Punishment
By Stef Hall
Published: October 16, 2007

He toiled across the endless blanket of sand. In every direction the soft golden drifts and the empty azure sky continued uninterrupted as far as the eye could see. He stopped looking back a long time ago; there was nothing different to see in that direction aside from his own footprints. The sight of those haphazard divots punctuated occasionally by flattened, scuffed areas where he had fallen only depressed him more.

The worst thing was how the sand got everywhere. It stuck to his sweat-soaked shirt and itched in his underpants. It crusted the craggy lines and planes of his middle-aged countenance, clogging his ears and nostrils and stinging his eyes, making them water. Each time he fell, he paused long enough to pour small dunes of sand out of his expensive leather shoes; he obstinately refused to give in to the temptation to leave them behind -- they were his last vestige of civilisation.

It was certainly not what he had expected when Lizzie levelled the gun at him and pulled the trigger with the ominous command that he should go to hell.

For the first few days, he thought something had gone wrong. There had been no pain, no angst, no sudden realisation of death. A brief period of darkness and then the desert. He thought perhaps it was some kind of magic trick, like the one where the magician yelled bang and the gun turned into a bunch of flowers. Only in his case, Lizzie yelled bang and he had fallen through some crack in reality and ended up in a world that was apparently made entirely of sand.

Everything here was unchanging. There was no night -- Stuart defined his days by those periods when he walked, and those when he collapsed into unconsciousness from sheer exhaustion. The scenery did not change, no matter how long he walked the sand was shifting and insubstantial and the same. He had not seen another living thing since he arrived and there wasn't even the slightest breeze to alleviate the stifling heat. The only evidence that anything was happening at all was the meandering trail of footprints he left behind him.

Stuart had been a Christian before. He was not particularly devout and had never been especially good at anything in his life. He was an ordinary child, a mild disappointment of a son, a mediocre lover, a lousy husband, an absent father. He managed to coast his way to fifty-three on his rugged good looks and charm, but even those had begun to fail him in recent months; the secretary from his department whom he had been boning joyously for the past three years left him for a younger man, his now adult son no longer spoke to him and kept him from his grandchildren, and then Lizzie discovered the affair and the shit really hit the fan.

He had gone every Sunday to church and asked for forgiveness, devout in the belief that his God was forgiving and that it would be the pearly gates for him when it came time to do the big clock-out in the sky. Hell was all dancing naked women and eternal smouldering fires and he of the cloven hoof and extremely pointy trident. Most importantly of all, hell was something that happened to other people.

This was not the first time in his life he had been wrong but it was perhaps the most fundamental and soul-destroying mistake he had ever made. His hope had ebbed away gradually as he walked, an invisible puddle left among the dunes poured from his shoes after every rest break. He walked now because there was nothing else left for him to do. After the first week, he laid down in the sand and attempted to die but was embarrassed to discover he couldn't even manage that.

He judged he had been in the desert for about three weeks when he first saw the shimmer. He was on the verge of collapse when it caught his eye and to begin with he put it down to his eyes playing tricks on him. When he came round the next day and made it to his feet, after vomiting copious amounts of sandy bile born of dehydration into the depression of packed sand left by his body, it was still there. Something dark and yet somehow glistening on the right-hand side of his horizon. It shimmered and wobbled with the rising waves of heat, but it was almost definitely there.

He walked with renewed purpose, the drunken trail of his footprints falling into a straight line for the first time in three weeks. When he collapsed at the end of each day he dreamed of oases, of cool, clear water and fresh, succulent fruit. He dreamed of making a home there, of learning to plant and grow his own fruit from the seeds of those he ate, learning to keep his water cool and fresh. He dreamed of plants he had never seen before, with broad, dark green leaves that oozed sweet moisture when cut. He dreamed of chattering exotic birds with dazzling plumage that would taste just fine when plucked and roasted.

He dreamed of amazonian women parting their lean thighs to allow him access to their secret mossy moist places.

As he walked, the shimmer grew closer, clearer, more sharply defined. After a further two weeks of weary trudging, it was obvious what he was heading for, but his bruised mind would not allow him to believe it. He clung to his oasis, to his stubborn belief that everything would be alright. Surely God would not forsake him now; he'd said he was sorry, after all.

When he finally reached the outcropping of glistening black rock, he fell to his knees and wept precious tears he could not afford to lose. It didn't matter how sorry you said you were if you didn't really mean it, he realised. It didn't matter if you said you'd never cheat again if even while you said it you were thinking about the dusky thighs of amazonian women. He had learned the lesson that God, oh so ably assisted by Lizzie, had sent him here to learn.

Laboriously, sweating freely but no longer caring about the loss of moisture, caught up in the belief that the moment of his salvation was come, Stuart climbed atop the rock. He lay down, the flesh of his back sizzling against the baked obsidian, and waited for God to take him up into His heaven, wrapped in the wings of angels.

Nothing happened.

After five days, the tedium became too much to bear. Stuart rose, leaving scraps of his skin melded into the still-baking surface of the rock, and began to walk once more.

He toiled across the endless blanket of sand. In every direction the soft golden drifts and the empty azure sky continued uninterrupted as far as the eye could see.

After all, there was nothing else left for him to do.

 

Previously published in the Summer Glass edition of La-Fenetre Magazine.