Joe was jaded and bewildered when he woke; maybe it was the blazing feverish heat pounding on his exposed skin, sizzling his sweat like hot oil. It could have been reality sinking in; or it may even have been the shrapnel tormenting his inner thigh. His sleep seemed timeless; so long that he could hardly remember the point when he had taken to the sand. He had a vivid memory of the gunfire and black smoke, which lingered in his thoughts like a disease, and the ground spiralling toward him, trapped inside the ‘Pup’ Sopwith, and then nothing.
In his right hand, he gripped the silver cross and chain his wife had given him just before the war. Inscribed on its back was ‘forever-always’. He couldn’t remember her name now, which angered him. He fought angrily to find the memory of her, beating the hot sand when he concluded it futility.
Joe felt sticky down his spinal column, and also burnt from the scorched sand. He could still feel it burning him like smouldering charcoal. His soiled beige shirt was ripped, with buttons either torn away or hanging in limbo on loose threads. The choking sand encompassing his entirety made him itch; although he resisted the urge to scratch the irritant. He lifted his head, straining his neck. He grimaced. His back hurt. Must’ve done some damage, his instinct told him. He let out a painful gasp and hissed in the desert air through gritted teeth.
His leg, up to the knee, was imprisoned under the upturned cockpit. Blood had clotted into the sand, looking a reddish-brown. He hoisted himself onto his elbows, quieting his instinct. His lips were scabby and mouth dry. He studied the sand around the plane, searching for his water canister. He was drawn to a twinkle of silver reflecting the sun; a lid of a matted metallic bottle covered by faded brown leather from the neck downwards. It was an arms stretch away, but even this was too far; the piece of seven-inch shrapnel tunnelled a deeper and wider gash into his thigh. It was teasing against his bone. Thick crimson pulsed from an opening, like the mouth of a fish out of water gasping for life; and joined the coagulated stain on his grubby stone slacks. Joe gave out a loud yelp, but the sound only seemed to cry in his own head.
He glanced at the bottle again, reached out his arm and clicked his fingers, as though the bottle was an obedient puppy. Maybe this was the first sign of the sun’s inflicting madness.
And then Joe stopped clicking and stared at the bottle, and laughed at what he saw, although it hurt him to do so. He looked into the burning sky, squinting and croaked, “Christ!” There was a quarter-inch indentation in the bottle and black-scorched leather around the bullet hole. He grunted and collapsed onto his back, whining at the abrupt twinge from his thigh. But the sand was baking and he didn’t know which hurt more, the throbbing from the red-glazed shrapnel or the roasting sand on his back and head. He grimaced at both pains, but after thirty seconds, only the sharp cutting of his tender flesh remained.
Joe closed his eyes, praying to hear the engine of an ally, but all that rung between his ears was a faint whisper of a warm breeze. He prayed for rain, although he knew that it would have been a miracle.
When he woke again, his mouth felt as if he had eaten sand out of desperation, and his dehydrated tongue was starting to shrivel and crack and his throat tighten. When he coughed, it felt as if a thousand needles were worming into his neck from the inside. He moaned and screwed his eyes and then cough involuntarily. Joe erupted into a painful and muffled laugh; his Adams apple protruded high from his neck as he buckled with a crazed joy that only came from madmen. And then came the sorrow, and the tears.
The glazed shrapnel hungrily gouged a wider slit and more blood ejected. He couldn’t feel his leg now, nor could he feel how deep the shrapnel burrowing, but he was aware of the blood pumping disturbingly through his veins. He could still feel the pounding in his head and the welcome coolness rising from his leg.
Joe had lost too much blood. He fought for consciousness. He knew he was dying, though funnily enough, he felt more alive than ever. Sure, the sun was burning cancerous scars onto his skin and a third of his life was congealing on the sand, but he felt high, almost giddy, as if he’d been given morphine. But he knew he was already dead, so to speak.
There was nothing Joe could do but think. He thought about home and laughed, and then he cried, tears creating clean lines as they fell down his dusty cheeks. He couldn’t remember home. He tried to think of a house…any house…to try and trigger a small memory. He imagined a perfect family, a boy and a girl. It was false, but it might just spark something. He knew he was married and did have two children, or was it three, he thought; but their faces were blank; a haze around a shape that could’ve been anybody’s. War and time has a way of erasing memories no matter how hard you tried to hold onto an image.
