The Sandpits of Ris-Klyda
We who live with the great pits—with them, the way we live with one another—know that they are real. We know because we’ve lost blood and bone, because it is our hair and shredded clothing left too deep in the earth. Because we wake to them, fall asleep to them, their whirs, their winds. In the street, we tell jokes about them; as we sweep the floors of our homes, we curse them. Their sandstorms leave us with less water to drink; we walk the fields of destroyed plantings and immediately start looking for animals that have died. The wake of a sandpit is smoke and dried meat, and salted thirst on the tongue.
Time has been slowing, the world getting tired. In the Age of Firstborn, sandpits formed quickly, a new pit every Thirty-Sun, but over the years they have started to quiet. We wait two years, five years, twelve years. We are always waiting, but they always return. The earth’s anger resurfaces just when we have resigned ourselves to its sleep.
The years of the sandpits have been times of loss for our country. Fewer travelers and traders have come to Ris-Klyda following the destruction of the Great Roads. Our histories have been recorded, but outside of our country those histories are only occasionally recounted as fact. The pits become “raised cyclones in the sky,” or horned beasts, or a country-wide hallucination. Some travelers come to us terrified, expecting at any moment to be swallowed whole, as if a pit could open right underneath them. When they arrive, they find nothing but desert, and pits like funnels of moving sand.
Without the technology we have developed, the sandpits, upon formation, would grow, grow, widen and inhale us. We fight them, and this is another legend that has transformed beyond our land: the sand-divers of Ris-Klyda. It is divers who enter newborn pits, who descend and plant a star made of metal and fire and magic in the heart of the earth. This star is a machine, and this machine is called a core. The core opens, and through mechanics and magic it counters the current of a pit, slowing it and stalling its growth. Some pits may be stalled by one diver, but others take a team of five, trained in tournaments and diving schools. The magic that fuels the core is the basis of all our technologies. It is born in our bodies, belonging to us truly, and in recent years it has taken the name Fluidity. Only some are born with it; the number is diminishing like the sandpits.
These sands are our home, our legacy. They are also our enemy. And what begins a pit, goads it? How did the first pit form in a desert that was only desert?
The stormreaders have their theories, the earthreaders another. The Beloved of the Innermark sip clearwater and discuss the theories. But the truth of how and why a sandpit comes into existence is a silence that yawns over us. The sands of Ris-Klyda loosen and begin to move with the unconscious aggression of a child waking in the morning, and nobody, nobody knows why.
I begin this document with a secret. My secret, which feels like mine, locked in what was once my throat, though it is everyone’s secret. This secret was our lineage; there were those among us meant to protect it. But in protecting it, we failed to protect the world from a force that would shatter it.
So here is the truth: we know. We have known the origins of the first sandpit since we first became a people, and we thought it was our place in the larger spiral of things to keep our silence. Now our new charge is to tell.
In the way of the Grainmark, in the tradition of our storytelling, you will understand the beginning when you see the end. I will tell you how the pits began. I will tell you how I can be sure that they are gone and will not come again, that this time you will wait and continue waiting. This is the story of the greatest and final sandpit. We begin and end at once.
In the eastern desert of Ris-Klyda, a woman walked alone at dawn between bone-smooth layers of sandstone. She had left her home and told no one she was leaving, which meant that forty minutes spent walking the cliff road felt like forty minutes all her own, the sky a ragged snake above. An hour past dawn, she emerged from the final portal, where the cliffs broke down into a rock-strewn valley. The landscape sprang as if from empty space before her, inventing itself, inventing its own color. She leaned back against stone that warmed the length of her spine.
In the center of the valley, a jagged rock cradle sat in the foreground of the Laex-kusai mountains. A sandpit called Ropering had formed within that cradle ten years before her birth, a mouth between the roughness of two lips. Ropering was the largest sandpit in all the east regions, and long ago it had been stalled. But even its stalled current was notoriously fast and dense, a prime training ground for divers. She couldn’t see the pit from where she stood, but she could clearly see the Ropering Dive-Circus, the stadium built up around it, a skeleton of wood and metal and stone built into the rock.
For a moment the desert was quiet, all sound passing on the wind.
