• J.S. Mullen

The Tower

(One of a collection of foibles)


—The nail went right through his hand. That was how it started. Deictic comprehension would descend only later. For now, all such understanding be damned! The Chief Architect—or was it the Assistant Chief Architect? Or were the two one and the same? More likely, in the opinion of my friend, it was some minor Assistant to the Chief Architect—though perhaps not. In any case, my friend said it wasn’t entirely clear—someone along the way had forgotten that detail, or failed to pass it along—if it was ever known with any real certainty at all—but that was how the initial listener’s attention had been grabbed, the nail going through the hand of a certain someone of a certain relationship to architecture. My friend was explaining the matter to me—or trying anyway; the long hall in which were sitting was a cacophony of clinking of mugs, blaring music, discordant, screaming voices, and raucous revelry—roisters carnally carousing, half-naked, dancing, some on tables, others on the floor. The wedding for which we had come down had ended some hours ago—when there was still light. My friend was leaned in close and practically shouting to be understood over the din. It was a confusing story, made the more so by the tangled, confused way in which it had been conveyed to him—which, he informed me, was not now being repeated to me verbatim. He had reorganized the palaver narrative for the sake of clarity. Originally the rather straightforward chronological tale had been so convolutedly related to him that, even though he had known immediately that it was a story he would repeat to someone, somewhere, at some later date, so singularly inscrutable was the story, so worth waiting out to hear how it ended, so enigmatically, he had, my friend, right up until the end had absolutely no idea how any of what was being related to him had anything whatsoever to do with anything else—so labyrinthine had been the conveyance of the tale—particularly its chronology and it’s disjointed mishmash of dislocated actors—most of whom my friend told me he had eliminated, again for the sake of clarity. An undoubtedly large part of the confusion resulted from the fact that the woman who had conveyed it to my friend just six months prior had heard it from a client some thirty years before, who in turn had overheard the story of the Tower’s construction while on a particularly rough ferry crossing near the border of Uqbar some sixty or so years before that. However, lest you be put off by such a history of transmission, the original detail of the pair’s conversation, which the client of the woman from whom my friend had received the story—let us call him Mr. X—or chanced to overhear more rather, leant itself to a certain authority; that is to say their manner of conversation seemed to indicate their possession of first-hand knowledge of the events described; on top of which the case for Mr. X—’s immaculate reputation where such matters were concerned was pleaded successfully in the eyes of my friend during his brief acquaintance with the woman in question—C—, let us call her—during their brief meeting, or dalliance, or whatever one wished euphemistically to dub what had passed between them one intoxicating night now six months gone, chancing, two strangers, meeting late one night at an exotic bar in a foreign land.


The story went that Mr. X— had been bobbing along, rain pouring down on he and his fellow travelers, huddled under a small canopy, its meager, maculated fabric stretched raggedly over the decrepit framework arch of the ferryman’s small boat. There were twelve, or thirteen, or perhaps only half a dozen others making the crossing near the border of Uqbar. Their number really wasn’t all that important. That there were other people on board was the point—others besides Mr. X— and the two men, though none of them spoke the language of the two men whose conversation Mr. X— had overheard. His reason for thinking this having been explained as such: that he could not believe anyone overhearing what passed between the two interlocutors could fail to have aroused in them, in one who understood the meaning of what was being conveyed, the most agitated of emotional states—the countenance of which would be impossible to mask. But the faces of his fellow passengers had been utterly blank—like dead souls, gray, huddled, heavy eyelids drooping as they stared blankly at the decaying wooden planks of the boatman’s deck. There were no bright eyes among them, peering inquisitively—no jaws dropped, no great gasps of breath were sharply drawn in—not a single other set of eyes fixed their gaze upon the speakers—this despite the fact that what they said was conveyed in voices quite loud enough to be heard and understood, in spite of the rain, by any of those around them—again, if they knew the language—which, my friend could not resist hinting, turned out to be quite an ironic thing.

For the nail had been driven clean through the center of the Chief Architect’s hand. He—or was it a she?—or something else entirely?—let’s just call him, the Chief Architect, a “he” for the sake of the story—he let out an inhuman scream and everyone around him literally dropped dead the instant the flesh was pierced, as though stricken by some Obeahic spell. According to a contemporaneous newspaper from the region, the archived, yellowed newspaper clipping which my friend had seen with his own eyes, confirmed the occurrence of a strange incident at a worksite around that time, the details of which were unclear; but whatever the details it was certain that several dead had been carried out on makeshift stretchers of ripped and stretched tarpaulin hastily screwed into bits of scrap lumber for handles. But now, as he had said “screwed,” my friend’s face scrunched in the treachery of remembrance—was it a screw that had gone through his hand? Perhaps, though it seemed more plausible it was a nail—more plausible than a screw anyway—the facts surrounding the circumstance itself seemed rather more odd—the Chief Architect, descending from his high office, had come to directly supervise or lend a hand on some construction taking place on one of the lower levels? How low precisely he had descended had been lost, or not ever conveyed in the original—though it made little difference—that fact, the presence of the Chief Architect alone, should have required further explaining than the question of whether it had been a nail or screw through the hand—so in the words of my friend—or how it was that the Chief Architect, or whoever it was, was always told to be “descending” from above—from where? Clean out of the sky? How was it, the Tower being built up, that his office always remained on the topmost floor? It had not struck me, personally, that either matter was so singular a thing as to require great investigation on the surface of it. But my friend cautioned me at that—first reprimanding himself: this was precisely what came from not keeping things in their proper place, by mixing them up, getting ahead of oneself, letting things from later get mixed into the now, and the past into the later, and things from here being mixed with things from not-here. He would be diligent from this point forth, my friend vowed—all such things impeded or wholly prevented proper understanding of such things. He would begin again.


