By Sarah Daniels
Sand is my punishment. Metered down by one of the other gods for some slight I bestowed or an imagined affair. Or a real affair. I don’t know. If I ever get free I might discover the truth.
The soles of my feet crackle against the baked earth as I walk. My skin is blackened, raw flesh visible through each crevice. When it gets crisp enough the skin will slough off in sheets and be taken by the breeze.
Beads rattle at my wrists and ankles, and send the locals to their tents in terror. Sometimes it feels like these beads are all that tether me to existence. My entourage of skinny, scrotal-skinned vultures straggle in my wake, picking at the parts of me that drop. They are a thing of horror to the humans. They cower at my passing, hide their children under blankets. Fabric would not help if I decided on violence, but I’ve no interest in human business. They think I’m a witch, or a demon. I’m nothing so petty.
Those the gods wish to destroy, they first render mad and whoever placed me here did their work well. I cannot think in this dryness. Thirst reaches the cells of my fingertips. I rattle around inside this body, leather strapped onto bones, cracked and hardened sinews. If it would rain I might remember what event placed me here. Which god is my enemy. I might regain a more fitting place.
Blood to wet the ground.
Blood to bring the rain.
But sacrifices need belief and the humans don’t have that anymore. They think I’m a witch, or a demon. I’m nothing so petty. Not a witch, nor a demon, nor anything so-
What was I saying? I cannot think in this desert.
Ah, the rain. If it would rain, if I could get a drink, I might take hold of my memories.
Sunlight warms the granite outcrop that is my resting place. Reptiles first showed me its use and I’ve crouched here every sunrise for millennia. At night the desert air snaps with cold that coils its way into my joints and I become sluggish. At daybreak I sit with the snakes and lizards on top of the rock and let my muscles unfurl in the sun.
Children fly kites below me in the valley. The toys are made to resemble great serpents; red and gold, streamers, faces monstrous and breathing fire. They’re meant to ward off the evil eye. I sway along with them, letting the breeze move me. Remembering. A rank of flags. Air sticky with jasmine pollen. A voice. Memories that are light and breathless. Memories as fickle as dreams and just as difficult to cling to.
I open my eyes and watch the humans. One of them spots me high up on the granite and they scramble to their tents, the women picking up the children, leaving the kites tangled and lifeless on the earth.
I yearn to feel the closeness of my own kind, to feel the connection of my own lineage again. My existence is irrelevant in this desert. I must find a way to go home.
There is a village, right at the edge of where I’m permitted to walk, where the old women still know me. They blink like stars in an empty sky. If I can persuade them I still have power they might help.
I make my way there, over dunes that touch the flawless sky. My outer layer shears off and the vultures pick up the scraps. Each grain of sand feels like a speck of slicing glass on my skin. My eyes haven’t held tears for a thousand years or more. Perhaps I’m getting lighter year on year. I wonder how much I can lose without flittering away.
The village has grown to a city. Huts replaced by fenestrated blocks of concrete. I find the dirt track is now a motorway with honking cars that swerve to avoid me. Insects butt sleepily against electric street lamps.
In the pool of light surrounding a petrol station a group of men loiter. They turn as one to watch me pass. The boldest of them reaches inside his clothes for a weapon and points it at my face. I sneer at his hubris and he recoils at the sight of my teeth. I’m not here for them, and if I was I still have enough power to shred their organic bodies.
This suburb was once brimming with my faithful. They would lay baskets of pomegranates at my shrine by the spring and I’d sit with my feet in the clear flowing water as they worshipped. Now the spring has been tapped and the trees used for firewood and the human belief is too threadbare to sustain me.
The houses squat in the night, cables snaking along their walls, television sets flashing through gauze curtains. The air is rancid with the smells of human life; sweat and excrement, urine. A fleshy child, only as old as a heartbeat, plays in the rivulet of filth running down the centre of the street. As I approach she drops the stick she’s been using to poke at a mummified house sparrow and makes the sign of the horn with her fingers.
I laugh and it sounds like a sandstorm.
Where’s your grandmother?
“She’s sick,” the girl says. She eyes me, keeping her fingers pointed at my face. There’s no basis for her fear. I’m not one of the wasteful gods. I don’t trade my faithful for power.
Crouching, I touch the tip of the sparrow’s wing. Its feathers shift, its beak clacks, and it takes to the air. Showering dust from its wings, it perches on the girls shoulder and preens. The girl watches it with wide moon eyes, then smiles and lets it nibble the end of her finger.
Take me to her.
Inside the house a stubble-jowled man is curled into an armchair, asleep. The television set throws deep shadows into the lines of his face. Sweat from the girls hand is a balm to the dead skin of my own.
