Nomads

By J. Duncan Wiley

This is the earth’s own oven. Molten light gathers on the sand and dances, warping the boundary between sky and the endless sea of dunes that stretches away, one petrified wave after another. It’s a sculptural landscape, timeless and unmarked, burning with hostile divinity. Surely nothing could survive here.

Yet signs of life are evident. Look close. The pinprick tracks of a mouse, the subtle swish of a lizard, the nearly invisible marks of some insect—there are a hundred hidden stories written in the sand. And also stories that are not so hidden. Crest a ridge and find a larger set of tracks left by a human. A penitent perhaps, staggering through the desert in search of God. Crest another ridge and find more tracks, those of camels and men, the trails of caravans crossing to distant cities. Keep cresting dunes and keep finding tracks, too many to count, far more than you would have guessed possible. This desert is apparently well peopled. Gradually the various tracks converge and lead toward a single point of condensed light.

A mirage?

No, an oasis. A crystalline pool framed by lush growth and a riot of particolored flowers. The surrounding sand has been churned by thousands of feet. As you draw nearer you see the water is not a modest spring but is actually a lake, and then not a lake but an ocean. The flowers become bright towels and umbrellas. The greenery belongs to gardens of resort hotels. And here are the pilgrims you’ve been tracking—the ascetics and nomads, the explorers and exiles—swimming in the water, lounging on the crowded beach.

Beneath one of the umbrellas sits a young man. Next to him a young woman lies on a white towel in the sun. She is wearing large black sunglasses and a small black bikini. Her skin glistens with sweat and sunblock. For several hours the young man has had a stubborn half-erection that is unrelated to her—or to anything as far as he can tell. It rubs without purpose. Pretending to brush his shorts he pinches the head, but the half-erection persists. He gives up on ending this particular discomfort and looks instead at the woman. What kind of salvation had they hoped to discover in this place?

It is a long time before he breaks the silence.

“Are you happy?” he finally asks.

She is perfectly still, the rise and fall of her chest almost imperceptible. He is beginning to think she’s fallen asleep. But then, without stirring, she answers, “Sure. Why not.” Her voice is bored and inflectionless. The sun’s reflected glare fills her glasses.

He doesn’t tell her that there is a pink streak on her foot, a small reddening triangle she missed when applying sunblock. Unless she moves out of the sun soon, it will likely blister. He leans back on his elbows and watches the ocean, flexing his toes in the sand.

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J. Duncan Wiley

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