It had happened that a very small, and virtually undeveloped country in a distant corner of the world (for again it had come into fashion to consider the world flat—in knowing contradiction of the evidence—for such things often take to happening for some reason) that this country, called Uqbar, had been discovered by a geological survey conducted by a graduate school researcher from a major University here in our own country to contain vast amounts of L—. L— was the principal active agent in an experimental new pharmaceutical drug that had just finished second stage testing—and there were great hopes that it would finally be able to cure D—. The owning company’s stock had gone up nearly 600% on the announcement of the successful phase two testing. Meanwhile, the firm was proceeding to the final stage of human trials—and so there was imagined to be a sharply increased demand for L— in the near future. Due to the natural rarity of L— and the impossibility at the time of synthetically manufacturing a suitable alternative—it meant that the country of Uqbar was about to be a fount of wealth for somebody. The government, which consisted of a primogeniturial elder council, consisting of each of the chiefs of the twelve tribes, all of whom inherited their titles from their fathers, was saved nearly being fleeced straight out of the gates by the invading foreign businesses interested in acquiring L— by a quick acting consulting firm from a major industrialized nation; having arrived just hours before the first batches of multinational corporate representatives drew up on the shores (for there was no airport yet in Uqbar), the consulting firm convinced the hastily assembled elder council that their existed in their country an incalculable sum of L— and that more wealth than they could ever imagine was at their finger tips should they heed the correct advice. The elder council, while not fully understanding at first the foreigners obsession with “infinite material prosperity,” as they put it, they understood quite well that when one had something of value one should, if negotiating wisely, get the most value from it one can, and so they retained the consulting firm. For the firm’s part, they secured for themselves a healthy percentage of the profits for each ounce exported out of the country for the next ten years—which was the longest agreement allowed by tribal law—but that was more than enough for the firm; after the deal was struck with I—, a pharmaceutical hegemon from a fellow prosperous and industrialized nation, the heads of the consultancy firm all immediately retired to the Keys, their accounts filling up fit to bursting in the Caymans. And so the harvesting of L— began in earnest.


And that was how it had begun. Of course, my friend made it clear, repeating several times throughout, that while he deemed this the best place to call a beginning, it had not been related to him as such. But this is a common complaint among narrators. Whatever complaint one might make of a given moment, it is a fact that a point in time and space had to be chosen to call a beginning. Since everything that happens is comprised of things interacting, things which had other beginnings, in which other things had combined to generate them—and those things other things, and so on ad infinitum—at least until the beginning of everything, when everything was one thing, or nothing—no one could say anything truly certain about beginnings without bordering on hubris, so impenetrably opaque remained the science of etiology. For example, with regards to the present case, the woman who had conveyed the story to my friend had started some sixty years prior to the point at which my friend had decided to begin. She had begun with the vision of the Tower, received by the father of O— when he was leader of their tribe and O— was no more than a boy. The Tower had repeatedly come upon him during a three day spell, a state of fever and ecstasy, when his feeble human brain had been overwhelmed by visions in the miasmic heat of the jungle, watched over in their hut by the eldest of the shamans of their tribe—who by the burning of L— enabled O—’s father to get closer to the spirit realm in order to plead more effectively to the ancestors and gods to help him overcome all physical travails. Like my friend, however, in retelling the story I also think that particular episode, though prior in chronology to the “discovery” of L— by the researcher (the quotes here meant to draw attention to the arrogance of such diction), I think the vision of the Tower can only be properly appreciated in all its gravitas once contextualized, once it is established that there existed a place in which some people, knowing little or nothing of complex contemporary building, nothing of space age super steels, modern engineering or manufacturing, yes, only once that country has been fleshed out can one appreciate the awesomeness of the Tower and it’s project.


Before that however, it should be noted that the contract for the rights of harvesting the L— was accorded to the highest bidding major multinational corporation by the government of Uqbar. The precise details weren’t in my friend’s possession—this despite serious research done after the fact in an attempt to find out precisely who had paid what for what and to what end—and as will be seen this is a running theme throughout. For though there can be absolutely no doubt about what happened there remain questions as to what was happening during those moments of happenstance, which are not, themselves, in historical question. There was a Tower. But lest the council leadership of Uqbar be thought inane, or incapable—having sold away the rights to the L— so quickly—without taking any time to consider whether or not the country might profit more by taking some other route—processing and exporting the L— itself, perhaps? And indeed, such thoughts had been thought, and words were spoken—the chiefs, having seen neighboring countries for centuries pouring out rubber, spices, metals, and oil, were not wholly unprepared at the discovery of something valuable in their own little country, stimulating outside interest in their forgotten little corner of the world. Something finally having turned up as useful to the global market, the chiefs, though taken aback by the suddenness of the “discovery” and subsequent arrival of the teams of corporate multinationals and foreign government parties, they had their heads solidly about them and were confident they understood their options—even if they did not understand the ten pounds of legalese spelled out in a language none of them spoke, let alone read, which were the contents of the contracts they made their marks upon in the end. The chiefs knew there was no hope of their being able to set up manufacturing operations on their own quickly enough to start churning out enough of L— to satisfy the market—and their potential workforce being largely hunters and farmers and fishers or petty artisans, the chiefs quickly concluded the only real option was selling the rights—for if they did nothing, refused to give forth the desired L—, the histories of their neighbors portended an ominous fate. Much as it is when big kids play with little kids unsupervised on the playground, the big kids decide the rules among themselves and impose them upon the weak; so too world politics, forever and always, though the faces and names and coalitions change. The Uqbar Ambassador to the United Nations was hastily recalled, being the most cosmopolitan and educated among them—and who alone in the government had serious experience speaking the foreign tongue—and, with the help of the lawyers brought along by the contracted consulting agency, they were able to ensure the country got a relatively good deal out of the sale of the rights of L—, all things considered.


