The Gate at the Edge of the Desert

By Caroline Bruckner

The sun had barely risen over the horizon. An early morning haze lingered above the Temple roofs. The Higher City looked like a strange growth of mushroom with its mud huts and houses climbing atop each other, crowding in and out of each other as they did, struggling uselessly for a breath of fresh air. Even at this hour the stink of stale urine and spoiled mutton fat lay like a heavy cloth in the narrow streets and dark alleys.

The air down here, far from the Temple walls, was a whiff of paradise. Within the Temple one could hardly breathe at all. The Priests stank pungently of chamber pots and greasy robes; the hallways of moth-eaten tapestries and rat droppings; the Great Hall of Prayers of sweat, decomposing bodies, and sulfur. The stench of sour milk and rancid goat cheese rose from the kitchens; and over it all lay a numbing lid of incense, the smoke thick and impenetrable as dungeon walls.

For two years during his free hours Riksha had been running along the thorny bushes that protected the city, eager to catch a whiff of the world beyond. Morning and night he had risked the heavy, punishing hand of Pater Laah to continue this senseless search. He had torn his sun-bleached cloak and ripped the tender skin of his arms and legs. Wild dogs had bitten at his feet, thieves had caught him, and street children had beaten at him with sticks. At first because they thought he might have a coin or some stale bread, later because they found it amusing. “It’s the crazy orphan,” they would hoot when they saw him. “He thinks he will find a way out.” They’d snort with laughter and shake their heads.

He had crawled along miles of tightly entwined roots looking for a way to pass underneath. He had crept along this dreadful high wall of thorns because he dreamt once that he would find the Gate.

Till this day he had not been able to get even a hand through the bushes. Till this day he had seen nothing more than a blurry, golden flicker of what lay beyond.

A hundred times he wanted to give up on his dream.

Yet here he was now.

Hands at his side, he inhaled the fragrant air. He wanted to laugh out loud and sing a silly song and throw kisses at the sky.

“You crazy orphan,” he whispered in disbelief and covered his face with his hands. He couldn’t say how he found the Gate at last. It was as if he had been poured into the clearing like goat’s milk into an earthen jug. One moment he was walking along the wall, his eyes darting up and down trying to detect a gap, a handle, any sort of something . . . and the next thing he knew, he was standing in the clearing.

The bushes seemed to have been groomed to hold this rather large, circular space. Riksha was standing in the middle of it, scratching one of his many mosquito bites with a dirty, sunburned toe, mouth open in astonishment. In front of him the bushes ended abruptly, and two derelict pillars of sandstone thrust themselves into the sky. The pillars were overgrown with jasmine, and the white blossoms tumbled and climbed over an arch above the Gate.

The Gate itself was narrow, smaller than he had imagined it to be. It was made of beautifully crafted wrought iron, but the metal was old and rusty. Had he found the Gate two years ago, he might have been able to squeeze through the bars sideways. But he was grown now, almost a man with his twelve years. He thought about climbing over it, but there weren’t enough horizontal bars for one to step on. There was a curved handle but no lock. His heart started pounding. Could it be that he need only to press the handle and walk through?

Riksha ran to the Gate, sand crunching under his feet. He stopped just an inch in front of it and stared out through the bars. He had to smile and run a hand though his hair. The sight was majestic. He sent his eyes soaring over the sand dunes. Sailing the rising and sinking waves of this endless golden ocean. He was already out there running over the dunes, screaming, taking off flying.

He held his breath and carefully placed a trembling hand on the grip. The heat of the desert beat up at him, but the iron felt cool to the touch. For a moment his heart seemed to stand still. Then he pushed gently, cautiously down.

The handle moved smoothly but the Gate did not open.

Riksha felt as though someone had sucked the breath out of him, and he had to bow down for a moment. What had he thought? That he, a dirty orphan boy, would escape the Temple and Pater Laah? That he would walk straight into the desert through a gate made of dreams?

He grabbed hold of the bars and buried his face between two of them until his temples ached. He might not be able to enter, but he was still able to dream. He drank this vast, strange, overwhelming sight in enormous, thirsty gulps. The sight of the wind brushing a plume of sand over a peaked ridge delighted him more than any hymn or prayer had ever done. The playful rippling of a curved dune sent shivers of pleasure down his spine. The shimmering horizon, where the fierce blue magically became a luxurious bronze, made him sigh in longing.

Of course even if the Gate had been unlocked, there were only terrors waiting beyond, Riksha thought to cheer himself up.

