The great western desert stretched from horizon to horizon. Its dust filled the air. It filled Dustin’s lungs, and stung his eyes. Charred remnants of the giants that once inhabited this land now covered in dust. It was not a desert of sand, but a desert of ash and dust. Sequoia. That was what these giants were called. In the end nothing more than kindling for the infernos.
The desert landscape was not one of great dunes, it was a mix of blackened chimneys, and melted metal. Cars. He remembered them from his youth. Now they were the only shelter from the sun. However they amplified the heat providing little relief.
Food was scarce in the desert. But food was what brought him here. Not the quest for food, but to escape becoming food. They called it the farm. They indeed did grow potatoes, but the main purpose was the production of meat. Dustin was meat. Dustin wasn’t even Dustin. He had seen that written on a rock. “Dustin was here”. Where here was, was unknown, but an unknown Dustin left his mark nonetheless. Dustin was known as Dusty, or, Child of Dust. He was one of the few not born and bred on the farm, but was found wandering naked through the dust. A child alone after the great fire of 2032 roared from the coast, to the Rockies, leaving very little left behind to burn.
Life on the farm was… well, just life. Living waiting to die. They grew potatoes, ate potatoes, and in the end, were cooked with potatoes. The others, those bred on the farm lacked any education, or discernible language. They were animalistic and domesticated. A strange mix of sickly from a diet of only potatoes, and tough from a life pulling a plough. The only clothes they wore were the shriveled scraps of the skins of their forefathers. Scraps tossed over the fence after a feast.
Dustin had a life once. He had attended two full years of school. He had a family, a house by the coast, while in school. He could read a little, write, and count. He could also understand his captors, and if he felt the need to, communicate back to them. He chose not to. It seemed eventually they forgot he could. He had practiced throughout all these years. Late at night he spoke to himself. During the day, he remained silent. Not wanting to stand out in any way. When he reached puberty, he was bred with a number of young women, which he tried to teach. Only one seemed to be capable of learning. He wished he hadn’t left her behind. She at least showed a spark of humanity.
He listened to them intently, and heard their stories of the farm’s history. He heard them say many things, but it was one phrase that sent him off into the desert that very night. “How abouts the dusty one? Think if we boil him he’ll taste ok?” That was the end. He had seen so many slaughtered, butchered, filetted, minced, and ground into paste. They didn’t try to hide our fate. Those born on the farm showed no interest or emotion, even as their biological parents were skinned and bled, hung from the heels screaming till the screams were replaced by gurgling and gagging on their own blood. They accepted their fates.
The farmers called themselves a militia, or patriots. Dustin did not know what these words meant, but he equated them to death. Late at night they would boisterously boast of the old days, hunting and fishing, and killing for sport. Those days are gone now. There was nothing left to hunt except insects. Roaches and rats alike shared the same fate. Starvation. Extinction. There were rumors that the floods of the east left some wildlife to thrive. Alligators, snakes, bats, even a river rumored to still be home to fish. But in the west, there was only charred death.
How we became meat, they never spoke of. For the beasts that devoir our babies for holiday feasts, it could not be shame that kept them silent on that subject. It was taboo. The switch from carnivore to cannibal was a forbidden subject. Cannibal. That was a word one of them used once, which earned him a broken nose spewing blood, and a stern warning. “We are survivalist, if I ever hear that word cross your lips again, it will be your heart that flavors the pot”. They must have had pride, and not shame in their butchering.
So now Dustin has returned to the dust. He had run, escaped in the night. Facing the harsh desert, hunger and thirst, and certain death. His death. The death of his choosing, free to waste away, die of hunger, thirst and exposure. He was naked, the skins of his kin left behind. Everything was left behind. East. Towards the rising sun. The nearest edible vegetation is nearly a month’s walk away. Or so he had hoped. He only knew the fires stopped there. Stopped by rain, actual rain. It’s mists, now they seem like myths. Tales of showers now began with, once upon a time.
He hadn’t recited the names of the states since his last day of school, the day the smoke overcame them forcing an evacuation as the fires breached the mountains and raced towards his valley home. He was just trying to remember their names, Nebraska or Kansas, he had to make it that far at least in order to survive. Just like when he was five. Alone, in the emptiness. Back then, the gruff and grizzled man with the gun in his hand seemed like his savior. Now he knew better. He would never trust a man with a gun ever again.
