Three hundred kilometres south-east of Muscat Egyptian Vultures glide above the Eastern Hajar Mountains, and burnt-toffee peaks slice into the milky sky. Gravel plains and arid valleys lie on the inland side, a vast sandy plain on the east, and to the south the rolling red sand dunes of the Wahiba Desert. Herons and cormorants wait at the edge of the Arabian Sea, which glitters with hard blue light.
The dirt road drops vertically into the ravine and rises almost as steeply up the other side, where clumps of dun-coloured houses squat on the cliffs. A battered utility truck, stuffed with turbaned, white-robed villagers, hurtles out of a cloud of red dust straight towards us. It misses our rented Landcruiser by a centimetre. The men - one of whom is hanging onto a goat - shout greetings, laughing at our ashen faces. I clutch the stone in my hand. Rob blows out his breath, “Bloody Hell!”
Still shaking, we crawl through the narrow, winding streets of the village of Bimmah, steering warily around donkeys and goats that wander at will. Just as oblivious are the women in bright red, green and orange dresses and veils who saunter across the track with baskets on their heads. Blood is spattered over several doorsteps from the Eid Al Adha sacrifices and runs into congealed puddles in the gutters. Outside one house a family is helping to carve up a goat strung from a tree. For some reason it makes me think of Amina.
Amina comes from the Al Mahri tribe which was reputed to have lived in the city of Ubar before it suddenly disappeared, centuries ago, into the desert sands. In the 1990’s explorers, with the help of NASA satellites and Bedouin folklore, located the ruins. It was an underground river, the archaeologists said, which had steadily eroded the limestone on which the city had been built, causing it to collapse. Amina disagreed. It was the wrath of God, she said, punishing the inhabitants for their undisciplined lifestyle.
When she returned to the Language Centre last week, after completing only two weeks of her maternity leave, none of the men gave any sign of noticing her grey face streaked with tears, nor did they lift their heads from their books when she kept leaving the class to disappear into the prayer room. Fayza, Amal, Thuraya and Fatma stayed behind when the men left for their coffee break.
“She is from Salalah, Ms Alexa,” said Amal, “But even for a woman from that region this is not normal behaviour. Two weeks! We are worried about her. In our hostel we hear her crying all night but when we try to talk to her about it she denies it and says she is okay.”
I promised I would talk to her myself and asked Amina to come to my office.
In answer to my questions she said, “My father says I must finish my Academic English course.”
“But you’re twenty five,” I said. “Isn’t that decision yours, and your husband’s?”
She wiped her face with the sleeve of her abaya. She, alone of all the female students, had no embroidery on her sleeves to relieve the plainness of her black robe. And where her classmates’ robes were fitted at the waist, Amina’s - from Saudi Arabia, she informed me – concealed her tall, graceful figure as effectively as a body bag. Which was why none of us at the school had realised she was pregnant, let alone that she had given birth.
“If I don’t pass my exams,” she wept, “I won’t be able to go to Australia to do my postgraduate study. My whole family’s depending on me. It’s just that I didn’t know I would feel like this. I thought I could just hand him over to my mother.” Her tears splashed onto my desk. “But I can’t stop thinking about him.”
“Could you fly back home at the weekends?” I asked.
Amina tucked a stray hair under her Hijab. Her fingers were long and slender. Like Beth’s, I thought.
“Not till after the exams.” She took a tissue from the box I gave her and mopped her eyes. “But I can still feel his skin next to mine. My whole body aches to see him, smell him, touch him.” She glanced up at me, “Can you understand what I mean, Ms Alexa? Am I imagining this?”
“Yes, I do understand what you mean,” I said. “And no, you’re not imagining it.”
Her face relaxed. “So you have children too?”
I hesitated. In New Zealand friends and colleagues had avoided this topic for the past two years. Since my arrival in Oman I had often wondered what I would say if someone asked me this question. Now that someone had, I didn’t know how to answer. Amina was watching me, waiting.
“Three,” I said.
Her smile broadened. “Are any of them my age?”
“Beth - my youngest,” I said, “would have been the same age as you now.”
Amina looked into my face for a long time.
“I’d like to see her photo,” she said at last. “Will you bring me one?”
I promised I would.
The woman carving up the goat sees me watching and waves. I stare at her pink satin dress. “The blood! How on earth will she wash it off?”
Rob squeezes my knee with his hand.
Between the villages of Bimmah and Shab we spot a tiny cove of white sand between low cliffs. Behind the beach lie the ruins of an ancient mud-brick town that had been part of a thriving port when Marco Polo visited.
“Perfect timing,” says Rob, “It’ll be getting dark soon.”
There’s plenty of driftwood around to make a fire and while I boil up the kettle and heat our food Rob sets up the tent. We sit cross-legged on the rapidly cooling sand and eat our meal in silence as the sky turns navy and a huge orange moon rolls above the sea. The surf breaks with tiny sparks of luminescent light. There’s no sound but our breathing. Since Rob found the stone this morning he’s hardly said a word. I move closer to him and turn the stone in my hand, pushing its sharp edges into my skin.
