A Christmas In Arabia
This story appears in my collection Feral Tales.
A lot is said every winter about the “true meaning of Christmas,” but I’ve never thought we have to look much further than the way we treat each other, especially those who are different from us. Sadly, not only does love not seem to automatically conquer all, it’s not hard to see that so many atrocities are done in the name of love that, if you came to Earth from another planet, you might think that the word meant something else altogether.
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Once upon a time in the hot country of the east there was a tiny village. Its name has been forgotten through the ages between then and now, as the sands of the desert surrounding it have passed over the people who lived there. It passed over even the people who remembered them, with the curious indifference of desert to the human beings who choose to live on it. No one ever tames the desert. A house there is always that of a nomad, because the desert will always take back everything in the fullness of time, whether land, or shelter, or life.
But in this time of which I speak, there was a great war between the people of the east and the people of the north. Once, these peoples had each lived without knowledge of the other. Each was a warlike people, with philosophy and religion and sense of mission. Separately, each was a society and a world unto itself, tolerating no outsiders or opposition. In their years of growth and conquest, each had thought itself invincible. All might have been well if the earth had only contained an infinite breadth of land and infinite selection of conquerable peoples. But eventually, given the finite nature of the world, it was destined that these two powers should one day come into direct conflict. Separately, each had been an elemental force capable of overrunning any challenge. But in meeting, it was fire and ice, oil and water. They could never touch, the one empire on the other, without obliterating one side, or moving into uneasy truce, always touching and never mixing.
And so things had been for hundreds of years. It was an awkward way to live, always with the enemy in the midst with no defining borders drawn or a final battle ready to erupt. For two such warlike nations, it was a difficult and perhaps impossible situation. That it lasted so long paid tribute not to tolerance or any change in behaviour. Instead, it evinced a going-underground of tensions and violences. Instead of skirmishes with armed soldiers and plans and charges, there were little wars, little lines of advance, small victories, and covert defeats. The new war was fought between merchants, between farmers, between officials. If casualties seemed fewer, it was only because the killing was cleaner and often done in the name of law, or in the name of tradition. Gone was the immediacy of armed conflict, or the assurance that their God had favoured a force if the day went well—or had been conversely displeased if it did not. This new war was fought by people who remembered, by those who knew how it had been in the past, for the sake of history.
When history is played out again and again, even on minor scales between neighbours, old hatred never dies but finds reinforcement in each generation which cuts its teeth on the stories of its elders, and listens to the tales of long travail in the long nights of winter.
Such a precarious balance of false peace needs very little to send it careening out of control. Thus it was that in a certain year, a great religious leader of the peoples of the north made a decree. It was a small thing in itself, but it struck deep. The peoples of the east would, in a certain place, no longer be able to carry openly the symbols of their religion. It was one decree, in one place, but it started a conflagration which had been smouldering just out of sight below the surface of the world.
Peace was ruptured then, openly, and war began again in earnest.
War was far from the tiny village on the edge of the eastern desert, far from its market, from its well, from its small houses. I don’t mean to build a picture of idyllic rurality, a haven from cruelty. This village was no paradise. People lived and died within its borders, and between those times, they fought and reconciled, they had loves and refused love, they waited, they dreamed, they lost everything or gained a new chance. There was no one word that could represent all the variety of it, except perhaps to say it was life, or it was alive, or it was human.
The children of this village were like children everywhere. They often argued, often disagreed, often made up in a day and played as if there had never been a break in their friendships. But like children, they were precious, with all their faults and because they represented in a concrete way all the hopes of their elders.
Let me describe this village, so you will not be a stranger in it.
First, although the houses and other buildings of the village stood on the edge of the desert at this time, it wasn’t always so. In years gone by, in the oldest stories of the grandparents of the children who lived there now, the desert had been miles distant and only in sight from the top of the highest elevation nearby. The village had not moved, but the desert had crept closer, swallowing as it did fertile lands for crops and grazing, and at last leaving the village marooned on its isle of stone. Little grew here now: tough desert grasses, and small tough trees with woody stems and leaves like leather. Soil there was only in a single small patch outside the confines of the village, and it was here that all the plants to feed the people were grown. The animals had to fend for themselves among the weeds and flowering plants which had come with the desert’s advance, or survived it.
