March 30, 1954   9:46 a.m.
Hills of the Judean Wilderness

           Omar saw the cave first. With all that would come later, it was a fact of which he’d remind himself daily for the next 50 years.
           He and his 17-year-old cousin Rashid were tracking a gazelle through the mountains of the Judean desert west of the Dead Sea. The boys were north of Masada, significantly south of Qumran, where the Ta’amireh clan had been finding the valuable Dead Sea jars and scrolls. 
            It was the heady time that Bedouin boys were allowed out on treasure hunts, despite ongoing hostilities as the fledgling state of Israel came into being. Scroll finds were unlikely, but the Bedouin knew the desert in ways the educated archeologists never would, and their record was good. Besides, the Bedouin collected caves, much like American kids found and claimed swimming holes, for themselves and the use of their clan.
            On this day, the cousins were following the tracks of a gazelle that had passed by two days earlier. For thousands of years, the Bedouin had been known as master trackers. Hero tales were told of those scouts who, even in modern times, could identify and track people and animals who had passed through the blowing sands weeks earlier.
            And so Omar and Rashid were following the gazelle. They had come through a pass in the mountains Omar didn’t recognize. The windstorms of winter often shifted sands significantly enough to alter the landscape. They squeezed through a narrow pass and climbed up onto what seemed to be a plateau.
           “What do you think?” Omar asked, raising his goatskin flask to drink. “We’ve tracked far enough. What does it matter if we sight the animal, anyway? We know what it looks like, a gazelle with a right hind leg that has been broken and mended itself.”
           Even as he spoke, out of the corner of his eye he saw a swath of blue. Not pale blue, deep vermillion, blindingly bright, glancing off the sandstone of the plateau.
           “Seen one gazelle, seen them all,” answered Rashid agreeably.
Omar scrambled across fallen rocks and stood staring at the ground. There was a hole, about a foot in diameter, through which the stunning color could be seen. He fell onto his belly to look down. What he saw below was breathtaking.
           It was a cave, painted in brilliant tones of blue, yellow, and green. There seemed to be patterns on the walls, circles, and stars and suns.
           “What is it?” Rashid asked curiously. Omar rolled over and beckoned his cousin down.
           The two boys stared for a moment in silence.
           “What do you think it is?” asked Omar.
           “A treasure cave, you donkey! Our treasure cave!”
           “Ours? I saw it first!”
           “Yes—” Rashid was busy dragging rubble from around the opening, until the hole in the cave’s roof was two feet by a foot and a half. “But I was the first one down!” And he lowered his lanky body through the opening, and dropped.
           Omar knelt, stunned. The cave floor was a good twenty feet down, and Rashid landed with an “oof” of expelled air. He curled into a ball and rolled, taking the full brunt of the fall off his feet.
           “What have you done?” Omar demanded. He was the practical one. Rashid often acted first and thought later. Now he was twenty feet down, and neither boy had a rope.
           Rashid didn’t even answer. He sat up and looked around, open-mouthed.
           “What? What is it?”
           “There are shelves,” said Rashid. He scrambled to his feet and walked away from the angle of view from up top. “I think I found something!”
           Omar was becoming agitated. What should he do? His cousin was stuck in a cave in the middle of nowhere—but they’d finally found something.
           And then his wiry cousin was standing directly below him in the shaft of light. “Come on down! You won’t believe this place! Look!” He was holding up an ancient clay pitcher with a graceful neck and curved handle.
           “How are you going to get up, you fool? If I join you, we’ll both die here!”
           “Wait, let me see. There’s more light. I think we can get out.” Rashid disappeared, and reappeared momentarily. “There’s another way out,” he said. “A side opening into a ravine. We can get out that way. Come on!”
           Omar was beside himself. He wanted to see the Treasure Cave—his Treasure Cave—more than anything in the world. But he was stockier than Rashid, and wasn’t sure he could even fit through the hole in the roof. And the drop looked like it had hurt. What if he injured himself?
           Omar looked down. Rashid was standing below him, the direct sunlight making his white tunic and pants glow with an otherworldly sheen. He stood, feet apart, one elbow akimbo, fist on his waist. In the other, held aloft, there was a jeweled box, maybe ten inches by twelve. There were two gems on the top of the chest, one red, one blue. In the sunlight they were dazzling. Rashid paused for effect, then turned the large box on its side. A green gem sparkled; another side, a pale clear one.
           Omar couldn’t stand it. He slung his feet down into the opening, and pushed his chest forward. He’d meant to grasp the roof with his hands and swing himself down, but there was nothing to grab. His hands slipped and his entire weight fell through the roof of the cave.
           It was a bad landing. The air was completely knocked out of him. He lay for a minute on his back, waiting for the waves of pain to subside.
           And Rashid was standing over him, a happy, gloating look on his face. “Look at this, cousin, look!” He was hugging the box to himself. “I have it. We’re going to be rich, all of us! And I’m going on the Hajj!”
           “But it’s mine,” objected Omar. “If it wasn’t for me, you wouldn’t even have seen this cave!”
           The promise had been made to all the boys that whoever found and brought home treasures of antiquity could accompany the sheikh on the next Hajj, traveling to Mecca and Medina. This was such a huge honor in the life of a Bedouin, that once you had made this pilgrimage, even your name was changed. You had a much greater chance of becoming tribal leader.
           It was Omar’s box.
           He lunged to his feet and grabbed for it.
           Rashid held it away, laughing. Both boys knew that Rashid was wiry and more agile, and could undoubtedly taunt Omar for hours, if he so chose.
