The thought shot through him with blinding need.
It burnt through his tired limbs, replacing all other sensation.
It had become a pulse, echoing in his every step.
Nothing else mattered now. Not the heat. Not the wind. Not the aeolian assault of whipped up sand. Not what he’d left behind. Nothing.
He couldn’t have been more glad of that.
Wind plumed the loose fabric of his clothing. He had no pack, no supplies. He hadn’t taken anything someone else could use.
The bare sun smothered the sand like hot custard over sweet crumble, engulfing every mound, filling every crevice with it’s choking heat.
Anterak wasn’t turned back. It had been four days, the physical ache that shadowed each step was the underscore of freedom. Every one that took him further into the desert stilled the swirling fog of his mind a little more.
His small water bottle was already nearly empty.
He pulled himself on, slowly but surely towards the peak. Mount Teto rose in the distance, it’s jagged form casting a thin shadow over the baked sand.
The shifting dunes had reared up before him, offering vague shelter from the searing winds.
It was here he stopped, rolling his shoulder under the reams of thin fabric, he exposed the sling, bound tight to his chest. In the folds, rested the only thing that needed him. A shrunken succulent, barely clinging to life in dry, cracked soil.
Anterak was a dowser, a dowser who hadn’t found fresh water in years. He knew his clan hadn’t blamed him, others succeeded where he had not. Water was scarce since the oasis had dried up, but they just about got by.
In the swaying heat, sifting through the air, he could almost see the outline of Eltrinda. Her worn, wrinkled face soft, inviting, her lips moving as her hand reached out.
“What’s wrong Rak? I’m here for you, you can talk to me.”
No matter how many times he’d heard it, no matter who it was, it didn’t make any difference. His tongue grew fat and furry, thick and limp in his mouth, his throat closed, words losing their form before they found their way out. Two years since he had been the one to strike a spring, two years since he had fulfilled his role. The dedication of those around him only made him feel like a greater burden.
He couldn’t talk about it, he couldn’t face the words as they left his mouth.
The throb of dehydration pulled him from his mind, the burning ache of his muscles snapping him back to the moment.
Carefully, sheltering the make-shift sling with his other arm, Anterak opened his water bottle, shallow liquid sloshing against the metal sides. He tipped the canister, the shining water stretching towards the bottleneck in a thin, dwindling line.
It should be enough.
He eased the lip of the bottle under the thinning fleshy leaves of the plant, letting a few drops soak into the parched soil. The absorption was audible, a soft, fizzing crackle as the water disappeared, darkening the earth.
Peering into the bottle, he relented, allowing the surprisingly cool liquid to moisten his own lips.
He was a dowser, from a line of dowsers. In the Wilting Drought, his great great grandfather had set out in search of an oasis. He had run out of water on the eighth day. It had taken him six more to find the oasis. Six whole days without water. Six days of beating sun, of tearing sand filled wind, six whole days of lips blistering and cracking, the soles of his feet swollen and raw.
Drought survival was in Anterak's blood, and the small succulent, it’s purple rimmed leaves shriveling into crisp petals, needed the water more.
Anterak screwed the lid back on, twisting the cap tight, not willing to risk a drop escaping.
Satisfied, he tucked the bottle back into the folds of his clothing, carefully covering the small succulent, sheltering it from the searing heat of the day.
It never got easier, walking on loose sand. On the slightest slope, grains avalanched under foot, slipping away in sliding desiccated rivers. In the gully of valleys between the dunes, sand pooled, half swallowing each footstep, reluctant to let go.
Everything about desert walking was hard, it was part of what Anterak had always loved about it.
The sun had long crept past it’s peak, arching across the sky towards the cover of the horizon. Anterak pushed on, slogging up the dune ahead of him, looking for a place to set down for the night.
Dawn came early, streaking colour across the sky. Anterak had slept under his outer layer, the thin fabric inverted to reflect the heat back in. The nights were always cool, at first it was a welcome relief from the searing day, but as night peaked and the blackness grew thick below pinpricked stars, the cold eased in.
The first rays of morning sun fell in soft, gentle streams, slowly warming the sand.
Tentatively, he unwrapped the plant, still clinging to life. Most would step out now, those who walked out before him would have, making the most of the easier air to gain distance before midday brought them to a halt.
Anterak waited, letting the wrinkled leaves bask in the muted sun. It was too fragile for anything warmer, it needed to get the light now while it could. It didn't make any difference to him, how far they got before he couldn't go any further, he may as well let the plant have a moment of sun.
