The man as now revealed was of admirable proportions, not so tall as powerful. Loosening the silken rope which held the kufiyeh on his head, he brushed the fringed folds back until his face was bare—a strong face, almost negro in color; yet the low, broad forehead, aquiline nose, the outer corners of the eyes turned slightly upward, the hair profuse, straight, harsh, of metallic lustre, and falling to the shoulder in many plaits, were signs of origin impossible to disguise. So looked the Pharaohs and the later Ptolemies; so looked Mizraim, father of the Egyptian race. He wore the kamis, a white cotton shirt tight-sleeved, open in front, extending to the ankles and embroidered down the collar and breast, over which was thrown a brown woollen cloak, now, as in all probability it was then, called the aba, an outer garment with long skirt and short sleeves, lined inside with stuff of mixed cotton and silk, edged all round with a margin of clouded yellow. His feet were protected by sandals, attached by thongs of soft leather. A sash held the kamis to his waist. What was very noticeable, considering he was alone, and that the desert was the haunt of leopards and lions, and men quite as wild, he carried no arms, not even the crooked stick used for guiding camels; wherefore we may at least infer his errand peaceful, and that he was either uncommonly bold or under extraordinary protection.
The traveller's limbs were numb, for the ride had been long and wearisome; so he rubbed his hands and stamped his feet, and walked round the faithful servant, whose lustrous eyes were closing in calm content with the cud he had already found. Often, while making the circuit, he paused, and, shading his eyes with his hands, examined the desert to the extremest verge of vision; and always, when the survey was ended, his face clouded with disappointment, slight, but enough to advise a shrewd spectator that he was there expecting company, if not by appointment; at the same time, the spectator would have been conscious of a sharpening of the curiosity to learn what the business could be that required transaction in a place so far from civilized abode.
However disappointed, there could be little doubt of the stranger's confidence in the coming of the expected company. In token thereof, he went first to the litter, and, from the cot or box opposite the one he had occupied in coming, produced a sponge and a small gurglet of water, with which he washed the eyes, face, and nostrils of the camel; that done, from the same depository he drew a circular cloth, red-and white-striped, a bundle of rods, and a stout cane. The latter, after some manipulation, proved to be a cunning device of lesser joints, one within another, which, when united together, formed a centre pole higher than his head. When the pole was planted, and the rods set around it, he spread the cloth over them, and was literally at home—a home much smaller than the habitations of emir and sheik, yet their counterpart in all other respects. From the litter again he brought a carpet or square rug, and covered the floor of the tent on the side from the sun. That done, he went out, and once more, and with greater care and more eager eyes, swept the encircling country. Except a distant jackal, galloping across the plain, and an eagle flying towards the Gulf of Akaba, the waste below, like the blue above it, was lifeless.
He turned to the camel, saying low, and in a tongue strange to the desert, "We are far from home, O racer with the swiftest winds—we are far from home, but God is with us. Let us be patient."
Then he took some beans from a pocket in the saddle, and put them in a bag made to hang below the animal's nose; and when he saw the relish with which the good servant took to the food, he turned and again scanned the world of sand, dim with the glow of the vertical sun.
"They will come," he said, calmly. "He that led me is leading them. I will make ready."
From the pouches which lined the interior of the cot, and from a willow basket which was part of its furniture, he brought forth materials for a meal: platters close-woven of the fibres of palms; wine in small gurglets of skin; mutton dried and smoked; stoneless shami, or Syrian pomegranates; dates of El Shelebi, wondrous rich and grown in the nakhil, or palm orchards, of Central Arabia; cheese, like David's "slices of milk;" and leavened bread from the city bakery—all which he carried and set upon the carpet under the tent. As the final preparation, about the provisions he laid three pieces of silk cloth, used among refined people of the East to cover the knees of guests while at table—a circumstance significant of the number of persons who were to partake of his entertainment—the number he was awaiting.
