by Thomas Lloyd
It had been a dry year.
Not the driest within memory, but a dry one nonetheless.
The trees had at first thrown out their leaves, greedy to suck in all the light they could, but soon they realised their mistake. Those once green leaves had now wilted into husks too dry to rot, fated only to be blown away and disintegrated on the wind.
The ground shifted beneath their every step.
The nomads left trails behind them that sometimes stretched for miles, until they too were obliterated by the wind. After that, no one would ever know they had passed this way.
Grandmother was thirsty. She had been thirsty for days. She could feel it in the back of her throat. That old, cloying desiccation. Not quite an ache, not quite a pain, but so, so familiar. Every way her thoughts travelled, the thirst was there too. Always in the gaze of her attention.
It would not be ignored.
Yesterday they had come to the East-Canyon-River Oasis. Even when the river itself had all but melted away there would remain a lake, nestled in its deepest curves.
But they had arrived to find even that on the very precipice of dryness. What water was left was mixed in with the foul mud and the desperate, dying creatures that lived in its darkness when the river was full.
It had caused Grandmother some distress, but she had handled it in her quiet way. She did not want her daughters to see that she had doubts. It would have caused them to have doubts too.
So they had taken what water they could, and moved on.
The youngest were still on their mothers’ milk, which was a mercy. But their legs were not as strong or seasoned as their elders, which was not. And with East-Canyon-River dry the nearest oasis was many miles further to the north. It promised to be a difficult trek.
Grandmother had held hopes for East-Canyon-River. It had served her well in the past, but this year fortune had not been on their side. The thirst had chased them across the plains from watering hole to watering hole. It had passed with them the bodies of the creatures too weak to keep on moving, all the while growing stronger with every step and every dashed hope.
But hope was not yet gone. Not entirely. There was still the Oasis-in-the-North. Grandmother had not been there for many years. But once, long ago, it had saved them. It had stayed green and lush and wet even when it had felt like the whole world was dying.
But to go there would mean passing her.
They walked for hours in the blistering heat. The withered trees casting scant shade that was as blissful as it was insufficient.
Her daughters walked alongside her for a time. They could sense her apprehension. The eldest amongst them knew what awaited them, further down this path. They also knew that Grandmother would not have led them this way had there been any alternative. It caused her too much pain.
But there was no alternative, and they were running out of time.
Her youngest daughter had born a son earlier last year, when the world had been green.
It was her first child and the cause of much joy amongst the family. He was healthy and mischievous, and would no doubt cause them great trouble on his precarious path to adulthood. But now the boy did not have the energy to misbehave. The journey had left him tired, and his mother struggled to keep him moving.
It was a hard truth to look in the eye, but If the Oasis-in-the-North failed them too, then he would be the first to die. And he would not be the last.
Grandmother stopped and smelled the air.
This was the place.
The others stopped too, the youngsters taking full advantage of the unexpected rest.
On a patch of earth and sand indistinguishable from any other for miles around, they found what remained.
The bone was a white so bright and pure it gleamed from the dirt. Her one unbroken tusk protruded forward in a graceful arc. It was enormous. It showed that its owner had lived a long life, and that proof was solace of a kind for Grandmother.
That year, the rains had not come.
The youngest and the weakest went first, as it has always been. Even now their skeletons punctuated the byways that link the ponds and lakes and oases across the land. Faces and voices that Grandmother remembered even now.
They had left them behind.
To stay with them would have been to die with them, they understood that. They had always understood that.
But Mother had led them on. She had kept them moving, those who could still move. She did not abandon them to despair and grief. She had saved them. She knew about the Oasis-in-the-North and had guided them to it its very edge. But no further.
Because Mother had been old. And it had been a dry year.
Grandmother, or the girl she had once been, had wanted to stay with her, to wait and hope. But they understood. They had always understood. They had to keep moving.
Grandmother reached out and made contact with the skull on the ground. It was polished impossibly smooth by the sand and winds of decades. Bone and memory, all that remained.
Her daughters joined her, placing their trunks alongside hers. None of them had known the individual who had died on this spot. None of them had even been alive when the mighty force of her life had deserted her.
The children followed their example, jostling between each other and the legs of their elders for space. They were uncertain what it was they were doing but convinced of its importance.
Finally, Grandmother let her trunk fall away. They could afford to stay no longer.
Her every step took her further into the north, and closer to whatever they would find there.
But a piece of her, something older than her children, and heavier even than they had been when once she’d carried them inside her, it stayed behind. And her steps were lighter for it.
Grandmother knew that in all likelihood this would be her last visitation. Her tusks were already as long and beautiful as Mother’s had been. And she knew this also; that one day it would be her bones, lying on the ground. And the daughters and granddaughters around her now would gather close and show their children what remained, without them fully understanding why. Why sadness radiated from their mothers like heat from a terrible sun.
But they would, in time.
Grandmother breathed deep. The sound reverberated amongst the trees. Trees that looked dead, but in truth were only sleeping.
There were still many miles between them and the Oasis-in-the-North.
But Grandmother was almost certain she could taste water on the air.
Thomas Lloyd is a Welsh writer with a longstanding love and fascination for the natural world. He has had a short story published in Three Drops From A Cauldron magazine and another short listed for the 2016 Flash Fiction Prize at Bare Fiction magazine.