When I was a little girl, I lived on the fringes of Bestine in a tiny dome-roofed hovel and played in its dusty streets. It was a meager existence, a harsh one, as all life was upon the scorched, barren sands of Tatooine. My father ran a small machine parts shop farther into town that brought in most of the money, and my mother wove cloth to sell on the side. I remember not being particularly pleased with my life, with the occasional hunger from lack of food, the threadbare garments my brother and I were forced to wear, the dryness of dust that always lingered in the back of my throat.
Then he came, and everything changed-at least, in a way.
I was very small when I first saw him - too young to roam the streets around our home by myself as my brother could. My mother kept me near her at all times, fearful that some slave trader or Tusken Raider would snatch me up, but I didn't know this at the time. While she sat weaving her cloth at the loom in the shade of our hovel's awning, I stood in the doorway, my back to the cooling unit, watching the beings of all shapes and sizes that wandered the streets. Of course, very few truly exotic beings - the visitors to Tatooine - made their way to the outskirts of Bestine, but I liked to watch the local moisture farmers as they zoomed in on their landspeeders and the funny looking Jawas that came to trade. I'd seen the same people arrive in town so many times, I knew them all by sight. Which is why the man caught my eye almost immediately, I suppose.
He seemed to just appear out of the dust. One minute I saw only the barren Wastes, the next he was approaching our hovel, his entire body hidden beneath a hooded, brown robe. It reminded me of the stories my father told my brother and I at night about the ghosts that supposedly haunt the Jundland Wastes and the strange visions travelers sometimes see out there.
I scurried to my mother's side and tugged on her sleeve. Glancing up from her loom, she noticed the stranger for the first time and, laying down her work, she stood, a suspicious glint in her eye.
"Can I help you, weary traveler?" she called to him.
"I don't mean to trouble you, madam," he replied with a strange, clipped accent, "but could you tell me where I might find a shop that sells tools? And vaporator parts? And also a place to find some cloth...and food?" He looked rather sheepish.
My mother shifted ever so slightly, instinctively shielding me from the man. I peered around her skirt.
The man lifted his hand. "I mean you no harm. If you would kindly point me in the right direction, I'll collect my supplies and move on." The motion of his hand had caused his hood to slip somewhat and I could finally see his face. He was a middle aged human with light brown hair and soft, sad eyes. I felt a wave of peace wash over me, and apparently so did my mother because I sensed her body relax as she placed a hand on my shoulder.
"You've come to the right place, stranger." Her voice had lost its edge. "I'm a dealer of cloth and my husband has a small mechanics shop down the street a ways. He should have most of the vaporator parts you'll need, but you'll have to look elsewhere for tools and food. Maybe Hu'ric's shop farther into town..." She paused to think. "Hmm, we'll get to that in a minute. Let's talk cloth. What kind are you looking for? What color?"
Dipping his head in thanks, he stepped closer to survey the baskets of cloth that sat under the awning. "Something simple," he said after a moment, "something cheap." As my mother swooped down on the baskets, searching for the ideal cloth, I noticed him fingering something under his cloak, but I couldn't see what it was. With any other stranger, I would have feared he was hiding a blaster...but not him.
I never figured out why.
Pointing to the basket on the end, he said, "How about that one?" My eyes followed his finger to find a neatly folded bolt of coarse, white fabric - or as white as it could be on a planet like Tatooine.
My mother stood silent for a moment, then smiled. "That one would be just fine - one of the cheapest I have. What are you willing to trade me for it?"
His eyebrows rose. "Trade? Do you accept credits?"
My mother let out a short bark of laughter. "And what good would credits do me out here? I can't eat them. I can't spin them into cloth..." She stopped short though when she saw the look on his face, a look of despair. "You know," she said finally, her voice gentler, "that piece of cloth was the first I ever wove, back when I still had a lot to learn. In all these years, it's never caught a being's eye and I didn't think it ever would. You'd be doing me a favor if you just took it off my hands."
