Beasts of Burden

Have you ever seen the size of the eyes behind those layered lids?

There’s the pulled thread that unravels the sweater, the drop that spills the drink, tiny as a tear, long held.

That’s the thing with tears. Once they start––

There’s the camel that wins “Best in Show” despite a backache, whose keeper, in celebration, announces, “Watch this!” and adds one more thing, so light it seems impossible that any beast accustomed to carrying so much would feel it.

I heard they aren’t very smart. That they have to be led to food. That they––

Of course. You can’t make a creature a beast of burden if you are distracted by its intelligence. The keepers need to believe that they have it all figured out. The keepers need to believe that the camel is fulfilled in their service, that they would be just wandering around, lost and starving, without them. 

I heard they have three sets of eyelids.

And two rows of lashes. They can even close their nostrils against the sand.

Legend has it, they were acquired as spoils of conquest.

Or as gifts, to demonstrate wealth, as such creatures often are. Poets called them the ships of the desert.

Bodies repurposed as vessels, ambitious men could use them, whenever they meant to traverse land they were not prepared to walk. Arriving safely, they would claim victory, tell stories of the journey, and feel magnanimous for leading the ignorant beasts to food.

Then they’d eat them, right?

The carriers had tough meat, but they produced good milk. Better to eat the young.

I heard the mothers will mourn.

Yes, but the keepers, assuming stupidity, will stuff the skin of a slaughtered youth with straw and place it before the mother. She will smell her young. Then they find another small one. She will give the other small one her milk. If the other small one dies, both mothers will mourn. 

Have you ever seen the size of the eyes behind those layered lids? They are as large as half my face!

Don’t tell me she didn’t see. Don’t tell me she didn’t understand that if she could close them against the sandstorm that would blind her she didn’t know to do the same thing when she sniffed the stuffed body before her. Don’t tell me a creature whose role is bearing what others can’t carry will suddenly stop, as if it just occurred to them that doing so was an option.

Not even to die? What about the last straw?

You ever see one die, except when slaughtered? You don’t, you just find the bones. 

What happens, then?

The heart breaks, then the body, and finally the back gives out.   

Then what?

They keep walking. If they can shut their eyes against looking, they can stop their legs from stopping, even into death. 

They keep walking?

They keep walking and they turn into ghosts.

I’ve heard stories.

No one ever sees the body give out.

These ghost camels, they walk at night, still with the packs on their backs. One day someone finds the bones.

Then what?

 What do people ever do with bones? 

Decorate? Grind them into powder, make glue?

Exactly. To hold things together. To strengthen the body.

Medicine, also?

Strengthening, healing, you name it. They use the bones against the breaking, and keep on.

Author: Stacey C. Johnson

I am here to wonder out loud. The point is not to get a clear answer, a complete picture, but to remember how incomplete the picture is, to embrace the process once again, of discovery, of questions, to notice the stirrings of wonder. To leave crumbs behind, for the next traveler.

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