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  • Writer's pictureAmr Abbas

Caller of the Night

Sinai Desert, 1992

I’ve heard tales of this morbid monstrosity. A being that calls upon you with a voice so serene, so familiar, that you are obliged to answer; to follow. Of course, those are mere folktales, stories inherited from fathers to sons to repel them from danger and draw them to virtue. The simplicity of storytelling lies in the contagiousness and altercation that the story goes through. Again, such simplicity is in fact the most sophisticated method of creation, mere words that travel and change until they are forgotten and once remembered they are never the same. I have come face to face with many a story, with the creation of God Himself spurred from the mouth of a madman until He became an all-powerful, all-seeing and all-but-here. My words come from places of wisdom, not from the hopes that upon my death in a grave I shall not rot, for all of us shall rot and all of us shall be devoured by the worms that lurk underneath the soil. That is what would become of us, words and fuel for the machines that serve and destroy. Yes, that is all we become. The only alternative is fire, fire to your heart’s desire, until your flesh would melt and your bones would crack and crack, they will underneath the devouring heat till all in all you become ash in a pot.

Certainly, some legends spur from a truth, like dragons. Yeah, how many dragons have you seen lately?

Well, I have heard my dragon.

It haunts me still.

It was mid-September when my buddies and I took leave. We owned a small construction company and lately, business had been blooming. So, after three years without vacations, we decided that we had earned ourselves one. Mike and Frankie were my friends and business partners, but their minds had not had a break in so long. They wanted to see monuments, maybe a beach, and so, I suggested Egypt. Sure, a dream destination even during Fall. And while the first thoughts that came to their minds were the Pyramids and the Sphinx, I had other plans. And so, they left it in my hands to organize their trip.

Sure, I thought, give Giza a couple of days and Luxor and Aswan another three days, and we are left with five whole days on the beach. And sure, the Mediterranean would have been nice, but dumb old me decided to chase the dragon and go for the Red Sea.

So, on the fifth night, we took our backpacks and took the bus to Sinai, specifically, to some resort known as Ras Shitan by the Bedouins. As I came to find out, that meant Head of the Devil, or more specifically, Head of a Devil according to the Bedouins that inhabited the land. They were a bunch of friendly people, too friendly at times, but never too nosy. They kept to themselves most of the time unless they were trying to sell us stolen watches or fake jewelry.

The first night was so remarkable and beautiful, but it was on the second night that my demon glimpsed my soul and decided that I was the prey. We were sitting between the mountains, camping by the fire. The Bedouins did well to sell us the spot and did even better to serve us their food. Of course, everything is for a price, but the one thing that came from that journey were the folktales. An unpaid guide came and joined us. He asked for a cigarette, and at that moment, all three packs were opened. He didn’t ask for a beer, but he was given one nonetheless. Drunk tourists who ate semi-raw grilled chicken by the fire were often that naught generous. Of course, I was quite reluctant when the man took a seat by the fire, he unwrapped his head and looked at us. There was something about his bright blue eyes, they weren’t like the others, and neither was his skin. He looked rather too clean to have lived a life long in the desert. His English was perfect, and as I’ve come to understand, it wasn’t only English that he spoke, but Spanish, Russian, Hebrew and Portuguese, let alone the different Arabic dialects that he had mastered over the years.

“What brings you here?” he asked curiously as he took a sip of the beer, though from the savoring smile, it was the American tobacco that he favored the most.

Frankie giggled, the way he does whenever a client asks him why he did this instead of that. “He did!” He pointed at me with his finger while he held the beer and swayed his head right and left.

The Bedouin looked at me with his sharp eyes, questioning me without the utterance of a word and I felt like the hospitality had been rather too generous for me to hide anything, even, at that point, from my clueless friends. I said, “I’ve always wanted to visit Sinai.”

