By Emily Inkpen
The silence before a storm is the deepest silence there is. A hot silence, full of electricity. Esha-Min stood patiently in the near-pitch darkness of a narrow tunnel, waiting. This passage joined her home straight to one of the main under-roads and was barely four feet wide. Very few people used it, preferring the wider, better lit side streets. Not that any of the women needed light to see, but when light could be got, it was good to get it.
The men were not the same. They could barely see beyond their noses in a fully lit room, let alone in darkness. And in this shadowy underworld where they understood so little and commanded so much, a reckoning was about to be had. There would be a signal, one that all of Mena-Gowa would hear, and then it would begin.
Esha-Min gripped the handle of her plain kitchen knife, feeling the reassuring weight of the cool, well-worn stone against her palm. It was the longest blade she had but it was barely longer than her hand.
A soft foot tapped on the tunnel floor, ten feet to her left. A light, small footfall of someone walking on the balls of her feet.
Esha-Min didn’t try to see who it was, her companion was expected. “Alain?”
“Yes.” Alain murmured, her light voice flattened into quiet by the back of her tongue. Her rough clothes whispered as she leant against the opposite wall. “What did you bring?”
“A knife.” Esha-Min answered. The sound cut through the dark and she suppressed a cough. “And a hammer.” The little weight of it pulled reassuringly at her belt. It was not big, but it would suffice.
Alain exhaled through her teeth. She approved. “I have a knife. That’s all.”
A minute went by in silence before Esha-Min sensed the air on her right compress ever-so-slightly. “Ryeth, is that you?”
Ryeth made the rhythmic hollow noise of near-silent laughter in the back of her throat. “If I said no, what would you do?” Her deep voice would have resonated in the stone passage if she didn’t articulate with air rather than sound.
Esha-Min made a soft kuk sound that meant smile. “Knife you, in all likelihood.” Alain silent-laughed darkly. “What have you got?”
“A hammer from the mine.” Ryeth breathed, and they heard the soft, rhythmic thump of heavy metal on a bare palm.
For years there had been no sound. Women were not allowed to talk; they were not taught how. Girls and boys were separated in childhood and if a woman even learned to articulate a thought, she was imprisoned, or worse. Men did not speak to them. It was thought they didn’t know how, and that even if women had learned their language they would never have understood one another anyway. But in the darkness, in the solitary times when the men were elsewhere, the women began to make their own words. Sounds passed by shades of quiet from one hearth to the next, until the silence hummed.
Men had not known for a long time. Silence was a lesson hard learned, and a rule followed out of habit when they were near at hand. Men were noisy. It was not difficult to hear them coming when their booted feet pounded so clumsily against the smooth uncomplaining stone. Most women could feel the footfalls of her husband before she heard them.
Esha-Min knew her husband’s footstep. She had heard the rough, deep grumbles he called language and she didn’t want to learn it. Why would she? They took their noises to the surface and hunted and lived the man-life outside, so what did it mean to her? For the first time she considered the possibility of him being there, underground, when it all began. Her stomach tensed with fear and excitement. What if he was killed?
The distant sounds of man-feet continued to thump past the ends of the tunnel, but by degrees the softer, whispering movement of the women, disappeared. In their new language, the women of Mena-Gowa had over twenty-seven words for silence, and this was harvassa, the heart-silence, when nothing but the rhythmic pump of her pulse could be heard.
An inorganic boom resonated in her chest and she felt Ryeth tense beside her. Another followed, and three more after that.
“It starts.” Alain murmured, musically.
“Ka.” Esha-Min agreed, with the sound that meant the same as a nod.
They turned and headed right down the tunnel, and just as the light of the under-road ahead began to impact on her sight, it went out. Another moment of harvassa followed, then a cacophony of sound broke out and as they reached the under-road she realised that with so much noise, they were all blind.
Bodies ran past, and from the sound of their breathing and the weight of the air, she could tell which were male. Groping arms reached across the gap where she stood, from one stretch of wall to the next, and she gripped her knife hard in her right hand. Slowly she reached back with her left, took Alain’s hand and stepped forward.
They knew the way; left along the main road, then right into the second tunnel along, exit onto the Snakeway, then up to Prison Square. They kept to the centre and avoided the walls, trying all the while to not hear the wet gurgling and the rasping breaths of those who were breathing their last. They stepped through thick, warm, viscous puddles of blood that dried and stuck between their toes, and breathed in the sharp metallic taste of it.
After what felt like an age, the rougher, hewn roadways blended into the smooth regularity of the flagstones at the top of Prison Square. They had arrived. Two steps lead up to the doors and two guards were usually stationed on either side.
Esha-Min paused. “The guards?”
“Dead.” Came Ryeth’s deep whisper. As usual, she had moved without a sound.
“Help me with this.” Alain said, no longer bothering to lower her voice.
