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'The Legendary Outcrop' by Elizabeth Charlotte Sice

LISP 2022 Short Story Finalist by 'The Legendary Outcrop' by Elizabeth Charlotte Sice

There was a famous rocky outcrop near a place I once happened to venture to. Cast far beyond the sands and far enough to not be part of the common tourist itinerary. As such, it had accrued a certain legend. That of a statue in the desert. A figure shaped by time immemorial and birthed by nature. That was the reputation passed down to me forth hand through a wizened old man. At the small airstrip that was the closest point of outside contact to the outside world. That the tribespeople nearby said that one visit to the statute would grant all the wishes a man could have. That the majesty of nature was without peer and cast into stark relief by the single solitary rising figure. I must say as a collector of curiosities the old man’s story rang in my head. Such that I was quickly overcome by a strange desire to venture and lay my eyes on the curious natural outcrop. After visiting the bazaar, a number of local drinking establishments without luck. I was left adrift in the lobby of a colonial mansion now recaptured by the locals to, once again, host foreign curiosities such as myself. It was a hot day. The sun had worn me down, and though it hadn’t left me burnt, I knew that had I spent too much longer being a slave to my own curiosities, I would have been burned quite horribly. As I sat in the café under the only electric ceiling fan in the village, I cast my eyes on a strange man. At least to me. Though he was likely a companion of the great sands that surrounded this place. His eyes were shielded behind a dark pair of sunglasses. His face was a canyon of wrinkles from decades withering under the sun’s all piercing gaze. Rather strange, that was the metaphor my exhausted mind reached for since there wasn’t a canyon for miles around. Indeed, the only rock feature of note was that one outcrop. I closed the distance between us but he didn’t seem the least bit interested in me. It was as though he took time to deliberately avoid looking at me. That was in itself another curiosity to me. Particularly since I had proven something of a curiosity to the villagers. His cold shoulder served to do the opposite. He removed his glasses and gave me a withering look. It was then when our eyes met. “Have you heard?” He looked at me with cold, confused eyes. “Heard? Of what.” “Sir, out in the desert, they say there is an outcrop, a statue carved by God himself. I heard of it as part of my travels.” “Last we need around here is another traveler.” “Please sir, a moment of your time. Just tell me who I might speak to, to get there.” “What are you?” “What am I? What do you mean?” “Do they not tell you where you are from that it is rude to answer a question with a question.” “Quite right sir. I am a writer I suppose.” “A writer? And what might bring someone like you to this barren wasteland.” “Wasteland? Sir but this is a paradise.” “Stop calling me sir as if you know me enough that you owe me respect.” This was a puzzling reaction to me. The word I had learned as a sign of respect had to this point endeared me to the people here. The old man taught it to me. It had worked like a charm to let me maneuver myself into whatever social interaction I wanted. Yet here I was being so rebuked. His cold had spread to my veins as a chilling sensation wrought me even in the midst of desert heat. “I beg your pardon?” “You are so stiff. You think that this false respect will turn me into another one of your dogs, sir.” He said, wearing a grin. “Listen, I merely want to see this outcrop for myself to write about it. I can compensate you handsomely.” It was clear we had gotten off on the wrong foot to the degree that was, at this point, starting to, much like the buzz of a mosquito, irritate me. “Travelling out to that wasteland with a writer. I couldn’t imagine anything stupider.” “It’s good luck. To your people, it’s good luck to see it, to touch it. Isn’t that, right?” Those words lit a spark behind his eyes. “Oh, you think it’s good luck? Some ritual by some strange tribe. I’ll take you,

alright. We set out at dusk. If you miss it then you will never be able to see those rocks of yours.” “How will I?” Interrupting my perplexed question, he gave me another grin. “We’ll meet outside again this time tomorrow.” I set about making my preparations filling canteens, making sure that my canteens were filled. I didn’t even know how long the journey was. I elected not to bring my writing implements. Rather part of me was worried about his reaction to my bringing such things. I packed light save for the water and a pack of cigarettes. I offered my goodbye to the man who was the concierge, and just as the sun began to set, I waited. For a moment, I was worried he would leave me here waiting all night. He came, and we set out on our way. I now saw the utility of travelling by dusk. The sun had left us alone to proceed. The small white assemblage of buildings soon faded from view. The sky was gradually bathed in the red light signalling the sun’s arrival once more. I yawned again. Something that earned a laugh from my travel companion. “Not used to dusk runs, I see.” He said with a smile. “I must confess I am. Not. I am not.” It was at that point that my voice trailed off. Overcome by panting. “Already reaching the limits of your endurance.” He said with a labored grin. Glib attitude was betrayed by his body bringing forth a single bead of sweat. That showed enough to me that he clearly was in the midst of the same exhaustion I found myself contending with as we waded through the unending sea of sand. “No, I am quite alright, thank you, sir.” “I told you. To stop it with the sirs.” He said sternly, though, with a hint that he was slightly out of breath too.

