The Sand Collector
Illustration by Phillip Fleming
I fell in love with Salim twenty-five years ago, when the last Israeli soldiers were withdrawing from Sinai. It was 1982, I was fourteen, and I remember watching on television as the Egyptians raised their red-white-and-black flag with the eagle of Saladin atop the fence that marked the new border, lit torches in Cairo, Sharm al-Sheikh and Rafah, sang and danced until midnight. I grew up in the desert, so I knew what it was really like, how uncaring and cruel. The wind picked up the tiny golden grains, swirled and tossed them away without a second thought. And I knew the wind not only picked up sand, sometimes it carried off entire makeshift homes and flung them in the air, spinning them round and round, letting them fall where they may, like a roll of the dice.
The Bedouin tribes, once free to roam the chalkstone hills, shepherding their black goats through the vast desert, growing crops of grain and trading sheep wool and charcoal, were now stranded on either side of the new Israeli-Egyptian border. Salim lived exposed to the elements, behind a blue tarp hung over a box of rusted scrap metal and plywood in one of the largest unrecognized Bedouin villages in the State of Israel. His village was made up of tents and tin shacks, only a few hundred meters away from a vile-smelling waste dump. The men in the village worked in the hazardous waste disposal facility. The facility caught fire many times, and the flames spread like quicksilver, engulfing the village in a toxic cloud. Some of the villagers developed breathing problems, children's teeth began falling out, women lost the babies in their wombs, and Salim's father died of cancer at age forty-seven.
I lived only four kilometers away, in Be'er Sheva, on the northern edge of the Negev desert, in a city which is now home to a booming high-tech industry and immigrants from the Soviet Union who became chess masters. When I was growing up it was only a mid-sized city surrounded by sand. I was a lonely girl, described by some of my teachers at school as quiet and unapproachable. I liked to think of myself as self-sufficient. In the Negev, the air was too dry for epiphytes, those plants that grow on other plants. Like a true desert-dweller, I never wanted to rely on someone else. I wanted to swim in the air, to be without proper roots. I hardly spoke at all until I met Salim. Instead of talking to my mother or to a classmate, I went out into the desert, to the sand dunes, and talked and talked into the void, venting frustrations, whispering my biggest secrets to an empty landscape. I think it was Salim's broken Hebrew, his thick accent, that made me want to talk to him. Once I started talking, I couldn't stop. I wanted to drink and drink from Salim, like a never-ending pool of clear water, but when he was finally mine, he dissipated between my fingers like the distant mirage of an oasis, a ray of light bent through layers of air.
By the time Salim was sixteen years old, he was already a smuggler. Unlike his older siblings—all five of them, brothers, who worked at the toxic waste facility—he went to school. He didn't go down the block like I did, he travelled for kilometers and kilometers to the next village, in the early morning darkness, and then walked back for hours, arriving home by nightfall. He promised himself he would never work in the waste disposal facility like his father and brothers, but he dropped out of school and became a smuggler because he had seen how they lived, with their trucks, their bowls of rice and goat meat, their perfumed homes and ornate rugs. He became a smuggler because he needed the money. Knowing Hebrew wasn't enough to get a job, neither was a high school diploma, unless he wanted to do what his father did. He knew the risks of smuggling. He could get caught by the Israelis, by the Egyptians, even by his own people.
Smuggling is a different business now, I read on the news, since Egyptian troops increased their numbers. Soldiers patrol the border, walkie-talkies crackling. Dimly lit underground tunnels snake their way between Gaza and Egypt. Tracks, carts and pulley systems transport the goods: canned pickles and olives, fuel and gasoline, weapons and medical supplies, jars of tomato sauce. In some larger tunnels, they smuggle cars without license plates: a battered old Volkswagen, an off-white Subaru, a beetle-green Range Rover. Once, they even snuck across animals which made their way to the Gaza zoo: a rare white tiger, and a floppy-eared baby elephant with his huge, wrinkled mother, her ivory tusks shining under the yellow glow of bare lightbulbs.
At night, I liked listening to the various sounds of the desert, separating them like instruments in an orchestra; the slithering of the blue-headed lizard, the rattle of the yellow death-stalker scorpions lifting their sting, the clump-clump-clump of the ibex's hooves and the clash of their horns, hard as fossilized stone. I joined the orchestra with my own sounds, telling the desert about the new bush of dark hair that sprouted between my legs. My embarrassing breasts that somehow got bigger since last summer, forcing me to buy expensive new bras. I complained about Mom sitting rapt in front of the television every night, ignoring me completely, watching Haim Yavin present the news on Mabat. I admitted to the desert that, surrounded by people, I always felt especially lonely.
