The Ruricolist is now available in print.

The Black Taj

The professor only smiled, and lifted what was not a box, but a cover. Beneath was a small, round, red carving. The student leaned a little closer. It was a stylized carving of a turtle. There were black and white spots on its back. “What does this have to do with architecture?”

“Tell me what you see.”

“I see a turtle.”

“That’s all?” The professor sighed. “Nothing else?”

The student thought it over. “It’s Chinese. I’ve seen Chinese carvings that looked like that. Made of – whatever that is – the same stuff.”

“And that stuff is?”

“How would I know.” It wasn’t a question.

“Cinnabar. It’s cinnabar, do you know cinnabar?”

“As in cookies?”

The professor looked pained. “No, it’s an ore. Mercury ore. It’s very important – cinnabar means a great deal to some people. So does mercury. And the spots. Do they mean anything to you?”

“Black and white. Some sort of yin-yang thing, maybe?”

“Black and white, yes. Slate and shell if you look closer. The pattern – that’s a double quincunx. Five and five make eight.” The professor stared across the table.

“What? I don’t get it! I study architecture – why would I know any of this? You said this would help me. You said I had to know this. How is a Chinese figurine going to make me a better architect?”

The professor flipped the turtle over. As it rocked back and forth light flashed over the smooth black that covered its underside.

“What is that?”

“It’s a lens.”

The student looked closer. “But it’s opaque. It’s obsidian.” A small victory.

“Yes. But you need the right kind of light. What do you know about the Taj Mahal?”

“A lot, I’ve been there.”

“Good. Then you’ve heard of the Black Taj?”

“I’ve heard of it. It’s a story for tourists.”

“And weren’t you a tourist?”

The student snorted. “Not that kind of tourist.”

“Do you know how the story began?” The professor waited, but the student did not answer. “A traveler’s letters. He wrote Shah Jahan would have built a Black Taj for himself, but he died too soon, and his son abandoned the project.”

“There never was a Black Taj. They’ve checked. No foundation, no black marble lying around.”

“There is another version of the story.” The professor gestured at the dim bookcase behind them. “It was in a manuscript by a Sufi poet of the time. Though he wrote Hindu poems as well. A wise poet. A little-known poet. But that’s the same thing.”

“And this has something to do with the Taj Mahal?” The student pointed at the turtle.

“It does.” The professor turned it back over. “Would you like to hear that story?”

“If there’s a point…”

“There’s a point.” The professor leaned back.

Why am I thinking of Sunday School?

“The story goes,” the professor began, “that Shah Jahan had promised Mumtaz Mahal two tombs. One for each of them. He was desperate to build the second. But the first one had taken so long, and been so expensive, and his son would not promise to finish the second. He agonized. Sleepless nights. Pacing the hall. He threw tantrums. Finally he decided that what he needed was – well, a consultant.”


“A consultant. Someone from outside. Someone who could get things back on schedule. He did a lot of interviews. Wise men, roving worthies. Indian mystics. Europeans with blueprints. But the one he chose came from China. A Chinese sorceror. He promised he could not only build it faster, he could hide it.”

“How do you hide a Taj Mahal?”

“Inside another Taj Mahal, of course. He promised a Black Taj that would be enfolded by the White Taj, ‘as sound folds silence.’ In the poet’s phrase.”

The student kept silent.

“For many years,” the professor picked up, “black marble was brought to the Taj by night, and the sorceror’s servants – some of them other Chinese who never spoke to strangers by daylight, and some that were never seen by daylight at all – they carried the black marble through the doors of the Taj. When they were done, when it was finished, the sorceror gave Shah Jahan the only way to see the Black Taj: a black lens, a dark mirror, that would show the hidden tomb inside the one that could be seen. Beyond the reach of his son’s greed, the Shah could be buried at the same time in his own tomb, and buried beside his beloved in her tomb.”

The student looked away and back. “OK. I like that. That’s cool. Stretching my mind, right? A new perspective? So I should think about buildings inside buildings. Like multiple uses, right? Like, an office tower is one building for the executives, and one for the janitors, and they have to fit inside each other. That’s a–”

“That’s a good observation, but that’s not what you should be getting from this. This isn’t a lesson.” The professor put a hand over the turtle. “I’m trusting you with something here. This isn’t a toy. It’s valuable. How valuable I can’t tell you. I sold, I borrowed… I could only afford it it because nobody else knows about it.”


“Listen, please. The sorceror made the mirror for the Black Taj. Shah Jahan used it, he was satisfied with it, but he had the sorceror and his servants surprised one night and killed so nobody else would know about it. He wanted the mirror buried with him. His son couldn’t prevent him from building the Black Taj, but he could at least frustrate his last wishes. After the overthrow, he kept the mirror. And the poet he brought to court and showed it to found out that it doesn’t just work on the Taj. It’s doesn’t work on every building but it works on a lot of them. Just the best ones, the ones with souls.

“This is what I’m trying to show you. Every building that has a soul, has as its soul another building, a Black Taj. Some other building that stood in the same spot. Some earlier state of the building – before a renovation or reconstruction, or a flood or a fire or a collapse. Sometimes even a completely different building, the one that could or should have been built but wasn’t – the one the architect really meant or another architect came up with and people didn’t want… just one that’s better.”

The student blinked and gaped for a moment. “So… how? How come you had to pay so much for the mirror, if nobody else knew what it was?”

“What? You care about that?”

“I’m trying to get my head around this.” I trusted you!

“All right. We’ll take this slowly.”

“You mean there’s more.”

“A lot more.” The professor held the turtle out, mirror-up. “You can see the mirror’s round, yes? And the cinnabar holds it in. It goes under the edge here, see? Now this is one piece of cinnabar. And the mirror’s in one piece. So how’d it get in there?”

“There’s some trick. Like, I’ve seen it done with quarters and blocks of wood. You drill a hole and stick it in and let the wood grow back over it.”

“That’s right. Good. But cinnabar doesn’t grow.”

“So it’s impossible.”

“I wouldn’t say impossible. It’s Chinese.”

“So, you look through this and you see imaginary buildings?”

“/Secret/ buildings. And it does more than that. Have you ever thought about why a good God lets bad things happen?”

“I’m an atheist.”

“Not somebody else’s god, your god. Think about ants. If everything were good for people but ants still had to suffer – say, if people stepped on them – would that be wrong?”

“It depends. I guess not.”

“Right. So keep going. God is good, we suffer, so…”

“So what?”

“So we’re ants. Something else is above us. But what’s above us?” The professor looked around. “/Buildings/ are above us. Buildings are around us. Buildings are real. Realer than we are. We make them, but only like cells make us. Buildings are the real inhabitants of God’s universe. And least, they’re closer to it than we are. They’re the real images of God. The real angels and devils – the real gods. They rule our lives. They hold us in their bellies.”

“And the mirror…?”

“The mirror shows them for what they are.”

“So what do you want from me?”

“You’re the best student I ever had. You could be one of the best. But first you have to see the truth. You need to understand your calling, your place. You are not a shelterer of ants. You are a creator of gods.”

The student sat still, waiting. Waiting for the turn, the punch line, the explanation. None came. There was just the mirror.