Climate fiction keeper o.., p.1
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       Climate Fiction: Keeper of the Oasis, p.1

           Steve Stanton
Climate Fiction: Keeper of the Oasis

  Climate Fiction:

  Keeper of the Oasis

  A Short Story by Steve Stanton

  Copyright Steve Stanton

  This ebook is licensed to the original purchaser.

  Keeper of the Oasis

  by Steve Stanton

  The sand sifts between his stubby fingers as Riza digs, and the harder he pushes it aside, the faster it drifts back to void his work. His life has been like this from the first days of record, on his knees cursing the dusty ground and praying for relief from famine. He has been the official keeper of the oasis since his grandfather planted a palm tree on the day of his birth and consecrated the ground to him, the male heir of a proud tradition stretching back to the early days of restoration. The dry lakebed of the Algonquin Basin stretches around him in all directions, a desert left behind when the trees were razed by solar flares from Sungod and the Great Lakes boiled away. In the days of civilization, this hallowed spot contained one-fifth of the world’s fresh water in the largest group of lakes on Earth, but now the oasis has dwindled to a toxic trickle along with the fate of mankind.

  The gritty dust sparkles metallic in the blazing sunlight, forged in furnaces of stellar fire billions of years ago, spread across the galaxy and blown by prevailing wind to collect in Riza’s quiet, terrestrial garden. The sand seems alive as it swirls around his busy hands, each molecule a miracle of complexity, each atom indestructible and eternal, destined to be carried by the breeze forever. Riza is nothing in comparison, a pilgrim on a sad sojourn to nowhere, his body but a fragile pattern of electromagnetism in a hostile universe, his consciousness a transient aberration. Why had he expected more? Why had he expected life and posterity?

  The stench of dung assails Riza anew from a paper bag beside him filled with chicken bones and human excrement. He needs a hole deep enough to keep the desert jackals from digging up his garbage and spreading it round the ancestral tenement, but shallow enough for tree roots to find sustenance when the drought ends and seeds can flourish.

  “Hurry up, Riza,” his wife yells from a grated window in the house. “Emil’s caravan has passed the outer gate.” Inside the bleached mud-block walls, candles burn at midday to freshen the air and the dry toilet is clean for company. His wife is bustling with nervous anxiety, hiding fresh anguish behind a coarse burqa of activity, holding to tremulous faith in the aftermath of horror. The house has been swept clean of sin, and their souls whitewashed with sacred observance.

  Riza squints under glaring sun at a sad trio of approaching camels stooped with weariness and thirst. The oasis has been sour with precipitate minerals for years, and shallow wells barren throughout the Algonquin Basin. Denuded palm trees stand like paintbrushes against the cloudless sky, their hoary trunks tapered to scant tufts of green hope against a cruel azure sky. He recognizes Emil from the distance, a man of haughty stance and regal stature, his white turban an unearned crown. Emil wears an ornate cassock in public show of dignity as he searches for his errant wife who disgraced the marital nest in blasphemy to Sungod.

  Emil dismounts his camel and ties it to a post at the center of the oasis where the mud has been baked to a fissured mosaic. He tethers the other two camels and slides bulky packs onto the ground—a tent in one and all his worldly belongings in the other, probably little more than a sleeping mat and change of clothes, perhaps a flask of water and tin of dried jackal meat. He works with slow and deliberate care in the searing heat, inspecting the camels for problems or parasites, patting their heads and combing their shaggy coats with his fingers. The dromedaries are the last of the domesticated mammals on Earth, saved from extinction by syrupy urine, dry feces and water traps in their nostrils, able to travel for weeks without drinking yet provide daily milk rich in fat, protein, vitamins and iron—more than enough to keep a nomad alive in the desert. Methodically Emil raises each camel hoof in turn, looking for damage or defect, then drapes a feedbag around the neck of each animal. His murmuring voice drifts across the compound like a soothing melody—a man with great respect for life and the creatures in his care, a survivor and custodian of a sacred future.

  Working against time now and harsh circumstance, Riza renews his effort to carve a trench in the dust, scooping with both palms between his knees and holding back sand behind gnarly legs. He pushes his bag of dung into the ditch, and the ground drifts in to cover his offering like a lady closing her loins. A funeral dirge echoes in his mind, a sad song of surrender to silence, and a scent of smoke stings his eyes from a distant fire. Veins of coal continue to blaze in the hellish wastelands to the south where perpetual underground fires smolder and burn. No plant or animal survives in the devastation beyond the oasis, and only a vestige of life hangs on in northern pockets. Even the ants and roaches have died off—creatures that once made up the majority of terrestrial animal biomass. Riza scans the distant horizon for any sign of movement, a rare bird or scrub of tumbleweed, but the Algonquin Basin is dead and forlorn. Perhaps there are fish deep below the boiling surface of the oceans, hiding in cool caverns of darkness. Perhaps there is hope.

