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I loved you, so I drew these tides of men into my hands and wrote my will across the sky in stars

T.E. Lawrence, from the Dedication of Seven Pillars of Wisdom, 1926


The bus clattered its way through the night, into the minor metropolis of Qandahar, vibrant no doubt since it wasn't actually dead, but pulsing at a rate of seconds per beat in the bland yellow of early morning. Skip the Beard was sacked out in his seat as Blackie and Whitey stumbled inelegantly down from the bus, feeling vaguely inadequate and vastly relieved to be off the monster for a while. Even Zahir remained mostly aloof, propping his eyes open with the inevitable tea but barely acknowledging the coming of the day or the going of his new-made buddies. Even the business of extracting their packs from the pile of bodies on the roof went smoother and quieter than usual, despite or perhaps because of the fact that the rooftop riders were largely asleep. It was the time of the season for zombies.

Half a dawn later, the dust was settling behind the exhausted smoke of the departed charabanc and the yellow was intensifying into the hard glare of a desert day.

"Hot," observed Blackie unnecessarily.

"Cowtown," commented Whitey unfairly.

"Walk," suggested Blackie unilaterally.

"Crash," countered Whitey unpersuaded.

"Food," tried Blackie undaunted.

"Hotel," suggested Whitey unhurriedly.

"Joint," they decided unanimously.

Remarkably, the unusual indulgence of a breakfast bomber, at an hour when any respectable stoner would expect to be deep in dreamland, reversed their energies. Doubtless it was something to do with polarities or planets or sympathetic vibrations (or not) but Blackie lost his drive and Whitey found it. Leaving his friend to watch the bags if he could, Whitey inspected the options within three blocks, selected a hotel and signed in for a room, eyeballed a couple of alternative caffs for later on, and came back to collect his companion. He led him to the room, and laid him down in the comfort of their own private space. Sometimes it's more than good to have a friend to hold.

"Sleep well," said Whitey with a tenderness not many would see.

"Mmm," replied his mate and it was enough.

Some time when the sun was high, they awoke, lightly brushed with soft sweat, and wordlessly reached for each other. They kissed with a gentle passion that almost surprised them both and softly caressed each other till one, then the other, moaned quietly in private pleasure, as his partner smiled at the sight and comforting touch of ecstasy.

"I'm glad you're here with me," whispered Blackie.

"Yeah," affirmed Whitey and drifted back to sleep.

Blackie lay almost awake in the siesta time, floating and lazily watching shadows crawl along the wall. Non-thoughts flickered at the edges of no-mind as he undulated in and out of the confines of his body. He had a healthy disrespect for the flabby lunacies of the TM™ groupies – Mamasrichkid Mishmash Yogi and the giggling ilk – but here he was, doing the work, all uninstructed and formally unenlightened. This was meditating? No, no, he insisted, and yielded into thought.

Omne animal post coitum triste est, every creature is sad after sex, he recalled, the one Latin tag that stuck in his head, it being the only one about fucking, and now he vaguely knew that he hadn't understood it at all. He'd thought it was about the shame that followed urgent and heedless ejaculations, the aftermath of careless masturbation or even consensual exploitation, the hollow sense of the fulfillment of mere needs, not even desires, let alone loves. He knew the disgust of bad sex well enough, he knew too the warmth of closeness, and now he remembered that even in English triste doesn't just mean sad and he was left with a sense of wistful connection, of gentle bathing in the deeper regions of consciousness, and so the proverb became memorable, not as a smutty wisecrack but as a prayer that begged to be true.

Was that what the tantric sex-magic trip was about? He was mildly curious, not prurient but inquisitive, and beginning to understand that he wasn't on his way to India to plumb the secrets of the Orient, but he might just snag a hold on a secret of life on the way through if he wasn't looking for it. It's not that the journey was the reward, not at all. The journey was the journey, the reward was the reward, and clarity came from not confusing the two. It wasn't a bad thing to go to Asia to study the ancient wisdom, but it wasn't a good thing either, it was just a thing to do and why not.

Sure as shit beat working in the heart-attack machine.

Ah, but loneliness, the cloak you wear, was that the risk you ran? Not here, he thought, not now. At least there was someone. What more could you ask? What less could you demand? What else could you need? Something, he knew, something. There was loss not far from the contentment but yes there was ease too, and a glint of hope. Not that he would find it, whatever it was, but that he would find out what it was, or at least if it was, or maybe perhaps what finding was, or even something else entirely but connected. He was aware only of a color, a hopeful reddish ochre just out of sight, like a phantasm that dances in the periphery of vision and vanishes at the instant of attention. He tumbled and rose, a being apart, a self without a being, a point without a self, an existence without a point, a connection without existence, a process of connection, a being of process, a person, an animal, a matter of life, a life of matter.

He meditated, and later he slept.

When he woke, he put his clothes back on and with them his armor but he couldn't quite forget. Doors close again that once opened by chance, but they don't necessarily lock.

The day was blown, of course, and the night followed close behind. Policy decision: Fuck it and split. Someone else could dig Qandahar, spell it with a K if they liked, Kabul was calling and there was a bus tomorrow afternoon at three. Puzzling through the illegible script on the ticket, Blackie thought he saw the time and the price, but Whitey wouldn't bother to look.

"They wouldn't fucking dare to rip us off, man."

"We wouldn't hurt them."

"They don't fucking know that."

True as this was, it did the employees of the bus company a notable injustice. Travelers were under the protection of the Koran, by explicit injunction, and management certainly wanted to keep in good with the mullahs. It is remarkable how reliable people can be when they are convinced that their souls are on the line. Of course, when it's backed up by a shrewd bodily desire to avoid assassination, that helps too.

A baffling evening spent avoiding local reality gave way to a night of catching up on sleep. It is strange how irregular the sleeping process can be, when shaken out of its usual patterns. Major cokeheads and speedfreaks scramble through days of twitch and movement, collapse the clock round and emerge ahead of the game, short-term, and like as not to get run over by a truck years before paying their debt to their fried brains. Conversely, your inoffensive opiate dreamers spend their eight hours in a stupor on a bus, half a dozen more in siesta under the noon-day sun, and still need a solid ten plus to get caught up the following night. It's not fair. Somewhere along the line they missed out on a full night's worth of wakefulness. And then on the next day, they're still bumbling about, failing to absorb or even observe the glories that lay out of the hotel's view. Oh, well, no matter; in the words of the sainted Lennon, they're only sleeping. What else is there to do?

Whether by grace of the fear of the Lord or of earthly unbelievers, travel went off, so to speak, without a hitch. The bus arrived early, which was worrying, but it left late, which was strangely reassuring. The seats and springs were dilapidated but not destroyed. Whitey had profited from previous experience enough to stock up a generous supply of pre-fabricated one-paper joints that fit neatly into his cigarette packet. This practical accommodation to circumstances was always the hallmark of the man of affairs he considered himself to be, although he flew under different flags of convenience for different dialects – heavy dude, he might have copped to under great pressure, where others would call him a streetwise hipster (cool, dad), a globetrotter (gimme a break), an addict (yawn), a psychopathological outsider of introverted tendencies (if you say so), or just a smart freak. Whatever, the supply he brought was sufficient, though the night be long (yeah), 'till I belong (yeah) to you (oooh).