocks, and the overbearing heat. The mountain was behind him now. It had been shrinking as they traveled. Now Zachary feared that it would forever remain in this position. He would never return to his family.
He bent down and clutched his brother to his chest. He tried to lift him, but found his muscles failing him. He tried again. Joshua had carried him down the mountain, all on his own. It didn’t matter that Joshua was bigger and stronger than him. Zachary was his twin, and he was older.
Taking a deep breath, Zachary clutched his brother and tried again. This time the body lifted, and Zachary hoisted him over his shoulder. He breathed deeply. He was carrying more than twice his weight now, but it didn’t matter. His brother had carried him, and now he would do the same for him.
He walked like this, not knowing for how long. The sun seemed fixed at its peak in the sky, capturing this horrible moment for all eternity.
Sometime later, half-asleep, Joshua muttered, "Zach . . . Zach . . ."
"Save your energy," Zachary said.
"Zach," he persisted. "Zach . . . It’s Hannah . . ."
Yes, Hannah, Zachary thought. She had chosen Joshua, not him. Of course. Why choose the lesser twin when you could have the superior?
"No . . . No," Joshua said as if reading his thoughts. "I was lying. It’s Eric . . . Eric."
Eric Epstein. He was sixteen, older than them by two years. The Epsteins were family friends with the Golds, just like them. And Eric was only a year older than Hannah. Of course. He was the one. Not Joshua. Not him. Eric.
"It’s okay," Zachary said. "It doesn’t anyway."
And it didn’t. Not anymore.
Zachary walked now in a dreamy state. The world felt unreal. He wasn’t aware of the heat anymore. His thirst no longer troubled him. Even the weight on his shoulders wasn’t a bother.
He couldn’t be sure how long he walked. Twice Zachary had to lay his brother down and take a break. But each time, he picked Joshua up and continued his journey back. What propelled him to go on, he did not know. Was it pride? His rivalry with his brother? Or mere survival?
What he did know was that, somewhere along his travels, his vision lost clarity. Shapes formed around him, images in the desert. It was his family. No, the entire camp: the Lachmans, the Golds, the Epsteins, even the Bedouin men—everyone! They were all riding camels, though Zachary didn’t know why. Maybe it was to tease him and Joshua because they had lost theirs.
The camels circled them. Zachary grew dizzy just watching. The world was swimming before him. He felt as if he were underwater, and the desert was the ocean. But that was impossible. Water hadn’t touched this land in many, many years. Maybe not ever. These lands were forsaken. If not for the Bedouins and their camels, they would be empty altogether.
Suddenly, a hand reached out, as if pulling him to the surface. Zachary grabbed it and was brought to his feet. Hannah was standing in front of him. At another time, he would have felt apprehensive, nervous even. But now, he was just glad to see a familiar face. Any face at all.
"I’m sorry," she was saying. "I had to tell them. You were gone so long. I had to."
Zachary smiled a big dumb smile and fell into her arms.
When he awoke, he was lying in a bed, not a sleeping bag inside a Bedouin tent, but a real bed. He looked to his left, expecting to see Joshua in the bed next to his, but he wasn’t.
Zachary understood then what he had lost, what the desert had taken from him. He didn’t need anyone to tell him the truth; he knew it instinctively. Without realizing it, Zachary had made a trade with the desert. What he had gained seemed trivial, and what he had lost monumental. He wished he had not listened to his brother. He wished he could pretend none of it had happened. But some truths could not be denied, and some mistakes could never be undone.
Zachary looked out the window. It was raining.
Copyright © Daniel Kason 2012
Daniel Kason was born and raised on Long Island, New York, and received his BA from Union College in 2011. He currently lives in College Park, Maryland, where he is pursuing an MA/PhD in literature at the University of Maryland. His short fiction has appeared in Indigo Rising Magazine, and he is now searching for a publisher for his first novel. The setting of "Sons of the Desert" was inspired by a trip to Israel on Birthright over the summer of 2011, where he spent a night in a Bedouin tent in the Negev.