During a quarantine the streets look empty, invisible skins of silent snakes. Few shops are still open, and here masked men and women are busy making small pyramids of cereals and fruits. Then, they put everything inside a small bag and they proceed to send it to other masked men equipped with motorcycles.
The heat is slowly taking over, it's the curse of living in the desert, in that line so close to that umbilical cord called Equator. The delivery guy sets just a foot outside the skyscrapers and the city lights, and what he finds is semi-wild camels roaming around. Sitting between them, almost invisible, lie a shepherd. He's short, with a receding headline and a face long unshaved. He's watching far away, beyond the enormous dunes. He's one of those shepherds from Yemen.
He didn't notice the crisis before, as well as he ignores the virus, now. While everyone else seems to escape from the city, searching for family comfort or an hug from a friend, a mass of people running to take an aircraft and escape the fear of the desert, he's just there watching at the dunes. No, he doesn't know about the virus and why those men bring him food with masks and gloves. He doesn't even know what a virus is precisely. What he does know is that there is a horizon, an imaginary line that is ready to move a foot every foot he makes since he'll reach home. There's still a home, there? Difficult, impossible to know.
He had a name, even though he cannot recollect it. Years passed without facing any humans, but having only camels to speak to. He learned how to love them when they lick him in the face with their rough tongue so similar to sandpaper. But he hates them, when he has to wash them, when that wet- dog- and- trash smell goes to the veins, under the nails, and twist his stomach.
He doesn't know much about the world. He just knows that every day when the sun makes golden the top of the dunes, a small car would leave a white bag with food not far from him. He doesn't know how they can find him or who's doing so. Maybe it's Zahin, the guy that called him first for this job. Maybe someone else, some of those young guys coming one day and unexpectedly taking a camel or two from him. What he knows is that they're not thieves, because every time they take an adult they leave a baby camel with shaky legs not so far. And he's there again to make that baby an adult.
The life the camel is going to face without him it's a mystery, but stay assured it's not going to be even slightly similar to the one it's accustomed to. It's not going to have a shepherd to play with, a human brother ready to sing old lullabies to a bunch of camels. It's not going to roam around the dunes in search of something new, with those big camel eyes watching the cars passing by without understanding the reason. And the men, those puppets running constantly so fast, while nature is slow, really slow, and it takes decisions without asking permission.
Now a car stops close by and a man with a big nose gets out. As always, he starts yelling. Yes, usually people address him yelling loud, as they would do with a small animal. It was a long time ago when he washed himself properly and now it seems he cannot even remember what it was like to be clean. Usually he washes himself when showers the camels. Naked, with no shame. Camels are gentle, patient creatures, slow in their incredible force. Funny, yes, they can be funny. But he's funny as well with his eyes watching the horizon far away.
He's so skinny that his eyes seem to jump out of his eye sockets.
Yell the man from the car.
Then he starts speaking a language, an idiom that the shepherd doesn't catch immediately. Everyone thinks he's just mute or deaf, stupid even. The truth is, he's able to survive everywhere, as a snake or a camel, precisely.
That man today is searching for him, he doesn't care about the other camels gathering around him, curious.
He's a stranger, some humanoid never met before. And the shepherd is not in a rush to meet him, anyway. He knows what humans can do, full of prayers and unfulfilled promises. He knows they can just take him as a prisoner, carrying him away before throwing him somewhere to feed some animal. And everything would be done just for fun.
Now from the car gets out another man, smaller and with darker skin and it seems to watch the shepherd's image in front of a mirror. A cleaner mirror. This man watches him in the eyes and starts speaking, and while he speaks the words begin making some sense.
<<Ikdmd cosksldme tkdo take you.>>
He could understand something, but not everything. He narrows his eyes, in an extreme effort to understand that forgotten language. A language! All those sounds are a language. A sense, he realizes right now, humans don't just make sounds, they speak.
But how about speaking? How can you remember how to do it?
He watches the camels, silently asking for some help.
<<An idiot, an idiot, believe me. He's not the person you seek.>>
Behind him he can feel the two men speaking. The first man leaving the car is speaking loudly, with big hand gestures, while the other is still watching the shepherd.
<<Salimi, you don't remember me?>>
This time all the words seem to be clear, making some sense. He doesn't just understand what he's saying, he realise he's speaking to him, as a real person with an identity. A name.
The face of an old woman, a dark old child face, keeping him in her arms. She's singing and singing says his name. It was a long time ago.
And then that image disappears inside the dark lake of memory, colors disguised as sensations. Music, even, hidden in the dark.
He's calling him again. But now the shepherd knows he has an identity, he's part of a flow, a small particle of dust, sand in a populated desert called humanity.
<<I- I am?>>
He listens to his lips, the air from the lungs trying to answer, betraying him. He doesn't remember anything, how he could? It passed too much time. What is time? Lancets, or the sun going up and down?
The mirror- man in front of the shepherd starts crying and at every drop he moves his shoulders. His hands get to his face, trembling. Sensations, identities, languages, everything is there altogether in those gestures, a kaleidoscope impossible to understand with a single glance. Too many years of mistreatments, trying to escape from humans. The shepherd steps back, gaining enough space to start feeling safer.
<<Salimi, I'm your brother. You don't recognize me?>>
Again that voice.
Another step back, the hands in front of him as to protect himself.
He knows how to defend himself.
He knows how to survive in the desert.
<<Why do you keep tormenting him? You don't see he's a stranger?>>
The voice of the driver is clear, now. The brain starts working, the synapses once forgotten joining together again to understand this mystery called language. Another mystery stands between the two men. A camel- man, an almost stranger.
<<Every day we pass through here and we give him some food as you asked us. He's not gonna die. He's probably an idiot, but he's a real survivor.>>
The driver speaks calmly, with the hands-down, palms up as he was a priest calling for the good spirits. As he was a statue in a church. The statue finally lower the white mask.
A sudden image pass through the shepherd's brain, so bright that even the desert itself seems to disappear. A dream with open eyes, called memory.
He asked, then, hesitantly. Now he knows he has two tongues, a soft one between the teeth and a strong, hard one under his hair and through his spine.
The two men in front turn, confused. The mirror- man, the brother, is staring at him, watching him as it was the first time he put the eyes on him. Now, without a mask, his face is a complete, solved puzzle.
<<Do you remember my name?>>
He asks the puzzle-mirror pointing at him.
Those fingers remind something to him, a narrow street he had to pass through, a canyon, and a lot of sand. He was escaping.
They were saying while beating him.
They repeated, beating him since he lost his senses.
Drunk, he was just a sponge of sand and blood lost in the cracks of the world.
How easy it is to start being the imbecile, the idiot, a beggar, and then a stranger.
How easy and oxymoronic is to become a no one. No name, just a number in a caravan.
That number turns back, to see those funny big animals with their hunches watching him. Yes, as impossible as it would sound, they seem understanding him. And with their big, good eyes seem to say goodbye.
An arm passes over his shoulders and finally all the perplexities vanish completely. A hug, the most human act after a smile.
Another word comes back from the well of memory.
They get in the car, and no one is a stranger anymore.
Behind them, in a golden cloud, three heads are moving as big hands to say goodbye.
Or, at least, it's what seems to the shepherd.