It was at dawn on the sixth day alone in the desert that I saw the city.
It lay across the western horizon, its pink and yellow sandstone walls gilded by the rising sun. Above the walls, spires pointed skywards like delicate stone needles, looking as fragile as departing dreams.
It was vast and it was lovely, and it should not have been there. It would have been talked about, in the towns of the borderlands and on the caravan trails. A city of this size, in fact, should have its own caravans coming and going, keeping it fed and clothed and supplied. But I had heard nothing.
For a long time I stood watching, wondering if it was real, or only my mind, worn out with exhaustion, playing tricks on me. But the sun rose, the city came into clearer view, and I could hear, far away though it was, the noises and bustle of any town coming to life.
Slowly, wearily, I trudged through the sand, headed towards the town. I could not have passed it by; my food had given out three days earlier, and I had moistened my mouth with the last drops of water during the night. Beyond, as far as I could see, stretched only further empty desert.
As I came closer, the walls grew higher, as though holding up the sky. They smooth and polished with the wind and desert sand, so that the sun glinted on them like glass. From atop them, pigeons flew in flocks into the air and as swiftly settled again. At the base of the wall there was a deep dry moat, which I only noticed when I was almost at the wall; a moat deep enough that four tall men standing on each other’s shoulders would not have been able to reach the top.
I had followed the curve of the wall round to the north when I saw the gate. It was on the other side of the moat, and spanned by a small drawbridge. Two guards stood on either side of the portal, watching me as I came towards them.
They were alike as twins, I saw; a pair of very tall, well-muscled men, their skins as dark as oiled wood, their leather armour inset with black metal panels. Under the brims of their conical helmets, their eyes were expressionless, and their hands still on the shafts of their heavy spears.
I had a vision of myself, as in a flash, as they must have seen me; small, dusty, stained by the desert, my cloak tattered and my cheeks sunken. I must have looked utterly incapable of harm, but their vigilance did not relax for a moment.
They waited until I was on the drawbridge before they reacted to my presence. “What do you want?”
“I have been travelling through the desert,” I said. “I am lost and wandering, and I need shelter.”
His eyes did not even flicker. “Where have you come from?”
“I was travelling with a caravan across the desert,” I said. “It was attacked by bandits and dispersed. I was separated from the others. For six days now I have been wandering the desert, alone and starving.”
They glanced at each other. “You have come from Outside,” the one who hadn’t yet spoken said. The way he pronounced the word “outside” seemed to give it some additional significance.
“From outside the desert.”
“Yes,” I said. “I’m not from the desert.”
They looked at each other again. “In that case,” the first one said, “you may enter.”
The city’s streets were broad, but after the weeks of travel through the desert, and the days wandering alone with nothing but sand on all sides, they seemed narrow and extremely crowded to me. The people, of both sexes, were as tall and dark and good-looking as the guards at the gate. The women, silver bracelets around their wrists, were dressed in robes of blue or brown or black; the men wore pink, grey and light yellow, the colours of the desert. They all paused to watch as I entered, and it was as though a wind blew alongside me and parted the crowds.
Now that I was inside the city, I suddenly realised that my problems were far from over. I had no money, nor anything else even remotely valuable. I could, at best, throw myself on the charity of these people; but looking at their faces, I saw only blank interest. I might have been dried but picturesque vegetation, blown in on the desert winds.
I need not have worried. “You are from the Outside,” a man said, falling into step beside me.
“Yes,” I nodded. “I’ve been wandering alone through the desert ever since the caravan I was in...”
He raised a hand – not far, just a movement in the corner of my vision, but far enough. “You will need rest and food. Come.”
I walked along with him through a side street, glancing at him covertly. It was hard to tell his age, as with everyone else I’d seen; he might have been forty or sixty or both ages and all in between. His grey robe swirled around him as he walked, just slow enough to allow me to keep up.
“I’m afraid I have no way to pay,” I began. “I lost everything with the caravan.”
He glanced at me from the corner of his eye. “There’s no need to worry,” he said. “In this city, you are our guest, for as long as you should choose to stay.”
“It seems to me that you don’t have many visitors,” I said.