As you can imagine, any village cupped in the palm of the sandy wastes would be poor, and so it was here. The people had little they could call their own besides the mats they wove and the clay vessels they baked in the hot sun to hold their food. They had some trade with other, distant villages, and a caravan from a far-off city was cause for great celebration, but it was a rare wagon-train indeed which found its way to this village, so far off any trade route. And the people in the village had little in their poverty to offer in trade, so the rich goods stayed on the carts and only the most basic of luxuries passed into village hands.
In the centre of the village was a market square, and business was done there through all the week except on the holy days. There was a bustle and energy there that belied the tiny size of the village, and perhaps that showed a truth about the place you could not divine merely by saying the population was such and the birth rate was such. There was a constant trade in all manner of things, from rugs to pottery to small objects of metal to whatever foodstuffs were available through various hard-working farmers and gatherers. There was a fair variety of the simple things of life, and also just a little extra to make live not only bearable but enjoyable. Here, a young man could trade some hard worked-for good and receive in exchange a ribbon for his sweetheart’s hair. The urban luxuries were almost wholly absent, but people found small reasons to be delighted.
There was a well, but in recent years it had often been dry. The folk of the village who owned wagons or donkeys took turns making the half-day’s journey to the nearest river for water to fill the town’s cistern. When there was water in the open cistern, there were always frogs, and these sang in harmony with scruff-tufted ibises from the river late into each night.
Never had there been a time when the water ran out completely, but there had been bad days, and weeks, when the river ran nearly dry, a muddy little trickle between high banks. In the bad times, the adults went thirsty so their children could drink, and everyone prayed for rain.
But more often, the water was plentiful, and life was simple and hard, but not too bad for all that.
It would be nice to tell you that this was the way of this village, and that from the beginning until the end of its history, the villagers were poor but survived, and things came to them in the course of their lives as we can all expect. But the world has a way of sweeping over little islands of peace, and the forces of change often destroy the exact things we fight to preserve. Sometimes, however, a place has a shining moment, brief and wonderful, where all potentials and dreams are fulfilled before darkness falls, or survival again becomes the chief goal of life.
So it was with this particular village on the edge of the eastern desert, and this is its story.
War stayed a long time from the edge of the eastern desert, but in time the fires burning in the rest of the world swept close enough for the villagers to hear of it. First it was a trickle of news over many years, from caravan drivers and rare lone travelers. Then at last came official summons from the great distant King of the East of whom everyone knew but no one had seen. This King, they had heard, lived in a palace where every room was as large as the whole village, and whose ceiling reached up to the sky, and whose roofs were covered in the shining metal gold which was too soft for anything but decoration, and too dear for any but the rich. None of it had found its way to the village, except for a single earring made of the stuff, the hoarded treasure of a grandmother who had once been young and once beautiful, and had loved a caravan merchant one glorious season of her youth.
The villagers were all the subjects of the King, but this was a very vague thing to them at best. The King asked for nothing, as the village was so remote and so poor as to be released even from taxation, and the idea of a King’s power was a concept which had never been tested on the sinews of this distant people, so far removed from the capital.
The summons was a call to war for all the able bodied, men and women, because although the men were called on to fight, the women were required as well to do all the things that kept an army on its feet and on the march. Old women and men would be permitted to stay to take care of those too young to march, but all others were ordered away.
This was a disaster on a scale never conceived of before in this village. A certain amount of time could pass before the King sent soldiers to follow up his summons, but no tiny collection of houses could stall forever a reply to a King. Even a village on the edge of the desert was not beneath a King’s notice when foot soldiers were needed.
The elders of the village met and met again, weighing plans, discussing options, and most importantly sharing what information each of them had collected over the years pertaining to the vast outside world. No one born in the village had ever left, much less returned, and their total sum of knowledge of the world beyond was hearsay.
One of the elders was an old and powerful sorceress, not born of the village but who had lived so long in its quiet embrace that none of even the oldest citizens could recall a time when she was not there. It was she who finally voiced the plan which made the most sense to all.
