The Desert, I
The worst fears I have involve things like this. A bite or some other thing going septic, swelling, becoming a spreading lesion. Necrosis sets in - I lose a limb. They don't get me to civilization fast enough, foreign doctors misdiagnosing and I go home in a bag.
Other people worry about losing their luggage, I suppose.
The sun cuts like a knife.
I'm wrapped, more or less head to toe. Long pants, a T-shirt and the light cotton scarf covers everything else, wrapped around my head, shading whatever of my face isn't already shaded by sunglasses. Even through the scarf, I can feel the sun burning my skin. I apply more sunscreen. I drink more water.
We are halfway up to the High Place of Sacrifice. I feel like the heat and sun are leaching life from me. I feel battered, wilted. Everyone else is bare skin to the sun's rays, and the kids are going along happily.
By the end of the day we will have hiked ten miles, most of it in the direct sun, much of it up and down rough-hewn stairs.
The sun will sink, and as it drops, I will revive.
At night by a fire in the desert, the children will run out of ghost stories. My daughter asks for an Ananse story.
"A new one," she says, as though I haven't told her all the ones I know already. I do what any good parent does. I make one up.
About Ananse, and Leopard, who at that time didn't have any spots and how Ananse wanted Leopard to cook him some stew and Leopard said no. And Ananse begged and begged and was such a
- excuse the expression -
pest that finally Leopard agreed.
"All right, all right, fuck's sake, Ananse," I said, though probably I said something other than "fuck." "I'll make you some stew if only you'll just. Shut. Up."
Then Leopard, thinking to teach Ananse a lesson, shook a huge amount of pepper into the groundnut stew. Then more.
When Ananse finally got the stew he was so hungry he went to take an enormous bite.
I pantomime this for the kids, who can see me in the half-light of the fire, under the stretch of Milky Way and the perfect, vibrant, endless stars.
Then he gets the spoon to his face and sneezes
and pepper flies all over Leopard.
There's a rock wall with petroglyphs in the middle of the desert. The jeep pulls up and we pile out and cameras come out.
"Can we climb up?" I ask our guide, although M is already scrambling up the rock face with his camera to get a closer look.
"Go ahead," says the guide and I consider the climb, where to go, and the guide shows me how he gets up, and I go up half on his route, half on my own. It's never quite rock climbing, more of a scramble, but the sandstone is slippery and when I get up to the petroglyphs I feel like I've accomplished something.
I look at the images up close, and there's hunters with spears and figures with water jugs. M balances on a ledge and takes his endless photographs, gives me a glance to make sure I'm all right then climbs easily down. He's an older man, lives in Britain but is Argentinian. He's jovial and kind and also has a hot temper. One night he berated one of our Bedouin drivers for texting while driving, and almost making my mother in law fall out of the truck.
I pick a more careful way down; up was easy - down is harder. The guide helps me by pointing out a route from the ground if I falter, but no one comes up to get me. They know better.
Eventually I reach the sand and the jeep and everyone climbs in - we have a well oiled routine where I get in first then hold M's camera for him while he clambers in after.
The guide leans on the side of the jeep.
"I have to tell you," he says to me. "I've guided people to this spot for ten years.
You're the first woman to climb that rock wall."
We got home and the infection from the back of my knee had spread around, crimson, all the way to the front of it.
I spent several days in the desert, and swam in the Red Sea, snorkeled with it like that. My doctor had no idea what it was really but gave me horse doses of penicillin.
The swelling's gone down.
Our luggage arrived, intact.
We couldn't sleep, there were so many stars.
So many stars overhead it was vertiginous. I watched the Milky Way track across the sky, left to right.
The next day we rode camels across the desert.
That night we stayed in a five star hotel in Aqaba. We tracked sand into their lobby, where we stunk up the joint like camels while they handed us dainty glasses of pomegranite juice to drink while we waited for our rooms.
And that was how Leopard got his spots.