Art Pact 267 - Dust Storm

Four-fifty in the afternoon, and a black cloud of sand and dust rolled over the city, sending the inhabitants scurrying indoors. Shop shutters rolled down, windows slammed, flues were closed and those few unfortunates who had nowhere to go hunkered down in place and pulled fabric over their mouths in the hope of keeping at least the big particles out.

Joseph Anonde, who had known about storm for ten minutes before its lazily violent arrival, was counting out the money from his till at the front of his shop, every few seconds peering out through a little window he'd made out of clear wine bottles and had set into the front wall of the building.

"Can you see anyone?" said a voice behind him.

"No-one," said Joseph. "It's thick out there, like the worst night ever."

"Ha, man doesn't know about how bad nights can get," said another voice. "Man has a shop and all the money in town."

"Man has a name," Joseph said, not looking away from his window.

"Show a little gratitude," said the first voice. "You want to be out there in this?"

"To soon to tell," said the second voice. "Too soon to tell."

Joseph turned away from the window and looked at his two guests. He had had a phone call from his sister in the next town over. The dust cloud had come on them first, and she had promised to call when it passed by. It had been twenty minutes since the phone call, and his sister said it had taken her five minutes to get everything together before she called him. That meant that the storm was likely to be a long one. When he got the call he'd rushed outside to begin pulling down the shutters, and to start calling to the other people in the street, hoping that the noise of his commotion would attract the attention of others and the story would spread throughout the town. He had waved in Solomon, the beggar who had set up on the far side of the road, and then he'd spotted something else - a bundle of clothes and rags tucked into the old blocked-up doorway that had used to lead into the Delfino family's house before they had fled town and it had been turned into temporary offices for the bureaucrats who ran the market. Calling Solomon to help him, he'd partially unwound the bundle to find a woman within - young, her face ravaged by pox, with a thick stench of hashish on her skin and robes.

"Get off me!" she said, her words slurred and with a thick southern accent. She batted at his hands and he withdrew them.

"We have to get you off the street, sister," said Joseph. "There's a dust storm coming. If we don't get you inside you might die."

"What are you talking about, man?"

"It's true," said Solomon. "You have to get inside."

"I'll give you something to eat and drink," Joseph said, as though that were a novelty rather than just what anyone would do under the circumstances. "Come in, sister, please." There was something strange about the woman, something that made him feel he was talking to an alien rather than to another human.

"Man is not my brother," said the woman darkly.

"Please," he begged. "If you're outside..."

She came, eventually, although she insisted on staying at the door until the dust cloud was visible, in case it was a trick that the two men had concocted together to take advantage of her.

#

Joseph and his two guests ate in silence. Joseph had eaten a big lunch, so just sat and drank and nibbled at the edge of a piece of bread so as to appear sociable. Solomon and the woman, on the other hand, seemed almost to be inhaling the food that Joseph had arranged for them, throwing it down their throats almost without swallowing. Joseph felt terrible sympathy for the woman, and a strong guilt towards Solomon. If circumstances had been otherwise (if the man had been begging on another street, for instance), Joseph would have given him money, seen to it that the beggar was fed at least, but he had ignored Solomon's makeshift bed on the opposite side of his street in the hope that the beggar would move on more quickly. It was not good for business to have the homeless nearby, not with the rich at any rate. Joseph sold to everyone, of course, but he was quick to admit that the bulk of his profits, the money he actually lived on, came from the richer customers and their exotic tastes: apples, raspberries, fruit so unsuited for the local climate that they were almost impossible to grow and therefore commanded high prices.

Now he saw that he had done the man a bad disservice. Solomon's arms were free from their robes, and Joseph could see just how thin they were - mere sticks whose joints bulged out comically at the elbows and hands. Out on the street Solomon had been an unfortunate irritation for him, but sitting in the shop, his back to a shelf covered in cans of powdered coconut milk the beggar had become a person again, a person that Joseph had to his shame neglected. This is how it begins, thought Joseph to himself, the process of becoming one of the rich. You forget that the man is a man, and slowly and surely you turn him into an enemy, or a nothing. Then the only thing left is you, and your desires eating away at you.

"Have more cakes," he said, reaching down a packet of sweet tarts from the counter behind him. He fumbled off the paper wrapping and pushed the tray towards Solomon and then the woman. Solomon grabbed one immediately - the woman much more cautiously, as with everything she ate. First she looked at the sweet, then up at Joseph for a long stare through suspicious eyes, as if she were trying to read his soul and see whether there were lies or tricks within it. Finally she took one of the tarts, but she did not eat it until she had seen Solomon take another one, and even then she only took a small bite at first.

Joseph found the woman's stare unnerving, and her reluctance to eat slightly insulting, but he said nothing. He made an extra effort, after that, to drink first from each new kettle of tea he made, so that she could see that there was nothing wrong with it. It was the tea that led to the revelation.

#

When the storm had been going on for forty minutes and there was still no phone call from his sister, Joseph heated up the kettle again and brewed fresh tea with it, cutting slices of lime to go in everyone's cup. The woman, who had been silent since her earlier cryptic prognostication, reached out to take the cup nearest her when the twist of cloth that had kept the sleeve of her robe closed fell open to reveal the inside of her elbow. It was a shocking pale colour, like bleached flour. She quickly wrapped it up again, but the damage was done - Joseph realised that the strangeness of the woman was not to do with her personality but to do with her face and hands. He had thought the colour of them was natural, but now he could see that it was more dirt than tan. He forced himself to look away, and saw that Solomon was staring open-mouthed at where the woman's arm had been. He saw it too, he thought.

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