Northwords Now Issue 40

The FREE literary magazine of the North

Epicentre

by Ian Tallach

There was a stirring in the world of birds. The swifts above the city shrieked, finches on the pylons chattered, sparrows quarrelled in the hedgerows, warblers sang, oblivious to everything, and Turtle Doves mourned in the Poplar trees. Three months had passed since anyone had heard the call to prayer, and so it was the birds that woke them.

Many in Isfahan, were having nightmares and Shirin was no exception. She didn’t mind, though; she could never remember dreams. In daylight, they would vanish like a wisp of smoke. But not this morning- much as she tried to forget, to laugh at the absurdity of it, the vision stayed. She sat up straight, fighting for breath.

‘Are you alright, darling?’ Farouk yawned.

At first, she didn’t recognize her husband. ‘Oh!’ she said at last. ‘Just another bad dream.’

‘Tell me about it’ Farouk rubbed his eyes.

‘Hmmm… OK’ she cleared her throat. ‘I’m on this plane. I think you’re there as well. The pilot says we’re going down, about to crash into a slum.’ She shuddered. ‘No-one seems to notice – they just carry on with their in-flight meals. The noise is terrible – we’re thudding into buildings, smashing everything. Inside, though, it’s calm. The stewardess is smiling. Finally, we come to rest. But there’s a trail of devastation in our wake.’

‘How did it make you feel?’ Farouk tried to sound empathic.

She frowned. ‘Helpless… and guilty as hell.’

She swung her legs out, found her slippers, doused her hands with sanitizer, shuffled over to the samovar and lit the gas. While it was warming up, she pushed the kitchen window open.  

‘Have you ever heard the birds this loud?’ she shouted. Faraouk didn’t hear.

She looked down at the courtyard, seven floors below. A man was lying there, on his back.‘Too far out for suicide,’ she thought. She wiped the work-surface and took a teaspoon from the drawer.

The spoon fell to the floor. She gasped in horror. ‘How has it come to this? We have become inured.’ She went back to the window. The dead man was Musa, their neighbour. His beard wafted gently in the breeze. His eyes were open. ‘He looks so peaceful,’ she found herself whispering.

Just then, the birds fell silent. Many took to flight. Shirin felt a tingling in her feet. Her legs began to shake. There was a welling up – pelvis to abdomen, to chest, to throat. She clapped her hand over her mouth, but out it came - a wail of desolation. She fought to hold it back, but by the time Farouk arrived, they could already hear the weeping from another flat. He held her and they cried together.

That’s how it started – first the other floors, the building opposite, and then on down the street, and all throughout the neighbourhood. Once it reached the Kharazi Expressway it spread rapidly. The whole city was convulsed with lamentation. Some cried for all the wretched of the earth, some cried for parents they had lost, some cried for children born into this world and others just with rage at their confinement.  Many wept for reasons they could not put into words; they only knew it was implacable – this wave of sorrow.

The tsunami reached Tehran in less than fifteen minutes. Yasmin Hoseini was already in the newsroom, with the latest figures from around the world. Halfway through the word ‘pandemic’ (‘pan’demik’, in Farsi) she lost the power of speech. Tears rolled down her cheeks, in front of millions. This contributed to what ensued. Within an hour, the whole country was engulfed.

The wave spread east into the day already started, on through Pakistan, Nepal and India, China, Japan, Korea (North included), Southeast Asia – none were spared. Many in cotton fields, tea plantations or rice-paddies fell to their knees. Those in the cities stopped their work and did their best to hide the upsurge of emotion, only to look out from between their fingers and see that they were not alone. For the most part, drivers and machine operators found their senses heightened; despite the flow of tears, there were remarkably few accidents.  

Later, many would describe the seconds just before it broke – billowing clouds to the west, a tingling in their feet, birds falling silent.

Westwards, it spilled over the Bosphorus and into Europe. Refugees, celebrities, the droves of dispossessed and royals in their castles – nobody escaped. Those fully conscious as the wave approached heard something like the rumble just before a thunderclap, which culminated not in the expected boom, but rather in those symptoms visited already on their eastern counterparts. Many were wrested, howling from their sleep. Others were wracked with sobs. They woke with vivid dreams, but nothing to explain their tears. Those on life-support showed fluctuations on their monitors.

In Africa, outbreaks were more sporadic, and somewhat diminished in comparison. Reports, at least, were not of an entirely unprecedented phenomenon. The wavelet all-but petered out as it moved south, though not without a sudden intensification of collective mourning just before the Cape.

No-one knows for certain if news of the wave crossed the Atlantic first or if it was the wave itself. Radio-presenters in the wee-small hours began to read reports of what was happening in countries to the east. Some scoffed, on air, at the hysterical accounts appearing on social media, but even as they did so, words abandoned them and their guffaws turned into whimpers. The favelas of Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo were the first communities in the Americas to be affected, although paroxysms of grief were almost simultaneous along the eastern seaboard of both South and North America, the narrow isthmus separating them and islands of the Caribbean. The events that followed cannot be exaggerated.

Yes, that was the day of lamentation, when we wept together. And at the epicentre was Shirin.