The Soundbox and the String

Ahmed hefted his satchel higher. His shoulder winced with the rigidity of a long-held pain. Wiping his left hand across his forehead, eyes shielded behind his palm, he could just see the particular dip in the dunes that meant he was walking the right way home: over to his right, the clouds, knowing that water was closer, kept nearer the ground, and he could navigate from here on a good day, using his sense of smell and the sounds that drifted to him like the notes from an ancient, sacred text. Drifts of music, bellows and bells, sang to him in the desert breezes and gave him as much direction as he needed.

He would have liked a drink, though. He had only enough left in his water bag for a couple of careful mouthfuls. He would keep that awhile and swallow its warmth with the remains of his food for his evening meal.  As the heat of the day became intense, even his sandals were scorched. It would be time to rest soon.

Not much further to go.

Starting awake from his walking stupor, he noticed a small, dark snake sliding towards him, smelling water. Or perhaps just slipping from one hole to another…. He watched, and the snake was gone, leaving him feeling alone. Uneasy in the drifting sand, he moved more carefully. Out here, it would be too easy to fall asleep and bake oneself dry. Best to keep moving.

Time passed in a slipstream painted blue. Perhaps he had gone wrong, after all, when suddenly he heard shards of music. His feet took possession of his body and turned towards it easily. Up ahead, as if it had crawled there and stood itself upright, was a tent. A boy was concealed within shadows to the side, where a thin, ageing camel was tethered uneasily. His face carefully expressionless, Ahmed approached slowly, carefully noting the strange tilt of this bivouac, the ropes pegged at unusual angles. From the usual polite distance he dipped his head and signalled his approach while the other boy, hunched over a tall stick of some polished wood, watched warily, flapping his hand in a movement that suggested he should move on.

Ahmed tilted his head: all visitors had the right to ask for rest and a drink, for shade at the height of day, and the boy’s posture made him curious. Why should he not hope to wait here through the heat of day? It was either a woman, or some other private business he had chanced upon: trade in rifles, an argument over a water hole or negotiations for marriage…whatever it was, he assumed he was being invited to move on. He flashed anger at the boy, who smiled sheepishly. Looking again, Ahmed saw the guardian’s face blank, his eyes still and unseeing. But, held propped up in the sand, the polished wood staff vibrated, sending a sound like breathing music into the air beyond. Arrested by something he had never seen before, Ahmed now waited, politely standing back. The instrument, whatever it was, had been fashioned as a crude sound box strapped with leather strips to a staff, a bridge and strings fastened above with wire or something like plastic string. It had taken a long time to make, but out here, that would not be a problem.

Low notes and trills reached his ears as he stood still, rooted to his place, watching the boy’s fingers dancing over the wires, then heard a slower, broader melody coaxed with a bow. Audience of one, Ahmed waited, listened and hoped he had not missed most of it.

There was a sensation round his ankles. He looked down to see a small cat winding itself around his legs, looking up at him with a peaceful, hopeful face. Uncorking his water bottle he dipped his fingers in and allowed the cat to lick them dry, its rough tongue rasping greedily.

“You like my music?” the boy called.

“Very – very much.” He groped for words to describe musical breezes. “It is very beautiful.”

“I will play some more, if you like.”

Ahmed approached slowly, saw a grin and reached down to clasp the boy’s big hands in greeting. Beneath the long tunic which only partly covered his neck and shoulders, Ahmed saw crossed legs and worn slippers. From the eyes there was no glimpse of recognition, just a smile that shone.

“Thank you.”

“My father is away searching for firewood. He will be back after dark. If you like, there is a little food in the tent. You are welcome to have some, and to fill your water bottle from the large gourd.” He went on playing as Ahmed lifted the flap, crouched and went behind his host into the tent. A small cushion, old and frayed with use, lay towards the rear, with a scrap of blue carpet beneath. Poverty was not masked by the large gun, an old flintlock, which hung at the back of the tent, well-oiled.

Beneath the canvas, the light was diffused, as if by shining, the sun painted the cloth a deep pale yellow. There was a small pot resting up against the cushion, which presumably contained the boy’s meal. Ahmed knew that he could not eat that, but he gratefully filled his gourd with water and took a few extra mouthfuls, letting a small trickle of water run down his neck. The urge to sleep was overpowering, but he shook it aside, crossly. I must not fall asleep now he thought, I have only a kilometre or two before I am home, and then Fatima will be waiting for me, with some warm milk and a piece of flatbread. I must press on.

“Where are we?” he asked the other boy lazily, as much to make conversation as to know the answer.

“Not far from the water, is my guess. About a day’s travel at the most, I should say. Can you not smell it?”

“No, not that. I smell other things, of course. Camel dung, smoking fires, even tobacco, but not the sea.” Ahmed chuckled.

“Well, it is not far. My father is there, and will be coming back today. He said he would….”

“I am sure he will. Peace be upon him.”

Ahmed sat companionably, listening to the plaintive music rising up from the bow that the boy was sawing gently. Resting, he waited until the sun was dipping at the horizon and turning the sand a flaming red before continuing on his journey. Of the boy’s father there was no sign; the playing continued until Ahmed was out of earshot and the sky was quite dark.

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