The End in Sight
A purple sky foretells the end of the world.
That lesson taught us early, still struggling on stubby little legs, hugging sheepskins around the hearthfire, eyes following sparks. Our mothers told us that the sky would darken, bruise purple, glare heavily over us dying ants.
The sun rises every day in that sky, reddened for a short reprieve, colours of lavendar, lilac, rust, ocean all flaring out from the horizon's cusp. It doesn't last. The sky purples over, plush and foreboding. Its dark eyes bear down on us with each step.
Chalcotta counts the days. The miles. Noboby else does. We're too tired. We leave burning red footprints, we turn our eyes back at the past, wanting to go there. We shift our rags over our shoulders, tell our ragged, resistant feet to take one more step, then another.
Our journey has been – Chalcotta tells us, around a campfire beating back the night – over a thousand miles. Millions of steps. Our feet are scarred with it, and they in turn scar the sand. The sun is red in that darkened sky, six times the size it was when it was yellow. The heat is different, with a knife's edge. And as the sun changed, the earth changed with it. The ground baked, and the trees died, the grass withered, blackened, burned.
We burned and blackened with it.
The desert is obscured by heatwaves.
Scattered with bones.
In the days when it wasn't a desert it was a plain on which the grass grew pale, fluttering green, headed with wild grains, the chaff always blowing in the wind. There were tiny flowers, growing tall, seeking sun - in colours of blue, gold, pink, white. There were herds of stocky, clay-and-black horses wandering unhindered, making common cause with great lizards, with long-haired goats, with crawling rats. All these are now the bones. Bleached or blackened as the sun chooses.
Some of these bones cling with thread, have coins and bottles scattered around them. Their staring eye-sockets beckon us to follow them. To follow through a portal swathed in blurred light, a smudging and softening of gold, the sand bleeding into the sky, the sky dripping down and becoming sand.
Ahead of us somebody yells: “Green!”
We think she's hallucinating.
But the girl persists, she scrambles to find her mother, to grab her slack fingers to point and point and point until the rest of us can't fob her off anymore. She points into the distant, into the morass of heatwaves, to spot in the desert that shines like an emerald.
“Green!” She insists. She'd break her mother's fingers if she could, jumps up and down in frustrated joy. “Green!”
Journey's end. Finally in sight.
We walk on. We say little. We don't want to believe too hard. The disappointment – on other occasions – can be lethal, is unforgiving, has already scoured us out and left us what we are.
But the truth insists upon itself. The closer we walk the more solid, more certain, more detailed it is. A narrow valley, seeming stuffed full of leaves and grasses, full of green vegetation, the jewelled scatter of flowers. There is water and shelter, food. There must be.
We see a few buildings. Huts on a framework of bones. And we start to see shapes, people moving. There's a shimmer that surrounds this place that is nothing to do with the heatwaves.
Onglent is the oldest among us, and so he's the one to approach, unwrapping his face to reveal the amber of his eyes. He holds out his hands to show his scars.
The woman who meets him has dark hair, and luscious dark eyes, her full lips are the colour of roses – the blood-dark kind that grew in the old days. She looks over at us all, making calculations, taking us in. We crawl beneath her gaze. The balance tilting.
She asks him, “How many are you?”
“Twenty-seven now. Six are children.”
“Some are old.”
“I am seventy-nine. Two others are over sixty. If some are too old...”
“Can you work?”
“Yes. Even I. And the youngest child. I swear this.”
“Will you give of your blood? Add to the tapestry?”
“If it must be.”
She's counting us out. Our numbers. The burden of feeding us, against the energy we can add to whatever magic sustains the plantlife and summons forth scarce water. Against perhaps her humanity, or maybe her fear. The scales wobble, they tremble in the deciding of our fate.
She says: “All of you.”
And the shimmering wards fall.
I sit amongst the grass, staring up at the night sky. Even this has changed: the stars reddened, the void a little bloody. The sun reaches through the earth to follow us into night. The sages and the old men still tell us that the end of the world is upon us. We: this generation: the next few to come: we live in its death throes. The universe looks down, unimpressed.
Maybe tomorrow another band of refugees will walk out of the sand, hungry, with their feet in ribbons, their clothes worn to threads. Maybe it'll be us who turn them away. Send them back out into the heat, to find death in the desert. Maybe we'll be the ones who dash their brief hopes. The sky has no answers for that. All I know is that I sleep in the grass tonight, I drink from the spring tomorrow. The sky will be purple again, but we'll live another day.
Picture credit/discredit: author's own work