“Building on Sand” by B. Morris Allen
He had been ready; a small bag packed, boots oiled, axe sharpened. He had meant to go, but he had not gone.
He could remember the feel of it still, the sense of a burden lifted, of freedom at last in his grasp. It had felt … lonely, in a way; frightening. Before, he had had his task, his role, his definition. In that brief moment of independence, those certainties had gone, vanished like rain seeping into sand, leaving just a damp, irritating grit behind.
It rubbed now, between the thick calluses of duty, and the fragile fabric of hope, worn thin as memory. Soon enough, that fabric would tear, and he would have to admit at last that only useless rags remained.
He had had a plan. For years, decades even, he had had a plan. First, it had been simply to return—to love, to Anoush, to home, whatever that might be. To serve his time in the Sand Guard with honor, and then go back to making carpets, his life-tax paid, his obligations all fulfilled. By then, Anoush would have finished her own time in the salt ponds, would be back laying clay pipe for the town’s plumbing. They would live happily ever after. Maybe a child, maybe not, as fate might have it. They would expand the gardens, and he would clear out that area behind the workshop and make it into a lawn where he and his workers would play with his dogs in the mist of Anoush’s new-built fountain. He could still feel the cool of the spray on his cheek, the warmth of a dog’s muzzle resting on his thigh.
He had almost made it. Had gotten as far as the high hills, far enough to see Kellno’s white-slate roofs gleaming in the distance, like a waypoint in the valley’s gray floor, a stepping stone to contentment.
But then the once-a-century green rains had come, and the forest had grown, trees edging in against the sand moats like maggots in a wound. That had been the turning point, probably. He could have gone on. His service had been done, his obligations met. And yet, if the forest encroached, if it brought its evil across the moats, if the twisting roots of its looming giants once met those of the lower, more modest local trees, what value would there be in home? What love would he find, in his gardens and his lawn, as bright and bilious green leaves began to arch overhead, to leave his life and love in shade?
And so he had turned back, had climbed back down the hills, back over the mountain to Cyla, with its mansions and towers and proximity to the sand belt. He had walked back into the barracks, and the sergeant there had asked no questions, only pointed him back at his bunk, moved his name chit back into rotation, reissued him his axe.
All these years, he’d had the same axe. He’d never even broken the handle, never replaced the head, had avoided the metaphysical trap of identity that his colleagues batted around at noon-time discussions. It was the same axe. He wished he could say the same for himself.
They’d fought back the forest, and the green rains had gone back to whatever hell they came from, and the canton was safe. But somehow, in the crisis, he had rescued a family from an oasis gone bad, a pleasant verdance gone vile and vicious, had brought them safely back to clean pure sand. Not just him. They all had saved people, every one of them. Marta, who had given her life to take down a red-barked leaf-dropper to save a cluster of sheep that had hidden, panicked, under the false shelter of its boughs. She had cut it through, by herself, before it could spray its cruel, clinging pollen, and turn soft fleece into a foul imitation of woodland, and its hosts to carrion. She had used her own weight to force the tree to fall back, despite its reaching, clinging branches. He had stayed only long enough to see the rootlets growing into her, through her, and to chop off her head.
And Halek, who had thrown fox cubs across a stream to where their mother waited, anxious, and had barely leapt across himself before the pine cones began exploding and a makeshift wall of fence pickets barred his way.
And Ruba, and Nizrah. They had all saved people.
Why, then, had his burden been so much heavier? Why had Elya and Ramzi clung so firmly to him, once rescued, depended on him so thoroughly?
Their home had been destroyed, of course, their oasis, once a clear watering hole of bright flowers and soft breezes, reduced by the Sand Guard to a smoldering pile of coal and mud. They had had dogs and children to feed, and no prospect of work, with Elya’s limited mobility, and Ramzi’s bad vision. And so, of course, he had stayed, had written to Anoush and assured her that it would a matter of a few months.
She had understood, had waited, as months turned into years, as Elya and Ramzi’s children grew up, and their dogs grew old and sick, needing care. He’d taken other work, by then, first as a woodman, then as trainer with the Sand Guard, then as recordsman. And before Elya’s eldest Lara had earned her journeyman status and a wage the family could live on, Anoush had written again.
