February 10, 2009
– the outpost
…’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”
Dusk. The 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 and of good quality long ago. He sat back and let his mind rove in all directions, sweeping a huge spiral around his house including the sky above and the subterranean caves. Ever since the attack, 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. Not everyone made it. She was strong enough.
The chime of an old-fashioned grandfather clock reached him, coming from inside the house. It was the reminder he had set himself to scan the area, though for years now he had been playing an old game: he would set his body clock to scan just before the chime, finishing exactly when it started its tune. By now, after many years of playing this game, his body’s innate sense of timekeeping was virtually perfect, he knew exactly 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. But of course Ngagimi would not listen to such wisdom, ‘that was her’ he thought with a grim smile, ‘she always chose the hard way’.
It would take her another five hours to reach him.
Last time he saw her was over twenty 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 see 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 might take a day to return. He would never get lost in the sands, but in his mind, there 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. He knew, once he started he would not stop.
The wind picked up the heat and the dry desiccated smell of sand 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 and only your bones were left. In the beginning he thought it was a superstition to keep 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. “The desert is hungry”, was an old saying. He had come to believe it.
In he early days he had asked discreet questions 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, but he doubted it was the real story.
He too, left long ago, but he had planned it carefully. 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 hidden beneath it. There humans had huddled together, as a defence against the sand and bristle bushes stretching for thousands of miles in all directions. But it was more than that, it was a defence against something undefinable.
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 docks. Cargo Zeppelins were tied to them, like giant balloons in the breeze pointing out the direction of the wind. It looked beautiful from this distance.
These specks of brightly shimmering light looked alive in the monotonous pastel colours of sand. Sand stretching as far as the eye could see in every direction. The colours in the city drew the eye like a magnet, like jewels around a woman’s neck. Better not think like 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 half buried in the sand. He had retreated here before, when life in the city seemed ALL there was and human problems swamped his mind. The place had nothing, except a tiny little well, in deep old caves, yet having that, it had the most important thing in this world. An old couple had lived there at the time.
But that time he had come to stay. The first thing he did on arrival was to plant pine trees from the few precious seeds he had brought with him. Three of them had survived, their roots had found the water below and they thrived. But he kept them pruned low, out of sight.
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 stopped himself 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, else he could not 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. But it was lonely here and her coming here disturbed his loneliness.
In the city he had been successful, but felt he had felt insignificant, a nothing. He smiled as he thought about this. He had tried to become and succeeded in being a ‘big’ man, impressing everyone except Ngagimi and Sari the only ones he really cared about. 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 heard her. 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. And after all these years, she still came to see him.
Out here he enjoyed feeling small, like an ant before the enormity of time. He felt small in the endless sea of sand, small and tiny before the blue vast sky…
In the city, others had ceased to be human, they had become only been obstacles to fight. 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 twenty years, yet it seemed like yesterday. Time was really just a dream.
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. The only sound his echoing footsteps 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 image, asking for a blessing for the one coming to see him.
He came back to the present with a jolt. The candle was almost at its end. He had fallen into a deep trance. Like someone waking up and waying 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 finer 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 now 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 and still kept him here.
It was what 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 fellow travellers had been terrified. After that first time he used every excuse to leave the city. And he had met others, strange ones like himself who also felt the need to touch that freedom.
Back in the city his world had again shrunken to the size of his desk and 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 for the crumbs falling from above.
That and devouring 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 like 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 jewelry dropped into his cupped hand.
“Good”, she said, “when you receive the other one, then you will know”.
With those words she turned and walked away from him out into the night.
Stunned he watched her go.
After a few steps he just lost sight of her in the darkness.
Then suddenly he got up and ran after her.
He stopped abruptly before a pile of clothes on the ground. Here the footprints stopped. Her dress, shoes and silver and brass bands.
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 smelt the soft cloth, it was her, but of her, there was no sign.
He sat where he was, watching, listening, for a long time.
Goosebumps rippled down his back as if he was being observed, but it was impossible to know who was watching him. From that moment on he felt a presence that remained with him until he died.
