It was the last caravan of the giant season. Though the United Company had already started to build the railroad toward the End of the World, the path of iron and wood reached only as far as Halvington. Unlike the other drivers, I realized that the era of salt wagons was coming to an end.
Perhaps Elai had expected the railroad to be ready to take her to find answers to all her existential questions. With pale hair and gray eyes, she looked about eighteen, definitely not a day older. She wore a full-length leather coat, buttoned all the way up to her chin, and boots that looked too new to be yet comfortable. Even so, when she glided down Halvington’s main street, the scrawny miners and shaggy railroad workers alike rushed to tip their hats, and some even bowed.
She noticed none of that.
“I want to buy a one-way ticket to the End of the World,” Elai said to me, her pleasant voice a disturbing breeze from the past I’d thought forever left behind.
My camel-oxen, Edison and Beat, stared at her just as I did. Every inch of her shouted of a pedigree long enough to make me dizzy, the way her mouth shaped words, how she expected to be listened to and obeyed.
“It’s cheaper to buy a round-trip,” I said, rubbing the snouts of my beasts. Edison calmed soon enough, but Beat kept on snorting. He’d never smelled anything as fine as Elai’s perfume, and the scent of lilies confused him. “There’s not much to see at the End of the World.”
“Like I care,” Elai said, the simple words akin to a foreign language. A flicker of emotion escaped to her face, but she tilted her head so that her hat’s wide brim prevented me from interpreting the expression.
“Fine then,” I said, as arguing with an aristocrat was an act doomed to fail. If she wanted to escape some hell of her own making, then who was I to try and stop a paying customer? “Stay with my wagon, don’t lag, and don’t try to steal extra portions of water. In the desert the word of a wagon driver is the law.”
We started the eleven-week journey the next day, my wagon full of water crates and paid parcels. Edison and Beat waddled, slow and heavy with all the water they’d absorbed from the communal mud puddles. The families and the loners hoping to find something better than what they’d abandoned pranced after the wagon, still enthusiastic about the journey.
Elai started to limp as soon the caravan left the valley where Halvington slumped under the ever-thick blanket of coal smoke. The assorted loners tried to strike up conversation with her one after another, only to be firmly dismissed:
“Where am I from? From beyond the sea.”
“Where am I going? To the End of the World.”
“Is there someone waiting for me back at home? That is not for you to worry about.”
Her evasive replies bored me, and so I stared at the scenery instead. This close to the city, the inevitable wastewater gave life to tufts of grass and twisted cacti that stuck out from amidst the dunes. The sand might have contained a few grains of salt, but not enough to warrant efforts to collect it. The wind came in gusts that were pleasant compared to the gales that often met the caravans.
As the day progressed, those who really intended to settle at the End of the World started to lag behind. Children tugged at their parents’ coattails, tiring already under their bundles. It would take the settlers a few days to decide it wasn’t worth the bother to carry all the materialized memories of their old lives with them. Children would abandon their toys, wives their diaries, husbands their medals.
I halted my wagon to wait for them. Elai used the opportunity to rest and sat down on the sand. Much to my surprise, she pulled off her boots and socks in a most unladylike manner.
Blisters covered her toes, and her raw heels glistened in painful shades of red. I was sure she would start complaining, but instead she simply redonned the socks and boots. Perhaps that was why I took pity on her.
“Hop on, girl,” I murmured. She would be nothing but trouble, a hindrance if her feet got infected.
“I can walk, thank you very much,” Elai said, too proud to accept help.
“Fine,” I answered, annoyed at myself for having offered her help in the first place. I flicked the reins, and Edison and Beat resumed their slow waddle. To avoid awkward conversation, I started singing. “There’s a long road ahead of us. Where does it take me? Where, oh where?”
Perhaps back in the Old World Elai had found herself indebted to someone and had fled to avoid having to pay. Or perhaps she’d broken her heart and her parents’ trust. Or perhaps … but her problems were none of my business. She’d made that clear enough.
“It’s not the miles I travel that change me. No, my friend, it’s not the miles …”
I realized that someone was humming the melody. I glanced over my shoulder, but there was no one near me but Elai. She clenched her mouth shut, but didn’t stop humming.
