Needing to travel across the desert to the city of Cham as part of their holiday plans, a mismatched group of tourists abandon the straight-line caravan route across the Cham Desert. Instead, they believe the fantastic tales the travel agent spins of what they will discover if they join a longer, but more exciting desert retreat that will be part pilgrimage to honor past heroes, and part self-discovery journey while bringing them to their intended destination.
Every night around the campfire, Rawiya tells the story of the planet Hidaya's history, but it comes alive in her vivid descriptions which are quite different from those dryly told in textbooks. Rawiya's tales make real the unwanted people who are collected by mysterious, heroic Searchers who bring them to places of safety. Refuge cities are established around Hidaya, but their existence remains secret to protect those who struggle to overcome their own personal tragedies and to escape imminent harm. But influential people have begun noticing that when Searchers are in town various children among others disappear. Ire and resentment overflows as the movement to remove oppressed and hopeless persons is discovered.
The evening story telling entertains and enlightens, but during the day the pilgrims' caravan travels from oasis to oasis where odd, surreal, and inexplicable events unfold. Though various activities keep the travelers focused on inner growth, impending danger shadows and threatens this peaceful group of novices in the unexplaining Cham Desert.
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By Cheryl D. Murphy
AuthorHouseCopyright © 2014 Cheryl D. Murphy
All rights reserved.
R awiya, the caravan storyteller, casually glanced at the novice retreatants scheduled to cross the Cham Desert with her this season. She mused wryly that they were swirling around her more than necessary probably enjoying the way their new robes billowed out. They all wore coarsely woven, voluminous, ankle-length desert robes for comfort and protection, which differed so much from the narrower robes or simple trousers of city and agricultural folk. The bleached, rough fiber of their robes would soften with desert wear and tighten to a soft, supple finish with repeated washing at the oases and daily use; at the end of their journey the robes would feel light and comfortably cozy, and would merely be loose-fitting, softly flowing garments. This was standard garb for someone on a pilgrimage on the planet Hidaya.
The travel agent's prattle, back at the crossroads city of Viñay, truly had inspired these pilgrims not just with visions of personal renewal, but with misleading descriptions of exciting adventures and breathtaking sights they were now anticipating to be revealed just beyond every thorny desert bush. Yet, even though the travel agent's promises were blatantly excessive, since not all crossings of the Cham were adventurous excursions into beauty or spiritual renewal, he had successfully extracted money, waivers, contracts, and time from an eclectic number of individuals who had randomly tarried in Viñay.
As frantic late arrivals rushed to join the already chaotic assembly, Rawiya deliberately absented herself from amidst the organizational frenzy. She moved beside the restive travel beasts standing in a rough, impatient line calming them with crooned encouragement while observing the frenetic excitement from a safe distance.
Names were checked off, supplies, personal bedrolls and backpacks were tagged and given to runners who stowed the bundles on specified travel beasts by securing them in expandable leather packs slung behind the cushioned blankets upon which the travelers would sit for their rides between oases. Only when all belongings had been stowed properly were the pilgrims shown their assigned shaggy travel beasts. They were carefully given instructions on how to identify and treat the enormous animals; and finally the enthusiastic retreatants were directed towards public sanitary facilities for a last-minute comfort break.
Meanwhile, Rawiya had crooned and calmed her way along the travel beasts' ragged queue until she stood beside the last one. Cid, Rawiya's favorite travel beast, woofed warm air out at her through his large, hairy nostrils before nuzzling her shoulder. She caressed his velvety nose affectionately, and held her hand out flatly to him offering a sweet grain-roll, which his thick, sticky tongue immediately curled around, pulling it back into position for his stained molars to crunch and grind into a mushy, palatable paste.
"Don't roll your big, brown eyes at me as if you were surprised, you furry lunk! I know you've smelled this treat all across the city when the supply arrived yesterday. What you don't know is that it's doctored with herbs to limit your fragrance. Aha! If it works we may have to call you something else, you nasty monster."