The next day someone else set out from the city for his house. Whoever it was followed the wise desert travelers ways. They 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 her two days to reach him.
As he had guessed, after two days, 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 from a distance was firmly repelled. He could not find out her intent, nor who it was or why they had come.
He stopped his writing for the day, lit a candle and climbed down the spiral stairs to sit 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. Then images flooded his mind in quick succession.
He spent a long time in front of the pool, then climbed back to solid reality. Shivering, he shook himself like a dog coming out of water. He had not seen anything concrete, there had been much to see, but it had been deliberately veiled from him. He knew from experience that only after the events would he understand what he had seen.
Outside the weather had turned ominously quiet, tense and hazy. A sand storm was about to break. He bolted everything down.
He watched the haze in the distance become more solid, the air around him seemed to stand still, there was not the faintest breeze.
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.
Then a small movement, in the distance he saw the plants move suddenly, a wave of hot air racing along the ground pushing the little bushes even lower, sweeping past her.
She was running, head down and bent low. Had she been further out in the sands she would have dug a shallow trench and lain in it long ago, but she was too close to her destination.
Against his better judgment he slipped a sandmask over his head and ran out towards her. He used the crab-like sideways gait of experienced desert travelers. It protected him and still allowed him move where he wanted to. She too wore a mask and ran, half walked in the same sideways motion.
This wind was a sandblaster, picking up sand and rasping every patch of exposed skin blood raw in an instant. He remembered seeing bloody bodies almost devoid of skin in the exposed parts. Some had been stripped to the bone in places. The storm was just beginning.
It was hard to see. Gray mist, dust and sand obscured his vision.
He was could not remember the direction she had gone in after he last saw her. 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 throw 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 could 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 the 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 held her around the waist to cement the grip she had on him. The wind increased in speed and they had to hold tighter. A number of times he was lifted off the ground by he force of the storm.
He wondered why they were not carried away or rolled along the ground. Then he saw that she held onto something else with her left arm. Her left arm was extended and held onto a steel cable tied to a belt around her waist. She had brought a sand anchor !
The cable was taught and hummed with the strain of holding them both, but the anchor held.
His clothes started to wear thin, in some places he felt his skin blasted away by the millions of sharp sand particles roaring past them every second.
He had heard of other 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 around her waist.
Then came the deafening crackling and searing of a lightning flash. 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 and clean swept. She unhooked the cable and inserted its end into a small pear shaped device. Then she could pull the cable out of the sand easily. At its end was a small spindle, like the closed bud of a flower. The sand anchor. It had to be shot into the soft sand and there the leaves of the spindle’s bud would open wide. He smiled. He had never seen nor used one, distaining them as an aid for the careless and inexperienced.
She cleaned and stored the cable, then would it up and primed the barrel of the anchor. Only then did she turn to him, looking at him with all black eyes that reminded him of Ngagimi.
“I am Nga-fathima, daughter of Ngagimi, daughter of Er-el-Jarhum”, she held her left hand at chest height palm out, in greeting. He matched her palm with his.
He narrowed his eyes and looked at her for a long time. Then he inclined his head towards her, “I am Er-el-Jarhum” he introduced himself. They walked to the house.
Sand was piled high, up 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, watching her as she sat on a cushion, he prepared Chai for her, saying nothing. Nga-fathima sat quietly, resting.
Neither of them wanted to break the silence first.
“She never mentioned you”, he said as he put the cup of hot Chai before her.
Taking it and holding it, she looked him in the eye: “I asked her not to”,.
He looked away, went to the kitchen.
“You look like her”, he said when he returned.
Sipping the spicy tea, neither of them spoke for a long time. They looked at each other. He noticed the ticking of the clock, the soft whispering of the breeze. Time slowed down.
He watched her intently, “she was here three days ago”.
Her head jerked up from its cup, she searched his face, her lips pressed together, trying to stop herself speaking.
She stood up, walked to the window and standing perfectly still looked 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 palm.
When he raised his eyes to meet hers, she held him with her eyes and said quietly: “She died three days ago”.
Princes Hill, Australia,