In the time of plague, many tribes warred with each other. A once great tribe found itself in ruins, many of its people enslaved by wealthy herdsmen, many of its herdsmen dying, the sheep, cattle and camels often stolen or owned by outsiders. The prince of the tribe invoked the sacred name and the name of a prophet, and asked his sons and daughters for counsel. One son promised to release all the cattle to the poor, but had little to say about the wars or the plague. One daughter advised that nothing change, lest the tribe sink into deeper ruin, while attempting to get cures from the enemy, which she thought would fetch a fair price from their own thralls. A second son said that he would give the thralls what they needed, and lead the tribe in a holy war to suppress the other tribes. A third son advised silent strength and cautious trade with the other tribes. The prince decided to follow the advice of the second son, and holy war was unleashed. The second son led the thralls from victory to victory to victory. At last the armies returned. The thralls possessed their own cattle, and the land was at peace, but men and women still suffered from the great blight. At last, the prince called his third son, begging him to go forth in silent strength and peacefully trade with the other tribes. The third son prayed, and led one hundred camels forth into the great wastes to trade for a cure, but there were no more tribes left, only fields of bones, and nobody who remained, few that they were, knew anything of a cure.
Long ago, a nomad won an enormous rug from a princess after a glorious campaign. One could have sat four or five tents on it. Rolled up, it had to be carried by ten camels walking abreast, with ten servants to guide. Fortunately, the camels and servants came with the rug. The poor herdsman was now almost a prince. As time went by, the generous nomad offered the rug to host royal banquets for khans, concerts for itinerant musicians, weddings for blacksmiths, and prayers for priests from faraway lands. One day, a khan asked for a piece, thinking it to be enchanted. Another day, an unhappily wed girl asked for a piece by which to remember the handsome herdsman and to have at least something for a dowry. By and by, a priest begged for a square to carry with him on his trek along the silk, spice, and tin routes. A musician demanded some scraps as payment for a performance he had already been paid for. In this way, the rug shrank considerably. After several wars and circuits of the various trade routes, the nomad married a captive girl he freed from a slave market. She gave him many children, but they took up a lot of space. After she died, each child demanded his or her own piece of the rug to remember their departed mother and to have an inheritance. And then one by one, they departed, cursing the nomad’s miserliness for hanging onto his last shreds of fabric. Alone now, the old nomad barely had enough rug to lay on or wrap around his body. Like his scraps of rug, all but one of his camels remained. On the rug each night, lying on his back and staring at the stars, he prayed that heaven would allow him to keep this one last piece, for he had heard that the princess had passed on, and he wished to make a pilgrimage to her tribe and city, to offer the last scrap as a burial gift. And if that were not possible, then perhaps heaven would enchant this rug with the magic of old tales, so that he might fly into the stars and converse with celestial spirits and angels. And then he would sigh, remembering something he had heard somewhere. One cannot be many.
One of the assassins was entrusted with leading an armed caravan into the deserts. Perhaps it was to stalk and kill an escaped conspirator, perhaps it was to escape a conspiracy or a trial, or perhaps it was a secret mission to better determine the way of the sands and clouds, the history of his nation, the possibilities of empire and the nature of trade routes. The caravan took up its arms, tools, merchandise and machines and departed for the dry oblivion. As they drifted deeper into the soft dunes and burning blue sky, the assassin felt that they were transforming into a song. The caravan was a strong and strange piece of music. Lost in ecstasy, he did not notice the approach of the sandstorm. All of the warriors and camels, except for the assassin, were buried alive. The assassin made his way to a desolate oasis and survived for many years on water, wild grains, and non-integers of birds. One day, a caravan stopped at the oasis and found the bewildered survivor. The travelers decided to take him along. As they crossed the wastes, the assassin spoke of all that he had learned of clouds, sands, and little creatures. When the caravan arrived back in civilization, the assassin learned that his language, nation and cities were no more. Other caravans were departing for newer cities and different times and places, with stronger and stranger music. Lost, the assassin made haste to join their sand-blasted journeys into oblivion.
