“Death and the Tower” by William Broom
Cassandra is in the courtyard when a vision overtakes her. Her legs give way beneath her and her whole body begins to convulse. She hears her heels drumming against the flagstones and feels foam trickling down her cheek. Then, darkness.
When she wakes, a servant is standing over her. From this angle she can see the shape of its long, canine face underneath its cowl. For a minute she stares up at it, too weak to move. Then it says:
“Another is coming.”
The servants do not speak often, and when they do their words are cryptic. Sometimes they make animal yelps if she comes too close to them in a narrow room. Perhaps this is something similar, for a moment later a second servant moves into her field of view. The two of them pick up shards of the jar that she was carrying.
If Cassandra were to swallow her own tongue, they might not notice; might just leave her to rot away where she fell. She asks them for a glass of water and a pillow. They will bring whatever she needs, but they will not touch her. It has been years now since she has touched anyone.
It will be hours yet before she can stand up. She closes her eyes and feels the cold morass of images lurking at the bottom of her consciousness. She cannot resist the urge to look at them, like probing an ulcerous cheek with her tongue. As always, she saw the same images: the burning tower, the falling woman, her brother on the wall. So many years now, but still the same images return.
It is the first vision of the season. They come each year with the thawing of the frost, and will be at their worst just before the start of summer. She must not think about it—all those visions waiting ahead of her. She does not know how she will endure another year.
Daylight is fading by the time she is able to drag herself into the empty house and climb onto the divan in the front room. The servants shuffle about, lighting the lamps. Through the window she can see the sunset behind the peaks and the narrow stream of the valley gleaming gold. Always, though, there is another image behind it, a world behind the world. She closes her eyes and lets the memories swell over her.
Her brother was with her on the day she was first taken by the visions. It was a feast day, filled with aunts and uncles and cousins. Cassandra was in the gardens outside her family’s house. She remembers the shock of her limbs betraying her for the first time. Then little Aretus lifted up his sister and carried her to the pavilion, crying for help. She thrashed so hard she brought him to his knees, but he did not let her go.
Later, when nobody else believed her warnings, he was there by her side. When she tried to speak of what she had seen, others would laugh nervously or look away in shame. Aretus would always listen, his eyes wide and faithful. When she was convulsing he would hold her close in her bed, his skinny arms wrapped around her waist. She told him she could feel him with her while she was in her trance, but that was a lie. She could feel nothing but the dark current of the future crashing down upon her.
A wild god had passed by the city on the day of her birth. The shepherds said it was like a great limbed shadow slithering over the hills. Cassandra knew that somehow she had been touched by that god. Perhaps it had seen her and claimed her for its own, or perhaps it had merely wandered by, leaving sacred footprints in the wet matter of her soul.
Whatever it was, she knew from the beginning her visions were not just dreams. They were showing her the future, and in the future she saw flames. She saw the wharves of the city burning and the statues of the museum torn down with ropes. She saw her mother’s face held down in the dust by many hands. She saw blood on bowls of food.
“Hush, Cassandra,” her mother would tell her. “There is nothing to fear. This is the greatest city in the greatest empire in the world. Nothing can harm us here.”
But the visions came on, blood upon blood, and always the same image at the center: a burning tower and a woman falling, her head pointed toward the ground. It was years after she first saw that bronze hair streaming in the firelight, those eyes focused on infinity, that Cassandra realized she was looking at the features of her own face.
The next morning she wakes with a dry mouth and aching head. It is always hard the day after a vision, but she can walk and feed herself at least.
She takes her walking stick and hobbles down to the river bank. She slides in and sits up to her hips in the water. Each time she has a vision, it punches a hole through the fabric of her life like an awl through a strip of leather. She is pulling herself back together now, but already she dreads the next one, and the next after that. So many more before the high summer comes and brings relief.
She dozes. When she opens her eyes there are a group of children watching her from the far bank. When they see her looking at them, they turn and run without a sound.
