Zoe Reger is an emerging fiction writer from Maryland. She majored in Philosophy at the University of Maryland and served on the editing board of Stylus literary magazine. She has been published in the Indiana Voice Journal.
From the Desert
Travelling had taken its toll. It was very hard to move. The sky was a faded, grayish blue that day, and the arid ground crumbled beneath her shoes as she walked.
She hadn’t seen anything new in months.
It was midday at last. She veered to the left and took shelter under a pile of sturdy, fragmented boulders. She would rest here until evening, when she would reemerge and find the path again. It was best to travel in the cooler parts of the day. Something she learned the hard way.
Settling down, she removed a water jug from the pack she had slung across her shoulders. There was enough to last another two days; she needed to come across a clean source soon. Or rain. It hadn’t rained for a week.
Under the boulder, the water from the jug trickled into her mouth and spread the most wonderful, chilling sensation down her throat as she swallowed it. A few more gulps and she was done, the supply had to be saved.
She hadn’t expected this when she first set out. There had been no one to tell her. And when she had crossed into the desert from the hot plains that preceded it, comprising so little of her adventure, she hadn’t minded in the least.
But now, after facing the flat, dry horizon day after day for months, she was growing weary and wished for nothing more than a tree and a soft bed of grass to sleep on. The desert earth was hard and rough on her bones.
Her thoughts were drawn again to the day she started walking. She had felt pride that day. To be embarking on something new and unknown, a path she had never expected to exist.
There had been a chill in the air as she set out. She could see the air swirl as she took deep, measured breaths. The sky was cold and icy blue and it seemed to compel her forward.
Her thoughts returned once again to the shade of the boulder, she shivered, feeling the imagined cold raise hairs on the back of her neck. The sensation refreshed her, even though it wasn’t real. She had been getting only temperature extremes in the desert. The daytime was an oven and the nighttime a vast, dark freezer.
She hadn’t seen anything new in months, but nothing stayed the same. The desert was so different from anything she had experienced before. But it was the place she had stayed the longest. It seemed that the most change came in small pockets, in densely populated forests, on roads plagued with heavy traffic. But what of the barren dust? What change did that bring?
She leaned out from the shade and turned to look back at the path. It was nothing extraordinary. Just the desert. Yet even twenty yards ago was the past. Even twenty yards away was a place to which she could never return.
Having grown tired, she decided to sleep and settled back against the boulder. As she drifted off, wondering if the tiny breeze she felt on her face was real or a hopeful imagining, she began to dream. The breeze turned into a gale, and the ground turned into the sea. She was resting in the crow’s nest of a giant ship, salty ocean water sprinkling pleasantly on her face. There was a crew below, thirty men yelling into the storm at full volume. It sounded like they were calling to her.
Their voices reached her as faint cries and so it took a couple of seconds before she could understand their message.
“Jump!” They yelled, “Jump now! You must jump!”
But why? The sea was indeed rough, but the ship felt steady underneath her. The sky mirrored the dark and murky waves that churned up around the hull, but no water overwhelmed the vessel. It wasn’t sinking.
However, the crew seemed to grow impatient, “Jump!”
She stared down at them, eclipsed with confusion. There was no way she would survive a jump of such height, and the chance was too great that she would land on the deck instead of in the sea. But, testing the crew’s advice, she leaned out over the railing of the nest. She determined that if she aimed carefully, and if the ship stayed steady, she might just be able to reach the water.
So, she gave the railing a firm shake and when it did not yield, she climbed onto it, full of trepidation, and perched, ready to jump.
“Jump!” She could still hear the crew below.
Out on the railing the wind tossed her hair and the rain soaked it. She could feel a chill dripping down her back as she mused from on high. As if she were an angel contemplating its fall.
As the elements spiraled around her, she reached a steadying hand out and prepared for the jump. She would be risking her life. But for what? The crew suddenly fell silent. She didn’t look down, so she could not tell whether they were watching. Jump, she told herself.
A strong urge compelled her to follow the crew’s instructions, even though they made no sense. The ship could weather the storm, surely? Doubt caused her to shrink away and resume her position behind the railings of the crow’s nest.
And then, in a sudden, dooming second, the ship lurched. A cracking sound cut across the rage of the storm and the crow’s nest began to tremble.
She jumped to the edge of the nest and saw the crew below. All thirty men were scurrying around the deck, attempting to find the problem.
The very next moment a massive bubble burst up in the center of the ship. It sprayed water fifty feet into the air before popping with a thunderous snap and leaving a vortex in its place. The vortex, already dangerously close to the crew, widened and deepened until she could see into its depths.
Then, from the edge, something long and dark circled past, disappearing within a few seconds into the black center. Another object followed, flying straight to the bottom. She wondered what they were, but only for a second, because a third object appeared, accompanied by five or six flailing others. It was the crew. They were all being sucked in and swallowed by the sea.
Looking on in horror, she realized she was the only person aboard; the entire crew had been washed away.
Split in two, the ship was falling apart. Everything was crumbling into the swirling hole in the middle. She stared on with increasing panic, realizing she was too late. Now, even if she jumped, she would be sucked back to the ship. Either way, she would follow it to the bottom.