“We have none,” he corrected. “Here, in the heart of the desert, nobody from Outside comes. Except you.”
We passed a market with a crowd at the stalls. People all stopped to watch as we passed, as though at a signal. There was something strange about them, apart from their uniformly handsome appearance, but I couldn’t identify it at first; then I realised that there were no children among them, no babies in arms. And, briefly, I wondered where the produce came from. But it was a huge city, and there must be cultivated areas within the walls.
“I am Seviram,” the man said. “Welcome to my house.”
It was large and built of honey-coloured stone, so smoothly merged into the street that it might almost have been carved out of bedrock. There were, on either side of the door, statues of winged lions, but they seemed as though they belonged there, not as though – as they might have seemed anywhere else – like an affectation. Other statues perched high on the walls, and at the corners, but my exhaustion had begun to creep up on me and my vision had begun to waver.
“You’re staggering,” Seviram said with concern. I felt his hand on my elbow. “Come in quickly, before you fall. You’re...”
When I next grew aware of my surroundings I was lying on a low couch, and someone was passing a cool, wet cloth over my forehead. Opening my eyes, I found that I was looking up at a girl’s concerned face. She glanced over her shoulder. “He’s awake.”
“I trust you’re feeling better.” It was Seviram’s voice. He came up behind the girl. “You gave us quite a scare there.”
I tried to sit up, but the girl pushed me down. “Not yet. Rest.”
“Listen to her,” Seviram laughed. “She’s the authority on questions of health. This is my daughter, Lis.”
“I’m...” my voice came out as the merest whisper, like grains of sand rustling. “My name is...”
“It doesn’t matter, not now.” Lis laid a finger against my lips. “Lie down, rest, and get some of your strength back.”
I lay back and closed my eyes. Lis continued wiping my face and neck with the cool cloth, humming gently under her breath like a lullaby. After some time, I slept.
I must have slept for a considerable period. When I awoke, the sun was a red ball sinking over the desert, its rays slanting across my face through the window. Groggily, I sat up. Lis was sitting at the foot of the couch, watching me.
“Welcome back to the land of the living,” she said with a smile. “I wasn’t quite certain you’d ever come back all the way.”
She was very lovely, I noticed, or maybe it was just that it had been so long since I’d been alone with a pretty woman. She smiled, seeing me looking, and motioned. “It’s time you had something to eat and drink.”
There was a table next to the couch, which hadn’t been there earlier; it was laden with fruit, discs of bread, and tall glasses filled with scented, chilled water. Lis watched me eating, as though each bite I took, each swallow of water, gave her physical satisfaction and pleasure.
“Tell me about the caravan,” she said. “Tell me about what happened after.”
So I told her, as much as I could recall; from the first moments when the bandits appeared, riding past the caravan to cut it off, the scattering of men and animals in a desperate attempt to get away, and how I suddenly discovered that I was alone. I told of how I’d found the bag of dried food and a bottle of water, abandoned by someone else in their flight, which had lasted me since then. But the events of the days of wandering were already beginning to grow hazy in my mind, days and nights flowing into one another.
As I talked, the sun had set and the first stars sprinkled the sky with points of light. Lis got up and lit lamps set on stands at the corners of the room. Their wavering flames on her skin made her look as though she was made of dark fire herself.
“You’re very brave,” she said at last, when I had finished. “To have gone on for so long, through the desert, not knowing which way you were headed – that took real bravery.”
I snorted with laughter. “Brave? All it took was stupidity – to be too stupid to know when to sit down and die.”
“So you say,” she said, smiling faintly, and then her smile faded. “You’re from the Outside.”
“Yes, as your father must have told you.”
“The Outside,” she repeated. “You know, I’ve never been on the Outside.”
“No. And I’ve never met anyone from the Outside before either.” In a rush, she’d slipped off her stool and was kneeling on the floor beside me. “Tell me,” she said, holding my hands in hers and looking up into my face. “Tell me about the Outside. Tell me about the fields, and the mountains, the rivers and the seas and forests. And then,” she leaned her head against my leg. “Then tell me about the rain.”
