The Wastes

There were very few things David feared at his tender age. The tales of the Great Mother had instilled in him the courage and foolishness to disregard fear as a coward’s tool. There was no fear in the story of Rogan the Red Faced, whose temper contained a heat so fierce it could make the ice melt. There was no hesitation in Aleouac’s fable, whose strength was so great and her warmth so intense that she pierced the sky with the tip of her spear, allowing the long-forgotten Sun to shine one last time over the war-torn clans. Such was the beauty of its light, the power of its glow, that it extinguished the fires of war in the hearts of men and rekindled the flame of kinship and unity, as everyone wept at the idiocy of war and embraced one another like brothers and sisters.

            Once, when the clan was asleep and the cave was alive with the sound of a thousand quiet breaths, David went to find the Wall of Thoughts on his own. He wanted to study the alluring shapes on its surface, rest his hand on the dents of the stone and decipher its secret meanings. But when he was crossing the Chamber of Echoes, he realised how cold and silent it was, how far away the walls were from each other and scurried out of the room, following the comforting night-whispers of the clan back to the common chamber. It was only when he was back within the warm hurdle of the clan, right before falling asleep in the hollow of his mother’s arms, that David wondered about the strange feeling that had turned his stomach into a knot and made him walk faster than he would openly admit, and it occurred to him that it might have been the beginning of something akin to fear.

It was not until he saw the Frozen Wastes, ten years after having been poured into the world from the great dark by his first mother, that David experienced fear for the first time in his life. As soon as he set foot on the unfamiliar hardness of the icy surface, his first impulse was to run. Run back to the cave, away from the unnatural cold that bit through his furs and plunged its fangs into its confused skin, back to the embracing comfort of the clan. But when he saw James standing tall right behind him like an impassable wall, David understood that there was no way back. Turning his head towards the impossible vastness that were the Wastes, he felt the sudden urge to drop to the ground, to find the deepest crack on the ice and bury himself there.

Yet, David turned his back towards his first father and faced the Wastes.

Up until that moment, his world had been composed of several shades of brown and grey and many gradients between hard, soft and harsh. His hands knew of the smoothness of the cave walls, of the rough patches and odd dents in the Wall of Thoughts. There was a lifetime of touch and warmth beneath his skin, a layered universe of sensations and stimuli that told him who he was and where he belonged to. He was David, one of the Oikumen, inheritors of the Ice and the Earth, and the cave was his home. For as long as he could remember, that thought had been the pillar that held his mind together, the fundamental truth around which the walls of his inner cave had grown and expanded with thoughts and secrets of his own making, as he listened to the stories of the Great Mother and learnt from his mothers and fathers.

When David stepped into the Wastes, the pillar broke. There was no audible crack or sudden collapse, no broken stone or shattered walls. His mind remained structurally intact, yet something had changed. “The world is a cave without walls”, Janira used to say. He had always dismissed the thought as a quaint saying from the stories of old, because how could one even imagine such a thing? But as his eyes failed to process the surreal landscape before them, the small thing that had slipped into the stony chambers of his mind-cave became suddenly noticeable. There was a new echo within the halls of his cave, something subtle, lighter than a whisper. Yet, when David tried to listen to what it was saying, he could hear nothing. Nothing. That was it. The world was not a cave. It might have been long ago, but the only thing that now remained was an endlessly stretching space filled with the thresholds of bending arches long extinct and the hungry hollows of forgotten chambers left behind by walls turned to dust. Nothing. And it was now within him. Like the whispers of the Great Mother, this unfamiliar presence carried with it a story of its own. But the portrait it painted was not of great deeds and wise parables. As this new story told itself, it borrowed the walls within his mind cave, eating away at the ones that were already there. Eating away at him and all the names that came before him.

When David finally understood, it was already too late. He tried to cling to the names of the great warriors of old, to invoke the warmth of the clan with the secret words that he had learnt from the Wall of Thoughts. But as he tried to recall the faces of those he loved, he found that they were leaving him, as were their names and all that had come with them, until the cold filled everything he was and the only thing that was left for him was the frozen white of the eternal Wastes.

