The wind stirred the crystalline grains into a swarm of stinging shards that bit his heels in the dead of the starlit night. It eddied and flowed in grand sweeping currents like a great churning sea beneath the soles of his cracked and bloodied feet. They embedded themselves in those jagged red canyons, breaching the surface of his flesh and driving deep into his core, searching relentlessly for bone.
It had been days since he had felt anything other than pain. The blisters that swelled and burst beneath the mop of his once fine hair now left it a stinking carapace of dried puss caked over his scabbed and aching scalp. His lips had cracked. His skin had burned. The blood running through his veins spurted in a sluggish lunge toward circulation but with each beat, the heart came closer to failing.
Feeling his limbs going numb, he dropped to his knees. A weak and dusty moan wheezed from behind his nose having failed to break the barrier of his teeth. He’d cry, but dehydration had robbed him of any moisture that might have been spent on tears.
Raking his arms wide in submission, knuckles leaving faint tracks in the sand around him, he heard a clunk and reverberation that echoed across the barren landscape and climbed in a burst of blinding light towards the heavens.
His eyes blinked, the jagged grains that caked them scratched deeper into those desiccated orbs and once again the nasal moan crept from his nostrils and out into the desert night.
Instinctively, he brushed the back of his hand across the spot from which the sound had come. Again the clunk, this time followed by another, and a burst of bright light as the reverberation sent it echoing towards the horizon.
Shifting his knees he used his hands, brushing feebly against the silicon tide to uncover the source of the sound. It spitefully filtered back into that space to leave him struggling against the undertow.
His strength failing, his limbs stiffening, he made one last desperate attempt. With all his remaining power, he flexed the fingers of his right hand. With each grasping motion, the desert floor swallowed more of him. When he had gotten wrist deep a fear welled up inside him that he would not have strength enough to pull the hand free.
In that desperate moment, his hand closed around something hard. That same clunk resonated up through his very bones, rattling his teeth and the sand seemed to melt away as a bright blinding light burst forth from where he grasped it to send a brilliant gleaming beam across the sky.
Pulling it free he saw that it was nothing more than an old mandolin. It was a deep lacquered red that reflected the starlight towards the heavens. Its four sets of doubled strings intact he laid it on the ground in front of him.
“That shouldn’t be there,” he mused.
He tapped the wooden body and its deep drumlike response sounded an alarm across the sands. He felt the sound deep inside him, his heart quickening at the beat. He tapped again and felt his pulse quicken. Slowly grasping the neck he pulled it into his lap and held it at an awkward angle, examining every inch of it.
He had never played the mandolin before.
He held it for a moment, protectively, as a mother might a baby. Then he found a comfortable position and with a tentative finger plucked a sting. As if the night itself had come alive the winds rushed in to accompany him, briefly swirling around but losing their momentum as the note was smothered by the heavy air.
He looked up and out into the world around him. A set of eyes met his own. He was too tired to be frightened. The eyes were wary, but not threatening as their yellow irises glittered from the shadows.
Again he plucked the string and the winds once again harkened to the sound, the eyes following their lead as an old coyote slunk from its hiding spot to sit upon its haunches and regard him curiously.
Another note plucked tentatively.
A second in quick succession.
A slight and gentle strum and soon the air danced about him and lights swirled all around. The animals of the desert emerged from their homes and regarded him as the world gathered to hear him play.
The strumming rose into a great and wondrous song. Staccato notes of rolling thunder followed by a flash of lightning illuminated the landscape from within the dark clouds rushing to fill the sky.
His fingers grew more nimble with each note. Within his mind, the mandolin spoke to him, guided him, and with each phrase he played, life pulsed back into the blasted landscape. The tall trees grew. Their fronds would shade the waters from the sun’s blinding rays. Within their boughs, great fruits burst forth, ripened, and dropped to the ground. The desert creatures came and ate their fill.
The great rain had collected in a sparkling pool within which fish now swam and frogs now jumped adding their own harmonies to the song of the mandolin. The animals drank and then raised their own voices to add to the chorus. Birds took flight from the treetops where none had been before. Their calls joining the composition.
He slowed then, allowing nature to take up the song the mandolin had taught him. The strings slowly eased to rest, but the music carried on. He held out his hands and they were healed. Tears streaked down his face and he laughed as their salty wetness touched his lips. He rose to his feet and raised his hands to the heavens.
In triumph, he called out and the dark clouds answered him with a final rumble of thunder before they cleared, allowing the moonlight to once again illuminate the world.
Legends say he sits there still, with his mandolin upon his lap. Old Coyote sits beside him and the birds and frogs and fishes call him friend. They say he plays for those who are lost. They say he plays for those who are tired and tempest-tossed. They say his oasis is only one song away and once it is sung your weary soul can sit and sing until the end of days.