The ascent is gruelling, but you do not complain, no point in complaining, nobody to complain to anyway. You use the large dimples in the sand as makeshift steps, an uneven staircase that clumsily leads to the top, most of them sinking a couple of inches as they take in your weight, making you feel like you are walking up an escalator going down.
Not all of them sink, though.
Some of the them remain in place, stable, steady, lifting your body and your trodden spirits alike, small comforts in this tribulation of yours. But those are few. Most of the ones that do not sink an inch or two will slide down a foot or two, bringing your raised boot back down to where you lifted it, sometimes further down, merging two or more of the crescent-shaped dimples into one rolling mound that threatens to take you all the way to the bottom of the dune. So far the landslides have been small, making you lose only a few feet, but every new one feels like it will be the one to pull you down.
The last dozen steps have been of the slight sinking kind, however – one of them was practically a bulwark one, even, six or seven steps ago, you think, maybe, it is hard to think straight when your brain is slowly being cooked in its own juices. And it is not just your brain, it is your back too. The pack you carry weighs almost half as much as you do, its straps gripping your shoulders like a pair of snakes, their fangs sunken deep, two strips of chafed skin running down your chest, two rivers of sweat cascading down your back, mixing in with the dust and the sand and the dirt to form a paste that scratches and gnaws at your skin to incorporate your blood.
Head down, dry eyes away from the searing sun, you stumble your way up – step, slide, step, slide, step, step, step, slide –, not seeing anything but the next dent in the dune. Suddenly, a baking breeze begins to blow, brushing a thin layer of sand against and around you, in short bursts at first, but rapidly picking up, until it becomes a steady stream and you see the ground below shifting endlessly. Hypnotised by this strange effect, you unconsciously take another step, but there is nowhere to place your boot and you feel yourself fall. Only briefly, though, as your foot comes crashing down on the sand again, stumbling momentarily before you realise you have reached the top, and there are no more steps to climb.
You look around, your gaze following the fine line that is the crest of the dune, the spine of an ancient creature that has lain here for centuries before you were even born and will remain here long after you are nothing but dust as fine as the sand around you.
Something attracts your attention out of the corner of your eye, a change in the landscape, but the breeze has grown in strength and size, slamming whorls of sand against you, stabbing at your eyes with its tiny grains, pummelling your cracked lips, eroding the raw skin that still clings to your sunburnt nose. Knowing there is but one thing you can do, you cover your face as best you can and crouch down low, hoping it will pass soon, that its oppressive nature, its impulse to push you down and bury you into the dune, make you part of it, will not last long, and less than a minute later your wish is granted.
Standing up again, a shower of sand falls from you. You flap your robes to rid yourself of what is left on them and brush off what sand did get on you, the grains in your hair and your eyebrows, built up in the corners of your eyes, stuck on the ridge of your nose, where it had formed a crest not unlike that which you stand on. From your lips you make sure to remove it carefully, without spitting it out – never spitting, for every drop is precious –, and as you do your jaw hangs open, shocked at what lies before you, at what you had perceived earlier as some vague change in the landscape.
A town. A village more like it, really.
The dune you have just climbed continues on the other side with a gentle slope that goes on for several hundred feet before arriving at the village. Wheezing out a week sigh, you lean towards it and let gravity do most of the driving.
The heat and exhaustion at first only provide you with the image of vague smudges – nothing too defined, but defined enough to tell they are constructions of some kind –, but as you approach them, the lines become sharper and the blobs become firmer. Mud huts, mainly, some plainer than others, some trying to escape the term mud hut altogether but not quite managing it.
At the fore, a lonely tree stands separated from the buildings. No, not a tree, you realise as you get closer, it is something fabricated, something made by someone. Three times as tall as a person, but no thicker than your leg in any one place, you stare at this pole that stands as a guardian to this place. Its dessicated wooden surface is covered in small carvings from top to bottom, separated into three sections with three distinguishable styles. In each one, a gnarl sticks out to the side, from which hang wisps of cloth, barely a handful of threads in total, the vestiges of once lively colours and patterns, long consumed by the sun and the sand and the feverish winds that gnaw ceaselessly at everything. Once proud, the pole now sits at an angle that marks its slow but inevitable fall, a fall that will draw it back into the desert from which it once came.
You take a last look at the pole and walk past its shadow and into the village.
As you reach the first of the huts, you huddle under its deep, refreshing shadow, calming your senses. The wall of the building, though long dried out, smells like wet clay to your nose, which has known only sand for the last few days; its tan surface seems like the darkest of browns to your eyes, so accustomed are they to the brilliance of the pale sand; upon touching it, your fingers, which remember nothing but clawing up burning dunes, do not feel the heat it holds from the morning sun, but a coolness they have not felt for a long time.
Like an addict at the height of a trip, you rest against the wall, under the healing shade, until your body feels satisfied. When it does, you manage to gather your wits once again and amble into the village, always in the direction of the more elaborate constructions.
Despite the number of houses you pass, what you do not pass is a single soul, something your still half-baked mind registers, but the significance or lack of it escapes you, so you simply continue onwards, walking deeper into the settlement with every step.
Finally, you reach something you are more familiar with, something you can relate to: a town square. It seems you have reached the centre of the village, where the oldest and most important constructions are gathered around the single most crucial element in many miles around: a well. As wide across as a person is tall, with a simple pulley system, a thigh-high wall delimiting it and a wide protective roof over it, it offers an enticing destination to your tired body.
