Once upon a time there was a man wandering through a desert on his camel. The sun was high in the sky, and he was on his way to a neighbouring town to run some errands. He chanced upon a large red rock rising out of the ground. It was about as tall as he was and about three times wider as well. Yes, it must have been.
He had never seen this rock before on any of his previous journeys. It must have been recently uncovered, or at least placed there by someone. Or something.
He motioned for his camel to bring him closer, but the damn creature wouldn’t budge. He whipped him and shouted fierce commands, but he stayed still on his original course. This was unusual. His camel always listened to him.
Never mind, he’ll do this by himself. Anchoring the camel to a rock, the man dismounted and approached the red rock by himself.
He noticed that there were inscriptions on the rock, telling the man a tale of the rocks origins. There was once a queen who devoted her entire life to the king, only to find him cheating on a mistress. Enraged, she took a dagger to his heart one night as he slept, and dug it out and ate it. She was executed immediately, with the heart still ingested within her.
It is rumoured that as she went to hell, she spat out the kings heart, which was too vile to enter the gates. She wrote the tale of revenge on the sides, before casting it to Earth. It thus rose from the ground in the form of this red rock.
This must be a joke, thought the man. But of course it did make for an interesting story. He walked around the rock. It did look incredibly red, almost bright crimson. There was an ethereal quality about it, the way it shimmered too brightly in the sun and looked too dense. He was unsure whether this was an accurate judgment of matters, especially after reading such an absurd story.
He walked back to his camel, and took a chisel with him, chipping off a small portion of the rock. He placed it in his satchel, and rode the remainder of the way to town.
I swear I saw the rock, he would later tell his friends over drinks. I was there, and the camel didn’t even budge. It was as if the thing was cursed.
His friends laughed. We have travelled the same route for thirty years and have not seen a thing. Don’t trust your eyes all the time. Dehydration gets to you and you start seeing things. You need to rest.
He wanted to argue back, but decided that he would just drink a little more instead. He didn’t even bother showing them the chiselled portion, just wanted to forget he ever saw the damn thing.
Just as he was about to leave, the bartender grabbed him by the arm, and pulled him over to a quiet corner of the bar.
I’ve heard about your rock before. You’d want to have nothing to do with it. Many travellers have come and gone through my bar. The ones that talk about the rock; they never return.
At this point the man was dead drunk, and so the bartender’s words hardly registered. His friends pulled him back to supposed safety, and they left together, singing rowdily into the Arabian night.
Nothing happened over the next three days, and the man began to feel better about himself and his encounter with the rock. His friends were right, perhaps. It was just an illusion. At night his wife approached him with something in her hand.
I found this in your pocket as I was doing the laundry.
The man looked at her palm, and on it sat a small chipped off portion of the red rock. His heart sank. Yes, he had seen the red rock after all! He took it unsteadily from her hand, and placed it in his drawer.
It’s nothing, he told his wife.
Then you better have a damn good explanation for keeping it, she replied.
I’ll do the laundry next week, was all he could manage. They kissed each other goodnight and blew out the candles.
On the next morning he woke up to an empty bed. His wife was nowhere to be found. He thought that perhaps she had gone off early to the market, but by three in the afternoon she had not returned home. By dinnertime he finally made a report to the authorities, who mounted a citywide search. Through the outskirts of town to every last drain cover they searched. But by last light they had found nothing. She was gone, just like that.
The man was distraught. Wait no, he was worst than distraught. He was unsettled. He grieved without closure. It was the worst kind of grief. He didn’t know what to make of his wife’s disappearance. He had been a good husband to her, and nothing ever came between them. He had no explanations to give the search teams, and as a token of appreciation could only serve them copious amounts of chai every time they came to deliver news.
Three days passed and he began to fear the worst. He was unable to sleep properly, and his appetite decreased tremendously. He lost an indecent amount of weight and began to pray before he went to bed, though he was never the religious type.
It was in the most desperate hour before the sun rose that he suddenly remembered an admonition issued by the bartender. The ones that talk about the rock, they never return.
He went over to the bar before it opened for that night, and asked the bartender what he meant. I’m not sure if I should tell you, said the Bartender. One of my customers told me; that the red rock only shows itself to people who are truly in love. It acts as a curse, for those that see it will lose the one they love; and subsequently be driven mad themselves, living out their lives in misery. The customers who have seen the rock have all met a similar fate as you. They have lost their loved ones in one way or another.
But I don’t know if she’s dead or alive, remarked the man.
