“The Narrow Lands of Truth” by Daniel Rosen
The priests say it is desperation that drives men into the desert, seeking the dead city of Zetzura. Men go seeking treasure, or glory, or truth. Men go seeking something greater than themselves.
“Your father seeks the true shape of things,” the priests said from behind their red hoods. But I had my doubts. It must have been desperation that drove Father. Our family has never thought much of truth or glory.
Winter slowed the constant stream of traders to a trickle, and there were many days when our kilns lay empty, and Father sat under the shade of the broad-leaved palms and smoked in sullen silence after sharing bitter words with my stepmother. He must have been desperate. But none of us knew how deep his desperation ran. None of us knew he would abandon us for the desert. When he failed to return, Ramses vowed to save him. I overheard my half-brother’s oath, and I made my own, in secret. I would give Ramses a week, and then I would go.
I would be the one to save Father, and my brother. I would find the truth.
As dawn broke on the horizon, I brought out my dripcloth and began turning over rocks, collecting morning dew to moisten my aching throat. When Ramses left, my stepmother had given him a new waterskin and a walking stick of stout ironwood. When it was my turn, she had only tears and laments for the loss of her trueborn son.
Ramses had always been her favorite.
My brother had two strong arms. He hammered out the ripples of Seric ceramic with preternatural grace. He had clear brown eyes, identical, each the color of dark river mud. Both my brother and my father were strong men, but neither came back home from the desert. There was more to life than strength of arms. I lengthened my stride and imagined my stepmother’s face when her husband and natural-born son were saved by a cripple with one arm and eyes mismatched like a child’s marbles.
On the fourth day of my journey, I reached the ravines that led to Zetzura. A web of fissures and chasms sprawled before me, a maze of shadowed canyons leading into the hidden city. I made my way into the shade with relief. The air was cooler inside the labyrinth, if only barely. Long ago, there must have been water here, flowing unchecked into these jagged cracks and wearing down the soft stone. Now it had sunk down deep, pooling and coursing underneath the ground, grinding unseen channels. The sand rippled like the surface of a pond in the breeze.
I picked my path as carefully as possible, avoiding the quicksand. Quicksand was not the most dangerous terrain, but it was especially treacherous for a one-armed man. Drowning seemed bad enough; it would be even worse, somehow, to drown in sand. I imagined it filling my throat, pouring into my stomach and body, containing me, squeezing from the inside and out as it choked me. Before each step, I jabbed the end of my walking stick into the ground, probing around, like a priest testing the gums of a sugar addict, ready for soft give.
The ravine continued to narrow, however, and I soon lost my sense of direction in a series of dead ends. I had no choice but to make my way through quicksand, trusting the wall and my walking stick to guide me as I trudged along.
I was not as careful as I should have been, and the first misstep came quickly. I sank up to my waist before I managed to turn around and lie on my back. My walking stick was beneath me somewhere, sucked down into the muck. The sand enveloped me, swallowed me, and I lost my grip on my waterskin as I spun and kicked and scrabbled backwards. I paddled one-armed on my back until the sand grew solid beneath me. Then I lay still awhile, sodden and sore and already thirsty for my missing skin. But I’d reached the first oasis. Soon there would be water aplenty.
Further into the valley, the ravine widened around me, opening up into a sandstone bowl surrounded by sprawling mangrove tangles. I’d reached the first oasis. Malh, the map said, the Oasis of Bitter Waters. There was shade here, but my bedtime stories always said that a man must not drink from the first oasis. It was enchanted such that every swallow made a man thirstier and thirstier.
I made my way down into the bottom of the bowl, into the blessed shade of the palms, and knelt by the water’s edge. I dipped my one good hand in, splashed my face, cleaned off the collected grime of days spent traveling the desert. Some of the water dripped into my mouth. It tasted of tears. It tasted of the time I tricked the neighbor boys into fighting in the temple, and then the priests beat them, and then father beat me when I got home. It tasted of the day my father remarried, and the day Ramses was born.
Saltwater. Undrinkable. After my mishap in the quicksand, I had nothing else to drink. But just because I lacked two strong arms didn’t mean there was any weakness in my mind. I’d read every book in our village, every scrap of writing. I knew spells to drain salt from water, to see truth, and to break hearts.
Fill a bowl or container halfway. Next, gently place a cup in the center of your bowl. Cover the bowl with a palm leaf, then place a rock in the center of the leaf. Do this just above the cup, in the center of the bowl.
