Fleabag refused to budge. Her head was up. She had a purposeful look. She had learnt early that in the middle of the day, when it was hot and unbearable, a roar created a fuss and brought any human scurrying with the water bucket. A gentle tug of the rope to one side and a little foot pressure on the other on the neck sometimes did the trick, but I had to ask politely and use persuasion, for if I tugged too hard she would refuse. There was the inevitable performance while I tried to get her going again, and she left me in no doubt who was in the driving seat.
Samir was a few metres ahead on his favourite camel, Winaruz, barefoot, his sole resting on the neck. He looked like a Pasha, elegant, relaxed, as if on a throne. He wasn’t trying to achieve anything.
‘Come on, girl!’
Samir laughed. ‘She’s teasing,’ he said.
Fleabag coquettishly swished her tail. Having been abandoned by the one who had first loved her, she turned to the other – he who had fed, nursed, trained and been there for her. She had learned all she knew from Samir. No wonder she yearned for him.
Perhaps it was the breeze that she wanted to smell, but for all her listening and tasting of the air, I could not understand what she was suggesting. She raised her head and
stood alert. I tried squeezing, but it was no good. She swung round. She ignored the banana.
It was depressing that we weren’t getting along too well. Where her dark moods came from was as much a mystery as her innate playfulness, which was at its most marked when I least expected it. She was remarkably observant. Where the ground was raw, stressed and complex she seemed to register its subtle changes and pause, as if to examine or comment on them.
Sometimes I allowed myself the fanciful notion that she was softening towards me, but several times she reacted badly and I realized she was toying with me. There were periods of sulking as she ground smartly to a halt without warning. But the most common look on her face was the one that said: ‘This one is proving difficult to train.’
Suddenly, like all women, whose prerogative it is to change their mind, she came to her feet and walked on. I patted her for that.
We began at a slow amble with long, ungainly strides and the usual out-of-sync swing – hers or mine, who was to know? Her gait was proud, nose reaching, sampling the air. I remembered that first day when we had brought her to the palm grove,
her poor nose ripped to shreds and how long ago it seemed.
Ears twitching, she trembled to the sounds drifting on the air, those furtive echoes, those lost memories in her own past. A little way on, where the sand drifts were building, she paused again. Standing motionless, as if struck by a sudden
thought, she threw a piercing gaze towards the mountains.
The curve of the earth places the horizon always at the same distance, a fraction under three miles, to be precise, but in the Sahara it seems impossibly remote. I could just make out the soft drone of the wind and the tempo of my breath, the siren song of the desert.
Fleabag’s ears pricked. Had she heard it too? Had she arrived at a decision? Did she have a plan? She appeared to understand my doubts and, no sooner than they had
been pondered, swung round her head to me. ‘I’m not sure who gave you the authority,’ that noise said.
With a little encouragement, we edged forward.
‘I’m not sure if she is ready,’ I said.
‘Of course she is,’ Samir smiled back. ‘It is not that she cannot. She just won’t,’ he cried, as he trotted off.
Fleabag understood perfectly. She lifted her head and strained her neck forward, then, with a new resolve, and a kind of bewilderment, took off.
We gathered speed before I could register what was happening. I turned my head to check on Samir and there he was, beside us, bobbing neatly upon Winaruz. A wave of pride swelled up in my chest. Perhaps we should have called her Antigone, I thought, she who refused against all odds to understand the limits placed upon her by men.
My voice tried to steady her, but it felt more anxious than soothing.
It had been so long coming, this sudden lightness of being, that I hardly recognized it. I wondered if it might be fun.
I hung on, my instinct to cry out, and, as I did so, she answered. ‘Roooarrrr!’ she answered again, an overwhelming, resounding, ‘Yes!’ Winaruz, who was still cantering, answered for his own part with a triumphant, stomach-splitting bellow. We were four creatures on eight legs thundering across the desert in a moment of oneness.
It felt purely by accident we began to slow again, and only then on account of the natural flattening off of the slope. Gradually we settled for a lumpy quickstep, or, as Samir christened it, the Saharan bounce, side to side and diagonally. I pulled the rope and this time she obeyed. She flicked round her neck and rubbed me. She swished her tail. She swung her haunches.
An hour later the two camels were back in the palm grove, ahead of them the broken curves of mountains, the smell of faraway date palms in their nostrils. My veil had
fallen, but I didn’t care. Fleabag and I had mastered our stop button.
EXTRACTED FROM ‘THE SKY IS ON FIRE’ BY MAGSIE HAMILTON LITTLE