We push through a bead curtain into a sick room. Jam jars of white anise flowers line every surface. Its spice thickens the air and masks the scent of illness. In the bed the grandmother labours with death, chest fluttering in pain. When she sees me her eyes grow round, dragging folds of skin with them. She recognizes me.
You must sacrifice to bring the rain.
The old woman’s fingers tighten around her string of beads.
“Papa says she’s about to croak,” the girl says.
I hook my index finger behind my front incisor, trying not to taste the ash of my own body. Expecting to feel the slap of blood against my tongue I yank the tooth out. There’s no blood, only the whisper of sand escaping the cavity. My dried tongue finds the gap.
My tooth glints like a jewel in the girl’s palm. Delicately, she lifts her grandmother’s head and places my tooth onto her tongue, helping her to sip water from a glass.
The old woman lets out a visceral groan before brightening with life. Blood rushes to her cheeks. “Thank you. How long will I have?”
I stare. It takes too much energy to speak.
The old woman gathers the coverlet and throws it off, setting varicosed feet into the house shoes by her bed. She shuffles out into the night. Kitchen herbs sprawl from pots around the edge of the courtyard and laundry drips from a line strung between two walls. Hens cluck anxiously as we enter, sensing, perhaps, the unusual event about to take place. They run from us on scaly feet.
“Don’t have a goat,” the old woman mumbles.
My vultures take up position around the courtyard, necks stretching expectantly.
The woman’s fast now. She grabs the slowest bird around the neck so swiftly it barely has chance to squawk. Her crooked fingers work elegantly; a twist of the neck, a swing of the knife. She holds the sacrifice by its feet. Blood splashes around her ankles, soaking her slippers.
I cup my hands beneath the flow of blood until they’re full of warmth and then I drink. Not much, maybe not enough.
Clouds thicken to black above the courtyard. When they burst they throw down a sheet of rain that washes sand and dust and blood away. I turn my eyes to the sky and let the drops fall against the crust of my retinas. It flows into my mouth. Water coats my skin and fills the crevices. Ash turns to mud. Seeds that have been dormant within the cracks for generations swell and open. Fresh green feelers curl their way out of my flesh, twisting around until I’m clothed in vegetation.
The old woman cowers in the doorway with the little girl. They watch my regeneration in awe. Flowers bloom on my surface. I pick a flesh-pink blossom and hand it to the girl. She nods her thanks and pushes the flower into her dark curls.
The storm is a flash that ends too soon. I could stand for days in the downpour. It brings relief. It brings power. I will have strength enough to rise to the home realm. I’ll learn which of my brethren caged me here in the desert and once my power is fully restored I will seek rev-
Memories return in an unbearable torrent, pain upon pain. I fall to the ground of the courtyard. My love. Her screams like the rending of the universe. Hounds sent by a jealous husband. Atom torn from atom. Jagged remnants scattered to the stars so that any hope of rebinding life was gone.
In torment I ran through the realm, begging the other gods for help to save her. My pleas were like bones in my throat, in my chest, they forced their way out and clattered onto the ground. I tore at my hair, gouged my skin with my nails. When no one could help I begged for an end to my suffering. None had the power to undo my existence, but one took pity and trapped me in the desert, hoping that madness would drown out the memory of what I’d lost.
Anguish takes hold in my core and folds outwards until I am consumed. I cannot exist without her. I drag myself out of the courtyard and through the suburban nighttime.
How many times have I called the rain?
How many times have I remembered?
This will be the last. Once death takes the old woman there’ll be no-one left to sacrifice to me. That at least is a blessing.
I find the men with guns lolling at the petrol station. My vulture entourage caws as I approach them, hopping or gliding low to the ground. Every bird is tense with expectation. The men cannot kill me, but their weapons might drown out the pain.
As I approach their eyes bulge. I can taste the adrenaline seeping from their skin. They take in my life-filled form, the agony of revulsion and attraction evident on their faces.
I march at them, unwavering. Steady. Give them time to react.
The man closest to me cries out in fear. Human urine spikes the air. I land a blow on his gut that sends him through onto a car bonnet. That is all the motivation the others need and it spurs them to action. They draw weapons and fire a burst of metal into my chest, the percussion rippling through my gut. I gasp. The holes in my chest ooze clear liquid.
As I allow myself to fall face down on the tarmac the men run. They scatter their weapons into the desert. My vultures gather to pick at the flesh on my back. It’s too fresh to be of real interest. Once the sun ripens me they’ll gorge themselves.
Liquid softens the ground around my body, taking my memories with it. Soon, I will forget and there will be no old women to help me remember. My mind drifts to my love and I let the memory of her linger at the front of my consciousness.
The girl crouches in the mud by my face. She twines the flesh-pink flower into my hair.