Conte exhales a plume of blue smoke from his nostrils, watches it rise into the night and waits. He had been conscripted into the Grande Armeé after his twenty-first birthday. Since then he’d been made old and hard by relentless war. He scans the horizon, his eyes drawn thin against the smoke, in search of Hamlyn. What he sees is empty desert, older than his fathers’ father, stretching out for an eternity. If war is akin to hell, why did they ride through its gates? I’m tired. Tired of war, of sand, of heat, and cannon fire. He misses France but more than that he misses his wife and son.
He hears them before he sees them. There is a stillness to this place that carries words far from the mouths they are uttered. Hamlyn and Jacques appear between two ancient sand dunes. When they speak, they do so in hushed tones. Deserters are shot by firing squad.
“Were you followed?” Conte asks.
“No,” Jacques and Hamlyn say.
Even by moonlight Hamlyn does not look well. His skin is the color of milk gone bad, his hair is matted with sweat, and there’s an all too familiar black spot on his neck-the plague. It has killed nearly as many of his countrymen as the English and Ottoman combined. In fact their whole African expedition seemed to be cursed. Their ships had been destroyed and Le Corsican, abandoned them a fortnight ago, seceding command to Kléber, and almost certain defeat.
Hamlyn hacks and coughs, careful to cover his mouth with a disgusting handkerchief. He pockets it but not before Conte spies flecks of blood on the fabric.
“Are you up for this?” Conte empties his pipe, raining embers like stars to his feet.
“It’s better than dying in bed. I’d like to see the blue of the Mediterranean one last time. I’ll make it.”
Jacques scoffs and the cosmos of jewelry around his neck—gilded crescent moons, emerald stars, and bands of silver—tinkles pleasantly. The spoils of war. A veteran of only a single tour, Jacques made up for his lack of experience with incredible ferocity. “He can barely stand upright. He’ll slow us down.”
“Why are you even here?” Conte growls.
“I fight for Napoleon, not Kléber, I go where he goes.”
“Fine.” Conte slings his pack of supplies over his shoulder and picks up his musket.
Using the stars they head south. The plan is to circle the camp and make their way back up to Alexandria where they could book passage or stow away if they were lucky. They make their way slowly, carefully. The desert is full of danger; wandering bands of Mamelukes, British soldiers, and, regretfully, former brothers in arms. All would revel in soaking the sand with their blood.
A cloud passes overhead and for a moment it seems as though the moon has dropped from the sky. Somewhere in the pre-dawn black, a hyena laughs. In the silence that follows, they hear the clink of chains. The three men stop and take cover behind the nearest embankment.
“What is that?” Hamlyn says.
They fumble for their ramrods and tear packets of gunpowder open with their teeth.
“We were followed,” Conte says.
Jacques’s rifle is ready. He aims down the sight of his weapon at the ink-black sky beyond. The moon returns and reveals a silhouette rising above the sand. Jacques pulls back the flintlock on his rifle.
“Steady,” Conte whispers.
The rifle erupts, lighting up the night for an instant. The figure halts then falls head over heels down the dune, coming to rest at their feet. Wedging a boot under the man’s shoulder, Conte rolls him onto his back. Not a man. A Mameluke boy, skin the color of mud brick, no older than his little Louis back home. Blood pours from the side of the boy’s head where the shot has split his right ear. He shields his young face with iron manacles that bind his hands together.
“One of our prisoners,” Hamlyn says.
“All the more reason to gut him.” Jacques twists a bayonet onto the end of his gun.
Conte doubts the boy is old enough to shave. Praying that rank still means something, he steps between Jacques and the prisoner.
“He’s the enemy,” Jacques says.
“We don’t have enemies anymore.” Conte extends a hand to the boy and helps him to his feet. “He’ll come with us.”
Jacques spits into the sand. “He’ll kill us in our sleep first chance he gets.”
They travel by night to avoid the worst of the desert heat, though sleeping during the day proves impossible without protection from the sun. The boy doesn’t try to kill them. Instead, he follows them and prays fervently enough to crack his lips. Perhaps he prays for his captor’s deaths or perhaps not. The boy doesn’t appear to speak French and Conte knows no Arabic. What he does know is that God has a tendency to leave prayers unanswered. How else could war exist?
