Richard Wright

author of strange, dark fictions


The Midnight Desert (The 52)

May 21, 2014 by Richard Wright in Journal, The 52, Writing
Every week I’ll post a new short story here, based on an image somebody out there has sent me. Welcome to the 52 This week I’m collaborating with Shawn Young, who was introduced to the project by a mutual friend, and sent in this utterly stunning piece. You can click through the image to get it larger.

The Midnight Desert

by Shawn Young and Richard Wright


There is a purple desert, very far away, where it is always midnight. I visit often. It is unlike other deserts, those closer places of heat and dread. You’ll discover that for yourself one day.

The sand (which is what we shall call it for the sake of brevity and sanity, even though it isn’t) is a fine dust that can be tasted on the air, though there is no breeze to stir it up. You should try not to get it in your mouth, for reasons that will become apparent. If you do then you will discover that it tastes much like the shrill voices of people under extreme duress. This is all the more unpleasant because the air itself is sweet, like the jellied candies from your childhood. Do you remember how they were all different colours, but tasted the same? That flavour.

You don’t think you’ve seen those sweets on the shelves for many years, but you’re wrong. They’re still there. You just stopped looking for them.

I can see somebody running across the desert. Her feet sink into the sand to the ankle with every step, but she soldiers on with magnificent fortitude. You want me to tell you what she looks like, and how old she is. These are not the things that matter, so I will keep my silence. I am a little embarrassed even to have let slip her gender.

With the ground so treacherous, her progress is not swift. That is how this desert is meant to be. Travel in any direction is discouraged. People arrive where they should arrive, and depart through the most appropriate exit. At least, that was how things were for many thousands of years. These days it is not uncommon for visitors to forsake the immediate options. They journey in search of less obvious satisfactions.

I make myself comfortable, and watch her for a week. She does not falter even once. Her eyes are on the desert’s edge, and the strange shapes there that may be mountains or trees. I am not sure which they actually are. I have never felt much of an urge to go and find out, and if I did I never would.

Barring her way are a pair of gleaming pearly gates and an old man with a vast book. He sees her and runs a finger down a cracked page until he finds what he is looking for. She does not slow as she approaches. Words are exchanged that I am too far away to make out, though I can smell old baked paper and hear the blaring of golden horns from the gate.

The old man realises that she is not going to stop, and his expression is much like yours was the morning after you first truly embarrassed yourself while drunk. You will recall your face in the bathroom mirror, aghast and disbelieving. That is what old man looks like. She shoves him hard in the chest, and he stumbles back through the portal. As she dodges round the gates she slams them closed, silencing the bombast, and they vanish into nothing.

I am impressed. She is a woman with a clear sense of direction.

As she passes me I call out to her. “Who are you? What is your name?”

She does not look at me, but shouts over her shoulder. “It doesn’t matter! That isn’t who I am!”

The dog headed man is next, bearing the ancient scales and watching her with wary canine eyes as she trudges towards him. Her head is down and her arms are pumping. On one plate of the scales there is an enormous feather, fresh-plucked, while the other stands empty in readiness for judgement. When he reaches out to seize her heart, she instead pulls his own from his bronzed chest and weighs it against the feather. From my distant vantage point they appear in perfect balance, but she finds him wanting and sets the Ammet the devourer to work. The beast hounds him from the desert, nipping at his panicked heels with crocodile teeth the entire way.

As she passes me she scans the bruised sands. I cry out to her. “Where are you going? Where are you bound?”

“I am not going anywhere!” She says it with a laugh. “I am unbound!”

Other offerings are made to her over the course of the long week of running, and she rebuffs them all. The armoured women on flying horses are the last. I am delighted to see them, for I cannot remember the last time they took to the air. As they swoop around her, the riders singing songs of victory and welcome in German, she swats them from the air and leaves them groaning at her feet.

When she reaches me again, the smell of startled equine hanging from her like an old man’s cologne, she stops and looks down at me. I realise that I am sitting in her spot, and shuffle aside on my bottom.

She settles next to me, her muscles growing loose and heavy just as yours did in the moments after another person gave you intense physical pleasure for the first time. We share a companionable silence as we stare at the distant shapes bordering the desert. A white moon makes pallid ghosts of us, and I wish we had a pipe to share between us.

“Is this your place then? Will you go no further?”

“There is nowhere else to go. Just shapes on a horizon making promises I reject.”

“Are you frightened? Are you scared?”

We look at one another, and I see the sparkle in her eyes. “That isn’t who I am. I am unbound. Fear is tethered where I left it.”

We turn back to the distant shapes that nobody will ever reach, no matter how hard they run. I am in love her now, and when I sense emptiness beside me I grow sad. My eyes are good, and it takes me only a moment to find the newly minted grain of sand in the midnight desert.

I nod, satisfied, and bid her farewell.

Originally from central Ohio, Shawn is one of the creatives behind Vulcania Graphics & Fine Arts in York, Pennsylvania.. Shawn utilizes photography along with various digital painting and illustration techniques to create his personal artwork. He enjoys iPhone photography, iPad painting, digital fine art printmaking and Native American / Hawaiian shamanism studies. You can see more of his work at his own artist page here. I particularly like the ‘Abstracts’ section.

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This story, and the whole of The 52, is yours for free. If you enjoyed it feel free to check out my other stuff, such as my new novella The Flesh Remembers.

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