In A Dry & Weary Land – Ayame Whitfield ‘20

In the beginning, everything was water—

“Right, yeah, and in my dreams everything is made of pretty women.” B, shut up.

“My bad. Go on.”

In the beginning, everything was water, and the sky stretched from one end of the world to the other over a vast desert of blue. And there was a woman who lived at the bottom of the sea, and her name was Rayen, whose name our land still bears today. She was not of the water but of the earth, and when she looked upwards through wavering light to the sky, she was jealous.

She envied the fish above her, who swam so freely, and the birds, who flew between the stars and fled from the sun. Rayen, you see, was tied to the earth, and could not go where she willed.

One day, the tantalizing sight of freedom became too much for her, and she cried out to the sky. Her voice was strong with desperation, and carried through the miles of water to the air above. The sky heard her plea, and told her that everything of stone was hers, and everything of sand, and she had but to claim what was hers if she desired it.

“But how shall I claim aught, when I am trapped here?” Rayen asked, and the sky gave no answer, for the sky cares not for the plight of those below

 

***

“Hey, B?”

Alani’s hand descends on my shoulder, shaking me awake. I shift in protest, and a pebble digs into my back through the sleeping roll.

“B, come on, we’re wasting daylight.”

“Right,” I rasp, opening my eyes a crack and squinting through blinding sun. My mouth is dry. I lick my lips and feel the sun-blisters on them from yesterday. “How much water we got left?”

A sloshing noise as she checks. “About a day’s worth.”

I sit up, suddenly awake. “Damn. Told you we should’ve picked up more back at that camp.” Alani shakes her head. “No such luck. They didn’t seem likely to share. They were probably worried we were raiders coming to steal their water anyway.” She glances up at the dead tree we made our camp under last night. Her brow furrows. “Water’s moving westwards, I suppose. They hadn’t been at that site for more than a week.”

Her frown deepens. The camp we’d passed earlier had been a small one, three or four families and a scraggly mare or two. They’d watched us—water-flushed, city dust in our hair and robes, clinking metal in the packs slung over our shoulders—with hollow-eyed suspicion. Alani didn’t like it then, and she doesn’t seem to be recalling it favorably now. I clear my throat and stretch, feeling my shoulders pop. “Well, what can you do. Hey, this is trip number ten. Get the bounty back and we’ll be promoted and get a whole extra percentage more. Isn’t that exciting?”

She looks at me strangely, then nods. “Map says we’re only a few more miles out. We’d better get moving before noon if we want to get there with enough light to do a proper job.”

 

*** Rayen is, above all, dry.

One long desert, stretching from horizon to horizon, burnt red and bleached white sand under a sky too far away to be friendly. Precious little grows here. Spindly trees scratch at the sky with thin branches but never reach higher than a man’s height before the water beneath them dries up. A few sagebrush fields spread around the older springs.

Settlements center around what sparse water seeps up from the ground. Alani told me of the many times she was forced to pack up and move on after her camp’s well ran dry.  There’s never a warning, she says. One day, there’s water aplenty for your children and horses. The next day, not even a drop. It’s as if there was never anything there to begin with. The cities are no friendlier—winding canyons carved into red stone, windows like shutterless eyes, the grasping fingers of beggars desperately pleading for water. My family’s water allotment was enough to keep me alive. We never had to resort to raiding the supplies of others. We never came very close to dying, even during the worst times.

Not everyone was so lucky, of course.

***

Rayen grew weary of struggling to escape, and for many days wept alone at the bottom of the sea. And in the darkest depths of the ocean, where only strange things creep, her cries were heard. A great serpent, with teeth of green and eyes of fire, came to her under moonlit waters and struck a deal with the grieving woman. If Rayen but gave it all the waters of the earth, she could walk upon the earth unhindered.

“Anything,” Rayen swore. “Anything you ask.” For her heart yearned beyond reason for freedom.

Weave a net of your hair, the serpent told her, and gather for me the seas. Then you shall walk free on the face of the earth, and the earth shall bear your name.

 

***

“How much farther?”

Alani’s laugh floats back through the still, hot air. “Only a little less far than the last time you asked.”

“Can’t help it,” I grumble, kicking aside a stone and watching it skitter down the side of the dune. “Damn desert has a way of making time pass funny. And I’ve got sand everywhere, did I mention that?”

