We unroofed our homes, unhinged the doors, threw open our windows to the desert, hoping the cresting dunes of sand advancing on the village would pass through our houses as they migrated toward the coast like a herd of ambling behemoths.
We worked steadily that last day, the women packing what could be carted away, the men laying flat everything that might survive the crushing weight of the dunes drifting toward us. In every house, tables raised their four legs to the blue sky; paired chairs huddled on their sides, seat against seat.
Everyone was uneasy, but no one panicked. Sand, after all, was something we understood. It was the rasp in the breeze, we taught our children, the mote that blinds, the grain that hobbles. We hurried to secure our homes as the light thinned and the evening chilled; still, none of us cursed the impending catastrophe. What would have been the point? Against sand, we knew ourselves impotent.
It found its way into every spoonful of lentils we raised to our lips. Trailing along a sill, our fingertips crusted with it. By day, nestled in the folds of our clothes, it rubbed us raw. By night, it powdered the naked body beneath, the bare body above, so the more passionate the embrace, the more each chafed the other. It hissed in the bottom of a tin of saved letters tipped from a high shelf. It etched ruts every time we cleaned our plates, our cups, our windows, our mirrors. Even in death, it continued to torment us: only a few seasons of sandstorms effaced the inscriptions on our tombstones, which themselves turned to sand little by little until the last traces of our graves were obliterated. No one could live here long without bowing to the force of the infinitesimal, the infinitesimal in which holy men have glimpsed the grandeur of the infinite.
A desiccating wind had swept the miniscule beads into towering blonde mountains that crumbled forward, granule by granule, shuffling toward our village like vast swells in an ocean of grit, relentlessly scouring the land. We did not cower in the shadow of the cataclysm about to inundate us, praying for deliverance – only a fool begs mercy of the inexorable. Instead, we yielded to its might and prepared to flee.
In fact, a kind of elation buoyed our preparations. Neighbours greeted one another with jokes. Giggling children scurried through houses without doors, without roofs. Husbands flirted with their wives. I once read that as conquering rebels advanced on a capital, its citizens joined in an increasingly frenzied carnival. Preparing to surrender my home to the sand, I began to understand their grim abandon.
The hungry man is happy, the poet tells us, because hunger frees one of all desire but to be fed – and this, unlike so much of what we want, is a desire capable of satisfaction. Thus hunger refines life’s many mysteries into a single, answerable question. Like the hungry man, we, too, were happy as we worked through that final night and pondered, looming in the darkness, the sole mystery left in our universe: sand.
We could feel it lapping at our ankles even before dawn illuminated the hulking hills, burnished golden by the early light. Already, sand was banked against the low walls of the vegetable gardens we tilled on the outskirts of our village, beyond the last row of houses. Shaking our heads, we surveyed the rising onslaught.
The carpet of fine sand that had swept in silently before first light now deepened moment to moment. By the time we gathered up the last of our bundles and headed toward higher ground, we had to slog through drifts up to our knees.
As the procession set off, we continued to watch, over our shoulders, the spectacle of sand slowly swallowing our town. As if in the presence of death, we spoke softly as houses seemed to sink beneath the golden tide that rose in wave after tumbling wave, inching up door-jambs toward lintels that were themselves soon submerged.
The plateau where we intended to set up camp should have been a few hours’ walk. But burdened by possessions we could not bring ourselves to leave behind, we found it slow going, our progress governed by the weakest members of the village. Children tired, and by afternoon, the elderly needed shade. The sky was streaked purple and pink when we finally reached the base of the cliffs.
With darkness falling we unburdened ourselves of everything but our baskets of food, which were divided among the women and children to carry while the men slung frail grandparents or essential supplies on their backs as we prepared to climb the narrow path. There were tents to pitch and blankets to unpack once we had scaled the cliff. By the time we finally sank down on the flat stones overlooking the moonlit rift and shared a cold supper, it was nearly midnight. Though we strained to see our village, we could make out nothing in the dark distance.
