So Chuck Wendig's Flash Fiction this week was a random title challenge. And thanks to a Random Number Generator, I was challenged with "Whispering Sands". Enjoy!
The Whispering of the Sands
The Sandsooth comes at dawn each day. He sits just as he sits now. Knees pulled up tight to his chest with his arms wrapped around his knees. Bare chested and bare footed. His senses of taste and smell swamped by salt. Deaf ears tuned to the nothingness they have been since his birth. Oblivious to the howling of the wind, the crashing of the waves, the squawking of gulls. Despite his deafness, perhaps because of it, he has been chosen. Blessed. For at the break of each day, he can hear the whispering of the sands. One born a generation they say, and he is the 38th. Lord Sandsooth of Redcliff XXXVIII.
The sands have told him many things. And he has relayed the whispered messages to the city, some 60 miles away, where politicians, royalty, scientists, alchemists and shaman learn from them and, where necessary, crowd into their concrete offices to debate what to do about them. Sometimes they decide on a course of action. Sometimes they are still in debate when the events whispered about come to pass. Sometimes they continue to debate long after the events have passed. None of this concerns the Sandsooth. The city sends gifts as thanks for his messages, rich decadent gifts. The finest wine, liquors and food that the city has to offer, the prettiest city girls to sate his wants and stitch his fishing nets, the most skillfully carved jewels. It’s as if they believe that keeping the sooth happy will bring happier news from the Sands. But the food they send turns rotten in the very bowls they send them in, the sweet liquors stay sealed in their urns. The sea provides for the sooth. Fish for food and salt whisky for drink. He doesn’t even use the girls much any more. They lie prone in his shelter stitching and sleeping and gossipping with each other until he finally dismisses them by turn and they return to the city. His life is dedicated to the Sands. He’s learnt more here as first light bleeds over the watery horizon than most learn in a lifetime. He’s heard of battles lost and won, of magical scarred kings who rule ancient lands, of drowned worlds and deserts the size of planets. But most importantly he’s learnt about Redcliff. The Sands speak both of the future and of the past of the city. They are prophet and they are judge. They have told of great joy and they have told of utter sadness. They’ve congratulated and they’ve warned. What will they speak of today?
The 38th Lord Sandsooth of Redcliff settles. Knees to chest, perched on Cain’s Rock, that icon of the water, jutting jaggedly up a full fourteen feet above the waves, he waits for those first signs of the day.
It nears time…
The Sandsooth’s eyes close as the sun’s first rays strike his back, the fair hair prickling to attention as the warm glow catches them. And as bright light begins to glint off the never-ending sea behind, the whispers begin. A hundred, a thousand voices speak to him at once. He focuses his mind as his Sooth predecessors have done, splitting his mind so he can use the different parts of his brain separately. Focusing each part on a voice each. His mouth opens and closes gently as he takes in the briny air, using the smell and taste of the salt to filter and split the voices apart. It takes the utmost concentration, but the Sandsooth’s face betrays nothing. It is calm and blank. He quickly filters out the babble - the voices which speak of trivialities and irrelevance - and hones in on two voices who speak of more important information. Whispered news of visitors. The first traveller brings violence and change. The second is one who will bring joy for the city and joy for the Sandsooth himself. The whispers only give one name for both… “Elquina”.
The Sandsooth is troubled. His eyes flick open and he climbs gracefully down to the base of the giant rock and splashes his face with the icy saltwater. He turns and stands on the rock’s base for a while, stretching and watching the sun’s glow, waiting for the memories of the whispers to fade. For his ears to fade back to deafness. The Sands have never spoken of his own life before. He has learnt the histories and fates of countless others, but never has one word been whispered of his own life.
“Elquina”. A name he recognises. He’s heard it whispered many times before, always down deep in the static he filters out - the babble. Whispers of a life not yet important. He turns and lowers himself into the water slowly, until he is thigh deep in the briny depths and his feet sink and find purchase in the soft sand of the bank of the seabed. He follows the ridge beneath the water to shore, aware of the strong deep currents that flow either side of him. One step from the sand ridge could cost his life, but the Sandsooth is not concerned by the risk. He has walked the bank every day for many years now and feels it’s slightly shifting weight beneath him as surely as he feels his own legs.
Later that day the Sandsooth sits in his lookout suspended high above his shack on the clifftop. He absently chews at the seaweed he’s hung to dry and watches the soundless gulls circle the sea below, all the time wondering about Elquina. It occurs to him that he has always known her name. Or maybe he’s been thinking about it too much. He returns his attention to the empty waves.