“More times than I can count.” Alani is smiling, I know she is. Laughing at my soft city ways.

“Lani, I’ve got sand in places you don’t want to know about.”

“Then don’t tell me about them.” She pauses at the top of the dune and shades her eyes with one hand. The tattered hood of her robe flutters slightly as she exhales. I struggle upwards, wading through sand that swallows my boots. I don’t know how she does it, moving so damn gracefully over this terrain.

“Good news,” she tells me, turning just as I gain the crest of the dune. “I can see our destination from here.”

“I’d fuckin’ hope so,” I mutter, shaking sand out of my hair. “We’ve been walking all morning.”

“It isn’t that bad.”

“Says the one who isn’t carrying all of our equipment.” To underscore my point, I heft the bag I’m carrying. Metal clinks with the movement.

“Want me to take a turn?” She reaches out. I turn away, lifting my chin in mock disdain.

“I’ve got it. Besides, it’s really heavy. Don’t want you to strain yourself or anything.”

 

***

Before we left the city, five days prior to setting out on our tenth bounty hunt, Alani took me to her home. One of them, at least. The last one. All that was left were the remains of an abandoned tent that stood skeletal in the lee of an outcropping, nestled in a narrow canyon between rock walls, sheltered from the wind.

We chased the water all the way here, she’d said, looking up the cleft in the stone, and here was where the water left us.

She doesn’t like to talk much about it.

Nomadic tribes bloom and wither in the space of a generation or two. None are particularly missed by anyone except those in them. They follow the water from vanishing oasis to vanishing oasis, relying on instinct and skill with a divining rod to keep themselves alive.

When the water leaves, they fade.

We left the canyon after a few minutes of only the wind speaking. Alani said nothing about the neat row of stakes driven into the ground on the other side of the canyon, and I didn’t ask.

***

The infestation is a large one. Red grubs swarm from the ground as we approach, seething over the sand. I crush one the size of my hand under my boot and it makes a wet, squishing sound.

“Waste of water,” Alani says. I roll my eyes, kicking sand over the swiftly fading damp spot.

“We’ll get more than enough today.”

“Still.” She rummages in her belt pouch and pulls out a spyglass. The brass surface glints as she raises it to her eyes. “I think that cave at the top is probably the brood mother’s. There are deep tracks around the entrance.”

I trust her keen eyes. She knows this area better than I ever will. “You ready to go in?”

 

***

Turns out the brood mother is a real bitch. Twice my size and almost as wide as the cave entrance, her bulging abdomen spills across the sand. Pincered legs make chitinous clicks against the stone floor as she advances on me.

I heft the barbed harpoon, trying to figure out which of her gleaming eyes I should aim for.  “Watch out,” I warn, waving Alani back with my free hand. She scoffs, but moves farther from the brood mother, towards the entrance. She has a crossbow armed and ready, just in case, though nothing makes me feel safer than a heavy metal harpoon and five more lined up on the cave floor.

The brood mother charges. Caught off guard by her speed, I hurl my weapon. Her barbed tail catches me in the leg, tearing through cloth to gouge flesh, and a cry escapes my mouth before I can stop it.

The ground rushes up to meet me. I hit the sand on my knees and the impact jars every bone in my body. Hot metal floods my mouth—I’ve bitten through my tongue. Lucky for me, the brood mother has fallen back too, one spindly limb impaled by my poorly-aimed harpoon.

Alani fumbles for the next one, passing it to me with shaking hands. She touches my face, fingers fleeting and warm. “You up for another round, B?”

“You know me.” I swallow past the bitter tang of blood in my mouth, then spit. Sand mingles with red. “Point me in the right direction and let me loose, yeah?”

The brood mother rears up, snarling. I crouch, then spring to my feet. Metal clangs. The harpoon flies from my hand—flashes through the air—

It falls backwards and thuds to the ground, sending up a cloud of dust.

In the silence, Alani laughs nervously. “B, that was close.”

“But I got the bitch good, didn’t I?” I limp over to the body, favoring my uninjured leg.

“Get the still out.”

“Don’t you think we ought to look at that leg first?”

