Winds from the east blasted over the sand dunes and piled yellow-red
sand against the Tower of Scattering Winds. At the entrance men and women
dressed in white robes and with blue cloths covering their noses and mouths
against the swirling dust scooped the sand into buckets which they carried
bent-backed into the tower. From there they would start to climb the stairs to
the top floor where the work was done. It was difficult work. Back-breaking
work. But they were outside time, in a sense they created time. They had all
the time they needed to get to the top floor of the tower.
As they climbed the stairs, knees trembling under the weight, wisps of sand escaped from the buckets to be carried away again to lie in the corners of the steps and to later find its way outside again.
No one quite knew how it worked, only that it did. No matter how long or short the trip was up the stairs, when the Life Timer carrying the sand reached the room where the glass timers were filled, there was only enough sand left to fill one timer. And, furthermore, in that timer would be every second given to the person in the great Book of Time.
Sometimes sand was carried into the room on the Life Timers’ robes. These they would shake as they entered the room, trailing yellow-red time sand behind them. And that is where Dagna worked. He gathered these seconds and minutes into a bag with a tiny brush. Mostly the Life Timers ignored him. To them he was inconsequential – someone unseen who sometimes had to be tolerated because he spoke of the world outside the sands surrounding the Tower.
Everyone knew of the world outside, of course – there were the seemingly mythical people for whom the Life Timers were made, after all. But it did not do to speak of it. Many simply wasted the sand which were so laboriously gathered and carried to the top of the stairs where they could be put into the frail glass timer that they would later shatter and which would become part of the sand itself. Time was never lost. It just changed hands.
But Dagna moved within the world with his bag of seconds and minutes that he would give to those who needed it the most. Yet, sometimes, it seemed that there was never enough of the extra time to go around. He could only grab a pinch or two of sand from the bag at any one time. He could never take out a whole handful to give to someone, even a new mother or a dying wife. Sometimes the second it took just to say the word “goodbye” was all that he could manage. That was the part which they did not understand. He couldn’t just dole it out to everyone, he couldn’t save anyone.
Once he had gathered all the scattered sand, he slung the thick canvas over his shoulder and pulled his own blue scarf over his nose and mouth. Then he slowly walked down the stairs and unlocked the great door that would lead him out of the Tower of Scattering Winds and into the world where time reigned over all.
Soon he was sprinkling sand in-between the seconds which would mean life and death. Here someone needed three seconds to miss dying in a car accident. There a new mother needed a few to save her and her baby’s life. Here he was too late to save someone until they could say farewell.
Dagna stared down at the bed. Around it he could see the ghostly glimmer of the broken glass timer fading. The young man by the side of the bed also stared down at the empty body. He looked up, staring straight through Dagna.
“I’m sorry,” Dagna said, reaching into the empty canvas bag. “There was no time.”
He stepped away from the scene back into the world of the Tower of Scattering Winds. He sat down on one of the dunes and watched the Life Timers gather their sand. The sight blurred and he rubbed the salt water from his eyes before plunging his hand into the warm sand and letting a fist full of minutes run through his fingers. He wondered if there was ever enough sand. The face of the young man at the deathbed was burned into his mind.
He stood, brushed stray seconds from his clothes and went into the tower’s hall of glass timers. Above each of the timers hovered a life-like manikin of the person whose it was. There he searched through the thousands upon thousands until he found the young man’s. As he stared at it, the life timer seemed to grow bigger, grow fuller, or perhaps both.
“You’re no doubt wondering what it all means,” an elderly voice creaked next to him.
Startled, Dagna took a step back from the man next
to him. The man’s face was dark and furrowed with deep wrinkles.
“What does it mean?” Dagna asked and looked down at the timer in his hands.
The old man smiled.
“He’d started to live.”
“The Tower of Scattering Winds” – Behind the scenes
This story was written after reading some of Jorge Luis Borges’ short stories (if you haven’t had the chance to read them, definitely make the time!). I’ve loved his fiction since I first read some of it at university, and was lucky enough to come across a beautiful volume of the fiction by Penguin a few years ago. (Did I end up buying it on the spot? Why yes, I did. I regret nothing.)
I didn’t want to write a “Borges story”, but rather wanted to capture one of the images that rose in my mind while reading. I think it’s wrong to believe that writers only get their ideas from other writers and then rip them off, so to speak. I’ve often read something and gotten an idea for a story that’s completely at odds to what I’m reading.
Anyway, I wanted to do a myth-like story (myffic, if you want), but I actually did not know the end of the story until I’d written it! Looking back, I guess Thief of Time by Terry Pratchett – one of my favourite Discworld books – had an influence on the story, as did watching Dead Poets Society not too long before writing this. And who doesn’t want to “carpe diem!” after watching that film!