By Sanmao 三毛, translated by Mike Fu, and published in Stories of the Sahara. Reproduced by kind permission of the translator and Bloomsbury Publishing.
I often hear this song – the title I don’t know, the tune I can’t quite hum – but the ﬁrst two lines go something like: ‘When I think of the desert, I think of water / When I think of love, I think of you.’ It’s left quite an impression on me, that’s for sure.
It’s normal to have this kind of mental association. Water and love are both supremely important for living in the desert. I just don’t know what the rest of this song is about. When my friend Mai Ling wrote to me, she said she often fantasised about me with a colourful Arabian rug over my shoulders and bells on my feet, walking with a huge jug on my head to draw water from a well – and what a beautiful image it was.
Mai Ling is so sweet. She even drew me a picture called ‘Slave Girl Drawing Water from the Well’, full of charm and romance. In reality, walking to fetch water is a thoroughly miserable aﬀair. There’s nothing comfortable about it, nor would I prop up a tank of water on top of my head.
My father and mother write to me every week, also exhorting me:
Even though water and Coca-Cola are the same price, and you must have resigned yourself to drinking Coke every day instead of water, water is necessary for the human body. If you drink only Coke, over the years you’ll ﬁnd it becomes nowhere near as refreshing anymore. Make sure you remember to drink water, no matter how expensive it is…
Everyone who doesn’t live in the desert always brings up the matter of water. But very few people ask me what it’s like to live in this vast and boundless sea of sand with no access to transport, or how one manages to set sail on the wind and waves to the world outside of town.
Being shut away for a long time in this tiny town with just one street, you feel the same kind of loneliness as a person with a broken leg living in an alley with no exit. In such a humdrum existence, there’s no such thing as excessive joy, yet nor is there much sorrow. This unchanging life is like the warp and weft of a loom, days and years being woven out line by line in an ever-monotonous pattern.
The day José pulled up in our car that had been shipped over by sea, I dashed out in a frenzy to meet him. Even though it wasn’t anything like the highly practical but expensive Land Rover, nor remotely suitable for travelling through the desert, it was, for us, the perfect car. I caressed this treasure inside and out, overwhelmed with joy. In my mind there suddenly appeared the image of a desert landscape at sunset, with the catchy theme song from Born Free playing in the background. Oddly enough there seemed to be gusts of wind blowing on the car just then and tossing my hair about.
I loved our newly arrived Boat of the Desert with all my heart. Every day after José came home from work, I would carefully polish the car with a clean piece of cloth, not letting a single speck of dirt or grime remain. I would even take tweezers to extract the little rocks that got embedded in the tyres. I just worried I wasn’t fully dedicated to servicing this companion, who was bringing us so much joy and happiness.
‘José, how was she running when you went to work?’ I asked, mopping the car’s big eyes.
‘Better than ﬁne. She rides like the wind. She’s also pretty polite when you give her some grub. Only needs a little.’
‘Now we have a car, but do you remember how we used to hitchhike?’ I asked José. ‘Anxiously waiting in the wind and rain, hoping someone would stop and take pity on us.’
‘That was Europe,’ José chuckled. ‘You didn’t have the guts to do it in America.’
‘Public safety is diﬀerent in America. Plus, you weren’t with me back then.’ I wiped the tender right eye of the new car as we bantered idly. ‘José, when will you let me drive?’ I asked, full of hope.
‘Didn’t you try it out once?’ he retorted.
‘That doesn’t count. You sat next to me and made me drive badly. You got me all nervous. The more you scold me, the worse I drive. You don’t understand psychology.’ I was about to get worked up talking about this again.
‘I’ll drive for another week. From then on, I’ll take the shuttle bus to work and you can come and pick me up in the afternoon. How about it?’
‘Amazing!’ I jumped for joy, feeling an urge to give the car a great big hug.
A round trip to José’s workplace took almost two hours, but the desolate road was straight as an arrow. You could drive as fast as you wanted to. There was also no traﬃc to speak of. The ﬁrst time I went to pick up José, I was late by almost forty minutes. He was pretty annoyed from the wait. ‘Sorry I’m late.’ Dripping with sweat, I jumped out of the car and used a sleeve to wipe my face.
‘I told you not to be nervous. It’s such a straight road, you could put the pedal to the metal and still not hit anyone.’
