A book in the sand

Minutes, hours, years
contract and expand around Time –
elastic –
binding book to hand;
pages flutter in red desert stillness
sand grains whip and slip,
burrow deep,
bonding hidden spaces
between the letters
Je suis – I am…
He speaks his phrases
into the sun-baked silence
the words whipped away
on the scorched wind
words no one hears
but him

In the desert, with a dictionary 


Gemsbok and Tree, Namibia, Copyright Silverleaf 2016


The land around Sossusvlei in Namibia is expansive, open, arid. It is a golden and fire-orange, sand-filled vision; the quintessential desert image. The odd gemsbok or springbok stand silent and still, under a tree if there is one, their distinctive stance and horns shadowed in sharp relief against the vibrant sand. A few houses dot the landscape, most small and square and hunched against the grit of the wind. The animals and houses seem to be part of the wild surroundings,unlike the walled tourist lodges that have sprung up along the main road to cash in on the attraction of the nearby dunes (the largest in the world).

Most people fly into Windhoek, drive down to Sossusvlei, take a trek out to the dunes and the dry salt pans, rest a few days in their lodge, then back to Windhoek and away again, next stop on the trip, next pin in their map. We, on the other hand, have driven here, miles and miles through deserts and towns, watching the land grow and shrink, approach and recede, shapeshifting around us.

Other than the tiny town of Sesriem, which provides essentials and fuel to those passing through, and the Sossusvlei National Park offices, which house a shop and bar, there isn’t much else out here. Just miles and miles of space. Miles and miles of sand. Openness. And, further away, jagged picture-perfect mountains shimmering above it all, their feet immersed in mirages.

This ancient nature, this stunning beauty, allows the rest of the world to fade away. It can be isolating, but it also focuses perspective and perception down to the immediate, the moment, until nothing else exists but what lies before you.

* * *

The parking area at the drop off point for the Sossusvlei dunes is simple and pristine, so perfectly in keeping with its surroundings that the vista almost swallows it completely. A few logs raised about a foot off the ground mark the outer reaches of the parking area, which is a roughly round area in the sand, full of tire tracks and shadowed by several large trees, their roots reaching through the soft ground. There is also a portable nearby with flushing toilets, something which comes as a surprise. It is clean and well-stocked, though there are no sinks for hand washing.

Thankful to have found toilets at all, and considering dirty hands to be a small sacrifice, I didn’t really think twice about the issue of washing. As I stepped back out into the sun, I looked over at the man standing against a wooden frame attached to the toilet portable. Assuming he was in charge of keeping the washrooms clean, I headed over to leave him a tip. As I reached him, he noded his head towards a 5 litre water bottle suspended upside-down from the wooden frame, hanging at eye level.

“Would you like to wash your hands?” He asked. So that was the purpose of the water bottle contraption, a simple but smart pulley system. I smiled and thanked him.


I noticed the compact hardcover book in his hand and tilted my head to read the title: English-French, Anglais-Francais.

“Is that a French-English dictionary?”

“Yes, I’m trying to teach myself French.”

I asked if he was from the area and he told me he was from the north end of Namibia, up by the Angolan border, but that he’d been living near Sossusvlei for 5 years.

“Do many people speak French here?”

“No. But some of the tourists do. I’d like to be able to speak to them. And I thought it would be good to do something to keep myself busy, so I decided to teach myself French.”

We chatted a while longer before it was time to go. “Au revoir,” I said, “Bonne chance avec le français!” And then my family and I headed off, following the thousands of other footprints up and over the rolling waves of sand.

* * *

A month later, I’m still thinking about the man with the dictionary, out there in the sand. His days must be fairly mundane, hot, lonely. And yet, he has chosen to make the most of them, to fight the boredom, to learn.

I wonder how many tourists have stopped to talk to him, to find out about his background, his interests. I wonder how many of them speak French. I wish him well, and I hope he has a chance to practice what he’s been learning.

* * *

Namibia has eight recognized languages in addition to English, which is the official language. French isn’t one of them.

Snow Scapes: Collecting Glimmers on a Grey Day

Glen was just packing his saxophone into its case in the entrance hall of the Salvation Army shelter when Helen came shuffling along. He looked up and noticed she was dressed to go out. She was pulling the heavy wagon she had fashioned out of an old suitcase handle, a milk crate and some wheels. It made a soft scraping noise on the scuffed linoleum flooring. His eyes quickly took in her appearance and his brow furrowed in concern. She wasn’t dressed very warmly.

“Helen,” he began gently, “Helen, are you going out in that? You know, it’s very cold today.”

Helen looked up absently at him, pulled a scarf down over her hair and knotted it below her chin. “I’ve called a taxi,” she said, as an explanation.

A horn honked outside. Glen turned and looked through the window. “I think your taxi’s here. Do you want some help?”

