The air smells of smoke and spices. The fire produces a glow of red and orange, and the sudden brightness makes the woman squirm. She draws closer to the man. It's for the first time in months she displays such proximity. The man retraces those incidents that led to this restrained communication between them. The little bump, that fall, bleeding, that rush of blood, her cries, her anguish, the hospital, solemn expressions on the doctor's face. Fifteen weeks. And the end of growing life. Images of red clots and infants taunted them for nights. The shade of red began to frighten her. They dressed her in a creamy white gown that fateful day. Like the color of chalkstone structures around them, formed due to several sandstorms. But nothing like the storm that wrecked their blissful marital life. Those months of dealing with hysterical rants, tears, bawling, and then a sudden stony silence. A silence that terrified him. A silence that led to her disengagement from reality. That smell of burnt toast, dirty laundry, split coffee on the upholstery, the leaking pipe, unkempt hair, eyes that lost their sheen, long stares out of the window. Months went by. Seasons changed. And yet, in his life, everything had come to a standstill.
The sudden gust of wind ruffles her hair and caresses her cheek. For a moment, he thinks he sees a little sparkle in her eyes, looks hopeful, and then slumps his shoulders. All he sees is just the reflection of the stars in her eyes. Together they watch the gems of the sky, arranged in a pattern, each competing to be the brightest. The moon's reflection falls like a floodlight on them. A pair of invisible arms cradle them into a divine embrace. Beneath the star-studded canvas of black is a sheet of white that stretches across for miles. Chalk-like formations rest on it. Shaped sometimes like a woman's head, a rabbit, a giant bird, or a mushroom. Peculiar yet fascinating. A fleeting sound echoes in the stillness of the white desert. Almost like a whisper. Then there is a crackling noise of the fire. The man looks up and watches his tourist guide boil eggs, placing the cooked chicken and rice on the yellow mats. He now clears his throat.
"Dinner is ready," he says.
She looks at him. Pale face, tired eyes, and luscious black hair. Small creases form on her broad forehead as she stares at the horizon.
"The fox?" she asks.
Their tour guide's mention of the appearance of the desert fox earlier that day appears to have etched in her mind.
"Consider it your good luck if you see one," he'd said.
"Does it come every night?" the woman asked.
"Can't tell," the guide shrugged.
The man stands up and offers his hand. She takes it, and they walk towards the tour guide. Another gust of wind blows. They watch the reddish-orange ball of fire sway by the force of the air. The elements of nature synchronized in perfect harmony. Like they had once been. It triggered memories of their first date a few years ago.
The restaurant by the sea, the musical notes of the violin wrapped in each other's arms, the rhythmic movement of their feet, and swaying to the music. Their eyes would shine like stars. Their faces would emanate a glow. How the man wishes he could turn back the clock. Maybe they wouldn't have run down those stairs. Perhaps they wouldn't have been in a rush to watch that latest blockbuster. If only they knew. His eyes feel heavy with the unshed tears. Not a drop of water slid down his cheek since that day. He couldn't. Not when his wife was on the brink of insanity. Nothing would help. Not his parents. Not her parents. Not their friends. Not her colleagues. Calls and emails went unanswered, doors closed, and her abrupt resignation letter. And just like that, she'd retreated into her shell. A change of scene, their doctor, had reiterated. A considerable amount of pleading had finally resulted in a reluctant nod when he mentioned Egypt. He remembered her dream about visiting the land of the pharaohs ever since she'd read The Alchemist. The silence lingered around them, with occasional bouts of awkward small talk. Throughout their flight from India, drive to the hotel, and tour around the pyramids.
As mentioned by their guide, the word tomb triggered her bouts of melancholy and a pool of tears. She couldn't bear the sight of those happy families. Even the presence of historical monuments or cruising on the calm blue waters of the Nile couldn't divert her mind. He didn't blame her, yet he wondered if they would ever see daylight again. He recollected they led content lives with him as an investment banker and his wife educating young minds. Was it Karma compelling nature to play such a cruel trick on them? Even this vacation was taunting his wife. Perhaps they should go back to being holed in that room in their apartment where they'd placed a cradle surrounded with toys. Let his wife dwell in misery that seemed to instill a strange calmness in her. Their tour guide’s casual and impromptu suggestion steered them into this surreal space of whiteness called the White desert. Placid and bare. No sign of a tree or a bush. No scent of a flower. They looked around, gasping at the vastness of the space. White, white, and white. Shades of brown here and there. Crescent-like structures. Almost giving them the feeling of landing on the moon. They reached in time to see the sun sink behind the clouds. Its rays stretched in a manner like it was bidding goodbye. Darkness prevailed.
The man and his wife sit. The smell of spices wafts into their nostrils as the guide serves them chicken and rice. The chicken pieces are swimming in a pool of red gravy, smeared with spices. The man and his wife pause for a second and stare at the red liquid. He looks at her and nods understandingly.
"Is it too hot or spicy?" the guide seems concerned.
They shake their heads, take a bite of the white rice, and carefully pick the chicken pieces. They push the gravy aside. The guide continues to make small talk. Then he asks a question that makes the couple cringe. Of course, the guide doesn't know about his folly of inadvertently touching a raw nerve.
