By Daniel Deisinger
Darin stared south over the dunes, toward where Grandfather had told him Sutland once rose from the sand and spits of rock and scratched holes in the sky. Where it had conquered the desert.
He leaned against the fence around his village, scarf wrapped around his face to keep the sand out of his nose and mouth and eyes. Pain stabbed up through his chest and into his throat. The wind sliced across his hands, and played with his hair, and pulled his clothes away from his body. It lifted the grit under his feet and threw itself against the sides of the buildings behind him into red-brown devils, swirling and cutting into the ground. It flowed over the dunes around the village, building them into great mounds or reducing them to tiny lumps. The setting sun hid behind clouds, firing beams of gold through the sand when it could.
His father, wrapped in long clothes and face hidden inside his own scarf, forged through the sand and grabbed his hand. “We must get inside! The winds are too strong now! I won’t hear any arguing!” The wind chased them home; Darin’s chest seized.
Once inside, the howling backed away, whispering into the cracks of the house and muttering across the windows. Steam from the stew rose into the chimney’s vents and sand filters. Candles flickered in corners.
“Nothing will be gained from standing in the storms and looking,” Darin’s father said, removing his scarf. “Your condition will only worsen!”
Darin opened his mouth, but coughs shook him. After a few seconds, he took a deep, ragged breath.
“Here. Drink,” his mother said, and the water soothed the sand in his throat. His father took the cup.
“You see? You can barely breathe inside. I don’t want you going out anymore tonight. Especially now, in a storm. Darin, can you promise me?”
“Yes,” Darin said, voice rasping. “I promise.”
“Good,” his mother said. She handed him a bowl of stew. “Now: to dinner.”
The wind and sand buzzed outside the wall of Darin’s bedroom, darting through the sandy alleys between houses, and rattling the cover of each room’s filter in the ceiling. Darin lay on his bed, candle on the table still and small, and turned the pages of one of Grandfather’s books. One of the images showed Sutland’s great sharp towers of red rock, filling the sky. Another had huge underground caverns, ten times as big as Darin’s town, where people could hide from the storms. Yet another–Darin’s favorite–showed the channels. Tunnels and man-made rivers of sand, funneling it out and away, somewhere else. It fell in frozen waves and ran like living dunes into unseen places.
Sutland had won. It had beaten the storms and the sand and the endless dunes. It had created a land free from choking gasps and paralyzing coughs. It had stopped the dunes from growing and burying their homes. It had freed the air and the sun, and the storms had bent to its will.
His chest hitched and he coughed as he collected the canteens of water he had hidden under his bed, wrapped an extra-long scarf around his face, and put on his pack. It contained food and clothes, medicine, candles, rope, tools, and Grandfather’s books.
He quenched the candle, and passed through the curtain into the hall. He crept to his parent’s room. They breathed in an easy rhythm.
Grandfather’s staff, sturdy wood with a metal tip, leaned next to the front door. He took Grandfather’s compass out of his pocket. He nodded to himself.
He opened the door a crack and slipped through. The storm had weakened, but sand still flew, stinging whatever revealed skin it could. He checked the compass and set south, toward Sutland, with his arm over his mouth. Grandfather’s staff tore holes in the sand every time he placed it.
Past the village’s fence, and over the ring of dunes, the storm buffeted him, and it sucked his breath away. His lungs groaned and scratched. He splashed water onto a piece of cloth and tucked it into his scarf. His breathing came easier, but he had to wait to get his breath back before checking his compass and continuing south.
The storm punished him, but its power fell more and more as the little hours of morning passed. Darin climbed dunes bigger than his house only to slide down the other side, sand rushing after him in little drifts. The sun cracked on his left, turning the sand orange.
Pressing his hand to the wet piece of cloth in front of his mouth, Darin coughed, scanning the horizon for towers. Instead, endless rolls of sand surrounded him. He checked his compass and continued south. Grandfather’s staff pulled him ahead.
He drank and ate when the sun got high enough. Glancing north, the shimmer of heat and light revealed figures running toward him, shouting at him, berating him. After another moment they faded into wisps of vapor, and he stood up to continue.
He hunted around the dunes, looking for remnants of rock to guide him. As the sun fell toward his right he climbed down into a huge basin, ringed with stone, round like a bowl. The sand didn’t fill it, and his eyes widened despite the wind gusting into the basin. The rim of the basin took on a smooth, finished quality. Man-made, not natural. He went to one section of it and peered close, running his hand over it.
