He's blind, so he can't see the murals. They said, the priests with the buzzing voices, that it's his responsibility to keep them. Pure men must watch the tower. Many years ago, they say, there were other men, men with lilting voices and pointed ears, and they lived in the tower, but now they are gone, and it isn't meant for men to read the words they left, to trace the curling letters left on the flawless, centuries-old plaster on the walls.
So, they took him, the boy, before he was given a name, or before the soothsayer decided his birth sign or cast his star charts. He was raised, they tell him, to be blind. He was raised, they tell him, to be not ignorant (he is taught math by touch, he is taught history by rote: of everything else, they say, there is nothing important), but to not be given over to the things which concern other men. He is not taught the sword. He is not told untrue stories. He is not given poetry (not even that which he watches), and most importantly, he is not given to love.
At eighteen, they take him to the tower, lock him inside, and inform him of where the top of the tower is, where their carrier birds will bring him his food. Then, they tell him, they will purge their own eyes for gazing on the spire.
The priests, though priests, are men, and the boy is something other.
The tower is a wonder: the walls are smooth, the hearths light warm of their own accord. Beneath, there is a hot spring to bathe in: above, once a day, birds wing in, cooing, with packages strapped to their breast. If the boy does not eat well, neither does he starve, and roving from the springs to the pinnacle, where the wind is fresh, and the birds cry out to him from afar ensures that he is not idle.
In a room below, too, he has slates filled with lines, and with fingers and a stylus and counters, he solves equations. Here, like this. He rediscovers the arts mathematic, and, not knowing of them, does not concern himself with poetry or art.
Blind, he has no notion of time.
Blind, he has no notion of poetry.
Blind, he measures his days by the birds.
And so, one day, time stops.
* * *
He sits patiently at the top of the tower, waiting for them, but it seems they have been longer. His fingers work over a slate filled with equations: his nose twitches with the mountain breeze. There is nothing to smell in his home, in this curling spire of stairs and smooth rooms. Today, he finds it distracting, and he imagines (for once) being as light as the birds that must soon circle down with his food.
The boy does not once, you must understand, consider that they will not come.
There is a new noise, though, far below. He bends his blind face, cannot see, but hears a familiar striking against rock.
"Hail the tower!" a lilting voices cries out, nothing like the buzzing of the priests. He jerks in the window, does not fall. For a moment, he feels vertigo, like he is soaring to the stones below. He is silent, shocked into stillness by the echoing of the voice.
(He was told, you see, that there will be no one more to the tower.)
"Hail!" the voice cries out again. "Did they swear you to close your ears and cut out your tongue as well?"
He blushes then, hot. "Hail," he attempts, with his rasping voice. "Hail. Who comes to the poetry tower?"
* * *
The birds are being eaten.
This is not the first delay, the messenger explains. Or the last. Birds of prey have taken to devouring the plump birds, and the food bound to their breast. Now, though, they have gathered more of their kin, and fewer of the pigeons and doves have winged their way to the top of his home. Therefore, the priests have consented: a mercenary has been hired to loft arrows bound with food through the windows.
(The messenger has him stand, back pressed to the wall, when the arrow is shot. They explain that it could harm him, a concept that shocks him to the very core.)
Sometimes, the messenger calls up questions, which he cannot answer. One day, they begin to discuss math.
It is more difficult, he discovers, to explain these things without his fingers, and to shout through the wind. It is more difficult to focus on his equations without the messenger's lilting, higher voice. He finds himself more often at the window, waiting for the striking of horse hooves, for the hail to the tower.
So time passes. His days are now begun and ended by the lilting voice.
* * *
One day, the messenger informs him that she (she!) is not a man.
He is shocked into stillness. He remembers, perhaps, a mother, but this is beyond his experience. "You are not a priest, then?"
"Hardly!" She laughs up at him, her voice lilting. He likes it, has liked it. "They don't have the strength to fire the arrows. Why do you think they hired me to come all this way with your dinner?"
This is sensible, he tells her, and they continue on, debating equations back and forth. When the day ends, he finds that he does not want her to leave.
* * *
Some days later, the sound of her horse on the stone is slower, more reluctant. He waits, eagerly, as it comes up the path. There is no hail, and the voice does not lilt, and he understands, with a pang, that she has not come, and that the low voice is another person. Food is delivered; there is no discussion of equations.
The days seem longer now. Distracted, he finds himself constructing a crude clock, measuring the time between breaths to orchestrate the clacking of stones on pendants, back and forth. Soon, he is able to discern the shifting of temperature, the wailing of the winds in the mountains, as time passing.
He cannot seem to purge himself of the girl's voice.
* * *
It is many cold, wailing days, and many silent deliveries until she returns. He has spent miserable periods of time tracing the smooth walls, wondering if these are the impurities the priests had spoken of. The equations no longer hold attraction for him: he cannot forget the voice, cannot help but imagine where she is. He wonders if she is solving equations without him. He wonders, too, about other boys in other towers. Are there many like him, waiting in windows?
The food is less and less attractive.
One day, he thinks to leave it out, and hears the rustle of wings in his high window. He feeds crumbs to them, bit by bit, listening to their cooing. It is nothing at all, and everything at all, like the voice of his mercenary girl.
He find he cannot imagine more time without, and he grows a bit hungrier, feeding the birds and miserably thinking of her voice, fluting and lilting up to his window.
* * *
It has been many days, and yet, her voice lilts up to him, urgent. "Boy, boy!" she cries out. "Open the door!"
He scrambles to the window ledge, unseeing. "The door?" he answers, shocked.
"There is a door, below!" she insists.
* * *
It is too long, it is too short, it is not a day as his clock calculates, until he can find the place where the priests set him into the spire to watch for eternity. His hands are clumsy with the mechanisms: he barred it as he was ordered, and locked it, and he is not now familiar with the ways. It clacks, it clicks, and finally, it comes open.
A warm burden comes into his arms, her voice lilting in sobs against his ear, and the blind boy, shocked by the feel of her cold face, by the silk of her hair, opens his eyes.
They sit together, there, beneath the curling lines of poetry that wrap around the boy, the girl, and the arms they've wrapped around each other. Eyes open, seeing, for the first time, the chapped curve of her lips, the flawless plaster and ink, he has learned, first, love.
And in the depths of her eyes, he finds, he has no need, or want, for poetry.