Sand. So many grains of sand. Sailing through the air on gusting winds, rippling across the dunes, shifting softly beneath my sandals. Sand is everywhere; it is as much a part of my life as the daily course of the sun across the skies.
When I was still a child, I once asked my mother how many grains of sand the desert held. I can remember the way she looked at me, her mouth tweaked into a smile that showed as much sadness as it did pleasure, her eyes drifting from my face to the expanse of desert beyond our tent. I will always remember her words.
"The sand grains are like our people, far too numerous and far-flung to count and growing in number each day. The wise can see its importance but the foolish can see only an annoyance, something to be rid of. Be wise, little Altair, and seek out the value in it before you cast it aside."
It was less than a full cycle of the moon later that my mother's words were forever silenced by the same sand she had challenged me in which to find value. The storm had sprung up from the horizon as a demon and took our people by surprise. It hid us beneath the weight of a thousand thousand grains. Only a few of us were able to survive and dig our way out of our premature graves. After that, we traveled into the land of the Hindi and found for ourselves a niche in one of their great cities.
That is how I, a woman from Arabia, came to be a bride in the house of Bhavta. So many seasons after our arrival, the spreading sickness of plague is how I came to find myself returning to the desert. The plague claimed the lives of my husband, my daughters, my infant son? The house of Bhavta was decimated, there was nothing more left for me in the land of the Hindi and so I left.
I understand the desert now; I know its emotions and its desires. It is the place of my childhood, the home of my memories. I no longer fear its power; I respect and admire it. I long to wander the dunes and once again hear the gentle words of my mother as she posed answers to the kind of questions my own children never lived long enough to ponder. I long to return home one last time.
I had been wandering for three, perhaps as many as five, cycles of the moon when I found it. The scroll had been half buried in the sand near the crest of the dune I had decided to climb and I wondered at its presence there as I plucked it from its shifting hole. I looked around me as the wind tugged at my hair and veils but there were no other travelers, I was as alone as I had been since the outset of my journey.
I tucked the scroll into my pack and did not give it another thought until I unfurled my sleeping blankets in the oasis I wandered into that evening. For the first time in longer that I could rightly remember, I found myself luxuriating in the cool depths of a spring fed pool. My thoughts drifted lazily with the clear rippling waters that enveloped my sun-sore body. I felt as if the waters acted as a soothing balm to my aching soul. I soaked in the pool for most of the evening before I stepped from the waters and began to prepare a small fire to keep the chill of the desert night at bay.
In the dying rays of twilight, I gathered together many armloads of fallen palm fronds and fashioned a small fire pit where the flames would warm my weary bones. The golden glow of my fire illuminated my little campsite and I slowly added more fronds as the flames dipped too low to the blackened ground.
I rubbed my hands along my arms. I had reclaimed my clothing after my swim but I had decided to forgo the veils. So far from civilization, my honor took second in importance to my comfort. I combed my hair until the strands untangled and ceased to drip on my gown.
My thoughts turned to my lost husband and children. Bhaskar had been a good man, kind and handsome and caring. I had caught his eye in the market place several seasons after I had made my home among the Hindi. Ours was a marriage of love, not arrangement. Our daughters, Ananda and Lalasa, and our son, Tayib, had been the light of our existence. They brightened everything they touched. When Tayib had become lethargic, his laughter buried beneath a sallow complexion and strained breaths, I knew the sickness had settled in our home. They left me, one by one, until I was alone in the house of Bhavta.
The sadness that filled me was a leaden weight that pulled at my heart. I tried to shake the memories from my aching head and as my gaze swung from the fire, I saw again the scroll. My fingers brushed softly over the stiff papyrus.
I had learned to read as a small child, something that was both a blessing and a curse. Women were to be owned, possessed. Women were not to be independent or think too much for themselves. Bhaskar had treasured my reading, especially when he fell ill and I would read to him from scrolls I purchased in the market.
