Winner of the 2013 Nelligan Prize for Short Fiction, selected by Jim Shepard
In July, seven months to the day after her brother’s death, they arrive in Merzouga, Morocco, gateway to the dune sea of Erg Chebbi. The trip is meant to be a healing interlude, a brief escape; by immersing her in this place of exotic sights and sounds, he has hoped to give her a short respite from her grief. But everything has gone wrong—a missed connection in Frankfurt, his billfold stolen in a Casablanca hamam, a bout of diarrhea that kept them from enjoying the lavish riad in Essaouira. The grinding logistics of travel have steadily overwhelmed their interest in their surroundings. Now, in the sand-blown streets of this tenuous little Saharan town, its mud-brick houses strung together with exposed electrical wires, they have lost the energy to keep talking. For more than an hour they’ve walked in the killing heat without exchanging a word. Even the effort of silence is draining.
They pass a horse cart carrying four women in black burkhas, jumbled against one another like quarry rocks; earlier in the trip they would have taken a furtive snapshot of the scene, but it no longer matters. The bucking road trip from Erfoud has defeated them, and the heat that permeates everything, and the extreme dryness of the air, and the blackflies that seek out the eyes for the meager moisture they offer. Eventually they head back to the hotel, shut themselves in their spartan room with the clattering air conditioner turned up high, and fall asleep in their separate beds.
When the phone jangles to announce the departure of the overnight excursion into the dunes, they wash quickly, zip up their bags, and head down to the lobby to meet the driver, a gloomy young man in camouflage pants, a Michael Jackson T-shirt, and a burnoose.
Desert? he asks by way of identifying himself, and Wilson nods, extending a hand that the man ignores. Hassan, he says brusquely, and the formalities are concluded. [End Page 3]
Aren’t those American issue? Anna asks the driver, pointing to the desert-toned camouflage pants, but he either has no English or pretends he doesn’t. Hassan heaves their bags into the back of a dented Jeep, and a moment later they set off down the rutted piste, passing through the cracked keyhole of the town gate, portal to the Sahara. The radio blares out a caustic blend of heavy metal and Bedouin keening until Wilson leans forward and covers his ears to ask that it be turned off. The rest of the trip will pass in hostile silence, the driver taking every opportunity to harry plodding camels and carts and the occasional decrepit Fiat.
They are heading straight into the desert and the scenery unfolding before them is spectacular—the setting sun throwing long shadows out from every dimple in the sand, the endless smooth flanks of the Sahara taking on the look of a woman’s body—but the driver’s anger makes it impossible to focus on what isn’t within the Jeep’s impact zone.
You shouldn’t have provoked him, Anna tells Wilson, looking back out the dusty window.
A few miles outside Merzouga they pass the body of a juvenile camel festering by the roadside, dogs and blackflies bickering over the remains. Anna pivots in her seat to track it as they drive past.
Takes the art of roadkill to a whole new level, she says, perhaps intending humor, perhaps not—it is hard to tell with her lately. A few more miles reel by; she rummages in her shoulder bag and comes up with the bottle of mahia they’ve brought from the hotel. In just two weeks she’s developed a passion for the date-anise spirits, and the flask with its ornate label is never far from her hand. She takes a deep swallow and offers the bottle to Wilson as an afterthought. He demurs, stomach shaken by the ride. Soon after, the road collapses into a sketchy trail, little more than a scratch across the desert, and the...