The Sand Room
by Cecilia Dominic
“You see that house?” Dala asked. She pointed beyond the dunes to the ruins, their jagged edges wind-sanded to soft curves. The breeze carried whispers and songs, and for a moment, I saw the house as it must have been, a majestic villa of golden stone and granite.
“Yes.” We picked our way through the rocks. Black, leafy tendrils of seaweed reached for our ankles and pulled back with the waves.
“That house is the one that started it all.”
“Were you there?”
Dala shook her head. “No, Dara, but my grandmother was. She told me about it.”
A wave splashed up my legs, and I jumped on a rock, my toes curling to hold on. “What did it start?”
Dala laughed. “You will be a good woman, Dara. You’re not distracted from a story.”
I watched for more surprise waves, but the water eddied and gurgled around the rocks. “But what did the house start? How can a house start something?”
“A house does nothing, but people… Ah, they begin things. And they don’t know how to finish them.”
We walked again, and even the waves hushed.
“It is time that you know the truth of our people. Your mother thinks you’re too young, but you see things that the others can’t.”
“How do you know that?” I tried not to think about my impending ninth birthday or the talents that set me apart from the other kids.
“Your eyes are made to see things. It is a gift.”
“From the gods?” I had heard that phrase since I was little, and it tasted bitter in my mouth. Gods never gave gifts without wanting something in return.
Dala shook her head. “From your ancestors.”
“Like who?” I thought about my parents and my aunts and uncles, and then my grandparents like Dala and my other grandmother, Pitty, who ran the perfume shop on Main Street. She sold the little vials that people put in their masks to block the smell of the streets. None of them had “eyes made for seeing things,” not even my Dala.
“Let’s go to the Tail, and I’ll tell you.”
We waded out to the silvery Mermaid’s Tail, so called because it looked like the end of a mythical creature diving into the water. It had two indentations, perfect for a grown-up and a child to sit and look back at the beach. This we did, and we let our long skirts trail in the water.
“Now what I’m going to tell you, it’s not to go further, you understand? Your mother and father don’t believe it, and especially not Pitty and Paddy.”
I nodded as solemnly as I could. “I won’t tell.”
“This is between you and me and the ocean. Now remember, I told you that it was that house, right?”
“It was the first one. The man who built it, Artemus, was my great-grandfather. The hard-wheeled vehicles that made transportation easier had come to town, and he was one of the few who recognized how they grind the sand into a powder that gets into the lungs and causes breathing problems. He was a senator and had tried to outlaw them, but commerce and the town’s desire for more coins had won out over good sense.”
I had seen Artemus’ face in our main room, his portrait on the mantel of the great stone fireplace. He seemed a very serious person with his bushy black hair and beard and a straight line for a mouth.
“What do you know about how a person chooses a place for a house?”
I thought back to Lessons with Adriana, my Temple teacher. “They go to a spot where they want to build it, and they wait for a vision or a sign.”
“That’s just what Artemus did. He came to the beach, sat on the dunes, and looked over the ocean. There was a full moon that night, and he watched it sparkling on the water like a swath of broken glass. It was so bright that he couldn’t see any stars, and the silence unnerved him. Even the waves hushed as though waiting for something to happen.”
She smiled like she was about to share a secret, and I leaned closer. “He said it seemed like a strange dream that slipped away, but circumstances made him remember it later. Beings rose out of the sparkling sand, and others danced over the moonlit path on the sea. He could not remember what they looked like, only that they had moved in the rhythm of the waves. One approached them, their leader, he thought.”
“Where did they come from?” I asked. The beach, which had always seemed a place of comfort, now felt sinister, and I tucked my feet in.
“The leader told Artemus that they came in a star that had crashed into the sea, and pieces of the star had crumbled into sand. That’s why no human had built his house on the beach – there was something that kept them away, and Artemus must be special because he was not affected by it. They gave him plans for the house he would build and promised that if they did as he said, they would keep him and his family safe from storms. He wanted more information, but they only promised to send a messenger, and he would come soon because the sand was restless. Such is the way with stars.”
I snorted. “He fell asleep.”
“He came to himself with the sun shining down on his face and the roar of the surf in his ear fifty meters behind where he had slept, on the spot where that house stood. Others scoffed like you did. ‘Artemus, don’t build on the beach,’ they told him. ‘Your house will come down in a storm.’
“But Artemus shook his head and smiled. ‘The wind and waves promised never to touch it or any other houses on the beach as long as we keep the promise.’
“‘To build the sand room.'”
“What’s a sand room?” I asked.
“You see that jagged line of glass where the bottom of the house was? That was the sand room. It was sheltered under the back balcony, and it was all glass. A small door led into the side from the beach. But it wasn’t a sand room like we have, where you take your shoes off and shake out your clothes. These were different. The sand came in, and not to mess up the floors.”
The hairs on my arms stood on end. “Why did it come in?”
“That was secret knowledge to be passed down from father to son. So Artemus built his house, a beautiful villa of sandstone and granite with a slate roof, marble floors, and lots of windows that looked out on the sea, and he and great grandmother Esmerelda moved into it. Their son, Leo, was born there on a night when the wind and rain howled around the house and clouds blotted out the moon.”
I tried to remember what Leo looked like, but I couldn’t. “Do we have a picture of him?”
Dala shook her head. “You know that, according to Temple Laws, you are not allowed to have a portrait made of a child until he is almost grown at age nine so that you do not take any of the energy away from him. Leo was not so lucky.”
My grandmother continued with the first part of my family’s story.
On the night Leo was born, a stranger came to town. He wore a long, black cape, and he had golden eyes like coins. He walked into the inn on Baker Street and scared the innkeeper, who didn’t expect anyone in such foul weather.
