The sand. The sand underneath her feet. The sand she breathes in and out. It has always been around her, outside and inside. It is a part of her in ways she never thought of until this moment. Now that she has finally reached the ocean and the miles upon miles of golden dunes are behind her. She tells herself the quest for water led her here, but did it really? The ocean’s water is not fit for drinking, so this is not the reason. Why then? Why?
She looks back at the mountains of sand behind her; they are calling out to her to return, to go back to her people, to the only civilization she has known. But why? What for? There is only death and destruction awaiting there, and no water…years and years of drought…years and years of pain, of disease, of despair. And now she dares to dream of something different, of a new land, of a new life. But how could she leave everyone behind?
“Leave, child,” her mother whispered in her ear as she stood in front of The Elders months ago, holding a small backpack with a few belongings. “Leave and never come back.”
A group of several young men and women her age had been tasked by The Elders to travel across the desert in search of water, food, people—anything they could hunt and bring back—dead or alive. Finding a path to the ocean, though, was not on their list, only the direct instruction to not go astray.
At twenty years of age, she finds herself caught between the sand and the water, needing to decide where she belongs and where to go from here. The environment she left behind remains unfair, unhabitual. Yet moments of happiness did exist there—the kind she’d experienced with Xavier—but she knows that if letting go of him was difficult, then letting go of the future they had envisioned for themselves would be a betrayal.
* * *
Xavier’s people came from the mountains. One day a group of people simply appeared, struggling to make their way through the hot sand. Their faces were red, their skin peeling. Yara had never seen people quite like them before. They seemed like they were in pain. Indeed, they were, in much greater pain than she could have imagined.
The Elders allowed them to settle at the far end of town, far enough from their own people but close enough to keep an eye on them. They had no leader; they were vagabonds, traveling together by mere chance, the few survivors of the Great Collapse.
It was a story that children had heard about from their parents, who heard it from their parents. No one ever knowing whether it really happened, whether it was even real.
Yara’s mother took a liking to the surviving children, saying, “Resilience is key at any age, but children do not have that ability yet. They do not know, they act on faith.”
The two would cook food for the children twice a week, with the little they had, and walk to the far end of town to deliver it. The children would gather with expecting eyes. It devastated Yara and her mother to see how little they had—all their clothes were torn and dirty from long days of travel; their shoes were falling from their tiny feet.
There were not many children in the group, maybe four or five with whom they regularly met. There were more young people, maybe ten or twelve, and only one very old woman, whom they referred to as Priestess. Perhaps she was some kind of a religious leader back where they came from, but in this new land she was struggling too—she could barely see from the sand in her eyes, could barely talk because her throat was dry, and could barely walk because her heavy weight made her feet sink deeper in the unstable ground. Still, she appreciated the assistance Yara and her mother provided and blessed them every time they came with food.
The young people—mostly men, some close to Yara’s age, some older and some younger—would spend hours on end every day trying to learn the sand, to understand its ways. The Priestess explained that was their way. “When you learn your environment, you get stronger; when you know where you are, you know who you are.”
* * *
The Priestess’s words echo in Yara’s head as she stands on the beach, looking out at the horizon, her bare feet sinking deeper. The combination of sand and water is new to her, it is exciting. For the first time in a long time, she feels hopeful.
* * *
“Tell me the story of the Great Collapse again,” Yara would beg her mother every time they made their way back home from the far end of town.
“I’ve told it to you so many times already, Yaya,” her mother would answer.
“I want to hear it again, tonight, before bedtime, okay?” She smiled, grabbed her mother’s arm and looped it in hers.
“Okay, Yaya,” her mother said. “When we get home, you prepare the potion and I’ll see what I can do.”
* * *
Yara’s mother shook the blanket outside, hitting it with a big stick made of wood that Yara had randomly found one day in the sand.
“All good in there?” she called out to Yara, who was cleaning inside.
