Saturday, 18 August 2012

The Tower

Each evening in this season, when the sun was low in the west and the birds were flying home to roost, the girl walked up the hill to the tower.

The tower was very old. Nobody knew when it had been built, or who had built it, or for what purpose. Local lore had it that it had been built by jinni under the direction of Suleiman the Magnificent, back in the days when the trade caravans stitched the east and west together and it was still possible to sail off the edge of a flat world. No historian or archaeologist had attempted to research its origins, and, as the years and the centuries passed, even the blocks of fitted granite of which it had built eroded slowly away.

The girl was in her nineteenth year. She lived in the old house at the bottom of the hill, the big old house with the strange turrets at the corners and the many tiny windows. The locals also claimed the house was haunted by the ghosts of those who had built the house. The girl, who had lived in the house since she was born, had never seen or heard a ghost and did not believe in their existence.

She was a strange girl in many ways. With her square jaw and wide mouth, she was far from pretty, but with her long loose hair, as black as her eyes and her skin, so very white, she looked as though she were made of moonlight and darkness. The effect was heightened by the black clothes she wore always. Her parents had named her Laila, and she had been known by this name for the first fifteen years of her life. In those days she had been a happy and vivacious girl, essentially like the other girls of the small town in this remote valley.

But then, three years ago, the Great Plague had carried off both her parents within three days of each other, and Laila had vanished from public view. For a long time nobody had seen her, and the people who had known her thought she had either died as well, or, crazed by grief, had wandered away. None of them had checked, because the Great Plague had left no family, no house untouched, and each person had grief enough of his or her own. The old house had stood silent with door and windows shut, and the peasants had passed it by making signs as they always had, to ward off the evil eye.

And then one day the door of the old house had been flung open and the girl who had been Laila had emerged to face the world. But her smiles were gone, and her brightly coloured clothes had vanished, never to be seen again; and she spoke gravely, and only when spoken to. She declared that she was no longer Laila, but that her new name was Starlight, and she would respond only to that. Time passed, and the months went by; and slowly the people of the town came to call her by that name. And if anyone ever asked where she had been in the months after her parents had died, she would only shake her head, and her lips would twitch slightly, as though to say something, but she never would.

The girl who was once Laila worked all through the night, making dresses of strange beauty and with great and wondrous skill; and in the mornings she would take them down to the town, where the great ladies from the cities of the plain would come for their holidays; and she would sell enough of them to make a living, and as the sun sank towards the west she would walk up the hill again, her unsold wares slung over her arm along with whatever purchases she chose to make in the marketplace, food and fabric and the like.

Never would she remain in the town come evening, even though business would have been much better then. Nor would she ever offer the same dress for sale more than on one day. If it failed to be sold, she would cut it up and convert it into something different, blend it and modify it into another creation dazzling and original and strange. She would go up from the town to the strange old house, and for most of the year she would go straight indoors and emerge only the next morning with more dresses to sell. Men and women who thought about such things wondered if she slept at all, since she lived alone and had to cook and clean for herself, let alone sew the dresses for the following day; but if any of them ever asked her the question, she provided no answer, and with her silence they had to be content.

I said for most of the year; but when the days were warm and the sun stayed long in the sky before going to sleep in the west, the girl who had been Laila and was now Starlight would come up from the town, go indoors and come out again in a few moments. And as the evening shadows grew long, she would climb the narrow stony path to the old tower atop the hill. Sometimes other visitors saw her there, a strange and remote figure, somehow forbidding, not the Starlight who had sold dresses down in the town all day. She would stand by the tower, not speaking to anyone, not looking to left or right, until night fell and she was alone; and then, hours after the darkness had thrown her cloak over the land, Starlight would walk down the path by starlight, and return to her strange old house, there to sew clothes all the night long.

Perhaps inevitably, stories began to be told about Starlight; that she was the child of jinni and the Dark Ones, that shades of darkness rose from the depths of the earth to do her bidding, and the like. These stories grew until even the great ladies who came up from the cities of the plain came to hear of them; but instead of repelling them, the stories drew them to Starlight, and they bought her dresses, until rare was the day when she had to walk uphill with even a single item of unsold apparel slung over her arm.

And so Starlight entered her nineteenth year, plain of feature and dress, remote of manner and mysterious, with the wild tales that floated around about her and made of her a figure glamorous and strange. And yet none of the young men of the valley ever tried to scrape closer acquaintance with her; and no robber or burglar ever dared to target the strange old house at the head of the valley, and no rapist ever laid a hand on the young woman who walked downhill from the tower when the summer stars were in the sky.

One evening, then, as the sun’s red disc vanished in a wash of pink in the west, Starlight went up the hill as usual, in her plain black dress and her long black hair hanging loose on her back. She stood under the tower and watched the ravens come home to roost on their great black wings. The ravens circled round the tower and then entered the windows that circled it at the top, where they would roost for the night. Starlight watched the ravens enter and she watched the night sweep over the land from the east, and she watched the stars come out. Then she turned, as always, and entered the little door at the foot of the tower.

Inside, the stairs were narrow and steep, so narrow indeed that she could touch both walls without even extending her arms, and dark except where the narrow windows gave access to a little light. The girl knew the stairs well, because she had climbed them so often, and she went up effortlessly, automatically allowing for the places where the ancient stone had crumbled away over the years. Up she went, until she stood at the platform right at the top, and as every night in this season, she looked down at the lights of the town. Sometimes when the night was clear, she could even see the distant lights of the cities of the plain, which she had never visited, and never would.

Up here the wind blew always, the wind from the mountains, and it brought with it the knowledge that the people in the lighted streets far below her had chosen to ignore and forget; the knowledge that the spark of a fire or a love was for a moment, that spoke of years passing by and of relationships grown cold, of the rooms of a life grown full of dust and dead memories. It spoke of dreams that died in the light of day and of the futility of things, of ancient stone towers that were built to last forever but crumbled in a paltry thousand years. It spoke of the loneliness of love and of the hopelessness of hope.

And the wind spoke of more things; it told her that there were worse things than being sent away to have a love-child that was stillborn, and so surviving the plague that destroyed her parents; it told her that the pleasure-seekers of the valley were, even as she, lonely inside their skins. And it told of the ends that came as surely as the beginnings, but of the ends that left the survivors to go on, trying to begin all over again. Every night, the wind told her that.   

The girl stood high up here as on every evening in this season, and listened to the wind. She listened and then she slipped off her shoes and climbed on the parapet of the tower, and spread her arms wide like wings, and she looked up at the stars, and wished she could fly beyond the mountains, and she felt the tears on her cheeks. Then, as the vertigo began to take hold of her, and she began to feel her balance slipping, she climbed down off the ancient stone parapet before she could fall, and, as on every evening, she went down to her empty house and her dressmaker’s tools, crying all the way.

Copyright B Purkayastha 2009/12

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