The Best of Babylon’s final tour stop, the coup de gras, takes the international travel group to the ruins of Etemenanki, an ancient ziggurat built of myth, or fact, depending on who you asked.
The tower; however, had little to do with what happened to Mrs Petra Goldberg that day, at least not as far as authorities could prove or disprove, also depending on who you talked to.
The Tower of Babel, reputed by Christians to be the ultimate landmark to man’s hubris, was the historically ambiguous site of a throw down between God Himself and his creation following The Great Flood. In an attempt to reach the Almighty and demonstrate equal prowess in matters of autonomy, man, directed by a self-appointed god, built a grandiose tower intended to reach the gates of Heaven. Perhaps, to barge in during dinner, or to knock politely, who can say?
But, God was having none of it. Thus, the legend goes, He struck the ill-fated tower and its builders with a scathing bolt of supernatural lightning which scattered to the four winds any hope of continued linguistic understanding between the masses. Language, once unified, was splintered into gibberish according to each different tribe, confounding communication and peace, forevermore.
Some believe the Tower of Etemenanki, once 91 meters high and located in the ancient city of Babylon to be the ruins of the mythical Tower of Babylon, referenced in the Book of Genesis, although similar claims have been made around the world where other such edifices exist.
Petra Goldberg was regarded by her friends and family as somewhat of a ‘mensch’, though her dead husband, Morley, would have lovingly told you she was a delightful mix of ’meshugannah and mensch.
Born a gentile, Petra Millhouse became a happily converted jew, and slipped into the stereotypical role of gregarious worry-wort and matriarch of her family. To Petra it was as natural as rolling into a pair of her best silk stockings on the day she married Morley in 1965.
Petra, unassuming, witty and plumpish — had not one self-conscious bone in her body, thus, she attracted people from every unlikely corner of the globe, wherever she went. These people often told her secrets (which she always kept) and shared their dreams before the brief encounters ended.
From the top of her packable, jungle hat-covered head and sunscreen slathered cheeks, to the tips of her dusty blue, no-nonsense walking shoes, Petra embraced life and its people with the door to her heart thrown wide open.
She’d been looking forward to the pilgrimage to Iraq for more than two years, and though it was supposed to include Morley, she knew he would urge her to go without him since he was dead. He was nothing if not practical.
Petra Goldberg, leaning against a low stone, smoothed and warmed by the desert sun and countless other tourists’ bums, decided to rest before descending the steps of the ruins. She took in the view of Babylon’s historical topography eroding into indistinguishable shapes before her, and relished having the plateau to herself for a few minutes. She could even smoke without being scowled at.
From the blind side of the crumbling edifice, sheltered by the high point of the massive rock ruins, Petra Goldberg could not see the bruised and angry cloud threatening to cut her visit short. While she rooted in her satchel for a pack of Virginia Slims and lighter, the stealthy intruder loomed closer.
It peered over the tower wall as if it were a spy on a mission. The plateau courtyard was empty except for the middle-aged woman smoking a cigarette.
Deciding she would have to do, the storm gathered itself in a hasty swell and hurled lightning toward the lone visitor at the top of the Etemenanki ruins.
The crashing jolt was followed by a terrible, disembodied howl, presumably Petra’s, a clap of thunder, then stoney silence.
Not a drop of rain fell.
The woman lay motionless in the courtyard for at least half an hour. Her brittle hair, dyed chestnut blonde for decades, emitted spindly wisps of acrid smoke.
Nothing indicated she had survived the strike.
Making the obligatory head count once his international tour group boarded the bus, Jamal discovered he was one short. He counted again. Still short.
“Attention please, we are missing one person. Everyone please remain on the bus. I will be back soon,” he advised.
“It’s the chubby lady with the funny hat,” an Australian man offered as the tour lead exited the bus.
Head down, Jamal hastily began climbing up the steps of the tower, and nearly plowed into a disheveled Petra Goldberg hurrying down the steps in somewhat of a lopsided manner.
“AL-La’anah!” Startled, Jamal swore in Arabic, his native tongue. “Hal tadhiat?”
“You needn’t swear at me, young man, I’m fine,” Petra replied, scolding the guide.
Then, as if struck by a second bolt, both Jamal and Petra stared, eyes as big as milk saucers, at each other’s faces.
“You speak Arabic?”
“Not a word, but I understood you just now. You said, ‘damn it’ when we nearly collided, and ask if I was hurt.” Petra didn’t need Jamal’s confirmation, she was as sure of herself as she’d ever been about anything.
“Ana asef, Jamal,” Petra spoke in Arabic, telling her tour guide she was sorry. Speaking a new language was as effortless as understanding it, she merely thought of what she wanted to say and it flowed out of her mouth in whatever language the other person would understand.
Petra had become a walking, talking language translator.
Jamal’s eyes were still buggy, but Petra was surprisingly calm.
“What happened to you up there? Where’s your hat?” Jamal presses his palms together in prayerful superstition before pointing out Petra’s hair, which was curled tight in fuzzy ringlets, and still trailing a ribbon of smoke. Jamal was back to speaking halting English, not yet trusting she could understand him.
Petra touched her hair and the memory of a spear of lightning barreling toward her from a darkened sky came flooding back.
“Sāʻiqa,” Petra said in Arabic while thinking ‘lightning’ in English. “It must have been the ṣāʻiqa.”
As the the two approached the waiting tour bus, she could hear her fellow travelers impatiently buzzing in their native languages about her disappearance and her rumpled appearance.
Petra could understand every word.
She boarded the bus brushing sand from her sleeves and wondering where her new gift would take her next.