I don't know how how I got there. One day I woke up, in the desert, with nothing but the clothes on my back. My former life, as I like to think of it now, was a blur. I remember small parts every now and then, but for the most part the past is a big fog in my mind. The more I try and think about it, the fuzzier it gets. I suppose it doesn't matter now anyway.

For days I walked in a daze. There was no water, and the only food I could find was a small package of dried beef in my pocket. I ate it all the first night. Eventually I stumbled across a small creek winding it's way through a canyon. That's where I met the old man.

At first he didn't seem to notice me, or at least he pretended not to. He was on the other side of the creek, apparently looking through the dirt and rocks for something. He was wearing camouflage pants with a safari vest and a wide brimmed hat. He had an unkempt beard and wild tangled hair struggled to be free from the confines of his hat. A small mule stood by his side, loaded with supplies. The mule looked like it had seen better days, I suspect it would become the old man's dinner before too long.

For a few hours, I sat watching him root around in the dirt. Eventually I dozed off. I awoke at dusk to find him sitting beside me, digging the dirt out of his fingernails. He had built a small fire and the smell of roasting meat was wafting through the air.

"When's the last time you ate?" he asked me.

I couldn't find the words to answer him, but he offered me a plate anyway. As I ate, I noticed the mule was nowhere in sight, but I was too hungry to care. The old man took out a hand rolled cigarette, and as I ate he began to tell me his story.

Before the world changed, he had been a school teacher in Birmingham. He taught english at a small university, and lived a happy life with his wife and children. They all died during the change, leaving him alone in a hostile and desolate world. I wasn't sure what he was talking about, but I listened in silence.

He went on for hours, though I tried I could not follow most of it. But it didn't matter, for the first time in days I had a full belly and a comforting voice to listen to. Eventually I realized he had fallen silent, looking off at the stars. It was late and the fire was almost out. He tossed me a blanket and told me to sleep, a little hint of a smile in the corner of his eyes. I thought, for a brief moment, that things would be ok now and I drifted off to sleep.

In the morning I woke up alone. There was a package of dried beef and a canteen of water nearby, but no sign of the man. I sat there most of the day, waiting for him to return, even though I knew he would not. As the sun began to set and the world began to cool, I headed west along the creek.

Sand and soot and wreckage fills the rivers and streams under the desert, and the bricks are falling in, mud brick dating back almost to old Babylon and the canals. Her sisters, silent now in their collapsed cisterns and broken channels, would have remembered, the hammered gold, the temple pegs, the offerings. Father Enki and his daughter Inanna, lapis, and holocausts made in the name of propitiating the Fertile Crescent.

Cassai does not remember, for all there has been are the springs under her land, and she loves it. Loves the skinny, mud-streaked boys wrapped in linen and hemp, squirming down ladders into the darkness, making offerings of mud brick and food. Loves the men who bring tools into the moist darkness. Loves the old men who teach the boys, who follow the men. Who die, weak and exhausted, far below, alongside her trickling currents, who widen and deepen her flow. Each and every one is an offering, sweeter to her than any Babylonian coin or burnt offering.

The stories might bring comfort now, for Cassai huddles alone, mud streaking limbs once made of water. Her face, upturned, is clad in rags stripped from dead men, from the cloth of garments centuries old, from the torn robes of centuries of engineers who have shored up her architecture. Having been given human form, it hurts to wait under the lid and to hear the howl of the wind, to wait for them to come.

She does not count time as some men do, but counts in the slowing trickle, the mud, the blocking of stream and stream flowing down her qanat. Counts in the spine that shrivels and dries, becomes brittle. Waits for the lid to raise. Her boys and her men and the elders will come, as they have for generations. The lid will come back, and the stars or the clear, piercingly blue sky will filter down, eddying across her waters. Cassai will sparkle, a watery angel dancing once again through their cities, their cisterns, in their buckets, in their camps. Miles and miles will flow to them, and she rejoices. Her eyes, grey and colorless, watch.

As the lid comes back and she raises her arms to the sky, the first shovel of cement rains down from above, choking out the blue of day under a curtain of stone.

"Nothing?" he asked, suppressing the tears from welling in his eyes.

"Not a moment of it." Her voice was hollow and quiet. "I remember the horde coming toward me. The sand kicked up by the horses; their screams as they charged across the flat. I knew I stood no chance. I held up the rune; I invoked the sacred song.... That's it."

He shook his head in disbelief. "Those who saw it, they have told us.... you became one with the desert. It lifted and surrounded you, grew around you. Your fists became the winds and the sands. You towered over the horde, crushed them. And they were swallowed up by the sands. Gone, but for a handful."

She glanced down at her hands. For a moment a sensation flashed across her memory, of another spirit sharing this body, of a vast and discorporate presence-- and then it was gone, like a forgotten dream.

The few who survived from the horde would carry the tale back to their masters; and it would spread across the lands. The village would be safe from attack for a generation, for as long as the story was remembered as what had happened, and not scoffed upon as an idle myth. Not that it mattered. The rune was gone, dissipated into the desert along with her memories of it.


Sometimes she walks out of the village and into the desert. She is unafraid. She lays down on the sand, and thinks she can hear the faint echo of the beating of a great heart; far, far beneath the sand.


265 words for BrevityQuest12

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