“Oblivia” by TJ Benson
The desert land was disturbingly calm, a picturesque scene of tea-colored sand dunes undulating gracefully into the horizon against the backdrop of a still, azure sky. Only a small settlement fenced by brick walls disfigured the otherwise, unspotted land. It was a survivor camp and in it, all was well. Children danced round narrow alleys and passages, adults went about the miniature streets, performing the tasks that the marshals had assigned them. Asides that, everything seemed stiff, like still-life painting. Even clouds seemed suspended tuffs of wool. Then, as though to prove the desert’s credibility, a whirlwind started in a bee-line towards the settlement.
It had emerged from the horizon, first like ribbons of smoke in the air, then huge spinning waves of sand, dancing hypnotically toward their settlement with a low hum. No one exchanged a word; they all knew what to do. The adults gathered the little ones and sucked themselves into the nearest shelter.
Only one man seemed unaffected by the impending sandstorm. He just sat at the entrance of his shelter, a shade made of four bamboo sticks and thatched roof in a yoga position, with his eyes closed. He was a young brown-skinned man, somewhere around 25 years of age. No one bothered about age in Oblivia. He wore a faded blue, loosely fitted kaftan and a locket about his neck.
Rachel had always been aquiver with curiosity every time she passed his shed. Sometimes she would catch him rub the locket reverently in between his thumb and fore-finger. He was doing so now, but she wasn’t in the mood to ask questions, she had come for shelter.
“How can you be out here, can’t you see a sandstorm coming?” she queried, rousing him out of his meditation. But of course, he wasn’t offended. She had never seen him offended.
“Is that why everyone is running?” he asked incredulously. “Because of a sandstorm?”
“Unlike you,” Rachel said, “people actually value their lives.”
“Really, and what is life?” he asked.
“Please let’s go inside. You heard our marshals the last time they talked to us, disasters happen. But we are responsible for our lives. That is how we escaped the Armageddon in the first place!”
The air was already filled with sand. Her hair thrashed about her face like the sails of a ship wrestling a storm.
He shook his head. “Things happen, but it is we that choose how to react to them.”
“You will get us killed!” She shrilled, turning to look at the advancing wind. Her heavily lashed eyes narrowed in fear as the wall of sand swallowed the entrance gates.
He smiled. “Just put your hands in mine.”
“This is not the time to ply your trade!”
He stretched out his hand to her. There was an urgency in the gesture that belied his calm demeanor. “Do it now!”
She had the extra second to take refuge in the inner room, but something in his eyes willed her. She was compelled to take his hand, no matter what dangers lay ahead. His kaftan billowed about his brown skin and her hair danced in the air as the wall of sand drew closer.
Just as the wall was about to swallow them, she felt the warmth of his hand envelop hers and the impossible happened: the sandstorm disappeared.
“What was…” she gasped in utter surprise. “How did…how did you…”
“Things happen…” he removed his hands from hers quickly before a wave of ‘the thing’ hit her again. “It’s how we react that matters.”
‘The thing’ was an overwhelming, yet confusing wave of nostalgia that hit her sometimes when she was with him. Sometimes, it was when his brown lips parted into the faintest smile at some prank orchestrated by a child on the street. Other times, it was when she observed him walk from afar. It happened every single time she caught him stroke the locket.
She turned away from his piercing gaze to the streets below, at the people streaming out of their shelters. But she couldn’t focus on that. And now that the storm had passed, everyone crawled out and continued their activities like they hadn’t noticed what happened. To Rachel, this seemed very wrong.
“They react with indifference, not like they do not know what happens around them, yet in their inner-man, they do.” he explained, reading her thoughts. “They just choose to ignore it, that is their choice.” His gaze pierced even deeper into her, and she was beginning to wonder what the Oblivia seer was looking for in her eyes.
“Why are you telling me this?”
He gulped and looked away. Seer Ken-ken was always sure of himself, so it rattled her to think that he was uncertain of something. He turned to look at her, this time with such fierceness she had never seen in his eyes before. “I need you to understand the power of choice; I need you to understand it can shape your future.”
“Let me go!” she cried, and it was then that he realized he had not released her hands. A middle aged man with white-suntanned skin and hair the color of the sun stopped in his tracks and watched. So did a five-year old with scraps of ash Ankara-fabric for clothes. He let her hands go. The spectators stopped looking and went about their normal business. “You are the seer, but I don’t know what’s gotten into you today.” She stood up and dusted her long tattered skirt.
“Thank you for shelter.”
She turned and disappeared into the labyrinth of streets before he could say another thing that will confuse her. The marshals had warned against curiosity, about asking questions, trying to remember things that were before the Armageddon, as survivors they had to look ahead, look forward to a future with the two other colonies of human population left on earth. The marshals were busy creating a suitable habitat that will accommodate them all. Curiosity, the people of Oblivia had been told in the morning of the first awakening, was what had brought an end to their world, the Armageddon. There had been countless people in existence in those days of old, in different lands. That was the problem, different people in different lands thinking different things; the result was a cataclysmic war that brought an end to almost all life and left the earth uninhabitable. The marshals were peace-keepers then, who on realizing they couldn’t stop the war, started rescuing people and bringing them here, to the desert, people of different races from all over the world.
Rachel was glad she was here.
Work was divided into various sections. There were the builders, the healers and the seekers. The builders made more rooms for the new survivors that were recovered from the wreck and brought to Oblivia. All buildings in Oblivia were alike, monolithic structures plastered with the brown molten desert sand so that it almost shone in the daylight like glass. The healers were in charge of tending to them while the seekers had their station, the tallest shelter in Oblivia with antennas and metal plates with receivers fixed to the top of the building, where they helped the marshals find other survivors.
Rachel hadn’t the slightest idea what the Seeker’s towers looked like inside, or how exactly the builder’s made the desert sand molten enough to shine, since the penalty of asking questions was eviction from Oblivia, but she knew very well how to do her job. Coaxing fears out of people’s minds and allowing the plants to suck out poison from their bodies.
When she got to the Ark of Safety, the building near the entrance gate where new survivors were brought to for recuperation, all anxiousness and uncertainty from visiting the Seer left her. Confidence returned to her, and it was this confidence that helped her do her job.
The Ark of Safety was made of wide rooms and grass carpets where the patients were laid to receive treatment. Some remained unconscious for several sunsets on the soft grass. After treatment they were guided to the first floor where they would be assigned rooms and work. Some were carried in by the armored Marshalls, shrieking in horror when they woke up. Where am I? They would yell and it was Rachel’s duty to smile gently and reply in her sweetest voice. “You are in Oblivia, the last human settlement on earth.”
TJ Benson (@TJBensonNG) is a Quantity Surveyor by training, a creative photographer and a short story writer whose prose and non fiction has been featured in online journals like the Kalahari review, African Hadithi, Munyori review, the 14th issue of the Sentinel literary magazine and anthologies like the Contemporary Literary Review India and more recently Paragram ‘Remember’ anthology.
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