The words themselves are just standing there in the desert. Describing nothing, they stand as monuments: separate, unconnected, devoid of meaning. I do not have the strength to dig them out of the wind-blown sand, to move them and make shapes out of them, shapes both pleasing and sensible.
I carve the shapes, the words, from the rocks I find as I wander the desert, leaving them where I find them. This desert – in the valley between the two hills – is now littered with the words I have carved, some almost buried by the wind-shifted sand. They stand like statues or monoliths, isolated from each other by the uneven rise and fall of the dunes at the valley sides.
Down there, on the plain, there are other carved stone words, left where I tried to arrange them, tried to find some meaning amongst them. I gave up on that a long time ago. The heat made it too hard to shift the heavy stones. The words lie where I last moved them, half-formed sentences and phrases – nothing more.
I used to want to form patterns, pleasing patterns, find meaning among these stones. But now, once they are carved, I leave them, feeling I have done enough.
The woman in white stands watching from the opposite hillside. Her dark hair and long flowing white dress fluttering like banners in the breeze. At her side, the black panther sits patiently, the pupils of its eyes slits against the bright sunlight.
I tried, once, to go to speak with the woman. As I climbed the hillside the panther stood and strained against its chain. I saw the woman’s hand tighten on the lead as she held up her other hand for me to stop. I knew she meant it, and I could hear the low purring growl of the panther as its pupils widened. I paused, then turned back. At the bottom of the hill, I turned again and looked back. The panther was sitting down once more, relaxed, and the woman was watching me carefully.
Twice every day another woman – totally hairless – and naked, except for a leather collar arrives. She carries a decanter of red wine and a glass on a silver tray to the woman in white. She waits, motionless, next to the black panther as the woman in white sips the wine. Only two glasses – always just two glasses. Then the hairless woman climbs sedately back over the brow of the hill and out of sight.
It is nearly time for Gina to arrive, I have no clock in my room, nothing except my bed, my desk, my chair and my notebook; but somehow I always know when it is time for her to arrive. I get this feeling. A feeling of… what? Immanence, I suppose. Expectation, perhaps? I wish I knew the words. Apparently, I used to know the words, words for everything. It used to be a major part of my job, so they say, but I have no way of knowing, not any more.
Gina said – I think it was yesterday – “Why should I lie to you?”
And I said: “Lie?”
I didn’t know what the word meant. Gina explained it to me, but I am still not sure that I understand. Why should anyone say something that is not true?
I suppose the rain will fall again today. It has rained for the last… how many days? Three, I think, or it could be four…. I don’t know, I can’t really remember. It is hard to remember anything these days.
I walk to the window every now and then, and look out. There is not much to see, just the grass and that big old tree. Its leaves are turning brown, yellow, even golden now, so I presume it must be autumn. It is hard to tell, but I suppose the tree could not lie.
It looks cold out there. How I know that I do not know, I may just be inferring it from the tree losing its leaves, or maybe it is something about the light, the sunlight. It looks bright, when it is not raining that is, but it is a thin kind of light, as though it carries no power… no power of warmth, not like the sun in that desert.
Occasionally, I get the desire to go out. A desire to feel the wind, the sunlight, even the rain. I have asked, but they refuse. They say it is not time yet. When it will be time I have no idea, I’m not sure they do either, they are vague about that as they are vague – dismissive even – of a lot of things I ask them for. But, in other ways, they are very good. As long as I ask for immediate things; particular food, the light, a change of clothing, my wish is granted immediately and with easy smiles.
As long as what I ask for can be given here, in this room, then they are glad, eager even, to grant my wish. But if I refer to anything outside the room, anything concerned with the future, or even if I do have a future, then they stop smiling. I sometimes feel that I have offended them in some strange, obscure way. I do not want to offend them, I am sure they are doing their best, doing what they think is right for me. I have no way of knowing, of course, if what they are doing is right, but they say I should trust them, they are professionals.
The woman in white stays with me. She is always near, but standing a little way off. She does not speak to me, only stands there watching me. The only response I get from her is to be waved away whenever I get too close to her.