Make a fire, and put your bowl atop it. The good water will rise up and collect on the underside of the palm leaf, then drip into your cup, leaving the salt below.
I drank deep and gave thanks that I had not lost my pack, and for the hours I’d spent reading under the palms.
On the fifth day of my journey, I reached Serab, the Oasis of Better Worlds.
There were no plants in this place: no flowers or palms or creeping vines. Nothing green, just gleaming sand. This was a place of blinding visions. The farther I walked around the oasis, the larger the pool appeared. I kept walking, sure I should have reached the entrance. Resigned, I knelt next to the water’s edge and cupped my hands to drink. The water was sweet, and I rinsed off days of dust and sand.
The visions didn’t take long, and after laying at the edge of the pool for a few moments of peace, I heard footsteps behind me. I turned to see my brother, tall and broad-shouldered, sure of his steps, even in shifting sand.
He hugged me, and a bitter chuckle escaped my lips. “Not such a powerful illusion after all, then. Your embrace speaks volumes. There’s little love lost between my brother and I, phantom.”
He sat next to me. “How many times would you have me tell you before you believed me? I do love you, brother.”
“No. Lie to yourself if you will, Ramses, but do not lie to me.”
My brother smiled sadly. “I have lied enough. I’m not lying about this.”
And then I cast the first spell I’d learned from books and broke his lie with the truth that I feared most. “You have never loved me.” I spoke my words clearly, directing them at the sparkling water around us.
“No.” Ramses shook his head sadly, his brown locks slipping in front of his eyes. He brushed the hair aside and gazed off over the water. “Turn back, Atum. There is nothing for you ahead.” Even as he spoke, he began to shimmer, evaporating into mist in front of me.
I laughed, and went on my way, repeating my steps around the pool.
As I walked my circuit again, I saw jagged bone poking out of the sand around me. This was no fairy-tale fountain. There was something deep and dark here, occluded by light. I would drink no more until Zetzura.
On my way out of the canyons, I navigated a seemingly endless morass of pitfalls and dead-ends. Then, finally, at the end of the sixth day, beaten and dried as old leather, I looked down into the wadi of the sleeping city of Zetzura. Buildings glimmered, the surfaces rippling under starlight, walls and roofs and pillars of black marble, carved without edges or angles. The buildings all quivered in the same invisible wind.
Wind whipped eddies of pale dust mercilessly about me, a stark contrast to the dark stone of the city, like the sloughed-off skin of a serpent. Zetzura was crumbling under the merciless glare of the desert sun. My father was here somewhere, wandering these empty streets. Perhaps Ramses was with him.
Zetzura, the Oasis of Bitter Words. In the stories, they said the air was poisonous. I pulled my scarves tight and wrapped the slack over my nose and mouth. I had no intention of breathing the dust in this dying city. I slid my way down the dunes and into the ruins.
At the center of the crumbling city, there was a single dizzying tower. I shivered. A fire crackled on the roof, far off in the distance, and I set my course.
Dust in the streets blew and drifted like sand after a storm, coming at times up to my ankles. When I walked through it, I swore I felt a tingling there, something rising up along my calves and legs and into the rest of my body. I kept my breath as shallow as possible while I waded through the wide avenues and boulevards of Zetzura, intent on that signal fire in the distance.
The tower doors were dark wood, polished but somewhat lighter than the rest of the buildings around me. They were thrown wide open, and I stepped into a hall with high ceilings. The silence here was absolute. The dust was even thicker inside. There was a path of footprints that led to the back. I wondered again, then, about the dust. A creamy yellow white, like bone or ivory. Like teeth ground into powder. Then I put it out of my mind and picked my way through the hall, following the footprints, careful to maintain my shallow breath. At the back, there was a winding staircase, mostly free of dust.
The staircase was long, and I was short of breath when I finally smelled smoke. I stepped out just as the sun began to rise, casting the whole of the city in pink, light glinting off the motes of dust drifting through Zetzura, like millions of stars falling down to earth. At the center of the roof sat a shallow pool of clear water. On the far edge sat a campfire, around which sat my father and half-brother.
“Fool.” My father said, looking up at me for just a moment before turning his gaze back to a pot of boiling water. Ramses sat by the fire, pale and shivering, wrapped in blankets.
“That’s all you have to say?” I said, incredulous. I’d traversed the dangers of the deep desert, broken illusions, purified water, and this was all he had to say to me?
