The Seven Deserts of Orbis Tertius

I. Arbakh

In the desert of Arbakh, the birds all move in a single direction. They hatch from turquoise eggs in the east and begin to ambulate west until their wings grow strong enough to take flight. By the time they reach the pumice-rich Ember Mountains at the western edge of Arbakh, most birds will have entered adolescence. They will not return until mating season and then from the east. After laying their eggs, the females die. The males live long enough to protect the nests until the eggs hatch. Of the birds of Arbakh, noted ornithologist S. Mirchev once said “nowhere else in the animal kingdom will you find such slaves to direction, except perhaps among the commuters of the Americas.”

II. Teura Teura

In the desert of Teura Teura, one finds the strange phenomenon known as “oasification.” If a well is dug, say by one of the Noli tribesmen that travel its southwestern corner, inevitably and in a matter of days, that well will through an unexplained hydraulic process expand outward until a maximum circumference of three hundred meters is reached. Animals will come bearing reproductive plant matter and dung. When the oasis has fully flourished, a legend will begin to circulate among the local populace about how this god’s anger or that maiden’s tragic death brought the oasis into being. Anyone who asks the age of this legend will receive the answer: “We have always told this tale.”

III. Gaboor

In the desert of Gaboor, the wind drives herds of animals to draw elaborate shapes in the sand with their passing. Some of these shapes are impressive but abstract. Others, the ones that incite pilgrimages by ecologists and artists alike, form undeniably recognizable scenes of breathtaking detail. The most famous, seen on the cover of so many travel magazines, is the “Ghost Ship of Gaboor.” The noted aerial photographer and painter D. Pataki described the naturally-occurring image thus: “if I weren’t a firm skeptic, I would assume the spirit of László Mednyánszky now lives in Gaboor.”

IV. Cynos

In the desert of Cynos, vendors proffer souvenirs that honor the memory of the once-great Pithan Empire. From among these, tourists may purchase photographs placing themselves in the Court of the Heavens, restored to its one-time glory. In this way, they can imagine themselves leaning casually against the alabaster Sun Throne or sitting comfortably at the marbled edge of the Pool of Hours. Upon returning home, the tourists inevitably find that these photographs have changed to depict the inevitable—desert and only desert.

V. Hapshet

In the desert of Hapshet, the feral cats hunt for their leader, an Oriental Longhair named Kammasul, missing since the Battle of the Many Whiskers that ended the Nine Years’ War. Some believe he is in hiding, in the caves of Gudan. Others know for certain he will return soon riding on the back of a young calf. A few hope he will not come back but leave them in peace. None of this is true, of course. There are no such cats, but it is better to tell stories such as this. No one wants to hear another account of the Plague of Hapshet.

VI. Umoru

In the desert of Umoru, the aboriginal tribes sing of peoples from the stars who come and offer them the dreaming fruit. No white man has ever tasted of this fruit, and were he to—so the song goes—he would become a black woman with long, knotted hair who sings of peoples from the stars who come and offer the dreaming fruit no human has ever tasted.

VII. Quixol

In the desert of Quixol, on the six days out of the year it rains, serpents rise up out of the sand to drink the water then lay their eggs. From these hatch worms that climb up the isolated palms to eat the leaves and lay their eggs in the flesh of dates. From these hatch flies that swarm the corpses of all the men and beasts that died in the desert’s heat and desiccation, laying their eggs in the necrotic meat. From these hatch spiders that spin their webs in the crevices of rocky canyons to catch the moths that also live there. When the spiders lay their eggs, from them hatch only more spiders.

[ An homage of sorts to Jorge Luis Borges, with a nod to one of my favorite books, Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities. ]

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