Dark Mountain regularly features both essays and fiction, intellectual analysis and symbolist myth-making, reportage on the global forces changing the face of our world and more personal, human-scale accounts of emotional response. The sweet spot, for me, is often where the symbolic meets the real, where fiction is used to address the factual in a way more powerful and inclusive than either bald literality or insulated internality would achieve.
Josh Gaines’ story The Tower in Atlantis, published in spring 2015, has always stood out as a great example of a piece that hits this sweet spot. Symbolist without being obscure, relevant without being too clumsily reductive to a single issue, it plumbs the deep sounds of fairy tale and parable but is delivered with a jagged, metallic tone suitable for the present day. Like the tower itself, it builds to a crescendo that reaches for, but just denies, a simplistic resolution. Six years on, it has lost none of its power or relevance, and it’s a pleasure to pull it from the archives and let it weave its wonder for you again today. SW
In the valley below, a river twisted around the mountain roots of Romania and led to the Black Sea, though he didn’t know if anyone was left to call it by its name. The thought didn’t bother him. Naming something as large as a sea in any language of men felt pretentious.
ʻLet it name itself,’ he said to the day, who replied in gull cries. ʻYes,’ he agreed. ʻThat sounds far more fitting.’
A path of dandelions led him down into the valley, and he ate their leaves as he walked. On the banks of the beautiful-blue-river, he chopped down an ancient tree and burned it, in case it got too cold, though the night was warm. It proved to be too much, and he awoke twice in the night to move further up the beach, away from the intense heat.
When the sun rose on the valley, he took one of many small time-chipped rowboats moored to the shoreline and launched into the river. At first, the conifer mountain walls towered above him, but after only a few hours’ travel he came to a place where a growing gap lined the base of the mountains. In the gap there was no green, just a line of death as though the tree-line had reversed and killed everything below a certain altitude. The further he drifted, the higher the line seemed to rise.
In the meantime, he tried to enjoy his journey, but his hunger pained him and by the end of the second day he felt as near to death as any starving man. With the sun setting, he passed a granite bend that opened up into a wide expanse of river where a small town and castle rose from the water. He neared the island and even in the twilight he could see the age of the place, walls coated in river grass and algae as if it had been long submerged. It was too small to be Atlantis and it was in the wrong part of the world. Nevertheless, he felt the rush of ancient discovery and decided to name it Atlantis.
He spent the night tossing about on the silted Atlantian shore, and in the dawn chill began to search the town for something to eat. The buildings on the island still held the river’s dampness inside them, the rooms coated as a river bottom, the doors swollen open or shut, the timbers waterlogged and their integrity suspect. Over the entryway to an abandoned Bavarian-style inn, he found the secret language of thieves carved into the rotting wood. He ran his fingers over the markings and his damp hand felt like moss against the doorframe. He closed his eyes while his fingers pried, and understood many things.
Atlantis had a fortress on it, though it had fared poorly. What rubble and rocks remained allowed only the imagination to ponder the structure’s former immensity. But a mosque still stood, encircled by the foundations of the fortress walls, untouched by time. Its dry door opened easily and the floors and walls within remained equally undamaged. His feet, which were now bare, echoed as they slapped against the marble floors. Above, the dome let in the day, and an open calm settled on the place. For a moment, he forgot his hunger.
It was then that he heard a sound, like a church bell, from a far corner of the cavernous space. He moved towards the sound and placed his ear against the floor where it seemed the loudest. He tapped the slab and knew it to be hollow.
He returned with a great stone of the fortress wall and hurled it against the floor. The effort exhausted him and the stone bounced along the floor, which remained unbroken. Again he tried, and again the marble floor resisted. He tried one last time, nearly falling over, throwing the stone down with all his body’s might. The stone and the slab beneath it shattered with the force of the blow.
The man knelt before the shallow hole in the floor and reached in. He removed thumb-sized phials of mystic oils, rectangles of stamped gold bullion, and a small copper chest. The chest was unlocked and, though tarnished to a light green, it opened easily. Inside were three items: a spindle, a shuttle, and a needle.
‘What can you do for me?’ he asked the spindle.’ Nothing,’ the spindle replied, ‘for my thread is gone and you are not my master.’
ʻWhat can you do for me?’ he asked the spindle.
ʻNothing,’ the spindle replied, ʻfor my thread is gone and you are not my master.’
He dashed the spindle against the floor, time and again until it snapped and its magic was lost.
ʻWhat can you do for me?’ he asked the shuttle.
ʻNothing,’ the shuttle replied, ʻfor I have nothing with which to weave, and you are not my master.’
He took the shuttle out of the mosque and pounded it between two stones until it splintered and its magic was lost.
Then he returned the needle and asked it, ʻWhat can you do for me?’
ʻNothing,’ the needle replied, ʻfor I have only a small amount of thread left, and you are not my master.’
He took the needle and placed his thumb along its middle and pressed the tip into the floor and began to push down, hoping to snap it, but the needle saw a hole in the man’s shirt and protested, ʻWait! I can mend your shirt. That much I can do.’
ʻWill I then be your master?’ asked the man.
ʻIf you allow me to live, yes.’
ʻThen mend my shirt,’ said the man and the shirt was mended. ʻAnd my pants,’ said the man, but the needle had no more thread. It tried anyway and to its great surprise found the thread had appeared when it was needed. The man noticed this too and smiled.
ʻMake beautiful clothes for me.’