All of them stepped forward and pushed at the heavy, well-oiled cross bar. It swung upwards silently, coming to rest with a rounded, satisfied thud to their right. Ryeth and Alain pulled on the doors and, after a moment of struggle, Esha-Min contributed to the effort. Slowly they swung outwards to reveal an even denser, eshaki, dark. A dark that looked almost solid to the well-trained eye, and in these matters they were all well trained.
Another moment of harvassa passed while they waited for any men to emerge. None did. The moment dragged. Their assigned duty in this dark revolution was to free all of those inside. It was a noble charge, but now faced with the wall of black that lay ahead, Esha-Min had no choice but to acknowledge her fear. Those who went in, never came out.
“Until today.” She muttered, and felt both of her companions’ faces turn in her direction. “We are doing this.” She said, a little louder. “Once and for all.”
Ka. They replied, and the sound cut through the air with a little more ferocity than usual.
Esha-Min stepped forward and let the eshaki swallow her. She was one with it, she had to be. When it came to naming herself she had claimed that part of her; the part that embraced what she had once fought: the darkness, the esha.
As the others followed, another boom resounded in the distance, audible through vibrations in the stone that resonated in the pit of her stomach. Once and for all.
Directly through the doors a wide, stone, helixian stairway led steadily downward. Each step was at least three metres across, and at the widest point, two metres between each step. Esha-Min ran her fingers along the outer wall and felt heavy, metal doorways on every second step.
“Shall we..?” Ryeth breathed at her shoulder.
“No.” Esha-Min murmured. “We find where it ends, and then we begin.”
The walls were made of eyes and she could feel every one. Whether by conspiracy or deep intuition, the prisoners knew what was happening and they were keeping quiet about it.
The deeper they went the hotter and more stifling the air. Occasional coughs interrupted the harvassa, sometimes further off, sometimes imminently close at hand. Esha-Min began to curse the steps as her thighs ached and sweat slid down her back. She thought of those out in the city, running around with their bloodied knives, shouting their elated freedom. Their revolution would be a very different story, that was known.
After what felt like an age, a thin, flickering light whickered the darkness below into life. Esha-Min stopped and turned to look at the others. Alain’s unusual green eyes were wide and she had unfastened her dress, leaving the top part and sleeves to hang off her hips. Her pale skin glistened. Ryeth blinked through the sweat running down her dark forehead. She had coiled her black hair on top of her head in a thick mass and her eyes narrowed as a gruff, deep voice resonated below them.
Esha-Min held up her knife. Ryeth returned the gesture with her large hammer, and Alain gave a start and scrambled to find hers in the folds of her hanging clothes. For a moment they all stood there, looking at each other for the first time that day; the fierce revolutionaries.
It felt strange to be frozen in that stifling heat, but after the months of preparation, Esha-Min could feel herself shrinking. Nervously, she poked her tongue into the hollow scoop on the inside of her cheek, a scar left by the wooden peg forced into her mouth to stop her screams. She had learned quickly not to bite too hard. The air vibrated with sudden, brash male laughter. It filled the space below them like quickly rising water and she felt again the trickle of blood around her ear and the scrape of raw skin across her back where she had been dragged through the door by her hair into her marital home. She felt again the deep, dull ache low in her pelvis all the way up to her navel as that surface of sound opened long-healed wounds.
Ryeth wiped the sweat from her forehead and stepped down the stairs, peering around the column at the centre of the stairway. She held out a hand and lowered two fingers. Three guards. Three against three. Three used to dealing blows against three used to receiving them.
Esha-Min shifted her knife in her slick hand and fumbled. For a heart stopping moment she tried to regain control, then her flailing knuckle caught the blade and sent it clattering down the stairs, past Ryeth, to land somewhere in the passageway below.
Ryeth looked back up at her with wide-eyed incredulity.
The man-talk stopped and a large shadow filled the flickering light, sliding like liquid across the smooth stone steps. The man who appeared below was old, grizzled, and built like a boulder. He looked up at them with cold, cruel eyes, a sneer curling a lip that was barely visible under thick stubble. He carried a long, curved blade, notched from use.
The space of a heartbeat passed and he launched himself at Ryeth with a loud grunt. She swung her heavy hammer at him desperately and his knife missed her by millimetres, scraping the stone by her head with a screeching crunch. The sheer force of him knocked her back against the steps and she screamed as he raised his knife once more.
The scream sent a shock of energy through Esha-Min, releasing her at last. She grabbed her hammer from her belt and swung it down with both hands until the flat metal cracked into his skull with a dull, wet crunch. As she removed it, his whole body shook and she only just managed to dodge a sharp, involuntary kick from his heavily-booted foot.
Alain rushed forward and pushed the bulky body off Ryeth, who wriggled out from under him, shaking and terrified.
Esha-Min looked at the small unimpressive hammer in her hand. It was slick with blood.
