Previously in this series: The Rainbow Fish.
I used to draw pictures as a boy. I don’t do that now. A boa constrictor can swallow its prey whole, without chewing, and then rests without moving for six months to digest it. After I am eaten, I will rest too.
A hat is not the same thing as a snake eating an elephant. I can talk about stars, and forests, and snakes; I can talk about golf and neckties too. There is nobody to talk to.
I used to fly planes. I don’t do that now.
The last time I flew a plane, I crashed in the desert. The last time I flew a plane, I died. I am dying now.
I had three or six days of water with me, depending. Three good days or six bad days. If I had three days of water, I could work on my plane, I could walk on the sands in the heat of the sun, I would die before help found me. If I had six days of water, I could rest under the wing until the sun went down, and my hands would swell up, and the skin around my fingernails would blister, and I would see things that weren’t there, but I might live until help found me.
If help didn’t find me, I had no days of water. The boy found me on the last day of water, but he brought no help with him. He asked me to draw him a sheep.
What was a child doing in the desert, I asked him.
Everyone is a child in the desert, he told me. Draw me a sheep.
His face was smooth and unlined, like a child’s, but hands were puffed and wrinkled, like the hands of an old man. Like the hands of someone who is running out of water.
How did you get here, I asked him. Where do you find food, where do you find water.
Draw me a sheep and I will tell you, he said. I drew him a sheep and he smiled. I wish I had not drawn it. I wished he had not smiled.
Are there no sheep where you come from, I asked him.
Everything is dead where I come from, he told me. He put the drawing in his pocket.
That night I heard the sound of a bell and the quiet thump of hooves over grass as I slept.
He keeps me drawing with the promise of water. He must have water with him, he must know where water is, because the heat does not seem to bother him and his hands have grown smoother and more childlike every afternoon. He laughs when I lunge after him and dances out of the shade into the sun, where he knows I will not follow him. He hides under the sun.
You look very thirsty, he says. Perhaps tomorrow if you draw me a boa constrictor I will share my tea with you.
The plane is beyond repair. If he has water, surely he will tell me. He has no other companions, no one else to draw for him. What would he gain in watching me die?
It is true, isn’t it, that sheep eat little bushes?
Yes, that is true.
Ah, he said. I am glad. But he did not smile. He stood so that his shadow almost fell across my face, but he made very sure that it did not.
I did not understand why it was so important that sheep should eat little bushes.
Then it follows that they also eat baobabs.
My head was full of thick and slow-moving blood. I had no answer for him.
Before they grow big, the baobabs start out by being little.
That is strictly correct, I said, but why do you want the sheep to eat the baobabs?
Draw me something that will eat a sheep, he said suddenly. I want you to draw me something that can eat anything.
I drew him my hunger and my thirst. It had long teeth, and a long throat.
He smiled when I showed my drawing to him. He gave me a sip of his tea. I could not keep it down. He smiled as I heaved over it, clutching at a river of sand.
You twitch beautifully, he said. Almost as well as you draw.
He looked younger and more beautiful than ever.
Only once did he come to me while the sun was hiding under the earth. I did not move. I was resting for six months. I was a boa constrictor and he was an elephant, and we talked about neckties.
There are good seeds, he said, and there are bad seeds. But all seeds are invisible, and they sleep inside the earth. I have slept inside the earth. I am waking up now.
You are going to sleep, he said, and then it was morning, and he was gone.
The last time he came to visit me, my mouth was full of blood. The sun was shining, but I could see all of the other stars. He crouched down close to me and smiled very fondly, as if he loved me.
You belong to me, he said, because I was the first person to think of it. When you find a diamond that belongs to nobody, it is yours. When you discover an island that belongs to nobody, it is yours. So with me: I own you, because nobody else before me ever thought of finding you in the desert.
What will you do with me, I said with my mouth full of blood and words.
I will write you down on a little paper, he said. And then I will put that paper in a drawer and lock it with a key.
And that is all?
That is enough, he said. For now. Remember that I have all the drawings you made for me too. He climbed into the cockpit of my plane and waved at me with my own hands, and smiled at me with my own mouth, and winked at me with my own eyes. He started the propeller and the plane moved up and into the sunset.
It is such a secret place, the land of tears.
Mallory is an Editor of The Toast.