A short story by Ivana Hrubá
Progress was slow. Contrary to the optimistic outlook the grinner, whose name I found out was Carl, had about his leg, he couldn't move it properly and was limping badly, making me think he had lied about the extent of the injury, which now appeared a lot more serious than he was letting on. He was leaning on me heavily but at least the wound had stopped bleeding, Carl reported, and was quite happy about it. We talked about his health a bit but not for too long 'cause Carl pointed out that we needed to conserve our energies, so consequently idle chit chat was off the cards. Truth be told I didn't feel like talking anyway, though after forty-five days in solitary, one would have thought I'd be up for it. But we were exhausted, hungry and thirsty. The thirst was the worst thing. By my estimates it had been a day now since we'd had anything to drink. My head was beginning to spin but I decided not to dwell on it since it would only sap me further. Instead, I resolved to think positive. Who knows? I thought to myself; with a bit of luck we could find some water tomorrow.
When day broke, we were still walking. Just. Carl was in pain and I felt I didn't have it in me to support him for much longer. But at least now that the sun was rising, we could finally see and take stock. The desert was unchanged, a lot of sand and patches of stony ground here and there, but finally we spotted a clump of bushes up ahead and decided to take a break over there. We reached the spot eventually and sat down in the shade to gather our thoughts. Carl spoke up first.
'We have a problem,' he said.
I felt like laughing, despite the situation. 'Really?' I responded somewhat sarcastically but the look Carl gave me stopped me from saying more.
'Listen, shithead, now is not the time. I've lost blood. We're dehydrated. We need to drink now or we're going to be in serious trouble.'
I knew he was right. We needed water now. But I didn't know where to get it, and said so. Carl looked at me like he had an idea, then told me we'd have to drink our urine. Except he didn't say urine; he said piss. 'Course, nothing about the idea was appetizing, conceded Carl, but it really it was the only choice we had.
So we did it. We drank our own piss. It wasn't as bad as I thought it would be. Don't get me wrong it certainly wasn't good but it helped ease the thirst, somewhat. Of course, we knew this was only a temporary measure as our supply was bound to dry up; what we had consumed wasn't enough to keep us going for long. Anyway, we sat there, having drunk our own piss, feeling kind of sick and very exhausted. We decided to go to sleep.
Hey, Handsome, I've missed you... She stood in front of me wearing nothing but a veil. Her hair was out, pouring over her breasts and down her back like liquid gold and she looked like an angel, all innocent and beautiful. She smiled and I melted. Come find me, she whispered and was gone.
I knew I was dreaming and of course I didn't want to wake up but I didn't have a choice. Carl tugged at my wrist and said it was time.
'Time for what?' I said, feeling disappointed, really frustrated and wishing I could have stayed with my girl in my Planet of Dreams.
'Time to find water and food,' Carl replied. He got up and pulled at the chain to make me move. I opened my eyes and it was then the idea came to me; I realized what we've been doing wrong.
'I think we should go west,' I said. I was sitting up now and quite alert. 'Let's go west.'
'Why?' Carl asked. He looked at me closely, looked at me with a what I thought was quite a penetrating stare as if he were worried about my state of mind. 'Why west? Why not just follow the hills? We're bound to find more vegetation there.'
I didn't think this was a good plan; the hills looked like barren sand dunes, even from here. I doubted there was more vegetation than we'd already seen. I told Carl but he wasn't convinced. He thought there might be a chance of finding trees or water behind the hills. So I decided to come clean.
'I saw something in the dungeon that might be useful.'
'You did,' Carl grinned at me in his sloppy way. He clearly thought I was joking.
'Yes, I did,' I said. I was dead serious.
Carl stared at me and eventually stopped grimacing. 'You saw something in the dungeon that might be useful to us now?'
'Yes. There was a message. It said to go west. It was carved into the floor. It said planet of dreams go west.'
I could tell I took him by surprise so I quickly revealed the whole story, how I always saw this when they served me food.
'You sure you didn't dream it?' Carl asked. I could tell he was doubtful. 'In my dungeon there was nothing. Not a thing to be seen. Or heard. The silence did my head in. I was hallucinating half the time. You sure you saw this message?'
'Positive, man. I saw it, day after day when they served me food. I swear.'
Carl went quiet for a bit. It was clear to me that he was thinking things over.
'Why do you think it applies to us? Here, in this place?' he finally asked me.
'I think maybe it's the direction we should take to get somewhere. I think maybe someone else knew that we were going to be taken out of the dungeon and this was his way of warning us. This was his way of telling us what to do, you know, to save ourselves.'
'I didn't think anyone ever got out of the dungeon,' Carl said, weighing up my answer. 'It's just odd to think someone might have.'
