A hot, dry wind blew across the Moroccan desert. Ali and his pregnant wife, Fatima, were returning from another unsuccessful grand bazaar in Timbuktu. They had sold less than half their wares, and their one-year-old daughter, Salma, who had always been a feeble child, had come down with a bad fever. The usually packed trade route had been strangely empty the last few hours, and though it was almost unheard of to make camp alone on these roads, with the sun setting quickly they would have to make do. Perhaps it was a blessing from Allah, at least to other travelers, not to have to have to try and sleep with a wailing child in camp.
Ali tied up their camels and set up their tent as Fatima tended to Salma. He hoped the cold desert night and winds would ease her fever and let her sleep. Ali and Fatima said their evening prayers, then ate a cold dinner, too exhausted from the day’s long ride and Salma’s wails to cook. Having eaten, they all laid down, taking turns gently rocking Salma, trying to get ease her to sleep, but she could not be soothed.
After the sun had set and twilight gave way to night, Salma had still not calmed. Ali told Fatima that he needed to walk for awhile and have a moment’s peace, and that when he returned she should do the same. Ali grabbed a small bag of gear, then left the tent and made his way into the moonlit night. He walked until the only sound around him was the wind and his steps. He shivered and sighed in the same breath, laying down in the still warm sand.
Ali closed his eyes and breathed slowly, thinking he would lay there for only a short time before returning. Just a short rest, that’s all he needed.
Ali awoke with a start. The night was completely still. A cloud covered the crescent moon, leaving only the stars for light. It was enough to see, but just barely. Hoping he hadn’t slept too long, Ali made his way back towards camp.
Ali had gone back the exact same way he had come, he was sure of it, yet after walking longer than he remembered it taking to arrive at his dozing spot he could not recognize any of the desert around him. Unsure where or how he had gone wrong he turned back, deciding it better to start again from where he had been than try to correct his path from wherever he was.
Again Ali walked, and again he found himself in unfamiliar desert. He began to worry. He pulled a lantern from his bag. He hated to waste expensive oil, but needed to find his way back and could afford no more delays. Fatima would surely be worried and angry, and she needed sleep as badly as him. Once lit, the lamp’s flame cast a shaking sphere of light around him, yet where his tracks should have been all he found was undisturbed sand.
Ali gripped the holy pouch filled with sacred passages hanging from his neck and prayed for protection. He expanded his search further out, circling the area, his growing fear quickening his step. On the second pass, when fear had begun to turn to panic and addle his senses, he saw a flat stone just outside of the lantern’s light. Ali rushed to it, thanking Allah for a marker in these cursed sands.
Ali cleared the stone and inspected its surface. Something had once been carved into it, but whether words or symbol he couldn’t say, either had long since been worn away. Standing on the stone, he held his lantern high, and to his surprise he spotted another stone just beyond the light. He made his way to it, and quickly found the next one. A trail, but to where?
Ali feared the path ahead and feared the path behind. He slumped down on the stone and had all but resolved to wait out the night deep in prayer until Allah brought the sun to cleanse this place of whatever evils had befallen it. Just then something in the lantern’s light caught his eye. He reached out from where he sat, plucked it from the sand, then examined it in the lantern light. It was a gold ring set with a emerald the size of the nail on his small finger. Its brilliant luster and flawless cut took Ali’s breath away. With it he could support his family for a year or more! Ali closed his hand around the ring, brow furrowed as he silently considered the shadowed stone ahead of him in the distance. With a sigh he carefully pocketed the ring, stood, and made his way to next stone marker.
Ali followed the stone trail until its end a hundred or so makers later. Along the way two more items in the sand caught his lantern’s light, two thick gold coins the size of his palm stamped with strange unfamiliar symbols. Those tiny treasures had brought tears to his eyes thinking about the better life they would allow him to give to his family. Ali was surveying the sands, trying to decide what to do next, when a bright flash startled him. He spun, heart racing, unsure of what it had been until the low, slow rumble of thunder reached him. Storms this time of year were very rare. But before he could ponder it further the clouds above broke and unhid the moon. Ali blew out his lantern and let his eyes adjust, and when they had the moonlight revealed to him what appeared to be a large stone well not far off.
Crossing the distance, Ali’s initial assessment was confirmed. The well was waist high, perhaps a span across, and old beyond any measure. Each stone in its construction was covered in strange carvings, similar to the ones on the coins he had found. The symbols left him ill at ease, though he could not have said why. A strange smell like sea and sulfur was coming from the well. Ali peered cautiously into the well, but could see nothing.
Ali reeled at monstrous voice that had come from inside the well, slipping in the loose sand and falling heavily. His heart pounded as he tried to conjure the strength to flee, but it never came. He was still cowering in the sand when the voice came again.
“Stand, Ali, and come near.”
