|Print | Back|
To Know and Be Known
Before the explosion, Rrela is enjoying a productive day on the tower. All around her, stone grinds against stone, and the caustic clouds rising off the lime mortar
sting her eyes and nose. The winds at this altitude whip from side to side, threatening to pull her
hair free from its gathered knot. Some of the young stonelayers on the level below have their
voices raised in song. Not a hymn; the latest ballad making its way up the tower from the
teahouses and bathing pools in the city below. She closes her eyes to drink it in, and for a moment
it is as if the tower beneath her is rising, rising, bearing her heavenward. Not with the slow grind
of her thirty years' work, but on the swift wings of a storm-cloud. She imagines the reception that
awaits humankind in the unknowable heavens . . . and the dream dissolves, then, for she cannot
picture herself being welcomed into the halls of the gods. Rrela believes the gods want to be
known. Just not by her. The spell broken, Rrela opens her eyes. Her stylus finishes a stroke already begun, without
a mark awry to show its interruption. More figures join the first on the tablet: calculations for how
much fresh lime must be brought up from the tower's base, the margin for error she can afford to
lose to wind or accident, when the climbers can fit in such a shipment in between the stone and
food that must come up, the waste that must come down. She pauses only once, to draw her
monocular for a peek down the tower. She sizes up the current stoneload being raised by the
climbers strung along down the outside of the tower, and works that estimate into her
calculations. The stonelayers have finished their song by the time she has a satisfactory answer. Her
stylus doesn't yet still, checking and rechecking her numbers before she passes them off to her
assistant, Miiryes, for one last pass of validation. There are no second chances at these heights of
human daring and ingenuity. She tucks the tablet into her pouch and tilts her head back. Strands of glittering gold drape
between the stars, and where these strands cross, the palaces of heaven are suspended like beads
of liquid light. She looks up so rarely these days, her eyes forever pinned to her tablet and her
tower. Perhaps the tower will not make those who will come after her worthy of entry to the
strange domain above. But if humankind is a looking glass, made to reflect the best of the gods
back up to them? Then those who live in that world above must be curious, too. Vibrations hum through the thin soles of her boots. The tower groans and Rrela recognizes its pain. She is already moving, between the pairs
of frightened stonelayers, past Miiryes who is trying to rein in the cadre of panicking assistants.
The only question in Rrela's heart is how to alleviate the damage.
by Aimee Ogden
Artwork by M. Wayne Miller
Before the explosion, Rrela is enjoying a productive day on the tower.
All around her, stone grinds against stone, and the caustic clouds rising off the lime mortar sting her eyes and nose. The winds at this altitude whip from side to side, threatening to pull her hair free from its gathered knot. Some of the young stonelayers on the level below have their voices raised in song. Not a hymn; the latest ballad making its way up the tower from the teahouses and bathing pools in the city below. She closes her eyes to drink it in, and for a moment it is as if the tower beneath her is rising, rising, bearing her heavenward. Not with the slow grind of her thirty years' work, but on the swift wings of a storm-cloud. She imagines the reception that awaits humankind in the unknowable heavens . . . and the dream dissolves, then, for she cannot picture herself being welcomed into the halls of the gods. Rrela believes the gods want to be known. Just not by her.
The spell broken, Rrela opens her eyes. Her stylus finishes a stroke already begun, without a mark awry to show its interruption. More figures join the first on the tablet: calculations for how much fresh lime must be brought up from the tower's base, the margin for error she can afford to lose to wind or accident, when the climbers can fit in such a shipment in between the stone and food that must come up, the waste that must come down. She pauses only once, to draw her monocular for a peek down the tower. She sizes up the current stoneload being raised by the climbers strung along down the outside of the tower, and works that estimate into her calculations.
The stonelayers have finished their song by the time she has a satisfactory answer. Her stylus doesn't yet still, checking and rechecking her numbers before she passes them off to her assistant, Miiryes, for one last pass of validation. There are no second chances at these heights of human daring and ingenuity.
She tucks the tablet into her pouch and tilts her head back. Strands of glittering gold drape between the stars, and where these strands cross, the palaces of heaven are suspended like beads of liquid light. She looks up so rarely these days, her eyes forever pinned to her tablet and her tower. Perhaps the tower will not make those who will come after her worthy of entry to the strange domain above. But if humankind is a looking glass, made to reflect the best of the gods back up to them? Then those who live in that world above must be curious, too.
Vibrations hum through the thin soles of her boots.
