Thursday, 6 April 2017

Mareijke's Courage Chapter 1

He either fears his fate too much,
Or his deserts are small,
That puts it not unto the touch
To win or lose it all …

James Graham, Marquis of Montrose

Standing on the hot sand sheets of the Sahara, Mareijke silently acquainted herself with the parched personality of the forbidding desert.  The sand-laden wind burned her soft skin as she scanned the dunes in front of her. She knew she could stand there for days with the ever-migrating landscape staring back at her, always a foreigner.
The caravaneers with whom she was travelling were used to the harshness of the Sahara. Unlike them, Mareijke was sensitive to the dry land and wind-blown sand. Her breath burned in her throat. Who could possibly live in the Sahara for a lifetime, she wondered, as she looked at the barren string of undulating dunes?
Watching the camels lope past on their gangling legs, Mareijke longed for the cool Atlantic breeze in Agadir. The thermometer had burned at 54 degrees Celsius on their arrival at the oasis, but now the sun was setting on amber and pink dunes and her blistering day was finally coming to an end.  Her reverence for the open space that stretched out all around her strengthened her appreciation for water, a scarce and frail resource for the denizens of the arid and mystifying Sahara.
The isolated oasis itself was nothing like any picture-book impressions she had ever seen. Humbly keeping its ground beneath the tormenting sun, it lay camouflaged against the sand-tolerant land. Stripped of all dignity, the oasis was vulnerable and unprotected from the ravages of the desert.
Other than the few miserly scattered date palms to warrant shade and dwarf variants squatting nearby, there was a mud-dried house with thick walls.
“Ta’alay ma’ee,” an elderly woman said, beckoning Mareijke to follow her.
She took Mareijke inside the house. Entering the cool interior, Mareijke was glad to escape the glare and heat of the day. Even though water was scant, she was able to wash off the sand that had stung her skin. Her reddened green eyes hurt, even when she closed them.
With night and temperatures falling fast, Mareijke found life tolerable again. The greatest relief was that the humming fly-swarms had all gone off to rest. Leaving the house reluctantly, she joined her travelling companions in a nomad camelhair-dining tent. She sat down on a beautifully woven rug and accepted the warm bowl of soup given to her by the elderly woman. She ate slowly. There were flour-cakes dipped in a fruity olive oil, couscous, meat, vegetables, bread and fruit. It was a colourful array of dishes, but with drained energy Mareijke had no desire to move and even less to eat.
After dinner, they left the carpeted tent to sit beneath the fresh and clear night dome. Mareijke looked at the distant deckle-edged mountains painted black against the fiery canvas of sky, while the melancholic cry of a lone fox lingered eerily in the silence pervading the air. Too exhausted to enjoy the company of the caravaneers on her first night in the desert bivouac, she quietly bade them goodnight and crawled into her tent to find solace in sleep. Mareijke fell asleep almost immediately. Not even the laughter and intriguing conversation of the caravaneers could keep her curious mind awake.
The night was long and even though she had hoped to wake before dawn to enjoy some new morning air before the intense heat of the day stumbled in, consciousness had evaded her. By the time Mareijke opened her eyes, the heat-evoked day was upon her quite unexpectedly and her skin already damp with perspiration.
It would have been more desirable if they had left the oasis before the sun had made its eastern ascension on the whitened horizon, but Mareijke’s travel guide had postponed their travels so that she could get all the rest she so desperately needed.
Hesitant and despondent, Mareijke listened to the activities outside her tent. Preparations were underway for their departure. She sat up and dressed in the small confined space. Like most of the native women, she covered much of her body puritanically with fine woollen clothing.
She emerged from the tent with strained eyes. The glaring day came as no surprise; there was sand everywhere. Mareijke had a sudden burning desire to take refuge beneath the surface of the sand, anything to escape the omnipresent blinding light.
Had the morning occurred during any other period in time, Mareijke may have found herself marvelling at the vast openness that spread out in front of her. Unfortunately, life had dealt her a tragic blow and her suffering now blinded her to the beauty of the desert.
“Good morning,” her handsome travel guide greeted affably. “You have rested well, but we must eat and leave before we swelter in the sun.”
