Short Fiction ~ Janet Olearski
(Third Prize, Strands International Flash Fiction Competition - 3)
When they gave Louise the letter, they said she could leave right away if she wanted to, providing she’d finished the clearance procedures. She'd need to hand in her office keys, take back her library books, give up her gate pass. Khalid would cancel her visa. The accommodation was all paid up so, for now at least, she could stay. But then there was the issue of the utilities, the bank account, the phone, the health insurance. There was the business of re-homing or exporting the animals. Without the visa, all would be withdrawn or made invalid.
Fatima said Louise could pay for a temporary visa, or perhaps find another job. ‘Or, you could just go.’
Two and a half months later, still into the packing, had she been in that other place – the place where she was going - she would not have survived. What Elvira had done, she would have done too.
They came back from the beach that day, Anja and her husband, and saw the sky turn grey and the air become mist.
'We passed your area,’ Anja told Louise afterwards, ‘but then the fire seemed distant.'
The fire is always distant until you look again.
After eating they were tired and turned in for the night, but Anja slept poorly. She woke at three and went outside. There was an orange glow on the horizon.
In her thoughts, Louise often replayed their meeting. Maybe it was something she did to express her thanks. That she could not speak the woman’s language did not concern her. Elvira had come that day to welcome her. Louise explained what she could about herself, her name, and where she was from. Elvira took her by the arm and led her to a shaded spot behind the house, at the foot of a meadow.
'There,' she said, pointing upwards, while a small dog yapped and scurried at their feet. ‘That’s where we live,’ she said. ‘The house with the brown-wood awning.’
Louise could not identify it at first. Then, shading her eyes, she saw the house. It overlooked the landscape, and she and Elvira were in the landscape, in its view.
Louise was not ready. She wasn't ready to lose her job. She wasn’t ready to move. Sometimes not being ready in life is a good thing, better than not being ready in death.
In the desert, she would ride her horse along one of many tracks. They were all either long or short, but they went in different directions beneath the descending sun, across sand, gravel, shrub. She told herself that the short tracks were safer because she was less likely to find herself under the Sheikh's helicopter, or spooked by another horse, or surprised by a herd of gazelle. But it is not the length of time or distance that matters. What is going to happen will happen, even in the blink of an eye. You need to accept it, and try to be ready when it comes.
There’s a place for each of us somewhere, Louise believed, to merge, connect, be accepted, start again. Elvira told her she was welcome and she must come and visit. Months earlier, it was what Louise had hoped for when, sensing an ending, she had bought her house. This stranger hugged her, kissed her on both cheeks, and disappeared into the meadow, chattering to the dog as she went.
Louise would never see her again.
Once, many years before, John had asked her if she had ever seen the desert.
Louise had imagined it. She hadn’t seen it. John knew something she didn’t know.
'Once you've seen it, you'll never forget it,' he said.
It was romantic then, that thought. Now, after its heat, its aridity, its emptiness, she wanted something better.
Back from her ride, shaking off the sand, she switched on the TV news. It showed a snaking inferno, undulating across mountains, woods and valleys. She hoped it wasn't the place, but it was. She had longed for grass and trees, not the desert that had become a home to her. At least the desert never burned.
When Anja got up again before six, there was an inexplicable stillness, no bird calls, no animal sounds, a wall of grey rising behind their house, clouds drifting skywards, the forest crackling and creaking.
And Elvira went into the burning house, the one with the wooden awning. To save her dog.
London-born author Janet Olearski is based in Central Portugal, where she writes fiction and creative non-fiction. Her stories have appeared in Constellate, Sleet Magazine, The Commonline Journal, Wasafiri, Bare Fiction and elsewhere. Her most recent work includes the story collection A Brief History of Several Boyfriends, the novel A Traveller’s Guide to Namisa (unpublished) and, as editor and contributor, The Write Stuff anthology. Janet is a graduate of the Manchester Writing School at MMU, and the founder of the Abu Dhabi Writers’ Workshop. Find her at http://www.janetolearski.com and @JanetOlearski