Stones too degrade. It is said that the birth of a grain of sand is the death of a mountain and this is why deserts grow into more desert every day. There are a few dull lumps on the horizon, dying mountains sloughing off what is out here, under foot and burning. So hot it’s hard to get any traction. So much heat in this sand, so much sand on my body – on my arms, in my hair – each grain a little weight pulling me closer to the desert floor.
Because of this it will take twice as long to walk to the border. Twice as long to walk to the campsite. Every grain a mountain. So much sand in the air it feels I’m barely upright. In the distance there are silvery pools, mirrored heat, where the sand has turned to glass smooth enough to glide across. I am sure that when we reach the smooth sand, it will soon be over.
The chandelier was still swinging when we left. The wall was gone. Many of the walls were gone. But the wall with all of our photos – the family posed proper, the family in snapshots – has disappeared. But not entirely. A thin strip of drywall was left, a thinner strip of curtain flapping in the wind, exposed. The linen hem of my dress and the torn curtain. I now laugh at the thought of the chandelier, alone and swinging where we left it. Still covered in debris from the blast, no doubt. The whole building pockmarked and covered in dust. I see it swinging and creaking at all hours, oblivious to itself. The streets of my town were little different – full of wind, covered in dust. Before I left, there were only old women around, combing through the debris, signing songs I could barely recognize. It was me and the old women all tucking our rage, wrung dry from weeping.
The chandelier is unimportant. But it was with us for a long while. It came down from my mother’s mother, and perhaps from the mothers that preceded them. A long line of women dusting the same crystal dewdrops. It was wrought in the old style, one which I was not particularly fond of. But it isn’t important. I can only think of it swinging, covered in dust. Swinging with no one to clean it. Swinging on that fourth floor, no walls to protect it. The wind and the debris rushing in.
This density does not make itself apparent until you have to move through it. Sand, heat; sand, salt. I struggle through it, stepping cautiously, slowly, because I know the land conspires to pull me back. The sun, too, is cruel. Always the same: low and blazing and white. I suck on a rock, imagine cool water, and wait for my mouth to flood.
The border, we are told, is near. But not so near as to be visible. The we is accidental, anonymous. We are all from the same town, this is true, though many of us are trying to forget this fact. Others seem determined to remind those that have chosen to forget. In either case, no one here is from my same home, no one here knows or cares to remember the chandelier. This is fine because there are more pressing matters. All of us are covered in sand, our bags are on our backs, and we move through this landscape in clumps, single file, in loose bands, all in search of the border. We change formation just to have something to talk about. Something to not talk about because all the talking is dried up, and no one wants to remember where we’re leaving. I overhear someone lingering in the back of our formation whisper that it isn’t yet the time for remembering, that that time will come unannounced.
The border is somewhere I’ve never been. Before this walk I had never thought of the border. Not in this way. Not as something that held answers on the other side, not as some line in the sand. A line to cross and never look back on. This is a time of terrible change, an old woman said to me. We were under the chandelier, gazing at a charred body, hand curling inward, grasping at a chest that had stopped rising and falling. Frozen and radiating heat. Bodies like mountains like sand.
As I child, I often thought about what it would be like to swim in the ocean. On maps it was a big blue blotch. Larger than the green and golden shapes. Shapes that fit together and were torn apart. I do not remember a time when things fit, and yet, there is still an overwhelming urge to press the ragged edges together, smooth them over with spit and glue and pray the small tears do not fray.
In my mind, the ocean was on the other side of every border, just where the land dropped off. It was something I believed I would only see in old age. In movies there were oceans – wide crystal blue expanses where love affairs ended in tears. For many years I thought my own tears were ocean, springing from a small tide pool tucked behind my throat. I am told that after we reach this sandy border, we will cross the ocean. Some of the others in our formation have seen the ocean, though they did not fall in love there. We have left all of that behind, I hear one person moan. I turn away from this, because I know this story and I do not want to hear the rest.
The oceans in books are full of creatures. I see nothing here but wrinkles in the sand that move like waves, and I remember that desert was also once ocean. How can this sand be both mountain and ocean? You live in a place for so long that it becomes one continuous thing, all memory collapses into a smooth stone you call home. You confuse one day for the next, one occurrence becomes a continuation of all the others. But now, I am here. In a space I do not know, walking toward a border I do not know, where everything is more than one thing and nothing lasts because the wind and the sand rearrange things ceaselessly. And everything is bleached. There is the chalky whiteness of bone around my fingernails, in my hair, on the horizon. And then there is the scoured burning of heatsand. The sand and the space roll out endlessly, shifting under the wind, slipping out from under my feet.
