by Andrea Williams
The sun is directly overhead again. Another day. No shade, no features to distract your eyes, no green to vary the endless colour scheme.
No; no, Over there. Through the slits of her eyes she can make out - something different. Something that isn’t quite the unvarying colour of sand. Staying on a recognised route would have been most sensible, but maybe this could mean escape. It could be half a mile away. It could be two miles away. It could be over the horizon, out of sight, made visible only by the magic of bending light in the shimmering air. It may be rocks. Rocks might have shade, they might mark the boundary between desert and not desert. They might even, just might, mark a place where dampness could be found. Not more than a couple of days left in the water bottles.
Shuffling, dragging, crawling; step after shuffling step, she moves in that direction. The pain of her injured leg seemed to have lessened. Now it was merely excruciating. She didn’t want to look down at the spreading black flesh of her leg and foot, the angry red boundary where black flesh met red flesh. She knew she wasn’t going to survive with both legs intact. She knew about gangrene, knew it was never cured, just ‘removed.’ Each day the red boundary marched onward. But if her mirage, or rock, or spring, was really there maybe she would at least survive. She knew now that real desert is not as it is portrayed on celluloid. Driving, nay, speeding across trackless waste leads only to sand traps, a damaged leg, and no phone signal.
No-one knows what they are capable of until tested by real life. Her shuffling, agonised movements gradually reveal the dark line to be an actual rocky ridge. The end of the desert. Slowly, so slowly, the landscape beyond reveals itself as she approaches. The sand reluctantly giving way to more rock and solid looking ground. When she crawled to the top of the final rise she thought she could see a new distant line of sparse and wiry grass and scrub. That must mean water. That might mean a phone signal. She pulled out her phone and turned it on. Feeling a frisson of hope as it started up, then the now accustomed despair as it refused to show any signal. She turned it off, preserve the battery. Why expect it to work, out here in nowhere land?
After two more hours of numb effort, crawling, now dragging herself through the never ending beach of tideless sand she reached her goal of the ridge of rock. It was just that, only a ridge of rock that broached the sand. She sank onto it, conscious now that this was going to be The Place. The place that would be the last place to see her alive. The last place that she would see. The sun was losing some its fierce grilling power, settling back to a steady roasting temperature. Roasting; her mind drifted from roasting beef to baking bread. A loaf must feel like this, in a hot oven, being baked into bread, the yeast made lifeless by the heat.
She stirred, looked again at her leg. The blackness had spread, the scarlet line of battle between health and death inexorably moving toward her centre. With the cessation of movement the pain had dulled, or was it just that her brain was dulled? She lay back and dozed, or fainted, or lost consciousness, it was all the same now. A moment, or an hour, or a day later she opened her eyes. The sun had reached the horizon. The sand began giving back its stored heat, which to her confused mind meant she had became a cake on a cooling rack, feeling the rock ridges beneath her as wires. Slow air movements dispersed the smell of her rotting flesh to the wind with the dispersing heat of the day.
Her eyes closed again, the increasingly cool desert night feeling recalling the frosts of an ancient winter creeping along her body when her childhood blanket had slipped off. Jack Frost was nipping now at her toes and creeping up her body. There would be frosty ferns on the window in the morning, but surrendering to the tiredness, feeling the winter’s cold seep up and over her body was a relief. The pain of her leg had completely gone with the last of the daylight. Now there was nothing but blackness, a bottomless void that she felt herself embracing. It was a relief to stop fighting, to give herself up to the creeping cold and the blackness.
As the blackness overtook her it seemed her mothers voice was asking if the bread was ready. Fresh bread for a winters night. A bright square of white light appeared in her blackness. She fell into the welcoming darkness.