Once upon a time, a jackal came upon a goat in the hill country. The goat was weeping, but it did not seem to know why. Bloodless and crafty, the jackal lured the goat to a well, telling it that the water was enchanted and would make it happy. When they reached the well, the jackal pushed the goat into its dark depths. The goat mourned its misfortune, but began to recite the old epics to calm itself. The goat was a kind of griot, a living history of all that had ever happened. The jackal was torn between admiration for the goat’s memory and distate for its belief in ancient myths without substance. Nevertheless, the jackal never left the side of the well, and kept vigil night and day as the goat talked itself to death, reciting the old epics, commenting on them, begging the jackal to believe them and see their beauty. Afterwards, the jackal suffered terrible dreams. The face of the goat kept appearing. Later, he dreamed of its white skeleton shining in the darkness below. It was a curse, and the only way to deal with a curse is to stage a drama. The jackal invited the other animals of the hill country to come mourn the death of his friend. The lion, the ox, the sheep, the donkey, and fire serpents came down to look into the well. The jackal would light lanterns, play the drums and wail about the dead goat. As there was little to do besides hunt or graze in that part of the wilderness, more and more animals came to hear the ululations and drumming of the jackal. Before long, the animals forgot their own dead, their own pain, the work they were supposed to do. Night after night, they came to hear the jackal. One day, a camel passed through. The camel had known both the goat and the old epics as he sometimes traveled from the deserts to the hill country. The animals were excited and asked to hear what he had to say. The camel recited what he could, but before long he found that his words displeased the audience. The jackal whispered to the animals and they believed the whispers. It was clear that the camel could not understand their pure love for the goat or their pain. When had the camel ever lost a friend? Besides, it was their hill country, their well, and their goat. Moreover, there was the sorrow of the jackal to consider. Everyone for miles around respected this jackal and felt deeply about his sorrow. It was cruel and unreasonable for the camel to intrude. The more they thought about it, the angrier they became, and refused to let the camel speak. The camel departed, and left the hill country to return to the deserts. The goat had been his last living friend and a true friend. The other friends, including a train of one hundred other camels, had long since perished in sandstorms. In the silence of the sands, under cloudless blue skies and starry heavens, the camel recited the old epics.
When an old man dies, a library burns to the ground–that is an old proverb, the young man said, as he cared for the invalid lying by the side of the great road, the road of caravans and elephant migrations. Do not fear, little one, the old man wheezed as his soul began its departure, for I am too old to remember if I was illiterate or not.
A giraffe met a dromedary on the border where the sahra meets the sahel, a land of ones and zeroes. They sat down to make a campfire and have a conversation. The dromedary spoke of his upcoming journey to the southeast, to meet the great sea, its merchants and mariners, to voyage into the sunrise and to trade in silk and surprises. The giraffe spoke of her desire to travel north and west, to the legendary lost tree, the loneliest tree, the loneliest object in the world, which was cut off from everything else by thousands of miles of sand and stone in every direction. The dromedary was curious and wondered how such a journey could be profitable. The giraffe said that she had often been lonely, and it hurt her too much to think of the lonely tree. It was vital that the tree have a friend. The dromedary cautioned against this. First, the tree might not even exist, and even if it did exist, it had survived this long without a friend–to visit it now would be to tamper with its environment and ruin its chance at happiness. Secondly, the possibility that the giraffe would not overcome the temptation to eat of its leaves and shave the tree’s head were too great. In the end, this story would conclude with a corrupted giraffe carcass and a dead tree. The giraffe looked sad, and kicked at the ashes of the campfire with her hoof. It is an axiological problem, the giraffe said, and your neck cannot stretch high enough for this axis. The dromedary was offended, and rose to his full height, setting off at once into the rosy light of the dawn, to cross golden dunes and green savannahs until he encountered the richness of the sea with its pearls, goldfish, trinkets, amphorae, silk, alabaster, spices and shellfish. It is well known that the dromedary became a great merchant selling paper and kindling to the lands beyond the sea. The giraffe set off into the emptiness of the desert, to seek the lonesome tree that might be nothing more than a mirage. One of them remarked: better a dead giraffe than a dead dromedary.
On the 13,870th night, the wanderers began to roll up their bedding and burden their camels. The wind whistled through the dust and the stars of the great black void. One by one, one hundred camels left the rim of the crater, departing for other stars. On the 14,000th night, a golden tree grew up from the black circular grave of ash where the meteor had gone to sleep.