Echo of the Desert in the Sky by Erin Darrow

Rolling dunes of coral sand stretch on and on, tumbling and swelling in ceaseless cadence. With her face pressed into their surface, coarse sand grains bite into the softness of Sora’s cheeks and palms, scratching her skin raw. Her cowl has fallen aside, leaving half her face exposed to the sun’s harsh, blistering rays. The pain of the scorched blush will come later, sapping her strength if she survives long enough.

Something tickles her chest, an electric prickle upon her faltering heartbeat. She instinctively reaches beneath her robes to swat it away before she thinks better, that maybe a scorpion’s sting or a tarantula’s venom would bring swift relief, saving her from this prolonged suffering. Instead, her fingertips brush a feather, scarlet as the sun in a smoke-hazed sky.

One delicate touch and she remembers: the canyons, the climb, the mountain, home. And the reason she must survive—

Her daughter.

Small footprints trailed away from the oasis, past the first towering rock pillar, and into the shadowed canyons where rose-gold sandstone warred with crumbling white chalk for dominance. Sora followed the tracks into the winding maze, soft coral sand yielding to crunching gravel underfoot. Dust lingered in the close air and the blue ribbon twisting above was barely visible in the depths between rock faces so close they nearly kissed. Between these ancient rock walls, the world she knew could have existed eons ago. Time paused, suspended in still life.

Around the next bend, Sora found the little wanderer crouched on her haunches in a rare sunbeam, posed as still as a statue. Even from behind, Sora could imagine the enchanted look on the little girl’s face. Wonder drew her here, again and again, in search of sunspots only she could find like a flower bud ready to bloom. Sora waited a few breaths, mirroring the girl’s quietude, allowing the serenity to wrap around them, tucking them into its gentle folds.

“Veery,” she broke the silence. The whisper brushed into the girl, who followed the sound with her gaze, honey-speckled brown eyes aglow. Her cowl draped forgotten around her neck and delicate curls framed her face, flushed cheeks round with youth.

Shoulders rounded, Veery’s lips arced down, and she traced her fingers across the rock, wistfully seeking the lizard’s scuttling trail and finding only absence. “He’s gone now, Mama! He doesn’t like it when we move, you have to stay still as stone or they run away and hide!”

Sora knelt beside her daughter, raised the cowl over her head, and tucked a curl behind her ear. “I know, dearest, but the afternoon is late and the sun is harsh, even here, and you are a human, not a lizard.” Heat radiated from Veery. Her forehead blazed like sunbaked rock as Sora kissed her brow. “It’s time to go home.”

With one last glance at the bare rocks, the girl unfolded herself, took her mother’s hand, and followed along through the winding canyon. “I wish I was a lizard,” Veery declared fervently, her eyes winking like the tiny jade scales dotting her favorite critter’s spine. “Then I could stay in the sun all day and regrow a broken tail like magic!”

“You know magic doesn’t work like that. It’s only an illusion, it’s not real,” Sora reasoned. Magic could not fix broken things, a regrettable truth; it wove only lies and tricks, never truly touching reality.

“But the sunbird who lives on the mountaintop”— Veery insisted —“one feather could sprout a forest! Have you ever seen a forest, Mama? Who knows what else it could do!”

Despite the afternoon heat, a shiver prickled Sora’s skin and clenched its cold fist around her heart. Who knew what else it could do? Sora knew what her daughter wanted more than to be a lizard, or to watch them scurry and scuttle over rocks all afternoon, more than anything else—to be with her first family again.

But it would never be.

The small child had arrived at the oasis alone, claiming the unbelievable. She had followed snakes across the desert from wherever her home had been. She never said what happened. She did not have to say they had come, what they had done. She did not have to say her family was dead, her home destroyed. Sora knew; they came for everyone eventually. She had wrapped the small, frail child in her arms, nursed her to health with cactus water, passionflower essence, and patience, opening home and heart to her.

“That’s just a story, Veery, nothing more.”

A seed of false hope would only sow disappointment and despair. Everyone knew the story of the sunbird and the feather that could rejuvenate a land. Many had perished trying to climb the mountain to attain the untouchable myth and the magical feather.

Before her daughter could argue in a storm of indignation and stubborn will, a dust cloud swelled across the horizon, darkening the sky, and billowing toward the palm trees fringing their oasis home.

Sora stiffened at the sight, knowing what came next. They were coming and they would leave none alive.

Grasping Veery tight and shielding her face with her robe, Sora gathered the sweltering heat around the two of them and bent the light a fraction. Enough to make the pair appear as a knotted, withered tree on the edge of sand-flats and serpentine canyons. Unworthy of anyone’s notice, safe from harm.

