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I vividly remember what life was like in 1935 before I lived in this tower, before my nanny died, before my family died, before everyone in India and the rest of the world died, and before I turned fifteen. It was impossible to forget the important details since Dorothy, my nanny, always reminisced about the past. She’d also reassure me about the future, telling me I could look forward to it. “But there won’t be anyone in it!” I’d exclaim.
“You’ll always have friends,” she’d say. She was right because the crows had been looking after us, flying to the terrace or to the sole window in the tower to give us food. For many years my grandmother had fed a crow that had alighted on her window at nine in the morning and somehow since then the corvids were always there when we needed them.
Though I thought of the corvids as friends, I craved to see humans, to touch their skin, to talk to them, to eat with them, to laugh with them, and to remember what life had been like when they had been around. The crows sympathised with Dorothy and me, fetching nightingales to sing for us, peacocks to entrance us with their majestic tails and their dances, and pigeons to bring scraps of paper with writing we could read. “Are you sure we’re the only humans left?” I asked her.
“Don’t you think a swan would have led other humans to us if they existed? Remember the legend of Damayanthi and Nala. It was a swan who made them fall in love with each other,” Dorothy answered. “Your mother could understand birds better than we could.”
Our feathered friends whistled their warnings to my mother in our garden. They told her to get a tower built where we could live. They showered her with gold coins so she could hire laborers. My father wanted to keep the coins for our needs, but my mother insisted that we listen to the birds. She nagged him until, a few years later, he finally agreed.
For two years I’d wake up to the sounds of workmen constructing the tower. They’d sweat excessively and their faces would turn unnaturally red. My nanny fed them nutritious meals and gave them coconut water to quench their thirst.
My mother gazed at the terrace and said, “We’ll be able to see everything for miles from up there.”
“How exciting!” I clapped my hands. At that moment my father rushed into our room to tell us that the people in our village were sick and that most people in the nearby villages were dead.
“The birds were wise. They didn’t want anyone to infect us. We’ll move into the tower,” my mother said.
“We already have the sickness,” my father said, pointing to his toes, which were unnaturally red like mine were. “It’s the first sign,” my father added. My mother and Dorothy wiggled their red toes.
My mother collapsed onto the bed and my father hugged us, saying, “At least we’ll all die together.”
“Perhaps we’ll get better,” she said.
“We have to be realistic,” my father said. “No one recovers from this illness. From what I’ve heard, I don’t think anyone will survive it. It’s spread to all the provinces in India. Everyone in the world will die. We have to remember our bodies will perish, but our souls are immortal. We’ll be reunited in heaven.”
“Will there be space in heaven for the whole world?” I asked.
“Of course. God is omnipotent,” my father said.
My mother said, “We should let the workers finish building the tower. What if we get better? We can move there.” A couple of days later, she felt bad when she saw the terrible condition the labourers were in and she told them she would pay them their wages and then they could leave. They refused to stop because they wanted more money for their families. My mother told them she’d give them plenty of gold coins beyond what they deserved without their having to do anything, but they didn’t think that was fair. After a week, knowing they didn’t have the health to continue working, they descended a ladder, which was propped against the castle. My parents were sad the labourers wouldn’t be able to enjoy their hard-earned wages. It was little consolation to them that the men had been able to support their families the last couple of years of their lives.
The labourers looked like they’d drop dead any minute as my father filled their cupped hands with gold coins. He tried not to stare at their fiery red knuckles. Most of the men had gone bald in the last few days. One of them shivered. Another man dropped an unnatural amount of saliva on the ground. They apologised about not being able to construct the staircase that would have connected the area inside the front door to the rooms high up in the tower. My father said, “We won’t live much longer so we won’t need the castle. Still we’re grateful for what you’ve done. We have something splendid to feast our eyes on during our last few days. I don’t think anyone will survive the sickness.” A labourer, with a large bump on his forehead, was the last to walk away. He collapsed and died before he could open the gate.
The next few days we shivered in the heat and wrapped shawls around ourselves. We were tired all the time. Our toes shone red, red, red, advertising our sickness. We began sprouting bumps on our foreheads. A stranger, who came to our door to beg for some food, told us all the people in his village were dead. He had a large bump on his forehead and a single lock on his pate. A shivering Dorothy gave him a generous helping of rice and curries, and he blessed her. Assuming I was her daughter, he put his hand on my head. My father invited him to stay with us, but he wanted to die in the village he’d been born in. Dorothy and I stood outside the door waving goodbye to him. Then something weird happened. He disappeared at the edge of our property. Dorothy told me that the sickness was making us hallucinate. She pointed to his footprints that continued beyond our property.