The village is not far away. At evening time she can see the smoke from their fires and smell faint spices on the wind. There is a woman who brings food each week and leaves it in the courtyard, in exchange for the unmarked silver coins that the servants somehow always have on hand. Other than that, not one of the villagers will come within sight of the old stone house. It has been here as long as any of them can remember.
Cassandra stands up, feeling the water run down her legs.
“I am alive,” she says to herself, but the words sound thin.
As a girl Cassandra lived in a different world from everyone around her. She went through the motions of a normal life: the sufferings and joys, the rites of passage. But that life was like a pale dream to her. The visions were the only things that burned brightly in her mind.
As she grew older, her mother began to lose patience with her fears. “Stop lying, Cassandra,” she would say. “Don’t make up such horrible things. Are you doing it for the attention? Why? Don’t we give you everything you desire?”
Only Aretus trusted her, but it was a mute kind of trust, all-encompassing: she was his sister, therefore her words were infallible to him. When their mother was rebuking her he would hold Cassandra’s hand, but he never spoke. He did not ask any questions about what she saw, and Cassandra dared not speak about what the visions showed of him.
As she grew she learned to bind her tongue and keep silent. Only when she saw one of her dreams come true would she break. Then she would scream and beg for the people around her to listen. Every time it ended in confusion, the words congealing on her tongue.
“It’s alright, Cassi,” the others would say. “There is no fire. There is nothing to fear. Here, lie back. Drink this. Sleep.”
They thought it was only a fugue, a seasonal madness. They did not know it was her true life shouting from the chamber in which it was confined.
When the war began, Cassandra’s dreams started to appear in waking life. The present was haunted by the ghosts of what was to come. Some mornings the sight of a child, and where that child would end up, sent her screaming back to her bed. She longed for sleep but was afraid to dream. The family physician prepared a bitter medicine that would plunge her into insensibility. Soon she was drinking it every night. That was not a true sleep, though, only emptiness, so she became deathly tired during the day.
All the time, the fires of war drew closer.
Aretus was called to arms. Like all boys he had been trained in the spear and shield, and was eager to put his learning to use. His regiment set sail in the early morning, as the sun was dappling the waters of the bay. Standing on the wharf, he held her close and whispered in her ear. “Don’t be afraid. I’ll be home before you know it.”
She wasn’t afraid. She knew he would not die on a foreign shore.
With each passing month, more bad news winged its way from all the corners of the empire. Down in the streets, the poor lined up outside storehouses for their daily ration of bread. Yet in the high houses the feasts grew more lavish, frenzied even, as if their laughter could drown out the sounds of battle drawing closer.
There came a day when the enemy’s camp could be seen from the city as a smudge of firelight on the far side of the bay. Cassandra was taken by a vision and woke in the early evening. Her mother was standing by the bed.
“Your brother is back in the city. We will be able to see him soon.”
Cassandra smiled thinly. Her mother looked toward the window.
“Did you see any… did you have any dreams, this time?”
“The same as always, mother.”
“But you have learned that they are not real. That you must keep them to yourself.” Outside, the smoke slashed the fading sky. “Morale is very important right now. Nobody needs to hear those old fantasies, least of all your brother.”
Cassandra closed her eyes and nodded.
The next day, they were told that the high houses were no longer safe. As a precaution, all the noble families were to be gathered inside the imperial compound. Cassandra and her family rode together up the hill and through the gates of the impregnable fortress.
“Don’t worry, Cassandra, I’ve had your medicine brought ahead,” her mother told her. “I’m sure our rooms will be comfortable. Look, Aretus will be staying in the barracks, here, and we will be here, just across from him.”
Cassandra stood in the courtyard and looked up, already knowing what she would see. High above the gilt facades and gleaming white rooftops stood the tower from which she would fall.
The next day, Aretus was returned to them. He had been carried back to the city with an arrow in his calf, and the army doctors had given him leave to recuperate in the company of his family.
He seemed a different person from the one who had gone to war. All he could talk about was tactics and victory: a feverish stream of words of which Cassandra could understand almost nothing. When she held his hand he would let her for a minute, but then it would be up in the air again, gesticulating, tracing battle plans in the air.
