by Melanie Moyer
In the kicked-up air is dust and on the wind was glass. Razors and rocks are whipping at my face. I pull out the strip of fabric I’d shoved into my pack and wrap it around my nose and mouth, thinking of what Gifted always said about what was on the wind — poison and illness. Next to me, Able braces the gusts bare-faced, and when she looks at me I drop the cloth as if caught sneaking rations. Through the gale, she smiles.
“I won’t tell Gifted.”
It is meant as a kindness, but it suggests I will not be there to not tell Gifted myself. That no one will mind I threw a mask over my face in the desert because no one expected me to be out here anyway, and certainly no one expected me to come back.
I drop the cloth and let the wind have its way with the skin of my face, and next to me Able frowns but does not say anything. The gusts continue to batter us from the front, slowing our progress and, occasionally, obscuring the view of the prize across the flat plane.
The Rebirth Mountain.
The place where gods brought sickness into the world.
It had long looked at our small village from across the hundreds of kilometers of flat desert that separated our homes in the abandoned boats in the sand from the slopes of the mountain kilometers away. Gifted said when the desert had been a sea, the mountain had sat on an island and the gods of the mountain poured poison into the water during a battle with other gods from the faraway place.
Most days you could see straight across the desert and be tricked into thinking the mountain was closer than it was. Not a several days journey across the salt and sandy plane spotted with fossilizing pieces of the past — boats and bones.
“I think there’s something up ahead,” Able calls and the wind carries her voice to my ears like a parcel.
I see what she sees. The desert is flat, this spot is not. An awkward shaped lump on the ground, something blowing back and forth in the wind, the color of the thing cuts through the haze. It becomes our new beacon to march towards because it may be food.
As we get closer, the shape solidifies itself through the wind. A prone form on the ground of a man painted red with his own insides. Out of his back are the long, thing spears of the tar skins. The flesh of his body, naked and exposed, has baked in the sun. I wonder if his blood sizzled on his own skin as if in a skillet. He is a large man at our feet, face down and long dead. Even for food it would not do. The tar skins often poison what they leave behind and this body has clearly been here rotting for some days.
Able grabs a clump of the man’s hair and pulls up to reveal the face buried in the sand. We both know what this is as she drops the head back down and begins scanning the horizon in all directions. There is nowhere for us to hide in the desert. But there is nowhere for them to hide either. The tar skins.
My scar tingles the way old wounds always manage to do.
Able brought the knife. The one she’d been working on since she was far smaller. She often cut her hands as she hacked at it, cracking stone for edges and testing the sharpness. Now it was out in the elements it was always intended to be, how she always imagined using it on those nights when we would sit under the stars as plentiful as the sand in our home and she would work up a sweat imagining her own future.
“Get behind me,” she orders and it doesn’t feel like there is any behind her. The desert is everywhere.
Still, I move closer to her because it is better than distance. It’s always been better than distance. But now we don’t have the edges of the large boat that makes up our village — a former cargo vessel, Gifted said — to hide behind while fires and shouting brought out home to a horrid sort of life. I can still feel our small hands and how well they fit together that night in moments like this.
We appeared to be alone in the desert for all the miles between us. But tar skins have been known to bury themselves in the sand and wait.
Sometimes they do it too hastily and you can catch the out of place swath of black, the color of the sky between stars, that they cover their bodies with. Dirt and ash from their Coal Farm deep in the ground formed into a paste with sweat. But I don’t see a black dot anywhere and the winds are too strong to leave someone covered well for too long.
“I think it’s safe,” I say.
Able stays quiet as if she can hear anything on the wind. The bare skin of my arm is touching hers and I move with her as she turns to keep it that way, like the night of fire and screams.
The Coal Farm always needed more bodies because there was always more coal. Sometimes they came by the village and offered food and shelter and the surplus of water they traded the coal for and would try to entice the most able bodied among our village to follow them past the wall and into the dark underground of the farm.
Sometimes they didn’t ask.
