There was and is a tower, a tall, dark tower.
One day, a fugitive – ragged but not lost – came to this tower.
The tower stood beside a wild sea, which constantly washed its face with spray. Day after day the sea would send clouds of cold spray high into the air, where some of the droplets splashed onto the thick, crystal windows of the tower.
The sea thundered on the rocks and covered the arriving ragged man with salt-water, but his only reaction was to smile.
Through the crystal glass at the top of the dark tower, an old man watched the world beneath him. Every day he would look out at the streaks of sea water on the outside of the thick glass. Sometimes he shuddered at the ferocity of the sea; at its determination to get through the crystal glass. At these times he wondered at the stupidity of the natural world, that it would waste such energy trying to get through his toughened windows to the place where he was safe. Science had given him the glass. He thought about the cleverness of humans, about everything they knew, all the knowledge they had amassed and how they had been able to store it so effectively.
His tower was a repository of such knowledge. Its white, winding stairway, which spiralled up to the top of the tower, was lined with expertly-crafted, curving shelves. These shelves contained every book that the old man had wanted in his long life. Many were unread; some were partly-read. A few – nine of them – lay on the large, oak table that was the main feature of the single room where the old man lived, high above the dark, rocky coast, and the relentless sea that spat against the crystal windows.
The old man became aware that something had changed in the out-there. His life had been marked by acute awareness and he trusted such instincts. He stood up from his task of rearranging the nine books, and looked down through the smeared, crystal windows at the sea-spray and the raging sea. Against the sea was framed the dark figure of the fugitive, staggering backwards towards the boiling foam.
“Nooooo! You’lll die in that deep!” cried the old man, his voice seeming to shake the entire top of the tower. The figure below seemed to be laughing up at him. Was he drunk or ill thought the old man? He gripped the lead window frames as though the panes of crystal glass were about to be blown from their secure places – and the horrors of the world let in…
Before he could object to his unfathomable decision, the old man found himself racing down his spiral staircase to the solid, oak door that was the only entrance to the dark tower. He swung it open and ran outside, skidding on the salt-slippery limestone into which the foundations of the tower were deeply bored.
The fugitive was on his hands and knees, being dragged towards the edge of the land by the howling wind and a draught of air so salty that the old man could taste it. As the old man rounded the tower’s base, the fugitive, kneeling in the spray, looked up at him with a light in his eyes, a light that did not belong to the storm. The fugitive held out his hands as a vicious gust of the salty wind threatened to spin him around and toss him into the dark sea.
Before he could understand how he had come to be there, taking such risks, the old man found himself clutching the dirty fingers of the fugitive–then the wrists, as the slippery flesh of the thin digits began to slide from his unpracticed grasp.
Minutes later, the two of them stood in the shadow of the tower. The old man was shaking with an emotion that made his throat feel tight. The fugitive was also shaking, but with the cold and the effects of his sodden clothing. The old man still had hold of the fugitive’s wrists. Laughing, the fugitive prised his hands loose, and thanked the old man for saving his life… but there was a gleam in his eyes when he said it. The fugitive asked if he might come in and dry himself. Mute, the old man pointed the way to the oak door, which, and inexplicably, he had left open.
They began to climb, but the dripping figure of the fugitive kept stopping.
“I’ve heard of that book,” he said, after each few steps, brushing the dust from the spines so he could more clearly see the name and author. “And you have read them all… how clever you must be!”
“I haven’t read them all,” the fugitive found himself responding as they climbed. Why did he feel the need to justify himself to this pathetic figure, he wondered?
“But most of them?” asked the fugitive.
The old man shook his head, exasperated at the truth being dragged from him. He clutched for something, but was aghast at what came out of his mouth. “I know where they all are!” he said, trying to bite back the words the second they were uttered.
After that, the fugitive said little, and their ascent was punctuated only by the dripping and slopping of the other man’s old coat on the white stairway.
They reached the warm chamber at the top of the tower and the fugitive’s eyes fell on the blazing wood fire. The old man motioned him to stand beside it. The fugitive continued to say nothing, but looked down on the heaving seas, below. As he did so, the sea lashed the crystal windows with such force that the old man shrank back to the far reaches of the circular chamber.
“It’s me she wants,” the fugitive said softly, staring into the black, ever-shifting mass of the ocean.
“Why does she want you?” asked the old man.
“Because of what I don’t know,” said the fugitive.
©Copyright Stephen Tanham