All day she stayed by his side, feeling as though a huge bubble were rising in her chest. Late in the night they were alone together.
“It will be quiet for some weeks yet,” he was saying. “The enemy will try to starve us out. Once they see how well supplied we are from the sea, they will have to attack. By that time I’ll be healed. I’ll be back on the wall, ready to face them.”
The bubble burst open. She climbed into his bed and wrapped her arms around him, as she had done when they were children. She pleaded with him never to go back to the wall. It was on the wall that she had seen him killed.
“Cassandra, please.” His body was rigid in her arms. “Those stories are for children. You’ve outgrown them.”
Pressing her cheek to his, she became aware of the hard skull beneath his flesh. She felt the blood drifting through his veins, the bones and organs that filled him up like a warm sack. Soon everything that he was would be scattered. He would be nothing.
She could not save him. She could not save anyone.
She has had another vision, worse than the last. Now she is trying to drink the images away. She has spent three months distilling cider for this purpose, as the servants will not spend their silver on alcohol. The drink is bitter, but she gulps it down, sitting alone at the great dining table while the servants move from room to room lighting the lamps.
Much later, when her vision has begun to blur, one of the servants comes in and takes her empty cup from the table. If she were sober she would know there is no judgment in the gesture—only their strange animal instinct for tidiness. Now, though, she reaches out and tries to grab the creature’s wrist. When it jerks away, she rises and chases it across the room, tormenting it with feinted slaps toward its face. It yelps and scurries away. The cup clatters to the floor.
In the corridor there are two others watching her. She glares back at them.
“What?” she says. “Is this not what you expect of me?” She picks up the cup and makes as if to throw it at them. “Can you even hear me? Do you know what I’m saying? You’re as stupid as animals. Why did you bring me here at all?”
She advances upon them, words tumbling from her tongue. One of the servants says: “Another is coming.”
“Is that a threat?” Cassandra hisses. “Are you threatening me now?” But the creature is telling the truth. Not one, but six or seven of them have appeared, almost surrounding her. When they stand still, they are like statues. For the first time since she arrived in the house she feels afraid of them. The hot words fade from her tongue and she retreats into her bedroom. Her head is spinning. She lies down in the dark and waits for oblivion to rescue her.
It was dark, also, that night in her room in the imperial palace. Outside, shouts were ringing through the gardens. Her mother burst into the room, tears of joy in her eyes.
“Cassandra, there is wonderful news—”
The enemy has taken to their ships and sailed away. Cassandra mouthed the words at the same time, like a mirror image of her mother. It felt as though she had been waiting for those words all her life, and now the time was finally here.
Tonight was the night that she would die.
In every moment now she could feel the future like a wave folding back into the past. The dread of it was upon her like a paralytic force, pinning her to the bed. She lay in the dark for she did not know how long, listening to the celebrations outside. There was nothing ahead of her, no path that did not lead to the tower. And yet—at the bottom of her fear there was another fear, a white blossom burning in the darkness. It was a fear that cried out against emptiness and despair. It was the fear of the fox that chews off its paw to escape the hunter’s trap. That was the fear that told her what she had to do.
She rose quietly and slipped out of her rooms. The streets were clotted with revelers, all too eager to believe the happy news. Walking away from the tower was like wading against the tide. The stones beneath her feet were slick with blood. Phantom soldiers rushed through the crowd and crows circled above. Mingled with the cheering was the sound of solitary screams.
From the hilltop she could see lights on the city walls. One of them, she knew, was Aretus; he had been pronounced fit for duty the day before. Her heart felt like a knife. She thought about going to the wall and dying with him there. Instead she went onward, down to the waterfront.
She found a tiny rowboat tied up in the shadow of the pier. As she was hauling it in, she noticed a small child watching her. It was so thin and ragged she could not tell if it was a boy or a girl, but she reached out to it.
“Hello,” she said. “Come with me, please. Everyone is going to die. Come with me and we can escape.”
The child stared at her mutely, then hurried away.
