FictionWinter 2021-2022

In the Karakum Desert — Jerri Jerreat

Nadya’s arms had tingled exactly this way once before. She’d been nine the day the leaves of the tree outside their box apartment had flipped over, branches strained backward like a Bolshoi ballerina. There’d been sly scents on the wind too: onions, vinegar, auto exhaust, and an odd scorching smell.

Later that night there’d been an explosion at a generating station, then fire had ripped through the apartment building across the street. Nadya had woken to horror—yellow flames dancing in an orange sky, metal skeletons of bars or posts, people screaming. Nadya screamed too, her mother trying to close the curtains which Nadya was clutching as she looked out and saw, above the sirens, above the flames—

In the blowing orange clouds, wispy black edges, there’d been wings. Many wings.

Nadya’s mother had pulled her to the kitchenette, made her drink a shot of vodka. Told her it was fine; it was going to be fine. Breathe. The firefighters had arrived. Everyone saw things in fire. There was nothing they could do, she asserted as she stuffed things in two bags, just in case.

Thirty-seven people, neighbours, had perished.

Nadya was thirty-two now, and far from home. Her arms were tingling again. She swallowed but couldn’t shake the feeling that something here felt very wrong.

The men had already unloaded the monster drilling rig off the flatbed and were stringing long cables to it. Others were setting up camp. Last year, geologists had marked this spot near the village of Darvaza to drill for natural gas. The Karakum desert was full of it, they’d said. Russia needed it, they’d said.

Nadya pictured her late mother, Raisa, cooking potato fish stew on the old stove, powered by a gas-fired generator a block away. Raisa, always tired, rushing home from the candy factory each night to cook and scold her daughter through her homework before setting her feet up on a cushioned footstool, a treat in her pocket for her girl. Nadya had loved the scolding, had feigned reluctance to work simply for the comfort of it. After a day of being teased or ignored, she’d zip through her homework, curl up beside her mother, and read aloud.

They’d both loved adventure stories in faraway lands with oceans, mountains, deserts, even on the moon. Not that anyone could just leave, she knew. Only Olympic athletes and ballet dancers.

Nadya had a stack of hand-drawn maps underneath her bed, some her mother had even helped to colour. How excited her mother would have been to know Nadya would travel!

Nadya frowned and remembered. New lights and machines being installed at the factory; one lone wire hanging that wasn’t supposed to have been live when her mother had hurried under it, always rushing, the manager relentless. Raisa would never travel, except in Nadya’s mind and heart.

Here in the real desert, canvas tents left over from WWII  (men falling into them at night, exhausted, rifles peeling out of bloody hands), were being set up with two larger ones for shade and meals. Nearby were three trailers: a kitchen, an office, and a sleeper for the engineers, geologists and the self-important official nominally in charge.

Tovarish Sokolov was forty-five years old with soft white hands and crisp khaki pants. Everyone despised him, but hid it. Nadya was his driver, though the geologists and engineers had shared the long haul here from Moscow. They’d been polite, respectful to Nadya. One of the geologists was a woman. Nadya had studied Narantsetseg’s round face, serious manner, and her occasional bark of laughter. Once, when Sokolov had spoken eagerly of a little side trip to see Turkmenistan’s dinosaur footprints, the two women had exchanged wry glances in the mirror. He had no idea of distance.

Now the hair on Nadya’s arms was standing up. What was that about? Sweat was still rivering down her chest and back, but it wasn’t the heat, 25ºC in April.

On impulse, she hopped back in and backed the jeep up. Twenty feet, thirty. Why not? Her mother had taught her to trust her instincts. Whenever new students had approached young Nadya, she’d always been able to sense if they were merely curious about her crooked upper lip, a badly sewn harelip, or intent on being nasty. Either way, she had learned to back away.

The tingles subsided. Satisfied, she popped the hood and began her daily fluid level check. This newer, still unnamed GAZ, had two fuel tanks and a new radiator installed to deal with the desert heat. It was handsome, but needed constant babying. Like a man, Raisa said in her head, her mouth pulling to the left. Nadya was fond of the canvas roof and improved dust filter, but was still learning its ways. There was also a clunk in the steering mechanism when she turned right. Good, she thought. I’ll keep busy here; they won’t ask me to help.

