Philosopher's stone by shuifanglj


									                                      The Philosopher's Stone

                                    The Philosopher’s Stone

Was she only one word, sex, or was there more? Could she be a collection of adjectives?
Shall I compare her more richly to the descriptive nuances of a sentence? At the moment, I
tend to think of her as the latter, for it has been two days since I have seen anything of
Dominique, that black-bottomed, black-haired beauty who was my pillion.
These nights in Algeria remind me of the Mediterranean landscape of my birth. Rhodes is
only a few hundred miles to the east of here. Only two days to go and the race was over. We
could have been autopsying the experiences in some seedy cafe, but temperamental my steed
is, and the rocky ground costly on tyres, so I’ve had to suffer the interminable imprisonment
of solitude, while my French negress returns with the cavalry and two fresh rubbers.

The soil about me is as harsh and unforgiving as the centre of Australia, the dust in my socks
red like Ayers Rock and soaked with sweat as I removed my boots. It turns to a slimy paste
between my fingers. Time here seems endless. I feel like this landscape is carved out of
granite, all statues of grandeur like Homer’s gods. And what can I do with all this time but
ponder an expansive moonscape of rocks and share the company of my thoughts with the
circling birds and my broken-down bike.

Dominique, sassy as she is, unfortunately lacks my dry humour. She did not think it funny
that we broke down in the Atlas mountains, the legendary birthplace of a Grecian god. For a
few hours, while I tried to re-patch a patch on a patched up tyre, I thought it funny. Even my
swollen knee, which crashed against this massive stone beside me and now won’t work,
didn’t detract from my philosophical pleasures. But when she left, walking north with an
angry waddle, the irony of this predicament evaporated. Now, even I can’t see the amusement
in these ranges. They’re just mountains of rocks, and not a very hospitable place to be

The sun is setting, a fire-balling supernova of orange behind a stratosphere of ruffled cirrus
clouds. The cool air comes to me quick, like a lover, her arms around me affectionately. I
shiver, pull the sleeping bag out and hide for cover. The stars ignited like sparklers, lit by an

                                       The Philosopher's Stone

omnipresent match. Magella, Pleiades, Andromeda, Orion and countless other constellations
pronounce themselves like models in a fashion show, making no pretence to be anything
other than breathtaking. Darkness, like a living cloud, floats over the countryside. Cicadas
begin singing, then there is a rustling through the savannah grass, of scorpions and worse. Be
patient, I coach myself. Lesser men have overcome mightier things than this.

I light my gas cooker and boil water. The coffee warms me and elevates my spirit. Lonely, I
think of her again and feel the twinges of guilt for thinking ill of her all day. Poor thing was
probably shivering under a tree somewhere, worse off than me. The emptiness of this place is
disturbing. I curl up and over the steam of my cup, stare out over a mountain peak, black
against the moonlight, undulating like a woman’s breast. A laugh from me echoes around the
mountain side as I reminisce on something Socrates once said. ‘I may be dumb, but there isn’t
anyone I’ve found whose smarter than I.’ He too had that bombastic streak which my Parisian
princess has. But what are his words to me now, stranded atop a Greek-named range in far
away Africa, feeling helpless to change anything but my own mind. It’s a futility only
adventures can give, when things sometimes go wrong. The price paid for stepping out of the
rut and challenging demons to a duel. Not for the light-hearted and certainly not for the
stupid. The wind, beginning to howl through the cliffs around me, makes me think ‘Certainly

I doze, dreaming strange things. I awake some time later. Phosphorus dials on my wrist tell
me its three o’clock in the morning. I get up, try to stamp the cold out of my boots, but my
knee won’t co-operate. I fall to the ground cursing. The cold fogs my breath. I suck in the air,
looking like a dragon, and wishing that I was. Then I could at least fly away from this
godforsaken place. I curl up into a ball, dreaming of Australia. The terra nullus of that distant
land, before Mabo became the word on every tongue, terrifying a nation into thinking it was
going to be dispossessed. But here, I only wish for that luxury. My chest is on fire. Breathing
comes laboured, like settlers finding a way through the Blue Mountains, inch by inch the way
is forged, not knowing if the next will be the last.

Egyptians have thought me quaint and I know the Libyans liken me to a madman, but there is
no kin in this land for the likes of me. I should have been born with toasted skin, then my
African comrades at least would have buttered my open weeping sores. But dressed in the

                                       The Philosopher's Stone

olive colours of a mulatto, they mock me as a traitor, which in this extremis state, I think I’ve
become. Anger is now foremost, and Dominique has now turned into the bull’s red cloth. I
charge at her image before me, Ferdinand no longer placid, crush wildflowers, jar my swollen
knee and collapsed onto the rough ground. I’m starving, cold and the last of the water is now
gone. I hate her. I hate her. I cry, until dehydration stops their flow.

Dawn. It comes as a blessing, cold but shedding hope, like Christmas carols. I feel the first of
Dominique’s sunbeams on my face. Chapped, burnt and stiff, my smile is for her on this day,
the third and hopefully the last of my solitude. She will come soon.