           But everything Omar had wanted in life, everything he held dear—going on the Hajj, becoming chief, having his choice of wives, being revered—this was his one chance and he knew it. There was nothing outstanding about him. He wasn’t dumb, but he wasn’t brilliant, either. He wasn’t small and agile, he wasn’t funny and warm. He was nobody’s favorite. That box was his ticket, the thing that would change his life.
           Rashid had the box, and he was still taunting, backing up toward the other cave entrance of which he’d spoken. Omar remembered the sun shining from behind him, illuminating him in shadowy relief. He heard rather than saw the cackle of triumph Rashid made.
           Nothing in his entire life had ever made Omar as angry as that taunting cackle.
           He lunged at Rashid with all his weight, knocked him off balance and grabbed the box. Then, in a moment of terrible fury, he shoved him backwards. And shoved him again. When Rashid went falling backwards out of the cave, the sun was finally fully on his face. So Omar could see the look of distress as Rashid realized he had no balance, he had no cave floor, he was falling.
           Omar’s breathing stopped. He counted the seconds before he heard Rashid land. There were too many of them. Far too many.
           He slowly walked to the mouth of the cave and looked down. It was a deep ravine. There were outcroppings of rock all around. But from the mouth of the treasure cave to the ground, there was nothing. It was a forty foot straight drop.
Rashid lay at the bottom of it. His neck was at a ghastly angle. He did not move. It was clear he was dead.
           The horror lodged in Omar’s throat. He could make no sound, although his insides were awash in tears.
           He went back to the side of the cave, clutched the box to himself, and began to rock, keening. After a while, he crept back to the mouth to look down and plot out the handholds that he could climb down to the floor of the ravine.
           There were none.
           The next time he looked, he had decided there was a way down, there had to be; he and his cousins had climbed down many a rock face during their lives. He looked at the wall, careful not to let his gaze stray even slightly.
           There were slight indentations. If he worked slowly and carefully, he could do it.
           He slung his half-empty water bag over his shoulder. Then the problem was how to carry the box. Omar tried everything he could think of, but there was no way to carry the box and leave his hands free for the precarious descent.
           He sat in the mouth of the cave, holding the box that was his future. He realized he was like the little monkey who got caught because he would not let go of the treat in the trap. But he would not let it go.
           As darkness crept into the cave, he decided he must leave. He tucked the box under one arm. Could he possibly do it? Or would both cousins disappear forever at the bottom of this ravine?
           As he lay on his stomach and swung his first leg over, he heard noise from below. Terrified, he scurried back up into the cave and looked down. A single hyena was circling Rashid. Omar yelled at it, but it soon realized Omar was no threat. He slunk off. When he returned, he had brought his pack.
           For two ghastly days, Omar quivered in the cave. The hyenas and jackals and scavenger birds came and went, taking Rashid’s flesh and bones with them. When he looked over, there was nothing left but a hand. Finally something took it. And Rashid was gone.
           By the third day, Omar was out of water. He knew he would soon start to hallucinate, and then it would be impossible to leave the cave. He either had to die trying the descent or die of not trying.
           And that was when the good fortune of the box became apparent.
           He was thinner than he had been two days earlier. Whether from lack of food or dehydration, the jeweled casket now fit into the waist of his pants, leaving his hands free. He said a prayer and started to slowly descend the sandstone face of the rock. It took him two hours to inch his way down the ravine. Twice he lost his footing and thought he was dead, but somehow another toehold was waiting for him.
           When he reached the ground, he bowed down and kissed it, and said the prayer for those who had been spared from death. Then he stood up and realized he had no food and no water, and did not know his way out of the ravine. There was very little chance he would make it home alive.
           Even as he thought this, he turned around. And ten feet in front of him stood a camel. A camel wearing a tasseled harness. The Bedouin boys knew every camel in a fifty mile radius, and to whom it belonged. Omar had never seen this camel before. It had no saddle, but he didn’t care. He mounted it and set off for home.
           There was great celebration when he returned with the jeweled box. The men of the clan had a meeting in the big tent, and even sent someone for Khalil Iskander Shahin, called “Kando,” the dealer from Bethlehem who acted as the go-between when the Bedouins had something of value for sale.
           But before the dealer arrived, the chief’s favorite wife, barren for ten years, discovered she was pregnant. She announced unequivocally that it was the good fortune of the box.
           Then the men, on the way to market with the clan’s woven goat hair rugs and the bottled sand scenes, had run into a documentary crew who had made a great fuss over filming them, and had bought the items for three times their going price.
            It was decided they would not sell the box. It was their good fortune.
           When they asked Omar what had become of Rashid, he told them his cousin had been offered a ride into Jerusalem and had gone to seek his fortune. He was spoken of often at first, and over the years, there was much speculation about Rashid’s undoubted good fortune; they were sure the auger of the box had gone with him.
           It all happened as Omar had hoped. He made his pilgrimage, and was thereafter called Hajj. He became the chief of the clan. He had three wives and many children. And whenever they had guests, he was persuaded to tell the story of the treasure cave.
           For many years he did not sleep well.
           For many years he did not consider selling the box.
           Then came a time he saw no other way.

End of Excerpt

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