Coming down the stairs from the bank, Tauseef saw the dead man for the first time. He was standing right at the bottom of the steps, blocking the way, and made no attempt to step aside.
“Excuse me,” Tauseef said.
The dead man did not react. He was dressed in a villager’s loose robe, and had a turban on his head which was unravelling so one end straggled on his shoulder. The beard on his hollow cheeks was smeared with dust. Only his eyes moved, slowly, following Tauseef.
“I said, excuse me,” Tauseef said, and tried to squeeze past. He’d just managed it when he felt a hand tugging at his coat, dead fingers digging into the sleeve. He turned.
“What do you want?” he demanded. “Let me go!”
The dead man’s mouth opened, the stiff bluish tongue within struggling to form words. One of his cracked leather shoes scraped on the pavement, as though his whole body was struggling together in the effort to talk. It was no use, and after a moment he shook his head dismally.
Tauseef looked at him and down at the hand which was still clutching his sleeve. The fingers were gnarled and spotted with flecks of dried blood, the nails blue with dirt. He tugged at his arm, and the clutching hand finally fell away.
“Bloody hell,” he muttered to himself and walked away down the pavement. The dead were becoming a real problem now. Once upon a time they were hardly to be seen, but now they swarmed the city, doing what they wanted, where they wanted. There were more of them than ever. And no wonder, too, considering what was going on in the countryside.
Briefly, he raised his eyes to the yellow hills in the west. Beyond those eroded humps of stone and dirt, the plateau stretched, beaten by sun and drought and civil war. Even here in the city, food had become hard enough to come by. He did not want to think about outside.
A low flying drone buzzed by overhead, the whirring propeller glittering in the sun, and there was a flash. When he turned to look, the dead man was stretched out at the bottom of the steps. The drone must have been on one of the anti-dead patrols the city had started in an erratic attempt to do something about the problem. He watched the small drone bank and turn away between two buildings, and was about to walk on when he saw the dead man stir. Apparently the drone had missed.
Then he saw the dead man try to rise, only to fall back again on the concrete. A couple of people had stopped to look, but they hurried on quickly again. A dead man was far too common a sight to waste time over, and besides, the drone might be back. The drone operators didn’t always care about who was in the vicinity when they blasted one of the dead.
Tauseef hesitated. For some reason, he felt a sudden surge of sympathy towards the dead man, even though that was silly. There was as much point feeling sympathy towards one of the dead as there was for a piece of stone or a fallen leaf. And yet when the dead man raised an arm towards him, he turned and walked back, and, unmindful of the dirt being rubbed on his coat, helped the corpse to its feet. The drone had done damage. The dead man’s robe was charred on the side, and there was the odour of burned flesh.
“Where do you want to go?” he asked the dead man, as though there could be an answer. The dead man clutched at his coat with both hands and stared into his face. One of his eyes was filmy, grey and blind; the other, for all that he was dead, was bright and black. His mouth opened again, as he tried to talk.
“Do you want to go somewhere?” Tauseef said, feeling stupid. “Is that it?”
The dead man shook his head. Not much, just enough for Tauseef to be able to make it out, but it was a head-shake, nevertheless. His clutching hands would not let go of the coat.
“Well, you can’t stay here,” Tauseef said. “That drone...” he pointed up to the air. “It’s going to be back, and next time it won’t miss.”
The dead man’s eyes, the blind one and the bright one, followed his finger. The hands did not relax their grip.
“All right then,” Tauseef sighed. “You’d better come with me.”
Tauseef’s car was old, battered and dusty, and he used it as little as possible now that both fuel and spare parts were becoming extremely hard to come by. On the other hand, just about every other car in the city was now like that, so it never drew any particular attention, including from the soldiers who manned the roadblocks on all the main streets. Only, he had never tried to drive anywhere with a dead man in the seat beside him, and he hoped nobody would give them a second glance as long as he stayed to the side streets and alleys.
Getting the dead man into the car had been no struggle. He’d got in readily enough when Tauseef had opened the door, falling into the seat heavily and flopping back as though whatever power had kept him going all this time had suddenly drained away. His hands rose, like someone attempting to ward off a blow, and fell again to his sides. His dusty beard shook.
“All right,” Tauseef said. “I’ll drive you out of the town, and then I’ll drop you where the drones won’t find you unless you’re stupid enough to come back into the city. But that’s all I’ll do for you. Do you understand? That’s all.”
