Echoes and the Desert
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The town on the edge of the desert is a quiet place, worn and tattered like the birds that take flight at my arrival. Greasy, black-feathered and lethargic, they fly downwind, away from the sands that pile against the eastern wall. The man who sells me canteens and dried strips of meat from a lean-to warns me of the desert with practised apathy. “The days burn and the nights freeze. Your canteens will not last you as long as you think and-”

“I know the risks,” I interject. “I have had long enough to prepare.”
He looks me up and down, seeing the wear on my clothes, the callouses on my hands at the counter, maybe the way my eyes harden.

“Be wary of the echoes,” he says, resigned, dragging my coins off the counter into his palm. “Not all of them die quietly.”

I leave the next day, mountless. The only animals that will come even this close to the desert are the birds I saw, scavengers living off the scraps the town leaves. The desert is cold that morning as the rough dirt transitions unnaturally to sand. As the light rises the edges of the dunes glow blueish, the sunlight twisted and refracted. Soon afterwards I start to see echoes, rippling through the air in fragments of lost voice. I let them drift past me. I am not here for them.

The first day and the first night are the hardest, but I adapt. I have come too far not to. The echoes cluster, numb, ripple-edged and tinny, screaming broken scraps of curses and pleas into my ears as I try to sleep. But by the morning they are gone, and I wonder what it was they echoed. A treasured conversation lost to an ageing mind? A quiet corner with forgotten significance?

The second day I see the first of the echoes I was warned of. It shudders, reverberating within itself, shivering tendrils flitting out and spearing the echoes drifting past, arming itself against fading away. I stay still long after it disappears over a dune.

On the fifth day I find what I am looking for. This far into the desert the sun glows blue and the dunes on the horizon shift back and forth, back and forth. My footprints subside inwards behind me, the desert echoing my steps in reverse. This place is the terminus, the death of things that repeat. The place at the tapering of echoes. Before me the dunes lose form, dissolving into chaos. Any further and the space around me will fall apart and shatter, and shatter, and stop. I can go no further. This has to be far enough.

I picture your face and pull on the space around me, feeling alien geometry and abstracted fear that is not mine. Then I pull on the space within me, finding something equally strange. A cold, burning sensation runs through me and I stumble and fall, but I do not stop. I do not stop. I reach deeper into the space before me, the breaking and reforming of rules and the sharp-edged space tearing at my overreaching mind. I feel the echoes rushing past, pulled in to be torn apart and stripped of meaning as I am pulled in with them. But I reach deeper. And there, fragmented, broken, I find you. Not yet gone but far past returning. I pull on the space within me, feeling my body torn apart behind me like the tearing of a letter from a lover. I pull you together, see the idea of eyes and the idea of a gaze.

“I’m sorry,” I say, feeling myself slip away, the long-rehearsed lines I ran smooth in my mind useless and meaningless. “I never said goodbye.”

You mouth something to me. An expression of understanding, of forgiveness? I cannot tell, as I fall apart with you. I wonder if I ever meant to leave this desert. If I ever meant to honour the wish you gave me, that night when you knew, for the first time, that you would not see another spring. Pleading that I would keep on living after you were gone. I do not have time to find peace in my repentance before I fade away, the echoes in my mind tapering to white noise. My last thought is of your face, under a yellow sun.

But I do not taper away. I tear myself away from that place, my body raw and battered and broken. I scramble over the dune and tumble down the other side and get up, stumbling and weak but alive and I do not stop. And that night, as I watch the blue-tinged sun touch the dunes, I see the echo of a sunrise on another horizon.

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