The desert was dry, too dry for even cacti. The last rain he had seen was when he was just ten. That was thirteen years ago, give or take. The farm was built over a mine. The mine shaft was abandoned when a shaft breached a deep underground stream. The flooded mine is one of the last remaining sources of water in the Sierra Nevada’s. Dusty had liberated all the water and potatoes he could carry before he left. Given the bulk and the weight, he could carry only enough for a few days. It would not be enough. He was sure he would die. Die or not die, he had to try. Eastward he trod through the land of ash and death. Towards the light towards the light of the rising sun, the promise of a new day, a new life.
With each rising sun, he set his focus on the horizon. That was his goal. One horizon to the next horizon, day after day till the desert gave way to greenery. This particular sunrise, and this particular horizon revealed a bleak lifeless landscape edged by towering forbidding peaks. Today would be a hard day’s walk. Dusty had hoped one potato a day would sustain him, and sure, on flatlands he was hungry, but managed. To climb the ridges ahead would require more strength and energy then he had in days.
He missed flavor. “Chocolate, ice cream, strawberries, bananas, PBJ, apples, oranges, pizza pizza pizza” he recited the names of all the foods he could remember from childhood. Somehow this helped him enjoy the raw unpeeled, unwashed potato. The air ahead shifted and swirled, heatwaves, dust devils, and the choking dust. He had been walking for days. It could have been a week or longer, he lost track. He had only 10 potatoes left, but more pressing was his water supply. On a good day he could make it last a day or two, given the scene ahead, he would run dry by the foothills.
He had been aiming for a low pass between the highest towering peaks, until the light glimmered through the sifting sands. Were those what he thought? Snow covered peaks! He may have attended school in Southern California, never seeing snow that he remembered. He may also have only a second grade education, but one thing he was certain of was, snow is water, snow is cold.
He took three more large mouthfuls of potato, packing away the rest for the trip, and headed out into the heat at a pace unmatched for over a week. He even skipped a little singing “water water everywhere and not a drop to drink”. Although Dustin was intelligent, he had the mind of a child. Partially from no opportunity for development, and partially a defense mechanism to cope with the horrors he had seen.
Even as he skipped nearly gleefully towards the far off peaks, in the back of his mind like a movie, the images of horror were projected onto his consciousness. The worst were the holidays. Tender days. Not tenderness of spirit, but tenderness of meat. Christmas, and thanksgiving, and a day they called Independence Day. Each one held its own horror. I remember Christmas was about a baby, named Jesus, who gave his body to be eaten. What better way to celebrate, but to take the newborns from their mothers teats? Take the teats themselves? That is precisely what they did. Then there was thanksgiving, the plumpest of the toddlers would be deep fried, carved and served with mashed potatoes. Independence Day, that was by far the worse. When the image escaped the hindbrain to the forebrain Dustin puked. On Independence Day they celebrated the independence of the fetus from the womb. There was no mercy on this day. No quick death by the slaughterer’s blade. The pregnant woman would be tied to the tables, sliced from genitalia to ribcage, and the fetus, and innards scooped out by the handful while they screamed themselves to death.
It was a hard trek and the heat was oppressive. The gleeful skipping quickly became a slow shuffling of feet, dragging through the dust, the sun, and blazing temperatures tapped the last of his energy reserves. What was worse, was the water reserves had dwindled to just a few sips, with many miles still to go. He was no longer sweating. This was not due to cooling, but dehydration. Heat exhaustion. Death was a possibility. He thought of his father, for the first time he could remember. When he was four, dad had taken him and his family hiking in the Grand Canyon. When Dustin complained about being thirsty, dad told him to suck on a pebble until they reached the canyon floor, where water was available. It was funny he remembered that, but not his fathers face, or whether he had siblings or not. For that matter, his own real name.
Dustin selected a small roundish pebble and stuck it between gum and cheek, the taste of dust and ash did little to relieve his thirst. That’s when he heard it. A terrifying noise. Rapid fire thunder of a fully automatic rifle, flinging lead in his general direction. He was far out of range, in fact, although he saw the flashes through the mirages he could not see who was firing. Being alone, he was the only possible target. He picked up the pace, but thought his brain sent all the signals screaming run run run, his legs refused to comply. Locomotion became a matter of shuffling and stumbling, and shifting his center of gravity forward just enough, to make quicker steps necessary to prevent falling. He fell, horizontally towards the horizon, repeatedly refusing to let gravity drive his race into the ground.. Every so often reinvigorated by the sounds of gunfire.
