Soledad in the Desert by Meredith Sue Willis
As a prequel to the Meredith Sue Willis's acclaimed sci-fi novel The City Built of Starships, this tale relates the adventures of a girl reaching womanhood while living in "the world with two suns." Soledad, intelligent and strong-willed, must make sense of life and love in a stark quasi-Buddhist community attempting to survive on an alien planet. She succeeds—but just barely.
Soledad faces multiple challenges in The Encampment, the isolated, cult-like group of refugees who fled The City Built of Starships years ago. The larger community—which resulted when earthlings emigrated from the home planet several generations earlier—started out as an organized effort to colonize what they call the Second World. But the new settlement quickly degenerated into a brutal class system: dominant Officers holding sway over subordinate Hands. Resisting this hierarchy, a band of rebels sought desert solitude to escape tyranny and to follow a meditative Path. Young Soledad, growing up in this community and now approaching adulthood, must make sense of herself and her place in a dangerous world. She finds solace in friendships with a few peers and, especially, in her interactions with bizarre pterodactyl-like creatures called yaegers. Little by little she understands both the limits to her freedom and a way to follow her own path.
Soledad in the Desert presents both a fully realized alternate reality and a thoughtful, observant protagonist intent on finding her place in a world that often makes no sense but nonetheless presents an intelligent young woman with opportunities to find meaning.
- ISBN: 978-1-932727-42-5
- Price: $16.95 (paper)
Read an Excerpt
My daughter has called me from my meditation practice. I have always tried to give her what she needs, and she is calling me now, and I will go to her. I will leave my solitude here in the caves to go to her because she calls.
When I first separated from the other Seekers, while she was still gestating, I believed that we first worlders had irreparably damaged the second world and each other. I believed it was an error and an abomination to gestate, to make more of us. I told Leon we had betrayed the Path. I said, “I cannot go where you are going.”
He said, “We have to survive. The Path is changing.”
I said, “Only violence grows from violence.”
He said, “That is the old Path. What is growing inside you must be protected.”
I said no.
He would have used force to take me with them, but I spoke to the yaegers who have always listened to me, and I to them, and they brought only me and what was inside me to these caves. I told the yaegers I would sit in the cave and not eat and not drink and thus stop the damage.
No, said the yaegers. You stay.
Let me leave, I said. This world will be better without any of us. Let me leave.
Eat, they told me. Stay.
And because I have always listened to their guidance, I ate a little, and then a little more. Then my gestation ended, and I believed I was being ripped apart as everything I knew had been ripped apart, but instead, when it was over, there was this little first-world animal with me.
The yaegers watched it with wonder.
It’s another one of you, they said. We like your small fingers, and it has even smaller fingers.
It squirmed and shrieked and my body evinced an interest in its demands from the very beginning, so I chewed off the rope that tied it inside me, and it and I learned how it could eat, from me, as I had been told.
The yaegers waited and watched with patience and attention.
I’ll stay, then, I said. I’ll eat enough to stay alive and keep it alive, but only that much.
The yaegers tipped their great one-eyed heads and listened.
I said, I’ll feed it and take care of it, but I don’t want it building things or riding you. I don’t want it to talk to you. We will live quietly like the stones.
The yaegers say nothing when they have nothing to say.
I was born in the desert during the flight. We were fleeing the upheavals and starvation on the coast. This place, the second world, was selected long before our ancestors set out across space, by people whose purposes we cannot imagine. Ten generations lived and died on the starships, traveling here. Those long ago first-world people had knowledge that surpassed anything we have now. They knew more than us Seekers, more than the corrupt ones on the coast. A few on the coast are said to be able to use devices that came in the ships, but everyone says the starships will never lift off again.
Nor does anyone know how many starships started. No one knows if some were sent to other worlds or only to this second world with its two suns and lavender skies. The stories said that some of the ships burned up as they came down. That some crashed in the mountains or plunged under the mist-shrouded ocean.
But some set down on the beach or in the shallow bay waters.
Each of the ships had a different tribe of first worlders, and we had changed so much over the generations that we could barely talk to each other. Some of the ships had people who spent their lives in dreams. In some, all the people had died, and in others there was anarchy and violence. The biggest ship was the one that had divided into officers and hands. We, the Seekers, tried to follow the Path of compassion and mindfulness.
