Step 1. Acknowledge your situation
It starts with choking. Something rough is scratching at my throat and no matter how many times I try to swallow or cough there’s no relief. I can’t open my eyes either; every time I try there’s instant pain and discomfort. I’m sputtering and crying, trying to bring air into my lungs, trying to regain my senses.
When I open my eyes tears blur my vision. My lungs are screaming for air and I’m breathing quickly to keep up with their demands. I must have been digging into the ground because they’re covered in sand. I’m covered in sand, completely, and I suspect there are probably grains of it lodged in my throat. I’m surrounded by it. As far as I can see, sand spans out until it meets the sky. There’s something else too.
There’s a tree, massive in height and stripped entirely bare of leaves. It looks strange for a tree. Firstly, it’s a gigantic tree in the middle of a desert and secondly, it looks too perfect. It stands tall without leaning or swaying. It looks too dark a colour to be an ordinary tree. I brush the sand off my clothes—relieved to find that I’m wearing clothes—and make my way towards it. My boots sink into the sand as I walk.
Up close I can tell there’s more to see. It’s not just the colour or stance that’s strange; it’s the texture too. It looks and feels like someone has carved it out of black stone with a tiny chisel. It’s smooth under my touch and definitely not made out of what trees are supposed to be made out of. It’s stone sculpted into a tree.
I’m in the middle of what I can only guess is a desert, with the sole company of what I thought was a tree but is definitely not really a tree. So yes, I start talking to myself.
“Where the hell am I?”
There isn’t much else to the landscape but sand and this tree. The sun is suspended high above me and there are a few clouds sitting in the bleached blue of the sky. I lean against the tree, under its minimal shade, and try to figure out my situation. I cup my hands over my eyes to look up at the sun. Although it sits high in the sky unperturbed by the clouds, I don’t feel much heat coming from it. In fact I don’t feel any heat. It isn’t even cold… or mild. it isn’t really anything.
From where I stand I can see my footprints indented into the sand and leading up to where I am now, but the rest of the sand is untouched. There isn’t any wind to disturb it either, so the sand stays put.
The clouds haven’t moved since I last looked up at the sky.
“This doesn’t make any sense.”
Step 2. Take inventory
What do I have? My memory is non-existent; I can’t even remember my own name, so that’s out. I’m not really dressed for an adventure. I’m wearing boots that look too big but feel too small, overalls clearly designed for style and not comfort, and a white t-shirt underneath. Oh, and there was a red bandana tied around my wrist when I woke up that I’m now using to keep my way-too-long-hair out of my face.
I’ve got sand too, lots of it. It’s crept into every corner of my being. I sit now, keeping my back against the tree, trying to rid myself of as much sand as possible. I try to brush the grains from my arms and legs and find that most have left tiny indents on the surface of my skin. There’s the boots too, so I undo the tight laces and poor the sand out, creating a small mountain of it in front of me. Last is the pockets, they’re easy.
I pull something out of my back pocket, a granola bar that is squished beyond recognition. The only thing that identifies it as a bar is the chirpy packaging that shouts “THIS BAR IS LUNCH BOX FRIENDLY!” at my eyeballs.
In the desert of overhyped granola bars and trees that aren’t actually trees I find myself coming to conclusions that I don’t particularly like. For example, at sight of the bar my stomach doesn’t growl, and my tastebuds definitely don’t tingle. I stare at the granola bar in wonder. I’m not hungry. I’m not hungry, or thirsty, or tired. I’m not anything. I feel as unmoving and unchangeable as this weird expansive desert. I open it in a morose fashion and eat it anyway, because it makes me feel normal.
Step 3. Build a shelter
The only indication of time passing I have is this: scooping up sand and letting it trickle out of the crevices of my palms over and over. It’s a sand timer.
The whole This is All Sand dilemma makes Step 3. problematic. The tree has become my home-base and I’m not really sure I want to leave it. My compromise is climbing it, to see if there’s anything useful out there that I just can’t see from the ground. The first branch is pretty close to the ground, so by scaling up the trunk I should be able to reach it.
