The Desert Swimmer
His hands were shaking. She had felt it, even half-asleep; the hard pitch to the side, Donnell’s compensating turn, the sense of gravity realigning itself around them. They had nearly flipped. She stared at the road that dragged ahead of them a hundred miles, and not a single car to be seen.
The sun was a bright lance into the truck’s dust-fumed cab. Vanessa, riding on the passenger side, bit down on the grit between her teeth. She felt it settle in the corners of her eyes, into every fold of skin; the fine dust and the coarser grain. She’d been dreaming of shattered waters, a glancing Arctic light that fell across the white ice and turned it violet or blue, the prow of the ship that broke it. Out there, on deck, he would be buried under a dozen layers. His skin would freeze to the rail if he was fool enough to grip it without a glove. In the ice-cold nights they would crowd around the galley table to share their ideas of what the ancient water was telling them.
If you love someone, you should want them to be happy. Even if being happy means being without you.
She held that thought close.
It was quick enough work to unload the gear and find the spare tyre but, by the time they’d dug out the jack, the night was nearly on them. It was getting cold; that hard plummet to zero for which the desert’s days never prepared you. The Surveyor, young and plump and balding, made the suggestion. William was quick to agree. He stretched his beanstalk limbs, cricked his neck.
A night under the stars, he said. He spread his arms wide to embrace the sky. What do you say! One last night together under this fine stretch of God’s good earth.
They pitched tents by the side of the road, further back where the ground was firm. In the distance were three cringing acacias, bent and crooked as if fending off a beating. Donnell built a fire and set a tin of beans to boil while the Surveyor paced the campsite with his sodium lamp and a cudgel, whining about scorpions. Satisfied, he joined them by the fire and started to whine about his thesis instead. Vanessa gave him a cool appraisal. There wasn’t a stroke of competence to him. But then, when they had left, he had been so upset when he found the theodolite and its broken lens …
William, who could never let a moment pass without comment, said: Well, isn’t this the perfect end to a –
Don’t say it.
– the perfect end to a perfect trip …
She looked to Donnell, who scried the fire and tried to make it seem like he wasn’t listening. He was listening. He was thinking too, she knew, thinking of the finds she had left behind as they drove off. The site in hasty disarray behind them. She pictured the little plastic bags shrouded in dust, a future enigma for the archaeologists yet to come. She’d bitten her tongue when she realised what she’d done and hammered at the dashboard in frustration. It had been too late to go back. Donnell said otherwise, but she knew the resentment was festering away inside him.
The last of the day flowed over the western line, a ridge of gold and red. The freezing stars appeared, shards of ice in the velvet night. Donnell headed off early, wriggling through the gap in his pup tent, and the Surveyor threw it in not long after. He ostentatiously yawned, retreating to his sleeping bag and the secret bottle of whisky that he was too mean to share. William disturbed the fire with a stick, sparks and embers popping out to fizzle in the sand. He looked to Donnell’s tent and nudged her in the ribs.
Don’t mind him, Van. He’s a miserable bastard at the best of times, and nobody thinks it was your fault. Even he doesn’t really think it was your fault.
I know, she said.
You heard what Youssef said. It’s hardly an original statement, but sometimes it honestly is better to be safe than sorry. Discretion, he said, declaiming it in operatic tones, frequently is the better part of valour. A bird in the hand, he said, is –
Shut up William.
She couldn’t sleep. The frosty watches of the scrubland, the sound of creatures pattering softly over the sand, kept her on the edge of it for what felt like hours. The breeze moved with serene attention, plucking carefully at the green canvas of her tent as if checking it was ripe. She turned under the blanket. Well past midnight her bladder finally asserted itself. Cursing, shaking out her boots, she left the tent and stalked into the desert.
She stumbled once or twice, fanning out a hand to break her fall in the still-scorching crust. Fleet shapes whipped away between the dunes, in silhouette. She could hear the creak and flicker of insects blundering through the starlit dark. Under that light, refined by the silver crescent of the moon, the land around her was austere and beautiful, a cool expanse of rumpled silk. She could feel the breath of it on her face. In the distance were flashes of light, the popping of what sounded like fireworks.
In a wrinkle of ground she crouched to piss, and she was just hauling up her shorts when she heard the groan. The blood went sour in her. A fox, she thought. Immediately she brought the picture to mind, a talisman – rangy and grey with its outsize ears, the skinny brush. They could twist that larynx into every sort of sound; lichyard spirits, banshees, the resurrected dead. But then the groan came again and a cough with it, and there was no way it could be from anything but a human throat.
