Surrounded on all sides by stark red desert there lies a nation state whose name has been lost to time. It is by no measure a large state, although its citizens are firm in their belief that it is the largest in the world. Five main settlements gather around a deep, shimmering lake, where flocks of ducks and pelicans float peacefully in the sun. Reflected against the crystal blue water, tall painted windmills rise up and spin lazy circles through the timeless summer air. From atop these windmills, one could gaze across the lake, beyond the slow, lapping shore and see a ring of verdant green spilling out, upon which wheat and rice and watermelons heavy with juice grow year round. Finally, past this well-managed agriculture there sit the towns, spread peacefully among the trees and the dunes.
It is well understood among the people here that these five towns are lovely places to live, and that each possesses a unique charm that sets it apart from the others. In one, the houses are rounded and coloured softly, with flowers blooming vividly in every corner. In another, the warm cobbled streets form steps that look out beautifully across the water. Others have characteristics just as favourable, and amidst this pleasant diversity no town sits clearly superior to the rest.
It is indeed quite lucky that the environment here is comfortable, as it is much agreed upon that the desert surrounding this gentle oasis holds no end. In years past there have been some who have attempted a crossing, but as those tall, familiar towers fade and fall into the shimmering oil slick of horizon, so too do our explorers find themselves sinking into the earth. Yes, travel even an hours journey from the furthest settlement and one would find the sand to be disagreeably fine. Soon each step comes with it a soft drift downward, and were the party to continue, they would quickly find they could not move without firmly wading through sand much like coarse, dry water. From here, if the foolish still persevered, this wading would give way to a desperate tip-toeing, neck bent back to breathe against the sun-soaked sky. Anything beyond this, of course, brings with it only death, as sand sweeps into lungs, and the body is welcomed down into that coarse, dry land where the light never reaches. Most however, give up quite quickly and push their way back to solid ground. Why would one ever be so determined to leave such an easy, tranquil life anyway?
It is due to this peculiar quirk of the sand that the citizens of one town found themselves much alarmed by the sudden, almost casual presence of a traveler from across the dunes. She had simply appeared one afternoon, seen by a labourer mining salt from the salt pillars. He put his pickaxe down, wiped the sweat from his eyes and called out to his fellows. Soon a small party had gathered to meet the figure as she walked casually towards them.
“Hail, friends. Know that I bear no ill intent,” called the stranger. She had noticed that many of the assembled crowd clutched their tools with a particular tightness.
A leather skinned old man stepped forward, shielding his eyes against the sun to better see the figure before them. “Please forgive our wariness,” he said, his dark eyes squinting under his large brow. “We have simply never seen another approach from across these dunes. Have you perhaps walked a wide circle and come over from a sister town?” He asked this hopefully, although he knew it wasn’t true. Her tone of speech, her dress, her night dark skin were unlike any that lived around the lake.
“I fear that my answer may give you some distress, but I’ll not lie to you,” said the stranger, coming to a halt some paces from the miners. “I have walked two days across your desert and just now come upon your town. I am weary and sore from this journey and was hoping I might prevail upon you a bed to rest in and some food. I have spices and some silks collected from my journey thus, and if you will let me, would be happy to trade these for your hospitality.”
A murmuring broke out among the crowd and a young man stepped forward, his broad bare chest shining like bronze in the evening sun. “It’s not possible to cross that land you come over, and none have ever done it. What trickery did you use to miss a death what grabs all others?”
The stranger smiled at him reassuringly. “There were no tricks. It is no doubt a hard walk, and the sun a sorry companion, but it is possible, even for children or the infirm, provided they properly prepare.”
The miners looked at each other, and then at the stranger. Around them, the pillars of salt stretched their long shadows across the ground.
“Come, we are finishing for the day. Let us show you to our town,” said the old man finally. “Your presence is most perplexing to us. We don’t have much to offer but we will give what we can. If what you say is true I’m anxious to learn of your world beyond the dunes.”
And so the stranger followed the crowd as they headed back into town. Some of the local children had caught wind that the most curious of delights now walked among them, and so ran about whooping in the afternoon sun, taking turns to stare at her and sprinting away laughing as she met their eye.
The people here were primarily invested in the mining of the salt deposits surrounding them. The salt sat like rows of bright, craggly teeth, and as the sun sent it sparkling it was beautiful to behold — like stars encased within the ground. The stranger admired these as she walked past, and was about to comment favourably, except that she was distracted as they came upon the town.
The houses of the town were built close together, and above the winding coil of the streets, richly patterned cloth hung between the roofs, easing the sunlight down into a warm, dim glow. Strangely, even as the hour grew late, and the soft sunset light dimmed above them through the fabric, the windows of the houses remained dark, when ordinarily, in her own town at least, this dusk would have seen the slow winking awakening of many little lamps.