In theory this sounds easy, in practice it isn’t. It’s a race against gravity to get to the first branch, a race that takes me 4 attempts to win, but what are a few faulty attempts? I have all the time in the world.
Once I reach the first branch, treacherously and painfully, it becomes easier. I actually get pretty high up. From the highest point I dare to go the sand stretches into the distance and I can’t catch a glimpse of difference in the landscape. I fumble down the tree even less elegantly than I did climbing up. I get to the last branch and slide down the trunk, landing ungracefully in the sand.
I know I should do something, and that something will include a lot of walking, but I find myself hesitating. I can lie to myself and say that staying here will help me make sense of everything, or I can leave and figure it out for myself. I know that the ‘make sense of everything’ option is a hopeless endeavour. It’s like trying to put together a puzzle with only the border pieces. The sun hasn’t moved and I don’t think it will. It could probably sit up there forever. My only option is to take a hike.
Step 4. Be ready to signal
I start to hate that goddamn sun, not radiating any heat. It’s taunting me with its lack of scientific compliance. Its stillness is telling me to move, to do something.
I take the red bandana out of my hair and climb Hermes (Yes, I named the tree. Why Hermes? It’s deceiving and oddly charming, so it fits. Plus I like the name). I use the same technique to get as high as I can, I even climb a few branches higher than before. I don’t really care if I fall anymore. I doubt anything would happen.
Sidestepping one of the bigger branches I tie the red fabric where it should be visible to passers-by. I know there isn’t another person in this place, I just want to continue with the steps.
This time I jump off the lowest branch rather than sliding down the trunk. My boots thud to the ground and I feel the impact but no pain accompanies it. Standing beside the trunk I look up and appreciate my work. The bandana is dangling limply on a high up branch, unmoving. I reach out and pat the tree.
“So, Hermes, I guess this is goodbye. You’ve been a good rock-tree, as rock-trees go. You haven’t been the most talkative of company, but I have to say, I will miss you.”
I give the tree one last slap. A tiny chunk dislodges itself from where I slap it, turning to dust under my fingertips. I brush off my hands and walk away.
“Talking to a tree. You are out of your mind… she says to the endless void.”
Step 5. Drink Water
I’m not thirsty. Every now and then my boots fill with too much sand for me to manage and I have to stop and empty them. I’m guessing that takes about 30 minutes. At this point I’ve emptied my boots 8 times so that means I’ve been walking roughly 4 hours.
I start thinking about Step 5. Honestly, the lack of thirst is freaking me out. 4 hours of walking directly underneath the sun and I’m neither thirsty nor hot. I haven’t even sweat a drop. I keep thinking this isn’t natural, what’s happening to me isn’t natural. But if what’s happening to me isn’t natural, and where I am isn’t natural, then what and where am I? It’s constantly nagging me. Every. Single. Step.
I talk to the tree even though I’m nowhere near it. I wouldn’t call it a sign of madness. No, I’d say that it’s evidence towards it’s very real existence at this point.
“Hermes, indulge me. Why?”
I kick the sand as I go.
“Why isn’t it hot or cold, or even mild, humid or a bit chilly?”
I’m leaving a clear pathway through the sand every step I take.
“And why have I not died of dehydration yet? I’m guessing it’s been more than three days, regardless of if it gets dark or not.”
I just keep walking. Sometimes I look up, but at the moment I’m looking down at the sand as it’s trudged on by my boots. I don’t think this sand has ever been walked on by anyone else.
“I don’t think time touches this place, Hermes.”
I can feel the sand building up at my heels, crowding in my socks. It’s about T-minus 15 minutes till emptying time.
“I’ll be honest Hermes, I’m not sure I’m comfortable talking about the toilet situation with you. All I’ll say is that it’s non-existent.”
Step 6. Find food
The granola bar is long gone. I have no idea where it went and I don’t want to think about it. I’m sitting down and emptying my shoes for the 16th time, so that’s another 4 hours of walking. I close my eyes for a moment, shutting everything out. Something builds up in my chest, started at the centre, and as I worry that the granola bar is about to make a reappearance, I yawn.
