The Desert

I: Prologue

It was a late-summer day at my home, and as on most summer days, I was outdoors in my Garden. The air was heavy with the warm, rich scent of growth, and sunlight filtered through the leaves above in an explosion of green and gold. Butterflies flitted above me like little splashes of vivid color. Not far off, a small rill of clear water trickled by, filling the air with its silvery laughter. I was drowsing beneath the sheltering green of a young hickory tree, looking out over the flowerbeds where wild roses and violets blossomed, misty in a haze of golden sun.

The land shimmered in afternoon’s liquid heat, but the daylight had only a short season left. Before long would come fiery sunset and evening cool, and I had a decision to make. Where would I spend the rest of the day?

I could retire to my Foyer, and spend the night talking and laughing with old friends until the fire burned down to glowing embers in the fireplace. I could go to the Observatory and spend a night among the stars and the planets, or I could retire to the Loft or the Library, to read or meditate on dreams by the light of lamps turned down low. Or I could stay in the Garden all night, lying in the soft grass and watching fireflies come out like little candles.

I could have done any of these things – but I wasn’t going to. As much as I loved it there, to stay in my home by myself would have been selfish, for I had another calling demanding my attention, and somewhere else to be. In truth, I had only been in the Garden to prepare myself for that journey, and now it was the appointed time to set out. I slung my bag over one shoulder and set out for the desert.

In one sense it was far away from my home, but in another sense, the two were not as distant as one might think. I knew the path well, for I had journeyed it many times, and soon I stood before the gateway to the desert.

It was at the end of a long, winding road of dusty, hard-beaten earth. The vegetation had been dwindling all along the way, from lush gardens and forests to tough, wiry scrubland and gray marsh, but here even that came to an end. Before me, the cracked, red earth faded out into windblown white sand, barren and lifeless. The sun beat down hot and harsh, and I could feel the approaching heat on my face.

The edge of the desert was marked by a crude fence, long since collapsed. It had been baked in ovenlike heat and scoured by blowing sand for countless years, and was now little more than sun-bleached, wind-seared driftwood tangled with rusted twists of wire. No matter. Its purpose was as a marker, as a boundary, and that it still served. Where the road led up to the edge of the sands, there stood a crumbling arch of red stone. Words might once have been carved on its surface, perhaps a proscription or a warning, but now it was too pitted and eroded to be sure. Beyond the arch lay only high, rolling dunes.

I stood there for a moment, listening, trying to steel myself for what lay ahead. There was no sound in that arid waste, no hint of water or life. The land seemed silent, as if expectant. Waiting. Then a hot, dry wind blew, shivering over the tops of the dunes, and the shifting sand moaned in a ghostly, rattling counterpoint.

It was not too late to turn back, but I wasn’t going to. I had come all this way for a reason, and I would not return until I had found what I sought, futile though the effort might prove to be in the end.

I took a deep breath. The very air in that land was stifling, and I might not get another like it for a long while.

“It’s time,” I told myself, and matching words to action, I stepped forward, through the archway, and plunged into what lay beyond.

To be continued…

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About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, Arc of Fire, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.


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