It wasn’t that no one had understood his need to look after the plant, Anterak hadn’t told them. The first time Eltrinda had caught him splitting his meager water ration with the plant, she had been furious. How could he be so selfish, when there was so little to go round. He hadn’t been able to find the words to explain it to her, that had been years ago. She never mentioned the incident to anyone. As the years went by, the disappointment that marked her face as Anterak ducked away with his small water bottle, knowing where he was going, had faded into routine. She’d look up, her eyes warm, unjudging, as though simply taking note of his choice.
It ate at him, but he couldn’t talk to her about it. After the rations were cut last month, his plant had started the wilt, shriveling further each day. Anterak had given it as much water as he could spare, but it hadn’t been enough. Not for both of them.
He was in no state of mind to dwell on what had driven him to this, it had become a tangled mess of half processed feelings and unfinished thoughts, all unspoken, that he was happy to leave behind.
Anterak rose, lifting his arm, noting the wind direction as it filled the loose fabric of his top.
The sun moved higher, it’s heat intensifying as it inched over the sky. He tucked the plant back into the sling, taking a moment to ensure it was safe.
Every step hurt, his muscles ached, a tense, dry ache, screaming out with every movement. Every step felt like his last, like an adventure into the unknown. It was as though the world ended at the sandy horizon, and there was only him, there was only now. The pain made it real. He felt alive, on the edge of death, in a way he'd never known before.
It has been six days since he set out with one days water rations, and no intention of going back.
Walking, carrying on, it took everything he had. It was completely consuming, and Anterak welcomed it. The silence, the calm and peace of a final, singular existence was glorious. His mind hadn’t wandered to Eltrinda, to the clan, or the weight that usually shadowed him once since he'd seen her shimmering mirage.
The plant needed water.
It was his only thought, it dominated, pushing into him, not leaving room for anything else. He was grateful for that.
Finally, in the lea of a towering dune, Anterak let himself check the bottle.
There was so little left, not enough to cover the bottom, not enough to share what remained between them.
Reaching between the swathes of fabric, Anterak withdrew the plant, noting the tip of the next geometrical leaf had begun to shrivel as the plant withdrew the moisture within.
Dehydration had started to clip his judgement, shutting his mind down to the base functions. The only thing that mattered to him now was keeping the plant alive.
His determination surprised him. He'd brought the plant with him because he couldn't bare to leave it behind, knowing no one would look after it. He'd intended to let it die out here with him, but as he kept walking, his mind kept turning. It was the only thing that needed him, the only thing that was better for knowing him, he wouldn’t let it down.
He tipped the bottle, the dwindling thread of liquid hurt to see. They wouldn’t last much longer, if he wanted the plant to live, he needed to find water.
He couldn’t think, his mind didn’t have the resources left to connect his thoughts, they all broke down into one again and again.
Instinctively, he reached down, untying the leather protection from his feet.
His hand edged between the thin layers of his clothing, his fingers finding the rough end of the Y shaped dowsing stick in his waistband, where it always waited.
Anterak lifted the plant back into his sling, pulling it against his body as though will alone would keep it alive. He tied his leather sandals together, slinging them over his shoulder, and stepped out.
Sole on the sand, rod in the hand.
He walked forwards, blindly, his mind entirely focused on finding a sensation resting deep in his gut.
The thin stick rested in the crook of his overlapping thumbs, wobbled, twitching with the motion of his step. This was how they’d always done it, barefoot, trusting the water would guide them.
The doubt, the years of frustration, of failed stepping out had evaporated in the desert heat. Everything that held him back, the shadows of others thoughts, feelings faded to sand. Need, determination was all that remained now.
Six days was the longest anyone had been known to make it without water. There was no turning back, not that he’d ever intended to turn back, but he had passed the point of no return. He wouldn’t make the journey. Either this time he found water, or they’d both die out here. There was something Anterak found comforting about that certainty, he had known it would come down to this. He'd wanted it.
He felt alive, in a way he never before, his life resting solely in his hands had more value to him than it ever had before. He had purpose, direction, focus and clarity, and it surged through him like electricity.
Dizziness pushed in on his vision by the time Anterak stopped for the night. He’d given up noting the stars, the dunes, the angle of the peak. He’d lost interest in plotting his course. He collapsed, something in his subconscious taking care he landed on his back, protecting the shrinking plant.