And Ali obeyed before he realized what he had done. He held the edge of the well tightly and stared into the black hole before him, sensing something was there but unable to see it. He worked up the nerve to retrieve his lantern, his shaking hands making several attempts before he lit it. Ali lowered the light into the well, and the moment he saw what was there he dropped the lantern. A giant scaled mouth, now washed in a wave of oil flames and broken glass, grinned up at him, revealing serrated teeth the size of his hand. Ali didn’t know if it was fear or sorcery, but he could not look away from the horror before him. The flames quickly burned themselves out, leaving only darkness and acrid smoke.
“Your daughter is ill, Ali” said the mouth, “She will not live to morning.”
She would not live. Ali somehow knew those words to be true, and his eyes swelled with tears as he was overcome by anguish.
“She is far too young to have accomplishments to her name, but give her to me while she still breathes and I will give her life a purpose. Soon your son will be born, yet your wares yield no money to provide for him or your wife, and harder times are coming. Give her to me and I will give you wealth and power. Her legacy will be that of having saved her family and securing its long lineage.”
“I cannot give my Salma to a monster! I will find a way to save her!”
“Who will save her in this dark and empty desert? You? You are lost if you are here, Ali. Can you find your way back by morning?”
“I have to try!”
Ali turned to go, but found the stones gone and only empty identical desert in every direction as far as he could see in the moonlight. The low rumble of thunder reached him as his hopes sank. He turned back to the well.
“Would you save her?”
Ali’s heart was broken. Salma had been sick most of her short life, but he had always prayed she would grow stronger. Now he would never share her joys or comfort her from her sorrows. It wasn’t fair. How could Allah take her from them so young. As Ali weeped for the loss of his daughter’s future, the cracks in his heart began to fill with fear. Sales had been getting worse, and his family already lived a life of poverty, something he had always been terribly ashamed of. He did not know how he would support his family when the treasures he held were spent.
“I…I will bring her to you.”
“Good” cooed the reptilian mouth. “Take these as payment.”
Ali found he held a pouch of gold coins heavy enough that he struggled to hold it, each coin like the ones he had discovered before. Around his neck hung a gold pendant, and Ali shuddered when he beheld its design — a blazing sun, but with a mouth like the one in the well, and a single terrible eye.
“This talisman bestows sandwalking upon its wearer. Call to the sands and they will transport you anywhere you desire within their realms. Use it to return to your camp and retrieve your daughter. You will know how to find me. You will always know. Now go.”
Ali thought of Salma, and Fatima, and his unborn son as he whispered for the sand to return him to them. He felt the air fill with power as winds whipped and spun around him, forming a dust devil which blocked his sight. He shut his eyes and shielded his face, yet no debris reached him. As quickly as they had begun the winds died down and Ali opened his eyes and found he stood in his camp.
Slowly, quietly, reluctantly, Ali stepped into the tent. Though Salma still cried, Fatima, in her exhaustion, was sound asleep. He set the heavy bag of gold beside his wife and lifted his daughter into his arm. She was as hot as the sun at midday and so weak. He held her close as she continued to wail, whispering prayers, apologies, and how much he loved her over and over again as they left the tent. Again he called to the sands, and they returned him to the well.
Ali held his crying daughter over the well, his hands shaking, his eyes filled with tears. The moment he let her go he regretted it. He lunged for her, nearly falling in, yet could not save her from himself. Ali’s last memory of his daughter would always be watching her fall into the darkness and the monstrous mouth it contained, knowing it was his fault.
He heard the mouth snap shut and Salma cries were silenced. A deep rumble emanating from the well grew from shaking dust from the stones to shaking the earth beneath Ali’s feet until he was toppled from the force.
“An innocent child given willingly by her father. A finer prize I’ve never tasted.”
“Do not revel in her death or my suffering!” Ali’s sadness gave over so easily to rage. “I have lost my Salma, my only daughter!”
“So willingly,” cooed the mouth.
“What choice did I have! Her illness would have taken her by morning! It was the only mercy, for all of us!”
“Her illness would have taken her?” The mouth laughed slow and cruelly.
It was then Ali knew.
“You said she would not live the night, but not because of her fever.”
The mouth laughed louder, mocking Ali as he crumpled into the sands, crying from shame as the painful realization crushed him. He thought to throw himself into the well, a just punishment, but couldn’t take more away from his family than he had already, and wouldn’t give more to the well than it had already taken. When Ali could cry no more, he fought against the emptiness inside him and called upon the sands to deliver him from this terrible place.
When the wind and dust settled, he stood before his frightened wife.
“Where is Salma!” she cried, “Where did this gold come from? What has happened!”
He stood silent for a moment, shaking and unable to meet Fatima’s eyes, then rushed to her and burst into tears.
“I fell asleep in the sand, and when I returned I found Salma had died in her sleep. I’m so sorry. I took her out into the sands and buried her. As I dug the grave I unearthed this bag. Allah could not give us back our daughter, but he saw our pain and wished to ease it with the means to raise our son.”
The lie burned his tongue and soul to say, but Ali couldn’t bear to lose more than he had already, and hoped desperately that with their help he might one day earn forgiveness for his crime. As his held his crying wife to him, Ali could hear laughter echoing in the distance.