The house had a small kitchen area where they cooked and ate their meals, a tiny bathroom where only one of them could fit at a time, and one bedroom that was a makeshift bedroom that they both shared. The bedroom had two beds, one in each corner, with a small rug in between. It was always dark. It was the only room in the house without any windows so the sand wouldn’t get in, or if some did, it would at least be easy to get out.
“We must clear out all the sand, otherwise it won’t work,” Yara’s mother told her.
Yara rolled the rug from the bedroom and put it outside the room. She was vigorously sweeping the bedroom while also keeping an eye on the boiling pot on the stove. She knew that if it heated up too much, everything would be ruined. It happened to her before when she tried to do it the first time, by herself. She was not yet as skilled as her mother in the ways of her people.
“I think it’s ready!” Yara called to her mother from the kitchen.
“Let’s see.” Her mother entered with a partly folded blanket around her shoulders so it wouldn’t touch the ground. She lifted the lid, closed her eyes, and took a whiff; she paused for a moment.
“Yes, you’re right.” She removed the pot and blew off the fire. Yara was always impressed to see her do that with one single breath.
“Let’s begin.” She smiled at Yara and handed her the blanket. “Fold this and put it down carefully, like I showed you, and I’ll come in after you.”
Yara did exactly what her mother had said—she went into the bedroom, folded up the blanket, and placed it on the floor between their beds. She sat down on one side, close to her bed, and then her mother came in, placed the pot in the middle, on the blanket, and sat down on the floor across from Yara. They sat in complete darkness for a few minutes, Yara’s mother chanting hymns in their ancient language.
And then, suddenly, a flash. Very dim in the beginning, but Yara knew it was just the start.
Another flash, like a tiny firecracker, that from one grew into several. Yara’s mother moved her arms in the air, controlling the location of the lights and placing them right above their heads. As more and more came about, the room got lighter and lighter. Yara’s mother sighed in relief and lifted the lid off the pot.
The magenta-colored liquid was still bubbling. Yara’s mother kept chanting and raising her arms, as though to awaken the potion. Yara watched her mother in amazement.
“Once upon a time,” Yara’s mother began her story, “there were different kinds of people roaming this land.” As she spoke, she drew signs and symbols with her finger she in the air above the pot, which became floating images painted in a sparkling purple hue.
“There were water people, like my ancestors.” She drew an image of waves, and it floated in the air around them. “There were sand people, like your father’s ancestors.” She drew magnificent dunes of sand. “There were fire people.” She drew a bonfire with flying embers. “And there were mountain people.” She drew a landscape of mountains with different peaks.
“I’d never known water, but my mother had told me stories of the great ocean.” She drew up all kinds of fish. “When she was young the fire people taught her this practice, and she taught it to me, like I am teaching you, so we won’t forget where we came from.
“But all I knew was sand. I met your father and I fell in love.” She drew an image of a heart. “My mother warned me but I didn’t listen.” She began to weep. “The ground was burning. I lost all the people I loved.” Yara reached out to hold her hand.
“And still, amid that darkness, there was you.” Her mother smiled as she drew an image of a butterfly. “My Yara.”
“Years and years ago I heard about the Great Collapse from my mother.” Yara’s mother drew an image of a mountain again. “When it happened, the ground began to shake, it began to break apart.” The image shook in midair, showing an avalanche of rocks. “The heavy rocks crushed everything in their path—trees, animals, people—it was horrible.”
“But if it was such a long time ago,” Yara inquired, “how come they are here just now?”
“You must remember, child, they never knew sand,” Yara’s mother explained. “It must have taken them a while to get here, generations even.”
“But that doesn’t make any sense,” Yara persisted. “How did they survive this whole time?”
“A child of sand, water, and fire will always wander,” Yara’s mother said. “It will always be searching. That’s what my mother said to me before I had you, and now I realize it is true.”
The lights above them had begun to grow dim.
“I’m losing strength,” Yara’s mother declared, lowering her arms.
“Wait, what about the fire people? Are they still around? And how come so many people came here, to the sands?”