I delicately unrolled the paper and let my eyes study the writing. It was familiar to my mind, I knew the people who used such a language although they lived far from the shifting sands that surrounded the oasis. I had met travelers from Athens and Mesene as a young woman and had enjoyed their stories of the amazing things they had seen. I had studied their language and writing until I knew it as well as my own.
The crackling of the fire as it twisted and charred the fronds was not so loud that it masked the sound of the interloper who edged nearer to my camp. I had been alone for so long that I was both edgy about coming face to face with another person and anxious for the company. I focused on the area I thought the sound came from and waited.
An old woman stepped into the light of my fire. Her skin was wrinkled and hung heavily from her bones and her hair, lank and white, trailed to her frail shoulders. I studied her clothing briefly and recognized it as the garb of the followers of Eli. Her eyes were faded, a gray-green that reminded me of storm tossed seas and flood-swollen rivers.
"Come." After so little use, my voice was harsh and brittle. "Share my dinner, Granny?" I lifted the small bag of provisions and plucked out a handful of dates I had found in the oasis, extending my hand to my visitor.
She watched me a moment, her eyes trailing over my bedroll and my own clothing. I could read the unspoken question in her eyes. It was mirrored in my own. Such a mixture of cultures, of lifestyles, was reflected in the cut and artistry of our garb. I had forgotten how much is told in the cloth that drapes a body.
"Please?" I found myself fearful of losing this chance at companionship and my tone reflected my worry.
She nodded slowly and stepped closer as I shifted my position on the blankets to make a pace for her. A small smile lit her face as she eased down toward the ground, accepting my hand in assistance. Settled, she took the offered dates and nodded thanks.
"I thank you for your kindness, child."
I blinked at her. Her voice was sweet and honeyed and belied her apparent age. My own voice, I knew, showed more weariness and experience than any one person had the right to experience in a hundred lifetimes and it blushed at it.
She smiled again. "What have you there, child?" Her gaze left my flushed face, allowing me to regain myself, and lingered on the scroll I had set down at her appearance.
"A scroll. I found it among the dunes as I traveled to this place. It's Greek. I have no idea how such a thing could have traveled so far into the desert." I placed my bag of provisions before the aged woman and again picked the scroll up and unrolled it. My fingers gently pressed the papyrus flat against the blankets. "I was about to read it. Would you like to hear the story?"
"Yes, very much so." She placed another sweet date into her mouth and chewed slowly. Her eyes watched me closely.
"Alright." I cleared my throat to rid it of its roughness and concentrated on the words that flowed across the scroll. It was a story of love and hate, relief and desperation, salvation and loss. Most of all, the story was one of the undying power of friendship. I smiled wistfully as the last words of the scroll left my lips and as I brushed fallen tears from my cheek, I noticed the old woman do the same.
"It is a touching tale," I murmured. "One I have not heard before. When I was a girl, my grandmother often told me stories of Xena and Gabrielle. You see, she had met them once long before."
"She met them?" The old woman's eyes lit with a fire from within. "This grandmother of yours, did she have a name by chance?"
"Of course." I lifted a handful of palm fronds and set them easily into the fire, admiring the flames as they leapt and danced. "Her name was Tara."
"Tara?" the woman's voice trailed to nothing. "Tara wed, had a family?"
"Yes." I offered the woman my water skin and watched as she raised it to her lips. "When my mother married, when I was born, she came to dwell with us as we traveled with my father's tribe. She cared for me while my parents worked, she told me stories of her youth, of the people she knew and admired. Mostly, she told me about Xena and Gabrielle."
I noticed the woman's shoulders tremble and a sudden worry washed over me. "Come, Granny. I have talked too long. It is time for us to sleep. We may speak about this more in the morning."
"I am fine, my child. You mistake an old woman's high emotions for something else. But you must be weary."