The man's eyes lit up, as a smile spread across his bearded face, and he bowed his head. "Madam, I thank you for your generosity, which I have done nothing to earn. I will repay you when I can. I promise."
Picking up the cloth, my mother handed it to him with a smile. "You needn't worry about it. Now, I'll take you to my husband's shop." She turned to me. "Kerra, I want you to stay inside while I'm gone. You understand me?"
I withered under her fierce look and nodded. Then she set off down the street and the man followed, tucking the folded cloth under his arm.
"So what's your name, stranger?" my mother asked him.
"Ben," he replied. "My name is Ben."
I watched them go, staring after the mysterious cloaked stranger who had so suddenly walked into my tiny, unpleasant world, feeling happier than I had for quite a while.
The man left Bestine before sunset, even though my mother insisted he stay for supper. He said he had to be getting back home, but he never mentioned where his home was. I still wondered if he were a spirit of some kind, made to resemble a man. Did spirits have that power? My father asked if he would be all right traveling to his destination with night fast approaching, and he offered him shelter for the night, warning him of the dangerous creatures that roamed the Wastes. The man assured him that he would be fine, and he set out on foot soon after.
I watched him go, his cloak flapping in the wind, until he appeared as only a speck against the reddening sky.
Ben appeared at our door again a few months later, bearing items of payment for the cloth and tools that he'd taken with him after his first visit. I noticed he'd used the cloth to sew himself a rough tunic with a skirt that hung to the ground, but he still wore the same brown cloak with the hood up. I wondered why he never took it off. Did the sun bother him? Could spirits not withstand intense light?
That time my mother talked him into staying for supper; she was making her specialty: Forian stew, if I recall-a recipe passed down from her grandmother, and Ben didn't put up much resistance. He certainly looked thin; I wonder what he usually ate. Did spirits even eat? More than that though, I think he stayed because he was lonely. At least he seemed lonely. His eyes were so sad.
I wonder if that's why we trusted him.
After dinner, my family, Ben, and I sat around the table in the dim glow of a little lamprod, our stomachs satisfied by the tangy stew. Ben had finally taken his hood down, though he still refused to get so comfortable as to remove his cloak. No one spoke for a few minutes and I could hear plainly the wail of the wind as it whipped across the open desert. Then Ben broke the silence.
"I can't thank you enough, sir, for opening your home to me for the evening," he said to my father in that strange accent of his. "And to you, madam," he added, swiveling in his seat to look at my mother who had gotten up to clear the table, "for the delicious stew."
Her cheeks turning a conspicuous shade of red, she waved him off. "None of that now, and no need for such formal addresses. My name is Shena."
Ben nodded. "Thank you, Shena." He stood, running his hands along his tunic. To get the creases out, I suppose. "Now, I must be going."
"At this time of night?" My mother's voice rose an octave. "You can't be serious! No telling what prowls the Wastes in the dark!"
During this exchange, my father had gotten up and walked over to the front door, palming it open so he could peer out. The wind whistled fiercely through the narrow breach and everyone in the room quieted as we turned to look at him. I shivered. "You won't be going anywhere tonight, unless you're looking for suicide," my father said gravely, turning until his eyes rested on Ben. The door automatically slid closed behind him, muting the howl of the wind once again. "It's a sandstorm blowing in, and a bad one at that, it sounds like. Shena, get some blankets. Ben will be sleeping there." He pointed to a patch of bare floor in the corner of the room, by the little space heater.
Inhaling sharply, Ben looked about to argue, but then seemed to think better of it, letting out his breath with a sigh while fingering his beard. He looked from my father to my mother, to my brother and me, then to the corner by the heater, his lips slowly curving into a smile. "Now I'll forever be in your debt."
My mother disappeared down the back hallway to retrieve the extra blankets as my father gave Ben a slap on the back. "You'll earn your keep. I promise you that."
