The Wingbuilder by Joe Pitkin

by Joe Pitkin


“Maybe we can stay here,” the boy says.

“Here on this pillar?” I ask. “I think we’ll be ready to climb down by morning.”

“No, I mean here. The Sanctuary.”

“So it’s The Sanctuary now?”

The boy is old enough to sense my low opinion of the name. “Well, what would you call it then?”

“That is a most excellent question,” I say.

I prefer to use, when possible, the original names for things, or at least a name with some connection to the thing’s original purpose. I suppose that a place we’ve been camped for 18 days deserves a name of some sort, but who knows what this place was before? The head people of our group saw the pillars and arches and guessed that the place was once a library, or perhaps a temple to some old god of wandering, here where several passages of the labyrinth come together. Had my mother seen it, she would have called it an orchard of pillars—whatever she would have meant by that.

At any rate, I doubt the place was a temple complex or a library. Where are the ceremonial paintings and the offertories? Where are the scrolls and codices?

There is a lower level where one of the scouts, Vertex, found thousands of potsherds in the thick dust. Perhaps the place was once a great ossuary. It fills me with some sadness to think that the original inhabitants had the wherewithal to congregate the remains of their dead in such a monumental structure. Or perhaps I am merely imagining—one can store a great many things in clay urns.

“I don’t know what I would call this place,” I tell the boy.

“Then why shouldn’t we call it The Sanctuary?”

Why not indeed? The boy has had the blessing, or the curse, of having lived nearly all his life in a single tiny district of the labyrinth, during one of those unpredictable intervals in which The Starry King kept himself busy in far foreign passages. Who could blame the poor boy for believing that stability is the natural state of things, that wandering is the aberration? Who would blame him for thinking that we had found a sanctuary?

My mother, may her bones remain undisturbed, remembered a life outside the labyrinth. If I am different from others, that’s the explanation: my mother remembered, and she told me of her remembered world. I’ve done my best to remember what she said, though of course my mother remembered the experience and I remember only being told of the experience. In any event, memory isn’t what it once was.

Or perhaps memory is what it’s always been: a carelessly assembled mosaic of trivial details and evils worth forgetting and seemingly unrelated key moments and half-recalled images that one hopes are clues to a deeper, more worthy reality than this one. Perhaps memory has always been such a gap-toothed mosaic, and the clear memory I believed I had in my youth was simply an illusion: after all, there was so little I had to remember in those days.

Certainly as a young man I believed that more would be revealed, until one day, at the turning of a corner, I would arrive at some vantage that clarifies all the labyrinth into one comprehensive whole. But that corner has never presented itself to me, and now at my age it seems the labyrinth was designed never to provide such a vantage. Does my failure to know the whole, stem from the failure of memory, or was I naive to have believed in youth that the whole would ever become visible?

I’ve seen much of the labyrinth. Not the whole of it, to be sure, but I’ve seen more than anyone except for The Builder. And the Starry King probably, that tireless roamer. According to my mother, I was born in the Kórház Szentmihály Útvesztői, in that region of the labyrinth once peopled by a rummage of Hungarians, Germans, Slovaks, Croats, Wallachians, Jews, Czechs, Poles, Roma, Cumans, Slovenes, Russians, Tatars, Turks, and the rare wandering Greek. Eighty years on, it remains easier for me to speak in Hungarian, though the last conversation I had in that language was half a lifetime ago. So far as I know, I’m the only one left who speaks that ancient language, which sounds like the singing of uncommonly witty birds. But, no matter that my native tongue is not long for this world, even now when I pull the compass from my inventory and measure the corners and turnings of the labyrinth’s halls in all their meandering trigonometry, I still tally up the angles in Hungarian, nullátől- háromszázhatvanig.

“Why do both of us have to keep watch?” the boy asks.

“Because if it were just me out here, who would watch if I fell asleep?”

“I could watch by myself,” he says. I don’t know whether he has convinced himself of this brave assertion or whether he hasn’t given the topic much thought.

“Maybe so. But who would run for help if you spotted trouble?”

He makes an impressed little hmm in the dark. He is too soft-hearted to say, or it hasn’t occurred to him, that I won’t be running anywhere.
I can see his silhouette in the moonlight as he looks out towards The Builder’s tower. The view is especially fine here, though there are thousands of vantages where that slender curving spire at the heart of the labyrinth is visible. That is, assuming the labyrinth has a heart, that it is finite and not an infinitely cruel joke.

