Monday, April 7, 2014

Story Corner: The Gate

A story from my 'Memoirs of a Dreamer' collection.


Once, on an auspicious night, I was in the desert alone. I had to reach a destination as quickly as I could. Yet, I had no clue where I was going or why. I scaled dunes as deep as ocean waves and as cold as melting glaciers. The moon, a thin and wily smile on an enchanting ebony face egged me on. Her grin was bright enough to bleach the sand white. 


Transfixed by her, I broke my concentration when I came to a strange and special dune. I had, in all my travels, never beheld sand shaped in such a way. A tall, cone dune was what I saw, ringed by an ensnaring road that seemed to be cut out of its side. At its peak, I two closed mahogany doors, with each hinged on a square column, standing alone like vigilant sentries.

As I recall, I reached the peak in the span of an hour. I could see the moon over the doorway, staring down with her smirk. Gingerly, I approached the doors and pushed them aside. I expected to find the moon and the distant cliff faces I had spotted at the ziggurat’s base. Instead, it was as if I had stepped backwards in time, to the moments before I had reached the gate. The moon was once again opposite me, as were the cliffs. I attempted several more times to pass, but with each try I found myself in the exact same place unable to go anywhere, accept the top of the dune. 


Finally, after some rigorous cursing, I fell on my back. The stars blinked back at my helpless stare for several hours. I rose at the sound of a sputtering tailpipe coming from far below.

Across the dunes, the lone figure of a traveler appeared. He navigated by the moonlight, set atop the seat of an old motorcycle. Dressed in white, he shined in the darkness like a silver minnow traveling across the sea. Eventually, he reached the bottom of the dune. Turn by turn, he made his way to the top. His Bedouin tunic and pantaloons were complemented by a gold and white keffiyeh pulled down over his face and tucked into his collar. Part of his cloth mask was wrapped around the top of his skull like a laurel and tied off behind his skull. The remaining fabric blew loosely in the wind like locks of long hair as he switched off his engine. Somehow, he suddenly seemed less of himself. I didn’t know why that was the case.

He sat back on his mechanical steed and raised his face upward. I could sense the power in his stare, even though his eyes remained hidden from my sight. 


“You can’t get through the gate, can you?” He said, after he had absorbed the scene.

“No,” I said, feeling slightly ashamed, though not greatly.

“It takes time to find the secret.”

“Is there any chance you could tell me?” I wondered.

He extended his, gloved, index finger at me. The rider was so intimidating, even the smallest part of his body seemed solid and unwavering.

“Where are you going?”

The question was benign, so was his tone. Nevertheless, the pointing hand made me feel suddenly vulnerable. 


“I’m following the moon.” I answered. 


“You follow it for its own sake?” 


“I follow it because its light gives me direction; I can’t follow the sun without going blind.”


The rider’s head fell back slightly and he folded his arms; I had a feeling he was smirking.

“Understood, but following another’s light won’t get you through the gate.”

“I can’t follow the moon?”


“You can but the purpose of your journey will never be clear to you. You will only be chasing a destination you can never reach. You may have direction and momentum but no destination.”

I thought about what he had told me.

“Should I know my destination? Rather…what I mean is, do I need to know my destination? They say the journey is what really matters, not the end of it.”

“They do and they are like you, following the moon, or stars or satellites because it’s the only light that seems available. The truth is, they don’t know where they want to go so they follow the path that’s most clearly lit but it isn’t meant for all. Only a few, like me, have the journey as our destination.”

“Like you?” 


“We are born in and die in momentum. Whenever we stop moving, we are, temporarily, away from our home. Most who claim to live for the journey, do so because they forget that they have a home, a place they need to be. That place lies beyond this gate. All come to it eventually, not all pass through and not all realize they have chosen the wrong road to walk.”

I knew I was included in that class of wayward vagabonds. I felt mildly ashamed.

“How can I pass?” I asked him.

“Like any other door worth entering, you need a key.” He replied, moving his hand up to the motorcycle’s handlebars. “The materials are different for each of us, but the make is the same in the end. Once the key is in our possession there’s nothing to stop us from reaching the end.”

