Due to a technical glitch, the final paragraphs were not published of “Her First Camel” by Susan Munger in “SEEDS OF…Volume II: Anthology of Pacific NW Writers (Volume 2)” by MaryJane Nordgren, an anthology representing many members of Writers in the Grove including Susan, we publish the full version of the story here. Our sincere apologies to Susan, and gratitude for this wonderful story.
Aysha stretched her thin, bony back for a moment, willing the long, hot day to be over, wishing the wind would stop whining through their stall, wondering if she would ever get enough to eat. As Aysha returned to bending the tiny wires in and around the small golden beads, her father Azam, seated next to her, continued to shape and solder the heavier frame of the next camel.
They sat cross-legged on a thread-bare carpet in a cramped and dim corner of the marketplace, doggedly working their trade from first light to dusk. Every now and then, Aysha would have to pause and hand the camel back to her father for further soldering. No words were exchanged; the rhythm of the work made talk unnecessary.
Aysha’s father worked over a tiny fire, using a soldering iron that had a block of copper pointed at the tip to provide just the right amount of heat, uniting the solder to the wire. He knew just how much to apply, having learned this skill from his father before him. Aysha’s older brother studied every move and practiced making a stylized camel frame on which the wire and beads would be attached. It was his destiny to someday take over this role while Azam sat home resting and smoking in their scrap of a tent. For his efforts, the son earned a small fee out of the day’s take. It wasn’t much, but it was more than Aysha got, which was nothing. Nothing, that is, but her meal. Even that was pitiful, but it kept her eight-year-old body sufficiently sustained for another day of work. And another. This had always been the way.
In the market, endless stalls filled numerous alleys full of twists and turns. Smells of cinnamon and curry filled the air, smoke from roasting goat meat wafted across along with the never-ending wind, which was somewhat abated by the stalls themselves and the intricate layout of the market. The market had been in this spot for a thousand years and the town longer than that. Stalls passed from father to son, and the rent for the stall passed from artisan or meat cutter or baker to owner, in addition to a percentage of the days’ earnings. An artist like Azam, or a goat butcher or a maker of nan could never earn enough to actually own a stall. They were lucky to earn enough to pay for the vegetables they took home for their evening meal. This had always been the way.
Aysha felt lucky. Although she never got enough to eat [she and her mother always ate after the father and son] she got to come to the market and learn a skill. This was practically unheard of for girls. Most unfortunately, her mother had only the one son, and Azam needed two children to help carry on the work, so at seven years, Aysha had been allowed to join her father and brother and begin her apprenticeship. It would come to nothing, she knew, but still, it brought her to town, to the market, and out of the desert hovel in which they lived.
They rose two hours before dawn when the air was still cool and the wind had died down—Aysha’s favorite time of day. They drank a little goat milk with a piece of nan her mother had risen even earlier to bake. Their oven was a hole in the sand covered by a baked clay roof; into the hole went precious pieces of wood which produced a quick, hot fire. Nothing was wasted, for wood—brush, really—was very scarce. The thin flat bread called nan baked quickly. Then they loaded the camel, for which they also had to pay rent. It was a scruffy old beast, but they were used to one another and got on as well as might be expected. They never abused this camel as he was their lifeline to the market, six miles across the bleak, wind-swept desert.
And so in about two hours, the little desert family arrived, parked their camel along with the others, and carried their goods and tools to their stall. Aysha swept it as clean as she could, for it always filled with dirt, sand and debris from day to day. She wanted to make a good appearance for the customers who were mostly tourists from far countries she could not even imagine.
She loved the colors of the market stalls—each merchant vying for attention with golden, purple, green and red cloths draped to provide both shade and eye appeal. Come, they said, Come within and enjoy my shade, and while you’re here, take a look at my wares, perhaps buy a little something to take home!
Aysha thought how exciting it would be if someone bought one of her camels. Well, she hadn’t actually finished one yet, but she was getting close! She was still learning to arrange the tiny wires and beads just so. They should be spaced perfectly and fill the sturdy framework to make the camel look as real as possible. She knew of course that real camels were not made of golden beads, but she wanted her camels to remind the customers of real camels long after they saw the last one, long after they returned to their far away home where no camels lived.
Out of her reverie, she noticed her father begin to collect his tools and supplies, her brother going to fetch their camel, and she realized the work day was finally coming to an end. Just as Azam was about to pay the stall owner his share, one late customer trotted up to their stall—an older man, overweight,
holding onto his straw hat with one hand and waving with his other.
Wait, wait, he called. My wife wants one of your camels!
Azam turned to shoo him away, they were packed up and done for the day; he was tired and wanted to get home to his dinner and his pipe.
Aysha looked down in her hands and was surprised to see she had finished her camel after all.
Her first camel. Silently she offered it to her father, who took it, looked it over carefully and then nodded inquisitively to the customer as if to say This one all right?
The fat man nodded back, extracting money from a worn wallet and, just as inquisitively, looked as if to say Is this enough? The deal was struck. Azam had no energy left to bargain as he normally would, and, besides, the customer offered him far more than he normally charged!
Aysha watched, spellbound, as her camel, her first camel, disappeared into the dust of the market, tucked under the arm of a stranger. She felt a sudden pang, she wanted to call to her camel and say a proper good-bye. But of course that was silly and childish, she knew. There would be many other camels.
Aysha’s brother returned with the shaggy rented real camel, loaded up and received his meager coin. Father and son completely ignored the unimportant female. This had always been the way.
The beaded camel now began a journey of some six thousand miles, passing through many hands and not a little time, finally alighting on a card table under another hot sun on another windy day. A sign nearby read Yard Sale: Support Girls’ Education.
The eyes of a middle-aged woman went right to the table with the beaded camel; her hands picked it up and caressed it; her heart admired the workmanship and beauty. Hours of intricate work had gone into its creation. She wondered about its provenance, where it had come from, who had made it. But, no matter, she must have it.
How much? she asked with an inquisitive look.
Two dollars, came the unsure reply.
Do you know anything about it? asked the woman.
I have no idea—one of our members just dropped it off—this is a fund raiser for girls’ education, you know, we get lots of stuff.
I’ll take it, was the answer.
With the camel sitting in her window, the middle-aged woman admires the way the light shines through each of a thousand beads, making the camel appear to glow…and wonders.