Chapter 10 - The Empty Quarter
There was no wind, the dust stirred up by their feet soon covered their hands and faces, and when Tom clenched his jaw, he discovered from the crunching sound it made that sand had also got into his mouth and coated his teeth. “Yuck,” he said, and spat. “Now I know what it really means when they say, He gritted his teeth.”
“Cuvva yow mouf,” Sally called from behind. Tom glanced over his shoulder and saw that Sally had torn a strip of cloth from her shirt-tail and tied it over her nose and mouth to keep the sand out. “Good idea,” he muttered, and stopped to make a mask for himself. Sally trudged past and he fell in behind; they were taking turns to lead the way, although in truth there was no ‘way’, just the limitless desert, white sand under a merciless white sky.
The face-mask helped a bit, but no matter how tight the seam or seal, the sand somehow found a way in: when Tom took a sip of water from his pouch, it tasted powdery, and even their compass soon stopped working, its needle clogged by a few tiny particles of dust. From time to time a dot appeared on the horizon and they headed towards it, for want of any better idea about which direction to go. The first dot turned out to be a stunted cactus with vicious-looking spikes and crimson flowers that looked like drops of blood. “You see,” Sally joked, “it’s not true that nothing can live in the Empty Quarter.” But the next dot was the skeleton of a camel. “Poor thing,” Sally said. “We should bury him at least.”
“Are you serious?” Tom said; but he knew the answer. So for twenty minutes under the blazing sun they used their feet to shovel sand over the white bones of the animal, until Tom said, gently, “We’ve done enough,” and set off again.
They came to a wide, level river of sand and followed it for a while until it disappeared among the dunes again. If a scorpion appeared, they stepped slowly back, turned aside and walked round it. Their only hope of finding Mr Leggs lay in the chance that he, too, would have made similar choices: aimed for that dot, trudged along that sand river. And this in itself was reasonable – the problem lay in the fact that the desert was always changing its appearance; what they saw as a pair of dunes of a similar height making a natural gateway might not have been there at all when Mr Leggs passed this way. “Maybe,” Tom said through his mask, “we’re not going about this the right way. Maybe…”
“Go on,” Sally said. “Do you have an idea?”
“Maybe we should go back and see if the traders come along,” Tom said, suddenly desperate. “We should have brought camels…we could go back and buy one…”
“Which way is back?” Sally asked gently. She turned her head slowly, scanning the horizon. “There’s no way to tell.”
Tom mastered himself. “I know,” he said, wiping the caked sweat and sand from his forehead. “But look. We’re obviously never going to find him. Maybe we could get him to come to us…If we got up somewhere high...he might see us, and make his way toward us…”
“Him or the Wild Man,” Sally muttered. But she shook herself and said firmly: “No, you’re right. It’s a good plan. Let’s head for that dune, it looks taller than the others.” But climbing a dune was not like walking up the Great Hermit’s mountain, which, however steep it got, was at least solid underfoot. Here the ground simply slipped away from you as you tried to push your way up; just as they made it to the top of the dune they had picked out, the whole side gave way and they half-slid, half-ran to the bottom; and when they had clambered back up, it was no longer the tallest dune around but enclosed by a ring of golden rounded peaks. Tom sank to his knees.
“It will be night soon,” Sally said. “We can use the stars to take our bearings…and if we make a fire, maybe he’ll see it in the dark…”
Night fell swiftly. The sand, which was too hot to touch by day, cooled rapidly, and the children had to huddle together next to their tiny fire. They drank their last sips of water and ate their provisions of soft dates, sunflower seeds, and flatbread. The moon shed a mysterious silvery light on the dunes and they lay back, looking at the stars that seemed to wink on and off in the huge purple sky. As the children rested, the jerboa colony in the dunes began to come to life. The jerboa were small brown creatures with long tails and large ears. They only came out at night, to comb through the sand for wind-blown seeds and insects. The children watched them go about their routine.
