This page contains:
- Animal cruelty/death
- Body transformation
- Drug use
- Self-harming behaviors
When he looks at the stars, they are different than before. When he can no longer look at them from pain, he looks to his feet, scraped and bleeding and coated in sand. He has forgotten his name. He searches for it in the sand on his feet, looking to create through geomancy some knowledge of himself or of his world which has disappeared into timelessness. Somewhere ahead of him, the creature is running. When he finds it he will kill it, and things will be different.
Behind him, the Arab carries their packs on his back. They have run out of rations, except for bread, of which several bags remain. The bread is of the flat kind preferred by the Arab and his people, and Balfour has no stomach for it. He tries to forget his hunger the way he has forgotten his mother, but it persists, and reminds him of his corporeality. The ragged cloth he has fashioned into a kind of tunic itches his skin, and he feverishly picks at the scabs that cover his scrawny legs. Nothing can get rid of the itch—no amount of scratching or adjusting the fabric makes it any better. It is a constant hell, like everything in this placeless place, this nothing-land he moves through.
In the sand, the creature’s tracks look like brushstrokes, nearly imperceptible in the endless shift of the desert, but Balfour recognizes them nonetheless. He does not remember being a man of action, nor ever having any real familiarity with the visceral realities of the hunt. This pursuit is new to him. If he could remember the words he used to know, perhaps he could use them in some way now to hasten the journey. But there is no one to hear in this place; the Arab’s English is minimal, and the rest of the land is deserted.
The Arab makes a motion, pointing towards the horizon. Barely visible in the distance is the creature, a dark shape outlined against the moon-bright sky. Its movements are erratic, indiscernible in the desert night. As he watches, it dwindles and disappears. Balfour stares at it and feels an almost erotic hunger. He feels his crotch twitch, and then the sores on his feet begin to sting where the sand has met them.
“We’ll camp now,” says Balfour. The Arab looks at him, and Balfour is filled with disgust at his eyes, their plain emotiveness. Idly he wishes to shoot the Arab, but has no gun and no knowledge of the territory. He turns away and unrolls his pack, finding a spot near the warmth of their fire. The sound of the Arab lightly stoking the flames feels enormous in Balfour’s ears, and he clutches his head to drown it out. In his mind he knows the Arab is sitting impassively next to the fire and staring into the distance, the same way he sits every night. Balfour has never seen him sleep. He does not wonder about this; the ways of Arabs are not worth dwelling on, and this one is especially impossible to understand. Balfour cannot remember how they met, or the particulars of the man’s service to him. He does not dwell on this, either. It feels correct.
Instead he recites his litany, trying to hold onto language, which slips from his mind daily. Button, he thinks. Farthing. Parliament. Power. Satisfied, he shuts his eyes and tries to think of her—what was her name? her face?—but finds the images slippery, sneaking away like criminals into alleyways. He tries to think of death and finds it vast. He tries to think of England, and he drifts to sleep this way, trying.
When he wakes the fire is cold, and the Arab is sitting in his quiet way by its remains. Balfour has been dreaming of steak, an endless steak, which in the dream he eats and eats and cannot ever finish. His first instinct on waking is to eat something with blood, though there is nothing alive in this place besides the Arab and the creature, far ahead. He’s not sure either has blood. Balfour takes a moment to survey their surroundings in the light of day.
“Always the same damn thing. Sand and cry,” he says, and then realizes he’s lost another word. He wants to curse but can’t find those words either. Balfour takes a deep breath to quiet his heart.
“Sky,” he finally remembers. “Sand and sky.” He reaches down to pick a rock out from a gash in his foot. “Hell country.” The Arab shakes his head and points at a patch of ground that looks to Balfour like all the rest. “What?” Balfour says. The Arab’s face scrunches up, and he takes his walking stick and draws a circle in the patch of sand. As soon as he is finished, the sand begins to shift, the grains seeming to dance and leap like fleas in a circus, and soon the circle has become the familiar brushstroke pattern of the creature’s tracks. The Arab says something in his guttural language.
“Speak sense, man. What does this mean?”
The Arab looks at him, his eyes like a cow’s eyes. He seems for a moment to search for the words. “Cannot trust,” he finally says. The wind carries the creature’s howl from far in the distance, somewhere near the cruelty of the horizon. The sound of it, high and low at the same time, sonorous and shrill as a teakettle, makes Balfour grit his teeth until he tastes their powder on his tongue. He moves closer to the Arab and spits it onto his face.
