We called it a tower, but it was not a tower. It was, so the few remaining scraps of records seem to indicate, a fragment of a skyscraper, the tallest structure still standing from a city that had once been here, before the collapse, long before any of us were born. The tower which was not a tower was the only thing rising to any height above the rubble. Like a beacon, it drew stragglers in.
We lived in the rubble, coming and going through holes we had dug down into half-collapsed basements and subbasements. We grew fungi and mushrooms and caught the scattered deformed vermin that still scuttled about. Sometimes we would leave our holes and make our way down to the water’s edge and coax a twisted and listless creature or two out of the silty water by tickling its belly, and then take it back and roast it over a fire. Only then—judging by the smell of it, the odor, whether it continued to move after what we assumed was its head had been separated from what we assumed was its body—did we decide whether we could bear to choke it down or simply let it blacken and vanish into ash.
We felt the weight of the tower above us, even when we could not see it. We spoke about it often, about whether we should try to tear it down. If we tore it down, some of us believed, there would be fewer stragglers. But others pointed out that when stragglers came they always went straight to the tower, having glimpsed its illuminated upper chambers. Once they went in, they rarely if ever came out again.
And besides, if we tore it down, we would have to reckon with Hrafndis.
Hrafndis had once been like us, scrabbling among the rubble, filthy and starved. She had her hole, which had been Angsdall’s hole before a straggler took him. She struggled with the rest of us, cowered too when stragglers appeared.
And then one day someone wandered in, possessed of that look that stragglers have, the flesh blooming black across its chest. We barricaded our holes and watched it wander by, drawn to the tower. It came and halted at the tower’s base, simply stared up.
This was before there was a beacon shining on the upper floor. It was Hrafndis who would later illuminate the beacon. Still, even without the beacon, stragglers would be drawn to the tower. One would come and stare and then, often as not, poke around at our holes. If we were unfortunate, it might drag one of us out and carry them off. If we were lucky, once it was tired of staring at the tower, the straggler either would simply wander past the holes without a second glance or we would manage to trap it beneath rocks where it would remain, slowly writhing, for a year or perhaps two until, finally, it stopped.
This time we were not lucky. Or, rather, Hrafndis was not lucky. The straggler stayed there staring for a day, perhaps two, and then moved straight toward Hrafndis’s hole.
It was clumsy, as all stragglers are, and quickly sprung the deadfall she had made. The rock tipped, but instead of falling and trapping it, the rock simply caught the straggler a blow that propelled it down the quicker into Hrafndis’s hole and, once the creature was in, blocked the entrance.
We heard Hrafndis’s scream, and then the sounds of her struggling in the darkness. She would soon be dead, we were sure, though she cried out from time to time for us to help her. After a time we crept out from our own holes and stood listening. We even tested the stone that had fallen and determined that yes, two or three of us straining together might roll it away. We could roll it away and then perhaps she could escape.
But we did not roll the stone away. By the time we had determined we could, we no longer heard her, and it seemed foolish to move a stone when a straggler roamed behind it. No, better, we reasoned, to simply leave things as they were, to let life run its usual bloody course.
A day went by, then two. One week, then several. Life returned to normal, if normal it had ever been. We forgot about the straggler, forgot about Hrafndis. Other stragglers came and went. We experienced a brief influx of creatures that might be said to resemble mice save for the unnatural number of limbs they had: seven. They were tasty, and could be eaten whole, when lightly seared over a fire.
And then, from one day to the next, they vanished and no new creature replaced them.
One day, one of us, Thurn, was moving through the rubble, remembering those mice that were not mice and searching for more when he heard movement from Hrafndis’s hole. Gripping the top of the stone that blocked the entrance were two hands, pale as bone, glinting. The straggler, he thought at first, but no straggler ever had such hands as these, or even hands to speak of at all. And then, as Thurn watched, the hands flexed and strained and the stone cracked as easily as if it were a child’s toy and Hrafndis stepped out.
She had changed greatly. She was bone white and covered with an almost translucent dusting of scale. Her features were severe and her bearing too was different. She walked in a jerky swaying way, as if she stood on stilts.
“Hrafndis,” said Thurn. “You are alive.”
When she spoke, Thurn told us before he expired, she moved her jaw in an unnatural way. Her voice when it came was the voice of someone who had not spoken in so long they had nearly forgotten how.
“No thanks to you,” she whispered. Even these few words made her mouth bleed, as if moving it was scratching it from the inside. And then she reached out and, in a single terrible movement, tore off Thurn’s arm.
We were all brought out of our holes by Thurn’s scream. Hrafndis had already turned and was walking away, moving in those awkward, measured steps toward the tower, the arm slung over her shoulder like a club or a gun, blood drizzling down her back. Thurn managed to babble what had happened and then died there on the ground. Hrafndis never looked back, simply walked to the tower and then vanished into its base.
We buried Thurn, deep enough that the stragglers would be unlikely to find him. We entered Hrafndis’s hole, but it proved empty. There was no sign of the straggler that had been there with her, no waste or other residue. Indeed, the interior of the hole was immaculately clean and a little slick, as if it had been licked over and over.