“I’m tired, Yaya,” her mother said. “Another night, okay?”
Yara’s mother began to pluck away the lights. She slowly closed the lid over the now nearly empty pot while closing her eyes and chanting. Yara knew it was her way of ending the practice with gratitude.
* * *
After a while the surviving mountain people seemed to have gotten used to life among the sands. The young men and women would come into town on occasion to visit the local marketplace, where they traded found objects for food.
The Elders were opposed to allowing them to take positions in town, so they had to scavenge out in the dunes for artifacts they could exchange—good wooden sticks for walking or cleaning, like the one Yara found one day, were always on high demand; silver or gold were rare commodities that everyone wanted; and magnets, batteries, or anything that could hold energy, even for a short time, were of the highest of value to all.
Ever since the Great Collapse, The Elders had explained, something terrible happened to the ground, and all vehicles ceased to be in operation. No one came in or out of town for years, as far as most people knew. The little food the townspeople had, they grew on their own; the few animals they had, died years ago. Food was scarce; it was consumed only for existence, not for pleasure. It was edible but that was basically the only thing one could say about it. It prevented starvation.
Among the survivors was a young man named Xavier. He was about Yara’s age. The two became good friends since they would see each other almost every week when Yara and her mother would arrive to deliver food for the Priestess and the children.
One day their eyes met across the market as Yara was tasked by her mother to fetch a few things, and Xavier and his friends were haggling with a potential buyer. From where she was standing, she could see Xavier was holding what looked like pieces of silver.
Where would they have found that? she wondered, eyes wide open.
In a swift move, Xavier rushed in her direction, pulling her arm and diverting her gaze and body away from their potential buyer.
“Careful now,” he said as he locked eyes with her. “You’ll blow our cover with your big eyes.” He smiled and tapped her head playfully.
“What’s going on?” she whispered, turning her head left and right.
“We need this to work. Just bear with me for one more second.” He held both of her shoulders tightly while slowly glancing above her head, waiting for a signal from his friends.
After a few moments of suspense, Xavier saw his friends were smiling as the buyer walked away. He smiled as he let go of Yara.
“Thanks so much, you’ve been a great help.” Xavier saluted Yara and began to walk away quickly.
“Wait a minute, wait a minute!” Yara called out as she ran after him. She felt the hustle and bustle of the busy market all around her, but managed to catch up with him.
“What was that all about?”
“Look at this.” Xavier pulled out a few pieces from his pants pocket and handed them to her. “What do you see?” They kept walking through the crowd.
“Silver?!” Yara looked carefully at the small pieces.
“Good, so you’d fall for it too,” Xavier laughed.
“Fall for what? What is going on?” Yara asked, puzzled.
“Look.” Xavier took one of the pieces from her hand. “It’s not silver, it’s just a rock! You sand people know nothing about silver. Have you ever seen it? For real? With your own eyes?” He burst out laughing. “I knew that if we pretended, they would trust we’re knowledgeable because we come from mountains—we must have seen silver, we must have seen gold—but you people…” He laughed again.
Yara was angry. “It’s fraud!”
Xavier’s expression changed. “It’s what we have to do to keep living.” He grabbed the rest of the pieces from her hand. “The Elders won’t let us work. What do you expect us to do? How will we feed ourselves? Take care of our children?”
“My mother and I—” she began to speak.
“It’s not enough,” Xavier interrupted her. “It’s very much appreciated,” he continued, “but it’s not enough.”
Yara lowered her eyes. “What else can we do? I don’t know…”
“You can help us turn rocks into silver, and silver into food…” He juggled some of the pieces from one hand to the other.
“How can I do that?” Yara said. “I’m not—”
“A thief? Unfortunately, life is unpredictable.” He sighed. “You might need to become one, one day. Might as well learn now, while I’m around to teach you.” Xavier winked at Yara, took the basket she was carrying from her hand, and the two kept walking through the market.
* * *
The sand. The water. The fire. The mountain.