He looked back up at me, his dark hair graying at the temples, molting into bright silver at his brow. His features were harsh and angular, carved by the hot winds of the desert. “It was a mistake for me to come here. For your brother as well. And for you.” He shook his head. “There is nothing of value here.”
As my father stirred the pot, I noticed suddenly that he was missing the smallest fingers of his right hand, a new injury. Then I looked at my brother for the first time. He was shivering violently, despite the heat. It looked like he was having a nightmare. “What happened?”
My father sighed. “Beware what you say in this place, son. Do not lie. Not even once, by mistake. You must be sure to speak only the truth, or you will pay the price with the weight of your flesh.”
“I’m not afraid of pain.” I said, and I felt a shivering run through me.
“Truly?” He raised his eyebrows. “Good for you. But it isn’t pain you need to fear, but disembowelment and death. I’m sure you’ve wondered as to the nature of the powder in this place?”
“The curse of Zetzura. Speak only truth, or you shall be ground into dust.” He held up his maimed hand. “This was my price. It happens in one small piece at a time. A finger, a toe.” He gazed over at Ramses, who slept by the fire.
“What did you say?” I had known my father to be a hard man, a cruel man, but not a liar.
He looked away. “I told Ramses that he shouldn’t have come. That he could not have saved me.”
His eyes glittered, and he looked at my brother. “See for yourself.”
I knelt next to my shivering brother, and pulled off the blanket. There were no signs of blood or injury, except that his body ended neatly at the waist, in a neat pink nub, the bones of his hips pressing out against the skin. My brother Ramses had no legs.
“What did he say?”
My father stirred the pot, and said nothing.
I sat next to him. “He’ll be ok.” And then I felt the shivering again, and a shooting pain in my good hand. I looked down in horror to watch as my index finger shriveled and turned to white powder, dusting the black stone beneath me.
“Please.” My father looked at me with pleading eyes. “Say nothing more. I love you, Atum. I would not lose both my sons.”
“I love you, too.” I said, and a great chill swept through me. There was no pain, but I felt suddenly off balance and dropped to one knee. My right foot had been rendered into dust. It was then, kneeling before him, that I saw my father weep for the first time. Great fat tears ran down his face, cutting channels of clear skin down across his cheeks.
“Please.” He said, and there was nothing more to say.
At high noon, my brother woke sweating and Father rushed over to quiet him, offering him a cup of the thick liquid he’d been brewing. After some minutes of fevered muttering, Ramses fell asleep again. I eyed the pot as I chewed on the last of my queen scorpions.
“What’s in that?”
“Aguar root. To help him sleep. It’s dangerous for him to be awake right now. He doesn’t know what he’s saying.”
There were more words in his last statement than he had uttered to me through the rest of my life. I had never seen Father like this: caring, loving, protecting. Vulnerable. I suppose that speaking the truth makes new men of us all. It will set you free, truth, but only after it has beaten you bloody and salted the wounds of your maimed body.
I pulled my robe down, baring my crippled arm. “Were you disappointed, when I was born? Did you wish you could take it back? Withdraw your seed?”
My father looked at me and gritted his teeth. “No.”
And then he had just one hand, like me. Despite myself, I laughed, a bitter sound. My father and I had been made equals.
“I’m glad, you know. To hear the truth. I’m glad I came to this place, to see reality flensed and laid bare. This is the desert. This is our world, father. It is not an easy place.”
I took a deep breath. “There is a way back home.”
My statement was not accompanied by any chill, or pain, or desiccation of flesh. “You see? A fundamental truth. We will find our way back.”
He shook his head slowly. “To what end? To return home with two ruined sons? To be hated by them until I grow old and die?”
I could see how my father’s feelings might have troubled Ramses. We had all sought answers here in the desert, but we still didn’t know the right questions to ask. Nonetheless, Zetzura offered truth.
“As to our love for you: if our love for each other is a lie, it is because our feelings are too complex to be fit into a single word. You fill my heart, father. I am here. You are important to me, even if love is too cheap a word to encompass it.” I gritted my teeth. “In my own way, I do love you. And so I must also love Ramses.”
I lost nothing more, though I felt somehow lighter. I had learned a new incantation. A new bit of magic. I hugged my father tight with my good arm and looked down at Ramses.
“Let’s go home.”
|Daniel Rosen writes songs and speculative fiction in northern Minnesota. His work has been featured in Apex, IGMS, and Lackington’s.|