by Alyssa Quinn

Into the tower, we bring an apple. Form a circle around it. Point and say: apple, apfel, manzana, pomme, sêv, jabuka. This seems a place to begin.

Next, into the circle, we bring a pear, birne, pera, poire, hirmê, kruška—and a lemon, zitrone, limón, citron, leymûn, limun. The tower fills with pith and peel, their sweet and delicate smells.

The lemon in the circle is waxy and dimpled. A bright tether to which we cling. We keep a large book, a cipher, to record the words and their equivalents. This is our labor, and until it is complete, we cannot leave this place.

Grape, traube, uva, grain de raisin, tirî, zrno grožđa.

After fruits, we do flowers. The carnations are everybody’s favorite. Scrunched the way they are like a surprise, like the way it feels to open.

Into the circle goes a peony, a violet, a pansy. Into the book go the words.

After fruits, liquids: milk, saltwater, tea.

Then: sweat, blood, tears.

Into the circle goes a weeping woman. We point and name her grief.

Then a human brain, a shipwreck, a woman giving birth. Point and name the parts: pituitary, timber, placenta.

Into the circle goes a mirror and we do not know what to say.

The book progresses, an endless grid of signs. With its aid we begin to converse, though the sentences come out slanted and strange. I punch the citrus in the bottle. She desires the sky carnation.

Even so, there is less misunderstanding than you’d think.

We split the fruits and suck the flesh from rind.

Above us, the top of the tower remains unfinished and open. Tonight we climb to its gaping mouth, crane our necks to the sky. Point. Say moon, umbra, star. Say all the words for light. Into the circle goes the Milky Way, goes hot, throbbing Andromdea, goes Jupiter’s ruby storm. Around us, the building materials lie abandoned. A smudge of mortar. Nails like arrows, pointing elsewhere. We have ceased baking bricks. We have ceased to fear the earth. Into the circle go the old blueprints and we say mythology, we say deception, we say never mind.

In the circle we start to dance. Bodies bright in starlight, eyes sealed sweet like tulips at night. We touch each other. Hold our breath. Wait for what language will come.


Alyssa Quinn is the author of the forthcoming novel Habilis (Dzanc Books 2022), an anti-colonial mash-up of museum exhibits, haunted skeletons, disco music, and linguistic theory. Her short work has appeared in Ninth Letter, Passages North, The Rupture, Cream City Review, Copper Nickel, and elsewhere.

Art: The Tower of Babel by Pieter Bruegel the Elder

1 thought on “Babel”

  1. Oh, Alyssa. This is so achingly beautiful. I love how you reimagine the aftermath of Babel, a gathering of words rather than an immediate scattering of people. Gorgeous and laced with ache. I’m such a fan! (And I’m delighted about your forthcoming book and that this piece was chosen to bring P&L back to life. Just thrilled over here!)

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