The first time my hair fell off in clumps I cried. Then I became too weak to care, too weak to do anything but lie down. “I don’t want to die,” I wailed in bed. I slept most of the time. I was vaguely aware of my sick parents hovering and fussing over me. My mother sobbed into her palms. “I never thought my daughter would die before me,” I heard her cry when she thought I was sleeping.
I fell asleep and had strange vivid dreams in which my nanny and I were the only ones alive. We lived in the tower, and we grew used to this new kind of existence. When I woke up, I felt that something had changed. The room seemed weird. My bed faced an arched window. I was confused for a few minutes until I realised I was in the tower. My head felt heavy and strange. When I touched my hair, it was thicker than it used to be. In fact a black river ran down one side of my body, past my toes, past the foot of the bed. The black river was my hair, which had grown back while I’d been asleep. I felt my forehead, which was smooth as it had always been. I called my parents, but it was my nanny who came running in from the only other room in the tower, the kitchen.
Dorothy gently broke the news to me that my parents had died. I’d slept for more than two weeks while the world as we’d known it had ceased to exist. Some of the desperately sick villagers had come to our property. Under the influence of dangerous hallucinations, they’d run around fighting each other. They’d thrown stones at our windows. Fortunately around that time a few of the labourers, who’d worked for us, had returned for a meal. They scared the men away with our kitchen knives. Dorothy fed the labourers a pyramid of idlis or dumplings with sambar to flavour it. They ate the food, knowing it would probably be the last time they ever enjoyed a meal. Following Dorothy’s instructions, the grateful workmen used a pulley system to get a few pieces of furniture and some of our belongings inside the tower. Then they carried me up, and after my nanny followed me into the bedroom, they obeyed her for the last time by destroying the ladder. She, finally, felt safe from the troublemakers.
“I was asleep all that time?” I asked Dorothy.
She nodded. “It’s good you didn’t see your parents die.”
“Where are their bodies?” I asked.
“They’re still lying in their beds as if they’re asleep.”
“How will I live without them?”
“You have me,” she said, embracing me.
I couldn’t cry, though I tried hard to. All the sadness was bottled up in me. It wasn’t just my hair that had changed after my sickness – I had the ability to understand what the birds were communicating just like my mother had been able to. A couple of months later, a sparrow chirped the news that we were the only humans it had seen.
For a whole year, I didn’t cry, shedding tears only when a sick bird died on our windowsill. I was upset not just for my feathered friend but for my parents, for everyone I’d known, and for the way of life I used to have. Dorothy and I grew used to our new existence. We wished we could escape the tower, though. I’d look out the window at the trees in the distance and long to wander outside. Dorothy said that perhaps the isolation had helped us survive.
Every morning, a choir of birds from the forest near the edge of our property serenaded us with their songs. Dorothy became a substitute mother to me, but she had always regarded me as her daughter when my mother had been alive. She didn’t resemble her, though. Dorothy was an Anglo-Indian, whose mother had come to our village after she’d gotten married. My nanny mainly spoke English to me. We told each other our thoughts as we looked out at the unpopulated landscape. In some respects, we were content because we had each other. We invented stories to pass the time. Dorothy never ran out of tales. She’d been a voracious reader before the pandemic had destroyed humans. She cooked fabulous meals out of the vegetables she grew on the terrace and the ingredients the birds brought us. She oiled and brushed my hair, which she cut every month but which still grew back quickly. She patiently plaited my hair and stuck flowers from the potted plants in the terrace in each braid. She taught me her wide repertoire of songs and nothing gave me greater pleasure than to open the window and sing a song, imagining there were still people alive who could hear me.
“How did this pandemic start?” I once asked her.
“A bat must have infected the first human who got it.”
“Bats are our friends,” I said.
“Yes, but they didn’t deliberately give the sickness to us. They were also victims. They, too, fell ill and died in great numbers. By the way, bats aren’t birds.”
“What are they?” I tucked a tiny loose flower back into my braid, savouring the scent that it gave off.
“They’re mammals. Unlike birds, bats don’t have any feathers nor do they lay eggs. They give birth to their babies.”
“But they can fly,” I said.
“Well, we used to fly in planes,” she said.