A loud noise came from his left, and sand sucked away, pulling him along with it before he could brace himself. He plummeted down a chute, tumbling with the sand into utter darkness. The chute rushed him into darkness, sand roaring with him until his hand caught on an opening. He howled with pain, and the howl turned into a coughing fit just as another wave of sand struck him. His mouth filled with sand. Grandfather’s staff tore out of his grip and disappeared; he grabbed the edge with both hands to haul himself out.
Sand crunched between each finger and in each joint. He coughed on and on, until white spiderwebs filled his vision and his lungs tore in his chest.
Moments later he laid on cool stone, sucking down dry lungfuls of air, pressing his scarf close.
After a few minutes he stood, and sand poured out of every fold his clothes contained, some of it flowing back into the channel he had freed himself from. He peered down into the channel, but Grandfather’s staff had disappeared. Coughing with his dusty sleeve pressed over his mouth, he glanced around. Light came from patches far above and around him, cold and sterile.
“Sutland,” he said, but his voice scratched through his throat in a whisper. He coughed and tried to clear it.
His pack, and the canteens, had survived. He drank a little, sitting alongside the channel. Sand surged through it at irregular intervals, rushing from the surface to somewhere unknown.
After recovering his small breath, he shouldered his pack, right hand clamped around a missing staff. The path he rested on ran off into the darkness, out of sight, and ended at a wall. A narrow, gritty staircase ran down to the right. Pressed against the rough wall, he descended, placing each foot with care.
His eyes stung; he halted and blinked until the tears subsided. Storms of sand fell. Grandfather used to tell him about rain–water falling from the sky and dampening the earth, and spreading a wonderful smell, and birthing green things. Grandfather would make a rushing sound to approximate it, and now the sand mocked it.
Darin continued, down the steps, and reached a large landing, with edges falling away into emptiness. Grandfather’s compass told him nothing useful. The bright panels above hid the sun. He coughed.
Another sound came to him. It hummed all around him, underneath the raining sand. Like Grandfather blowing air across the opening of a jug. It ran through the walls and floor and air around him.
Once, he peered over the edge of the walkway, staring down into darkness. After a few seconds, he leaned back, unsure. Far below, the darkness flowed.
He reached a landing with an alcove in the wall. It had a ladder cut into the stone, descending into utter darkness, and despite Darin’s adjusting eyes nothing appeared as he climbed down.
By the time he reached the bottom his pack weighed on his back like a stone, and he shrugged it off, groaning. He exited the alcove, and a wave of sand enveloped him.
He gasped and turned away, pressing his arm over his mouth, but the cloud passed around him. Another came, and he pulled his scarf tighter, but his lungs caught and he coughed anyway. The rushing sound filled the air.
A foot under the platform he stood on, a huge sea of sand swirled and washed. Numerous channels spat endless gallons into the pit. Sandy clouds rose. But even as the sand filled the cistern, in several places it drained away.
Darin followed the platform to the left, pressing himself against the wall, keeping his eyes on the end of the platform and the roiling sand as he coughed.
Stabbing out of the sand, Grandfather’s staff washed back and forth, toward one of the drains, and Darin stared in surprise, scarred lungs forgotten. He turned and looked over the wall behind him, feeling along it, and then inched closer to the edge of the platform.
The edge had worn gaps to pass his rope through. Darin secured one end to the platform and the other around his waist. He took a deep breath, fighting past the urge to cough. His eyes locked on where the sand disappeared to some even deeper place, one with even less light and even less air, as Grandfather’s staff drifted closer to it.
One hand squeezed the rope around him. Darin stepped forward. The sand supported him; a moment later he sank, and it washed over him. He clambered forward, and each motion sucked him farther down. The sand climbed up to his waist; he kicked his feet behind him, trying to tunnel toward the staff. The sand rose to his armpits, and he tried to scoop it out of the way.
The rope pulled taut, and he strained forward, fingertips reaching for Grandfather’s staff as it drifted past. The rope cut into his waist. Sand rolled over him, dragging him down, and the staff flowed half a foot past his fingers, sinking.
Sand swamped over him, and he choked. His hand clawed to his waist, and he pulled himself without sight or breath. The sand flowed around him, catching in his scarf and eyelids, stinging his palms.
