The desert seems vast and infinite. But nothing is eternal; nothing goes on and on, endlessly pushing through and beyond all possibility of a frontier. As with all things, all seasons, all modalities of this wave of existence, this desert does have a terminus. But just now, the dunes undulate with the tides of this ocean of sand, each one singing its own peculiar melody, each baking under the relentless heat of this awesome sun. The periphery of vision is in a constant state of peril from hallucination, mirage. The quicksilver haze rolls upward and outward, obscuring where vision ends and fantasy begins. There are no oases, no pools of cool, clear water filled with creamy-thighed virgins, basking remarkably unburnt in the heat and the glare. There is no mercurial town, surfing the waves of heat and wind, slipping between this gully and that, luring travellers to a certain end as bones and rags. No, there is only the desert, and though there is surely an end, for now, it is the whole of the world.
But when the desert ends, when the cities of men re-emerge from the cracked and barren earth like so much lichen on an exposed and weathered rock, there will be someone waiting. He will be bent from age, but strong, the colour of teak. His sight will have failed him, as will his hair, his teeth, his hearing. But he will keep hearth and home, as it was, as it will always be. About now he is making his morning tea, drawing up the cool, clear water from the depth of the well in some rickety bucket or other. He will scoop out the salamanders, blessing his luck, and save them for a passing alchemist. Or maybe he is sleeping in today. It is not unheard of, in some aged men. It’s true, there are those who rest sporadically throughout the day, catching a moment here or there for rest. But this man, this keeper of the home, he is not that sort of man.
He is the sort of man that revels in small leisures, taking his ease when it presents itself. He is a man that has worked at keeping the flame, keeping the earth. He binds all elements to his will and with them creates something that cannot be replicated. Though one search the world, even its vast and unending deserts, with the finest comb made of the finest shell, one will not find his equal. He is watching the far horizons for any sign of that child, lost but never forgotten. He is tending his faith and the herbs that line the border of his garden.
Past that garden, half a mile or so, a long and winding path runs along a slight incline. It is gradual, not too steep, and the body feels no distress in the hour it takes to mount the gentle slope. At the apex, there is the entire world laid out, spreading from west to east to north and south, and nothing to ever obstruct the view. In the centre, the navel of the world, there are two stones. Upon the first is an inscription, or the remnant of one, long ago worn away. The stone itself is a milky white and gleams like freshly exposed bone, wet and ivory, in the light of the noonday sun. Around it, flowers grow, drops of blood splashing onto a green carpet. Beside it, smaller, stands another stone, this of a pinker hue.
The surface is unmarred by time or the hand of man as though it had grown up from the very earth itself to stand proud and unblemished. Here no flowers grow, its neighbour’s spray of crimson blooms fail to reach anywhere the long shadow of the stone may fall. Before this stone is a small bench, the perfect size for a young child, no more than a toddler.
The bench is of the same milky stone, almost nacreous in composition, but there is no shimmer or shine to it. Rather, it glows, blushing in the heat of day. There is a groove in the centre of this bench, as though many children had spent long hours sitting upon it, wearing away the surface one atom at a time. To measure eternity, perhaps, would be to watch and wait and see how long it took the block to wear clean through, gently sanded by sundry trousers and skirts.
And yet, the desert presses in. Sand fills the ears, the eyes, the nose and mouth. There is no escape from it. Even when the wind is low it is still wild, bringing stinging grit as it hisses across the shifting ground. Sometimes it is becalmed and progress can be made at a steady pace, not too fast, not too slow, nothing to cause undue exertion. The sun is awesome, the sun is merciless. It saps the strength as though digging into the very core and extracting vitality, as though sweat itself carried off the animus in its evaporation. Still and yet, there is progress.
A smell is carried on the wind, riding the wake of some phantom or other. It speaks of loss, of pain, reeking as it does of turned earth on bright mornings when no rain falls and the weather mocks every desire for self-pity. There are higher notes, those of release, acceptance, smells that bring to mind hot meals shared in warm company, sweat-drenched bodies hopelessly entangled, a Gordian knot of flesh.
Too, there is a sound. It is a keening, like that of some lost animal hunting for its mother. Too afraid to leave its den, it calls out into the darkness, a prayer winging through the air on currents of hope and fear. It is a pure sound, known to all hearts, and it stings when it strikes the ear. It passes clear through the hammers and drums and deeper still into the more sensitive lobes of the mind. Here it runs about, mingling with memories of laughter, of gentleness, and the solid flapping of sheets drying, fresh and clean in the afternoon breeze.
In memory there are tricks, like the mirages that can only catch fools in the desert. But unlike those, the Fata Morgana of memory are harder to escape.
There is the house, the old man who keeps it is younger here, standing straight, but still losing the battle to keep what hair remains. He is digging in his garden, planting the seedlings he so painstakingly raised in the windows until the passage of first frost. There are sweet peas, peppers, some manner of cucumber or other. All around him blooms thyme and lavender, strong astringent odours that nevertheless bring comfort.