 

#

 

 

The sunset last evening had been spectacular. Everyone had paused to admire it, even the cooks. The eastern sand dunes before the Kugitang mountains had looked like soft pink skirts. To the west, toward the Caspian Sea, the sky had been on fire. The sun had been a red ball, sinking in vivid streaks of mango, persimmon, pomegranate. There were soft exclamations, and not a single person had turned away. It was as though the sunset had unified this odd cache of people, the labourers from Azerbaijan (“Land of Fire”, Marco Polo had named it), Narantsetseg and her half smile from northern Mongolia, even Tovarish Sokolov, hugging his doorway, sniffing loudly.

Perhaps awe was a universal emotion. Perhaps it was awe, not fear, that created religions, Nadya had mused.

That was exactly the sort of useless philosophical thinking her teachers had frowned upon when they’d chosen Nadya for mechanics’ training. Luckily, one needs to be philosophical about cars, for each has a personality of its own. She’d loved her first motorcycle, “Vlad”, then her first army GAZ, “Ivan”. Vlad was peppy and exciting while Ivan had been an old fellow, like the father she might have known if he’d survived his construction accident. A slip, a fall. She’d talked to Ivan sometimes, and had been rather sad to see him scrapped.

The sunset had bonded the group for ten holy minutes, but finally they’d turned, one by one. Sokolov had shouted an imprecation at the oil rig operator, which was met surreptitiously by a rude hand signal. The geologists had smirked at each other. An engineer sighed deeply, from his gut.

 

#

 

Nadya rolled out from under the jeep and went to wash up. She rebraided her hair, then spat left, then right, a habit she had to even things out. She took a deep breath and rolled her shoulders back before joining the group for dinner. Again. No one stared at her lip anymore–they generally ignored her. Much better.

“Looks good,” she offered quietly, nodding at the men.

No one acknowledged her, not even the other drivers. They drove sixteen-wheeler trucks and considered her amateur. Nadya thanked the cook and took a bowl of barley stew. She sat at the end of a bench.

“Coulda squeezed his skinny neck like a chicken if I’d had half a chance!” continued Sergei to the table. “Little bastard.”

The others laughed. Nadya noted the hair rising on her arms again. The sky was nearly ink and the temperature was dropping fast. She unrolled her sleeves and buttoned them. Wished she’d brought her jacket. The tingling began moving up her arms toward her shoulder. Nadya’s hands trembled; the first spoonful went down her front.

“Sloppy Sasha!” laughed Matvei, clapping her on the back in a friendly way. He alone had not looked away from her scar. “Are we making you nervous?”

Nadya screwed up her courage. “Does anyone feel something strange? Here?”

“It’s a wasteland, honey,” commented Ilya. “It’s supposed to look strange.”

“Nyet. I mean right here. Under us. It feels like, like the land is—vibrating.” She frowned, embarrassed.

“I’ll give you vibrating. Invite me to your tent tonight!” boomed Sergei.

Most of them chuckled.

Nadya reddened from her chest to her forehead, but forced herself to persist. Raisa had raised her to trust herself. “I’m serious. Over there, the land feels solid. Here, it has a slight movement to it, like it’s—breathing. I think, I think—we should move the camp.”

Eyebrows raised. A few glanced around at the row of giant trucks, tents, trailers, and the monolith that was the gas drilling rig in the centre, rooted below and cabled safely in six directions. “Moving the camp” was not going to happen.

“Women are always afraid,” barked Sergei, but the others merely smiled mechanically.

Nadya had proven something their first night in the desert when she had calmed a slightly hysterical Tovarish Sokolov. She’d assured him that the creature he’d seen was a striped tail lizard, not a scorpion. She’d even described its eating habits (insects) to the amusement of everyone listening, and managed to do it in such a pleasant way that Sokolov could bluster his way back to the trailer. She had earned some respect from the men for that.

“You’d listen to me if I were a man,” she said across the table to Sergei.

Eyebrows raised again down the long table, with broad grins—the little mouse had attitude. Sergei ignored her.