“How much farther do we have to travel?” she asked, inwardly berating herself for her restless desire to end the jaded journey.
“It’s not that far, but we travel slowly.”
Less enthralled to hear that they would be crawling at tortoise pace across the foreboding sand, Mareijke swallowed her dismal apprehensions. She had barely arrived in Morocco and was already living the life of a sloth, dragging herself from one heat-impaired moment to the next.
Fortunately, the wet rest stop had made it possible for her to regain some of her sapped strength. Her parched throat welcomed the cool liquid that tumbled gently into her empty stomach. She had no idea what she was drinking, but the cool sweetness quenched her daunted nerves.
After breakfast, the ineluctable journey started again. The heavily loaded camels got up onto their spindly legs, whining and moaning very loudly. Mounted on one of the camels, which was part of the camel-train south, Mareijke watched her travel guide lead her away from the oasis. He had warned her that travelling across the wide-open plains would be dangerous. Yet, the perilous journey had to take place.
As the sun mercilessly scorched her view, Mareijke took a mental journey back to the early hours of that morning when her flight had departed from Cape Town.
It was a twelve-hour flight to London. Mareijke hated every minute of it. Throughout her life, she had never liked confinement. She had liked neither sitting inert nor waiting. Being stuck in the aircraft with its limitations made the flight an indolent tumour in her mind. The plane seemingly made little advancement across the stretch of sky and her thoughts charged up and down the aisles of her exhausted mind like little raging bulls in a china shop, shattering all optimism as far as they went.
The painless minutes sat on the face of her watch, lethargic like most of the passengers. The less Mareijke wanted to think, the more she was bound to thought. Her deep concerns about the Moroccan assignment became constant companions throughout the flight. It was the uncomfortable idea of travelling alone across the vast and isolated territory with an assigned travelling guide that weighed her down the most. Mareijke based her fears on her knowledge of Arabian men who dominated their women with disrespect. She knew the travelling guide was neither Arabian nor Moroccan. Yet, the thought of travelling with the stranger who had spent a lifetime in the company of these perceptions – against equality and women – was very discouraging.
She arrived at Heathrow Airport, pleased to find herself on hitch-free flight schedules to Casablanca and Agadir. Mareijke disembarked from the airplane at the Al Massira Airport feeling depleted and amort. The long procedure of entering the foreign country prolonged her meeting the travel guide, but after entering the terminal in Agadir, Mareijke’s mental metamorphosis became clear when she saw Béch Rousseau for the very first time.
Mareijke realized that he was nothing like she had expected. She found herself mesmerized by the stalwart man who stood against the rail in pensive mood. His white shirt enhanced his dark brown wind-tussled hair and bronze tan.
Béch stepped forward and inquired, “Mareijke van Staalduinen?”
“Yes,” she replied and wondered for the first time what impression her own dishevelled appearance was making upon the young man. She was comforted by his warm disposition: the glimmer in his light brown eyes, and his suave and cultivated voice. Her self-inflicted fears diminished within seconds, leaving her less reluctant to endure what lay ahead.
“Welcome to Morocco,” he said warmly. “I’ve booked a room for you at one of the hotels here in Agadir.”
“No!” she exclaimed imperiously.
Almost immediately she was embarrassed by her injunction, but her embarrassment evaporated quickly when an amused expression flickered subtly on Béch’s face. Mareijke was infuriated by it. Exhaustion was making her emotions mercurial and she realized she was in danger of exposing her vulnerability.
“You need to rest. The journey will be difficult and …”
“We must leave immediately,” she interrupted.
Their eyes locked. She was convinced that there would be a play for power, but Béch stepped back.
“I will see what I can arrange.”
For a moment, Mareijke was disappointed. She expected him to flout her orders and was prepared to take him on, but he gave in so easily. She watched him as he walked away. There was an air of supremacy in the way he walked. She continued to watch him until he disappeared from view.  Having no strength to dwell on his subtle act of surrender, Mareijke walked towards the bathroom to refresh and again, like so many times before, considered her father’s testament.  
