I went to the desert in Egypt a few years ago to do some walking and think through where my life was going. But any hopes I had of finding some peace of mind were dashed by my choice of guide, Ahmed. He was a nosy, talkative, irritating man who never stopped moaning about how hard it was to make a living as a guide.
As we walked through majestic canyons, rested in peaceful oases and slept under the dazzling starry sky of the desert, Ahmed kept up a running monologue about how if it wasn’t for the generosity of foreign tourists he could never make ends meet.
Finally, I suggested as politely as I could that guides ought perhaps to be seen more than heard. Whereupon Ahmed took instant offence and fell into a deep sulk, muttering to himself all day and throwing me dark, resentful looks. But by that point I couldn’t care less. It was just such a joy to finally hear myself think.
That evening we came to a hill with some caves and scrambled up to one of them to take shelter for the night. While Ahmed tried to coax a fire out of some dry branches, I went with my torch to check out the rest of the cave to make sure there were no wild animals living there. You never know. There was no sign of any wolves or bears but I did recognize the unmistakable smell of bat shit. Bat shit, if you’re fortunate enough to have never come across it, is the worst stuff in the world. It’s sticky and smelly and if you get any in your hair it takes weeks to get it out again. I didn’t find any bats but shining my torch around I saw something that took my breath away.
There were paintings on the walls, probably by the original inhabitants of these caves, thousands of years ago. That would have been an amazing discovery by itself but there was another detail that sent my head spinning.
Some of the people in the paintings had tails.
Not thin, graceful tails like a monkey or cat might have, but rather thick, crusty things like a reptile. And some of them sat high up in the air with their tails coiled beneath them while others, these without tails, served them food and drink on the end of long poles.
“Ahmed, have you seen this? What’s the story here?”
Ahmed looked up from where he blew into some embers.
“Guides should be seen. Not heard.” he remarked sullenly.
“But were these paintings made by the people who used to live here?” I asked excitedly, sitting down opposite him, “And did they really have tails?”
I could see Ahmed was torn between maintaining his sulk on one hand and wanting to impress me with his knowledge on the other – and thereby increasing his chances of a good tip. So I pretended to lose interest and eventually, of course, he couldn’t help himself.
“Yes!” he snapped, “They were made by ancient people and yes, they had tails – not everything your scientists are knowing, hah!
“They had tails like the lizard – they could fall off! But not when they were scared or running away. Their tails fell off when they lied, or cheated or did some dishonourable thing. Their tails fell off from the shame of it.”
“But some of the people in the paintings didn’t have tails at all-” I began but Ahmed waved his hand imperiously.
“Who is telling this story? You or me? Hmmm, so yes, there was born a generation so wicked, so sinful at heart that they could not go five minutes without doing or thinking some evil thing and so their tails never grew at all. Next to these sinners, the others felt even more virtuous and pure and they sat up high on their tails and whoever sat the highest was the purest of them all. But pride comes before the fall.
“One morning the righteous ones clapped their hands for service but none came. They called down to their slaves for breakfast but there was no answer. The sinners had run away in the night, abandoning their masters to starve to death on top of their tails coiled so high in the sky. One by one, hungry and thirsty, they tried to get down and one by one they fell to the ground, their bodies breaking into many pieces.
“And that is why we humans have no tails. We are descended from that race of sinners and that is why the world is in such an evil state, where even a poor tour guide cannot make ends meet to feed his family…”
Ahmed got his tip. He deserved it. Not that I believed a word he had said but… even if he had made the whole thing up, still there was something… true in the tail.