The hot desert air stings my eyes, and the metal links of the chain the jailers put around my ankles grow hot. There is sand in my hair and my eyes and a whole parched desert in my mouth, and it hurts to speak. I take a sharp, difficult breath, coughing as sand enters my nose and forces its way down my throat, then I lean to the ground and dry-heave, because there is really nothing left in me to throw up.
The landscape before me is stark, a strange coalescence of sand the color of molten gold and a blue sky flecked with the blinding white of clouds. There is nothing to see in either direction for miles, except the long, snaky black line of the railway tracks running across the desert- the last stretch of railway in the New Union- and an occasional odd-shaped rock slowly weathering to nothingness above the simmering sand, beneath the scorching eye of the summer sun.
A sort of mist rises in front of my eyes. How long am I meant to stand here?
It has been two hours since the large, slack-jawed jailer brought me up here and then left me to slowly get the worst sunburn possible. He had given me a look of boredom as if leaving a nineteen year old to boil in the desert was something he did everyday, but beneath his expressionless face and unsmiling lips I’d detected some kind of concern. This man, I remember, has been kind to me before…once even giving me a larger than protocol ration of water.
I am their youngest prisoner ever after all.
One, Two…swallow a little, breathe a little, Hala, I tell myself as minutes trickle away like shifting sand. The metal links keep growing hotter, and I wonder if they’ll come off or fuse molten into my skin when the jailers finally let me back into the coolness and comfort of the underground Frontier State Prison. On other days-days when I wasn’t slowly melting under the blazing sun- I would complain about the lack of humanity in the conditions of the prison. There are no beds to sleep in, rats scurry across the cells and bite us at night, filth and dirt render the stone of the floor invisible and the male jailers are constantly not very nice to the women. The one washroom we use is so dirtied and polluted that I bite my tongue to stop the waves of nausea crashing over me from taking me under whenever I go in for my allotted shower times. The water we get is brown.
Across the span of the desert is a thin dark line where the sky and the desert seem to touch and caress. I watch that line until my sight blurs and I have to blink to keep the sand out. Grains of it stick to my eyelashes and I itch to just brush it away but my arms are tied behind my back and I can’t move.
Minutes trickle into endless, eternal moments in which I’m just standing there in the heat and sand, my lips cracking dry and beginning to bleed, numbness in every pore of my body. The numbness is good in a way- I don’t feel the metal links against my skin, and I don’t feel the hot sand shifting and burning my feet. The numbness has however left my eyes to me and that is the worst part- all the discomfort and pain concentrating on what is the most vulnerable part of every human body. I close them for a minute and relish the feel of darkness settling in. Outside of the dark cave my eyelids have enclosed me in the desert frets and snarls, sending heated wind that bites my skin all over my exposed forearms and legs. Inside, I feel a false sense of peace and comfort myself. It’s just like a sand burn-out that we have back at home, Hala. Just a sand burn-out. And you have to hang in there because you have to win.
I wonder if anyone would have lasted here as long as me. I know how the punishment works: the jailers tie you to a post and let the sun and sand take you in a chokehold and torment you until you pass out. When unconsciousness claims you as booty, they untie you and haul you back in and leave you to wake up so the scalding bruises can keep you awake and screaming the whole night.
In my case though, the unconsciousness never comes. I am what the boys in my village used to say: too tough for my own good. And the fact that I come from the hottest inhabited area in the whole of the New Union of States seems to help. I smile, my cracked lips hurting as I do, while I go over what I had learned in geography so long ago when my mother could still make me go to school: …Nahshon is popularly regarded the hottest inhabited area, lying a few kilometers south of the Uni Desert, on the left of the Desert Highway… Temperatures sometimes reach record peaks in summer and plummet in winter… Nahshon is mostly unfertile and the basic occupation of its population of approx. 1000 is working in the nearby Frontier gold mine …Nahshon also trades traditional handicrafts like sand-paintings and dried flowers… and makes gold jewelry in smiths…Nearest City: Kelza, 23 kilometer…Nearest Town: Tosse, 14 kilometer… Governed by Power State since…
The words Power State leave me unable to remember the rest.
Hot bile rises in my throat but I swallow it back and lean forward on the ropes holding me against the posts, trying to think of what the textbooks never say about my hometown of Nahshon. How, for instance, the baskets strung from lamp-posts at the town centre are filled everyday with flowers that the women of the village coax into existence with fertilizers and care and sometimes even music. How no one goes hungry in Nahshon for a whole day if at least one house has bread for us. How sometimes sandstorms lock us in for days but the moment they break people crowd at the town centre to care for each other and rejoice being alive and unhurt. Most of us are poor, most of the men slaves in mines and desert land unyielding to the sweat of man and force of plough. Most boys stop school at eleven or twelve and then help their fathers, while most girls learn some skill that would give the town something to sell- painting, stitching, something like that. My mother paints with dyed sand, and I used to run a forge and turn gold, silver and bronze into pretty things for the rich women of Power State and Nesta State. The women of Frontier State themselves never wore gold or silver…for them I made copper things which my mother painted gold.