He was lying face down on the other side of the dune. His thick black hair was dripping wet. It was only as she reached out and touched his dark shoulder that she realised he was wearing a wetsuit. He coughed again, a bubble of water breaking on his lips. Turning his head, he spewed out a torrent of liquid into the hungry dust. The suit was zipped up to the neck, bloated with the water trapped beneath it. She pushed the wet hair from a lean and unshaven face, the lips blue and drawn back to reveal sharp incisors and strangely narrow teeth. His eyes were closed. Where she touched him the skin was freezing cold, clammy and bloodless. When he sucked in a breath it was with rapid little sips, like he was trying to drink the medium he’d fallen through.
It took her the best part of thirty minutes to get him back to her tent, one arm draped around her shoulder, her own clasped around his waist and his bare feet dragging in the sand. He wasn’t a big man or she couldn’t have done it. He had the wiry frame of a long-distance runner, an ascetic. The black hair glinted in the starlight like seaweed wavering in deep waters.
In the tent, hauling him through the flap, she stripped the second skin off him and laid him down on the mattress. Blankets, the unzipped sleeping bag, a coat she’d brought and never worn; she covered him. Then, not quite sure until the clothes were at her feet that she was actually going to do it, she stripped down to her bare skin and climbed in beside him. Hypothermia, she thought. She had been told once that in the cold places of the earth you take the afflicted body and lie naked with it, and the warmth moves from one to the other. She felt the clammy gooseflesh heating up as she wrapped her arms and legs around the man, the wet hair brushing against her face, the sad grey and shrivelled penis beginning to unfurl. The night deepened, his breath with it. As she fell asleep she heard the sound of waves breaking against ice and steel. She’d tell them in the morning.
Donnell was up with the dawn, that pastel moment when the shadows were long and the sun hadn’t started to burn. She heard him swearing from the tent, the clatter of metal against metal. Muffled by the canvas came William’s voice offering her breakfast.
Beans! he said, as if presenting her with a great treat.
She mumbled a reply, dressed quickly in the clothes she had discarded by the swimmer’s heap of soiled rubber, the sopping wetsuit she’d heeled into a corner of the tent. He was still asleep. There was some colour in his face now, a pink tinge to the lips, and his hair had finally dried. She lifted his head up and poured some water on those lips, and watched the tongue lap out to drink it. He didn’t wake up. She looked down on him and then went out to eat.
Sleep well? William asked her.
The Surveyor staggered by, stinking of whisky. She heard him retching on the other side of the truck.
She took the offered plate and sat by the dead embers of last night’s camp fire. Donnell appeared with his hands gloved in black grease, a bracket under his arm, his face glistening like plastic.
The jack’s buggered.
No! William gasped. Not a buggered jack!
Ignoring him, Donnell sat by the fire and showed her the tangle of metal.
I’ll get it fixed, he said. Don’t worry.
I believe you.
We’ve water enough … I’ve set the lad to watch for traffic as well.
They both looked at the open road, a pale, dust-wracked ribbon that was already beginning to shimmer in the heat.
We’ll be done by lunchtime, I promise. Drink plenty of water, he said as he headed back to the truck.
I’ll stay in the tent. She took up her plate of untouched beans and no one paid her the least attention.
The swimmer had propped himself up on his elbows, a white glowing shape in the gloom. She placed the plate on the ground and handed him an old t-shirt; he was lean enough to fit it.
How are you feeling?
Better, he said. Could I maybe have something to drink?
Both spoke in not-quite whispers. Vanessa passed over the water bottle and watched him while he ate and drank, and in moments the plate was clear.
It seems like you took a wrong turning, she said. I haven’t seen another truck around, a car … Did someone bring you here?
No. I brought myself, he said. I was swimming, I was half-way there.
America. From one side to the other. Started off the coast of Scotland, high up on the west. Set out through that tangle of islands, right across the Atlantic. It can be done, I could have made it …
A long swim, she said.
One of the longest. Did I have anything with me? When you found me, I mean?
He sat up and looked around the tent as if seeing it for the first time. He brought his knees up and hugged them. Vanessa showed him the wetsuit, still damp in the corner.
I had a float, he said, a tether. Boxes of food, bottles of water, a GPS?
I didn’t find anything.
I’m lost then, he whispered. He smiled. And what brings you here? I heard voices outside, others. Friends of yours?
Now there’s a distinction …
Archaeologists. We’re on our way home from a dig. A long summer.
Find anything interesting? He lay back down on the mattress and closed his eyes. Ruined cities, lost civilisations?
Hardly. Potsherds and glass. A stylus. Midden refuse, the usual.