“Fairly met, friend,” the innkeeper said once he recovered from his shock. “What brings you to our town on such a nasty night?”
The stranger, who had a very pleasant, handsome face, almost cat-like, smiled and said, “I’m here to fulfill a promise, good man. Can you tell me where I can find Senator Artemus and his family?”
“There are only Senator Artemus and his wife, but I can point you on the road to his villa.”
“Ah, but tonight, the Lady Esmerelda has given birth to a son, and it is time to move forward with the promise that Artemus made to the gods.”
Although it was said in a very pleasant tone, it gave the innkeeper goose bumps. With a prayer to the Goddess to protect Esmerelda and her babe from whatever Artemus had gotten them into, the innkeeper sent the stranger on his way.
A chilly breeze stirred the waves, and they beat the rock as though trying to uproot it. I felt the cold mist over the back of the Mermaid’s Tail and shivered. When I looked at Dala, I saw the reflection of the fading sky in her eyes, and it seemed that her light had faded as well.
“The water is telling us that it’s time to go home, Dara.”
“I think so, too.”
“Let me carry you on my back. The water might sweep you away.”
I clung to her back, and she was like a tree, unperturbed by the wind and waves, moving toward the beach. We returned to the stairs over the dunes, donned our dust filtering masks, and walked back through town to my parents’ house.
“Mother, Lania, there you are!” My own mother met us at the door, her eyes bright and cheeks flushed from the heat of the house. Our true names sounded foreign on her tongue after the afternoon spent together using only the affectionate terms Dala and Dara. “It’s freezing out there, and you need to care for your health.”
“C’mon, Lani,” my nurse said. “Let’s get you cleaned up. You still have sand on your feet, and it’s almost dinnertime.”
“My health is just fine, Hortense,” my grandmother said. “Those doctors don’t know what they’re talking about.”
“Is something wrong with Dala?” I asked, craning my neck to see her, to see if her light had faded more. It was different, a warm, golden color, whereas my mother’s light was a hearty green, tinged blue with the life of the baby boy she carried. My nurse’s light shone ruddy red, and it sparked with anger at my question.
“Hush now, Lani,” she said and continued to pull on my arm.
“No, I want to know what’s wrong with my Dala. Her light is fading, I can see it!”
My grandmother and mother both paled. “What sort of stories have you been telling her?”
Dala stiffened. “I am telling her of her family heritage.”
“Oh, please tell me it’s not that old tale about Artemus. She’s already heard enough nonsense. What does she mean by your light is fading?”
“Settle down, Hortense. I am not telling her anything that a girl her age can’t handle. It’s okay, Dara,” she called after me.
I couldn’t hear any more of the conversation because Nurse dragged me up the stairs and into the bathroom, but I had heard enough. I knew my Dala was dying.
The next day, I felt ready to burst with questions by the time Dala was to pick me up from Temple school. But instead, my mother came, her mouth set like Artemus’ in the picture, a line that said, “Do not ask ANYTHING.” So I went home with her, and we sat at the kitchen table.
Normally I liked the kitchen; it was the warmest room in the house during the fall and winter, and the fragrance of the different herbs and spices Cook used hung in the air. But today the room was cold, the windows open, and my mother, her face flushed, shoved a plate of cut up fish on bread at me.
I ate and watched her. The blue tinged more of her light. It sometimes happened when a woman was going to have a strong son.
“Why are you looking at me like that?”
“You have a baby boy growing inside you. Your light is turning blue.”
She put her hand on her stomach. “How do you know that?”
“It’s your light.” I traced her outline with one finger. “It’s normally green like the grass, but I see blue in it.”
She flushed and looked down. “Let’s make this our little secret. It’s bad luck to talk about a baby before it’s been nine weeks.”
So many secrets! I was almost nine – was this what womanhood would be like, to always have secrets?
“What color is your light?” she asked me with quivering voice.
I looked at my hands. Nothing. “I can’t see my own light. But I dream it. It’s yellow. Like the sun in the evening before it sets.”
“The color of the seers,” she whispered and looked at me like she had never seen me before. “Lania, what color is your Dala’s light?”
“It’s golden, like wheat. But it’s fading.” I frowned at my mother. “Is she dying?”
“That’s such a grown-up concept for a little girl!” She smoothed her hair, stood, and paced the kitchen. “What do you know of dying?”
I didn’t know much, just that when you died, all that was left was a picture, and not even that if you were a child. I thought about the lizard that came to my balcony last spring and showed his red throat, but the neighborhood dogs had gotten him. I drew a picture of him and kept it on my dresser.
She sat down again, and I saw she had tears in her eyes. “Lani, you’re growing up so fast. I’m afraid you will grow up too quickly.”
“I have bad news about your grandmother.” She clenched her fists and bit her lip. “She has the sand illness.” She shook her head, her lip trembling beneath her teeth.
Tears stung my eyes, and my throat burned, but I had to ask, “Will she finish the story?”
“The one she started yesterday.”
“What was it about?”
“I can’t tell you. It’s a secret.”
She shook her head. “See? Already becoming a woman.”
I looked at my hands, the only part of me I could see right now without a mirror. They looked the same, not like my mother’s, which were puffy, or my grandmother’s, which were gnarled and twisted like driftwood.
“Can I go to my room? I have schoolwork.”
“Go ahead, Dara.”
I turned back and looked at my mother. “You’ve never called me that before.”
“Why not? It means ‘dear one.’ And you are dear to me, little Lani.”
Even though I knew that “Dara” meant “dear one” and “Dala” meant “wise, respected one,” it sounded wrong coming from my mother. I ached to see my Dala.
“We’ll visit her tomorrow after Temple School.”
And I had to be happy with that promise.
