The Books of Babel, Book I: Senlin Ascends
by Josiah Bancroft
Publisher: Josiah Bancroft
Paperback: 372 pages
Kindle Edition: 641 kbs
The Tower of Babel is the greatest marvel of the Silk Age. Immense as a mountain, the ancient Tower holds unnumbered ringdoms, warring and peaceful, stacked one on the other like the layers of a cake. It is a world of geniuses and tyrants, of airships and engines, of unusual animals and mysterious machines.
While honeymooning in the Tower of Babel, Thomas Senlin, a mild-mannered headmaster, loses his wife in the crowd. Senlin’s search for Marya carries him through madhouses, ballrooms, and burlesque theaters. He must survive betrayal, assassination, and the long guns of a flying fortress in a pursuit that carries him ever higher up the spiraling Tower. But if Senlin hopes to find Marya, he will have to do more than just survive. This quiet man of letters will have to become a man of action.
- Everyman’s Guide to the Tower of Babel, I.V
It was a four-day journey by train from the coast to the desert where the Tower of Babel rose like a tusk from the jaw of the Earth. First, they had crossed pastureland, spotted with fattening cows and charmless hamlets, and then their train had climbed through a range of snow-veined mountains where condors roosted in nests large as haystacks. Already, they were further from home than they had ever been. They descended through shale foothills, which he said reminded him of a field of shattered blackboards, through cypress trees, which she said looked like open parasols, and finally they came upon the arid basin. The ground was the color of rusted chains, and the dust of it clung to everything. The desert was far from deserted. Their train shared a direction with a host of caravans, each a slithering line of wheels, hooves and feet. Over the course of the morning, the bands of traffic thickened until they converged into a great mass so dense that their train was forced to slow to a crawl. Their cabin seemed to wade through the boisterous tide of stagecoaches and ox-drawn wagons, through the tourists, pilgrims, migrants, and merchants from every state in the vast nation of Ur.
Thomas Senlin and Marya, his new bride, peered at the human menagerie through the open window of their sunny sleeper car. Her china white hand lay weightlessly atop his long fingers. A little troop of red-breasted soldiers slouched by on palominos, parting a family in checkered headscarves on camelback. The trumpet of elephants sounded over the clack of the train, and here and there in the hot winds high above them, airships lazed, drifting inexorably towards the Tower of Babel. The balloons that held the ships aloft were as colorful as maypoles.
Since turning toward the Tower, they had been unable to see the grand spire from their cabin window. But this did not discourage Senlin’s description of it. “There is a lot of debate over how many levels there are. Some scholars say there are fifty-two, others say as many as sixty. It’s impossible to judge from the ground,” Senlin said, continuing the litany of facts he’d brought to his young wife’s attention over the course of their journey. “A number of men, mostly aeronauts and mystics, say that they have seen the top of it. Of course, none of them have any evidence to back up their boasts. Some of those explorers even claim that the Tower is still being raised, if you can believe that.” These trivial facts comforted him, as all facts did. Thomas Senlin was a reserved and naturally timid man who took confidence in schedules and regimens and written accounts.
Marya nodded dutifully but was obviously distracted by the parade of humanity outside. Her wide, green eyes darted excitedly from one exotic diversion to the next: what Senlin merely observed, she absorbed. Senlin knew that, unlike him, Marya found spectacles and crowds exhilarating, though she saw little of either back home. The pageant outside her window was nothing like Isaugh, a salt-scoured fishing village, now many hundreds of miles behind them. Isaugh was the only real home she’d known, apart from the young women’s musical conservatory she’d attended for four years. Isaugh had two pubs, a Whist Club, and a city hall that doubled as a ballroom when occasion called for it. But it was hardly a metropolis.
Marya jumped in her seat when a camel’s head swung unexpectedly near. Senlin tried to calm her by example, but couldn’t stop himself from yelping when the camel snorted, spraying them with warm spit. Frustrated by this lapse in decorum, Senlin cleared his throat and shooed the camel out with his handkerchief.
The tea set that had come with their breakfast rattled now, spoons shivering in their empty cups, as the engineer applied the brakes and the train all but stopped. Thomas Senlin had saved and planned for this journey his entire career. He wanted to see the wonders he’d read so much about, and though it would be a trial for his nerves, he hoped his poise and intellect would carry the day. Climbing the Tower of Babel, even if only a little way, was his greatest ambition, and he was quite excited. Not that anyone would know it to look at him: he affected a cool detachment as a rule, concealing the inner flights of his emotions. It was how he conducted himself in the classroom. He didn’t know how else to behave anymore.
