Feet burning, scalded and swollen by the heat of the sand, he walked.
Inch by inch he strode forward, not knowing where he was going nor why he was walking. His back and scalp felt raw and wounded by the sun hovering high above him.
He had been walking for days and days but the sun was relentless in its pursuit and never once set below the horizon. He hadn’t seen the moon nor the stars for what felt like weeks and he longed, burned, for but a touch of fresh, cool water on his tongue.
Up the sides of dunes and down others, unrelenting and determined to reach his destination, whatever it may turn out to be. He had seen what he thought, knew, to be mirages. The human brain can accept a surprising amount of impossibility and strangeness as reality but, even in his weakened state, he knew what he had seen to be fragments of images, illusions from his own muddled brain.
For hours it had seemed he was walking on the sea, his feet hovering a bare few inches off the surface of the water. Below him, he could imagine, or sometimes clearly discern, thousands of species of fish and mammals, things he had never even thought could exist, creatures dead for so long their very bones had turned to sand long ago, creatures so old the earth had forgotten about them. Overhead it had seemed a storm was brewing and he would swear to his dying day he had heard thunder and seen lightning then, lightning so close it had made all the hairs on his stand on end.
But the mirage had passed and he had found himself sitting on the sand, gasping for air, staring at the sun overhead. He had seen spots for hours afterwards, fearing he might go blind.
Ahead of him now he imagined he could see a tent, its cloth flapping in a nonexistent wind. There was, of all things, a fire burning brightly in front of its door despite the unbearable light and heat of the midday sun. He felt a strange shiver go down his spine; so far his hallucinations hadn’t included people or any other signs or civilization. The tent he saw now made him uncomfortable, as if the reality of the mirage was harder to doubt and made a lot easier to accept with the fact that it included man- made objects.
For his life, he couldn’t remember if he had ever lived in the city. His memories were hazy and muddled, up to his waking up on top of a sand dune, some endless days and weeks and months ago. He had no name, as far as he knew of.
His legs, tired and tortuous, gave on him for the hundredth time and he fell to his knees, painfully. The sand seemed to pierce right through the thin cloth of his pants and cruelly scraped against his ruined knees. He gave a small cry and, agonizingly, forced himself to get back on his feet. Whatever his destination, he knew, had known from the second he had first opened his eyes to this world of sun, heat and sand, that he had to keep walking. He felt, instinctively, that if he should stay put, he would surely die. Something, he didn’t know what or why but he knew it to be true, would come and take him and that would be the end of it. Something he feared.
He got his feet under him properly and, as he started walking again, he looked up towards the tent and started, impulsively.
There was now a horse tethered to a post next to the structure, a huge pale beast, muscled and tall. It was unbridled and stared at him nervously, with a wide, intelligent eye. He shrank under the animal’s gaze shyly.
Walking down the dune, tripping and hurting, he reached the bottom of a wide patch of soft, red earth. As he stepped onto the moist ground, he suddenly found himself in near-blinding darkness. Overhead, a full moon shone dimly, the way a full moon never really shines, gloriously faded and cream-colored.
He hesitated to approach the tent, fearful of the huge horse standing calmly next to it. The beast hadn’t moved a muscle when he had entered the clearing ; it continued to stare at him and he felt himself being watched by a creature which was a lot more than simple equine muscle. He looked down and noticed there was no grass growing around the horse’s hooves, as if the animal had trampled it all, but the ground was undisturbed.
And he wished, then, with all his heart, that there would be someone in that tent, someone who could and, more importantly, who would, tell him where he was supposed to be walking to.
He walked up to what he thought to be the tent’s opening, and, for lack of something to knock on, he parted the cloth slowly, peering into the darkness inside. He barely made out a few furs covering the ground, various trinkets hanging from the support beams that constructed the makeshift house but he knew, right then, that there was no-one there in that tent. Sighing, he walked in and sat down heavily, feeling comfortable for the first time in what felt like months, or years.
He had started to remove his battered shirt when he realized with a start that someone was standing in the open doorway, silhouette illuminated dimly by the light of the moon and fire.
It was a young man, and as he walked into the gloom of the tent, the moonlight flooded in once more and he could see that the man looked like someone straight out of a high renaissance painting, with shoulder-length, curling dark blonde hair and the slight built of a boy just out of his teens.
There was a sheen and paleness to the young man’s skin which reminded him, strangely, but not unpleasantly, of something long dead and polished smooth by the sands of time. He shuddered.
Not a word was ever exchanged between them but the young man offered him a broth which was warm and still smoking, and bread, and something which did not quite taste like wine but which went straight to his head all the same, the way very strong alcohol will make your legs feel numb after the first few mouthfuls.
Somehow they ended up making love then, on the furs, lying on the ground in the tent and it was a sweaty, passionate affair, a tangle of limbs which could have lasted anywhere from a few minutes to several hours. He couldn’t have said why or how it happened, but it happened all the same and he soon found himself lying breathless on his back, feeling the coarse furs on his skin and looking up at a face which was both angelic, and, somehow, fundamentally wrong.
He tried to say something, anything to make sense of the moment, but his brain refused to form any sort of coherent thought, and the question he most wanted answered, the question which would give sense to his quest across this endless desert, seemed, at the moment, totally pointless and superficial.
And just as he was about to ask the youth for his name, he had a bout of dizziness so extreme he thought for sure he would pass out, and, gradually, his vision dimmed until he saw nothing more than the youth’s gentle face above him, and he realized suddenly that he had made a mistake by stopping here, that he should never have stopped walking and that he would never know, ultimately, where it was he was walking to.
He took one last shuddering breath and died there, on the furs and on the sand, and in his mind.
Somewhere else, he knew, he was dying also, and that was somehow worse than everything else.
* * * *
They found him a few hours later, in his downtown apartment, sitting by his stained bed, with a gun by his hand.