Ah, see. That’s the strange thing. The bartender was now deep in thought. Yours is the first of its case. Your wife merely disappeared without a trace. I’m not saying she’s still alive, but the rock usually doesn’t leave any space for ambiguities. Either you’re not in love and don’t see the rock, or you see the rock and your loved one dies. Having your wife disappear puts her in a precarious limbo.
A precarious limbo indeed. The man did not know what to expect, but the bartender was right. Day by day he could feel himself going crazy. He needed to do something, even if it meant he might lose everything. He rode his camel back again, to the site where he saw the red rock.
Sure enough, it sat in the sand, clear as day. He thought of his missing wife, and his heart ached. He unmounted his donkey and walked. The rock glistened a brighter red than ever, much brighter than he last remembered.
the inscription was different this time.
You have injured me, and I need my piece back. Give that to me, and I will give you back your wife.
The man chuckled in disbelief. The rock was trying to communicate with him.
Worst of all, he was paying attention. This was all he had to go by. He really missed her, everything about her. This he knew. She was someone that he couldn’t afford to lose, not in this life, not in the lives that followed. Walking back to his camel with his eyes full of tears, he understood what he had to do.
He came back on the next day, small red rock in hand. He had spent the entire night deliberating on what to do, and his steps were tired and draggy. His stomach growled from his self-willed hunger as he presented the small red rock to the larger red rock as he neared. So it has come to this; me offering something to a rock. He placed the rock on the portion that was chipped off. It should have been resolved.
But then something strange happened. The inscriptions of the red rock began to change.
What are you doing? It read. This is not what I want.
Then is this what you want? Thought the man.
From behind his back he produced a sledgehammer that he tucked into his pants, and began hammering at the rock. It was wild and purposeless swings at first, but the strikes became more accurate, more purposeful. A huge storm cloud began to envelop him and the rock, tossing dust and sand all over the place, into his eyes, his clothes. The wind was so strong that it even started to meddle with his posture. He soon found it difficult to stand, and having to strike the rock became all the harder. His hammer merely made contact with the rock, not ever causing a dent. The sand then started producing shapes in the air. He saw an image of his wife appear in front of him, beautiful in youth, then suddenly turning older. Her eyes sank into their sockets in a matter of seconds and her skin sagged in huge wrinkly flaps. She began to defacate uncontrollably as she squatted on the ground. The sand made him see all this. She looked like a mess. He stopped hammering, and stared at the apparition. The skin started falling off his wife, and she motioned to him, pointing an accusing finger. Soon all that was left was a skeleton, frail and trembling before that, too, crumbled to the ground, blown away by the prevailing wind.
It was at that moment that he felt an ineffable warmth well up within, overflowing with an intensity that matched the sound of the wind. Despite all that he saw, he still wanted her to be safe and by his side, he decided. I still love her he said to himself. But he didn’t need to say this to know. To love is to believe, to stop hope from turning cruel. He felt this hope as he gripped the hammer tightly, and with a newfound strength went at the rock, screaming and hacking away at it.
He realised later that the rock was testing him, and he had passed the test. But then he knew that this was never about him. In the distance he could hear the sound of his camel screaming, calling out to be released but still he kept swinging, feeling larger pieces of the rock chipping off.
The storm ended as quickly as it started. The rock was completely destroyed by then. It laid crumbled and broken, beaten silly into the ground. The man was covered in dust, and almost completely floored. He was gasping for breath, and longed for a sip of water. But he was alive. And a part of him knew that she was, too. His love had outlasted the rock.
He took the camel back, and noticed that the town, too, was ravaged by the sandstorm. Some of the flimsier roofs had collapsed and the outdoor market was forced to close down. But other than that, everyone was safe. His house looked to be in good shape, and as he got home he heard a voice.
I just came from the market and you wouldn’t believe the size of the sandstorm that hit us.
He went up to his wife and held her lightly in his arms, as if making sure he wouldn’t be hugging thin air if he squeezed any harder.
What’s with this? She asked, kissing him on the cheek. what happened to you? You seem so much…skinnier. I don’t remember you like this.
Nothing, I’m just… glad. Glad you didn’t get swept away by the sandstorm.
She laughed at him. Don’t be silly, no one gets swept away by a sandstorm. Oh my, will you stop fussing?
The man wiped his eyes and held her tight this time. We just don’t want to take things for granted, do we?
I guess not, said the wife. By the way I’ve been meaning to ask since morning; where did you go, and what’s with that bucket of red paint you left in the room?
Nothing much, he replied. Just had some errands to run.
He felt his pocket for the real red rock, the one he had chipped off on that fateful day. He held it out to look at it against the sunlight spilling in from the windows. It glowed brighter than ever, a stark reminder of the love that had overcome.