That night, as is his routine, he writes out the relay message of the day’s whispering and seals it on a parchment scroll. He omits the mention of his name. He makes it simple. Matter of fact. At midnight he leaves the girl he’s chosen to try to clear his mind. He opens the door of his shelter to leave the message for collection, only to find that night’s Relayer already waiting. It’s a three day journey back to Redcliff and a team of four share relay duties between them. Too tired for communication, he simply hands across the envelope and closes the door.
He is at Cain’s rock for almost an hour before dawn cracks open the next day. He is still there over an hour after it has broken. The Sandsooth’s brow is furrowed and despite the early morning chill the light reveals his skin is coated in a thick layer of sweat. Something is wrong. This morning the Sands were silent. For nineteen years he’s received the whispers and never has a day brought silence. The Sandsooth returns to his lookout wondering what it can mean.
He has barely reached his post when he spots something on the tide. He runs from the house and rushes down the well worn track on the cliff face. He reaches the shore just as the tide washes in it’s flotsam. She has long black matted hair and a pale white face but her clothes and skin are torn. The water runs red around her body. The Sandsooth checks she’s still breathing and hoists her over his shoulder. They return to his shelter and he tends her salty wounds. Later he places a bowl of fish soup by her bed but she doesn’t wake to eat.
For the next three days and nights the Sandsooth tends to the girl, only leaving her side for Cain’s Rock each dawn. The Sands do not whisper for three mornings, but on the fourth dawn, just as the Sandsooth is losing hope they will ever speak to him again, they come alive in unison. A chorus of whispers uttering a single word. “El-qui-na” they all sigh.
The Sandsooth returns shaken to his shack, bringing fresh iced water and grilled sprats for the girl, but she is gone. He searches the shack and the land around, but finds no sign of her anywhere. It’s only later when he returns to his lookout that he sees her. She is standing on the shore far below him staring out at the sea.
By the time he reaches her, he expects her to have moved, but she stands perfectly still, holding exactly the same position, staring out blankly at the waves. She turns to him and mouthes some words. He points at his ears and shakes his head, trying to explain his deafness, too embarrassed to sound his own clumsy slurred words. But she seems to understand, reaching out with both hands and tenderly stroking both his ears. It feels to the Sandsooth like some kind of magic touch. A shiver runs through him, like when the first light catches his bare back each dawn. He looks into her eyes, as deep as the deepest pool and loses himself for a moment. Before he realises what has happened he has gently kissed her.
They walk back together to his shelter in silence. He bakes some cod, stir fries samphire with sea herbs and pours some salt whisky while she watches. They eat in silence together. It is the first time the Sandsooth has had a guest for dinner in many a year.
At midnight he leaves her to hand over his scroll to the Relayer. Inside, he’s filled the paper with the name, an endless stream of possibility, an infinite sense of identity. ElquinaElquinaElquinaeLquinaeLQuinaElQuinAELquinAeLquiNaElquinaeLQiNAelquinaelQuinaElquinaELQUInA. When he returns she has retired to bed. He does likewise at the other side of the room and falls quickly asleep with the name ringing through his mind.
In the night he wakes from strange dreams, unsure of his surroundings. He feels flesh next to him and turns to find her next to him in his bed. He feels her breath on his ear. And then she whispers and he hears the two words spoken “Thank you”…
The Sandsooth wakes after what feels like minutes but he is shocked to see it is already shortly before dawn. Elquina has left the bed. He steals out of the shelter so as not to wake her and makes his way down the cliff face towards Cain Rock. Something is different. A world full of sound. The sooth’s bare feet crunch on the sand, gulls cry overhead, but above anything the Sooth can hear the sea. An endless, impossible, supranatural swell of a sound. He feels overwhelmed, unable to split the sounds with salt as he can the whispers. He closes his eyes as he tracks down the cliff and gives himself over to the sea’s ebb and flow. A sharp pain stabs his foot and he looks down to see a small jagged stone has cut into his sole. Looking at the wound blankly he removes the stone and continues down to the shore, leaving a slight trail of blood behind him.
When he reaches the water he finds the bank and begins to wade towards Cain’s rock. Strangely, he finds himself unsurprised to see a figure already perched on its top. Nervously, the Sandsooth makes his way along the bank and climbs the rock to find a man crouched there in his spot awaiting the dawn. The stranger’s knees are pulled up to his chest. He is bare chested and bare footed. The man’s face is his own.
It nears time…
As the light begins to flood from behind the horizon, the Sandsooth looks around him. He hears the gulls crying above him, and the waves crashing loudly below on the shore. Out of instinct, he quickly sits by the stranger’s side and waits for the whispers he knows will never come. In the dawn light he holds up the fragment of bloodied glass and catches a glimpse of his own face reflected in it. The hair is matted long and black, the face curiously pale.