by Raj Vismere
The desert is never still.
Whether it was fire that moved it, as the stories went, the lone woman couldn’t tell. The sands rose as high as trees, shifting endlessly with every step. The world was shifting sand, and on every rise of every dune she wondered if she would make it.
The woman was strong enough to endure the hardships of home. She was cunning enough to outplay her enemies, feign this way and that, steal the upper hand. Yet the woman couldn’t take on the world of yellow ground glass which sat fat in every direction. Eventually it would best her. They had told her as much.
At night she shivered under a massive coat, praying into the wool of her backpack. The cold always reached her, and in those chattering nights she couldn’t see how the fires could be true, far less how the Strangers could exist. Each night she fell asleep counting stars, imagining they looked down on her with a great curiosity.
Time was lost. She counted nights and days but forgot the number. It became a useful habit, though her mind railed at its own treachery.
The oases had died out. The books said that there was no more water in the land ahead, only infinite sand and rivers of sweat. Sometimes she dreamed of turning to ash and disappearing into the dunes.
There were occasions when the woman questioned her mission. The old stories were incomplete and inaccurate, their logic skewed and stuttered in a language barely related to the one she knew. Assumption after hypothesis had been made, but in a thousand years not a single shred of evidence had been found, nothing et priori, nothing that could be vouched for. And yet there she was in the heart of the endless yellow, praying for a myth.
Some of those old texts said that, if she went past the ancient town called The Last Oasis, she would find giant beasts made entirely of energy. She would find these beasts by the scorches in the sand. Others were less dramatic. They said she would simply be turned around and find herself home again; that even if she walked in a straight line for a hundred days, she would only find The Last Oasis ahead, and her world beyond. Some guilty part of her preferred the latter theory.
When at last she found something, it was not a beast or The Last Oasis again, but a simple hut, nestled near a large blue pond. The clear water reminded her of the thirst and the agony, and she found herself nude and swimming, the dirt running from her body, laughing and snapping reeds like an instrument.
As she floated the short distance from bank to bank, she thought of her discovery. She was no longer thirsty, and the sand in her ears had been cleaned out. No person from her world had swam in this before – and that was a marvel – but that was not first among her thoughts. Crouched and in a world of blue green serenity she gulped and gulped and gulped. She needed water more than air.
When she remembered that she did indeed require air to live, the woman shot up through the water and rejoiced in the tinkling of the droplets back into the oasis.
A man stood on the edge of the spring.
The woman clambered back and covered her breasts, barely swallowing a startled yelp. The stranger was tense and black as marble, a crude staff hanging gnarled in his hand, long hair hanging in dirty braids.
“What are you doing here?” he asked in a tongue that was not the woman’s. She hadn’t heard his tongue spoken aloud before, but she had read it. The sounds were quite similar to how she expected.
“I am sorry,” she replied, too formally perhaps. “I lost my way and needed water.”
The man splayed his free hand. “This water is mine. You are a thief.”
“This water is the earth’s.” she snapped as quickly as a lash, forgetting her nudity. “No man can own a sea. No man can own a mountain.”
He didn’t respond. Only scrunched his eyebrows and looked down at her. The stranger was immensely muscular and looked to be quite old, though his face was marred.
“The sun is talemtara,” he said at last, though the woman didn’t understand the last word. “You will sleep the night. Dress.”
The woman hesitated a moment. He didn’t move. Her clothes were on the bank beside him. Supressing a sigh, she glided through the water, crawled up beside him, and dressed slowly, his eyes moving over her breasts and down to her groin.
When she was done, she followed the man into his hut. It was a single room of old wood and a leaf floor. A firepit and spit took the centre of the room, the roof opening reveal the blaring azure sky. It was to let smoke out, she realised, and then thought how similar he was to her people.
The man sat and the woman did the same, ever a reflection.
For a few minutes they played a game of staring, a ritual that encompassed the whole of the human spirit – supposing of course that he was human. Eventually the woman flinched away when he flexed the muscles on his hand which held the staff. The woman had no weapon. The man did, and his chest was as wide and muscled as a wilder beast.
“Talemtara is what?” she asked.
He shrugged. “Talemtara.”
They sat in silence for a little while, and she lost that game too.
“I am sorry for taking the water.”
He was still then, and his eyes – amber with emerald– focused on the ash in the firepit. “You woman are right. It is easy to forget here. Water is no man’s.”
She was puzzled. “Do you believe as me?”
“Yes, I say so.”
She bowed her head a little in deference. Her auburn hair had grown so long in her travel, and it draped over her face. She flicked it back with a little annoyance, cautioning herself against displays of weakness.
“You braid,” he said without hesitation. He reached into a sack and pulled out a strip of leather. She looked at it as she handed it to him.
“No, but you do.”
She had no choice but to take it. The style had never caught on at home. It was the way of the Oasiin, the forgotten and exiled. Still, she didn’t refuse him, binding the hair with the strip of leather. He was not a man to be denied, and if she wanted answers, she would not risk his wrath.
The man looked at her, an eyebrow raised and his lips twisted. “You are stranger?”
She nodded. “How you know?”
He smiled briefly, and then grew serious again. “Many years since I do that.”
“What…” She couldn’t find the word in Oasiin: “Laugh?”
He didn’t understand her. She showed him and he gave a single nod.
“You are funny?” he asked.
“Few say so.”
He looked on at the ash again. Ash was not used in divination here as far she knew, though faced with the man she doubted the very foundation of her knowledge.
“Your name is…?” she broke the silence again.
“Lemtau,” he revealed warily. “You?”
