Dreams In A Desert
by Olive Schreiner
As I travelled across an African plain the sun shone down hotly. Then I drew my horse up under a mimosa-tree, and I took the saddle from him and left him to feed among the parched bushes. And all to right and to left stretched the brown earth. And I sat down under the tree, because the heat beat fiercely, and all along the horizon the air throbbed. And after a while a heavy drowsiness came over me, and I laid my head down against my saddle, and I fell asleep there. And, in my sleep, I had a curious dream.
I thought I stood on the border of a great desert, and the sand blew about everywhere. And I thought I saw two great figures like beasts of burden of the desert, and one lay upon the sand with its neck stretched out, and one stood by it. And I looked curiously at the one that lay upon the ground, for it had a great burden on its back, and the sand was thick about it, so that it seemed to have piled over it for centuries.
And I looked very curiously at it. And there stood one beside me watching. And I said to him, “What is this huge creature who lies here on the sand?”
And he said, “This is woman; she that bears men in her body.”
And I said, “Why does she lie here motionless with the sand piled round her?”
And he answered, “Listen, I will tell you! Ages and ages long she has lain here, and the wind has blown over her. The oldest, oldest, oldest man living has never seen her move: the oldest, oldest book records that she lay here then, as she lies here now, with the sand about her. But listen! Older than the oldest book, older than the oldest recorded memory of man, on the Rocks of Language, on the hard-baked clay of Ancient Customs, now crumbling to decay, are found the marks of her footsteps! Side by side with his who stands beside her you may trace them; and you know that she who now lies there once wandered free over the rocks with him.”
And I said, “Why does she lie there now?”
And he said, “I take it, ages ago the Age-of-dominion-of-muscular-force found her, and when she stooped low to give suck to her young, and her back was broad, he put his burden of subjection on to it, and tied it on with the broad band of Inevitable Necessity. Then she looked at the earth and the sky, and knew there was no hope for her; and she lay down on the sand with the burden she could not loosen. Ever since she has lain here. And the ages have come, and the ages have gone, but the band of Inevitable Necessity has not been cut.”
And I looked and saw in her eyes the terrible patience of the centuries; the ground was wet with her tears, and her nostrils blew up the sand.
And I said, “Has she ever tried to move?”
And he said, “Sometimes a limb has quivered. But she is wise; she knows she cannot rise with the burden on her.”
And I said, “Why does not he who stands by her leave her and go on?”
And he said, “He cannot. Look—”
And I saw a broad band passing along the ground from one to the other, and it bound them together.
He said, “While she lies there he must stand and look across the desert.”
And I said, “Does he know why he cannot move?”
And he said, “No.”
And I heard a sound of something cracking, and I looked, and I saw the band that bound the burden on to her back broken asunder; and the burden rolled on to the ground.
And I said, “What is this?”
And he said, “The Age-of-muscular-force is dead. The Age-of-nervous-force has killed him with the knife he holds in his hand; and silently and invisibly he has crept up to the woman, and with that knife of Mechanical Invention he has cut the band that bound the burden to her back. The Inevitable Necessity it broken. She might rise now.”
And I saw that she still lay motionless on the sand, with her eyes open and her neck stretched out. And she seemed to look for something on the far-off border of the desert that never came. And I wondered if she were awake or asleep. And as I looked her body quivered, and a light came into her eyes, like when a sunbeam breaks into a dark room.
I said, “What is it?”
He whispered “Hush! the thought has come to her, ‘Might I not rise?’”
And I looked. And she raised her head from the sand, and I saw the dent where her neck had lain so long. And she looked at the earth, and she looked at the sky, and she looked at him who stood by her: but he looked out across the desert.
And I saw her body quiver; and she pressed her front knees to the earth, and veins stood out; and I cried; “She is going to rise!”
But only her sides heaved, and she lay still where she was.
But her head she held up; she did not lay it down again. And he beside me said, “She is very weak. See, her legs have been crushed under her so long.”
And I saw the creature struggle: and the drops stood out on her.
And I said, “Surely he who stands beside her will help her?”
And he beside me answered, “He cannot help her: she must help herself. Let her struggle till she is strong.”
And I cried, “At least he will not hinder her! See, he moves farther from her, and tightens the cord between them, and he drags her down.”
And he answered, “He does not understand. When she moves she draws the band that binds them, and hurts him, and he moves farther from her. The day will come when he will understand, and will know what she is doing. Let her once stagger on to her knees. In that day he will stand close to her, and look into her eyes with sympathy.”
And she stretched her neck, and the drops fell from her. And the creature rose an inch from the earth and sank back.
And I cried, “Oh, she is too weak! she cannot walk! The long years have taken all her strength from her. Can she never move?”
And he answered me, “See the light in her eyes!”
And slowly the creature staggered on to its knees.
And I awoke: and all to the east and to the west stretched the barren earth, with the dry bushes on it. The ants ran up and down in the red sand, and the heat beat fiercely. I looked up through the thin branches of the tree at the blue sky overhead. I stretched myself, and I mused over the dream I had had. And I fell asleep again, with my head on my saddle. And in the fierce heat I had another dream.
I saw a desert and I saw a woman coming out of it. And she came to the bank of a dark river; and the bank was steep and high. (The banks of an African river are sometimes a hundred feet high, and consist of deep shifting sands, through which in the course of ages the river has worn its gigantic bed.) And on it an old man met her, who had a long white beard; and a stick that curled was in his hand, and on it was written Reason. And he asked her what she wanted; and she said “I am woman; and I am seeking for the land of Freedom.”
