A piece of wood was hard to come by in a barren landscape. It had to be shipped from thousands of miles away before traveling on the backs of camels a thousand miles more. Thus I knew that when someone was given a piece of wood it indicated great significance.
When I received mine, I knew my journey had begun. It was well-made with a carefully smoothed bulbous head. There were three simple curls etched onto the canvas. Wind.
The Wingless who found their way back held their staves with pride. Their canvas was full of stories. There were desert flowers transforming into wolves weaving into moons and whispering the greatest secrets into the ear of the night sky. They held their staves tightly, an anchor from this world to bring them back from the depths of the chasm.
I held mine with so much force that I bled. Splinters embedded pain which would blister over in the desert sun. It tied me to my people, and they were the only people I had.
The Wingless were once great merchants many lifetimes ago. The story of our creation has passed on from the dry, cracked lips of death to the breath of new life. It passed through so many retellings and versions that it became a desert dream: something beautiful, intangible, and euphorically malleable. The one that gets told the most begins with a king.
His true name has been lost to us, but in our stories we call him Sol. He was raised in a time of peace. And while his father had weathered war, uprising, and economic hardship, Sol was spoiled. He was surrounded by glitz, glamour, and never held court for anyone less than the richest noblemen.
It is said that Sol's chamber was built to mimic a river of gold. Gold granules, coins, gems, stones, and anything else of value sprawled across the hallways like the sand dunes that drifted by the winds in our desert. He was introduced to politics and court late. And by that time, Sol had decided he liked the life of dancing, drinking, grand buffets, women, harems, gambling, and entertainment.
He believed foolishly that he was destined to live for the rush of excitement. The events that Sol planned got more elaborate, raunchier, and more lawless. He wanted to see how far he could push chaos before the dark unpredictable monster broke free.
Sol got as far as traveling around in a posh carriage and throwing grains of gold out the window before chaos finally caught up to him. It came in the form of cool blue and darkness from a neighboring state that decided an appropriate name for their people would be Luna.
Luna's ruler was appropriately named Wolf. He had keen eyes and even keener sense for stability. While Sol had spent lavishly on whims and temporary satisfactions, Wolf had carefully invested in research, technologies, art, architecture, constitution, culture, and compiling knowledge.
Wolf knew that Sol was unraveling his own social fabric. A little chaos is good, but Sol was pushing far beyond the turning point. He knew that the attention Sol turned to nobles and tradesmen would only result in fueling the anger of the lower class. And though he threw gold out his window, the nobles would greedily and eagerly overrun any commoner in the way to wealth.
It was a broken system and if Luna did not act, another neighbor would. Sol's kingdom was built on clouds without any safety nets for failure. And so Wolf hired an elegant solution, an assassin. It was a way around the other option. Wage war, encourage an uprising, and hope it would snap Sol out of his reverie.
War came with death, suffering, and backlash. And Sol had plainly ignored any polite political business by ordering another belly-dance instead of discussing alliances. He now hardly made a personal experience and had packed his great hall with so many varieties of distractions. It was all a facade in hopes of encouraging the visitor to push business into a far corner before returning home having forgotten that there was business.
An assassin was the lesser of evils, but the decision still weighed heavily. It was only approved when news of uprisings by commoners attacking nobles and tradesmen reached Luna. By the time Sol met the cool blade of death from untamed chaos, it was already too late. Many merchants had fled the city blindly. The Wingless were among the many.
There were no funds given to exploration, travel, or map-making. And though Wolf would have tried to warn us, Wingless had already fled straight into a great desert with their greatest possessions.
Our ancestors once thought that gold and jewels were precious. They soon learned that even their most precious and perfectly carved gem would not buy the rain from the landscape. Many merchants died in the unforgiving heat, desperately holding on to their treasure. Wingless once went by a different and prouder name, but they were among the few that learned to finally let go.
Wingless survived. We realized that we had inevitably stepped the boundary between worlds. One was filled with gold, women, and excess. This one was filled with dust and sand. Somewhere deep in the heart of this world laid grains of yellow worth fortunes to the world left behind. But even the vast river of treasure could not contend with the floods of sand. The desert washed everything away, and we began our life anew.
We gave up our gold for simple flasks, our jewels for simple shelters, and our coins for simple transport. We gave up our search for grains of yellow for pools of blue. And we were reborn; our souls stripped naked and bare, reemerging as desert fly nymphs. This is why we call ourselves Wingless.
