SPRING IN THE DESERT


   You probably think that the Kara Kum is nothing but sand, lifeless and hot. But that's not always so.
   In the springtime every bush and shrub blooms. The slopes are ablaze with crimson poppies, and everything beyond is green. An eagle soared overhead, probably trying to spot a gopher or a hare.
   Chubby little gerbils went scampering off the road and diving into their burrows.
   We paused to take a rest beside an old abandoned well and there we saw a cobra. It raised up, ruffing out the pouches on its neck, but we didn't go near it. Now snakes are protected by law: their poison is used to make medicine.
   We also saw a herd of gazelles. How swiftly they ran!
   Then we stood for a long time and watched a large, bright- ty  plumed  roller  soar  and  circle  in  the  air  above  our "jeep".
   It was evening by the time we arrived at the camping ground. The sun, enormous and white, was already touching the distant hills. The shepherds were sitting around on a felt carpet eating kaurma-roasted lamb's meat, and drinking tea.
   Chary-aga stood up to greet Uncle Kuly and placed a hand on my shoulder.
   The sheep stood huddled together, stretching out their necks to stare at the newcomers. Chary-aga's helper packed up the camel. It would carry food, water, and other provisions to the steppe camping ground. The flock goes there around midnight to browse and rest. During the day it's too hot.
   Uncle Kuly changed quickly into his heavy boots so as to pro- tect his feet from thorns and the bites of snakes and scorpions upon which he might accidentally tread in the dark.
   "Sit down and rest, my son," Chary-aga said to Uncle Kuly. "You must be weary from the road."
   "I've already rested enough, dear Chary-aga. I can't wait to get out into the steppe."
   "Can I go too?" I asked.
   "You can come along with me tomorrow," Chary-aga promised. "Today we'll have some tea and look at the stars."
   "Will you tell me a story?"
   "Of course."