I suppose all this was fertile land, once. Once upon a time all this was ocean.
Well, anything we did find I managed to forget anyway. We had to leave in a hurry …
She told him about the last camp, the site as they hurriedly dismantled it. Youssef’s apologetic demeanour, the courtesy grafted onto a thickly flowering fear, and in the distance the imagined thunder of gunfire. Cloudbursts then, a fast storm nobody was expecting, and in the morning the smeared destruction of their trenches and test pits, half melted by the rain; the sad detritus of meter sticks and plastic trays, a sordid finds bag rumpled in the mud. The Surveyor had been distraught to find his theodolite with a cracked lens; he’d forgotten to pack it away before the storm hit. Youssef had signed the export orders and vanished in a great whip of mud, the engine on his Land Rover juddering like an assertive laugh. Fine-boned, delicately bearded, he had gazed palely at them as he drove past, a look in his eyes of tremendous sadness. Then the silence of the drive, the flash of understanding at what she had left behind. And here they were.
She left the swimmer sleeping. His body seemed to tremble in the dim light, and every now and then the skin around his forehead puckered in a frown.
It was late in the morning and Donnell had still not fixed the jack. She watched his jaw tighten, heard the strain that sharpened his voice. The Surveyor had the bad grace to complain and the bigger man screamed at him for a solid five minutes. William busied himself dismantling the tents but Vanessa told him to leave her own, with gesture and hint suggesting that Donnell would be at this for some time and she’d prefer somewhere to shade from the sun. When she felt she’d made a long enough appearance she went back inside and drew the zip down the inside of the flap. Humid, cocooned in green-filtered light, she sat cross-legged on the ground and waited for the swimmer to wake up.
A friend of mine’s out there, she whispered. In those waters. A very close friend, a lover – he’s on a research ship, heading to the Arctic. He’ll be there by now I expect. They left from Aberdeen and headed north, through all those cold seas. On to the pack ice, the pole.
The last time they spoke, she realised, neither had been listening to the other. Both had stared off towards their future prospects, their work. Her eyes had been full of sand, and he was blind with ice.
Climate change, she said. The terms he used came back to her. Cryospheric disturbance. Predictive understanding, the temporal pointers to future states. She waved a hand. The exact details escape me, she said. When the human level slips out of the scale I tend to get lost. Who can really see with that kind of perspective?
So he’s out there in the never-ending day, while you stew here in the dust? Would you want to swap?
No, she whispered. I don’t mind the heat. Our work takes us in different directions.
Like a tide, he whispered back.
They leaned very close together to talk, and when he spoke she could feel his warm breath against her cheek.
That’s certainly further up than I was swimming, he said. Although it was cold enough.
He told her about the swim, the presence of water, like a knife in the lungs it was so cold. Then, after only a few vivid strokes, it felt the temperature of blood. He had the float to lean on when he got tired, but he’d been training so long it was like his arms and legs were set to some inexhaustible engine, plunging up and out and down, over and over again, hooking into the choppy water thick with salt, the legs kicking up a spume behind him. The hardest thing was not the physical strain or the solitude, or even that massive, unending plain of water all around you. The hardest thing was dealing with the sense of depth; the vertigo of a linear body suspended a mile above the hard surface.
That’s all it is, he said, the sea. It’s like being thrown off a mountain and waiting to fall, and that moment lasts only as long as your strength can keep you up.
It was never one thing or another, he said. It moved in planes of shade, smeared itself out in lengths of green laid flat against a darker blue, a blackness underneath that sometimes rose to call those other colours down. Then the waves would break into small featherings like cast blossom, and beneath all this, when it leaped against you, when you were there in the very essence of it, you’d see that it was no real colour at all.
At night he’d crawl up onto the float and lean half out of the water, the ocean dark around him, silvered with light. He could feel things slipping by beneath him, bumping into his legs. Through the night he’d listen to the low, ever-present hum that he could feel deep in his guts; whalesong, or the sonar of a submarine, the vibration of a tanker’s distant engines. Leviathan blackened the depths beneath him. Below, miles down, were drowned cities where sea monsters whipped their emerald coils through caverns and canyons, and hatched their young amidst the temple ruins of ancient gods. In the morning, as dawn filtered through the line between sea and sky, the water seemed gelatinous and dense, streaked in criss-cross patterns with shimmering tracks and pathways. Then he would slip off his float and check the compass and the GPS, positioning himself on the globe, anchoring his presence in the wide, unending water. The cold cupped his heart and stole his breath away.
But how did you get here? she asked him. Right here, last night. How?
It was easy, he said. I swam.
