In the Desert
by Kristina Zdravič Reardon

The sands of the desert are innumerable. Oni’s darkened flesh, color deepening with each hour spent under the sun, can only graze the smallest percentage of a percentage of grains of sand beneath him. He has felt waves of them move under his feet for fifty-six years, and yet, he cannot know each particle, where it is going, where it has been. The ground looks whole, like a solid piece of woven gold cloth in front of him, draped over the curves of his ex-wife’s body. But he knows that the wholeness is only a flawed perception; a closer look reveals that nothing is bent together, that the best one can ever hope for in the deserts of his native Egypt is the sense that millions of unconnected things can look like they are connected if you squint hard enough, even though they’re not. He is far from the stars, which will shine above him at night; he wonders if he can only see a scattering of small lights above him because he is so far away, and thinks that if he were closer, the whole sky might be dotted a brilliant white. Light, that is separate when you look at it from earth, but that might seem like it is together when you see it up close.

In reality, Oni does not want to see the stars, or to have the sand remind him of his ex-wife. He is sometimes saddened by such things, but he does not have the time or the energy to devote to them. If he did, he would build an altar, reaching higher than the pyramids for which his country is famous, and he would worship it hourly: the temple to his grief, the things he has sacrificed so that he can go, with his small troop of men, always dropping off, new ones each year, to find what treasures and parchments the sands have swallowed over the years. To take an hour glass, and not just stop the sand from falling, not just turn it over and reset it, but to make the sand jump up, back into the glassy funnel of its top, and stay suspended in the air, clearing the space below.

It is here—in between dark rocks of caverns, in the shelves of forgotten and decaying temples, in moments when he fears that he must turn back for water, that the little he has left after twenty-eight days of hiking out will not last him until morning, never mind the trek back to the nearest town. It is here, that he finds, every three or four years, a codex: a grouping of papyrus scripts, bound at the corners, ancient Greek or Coptic or Latin etched into what appears now to be a browning, worn rag. A discarded thing that his ex-wife would have used to wipe the surface of the floor in their old apartment in Cairo, mouse holes chewed through the middle. It is not his fault, he knows, that she did not understand that they could be together but apart; married, but with her in Cairo and him in the desert. He wondered if they were like grains of sand, he and she, and if two grains of sand could ever stick together indefinitely, or if they would always, in an hourglass, in a desert, shift away from each other, tumbling farther and farther into another abyss of sand so that one grain could no longer identify the other, no longer see the other, no longer remember the contours of its sides, its very sandiness.

Tomorrow he will rise. He will record the location of the pile of papyrus documents in his hands now, their Coptic letters misshapen, their meaning likely only marginally significant. He will draw their spirit with the ink of his pen, a marking in his logbook which encourages him only to walk back into the desert, their sale enough to buy enough supplies for a year, no longer. He recognizes a collection of characters which together spell, he knows, the name Judas. He allows the air inside his lungs to slowly leave his body, a tired sigh. This document is likely nothing special, a copy of something greater already found. Of this he is sure. He wishes only that someday he might find something worth two years of supplies, or maybe three. Then he would not have to venture to the city so often. He does not want to profit greatly from his finds; to do so would violate his contract with what infinity might lay hidden in the sand, what infinity compels him back, to extract the human scars from the flesh of time itself.

He will note the year in his logbook, writing it first in black ink, before the month and the day. He will note these things when he finds them out; it is the late 1970s, but he has lost track of time. It is not difficult to do in the desert.