Child of the Desert
by Henry F. Tonn
The Moors of the Aftout-es-Saheli region of northwest Africa tell the following story:
A young child was lost by a nomadic tribe during one of its annual treks across the great salt flats of North Africa. Night was beginning to fall when the child tumbled with a soft thud from his perch upon a camel, knocking him temporarily unconscious. The caravan moved on. Later the child awoke to the chill of the evening and stared in silent wonderment at the star-speckled sky. He awaited the return of his mother.
As time passed, the moon rose higher above and bathed the terrain in an eerie, silvery glow. He became uneasy. He emitted a whimper, followed by a loud wail. The sound was quickly whisked away by the wind. He pulled himself up and wandered a short distance on tottering legs and looked around. There was nothing. Eventually he drifted into an uneasy sleep, huddled tightly against the cold of the night.
The following morning he awoke to a bare and threatening world, accompanied by the rumblings of hunger in his tiny belly. The cold of night was rapidly being replaced by the heat of day: an intense, relentless heat that would be uncompromising. He sat helplessly, unable to comprehend what was happening.
Finally he decided to crawl up a small knoll nearby, one crowned by a number of dry, prickly bushes. Upon reaching the top he peered in every direction, but saw nothing except waves of heat and barren sand. He flopped back down heavily. His throat was becoming parched now and his already-dark skin was tanning into a deeper bronze. He no longer made any sounds, seeming intuitively to understand that conservation of resources was now of paramount importance. Besides, there was no one to hear him.
He drifted into a twilight zone of semi-wakefulness, flowing into the timeless sense of the desert.
Suddenly he was jolted back by a series of black dots moving across the terrain in his direction. The dots resembled microscopic ants creeping across a bright shimmering floor. He watched as they moved along slowly and leisurely, wandering left and right, crisscrossing, stopping. But their progress was inexorable and after an hour he could make out their forms: gazelles. He had never seen such animals before.
Out of nowhere a small dust storm kicked up and he was forced to close his eyes against the swirling sand. It lasted ten minutes or so and when he opened his eyes again he found several members of the band grazing not fifty yards from his perch. They would have passed him altogether had not a breeze pushed his scent in their direction. The entire herd came to a pause.
The child watched in mute fascination.
Sensing something different about the owner of this scent, the gazelles approached his knoll tentatively, black noses busily testing the air, ready to bolt at the slightest threat of danger. Twenty yards away they drew to a halt, the dominant male in the lead, peering cautiously ahead. The child remained frozen to his spot. Seconds ticked away. Finally, a little fawn ambled past the leader and approached to within a few feet of the child, twitching its ears but betraying more curiosity than fear. It stretched out its neck and sniffed the child’s toe, then licked it. The child giggled loudly, causing the fawn temporarily to beat a hasty retreat. But other members of the herd moved in. An adolescent approached from behind and touched the child’s neck, another sniffed his knee. Their noses were wet and cool. More gazelles pushed forward and began licking his face, arms and body. He laughed delightedly and rubbed their fur with his tiny hands. The entire herd soon surrounded him.
For ten minutes this familiarizing ritual continued. Then a beautiful young female shouldered her way into the gathering and took a position directly above the child. Only recently she had lost her infant to a predatory jackal and her udders were swollen with milk. The child instantly began to nurse, suckling with such urgency that milk dribbled down his chin and over his stomach. The other gazelles watched with interest, forming a loose-knit circle around the two. Even the dominant male wandered in to observe the spectacle, noting that the mother was now licking the child’s neck and shoulders with affection.
The new arrival was accepted as one of the herd.
He became a gazelle-boy, adopting the habits and routines of his new family. His diet was herbivorous, and like the gazelles he subsisted mainly on desert grass, roots, seeds and fruit. A red sandstone cave provided shelter, kept scrupulously clean by the herd. It was brightly decorated by the primitive drawings of cave dwellers who had occupied the space long ago. As time passed the child learned the network of signals used by his family for communication: the contorted turns of the neck, the staccato stamps of feet, the loud snorts, the rapid scalp movements. Soon he was able to respond in kind. His body became black from the sun, his skin hard and dry against the wind, and his feet calloused to withstand sharp stones and scorching hot sand. The dark hair of his birth grew long and hung down over his shoulders. By age six his legs had become wiry and powerful and he was capable of keeping up with the herd during one of its mad flights across the desert plains. His eyes were superb, capable of picking out objects clearly at great distances, and his nostrils became sensitive to the myriad of odors brought to him by a constantly shifting wind.
His mother always watched over him.
Every morning the herd would emerge as dawn broke over the flat plains and the cirrus clouds floating overhead greeted them with a brilliant violet and purple hue. The members would lick the glistening dew drops which had collected on the prickly leaves at night, then, with a gripping chill still in the air, would set off across the salt flats for the day’s grazing. Besides grass and roots, the day’s fare might consist of seeds, berries, dates, flowers and—in a pinch—the prickly thorns of the thorn bush. Occasionally, selected members of the herd would undertake a wide sweeping movement around the area in search of fresh grass which might have sprouted during the night. This information was then communicated to the herd which would descend upon location eagerly. Once a day they visited the region’s waterhole, always being on guard for predators. The jackals were the most troublesome, and the hyenas, and, of course, there was always man. In the evening as the sky turned blazing red from the setting sun and the great sandstone towers which had stood since antiquity turned a brilliant gold, the troupe began its sojourn home. They would arrive at the last rays of light, and before the moon had risen high in the sky, sleep would descend over the den.