I tear some grass, and crush it in my hands, licking dew, tasting the cool nectar. It soothes my
parched throat. Over the mountain ranges, clouds begin to form. It looks like rain, but the
wind blows them too fast. Before my eyes, they fluff like snow and fly overhead, destined for
someone else, not me.

The day comes and goes, and staring at the moon before me that night, I know she isn’t
coming. Perhaps I didn’t love her enough? Doesn’t she even care about life, if not love?
Beside my faithful rock, I lie motionless, too weak even to blink. Something calls me. I look
around. Nothing. Then I hear another sound behind me. I must be hearing things. The hillside
is bare, but suddenly in the distance I see a man, his white tunic fluttering in the breeze. He’s
on a high rock, a spear in his hand, standing like a crane. A second later he is gone. I sleep,
and when I awake to that calling sound, I see him on the other side of the hill. He is closer
now. Only a few hundred metres away. He is staring up at the moon. Drowsiness overcomes
me. I awake to a pungent smell in my nostrils. He is there, before me, holding something
rotten under my nose. I can only see the white of his teeth smiling in the moonlight. I push the
food away, and he sits down with a Bedouin’s ease. He begins to speak in Arabic, and the
incoherent sounds lullaby me to sleep.

The moon has long passed overhead. I awake to the sounds of chanting and looked at the
natives around me, doing some sort of hunting dance. Was I dreaming? Were they cannibals,
preparing to eat me? They shook their spears at me as if to exorcise some devils, kicked their
feet in the dust around a burning fire at my feet. I wish they would hurry up and get it over
with. I’m scared. Not of death, but of dying. There is family far away, who worry for me.

                                       The Philosopher's Stone

How will they know of this? Is this camp the only epitaph of all my ambitions? A flat-tyred
silent bike, a skeleton and a cold fireplace? Has this soul created nothing more before it is

The natives were gone when I awoke the next morning, the fire, now a red rubble of coals.
My knee looks like a football. There’s nothing to do, except wait to die. I look at the bracelet
she bought me in Paris. I fondle its rough texture over the only unburned skin left. She had a
smile that day she gave it to me. A photogenic face, huge earrings and a nose stud, fuschia-
printed dress, and long white boots which came up to her knees. I captured her with my

Another day passes like the last only now I am unconscious most of the time. The birds hover
over me more eagerly. They possess some secret, of immortality, to survive in this land. I can
no longer swallow. Dejected German technology lies swollen beside me, her tank hot enough
to boil water, the liquid inside useless to my thirst. My lips tremble but tears are too
expensive now. I see an ocean before me, pale blue as Aphrodite’s eyes and I know I am mad
with dehydration. Where is your republic now, Australia? Your green and gold are here.
Algeria’s soil is full of it, but they pay allegiance to a different god than ours.

The setting sun brings with it the relief from the heat and a swarm of butterflies. My eyes, red
and swollen, are yellowed by their teeming presence. I sit up, wondering if these majestic
insects are hallucinations. But one lands on my nose in answer. It stretches its wings to cool,
soft as a dandelion, tickling me.

My voice startles the creature and it flies off to play elsewhere. The Cairns Birdwing is one of
the world’s largest butterflies, and is not found in North Africa. Eighteen centimetres at
wingtips, rich in colour and very intelligent, I’ve seen them land on vines to lay their young,
watched caterpillars growing fat and ruddy, turning into gold, black and silver lepidopteran
delights. We’ve taken their vines away now, because there’s one more useful to North
Queensland orchards. Now their grubs eat noxious vines and die within the day.
‘Come back!’ I call to the yellow spectres fluttering off into the distance, but they do not heed
my warning.

                                        The Philosopher's Stone

I saw her on the fifth day, like a Japanese fighter, coming out of the sun. She had on a
different dress, leather-strap sandals and a new handbag. Ripe, black cleavage lower than I
have seen it before. And her hair is wildly cascading over her shoulders the way she told me
she always hated wearing it. She pulled up in a jeep, got out of the passenger side and was
walking to me, a tall, handsome Algerian at her side like a sheep dog.
‘Sorry so late. We held up.’ she spoke in her distracted French mood.
‘We now, is it?’ I wanted to ask, but was happy just to be saved. I looked at his smile beneath
a two-day growth, knowing that it was probably him who held her up, while I slowly died.
‘Would like water?’ she asked, returning worriedly to the jeep.
‘Would I like water?’ I would have said, had my mouth not been cemented shut with dust.
‘My dear, I would have licked the waters from your lips, except I know the Algerian has
planted his juices there first.’

She splashed me in water like a babe, laughing her inimitable way.
‘You funny look, Dimitri. Why not shade you somewhere?’