But Helen was already shuffling off toward the door, lost in her own world.

Glen finished getting his things together and buttoned up his coat. It was cold, but he was looking forward to going out in the snow. He had some tunes in his head that he wanted to play and he knew he would warm up once he started, once he was out among the people on the streets. He pulled on his gloves and, grasping his saxophone case and taking hold of the collection pot and stand, he followed Helen out into the cold, grey day.


It is a cold, cold day. And grey. The clouds are a thick and seamless, unmoving mass overhead. I think it must be too cold to snow, and yet it is snowing. Flakes of white twirl and dance through the air.

Depending on the scene, the moment, the people in it, the same snow on the same cold, grey day can be beautiful or forbidding, it can sparkle or prick at the faces of passersby.

It is early afternoon and I am walking through the crowded exit of a hospital. Outside, just before the entrance, there is a crush of cars and people, coming and going. I am tired and on my way somewhere but the plaintive voice of a small, older woman getting out of a taxi distracts me.

At first, I think she is elderly. She wears a patterned scarf over her head and tied at her chin so that I can’t see her hair. I imagine it is grey, perhaps long. The scarf doesn’t seem warm enough and neither do her other clothes; the cowl neck of a forest green sweater protrudes from the top of her thin overcoat’s collar and her hands are bare and must be frozen in this weather.

She is asking for help, she complains to anyone who might be listening that the cabbie is just in a hurry, that he is not helping her. I offer her my hand as she shuffles her feet, trying unsuccessfully to move up the sloped side of the sidewalk from the curb toward the doors of the hospital. I see then that she is not so old, though her face is lined with hunger and strain and I can only imagine what else. Her lips are cracked and white.

Even with my help, she has trouble moving her feet. She ruefully mumbles that she should have brought something better to lean on, and I glance at the handle that extends from her hand, down to where it is duct-taped to a blue plastic milk crate on makeshift wheels. The contraption is heavy. It is covered with foil so that I can’t see what is inside it, but I imagine it is her belongings. All the things she owns. I try to help her pull the crate behind her but she is right, it is heavy, and not useful for leaning on. She won’t let me pull it up ahead for her.

I have to leave, people are waiting for me and I can see that she is looking for company, or for something else, something I can’t give her. I leave her when she has finally reached the top of the sidewalk. She is still having trouble making her legs move. I take one last glance at her as she struggles along toward the doorway of the hospital. The snow around her is cold and grey, the air biting.

Walking later near my home, the flakes seem to float and flutter, like soft sparkles drifting on the wind. Though the day is still just as cold and just as grey, there is a loveliness to them. A peacefulness. I pause for a moment and follow their paths as they dance through the air, enjoying the purity of the whiteness in front of the warm red of the surrounding brick houses. I think about how different the same snow can be depending on the circumstances.

In the evening, I walk down a busy street, past shop fronts, past people squeezing in a few more minutes of shopping. It is colder, bitterly so, and the snow has stopped falling, though it billows around in the wind.

The sound of a saxophone being played on a street corner draws my attention. The notes float out along the street on the backs of the twirling snowflakes. A young man, brightly dressed in a motley collection of reds, stands next to a Salvation Army collection pot, his shiny chrome instrument flashing in the dim, early evening light. Astonishingly, effortlessly, he coaxes a happy melody out of the cold saxophone though he wears only thin, fingerless gloves.

I stop and watch, thinking that you almost never see the Salvation Army out on street corners anymore. And yet here he is, on one of the coldest days of the year. There is a warmth and a joy that radiate from within him out into the cold. His music calls to people and they draw near and smile, through faces frozen stiff, they chat to him and to each other, and some even dance a little.

I recall the woman I saw earlier in the day, at the hospital, and I think about all the people that are helped by those like the man before me, gathering money and reaching out. Perhaps the two of them have met. Perhaps they have passed on the street or in warmer corridors.

As the snow and wind and cold pick up again, I look around and think about how we are all connected. We all breathe the same air, are touched by the same snow, shiver in the same cold. But it is so different, it looks and feels different, from beautiful and sparkling to forbidding and painful, depending on where you are standing.

Other responses to this week’s Weekly Challenge:

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  25. Weekly Writing Challenge: Collecting Detail | Reflections and Nightmares- Irene A Waters (writer and memoirist)
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Sarah’s Perspective

It’s not that Sarah was a person who judged others exactly. If you asked her, she’d say not at all.  And she’d say she’s not suspicious of others, certainly not of those she deems to be, well, not quite like herself.

But a person notices things. And if you notice something that’s obvious, right there in front of you, what are you supposed to do? Be dishonest and pretend it doesn’t exist?

When she and her husband came across their house a few years ago on a real estate site, she was a bit concerned about moving to a “mixed income neighbourhood,” as she delicately put it.