Her mother warned her, just like she’d been warned, and her grandmother before her, of mixing with people outside of their own kind.
Her grandmother was cast away from water because she fell in love with a man who made fire. Together they created a new practice that combined each other’s traditions and strengths. When her grandmother became pregnant with a child that was half-water and half-fire, her father killed the man and sent her away with her baby. She raised Yara’s mother all on her own, barely surviving under difficult conditions, until some sand people found them in the dunes and took them in. Yara’s mother grew up with the sand people while secretly continuing to practice fire and water with her mother. Her mother had sworn her to keep these practices hidden from the sand people, which she did, until she fell in love with one of them.
After Yara was born, her parents and her grandmother lived peacefully for a while, her mother and grandmother still practicing in secret. Her father knew Yara’s mother had come “from outside,” but did not know of her descent.
One day, when Yara was a baby and sleeping in another room, they were practicing some rituals in a room they’d cleared of sand. Their neighbor, a sand woman, came in the house with some news she had heard from The Elders in the town square. She called for Yara’s mother and grandmother, following the sounds of chanting she’d heard coming from a closed room. When she opened the door, a gush of sand flew inside, contaminating the room. The neighbor stood, shocked, and then yelled, “FIRE! FIRE!”
The pot with the potion had spilled on the floor; flames soon covered the walls. The neighbor and Yara’s grandmother fell to the floor and began coughing severely. The fire soon took over. Yara’s mother did not know who to help first. Then she heard the baby’s cry from the other room.
“Yara! Yara!” She called, running to the other room; she grabbed the baby and ran out of the house.
Another neighbor who had witnessed the commotion ran to the market to fetch Yara’s father, who came running and panting. After checking that Yara and her mother were okay, he ran into the burning house to help the two women caught inside. A long while passed and no one came out. Yara and her mother were crying relentlessly. And then, with a loud crash, the house collapsed entirely.
* * *
“Divine interference?” Xavier chuckled the first time Yara told him of her family history. “So, you think because of those ancient practices, your family is doomed?” he laughed.
Yara crossed her arms. “How would you explain it otherwise?”
“The conditions of life in this place.” He began listing with his fingers. “The lack of resources, fear of other people’s traditions, and…shit happens, that’s just that,” he concluded.
“Shit happens? That’s just that?” Yara stared at him, confused.
“Was there something divine about the earth shaking years ago? Almost an entire race of people wiped off—I don’t even have memories of them. All I know is this.” Xavier picked up a pile of sand in his palm and then let it fall slowly to the ground until his palm was empty. “You need to be grateful, Yara. You are so much more powerful than you think.” He took her hand in his. “And together we can do so much.” His eyes sparkled under the fading light of the day. “We can dare to dream. I heard the other day that The Elders are planning a mission. They want to send a few people to look for things. I’m not sure exactly what, but I want to go and so should you.” He squeezed her hand.
“But I can’t—”
“Open your eyes. Everything is dying here. We can’t stay here, we have to find another place, a better place.”
“Will we come back?” Yara looked at the town in the distance with tears in her eyes.
“I don’t know. I’m not sure there will be a place to come back to.”
“But my mother…” Yara began to weep.
Xavier hugged Yara. “She will understand.”
Next to her mother, Xavier was the person she trusted most. His passion for life inspired her. In a place where people were always desperate around her, he provided a sense of hope, a chance for something different, for survival.
* * *
The mission was tough. The group spent hours walking every day under extreme conditions of high heat and dry air. Their food was beginning to run out, and frequent fights arose quickly between the sand people and the mountain people, Yara and Xavier caught in between.
After what seemed like weeks of walking endlessly, only a handful of people had survived—many having surrendered to exhaustion and heat and sun exposure. Xavier and Yara kept strong, kept going; despite the difficulties, they found refuge in each other.
One day a member from their group collapsed on the sand. The others tried to help him up, but he screamed and cried for them to leave him be. As they began to resume their walk, Xavier remained stagnant.