The tower groans and Rrela recognizes its pain. She is already moving, between the pairs of frightened stonelayers, past Miiryes who is trying to rein in the cadre of panicking assistants. The only question in Rrela's heart is how to alleviate the damage.
The first time Rrela saw the tower, she was twelve years old. She watched it grow in the sky as her family's oxcart drew nearer and nearer to the city of Oabim, through the little monocular that her parents had given her on her lucky twelfth birthday. The tower lay just beyond the city, of course, not within its walls: its base was four city blocks on a side, and Oabim had no such space to spare. Not with the workers that must be housed now, the traveling stonecutters who brought pink-speckled gneiss from the south side of the Shear and red granite from the Ekkuron Peaks. Rrela and Ekvey's parents made them kneel in the back of the cart and recite the Call to Glory when it first bloomed out of the landscape and into the sky. Dusk picked out the sparkling orbs of heaven in purple and gold, too.
When the girls had finished, their parents spoke breathlessly of what a miracle it was, that a dozen nations could come together to such an end. That people could reach for something so far beyond them. Rrela listened to them with half an ear while she drank down the sight of the tower and the heavens alike through her monocular. Finally Ekvey begged her for a turn with the thing, and she relented. Thirty years' construction had raised the tower far above its surrounding plain, but Rrela could see already how it would grow taller, how it would slice the sky open and let the gods' goodness and wisdom rain down upon the thirsty ground.
"Do you think your Tithe will be to build the tower, Ekvey?" Rrela whispered to her sister, who only squeezed her hand in answer. Rrela could scarcely imagine it herself: to be eighteen years old and devote two full years of your life to the betterment of the capital city, the people, the world. To reach upward, or bend your back in service. Both so important, though one certainly appealed more than the other.
They found a place to stop and graze the oxen, just outside the shadow of the city walls. There they spent the night, in the company of half a dozen other families whose Tithes had come due this season. Rrela and the other young ones made a miniature tower out of sticks and stones, and she did not complain when the youngest, a boy who'd scarcely seen five years, declared himself Chief Engineer. Ekvey and the other Tithe children sat quietly among the adults, but passed occasional glances at the younger ones' play, as if they were not quite sure of their new place in the world.
In the morning, Father embraced Ekvey and whispered something in her ear that Rrela could not hear no matter how hard she strained. Then he stayed behind with the cart while Mother and Rrela took Ekvey into the city.
Rrela held her breath while the lottery cage rattled with tokens, and black spots stung her eyes by the time a red chip dropped into Ekvey's waiting hands. "Granary attendant!" the Tithe caller announced. Mother rushed forward to embrace Ekvey, but Ekvey did not smile.
Later, after a last lunch together, Mother laid her hands on Ekvey's shoulders and told her she would do the family proud in these coming years. When Mother was done, she smiled and retreated to a certain distance so the sisters could make their farewells. Rrela flung her arms around her big sister's waist and tried not to think of how empty their bed would be, how quiet the long afternoons of chores. Ekvey's dormitory bed would feel empty, too. "Rrela," said Ekvey, into Rrela's crown of braids. "What do you think the gods are like?"
Rrela had no answer, or none that she wanted to share, even with her only sister. She held on to Ekvey as long as she could, until the vibrations in the ground shook up into her from the stones of the street and the sound of distant warning-bells rang in her ears.
An accident at the Tower site, the Tithe caller explained. The remainder of the Tithe draw was postponed while the officials ran off to attend to evacuations and aid. The unassigned Tithes wandered back to their families for the pleasure of another day together in the city. Ekvey, already tagged to her two years of duty, was bundled away by a kindly-faced granary manager.
That evening, Father explained the severity of the accident the Tower had suffered even as the oxen put distance between their wagon and the walls of Oabim. The spring sowing wouldn't wait, not even for a Tithe. The Chief Engineer, he said, hadn't properly gauged the weights of the new pulley ropes and the climber team raising a fresh load of stones had failed halfway up their lift. Half a dozen climbers dead, and the tower set back a week or more while the damage was undone.
Mother murmured that perhaps it was a blessing Ekvey hadn't been assigned to the tower after all. Rrela frowned, lying on her back in the oxcart. She fought to keep the tower in view for as long as she could, but the creeping night and the horizon swallowed it down. The lights of heaven danced above her as she struggled against sleep, and when she finally surrendered, she dreamed she heard a voice from on high, calling her by name.
