(Author’s Note: “The Desert” is a work of short fiction in several parts. If you haven’t already done so, now would be a good time to go back and read the previous chapters so that you know what’s going on.)
IV: The Visionary
The faint path I had been following through the desert had long since petered out, and for several hours I had been making my own way across the sands. The fallen stone blocks of the ruined city lay well behind me, no longer in sight.
The sun had now sunk almost entirely below the horizon, and the sky had grown dark. But there were no stars to guide my way with their friendly twinkling – only a hollow void, as black and vast as infinity’s maw. A near-absolute darkness had descended on the wasteland, making each labored step dangerous.
With the setting of the sun, the searing heat of the day had gone. In its place, with shocking swiftness, had come the cold. The sands underfoot, now powdery fine and black as midnight, had an icy, desolate chill. The cold air cut into my exposed skin like a knife, and silver frost sparkled in the air with each breath I took. A bone-deep weariness had settled in me after two failed encounters, and I was beginning to long for the light and warmth of my home. But I was determined to reach at least one person, and there was no way out but through. I pressed onward.
The fear was growing in me that I would not find anyone else, and with that to occupy my mind, I almost stumbled over the man before I saw him. Frail and stick-thin, clad only in shredded rags, he knelt on the sands and stretched out his hands toward the empty sky. He had to be freezing, but he gave no sign that he felt the cold.
“Hail, friend!” I called out to him. “What are you doing out here in this cold?”
The man glanced at me in startlement, as if he hadn’t noticed me before. When I had first seen him, kneeling with hands outstretched, I thought he had been pleading with someone. Now I saw that his face was stretched into a blissful, vacant smile. Half-frozen tears of joy trickled down into his grimy beard.
“Cold?” he said. “I don’t feel any cold. The weather is perfect. I couldn’t have asked for more.”
“Friend, it’s freezing out here. You must be cold and miserable dressed in that. Come with me – I know a place indoors where you can warm yourself. I have a fire going.”
“Thank you for your offer, but I’m fine where I am,” he said dreamily. “I have all I need right here.”
“Don’t tell me you’re happy here?” I said in shock.
“Why, of course! How could I not be? This is the best place on earth. No one could be happier anywhere else.”
“How many other places have you tried?” I asked.
He looked at me in surprise, his gaze seeming to regain a bit of clarity. “None. Does that matter?”
“Yes, it does! How can you possibly know that this is the best place on earth if you haven’t even looked at the alternatives? How do you know you wouldn’t be even happier somewhere else? And besides,” I went on, sweeping a hand around, “look at this place. Look and see it for what it is. It’s a cold, barren wasteland. There’s no life here, no growth, no joy. It denies you everything you truly need to be happy. You may think it’s a paradise because that’s what you’ve always been taught, but when you fairly compare what this place offers with all the others that are out there, you’ll see that there are whole worlds you’ve been missing out on. Tell me honestly: are you really happy here, deep down inside?”
The man’s look of surprise deepened. He looked around slowly, then shivered, as if noticing the cold for the first time.
“Well, to be absolutely honest,” he said in a fearful whisper, “sometimes I’m not completely happy here. It gets chilly here some nights, and I feel so alone. Sometimes it doesn’t seem like anyone’s listening to me. I won’t say this place doesn’t have its faults… but isn’t everywhere else even worse?”
“Nothing could be further from the truth,” I assured him. “There are places outside this desert where there are gardens of water and light, overflowing with life, with plenty of friends and companionship. I can describe them to you, and I can even tell you about other people who went there and are happier now. But the only way for you to really experience what it’s like is to come with me and see them with your own eyes. If you don’t like what you see, you can always come back here. But truth be told, I don’t think you’ll want to.”
The man crouched down on the black sands, wrapping his arms around his knees and shivering. “I don’t know. I just don’t know. At least here I know where I stand. To move to a new place, where I don’t know anyone or anything, where I don’t know what would be waiting for me…”
“It’s natural to be afraid of such a major change. And I can’t deny that it may seem to get even darker for a while if you come with me. But you have to trust me that there’s light and warmth on the other side. The journey back with me may not be easy, but it’s only a passing thing, and in the end you’ll know it was all worthwhile.”
“But, but…” He seemed to be fumbling for an excuse, searching for a way to talk himself out of it. “But everything I care about is here. If I leave this place I’ll lose it all. I’d have no foundation, no hope.”
“Not so,” I urged him. “That’s what you’ve been told by other people of this desert, people who want to keep you here – I think for their own pride as much as for any other reason. They’ve never been to the gardens; they don’t know what they’re talking about, and most of what they say about them isn’t true. I’m telling you that everything you care about, everything that truly makes your life meaningful, is there waiting for you. There’s clear air, happiness and peace, surpassing anything you could imagine. If you lose anything by coming with me, it will be something you never needed in the first place. You’re not happy here. What do you have to lose? Just trust me.” I held out a hand.
A strange light came into the other man’s eyes. Slowly, hesitantly, he stood up. Pulling his rags around himself, he reached out for my hand. Then, silently and smoothly, his form began to unravel – uncoiling and dissipating like smoke on the wind. The last thing I saw was his face, and this time it wore not a look of dazed bliss, but a real smile, deep and warm. Then that was gone as well, and I stood alone on the black sands.
With a sense of relief, I surveyed my surroundings. In truth, I didn’t know exactly where he had gone – that was up to him. But now he had a chance, and that was more than this place could ever offer. And in any case, I felt confident. There would be others to guide his way, and the path he had set out on, though little-known, was well-traveled. It would take time for him to come to the end of it, but I hoped to meet him again one day in the light of a garden of his own.
But as for me, I had to set out. The night was growing deeper, and I was weary beyond description. I was near the end of the desert, and home had never sounded so inviting.
I walked on through cold and darkness. The desert was as empty and black as if I was the only person left in it. But after a time, a glimmer of pale light impinged on my vision. A solitary twinkle appeared in the gloomy sky, then another and another. With a faint smile, I walked onward, beneath a sky filled with glorious, bright stars.
Then, from up ahead, the still, dead air of the desert stirred. A fresh breeze brushed against my face. I quickened my steps.
I crested a rise, and the end of the desert stretched out before me. Ahead was a low, sandy coast where the stark chill faded into a spray of fresh, salty air. Seagulls circled in the air overhead, their squawks and cries echoing. The surf rolled and boomed on the shore. To the southeast, the desert gave way to clusters of scraggly dunegrass and then a dark scrub forest.
I looked, then knelt down. At my feet a small flower bloomed, improbably alive in this desolate place, its red petals and leafy green stem a startling splash of color against the drab sand.
Getting my bearings, I straightened up. I had a long path to walk before I could return to my garden and my home.