We were four when they came one night. A show of fire and sound. They knew how to move easily across the desert in the dark, with their pitch painted skin. Those who fought back would be taken for their lively, able bodies. Children would be taken in the hopes they would grow up strong with enough brute force and pressure. That is why my mother, with the whisp of her face that I can barely remember now, told Able — who at the time still had the name Small Hands — and I to hide.
It’s the only time I remember Able hiding from anything because the next time they came when we were older and just short of our first blood, she took up a weapon and swung at whatever she could hit, narrowly missing getting picked up by the ones who ran in during the chaos, grabbed a body, and fled again.
We climbed deep into the recesses of the village boat, finding a nook as far from the sounds as we could, never far enough. Screams carried on the flat land and on the wind. From inside the hovel, we were too afraid to speak so we held each other in the dark as if we’d been fused at every piece of exposed skin. Able brought a tender child’s hand to the spot behind my ear that had been gashed open and pressed as if it were button she could turn off and end the bleeding and the pain that came with it.
In the morning, Elder Vast found us hiding and there was little done to hide my mother’s body on the pile of dead to be sorted from me. Some would be stripped for meat, all stripped of their clothes and goods. Then the remnants would go into the remains pit with the rest of the bones and buried under enough sand to keep scavengers away.
They didn’t tell me if my mother’s body joined the strips of meat left out in the sun to cure and did not ask. I’m not sure if it was painful then, but her form and voice are less present to me now than anything else could be. There is the desert, the Trek, the wind and its poison. There is Able, next to me the way she was that night as we clung to each other in the dark and I don’t think we ever stopped.
Under the stars that night, when we got safely away from the body and no sign of a tar skin waiting in the sands and found refuge inside the ruins of a shipwreck that sat on what was once a sea floor, Able asks me why I did it.
“I got my blood, same as you,” I say and even before I finish the last syllable, I can feel her revving up and I almost feel bad. She deserves more than this from me, her of all people. “You needed someone to go with you.”
Few women had taken on the Trek alone. It was always pairs to increase the chance of survival and give one the possibility of more food and supplies should the other fall on the journey, which they would. When we were only seven, Clear Head and Faithful went out on the journey after their first blood. At that point Gifted was getting older and we could see a world where we’d need a new leader soon.
The Trek is how we chose.
Or rather, the elements, the land, and all its dangers chose who would lead our people. Every woman, upon having her first monthly bleed, was eligible to make the Trek, the foot journey across dried up sea and out to Rebirth Mountain. Women took the journey because it was passed down in knowledge from the old world that we withstood disease far better than men, and we knew we could tolerate pain for far longer.
By the time Able (once Small Hands) was eight, it was clear she would be among those who would elect to take the journey. That’s why they renamed her Able when her blood came and the confirmation took place.
And it seemed she would be going alone. Even up until the night before when I moved my mat next to hers and made sure to fall asleep touching her skin and we didn’t talk about it being the last night we would see each other. In the morning she was gone and I had a gift from the gods between my legs. I rushed to meet them before she left, with proof of my rite of passage in my hands, demanding to go to.
Wait for me! I’m coming too!
They didn’t give me a new name upon the confirmation. Some of us don’t get new ones. Some of us always embody what we were when we were swaddled and helpless.
“You never talked about wanting to go on the Trek before,” she says.
“You never asked.” And it’s true. I never offered but she never asked when she spent the hours fantasizing about what she would look like on her triumphant journey back from the Mountain of Poison.
“We can’t slow down,” Able says. “The longer we’re out here the more dangerous it will be.”
“I know. I’m ready.”
She does not say anything back, but I can feel the prickle of what she is thinking sizzling the air. I am her walking ration pack. It only needs a little time.
It is a day later when the tar skins do catch up with us, likely following our tracks from their trap several days back.
It begins with a sound.
It is a particularly calm day where the winds are concerned and every time Able coughs it is not so much an echo as a blast across flat, unobstructed landscapes. They could probably hear that cough all the way back to the village if the winds are favorable enough. I don’t want to say that’s what brought them down on us because I’m convinced they’d been following since we found the body and simply lying in wait. But I wasn’t the one coughing, which makes what Able almost did that much more upsetting.