“Move. We move, now. Pack up.” The spit moves slowly down the Arab’s cheek, and Balfour feels alive again for a moment. He walks away and relishes the feeling, and picks out another shard of something from his foot. It looks like glass.
They move slowly, trudging through the sand like cold lizards. The sun is merciless, and yet the air is cold and dead between gusts of hot wind. It seems to Balfour to have been days since they last had water, or perhaps weeks. Every day is the same: the landscape the same, their movements the same, the trudge towards the creature, always just beyond grasp. He cannot recall why he is following it, except that it is the only way he can regain the possibility of change. The creature changes. The creature, perhaps, is change. Following is difficult; its path is irrational and meandering. Balfour wants it. He knows, somehow, that to kill it will bring him out of this no man’s land. To kill it will restore the world he used to know, and he’ll never touch sand for the rest of his days.
A sound from the Arab removes him from his reverie. He looks up and sees, in the distance, a touch of color—of green. They pick up their pace. As they get closer, the green takes shape, resolving into towering cactuses arranged in a grove like some throng of townspeople awaiting the news. Balfour feels a bone-deep hunger that briefly overwhelms him, and he collapses just outside the grove. He tries to get up, hears the blood rushing in his ears, and sways and falls again, this time hitting his skull on a rock in the sand. Lying stunned, he wishes half-heartedly to die. The crunch of approaching footsteps dispels the desire, and the Arab presses a handful of sand into the wound on his head. Balfour hisses and swats at the man’s hand, then lies still until the sand is drenched and his head has stopped spinning.
When he is able to sit up, he looks to the grove to see the Arab walking from cactus to cactus. The man is leaning his head close to each one, whispering, gently placing his fingers in between the spines. The grove seems to be moving, shifting, cactuses leaning themselves inwards towards the Arab as he passes through the spaces between them. As the bloodied sand falls in clumps from his scalp, Balfour watches the Arab’s communion and is overcome with loathing and, to his surprise, envy. The wind is silent and the stale sickness of the filthy desert air seems to Balfour like a challenge, an enormous material being pressed upon him, daring him to fight back and move. The Arab’s ear is close to a cactus, his eyes closed and concentration on his face. Balfour hates the man’s savage mystery and his lean dark body and his ability not to be alone in this vastness.
Staggering, Balfour rises from the sand and rushes towards the outermost cactus, a wordless howl of anger and desire cutting the dead air. He tears at the cactus with his hands, and then with a rock when his palms are slicked with blood. Soon, the thing is a pile of dark wet meat before him, and he breathes heavy like a horse, eyes wild. Balfour gets down on his hands and knees and greedily begins eating the meat, spitting out spines and wincing when they pierce his gums. He slurps the moisture from each piece of cactus and groans. Grinning, he looks to the Arab, who is standing stock-still in the center of the grove. The man stares at Balfour, and his look is one of pity, but Balfour thinks he sees a hint of something else, too. A piece of steel in the eyes. A little bit of hard anger, of ferocious lust for blood. Balfour smiles a little to himself.
“Get the Catherines,” he says. The Arab’s face contorts. Balfour blinks and swallows and digs a nail into his palm. “The … get the can—the canteens.” He nods once, then again with more force. “We’re cutting each of these open and draining the water.” The Arab does not move. Balfour watches the muscles in his arms tense. His voice drops, and he makes it as cold as he knows how. “Do it now.”
As the man goes to retrieve the canteens, Balfour returns to the torn cactus and gorges himself. Button, he thinks. Farthing. China. Toast. Souls. Power. He almost remembers who he is.
The two men smell the blood before they see it. When the scent hits Balfour’s nostrils, the world around him blurs, sand mixing with sky mixing with sand, and in the blur he begins to feel English again, civilized and correct. When he looks down at his body, he is wearing a charcoal grey suit. When he looks back up, she’s there in front of him, and her name is on the tip of his tongue before the Arab’s cries bring him back to the sand. Balfour snarls and moves to hit the man but stops when he sees what made him weep.
Ahead of them, a group of horses is lying dead in the sand. Balfour counts something like forty bodies, prostrate and still. He watches the Arab run and collapse by one of the bodies. Its neck and sides are covered in deep gashes, the blood dark and thick and scattered in the sand around them. “The creature,” he says, looking wildly around to see if it was lingering somewhere close. Cradling one of the bodies, the Arab says nothing but shakes his head a little and steals a brief glance at Balfour.