The dead man gave no sign of having heard. Tauseef shook his head, wondering why he was doing this, and got behind the steering wheel. The roads were thick with the dust the wind blew in constantly from the plateau, turning the entire town yellowish-grey, and even after he’d rolled his windows up he could feel the grit on his teeth.
The dead were everywhere. Never before, he though, had he seen them in quite these numbers. Or maybe never before had he noticed them particularly. After all, he hadn’t even before driven around the city with one of them lolling in the seat beside him. But they were everywhere.
He watched one, a young woman, walk right down the middle of the street oblivious to traffic, one broken leg twisting agonisingly at every step. Another one sat on the edge of the pavement, rubbing his hands together, his eyes fixed on the rubbing. Even as the car passed close enough to brush his fingers, he didn’t raise his hands from the rubbing. And then there were two children. They might have been brother and sister. It was hard to tell. They were so covered in dust their eyes were clogged with it and their hair, faces and cloaks all of a colour. Holding hands, they slowly walked down the pavement, and people gave them a wide berth.
High in the hills over the roofs of the city, something exploded, a tower of smoke rising and spreading in a mushroom of dust and pulverised stone. There, the war continued, manufacturing more dead for the city’s streets, as though the drought and famine weren’t enough.
Just yesterday, Tauseef had heard a rumour that the dead were all the fault of the foreigners, who had put something in the air that made them come to life. People said that and threw ugly glances at the huge compound of the diplomatic quarter, where the few foreigners remaining were holed up behind their high concrete walls with the watchtowers and the razor wire on top. People said the drones were piloted from behind those walls, and Tauseef thought that might even be true. But why anyone, least of all the foreigners, would want to bring the dead back was a question that nobody seemed interested in asking.
They weren’t really a danger. They didn’t attack anybody. They had not, as yet, caused a pestilence. They straggled over the streets of the city, aimlessly wandering from place to place, until they were either destroyed or disappeared again. None seemed to stay around longer than a day or two. Sometimes one would cause a car crash or a soldier would accidentally shoot a living person while trying to destroy one of them, but that was all. But they were everywhere, and they did nobody’s morale any good, especially as the drought grew ever fiercer, famine stalked the land, and the war grew nearer by the day.
“Can you hear me?” Tauseef asked the dead man. “Can you understand what I’m saying? I wish I could ask you what happened, what you want – why you’re wandering the streets instead of lying in peace. Is that even the same person in you as the one when you were alive? I...”
He broke off and slammed on the brakes with a soft curse. They had turned a corner and come up against a roadblock. It had not been there an hour before, and soldiers were still piling sandbags and putting up barriers. For a moment he thought he might be able to reverse and drive away, but one of them had already seen him and motioned him forward.
“Is that a dead man with you?” he asked, peering through the window.
“Yes,” Tauseef said. There was no point in denying it.
“Dead people walking need to be destroyed,” the soldier said, drawing a pistol from his holster. “That’s the rule and...”
“Wait, please,” Tauseef interrupted. “He’s...” He glanced quickly at the dead man. “He’s my father. He wandered away before we could bury him.” He was talking faster and faster, and tried to force himself to slow down. “I’m taking him back home to bury him. That’s all.”
“You’ll bury him while he’s still moving?” The soldier was still in the act of raising his gun. His eyes glistened avidly with the urge to use it. “I wouldn’t call that very kind, would you? So I’ll put a couple of bullets through him, and then you can bury him with a clear conscience. Nice of me, isn’t that so?”
“But...” Tauseef began.
“Get him out of the car so I can shoot him,” the soldier said. He reconsidered. “No, you get out of the car and I’ll shoot him right inside so you don’t have to pick him up and put him back in. See? I’m a not a bad man.”
“Stop fooling around and come back here,” one of the other soldiers, with the stripes of a non commissioned officer on his sleeve, shouted. “The roadblock has to be up within the hour.”
The soldier looked back over his shoulder, back at Tauseef, and spat. “Go on, then,” he said. “Go take him and knock him over the head or something. Or just bury him like that. See if I care.” He stalked off, muttering.
Tauseef stuck to the back streets after that. There were very few people around, and no children. Those who could afford it had long since left, or at least had sent their families away. Only in the villages, where the people had almost nothing anyway, and nowhere at all to go, did they still hang on, scratching in the dirt for some means to stay alive.
As he drove, Tauseef glanced at the dead man in the passenger seat, really looking at him for the first time. He was younger than he’d first thought – probably in his mid-forties, with a thin blade of a nose and a muscular physique. If he’d been alive, and properly cleaned up, he’d probably have been quite striking. Tauseef wondered who he’d been. Not that it mattered, of course. Once they were dead they were...