The man whose eyes did not leave me alone smiled. He didn’t question me further, though his curious eyes did all that for him. “Well, gentlemen, thank you very much for the cigarette and the beer, I’ll leave you to have fun. And don’t follow the siren.” He spoke those words as he stood to his feet.

“What do you mean?” I asked aloud, looking at the man who was about to take his leave. He stopped and looked at me as he was about to wear the wrap he had around his face as I continued, “What siren?”

I’m sure Mike and Frankie were as interested in hearing what the man was talking about as I was. Perhaps they weren’t, it doesn’t really matter now, nor did it that night, at least to me and the Bedouin, it didn’t.

The man chuckled and shook his head, he was begging to be asked to tell more of the story. Back then, all I thought of it was that the man wanted to have another one of my Marlboro’s or further, he wanted to score the gig with us. He walked back to us and took a drag of the cigarette. “Well, it’s not much of a story, some folktale if you believe in those things. An urban legend of a siren who calls your name in the dead of the night, in the vast desert,” he said and took his seat by the fire. I’m sure the fire crackled as he sat and the smoke turned from light grey to mystic purple or some shit, but I can’t recall any of that now.

“It’s said that in the great Sinai desert, there are beings that inhibit the bodies of beautiful women, a façade or a mirage of sorts that beckons you, calls your name in a sweet voice, in a somber melody that one cannot simply ignore. She has taken many forms and the story has been told a thousand times or more. Here, they call her El Naddaha, the Naiad, the caller, the beckoner.”

“And if you are the one that she chooses to call, you’re doomed. By the Nile bank, it’s said that she stands at night, awaiting her victims. Here, she may be anywhere. If you ever hear her soft voice, don’t look, don’t stand and do not follow unless you seek what men of old have sought.”

Sure, the fire did crackle but the smoke didn’t change. It was the man’s voice that changed so strangely, so morbidly.

“And have you heard her before?” asked Mike.

He smiled. That was all to the strange Bedouin that came to warn us. Yes, it was more of a warning than anything else. Maybe it would have made a difference if it hadn’t been during a drinking hour, maybe it would have all made sense if there had been a bit of a belief in me that a story told by the crackling fire of a camping spot would have any truth in nature.

Mike and I watched the man who disappeared underneath the veil of darkness even though the moon and stars shone so brightly like I’ve never seen them shine before. His departure didn’t change the night much, Mike and I ended up drinking more and more until we could barely sit upright and when we were drunkest, the Bedouins that rented us the tent and grilled the food for us ended up trading us hashish for a pack of cigarettes. And so, our night ended with the dim break of twilight when we had all passed out, drunk and high, well, except for Frankie.

When we woke up the next morning, Frankie was gone. The Bedouins were awake by the time we woke up. When we asked them about our friend and companion, they said that they hadn’t seen him. Of course, our communication with them came through sign language and what little we all knew of it along with bits and pieces of English that they could hardly understand. I asked for the blue-eyed fella who joined us and drank our booze, but they didn’t understand, or perhaps I was too hungover to explain and elaborate.

We waited for Frankie to return, but until four in the afternoon, Frankie didn’t show up. We asked around and the Bedouins helped us to look for our friend who hadn’t even taken his backpack or a bottle of water. We sat by the tent, waiting and waiting and of course, neither one of us spoke of this Caller that the strange Bedouin spoke of. Part of it was because neither of us believed the story and the other part was because we feared even speaking about it aloud.

“Do you think he might have gone to the beach or something?” I asked Mike who had his head hung down and his hands tied together.

“I don’t know man. He left his backpack, Frankie is dumb, but he’s not stupid. How do you think he would go there if he didn’t tell the Bedouins? On foot?” Mike answered.