Almost every day after school, those long afternoons in the early spring, I rode my banana-colored bicycle down Highway 40 in search of desert flowers. They were out in abundance, carpets of red anemones, purple lupines in full bloom, the flaming petal clusters of Solomon's Rock. I remember the first time I saw Salim, a shirt tied on his head to protect himself from the sun, one hand raised to shade his eyes. He had a small, black pouch strapped across his waist. The sand was littered with pieces of sheet metal, plastic bags and empty cigarette packs. He grabbed a long, thin piece of sheet metal and used it like a skateboard, sliding down the dunes, blending into the sand with his dusty tracksuit. I was close enough to him that I saw his different-colored eyes: the left was green, and the right was blue. There was a crescent scar on his cheek, pale as a sahlab orchid, shaped like barbed wire. Later, he would tell me that he got the scar from climbing the six-meter-tall Egyptian border fence and tossing over a package. When the Egyptian troops opened fire, he panicked and cut himself on the barbed wire, dropped down into the darkness and fled, his face bleeding onto the sand.
I grabbed another piece of sheet metal and slid down the dune, wordlessly. Salim followed, skidding down the sand. We played this sandboarding game, without really acknowledging each other's presence except for a few stolen glances. I liked how he could be quiet, like me. He didn't draw attention to himself, but instead waited, endlessly patient, like a lizard basking in the sun. I noticed his skinned knees, a pale pink in contrast to his skin. He took off the shirt tied around his head, shaking his messy hair peppered with sand. From his pocket, he withdrew a disc of colored glass and held it up to his eye like a telescope, then passed it to me. I saw the world tinted, a dark ivy sky. I liked to imagine he saw half of the world green with his green eye, the other half blue with his blue eye. In the distance, a pickup truck stopped by the side of the road, and someone stepped out in a Spiderman shirt, called out: "Salim! Salim!"
"I am Salim," he told me in heavily accented Hebrew. "That is my friend, Spiderman."
I stared at the ground, afraid to say anything, but then, surprising myself I mumbled: "With great power, comes great responsibility."
"Exactly." He smiled, revealing a crooked front tooth. "Same time tomorrow?"
When I returned to the same spot on the sand dunes next to Highway 40, there he was, waiting for me. We walked around slopes of chalkstone and he picked the stems of the shaggy and fibrous sparrow-wort bush to knead into a rope. He had brought me the tiny skull of a kitten, pale against the palm of his hand. It probably belonged to a sand cat. The ear canals were very wide, a sign of the creature's enhanced hearing capacities. I wondered if this was a sign that, finally, I met someone other than the desert whose ears were big enough to listen to me.
"Does this make me Cat Woman?" I asked.
From his black pouch, he took a long silver spoon and an empty glass jar. He scooped up sand and put it into the jar. He did this again and again, until the jar was half-full. Then, he took out a pen and wrote on the jar in Arabic.
"And I am the Sand Man."
Only when I was no longer a child did I read the story of the Sand Man, who sprinkled dust and sand in the eyes of children to get them to fall sleep. He had a silken coat that constantly changed colors, green to blue, just like Salim's eyes. He had two umbrellas, one under each arm. The first umbrella, which he spread over good children, made them dream the most beautiful stories. He spread the second umbrella over naughty children, who slept a heavy, dreamless sleep. Of course, by then, I also knew the evil version of the Sand Man, the one you didn't hear about in the fairy tale. The Sand Man was the thief in the night who snuck up on children who couldn't fall asleep and stole their eyes. Sometimes, Salim was the evil Sand Man, with my stolen eyes in his pocket, and other times, he was the good Sand Man, spreading his umbrella over me, and I stared up at the pictures and dreamt of beautiful things, of lapis lazuli and opals, rubies and cat's eye, coral and turquoise, pearls and topaz.
"I must leave now," Salim said.
