She Robs the Grave - Part 10

When he emerged, drying his tears and clutching a small jar of water and the few cakes of bread, the stranger was still lying on the sand where he left her, but her eyes were open, and she was staring up into the sky, for the light was fading. Sitting down beside her, he handed her one of the cakes without meeting her eyes, and she took it from him in silence. They ate and drank together in silence, until, taking one last mouthful of water and handing the jar back to him, she looked up into the sky, shielding her eyes against the sun.

“Look,” she said, pointing upward toward the clouds. Following her gesture, he looked up and saw, far overhead, a small shape like a large bird, gliding and turning above them, then wheeling away out across the sea.

“The Rukh,” he whispered to himself, and she turned to look at him.

“What?”

“The Rukh,” he muttered, dropping his eyes to the sand in his embarrassment. “The great bird, huge as a castle, that dwells far away across the sea. Its wings are like a ship’s sails, and it lays eggs as big as houses.”

When she showed no sign of recognition at this description, he shrugged and hugged his knees to his chest. “It is only a legend, I’m sure. Didn’t your grandmother tell you stories about it?”

She shook her head, then went back to watching the bird as it flew away, disappearing into the distance. Then she lay back down on the sand once more.

“Sleep,” she told him. “We have a long journey ahead of us.”

Darkness was fast falling about them, so he did as she advised, scooping together a small pile of sand on which to rest his head, then closing his eyes and struggling to quiet the chaos of his thoughts. Gradually, he fell asleep, but he woke often throughout the night, coming out of the darkness of his mind with a start of terror, imagining the tomb closing about him once more. Each time he woke, he saw the stranger sitting up next to him, working at something she held in her hands, but which he could not discern in the darkness. Too exhausted to express any further curiosity, he closed his eyes again and gave himself up to more dreams of death and imprisonment beneath the earth, to images of his wife’s face, at first beautiful and full of life, then gradually decaying and crumbling away into dust before his eyes and just beyond his reach.

The last of these nightmares dissolved into daylight as he woke for the last time, looking up into a clear blue sky. Pressing his fingers into his eyes to rid them of the last remnants of sleep, he sat up and gazed out at the sea.

The waves had grown calm since the night before, and only a soft breeze blew upon his face. He closed his eyes again, letting the feel of the salt air on his skin blow away the horror and misery of his dreams and soothe his grief, and he drew in several deep breaths before leaping to his feet and looking around for his companion.

She had vanished once more, but he found he could muster little anxiety for her whereabouts. Instead, he looked out across the waves, and his heart quickened within him as he saw, far away on the horizon, a tiny sail waving white in the breeze and—unless his eager eyes deceived him—drawing closer to the very beach upon which he stood.

Wild with mingled joy and fear, he began waving his arms and jumping up and down up on the sand, shouting with all the breath in his lungs to the crew of the small boat, gesticulating and screaming with utter disregard for dignity. The boat drifted ever nearer, but with maddening leisure, so that he could never feel sure from one moment to the next whether it had grown any larger. Leaving nothing to chance, he continued to shout and wave, dancing about the beach in a madness of desperate exuberance.