Resigning everything, she gripped the sides of the nest and shut her eyes. The groans of the deconstructing ship filled her ears as, drowning out the storm at last, it crashed bit by bit into the chasm of water. Then she felt the nest tumble forward and there was nothing but the blind sensations of chaos.
Her eyes flew open the second she died. The dry heat of the desert irritated her desperate throat as she gulped for air. She remembered then, and with substantial relief, where she was. Not a ship, no water.
She lay on her side with her arms splayed out, trying to clasp the ground. Sitting up, she let go two handfuls of dust then opened the water jug. Evening had almost set; the sun was low in the horizon, the temperature still warm but ready to drop off as soon as the day surrendered.
She drank with greed. Having seen water everywhere in her dream served only to increase her thirst. Once satisfied, leaving enough water to last through the next day, she picked up her supplies and left the shelter of the boulder into the night.
The dream frightened her. It was different. It felt as if something was coming for her. But she had seen nothing new in months, so she put it out of her mind. She did not allow herself to turn back so with each step she left behind a piece of the journey. This washed her with occasional sadness. Even if it did all look the same.
She was beginning to remember specific rocks, lines in the sand, even pebbles that caught her attention at the places she rested along the way.
Her purpose was to keep going forward. And long after she lost faith in the journey, she stuck to that fundamental purpose. It became an obsession; the drive to move forward decided her every action, yet she did not feel the slightest attachment to it. This puzzled her and gave her something always to think about.
That evening she walked for about an hour until coming across, unusual against the flat desert, a titanic, globular rock formation. The surface was smooth and tan, weathered by years of erosion. Though by what wind she could not fathom. On one face of the sandy formation a small ant colony paced around, carving in for shelter.
She would have lingered to examine the ants further, but a sudden urge to move on overwhelmed her. It always struck as funny how, on a journey whose end was never in sight, she felt as if she wasted time.
Another hour of walking proved to be dotted with more rock formations, all of different shapes and sizes, all looming unpredictably out of the dusk. She was veering around one when something grabbed her attention. A pool of water nestled between two of the formations was glinting in the setting sun. It attracted a small variety of insects and even a miniscule, desert bird.
She stopped to stare. Surely it was a mirage? Moving over to investigate, she found that it was in fact, not. A clear, shallow pool of water had collected between indentations in the rock.
Tempted as she was to refill her water jug, she pressed on. The pool was a refreshing sight, but it was stagnant. Perhaps there would be more water soon. She doubted it, but she didn’t care. Living in the moment did mean, after all, forgetting about the future.
The next change came within thirty minutes. A tree, skinny and brittle, clung with all of its strength to the side of a boulder. Its limbs arched over the ground, providing meager shade in the daytime, but sloping with an almost sculptural line, holding its burden with grace.
It appeared very unnatural, the way it had transformed. She had observed this tree and felt in the presence of kin. It seemed to depict all of her suffering, all that had happened so far to change her, the way her soul had bent to accommodate the harshness of the natural world. She paused only for a moment to take it in and then she moved on. There was no time.
After the tree, other forms of life started to appear. First, it was a kind of desert grass that grew in short, sandy patches. It scratched at her ankles and caused substantial irritation. By this time, the sun had finished setting and the light was gone. The air dropped in temperature until she could see her breath against it. She would miss the heat.
Soon the short grass became populated. Insects, many of the same kinds she had seen at the pool of water, jumped from the blades. Every now and then they would collide with each other, bouncing off in opposite directions, then reuniting and flying off into the dark.
Nocturnal animals started to make an appearance once the grass became thick and dense and grew in one patch across the landscape. She saw bats, owls, and even a herd of antelope as it chewed away in unison.
She walked until daybreak. It was when at last the sun had risen that her eyelids began to flicker and she decided to rest in a bed of the tall grass. It took a few seconds for her body to get comfortable on the spongy ground, but it did and she fell into a dreamless sleep.
Upon waking a few hours later, she felt a sharp heat along the side of her face. She had slept through the entire morning and well into midday. Since she was on her side, the sun had burned only part of her face. She put a hand to it and, though it was not painful, she knew by its warmth that it would be later.
All around, the grass rustled in a light breeze and the field hopped with an abundance of life. It was a sight she hadn’t yet grown used to. There was company everywhere that she never would have appreciated before her long trek in the desert.
Travelling companions could be found in long-footed hares that leapt to and fro, in honey bees that flitted past her ears, the kestrels that screeched overhead...even in the tall grass. Everything was alive, even the boulders, which were coated in moss and formed the bedrock of a thousand tiny ecosystems; all fresh to her eyes, all unfamiliar, all co-existing.
It wasn’t until late afternoon that she came across the first substantial source of water. She had walked through the hottest part of the day and was draining her drinking supply when she stepped into a stream.
Shocked by the cold, she tried to gasp, but ended up choking on the water she had been about to swallow. Then, bending over to catch her breath, she had stared herself full in the face. It was another person who stared back.