Dala lay in her bed, her breathing shallow but her eyes sharp and bright. Her light’s usual radiance had been replaced by a wizened glow that ebbed and flowed like the waves at the seashore.
“We have a story to continue, don’t we, Dara?” she asked, her voice hoarse. “Nonsense.” My mother’s hands tightened on my shoulders. “You’re too weak. You need to conserve your strength, Mother.”
“And Lania needs to know these things. Leave us for an hour, Hortense. I won’t go beyond that, I promise.”
“It’s too much,” mumbled my mother, but she complied. Dala gestured for me to sit on the stool by her bed. I did and rested my head on the covers. Dala stroked my hair, and the knots of the blanket felt nubby beneath my cheek and fingers.
“I’ll miss you, Dala,” I said.
“I’ll always be there, Dara, in the sunset beneath the waves. If you miss me too much, you can just look there at twilight and see me waving back at you. You’re going to have such an exciting life. I’ll enjoy watching it.”
“I’d rather have you with me.”
“Ah, but you can’t always have what you want. Now let me tell the story – that’s what I want.”
I closed my eyes and listened.
The manservant almost didn’t let the stranger in when he knocked on the door. Rain dripped off the traveler’s black, hooded cloak, and his eyes reflected the flickering candle light.
“What do you want with my master?”
“I am here to fulfill the promise of the sand room. Go tell the Senator in exactly those words.”
Artemus sat upstairs with his wife admiring the new baby, whose cries had been heard all the way down the stairs at his birth and cleaning. He was now latched to his mother’s breast enjoying his first meal. At birth, he was a beautiful child with golden curls that fluffed as they dried. Artemus stroked the child’s hair, and a new kind of warmth and love spread through his chest.
“Sir?” The manservant called softly from the hallway. “Sir? There’s a stranger here to see you.”
With his words, a chill entered the room. The babe stirred and opened his eyes, meeting those of his father in a challenge not to go. Esmerelda quickly covered the babe against the chill, and the moment was lost, but Artemus remembered it for the rest of his life.
“Who dares disturb me?” he growled.
“Sir, he says he is here to fulfill the promise of the sand room.”
Artemus turned pale under his tan. “I’ll be right back,” he promised his wife and child. He wrapped his crimson Senator’s cloak around himself and walked down the stairs. He found the stranger in the front hall, where candles in sconces cast odd shadows across the blue-gray marble floor. The man had not availed himself of the low, cushioned benches, but rather perused the family portraits with a slightly amused expression.
“You have a lovely villa.” The stranger smiled, and Artemus felt the chill to his bones. The man looked like a cat who had just found the cup of cream. “I am here to help you fulfill the promise of the sand room.”
“I don’t understand what you mean.”
“On a night when the stars disappeared from the sky in the light of the moon. A lone man slept on the beach and was chosen to bring a new way of life to his planet.”
“I know not what you speak of!” But his protest caught in his throat, and the memories flooded his mind. He stroked his black beard to compose himself. Yes, they had promised safety to his house and family if he agreed to only one thing: to build a villa with a sand room. He had built it as specified, locked it, and hadn’t given it another thought until tonight.
“I know you have the room, Artemus,” the man’s voice purred through him. “I am here to teach you how to use it.”
“I built it, as I agreed. I am obligated to nothing more.”
“Ah, but in building it, you made another promise. We can discuss the particulars later. Is this the way you treat a stranger who has come to you through a dreadful storm?”
“I have nothing to offer you.”
“You? The richest man in town? The Senator for the region?” The man chuckled. “I doubt that.”
“Fine, you may stay the night, but you must leave in the morning.” And with that, Artemus nodded to the manservant to take care of the stranger, turned, and ascended the stairs. He felt the encounter with the stranger had sullied him on such a pure and perfect evening. Unwilling to bring the contamination to his wife and newborn child, he waited for the stranger’s cloak to be taken and for the man to be led to the kitchen for something to eat. He made sure no one observed him and descended to the hidden stairwell beneath the main one. This led to the sand room, which encompassed the entire back part of the house on the ground floor.
Rain beat against the glass, and Artemus heard the waves that crashed against the shore with an unfamiliar fury. Although he had built the room with a stone floor, sand crunched under his feet, but he could not find a breach in the windows. He shivered in the chill.
“You did build it exactly to specifications.” The voice of the stranger made him jump. He must have followed Artemus down the stairs, his footsteps drowned out by the pounding of the rain against the window. The birthing chamber with its rich red carpet and draperies seemed miles away. All Artemus could see and feel was the room, the cool sand and frigid water beating against the window to get in.
“This is impossible.”
“Not for them.”
“And who are you, sir?”
“Call me Pietro.”
Artemus recognized the root from the Old Language. “Man of stone, not of sand.”
“Ah, but all sand was once stone. Just as all of the poisonous powder you moved here to escape was once sand.”
“Where do you come from?”
“My people are of the desert. The glassmakers. Formerly of the stars.”
“We all come from beyond the moon, from before the stars. I am merely a messenger for They who know you.”
“The desert people?”
Pietro shook his head. “They were before the desert, before this planet was even formed.”
“And who, exactly, are They?”
“You’ve seen them. You know as much as I do.”
“But you come for their purposes.”
“It’s a compulsion that I must follow. I may have been a different man once. But this is who I am now.”
Artemus huffed at the lack of true information, although he couldn’t argue the man answered his questions. “What is this room for?”
“To teach you great things.” The stranger smiled as though he had engaged in this conversation many times before.
“What kind of great things?” Artemus persisted.
“Things that the priests in your Temple can only dream about. Control of the wind and the waves. How to move through sand and water without suffocating or drowning. How to ensure that ships with your goods make it to port when all others are lost. And how to protect your home from the elements such that hurricanes will never touch your shores.”