She loved him still, but age brought with it decisions, and she wanted children, and she would invite Darl to live with her—gentle, friendly Darl against whom nothing could be said—unless he came home this year, and how she wished he would. And Darl had sent his own note to say how sweet Anoush remained, and how she loved him despite his absence, and how he should come back now, and toss duty to the wind.
And then Ramzi’s eldest dog had died, and the next one soon to go, and Lara had set aside her apprenticeship to mourn with her parents, even though it meant a year’s delay, and a break with her own lover.
And so he had blessed Anoush and Darl, and had stayed, and fed his second family. His only family, now. And when at last Lara made journeyman, and Lirl did, and Kerigo opened a shop and got married, he stayed on in Cyla. Still strong, still able, a middle-aged man at loose ends. He had tried to open a carpet mill, but the beauty of the work had faded, the patterns just mechanical abstractions now, the quality a matter of work, and no longer of pride. He had sold it at a loss within a year, and taken work as a steward instead, a job with clear boundaries and few decisions that really mattered.
He had sent his wages back to Anoush and Darl, along with advice about carpets, and delight in Anoush’s innovations in pipefitting. He had sent sincere congratulations about their baby, and kept his pain and heartbreak to himself, tending it carefully, until it formed a rich compost for love and devotion to the child, Ara.
They’d exchanged messages over the years, and he’d sent gifts—little trinkets from the big city, as if Cyla were the distant capital, instead of a built-up border post with a river. And in time Ara himself had married, and named the boy Peno, after him, though the spelling was simpler, more modern. He had wanted to go back, then, to take up his role as uncle and … something.
But then there had been that ill-considered insurrection, and the canton had mobilized to root out traitors, and his employer had panicked about some shady payments and equally shady friends. She had needed her level-headed steward to save her from herself, and her family from her foolishness. And so he had stood, axe in hand, at the house’s door, and his old friend Halek had led the team that came to turn them out. They had talked, and Halek had trusted him, and turned away. His employer, who had talked of bags of gold, had given him a handful of silver and a sack of promises. But her daughter, who was only a baby, and liked to play with the kitten, had given him a smile.
For the sake of that smile, he had stayed, until the hubbub had died down, and the roads were safe to travel again, and Anoush had died.
The will had gone out of him, then, and no matter that Darl had written, and Ara, begging him to come back, he had stayed, and sent a bag of silver for the town plumbing fund, and cried while he watched the baby and she touched his tears and laughed her burbly laugh, and the kitten climbed to his shoulder and licked his cheek dry with a tiny, raspy tongue.
Ara had come to see him, then—a slight, warm-eyed man who talked about his mother, and her love for his other father, for so he called him. And Pënho had told the boy stories of their youth, and of Anoush’s grand dreams of cisterns and sewers. They had all come true, Ara said, all but her grandest dream of all. And they had both cried, and agreed that Darl was a good man, and a fine carpet maker, and that Pënho would come home soon.
He had given his notice, once the harvest was in and stored and sent to market, and the fields prepared for winter. And then it was winter, and it was cold, and he found to his surprise that he could no longer stand the long nights and hard road when he made his trips to arrange the sales and the workforce for sewing time. And so he stayed until spring, though word came that Darl had taken ill.
In the spring, as soon as a morning came without frost, he gave warning again. His employer accepted it without question, and agreed to keep on the apprentice he’d trained up from the kitchen staff.
He had packed up a small bag, and sharpened his axe in case of bandits, and oiled his new canvas boots in case of mud, and he had gone to say his goodbyes.
The baby was talking clearly now, and no longer really a baby at all. He hugged her tight when the nurse had gone, and kissed her on the forehead, and blew a raspberry there until she laughed.
“I’m going now,” he told her when he put her down.
“To see Peno,” she said, serious.
“That’s right,” he said.
“But you’re not his granddaddy,” she said, brow furrowed as she tried to work out relations that were well beyond her.
“Not really,” he admitted with a smile. “But sort of.”
“You’re not my granddaddy either,” she said with indisputable logic.
“No.” Though he had tried to be, with the father gone, the mother busy, and the real grandparents far away.