I wave her off. “I’ve had worse.” A complete lie, of course. The wound throbs in time to my heart, warmth trickling down my calf. If I were alone, I’d probably be wailing like a baby from the pain—but Alani is here, so I force a smile and grit my teeth.

Alani looks skeptical, but starts setting up the equipment to render the brood mother’s body down into water.

***

So Rayen wove from her hair a great net, black as the night and light as a fallen leaf, and into it she gathered as much water as she could. And the serpent went into the net, and came out gorged, and asked for more.

All through the night, Rayen gathered the sea, and the serpent drank and drank and drank.

There was no end to its thirst.

When all the sea had been drunk, the serpent was large, larger than anything Rayen had seen before. Weighed down with all the oceans, it curled up and slept, and became a great range of mountains that bounded the sky from horizon to horizon.

And nothing in the world moved save for Rayen, who felt for the first time the breath of wind on her skin, and shivered.

As Rayen trembled, the darkness gave forth light. The sun rose that day over a new land, one of white and red, the bones and flesh of all the creatures of the sea who died for lack of water. Rayen walked free for the first time. Her land, which she had uncovered from the deeps, shone in the sun, and her feet left deep prints in the mud, which hardened to red stone.

***

We retreat a fair distance before setting up our campsite. The pack on my back is significantly heavier now, and it gurgles when I move. Alani has her own—fifty liters total. A good bounty, probably worth more to the water distributors than we make in three trips. Alani bandages my leg and we sleep side-by-side, the sound of her breathing loud in the silence of the desert.

I wake in the middle of the night.

Alani shifts in her sleep, making a soft noise. In the distance, a desert fox yowls.

Did something wake me?

A shadow crosses the moon. I look up into the flash of steel under starlight, a dark-clad figure obscured by billowing robes. A raider’s red face paint turned black under moonlight, smears across their cheekbones and forehead.

Before I can shout a warning, the darkness swallows everything else.

 

***

My water bottle lies on the sand between us, about two thirds of the way full. Beside it is the bent harpoon, which I found half-buried by the firepit. The raiders left us nothing else. I crouch and run my hands over the ground, letting sand trickle through my fingers. The raiders’ cart left deep trenches in the sand that stretch eastwards, away from the city. My head still pounds, like a spear through my temple. Alani says she woke to find me knocked out and our water gone. “Do we have anything else left?”

“No.” I straighten, dusting my hands off, and shade my eyes. “It’s three days back to the city.”

Alani picks up the bottle, weighs it in the palm of her hand. Her eyes narrow, calculating.

“Not enough. Maybe the camp…?”

“They wouldn’t share when we were armed and dangerous, they won’t share now that we’ve got nothing.”

Her shoulders square with determination. “We haven’t got a choice. We’ll head west until we find water.”

Or die trying. I won’t say that. An unconvincingly confident grin is the best I can offer her. “Let’s get going, then.”

***

The water bottle is empty by the end of the first day.

 

***

Around noon on the second day, Alani collapses. There is little warning: one moment, she stumbles, and the next she is falling forward, body gone limp.

“Shit.” I drop my empty bottle and lunge to catch her. She’s surprisingly heavy.

“Sorry,” she gasps, struggling to stand again. Her feet slip in the soft sand, their earlier grace dissipated under her fatigue. “I’m okay, just give me a second—”

I lower her to the ground and fold my hands over hers. “We can rest for a bit. It’s fine.” Her heartbeat thuds under my fingers, uneven and too fast. I look around, heat-dazed and nearly blinded by the sun—there, a hundred yards ahead, a dead tree. Not much, but a bit of shade is better than nothing.

I squeeze Alani’s hand. “Think you can make it a bit farther?”

Alani bites her lip, nods. “Yes. Help me up?”

She leans on my shoulder and we stagger over the sand together. Her skin against mine is dry and hotter than the air around us. We slump down in the sparse shade under the tree, the spidery branches above whispering in a faint wind. Alani leans her head back against the smooth, sand-worn wood.

“Hey.” I lick my parched lips, and the moisture evaporates before I can even feel it. My tongue is heavy, doesn’t seem to want to cooperate. “Use your tribal magic to find us a spring, yeah?”