We set up a time to meet again on the dunes by the highway, and he disappeared, leaving me with the pale skull of the sand cat in the palm of my hand. When we met again, he didn't mention his sudden disappearance. We walked together in silence, until we passed a yellow sign: "Beware of Camels Near the Road," and Salim began talking about camels. He told me about the ardha, the camel racing show held at an abandoned desert air strip. The al-Hejin racing camels were lean, slim and agile. "But no one actually raises camel herds anymore," he said. "We can transport our possessions in the back of a pickup truck. Besides, when you ride a camel, there's no air-conditioning." He laughed, winking at me. He told me about the Tulu wrestling camels from Turkey, pitted against one another in competitions, who use their long necks to leverage down their opponents. For a moment, I imagined his neck struggling against mine, his hot breath in my ear. I wanted to leap onto him, to wrestle him down, but instead I sat on my hands, afraid of what I might do if they were free.
After that we started meeting on the sand dunes every day after school, by the mauve horsetail knotweed waving in the wind, the fleshy leaves and pink flowers of the violet cabbage shrub growing out of the stone. Salim brought me tiny gifts every time we met, spiced olives and sweet madjhoul dates, Argentinian playing cards, Egyptian postage stamps, invisible ink, American cigarettes, a hand-carved wooden camel, a cactus with pink flowers. I had no idea where he got it all from. Once, he brought an assortment of music boxes, each one a different size, each one playing a different tune. I turned the lever and the music sprung out of the tiny box, echoing across the emptiness of the desert. As we listened to the music, our foreheads almost touching, Salim reached into the black pouch around his waist and retrieved a glass jar and a silver spoon. He scooped up sand with the spoon and put it in the jar, then took out a black felt-tip marker and wrote something on the side of the glass jar in elegant calligraphy I couldn't read.
I invited Salim over to my house, thinking he would never come. To my surprise, he accepted. I wondered if he'd been to Be'er Sheva before, or to any big city for that matter. I lived in Neighborhood Bet, home to Hapoel Be'er Sheva football club, which wasn't the best team, but also wasn't the absolute worst. I didn't care about football, although I thought he might, so I told him about the stadium. He didn't care about football, either.
Mom wasn't home and so there was no need to explain why I had anyone over, let alone a boy like Salim. We sat in my room, underneath the open window, the white plastic shades were partly open, letting in slats of buttery sunlight, a warm breeze. I grew up hearing about the hospitality of the Bedouins and I felt inadequate. I wanted to offer him something, to reciprocate his generous gifts, but what did I have that was special? We had cottage cheese and milk in the fridge, cereal and bread in the cupboard. There was a mint plant in the kitchen. Some of its leaves were brown and withered, but a few were salvageable, bright green.
"Would you like tea?" I asked.
He nodded. "I like it with a lot of sugar."
I tore off a handful of healthy mint leaves, dropped them in two glass cups, then spooned a generous amount of sugar. The kettle boiled, and I stood by the steam for a moment, letting it heat my face, taking a deep breath to calm my nerves. My hand shook when I poured, and I spilled a little. Salim slurped the hot tea and nodded like a grown up. At least, I didn't ruin the tea. We stood in the kitchen, listening to the hum of the beige refrigerator. I started noticing everything Salim might not own, and felt strangely guilty at the sight of the grey landline phone, the gleaming silver toaster, the futuristic microwave. Salim wasn't interested in any of the electrical appliances, he was staring at a photograph of my third birthday party that we celebrated in Mitzpe Ramon. My cheeks were puffed up like a hamster's, I was inhaling as much air as I could, hovering over a yellow sponge cake with three mismatched candles.
"We can make a cake," I said.
Standing on top of a stepstool, I collected the necessary ingredients. What a stupid idea. I couldn't even remember Mom's recipe. I should have paid more careful attention when she made it. A big plastic bowl, flour, sugar, a carton of eggs. I poured the flour into the bowl and cracked the eggs into it. The yolk was bright orange, radiant. I tossed aside the cracked shells. Whisking it all together, I slid a finger into the batter, dripping gooey mixture, and slipped it into my mouth, without thinking. Salim watched me—I licked my finger clean. The batter was too sweet, probably just the way Salim liked it, if his taste in cakes was anything like his taste in tea.
"Now, your turn," I said, handing him the bowl, as if this was how cake was made.
Salim slid his finger along the rim of the bowl. His face transformed once he tasted the sweetness. He smiled very widely, laughing like a child. I was pleased with myself. We ended up sitting on the cold tile floor, eating the raw batter with our fingers.
"What is your earliest memory?" he asked.
"My mother was in the kitchen. She was talking to a friend. I knew it was about me. She said she was worried because I don't talk. I felt terrible. It made me want to talk even less."
"You do talk."