All was now ready. He stepped out: lo! in the east a dark speck on the face of the desert. He stood as if rooted to the ground; his eyes dilated; his flesh crept chilly, as if touched by something supernatural. The speck grew; became large as a hand; at length assumed defined proportions. A little later, full into view swung a duplication of his own dromedary, tall and white, and bearing a houdah, the travelling litter of Hindostan. Then the Egyptian crossed his hands upon his breast, and looked to heaven.
"God only is great!" he exclaimed, his eyes full of tears, his soul in awe.
The stranger drew nigh—at last stopped. Then he, too, seemed just waking. He beheld the kneeling camel, the tent, and the man standing prayerfully at the door. He crossed his hands, bent his head, and prayed silently; after which, in a little while, he stepped from his camel's neck to the sand, and advanced towards the Egyptian, as did the Egyptian towards him. A moment they looked at each other; then they embraced—that is, each threw his right arm over the other's shoulder, and the left round the side, placing his chin first upon the left, then upon the right breast.
"Peace be with thee, O servant of the true God!" the stranger said.
"And to thee, O brother of the true faith!—to thee peace and welcome," the Egyptian replied, with fervor.
The new-comer was tall and gaunt, with lean face, sunken eyes, white hair and beard, and a complexion between the hue of cinnamon and bronze. He, too, was unarmed. His costume was Hindostani; over the skull-cap a shawl was wound in great folds, forming a turban; his body garments were in the style of the Egyptian's, except that the aba was shorter, exposing wide flowing breeches gathered at the ankles. In place of sandals, his feet were clad in half-slippers of red leather, pointed at the toes. Save the slippers, the costume from head to foot was of white linen. The air of the man was high, stately, severe. Visvamitra, the greatest of the ascetic heroes of the Iliad of the East, had in him a perfect representative. He might have been called a Life drenched with the wisdom of Brahma—Devotion Incarnate. Only in his eyes was there proof of humanity; when he lifted his face from the Egyptian's breast, they were glistening with tears.
"God only is great!" he exclaimed, when the embrace was finished.
"And blessed are they that serve him!" the Egyptian answered, wondering at the paraphrase of his own exclamation. "But let us wait," he added, "let us wait; for see, the other comes yonder!"
They looked to the north, where, already plain to view, a third camel, of the whiteness of the others, came careening like a ship. They waited, standing together—waited until the new-comer arrived, dismounted, and advanced towards them.
"Peace to you, O my brother!" he said, while embracing the Hindoo.
And the Hindoo answered, "God's will be done!"
The last comer was all unlike his friends: his frame was slighter; his complexion white; a mass of waving light hair was a perfect crown for his small but beautiful head; the warmth of his dark-blue eyes certified a delicate mind, and a cordial, brave nature. He was bareheaded and unarmed. Under the folds of the Tyrian blanket which he wore with unconscious grace appeared a tunic, short-sleeved and low-necked, gathered to the waist by a band, and reaching nearly to the knee; leaving the neck, arms, and legs bare. Sandals guarded his feet. Fifty years, probably more, had spent themselves upon him, with no other effect, apparently, than to tinge his demeanor with gravity and temper his words with forethought. The physical organization and the brightness of soul were untouched. No need to tell the student from what kindred he was sprung; if he came not himself from the groves of Athene', his ancestry did.
When his arms fell from the Egyptian, the latter said, with a tremulous voice, "The Spirit brought me first; wherefore I know myself chosen to be the servant of my brethren. The tent is set, and the bread is ready for the breaking. Let me perform my office."
Taking each by the hand, he led them within, and removed their sandals and washed their feet, and he poured water upon their hands, and dried them with napkins.
Then, when he had laved his own hands, he said, "Let us take care of ourselves, brethren, as our service requires, and eat, that we may be strong for what remains of the day's duty. While we eat, we will each learn who the others are, and whence they come, and how they are called."
He took them to the repast, and seated them so that they faced each other. Simultaneously their heads bent forward, their hands crossed upon their breasts, and, speaking together, they said aloud this simple grace:
"Father of all—God!—what we have here is of thee; take our thanks and bless us, that we may continue to do thy will."