Alani laughs weakly. “I was always shit with a divining rod, B. Guess you’ll have to pick a better guide next time you go out for a bounty.”  “Don’t be stupid. You’re the best there is.” Her eyes drift shut.

***

Alani sleeps. I check from time to time to make sure she’s still breathing, adjust her robe to protect her from the sun. What we really need is water, though, and we aren’t likely to find any here.

I’m not the one who knows how to navigate an ocean of sand, but I’m fairly certain that the camp we passed on our way here isn’t so far.

“Alani,” I whisper.

She doesn’t move. Her hand in mine is still too hot. If she wakes and I’m not here— But I haven’t got much of a choice, either.

“Hey, Lani, I’m going to go get you water, yeah?”

 

***

The camp sleeps with midday when I approach from the east. Threadbare cloth flaps gently over the doors of the tents. In the shade of an awning, a bony mare lifts her head to regard me, wide dark eyes disinterested. No sane person is out and moving around at noon—well, no sane and non-desperate person, at least.

I have the harpoon with me, just in case, but the sentry by the patch of damp sand at the center of the camp is asleep. I’m not sure I could’ve used it, anyway. Brood mothers are one thing, but humans are something entirely different.

I kneel and fill my bottle. The smell of water fills the hot air, like damp earth and green leaves. My mouth is dry, my lips cracking as I part them, trying to soak up the taste of water in the air.

A quick glance over my shoulder. The sentry is still asleep.

Hurry. My head is pounding, and the world seems too bright and too close at the same time.

I lift the bottle to my lips and drink, trying to hold back. It’s hard.

The sentry stirs.

I hurriedly refill the bottle and stand, backing away.

“Hey—hey you!”

Shit.

I turn and run, struggling over the soft sand.

 

***

Miraculously, the sentry gives up on the chase after a minute or two. I can see the dark shape of Alani from a distance, still slumped under the tree. When I reach the patch of shade, grown longer with the afternoon, I kneel beside her, touching her cheek tentatively. Her skin is paper-dry and feels on fire, even in the shade. “Hey.” I shake her. “Lani, wake up, I got water.” Her lips move, but no sound comes out.

“Alani.” I unscrew the top, careful not to spill. “Don’t make me do mouth-to-mouth, that’s just fucking gross.” I tilt her head back and trickle water into her mouth, praying she won’t choke. She coughs, jerking away from me. I tighten my grip on her shoulders and wait. Her eyes open, just a bit. Her mouth works for a few seconds, chapped lips cracking with the movement. “—thirsty,” she manages.

“I got water right here. Take it slow, though.” I support her head as she drinks, her throat moving as she swallows small sips. She finishes half the bottle before pulling away. I smile down at her. “Do you think you can stand?” She considers this, then nods.

“If you can’t, I guess I’ll just have to carry you.” I fasten the bottle onto its clip on my belt and help her upright.

***

And little worms crawled forth from the bodies of the dead fish and burrowed into the stone. These worms grew, and became something new, out of salt and sand and stone. They crawled forth from Rayen’s footprints, blinking in the sunlight, and walked on two feet. They were the first men and the first women and the first of all else between. And they carried the salt of the old seas in their blood and stone in their bones, and they spoke with the whisper of sand in the wind.

They thirsted, for there was nothing of water above the ground. Deep below, in the earth, the last of the seas rested, and the humans learned how to call the water to the surface again.  But the water fled, fearful of the stone of Rayen that the humans carried within them, and so the humans chased the water across the land, wandering over the desert.

 

***

We make it within sight of the city before sundown.

“Told you we’d get home,” I say, stopping and wiping my forehead off with the back of my hand. The empty water bottle bangs against my thigh, but we can get it refilled soon enough. “The distributors might kill us for losing the bounty, but at least we’ll be alive for them to yell at.”

“Thanks to you.” Alani’s hand slips into mine, squeezing. I turn to her, surprised. “You’re the reason we’re both alive.”

“Would’ve have cared if it was just me,” I mutter, kicking at the sand to avoid looking her in the eyes. “Thought maybe you’d want to get back, though.” I look up and realize that her face is suddenly only inches away.

“Thank you, B.”

She kisses me. Her mouth tastes like the dusty heat of evening. Behind her, the sagebrush rustles, dead leaves clinging to the brittle branches that sing in the desert wind.

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