'It is odd. But I know what I saw. And I saw the message every time there was light,' I said.
'Well, I saw nothing, the whole time I was there. I thought I was gonna die in that dungeon,' Carl replied. 'In all my years inside I'd never known anyone who'd come out of the dungeon alive.'
'Me neither. I thought I was done for,' I said. 'But we're out now. And we have nothing to lose by going west.'
We looked at each other and grasped that something good just happened. We both realized that we might have found a solution to our situation, and we grinned at each other, relieved.
'All right then,' Carl said, grinning at me slack-jawed. 'We have nothing to lose. Let's go west.'
We set off in the westerly direction. It was about four in the afternoon and the sun was beating down without mercy but at least there were more trees and bushes in our direction so we comforted ourselves with the thought of getting some shade along the way.
For a while it was pleasant, walking along, thinking about reaching a destination soon. But this optimism soon wore off and we were thirstier than ever. Our wrists were swelling where the cuffs kept rubbing them, and it was all getting a bit too much to bear. We had to stop to drink urine again, and I was only thankful we managed to drink our own. I was aware that due to the amount of dribbling spillage, we'd been better off drinking each other's liquid but I really preferred not to go there so I steered my thoughts in a new direction. A cluster of trees had just appeared on the horizon and we decided to head straight over there for a shady rest.
It took us a good while to trudge over there but when we finally arrived, we were pleasantly surprised. We found a few leafy trees and bushes, which provided quite a decent shade from the sun. We lay down to rest.
'I'm so hungry I could eat a horse,' Carl nudged me. He was sweating like a pig and so was I. In a way this was a good thing; it just showed we still had some moisture in us.
'I'm getting such cramps, I'm not sure I can keep going,' I said, hoping we'd park it here for the rest of the day.
To this Carl replied that he was at the end of his tether to which I replied that I was too, and we decided to take a nap.
I had hoped to see my girl again, but I didn't. I slept like a log and when I woke up, the sun was dipping to the west and Carl was sitting up, holding a finger to his lips to keep me quiet, and gesturing with his free hand towards the bushes to our left. A little brown piglet was rooting around in the ground there, snorting and not caring a fig about us. Carl and I looked at each other and I knew exactly what he was telling me.
We pounced on the piggy as one; Carl, being closer, literally threw himself at the little creature which let out a frightful high-pitched squeal, the start of a dreadful racket. Using the chain between our handcuffs as a sort of makeshift garrote, we strangled the piglet between us. It went down quickly and the noise stopped. We lay on the ground with the piglet between us, its blood streaming down its neck into our hands and it only seemed natural to drink it. It tasted warm and good and we were ecstatic to have it, as anyone in our position would have been.
We drank till we were full. As I was gulping down the pig's blood, I felt alive like I've never felt before; I felt as if I were standing at the threshold of a new life, one filled with love and hope and many other good things, and I was so grateful to still be alive to experience this magnificent emotion. We took turns draining the pig. I watched Carl getting his fill, and I could tell that he was feeling the same; with each swallow he grew visibly better. By the time we'd sucked the piglet dry we felt on top of the world.
In that spirit we decided we'd try start a fire to cook the piglet. Carl had once been a scout and had been shown how to do it, but even though we had found twigs and leaves and took turns twirling the fire stick for a good while, we couldn't manage it so in the end we decided not to worry about it and just eat the pig raw. We tore the skin on its belly and punctured the flesh with a sharp stick and then Carl managed to take out its heart and liver which we shared between us; and it wasn't as difficult to eat these raw entrails as one would think. It even tasted kind of good. Anyway, the meat gave us energy and most of all hope, to keep going.
We set off west again just before the sun set, taking the piglet with us. We worked out a way of carrying the carcass without too much effort; we slung it over the chain that held our handcuffs together. It took some getting used to but we managed to coordinate our steps so the piglet wouldn't fall and just kind of swung, with our walking rhythm.
We were in a much better mood than the night before so we passed the time talking. We talked about the things we were going to do when we got out of the desert, discussing our future as if we had one, as if getting out of this desert alive was a sure thing.
'I can't wait to take a bath. I've been dreaming about it since the dungeon,' Carl said. He sounded very hopeful.
'Me neither,' I piped up just to make him happy, though a bath wasn't my first priority. 'Where do you think you'll go when we get back?' I asked him, meaning back to civilization, not prison. I knew neither of us had any intention of going back there.
'Home,' Carl replied after a little pause. 'I'd like to go home. Haven't seen my family for a long time.'
'You gonna risk it?' I was genuinely surprised. 'Home is the first place they're gonna stake out to catch you.'