Then a tournament sandshift shot out from the desert to her right, a streak of sound and dust; pebbles shuddered, and more sandshifts appeared, three convoys, and she knew now that there would be no quiet. The day was beginning, the tournament beginning. If she wanted quiet, she would have to turn back.
Her instinct was to take the black mask that dangled in her right hand and put it on, so that anyone who passed by wouldn’t see her face. A curtain of hair blew across her eyes. Once she put on the mask, her identity would vanish, and she would see everything from behind a screen. The thought of that anonymity dropped a stone of sadness through her, and she continued to stand with her face bare to the wind.
This woman was Daneli Cahlrys, and this was the first moment she had truly envisioned for herself. Now that it had come, she felt an all-over tingling, as if cold brushed her body. Fear took her, sudden as the view. She could turn back now and run all the way home, but she knew that if she did, nothing would ever happen.
A snakegreen diving rope called Élan stirred at her waist. Dan stroked its fibers, grateful for a friend. She put on the mask and walked forward into a newly darkened world.
Dan had been trying to enter the High-Sun Tournament for four years, since she’d first reached the competitive age of sixteen. As tournaments passed by, she started to believe what Vaali had told her: that the women’s lottery was a lie, a formality. And so, this year, her twentieth, she had entered her diving times under a false name in the men’s lottery. Within days the name was drawn and crossed her town’s Writwall in a sequence of light, no one knowing that the name was hers. She had carried the news home with her, her joy private, a light only she could see. She had no plan beyond disguise. She could see nothing but the dive. Her first tournament.
Crossing the field, Dan arrived at a swept lot where sandshifts were stationed. All around her, planes of light at the base of each shift dimmed, and the machines, which had hovered and skimmed over disappearing roads, settled on the ground. Most had two seats—one driver, one rider. Some of the barracks, though, had hired four-seat shifts, which Dan had never seen before. She stopped to watch these teetering to the ground. The disembarking divers also stopped to watch her, clearly a smallschool diver who had wandered into the wrong field. She walked quickly to the edge of the yard. The entry portal was cut from rock. Stadium shadows knotted and crossed her as she entered a rising tunnel.
On the first level, Dan was surrounded by pockets of movement and stagnancy. Divers from the four barracks congregated with their brothers, laughing, strategizing, standing with their masks off and ropes draped and twitching on their shoulders. They dressed in orange, red, blue, or white. Every rope had its own color, and so the stadium was spotted with yellow, swarming with green, run through with veins of blue.
Dan felt blank when faced with such color. She had never seen a stadium during a tournament, only empty and from far away, when sunlight wrapped and broke through the framework. Now wood planks groaned beneath her, bearing the weight of hundreds of bodies.
She looked up. A shock of sunlight passed through two beams, right into her eyes, and some excitement shocked her too. Someone barged past, but Dan held steady. She had found the space within her where no strangers shoved and no sand flew.
Ropering. Today she would think of it as her sandpit. It lay in the center of the stadium, moving coherent as a muscled body, immense, intact, a cyclone chasing its own tail. It could hold a quarter of Dan’s town. She pictured it, the huddled houses of her childhood, neatly inserted.
Random applause thundered from the dive level, and Dan watched from the dock. Above her, a diver walked out onto one of five platforms. He wore Eastbarracks orange, the color of sand and sky, and stood alone and monumental. He carried a tournament diving core tucked under his arm, round as a playing ball, its interlocking plates glinting bright.
This was a Stalldive. Throughout the day, divers would participate in three events, each a different formation: Flagdive, Lineflag, and Stalldive. Flagdive was a full group formation, and Lineflag a pair formation, so only in Stalldive did one diver enter alone. The hero-dive. Every tournament opened with a champion performing a Stalldive, installing his core directly into the heart of the pit, diving all the way to the fourth perimeter by himself, to the knotted, rough bottom-sands.
Dan watched his preparation. His black rope tethered itself to the dive post, fibers humming with magic, and the post glowed in response. Once secure, the diver bounced light on his toes, extended his free arm to a guiding point above his head, and then, with a kick of the platform, he was up, airborne, arching his body into the sun, then folding himself into a line; with head and core tucked, he streaked past her to enter the sand.