The gazelle-boy was happy.
One day a chance circumstance brought him into contact with his first human. He had often seen them at a distance but on this day he had scaled the sheer face of a cliff (an innovation on his part since such maneuvers were beyond the capabilities of his adopted family) in search of rock plants when he came face to face with an adolescent boy hunting. He scampered away quickly but was left with a feeling of curiosity. He could not ignore the fact that this strange creature resembled himself in many ways. Several months later the entire herd was surprised at the water hole by two hunters springing from behind a rock. They beat a hasty retreat, and later the boy’s mother signaled to him that being around humans was dangerous. He understood, and became more wary of their presence.
One day when the herd was making its daily pilgrimage to the oasis, a number of hunters appeared from nowhere. Taken by surprise, the herd immediately wheeled and bolted toward the openness of the desert. But all escape routes were quickly barred and the gazelles were forced backwards once again towards the water. They milled about in agitation while the hunters relentlessly tightened the knot. Then, without warning, an opening in the line appeared and the gazelles and other beasts shot through the breach with blinding speed, scattering across the desert. But the gazelle-boy was skillfully separated from the herd, and it quickly became evident that he was the sole object of this maneuver. He tore around the water hole, frantically darting in and out of date trees and attempting to climb the embankment which bordered the water. But the hunters had planned for everything and he was constantly forced back towards the water. Eventually he was seized by the hair, wrestled to the ground, and captured. They bound him and carried him away.
He was taken to a nomadic encampment and there tied to a pole outside of a large tent. Several women fed him each day while a number of dark haired men talked to him. It was the beginning of his “re-education”. Eventually he was made to wear Moorish clothing and learn the dialect of the tribe. He adjusted because he had no choice, and soon was interacting with the other children in the compound. He watched in fascination as they played their favorite game with the venomous horned viper: laying it on its back so as to hypnotize and make it immobile, then bringing it back with a sharp rap of the stick causing it to leap high in the air. Everyone would laugh. In the evening he listened to the women in their, long, dark blue veils singing with high-pitched voices to the accompaniment the twelve-stringed lute. It was a languorous existence, and with each passing day his previous life faded from memory……
Two years passed. He grew and matured. The keen eyes and sharp nose he had developed as a gazelle-boy remained, and he moved with an animal-like stealth. He became the best marksman with bow and arrow in the tribe, and eventually the elders decided he should become a hunter. This was a high distinction in the tribe.
He hunted alone.
He would leave the compound every morning after breakfast and wander into the desert. Each evening he returned before dusk carrying meat for the tribe over his shoulder. Sometimes it was a gazelle.
One day while on the prowl he spied several gazelles grazing among a small crop of flower beds which had sprouted unexpectedly during the night. With bow and arrow in hand, he circled quietly downwind until he located a position a short distance from his prey. He carefully placed a sharp-tipped arrow into the bow and settled down patiently, hoping that their foraging would eventually bring one of the members within shooting distance. Fifteen minutes passed.
The wind shifted.
Now he was no longer downwind and he knew his position would be compromised. But, surprisingly, at that moment one gazelle detached itself from the group and, while busily testing the air, began walking in his direction. He pressed himself closer to the ground and waited. When the gazelle was just fifteen yards away he rose and fired. The arrow struck its prey, causing it to spin around and collapse to the ground. Without hesitation he leaped from his hiding place, brandishing his knife, and was upon the animal in an instant. He grabbed it by the ears and wrenched back the head to slash its throat……. and froze.
It was his mother.
A shock wave passed through his body and he was instantly overcome by horror. But when he gazed into the eyes of his mother he found no reproach. She was old and infirm and her time had come. She understood this and accepted it. It was the law of the desert, a law which had brought him to her so many years ago and now would take him away. Better to leave at the hands of her own son than between the jaws of the predatory jackal. As the Moors say, “It is written.”
She died in his arms.
First appeared in the inaugural issue of Fifth Wednesday Journal in 2007.
Henry F. Tonn is a semi-retired psychologist whose work has appeared in such publications as the Gettysburg Review, Foliate Oak, Quay, and Bartleby-Snopes. He is presently engaged in writing a memoir of his forty years in the mental health field. This story previously appeared in the print journal, Fifth Wednesday Journal, in 2007.
Where do you get the ideas for your stories?
Cursed with little imagination, and being left-brained analytical, most of my ideas come from my own life. Even my fiction is highly autobiographical. The present story came from reading a book on feral children, and wondering if I could write something as good as a short story Honore de Balzac once wrote concerning a man and a panther in the desert.