The landscape was rustic, brown and shimmering in the heat. The horizon a smudged collision of faint brown and faint blue. Somehow the sun gave the whole scene light without being brighter than a small candle. Nothing stood out in this desolate place. A place of muted colours and skeletal ruins suffering the brush of a breeze, chuckling constantly with self appreciation, and always, always at your expense.
Somewhere between horizons was a place just like the rest. So similar in fact to every other place in sight that you might not have known you had arrived, unless, that is, you happened upon this place the very same day as one Thomas Riley, And that, my friends, is what happened to me.
After wandering the desert for a long morning (due to a reason I am much too ashamed to share) I was all but ready to sit down and rest my weary bones. I had gone for hours, striding, then walking, then wandering through places that looked so like one another I thought myself quite mad. The hill’s circling in the distance changed not at all leading me to the conclusion I had been traversing in damned loops! Had I been prepared for this journey of mine I may not have been in such a situation, but as it was my water skin was only at half and I had no idea in which direction my destination lay. In all manner of speaking I was lost and in terrible danger of staying that way! I had begun to despair, cursing unforgivably those that lead me to be here, when there he was! A tall figure emerging from the haze. His dark skin and and long coat rippled in such a way I was now certain my sanity had been long lost. It seemed though but a trick of the noon heat for as he loped towards me his outline became solid. On second thoughts, solid may not be the right word to use for the depiction of such a frail man. He looked an old man, a grey beard, sunken eyes and hollow cheeks conspired to give this image. But through the ease of his untroubled gait I found myself in doubt that he could really be more than a little older than my very self. Either way he seemed on such a mission to intercept my slow and meandering path, I stopped, that he may close the space in less time. He did not slow until he was so near as to be touched if I had but reached out a hand.
I did just that, offering friendship. “Henry Ortega, my good man.”
He replied in kind, with a firm grip and a nod, removing his straw hat. “Thomas Riley, it’s surely a pleasure.” He had such a strong American drawl i just knew upon the instant he was native to this land. He must have been thinking along similar lines for, rolling each word over his tongue he proclaimed “you’re not from around here, are you sir?”
“No, I am not,” I sighed “and you, sir?”
“I most definitely am.” Although his manor of speaking came across as very abrupt i could infer from his gaze he meant me no harm. Mr Riley had kind eyes, the type that suggested not only safety and warmth but a cavernous depth of knowledge also. I believe in a way though, it was his smile lines, and the way they creased his skin as if they were comfortable and well used that convinced me most of his good intentions.
Either way Mr Riley and I talked for a great deal of time about nothing at all, just exchanging pleasantries and opinions on the weather and such nonsense. I will admit it was a great relief to share the forsaken emptiness with another soul, even an American one. Then, out of the blue he asked this: “Mr Ortega, may i ask if you believe in fate?”
I was surprised. Where had that come from? I pulled my brows together and bit my lip, it was not a question i would take lightly out here in the nowhere lands.
“Well Mr Riley, if I am to be honest as I aim to be in life, I would have to say no.” Here I paused but he seemed to await further explanation, I abided “You see I like to believe that if fate was to be a ‘thing’ it would work on the basis of a good begets a good fate, evil begets an evil fate. I did trust in this system and that of God through my youth, but now, (oh how it saddens me to admit it) I have no strong faith in either.” I bit my lip once again, troubled by how to explain to another that which I had seen. “My dear friend it may seem a harsh judgement, but I have seen good men suffer evil things, and evil men reap rewards fit for a king. I can not have faith in a system where there is no right or wrong thing to lead one to a good life.”
The silence that followed was uncomfortable, but Thomas Riley was thinking deeply about what I had said and for that I was grateful.
Somehow he managed to speak with even less pace “Last month my little girl was shot by cowboys in this very desert. Yesterday I was told by an old woman that if I wished to find her body, I must wander the same desert until I came across a thing that does not belong there. And here I am a walking a random path when I come across you – an English gentleman, clearly at contrast with your surroundings, no offense meant.” He inclined his head to me.