Another hour passed and the Bedouins who seemed to not bother with the heat or the sudden gushes of wind or the wait, waited with us. When we asked them to take us to the police station, they collectively laughed at us. Oddly, it felt like if anyone would know the whereabouts of another in the desert, it would be the Bedouins themselves. Finally, by night’s fall, we had all agreed that if he didn't show up by dawn, we would go looking for him. I understood how stupid the idea of looking for someone in the desert would be, but we’d have horses, even though I barely knew how to ride one unlike Mike who had basically grown up on top of a horse. The Bedouins volunteered a boy who couldn’t have been more than 16 to help us and desperate enough, we accepted for whatever fee they’d ask for.

Night came and dawn soon followed yet there was no sign of Frankie. We could barely stay awake in the afternoon, but when the night came, I guess the adrenaline rushed in and kept us wide awake. We prepared our backpacks, took two flasks of water from the Bedouins and mounted those old horses and followed the boy. It wasn’t easy at first, but once I got the hang of it, horseback riding barely bothered me. My concern was solely to stay close to both Frankie and the boy. We rode from sunrise to sunset until the boy stopped and set up a tent. We each had a bedroll and we set camp while the boy started a fire. Of course, we could barely understand anything that came out of his mouth. We ate dates by the fire and stayed for a while until we heard howling. I was concerned, but when we saw how the boy continued eating as if nothing even happened, we were somewhat reassured. The night was long and cold, but none of that bothered the Bedouin boy who grew up in that rural nature. When we motioned for him to sleep, he did so and Mike and I took it in turns to keep watch over the horses with only the fire and the cigarettes to keep us company. He woke up not a couple of hours later and took the second watch and in turn, we slept in despite our concern and the fact that we were as lost as Frankie was in this desert.

I think I had a dream of a Bedouin girl. Sure, they may have concealed everything in their black dresses and veils, but their eyes were enough to stir my desires. I woke up to Mike calling my name almost frantically. I got up and he spoke aloud, panting in his breath, “The boy is gone! The horses too. We’re fucked!”

At first, I thought it was some elaborate prank that Frankie was playing on us. I mean, Mike and I always took turns pranking the poor bastard, but eventually, when the sun stood highest in the sky, I realized that Mike’s words were the truth. We were lost in the desert with two half empty flasks of water and a bunch of dates. The only thing that brought a glimpse of hope to us was the fact that the Bedouins would come find us, if not for the sake of their boy, then for the money that they would take from us. We decided to stay put until they would come find us, preserve as much water as possible, even eat as few dates as possible. But when the sun set, we grew anxious.

“I can’t do this, man,” Mike said. “I can’t fucking do this! We have to go back to the village, if we move now, we should get there by tomorrow at noon at worst.”

I told him that we didn’t know the way, we weren’t trackers like the boy was and we wouldn’t be able to walk for that long with the tent.

“Screw the tent, we’ll just take our backpacks and the water,” he said.

When Mike gets stressed, we all get stressed. When he panics, there is no stopping him. He’s stubborn as a brick and often stupid as one. But there was no way I would let him go on his own. So, when the night came, we were walking, only guided by the moonlight. The stars were the guide in our march, and even though we didn’t really know what we were looking at in the sky, we followed the same pattern as best as we could. The sands were all around us, there was no escaping them, but we were going to die trying.

We walked and walked as the night grew darker and as the winds blew harder and as the desert grew colder. We took short breaks to take a sip of water and to eat half a date, but we continued, going to the village they called the Head of the Devil. It wasn’t until we heard the howling of the wolves that we stopped in our tracks and froze; almost knees deep in the devouring sands. The howls grew louder and we hadn’t the faintest idea of how to deal with wolves. We didn’t have fire to scare them away nor did we have our guns to deal with them in the good old-fashioned ways. All we had was the meat on our bones and the flesh under our skins and we would have made a glorious meal, not for worms, but for wolves. But even the wolves stopped howling.

It was as if they froze like we did, but their noises were gone, completely faded in the dead of the night. Mike looked at me and without saying a word, he began walking. I followed him, but his pace had grown faster as if his energy was somehow reignited. I called his name but he didn’t stop to answer me or even to glimpse back at me. He continued walking and I followed him in quick steps until I finally managed to catch up to him with a quick sprint and I grabbed his arm, “Mike!”