The spine of the tower rises beyond every wall in an architecture both graceful and alien. Yet alien is not exactly what I mean. There is some experience, a human experience, that the tower calls up in me: I remember in early childhood, before we all had to wander so restlessly, a lecture I attended with my mother. The speaker was an elderly man—elderly to me then, anyway—who had also remembered a time before the labyrinth. He claimed to be well-versed in the study of living things long since lost to us, and he argued that The Builder had designed the angular turnings and blind alleys of the labyrinth after the form of an archaic creature he called, if I remember correctly, the oak lungwort.

According to this old man, The Builder’s tower itself was modelled after the reproductive structure of this creature, an impossibly tall filament he named the sporangium. I remember the old man’s explanation—which seems so ridiculous to me now—being well received, perhaps since most in the audience, like my mother, could draw upon memories from before the labyrinth and perhaps had even seen with their own eyes the creature the old man was attempting to explain. True, the lecture did in the end devolve into bickering and finally into violence, but not because of the claim that The Builder’s tower had been modelled as a gigantic primitive genital structure. Rather, it was the lecturer’s argument about the endlessness of the labyrinth, his claim that it was infinite in all directions, which sounded so repellent that the audience ultimately hacked him to death with their daggers and their magic swords.

I don’t remember how he squared his scandalous claim of an infinite labyrinth with his knowledge of a creature from beyond the labyrinth called the oak lungwort; perhaps memory fails me, or perhaps the apparent contradiction speaks to the ludicrousness of his argument.

The prevailing wisdom then, as now, was that the labyrinth is a bounded space—the word used in those days was island—and that beyond its highest walls stretches an open expanse of water which may or may not extend an infinite distance in all directions. Ironically, the old lecturer would have encountered many allies in the audience if he had claimed only that the hypothesized surrounding water, and not the labyrinth itself, was infinite.

“I think we’ll stay here, in The Sanctuary,” the boy announces.

What does one say to that? It is not for me to crush his spirit. “I would like that very much,” I say.

The boy is just old enough to keep watch. He is my favorite of the children, my favorite of the whole tribe that took me in. Had they left me to watch alone, I would have suspected that they were leaving me here as a lame old sacrifice for The Starry King, should he approach by this passage. The boy is their pledge that they have truly taken me in.

“The tower is dark tonight,” the boy says.

The people of this tribe ascribe all kinds of imagined gradations of darkness to the tower, each shade a preposterous omen. One day they will convince themselves that it is a glossy black, another that the blackness is purple-tinged. Flat, sooty black is a sign that all communications are doomed to falter and be misunderstood until one of them persuades the others that the hue of the tower has changed.

“What can you see of it, boy?”

He stares as though with enough staring the color will become clear in his eye. “It’s still glossy black,” he says, though I am sure he can’t see anything of the tower’s color by moonlight and is just parroting what one of the tribe’s seers declared earlier this morning. In darkness every cow is black, as my mother used to say in Hungarian, though I have never to my knowledge seen a cow of any color.

Tonight I can barely see the tower at all from this distance. But I did see something there once. One morning, when I was a youth of twenty, as I sat atop a pillar worn nearly shapeless by time, not much closer to the tower than we sit today, I saw, I am sure of it, two shapes leap from the tower and hang there in the air above like great birds, gliding away towards the sunlight until they were lost to me. I have spent the many years since wondering what I saw: were they The Builder’s servants? The Builder? (That is to say, heresy of heresies, is there more than one Builder?)
There is no telling—The Builder’s ways are not our ways. But my youthful discovery tells this much: if the labyrinth, or some water beyond it, is infinite, what but desperation could have driven those figures from the tower? Is it not possible, then, that the labyrinth is finite and that the water beyond has an end?

But enough of cosmology. I’ve never understood the appeal of that kind of speculation. The people who found me are in love with cosmology: they look at the stars from the roof of the place, pondering that The Builder (who they believe to reside in the tower still) has made the whole world, sky and tower and labyrinth and all. That we are all The Builder’s dream, or subject to a set of intricate instructions which The Builder controls or which perhaps, in a turn of mysticism, The Builder is.

Instead of philosophizing, I have preferred to spend the years attempting a recreation of the wings I saw at such a distance when I was twenty. Two dozen times I’ve left behind my models and prototypes in haste as I’ve fled The Starry King. Yet at each new resting place, I’ve gathered the bleached and spindled bones of extinct creatures, bones I’ve hollowed painstakingly and pegged together with tusks and teeth into a frame. Over these chimerical skeletons I’ve stretched crazy quilts made of the cloth I’ve found, silken banners, moth-eaten chasubles, yellowed shrouds, all sewn together with gut string.