There is no room for the boy between them. Jacques beats him if he falls out of step with their march and he refuses to go anywhere near Hamlyn, who shivers and coughs, his illness apparent without the use of language. In a show of good will, Conte attempts to pick the lock on the boy’s chains with the tip of a bayonet but to no avail.
Near dawn, on their third night of walking, Conte’s feels a tug on his coattails. The boy says something and points to Hamlyn lying on the ground behind them. His ear is against the sand, as if listening for tremors in the earth. And there, standing next to him a visage of a woman. She has a hand on Hamlyn’s shoulder as though consoling him. No one else should be out this far. They are in the middle of the desert, with a forsaken army behind them and a naval blockade to the North. Conte blinks twice thinking she’d vanish like the countless mirage lakes they’d seen along the way. Always on the horizon just out of reach.
“Do you see that?” he asks.
Jacques presses onward. “Leave him for the buzzards before we catch our death.”
The Mameluke boy tugs at Conte’s hand. First, he points at Hamlyn and the woman, then at himself.
“You see it too.” He says, before brushing the boy off and unslinging his musket.
“Has the desert fried your brain?” Jacques calls after him. “All I see is a dead man.”
From behind the barrel of his gun, Conte approaches the woman. Even up close it’s hard to know where she begins and ends. Another trick of the desert? She’s nearly translucent. A kind of bottle green glass like the windows of Notre-Dame. She kneels next to Hamlyn and whispers in his ear.
“What manner of spirit are you? Get back, or I’ll fill you with lead!” Conte commands.
She regards Conte with faint curiosity. He blinks and she’s gone. Finger on the trigger, he checks each flank but it’s as though the desert floor had swallowed her whole. When he’s convinced they are alone, Conte drapes Hamlyn’s arm over his shoulder and props him up.
“Thank you,” Hamlyn mutters between gasping breaths.
“No eagle left behind,” Conte says.
Hamlyn smiles. It’s ugly and his gums are black, hardly the color of the gilded bird carved on their standards. How many battles had they been through? More than enough. This old guard soldier is the closest thing Conte has to family this far from France.
“It’s not the fever, is it? You saw her too,” Hamlyn says, his Adam’s apple bobbing laboriously up and down. “She only appears to those on death’s door. I think—I think that was the Jade devil.”
Throughout his career Conte had been part of many occupying forces. It didn’t matter where in the world he was, the locals reaction was always the same- unpleasant and uncooperative. However, Egypt was the first place where the locals had resorted to ghost stories in an attempt to crack the soldier’s resolve.
“It’s just a story,” he says.
“What if it’s not?”
Conte understands Hamlyn’s doubt. You can feel it in the air. It’s thick and tangible with the weight of history. God was here, raining blood and locusts down upon the wicked. And the army had done awful things. Horrendous things…
Hamlyn prays, “And though I walk in the shadow of the valley of death, I do fear evil. I’m ashamed to admit it, but even with the Lord in my heart I am afraid to die.”
“Don’t be a fool,” Conte says, squinting into at the rising sun. “There are no shadows here.”
In a sense he is wrong. An east wind brings clouds of swirling dust to obscure the sun. Sand whips through the air, getting in their eyes and blowing off their caps. Conte prays for shelter but the wind rips the words from his mouth faster than even God can catch them. They hold onto each other’s coattails and trudge forward. Until his foot fails to meet solid ground and he tumbles forward taking his fellows with him.
They bounce and roll down the backside of an unseen dune until stopped by a mudbrick wall. They’ve slid onto the threshold of an ancient hut, unearthed by the storm. With relief the travelers crawl through a door made for people much smaller than themselves and into a room the size of a confessional. Wind howls through gaps in the stone where the mortar has eroded away. Time has robbed the building of its original purpose. It was once used as a latrine that much is clear, dried feces fleck the floor looking like coal deposits. A pile of shattered pottery (urns maybe) lie in the corner and one of the walls bares a soot shadow of a campfire extinguished long ago.
