When I met my wife back in 1991, I was fascinated by her “otherworldliness” - she’s half Armenian, she spoke two or three languages, she was born in Beirut, and she’d spent the first 13 years of her life living in Lebanon and Dubai. Her family was equally fascinating to me. Coming from where I did - rural, poor South Georgia - dating her was like spending time with some exotic creature, and I was blown away that such a creature could possibly fall in love with a backwater hick like me.
She told me stories of what she could remember growing up, and me, being a writer and being in love and all, I wrote her stories down. Eventually I sieved them into one short, cohesive narrative, and then I tried to get it published. In 2001, nearly 10 years after I met her, I DID get it published - in Ararat magazine, the literary journal of the Armenian General Benevolent Union. Here is that story.
Heat. 102 degrees.
They all would be sunburned from the brief morning spent under the sun, which rose early and would die in the western shadows very late, and in the meantime would scorch countless inhabitants of the Arabian desert and the Persian Gulf .
Including them. 103 degrees.
The teacher instructed them earlier as they waited for Kevork to bring the horses: “Follow close. Do not stray from where I lead you, because the dunes will all look the same and you will get lost easily among them should you stray.”
The ominous tone she used struck momentary fear into their hearts. Until Kevork arrived with the horses: sandy brown, white, sienna. Then their children’s hearts melted, much like ice melted in the sun over the Arabian desert. Their horses were soft and stern, majestic and subservient, strong and somewhat timid — all at the same time. The best British money could buy.
The teacher’s words melted with their hearts, but they did not forget them. Then the nine children climbed the backs of the nine expensive horses, anticipating the morning’s adventures, their smiles big and excited. Kevork also wore a smile, jagged and a little rotten, but as big as theirs. He was the custodian at the school that most of them attended, and a volunteer helper at the Dubai ranch. He loved the little British children — especially the one called Aida.
He helped Richard onto his stallion, then Burgess, then Irene. Finally he came to Aida — Aida of the Armenian blood, with dark hair, almost black, and big brown eyes that reflected the red dunes of the Arabian desert. Kevork loved Aida most because she shared his blood. Though he was born in Syria and she in Beirut, they were both Armenian, the scattered people, and he never felt like a lowly, servant-classes exile when she was near. He felt like Armenia still existed, and like he was there. She turned to him expectantly, returning his gap-toothed smile momentarily, before he grabbed her ten-year old form and hoisted her up. All of the children probably could have made it into their saddles alone, but they loved Kevork and it gave them pleasure to give him the pleasure of helping them.
The teacher hoisted herself into the saddle of her white steed, watching Kevork and the children with a loving eye and smile.
A line of sweat formed on Kevork’s brow as he finished helping Aida up, patting her tiny, olive-colored leg. The sweat splashed onto the sand as he stepped away.
Aida looked at him, smiled.
* * *
Briefly Anthony looked out the window. The glare from the morning sun blinded him, hurt his eyes too much, so he turned away.
The noise in the hall was dying, so he knew it would start soon. He chanced another longing look out of the window. The red dunes stretched away from the edge of the building and he imagined himself walking them like that guy Lawrence did a long time ago.
The noise was almost dead. Anthony grew anxious.
Twenty-two other kids settled into their seats around him, and the time came, finally. He turned to face Mrs. Cross, a nearly simultaneous motion enacted by every child in the room. She looked at them from her desk in return.
The morning dream of the desert ended. The day of instruction would now begin.
Mrs. Cross cleared her throat.
* * *
The villa sat nestled along the coast of the Gulf. The waters rushed onto the shore just a few feet from the courtyard’s entrance, and a little cobblestone path exited the archway from that courtyard and stretched down to the beach, where a strangely symmetrical outcropping of rock met the western skyline. The sun had a peculiar way of setting right behind that rock, casting an eerily romantic shadow onto the courtyard and the swimming pool in it.
Around the swimming pool was a tiny field of Spanish grass, shaded by palm trees wherever the rock’s shadows didn’t provide shade. The villa rested in a C-shape around the courtyard and the pool. Pink flowers covered it in perpetual bloom, and in the sunrays that escaped from behind the outcropping on the beach, those flowers glowed, their membranes streaking the brilliant shades of pink adorning the walls.
