desert

Desert Temptation

                On the forty-first night, the tempter once again visited the desert. He wore the form of a buzzard, circling around the wasted figure that dragged itself through the dunes.

                “These constant tests. What kind of creature is so unsure of its subjects that he must test their fidelity again and again?”

                The bird hopped closer and closer as it spoke.

                “We could be kings, you and I. The world would open to us like a lotus in bloom. All you need do is kneel down and worship me instead of him.”

                The buzzard grew to many times its size, and clutched the frail son of God in its talons. He did not fight, though he wished to with all his heart. He was too weak. Hunger plagued his every thought, hunger and thirst and… doubt. Ascending through the clouds, the creature of darkness continued its pitch.

                “What has he done for you that I cannot do? Birthed you and abandoned you in this land of men? You know what he has in store. Dreams of laceration and crucifixion, I’ve seen them. Your God, he will feed you to these creatures. And for what—their salvation?”

                Approaching the snowy peak of a high mountain, the buzzard set him down gently in the frigid wasteland.

                “He is gone, if ever he was there. Left you to your fate: Death among those who will pay you lipservice for centuries. Who will use your name as an excuse for their own hatreds. Tell me, where is the divine in that?”

                The buzzard began to shrink and transform. Talons turned into feet, dark and calloused. Wings became hands, hard yet perfectly manicured. His beady eyes became fuller, but did not lose their smolder. He did not grow clothes, but stood in the shadows, naked and roped with muscle. He approached the fallen Son of God, who shivered. Walking through the snow, the Prince of Darkness gave no sign he himself noticed the cold.

                “Your father, up on high, offers you nothing but pain. I offer-” The black prince paused to smile, “-something a little more alluring.”

                He helped the Son to his feet. They stood at the mountain’s peak, looking down at the world. As if sensing their gaze, the clouds fled, allowing them a glimpse of Earth and all its kingdoms. The Prince’s hands caressed him, and the Son felt a warmth unlike any he had felt before. He tried to remember his Mother’s face. Her words, telling him of his great and terrible fate. Their comfort felt so far away.

                “He demands our forgiveness, promises us a grand paradise. I have been there, O Wise Son. It is as easily taken away as it is granted. We are as easily cast from His grace as taken to His bosom.” The Prince choked on every ‘He’ and ‘His’ like they were the greatest curse he could use. In his dark eyes burned a mad fire, a dark hatred for the Creator. This anguish, it repelled and attracted the son. The doubts, they mirrored his own. Those he dared never admit, even to himself on bleak nights.

                Looking at his own hands, the frail son began to contemplate the power he wielded, and the things he might do. Wonders he could achieve and, for once, in his own name. What is life, if the only point is to die for others? He began to listen to the ranting Prince.

                “Kings, Morningstar and Christ, masters of their own fate. Some part of you,” Lucifer looked the Man of God up and down, “Yes some part knows this is what should be.”

                All his objections felt so far away. God’s grace, a distant memory, an illusion. Perhaps it had always been so.

                “I-I don’t,” Finally the Son spoke, “I don’t think I-”

                “Don’t think, feel.” The Dark Prince spun the Son so that they faced each other. He took both of Christ’s hands and held him close. He began to dance him slowly across the mountain, under a pale, purple moon. Wind rushed across the peak, throwing a dusting of snow into the air. They swung through the misting in the cold, slow, sensuous steps. The wind tousled his long, dirty hair and the Son realized—he did not feel the least bit cold.

                “Christ, what do you feel?”

                “I… I feel.” Suddenly the dark prince, with full crimson lips, bent forward and interrupted the son with a kiss. A dam inside him swelled and broke open. All doubts washed away. All fear drowned.

                My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?

                The Father, as per usual, spoke with nothing but silence.

Kong'o Waystation

At the border of Basin and desert, I pass through a graveyard, burial ground for the teak jungle that thrived here. Branches of trees long since buried by sand reach out at me, scratching with skeletal fingers the high cotton socks that cover my ankles. The closer to the waystation I come, the more alive they seem, emerging from desert bit by bit. First only the gnarled tree-tops are visible, thin branches that, once burdened by green, are now only a desolate brown, fitting color for the death around them. Then trunks scrabble into view, hollow yet proud things. Eventually whole corpses become evident, the remains of what must once have been a lush, well-forested area, choked with life and dense vegetation.

                No more, such places on this Earth have long been scarce.