“Then why don’t you stay with me?” she asked. “We can play hide and seek.” She put a hand over her eyes to show him how the game worked.
He passed a hand over his own eyes and smiled softly. “I’d like to,” he said. “We have fun, don’t we? But Peno needs me.”
“I need you,” she said. “I need you too. For when kitten gets her claw caught in the blanket and she can’t get it out. And when I fall down and my knee hurts, and you have to kiss it. And when you cry and you don’t want anyone to see it,” she said, and traced a tear down his furrowed cheek. “And you don’t even know Peno.”
He had made his choice then, reached the second turning point, and once again turned back, as he had so many years before. Was it duty, he wondered now, or cowardice? Was he stepping up to take his place, to make his small contribution to the bulwark against evil, or was he hunkering down, digging for what small shelter he could find against the green verge of terror and uncertainty?
Peno was Ara’s son, and Anoush’s grandson, and Darl’s. He’d never met the boy, and it suddenly came to him just how fragile was the structure of family he’d built up in his thoughts, how little foundation it had in reality. Oh, they’d tried to include him, had reached out farther than logic could support, as far as love could reach. They had done their best, and he didn’t doubt that Ara cared for him; his visit showed as much. He didn’t doubt that Peno had heard of him, had dreamed his own childish dreams of meeting this name from the past, reinforced now by Ara’s stories and descriptions. They would be fast friends, no doubt. He smiled at the thought, at the image of them both on the lawn, covered in Ara’s dogs, their snouts digging under arms and elbows to reach the hidden faces, to cover them with licks and love.
And if he didn’t go, didn’t make the hard journey, didn’t take his bag, and his boots, and his shining axe? Peno would miss him; might even cry, one day, at the loss of the playmate he’d been promised. And then he would go on, would forget, would lose himself in a pile of furry friends who would lick dry the tears, and turn them to giggles and to hugs.
Ara would miss him, but Ara could come again, some day, with a load of carpets and contracts. And Darl? Darl was a good man, no doubt. He had been a good father, a good grandfather, a good businessman. He had made Anoush happy. For that, Pënho owed him. But perhaps that debt was paid, already, had been paid in years and tears of absence, of non-interference. Had been paid by not breaking up his happiness, by letting him live his life as best he could, with the family he had made without Pënho’s help.
And here? Here was a little girl neglected by her mother, brought up by maids and nannies, and a kitten, and by one stooped, grizzled old steward who played hide and seek, and held her when she cried, and when he did, and who loved her, he realized, as he had loved nothing else in his life that was solid and tangible. And if that was less than he had loved dreams and hopes and distance, it was still love, and it was still real.
He had thought it was duty that caused him to turn back in his tracks, and perhaps once it had been. Obligation to his country, to his people, to his future. But, now, he had no duties, had met his charges, done his work, filled his role. Now, when he looked in his dreams, there was no future, no need to put off happiness until the future—there was only now, only a small girl, and a kitten, and a warmth in his heart. The fabric of hope wore gradually away, and he felt it go, felt it pull away, leaving him cushioned by a quiet contentment and the knowledge that for the moment, at least, there was only himself to think of.
He unpacked his small bag, now, and set his oiled boots in the little niche under his shelves. The axe he wrapped carefully in oiled cloth, and then in waxed cotton, and leaned carefully in the back corner of his room, to remind him of darker, stronger days, when duty and service had been his mainstays, and his shield against pain and loss. But his days of toil and trouble were done, and the axe would stay where it was. Perhaps some day Ara would take it away as a puzzling gift to Peno from the non-grandfather he would never know, and never really miss.
In soft slippers, with a hitch in his step, and a small cargo of love in his heart, he left his room and walked down to the nursery, to cry with his small friend, and play hide and seek with her while she forgot that he had ever thought to leave.
B. Morris Allen is a biochemist turned activist turned lawyer turned foreign aid consultant, and frequently wonders whether it’s time for a new career. He’s been traveling since birth, but the best place he’s found is the Oregon coast. When he can, he makes his home there. In between journeys, he edits Metaphorosis magazine and works on his own speculative stories of love and disaster. His dark fantasy novel Susurrus came out in 2017. Find out more at www.BMorrisAllen.com.