Searching for the Gate was one thing. Going through into a certain death quite another. Starving robbers, evil demons, murderous lizards with poisonous tails. One might fight robbers, kill lizards, and bargain with demons. But one couldn’t fight the sun. There was no weapon to protect you from the dizziness that twisted your mind into a pit of coiling mad snakes as the sun reached its throne at zenith. The sun was not the same in the desert as in the city. In the city man was king. In the desert it was the sun that ruled. And the Sun-God did not welcome intruders into her Realm. How many times had Pater Laah pressed Riksha’s face against the foul-smelling walls and forced him to recite the Sun’s Prayer?

I am not worthy, Oh Sun, to enter into your Realm. I am not worthy to stand in your Light. I am not worthy, Oh Sun-God, I am dirty and full of lies.

So completely had he sunken into his dreams that he startled awake when the bronze gong called out from the Temple. How could it be? He felt as though he had only just arrived here, and already the sun stood high in the sky. Soon Zenith would be consummated. The Yellow cloaks of The Ones Who Pray would already be filling the courtyard at the Temple for midday offerings. The circle of priests around the Tower would already be humming with the Holy Syllable.

It took a moment for Riksha to collect himself and realize he must turn back. He must run. He must hurry. Pater Laah would finally crush his head against the cold stone if he came too late to Zenith. Riksha let go of the Gate with a sigh and took a hesitant step back.

At that moment a high-pitched cry called him from the sky. A desert hawk circled the heights slowly. It seemed to Riksha it mocked him, poor earthbound slave, with its glorious independence. In one razor-sharp move, the bird dove, falling toward earth like a comet. Riksha instantly forgot about Zenith. He forgot about robbers and snakes and Pater Laah. Heart racing, he felt the dive as if it were his own. As if it were he that was that feathered arrow. The hawk stopped short for one breathless moment, suspended above ground, and then came flying straight toward the Gate. For one second the bird hovered, nose to beak. “Return to the Temple then, Slave,” it seemed to sneer. “Go back to your prison.” The hair stood up on Riksha’s arms and legs. A panic seized him and he threw himself at the Gate.

“For all the devils in hell!” he wailed and grabbed a hold of the handle, jerking it, bewildered.

The old metal rattled and groaned but didn’t move. He thought about raising his cloak for Pater Laah’s dry, blistered hand, and an avalanche of disgust ran up his throat. Tomorrow he would be one of them. Tomorrow he would receive his gray apprentice robe and the High Priests’ cold blessing. Tomorrow they would shave his hair and eyebrows, cut off his gender, and give him his new name: Un-named One of The Order. Riksha had always known this. His life was to be spent kneeling on cold stone floors in silent prayer, year after year, until his bones ached and his back broke and all curiosity about the world deserted him, leaving him as empty and cruel as Pater Laah. His life was to be given to the Gods and the High Priest to do with as they saw fit. If he was lucky he would live to become a Teacher of the Old Ways and have an orphan to himself. A scared, dirty boy to wash the warts on his feet and pick the porridge from between his rotting teeth. A fragile being he could insult and beat as much as his dried-up heart desired. If he was unlucky, though, he might be chosen for Sacrifice, in which case he would have to starve himself to death for some rich woman’s sins or throw himself on a burning heap of wood to heal some wealthy merchant’s sick child.

He shook the bars of the Gate until his hands bled. He pushed, kicked, and beat at it. He shouted curses at it and he spat on it. And then he finally fell down on his knees in the dirt and wept beside it. But he soon dried his tears. A wave of shame swept over him. He should be grateful to Pater Laah, who had spent the entire night in enclosure swinging a spiked leather belt at his own bloody back. All through the night the ancient corridors had echoed with pained gasps, terrible moaning, and tortured, shrill wails. The priests cleansed themselves in place of the apprentice boys. The boys must be given to the High One as innocent and pure as when they were fresh out of the womb. An entire life he would be in debt to Pater Laah for washing his sins clean, for spilling his priestly blood so Riksha might enter the Order. Riksha sighed and pressed the palms of his hands into the sand. There were worse lives, he supposed. Although he could not think about one right at this moment.

Riksha struggled to stand up, but a voice called out then and scared him so much his legs gave way under him. She was swathed and hooded in a rough brown cloak, features invisible.

“Is something the matter, child? You look pale. Are you ill?” Sunken black, piggy eyes peered at him from under the torn rim of the hood. A smell of earth and rotten meat made him wrinkle up his nose as she approached, but there was something more, something that seemed to come off her in sickly waves. Riksha felt it and went cold in spite of the heat.

