The Naked Flame

Not based on a true story...

Death barreled toward me, more like a locomotive than a missile. Two or three sidesteps would’ve spared me from an inglorious end but I opted to wait until the last second. A relationship of escalating tension instigated my desire to play chicken with a poisonous viper slithering straight for me on the top of a moonlit sand dune in the Sahara.

My trip to Morocco was fairytale-like. Technicolor bazaars bursting with leather hawkers, snake charmers and spice vendors, lush oases teeming with date palm trees, and sumptuous tajines of couscous, lamb, and berries provided a kaleidoscopic backdrop to a three-week journey into the exotic. The one holdout to the magic was my traveling companion.

In our typical existence, my wife and I clicked on every level—food, lifestyle, entertainment, sex, you name it. Sure, she liked to befriend each person she met whereas social distancing suited me just fine, but other than that, her desire for kids, and a few other minor quibbles, traveling was the one area where we didn’t see eye-to-eye. But it was my greatest joy, so once the COVID-19 lockdown was lifted and Americans were allowed to travel internationally, I booked us tickets on the first flight to Casablanca. In non-pandemic times, my wife would begrudgingly oblige whenever my travel bug bit and pretend to be a good sport enough to make a trip tolerable. After months of breathing the same air, she embraced this vacation with an enthusiasm that reminded me of why I fell in love with her. Our therapist gave us two thumbs up and accommodated our Zoom session schedule. Unfortunately, Morocco was not my wife’s cup of mint tea.

The complaining commenced the moment we stepped into the unairconditioned airport. It continued when sweltering air as thick as armpit soup engulfed us. Despite the pandemic ravaging the globe, the throng of people in a country that kissed Europe at the Strait of Gibraltar seemed to be unaffected. Other than the Orwellian-level mask policy, as we traveled from Casablanca to Marrakesh, the 35-million-strong populace went about their daily routines. Perhaps my wife had grown accustomed to our thinned-out world at home, but I could see in her screwed-up eyes she regretted her decision. The high-density, tightly wound streets of Marrakesh caused her to grumble about the traffic. The lack of variety in the succulent Moroccan cuisine led her to whine about the food. And then she’d outright refuse to attempt speaking French, let alone Arabic.

“Can I get a Coke?” she asked the snack vendor wedged between two spice stalls in the bustling medina.

The sixty-something man who looked closer to ninety peered over his round glasses and rubbed his chin over his mask, as if contemplating one of life’s great mysteries. 

He perked a bushy eyebrow, as if to say: ‘Ah, my dear madame, but can the Coke get you?’ 

I seethed inside. She’d done it again. It was bad enough she chose to drink America’s most ubiquitous beverage in such a unique country. She never drank Coke at home. To compound the situation, she had to phrase the question like that. As much as I hated talking to people, if you had to do it, do it right. I couldn’t recall how many times I asked her to speak in as simple English as possible if she wasn’t going to try speaking another language.

“That is simple,” she yelled back.

“It’s a colloquialism,” I said. “‘Can I get...’ Think about it. Technically you’re asking if you’re able to retrieve it. And besides that, you have no idea if he speaks a word of English.”

The vendor continued to stare with an indecipherable gaze at the idiot tourists arguing in front of him.

Reciprocating the anger in my eyes, she didn’t hide her exasperation and apparently didn’t want a Coke that bad. She stormed off.

I concluded the transaction and handed the vendor the money, thanking him in French. I had to admit—the ice-cold can felt like a handheld air conditioner. She stood ten feet away with her attention diverted by the vibrant spice bins, so I pressed the can against the back of my sweaty neck. With the backdrop of the bazaar, I must’ve looked like the poster boy for Coca-Cola’s marketing campaign. Suppressing my urge to take a quick sip before chucking it at her head, I handed it over. 

She cracked it open and chugged for a few seconds. “So I asked for a soda in English. Get over it.” 

Despite the harshness of her words, the drink had coaxed them into a soothing tone. I also never drank Coke, but that mix of carbonated sugar and caffeine would’ve been an elixir for my own sour mood. I refused to give her the satisfaction when she offered me some.

“How would you like it,” I asked, “if a tourist came up to you in Cherry Creek and asked for something in French or Arabic?” 

