by Megan Arkenberg
O tower not of ivory, but builded
by hands that reach Heaven from Hell.
--Algernon Charles Swinburne
Some nights, when I grow weary of lying awake and listening to the incomprehensible murmuring of the world, I leave the city sleeping in its withered gardens and go to the ruins of the Tower. Some say that it was swallowed by the earth, that the shifting desert settled over it like a nightmare, but they are wrong; it rises out of the sand, a bare foundation of stone that stretches as far as I can see in the moonlight, bare as bone. No moss or roots take hold of it, no rain falls to pool in its cracks and furrows. The only eyes that look upon it now are mine, and perhaps God's.
The silence of the desert is mercifully absolute. I leave my sandals in the hot sand and cross the ruins barefoot, feeling the Tower's coolness, its depths and cracks and imperfections against my skin. The building of it left scars on my hands and forearms, and my chisel left scars on its face, and the moonlight turns these scars into words I cannot read. We speak to each other carefully; we both know so well the fragility of words. But the language of stone is the only language left to me. We have an understanding, the Tower and I, and on nights like these, we remember.
Mostly, we remember the architect.
I remember her face, narrow and dark, her liquid eyes and the pinched sorrow of her tongueless mouth. She spoke with the furrows of her brow, with flared nostrils and the turn of her lips--of course, it was easier in those days. But never easy. We never knew her name.
Before the Tower, she built secret things. Pleasure palaces with dungeons beneath their tulip gardens. Tunnels from harem courtyards to distant moonlit streets. She could afford to be selective in her masters, though we did not understand her choices; merchant or beggar, prince or slave, it did not seem to matter. Some of them became her lovers. Men and women came to her with the most unspeakable of their desires, for they knew she would not betray them. There was little to fear, they thought, from a woman with no tongue.