The crash of nearby waves, the tinkling of the rippling pool, the shadows, both the steady one cast by the rock and the waving ones cast by the trees, the colorful shades of pink, and the orange cast of the setting sun. These things were both sleepy and spectacular.
They were also expensive. The Womersleys paid for them dearly, with many British sterlings. They liked the way the Gulf shined outside their picture window. They liked to show it off.
The first guests had already arrived, in fact, for their daughter Amanda’s twelfth birthday.
* * *
Kevork waved at the line of horses and children as the teacher led them into the dunes. Burgess rode in front of them, anxiously spurring on his chestnut and equally anxious stallion. The teacher followed him, warning him to stay near her, since she knew the landmarks. He grumbled, said he knew them too, but stayed a few spare feet in front of her nonetheless. The dunes, tranquil and innocent as they appeared, occasionally showed up in his nightmares, as they did for all the children.
Aida was next to last, on a stark white horse. She had long since stopped smiling at Kevork and had turned her attention to the desert.
They were going to a place a mile into the dunes, a place of semi-moist, packed earth, where sparse grass and an occasional well-tended tree lent a pastoral contrast to the bareness of the desert. Here there were paths and cobbles and obstacles among which they could play on their horses, a place where they would laugh and shout and ride, free from their school, their city, and even the desert.
First, though, they had to cross a trackless expanse of red-tinted sand, underneath a blazing noonday sun.
They usually did so in silence.
Kevork stopped waving after Aida’s head disappeared over the first rise. He then led his own horse back to the stables. He would wait for their return at sunset.
He still smiled. 106 degrees.
* * *
Mrs. Cross was a sweet enough woman. She commanded respect from the children in her class and early on made examples of the more rebellious —Anthony among them.
In return for their respect, Mrs. Cross did all she could for them. She brought weekend-baked pastries for them every Monday. he defended them in the event that another teacher accused them of some transgression of which they were innocent. And she taught them as much as she could pack into a day’s session. Recitation, examples, lecture, experiments, diagrams — all the typical teaching methods presented by a somewhat typical teacher. She was rotund, tended to dress in prim British brand name pastel dresses with her partially gray hair tied back in matching pastel bows. And yes, Mrs. Cross was a sweet enough woman.
But to twenty-three children, mostly eleven-year olds, who went to school on the edge of the desert and who had seen more than most British school children could ever hope to see, and who dreamed about the desert and the desert storms and the desert legends, her typical prim British school teacher drone was vaguely annoying and definitely sleep-inducing. Some of them watched her mouth work, seemingly attentive, while they daydreamed. Some heard her talk about the world beyond the desert with their eyes fixed, hypnotized, on the dunes.
Anthony was among those who only watched her mouth. In his mind two scimitars flashed, crossed, clanged together. In the background of his daydream, the mumble of some local talked incessantly in Arabic about something having to do with anger, spite, revenge. In the shadows of his dream, hidden among pillows and veils, pastel but of more exotic colors than Mrs. Cross’s dress, was a dark-haired, dark-eyed girl.
The desert reflected in her eyes.
* * *
“Come in, Aida,” said Mrs. Womersley.
Aida walked in alongside Samantha and Sarah. They were both of nearly pure British descent, though Sarah had a touch of Irish Catholic in her that gave her long blonde locks a reddish tint. Sam had brown hair, and both girls had eyes of purest, deepest blue.
When the three walked in, the face of every male, both boys and men, turned first to gaze at Aida.
Through a living room decorated by vases from India, by paintings from America, and with an exquisite if not overly ornate Persian throw rug, Mrs. Womersley took them and their gifts. She put the gifts on the gift pile and directed the girls through the sliding plate glass picture window, where the last rays of that magic sun were dazzling the still water of the pool and the wild water of the sea beyond. In the courtyard soft pop music played.
Several boys also stood there, timidly waiting.
* * *
Silence. 107 degrees.