He looked up to the blazing sky, squinting, and prayed. “Just a mouthful of water and a cool soft bed with clean white linen,” Joe muttered from chapped lips. “Don’t have to be clean, just soft, please, please. And the water,” he shook his head, “…don’t need to be clear, as long as it tastes good.” His eyes flickered and eyelids felt weighted. He closed them slowly, and muttered, “Home, just one memory. This all I ask of you. Just one memory of my wife, my children, their faces…please.” He was pleading, his eyes drowning in tears. He could feel himself drifting…leaving. He touched the salty liquid with the tips of his fingers and put them to his lips. Joe’s heart skipped a beat, slowed, and then ceased.
He saw a shadow cloak the sun through closed eyelids just before his eyeballs turned into his head. His heart kick-started, one beat, two, then stuttered before increasing its momentum. Joe opened his eyes, squinting. A man with dark skin, naked apart from a rusty loincloth, looked down on him, expressionless. His scalp had stubble all over with an arched area cleanly shaven making his forehead look receded. Pitted tribal scars adorned his cheekbones and his earlobes had thumb-nail-sized holes. The stranger’s athletic torso was dull with sand. He smiled at Joe and then glanced at the Sopwith and scowled. He went around the plane.
The stranger dragged the fuselage off Joe’s leg. He stared at Joe, warm, but curious, as though he wanted to know his story. He smiled and then nodded, looked to his right and pointed. Joe traced his finger and looked to his left.
It was a blur, as if seeing something through the bottom of a glass, unfocused. He blinked and squinted and it became clearer, but he still couldn’t believe. Mirage, he thought. But a mirage flickered and this was obviously as solid as stone.
Joe saw a walled City with fifteen-foot, rough stone walls and thick coffee-coloured gates decorated with gold. He gasped and glanced at the stranger, but he was gone, or was he ever there. Even his footprints had vanished. But he must’ve been here, the Sopwith’s moved, he convinced himself. He felt warmer, like a campfire had been lit nearby. There was no numbness and the shrapnel had refrained from embedding its ruthless blade further. The bleeding had stopped; no pain; although the metal was still there glistening with wet crimson.
Joe heaved himself to his feet, shaky but improving. He glared at the City, shielding his eyes from the sun. He leaned on his good leg and limped toward the walls, never looking back; never thought to.
The size of the gates made him feel inferior. He cautiously knocked. The noise sounded heavy and hollow, rumbling beyond the walls. The gates opened marginally with the grind of cogs, and he hobbled through into the shade. He was about to look back at the wreckage he had abandoned, but the gates were almost closed as a dust cloud spewed from around the opening. Three women approached Joe, embellished in white silk robes dancing baggily on their bodies. They touched him, curiously, and lightly held his elbow and hand, guiding him into a clay brick edifice with a thatched roof. It was the only building within the walls; the rest of the land was covered by palms, oak, ash. “Oak and ash?” he muttered.
The edifice was only a small room containing a huge bed and a jug of water sitting on a stool beside it. He shrugged the women away, and there was an icy chill on his back. He turned and they were gone, just like the stranger. Is this real? he thought.
Joe hurried over to the water as if it would vanish at any minute. There was a glass, but he drank from the jug, water spilling down his chin like a waterfall.
He pressed firmly onto the mattress. Soft and cool and white linen. Joe climbed onto the bedding and studied the room, looking unsure, but finally laying back onto the pillow. He took deep, slow breaths, inhaling the aroma of ginger; and then he closed his eyes and smiled, contentedly.
But Joe never did look back at the wreckage; he didn’t need to, because he never left. The sand crept in like a pack of wolves shuffling toward their dying prey. Another day and he would be buried. Joe still gripped the cross and chain, and then his hand relaxed and the chain sank into the sand like a burrowing worm.
Joe smiled peacefully. He could see them now. He remembered their names.
postscript: This is a short story I wrote when I was young. Its rough around the edges, but I just wanted to share. I hope you enjoyed the read and please share and leave a comment.