Nadya took her bowl and went over to GAZ to eat. She was considering naming it Rudolf or Misha, after her favourite dancers. Difficult to choose. She shrugged on her warmer jacket, zipped it and pulled up the hood. The wind was turning cold, but the sand was still hot. Her mind wandered to that small lizard. She’d never been afraid of living things, had once picked up a Giant Swallowtail caterpillar on a dare; it had an ugly reptilian body with wet red antlers like a forked tongue. Strange, that they later metamorphosed into such beautiful dark butterflies with exotic yellow markings. Hard to believe.

She looked west, then up. The sky was a giant navy bowl with thousands of glittering lights tossed across it. She felt dizzy, and shook herself.

 

#

 

Underneath, other creatures slept. They lay overlapped or spread out in enormous tunnels and caverns, long reptilian tails twitching. Unaware of animals above, they dreamt of tall snow-capped mountains, crystal blue rivers, green grasslands. Occasionally smoke drifted from tunnel-like nostrils. A young one stirred restlessly, tired of the Hibernaculum.

“There is a time for wildfires, a time for volcanoes,” he had been told, often. “We stay because we are the Stewards of the Deep Fires. They must not be woken.”

The youth wondered if there would be humans.

There was a sound like low thunder. “Humans are small ground crawlers. Arrogant. I still remember them with tails, in trees.”

“Do they live underground now?”

“The last time I saw them, they built stone nests, clumped together. They piled their waste, invited disease. We cleansed the air, erased the thousands thrown in pits.” The old one paused. “They must be extinct by now.”

In his sleep, the youth shivered and twitched his tail.

 

#

 

In her pup tent, above, Nadya heard something and sat up. She listened for a long time but it did not repeat. Probably one of the men relieving himself. She forced herself to lay back down. She took deep, slow breaths, counting. Tomorrow she would get a stronger flashlight and a mirror to look under the jeep, see what needed aid.

 

#

 

The next day, the camp disappeared.

Nadya was on her back looking up at the exhaust pipe when GAZ started shaking violently. Someone was blaring a truck horn, followed by yelling. She wriggled out, stood up, and turned toward the oil rig.

Like a ship at sea, the tower was swaying back and forth in a wave of foamy earth. A man was hanging onto the lower platform, shouting for help. Others were scrambling away in a stampede toward the camp. Whistles were blowing. Narantsetseg, her ponytail streaming behind, was running toward the rig with a rope. Another engineer followed her, pausing to grab things. The rig was tipping over, very slowly, further, further—people were still running, others were frozen in shock, staring. Then everyone was shouting at the fellow to jump.

It was Sergei, clinging to a steel support. Then the whole monster toppled over, ripping up steel cables as though they were threads. It all sunk below Nadya’s view, like a mirage. Like a dream.

Narantsetseg stopped, tied the rope to herself, and threw the rest into the newly birthed crevasse. One of the labourers ran back to brace her, then another. A male geologist was tying a hose to one of the big trucks. He waved a driver over to help. Tovarish Sokolov, his head poking out of the trailer like a turtle, yanked it back in and slammed the door. All those who’d run were slowing down now, pausing. A handful were turning back.

Nadya grappled for the towing rope under a seat, then paused. I should drive closer, use the jeep. She jumped in the driver’s seat, was fumbling for the keys when came the very sound of the universe exploding, like the 1908 Tunguska fireball. Nadya covered her head in pain. After an endless few minutes, moaning, still covering her ears, she peered up.

The entire camp was gone. The tents. The trucks. The flatbed. The trailers. The people. Everything. All of it. Gone.

There were detonations, thunder, shrieks (but they might have been hers). She felt her brain fade out momentarily.

She and a GAZ-69 were alone in a vast desert.

The cacophony went on and on. Nadya blinked; her brain slid back into place, throbbing.

Earthquake.

This word made some sense. She should look. But the idea of walking to the edge of the abyss and looking down was impossible. You might be able to pull someone out, whispered a thought. You should try. Maybe it was her mother’s voice. She had to mentally pry her hands off her ears, finger by finger.