“None taken” I muttered, considering his tale. “You believed this woman enough to come here?” There were many long pauses throughout this conversation, as both of us opted to consider what we would say before we let it be passed through judgement.
“I want to find my daughter, Mr Ortega and if fate is gonna beat the odds then I will put my faith in it. Frankly sir when I saw you my heart soared like an angel, is this not the prophecy coming true? Contradict me if I am wrong sir, but you don’t belong here and I found you as I was told I would.”
“That is true my fellow, and although I remain skeptical, I hope with my whole heart that your daughter is found.” It was the truth, and my heart was heavy with upset for this man. To have his hopes raised so greatly only to surely be disappointed, what good did this woman think she was doing him?
Here I was again, watching a good man dealt a rotten hand at life. The sight brought tears to my eyes: the empty sand plain filled, a hopeful soul down on his knees, dry hands barely scratching at dirt, the sun glaring down burning and burning, and the wind laughing at hope as if it was the piteous antics of a child.
I let my tears water the ground, following them down. If this man was to dig in search of his daughter’s body, then i would dig by his side.
Noon had long past when I finally sat back upon my haunches. We had dug deep and far, with no sign of anything. Mr Riley was still at it, frantically throwing sand over his head. Burdened with a leaden heart and aching with regret I laid a hand upon his shoulder, “Come now Thomas, you’re not helping yourself anymore.” he shook me off but then crumpled to the floor, distress reaping sorrowful streaks down his dusty face. My hand steady on his arm in what I hoped was a comforting manner, he wept into bleakness but even so holding a shred of himself back so to not become the bleakness as I felt I had. A deal of time of ran through my dusty fingers before Mr Riley quieted. I let him compose himself, looking out over the plain. Although coming across this man had been, for lack of better words, an interesting experience I had now began to wonder what would happen to me. Despite this brief distraction, I was still lost, albeit with another. As I considered the empty land and my empty future, I was troubled by a thought: had this man lost his faith in fate? Although I did not believe myself, I knew what a horrible thing it was to give up hope of a higher purpose. A man recently suffered so much could break if he but lost one more thing. I wished not to sound triumphant but could not withhold my curiosity.
“Sir, how fair you?”
“Mr Ortega, I have just lost the final chance at finding my daughter. How do you think I fair, sir?”
I apologized profusely, and he nodded “That was not right of me to snap at you like that, my fellow”
“No, it was my fault. I am unpractised at the art of sensitivity.” I paused before proceeding cautiously, “Perhaps again I may be insensitive and ask what has been bothering my mind?”
He nodded, resignation written all over his face. “It’s just I was wondering how the happenings of this day have affected your belief in fate?”
“Ha!” He barked a laugh. Then after a intake of breath he asked of me a strange question: “Do you have water in that flask of yours, Mr Ortega?”
“Just below half a flask, but I must ask, of what relevance is it?” But I was ignored,
“And do you, sir, know in which way lies town?”
“No. How could any man? It has but tantamount of difference.” Here he started to laugh, first a chuckle then almost to hysterics. Even so he managed to say to me this in his strong drawling accent: “You are alone, in a foreign desert, you have little water, presumably no food and definitely no idea of how to survive, and you ask me if I believe in fate?”
I was extremely bemused, “Well, yes?” I replied.
“My poor fellow, i may not have found my daughter but I found a good man who had accepted his premature death in this desert, the type of man the world could seemly do with for a while longer and I am going to give him food and water and show him the way to my home town. Out here in all this desert I found you, I’ll help you, I’ll save you. You ask me whether I believe in fate,” he pulled out a water flask and handed it to me, “This, is fate.”
With that he turned and left in his wake a hillock of dust and dirt. Oh and myself, a little shocked, open mouthed. A mouth which now turns to smile as I canter to catch him. I have a second chance, I can move on from my stupid mistake, it will not leave me shrivelled prune in the sand. It will not leave me dead. I ease to a walk beside Mr Thomas Riley, and we share a slight smile. He has found fate, and I hope.