Of Sands and Strangers
Writing by Mina Chao
He’s definitely seen this place before. At least, that’s what he thinks when he sees the endless hills of sand stretching across the rusty horizon. His goggles are fogged from his heavy exhale, clouded from god-knows-how-much dust, and he rips them off, spits in them, scrubs them furiously with his gloved knuckles, and wrenches them back onto his face. He squints at the boiling sun, his cheeks crimson red and tingling, and scowls.
What are you looking for, anyway?
Heck if I know, the man huffs to himself. Maybe he used to know, but he’d long let the desert take claim to his memories and had gotten lost in the maze of time that was the desert. If this damned place would let me see anything else, maybe I could figure it out.
I hope you find what you’re looking for, someone had told him long ago, or at least it felt long ago because he had turned that damned hourglass one too many times, been swept up by those storms enough to get a pounding migraine, and let those sweet memories slip through his fingers like the endless grains of sand.
I hope so too, he thinks to himself now as his feet sink into the sand below his heavy feet. He grips a small hourglass in his hands, its metal frame digging into his rough skin, and flips it over, watching the grains fall one by one into the lower half.
The sandstorm greets him with a fierce howl, and leaves nothing but time behind.
The man doesn’t know when he met the desert, nor does he know how the hourglass got on his neck. All he knows is that the desert will sweep him away every time it is turned and carry him to another time. Not that he would ever know when.
This time, when the dust settles and the roaring winds calm to a whisper, he is greeted by a stranger. The man blinks. How long had it been since he’d seen another person?
The stranger seemed a bit oddly dressed for a walk in the desert; they wore a long black coat that trailed in the sand and kicked up dust everywhere they walked, and a tall black top hat sat snugly on top of their head.
“Hello there, good friend,” the stranger says as they approach, wearing a toothy grin. “It’s a pleasure to see another face here. I was starting to forget what people looked like!”
There’s dust in the man’s throat and he hasn’t spoken in what feels like years, so he simply responds, “Yeah. A real pleasure.”
The stranger only grins wider at this and motions at a small tent a few yards away. It’s a silent offer, and one that accepts no refusal.
The two sit together in the shade, listening to the whirling of the winds outside. The stranger leans against a wooden post that has been staked into the earth and whistles weakly to themself. The man says nothing, legs pulled close to his chest, right hand tangled in the silver chain around his neck.
Perhaps it was because he’d been wandering all this time, always searching for the answer to a forgotten question, spitting curses to a god that couldn’t listen. He’d not once let himself rest on the sands, not until now. Everywhere aches, a soreness from a long eternity of walking.
“What are you doing in a place like this?” he asks, hoping to distract himself from the dull pain in his legs.
“The million dollar question,” the stranger smiles. “The me of a while ago would have answered differently, but now, I’m not so sure. I’m just here, a wanderer in the desert, watching things come and go.”
How silly, the man scoffs to himself, because who in their right mind would subject themselves to the desert’s torture? If not for his mission, he would not have thought twice about stepping beyond the barrier of time that separated the desert from the rest of the world. What use was it to wander the place alone if it were the same every time?
“It may seem that way, hm?” the stranger says when the man speaks his thoughts. “But if it were always that way, we wouldn’t be here now! Those who remain in the desert are never without character. Besides, the desert herself is a character in her own right. She’s full of surprises, if you let yourself see it.”
He guesses that they are right.
The sand in the top half of the hourglass is running low, and he knows the sandstorm will follow with it.
“You should break it,” the stranger says with a light chuckle, almost jokingly.
“Can’t,” the man replies. “I’m still looking… I’m still looking for someone.”
At this, the stranger raises an eyebrow. Another silent question.
“With this, the sandstorms will listen to me,” he says, lifting the trinket from his neck for display. “And maybe that will mean I will find them sooner.”
“Well, my good friend,” the stranger says, a sigh escaping their lips, “I hope you find what you’re looking for.”
Together, they peer out their temporary shelter, eyes fixed on the sunburnt horizon. There’s nothing but hills and hills of dust and dried up memories out there, and when the storms arrive they will only bring the man to another forgotten time, another abandoned place where he’d be left to wander and wonder, just what is it that I’m looking for?
He looks away from the brilliance of the setting sun and sighs.
“I hope so, too.”