“What luck!” Jacques unslings his pack and roots through it. He tosses aside rations of potted meat, gunpowder, wood, and a small black cauldron before finding a skin of water. Uncorking it with his teeth, he spits the cap at the boy. The boy winces as water splashes out of the skin and down Jacques’s chin.
“Jesus, there’s enough for everyone.” Conte eases Hamlyn down onto a bedroll. Hamlyn’s asleep before his head hits the pillow.
Jacques wipes his chin with his sleeve. “No, there isn’t. We barely have enough food for two people let alone four. But your bleeding heart—You share with him. Is there any fruit left?”
Conte grimaces and tosses the boy his own skin of water. Did I make an error in judgment by bringing the boy? The boy eyes Jacques and Jacques, unable to find anything but cans of potted meat, makes a show of finishing off several tins by himself. When he’s bored of tormenting the child, Jacques says, “Christ, I’m hungry enough to turn the cavalry into infantry.”
Conte doesn’t much like the taste of horse though he’s eaten more than his fair share since they left Paris.
Jacques continues, “Horse ain’t so bad if you boil them. We’d have to use some of the water and all of the wood but—”
“No, water is for drinking only.” Conte takes the skin back from the boy and brings it to his own lips to find only a few drops left.
“Told you we should have killed him.” Jacques grins.
The room is cramped and hot with breath from so many bodies. Hamlyn breathes in airy gasps, stirring and twitching in the grip of some fevered dream. Jacques, surrounded by empty ration tins, spoons his musket like a lover. But Conte can’t sleep. It should have come easily after such a long journey but his feet keep touching and when they do, they kick, waking him from his light doze. Marching is second nature to a soldier, matching only their heartbeat, calm, steady, and continuous. I’ll tell my son, he thinks, that Daddy marches in his sleep. Louis will laugh.
Outside, the storm shows little sign of dying. Gusts of wind blow sand through the doorway, covering his boots. If they aren’t careful, they’ll be buried alive. He shakes it off and sand trickles down between glassy green fingers wrapped around his ankle. Crying out, he kicks at the hand, but it holds him down with immense strength. He reaches for his rifle but grasps only sand and dry shit. Using his leg to pull herself free of the earth, the Jade Woman rises from the sand. There! The smooth wood stock of his musket. He grabs it, unlatches the ram rod and packs a bullet down the muzzle. Ready to fire, he aims down the sight at his foot…and nothing else.
Awaking at dusk, Conte finds a light dusting of sand all over his body. After the Jade Woman’s appearance he only managed a light doze; the only sleep a shell-shocked soldier can achieve. Jacques is awake too. He watches the Mameluke boy dip his fingers in the discarded meat tins and suck the grease off them. Hamlyn’s bedroll is empty and damp with night sweats…or worse.
“Pathetic,” Jacques says.
“Does it matter? He was done for anyway,” Jacques says. “More food for us…when we find it. A quail maybe? Make a nice stew.”
Conte grabs his musket and makes sure it’s ready to be fired. “Quail don’t live in the desert,” he says. “Stay here.”
The storm changed the landscape, moving dunes and covering their tracks. Nothing looks familiar, and it’s not yet dark enough for him to get his bearings using the stars. Walking in ever widening circles around the hovel, he comes across tracks resembling Hamlyn’s wobbling gait. Worse still, there are two sets of tracks.
Eventually the hut looks like a toy model behind him. Its door glowing with a welcoming, homey light. He told Jacques no fires. Likely the man is boiling his shoes, no doubt to eat the leather. Twenty more minutes of walking reveals Hamlyn and something Conte can scarcely believe—water, more alien up close than from afar. Tender green sprouts shoot up around its shores. Conte runs to the water’s edge convinced that if he did not get there in time the oasis would disappear. Once there, he falls to his knees and plunges his empty water skin into the shallows. It gurgles happily as if thanking him. Marveling at the clarity of the water, Conte laughs as Louis had the first time he and his wife let him play in the ocean.