Outside, an airship passed low enough to the ground that its tethering lines began to snap against heads in the crowd. Senlin wondered why it had dropped so low, or if it had only recently launched. Marya let out a laughing cry and covered her mouth with her hand. He gaped as the ship’s captain gestured wildly at the crew to fire the furnace and pull in the tethers, which was quickly done amid a general panic, but not before a young man from the crowd had caught hold of one the loose cords. The adventuresome lad was quickly lifted above the throng, his feet just clearing the box of a carriage before he was swung up and out of view.
The scene seemed almost comical from the ground, but Senlin’s stomach churned when he thought of how the youth must feel flying on the strength of his grip high over the sprawling mob. Indeed, the entire brief scene had been so bizarre that he decided to simply put it out of his mind. The Guide had called the Market a raucous place. It seemed, perhaps, an understatement.
He’d never expected to make the journey as a honeymooner. More to the point, he never imagined he’d find a woman who’d have him. Marya was his junior by a dozen years, but being in his mid-thirties himself, Senlin did not think their recent marriage very remarkable. It had raised a few eyebrows in Isaugh, though. Perched on rock bluffs by the Niro Ocean, the townsfolk of Isaugh were suspicious of anything that fell outside the regular rhythms of tides and fishing seasons. But as the Headmaster, and the only teacher, of Isaugh’s school, Senlin was generally indifferent to gossip. He’d certainly heard enough of it. To his thinking, gossip was the theater of the uneducated, and he hadn’t gotten married to enliven anyone’s breakfast table conversation.
He’d married for entirely practical reasons.
Marya was a good match. She was good-tempered and well-read; thoughtful, though not brooding; and mannered without being aloof. She tolerated his long hours of study and his general quiet, which others often mistook for stoicism. He imagined she had married him because he was kind, even-tempered and securely employed. He made fifteen shekels a week, for an annual salary of thirteen minas; it wasn’t a fortune by any means, but it was sufficient for a comfortable life. She certainly hadn’t married him for his looks. While his features were separately handsome enough, taken altogether they seemed a little stretched and misplaced. His nickname among his pupils was the Sturgeon because he was thin and long and boney.
Of course, Marya had a few unusual habits of her own. She read books while she walked to town, and had many torn skirts and skinned knees to show for it. She was fearless of heights, and would sometimes get on the roof just to watch the sails of inbound ships rise over the horizon. She played the piano beautifully but also brutally. She’d sing like a mad mermaid while banging out ballads and reels, leaving detuned pianos in her wake. And even still, her oddness inspired admiration in most. The townsfolk thought she was charming and her playing was often requested at the local public houses. Not even the bitter gray of Isaugh’s winters could temper her vivacity. Everyone was a little baffled by her marriage to the Sturgeon.
Today, Marya wore her traveling clothes: a knee-length khaki skirt and plain white blouse with a somewhat eccentric pith helmet covering her rolling auburn hair. She had dyed the helmet red, which Senlin didn’t particularly like, but she’d sold him on the fashion by saying it would make her easier to spot in a crowd. Senlin wore a gray suit of thin corduroy which he felt was too casual, even for traveling, but which she had said was fashionable and a little frolicsome, and wasn’t that the whole point of a honeymoon after all?
A dexterous child in a rough goatskin vest climbed along the side of the train with rings of bread hooped on one arm. Senlin bought a ring from the boy, and he and Marya sat sharing the warm, yeasty crust as the train crept towards Babel Central Station, where so many tracks ended.
Their honeymoon had been delayed by the natural course of the school year. He could’ve opted for a more convenient and frugal destination, a seaside hotel or country cottage, which they might’ve secluded themselves for a weekend, but the Tower of Babel was so much more than a vacation spot. A whole world stood balanced on a bedrock foundation. As a young man he’d read about the Tower’s cultural contributions to theater and art, its advances in the sciences and its profound technologies. Even electricity, still an unheard-of commodity in all but the largest cities of Ur, was rumored to flow freely in the Tower’s higher levels. It was the lighthouse of civilization. The old saying went, “The Earth doesn’t shake the Tower; the Tower shakes the Earth.”
The train came to a final stop though they saw no station outside their window. The conductor came by and told them that they’d have to disembark; the tracks were too clogged for the train to continue. No one seemed to think it unusual. After days of sitting and swaying on the rails, the prospect of a walk appealed to them both. Senlin gathered their two pieces of luggage: a stitched leather satchel for his effects, and for hers, a modest steamer trunk with large casters on one end and a push handle on the other. He insisted on managing them both.
