Morning Caravans

IT was sunrise, but the village on the eastern slope lay still slumberous in the kindling light. It breathed gently wisps of blue breath, and pressed against the hills, and slept. Above it, into the intense blue of the sky, flared the gold crests of the hills.

The village gateway faced due east toward Peking, so that as I looked back through its ancient arch I saw the sun rise. Between the gateway and the rising sun the whole plain exhaled a saffron breath, a haze of fine gold-dust, through which the sun shot dizzying darts.

I turned away to rest half-blinded eyes upon the little town which in a higher, unperturbed air rose in ruddy, unwinking peace. Its one street was deep with dust, but as yet no traffic stirred it, and no breeze. Not the slightest film obscured its painted repose.

From the gateway this single street ran, for a little, clear of houses like a country road, and then was drawn in tightly on either side by twin rows of shops. It mounted steadily, the tiny shops climbing beside it, and then vanished to all appearance into the heart of the gold hill.

Only one person was in view. Beside the road, a sweet-potato seller stood chanting his wares, accompanied by the bubbling and bumping of his sweet potatoes in the iron kettle over glowing charcoals. I bargained, to be sociable, and with a potato in each hand, tugging at their skins with my teeth, passed on up the yellowing road.

What gold-and-blue calm! Nothing, one felt, ever happened here — nothing save the day’s incessant weaving of light and shade.

Suddenly the canvas cracked, my painted village sprang to life. From an abrupt turn in the road, where it had seemed to dive into the hills, swung a caravan of camels. Swiftly, surely, with the pace of long traveling, they came down the town. Haughtily they bore their heads and stared into the face of the rising sun. Their eyes glittered; a rich glow washed over their dusky coats.

And now the entire village was alert. For camel-drivers were dashing into shops, slamming down a cash or two, snatching up a twist of pastry, a cake of meal, and rushing out again to their camels.

Caravan after caravan swung down. The whole town was vibrant with the noise of rapid bartering, the clang of camel bells, the sluf-sluf of hoofs under swirls of dust, the shrieks of children, the cries of caravaneers, the barking of the village dogs.

But at length the last caravan passed out the eastern gate and vanished into the shimmering mist of the plain. The little village, as if it had in sleep tossed through a vivacious dream, sank again to dreamless slumber. The dust sifted down, the huts and the hills slept.