It was the voice of his father that brought him back. As soon as he felt James’s hand on his shoulder, David remembered. Through the spiteful cold and the monstrous stillness of the Wastes, through the thick furs and the old leather of his lamellar armour, David felt the warmth of all his brothers and sisters, as if the hand of his father carried not only its own weight and meaning, but also the fierce determination of Rogan’s temper and the flaming strength of Aleouac’s courage.

Thus, David took a step into the Wastes and then another, as the warmth exiled the cold from his body, as the names and faces of the clan flooded back to the halls of his mind. Yet, somewhere within the depths of his mind-cave, a wall remained to be claimed. It was a wall not unlike the rest, as it also told a story. Or rather, the beginning of one. It was the story of nothing. And it would stay with him for the rest of his life.

Life in Four Acts

(A short account)

I. Irruption/Interruption

          a stone breaks the surface

          a spear frees the content

          the figure on the threshold confirms

          a mirrored world

II. Memories of Breathing

cavities expand through time

in chained echoes

propelling

the history of air

III. The Separation Principle

deaf to each other

an accumulation of voices

converse

in deceptively convincing patterns

IV. A Process of Longing Unfulfilled

the air aches

to touch the air

but nothing moves

in the country without wind

 

(meanwhile                           

  )

Entry nº 1 – The Expanse

This is my first entry in a diary I never intended to write. They say it’s mandatory to carry an accurate record of my journey in case anything happens to me… but that’s just bullshit. If something goes wrong I will be torn to pieces and the sand will carry my screams away to nowhere. No, I know exactly why I’m writing this, and it has nothing to do with any kind of recovery task. They think keeping track of my thoughts will help me to keep madness at bay. Well, I hope it does.

            It’s been less than an hour since I lost contact with Clarity and, as I lay here on this hard rock watching the empty barren before me, I can already feel the pressure of the Expanse making its way to my thoughts. It’s difficult to put it down in words. I’ve tried to explain the feeling to my friends back at Clarity many times, but until now I’ve been unable to express how is it to be here, alone, in the middle of nowhere, with just the blackness of the sky and a bunch of stars to talk to. And the voice. The voice that speaks but says nothing, and endless stream of words constantly flowing through the air, the sand, my thoughts. Oh, I could make it stop, of course. That’s the first lesson we dustwalkers learn. But how would I find the way then? How would I know where to go in this white waste that is the Expanse?

Never mind.

“The Expanse has its ways.”

I wonder, where must Marcus be right now?

Never mind.

I’d better start walking if I want to reach the Safe before dawn breaks.

And believe me, I surely do.

 ◊

            I need a rest. The trail is getting weaker now, so I guess Clarity is already far behind, although I can’t know for sure. Here in the Expanse time and distance are foreign concepts, its meaning diluted by the overwhelming whiteness of the sands. Sometimes I have the feeling that the world has come to an end and I’ve been left alone to wander aimlessly in this ever stretching dessert of silence. At times, when the trail gets weaker and dawn is about to break, I feel as if my past was just an illusion and all my memories were but the feeble attempt of an exhausted mind to keep itself alive.

            And then, when I’m almost sure that the world is made of dust and sand, when I’m about to give myself up to the Expanse, a memory hits me right out of the blue. Marcus is just there, in front of the Pillar, shadow upon shadow, his hand open waiting for mine. He says nothing, he does nothing, he just stands there, motionless, as if he wanted me not to notice him. I know something is wrong because Marcus is too short and I am too small, but it doesn’t matter because the Pillar is there embracing us both with its all-reaching shadow. I know that memory is not real, I know it never happened that way, but for some reason I can’t explain, I know that as long as I remain under its shadow the Pillar will protect me.

            I still remember the first time I saw the Pillar.

            I thought I was going to die. The duststorm had been going on for days and I was alone and afraid. Mum and dad had been caught in the outside when everything started. I called their names aloud until my voice was no longer a voice and when nobody came, I knew they were dead. For days I would feed on what little food we kept at home, sleeping the hours I could not weep, always wishing mum and dad to never come back. For days I heard the storm scream, sweeping the sand in whirlwinds of fury and madness. Sometimes, when I was too tired to cry and too awake to sleep, I would pray to the storm and the sand, begging them not to bring my parents back, begging the dust to keep them dead.