Before Ben could ask for an explanation, my father turned from him and strode down the back hallway just as my mother was coming back to the kitchen with blankets. He was no doubt going for a spare rag to wet and wedge against the threshold of the door to keep the sand out. Laying the blankets in the designated corner, my mother cleared the table of its remaining dishes and set to work cleaning them at the sink on the other side of the room. My brother, too antsy to sit still with the storm fast approaching, jumped up from his seat and went after my father, leaving me as the only person still sitting at the table.
I stared at the wall, unblinking, my heart throbbing in my chest. The wind sounded like the roar of a terrible beast come to snatch me up and eat me for supper, and the only thing protecting me were walls made of dirt. I kept telling myself it was just the wind, just a storm, but what if it wasn't this time? What if we were being fooled? What if...?
"Don't be frightened, young one," a gentle voice whispered from behind. I whirled to find Ben standing to my right, and I stared wide-eyed as he knelt to the floor beside my chair. "It's only the wind and nothing more."
"How do you know?" I whispered back, my voice trembling.
"Oh, I just know." Tilting his head slightly, he grinned. "Just as I know Corellia is beautiful this time of year. And Hoth is not. And on Rindian Prime, the flowers are just beginning to fade after a long, gorgeous summer."
I stared at him in wonder, the wind forgotten as my young mind attempted to process this new and unexpected information. What were these places he spoke of? How could flowers bloom all summer long somewhere else, when on Tatooine they withered after only a few days of the intense heat?
"How do you know?" I asked again. My suspicions of him being a spirit in disguise instantly rushed to the forefront of my mind. Spirits know everything, don't they?
"I just know," he said smiling. "I just know."
The next morning, my father recruited Ben to help clean up the debris around the hovel that was left by the storm and patch a chunk taken out of the roof by a piece of flying scrap metal. So the man's debt was repaid and later that morning, he set off into the Jundland Wastes toward his home, his back laden with provisions.
There began a regular routine. Two or three times a year, he showed up in front of our hovel to trade for supplies, a meal, and fellowship. Every year he seemed a bit older, a little more haggard. The desert will do that to people. Although I still wondered every once in a while if he were a person at all. He seemed real enough, but there was something in the way he carried himself, something about the air around him...
I always looked forward to the time after supper when he would sit down with my brother and I and tell us fantastical stories about distant planets and starships. Usually, my brother only listened for a short time before getting up to help mother clean the dishes, but I could've sat there at the table all night, soaking in his tales of adventure and exploration among the stars. Never once did he say he had visited the planets he spoke of, but as I grew older and viewed him and his stories with a more mature mind, my idea of him being a spirit started to seem less and less likely, and I realized that he must have seen all of those places first hand. How else could he have described the landscapes and the native peoples in such stunning detail?
I slowly came to realize what I instinctively felt the moment I first laid eyes on him: he did not belong here on this forgotten planet. Something about him was different, special. When he approached, a sense of peace and contentment filled me, so that every time he left, I felt that much emptier.
To help me survive the endless, sweltering days, I clung to his stories and the beautiful visions they invented in my mind. I began to dream about them at night and envision something better than what I saw day by day in the sun-seared streets of my neighborhood. I dreamed of a life far away from this forsaken dust bowl...a life of adventure among the stars with the freedom to do as I pleased.
And he was the key.
I had so many questions-just about normal things. Where did he live? How far did he have to walk each time he came? Why did he always hide his face with a hood?
Then there were the deeper unknowns, the ones I laid awake at night pondering, longing to explore. Where was he born? What did he do for a living before he came here? Did he travel the galaxy, having all sorts of grand adventures? And why did he choose a life of seclusion on this forsaken, backwater, nightmare of a planet?
Though these questions and many more sat poised on my tongue every time I glimpsed him walking out of the dust, I never asked them. Although he always spoke in the gentlest and kindest way, something in his muscled form and bright blue eyes intimidated me and stole the words from my mouth.
