The young man turned and looked up the hill. A mile away stood a red cliff, the beginning of the mountains.
The air was dusty, clean-dusty. Clean in a different way from the high mountain air. Thick, sure of itself. Clean like a parade ground on the morning of a big day, before anyone was up. There was something about itit invigorated you. Perhaps it was just the relief of having got away from the coast, from the torpid ocean and the dull concrete city, the ugliest the man had seen in a long time.
He set off right away, glad of his boots, an old army pair. The leather had outlasted three complete sets of stitching. They were the most comfortable footwear he had ever known. There's no happiness like a good pair of boots, he thought as he walked. Boots, if they were just exactly right for you, changed the way you felt. In fact, there was no happiness like marching alone up a track toward evening in the desert. His limbs tingled. For a while he didn't care if he ever found what he was looking for, if he had to give it all up tomorrow. Nothing mattered but this march through the wide-open air of the desert hillside.
The good feeling suggested he was on the right track. He had an urge to stop and make a sketch, and that too was a kind of affirmation.
When the track ended he branched off to the left. It was harder going now, on the loose sand and gravel. He tried to plant his steps on the broken rocks lying here and there for better purchase. The slope steepened. He slowed his pace and kept up a steady mild pressure, his heart knocking. He looked at his watch: half an hour of daylight left though you would never tell by looking around. Night came without warning here. You noticed a hard-to-define dissolution in the air, as if the light had broken into particles. Then it was only a matter of minutes before the dark poured out of the solvent air, as if those particles were the first fragments of coming night.
He strode more quickly. He didn't want to get caught by nightfall without a camp, and he wanted to make camp at the foot of the cliff. His steps grew louder, rattling on the sand and gravel. No other sound. Just his footfalls. There might have been no other living thing in the world.
He was sweating hard by the time he got to the top of the slope. He was impatient to get the pack off his back and start looking around, but he made himself keep walking until he found a space between two rocks that would make a good camp: level ground, and only a few stones littering the dust. He slid the pack off. At once his shirt felt cool on his back and his body seemed to lift an inch clear of the ground.
A breeze sprang up. Perfect timing, he said to himself, thinking the breeze would cool him.
The nearest boulder was about his height, of pale yellow rock. He walked round, scanning it from top to bottom. Part way round, on the side facing the open west, where the light was still strong, he saw what he was looking for. Low down, around knee height, a pale carving of a star. The lines had been carefully chipped out, not hastily scratched. They formed eight radii. He ran his finger along one line, across the little bump of the centre, then sniffed his fingertip and caught the dry-plaster scent of stone.
He placed a rock on top of the boulder and made his way further round, stooping and scanning up and down. On another smooth rock face an animal had been carved, some quadruped. A llama, a cow, a dog, a jaguarit could have been any of them.
Then he saw a kind of face, square with a wide-open mouth and four fangs. It was fainter than the other carvings, but unmistakable.
For a moment Connolly seemed very close. He had been right here, certainly.
His mind reeled: no one knew how old these carvings were. They had waited, a message on a rock to be received thousands of years later. Who had last bothered to come and see them? Connolly. He had found them for sure. What did they mean? We are here. Nothing more. A cry of loneliness. The spill of red rocks in the big red land on the big planet spinning in emptiness, and on them, this sign.
Excerpted from The Lost City by Henry Shukman Copyright © 2008 by Henry Shukman. Excerpted by permission of Knopf, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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No Man's Land
by Simon Tolkien
Inspired by the experiences of his grandfather, J. R. R. Tolkien, during World War I.
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