The Holidays in the Tower of Babel
The inner courtyard of the tower was a place of ceremonies, off-limits to most people most of the time. I'd only been there a few times, once when I wed my well-connected bride, and only once more since.
That night was my first Lights Festival since ascending to the Tower Operating Committee. I was there with the top executive layer of the tower, and my wife. We stood in the growing darkness, around the uneven cone of broken masonry and crumbled mortar at the courtyard's center. No one spoke for this part of the ceremony.
The climbing youth was, by reputation and by trial, the best they could find. He wasn't particularly big, but they never were. This one, from the look of him, had made a long and surprising journey from the stagnant western frontier to compete for an honor that had, at best, been explained to him fifth hand.
He performed that honor beautifully. Burning candle in his teeth, he was sure. His hand measured as it gripped a crumbled outcropping or broken pillar, his bare foot found unlikely purchase in the uneven surface of broken, skinny bricks. His small leaps scarcely crumbled the chunks of concrete, accumulated litter and shifting stones. It was enough to make youth look enviable.
The courtyard was dark. The cone of half-fallen masonry at the center of the tower's ground floor was dark. The sun had fallen past the horizon and the heavy winter curtains of the inward-facing offices and apartments had been pulled by order of Nimrod himself. People in darkened rooms may have peeked in, but they were careful about it. It was nearly complete darkness.
My wife tightened her grip. There isn't much complete darkness in the tower.
The only light was the wick of a candle in the climber's teeth. It flickered close by the youth's clean face. Though it was cold, sweat streaked his makeup. Occasionally, the light reflected off the long golden cord he trailed behind himself.
More than showy piety, the youth astonished us. Quick against the blackness, certain, oiled, and promised a soft if not great future if he could do this one thing that he is sure (for no adequate reason) he can do. And in the hush of our two hundred held breaths he did, clanging a metal ring over an ancient spike at the peak of the uneven stalagmite of unmentionable provenance. At the peak of the tall pile of rubble, we could all see the light, we were all looking at one single point, for a moment, anyway. At the peak, the youth didn't celebrate or even acknowledge his feat, but began the long spiral downward.
Descending, his foot slipped, not at every perch where he fixed and kindled a candle along the golden line. But it slipped enough that we understood what a wilderness of consequences he was in—just as he'd made us understand again what darkness was.
Despite the chill, the sweat began to show through his leather shirt.
Despite our wealth and power, we executives couldn't climb that pile to light a candle higher than our eyes.
Adding more candles as he descended, the light filled the courtyard. Nearing the ground, and stumbling on the loosest, widest part of the pile, those of us who'd seen the ceremony before stepped away, back to what they were doing. Once the climber touched the ground, someone cheered, and then a dim and crowded light filled the million windows around us. Before long, the whole tower was bright again.
Throughout it all, my wife held my hand. I tried not to know that it was for show. I had tried to believe that we hadn't aged and become so disentangled.
Blame the miserable years in the brickyard. Blame my sudden elevation. Blame the kids. Blame time. Blame Yuliliay. But no explanation could diminish what had happened. She and I had become lost in labyrinths so closely overlaid that though we might hear each other's voices every day, we could no longer understand or sympathize. We could smell each other's breath, but not see each other. The reasons why were small. But like with work, a small thing can have immense power—you get wound about its tight little logic, and you're done. Like that, a strange distance had infiltrated and conquered us.
I feel I can almost explain it here. It feels simple to say. But I couldn't explain it to her then, when it mattered and might have done some good.
Even that night, I thought I had time or words to fix it. After the closing of the illumination ritual, as I left for a Tower Operating Committee reception and she left for home, she set me straight, in words plain and clear.
She told me that I'd have to tell our son—that our daughter already knew.
I made a mental note to free up an evening to meet with my son, Bimalal. It would hurt him the most, and he'd carry that hurt the furthest.
After that, I was that worst of bosses—one with no one and nothing to go home to.
Chronic back pain and the horrors of childbirth are among the stronger evidence in the case that the God who constructed and administers the universe hasn't thought this all the way through. Entering my fifth decade, I was able to confidently add middle-aged priapism and the ingratitude of teenage children to that list.
Yuliliay moved in with me. And my son Bimalal was thrown out of his latest school for some mix of untimely intoxication, misplaced violence and generally being disagreeable. We never really got along. But it was especially bad at that point.
