Once upon a time there was a girl. She lived with her family in an arid, barren land. They scavenged what they could to survive. It was rarely enough. She had never seen rain. And then one evening they trudged over a rocky hill much like all the others, and there, in the valley beyond, lay a little pocket of green.
“What is it?” the girl asked her sister. Her sister shrugged.
“It’s an oasis,” her father replied.
“What is that?”
“It’s a place of water, and of peaches, apricots, and green and growing things.”
The girl stared. She had never seen such a thing, but suddenly she knew it was the thing toward which they had been walking her whole life. “It’s beautiful,” the girl said at last. “It looks like heaven. I will be happy there.”
“No, you won’t,” her father snorted. “Oases are not for such as we.”
But the girl knew better. She and her sister hurried down the hill rather than lagging behind their parents as they usually did. As they neared the valley floor the girl could hear the plashing of the fountains. She could see the water sparkling through the trees. Golden pink balls hung on the trees. She could smell a sweetness so rich the juices in her mouth—dry for many days—flooded to her lips, and her jaws ached.
She and her sister had nearly reached the first trees when her father said, “We’ll camp here.” Her sister turned and scuffed back toward their parents, but the pull of the oasis was too strong for the girl. She threw a look over her shoulder. Her father stood in the blazing desert sun, his heavy boot crushing a tiny white skeleton. The girl turned back toward the fountains, the green trees, and the peaches.
“Where do you think you’re going?” his voice flicked her back, stinging like a whip.
She stopped again, turned, and stared at him. Could he not see the fountains? Could he not smell the fruit?
“You get back here, little girl,” he roared. “I wouldn’t have believed my daughter could do such a thing, if I hadn’t seen it with my own eyes. You get back here into the desert, where you belong.What kind of a girl are you?”
She cast another glance at the fruit trees and the fountains just a few feet away. She could almost feel the cool water on her face, laving her arms, soothing her feet. She breathed in the peaches’ sweetness, and her jaw ached anew, and the juices flooded her tongue. She could almost taste the phantom sweetness.
“Get back here, or you’ll wish you had.”
She could almost taste them, but she knew her father was right, if she didn’t get back there, right now, she would certainly wish she had. She could hear it in his voice.
Slowly, so slowly, she turned away from the lush, fragrant oasis and trudged back up the hill. Her legs and feet ached. Her younger sister and her mother had busied themselves starting a tiny fire, shaking out the dried animal dung they carried for the purpose into a neat pile, just enough to cook their supper, with nothing left over, nothing wasted. It was the wisdom of the desert, surviving on nothing.
Her mother squatted over the fire and cooked their meal—rabbit tonight, with a few cactus lobes. As a special treat, because the oasis was nearby, she poured water into the pot and made a little broth with the blood, bones, and flesh. The girl drank her broth greedily, swallowed her tiny cupful of sour goat’s milk—the last the goat would give unless she had another kid, which didn’t seem likely.
When the goatskin waterbag—made from the skin of the last kid, killed and eaten months ago when he could walk no longer—came to her she took her three allotted sips slowly, holding each in her mouth, feeling the membranes swell and plump with the moisture. After her father drank she opened her mouth to ask if she might have more, since they could refill it at the oasis, but before the words cleared her lips he had upended the bag and poured the remainder out on the sand. It sucked the water as greedily as she had. She nearly wept.
“Shall I refill it?” the girl asked.
“No, I will,” her father said. He slung the bag over his shoulder, and strode to the oasis. The girl watched him, black against the blue desert night, then against the village torchlight, and then the golden, sweet-scented oasis poured over him and he was ruddy and bright, teeth flashing white against his black beard and dark face as he greeted the oasis dwellers, slapping backs, throwing an arm around shoulders, a friendly man among friendly men. And then he was lost in the crowd.
It was a very long time before he reappeared at the edge of the crowd, the goatskin water bag turgid and bloated on his shoulder. The girl watched as he raised something to his mouth, took a last bite, threw the remnant into the sand at his feet, wiped his beard clean, and strode, still laughing, to where she waited by the dead fire. She looked at his laughing face, smelled the sweetness of peaches on him, and felt hate swell within her. He saw something of it in her eyes and in her clenched hands.