"I guess," I said. "What's your earliest memory?"
"A scorpion sting."
He told me that when he was just a baby his father went out to hunt for a scorpion. His father came back with the dangling yellow creature and crushed it under his sandal. He burnt it and mixed it with oil, creating a poisonous paste, which he smeared on Salim's tender skin. Ever since then, he hardly even felt a scorpion bite. He brushed it off, like sand.
Salim disappeared for days. At the time, I didn't know yet that he was meeting his friend, Spiderman, to drink coffee under the carob tree, and discuss their next smuggling operation along the new Egypt-Israel border in Sinai. Spiderman was a spotter with only three fingers on his left hand. As a spotter, his role was to be on the lookout for patrols. He knew the land better than anyone. He wanted to be a tracker for the IDF's Minority Unit. A large number of Bedouins volunteered each year, although I never understood why they would want to serve. Spiderman taught Salim to walk backwards. Many smugglers, knowing their pursuers would follow the direction of their footprints, learned how to walk backwards. The real way to distinguish the direction the person is headed is by noticing how sunken the footprint was, where the most weight had been placed.
On one of their first missions together, Salim and Spiderman smuggled a hoard of old video cassettes and comic books into Egypt, among them Syrian soap operas and pornos. They kept several videos and comics for themselves, as they usually did with the smuggled goods. They read and re-read the Spiderman comics in Salim's tent and argued whether his superpower abilities helped him make pizzas in his day-to-day job. Spiderman got his nickname when he started wearing a Spiderman shirt he found in the trash heap. They talked about the smuggles, made jokes as if it were a normal job.
The next time we met, we had a running race. We sprinted down the sand, which sloped like the hips of a fat woman, dips and crests in shades of ochre and salmon, running until we could hardly breathe. We lay on our backs, exhausted, and I rolled up my jeans, exposing my shining, pulsing calf muscle. Salim stroked my leg, gently wiping away the sweat. It was the first time we had really touched. I watched his chest heave up and down, up and down, until it slowed, relaxed, regained its natural rhythm. I stared up at the darkening sky, that had just begun to show a few stars.
"Don't you have stars in Be'er Sheva?" he asked.
The wind got stronger, cold gusts of wind made the hairs stand on my arms. Sand got in my eyes, and I curled up, shivering, next to Salim. He placed his arms around me, held me. I felt the rapid pace of my own heart. I took his hand, interlaced my fingers in his. I was grateful for the dark. I didn't want him to see how scared I was. Before I could think about it, I kissed him on the lips.
"Wait," he said. He reached into his black pouch and took out a jar.
"I want to remember this moment," he said.
"This moment is still happening, idiot."
The next time we met, we drank tea again together, but this time black tea whose leaves Salim brewed in a kettle over an open flame, adding wild sage, cardamom pods, cinnamon bark, plenty of sugar. Salim told me he wanted to work in the tourist industry. His dream was to go to a resort in Sharm El-Sheikh to scuba dive with rich Europeans in the Red Sea, pointing out dangerous white-tip sharks, congregations of pilot-fish weaving their way through the liony manes of seaweed-beds, loggerhead turtles floating motionless, enormous heads bobbing, black eyes half shut.
Salim invited me to his home, to his tent with the sheet metal roof, the one that could be blown away by a gust of wind. The following week, in the mid-afternoon, I left school and rode my bicycle four kilometers south to Salim's village. We met at the entrance to the toxic waste facility, looking out at the incinerator for hazardous and organic waste, the gas-turbine units, the shadow of giant steel frames and crisscrossing piping. All around us, waste piled up, bubbling and gushing like a living thing, producing a sharp stench that made it difficult to breathe. I did everything I could to stop myself from coughing because I didn't want him to think it affected me. The air was thick and yellow, the venomous cloud I'd heard about hanging over the village, and the earth itself looked grey and dead, it had been poisoned, spoiled. The tin-roofed shacks jutted out from the earth, the factory chimneys in the distance expelled tunnels of dark smoke into the sky.
Sensing my anxiety, Salim tried to put me at ease by telling me he used to play on the trash heaps with his brothers. He would find rubber tires to roll around, and they would chase each other down the derelict piles. He used to build little toys out of the refuse: cardboard planes with rotating plastic propellers, wooden boats with working rudders, fire-engine trucks painted red. When Salim was very young, he walked around the trash heap with his father, hand in hand, after his shift at the facility, asking him questions: Are there seven wells in Be'er Sheva? Why is an orange in your hand bigger than the sun in the sky? How many cherry hearts can you swallow before a tree grows in your belly? His father always knew the right answer, or else he made it up.
