Dusk. T he warm wind carried the smell of smoke, fire and food. Just three old solid stone houses, a few small palms with sharp leaves like knife blades.
He sat in his comfortable reclining chair in the shadows of the verandah looking out over the sea of sand. In all directions a vast sea of sand, sparse tufts of grass here and there sheltered by odd twisted rocks. Directly in front of him was a faint glow of lights on the horizon. It grew a little brighter and was easier to see as the darkness gathered. The wind was still warm. Stars stood out like pinpricks. The remaining unshuttered window behind him glowed a warm orange.
His clothes were old now, but well made, of good quality. He sat back and let his mind rove over the sands in all directions, sweeping a huge wide circle all around his house including the sky and the subterranean caves. He did this at least once every hour.
No danger, no change, just the solitary figure of Ngagimi , still walking towards this place. He sensed that she was tired, but she would reach him. She was strong enough. Not everyone made it.
The chime of an old-fashioned grandfather clock reached him, coming from inside the house. It was his official reminder to himself scan the area, though for years now he had been playing an old game: he would scan just before the chime from the old clock, finishing exactly when it sounded its tune. By now, after many years of ‘playing', his body's innate sense of timekeeping was virtually perfect, he simply knew when it was time.
He'd seen her walking all day, he knew she was coming, he'd seen her coming in his mind's eye before he ever saw the faint dot moving in the shimmering heat of the day. Daytime was no time to walk in this desert. That was the time to put your tent up and sleep. She would not listen, ‘that was Ngagimi' he thought with a grim smile, ‘always chose the hard way' .
It would take her another five hours to reach him.
Last time he saw her was over 20 years ago. They had not parted as friends. What brought her out here now, at a time like this, walking on her own ? And to him of all people ?
‘Stop!' He pulled his thoughts back to the present. He could not afford to let himself think about that time again, he would loose himself and it would take a whole day to return. He would never get lost in the sands, but in his mind, he had lost himself before,- for years. It was like resisting the itch to scratch an insect bite, hard not to kid himself that he would scratch it just that one tiny little bit, just once. But once he started he would not stop.
The wind picked up the heat and the dry smell from the sands and wrapped it around him, but there were pockets of cool air in it already. In an hour it would be too cold to sit out here without a jacket. He went inside to get it and checked on dinner cooking in the oven. It smelled nice.
When he sat down again, it was almost too dark to make out Ngagimi's shape, she was barely visible, a tiny dot against the almost dark horizon. He turned around to make sure the window behind him was unshuttered. Yes, she'd see the light. As a rule he never let any light escape after dark, it had attracted too many strange refugees from the city and other places. Yes, it might look desolate and empty out there, but he had learnt the hard way.
It was said that if you died out there in the sands, it took less than a day before nothing but your bones were left. In the beginning he thought it only a superstition to keep the people in awe, huddled in their towers and subterranean wells. But since he had come here he had seen it happen often enough to know that there was more to it.
Every now and then, some raving, deranged soul would wander out of the city, out into the sands, scarcely knowing what they did.
None had been prepared for the sands or taken provisions. In the beginning he had gone to find them, to take them back or bring them here. Some he had reached in time. Others had quickly died in the heat of day, or frozen to death at night before he could reach them.
By the time he arrived nothing of their bodies remained but a clean dry skeleton. In less than a day, sometimes after only a few hours nothing was left. There were never any footprints, nor had he ever seen birds or vultures.
Afterwards, making discreet inquiries in the city, he was always told that it was either money or love that had driven them to desperation and out into the harsh vastness, seeking some kind of relief. He knew desperation, though he doubted it was the full story.
His first clear memory after the turmoil of leaving the city was looking back at it from a long way out. It had been an evening like this.
The shining city stood tall and solitary in a sea of sand and low bristly bushes with hard sharp needles on small twisted branches. They stood their ground in the biting cold winds of the night and the hot blinding heat of the sun.
The city a beehive of human activity. It's fragile butterfly beauty, humming and bustling with life and movement and yet so precariously founded on nothing but sand and the huge caverns beneath it. Humans huddled together, as a defence against the sand and bristle bushes stretching for thousands of miles in all directions.