There was a huge flash right in front of the car, so bright that Tauseef was blinded, and a blast so loud he went momentarily deaf. The shock wave came a moment later, slamming into the vehicle and slewing it sideways, Tauseef stamping on clutch and brake instinctively as he fought to keep control. It was too late. The car mounted the near side pavement, smashed into a wall, and the engine quit.
Tauseef sat behind the wheel, stunned, waiting for his hearing and vision to return. Steam rose from the crumpled nose of the car, and he could smell petrol. Somehow it did not seem an immediate concern that the car might catch fire, with him still in it. He could not will himself to move.
Something touched his face, bony fingers moving down his cheek. Slowly, he turned his head. The dead man had turned towards him, his one sighted eye looking down at Tauseef’s seatbelt. His hands made circles in the air.
“Yes,” Tauseef muttered. “The seatbelt, yes.” He rarely used it, but had put it on before the roadblock, and it had probably saved him from going through the windscreen. As for the dead man...well, he was dead anyway.
He forced his hands to work, raised the seatbelt loop. The near door had burst open from the crash. He almost fell out of the car, staggering, and reached in to pull the dead man out. They stood beside the wrecked vehicle, holding on to each other. Tauseef held on to the dead man because he couldn’t trust his legs. The dead man held on to Tauseef for reasons unknowable. There was a charred crater in the street where the rocket had struck. Not a single person was visible anywhere, but Tauseef had the sense of many watching eyes.
“Bad aim again,” he said, aloud. “Bad aim.”
A distant buzzing sounded in his ears. At first he thought it was his head, still ringing from the crash. Then he realised that it was outside, and getting closer. The drone was coming back.
“Come on,” he grunted to the dead man. “We’ve got to get into hiding.” Opposite was a narrow alley with a rusted old dumpster. He pulled the dead man behind it and pushed him down. A moment later the car bloomed into a flower of erupting high explosive, burning fuel and mangled white hot metal.
“Why?” Tauseef whispered, crouching beside the dead man. “What on earth is going on?”
The dead man turned his head and tugged. The lane they were in was very narrow, and the walls so high that there was only a tiny strip of sky far above. He pulled Tauseef along the alley, his strong hands gripping the living man’s coat. The drone came buzzing down the street behind them again, making a low pass over what was left of the car.
“We’ve got to find shelter,” Tauseef said. He took it for granted now that the dead man could understand what he was saying. “We’ve got to hide until the drone goes away.”
They found what passed for shelter. It was a half-constructed building which had been abandoned a long time ago, and was now beginning to crack and crumble back into the ground. Rusted iron rods stuck from the fissured concrete like accusing fingers pointing at the sky.
Or, Tauseef thought, they were pointing at the drones. The reaction to his narrow escape had begun to set in, and he began to shudder uncontrollably. The dead man, crouched beside him, held him tight. Tauseef no longer noticed the smell of charred flesh.
“It must be you,” Tauseef told the dead man. “There’s no reason for them to go after me. The drones must be after you.”
Maybe he was someone important. Maybe he was even some rebel commander, though not one so important that the soldier at the roadblock would have known who he was. But even then, he was dead, and there was no reason for drones to go after someone who was already dead.
“Dead is dead,” Tauseef said. “Isn’t it?”
The dead man glanced at him from his one seeing eye and looked away. They watched the distant speck of the drone fly back and forth over the roofs, searching.
“Or perhaps dead isn’t so dead,” Tauseef said. “How the hell would I know? You know, but do I?”
The dead man said nothing.
They moved on when the first stars were beginning to puncture the dark velvet veil of the twilight. The drone had finally departed about half an hour ago, but they’d waited to see if another took its place. The dead man led now, walking almost purposefully, his hand on Tauseef’s sleeve. At first Tauseef had been inclined to resist. Then he realised that for the moment he didn’t know where to go. They were on the opposite side of town from his home, if the poky little flat he inhabited deserved that name.
They went back down the alley, and paused. Soldiers were there now, prodding around the wrecked car lackadaisically. None of them looked around as Tauseef and the dead man edged past through the shadows.
“Obviously,” Tauseef murmured to the dead man, “the soldiers haven’t been told what the drone people are doing. Why? Why did they attack us anyway? Who are you?”
The dead man found another alley. Now he was moving quite quickly, as though through familiar territory. His fingers dug into Tauseef’s arm. They were near the outskirts of the town, and the cry of a desert jackal sounded faintly in the distance.
“Where are we going?” Tauseef asked the dead man.