“What do you expect me to do? I don’t speak those languages.”

“You can at least be polite. You know how to say, ‘Hello, do you speak English?’ in English.”

She didn’t respond. Maybe that one got to her. I’d tried to see it from her perspective. She’d never been to a developing country, whereas I had, and Morocco was the India I’d been searching for—a quixotic land of my dreams sans a billion people.

With apologies and promises not to travel to developing nations together again, we continued our trip. I swallowed her daily-turned-hourly irritations. By the time we reached the Sahara, I had retreated into myself, fantasizing of vast swaths of nothing but mountainous sand dunes.

Solitude is not an easy thing to find. I’d lived in cities my entire life and loved the vivacity and buzz. The harmonious chaos of Marrakesh, Fez and Tangier enticed me, but I’d been craving isolation for years before COVID hit. In the countryside, deserts, and mountains of America, you’re never more than a five-hour drive from a city and there’s always some noise—a car, an airplane, other people, or even animals, birds and bugs. 

I sought … nothingness. Short of hitching a ride into space with a money-burning billionaire, I thought I’d find it on our overnight camel trek. 

We had joined a group of eight other tourists—six Americans and two Italians, all coincidentally also in the early 30s to mid-40s. Since all our mandatory COVID tests were negative, we were able to go mask-free, a nice prize in the confines of a passenger van. The other tourists were friendly, but none of them lived anywhere near us, so we didn’t think they were worth getting to know enough to keep in touch with.

“Single-serving friends,” my wife muttered under her breath.

That she referenced one of my favorite movies sparked a flutter in my lower abdomen. That she said it with mocking disdain had that spark punching itself in the face until it was quashed under its own boot. 

She threw me a smirk, twisted onto her knees, and struck up a conversation with the couple behind us. I slunk into my seat and fished out my earbuds so I wouldn’t be forced to endure two life stories from Indiana, Iowa, or Illinois. I had forgotten where they were from already. As Ryuichi Sakamoto’s soundtrack to The Sheltering Sky caressed my ears, I wondered if it were really that odd to love immersing oneself in other cultures yet hate human beings. My wife claimed it was people who helped shape the journey of one’s life. In a therapy session, I had conceded that as an extrovert, the pandemic had hit her hard. In a way, this trip must’ve been a relief for her. Did the traffic and crowds truly bother her? Years earlier, I had promised our therapist I’d make an effort to be a functioning member of society, so I supposed it was time to make good on that threat. This wasn’t high school; I wasn’t going to expose myself and set myself up for immolation. I could deal with a handful of people who all desired to experience the same thing. I switched off the music and joined the conversation.  

A three-day van ride took us from Marrakesh and through the Atlas Mountains, where we explored ancient gorges, took breaks at rest stops selling fly-covered goat meat, and managed to sleep at cliffside inns where the temperature had mercifully dropped forty degrees.

Arriving on the edge of the Sahara, a six-hour ride deposited us at an outpost in a remote village. From there, the final leg of our trek was by camel to a campsite nestled in the dunes, twenty kilometers from the Algerian border. Our two Tuareg guides both wore nearly identical pure blue djellabas—traditional loose-fitting robes with full sleeves, along with cloth turbans that covered their whole heads except their dark brown eyes. They’d been wearing face coverings since they hit puberty. Given the two men were also of the same height and stature, my wife and I worried we’d be unintentionally racist and get them mixed up. We were relieved to learn they were both named Mohammed. 

Needing to travel light, the tour group stashed their backpacks in an outpost room and then one-by-one, mounted our dromedary rides. As we balanced on the humps, with fur like straw in both color and texture, my wife captured a shot of me with her Canon. Seeing her beautiful smile caused my perma-grin to widen further. With Mohammed leading the caravan and Mohammed bringing up the rear, we pushed off. 

Half a mile in, my enthusiasm vanished. All around us, SUVs and ATVs roared their engines over the banks. Wealthy European tourists carved up the landscape like machetes on a Monet. Finding solitude in the Sahara was not the foregone conclusion I had expected it to be. Though not an auspicious beginning, dusk fell quickly and as our camel train trotted a few miles into a desert the size of the continental United States, the noise diminished. The void lay before us, spread bare, inviting me in. The deeper we went, its emptiness embraced me, welcoming me. I closed my eyes and as my head bobbed along with the camel’s trot, I inhaled the crisp, dry, perfectly clean air, as if breathing for the first time.