There is a clump of others in the distance, just before the glassy patch of sand. We have been walking toward them for some time. They are under a huge blue flapping tarp. Everything flutters and snaps in this wind. The wallpaper, the tarp, my dress. The wind back home would curve around the buildings, scraping against one wall and then the next, restless and insatiable. After the blast, the curtain attached to what was left of the wall would swell with wind, a great pregnant belly, and then snap back, dusting the charred body that lay beneath the chandelier.
At the tarp we are told we must wait here with the others. We wait for the border to appear. The others do not seem to know how long they have been waiting. Some have the thirsty look of dates, a plumpness protected by thick dry skin. They hardly look at us, us newcomers, us people from their distant past, us people from other towns. I hear a voice say that the waiting that happens under the tarp is as infinite as the sand. Another replies that this sort of waiting requires more water. Because I have only been walking, and not waiting, I am not sure which has more resonance.
I put my pack near another woman with a red blanket. I think that the two of our red blankets might mean that we are destined to travel alongside one another, to face the cruel pale yellowness of the sand together. She is not interested in me. Does not even stir when I place my things beside her and I wonder if perhaps she is frozen, too. I try and sleep. I shift on my blanket and watch the sun come up, roll across those distant dissolving mountains, and then go down. Up and down, up and down. My red woman does not stir. Many of us do not stir. The sun stirs and the man with the radio stirs. Finding the signal, reporting back on crossings, on aircrafts, on the living. He was here before us and seems to collect information. I watch the edges of the blue tarp snap and whip or gently ripple and the man watches me and after many comings and goings of the sun, he comes over to report on the stirrings. I tell him I am not interested and he is disappointed. His eyes are dark and empty with this disappointment and I think, for an instant, that I can see the sand rushing in.
In the evenings now I walk the sand. It is cooler in the dark and I think because of this, it is easier to find traction. I do not venture far, because after a few paces the blue tarp disappears. The wind is so loud I lose my bearings and can no longer hear the faint turning of the restless shifting on mats, or the radio’s blind search for signal. I walk only a few paces out into this darkness, this quiet. In the ocean, deep down, you can hear your blood and heart working to keep you alive. Here the wind and the sand scratch your face and burrow deep in your ears. I have made it a habit to sink my hands, then forearms into the sand, to continue sinking until I am deep in the sand, allowing the wind to blow over me, the sand to gently bury me. I remain like this until the horizon glows pink and then I walk back to the tarp where I know that the waiting is about to begin anew.
I have begun to doubt the existence of the border. A thin line in the sand I have never seen, that I am told continues to shift. We wait for the people who know where it is to arrive and shepherd us across. For all I know we could be camped right atop it, here in this sand blown valley. I dream when it is still light out. I dream the border appears, suddenly. A track of sand collapsing into itself, a great trench, more and more sand filling in, making the border deeper, harder to pass. I tumble down one side of this great chasm finding myself trapped at the bottom, desperately trying to claw out. The others have made it across and are waiting, though without patience or compassion. Their backs are turned to me. I see an old man, he is signing about a love lost forever to the mountains, and there is a woman shielding her face from the sun.
I am awake and the woman in my dream is the woman that sleeps at the other edge of the tarp. I pass her when I leave for my night walks. She is small and shriveled. She has very few things and among the things she does not have are her two sons. I walk out one night after my dream with her. I am not too far from the campsite. I am in the area where the sand seems less hostile, where it is dark enough to rest, though not dark enough to lose one’s way. I scale a ridge to sit and look out. I do not think of anything because I am bleached now, too. My insides are chalky white. My mind is brittle. I see two figures walking along the far side of the ridge, they are only shadow in this darkness, but I can see they are walking sideways. To protect against the wind, or to make time, I am not sure.
I know they are the woman’s sons. I have never met them, but it makes sense to me that they would come find her here where the border is undefined. They are coming to hold their shriveled mother to their chests and tell her where the border is. And I flare with jealousy. A heat stronger and drier than the desert. I have always been jealous. Although I say this out loud, I do not know how long I have known this to be true. I think that I must stop them and beg with them to tell me where the border is, to not only tell their mother. Suddenly, I want information, although I have never been good at negotiation. These two things are related in my mind. I must give, give, give. This is what I hear from the sand as my bare feet shift across it. I run after them, I call after them and they are closer to me now, as close as the others in the tent. I reach out and touch one and he is damp, soaking wet, and I know he has just come from the ocean, but he shakes his head and the two of them continue walking sideways to the tarp. There is nothing I can do but watch them disappear. Watch silently and concealed behind the ridge. Another old woman told me this. There is nothing, she said scooping up debris from the road, when I asked her, frightful after seeing a body charred and disfigured, what comes next.