“I was just leaving,” he squealed guiltily. “Forgive me.” He jumped to his feet, eyes set on a bug crawling over her sandal. The crone followed his gaze, waited for the bug to get back on the ground, then crushed it with her foot.

“So, where were we?” The witch clicked her teeth together and grinned.

“Could you help me?” he stammered nervously. “Do you know how to open the Gate?”

She leaned forward on her crooked wooden staff, poking at a wart on her nose. “If one could help? If one could help? Of course one could help.”

Riksha’s face suddenly filled with hope. “I want to look for my own name! I want to see all the wonders of the world! I want to—”

She held up a hand for silence. “Soar freely like a bird in the sky? Yes, yes. Always the birds,” she muttered. “One does get rather tired of it. Why not crawl the moist earth free as a worm?” She tapped at one of her remaining teeth as if in deep thought.

“I dreamt about this gate,” said Riksha feverishly. “I dreamt I would find it and go through it and travel the desert with a caravan!” He felt a sudden, frenzied elation; surely this old crone would help him! After all, the Gate in his dream had looked identical to this one right here in front of him. “I dreamt about adventures and treasures and oceans as big as the desert!”

The old crone looked him up and down as if she could hardly believe what she saw.

“I don’t think I have properly introduced myself.” She coughed and paused for effect. A claw-like finger came out of the long sleeve, and with it she drew a neat, precise figure in the empty space. Instantly Riksha felt a tug at his intestines, and then his body was pulled up in the air. She held him there for a moment, his legs dangling, before throwing him back to the ground the way a child might toss away an old toy. Riksha’s bones rattled, a jagged moan whistled from his lungs.

The old crone spluttered giggles through clenched gums. “Silly, silly boy,” she wheezed. “Turn back to where you belong. Turn back to the life that has been chosen for you. Turn back to the safety of your bed and the protection of The Ones Who Pray. This gate will not open for you. Adventure is nothing for Unnamed ones. Adventure is a perilous journey where the only one waiting for you is death. You will never be safe. You will go hungry and alone. You will fall into terrible traps with nobody to come to your rescue. You will be tortured and abused and bitten by poisonous snakes. So turn back, foolish one! Turn back to whence you came and forget this gate ever existed.” The old crone sighed, bored. “What insipid drivel,” she snarled then, as an afterthought, pressing at a wart on her nose.

Riksha held his hip and bit his lip. A searing spasm went up his left side from foot to jaw. He thought he would never walk again.

“What are you lying there for? Hop, hop!” she demanded, waving a hand toward the Higher City.

Riksha scrambled up on jittery legs, wincing with the pain.

“Yes, go away, you coward boy,” spat the witch. “You are not worthy. You are filthy and full of lies.”

Suddenly a cooling thought flashed across his mind. Tomorrow he would be shaved and robed. Tomorrow he would be one of them. Tomorrow all was lost. Tomorrow. Today he could do as he pleased.

“I might be filthy. But you stink worse than a pile of dead alley rats,” he said, edging closer.

The crone stared at him for a moment, mouth hanging open.  A reedy, gurgling laughter escaped her then. She dried the tears from her cheeks. Then she stopped laughing as quick as she had begun. “Are you mad?”

Her hunched back unfolded and she stretched, towering tall above the boy. Her features quivered and blurred, and when they sharpened again, a woman with long, white hair, blushing face, and full, primrose lips stood before him. Riksha swayed in surprise. He put up a hand to shield his eyes, so dazzling and sharp was the light that enveloped her.

“You have no coin and no tricks. You have no name and no sword. Being a good slave is the best you can hope for, Unnamed One. Go back and learn to obey, boy.” She bent over him then, her lovely silver hair touching his face light as a kiss. “Turn around and run or I will kill you.” Her lips pressed sharply together, her eyes stared fixedly at him with an expression of cool madness.

Riksha darted away like a mouse chased by a woman with a broom. Pulse racing, he threw himself into the bushes. The branches were moving, growing, closing in around him. They were like thin, sharp hands grasping for him, ripping his skin to pieces. The shrill yells and ringing of the street vendors was getting louder, and the final clangs of the bronze gong vibrated over the city.

Maybe Pater Laah would forgive him one last time. Riksha prayed to the Gods he would. Prayed that if Pater Laah would only forgive him, he would never disobey again. Pater Laah would have the most grateful of slaves, the most attentive of servants at his side. Riksha would take on the role as an Unnamed One with humility and grace. He would look for his own name no more. He would brave the whips of the belt with a song of gratitude on his lips.

Then he heard that call again.