‘My friends,’ she said, ‘we are commanded, against our own fondest wishes, to go to war against an enemy we have never seen, much less who has hurt us. We are loyal, however, to our King, whom we also have never seen, and will not refuse. This tide comes against us, and takes the time we thought we had for spending with our children, with our parents. In a sense, we have known all our lives that to belong to a King is to have no life separate from the one used to serve him; we have never been called upon before to sacrifice ourselves – yes, sacrifice, because few if any of us will ever return from a war such as will tear the world apart – but think not of the time we have lost. Think instead of the time we have enjoyed already. Let our first difficult task of serving be met with bravery, and with fortitude.
‘Our children are the future. Our futures have been taken from us, but theirs are still ahead. They will see the years to come, they will tell our stories, they will remember. See? It’s not so different than if we were simply to die all in the natural way, after passing into old age. And who is to say that war is not natural, if so many have died in its embrace? War may be started by and fought by men, but it soon becomes a force unto itself, as much as a tornado or a drought.
‘What we must do then, since we go to war with faint hope of returning, is to make certain our children will be safe while we are gone.
‘To this end, I will erect a great barrier between our village and the world. I will cover it from the eyes of the northern soldiers, and from the soldiers of our own King, and here our children may live and grow in peace, just as we ourselves have done. They will have a chance to escape this war, and our village will vanish from the world until it may safely emerge.’
This speech was applauded, and the measures outlined in it set into motion.
Even for a sorceress as powerful as this one (for she had been one of the most feared magicians in the world until she had at last enough of power and retreated to this village), this would be a great work. She was old and tired, and this magic would never have been easy for her, not even in the height of her powers. This village, though, she considered her special protectorate, even though she seldom worked her magic now for any reason. No one in the village could remember when the sorceress had come to the village; indeed, everyone, except the very oldest imagined, she had been born there. She aged slowly and was often very quiet and solitary, so no one paid much more attention to her usually than to nod at her at the well, or to perhaps bring her a pot of something from the stove in respect. No one in the village either perhaps realized how powerful she really was. It was enough that once a year, she concocted mixtures of bright powders and rolled them into paper tubes and sent great, gassy rockets flaming into the sky to celebrate the seventh new moon. Even that was enough to make her a figure of awe and legend, even knowing nothing more of her abilities, which had once been vast.
In this, what would be the last and greatest of her accomplishments, she had need of assistance. The children of the village, the intended beneficiaries of her magic, were sent all over the surrounding area, as far as the river, and even into the desert, to look for the herbs and roots she would use. Several months had passed since the time of the King’s summons by the time everything was in readiness, and they knew they were fast approaching the limit of what they could expect from the King’s patience. No one really knew how long it would be before the eastern soldiers would descend on the village to punish the disobedience, but if that happened before all was in readiness, it would be difficult to convince anyone it had been a delay and not deliberate resistance.
When all the ingredients were at last collected, she asked that the largest cooking pot in the village be brought into the market square, and under it a fire was lit, and she began to work the magic.
It took seven days for all the herbs and flowers to go into the pot, and during that time the great cauldron had to be stirred constantly by a battalion of children. The oldest of those who would stay was ten. Any older than that, and a person was already most of the way to being an adult, and could hold a weapon to fight. Eleven-year-olds were bound for war.
Each plant was readied in a certain fashion, and there was so much to be done that most of the people in the village were involved in some way. Only a few were left to prepare for the coming journey to the capital, and from there to the war. Everywhere in the village during that week were women sitting with mortar and pestle, children running with pails of water or fistfuls of green and brown stems, men stirring pots, herbs distilling into strange-smelling liquid, bowls of others crushed or chopped or sliced as the spell demanded. Through it all wandered the old sorceress, putting a finger in a pot here, plucking out a piece of woody stem there, and advising this or that person to grind this to a finer powder or to remove something from the boil before the usefulness was leeched out of that.
When at last everything was done, a silence fell over the little village on the edge of the desert. In the market, the cauldron boiled and bubbled, but there was a stillness in the air which gave its now-accustomed rhythm a new tone. The old witch raised her arms to the heavens and an utter quiet descended. Even the frogs and the tuft-headed ibises were fell quiet.
