So I had to leave the oasis, where the other children would work all their lives as our parents and grandparents had, to shepherd the tiny spring into channels where a few fish would spawn each year among the cress and rice we planted. To tend and harvest the palms, weave their fibres into cloth, mend the screens and strengthen the mud walls. To grind the flour and bake the dry, flat bread. My work would be different from theirs. I felt sad and proud.
As I stood in the shadowed doorway of my parents’ house, ready to set out, my mother held my shoulders tightly and kissed me on the top of my head. She was not crying, but her face was twisted in sadness. We’ll see you on Year’s Day, she whispered. Be good till then. One day each year they would come to visit me, for once I was at the post I could never leave it again.
On my shoulder I carried the little bundle she’d prepared for me. Alone I walked out beyond the storm screens, to the open desert, which I’d never seen before. I stared. Stretched before me were endless hills of red sand under the burning sky. The vastness of it made my heart jump like a netted fish in my chest. Everything I knew shrunk to nothingness before it. Carefully I followed the old markers that led over the dunes. I climbed the highest dune and looked back down on my home. The oasis looked indistinct, just a grainy shadow behind the screens, its colours, plants, and people gone. I turned my face away, twisting it as my mother had done to keep from crying, and went on.
The sand shifted and whispered around me. It was red, soft, warm, moving like a smooth-limbed body turning in its sleep. For a moment I felt tempted to leave the marked path and just walk into that great red place, join my body with its body and sleep in its softness. I thought I heard it calling me as it whispered: come and sleep with me, little one! Come and lie down in my arms! It was so great and I was so little. Why shouldn’t I do as it wanted?
Another sound woke me from my daze: the clinking of the old metal flags of the marker as I approached. I realized the sun outside the screens was too strong and it had opened a channel in my head for the whispering sand to enter. Quickly I pulled my hood up and wrapped it tight. Behind the screens I mostly forgot to wear it, unless a big storm came. I drank from my water jug until the whispering died down, and went on again.
At sunset I reached the foot of the black rock mountain, and saw the marker flashing at the entrance to the cave. Gillem waited there. He stood leaning on a great staff of knotted wood. It must have been older than he was, perhaps much older, as there were no trees from which to cut such staffs now in the oasis or any of the places we knew.
I followed him inside the cave and set down my bundle on its smooth swept rock floor. Gillem nodded to me in greeting but that was all. My training began at once.
He showed me the wall at the back of the cave, behind a stone outcrop that shielded it from view. Into the wall were set the devices of the listening post. They were like nothing I had seen in the oasis; I didn’t understand them at all. You don’t have to understand how they work, Gillem said. I don’t, nor has any Listener before me, as far as I know. You just have to do exactly as I show you, and the devices will sweep the skies, as they have down all the lifetimes since they were put here, for a message from the stars.
How many Listeners have there been? I asked.
I have never counted, replied Gillem. Each one keeps his archive and when he is finished, adds it to the others, to show that he has fulfilled his task. The count can be made if you want to – he waved his arm at the great archive wall, whose end was lost in darkness – but it would take a long time and it is easy to lose track. There’s enough to keep you busy.
And has any message ever come? I asked.
No message has ever come, he said.
Gillem and I stayed together for the first year. Every seven days the runner brought us our food, and less often brought us seeds or plants for the small hanging garden we had. And I learned how to grow a few vegetables there, in the sunlight at the cave mouth. I learned to tend the listening machine and keep the panels clean that made it run. I always stayed within earshot of the speaking tube, and checked it now and again to make sure its connections were good. But it never made a sound.
Gillem spoke little. When he was not guiding me or instructing me in my tasks, we sat together at the mouth of the cave and watched for birds – rare – or more often, clouds. At night we watched the stars wheel overhead. We passed the time trying to guess which one the message might come from. Listeners learn to sleep only a little at a time, and never fully. This was the hardest part of the training, and Gillem could not leave until he was sure I had mastered it.
