a short story by Zaid Mazin
artwork by Fiza Mohsin
It is dry and hot, but then again it is always dry and hot. The weather never seems to change here in the deserts of the mind. Old priests used to say that the desert's conditions reflect those of the one crossing it. Rising and falling, again and again. Nothing but red dunes over and over. He's been walking up and down these dunes for what seemed like ages now, but it was truly two years, accompanied by nothing but his nightmares. Nightmares of what he was, of what he did, and worst of all of what he lost.
Every now and then he would see mirages on the red coarse sand, except his mirages were in the shapes of bodies rotting and missing all identifiable features. Bodies forming new dunes, for him to climb over all those he lost, all those he killed.
But he had to do it, it’s the only way to put an end to it, an end to his memories, to his life of suffering. The river surrounded by sand, every child in Sinda knew the legend, a river whose water helps anyone forget all that haunts them. A perfect remedy for our drifter. Almost too perfect.
On days he walks on, pushed forward by his past actions. The promise of a new life keeps him going, to forget all the orders he had to follow. To stop following a mad man and instead becoming his own man. As he walks and pushes on, his clothes start to melt and mold, changing shape and color. From the tattered cloth that was strewn on him to more restricting clothing, a uniform of sorts. He doesn’t remember what it meant or where it was from yet it seems his body feels at home in this uniform, like it’s made for him. The drifter shook his head clearing his mind, and the uniform with it. Dark came and he sat atop a rather tall dune. Though it would be a time for sleep, the drifter doesn’t sleep. He never does. If he sleeps, he starts to dream, good dreams, dreams he doesn’t think he deserves. For the feeling of guilt after the dream hurts him so much more than his aching feet or his starving stomach.
Instead, he sits at nights trying to regain his energy, itching at his scars trying to remember where each one came from. Although his memory is hazy, it is not fully gone. Glimpses of his past always haunt him, only when he reaches the river will he truly feel the bliss of ignorance. His scars line his arms in circles, almost like they were holding him together. He seems to feel chains around them when he scratches them.
The morning comes and he stumbles across a skeleton, a real one this time. It was an unfortunate drifter who came before him, for many men go down this road. He wondered how the desert felt like for that drifter, was it cold and icy? Or was it also hot and coarse? Those thoughts didn’t stay for long. The drifter saw a towering man, with scars on his face. His facial expression seemed to hold scars of its own. The towering man was also drifting, looking for the river. He still looked determined to find the river. Seeing as the drifter's own determination has grinded down to little more than an afterthought, he decided to follow the towering man. Both men half walked half slid through the sand, not a word between them. They didn’t so much as look at each other.
The drifter feels as though he has made a friend, that word brings back no memories at all for him, which is strange because he gets memories from every word he thinks of lately. His thoughts all took a halt as the man in front of him stood perfectly still and fixed his posture. He quickly started running, faster than the drifter has ever seen anything so large move.
It was the river; they have found the river and the drifter’s friend was running straight for it. The drifter walked slowly, watching as the towering man reached the river. He held his hands together making a cup of the water, but before he drank his salvation, he looked straight at the drifter. "My Name, before I forget it. My name is Bron" he screamed out. "I don’t want to forget my name", the drifter nodded in answer. He respected the man for his courage to go first.
The man hung his head low and started drinking the water in his hands aggressively, wasting no drop of it. For a second it seemed nothing happened, but then his face seemed to be changing. The scars of his face were slowly fading. His face already looked like another man. The edges of his mouth raising ever so slightly to make him look pleased, and at peace. All his body language changed; it was like the man who was standing in front of him was replaced by an almost perfect copy. Except for all the horrors he has seen and experienced.
The now content man started walking almost skipping away from the river, he paid the drifter no mind, forgetting he was there. "So, the river is real! All this walking was not in vain" thought the drifter, as his legs started moving him forward at a speed he did not expect from his tired body. He ran and ran thinking only of the peace he will feel at the end of this all. Thinking of how his nightmares will finally end.
He reached the river and took a handful of the water. Pulled his hands up to his mouth and started chugging the cold water, for some reason he would have thought the water to be warm from the sun, yet it was freezing cold, he couldn’t feel his fingers as he held the water. The drifter braced himself, he braced for the wave of relief for the calmness to come over him.
He felt something tugging on his mind, something forcing memories from his mind. But it did not remove those memories, no it started to amplify them. The drifter started to remember everything, he started seeing all the faces of the men and women he killed clearly, he could even smell their bodies. His hands burned with their blood. He started remembering all the orders he followed, all the choices he got to leave to stop what he was doing and to save people instead of killing them, but he never took those options, he never does. The drifter fell onto his knees, his body submerging under the river. He had become part of the river, unable to move, unable to think of anything.
The river was supposed to make him forget his choices but instead our drifter was trapped re-living his nightmares, unable to change the outcome. He was living in his nightmare. Forever haunted. Forever suffering.