“Hello?” the boy asked.
“Strange to see someone out here,” said a rusty voice. An old man looked out from behind a crooked doorpost without a door. His beard was dry bristle bush. He had wildfire eyebrows that curled back like rib bones. His skin was baked adobe brick. His eyes were wild blue and reminded him of papá.
“Is this your home?”
“The desert is my home,” the old man answered. “And the desert always provides.” He walked inside, each step magnified by loud creaking floorboards. The boy stood there a while, until an arthritic hand beckoned him in.
The old man watched the boy drink soup in loud gulps and wipe his mouth with the back of his hand.
“Why do you live here?” the boy asked.
The old man didn’t answer. “Where is your papá?”
The boy looked down at zapatos so worn that his toes stuck out. He watched them wiggle rather than answer.
“The desert is no place for a boy.”
“I’m not a boy,” the boy said. “I’m a man! A real man can live in the desert. That’s what I’m doing!”
“You’re not in the desert,” said the old man. “You’re drinking soup.”
The boy stayed the night at the old man’s request. It was safer there. As the boy slept, the old man sat on the porch. He looked up. The speckled mass of a spiral galaxy arced in the desert sky, like the arms of a parent wrapped around a child. Eventually, the boy joined him outside. The old man pointed to a cluster of stars.
“La ballena,” the old man said. The whale. “She swims in the sky, and watches over us all. She is mother.”
The boy knew the story well. His papá had told him many times before.
The boy packed his things in the morning. The old man watched from the porch.
“Will you not stay longer?” The old man asked.
“No,” the boy answered. “I must go into the desert.”
“Your papá. Do you hate him?”
The boy stopped and looked at him. There were tears in the old man’s eyes. The boy felt his own eyes begin to water.
“No,” the boy said. “But he hates me.”
“Go to him,” the old man pleaded. “Return home.”
The boy pulled Chapa’s reigns. “Once I’ve proven I’m a man.”
The old man said nothing. The boy left.
Though Chapa was gone, he wasn’t alone. He was surrounded by armies of bleached white, half buried skeletons. They were near, far, speckling the flat lands in the distance like cold stars. The bones cracked under his step and turned to dust. His papá told him the desert would turn a boy into a man. It was only now that he understood. Fear, shame, and pain swirled inside him like desert winds. If pain made him a man, he did not want it.
He looked out and glimpsed a shape in the distance. What he saw was unmistakable. The hut.
How did he go in a circle? Had he not been following the sun since setting off? The same row of tombstones stood in the back. The petunias had died, their remains were withered snake skins hanging from the pot.
“Hello?” the boy called. “Old man?”
No answer. He entered and found the old man lying in bed. There was an echo of a smile on his face. He seemed at peace.
He searched outside for a stone to mark the grave. He found a chalk slab that seemed like it was made to do so. The boy started digging.
Years passed. The boy learned to live off the desert, to eat the cactus, and call the ramshackle hut his home. He woke one morning and felt his joints creak like the boards of a rundown ship. They were old, but they worked well enough. He hummed to himself a tune his papá taught him. He heard the clop of hooves. A boy and his horse were on the horizon. He smiled at the sight, though he didn’t know why. He would feed the boy. With what, the old man was unsure. But he wasn’t worried.
The Desert always provides.
—Richard Ferro is a 24-year-old graduate of the University of Colorado, Denver. Sporting a biology degree, he has his eyes set on medical school and a future career as a doctor. He also plans to publish a book or two along the way, and is always looking for a chance to hone his skills as a writer. His favorite books are Paulo Coelho’s The Alchemist and Ernest Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea, both of which heavily influenced the feel of this story.
Check out more by Richard at Stories Worth a Hundred Words.