It was the farm, it had to be. Although dusty held little value, as evidenced by the fact they seemed to only send one, nobody had dared escape before. This could not go unpunished. These people ate infants in celebration, what possible horror awaits those who are punished? Between heat, dehydration, hunger and fear, he began hallucinating, or perhaps having a vision. He saw the chamo clad psycho chasing him, while simultaneously taking a bite out of Dustin’s still beating heart, and blood running down his full blood stained beard. That was when he became convinced he knew who was firing at him. Dustin called him Bloodbeard. Last Independence Day, he had dipped his hands into the open womb, scooping out handfuls of blood mixed with placenta, and smeared it through his long thick beard. An action so shocking, even the rest of the farmers seemed frightened by him.
Dizzy from heat, dehydration, exhaustion and hunger, that image was enough to turn the forward fall into an all out run. Mere miles remained, and the sun was getting lower, as the late afternoon sun stirred up not one, but a dozen dust devils behind him. Visibility became low, he no longer saw the flash, although every so often came a pop pop pop from a great distance. While the prey took flight, the predator’s progress was hampered. Dustin was getting away slowly.
Night had come. There was little relief from the heat, but at least without the unrelenting sun he could ignore his thirst. He was now sucking on his third pebble, though a drop of moisture remained within the otherwise empty bottle. One drop left to stave off death. If he could sweat he would lick off the sweat to wet his dry and cracking tongue, which clung to the roof of his mouth, as if the cells had begun to merge. With a loud click he separated his tongue from the pallet, licking the air for any signs of moisture, then maneuvering the pebble beneath his near useless tongue, no longer producing saliva.
He had reached the ridge, and begun the climb. It was neither steep, nor treacherous, but given his weakened state, a struggle nonetheless. He had not heard a sound nor a shot in hours, but he did see a light through the dust down below. He had the water, he had the food, he had the luxury to stop, camp, and rest. Luxury was for the fat and the weak, desperation was the fuel of the starving and the fearful. Starvation drove him on. Thirst drove him on. Fear of death’s grip around his burning throat drove him on. The cover of darkness and chance for escape drove him on. The will to live would not let him rest.
Slowly forward progress transitioned into upwards progress. The hot wind at his back followed him up and cooled as it climbed. The heat had sucked enough moisture out of the extremely parched land to form a cap cloud just as the air thinned and cooled. Reaching out he touched it gingerly. He had never seen anything like it and so close. It clung to the rocks flowing upwards.. as he crawled into it, his skin tingled and cooled. He sipped in the air, as if drinking it. It did little to help, but give him hope and rejuvenation. Slowly above and ahead the sky began to lighten. The moon was rising behind the peak, revealing its freighting silhouette. But also the silver lining of salvation. The glint and sparkle of ice and snow.
That was when he heard it. The faintest trickle. Though this snow cap had survived the warming, it too was melting and disappearing. Somewhere out there in the darkness, water was trickling. So faint it could barely be droplets. If he could hear droplets above the wind, it had to be close. Dustin, no stranger to being dusty, began crawling face down through the dark towards the sound. Probing through the pebbles, rocks and dust his fingers touched something new, and recoiled involuntarily, like you would touching anything unknown in the dark. Reassured it wasn’t anything dangerous, he reached out again. Was it? Could it be? Grass and weeds? For a moment he forgot his predicament, and just caressed the stems and leaves, running them between his fingers, exploring the new texture sensation. This was not dust, this was life. He could even smell it. From growing potatoes he knew one thing for certain, life, plant life, or otherwise requires water. Water was near. As an added bonus, crawling through grass and weeds sure felt nicer then crawling through rocks and dust.
Just a few feet further he felt soil, moist soil. Not dust or dry, crackling hardened clay. Hardened clay softened with water, and fertilized with feces and the leftovers of the dead, and eaten, was the source of soil nutrition back on the farm. He had eaten two more of the potatoes in his rush to get away. Now he felt guilt for all the dead who fed the soil that fed him. Even that was too close to what they do to contemplate. Gagging he pulled himself forward till he felt mud. In desperation he tried sucking moisture from earth and puked. Groaning he dragged his naked, cold, scabbed and burned body through his own vomit, desperate, dying within reach of life.