“You never know,” she had said to her husband, her dewy, perfectly shaped brow furrowed with concern, “maybe it’s not that safe. Right? I mean, it’s downtown, which is great but, well, it’s almost inner city.”

But Henry, her husband, smiled reassuringly and said he thought it would be fine – a good learning experience for the kids. He had a way of looking at her, with his perfectly coiffed hair and his white, dental-poster teeth, that told her everything he said was right.

And it had been ok, mostly.

There was one small thing that worried her, though. It almost wasn’t worth mentioning. In a city of millions of people, there were bound to be people, even in her neighbourhood, with whom she would prefer not to socialize. But the bus stop was the bus stop and unless they put their kids into private school, which they had decided not to do, they couldn’t help who travelled on the bus with them. Nor could they help who the parents of said kids were.

Of course, they could drive the kids to school in the car, but then Sarah saw the bus as an extra bit of socializing for the kids, and she didn’t want to take that away from them. Especially not just because she was a bit uncomfortable about some of the other families in the neighbourhood.

Take for instance Sophie. She was young still, only in first grade, but she had already lost her cuteness. Or perhaps it had never been there. There was an edge to her, a toughness. It could have been because of her thrift store clothes. These were not, Sarah thought, the trendy kind of thrift store clothes.

It was really Sophie’s aunt who Sarah found disconcerting, though. The aunt was rough around the edges and lacking any understanding of basic social cues and norms. But, Sarah admitted, she had taken Sophie in after already raising her own kids. That was something.

Sophie’s mother had abandoned her at birth, and no one knew who the father was. So the little girl, after bouncing around foster homes for a while, finally went to live with her aunt in community housing.

And this was the issue Sarah had with the neighbourhood: around the corner from them, backing right onto their nice, bourgeois street, were the social housing buildings. Sarah just couldn’t understand how the city planners worked.

Every morning, the aunt, whose name Sarah hadn’t remembered, would walk with Sophie from their social housing unit around the corner to the bus stop. There she would do her best to make small talk with the other parents, including Sarah.

Sarah was not rude, of course. No, she had been raised better than that. Sarah was polite and would smile with just enough kindness to bestow her grace upon the aunt and to appear charitable in the minds of the other parents, while remaining distant enough so as not to encourage too much unwanted conversation.

On the infrequent occasions that Sarah and the aunt passed each other in the street without their children, Sarah would smile with the same polite smile, nod slightly, and continue on her way. She didn’t have time to stop and chat anyway.

On the day in question, Sarah was walking back from the neighbourhood store with some last minute groceries for dinner; they were having company that night.

She turned onto her street, two blocks east of her house, and the park came into view in front of her. Although it was here that the nice residential area she lived in ran right up against the seedy city core, the park itself had always been clean, safe and orderly. In fact, her neighbour had just mentioned to her the other day that she thought they were very lucky to be able to live downtown in an area that remained an oasis, when so many other places in the city centre had disintegrated, turned to crime and disreputable activities.

As Sarah was passing the park, she noticed Sophie’s aunt standing just inside the gate talking to two other women. Her first thought was one of trepidation; she did not want to get drawn into some converstaion with these people just now.

Sarah smiled the smile she reserved for people like these and gave her stiff little wave.

The women were huddled quite close together, smoking. Sarah noticed then that the two women were a bit strange. She couldn’t quite put her finger on it but they were sort of cagey, shady maybe. For one thing, they wore an awful lot of makeup, thought Sarah, and it was kind of all over their faces. She turned up her nose slightly. They were younger than the aunt, but had the same rough aura about them. Their hair was uncombed and their tight, dark clothes were a bit inappropriate for hanging around a park in the middle of the afternoon.

Sophie’s aunt seemed to pause before returning Sarah’s greeting, which was strange because she was usually so friendly – almost overly so. And in that moment’s pause, Sarah saw her surreptitiously take something from one of the other women and quickly stuff it in the front pocket of her jeans. Only then did she raised her hand in a wave, but her eyes remained dark and unsmiling.

Sarah’s heart skipped. She forced her gaze forward, toward home, and walked on past the women. She couldn’t help but imagine what had been going on there.

Well it was obvious, wasn’t it, she thought. The aunt was buying or selling something at the corner of a downtown park.

It had to be drugs, Sarah thought.

She followed her tumbling thoughts along to the next horrible set of possibilities. Maybe the aunt had some prescription drugs and was selling them to make a bit of cash. Then what Sarah would have seen was her pocketing the money.

Or…or the aunt wasn’t all that benevolent a caregiver after all, and was actually buying drugs, maybe even doing them with little Sophie there. Well, thought Sarah, unable to hold her thoughts at bay by now, well that would explain why Sophie seemed to be so hardened. That must be it!

Sarah was beside herself by the time she reached her house. She knew they should never have moved in here, she thought, accusingly thinking of Henry’s calm reassurances. They would simply have to move, she decided.