The change in the country happened almost overnight. The social structure of the family, clan, and tribe, the traditional staples of prototypical social structures—the dominant ones the world over until not so very long ago—and still dominant in many of the still developing parts of the world today—as in Uqbar—quickly and smoothly gave way to the citizen and consumer, city, province, and nation. Using the money pouring in from the booming export of L— foreign contractors were brought in, and using a mixture of local unskilled laborers and imported skilled technicians modern hospitals and schools were built, housing complexes, gymnasiums—existing road networks were widened and expanded and paved—while on the horizon communications towers punctured the hitherto undisturbed azure veil. A nationwide educational examination program was initiated with the help of outside educational experts, resulting in 100 of their burgeoning nation’s brightest to be sent to university abroad, some studying hard sciences, others business—still others social sciences and engineering—or medicine and law—the exam going on to be conducted yearly, and the number of scholarships for foreign education increased—the end result being that in ten years when their contract with the consulting firm and their legal team expired neither contract was renewed as originally written—and negotiations with the multinational that had grown comfortable with its easy exploitation of L— and the sumptuous profits it had brought, was forced to tighten its belt in the face of renewed competition from new bidders attempting to undercut them, and the Uqbar negotiating team drawing a hard and confident line.

This social miracle—for a miracle it surely is—if a miracle is the defiance or suspension of the laws of nature in one’s own favor—owed its accomplishment less to the leadership of the ruling council, able though it was, than to the underlying systems of relations comprising the true social fabric of Uqbar society. For while tribal leadership was primogeniturial, and governing decisions made non-democratically on the basis of the small number of private votes of the unelected ruling council’s vote amongst itself, the society of Uqbar was otherwise greatly democratized and the various groups comprising it were highly integrated, no matter tribal lines. This unique harmony largely owed its existence to a favorable set of circumstances—chief among them, that all the tribes were said to be distantly related, each able to trace their lineage back to a single progenitor—the stories about which were legend, full of fights for the survival of a people, grand visions, pilgrimage, trial, tribulation, and eventual overcoming—all of which made the man a mythological figure—and which provided a distinct cultural glue for everything—division of labor, holy days, feasts, celebrations, rites and rituals—all of it ultimately hinged on that one fact. Sayings of the Patriarch had been passed down, such as “Let every hand know what the other hand is doing,” “A bride price is twice as many hens as have been slaughtered since the last moon,” and “Let a man contradict himself twice before his tongue is cut out,” and which taken together formed the basis of law in Uqbar until the modern period. All told there were over six hundred such aphorisms. In order to safeguard the oral tradition it was customary for each tribe to designate a Recounter—one whose duty it was to retain the ancient wisdom. It was a life-long commitment, and those who aspired to the position had to begin when little more than children. An additional precaution helping to ensure that the sayings lived on, apart from each of the Chief Recounters there were sometimes as many as a hundred disciples and apprentices of various ages, at various points along the path to becoming a Recounter, thus ensuring a ready pool of able candidates from which to draw when a Recounter died—or when, as had happened in the past, several Recounters, teacher, disciple-made-teacher, next disciple-made-teacher, and next disciple-made teacher, died one after the other, the shortest of these serving only nine hours as a Chief Recounter before being set upon while out walking the shallow jungle, one of the land’s many predacious jaguars mauling him to death and dragging him off.


The central tenants of the sayings of their venerated Patriarch, chief among them “There is no beginning, just as there is no end,” formed the basis of every society of the tribes. The natural universal adoption of these revealed truths by the tribes, all claiming to be descended from the Patriarch, and recognizing the like claims of the other tribes, along with the homogenous climate, terrain, and manners of making a living in village life, meant that all in Uqbar shared the same ethical, cultural, and ethnic backgrounds, making the people as homogenous as the land in which they dwelt (but wherein, ironically, the Patriarch himself had never dwelt, one of their genesis stories being the great journey of a chosen people across the wideness of the world upon the back of a giant tortoise, which finally lay down to sleep for all eternity, here, in the chosen place, only after the noble death of the long suffering Patriarch). Hilly, thickly-jungled, the natural border of their lands being demarcated by mountains to the north and south, and the seas to east and west, while having nothing of material interest—metals, great beasts, nor desirable climate—to draw an otherwise unlikely invader toward Uqbar; nor having had among themselves a long acrimonious history of feuding and warring, they had not been subject to the ravages that so regularly subsumed countries and even whole continents; and as such there had been established over the centuries of generations who had grown up and gone on from Uqbar an easy, slow-paced, harmonious, natural, community approach to living. For all its appearance of rigid hierarchy at the level of the ruling tribal council, the rest of society was totally democratized—no discriminatory ageism or chauvinism, elitism or machismo—and because of this society as a whole, despite the tribal divisions and geographic distance (which in the face of modern technology was no great thing; the country was actually quite small by almost any comparative measure among like entities), was, in fact, possessed of the definite and correct sense that the people ruled rather than the rulers—and the rulers, sensitive to this, sought to do the wishes of the people, except when doing so was thought unwise, and even then it had come down through the Patriarch, or been added by one of his chroniclers perhaps—as some attributed aphorisms were rumored to have been—the reasons and their bases had to be presented to any who asked the leaders for an explanation—which was doubtlessly why, unlike so many other countries stricken with the curse of exploitable natural resources, a controlling oligarchy did not seize control of the state and its financial assets through means of a police state, or under military rule—that and the fact there was no standing army to speak of, nor any police apparatus that could be so coopted.


Our seventh or eighth—tenth?—round of drinks were set down before us; we had moved to a small table in the corner of the hall—where earlier in the evening a quintet had softly hummed evening time Brahms and Chopin. The players had long gone, however, and at the far end of the hall stacks of speakers nearly seven feet tall caused the room to veritably shake with their every reverberation. My friend’s voice was beginning to give out, a long day of celebrating interspersed with drinks and cigarettes. Though I had caught very nearly all of what he had conveyed up until around that point, there were several times after that, seek clarification though I did, the music from the speakers trapped in the hall and my friend’s diminished capacity for both volume and lucidity, meant that on several points I was unable to gain satisfactory understanding—twice, in fact, I had no idea at all what my friend had at that point attempted three times to convey, and in the end I simply nodded in order that the story might proceed—for we were nearing the moment of the Tower’s completion. Or rather, I was being taken through an elaboration of one of the many varying furcations the narrative tended troublesomely to split off into. For example, in some cases it was claimed that the building of the Tower had never moved beyond the drawing board; while in others the Tower had been assembled all the way up to the point of completion being rumored to be at hand—in yet another case, my friend confessed, their was some lingering doubt as to whether the project had ever existed at all.