Dan’s first event was Flagdive. The dive level was the third of the stadium, with audience boxes above. She couldn’t see the audience; to her, they filled a dense darkness, the whole dive level pounding with their voices and movement. She had been assigned to the first platform by the stairs, meaning she would dive first in the formation.
When Dan arrived, she found two tournament dive-watchers bracketing a waist-high gate. They were nearly identical men wearing neutral brown, but one had black eyes, the other green. The green-eyed man handed her the tournament core. At home, Dan trained with old, dead cores that her father had scrubbed clean of rust; even her father, who designed cores, rarely had access to new ones. When he did, he deconstructed them immediately, gleaming parts scattered through the house, dangerous to bare feet. This core was new. It shone in her arms and harmed no one.
She walked onto the platform, which felt too thin. How could it hold her? And how could she hold or understand the sky she now approached? Dan spent most of her days running across low, hunched dunes, and now she stood level with the clouds.
Élan braided onto the dive post as she passed, securing her, and the glow of Fluidity began as rope and post made contact. The magic traced a familiar light along her skin. Around the stadium, four other competitors assembled on their own platforms, the divers who would enter the pit in sequence after her. All five would work together, competing individually for time, speed, and correct installation.
Smallschool divers wore wingarb as Dan did, layered and dyed softthread that wound the body. These were cheap and easy to make, an older style of suit and so different from the flythread barracks suits, which moved against the body smooth as liquid. Wingarb, however, had the advantage of hiding Dan’s body. Under cross-cut layers, a band wrapped her chest. Like all divers, she had been rendered faceless by the dark of her mask.
Coiling color as all their ropes unwound.
Somewhere, a man holding a horn spoke into the horn. The diver to her left stretched and watched her. Élan gave the first impulse, a vibration that shuddered along the length of its fibers, and a thought swept into Dan, that maybe she wasn’t ready for any of it. A countdown began: four chimes. The second impulse. Dan positioned the core and raised her left arm, allowing her rope to wrap her body, and then the final impulse—
And at once the air seemed like something she could enter. Her body filled the sky. Below her, Ropering waited, and from where she fell it looked like a clean spiral, a self-contained design. It approached her, quickly, until the current of sand met her fingers.
Some say the sensation of being inside a sandpit is a combination of flying while being beaten. But once the diver enters correct form, the flight is a surrendered, perfect glide. This is called entering the “pocket” of a sand perimeter. Dan loved this moment, when her turbulent body suddenly went still and the current cradled her. Ropering was the largest pit Dan had ever entered, but the first perimeter sands felt gentle, kinder than the erratic pebbled sands of her town. Dan kept her body aligned. Sand glanced off her diving mask. As the first Flagdiver, she needed to break the third perimeter, get to a quadrant point and drop her core at the correct angle.
Dan had feared entering a pit so large, but now she reveled in the size of the first perimeter. It gave her time to decide how she would break into the second. As gravity pulled her down, she felt the sands start to change and knew the moment was coming. Her best perimeter break was a quarter-turn, in which she bent her body and tipped minimally before propelling forward and down. For larger pits, the half-turn was safer. More difficult, but the move put less pressure on the arms and more on the torso, which could sustain the beating. She would have to curl her body fetal, twist upside down, then elongate fully in deeper sand.
The end of the surface sands came, and Dan swung herself in a half-turn. The moment felt instinctive, and she elongated easily within the second perimeter. It was one of the fastest breaks she’d ever executed, she knew it. The grittier, denser sand now carried her, the cradle tightening. This new embrace would last a shorter cycle, given the funnel shape of the pit.
Many divers panicked while descending perimeters. The mounting pressure could cloud the ears, tighten the throat, and some had to fight the sensation of being buried alive, of entering a space of immobility. Dan had never felt such fear. As she moved deeper, she calmed. Her focus increased. Her body welcomed the heavier touch. The next half-turn felt even faster and she broke again, into the third.
She couldn’t wait for Stalldive. She couldn’t wait to go all the way down. Dan wanted to know the darkest depths where she could hear the earth speak.
The core began to heat as it neared its position. Dan counted, for she had memorized the layout of the pit and knew when to drop the machine.
Three, two, one. She switched the latch.