Cassandra climbed into the boat and began to row. Each stroke of the oars was like a single droplet in the wideness of the harbor. A black buzzing rose in her head that blotted out all other sounds. The future wrapped itself tight around her neck, dragging her back towards the place where she was meant to die. Her vision swam like a painting in the rain. Then there came flashes of light. At first she thought they were lightning bolts, but they were only the dull sparks surging inside her own head. She saw herself fall from the tower over and over and over again.
At last, at the height of the storm, she fell down shaking in the bottom of the boat. The current caught her and carried her away.
When the sun rose, Cassandra’s boat had drifted far from the city. She was awake, but she could not move even a finger. The tall flank of a ship drifted into view. It was one of the enemy’s vessels. Men looked down at her, spoke to one another in their wild florid language. One man pointed, another shrugged. Cassandra’s body was deathly still. The big ship dipped its oars and moved on.
Eventually the current deposited her on a beach further down the coast. By nightfall the visions had faded and she was able to stand up. Only then did she recognize the damage that had been done to her. The whole left side of her body was twisted around itself like a gnarled old tree. Her leg felt like a piece of driftwood tied to her body by dead sinews. She hobbled a few steps up the beach and fell down, pain shooting through her side. She got up again. She walked.
The countryside was full of fragmented armies, fighting over little pieces of the broken empire. There were wildfires on the hills at night, and many travelers on the roads. Cassandra wandered amongst them, sometimes receiving charity and other times cruelty. After many days she came to a place where there were no travelers and no food. She lay down in a dry riverbed, perhaps to sleep, perhaps to die. That was where the servants found her.
“Come with us,” they said. “You are awaited.” Somehow she knew that they did not mean her harm.
It took many weeks of travel to reach the empty house high in the mountains. More servants were waiting for her there. They bowed to her—the only time she ever saw them do so—and their leader spoke.
“You are welcome here,” it said. “This house is for the ones who did not die.”
That night, lying in her new bed, she had a seizure. It was the first since she escaped the city. The visions were the same as they had always been: the burning tower, the falling girl. She had passed over time’s meridian. From then on her visions would show her not the future but the past.
She wakes in the morning gripped by dread. She knows, abruptly and absolutely, that she cannot endure another year. The dark thought at the bottom of her consciousness rises to the surface. There is only one thing left she can do.
None of the servants pay any attention as she hobbles out of the house. The morning air is cold and the sun is pale behind the clouds. When she first steps into the river water she flinches, but after a few minutes her skin becomes accustomed to it. She walks out until she can feel the earth shelving away in front of her and the deep current tugging at her limbs. All she has to do is take one more step and let it carry her away. She heard once that drowning is a kind of ecstasy; that sailors perceive god in the moment before they sink into the black.
Will she, then, see the god who came on her birth-day and touched her soul?
She realizes that she cannot do it. Even this broken shadow of a life is still life, and she cannot help but cling to it. She stands in the water for a long time, trembling, hating the coward that she is. At last she gets out and tries to limp back up to the house.
Halfway up the hill, her bad leg gives way. She goes down to one knee and stays there, trapped between standing and falling. She begins to weep.
After some time she realizes there is a servant standing in front of her. She cannot guess how long it has been there. It says:
“Another is coming.” Then it says: “Please, this one will need help.”
There is the sound of soft splashing from the river. Cassandra looks back and sees two servants, poling a small boat across from the far bank. Between them stands a thin girl, no more than ten years old. Her clothes are travel-stained and her skin is stretched tight across her collarbone. Her right hand hangs heavily by her side, fingers twisted into a claw.
The girl’s eyes settle on Cassandra—upon Cassandra’s own palsied arm and leg. Her eyes widen. By the time the boat reaches the shore, Cassandra has managed to stand up. The girl approaches her cautiously, ready to fight or to flee.
Cassandra holds out her hand. She does not know what to say, but the words come to her anyway, as though she has always known them.
“Come, child,” she says. “You are welcome here, and safe from harm. This is the house for the ones who did not die.”
|William Broom lives in Melbourne, Australia. His fiction has appeared previously in Beneath Ceaseless Skies, New Myths and Canary Press Short Story Magazine.|