“Phantom of the Purple Dunes” by Kyle E. Miller

There was once a city near these dunes, dunes as purple as the King of Summer’s prizest plums. But plums and peaches and sweet juicy things don’t grow here and never have. Nothing grew here then and nothing grows here now except the sand.

In the kingdom of the purple dunes, anthills grow to grotesque dimensions, ziggurats teasing the sky, and antlions are forever funneling and escaping the collapse until they drown, their tiny bodies choked with sand. Nothing grows and nothing lasts, and that’s how it’s always been. Homes, families, bloodlines: all vanished under the rising tide of sand. And so did the spot on the beach where you liked to sit with your legs spread far apart and your toes in the water, where the sea brought you the coiled burrow of some pink and fleshy thing with one, two, three wavelets: and there it is, warm in your hands. Footprints were always the first to vanish. Your mother’s, your daughter’s, your lover’s. Skypotter learned that better than anyone. Sculptress, mother, maker of homes, widow, and wanderer. Skypotter, who found a friend where others saw only an enemy. Maybe her heart has always been in the earth.

Many many seasons ago, a few foolish men, acting out their endless courtship with all that is gaudy and glittering, made their home near a beach of purple sand. This was long before the sand put a day’s walk between the city and the sea, and they thought they could fish and draw salt from the sea and eat gull eggs and spend their long lives basking in an endless summer’s golden light. The King’s molten medallion dangles bright above here still. The way it catches in the sand, turning the grains a little paler, almost pink, must have set their little boy hearts aflame.

The first funeral exposed the sand’s true nature: a hand unburied the morning after, reaching for the King’s rising medallion. There were no beasts to dig it up. Nothing is dumb enough to live in the dunes except men. But the body would not stay buried, pushed around and unearthed by the growing tide of sand. After that, there were sea burials and sky burials, excarnations by shark and gull. But the founders were proud of their city, proud of their strange sand and their stranger ways.

In Skypotter’s time, many seasons later, it became the fashion to gather the sand in jars and cups. People liked to watch it grow, admire it as you might admire a soul expanding in the vessel of your daughter’s body as she endures one summer after another. They gathered it in jars and sealed bottles and watched it creep up the sides day by day until it pushed the lids off their jars and broke the bottles with one mortal crack. The sand seeks the easiest path to the sun.

Maybe Skypotter was the first to bring it inside the city, captured in one of her own earthen jars. She made them from the clay they pulled from distant wells. Her pots were like bubbles of earth. She molded figurines from the purple sand, binding all the grains together with glue from the bark of the spiral trees that grew far inland. She loved to watch them destroy themselves, an arm bursting here, a leg crumbling there. A chest swelling with pride and a purple heart bursting.

Pretty soon, she found out how difficult it is to remove every grain of sand from your house. If you left but one grain on the table or on the floor, fallen in a crack perhaps, you came home from sunbathing to find little purple mounds here and there. You found the first one with your bare foot, like a tiny pool of cool water. The hunt for the final grain began again, and only children have patience for such things.

Peace ended the day Skypotter’s only daughter died. She came home and found her baby sky blue and suffocated, a spoon still clenched in her fist. Her tongue lolled out, stained plum purple. The whole city heard Potter’s wail. They dropped their fish nets and prayer wheels, their shell knives and grass baskets, and ran, but Skypotter was already gone.

They found her smiling like she’d seen the vault of the seasons, all teeth and tight cheek wrinkles. She was gone, away. She had left them. Maybe she could see the vault, the season cycle, the great wheel of rebirth, and she glimpsed her last life or her next, or maybe all of them, ever, infinite and forever, all her lives flashing before her eyes, and what she saw made her drop all her grief and sorrow like a bag of sand on the beach. In the kingdom of the sun, your life flashes before your eyes when someone you love is lost. Maybe it breaks you, maybe it doesn’t. Hearts are made differently, from stone or water or sand. Some are better at breaking.

“Potter,” a shy little woman said. “Potter. Are you okay?”

“I’m going to be just fine.”

“I’ll be here if you need me,” she whispered.

“Thanks, honey. But I won’t.”