When the officers tried to make us part of the Hierarchy, we escaped and made the Encampment in the desert.
At our gatherings, Rams would tell the stories of the first world. Debor, in whose body I gestated, told the stories of how we tried to live lightly and mindfully on the coast, but how the officers attacked us. All of the older had stories. Maror told how first worlders had fouled the second world and the second world rejected us because we could not eat the plants or creatures here. Elena, who had gestated more of us younger than anyone else, told the story of how Gardener, who was not a Seeker, came with us and showed us how to grow first-world foods in the stones and sanddust of the desert. Oren, who was not a seeker either, told us stories of how the officers oppressed the hands.
We younger loved the undulation of the stories and how they roped us to the past.
When the first worlders’ ships set down, they told us, we met each other. On our ship, people had practiced mindfulness. Other ships had practiced different arts of self-control. Some had practiced no self-control at all, and those ships had turned into brutal places where lives were short. The largest ship had officers who knew how to use some of the old technologies, and they had developed the hierarchy.
Oren liked to tell the next part in his harsh accent with its jerky rhythms. And when the ships set down, there was not enough food, and only the officers had enough to eat from the hydro-gardens in the ships and the fat greasy first-world eating animals.
The Seekers always murmured here: how terrible to eat sentient beings. We younger liked to join in: Don’t eat sentient beings! we cried.
Oren said: And the officers fed the hands who did as they said, but just enough to live. And there was never enough to eat, but some hands grew desperate and ate things from the second world and got sick and died.
That was the earliest lesson we were taught: never eat the lichen off the stones, no matter how hungry we were.
Oren always showed his teeth when he talked about the officers: They used the hands as if they were spades or cooking pots, not people.
Then Rams would pick up the story: But not the Seekers! The Seekers would not be tools of the Hierarchy. We began to grow our own crops, and the Hierarchy was jealous.
This, of course, was our favorite part, our flight—our hegira! Our exodus! How we left the coast and made the Encampment in the Desert. Rams told how carefully we planned our escape, packing food, seeds, first-world fabric, cord, and tools. We wore these things next to our bodies and carried them in back packs at all times, ready to run. We hid sledges in the cliffs. When there was a rumor of a day they were going to attack us, we left in the blue darkness before either sun rose.
But only the True Seekers, said Maror. Because there had also been apostates who wanted to stay and fight. Only the True Seekers came to the desert.
Debor said: So the True Seekers struck out into the desert to find a place to live, or to die rather than take the lives of others. Also some hands, she added, because of Gardener and Oren.
Elena said: And Oren brought light rods and Gardener had the tubers.
When I was old enough, I would say, And I, Soledad, was gestating inside!
We crossed the desert. We waded through the sand, scorched by midday double suns, choked by sanddust storms, with no water except what we’d brought with us, and neither faith nor hope, but only compassion for each other in our suffering.
And there in the wide desert, we stopped. My gestation ended, and I was brought out into the sanddust, so I have always been of the desert. Sometimes Sage and Bay insist that they were there too, but everyone knew they didn’t come out of Elena until we got to the Encampment.
Battered by the storms, out of water, all the hands dead except Gardener and Oren, with the tiny wet new baby that was me, the Seekers decided to stop struggling, and simply sit in the sand and rocks in mindfulness until that which animated them left their bodies.
Debor said, “We chose a place almost encircled by rocks and we sat close together, older, younger, and baby Soledad. And it was only then, for the first time, that we began to listen to the second world. We had been trying to live on the coast as if we were still in space, planting the remnants of the first world, but now we closed our eyes and listened.
“We heard the wind,” said Elena. “We felt the rock beneath the sanddust and tasted the dryness. We saw as if for the first time, the stones and the lichens on the stones.”
“Yes,” said Debor. “And we felt the rhythm of the storm, and we experienced the skies, rose and blue suns, lavender sky.”
“We were in wonder at the beauty,” said Elena.
“We were calm and ready,” said Maror.
“For whatever would come,” said Debor.
“And what came,” said Elena, “was the yaegers.”
This was the absolute best part. It was the first time we met them: winged creatures of various sizes, but even the smallest was larger than the largest of us. They had hooks on their bellies and sharp protrusions from their jaws and loops of bone and sinew on their heads.
“And only one eye!” we younger would shout.