The next morning, rising from restless sleep, we squinted into the low sun, the glare searing our eyes as we scanned the valley beneath us for outcroppings of our houses. Here and there in the distance, the peak of a wall seemed to jut from the dunes. But before we could call others to see, the sand had shifted, burying the remnant we might have only imagined.
Already children were whining for their breakfast. The men returned to the base of the plateau to retrieve the belongings abandoned beside the trail while the women stoked fires over which they heated stones and set pots.
The hot food revived us. Eating our simple meal, we debated how long we would have to wait until the dunes cleared the village. Some thought a few more hours; others speculated a day or two. No one, though, could have imagined that by noon, for the first time in memory, the wind would die.
Before, the breeze had teased us endlessly with its mischief – the lit match extinguished before a fire could kindle, the tearing eye lashed by a fluttering wisp of hair even after the stray strand had been tucked behind an ear. While still children, we victims of these daily pranks had complained futilely of the inexhaustible wind gusting out of the east. But little by little, we began to depend upon it, the steady breath always warm on our flesh. We learned to sweep with the breeze at our backs, to walk with our faces averted, to hunch our shoulders when we nibbled a delicacy on the street.
So the wind, which had shouldered the great mountains of sand relentlessly toward us and, thus, bore responsibility for all we had lost, became the first thing we had to learn to live without, the first thing for whose return we longed. The roguish breeze had always insisted upon our attention; now, in its absence, we were aware of nothing else.
No one could say why the wind had died, why the dunes had paused in their westward migration. And with nothing but conjectures to explain our predicament, we continued to assure one another that such stillness could not last, that at any moment the sand would stir.
False hopes sustained us. With what excitement did we bristle late that first afternoon when a girl, pointing across the rift, shouted that the dunes were shifting. Yes, we agreed, cupping our palms over our eyes. Yes, we could see it, too. But with what disappointment did we lower our hands a moment later when we realized what the child had actually seen: a vast shadow, pooled on a slope of one of the dunes, suddenly swelling out of its ravine as the sun slipped behind the crest of unmoving sand.
Little by little, this new landscape imposed itself upon our memory until none of us were quite sure under which of the golden mountains lay our homes. After dinner each evening, at least in the beginning, we repeated anecdotes of village life, the misadventures of our neighbours, legendary accounts of famous events – like the night all the goats disappeared – that our grandparents had passed down to us. Yes, chuckling together at our foolishness and little vanities lifted our spirits, but the amusing tales also helped to shore up our memories of the alleys of our town, of the colours of outlying buildings, of the distance from well to garden.
A memory is like a rose, we are taught. To inhale the fragrance of the flower, one must grasp its stem of thorns. Recalling our homes comforted us, certainly, but pricked us, too, as we scanned the changeless contours of the horizon under which lay buried all that we remembered.
In the beginning, the fellowship of common suffering united us, but just as the wind had once worn down stone, the stillness abraded our resolve. Where neighbours had shared their meagre supplies in the first few days of our evacuation, now families hoarded whatever they could gather. To be fair, one should recall that we had expected to return home in a day, two days, three days at most. So we each had brought less than a week’s worth of food, a single change of clothes, only our most treasured valuables. Why burden ourselves with more on the long climb to the plateau only to have to carry it all home again the next afternoon?
Like the milk still frothy in its jar from the journey there, our fresh generosity toward one another soon soured into selfishness, and admiration curdled into jealousy under the relentless sun of the barren plain to which we had escaped. As the novelty of our encampment faded into the monotony of involuntary detention, slights laughed off just days before were now recalled to fester into grievances. Forgotten feuds from years ago were revived like dried currants plumped in a bowl of water. And increasingly, the inequality in provisions rankled those running short on necessities – though who could be blamed for having brought more supplies than his neighbor?
The catastrophe had not happened to all of us, we began to understand, but to each of us. It did not take long for our mutual reaction to impending disaster to tatter into individual responses to our continuing predicament. Observing who thrived and who wilted under the pressure of our circumstances, even the wisest among us were chastened in their confidence that they knew their neighbours.