Burgess and Michael noticed a mirage. They knew it was a mirage and proudly bragged because they knew what it was. Burgess had learned about mirages from his father, a military officer. Michael had learned about them from Mrs. Cross.
The other children knew about them, too, of course.
Aida gazed at the same black rippling disk they all did, pulling her horse back a little, halting it. She gazed, and Benjamin, who was behind her, passed her.
“Come on, Aida,” he said.
In that instant a desert fox darted from behind a dune, crossing hurriedly between Benjamin and Aida, startling both of their horses. Benjamin steadied his, but Aida shook herself from her dune-gaping daze too late. Her horse reared, neighing in shock, surprise, and then began to run, run away through the desert, away from the teacher and her group. Aida clung to it, making frightened grasping fists in its ivory mane. She screamed, and her scream filled the red shifting sands, slowly fading away as she disappeared over a dune.
* * *
A scream startled Anthony, and he shuddered at its intensity and horror. Mrs. Cross’s eyes widened, her mouth forming that peculiar cartoon-like O that surprised mouths tend to form. A momentary silence followed the scream, and there came a bustling noise from the hall. Mrs. Cross ordered her students to stay seated — they didn’t. Mrs. Cross rushed to and out the door, into the hall — they followed. Anthony led them, his curiosity piqued.
“Go back into the room, children,” Mrs. Cross told them.
Still they followed.
In the hall a group of about thirty people had formed around a little pink-smocked, whimpering French girl named Caroline. She cried, and kept pointing at the open door at the end of the hall. Sunlight poured in that door, and a scattering of sand crept in from the desert.
“What’s the matter?” inquired the custodian Kevork, as he gently grasped Caroline by her shoulders. He loved children, but he was losing patience with this one.
“What?!” he said again, and his question was soon chorused by the only other two adults in the vicinity — Mrs. Cross and Mrs. Zellio from across the hall.
Caroline only whined some more — said she saw something, said it scared her.
“What? What did you see…?”
All the whats and the crying and the ever-growing crowd around Caroline were lost on Anthony. He knew what scared her. He saw it. Touching his friend Richard on the shoulder, he moved away from the children and the teachers, further down the hall, where the sunlight was dim and Caroline’s crying was only a slight echo.”
“Yeah, Anthony, what is it?” asked Richard, glancing hesitantly between the crowd and the back of Anthony’s head. Anthony motioned for him to follow and he did. The two crept down the hall, heading straight to a corner where an empty metal coat rack hung on the wall.
Underneath the coat rack scurried a frenzied, disconcerted creature, almost a foot long and molded from the blackest ebony the desert produced. Eight legs, inch-long mandibles, glaring, piercing, angry eyes that shined with a savage dervish intelligence — and a tail with a stinger on its tip at least two inches long.
A scorpion from the desert had frightened Caroline. A black one, and the biggest Anthony and Richard had ever seen, or ever would. This scorpion could kill a child. Would if provoked.
The two boys encircled it and approached.
* * *
In a circle around Amanda, the birthday-goers watched as she opened her presents. A circlet from Simon, a board game from Samantha, a concert ticket from Richard, an Atari cartridge from Mrs. Womersley, a teen romance book from Sarah. Somehow, Amanda had subconsciously left Aida’s present leaning against the Parisian loveseat. To an excited child’s mind, bigger was better, and Aida’s present was certainly bigger. Amanda wanted to save the best for last.
Finally, she turned to Aida’s large, gaily-wrapped package — four foot by four foot and one inch thick. She grasped it, lifted it, and dutifully ripped the colored paper from it.
“Careful,” whispered a bashful Aida.
Aida’s present was a painting — of a huge black desert scorpion, its monstrous stinger dripping blood. Flowers and fire danced around it, making it look both menacing and just a little happy. A strange work, from a child. And by a child.
“I painted it myself,” whispered a bashful Aida.
“It’s very good,” said Mrs. Womersley after a long pause.
“Say thank you, Amanda,” said Mr. Womersley.
“Thanks, Aida,” said Amanda, putting the painting aside and turning to the TV and the Atari. The children were mostly silent.
