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Babel

Megan Arkenberg's work has appeared in over fifty magazines and anthologies, including Lightspeed, Asimov's, Shimmer, and Ellen Datlow's Best Horror of the Year. She has edited the fantasy e-zine Mirror Dance since 2008 and was recently the nonfiction editor for Queers Destroy Horror!, a special issue of Nightmare Magazine. She currently lives in Northern California, where she is pursuing a Ph.D. in English literature. Visit her online at meganarkenberg.com.
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.
The Tower remembers her hands. Large, ugly, ragged-nailed, her calloused skin scratching against the sun-dried brick. Not like your hands, it says to me, and I know it does not flatter. But it misses the pain of her touch. I can feel it in the way it braces itself against the wind-flung sand.
The Tower remembers its birth. This is rare among buildings. I have spoken to city walls that recall their origins, and to tombs and temples--these are the wisest of their kind, and they remember their birth because they know their purpose. The Tower, which does not know its purpose, does not know why it remembers being born.
Together, we recall the green rivers that once wound through this land, the tree branches crippled with the weight of their fruit. The earth was as moist and red and vital as blood. The architect took us to this place, and her eyes told us to watch. For days we watched her scratch lines in the mud, and replace the mud with rock, and patiently mold brick after brick to bake in the sun. She showed us how to stack the bricks so tightly that a knife blade could not slide between them. Slowly, we understood what she was trying to do. But we did not understand why.
As the Tower grew higher, it became impractical to climb each morning into the cold thin air, to sink each night into the damp; and so we carried our tools and our tents with us, higher and higher, until we lost sight of the earth. We did not lose its language, but our voices became accented by the sun and airless cold. We began to speak the language of bricks. But we were not wise enough to see what we were doing.
Before we built the Tower, I ruled this land. Does that surprise you? I told you she was selective in her masters. But when I called her to my palace, when I showed her the plans for the room that I wanted built in the heart of my gardens, with walls so thick that nothing could be heard outside of them, I did not know her price.
We became hers, body and soul; we left behind our homes and palaces, our families and kingdoms, the secret rooms we had begged her to build to serve our desires, and we built for the pleasure of others. There were dozens of us, then hundreds. Then thousands. She was gathering us like seeds on the wind.
There are many reasons to build a Tower. Out of pride, I suppose--though sweat and blood and sun-dried brick do very little for one's pride. To be like the Gods, and see the world laid out like a game board from the thin, clean air above. To worship. To learn what the heavens are made of, be it brass or steel, lapis or clay. To feel the warmth of the stars.
Perhaps it was only to come closer to the Gods. To mouth a prayer close enough that They could read her lips.
But these are only guesses. None of us can say why she did as she did. We made an easier choice: not to listen, not to understand.
The Tower claims to remember the Gods. We do not speak of this. It tells me I would not understand.
And how could you love a thing like her? the Tower asks me.
I breathe shallowly. After all these years, the air of earth remains warm and heavy in my lungs; it is only a little better here in the desert night. I am thinking of unanswered prayers.
She gave me what I wanted, I tell it. What more could I ask?
I gave her what she wanted, the Tower says. In the end, she hated me.
I remember the sound when the Tower fell. It was like the snapping of sails in a fatal storm, or the blood in your ears as you roll away from a lover. It was like the rocks rolling down the slopes of all the mountains in the world, all at once. It was like all the birds of the desert crying out over one great corpse.
And when I close my eyes, I remember the architect standing in the ruins, her face turned to the heavens. Tears glistened on her cheeks, and she was crying out in words we could not understand.
The End
This story was first published on Friday, December 16th, 2016

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