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Journeying to the Star – by Pamela
Ghulam was learning, rather slowly, that riding a camel across the Arabian desert at night sounds more romantic than it really is. Especially when your rear stings from a long trip, the wind is kicking sand into your eyes, and your mind is still foggy from another annoying council meeting with the king.
Ghulam sighed. He’d entertained a funny idea going into the king’s advisory panel that the king would want his advice. The very notion!
He barely resisted the urge to pull at his hair (again). Today had been a long day.
But when he passed the last sand dune before home, he realized he couldn’t come complaining to his wife this late at night. She’d be asleep, if their little Farrah hadn’t given his momma trouble for once. He smiled at the thought, feeling the day’s stress start to melt behind him.
When Ghulam saw the stable hand coming, he stepped off his camel and waited for the shy fellow. And once the servant finished his usual fumble through some honorary titles, Ghulam tried to slip quietly inside his house. Then promptly tripped on the steps he always forgot were there.
As you do, he thought sarcastically. But he assured himself that he hadn’t been too loud (he had) before he took a deep breath and went inside. The sight of his lovely wife greeted him. She was sitting on plush blankets, rocking their child in her arms.
“Ghulam, why are you standing by the door?” she asked. She lifted one brow and smiled.
Ghulam rolled his eyes and sat beside her, side-hugging her as he gazed at the night sky through the window. Funny, he noticed the beauty of the sky only while indoors. Maybe his mental state when leaving the council meeting kept him preoccupied. He smiled at his bundle of joy and then at the sky. Bright celestial orbs twinkled at them from the dark curtain covering the heavens. It was a beautiful night, but the solemnity of it brought to his mind a similar evening fifteen years ago when his life had been one without humor.
Fifteen years ago, when Ghulam was only eleven and more familiar with life’s sorrows than he’d like to be, a few stars shone brighter than usual. For a while, they shone like guiding lights. Even the moon, which Ghulam had often considered to be a dull shade of gray, was twinkling with promise. And poor little Ghulam, teary-eyed from another beating, decided he’d try to follow it.
Fool, he told himself. He’d been journeying to the stars for three days now, and without any food or drink or rest.
The moon, which looked full of promise before, now appeared like the Grim Reaper’s scythe or one of the old drunk’s blades. Even the stars seemed to twinkle with mocking laughter. He supposed the gods were punishing him for running away, but then why tempt him in the first place! He sniffed, but he refused to cry. Anger was easier. So he scowled and kicked the dirt floor, never mind that his sandals were open and that his feet were scarred enough without his flare of temper adding to the patterns on his skin.
He hissed in pain, angry that he’d reopened a wound with his stupid act. Then his stomach growled, and he hugged himself, wrapping his old, ripped tunic around him as a blanket. Why did I follow those cursed stars and wish upon that cursed moon?
Well, he didn’t have to wonder for long. The last beating his father gave him replayed in his mind, as fresh as if it’d been yesterday. Then his stomach’s growling snapped him out of those gloomy thoughts, and he wrapped his arms around himself as if to will the hunger away. The problem was that it was always there, sometimes as a quiet hollowness or a dull aching, and sometimes like a lion feasting on his bowels. He squeezed his eyes to avoid any tears.
If I die and all that’s left of me is a pathetic skeleton, I’m going to haunt that pathetic excuse of a father, he thought. And he meant it, too. He didn’t know which gods were real or if there were ghosts or any of that, but he meant to petition whoever decided on afterlife affairs. Unfortunately, his hatred, combined with his lack of sleep and malnutrition, was too much stress for his mind and body to bear. So he wobbled, then stumbled, then collapsed to his knees, all his energies sapped and gone.
A loud thump-thump-thump flared in his ears, and he winced as he covered them. As the sound got closer, he realized it was the sound of wheels trampling on the broken, clumpy ground of some long-gone oasis, breaking the remaining sticks and a few lifeless plants. A dust cloud rose that made Ghulam cough like a dying man. But it woke up his dizzy mind, and he managed to get his body to run into the shadows and behind the carcass of a lone wolf.
Don’t be murderers or slave traders, he thought, begging whatever gods up there were tormenting him so that he’d at least get a chance at life. But as he continued to stare, he realized he need not have worried. The posh caravan of camel riders and covered wagons was too pompous to belong to criminals. Even the servants were well-dressed! He concluded they must have uniquely gracious masters, a trait that hardly befit criminals.
And look at the silk! And the wool! And is that perfume I smell? He wouldn’t feel bad about stealing from these people. They could afford to be forcibly generous, right? But he soon realized that, though some servants were going to sleep, new servants came in to replace them. Ghulam hid when these servants set firepits around the camp to scare away any hungry beasts, and then they set up one more firepit in the center for the hungry masters to talk to one another while the servants cooked.
“Such luxury,” Ghulam said, bitter. But when they started snacking before their meal, his mind shut down as he salivated and licked his lips. Then he got closer, still sticking to the shadows. He hoped they’d throw some food away, but then he realized that would be like inviting the beasts to share a meal with them. He sighed. They’d burn the food, no doubt about it.
As the servants set up more fires, the shadows slowly receded. Ghulam started taking a few steps back—unwilling to be seen and yet unwilling to leave—when he bumped into something solid. He jumped. And when he turned around, he saw a terrifying, a horrifying . . . little girl.
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