The track, white in the sun, wound ahead of me in a vague outline. The furrows in the sand made by the wheels of the great oil trucks forced me to keep alert every second, if I was to keep the jeep on the move.
The sun was high in the sky, and I felt tired. Only the wind blowing on the hood of the car allowed the jeep to continue, although the temperature was like hell-fire and the water was boiling in the radiator. Every now and then I fixed my gaze on the horizon. I knew that in the area there were great blocks of granite embedded in the sand: they provided highly desirable sources of shade under which to pitch camp and wait the evening before proceeding with the journey.
In fact, towards mid-day, I found what I was looking for. Great rocks appeared on the left of the track. I approached, in the hope that I would find a little shade. I was not disappointed. On the north wall of the thirty foot high slab of stone, a knife of shade was thrown onto the red sand. I pulled the jeep against the wind to cool the engine and unloaded the ghess, the necessary equipment for pitching camp: a bag of food, two blankets, and a tripod for the fire.
But approaching the rock I realized that in the shade there were some guests already there: two snakes were curled up in the warm sand, watching me motionlessly. I leapt backwards and retreated to the jeep without taking my eyes off the two serpents. I took the gun, an old contraption lent me by a native who used it to get rid of the jackals which, urged on by hunger and thirst, used to attack his flocks.
I loaded the gun, drew back a bit and took aim in order to try to hit the two snakes together, so as not to waste another bullet.
I fired, and saw the two beasts leap into the air in a cloud of sand. When I was cleaning up the blood and the remains of the snakes I saw, coming out of the mangled entrails of one of them, a bird he hadn’t had time to digest. I spread out the mat. In the desert it is everything: chapel, dining-room, bedroom, drawing-room. It was the hour of Sext. I sat down, took out my breviary, and recited a few Psalms, but I had to force myself because I was so tired. Besides, every now and then the wind blew fragments to the two vipers I had killed onto the verses I was reading. Warm sultry air was coming from the south and my head ached. I got up. I calculated how much water I had to last me until I reached the well of Tit, and decided to sacrifice a little. From the goatskin gourd I drew a basinful of two pints and poured it on my head. The water soaked into my turban, ran down my neck and on to my clothes. The wind did the rest. From 115° the temperature descended in a few minutes to 80°. With that sense of refreshment I stretched out on the sand to sleep; in the desert you take your siesta before your meal.
In order to lie more comfortably I looked for a blanket to put under my head. I had two. One remained by my side unused, and as I looked at it I could not feel at ease.
But to understand you must hear my story.
The evening before I had passed through Irafog, a small village of Negroes, ex-slaves of the Tuareg. As usual when one reaches a village the people ran out to crowd round the jeep, either from curiosity, or to obtain the various things which desert-travelers bring with them: they may bring a little tea, distribute medicines, or hand over letters.
That evening I had seen old Kada trembling with cold. It seems strange to speak of cold in the desert, but it is so; in fact the Sahara is often called “a cold country where it is very hot in the sun.” The sun had gone down, and Kada was shivering. I had the idea of giving him one of the blankets I had with me, an essential part of my ghess; but I put the thought out of my mind. I thought of the night and I knew that I, too, would shiver. The little charity that was in me made me think again, though reasoning that my skin wasn’t worth more than his and that I had best give him one of the blankets. Even if I shivered a little that was the least a Little Brother could do.
When I left the village the blankets were still on the jeep; and now they were giving me a bad conscience.
I tried to get to sleep with my feet resting on the great rock, but I couldn’t manage it. I remembered that a month ago a Tuareg in the middle of his siesta had been crushed by a falling slab. I got up to make sure how stable the boulder was; I saw that it was a little off balance, but not enough to be dangerous.
I lay down again on the sand. If I were to tell you what I dreamed of you would find it strange. The funny thing is that I dreamed that I was asleep under the great boulder and that at a given moment – it didn’t seem to be a dream at all: I saw the rock moving, and I felt the boulder fall on top of me. What a nightmare! I felt my bones grating and found myself dead. No, alive, but with my body crushed under the stone. I was amazed that not a bone hurt; but I could not move. I opened my eyes and saw Kada shivering in front of me at Irafog. I didn’t hesitate for a minute to give him the blanket, especially as it was lying unused behind me, a yard away. I tried to stretch out my hand to offer it to him; but the stone made even the smallest movement impossible. I understood what purgatory was and that the suffering of the soul was “no longer to have the possibility of doing what before one could and should have done.” Who knows for how many years afterwards I would be haunted by seeing that blanket near me as a witness to my selfishness and to the fact that I was too immature to enter the Kingdom of Love.
I tried to think of how long I was to remain under the rock. The reply was given me by the catechism: “Until you are capable of an act of perfect love.” At that moment I felt quite incapable.
The perfect act of love is Jesus going up to Calvary to die for us all. As a member of his Mystical Body I was being asked to show if I was close enough to that perfect love to follow my master to Calvary for the salvation of my brethren. The presence of the blanket denied to Kada the evening before told me that I had still a long way to go. If I were capable of passing by a brother who was shivering with cold, how should I be capable of dying for him in imitation of Jesus who died for us all? In this way I understood that I was lost, and that if somebody had not come to my aid, I should have lain there, aeon after aeon, without being able to move.
I looked away and realized that all those great rocks in the desert were nothing more than the tombs of other men. They too, judged according to their ability to love and found cold, were there to await him who once said, “I shall raise you up on the last day.”