Leaving the Tower of Babel

With a small team of servants, Yuliliay and I followed roads that narrowed to trails and faded to intuition. This was the unimproved country, scarcely touched since the flood. Streams and oases emerged and quickly vanished outside the window of our wagon. Grasses sprouted from black loam around the edges of tumbled walls, tendrils closing the wounds inflicted by the deluge.

Yuliliay called it beautiful country. I looked away. For me, the wilderness has always echoed with a terrible revenge in progress.

Outcroppings of marble marked former habitations. We paused for a moment at one remarkable pile of carved stone so the servants could carve their names on the tumbled-smooth monuments. Their scribbles mixed with faded glyphs of men in chariots running down lesser men, or men sharing geometric fruit with bird-headed colleagues. What could be deciphered seemed to promise a world alternately stranger and more sensible than our own.

We travelled on, past tiny, new settlements and mud huts with bad food and clean water that catered to the sparse highway traffic. At one point, on a particularly windswept plain, the driver feared he’d lost the road. Passing a young wanderer, he asked for directions. The wanderer pointed the way and asked for a ride.

Yuliliay perked up and insisted that the wanderer ride with us. He was a poet, he freely admitted. We were far from kings and Executive Managing Nimrods—here I discovered that a person could be a poet without shame. His candor reminded me of the shamelessness of the provincial engineers, whose failures were still so small and so forgivable.

For the rest of the ride, he and Yuliliay spoke. The poet disquieted me. The young disquieted me. Anyone who believed they could live without my painstakingly gathered comforts, consolations and wound wire of obstructions disquieted me. I looked out the window.

As far as she was concerned, finding a poet on the road was propitious. After all, it was a poem that had brought us this far. She’d heard it recited when she was a child, and after she emerged from her grief, her drugged stupor and her failed retail business, the poem became an obsession.

In the months before we left on the fact-finding mission, she’d been through the mighty tower’s libraries, bookshops and schools, but hadn’t found a trace of it. She was looking in the wrong place—the tower wasn’t where you go looking for a poem or anything old. It was a place where the past was glibly ignored and ruthlessly suppressed whenever it became inconvenient.

I liked that about the tower. Where I grew up, some chatty farmer was always cracking a plow blade on a deluge-dropped marble monument from time immemorial. In the tower, a lively incuriosity ruled. I heard that, under a more scholarly Nimrod, an interest in history was fashionable, and men knew the age of the tower and how long it had been since the flood. But that was several Nimrods before my time, likely before Communications was much of a department. Communications’ part of not vanishing from the face of the earth was to regularly erase the memory of old priorities and ethics that could impede the day-to-day initiatives of management. That’s one reason the tower’s cavernous library was largely useless. The focus must remain on driving higher, on relentless career advancement, on getting a better title, a better lease, on absorbing slightly less abuse and delegating still more dull labor, a fiery focus that became a focus on focus itself—a blazing hollow core. That was more of a consolation than nostalgia, as far as I was concerned. And like the tower, I became a creature that could only go on existing if understood dimly and articulated obliquely.

All this is to say that the tower kept shoddy records. I learned early on that any regard shown for the scribe’s trade in the tower was a hollow gesture by which the half-educated rich flattered their own intellects.

So where was one to find a fugitive, half-remembered poem? With Sodom and Gomorrah gone, the incomprehensible precincts around the Karchemash colleges were her best bet. On the fringes of the kingdoms, these libraries still existed primarily because destroying them would require the kings to acknowledge that they existed.

Yuliliay said the poem was old, possibly from before the flood. There was a lot of this material around, buried, sealed in trunks or carved in buried stone. But very few of the languages from before the flood could still be translated. A beloved uncle had read the poem to Yuliliay, before both he and the poem had been scattered across the face of the earth. She remembered some of it, but more of how it had felt. It was very small but very important, she said, like the key to a massive door.