As he expected, there was no reply.
They came to the village as the constellations had risen to the zenith and begun descending again to the horizon.
Tauseef was so tired that his legs were hardly moving, but the dead man seemed to gain strength with every step he took. Now it was he who looked like the living man, purposeful, hurrying towards his goal. Tauseef simply hung on because he had no other choice.
The village was small and unlit, and at first he thought it deserted. Then he saw the faint glimmer of a candle or oil lamp from one of the huts His companion, dead hand still clutching his sleeve, drew him towards it.
The village was a shattered ruin. As they got closer to the faint, glimmering light, Tauseef realised that the huts were mostly roofless, the walls broken into fragments, and the ground cratered and burned to the consistency of brick. His feet kicked aside small objects that rattled and bounced, and he was glad he did not know what they were.
Someone was watching them from the doorway of the hut with the light, which was one of the few he could see that still had its walls and roof. She stepped aside as they came, lurching slightly in a motion that was oddly familiar. Then he realised that he’d seen her before, earlier in the day, staggering down the street. Two children sat on a mat on the floor just inside the door. Someone had cleaned their eyes of the clogged dust, and wiped down their clothes. They looked up at Tauseef solemnly.
There were more eyes inside the hut. The floor was covered with thin mats, and the light – it was a thick candle, stuck in the mouth of a bottle set in the exact centre of the floor – reflected faintly on them. They were all dead, of course. Tauseef even recognised one or two more that he’d seen around town in the last few days. They all stared at him silently.
“What is this place?” Tauseef asked, knowing there would be no answer. “Why have you brought me here?”
But there was an answer. “Probably because you’ve nowhere else to go.”
“Who said that?” Tauseef asked, looking around, his heart thudding.
“I did.” Tauseef had not noticed the woman in the far corner. Wrapped in a dark cloak, she’d been sitting where the shadows were thickest. Now she got up and stepped forward on bare feet, careful not to trample the dead sitting all around. “You rescued him from the soldiers and the drones, I take it?”
“Who are you?” Tauseef asked. The woman’s face was very pale and very beautiful under the dark cowl of her cloak, but she was also clearly dead. Her lips curved in an imitation of a smile.
“Just one of us,” she said. “Some of us keep the facility of speech. It’s not altogether a blessing as you might think, when there’s nobody to talk to.”
“And you’re all together here –” Tauseef waved a hand around at the hut. “Why?”
“Why?” the woman shrugged. “Call it refuge. This village has been killed. Once it was alive, and then the drought came, and after that the bombers and rockets, and now it’s...well, you’ve seen for yourself. A dead city, for the dead. Nobody bothers us here.”
“What about him?” Tauseef pointed at his dead man, who had finally let go of his arm. “Who is he? Why were they so eager to destroy him?”
“Were they?” The woman cocked her head. “Tell me about it.”
Tauseef told her what had happened from the moment he’d seen the dead man on the way out of the bank until they’d left the city behind. “And that’s how we came here.”
The woman nodded. “I can’t tell you why they wanted to destroy him in particular. Doubtless he meant something to them – or they thought he did. There are those among the living who are getting increasingly disturbed at the dead. We now outnumber them by far, and each day we grow in number while they shrink. But it doesn’t matter either way what he was. It matters what he is now.”
“And what is he now?”
The woman looked at him. “Haven’t you guessed yet what we are here for, apart from sanctuary?”
Someone ran into the room through the door, a woman in a torn grey cloak. She rushed in like the wind and threw herself into Tauseef’s dead man’s arms. They hugged each other so tightly it seemed they would merge into each other.
The woman in black smiled slightly at Tauseef. “The dead have their ties too, you know. When families are torn apart and mutilated...sometimes they want to come back together, if only in death. Why not?”
Tauseef looked away from the couple, the woman in grey and his dead man, who were holding each other so tightly that it seemed they would never let go.
“Someday,” the woman in black said softly, reach up to touch Tauseef’s arm, “the dead will be all that remain in the world. The living will have destroyed everything that there is to destroy, and then themselves in their turn. And then, someone will have to be there to carry on. Someone who has already been through the worst, and knows how ridiculous the greed and ambition of the living are.”
“And it will start from here?”
“Maybe,” she said. “Maybe it will start somewhere else. But it will happen, and it has to happen. That is why we are here. That is why we exist.”
“And I?” he asked plaintively. “Why am I here?”
The woman just looked at him.
And then, at last, Tauseef wondered whether the drone had missed after all.
Copyright B Purkayastha 2015