I sang louder, even thought both Edison and Beat put back their ears, “In the end it’s only the time that matters, the days and weeks that we leave behind …”
The caravan halted only when the night fell. The other drivers and I circled our wagons protectively around the campsite and unharnessed our camel-oxen. The beasts would return after enjoying the scarce night mist and scarcer morning dew, as they were bound to whoever had captured and tamed them. Even so, being apart from Edison and Beat for the night pained me.
As the temperature dropped, Elai joined the rest of us around the fire. She didn’t seem to notice how she attracted more looks than was good for her, how the loners edged closer to her, how those on the other side of the fire joked about who would charm her first. She just stared at the sparks disappearing into the night above as though nothing else existed but her and the desert.
I found myself thinking about the Old World and the over-polite ways of the aristocrats. Evidently, Elai couldn’t even begin to grasp how rough life could get outside private schools and ballrooms. As she shrugged her narrow shoulders and tilted her pretty head this and that way, the loners thought she was only acting hard to get.
They wouldn’t take her “No” for long.
I fell victim to the gallantry that still twisted in my veins and made my way to her. “Come with me,” I said, pointing toward my wagon.
She stared at me suspiciously, and I was glad to note she wasn’t as foolish as I’d thought. Then she stood, brushed sand off her trousers. “Sure.”
“What is it?” Elai asked as soon as we were out of earshot. Her teeth chattered, which only seemed to annoy her more.
An aristocrat would never listen to explanations, so I went right to the point. “You’d better sleep under the wagon with me tonight.”
She took my words the wrong way, and her voice rose a full octave. “I certainly will not! Abandon me in the desert if you will, but I will not grant that kind of favor to anyone, least of all a rude old wagoner like you!”
Old? I could be but a decade older than her. Then again, the desert had shaped me a rougher man.
She was about to leave, so I grabbed her hand. She froze, shocked by my apparent lack of manners. It didn’t even cross her mind that I might have known etiquette by heart but opted to act against the rules on purpose.
“Before you turn down my offer, which was by no means meant as you chose to interpret it, look at those men around the campfire,” I said in a low voice. ”Really look at them.”
She pulled her hand free, but did as I said. There, amongst the ragged families, sat the men hoping to find a place where no questions were asked: pistol heroes, fugitives, adventurers down on their luck.
“Would you rather have them thinking you’re sharing your bedroll with me, or have them trying to approach you every single night of the trip?”
“Fine,” she muttered, blushing at the idea of being so close to me. She hadn’t broken her heart, then, I decided, but was escaping something. “I will sleep next to you, but nothing else.”
I watched her limp back to the campfire. She wasn’t the kind who knew how to thank.
I had been like her before I shot my best friend.
The next day, I invited Elai to ride in the wagon with me. Contrary to what I’d expected, she climbed up and sat beside me. I didn’t bother her with meaningless chitchat—she wasn’t interested in my company. For her, my wagon was just one more bead in the insignificant necklace of the caravan coiling across the red desert. For me, it was all I had.
A week into the journey, we passed the first village, a cluster of a dozen or so giant-hide tents. Elai stared at the indigenous Lasuo people, a sad frown forming on her flawless forehead. The black-haired, tanned men in the fields waved us a greeting, then resumed working. They knew the caravan would buy salt only on the way back.
“What do you think of the railroad?” Elai asked, breaking the silence that she normally preferred. Her gaze lingered on the women grinding maize and children hiding behind their backs. I could guess what she was thinking—the world was changing, and in a year or two the village would become just a fading memory.
“What is there to think about it?” I asked nevertheless. When the railroad finished, there would be no need for caravans. The Lasuo families would flee deeper into the desert as soon as they saw the first steam-screaming locomotives. They would be wise to do so.
Elai pursed her lips as she did her best to ignore the personal belongings abandoned in the sand. She failed. The caravan road was full of buried treasures, items that had once held importance for someone, only to become nonessential. Tattered photographs peeked from under the rocks; the pages of full diaries rustled in the breeze. The Lasuos never touched what they thought belonged to us, even though our kind never returned the service.