With the last word they raised their eyes, and looked at each other in wonder. Each had spoken in a language never before heard by the others; yet each understood perfectly what was said. Their souls thrilled with divine emotion; for by the miracle they recognized the Divine Presence.
My father and I saw the 1959 film adaptation of Wallace's novel at the old theatre on Main Street, Newark, Delaware. I was a young teenager at that time. We were both greatly affected by the story.
In time, I read Wallace's original novel--something of a feat of patience for a 16 year old. The novel includes beautiful scenes--like the extract above--but it is very long and written in the discursive style favored at that time. You may wish to try it some day. In my mind, it's well-worth the effort.
A Merry* and Meaningful Christmas to all of you!
SherryT (aka TreeLady)
* "merry" was once synonymous with "blessed"
It sounds weird, even to me after all these years, to admit the near-impossibility of combining a one hour appt & a two hour grocery shopping trip on a weekday where I have no other obligations. I suspect my friend might find this even more difficult to believe than I do. So I followed up the earlier part of my email to her with a pains-taking and very long explanation to support my claim. No way she would read that part of my email. Everything she needed to know for our schedule was above it.
But I hated to waste my true account of what Paratransit service is like for its users. I'm posting it here, so additional people will have the chance to not read it. ;-P
"If it weren't for Paratransit's "help" it WOULD be possible for me to do both therapy & shopping on the 26th.
Here are the common Paratransit-related circumstances which, taken together, make it unlikely that I can do two not-at-home errands that day.
My Paratransit to/from therapy schedule typically goes like this.
(1) My therapy appt with Frank is 1pm-2pm.
(2) (A bit of background)
No sensible P-rider tells the truth about their actual appt times or when would be the real earliest time for pick-up after an appointment. In fact, Paratransit personnel regularly suggest about both these times. Consequently my P ride request to therapy always reads:
Therapy Appt=12:30PM. Pick-up time afterward=2:30PM
(3) Based on this input, P dispatchers respond with the standard warning: "Be Ready" by 11:10 AM and they promise a bus will pick me up afterwards somewhere between 2:15 and 3PM., so be visible to the bus driver.
(4) Riders are not allowed to call Paratransit dispatchers about bus ETA until no bus has shown up within 45 mins of a Be Ready or a promised pick-up time.
(5) if enough time passes so that a rider is finally permitted to call the dispatcher, the rider is given a revised ETA. This new ETA does not necessarily reflect reality--aka the bus may very well arrive later than the ETA given. (Probably not earlier)
(6) Once the rider has been picked up, the rider should in no way expect a direct ride between point A and point B. Additional riders may be picked up or dropped off "en route".
(7) "En route" is defined by Paratransit as anywhere within the geographical limits of northern New Castle County, i.e. the picked up & dropped off riders do not necessarily live anywhere along the straightest shot between the original rider's pick-up & the location of their home.
(In my experience as many as six other passaengers have been dropped off between my pick-up at the Newark Senior Center and my arrival at home)
(8) Summarizing. On Thursday Dec 26th, I expect my typical "Be Ready" of 11:10AM. This translates into,
I may be picked up anywhere between 11AM--which gets to my therapy appt over an hour early, Or more rarely, my pick-up from home will be delayed until approx 12:30PM--which gets me to my appt 15 minutes late.
Or any time between those extremes. Since I must be prepared to board the bus immediately when it arrives and since I can't see the parking lot from my apartment, this requires that I perch on the edge of my bed with my head turned to the window, watching constantly for the approach of the bus.
(9) Returning. After getting on my P Pick-up bus to take me home---at equally semi-random times--- I may actually get home as early as a few minutes of 3PM or more likely as late as 5PM. Very occasionally I don't get home until even later than that. This may happen if my original Pick-Up bus never showed up & the P dispatchers have to send another bus.
(10) Bottom line: As bizarre and unlikely as it seems, I could conceivably be away from home for 7 hours (11AM to 6PM) for a one hour appartment in an office maybe 5 miles or a bit more, from where I live. Thank God, I've never experienced a 7 hour roundtrip day! The longest "roundtrip" I can remember was just over 5 hours.