Sleep came quickly, drifting through hazy dreams, all strung on a single thread.
Fragments of memories blurred in his sleep. The oasis. The one he had grown up by, the sweet scent of cacti in bloom, the sound of running water - long forgotten. His great great grandfather, his lips broken, too dry to bleed, his feet raw, burnt from the sand, dropping to his knees before the small clustering of plants. Anterak had grown up there, unaware of the paradise he had until he lost it. His dreams grew darker; the thinning of the spring. The sound of children crying, too thirsty for tears. The dry cracked gully where water had once flown. The skeletal fragments of plants, consuming themselves in desperation.
The succulent. Tiny then. Nestled in the shade of a large shriveled cactus, the last plant left alive. He’d dug it up, knowing if he didn’t, it would die there. They’d left that spent oasis when he was seventeen. His parents had packed up their tent, along with the rest of his clan, and they’d left. A dowser had stepped out that way every year since, but the oasis had stayed dry since.
Anterak woke early - unrested, his sunken eyes struggling to find the hard edges of the world around him. Everything held a slight blur, like the onset of another mirage or the haziness of a lingering dream, but he couldn’t put the thoughts together to understand why.
His water had run out two days ago, the last drops soaking into the soil of the grateful plant.
He had stopped noticing the heat, the raw skin on the soles of his feet had stopped burning in pain, he held his arms outstretched before him, the rod resting in the crook of his overlapping thumbs, carrying on.
It no longer drove him, like a strong wind from behind, forcing him on. No, now it called out, a distant light, guiding him through with blind determination.
Pain had passed beyond him. His organs were threatening to shut down, his mind flooding his body with endorphins.
Still he carried on, his feet growing heavier with each step.
The urge to give up had begun to take shape, unheeded. He couldn’t give up.
The clan may have one less person to support, but the succulent, it needed him. On some level, beyond his current comprehension, he knew how mortified Eltrinda would be to know he felt like that. How could he have ever told her… or anyone for that matter.
It had become the final trudge, the march of death he'd intended to set out on. His legs moved themselves, his arms supported themselves, blindly following the twitch of his dowsing rod.
Anterak had already died, he told himself, out there in the desert. He had left all that he was somewhere out there, between the rolling dunes.
Still his body kept going, unable to give up.
It was calling him. He could almost hear it now, the spluttering babble of a stream, the echo of a memory, drawing him on. He couldn’t give up now. If he stopped here, the plant would die, his plant. It was counting on him. He wouldn’t let it down.
Mount Teto towered ahead of him, the worn, striated sandstone shaped by wind.
Shade, real complete shade, stretched towards him, but he didn’t see it. He wasn’t aware of the shade even as his feet landed on cooler sand, offering vague respite from the battering heat.
He stumbled on, his footprints no longer tinged pink, sand firmly sticking to his raw, bloody soles.
The sun was starting to sink, spreading the sky in a blaze of colour, bleeding into the orange sand of the desert. Anterak didn’t stop.
He couldn’t, momentum was the only thing keeping him going.
Sole on the sand, rod in the hand.
It was more than that, he wasn’t just holding the rod, he was holding a thread, a tiny sliver of water, he just had to keep following it.
Night had taken hold, engulfing the shadows, pushing the sun from the sky. Still Anterak kept walking, the cold air pressing in around him, precious warmth exhaled with each breath.
Dawn hinted across the horizon, a soft diffused glow, spreading long and low, tinging blue the coat rails of night.
On some level, reality kicked. For a single moment, Anterak had clarity. He would die here, the dunes would swallow his bones.
In the haze, one foot in front of the other, he realized, if he was to die here, it should be sheltered, shaded. If the plant was to stand a chance, if his death was to have some meaning, he had to drop somewhere that through him, it might grow. Somewhere his body wouldn’t desiccate so quickly, somewhere the dunes wouldn’t roll over him, entombing the plant with him.
It was a vague hint of possibility. If he could reach the peak - it wasn’t far now, if he could just keep going long enough to get there, the plant would have a chance.
Rocks cratered the sand, giving way to boulders as Anterak finally approached Mount Teto.
The pale light of early morn filtered over the sky, bathing the striated rock of the peak in its eerie glow. The moon hung low above the mountain, a reluctant lingering crescent, washed in the same ethereal color.
Reason soon drifted beyond Anrerak's reach once more, seeing in the thread of a moon the same thin rope of hope he was following.