“I wish I could see a plane,” I said.
“The world used to be filled with wonders, but we have everything we need to have a happy life.”
“No, we don’t. My parents are dead. Your siblings are dead. We can’t go outside. We’re doomed to live our lives here.”
“When we lived in the cottage we became sick, but this tower only holds good memories.”
“We lost everyone we loved.”
“Remember your father told you that souls are imperishable?”
“I guess they’re watching us from heaven. We’ll be reunited when we get there.”
“And we won’t have to worry about diseases or sicknesses after we die. I remember the Spanish flu that killed fifty million people around the world. That was in 1918 when I was twenty-two years old. Many of my relatives died from the Spanish flu. Twenty-five million Indians died. If our species could have lived into the twenty-second century or the twenty-third, scientists would have found a cure for most sicknesses. But I think before that humans would have fought against each other and everyone would have perished.”
“Do you really think so?”
“Yes, I’m sure.”
When I turned seventeen, I couldn’t imagine my life was going to be more isolated. The year started off well because my nanny was more loving than she’d ever been and I felt no one had ever been as loved as I was. Anytime I did something stupid like burn a dish of rice, she’d kiss my forehead and tell me not to worry. When I’d accidentally step on her foot, she’d shrug it off. She brushed my hair more carefully than she had all these years. “You’re special. No matter what happens you’ll be all right,” she said. She taught me about the medicinal value of different herbs. She described the forest near the tower. When she was a little girl she used to travel through it with her father to reach this village. She taught me how to stitch so I could turn my mother’s saris into blouses and long skirts. I’d never been happier, even in those times when the world had been throbbing with people. Every morning, I burst out of bed, eager to feel the sun on my skin, to let the wind cool my face, and to talk to Dorothy.
One such morning, I confessed, “I didn’t think it would be possible to be happy after my parents died.”
“I didn’t think so either. I, too, have found paradise here, though as a little girl I could never be confined to my house. You’ve been like the daughter I never had.” She placed a hand on her chest, her eyes widening with fear.
I looked out the window, wondering if there was something alarming outside.
“What is it?”
“I know you can care for yourself,” she said. “But you need someone.” She closed her eyes and slumped back in her seat. One minute she’d confided about how happy she was and the next minute she’d slipped away from our paradise for another one.
When her body began to stink, I dragged the corpse to the terrace and threw it to the ground, where I wouldn’t be able to see it from the window. Dorothy would have been happy to know her corpse had fed our vulture friends, who’d circled the skies above the tower and swooped down. It didn’t seem barbaric to me because Parsis, followers of Zoroastrianism, had disposed of the dead in the same manner. Dorothy had been a Christian, but, like a good Hindu, she had recognised the validity of other faiths, and she’d been ready to borrow whatever she’d liked from other religions. She’d accompanied my parents and me on pilgrimages to Hindu temples, wearing her crucifix under her sari. No one who’d seen her would have believed she used to go to church as a child.
Dorothy’s death filled me with the kind of sorrow I’d never known, not even when my parents had died. I tried to believe I was alive for some reason and that was why I’d survived the illness that had killed my family. I craved the happiness I’d had with Dorothy, her tenderness, the love she’d poured on me. I ached for her soothing touch, her loving brushstrokes that had tamed my hair. I drew a portrait of her and nailed it to the wall, but the picture didn’t capture her likeness. It could have been anyone who had a chubby face, a slight double chin, a rotund body, and plump arms and legs.
After the first year of mourning, I lost myself in the same schedule I had when Dorothy was alive, and I felt serene while I brushed my hair, cultivated the vegetables, prepared meals, fed the birds, and sang. She wouldn’t have wanted me to be filled with despair. Sometimes I imagined her shadow was moving, but it would be mine. Sometimes I thought she called me, but it was my mind tricking me.
Another two years passed in this way. One day a pigeon alighted on the window with a slip of paper. When I came close, I glimpsed a written word on it. I picked up the scrap of paper and read, “Help.”
Someone was alive, a person who wrote in English and not in an Indian language! The cursive wasn’t the type used by Indians. I wrote “I’ll help you” on the other side of the scrap of paper. The pigeon took it from me. Before I could question the bird, it flew off with the paper in its beak. Now I was committed to helping the person, though I was a prisoner in the tower. I didn’t know where the person was or what sort of help she or he needed.
