The Shifting Sands

 /   /  By Emma Birches
Stone Soup Magazine
November/December 2005

By Gus Ruchman, Illustrated by Noel Lunceford

“Jaidev,” his mother whispered to him, as he ran into her arms. “How was your day?”

“Good!” he answered vigorously, as they gave each other their ritual hug and kiss. “And the weekend is finally here!” He bounced around with the energy of a rabbit. But happiness is temporary, and is often struck down.

Jaidev was a young boy of about eleven living in India. He belonged to the sizable Muslim minority and lived with his two parents and his brother, Tarang. They lived in a small, mostly Muslim community on the coast of India. They were not in poverty, but neither was Jaidev’s family bathing in priceless gems. However, regardless of their social status, they enjoyed a content life, by being faithful to the Holy Koran and finding strength in Allah, and living as a close and loving family.

When they returned home Father had not yet returned from his busy work day, and Tarang was still over at a friend’s house. Jaidev helped his mother to begin preparing for the evening meal. They organized the spices and counted the eggs. They measured the milk and the water just perfectly. Jaidev’s mouth was watering by the time they got out the curry.

A little later, Father returned home with Tarang trotting behind him. Tarang was fourteen years old and was sometimes rebellious, sometimes calm. One day he would yell and scream and not agree with anything, and the next day he would just sit and listen like an awakening bird.

The family sat down to the delicious meal that Jaidev and Mother had strained all afternoon to create. The fumes of the curried chicken wafted throughout the house, engulfing and seducing all who came near.

After eating, the children and the adults split. Jaidev and Tarang strode off to the bedroom they shared, while Mother and Father cleaned up in the kitchen and then went off to their room. Little by little, the house subsided into sleep, and night crept with its ominous inky blackness over India and the world.

*          *          *

Dawn awoke with brilliant light over the ocean, but it served only as mockery of the dangers of the waters. Jaidev and Tarang woke up at sunrise to go out and play on the sand and swim in the salty ocean. They told their mother and father, who were still quite sleepy and just nodded their heads before going back into the bliss of their unconsciousness only moments later.

The two brothers raced and wrestled in the pale morning sun. The grains of sand moved in a rhythmic dance with the feet of Jaidev and Tarang as they played for hours on end. Beads of sweat began to form on their bodies, pouring down into the soft meadow of dunes. The heat became too much to bear.

“Watch this,” Tarang called out to Jaidev.

Tarang turned toward the ocean and began to run. He became a blur, then a streak, and then he dove, head first, into the refreshing, cool water.

“Come on, Jaidev,” he shouted playfully. He stood up and then let himself fall backward with a splash. The water engulfed him innocently. “It feels so good!” he taunted.

Jaidev smiled back. He began to gallop like a madman and was about ten yards away from the ocean when he heard a scream.

Time slowed. Then time stopped. The ocean curled up and became a lasso. It ensnared Tarang and tugged. Tarang disappeared under the water.

The Shifting Sands boy looking at a huge wave

The ocean curled up and became a lasso

Jaidev halted at the tip of the white foam. “Tarang?” he shrilly shouted. The only response came from the gulls up above, chuckling rudely to themselves. He shouted again. This time the ocean responded.

The waves and the salt and the currents and the water became one mass of energy. They sharply receded into the depths, in the blink of an eye. What lay before Jaidev was one hundred yards of empty desert where the sea and his brother had just been.

“Tarang?” he whispered, this time in a choked voice and so softly, that the gulls did not laugh, for they did not hear him.

Jaidev just watched, in amazement, in shock, in awe, at the barrenness of the stretch where life had been only moments earlier. There were clams and fish and other strange creatures that were left behind. Why couldn’t they have been claimed back into their watery homes and Tarang been left on the beach laughing and rolling as they had been only minutes, no, seconds ago? Or was it minutes? Time had become distorted in such a way that Jaidev had no perspective anymore. He had nothing to compare time with. Had it been five seconds since the disaster? Had it been fifteen minutes? He did not know.

Jaidev was oblivious to any danger that could still be coming. He very gently plopped himself down in the sand, and prayed. He prayed to Allah that Tarang would come back. Then he thought. He thought about the ocean and the birds. He thought about the sand and curried chicken and Mother and Father. He thought about the wind and the sun and the terrible thunder that shattered the air when lightning fell from the sky. And then he opened his eyes. He realized that he had to run back home to tell his parents about Tarang’s disappearance. His toes hugged the sand as he turned around. He walked, and then he began to sprint. He ran to the house, but as he got there, he saw Mother and Father sprinting out the door.

Why are they running too? he thought.

