A Falling Star

Abon looked to the east, and he could see the white sheet of dawn starting to pull itself across the heavy sky. The fading twinkle of the stars, the bracing cool of the final night winds, and the pristine emptiness of the smell of nothing in the night air: all pleased Abon and settled his mind. So why wasn't he able to sleep?

Maybe it's my age, he thought. The body wants to stay awake because it knows it will get a long sleep soon. Or maybe it was a premonition that he would be called upon soon -

"Abon!" Abon turned to see who was calling on him. He recognized a man he had seen before from a nearby village. "Abon! Oh!" He was clearly agitated. Under the stars, in the light of dawn, while feeling the cool breeze, Abon found it hard to feel very unhappy about anything. But he told himself that he needed to understand what had upset this man.

"It is I, Johari," the man said. Abon could see two young men close behind Johari, and in the distance, more people following them.

"Johari, my brother," Abon said softly, hoping that his soft words could turn away Johari's wrath. "Tell me, what has happened?"

Johari wasted no time. "This is my son," he said, gesturing to one of the young men behind him. The son looked like a timid boy, callow and reluctant to be there.

Johari continued, still speaking quickly and loudly. "I sent my son to Samarahan, to bring us salt. I asked Sylester to accompany him, ensure his safety, and help him haul cargo." He gestured to the other young man behind him. Abon saw that Sylester was lanky, well-dressed, and, judging by his scowl, also reluctant to be there.

Abon nodded, trying to take in the situation. As Johari had started talking, a group of people had caught up and gathered behind him. The audience emboldened Johari.

"This man abandoned my son in the middle of the journey!" he said, pointing to Sylester. "With no word and no reason, he left my son in the empty and deadly dunes!" He breathed heavily, clearly still exercised about his story.

Abon thought back to the times that he had traveled on trading journeyss. He remembered the road to Samarahan well. There was a pond on the way, with cool grasses his friends used to graze their sheep. There was a great stone, with carvings from his ancestors and directions to the nearest wells. And there was Samarahan at the end, where it was said that the camels were as strong as oxes and the women were as enchanting as moonlight.

Abon addressed Johari's son. "Is this true? Give me your account."

The son looked at his father, as if waiting to be told what to say. "It is true. We passed the pond and the well. My camel was limping and I stopped to check his foot. When I finished, Sylester was nearly at the horizon. I hauled the salt and finished the journey alone."

Anger flashed in Johari's eyes. "This is our grievance! My son returned two days ago. One hour ago, before the dawn, Sylester here" - Johari spat out the name of the accused - "wandered into our camp again. So we have come immediately."

Abon looked at Sylester, trying to understand him. "Why did you turn away from Samarahan?" he asked. "It is a good place, and what's more you gave your word that you would go with your brother."

"He's not my brother."

"All men are brothers," Abon said. "You left your brother in the perfidious dunes, where no river could bear him forward or slake his thirst."

This seemed to silence Sylester. Abon continued. "Why did you leave your brother?"

Sylester looked away for a moment. Abon wondered whether he was gathering his thoughts or thinking of a lie to tell.

"I saw a falling star in the south," he said bashfully. "I thought it was a sign from the spirits that I should go."

"A falling star," Abon said. "Did you see any other sign?"


"Did you tell your brother about the sign?"


"Did you try to ask the spirits to tell you more?"


"What did you find when you followed the star?"

Sylester looked ashamed now. "I arrived at a shrine in the dunes. I stayed there for a night. I saw no more signs, and the spirits spoke no more to me, and so I returned."

Abon breathed deeply. So much would be easier, he thought, if men could learn to behave well.

"To leave a brother on a dangerous journey is a great betrayal," he said softly. He turned to the gathered crowd, raising his voice: "Are there any here who will speak for this man?"

"Sir judge!" a man said, forcing himself forward through the crowd. "Judge sir! I will speak for Sylester my son. Sir, we know that there are spirits in the dunes, and we know that they give messages to those with ears to hear. My son wished only to listen to them and obey their wishes. Surely this is a good thing for our young men to learn. Look also on his mother," he said, pointing to a woman in the crowd, "who could not bear to lose her only son." He bowed deeply, having finished what sounded like a prepared speech.

