I was invited to a bonfire out at the docks. I’d heard rumors of the place; moving dunes swept up by the winds punctuated by wooden boardwalks that ran a length and dropped off over a sea of sand. Sturdy docks, but old and frightening because there was no one alive who knew when there had last been water enough for a boat to load into this side of Tijlis. No one could imagine what else those docks might have been for. But those rumors were nothing compared to the stark desert reality: impossibly wide planks of glossy, petrified wood fitted together into seven boardwalks and seven impossibly high drop offs arranged in an oval around a seemingly endless expanse of shifting sand, all visible at midday or by the light of a full moon. It was as though they were built for giants. They created in us a feeling of fear complemented by one of significance-that who or what had built these had knowledge beyond ours, but it hadn’t saved them from fate or even meaningfully preserved them in the annals of history. They were gone. We were here.
So we started meeting there on black, windless nights. Lighting fires with ancient driftwood we found scattered in the area, under sky so low it hung like the heavy branches of tired trees. We burned it blue and sometimes purple in the dark with the docks silhouettes in the background, a reminder of history’s mysteries, and of our own mortality.
The night I was invited to the bonfire was the night Alan took the dare that no one takes. Was it pride? Too much Frist, the home-brewed sludge we all drank to heighten our awareness of every sharp, glassy grain of sand that shifted beneath our feet and pushed us to the peak of ourselves? Alan smiled and laughed. He could do it, he was sure. It took him more than an hour to “walk the plank.” He held our attention rapt, stopping every few yards to wave and give a thumbs up, even amidst nervous chortles and labored inhalations of dry air that whistled up our nostrils. Just as he made it to the edge of the nearest wooden behemoth, a low moaning wind swept up, carrying sand and blue fire with it, knocking Alan from the dock’s edge. We watched him plummet an unfathomable distance, growing further from us even as he was swallowed by the sand and flame that blew to meet him. We heard him scream, followed by a sound like sand being swallowed. With dry throats, we hit the Jeeps and sped home.
We did not look back for Alan. Not even Helene, his sometime girlfriend who was rumored in arch whispers to have made love to him behind a dune and been caught by their friends when it shifted. She simply climbed in behind me, inhumanly fast, and mumbled, “He was there. He was right there.”
Gone was what he was. Gone and irretrievable, said the Sheriff when we rolled back into town. His house was at the edge of the single pass back into the mountains. Our town was called Soel, but we referred to it as the Fishbowl due to the way the mountains rose up in arced walls around it, lush and green so that it filled up with water when it rained. All the houses were built around the edge of the valley, strategically placed on natural hills jutting up as if they would pierce the sky. All together we weren’t more than 5,000 people. Small enough for everyone to know everyone else. Small enough that not many new families found their way into town.
Yet, here was my family. New, unestablished, unwanted even. My sister, brother and I hadn’t grown up wound into the communal Soel tapestry. Worse, even, was that we were beachers—one parent Desert (our father) and the other Water (our mother). Soel was an old town, as old as the docks, maybe. The families here could trace their ancestry back one thousand years. Deserters kept track of the threads of history, but Seafarers like my mother’s clan saw the ebb and flow of life much like the tides; expected, repeating, and fluid.
Five years, we’d been here. Our families tenuous grasp and negligence of blood ties left us little more than wildcards in the eyes of the locals. But five years for children is not the same as five years for adults. Adults are established, and the people of Soel reckoned my parents would never change enough to be true members of the community, no matter the level of their societal contribution. Children, however, are malleable. They can change or be changed, so efforts to reform us were strenuous and ongoing. In the last year, it was clear to me that much of the guard in place against us had eased. My siblings and I could forge a place here—easily if we took our Dedications before the Fire of Life.
Sheriff told us to meet him in the pit of the bowl. Alan was gone. He wouldn’t go looking. He would fill the pit with the Fire of Life and celebrate his passing through this realm. “Better to do it right away,” he grunted. He was leaning in through the door of our Jeep, his eyes fixed on Helene who let out a low moan. “Easier for those who loved him to accept it and move on.” Sheriff kept us from growing stagnant. He said just because we lived in a fishbowl didn’t mean we had to stew in the crap of our own histories. No circling the bowl for us. We were to move up, forward, some of us out of the bowl forever. His eyes lingered on me for a moment, and I knew he was wondering if this would be the night I would say the vows.
I clumsily slung an arm around Helene. Sheriff’s eyes narrowed and he pulled back from the window, slapping the side of the Jeep once. Helene was still mumbling, “He was right there.” I knew the scene was replaying in her mind just as it was in mine. She leaned against me as I slipped into the trance that sometimes took hold of me. I’d stopped struggling against these visions, or revisions, I should call them. They were memories that played back fuller than the original experience. I didn’t always want them. I didn’t understand them, but my father said they were part of meditation, and my mother said there was wisdom to be had in exploring the past. That, like the water, the past was ever changing. So I stopped fighting them. They came softly and quickly, bringing me back around a day, a year, a month. This time I was back at the Dunes, watching the wind lift our blue fire. Alan was falling. The fire flew toward him. And the sandy sea between the docks was shifting, sliding up and dipping down in sinuous curves. The fire covered Alan. A hole opened beneath him. He was swallowed. Gone.
Helene, against me, had her hands over her face. My shirt was wet with the tears that dripped through her fingers. “He was right there,” she was still mumbling. “My Alan. My Alan.”
I pulled her closer against me. The loss came off her in waves. I accepted it. She began to sob and shake. I could feel her love for Alan. I could feel her heart breaking as the ripples of his loss turned to waves and crashed against it. I opened myself so her pain could slide into me. I felt the bond I was building manifest a draw between us. I shouldn’t have done it, not without asking first, but her sadness drew me in almost as if this bond between us had already existed. It was too late now—there was no way to remove this bond. All I could do was limit it, expand it later if we agreed or if it was necessary. For now, this bond would ease her loss. I couldn’t be sure that Helene would even recognize our connection. Her grief was fresh and strong, and what I took from her was only enough to let her sobs fade and her sadness harden into a type of resolve I wasn’t able to parse. The Jeep slowed to a stop. I forced myself to disengage from her and wipe away the tears I’d shared. We’d arrived at the pit.
Click here for Episode 2 of The Docks.