In the morning Sol still roars across the sky in a crazed fury of boundless energy and pulsing madness. Luna still creeps across at night to soothe our wild spirits back to mediated calm. This is our curse, and yet we bless each and every grain of sand. We bless because we still have our hands to craft with. We still have our minds to dream with. And we still have our spirits to wander with us in this new world, sand tying us to family and clan more closely than gold could ever tie.
Chaos works in both directions.
Among our people, my guardians have the closest bounds. My mother, the woman who bore me, always had the strangest eyes. They reflected back an auburn color but seemed to shift as often as the winds. They called her Selene, daughter of Helios, the one with eyes able to gaze beyond the veil.
She had gently distanced herself in the past few days and I had gently understood. We both began counting the number of sand dunes that we passed silently until we forgot and began to count again.
My father only appeared few and far between. They nicknamed him Sand-Worm, a man hiding just below the shifting sands emerging at the most opportune times. I never knew his birth name, and it was never important. Names were just like staves, changeable by nature. He became Sand-Worm just as much as the name became part of him.
A name serves as a cloak to keep out dust. It carefully protects essence, and slowly name and essence melded together to form man and woman. It is what separates the children with wide innocent eyes from the crinkled corners around the eyes of a guardian.
The bridge across the chasm is not built by intelligence but experience.
Wingless have been humbled by grains of truth like this. They learned that each grain built the sands of time. And without the proper container memories, histories, lives, stories would all fall away from carefully crafted order into oblivion.
The container was carefully made from patterns. It was something that our minds could easily deal with. Abnormal events were also recorded. And while some occurred every decade and some arose every five years, they always seem to vanish from our mind only to appear and surprise again.
We still called them abnormal even as our records began to tell a different tale. I could not yet comprehend the expanse of a history or even a lifetime. Even as knowledge pushed forward, the distance to the unknown seemed only to grow in size.
A world was so much bigger than any of us. And each of us seemed like tiny dancing specks. We take nothing for granted. And we dream listless dreams. We run in circles for the sake of running in circles. Because we are the greatest giants with our head stuck in the clouds. And I was among the most foolish, thinking that a tiny speck would never make it that far.
This is the way of desert folk.
The day before we reached the forked path, my father had reappeared with a camel. She came with a bright green cloth framed by red. Her traders came from a far away land and bestowed the name of Duck. She gazed at me with an amused expression under long eyelashes as if she too had seen experience.
Duck was given wordlessly along with a flask and a blade. The last item made both me and the camel slightly nervous. It was long and curved. It was most definitely not used to carve into cacti. The blade put my pen-knife to shame. And yet I favored the smaller knife filled with memories of cactus dew over the cold blade humming of pain.
I took these wordlessly with empty hands. Having nothing to trade in return, I bowed in gratitude. Sand-Worm took both my shoulders and shook me gently. He told me that we were family bound more by sand than by blood. I managed to hold back tears.
Water is just as vital as blood.
And then we reached the arch. Although the fork was invisible, the Wingless shifted in anticipation. A single stone arch stood in defiance to the sculptor of sandpaper who had eaten everything else away to dust. It lay at the western edge of Wingless lands and was named The Dragon's Mouth. Despite desert on the other side, the arch had always been a gateway.
Even in a desolate landscape there are borders. Some more invisible than others. They stand in epithet to man's idea of owning something, or being afraid of not owning anything.
We had been in trade with other wandering desert clans, but the western edge had always been empty except for visiting mirages. The few who have dared to wander beyond have only returned in hurried whispers of citadels, sultans, and slaves but never in flesh.
I swallowed hard. Stories so fanciful were usually told to children before they understood death. Paradise carried hope over a quiet ending as the serpent of fire squeezed your life away in its relentless coils of heat.
The Wingless began to shift away as I stood calmly watching the mysterious doorway. A wind picked up as my people faded from view. Two teardrops fell one for each guardian before my mother's voice floated back from emptiness.
"Fare thee well. See you again. No tears."
And I managed to hold back the storm of life-water at the edge of my eyelids. It would take a couple more breathes to steady myself with the staff.
Then I inched closer, almost fearlessly closer to the edge.
*...* *...* *...*
Author's note: Suggested soundtrack for this chapter is "Closer to the Edge" by 30 Seconds to Mars.