  A vision of loveliness appears to Riza as he stoops painfully to his feet—a ghost in a red bridal sari embroidered with gold and decorated with prayer coins, his only child on her wedding day. Riza sobs with agony at the sight of her veiled face, but vivid eyes smile at him with a remembrance of youth. “Why do you weep over this arid dust?”

  Riza ducks wet cheeks away from the ghost, but her presence lingers in majesty, a pleasant shadow from incessant heat. He had welcomed the young bride home just days ago, distraught but alive, crushed in spirit and trembling with distress. Her husband had beaten her in holy ordinance for refusing to conceive, for shutting her womb to any future in this terrible place. Riza had cringed with misery as he inspected the caning wounds on her back, righteous punishments from Sungod, angry purple bruises festooned with crimson welts, scars that would never heal in this world or the next. Emil should never have taken her to the northern coast for their honeymoon, squandering her dowry for a few days at a remnant outpost on the salt beaches beside caustic waters. He should never have given her the taste of sweetmeats and pastries, nor graced her with fragrant oils and scented pillows. How could she come back to the desert and live without longing in a land without rainbows? How could she raise babies to return them to waterless ground?

  Riza remembers her skin glowing with promise on that glorious wedding day, her nubile breasts pushing upward with the promise of fertility and a red umbrella held ceremoniously over her head in blessing. Consolation shone from a golden sky as she performed the traditional wedding dance to tambourine and mandolin and shrill birdlike cries from a clapping crowd of attendants. The bone trumpet heralded her consecration at sunset, a sound reserved for royalty in the olden days, and the stars that evening glowed like jewels in an infinite expanse of heaven. Her betrothed Emil was Anishinabek by tribal right from the territory of the first fossils, a man austere of wit but a capable worker who feared Sungod and enjoyed the privilege of obedience. What better place for a virgin to find home and refuge?

  Riza looks past the ghost to see her husband finally turn his attention from the care and feeding of his camels to hoist a packsack and begin walking toward the house. He does not hate Emil even now. The man easily could have resorted to bondage and rape in the absence of moral civility, he could have taken what he needed without conscience like the hoodlum vagabonds of yore who died out in vileness and misery. Emil is a handsome breeder and will find a healthy suitor to share his spawn. Riza dreads to see the man’s righteous face crumple into a mask of grief, his innocence forever sullied. Emil will wail and rip his cassock in grand spectacle at the te
rrible news. He will suffer for weeks in exile in his desert tent, walking to ground for a word of prophecy from Sungod, plumbing the depths of doom and ruin. But with the gathering curative of time and reflection he will shrug off his weight of guilt to the wisdom of holy law while the fallow ground cries out unheard.

  All men hold a crystal core in the center of their being, invincible and invisible, a private asylum packed solid with sorrow and sheltered from probing eyes of introspection. Emil will hide his wife away in a frozen catacomb of pain and force a balm of forgetfulness upon his mind. Riza knows the place and has packed his crystal core with untold tales of dismay, year after decade, heartbreak upon tragedy. The horror of life has condensed into a hard and brilliant diamond in his soul, for he has seen too much for one man to comprehend, children ravaged by starvation and women maimed by violence and disease. He awaits his final settlement with Sungod, a goddess of consuming fire who barbecued all flesh on Earth in a moment of cosmic indifference two centuries ago—snakes and frogs, sheep and goats, all the children of men. Riza steels his gaze now and hardens his strong shoulder for the benefit of others, but he cherishes his right to die and holds it tight for the day of reconciliation. Death is his only heritage, and who will speak of his legacy?

  “I wanted the best for you,” Riza says to the girl in the red sari. She had fled to him for final sanctuary, to spill her blood under his roof while he slept. He could have done more to save her, his firstborn and only child. He could have stayed awake all night and cradled her with comfort in his spindly arms. “I must be a failure.” A pall of despair drags on his neck, a shroud of responsibility he has carried all his life and finally understands. A single stroke from a knife can steal away destiny, and one barren generation can obliterate the memory of mankind.

  “Tell my story,” she says behind her veil, “that I might gain recompense for my suffering.” Her gaze is intense with insight, and her eyes linger like beacons of promise as the ghost fades to a mirage of shimmering noonday heat and leaves only heartache behind.

  Riza bows his head in duty, pitiful servant to her passing vision of glory. He vows to write the last narrative for a lost civilization, spill his harbored burden of truth for an audience unseen. By the consummate power of the word, the keeper of the oasis will bring justification to the elders and heritage to the unborn, he will summon hope for the hopeless and conjure a future for his desolate homeland, and his daughter will lie nearby to him always, close enough underfoot that tree roots can find purchase when the rains return and the cisterns fill with life. Someday soon the heavens must break their ponderous silence and Sungod will weep with shame.

  One man can plant his crystal core in the dust, and another will water the seed in season. This much can be accomplished in a single lifetime, and only this much is required from Riza as he brushes the sand from his knees and turns from his garden of earth to greet Emil for the final time.


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