“Shenba,” she lied. Shenba was a character from a story about the desert. Surely the people of the desert on this side were not so different from those on her own.
“Where is Shenba from?”
“Away,” she waved her hand. “Far away.”
The man appeared to jump slightly, and his hand clenched around the staff. “West or east?” The word east was barley uttered and a ghost ran over the man’s face.
“West,” she told truthfully, wondering at the dramatic reaction. It was primal, and went deep. The man relaxed his big shoulders a little, but his intense gaze didn’t falter.
“You went through elkairenon?” He sounded respectful, but the woman didn’t have the first idea what ‘elkairenon’ meant. Her first guess was fire, but that was unfounded, based entirely off the stories she had heard about the centre of the desert being made of fire.
“I do not know elkairenon,” she said truthfully.
He gestured to the firepit. “Hole of elkairenon.”
The woman found a slight satisfaction in being right. Her hand itched to write her discoveries in her journal.
“Yes,” she replied hesitantly, the memories of her burned throat coming past, the freezing nights without any warmth at all. “I think so, yes, I passed through the fire.”
He looked at her for a long time, nodded, and then stood up. To the side of the hut was a small box made of the same wood as the walls. From it he withdrew two strange vegetables. They had a black, glossy skin with long orange roots. He put them before the woman with a crude knife.
Then he went outside.
She cut the vegetables as quickly as she could, then stood and approached the box. Beside it was the sack from earlier. Curious as to what these people owned, or perhaps only what a man living so far out of civilisation owned, she combed through his belongings.
There were more tools, including an axe and whetstone, as well as thin clothes and bits of leather. The woman drew out a long, cruel looking whip which was stained with rusty blood. She shuddered and replaced it. She dumped everything she had found back in over a thick layer of wrapped packages.
Lemtau returned a few minutes after she had resumed her prior position on the floor. In that time she slipped the knife in the back of her trousers, just in case. The man carried in a bucket of water and a bucket of twigs and deadwood.
He lit the fire and attached the bucket of water to it. Somehow the heat wasn’t unbearable in such a closed space. The woman looked up through the gap in the roof. The sky was beginning to darken. Talemtara.
The man grabbed the vegetables from the small wooden plate and plopped them in the pan. “Special time,” he said, unsure of the second word, like someone dumbing their language down.
Then he went to the box, and the woman’s heart rattled in her chest. She pretended to play with her long braid, focusing on her breath.
The man rummaged for a few moment then withdrew a few of the wrapped packages. He unrolled them in front of her and underneath were very long pieces of white meat, salted and thin.
“What meat?” she asked.
In silence they waited for the vegetables to boil, and then Lemtau emptied the water outside, returning to heat the meat in the bottom of the pan. He served her the food on the same wooden plate she had used to chop the food.
Her instincts screamed out that it was poison, but her intuition was irrational; Lemtau was waiting for her to start, and he was eating from the same pot. She ignored her suspicions and popped a bit of the soggy vegetable into her mouth. It tasted bland and chunky like potato.
They finished their meal and Lemtau whispered a prayer after they had finished; the first difference between him and the Oasiin she had met on her travels.
When he finished his prayer he looked at her with molten eyes. “If you do not go home, you will die.”
The woman lowered her fork and slowly grasped the knife tucked under her thin shirt. Lemtau’s staff glowered cruelly at his side.
“You may keep the knife,” he said standing. “Or you may come.”
As quickly as he had appeared at the oasis that day, he vanished out of the door. The woman pulled on her backpack and grasped the knife in her hand so hard that the metal began to bite into her own flesh.
The woman followed him outside.
Lemtau stood face to face with a giant cat.
It was as yellow as the sand underfoot, and as huge as a cow, but much longer and lither. He stroked a glossy tuft of brown that adorned each side of the cat’s sharp face. Then the cat turned to face her, and in its huge eyes she saw a small girl cowering with a blunt bit of metal between her fingers.
The beast licked its paw lazily, never taking its gaze from her.
“Lemtau,” she said through her dry throat. “Danger…”
“No,” he stepped forward. “It is Shenba friend. You will not die with caracal.”
The cat prowled forward and licked the woman with a rough tongue. For everything in the world, she could not swing the knife. Instead it dropped from her wet grip. The cat licked her again.
“Why Shenba die?” she asked.
Lemtau looked at her for what seemed like a millennia. He looked at her clothes and her body and her face, then said, with a perfect accent, “Because this is the true Last Oasis.”
Stunned, the woman pulled her gaze away from the cat for just a moment. “You speak my language?”
“Yes,” he walked alongside the cat, running his hand through its fur. The thing purred, and the ground trembled.
Lemtau stopped a short while away at the cat’s shoulder. “You thought you had passed through the fire. You have not. You think the town of the Last Oasis was the last you will find. It is not. My caracal will take you through the fire, stranger.”
“My name is Shenba,” she said foolishly.
“No it isn’t,” he smiled. “But it is hers.”
The cat licked her again.
“Stranger,” he took her by the forearm, and she looked at him again. “It isn’t the caracal you should fear. It is the fire ahead. Shenba will take you to the edge of the desert, but beyond that, well, there you will find the stories, and you will learn how hot the fire of the people there truly burns.”
The woman rounded on him, perking up to his level. “Who exactly am I speaking with?”
“I am the first of many tests,” he held out his staff. Red gems sat in the heart of the giant knotted head. As she took it, the gems turned white.
The man looked a little sadly at his staff. “You are the first to pass me in a long time,” he said wearily. “If you value your life, you will take my gifts and never return. If you value your soul then…”
“I know my mission,” she swallowed hard. “I know the sacrifice.”
He smiled briefly again, and passed by her.