The service-attendants were thankful that Cid was Rawiya's first choice of travel beasts though she ritually pretended to do them the favor of reluctantly choosing Cid for their benefit; but truly Cid's gait was one of the smoothest and most comfortable of any travel beast she had ever ridden, and that was a definite draw when traveling for several weeks. His name, unfortunately, had been justifiably earned because Cid – the abbreviated name for Rancid – tended to develop a sour stomach after several days of traveling. The foul fermentation subtly permeated his breath, flesh, and fur, and was distinctly released through his hide as well as through his flatulence. It wasn't strong enough to cause nausea or choking, but travelers tended to hold their breath and move away rapidly when near Cid. It was Rawiya's luck that she had a poor sense of smell and a hedonistic need for traveling comforts, including extra time to cleanse herself after riding Cid. That hygienic necessity often eliminated her from the tedious chores of unpacking at a new campsite for if she didn't carefully complete washing up after riding Cid she was sure to be avoided by the other travelers who found her as repulsive as her mount. For now, though, Rawiya scratched Cid behind his nervous, swiveling ears before turning back to idly observe the gradually quieting crowd of travelers.
Even though most guides, attendants and pilgrims by now were standing expectantly beside their travel beasts, there were still some spontaneously enthusiastic puppy-like yelps and hurried errands. Almost everyone had gathered shapeless hoods or swaths of veiling around their heads in the pre-dawn chill so their faces were hidden in deep shadows even though the overhead energy panels lighting the plaza glowed gently above; but there were also a few overly-thoughtful novices who wore woven, wide-brimmed, shading hats for the daytime anticipating that they would need the protection when Bozidara, the day star, had risen and had begun to shine warmly on them all.
"Thrilling. Just thrilling," Rawiya mumbled grumpily to herself looking at these mobile cocoons. "Where are the fashion consultants when you need them?" But she shrewdly felt her belt to be sure her own shade-hat was securely attached, and then also pulled up her hood.
Nurtured with a raw sense of adventure fed by exhilarating naiveté, neither even remotely touching upon reality – at least not the reality Rawiya lived – the unlikely pilgrims listened with guides and service attendants for one last check-off before departing as the scheduled caravan retreat into the soon-to-be-springtime desert. Dawn was still a distantly gentle prospect when they mounted their travel beasts and hustled away from the sheltering gates of Viñay to disappear beyond a scuffed-up dusty cloud into the darkness.
Rawiya muttered to herself as she pulled her own well-worn robes around her ample form more securely and settled into Cid's furred padding. Now that they were free from the township's confinement, her own shadowed visage resentfully stared impatiently at the backs of her charges as they strung themselves irregularly in front of her. The grapeseed oil she had excessively rubbed over herself after the last herbal bath she would have for several weeks made Rawiya's umber-hued skin glossy in smooth richness. Her wiry, black tresses were securely coiled into a tightly braided knot at the back of her head. Simple ear-lobe rings of silver and a tiny, antique silver medallion hanging from a black cord around her neck were her only ornamentations. With a broad forehead now furrowed with last-minute concerns, and her usually full, upturned lips distractedly pinched into a thin, flat line, Rawiya shifted her attention from the riders themselves to the rear ends of the lumbering travel beasts as they all became distorted with her emotions. Rawiya's large, brown eyes were over-bright with tears anxious to be shed, but were hurriedly blinked into submission by her long, curved eyelashes. Some personal concerns had been left unresolved back in Viñay.
The irony of being part of this renewing retreat event was that Rawiya had counted on the cancellation of this season's caravan hoping for several weeks to herself for her own personal needs; but the skillful travel agent had, in the end at the last moment, earned his commissions, and here they all were together facing several hours of dark, star-guided journeying before full daylight and rest were gifted.
As the initial exuberant whoops and chatter heralding their departure quieted, the monotonous motion of the travel beasts rocked the riders back into the dreams they had quit abruptly to reach the departure gate on time. Later, even the dawn's rosy, golden rays and tentative warmth didn't waken them.
