(Translated from Romanian by Mihaela Alecu. For Romanian click here)
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The strong desert stoutly brained him. First, he couldn’t remember how and why he got to the desert. Maybe it was that trip meant to see the pyramids? And yet, from being there, where the group was, the guide, everything, here he was, barely barging, at the end of his rope, by himself, breathing and chewing the sand which got everywhere… which reminded him that he did not know when he had last eaten.
He stopped for a while, realizing the critical situation he had reached. He wanted to tell himself loudly, God damn it, but he couldn’t move his sun and dust burned lips. Thirst made its presence felt, it had probably been with him for a while, but he was only feeling it now, more poisonous. He looked ahead: sand everywhere, overheated. Everywhere the same. Up, no sign of clouds. At least my mind is still working, he thought, but this certainty vanished quickly: for how long, I wonder?
Little by little he started making a few more steps, but his feet refused to listen to him. He crushed. I will crawl, he said to himself, and headed forward on all fours. The sand started to run wild, hitting his face, his eyes, his mouth, his nostrils. At least I’m moving, he encouraged himself. And I will get somewhere. Anywhere, at least to the hospital. Of course, an oasis would be more convenient.
He looked at his watch: it had stopped working. He looked sideways at the sun: it couldn’t be more than 1-2 P.M. I have plenty of chances until the evening. It is not like hundreds of years ago when one could die in the desert. They must be looking for me, I’m sure they wondered where I disappeared. It’s true, if I would have made friends with the other tourists quicker. But I couldn’t start a discussion with any of them, one which could link us up or at least make a friend of one of them. It’s true, there was that young woman and if I weren’t so shy, what was her name, Maria…
Maria heard her name. She looked round: Irina was flagging her down. She waited for her: I forgot to give you this, it’s my charm. May it bring you good luck! It was a necklace with a small cross. Thank you, I will bring it back safe. She hugged her one more time and then she hurried to get on the bus, next to the others. The guide shortly introduced them the schedule: at this hour we will be at the airport, the flight will take this long, we will get to Cairo at that hour, we will spend the first night at Hotel… Maria had stopped listening; she knew all this from the pamphlet she received with the ticket. She shut her eyes trying to fall asleep. She wasn’t tired but she felt better like this. In the back seat, a couple was making plans. Next to her, a girl was skimming through a magazine. She could hear her discretely rustling the pages. A pleasant drowsiness took over her, the kind that only the long expected holiday could bring. Although she didn’t have it in her mind to, she fell asleep. A sleep during which she could still be aware of everything that was going on around her, but at the same time she was dreaming, and the reality was rather incorporated within the dream than the other way around. She saw how a young man looked at her, handsome enough to consider him, squint, from a chair on the opposite side of the bus. She knew he was watching her, not her colleague, and this made her feel good. Now. In different circumstances, she would have been bothered. She was not the kind to get hit on by strangers, and most of the time she wouldn’t even flirt with those she knew. She was waiting for the right person, convinced she was going to recognize him when she would meet him. Actually, it was better to put things straight from the beginning. She opened her eyes and stared into the young man’s eyes, he quickly looked down, Maria smiled…
She has such a charming smile, he thought, and with his eyes down, more closed than opened, he continued to crawl. Deeper than the pain in his body he now felt a headache, difficult to localize precisely. He took his hand to his forehead and felt it was wet. Sweat, he told himself. Looking closer at his hand, the sweat was mixed with red sand, which seemed more like cruor. It was good that it was not pouring, this was the last thing I needed, he said to himself, to lose blood. As if I wouldn’t be weak enough.
It wasn’t until they were on the plane that they spoke to each other. Maria was headed towards the toilet and he was waiting in front of the door. You can go in first, he told her, for me it is not an emergency. Thank you, Maria answered, and, when the cabin was free, she entered. She didn’t stay long, although a hidden desire to make him tiptoe was pushing her to linger some more. However reason won and she was out as soon as she finished. She thanked him once again for his kindness, and then she went back to her seat. They were already flying for several hours and boredom had replaced the enthusiasm of the first flight. The take-off was amazing, that moment when gravity was defeated by the giant people built machine in their constant need to defeat space and time.
