Today's Reading

Shovels on our shoulders, we slid forward on fresh, unpacked sand. "There she is, Patrick, all wrapped up and trailing sand like a bride's dress."

"It will start," he stated, reading my thoughts. We swept sand off the canvas and found the Rover wasn't buried too deep. "If we have to, we'll use the manual crank to turn the engine over."

Lifting the canvas from the door, Patrick squeezed his way inside, where everything was covered with a layer of golden dust. Sneezing and scratching, he pumped the gas pedal a few times. "It's in my pants," he complained.

"Keep it there."

Looking at me, he smiled, raising his black eyebrows, and turned the ignition key. A throaty gasp penetrated the dead silence. It started. He manually engaged four-wheel drive to provide maximum traction on the air-filled, loose, and slippery sand.

Patrick slowly began to rock the Land Rover back and forth as I shoveled furiously. Finally, we backed out. The Rover, still covered in canvas and a blanket of sand, looked like a weird float in a parade.

After sweeping off more sand and removing the dragging canvas, we celebrated with a breakfast of canned tuna on stiff bread. It was about seven in the morning when we pulled away.

Patrick shifted the gears. "What did you do with the tuna cans?" "Threw them into the cave," I answered, opening the forward air vents and lighting a cigarette.

"Good. I don't like the smell of decaying fish."

Several hours later the few landmarks we searched for still had not appeared. The sandstorm had transformed the desert landscape. I got in the driver's seat and drove to the crest of an enormous dune while Patrick stayed below, making coffee on our gas burner. Using binoculars, I looked for some familiar object on the horizon. The desert sky was cloudless, the air clean and fresh. There was no pollution, nothing. I could see a vast distance. No signs of life, just seamless sand. I was awed and somewhat frightened by the enormity of what surrounded us.

Patrick had spread our crude, partially self-made map on the ground as the water heated. He waved to get my attention. I drove back down and joined him. As we drank black coffee, he pointed to red threads protruding from the sand next to his boots. It was an odd discovery. A moment later and on his knees, he gently scooped layers of sand away from a piece of fabric. Curious, ignoring the heat, we dug, carefully shifting the sand with shovels.

"What could be here?" I said aloud.

Patrick paused, wiping his face, and smiled."I'll bet the Bushmen will be happy to find your tuna cans."

"Yeah, it will be like treasure to them." They would be able to see themselves in the shining bottom and make tiny arrowheads from the metal.

"Did you leave anything else?" 

"A pile of crap."

"Good thinking! They will know the gift isn't from the gods and won't be afraid."

Patrick and I continued digging, more slowly now, and passed the canteen between us. We were thankful when the sun finally lowered enough for the Rover to create a shadow.

From the brim of the wide, ever-deepening hole with sand running down its cracker-dry sides, I looked down at Patrick as he spat sand out from under the bandana around his face. I had mine on, too. Desert bandits, I thought again. Yet here in the desert, as at sea, concepts like theft changed with the wind, like the massive sand dune above us.

The bones of an undersized hand appeared. The body of a small man followed. The dry air had preserved him. His skull was strangely flattened and distorted from the weight of the drifting sands. His bones were broken. His teeth were worn—indicating he'd been old. He may have been buried here for a hundred years.

He lay in a crawling position, one arm partially reaching forward, where he died. Nestled with the body, we found a charred tortoiseshell, bits of an ostrich egg, a small bow, and a few arrows that crumbled under our touch. In silence we swept sand away to reveal the tips of seven horn paint pots, which had hung from a crumbling thong belt. Each pot contained the dried remains of a different color. He was a Bushman; his size, distinctive bow, and frail, three-part arrows identified him. And he was one of many Bushmen artists.

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