Before approaching it, though, you take a look around at the plaza the well presides. Most of the buildings here are twice or three times as tall as the one you first rested against at the entrance to the village. A particularly large and ornamented one takes up most of one of the sides of the square, while a derelict one faces it from across the open terrain. This last one looks like it has long been abandoned, a corner of its roof collapsed inwards and a large gash across the front door. Above said door, in the shape of a dune, a large piece of dry wood is covered in markings you recognise from the drooping pole. A chunk of the wood has been chopped off and lies half-buried in the mound of sand that pushes up against the walls of the building. The windows are all shuttered, but the shutters are pockmarked with myriad holes, the smallest the size of pebbles, the largest as big as fists. With time, it will all become part of the desert once again.
Having found no other sign of activity, you bring your attention back to the well, the sweet scent of icy water drifting out of it and dancing coyly around your hungry nostrils. You take several steps towards it, but, long before you reach it, the creak of a door interrupts you.
The sound has come from the other side of the square, where a door now stands ajar. You observe quietly and, after a few seconds, a small figure slips out through the darkness splitting the door and the building. It is the figure of a child, no older than seven or eight, and a bucket as big as his head which he swings around behind him as he makes his determined way to the well, the only thing he looks at.
You decide to stay still and watch as he pitter-patters over to it. His bare feet are the same toasted almond colour as his spindly arms and legs, which are bare of the dark hair that covers his head. His olive eyes brood under still-thin eyebrows and his chin, though not yet matured, begins to hint at the chiselled jaw it will one day become.
When he arrives at the well, he places the bucket on the wall and wraps his hands around the pulley. The rope creaks, the wheel groans and the delicious sound of dripping water echoes up and out of the well, music to your famished throat. Eventually, a bucket twice the size of the child’s emerges and, before you even considering helping him out, he is expertly tilting the water into his bucket almost to the brim. Once he is done with the transfer, he lets go of the larger bucket, but not of the rope, and lets it swing around for a few seconds until it stabilises, the sloshing around of the water making your stomach growl with impatience.
He lets go of the rope. It whirs along the wheel until, with a deafening blast, the bucket slams into the water down below, a sound you are sure will be heard in the whole village.
When you look up, you see the child is staring at you shamelessly, like only a child can do, but you sense a hostility of some kind that you do not understand. You know not the local customs and do not wish to cause offence, so you avert your gaze, looking down at the ground between him and you, and after a moment the child picks up his bucket and makes his way back to the building he exited a few minutes earlier.
Before he disappears from view, though, the door to a different building creaks open, this one revealing a young girl, almost a woman, who steps out into the square and strides directly towards the well without pause nor a single glance in your direction. Behind her, though, a window shutter also opens up and a large figure looms over the opening. The robes in which it is dressed, not too dissimilar from yours, cover all but a heavyset brow and a pair of dark eyes which never lose sight of you. The girl, who is carrying two buckets, also handles the pulley expertly to fill her containers, and before you know it she is stepping back into her house.
Once again, you wait patiently. Once again, just before she is back inside, another door is opened and someone else walks out in search of water. This scene, with a variation of doors, buckets, men, women and children, young and old, ambles and strides, collectors and watchers, repeats itself over and over, the shadow cast by the imposing building across from the derelict one slowly swallowing up more and more of the square until it stretches out to almost reach the well.
Your thirst threatens to crush your windpipe, but the hardened stares of the villagers seem to want to crush you whole, so you stand back as they all make their collections.
Finally, as the large building’s shadow brushes up against the well, the door closes behind the last inhabitant of the village and you find yourself once again the lone person on the streets. Almost delirious from dehydration, you teeter towards the well, your legs protesting at the sudden and unwanted movements expected from them, your knees fighting to stay locked in place. Slumping over the low wall, you drag yourself around the hole to the pulley and grab the rope with what little strength you have left. You tug, and it gives in a little, but it is much tougher than you expected; you saw that first child do it and you thought you would be easily capable, but the desert has taken its toll and you and your robes no longer hide thick, sinewy arms that once would have lifted the bucket single-handedly.
The bucket at the end of the rope threatens to drag you down with it, but you resist it. Little by little, pulling and tugging, hauling and heaving, the wheel squeaks as you bring the container closer and closer, the cloying smell of water almost driving you mad, so close yet so far.
Several times, the sweat in your hands makes the rope slither through them and you lose several inches of it before you manage to grip it once again, the friction burning through your bony fingertips and causing blisters to appear in them.
But you will not give up. You cannot.
You fix your eyes on your hands and the rope they are wrapped around, pulling slowly but steadily, until you feel a tougher resistance than before and hear a clank above your head. When you look up, the bucket is right there, only a foot away, and you let out a cry of desperate joy.
Carefully, gently, you lower the container and drag it onto the low wall, where you bury your hands inside.
Your heart skips a beat. Your fingers do not feel the cool, restoring feeling of water running through them. No. The feeling is something else, something very familiar to you. Looking down, a moan escapes you at the sight of the sand at the bottom of the bucket.
You look around in desperation, hoping to see someone, anyone, who will explain, who can help you. You did not hear it happen, but all the window shutters are now wide open. From each one, a figure glares at you within the dimness of their houses.
They remain silent.