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Day Eleven: Jonathon Penny

Babel

At the moment the languages were confounded, I was bent over a parchment, trying to ignore the sounds of construction that by then filled the city. I had no interest in the project myself. Indeed, I was apprehensive about its appalling hubris and the mind-boggling safety issues it presented. This was philosophical and personal. My brother oversaw construction of the balustrades that wound their way up the tower—a feat of engineering science I could never grasp, but that gripped him like a childhood fever: numbers were his, letters mine. Daring was also his: he always took on the most perilous duties himself.

I kept my misgivings to myself, however, even from him. The prophets who had spoken warnings of judgment and destruction were dead or in the quarries, so I kept quiet, and hoped the elders would grow bored and leave it to crumble and molder as they had so many other ventures.

My hope was vain: my brother strapped on ever-more complicated harnesses and launched out into a more precarious emptiness with every shift. I heard he worked with such energy and skill that he had very nearly caught up with the construction of the tower core. When it became inefficient to descend each day, he slept at altitude, passing into an impenetrable glare of blue.

I tried not to think of it.

The moment itself played out subtly. I was writing in the free-flowing script of our old, common language—what we called it I do not remember, for the words of that language are gone from me—when I heard a rumble above the sounds of construction, a tone distinct from the usual grating of stone. It was followed by alarums and screams, so I went to the window, from which I could see only the base of the tower, even at this great distance.

The balcony afforded a better, though horrific, view: massive blocks tumbled down and outward from the tower’s center and an unfathomable height. My instinct was to rush to the scene and find my brother. This would have been futile, of course: he would have been at the very top, spared only if he were on the opposite side of the crumbling rock. It would take him days to come down. But I took up my tunic from the chair. I had just reached the door when a great wail went up from the direction of the tower, and the rumbling deepened and grew to a sustained crash, drowning out the screams of men and fear. I turned back to the window and knew it was too late, for in the place of the tower moved a mountain of rubble soon veiled in a storm of dust and agony that pushed out further and further from the tower and reached even my home with a fine, impetuous film.

I stood looking out into the grey for quite some time, grieving without feeling, not for the tower, but what I had lost to it.

And then there was profound silence, for hour upon exhausting hour.

I awoke to voices speaking words I did not know. This startled me. There was but one language, and I knew it, many said, better than anyone. But this I could not understand, and suddenly, apart from my grief, loomed fear.

My parchment had blown a little back on the table when the concussion of the collapse had reached my quarter. I scanned the first several lines, and did not recognize the hand or the language, so I turned to my library and pulled scroll after scroll, book after book from the shelves looking for anything lucid, anything familiar but no character spoke to me, no word meant anything at all. It was all soundless cipher. I recognized, could understand, nothing. I doubted all my memories, wondered if I had ever written or read a legible word. My life’s work, my memories, my very identity were suddenly and incontrovertibly a fantasy come crashing down in a cruel and ugly revelation. All that made sense in the world, all that had been given to us by the gods, had suddenly been re-veiled, rolled up into silence and dust.

I heaved, panting and wild, against a wall for several moments, sweat and clarity pouring out of me into the heat and dust and fear. And then I saw my parchment on the table, and went back to look at it once more, as if it would somehow make sense.

I could read the last five characters. Line after line of that flowing hand I now recognize as our old language were incomprehensible and alien to me: but there, at the precise moment I heard the first shouts and cries, just before the rumbling broke through my concentration, were five distinct hieroglyphs of the kind now familiar to you, and according to which system you are now reading this memoir.

Of those who congregated in the days and weeks after the collapse, I am the only one who remembers that old language—or rather, that there was an old language. For the rest, it is as if we always spoke what we now speak, and came to this valley only to escape the wrath of God that had confounded all those other tongues. They have forgotten brothers, sisters, lovers, and parents with whom they could no longer communicate, and made new families, as if we were born of the tower’s collapse, and never lived before it.

But I have thought long and remembered hard, and have discovered that caution, though wisdom, is also a kind of courage. It is what allows me to tell this story to you. I have never written of this before, my son, and never will again. And I have let all my old learning be lost, for fear it would inspire men to build another obscenity. Perhaps they’ll be content with monuments to the gods, and never again presume to seek them in their heaven.

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Jonathon Penny lives in Al Ain, UAE, where he teaches literature and runs errands. He is also contributing editor at WIZ. In his spare time, he is founding, with Jenny Webb, Peas Porridge Press, which will soon publish the work of Percival P. Pennywhistle, which is brilliant.

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