The Desert

Lika was like a diamond. Not because she sparkled or looked pretty as an ornament or anything like that, but because she had withstood years being crushed, stretched and twisted, in the intense heat, and had come out unbreakable.

And now there was only the sandy asphalt and the desert night, the clear, navy-blue sky scattered with billions upon billions of flaming balls of nuclear fusion.

Kasim lit a cigarette, and I coughed, as the dusty wind in the open window blew the smoke back into my face.

“If we break down here, it’s 300 kilometres to the nearest town, and it could be days before anyone else comes along here. Can someone just make sure we remembered to pack the water?”

He laughed. Nobody else laughed.

“Just kidding. It’s in the glovebox.”

I caught a glimpse of Lika’s face in a flash of moonlight in the window, before her head moved and was again lost in shadow. She was smiling, but it was not a smile of naivety, it was a smile that had seen just about everything there is to see. And those eyes seemed to hold secrets older than the world itself.

When we had lost Leo, she said nothing. Amid screams of terror and anguish, surrounded by gunfire, she had simply stood there, still and silent, like Shadrach, Mesach and Abednego in Babylon’s fiery furnace. When Kasim had pulled her into the car, she did not resist. She simply accepted what was happening. She let the universe carry her through, observing.

Little Andrea woke up in his mother’s lap.

“When will we be there?” He asked.

“We’ll be there soon, darling, we’ll be there soon.”

Leo was gone, which was lucky, since we wouldn’t all have fit in the car otherwise. But then, if Leo was still with us, we wouldn’t need to be here at all.

I’d seen them with him, but I’d just kept walking.

Lika said nothing. Lika always said nothing.

Kasim had finished his cigarette, and let the still-glowing butt fall from the window. A pinprick of bright red light, borne on the warm desert wind, rose and fell and curled and spiralled, as it drifted away onto the empty sand and darkness.

It was impossible to tell whether it had gone out, or simply drifted out of sight.

The road to the south still streaked on, black against black sand, straight and dark and unending.

Lika was under the bed. I was breathing heavily. The spring rain hammered on the window, running down the street, churning the sun-baked dirt of the town square into a mire of mud and filth. A lizard, escaping the rain, crawled in through a crack in the window. She ran across Leo’s unmoving, unfeeling hand, and onto his bare torso. He moved, and then was still again.

And there was the moon, cold and silent, looking out over everything. Occasionally, it lit up Andrea, sleeping in his mother’s lap. Occasionally, its light fell across Lika’s motionless face. She might not even know what she’d done. There was no way to tell.

For the first time in however many hours or days, the headlights fell on a junction. I didn’t notice which direction Kasim took. All I noticed were the crossroads. I suppose it didn’t matter. Whichever way we went, I would never know the other way.

I dragged Lika out, stood her up, looked her in the eye, whispered in her ear, and let her fall back to the ground. Leo woke up.

“When will we be there?” Andrea asked.

“We’ll be there soon, darling, we’ll be there soon.”

I hadn’t noticed before, but the door was slightly ajar. I could see a narrow strip of the peeling white paint on the wall on the opposite side of the corridor. A thin, slightly diagonal beam of sunlight cut it in two. Footsteps came down the corridor. I could tell instantly whose they were, in that way you sometimes can. There are subtleties in footfalls that you don’t even notice you notice, but they build up to tell you everything. Perhaps we’re more intelligent than we think.

Kasim’s shadow briefly blocked out the sunlight on the back wall, and he just kept on walking.

I smelled smoke in the air. Another house in the town was burning. Everyone just sat there. I just sat there, while all of someone’s worldly possessions were transformed into smoke and ash. But then, what could we do?

The wind picked up, and sand started to blow in through the open windows. We closed all except the front passenger window, where the mechanism jammed. It was no use, so we wrapped whatever cloth we could find over our mouths and noses. I used my kaffiyeh for myself, and Andrea’s blanket for Lika. The kid was asleep. He wouldn’t miss it.

Kasim loved Lika. He never let her out of his sight. But for now she was mine, in the stuffy little room, with the peeling plaster and the cracked window and the occasional cockroach or snake.

And Kasim just kept on walking.

I tied Andrea’s blanket at the back of Lika’s head, over her tangled, black hair, not that she noticed or cared, or that it would do any good. It just seemed like the right thing to do. In the process, I moved her head, she faced me, and in the moonlight, I glimpsed her still, silent face and her eye, her eyes, deep and mysterious, staring into mine. Eyes that had seen so much as to extinguish whatever youthful spark once flashed there, and that now looked at me with a sort of cold knowingness. She’d knew everything I’d done, and she knew I knew she knew everything I’d done, and she knew that I thought I knew everything she’d done, but she also knew I had no idea of anything she’d done.

That was the first time I realised that. I knew nothing of her.

“When will we be there?”

“We’ll be there soon, darling, we’ll be there soon.”

The sun began to rise over the town, as I looked out of the window and saw Leo running, running, running. I never found out what he was running from, only that he was running. I kissed Lika’s cheek, went downstairs, and ran out to meet him. Then he was lying on the bed next to me with a lizard crawling over him.

The sun began to rise over the desert, cutting, golden, through the deep blue and casting strange shadows on the sand.

Saying nothing, Kasim stopped the car, opened the door, picked up Lika, with surprising ease – she did not resist, she just let it all happen. I could have fought back, but I didn’t. Sometimes, there’s no point. Some things are just meant to happen. Some things you can’t fight, some things you shouldn’t fight.

And Kasim just kept on walking.

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