‘My dearest neighbours and my dear comrades,’ she said. ‘We have done a great work here, and all the greater because it has brought together friend and foe in common purpose. This is a great magic indeed, because it has joined us in desire, with not a single hand unwilling or a single heart unopened. The strength of our unity here will be added to the power of the charm, and the sound of our voices raised in hope will resound through it.’
Then, she told them to finish the preparations for the journey to the capital, while the cauldron continued to boil on its own. The elders and the old sorceress retreated to their chamber to discuss many matters; of who would stay and who would go – because to even those of extreme age, it was inconceivable that all the elders would stay behind when their people departed – of the journey, of the future, of the preparation of souls for the trials sure to come. In the end, the old sorceress alone was elected to remain in the village with the children, to guide them and to teach them, because the creation of her magic for their protection had weakened her beyond the ability to travel.
The day for departure arrived, and through tears and hard, sorrowful faces, the villagers loaded the few pack animals they had and set off. No one was spared, from sick adults to the youngest pregnant girl. All did what they could to make the journey easy, but they knew that some of them would die before reaching their objective. The elders who would travel as well knew especially the danger they faced. Mortality was strong in the air around the caravan, and at last, after goodbyes, clasped hands, embraces, and whatever explanations could be made to children too young to understand, the village was split asunder between those who would go to war, and those who would stay behind. No one finishes a day such as that untouched.
The old sorceress watched the train of animals and humans depart. She gathered the children around her, and said, as their parents and grandparents, brothers and sisters, shrank to tiny shapes on the horizon, ‘Now see, your protection descends.’ With this, she knocked over the great pot which had bubbled and boiled for more than a week.
The caravan of adults passed over the distant hills to leave even the sight of their home behind. Looking back for a last time, they saw a strange thing. In the place where the village should have been was a mystery, a cloud of swirling white which did not dissipate or move but stayed constant in area. A winter storm seemed to have settled on the village cupped in the hand of the acrid desert, and this, they knew, was the magic protection they had bought for their children. No one would be able to see the phenomena of that storm without knowing some force beyond nature was at work, and who would willingly enter into a place so controlled by the supernatural? Assured that the village was protected, the caravan moved onto towards war.
Even in the pain of loss, life for all continued, as life must until it is gone, and in time, the parting was a memory no longer fresh and raw. Years past, and the children who had been left grew. The sorceress brought as much wisdom and knowledge to her charges as she could. But the magic she had wrought was almost too much for her old heart, and she was ever afterwards frail. She stayed in her house most of the time, and her meals were brought to her by the children who loved yet feared her and knew, even if the memory of the time had faded, that somehow she was the reason for the wonder which surrounded them.
For in the village, a twilight reined. Even on a day of brightest sun, over the dusty streets and in the quiet marketplace, there was no brilliant light. The snow which the departing villagers had seen descended on their former home was a fact of every day’s life now.
It was a strange snow, descending yet never arriving, seeming to fall from the heavens yet vanishing before it could touch the ground, or indeed sweep the tops of the houses. It grew thicker toward the boundaries of the little community, and at last made a curtain of itself, slightly cold to the touch and melting away as it reached the ground. No one dared to pass through it, and no one remembered why it was there. In time, no one even remembered there was a time before it shrouded the houses and lowered the sky, painting it with drifting, ever-falling specks of white.
No one left the village any more. The well was always full now, and the cistern as well. The animals grazed within the confines of the snow, and the crops grew on the little patch of soil the way they had always done – but no one saw the sun, or, after a time, even missed it.
Even the oldest of the villagers were now little more than what we would consider children, but in their time, they were as old as their parents had been when they themselves had been born. And indeed, babies were born in that time, and those who were the eldest among these children helped care for them, drawing on misty remembrances of their own upbringings. But there was an imbalance now, because so much of the knowledge which might have sustained their way of life had gone with the parents and grandparents and young adults who had left for war. So, of necessity, new ways of doing things developed.
This was a process as gradual as the shift of tides in the great dunes of sand, and the new ways rose up in gentle peaks to obliterate, after a time, what had been there before.
It would be hard, and very nearly impractical, to explain the manner in which these children lost in their own home chose to survive and grow. Best to let your imagination work on the problem, if you can put yourself in their place. What would you do, left with no way of solving dilemmas except to invent new solutions? Suffice it to say, these young people became very inventive, and with each creation, they became more joyful.