But traditionally it was accepted that the building of the Tower, though not actually decided upon or initiated until the twentieth year after L—’s discovery, had been laid as a seed only a few short years following the rapid development of the country. Initially half bemused, half befuddled by the foreigners obsession with acquiring more “things capable of amassing one more things, and so on ad infinitum” (the way the chiefs understood the former’s obsession with ‘money’), neither the tribal elders nor their people were long in succumbing to this lurid obsession. For it had been imagined by those of Uqbar that there were only a finite number of possible things one could acquire. In their former barter based local economy there was jaguar or carib meat—or smoked fish or crabs from the coasts, trekked inland by industrious traders—variously colored shells, stones, spices, oils, fats, nuts, materials for fabrics and so on—and so one could be reasonably befuddled by the thought of someone obsessively filling their hut with more food than they could ever possibly eat, or more beads than they could ever possibly string, fabric for clothes than they could possibly need or make—it was, in that sense, entirely understandable that they should have been confident in their feeling of superiority over the obviously deluded, materially obsessed foreigners—for they did not understand the culture of commodification. But within five years of L—’s “discovery” the population was mostly shod in N—’s and texting their friends to meet them at the one of the seventy-five S— which had sprung up on seemingly every corner of the developing cities, serving coffee, on their way to yoga or to go shopping. Credit was flowing from the international markets and from the newly created Central Bank of Uqbar. As such, there came an explosive proliferation of goods and services in the two decades to follow. Interestingly, as the country was industrializing, modernizing, it managed to retain a strong sense of its traditional, communal, roots—albeit a feeling now augmented with integral calculus, Shakespeare, cell phones, Lasik surgeries, and designer jeans—so that by the time of the Tower, approximately twenty years after L—’s exporting began, a diverse and thriving metropolis-driven, free trade economy was being easily supported by a handful of farmers aided by mechanization, while a sophisticated state social care apparatus ensured that those thrown out of work by the continually changing circumstances of the economy were placed in new occupations immediately—even when the new occupations were made up on the spot—which more often than not they were. This practice was based on the widely accepted theory that human beings are possessed of an innate desire for purpose, a desire to be useful—to, in short, work. Have one man dig a hole and have another man fill it, the saying went—the key was to convince, by means of correct messaging and conditioning, all those involved that there was some greater purpose to the activity—which, of course, there was: individuals would feel useful to their community and be able to spend a paycheck on the other goods and services being produced by the community, or imported from elsewhere.


Powerful as it was, that theory, creating and maintaining consumer demand, was at the heart of one of the three chief explanations for why it was that the chief council of Uqbar allegedly decided to attempt construction of the Tower. Its rivals, with one exception, have changed throughout the years, as different interpretations of the events in question have gone in and out of vogue. That it was an attempt by the ruling men to impose the sight of a gargantuan, inescapable phallus on every female of the population; that it was a multinational conspiracy meant to drain the country of its resources while foreign contractors dallied away fecklessly, feigning accomplishment and progress; that it was a distraction job, a public relations campaign by the ruling council to distract from slowing economic growth and increasing calls for political democratization by those in the upper middle and professional classes; that it was a means of symbolizing to the rest of the world that Uqbar had arrived—whichever theory happened to be enjoying some notoriety at whatever particular junction, it joined easy government job provider and the much more famous, resilient explanation: the project of the Tower was an attempted realization of a prophetic vision. Whether it was true or not, my friend believed it was simply too fantastic to ever be omitted—even someone who was retelling the story who didn’t believe it would be sure to include it by acknowledging and dismissing it as a farce. Indeed, it was this explanation, the divine radix of the Tower, that perpetually enjoyed favored status. The story is supported by something rather singular about Uqbar, a phenomenon hitherto unknown: the more they modernized the more religiously devout they became, worshiping themselves as vehicles of divine omnipotence: long told legends, belief in the stories of their grandfathers of the greatness of their people, seemed coming true before their very eyes—as doctors routinely defeated death, epidemiologists prevented the spread of disease—great buildings were raised, bridges spanning incredible distances, boats, airplanes, computers—they came to see the wonder of creation revealed all around them, unobfuscated by their former ignorance, which had been incapable of understanding what was hidden in nature. They came to celebrate creation—not any particular event in the past—not a remembrance of some single thing—but of the process, creation. Things becoming—to even talk about things being destroyed was to talk nonsensically: things were becoming other things than they were formerly—but they had been no more whole or complete then, for those were only illusions meant to foster belief in the ultimate definability and pliability of the natural world, capable of being perfectly understood and twisted and sculpted in accordance with the mind of man. Of course, there were dissenters—as there always are—luddites and fundamentalist religionists for the most part—those who hate material and spiritual progress respectively—for in the same way the urge to create seems innate to the human condition so too does fear of the unknown seem inextricable, and the former two are the most popular expressions of this most unattractive vestigial psychological appendage. And so it bears reiterating: why they were building the Tower wasn’t entirely clear, nor was there universal support for the construction of the Tower—though what opposition there was on that second count really was quite marginal; however, that what little opposition existed did in fact exist may, as you’ll see, be quite pertinent, particularly as the construction of the Tower was subject several times to attempted corporeal sabotage by way of metaphysical outlets—but more on that in a moment.