Before they left their car and while she tugged at the tops of her brown leather boots and smoothed her skirt, Senlin recited the three vital pieces of advice he’d gleaned from his copy of The Everyman’s Guide to the Tower of Babel. Firstly, keep your money close. (Before they’d departed, he’d had their local tailor sew secret pockets inside the waists of his pants and the hem of her skirt.) Secondly, don’t give in to beggars. (It only emboldens them.) And finally, keep your companions always in view. Senlin asked Marya to recite these points as they bustled down the gold-carpeted hall connecting train cars. She obliged, though with some humor.
“Rule four: don’t kiss the camels.”
“That is not rule four.”
“Tell that to the camels!” she said, her gait bouncing.
And still neither of them was prepared for the scene that met them as they descended the train’s steps. The crowd was like a jelly that congealed all around them. At first they could hardly move. A bald man with an enormous hemp sack humped on his shoulder and an iron collar about his neck knocked Senlin into a red-eyed woman; she repulsed him with an alcoholic laugh and then shrank back into the swamp of bodies. A cage of agitated canaries was passed over their heads, shedding foul-smelling feathers on their shoulders. The hips of a dozen black-robed women, pilgrims of some esoteric faith, rolled against them like enormous ball bearings. Unwashed children loaded with trays of scented tissue flowers, toy pinwheels, and candied fruit wriggled about them, each child leashed to another by a length of rope. Other than the path of the train tracks, there were no clear roads, no cobblestones, no curbs, only the rust-red hardpan of the Earth beneath them.
It was all so overwhelming, and for a moment Senlin stiffened like a corpse. The bark of vendors, the snap of tarps, the jangle of harnesses, and the dither of ten-thousand alien voices set a baseline of noise which could only be yelled over. Marya took hold of her husband’s belt just at his spine, startling him from his daze and goading him onward. He knew they couldn’t very well just stand there. He gathered a breath and took the first step.
They were drawn into a labyrinth of merchant tents, vendor carts, and rickety tables. The alleys between stands were as tangled as a child’s scribble. Temporary bamboo rafters protruded everywhere over them, bowing under jute rugs, strings of onions, punched tin lanterns, and braided leather belts. Brightly striped shade sails blotted out much of the sky, though even in the shade, the sun’s presence was never in doubt. The dry air was as hot as fresh ashes.
Senlin plodded on, hoping to find a road or signpost. Neither appeared. He allowed the throng to offer a path rather than forge one himself. When a gap opened, he leapt into it. After progressing perhaps a hundred paces in this manner, he had no idea which direction the tracks lay. He regretted wandering away from the tracks. They could’ve followed them to the Babel Central Station. It was unsettling how quickly he’d become disoriented.
Still, he was careful to occasionally turn and construct a smile for Marya. The beam of her smile never wavered. There was no reason to worry her with the minor setback.
Ahead, a bare-chested boy fanned the hanging carcasses of lambs and rabbits to keep a cloud of flies from settling. The flies and sweet stench wafting from the butcher’s stall drove the crowd back, creating a little space for them to pause a moment, though the stench was nauseating. Placing Marya’s trunk between them, Senlin dried his neck with his handkerchief.
“It certainly is busy.” Senlin said, trying not to seem as flustered as he felt, though Marya hardly noticed; she was staring over his head, a bemused expression lighting her pretty face.
“It’s wonderful,” she said.
A gap in the awnings above them exposed the sky, and there, like a pillar holding up the heavens, stood the Tower of Babel.
The face of the Tower was patched with white, gray, rust, tan, and black, betraying the many types of stone and brick used in its construction. The irregular coloration reminded Senlin of a calico cat. The Tower’s silhouette was architecturally bland, evoking a dented and ribbed cannon barrel, but it was ornamented with grand friezes, each band taller than a house. A dense cloudbank obscured the Tower’s pinnacle. The Everyman’s Guide noted that the upper echelons were permanently befogged, though whether the ancient structure produced the clouds or attracted them remained a popular point of speculation. However it was, the peak was never visible from the ground.