Artemus stroked his beard. “And what is the price for all of this knowledge?”
“Just hard work, my friend. You have already built the means for it.”
Artemus knew there must be a catch, but with his head full of visions of his son, all he wanted to do was ensure the safety of his family. If that meant humoring this madman until he left, then so be it. And if there was even a grain of truth in what he said…
“It has been a long evening, and I’m tired,” he told Pietro. “We can continue this in the morning. You may have the guest room on the first floor.”
The next morning, Artemus stood on the balcony and drank his coffee. After a good night’s sleep and a hot bath, he had all but forgotten about the stranger and the dream-like encounter. The new babe’s cries had woken him a few times, but Esmerelda hushed the child with her breast or handed him off to the nurse to be changed in the next room. The storm had passed during the night, and the sun shone brightly on a beach littered with debris. He noted with pleasure that the high tide line stopped on the other side of the dunes.
“As promised.” The stranger’s voice startled him, but this morning, in the sunlight and with the songs of the shore birds in his ears, Artemus found him less intimidating. In fact, he noted that the man’s tanned skin had the beginnings of wrinkles, particularly around his eyes.
“I see. I’m surprised that the dunes are still here after such a storm.”
“They are tougher than they look. Like your beautiful wife.”
A chill slithered up Artemus’ spine, but he forced a smile. “That she is. That’s why I married her. She just gave birth yesterday, and already she’s up and about. I think the servants were hoping for more of a break.”
Pietro laughed. “Not from her. Her light is bright enough that she could have ten children, and it wouldn’t weaken her.”
Pietro explained the phenomenon that you have noticed, Dala, that people have light surrounding them that reflects the state of their inner being. My great-grandmother had a strong one. This was the first of many of the aspects of the world beyond the visible one that Pietro would explain to Artemus.
The strange man took up lodging in the guest bedroom, and soon he became a part of the household itself. Although a few of the servants left in protest – the stranger’s golden gaze reminded them too much of deeds they would rather forget – he ingratiated himself to them, even to the point of running household errands on his trips into town.
Esmerelda, however, sensed that something was afoot. She likely felt that being locked out of a room in her villa was an insult to the lady of the house, and women have intuitive ways of recognizing a threat to their well-being and the power they hold over their men. But Leo, the beloved child, laughed the first time he saw Pietro, and she let him stay.
The men did not return to the sand room until the next full moon.
My mother came through the door without knocking, her mouth set in a line that told me that she’d heard enough. “Lani, go downstairs. There’s a snack for you.” I got up and walked out the door. Then I crouched in the hallway.
“Mother, why are you doing this?” she whispered when she thought I was out of earshot. “Why are you telling her this tale?”
“She’s almost a woman, and I will not be here to tell her for much longer. I know better than to think that you will tell her. I made a mistake telling you; it’s a story that should be passed down through those who have the eyes to see the truth!”
“It’s a story you should let die.”
“It’s the truth, Hortense.”
“But it could ruin us! Did you know she can see auras? It’s the old talent cropping up again. I thought we were safe.”
“I know she can see auras. I know she can see a lot of things that ordinary people can’t. And hear them, too.”
That was my cue to leave. Dala was, in her own way, saying goodbye to my mother.
The next few days, after Temple school, my mother brought me to my grandmother’s bedside, and I would listen as she told the tale of Artemus and Pietro. Dala’s hands stroked my hair as the scenes played out behind my closed eyelids.
The full moon shines most brightly on the waters, Dara, where it can dance and ripple and play like liquid poured from the heavens. Artemus watched it from the bedroom balcony and smiled. All the stars twinkled in their places, and he considered it a very good omen.
Leo and Esmerelda had snuggled in the bed, the babe’s nose red with a sniffle he had gotten on his first trip into town. Every so often he would sneeze, which thoroughly surprised him, and the look on his face made his parents laugh. Esmerelda napped because she knew it would be another long night.
“Artemus, are you ready?” Pietro’s voice, low but strong, carried from the doorway. Leo opened his eyes and burbled with laughter.
Esmerelda woke. “What is it, sweetling?” she asked the baby. She saw Pietro at the door. “Oh, it’s you.”
“Yes, Milady. Your husband and I have work to do. Is the baby doing well?”
“Just a little cold, that’s all.”
“Ah, well, I shall see what we can do about that.”
Esmerelda pulled Leo closer. “I’m sure he’ll be fine.”
Artemus kissed his wife on the cheek and nodded to Pietro that he was ready. In the past month, he had tried to forget that he would have to go to the sand room and face the shadows again. This time, he had prepared. He had requested a pair of amulets from the temple priest to ward off evil spirits, and he wore one and had hung one on the bedpost to protect his wife and child.
“Nervous?” Pietro asked as they walked down the stairs. The moonlight poured through the front windows, and his eyes caught it and glowed.
Artemus’ stomach clenched, and his heart skipped a beat. “Yes.”
Pietro laughed. “Do not be afraid, my friend. I will show you how the sand-work can benefit you and your family.”
Artemus unlocked the door to the back stairs, and they descended. The moonlight lit their way with water-like patterns on the stone walls of the spiral stairwell. The light’s motion made him dizzy, and he held the wall to his right and concentrated on the steps beneath his feet.
When they emerged into the room below, the light spilled through the windows and on to the sand, which sparkled with a thousand different colors.
“What sorcery is this?” Artemus clutched his amulet through his tunic.
“No sorcery yet, just the particular quality of the sand you have on this beach.” He hummed a tune that Artemus recognized as a sea shanty and knelt to run his fingers through the soft sand. Before, it had barely covered the floor, but now it almost came level with the bottom step. Artemus wondered if the strange man had been bringing it in when he wasn’t looking.
