by Jesse Ross
At dusk, the party arrived
among the long twilight shadows and dry ancient sand. The
Sahara had been a tricky host, blowing up winds of glass-like
dust, pushing them back toward civilisation, to a place
that others dreamed of, and from which they ran.
Charles, a strict man dressed in tweed, made notes and drew
diagrams of positions and configurations considered: scattered
fountain pen marks in a book covered in the sand and dust
from a dozen similar deserts.
Amanda, a plain, pale skinned woman, brushed the hair from
her face. She wore layered white surgeon's robes embroidered
with the tiny circular insignia of the Sun Foundation. Her
make-up was fading with the last few hours of night.
Sally was the least experienced of the three; a young girl
who had traversed this hostile terrain without a single
tear and not one request for stories, gossip, or tales of
love. She believed that Charles was secretly annoyed at
this, at her precociousness.
Day came with the rush and bother of a first year drama
school production. Uneven streaks marked the sky and the
distant white sun looked down in kind, fatherly anticipation.
The crude operating table had been constructed in Tunis
and carried into the desert on Sally's camel, much to the
beast's displeasure. He protested at the chore with horrible
whines that lasted all the way from the Libyan border to
their drop-off point at the edge of the desert.
Sally's dress had been altered by Charles, a kind gesture
she thought, considering all the work he had to do. It was
a long flowery gown with a long slit cut down the middle.
This allowed the surgeon more room, and displayed to him
the full extent of the operation. 'A tradition,' he had
The dust rose in billowing clouds. Slowly, and in random
trajectories, it circled and caught a passing wind. Perhaps
the sand would make it to Oxford, Sally thought, as she
watched the last of it dissolve into the distance. Maybe
it would be there when she returned home, carpeting the
bookshelves, the piano, and her father's gramophone.
The tools had been forged by an ironmonger in London, a
sinister little man by the name of Snatch, who had used
the finest steel available for the equipment and charged
a preposterous amount for his services. Amanda claimed that
aesthetics were integral to their performance.
Charles took a long and studied look at the sky: its strong,
pure sapphire hue surrounded a vast sun that had burned
away any trace of cloud. He took down the readings, making
sure that the old, partially rusted piece of bronze optical
equipment was returned safely to its box.
His predictions had proved accurate. Only a few minutes
were left until the sun reached its zenith, before the show
Amanda had been assigned to the role of surgeon. Both Charles
and Sally made clear their feelings on this matter. What
Amanda lacked in precision she more than made up for in
beauty. Her previous performances had been uneven, chaotic
operations, rushed and heated yet raw and abstract. She
managed to operate without fear or pride, like a child playing
When he first began studying with the Sun foundation, Charles
had believed that should he become a Showman, he must attain
perfection. But when elder Showmen failed to return home
from surgery across the globe, Charles realised that maybe
the Gods disliked perfection as much as ignorance.
For Amanda and Sally, this was a game, something to whisper
about on rainy nights in country house bedrooms, but for
Charles it was otherwise. He was the Master of Ceremonies,
and if the Gods had any qualms with his or the girls' work,
he would be the first to suffer their indelible criticism.
Hope was written in all their faces, but for different reasons.
Sally was a student with a lust for new sensation, Amanda
wanted to rise up the ranks and become a Showman just like
her father, and Charles simply hoped that he would not die.
Sally mounted the table with sensual ease and allowed herself
just one quick look skyward, as if to check the sun was
still there, still watching.
The metal of the table felt cool against her skin and the
smell of dead things putrefied the air as she lay down in
Amanda closed her eyes. Gathering her thoughts from another
place. Collecting her magic from the wind. Opposite her,
managing to shield his fear under a shroud of concentration,
Charles knelt in the sand, writing with the bones of dead
animals. They had not been slain by him, but taken from
other places, collected over the years from road-kill carrion,
veterinarians and the occasional museum The first incision
was made just above Sally's left thigh, on the bottom side
of her pelvic bone. This was a subtle entrance for Amanda
and, judging by the shrill, sharp intake of breath from
Sally, achieved the desired effect. Charles was pleased.
He hoped she could keep it up.
The next few cuts were made in accordance to the Gobi desert
Show, one that had been performed to rapturous approval
in 1784. This was a system designed to open the body up
in such a fashion so as to leave the subject splayed like
apple blossom but remain completely unharmed.
Charles whispered instructions under his breath; ancient
rites of incision that Amanda combined with her own, memorised
During the incantation, Sally made quiet, inhuman noises.
Her lips mouthed inaudible words; sweet, heavy scented gibberish.
For some time, the operation was a spectacle of precision;
a magnificent exhibition of order, and of the classic formations
passed down from generation to generation.
Charles looked on with pride and gratitude. He glanced upwards
for a moment and saw the burning God there, watching. A
droplet of sweat fell from his brow.
The desert was still.
Sally could not help but think of an old, half-remembered
biology lesson, of faded textbooks and the pale, stern faced
mistress showing photographs of flowers moving in accordance
to the Sun.
She had been carefully unravelled. Slivers of fragile skin
were left untouched alongside bizarre and seemingly random
massacres of flesh.
Charles made the instruction for the next, vital cut, the
one that would make this Show burn itself into His memory,
to be the reference point for all further Shows, and him
for all Showmen. But when Amanda reached the climax point,
her arms washed in scarlet and her hands trembling before
Sally's open body, she changed her mind. Instead of making
an intentionally rough and jagged chop across the lung,
Amanda made a gentle and swooping slice. A perfect cut.
Amanda moved away from Sally and took a final bow. Charles,
petrified by Amanda's perfection, waited for the sand to
take him, for the Sun to open His mouth and burn him to
dust, for the wind to spread his soul across the far corners
of the earth.
None of these things occurred. Only silence and a slight
breeze that came in from the West. Amanda smiled and began
to put Sally together again, arranging the organs back in
their natural order, sewing the skin to its original form.
Charles walked a few yards away from the women, breathing
a long and desperate sigh of relief. He looked skyward again,
searching for signs of Armageddon as dusk fell, but found
only the giggles of young Sally behind him.
The three made camp that night and did not sleep. When dawn
came, it was a rising cascade of colour.
They stood together on a nearby dune and watched as jets
of vermilion ascended an endless, cobalt sky.
With quiet intention Amanda, Charles and Sally packed their
minimal luggage away and set off for home, to a world where
people didn't question things, didn't ponder miracles or
A place where things just happened.
© 1998 Jesse Ross