Ordinarily a yawn wouldn’t be an event to celebrate, but it fills me with a joy that surpasses the granola bar by miles. I clasp my hand around my mouth in a way that would suggest fake astonishment, but it’s real. I’m tired! Okay yes, it’s a mild sort of tiredness, but I’m mildly tired! Nothing feels better than knowing something normal is happening to me.
I continue to walk, not wanting to spoil anything with over eagerness, but the further I get the more my eyelids feel like weights. The less my body wants me to be walking too, apparently, as my knees buckle and I end up knelt in the sand. I give in, lying on my side and trying to shimmy an indent into the sand to create some sort of sleeping arrangement. There’s no hope of manufacturing a pillow so with my head on my hands I close my eyes.
The last thing I do, before the sweet unconsciousness of sleep, is mutter,
“Hermes, maybe all of this is a dream.”
I wake up gasping for air with the odd feeling that I’d been choking in my sleep.
Step 7. Stay Positive
The routine continues. I can see my path behind me sunk into the sand that I’d already walked over. I can’t tell how long I had been asleep because of the frustrating sameness that this place perpetuates. When I fell asleep there was only sand on the horizon, and when I woke up gasping for air I thought all I could see in front of me was sand too. Definitely just sand.
There’s a problem with that observation though, a blurry problem that is just beginning to make itself visible on the horizon. A problem in the shape of a tree.
“Maybe I’m facing the wrong way.”
No, look at the footprints behind you.
“Maybe it’s something else.”
Don’t be an idiot, it’s too familiar.
“This isn’t possible.”
Well apparently it is possible, because there it is. Hermes (I’m beginning to regret the name choice now. I think it’s egging it on).
I no longer feel a weight pulling me down. I feel completely normal, well normal for wherever I am, so I run. I don’t bother emptying my shoes. They fill quickly so I take them off and run with them tied together and slung over my shoulder.
I skid to a stop when I reach the tree, looking around desperately for evidence that it isn’t the same tree I left earlier. My mouth is dry. I feel like I’ve inhaled a large amount of sand. I look up at the tree to see the red bandana hanging on one of the branches of stone, unmoved by wind or time.
I take it out on Hermes. I can’t help it. I feel like my throat is being squeezed by a pair of invisible hands and tears burn my eyes, stinging like salt water. Worst of all I feel strangely numb. I want to be burning up, raging, but instead I feel hollowed out, left with only despair, loneliness, and confusion. I’m desperate.
Throwing shoes at a tree doesn’t come close to expressing any of that, not one ounce of it, but I do it anyway. I fling them from my grip and they spiral, connected by the laces, at the trunk. A chunk of stone falls to the ground where the boots hit the tree, landing in the sand and disintegrating into black dust.
“I don’t know where I am. I just want to know where I am!”
I can hear my slurred voice echo in my head. It feels like someone else is saying the words. I’m tired, so tired. I sink to the sand and close my eyes.
Step 8. Try not to panic
This isn’t a dream. Instead of being surrounded by sand I’m surrounded by water. I’m struggling. My body is tired and my limbs feel like dead weights. I can see the sun, a mirage, on the surface of the water. I’m sinking away from it.
I need to breathe. There’s a voice yelling a name that’s obviously mine and I’m wondering where they are, where the voice is coming from and why it sounds so young. I need to breathe.
I have to breathe. I keep thinking about how much I don’t want to breathe, trying to think of a way out of the situation because I don’t want to breathe. I’m scared to do it. I just keep trying, trying, trying to get to the surface.
Everything rushes inwards, not because of my need for air but because of the uncontrollable sob that unlatches from my lips. Darkness engulfs everything, seeping into every corner of my being. I’m gone.
I feel sand underneath me. I open my eyes just in time to see the entire tree fall into black dust, landing on the sand in a shower.
“I don’t want to be dead.”
The voice I hear now is familiar, but I’ve never heard it before. It’s soft, gentle, and booming. I want to follow it.
“Oh, but you already are.”
I feel myself bleed into the sand too.