There are many kinds of waiting that happen under the tarp. I am learning to parse the differences. I have discovered two main forms. There is the waiting that begs for it to all be over with, the kind that is concerned with being where we’re going, that dreams itself into a life without the tarp. Then there is the waiting that collapses in on itself. That cannot conjure a life across the border. A waiting that is afraid of ending. I am in this waiting now. The waiting that shrinks life down to the tarp, to the sand, to the single hum of us all buzzing together.
It is in this season of waiting that my father comes to me. First, I see him at the far end of the ridge, a small clump of shadow moving in the way he always did – with a slight limp, the soft round of belly the only curve in his silhouette. He is walking sideways though, as we all do now because the winds have picked up, have begun scouring our faces raw. It seems he was walked for many days and might still have many days ahead of him before he is close enough to the tarp to see me. But it should be obvious to me he will not come to the tarp. He is a shy man, and all of this time in the sun has made me forget that. He is a man that has never wanted to impose on anyone. I can understand not wanting to impose on the tarp. It is large, ungainly. We are all close and crowded and have begun to smell like one another. It is a salty, dry, human smell. I smell no different than the other red blanket woman. Although, I do not think she would admit this. She has yet to still in all this time, yet to look at me even though it has been so many days. And so many days yet to come. But because of our proximity, I know I must smell like her. Some of the others have begun to act territorial, and I understand it now. I am worried about the possibility that we have all begun to resemble one another. A heaped mass. It is obvious to me now that our smells and our faces and our names have all blurred into one shapeless thing. And I want my smell to be mine, or how else will my father recognize me? I pack up to leave the tarp with its dry women and same smells to meet him over by the ridge alone. This is the only thing that can be done.
I wait and watch the heat crease the horizon. The same silvery strip that wavers. It calms as the light fades. It cools. I leave the tarp, passing the small shriveled old woman with her missing sons, and there is something about her posture that let’s me know she is hoarding the information her sons brought her, secret knowledge of the border that I know she cannot contain forever. My father is sitting on the ridge with his back to me waiting. The wind ripples through his loose shirt. I call out and he does not hear me so I continue trudging through the sand. Three attempts for every one step made. I laugh at how my life has become a game of small arithmetics. Ones added on to infinites.
I am close to my father and he smells of both ocean and charcoal. I stand behind him for a while and try not to startle him. It has been so long. He is a shy man, I remind myself. He has never been one to make the first move and I think now more than ever he is probably embarrassed. For appearing this way, unannounced. For being so tired. I touch him lightly on the shoulder and he is brittle. Bleached like us all by the sun and the waiting. I wrap my arms around him and tell him it is okay, that the waiting is nothing to be afraid of. He flinches and looks away and it is what I feared, I smell like the others, not like myself. I do not know what I smelled like before, but I know now that it is different. How impossible this life is, to only know what you’ve lost. It’s me, I tell him, your daughter, from home, that home we had so far and long ago. My cheek is pressed against his back and I hold his hand, he has given me that much, still distrustful. I understand his position, he has been walking alone this whole time, not sure if he would ever find the border, forgetting everything else but the line in the sand. I hold his hand, a little claw, still burned and immobile. I have been told there are miracle doctors on the other side of the border and I tell him that his claw will be a hand once more and that we will be able to walk along the parks like we used to with our hands holding. I tell him I will gladly hold your hand even if it is still a claw because I have a sneaking suspicious that not everything about the other side of the border is true. I do not mention that there is nothing that can be done for the rest of his body, burned through, smoldering and charred. But there is the ocean, I tell him. We can see the water together. He is standing now and rummaging through his pockets getting ready to walk on his own and he is frustrated because he cannot find what he is looking for and so he begins to walk off in that sideways manner we’ve all picked up and I run after him and hold his hand and say goodbye and he just keeps shaking his head in that way he used to, a way that partially conceals his smirking laughter.
Analeah Loschiavo Rosen is a Masters of Fine Arts candidate in Fiction at Washington University in St Louis. She is currently working on a collection of writing that explores irradiated soils, transnational environmental justice movements, swarm intelligence, and living collaboratively in the trouble.