• Vol. 01
  • Chapter 06
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Signs of Life

You can only find them in one place in the world. They’re called St Cuthbert’s beads because they look like stones with a hole in the middle, but they’re really fragments of fossilised plant stem. My friend unearthed one for me before I left, and I wrapped it in strong cord and wore it as a bracelet so I’d remember that people wanted me to be safe.

I travelled. I saw the way people leave markers. Our buildings, our inventions, our things. A rope in a tree, a cairn on a mountain, a collection of objects that only hands could have put together. Look at landscape art from anywhere beautiful and lonely, you’ll see a tool, an upright stick, smoke from a distant fire. We need to know we are here.

Then in a hot foreign city, I caught something exotic and almost died. A week of pain and delirium, a month of recovery. At the end of that month, I realised that my bracelet had come off, and was lost somewhere in the desert, a small sandy stone in the enormous emptiness. I was upset of course, but I was alive. The talisman had apparently done its job.

I like to think of it there today, moving gently with the shifting sands, swirling in that slow ocean. Waiting. Because it still has one more job to do. Years away, there will be scientists. And one day, one of them will find my bead, look it up, and wonder what agency brought it from its wild Northumberland beach to this place of heat and emptiness. And they’ll know there was a traveller, someone who wanted to learn, someone who was cared for by her friends. When I am desert dust, they will know me.