Abon nodded at Sylester's father, and turned to Sylester. "You are accused of abandoning a fellow traveler. Do you confess that you have done so?"

"I do."

Abon nodded. "Just so. Our law is clear: he who abandons a fellow traveler cannot abide in our tents."

Abon saw Sylester's mother bury her face in her hands. He paused before he continued. The sun had already risen, and he felt it on his face, gaining power as it rose.

"Our law also has a place for mercy. For is it not also said: we make a place for the enemy at our table, and any who wish to share our water are a blessing."

Abon heard murmurs among the crowd. He raised his voice to be heard above the growing din.

"Here is the just path for this man: he will be banished for one year. He will wander alone, in the waste places and among the filthy markets and the wicked temples of the barbarian. If he still lives after one year, he may return to live among us. He must depart before tomorrow's dawn." He bowed his head and clasped his hands in front of himself, showing that there would be no more discussion or appeal. After a few seconds, he walked back to his tent.


The rest of the day was full. There were visitors wishing to beg for a change in Sylester's sentence. And there was another case in the afternoon - a dispute about a camel sale, the same as a thousand he had heard before.

In the late evening, the visitors had departed, and Abon sat down again, watching as the dusk pulled back the sheet of day from the heavy sky and gradually showed the gently twinkling stars. He heard one more visitor walking towards him. Without turning to look, he knew who it was.

"Sylester," he said, still looking towards the stars. "Are you ready for your journey?"

He heard only silence in reply. "No," came a broken voice. "I don't think I can do it."

Abon remembered that Sylester was a young man, and that a year, which passed like a day for Abon in his age, would hang heavy on his young mind. He beckoned for Sylester to sit next to him.

"What is it that you fear?" he asked. "Do you fear death at the hands of enemies? Starvation in a dreary wilderness? Or something else?"

Sylester shook his head and pursed his lips, apparently finding it hard to speak.

"It will set back all my progress," he said finally. "I am growing my camel herd, and building my merchant connections. If I have to stop for so long, I will lose it all, and my friends will pull ahead of me. I will be stunted for life." He hung his head down.

Abon thought about this. The young, he thought, are always hasty, though they have more time than any of the rest of us.

"You are concerned about this world," he said. "So, I am surprised that you are so attentive to the spirits, who live in another world. Usually, the people who care about one world care little for the other."

Sylester shook his head. "The spirits talk to us to guide us. They can guide me to build my fortune too."

Abon raised his eyebrows. Sometimes he forgot how naive the young could be.

"The spirits guide us. But they care about our path to Heaven, not our herds and our silver. If a herd will get you to Heaven, the spirits will give it to you. But you may have heard that poverty will get you there more quickly."

Sylester looked away, brow furrowed in frustration, apparently not interested in discussing theology.

"You will learn during your exile," Abon continued, speaking softly. "You will learn that the world is big. There is so much more than camels herds and merchant connections.

"Besides that, there is more to experience than an unbroken climb to success. There is a wheel."

"What wheel?"

"A wheel of destiny. It will carry you high, to a time when your herd is large and healthy, and your many children are admiring and loyal. But it will carry you down again, and your herd will dwindle, and maybe some in your family will turn on you. But even this turning will have a value for you."

"What value could it have for me to lose my herd and see my family hate me?"

Abon looked at Sylester, surprised again that he didn't already know. "It will give you wisdom," he said. "There is something better than a herd of camels. It is to know what a herd of camels is for, and why it matters, and what matters more, and why gaining it or losing it means only little for your soul."

The furrow in Sylester's brow had relaxed. "When did you start learning wisdom?" he asked.

"We cannot point to the time when wisdom starts," Abon said. "It's like a seed growing secretly. When you see the sprout, the roots are already old and strong."

He took a breath. "But there was a time when I believe I started to gain a wide perspective, and started to understand the ways of the world. When my wisdom truly started to grow."

"And when was that?" Sylester asked.

Abon looked at him, smiling. "When I was a young man, and I got banished for a year."