fiction by Montana Rogers
High in the air, Jamie can appreciate the sand and dust of the desert. In its own way it is beautiful. The arching blue sky over the dunes fades into golds and peaches as the last rays of the sun grasp at a few lingering clouds. When he's on the ground he doesn't dare take off his sunglasses. A few days ago he had met a man who went blind after being caught in an unexpected sandstorm. It's a common story in this region. Jamie knows that the glasses would be a weak defense against an angry, swirling wall of sand if he ever encountered one, but they make him feel better. In the villages, he walks with a bandana over his nose and mouth, and at night he curses the grains that find their way into his bed no matter how many times he shakes the sheets.
Two weeks ago, Jamie’s editor had called him into his office: “Do you know anything about water?”
“It's running out,” his editor said. “The whole world will be one vast, polluted desert. The people need to know what to expect. You'll report from the East. You leave tomorrow.”
Jamie takes a swig from his water bottle and glances at the small Cessna’s pilot, an old man from one of the larger villages. His eyes are focused on the landscape, but occasionally he glances at the orange, back-lit gauges on the cockpit's control board. Jamie's translator, Ayize, sits in the back seat dozing. It has been a long day. They had set out early that morning in search of what had once been an oasis of water and greenery, a spring-fed lake that had drained into small rivers, carrying water to hundreds of villages throughout the area. The translator and pilot had swapped stories, telling Jamie of a time when they had eaten fish, worn clean clothes, and breathed easy. But then, the lake had dried up, leaving a gaping hole in the earth. Jamie had walked down into the lakebed, taking notes: The ground – hard, cracked, dying for water. Jamie braces his hand on the ceiling of the plane as the pilot banks to the right. “How much longer?” Jamie directs his question to Ayize, shouting over the hum of the engine.
Opening his eyes, Ayize relays the question to the pilot. The pilot inspects the map. Jamie waits. In the fading light, Jamie can make out a pattern of white dots and lines in the sand below.
“Elephants,” Ayize says before Jamie can ask.
The elephant bones, bleached white in the hot sun and dry, woven through the sand, remind Jamie of the mandala drawings he had seen while on assignment in Tibet. His Tibetan guide had explained that the intricate circles and twists of the mandalas represent the life lines of the universe.
Ayize and the pilot seem to be arguing, but Jamie can't be certain. The plane passes over the elephant bones. There are enough bones to make a small herd. Likely there are bones of other animals there, too. The elephant remains disappear from view and Jamie settles back into his seat. He takes another sip of water; he’s almost out. He hopes they are close to the village.
“Are we almost there?” Jamie asks again. Ayize does not answer; but speaks quickly to the pilot. Jamie stares at the pilot. The pilot's eyes are fixed west, on the horizon; he can't or won't blink. Small beads of sweat have formed on his forehead and are dripping down into his beard.
Ayize shouts at the pilot. The pilot wipes his hand across his forehead. He jerks the steering wheel up and the plane responds.
“Ayize, what's wrong?” Jamie turns to the translator. Ayize looks from the pilot to Jamie and then points out the window towards the sunset. Jamie looks. The light is softer now. The sun is cradled in a bed of low-lying clouds.
“Rain? So what?” He asks with relief. I’ve flown through worse; he shivers as he recalls the blizzard in Alaska three years ago.
“Rain is a welcomed sight, isn’t it?” Jamie says, thinking of the good it could do for the region.
“Those aren't rain clouds,” Ayize says.
A light starts flashing on the dashboard. The pilot hits a button, picks up his radio, and begins to speak.
Jamie looks again to the west. The clouds that aren't clouds move fast across the dunes, billowing up and falling over themselves. In moments the horizon, the desert below, the earth begin to disappear and the light from the sun fades. Tiny grains of sand trail across the windows of the small plane. Jamie's throat goes dry and he instinctively reaches for his sunglasses.
The pilot looks at the compass on the dashboard. He leans forward in his seat, his knuckles white against the steering wheel. The storm is almost upon them. The plane jolts forward before falling a few feet. It stabilizes momentarily then rocks to the left and then the right. The pilot shouts.
“Hold on!” Ayize translates.
Jamie grips his seat with both hands. The plane begins to descend. The pilot steers the plane onto a thin landing strip outside the village as the storm of sand and darkness engulfs them, erasing all traces of life. The engine quiets, and the sound of millions of grains of sand scratching against metal fills the air. The pilot flips on an overhead light and the three men sit and wait.
“Is there any extra water?” Ayize asks, bored.
“Take mine,” Jamie takes one last small sip then hands the rest to Ayize.
Jamie presses his face against the window, straining to see something, anything. Then he takes his notebook from his pack and writes: Elephant bones half-buried in the sand. The animals, like the villagers, travel great distances, in vain, to find water, clean water. Nothing will survive. He stares at his notebook for a moment, then smudges the last line away.