Desert Song: A Girl In Exile, A Trickster Horse, and the Women Rising Up
is now available through our Community Publishing Campaign.
Find out more here.
At dawn, they stumbled into a slot canyon, staggering with exhaustion. There, they dismounted and walked with the horses, allowing them to rest.
“If it rains, we will be trapped,” Emir cautioned, glancing at the grey clouds pressing against the distant mountainsides.
Mahteni eyed the storm. Deep circles hung under her eyes and her skin shivered with weariness. A late spring storm like this might be thinned from the first hints of summer heat. It might merely come down as a sprinkle.
“If we can make it past the Needle’s Eye,” she told Emir, “there is a place to hide and rest. The rain, if it falls, will likely only fall on the upper mountains. If it releases on the lower mountains, it will at least cover our tracks. We can continue out the other side of the canyon tomorrow.”
Ari Ara trudged up the sandy path of the dry riverbed. Any plan was better than no plan.
Emir gripped Mahteni’s elbow.
“You said if . . . “
“It will be fine,” she told him, though she glanced warily at the gathering clouds. If the rains fell too hard, too low, or too early, they could be trapped in the slot, swallowed by the flash of water pouring into the narrow space. If this were late summer, when the pounding daily thunderstorms came, she wouldn’t risk it. But today, they just might make it.
Even in her exhaustion, Ari Ara stared in awe at the canyon. The walls rose vertically, curved and carved by a long-extinct river, a memory of older times. The passage narrowed until the crumbling sandstone scraped the horses’ flanks. They whinnied uneasily. The sound hit flat against the press of rock. The sky tightened into a winding ribbon of grey overhead. A few times, it vanished behind an overhang. Gnarled old pines clung stubbornly to the crumbling white slopes, perched precariously on nothing but the tenacity of their roots.
A tiny drop hit Ari Ara’s arm. Then another. High above them, the wind thrashed. Bits of dust and grass and dry pine needles tumbled down onto their heads.
“Hurry,” Mahteni murmured, though their legs felt leaden and their feet heavy as stone.
The Needle’s Eye was not far, but the sand underfoot was turning dark and bruise-colored. The invisible trickle of an underground stream was rising. They quickened their steps. Small puddles pooled in the horses’ footprints. As they squeezed through a tight bend, the choke of the canyon’s curving sides sent a knot of fear down Ari Ara’s spine. If the passageway tightened any further, the horses wouldn’t fit.
“Quickly,” Mahteni urged as the sand turned to sodden mud.
The thread of water grew into a tiny stream. Mahteni splashed up a small cascade of falls that swelled by the second. Emir’s horse balked as the spout of water thickened. Tekli refused to leap, slamming Emir hard against the canyon wall in panic. A shower of pebbles broke loose. One stung the horse’s flank and Tekli lunged forward, landing on the other side with shivering skin and flaring nostrils. Emir hauled Ari Ara up against the weight of the current. The canyon widened here, curling in a bend around a massive and determined old tree. The water rose to their shins as they sloshed onward. Ari Ara cried out as she stepped into a hidden hollow and fell to her thighs. She flailed. The current swept her feet out from under her. Emir lunged, grabbed her tunic, and hauled her back to standing.
The water deepened, coming up to their knees and rising further still. Soon, they slogged through thigh-deep water. Emir and Mahteni staggered against the current. Ari Ara clung to the horse’s neck. The water had reached her chest. When Emir realized her feet were no longer anchored to the sand, he hoisted her on top of Tekli.
“We’re almost there!” Mahteni hollered over the roaring grumble of the water.
Ari Ara sighed in relief, but then gasped. The Needle’s Eye had turned into a monster, a growling serpent of water, twisting and falling through the tight, oval opening. The force of the river pounded the canyon sides, flinging pebbles and sand into the muddy waters.
“The bottom is flat,” Mahteni told Emir. “The horses can make it if we guide them past their fear.”
“It’s too deep for us, though,” Emir cried. “We’ll never wade through it.”
“We’ll climb,” Mahteni told him grimly, pointing to the narrow gap of the canyon walls. Ari Ara was too short; she would have to try to ride the horse through the slot.
There was no time to argue. Emir and Mahteni braced their hands and feet against the two sides of the canyon walls and inched over the falls. On the other side, a shoulder opened. An old bend of the river had carved a high cave and deposited a flat bank of sand and stone beneath it. A thick tree rose between boulders. Mahteni called to the horses and urged them forward.
“Please,” Ari Ara whispered to Tekli, shuddering with fear and exhaustion. Mahteni’s mare heard the woman’s calls and surged forward. Tekli followed his friend. The tall mare’s wake carved an easier path for the smaller Marianan horse. The water pounded against the horses’ chests. Ari Ara prayed their hooves wouldn’t slip out from under them. Mahteni and Emir called and whistled, urging the horses to fight the pounding current.
At last, they made it through the Needle’s Eye. The mare staggered up the bank to the cheers of the humans. Released from her bulk, the surging water slammed into Tekli. The smaller horse jolted. His hooves scrambled against the sandy bank. He braced against the tug of the water. Ari Ara hung on with white-knuckled fists, her legs shaking from clenching the round barrel of the horse’s girth. The flashflood surged up in waves and tried to shove her off Tekli’s back. Emir and Mahteni’s shouting thundered dimly in her ears.
“Try,” she urged in Desert Speech, invoking the magic and power of the language.
The horse turned into the current and staggered toward the bank. Tekli heaved his bulk up onto solid ground. Ari Ara’s eyelids lowered in relief.
“Thank you,” she whispered, sliding off.
She didn’t even remember touching the ground.
Desert Song is now available through our Community Publishing Campaign. Find out more here.