A bit of flash fiction for your Monday evening.
Her face stung and her eyes burned and her skin all over was always raw and red. This was because of the sand. Miles and miles and miles of only sand that got stuck in her lungs, choking her, and made it hard to stay focused on what she had to do. It whipped in her face and stripped the flesh from her hands. Sand was her enemy.
They gave her an old metal detector and told her to find things they could sell. Make us some money, the men said. That's all you're good for. They sent her out, alone into the sand, where it was hot and silent but for the whistling of the wind in the dunes. Sometimes, buzzing insects would scratch their way out of the desert and bite her. They left big, angry welts and made her angry in turn. At night, she clawed at her itchy skin until it bled. Little red rivers of blood crept out and gave her peace.
It was hard to know what she might find in the sand or even what she was looking for. Usually, it was little screws and things that had fallen from the aircraft that went screeching overhead every now and then. They were watching them, looking for signs of - what? She didn't know. She imagined she must look like a little brown beetle to them, not worth the trouble of watching. She only knew they could see far down below and they had eyes on her camp.
They never came close enough for her to see them properly but sometimes, they fired their guns and people fell down dead in front of her. The guns made a terrible, deathly rattle but they never made any noise when they fell. They were walking among the tents, talking, even laughing, and then they weren't and that was that. Their blood marked the sand only until the wind picked up and turned it over.
On certain days, she was allowed to leave the camp with the men to go to the town where they tried to sell the things she found. There were little white buildings there and smiling men, selling fruits and spices. The women were clean and they had pretty clothes in bright colours she didn't even know the names of and they had long, long hair. They made her cut her hair until it was short and bristly so that the men in the town wouldn't look at her, and her clothes were plain brown sack cloth, just like everyone else in the camp.
The people in the town always stared at them and some of them even shouted abuse and spat at them as they walked by. The law said they couldn't live among the civilised folk and the civilised folk hated them for their lowliness. Some of the men let them stop to show them what they had for sale, but they never looked them in the eye.
When they sold something, it was cause for great celebration. They would go to the tiny bar set away from the shining white buildings. It was made of dirty yellow stone and always smelled of sweat and urine. It was set aside for people from the camp and they would drink cheap alcohol and toast her and clap her on the back. When they couldn't sell anything, they beat her and cast her out and made her walk back to the camp alone.
She dreamed of somehow sneaking into the town alone so that she could live there like the women who thought of her as filth. What a trick it would be to walk among them and be treated as their equal. She could laugh in her pretty white house about how they didn't know a camp girl from a civilised woman. She could wear her hair long and do as she pleased and never take another beating.
The best thing about the town was the animals. Hundreds and hundreds of them roamed the streets, bleating or clucking or whinnying, herded by men with clear, loud voices. They outnumbered the people and outranked the cars, always going ahead of them between the houses. She loved to see the faces of the animals with their wild eyes and defiant look. They were like her.
She didn't have a mother or a father, but she had a faded photograph of a smiling man and woman and she imagined they must have been her parents. One of the old men from the camp told her they found her as a baby, alone in the sand with nothing but a blanket and that photograph. The women looked after her until she was big enough to be useful and after that, she looked after herself.
She could read and write a little, thanks to one of the women who took the time to teach her until she was found out and they made her stop. She was the lowest of the low and didn't need any schooling, they said. That was the first day they sent her out to search the empty desert and earn her keep.
Day after day after day, it was the same. She scoured the burning sand, listening for the metal detector’s insistent whine. Then she gathered up her finds into a sack and took them back to the camp at sundown. It was a day like this when it happened. One of the aircraft went screaming by and she looked up to see something large and shining falling from the sky towards her, very nearly hitting her as it landed.
Looking anxiously around her, she scrambled across the sand towards the crash site and found a metal box, grey and square. It was hot when she touched it so she upended the metal detector and used the handle to prise it open. When she looked inside, she fell backwards in surprise. There, in the searing desert sun, hundreds of gold coins winked out at her.