‘‘By the Waters of Babylon’’ begins with a brief summary of the rules of a tribe that is later identified as the People of the Hills. This group allows hunting to the west, north, and south, but no one is allowed to travel to the east. People are also forbidden from going to the Dead Places— except for a priest or the son of a priest, and then only when searching for metal. When someone visits a Dead Place, they and the materials they bring back must be purified upon their return. Far to the east lies the great river, and past the river is the Place of the Gods, which is off-limits to everyone—including priests.
The narrator of the story is John, the son of a priest. According to John, no one even dares to say the name of the Place of the Gods. ‘‘It is there that spirits live,’’ he states, ‘‘and demons—it is there are the ashes of the Great Burning.’’ John describes his first experience visiting a Dead Place with his father; it was a house with bones piled in the corner. Although he was afraid, John did not run away, and when his father returned with a piece of metal, he gave it to John to hold. Because John did not die from holding the metal, he is considered special and is destined to follow in his father’s footsteps as a priest. Because of this, John receives both special treatment—such as finer meat—and stricter discipline that is intended to prepare him for his eventual duties.
Over time, John learns the ways of being a priest. He ventures into the Dead Places in search of metal and overcomes his fear of the houses that hold the dead. He also learns the secrets of healing and other knowledge, most of which is kept secret from the rest of the tribe. This knowledge is taken from old books, and John’s responsibilities include learning how to read and write in this ancient language. John enjoys reading about the Old Days and the world that existed before the Great Burning.
John notes that their tribe is not primitive like the Forest People, who cannot make wool and who eat grubs for nourishment. Despite his own tribe’s comparatively advanced state, John craves even greater knowledge of the past world in the hope that it can further advance his people. When John becomes a man, he tells his father of his dream to go on a journey to seek such knowledge. He describes the Place of the Gods and even the gods themselves, as if they still lived. His father reminds him that traveling to the Place of the Gods is forbidden, but both seem resigned to the fact that John is going to make the journey. His father gives him a bow and three arrows to take with him.
To be sure his decision is correct, John begins fasting and waits for a sign of what to do. He sees an eagle flying to the east, in the direction of the Place of the Gods. He then sees three deer traveling east, one of which is a white fawn—and John accepts this as a very important sign. He begins to follow the deer eastward. Along the way, a panther pounces on the white fawn, but John quickly draws his bow and kills it with a perfectly fired arrow. For him, this is final confirmation that he must make the trip to the Place of the Gods.
John travels east for eight days, passing many Dead Places and the occasional group of Forest People out hunting, though his stealth and magic keep him from being spotted by them. At the end of the eighth day, he finally reaches the great river, called Ou-dis-sun: ‘‘It is very long, very wide. It could eat all the streams we know and still be thirsty.’’ John is the first of his tribe ever to see it in person.
The next morning, John considers ending his journey and turning back; he fears that traveling to the Place of the Gods will result in his death. However, he knows that if he does not go, he will lose his spirit. He builds a raft to cross the great river, and when he finishes, he paints his face in preparation for death and sings himself a ceremonial song about his demise. On the river, John finds himself at the mercy of the currents—a magical trait of the great river, which appears placid. As he is carried across the water, he notices that ‘‘god-roads,’’ now all but stony ruins, once connected the Place of the Gods with the rest of the world. John tries to steer his raft, without much success. He fears that he will be carried off into the Bitter Water, a legendary vast sea. However, the current shifts and carries him closer to the Place of the Gods.
Before he can reach the shore, however, his raft crashes against something and capsizes. Fortunately, John knows how to swim, and manages to make it safely to land. John is surprised to find that the ground at the Place of the Gods does not burn his feet, as the legends state. He also discovers that the place is not mysterious or magical, or filled with evil and spirits, as he had often been told by the priests. Instead it is simply a huge Dead Place, filled with broken god-roads and ruined towers—and even a few towers that still stand tall. Although some patches of earth still show signs of the Great Burning, in many places grass grows through the cracked stone. He also sees a fish hawk and butterflies. As he walks, he discovers a large broken stone engraved with the letters ‘‘UBTREAS.’’ He also discovers a statue of a god or possibly just a man: ‘‘It had been made of white stone, and he wore his hair tied back like a woman’s. His name was ASHING, as I read on the cracked half of a stone.’’ John takes a moment to pray to this previously unknown god.