A child is laughing further off, ringing the house as it runs, playing in the late spring morning. The sundress is blown about her knees by the strong southerly winds, flashes of marigold mingling with the bronze of tan legs. The child stops, breathless, teeth playing white as milk in the bright air. The old man shifts and shades his eyes with a dirt covered hand, smiling at the sight.
A voice calls, a woman, and the child runs away. It disappears behind the house, taking with it the memory. The garden fades and the slap of linen. There is only sand.
If anything is eternal in this moment, it must be the sky. It spans a full panorama of unbroken blue. It is almost as though, when gazed out upon, that it is a great, unyielding ocean. The desert is a mere grain of sand when compared to this expanse of heaven. Vertigo is a real danger, with skies like this. It is nothing like the sky of home, with the high mountains, sharp brown teeth biting at the low hanging tufts of clouds. It doesn’t seem as if rain is even a dream in this forsaken waste. Still, step after step, and home grows that much nearer.
At the edge of the desert, there is a great river, one that has been crossed before, but not for a great many years. An oath was made on the far side, the bank closest to home, and oath that is being broken even now. Vitriol cannot be taken back. Words of hate, once made manifest and allowed to escape, have a life of their own. They pervert and twist to their own ends, turning the most steadfast of matters into something plastic to be manipulated. But sometimes all that is left is a hate so palpable, so undeniable, that the only recourse is to give it wings. Sometimes, it is justified to vomit up violence and loathing and curses at the very motive force of the universe, so as not to let it fester and consume from within.
There may come a time, though, when the festering is forgotten and a peace has come to rest in the belly. At those times, in those circumstances, it may be possible to break such powerful curses. That isn’t to say the hate has dissipated, or that the sentiment once expressed does not still hold true, but more that a plateau has been reached, and that a life consumed by rage is found to be lacking in the essential essences that make up the very core of a human existence.
There are still nights when the dreams come, when peace is as distant a thought as home. The man in white stands before the door to the home, stoic and cold as ice hanging from the eaves on a freezing morning. His face shows an implacable calm and a fine collection of deep, though carefully applied, scars. They whorl and twist around his features, highlighting the air that hangs, always, around his frigid demeanour. The keeper of the house lies prone, bleeding, at the feet of the man in white. Somehow, the blood stays clear of the long robes, leaving them unsullied.
The man in white is radiant, even in the firelight. The flames light his eyes, the shine of his bald pate, and the crackle of flame is not enough to drown out the screaming coming from inside the house. But focus on the man in white, the slow spread of his lips as he begins to grin. He is worse than ice, colder, something from an abyss that cannot be, will not be, named. The holy seal around his chest should tarnish, melt, anything but gleam so gold in the furtive glowing light.
When the sun rises, driving away the chill of the desert night, the dreams become just so much mist. Another night has passed, and there is another day in which to get closer to home.
That river will be no barrier. It will spread out for miles on either side, but upon approach the currents will calm. The very nature of water itself will invert, and a solid pathway will lead across and safely to the far bank. There, old vows can be forgotten, new ones forged. At this very instant the cattails wait to part, shaking in a low, cool breeze. A river this large is all but silent, no babbling over rocks, no rapids to roar through, but there is a murmur to this hush, one of anticipation. There will be a reunion, a comingling of past and future to create a new and more perfect present. The boulders that roll lazily along the unfathomable deeps know this, the fish that dart among the reeds, the fowl that hunt them, all are aware, and all are waiting.
Some, like the old man, are waiting to greet and comfort with a home unchanged these many years. Some, she whose name is God, whose name is mother, she waits beside the stone of bone and milk. She will be standing, arms outstretched, beckoning, calling. See her there, shining above that shallow depression to the east. Her words are the song of the wind, singing the way back home. They form a memorial torch, lighting the abject darkness, pushing back the demoniac horde that tears at the fragile places of the mind.
Beside her there is the younger girl. She is smiling with her teeth. She has not aged, locked in a permanent late adolesence. She is waving with the hand not interlocked with God’s own. Her hair is not scorched, her eyes are not put out. She is beautiful, more radiant than the sun could pretend. Her scent comes on the windsong, heavy with young sweat and grass stains. They can carry this burden, make it light as any feather, speed the many miles left to go before there can be any hope of restful sleep. Hold to those memories, grasping them close to the heart, and never again abandon them to violence.
Pay no mind to past battles, to moments of grief and sorrow. Feet are weary enough after long, trackless miles without the burden of trauma to weigh them still further into the shifting, shining desert. The man in white, he will always live, a victim of mercy and circumstance. But he has no place in this heart, this life. To allow his shadow to be cast over the home, over those lapis lazuli, would be an even greater, more unforgivable sin.
No, the oath will be broken, and the world will be the better for it. All that is left is to cross this limbo, and make it back to green pastures. All that is left is to make it home, and sit a while. Maybe, in the cool of the evening, when the crane sounds the setting of the summer sun, there will be time for a bath.