I think that after everything she’d gone through, Yuliliay was desperate to read it, if only to confirm that she hadn’t dreamt it, that some of what had been scattered could indeed be retrieved. She’d described the poem to me once before. And now, in the carriage to Karchemash, she told the poet what she remembered of it. There were no people in the poem, she said, only a jar, either buried or half-buried in a hillside. The jar had a circular mouth, and its perfect circularity, just by its form, rearranged and redefined all of the anarchic nature around it. The jar gave the woods an irrefutable symmetry. It made nature the aberration. This one dribble of order dropped by a wayward litterer made all of nature succumb.

Even if I didn’t like how she spoke to the freeloader, I liked listening to her talk about the poem. It made her again sound like the woman I’d fallen in love with—her eyes flashing, lips quick, voice changing registers playfully as she decided what words to emphasize. And it restored me to the kind of man who could love that sort of thing. It made me feel like someone younger and better.

In the university town, there was no place quite expensive enough for us to stay. And we arrived too late and too uncertain of our plans to find a house to rent. The inn was fine enough, if you enjoy the echoing babble of micturition through thin doors.

As we checked in, the young poet asked me and implored Yuliliay to go watch him announce at a big reading that was running for the next few nights. He said there would be poets from the tower and from the wilderness. Yuliliay said yes before I could move him along with a calculated noncommittal phrase.

I didn’t like how he was talking to Yuliliay. But being near the libraries and bookstalls did something to her that I couldn’t ignore. She was irrepressible again, for the first time in a long time. It was heartening.

The young poet said he knew where they had a lot of pre-flood poetry. He pointed to the largest of the low mud library buildings and offered to show her around. So I stayed to negotiate with the innkeeper and the wine merchant while she went with the poet to the bookshops.

After a nap, I double-checked the lock on the door of our room and unfurled the elephant skin with the new city on it. The inks we used hadn’t been cheap, but worth it. No fading, no smudging, no cracking. I spent some time marveling at what a future I might still have, under this Nimrod and even possibly another. After all, if the tower was only Phase One, then I still had all the time in the world.

After poring over the technical and whimsical details of the drawing a while, I washed up and walked to town. It wasn’t much, a small tangle of streets scribbled around an open market square. Before long, I found Yuliliay hastily caressing through old codices in a tented pit. The volumes were faded or ill-copied, mite-infested, moldy, poorly scraped or worse. The young poet was lingering an aisle over, nodding eagerly over a ragged scroll. Yuliliay acknowledged me and asked if I would help.

Between the three languages she could read and the fragments she’d acquired of a few others, she’d already made short work of a long shelf of books and scrolls. That she knew those languages at all could have been a legal problem in the tower. She was wise not to tell me until I was well compromised.

Beside her, I read until I became dizzy from the dust, heat and words arranged in ways I hadn’t seen in decades. The previous days jammed in, tripped on one another and piled onto one another. The servants scratching their crude marks in abandoned monuments, the caravan of Nimrod’s Wife full of bad news, the secret future inscribed in the elephant hide, the visions piled in buckets and bins, the shouts in the street, the golden dome of the university on the low hill outside of town, Yuliliay and the poet, Avram and his flocks, fleeing cities and pursuing freedom in pockets of oblivion, to scratch for a mind better than the one their fathers had bled to build—all jammed together into a single surging urge.

It all made me bleary and half-blind. The poet came up to read something to Yuliliay.

We apologize to the man we chased.

But he won’t leave the oven.

The man in the oven has something to say.

Even if it was an accident, he says,

it didn’t arise from good intentions.

The poet said it was a new poem, one of his own. I said what was the point of it. He stuttered, collected himself and said we should hear the rest of it, tonight, in the Saddle Grove beside the university. I excused myself to get some air.

Tired and something else, Yuliliay and I bickered over a bland meal at the restaurant the poet recommended. She said the reading that night sounded like fun. I said I didn’t particularly relish the chance to watch a pack of rubes rhyme white ox with coffin box while choking down bad wine with a crowd of university malingerers.

She shrugged and said she wanted to go back to the inn and look through the texts she’d purchased. I said she’d better enjoy them here because she couldn’t bring the ones in foreign tongues back to the tower. She said no one really cares about those laws. I said I had enemies who would make hay out of exactly that kind of infraction. Can we go just one night without stupid tower office politics deciding everything we say and do? she asked.

