Notes: I want to make those patches, that box of matches is going to show up in other places later.
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“It shouldn’t work that way.”
“You sound so confident.”
Brae did her eyebrows green today, they are vivid against her warm black skin and raising ever higher in exasperation as she levelled the most deadpan look to her left. She gestured to the table they sat at. “Logic dictates.”
In comparison, Madhuri was bordering on livid. She quelled her shaking frame and ducked her covered head away from the shop’s counter. There was a pallor to her as she hissed, “This is not logical. Nor is it healthy.”
Pressing her lips together Brae maintained her position but took the moment to study her not-girlfriend. “It’s… it’s what we’ve got to work with.” She sighed, watched Madhuri’s brow falter, and placed a hand palm-up on the table.
Madhuri took it, her hands already stained with the blue-black contents of the jar in front of them.
Outside, their bicycles were locked to each other by the chain Brae wore as a belt when it wasn’t tangling their handlebars together like their hands were just then. Across the booth their packs held everything they had and some things that weren’t theirs. The mandolin strapped to Madhuri’s rucksack was from an acquaintance in Nashholme, the tarp had been traded for half an hour of Brae’s expertise, and most of the food was from a dumpster.
Property was a loose concept.
For the display on the table, they had little idea who had previously held possession over what they had dug up in the desert. There had been a sign, in the middle of the foreseeable nowhere. It was large, built like any roadsign warning of caribou, falling rocks, or the last gas station for the next eighty kilometres. Yet no roads in sight.
Madhuri and Brae had been following a map until they couldn’t remember having a map and started following the sense of something ahead of them. They had been cycling for months, following the coast and then turning to cross the continent; there was always a sense of something ahead, but this one drove them off hardly paved shoulders and across sandy, cracked earth.
The map didn’t have a destination on it, just food stains from diners that didn’t have halal substitutes for pork bacon or sausages. They followed it off the highway regardless. The followed it until they weren’t following it anymore, until they stood in front of a roadsign in the middle of the foreseeable nowhere.
It’s not here, read the sign. Large, white text on an off-shade of green. Underneath, italicized, was, in 8,000km not there either.
They had laughed about it, hard. They laughed and took photos, took selfies taking turns making grotesque faces, taking turns kissing each other’s foreheads. They laughed until the implied ‘what you’re looking for’ answer to the subject of the sign stopped being funny. Before leaving, they had been queried if they were looking ‘for themselves’ or a ‘purpose’ on their trip.
They were looking for Nattiq, the not-city far north and usually reached by provisional plane tickets – free for people moving there – or hitching rides with trucks shipping in shipments and shipping out Nattiq’s exports. Madhuri and Brae weren’t moving there, didn’t want to get stuck trying to hitch in the deadzones of the meri-west and south-eastern mountains, and had bikes. Bikes that could carry them places as far as Nattiq was, if not further.
At the sign, their laughter subsided. Madhuri’s hiccups of giggles tapered out and Brae’s wheezing from not having the lung capacity to laugh anymore was quelled with large gulps of air.
“Okay, but what is it really?”
Madhuri shrugged, found that she was holding a shovel – a folding spade, nicked from a franchise hardware store – and started digging. They dug until the sun set, taking turns with the single spade, occasionally teaming together with Brae’s cardboard panhandling sign to bail loose earth out of the hole.
What they found was a sack. Inside was a box of matches with YES, EVERYTHING printed on it, a shallow bowl with instructions handpainted on the underside, and the jar of inky fluid that sloshed with an unnerving disrespect to gravity. The instructions were in a language neither of the women knew; short, deft strokes made into guiding words that they reluctantly ignored.
Under a lean-to of bikes and Brae’s tarp, they forwent sleep in favour of shrouding around the bowl.
“It’s a bowl, the liquid goes in it.”
They had started to doubt this.
“Hear me out, Mads,” Brae started. She started like she sighed, with a short draw of air and soft collapse across her collarbones. In her hand, Madhuri’s stained fingers relaxed. “Whichever direction the… stuff goes, the bowl is there to hold it.” Brae watches Madhuri’s brow, the crease between dark, full eyebrows easing. “And then we know.”
“And then we know,” Madhuri repeated through downturned lips.
They finish their waters, thank the waiter – by far used to and hospitable to those seeking shelter from the desert – and leave the diner with a pocketful of change on the table. There are another five hours in the day until sunset and a lot of distance to cover while taking advantage of the still wind.
“Remember Port Ash?”
Madhuri rides straight, seated, and pausing between sets of pedal revolutions. She turns her head the best she can for Brae to hear.
Behind her, Brae stands on her pedals, powering her serpentine path with slow rotations. She weaves from one side of Madhuri to the other, focused on the embroidered crest on Madhuri’s jacket. It matched the one on a similar jacket wrapped around her waist.
NOT took up the space of a large circle, long letters distorted in a ripple. girlfriends cradled the circle.
Madhuri’s jacket had a thorny rose over the left breast, surrounded by enamel pins depicting everyday objects in pastel.
Aside from lace edging, Brae’s sole personal embellishment was the hand embroidered 1312 on the collar. When she initially brandished its addition, Madhuri had snorted and called her a dork. Brae had grinned wild, like she did now.
Port Ash had more wind than any portion of land knew how to manage. It was a rocky place, but where bushes and trees surfaced from shattered stone the wind forced them to grow low to the ground, bent towards inland. The streets were lined with panels to diffuse the gusts, and with the wind riding up the hill that was Port Ash took no longer than down to the water’s edge.