Once she entered the tower, she never left it. After a few years, we weren’t certain she was even alive—or wouldn’t have been had it not been for the light burning each night in the uppermost floor. And for what appeared at the tower’s base.
At first we saw only a glimmer, nothing distinguishable, and we kept our distance. But then, slowly, our curiosity got the better of us. We had not approached the tower before, even before Hrafndis took residence in it, but now we cast lots. The loser, it was determined, was to get closer and determine what he could about the glimmer, and about whether it was a threat to us.
I was the loser. Over the course of one long day I edged slowly closer to the base of the tower, ready to turn and flee at any instant. But when nothing moved, when nothing came after me, soon I became bolder still. I moved forward until I could see clearly that the glinting thing was a metal statue of a man, standing at attention, stylized and nearly featureless.
Soon, I was beside it. I took a short length of pipe from the ground and prodded the statue with it, and suddenly the thing whirred to life. The pipe twisted free of my hands and flew end over end to thunk into the remnants of a concrete wall. It stuck there and shivered as if it were a thrown axe or an arrow from a bow. I turned to run but somehow the statue was already blocking my path. I was unsure how to get around it while still staying alive.
Joints clicking, the statue extended its arms wide and began to walk slowly toward me.
Please, please, it said, though it had no mouth I could see. The words seemed to appear almost within my own head as if I were reading them. You are welcome here. You are our guest.
I looked behind me and tried to sidle to one side, but it was as if the statue had anticipated my movement. Slowly I was being coaxed deeper into the tower.
Please, please, the statue said. Welcome! Welcome! And then, Did you call ahead? Did you? No matter, no matter. We shall accommodate you.
It forced me deep into a large room, the one that filled the whole base of the tower. In the center were two crystalline shafts, tubes stretching up into the air to touch the ceiling ten meters above. At the bottom of each of these shafts was a little room. Slowly, with shooing motions, it ushered me into one.
The walls were of brushed steel, the only decoration a rectangular panel just inside the entrance covered with circles numbered 1 to 16.
What floor? the statue asked. What floor?
“Floor?” I asked. I was unsure of what exactly it was asking or of what to say.
But apparently what I had said had been enough. It reached around the corner and into the little room and pressed the circle marked 4.
A good trip, sir, said the statue, a very good trip! And then it turned and made its way back to the entrance.
After a moment a brushed steel wall slid sideways to seal me in the room. And then there was a brief grinding noise and this wall slid back and revealed the chamber outside, just as it had been before. I pressed the circle marked 4 and the same sequence occurred again, but nothing further. I waited for something more to happen but nothing did, and the next time I depressed the circle the little room remained as it had been when I first stepped into it: no closing wall, no grinding noise.
Eventually I stepped out of the tiny room again and, giving the statue a wide berth, made my way across the larger room and to a broken window. I climbed through it and made my way swiftly out, expecting the statue to again come to life and stop me. But it never did.
Which was why, five years later, when the vermin ran out altogether and we finally decided we could not do without Hrafndis’s help, I was sent to the tower. I had survived entering it when I was young, or at least younger. I was the only one, person or straggler, to enter the tower and come out alive. Didn’t that prove I was chosen?
“No,” I said, “it doesn’t.”
“Lucky then,” they said, the others, the ones that were us but weren’t me. “Lucky is enough. Lucky is all we have.”
I could have resisted. I could have refused to go, or could have pretended to go and then left the ruined city altogether. But to be honest I was curious. And I figured perhaps she had realized that it was I, though too young to do much, who, when she was trapped in her hole with the straggler, had shouted, pounded on the stone, and tried to move it until the others dragged me away.
Was it I? I think so. At least it seems that way to me now.
Besides, what sort of life did I have? Did I care to remain and slowly die of starvation along with the others? Perhaps she would kill me, but would that be much worse?
Near the entrance, I came across the same statue. It was on its side now, sleeping perhaps, or perhaps broken. I did not touch it, not wanting to tempt fate. I did not even step over it. Instead, I climbed in the window I had climbed out of five years before.
I entered one of the two small rooms at the bottom of a crystalline shaft, pressing the button just as I had seen the statue do, but nothing happened. No grinding noise, no door closing. The same was the case with the other small room.
I decided to explore the base of the tower. It was a large, echoing chamber, empty except for two small rooms and the crystalline shafts. And yet, as I walked along its perimeter, I saw in the walls four indentations spaced evenly from one another, four compass points disrupting the edge of this circular chamber. One was indeed little more than an alcove and the one directly across from it was the same. But the remaining two, if you entered them, had a nearly invisible handhold upon their back wall that could be tugged upon to open a door.
I opened one and saw a flight of stairs zigzagging upward. I climbed them, clambering up, until the point where they abruptly broke off, the well that the stairs were in having partly collapsed. I prodded and poked at the rubble, but it was soon clear to me that there would be no going further, and so I traced my way back down and tried the other door.