He could hardly make out the bird through the ragged roof of thistle, but the message was painfully clear. He would perish and die if he went back, if he did not enter the desert to discover who he might be there, out there among the robbers and poisonous snakes. He would fester and sour like Pater Laah if he did not fight his way through the dunes to look for his own name.

When something has to be done, do it quick. Those were the words Pater Laah proclaimed before getting out the belt or rolling up his sleeves. So there was nothing to be done but to surge out of the bramble with one mighty leap.

The crone was a mess of smoke and absurd features, changing her face. This was Riksha’s chance at getting past her. He focused on the soft horizon behind the Gate. He would climb over it, or press himself through it, or beat the darn thing down to the ground. He clenched his teeth and started to run.

“Always the birds,” the old woman muttered when she saw him, rolling her eyes toward the sky. She raised her hands to paint a spell. But the movement was slow and without vigor.

Riksha was almost there; he stretched out a hand, fingertips brushed the cool metal. The crone came back into focus with a jolt. The hood fell to her shoulders. Her face was a mask of lined, puffy, sagging skin. Sparse hairs, snowy white, stuck unkempt from her head like the whiskers on a cat.

“Foolish boy,” she snapped and threw a coiling thing at him. It curled around his feet, trapping them, making him stumble and fall face-first to the ground. He groaned but sat up on his knees.

“You can’t stop me!” he croaked.

“Foolish boy,” the old one hissed.

Sickening flashes of acid green shot at his heart. Riksha threw himself on all fours, blinded for a moment. The flashes buried themselves in his chest like hot coal on paper.

The crone studied her victim, taking her time. Her hands swished and weaved through the air with practiced smoothness. A ring of dust danced around his tousled, hazel curls.

Riksha felt as if he was drowning in mud, his head filling with wet clay. It erased his memory. It killed him slowly from the inside. It clogged his ears, choked his mouth, and blocked his nose. He was suffocating, gasping for air, lying squirming like a worm out in the sun. “You can see where this is going,” she said gently. “Turn back.”

“Never!” shrieked Riksha. He tugged at his ears and stuck his hands into his mouth.

“You don’t have the power, Unnamed One, to get through the gate. Give up now and I will let you live unharmed.” She blinked at him, eyes glittering brightly.

Riksha tried to think behind the pain, behind the mud choking him, behind the fear of it all. There was a choice to be made here, a choice to live or die. He thought about the dream. The dream of the Gate. The dream that had forced him to look for something; he did not know if it existed at all. In the dream it had been so easy, the Gate had opened as if by itself.

He drew one last breath and wheezed with all the strength left in him, “Open, Gate! It is I, Riksha the Orphan! I dreamt about you once!”

Flashes of violet and red were dancing around his waist and feet. In a second or two, he would be no more. That thing that keeps one alive would soon break. He knew it and when he knew, it came to him. He struggled up, legs trembling.

“Open, Gate. It is I. Riksha the Dreamer.”

And just like that the mud seemed to leave him, pouring back into the same nothingness from which it had come. The Crone lowered her hands and dropped to the ground in a puddle of exhaustion.

“Finally,” she muttered. “One isn’t as young as one used to be.”

The Gate at the Edge of the Desert swung open with a creak and a moan. The jasmine jangled softly above it, making creatures light and heavy alike sigh in longing for adventure.

“You crazy orphan,” Riksha whispered, eyes round with wonder. He scratched his chin in disbelief.

“Go,” came a heavy voice from behind him. “One’s got other things to do, you know.”

A slight breeze blew in from the desert, greeting him, whipping at his hair and tugging at his cloak. He took one shy step through the Gate, closing his eyes, inhaling the intoxicating scent of the white blossoms. There was a gentle pull at his heart. He raised his arms and spread them like great, wide wings. And with a deep breath, he flung himself into the desert, down the first, vast dune. Screaming, taking off, flying.

___

Growing up in Stockholm, Sweden, Caroline Bruckner loved reading and writing from an early age but initially lacked the courage to pursue it. After a few award-winning but unsatisfying years in advertising, she wound up attending the National School of Film and Television in London and getting an MA in screenwriting. This abrupt change in career path paid off as the short film she wrote, The Confession, won a student Oscar in 2010 and was nominated for an Academy Award in 2011. Also, an animated film she wrote, Cooked, was selected for the Cinéfondation in Cannes Film Festival in 2010. Her short fiction has been featured in Willow Review.

Having survived emotionally intense parents, a strict Catholic school run by wart-faced and choleric nuns, a chronic disease that left her paralyzed for years, and a series of faith crises, she enjoys writing about desperate people in times of great change.


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