“We can’t just leave him here!” he lashed out at the group.
“We have no choice,” someone yelled back.
“But we can’t!” Xavier insisted. He turned to the man. “You are still alive. You can make it!”
The man wept and made an effort to stand, without success.
“What makes him any different from all the others we had to leave behind?” someone inquired.
“I know,” another person jumped in. “He is a mountain man, isn’t he?” he scoffed. “You didn’t fight this hard to save the sand people we lost on the way, did you?” He came closer to Xavier and pushed him lightly.
“I’ll fight for any man or woman worth saving!” Xavier was angry. “The others were already dead, mountain people and sand people,” he continued, “but this man is still alive!”
“Is that so?” the man laughed. All of a sudden, he pulled a sharp knife from his pocket and stabbed the man who was lying on the ground. “He’s not alive now, is he?”
Everyone gasped and moved back, except Xavier.
“That’s not right!” Xavier jumped the man from the back as he turned around, trying to get the knife. They both fell to the ground. Xavier knocked the knife away and it disappeared for a moment in the sand. Xavier was on top of the man; he punched him in the nose and it began to bleed. Then they flipped around and Xavier suffered a beating to the stomach that caused him to curl up. Yara was yelling and shouting for help from the other group members who were just standing there staring at the two men.
The sun shined strongly for a moment and the knife sparkled in the sand. The man on top of Xavier noticed it first, quickly picked it up and cut Xavier.
“No!” Yara released a terrifying scream and then reached into her bag and pulled out a small bottle of potion her mother had given her before she’d left for the mission. Yara threw the bottle on the ground; it immediately caused a loud explosion that made the man with the knife and everyone else pull away from her and Xavier.
“Stand back!” she yelled through the tears. “I know fire!” Another loud bang occurred as she said those words. The group stayed back.
Yara went to Xavier and held his hand. She closed his eyes and mumbled an ancient prayer as he slipped away from her. She sat there for hours, praying and crying, rocking back and forth, holding his hand. The others sat in a circle around them, as was the sand people’s custom when a loved one died.
In the morning the group wanted to continue on the journey, but Yara did not want to leave Xavier’s body. When they tried to come closer to her, she screamed. Eventually they decided to move on without her. Within a few hours, as they walked farther and farther away, Yara became a distant memory to them, a poor girl lost in sand.
* * *
Yara stands on the shore with her memories intact.
Where will she go from here? The water is everywhere, as far as the eye can see. Did anyone from the group make it here as well? She’d seen no one on her journey. She sees no one now. Only herself, her sand, her water, and the fire that is within her, too, she now knows. And a little piece of Xavier, a little piece of mountain—a real rock, a thing of beauty, a source of power—just like he’d been for her. Yara reaches down to caress her belly.
“And what will you be?” she asks her unborn child.
She has traveled on her own for months through the sand, feeling its heartbeat grow stronger with every step.
“What does the future hold for us?” She sighs. “There?” She looks back at the sand. “Or there?” She looks out to the horizon. Yara takes a deep breath. “Or maybe somewhere completely new?” She feels the wind in her hair. “I’m sure you will tell me one day. I’m sure of it, Zuri.”
She resumes walking, chanting an ancient lullaby that her mother used to sing to her, walking along the coastline, watching the crashing waves, feeling the water gently pulling toward and away from her.
About the Author:
Orit Yeret is a writer, artist and teacher. Born and raised in Israel, she currently lives in the U.S. She enjoys photography, painting, and writing short prose and poetry in both English and Hebrew. Her work recently appeared or is forthcoming in American Writers Review, The Borfski Press, Drunk Monkeys, Euphony Journal, Ink Pantry, Crack the Spine, Blue Lake Review, Steam Ticket, Avalon Literary, Evening Street Review, (mac)ro(mic), The Magnolia Review,October Hill Magazine, Think Journal, Voices de la Luna, and Whistling Shade. Read and view more of her work at http://www.orityeret.com.
*Featured image by Lukas Moos from Pixabay