From the narrow alleys between the houses, curious faces appeared and watched with interest as she followed the old man through the tight, curving streets. People seemed to be crammed in everywhere except for within the doorways or windows of the houses themselves.
“Here’s me,” said the old man, stopping in front of a dark alleyway. As her eyes adjusted to the gloom within, the stranger began to make out a sheepskin atop a small pile of hay, a box being used as a table and the dark shape of a woman sitting against the wall; all of it tightly packed between the two buildings.
From the darkness there came a thin voice. “Welcome home, my dear. Who is this visitor you’ve brought us? The sun has gone and I cannot make them out.”
“A visitor, my love, from across the dunes, so she says, though you may well think me a fool for believing it. She maintains that a world unlike any we’ve ever known lies beyond where the sun sinks.”
There came a rustling from within the dark. “Oh, then this is a special occasion indeed. I do not doubt your judgement dear, or the words of your new friend. Please do come in and rest your feet, traveller. Let me get our candle out. Yes, this is an occasion well deserving of a candle.”
“You are… homeless?” asked the woman. She looked down the street and watched as the crowd inserted themselves neatly between the houses. A few still dawdled nearby, soaking up the curious look of her while the light lingered.
The old man looked at her strangely. “Homeless? Well, I suppose what we have is a bit less than a home, but it suits us all the same,” he said, a little curtly.
“Who then lives within these houses you squat between?” said the woman, glancing through a dark window beside them.
“No one. Not for another two seasons at least,” said the old man, coming past her and into the narrow alleyway. He retrieved from a cloth bag a well worn piece of chert and struck it against his steel, igniting the stub of candle his wife held out for him. Their faces flickered into light as the candle caught, and she placed it carefully atop their box.
“Come, have a seat,” smiled the old lady. “I’ve set out a piece of leather to warm you against the stones.”
The stranger came into the alley and sat down. Even on the hard, paved ground it felt good to sit after the day’s long march. The old couple smiled at her and she looked between them for understanding.
“I’m sorry, I really don’t mean to seem ungrateful, or to offend your ways, but I do sit here quite confused. How can it be you all live in the streets while these houses collect dust? I can make no sense of it. They look well built and comfortable. Was it there has been a pox sealed within them?”
“No pox, thank the lord,” said the old lady, “and pray there shall never be one.”
“We stay out here as we do not own the homes,” said the old man simply. “What right do we have to inhabit a home we do not own?”
The stranger rubbed her arms against the chill as the night began to settle in. “But if not the folk here then who does, and where do they live if not their own property?”
The old lady passed her husband a potato and he began to peel it. “I wouldn’t expect a stranger to understand our ways,” said the old man without looking up, “although I am surprised this way of life is so alien to you. There is a group, the gentry, who own all the property in all the towns. They split their time between their various houses, and so pass the year moving between each of our five towns, staying a spell in each one. Would you cut this please?”
The old man handed her a carrot and a small knife. The stranger stared at them in her hands as if they were incomprehensible novelties. “But that means these houses are unoccupied almost all the time, while you are out here against the elements! One person does not need five while four sit empty!” said the stranger, her voice rising enough to echo between the walls.
“You say this like we are not aware,” said the man. “But we have tarps to shield against the sun’s daily violence, and neighbors close by to borrow and lend what we need.”
“It’s not as bad as you may think,” said the old woman gently. “And we truly do thank you for your concern. Some are just luckier than others. Who holds the energy to rail against that fate? Now, while we cook supper will you tell us about the lands you’ve come from, and the places you’ve seen? I love our home, strange as you may find it, but for maybe the first time in all my years I realise how my heart has ached to hear tales and stories from this world you say is beyond.”
The stranger stared at her a second, at those misty eyes full of hope in the flickering candle light, and then slowly began cutting the carrot and telling of her experiences. She described her homeland, where the great, blue mountains reach high into the clouds, and towns hang cloth-strung between the peaks. She described the bubbling ocean, how the water tickles your feet and softens your skin, and the lumber-beasts that fell logs from the giant’s forest, with riders that live atop them in huts threaded into their huge, furry backs. And as her tales stretched long into the night, even through mouthfuls of vegetable soup, the stranger became aware of the others listening in the darkness, sitting quietly at the other end of the alleyway, in the streets, nestled in their own little spaces and staring up at the stars as she painted pictures of the wonders beyond. She talked even as the candle was long extinguished and the night drew long, until finally, woozy with fatigue, she asked for permission to sleep and drifted off against the wall.
Around her, the homeless citizens of the town lay awake, their eyes wide with the vastness of the world.
In the morning she emerged from the alleyway to find a large group of townsfolk waiting for her. The whole crowd seemed to be holding its breath, as if waiting for her to speak.
“Good morning,” she said.