“As you can see, the sand has a mind of its own,” said Pietro. “It finds your house to be friendly.” He walked to the middle of the room, where the light shone brightest on the center of a spiral pattern that extended to the edges of the room. “This is where we start.”
“What do we do?” Artemus followed Pietro on tiptoe.
“Don’t worry about leaving your marks. It will help the sand to know you.”
“Do I want it to know me?”
“Yes, if you want it to cooperate with you. Here at the center of the spiral is the place where we do our magic. Your son has a cold, so we shall start with a simple healing spell. We’ll use a mandala.”
Artemus had heard of mandalas, or circular pictures that the Temple monks of the Eastern countries would sometimes make with colored sand. “Leave my wife and son out of this.! I don’t want them touched by this magic.”
“Ah, but they already have been.” Pietro’s eyes reflected the moonlight and pulsed with that seductive rhythm. “The only way on this path is forward.”
“We could move, find a house inland.”
“Yes, but the sand people would still find you, and they would come in the dust that would choke your babe and your wife in their sleep. You have made a pact with them – it is time to honor it.”
Realizing he had already gone too far, Artemus bowed his head. “What do we do first?”
Part of the pact with the sand people was secrecy, so the specifics of this part of the tale, the words of power and the actions of the sand, have been lost. By the end of the long night, Leo no longer had a cold, although he and his mother slept fitfully for a week, his dreams interrupted by strange visions, hers by his cries and whimpers.
Some say this is the price of magic, or altering the natural course of events. I think it was likely more due to the anxiety that Artemus felt about letting the power of the moonlit sand seduce him. For enchant him it did. By the end of the first year, he had brought his colleague and best friend into it, and at the end of three, more villas had popped up along the beach, each with a sand room, for a total of nine, the number of power.
I looked up. Nine. Next week would be my ninth birthday, and my parents would start looking for a husband for me to wed when I was thirteen. Instead of Temple school, it would be Deportment and Hospitality classes at the Women’s Studies Center in the countryside outside the City. A boarding school. I shook my head – I didn’t want to go, but it was the tradition.
Artemus continued to grow in influence and power, which we still benefit from, Dara, so don’t feel that all his activities were evil. There is nothing evil about magic, or at least not when you practice it inside the bounds of reason. Since that time, hurricanes have never threatened our town. Nor have there been earthquakes, so some of the old protection still lingers.
The Earth magic that Artemus and Pietro practiced did imbalance the elements, and those who were sensitive to it warned of catastrophic events before too long. My great-grandfather only scoffed at them, for he was in control, or so it seemed. But there were things he couldn’t manage in his own household.
With the growth of his influence in the City, Artemus was away more, only returning for the full moon each month. This left Esmerelda with Leo, a house full of servants, and Pietro as her only company. You will discover soon enough that it is not to scorn a woman that will earn her contempt and lose her love, it is to ignore her. When her husband was home, Esmerelda barely saw him, as he and Pietro worked in the sand room by night and slept by day. His visits to her bedroom became less frequent as he expended more and more time and energy on the sand-workings.
One night, at the new moon, when all was dark except the stars, she lay awake in bed and listened to the surf, counting stars as she did when she was a girl and couldn’t sleep. Leo, a typically bouncy, happy four-year-old, had been cranky with an ear infection, and her arms and shoulders still ached with holding the sturdy boy all day as well as with the tension that any mother feels when her child is sick. Finally, she grew weary of the stars and the surf and went down to the kitchen, where the cook kept a bottle of wine just for her on nights like these.
She found the wine and opened it with the corkscrew at hand. It had a moon on it, a symbol that had popped up in more than one place in the villa. Esmerelda had grown to hate the moon and the sand for taking her husband away. She thought back to his last visit, when he had arrived late and barely pecked her on the cheek before running down the stairs to the sand room. Even now, she could feel the sand crunch under her slippers and vowed to tell the maids and cook that every grain of sand was to be swept out of the house, or they would pay with their jobs. Not that it was their fault; the men tracked it up the stairs.
With that thought, she burst into tears and buried her head in her arms, sobbing for herself, her child, and her husband, now lost to her.
“Madam?” The familiar voice startled her, and she looked up through the tears to see Pietro standing at the other end of the kitchen. “Is everything all right?”
She held her hands palms-out. “Stay away from me, monster. You may have stolen my husband, but you shan’t have me!” With a sweep of her arm, she knocked over her glass of wine, and it fell to the floor and shattered, the wine splattered about like blood. She looked at it with dismay.
“Allow me to help you.”
“No, I can get it myself.” She stepped off the high chair and on to the broken stem of the wineglass, which pierced her heel. Now her blood mingled with the wine on the floor, and she bit her tongue against the pain.
“Madam, you’re hurt.”
“How do you know?”
“Your aura tells me. And that you’re sad. Please, tell me if there’s something I can do. Even if I can only help you to bandage your foot.”
Another thing you will soon discover about women, Dara, is that there is a certain note of desperation in a man’s voice that any woman recognizes – and which is difficult to resist.
Esmerelda smiled, her plan for revenge forming in her mind. “Yes, Pietro, I think you can help me.”
The cut had almost healed two weeks later when Artemus returned from the City, and Esmerelda told him about the accident and apologized for breaking one of his favorite glasses.
“You shouldn’t be drinking alone in the dark, my darling,” he told her. “Why don’t you invite Pietro to join you next time?”
“I may do that.”
She didn’t tell him about the small gifts she had been finding since that night: a flower tucked under her pillow, a pretty shell in her embroidery basket, an interesting piece of driftwood at the breakfast table, and others.
“From Pietro?” I asked.
Dala nodded. “From Pietro.”