He pulled hand over hand, and his lungs ached. His throat and chest burned. Sand struck him to the side and he lost his grip, flailing through the grit. His left hand brushed the rope and he grabbed it, pulling again.
A cough pushed itself out, and sand flowed into his mouth. It scoured his throat, and he gagged, spitting, but more forced in.
He stuck his hand straight up, into empty air. Emerging, he took a huge, frantic breath, coughing and gagging. He grabbed hold of the rope again and pulled, straining against the suction.
His weak arms cried for mercy by the time he reached the walkway. He hauled his top half out, and slumped against the rough stone under him, gasping for air and coughing out gobs of sand drowned in saliva. The sand pulled on his legs, threatening to cast him back down, and after a minute he freed himself.
Groaning, each breath scratching his lungs, he untied the rope and retrieved his pack, retreating to the ladder and climbing a short ways up, bracing himself in the small space, out of the clouds of sand. He shook everything he could out of his clothes and hair, and washed out his mouth with water. Sand ground under his eyelids with every blink. Marks covered his hands and fingers, which he wrapped with bandages.
After resting–shallow breaths and ragged coughs–he climbed back down. Grandfather’s staff was gone.
His left hand brushed the stone wall next to him, and he walked around the perimeter of the huge sand cistern, eyes burning, chest filling with fire.
A few hours later he found an opening in the wall, less a hallway and more a tunnel, leading away from the swirling cistern behind him. He glanced at the sand a final time and entered.
More light than before led him forward, but large items cast lengthy shadows across his path. He looked up when the tunnel opened. Huge circles suspended above him. Teeth sprouted out from the circles, like immense jawbones. Darin spun in a circle. The teeth of each circle meshed with those around it, held in place by long rods, pillars, and jointed arms.
It all hung silent and still. Lit panels showed him the way through the dusty, man-made skeleton, and he picked each step with care, looking for holes or piles of sand. The staircase at the tall room’s far end led up. The rushing sand from before ran elsewhere, but its sound filled the room.
As he rose the lit panels increased, and soon the darkness fled.
The ceiling of the room loomed closer. They entered a small room with lit panels in the ceiling, a few feet over his head.
Glyphs and writing covered the walls, and Darin pulled a book out of his pack, inspecting the pictures and text for the language of Sutland, but found nothing. He went to a wall and peered close.
He could turn some of them, and others sank into the wall when he applied pressure.
His heart jumped, and a smile grew on his face. He coughed a few times.
He went about twiddling everything on the walls, moving the movable pieces, but nothing changed. The sand roared around him in unseen channels as always. Another set of stairs continued up, and he climbed, new excitement coursing through him.
Instead of circular jawbones, the next area had quiet, dusty, tubes–more channels. Smooth, thin columns supported them, winding past the steps.
Farther up, past even more stairs, more panels of light glowed in the distant ceiling. But as Darin rose, the panels became a cleaner, softer light.
He rose past the channels. The light grew, turning from sour illumination to brilliant sun. He ran the final stairs, breaking into the sun, squinting. He stretched his arms up, taking a deep breath.
The hum of sand continued. His heart jumped. Wind blew, and clouds scudded across the sky. The sun hung over the horizon.
His platform stood several feet off the desert floor. Four dunes, at cardinal directions to the platform, belched funnels of sand into the sky, up from the bowels of Sutland. He took out Grandfather’s compass.
The compass danced as he turned, and when he pointed north he looked up. He peered forward, clouds of sand firing past him.
He gasped, and sand sucked down his throat. He coughed it back out. Past countless dunes, the sand originating around him continued covering his village. He spun in a circle. The man-made dune behind him didn’t spit anything, and he could look straight down the dark hole. On the platform, in a corner, a crank, just like the town’s well, pointed straight up. He ran to it.
He grabbed it and twisted.
The platform spun a tiny bit under him, and he stumbled, falling to the sandy surface. The shifting stopped; he rose and continued twisting. The platform spun again and, around him, a harsh grinding came from the dunes. The holes, issuing sand in endless blasts, tore away from the dunes, freeing wide-mouthed channels, spinning away from the collected sand of hundreds of years.
Darin spun the crank with all of his might, and the sand redirected to the east, issuing from the channel to the south and cutting off from the channel to the east. He continued turning, but the crank caught on something.
