Babel

Digging around my hard drive the other day I found an old short story I wrote a few years back. Here it is…

Babel

The Library of Fundamental Principles is long and empty but filled with books and paper of age and wisdom; chairs and desks of oak and mahoganny; air and space of light and dust; and teachers and scholars of power and art. I stumbled into that room and gazed upon the wonder of it, felt the rush of excitement at things to be learned and wept for a moment at all I had chosen to forget to be allowed to enter.
“Do not be afraid or sad and do not look back to that door.” the first of my teachers said, his gnarled old hand on my shoulder turning me to face the room again. “There is nothing out there, everything is in here.”
I laugh now to think of the foolishness of my first question to him: “Who are you?” He laughed then too, throwing back his gray head and filling the space with great guffaws that erupted from his belly. A few of the other scholars looked up at the noise, some smile, some frowned. One cried.
When his laughter had subsided he looked at me again with both joy and sadness in his keen blue eyes. “Who am I? Only I know the answer to that question and many long years it has taken me to find it. Who are you?”
The return of my own question stunned me then, it was like a blow being sruck to my kidneys for, at that moment, I realised one of the things I had chosen to leave behind was my name. “I… I…” I stammered trying to find some words to fill the hole in my understanding, the hole in the universe revealed by his question, demanding an answer that it might be filled.
“I..? I..?” prompted my first teacher.
“I do not know.”
“Well that is the first truth you have spoken.” He smiled softly. “Would you like to find out?” I nodded, trembling slightly. My teacher waved his arm across the room taking in the expanse of the library. “Then learn.” He instructed.
And I learned.
I chose a desk, it was unoccupied by a scholar at least but piled high with books and papers. Knowing no better I started with the heap right in front of me. When I had read that all that was there I spent a month finding the right places on the shelves for the books that chance had gifted me, learning the arcane mysteries of the filing system as I went. I selected more books at random an continued my studies.
Years past and my own beard grew gray and long as I allowed the knowledge to seep in to me and worked my way through the library. Then one day there were no books left to read, I found that the books I had piled on my desk were the same ones as I had first found there. I leafed through each frantically but there were no more truths to be found.
“Who are you?” I startled and looked up into the eyes of my teacher.
Surely I now knew the answer, I had learned so much that the secrets of the universe were open to me.
“I am a scholar, I am wise.” I told him.
“That is what you are.” his reply cut me like ice, “Who are you?”
“I don’t know.” I stated, boldly and truly.
My teacher smiled, and extended his hand and grasped my own. “Come.” he told me. He led me to the back of the library and gestured to the iron spiral stairs leading up to the next floor.
“Where do they go?” I asked.
“I do not know.” my teacher replied.

The Library of Unspeakable Memory is dark and drafty and bereft of books, the nightingale floorboards creak and groan as I step onto them from the top of the stairs.
“What are you!?” demanded the voice of my second teacher, hidden, out of sight somewhere in the shadows.
“I am a scholar, I am wise.” I told him. Though my words did not feel so bold as they had when I spoke them to my first teacher.
“That is not what you are. That is what you have learned to be. What are you?”
“I do not know.” I admitted.
My second teacher chose that moment to reveal himself, he walked out of a pool of darkness and stood before me, old and bent his eyes dim and almost unseeing behind thick bottle glasses, his scalp bald and wrinkled as the rest of his decaying skin. Under the soft pat of his bare feet the floorboards whispered not a sound. “Cross the floor.” he instructed me.
I took a step and the floor moaned at the lightest touch of my foot.
“Stop.” He commanded in a still voice that filled me with horror. “Remember.”
And I remembered. I remembered the first time I pulled the wings from a fly. I remembered what it was like to be the fly. My body wracked with agony as my wings were plucked and I experienced death. I cried out, fell to my knees and wept.
My teacher walked two steps back from me. “Cross the floor.”
I got to my feet slowly and carefully, not daring to move my feet.
I took another step as carefully as I could but again the floor boards sang out about my guilt.
“Stop. Remember.”
And so I spent the next few aeons crossing the floor, remembering my sins and feeling the torment of my victims. By the time I reached the far end I was a broken and doubled over, my shoes long since worn away I could feel the cold wood of that dreaded floor under my bare feet though I could no longer see it through the gloom.
Until one day my teacher did not instruct me to cross the floor. “What are you?”
“A wretch. A sinful wretch.” I replied and prepared myself again to cross the floor. Without waiting for his command I placed a foot forward and sank it on to the floorboard, I felt the great ancient slab move and shift under my weigth but it kept it’s voice silent. I took another step with my breath held. And another.
I had reached an iron stair case.
“Where does it go?” I asked but heard no answer, I looked back across the library of memory but my teacher had hidden himself in the darkness. So I climbed.

The Library of Revelation is at the top of the tower, the stairs lead onto the battlements. The battlements are open to the sky. I can not see the stars but I feel their light pricking at my skin. I stagger to the edge and peer over, I can not see the ground but far below me there may be clouds, I screw my ancient tired eye to make them out.
My last teacher is a young man, he is suddenly standing beside me and looking over the wall with me.
“Who are you?” he asks me.
“I am a man. I am a demon. I am a lost soul.” I reply.
“What are you?” he asks me.
“I am damned.” I reply.
He nods, silent for a moment. “Then you have only one thing more to learn.” he tells me and moves quietly around behind me. “Step up on the wall.” he instructs, and offers his hand. Which I grasp and carefully obey. The night’s air is still but I am not steady on my feet. “What more do you wish to learn?” he asks me.
“Nothing. I have learned too much. I would gladly forget it all.” The young man opens his mouth to speak but I cut him off. “I know. I know your last truth. But tell me this, how many times has it been?”
“An eternity already.” he replies and there are tears in his voice also. With nothing left to be said, I step off of the tower and fall.

I pick myself up from the ground and push open the great portal before me. The Library of Fundamental Principles is long and empty but filled with books and paper of age and wisdom; chairs and desks of oak and mahoganny; air and space of light and dust; and teachers and scholars of power and art. I stumbled into that room and gazed upon the wonder of it, felt the rush of excitement at things to be learned and wept for a moment at all I had chosen to forget to be allowed to enter.