“Will boys bring me presents like that?” The subject had been on my mind since that morning, when my mother had told me that she had scheduled my sitting time for my portrait, which would begin on my ninth birthday. The portrait, the first step toward adulthood. Next came suitors and, finally, when I was thirteen, marriage.
“The daughter of a senator?” She snorted. “They shall bring you much grander gifts than that. But remember, it’s what is in a young man’s heart that matters. You shall be able to see it in his eyes with gifts like yours.”
By the end of that year, Esmerelda’s aura once again reflected the color of new life, and a very strong new life it was, so much so that the gender could not be predicted, only that the babe would have special talents. Artemus was thrilled. He had been working spells in the sand room for their fertility so he would have a dynasty to inherit his magical legacy. Pietro, on the other hand, had lost some of his confident swagger.
“Esmerelda?” he asked one morning as they breakfasted in her rooms. The surf crashed and tumbled, echoing the pounding of his heart. The rest of the question caught in his throat.
“I don’t know,” she told him. “I guess we will see when the babe is born.”
His anxiety grew, not only to find out the paternity of the child, but also because the pregnancy did not proceed smoothly. Esmerelda had to let the nurse handle more and more of Leo’s care, especially toward the end, when her heart fluttered every time she stood, and her hands and ankles swelled.
“It is not unusual for this type of child to take a little bit more from its mother at the end like this,” Pietro told her in an effort to comfort her as well as himself. “I’ve seen it many times. You’ll be fine.”
The child, my grandmother, came into the world at the full moon as her father and his friends chanted spells in the sand room. Unlike Leo’s birth, which had been surrounded by love and warmth, Lilia’s birth was lonely for Esmerelda, who had only the company of the nurse and the midwife. The babe had Esmerelda’s light hair, and her eyes were that ambiguous newborn blue color. She showed no evidence of the concern she had caused her mother toward the end of the pregnancy.
Artemus came into the bedroom just after dawn and was quite taken with his little girl.
“Was it a smooth birth?” he asked the midwife.
The woman glanced at Esmerelda, who shook her head.
“Yes, sir,” she lied. “She had less trouble than a cat.”
Esmerelda smiled, almost asleep. “Isn’t she beautiful?”
“Indeed. All your babies are, my dear.”
Although Artemus vowed to return more often to the villa as she grew up, Lilia did not see her father again for a moon-month. This time, when she opened her eyes and burbled at him, he noticed golden flecks in them, and was her skin a little more tawny than before? He shook his head to dislodge the suspicion that wiggled in the back of his brain, but then another moon-month passed, and this time, the baby’s eyes were a color he had never seen either in his family or Esmerelda’s. Light green and flecked with gold, the child turned them on those around her and seemed more interested in studying them than in playing or doing normal baby things. She rarely cried, and when she did, it seemed to bring everyone who heard her to her side before she could take a second breath.
Esmerelda watched as her husband’s doubt grew, and she waited for the confrontation, for him to kick Pietro out and demolish the sand room. Finally, six months after the baby’s birth, he came into her bedroom and shut the door.
“I have a question for you, wife.”
She sat by the window, the baby in a bassinet by her sewing table. “What is it, husband?”
“Lilia. She doesn’t look like anyone in my family. Or in yours.” He stopped and studied Esmerelda’s face. “I don’t think I’ve seen you in this light before.”
“That’s because you only see me at dusk and dawn, husband. Before Pietro came, you spent much more time with me.”
“I see that I have made a grave mistake.”
He shook his head. “One that is too late to unmake. But Pietro has given me so much, it is only fair that he take something in return.”
And with that, he left the room and visited her no more. It’s easy to take revenge, but not easy to see how it will affect your loved ones. Or you.
Dala regarded me with her green eyes, and I looked back at her with mine, also green, and flecked with gold. I nodded, slowly.
“Was the baby…?” I couldn’t finish the sentence.
“No one really knows, Dara. And that is our family secret. Tomorrow, when you turn nine, you will be a woman, and it is your secret to keep and tell your grand-daughter just as I am telling you.”
“Why did you tell me?”
“Because when I die, I didn’t want the secret – and the lessons it holds – to die with me. Your mother refuses to believe it because of what it means for our family.”
A rap on the door startled us both, and I ran to open it. Instead of my mother, who wouldn’t have knocked anyway, my father stood there, still a little dusty from his travels. He had inherited my maternal grandfather’s Senate seat since my mother had no brothers.
“Daddy?” I threw myself into his arms, and he gave me a hug.
“How’s my little princess? Not so little anymore.”
I couldn’t help but think I weighed more with the heaviness of the secret I now carried.
“Good evening, Rena.” He nodded toward my grandmother and let the nurse, who had hovered at his shoulder through.
“Good evening, Jacque,” said Dala. “Please forgive me for not getting up.”
“And please forgive me for not coming closer. I am still dusty and don’t want to make your condition worse.”
“Not much chance of that now. It’s just good to see you again.”
We said our goodbyes, and as we walked home, he told me, “When we get home, I’ll let Nurse help you put on a pretty dress and comb your hair. There’s someone I want you to meet – he came back from the City with me. His father is a Senator from the East Coast.”
The Someone stood at the bottom of the stairs after I had had a bath and Nurse had curled my dark hair into ringlets around my face. He was nice-looking enough with black hair, a slight slant to his almond-brown eyes, tanned skin, and straight, white teeth that showed when he smiled. His attire, all black, showed not a trace of street dust. His aura, strong but a little murky, disturbed me. His was a personality that could swallow a partner, and he had something to hide. My father stood just behind him.
“Lania, this is Chris Jean Mil. He has asked to be your First Suitor.”
My First Suitor? That was the young man I promised to marry when I turned thirteen. My head reeled. This wasn’t supposed to happen yet!