The sand was still vibrating as she swung her boots onto it and rose from the seat. She tied the tow rope around the door, a solid knot, then slammed the door. She took a deep breath and forced herself to walk forward three, four, five strong steps. After five, the land ended abruptly.

She was looking down at Hell. An enormous crater was spread out below. It seethed with boiling mud and hundreds of flares, fire jets shooting up like fountains. The giant rig, the trailers and trucks, had all been tossed in like children’s toys thrown in a basket; they were being devoured. The fires were alive, hungry. There were hardly any humans visible—a leg there, under a truck to her left; a body facedown, farther, but she was squinting through curtains of smoke and heat waves.

Nadya squeezed her eyes shut to think. The land collapsed. It’s on fire. The land is on fire. Why? She searched for an explanation. Gas. Natural gas, a pocket. This gave her a shred of logic to hang onto. Okay then. Search for people. She opened her eyes, leaned over and began to scan the pit methodically, east to west, then west to east, looking for any movement.

Yes! There was a shadow climbing on top of a giant crumpled box, truck sized.

She waved her rope madly, blinking against the smoke.

The figure waved back.

Nadya didn’t know if the rope would even reach. Have to try. With a curse, she aimed carefully, then threw it the way Narantsetseg had.

The man caught it, he actually caught it! He tied it around his waist. Then he leaned over, doing something.

Movements on the far side caught Nadya’s attention, across the fire growing wilder with oxygen. Her breath stopped. Was it more people? Survivors? A clew of animals seemed to be crawling up the far slope. Their movements were awkward and snake-like. Dark and large, there were five, no, six, then another six. More followed. The distance and smoke were confusing everything. Perhaps she was hallucinating?

Now there were two people below waving frantically.

Nadya flew back to the jeep, flipped on the ignition, and, mixing old prayers with curse words, backed GAZ up, foot by slow foot. It took minutes, or hours. When both figures were on top, on solid land, she dragged them another 10 feet away from the edge. The land was still trembling, more could collapse. Billions of rubles of gas right under the sand, she’d heard Sokolov chortle many times. It’ll last for a century!

The two men were gasping hoarsely when she rushed to them, a good sign, but they no longer looked human. She paused to take some very deep breaths.

The first man’s bald head and hands were red and wet, a layer of skin gone. There were thin veins seemingly peeled open. The second man’s head was worse—whitish and waxy with dark burned edges like leather. Third degree burns. Nadya shuddered deeply and recited to herself the first aid rules: Water. Plain water. Then hospital. Hope the clothing hasn’t burnt into the skin. A raking glance assured her it was too late for that. Shock. Hypothermia. Death.

“You’re going to be okay,” she told them loudly, shakily, lying through her teeth. Her own voice sounded foreign, seared. “We have to get to GAZ. You’ll be fine.”  She would use every goddamn pain killer they had. Vodka too.

The first man nodded at her. “S-see,” he whispered.

She untied them both, noticing no obvious broken limbs. The raspy breathing was trachea damage, she thought, from smoke. The first man’s arms looked like raw meat—she had to look away, toward the pit.

On the opposite side those lizard creatures were nearly gone. There were a dozen left, and when they reached the top, their backs opened into pterosaur wings. They flapped them a few times like butterflies, drying, then leapt straight upward.

Dragons! Nadya paused. Dragons? Really?

Nadya followed them upward with her eyes. Their wings had striking patterns: burnt orange with a black zig zag; midnight blue with white spots; black with yellow marks along the wing edges and across the centre. Large abstract paintings spread out gloriously for her to witness. The last one was copper brown with bright red curves fluttering along the edges.

Each group soared up, circled like show planes, then headed south. Far ahead, there was a drift of dragons already disappearing, perhaps half a hundred.

Nadya laughed out loud. No one would ever believe this. Ever. It was like those stories set on the moon. It was incredible—or maybe she was crazy. And no wonder, after such horror.

She turned back to look into the first man’s face, his poor mottled red head, and saw his surprise. Had he witnessed the dragons too? No, he was seeing the awe in her face.

“C’mon. We have to get away from here.” She got behind him, slid her arms under his armpits, then clasped her hands on his chest. He didn’t scream with pain, a very bad sign. “You must try to stand up. Please.” She strained to lift his weight, and dragged him up onto her thighs.