Dawid van Staalduinen had instructed Mareijke, his only child, to travel to Morocco to retrieve three specific artifacts he had left behind the year of her birth. She had to return to Cape Town with the artifacts in order to receive her inheritance. Through the written testament, Dawid had assigned Béch Rousseau to assist her in her travels across the desert. After reading the testament to her, the executor of her father’s estate had arranged the entire journey. 
Her father had always spoken about his adventures in Morocco. The Arabs had brought Islam to Africa many centuries ago and for Dawid and some archaeology students from Stellenbosch, it had been a challenge to visit Morocco and preach the evangelistic message. It was on their travels through Casablanca at the start of the nineteen-eighties that Dawid had met Béch’s father, Armand Rousseau.
Armand had been working on an archaeological research programme at the time. Upon learning that the young missionaries were archaeologists, he had invited them to join him in his travels to the more remote areas around Casablanca. The young archaeologists had worked quite eagerly with Armand on his project, while Dawid preferred to spend his time preaching to the nomads. Béch spent his early childhood years growing up around the archaeological sites where his father and Dawid had worked.
Béch had turned six years old when Dawid van Staalduinen returned to South Africa to take over a family export business. Mareijke was born a year later and raised in Cape Town. While Dawid had spoken of Béch Rousseau many times, she had never met him. His visits to South Africa were rare, mostly because her father had preferred to do all the travelling.
Her father trusted Béch implicitly and had assigned him the mission because he knew Béch would keep Mareijke safe. But to her, he remained a stranger. With this thought hanging in her mind, she slowly returned to the air terminal. And there he was, waiting for her – as if he had never left.
 “Well?” she prompted.
“I have made several enquiries,” Béch informed her. “There’s a helicopter pilot here at the airport that may be able to help us. Would you like to wait here while I speak to him?”
“No,” she said quickly and followed him closely to where the pilot was waiting.
The French communication that took place between the two men was as incomprehensible to her as her father’s written testament. She didn’t understand why her father wanted her to personally retrieve the artifacts. He knew how she felt about travelling and his business. She didn’t know why having the artifacts would qualify her to inherit the business.  It would have been so much easier just to give the artifacts to Béch. Surely he would be more interested in them.
Mareijke watched the pilot intensely and soon discovered that he was not particularly well-disposed towards helping them. The pilot’s phone rang and he excused himself. She continued to watch him. The telephone conversation appeared to be very argumentative and the pilot’s unhappiness was evident, but then quite unexpectedly he looked at her. He listened, agreed to something and ended the call. She felt extremely uncomfortable beneath his scrutiny. He returned to Béch and agreed to take them to the designated oasis in the desert.
Béch’s foresight had made him send his caravaneers on the long trip to the oasis a few days prior to Mareijke’s arrival. He knew exactly what Dawid’s testament stipulated, which required them to make the journey by camel. While the experience was one that Dawid had believed would be appreciated in years to come, Béch was more concerned about the risks involved.
Times had changed and desert travel had become hazardous. With Mareijke being a woman, the stakes were higher. A newcomer to the desert region would also find it difficult to endure such a harsh journey. Dawid had been living in Morocco for almost seven years and was well acquainted with the desert and climate when he first joined a camel-train to the south. They also had more time in those days to travel the treacherous distance to the mountainous region.
In present times, given the circumstances, time was an archenemy on the vast open desert plains and Béch was unable to make it easier for Mareijke because his camels could only travel as far as 30 kilometres per day.
The helicopter flight seemed endless. Mareijke was too tired to enjoy the landscape and wished they would reach the oasis. She had no idea what to expect, but wanted the flight to end. Suddenly, the pilot received an urgent summon to return to Agadir. Béch understood the message clearly.
“He has to return to Agadir, Mareijke,” Béch informed her.
“How far is the oasis?”
“Not close enough, I’m afraid.”
“We can’t go back,” she said.
“Did you see the camel train that we passed a few minutes ago?” Béch asked.
“Yes,” she answered.
“It’s travelling in the same direction as the oasis,” Béch continued. “The choice is yours. We can return to Agadir or travel with the caravan.”
“We have an agreement. He can’t just leave us here in the middle of nowhere,” Mareijke exclaimed.