Back at the hotel, she went to her scrolls and codices, and I went to bed. It was a long dreamless nap, and when I woke it was the middle of the night. Disoriented, I checked around the suite. Yuliliay was gone. The servants were all still there, as were our bags and the elephant hide.

I began to dress, hastily. I wanted to catch Yuliliay with the poet, to witness one of the many betrayals I’d long suspected and to condemn her, perhaps even abandon her once and for all. I wanted to find her by the fire alone, listening demurely to poems, and to put my arm around her, to apologize for my behavior at dinner. I wasn’t sure which. But I wanted something badly.

Half asleep, the routine of dressing had its own life, and I dressed as I would for work, in a fine, pale blue tunic with an elaborate border and tassels, as well as the gold pin and other minor regalia of my office. I only stopped at the light layer of flesh-colored cream I’d taken to applying to my face during the long poison-endurance course.

From the inn, I walked through the small town to a wide path that seemed to lead to the hilltop dome of the university. As the path branched, I followed the sound of timbrels and laughter, the smell of wood smoke that came and went on the shifting winds. The trees closed over the path, which branched and branched again, finally leading to a large empty circle of burnt earth with a white marble statue of a man in the center. He leaned awkwardly into space with a hand cupped around his mouth, as if whispering to an accomplice. He glowed in the moonlight.

I wandered up and, feeling alone and free, leaned my ear to his hand to hear what he told.

The statue said nothing. Instead, I heard a loud sniff behind me and turned. What I saw I recognized even before I remembered that it could not exist.

It was a lion with three eyes, like the one whose massive open jaws formed the East Gate of the great tower, like the one that Nimrod had famously hunted to extinction generations before. But there it was, watching me with its mouth open slightly to taste the wind. I looked at its face and knew I couldn’t look away. It differed from the one on the tower’s East Gate only in that it lacked a mane, which made it a she. The moonlight illuminated her sleek coat. She circled me, sniffed the air by my body.

Larger than a large man, larger even than one of Nimrod’s guards, she emitted a faint growl when I began to move. Frozen in the moonlight, I watched her strange face. She fixed me with her top eye while the other two moved up and down me. Her face was so strange—it undermined all I’d ever thought of as a face. She didn’t seem to know that she should not exist.

Panic beckoned. But beyond that panic, death was so visible that I could make out the uncouth, unmeasured forms beyond. She drew closer, sniffed harder, and pushed her nose into my abdomen. I shoved her firmly away. She raised a paw, claws withdrawn behind calloused pads, to my forearm. I gently shook her off.

Taking a step back, she regarded me afresh. I met the stare of her top center eye. The wind moved the trees, and she wandered off. Maybe she was full. Maybe an old man, all gristle and stubble, wasn’t appetizing. Still, I took only shallow, imperceptible breaths until she’d disappeared back beyond the threshold of the night.

The extinction of the three-eyed lion was a fact—one of the few that we in Communications never had to defend. It was celebrated in song and carved in stone. So seeing her should have told me something. But I continued on, happy for my safety and pleased with the new anecdote in my repertoire.

She was the first of many impossible things I would see that night.

I waited what seemed like a long time to move. The moon fell below the trees. And eventually, I found another path from the clearing and followed the faint sounds of loose music and laughter. But I didn’t find Yuliliay or a warm fire or bad poetry or cheap wine. The path led to a valley full of silence. I sat and rested on the lip of a hill overlooking it and started to wonder how I’d find my way back to the hotel.

But I wasn’t alone. On the valley floor, a man was moving about, his torch illuminating what he was doing—arranging two rows of butchered animals and animal parts. There was a dove on one side, a pigeon on the other. Then a goat, a ram, a heifer and what looked like the body of a man—all split down the middle, with blood in the path between their halves.

The feeling that I was seeing something I shouldn’t was immediate and powerful. It was a shame that began with this unplanned trespass and spread to every depth of who I was. I choked down a moan.

Regret like my heart trying to turn itself inside out seized me—regret for the tragedy of every man like me, who forgets he lives in a world of kindness and generosity. It was the regret that after devoting such effort and care to this fragile dance of arrogance and uncertainty, I had wasted my life, and I didn’t even know how.