And he said, “It is before you.”
And she said, “I see nothing before me but a dark flowing river, and a bank steep and high, and cuttings here and there with heavy sand in them.”
And he said, “And beyond that?”
She said, “I see nothing, but sometimes, when I shade my eyes with my hand, I think I see on the further bank trees and hills, and the sun shining on them!”
He said, “That is the Land of Freedom.”
She said, “How am I to get there?”
He said, “There is one way, and one only. Down the banks of Labour, through the water of Suffering. There is no other.”
She said, “Is there no bridge?”
He answered. “None.”
She said, “Is the water deep?”
He said, “Deep.”
She said, “Is the floor worn?”
He said, “It is. Your foot may slip at any time, and you may be lost.”
She said, “Have any crossed already?”
He said, “Some have tried!”
She said, “Is there a track to show where the best fording is?”
He said, “It has to be made.”
She shaded her eyes with her hand; and she said, “I will go.”
And he said, “You must take off the clothes you wore in the desert: they are dragged down by them who go into the water so clothed.”
And she threw from her gladly the mantle of Ancient-received-opinions she wore, for it was worn full of holes. And she took the girdle from her waist that she had treasured so long, and the moths flew out of it in a cloud. And he said, “Take the shoes of dependence off your feet.”
And she stood there naked, but for one white garment that clung close to her.
And he said, “That you may keep. So they wear clothes in the Land of Freedom. In the water it buoys; it always swims.”
And I saw on its breast was written Truth; and it was white; the sun had not often shone on it; the other clothes had covered it up. And he said, “Take this stick; hold it fast. In that day when it slips from your hand you are lost. Put it down before you; feel your way: where it cannot find a bottom do not set your foot.”
And she said, “I am ready; let me go.”
And he said, “No—but stay; what is that—in your breast?”
She was silent.
He said, “Open it, and let me see.”
And she opened it. And against her breast was a tiny thing, who drank from it, and the yellow curls above his forehead pressed against it; and his knees were drawn up to her, and he held her breast fast with his hands.
And Reason said, “Who is he, and what is he doing here?”
And she said, “See his little wings—”
And Reason said, “Put him down.”
And she said, “He is asleep, and he is drinking! I will carry him to the Land of Freedom. He has been a child so long, so long, I have carried him. In the Land of Freedom he will be a man. We will walk together there, and his great white wings will overshadow me. He has lisped one word only to me in the desert—‘Passion!’ I have dreamed he might learn to say ‘Friendship’ in that land.”
And Reason said, “Put him down!”
And she said, “I will carry him so—with one arm, and with the other I will fight the water.”
He said, “Lay him down on the ground. When you are in the water you will forget to fight, you will think only of him. Lay him down.” He said, “He will not die. When he finds you have left him alone he will open his wings and fly. He will be in the Land of Freedom before you. Those who reach the Land of Freedom, the first hand they see stretching down the bank to help them shall be Love’s. He will be a man then, not a child. In your breast he cannot thrive; put him down that he may grow.”
And she took her bosom from his mouth, and he bit her, so that the blood ran down on to the ground. And she laid him down on the earth; and she covered her wound. And she bent and stroked his wings. And I saw the hair on her forehead turned white as snow, and she had changed from youth to age.
And she stood far off on the bank of the river. And she said, “For what do I go to this far land which no one has ever reached? Oh, I am alone! I am utterly alone!”
And Reason, that old man, said to her, “Silence! What do you hear?”
And she listened intently, and she said, “I hear a sound of feet, a thousand times ten thousand and thousands of thousands, and they beat this way!”
He said, “They are the feet of those that shall follow you. Lead on! make a track to the water’s edge! Where you stand now, the ground will be beaten flat by ten thousand times ten thousand feet.” And he said, “Have you seen the locusts how they cross a stream? First one comes down to the water-edge, and it is swept away, and then another comes and then another, and then another, and at last with their bodies piled up a bridge is built and the rest pass over.”
She said, “And, of those that come first, some are swept away, and are heard of no more; their bodies do not even build the bridge?”
“And are swept away, and are heard of no more—and what of that?” he said.
“And what of that—” she said.
“They make a track to the water’s edge.”
“They make a track to the water’s edge—.” And she said, “Over that bridge which shall be built with our bodies, who will pass?”
He said, “The entire human race.”
And the woman grasped her staff.
And I saw her turn down that dark path to the river.
And I awoke; and all about me was the yellow afternoon light: the sinking sun lit up the fingers of the milk bushes; and my horse stood by me quietly feeding. And I turned on my side, and I watched the ants run by thousands in the red sand. I thought I would go on my way now—the afternoon was cooler. Then a drowsiness crept over me again, and I laid back my head and fell asleep.
And I dreamed a dream.
I dreamed I saw a land. And on the hills walked brave women and brave men, hand in hand. And they looked into each other’s eyes, and they were not afraid.
And I saw the women also hold each other’s hands.
And I said to him beside me, “What place is this?”
And he said, “This is heaven.”
And I said, “Where is it?”
And he answered, “On earth.”
And I said, “When shall these things be?”
And he answered, “IN THE FUTURE.”
And I awoke, and all about me was the sunset light; and on the low hills the sun lay, and a delicious coolness had crept over everything; and the ants were going slowly home. And I walked towards my horse, who stood quietly feeding. Then the sun passed down behind the hills; but I knew that the next day he would arise again.
End of Dreams In A Desert by Olive Schreiner