At last my training was done, and I truly understood that I could never leave the post, never travel farther than the entrance of the cave, for the rest of my time as Listener, until I was at least as old as Gillem. I could not risk that the message we had waited for so long might come at last, and I would miss it.
That day Gillem nodded to me, took up his staff and walked to the mouth of the cave. I looked out and saw a boy I knew from the oasis coming over the dunes. For a moment I longed with all my heart to change places with him. But then the feeling passed. He left me some dried fish and bread, and then he followed Gillem who, slowly, leaning heavily on his staff, began his journey back to the oasis, which he had not seen since he was a child. Others had been born, wed, had children of their own and died, but he had seen and shared in none of that. No more would I. I watched them go, and then I turned my face to the sky and wished for the night to come on so I could watch the stars and imagine they were tears the sky cried to fill its emptiness.
Not long after, a runner came, bearing the staff. He handed it to me, and I knew old Gillem was dead.
Years passed. Every year, on the same day, my parents came, and we sat together at the mouth of the cave. At first they spoke of things and people I knew about, but as time went by everything they told me was foreign to me and I became indifferent to it. There was little I could tell them; my days were all the same. And we couldn’t speak loudly or long anyway. I must always be listening first and foremost; nothing must distract me from that task.
I grew older, as did they. The long walk over the dunes became difficult for my mother. She and my father seemed weaker and sadder each time they arrived. But there was something else – I could see the runners who came were also troubled, but no one would speak of it. Finally I asked what was wrong.
The spring is drying up, said the runner. Each year for the last ten we have had a little less food. No children have been born for three years now – the people fear they might starve. The oasis may be dying.
What will happen? I asked. What will you do?
If it dies we will die too, she said. And so will you, I suppose.
That was true. My little hanging garden was watered ingeniously by moisture that dripped from the walls of the cave. This was made to happen somehow by one of the devices I tended in the listening post, but the seeds and plants came from the oasis – and the garden produced only a little of what I needed to survive in any case. The runners brought the rest.
Could you go somewhere else? I asked. Although that would not change my fate.
You know there is nowhere else to go, she answered. The desert goes on forever. At least, no one knows where it ends, if it does. We would die trying to cross it.
I hope the spring doesn’t dry up, I said. Yes, she said. We all hope. But every year the water is less.
More years passed. My parents died, and others buried them. No message came from the speaking tube, but I tended the wall as carefully and constantly as all the other Listeners had before me. The runners still came and went, but they came less frequently and brought less food. I began to grow thin and weak. Then one day, the last runner came.
Only my family is left, she said. And we have decided to take poison rather than starve. I was told to bring some for you. Here is the last food. I won’t return.
Is the food poisoned? I asked.
No, she said. Here is the poison. You can choose the time. She handed me a little glass vial.
What if a message comes? I asked.
It will come too late, she replied.
After she left I let the days go by somehow, without taking up the little vial. I ate as little as I could. I kept to my tasks. I thought: after all, why not wait a bit longer? I can choose whenever I want.
Then one evening as I was sitting at the mouth of the cave, waiting for the stars to come out, I heard a sound I had never heard before. The speaking tube!
The message began to come through, at first as if someone were mumbling indistinctly in my ear, and then at last, as the translating device found the signals it needed in my brain, the words became clear:
We are dying… we are dying, it said. We seek no rescue. This is a warning. We set our world afire. We put the torch to everything that gave us life. Now it’s too late; the last of us are dying. Heed us!
I felt struck by lightning. A message at last! From a distant star!
But I knew the oasis was gone, and there was no one left but me to hear it.
Words kept coming from the speaking tube. A poem, said the voice; I didn’t understand most of what followed. I listened, trying to repeat what I could. Then the last words were spoken, and the voice stopped.
I stood at the mouth of the cave, holding the little vial in my hand. As I lifted it to my lips, I spoke softly the words that described what I looked out upon: the lone and level sands stretched far away.