A small boy could not hold it in any longer. “Was that for real all you said about the wonders across the desert?”
“It was. Every bit of it. You should see it one day.”
The boy’s eyes widened like she’d just produced magic, and an excited chattering rose up across the crowd. It seemed like the entire town was present, packed in among the streets.
The stranger seemed to be thinking something over. She took a deep breath to ensure her voice was heard and then she spoke loudly: “The lands only two days from where I came are rich and fertile and there is opportunity enough for all to own a home. I urge you not take offence as I say so, but it is no life for a people to be squeezed within the cracks. Won’t you come with me as I cross back over? I see now that there is no point in me staying further here.”
The crowd fell silent, unsure. Only the old man came over and addressed her directly. “Stranger, believe us when we say we would welcome an alternative to our daily toil, but the gentry, those who own the homes, unfulfilled with possessing all there is to own here, have attempted many crossings and each time we watch the foolish among them fall down through the earth, and the survivors return, heads bowed and angry. If even they could not cross…”
Angry agreement came from the people around him. The stranger looked at their sullen, bitter faces and smiled. “But I have walked across as one would any stretch of desert. I see no reason why you could not also do so,” she said, roving her eyes across the crowd to meet any that looked back. “I do not know what befell this gentry you speak of, but it will not befall us.”
Like the first pittering of rain before a downfall, the crowd seemed to heave and then crash with life, thoughts racing in a hundred heads, hurried whispers flowing between partners. Then they fell silent for a long time. Eventually the old man and his wife stepped forward. “We will join you, stranger. Just as soon as we have packed our things. I am done with work to benefit another.”
A woman spoke up, mumbling at first and then, as attention fell on her, she found her voice and announced loudly: “I wish for my children to grow up under a roof, a proper one. I never once did think that was something I could wish for, but now I can think of nothing else.”
A murmur of agreement echoed through the street.
“I’ll mine not a lick of salt more!” shouted a man, and a round of cheers erupted from the other miners.
“We should tell the other towns!” shouted another. “The stranger’s counsel and guidance across the dunes should be shared among all who dwell outside!”
And with a cheer of approval the town became alive with motion as people pulled their homes out from between the cracks, while others rushed to the other four towns to bring news of the stranger’s wild offer.
Time passed, and the stranger rested under a tarp, building once more the strength for the journey home. She had spent some time wandering the town and talking with the people, and she had seen that it was as they said — not a house was occupied, and all sat locked and empty. It was a peculiar state of affairs.
Soon the day grew hot and as the sun reached its zenith, they all stood out among the pillars of salt, as many as were in the town that morning as four times over.
“This is everyone who will come,” said a man.
“This is everyone!” shouted another, “all but the gentry deaf within their walls!”
An intoxicating giddiness spread through the crowd. Miner standing beside farmer standing beside cleaner. All held their bags of possessions tight against their chests.
“Is it true you know the witchery to cross the desert?” said a man, boldly stepping forward.
“Indeed I do,” smiled the woman. “One foot in front of the other. A spell as old as time.”
“How do we know we aren’t heading off to a sinking like the gentry get?”
“You are free to turn back if you feel a sinking come upon you,” said the stranger, marveling at the huge group assembled before her. “But if it will ease your worries I will walk ahead. You may follow as I go until you feel confident enough to come abreast.”
And so, with the stranger ahead of the others, they began to walk as she had come the day prior, eyes level to the red blue horizon. They walked behind her, slowly, nervously at first, then as the sand proved no impediment, began to do so merrily, laughing and chatting among their neighbors.
A distance from the towns, the stranger noticed the townsfolk grew slower, until the mass of people had stopped altogether.
The old man from the day before came up beside her. “One last look at the life we leave behind,” he explained. “The heart will always hold a fondness for lost familiarity.”
And so they stood and watched the distant houses they’d never once owned wobble and bend in the afternoon heat, until all felt satisfied and firm in their resolve and began to turn away.
But a child had spotted something against the horizon and called out shrilly to the others: “Oh, but look! Here come the gentry to follow us away!”
As heads turned towards the crowd of figures on the horizon, a wave of despair seemed to course through the group.
“They’ve come to rob us of even the homes we go to,” cried a man. “And all we’ve done is show them the way. I knew it was hopeless to ever leave.” And people dropped to their knees and cursed the distant gentry, who were rapidly gaining ground towards them.
Only the stranger appeared calm, an expression of gentle amusement across her face.
“Come, come” she said, gathering up the worried faces and directing them towards the new horizon. “It will be okay. Let us not look back.”
And so, with nowhere else to go, they resumed their trek onward. And even if they did now turn to behold those desperate, hurried figures behind them, the sight would only be a strange one — silhouettes somehow growing smaller even as they drew near, until there was soon nothing left to see.