Alphabet Ash

Adrian Watts – Deakin University

When I first saw the tower on the hill, its lowest levels cut into the edge of the green mound, I began to feel edgy. The long car ride had given me time to let my mind wander, to consider the countless horrors to which I may soon be subjected. Finally seeing the tower had cemented many of those fears – its entire existence seemed contrived purely to cause me dread.

The tower stood like a black silhouette against the late morning sun, rising so high above the hill’s zenith that part of me wondered how it kept standing, how the winds which even now roared around it had not yet managed to send it toppling from its perch. It was only when I got closer that I saw the base of the tower was almost as wide as the tower was tall, forming a sort of inverted ‘T’. That did little to reassure me, however; instead, it evoked images of ancient watchtowers, of prisons like the Tower of London, in which the low levels were used to house the dangerous, the criminals, the insane – but I had resolved long before that moment that that was what this place was: not the elite school it purported to be, but an asylum, a home a long way from home in which I and those like me would be twisted to others’ ends, slowly driven to conformity, forced to become the arrogant oppressors of tomorrow’s generation.

Between the tower and I, at the base of the hill, was a wide field of short grass. I tried not to imagine what sort of ‘sport’ the denizens of the tower would be subjected to: images of armed gladiatorial combat came to mind, but these were quickly dismissed; what wasn’t so easily forgotten were the lightning-flash images of the weakest competitors being uncaringly discarded, fed to lions ferried over from Africa for the sole purpose of culling the herd so that only those who most conformed could thrive.

It was with those heavy thoughts resting in my mind that I began to make my way across the field. As I allowed my fears to evolve, to grow ever more massive as they cannibalised one another, forming newer and more hideous fears, pieced together in a way that would have made even Doctor Frankenstein envious, they became almost too much to bear. Ahead of me, the lush, verdant grass appeared to recede and be replaced with thick, dirty swamp water, the grass eventually reappearing as marsh-like reeds poking out of the sodden ground. I stopped for a moment to clear my head, but with little success – the sense of utter dread remained, but the imagined swamp did not. I was once again standing on solid ground with thick, strong and most importantly well-manicured grass cushioning my feet.

Finally, after far more effort than I would have thought necessary, I crossed the field and made my way up a small flight of stairs, to the heavy wooden front doors of the tower. They swung open at the slightest touch, which seemed both inviting and menacing at the same time.

I stepped through the ancient portal and into a hall decorated with reminders of decades past. Along the walls were myriad portraits – former commandants of the tower; significant prisoners, both former and current – and at the far end of the hall was the most important portrait of all: that of the King. That we had lived under the reign of a Queen for forty-six years appeared irrelevant to the tower’s masters and only served to drive home the fears I’d had about the tower being a place where modernity was unwelcome.

Before I could even take another step into the hall I was met by a short, stocky man with glasses and thick, long black hair. He wore sleek black robes which covered him from neck to knee, with equally-black trousers, socks and shoes to complete the ensemble. My eyes were still adjusting to the dim hall light after coming in from the sun, so I did not notice his outstretched hand until just before he pulled it back.

“Hello!” the Black Master said loudly, with an accent so French that for a long time after I would insist that he had actually been speaking French. “Vous devez être Adrian, oui? Bienvenue, bienvenue! Mon nom est M. Lauriot. Dois-je vous donner en tour?”

“… oui?” I responded uncertainly. If he had hoped to disarm me, he had failed – I could play his game, too… to an extent. “Y-yes, please.”

He led the way, his robe billowing behind him despite the lack of any breeze in the hall.

It was all part of the theatre of the place, I told myself. To wear you down, to make you give in.

As we made our way through the levels that formed the tower’s base, I saw nothing to allay the concerns I had had on the outside. Most of the rooms served the purpose I had imagined for them: overcrowded dungeons, filled with many-who-could-be-me being worn down by drudgery and repetition. With their eyes and hands moving almost in unison they copied their orders from black slates at the front of each room. “Les salles de classe!” M. Lauriot called them, but I was unconvinced; unless I had misunderstood and the phrase meant exactly what it sounded like – class stalls, separating the chaff from the wheat, the dumb from the brilliant, the lion-food from the stunning unarmed gladiators with bright white teeth and shimmering golden armour and nine foot tall bodies and all the other things with which I could never compete.

But not all of these dungeons were the same. Some, in fact, would be better defined as sweatshops, in which row after row of uniformed workers crafted goods for an unknown purpose. Paintings as aesthetically Renaissanceperfect as the portraits in the main hall sat on easels, being touched up in minute detail by hands that did not tremble, hands that were used to getting everything just right. “Salle d’art!” M. Lauriot named such rooms, confirming my suspicions – the tower masters intended to ‘sell the art’. It was right there in the name.

The third type of dungeon we passed was equally disturbing. Small clusters of prisoners wielded instruments that sent screeching peals echoing into the hall outside, to the direction of a master up front, conducting their efforts. These instruments, which appeared at first to be violins, cellos, violas and trumpets were exposed by the sound they made as instruments of torture. The sound was so horrendous I felt compelled to check and make sure that our tour had not been joined by Dante and Virgil. Thankfully, neither was present, which was just as well – my Latin was just as weak as my French.

An even greater variety of rooms filled out what remained of these lower levels which, admittedly, were not quite as terrible as I had feared. Our journey had come full circle and we returned to the main hall, which contained two sets of stairs I had not noticed earlier. One, to the left, was bright white – like marble or well-polished ivory. The other was brown, dusty and scuffed.

“Après-vous,” M. Lauriot said, gesturing to the brown stairs. But I was not to be taken so easily – I crossed the hall and began to mount the other set of stairs.

“Non!” M. Lauriot shouted. “Zat ees for mastairs only… Seulement!”

The symbolism was not lost on me at all; ‘zee mastairs’ had their own ivory staircase leading, perhaps, to their own ivory tower. I crossed the hall again and began to climb the other stairs, checking repeatedly to make sure M. Lauriot was behind me.

At the top of the stairs was another hall with several rooms leading off it. Each contained several rows of books – hundreds or rows in total, with thousands of books. Without consciously thinking about it my fear immediately abated and I hurried to the first of the rooms. Everything I had dreamed of was there: Gawain, Gilgamesh, Ghost Rider – I’d made the ascension from Hell to Heaven, and it was glorious.

Books, however, were not the only things in the room. In the back, beneath a window I knew must look out onto the field I had crossed earlier, sat a boy wearing the uniform of all the prisoners in the Hell below. In one hand he held a sheath of paper, stained with blood that dripped down from an opened wrist. In the other he held a match.

“Sorry,” he sobbed, striking the match across the sheath, igniting it, and letting it fly across the room.

The library was alight before I could make a move, the fire spreading far too quickly for me to enter safely. Instead, I bounded down the steps, taking M. Lauriot with me, and rushed out onto the field outside. By now alarm bells rang loudly throughout the tower and both prisoners and masters poured out of every open door to join me on the field. There was an explosion as a window in the tower blew out, scattering jagged shards of glass across the field and the cowering escapees. Then, there was silence, as alphabet ash rained from above: flaming fiction, singed soliloquies and burned borrowings finally adorning the imagined Hell with the ash and fire it had always needed to be complete.

The fire was soon extinguished…but the music had stopped, the art was lost, the tower remained but a scorched shadow of what it had been, as its prisoners filed back in one after the other, more keen to resume their roles than to question what had happened; and I went with them.


Adrian Watts is at the tail-end of a Bachelor of Arts degree with a major in Literary Studies at Deakin University. He is fascinated with Japanese literary fiction and the often-powerful effects of multilingual texts and adopting words which defy translation.