Ryeth bent and picked up the man’s long knife and Esha-Min peered around the last sweep of the stairway. There were two remaining guards; one old with an eye and an ear missing, the other young and all in one piece.
Without thinking, she stepped down the stairs and walked towards them, dripping hammer in hand.
“It’s ok.” She said, huskily. “If you do what we say, we’ll just put you in a cell.”
The young one frowned and looked at the older. Alain stood behind her, a few stairs up. “They can’t understand you, Esha.”
For a moment, they all looked at one another, tensely aware of the impossibility of negotiation.
Then the light went out.
One beat of harvassa passed before a rush of heavy old bulk moved. There was a thud and a grunt and a squeal. Then another thud, and another accompanied by a crack.
“Alright.” Ryeth said, in a business-like tone. The darkness gave permission to their bravery, it was their way.
A whisper of skin on stone slithered close to Esha-Min’s shoulder and she felt a cold, sharp point wedge under her breast. She stepped back automatically and the boy-man stumbled. She felt the knife bite a little deeper. He said something. No one responded. He said something else, but whatever he meant it sounded like a suggestion rather than aggression.
He wanted to live.
Esha-Min suddenly felt an inexplicable rush of sympathy for him. There was no way out of this deep place. It belonged to them now, it all did, and they belonged to no one.
“We don’t have to do this.” She said, softly, and felt the knife pull away slightly. “It’s alright, we can talk about it, we can put you in a cell and decide what to do with you later.”
The light flickered back into life and she saw Ryeth standing by the wall, the body of the old man crumbled at her feet. Alain, the only one of their trio not spattered with blood, stepped forward and gently took the knife from him. He said something else and she replied with the soft cooing noises she used to calm her babies.
Reality had taken on a strange quality during their long descent, and now the heavy enormity of their task lay ahead of them.
Ryeth walked past where the men had been sitting, into a room lined with heavy metal doors. “We find where it ends, and then we begin?”
Esha-Min nodded. Ka.
Ryeth pulled on a handle and the door slid open, smoothly. She stepped back, waited for a moment, then moved to the next. By the time she had opened the third, women from the first had started to appear. They were a terrifying sight; filthy, gaunt and bloodied all over. Some could barely walk and were leaning heavily on their cell-mates, some others had clearly broken limbs.
The young man looked on in horror as the room filled with them, all blinking in the light of Ryeth’s single lantern. They knew the language, they had been imprisoned for using it, but silent consensus drove them. As one, they moved towards the stairway and began to climb.
One naked woman with one remaining grey eye and black hair matted with filth and blood, stopped in front of Alain. As though in a trance, Alain passed her the boy-man’s knife and, without a word, the woman pushed it deep into his chest. It glided through his thin woven shirt and into his flesh with barely any resistance. They stood there in shocked surprise, Esha-Min, Alain and the boy-man, as the woman slowly pulled the knife out and handed it back to Alain. The boy-man gave a wet cough and blood splashed down his chin. Silently, expressionlessly, the woman turned and rejoined the others, climbing the stairs.
It took almost three hours to open every cell door, and by the time they were done they knew that over a thousand women had been imprisoned there. The ones too weak or injured to move were carried by their sisters, the dead were left; already elsewhere.
They left every door open behind them and stood in the light of the spherical globes that lined Prison Square. From the top step, Esha-Min could see the dome of the rock-snake’s skull high above, and the road twisting away down the full length of its spine into the distance; fossilised remains of a time when bigger monsters ruled the world.
The blood of eight men had been spread evenly across the perfectly aligned metre-square slabs by a thousand silent feet. It would be washed clean. Women knew how to deal with blood stains.
Alain coughed lightly. “So what now?”
Ryeth stepped forward and shrugged. “We get on with living, now we’re free to do so.”
“I don’t suppose things will change much.” Esha-Min said. It felt strange to force her words into any kind of volume. “The men weren’t here all the time anyway, they live outside. Most of the ones inside were only here because there was something wrong with them.”
“Yes, but what are we going to do?” Alain said.
They fell silent. For years they had been imprisoned in their marriage-hearths, only going out to run quick, furtive errands, frightened to linger should their husbands return to find their home empty. It had been a long time since Esha-Min had turned her hand to anything other than cooking, cleaning, and dressing her own wounds.
“We do whatever we want to do.” She said, finally. “Once we work out what we actually want.”
About the author: Emily Inkpen is a writer in all aspects of life. In her day job she writes marketing and in-game copy for Marmalade Game Studio. The rest of the time she inhabits various worlds of her own creation.
Her primary place of mental residence is the planet SP714, the setting for her debut novel (currently in publisher submission) and series of audio dramas. The planet Arras, on which A Thousand Silent Feet is set, is in the same universe. You can get to know her on Twitter @emilyinkpen and read more on her author website: www.emilyinkpen.com.
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