“What?” he said, snapping at me with daggers in his eyes. He pulled his arm back but then he stopped. As if he was confused, he glared at me, “What?” he asked again.

“You weren’t answering me man, Jesus Christ!” I said.

His blank stare made me feel the cold even more. The thing is, when you experience true horror, it is never sudden, it is never rushed, danger can be, but not horror. Horror is subtle, it creeps underneath your skin so slowly, so gently that you may not even know what you are experiencing until it’s too late. When Mike turned and continued to walk, I realized that something was wrong, something unnatural. He was never too stoic, but he was never a fool either. Mike turned and began walking. He did not respond to my words. He was back in that trance.

I called his name, “Mike!” And I called again as I stood my ground. Yeah, that didn’t work too well. Quite frankly, I didn’t wish to stay in the desert. It was a bad idea in the first place and here I was, paying the price of convincing my partners to go to this dreadful god forsaken land. I followed him, I rushed and grabbed him by the straps of his backpack, but he didn’t feel me. He didn’t respond, he only kept walking even when I had completely halted him to a stop. Before I could realize it, I slapped the poor bastard across the cheek with all my might, knocking him down from the impact. Maybe he didn’t fall, just stepped back. But he snapped out of it.

“What the fuck man! What is happening?” he said, holding his cheek. “Do you hear that?”

There was nothing but the wind gushing through the grains and hills of sands all around us. I stared at him blankly, I think, and shook my head. “Hear what?” I asked.

“Do you hear her? You don’t hear her?” he asked and I felt the hairs on the back of my neck bristle; a shiver down my spine and even my stomach sunk in. He turned but I grabbed him by the head and looked into his eyes, not my straightest moment, but I wasn’t going to let him fall for it, whatever it was, again.

“Mike, look at me. There is no voice,” I said.

“She’s calling me.” He pointed to the direction that he was walking in, but when I looked, there was nothing. There was nothing, I’m sure of it, it’s all some hallucination that the Bedouin hashish caused. We were under the effect of narcotics and years and years of heavy drinking nights.

He turned his head and immediately snapped out of my grip. When I looked, I saw a faint glimpse of a veil in the desert, some mirage, I supposed, some façade conjured up by the hallucinogens that we had injected our minds with. I was certain as day is light and dark is night that what I had seen was just a fragment of my warped imagination, something that could not, something that cannot be.

“Mike!” I yelled as I grabbed him again, forcing his sight away from that thing in the distance, from that devil. “Mike, look at me!” I yelled, but I felt the words choke in my throat. His pupils were too wide, too wide as if he had taken some hardcore drugs, which certainly wouldn’t be the first time. But the moment he saw me, it was like waking up from a bad dream. I shook him hard and I shook him until he snapped out of it. He looked at me, panting, out of breath. He held my arms as if I had saved him from certain doom and looked at me with gratefulness. “Don’t look at her,” he said, “She’ll call for you too.”

But the moment you tell someone not to look is the specific moment that they look, especially for a sceptic like me, I was not going to miss the chance. I looked and then, I heard that sweet voice, that somber melody of love and lust. I saw her, a beautiful woman, tall and elegant with eyes so wide and skin soft as milk and shiny as porcelain. Her wide hazel eyes fluttered as she stood underneath the light of the moon and even the light pierced through her and reflected the sands behind her. Skin so light that I could have sworn I saw the desert through her. Her lips parted and my name she whispered, a whisper in the wind, a whisper in the dark, a whisper that beckoned me with all of my strength and scepticism and I felt my heart race, my mouth water, my pupils widen and my guts clench. What I felt that moment, I’ve never felt before or since. Her fingers so slender as they beckoned me, her shy smile and her pink cheeks drew a smile on my face as my feet drew me to march to her. She was a goddess from the skies above, not like any other woman I have ever laid my eyes on. Her whisper was mesmerizing, it travelled with the wind and echoed on every grain of sand to my ears and my heart and my soul. Oh, how a glimpse of such a creature could deprive me of life itself was beyond me.