                I stop for a moment, unshoulder my pack, stuffed with a burden that might stoop a lesser man. Removing the canteen, I shake it to check the fullness. Almost empty as I suspected. The sun, unforgiving, glares down at me and I curse it back—silently, of course, I do not have the spit to spare. My mouth feels as dry as my brow does wet beneath fine, absorbent fabric. I must address both situations before continuing my journey. It would not do to enter Kong’o Waystation half-crazed with thirst and drenched in moisture many would kill for. One needs one’s wits in such a place. Who knows how the rules have changed, or what surprises might await me therein?

                I remove the reservoir from my pack, one of my few blessings, and place it on the sand. Standing over its open mouth, I unbutton my canvas pants and jerkin, stripping to the reclamation suit beneath. The long tube of my reservoir I hook to a tabbed opening in the suit, and I feel the suction cooling my skin, the sweat and the heat with it sucked away into the reservoir's filtrating depths. I fumble with the opening at the suit's waist and, uncorking another opening in the machine, relieve myself into the filters. The craft dines on thick, yellow soup; it whirrs, hums and shakes as it goes about cleaning the water I have reclaimed, making it fit once more to drink.

                That necessary work done, I assemble a small tent to shade me from the heat and lie naked in the cool shadow, eyes closed. I must rest before approaching the waystation, before the deathly business of trading can begin. Voicelessly I mouth the names, drifting through my sins into sleep.

                Alas, rest is not to be. Survival in the desert-Earth requires many skills. Chief among them the ability to discern between the random shifts in the sand, stirred by wind or entropy, and an intruder's attempts to mask their footsteps as they sneak up on the unsuspecting to rob them of riches—chiefly, their scrap and their water. The human body contains on average 1.5 gallons of blood. Enough to last one man a week if he stretches. Combine that with the water you recoup from sweat and waste, one murder can buy you up to a month of life.

                In these times, only fools refuse to take precautions against the desperate human thirst.

                I let him approach, I can tell by my would-be killer's footfalls that he is male, and large, and driven mad by the desert-heat. He is sloppy, too sloppy, not only can I hear his feet as he stumbles towards me, but I can hear the sub-vocal mutterings, barely coherent. The man works himself into frenzy.

Still I do not move.

Eyes shut, I hear the tent's flap pushed aside, and the brute breathes loudly over me. I know he is unimpressed by what he sees. A slight, naked aged man, skin wrinkled and dry, greying hair shorn down to the roots, revealing a burned and scarred scalp. What he does not notice is the danger, the whipcord sinew of muscle running up my arms and legs, hidden strength earned in decades of hard-living and sacrifice. And his end: the blade hidden between my palm and the ground, its blade slick with a solution distilled from Devil's Helmet—though the apothecary insisted on calling it Aconitum, a flowery name fit for a deadly flower.

Small knife in hand, I lie still. I hold my breath and I wait.

The man he creeps closer, shaking and trembling. Probably suffering withdrawal from some opioid in addition to his thirst. Our bleak world drives all men to seek self-destruction in all its wondrous forms.

This here is my addiction.

He leans yet closer, slowly, hoping not to wake me from false slumber. I can feel his breath, but still I wait. He reaches toward me, fist closed around some large scimitar, an unwieldly weapon for such close quarters. Likely he hopes to menace me up and out of the tent, before leading me back to his own scrap of desert where I can be properly drained.

He picked to prey upon the wrong helpless old man.

He nudges my side with a bare, calcified foot. Point of his blade aimed wavering at my throat.

"You, ol' mayne, get up and folla if you wan-"

My blade does not wait for him to finish before it strikes, I roll quickly, away from his sword and towards his tree-trunk legs. Lithe in my fingers she bites him, a shallow cut on the ankle. The countdown begins.

5

He roars with inchoate rage, probably more at being defied than any pain he might feel. I use the brief reprieve this grants me to take to my feet. I do not leave the tent, so exposed that would waste too much of my moisture.

4

“Now why’d y’have to go and do that?” He lumbers towards me, scimitar dragging in the sand. Suddenly, I am incredibly aware of how small this tent, what an eternity five seconds can be. Quickness can only get me so far.

3

I dance just outside the reach of another swing. “Yer quick ol’ mayne. How quick?” The dark look in his eyes, the look of madness, tells me that he cares not about my water any more. He will spill my blood wasted into the sand given the chance.