He looked back, on the beehive, the tall pyramid shaped buildings lit up from within. Between two large buildings on the city's edge bright purple and red light came streaming from the ground and flooded the outside of the structures. Cargo Zeppelins were tied to them, giant flags in the breeze pointing out the direction of the wind. It looked beautiful from here.
These specks of brightly shimmering light looked alive in the monotonous pastel colours of sand stretching as far as the eye could see in every direction. The colours drew the eye like a magnet, like jewels around a woman's neck. He should not think of that.
He remembered the desire to go back to the city, like a magnet it drew him, pulled at him, gently but relentlessly. Just as relentlessly he had walked on and on until he arrived at this small cluster of houses hidden in the sand, far on the outskirts. He had come here before used the place as a retreat when life in the city seemed ALL there was, and human problems dominated his mind. It had nothing, except a tiny little well, deep down in old caves, yet having that, it had the most important thing in this world. An old couple lived had there at the time.
But now he was here to stay. The first thing he did on arrival was to plant pine trees from the precious seeds he had brought with him. Three of them had survived, their roots had found the water below and they thrived.
Some claimed this had been the first settlement, before the present city even. But such debates did not interest him. So what if it had been or not ? Did it matter to anyone now ?
He pulled back from thinking about ‘her' and what had brought him here. It was dangerous enough to think of his beginning time here. He must not scratch he itch, or he would never stop.
He loved the simplicity of life here. There was no clutter, just the clean smell of the sand, wind, time and age. The smell of century after century… of thousands of years… of time herself... and he a passing speck.
In the city he had been successful, but still he felt insignificant, a nothing. He smiled as he thought about this. He had tried to and succeeded in being a big man, impressing almost everyone except Ngagimi and Sari. Chuckling to himself he remembered Sari, her disfigured face looking at him with those strange Aesciine eyes of hers. She had tried to teach him in many subtle ways, but he had never listened. Not until he came here did he understand what she had tried to tell him. But then, she too had learnt the hard way, her face bore the traces. After all these years, she still came to see him.
Out here he enjoyed feeling small, like an ant before the years. Small before the endless sand around him. Small and tiny before the blue vast sky… In the city, others had just been obstacles to overcome. He had lost his bearings, lost them with her who was out there now, coming to see him after all this time.
He shivered, not because of the cool breeze but because he knew that Ngagimi would not come here without good reason and he could not imagine what that might be. It had been over 20 years, yet it seemed like yesterday. Time was truly just perception.
He cast his mind out towards Ngagimi, it would still take her a few hours to reach him. He walked back into his house and down a long spiral staircase descending far below the surface. Only his footsteps echoed as he descended into the cavernous depth, - that and the occasional ‘plop' of water into a pool.
Placing his candle in precisely the same spot he had used for two decades, he lit a single stick of incense and knelt before the golden Buddha image, asking for blessings for those who had come to him.
He came back to the present with a jolt. The candle was almost at its end. He had fallen deeply asleep. Groggy, swaying from side to side, he made his way back up.
Outside it was almost totally dark only the faint light of the night sky provided lesser shades of gray. The wind blew warm from the north. The lights of the city glowed faintly on the far horizon and the starlight of distant suns opened up vast spaces above him. He always thought of the light of day as a door that shut out the vast expanse of the Universe above him. Now that door was open, and he again felt part of that immense space. He saw himself sitting on the surface of this planet, the starlight emitted millions of years ago reaching him at this time, he knew this was but one of countless worlds in an endless river of time. He had no words to express what he felt then, but those were the feelings that had brought him out here.
It was this that he had always missed in the city, though he did not know it until he left for the first time as a young man. Then he suddenly understood what it meant to breathe freely. And yet his friends had been terrified. After that first time he often left to go outside, using every excuse to leave the city. And he had met others, strange ones like himself who also felt the need to touch that freedom.
In the city his world had shrunk to the size of his desk, a room. His feelings had shrunk to frustrated outrage about the latest insult or injustice done unto him. His life had consisted of pacing the cage of work and friendships, his triumphs were made up of beating someone else in the scramble of the crumbs falling from the top. That and vicariously following the latest gossip about Sorio's love live. When it all became too much, he would zone out on drugs like everyone else.