The core engaged slightly, its plates expanding. She tilted herself out of the pocket, to the outer edge, and slammed the core into the stagnant sand that surrounded the pit. Behind the mask, she couldn’t watch the core engage fully, but she knew it was happening. The plates would anchor deep. The core would start to spin. Above, judges would measure the change in current, and the second Flagdiver would prepare for entry.
Dan’s role in this dive was complete. She slid herself back into the pocket, wrapped her rope in hand, and gave the impulse. The rope and dive-watchers started to pull, and she angled herself to cleanly exit, up, up, up, until she saw the sun.
A film of sand fell from her when she tumbled back onto the platform. In her periphery, she saw the second diver cut through the air. Dan blinked through disorientation. She heard a drone of voices and cheers as she stood, supported by the arms of her dive-watchers.
Her false name—she would never remember it after that day—passed through the wavering amplification of the horn. Her vision teetered into place. Élan was collected, wound, and placed in her arms. She held him near her waist until he coiled around her like a belt.
The black-eyed dive-watcher handed her something now: a gleaming token that landed in her palm. She read the reflective words on the surface:
High-Sun Tournament. Event Entrance. STALLDIVE.
For the rest of the Flagdive, Dan wandered the stadium, running her thumb over the token and daydreaming.
It was a familiar fantasy. She imagined herself looking out over a crowd, gathered in the valley for the award ceremony. They would ask her to remove her mask and she would. She would say her name, her voice ringing clear, and it would be her true name, spoken without shame or apology.
In reality, Dan rarely had the confidence to speak her name. If that moment came, she would probably shrink. She would burn with double shame: the shame of the disguise and the shame of having imagined something different. In the most honest version of reality, Dan knew that if she placed in the tournament, she would probably run away.
Like a being of light and air, she would run away. Too quick to be seen. The mystery of her identity on their lips. Anything could become a fantasy.
Dan looked down, cupped the token, and smiled. Everything would begin in this moment. As she re-read the words, she was almost aware of it.
A Stalldiver trained without a team. A Stalldiver entered alone. Divers of great speed, endurance, and maneuverability became Stalldivers. Since childhood, since her father had first spread diagrams on the floor in front of her crossed legs and explained the diving formations, Dan had wanted nothing else.
She decided to fill the time before her Stalldive at ground level. Once the tournament began, vendors had arrived to set up stands in the open field, and the smell of smoked meat rose, wrapped in spice. There would be fruit water too. Dan felt she could swallow a mountain, like her body hid emptiness and she had to fill it all somehow.
The first level had nearly cleared. As Dan neared the tunnel that cut back down to the valley, she felt prickly with heat, the diving mask distressingly tight on her face. A burning in her cheeks, an itch in her scalp, and suddenly, she was uncomfortable enough to stop walking. The mask itched. She wanted it off. Disturbed, she drifted to the edge where she could lean on a short wall and look out over Ropering. The pit kicked up dust, welcomed the body of a diver in blue as she leant against wood and tried to scratch her face. Her breath quickened. The desperation to remove the mask started to overwhelm. Why was she afraid? Why did she feel imprisoned? Why was she so afraid?
Dan looked around. No one too close, or too interested. She stripped the mask partially back so that it still hid her hairline. Her senses assaulted her, the spice-scent pungent and dank, the sun impossible in its brightness. Some strands of hair were stuck to her forehead by sweat, and as Dan went to tuck them away, she touched something impossible: her hair glowed. She blinked. It glowed, the same light as the dive post. Magic. Her magic. Her Fluidity.
Terrified, she shoved the strands into the mask, knowing that it couldn’t be true, that she hadn’t called on her Fluidity, that this was the place of greatest consequence.
To ignite magic within a pit was a great danger. Women were no longer banned from diving, just discouraged, and if her gender were discovered, there would be some consequence. But the Fluid were banned completely, the consequences far greater. Dan had not feared this because her magic only came to her when she wanted, and now she had not called, but here it was. The light of Fluidity manifested in hair, and hers burned, red, alight.
The sights and smells and sounds of the stadium came to her heightened, sharpened. Those meat smells— they weren’t close enough to smell as specific as they did. A whispered conversation was happening farther down the walkway than she’d imagined. Dan tried to shut her Fluidity away, but it resisted, and the resistance frightened her more, and she started looking everywhere, looking and looking, but what for, she didn’t know. It felt as if she had lost someone in the crowd, and was shot through with the anxiety of finding them.