‘So many parts of the road were buried in sand. I got out of the car and dug two ditches so I wouldn’t get stuck. Of course that took up time, and then that person had to live so far away…’ I moved to the passenger side to let José drive home. ‘Who’s “that” person?’ He tilted his head and looked at me askance.
‘A Sahrawi man who was walking.’ I threw my hands up.
‘Sanmao, in the last letter my father wrote to me, he said you can’t even trust a Sahrawi who’s been dead and buried for forty years. And yet when you’re trekking through the desert, all by yourself. . .’ José’s undiplomatic tone really made me unhappy.
‘He was really old!’ I snapped back at him. ‘What’s wrong with you?’
‘Old or not, it’s still not OK!’
‘You’d better not fault me for this. How many cars stopped to pick up the two of us back in the day, even though we looked like young bandits? If those strangers weren’t holding on to the tiniest bit of faith in humanity, then they must have been blind or plain crazy.’
‘That was Europe. We’re in Africa now. The Sahara Desert. Let’s be clear about that.’
‘Oh, I’m clear, alright. That’s why I picked that person up.’ It was diﬀerent here. Back in civilisation, life was too complicated. I wouldn’t have thought other people or things had anything to do with me. But in this barren land, ﬁerce winds howling the year round, my spirit was moved by the mere sight of a blade of grass or a drop of morning dew, let alone a human being. How could I turn a blind eye to an old man tottering on his own beneath such a lonely sky?
José understood this, of course. He just refused to think too much about it.
Now that we had a car, we could go out into the wilderness on the weekends and drive all over the place. We were much happier, naturally. It really changed our whole world. But on most days José went to work. He didn’t keep his promise and seized the car for days at a time. I still had to walk the long way into town, braving the intensity of the sun. The two of us often fought over the car. Sometimes I’d hear him sneak out and drive away in the early morning. By the time I ran out in my sleeping gown to chase after him, it was already too late. The neighbouring children used to be my friends, but once they saw José acting cocky in the car – coming and going, reversing, spinning in circles, like a circus clown doing tricks for the audience – the whole nest of them went to worship this amazing person. I always hated the sight of clowns because they make me uncomfortable. This was no exception.
One day at dusk, I heard the sound of José parking outside after getting home from work and assumed he would be coming in. Who knew that a few moments later, he’d drive oﬀ again. He didn’t get in until after ten, looking a dreary mess. ‘Where were you? Food’s cold.’ I glared at him unhappily. ‘Out for a stroll!’ he answered with a chuckle. ‘I went for a walk.’ With that he went to take a shower, whistling as if nothing happened.
I ran out to look at the car. It was still in one piece, inside and out. Opening the car door, a very particular smell wafted out immediately. The cushion in the front seat was conspicuously covered in snot. There was a pee stain on the backseat. Little handprints were all over the windows. The inside of the car was littered with biscuit crumbs. It was a total catastrophe.
‘José, are you running a children’s amusement park?’ I shouted from outside the bathroom.
‘Ah! Sherlock Holmes.’ The sound of water drifted out merrily.
‘Sherlock who?’ I yelled. ‘Go look in the car.’
José turned up the water a bit, pretending he couldn’t hear me.
‘So you took a few dirty kids out for a spin, huh? Speak!’ ‘Eleven of them!’ he giggled. ‘Even squeezed in little Khalifa with the rest.’
‘I’m going to wash the car now. You eat dinner. From now on, we each get the car for a week. You have to be fair.’ While I had him cornered like this, I seized the opportunity to bring up the matter of sharing the car again.
‘Fine, then! You win!’
‘This is for good. A done deal, then!’ I didn’t trust him and wanted to conﬁrm again.
He stuck out his sopping wet head and made an ugly face at me.
Even though I had insisted on getting the car, I actually just ended up driving in circles around the post oﬃce in the morning. Afterwards, when I got home, I’d wash and iron clothes, tidy up and do all the usual household chores. Around three in the afternoon, I’d change into my going-out clothes, wrap a wet rag around the boiling hot steering wheel and put two thick books on the seat. Only then could I start doing what I’d waited to do all day, under a sun so hot it made you dizzy.
This sort of entertainment might be totally meaningless for someone who lives in the city. Faced with a long afternoon of idleness in the dead solitude of our little home, however, I’d rather sit in the car and drive through the wilderness and back. There practically wasn’t even any choice in it.
