My feet hurt. It’s a low dull ache that starts in the soles and burns in my calves and clenches in my back. I try to count the pebbles I kick from the dirt path to distract myself from that ache, but my mind returns to it again and again like a tongue probing the empty space a tooth once sat.
I’ve learned that every place has a feeling--the combination of the experience of the senses with the emotions of the heart. This place is the feeling of abrasive sand between my toes despite the fact that I am wearing socks and tennis shoes. This place is the throb of exhaustion that burns in my muscles and pounds dully in my head, the dryness of my tongue in my mouth. It is the bright, unrelenting sun above my head bleaching the sky to a thin blue. It is the taste of yesterday’s cold coffee and the whistle of air through empty desert. It is the weight of my backpack on my shoulders, all that is left of my home shoved into a pack. It is the weight of the rock of desperation pressing down on my heart. The salty sweat in my eyes, drying on my lips.
A whisper of wind lifts the strands of hair from my temples, sweeping them up like the hand of a lover. The gentle brush of the air upon my face is like a sigh of relief.
I cannot cry, I tell myself. I have cried too many tears already. It is too hot, and I have too little water to waste it on tears.
I hear the rumble of a car on the road behind me. Instantly every part of me tenses up, like I am suddenly squeezed in the hand of a giant. It rushes past, unobservant of me. Uncaring. The rib-crushing terror rushes past with it, releasing me from its grip for the moment.
I am grateful now for the open sky, pale and thin as it is above me. The air might be as hot as an oven, sweat rolling down my back so that my shirt clings to me like a second skin, but at least it is stretched open and empty, just as the land is before me. Sweeping sand is only dissected by the black tar road. At least here, in this abandoned wilderness, there is space to breathe.
My feet carry me many miles, along the side of the road. The landscape changes from flat sand to scrubby brush. My stomach begins to ache along with my feet. The sky deepens, then darkens as the sun blushes furious red and then hides beneath the horizon.
I carry on into the night, a shadow blending into the shade of night. The sky sparkles now, the moon a fat crescent. Unseen insects and night creatures sing and rustle around me. The air chills, my sweat damp shirt cold against my skin. But I will walk until my legs give out, or until I reach a tree. I won’t let the calm of night lure me...it may hide me, but I’m not the only thing hiding in it. I won’t give my back to whatever might lurk out there.
The dark reminds me too much of the last time I saw my home. It was only days ago, but it feels both a lifetime ago and only moments before. Everything I knew turned upside down and inside out. That is a time and place that tastes like bitter ash. Smoke choking the air, turning day into artificial night. Blood, hot and sticky, flowing over my feet. The whole world loud and screaming. The wail of alarm and of grief interrupted by sharp pops, by louder booms that caused the earth to tremble beneath me. Neighbors unrecognizable, stained by blood and soot and tears, marred by burns and gashes, altered by terror and confusion--running past. Always running. The air smelling of burnt rubber and iron and fire. My brother tearing things from my drawers and my shelves, stuffing them into a bag, shoving what he could salvage into my limp arms as the world burned down around me.
He will be at the border, I repeat to myself. He promised me he would meet me there.
It is why I keep walking though my legs shake, though my chest aches and my head pounds.
He will meet me at the border. He promised.
The sky is graying when my legs finally give out and I crash to the ground, scraping my knees on the pointy branches of a bush and on the stones. I am crying again, without even realizing it. I am so tired.
I curl up, hugging my backpack, and give in. Let the creatures in the dark have me. I cannot go any further. I squeeze my eyes shut.
In my exhausted sleep, I dream of home. True home, before the unrest, before the bombs and smoke and fire.
It is a place and time as soft as the carpet beneath my toes. It is a cup of hot tea between my palms and the brown eyes of my mother crinkling at the corners, and the sound of my father’s laughter at the dinner table. It is my brother sprawled over the couch as I try to shove his feet out of my way. It is my grandmother’s wrinkled hands chopping vegetables beside me in a hot kitchen. It is the breeze blowing the curtains and music. It is scribbling notes on lined paper and friends crowded around our small living room table and strong hot coffee between my lips. It is the hum of traffic in the street, and the ticking of the clock on the wall with its hands pointing towards the times of routine. It is the steam rising from rice and the blue sky from my window and the murmur of the voices of all I love.
When I wake, my skin is already hot and tight and the sun glares at me from above. I drink tepid water that tastes a bit like plastic and eat some hard crumbles of bread. And then, though I feel hollow and shaky as a stalk of grass in the wind, I force myself to stand and shoulder my backpack.
The road stretches before me, dark and winding and long, stretching to the horizon, and the border that I must reach.