'There's no risk in going home. Nobody's waiting for us there or anywhere else,' Carl replied. 'Why would anybody be interested in us? They had us and they let us go. They let us go. Do you get it?'
I didn't get it and said so. 'We're escaped prisoners. They'll be interested, trust me.'
'Let me explain something, Sonny,' Carl replied. 'We're not escaped prisoners. We were let out here for a reason. You wanna know what I think? - I think they wanted us to go away, anywhere we like in this desert to fend for ourselves and survive or die trying.'
'Preferably die trying,' I remarked, recalling the shootings. 'They shot at us, remember? Not a viable survival technique, was it?'
Carl sighed. 'Think about it, man. We were shot at for a reason. They wanted us to disperse. They didn't want us to be together as a team. That would have given us strength and a sense of safety. They couldn't have that. They wanted to isolate us. That's why we got shot at.'
I had to admit Carl's side of the argument made sense. After all, if they wanted us dead, they could have picked us out, shot us, one by one. But they didn't. They let us live; at least some of us 'cause here we were, alive and walking.
'Do you think many of the others survived?' I asked.
'Some. I'll bet my life on it. There's people out here, somewhere, walking like us.'
For some reason, I don't know why 'cause I didn't know any of the other prisoners, I got excited thinking we could meet up some place with the other survivors. 'You think we should maybe try to find them?' I asked Carl, barely able to contain my enthusiasm for the idea.
'Now what would be the point of that?' he asked, sounding suspicious, weary or, I don't know, kind of energy-depleted. I put it down to the stress we've been under.
'I don't know, maybe we could figure something out, you know, be stronger together, safer, like you said,' I replied.
Carl shook his head, or at least I imagined he was shaking it 'cause obviously I couldn't see him in the dark. The sky was moonless and cloudy, and we were cold and getting colder.
'Do you know any of the other guys?' he asked me.
I replied that I didn't, and Carl commented that it was a good thing.
'Trust me, Sonny, we're better off as we are, just the two of us,' Carl said. 'Think about our position, about the reality of what it would mean, having other people around right now. To begin with, we'd have to share the pig. You'd wanna do that?'
Once again, I had to admit Carl was right. We'd been in the desert for three days now and the piglet was the first animal we'd seen. That we were able to capture it and kill it was pure chance, a miracle really or a god-sent; whichever way you'd like to think about it, we couldn't count on getting more food any time soon and what we had wasn't going to last long. So yes, we were better off just the two of us.
We walked on a bit in silence, picking up the pace. I was thinking about this strange turn of events our lives have taken so suddenly, so unexpectedly, and I couldn't find any logic in any of it so eventually I confided in Carl to see if he'd had an idea.
'Why do you think we got let out here? What is the point of all this?' I asked.
'I don't know. Maybe it's a test of some kind,' Carl replied. He sounded unsure, and pensive as if it also bothered him not to know.
'It could be. Maybe we are being tested. I wonder what happens if we fail,' I said foolishly. Deep down I was really afraid, of course, but I didn't want to show it.
Carl laughed. 'What happens? We die, that's what happens.'
_ _ _
The Desert © Ivana Hrubá 2013
All rights reserved
The short story The Desert is an excerpt from the novel Planet of Dreams: Go West
Planet of Dreams: Go West
Nineteen year old Sonny is left to rot alive alone in a dungeon
when he discovers a message carved into the floor. What follows
leads Sonny to believe escape and survival is possible.
A day in the dungeon begins with a sound. It is a distinct and quite unpleasant sound, of footsteps coming closer. From inside the dungeon these footsteps sound like slaps; sometimes I imagine slabs of raw beef are falling on the flagstones. One, two, three, four, five, six chunks of moist sirloin lying on the ground in a bloody mess. Then silence. Hopeful on my side of the dungeon door, indifferent, I imagine, in the corridor. The silence lasts three seconds, at the most. On the other side of the door a key is inserted into the lock, turned, then a chain is pulled, then the small metal tray in the door falls open towards you like a drawbridge. In the next instance, your provisions for the day, a jug of water and a bowl of something, a stew or soup, appear. You have exactly ten seconds to take the food off the tray before the tray draws up, closing the opening. The chain rattles, the key turns, leaves the lock. The sound of footsteps resumes. This time the sound has an entirely different tone; this time, sand is squeaking underfoot, on a beach somewhere, in an open, sunny place. One, two, three, four, five, six sandy squeaks, squeaking away until nothing but the sound of your own breathing remains. The entire exercise lasts exactly two minutes. Then it's just you. To do with yourself as you see fit. And what do you do with yourself for the rest of your dark, quiet day? You Go West to find your Planet of Dreams.
Planet of Dreams: Go West is available to download from Smashwords, Amazon and other online stores. Reviews posted online will be much appreciated.