“I think we’ve got enough to share,” Sally said.
This was optimistic, but Tom, who would have done anything, really, to make his sister happy, said cheerfully, “Sure, we’ve got plenty,” and sprinkled some breadcrumbs and seeds onto the sand for the jerboa to find.
“I wonder if they could learn Marcopolon,” Sally said dreamily.
“Their ears are certainly big enough,” Tom murmured.
Sally giggled. “What’s that got to do with it?”
“If they could,” Tom said, “we could ask them if they’d seen Mr Leggs…or send him a message…”
“But then we’d have to teach him as well,” Sally said.
“True…” They dozed off. The sun came up and they struggled to their feet, stiff-limbed. “We should be traveling by night,” Tom said groggily, “sheltering by day.” “Sheltering where?” “There’s a patch of shade over there,” Tom said, “under those trees.” Sally felt a chill along her spine; it was their first mirage. “There aren’t any trees, Tom,” she said quietly. “Come on. Let’s keep moving.” They trudged from one dune to the next, over or around it. “Do you think he went this way?” Tom said, pointing to the left. “Or this way?” – pointing to the right. Sally pushed wearily to the left and Tom walked beside her. After a few paces he fell behind, but it was a moment before Sally realized and stopped to turn her head. Her heart leaped with joy: Tom was chatting to a pair of traders, laughing and pointing out the way they had come while the men shook their heads in disbelief. One of the traders had dismounted from his camel and was watering it from a shallow wooden dish, the other was resting his chin on his walking stick. “Tom!” Sally cried happily. “Aren’t you going to introduce me to your friends?” But the camel, the traders, and Tom faded away into thin air like drops of water sinking into sand. It was another mirage. Her heart fell. “What friends?” Tom said, still walking next to her, his voice hoarse. Just then he halted.
“Sally,” he whispered, holding out his arm. “Look.”
A tiny green sandfly lay quivering on his wrist. It was almost transparent.
“There’s another,” Tom said, pointing with his chin at Sally’s knee. Sure enough, another sandfly had landed there; and as they raised their eyes they saw more of the tiny creatures floating in the air, dropping to the ground, then sailing away again.
“This is not good news,” Sally said.
“How long do you think we’ve got?” Tom asked.
For the flies could mean only one thing: a sandstorm was coming. Sandflies rode the very furthest edges of the storm, carried on a breeze that was still too faint for the children to feel but already too strong for the tiny insects to resist. “I don’t know,” Sally said. She shaded her eyes and looked away across the burning dunes. Was there a smudge on the horizon, a faint golden haze? She couldn’t tell. “Let’s keep going,” she said.
They came down into a place that was covered with flat black stones, like pebbles that had melted and formed pools and then hardened into rock again. “What could it be?” Sally asked. But they were too hot, tired and thirsty to think, and it occurred to her suddenly that they had come full circle – being lost in the Empty Quarter was more or less the same as being on the Hand of Friendship again, stranded in the doldrums under a blazing sun with nothing to drink and no hope of rescue. “But we got through that,” Sally reasoned, “so who knows, maybe we’ll get through this.” They plodded on. The wind was definitely picking up now. From time to time they heard a deep moan, or a screech like the whistle of a steam-train: it was the music of the desert, made by the wind blowing across the hollow spaces between the dunes, like when you blew across the tops of different bottles to produce different notes. Tom glanced back and immediately his eyes were filled with flying sand; he wiped them carefully with a corner of his sleeve but they burned painfully and they did not look back again. Up ahead, the wind kicked up little whirlpools of sand that danced in the air and were borne away. Walking on the strange, shattered pavement of black stones was even harder than walking on sand; the stones were too small to put your whole foot on, too close together to step between. Sally stooped to pick one up. To her surprise she had to pull it up out of the sand; it was larger than she had thought, about the size of a brick. Probably it was the effect of the wind-blown sand, covering and uncovering the bricks over many months and years, that had polished them so smooth on top.