First, regarding the conception of the Tower—or rather, the introduction of the idea of the Tower into the common consciousness of both the leadership and citizenry of Uqbar: some say it was O—, who rising solemnly from his seat at a council meeting one day prophesied its rise in accordance with the vision of his long deceased father. According to others, however, such talk, though widely disseminated and believed, was mere superstition; the true origins of the Tower were to be found far from the humble thatched roof huts of the Uqbar of half a century prior, its roots in the possessed mind of a man practically Paleolithic in his understanding of how the natural world operated according to science—further, who knew nothing of metallurgy or engineering—and who could not, except in some metaphoric way so fantastic as to verge on the miraculous, have imagined something literally thousands of feet tall, dwarfing all else as far as was known in their closely circumscribed world. All nonsense. Rather, according to them, it had been the brother of the researcher who had “discovered” L—, an engineer at a major multinational corporation, one of the first to arrive to begin the process of Uqbar’s industrialization following the deal struck by the council to begin the harvesting and exporting of L—; it was he, the engineer, who had brought with him a burning seed ready to sprout at the first touch of fertile ground. Uqbar, with its nonexistent building codes or specifications, regulations, permits, et cetera, proved to be just such ideal terra firma. Lastly, and perhaps most incredibly of all, some maintained the Tower had been no one’s idea—that one day a bunch of people were just found to be gathering and placing stones at that such and such a place, and that an organizational network had grown out from the initially disjointed, uncoordinated efforts of the group, giving rise to the hierarchical structure of command that dominates the latter, more widely agreed upon parts of the story—which I am coming to shortly, my friend hurried to add.

I was disappointed to have missed a great deal of all what he had said (the beginning of some wild but choreographed dance had resulted in both of us, despite our unwillingness, being pushed out on to the floor by a mob of strangers, then tugged and pushed this way and that in accordance with the appropriate direction dictated by the mystery of the dance, aping our way about, several times becoming separated; though my friend, not seeming to have taken note of my absence, or of the change in our circumstances, continued on—his shouting would become inaudible as we separated and then would come suddenly back into the range of my auditory perception, though the narrative would be well advanced of where he had left me behind) but we had fought our way free of the hall subsequent the end of the dance and were now outside. The sky was dark, and the night was cold. We were far north and it was winter and no stars shown. The blinding lights emanating from the hall behind us cast everything before us in impenetrable shadow. Though we stood for several minutes our eyes did not adjust, and the surrounding wilderness remained a mystery. We were at some sort of massive luxury resort buried deep in the trees—though, because of the liquid-laden frivolities of the late morning and early afternoon, neither of us could recall how we had come there or who with—only that we had been awakened for the wedding by a pair of bridesmaids, who having dressed us in our sleep chased us out of the room and down to the wedding hall, haranguing us for falling asleep, ignoring completely our protestations that we were a part of no wedding.


But my friend had continued: The researcher, the one who had “discovered” L—, upon returning to her own country had written a studiously detailed paper about the discovery, which was published in one of the preeminent academic journals, and earned her a place fighting for a tenure track position at an institute of no small repute—though this had nothing to do directly with the Tower, it was simply a detail that had been conveyed to him, my friend acknowledged that it made a pleasant addition—as additional information generally did—though not always; additional information when it contradicted the story as it had been given and accepted thus far created what in the eyes of some amounted to undesirable complications—which was precisely the case with the researcher, whose brother may have masterminded the Tower; for it has been suggested, according to my friend, that she, the researcher, had actually been from Uqbar, had been given a set of second hand high school math and science books by a visiting missionary (who had not been chased away, but had rather gone away of his own accord after having been genuinely ignored for six straight months by all the other villagers—the eventual researcher included). Endowed with the gift of total recall, she immersed herself in the books, transforming herself in mere weeks from an illiterate to an autodidactic savant. She had been given the books by the missionary who had believed her to be about high school age or a little older, when in fact her appearance, roughed by perpetual, hard outdoor living, belied her age by a decade, so that just three years later when she published her article in N— magazine, she was barely twelve, having just the year before, using a makeshift microscope fashioned with the help of her brother, broken down the structural makeup of the cellular structures of the spores of L—. Given that her lack of sophisticated scientific equipment limited her ability to probe much more deeply into the matter, she suspected the hallucinogenic effects experienced by those who consumed L— was to be found in the contents of these spores—and so had written a paper arguing essentially that: the spores caused hallucinogenic effects capable of revealing the secret life of the human mind—

But to return to her brother, P—, he is perhaps the most important single person in the entire story of the Tower—apart from the Chief Architect, or perhaps O—, or O—’s father, or the ancient shaman at his side as he lay fevering that fateful late afternoon so many years ago; or perhaps the researcher herself—it really just depended on whom one asked—but running completely parallel with the given events of the competing narrative, it is said that it was her brother, P—, a likewise former village child turned autodidact, who, when the state testing had begun following his sister’s discovery of L— and it’s sale, had won a scholarship to the most elite university in the entire hemisphere, whose vision the Tower had been, and who, over long, sleepless nights, having arrived in his home country after spending nearly a decade abroad, gaining experience at several of the most prestigious firms in the world, had come bearing with him his pièce de le résistance! A sign of the times, he serendipitously arrived to find the ruling council feeling under renewed pressure of late to begin democratizing political power, and needing a means of diverting the surplus attention and enthusiasm of the citizenry the council was ready to immediately green light his prospective project: the most magnificent Tower the world had ever known, dwarfing even the tallest skyscrapers of the most advanced industrialized nations of the contemporary age! (They, the tribal council, this particular branch of the multitudinously furcated narrative went, had been planning not long before P—’s arrival, on the advice of one of their former consultants, to make preparations for infrastructure spending anyway, the intent being to partner with several outside investment groups to develop luxury villas, retreats, chateaus, beach houses, and other such accommodations in order to develop a tourism industry—though this particular bifurcation in the narrative led one back around to whence the viewer stood previously—uncertain of the Tower’s grand designer—for, according to this particular furcation, it had been based on the recommendation of their former, and still occasional, consultant, that a major architecture firm had been contacted. Headquartered far to the north, the company had sent a team down, and after marking out all the areas prime for developing and putting up some tentative designs, they also pitched the idea of the Tower to the ruling council—the idea had purportedly come to each of the individual members of the team in turn, though independently of each other, over the span of a mere twelve hours—one from a book, the other a movie, another a magazine article, still another a dream, and so on—all agreeing that their firm would see a massive inflow of capital made available to it on such publicity as the announcement of the building of the Tower would afford—while the government of Uqbar loved the idea as well, for the reasons already described, and willingly offered to open up their stately coffers to see the project done—for it was a major win as far as the government was concerned; the project was certain to bring both local and global prestige, jobs, and tax revenue.)