Who could have predicted, for example, that the meek seamstress, born with only one hand and a stump as narrow as a broomstick, would organize a makeshift school for the children while our old schoolmaster sulked in his tent and drank the mint tea he had stuffed – rather than books – in the pockets of his jacket? Should we have anticipated that the tinsmith, having lived his whole life enduring the incessant tap of a hammer, would find comfort not in the silence of the windless plain but in drumming his fingers against his leg wherever he stood?
It was the men that seemed most vulnerable to the uncertainty of our situation. The same men who had not flinched from the labours of preparing their houses for abandonment, who had sustained the spirits of others with their good-humoured courage, who had hefted the elderly on their shoulders to climb a high cliff even after a day’s hard march – these same men, some of them anyway, were the first to crumble.
Had guilt unnerved them, guilt that they had failed to protect their families from disaster? It did no good to remind them that one could not have forestalled the advancing dunes, that one could not have foreseen the wind would die. They would agree, nodding. And yet, as they watched their wives and children scavenge a little shade on our dry plateau day after day, they withered.
When adolescent boys prowled the edge of our encampment, anxious to test themselves against their fathers, it was not men but the old women who answered the boys’ insolence with sticks across their backs.
Unlike the men, women seemed undismayed by our circumstances. Yes, one could hear soft sobbing in the next tent some evenings, but the following morning a fire was kindling out front and kneaded dough already waited for the stones to heat.
Maybe there had always been soft sobs at night for us to hear if only we had been awake. Now, though, we were often sleepless. Night after night, hours before dawn, we would awaken as suddenly as if a scorpion had scurried across our blanket and be left just as restless – more restless, actually, since a scorpion, at least, can be crushed. Not so the worries that stung us awake and left us anxious over the buried tools we needed to make a living, the letter we should have destroyed long ago but had forgotten in a box left behind, the old round of wood that capped our only well but might have splintered by now under the weight of the sand.
The first family to abandon the plateau had ties to another village and explained their departure as simply a visit to relatives. They would return soon, they assured us, and knew they could count on us to sweep their house clean of the last grain of sand by the time they came home, they joked.
As with the others who followed them, we did not see that family again.
In the beginning, those who stayed confided in one another their contempt for those who chose to leave. But as we wearied of the demands of improvisation and were forced to acknowledge the cost our families paid for the stubborn vigil we maintained over a buried town, what had been dismissed as weakness, perhaps even cowardice, came to be accepted with less vituperation.
Still, it disheartened us to bid farewell to our departing neighbours, friends with whom we had spent our whole lives. We could watch them from our cliff as they trekked through the sand toward far-off destinations, and though their voices faded quickly, the few possessions they carried sometimes clanged in the stillness for a long time as they made their way toward the horizon.
These breaches in our solidarity quickened as days stagnated into weeks and nuisances burgeoned into hazards while we waited for the sand to disgorge our houses. Soon enough, the remaining tents began to sag like sails on a becalmed sea, for no one bothered any longer to shoulder the poles higher and tauten the cloth. Our hygiene suffered, too, and fever spread through the camp. Though we were familiar with the consequences of a village epidemic, we were unprepared for how quickly the aged – exhausted and susceptible to ailments they might have survived back home – succumbed to illness. Without a graveyard, we buried our dead haphazardly.
Rather than risk further infection, those still left decided this morning to dismantle the camp. My family is already on the way to my wife’s cousin; I will catch up with them tonight or perhaps tomorrow since it fell to me to record what happened here in case someone should come seeking us after we are gone.
So all but me have abandoned this desolate plain, now littered with our refuse and dotted with graves overlooking the barren rift. Scattered elsewhere, my neighbours will build new houses even while expecting, at any moment, to return to their old homes buried beneath the dunes.
They are like the Moors driven from Al-Andalus, who hung on the doors of their new houses in the Maghreb the keys to their homes back in Cordoba and Granada. It is said that centuries later, one could still hear the clatter of iron against wood whenever a door was shut.
Or like me, now that I think of it, scratching our story in sand even as I long for the wind to erase everything I’ve written.
Photograph courtesy of Alexander Atwater