I was wearing old shoes, brown like the dust my feet tramped through. The wind was sighing around my ears, a soft symphony echoing off the lonesome Joshua trees that dotted the cracked earth. Their thick limbs out, they were awkward creatures trying desperately to catch the little moisture that the air held. Their spiny leaves stuck out for protection, daring anyone to try and take the water stored beneath their thick skin. Their roots had burst through the earth, so parched they had shriveled, opening their vaults to the heat; giving up.
I heard a magpie squawking, feathers flashing silver in the three o’clock sun, its black beak combing the ground, watching with small, dark, beady eyes for anything unlucky enough to cross its path. Looking down, I saw car tracks, slender valleys in the earth. People were here, I thought. Perhaps my relentless search was not in vain.
I kept tramping on, down the lonely road. A deep scar, a reminder that even in nature’s domain human civilization still holds its iron fist tight. I felt a bead of thirst boiling up in my throat, threatening to overtake me. A cactus came within my view, a small, young one. I broke one of the limbs off and peeled off the outer skin, supple; it had not yet learned how harsh life can be.
I had thought that it would be so easy when they said, “Get to the other side.” I had been so naive, thinking I could do the unthinkable, cross this small desert alone. I had already walked through five twilights, and the desert still cascaded on in front of me. A roiling carpet going on and on into infinity.
Darkness started to come with unexpected swiftness. It climbed up the ladder of the sky, took hold of the sun, and swallowed it. I heard rustling beside me, animals were coming out. The foxes emerged with ears almost twice the size of their heads, rusty brown fur swaying with each step, fine, like the things you might find in high-end boutiques. I heard an owl hoot in the distance, far away, coming in for the kill.
I found an old hollow in a burnt-out tree, struck years ago. It looked like twisted dreams, aged, gone sour. I saw something skittering over a rock in front of me in the waning sun. A gecko, brown with spikes upon its back. Even small insignificant creatures needed to protect themselves. I had heard about them on the television when I was little, on a show about the Wild West. I cringed under my blanket in my mother’s bed whenever I saw them, scared that they would gobble me whole. I now saw that they fit inside one of my worn-out shoes.
Settling down to sleep, the sand filling in the spaces between my toes, coating my sweaty feet, I dreamt odd snippets of dreams. They always ended right before they were done. I woke up more tired than when I had first laid down on the sand in which I was drowning.
I looked out and saw that the splatter-painted sunset of the night before had disappeared, and a softly blended sunrise had taken its place. The red and orange swirled together so that it looked as if the whole world was cracking open, coming out of its shell and being set free. I felt the cool morning dew settling on my skin, I knew this moisture would not last for long. Soon the sun would drink every last drop that we mortal animals so desperately held in our clutches and leave us with only the memory of the beads of dampness.
I started to walk again, the red rocks building up beside me, enclosing me in a natural box. Cliffs spiraled out of nowhere, rough, like something that a three-year-old would make out of a lump of clay.
I kept on walking, sweat dripping into my eyes. Heat was rolling over me, one excruciatingly slow wave at a time. I felt my whole body growing heavy, but I dragged myself on, that driving fear inside of me, pushing me onwards, fear of being forgotten, dying out here where nobody would care that I was gone. I felt the callouses on my feet rubbing against my shoes, restless jolts of pain, sharp reminders with each step as to how little resilience I had left. I had run out of water this morning. My thoughts started to blur together.
My steps were faltering, I felt I could no longer go on when I looked down and saw that the car tire tracks had grown fresher, more defined. I was getting closer to habitation. Maybe my journey was almost over and help was at hand.
A dark silhouette rose upon the horizon, a misshapen blot steadily getting closer every step I took. The blotch took on the form of a house. I saw it with a peculiar clarity—all its details are etched in my mind even now. It was the kind of house you would see in an old western film, the whitewash on the porch faded from the beating sun. It had withered away, like so much else in this barren land. There were old wooden columns supporting a cracked, pale gray roof. A few of the shingles had been lost, fallen away. They had left empty sockets, eyes, staring up at the ever-cloudless sky.