“Doesn’t it make you sad?” she asked. She’d buried her hands in the folds of her coat, and as she wrung her fingers, the leather creaked. “To see the world so diminished in size, to see it all become the same.”
I flicked the reins, though Edison and Beat were keeping up a good pace. There were still untouched deserts beyond the horizon, lands where the Lasuos could live undisturbed. When the railroad was ready, I would follow them. I didn’t want my past to catch up with me. “The world isn’t disappearing anywhere.”
Elai shook her head. At that moment she looked immensely guilty.
Three weeks into the journey, Elai’s guilt had bloomed to full-scale melancholy. She often hummed to herself, the melodies intricate, perfectly memorized. I didn’t tell her I recognized the overtures and arias. There was no reason for her to know that we shared a common upbringing.
That day we were traveling along a ledge extending over another expanse of desert. The sun scorched ceaselessly down on us, and the hides of my camel-oxen were hot enough to fry bacon. Even so, Edison and Beat had more than enough water left in their humps for the rest of the way.
“Halt,” came the shout from farther ahead in the caravan.
I pulled the reins, drawing my pistol. Though, since I’d become a wagoner, I hadn’t had to fire even once. The camel-oxen obeyed only their drivers, the outlaws knew better than to try their luck.
“Wait here,” I told Elai nevertheless.
She didn’t argue. Then again, a society girl like her expected men to act all gallant and duel to resolve the tiniest of disagreements. They never thought what killing a friend in a drunken stupor did to a man.
Haunted by the dark memories, I left her in the care of Edison and Beat.
A wagon at the front of the caravan had broken a shaft, nothing more spectacular. While the driver set to fix the damaged part, the rest of us waited. The families used the moment to eat and rest. The loners started a card game, though not one of them had anything worth losing or gaining. A group of children ran around in pointless folly.
I returned to Elai and told the news.
“Is it always like this?” Elai asked, perched on the wagon seat. She’d removed her hat to rebraid her hair, and the pale locks shimmered in the harsh sunlight.
“What is like what?” I asked her. Edison swished his tail. Beat closed his eyes.
Elai studied the endless desert, her fingers never stopping, weaving her hair. The corners of her eyes glimmered as if she thought the moment immeasurably valuable, something she would lose all too soon. “So tranquil.”
I shrugged. I’d rather lead an uneventful life than see another friend die in a meaningless display of honor. “Caravan journey, or life in general?”
Elai finished her braid with a ribbon. Just then, a boy on the ledge shouted, “Giants!”
No matter how hardened the loners were, each one of them jumped up. The cards fluttered in the hazy air long after them, making their slow way down, to be forgotten on the sand.
“Giants! There below! Giants!” the boy shouted.
As soon as I’d helped Elai down, she dashed toward the shouts, her heels kicking up sand. I walked to the gathered crowd in a leisurely fashion. The giants had even a longer way to go than we did.
I placed myself between the loners and Elai. The men edged farther away from me. The years I’d spent as a wagoner had given me a name much darker than my actual deeds warranted.
“Giants,” Elai gasped. “They really exist!”
A group of three giants was crossing the desert below, slowly making their way back from the sea, toward the snowcapped mountains looming in the distance. And no matter that I’d seen giants a hundred times or more, a vivid recollection of the first time I’d met one at the End of the World washed over me.
The giant had been young, only twenty feet tall. Yet his hunched shoulders had been as wide as a camel-ox’s back, ochre fur scarred from fighting with older males. He’d beheld me, knife-like fangs peeking from behind chapped lips, saucer-sized nostrils flaring, deep-set eyes glinting with a curiosity of all things. He’d made a sound akin to a boulder tumbling down a cliff, expected me to answer. But I didn’t know the language of his kind, hadn’t replied, and so he’d waded into the gray sea.
Faded staccato grunts brought me back to the moment. As far as we were from the giants crossing the desert, they were small dots that I could cover with the tip of my thumb. And there, I could see now, six Lasuo men trailed the giants to mark in their maps where the giants’ footprints would leave salty pools. They, too, were just tiny specks, almost insignificant.
“They are even more beautiful than I imagined,” Elai whispered, hands clasped over her heart. It took a considerable while for her wonder to subside to curiosity. “Have you ever seen them up close?”