Over the past year her face had thinned, her hair grown into a long, tangled mane. Her eyes seemed different as well. The bright, innocent light that lived in them since childhood had been replaced by something more smoldering, wary.
With her own image imprinted on her thoughts, she had refilled on water and then begun to follow the stream; the confidence established that it would lead her somewhere exciting.
She wound, through the rest of the day, through a landscape that continued to change in subtle ways. The fields shortened, bushes cropped up, small trees provided shade along the bank of the stream, which widened and joined up with a river.
In the end, the river led to a cliff. She stopped to examine it. The cliff was blanketed in short, tufted grass, and delicate flowers grew along its edge. The river did not run over it, into a waterfall. Instead it curved to the right and continued on into a thick patch of woods. Light was receding at that point, so she resolved to follow the river into the woods and find a place to sleep. While turning away from the cliff, she heard someone call to her. It sounded like a man.
“You ought to jump, you know!”
She turned around, “Who are you?” Her voice came out rough and weak. She couldn’t remember when she had last spoken aloud.
The man was tall and well-groomed, “I live here. You’re supposed to jump over,” he said, gesturing toward the cliff.
She considered him for a moment and then, confused and in great desire of sleep, she waved a silent goodbye and started to move on.
“You will need to do it now. Otherwise, you never will.”
“I’m sorry?” She stopped, not looking back.
“Where are you going?”
She could think of one word, “Forward”
His pause was almost audible, “Then you need to jump. It’s the only way forward.”
It made no sense, “I’m following the river,” she said.
“Believe me, I’ve followed it. It won’t take you forward any longer,” he replied.
“I would die. How would that be going forward?” She had already decided not to listen to him; he was probably insane. Yet, she chose to humor him, if only to get away from him faster.
“How indeed. But, I don’t think you would,” he leaned out over the ledge, “Doesn’t look like it.”
Her eyes widened, “You can’t see the bottom.”
“No, you can’t. So, are you going to do it?”
She paused, thinking of a way to placate him, “Perhaps tomorrow, but tonight I am tired and I need to find a place to rest.”
“But now you are faced with a decision. This cannot wait until tomorrow!” His excited voice echoed over the cliff. The sound didn’t seem to stop; it just faded into the chasm until it was too far away to hear.
Anger overtook her tone, “Who are you?” she demanded.
“You can trust me,” he said.
She looked at the cliff, “This is a canyon, I assume?”
“What is at the bottom?”
“I don’t know. It isn’t visible.”
“Even in the day?”
“Why tell me to jump?”
“I told you, it’s the only way forward from this point on.”
“I can’t walk around the canyon?”
“How is that possible?”
“The only way forward is to jump.”
Something in her believed him; even though it made no sense. The afternoon had begun to pass and the sun was setting in the horizon. She would need to find shelter soon. Another question occurred to her,
“How do you know what you’re talking about if you haven’t jumped?”
Looking taken aback, he paused. “Well, that’s how I know. I’ve been everywhere searching for another way, but so far I haven’t found one. I know it sounds mad, but it’s what I’ve seen. And it wouldn’t take long for you to understand the same. The only way forward is to jump.”
She considered his words with weight “Aren’t you going forward?”
He spoke with a sigh, “Yes. I am.”
“How long have you lived here?” she asked.
“Years. I came here when I was young, like you,” he answered.
“And you haven’t jumped?”
“No, I haven’t.”
“Why not, if it’s the only way?”
He avoided her gaze, something in his demeanor shifted; he crossed his hands in front of him and took a deep breath. When he looked back up she caught a brief expression of shame on his face. Considering her an extra second, he said, “I will not ever do it I am afraid. I have reached my destination. Sometimes the journey ends earlier than you think, and you must come to recognize when it is time to stop walking.”
“I see,” she looked at him with dawning understanding. Was it her time to stop as well?
“I will jump one day, it won’t be off a cliff, but it will certainly involve the unknown,” he laughed, “This plunge is for you to take. That darkness down there belongs to you, not me.”
The two of them looked eye to eye for what felt like a long time. Then, with deliberation he said, “I’m going to go now. The sun is setting and I need to get back home. Choose for yourself. It really is up to you. I’m not saying that I wouldn’t enjoy the company,” He left her choice open, fading away into the forest, leaving her alone once more. The sun had almost reached the horizon. Chirps of crickets filled the atmosphere and brought on an inappropriate sense of calm. This choice was anything but ordinary.
To her his life looked stagnant, and safe. To live she would need movement, constant progression; and to attain that required a succession of risks. Long ago she had chosen to stand, to set out on her journey; now, to continue it, she had the choice to jump.
It would be the first time ever she wouldn’t see the road ahead.
Approaching the cliff side then, she secured her belongings to her back, and took in everything around her. The concentration of life had reached a peak. The land was cloaked in plants and animals. She hadn’t seen anything new in months, but from now on she would be entering the unknown. Everything would be new.
So, as the sun hit the horizon at long last, blinding her with light, she threw herself off the edge. The view was still burned into her eyes a few moments later when she met with the most wonderful darkness and the sensation of falling.
(Initially published in Indiana Voice Journal in April)