“The rain?” I repeated.
“The rain,” she whispered, and there was a wealth of yearning in her voice. “I want to hear about the rain.”
“Haven’t you...” I began.
“No, I have never seen rain. Never. I yarn to know about it. I have always wanted to hear about rain, but never got the chance. Tell me all about it.”
And I told her. I told her of spring showers, coming suddenly and falling lightly on the earth, and as suddenly gone. I told her about the smell of wet earth, and the green of growing grass, breaking through the soil. I spoke of dark clouds that blotted out the sky, spitting forked tongues of lightning, and the thunder that raced across the sky, so loud that it could be felt through walls and the air.
I spoke to her of rain. I told her of downpours that made it difficult to see, of how the earth ran with water because it could not drink down any more, until the rivers ran turbid with the flood. I told her of drizzles so thin that the tiny drops of water twirled and spun as they fell to earth, and lay like dew on leaves.
I told her of it all. I told her of the feel of a lover’s kisses as rain fell on our faces and lips, on our closed eyes. I told her of the earth and air washed clean, of beginnings new. I spoke until I could speak no more.
When I had finished, she sat silent, for so long that it seemed as though she were in a trance. Then it was as though she suddenly awoke.
“I need to dance,” she said, rising to her feet. “Would you like to see me dance?”
I must have said something that signified assent, because she moved the table away and stepped to the centre of the floor. Rising on her toes, she raised her hands over her head and began to spin.
Of what I saw next, I can give no clear description. She spun and twirled, and her arms and hands flashed in the lamplight, and her swirling robes caught the light, and plucked the shadows from the air. She spun and danced, and the light and the shadows merged and danced with her. She danced, and the air took her movements and made them music. She danced, and outside the window the air grew thick with moisture, and the stars were blotted out as clouds filled the sky. She danced, and outside the lightning flashed, thunder grumbled, and the first drops of rain spattered on the stone.
She danced, and the room and the air, the desert and the sky, all danced with her, danced with her and through and round me, the clouds and the lightning, the thunder and the rain, dancing. Dancing.
The sun was shining bright in my face when I woke, and I knew at once that something had changed. Under my back was rough stone, and the sunlight was far too bright to be coming through a window which pointed westwards, where the night went to sleep.
My eyes flicked open. I was lying on the stone floor of a roofless hut, with broken walls. Water from the night’s rain had collected in little puddles on the floor.
I got up and stumbled out through a gap which might once have held a door. The mighty city of the day before had gone. All around me were a low sea of crumbled ruins, and, beyond them, the flat desert stretching to the horizon.
I found her sitting on a broken wall, her back to me, staring out over the desert. Her dark blue dress, which had drunk the lamplight when she’d danced and woven it with shadow, looked worn and bleached, as though it had bled away all its colour.
“Go away,” she said, without looking at me. “Just go away.”
“Lady Lis...” I began.
“Didn’t you hear me?” she snapped. “I don’t want you here. Go away.” She threw up an arm and pointed off to the right. “Go that way, and you’ll find one of your precious caravan trails. Just leave.”
“But what happened?” I felt something clutch at my throat, as though with fingers, from the inside. “Where is the city?”
“Don’t you understand?” Her shoulders shook with some emotion I could not name. “This is the city. This is all that’s left.”
“From the rain?” I was honestly befuddled. “But how could a night’s rain do this?”
She said something, so low that I had to strain my ears to hear. “I’d been waiting so long,” she said. “Waiting and waiting, from the dawn of forever, here in the heart of the desert. Anticipating, knowing that someday I would find out, would know what it was like. I’d created...this reality...to fulfil my waiting. Knowing that when I knew what it was like, I could bring it forth. And now that it’s here...what’s left? What’s left, when what you lived waiting and hoping for is done?”
I touched her shoulder. “Lady Lis?”
And then she turned round, at last, and the next thing I knew, I was stumbling away through the desert, my eyes squeezed shut, to block out the sight of that face, the face of something that had been waiting from the start of time and now had only despair.
And my hands were tightly clapped over my ears, but I could not keep out the sound of her keening.
Copyright B Purkayastha 2016