The young man glanced up. “The towers aren’t as tall as I expected.”
“They were taller once,” replied the old man, “Long ago.” And then they sat in silence for a while, and the dust shifted on the deserted streets, and birds landed near them and took off again. “Why have you come here?”
“I don’t know really.” A shrug. “I suppose I wanted to see what it used to be like. Before, you know.” He paused. “I didn’t realise everything was ruined.”
“Yes, everything ruined. Not much left here. Nobody comes here anymore.” A longer pause. “How are things, how is everything, out there?” He waved his hand, indicating the world beyond the bounds of the empty city.
“Oh, fine. Fine.” And then, after a moment’s reflection, “Of course, there’s the war.”
“Of course. The war.”
“It is pretty awful, I think. I don’t know. It doesn’t really affect me.” He shifted uncomfortably. “They say that you remember things.”
The old man looked sideways at his companion. “I do remember. Not everything. There is a lot that I have forgotten. But I remember the forgetting. I cannot remember, anymore, what it was like when people lived here, or when the streets were full. I know it was like that once, but I cannot recall the pictures to my mind.” A long silence. “But I remember when we all left. I remember when the streets emptied and the people were all gone.”
“Why did they leave?”
“We left to build taller towers. We left because we wanted to forget, and this place...” He looked around at the empty square, the columns and the temples. “This place reminded us. In the end, we couldn’t bear it, the memory. I was gone for years; I nearly forgot. But when I returned...” A pause. “When I returned something came back to me. I remembered something. I remembered that we had forgotten. I don’t suppose anyone else remembers, anymore.”
The young man reached into his rucksack, pulled out a water bottle. He drank, offered it across. The old man declined. The young man sat, flipped the lid of the bottle open and shut, open and shut. “What was it you forgot? Why did you want to forget so badly?”
For a long time there was no answer. Open, shut. Open, shut. And then the old man spoke quietly, almost in a whisper. “How could we forget? How could we try?” And then in a louder voice, to his companion, “We wanted to forget ourselves. We wanted to forget who we were. We couldn’t bear to remember anymore. I don’t suppose you can understand. We didn’t want to know ourselves.” The young man was silent. He did not understand.
“Tell me,” the old man continued after a while, “do they still build towers?”
“Yes,” he replied. “Yes, they build them. They are taller and taller. They build them of glass, now. Where I live – well, I can look from my window and see dozens of towers, and the cranes building new ones all the time.”
The old man fixed him with a deep stare. “Do you know why they build them?”
A pause, and then the young man could hold his gaze no longer. “No.”
“No. Of course not. But we knew. We knew why we had built the towers. And we could not bear it. We had done our best, before. We built them as tall as we could, these ruins. But it wasn’t high enough. They meant something, and because they meant something they were failures, these towers. We had to forget them. We couldn’t live here, in the midst of our failures. They had to become ruins so that we would not know.”
“Would not know what?”
“So that we would not know that we were ruins, too. So that we would not have to remember that we had failed and fallen. We could build bigger towers, start again. But we would forget what they were for. We would forget. And now they have forgotten the forgetting, and only I am left.”
The old man fell into silence, gazing at the dusty cobbles. The young man, too, was silent for a while. A couple of times he opened his mouth as if to speak, but did not. He took another swig from his bottle.
And then at last, “why did you build them? Why did you build the towers?”
The old man did not reply at once, and when he did his voice wavered.
“I don’t know. I don’t know. I forgot, we all forgot. What good does it do to remember? I tried to fix them, for a while, after I came back. But it was just me. I was alone, and I did not know how. And...” A long pause. “And I could not remember why.”
And the young man and the old sat silently in the shadows of the decaying towers as the sun went slowly down.