The effort tipped the balance of her power and cracked the illusion she had crafted to shield her oasis home. Sora’s carefully painted mirage—of an impenetrable sandstone cliff, imposing as a vast canyon, red as the first pulse of blood in the dawn sky—splintered. One fragmentary moment, one tiny flicker, one reaction to save her daughter’s life exposed and doomed their home.

They saw the oasis. And they came, with masks shrouding their faces and shielding their lungs from the poison they expelled. They killed all, leaving no trace behind but the bodies. As the last breath escaped the last pair of desperate lungs, they cast their nets over the land and absorbed each water droplet in filigree to take away and spend as they pleased.

Sora watched every death until she collapsed to the ground, her heart fractured shale, blackened dust and decay. Veery clung to her, trembling, head buried in her chest, broken whimpers muffled by her mother’s robes.

Palm fronds dangled over the eaves of their huts, waving like a friend greeting her home, and yet, home was no longer. Friends would never wave again. Home was uninhabitable. Uninhabited. Every person who was a thread in a weave knit tight as one, was gone, sucked as dry and dead as the vanished water stolen in the massacre.

It was the way of things… and it was Sora’s fault.

Sprawled on the dunes, dehydration cracks her lips and grit crunches between her teeth. She is a shed snakeskin, life hollowed out, a paper-thin version of herself. Unlike a snake’s crisp husk, her pulse flows from heart to limbs and back again.

For now.

If she does not move, she will wither and weather into a million grains of ivory sand, consumed by the dunes. A death only the desert can bring.

Move, she commands herself.

Her fingers tremble, calloused and raw, digging into the yielding surface of the dune, and she slowly crawls to her knees. Coral sand and blue sky bleed together around her in a dizzying pastel swirl. She forces herself to stand, raises her cowl over her head, and slides down the slope.

Climbing the next incline, two steps forward bring her one step back. Clutching the feather dangling from a cord around her neck, she wades onward. A pair of honey-speckled brown eyes sparkle and blink in her memory. They draw her onward, sentinel stars leading her home.

As long as she breathes, she will not surrender. On and on, she trudges, weaving up and down, across the imposing dunes and rippling sand that battles her every step of the way. Sora fights back with everything she has left. For herself, for her daughter, and for whatever scrap of redemption she can find.

At last, the scrubland opens before her, mercifully flat except the stippling of spindly cactus and pale green splotches of woody sagebrush dotting the landscape. In the unblemished cerulean sky above, dark shadows circle on rigid wings. Vultures. They signal death long before she smells the rancid decay. Sora narrows her eyes, searching for signs of life, of them, of any hidden threat to hide from.

On approach, there are no living souls here to challenge or harm her, only corpses. They litter the ground at her feet, their pale linen robes whipping in the wind, flagging surrender. Their eyes are vacant or lidded to the scene, blind to the scavengers who will devour them. One vulture already buries his beak in flesh.

It is the inevitable cycle, the way of things, so she does not disturb the bird, but merely looks away.

In death, there is rebirth, and these dead give her salvation.

Sora’s robes flap like wind-billowed wings as she descends on the dead. Her stomach burns and roils up her throat, trying to empty itself but there is nothing left to lose. As she searches the bodies, she shrouds their faces with colorless cloth. There is not enough time for proper rites and nothing she does now will change their fate. But perhaps she can still change other fates.

She pries a canteen from stiff fingers and swallows the dredges, hot and unsatisfying on her parched lips, but better than nothing. Besides a few delicate dandelions and purple-edged goosefoot sprigs, there is little to eat. Hairy, scaly leaves lodge in her teeth and throat. Gnawing them makes her stomach ache deepen, eager to fill the growling hollow.

Just beyond the last body, she follows a shallow, dry gulch with feeble steps. A stark rift through crinkled, yellowed rushes and weeds marks where water once foamed and flowed. Beyond the vegetation, mud-cracks crease the ground in a wide circle, ringed by a white band crusting the basin’s edge.

Yet another graveyard.

She has seen it before; this devastation mirrors her own home. Sora pays it little heed as she crosses the desiccated pool, the hem of her robe collecting a band of fine dust kicked up by her feet.

She does not dare imagine the relief cool water would give her blistered toes, burnt face, or sandpapered throat. There is no use imagining lost things that cannot be. She could dig in the ground and tear at the roots for the last beads of sweet moisture, but there will be none. Every drop is gone, siphoned and stolen, even from the clustered prickly-pear cacti, shriveled thorns probing against an enemy they cannot fight. Few can, even those who gave their lives trying to protect this place from rampant destruction and from the greed of those who take all and give nothing as they turn a blind eye to the consequences in ignorance or denial.