This morning we’d watched the sun rise over the sea, because on this day of all days we needed to see colour spill over the earth. We walked past deep holes dug by nesting turtles and over the tractor tyre tracks that their flippers had gouged in the sand. We found piles of broken egg shells at the bottom of the holes.
“Let’s hope one of the little buggers made it to the sea,” Rob said. “Then after twenty five years it’ll find its way back to where it was born.” He picked up a stick and drew a heart in the sand around a cluster of empty shells.
“What a waste,” I said, counting around two hundred eggs.
“Just part of a cycle,” Rob said, writing our initials inside the heart.
We peeled off our clothes and waded gingerly over the stones till we were up to our necks in the sea. Seabirds circled and dived. The sun blazed. Floating on my back in the warm salty water I thought of a friend who once described the hours he had spent in the sea after his boat had capsized in a storm. As he waited to be rescued the world became the boat he was clinging to and only that moment had any substance. He felt, he said, outside of time. I never fully understood what he meant, until now.
Outside of time. On this day. At this time. Two years ago. In New Zealand.
Beth asks for music to be put on. She discusses a racehorse with Vincent and tells him she wants to train a white horse when she gets better. She asks me several times who came through the door and I say there’s no one else here, just the seven of us. She touches everyone and checks their names, then asks Melanie, “What sound does a bear make when it’s stung by a bee?” We think it’s a riddle but Beth says she doesn’t know the answer either. I ask her why she thought of it and she says she has no idea.
The two nurses decide to leave as she seems so much better now. She can breathe and she’s laughing and joking. Her face is a better colour. I say goodbye to them on the porch. When I go back into the living room Melanie is telling Beth she and Vincent will stay overnight so Rob and I can get some sleep. Beth smiles and thanks her, then nestles the side of her face into the chair and closes her eyes. As I sit down opposite her I see her chest is still. We put our faces close to her mouth and nose and feel the tiniest whisper of air. Rob finds a pulse in her neck beating very faintly. My heart is beating so hard I think it will burst. Vincent and Melanie slip outside and wait on the veranda. The nor-wester roars through the trees whipping up the Autumn leaves. Rob and I hold Beth’s hands.
Beneath the hills wild horses graze in the moonlight. The lead mare lifts her head and pricks her ears. The colts and fillies stop chasing each other’s shadows. Foals stand closer to their mothers. The old ones stop grazing. They all watch the lead mare, and wait. The earth holds its breath. Beth’s pulse flutters like a moth’s wing, and is gone. I go outside to tell Vincent and Melanie and they say they know because the wind has died.
I don’t sleep that night and next morning I move around as if trapped in glass. In the middle of a conversation with Olivia and Sam a sound slides from my throat. It rises to a wail. Wave upon wave of wailing, from a place deep inside in my body. I have never heard such a sound in my life and I can’t believe it’s coming from me. Rob, Olivia and Sam can do nothing but hold me. A fantail taps on the window. As Beth’s friends start arriving the fantail circles round their heads.
I floated in the water like a foetus, my arms curled around my knees. Rob knelt on the sand with the sea up to his chin. He gave a long, shuddering sigh like the exhalation that comes after learning the expected bad news is good news. Or the relief when a truck misses your car by a fraction.
The surf hissed. A seagull flew over our heads, its long mournful keening breaking the silence of the deserted beach.
“Do you remember,” I said, “when I was in labour? You suggested playing scrabble to keep my mind off the contractions. I thought you were joking! Then you put your hand in the bag of letters and brought out a B.”
“I knew then our baby would be a girl.”
Rob laughed. “If we’d had a boy you’d have convinced yourself the B was for boy.”
“No. I knew it was B for Beth.”
“Coincidence,” Rob said, “just coincidence.” Then, “Ouch! These bloody shells are sharp!”
He reached down into the water and brought up a flat, oval stone that fitted into the palm of his hand. “No wonder it cut me. It’s covered in limpets.” He turned it over. His brow creased. He stared at it in silence.
“What’s wrong?” I asked.
He held out the stone. In the middle the limpets had dropped off, leaving behind a raised pattern of white calcification. Shaped into a perfectly formed B.
Now, sitting under the stars on the beach in front of our campfire I hold the stone between my hands and stare into the flames.
“In ancient Persia when someone first saw oil trickle out of the desert they didn’t understand what it was,” I say. “They thought it was some kind of water and when it ignited they believed the fire was sacred. They didn’t believe the flame just went out. They thought it died, like the soul leaving the body.”
Rob touches my arm and points to the sea. The little sparks from the agitation of the algae have become flashes of light that run along the length of each wave. The sea is ablaze with white fire. As we stare, struck dumb by the beauty, a large dark shape emerges from the water. A giant turtle. She drags herself across the sand, stopping to check out sites to dig a hole, then makes her way to our tent and starts digging beside it. With a sigh, she begins the long process of shovelling out sand with her front flippers. Hardly daring to breathe we edge closer, and by the light of the moon we watch the turtle lay her eggs.
After two hours the exhausted creature covers her nest with sand. Her task completed, she turns around and heads back to the sea. We follow, hand in hand, and watch her swim away. Pieces of moon float on the water where she disappears beneath the waves.