Libya is a desert cauldron, a playground for ifrits and devils. Archego had been born in the desert, but had no love for it. Especially not now. He had been in the pit for six days. The walls were too steep to climb, the water skins too small and too infrequent to keep him refreshed. He hadn’t eaten. His lips scabbed and his eyes hurt. He had voided the last traces from his bowels three days ago, and the scat broke open against the wall when the wind burrowed into the prison at night. If he could urinate, he would drink it. But he could not.
And his people would not listen.
Archego could hear them laughing—laughing and eating his dates. That was what he has first brought back. The dates. Everyone gobbled them, but no one would follow him back into the desert. “They are proof,” he had said. “Proof of the oasis.” But no. “It’s just a few dates,” they’d replied. “Just a vine near a small spring. Not enough to risk the buraq.”
That was weeks ago. So long it felt like it had happened in another time, like in a story. The buraq had already attacked twice and Archego knew it would come again. So he had gone exploring, like his grandfather. His grandfather had found this place, a rock shelf smashed into the dunes where once a healthy spring had fed their people. But the spring only tinkled now, and he knew they had to leave. Not just because of the spring.
Because of the buraq.
Archego wasn’t the only one to have seen it. The buraq first came in the evening, killing two of the camels. Everyone knew the legends—how the bull from Spain had mated with the vulture, how their children had been magic and their offspring unholy. But this buraq was the first anyone he knew had seen.
The legends were too tame.
The buraq killed two children the next time it came, and the people couldn’t drive it away. The creature ate in front of them, and when it left its belly dragged through the sand like a heavy sack.
So Archego had gone exploring again, back to the oasis and the travelers there. They had already begun building walls. Soon, there would be a village.
They wouldn’t be travelers much longer. No one in his right mind would leave that water, those natural borders of rock, or those dates.
When Archego returned from the oasis the second time, he brought one of the travelers’ lion hounds. He told his people the lion hound was a good defense against the buraq. It would warn them if the creature got close, and—if the worst should happen—the lion hound could buy them some time to escape.
But the people wouldn’t listen. They ate his dates. “Why aren’t there more?” they asked. “There are! At the oasis.” Someone threw a half-chewed date. It bounced off his cheek. Archego cursed, then cursed himself for being impatient. They’re scared, he told himself. They think they’re safer here than if we leave and trek to the water. Archego tried to persuade them, pleading that the lion hound would help their journey. It was no use. They chained the lion hound to a palm.
It would not keep them safe.
Archego went one last time to the oasis. He was able to convince a small family to accompany him. When they arrived, the family wept. The father took his infant son and splashed in the water. All the travelers laughed. The women brought a clear liquor to the wife and she drank so that it spilled across her chin. The father ran and kissed the liquor off his wife’s face, and then the whole family sank their heads in the pool and spouted water into the air like whales.
They stayed for two days, and then Archego returned to his people.
“Where is the family?” they demanded. Archego told them, but they threw him in jail. “You have gotten them killed with your foolishness.”
Archego had forgotten to bring more dates.
A shadow passed over the edge of the pit, and he looked up to see Sumala—the camel driver.
“I’m sorry they’ve done this to you, my friend. It’s not right.”
Archego pursed his lips, felt the scratch of the scabs. Sumala is a good man, he thought. “Then get me out.”
The camel driver waved his arms. “Where would you go?” Sumala is good, but scared. “If I helped, they would toss us both into that pit.”
Archego coughed. He was thinking of the buraq. “It might be safer.”
“It might,” Sumala allowed. Archego hoped Sumala would stay a while. The big man’s shadow provided some relief from the sun.
“The buraq will come tonight,” said Archego, thinking to try one more time.
“The lion hound—”
“Will not keep you safe!”
Sumala paused, and Archego saw the energy dissipate in the man’s posture. He’s not here to talk or to listen. He’s just trying to be nice. He feels bad that I’m in here, but he doesn’t believe me. “I will try and get you some dates, my friend. There may be some left.”
Archego’s stomach rumbled. He hated the dates, but he would have eaten them. He would have shoved them into his mouth and stomped around his people, kicking dust on their clothes while he gorged himself.
Thinking about the dates made his mouth water. “Sumala—”
But the big man was already gone.
Night came. Archego heard the lion hound first—a yelp—and then screams for an hour. Thumping. Tearing. Then a sound like a fat man leaning into the trough. By the moon’s apex, everything was quiet.
The buraq snuffled around the edge of the pit and then collapsed. One paw draped over the lip and the moonlight lit up the talons like white knives. When the sun came up, Archego heard the creature yawn. Then the buraq’s wings beat a rotten smell into the pit as it took off.
Archego was there for another day before the family came back to see what was taking so long. Some of the travelers came too, with lion hounds. When they raised him from the pit their faces looked worse than his. The sand was pink and there were rag bundles where all the tents used to be. Sumala was recognizable. The buraq had only eaten his back. The children were all gone, for which Archego was thankful. He didn’t want to see them. The camels were the worst. The buraq had eaten their faces and the bones looked like masks over heads of old meat.
Archego turned to the family and asked for water. He drank what they offered, but didn’t feel thirsty anymore. The travelers led them away from his people. No one spoke until, in the desert, someone asked Archego if he wanted dates.