We were camping in the oasis. We were in one of those so-called “new tents” championed by the “new campers”. The new camping movement took its inspiration partly from the Kibbo Kift and partly from an obscure B-side of a 45rpm single by The Captain And Tennille, in which the winsome duo sang of the joys of “new camping in our new tent with our new camping-gaz stove”. Though we had a new tent, unfortunately we did not have a new camping-gaz stove, and had to make do with an old one to cook our sausages.
My two companions were soilheads, but I am not a trendy person, and I still own – and use – a comb.
One day, peering out through the new flap of our new tent, we saw, passing by in the near distance, an Arab, leading a jackal on a leash.
“Hey there!” called out one of my companions, let us call him Soilhead One, “Come over here with your leashed jackal and share our cocoa and sausages!”
As he approached, we saw that the Arab was an old man, much bewrinkled, and creaking.
“You are very kind,” he said, “Though I am old, my jackal here is one of those so-called ‘new jackals’ we’ve been hearing so much about lately.”
We confessed that we had heard not a jot about new jackals.
“Well,” he said, “The mobile library will be stopping by this oasis on Thursday morning. They should have in stock the latest issue of Stuff Occurring In The Desert magazine. In it, you will find a feature article about new jackals. A short while ago one of its reporters interviewed me, and the Muhammadan mezzotintist Dot Al-Tint executed a mezzotint of my jackal. I was given to understand the picture will appear on the magazine’s cover.”
We promised to consult a copy on the coming Thursday, and reasoned that any questions we might have about old and new jackals could wait until then. There was a lull in the conversation. We chewed our sausages and slurped our cocoa.
This would be an opportune time to tell you something about Soilhead Two. When we set out on our desert crossing, he was a complete stranger to both me and Soilhead One. We had encountered him at a souk. He used to wear fedoras, but now he sported a fez. There were kabbalistic innuendos in everything he said. A soilhead in a fez was quite a novelty, even at that time. Soilhead One, who knew more than most about the Kabbalah, was able to untangle the innuendoes to some extent.
Soilhead Two told us very little about himself. Growing exasperated by our questions, he conceded eventually that there was an entry for him in the Dictionary of National Biography. That, he said, would tell us all we needed to know about him, and more. It was Soilhead One, sharp as a tack, who countered that one needs to be dead before one can be included in the DNB. In reply, Soilhead Two looked up at the sky, pointed, and said “Oh look, a [common name of a type of bird I am afraid I have forgotten]!” As ever, ornithology served to distract us, and the subject of Soilhead Two’s life – and possible death – was never raised again.
Now, in the lull outside our “new tent” at the oasis, we noticed that Soilhead Two was staring fixedly at the jackal, and the jackal was staring fixedly at Soilhead Two. Were they just gazing at each other, or were they communicating by some telepathic means akin to that employed by Mr Spock in the television series Star Trek?
Whatever was going on between them came to an abrupt end when the Arab, tugging on the jackal’s leash, explained that he had important sand-based things to do elsewhere in the desert, and must be on his way. He thanked us for the cocoa and sausages, reminded us to read up on “new jackals” in Stuff Occurring In The Desert magazine, and trudged creakily away, jackal in tow.
A few days passed without incident. Soilhead Two seemed strangely quiet, but we noticed he was growing increasingly irritated with our old camping-gaz stove. Then, on Wednesday, the day before the mobile library was due, he announced that he knew of a large desert department store where we would be able to buy one of the “new” stoves. Soilhead One and I had no reason to suspect him of ill intent, so we happily packed up our things and set off across the sand, letting Soilhead Two lead the way.
We marched across the boiling sands for the best part of a day, until, towards nightfall, we arrived at an airstrip. There were no aeroplanes, no control tower, and nor was there a department store. Soilhead Two walked determinedly along the strip, and came to a halt at a gaping pit. Baffled, we watched him carefully as he began to wave his arms in strange slow significant passing movements over the pit, while babbling guttural incantatory mumbo jumbo.
Suddenly, a plume of black smoke belched forth from the pit, and we were amazed to see, stepping out of it, the old Arab. He no longer had a jackal on a leash. Unnervingly, his own head was that of a jackal.
“All hail Anubis!” cried Soilhead Two.
“Greetings, Mr Crowley,” barked Anubis.
“Please, call me Aleister,” said the man we had thought our “new camping” companion.
“Very well, Aleister. I see, standing behind you, a couple of nitwits.”
“Yes, O great Anubis, I thought it would be fun to make of them a sacrifice to the powers of Darkness, Death, Doom, Despair, and Destruction.”
“That’s a great idea, Aleister, But wait!”
And the jackal-headed god made strange slow significant passing movements of his own, and out of the pit came leaping and bounding dozens upon dozens of savage yapping jackals.
“Let us push your little pals into the pit until we have prepared ourselves for the full awfulness of the sacrifice,” said the god.
And so Soilhead One and I were pushed into the pit. That was six days ago. We can hear Aleister Crowley and Anubis assembling their horrible equipment. We have no chance of escape. Above us, in a ring around the pit, are the jackals. They are barking and yapping and slavering and gazing down on us. And how they hate us!
The first sentence, and the last, were translated from the German by Willa and Edwin Muir. Everything in between was not.