Compared to his life now, it had been like being blind and deaf, though it was not as lonely, he admitted that with a grim smile.
“You don't recognize old friends anymore ?”, a voice from the shadows.
He jumped at the sound. A dark tall woman stepped out of the shadow of the verandah on his left. Brass and silver bands were tightly wound about her upper arms and just above the elbows. She wore a stylish loose fitting dress, something that would have looked stunning at a cocktail soiree.
“Ngagimi”, a deep breath, “ - always the same, I should have known”, he smiled at her, “…been waiting long dearest ?”
“Ever since you left”, her mouth set, but curled into a tiny smile at the edges.
“and the joker still”, he replied.
“Please do sit”, he stood and gestured overtly to the wide armchair, covered in faded, once brightly coloured cushions beside him.
She remained standing, “I won't stay long - … dearest”, she added the last word almost as an afterthought, tenderly, without the sarcasm and the bile she had usually put into that word. He could just make out a faint outline of her face in the darkness and saw her sphinx smile.
“I came to give you this”, and she held out to him a small delicate earring, silver, encasing a tiny pure white pearl.
He recognized it but was too stunned to speak. Staring at her face he came out of his chair slowly as in a dream. When he stood before her, he held out his hand never taking his eyes off her face. With a soft clink the delicate jewellery dropped into his cupped hand.
“Good”, she said, “when you receive the other one, then you will know”.
With those words she turned and quickly walked away from him out into the night.
He watched her go. After a few steps he just lost sight of her.
Getting up, running after her, he stopped abruptly before a pile of clothes on the ground, - her dress and shoes. Here the footprints stopped.
He squatted down, picked up the silky cloth as well as her shoes and looked about from ground level. Nothing ! No one could hide in this flatness, even in this darkness a human shape would stand out against the sky. He smelled the soft cloth, it was her, but of her there was no sign.
Goosebumps rippled down his back. He sat where he was, watching, listening, for a long time.
It was impossible to know who was watching him. He felt a presence that stayed with him.
The next day someone else set out from the city for his house. Whoever it was slept in the hottest part of the day, walked slowly and steadily, traveling in the ways of an experienced walker. In his regular scanning he tracked her progress, at that rate, it would take two days to reach him.
Two days later, in the late afternoon, a human figure, a woman, became visible on the horizon. The shimmering heat liquefied and distorted her outline as she walked. It was someone who knew how to cover herself. Every attempt to ‘read' her was firmly repelled. He could not find out who it was or why they had come.
He stopped his writing for the day, lit a candle and climbed down the spiral stairs and sat before the waters of the pool. He moved a tray so as to catch the falling drops before they hit the surface. Breathing slowly, he looked at his reflection. After a time he felt the space before him expand and melt away in all directions. It was as though he could feel the density of water, rock and air around him become thin vapour. Images flooded his mind in quick succession.
He spent a long time in front of the pool, before slowly pulling himself out and back to solid reality. Shivering, he shook himself like a dog coming out of water. Though he had not gained anything concrete, there had been much to see, but it had been deliberately veiled from him. He knew this type of scrying, only later after the events would he remember what he had seen.
Back outside the weather had turned ominously quiet, tense and hazy. A sand storm was about to break. He had already bolted everything down a few hours before.
His visitor was very close, he could see she was hurrying now, it would be a race against time as to which of them reached him first.
He watched the haze in the distance become more solid, the air around him seemed to stand still, there was not the faintest breeze. Then a small movement, in the distance he saw the plants move suddenly, a wave of hot air racing the ground pushing the little bushes even lower, sweeping past her.
She was clearly visible now, running, head down bent low. Had she been caught further out in the sands she would long ago have dug a shallow trench and lain in it, but she was too close to her destination.
Against his better judgment he slipped his sandmask over his head and ran out towards her. He used the crab-like sideways motion that allowed him to face the wind and move where he wanted to go. She too wore a mask and ran, half walked in the sideways motion of those who had experience in the desert and its storms.