Then she looked directly across the open mouth of the pit. Standing level with her on the other side of the Dive-Circus, she saw him: the diver in orange. The Stalldiver who had opened the tournament. He stood opposite her across the gap, and she knew by the way her magic directed her attention and seemed to hold her head in place that this was the person she had been seeking.
He stared straight at her, unmasked.
Due to sharpening in her vision, Dan could make out the diver’s features. The thin body that had streamed past her, long fingers that had twined in the air, his skin black, skin-of-deepest-night, contrasting the orange suit. He broke their gaze, looked left, then right, then back. His mannerisms bore the quickness and focus of a huntbird, and he had the long neck to match. A shaft of light created a line from the center of his forehead to his chin. The slit of a scar underlined his left eye.
And then the eyes. Aimed directly at a target, measured as if he were counting. He had magic too, but it wasn’t his hair issuing light. It was his eyes. Not a pattern or trick of the sun but a glow steady as her own.
Dan knew this image. It came from stories. From a history colored by blood. A lost, forgotten thing, the sister to Fluidity: Perception. The magic of the mind.
The moment she recognized Perception, Dan backed away. She turned and when she reached the tunnel she started to run, careful to work against her Fluidity, which wanted to carry her faster than feet should carry. She ran past the vendors to a line of sandshifts that waited, their drivers sun-baked, lazing and talking. When she arrived, they asked if she was aware that there would be no transport back to the Dive-Circus that day. Dan said yes, and the Stalldive ripped from her future and then she was gone, riding a machine that cut through the air. She wore her mask again, and it pressed close, salted and streaked wet.
I began writing Blindsand nine years ago, having just left the desert for the first time. The story began with a dream in which divers wearing bright, fitted colors entered tornadoes in the earth, but I couldn’t see what happened once they disappeared. When I woke, I was left with the imagery and with a sense of urgency, a feeling that I had to hide. From this strange desperation came the character of Daneli and the world of Ris-Klyda.
I have always loved fantasy for its heroes, its archetypes and moral battles, the way it speaks to my daydreams. However, I also came to fantasy through a love of ecology. The long walking passages in J. R. R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, which detail a threatened landscape, never bored me. The sensory experience felt essential. Middle-earth is a place of trees and water, and when I started writing Blindsand, I realized that I was writing a book in which the desert I grew up in could be the setting for fantasy. My writing was also haunted by another series from childhood, Anne McCaffrey’s Dragonriders of Pern, in which the central conflict is man vs. nature and the planet’s society is structured against ecological threat. This kind of conflict is crucial to Blindsand.
On my desert stage, I wanted to place characters who lived in the undefined and repressed zones of society. It took me years to understand that I was trying to write my own experience as a woman of color without a tribe. I grew up half-Cuban, half-Peruvian in Albuquerque, surrounded by people who looked like me but did not share my cultural identities. Only through family, solitude, and natural space did I start to find an understanding of who I was. And so Daneli moves through her world trying to understand herself as a woman, a diver, a magic-user, a daughter. The other characters in the book also try to locate themselves within a history largely lost and unspoken.
Blindsand is a tale both of Dan’s transformation and of a society nearing collapse. It begins in a time when the great, destructive sandpits of Ris-Klyda seem to be disappearing and when fewer magic-users are being born, meaning less energy is available to fuel the country’s widespread magic technology. It takes an unveiling of Ris-Klyda’s forgotten history and a confrontation with one final sandpit to start the restructuring of a society that has harmed its own people for years. I wanted to write a book that explores the realities of large-scale structural change without skipping over the loss, confusion, and decentralized labor involved in that change. A new pit threatens Dan’s home, and through her hero’s journey she gains the allies and tools needed to confront it. Once the pit is defeated, however, Dan must change, and her world must change, and part of change is grief.
This book is a manuscript in progress. It is my love letter to the desert and to the science-fantasy genre, as well as an exploration of self.
Sara Rivera lives in Albuquerque, New Mexico. She is a Cuban/Peruvian writer, artist, translator, and educator, with previous publications in both poetry and speculative fiction.
Embark, Issue 5, July 2018