His body twitched, straining to help.

A golden brown dragon suddenly appeared out of the smoke-filled sky, hurtling back toward the devil’s pit of flames. What is it doing? Mama, are you seeing this? Am I beyond crazy?  She took a deep breath, then hoisted the man up a hands width further and began to drag him backward.

The dragon circumnavigated the chasm, turned sideways and flaunted a wavy stripe of black dots. Suddenly the creature dove straight toward the tallest flames, nearly forty feet high.

Nadya paused, riveted.

It soared through the flames, swerved upward, swivelled back and repeated it.

It’s playing!

The creature did a pirouette on its tail inside the flames, flashing red, amber and gold glitter. It capered, flew loop-the-loops, leaned its head back and blew a brilliant apricot torch out of its mouth, illuminating the sky. She could almost hear laughter—its joy was contagious.

Smiling broadly, Nadya felt behind her for the jeep’s side door. She flung it open, then glanced up and froze.

The dragon was flying straight at them. At them. Nadya ought to have screamed and hit the ground but instead, she stilled. She had the urge to fling her arms open wide and accept it. Then the dragon opened its great maw and breathed out a stream of fire.

Nadya, both men, and the jeep were completely sheathed in blue fire.

Blue? Nadya, eyes now shut, figured they were all dead, but really, it wasn’t the worst way to die. She could tell her mother—she had just seen a leap of dragons

The horror of the pit faded a little. There’d been such fierce joy in the small dragon’s dance. I may be dead now but I saw a host of dragons. So beautiful. Mama, you would have loved it.

Her eyes opened. Regretfully she let her vision clear. Everything was the same: two men, and a massive burning pit.

The man in her arms shook himself like a wet dog and raised himself up slowly. He stepped away awkwardly, on his own. He turned and looked at her.

It was the young geologist. Osip, she recalled, Osip Ivanovich Egorov, from a farm in the Ukraine. His bald head and face were now sunburned red, with thin scabs like continents. The wet red skin had healed over. “Spasiba,” he articulated. Thank you.

Fire heals? Nadya nodded, shoved him into the jeep and stumbled back to help the second man rise. His ruined skin was now an interesting purpled brown with a variety of scabs. He was a labourer from Azerbaijan who’d once cast her a condescending look. She led him to the other bench in the back and helped him to lie down. Well, his desert knowledge will come in handy.

Nadya tossed the rope in, then turned to take one last look. The whole place was a crematorium. She said a wordless prayer for all those souls. We woke the Deep Fire, she thought. Around her the site was empty except for tire tracks and footprints. The wind would shuffle sand over those in an hour. Millions of rubles, she thought. The smell from the fires had become nauseating, sulfurous. She covered her nose. Poison.

Nadya swung herself into the driver seat, slammed the door and turned on the engine.

“Where are we going?” asked Osip behind her. She looked at him in the mirror. His blue eyes, less bloodshot, were looking at her mildly.

“I don’t know,” she said slowly. She thought. “South? Iran is beautiful, I’ve heard. The Kopet Dag Mountains are, anyway.” She paused. “And India is after that, I think.”  All those fairy tales set in India.

Nadya glanced at the glove box where six identification papers were stored in a locked box she knew how to pick. She turned the vehicle around. GA–, “Misha”, she corrected herself, was making that clunking sound again. She smiled.

“Anywhere we like,” she concluded, and set out in the direction of the dragons.  

The End

-dedicated to Centralia, Pennsylvania; Delburne, Alberta; Wuda coalfields, China; and many others


Jerri Jerreat lives on traditional Anishinaabe and Haudenosaunee territories, in Ontario, Canada. Her fiction won first prize in Etched Onyx Magazine‘s contest and is featured on their January 2022 podcast. Other stories have appeared in Feminine Collective, The Yale Review Online, The New Quarterly: Canadian Writing, Penmen Review, and in solarpunk anthologies by World Weaver Press and Future Fiction. She has a growing pile of protest signs by the bookshelves. Find her at www.jerrijerreat.com. 

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