When I blinked, I saw Mike before me. He was holding my face with his hands and I felt pain in my jaw. Clearly, he had repaid me. “Look at me, man,” he said and kept his eyes locked on mine. “It’s that Caller the Bedouin was talking about. It’s true.”

It sunk my heart, the idea that such a beauty was not a fragment of my sick imagination, but a demon lurking in the desert, waiting for his prey, disguised as an angel from the skies, a beauty of the Olympians. “Don’t look at her!” Mike said.

I was still unsure of whether it was a mere hallucination or not and I wanted to look at her again, I think I would have given my life to glimpse upon that beauty in the desert once more. I think I would have done it had it not been for Mike who suddenly closed his eyes and dropped down to his knees, covering his eyes. He was yelling nonsense then his voice gradually became quieter and softer until he was merely whispering. There was little I could make out of what he was saying but I found myself doing the same thing once I saw the desert around us. The sky was no longer clear, though the moonlight may have made it worse, shining through the mist around us; the dampness in the air, the wetness on my hair and the cold that engulfed me. I could see my breath as it fogged up in the air and I felt sick.

I thought we would wait until the dawn to continue down the path towards the town as Mike continued to whisper whatever he was whispering. I knelt in front of him and closed my eyes. The whispers grew louder and louder until they eventually stopped. I stayed put, there was nothing else to do but to wait it out, maybe the sun would wash it all away and maybe the Bedouins would finally find us.

I doubt that they have even looked for us now.

When I opened my eyes, I saw the desert before me, the golden grains of sand that extended in all directions. I could feel the sun’s heat on my back. In front of me lay Mike’s backpack with the sands and dust covering it, but he was no longer there. All of the sudden, I felt the thirst and hunger that tore my guts. I ate the dates and drank the water that was left in the flask and when I was done, I began calling for Mike and I began calling for Frankie. Neither answered, only the echo of the mountain afar. I walked and walked until my feet could carry me no more, calling until my voice could come no more.

The pain in my heels, the aching muscles of my legs and my heaving chest, all under the burning sun of the Sahara, all with the fear of where my friends might be, what had come to them, what would come to me, they lead me to a place of hopefulness…or a place of hopelessness, ruins of the present, or temples of the past, I do not know. There, a few hundred feet from me, a hundred steps or so, were ruins, a wall of grandeur that cast its shade; old, torn and broken, but still erect. I felt a second spring of life rush through me, the adrenaline that had caused my sleeplessness and the fear that engulfed me all came to fruition as despite the ache and the pain and the fear and the madness, I found my feet carrying me to this rock, this very rock upon which I write my words now.

One cigarette remains in my pack. I will smoke it now. As I sat, awaiting either death or a rejuvenation of fate, I heard her, singing her lullaby with my name as its chorus. She is calling for me now. My lips are dry, but my mouth still waters for her, that figure ahead of me, waiting for me at the edge of the desert of Sinai. The caller of the night has come to claim me, and I so willingly will accept my fate. I will put down my notebook and I will gaze upon her, for this may be the heaven awaited, just a glimpse of her in the faint light of the moon that shines brightly above me now. I know that when I meet her gaze, I will no longer be the man I once was, I will no longer have a will of my own.

Perhaps this is the divine showing me the light, telling me that I will not wither underneath the soil, that I will ascend to places higher. Perhaps this is the devil, disguised as the beauty in the night and upon capturing me, it will devour me until not even a hair is left of me. I know not what you are or what you would do to me, I know not if this will be the end of me, but I know that I need to answer your call as Mike and Frankie have before me.

Written by Amr Abbas.

Cover photo by Jef Willemyns.


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