And the needle did, instantly, but had a strange knowledge as it did so. While the man walked out into the sun to admire his new clothes, the needle told him, ʻOn the exact opposite side of the world, a sailor and his dog have had their very hair ripped from their bodies to make the magical thread for your clothes.’
ʻI see,’ said the man and walked a short distance into an great open space on the island. ʻNow make me a bed, wide and deep, of the world’s finest silks.’ It was done.
ʻAll the spiders and spinning worms of the world have just fallen from their nests. Their silk glands are dry and they will soon die.’
ʻFine,’ he said, laying on his massive bed that was the softest in all the world. ʻCan you make food for me?’
ʻI cannot,’ replied the needle.
ʻNo matter,’ said the man. ʻMake me a cottage of wool.’ The needle had no choice and one by one, the world’s sheep had their hair ripped from them and were left bloody and bleating until they died. The cottage was finished. The man stumbled around the main room touching the walls. Everything down to the furniture felt almost like wood, the thread was packed so tightly. It was incredible. But when the man lay again on his softest bed, he wanted more.
ʻBuild me a castle around this house.’
ʻThere is no wool left in the world,’ said the needle.
ʻThen use what you can find. The world will make anew.’ What choice did the needle have?
When the castle was complete, down to the chains on the drawbridge, the needle said, ʻEvery animal, man and child in the world, save you, is now hairless and bleeding and screaming and dying.’
ʻAnd so I am a king,’ said the man
ʻCan we say, this is enough?’
The king was very tired and very hungry. He drank from the river. ʻHas man paid for what it’s done to me?’ The needle said nothing. ʻFor now, it is enough,’ said the king, and as he passed into sleep he believed he could hear bells again in the distance, though he knew it was not possible.
In the morning he crawled the winding stairs to the top of the castle and was beyond hungry. He could feel his body giving up around him.
ʻNeedle,’ he said, ʻI am dying.’
ʻAh. So it is with man,’ replied the needle.
ʻIndeed.’ The king sat against the parapet of his castle. He told the needle, ʻI wish to die in God’s arms. I’ve been so wronged by this world, I wish now only to escape it. Needle, build me a tower to heaven.’
ʻThere are no animals left in the world with which to make thread.’
ʻWhat of plants and trees?’
The needle thought. ʻI could turn the fibrous plants of the world into thread and build you this tower, but it would leave the world barren for all time.’
ʻSo it must be,’ said the king wearily, though he did not believe it to be so. ʻMake sure to build the tower beneath me, as I would not have the strength left in my dying body to climb to its top.’
ʻI shall do it,’ said the needle, and began to sew the life of the world into the last structure of man.
For two days the needle flew back and forth, in and out, until the king awoke and looked down from miles above, over cloud and mountain, and saw far off the forests of the world vanishing in a line as against a great smokeless fire, a shrinking circle closing in, with the tower of Atlantis, and himself, at its centre. Higher and up the tower rose. The circle of trees grew ever tighter over the land below, and then they were gone.
ʻI have nothing left to use,’ said the needle. ʻI have failed you.’
The king looked up and saw heaven not ten feet above his head. He stood and stretched. He stumbled about the roof of the tower, but no matter how hard he tried, he could not reach the golden walls of God. ʻWhat happened?’ asked the king.
He stumbled about the roof of the tower, but no matter how hard he tried, he could not reach the golden walls of God
ʻIf I had but one more tree,’ said the needle, and the king remembered the one he had burned on the first day when he was but a peasant, and lamented the ignorance of the poor. Then he grew angry. ʻNo!’ he cried. ʻI’m so close. Needle!’ he screamed, ʻjust a little further. Here.’ He tore his hair from his head, arms, legs and body and stood naked in the golden light, bleeding. ʻHere, needle. Just a little bit further.’
And the needle used all that was left, but still it made little difference, and the king could not reach heaven. He snapped the needle in two, cursing it, and threw its pieces over the tower’s edge and its magic was lost.
ʻPlease,’ he called to the silent brightness above. ʻI’ve been so abused by life. Please take me in.’
Far below he imagined he heard bells, and his knees faltered, and he stumbled. He steadied himself against a wall that was spun tight as stone, and a door he had not noticed before swung open and two angels dressed as doctors entered the room. They each held nets made of starlight and they glistened in the light of heaven.
One of the angels said, ʻBe careful.’ So the king moved away from the edge, less he fall.
The other angel said, ʻQuick, grab him!’ But the king didn’t fall, nor did he fight. He was on his feet at the last, and was ready to go.
Dark Mountain: Issue 7 (PDF)
The Spring 2015 issue is a classic Dark Mountain collection of essays, fiction, poetry and artwork.Read more
I found it a beautiful story to be told in times of loss and abandonment, in times of leaving for new places. Thanks to Josh for this moment of reading.
As I find with all stories and poems by Josh Gaines, they bear reading time and again and always strike me deeply, but in different ways depending on my current life circumstance. Thank you, Josh, for yet another “timely” thought piece.
As with other of Josh’s work, I have read this story several times now. And because I am a great reader of novels of all kinds, I find myself thinking “I sure wish that man would write a novel.” Then I see that I myself am wishing for things that aren’t, wishing to make the world over as I would have it, desiring to interfere with life to make it as I wish. Great lessons in so many things in such a well-told and compact emotional tale. Perfect for our world today…if only people would understand. I hope it’s not too late.