A bomb. A bomb, here, in the sacred tower. Rrela's ribcage pulsates with pain as if the wound lies there and not in the tower wall. Wind whips through the open hole, chasing away the bitter sulfur tang that still lingers from the explosives. But it is not the chill of the wind that gnaws Rrela's flesh through the snug fleece of her clothing. The hole itself is not the worst of the damage. Her feet can sense the shift in the tower's alignment. It would have been worse farther down, but the work parties do not stop on the lower levels during their climb up. The tower's routines have deprived the saboteur of a chance to do their worst.
Rrela's gaze darts to the huddled survivors. Too easy to wonder which of them it could have been. Perhaps they're among the dead. A fitting punishment, to have their bones become part of the tower's fixture. Her voice cuts through the wind, pulley-rope taut, and the nearest supervisors hurry to obey her evacuation orders: "Two levels down. Then stop to re-evaluate." She stops to look around, at the small sea of bloodied faces and broken limbs on which she drifts. She steadies herself with a hand on the tower wall. "Carry the wounded. Leave the dead for now."
"Are you sure the integrity is compromised?" warbles one supervisor, ashen-faced under his coating of grime. Before Rrela can answer, Miiryes is beside her with both hands knotted into the man's shirt.
"Next time use your eyes instead of questioning the Chief Engineer!" Miiryes snaps. When he lets go, the supervisor staggers backward. When the supervisor begins to shout out Rrela's orders to his line crew, Miiryes turns back to Rrela. "The damage to the structure isn't all. The balance has shifted."
"Yes. I know." A sudden serenity cools Rrela. She lays a hand on Miiryes's sleeve. He is so young; is this only his second year out of Tithe? It gratifies her to know that he has already identified the less obvious but far bigger problem: a hole may be refortified, but a misbalanced tower is in danger of toppling. He is studious, self-aware and knife-sharp, and she has had two years to hone that edge through her training. She hopes it will be enough. "See to the evacuation. I need to measure the misbalance."
Miiryes's stern expression crumbles like a bad batch of lime mortar. Dear boy. "Chief Engineer, it should be me--"
She catches him by the elbow before he can throw himself upon this danger. It should not be him. He is young and has long years of design and planning and greatness ahead of him. Rrela's years are running short, draining away as swiftly as the last sands in an hourglass. She has no words to explain this to him, so instead she reaches for her pocket, to give him the tablet upon which she scrawled her last calculations.
But no, of course, those calculations are useless now. Instead, she cups his face in one hard hand for just a moment, only so long as they both can bear it. Then he peels away, shouting at the supervisors, chasing them onward. Downward.
Rrela finds the reassuring weight of her plumb line in her belt-pouch. She turns to the staircase that points upward.
All the Tithes got three entire workdays off in a row to celebrate the turning of the year, and for one of those days Mother came to celebrate in the city with Rrela. She exclaimed over the strength in Rrela's shoulders--a year of work on the tower had only added to the muscle that plowing fields and sowing turnips had started--but deflected her daughter's questions about how Father and Ekvey fared. "We can't spare all three of us from farm work. The Kierthans are paying too well right now, and gods only know how long their war will last. We all must sow when the spring is upon us, isn't that so?"
Rrela introduced Mother to a few dormitory friends, and then Mother insisted on taking her to one of the pretty restaurants that lined the canal. "We could stay and eat in the dormitory food line," Rrela offered, but Mother laughed that offer away. It had been a year since Rrela had eaten anywhere else. The other patrons in the plaza carefully did not stare at her in her Tithe grays; Rrela squinted at the canal waters while Mother ordered plates of caraway cakes and roasted fish.
"And what will you do tomorrow, Rrela?" she asked finally, picking over the crumbs of the meal. Despite her embarrassment to be treated so far beyond her station, Rrela had made short work of the fine foods laid before her. When they had visited Ekvey in the city, they had brought cold sandwiches and hardboiled eggs to dine on. "Will you visit the temples? If you need money for an offering--"
"Mother! I have money." Every Tithe was given two copper coins at the turning of the year, so that they would have something to offer. Many kept the coins to spend at the confectioner's or to pool together for the wineshop--our years are our offering, they said to one another. Rrela liked sweets and wine well enough, but even in beautiful Oabim there would be those who went hungry while others feasted the year's turn.
By the time they stood up from the table, the skies had painted the canal water inky black. Heaven's shining orbs cast little sparks of light down over that dark surface. When Rrela squinted, she could almost swear that those fragments made some greater pattern--but perhaps that was the ginger wine speaking to her more than the gods.