She put them off all afternoon. William, having cleansed the temporary camp site, hovered around her tent and plucked at the guy ropes as if listening for an experimental note. Vanessa felt like an overextended chain, the links beginning to warp and creak. She snapped at him, stood protectively at the tent’s front flap, and when she wandered off to talk to Donnell she kept him always in sight. He sat down next to the boxes and bags with his arms around his knees, sighing, while the Surveyor stood on a rise of ground and performed weird calisthenics, twisting his podgy body and windmilling his arms as though with centrifugal force trying to get the blood back into his hands.
The big man was kneeling red-faced next to the new wheel, the veins popping on his peeling arms. He looked like someone had poured a bucket of water over him; his hair was dark with sweat, face dripping, shirt stained black from armpit to chest.
Nearly done, he muttered. Thank all the gods and none …
She could see the strain in him, that boiling exasperation, and when he glanced up at her he seemed to recognise it, how close he was. He tore the jack from its base and dragged himself up, stooping to rub his calves.
I tell you, he said, if just one more thing goes wrong I won’t be responsible for my actions.
Are we nearly ready then?
I’ll tell William. Once your tent’s down we can get back on the road.
And put all this behind us?
Something like that. I’m sick of it, Vanessa, he said suddenly. All of it. This is it for me, I’m never coming back. I swear.
He rubbed the sweat from his face. His bottom lip buckled.
Rooting about in the dirt, looking for dead things. I just can’t take it anymore. And these people … You know William’s always late for work? He sleeps through his alarm, like a bloody teenager. He’s thirty-seven. No one takes responsibility. No one has any … any sense of scale.
She patted him on the shoulder, an odd avuncular gesture that she wasn’t sure did him any good; or her. He reached up and took her hand, nodding vigorously, and she felt that she was in some way consoling him for a death. For the end of his career maybe. All that ambition had been burned away. Who didn’t hate it after so many seasons in the field? Ahead, the Surveyor paused his exercise with a coughing fit that sounded like a burst of automatic gunfire. He’d never be back, for certain. He hadn’t even finished his PhD and he hated it already. So did she. So did all of them. Finds bags and AutoCAD surveying; graph paper and field work, shitting in a hole in the ground. The ineradicable dirt under your nails. She looked at her hands. All these dead things, gone to dust. All this.
As Donnell headed back to the camp site she took her clasp knife from her pocket and sheathed it neatly in the truck’s front wheel.
The flames kicked and spluttered, the tool box that William had used to fuel them a frame of fragrant, blackened wood. The Surveyor, silent for once, lay back on the sand and gazed up at the arching stars, the pale day fading into swirls of mulberry and plum. William chanted a soft song under his breath, and when the beans were gone departed to his resurrected tent. Donnell had already gained his pillow; he had thrown his tent up the moment he saw the deflated wheel and retreated inside without a word, beaten. Eventually the Surveyor dragged himself off to bed, no bottle to comfort him, and Vanessa was left alone with the fire. She watched the flames die down to red embers. When the last of them had winked to black she stood and unzipped the flap of her tent, and though the gloom inside was absolute she knew the swimmer was no longer there. She felt in the corner for his wetsuit but found only damp canvas, the ghost of a wet footprint. He was gone; back into the tide, heading on towards that distant shore.
She dreamed that night of a man being pulled from the sea. There was breaking ice, the boat’s sharp prow plunging through it, shattering it like glass. She saw the wake of the ship as it headed to the cold north, the dark steel bracketed by foam. He would be on deck, tending to his instruments, all the light from violet to green reflected in his pale grey eyes, the northern sun clinging to the horizon like the face of a drowning man hooking his arm to a drifting spar.
Then he would see the slumped dark shape in the water ahead, the wheel of a distant hand as it raised itself and fell back down. He would run to the rail and dip the boat hook into the water, and the drowning man, half dead, would spend the last of his strength to grab it. Hauled from the ocean, trailing phosphorescence like a comet’s tail, the swimmer would lie on deck as the explanations suggested themselves – a stowaway, a suicide flinging himself from a passing cruiser. But then why is he dressed like this …?
The swimmer wears nothing more than a khaki shirt and a pair of shorts, a drab green scarf around his neck to keep the dust out. His skin is sunburned and peeling. On his feet there are roped-soled canvas sandals, and in his pockets, glittering with minerals, is nothing more than a dry handful of desert sand.
Richard Strachan lives in Edinburgh. He is the winner of a New Writer’s Award from the Scottish Book Trust, and has had short fiction printed in magazines like The Lonely Crowd, Weird Horror, Interzone, The Dark, and many more. Find him on Twitter @RWStrachan1977.