The tinker is old, his wrists fragile as dry sticks, but the tap of his hammer is sure and firm on the glowing copper – a tap here, a ting there, the angle of the tool adjusting, adjusting, always adjusting, until the raised metal is shaped to his satisfaction.
Outside the tent, the late afternoon sun stretches shadows across the dunes as the old chiefs sit on the rug inside the door and chatter of livestock and land, of water in the wadi, of sons and daughters yet unmarried, and the camps of refugees in the north and the east, sucking resources from the fragile balance of the country’s ecology.
“What say you, old father?” One of the chiefs appeals to him – an unusual move, for the tinker is not traditionally respected in the communities of the desert – no cattle, no herds, only the heat and the metal and the delicate shaping and forming of possibilities. “Will we seen an end to this sometime? Our lands become our own again, and those newly-come sent back to where they came from?
He doesn’t look up from the thin piece of copper he’s tapping into a careful curve, shaped to fit around the base of the pot. He could do it in his sleep, but he likes the heat and glow of the fire – like the setting sun staining the world red.
“The world changes,” he murmurs. “People don’t. Never have and never will. So greed and power make for war, and war makes for displacement, and fear takes hold of everyone until blood is shed. Always has, always will.”
“Hardly comforting,” sneers the other chief – the one who didn’t pose the question. He isn’t from around here, having travelled in to see his friend the chief, and to graze his herd along the wadi’s spring growth. “And nothing we hadn’t heard before.”
The sun is on the verge of setting when he finishes the work and sets it on the table. Tomorrow there will be enamelling and glazing, polishing and adjusting. But tonight, the shape of it is clear enough – a decorative pot for brewing or steeping drinks, small and round, with a little ‘crown’ of pointy-tipped petals surrounding the lid, curving protectively around the elegant loop of the lid handle.
“What flower is it, old father? It’s a flower, yes?” The child tilts its head, the warm red light of day staining his cheeks with a ruddy glow.
“A lotus,” he says, softly.
“What’s a lotus?”
He smiles at the child. It holds just a fraction of the brightness it used to command, but he is old and the world that he exists in now is not the one in which he grew to power, collecting belief like a man collects sand in the hems of his robe, shaking it out day by day.
“It’s flower that grows far, far from here, in deep, still water.”
“Like in the wells?”
“Imagine the wadi,” he tells the child. “Only wider, broader, deeper. Running through the land out to the ocean, rich with silt, heavy with the promise of another year’s crops...”
He trails off.
Back in the depths of his memory, in the fragile recollection of a time before he was known, before he was worshipped – almost before he existed – he remembers the rains that covered this land. The peoples who lived on this land showed their gratefulness small libations: the burned heart of the beast as they celebrated the kill, the first loaf of the harvest baked and crumbled out before his shrine, the first of the pressings poured out at the edge of the fields in thanks.
Those thanks were not for him, but he partook of them all the same – a thin, shrill something at the edge of belief, crowding his way into the theology of a creator god, stealing what scraps he could command.
And then the rains ceased, and the people cried out in hunger, and moved to the rivers, and learned to be at the mercy of the tides, black soil, black land. And the single creator became the head of many, numerous gods in a numinous land.
That was long ago.
Then, he was bright and unyielding, burning and nurturing both, the source of light and joy. Ra, they called him, and Khepri – the holy scarab that pushes the sun through the sky, and Atum – the final burning blaze before the darkness and the long journey through the night to the reborn dawn.
Now, he is known in scrolls and in books, but no longer worshipped, no longer adored.
Just an old man, hailed as creator no more, merely tinkering with the remnants of the old world.