Three times I have managed to try out my wings. On the third, five years past, I even fared well enough to glide a furlong from atop a causeway, listing like a drunkard crow before my wing caught the edge of an arch. When the people of my new tribe found me, they said I was lucky to have survived such a fall with nothing more than a broken ankle, though none who said that to me had ever broken an ankle.

My latest wing, a fanciful replacement, I abandoned during a retreat from The Starry King. But even in these last 18 days I have begun again, collecting materials from the surroundings, such as they are: a handful of long teeth, a half-rotten linen bandana, and a slim long bone that I hollow out with a spike by day.

I fear that something necessary to this work is lost. Did the figures I saw flying an age ago know some principle which remains nameless to me? I imagine that the name of such a principle is on the tip of my tongue, hidden in the etymology of some word I use daily but whose original reality refers to life outside the labyrinth: island, orchard, cow.

The word labyrinth itself, of course, implies some world beyond which is not labyrinth, that world which my mother’s generation knew and which I can only imagine. The boy beside me likely has no such imagining—labyrinth is as consuming a concept for him as universe. Indeed, to him, labyrinth and universe are the same.

I would gladly exchange labyrinth for a word that made better sense of things. Did such a word ever exist for our ancestors? A word that, unlike labyrinth, clarifies rather than confuses? It has brought me joy, and has helped me pass many hours, to imagine a term that captures the sense of the place: a word that would follow certain rules of construction and pronunciation but which, within these constraints, would emerge happily and fitly like a confluence of many paths of thought. “Do you want to say the words?” I ask the boy. This is our name for the activity, a kind of imaginary proposal and counter-proposal of fanciful names for our reality.

“Yes,” he says. “You start.”

I choose the six consonants and three vowels called for by the rules of saying the words: f,p,s,r,w,b; a,i,o. “I would rename the labyrinth…a… bospwirfa.”

“A bospwirfa—very nice. I would name it…a… prowsabif.”

“I would call the labyrinth…a… brispowfa.”

I have him now—“I would call it a worfispba.”

“I would—” The boy seems caught up short or fallen into a deep meditation. “Game,” he finally says. “I would call it a game.”

“My boy, you’re not following the rules of saying the words!” Yet as soon as I’ve lodged my protest I feel small-minded, for this new word, while it has come from nowhere and bears no relation to the chain of words we had made, seems odd and resonant and, in its own way, inspired.

“How did you land on this name?” I ask him. But before he can ask me, before he can even register the question, we hear the familiar bellowing, inhuman and inconsolable. Screaming follows, all too human, and a clash of arms. The Starry King knows this place better than we do, perhaps better than The Builder. He has entered The Sanctuary by some other way than the one we watch.

The boy has leapt down from the pillar in a single bound, while I pick my way down the tumbled stone blocks which lay like a mad-angled staircase next to our perch.

“Wait!” I call after him.

As has happened so many times when The Starry King is near, I see at the bottom of the piled blocks an urn, and in the urn’s mouth the hilt of a sword. The boy’s love for me has mastered, momentarily, his urge to rush to the defense of his people. I feel compelled to draw the sword from the urn, as if in perpetual fulfilment of some prophecy.

“It is dangerous to go alone,” I tell him. “Take this.”

The boy snatches the sword from me without a word. He turns back to rush towards the furious melee.

Not that it matters: I’ve sat with dozens of children atop dozens of pillars in the labyrinth. Some rush down the passage toward their fate without a thought that they are empty-handed, and some, like this one, take the sword. The Starry King takes them all in the end.

I am beset by the old emptiness, the sense that I exist merely to utter that one line, to hand over a sword to an infinite succession of young fools. I lean on my walking stick and consider my choices once more. Go back with my young friend: that way lies suicide, but a quick death, and a chance to see at the final moment The Starry King.

Or I admit my impotence and go forward, remain one more day in ignorance of the face of this old enemy. Every passage in the labyrinth offers a way forward and a way back, at least until there is no way forward.

One more moment of cosmology I allow myself: my mother believed until the last that the labyrinth had been built to serve The Starry King (why else would The Starry King have such a name?), that The Builder was the servant, not the master, of this place.
Amidst the screams and cries, the gorging and bellowing, I take the lonelier way.


About the Author


Joe Pitkin’s fiction has appeared in Analog, Podcastle, Black Static, and elsewhere. His work has been chosen for David G. Hartwell’s Year’s Best SF 18, Gardner Dozois’ The Year’s Best Science Fiction #33, and twice for Rich Horton’s The Year’s Best Science Fiction and Fantasy. He has also published poetry in, among other places, North American Review, Beloit Poetry Journal, and Los Angeles Review. More about Joe and his work can be found at