Everyone gathered before panic could spread. They decided that their children and their children’s children were in danger, and they held council. Already a few foolish men were building barrows and fashioning shovels. They knew what the frightened mob would decide, the few voices of dissent pushed down.

“By the King and Queen of Summer, I will see this sand thrown back into the sea!”

“Skypotter, we’ll not let it happen again.”

“We never should have brought this shit into our homes,” an old woman said. “I’m sorry, Potter. I’m sorry.”

But Skypotter was already walking away, putting distance between herself and the people, her long black locks dragging behind and making worm trails in the sand.

“Where’s she goin’?” they said. “Where’s she goin’?”

If only they knew.

Though the foolish men who built the city had all gone back to the wheel, others had replaced them. The wheel is full of foolish men. There are always more yet to be born. They made it their purpose to push the sand back into the sea. Some said it couldn’t grow underwater, that it needed heat or sun or both, and that the sea was cool. But it was warm as bathwater and probably wouldn’t have worked anyway, but that was what they decided, to gather it and drop it in the sea, spadeful by spadeful, barrowful by barrowful. Handful by handful.

Skypotter never lifted a shovel. Though the sand had taken her daughter, it was that to which she gave her heart. Everyone needs a companion, and maybe it is as they say and everything is someone: every tree, bug, shell, and stone. Skypotter and the sand were just two lonely souls coming together, then.

“Come help us,” someone would say to her. “We’re pushing the sand back. It’s working.”

“It’s work all right,” Skypotter would say.

Or: “Why bother? If we were meant for digging, we’d have spades and picks for hands and feet. Like a shark has fins for water.”

In their daylong toil, the people would ask, “Where are you going, Potter?”

“To the beach,” she’d say. “It’s not getting any closer.”

And Skypotter sat in the dunes or on the beach between ribs of sand made by the wind. She drew sand up by the handful and let it glide between the crack of her joined hands. She wiped her palms, a few grains left in the creases, the place she was the palest. She held still and saw two grains split into four. And she talked to the sand and the parade of people hauling bags and barrows of sand to the beach along the road they plowed anew each day. She mocked their work and laughed at their scorched and sweating faces, but seeing that no one seemed to hear or care—because they were gone too, you see, away, in another direction—she directed her attention to the sand.

You heard her from afar, paused, and listened to the waves of her voice, your shovel getting heavy in your hands, sweat dripping into your eyes.

“Hot hot hot. It’s taking seasons off my life,” she said. “I’m sweating them off, see? They say it wasn’t always so hot, oh no, not at all. They say the King of Winter reigned here. Snow and ice and all his other tricks. This was in history, or whatever they say, I don’t know. I can’t even remember where I put my shoes. That’s why I’m barefoot all the time, you know. Maybe you keep taking my shoes. How many do you need? Now wouldn’t that be rich if after all their busyfootin’, you just up and walked away.”

And she laughed like a flock of gulls circling over the bright plum dunes. And then you went back to shoveling, a little ashamed and sick in the deep of your stomach because just then all that work seemed so silly and Skypotter seemed so right.

There were nights Skypotter fell asleep in the dunes and woke a little farther away from home. Just the way she liked it. Her home was one of the first to fall. People said she didn’t even notice.

No one understood. The collective sorrow of her daughter’s death was replaced by fear of the expanding sand, and people were free to call Skypotter names behind her back. They said she was mad, sunstruck like the once-great founder Flybottle, who soaked the sand with his family’s blood. One or two reached out to her, but they were too meek or tired to make a difference. All the others let her be, considered her lost. Too late for this one. She could have tried to reach them, but maybe she was too proud or stubborn or content with the way things were. Maybe she was beyond all of it then and could see things they couldn’t see. She was buoyant in the days after her daughter’s death, lit from within. Ascendant.

So she walked the dunes and talked to the sand. When the sand finally talked back, she was only surprised at what it had to say.

“Magical sand that comes alive before your very eyes, feel it move and watch it grow! Shape, mold, and play!”

“Oh?” Skypotter said. She thought a moment. “Well, bless you. You tell ’em. Playing’s what they need.” And she looked over her shoulder at the line of bleary silhouettes on the horizon. They could have been a mirage.