Mother linked her arm through Rrela's. "It's good to see you still revere the gods in the right ways. Prickly ways, mind!" She gave Rrela's side a tickle, and Rrela squealed in embarrassment. "But your soul is a good one. If Ekvey had a grain of the devotion that you--well. It is what it is."
Rrela shook her head and let her mother guide her tottering steps toward the tower. "Ekvey honors the gods," she protested. "As much as anyone I know, she does."
"All she can talk about now is why they don't intervene in this, why they don't stop that, why they only ever watch from on high. As if the gods are our private errand-boys." Her mother's arm wrapped warmly around her shoulder. "Cling tightly to them, Rrela. War in Kierth and the Cult of Ignorance in Andmil? Right now, we need the gods more than ever."
Rrela lies on her belly atop the highest level of the tower. Her plumb line drops groundward, as far as the floor of the next level down. The line doesn't lie flush with the building; when it reaches the end of its length, perhaps three inches lie between the lead weight and the outside wall. Rrela's stomach roils. Three months of work, perhaps, to excavate the damaged section and rebuild it stronger, to readjust the strange delicate balance of this mighty tower. Maybe more. She reels in her weight, slides backward from the ledge.
Under her body, the tower's groans coalesce into a single shrill scream.
She hears the stones grind against one another first. She reaches out, as if she could stop what is coming with her own two hands. And then she is falling inward. Into the tower, into herself. It is all the same in the end. When she lands, the stones land with her.
Three months of work, four. An eternity as far as Rrela is concerned. Or the blink of an eye. One of the stones has crushed her lower leg, another has poorly cushioned her fall. Her left foot is ruined, her left arm broken. The wounded tower keens in the wind. Rrela's body longs to wail, too, but there is no wind in her lungs to give voice. She struggles, but the edges of her vision go ragged and dark with every movement. She should have spoken longer with Miiryes, warned him. Foolish old woman! If there can be one saboteur, there will be more. Cultists, anti-Tithers, both, neither. She should have warned him.
No. She lets herself slide down a little farther beneath the surface of her pain. His mind is sharp and his eyes too. He will build the tower strong and true, and pass it on to an apprentice of his own.
She hopes they make him Chief Engineer right away, despite his age. Rrela closes her eyes and dreams of the wonders he will work once she is gone.
The farm claimed Mother less than a year after it took Father. Rrela, of course, waived her inheritance: the farm should be Ekvey's, already was hers in any way that mattered. Rrela could not spare the time off work for the planning and preparations, but she came for the funeral. When she arrived, cousins from far and wide packed the farmhouse, and a flurry of aunts and uncles hugged her and asked her how the trip was, what city life was like, whether she was sure she didn't want to come back to the farm now. "Of course Ekvey can afford to hire the help," they said, "but it's not the same, is it?"
And then there was Ekvey, cutting her way through the crowd like a tug parting the waters of the canal. Rrela held her arms out uncertainly from her body, but Ekvey's embrace was swift and strong. She smelled like Mother's rose-oil soap, and Rrela clutched at her sister's back. When at last they parted, Ekvey's shoulder and Rrela's hair came away damp. "Your old room is full of canned goods for the next shipment to Kierth," was the first thing she said. "And we sold your bed a few years back. You can sleep in Mother's room tonight."
"All right," said Rrela. Ekvey's mouth stretched into something like a smile, and she disappeared back into the throng of relatives.
The aunties watched Ekvey go, and when she'd reached the kitchen door and the buzz of conversation had swelled back up to its original levels, they leaned in to squeeze Rrela's hands. "So! Our little Rrela, a tower engineer! Tell us all about it!"
"Just a lay engineer," Rrela protested. "Less than an assistant, really. Nothing to be excited about." But she told them about the tower anyway, and they made a terrible fuss over her until she felt like a little girl again.
That night they ate and sang old songs and talked about Mother until Rrela could not keep her eyes open. Some of the cousins drifted homeward, and others fell asleep on rugs and pillows on the floor. Rrela lay in Mother's bed, but did not sleep in it, not with the scent of rose-oil soap so strong. The heavy shadows of the house made for an uncomfortable blanket, and she could not help turning it over and over in her mind, that any talk of the tower fell silent whenever Ekvey approached.
She had to get back to the city early the next day, but she and Ekvey shared a quiet breakfast while the cousins snored on in the corners. "I'd love to have you come visit me in the city, one of these days."
Ekvey had not come back to the city since her Tithe had ended. "I don't think so. I have work here."
