Cracked, parched earth, like the tiles of a tortoise shell split in the silt and sand. It extends out into infinity, barren and blank, unwritten but bleak and desolate. Each step sends up a cloud of dust, an expanding reminder of this solitude, this isolation. It separates until the individual particles no longer catch the light, drop back to the mass from which they’d been lifted.
His feet drag, his shins cry out and his thighs ache, hips protesting even a single shift further. He tries to block them out, to force them on, leans forward. “If you don’t catch me,” he tells them, “I’ll fall.” He feels his own weight, the sensation of gravity gripping him, an eternity spent bending toward falling, just waiting for the moment, the instant, at which the legs relent and move.
The impact is sudden; the earth is hot, shriveled under the sun’s gaze. It seeps into his cheek, through the rags wrapped around him and into his stomach, his chest, his heart. Something churns within him, coils his intestines around themselves until they’re knotted and taut, bladder screaming for release.
Cool breeze, wind pushing rain into his eyes, droplets of water breaking against the weathered flesh of his face. White powder, almost forgotten, from years long past. It coats the ground in an unbroken blanket, a pure and virginal sheet of cold crystals, ever descending from the sky. He extends a hand, palm up, snow melting into his calluses, liquid following their winding runnels before bursting into steam, evaporating upon red skin, blood boiling beneath the surface.
His eyes flutter open, reluctant to face even the dim light of a candle, cool sky visible through small gaps in the fabric of the tent. Two shapes, indistinct, murmur in barely audible voices dulled by a constant ringing in his ears. One shrinks and disappears from sight, but the other bends toward him and removes something from his forehead, places a second object—long and pale—in its place, garnering immediate relief. The shape speaks and the words are almost there, almost familiar in pattern and shape, just barely beyond his grasp, but the voice has the unmistakable tone and cadence of a woman. His chest rises and falls, each breath dry and haggard; she puts the edge of a dish to his lips and tips it toward him, the coldest water he has ever tasted washing over his tongue and running down his throat as he swallows greedily, smooth and sweet in texture and flavor. Her fingers trace cool lines over his face and the muscles under the surface relax, his breathing slows. She speaks again and stands, walks out of sight. He hears the flap of the tent shift and then silence, only the night breeze whistling through holes in the tent’s roof.