“Yes,” I said, thinking about the young giant. The giants woke in the spring when the mountain glaciers started to melt. When they walked, the ground beneath their clawed feet trembled. When they dived into the ocean, waves the size of houses washed against the shore. Just like the camel-oxen, the giants soaked in the water until full. Then they returned back to the glaciers to sleep through the winter. “But you wouldn’t believe the tales if I were to tell them.”
Elai’s brows rose, the fair lines of silver prominent on her tanned face. But melancholy had already crept back into her gaze.
I said to her, “A giant diving is something everyone should see before they die.”
We passed the first giant corpse six weeks into the journey. At a distance, the huge bones jutting from the barren ground looked like the frame of a building that didn’t yet exist. Closer, the skull half-buried in the sand stared with a sad, empty gaze.
The caravan halted by the old corpse, like it always did.
“Is that what I think it is?” Elai asked, her voice wavering the tiniest fraction. Seeing something as magnificent as a giant dead always touched people, no matter how thick a shell they’d built around themselves.
“It is,” I said, my shell cracking a little more.
Elai riveted her gaze on her dirty fingernails. The dry breeze played with the strands that had escaped from her braid, plastering them soon enough against her skin. The night before, she’d cried in her sleep, but I reckoned the toughness of the journey wasn’t to blame.
I jumped down and offered her my hand. “Come.”
She pulled herself together and accepted my help. She no longer smelled of perfume, but honest sweat.
A sizeable crowd had already gathered around the giant’s corpse. They strolled from bone to bone in respectful silence. The children couldn’t understand why and were trying to climb atop the skull despite their parents’ hisses.
Elai veered to a halt under the dome of the giant’s ribcage. “What killed it?”
We were still in the middle of the desert, far away from the railroads and mines. This giant had died of old age. “Sometimes even the giants fall.”
“Surely that is a rare thing to happen,” she said, hoping her disbelief would make the words true.
I didn’t want to lie to her, and so I said nothing. The miners and railroad workers cared little about the giants that set foot on their grounds. Rather, they shot the beasts dead, ripped off the hides, and left the bodies rotting in the desert.
Elai wiped a tear from the corner of her eye.
I said to her in a low voice, “Don’t grieve after things that still exist. Cry only when all is lost.”
She tried to meet my gaze, but I wouldn’t let her. She understood to wander farther and give me privacy.
As always, when the caravan left the giant’s corpse behind, I thought of the horrid accident, the echo of the bullet hitting flesh, and the growing pool of blood.
Another corpse, that of my best friend.
We glimpsed the End of the World after eleven weeks on the road. The town stood by the ocean, on a cliff that even the tallest of waves couldn’t reach. The year before, it had been barely more than a collection of dozen or so ramshackle houses. The recent finding of silver had doubled the town in size.
Elai craned on the seat, frowning at the empty beach below the cliff. “Is this really all there is?”
I didn’t have the heart to tell her that the End of the World was nothing more than a rugged town, despite the fancy name. “If you’re in luck, you might see some giants swimming when the night falls.”
The caravan stopped at the outskirts of town. I unloaded the wagon and handed over what little my customers had afforded to bring with them—worn leather suitcases with perhaps a change of clothes inside, a mirror with a gilded frame, a few bottles of wine that would be worth a fortune here. The families hastened off to find cheap lodgings, to start their lives anew. The loners, Elai amongst them, who didn’t quite know which way to go, hovered about my wagon.
I gave them the usual talk. “Here we are then, at the End of the World. Watch out for the cheap tequila and cunning women. And try not to lose too much at the card tables.”
All but Elai left. For a moment, I held hopes that perhaps she didn’t want to part from me either.
“The caravan will leave in a week or so,” I said to her. The journey back would take longer as the caravan would need to stop at the Lasuo villages to buy giant salt crystals. Though, if the miners had found silver, we might prefer to load our wagons with the precious metal.
“I will stay here,” Elai said. “Don’t worry about me.”
Then she, too, left without so much as a glance over her shoulder.
I stood still for a long while, waiting for her to return, even though I knew she wouldn’t.