As Balfour gets closer, the stench of blood and death floods his nose, and he doubles over. Coughing, he blinks and for a moment his feet are in the most exquisite loafers. When he blinks again, they disappear. Balfour stays still for a moment, then turns back to the horses and inhales deeply, pulling in their death-smell. He feels a sudden weight on his head, one he thinks he might have known before, and reaches his trembling fingers up to feel a hat. The shade of it feels cool and kind to his skin, tender from the constant ravages of the desert. Kneeling at the corpses, the Arab is making a low keening sound, and the sound of it in Balfour's ears brings a fine fur glove on his left hand. In awe, he lifts his hand to his eyes, touches the material with his chapped right hand, fingers shaking with an almost-memory.
A sound lifts itself onto the air. Not the Arab’s voice—something weaker, stranger. Balfour turns and sees one of the bodies moving a little, crying out in pain. It is smaller than the others. A child, he thinks. The Arab hears it, too, and rushes to the animal’s side. Balfour watches them, the glove on his hand making him feel cruel and wonderful. He wants to touch something with that glove, feel someone’s skin beneath the fur. His breathing is heavy and quick.
“Water,” says the Arab, pressing his hands firmly to the wound on the horse’s neck, its struggles and little movements becoming weaker. Balfour does not move, staring at the animal. The Arab snaps at him again. “Dying,” he says, gesturing to the horse’s wounds and its feeble movements. “Water, quickly.” His eyes locked on the horse’s faint breathing, Balfour walks slowly to their packs and takes out a canteen. Slowly, he takes off the cap. The Arab, his hands still occupied staunching the bleeding, nods for Balfour to bring the water close. Something inside Balfour’s body is stirring, and he does not want it to stop.
The sound of the water spilling out onto the sand feels like the only sound in the world as he does it; the horse’s groans and the Arab’s angry shouts vanish into silence. All he hears is this sound, the sound of glorious waste, the sound of power spilling itself into the hell beneath his loafered feet. When the canteen is empty, he gets another and does it again. Every drop is a curse against the desert, a killing of something weaker than him. He feels like Napoleon and revels in the fact that, in this moment, the Arab looking at him with hatred and helplessness, he remembers what that name means.
They stay like that for what feels like a long time: the Arab’s hands bloody and firm and Balfour watching with hunger in his eyes. When the animal finally stops moving, Balfour thinks he feels its soul depart, and he looks down to see the grey suit, an overcoat, and a cane in his left hand. He lifts his arms and feels the way the clothes love his body, the way they make him something like a man again. Closing his eyes, he imagines himself standing before her—her face slowly swimming into clarity, her name beginning to make itself available to him. He imagines her admiration of his posture and the quality of his gaze. “What is your name?” he imagines her asking. He breathes in the death-smell and recalls the last movement of the animal, the Arab’s foolish, heartbroken eyes. He is about to answer when the wind brings the howl of the creature from somewhere in the distance, and Balfour opens his eyes and is once more dressed in rags, full of forgetting, and around him are only dead things that have no meaning.
Balfour wakes from a dream of coal in the night. He cannot remember if, in the dream, he was the coal, or the miner, or the factory owner, or the fire. His dreams are always of some other world where he is more than the lonely, battered traveler he is here. When he wakes, they stay with him for a few moments, lingering like the taste of a lemon drop on his tongue before they fade into sand. Lying still, he tries to come back to his litany. Button, he thinks, and then nothing. Button. He cannot remember his other words, and he begins to feel his heart turn in on itself. Button, he thinks again desperately.
Farthing, a voice replies. It sounds like a knife gliding across a person’s throat, and Balfour feels his skin burning. He looks towards the fire, but it has disappeared, along with the Arab. All he can see is the bottomless grey of the sand, its careful ambiguity. As he sits up, he hears a noise and looks down to see a circle draw itself in the sand beside him, and then shift into the marks of the creature’s tracks.
“You,” Balfour says to the air, to wherever the creature is hiding. He cannot see its restless shape or hear its howl. “Finally you.”
You do not know me, the voice replies, whining and growling like a knife being sharpened. Balfour touches his ear and feels a trickle of blood. Fear invades his body, and he can smell it in his sweat.
What did you want? says the voice.
“I want you,” he says. “I want to kill you. Eat you. Destroy you. Know you can be had.”
No. What did you want. Before.
“I can’t remember,” he says.
Try, says the creature. The sand around him moves like a mouth to close tight around his legs, and he knows he has lost. So he tries.