Jaidev spun around. The sea was in a fury, rampaging up the beach toward their small community He began to run faster than he had ever run before. His legs stretched and his feet flew in a constantly hastening tempo.

Don’t look back, don’t look back, don’t look back, he thought. He caught that thought, killing one single mosquito out of an entire cloud of them. The other million mosquitoes were random thoughts racing through his head but having no effect on his condition.

Jaidev no longer saw Mother and Father. He had been running blindly and had somehow lost them. He fought not to look back, but he didn’t need to. He could hear the raging ocean flinging forward tons upon tons of torn-up trees, cars, and dirt. He felt like a deer being followed by a hunter. Death was closing in, and there was nothing he could do to stop it.

Jaidev’s legs were tiring, but they kept going faster and faster. His lungs were only breathing in, without time to exhale, and he was sure that at any given moment his heart would pop. The ground no longer existed, and the terrible beast pursuing Jaidev was ready to pounce.

The earth was dancing. The trees swayed and bowed as if to pay homage to an all-powerful master. The dirt jumped and the pebbles rolled. Jaidev ran over this grand finale and into the mosque, the sturdiest building in the entire town. He ran through the building and climbed onto the roof, where he watched as the wall of water mercilessly pounded the walls. Thick stones took the impact and protected the holy sanctuary of God, where Jaidev remained, sitting on the roof.

Mother and Father are dead. Tarang is dead. I too will die soon. Jaidev let out a savage wail, which echoed silently throughout the rest of the day Tears rolled down his face and then poured onto his cut, bruised, bare feet. He looked around. Everything was swaying left and right. Fog filled his vision. The fog turned a deadly black. Jaidev slumped over, and fainted.

*          *          *

When Jaidev’s eyes slowly opened, his entire body ached.

“Ah!” he shouted in surprise. He was looking into the eyes of a man who looked in his late fifties.

“Lie back down,” said the man in a soft, soothing voice. “You need your strength. Now tell me, what is your name?”

Jaidev let out a breath. “Jaidev,” he whispered.

“Oh,” the man said as if it gave him a small amount of comfort. “It means god of victory I think that you can learn a lot about a person through his name. I hope yours is reflective of you!”

Jaidev strained his muscles. “Who are you?”

The man took a moment. “I,” he paused, “am Taran. It means raft. Over the past few days, I’ve been tending to you. Maybe I’m your life raft.”

“Thank you,” Jaidev said gratefully “I had a brother named Tarang. He was swallowed by the sea before the waves came. Tarang means wave. I prayed for him to return and he did, I think. He returned to me in his true form.”

Jaidev sat up. Below him lay a wasteland. Where his beloved town had been, there were now miles upon miles of mud and debris. The only structure still standing was the mosque upon which he was sitting. The trauma of it seized him. He fell back into Taran.

“Did . . .” Jaidev began.

” . . . your parents did not make it,” Taran interrupted. Pain spread across his face, and his eyebrows sagged.

“I will go pray for them,” Jaidev replied. It was the only thing that he knew how to say. “Please honor them, and pray with me.

“I . . .”

“. . . please!”

An awkward silence fell between them.

“I am Hindu. But let there be peace between us.” The air came to a screeching halt. “If we want to live, we both must live. Neither one of us can make it alone. We must stay at each other’s side until a better day comes.” He let the words sink in.

Still Jaidev did not speak. The eleven-year-old suddenly looked a man of many years. “Fine, I will teach you how to pray in a mosque.” Jaidev’s strength had returned. He rose, and walked through the barren mosque. Taran followed him.

*          *          *

For two days, they prayed, for there was nothing else to do. They had no food and no water. And slowly, reality began to sink in. Mother and Father were dead, and Tarang was with them. Jaidev screamed at night. He shouted out that it was his fault, that he had asked Allah for Tarang to come back to them. He became more and more derelict and depressed and only found strength in spiritual prayer.

The fifth day after the wave had hit, the sun was bright as though the ground were full of green trees and life, a sick parody of the true wasteland. Taran and Jaidev were both on the verge of starvation. The only food that they had eaten had been a few small pieces of fruit. They had been sweet and full of juice, and left both Taran and Jaidev craving more. While in the earliest of the morning prayer sessions, the chatter and whir of machinery stirred the blue sky. Jaidev raised his eyes. He saw a helicopter alighting on the nearby mud flats. He ran over to Taran with excitement gleaming in his eyes for the first time since the catastrophe.

“Taran!” he shouted. “Taran! Come quickly. Help has arrived.”

