Friday, January 27, 2006

Visions From The Desert

They tell of a blind girl who was lost in the desert.
Lions guided her from waterhole to waterhole.
When she slept, vultures spread their wings to shade her.
The snake and the scorpion kissed her feet with kindness.
Years passed.

The king of a nearby kingdom heard of this woman.
"I will learn the secret paths of the desert from her.
Caravans will pass in perfect safety, that my kingdom grow rich.
My armies will move in secrecy against my enemies.
Bring her to me."

He sent ten soldiers into the desert. None returned.
He sent a hundred soldiers into the desert. None returned.
He sent a thousand soldiers into the desert. One returned,
half-starved, half-blind, half-mad with thirst.
This is his tale:

O King, I have seen the woman you sought.

Bandits fell on us by night.
We cut each other down in the confusion of the fight.
The battle churned the earth to scarlet mud.
The greedy moon drank down our fresh-spilled blood.
Morning came with unmerciful light.

One man in five lay dead, and none could know
whether the hand that slew him was friend or foe.
Over them, we raised a burial mound
and our captain said: "We will go
onward until this woman's found."

One day, a corner of the sky turned brown.
We found no shelter. Within the hour
the sandstorm fell on us with implacable power.
Half our men and all our animals were devoured
by blowing sand, or swallowed by the ground.

Our captain was unmoved by disaster.
"In the King's name, our Lord and Master
we'll complete this task at any cost.
What though all our animals are lost,
without them, we'll travel faster."

We moved like locusts across the sandy waste.
The last man always found the waterhole drunk dry.
We strove to make haste
under a pitiless blazing sky.
The desert is a terrible empty place.

Most often, our scouts did not come back.
We thought them probably taken by lions,
as every sand patch showed us lion tracks.
The captain shouted: "No alliance!
These desert creatures offer only witless defiance!"

Men were stung by scorpions and died raving.
Men fell to the tawny snake's bite.
Men thirsted, and killed for the craving
or cut their throats by night
rather than endure another day's light.

How many men were left... I could not say.
Thirst, horror, desolation, complete disarray
of mind and body, reason stripped away...
I mean to say, I'd forgotten counting
when we came upon the woman by the fountain.

O King, I have learned what you wished to know.

I have looked on the eyeless visage of Truth.
We fell at her feet and grovelled like slaves.
Too dry for tears, yet our hearts wept.
She held up a mirror--
no tongue can tell the terrible things that I saw.

O King, it is not the path that keeps you safe but what you bring on it.

A king throws away his crown and leaves his land
walks alone into the desert in a starless night.
What eyes watch from the shifting sands?
Upward the path, winding into light.
Windblown dust hides his tracks.
Gone beyond any human sight.
Who knows if he will come back?

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