It should be noted here, as the Tower is now commencing to be built, that the entire story is very definitely told as though the Tower is actually being built—in precisely the same way one can march out into their back yard and scoop together a small pile of dust or arrange a neat pile of twigs—however, it has been argued by a certain philosopher, whose devotees continue preaching to this day, that we’re assuming a great deal issuing such a statement—rule by fiat, they call it—for in the same way a Tower can be built without being built one can go into their backyard and scoop together a fine mound of sand or arrange a neat pile of sticks and all without leaving their bed. But, for the sake of the story, it makes no difference. Imagine the Tower was actually being built, irrespective of your beliefs about the matter. From the beginning there were problems. In retrospect, of course, many, if not all in fact, were easily foreseeable, and could have, with better, more hands on and experienced management, been easily sidestepped or avoided altogether. For instance, arguably the most serious initial difficulty in building the Tower was the lack of a skilled local workforce. The people of Uqbar were as industrious as any—which is to say they had their manic hard workers and dutiful employees, as well as their occasional slackers—but mere industriousness did not make one an expert welder, concrete technician, electrician, plumber, mason—et cetera. The people, eager upon hearing of the project, demanded its commencement at once—the very night of its announcement signaling the beginning of a week straight of festivities, in celebration of creation, of course; however, when the week was over the people’s impatience was quick to ripen. And so, faced with two less than optimal options, those managing the project, the construction of the Tower, comprised of a confused mix of private corporate parties, architects, engineers, and bureaucrats and citizen representatives from the cities and provinces, made the decision to begin the project at once, necessitating the importation of large numbers of skilled laborers. It had taken hefty kickbacks to the provinces, and the money had gone to the masses of people at large, but their pride had been stung—after all, part of the pride of their nation being home to the Tower was that each part of them had a literal part of themselves in the Tower—and for some such a loss had no redeeming price. So it was that while the majority hurried off to the schools and programs being hastily thrown up by the government in order to rapidly raise a workforce requisite to the task, so they too could add their drop of sweat to the Tower, some, particularly those who still longed for the days before modernization, who saw no place for themselves in the New World—for whom the identity they cherished had no meaning—this feeling having been irrefutably confirmed after the place where the Tower was to be erected was unveiled—an ancient spot of great importance—a great hill was to be leveled from whence on high the Patriarch had received in meditation the Moral Precepts and brought them down. The indignation of those offended at this sacrilege knew no bounds, and as their feelings could not find outlet in any successful physical attack against the project or the broader society so it was that invidious magic was set against the Tower. Presided over by a pair of the oldest, most venerated of the tribal shamans, the most powerful of malevolent spells were conjured—animals sacrificed—astronomical positions considered—the shape of the faces in the fire consulted, and the meanings interpreted. Almost at once, details of mysterious happenings—talking shovels—resurrected armadillos—things of that nature—began being regularly reported from the Tower’s construction site—as well as several more “natural” occurrences—a lintel collapsed, resulting in the injury of dozens—a tropical storm set down directly atop the building site during the calm season—and there was continual churn in the apparent leadership of the project, both at the macro and micro levels, though the great majority knew nothing about the former, not even whispers—and so among the population there grew a mild sense of unease that the project was cursed—though no one would admit such a thing openly, having come to think of themselves, particularly among the younger generations, as being possessed of a modern outlook—though even the most devout believer in this creed had their faith shaken during the first onset of spore season following the arrival of the foreign workers. The spores of L—, which having lived in direct exposure to them their entire lives, and going back hundreds, maybe even thousands of years, had no effect on the local Uqbarans, they caused an onset of mass hysteria following the descent of the largely foreign workforce, every last one of whom suffered an extended bout of delirium. A mass of blood panels taken at the local hospital—the corporate hospitals all having been shut down on account of the staff having succumbed to the madness as well—resulted in the arrival of a large shipment of A—, a compound specifically designed to counteract such hallucinogenic onsets, which was distributed round and patiently applied to each of the afflicted. It was a lengthy process—a whole month lost from start to finish before productivity was at it’s pre-plague levels.


In such ways, and for such reasons, progress on the Tower fell predictably behind schedule. In the first two years of work estimates for its date of completion had been moved back forty years from the original best estimate. While, this was all in part attributable to all the possibly magically contrived difficulties just mentioned, it was also due to the intense fatigue experienced by nonnative workers due to the miasmic climate and high barometric pressure. A particular kind of indigenous leaf was presented by some enterprising citizens of Uqbar, who explained that chewing on the leaves would give one additional energy, information which the manager to whom they presented the idea passed it up the ladder—and within three weeks shipments of Y— began arriving—a highly concentrated synthetic compound derived of the chemical element in the native leaf that incited higher energy (which it was possible to have produced and shipped in without going through the usual years of testing and trials on account Uqbar’s continued lack of any pertinent regulations) and which worked like magic. But perhaps most responsible for the seeming slowness of everything, the sheer feeling of impossibility in trying to get even the simplest thing done on the day to day, moment to moment level, was language. All told, according to the joint human resources departments and government agencies involved, there were over 100 languages, with dozens of dialects being spoken by those employed in the construction of the Tower. Apart from retarding the camaraderie among workers that is so imperative for the harmonious success of a project was the painstaking frustration that came from attempting to ask someone working near you something banal like ‘how many degrees should this be turned?’ or ‘what’s to be done with the insulation?’ and being unable to convey your message in a way anyone around you understands enough to return to you an answer of any use at all. While there was some logic to it, it had been decided at the start that groups of workers should be assigned by specialty, without any real consideration to the ethnic, linguistic, or cultural makeup of the group otherwise, progress suffered.