They ran toward the helicopter as if it were a divine spirit; they knew that it was good, and they were excited, but at the same time, they were afraid of such a mighty thing. As they drew closer, more and more people came into view. Survivors had come from every corner of the wreckage with the hope of salvation. The blades of the chopper became louder and more terrible, and the downdraft was like an echo of the wave itself Jaidev managed to work his way into the crowd and grab a box of supplies that was lying on the ground.

The Shifting Sands helicopter approcahing

They ran toward the helicopter as if it were a divine spirit

“Taran,” he yelled, “Taran, I’ve got one!”

They began to run out of the mob scene and back to the safety of the mosque. Their weakness no longer mattered to them as they ran like giddy schoolboys back to their shelter. Upon reaching the holy walls, they saw the helicopter ascend into the sky and the mass of starving, rundown people disperse.

“We must thank Allah,” said Jaidev, sounding grateful and trying to hide his euphoria. He ran inside without waiting for Taran in order to offer a quick prayer before seeing what nourishment this box of hope contained.

Jaidev was on his knees with his face pressed to the ground when he heard a yell that wasn’t quite a yell, but more of a sudden drawing in of breath. There was a pounding noise, and then silence. He jumped up, breaking his spiritual bond, and ran outside. The holy walls of the mosque had been tainted with human life. Blood ran fresh on the ground, smothering the earth. In the middle of the pool lay Taran, slumped over and almost dead. About one hundred yards away, running across the desolate plain, was a burly, bearded man, his hands stained with blood, and in those hands, the brown package that contained life.

“Jaidev,” Taran whispered, “I am dying. Listen to me. Plead, beg, do whatever it takes, but get on the next helicopter. And as my last wish, bury me facing Mecca, although I am a Hindu. We must live together, and I will show this bond for the rest of eternity.”

“No! You can’t die. It could be weeks until the next . . .” The tears overtook Jaidev even more than when his family had died. That had all been a dream, but this was real. It was real like the blood that spilled before him, it was real like the man he had come to love, and it was real like the sound of the wheezing that reached his ears that had become sore with tragedy.

“You must have faith. It’s the only thing that you still have. It’s the only thing that nobody can ever take away from you.” Taran began hacking and coughing up blood. His bruised eye twitched. “Be your name. Be a god of victory. Bring light to a dark place. Bring . . .” His voice faded. His eyes closed. His face, frozen in cold sweat, became a statue. The life fled his body, as if running from another massive wave. Taran did not move, and he did not breathe.

Jaidev’s face fell into the bloody mangled mess of limbs and hair and compassion, and his tears, salty like the sea, cleansed the body. He buried Taran where he lay, outside the walls of a mosque, the only standing structure in the middle of a sea of emptiness. The mosque stood like a beacon of light, in a pit of blackness, but now, it too had its sorrows. Jaidev said prayers over the grave and made sure that Taran’s soul and body were safe.

Then he ran out to the shore that had caused so much grief. He fell to his knees and let out a savage scream. His body went limp from exhaustion, and he collapsed in the sand.

*          *          *

Two days later, Jaidev still was on the beach, unconscious. His eyes opened briefly, and he saw the sun get blotted out. The fateful sound of helicopter blades rang in his ears. The feel of the downdraft leapt onto his face as another helicopter landed not more than fifteen yards away. Jaidev struggled to lift himself but found that all life had left his body. He rolled over onto his stomach and, in a last effort, shouted, “U-S-A,” three letters that he recognized from his English textbook in school, that were painted in a bold red, white, and blue flag on the side of the aircraft.

A thin man with pale skin, wearing aviator glasses and a dark brown uniform, looked up. His buzz-cut, dirty-blond hair shimmered like the grass that no longer existed on the forsaken coastline. Jaidev’s body imploded on itself and lay still. He saw the man’s lips move and then saw sand fly up into the air, as a boot landed on the beach. The man lifted the limp heap that was Jaidev like a rag doll, and brought him into the helicopter.

Seconds later, the ground fell away, and water was pouring into Jaidev’s mouth. He looked at the window of the mosque one last time, and thought of Taran. His body would lie there always, facing west toward Mecca. Jaidev then realized something. His mind flashed a picture of a sunset and a picture of Taran. Taran was facing toward the end of the sun, when light ebbs and disappears.

But the light doesn’t disappear, he thought. It goes out of view. It’s somewhere else, fighting other darkness. And then it returns. Dawn always returns.

And far down below, the people watched the shadow of the helicopter, while their feet stood in the shifting sands and the innocent waves.

The Shifting Sands Gus Ruchman

Gus Ruchman, 12
Cos Cob, Connecticut

The Shifting Sands Noel lunceford

Noel lunceford, 12
Grandview, Missouri

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