The house itself was made of sandstone, frayed away in some places. The air had warped the crumbly red rock, carving it into the faint shape of a smile echoed in the curved treads of the rocking chair that rested on the porch. Its soft wood slowly bumped, swaying in an invisible breeze. The old, loose fabric, printed with a faded pattern of running horses, was coming up off of the cushion. Billowing, it trapped air inside.
The door opened with a faint scratching noise, soft sand being thrown across the already filled porch. An old woman came out, red hair streaked with gray. It had fallen loose, glimmering across her shoulders. She was wearing a sleeveless dress, flower petals scattered on the cloth of her skirt. Strewn with a deliberate, yet carefree hand, they looked as if they were being blown, tossing and turning in a gentle summer breeze.
She said hello to me, her musical voice echoing across the vast, empty, rocky plain. Her words bounced off the red rock, rising up from the dessert floor, scaring the barely hidden magpies into flight. Their glossy black beaks and white wings fluttered up from the hot earth.
She asked me to come inside, and, dreamlike, my blistered feet started to walk.
I stepped in and saw the soft light, fluttering slowly through the creamy air. The harsh dessert sun flew in through the windows and was instantly calmed. It turned from its hot, angry self to a creature that you would want to immerse yourself in. Sit in and read forever, forget time, be happy in your little window of light. There were old armchairs scattered around the room, with permanent indents from years of habitation. Dips in the brightly colored fabric. A reminder that someone lived in that magical house.
The air smelled like cinnamon, a joyful fragrance. Like the time when I was three and threw cookie dough on the ceiling for fun. My mother came in and dread lodged itself in my throat, stopping me from breathing for a second. She picked up a bit of dough, stared at me for a moment, then threw it onto the wall herself. Laughing, saying all the while that life was so constraining and you have to remember to let it all loose sometimes, otherwise you will suffocate under the weight of it all.
After mindlessly quenching my thirst from the cool jug of water the lady hand ed to me, sensing my desperate need, and eating some of the cinnamon bread, I walked upstairs, the staircase creaking delicately underfoot, cleaving the silence. I felt the polished wood underneath my fingers, soft and silky after the days in the rough sand. I got upstairs and opened the door into my room. It led me into a space that was not large by any standards, but not small either. A perfect balance of the two. There was a small four-poster bed in the center of the room, its frame arching up to the ceiling. The walls were painted a soft blue-gray color, the color of a sky just after a rainstorm. There was a small table by the side of the bed. On it was a small glass statue of a dragon. It was sleeping with one eye open, as if proclaiming that even in sleep it would protect you from all of the evils of the outside world.
I was there for seven days, healing from the days spent walking in the harsh desert expanse, when I reluctantly decided that it was time for me to leave. It was hard to detach myself from the protection of the old lady and the cool shelter of her house. She told me that there was a town a few miles away from here and sketched a map of a shortcut that would get me there in no time. Before I left, she slipped the sleeping dragon into my pocket for luck on my journey. I hoped, in a strange way, that the dragon would protect me from the relentless sand that was slowly encroaching upon everything around me, even as I stepped outside.
I stepped outside, even though it was late in the day the sun was still burning. It glared down at the earth with a fiery passion, there was no doubt that nature was in charge. It seemed like I had been walking for hours when I felt the edges of my vision go foggy. I felt myself fall, softly hitting the loose red sand below, it flew up in a dusty cloud around me.
I awoke to the sound of voices and faces staring down at me. I looked around, I was in someone’s living room. Out the window I saw the roiling sand, an old enemy waiting patiently to make its next move. “The house,” I whispered. “I was in a house. I stayed there for seven days. An old woman lived there. She said that this town was a few miles from there.”
A soft face whispered. “We found you a few days ago, lying in the shortcut path to our town. We wondered how you had found it—very few people know of this route. It is not on any map. You had fainted, you have been drifting in and out of consciousness ever since. I have been out into the desert so many times, there are no houses out there.”
The dragon, I thought. I reached into my pocket and found it bare. I looked over at my nightstand and saw the sleeping toothy smile staring back at me. It was there, lying with its tail under its head, slowly sleeping, protecting me from the dangers of the world, just outside the window.