For these and other such reasons each day was a Herculean struggle, often with a Sisyphean anticlimax as a reward for the effort—and that only when utter confusion didn’t simply reign. The finger of blame, though not to discount the necessity of individual responsibility on the level of each of the workers in question, must be pointed at management, for their own inconsistency bordered on chaos itself. The project was complicated enough as it was without the engineer nominally responsible for overseeing a certain bit of electrical work being completed jumping midway through the task to analyzing the artistry of some barrister railings on some of the decorative stairs, then on to cement integrity testing—again leaving before the railings were finished, and never returning to the initial electric work—and indeed some other management type would already have stepped in at these former tasks, very often demanding the work meet new, slightly different but time consuming criteria, or else altering the routine of the workers somehow—and that was when a managing architect or engineer didn’t disappear all together, without trace or explanation—though a few left cryptic messages, aphoristic, hinting but never telling. Every once and a while a new such engineer or architect would descend—such a thing, while not on a fixed weekly schedule, was not uncommon—but one day a half dozen or so new faces, a mixture of architects and engineers, would appear and who would claim leadership over the entirety of the project under the direct orders of the Chief Architect. Each time such a thing happened the incoming group would begin making changes immediately, eliminating the foolish capricious latitude of the former supervisors, mandating deadlines, and demanding that each and every employer learn to speak E—, or R—, or some other universal language. Recordings, dictionaries, in person training, and computer courses were offered to assist in making the transition as employees were given one month to prepare for the switch, and then after that anyone caught speaking anything but E— or R—, or whatever language, would be fined. Like clockwork, following such changes, the work rate would speed up the following month. The enhancement of easier communication, the diligent keeping to tasks, usually accompanied by the doubling of the workers daily dosage of Y—, the potency of which was significantly greater than found naturally occurring in the leaves of the native plants from which it was derived—all combined in facilitating enhanced work rate. But, invariably, eventually the workers would lapse into old habits as management, equally tired of the daily toil, would grow slack in their observance of the day to day minutia, more and more desirous of rejoining the elites upstairs. Some were better than others, but eventually they all moved on—some upstairs, some further down—others to no one knew where. Progress faltered, backslid; apparent great progress would be made for several consecutive months only to be called back, materials stripped away, the Tower diminished, for a defect in their prior work had been discovered and necessitated massive reconfiguration of great deals of work already finished. But for all that no one’s head ever hung for long—not among those who worked directly on the Tower project, nor among those of the common citizen working as vender, garbage collector, artisan, or account—so great was the pride of the people of the capital at the broad, swelling column soaring from its center.


And one day—when precisely is unclear—there is an approximately eighteen month window most all the given dates fall within—the Chief Architect descended—though it was far from certain, my friend hastily clarified once again; it seemed mostly likely due to the power brought by his coming that it was in fact the Chief Architect—or a Chief Architect, one of several that ruled more or less together over the project—rather than an Assistant Chief Architect, one much like all the others. For this was, or seemed, a very different matter, truly numinous—or numenonic—one might say, for it was as though the power exhibited by his person—we agreed earlier to refer to the Chief Architect as such—simply as a means of going on, remember—it is a debatable point of course—but what is not debated is that so powerful was his person one felt sure that the sense of power was not a projection of one’s own consciousness—but rather projected out from his being and affected his environment. Materials, tools, hardware, when he glided past—for truly he seemed not to walk—but rather to simply be carried on as though wind, a force of nature—they all seemed quiver with excitement, to rattle in their boxes or on their tables—electric saws and drills were known to spontaneously come alive in his presence. Yes, yes, power surges, faulty components, tremors, the near constant vibration of the whole massive structure from incessant pounding and drilling and dropping, the tremendous, total sensorial cacophony that was the construction of the Tower—but he pointed to a wall once, or rather the beginnings of a wall, and commanded it to raise itself and it is said, I swear to you, on good eye witness accounts that it did precisely that—or rather, he commanded it to do so on a given day, gave orders for no one to work on the wall in any way until that time, and on that given morning when the workers arrived they found the wall amazingly erect—such displays, for plural they were—he drove out a fearsome feral Dexact, which had somehow gotten inside the Tower and was running amok, raising havoc, by simply commanding it do so—on another occasion, when work late into the night was going to be necessary the Chief Architect held aloft the great light in the sky that the work might be accomplished—these displays made a profound impression on the workforce—as did the Chief Architect’s frequent addresses. He had an effortlessly commanding voice, possessed at once of the quality of softness that one expects from a long and intimate friend, while at the same time both the firmness of a father determined, and the hard edge of a commander ready to send the men necessary to win a battle into the jaws of certain death as required, though with the bitter aftertaste of his natural abhorrence at doing so.