The wind was powerful, picking up sand and rasping every patch of exposed skin raw in an instant. This wind was a sandblaster. He remembered seeing bloody bodies devoid of skin, some stripped to the bone in places. This was just the beginning.
He was unable to find the direction she had gone in after he last saw her. Gray mist, dust and sand obscured his vision. Checking his compass he noticed he had drifted too far to the south. The wind increased its fury and he had no choice but to thrown himself face forward into the sand, spreading his arms and legs as far apart as possible. His hands and feel clawed the sand, groping for a rock or a bush or anything. This storm would grow strong enough to lift him off the ground, dropping him close by or taking him far out into the deep desert where he had no hope of living longer than a day. He had better find some kind of anchor quickly.
Then something heavy, soft and white thudded onto him. It was his visitor. Lying on top of him then sliding to the side she encircled his waist and held onto him with her right arm.
Her arm around him was powerful. He encircled her waist to cement the grip they had on each other. The wind increased in speed, and they held tighter. A number of times they were virtually lifted off the ground. He wondered why they were not carried away or rolled along the ground, and noticed that she had a strong grip on something else with her left arm. Her left arm was extended and held onto a steel cable tied to a belt around her waist. The cable was taught and hummed with the strain of holding them both, but it held.
His storm clothes started to wear thin, in places his skin was blasted away by the millions of sharp sand particles roaring past them every second.
He had heard of places where the grains of sand were rounded and smooth, but he had only ever known this sand, like tiny pieces of broken glass, sharp and merciless at high speeds.
He tried to help her, thinking to ease the strain on her arm. She shook her head and pushed away his efforts, motioning him to hold tight to her waist.
Then the crackling and searing of a lightning flash cut short all attempts at communication. For an instant the smell of Ozone and the dry blasted smell of vapourized and molten sand. The static electricity made his skin crawl. Vicious flashes played about them, gradually moving away to the East.
It was some time before they were able to stand up. When they finally emerged, from underneath a blanket of sand the sky was dark, clean swept. She unhooked the cable and inserted its end into a small pear shaped device. Now the cable came out of the sand easily. At its end was a small spindle, like the closed bud of a flower. A sand anchor. It had to be shot into the soft sand and there the leaves of the spindle bud would open wide. He smiled. He had never seen nor used one, distaining them as an aid for the careless and inexperienced.
She wound up her sand anchor and primed its barrel, then turned to him, looking at him with eyes that reminded him of Ngagimi.
“I am Ngafathima, daughter of Ngagimi, daughter of Er-el-Jarhum”, she held her left hand palm up, at chest height, before him in greeting.
He looked at her, narrowing his eyes, then inclined his head towards her, “Er-el-Jarhum” he introduced himself and walked towards the house.
Sand was piled high to the windows, it would be hard work to clear it all away over the next few days. Perhaps another storm would help him ?
They entered the house. Deliberately and slowly he prepared chai for them, saying nothing, watching her as she sat on a cushion, she in turn watching him prepare the tea.
Neither of them wanted to speak first.
“She never mentioned you”, he said as he put the cup before her.
Taking it, holding it, “I asked her not to”, she said, holding his gaze.
He looked away, went to the kitchen.
“You look like her”, he said as he returned.
Neither of them spoke. Sipping the spicy tea they looked at each other. Neither wanting to break the gaze. Time slowed down, he noticed the ticking of the clock, the soft whispering of the breeze.
He narrowed his eyes and watched her intently, “she was here 3 days ago”.
Her head came up from its cup, she searched his face, her lips pressed together as though trying to stop herself speaking.
She turned her head, then stood up, walked to the window, standing perfectly still, looking out for a long time. Then she turned quickly with her arm held out directly in front of her, palm up. On it lay a small delicate earring, silver, encasing a tiny pure white pearl. “For you !”. He stared at her open hand. When he raised his eyes to meet hers, she held him with her eyes and said quietly: “She died three days ago”.
- - - o o o 0 0 0 ( O ) 0 0 0 o o o - - -
...'tis not the darkness thou fear'st my friend
but the blinding light of day,
should'st thine fears be taken away
revealing life without end....
- Ngagimi, "Voices of Xylantheum"
… ooo000( O )000ooo …
© 2007, 2009 heiko