Here, I had better luck. The stairs broke off halfway up, but were not fully blocked. I could scramble, crouched, up to a point where the stairwell was open again, and there, though there were not further stairs, dangled the end of a rope, the strand knotted every yard or so all the way to the top. I got hold of it, then pulled myself up, hand over hand, the wind whistling around me.
Halfway up I paused, dizzy. If she wanted to, I realized, Hrafndis could simply untie the rope before I reached safety. That would be the end of me. Still dizzy, I kept climbing, more rapidly this time. When at last I reached the ledge on the top I rolled onto it and lay there panting, waiting for the world to stop spinning.
When I felt all right again, I stood and went to the door. I tried the handle and found it unlocked. For a moment, I almost opened it, but then thought better of it. Instead, I softly knocked.
“Come in,” she said immediately, no hint of surprise in her voice, no hesitation.
I turned the handle and went in.
She was in the first room, sitting in a wingback chair. She was even more pale than I remembered from seeing her walk away brandishing Thurn’s torn off arm. And severe, as if she were made of bone rather than flesh and blood. From a closed door behind her came a noise like a straggler tearing another straggler apart. When she saw me, she smiled slightly, lips closed.
“I have been expecting you,” she said. There was a strange warble to her voice, like she was speaking underwater. Like she wasn’t used to it. To speaking.
“Expecting me?” I sat down. I kept my eyes on the door behind her. The noises had diminished somewhat but never stopped completely..
“To be honest, I expected you before now. You think because I live far above you I do not know anything about you. But I do. You’ve come here because you need help,” she said. “All of you need help, but only you come.”
“I was chosen to come, to represent the others,” I explained.
“Just as you were chosen before to investigate my chem at the base of the tower,” she said. “Why is it always only you?”
“Chem?” I said. “Ah,” I said, “you mean the statue.”
She laughed, the noise high and bird-like, amused. “If you like,” she said.
She stood and crossed to a table on the other side of the room. There was something wrong with the way she walked, tipping from side to side, her boots oddly deflated at the end, as if her toes and a good part of the fore of her foot did not exist..
She took two porcelain cups from the tabletop, turned them upright, and filled them from a samovar resting at the table’s center. Or, not a samovar exactly, but something I did not have a word for. She brought me one of the steaming cups and returned with the other to her chair.
“Sit,” she said. “Drink.”
I did not sit, nor did I drink. She sat there regarding me, as motionless as a statue herself.
Finally she moved. “You come asking something of me,” she said, “and yet you will not accept my hospitality?”
And so, knowing what I needed from her and not knowing how we could proceed with my doing otherwise, I finally sat, and sipped from the cup she had given me.
When she had finished her tea, she leaned down and placed it on the floor beside the chair. I did the same.
“I will be frank with you,” she said. “I will not help them. They did not help me. Why should I help them?”
“We will die without you,” I said.
“They will die without me,” she said. “I did not say I would not help you.” And then she smiled in a way that revealed her mouth to have more rows of teeth than I had previously known to be possible. “Though you might well regret how I do,” she added.
I tried to speak, but could not speak. I tried to get up but could not move.
“Please don’t be concerned,” she said. “It’s temporary. It will wear off soon. She walked over to my chair and picked up the cup. “It was unkind of me to deceive you into drinking this tea.”
A moment later I slid from my chair and fell to the ground. My eyes were still open: I could see everything.
“It won’t last long,” she said.
I watched her legs approach, her boots. She teetered toward me, then she began to drag me by the arms toward the door.
When she opened it, the noise inside grew louder. It still sounded like one straggler tearing another weaker straggler apart, though it was too dark to see anything clearly, to see what exactly it was.
She dragged me in. Abruptly the noise ceased. Then she smiled once down at me.
“Soon it will wear off,” she whispered. “Your extremities are, perhaps, already tingling. When sufficient time has passed, if you are still alive, I will open the door and let you out.”
She went out. Slowly she slid the door shut, bolted it from the outside and left me in the darkness.
I was there for days, weeks perhaps, and the things that happened to me were far too terrible, are far too terrible still. There was light and noise, a flutter of wings that were not wings, a man screaming who both was and was not me. The press of other creatures tugging at my extremities, the seepage of one skin through another skin, the loss of most of one foot then the lost of most of the other, a man pounding on the door and begging in a voice not entirely his own to be set free.
But in the end, she was not the one to open the door. I was the one who opened it, breaking the door down as easily as she had broken the stone that blocked her hole. I was not myself by that time, though in telling this I believe I have learned how to pretend to be myself again.
I broke the door down and came out intending to kill her, but I did not kill her. Instead, upon seeing her, that desire faded to be replaced by wonder. Here, I suddenly found myself thinking, is the only other being in the world who can understand me.
And there we stood, bone-white the both of us, regarding one another. The door stood still open behind me, revealing a room that was, now, immaculate, that looked almost as if it had been licked clean.
Which, indeed, as I knew all too well, it had.
We have not come down from the tower, she and I. That is not to say that others have not come up, even those I once knew, looking for food, looking for help. They have not come down from the tower either, but for other reasons entirely. You will not find them here. Indeed, there is no sign they were ever even here.