2

He swings again, more sluggish this time. I smile, the paralytic works fast. “I’m quick enough for you, young buck.”

1

                The change comes in an instant, every muscle in the killer’s body ripples, spasms and then goes rigid. He falls to the ground face down, stiffer than the wooden graves around us. I squat down on top of his back, standing on its still shuddering strength.

                “Now, is that anyway to treat your elders? Disturbing ‘em while they sleep? Waving blades around, tearing up their personal property?” My tent flaps uselessly in the desert wind, torn to canvas shreds. Both us of exposed to the unforgiving sun. I wave my hands around me, indicating the destruction.

                “I shall have to spend some of my hard-earned coin repairing or replacing this now.”

Eyes wide, he works his jaw uselessly, but no words 

                “What am I to do with you, eh? Teach you a lesson you won’t forget?” My tongue rubs against my chapped lips like sandpaper. I drag him by the legs from our brief encounter’s wreckage, conscious of the sweat that reappears on my brow, dripping from my naked flesh lost onto the sizzling sand. We come to a sturdy looking tree, where I leave him and hobble back to my pack. I wince. Those brief seconds took more from me than I like to admit.

I return, dragging a length of rope and my reservoir, sloshing, to the hanging ground. “When you come for a man’s water, you also hazard your own.” I tie the rope around his still twitching legs. “To the victor goes the spoils, eh? As close as lives like ours come to fairness.”

The other end of the rope goes up over a thick branch. I hoist him up. He dangles, lips swollen, eyes bulging as he faces the fate that awaits him. The begging will come. It always does.

“Puh-p-pleez,” He speaks, slow and slurred, the paralytic must be wearing off. I need to work fast. “Mer… merc-”

I would laugh if I had time. “Ah… mercy? Would you have granted me mercy, had I begged? I think not, each choice digs another shovelful from our graves. Yours-” I unhook the suction tube from the reservoir and hunch down before the swaying, breathing watersac.

“Oh, what’s your name, by the by?”

“Ho… Hobarth.”

                “Hobarth,” I commit his name and face to memory, add his to my list of sins, one of many souls I will atone for when my time comes. “Mine is Jethro. Nice to have met you.”

                His eyes bug even wider at that name. Most in the region know it, most fear… or revere it.

                “Seeker. O Gawd, it is you. I shoulda known… had I only kn-“

My blade bites into his carotid, and with the other hand, I press the tube to the open wound. No water lost. The reservoir whirrs and sucks loudly as it must accommodate the sudden intake of moisture. I smile.

“You ‘shoulda’ known, but you didn’t. And now here we are.” My eyes go soft as he quickly stops thrashing about, dangling ever stiller from the tree. The branch trembles, sheds cracked bark, but does not break.

The light fades from his eyes, but I trace the curve of his square jaw lovingly, hold the gaze of his dark, angry eyes until they see no more. Only just now noticing how firm and full his frame was. Such a pity, under different circumstances…

“Sleep well Hobarth. Go and know your death was not in vain. No more than anyone else’s at least.”

Pulling the straw from the res, I suck deeply of water tasting slightly of copper and ammonia. Still, it is cool and quenching and… delicious.

The sun creeps across the sky, falling beneath the dunes. The world turns cool. I pack up my tattered tent, my reservoir, my poisoned blade and dress again for my journey. The waystation is near, I intend to get there before sunrise.

I walk further into the copse of corpses. Muttering a long litany to pass the time. The names, always the names.

“Hobarth, for his moisture. Jean in self-defense. Rochelle, for her moisture. Hyman, for his artifacts. Roy, for his-”

Hours later, the waystation looms in the distance. Light begins to threaten in the distance, dark crimson and pink on the horizon, though still I walk in darkness. The names continue. It has been a long life, filled with much sinning. And still I have yet to atone.

Their faces… I remember them all.

The Ruins Breathe

What creature of stone languished in the desert waste? A forgotten ruin, buried under sand and obscured by detritus, breathing hot, dry air through lungs of worn rock. Last gasps of a civilization long lost. A collapsed temple, gently pulled into the present by archaeologists, excavated from darkness back into the sun. Centuries, millennia had passed since last its depths were plumbed. Yet, walking its halls, these new explorers felt wind blow where there should only have been quiet, only stagnation. They touched the walls and swore they hummed. Somewhere deep within, a low, dull heart seemed to beat.