“We could pile them up,” she said. “Make a windbreak.”
“All right,” said Tom.
So they walked slowly forward, bent at the waist like labourers in a potato field, pulling up bricks and throwing them ahead into a pile. The sand whipped their backs and stung their legs even through their clothes. In a few minutes they had thrown together a wall about ten bricks high and five or six bricks long. They dropped to the ground and huddled together. The wind blew little trickles of sand through the gaps between the bricks, and some sand fell on them from above, but “Better than nothing,” Tom murmured, crouching as low as he could. The dunes boomed and wailed all around them. Sally was digging into her backpack.
“Well?” she said, holding out her recorder.
“Why not,” Tom said through cracked lips, smiling. He took out his drumsticks and gave a short roll. Sally played a long, haunting note on her recorder, to which the desert replied with a deep sob. Slowly Tom began to beat out a rhythm, and as Sally found a simple melody, they added their song to the peculiar, frightening but beautiful music of the dunes. And if anybody else had stumbled upon them at that moment – two children huddled in the lee of a makeshift wall in the middle of a sandstorm in the Empty Quarter, playing on a recorder and a drum while the storm raged around them – it would have made a strange impression indeed...
“What was that?” Tom croaked suddenly.
Sally’s head flicked upright. “Did you hear something?”
“Maybe,” Tom said. “That!”
Clang…clang…There was no mistaking it: a bell. “Like a camel-bell,” Sally whispered.
“Is it him? The Wild Man?” Tom’s eyes blazed. “He’s not laying a hand on us,” he yelled. He staggered to his feet, but the wind was too strong. He had a vision of the dunes like golden lava rippling all around them like the waves of a slow-motion sea, then the wind hurled him to the ground again.
“Tom!” Sally shouted, gripping his arm. “Did you see him?”
“We’ve got to get out of here,” Tom gasped. “We’re being buried alive! The sand will cover us up!” He struggled to his knees.
And over Sally’s shoulder he saw the figure of a lone man looming out of the whirling sand, holding a bell in front of him like a lamp, his face completely shrouded by the hood of his grey desert cloak. “Get off!” Tom shouted. Sally turned and gave a shriek. It was true, all the stories were true: the Wild Man of the Desert was upon them.
Then everything seemed to happen quite quickly. The Wild Man jumped down into the little cavity that had formed behind the wall and yanked a long tube from the pack he was carrying on his back and rolled it out into a wide sheet of some tough material that he staked to the ground. “Fast, get inside!” he said, holding back a flap. And Sally understood that it was a kind of shelter he was making, from a piece of canvas or goatskin, and in a split-second she decided that, Wild Man or not, it was their only chance of surviving the storm. “Come on,” she shouted to Tom. They squirmed through the flap, the man pressing behind them. Swiftly he unfolded a pole and used it to prop up the roof of the shelter, so they were in a kind of simple pup-tent. The howl of the wind was suddenly no more than a rustling noise outside. The man took another pole from his pack, unfolded it, and pushed it right through a hole in the roof. “Breathing tube,” he explained, “in case we get completely buried. Ingenious, don’t you think?” He laughed happily. There was something familiar about his voice…“Got to you just in time, I guess,” he chuckled. “I can’t tell you how glad I am to see you…Water?” He was holding out a flask. Tom took a long and cool and delicious drink and passed it to Sally, though his eyes never left the Wild Man.
“Wait a second,” Tom said. “Is it you? It can’t be!”
The Wild Man chuckled. “I’m not surprised you didn’t recognize me right away,” he said. “I’m a changed man, a new person…And, in a funny way, I have you two to thank.” He accepted the flask from Sally, and threw back his hood to take a drink.
The children gasped.
It was – of course – Mr Leggs…
Next week: Tom and Sally make the acquaintance of Tranquilino, and give him a present of great worth. But what new adventures lie in store after the house turns…?