Our Lady of the Sands
by Susannah Mandel
They say Our Lady of the Sands first showed herself on a seashore. The people there venerated her, and prayed to her for fair winds. She was kind to them, and when the storms came, she stood on the point in the rain-lashed darkness and shed her light over the sea to guide lost fishermen home.
Then something happened. Maybe she was displaced by another Lady, arrived in the traders’ ships, or maybe by an usurper risen from the sea. Whatever it was, Our Lady of the Sands fled inland — away from the fishing coasts, across the farmlands, over the corrugated goat-bleating mountains — and inward to the desert.
Once Our Lady was peaceful. Now she has gone bad. She brings sandstorms, and the people fear her.
The oasis folk will tell you this story — though you may be surprised by the calm in their faces. After all, the oasis people lead modern lives, with their date farms and their televisions. They keep up the shrines, but if you ask them what Our Lady really does, they will probably shrug. Sand in the air conditioner? A hard time starting the truck?
The caravan merchants have more to say. They maintain their traditions, even if today they drive ATVs instead of camels, and they will tell you the warnings and tales. Watch for Our Lady’s shadow: a threatening figure on the horizon, a woman veiled in curtains of flying dust. She tails behind her the simoom, the haboob, the khamsin. Once folded inside, you will never find your way out.
In the end, of course, if you wanted the real story about Our Lady, you would have to go to the nomads. It’s too bad they are such a private people. For the stories they tell about Our Lady are different again. They too center on sandstorms, yes, and on someone lost as the terrible wind whips up, the dust rising to choke off sound, light, breath.
But at the end of their stories, sometimes the lost person is found again. What they recount is always the same. A sense of being caught up in arms, clutched, for a few minutes or endless hours, to a blowing heart. A seeking, as of reaching back toward a home where they have never been. And in their noses an unfamiliar tang: the strange, salty, lost smell of the sea.