Hamlyn sits in the water, shirt wrapped around his head, with bare feet lazily sending ripples from one end of the pond to the other. Conte recoils with the realization that the whole spring has been poisoned with the plague. He dumps the contents of the skin back into the pool and dries his hands on his trousers. Hamlyn hums to himself, blissfully unaware that he’d ruined their best chance at surviving the rest of the journey. He cups water over his sunburnt torso. A torso free of both swelling and boils.
“Hamlyn,” Conte says.
“Greetings Conte,” says a female voice as sweet as a church choir.
Rising from the far bank, wet sand clinging to crystal flesh, is the Jade Woman. She strides through the shallow water with her shoulders back and her eyes locked on his own. Conte heaves Hamlyn out of the water, carrying him to safety as he had in battlefields past. This seems to wake him from a trance.
“Conte? Look, I found water.” His voice is sluggish and hoarse. Then the color drains from his face and vomit spills down his front. Alarmed, Conte drops his friend. Fresh sores, yellow, violet and red bloom on Hamlyn’s body as though it were spring. The Jade Woman steps forward. Conte raises his musket. Hamlyn moans, writhing in the sand between them.
“Let me help him,” she chimes. “Let me help you.”
He pulls back the flintlock, “I beg you come no closer, foul spirit. I am here for the safe return of my friend and no more.”
She edges backward, smiling, as though he were no more than a dance partner. “Your friend reached out to me for assistance. I can make everything better. You… ‘Frenchmen’ desire such different things…this man so near death is more what I’m accustomed to. But the rest of you are riddles. Jacques, leaving one war in hopes of finding a better one. And you…would you…like to see your son again?”
Pain, like the kick of a horse, smashes his head. Then there’s a wiggling sensation behind his eyes. Images of Louis flicker in his mind’s eye like a dying flame. A skinny child with a gap toothed and irregular smile. His bright eyes, so much like his mother’s, going out alongside her as the mob trampled over them and into the courtyard. Two more innocent victims. Vive la France.
“How dare you show me my boy.” Conte grits his teeth and puts the butt of his rifle to his shoulder.
She reaches out to Hamlyn as a mother would. This close together he runs the risk of actually hitting Hamlyn by mistake. Finger on the trigger, Conte trusts years of military drilling to take the shot for him. The rifle recoils and the woman’s hand shatters into a thousand glittering pieces. The hand and wrist lie scattered like green pebbles amidst the sand. Her forearm is jagged and dangerous-looking. Fractures run all the way up to her shoulder like infected veins.
She screams in pain. A breeze turns into a gust bringing the sand at her feet to life. Something passes in front of the moon and, for a moment, the desert is pitch black save for a dull green light coming from the woman. She kneels down pushing the sharp edges of her arm into the ground. Her forearm disappears into the sand, then her elbow.
Conte uses the opportunity to steal Hamlyn away from her. He picks him up, surprised at how light he’s become in a moment, and begins putting distance between them and the glass monster. Up and over the hill, back the way he came. The swirling sand evolves into another storm, a woman’s fury made material. Hamlyn shivers in his arms, his face scrunched up in pain. Conte sets him gingerly down.
“You still with me Ham? We have to keep moving.”
Hamlyn’s eyes roll back in his head exposing the whites. Pink foam escapes the corners of his mouth, dolloping down his front. Conte repeatedly calls his name, shaking him by the shoulders as he does so, but the bubbles cease and Conte knows he’s gone.
Conte pulls Hamlyn’s shirt down over his eyes. It’s not much of a burial shroud but at least now he doesn’t have to look at his accusing stare. He loathes to abandon Hamlyn. Left to rot in the sun, forgotten by everyone save the vultures and God. He deserves a burial, a decent Christian one, someplace where the ground is less hungry. With one final salute Conte turns on his heels and scrambles up a dune.
Like a great swarm of locusts the sand bites every bit of his exposed skin. Conte shields his eyes stumbling blindly down a ravine and back to the little hovel. The stone hut pulses with a magical, orange light. A lighthouse guiding him home. Black tendrils of smoke slither through gaps in the mortar only to be swept away by the storm. Conte takes a look back. The Jade Woman nowhere to be seen. He slides down the embankment, words of warning half-formed as he crosses the threshold of the structure.