Tents were scattered here and there along nearly a hundred kilometres of this narrow tarmac road. When the people who lived out here needed to go into town for errands, there were no other options besides trudging along for an entire day. Around these parts, the endless undulating sand was the true master of the land. Humans who survived here were mere pebbles mixed up in the sand.
Driving through this great wasteland, so peaceful in the afternoon it was almost frightening, it was hard not to feel some measure of loneliness. But, by the same token, to know that I was wholly alone in this unimaginably vast land was totally liberating.
Occasionally, I’d see a little black dot moving slowly at the edge of the horizon. Without fail, I’d unconsciously slow down my speeding car each time. The ﬁgure seemed so small and frail underneath the great dome of sky. My heart could never bear it. I’d raise my head high and drive, kicking up clouds of dust, whipping past the person who was walking along with such diﬃculty. In order to not frighten the person, I’d always drive past ﬁrst, then stop, roll down the window and wave to them.
‘Come on in! I’ll give you a lift.’
More often than not, they’d look at me with shy hesitation. It was usually a really old Sahrawi carrying a sack of ﬂour or grain on their shoulder.
‘Don’t be afraid. It’s too hot. Get in.’
The people I picked up always thanked me with utmost respect when I dropped them oﬀ. Even after driving far in the distance, I still saw these humble people waving at me beneath the expanse of sky. I was often touched by the look on their face as I drove away. What honest and innocent people they were!
One time, I had driven more than thirty kilometres out of town when I saw an old person in front of me dragging a big goat tied with a piece of cloth. He was struggling along on the side of the road, his long gown ﬁlled with wind like a blown- up sail, getting in the way of all movement.
I stopped the car. ‘Sahābi,’ I called, using the Arabic word for friend. ‘Get in!’
‘My goat?’ He seemed quite embarrassed as he said this, grabbing a tight hold of his goat.
‘You can bring the goat, too!’
We stuﬀed the goat into the backseat. The old gentleman sat next to me. Meanwhile, the goat’s head just happened to rest against my neck. Throughout the journey, the goat’s strained breathing kept tickling my neck like crazy. I stepped on it so I could get these two to their scrappy roadside tent as soon as possible. When they were getting out, the old man grabbed my hands tightly, his toothless mouth babbling expressions of gratitude to me. He didn’t let go for a long time.
I started laughing. ‘No need to thank me,’ I said to him. ‘Just get your goat out! He’s been chewing on my hair like it’s straw.’
‘Now you’ve got goat shit in the car. You yelled at me last time for running a children’s amusement park. You clean it. I’m not touching this.’ José ran inside as soon as we got home. I suppressed a smile and followed him in, grabbing a broom. I collected the goat shit and dumped it in our ﬂower pots as fertiliser. Who said there was nothing to be gained from picking up hitchhikers?
Sometimes José’s work schedule would change and he’d go in at two in the afternoon, coming back at ten at night. Under those circumstances, if I still wanted to drive the hundred kilometres there and back, I’d have to leave with him around half past noon. Once we reached the oﬃce, he’d get out of the car and I’d come back alone.
During sandstorm season, noon was scorching hot and the air was full of yellow dust. I would choke horribly, my lungs pained as though they were ﬁlled with sand. Visibility would be down to zero. The car would thrash like it was on stormy seas. Sand and rocks would rain down on all sides, furiously pounding the car, a deafening sound.
It was on one of these days after I’d taken José to work that I saw a ﬁgure riding a bike through the hazy yellow sand. Shocked, I stepped on the brakes. The person on the bike immediately jumped oﬀ and ran towards me.
‘What is it?’ I opened the window and shielded my eyes. ‘Señora, may I ask if you have water?’
I peeled away the ﬁngers that were covering my eyes and, to my surprise, saw a young boy of ten or so. His desperate eyes stared at me with great need.
‘Water? I don’t have any.’
When I said this, the boy was so full of despair that he looked as though he might cry. He wrenched his head away.
‘Get in, quickly!’ I rolled up the window in a haste.
‘My bicycle. . .’ He was unwilling to leave his bike behind.
‘You’ll never make it into town in this kind of weather.’ I slipped on anti-wind goggles, opened the door and ran to get his bike. It was an old-style bicycle, impossible to get into my little car, no matter what I tried.
‘It’s impossible,’ I yelled to him over the wind. ‘How come you didn’t bring any water? How long have you been riding?’ Grains of sand immediately ﬂew into my mouth and nose.