When the caravan arrived at the first oasis by mid-morning, the experienced attendants quickly dismounted and began to set up the campsite. Most of the pilgrims revealed their inexperience with travel beasts; their stretched, sore muscles cramped up from the unfamiliar strain and exercise, and the majority of the novices dismounted merely by falling clumsily to the uncushioned ground. Rawiya turned away to hide her snickers at their inadvertent comedic antics. She grimaced realizing that as usual with so many tenderfoot pilgrims on this journey the schedule would require adjustment.
Recovery for these desert neophytes would take the remainder of the day at the very least, but Rawiya wanted to impatiently hurry through the entire retreat and have it be done with completely. Those temporarily suppressed personal issues of hers gnawed quietly at the back of her consciousness. Taking care of the retreatants's needs would distract her for a while, but those issues would eventually need to be addressed. The postponement could be considered either a regrettable delay or a blessed detour for the time being. Since patience was not a strong point, Rawiya merely sighed deeply and patted her thanks to Cid before handing the reins to the waiting service attendant.
She chose a site at the far edge of the clustering tent village now efficiently being erected by focused attendants and jocular retreatants. After skillfully setting up her own tent, Rawiya feigned deep concentration while repeatedly organizing her supplies and checking off items on useless lists, ignoring the chaos around her with a distracted expression crowning her face. If she appeared busy she could possibly avoid nonsensical small talk or worse, being tagged by senior guides or supervising attendants for loathsome tasks since she had not yet washed the dust from the journey. There was a definite bit of rebellious sloth in her attitude. When it looked as if most of the chores were completed, Rawiya slipped off to cleanse herself before a mid-day meal was called for.
Meanwhile, unable to dodge their own responsibilities, attendants led the travel beasts to a large pool shaded by heat-tolerant palms and 25 meter nurse trees providing a protective canopy for the other various trees and shrubs beneath. The travel beasts would not be fed until their body temperatures had cooled sufficiently, and though they were used to that delay, that didn't stop their obvious begging with indignant bellows demanding food. Until then they were watered and tethered in a rough curve so they could visit or grumble amongst themselves until their food was served.
Another pool of gently bubbling spring water on the western edge of the oasis was set aside for the exclusive use of the bipedal travelers. Several attendants split the retreatants into more manageable groupings to help unload personal baggage and settle them into their tents. Then guides gathered any idly loitering pilgrims into small classes teaching oasis etiquette, basic safety procedures, desert biome facts, and introducing the majority of plants and animals they might encounter at this oasis. Of course, most of the pilgrims were primarily interested in personal comfort – latrines, food, water, cleansing, and rest – but after a generous period of respite, the attendants patiently repeated their teachings and presented new information to more interested and attentive participants.
The first spring rains hadn't arrived yet, and most trees were still barren silver-green trunks and stems with nothing of interest to gawk at. Other trees shone as if polished as the daystar reflected off their waxy trunks and sparsely-leafed branches. Raggedly torn, dry-thatched bark swaddled the squat brittle tree trunks, shelving-bark woof trees, and spiceberry trees spread heat-scorched, dry leaves on shaggy branches stretching to Bozidara's golden light. A few gray-green spikes pushed through the sand, and various succulents and cacti claimed space between small-leafed, fragrant spindle-bushes and thorny scabbed shrubs. The outwardly dry appearance of most of the oasis plant life still created the overall impression that an immensely, unlikely crystalline emerald stopper of flora floated above a hidden, natural cistern of living spring water in the midst of harshly baked bleakness. The boundary between actual desert and this oasis appeared abrupt and unnatural.
Even here in this lush oasis the desert's spring blooming was a mere expectation in this mild pre-season. The higher, almost intolerable temperatures usually started after the brief springtime, but in the meanwhile, the evenings were definitely expected to be chilly. The nights could produce skimpy frosts and stiffened morning joints from the cold; but by afternoon the heat varied from merely uncomfortable to oppressively life threatening.
Already many tired and discouraged tourists regretted their impulsive choice of presence here after a cursory survey of the oasis boundaries, but they were too uncomfortable and weary to complain. The afternoon heat of the day boldly claimed the world from horizon to horizon, and so after a hurried and simple mid-day mean and quick wash up, all the travelers spent the silent afternoon in mercifully shaded, exhausted sleep.