They come out of the sand, likely having journeyed ahead in the night and placing themselves in our path. They knew where we were headed, they were a frequent obstacle for women making the Trek. We are walking and then, as if the world itself slowed down, sand curtains off a trio of pitch bodies that peel themselves from the ground. We choose, instantly, to run. Tar skins are opportunists, but we hear rumors that the ones out poaching more workers don’t get water, don’t get food unless they bring back fodder. It will be a battle of wills.
My pace is only a few steps behind Able’s and I know she is not running slower for my sake. So there’s that knowledge to tuck away for later, and for the first time it makes me feel like less of a burden for her on this trip. I can carry my own weight at her speed.
Until my foot catches something on the ground and I feel the rip of the skin opening and the ground rushes up to meet me for a hard catch. The wind comes out of my lungs and I’m wheezing to get it back while my foot instantly throbs to the beat of my speeding pulse and in a few seconds Able is far down the desert plain.
She looks back to see me prone and turns her head back to the path ahead, her pace not slowing.
Wait for me! I call it from the ground and feel just as pathetic as I did the day I ran up to her getting ready to leave.
Instead, something grabs the ankle of my wounded foot and tugs and I’m rolled over and face to face with a demon. Head shaved and covered in smears of coal so thick across the skin it has formed a clay-like substance that is cracking in the heat of the sun. The pink inside of his mouth looks wild against the pitch as he howls at me from above. It’s unclear if he will continue to drag me, reach down and take a bite of me, or simply kill me in some sort of heated fervor. I don’t have time to prepare for all possibilities equally.
He is knocked back just as I feel a rush of air, his head and neck flinging away from me and his howl turned into an involuntary growl. I turn my head to see Able returned, two more rocks in her hands and ready to launch at the remaining tar skins who now slow their chase, eying the cracked and bleeding skull of their fellow on the ground.
Eyes still on them and rocks at the ready, Able comes up to me and nudges me with her foot and I scramble as best I can to my feet with my wound protesting any sort of pressure or use. The tar skins don’t move. And they don’t move as we back away facing them. It is not until several hundred paces separate us that they move forward to collect the fallen one and make their way back. It’s not any sort of reverence for their comrade. If he’s dead the meat of his body is still too precious to be wasted.
After an hour we’ve turned ourselves completely around and faced the mountain but Able still has the rocks in either hand. I want to tell her thank you, but it sounds hollow even in my brain and I can only imagine how it will taste in my mouth. Thank you for not leaving me to die, to get kidnapped. Thank you for changing your mind about saving yourself.
Or perhaps she was simply running to find ammunition and had no intention of leaving me there to become food or cog. The uncertainty might have lingered and painted a better portrait of her in my brain if I hadn’t seen her eyes. If I hadn’t known she waited her entire life to be here and doing thing and even a lifetime of hand holding and gazing up at the sky together wasn’t going to change that.
Able is who she is. The desert is teaching me that.
Able insists the open wound on my foot, now shoddily wrapped, is a death sentence. Who knows what manner of illness snuck its way in off the desert winds. The one that makes ulcers on the skin at the wounds it crawls inside and swells the neck and imparts a fever. The one ballooning pustules, red and angry, all over the skin and black dying flesh underneath. Or perhaps the swollen spots all over. We’d seen plenty of illnesses play out in our village. The first time we’d seen a courting ritual, between Elegant and Stormy Hope, was just days before Stormy Hope got the spots. Because even though women did better in the wilderness than the men, it did not mean they were immune to the pains of it.
I think of Stormy’s cries and moans while I watch my foot like a hawk, but it does not redden or worsen or begin to itch.
But Able’s cough has gotten violent, racking, and constant.
She says it is the dryness in the air and the wind, but we both know what’s blowing on the wind.
Though sickness does not mean she will die. Elegant, for her part, never got sick and though Gifted called it a blessing I always felt she looked a little guilty, like she’d climbed into some shelter only big enough for one. The next time she chose a mate it was with Fury, a man who led the protection of the remains pit. I think she picked him because he seemed untouchable with his thick fleshy muscles and angry face. He’d make a good catch for tar skins if they could ever get ahold of him. Gifted said they only mated men to women to make more of them for the Coal Farm. Gifted always told us to think long and hard before the pairs that could do so decided to bring about a baby.
