The sun rose pale and smoky behind the usual morning desert dust cloud. A few minutes later, just as the sun’s heat was starting to smolder, Janet saw a silver band on the western horizon, almost exactly where she had figured the road should be. She’d told William she had the odds on her side. The road on the sketch map ran straight from south to north as far as she could see.

“Heading due west, I don’t see how I can miss it,” she had told her skeptical husband. “Sure, I could miss the oasis that the road leads to in the north,” she insisted to him, “but the road itself is unmissable.”

He shrugged. “The big city of Agadez is a better destination than an empty road,” he stubbornly insisted. That man would just not listen to reason, or at least to her reasoning.

Photo by Thelma Bowles.

For so many years they had each been an audience of one for the other, so often the only audience, almost like talking to himself or herself in the intimacy and depth of their highly critical responses. For neither ever gave the other any slack, let the other escape with the tiniest error, nor would either concede a single inch of mistake or even compliment. It was always a standoff, just as it had ben when they stood in the desert and each insisted on pursuing his or her own path to salvation, if there were to be such a thing for them.

“Look, William, I am not about to die because you’re a fuckup. And we certainly don’t need two fuckups in one marriage. One half of a couple needs to be right—and sensible. You go your way, I’ll go mine.”

“So you come to the road, then what?” he asked. “If you’ve missed the oasis, it’ll be at least 300 miles before the next sign of civilization. And there isn’t much traffic on that road—unless you count the guerrillas as traffic. You really don’t want to run into a caravan of Tuaregs with machine guns mounted in the back of their pickup trucks.”

“First, the road, then everything else. I’ll send the search party for you.”

At least he had been gracious enough to say, “Good luck.”

Now staring hard at the distant shimmer of a road, she gave a small yell of triumph. Despite being almost at the point of total exhaustion, she couldn’t resist the temptation to trot the last couple of hundred yards.

There it was, a gray ribbon of pavement stretching straight to the horizon in both directions. Have I hit the road above or below the oasis, she wondered. Do I go left or right? Both their lives might depend on her making the right choice. She could not see any difference at all. The land on each side of the road was a plain of gravel and rocks and sand as far as she could see. There were no trees, no birds, no human or animal footprints except the camel tracks on the path she had been following. The road itself was the loneliest thing she had ever seen in her life. Somehow it managed to make the desert seem even more abandoned and lifeless that it had before.

She recalled the advice of an old hiking book: When in doubt, find a soft rock and sit down. So that’s what she did. The rock wasn’t all that soft. She took a cautious swallow of water from the canteen. It was still more than half full. She’d been careful during the night, holding small sips in her mouth and swishing them around to relieve the awful dryness of her lips and tongue and gums.

She unfolded the map again. She’d done this a dozen times already, and the creases where it was folded had started to rip apart. The map was hand drawn. It showed the national capital Niamey to the south and the desert capital of Agadez to the north. It showed one small oasis, and it showed the road leading to it. Off on the eastern edge of the map, it showed the Air Mountains, desert humps, like a kind of island in the flat desert. So had she hit the road north or south of the oasis? That was the key question and she had no way to answer it, no clues, no information. She had to choose.

North it was. She started walking. Her pace was measured and steady, for she didn’t know how long she might to have to go on.

As the hours accumulated, running on and on and merging into each other in a fog of hunger and thirst and misery, she first suspected and then knew: She had chosen wrong. The road led nowhere, at least nowhere she wanted to go. She had already walked for hours. It was too late to turn back; she’d passed the infamous point of no return. She drizzled water down her throat a sip at a time until it was gone. She ate her two oranges, her granola bars, her handful of peanuts.

She had no more food. She was approaching the end, her end, she knew. Death in the desert comes slowly, but it comes.

She dreamed while walking, a walking, waking dream. She was underwater and a giant manta ray was swimming toward her. It came slowly, flapping its vast wings. It headed straight for her. It was threatening, but more, it was beautiful, a graceful, silent ballerina. It got closer and closer, magical and magnificent and inescapably fatal.

When she wasn’t dream walking, she listened to the desert silence all around her. A breeze kicked up some gravel. The pebbles ground against each other. The noise was comforting in its way, better than absolute silence. The breeze must have been intensifying because the grinding became a bit louder, more distinct. It was constant, not growing and receding like other breezes she had known—a strange kind of breeze. Then she realized it wasn’t a breeze at all. The grinding wasn’t gravel. It was something else.