‘Since this morning,’ the kid said in practically a whimper. ‘Get in the car. Let’s leave your bike here for now. Once you get home, you can ﬁnd another car in town to come back and get your bike. How does that sound?’
‘I can’t. The sand will cover it soon and I won’t be able to ﬁnd it. I can’t leave my bike.’ He was stubborn and protective of his beloved old bicycle.
‘Fine! I’m going then. Take these.’ I took oﬀ the anti-wind goggles, handed them over and helplessly climbed into the car. I tried to do some chores when I got home, but the ﬁgure of the little boy, like an apparition, had mesmerised me. Hearing the mournful wind outside the window, I sat for a few minutes and realised I didn’t have the heart to do anything. I angrily opened the refrigerator and took out a bottle of water and a sandwich. Then I got one of José’s duckbill caps, went out and jumped in the car. I retraced my steps to go looking for the little lad whom I couldn’t forget.
The guard at the checkpoint ran over when he saw me. He leaned in to talk. ‘Sanmao, are you going to take a walk in this kind of weather?’
‘It’s not me who’s taking a walk, it’s that odd little rascal who’s asking for trouble.’ I stepped on the gas. My car ﬂew into the haze of the sandstorm like a bullet.
‘José, you can drive the car! I don’t need to any more.’ It was the third time in one day I’d driven along this road, now frigid at night.
‘You can’t handle the heat!’ he laughed, pleased with himself. ‘I can’t handle the people on the road. So annoying, so many problems.’
‘What people?’ José asked with bemusement.
‘I run into them every few days, don’t you know?’ ‘Why don’t you just ignore them?’
‘If I ignore them, then what? Should I have just stood by and watched that little rascal die of thirst?’
‘So you’re done with it?’
‘Ah, forget it!’ I slouched in the car seat and looked out of the window.
I’m a woman of my word. For quite a few weeks, I stayed in the peace of my home mending clothes. After I ﬁnished sewing almost a hundred pieces of printed fabric into a colourful patchwork quilt, I started feeling impulsive again out of nowhere.
‘José, the weather’s so nice today, no sandstorms or any- thing. I’ll drive you to work!’ Standing outside in my night- gown, I looked out at the car in the morning.
‘It’s a public holiday today,’ José said. ‘You should go into town and have fun.’
‘Ah! Really? Then why are you going to work?’ ‘The mining doesn’t stop. Of course I have to go.’
‘A holiday probably means there’ll be hundreds of people crowded in town. Can’t stand it. I won’t go.’
‘Get in the car then!’
‘Let me change.’ I ﬂew into the house, put on a blouse and jeans and grabbed a plastic bag on my way out.
‘What’s the bag for?’
‘The weather’s so nice. While you’re at work, I’m going to collect bullet casings and goat bones and come back a bit later.’
‘What’s the point in collecting those things?’ José started the car.
‘If you freeze the bullet casings on the roof overnight and bring them back down the next morning while it’s still dark out, you can stick them on your eyes to treat styes. Didn’t I treat yours last time?’
‘That was a coincidence. Some bogus method you invented yourself.’
I shrugged and withheld comment. Actually, picking things up was just a ruse. The real pleasure was wandering in the fresh air of the open land. Too bad the days of nice weather were so few.
I watched José get out of the car and walk on to the ﬂoating platform. Then I sighed and drove away from his work site.
The desert in the morning looked like it had been washed clean, the sky a crystal blue without a thread of cloud. Soft dunes spread out as far as the eye could see. During moments like these, the sand always made me think of the body of a gigantic sleeping woman, almost seeming to rise and fall as if it were breathing lightly. Such quiet serenity and profound beauty inspired an emotion close to pain.
I drove the car oﬀ the road, following in the tracks of others who’d gone to the shooting range before. After picking up some bullet casings, I lay down for a while and looked up at the semicircular dome of sky that enclosed us like a bowl. Then I walked along the sand for a long time looking for dried bones. I didn’t get any complete skeletons, but I did unexpectedly ﬁnd a huge fossilised shell that looked like a pretty folding fan spread out.
I spat on it, wiping it clean on my trousers before getting in the car and going home. Somehow the sun had already climbed high in the sky above.
Windows down, warm wind blowing, it was so lovely out that I didn’t even want to listen to the news on the radio, as it would intrude upon the peace and calm of this day and this land. The road stretched out like a shimmering river, ﬂowing in a straight line beneath the ﬁrmament.
