In the heat of the desert, Lawrence tells them about the cold underworld. It is a nightly occurrence - Scheherazade spinning wild tales to keep herself alive. He sits in the firelight, sweating in his British uniform, conversing in a blend of Arabic, English and what he later tells Ali is a simplified Ancient Greek. Ali doesn’t know why he feels the need to speak a dead language to people who don’t understand him anyway.
Maybe it is a ploy to make himself feel superior. Already, with his blonde hair, blue eyes, pale skin and symbols of a distant empire, he is a stranger. A stranger can either submit to the authority of the natives or pretend he is someone else. Ali thinks that the phantom sitting at their camp is not the same Lawrence as the one who walks the rainy English streets.
Ali strays from the firelight, preferring the loneliness of the sands. Some of his people have followed his lead, avoiding this bizarre man who appeared out of nowhere. But he can still hear his light voice through the shadows. He is narrating the myth of Hades and Persephone again. Ali knows it - he is not as savage and uneducated as Lawrence may suppose. While Persephone picks flowers, Hades steals her away and drags her into the dark abyss. She hates it at first, screams and wails and begs to be returned to her home, but soon, she grows accustomed to her new role. Having tasted food, she is obliged to remain there for the winter months. It is an age-old tale, composed for the ancients to understand the cyclical nature of the seasons. It is all a lie.
Lawrence loves his lies.
“We should not speak of fairytales,” Ali tells him one night after his audience have departed. “We need to talk of strategy. Aqaba is out there, and it is not a myth.”
“Everyone has their own tales, sherif. When you strip everything away, there are only symbols left. Why do you suppose the British has their sights on Jerusalem?”
“Do you have your sights on Jerusalem?”
“I have my sights on Aqaba, as you say, sherif. Then maybe - Damascus.” He whispers it like a prayer. Ali shakes his head.
“Another tale for you to spin for them,” he says without thinking.
Lawrence becomes like Hades. In his dark chariot, he takes their hands and steals them away. He claims he loves this country with all his heart, but all he wishes is to dress it up in his own colours and trap it in his ideas. All around, Ali fears he sees the encroachment of another world. He fears the winters will be never-ending.
If Lawrence is Hades, Ali must be Persephone. And yet Lawrence does not bring his food to Ali’s lips, or dress him in his clothes, or make him speak his language. He remembers the first time Lawrence came to him and conversed in Arabic, not the foreign, broken English he adopts for the rest of his people. He remembers how it did not seem so strange when they swathed him in white robes, a gift to Ali for his wedding. He remembers how he becomes accustomed to the Bedouins’ food.
When they reach the shores of Aqaba, Ali meets him on the sand. One of Lawrence’s tales has come to life around them, and they are the players in his myth. He drapes a trail of red flowers about his neck, the whispered ghost of a peace offering. The new Aurens runs them through his fingers, then places a soft hand upon Ali’s chest. For a moment, he feels how their hearts beat in rhythm. “I do not need a return gift,” Aurens says. “I have given you Aqaba. Freely.”
Ali feels the familiar coldness at his spine. “It is not yours to give,” he hears himself say.
Maybe Aurens misinterprets that. Because, after Aqaba, he thinks he must perform greater and greater tricks. Seeing the blade at her throat, Scheherazade weaves richer, wilder tales.
Aurens says he does all this to win the love of this country. It is an adoration built on spilt blood. He comes and goes as he pleases, leaving them in their prison, awaiting his return. And yet whenever he reappears, his people will call out for him, “Aurens! Aurens! Aurens!” as if he has never been gone. His black chariot becomes the trains he destroys, and once a man gets a taste of the nectar he offers, they are trapped.
Ali is there to watch him spiral out of control.
He watches him fall from that chariot and become the prisoner.
He watches him become Persephone.
They lay in the dirt after Dera’a, the heat drained from this broken, destroyed land. Ali tries to soothe the wounds of Aurens’ abduction. The country he has tried to save has bitten his outstretched hand. He falls into despair, falls in Ali’s arms, frozen and hollow, and wishes for the winter to end, so he can return home.
This time, Ali knows, he will not come back.
“Let me go, Ali,” he says brokenly. Ali does not break the embrace, trying to keep him warm.
“Was this all a lie, habibi?”
“I think so.”
But, before Scheherazade is due to be killed, she spins the greatest tale. Patched together, fragments falling off, Lawrence walks through the gates of Damascus. This time, the people do not cheer for him. The nectar starts to taste bitter, and now, he can taste it in his own mouth. Soon, he will vomit it up and dress in his uniform once more, and Arabic will be a dead language on his tongue.
They met in the sun.
Now, Ali and Lawrence depart in the moonlight.
Lawrence wants to reach out a hand, but cannot. Ali does it for him, entwining their fingers one last time. “I’m giving all this back to you,” Lawrence says in English.
“It was never yours to give,” Ali whispers, afraid of his own voice.
“I know.” He stops, and brushes his other hand over something beneath his robes. Ali realises he is still wearing those flowers, tattered and wilted now. “I loved this country,” he manages. “All of it. I do not recognise it now. I have to go home. Let me have my freedom.”
“It was never mine to give,” Ali says.
He watches him fade away. The white disappears into the black.
The next day, he is gone as if he has never been here. The seasons start to change. Ali wonders if it will ever be winter again.