                This place… is alive. The thought leapt unbidden, unspoken, to many a mind. Discarded for its absurdity and yet as they lingered in this sacred place, it seemed all the more a certainty.

                There were too many mysteries about this living, rubble beast. From whence did it hail? There were no other remains for miles, no cultural touchstones from known nations that had risen, only to fall. It sprouted, a malignant tumor on the Gobi’s epidermis, in the middle of nowhere, built suring no obvious when. The hieroglyphs whittled on its walls and ceilings match no others. Only through inference could linguists and ethnographers even hope to translate. And in the reading most meaning was surely lost.

                Created… life… stone… life… we… life… subside… life… only… Temple… allowed… life…

                At night, in tents and substructures dwarfed by the ruin that grew more and more each day as sand was cleared away, these explorers dreamed of times long forgotten. Memories known to none still alive. Painted faces, harsh guttural sentences, simple and brutal for a simpler, bloodier time. Their souls boiled with emotion foreign to modern sensibilities. They itched to… to… they were not sure what.

                They sent a messenger to let the world know what they found. No phone would function, some magnetic force blinded the eyes of satellites above. Only by horse, or camel-back, over hundreds of miles of wasteland could they send word.

                Weeks passed, months, and the desert temple of unknown provenance grew and grew. Its corridors had no end, and still in the distance a heart beat and a voice whispered, and still they could not find it. They waited for reinforcements, to be relieved, to be free from the eye of the sun, from the words on the walls that every day became more a part of them.

                Months passed, and these creatures began to worship a God with no name, in dream and in ritual, reborn after centuries.

                Finally, relief came, but too late. They arrived before an empty temple. No trace of the tents, or the life that had erected them, no trace of those who had uncovered the desert wonder. The halls were wide and silent, only the quiet breath, a silent, echoed thumping. The only hint that anything transpired in this place in a recent eon? Blood, streaked on the ceilings and walls, covering long-unreadable hieroglyphs in recognizable English words, though what they meant was arch and unsure:

                They created life, stone life, our life, ours… subsides. Only the Temple, only those of the temple are allowed to…

                And now we join them, and leave this life behind.

The Desert Outside the Real

            You wake baking on strange, hot sands, borne into a place you have never been. Where the light never abates. Where men never die. You are alone, but for the gently whispering wind and stinging loneliness. This ache, this vast chasm within you screams that you have been lost for an eternity, but you can't remember anything past this waking. Not where you were yesterday, or who you were, nor who you are now. All you know for certain is you are alone.

            You start walking, numb to the sands that burn your feet. Baked by an omnipresent light. Looking up into the sky, you spy no suns, only red bubbling flames hanging overhead. Like you world is contained within a volcano, within another world. Hours pass, perhaps days, the darkness' absence robs you of all sense of time. You stumble through this flat, sanded plain, sinking deeper into fire, climbing further into despair. Why you? Why this fate? What sins do you atone for that you cannot remember? What God must you plead to for absolution?

            Perhaps, you realize, there is no redemption to be had. Perhaps your sins were too great, and this world you find yourself bound by… perhaps this is hell.

            "I know the way out."

            You jump at the voice, and seek its source, but none is forthcoming. Mere madness, you suppose, tricks of the whistling, gusty wind.

            "I am not your imagination," I know the way out. The last words speak directly into your mind and at last you see it. A figure drapes in black, covered except for its white, pupil-less eyes that stare straight through you.

            It approaches you, appearing not to walk but glide over the sand. As it approaches, the wind howls louder, enraged by its trespass. Waves of sand envelope you both, blocking you from the fire, leaving you cold and in shadow. It whispers now, urgently, as it nears.

            "The only way out is up, and through. The only way out is past those who would keep us here forever."

            "Where are we?" You demand, with a voice so hoarse you suspect it has never been used.

            "The Desert," It replies, and grips your hand. Its grip a vice, there is no escape.

            Your feet leave the ground, and together you hover into air. Up above the sands, up towards the skies and flame.

            "Wait! Through there? We can't. We'll die."

            All you must do is believe. All you must do is realize. It whispers again in its mindspeak.

Then speaks aloud, and though you cannot see its face, you suspect that it smiles. You imagine it ghoulish, filled within black gums and rotten teeth. A fetid, wriggling tongue lashing out beneath its cowl.

"You see, fire cannot hurt those who are already dead."

            And with that, the two of you ascend back to the real and life.