Life touched him, fell from above him, lurching forward he had banged his head nearly blacking out. An ice cold drop on the back of his head shocked him back to life. It was the coldest thing he had ever felt sending shockwaves through his nervous system. It took monumental effort to roll himself over and lie face up staring at the moon above the peak, moss grew above him, and through it water drip drip dripped into his tortured, but grateful lips.
He was saved. Though the trickle would take an hour to hydrate him enough to sit upright. Till then he stared at the rising moon, and the glistening snow. For the first time he could remember he was getting cold. The water dripping on his cheek, and running behind his neck was as cold as the ice it melted from, not too much higher above. On the farm they had only the skins of their kin to block the blazing heat, consequently he was hardened and toughened by exposure, and a lifetime barefooted, but was soon facing a new foe, one just as deadly. Cold. The desire to sleep and expire. Only willpower got him to sit up, shake, and hug himself against the wind, no longer warm. He was chilled to the bone, without movement, bone lacking life would become his final fate.
He was already struggling to breathe, struggling to keep warm, struggling to move. He caught what little water he could in the bottle, while rubbing his skin and shivering, and decided against climbing higher, opting to traverse the terrain to the left towards where he spotted the pass the day before. Dustin might not know a lot, but he knew water flowed down. He also knew more than that trickle would be flowing off that much receding ice. He had found some, he would find more, just follow the light, and now that he found weeds, follow the life.
He could stand, he could stumble, and thanks to the moon, he could see. He could press on. He was not the only one. Far below, far behind, the moonrise stirred the monster, awakened with rapid fire cacophony, faint though it was, it echoed. Wave after wave traveling past him. He heard more than he saw the contours of the valley, by the way the soundwaves bent and bounced ridge by ridge. He was still coming, but was much farther behind.
Something about letting a mountain nurse you back to life, revives a primal knowledge of the true survivalists. The ancestors of the ancestors of the ancestors, before those who created all that destroyed all. Pre civilized man. Forager of the forest, even if a forest of weeds. He picked at and nibbled on stem, seed, leaf and petal, some he spit out, others he ate a few nibbles. It all, well, most, tasted so much better than potatoes. The rest he spit out, though the tastes still lingered bitter on the tongue. He barely remembered such varieties of tastes existed. Again he chanted “Chocolate, ice cream, strawberries, bananas, PBJ, apples, oranges, pizza pizza pizza” this time more gleefully. It wasn’t the same, but it was flavorful!
Another hour’s walk with nutrition every few steps he heard the sound he had hoped to hear. Out here, any sound that was not wind or gunfire could only be water. A stream, or babbling brook. Yes, brook, he could hear the babbling, the tumbling and eddying over rocks and around obstructions. It sang to him. Distant harmony with the every present wind. “Na-ture” he said the word haltingly, a word not said, nor heard since childhood. A word forgotten. A word that didn’t matter in the bleak slaughterhouse recently escaped. “Nature” he said again. With tears he remembered their faces, their places, the many natural wonders they traveled from birth, till settling down in los Angeles, just so he could attend school. It was the dark days of climate change. The world was already too far gone. Still, they hope with education, he could help solve the problems, eternally the optimists. Momma, poppa, Jessica, and johnathan, his elder twin siblings. He remembered his name as well. Joshua, born in a tent in Joshua Tree national park. Before school, he lived in nature, with nature. Traveling wilderness to wilderness by bike, boat, or train. Hiking the railways, picking fruit in the summer. It all came back to him. The education before the education cut short. He laughed. How could he forget? From age two, he knew what mushrooms tasted yummy which made you dead. He knew which ones were just for mommies head. He knew the life of the nomadic forager, living off the land, with the land. Harmonious with nature. No more nibbling aimlessly. Let the harvest begin.
Joshua was still very dusty and dirty, but Dustin had died when he hit his head upon the rock. Joshua was awakening with the very first quenching drop. Soon Joshua would be clean. Water laid ahead. Food lay at his feet, filled his arms, and his belly. He burped, surprising himself. It was the most he had ever eaten. And he was just now spotting what appeared to be a forest, the valley, it was alive! Whether rain, or stream, this land was touched by more water than he had seen in a decade.