Riding in single file made conversation difficult, enabling the quiet I desired. My wife rode in front of me, so I couldn’t see her expression. I hoped she enjoyed it too, but I suspected a camel’s hump battering her ass for hours erased all traces of her previous smile. 

I’m not sure if we left late intentionally, but by the time we reached the campsite, it was dark. A half-moon lit our way.

Ten tents encircled a raging fire, surrounded by twenty-foot-high dunes, creating a small, valley-like setting. Our tents were pitch black inside. We didn’t have flashlights and our cells had died many hours earlier. Blindly feeling around, my wife and I dropped off our bags, hoping the beds weren’t too disgusting or crawling with anything you don’t want a bed to be crawling with. 

Joining the rest of the group and a camp caretaker not named Mohammed, we ate dinner sitting around the fire. After the customary lamb tajine with couscous, squash, and raisins, the guides passed out drums. They sang and played and invited us to join in. The music was enjoyable and the vibe was infectious. Some of us got up to dance, circling the fire. But the volume of the drums obliterated the silence I so yearned for, and the light of the fire eclipsed the billions of stars over us. 

We’d been informed that the sand dunes were the facilities, so when it came time for me to use nature’s toilet, I seized the moment and climbed to the top of the dune to relieve myself. The music died down just over the crest. Fifty feet away, it had quieted completely. The firelight faded and the stars made their grand appearance, like pinpricks in an obsidian sheet. 

I breathed in slowly, inhaling the solitude. Gazing across the magnificence, the moonlight afforded miles of visibility. Miles of nothing. I’d completed my quest. From the edge of the horizon to directly above me, more stars than I’d ever seen wrapped me in a blanket of shimmering light. Though I didn’t want to worry anybody, I had no inclination to return to the campfire, so I soldiered on another hundred feet into the infinite abyss, contemplating how far I could reasonably go. I bent down and scooped a handful of cool sand, letting the purity of the virgin grains cascade through my fingers.

That’s when I heard the slithering.

My heart skipped a beat.

It approached at a constant, deliberate speed, gliding straight for me.

Calming my nerves, I rationalized it was mere coincidence I was in a snake’s path. If I didn’t bother it, it wouldn’t bother me. It’s not like snakes hunt humans. Then again, what cruel twist of fate put this creature in my path—interrupting my sanctuary? I recalled an episode of Man vs. Wild that took place in Morocco. Bear Grylls found and killed a horned viper, a venomous snake that lived in this habitat. Yeah, a snake with horns that could kill you.

Was the universe challenging me, testing me to see if I could enjoy the moment, despite this most unpleasant, potentially lethal obstacle?

Challenge accepted. 

I wanted to see this insolent serpent, confident it was minding its own business and sheer chance put us on a collision course in nothingness. I only needed to step out of its way and watch it go by. Then I could get back to my tranquility. Maybe even lie down, ensconce myself in the sand, and gaze up at the sky.

The slithering came closer. Much closer. A surge of panic shot through my chest. In the dim moon shadows, each wind-brushed ripple surrounding me looked like a snake. Would I be able to see the thing? Would it be buried in the sand? What was I doing? I fucking despised snakes. What if it bit me? I couldn’t hear the music at the campsite; how could the group hear a scream? Would they have an anti-venom kit? We were a five-hour camel ride from the waystation. It got closer … closer. I needed to make my move. This was it. I stepped … on the candy bar wrapper blowing under my foot.

In 3.6 million square miles of empty void, a piece of trash had drifted along the top of the dune right at me. What were the odds?

I’m neither superstitious nor religious, but when a sign smacks you in the face, you read it. Sometimes you find something that’s one-in-a-million, but that thing may not be what you expected. My initial thought was to pick up the wrapper. Be a conscientious citizen of the world, cleaning the desert. Then I considered the other side of the coin—though that one-in-a-million thing may not have been the deadly Saharan horned viper, even an anti-social plastic wrapper deserved another chance. 