On the horizon, there was a small black dot, clear and unmoving against the sky. As I whooshed past this person, he suddenly raised his hand to get a ride.
‘Good morning!’ I slowed the car to a stop.
It was a young Spanish soldier, impeccably dressed as though he were about to attend a ﬂag ceremony, standing on the side of the road all by his lonesome.
‘Good morning to you, señora!’ He stood ramrod straight, obviously a bit surprised to see me in the car. His grass-green soldier’s uniform, wide leather belt, riding boots and boat- shaped cap would make any old bumpkin look heroic. The funny thing was that he still couldn’t hide the innocence on his face no matter how he dressed.
‘Where are you heading?’ I asked, raising my head up high. ‘Umm! To town.’
‘Come on in!’ This was my ﬁrst time giving a ride to a young person, but I had no qualms about it after looking at him for just a moment.
He got in the car and self-consciously took a seat next to me, two hands resting neatly on his knees. To my great surprise I saw that he was wearing the snow-white gloves exclusively used for grand ceremonies.
‘Going into town so early?’ I asked casually.
‘Yes, I wanted to see a movie,’ he answered earnestly.
‘The cinema doesn’t open until ﬁve, though!’ I tried my hardest to speak normally, but secretly I thought this kid was probably up to no good.
‘That’s why I left early in the morning.’ He ﬁdgeted shyly. ‘You were planning to walk for a whole day just to catch a
movie?’ This was truly unbelievable. ‘We’re on holiday today.’
‘Military transport wouldn’t take you?’
‘I didn’t sign up in time. There wasn’t space on the bus.’ ‘So you’re walking?’ I looked at the endless road, a strange feeling passing through my heart out of nowhere.
We both grew quiet for a long while, not knowing what to say.
‘You’re serving in the army?’
‘Still feel good?’
‘Great. I’m a ranger who lives in the tents, always switching campsites. It’s just that there isn’t enough water.’
I peered once more at the uniform that he kept so pristine. It must have been an important occasion to him, as he probably wouldn’t have worn these clothes otherwise. Once we got into town, the joy on his face spilled forth, unable to be contained. He was a young kid, after all. After he got out, he gave me a solemn military salute that nonetheless had a childish quality to it. I nodded and sped oﬀ.
I can never forget that pair of white gloves. This big child lived in a scarcely populated and depressing wasteland all year long. Yet to him, at that moment, there was no more magniﬁcent an occasion than watching a movie in this dilapidated nowhere town.
On the way back, a helpless ache came over me. This person had touched a part of my heart that wasn’t often touched. He must have been the same age as my younger brother who lived so far away, my brother who was also serving in the military. I practically got sucked up into a vacuum of time, stupeﬁed for a moment. Then I shook my head and stepped on the gas, speeding towards home.
Even though José often said I was meddling in too many things, he was really just giving me a hard time. Whenever he drove himself to and from work, he would also pick up passers-by on the road. If you ask me, when you’re driving in a remote place and see someone on the side of the road making a diﬃcult journey like a snail beneath the hot sun, you simply can’t disregard them.
‘Today was such a headache,’ José moaned as he walked into the house. ‘These old men are really fearsome. I picked up three old Sahrawi men and had to deal with their body odour the whole way. I almost fainted. Once we got to their destination, they said something in Arabic. I didn’t even know they were talking to me, so I kept driving. You want to know what they did to me? The guy sitting behind me got so worked up, he took oﬀ his stiﬀ shoe and started whacking me furiously on the head. He almost killed me.’
‘Ha! You gave them a lift and still got beaten up!’ I was beside myself with laughter.
‘Feel for yourself,’ José said, gnashing his teeth and rubbing his head. ‘There’s a big bump.’
The happiest times were when we ran into foreigners in the desert. Even though the land we lived in was vast and open, our spirits were isolated and enclosed. When we came across people from out of town who spoke about the fast-paced world that was so distant from us, I always felt excited and inspired.
‘I gave a lift to a foreigner on the way to work today.’ ‘Where was he from?’ My curiosity was piqued.
‘What did he have to say?’
‘He didn’t say much of anything.’
‘You didn’t speak at all during that long ride?’
‘Firstly, we couldn’t really communicate. Also, when this lunatic got in the car, he kept banging rhythmically on the dashboard with a stick in his hand. I got annoyed and wanted to drive as fast as I could so he’d get out. Didn’t think he’d come with me to work.’
