The Singing Dunes
Mark had wandered away from the hotel last night when he was drunk, and now he was going to die for it. He had been fortunate to find this mound of rocks and clumped, whiskery branches, which provided him with just enough shade to stay out of the furnace of the sand. But he had nothing to eat and no water available, and he had walked for two hours through the dawn and early morning, and it must have been the wrong direction. Jesus, even in the shade it was hot – out there on the sand, with the heat wavering and no wind he could feel… for now he was alive, that was enough. He had to remain positive, and calm. But Mark was not a positive person in temperment, and there was little to be perky about here. “I always think the best thing is going to happen to me,” an ex-girlfriend of his had been fond of saying, and he’d refrained from pointing out that she was dating him. And then she was engaged to a rich and cheerful friend of a friend of a friend, and she wished him nothing but the best, which she was sure would happen to him. “Wish you were here, Marcie,” he whispered. God, his lips were so dry.
No, he wished her well. She had two children now, and they were all probably playing – Mommy and Daddy and Pookie and Wookie – in a big blue pool of cool, cool water. But she deserved to be happy, one of the few people who did deserve happiness. If you could deserve happiness..
It was past noon now, and in a few hours Mark would at least be able to stretch out in the shade. Right now, he was pressed into the base of a rocky overhang, with perhaps six inches of shade in front of him. All that shimmering heat. He turned around, groaning, stiff, and closed his eyes. He needed to get to sleep now, and travel at night. That was his best chance. But you couldn’t sleep in this heat – although it wasn’t much like being awake in this state, his mind leeched of moisture and thought, a dull headache tight as a fist inside his skull. Brief spasms of thought were broken by brief periods of thoughtlessness, staring at the inside of his eyelids. What wasn’t brief was the day, this string of thoughts and near-emptiness that went on forever.
His tongue was thick, and he sucked at it periodically, which produced a momentary satisfaction. The taste in his mouth, though, was awful. A moldy towel might taste like this, Mark thought.
He drifted in and out of sleep, which broke up the day – although once, he woke twitching, convinced there was something crawling down his back. He rolled out under the hammering sun and rubbed his back against the sand, then sprang up and tore off his shirt and shook it out. Nothing fell out of it, and he examined it, inside and out, until the heat on his skin forced him back into shade. The sand abraded his skin, but he would not put the shirt on again.
Somehow, the day turned into dusk, and the dusk into evening, and the evening into night, and he bathed in the cool and considered what he should do next. He scanned around the horizon for some sign of light from the resort – however far he had wandered, that should have been visible. He climbed to the top of four dunes, roughly north, south, east and west, which he’d been able to determine from the sunset. Nothing but more dunes. He didn’t see any other rock outcropping, and realized how lucky he had been to stumble across this one. He should be dead, and probably would die. His mother would have nothing to bury, and have no idea of where Mark had gone to: her only son would simply have vanished. He laughed – they would probably assume he had drowned in the ocean.
When the bird fell onto the sand in front of him, five feet away, he almost ran. Then he paused, and laughed, and moved closer: it was a seagull, and was as dead as the sand itself. He looked above him, fearful, for what had killed it, but could see nothing. It was a cloudless night, showing no chance of rain. But the thing in front of him was moist.
Mark tore the bird apart and forced the meat down, avoiding the internal organs, but licking the blood from his fingers and arms, and almost immediately his headache went away, and he felt stronger. And queasy. But he willed himself to keep the meal down.
He had seen seagulls far enough away from any water to know that he could still be far from the ocean. He wished he had seen which way it had been flying…. No, it could have been going toward or away from the water, that wouldn’t have helped. Although sooner, rather than later, he was going to have to make a guess as to the right direction, and follow it, and hope that at least he came across a water source. He felt as if there were a small possibility he might live. He debated striking out that night, but he wasn’t sure he would find another shelter, or find his was back here. Best to stay put for another day? He hoped so.
He felt justified in his choice when he found some small moist leaves on the branches that clutched at his shelter. They tasted terrible, but he forced them down. If they were poisonous, at least it was over, and he needed moisture.
