The Tower of Babel Reaches the Heavenly Auto-Attendant
For English, press 1...
Holy Writ is a collection of ridiculous and irreverent fictional short stories (this one’s ridiculous), reimagined from the world of the Bible. Email subscribers get each new story delivered for free!
Therefore is the name of it called Babel; because the Lord did there confound the language of all the earth: and from thence did the Lord scatter them abroad upon the face of all the earth.
– Genesis 11:9
The Mayor of Babel was a silly, pear-shaped man, with a face only the electorate could love. His smile, with its corners glued just below the bottoms of his ears, did nothing to hide the sweat that was nervously collecting on the brow of his forehead. He had not, of course, ever expected for things to get this far.
The tower had not been his idea. He was not the sort of person who had ideas, but exactly the sort of person who knew (just before everyone else did) which way the wind was blowing. The idea had started as a joke, then a symbol, then a public works project, then a crushing burden upon the tax base, and then unexpectedly—and mere days before he had planned on slipping town in the middle of the night—a stunning success.
They had bumped into the sky. The builders hadn’t seen it coming. Closer examination revealed that the thing their scaffolding had bumped was, in fact, the concave surface of the heavenly firmament. The firmament—that hard, dome-like ceiling of the world which sits over the earth like an upturned bowl—was bright blue (this is perfectly obvious; otherwise, why would the sky be blue?) and there was a little hatch or door set into it. Happily, it seems they had built their tower in just the right spot.
It was underneath this little trapdoor that the Mayor found himself now. Thousands of cubits below, all the people of Babel stood gathered around the base of the tower, their eager faces pointed upwards in unity of heart and purpose. “Today I shall open the gate to the heavens!” he had told them before ascending. “I shall break the barrier between God and man!” It’d be his head if he didn’t, but he couldn’t help himself from lacquering on a few grandiose pronouncements. The people always like a good show.
He rapped nervously on the sky-door, then grinned back at twenty or so dignitaries and city notables, who had gathered with him at the top of the tower to meet God and ask a few questions.
Nothing happened. The Mayor felt the sweat running down his back. He knocked again.
Something clicked, and the Mayor jumped. Slowly, the little hatch slid open. There, set a handbreadth into the hatch, was another flat panel. On one side was a circle, perforated with little holes. On the other was a series of small squares, each the size of a person’s fingertip, and protruding slightly from the surface of the wall in a grid-like pattern. The Mayor counted twelve little squares. Each was covered with an indecipherable marking.
A voice spoke to him through the perforated circle of holes. “Welcome to the Firmaments Above,” it said. “For English, press 1.”
The Mayor did not understand a word of this. He didn’t speak any English. He knew only Akkadian, just like literally everyone else on the face of the earth. He stood there, smiling politely. The voice continued.
“Para español, presione 2 ... Pour le français, appuyez sur 3 ... För svenska, tryck 4 ... Drücken Sie für Deutsch 5 ... עבור עברית הקש שבע … للغة العربية اضغط ستة …”
On and on it went. It seemed to never end. All the while, the Mayor could feel the dignitaries’ eyes on his neck, boring down like they were trying to melt his fake plastic grin through the back of his head. Some action was required on his part—but what? He tried speaking and then shouting at the thing, but received no answer—it simply droned on.
The Mayor saw that the little squares in front of him could be pushed. Perhaps by pressing and depressing them, he reasoned, he could cause something to happen. Cautiously, he pushed the first square. Then the second, then the third. It seemed to make no difference. With mounting panic, and then eventually with small-minded bureaucratic fury, he began pressing all the buttons, tapping and jabbing and prodding at random. Over and over he tried, with new sequences and different combinations, until he had exhausted himself from the effort.
“It’s not working!” the Mayor called over his shoulder in Slovenian.
“What?” said one of the dignitaries, in Yiddish.
“Hey, what’s going on?” said another, in perfect Tagalog.
Up on the top of the tower, a veritable table of nations broke out. Strange bilabials and diphthongs filled the air. There were never-before-heard glottal stops and velars and dental fricatives. Later, some even swore they heard what sounded like clicks and whistles.
“We’d better go back down,” said the Mayor, still in Slovenian, to all the people already rushing headlong down the staircase. “Got to put the right spin on things, get ahead of the story. Otherwise, there’s just no telling what people might say.”
And as it turns out, he was right.
👋 Hey! If you read this story all the way to the end, please do me a favor: tap or click the ❤️ icon below. It takes about three seconds of your time, but you wouldn’t believe how truly, disproportionally happy it makes me. Thanks!