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The Desert

Writing: Albertine Clarke

The landscape within which you chose to build our house was not my first choice. Robbed of nutrients by the nearby Cosmodrome, it is populated only by the small, desert-dwelling creatures who build their nests beneath the pieces of junk and the beaten-down trees. When you proposed the move, you told me it would be sensible, from the business perspective; a scrapyard designed to absorb the excess metal of the Cosmodrome and sell it on to those needing spare parts. The heat would be good for my constitution, and you could get a tan. We would have a swimming pool in the garden and a conservatory to keep exotic plants, and we would have people round for dinner. I thought it best to hold in my question - what people?

Our wedding was small, in the interest of saving for the big move. I wore a second-hand dress, and the ring was one you designed yourself, cut from a piece of blue fibreglass you had in your shop. It sits on my finger now, slightly loose and drained of colour. It never seemed to go with any of my outfits - I bought new clothes to suit it. Your mother remarked that it looked cheap, and you laughed, saying that the ring should suit the man who made it. I didn’t mind - I was ready to embark upon a life of simplicity, away from my job, which was far too demanding, and my friends, who made me anxious. You were running from debt; our house was sold to pay for your bad investments.

When we landed, we spend two weeks in the capital city, by way of a honeymoon. I went sight-seeing every day, to the Museum of Martian Culture, and the Crystal Caves, and the hot springs full of deep purple water that fizzed and tasted sweet. Collecting brochures from every place we went, every night I stuck them carefully into a large scrapbook, that now sits above our mantlepiece. I heard how, one-hundred-and-seventy-five years ago, the first man had set foot on Mars, and we went on a guided tour of the first Settlement. I took a picture of the First Footprint on my camera, and framed it. We trekked into the mountains with a guide, and camped in the empty, alien landscape.

The journey out to our small outpost took a week - the infrastructure was not fully complete, and the bus that carried us was sealed up, to prevent the inhalation of poisonous gas. I felt like a pioneer, or rather a pioneer’s wife. You had planned everything, and it was nice to feel taken care of - at home, I made most of the money. When we first stepped out, I was struck by the gentle beauty of the desert - the feminine curve of the dune, stretching out before me like an open flower. There were no straight lines, nothing against which to set oneself, just a vagueness into which one could melt. Rocks lay like fallen soldiers, come to rest in the silence. Heat radiated from everything, as if the testing of the launchpad had imbued the atoms with fire.

Our house was very small, a few hundred meters from the vacant piece of land that would serve as your scrapyard, and a fifteen-minute walk from the Cosmodrome, which was still under construction. It was black, to reflect heat of the rocket trails, and had none of the amenities you had promised. You took me by the shoulders and called me darling, promising to build me a swimming pool as soon as you had the time. Then you disappeared to begin your plans for the scrapyard - there was plenty of junk already piling up around the outskirts of the construction site. I went upstairs to lie down, noticing that a thin layer of white dust had already settled on my skin. Out of the window, I could see the beginnings of a garden - there were trees, genetically altered to withstand the conditions. However, I came to learn that due to their genetic makeup, they would never grow above waist height.

Nothing in the landscape grew higher than my waist. As I walked, I felt like a giant, transplanted into a world designed for people much smaller. While you worked, I spent days out amongst the dunes, turning brown, then white as the dust settled into a cloak that I never managed to shake off. I planted vegetables, and flowers, but they all died. You laughed at me, asking how I thought I could grow tomatoes on another planet. I wondered how you thought you could grow a business in the wilderness. For a few weeks, I had a pet - a small dog, imported from Earth to help with the adjustment. Her thick fur meant that she overheated easily, but she would run beside me as I wandered through the sandy wasteland. However, the dust in the air irritated her lungs, and her feet were burnt by the hot ground - it was cruel to keep her. You broke her neck with the spade I used to dig the garden.

Very quickly, it became evident that once the Cosmodrome was completed, you would be out of work. As the plans for a fully-fledged settlement never quite took off, the temporary workers hired to build the facility moved home, or to more populated areas. You took on janitorial work at the facility, driving the delivery vans on the weekends. Your scrapyard sat, full of rusting engines leaking oil into the sand, under the shadow of the rockets that went screaming into the blue sky. I watched them go, marvelling at how they soared upwards, glittering, leaving trails of fire and thick black smoke. At the beginning I was sure that each one would plummet down into the red ocean like diving birds. After the first few months, they became part of my routine.

Once or twice, I wondered about taking a holiday back to see our families, who could not afford to make the trip. We’d been on Mars six months, and Christmas was approaching, and the thought of hanging lights on a waist-high, alien tree filled me with a feeling I could not quite describe, but did not like. I wondered if there was any point even acknowledging the day, as Jesus surely never set foot on Mars. You took my hands and told me you’d think about it, but a ticket back to Earth would cost more than half our savings. Besides, wouldn’t it be nicer to celebrate our first Christmas in our new home, just the two of us? You ordered a vacuum-packed turkey, and the white dust which coated everything almost looked like snow. We had invested all our money into the new house, and your business, and so a trip would have to wait. When Christmas Day came around, we sat in the small kitchen and ate plain turkey, in a black house covered in white dust. The sun was hot and blinding.

Image: via Fan pop

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