Sami was almost home. His mother had asked him to take some bread and cheese to his brothers, who were tending the sheep. It was a beautiful day, and Sami could see the tall date and coconut palms of El Shabar, one of the largest oases on the caravan route. It stretched for miles on the edge of the horizon, from the sand dunes to the west back toward the east like a black carpet.
There were no roads to his village, and Sami could walk where he pleased. Today as he walked, he tried to step on the stomach of the shadow moving ever out of reach in front of him. He looked up as he neared the small village.
The sun was already hot, and it was only midmorning. The dozen or so white clay homes reflected the glaring sun. A couple of dogs lazily scratched at fleas and moved with the shade to stay as cool as possible. And old Bashir’s camel was chewing and spitting under the trees. Why, that camel is almost as lazy as old Bashir! Sami thought, amused at the animal’s behavior.
The cluster of palms in the middle of the homes marked the well, and Sami could see some women bending over the square wash area, beating and wringing their wash. He could hear the women at the well talking and laughing as they drew water. Mother will be there now, he thought, and he listened for her familiar voice.
Sami turned toward his home, still listening for his mother’s voice. He hadn’t seen her at the well; maybe she was already home. She had promised to fix a lamb stew today in celebration of Sami’s birth. He was almost a man now—nine years old! Father had made him new sandals, and they were the softest and sturdiest of anyone’s. His brothers had given him his very own lamb to raise. A “seed,” they called it, for his own flock one day. Oh how he loved that lamb!
When Sami stepped inside his house, he saw that his mother wasn’t there. Where can she be? he wondered. Before leaving to look for her, Sami took a piece of bread to satisfy his hunger.
Outside again, he heard the distant ting-a-ling of caravan bells. As he looked toward El Shabar, Sami could see dust clouds rising up. There must be a million camels, he thought. What a wonderful thing to happen on my birthday! Someday I’ll join a caravan and go to Cairo, Philippi, Caesarea, and even across the Mediterranean Sea to Rome and Greece. I really will do it someday.
Sami hurried toward the caravan, hoping he’d find his mother there, trading for herbs and spices—after all it was to be a special lamb stew today. He also wanted to see the caravan for himself. His brothers had told him that a caravan’s camels had the finest of harnesses with silver and gold bells and brightly colored blankets. And his brothers had described all sorts of people, speaking all sorts of languages and carrying all sorts of wonderful things on caravans.
Sami was running in his haste to reach the caravan, when he saw his mother approaching. She was carrying a bundle in her arms and another one on her head.
“Mother,” he called, waving to her and running all the faster. “Mother, what did you get?”
His mother only smiled as she handed him a bundle to carry for her. “But don’t peek inside,” she told him.
Sami wanted to unwrap just a corner to see what was inside, but he made himself obey his mother instead. She was describing the caravan and where it had been and the people and things she had seen.
At home Mother took the bundle off her head and set it by the fire. She hung up the herbs and put the spices in pots. Finally she gestured toward the bundle Sami had carried. “Now you may unwrap it, Sami,” she said. “It’s for you.”
Sami’s fingers fumbled with the coarse cloth wrapped about the package. Then—“Oh, Mother, it’s beautiful!” Sami exclaimed as he held up a box. The box was made of sandalwood and inlaid with stars and beautiful, intricate designs. And it had a latch! When Sami lifted the lid, it smelled sweet inside. It was a magnificent box. And it was his!
In the middle of his joy, Sami suddenly sat down and looked from the box to his mother.
“What is it? Is something wrong with your gift?” Mother asked.
“No, Mother, but what shall I do with it? It is a very fine gift, indeed, but it can’t feed us or help us with our work. Father says that we should judge all things by that.”
Mother smiled. “Your father is right, Sami,” she agreed. “I’m glad that you remember his counsel. But remember, too, that there are times when we need to be alone with our thoughts and our memories. Most people store theirs in their hearts. But you’re a dreamer, Sami. You appreciate both our ancient, yet precious, customs and our glorious possibilities. And just as families, villages, and nations need dreamers to preserve the best from their past and lead them to great accomplishments in their future, dreamers need things that they can hold on to, to keep their dreams from fading. This box is to hold some of those things.”
Later that night Sami lay on his bed and thought of what a wonderful birthday it had been. The sandals, the lamb, and the stew were truly gifts of the heart from his family. But the box! The first thing in the morning Sami would start filling his box. He would put his old sandals into it to always remind him of the talents of his people. And he would put into the beautiful box a small tuft of wool from his new lamb as a symbol of his first step toward a future caravan.
It’s been a wonderful day, Sami thought as he drifted off to sleep, and tomorrow will be even better.