A starlit night he paddled along the shoreline. The only sounds were the birds of the darkness calling for each other and the quiet splash from the paddle. There were no winds, no waves. He saw smoke barely distinguishable against the dark backdrop and froze. It rose above the treetops of a headland. The drag of the paddle in the water made the canoe veer toward the shore. He straightened it and began paddling again as he stared at the smoke.
Then a light flickered between the trees. His heart became so filled with hope it sunk in his chest. He paddled faster than he had ever paddled before. Water splashed onto him and washed the sweat off his brow. The salt stung his eyes. He beached the canoe at full speed and fell forward, got up again, and ran into the forest and the direction of the light.
The ferns cut his legs and forearms as he made his way through them. Small streams of blood trickled from the wounds. The moon bathed everything in a ghostly blue hue. Bats flew in great speed between the trees and gave off their high pitch shrieks. His feet sunk into the muddy ground and made a sucking noise with each step as he pulled them out.
An owl startled him as it set off from the undergrowth, and he stubbed his toe and groaned. The owl landed in a tree and hooted while watching him curse. He bent down and picked up the rock and threw it at the owl as hard as his twig-like arm could. The thud of the rock hitting the tree trunk and the sound of the owl beating its wings woke the forest for a moment.
He came upon a clearing. In its middle, there was a fire pit. He watched it for a while, hesitating. One step at a time, he approached. Slowly, yet in a hurry, as he watched his surroundings. He squatted and put his hand above the ashes and felt their warmth. On the ground, there was a waterskin crafted from an animal’s hide. He picked it up and shook it. Liquid sloshed around inside. He removed the stopper and smelled the contents, and poured some liquid into his hand. It was water. He put the container to his lips and drank from it in deep gulps.
There were tracks on the ground around the fire pit. Human tracks. Or tracks of something that resembled a human. They went southward. As did he. Through forests, meadows, and marches. Over land and through rivers and brooks, he followed. He tracked for many days without eating and only stopping for short naps and for filling his waterskin. Most nights, there was smoke on the horizon, but some there was non.
The landscape turned into a wasteland of thistles and shrubs. He burned his skin in the scorching sun until it blistered. His feet were riddled with thorns. The footprints became evermore faint in the dry and sandy ground, and he had to backtrack multiple times. He was almost out of water when he reached the desert with dunes whiter than bone. The tracks in the soft sand were not distinguishable as human anymore. They were naught but indents and could as well be from an animal. He continued tracking until his surroundings were a billowing sea of sand as far as the eye could see. His lips cracked from dehydration, and his mind harbored delusions.
Now and again, the ground vibrated as if giant horns were tooted from deep under the sand. It was a metallic noise that cut through his flesh and made his bones rattle. Sometimes he saw torrents of sand burst into the air as if a whale breached the surface to take a breath.
There were no animals out during the day, but for the occasional bird soaring the blue and cloudless sky. However, during the cold night, when the stars filled the dome, they came out from their burrows. They were mostly small, mostly harmless, the snakes hunting the lizards hunting spiders and insects.
He saw something astray from the intended path. The air seemed to ripple, blue, and cold. His thirst overcame his wits, and he set off toward the oasis. He went from dune to dune, yet the sight seemed to elude him, but he pushed on. His body was shutting down from dehydration. The lack of saliva made swallowing impossible. His dry eyelids rubbed his corneas raw. It was night before he gave up the mirage and collapsed in the hot sand. He watched the stars and hoped whoever or whatever he followed did the same.
The sand vibrated again. First, ever so faint. Then the ground rumbled and shook as if the earth quaked. He rose. It was a cloudless sky, and in the starlight, he saw the dunes move. The sand bulged as if something giant burrowed beneath. Then there was the sound that shook his bones again. He covered his ears.
A torrent of sand burst high into the air and rained down over him and the surroundings. Out the flesh of the earth emerged a massive beast like some giant maggot leaving the carcass upon which it has feasted. It was far away, but he could see the enormous, bulbous body. The moonlight penetrated the transparent skin and illuminated the organs doing their work inside the beast. Thumping, contracting, inflating, deflating. They moved as a biological clockwork of flesh. The skin rippled like a bag of liquid as the beast bathed in the moonlight.
In the morning, there was no sign of the animal. He took the almost empty waterskin and went back the way he had come pursuing his delusions. It was the height of midday when he noticed the horizon behind getting darker as if there was a rainstorm approaching. The decision tore at his soul. There was the possibility of water. There was the possibility of company. Two essential resources he had to choose between or nature would do it for him.
He set off after the tracks as fast as he could. His feet sank deep into the sand and every step bore the burden of ten. He collapsed onto his knees. The storm approached. He opened the waterskin, emptied it in one big gulp, and waited for the rain.
His surroundings turned into a maelstrom of howling winds and sand that came into his mouth, ears, nose, and eyes. The sand ground his skin bloody. He shielded his face with his hands. There was no hiding. There was no relief as he lay on his belly with the storm ripping at his blistered back. He was buried in sand.
When it has passed, he emerged from the small dune covering him. He stood on hands and knees and coughed out the sand. It did not taste much but formed an unpleasant lining inside his mouth. He got up onto his feet and looked around. There was nothing but an ocean of sand. In the horizon rippled a grey mountain or immense structure. No storm. No tracks. He stood like that for a while and absorbed his bitter reality and looked at the mirage taunting him. Then he turned around and began walking.