The mellow sun rises over the shifting sands of the Sahara Desert.
Over a ridge, far in the midst of the desert, peeks a small golden desert mouse. It gazes over the rippling sea of sand, rubs its nose, cocks its head, and does an about-face to go back down to its hole alongside the oasis.
It freezes suddenly as a slender, striking, evil head rises menacingly before the mouse. It is one of the Yellow Snakes; snakes so venomous it can kill a man in thirty seconds. Carnivorous, the Yellow Snake flicks its tongue in the direction of the mouse. Though it is blind it senses the presence of food. The wind howled around the two bent figures, and with a jerk the mouse released itself of its own imprisonment of stark fear.
The snake follows the fleeing mouse with its head, hissing spitefully, but as the crucial seconds pass with no furry morsel within its reach the Yellow Snake gives up and settles back into its hole, encouraging itself with the thought that the sun continues to rise, and that there was other prey in the desert.
Miles away, hiker by hobby and scholar by profession, the young witless hiker, squinty-eyed and eager, completed his preparations on his boots and stood up, tilting a little with the weight of the pack that carried sleeping bag, water, food, and a Qur’an.
He was set for his annual week-long hike into the Sahara Desert. This trek he had done four times previously, and had survived by following the yellow strips of ribbon placed systematically along the desert.
The hike had no path, no footholds nor designated stopping points; only the ribbons and a final shelter, with water, food, and a small library (for the mentally starved) at the end.
The hiker stepped away from the beginning point, manned by a small Mali child of about eleven, and away from safety. He saw the first ribbon and walked to it, searching with his eyes for the next one. He saw a slit of sunlight that was the shape of a ribbon and behind him a sheet of swirling sand blocked his figure from the watching Mali child.
Twenty feet to his right danced the second ribbon in the wind, like a lonely flag that could not speak but was begging for him to see and to follow.
When the sand cleared and the Mali child finally saw where the foolish hiker had strayed—if the hiker had stayed on the trail it would be possible for the child to see him still—the child called out across the plains to him, hoping he might hear; but the whistling wind acted as an earplug and the hiker did not hear and walked happily on, looking for the next bit of sunlight that might happen to look like a waving yellow ribbon.
The Mali child sighed without care and turned his back on the foolish hiker to greet the next fresh-faced, young hikers walking up to the marking stone.
The mouse sneezed, and blew the sand from its nostrils.
Crawling from its four-inch-deep hole it took its morning sip of the stagnant oasis water.
The water, bottled up in a bed of sand and stone with nowhere to go, was totally still, but also pure. Nothing and no one save the desert mouse, the Yellow Snake, and the small army of ants that lived there had touched it since the Kush had inhabited that oasis.
The desert mouse went in search of its breakfast; usually few dozen hapless ants, and an occasional gnaw on the fallen, rotting date from the date palm tree that inhabited the oasis.
The mouse, as a rule, avoided the other side of the oasis; that was where the Yellow Snake lived. They had formed some sort of bestial agreement that the Snake would not come over to hunt the mouse, and the mouse would not scare the Snake’s prey while the Snake was hunting.
The mouse completed its morning rounds; food, bathing in the oasis water, avoiding the ants and the Snake all the while, and then, as was its usual routine, scampered up the slippery sand dune to look out over the vastness of the wild and desolate desert. It is sublime is its own way, but dangerous, evil, and haunting also. For though the desert is only beautiful because it hides a well, the desert is haunting because of the tragedies—stories of lost souls searching desperately for water, and of long-gone, ancient civilizations driven from the fertile ground because of drought.
The mouse, if it could have wept, would have wept then, for in its little, fast-beating mouse heart, throbbed that longing that accompanies those who live on Earth; a longing to go and explore. Luckily for them, most humans have learned to block that aching longing, with friends and books and good food and with postcards from the family member who had not learned to quench that desire to travel.
The mouse yearned to run out into that field of desolation.
But instead, the mouse sighed, and turned away from the beckoning sea of sand, and slid back down the other side of the dune. It knew that the only ones who could truly explore the desert; to fly over it, and see it all; were the vultures and the fowls and the raptors and the ospreys.
The sun set reluctantly.
The hiker shielded his eyes with his hand and glanced at the sun.
Sundown would be in a few hours; he had only to keep going until the sand turned pink; then he could rest.
The dunes were never-ending. He was merely following each imaginary ribbon to the next; and they continually led him further and further away from the actual path. He had gone so far now that he could no longer see the green of Mali behind him. He had been hiking for a day and a half, and had stopped for the night while he was still in sight of the green but not the beginning of the path, and safety. He had allowed himself to sleep for nine hours; longer was not advisable. One was liable to get caught in a deadly sandstorm when one was at one’s weakest—and the hiker was not carrying a tent, for it was too heavy.
The hiker, with a small smile on his face, continued on. Only five and a half more days until the safe house, and then he would be helicoptered out. Some brave souls had once hiked back, as well as hiking to the house, but had run out of water and been lost. The hiker felt confident that, because he had hiked the trail thrice before, he needed no map.
The map was practically useless anyway, for there were no markers, nor milestones, nor anyway to mark the trail save the ribbons.
The foolish hiker walked on, spotted another slit of sunlight that looked like a ribbon, and followed it. He was still enjoying himself.
Each day the mouse climbs the ridge to gaze longingly out at the desert. Three days after the Yellow Snake attacked him, the mouse sits down on the other side of the ridge; but only barely; just enough to shield his golden ears from sight. And he sits there, his feet and his arms tucked in, and simply watching the beautiful, wistful Sahara, like a young child mystified and awed by its first aeroplane ride. The mouse had known of this view from is mouslinghood, but since the Yellow Snake attack the danger seems to make the view even sweeter and more desirable.