The little village on the edge of the desert was still not paradise. There were tragedies, and accidents, and some were caused merely by not knowing many of the things their parents had been taught by their parents before them. But on the whole, they managed and prospered.
War was a thing of legend now, far from the border delineated by their snowy frontier. The long-gone parents and grandparents were legends as well, and a kind of worship grew up in the evenings around a cooking fire in the centre of the village, of the departed ones and of the old witch who had saved them and was in a sense a second mother to them all. They would tell the stories again and again to each other, and their mythology was their own history. At night, they would often sleep on rugs thrown into sand hollows near the fire, because often the ghosts of all those empty houses were too lonely to bear.
When the old sorceress died, it was after an illness so long that no one could remember a time when she had not been sick. After that, there was no one to remind the children of how life had been before the tragedy war had wrought. But the snow continued to fall, a haze above their head, blocking the full glare of the sun although little of its heat, and disappearing before any touched the ground. Sometimes, as she walked to the well near the edge of the village, Meri would feel the kiss of a cold flake on her cheek, a bite of wetness, and then gone. The very unchangeability of the weather was a comfort and a salve. She was one of the older children, who could still remember fetching twigs and leaves to the old witch’s cauldron, and the urgency of that time was part of her still. This day, the day life in the village changed again, she was walking as usual with clay pots for water balanced over her shoulders, hanging from a long pole. The snow fell, and far to the west, the sun was tracing the last of its arc through the sky, forming a red, angry diffusion of light in the distance. By its light, Meri saw a ragged group of dark shapes approaching the village.
It was the first time since the magic had descended that any humans had dared to brave the encircling snow. But this group of men, little more than boys themselves, were nearly dead already, starved and thirsty, knowing that to stop searching for water was as good as to die. They were Western soldiers, in stained and dirty uniforms. Their eyes were dull and unfocussed, and their steps were uneven, beating a ragged tattoo across the sand.
The children of the village had never known if it might be possible to cross the boundary of the magic. They wondered if the enchantment might not be as effectively sealing them into their home as it kept others away. But the soldiers, driven by the delirium of near-death, stumbled into the driving snow, stumbled forward onto the sand, and down to their knees in the scraggly desert plants.
The young villagers gathered in silence. Who were these strangers? All that was obvious was that the newcomers were in dire straits. Meri, the first to recover her wits, called for water and blankets, and the orphans of war tended to their enemies.
They had no language in common, these disparate groups. The war was a war of differences, and their similarities were restricted to those which bigots never consider – that we are all human, that we eat and drink and defecate, and sicken and thrive, and live and love, and eventually die. It was these things that the villagers saw, and these that they painstakingly taught the soldiers.
The young men, who had believed themselves on the verge of death, realized slowly that it was not time for them to fade like stars at dawn back into the fullness of creation. It had not been suicide after all, to brave the magic, snowy barrier, as many of them had hoped in their despair. It had been their salvation.
A new language grew between the soldiers and their charges, as the men grew healthy and the villagers struggled to cope with their changed circumstances. It was formed of words from both their native tongues, with preference given to one over the other for reasons that would have seemed strange to zealots on either side. One word might be chosen because of its ease of pronunciation, another because of its sibilance. Another might find its way into common usage just because it had a certain beauty. Whatever the reason, communication ceased in a surprisingly short time to be a problem.
Life became full and rich. There were no further infiltrations of foreigners into this happy, hidden world. But there had been a necessary influx of new ideas and new blood, and the vitality of the little community took an exponential leap. Sociologists call this ‘hybrid vigor,’ the positive effect of mixing strains on a given environment.
Change was inevitable. So, too, was a certain amount of restlessness. It may even have been inevitable that everything, in time, would come to an end.
Meri sensed the change, in the husband she had chosen from amongst the newcomers. He was a blond lad, and the colour of his hair was a source of continuing amazement to her. When she touched it, she used their joined language to talk of corn, of yellow melons, of gourds. ‘You don’t say the colour of the sun,’ he teased her.
She punched him in the arm, only half-playfully. ‘You know I have never seen the sun,’ she said.
