Winner. Playful little whirlwinds, or literal dust devils?
| Whirlwinds of the Malpais
Winner of Writer's Cramp for August 9, 2021
He had to admit that he was lost. He wasn't sure how that could be possible, since all he had done was walk over one lousy little hill, just out of sight of the highway. But he was lost. He turned his head from side to side, and spun in place, listening. He ought to hear cars zipping by. He ought to hear the roar of 18-wheelers. But all he heard was the sighing of the wind.
He was in the malpais, the "bad country", a tumbled mass of jagged black volcanic rock, a wilderness of ancient lava that seemed to stretch forever. He should be only a few yards from the highway. He seemed to be miles from anywhere. He was wilderness-savvy enough to stay put, at least for now. The searing heat would force him to move eventually. He knew that there was water, even ice, deep in caves and lava tubes, if he could only find it. The Zuni had lived here a thousand years ago, before they mysteriously vanished. But he had read of settlers found in the malpais with boots and feet shredded from the sharp lava.
He cursed himself for leaving the car to explore--but he really had gone only a few dozen steps. How--?? He remembered the vague chill as he had topped the hill. An odd and inexplicable drop in temperature in the midst of desert heat. Had he turned back then, would the car and highway have been there? Or would it already have been too late?
The wind whipped a mass of dust and dried leaves into a little whirlwind. The dust devil came close, drew back, then circled around him, like a curious child or a playful puppy. It was barely as high as his waist. Another one popped into being beside the first, and they engaged in a little dance, swirling around each other and bobbing up and down. Then the two circled him, moving together. What a strange thing, he thought. He could feel the wind drying him, robbing him of moisture.
On a whim, he bent down and picked up a broken bit of lava. When one of the little whirlwinds came by, he hucked the rock at it. It should have had no effect, but to his surprise both whirlwinds died instantly, leaving little piles of dust and debris.
He heard them whoosh into existence behind them, and when he turned he saw that there were now three of the little devils, whirling around each other like puppies at play. Again they circled him, coming now closer, now moving back. Exactly, he thought, like puppies circling a stuffed toy, daring each other to run in and nip. One ventured close and he felt a slash of pain -- the rough sandpaper impact on his hand, the whip of wind on his sleeve. He looked and saw that the back of his hand was flayed and dripping blood. His sleeve was frayed and tattered. The flying rock chips were like little whirling razor blades.
He shivered with shock, pain, and disbelief. He thought of the Zuni who had vanished.
Another smack of wind tore at his back, and he arched in agony as he whirled to face his tormentors. All three backed away and danced around each other. They seem to have grown taller, to be rotating faster. They looked more solid, more substantial, more full of debris than before. He could hear the growl of wind, the gnash of rock chips as they moved to circle him. He no longer thought of them as children or puppies.
They were not here to play.
Note: Minor edits made after contest end.