Michael C. Keith
The desert has its secrets, and some are wonderful. —Curtis Frederick
Word reached Acyl Kabadi that his father was gravely ill. At once, he prepared to make the journey to Koro Toro, sixty-seven kilometers from his tiny village in the deep Sahara. His twelve-year old son, Ngia, would accompany him on the trek that would take them four days on foot. They had no other means of transportation, since their camel had recently been stricken with lungworm. Given that their neighbors were about to depart for the bazaar in Oum-Chalouba, there was not one to be borrowed, either.
Before the sun rose above the flat horizon, they set out, leaving Ngia’s mother, Dyese, and sister, Achta, to join the other villagers on their thrice annual sojourn to the marketplace. There they would peddle their handmade jewelry and leather goods and purchase essential supplies for the coming months.
By noon the next day, Acyl and Ngia had traveled far into the Djourab basin. It was there that the sky lost its color, stained by swirling sand. As they made their way across a stretch of dunes, the wind intensified and soon their visibility was lost.
“We will stop and shield ourselves, my son. Come, let us gather in until the storm is over,” shouted Acyl, who fought to wrap his body in a white kaftan he planned to wear when greeting his father. “Ngia!” he called again, but there was no answer, as his son was beyond the reach of his voice.
The strong blasts of sand stung Ngia’s face and drew tears to his eyes as he called out for his father. The only thing either could hear was the din of the ferocious haboob. Ngia was no stranger to the Sahara storms, but he had never experienced one as powerful as the one that now separated him from his father.
Ngia formed into a ball and burrowed into the dune to keep from being battered. There, in the darkness, he waited out the storm, hoping it would soon end and he could find his father. Despite shielding himself, Ngia found that the insidious sand had made its way deep inside his mouth. He attempted to spit, but he had no saliva and, when he swallowed, it felt as if stones were lodged in his throat. His breathing became so difficult that for a time he thought he would suffocate.
Just as things seemed hopeless, the sand and wind settled, and Ngia dug himself from the dune and scoured the landscape for signs of his father. Everything had been transformed by the storm. The dunes had been reconfigured, making his surroundings appear unfamiliar. Ngia was disoriented and had no sense of the direction in which he and his father had traveled before the dusty onslaught.
“Baba!” called Ngia, until his parched throat gave out.
There was no sign of his father as he carefully searched for him from atop the highest dune he could mount. His thirst was growing, but he had not carried water. At least his father would have something to drink, and that thought comforted Ngia as he removed sand from his eyes, ears, and nostrils.
The sky remained the color of the desert. As long as the sun was concealed, Ngia could not get his bearings to return home or continue to the place of his ailing grandfather. By the time the sky had cleared and the sun was visible, Ngia had decided to press on with his travel to Koro Toro. It would be what his father would do, and he believed his parent would wish him to do likewise. He fervently hoped they would meet along the way.
It was nightfall when Ngia reached the edge of the dunes and was able to move without his feet sinking into the sand with every step. Although the solid ground would allow him to move more swiftly, he was exhausted from hours of dragging his legs through the mounds of sand. He located a large rock and nestled against it, unaware it was home to a family of fox. As quickly as he went to sleep, he was awakened by something licking his feet. He let out a scream and a baby fennec scooted away. Ngia decided to find another place to sleep, quickly locating what he thought a more suitable resting area next to a large Welwitchsia plant. Its leaves felt cool against Ngia’s skin, and he promptly returned to his dreams.
Before the sun rose, Ngia was awakened by ant bites on his neck and legs. He leapt to his feet and frantically brushed the insects from his body.
“Baba!” he called loudly, as he moved away from his infested bed.
There remained no response to his desperate summons. As the eastern sky brightened, Ngia began to move in the direction of what he hoped would take him to his grandfather’s home. He had never felt such thirst, and he experienced tremendous weakness as he walked across what would soon be a blistering surface.
“Baba, baba,” he muttered, stumbling more than striding.
It was not long before what little energy he had was gone, and he collapsed to the desiccated soil. When he struck the ground, his hand touched something strange, and he pulled it away anxiously. After a moment, he dared to make contact with the object again. It reminded Ngia of a dried goat stomach that his mother made into carrying pouches, but it felt coarser. As Ngia lifted his head for a look, he became dizzy and lost consciousness. When he came to, cool water was washing over his body.
“Baba, baba!” he bellowed, expectantly, but when his eyes cleared, he beheld an elephant.
At first, he was frightened, but then he recalled a favorite story told by a village elder in which a man had touched the skin of a deceased elephant only to have it come to life and grant him a wish. The man had asked for the ability to sire children, something he had not been able to do, and soon he and his wife were blessed by a dozen offspring.
“Tembo, please find my father,” pleaded Ngia, and the pachyderm lifted him to its back with its trunk and carried him away.
From his elevated perch, he soon spotted his father and directed the elephant to trumpet a signal to gain his attention. The loud sound startled Acyl, who then returned his son’s excited wave.
“Where did you get this wondrous animal, Ngia?” asked his father, looking up at his son.
“It is like the tale, Baba. I touched the skin and it appeared,” explained Ngia. “Climb up with me and we can travel to see dear, sick Oupa.”
The elephant extended its trunk to Acyl and lifted him to his son. When it was dusk, they alighted and spent the night amid a cluster of date palms. In the morning, they discovered that the elephant was gone. A piece of its skin lay on the ground where it had stood the night before. This alarmed both Acyl and Ngia, for they felt it was a sign that their fate would hold further sorrows.
“Baba, look!” shouted Ngia, pointing toward the south.
“It’s Koro Toro,” declared his father, relieved.
Ngia rolled up the piece of elephant skin and tucked it beneath his darija. He and his father then set off for the town, which they calculated was less than six kilometers away.
“Will grandfather die?” asked Ngia.
“He is very ill, and the healer is no longer able to make him well, my son.”
When Acyl and Ngia arrived at the elder Kabadi’s mud brick dwelling, they were shocked and delighted to find him sitting on its doorstep, looking robust.
“Oupa, we feared you were dying,” said Ngia, befuddled.
“No, no,” laughed his grandfather. “I found magic to heal me. Look,” he said, removing an object from his cloak and setting it on a small wooden crate.
“It is my elephant skin!” exclaimed Ngia, searching his clothing for it. “It is gone, Baba! It is not where I kept it!”
As he spoke, it began to rain hard—something very much out of season. The Kadabi’s rejoiced for the wonderful relief it provided them. When the refreshing cloudburst ended, they noticed that the elephant skin had vanished.
Grandfather, father, and son stared in amazement at the crate where it had been only moments before.
“Magic tembo,” declared Ngia, with a broad grin, and the jubilant Kadabi’s sang songs of praise and thanks as another wave of cooling droplets descended from the cloudless sky.
About the Author
Michael C. Keith is the author of three story collections (AND THROUGH THE TREMBLING AIR, HOAG’S OBJECT and OF NIGHT AND LIGHT), an acclaimed memoir (THE NEXT BETTER PLACE) and two dozen books on media. He has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize and PEN/O.Henry Prize and is the recipient of numerous awards in his academic field. He teaches communication at Boston College. His website address is: www.michaelckeith.com