If I ignore her gestures and try to get to her, then she slips away before I can get close to her. She never allows herself to get into a position where I could trap her. For some reason, though, I do not wish to trap her, catch her, chase her, or any of those things. I think that she needs the distance and that it is not yet the right time for us.
Eventually, I know, she will allow me to get close to her, talk to her. She will explain things to me, and I will – at last – understand. But first, I have to move these rocks, carved into words, into a form that will satisfy her.
Only then will I feel justified in trying to approach her. I have a feeling that she will make some kind of sign, some kind of signal, that I may approach her. She will tell me so many things I need to know, new ways of arranging these rocks. I need her to tell me how to arrange them and she needs me to arrange them for her.
She stands on that hillside, looking down at me. She knows I have this job to do, but she does not offer any help or assistance. Not, of course, that I would really expect such a thing from her. I get the impression – how, I do not know – that her daily visits to the hilltop are a kind of indulgence, a whim, on her part. She does not need to visit my valley.
In the long run her visits change nothing, except to encourage me in some strange, obscure way. My day does not seem real until I look up to the hillside and see her there.
Yesterday, I looked up and saw the gesture of greeting when she arrived. It was unmistakable, but still I hesitated, not sure how to respond. It was the first time she had ever really acknowledged my existence since that abortive attempt to climb the hill towards her.
Out here, the nights get cold and dark. The animals come out at night searching for each other. The night is punctured by their screams and cries. I sit in the shelter of the stones, a small fire in front of me, waiting for sleep to take me away from here and out to a stranger life.
When I woke up the naked servant-woman was kneeling in front of the dead embers of my fire, watching me. She stood and signalled for me to follow her.
“Where are we going?” I said.
She did not reply, just turned and walked up the slope of the hill. She glanced back a couple of times to make sure I was following her. We walked in silence, me a few paces behind her. She walked easily and calmly, her bare feet hardly disturbing the soft sand. After around twenty minutes, we reached the crest of the third dune. I looked down as I stood beside her. The palace, surrounded by a low wall and a garden of spindly trees, stood in the valley bottom.
“Gina, you were in my dreams last night again. I dreamt you were this queen, princess, or something, living in a desert palace. Kirsty was your servant.”
“Oh, the desert. I dream about the desert all the time these days.” Gina laughed and walked towards the window. “One day when you are better we will have to go back and search for that palace. I know it is not a story – a myth. I know it is somewhere in that desert. Kirsty and I have done all the research. We know where it is, we are certain this time.”
“It is always the same in my dream. I am stuck in a desert with all these stones, trying to carve words into them, words that make some sort of sense, while you stand up on the top of a hill looking down at me.” I sat down at the table, aligning the edge of my notebook to lie parallel with the side of the table.
“It all began simply enough,” I said. “Just a handful of words, like dust in my palm. I felt I could breathe on them, and then watch them fly and fall into the sand at my feet, drifting into the dunes behind me which were hiding all I could once see. While in front of me the horizon drew ever closer on a landscape barer than I expected it to be. I had visions of what I would find as I walked across those sands: Towns, villages, temples, people. So many strange and exotic sights. Off in the distance, I have seen the shape of – what might be – a town… or something. But I have never been able to get any further before the storms drive me back, keeping me at bay, trapped there.”
The servant girl led me across the bare marble floor of the empty palace. I could hear only the gentle slap of he bare feet and the squeak of the soles of my shoes as we walked through the bare deserted rooms.
The woman in white was seated in a throne in the largest of the rooms, with the black panther slouched at her feet. She motioned for me to sit on the steps of her throne. I sat and the servant girl poured us both a glass of wine.
“Have you ever seen the city in the distance?” The woman in white said.
I nodded. “I think so.”
“Once we could walk there, but not any more. The world of the city and this, what’s left of our world, are separated now. The desert lies between them and us, and no-one is brave – or foolish – enough to attempt to cross it. There were, in my youth, tales and legends of paths, roads, through the desert, which could lead you to the city. There was even a saying: ‘All roads lead to the city.’ But now… now there is no escape from this desert.”
“Does that mean I’m trapped here too?”
“Yes. We need you. Even now, we only exist as vague memories to the people of the city and beyond. We are slowly turning into legends and myths. We need you to tell our story with the stones. To make sure that we are not forgotten by history, lost forever in time. Once you get the memory stones in the right sequence then you will have saved our precious memory, our history.”
