The red earth spread out around us, and from up above, we would have appeared not so very different than the thousands upon thousands of stones scattered upon her surface. I imagined that we were being watched; even an atheist succumbs from time to time to fantasies about a watcher up above.
We found ourselves in a desert, not of sand, but of packed dirt and stones sprawling as far as the eye could see. The Moroccan sun was hot, but my companion, David, was accustomed to that after spending almost a year teaching English in Errachidia, an eternally sunny city situated between the High Atlas and the nether regions of the East. David didn’t even wear sun-block lotion anymore. His skin had taken on the honey hue of the locals. It was easy to forget where he came from; it seemed as though he had always lived in Morocco. I suppose that my extended visit from the United States served as a reminder to him, a connection to his past.
We weren’t proud men, and I don’t say that of David because he was my friend, but because he was truly humble. I imagine that he remains so, though I haven’t seen him for years. This is a story that occurred in the past when we were young and taken to adventure.
A feeling of satisfaction had descended upon us, a feeling of achievement after having bicycled a good twenty kilometers over rough terrain. Our bicycles lay a few meters off, abandoned for lunch and a short rest. We felt justified in eating our picnic, eagerly tearing into the hard-boiled egg and cheese sandwiches that we had packed before setting out.
With full stomachs and happy hearts, a weariness crept in and a slight chill, so that we both put on the sweaters we’d packed and, not being in a rush, fell asleep under the sun.
I slept for only a short while before the hardness of the ground proved unbearable. I sat up, stretched, and squinted my eyes in the bright light. It was then that I realized there was a watcher after all. He was crouching a few meters past our bicycles. He was not from above; our eyes were level as we stared silently for a moment or two.
I told David to wake up. He would be able to talk to the man. He spoke his language, a distinctly Moroccan dialect of Arabic. I had already witnessed his ability to impress the Moroccans with an unexpected turn of phrase, or a bit of sarcasm that belied the brevity of his acquaintance with the language. David wished the man peace, asked about his health, his family. The man blessed David and asked if we were Americans. David said that, yes, we were Americans, and asked the man how he had guessed. The man said he had heard about an American in the big town who spoke Arabic, but he never expected to meet him out in the middle of nowhere.
The man was interested in obtaining a cigarette. I didn’t smoke and neither did David. The man became agitated at this news and explained how he had tried to stop smoking many times but couldn’t live without it. David translated for me and I nodded my head in understanding, for I had smoked in my college days and had found the habit hard to give up.
The man asked for water; he drank slowly, only a few swallows, and returned the bottle, thanking us excessively and blessing our parentsDavid told the man that he didn’t need to thank us; it was our duty. He then offered the man an orange and a package of cookies. The man accepted the orange and said he would eat it later. I wondered how, laughing to myself, for the man didn’t have a single tooth in his mouth.
He had been on foot all day, on his way from his village to the big town where he hoped to find work. David asked him why he didn’t take a bus to Errachidia and the man explained that walking is good for the health, which I found amusing, given his penchant for smoking.
I offered to give the man twenty Dirhams, plenty for him to catch a bus along the way. David would have stopped me, but the money was already in my extended hand. The man again blessed our parents and said he’d be going now. We shook hands, placed our hands over our hearts, and watched him walk away in the direction of the road.
We assembled our things, mounted our bicycles and headed away from the road, wanting to put in a few more good, hard kilometers before turning back. Feeling energized from lunch, we sang at the top of our lungs as we jangled and bumped along the rocky flats. We sang of wine and love and women and heartache and cheeseburgers and sadness and death.
When at last our legs began to tire, we turned back toward the road and the long route home. We had checked our watches, and we calculated that we would make it back to town around dusk, before dark.
We sang no more, but only pedaled, and I felt weary. I think David did too, but he didn’t say so, so I didn’t either. I fell into a silent, semi-conscious state of exhaustion. I listened to the crunch of the gravel and the rattle of the loose headlight fastened to the steel frame of my bicycle. Behind me, I heard David shifting gears, trying to find the right one.
Now I noticed a difference between us and the stones. We were moving. We were going somewhere by the power of our own legs. It occurred to me that the man, the watcher, had always lived by the power of his legs, so to speak. I thought that perhaps I should try to ride my bike more back in the States instead of taking the car all the time. Then, I thought about dinner and what would be good to eat. Chicken and fries sounded good to me.
Soon, we saw a man walking along the roadside up ahead. As we approached, we could see that it was the toothless man. I wondered out loud why he hadn’t taken a bus.
When we caught up to him, David greeted him and we again shook hands. David asked him if there had been any buses and the man said yes, there had been many buses along the road. Why didn’t he take a bus to the big town, David wanted to know. The man explained that he had no money for a bus. David protested kindly, pointing out that I had given him twenty Dirhams for bus fare. The man laughed and said that he intended to buy cigarettes as soon as he reached the big town.