The sands came every year, the sound of clashing swords and the sweet, orange smell of fire tangled in their granules. They swept across the land like a hand knocking everything off a hearth table. Palm trees bent until they splintered. Clay homes cracked like eggs. The village had become accustomed to use up the day after the sands searching for missing jawbones or ribcages that the winds had flung up into the remaining palms. No one could ever be sure that their resting place would one day not include a stranger’s bone.
The village had considered leaving. The elders brought it up for debate on even years but no one was certain whether there were places the sands did not reach. They would be caught in the violence of it without shelter, their scoured skin snatched up to tumble with the grains.
And there would have been no more glass.
Like a vane shifting in the wind, something turned in Sama when the sands were about to arrive. Sometimes she felt it an entire day in advance, and other times she just had time to dress herself and prepare.
This year, she’d had the kind of warning that allowed her to choose the sow she wanted.
The blood was still warm as she poured it over her head, the smell of it embracing her until she wasn’t sure she’d be able to take another breath. But she’d done this every year since her mother died. It would pass.
She was careful not to touch anything as the blood dried over her. She held her arms out to her sides and stood before her open door, staring out into the center of the empty village. How nervous she had been that first time, not just of the sands, but that someone would see her, as naked and covered in blood as when her mother pushed her out. A foolish notion. No one dared leave the relative safety of their clay homes when the sands ruffled Sama’s internal feathers.
Once she felt the second skin of blood crinkling with the rise and fall of her chest, she took up the netting, finer than a spider’s, cradling it in her arms. It was the most precious item in the entire village and, for now, it was hers.
The air hummed with anticipation as Sama walked to the three poles at the center of the square. She slid one of the metal hoops looped at one end of the net over the pole and started unwinding the folded material. Material that had taken one of her ancestors, so distant that time had unthreaded her name, her entire life to weave. Sea silk the color of scorched dandelions. The threads were so finely spun, so tightly woven, that they had caught centuries of sand grains in their folds.
Sama placed the last loop over the last pole and tugged on the net. It was as pliable as it had been since she had first known it, and strong enough to withstand the raw gusts that were bound to scratch her own skin. A scar for every year. An offering of her blood, blended with the sow’s, for the truth.
Palm tree fronds clapped above her and she knew it was time.
She hurried away from the net, which was now spread open from one side of the village square to the other, the wind lightly ruffling it. Shelter was not an option for her, not when the sands needed to see her, but she could stand back just enough not to have her bones scoured clean.
It began all at once. Not like regular storms, not with a few rain drops or the caress of a hot wind that felt like just spun flax. These sands were a cavalry of pain that arrive to attack. Only her bloodline had seen what hid inside the gusts and had stood their ground, legs shaking, but rooted. At the catch of light on metal, Sama felt the first slash of whip-like fear, chilling her and heating her at the same time.
The scream of swords flung itself against the houses, wrapped in the roar of throats full of sand and in the stampede of unseen hooves.
Sama held her breath and waited for the violence to draw nearer to the net.
How could it hold?
The same words every year, like a talisman of doubt, against doubt.
Although she couldn’t see anything in the sand yet, she felt the moment the cavalcade of eyes turned to her. With an almost audible crackle of bark, the stares slid against her skin, taking in the blood inside and outside her body.
A layer of film scraped away from her eyes and she winced with the dry pain of it, but she kept them open.
There they were. The soldiers made of sand, armors swirling with movement, their blades of raw glass lifted in jagged defiance in her direction. Sama bowed her head as her mother had taught her to do.
The roughness of their gazes disappeared and the air seemed to open up like a fist unclenching.
Sand slammed into the net, which opened up into a deep pouch to receive it and filled. The poled creaked with the effort but they held, as they always did, new notches already visible from where Sama stood, still bowed but peering.
The air between the clay homes seemed to whistle as tunnels of wind and sand snaked through them. Stones hanging from the end of ropes that weighed down the straw roofs drummed against the pelts stretched tautly against wooden window frames, heartbeats that crashed against one another, becoming one unending pulse.
An infant’s cry pierced the roar for a moment before it was swallowed up again.
Just a bit longer. They all had to grip tight for a few more seconds.
A gust of hot wind flung sand onto Sama’s skin, the sow’s blood working as its own net. She bit her lips against the sting of the grains as they struck her and waited for the thunder and clash to end. For the army of sand to leave her village behind for another year.
Then her work would truly begin.
The fire had to be hot enough to singe the dark hairs on her arms, so Sama stoked it with palm fronds, charcoal, and the soft pulp of wood she’d spent the past few months hoarding. If the flames weren’t bright enough, fierce enough to call, to scream, the sand wouldn’t find the path to crystallizing into its real self.
She muttered to herself as a tongue of fire brushed her knees when she flung in another blackened branch. She accumulated burns and scars like other people did children, at least one a year.
Placing the crucible next to the kiln that wavered with heat, she scooped in handfuls of the sand resting like a coiled snake in the net and a bit of limestone, swirling them until she couldn’t tell which grain belonged to which substance. Like sprinkling a heating hearth with water, she shook a few drops of her own blood from the cut she’d made on her palm over it all. And then slid the crucible into the blistering heat.
The images began at once, puncturing her mind with spikes of heat and spreading like roots, like vines, that tangled and obscured her view of everything but themselves.
The bruised skin of ripe fruit transforming into the underside of an arm, a neck, purple pulsing until it became the shining black of a leech’s back. Tree-branch limbs, all knobs and angles, that flailed as if stamping out flames, fingers dipped in charcoal clutching at stomachs bloated with approaching death. A serpent of blood coursing through the square as flames reached out to lick faces off skulls, names off bodies. The leech-black bulbs sizzling to ash.
Clay houses moaned with emptiness as wind swept through ripped animal skins.
The images receded from the shore of her mind and Sama’s home rose before her eye again. Her heart was a rainstorm as she pulled the crucible out and beheld the new glass, black as a pupil. She’d made reds and corals on years of coming famine, yellows when rains would bring pests, a purple glass the one year when all of the infants had died and the mothers had leapt off the nearby cliffs despite Sama’s warning. Never black.
There was no question what it meant because the sands and their soldiers had never lied to her or to her ancestors. Death would come to the village in those black pustules as surely as it had come to those infants.
She rose, still clutching the crucible, ready to plunge through her door and ring the village bell. But her feet would take her no farther.
Had her warning the year of the purple glass saved the children or their mothers from the feat it’d foretold? Had it done anything but made their days with their children feel like a song drumming violently to its end?
Sama looked up, at the orbs tucked into the corners around her home, flames dancing across their surfaces, their colors transforming into one another’s under the glow. Melding into the blackness she held.
The last glass she or any of her line would make. Perhaps the last one anyone would make.
She tipped the crucible without a second of hesitation and watched the glass fling light every which way as it tumbled back into the flames. It hit the edge of the kiln and gave out a single tinkling protest. Its destruction would do nothing, of course, it would shift nothing in the celestial spheres that settled their fate or the ones around her that had led like a path to this ending. But neither she nor anyone else would have to see the cliff edge. They would walk in the dark, as everyone did. And when the glass returned, rising smoothly from their skins, she would choose another and hold it up as evidence that all would be fine. They would believe her. Even when the flames belched ashes and smoke.
Valentina Cano is a student of classical singing who spends whatever free time she has either reading or writing. Her works have appeared in numerous publications and her poetry has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize and Best of the Web. Her debut novel, The Rose Master, was published in 2014 and was called a “strong and satisfying effort” by Publishers Weekly.