"My father taught me all the old Bedouin names of places in the desert," Salim said. "Before the Jews came and changed all the names."
I didn't like the way he said Jews. It felt like he was saying a bad word. I had no idea what he was talking about, but I wasn't going to admit it.
"We didn't change any names," I said, trying to sound confident.
"Yes, you did. My family has been here for a long time. I am from the Al-Azazmeh tribe. We had our own names for our places, and you changed them all."
"That's not true," I said. "How did we change the names?"
"The Committee for the Designation of Place Names in the Negev."
"You just made that up."
"Yeruham, close to your home, was actually called Rahma."
"Why do you care so much about the names, anyway?"
"Because my father taught them to me. He died of cancer when I was eight. He got it from working at that waste facility. There were many others just like him."
I wanted to apologize to him, but I didn't know how, and besides I was still angry at the way he said "Jews". Why did it matter if we changed some of the names of places in the Negev? He could call it whatever he wanted—in the end, it was just sand. Walking through the village, everyone greeted Salim as we passed by. Everywhere I looked, there were children scampering around, their brightly colored clothes, pink, purple, red, dusty and faded. A group of young girls, their hair in braids, followed us around, giggling. One of the girls was holding a shy-looking chicken in her arms, patting its head, while several other clucking chickens followed in her wake, bobbing their heads and pecking the earth. A young boy strutted by proudly on a horse, circling and taunting us, until Salim shouted at him, and he galloped away. Several boys sprinted past us, chasing after a yellow football, raising a cloud of dust in their wake. Two men wearing long galabeyas and white headcovers were communicating using sign language, their fingers tapping and pointing, making circles and waves. An elderly woman in a dark robe, her tattooed face as wrinkled as a prune, hung clothes on the line and stared at me, unblinking.
We passed a truck parked next to a solar panel, a generator, a water tank and a flat, circular tabun oven for frying bread. An enormous pile of rubble and debris rose up in the distance. Salim explained that the soldiers came with bulldozers and a demolition crew last week, razing stone homes and animal sheds, supposedly built illegally on state-owned land. "We are only allowed to live in tents," he said, "we don't have permission to build permanent houses, since according to your government, we don't own the land. You act as if the Naqab desert is empty, as if Bedouins don't exist." I hated how he kept saying "you" and "your government" as if I was the one personally tearing down his home. When we reached his tent, he took my hand and squeezed it. I was both grateful and sickly anxious, fluttering wildly between loving and hating him.
Inside, there was a single bed and a shabbily made wooden shelf with three levels. Arranged on each shelf was a row of identical glass jars filled with sand. Each of the jars was labeled in that same beautiful calligraphy.
I picked up a jar at random. "What does this say?"
"That one says Broken Leg."
I picked up another. "And this one?"
"It doesn't look like shawarma."
"I collect memories," Salim said. "Whenever I have an experience I want to remember, I fill a jar with sand from the spot where it happened." He looked at me, his blue and green eyes glinting.
"But they all look the same."
"Exactly. The sand jars are all the same, but each memory is different."
It was a kind of collection, he told me. The jars were identical, but each evoked a very specific, intimate memory for him because of their label. The most recent jars were all about experiences we shared, like the first time we kissed. When he picked up the jar, it reminded him of my stumbling tongue, flicking in and out of his mouth, and my chafed, dry lips. Another jar reminded him of my legs, the muscle pulsing and bright, after we ran our race down the dunes.
"So, all your sand is from here?" I asked.
"My backyard is the desert. All of my memories are from here. Why would I go anywhere else to collect them?"
Salim offered me tea in a copper pot and dates, toffee candy, and almonds on a decorated silver platter. He kept refilling my glass with sweet tea, again and again, until I put my hand over the empty cup, covering the rim, and shook my head. I really had to pee, but there was no toilet. I heard the sound of an engine running outside.
"Spiderman is outside," Salim said. "I must speak with him."