Inside, Jacques tends to a fire built with the little kindling they had. His musket is planted in the ground and from its barrel hangs the small black pot. It looks like a fishing rod left unattended. He sprinkles droplets of kerosene into the flame. The boy is in his corner, facing the wall, seemingly protecting himself from the horrible smell cast by the flames.
“Oh, you’re back,” Jacques says, his mouth shiny with grease. “Hamlyn’s dead I presume.”
“We need to leave! Now! The Jade Woman is real. She…she got Hamlyn.”
Jacques plucks a piece of meat out of the pot. It steams in his hand and must be far hotter than he lets on. He says, “You should eat. You’ve been out in the desert too long, you look half mad.”
The boiled meat is gray and flavorless looking but his stomach rumbles despite its unappetizing appearance. If the three of them were to survive the storm and escape the woman, Conte would need his strength.
“The boy needs it more than me,” Conte says.
Jacques pops the morsel into his own mouth and chews slowly. His eyes twinkle as though he knows something that Conte doesn’t. An empty tin crinkles under his boot. The floor is littered with them, and they are all empty.
The boy hasn’t moved since his return. Jacques chews with his mouth open, his tongue violently swishing side to side. Conte reaches out and touches the boys shoulder. The skin is cold and, when Conte turns him, he discovers a slit throat. For a moment, Conte finds himself back in Paris, amidst smoke and rain, cradling his own son. Chunks of the boy’s flesh are missing, scooped out like melon.
“You son of a bitch! What did you do?”
“We needed food and now there’s one less mouth to feed,” Jacques says as though explaining basic arithmetic. He stands up and wipes his mouth with the back of his hand. “You should have never brought him with us in the first place. Look, we can make it now. The both of us.”
Conte sets the boy down gingerly and draws himself up to his feet. The fire is in-between them, Jacques’s musket buried in the sand. Conte’s own lost to the sands of time.
“He was just a boy. His hands were bound.”
“Don’t you want to see your family again? We get to France and go about our lives. No one has to know.”
“You’re saying you did this for me? You’re sick.”
“He’s not French,” Jacques says. “Just a prisoner. He was no one.”
The oily smell coming from the fire sits in a ball in the back of Conte’s throat. He exhales through his nose and it burns his nostrils. He wants to call Jacques vile. Tell him that the Lord would have no mercy for such a sin, that he’d kill him for this. But all he can do is gag at the taste in his mouth.
Hamlyn’s musket still sat propped against the wall. Jacques sees it too. Conte lunges, reaching his hands out. Jacques kicks the coals of the fire at him. The coals fly through the air and bombard Conte like comets, striking his hand and cheek, hissing as they flash-fry his skin. Conte recoils grunting in pain. Jacques unearths his own rifle from the sand, he aims down the sights and pulls the trigger. The flintlock just clicks uselessly. It’s not been loaded properly. He stabs at Conte with a thrust of his bayonet. Conte hurls himself away from the blade. Too slow. The blade, cold and hard, plunges into his side just above his hip.
Jacques bears down on him, his stolen turban coming askew. What will Jacques loot off my corpse? Conte wonders. Will he cut me up into bite size morsels? A snack, for the rest of his journey. Desperately, Conte looks for something, anything he can grab to gain the upper hand. There in the dirt lay the cauldron. His peripherals are going dark. His head is spinning. His hand is reaching, sifting, probing to find the cauldrons cool black iron handle. He grabs it and swings upward with all his might. The metal bong seems to Conte as loud as cannon fire. The pressure and pain in his gut lessen, and Jacques topples backward into the black ring of embers.
Merely touching the gun planted in him like a flag sends waves of pain up his body and down to his curling toes. Worse still is the blood pooling underneath him. Conte breathes in and out, calming his shaking hands. He clenches his asshole then tugs. The bayonet comes free but, like a garment coming unknit, he feels as though his innards were leaving with it. With one last cry of pain he tosses the weapon aside and curls into a ball, hands clasped to his abdomen.