Realizing I’d been holding my breath, I exhaled and lifted my foot, freeing the trash to sail on its peaceful—if not tainting—journey. I relaxed, knowing for that instant, I was completely alone. The dunes and sky transported me to mesmerizing comfort, as if floating in the expanse of space. Remarkably few in our time are afforded the opportunity to be enshrouded by the infinite. The comprehension hit me that I was nothing but a fleck on a planetary fleck. And the painful beauty of that knowledge, that we’re all mere electrons in the cosmos, somehow sparked a glimmer of hope.

My thoughts zipped to my wife. After years of dating, I’d found her. Our issues be damned, she was my one-in-a-million and I wanted to share the grandeur of pure solitude with her. 

I trudged down the dune. The drums and fire accosted the serenity. Nobody batted an eyelash at my return, though it felt like I’d been gone for hours.

“There’s something I want to share with you,” I whispered.

She smiled and stood. I took her hand and led her up to the spot where I’d been standing in wondrous awe.

“Amazing, huh?” I said. “You can’t even hear them. Isn’t the peace of this place incredible?”

“Yeah, but there’s nothing here. We should get back.”

“Babe, look at the stars. Have you ever seen so many?”

She gazed up and acknowledged their splendor with a nod. “Let’s go back to the fire. It’s cold up here.”

My shoulders sank with my sigh.

“Why don’t you go,” I said. “I’ll be down in a bit.”

She shrugged and moved to go.

“Wait,” I said.

She stopped. Turned.

A slithering approached.

Maybe that one-in-a-million chance isn’t what it seems after all. Were we standing in a wind channel of litter?

“What are you looking at?” my wife asked.

I didn’t answer, squinting into the darkness, searching for garbage.

“I’m going down,” she said. 

I swallowed. She couldn’t even take two seconds for a two-in-a-million chance. Maybe she wasn’t my one-in-a-million after all.

But she didn’t budge. “What’s that noise?”

“Eh.” I waved her off. “Just a candy bar wrapper or something. Let’s go.”

“Oh my God! It’s a snake!”

I followed her gawk. Charging straight for us, half-buried in the sand in perfect camouflage, was a four-foot-long horned viper.

In a split-second decision, I seized my one-in-a-million opportunity. A chance to reset my life. A chance for freedom to travel wherever I wanted to go. A chance … for the perfect crime.

I grabbed her shoulders and shoved her down. 

Like a whip, the viper lashed out. It sunk its fangs into my wife’s neck for two seconds, before releasing. It sped off, sidewinding down the dune.

My heart insistently resumed its beat, taking charge while my brain fixated on the most beautiful and terrifying thing I’d ever seen. It was nature in its truest, rawest form: the most vicious species on Earth protecting its own self-interest by committing murder.

In a state of shock, my wife stared at me, not knowing—or comprehending—what just happened. If Bear Grylls was right, she had about two minutes to live. I had two minutes to prevent her from telling anybody the truth.

But there’d be questions if I didn’t immediately call for help. 

I knelt and caressed her shoulder.

“What can I do?”

“You … pushed me,” she managed.

I covered her mouth and counted to thirty. Her body convulsed. Her shaking was uncontrollable. Even in the darkness, I could see her neck and face swelling, her veins turning a sickly green.

Twenty-eight … twenty-nine … thirty.

“Help,” I shouted. “Help!”

Voices carried across the sand. 

She tried speaking. Froth pooled on the corners of her bloating mouth. I held her head. “I love you, I love you.” I kissed her. “Hellllp!”

The group ran up the dune.

“She was bit by a snake!”

Everyone gasped, haphazardly searching the ground, shuffling their feet.

“Don’t you have a snakebite kit?” I shouted at one of the guides.

He shook his head.

My wife stopped trembling. Her last breath escaped.

One of the tourists clasped my shoulder, but I knocked his hand away.

I picked up the love of my life and cradled her in my arms. Tears streamed down my cheeks. This wasn’t what I wanted; I wanted someone to share the moment.

As I carried her, the others followed in silence. We reached the campsite, but I didn’t put her down. I held her, staring into the fire. The desert was quiet again, no sound but the crackling of the naked flame, sparks flying to the sky, desperate to join their kin, but destined to flicker out every time.

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