Years passed and I eventually grew old enough to marry. At age twenty, I wed a moisture farmer named Drinne who lived about 80 kilometers out of Bestine, and so began my life away from the safe perimeter of town. I missed my parents more than I thought I would, and sometimes at night, I would stand at the door of our hovel and gaze up at the blanket of stars, tears wetting my cheeks. But I loved Drinne dearly and nothing would take me from his side, not even homesickness.
Eventually realizing my sadness, he started letting me take the landspeeder into town every month or so for supplies and a visit with my family, but even that could not assuage another sadness of a different sort.
It took me a while to realize it, but then one night as I gazed up into the clear blackness at the cosmos, I took time to untangle the mixed up emotions inside of me, to figure out what could possibly fill the gaping hole I felt.
And my mind drifted to the memory of the strange man from the Jundland Wastes.
Over the years, I had gotten used to his visits, his stories, and his gentle personality. When he was close by, I always got this strange feeling that everything would be all right, and I missed that desperately.
But even more than that, he represented the fulfillment of my dream to escape this barren waste and explore the stars. If only I could ask him my questions, learn more about that unknown expanse beyond the sky. Maybe then I could reach it, if only in my mind.
The years flew by and before I knew it, I had two healthy children of my own - a boy and a girl - who brought me a joy I cannot possibly describe.
It was a hot, cloudless morning when I loaded them into the landspeeder in preparation for a trip to Bestine. In only a few minutes, we were on our way. Leaning his head out to catch the wind, five-year-old Fryn couldn't get enough of the fast-paced ride and Jula, at three, chattered endlessly about getting to see her 'grandpapa' again and hear his stories. I smiled, as I steered the speeder over the flat, rocky land, feeling utterly content for the first time in a long while-since I last saw Ben. To our right, towering cliffs rose up out of the plain, glowing faintly orange in the morning light.
It was going to be a perfect day.
Then, without warning, the engine started sputtering and the speeder came to a slow, jerking halt. Climbing out, I pulled off the front panel to get a look at the engine, but the moment I did, thick smoke billowed out and stung my eyes. Something must have overheated, but I was no mechanic and I didn't know what to do to fix it. Drinne usually kept the speeder in top shape for my trips to town.
Rounding the vehicle, I grabbed the commlink from its holder by the pilot's seat and put in the code for Drinne's comm. If only he had it with him...
No such luck. There was no reply. I looked then at the wide, frightened eyes of my children and my heart seemed to shrivel up in the heat of the sun beating down on us. I could comm my father, I thought, but how would he ever find me? I turned in a circle, surveying the land features around us, but all I saw were the same type of nondescript cliffs that we'd been passing for the majority of the trip. What was I going to do? What other options were there? I looked at my children again. We couldn't stay out here; I knew that much. If the sun didn't kill us, a roaming tribe of Sand People would. We could try to find shelter in a cave in the cliffs, but who knew what else was sheltering there?
But what choice did I have?
"Fryn, Jula, time to get out of the speeder. We're going to find shelter from the sun in a cave until I can get a hold of your daddy on the comlink, okay?"
The two children nodded quietly, their eyes betraying their fear. As I lifted them from the speeder's backseat, it broke my heart to see Jula's lip trembling.
Gathering both of them to me, I folded them into my body, giving them both a reassuring embrace. "We're going to be all right," I told them, fortifying my voice with feigned confidence, as I picked Jula up and offered my free hand to Fryn. "Father will come for us soon."
If I could get a hold of him...
Even if we could find a cave suitable for shelter, what would we do once night fell-when kryat dragons and desert wolves came out of their dens? I shuddered at the thought and pushed it from my mind. We would be safely home by then. We had to be.
We'd walked only a short distance toward the cliffs when a strange sound met my ears. A horn?
Immediately, my mind flew into overdrive, conjuring up all sorts of wild fantasies of vicious Tusken Raiders come to carry us away or some other nameless desert creature stalking us from the shadows, ready to devour us. I froze, hugging my children closer, and I felt them trembling beneath my hands. I didn't know what direction the sound had come from. What if the cliffs weren't safe? Where could we go?