I tried to figure out how I could help the person while I brushed my hair. Suddenly, I realised I could braid my hair, cut it off, and fix it to the window. Ten minutes later, I had a strong, silky black rope dangling from the window. My head felt light. The tips of my hair grazed my neck just below my earlobes. I carefully manoeuvred myself out of the window, grasped my braid, and slid to the ground. I gazed at my feet planted miraculously on the grass, and I smelled the earth. The cottage beckoned, and I was tempted to push open the unlocked door in spite of the rescue mission that awaited me. The living room had been desecrated by strangers. A couple of windows were broken. Roaches skittered underneath a sofa. Lizards and spiders also lived in the house. My parents’ bedroom looked just like I’d remembered it: blue curtains on the windows, the bed facing the door, my mother’s toiletries on the dressing table, and a huge cupboard in a corner. I felt like a ten-year-old girl who needed her parents. And then I saw them lying on the bed, their hands clasped together. It was really their skeletons. For a long moment, I gazed at them unable to advance or retreat. Finally, I walked backwards and closed the door gently, as if I might wake them from their eternal sleep.
Once I was outside again, I composed myself since I needed to rescue the stranger. I headed to the forest, which was another kind of confinement with the trees and vegetation closing in on me, but I wasn’t alone. The chirping, cooing, clucking, hooting, and strange noises reminded me this was a place that teemed with life. I cherished the freedom of being in the wilderness, enjoying the touch of vegetation and the sight of wildflowers. As the darkness descended, I found the river Dorothy had described. I spotted a cave where she and her brother had played, and I rested inside it at night.
When the sun came out, I followed the river and I gathered berries and ate them, pleased that they tasted delicious. In the afternoon I found a green cap, then a shoe, then a suitcase with just a shirt in it. I was sure everything I’d discovered belonged to the person who’d asked for help. I spotted a book hanging on a tree, which I fished out with a long wooden stick. It was a copy of The Great Gatsby. I opened the first page and read the name of the man who owned it – Mark Jones. I walked with the book, shouting “Mark” for ten minutes until my voice felt hoarse, and I gazed at something unfamiliar in a clearing. It was a plane with a missing door and broken wings. I went inside, but Mark wasn’t there. I stared at the interior of the plane, never having seen one before. I returned outside trying to investigate any clues that would lead me to Mark and after half an hour, I came across his footprints. As I followed them, they became weaker. I sporadically called out to him.
I strained my ears for a sound. A simian flung a banana at me. I picked it up in case I found Mark and needed to give him something to eat.
After walking for half the day, I heard a parrot saying, “You’re kidding.” He flew close to me and felt comfortable enough to perch on my shoulder.
“Mark,” I continued to shout.
“Damn,” the parrot said, and I laughed. He flew away before I could ask where his owner was and what had happened to him. The forest was thick now with creepy vines and snakes that slithered around. I saw a button on a rock, a few drops of blood, and I knew I was on the right track. My voice was hoarse from periodically crying out. During one of my silences, I heard the twang of an American voice.
“Is anyone out there?”
“Mark, where are you?”
“Here,” he kept shouting.
I followed the voice until I saw a blue-eyed man whose hair flowed like a golden river, past his knees. His face and body were a map of scars and bruises and wounds. The shirt he wore was half torn off and his trousers were in tatters. He blinked when he saw me. “Any chance I dreamed up the end of the world? I mean did humans really get wiped out six years ago?” were his first words to me. “Are you an illusion?”
“I’m real. I haven’t seen anyone for three years. I’m alone. I got your message,” I said.
“Wow! I didn’t think there was a chance anyone would come to my aid.”
“Didn’t you get my message?”
“The paper was stained. I didn’t know there was a message for me. I just thought the pigeon had brought back my note.”
“Are you hungry?” I offered him the banana.
“Thanks,” he muttered, taking it from me. In one swoop, he peeled most of the skin off and half the banana disappeared into his mouth. The parrot reappeared and perched on Mark’s shoulder.
We made our way through the forest to the cottage, eating and drinking, resting, sleeping, and telling each other our amazing stories. He’d come from America, where there were a few hundred survivors. Half the survivors had hair like ours that grew inches every day. Mark had been eighteen when the illness had struck. His father was a pilot who taught him how to fly. Mark thought he’d see the world, but the illness changed everything. Everyone in his family except for him succumbed to it. The survivors moved into a town near the sea, resided in the best houses, and grew vegetables and crops. They supplemented their meagre diet with lobsters and fish. They stopped believing in God. The survivors only fantasised about Him the way people had about Santa Claus and the tooth fairy. Mark was restless to discover if there were other people outside of America. When he told the survivors about his plan to fly to another continent, no one wanted to accompany him.