“What’re you looking so owly about?” he asked. “You look like you’ve lost your last friend.”
She kept the flood of words dammed tight behind her teeth.
He relaxed, allowing her silence to be acquiescence, maybe even approval.
“One of the women there gave me a peach,” he said chattily. “Boy, she sure knows how to fix them—don’t know when I’ve eaten better.”
The hate curdled and turned to self-loathing. The girl knew that she, unlike the woman at the oasis, did not know her way around a peach. The failure crushed her. She would always be less, a desert creature, not a true woman. Peaches were forever beyond her reach, and her father, who had decreed it so, had just made it clear that it was a fatal flaw.
Days later, when trudging through the desert had burned most of the hate away, she asked her father a question. The family sat on a hillside, huddled in the skeletal shade cast by a dead greasewood bush. Her sister lay still, poleaxed by the parching heat. Her father sat in the deepest shade, forearms braced on his knees. He squinted out over the ridges piled up to the horizon. The nearly empty water bag lay beside him. The nearest water was still two days ahead, if it hadn’t dried up. They were having to be very careful.
The girl stared at the flaccid water bag and thought of the oasis, impossibly far away. It might have never been at all.
“Dad?” she asked.
“Huh?” He stared at the horizon.
“Why didn’t you let me go to the oasis?”
He turned toward her at last. She watched his eyes change focus from the infinite to her tired, dusty face. “You know why,” he said gently. “If I’ve told you once, I’ve told you a thousand times.”
“But why? You went there.”
“Oases make us weak, not fit to live in the desert. You start eating and drinking every day and pretty soon you come to expect it.”
“But why couldn’t we just live at the oasis?” she asked, greatly daring. “What’s wrong with eating and drinking every day?”
“And leave all this?” he asked, shocked. “We love the desert. The desert purifies us, makes us holy and strong. Only weaklings live at oases.”
“But why was it all right for you to visit the oasis, drink the cold water, and eat the peaches?”
“Because I didn’t enjoy it,” he said. “I only talk and laugh to be polite. What would the oases dwellers think of us desert folk if I just stalked in there, filled the water bag, and stalked out? We have to show them that living in the desert makes us kinder, friendlier, stronger, better. Maybe then they’ll want to live in the desert, too.”
She thought of him walking back to their camp beside the oasis, head thrown back, roaring laughter to the night sky, and she knew he lied. She also knew it didn’t matter, because his lie was part of the story.
‘They sat silent until the shade shifted around to weary afternoon.
“Get the others up,” her father said. “We have to get moving.”
Why? she wanted to ask. How is this barren hillside any different from the next, or the next, or the next? But she knew better. If they did not find water soon, they would surely die. She crawled over to where her mother and sister lay, shook their shoulders gently, nearly wept to see their sunken, dark eyes open and then film with despair.
They each got a single sip from the water bag. “It’s empty,” the girl’s father said. “We can’t stop until we find water. We’ll be there soon.” Everyone knew he lied. Probably. They trudged off down the hillside. Her sister kept falling. Even when their father snapped at her to “keep up—watch where you’re walking,” her sister kept falling.
They made a dry camp that night on another barren hillside. In the morning her sister’s eyes were open, filmed with sand. Her fingers were stiff and chilly. The girl wanted to cry, but the desert had burned her tears out of her. She left her little sister by the dead fire and trudged on, seeking the water.
The girl didn’t think anymore, and that night, when they made another dry camp next to the dusty streambed that was supposed to have been their salvation, she hardly even felt sad. She just lay still, her cloak pulled around her against the chilling night. She closed her eyes and listened to her breath hissing through her parched mouth, past her swollen tongue.
And then the dim little flame inside her, the flame fed by her rasping, hissing, breath, flickered once, then again, and at last she understood the true wisdom of the desert. The first wisdom—how to live on nothing—she had always known. But lying there, watching the tiny flame at her core gutter, she understood the deeper wisdom, the wisdom that comes when even nothing runs out. Sometimes it’s all right to just stop. And so she did. The hissing rasping fell silent. The flame flickered out, and the desert night was absolute. In the morning her parents trudged on without her. And it was all right.