“I don’t think he has much of a choice, but we do. Do we go back or travel with the caravan?”
“I’m not going back,” Mareijke said adamantly.
The helicopter had turned and was already heading for the coast. Once Béch spotted the camel train, he asked the pilot to land on a dry stretch of flat land. The pilot waited for Béch to reach an agreement with the caravaneers before lifting into the sky and leaving. The friendly young men welcomed Béch and Mareijke very warmly, but she knew their hospitality was misguided as soon as Béch started handing out wads of paper money.
As they approached the camel on which Mareijke was to travel, Béch warned her of the animal’s anti-social tendency to spit. She approached it with even greater care. It was the first time she had ever seen a living camel. She found nothing attractive in the way the tall beast stood sneering down at her with its enormous yellow teeth and breath that had been hung out to die. It was potently pungent.
The camel dropped gracefully onto its haunches to accommodate her. Béch told her that the camel’s ascension from the ground would occur in phases and explained in detail what she needed to expect and how she would have to react to prevent herself from falling. She climbed onto the leather saddle quite easily, but when the camel got up onto its spindly legs, she was lurched forward and thrown back. As it ascended in its phases, the whole procedure of being thrown forward and back was repeated. Alarmed at the prospect of losing both her balance and dignity, Mareijke was relieved to find herself still seated in the swaying saddle by the time the camel was up and standing on its broad feet. The camel-train then moved forward and Mareijke was gently lulled into the swaying rhythm of the camel’s gait.
“The money will prevent us from being marooned on this vast ocean of sand,” Béch said.
“That’s a relief,” Mareijke answered.
“I know that landing in this desolate area is not part of our plans,” Béch said warily. “But if I have to be honest, I prefer it.”
“Why?” Mareijke asked.
“There’s just something about the pilot I don’t trust.”
The only thing that comforted Mareijke at that point was her knowledge that the caravaneers at the oasis were Béch’s companions. They were people he trusted.
While trust did not come very easily for Mareijke, it was her father’s high opinion of the young man that had formed the basis of her trust in Béch Rousseau. It was the only reason why she had embarked on the journey in the first place.
Mareijke had no desire to travel across the desert to look for the artifacts her father had left behind.  Long before arriving in Morocco, she had already decided that she would not like the heat and discomforts that desert travelling offered and she preferred to stay true to her initial instincts.
Having rested at the oasis gave her new perspective and now, travelling away from it on a different camel, Mareijke sat quietly in awe of the vastness of the desert. She was living her father’s dream. She was experiencing the same immense infinity of sand-swept terrain as he had done so many years ago, her thoughts constantly shifting with the sand.
“Your mind is never in one place,” he had said. “Different thoughts filter through it on such a long and unique journey. It’s a journey, my child, where you learn to discover your true self.”
As camel hooves padded comfortably across the soft sand, a perfect line of dunes with endless red curves loomed on one side. A sea of sand on the other side swallowed Mareijke’s fears and thirst. She knew Béch would not make another desolate stop because of the contingent dangers that lurked behind the dunes.
As if anticipating danger, she looked up to the top of the nearest dune where a line of metal predators intruded on her thoughts. Carefully scanning the length of territory invaded by the unexpected visitors, Mareijke turned to look at Béch. He was wary of their company. He looked at her and his visage acknowledged his concern.
“Unfortunately, this is open territory,” he said calmly.
Mareijke’s imagination was given reins. It was the genesis of being preyed upon without safehold. They had nowhere to flee. They weren’t moving along a given track. They were mere specks of dust on the surface of the desert’s scale, yet visible and victim to a much greater force: the power of knowledge. The enemy had known about their journey and patiently anticipated their arrival.
The unsubdued sea of sand glistened as the Saharan light danced on the metallic pack of land cruisers.  She was given no time to contemplate an outcome as the sudden sound of engines tumbled down the side of the dune, vehicles in pursuit. There was no point in moving forward and Béch brought the camel-train to a stop.
Mareijke looked up at the cobalt-blue sky and left a prayer on the wind as she watched their assailants approach with noise and swirls of sand.
  

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