Reality is harder to swallow than her dry, swelling tongue or a cactus spine piercing her throat. She crawls beneath the shelter of a sprawling sagebrush to rest where cool shade and the woody plant’s bittersweet aroma embrace her.

The scent wakes memories of a time long gone when this land was still beautiful: a living, breathing thing, from stems to stars. Before it was sapped of all that made it whole.

Spring grasslands sprouted green and growing into variegated bouquets of cloud-white lily, lilac larkspur, sunshine buttercup, and molten prairie fire dancing in the breeze. Deer and pronghorn waded through waves of flower-studded grass screening their fawns from sight, providing shelter and sustenance. Sheep careened over impossible bluffs and rocky cliffs, defying gravity. Sage sparrows heralded changing seasons, erupting in a trilling choir from spring shrub-tops and flocking together for the frosted fall.

The memories are so real, she can almost hear the gathered male grouse hooting and popping on ancestral leks, their air sacs round and yellow as the rising sun reflected in the hens’ discerning eyes. It was a raucous symphony of life, of love, of the land itself.

Now, there are no seasons.

There is only blazing sun-drenched heat and bitter cold nights.

Flowers wilt if they dare to bloom.

Now, all is silent.

The sparrows took their songs on migration never to return.

The last grouse hooted and popped and died long ago.

Lingering without life, the desert corroded into wasteland, stretching ever outward, turning the magnificent, vibrant canvas into a bleached palette, starched and starved.

But life sustains in pockets where people care and cater to the land, tending her with reverence and respect. She rewards them with oases like Sora’s home and the graveyard before they were destroyed.

Lying beneath the sagebrush, Sora feels the desolation in her slow pulse and weak limbs, and deeper, an insatiable hunger. As she closes her eyes to rest, her fingers graze the scarlet feather. An impossible last chance to make amends, gifted from sunbird to earth-dweller at the mountaintop, earned through her journey’s trials, her persistence, her paltry hope born from a child’s belief in a story.

Before sleeping, the last sight she sees is the landscape awash with gold in the dying light, the same shade as the flecks in her daughter’s eyes, and the heavens steepled coral and rose, an echo of the desert in the sky.

Starving and thirsty beyond measure, upon waking, she thinks she is hallucinating. Sora knows mirages, how to weave illusions, bending water and heat and spinning light into showing something Else. Something that is not there. On the cusp of consciousness, she peels open her eyes, peers through dark edges and blurry patterns, and focuses on the strangest thing of all.

In this desolate barren land, a flock of birds dance and twirl in the branches above her, on the ground beside her. Their tiny feet barely leave impressions in the sand. Feathers tickle her cheek, her hair, her outstretched hand. Their trilling chatter roots her in reality; mirage-magic cannot sew song, only sights. She remains still so they do not spook and squints at the nearest one.

A black-and-white mustache lines his beak so orange it is almost red and a rufous patch bronzes his cheeks. These itinerant finches meander in search of food, rarely staying in one place for long. Inexplicably, they are here now. What is edible in this harrowed place?

Their fluttering feathers uproot something in her heart. Hope. A thin, bare wisp that lifts her up on invisible wings. Not into the sky but back into the world and onto her feet.

The finches soar as one, a fluid flight, feathers in unison, before diving down and swooping above her head. Again and again, they repeat the dance, herding her until she follows, mesmerized.

They arc gracefully overhead while she stumbles and slides over boulders on clumsy, weary feet. They lead her to a shaded ravine and suddenly hush. Too busy feeding to chatter, they pluck ripe blue juniper berries from the branches.

Sora collapses on the roots carving cracks into the sandstone and presses her forehead and palms against the ridged tree bark. Once her hands stop shaking, she crawls forward, following roots over rock like a path guiding her home.

Where the roots disappear underground, blades of grass pierce the sand and tickle her fingers. She digs and digs into the soft grains, and at last, a trickle of dark liquid seeps up. Digging desperately, a drop becomes a puddle. Dipping down to the water like a bird or a beast, she laps at the liquid, moistening her tongue and easing a fraction of her thirst.

After filling herself with spicy juniper berries and groundwater, she leans her chest against the tree, closes her eyes and whispers, “Thank you.” Her raw lips catch on the splintered bark and she welcomes the pain. Where there is pain, there is life. There is still a chance.

Throwing her head back, whorled leaves in a green veil slice the sky above her, and she repeats her thanks to the flock, uttered like a sacred prayer sent to the heavens and the sunbird on high.

The sky is awash with dusty desert rose and buttercup yellow as she takes the final steps of her journey. She returns home with blistered feet and a burnt face, the skin sloughing off. A tent flaps lazily in the wind where the pool once glimmered and whispered secrets to her in its ripples.