As he continues exploring, he finds many other animals. The abundance of pigeons leads him to think that the gods must have held special regard for them. He also sees wild dogs and cats, and everywhere he encounters numbers or words carved in stone, but cannot decipher their meaning. John gets hungry and remembers that the gods did not have to hunt because they got their food from magical jars and boxes. He had seen such food before in the Dead Places, and even tasted it once, but eating such food is strictly forbidden by the tribe. It is believed that the food can bring death. Having already defied death by walking in the Place of the Gods, John decides to eat the food of the gods as well.
He enters a large building in the center of town, which he takes to be a temple. Inside, the ceiling is painted with the stars of the night sky, and numerous tunnels lead off from the main building. John finds fruit inside some jars and eats it. Then he drinks something strong from glass bottles that affects his head. After a brief nap, he wakes to find that a large dog has joined him. He tries to scare it away, but it stays near. He decides not to kill it and continues his journey northward along an old god-road. The dog follows, and soon John discovers that a whole pack is sizing him up. He heads toward a fairly intact building, and as he gets near, the dogs rush forward to attack. However, John makes it inside the building and slams the door closed.
John climbs some stairs and finds himself in a hall with two doors, one of which has no handle—an elevator door. He guesses that the gods must have used a magical incantation to open the door. He opens the other door and finds himself in a place of remarkable riches. The room is furnished with well-preserved chairs and colorful rugs, and decorated with paintings and sculpture—art far beyond anything John has seen before. There are also many books, some of which he cannot understand even though he has learned the language of the gods. He finds machines that the gods used for cooking and washing but concludes that the magic they require to function has long since run out. John still feels the presence of magic and spirits in the house, however, and he is tempted to leave the place and find somewhere else to sleep. In the end, he decides to stay, and he builds a fire in the main room’s fireplace.
During the night, John has a vision or a dream of the Place of the Gods as it existed before the Great Burning. In the rush of light and sound, he sees innumerable gods traveling along the streets on foot and in vehicles. He sees the bridges they have built and the tunnels they have dug, and he even sees them traveling through the air. According to John, ‘‘They were great, they were mighty, they were wonderful and terrible.’’ John sees that they had the potential to accomplish virtually anything, and that even though they made mistakes, their quest for knowledge moved them toward a more perfect, peaceful state.
Then John sees what brought the time of the gods to an end. The city is destroyed by fire raining from the sky and a poison mist. He watches as the gods disappear, and the buildings fall into ruin. However, he cannot understand why it has happened. When he wakes the next morning, he continues exploring home, looking answers. Instead he finds a dead god, sitting in a chair and looking through a large window out over the city. John determines that he had chosen not to leave the city when the Great Burning came. John comes at last to the realization that the gods were actually people.
He then journeys back home from the Place of the Gods, fending off attacks from wild dogs and Forest People along the way. However, his newfound wisdom keeps him from being afraid. When he reaches home, he tells his father what he has discovered. His father warns him that such knowledge needs to be offered to their people slowly and carefully. John agrees. Thinking of the fate of those who died in the Great Burning, he speculates, ‘‘Perhaps, in the old days, they ate knowledge too fast.’’
John begins traveling to the Dead Places not just for metal, but also in search of books and other artifacts that will provide them with the knowledge of the old ways. He vows that when he becomes the chief priest of his tribe, he will lead his people across the river Ou-dis-sun—familiar to readers as the Hudson River—and into the Place of the Gods, which, he reveals, is named ‘‘new-york.’’ There, he will show his people the statue of ASHING and the other ‘‘gods’’ whose names he encountered, such as Lincoln, Biltmore, and Moses. He concludes: ‘‘They were men who were here before us. We must build again.’’
Sara Constantakis – Short Stories for Students – Presenting Analysis, Context & Criticism on Commonly Studied Short Stories, vol. 31, Published by Gale Group, 2010