Clutching my children tightly in my arms, I knelt to the ground, ducked my head, and waited. It was all I could do. If this was to be the end, let them take me first.
I heard the horn again and an odd cry that echoed off the rocks, then...
Whirling about at the familiar clipped accent, hardly daring to believe, I found standing before me the person I thought I'd never see again. Ben.
"Is it really you?" I asked in a rush of breath, feeling utterly relieved and very young all of the sudden. Where had he come from? There wasn't a homestead for kilometers. And how had he found us? How had he known we needed him?
In that eternal moment, as I stared into his twinkling blue eyes, I could almost hear my father's voice, soft and distant, telling me the legend of the desert spirits.
"Don't be frightened, young one," Ben said gently, using his old nickname for me. "You're safe now. The danger has passed." His eyes were fixed firmly on my own, and I had the sudden, disturbing sensation that he knew every thought in my head. Then he looked away, toward the hazy horizon. "I'm only thankful that I got to you in time..." His voice faded, and I noticed for the first time how very tired he looked, how white the hairs that stuck out from under his hood had become since I'd seen him last.
"Ben? Are you all right?" Feeling Jula shiver against my leg, I gave her head a comforting rub.
"Yes, of course," he said, giving his head a shake. "Help me push this speeder and I'll lead you and your children to Bestine. It's not far. Right around this bend in the cliffs actually."
Of course. How had I forgotten that? Looking around with a calmer perspective, I saw a familiar outcropping in the rocks that should have told me Bestine was close. It never looked so wonderful, and I never felt so foolish. Together, Ben and I lifted the children into the speeder, then, straining and grunting, shoved it to the fringes of the town.
With a frantic waving of hands, my mother ran out of the hovel and into the street. "Goodness! Are you all right, dear?" She enveloped me in a hug, then did likewise with Fryn and Jula. "I was so worried when you didn't show up on time!"
"Our speeder broke down," I answered, "but Ben found us and helped us get here."
Hearing this, my mother practically pounced on the man, shaking his hand up and down. "You saved my daughter!"
Freeing his hand, he blushed under the praise. "No, no, madam..." He withered under her sudden glare. "...Shena. I was just in the right place at the right time." Turning his head while straightening his cloak, he gave me a warm smile that seemed to leech my body of its remaining apprehension. "I must be going," he said.
"Must you?" my mother asked, wiping her hand across her forehead before drying it on her skirt. "Can't you stay for the midday meal?"
Ben glanced down the street. "I'm very sorry, but I really must be going. I'll see you in a few months."
"Very well then. Goodbye, old friend," my mother said with a sigh. "Sorry to run out like this, but I need to get the meal prepared." Placing a hand on Ben's arm, she grinned. "My husband likes his food on time." Turning, she disappeared into the hovel.
My lips curved at the memory of how upset father would get if his food wasn't ready when he came home from the shop and how my mother used to tease him about it, saying that all a woman had to do to teach a man a lesson was to take his meals away. I remembered those days so well-those hot, boring days that I despised so much at the time.
A strange feeling swept through me, stealing the smile from my face.
Jula squirmed at my side. "Mama!" she whined, and Fryn chimed in a second later, wiping the sweat from his brow.
"You may go inside with your grandmother," I said, giving them both a peck on the forehead before releasing them. They scurried inside, leaving me alone with the aging hermit.
"It was good to see you again, Kerra," he said softly. "You have two fine children."
I ducked my head, feeling heat rise to my cheeks as I studied the dirt beneath my feet. My children-my joy, my life. What else could compare? After a few moments, I looked up, a smile spreading across my face even as I was forced to squint in the fierce sunlight. "Well, they're a lot to handle sometimes, but I love them dearly-more than my own life."
The aging man nodded, a distant look coming into his eyes. "Yes, I suppose all children are that way." He blinked and looked away for a moment, like he was trying to regain his composure. I felt a frown pull at my lips, as I was reminded once again of all the things I still didn't know about him. Something about his behavior nagged at my instincts. Did he have a child once?
