An encounter on the edge
As she drew closer, I could make out more of the features that defined her and the child. Her hair was long, strait, and tied, while the child’s was short and messy. Both took on gangly forms, like the thin and drawn out zombies in B-rated movies from the 1970’s. Their skin was darker than mine, no doubt a fact of where they came from mixed with the realities of crossing hundreds of miles of open terrain exposed to the elements.
When they were close enough, I could see the lines drawn within their skin, cracks from dehydration, scars from blowing sand and cactus encounters, bites from insects, the putrid aroma of sweat that clung to a body after weeks of neglect.
The child at this point was asleep, head buried in the neck of its mother. To go so long without food, clean water, or basic care drained the life from the small form.
She was alive, but without life.
The mother was hardly in any better shape. Skeletal fingers and spindly arms reached out to me as if I were an aperitif night, her way of grasping at a mirage that, through great cruelty, forgot to disappear. At first touch drops of salvation formed in the pit of her eyes, only to be retracted into a body that refused to give up what little moisture it could hold on to.
This was the badlands, the high desert where nothing native survived. She and her child were from the tropical forest, many planets from here, and were unprepared for the reality of so spartan a life.
As I took the child, the form of the mother folded to the ground in front of me. With one hand, she slowly, hesitantly, touched the edges of her lips. The other hand trembling forward, point in at the child. I took my canteen, moistened a few fingers, and held them to the lips of the child in my arms. The little one stirred, then tried to suckle the tips of my fingers.
When everything else in nature fails, we revert to the most basic of impulses.
It was then that I noticed their clothes, tattered shreds of cloth that hung loose in places, but inexplicably clung tight in others. Black and red spots glued the cotton to their bodies in multiple places, and the mother’s right knee was seeping with reddish green foam.
I held out the canteen to the mother. She looked at me, confused, until I showed her the spout at the top, and poured a bit of water into the palm of her hand. I held her head, placed the spout to her lips, and gently tipped the canteen forward. Water ran down the side of her face, and I could see the muscles in her throat trying to relearn the motion of drinking.
Once again, I moistened my fingers and held them to the child’s mouth. The child jerked, stirred, and looked up at me. It cried, thrashed its head, and upon locating its mother, held out its arms for rescue.
I took another water from my bag, this time in a grocery store bottle that had yet to be opened. I twisted the cap, and held it out. The mother took it gracefully, slow and reserved, hesitant that I might try to take it back.
Once they had both drank from the bottle, I helped them up, took the child in my arms, and motioned to the mother to follow me. The mother hesitated, unsure if her legs could still support her, unsure of taking another step. I held out my arm to her, braced my hand upon he elbow. When we moved, it was as if each step were a momentous accomplishment, already forgotten by time.
“Where are you taking us?” The voice landed on my ears like a wood file, deep and soft, barely perceptible above the wind. They were probably the first words she had spoken in days.
“To safety,” I whispered back.
We stopped often to drink, more often than I am used to, but each time she and the child drank they did not take much. Their bodies had grown accustomed to doing without. It would take a while to reverse the mechanisms of going without. It would take time.
The vast desert is a harsh environment. Hundreds of people die every year trying to cross it. But they still make the journey.
It is amazing what we will do in the name of hope.