Desert Stories

I was crossing the desert. The camel beneath me shuddered, dislocated itself forward. The earth lurched upwards, then fell like the bow of a ship. I felt terribly ill.

I had begun to separate, I was sure of it. My flesh crawled from my bones. My skin wept and turned translucent. My veins were congested highways. My teeth sharp and my jaw dull and loose like a hinge. I was thirsty.

I now know how one sees water in the desert. It’s hinted in curves of the sand. In the dune combers. In the bare crevices of desert men’s faces. Get close to the ground and you find sea shells. Coral. You touch rock so brittle and dry that it sigh’s water as it gives through your fingers. It’s escaping from your skin. It’s burning holes in the earth. But none of it you can drink. They are signs placed to remind you to leave. Do not stay here. This is the desert.

I had no water; I had used it for shaving. I had no sunscreen; I had run out of shave cream. I cowered under my hat. It was all I had between me and a heat that moved like the drag of a blunt razor. I watched the mole on my hand swell like a pupil as the sun fixed its stare upon it.

I disembarked from my camel and the sand filled my shoes like warm sugar. Out across two large yellow breasts sat Ahmed, my guide, and beyond, a thousand reflections of the same image. I drew the last remains of water from my palms with a fist and used it to quell the inferno that had lit between my thighs. I fell under my camel’s silhouette. It was unfortunate for him that only one of us could perform this trick.

Go on holiday she said. Leave while you still can. While you’re young. Unattached. Single. These are the things you will hear from people who do not want you around. Go on holiday my mother said, or move out. Get out. Find a girlfriend. Start a family. Just go. Experience something other than that damn chair in your room.

I took her advice. I moved from the seat in my room to a seat on the plane, to a seat on the transfer bus, to a seat in the lobby while they packed down my sheets and cleaned the sex life from my bed. On the edge of the desert, the beginning of my journey, Ahmed leant close to me and said “Once you get on, the camel does not like you getting off. So make sure you are comfortable. Sit.”

These are the voices that travel with you into the desert.

Every book ever written on the desert is false. Every photo is misleading. Every film is fabrication. Every work of art is a flight of fantasy and every person you ever meet will tell you lie after lie when they describe the trackless depths of the desert. They are romancers. They are fakes. Phoneys. They come away from the desert embarrassed and ashamed. The desert is hot. It is unbearable. It takes hold of them and appals them. They are scared of it. Like a kidnap victim they sympathise with it. Defend it. Write about it. Talk about it, until it changes and becomes something else entirely.

The desert cannot exist anywhere but where it lies.


I pulled the tether attached to my camel’s teeth. I made to move on, only I did not. I urged the strap again. He did not move. I spoke softly into his ear. He did not move. Ahmed had stopped ahead. He turned to me. Smiling. His teeth a row of gleaming coins. I recalled his one last instruction. Reaching under the camel’s gut I took hold of a scrotum like a purse of gravel, and with one squeeze, he was up.

We walked together for some time, my camel and I. I felt as if we had been brought closer in some disturbing way. I found my fingers coiled in his hair. My cheek resting on his side. Ahead, Ahmed’s robes flittered like a crow’s feather caught in the sand. He was displeased with me. I saw that in the whip of his clothes. By morning the day before we were due in Ksar. By afternoon I expressed doubt in Ahmed’s abilities. Since dawn we had travelled in silence. Now he separated himself from me.

But we were ten feet tall my camel and I. And then we were twenty. Then thirty five. Then fifty. Every hour we grew taller and taller still, and by four I covered hundreds of yards in a single stride. We no longer shifted uneasily in the sand, we strolled. Loped. I was a walking crucifix and my camel a siege tower. For a few brief hours we were juggernauts rolling across the plains. We were large, and then we were small. And cold.


The desert night is filled with scorpions or bitter cold. I know this because Ahmed had told me. He had given me a choice. With fire; scorpions. Without fire; cold. Goodnight. He rolled out a Hessian sack and plucked sticks into it like bones.

They say scorpions have the bite of a thousand dogs.

There was no fire.

In the morning I find the stars gone. But more surprisingly, so is Ahmed. Though my camel remains. I board him, but he knows nothing of our direction either. I look into his eyes and see water. The two of us sit, me on top of him, and one of us groans.

This is how stories end in the desert.

Desert Stories

Mark Welker

Perth, Australia

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