"THE NIGHT WATCH"
THE DUNE WAS SHAPED like a bowl. The bowl was made of sand. The bowl was broken on one side, and along the broken margin ran a slow brown river.
"...And besides, you are dead, my
dear friend. It is not your fault, of
course, but none the less you are
dead and buried."
THE STRANGE RIDE
OF MORROWBIE JUKES
The bowl was deep and so, it seemed, was the river. The sky soared above you in a kind of empty euphoria, unspoiled by clouds and unblemished but for a derelict crow that circled and circled, casting its small shadow on the face of the sand at your feet. The sky was a kind of bowl, too, like the dune, but upside down, pure blue, and well beyond your reach, or the reach of anyone else. The sky was deep, deeper than the dune bowl, and probably deeper than the river.
You can remember a time when you did not know this place, but now it seems as if you have lived in the bottom of the bowl, on the floor of this desert basin, forever.
Along its western edge where the ramparts of sand give way to the riverbank, you have watched the sun sink into the silver bar of water many times. The river has been your focus, your obsession really, ever since you gave up on the idea of trying to crawl up the steep soft sand walls of the bowl to escape. Others who dwell here call the river Sutlej, but you have no name for it. And yet, the river, your hope, is so wide that the far shore is not visible from where you stand.
You have, some nights, stood back from yourself and watched as you lingered at the bank of the river Sutlej, studying its shoals and shallows, its hassocks and hourglass faggots of brittle river grasses, looking for a way to escape. You have seen, beyond your own shoulders there before you, the curious boat moored out in the river tide, and have heard the faint report of a rifle when the faceless guard fired a round to warn you not to attempt to swim to freedom. You have watched yourself back away from the bank, and have rejoined yourself to wonder once more how you could ever have come to such an impasse.
But then, as often as not, the sun, having just set, dawned again behind you, over the verge of the sandy long crown of the slope. And as the bowl filled one more time with light, you despaired of ever being free from this place.
You twisted yourself in your sheets, soaked through with your sweat, and opened your eyes into the dark. You may have moaned or called out the name of your mother or father, but neither heard, since no one came. You turned your pillow and settled in at another angle to try once more to sleep. The dune bowl rose into view again.
The dune, the sky, the river. Here was where you returned so many times, to the same dreamlike-but-not-dream landscape, because this happened to be the residence of your night thoughts. Sometimes you arrived, like the character from the story your mother read to you, on the back of a horse that had gone mad and in its lunacy carried you across the blind nocturnal wilderness until the two of you suddenly caught flight and plunged headlong into the unseen basin. Other times no horse conveyed you: You were already there. Often you were alone in the horseshoe-shaped crater with sheer embankments rising behind you and at both your sides, and the slow river before you. Now and then you were joined by others, hideous tenants who had no more hope of escape than you. They had different faces, if you'll remember, each time you visited your dune bowl, and sometimes you recognized them for friends or enemies, and other times you did not know them. Once, your mother was there with you, but didn't behave like your mother. When you ran up to her, filled with excitement and hope that she would know the way out, she looked at you with numb eyes, before turning to walk away.
How you wished you could come to think of this place as a sanctuary, an oasis or asylum! You understood from the beginning, though. You saw it for the prison it was, is, and will be tomorrow. The bowl was the loneliest place you knew. Your sporadic companions were mute, the river made no sound, nor did the sand, which was never blown by any wind. The bowl was a quiet site, and would be peaceful but for the underlying sense it manifested---the uneasy sense that violence could at any moment and without the slightest warning come to pass here. Swift, brutal, remorseless violence.
And then you woke from light into deeper dark....
* * *
(Excerpted from THE LITERARY INSOMNIAC, edited by Elyse Cheney and Wendy Hubbert, published December 1996 by Doubleday, $21.95, ISBN 0-385-47771-6.)