Wading through the desert, the sun’s gaze only became increasingly bothersome. I felt it reaching into me. Like I was boiling alive in my clothes. Maybe I was being boiled alive. I drank some more water. Seeing if it could perhaps lessen the burden of its gaze. We marched in silence. The heat seeped into every part of my mind. I found myself left with no cognitive function beyond following in the path he had wrought through the great sands. Haze engulfed the horizon. I was sure that every part of the world around me was shaking. It was then that he took us in the direction of an oasis. I had heard tales of them, but truthfully it took having to go myself and experience the journey to truly appreciate the metaphor. To appreciate what they meant. Under the cooling watch of palm trees, we were able to eke out a little rest. I was almost certain that as I immersed myself steam would climatically rise off of me like metal being quenched. It was not nearly as climatic. “How did you know of this place?” “Know? It’s just been passed down through the tribe for generations.” “I see,” I said. Content with the explanation. Then he burst out laughing. It was a deep laugh that seemed to animate its way through him. “How gullible of you. To think that it was tribal knowledge. No, it was just a spot I found on a journey around here.” “What brings you out here.” “I carry posts. Take things from place to place.” “So, you’re not some tribesman?” I said. A hint of disappointment slipped itself into my words without even an ounce of intentionality. “No. Of course not. Are there still knights in your homeland? Going around in full suits of armor and chasing after holy grails?” “No. No, I suppose not.” “We’ll wait for sunset here.” He said. Looking up at the horizon. “Going on any further would be reckless. I’ve lost a few coworkers. Friends to this forsaken place. Sent out to deliver something or other before never being seen again. Save by that.” He said, gesturing to the sky, but it was clear to what gaze he was speaking. I nodded. I had not prepared for such a stop. I hadn’t brought a sleeping bag. My arms were red. Painful, and that pain I had thought would prevent me from resting at all. Yet before I could even notice, I was already drowned in sleep. Shaken awake, I could see the sunset. The great symphony of color as it moved across the horizon. Finally sparing us off its gaze. We set out again. Across the boundless golden wastes. It was, in the end, two more days of a careful, cautious and sweltering journey before we finally arrived here at this place in the center of the desert. The place was well and truly empty. Almost untouched. It was there that a single rocky outcrop stood alone. It was us. The sun. The outcrop. All alone. Spared of any sort of company. It was far from what I was expecting. It barely resembled a human figure. It wasn’t uncanny or special. He seemed to look at me with the sort of eyes a parent would give their child after making an obvious mistake. The sort of knowing eyes. Sympathetic. Ultimately looking down. I could tell why. There’s no way a place like this would be worth anything. Only notable for being a natural formation.

He gestured for me to follow. As we crossed the next dune a single finger pointed towards a few marble ruins peaking out of the waves. I knew it when I saw it. A statue. Standing there. Carved by human hands ages ago. Its beauty and poise still preserved through the ages. A reminder of the beauty that human hands may wring far beyond that which the natural world may appear to shape. Yet even as I digested the thought, I knew that in the same breath that, humans and the things we do could be seen as nature running its course through all of our actions. We made the arduous journey to the next town, where I bid my goodbyes. As I sat in the next hotel, trying to bring together my thoughts, I saw the old man once again. There he was once again. A couple of intrepid explorers from a far-off land in his arms. He was likely once again regaling them of the tale of the outcrop of the desert. I considered perhaps going over myself. Dispelling the illusion. Yet I held my tongue, knowing that even the legend has its own worth. If they did consume by curiosity make their journey to see it themselves, then at least they would be able to gaze on that long-dead city. The one rocky formation worth mentioning was shaped by human hands into perfection. Even if I couldn’t decide whether or not those ruins were in themselves nature taking its course. It was in such a mood I headed home. I would not return to the country for many years until after the turmoil that the more astute readers among you may remember. I wonder if any of it still stands. Wiped away by the same human hands that shaped it—or consumed by the nature that once drew me to the place.



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