Still cold, he dared head away from the life giving snow searching for the source of the babbling. The babbling brook would save him like it saved the valley below. It grew louder and louder with every step, the sun was lightening the sky ahead as the moon shone red through the dust behind. Blood red through the dust, he saw it as the blood he was leaving behind. Just ahead, beyond a beautiful, untouched blueberry bush was the stream, it’s waters much wider, deeper, and flowing swifter than he imagined. He carefully balanced on the muddy bank, and filled his bottle full. He drank as much as he thought he could drink, then passed out in the grass with the warming sun breaking at the valley’s end. It looked like paradise. It looked like home. He felt at peace.
The peace was first enhanced, and then shattered within an instant of awakening. His eyes opened to spot the most magnificent beast. Elk, that’s what he remembered, although years in the woods rarely seen, even before the great fires. Animals still exist? He was in disbelief, thinking he was dreaming, or still dying. It was twenty or thirty feet downstream, reaching its majestic neck for a sip from the stream, when it’s head with massive antlers sprung up to stare Joshua in the eye. Neither were startled, or scared, just curious. He heard it before I did, I experienced the twig snap to my back differently, I experienced it through the twitching ears, the tightening sinews, the weight shifting hoof to hoof ready to bolt. We spotted him together, he spotted us. Bloodbeard. It was clear he was seeking water too. He was even more surprised to see us than we were him. He nearly dropped his gun trying to swing it to the ready,
His barrel swung from Joshua to elk and back, a visible battle of ideas going on in his mind’s eye. For all he knew he faced the last animal on earth, and one of the most magnificent ever boasted about , or the escapee he was sent to recover. The ego of the brute made the decision and took his 1st shot, and most likely only shot knowing the other might escape. The elk went down. Down the bank, and into the raging waters, unable to swim Joshua dove right in after. Bloodbeard in a rage emptied his clip into the churning water, the churning tossing Joshua like a Ragdoll missing every last bullet. Tumbling and spinning at the will of the water even at close range with rapid fire, his body tumbled erratically to predict. Who knew nearly drowning could save a life.
After the gunfire ended Bloodbeard kept screaming. Chasing after him as he sped away. Joshua thrashed hugging his water bottle and sack of potatoes, the only buoyancy he could latch onto, till colliding with a thud with the elk himself, still kicking and struggling to survive. He threw his arm over the massive animal’s haunches and the other under his neck to support his head as his bulk supported him. This comforted the beast that eased his struggle and concentrated on gasping for breath. Blood gushed from a wound in his chest. Though they rushed downstream at the will of the current, their eyes locked on each other’s in a trust for survival. Just before locking eyes with the beautiful creature, was the last time he would see Bloodbeard. And worse yet, see what was swung behind his back. It was a leg. When you spend your life naked, you know everyone by every body part. It was her leg. The one he wished he didn’t leave behind. Bloodbeard could not have known the guilt that would cause Joshua as he washed away downstream.
The current slowed, the turmoil tuning to a smooth flow as it widened into a pool before turning towards the sun and valley floor. It was this turn that caught us. Saving Joshua and showing his new friend mercy. Trees towered at the pool’s edge, roots reaching out from the bank. It was those roots that caught his antlers. Locking them to the bank. Locking his head under water to gasp his last breath. Joshua never looked away. He stared death in the eyes and shed tears for the life of the most beautiful being he ever knew, even if for only moments. He hugged him and he balled. He broke down in soul shattering grief. Feeling the death of what he believed to be the last animal on earth.
The air around him erupted with laughter. Their arrival had caused a silence, but now the valley came to life. The squirrels, frogs, birds, began giggling, cackling and boisterously belly laughing. Who knew birds would have survived? Even when he was a child most were nearly extinct. Here they sang. Here was home, here was freedom. Here was life abundant. He slung his bag of potatoes upon the bank. And the now pointless bottle of water. And climbed out upon the bank.
Opening the bag of potatoes he held each tenderly, crying, shedding a tear for each life lost who’s nutrients traveled from decay to germination. These potatoes contained their atoms, carbon. The building blocks of lives lost are transferred into life’s beginnings. They could not be eaten. They had to be given a home, an escape, a new life in the last paradise left, as far as he could know. Joshua planted the potatoes by the riverbank. Close to where the elk decayed in the pool, food for the fishes. “Nine and a quarter potatoes, now that’s a farm” he said out loud. And headed off to the forest to forage for seeds to plant alongside.