“I have given him permission provided he obtains your consent as well.”
I looked at my father, and he smiled with the corner of his mouth and tapped his temple. I knew that he was aware of my abilities and counted on me to use them to help him with this decision.
“I shall talk with Chris Jean Mil and let you know, father.”
Chris looked surprised and a little angry, but my father smiled and nodded. As he bent to give me a kiss on the cheek, he whispered in my ear, “You will be a great woman like your Dala. Trust your instincts.”
Instinct seemed to be the best way to explain why, after an evening of chitchat, I told Father I didn’t want this particular young man as my First Suitor.
“See, Hortense?” he asked my mother at dinner. “Our girl has a good head on her shoulders. It’s time to stop worrying about this child and concentrate on the next one.”
“He’ll be fine,” I said before thinking. My mother shot me a look of mixed concern and fear. “His light is strong.”
“And your mother?”
“She needs to rest more.”
My mother put her fork beside her plate with enough force that the water glasses jumped. “Ah, so now my daughter is going to be my doctor?”
“She gets it from your side of the family, Hortense.”
“It doesn’t matter where she gets it, Jacque. It’s not right for a girl to have that kind of responsibility.”
I wondered whether she meant my ability or the secret I now held.
“Wherever she gets it, she’s right.”
I slipped from the table so as not to watch them argue, as they had done more and more on Father’s return visits from the city. I pretended to be asleep when they knocked on my door to check on me, but that was the first night of many I tossed and turned until morning.
“I wish I could tell you that the story of Artemus, Esmerelda, Pietro, Leo, and Lilia has a happy ending, Dara.”
“I wish I knew mine did.” My shoulders, back, and feet ached from having to stand straight for three hours for the preliminary sketch for my portrait. Now I sat by Dala’s bed, my cheek on the blanket. “If this is what being a woman is like, I don’t think I want to do this.”
“I understand, Dara.” She caught the tears rolling down my cheek and wiped them on the blanket.
“Next week I have to go away. To the Academy.”
“Then I need to finish the story so you can have the whole truth.”
“I don’t want to go away.”
“Hush, now, and let me finish the tale.”
What could I do? I closed my eyes and listened.
Esmerelda found herself ignored by not just one, but two men, as Pietro did not want to further endanger his position in the household. Artemus, meanwhile, continued to be the leader of the Sand Coven, and between his administrative abilities and Pietro’s magical ones, they performed spells of greater complexity. Artemus learned to travel through the magical sand such that he could go into the middle of the sand spiral in his own Sand Room and appear from the one in his neighbor’s house or anywhere that the enchanted sand existed. One night they went to the desert and spoke with the humans who live in the wastelands. They coaxed the sand to give up its treasures, and they all grew wealthier. Meanwhile, the elemental balance of the town had tipped, and the dust grew worse. It choked the people in the streets and necessitated the development of the masks. Artemus and his cohort invested in these as well and grew even richer as a result. Between the weight of the Earth Magic and the flow of energy routed through the Sand Rooms, it would only take a small event to unbalance everything and lead to catastrophe like a sand castle that is toppled by the vengeful waves.
This small event came one night when the full moon shone on the waters, which lay smooth and glassy like a lake without the tiniest wave. Esmerelda slept upstairs with the children in the bed with her, as she did every night when the men worked their magic. Whether it was to keep them safe or comfort herself, she never told.
Artemus stood in the Sand Room with eight others. Other groups of nine, men from the town and City who had joined the Sand Coven, waited in the other houses. It was the ninth full moon of the year, a night of great power.
Artemus’ words carry on to this day, words that were spoken and brought through the sand to the other rooms and possibly to the other realms:
“Tonight, gentlemen, we expand our powers! On this, the ninth full moon of the year, we shall call forth the Sand People. We shall learn how to control the wind and the waves, not merely be protected from their fury!”
The men applauded, and the working began. The nine-pointed star was traced in the sand of each room, and the men in the other eight rooms chanted to channel power to Artemus and his assistants.
But where was Pietro? He had seen what could happen to a man dizzy with greed and power-lust, and he had vowed to protect the Sand People. He refused to take part in this particular working and instead stole up the stairs to where Esmerelda slept with her children.
“Esmerelda,” he whispered in her ear. “Beautiful star.”
Her eyes fluttered open. “Pietro?”
“We have to leave. Artemus is trying a working that cannot be accomplished. You and the children are in grave danger.”
“And you expect me to believe you? You haven’t spoken to me in weeks.”
His voice held the same longing she’d heard that first night in the kitchen, but she only turned over. “Crawl back into your cave.”
In the Sand Room, a figure appeared in the center of the circle in response to the chanting. It thrilled Artemus to see the mysterious being, its skin golden and its eyes multifaceted emeralds in a thin face. Without breaking the rhythm, he said, “Oh wise one, we have called you, to be here among us, to be our salvation, our teacher, our friend.”
The creature turned its blank eyes toward Artemus. “What would you have me do?”
“Stay with us, teach us, that we may learn control, of wind, of water, that we may be the sand, the rock, that keeps the elements at bay.”
Two of his assistants drew a circle of binding around it. When it tried to exit the sand room and couldn’t, it let forth a roar that shook the whole house.
“Insolent human! You have over-reached your gifts and shall feel the punishment wrought by wind and water.”
Upstairs, Esmerelda sat straight up, and Leo began to cry. Lilia appeared to listen to something only she could hear, and she shook her little hands.
“Pietro,” Esmerelda screamed. He came running from the balcony.
“Look at the water,” he told her.
The smooth path of the moon shattered as the waves grew, each one lapping the shore with greater fury. The wind howled around the house and whipped the sand outside into small dust clouds.