The tailwind leaving Port Ash was remarkable.
For five hours, neither of them pedalled. They were propelled at maximum speed, hooting and whooping and their cries speeding ahead lost in the wind.
The desert was a stark contrast. While glad they had yet to be trapped in a sandy wind, the two Muslimah had a growing distaste to the stillness of the air. It felt as though it never moved, even when they were. To Brae, it was like breathing in the same breath she had just exhaled; slowly stagnating and filling her with less and less oxygen.
Madhuri had a better tolerance for heat, her head covered and still wearing her jacket.
“Port Ash felt like fire next to this.”
Brae knew she meant excitement, but the use of language in the arid heat was noticed with a short laugh. “Dork.”
In five hours, they make camp. Camp is a lean-to of their bikes and the tarp, next to a soup-can fire. Madhuri plucks her mandolin with stained fingers and scans the landscape before them. Just yards away, the whole world changes. The dry brush of the desert grows in higher and higher density, and at a short distance hills lift up from the flat horizon they had been cycling through for days. The desert ends.
Usually Brae hums a melody or pulls a harmonica from her pack. Under the vast expanse of stars, with the flickering firelight at their side, she asks if they should do ‘the bowl thing’.
Madhuri looks at her fingers pressed against strings. “Sure.”
Back at the sign in the desert, with a hole in the ground just a step away, there is a stain. They feel it in their hearts, a sort of hollow weight reminding them of the place. Some internal GPS knows the very spot they left on the earth, and will always be able to guide them back. Neither of them desire to go back.
They had, erroneously, set out the bowl first.
Sitting cross legged, facing each other with just enough space between them to safely conduct their experiment, they had studied the three objects pulled from the sack. Brae was still holding the jar of structureless liquid up above her head, peering at its underside, when Madhuri placed the bowl centred between them. “Right?”
They found themselves wrong.
Brae tosses the jar at Madhuri once she sets the mandolin down, the bowl deep in her bag wrapped in her few clothes. Had they done this right the first time, they wouldn’t know that Brae couldn’t touch the liquid. Had they done this right the first time, Madhuri’s palms wouldn’t be stained a black washed to blue.
By the time Madhuri uncaps the jar and holds it high in the air, Brae has the bowl ready crouched low, just in case.
With utmost caution, the jar is tipped until the liquid floats out of the limits of the jar’s brim. Madhuri is careful not to pour the entire jar’s contents out. She watches the lip of the jar, and caps it to cut off just a spoon’s worth.
The single drop of black liquid quivers and then shoots down.
Brae’s footing skitters as she jumps sideways. Her dive catches the drop in the bowl, she bounces off the ground but keeps the bowl upright.
Madhuri takes care to seal and put down the jar before assisting Brae. She supports the bowl, near vertical, and waits for Brae to recover.
Here at the edge of the desert, the black liquid tells them. They rotate the bowl carefully, testing the limits of the liquid’s pull. They roll it along the bowl’s rim, Madhuri jumps to catch it when it quivers too close to the edge, but Brae’s careful hands keep it from staining the earth.
Madhuri took a hold of the bowl so Brae could dig the toe of her shoe into the cracked, dusty earth before grabbing the jar.
Defying gravity, they upturn the bowl and catch the drop of liquid back into the jar. It’s sealed while Madhuri studies the bowl for any change.
“It’s like mercury on a table,” she murmurs, frowning. “No actual contact.”
Brae shrugs in response, she had held the liquid in her hands, where it touched but didn’t soak into her skin like it did Madhuri’s. “I don’t know, Mad,” the jar has been set back down, the spot she dug with her shoe is being cleared away. “I think it’s more an oil and water thing.”
Madhuri joins her after tucking away the strange objects given them by a roadsign in the desert. “And now we do…”
“What the instructions say.”
They can’t read the instructions. So instead, they sit. They face each other in silence, the comfortable quiet of companionship, and think. They think over their next day, how far they can go with the food they have remaining. They think about the distance to Nattiq, the mountains and plains they have yet to cross; similarly the mountains and coast they had already passed through. It is a long way and their tires are wearing bare, Madhuri’s front will have to be replaced hopefully no sooner than the next city.
They think about the wind from Port Ash. They think about music in Nashholme. They think about the stain boring that hollow weight into their hearts.
They think about the places they are told to exist in that aren’t where they started or where they will, maybe, stop. They think about the liquid marking places and that they don’t know why.
They think about how they will fall asleep tonight, under a tarp draped over their bicycles that have taken them this far already. They think about how following the liquid saved them from the kilometre wide sinkhole they would have fallen into if they had decided to follow their map instead of the strange ritual of watching the direction of a fluid with its own momentum.
The think about the sandstorm they stopped short of, because the liquid hadn’t arced high upwards that morning but rather indicated closer to the angle of a football toss.
They think about the times they haven’t used the liquid – just to make sure they can still safely guide themselves to food and shelter and through the land without magic found in the desert. They had been fine, but after avoiding death twice through its use, they figured they ought to work with what they have been given.
In the morning, it looks like Madhuri’s tire will make it a little further than they had estimated that night. There is an extra half litre of water they were pretty sure they had drank.
Madhuri’s hands are still a black washed to blue when she takes her handlebars, but there is no sunburn on her brown skin. Brae’s smile isn’t so tight as she leans into her pedalling.
In their bags is enough to get them where they are going, and a jar, bowl, and box of matches with YES EVERYTHING printed on it.
On the jar is a simple, hand-written label: traveler’s water.