She had, of course, back in the days before the enchantment, in the days before most of the village went to war. But she couldn’t remember it clearly, and now, it was a pale circlet of jaundiced yellow in the sky, barely visible beyond the descending snow. It was not something to which to compare her husband’s glorious hair.
‘Let me show you the sun,’ he said, grabbing her hands to his chest. ‘Let’s go beyond the snow.’
She shivered violently. ‘Do not speak of it.’
‘Why not?’ He was more ready for this kind of suggestion than she was. After all, he had seen the sun far more recently, and therefore felt its absence more keenly. He missed the warmth of its light on his face, the way it heated a summer breeze. He even missed its sterner aspect in the colder north, his own home, where it could flash with a bright chill that made blue shadows dance behind the all objects it touched.
He began to work on Meri. When he couldn’t sway her to his idea that they should go beyond the village, he went to his country-mates. ‘Don’t you miss the sun?’ he said. ‘Let’s take our wives, and our new families, and return to the places of our birth. This enchantment has done its work; it has brought us together with our destined comrades. But now, let us go home.’
The younger generation, born in the obscured safety of the village, were most easily swayed. They were eager for adventure, eager to experience the lives their fathers had led before their arrival here. They wanted to see the wide world for themselves.
Eventually, only Meri held out. ‘No,’ she said when asked. ‘I am happy here.’
But she no longer was. The restlessness was like a new and unwelcome resident, and before that year was out, Meri had made a new decision. If she was to defeat the restlessness in the others, she would have to agree with the majority, and leave the village to escape it.
They set out, the whole village of them, in the standard dim morning which greeted them typically each day. The former soldiers had told them all what to expect, to brace themselves for the strength of the unfiltered sun. But it took even those young men by surprise, how aggressively the sun shone. It was no warmer, but so much brighter that the villagers, some of whom had never ever seen the sun properly, had to tie scarves around their faces until their visions adjusted.
But humans are nothing if not adaptable, and their eyes learned the new way of seeing quickly enough. And the new nomads journeyed on, looking for a homeland that was, in effect, another legend to most of them. At night, when the stars blazed over their fires, they talked about their last sight of the village where so many of them had spent their entire lives to that point. They talked about the swirling snow, rising above the sad, empty houses in a perfect cone, and they cried.
Civilization slowly began to inform their surroundings. One day, they saw a fence where there should have been empty moorland. Later, they found evidence of a footbridge fording a stream.
More and more signs of settlement began to dot the country around them. When they saw people, they hid and didn’t let themselves be seen. Although none of them could express it, they felt frightened, and knew somehow that this new hybrid of societies would not be easily accepted.
One day, they came to the edge of war. There were burnt-out houses and barns, clumsily slaughtered animals rotting in the sun, dead bodies full of flies. Wherever they found devastation, they changed direction, but soon it was clear that the war was everywhere.
One day, the group passed close to a camp of Western soldiers. It was, although none of the refugees had much idea of the date by any calendar of reckoning, nearly time for the great West celebration of mid-winter. The soldiers, in good spirits, full of ale and cheer, lifted their voices in song and the words they sang carried to the former villagers and to their former comrades.
‘Listen,’ said the blond Western boy, his arm around Meri, the village girl who was his wife, stirred by a memory. ‘It must be Christmas.’
‘What’s that?’ she asked him, and looked into his face.
A smile crossed his face then, and he replied, kissing her, ‘It doesn’t matter now.’
Strangely, and sadly, this tale proves that tolerance is often not the root of harmony, but the root of discord. Outside this alliance of differences, there was an idea in the world that people who were dissimilar should be enemies, and to kill someone unlike you was no more a crime than to bless a friend. This new way, discovered in a village under a winter enchantment, was unforgivable, in the eyes of the world and of all the peoples. It challenged too many important notions to concede that any two persons of their separates races could find peace, much less love and happiness.
So it was that the brief joy found by the young people united by love and humanity in that village on the edge of the desert ended in tragedy. They were beset one night by a patrol of Western soldiers, and massacred, every one. The Westerners spat on the corpses of the two mingled races, and declined to give any one of them a decent burial or burning. A short while later, Eastern soldiers came across the sad bodies of the children, lying in each others’ arms in a sandy hollow of the desert, and declared their proximity an abomination before God.
God, I hope, wept.