The Bone Desert

At dusk they moved through a landscape littered with megafauna skeletons. Sand polished the bones and sifted into every crevice on their bodies—between eyebrow hairs, into ear whorls, within clothing creases. Huge jaws half-sunk in sand snapped at random, mandibles interlaced on the squeak of something living, though neither of them saw anything move over the tall dunes except tarantula-sized crickets which fell into holes at their approach. Clumps of grass and scrubby bushes waited for the rains to bloom.

When they left the oasis that morning, others walked alongside them, canteens sloshing against their legs, clear voices singing harmonies. As the hours passed, the footprints faded. Most travelers circumnavigated the dunes. He argued that traveling the mountain pass would add weeks to their journey, and he wanted to cross the river to the valley town before the river swelled with spring rain. With reluctance, they agreed. After all, they told themself, getting a choice spot at the craft market would increase sales of the hand-spun yarn and whittled dolls they carried. When he knew he was going to get his way, he leaned in, held their arm, told them that in the desert’s largest ribcage he would transform the cave jewel into the most powerful sword in the realm. They wanted to believe him, but they were used to the glass castles of his stories.

They pressed onward, toward the highest dune. Wind formed ripples on the ridges which they destroyed with every step. When they miscalculated trajectories of least resistance, the west-fading sand scalded their palms. Tiny black beetles, barely larger than the sand themselves, flailed in the avalanches created when they rested. They imagined themself like the beetles trying to skate through the unforeseen. He kept turning back to look at them. They tried to breathe against convulsing lungs, gave the thumbs-up sign, and drank some water, hoping that if they pretended everything was okay, it would be. Sand stuck in the dry cracks at the corners of their lips.

They climbed the flanks of the Star Dune and stood at its peak. On high, they noted landmarks on the map. The horizon hinted at the valley. Below them, vertebrae the size of tires rested in a line. Dark shapes floated across the sky, mirrored over the earth. In the distance, thunder rumbled, and the breeze turned violent. They belly-crawled to avoid lightning. When the gap between rumbles and flashes quickened, they curled up on their packs.

Together they sheltered in the ribcage, the one they meant to find, each rib big around as a cathedral column and casting unearthly shadows. They sat with their backs against the largest rib and covered their heads with fabric until the sand died down. He grinned and took the prismatic shard from his pack. They loved his grin. Holding it, he walked into the center of the ribcage, where it shape-shifted into an enormous purple sword. In his excitement, he swung it, spinning and feinting, deep in battle with an imaginary foe. They hugged their chin to their knees and watched.

As he spun, he mistimed and smashed the sword into a rib. It stuck. They took turns pushing and pulling with combined weight. No luck. Long after night fell, they hung their tentcloth from the blade, tying the cloth edges to the other ribs. In sleep, they faced each other, their foreheads, knees, and feet touching, packs under their heads. Sandy breeze weighed down the cloth they wrapped around themselves.

All night they dreamed of escape from the belly of a cyclopean beast. He was there, too, his impish eyes above the edge of his scarf, mashing his feet into the muck as though stomping grapes. Their feet stuck in a churning mass of half-masticated flesh and meteoric stoats. Acidic moisture condensed on the walls of skin. When they tried to climb out, they gained purchase only to slip and crash. In dreamtime they melted into skeletons still trapped.

When the two of them woke, it was to vulture screeches and the sound of tiny bones clinking through a grate. In the night the towers migrated. Gathering dew from the tentcloth, they poured it into a bottle. In the light, the sword looked smaller than before. Onward they trekked, toward the town on the other side of the desert. They made a pact to not look back at the sword. On the next rise, he broke it.