The little hut is quiet and empty when Conte opens his eyes. Even the wind outside has gone from howl to whisper. He presses a hand onto the sand where the fire had been. It’s warm but not hot. Sand coats his hand as he pulls it away. He scoots to the wall, and pressing his back against it, manages to get up to his feet on his second try. A sad spurt of blood pushes through his fingers as he wobbles. His head is light and airy. He grabs a rifle and uses it as a walking stick. Outside is the pale blue of dawn.
He’d always found marching to be so well ingrained that it would inhibit his sleep but now he is grateful for the instinct. His feet carry him, almost automatically away from the godforsaken hut.
Not a hut, a tomb…for a boy whose name he’d never learned.
He thought, perhaps, that he would come upon Hamlyn’s body half-buried from the storm though he never did. He would have finished the job for him maybe even have said a prayer. Despite the heat of the day Conte feels a chill, as though all his winters had returned to haunt his bones. He thinks of his own boy, buried deep beneath a yew sapling and the head stone he’d carved himself.
“Would you like to see your son?” The Jade Woman rises from the sand. Her arm re-forged anew.
More than anything in the world, he thinks.
“Be gone with you spirit.” Conte stumbles and falls to his knees.
The woman wraps her arms around his waist and easily sets him on his feet. Despite her appearance, the Jade Woman feels normal. Her skin soft like a real persons, smooth like his—“Do you wish to see your wife again?”
Conte does his best to struggle but he is weak. When he breaks free of her grasp it is because she lets him. He doesn’t get far before running out of breath. There are no more tracks to follow, no blood, just empty desert for as far as the eye could see. An eternity of desert. Jacques is gone. Conte lowers himself down and checks his wound. He’s made it worse, and the sand caked inside stings more than the alcohol a field medic uses. Despite this, his eyes are heavy. The ground is just as comfy as his old worn cot back in the barracks.
“I can help you. Let me help you,” The Jade Woman says, having closed the gap between them with grace.
“I don’t want your help,” Conte says, but he’s too tired to keep running.
She sits down next to him, careful to leave some space between them. “Because of your family?”
Whatever she is, she’s been in his head before, leafing through his thoughts and memories as though he were a book on a shelf. It’s how she spoke French, and how she knew about Louis too. How can God condemn him speaking with her when she knew more about him than he was ever willing to share?
“Do you know why I never told them my family was dead?”
The Jade Woman nods in the affirmative, then says, “No, why?”
Conte puzzles at this. Why ask if you know the answer?
“I hoped I wouldn’t survive. I wanted Hamlyn or Jacques to return to France and discover they had passed. To have them think it a small mercy that I had died without knowing.”
It is the first time he’s said this aloud. She’s helping regardless of the moral intent behind a prayer. Shelter appearing in the midst of a storm. Hamlyn’s healing oasis. Jacques’s rumbling belly…Perhaps that’s what makes her evil, perhaps that’s why God is silent more oft than not.
“I was going into the desert to die. But Hamlyn followed and the boy appeared and I couldn’t let go.”
“Do you truly want to die?” She asks.
Conte shakes his head not meeting her eyes. “I cannot let Jacques get away with what he’s done.” He needs a smoke, his hands automatically go for a pipe in his breast pocket that’s not there. He is too weak to haul his weary bones up to his feet one last time. It’s getting dark.
“It’s out of your hands now. Do you understand?”
“Back at the pool, when Hamlyn died. You said a friend reached out to you,” Conte says, “It was the boy?”
“Yes,” she says.
Then he did want us dead. “How does Jacques die?” he asks.
“Alone in the mud and frost.”
Good, Conte thinks. His breathing is shallow. The pain in his side is numb, almost as though it were never there to begin with. He slouches over, his eyes closing, and finds his rest in a desert older than any of his father’s fathers.
Garrett Davis is a plumber by day and writer whenever he can muster the courage. He lives in B.C. with his loving girlfriend and has previously been published in Freefall Magazine.