‘Where did you pick him up?’
‘He had a big backpack with the American ﬂag sewn on it. I picked him up just where the freeway starts at the edge of town.’
‘Your ferocious security guard let him enter the work site?
Even without a permit?’
‘They wouldn’t let him in at ﬁrst, but he said he had to go and see the mine.’
‘You can’t just go in and look around as you please,’ I asserted.
‘They blocked him for a while. Eventually this guy raised his backpack and said, “I’m an American…” ’
‘And he just got in?’ I opened my eyes wide at José. ‘He just got in.’
‘Hmph!’ I looked at José with great surprise.
Afterwards, José went to take a shower. Out of nowhere, beneath the sound of running water, he started singing in a strange voice in English. ‘I wannaaa beeee an A–me–ri–can, I wannaaa beeee an American…’
I ran in, pushed aside the curtain, and started hitting him with a spatula. He sang with even greater vigour, changing the lyrics. ‘I wannaaa marryyyy an A–me–ri–can, oh, I wanna marryyyy…’
From then on, whenever I drove past the checkpoint at his work site and saw that security guard, I would put my hand over the permit on my windscreen, stick my head out and, aﬀecting a weird accent, shout to him in English, ‘I’m an American!’ Then I’d step on the gas and drive in. I didn’t blame this guy for being annoyed with me. I deserved it.
At the beginning of the month, there would always be a long queue for the cashier window at the phosphate company. After every person’s turn, they’d squeeze their way out of the crowd with a wad of cash in hand and a smile on their face like strawberry ice-cream melting in the sun. We used to get cash out too, because the pleasure of touching real paper money was decidedly diﬀerent from a bank statement. But then we became tired of queuing, so we had the company deposit the salary directly into the bank.
However, all the labourers wanted cash. They refused to deal with the bank.
Towards the beginning of the month, there were always gorgeously dressed women ﬂying in from the nearby Canary Islands. With great fanfare, they would get down to business. During these times, you could hear the sound of coins jingling all over town like that song from the movie Hotel: ‘Money, money, money, money…’ How nice it all sounded!
One evening I went to pick up José after a night shift. When I arrived, I saw him coming out of the company cafeteria.
‘Sanmao, I have to do a shift at the last minute. I won’t ﬁnish until tomorrow morning. You should go home.’
‘How come you didn’t say anything earlier? I already drove all this way.’ Hugging myself through a thick sweater, I handed over the coat I had brought for José.
‘There’s a boat that got stuck. We have to work through the night to get it free. Tomorrow there are three ships coming in to load ore.’
‘Alright, then, I’ll be oﬀ!’ I reversed the car, turned my headlights onto full beam and started on the way home. The desert was so big, driving a hundred kilometres a day felt as simple as taking a short walk.
It was a clear evening. The moon shone down on sand dunes that looked like the sea. It always made me think of those dreamlike and mysterious paintings by the Surrealists. Such scenes truly exist in the desert at night!
My car headlights illuminated the empty road ahead. Occasionally another car would appear driving towards me. Some cars also overtook me. I stepped on the accelerator and opened the windows, hurtling into the nocturne.
Once I was nearing twenty kilometres from town, I suddenly saw someone waving in my car headlights. Instinctively I stepped on the brakes and pulled over, shining my lights on this person. Out of the blue, in such an unexpected place, I saw that it was a beautiful and well-dressed woman with red hair standing on the side of the road. It was even more startling than seeing a ghost. I sat there in silence, afraid to move, examining her cautiously.
This woman used a hand to shield her face from the bright headlights. She clopped over to the car in her high heels. When she came near and saw me, she hesitated. It looked like she wouldn’t be getting in.
‘What’s going on?’ I asked, tilting my head. ‘Umm… nothing! You can go on!’
‘Didn’t you wave because you needed a ride?’ I ventured. ‘No, no, I got it wrong. Thank you! Please go on! Thanks!’
I immediately drove oﬀ in a fright. This female demon was choosing a human to possess. I had better run for it before she had any regrets! As I ﬂed down this road, I started noticing that there were similar women with curly hair, green eyes and red lips standing in the sand at regular intervals, looking to hitchhike. I didn’t dare pull over and drove faster into the night.
After speeding along for some time, I saw another woman in a purple dress and yellow shoes, smiling sweetly and standing in the middle of the narrow road. Even if she wasn’t human, there was no way I could run her over. I had to slow down and stop very far away, shining my headlights on her. I honked the horn and asked her to get out of the way. What a bunch of mysterious women!