What was best associated with Nahshon was flatness.
Hard packed dirt grounds, punishingly blistering undulating dunes of sand, plane fields, and dreariness in the river beds dried to dehydration by relentless summer. The heat comes down around at seven in the morning and stays till midnight. Sometimes there is rain- but not enough, never enough to fill the dried out ponds or the parched throats of a population of near thousand. But that doesn’t matter to us as much as say, other things, like taxes and the inhumane rules imposed by our “rulers”: the Government at Power State.
I forget about the sand and the grit as memories of my hometown washes over me. It wasn’t much…but we made the best of it. My mother is a prime example of making the best of it. She is a painter, who doesn’t need brushes or expensive colors that come in bottles. All she needs is sand and indigo and orchil to make pretty things the Frontier Traders buy from her at low prices and sell to Power City. No one from the City ever comes out here- there is not much to see in a hot frontier town. But it is an odd feeling knowing that the picture of our flowers and our quaint little town circle, created by my mother’s hands while my little brother Whin and I watched over her shoulders, is on a wall in a house in the City, marveled at by many.
What use did I make of sand?
Sand is competition. Sand is the villain in the cruel game we adolescents of Nahshon invented.
My smile grows wider as I remember the last sand burn-out I’d been in before they stuck me in the prison. The sand had been a flaming hot furnace of fire licking at my blistering back through my thin flax blouse. We had been fighting over a tiny nugget of gold town genius Rusah had found while using his famed water-diviner to find some hidden stream in the desert. I had won, forcing my back into the same kind of numbness that I had just forced my legs into, keeping my eyes locked on the gold nugget in Rusah’s hand, watching the light reflect off it and glint in my moaning, heat-dazed competitors’ eyes. I had won, and that gold had been the only thing that had prevented my death sentence one month later.
Maybe I would be better off dead, I think in depression, as the numbness starts to wear off a little and my stomach craves for something to go into it so it could at least throw it all up. I look behind me, and see the large jailer staring at me with his slanted eyes and eternally open mouth. In his face I see something strange: an approval of sorts. Perhaps he’s appraising my resilience to the sand and the heat and the daze. Or perhaps he’s just staring at me for no reason at all.
I watch him for a few minutes that again seem to trickle away like dust in a wind, hopeful of being freed, but he just stares and I finally give up, slumping again, thinking obscure thoughts about how the ropes were going to leave rope-burns on my chest because I was lying on them like this.
The crux with this punishment is that it gives you too much time to think of the pain you are in. I don’t really think of the physical pain but I do think of things that leave me feeling hollowed out inside like a rodent had gnawed away my stomach and intestines. A ball of pain ricochets behind my temples and pound against my forehead as I think of how I got here all over again. It still leaves me a miserable wreck, and I don’t need that now, so I chant in my mind One, Two…take a breath, Hala.
But now that I’ve given my mind a gap in the stream of thoughts I’d been running, it threw images my way: the letters, the arrests, the fight.
Take a breath and just suck it up, half-breed, that’s what you do when life screws you.
I gasp, and then I retch again, and of course nothing comes out. I moan; it comes out a faint sound because my lungs are full of sand and I can’t breathe anymore. There is no space for breath anymore.
Why did I do that? I wonder, because the last words I’d thought up weren’t mine. They belonged to someone whose sane voice I missed more than anything else right then. Someone who could calmly take anything thrown at him.
I have been avoiding thinking of him at all, but now his voice is in my mind- his calm, assured voice, telling me what to do when life sucked, calling me that half-insult half-nickname “half-breed” , and suddenly everything just seems so bleak, so horrible.
I slump farther against my ropes, putting my full weight on it, ignoring the tightness in my chest where the ropes are cutting into my skin and choking me. My mouth parts and I want to scream bloody murder at the jailer standing down there as if oblivious to my torment, but I can’t. So I lie there and think of him- what he could be doing at the moment, at this endless moment when my whole body hurts and I want to die, and then it hurts so much, inside and outside, and I’m so angry that I fight.
I strain against those ropes and I yank and pull at the knot my hands are in, and I smash my head against the iron post they’ve tied me to. The jailer lets out a startled ‘What the heck-?’ and rings a bell to call to the other jailers, the sand and sun swirls and hurls their energies at me, wind bites my skin, and memories and images overcrowd my brain- until the world cuts.
The world cuts and there is only blackness and then someone with an unfamiliar, drawling voice asks ‘Are you people out of your mind?!’ and then I fade.