The voice of the sand was far away, the voice was a whisper, something you heard when you laid down to sleep, and sometimes it repeated itself and sometimes it spoke before Skypotter did, resuming a conversation that never ended. In that way, they never had to say goodbye.

“Would all employees please come to meeting room 114A for today’s meeting.”

“Don’t give me that,” Skypotter said. “If you’re gonna be a baby and talk baby talk, I’ll just go home.”

Children and weary sand haulers traded tales of voices in the sand. A phantom, they said, and she had a voice like wind tearing sand from the earth.

Skypotter spent more and more of her days in the dunes. She built her own city there, and she woke from a catnap to find her towers toppled and staircases elongated like sea worms reaching for an urchin to eat. She laughed to see them destroy themselves. She beachcombed, kicking aside the dead heads of fish and the rubbery bodies of rotting sharks. She was always sad when she found a snail dried up in its shell. They were her favorite, their shells tucked into every nook of her house. If she left them on the beach, the sand would swallow them, but maybe they were preserved somehow, somewhere far below, in the sand.

Maybe everything that falls under the sand is fossilized or mummified by the sand and the sea salt, and there are crypts somewhere below, to be opened in another season by baffled men in strange dress and speaking a strange tongue from a season when another Queen sits on the throne. Mummified sharks on catafalques of purple sand. A mausoleum of melting cartilage and salted shell, fish skeletons piled in the corners of the undercroft.

Well, she could dream.

And so could the people around her, a sun dream of changing the shape of the earth.

“You hear them up there?” Skypotter asked the sand. “Holler, bitch, and bicker. Don’t work with your friends, you’ll be sorry. Things are falling down up there. I wonder. I wonder.”

And the sand replied: “Not all things are permanent, except your fascination with crazy sand!”

She had nothing to say to that. Maybe the words all meant something to Skypotter, wise and queenly as she had become. Maybe she decoded some secret, and that’s why she left the way she did. Maybe the words were the key to the whole wheel. But to the few others who heard them, they were nonsense, haunted voices from the past, their words ancient and unknowable. Who knows what magic they held in that world lost so long ago? What message might the sand have preserved and sent through time, space, and the seasons?

One day, Skypotter came closer to it. She found the sand’s mouth between two folds of the dunes.

She stood before a big rectangle glowing darkness in the sunlit dunes. It was covered in a film of dust like a cloth draped over a table. Wires like the nerves of rotting teeth hung from the upper jaw: red, yellow, black cords shuddering in the breeze that blew from below. The roof was cracked and peeling, the tongue a strip of dark red dampness. The sand’s breath smelled like salt and mold and thunderstorms.

Skypotter circled the mouth and put out a hand to clear away the dust, but she froze, as if afraid of what she might find underneath the dust, afraid there would be nothing.

But that box had always been there for her to find. She had just been looking in all the wrong places. For days, she sat in front of the mouth and listened, a rapturous grin on her face. You’d swear to the King she was floating a hand’s breadth off the ground.

The sand’s words were loud and clear: “Incredible crazy sand. Reduces stress, keeps kids busy for hours. You’ll never put it down!”

“Don’t tell me what I’ll do,” Skypotter said.

“Expands when heated. Just put it under the sun. No preparation required! Great for children and adults, at home or at the office. It’s sand-tastic!”

Skypotter laughed. “Whatever you say.”

“Try a free sample of our sand-tastic living growing crazy sand and get playing!”

Sometimes she took its advice.

And one day, after the people in the city had grown their wrinkles and grudges deep, Skypotter walked into the mouth.

“Why shouldn’t I?” she said, and stepped inside. She tripped on the lower lip and fell against the wall.

A click, a ding, and then, “I’m coming, honey. I’m coming.”

And the mouth closed. Skypotter descended. The sand continued to rise, and only one tired old woman saw her disappear, her lives flashing before her eyes in one long dazzling ribbon, and she knew then that they would never push the sand into the sea.

Kyle E. Miller is the fourth incarnation of the Spring Fool. He is currently courting one of the Princes of Autumn and hopes to wed him soon in order to keep the season cycle spinning properly. His fiction has previously appeared in Betwixt and is forthcoming in Lackington’s and Strange Constellations. He will be a goose next life; watch for him in the skies.

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