“And tails!” cried Bay and Sage. “Long tails!”
Elena said, “A great crowd of yaegers settled just outside our circle, and after a while, a red one dragged itself close to us. It gazed at us for a long time, and we thought perhaps this was how we would leave, eaten by the second-world beings.”
“But they didn’t eat us!” we cried.
“No,” said Debor. “The red colored one moved to the rocks opposite us and used its wing knuckles and the hooks on its face to move stones.”
Oren said, “We helped.”
Debor said, “As if it had told us what it needed, those of us with enough strength moved some rocks.”
“And finally,” said Rams, “the yaeger dragged itself up on a higher rock and watched us. And there...”
“...where it had dug,” we whispered.
“Water,” said Elena, “water sprang out of the desert.”
We let out our breath.
“And thus we drank and revived and learned we could stay on the second world,” said Debor.
“We were to live,” said Rams, “we were to pick up our burdens and go on.”
Debor said, “We began to walk again, and the flock of yaegers spiraled high above us, a gyre, a torus, a pillar of fire in the new light, and they led us to the Encampment.”
There was more walking after that, and a few more left buried in the sanddust. But the yaegers led us to the Encampment. The Encampment was a flat place at the foot of sheer, impassable cliffs with one narrow passage through the boulders. There was a large cave and a series of increasingly smaller caves and tunnels deep inside. On three sides, the flat place was bounded by the sheer cliffs, and on the fourth side by a deep gully and stream formed by water that fell violently out of the cliff on one end, then disappeared underground into the rock wall on the other end. Beyond that deep gully and stream was another mostly flat area we called the yaeger yard, also bounded by sheer cliffs. The yaegers spent most of their time there, lying in indolent piles, their long necks intertwined with each other, their serpentine hindparts shrugging around for a comfortable position.
Near the cavern, one rock wall had gradual rising levels that Gardener transformed over time into growing terraces. She mixed sanddust and water and crushed stone with first-world body waste, and in this medium, we grew grain and tubers. There was never enough to eat, and some of us younger grew with bent legs. The older, doing their long sittings and meditations, grew skinny and frail.
Still, we were able to live as we pleased, the older with their meditation sittings and long discussions about our purposes on the second world, except for Gardener and Oren, who grew food and made things. The younger helped Gardener and Oren and did some sittings, but mostly we were on our own.
We were Aviva, Leon, Hesh, Luz, who were born on the coast. Feli and Grace were born on the coast too, but just before the exodus. I, Soledad, born in the open desert, and then soon after we got to the Encampment, Sage and Bay were born at one time, or rather, Sage just a minute before Bay.
And after that, no more younger. When we used to argue about who remembered what, and which was the best place to be born, Aviva, the oldest of the younger, told us we should not boast and argue. We loved her, but sometimes she was almost like an older.
The cliffs protected us from the worst of the winds and storms. We had water, and we had the soil Gardener made and the blue and pink light that gave us the dense and nourishing crops, in quick succession, in all seasons but the worst of the cold storms.
But the crops were very sparse, and we were always hungry.
Part of the time we were in a happy tumble together, piled together as the yaegers piled themselves, tumbling and playing. Sometimes the yaegers themselves would flap heavily over to our side of the stream and let us climb their flanks and wings and hindparts. That was my favorite thing, and we could hear them in our minds, whispering and singing.
The other part of the time, we curled up around our sunken bellies and suffered hunger.
There was never enough food in those early years, when Gardener was making soil to grow, and we were sharing out in tiny amounts the food we had. The older ate little, and used little energy as well. It was partly their belief that we should be still and not use the resources of the second world, and partly they just didn’t do anything.
Some of them died and were carried up to the dead place, beyond the top of the terraces, laid under rocks where they gradually dried to shreds and strands of flesh.
We younger were the opposite: frantic in our bodies to eat and grow.
Gardener did what she could. She fed us more than herself or the older. And over time, with the frequent growing seasons of the two sun second world, we had more, and she began to make a kind of cloth woven of strips of dried tuber and cooked grain that she fed only us. She called it energy strips, and she gave it only to the younger, and perhaps herself and Oren.
After we had eaten it for a while, we had less pain, and more energy, but we always wanted more.
We were so hungry, and even though we knew better, Grace and Feli and I once ate lichen and almost died.
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