Had he lost that child?
"I've watched you grow from a child to a woman, Kerra," he said, interrupting my thoughts, his voice unusually hoarse and weary. "So many years have passed." His eyes, piercing and haunted, seemed to penetrate to my very core. "I sense you have finally found your destiny, young one, and now I must find mine." He paused, clearing his throat. "Farewell, and may the Force be with you."
I sensed a note of finality in his words that went beyond a simple goodbye and I felt unease churn in my stomach. I tried to say something, anything, but words failed me once more.
As he turned to go, one of the corners of his tunic whipped back in a gust of wind and I caught a glimpse of something thin and shiny hanging at his waist. I'd never seen anything like it before and with my curiosity piqued, I prepared to call after him, to ask him about it. But even as words formed on my tongue, I stopped myself, remembering the haunted look in his eyes.
I couldn't ask, not about the object under his cloak, not about his adventures, not about anything. It didn't take the most intelligent being in the galaxy to see he was running from a painful past and making him face it would be the cruelest act I could ever commit.
He gave me endless love, and I would repay it by shutting my questions away in the farthest corner of my mind and never releasing them. It was the least I could do.
I stood there in the street, watching his cloaked figure grow ever smaller against the dusty horizon, just as I had so many years ago, and I got the strangest feeling that I was watching him go for the last time.
Eventually, I learned from my parents that after that day, the stranger named Ben never showed up at their door again. He simply stopped coming. There was no warning, no message to explain...but I wasn't surprised. That day he saved me, I knew deep in my marrow that he was leaving for good, going to face something-his past, I suspect.
I hope he succeeded.
For years afterward, when the twin suns cast their dying light across the desert, I gathered my children close and told them the story of Ben, of how I met him, the stories he told, and how he saved us that day in the desert, like he saved me from my imagined beasts so many years ago on that windy night.... Now I relate the same tales to my grandchildren and watch with delight as they listen in quiet rapture, hanging on to every word about the mysterious man who one day, long ago, emerged out of the swirling dust. I know that they will someday pass the story on to their children, and their children after them, and so Ben will be remembered - if only by a few. Somehow, I think that would have been enough for him.
Every so often, I sit on the front step of my hovel, gazing at the stars and wondering what ever became of old Ben. Did the hazards or beasts of the Jundland Wastes finally catch up to him? Somehow I doubt that; he never feared the Wastes.
Then memories of my father's stories surface from my mind's dusty corners - the stories of the spirits that haunt the desert, that appear and disappear at will, out of the dust. I know now they were just legends, nighttime tales told to entertain and frighten, but when I think of Ben...why do those legends seem more real?
Under the silent, twinkling stars, when all the desert slumbers in tranquil silence, it's easy to recall his words about me already finding my destiny, and after pondering them all these years, I realize he was right. When I used to stand in the doorway of my children's bedroom, watching as they dreamed their young, innocent dreams, soft smiles gracing their lips, my own dream of adventure paled. Held against the faces of my two greatest joys, it seemed irreparably flawed, and I know deep in my heart if I wished myself anywhere in the galaxy, I would end up right where I am. Old Ben was right about me. I have found my place. It is on this scorched, nightmare of a planet...with the people that I love.
I just hope he found his place in the universe too.
Maybe he was just a man or maybe he was a spirit sent out of the desert to the fringes of Bestine-to a little girl who needed him. Either way, even if it was inadvertent, he taught me something-something I won't soon forget. I learned to open my eyes to the galaxy beyond and, most importantly, to the joys that flourish around me everyday, in a place where I thought they couldn't exist.
I only wish I could thank him.
Man or ghost? I can never be certain; the man who had always been a mystery to me would remain that way forever. But this I know: that stranger from the Wastes was a special being, a most special being, and I will treasure the memory of him and how he changed me until the day I lay my head to the dust.
Original cover by Nienna Narmolanya. HTML formatting copyright 2006 TheForce.Net LLC.