Suddenly a movement from the south catches the mouse’s eye. It is up in a flash; but it is not the Snake.
It is a human.
The foolish hiker had been walking aimlessly now for ten days. His water is gone, vanished like the island of Atlantis. When he thinks of this humorous simile, he groans through chapped, golden-yellow lips at the thought of that much water—water enough to drown an island.
He has shed his pack long ago except for his water canister; nothing is left in it but a few enticing drops.
His yellow fingers clutch the water canister frantically; a drowning man clutching at anything to save himself. The hiker tries to scream in rage and anguish, but nothing comes out of his mouth but a parched cry like a raven’s.
The mouse starts. A human has not been seen in these parts of the Sahara for millennial. Through the years, the animals and birds that lived there had gradually forgotten the existence of humans.
The mouse goes down to the oasis and dunks himself in the water, hoping the pure substance of hydrogen and oxygen might cleanse him of the unholy sight of Homo sapiens. Fear begins to take hold of the innocent little mouse; this enormous creature could do things no animal had dreamed of; those huge flying things with swirling sticks at the top were proof.
The mouse then slinks back to the top to see if its eyes had been put to right.
There was nothing abnormal in the ocean of sand that it could see.
But then, as the mouse cocked its head, it noticed that out of the corner of its eye there was a slowly wriggling, oblong, thing. Shock blasted through the mouse’s animal mind.
Again it ran down the hill to bury itself in the water. When it crested the dune once more the wriggling thing had grown nearer.
The mouse ran down the dune into the water a few dozen more times, hoping against hope in its little puny mouse brain that this time, this time, the oblong thing would not be there.
Finally, the oblong thing had inched so near that the mouse could see the whites of the hiker’s eyes. Only—they were no longer white; they had grown yellowed, grey, and weary.
The hiker’s eyes bulged in his head, which was both pale and fiery red at the same time. His skin was pasty, almost like a skull, or like a prisoner in a Gulag camp, wasting away, and with haunted thirsty eyes desperate for water, and it was much too close to the mouse for comfort. The hiker was at the very base of the dune upon which the mouse was perched.
The mouse teetered on the edge of the dune, and on the brink of indecision.
Finally, in a brave gesture, the mouse dashed down the other side of the dune, toward the hiker, its little hind paws burning, for they were still wet and the Sahara sands were scorching.
The hiker looked up into the quizzical eyes of a golden desert mouse.
Noon. The peak of the sun.
He tried to smile, but his shrinking lips would not let him.
His eyes, never resting, ever weary, roved to behind the querying mouse, to its damp footprints that made an outstanding mark against the curving, starkly yellow sand of the desert.
A gasp of surprise and relief, hissing and cracked, like a malicious snake, issued out of the parched lips of the bloodshot hiker. His protective hat was long gone, buried by now by tons of sifting sand; and his usually golden hair had been bleached pure white. His skin was fire-ant red, his eyes veiny and exhausted, and by the time those eyes had fallen upon the blissfully wet footprints of the desert mouse the hiker had staggered and fallen. He had crawled on his burning hands and his aching knees for miles against blowing winds and across boiling sand—and when his bloodshot eyes saw the footprints of the mouse his ragged voice gasped and his eyes closed happily—for his sluggish brain had worked feverishly for a few seconds and figured that wet footprints mean water—and he let himself collapse on the pillow-like sand with a gasp and sigh of pure relief. His eyelids fluttered closed and the mouse stood as if alone once more.
The mouse looked confusedly at the sleeping hiker. Softly it touched his afflicted face. Softly it keened at the hiker, then softly the mouse ran back up the dune and into its hole.
When the hiker awoke his eyes creaked open unwillingly. Suddenly, as he remembered the damp footprints and the mouse who made them, his eyes widened, and he stumbled up, onto his knees.
The hiker made his way excruciatingly up the sand dune to the oasis.
He crested the dune, his eyes looking ahead, at the sweet relief of water, but his body, tired and bruised, held him back.
The hiker started forward down the hill; his eyes widening in the greed of water and his hands and knees scrabbling at the loose sand. He tumbled carelessly down the dune, freefalling toward the oasis pool below.
Then suddenly the hiker collapsed, halfway down, inches from the water, and his last breath escaped his lips and stirred the pool of water like a breath of wind.
The men in the fluorescent suits backed away from the skeleton; somewhat in horror, somewhat it contemplation, and somewhat in terrified awe.
The larger of the men muttered to his companions after some observation that this was certainly Zacherelmon. The tallest mumbled back an affirmative. The smaller wondered aloud if they should bury the skeleton.
The largest murmured negatively and observed that the skull was used by the mouse as a home, and wouldn’t it be harsh to take away a creature’s home? Leave’m be.
The smallest must not have wanted to bury the hiker very much, for he only shrugged with his eyes still fixated on the sprawling skeleton.
The mouse stood fearlessly on the weathered cranium as the three men reentered their whirling machine, and it watched as the chugging thing lifted off and with a roar disappeared.
The mouse looked out at the horizon, a rich melting line between the sand and the sky as the sun descended into the sand in final reverence for the late hiker. The mouse’s lone figure stood for a long time on the hiker’s skull, staring out at the vast expanse of sand and the mouse felt and realized its own smallness in the vastness of the universe of sky and sand and stars of the Sahara.
The mouse scanned the whole encircling horizon and sighed at the horrible and fierce beauty of it all.
And then a wisp of cold night wind whipped around the mouse, and the mouse flicked its tail and dashed back down into the nest inside the eye socket of the hiker’s skull.