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A British soldier, lost in the desert, stumbles upon an enemy camp

The evening sky—infused with soft pink and purple hues of twilight from the last dying rays of the sun—was beginning to darken, and a silvery, pale crescent moon was emerging, along with the first pinpricks of light from the stars, bathing the barren landscape underneath with their warm glow. Fine, powdery sand whipped into the air in unpredictable spurts and swirled about like gentle whirlpools before settling down in sinuous ripples—fragile patterns that could easily be effaced by a wave of the hand. Somehow, these tiny specks of grain gathered, in unquantifiable amounts, to create giant dunes, piles and piles of differing heights. In the dimness, their silhouettes dipped and peaked like a surreal mountain landscape, except these were continuously changing shapes, continuously moving, continuously being molded by the direction of the wind. In this place, time almost holds still—like a land that has not been polluted by human touch.

Almost, but not quite—in the distance, an open-topped, weather-beaten Jeep crawled slowly and laboriously up the side of a sand dune. Its searching headlamps jolted here and there as it worked its way through the desert, finally coming to a halt at the crest of the last dune, before the drop to the valley. Leaning back from the illuminated dashboard—where a flashing red light indicated he was out of gas—a young, ginger-haired man with doleful eyes peered over the windscreen.

From below, a melancholy, hollow sound drifted up with the cool night breeze. It was the song of the Arabian ney, an instrument capable of making the most mournful melody that reaches the depth of one’s soul. He suddenly succumbed to an overwhelming sense of sadness. It brought back memories of his tragic loss, so many years ago, so distant yet still so fresh, and of his solitary journey through life ever since. Dejectedly, he wiped away the tears from his cheek and hopped out of the Jeep, feet sinking deeply into the soft, fine sand, still a touch warm from the searing heat of the day.

Looking down, he saw with much relief the inviting sight of a flickering fire dancing and twirling in the midst of a tented Bedouin camp. He could make out tiny, dark figures striding about, some carrying plates, others sitting cross-legged on ornate carpets laid about the fire. Weary but still vigilant, he hesitated slightly until the wafting aroma of skewered lamb, along with the tang of frankincense, reached him. He shivered in the chill of the evening, his stomach growling plaintively, in need of a satisfying meal. He could resist no longer.

Guided by the scent of the food and the welcoming warmth, he treaded down the dune, tripping occasionally on a parched, desiccated shrub in the semi-darkness. Bleary-eyed, he adjusted to the glowing light ahead as he approached the camp. Robed men wearing thawbs were crouched on the sand, consuming chargrilled chicken and lamb kebabs that had been roasted above the seething fire. A platter of rice, strewn with barbecued prawns and dolloped with spicy sauce, was being passed around and spooned generously upon plates. He closed his eyes as he envisioned the tantalizing morsels sliding down his throat.

A low, raspy voice behind jerked him violently out of his trance. He whipped around to see a man, face cloaked in shadow.

“Welcome, stranger,” said the dark figure. “You have strayed upon the camp of Walaba. Tonight, however, we receive you in peace. For tonight is a special night.” He motioned with his arm and a tilt of his head. “Please, join us.”

“Well, soldier, you came on a very unique night.”

Heart racing, but tempted by desperate hunger and thirst, he followed obediently to the circle of men around the fire. They looked up in unison, interested but unalarmed, as their leader spoke to them in Arabic, seemingly explaining this unplanned arrival. The weathered, crinkled faces, partially illuminated by the crackling firelight, stared up at him, nodding, before resuming their low chattering. He sat down cautiously upon a beautiful, intricate carpet and could have cried with relief when he was handed a goblet overflowing with cold water. Gulping it, along with a plate of wonderfully seasoned, possibly the best, food he’d ever tasted, he lay down at last, content, upon the rug.

The leader of the group studied him carefully and looked genuinely pleased that his unexpected guest was satisfied with his meal. He brought out a hookah and lit the coals beneath the large water pipe to smoke.

“I am Ahmed. And you? What brings you to our humble tent tonight?”

“I am a British soldier. My troop sent me on an errand across the desert and I . . . lost my way.”

Ahmed nodded. “Well, soldier, you came on a very unique night.” He continued to smoke, slowly. The gurgling of his water pipe was very calming to the soldier. After a long while, Ahmed raised himself off the ground and signaled to the rest of the group. One by one, they got up and followed him silently. The soldier, suddenly feeling uneasy again, remained seated until the group turned to wait for him. Reluctantly, he followed them out of the camp.

Fiery World

They passed the slumbering herd of camels, whose single humps were visible in the moonlit night. The soldier marveled at how much larger these creatures were than he had imagined. The camels were quiet, huddled in a group after what must have been a long day of toil. Ahmed led the men on and on through a winding track in the valley until they were very far from the camp. The first thoughts of panic started to grip the young soldier. Where were they taking him?

Suddenly, an intoxicating scent washed over him. It wafted sweetly through the air and brought back memories of his mother’s garden— filled with wild mixes of peonies, delphiniums, hollyhocks, and rambling roses that she loved. He was reminded of the cottage they lived in, near the Chiltern Hills. Those pleasant afternoon teas with his family in the backyard—sitting around the table together, eating buttery scones with luscious homemade strawberry jam and drinking iced lemonade—as the sun flitted down through the sheltering branches of the ancient oak tree in watery shafts of light. And the croquet games with his older brothers and sisters while his parents sipped tea . . .

He felt momentarily at a loss as he remembered that fateful day.

It was the loveliest of British summer days. He remembered skipping up the road, proud to be allowed to go to the corner shop on his own for the first time. The coins jiggled in his pocket after he purchased his ice cream. Just a block away, his family was waiting with the rest of the town to see the parade of British soldiers pass by. Then came the seismic explosion that shook the shop and knocked everything to the ground, smashing bottles and shattering windows. As he struggled to his feet and ran out onto the pavement, he saw with horror the catastrophic effects of the bomb, the smoldering wrecks of vehicles, and the bodies . . . bodies everywhere. The waning screams of people all around filled his ears. And where, where was his family?

“We are here,” declared Ahmed, looking at him inquisitively. He pointed with his finger to a patch of field. Below, each as delicate, fragile, and ornate as a porcelain teapot, were a dozen large flowers in full bloom, with creamy-white, waxy petals that opened up to the night sky. This was the source of the intoxicating sweet scent they had been following for a quarter of a mile.

“The Queen of the Night,” Ahmed gestured proudly. “Blossoms only once a year for the night. She will wilt before the sunrise, leaving behind only her fragrant phantom scent . . . so rare and so precious.”

The soldier sank to his knees, breathed in a sigh of deep relief, and then uncontrollably began to weep. Such beauty, such beauty exists in this place. Concerned, Ahmed trudged over and patted him gently on the shoulder. Somehow, he seemed to understand. “Please, my brother. You are welcome to join us in prayer.”

As all the men kneeled in one direction for the nighttime prayer, the first of the wilting white petals began to drop.