The Everyman’s description of the Tower of Babel hadn’t really prepared Senlin for the enormity of the structure. It made the ziggurats of South Ur and the citadels of the Western Plains seem like models, the sort of thing children built out of sugar cubes. The Tower had taken a thousand years to erect. More, according to some historians. Overwhelmed with wonder and the intense teeming of the Market, Senlin shivered. Marya squeezed his hand reassuringly, and his back straightened. He was a headmaster after all, a leader of a modest community. Yes, there was a crowd to push through, but once they reached the Tower, the throng would thin. They would be able to stretch a little, and would, almost certainly, find themselves among more pleasant company. In a few hours they would be drinking a glass of port in a reasonable but hospitable lodging on the third level of the Tower— the Baths, locals called it— just as they had planned. They would calmly survey this same human swarm, but from a more comfortable distance.
Now, at least, they had a bearing, a direction to push toward.
Senlin was also discovering a more efficient means of advancing through the crowds. If he stopped, he found, it was difficult to start again, but progress could be made if one was a little more firm and determined. After a few minutes of following, Marya felt comfortable enough to release his belt, which made walking much easier for them both.
Soon, they found themselves in one of the many clothing bazars within the Market. Laced dresses, embroidered pinafores, and cuffed shirts hung on a forest of hooks and lines. A suit could be had in any color, from peacock blue to jonquil yellow; women’s intimate apparel dangled from bamboo ladders like the skins of exotic snakes. Square-folded handkerchiefs covered the nearest table in a heap like a snowdrift.
“Let me buy you a dress. The evenings here are warmer than we’re used to.” He had to speak close to her ear.
“I’d like a little frock,” she said, removing her pith helmet, revealing her somewhat deflated bronzy hair.
He gave her a thoughtful frown to disguise his own surprise. He knew that this was the kind of flirtation that even decent couples probably indulged in on their honeymoon. Still, he was unprepared and couldn’t reflect her playful tone. “Scandalous?”
“Nothing your pupils will need to know about. Just a little something to disgrace our clothesline back home,” she said, running her finger down his arm as if she were striking a match.
He felt uneasy. Ahead of them, acres of stalls cascaded with women’s undergarments. There wasn’t a man in sight.
Fifteen years spent living as a bachelor hadn’t prepared him for the addition of Marya’s undergarments to the landscape of his bedroom. Finding her delicates draped on the bedposts and doorknobs of his old sanctuary had come as something of a shock. But this mass of nightgowns, camisoles, corsets, stockings and brassieres being combed through by thousands of unfamiliar women seemed exponentially more humiliating. “I think I’ll stay by the luggage.”
“What about your rules?”
“Well, if you’ll keep that red bowl on your head, I’ll be able to spot you just fine from here.”
“If you wander off, we’ll meet again at the top of the Tower,” she said with exaggerated dramatic emphasis.
“We will not. I’ll meet you right here beside this cart of socks.”
“Such a romantic!” she said, passing around two heavy-set women who wore the blue and white apron-dresses popular many years earlier. Senlin noticed with amusement that they were connected at the waist by a thick jute rope.
He asked them if they were from the East, and they responded with the name of a fishing village that was not far from Isaugh. They exchanged the usual nostalgia common to costal folk: sunrises, starfish, and the pleasant muttering of the surf at night, and then he asked, “You’ve come on holiday?”
They responded with slight maternal smiles that made him feel belittled, “We’re far past our holidays,” one said.
“Do you go everywhere lashed together?” A note of mockery crept into his voice now.
“Yes, of course,” replied the older of the two. “Ever since we lost our little sister.”
“I’m sorry. Did she pass away recently?” Senlin asked, recovering his sincere tone.
“I certainly hope not. But it has been three years. Maybe she has.”
“Or maybe she found some way to get back home?” the younger sister said.
“She wouldn’t abandon us,” the older replied in a tone that suggested this was a well-tread argument between them.
“It is intrepid of you to come alone,” the younger spinster said to him.
“Oh, thank you, but I’m not alone.” Tiring of the conversation, Senlin moved to grip the handle of the trunk only to find it moved.
Confused, he turned in circles, searching first the ground and then the crowd of blank, unperturbed faces snaking about him. Marya’s trunk was gone. “I’ve lost my luggage,” he said.
“Get yourself a good rope,” the eldest said and reached up to pat his pale cheek.
Josiah Bancroft’s work has been published in dozens of magazines and journals, including Slice Magazine, BOMB Magazine, Rattle, Gulf Coast, Hunger Mountain, Pinch, the Cincinnati Review, and the Cimarron Review, among others. He resides in Philadelphia with his wife, and works at Cecil College in rural Maryland. More of his work can be found at www.josiahmedia.com. Senlin Ascends is his first novel.