We moved into the cottage, and when Mark became stronger we buried the skeletal remains of my parents and Dorothy in the backyard. His love for me was a strange combination of gratefulness and affection. It was a luxury to be touched and adored again. He regarded me as the heroine of his life. “Dad told me that one day I’d meet someone I’d fall in love with. He always said that behind every successful man there’s a woman. I think he wouldn’t have been half the man he’d been without Mom by his side.”
The years passed blissfully. I cultivated a large vegetable garden that brought back memories of Dorothy. I also grew coriander and basil leaves. Mark said that I had a green thumb. “No,” I shook my head, looking at my dark brown hand caked with mud.
“When someone says you have a green thumb, it means the person is good at gardening,” he explained. Goats and rabbits roamed around our property, eating our vegetables. One morning I looked out of the window, and I saw a person wearing a straw hat. Excited, I ran out of the cottage, hoping he would be someone we could be friends with. There was something strange about him. His shirt and trousers rippled in the wind. “Hello,” I shouted, but he didn’t reply. He couldn’t! He was a creature made out of straw! Mark had created him to scare away the animals, but the ploy only worked for a while. Soon our vegetables began disappearing again. In my fantasies, I imagined there was someone living at the edge of the forest who stole from our garden, but it was the goats and rabbits nibbling our vegetables and herbs. Sometimes they even stared gratefully at the scarecrow. The crows liked resting on its arms and talking to me. “I don’t know if it’s a rumour, but a dove told me she heard there are pockets of people still alive in the world,” a raven said.
“I hope it’s true,” I said.
Mark created a fence around our vegetable patch to keep the animals out. “My grandfather taught me how to make things. He was a good carpenter.” Mark was a gifted carpenter himself and he built a ladder so that we could sometimes go inside the tower. When I wanted to descend, I preferred to slide down using my braid.
Two years after we met I was expecting our first child. “I didn’t know it was possible to be this happy without civilisation,” Mark said. At that moment, a sleek white metal bird flew across the sky. As we gazed at the plane our minds filled with dread, then hope, then dread, then hope, knowing that perhaps the time had arrived when the world would be connected again.
We could never have guessed that the strangers who arrived would take us to Europe and from there to America. Mark’s parrot remained in India. He told me he would miss us, but he didn’t want to part with his new feathered friends. As we got off the plane in Massachusetts, many people welcomed us. Some of the women had long hair like mine, and they twirled their long braids, which, Mark told me was a new way of greeting people. Many of the men and children were ecstatic to see Mark again. We were served a meal in a hangar. While we ate, a woman who exuded authority told us how civilisation was slowly coming back together and that a few lucky people who’d survived had developed a special gift. “Do you possess a certain skill?” she asked me. I looked at a seagull that swooped down from the sky. I called out to it. It glided close to my feet. “You’re the girl from the tower. I’d heard about you from other seagulls, but I didn’t think a human could communicate with us,” it squawked. “See that boy with a long ponytail? He throws stones at me. Can you tell him not to do that?”
I looked at the boy. I wanted to tell him it was illegal, but I didn’t know if the people here followed any laws. My guess was that they did. I translated what the seagull had said to the people. The boy with the ponytail stared at me, his mouth hanging open. “She can really talk to the birds. Cool.”
“Don’t ever throw stones at the bird again. Do you understand? It’s illegal,” I said, wondering what the Americans would make of me.
“How did you know it’s illegal?” a woman asked. “Can you read minds as well?”
“No, I just guessed.”
“Can you teach me how to talk to birds?” the boy asked.
“Well, you have to first start treating them like your friends,” I said.
The men and women stared at me with awe. Mark told them there was something else that was special about me. He told them how I’d lived with Dorothy in a tower and then after she’d died, I’d been alone. Soon, I became known as the girl from the tower, but my new friends didn’t mean anything bad by it. On the contrary, they thought the moniker was special because I’d blossomed in isolation. It amazed me that the birds also referred to me in the same way. I knew that even if humans eventually died out, the avian species would sing about me, keeping the memory of humankind alive. I would be a legend, though all I ever wanted when I lived in the tower was the return of civilisation, and most importantly, my family, and Dorothy.