It annoyed me how she dropped her participles everywhere. I slurped from the can, and ate
the unleavened bread offered to me between freshly manicured nails. She smelt of scented
oils, of basil and frankincense. Through my sensual delirium, I feel strong hands help me to
my feet. I feel like a child in his arms. Placing me in the back of the jeep, he shook his head,
hands on his hips like a Baobab tree.
‘Man die out here,’ came his broken English.
‘Yes,’ I replied, croaking like a frog. ‘Be so kind, Manuel, as to rescue my distressed

I pointed to the BMW, prostrate against the side of my philosopher’s stone. He gave me those
North African eyes, razor blades and oasis palms at the same time. Dominique translated my
sarcasm to him in French.
‘Be a good boy, Alfonse and bring the bike.’

He smiled for her, nodded and bowed, like a down-at-heel porter boy. Obsequiously, he rolled
his sleeves. Taut, tanned biceps glistened. He made the R-90 look like a Tonka toy as he

                                       The Philosopher's Stone

wheeled it to the jeep, then lifted it onto the back beside me. He didn’t even grunt. I did it for
him, if only to appease my wounded pride.
‘We go now,’ he gesticulated behind the wheel.
‘Good idea, Marcel.’
‘Alfonse,’ Dominique corrected me like a maths teacher.

I tried to hold her hand, but she looked busy, directing her new-found friend around the
mountain goat-track.
‘So beautiful here, Alfi.’ was all I understood, then she turned to me all-knowingly. ‘Stay
awhile here, no?’

The Algerian smiled ruggedly, like the mountains around us, finding first, crunching gears.
‘Stay with Garcia!’ I protested, my brow furrowing in betrayal. I couldn’t hold a poker face to
this stunning model.
‘Oui.’ she insisted. ‘Stay with Alfonse. You too come.’
‘What does Pedro think?’ I nodded to his sunburnt eyes in the rear-view mirror, the sort of
eyes which one can’t see anything behind except desert.
‘Alfonse very happy, yes?’

Alfonse smiled like the capricious goat-herder he was. He revved the jeep, dropped the
clutch. The wheels spun on dirt, bit the bitumen and chirped. It was then I noticed the rifle
beside his thigh, rubbing the gear stick as he climbed through the gears. It was a dangerous
part of the world here, but I couldn’t help feeling a conspiracy going on, the muzzle of the
gun pointing lazily in my direction.
‘Would mind, Dimitri?’ she asked, after I hadn’t answered.
‘Yes, Dimitri would mind.’ I thought. The jeep hit a pothole and my chin smashed against the
back of the seat. I bit my tongue.
‘You stay with Ahmed. Perhaps I’ll meet you in Dakar?’

She hesitated, her rehearsal going too well. ‘Tres bien...’ she finally said with a smile and her
voice raised with an inflection, the way she does when she no longer remembers someone’s
‘Dimitri.’ I added for completeness.

                                      The Philosopher's Stone

‘But of course, mon cherie. We meet in Dakar, Dimitri. Yes?’
‘Oui.’ I added with hope, my heart strings wasted on this maestro.

We trundled along, Dominique sitting like a princess beside her knight in shining goat skins
while I hugged the foot-peg of my faithful companion. Once we got to Algiers, I bought new
tyres and spent a fortune on a grease and oil change by a back-yarder. I lasted ten minutes in
the company of Dominique and her shaggy friend. He looked like he needed a pair of horns
on his forehead to complete the picture in my mind. I handed her my address in Sydney, just
in case.

Starting my bike across the road from the seaside cafe, I waved goodbye. She as gay as Paris,
he as solemn as a funeral dirge. I headed west, along the coast of Africa, then southward
toward Dakar, and out of her life forever.

I arrived in the ancient city long after the race had officially finished. There were a few
officials waiting for me. They fingered my passport as if it were the Satanic Verses. I was a
truant in their black eyes, and was given twenty-four hours to leave the country or suffer
imprisonment until a new visa could be obtained from the Australian Embassy.
Imprisonment? Hell! I wouldn’t mind the luxury of a penury. A week on a staple diet after the
Atlas mountains sounded great. Even the thought of a gloomy sentence seemed better than
that single word sex, which had been a torture worse than death. Even now, years later, when
my right knee begins to throb with arthritis, it reminds me of her. But providence prevailed
with a flight home, compliments of my illustrious parents, and the bike I sold for a song at the
only bike shop in town. With a swag on my shoulder, I boarded that DC-3 with mixed
emotions, Dominique uppermost in my thoughts, not sure exactly what I felt for her.

It’s been ages since I’ve seen her. A flashback prompted by a Vogue magazine which my wife
had just bought and dropped on the coffee table to read after she finished the housework. I
had a hard time explaining to her why her tableau manifesto suffered the fate of Moses and
got put into the basket. Some memories are best left buried in the past.

That Paris-Dakar race, which Dominique shared, has become, after all this time, reduced in
its essence to just one word. Not an adjective, a preposition or a verb. Neither a sentence or a

                                      The Philosopher's Stone

statement. Just one heck of a provocation when she uttered it on the first night I met her in
that Parisian bike-shop where she was shopping. A heart-stopping dropped iambic, in fluent
French style, like a command when she asked for it in the change room, her tongue rising in
the middle of the word with a delicious inflection: one syllable, two consonance, two
groaning strangers, one vowel and a life time of regret when that is all which is between two


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