While Salim left, I stayed inside, sitting on his fold-out cot bed, staring at the blue tarp and swinging my feet. I got up to look at the sand jars again. I tried to remember what little Arabic I learned in school. There was a jar with Jamila, meaning beautiful, and bint, the word for girl. I wondered if it was about me. Did he think I was beautiful? But it could have been about some other girl, more beautiful than I am, with hair like honey and golden bracelets around her thin wrists. A girl who liked gifts. I started pacing around the room. Maybe Salim had a gift for every girl he met and liked, and then he took them here, to his home, where he showed them his glass jars full of memories for each of them, and made up a story about collecting sand and his dead father. I sat down on the bed and swung my foot—it bumped against a wooden crate.
I leaned over and saw a metal latch attached to the crate. I opened it. At first, I thought that inside would be more sand. Did he also collect it cemented in slabs, wrapped in cloth? But it wasn't sand he was collecting in the crate. Whatever it was, it had a distinctive musk, it smelled like a combination of moss and spider flowers. Suddenly, Salim came back inside, his face darkening, he closed the crate and pushed it back under the bed.
"Don't touch that."
He'd never spoken to me like that before. All I wanted was to leave, to get away from Salim, from his tiny tent in this desolate village by the waste dump. I wanted to be in my own bed, safe under the blankets, listening to the sounds of the desert.
We didn't meet so often afterwards, once or twice a week at most. I started noticing little things after that: late-night, hushed conversations, mysterious disappearances, crates in Spiderman's truck, bundles of cash under Salim's mattress. Once I was looking for signs, they were hard to miss. All of his gifts and little presents, stolen goods. I became quieter and quieter around Salim, fading into the background, just like a dust-coated shrub in the sand. Out on the dunes, he wanted to kiss me again, but I didn't let him. It hurt him, to be pushed away. One afternoon I realized I'd once more lost my ability to speak, which used to be so easy with him. Salim didn't look me in the eye. He didn't even acknowledge that there was a problem between us, an ever-widening chasm. Instead of talking about it, he gave me a silver necklace with a crescent moon, studded with diamonds.
"Can I put it on your neck?"
I took the necklace from him and flung it into the sand.
"I don't want your gifts," I said. "You're a liar."
"I'm not a liar."
"Then tell me what those things really were in the crate under your bed."
Salim's jaw clenched, and he answered me in a low voice. "Three hundred and twenty-five grams of hashish."
When Salim started telling me about his life as a smuggler, the sky was blue with a few feathery clouds, and he talked and talked, sometimes struggling to find the right words in Hebrew, and the sky slowly became tinged with pink and peach, and when he couldn't find the right word in Hebrew, he cursed in Arabic under his breath, and then sighed, and picked up the story where he left off, speaking until the sun was a tiny red speck. His breath, close to my face, smelled of licorice. He told me he knew the risks. The leaders of his tribe discouraged smuggling and punished those who were caught attempting it. They had their own forms of punishment, where innocence was proven in the bisha'a fire test. The accused was brought before the judge. Tea was served to the onlookers. The mubashe heated up a silver spoon for the fire test. Once the spoon was white-hot, he placed it on the accused's tongue. The tongue of a liar will burn. The anxiety of lying dried out the tongue, causing the burning metal to scorch the flesh. The truth was to be revealed through pain.
He was distracted, telling me he could never see me again—what do you think they will do to me if they discover I'm in love with a Jewish girl?—and then, in the same breath, that he could taste me on his tongue still, and he thought of my smooth skin, the slightly sour smell of my hair. He told me he thought of collecting all the sand in the desert, all the gifts in the world, and giving them to me, so I would forgive him. But it wasn't the smuggling I needed to forgive, it was the fact that we could never be together. I felt it when I walked through his village: I didn't belong in his world, I was an outsider, and he didn't belong in mine. I imagined my mother's crazed reaction if she ever discovered I was in love with a Bedouin boy, and shuddered. I wanted to tell him something dramatic, like grab a handful of sand and put it in a jar, because this is the last time you're ever going to see me. In the end, I didn't say anything. I just got up and walked away, didn't look back at him.
I never saw Salim again. I kept riding my bicycle searching for desert flowers, but he was never there. Maybe he watched me from afar. He knew how to evade detection, to blend into the sand. When I returned to the spot where we used to meet by the dunes next to Highway 40, I found a single glass jar filled with sand, that he left for me to find. This was his parting gift to me, I imagined. We wouldn't share memories anymore. He wrote the label in Hebrew, his writing shaky, childlike: Cat Woman. It was his way of telling me he would remember me. I still keep the jar of sand in my room on my bedside table, by the pale skull of a sand cat, and sometimes imagine what could have been.
This version of "The Sand Collector" was revised in June 2021.