Monday, December 17, 2007

Desert Desserts

When she crawled from her tent Sephy saw that something had happened to the campsite during the night. It wasn’t in disarray exactly, but the fire’s ashes had been trampled and there was a trail of food leading from the open ice-box, out between two of the tents, and off into the sloping tawny sands of the desert. Sephy followed the trail with her eyes, watching its drunken weave, until it disappeared between two outcroppings of rock.

“Hyenas”, said a voice. Sephy, still on all-fours, turned in its direction and looked back at Aden through the dishevelled strands of her hair. He was leant against the jeep with one arm resting on its roof. With the other hand he was feeding his smirk with a piece of bread. “They came when we were all asleep and gave the place a lick and a promise. I heard them snuffling and shuffling about”, he gave a snort in demonstration, contorting his otherwise handsome face into something quite repulsive, “and then I saw their shadows slide across the side of my tent as they loped off leaving a trail of our breakfast, lunch and dinner! Didn’t you hear them?"

Instead of a reply Sephy shook her head, but rather than indicate that she hadn’t heard, the shake turned into a kind of bestial shudder, which propelled her out of the tent and onto her feet. The day was warm, but dull and sunless. Yesterday’s semilunar moon was still visible: a prominent, blanched half-disc in the sky that looked like it was balanced on Aden’s head.

“So is there anything at all left to eat?” Sephy asked him. The heads of Helen and Afro emerged from inside Aden’s tent, and Sykes came out from behind a rock with a toothbrush wedged into her foamy mouth.

“Only the halva,” he replied. “But it’s all dried out because someone left the ice-box open. I guess it was too sweet for the hyenas.”

“Or too disgusting”, retorted Sephy, treading on the hem of her combats as she struggled to stay upright whilst pulling on her hiking boots.

“Oy!” barked Aden suddenly, snapping upright from the car. “If you think halva’s disgusting, then you’re little better than those soulless creatures. It’s a praxis of mortal men to eat halva when there’s nothing else. Halva is made of the desert’s sweetened dust! It’s a desert dessert!” Aden roared at his own joke.

“That’d be right!” Sephy muttered.

“What’s your problem, Sephy? This stuff was contraband once, you know,” he said, holding out what Sephy could now see was a chewed and sorry-looking piece of halva, and not bread at all. “So sapid were its dusty delights that it was used by goddesses for the seduction of their heroes. The gods thought it encouraged depravity amongst mortals, so it was cast from the heavens out of the universe. But just look where it landed: here in the desert. And, what d’you know, a moment of serendipity that sent the hyenas to us as a sign of the gods’ reproach and now we are forced to eat halva!

“Are you mantic, Sephy?” he continued, trying to tease her now, to lighten his own mood. But he wasn’t succeeding and frankly she found the insinuation insulting, since it was much more likely he’d summoned the hyenas himself, in order to bring about his own downfall, which he’d revel in before blaming it all on Sephy and the rest of his little female entourage.

She looked about for support from the others, but none of them could face Aden’s temper tantrums and so they were busying themselves about camp, clearing up the mess, or intently studying their reflections in pocket-mirrors, furiously pretending they weren’t listening. Helen and Afro were crouched together in the nearby stream washing last night’s pots, looking at Aden and Sephy in sideways, conspiratorial glances through the hooded lids of eyes and saucepans.

Sephy gave an exasperated sigh. “No, I’m not, Aden. But what I can foresee is that your self-installation as zeitgeist of our time will only secure your demise, since once you’ve claimed your part of the whole—your little signed piece of history—that’s it then, you’re off—void, obsolete—so long, goodbye! And if that happens, don’t imagine for a minute that I’ll mourn your gloriously tragic passing. No. It’ll mean I don’t have to eat your rotten halva and that, I assure you, could only induce in me a state of pure ataraxia!”

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