“Come quickly, there’s not much time.” Pietro picked Lilia up.
Together, they gathered the children in their heaviest cloaks and ran down the stairs, but the front door wouldn’t budge.
“What do we do now?” asked Esmerelda. Her husband and the men of the Sand Coven, chased by a whirlwind of sand, burst into the front hallway from the back stairs. Pietro held out his hand. The wind died, and sand settled on all the surfaces.
“What have you done?” asked Pietro, but he knew the answer.
“No worse than you,” Artemus panted. “Is that my daughter in your arms? Or is she yours? Where are you going with my family?” He snatched Leo out of Esmerelda’s arms and held the boy close and out of the reach of his mother, who grabbed for him. Pietro held her arm.
“Artemus, this is not the time for that conversation,” Esmerelda cried. “Oh, give him back to me.”
“I have not broken my promise to the Sand People,” Pietro told him, his voice as cold as the stone of his name. Together he and Esmerelda disappeared with Lilia.
The earth gave a mighty heave, and the glass in the Sand Rooms shattered, spilling the magical sand on to the beach to be swept away by the waves. With another tremor, cracks appeared in the foundations and floors of the houses. The kitchen fires, set free from their hearths, licked at wooden cabinetry and furniture. Artemus and the other members of the Sand Coven tried to break the windows out to escape, but all that was made of sand, even glass, betrayed them.
Artemus looked at Leo, whose cries he could not hear above the roaring of the fire and the shattering of glass, and remorse stabbed his heart. He thought of the neglect he had inflicted on Esmerelda and the danger he had put his beloved first-born in. He thought of Pietro, who had warned him about the hazards of greed and power-lust. He wrapped his cloak around Leo’s face and held him tightly as he tried to travel through the thin film of sand on the floor to safety.
“Would you even now attempt your magic?”
The voice startled him, and he looked up to see the Sand Creature he had summoned.
“I have to save my child.”
“The child was safe with Pietro.”
“Please! Just let him live. Take me instead.”
“Because you are pleading for another, and because you need time to repent of your sins of leading others into danger, you will be spared.”
“And the boy?”
But the creature had disappeared. Artemus found himself outside the house, Leo in his arms, and he ran for the road. The houses toppled, and all perished inside. Artemus found Esmerelda at the inn, where she had rented a room for her and Lilia from the wife of the innkeeper, who died in the fires and earthquake. Pietro disappeared that night, no one knows to where. Leo made it through that night without incident, but he died before the end of the year, one of the first victims of the dust illness.
Lilia grew up an only child, married, and gave birth to a son, who inherited Artemus’ Senate seat. By that time, the taint of the Sand Coven had been forgotten except for a sense of family shame. Lilia found out the story from the Sand Creatures who came and whispered to her in her sleep. The story is now passed from grandmother to grand-daughter, the seers of the family with the golden-flecked eyes. So when you choose your First Suitor, choose wisely. He will be the grandfather of the story’s keeper.
“And that is the end of the story.” Dala smiled, stroked my hair one last time, and closed her eyes. I listened to her breathing slow as she drifted to sleep, out to the sands, to the sea, and to the stars.
I don’t remember much after that until her funeral ceremony at the beach, where my father scattered her ashes over the waves. I stayed behind and watched the sun set over the sea and turn it pink, gold, and purple. The wind pushed at my back and the waves roared in my ears. In that moment between day and night, I saw the houses as they once were, stately villas, all different except for the solid face of glass just behind the dunes. I looked at the sand, the vast expanse of the beach, and wondered if some of the Sand Creatures still lived there and if they kept to themselves in their disgust for humans.
“She was a great lady.” The voice startled me, its resonance carrying through the noise of the wind and the waves. I looked up to see a young man beside me, his silvery hair ruffled in the breeze, and his clothing the color of sand. His eyes, slate grey like the sky just before the storm, looked beyond the dunes to the ruins of the houses.
“You knew her?”
“I knew of her. She had a distant cousin in my tribe. He is too old to travel and sent me to pay the tribe’s respects.”
“In the Central Desert. I haven’t been here since I was a boy,” he continued. “I always liked to come and look at the houses. You know, I can see what they used to look like, before the Great Earthquake.”
“You can see them?”
He shrugged. “All it takes is to look at them the right way. Surely you, with those golden-flecked eyes, can do that.”
“Maybe.” My heart beat faster – here was someone who could do what I could do and wasn’t ashamed of it. His aura shone silver-white and clear.
“You’re the Senator’s daughter, aren’t you? The one newly come to womanhood.”
I nodded. “And you are?”
“My name is Pietro. Of the Sand People of the Central Desert.”
“I’m Lania.” I paused and waved my hand. “Of here.”
“Have you chosen a First Suitor yet?”
I shook my head and blushed.
He laughed. “I probably look like a ragamuffin next to the city boys in their silks, but I would like a chance.”
“Then come by this evening. My parents will be interested to hear of family in the desert.”
“There’s not much to tell, I’m afraid, and I can only be the messenger. But I will be there.”
And with that, he disappeared. He did reappear, as promised, that evening. Even my father liked him, particularly after Pietro helped him to negotiate a treaty with the Desert People for the use of their sand for crystal and glassware, the sand on the beach having been tainted by the ocean. I was happy to have someone who finally understood me and my abilities, and although my Dala’s passing left a large hole in my life, Pietro has given me so much more.
So, Dara, that is how I met your grandfather, and how you have those silver-golden eyes that see things that others can’t. Now you are the keeper of the family secret, that wealth and power should be treated carefully, and we are nothing but sand in the end.
Thank you for reading The Sand Room! I hope you enjoyed it. Since I may publish it someday as part of a collection, please let me know if you have any feedback. Thanks!