All smiles, she ran to the car in her loud heels. ‘Ah!’ She made a noise when she saw me.
‘I’m not who you want. I’m a woman.’ I smiled, looking at her powdery face that was already middle-aged. It dawned on me then what was happening on this road by night. It was the beginning of the month!
‘Ah, sorry!’ A polite smile broke out on her face.
I gestured at her to please move aside and slowly started up the engine. She looked around for a moment, then ran back and slapped a hand on my car. I stuck my head out.
‘Alright, I’m pretty much done. Let’s call it a day! Can you take me into town?’
‘Hop in!’ I said helplessly.
‘Actually, I recognise you,’ she said brightly. ‘You were mail- ing a letter at the post oﬃce the other day, wearing a Sahrawi man’s white gown.’
‘Yep, that was me.’
‘Did you know we ﬂy in here every month?’
‘Yes, but I didn’t know you did business outside of town.’
‘We have no choice – nobody in town wants to rent rooms to us, and there isn’t enough space at the Didi Hotel.’
‘Business is booming?’ I shook my head and laughed. ‘Well, only at the beginning of the month. After the tenth,
there’s no more money, so we head back!’ Her voice was honest and clear, without a trace of sadness.
‘How much do you charge per person?’
‘Four thousand. If we’re staying overnight at the Didi, eight thousand.’
Eight thousand pesetas is probably around US$120. It was diﬃcult to imagine how those labourers could bear to part with the money they’d toiled so hard for. I hadn’t expected that the women would be so expensive.
‘Men are stupid!’ She leaned against the car seat and laughed loudly, self-satisﬁed as though she were a successful businesswoman.
I didn’t respond and drove faster towards town, the lights already visible in the distance.
‘My lover also works for the phosphate company!’ ‘Oh!’ I made a perfunctory noise.
‘You must know him. He works the night shift in the electrical department.’
‘I don’t know him.’
‘He was the one who told me to come. He said business would be good around here. I used to work just in the Canary Islands. I made much less money back then.’
‘Your lover told you to come here because business is good?’ I didn’t believe my ears and had to repeat the sentence.
‘I’ve already made enough for three houses!’ She raised her hands with great pleasure, examining her ﬂuorescent purple nail polish.
I felt like roaring with laughter at this person’s mindless chatter. She said men were stupid and she’d earned three houses’ worth of money. But she still stood pitifully in the sand looking for clients, thinking herself to be very clever.
For the woman sitting beside me, prostitution wasn’t about making a living or a question of morality. She’d simply become numb to it all.
‘Actually, female housekeepers around here can make around twenty thousand a month,’ I said disapprovingly.
‘Twenty thousand? Sweeping, making beds, doing laundry. You’d work yourself half to death for only twenty thousand. Who wants to do that?’ Her voice was contemptuous.
‘I feel like you’re the one who’s working hard,’ I said slowly. She started guﬀawing with glee.
Meeting this type of precious character was better than seeing a prostitute in tears, I suppose.
When we reached town, she thanked me sincerely and wriggled out of the car. She had only taken a few steps before a labourer gave her a strong slap on the bottom, hooting and hollering. She laughed and yelled some nonsense, chasing after him to hit him back. The quiet nightscape quickly became lively and thick with gaudy colour.
The whole way home and even while reading later, I kept on thinking about that cheerful prostitute.
Day after day, I drive along the one tarmac road in this wilderness as usual. At ﬁrst glance, it looks totally deserted, devoid of life, without joy or sorrow. In reality, it’s just like any other street or tiny alley or mountain stream in this world, carrying the stories of its passers-by who come and go, crossing the slow river of time.
The people and moments I encounter on this road are normal as anything that anyone walking on the street might see. There’s really no greater meaning to it, nor is it worth recording. But Buddha says: ‘It takes a hundred years of self- cultivation to be in the same boat, and a thousand years if you want to share the same pillow.’ All those hands that I’ve shaken, all those brilliant smiles exchanged, all those boring conversations, how could I just let a wind blow through my skirt and scatter these people into nothingness and indiﬀerence?
Every little stone in the sand, I still know how to cherish. Every sunrise and sunset, I’m reluctant to forget. Not to mention these real, living faces, how could I just erase them from my memory?
Actually, even trying to explain it is too much.