The Tower of Silence

With help from ‘The Student Wordsmith’, and the three words of inspiration they gave to me: ‘Sound and Silence’. Please check out their website and what they do here.

The Tower of Silence

The desert is no place to live. I don’t know how things are in the rest of the world now, but here it feels like everything is starving. Baba’s told me that after my eldest brother died, the one I never met, he thought nothing so bad could ever happen to him again. Whether his grief was a punishment from someone divine or just bad luck Baba could not be sure; he was only certain whatever it was must have used up all the sorrow intended for him when he lost a child. He thought the bad things must eventually stop, or come infrequently like the rain.

Baba says he now knows that there’s no limit to bad things. They’ll come if they please. And come they did, taking three more from our family. I think that’s why Baba tries not to love the rest of us too much.

Most of us spend our days out of the house doing work and odd jobs anyway, so our distance helps him with that. I can’t say I like the work I do, but because I’ve taken this job lots of other people can do things they like. Someone has to do this. And there is a fascinating history behind my job, with many years of culture and mystery to learn.

For the longest time no one did this job and it has just recently been revived. A lot of old ways have come back since the atrocities happened. Maybe we brought back the past so we wouldn’t see too much of the present.

The body I’m carrying on the palanquin has not so long been only a body. It’s still warm, especially with how the sun scorches everything down here. The palanquin has no roof or walls, only a base with two poles framing its two longest sides, a little like the stretcher I once saw the doctor use when my younger sister became ill and had to be taken away. We cannot use stretchers because it is too easy for the body to touch us. Elevated as it is on the palanquin it does no harm.

Three others shoulder the three remaining ends of the poles and together we hold it steady, our paces synchronising to sluggish procession. One more person drifts ahead of us, leading us in a weaving path around steep sand dunes and guiding the way to the Tower.

The Tower is a squat structure. Some sand dunes stand taller than it does, hiding it behind them like a shameful secret. It was built centuries ago and has hardly been cared for, but since there is no sign of collapse the Tower of Silence, after years of retirement, has been put back to work.

I often wonder what the Tower looks like from above, from a bird’s perspective. There are plenty of birds that circle around the Tower, ready to grab a chunk of the freshly dead body we lay on the Tower’s roof. How strange it must be to look down and see that you are being watched by the dead.

The roof is made up of three concentric circles. We used to adhere to tradition and place only children in the innermost ring, women in the middle and the men on the outermost circle. Tradition is for times of luxury and we’ve had to abandon it. Lately we’ve been squashing everyone in, forcing them like mismatched puzzle pieces, their limbs overlapping and their chests flush against someone else’s in a morbid intimacy. It is wrong, but it is better we do that than let the corpses rot the world with their impurity. They must be eaten by the birds and decomposed under the sun, and only when they are clean can we bury them. I suppose that’s why the world became so rotten, since no one took the dead to the Tower for so long.

No one speaks as we walk through the desert. It’s not because we are unfriendly with each other, but because our mouths dry out faster if we open them. There’s so little sound. I strain to hear something. Sandals whispering over sand like the breeze, the tock-tock of my half-empty costrel against my thigh. I find it relaxing until I begin to feel like I haven’t noticed that something is wrong, that something is missing. When something disappears I either notice right away, or I spend the whole day circling my own head trying to find what isn’t there. What could it be?

“It’s too quiet.”

Baaz, who carries the pole adjacent to me, helping me lift the rear of the palanquin, looks to me for agreement. He is my senior by many years and might have to stop working soon. Hidden underneath his loose grey robe are limbs as thin as bird bones.

“I was thinking the same,” I whisper back. In this silence there’s no need to be any louder.

“It’s always quiet when we do this,” Antaira grunts from in front of me. She is around my age, but her physique is built stronger than mine. I think she grew tall and healthy because she had no siblings to be fed alongside her. Everyone in my family is thin, but Baba always seemed to have books to spare when he couldn’t give us food. Knowledge is a different type of food, Baba used to say. I was always still hungry.