“But I can’t stay here, lost in this desert. I have a wife, a home, a career.” I stood and stepped towards the throne. “I need to get back there. Now!”
The black panther growled as the echo of my words rebounded around the room. The naked servant-girl, pointing an ornately-carved dagger at my stomach, stepped between me and the woman in white. The woman in white waved her hand dismissively, I wasn’t sure if the gesture was meant for me, the servant or even the panther.
“It isn’t me that is preventing you from leaving.” The woman in white said. “It is your desire to make sense of the memory stones which holds you here.”
“No, it is you,” I said, stepping up to the throne and taking her hand. “I need you to come with me or I cannot leave. I only bother with the stones while I wait for you, when you are ready to leave, then we will go. Go together.”
She nodded slowly. “All right. We will leave. We will go together, but only when you have arranged the memories of our city on the memory stones. I cannot leave this place with no past, no history.”
“No!” The servant girl screamed, lunging at the woman in white with the knife. “You promised you would stay here with me, forever! You said you loved me, not him!”
The panther leapt, but the servant girl was too close to the queen for it to stop her. She stabbed at the woman in white, and the wine glass shattered on the marble floor. The blood poured from the woman’s chest mixing with the wine stain. I reached out for her and lowered her to the floor.
The panther’s bloody jaws turned from the savaged, almost severed, neck of the servant girl. It growled and turned towards me, only stopping when its mistress held up her hand and weakly waved it to a halt. It lay down inches away from where I sat holding the dying woman’s head in my lap. She looked up at me.
“Don’t forget the stones,” she said weakly. “Do not let history forget us either.”
I nodded, unable to speak. I sat there just stroking her hair, feeling useless and helpless as I watched the mingled blood and wine pooling together on the marble steps of the throne.
The woman in white died sometime that afternoon, in my arms. The light faded slowly into evening and night. The panther was invisible in the shadows, only its heavy breathing and slow purring growl gave any indication that it was still there.
“I can remember it all now.” I said excitedly as Doctor Phipps sat down at my table. “I’m an archaeologist, so is Gina. We have been working hard over the last few years trying to trace the whereabouts of a lost civilisation. There were legends all throughout the Middle-east – in pre-Biblical times – of a civilisation deep in the desert ruled over by a queen who always wore white and had a black panther on a lead. We discovered that the legends were, in fact, true and we were looking for funding for an expedition and a dig.” I sat back and smiled. “I can’t wait to get back to work now my memory has returned. I think I’m cured. Where’s Gina? Has she arrived for visiting time yet?”
Dr Phipps stared at me. “Gina is dead. You should know that, she’s been dead for nearly two years now.”
“What..? When…? How did she die? Why?” I wondered if I had really seen her the day before, but she had seemed as real as Dr Phipps as he sat at the table flicking through my notebook.
“We found her, and her assistant Kirsty, dead at the dig in the desert after your frantic, incoherent call for help over the radio. It took us two days to get there because of the sandstorms. Gina and Kirsty had been stabbed to death, each one stabbed several times, over and over again. It had been a frenzied attack. We found you a couple of hours later sitting amongst these heaps of stones still with the knife in your hand. You said something about a servant trying to kill the queen and something about a black panther and how you wanted to escape the desert.”
“That’s my dream!” I said. “I wrote it all down. It’s all there in that notebook.”
“You said the stones had writing on them, that you had arranged the stones to explain what had happened. You said that the stones were your confession.”
“What did the stones say?”
“Nothing…, nothing at all. There was no writing on any of them. The stones were all blank, just like the pages in this notebook.” Dr Phipps dropped the notebook onto the table and stood up. For a moment it seemed as though he wanted to say something, but he just smiled apologetically and turned towards the door.
After he had gone, I sat down at the desk. I aligned the notebook with the edge of the desk. My fingers ached from holding the pen, but I felt I had written down all I knew about the woman in white, the palace, the servant girl and the panther.
It is nearly time for Gina to arrive, I have no clock in my room, nothing except my bed, my desk, my chair and my notebook; but somehow I always know when it is time for her to arrive.
[This, and other stories can also be found here as well]