“Where can I find mine?”

The rider nodded to the south and for the very first time I saw a ruined city of roofless walls and sand-swamped boulevards. The craggily mud-brick structures seemed as naked and forsaken as an abandoned skeleton.

With nothing more to reveal, the rider bid me farewell and switched on his engine. Home again, he passed gracefully through the gate and vanished. Left alone, I loitered on the hill before swallowing any remaining doubts about this new twist in my long and meandering quest.

I descended, traversing the sands to reach the outskirts of the city. 


I could still see the dune and the gate as I trudged through the sand that had overwhelmed the city’s avenues like a plague. Mud brick windows and doorways hovered hungrily over me like ravenous mouths waiting to be fed. As I found my way through alleyways and what had once been people’s homes and businesses, I decided to feed the blackness with my imagination.

I pictured carpeted and stone floors over the sand, wooden shutters where the doors had been. Old women were soon gossiping in the corners of walls. Children swatted at each other with nimble hands and delighted smiles while lovers kissed and groped in the narrow gaps between buildings away from judgmental or envious gazes. As I traced the path of a donkey cart bumping across coarse cobblestones, my eyes rested on a slender form nestled in a wide chair beside a dry, marble fountain carved from gold and white stones. Only then, did I realize I had come to the center of the abandoned metropolis. I crossed a wide avenue encircling the fountain and approached the figure. 


Like the rider, his head and face were wrapped in a gold and white keffiyeh. Silver streams of white hair poured from beneath the cloth laurel wrapped around his scalp dripping across the jalibaya that covered his spindly body. He put his weight on an ivory cane in his right hand and stood. With his left hand, he clutched a withering book and pressed it to his heart. He pressed the aged text so close to his chest that I wondered if he was trying to slide the book under his ribcage.

“What are you doing here?” I asked him; queerly, suddenly, struck by how the fountain’s stones shined like silk.

The man, whose voice groaned and creaked under the strain of his words spoke.

“Because of my love of history.”

He seemed satisfied with his response; I wasn’t.

“What do you mean?” I asked.

“A long time ago, I came to the gate atop that dune. I had to find a key to pass through so I searched the city until I found the amphitheater.”

He pointed over his shoulder and beyond the fountain, to a stone aqueduct partially buried in the sand.

“I searched there and eventually I found my key. Only then did I realize where I belonged.”

“Here?” I asked, wondering how anyone could make their home in an empty city.

“Yes,” He said, tapping his book. “This is the city I always dreamed of finding as a small boy scouring the stories of Alexander and Caesar in my Grandmother’s library.”

I paused and thought, mostly of my own childhood and grand stories I had yearned to be a part of.

“Sir, do you think I can find what I need, beyond this aqueduct?”

“Most definitely,” He answered.

I thanked the man and left him to his book and chair, passing under one of the aqueduct’s many arches. It took only a quick turn of my head to find the amphitheater lying before my feet. I made my way down the many rows of empty seats to the stage in the center. A blank slab of circular concrete, the stage was surrounded by a deep trench filled with treasures looted from the past, gold, silver shattered pottery and the greatest scientific discoveries of humanity. The faces of Roman gods mixed with the stoic eyes of Chinese philosophers, while Khmer heroes stood idly beside the abandoned crown of a Pharaoh.

Slowly, firmly I dug through the rubble and debris. I could find no end to the mass of greatness. Yet I through aside all the great wonders I came across, including the death mask of Tutankhamen’s, Darwin’s origin of the species, Karl Marx’s Das Capital and the various tomes of philosophy and science I had poured over in my youth. I also sorted through the visages of saints and holy men, politicians and revolutionaries, lovers, near lovers and dear friends. 


Finally, behind the portrait of an Ottoman Sultan I found my key. I recognized it immediately but by touch. It was the creased, checkered cover of my grade school notebook. I rested my haunches on the edge of the stage and poured through the pages. Finally, near the very back I found my key written in blue ink. It was the very first tale I had ever put to paper.

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