Able’s coughing in the heat of the sun is just one reason why.
We are a day away at most from our destination on Rebirth Mountain. A couple of good runs and we could be there before nightfall even. But even if Able’s cough wasn’t keeping us from that, the impending wall of swirling, darkened sand was.
A dust storm rolling across the land and the only thing we can see between us and the mountain for leagues around is another downed boat. It’s porous and imperfect but better than taking the beating naked in the air. We rush for it.
Instinctively, as the winds picked up, my hands come to my eyes. A reflex from a memory.
We rush inside the bow and huddle to the farthest wall we could as we watch through the holes as the landscape suddenly vanishes, pushed aside by the wall of dust and then we are inside it. Loud and screaming and rattling and beating. As if it knew where we were and wanted in. My hands stay at my eyes.
“Do you remember that still?” Able asks in what feels like a whisper but must be a shout over the noise. Stinging and blindness. I nod.
For me it’s a memory still happening, I can still feel the skin of her bare arm or the rough brush of her sleeve if I think about it for just a moment or two. I can still feel the irritated burn of my eyes. They’d been blasted with sand in one strong gust. For three days, I was sightless. If it had stuck perhaps that’s the name they would have called me when I came of age. Sightless.
I clung to Able then too and she didn’t let go of me. If that history repeated now, I’m not sure it would play out the same way.
We sit among the wailing of the wind and the battering of our shelter and I’m not sure how Able found a way to fall asleep. But as she slumbers something happens. So gradually that at first, I do not notice but by past midnight when the storm has died down and I can hear it, her breathing sounds like it is passing over dull metal. I watch her chest hitch and she coughs out the rest. I know it’s getting worse, but I don’t know how to ask Able about it.
So, in the morning when the skies have cleared and the air is no longer a wall of sand, we march on and her step is slower, draws more sweat form her brow, demands more breath that she struggles to pay.
We get to the Mountain of Rebirth just before sunset and Able has gone a mix of gray and green across sweat slicked skin that is also textured with goosebumps. The breaths she takes now shake her entire body and seem to take an eternity to get out. I offer a hand to help her up the ledge and she slaps it away.
We climb for an hour, seeing only more sand, more rocks, above us the promise of a peak. But then, after cresting one ledge and pulling to a stand, it is suddenly in front of us.
A place that had once been in a building in the time when the gods lived here beside a sea. Ruins of their home. I look down at the ground to see if I can discern in the dust the evidence of their footfalls, to match my feet to the places they walked along. Able simply moves ahead.
Inside is still filled with much of what was there, perhaps, when this place was in use. Even the tar skins feared coming here and only the women who elected to make the Trek from our village were permitted to try. This is the place where disease entered the world, and despite the winds of the flat sending it everywhere, here is its domain. What blood would it force out of the eyes and ears and what vomit would it extract?
Able seems to slip and has no power to stop her crash to the ground.
“I’m fine,” she huffs when my hands come to her arms but she doesn’t push me away this time, either because she thinks better of it or simply does not have the strength for that anymore.
When she’s back up she takes a sit and puts her elbows to her thighs and bows her head as her back works to balloon with air and every few seconds she coughs and spits out red globs. I turn my back and pretend I don’t see or hear and let my eyes and fingers run across the contents of this place. I recognize tables and chairs but what is on the tables is foreign to me. Containers? Writings on the containers with unknown words: Variola major, Yersinia pestis, Influenza. Small items that look like twigs and turn out to be writing instruments when I fiddle with one. I spell out my name the way Gifted taught the few of us who elected to learn how to read and write down words. Able had thought it a waste at the time.
And then there are the haphazard tosses of pages with writings scribbled across them blanketing the floor. I reach for a handful and scan through them.
The importance of biological weaponry against our enemy who is undoubtedly stockpiling their own arsenal…
Notes from the gods and their war.
We’ve invented so many ways to make a body tear itself apart.
I didn’t know when I enlisted they would send me here.
What if we lose control?
I don’t think anyone will be left to forgive us.