No children? he asks in an innocuous manner. A chill breeze blows tossing his loosely worn hat a few yards away. He moves to get it. Under the watchful eyes of the stars, the couple's eyes glisten with salty drops of fluid. For a moment, everything appears hazy, almost like a mirage. It is then they hear a light skittering of paws. When they see it at first, they aren't sure if it is just a figment of their imagination. Only the tour guide's remark makes them realize that the blurry shape of the bat-like ears, the long funnel-like fur tail, and the triangular face is as real as it could get. The desert fox has arrived.
The man and his wife can now see its light fawn color fur that seems to have a special glow. As though it is put under the spotlight. It walks in rather shyly, its tail tucked between the legs, and presents itself to the couple. It looks up with its black eyes that are shaped like dates. The dot of black on its nose resembles a blackberry fruit. A contrast to its creamy off-white fur. It looks around, at the fire, the food, and then back at the couple. The cricket chirrups suddenly, and the whistling sound of the wind reverberates through this white arid land. The tour guide places an egg in a jar of water. The fox looks at it curiously and moves closer.
The woman stares at the fox. An inexplicable calmness takes over her face. Is it relief? Joy? Intrigue? The fox shakes its head slightly and takes a step closer. They notice how tiny it is with that innocent look in its eyes and curious expression on its face. It almost dispels the notion of any cunningness that is usually associated with a fox. And yet it seems to look at the woman closely. For some reason, it does not care much for the man. He steps back and watches them. Perhaps it senses her loss? Is it comforting her? And then it bends down and nibbles the egg. It bites and chews slowly before it swallows it down its throat.
She stretches her arm and strokes its fur. It stops eating. Once again, the fox looks at her. Is it wary? Sensitive to human touch? Fearful? The woman and the fox stared at each other. She instinctively reaches out again. The fur feels soft in her hands. Above them, the stars are twinkling. The moon is as radiant as ever. The ghostly expression on the woman's face is gone. After many months, she seems to have come alive. Her eyes seem to be communicating something to the fox. What is she saying? What is she seeing? The man wonders. The tour guide gets up quietly and stands at a distance. The fox finishes eating and curls beside the fire. Then it gets up, scampers for a while, and stops. It turns back and looks at the woman for a long time. And gradually, it becomes a speck of dust. The flames are dying down. The woman fixed her gaze towards the direction where the fennec fox disappears. The tour guide breaks the spell with his animated small talk. He gathers the vessels and mats and puts them in the vehicle they had traveled.
"You are lucky," he says.
The man looks at him inquiringly.
"Many people have come but go back disappointed. They don't see the fox."
"Oh," that's all the man says.
He takes a deep breath. The woman is still in a trance, and it suddenly turns cold. He wraps a blanket around her and leads her to the tent. Under the star-lit sky, they fall into a deep slumber. They do not notice the tent flapping. They are oblivious to the winds' howl, the sand flying in the air, and the banshee-like wails.
The woman is the first to wake up. She steps outside the tent. The sun peeps out on the horizon. Streaks of yellow and orange illuminate the sky like a golden carpet. The clouds gradually part to present a cascade of blue. The shades of white and brown are more apparent in the daytime. The chalk formations look even more dramatic in the sunlight. She blinks and gapes at the structures around her. There is one shaped like a sphinx that catches her fancy, and she walks towards it. She attempts to brush some dust on the stones and feels a tap on her shoulder.
"There was a little storm last night," the man says.
"A storm?" she whispers
"Yes. That explains the black particles."
"What about the…," she looks around furtively.
"It will survive. That's what the guide said."
"We survived too."
The woman looks at him for a long time. She nods. Everything around them appears calm and serene. They walk towards the camp, where the guide hands them coffee. They take a sip and see more unique shapes.
"If we leave now, we can reach the city soon," the guide tells them.
He puts away the things in the vehicle. The woman's eyes widen. Her face portrays a tinge of sadness as she quickly looks at the magnificent rock boulders. What is it about this pearl white landscape that fills her with a strange sense of tranquility? Is it her estrangement from people? Reality? Truth? She walks around some more. The man observes her. She appears to be moving away from him. Her silhouette glistens in the sunlight, and she almost seems nonexistent. He quickly walks towards her, takes her hand gently, and places it on his face.
"It's time to go," he says softly.
Reluctantly, she trudges behind him. On the sheets of sand, she sees their footprints. They appear like tiny dots in a pattern. Like the ones, she'd seen in the stars. Limitless and infinite. It'll soon be cascaded by another sheet of sand. The guide starts the vehicle, and it roars. Clouds of white sand fill the air. The woman turns and cranes her neck. Eventually, the desert reduces to a white dot.
"The fox?" she asks.
"It'll come," says the man.
The woman places her head on the man's shoulder. He wraps his arms around her. Locked in an embrace, they drive far from this white space. They are so lost in each other that they do not see it. A pair of black eyes on a body of fawn color fur peers at their vehicle from a corner and blesses them.
Swetha Amit is currently pursuing her MFA at the University of San Francisco. She was a participant in the Tin House Winter Workshop 2022. As a writer, she has published her memoir titled 'A Turbulent Mind-My Journey to Ironman 70.3’, works in Gastropoda Lit Magazine, and Atticus Review, and has upcoming pieces in Amphora magazine. She has secured admission into the Kenyon Review Writers’ workshop in summer 2022.