Rrela's jaw knotted. "So did Mother, but she made time for family." A cut too far. She softened her tone, tried again. "I have work, too."
"Don't dress up what you do there." Ekvey's voice stung more for its calm tone. "That is a game you're playing, and for what? The gods don't care about us. We hunger and weep and die while they watch. Who gave them the right to judge? Who wrote that we must claw our way to the heavens to prove our worth?"
Rrela pushed back from the table. Her teacup spilled, amber liquid soaking into her uneaten slab of bread. "I have nothing to prove."
Ekvey shrugged. Rrela turned away, collected her things from Mother's room, and stepped over a pair of sleeping cousins on her way out the door. She did not look back over her shoulder at the little farm; she did not check to see if a certain solitary figure with early gray in its hair came out to the yard to watch her go. Her eyes were on the sky, where they belonged.
She wrote to her sister, after a spell: careful, distant letters, which Ekvey returned in kind. Idle thoughts about the weather, a palm-dancer performance she'd seen during her last leisure day, the high price of tea caused by the drought in Weska.
Over time, the weeks between Ekvey's letters stretched into months, her correspondence growing terser and more infrequent. Work had just finished on the thirty-seventh level of the tower when Rrela realized she had not had a letter from Ekvey in nearly a year. She wrote to the cousins and the neighbors; a few replied to say that Ekvey had sold the farm for a pretty penny and moved south. To the city of Tleksana, one thought, but no one knew for sure. That was where the Cult of Ignorance had most recently built its temples, though, and if Ekvey had left this life for another, likely that was the one she would have chosen. But Rrela did not leave the city in search of her sister, and she did not address any letters to the temple-keepers of that distant place.
The frantic wind against her face brings Rrela around. She blinks her eyes open against tangled hair and crusted blood. On her back, she can see the sky. That's something, at least.
The stone that has crushed her lower leg has cracked in its own fall. "There," she tells it, and coughs up a sticky laugh. "We're a match, you and I." A piece of rebar serves as lever, though her bad arm limits her leverage. When finally she lifts the last crumbling piece free and sees the wreckage of her foot, she vomits. She lies on one side till her belly finishes heaving. Then she drags herself upward on her one good arm.
The evacuation will have cleared the top of the tower. It will be some days before anyone ventures all the way up again. Each story's integrity must be assessed before it is cleared for passage, let alone for the tower to grow skyward once more. Rrela stops, her face sheened with sweat, in her quest for an unobstructed view. Perhaps Miiryes suspects, or hopes, that she survived? She might try to send some signal to those below . . . no. It is not worth the lives of others, nor the further risk to the tower. She pats around herself and finds her tablet, cracked neatly in two. The stylus is long gone, but with her fingernail she scratches her notes on the tower's damage. There. At least her death has some value, now. After a moment, she adds one more line at the bottom: a benediction for Miiryes, the favorite of all her students. She does not write that, but hopes he knows it anyway.
The pain from her leg crawls up her spine and digs in its claws at the back of her mind. She hopes, suddenly and desperately, that Ekvey will outlive her, and she hopes too that Ekvey's particular cadre of Ignorance is not the one behind today's disaster.
Her monocular is still inside its casing, strapped under her arm. When she draws it free, she finds the lenses free of cracks. Tiny tears leak out of her despite her best efforts. She scrubs scabbed knuckles across her face and raises the glass to her eye with steady hands.
No soul yet living has had the chance to lie so close to the heavens' embrace. It has been a long time since Rrela has permitted herself the luxury to simply gaze upward, in reverence. In longing. Well, she has nothing but time, now. Dusk settles in over the city, and the jewels of heaven emerge from the growing shadows. It is a good last sight, Rrela thinks. But something feels out of place. She slides the casing to alter the focus, and finds a structure she has never seen before.
It is a spiral, swirling downward. Soft-looking, like a cloud given form, or a melting ice dessert. Easy to miss, for all its terrible size, as its peak points directly downward toward Rrela's head. From any other angle than directly below, she might have missed it entirely, or mistaken it for just another of the firmaments of the gods' world. She narrows her eyes as if that will narrow the distance. But no, her vision has not deceived her: that is the fine filament of scaffolding just barely visible about the spiral's point. Adding to it, she thinks. Reaching lower. Reaching earthward. Seeking to know, and to be known.
She reaches back, in greeting and farewell all at once, and the tears that flow from her now are not small, nor are they sorrowful.
|Copyright © 2023 Hatrack River Enterprises||Web Site Hosted and Designed by WebBoulevard.com|