Crowned by the finch flock circling overhead, Sora crosses the dusty mud-cracked basin. When she slips beneath the canvas, all she sees are her daughter’s honey-speckled brown eyes staring at her in wonder, in joy, in pure love. Her heart bursts and breaks, fierce and full, as she clutches Veery, holding on like she will never let go.

She buries her nose in Veery’s curls, inhaling her scent, kissing her cheeks and memorizing her heart’s rhythm. Veery squirms under the attention but freezes when she sees the scarlet feather around her mother’s neck.

“You did it!” Glory and admiration resound. “I knew you could. We’re going to grow a forest!”

“Yes.” Her breath catches around the word, all she wants and all she isn’t ready to give.

A graying woman stirs beside them and her keen eyes, creased at the corners, detect what Veery does not. A silent question passes from Sora to her own mother, and the woman bows her head in understanding, hiding her moistened eyes from the child.

“Thank you for crossing the dunes to look after Veery,” Sora whispers. “I know it wasn’t easy.”

Her mother gently brushes Sora’s unburnt cheek. “I would have climbed the mountain for you if I could. I wish I had been here to stop them.” Her words are sheer will and devotion. They permeate Sora like lightning static, enlivening and tenacious, laced with pain.

Unable to trust her voice not to break and split apart at the seams, Sora closes her eyes and leans into her mother’s comfort for one breath to gather her courage. One breath is not enough, but she cradles Veery in her arms and murmurs, “Come.”

Darkness eclipses the sunset sky. At the center of the dry basin, the lost heart of the oasis, all three kneel. Untying the cord from her neck, Sora holds the scarlet feather aloft. Wrinkled hands produce a spark that bursts to flame and ignites the feather. Flaring red, Sora clutches it until the tongues of heat lick her fingertips and she relinquishes her hold.

The fiery feather floats up into midnight, flickering faint amber until it blinks out of sight.

Three generations link hands, staring after it, hope sent on high.

In response, a pinprick of light flares far beyond. It shimmers across the silver-speckled heavens and burns a fiery scarlet streak like a shooting star blazing bright as the sun. A keening screech reverberates in their bones.

The sunbird’s flight.

In its wake, ashes flutter toward the earth like raindrops. The fire-dust mottles the pastel earth, blanketing the coral sand, and the night-black sky seems to deepen above the bleached land.

The sunbird’s ashes are not the smoky debris of a far-flung forest set aflame come to choke creatures and plants, casting the land in an eerie, sickly hue, dousing it in permanent twilight at midday. It is not the putrid, heavy smog that clings to deep valleys and stubbornly refuses to surrender, even to the most persistent rain. It is not the sharp, sudden storm of the earth’s inner body belching and spewing a destructive tide of lava, the outburst of a normally quiet thing.

It is replenishing ash fall that will nourish brittle earth and nurture new growth, one of life and light and hope. Suffused with the sunbird’s magic, this land will grow green, wild, and bountiful once more.

A soft, misty rainfall follows. Droplets gather on Sora’s eyelashes like glistening dew on leaves and mingle with her tears, dampening and soothing her sun-scorched face.

“Why are you crying?” Veery touches her mother’s salt-streaked cheeks.

“I did not save this place for myself. I did it for you and all those who come after you.” She presses their foreheads together as a splinter pierces her heart and tears fall, unrestrained. “Listen to your grandmother, learn the mirage magic. Tend the land and keep this place safe as I tried to do. And remember, Veery, I love you more than anything.”

She’d traded a village for her daughter’s life, crossed the desert and climbed the mountain, met the sunbird, and nearly died for Veery and her future. She would give everything, and more, for the child she holds tight in her arms, and there is a price to pay. She must let go.

A wondrous lightness overcomes her as though she is a feather drifting away on a breeze.

And she is, or will be soon…

Radiant, born of solar flares, the sunbird has a single fireflight before they burn out. A new sunbird must fly where the mountain meets the sky. It is the way of things.

A ripple runs across her shoulders and twinges down her spine like a thousand beaks pecking her skin. Sora flinches and stretches her arms out to ease the pain. A fresh breeze flutters her robes and the fringes of pale linen blush like the sunrise sky deepening to crimson. She collapses upon the dusty earth and rises anew, flame-feathered and light-limbed.

At dawn, a new sunbird takes her fledgling flight on wings of coral-stippled scarlet, an echo of the desert in the sky.

Erin Darrow (she/her/hers) is migratory by nature and currently lives in the Pacific Northwest. Much of her writing is inspired by the natural world where she enjoys hiking, photography, watching birds, and finding peace. She aspires to live in a cozy tree cavity someday, but if she can’t become a small bird, any house in the woods will do just fine, too. You can find her online at her website.