            And then, Marcus found me. I don’t remember very well what happened later, but I remember the storm shrieking all around, a pair of strong arms holding me against a chest, dusty figures amidst the rage of sand, cries and howls, vanishing, fainting, fading…

            Some days later, when I woke up at Clarity, I was told by a serious man and a pleasing doctor that my settlement had been swept by a duststorm (one of the most intense they had ever seen) and that my parents were dead (they were sorry) and that I would have to stay there with people I didn’t know and people that didn’t know me (but everything was well and everyone was sorry).

            I didn’t cry. I guess I had wept all my tears in the duststorm. I didn’t feel sorry for mum and dad. They were dead but that was nice, because now they would never return and would always rest. I guess the storm had listened to my prayers after all.

            After that, they let me out of the room but I was to stay in the building and not to go outside because I was not well yet, although I could walk and I felt fine. For two days I wandered the building and I soon discovered that it was a kind of hospital. There were rooms filled with beds and people. Some slept and breathed slowly, their arms and mouths connected to metal cables and wires. Those rooms were lonely and scary, so I didn’t come back. Once, I stumbled upon one of the survivor kids from my settlement and we didn’t know what to say. We didn’t know each other nor hadn’t seen the other before, so we soon departed ways and kept exploring on our own.

            After two days, Marcus came. I had been wandering the whole day and I was tired and a little bit afraid. (I had mistakenly come back to the room filled with people and cables and wires. There were more people this time, with more wires protruding from places where there should only be skin. But this time they were not breathing. Their chests didn’t move and their skin was pale, too pale, so I feared and ran and ran and ran until I saw their chests no more and the fear passed). The doctor was standing at the door, talking to some stranger I hadn’t seen before. None of them noticed me so I stood there, quiet, silent, amazed by the strangeness of that person I didn’t know. They kept on talking until the doctor noticed me and introduced me to the tall person. He didn’t smile, but he didn’t frown. He just bent down, looked at my eyes and said that I was to go with him, that I had been alone for too long a time but that I needed not fear anymore, because now he was there and I would be alone no more. At that moment, I didn’t understand him, but his words carried a message no ordinary voice could have carried. It said “the storm will pass, all will be well, all will be well, you are safe now”.

           And then I cried. I remembered mum and dad and the storm, I remember calling their names to a storm that would not listen and I remembered the sand and the dust and the rage and I cried until I felt I could cry no more.

            Marcus said nothing. He stood there, looking at me with eyes unmoved. Then, he lent me his hand and I took it and we both walked out of that place.

            The sun blinded my eyes as soon as we stepped out of the building. It was daytime and people were walking on the streets as if it was dark and the stars shone. Immediately, I felt the need to turn and go back to that building, where the sun was not to be seen and the windows were only tiny holes in walls of concrete. I let Marcus go, but he didn’t stop. He just kept walking down the street, as if he hadn’t noticed the tiny hand slipping of his grasp. But his hand was still open. I looked back at the ugly building for the last time and I ran back to Marcus and his hand and suddenly I felt that everything was well and there was nothing to fear.

            At first, I didn’t notice the Pillar. We just walked on the streets, watching people pass by, unnoticed by a crowd too busy to notice anything but themselves. They wore their arms unprotected, their heads uncovered, as if they didn’t fear the dust could crawl up their skins at any moment. And suddenly, I noticed something. That place was clean. The air was fresh. The whole city smelled differently. While I was trying to identify what that smell was, we arrived at a round and huge square surrounded by tall buildings casting their shadows all over the place.

            Marcus stopped and looked at me. He didn’t say anything, he just raised his hand and pointed at the Pillar. It rested in the middle of the square, towering the crowd, the buildings, the city, impossibly tall, overwhelmingly huge. My heart stopped for a second, and then I understood Marcus’s words. I closed my eyes and I heard. It was more hum than voice, a faint tune, whispering and reassuring. Suddenly, I felt warm and well and I knew that as long as the Pillar stood there, nothing bad would happen to me, or the crowd, or the city.

            Marcus let my hand go.

            I opened my eyes, eager to tell him that now I understood, that I had heard the voice and that everything was well.

            The last thing I remember is Marcus blending with the crowd under a raging sun and a foreign sky above my head.

            Dawn is about to break. The stars have begun to blend with the faint light of morning and the night has started to surrender the sky. I’d better start moving again. I don’t want to see the sun.

“The Expanse has its ways.”

I wonder, where must Marcus be right now?

Never mind.