When the birds and dismembered bodies had been arranged to the satisfaction of the dim, torch-wielding figure below, he watched over the carcasses, chasing off the scavenging fowl that swooped in the darkness. I felt a strange gratitude for this simple act.

With the scavengers at bay, he handed the torch to someone else, who even the flame didn’t seem to expose. Nodding his head, the first man then wandered into the darkness to sleep.

From the valley, the burnt-clay and wet-bread smell of the tower brickyards on a busy day rose up to meet me. And the second, dimmer figure carried the torch slowly between the rows of dead and split creatures. Not long afterward, this same, possibly invisible, figure carried a small furnace, barely large enough to fire a coffee mug, between the carcasses as well. Although the flame in the furnace was scarcely visible, its smoke filled the valley.

I watched, with a prayer running through my mind, an old one I was surprised to have remembered from when I was a child, that what could not be cleaned or repaired might be reborn. And for once, I heard a response, a harsh, clear whisper that said I would not return to the tower, that all I’d known and worked for would fade to a dim legend of failure with even its name reduced to the stumble of syllables belched by an infant.

The voice filled me with despair, and I reached for my last happy thought—the image of Phase Two of Nimrod’s Mighty City on the elephant hide in my luggage. That still held some hope, held a future beyond the irrevocable disinterest, disrepair and disintegration of all I’d spent my life building and preserving. But, bitterly, I knew better. After the glory and grandeur of the tower and the bloody failures of its last two decades, who could honestly say their heart would be in such an undertaking? Maybe our cynical gesture would be the object of the next generation’s idealism. But how would they muster the workweek-devouring, family-ignoring, intern-beating morale necessary for anything so quotidian as a low-slung city?

Doubt welled up, like floodwaters from the deep, unstoppered. I knew better, that, like the river beneath the tower, there was only so much force to power the gears and pulleys and gyres that made our world function as it did. Asking more would eventually clog the river, stall its flow, and force it to find better options than us and the name we’d made for ourselves.

That hope disposed of, the whispered words continued, though they didn’t remain words. Rather, they formed images, drawn in the facile strokes we used to inform the illiterate of a policy change. I saw the tower in bad repair. The marble and bricks of the arched windows and the bottom half-dozen stories had been stripped off and either sold off or used to reinforce the shabby buildings of the surrounding city. The streets around the tower were redolent with dung fires and eerily quiet, except for the occasional escaped pig and the sullen, unhealthy man or child who ran to retrieve it. The remaining denizens of the tower emerged from the darkness of the windows to leer or hurl waste out of a window.

The whisper made it clear that the tower would not even be dignified with the divinely appointed fate of Sodom or Gomorrah. Its sin was so pale that it would die the decidedly undramatic death of something people lost interest in.

It was the hour of visions, and I plainly saw the underground river that fed and powered the tower bubble up through the countless levels of the basement and gush from the toothless mouths of the four great gates. The waters flowed unabated until they flooded the whole Plain of Shinar. Years went by, silently. And the tower, long abandoned, sank into that swamp, tilted, and fell beneath its smooth, algae-choked surface.

The horror of such a sight was like being torn in two. But once it passed, I felt relieved to have outlived, if only in a hallucination, Nimrod’s Mighty Tower.

Returning from that fevered reverie, I could make out the scene in the valley more clearly. Perhaps my eyes had adjusted to the extreme darkness. Only the napping man remained. He looked like Avram, but different, more like himself. The torch rested against the smoky furnace on the far end of the bloody path cut between the birds, the split animals, and the split man.

The last of those I could see now, where he lay in halves at the end of the line. I recognized the face—I’d seen it before, in a cheap mirror, in a rented room, in a third-rate town, in Moab.

Then more horror, and more relief.

I was lucky. I had this mostly honest voice, somehow untouched by Nimrod’s executive tone. Without it, I could never have comprehended or contended with what occurred between that moment and the dawn.

That night so much became apparent, I assumed I had died. So much became apparent, I discovered it hardly mattered that I had.

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