“You’re welcome,” whispered Aida.
* * *
Alone in the dunes, a small brown speck on a larger white speck in a sea of red, Aida cried, her tears almost instantly evaporating in the dryness and the heat. She led the horse this way, then that, her gaze stretching out over the dunes. They all looked the same.
“Help me!” she screamed. There came no echo, no response. How far had her horse run?
* * *
“Get away from that!!!” screamed Kevork as Anthony prodded the scorpion with a coat hanger. Richard stepped back, more frightened by the sternness of Kevork’s voice and the sternness of Mrs. Cross’s expression than by the menace of the scorpion.
Unfazed, Anthony prodded it some more.
“I SAID…!!!” and in a brief space of time, more brief than it takes to breathe, the angered, vicious scorpion lashed out at the curious little British schoolboy. The Armenian custodian thrust the little boy out of the arc of the scorpion’s sting, and the stinger instead sunk deep into the tanned flesh of the custodian, drawing back in a flash, stained with blood.
Everyone in the hall froze, gasped. Except for Kevork, who screamed. The scream lasted forever.
* * *
Lionel Richie started singing, “Hello. Is it me you’re looking for?” Anthony crossed the courtyard to Aida. She was gazing at the black emptiness where the outcropping was.
“Aida,” he said.
She turned to him, smiled.
“Will you dance with me?” Anthony asked in a nervous, here-goes-nothing-but-here-goes-everything blurt. Aida smiled again, stood up, and crossed to Anthony. She had been out there alone, uninterested in the Atari or the music.
“Yes,” she said.
* * *
“Help me!” Aida screamed again through her tears. The horse sniffed the air, unaware that he and his rider were lost forever in the shifting sand of the desert. “HELP ME!”
She stopped, sobbed, waited.
Then: “Aida.” A voice answered.
She stopped, suddenly excited, her neck craning and eyes straining to pick up the voice again.
The voice was near. The voice belonged to her teacher, a touch of concern, but mostly irritation drifting in it. Aida dug her heels into her stallion’s sides, and launched them across the sand, climbing a dune, her tears drying up, and a beautiful, relieved smile on her face.
She reached the top of the dune, and found her eight friends and teacher waiting.
They had only been one sand drift away, but in the echoless expanse of unmarked desert, they might as well have been on the other side of the world.
* * *
“Children. I have some bad news,” said Mrs. Cross. “Mr. Kevork is not expected to make it. The scorpion poison reached his bloodstream too fast. He was in poor health before. Had he been in better health…”
Anthony was conspicuously absent that day. He was suspended and a little ill.
Several children began to cry.
* * *
“I liked your painting,” whispered Anthony.
At first Aida had grasped him nervously at a distance. He’d pulled her in closer. And closer, until they could hear each other’s breathing, and Anthony could whisper.
“Thanks,” she said.
A year before Anthony had run into a scorpion and an unfortunate thing had happened. It had passed, impermanent, like a sand dune, or a moment. He remained a little shunned, a bit of an outcast ever since, but it didn’t matter much now.
Aida could feel him pressed against her, could feel a certain hardness rubbing her. She found it funny, but didn’t laugh. She found it appealing, too. This was her first slow dance, and she wondered if that hardness would happen during later ones.
“I’m going to Birmingham. Mum and Dad are getting a little scared about all the Iranian threats,” Anthony whispered.
She looked up at him, a bit surprised.
“When we graduate from Dubai next month. I’ll attend high school in England. I’ve been there to visit, but now that’s where I’ll live.”
Aida pressed her head against his gently and whispered, “That’s kinda funny. I’m moving to America.”
They danced through two more songs, and then Mrs. Womersley shouted Aida’s name. Her parents had come to pick her up. Aida pulled away, and Anthony held on clumsily.
“Aren’t you going to kiss me?” he asked.
“Because I want you to?”
“I don’t know you very well…,” but Aida had already leaned in and a moment later their lips touched clumsily.
“Good-bye, Aida,” said Anthony.
“Good-bye, Anthony,” and then Aida turned and hurried off across the Spanish grass of the courtyard.