The Desert Cold
Everyone knows the great desert is hot by day and cold by night. But that heat and cold is something you must know to understand. The midday sun seems to burn through your eyelids, so that outside the shade you cannot escape it; it pricks at your skin like a thousand needles, and sweat offers no relief because you could never sweat enough. It is harsh and cruel, and without water and a good guide you will not live long.
But I had both of those things, and I could weather the days at least. Anticipation, too, had offered some protection. I had arranged my journey hurriedly, I grant you, for I was the victim of circumstance. Yet only a fool goes out upon the sands expecting anything but scalding heat.
The nights, however, were a different matter.
We had been travelling for eight days, my guide and I, and I had carried myself stoically beneath the dreadful sun, which bleaches color from everything and saps life from the world. I knew well enough to hurry, and not to complain, when my survival depended on our haste.
But when the sun set, when the rocks cooled and cracked and the air became breathable again, then I was afraid. The first night had terrified me; I had been so completely unprepared. There is no cold anywhere on earth like the cold of the great desert. It is like death, like the loss of love, a bleakness and a heartbreak. Each following night my fear grew, and by the eighth I could stand no more. I could imagine the chill inside my bones, I could conceive of no strength that would resist it. It must have shown--in my step, my posture, my face.
I think I would have died then if he’d let me. His name was Harad, and his skin was tanned almost black from countless treks across the sand. He had said so very little throughout our journey that I was startled when he spoke.
“It is not weakness,” he said, “but a lack of perspective.”
I didn’t understand, of course, and I stared at him foolishly.
“You are afraid of the night’s cold?”
There was no good in denying it. “Yes,” I admitted, “I am very afraid.”
He stopped abruptly and stared into my eyes. His face was expressionless, except for his gaze, which was as hypnotic as a hawk’s. “Your thinking is wrong. It will kill you.”
“The cold is nothing. It is the absence of the day’s heat, no more. If you lose something that will soon return, you have lost nothing at all. Do you understand?”
I nodded hesitantly.
Now, a week later, a stranger amidst the comforts of a strange town, and with the great desert only a memory, I ask myself the same question: did I understand? Do I understand now? I know that I fear the desert and that I could not cross it again. Yet it is an undeniable truth that I am still alive to write this.
But despite the blaze in the hearth I remember that cold still; I can sense it among the dunes, like a beast that waits for me. And the spirit I left there will seek its vengeance as well, should I ever try to return. He was old and patient and his shade will be the same. If it cannot take me in life then it will find me in the grave.
Still, I have gained perhaps a little understanding of my own. Harad was more astute than I, for he had survived a hundred treks through that barren place protected by his truth. But I am here, alive and safe before my fire, while he lies dead beneath the sands that he made his home.
He was protected from the cold, it is true, but not from a knife between the shoulder blades. He will not return home to guide my enemies, and no other knew my course.
I grieve for my family, on whom vengeance will surely have been exacted in my absence. I grieve for my first crime, which has left me an exile, fleeing the punishment of death and left to live with a fate that is barely kinder. But more, in this instant of writing, I grieve for Harad, who was a good companion, a good guide, a wise and fearless man.
If one were to follow his own logic then perhaps there is nothing so terrible in death. For death is no more than the absence of life; and life, it may be, is something we shall return to, just as the sun rises by dawn and sheds new warmth on the earth.
I wish that this might be true; but I am no philosopher, only a petty criminal of some little notoriety and wealth. Whatever my hopes or fears, they are neither knowledge nor truth, and I can say with certainty only this of Harad:
For all his wisdom, for all his fearlessness, his bones still lie frozen now in the cold of the desert night.
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About the Author
David Tallerman spent four years at York University studying English Literature, specializing in the literary history of witchcraft — an education that left him ideally suited to be an English teacher, a witch, or some unlikely combination of the two. Ever one to confound sensible expectations, he’s currently employed as an IT Contractor. Last year his stories appeared in Andromeda Spaceways Inflight Magazine, Pseudopod, and Hub amongst others; this year he has work out or forthcoming in anthologies from Hadley Rille and Night Shade Books, webzine Chiaroscuro and magazine Aoife’s Kiss. He can be found online at http://davidtallerman.net.
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Copyright © 2008, David Tallerman. All Rights Reserved.