She staggered out through the dry timbers that framed a gaping doorway into the wild night. The wind itself was starting to die, and the largest grains of sand were precipitating from the storm as a gentle crystalline rain. A rain that held no power to comfort or sustain.
A rain with no water.
She saw a tiny movement at the edge of her sight, some distance away. She turned like a drunk to follow it, with no idea whether it was him or not. The dark moving shape looked at first like an animal thrashing on the ground. As she got closer, she discovered that she was only seeing a part of the total form… the rest was in a hole in the ground.
She came to the edge of the hole and found Ray, shirtless, kneeling in a trench. He was wielding a large, flat stone against the earth, dragging it toward himself and bringing up rolling berms of soil, which he then tossed out of the hole.
“Ray, what are you…” she croaked.
“Digging. Can’t count on you to do it for me. Can’t burden you with this task.” He spoke in a voice that seemed strangely clear and very flat.
I’ll try to dig for water…
Liz looked at the hole. It was a trench, almost six feet long by about two feet across. He had dug it down to eighteen inches already, and a corona of discarded earth lay all around it, describing silently how he had shaped the thing, carved it like a sculptor, crawling around on the bottom. She fell to her knees beside the hole. Her eyes burned but could summon no tears.
Ray put his stone down and knelt there, his back and shoulders heaving for a few moments as he recovered from his exertion.
“When the first man dragged himself up out of the clay, and saw standing there the first woman, shining and perfect, he reached out and took her golden hands in his. As they stood there, on the blasted and bare plain of a new earth, her hands in his, three stars in the sky went out. One for truth, one for beauty, and one for pain. And these things are the only things that we’re promised in this world. The only things we’re promised. No matter what we do, what choices we make, or what happens to us, these three things fall into our lives with abundance. To pick up any one of them, you must also take hold of the other three. They are inseparable. Without truth and pain, there cannot be beauty. These are the gifts we are given, we misbegotten creatures with the minds of gods, the hearts of jackals, and the livers of fools. And we are so undeserving of them.”
His voice was an incantation. It creaked in his dry throat, but the words emerged clear like bells in the hiss and roar of the ebbing storm. His voice was flat, strange, and inhuman. In it she heard all of his weariness. He turned to her, his eyes bright and the several days of grey-blonde beard caked with desert earth, and said, “do you understand, Liz?”
“What does it mean?” she asked, her head lolling to one side.
He shuffled toward her on his knees, and reached out to her, wrapping his hands around her wrists. She felt that the tips of his fingers were rough against her skin, and she raised her arms to look. She saw that the tips of the fingers were crusted in grey dust and beneath that, something darker. Suddenly she realized that he had started digging with his bare hands, clawing at the ground, and had scraped away his fingertips in the process. The fingernail was missing on the middle finger of his left hand, probably lost now in one of the piles of discarded earth that ringed the trench. At some point he had found the stone, probably levered it out of the hole itself, and started using it to dig instead.
I’ll try to dig…
“Oh god, Ray, what have you done,” she breathed.
He pulled downward on her arms, and she allowed herself to be dragged into the hole. She didn’t have the strength to resist. She tumbled on top of him, and felt him pulling her until she was lying down beside him in the narrow space, their bodies pressed together. The walls and the floor of the hole felt blessedly cool, possibly even slightly damp, but there was no way to extract that tiny bit of moisture from it. She pressed her cheek against the bottom of it, and beside her, Ray’s body felt impossibly warm, pouring off heat into the cool morning air.
He wrapped one ruined hand around her hand and held it to his chest. She could feel his pulse racing in the slightest throb of his hand.
“Nothing is real,” he said, after a few moments of silence.
Panic and welled up inside her, accompanied by a strange ache that she had no name for, but she knew she could do nothing to help him. The man who had been so focused, so clear, and so lucid just hours ago was gone, replaced by a desperate, delirious man nearing the end of his rope.
“I’m real,” she said.
Ray’s body gave a slight shudder, and then she felt the muscles of his body relax. “Thank god,” he whispered.
She closed her eyes for a while, and was awakened again as the sun crept up in the sky and shone down into the hole. The sky was blue, but the finest particles of dust hung in the air and left a shimmering halo around the sun, She tried to get away from it; its light hurt her skin, but there was nowhere to go.
She tried to lift herself, hoping she could crawl out of the trench, but Ray grabbed her and said, “Don’t leave me.” He was weak, but his grip on her was strong enough that she didn’t have the energy to break free. She settled back to the ground next to him, and his grip loosened.
Even if she crawled out of the hole, even if Ray let her, there was nowhere to walk to. Just miles of desert in every direction… desert that she certainly didn’t have the strength to cross. She had waited too long to act in defiance of Ray’s plan, to strike out on her own in search of a small town or even an isolated home, and now there were no other options.
Beside her, Ray’s eyes were just barely open enough for her to see the color of the irises. His upper and lower lashes touched near the ends, and had grains of sand clinging to them. The eyes darted back and forth almost imperceptibly, as though he were sleeping. There was no way to know what he saw. He murmured quietly to himself, a long string of unintelligible syllables, his lips barely moving.
The next time she woke up, Ray was still. His lips were parted, as though stilled mid-syllable, and the flesh of his hand around hers felt dense and cold and stiff, like wet clay. His eyes were still partly open, and she could see a grain of sand resting on the surface of the eyeball. He already smelled different. The spice and tobacco and strange desert smell were gone, replaced with a faint but foul smell that seemed to come from deep inside him. Her mother had told her that the role of women was to usher men into and out of life; this was an old family tradition, according to her mother, that went back generations. She had never paid much attention to it; when you’re in your twenties, one pays little attention to the specter of death. Now she had laid next to a man she barely knew while his last breath left him. The loneliness she felt was unspeakable. She gave a hopeless and silent sob, pressed her eyes closed, and prayed for sleep.