City of the Dead
(© Biswapriya Purkayastha)
"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
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
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