Progress surged ahead, far ahead in fact—and it was revealed the plans were actually indeterminate—that the Tower had been designed in such a way as to allow for the indefinite expansion of the structure—at least so long as materials remained available. The Tower was now nearly a half-mile at its base, and three times as tall. It had become more than a sight, more than a wonder, no mere tourist attraction or political distraction: it was the triumph of the species. Under the direct command of the Chief Architect no one doubted the project, wherever it ended up going, would be a perfect success. Even those who had passionately despised the Tower, those who had in the early days attempted to curse it, had been given over to apathy. No matter the setbacks the Tower continued on, immutable. But there was one, one single shaman, alleged to have been the very first Recounter, whose age was too old to tell. He had outlived countless generations, was long since given over to the life of an invalid, almost completely blind and deaf, and who was, out of the reverence shown to the elderly in the old society, carried everywhere on a stretcher by his loyalty posterity—he went to the Tower—or was taken there, rather—pronounced he had seen it all before—that this Tower too would fail. Those who heard his pronouncement laughed, but he cautioned them in a voice suddenly stronger than it had been heard in many lifetimes, that the sense of the Tower’s permanence was real—no confabulation of their selves—but that the sense had always been there, would be there until the end of time, but that we simply had not noticed it, so immersed as we were in it from the moment of our birth—that we did not notice it until something drew our attention so dramatically it made us aware of our always having known it but not appreciated, or known, that we knew this.

Then the nail went through the hand of the Chief Architect—a nail gun, at least according to some, was inadvertently discharged by the magnetism of his presence, and, of all the things, it shot straight across the room into his hand; of course according to others this is nonsense; the Chief Architect was lending a hand and, his attention distracted at just the wrong instant, this led to an unfortunate, but very normal seeming, accident; others, still, claim treachery. The son of a shaman, who had ritually disemboweled himself at the agony of Uqbar society slowly abandoning its traditions in favor of superficial spiritualism and materialism, had been a sleeping viper, living in the Chief Architect’s house. Having sworn vengeance for the death of his father, the young man had masked his vitriol for the modernization process—had sworn to work his way in as far as possible in order to destroy it from the inside out—for that was how things were most effectively destroyed—termites could eat away at the outside of a tree and the tree remain standing, but if they hollowed it out from the inside it would crumble at the first blow, despite all outward appearance—a fearsome tiger revealed to be paper at the first breath of ill wind—and this embittered man managed to gain the confidence of the Chief Architect only to betray him in a conspiracy—the nail in the hand the result of a failed assassination—but whatever the case may have been, what happened next was even more in question: Everyone in the entire structure dropped dead the instant the point pierced his flesh—others say it was a few seconds later, at the first notes of the shocked Chief Architect’s inhuman scream—others that its sound caused the entire structure to crumble—that everyone in all of Uqbar was seized with perpetual weeping that drowned the entire city. Whatever the case, the architect withdrew, was carried away, choppered off, never to be seen or heard from again—at least not according to any of the masses at least. Despite the trauma of the event work continued on the Tower, and several engineers and architects who descended after the departure of the Chief Architect claimed to speak on direct authority and orders from him. Eventually, this façade collapsed however, as word eventually got out that no one had actually seen or heard from him for several months, and that he had actually died as the result of blood loss or tetanus—and it was not long after that the project was abandoned—though there is a question of whether or not it wasn’t carried on under new management—but in any case the black magic of a collapse of the world credit markets—everyone simultaneously ceasing to believe in the promise of a better future—which is the foundation upon which the lending of credit is based—meant that virtually all economy stopped. Around that same time the pharmaceutical company who had been using L— to manufacture their miracle drug was found, after extensive, continued observations of patients who had now been using the drug for nearly two decades, was found to actually make the condition of D— much worse in the long term, along with carrying other deleterious side effects. Anyway, a recall was quietly ordered, a class action lawsuit quickly processed, and life went on as before—the only difference being that the demand for L— disappeared almost overnight. But in the face of such proposals there remains a nagging historical record, long considered apocryphal, that maintains the project struggled on with desperate collective activity and eventually a new leadership arose, until the Tower, by now forgotten by a world decimated by war between the great competing industrial powers, was ultimately completed, and stood alone in the place of civilization, with the people of Uqbar elevated to the status of demigods, living among the clouds. But then also their remain the claims of those that the ground opened up and swallowed the tower—or, according to several geologists, an earthquake leveled it—others that it was consumed in a fire—some say set intentionally in order to recoup costs via an insurance claim—still others say it was simply abandoned, and eventually it crumbled in the face of age and disrepair—though he had also heard, my friend, that it was leased out after the loans had been restructured, and the property bought by a large investment bank, then sold, and that floors were converted into apartments, others to business blocks, and that although the structure never rose any higher maintenance was kept up and occasional cosmetic improvements were made. For the people of Uqbar, equally controversial is what is said of their fate—that upon the ground opening up and swallowing the phallic symbol some claim that the women of Uqbar, long kept from political leadership, swept in in an unopposed coup, berating the men for their foolishness, the money and lives lost—and to what point or purpose other than their need to project their masculinity straight up to heaven! Others that the destruction of the Tower had proven too much to bear and collective suicide was undertaken—though most likely, in the opinion of my friend, the Tower, left abandoned, eventually crumbled, modernization receded, and a decade later the lives lived by the people of Uqbar were indistinguishable from those of their great-grandparents.


It had grown colder while he had talked, my friend; seeming to note this himself, my friend shivered, and suggested we return to the warmth of the frivolities. I told him no, so much clearer did my head feel, free beneath the endless sky, through which I could peer into eternity, I thought I might never go back inside anywhere ever again. I would freeze to death out there, my friend laughed, sober and without another body to keep me warm on my last night alive. Still laughing, my friend announced he was fetching us more drinks. It occurred to me as he started to go back inside and I asked him, what was it that the drug for which L— was so widely desired intended to treat? L— treats some sort of Depression? Insanity? Rheumatism? He could not remember. Only that there had been a great uptick in diagnoses of that very disease the very year the deal for L— had been struck and the new drug kicked into rapid, large-scale production. A lucky thing that, he said; coincidences were strange things. I replied that I knew of none, and my friend laughed. Really, he asked? His parting look—for he said no more, only turned and went back inside—was one of bemused incredulity. As he was swallowed up by the jaws of the hall entrance through which we had come, my eyes, which had followed him to that point, were drawn upwards. There were few lights on in the stories above. My gaze continued on, up and up, and up, until I lost the outline of the Tower in the blackness of eternity.


J.S. Mullen

2020





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