He ventured once more to the top of a dune, and saw another bush which had sprung up in the night – or had he missed this. He chewed the leaves, which tasted worse, and found himself humming softly, then was suddenly frightened that he might not be able to find his way back to the rocks, and scurried back over the dune to his temporary home.
During the night he found that moisture formed on the leaves and branches, and he licked it off greedily. Then, near dawn, it rained. From a nearly cloudless sky, it briefly rained.
Mark kept his mouth open, and forced himself not to move his head around – too much. It wasn’t as if he could catch more drops moving than by staying still. At least, he didn’t think he could. He stretched his shirt out on the sand to catch as much water as it could, and then stripped his pants off and spread them as well, and the rain stopped a few seconds later. He sobbed, and squeezed as much of the water as he could from his clothing into his mouth, and then, as the sky lightened, he dressed and went back into the shade. His damp clothing chilled him, but he sucked at his shirt sleeve and enjoyed the chill while he could, knowing how hot he would be later.
Later, as the sand grew blinding and a warm wind licked lazily at him, Mark shifted and moaned – and heard an answering moan. He looked out at blurred emptiness, and it faded, and returned and faded, and at last he had to step out onto the sand, look about at nothing, and duck back into protective shade. After the fourth or fifth search, he realized it was the sand itself.
The desert was moaning.
His mind was as tired as his body, but he forced himself to think, to listen – and realized it was the sand itself, making a moaning sound that rose and fell, vanished and returned, with the wind. There was nobody there. Just the desert.
After a while the wind stopped and the moans stopped with it, and the silence was as absolute as the heat and the light and the emptiness. His mind seemed emptied, and Mark felt as if he were locked in a small box of light and silence, with all his senses reduced to registering those, which feeling was somehow worse than sensing nothing at all. He turned to face the rock again, as he had so many times already, and sighed, and felt his hot breath blow back off the stone and wash drily over his face.
Dusk came again at last, just as the tendrils of madness running through him threatened to drag him down, and he scrambled out and stood shaking, his joints pained by the simplest of movements. He labored up a dune for another look at emptiness, and plodded along the ring of dunes surrounding his rocky shelter.
This time the sound the sand made was like barking, and after the first moment, he wasn’t surprised. He fantasized a dog following him, a dog he belatedly realized was Oliver, the family Lab from his childhood, sweet and slow and faithful Oliver, dead now for what? – a decade? The memory gave him comfort, the way the dog’s habit of circling and lying down close to him while he watched television had warmed him. Grateful for the companionship but not too close – that was Oliver.
Then he climbed one more dune, and saw the dogs. They were silent – it had been the sand making the sound. There were three of them, and they looked at Mark and fled.
By the time he got to the top of the dune, beyond which they had disappeared, the dogs had vanished. They had been real, he was sure of that. Their tracks led down the slope of sand and up to the next dune – and he would not follow, as much as it meant to him to see living creatures again. Dark, skinny, short-haired beasts, whose unlit eyes – the moon had been behind them – were hidden in their featureless faces.
The barking sound had stopped, and began again as he walked back down the dune. He realized that his feet had been making the sound, and growled briefly at his stupidity, then laughed loudly.
Late in the night – the moon was past him and sloping toward the other horizon – he woke to the end of a howl, and an answering howl, and then silence. They sounded far away, but for all he knew, they could be just beyond the dune, waiting. Still, the howling had seemed distant, and their shapes did not appear at the top of the dune. He got up quickly and searched for more moisture, eating the last few leaves he found on the branches on the rock. He began to regret that he had not followed them, and resolved at the end of the next day to go in the direction the dogs had. He had nothing to lose.
In the early morning light, he spied a lizard, and tried to sneak up on it, but it skittered away from him, and he groaned and went back to his lair. His headache had returned.
Unable to stop himself, Mark tore the branches from the crevasses of the rocks; they were as stubbornly resistant as he was hungry, but he was larger. He scraped away the bark with a stone and chewed at the pale fibrous meat beneath, and a corner of his mind wondered idly if he were killing himself this way. He spat out the drained fibers. A thought came to him and he laughed out loud and started choking: how do you cook wood?