Stern faces of the gods on the wall in their matching clothes. Gifted said she didn’t know what happened to their enemies, the contingent of gods across land and sea who waged war against them and scorched the land, dragging the sun down to the earth and letting it bake and burn. Did they leave ruins behind as well or was there no trace of them left in the world?
Able is wracked with a series of coughs worse than ever before. It knocks her from her perch on the chair and by the time I get to her, blood mixed with spit and the goop of her chest is splattered on her chin and cheek and her eyes look more tired than I’ve ever known them to be.
“I just need to rest for a bit,” she says and neither of us believe it, but we won’t say what’s actually happening. Instead, I offer her water and bits of our rations and it all comes out later from a stomach refusing to accept what might help it. A body tearing itself apart.
The sun goes down outside, and the moon is bright enough, shining through the openings and cracks in the wall, that I don’t bother to try and start a fire. Instead, I build a small nest of what I have and what Able has and lay her head down. She’s shaking now, mumbles that she’s cold and I cover her with everything that I can find but still her body rattles.
Eventually it is myself I drape across her and she does not protest.
I can feel now the frailty in the bones and muscles beneath me. Her shaking subsides but perhaps only because her body is too weak to fight through the weight of me. Her head curls and her face buries in my neck and she asks me about things that don’t make sense and I know she has gone delirious.
“We have to start getting ready for the party.”
“We will in a bit.”
I think for a while she sleeps beneath me, and I dutifully stay put because I can feel the flaming heat of her skin and the ice of her sweat all at once and this is all I know how to do to make it better. She asks me:
“Do you think one day we’ll get to go across the desert too?”
I swallow. “Maybe. You for sure.”
“I think you could do it.”
I look around at where we are. “Maybe you’re right.”
“Maybe you shouldn’t though. You’re needed here.” I actually snort. Able coughs again and I pet her sweat matted hair. “It’s true, I want you to be alive.”
“I’d like that too.”
A wracking, forceful breath. “Those days after the storm were awful.”
“I was afraid I wouldn’t get to see your eyes again.”
I nod. My mother had named me for the bright green of them against the salt flat and desert horizon. Gemstones in the sand.
She called me Eyes.
And when I ran to the elders and demanded to be at Able’s side as she walked the flat, they called me Eyes then too. For the one part of me that stood out, the one piece no one else in the village had.
A lot of good it did anyone now.
“It’s because they’re kind,” Able whispers, now half asleep. “The only kind ones out there.” She’s so quiet I almost miss: “I’m glad they’re with me.”
I swallow again and my jaw clenches and I can feel a burn behind my eyes and my throat tightens as I watch her stop putting up a fight. “Why me? Why am I the one who’s going to get to go back?”
Her eyelids flutter and I see the brown of them for the last time. “Why not you?”
Tears escape and my head comes to her chest which sounds of sandpaper and broken glass beneath the sternum where a storm rages that I don’t think Able is going to make it through. My hands on her skin once again, the way they had always been. Clinging. The only way I knew how to get through long nights.
“We’ll head out in the morning,” she says as soft as the flutter of a feather sinking to the ground on the wind. “Before you go. Wait for me.”
I nod and when she’s asleep the tears wash the dust from her skin and paint tracks down my face.
In the morning I bury her as deep as I can to keep scavengers away. Then I take both our packs and head out back across the flat where the village will be waiting for someone who is not me. But maybe that’s why I’m the one still here.
Melanie Moyer is a Philly-based author of two novels and several short stories. Her most recent novel, THE ORIGINAL GLITCH, was the 2021 Foreword Indies Gold Medal Winner for Science Fiction. Her short work has appeared in Ghost Parachute, Philadelphia Stories. Prometheus Dreaming, and others. She regularly contributes horror culture pieces to Ghouls Magazine and contributed to Hear Us Scream Vol. 2.
If you like this story, consider making a donation to keep HyphenPunk running.
Make a monthly donation
Make a yearly donation
Choose an amount
Or enter a custom amount
Your contribution is appreciated.
Your contribution is appreciated.
Your contribution is appreciated.DonateDonateDonate