The evening crept to veil the town while I fed and watered Edison and Beat. The camel-oxen sensed my sadness and rubbed their snouts against me. I scratched them, searching for comfort that eluded me.
Suddenly, both Edison and Beat stiffened and fell all silent. Then I heard the throaty whispers too.
The wind carried the roars of the giants returning from the sea.
Elai shivered on the cliff’s edge, humming an overly dramatic overture from an opera that didn’t end well. The stars hung low enough to light the scene of the giants wading through the waves, climbing up the beach. The scene’s morbid beauty haunted my heart.
I approached Elai slowly. If I were to rush at her, drag her away from the treacherous ground, she might fight back and take both of us to the abyss below.
“Nice night to watch the giants,” I said nonchalantly, as if I didn’t care for her at all.
“I beg your pardon,” Elai exclaimed, turning around to meet me. Her heels sent a shower of pebbles into the dark sea.
“What are you thinking?” I asked, though I knew. She had come to the End of the World, never to return.
“Nothing much,” she lied. She resumed gazing at the giants, undoubtedly wishing I would leave.
I couldn’t respect her wish. I had grown fond of her company. “Really?”
“Could you please …” Elai started, but just then, the biggest giant I had ever seen surfaced. Forty feet tall, centuries old, the beast’s sudden appearance made Elai freeze in wonder, forget her gloom.
“The giants are returning home,” I said. The sight always comforted me. I hoped she found solace in it too.
“Does anyone know why they do what they do?” Elai asked, her question the one she wished to ask from me. She’d seen through my disguise, knew I hadn’t always been a wagoner.
I preferred not to dwell in the past, so I pretended to think about the giants. Why did anyone travel across the desert, from the glaciers to the sea and back? Why did I travel the same route year after year?
“There are three kinds of people who come to this town,” I said. “Those who try to escape their past, those who fear their future, and those who have no reason to do either.”
“Which one are you?” Elai asked. “Why did you …”
The roar of the ancient giant drowned her voice. The other giants halted in their tracks, grunted greetings.
Since I’d left the Old World, I hadn’t met anyone who could understand what I’d been through. Perhaps Elai would trust me, abandon her plans, if I revealed my secret. “A long time ago,” I said, my heart still raw with pain and loss, “I was a young man with a bright future. One night, my very best friend thought I’d cheated in a game of cards and challenged me to a duel.”
“You won,” Elai said. She knew the etiquette and the rules. I could have stayed in the Old World and continued my life as if nothing at all had happened. It puzzled her that I hadn’t.
“It didn’t feel like winning,” I replied, remembering the lightness of the trigger under my finger, the careless act that had ruined two lives. I had done wrong, even though no one would ever say it aloud. “I came here to punish myself, but it’s not as bad here as I deserve.”
The ancient giant reached the rest of the herd. The beast shivered to shake off extra water, and it almost looked like it rained down on the beach. As the wind picked up, a few drops reached Elai and me.
“Why did you leave the Old World?” I asked her. Why did she want to take her own life?
Elai closed her eyes as if her sorrow were too great to express. She wiped a lock of hair from her forehead, fixed it behind her ear. “My father owns the United Company. He would see all this ruined just to increase his fame and fortune.”
Elai’s revelation explained a lot: her melancholy, the guilt she felt. I placed a hand on her shoulder. She didn’t move away.
“Did you think that he would back off from building the railroad if you jumped off the cliff at the End of the World?”
The ancient giant bellowed a loud roar, pointed north. The herd replied with a deafening rumble. They started together the journey toward the mountains.
“Yes,” Elai said, her voice brittle, frail, “but now that I’ve had further time to think about it, it doesn’t seem like such a great idea.”
We watched the giants’ slow progress for a long time. I had searched for atonement from punishing myself. Now, after walking the desert in circles for years, I’d wound up in the right place to save a life. “I reckon your father would rather have you back than finish his railroad.”
Elai shrugged, but I knew she took my words to heart. The world was changing, true, but it was up to us to decide the direction. No one should die to make a point.
As the night faded to make way for the morning, she took my hand. “I think I shall join the caravan on the way back. I shall tell my father about the giants. It’s not yet their time to die.”