“Different kind of quiet today.”

No one answers me.

The way is lonely. Our village lies far behind us and the small oasis that grows around the Tower does not spread far. I look to the west, where there is nothing but the sweeping desert. Every now and again I think about the other places beyond this arid country and whether they are all gone now. I’ve seen pictures of them in my books. All of my books are old, made before the bad things rained down to prove that they have no compunction, that bad things can keep coming and coming.

I like to imagine the places I’ve read about: how it could feel to be embraced by a forest, or how the air could be a kaleidoscope of smells in a city. How would these places sound? In the current silence it’s tricky to conjure invented noise in my head. Baba was told by his Baba that the far-away cities were so full of sound that they became polluted with it, toxic to the mind. I don’t understand how that could be possible, unless everyone was screaming all the time.

After weaving around the next dune it comes into sight. The not-so-aptly named Tower of Silence. Although today the name seems a perfect fit.

The Tower’s stone walls become more visible as we move closer, past the snatches of green, although all of the plants look a little greyer since our last visit a few days ago. From under my feet I feel more than hear the paspalum grass, once supple, now brittle, crackling under my sandals. My hood is swept from my brow by a rogue gust of wind that rattles the oasis before abruptly leaving us, everything going still. With my ears uncovered the sound of nothing is more piercing.

We pass spiny bushes and Antaira at last acknowledges:

“It is a different quiet.”

The Tower has an archway, unprotected and open to all. There is nothing here that would attract a thief and the wild dogs died out years ago. We go inside. Heat lingers in the air, stealing my breath and making sweat gather on my brow. A drop slips from my temple and I hear it pat as it hits a patch of sand.

An inner staircase lines the wall in a gradual slope. Baaz and I lift the palanquin a little higher as we ascend to keep it balanced. The body is lighter than some of the others I’ve carried. I saw her being wrapped up in the cloth, almost too small for it, like a bird smothered in a bedsheet.

Our sandals chafe and clap against the stone. Baaz and I are forced to halt just shy of reaching the top of the stairs. Everyone in front of us has stopped walking and we awkwardly keep the palanquin held aloft, arms aching. From up ahead I hear Ikramah, the man who leads us, murmur,

“I don’t understand.”

Is he talking with someone? I feel Baaz’s strength waning as his arms quiver. I inch forwards to force the others to keep going and let us get level.

“Where did they go?” Antaira asks disbelievingly.

“The bodies?”

We climb the last few steps and reach the roof. I see that the bodies are all still here. It takes me a few breaths to realise what has disappeared.

“The birds…”

Usually upon our arrival the roof is filled with birds, most notably wakes of pale-cloaked vultures, all hacking away at the corpses. No birds are on the roof today. I look up, squinting in the light. They are not even in the sky, circling as they sometimes do.

I stop seeing and start listening, start thinking that all along the journey I have been listening for them. The silence of the desert can be vast, but there has always been the cries of the birds. At the Tower of Silence their voices were always here. The vultures would squabble and the smaller birds would screech and croak.

We shuffle across the roof. I notice the body that we last brought here is still largely intact, bearing none of the post-mortem gashes or missing fingers that tells us the birds have fed well. As if nothing is wrong, as if nothing has changed, we put down the palanquin and pull her corpse from the sheet, packing her in with the other bodies as gently as we can. None of us know what else to do. Our foreheads are uniformly creased and each of our mouths sear a firm closed line. Whatever the vanishing of the birds means, it is for certain a bad thing.

“Perhaps they will return,” Baaz says. From his flat inflection I think he too knows that the bad things aren’t bound by a code, and they will come again.

There is no more we can do. We carry the palanquin back down the stairs, out of the Tower and make the trek back to the village. The silence was weighty before, and now it is crushing us.

I think about all that noise pollution in the distant cities that may not still be there, and wonder if silence is on the other side of the same perishing world.

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