Published in Issue 11 of Visionary Tongue, Summer 1998.
At dusk, the party arrived among the long twilight shadows and dry ancient sand. The Sahara had been a tricky host, blowing up winds of glass-like dust, pushing them back toward civilisation, to a place that others dreamed of, and from which they ran.
Charles, a strict man dressed in tweed, made notes and drew diagrams of positions and configurations considered: scattered fountain pen marks in a book covered in the sand and dust from a dozen similar deserts.
Amanda, a plain, pale skinned woman, brushed the hair from her face. She wore layered white surgeon’s robes embroidered with the tiny circular insignia of the Sun Foundation. Her make-up was fading with the last few hours of night.
Sally was the least experienced of the three; a young girl who had traversed this hostile terrain without a single tear and not one request for stories, gossip, or tales of love. She believed that Charles was secretly annoyed at this, at her precociousness.
Day came with the rush and bother of a first year drama school production. Uneven streaks marked the sky and the distant white sun looked down in kind, fatherly anticipation.
The crude operating table had been constructed in Tunis and carried into the desert on Sally’s camel, much to the beast’s displeasure. He protested at the chore with horrible whines that lasted all the way from the Libyan border to their drop-off point at the edge of the desert.
Sally’s dress had been altered by Charles, a kind gesture she thought, considering all the work he had to do. It was a long flowery gown with a long slit cut down the middle. This allowed the surgeon more room, and displayed to him the full extent of the operation. ‘A tradition,’ he had explained.
The dust rose in billowing clouds. Slowly, and in random trajectories, it circled and caught a passing wind. Perhaps the sand would make it to Oxford, Sally thought, as she watched the last of it dissolve into the distance. Maybe it would be there when she returned home, carpeting the bookshelves, the piano, and her father’s gramophone.
The tools had been forged by an ironmonger in London, a sinister little man by the name of Snatch, who had used the finest steel available for the equipment and charged a preposterous amount for his services. Amanda claimed that aesthetics were integral to their performance.
Charles took a long and studied look at the sky: its strong, pure sapphire hue surrounded a vast sun that had burned away any trace of cloud. He took down the readings, making sure that the old, partially rusted piece of bronze optical equipment was returned safely to its box.
His predictions had proved accurate. Only a few minutes were left until the sun reached its zenith, before the show would begin.
Amanda had been assigned to the role of surgeon. Both Charles and Sally made clear their feelings on this matter. What Amanda lacked in precision she more than made up for in beauty. Her previous performances had been uneven, chaotic operations, rushed and heated yet raw and abstract. She managed to operate without fear or pride, like a child playing with clay.
When he first began studying with the Sun foundation, Charles had believed that should he become a Showman, he must attain perfection. But when elder Showmen failed to return home from surgery across the globe, Charles realised that maybe the Gods disliked perfection as much as ignorance.
For Amanda and Sally, this was a game, something to whisper about on rainy nights in country house bedrooms, but for Charles it was otherwise. He was the Master of Ceremonies, and if the Gods had any qualms with his or the girls’ work, he would be the first to suffer their indelible criticism.
Hope was written in all their faces, but for different reasons. Sally was a student with a lust for new sensation, Amanda wanted to rise up the ranks and become a Showman just like her father, and Charles simply hoped that he would not die.
Sally mounted the table with sensual ease and allowed herself just one quick look skyward, as if to check the sun was still there, still watching.
The metal of the table felt cool against her skin and the smell of dead things putrefied the air as she lay down in position.
Amanda closed her eyes. Gathering her thoughts from another place. Collecting her magic from the wind. Opposite her, managing to shield his fear under a shroud of concentration, Charles knelt in the sand, writing with the bones of dead animals. They had not been slain by him, but taken from other places, collected over the years from road-kill carrion, veterinarians and the occasional museum The first incision was made just above Sally’s left thigh, on the bottom side of her pelvic bone. This was a subtle entrance for Amanda and, judging by the shrill, sharp intake of breath from Sally, achieved the desired effect. Charles was pleased. He hoped she could keep it up.
The next few cuts were made in accordance to the Gobi desert Show, one that had been performed to rapturous approval in 1784. This was a system designed to open the body up in such a fashion so as to leave the subject splayed like apple blossom but remain completely unharmed.
Charles whispered instructions under his breath; ancient rites of incision that Amanda combined with her own, memorised technique.
During the incantation, Sally made quiet, inhuman noises. Her lips mouthed inaudible words; sweet, heavy scented gibberish.
For some time, the operation was a spectacle of precision; a magnificent exhibition of order, and of the classic formations passed down from generation to generation.
Charles looked on with pride and gratitude. He glanced upwards for a moment and saw the burning God there, watching. A droplet of sweat fell from his brow.
The desert was still.
Sally could not help but think of an old, half-remembered biology lesson, of faded textbooks and the pale, stern faced mistress showing photographs of flowers moving in accordance to the Sun.
She had been carefully unravelled. Slivers of fragile skin were left untouched alongside bizarre and seemingly random massacres of flesh.
Charles made the instruction for the next, vital cut, the one that would make this Show burn itself into His memory, to be the reference point for all further Shows, and him for all Showmen. But when Amanda reached the climax point, her arms washed in scarlet and her hands trembling before Sally’s open body, she changed her mind. Instead of making an intentionally rough and jagged chop across the lung, Amanda made a gentle and swooping slice. A perfect cut. No mistakes.
Amanda moved away from Sally and took a final bow. Charles, petrified by Amanda’s perfection, waited for the sand to take him, for the Sun to open His mouth and burn him to dust, for the wind to spread his soul across the far corners of the earth.
None of these things occurred. Only silence and a slight breeze that came in from the West. Amanda smiled and began to put Sally together again, arranging the organs back in their natural order, sewing the skin to its original form.
Charles walked a few yards away from the women, breathing a long and desperate sigh of relief. He looked skyward again, searching for signs of Armageddon as dusk fell, but found only the giggles of young Sally behind him.
The three made camp that night and did not sleep. When dawn came, it was a rising cascade of colour.
They stood together on a nearby dune and watched as jets of vermilion ascended an endless, cobalt sky.
With quiet intention Amanda, Charles and Sally packed their minimal luggage away and set off for home, to a world where people didn’t question things, didn’t ponder miracles or fear oblivion.
A place where things just happened.