When all the hustle of unpacking, rearranging, and settling-in subsided into muted, rhythmic, somnolent breathing patterns, curious dust-lizards emerged from behind camouflaging fronds and foliage. They crept closer to examine the newcomers, and gazed motionlessly at the pilgrims from within scant centimeters, scrutinizing faces inquisitively and intensively. Soon the tiny dust-lizards were joined by flamboyantly iridescent mock-scorpions. These more agitated newcomers twittered haughtily at the lizards conversationally and were answered by muted, rasped comments gurgled from deeply within the lizards' elongated throats. Silent glass beetles, dirt burrowers, sand spiders and silken fliers peeked around tent flaps shyly, and then scurried or flitted away in giddy merriment to spy on other pilgrims.
The pompous mock-scorpions scuttled around pallets, pillows, bundles, and bags, examining the contents by folding back coverings with their enlarged pincers and peering intently into packs, before loquaciously disclosing their discoveries with high pitched, self-important twitters to anything near. Meanwhile, the dust-lizards stared statically for many long minutes, seldom blinking as they studied the sleepers. Their lateral ear-pans vibrated rhythmically as they took in the information relayed by the garrulous mock-scorpions, eventually giving guttural acknowledgement they had heard. Finally, their curious examinations concluded, the dust-lizards darted off to report to the patient, emerald carapaced cockroaches that maintained the oasis. When the dust-lizards had shared their last morsel of information, added onto by other little intrusive beasties, they retired into the virescent shade for the remainder of the long afternoon until twilight, leaving indistinct footprints in the dirt as the only evidence of their presence.
A spectacularly brilliant setting of Bozidara graced the retreatants' awakenings. Refreshed by their naps, they ambled about idly enjoying re-energized attitudes. As nightfall deepened, they were surprised at the efficiency with which the first evening meal was prepared while the deep universe unfurled its starry banner overhead. Ishwa, the teacher, gathered them together when Cook sent a messenger advising him that the meal would be served shortly.
When the pilgrims had seated themselves around the campfire, Ishwa gave a brief welcome and overview of their retreat. He encouraged them to get to know each other, and to respect the uniqueness of them all, and then after a moment of silence thanking the Compassionate One for blessings received, he announced that their supper was in the final phase of preparation. Then, sauntering over to introduce himself to an elderly couple, Ishwa began conversing. His lighthearted laughter soon wafted over to Rawiya on the night air.
She had quietly slipped into a gap in the informal circle of talkative pilgrims waiting for supper. The volume of the tumultuous banter around her pulsed erratically, rising and falling chaotically in contrast to the steady, self-restrained stillness of the oasis behind and around them. Rawiya winced as the retreatants brayed and bellowed trying to conquer the wilderness quiet by slaying it with obtrusive garrulity. "I forgot how annoying some novices can be," she breathed in frustration.
Two thin youths on her right leaned over her – ignoring the discomfort and disrespect given to her as they traded greetings with three shapely girls on her left, sharing enthusiastic tales of what friends back home had seen on their own desert retreat last season: awesome scenery, exotically gross travel beasts, unbelievable insects and fauna, and the incredible variety of plants encountered. Rawiya made a sound at the back of her throat that resembled a crude gag reflex, and the youths straightened up abruptly. "Uh, 'scuse me. 'You all right?" One of them inquired as he leaned back into his place.
Excerpted from DESERT REFUGE by Cheryl D. Murphy. Copyright © 2014 Cheryl D. Murphy. Excerpted by permission of AuthorHouse.
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Table of Contents
ContentsChapter 1 Desert Calling, 1,
Chapter 2 Desert Introductions, 21,
Chapter 3 Welcoming Arrivals, 42,
Chapter 4 Invitations of Trust, 78,
Chapter 5 Realities Revealed, 86,
Chapter 6 Clinging Burdens, 100,
Chapter 7 Departures, Arrivals, and Delays, 111,
Chapter 8 Preparations, 127,
Chapter 9 Settling In, 134,
Chapter 10 Second Escape, 148,
Chapter 11 Hope to the Beginning, 167,
Chapter 12 Last Days, 190,
Names and Meanings, 209,