He rushed down, stumbling on the narrow stairs until his eyes adjusted. The empty channels had moved, shifted to follow the channels on the surface, and now roared as unknown energies forced sand up through them. He ran to the room with the glyphs, and then into the long, tall area with the mechanisms.
They ground together, spinning each other in loops and arcs in all directions, but some locked together, shaking and jolting, fighting something. He ran down until he could inspect them.
His eyes followed the jammed mechanisms until they led into the ceiling, and he raced back up. He reached the room in the middle.
His lungs closed off. He gasped and fell to his knees, coughing until blood pounded in his ears and breath whistled down his throat. Fire, blades, white nails traced through the scars in his lungs. With a long groan he stood.
A little red dot winked on and off at him from the wall.
He stumbled to the wall and peered close. Next to the light a raised surface waited, and he pressed it.
A heavy clunk, loud enough to blot out the sound of the rushing sand, shook the room. It came from above, and Darin rushed to the stairs. An opening had appeared in one of the channels, and sand poured out, emptying past the stairs and toward the distant ground.
“Clameff vis loreia, pora tanagru,” a loud voice said, all around Darin, and he lost his footing on the stairs, falling down a few and ending up on a painful landing. Above him, the channels moved, winding like snakes, and another opened, dumping sand past him and over him. He coughed.
The coughing continued. On and on. Blood flecked his lips. Tears dripped out onto the stairs under him. He tried to halt it, and take a deep breath, but the coughing pushed past his glottis, forcing its way into his mouth and out, and sparks and flashes exploded behind his eyelids, and his body curled up, clenching together.
A breathless eternity later, he sucked down hot air.
A loud clank opened his eyes. From the new opening in the channel, something emerged, spinning toward the stairs, and when it struck and bounced off, it became long and thin, with a metal tip.
Darin lunged for it, body sore and weak, and missed by inches, and Grandfather’s staff fell with the freed sand. He pulled himself up and eased himself down the steps, through the glyph room to the mechanisms. They ran without stopping now, spinning and turning, grinding and groaning.
Sand flowed past him. He came closer to the bottom, darker and darker, harder and harder to breathe.
He pressed his arm over his mouth, blinking away the sand. Huge clouds rose and took away his sight; he ran his hand on the banister to steady himself, and the choking waves rose.
Tears slid down his cheeks, and his feet slid on growing piles of sand. The lit panels in the walls cast flowing shadows through the sandfalls. The sand came up toward him, and when he reached it, he peered into the growing pile. A momentary flash caught his attention.
He dove into the sand, hand reaching for Grandfather’s staff. He closed his fist around it, and turned.
A wave of sand buried him. His mouth and eyes burned, and he tried to tunnel forward, searching for the stairs. He swept his free hand and the metal end of the staff around him, and the staff struck something hard. He pushed to it, lungs burning, sand rising, pain drilling his chest and head and legs.
His free hand found something, and he pulled himself up. A step. He climbed onto it, still under the surface of the sand, and stood.
His body pushed out of the sand, and he coughed, taking shaking steps up with Grandfather’s staff. His coughing went on until he reached the center room again, where he slumped to the floor and sucked down hot, dry air.
The red light still flashed. He limped over to it, legs aching, air whistling down his throat. He pressed the light again, and another loud thunk startled him, and the voice spoke in more meaningless words.
And the falling sand stopped. He went down a few steps. The sand a hundred feet under him receded, flowing away somewhere, back into the cistern.
Breathing hard, resting every few flights, Darin returned to the sun. The channels blew east, and he returned to the crank, directing the sand south.
“We did it, Grandfather,” he said, and coughed.
Grandfather’s staff landed in a dune, sticking straight up, and then Darin’s pack, and then Darin himself as he jumped from the platform, creating one last cloud of sand, which settled in a moment. He picked up his things, checked Grandfather’s compass, and walked north. At the top of a dune his throat slammed shut and his knees buckled under him. He leaned on Grandfather’s staff and pulled himself north.
About Daniel Deisinger
Daniel Deisinger lives in Minnesota, and writes for work and fun. His work has appeared in almost a dozen publications, including “Castabout Literature,” “Defenestration Magazine,” “Flash Fiction Magazine,” “Ripples in Space,” “Whiskey Island,” and “Consumnes River Journal.” His twitter is @Danny_Deisinger, and his website is saturdaystory-Time.weebly.com.