In the elevator ride up from the latest disheartening meeting with a school administrator, I decided to do my job and set him straight. Failing that, we could at least get in a terrible argument where we both said things we couldn't take back. I had the elevator operator take us to the Observation Deck. Regardless of which way the conversation went, it seemed like the right setting.
A half dozen floors from the top, the Observation Deck was so high the world below looked like a scale model. It was full of tourist come-ons — “Do you have what it takes? Take the Tower Intern Challenge!” — and the like. As always, there was some rube on bended knee proposing to his teary hinterland bride-to-be.
My son and I made our way to the section reserved for executives on the Observation Deck, with waitresses and drinks. It faced the notch in the mountains where the sunk sun spewed a few purple rays.
We took our seats. Bimalal looked more like my ex—bright eyes, fine nose. I took a deep breath and started in, figuring that if I waited another year, he'd be a physical threat, and have one less reason to listen. At that ingeniously folding oak table, our heart-to-heart started with some sage advice on my part, and degenerated swiftly. I kept my cool at first, but my son's not the dummy he likes to play. He located the raw nerve eventually. That nerve was, as you'd guess, my work.
In response to my demand that he start to think about what he wanted to do with his life, he said that I was a perfect example of why he should not do that. He charged me with throwing away my life and the happiness of our erstwhile family for nothing.
I responded that he knew nothing about nothing. He had no right to even say the word nothing. He had never seen nothing—a fact that he should be grateful for. My son insisted, however, that it all looked like nothing to him, with an infuriating certainty.
With a deep breath, I began by saying he wasn't a dumb kid, and all the gods knew we sent him to the best schools that would tolerate him. But he really didn't have the slightest comprehension of nothing. Nothing is a town set in the hills for a reason everyone forgot. I invited him to imagine not knowing why you or your parents had come to exist in a given place, not knowing why they didn't leave, and living exclusively among the sort of people who never guessed that moving was something you could do. Nothing, I went on, is calling a muddy rut wherever two houses wound up close to each other a street. Nothing is a place without a building over two stories for a hundred miles. Nothing is a temple and library with a dozen scrolls and one old man with a bad memory to explain them. Nothing is waking up with the sun if you want to read, or else huddling by an altar and hoping the gods don't mind you stealing their lamplight. Nothing is sucking every possible meaning from the offhand words and incomprehensible jokes of travelers. Nothing is days of mute chores and shrugged shoulders. Nothing is breathing in the fumes of the charred bodies of everyone you ever knew, and being unable to be repulsed, because of how the blood throbbed in your ears, and the way the unmitigated detail of every single thing drowned out what you're seeing and what it means. Nothing is a month-long trek, mute, grudgingly fed and watered by strangers who only know that you're fleeing the pillar of smoke in the east. It's being absolutely alone for a moment that burns so hot that it never altogether ends, no matter how much you try to bury it. That's nothing.
We both paused. That kind of talk was out of character, and stalled our poisonous repartee.
He shrugged and looked off to the darkening distance. A waitress brought a small brazier. Finally Bimalal spoke. He said, a little sheepishly, that's not what he meant—what he meant to say was how does my work add to life? He meant what have I made, what have I added to the world, besides memos and stupid posters and lies?
You're asking the wrong question, I said. It's not about adding at this point. Look around, I demanded, and tell me what's missing.
If it's all here already, he said, then why are you bothering me about getting grades and finding a job? Why bother if I'm not even supposed to make or bring anything to this supposedly perfect world?
I told him to go out to the distant kingdoms, where they're trying to build the Ring Wall, and try to get a decent meal, or to have a conversation. The tower is closer to completion than those places, and that's its glory. For him, I said, I hope the tower is an example of what human beings can accomplish, of what we can be. We can be as the gods we worship, and that should excite you, I said. It didn't, so I leaned across the table and told the jaded kid with some of my face that for me, the tower is about surviving, about defiance. It's about staring down the nothingness that roars from the frontier, and the hatefulness zero that shines down on us from on high.
Bimalal looked up, unimpressed by my words and by the stars. Maybe, he said, but what does that have to do with skipping last weekend for a management retreat with your girlfriend?
In that moment, I hated him, and wished I had someone like him on my side.
Colin Dodds is a writer with roots in Massachusetts, California, and New York City. He’s made a living as a journalist, editor, copywriter and video producer. His poems, short stories and essays have appeared in more than three hundred publications, and he has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize and the Best of the Net Anthology. He lives in Brooklyn with his wife and daughter.
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