I tried to hide my grin at the correctness of her words. I was tired, exhausted by my long trek across the sand, but I wanted to first be sure the woman was comfortable before I found my own rest. "I will rest soon enough. It is you who worries me. I'm still young. Were my family still living, I would be a wife and the mother of three active little ones. I can withstand the rigors of desert traveling for it was the lifestyle of my youth. But you, you are not of the desert people. You are not one of us."
"No, I am not." She shifted against the blankets slightly. "I come from a far distant land. My home was host to green fields and rolling hills and broad limbed trees. We had rivers and streams and mountains and the great cerulean sea. I grew up on a farm with my family in a small quiet village but I wanted more out of live. I was certain that I was born for more than just a quiet life."
I tilted my head at her words. "And were you?"
She lifted bright eyes to me. "Oh, yes. Indeed, I was." She nodded her thanks as I wrapped my blanket around her shoulders. "I traveled across the known world and met kings, emperors, gods, goddesses, even a scrawny girl who desperately wanted to belong to a family."
"You speak like a bard," I told her.
She chuckled warmly. "That is as it should be, I suppose." She reached out and took my hand in hers and I marveled at the strength that lay within the gnarled fingers. She patted my hand affectionately and smoothed her fingers along my cheek. "You, my child, have seen much in your short life, I would wager. I wonder what could bring a mother and wife into the desert alone."
I closed my eyes and savored the feel of another's touch. "My family was taken from me by the sickness that floods through the Hindi lands. When I found myself alone once more, I thought to return to my own lands. This is where I belong."
The old woman dropped her eyes to my hand as it lay within her own. She studied my palm, tracing the lines there with a shaking finger. "I hear that there are those who would read our futures in the creases of our hands. Do you believe in destiny?"
I smiled. Bhaskar had once told me that our marriage was destiny. I could hear the conviction in his voice when he said it and had tried very hard to keep my laughter stifled. "My husband did," I told her.
"And what about you, oh great desert traveler?" Her voice was strong and the humor was a pleasant reprieve.
"I don't know. Bhaskar believed in destiny so strongly, after we were married I suppose I learned to believe in it too. Of course, that also means that it was destiny that took him away from me, not only him, but my children as well. In a way, I would rather not believe in destiny."
She nodded slowly and continued to trace her fingers across my palm. "Destiny is not always pleasant, is it? Since you were kind enough to read me that scroll, I have a story I would like to tell you. But first, lay down. Close your eyes and listen."
I did as she instructed and settled my head upon the roll of my pack. I was startled when I felt her hands caress my hair. As I felt her fingers comb through the long strands, I felt myself sinking into deep relaxation.
"I sing of friendship, true and unfaded?"
I listened on as the woman wove her tale. She spoke long into the night and my spirit lifted even as sleep at last pulled me into its dark oblivion.
When I woke, I was refreshed and delighted in the knowledge that my rest had been undisturbed by the nightmarish visions of my loved ones' passing. I smiled as I opened my eyes to the swaying palms overhead.
My eyes sought out my companion of the previous evening but all I found was an empty campsite. The blankets I had offered her were folded neatly beside my little fire and a fish roasted on a spit above the flames.
"Granny?" I called out for her even as I knew she was gone.
Quirking my lips at the oddity, I ate my breakfast gift and repacked my blankets. My bag of provisions was filled with more dates and I discovered a bundle of flat bread that I knew I had not previously possessed.
With lighter spirits than I had experienced in a very long time, I looked out at the sands of my childhood. The home of my grandmother lay to the west. It was a town filled with song and dance and I thought to make my life anew in such a place and among such people.
I cast a final glance around the oasis that had sheltered me the night before as I stepped out from beneath the shade of the palm trees.
"Goodbye, Gabrielle," I called softly. "May peace be ever with you on your journey."
I bent to grasp a handful of sand in my fist and watched as the grains fell and danced on the wind. The sand touched so many lives, both for good and bad. It robbed me of my mother and brought to me a gentle soul to heal my wounded spirit. My mother had been right. Only the foolish would not be able to see its importance and as she had pleaded with me so long ago, I was not foolish.