The Desert III

(Author’s Note: “The Desert” is a work of short fiction in several parts. If you haven’t already done so, now would be a good time to go back and read the previous chapters so that you know what’s going on.)

III: The Traditionalist

I plodded on through the desert. The heat was mind-blasting in its intensity, and I walked in a shimmering haze. My world had narrowed to placing one foot in front of the other, following the faint, almost invisible path that led onward.

But the white blast of noon was fading, and in the west, the sun was beginning to set. As it sank lower, it seemed swollen and heavy, like a dying star, and its lurid, deep red light darkened the sky and cast an eerie pall over the land. Dunes and stone outcroppings cast shadows the color of dried blood.

After a time, I noticed something that had escaped my attention. The stone outcroppings that had become increasingly frequent were not natural formations. Despite the windblown sand that had etched and half-buried them, they were still recognizably regular – the work of human hands. There were tumbled pillars, worn-down blocks, fallen walls. In growing amazement, I realized these were the ruins of a city, though clearly one that had been abandoned countless ages ago and since reclaimed by the sand. Had this desert once been a more hospitable place? Or had some group of people tried to settle in this harsh land, until its unrelenting heat and dryness had caused them to dwindle and die out?

Then, up ahead, I heard sounds – a voice. Stepping out from behind a crumbled pillar, I surveyed the scene.

The speaker stood in a sheltered lee in the corner of two ruined stone walls, both of which had sand piled behind them to the top of the walls. It was a woman, wispy and bony, her hair sparse gray and her skin wrinkled. Along one of the walls ran a long line of graves, easily dozens, each one marked with driftwood crosses or crude cairns. She stood just beyond the last grave in line, as if awaiting her turn to take her place in the earth.

I waved to her. “Greetings, friend!”

The woman glanced up and gave me a frail smile. She lifted a hand in greeting.

“I’m a visitor,” I called, approaching her. “What are you doing here?”

“Here? Why, this is my home.”

“This is your home?” I said in some disbelief.

She nodded. “I was born and raised here. My family has always lived here. My ancestors lived here for many generations.”

“I can see that,” I replied, glancing at the line of graves. “And you’re sure you want to stay here?”

“Of course!” she said in shock. “This place is part of my culture and my history. It’s what I’ve always known. Why should I leave now?”

“It seems to me,” I said carefully, “that what matters is whether you’re happy. Just because this place has been part of your history doesn’t mean it has to be part of your future as well. You’re not defined by your past. There are new vistas to seek out. Why not start a new strand of history of your own making?”

She looked horrified. “I made a commitment to live here. When I was a child, I took part in a ceremony where I pledged to all the world that this place would be my home for life. It would be a betrayal of that promise and of my family’s trust for me to live anywhere else.”

“Promises like that aren’t binding,” I said. “In the first place, you were probably coerced into making that promise at an age where you were far too young to give meaningful consent. Especially given the pressure that was put on you by your family to follow in their footsteps. You can hardly believe there’s any kind of meaningful possibility for a child to go against her parents’ wishes.

“But even if you had given free consent, it wouldn’t matter. There are some kinds of promises a human simply can’t make. To pledge that you’ll stay right where you are forever and never change – that’s essentially to pledge that you’ll never grow or change as a person. You can’t promise that even if you wanted to, and no belief system has any right to ask otherwise. The most anyone can or should pledge is to remain with a group as long as their aims and interests align. If they no longer do, we have an absolute right to seek out and associate with new groups that we can better identify with.”

A scowl passed across her face. “My forefathers knew the best place. They settled here because it was right for them. Are you asking me to say I’m smarter than them, know better than them? That would be arrogant. I’d have to know everything to know what the best place is. Virtue means being humble, and humility means I stay right where I am.”

“You don’t need unlimited knowledge to know that where you are isn’t working out and isn’t the best place for you. Beyond this desert, there are gardens such as you’ve never dreamed of. At the very least, you can come and see them for yourself and decide if you want to stay. And besides, your ancestors were only human. They made mistakes and had limited knowledge too. It’s not arrogant to assume you know at least as much as they did, and probably more, considering how long ago they lived.”

Her scowl had been growing darker at my words, but now a grim, triumphant smile lit her face. “That’s where you’re wrong. It’s not my ancestors who put me here. It’s God himself who put me here. Clearly, I’m here because this is where he meant for me to be born. He knows better than you where I’m supposed to live, and that’s where I’m staying.”

“And what’s your evidence for that?” I asked sharply. “You know God wants you to be here because that’s where you are? By that logic, everyone owes their particular place in life to God’s foreordained will. What about people in faiths which you consider false? Did God want them to be born there, grow up believing the wrong things, and ultimately be consigned to Hell? What about war refugees or children who grow up in abusive households? Did God want them to be there and to suffer? Your position would take free will out of the equation altogether. It would lead us to a gloomy fatalism where every person accepts all the evils in their life as God’s will which they shouldn’t seek to escape or change. Is that the position you want to end up at?”

The woman’s expression grew cold and unfriendly. “God blessed me by putting me here because this is the right place. Those people in other places weren’t so lucky. They’ll just have to find their way here themselves.” She crossed her arms and turned away from me, clearly indicating that our conversation was over.

“You have no idea how many other people in different places I’ve heard say the same thing,” I answered. She didn’t respond, but I had not been expecting her to. I reseated my shoulder bag and set out on my way again, leaving her alone in the ruins as the red shadows grew deeper.

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