Lyne watched Sarah’s elegantly clad back disappear down the street for a moment, her  boots clicking slightly as she hurried along. Then she looked back at the girls. It was hard to believe they had found her after all this time, and hard to believe that they were all still friends with her daughter, Tammy.

She remembered them as little girls playing together in each other’s back yards, when innocence was on their side.

Shaking her head, she brought herself out of her reverie and back to the present.

“Thanks for bringing me this,” she said again. “I hope Tammy really is alright?”

“Ya, she’s doing fine, like I said, she just wanted to tell you that herself.”

The girls turned to go. Lyne tried desperately to think of something to say to keep them there just a bit longer, to give her more information about Tammy. But they had said all they came to say and were ready to leave.

As the two girls walked away, Lyne reached into her front pocket again to touch the crumpled up piece of paper that was lodged there.  She would hurry home now, she thought, and read the note from Tammy in privacy. It was the first time she had heard anything from her daughter in two years.

Greater Perspective


Daily Prompt: Write a story about yourself from the perspective of an object, thing, animal, or another person.

I was never really that important of an object. Not back then, anyway.

I came from what you humans, or at least an elite group of you, refer to as the Third Dynasty of Ur, or Ur III. I say an elite group because I have come to understand that some of you don’t even know that our kingdom existed. Some don’t even understand why it matters. Imagine my shock!

But some, the elite, get it.

My latest owners are among the elite. I’m not sure how I landed in their hands. I mean, I know how, I am of course aware of my own illustrious history. I’m just not sure how I managed to be lucky enough to not only survive this long but to land in the hands of those who know, who have the knowledge of history. Those who can read.

I’m not sure how many of you humans can read these days. Back in Ur, when I was created, only a select few could read, despite the fact that mine were a highly enlightened people. So enlightened in fact that we created writing. Beat that for literary significance!

During my time, government officials were taught to read and write in Sumerian, the language used for our literature and our administrative documents. Yes, we had literature back then! Sumerian wasn’t the only language in our culture, but I was written in Sumerian so I know a bit more about it.

I was created by the administration of the time as a commercial document, a detailed inventory from the centralized textile industry. My cuneiform text recounts to those interested a list of textiles created, warehoused and bartered during a specific time in the year 2046 BCE.

Ah, I see I now have your attention. Yes, that was a long time ago.

I have been around a long time. I have watched the stars traverse the heavens for millenia upon millenia. Admittedly, I missed a lot while I was underground, but I have caught up quite a bit over the past few years, since I was exhumed. I have since travelled far from my beloved home, to a world so new that when I was first created, no one in Ur had even dreamed of its existence.

I finally fell into the hands of the people in whose home I am now housed. Incredible the way things work out. The husband, knowing his wife has a passion for history and an interest particularly in cuneiform and ancient Mesopotamia – I daresay, amazingly dignified and all too rare an interest among you humans – searched me out and bought me as a gift for her.

I have pride of place now at the front of a glass table under a skylight in their library room. A library – how fitting! I like to be under the skylight; it affords me a view of the heavens, night and day. I am joined on this glass table by other historical artifacts. But they stand behind me. I am right at the front for all to see. It is because, I think, lesser antiquities would have crumbled to dust centuries ago.

If I might take the liberty of getting on with my confession, with which I began this communication, I can scarcely believe that I am so revered by these people. They are clearly of noble birth!

For all my airs (yes I even admit I put on airs, but when you are this old, and have survived from the beginning of the written word, you take certain liberties with vanity), I am only a lowly government document. A dime a dozen we were. It’s the same even in your society as I understand it.

It’s not like I’m a piece of one of those famous law codes. You know, Hammurabi‘s laws? No? Well, anyway, we were a very important civilization and not only did we invent writing but we also invented laws, and wrote them down. Hammurabi’s laws came much later, in the 1700s BCE, after I had been created and had lain around for a few centuries. There were other laws written down before Hammurabi, but he has had all the glory. Such is the way of history.

But I digress. I was continuing with my confession about having been originally made for ordinary, every day purposes. I am just a bit moved that, although I am not as historically important as I could be, I am treated with great care and respect by these people.

The lady of the house stops and picks me up sometimes, turning me over in reverence. And this despite the fact that she can’t read cuneiform. Most days, though she may be bustling by with laundry or something to do with the child, she will at least take the time to glance my way. I can see in her eyes she appreciates me, and my place in history. I can sense with all the experience of one so old that she is still in awe to have a piece of ancient history sitting in her house.

She writes a lot and reads a lot, and she values such ancient wonders as the stars and the moon, and nature. No wonder she understands my importance. Clearly, people are still born these days with some of that ancient wisdom.

She’s not wise enough to be able to read cuneiform, mind you, but one can only dream so big when one is a small, broken-off piece of an ancient clay tablet.

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