“I wanted … I wanted to be alone. I wanted to be cruel and consequenceless. I wanted cream, and money, and I wanted fine things. I wanted to fill myself up with the needs of others and feel at last a man. I wanted not to be alone. I wanted the thousand natural shocks. I wanted not to want. I wanted the glory of the sun to be dimmed and man to go down into the pit and all his thoughts perish. I wanted to lie flat on the bottom of the sea and be crushed. I wanted to be the sea. I wanted nothing in this world to be far from my reach. I wanted God to know who I was. I wanted to be a creation of grace. I wanted to know I was.”
Yes, it says.
Balfour remembers. He looks at the stars, and they are in the shapes of pounds, and fleets of naval ships, and the English alphabet spelling out his name. In the light of his being, he is undone. “And now I have lost here. Here, in this hell place, hunting you. I have failed.”
You have not failed.
He thinks he hears something behind him: a footstep, a breath. “I haven’t?” he asks. The sand squeezes tighter around his waist. He feels a rib snap.
This was never your journey.
Balfour hears a little hiss of air. It is a few long moments before he realizes the sound is a knife slipping into his lungs. He looks up at the face staring down at him—nothing on it, not pity or anger or bloodlust.
Farthing. Toast. Power, he thinks. Power. In this moment he finally remembers her name. He tries to say it. The Arab pulls the knife out and cuts his throat.
He drags Balfour’s body through the sand. He recognizes the tracks, and ahead of him he hears the sounds of the creature’s whirling, smells its smoke. The work is hard, but his hands are firm on Balfour’s wrists.
He rests. Carefully he takes a cigarette from his pouch—his last, but the last he will need. As he smokes, he stares at Balfour’s wide eyes, the skin beginning to turn grey. The Arab sees his own hand beginning to fade to grey as well. He relaxes, willing his mind and the muscles of his legs to rest and accept their ends. Looking up to the stars, he is overcome with wonder, with a kind of awe he has not felt in a long time. The world is so full of this feeling. Behind him, the edges of the horizon are blurred, and as he watches they are encroaching on him, the plain of sand shrinking. The Arab watches his cigarette’s smoke traverse the air like a lonely bird. He is close. So close to the land’s desire.
He flicks the butt of the cigarette into the sand a few yards away and watches as the nothingness of the horizon slowly marches towards it, until the cigarette and the sand and rocks become a part of it. The Arab grabs Balfour’s wrists again and drags the body the last remaining distance, pulls it over a dune, and the creature is there.
It fills the air, this swirling column of smoke and sand and the breath of the earth. He can feel its hunger and its need, and he sees his skin turning greyer. The Arab hauls Balfour’s corpse to the very edge of the column, feeling the sand of it against his face, shaving away layers of his skin. He pushes the body into the column, and a flame rushes up into the creature’s body, green and bright.
Thank you, it says. The Arab nods.
You have done what you need to do. I am suffused with your need, it says.
What would you like to change, it asks. The Arab tells it.
What would you like to say, it asks, voice like a stone’s thoughts.
The Arab can feel his skin dissolving, his heart and his thoughts dissolving too. He tries to cry, but seems to have forgotten how.
“I want to say go,” he tells the creature. All around him the nothing is rushing forwards, devouring the timeless land. “I want to say I love you.” As the nothing floods into and out of him, he looks at the stars and he knows them, each and every one, the breathing lights of the dead and dying.
al-Ram, July, 2016
The second shot was close enough that the child felt the wind ruffle his dark hair as the black sponge round went past. The soldier’s screams were louder now, and as he loaded another shell, the child was terrified and felt very small. Trying to wave and calm the soldier down, he knew it was useless and too late. He said a prayer and steeled his heart and waited for the sharp crack of the rifle.
Instead, a small wet sound—a little gasp—then silence, and when he looked back up, the soldier was suspended in the air, his eyes wild. Jutting through his throat was a thick green arm, its spines glistening in the sun. As the child watched, the soldier gurgled a little and reached out his hands, pleading. On the wind, the child heard something like a voice.
Go, it said.
I love you, it said.
He fled, and as he fled, he felt larger and safer and sweet again. Behind him, more and more of the cactus grew too, materializing, breaking through the metal of the Border Police Jeep and rooting into the soil. From its arms, the soldier’s blood dripped, and so did something else’s. A whirl of smoke, the keening sound of the wind, and the dirt slowly settled into stillness.
As the child disappeared into the distance, the cactus grew larger, older, until it looked like it had been there forever. Then it stilled, and there was no sound but the dripping of blood and the creaking of metal and the roaring noise of worlds, living and dying in each grain of sand, the endless, intricate workings of the land. Some of its hunger sated; some small thing made right.