The toilet door opened and Maria saw him getting out, looking about for her. He smiled and headed to his chair. He wanted to get closer to her, to wedge in, but he didn’t. She smiled back, but the result was only a smile response. Then she looked for her book and resigned to reading. Who knows maybe later it will come to some adventure.
At one point he stopped. He couldn’t go one meter further, neither on all fours, not crawling, like in the army. He leaned his head on one side, on the burning sand. He was at the point where one gives up fighting, and the survival instinct is weaker that the tiredness. Although “weariness” would be a more appropriate word. He thought for a while that he might die here, but this thought was rather comforting than scary. All I want is to get some rest. And he gave over to the pleasure. He shut his eyes completely. Although the sun was powerful, at last he could rest his eyes which burned him terribly. As he was, he started remembering. He saw Maria smiling after she was out of the toilet. He would have liked to be a bit, just a bit more bold and to go sit next to her. What could have happened? He thought that he would do it after he would get to the hotel.
For a while his mind stopped. The sun was burning, but he didn’t feel a thing. Then, like in a movie, a series of flashes – the pilot’s voice announcing that they were a certain distance away from Cairo and that they were going to start the landing, then the sand storm, incredibly high, the blocked engines, the passenger’s shouts, Maria’s desperate look.
He suddenly opened his eyes. This had happened. God forbid, he said to himself. He held his head up, looking around. They all died; maybe I am not alive myself. He tried to pinch his arm, as he had read in books, to see if he was awake. Unfortunately, I am! What about Maria? Maybe she survived, maybe others got out alive as well, as I did… He remembered that the pilot tried a forced landing in the desert, but the plane could not be controlled. The slam was terrible; the noise of the exploding steel and the people crying would have sufficed to kill him. He couldn’t remember if he had looked for survivors or he had headed on, without realizing what was happening, what he was doing.
I cannot give up now that I dodged that disaster, he said to himself. He tried to stand up, but he immediately crashed back. This is it, he said to himself, before he blacked out.
Maria was looking at him, protecting him from the sun. You must wake up, she repeated. She dropped some water on his lips. He managed to hear her and to return from the road he had taken. He opened his eyes. Maria! You got away too… Yes, she answered. But you must stand up. You cannot give up now, after you have been through so much. You are so close! Not far from here there’s an oasis. We must get there, before nightfall! If the sun didn’t kill you, the cold certainly will.
Strengthened by her words and leaning on her arm he managed to stand up. He started walking slowly, next to her. It is a miracle, he kept repeating. Without you I would have died here… Forgive me that I didn’t spoke to you on the plane, I was going to. He quickened, it was as if his tiredness had disappeared. Save your strength, Maria told him. Don’t say anything now. You don’t need to say anything! Just focus, every step of the way. You cannot afford to fall again; I haven’t got enough strength to lift you up again. You are right, he told her. You are right.
He didn’t know how long they have been walking like this, he felt as exhausted as at the beginning. When he saw the oasis, he fell to his knees. You must go on, Maria encouraged him. At least until they will see you! I can’t go any longer myself… You cannot give up, now that there is so little left. Do it for us! Inspired once again, with his last strength he headed towards the oasis, carried through by Maria as much as she could.
He slept for so long, that he couldn’t remember how much. When he woke up, he looked around surprised. He couldn’t recognize anybody, he couldn’t remember a thing. Where am I? he asked. Since everybody else was curiously watching him, he thought that maybe they could not understand Romanian, so he tried in English. They answered. Little by little he recovered his memory. He remembered the plane crush, wandering the dessert, the border between life and death. Then suddenly: Where is Maria? Maria who? was the answer. Maria, that nice young lady who was with me, who helped me get here, who saved me!
After they looked at him for a moment, they silently exchanged looks among themselves. What is it? What happened? He asked. He walked his eyes from one to another desperately. She didn’t die, did she? It is not possible that she could have died… She was stronger than me, sturdier, less tired… Tell me she did not die! The men were shaking their heads, without saying a word. Until he almost started screaming: talk already! One of them, who was older, spoke to him with patience: when somebody saw you, you were crawling on all four, almost dead. We got to you immediately and we brought you here. You fought death several days, we thought you were going to die, but it seems that God decided otherwise. All right, all right, he said, but what happened to Maria? We don’t know, said the old man. When we found you, you were by yourself.
He looked at him puzzled; he would have liked to say something else, but his look and those of the others said that they were not joking.