The water wasn't giving up on him, he could feel it. It called out for the succulent he carried, it's determination fixing the moon in the sky.
Anterak walked numb now, the only feeling left was that of the water, a siren that had lit the morning sky with a celestial flare.
He had never paid much attention to divination, although that had been Eltrinda's calling, seeing the portents and omens, the warnings, the invitations, laid out between the stars. Yet walking below that lingering moon, the rising sun painting his back, Anterak could feel it.
His ancestors were guiding him.
Delusion lightened each step, firming the sand beneath him. His feet no longer slipping back a little with each step up the sandy slope, he strode on, picking his way between the rocks.
A faint scent shifted through the echo, tumbling in the wind. Faint, familiar.
Earth. The smell of damp earth.
He mind reeled back to the oasis of his childhood, his feet pushing on. He could feel it, the same air, the same hearty fresh smell.
Each step took him deeper into his memories.
He was going home.
Anterak did not see the sharp drop off, he hadn't noticed the sand giving way to rock. The striated sandstone opened up ahead of him, the dark crevasse concealing a vast canyon below.
Anterak only saw the verdant vegetation of his youth, his mind beyond him.
With a sincere blind confidence, he stepped over the edge.
It took long minutes for Anterak's addled mind to understand he was falling.
Air rushed up around him, billowing his clothes, and for a moment, he felt as though he was rising up. The canyon floor came into focus too late, hard, shining, directly below him.
Pain crashed into Anterak's awareness, acute, throbbing, pulsing through him with overwhelming intensity.
If he hadn't been so dehydrated when he hit his head, he would have lost too much blood, instead it clotted quickly, trading his life for his consciousness.
Anterak's dry eyes refused to open right away, crusted close with crystallized sleep. Eltrinda called them dream crystals, but there was something he'd always found slightly off putting about the yellowy white flakes dusting sleeping eyes.
He became aware of a cold, a crisp pressing cold across the back of his neck, ebbing at the worst of the pain. His clothes felt strange, heavy, clinging.
His hand jumped to his chest, droplets trailing from his fingertips, splashing over his face as he touched his precious cargo. His eyes ripped open, urgency succeeding where intention had failed.
He lay on his back, staring up at the overhang above him, aperturing the burning sun, light reflecting back across the canyon wall in vast shifting ripples. The sling was still in position, tight around his chest. He carefully peeled back the folds, the fabric cool and heavy between his fingers.
It was alive. The last few leaves held their form, sustained by the sacrifice of the rest.
Relief coursed over Anterak's body, cold, flowing over his legs, gushing under the small of his back.
Something deep inside him, later he'd swear it was his strength of will, no matter how many times Eltrinda insisted it had been the spirit of his ancestors. Something deep inside him dipped a hand into the stream, flowing around Anterak's sprawling fallen body, scooping water into his mouth, before his mind had been able to understand.
He had found water.
The succulent would survive.
The canyon swole into a large bellied crevasses, the stream side-winding its way over dark fertile-looking dirt, deposited over years of flow. Shelves etched into the canyon wall spoke of an ever shifting river bed, vegetation huddled in the strands of sunlight, thick fleshy leaves, dark greens, pale blues, lilacs and pinks, blossoming towards the sky. Insects hummed through the air, translucent wings tinged in a metallic rainbow, a bird long forgot called high above, its distant, familiar cry echoing the canyon.
He had found life, thriving.
It took nearly three weeks for Anterak's left leg to heal well enough for him to walk. It had taken the brunt of the impact when he stepped into thin air; multiple breaks. As it healed, Anterak almost missed the pain, the constant fire of life burning through him. He had planted the succulent as soon as he could bare to move. While he healed, the plant took root, finding moisture. By the time he stepped out, heading back to lead the clan there, a tiny green nub, the beginnings of a leaf, had begun to form on the bared stem.
Anterak never did settle there though, he guided his clan back to the oasis. Four days later, he stepped out in the night. That was the last anyone saw of him. Eltrinda never knew if he died out there, or if he found another spring, a place of solitude and shelter and chose not to come back. His fate was her most requested divination - and one she refused every time. She didn't want to know. She preferred to remember him as she saw him that last night. A small pack strapped to his back, bare foot, dowsing stick in hand, confidence in his step, an inward smiling touching his lips as he disappeared into the darkness.
Written for @theinkwell's weekly fiction prompt this week suggesting a tale of a character with a bad habit, featuring secondary characters, where the bad habit turns out to be of benefit to others.