The meal gave him a different kind of headache, but milder, and for the most part, he was able to sleep through the day. In the late afternoon, it rained again briefly, and he thought this time of the crevasses and crannies of the rocks. He sipped and slurped greedily at the pockets of water, even licking at the last thin sheet of water and wiping the grit away with the back of his hand. The water was warm and metallic-tasting and the most wonderful thing he had ever had – and then the branches suddenly and belatedly went through him in a rush and he moved instinctively away from the rocks and tore his pants off and emptied his bowels in hot stinking spurts – he had to clean off his ankles with sand afterwards. How much moisture had he lost? He went back to the rocks and tracked down every last bit of water, and only then returned to his pants. He waited until the sun had set completely before he set out in the direction the dogs had gone. With luck he might see them and be able to follow. And if they turned on him? They had fled once before.
The dunes rose and fell, with muttering and hissing and moans and whispers around him,
a crowd of noise in the vast aloneness, and there was no sign of water, food, life, civilization, nothing but a moonlit sea of gentle endless waves of sand under a starred, endless sky of cobalt, and Mark determined to keep walking in this direction until he found something or died. If salvation was one dune to the right or left of his path, he was doomed. If he felt any other way, he was afraid he would drop to the sand and die there.
Sometime during the night, he came across the lizard – probably not the same lizard, but he was sure for some reason that it was – as it nibbled noisily at something in the sand. He was able to sneak up on it and grab its tail. It turned and snapped at him, and he beat it against the sand several times, and held it up in the moonlight. It was long and limp and dead.
He was able to get to the meat of the beast only by ripping its jaws apart. They separated with a wet sound so loud that it echoed, and he turned around to look, and laughed. He dug out gobbets of flesh and blood, and again tossed the entrails to the side, thinking that he would wait and see what came to feed on the scraps of his meal, then realized that he could not linger, he needed to cover as much ground and he could, to find some kind of shelter before the sun rose cruelly and inevitably into the sky. He thought about marking the spot with his shirt or shoe, and decided against it. When his stomach was filled – how long had it been – he carried more of the lizard with him. He was not sure when he would feed again.
As he walked beneath a night which seemed remarkably and mercifully long, the various voices of the desert accompanied and comforted him. The visual stimuli were so intolerably repetitious that Mark thought he might have gone insane if it were not for the subtle altering fugues of sound flowing and coiling around him, diminishments and crescendoes in ever changing duration, a small steady orchestra of air.
He came over one last dune and looked down a gentle slope of beach to the sea. He had not noticed the sound of the waves, which had seemed to be one more instrument of the desert. But he could see and hear them now as they unfurled and spread over the dark wet shoreline, and he knew he was saved. He could follow the shore to some human habitation – but in which direction? He looked into the sky intently for several minutes, but could see nothing. No matter. The birds would show themselves (even as he thought it, he heard a mournful cry and smiled) and he would follow them, eating what they ate, until they led him to mankind. Then he saw, further down the shore to his right, small darting shapes along the shifting edge of the water, and nodded to himself, and began to walk in that direction.
The birds lifted away from the sand as one, and vanished in black; Mark slowed down and sighed, then laughed. They would return. He peeled off his clothing and dove into the cold blue dark sea, and sprung out of the water splashing and laughing. He looked along the shore in both directions. No lights. No matter.
As he walked back up the shore toward his clothing, he heard the birds again, distant shrieking in short high bursts.
He gathered his clothes and stood for a long time listening to the waves behind him crashing endless and relentless on the shore. He thought about his life beyond the water, under a different sky. He thought about the noise and glitter and laughter of the resort, somewhere down the shore. He walked halfway up the dune with his clothing clutched unnoticed in his hands, before tossing it aside. At first, he heard only his feet crunching the sand, then the growls and squeals and moans began to surround him, petals of a flower of sound as the dunes were petals of the desert, and he strode up and down dunes as, slowly, the music of cellos rose low and haunting from the sands, and he stood at the top of the final dune and the dogs were there waiting by a pool of water, a black bloodstain in the pale moonlit sand that surrounded him.