I can't remember if the boy and the man are father and son or perhaps teacher and student. I seem to remember that the boy is in training to be a kind of priest, and that this is why he is being shown these ancient relics. They walk among the artefacts of the 'ancient ones', seeing things like taps for hot and cold water, and the boy marvels at the magic their ancestors must have had to summon hot and cold water at the blink of an eye. These and other objects gradually make it clear to the reader that these are the technologies of our current world, and that some great calamity killed off most of our population and regressed civilisation back to Biblical times.

I read this short story in AP English Literature class in US high school.


1 Answer 1


I am convinced that this is By the Waters of Babylon by Stephen Vincent Benet, a 1937 post-apocalyptic science fiction short story.

The story involves a father and son ("My father is a priest; I am the son of a priest. I have been in the Dead Places near us, with my father—at first, I was afraid."), with the boy traveling "to the Place of the Gods—the place newyork [sic]", a post-apocalyptic Big Apple.

The father (per the above quote) is explicitly stated to be a priest, and it is implied that the son is in training for the priesthood.

The forbidden "Place of the Gods" lies across a river from the protagonist's home, which is to the west, implying that they may live in present-day New Jersey or Pennsylvania ("It is forbidden to travel east. It is forbidden to cross the river. It is forbidden to go to the Place of the Gods."). Considering that the boy identifies his tribe as the "Hill People" and that it is "eight suns' journey" to the forbidden place, a home in Appalachian Pennsylvania or upstate New York seems plausible.

The boy encounters many things that he does not understand but that a 20th century reader would,

There was also the shattered image of a man or a god. 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. I thought it wise to pray to ASHING, though I do not know that god.

The boy wonders if this is a statue of a god, but we know that it is actually a patriotic statue of George Washington, an 18th century US politician who was known for wearing his hair in a ponytail.

Hot and cold water taps are explicitly mentioned:

All these things were magic, but I touched them and lived—the magic had gone out of them. Let me tell one thing to show. In the washing-place, a thing said "Hot" but it was not hot to the touch—another thing said "Cold" but it was not cold. This must have been a strong magic but the magic was gone. I do not understand—they had ways—I wish that I knew.

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    There are quite a few hills in northern New Jersey, fairly close to the Hudson and New York City.
    – Peter Shor
    Commented Apr 28, 2022 at 13:51
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    @PeterShor perhaps, but the standard understanding today seems to be that an average, reasonably physicially-fit person can walk 20-30 miles per day. Eight days west of NYC at 20 miles a day puts one firmly in eastern PA somewhere near Allentown/Bethlehem and definitely out of the NYC metro area. Commented Apr 28, 2022 at 13:56
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    20–30 miles a day may be a bit much if you're walking through mountainous terrain. But yes, somewhere in the mountains of western New Jersey/eastern Pennsylvania seems to be a very likely location.
    – Peter Shor
    Commented Apr 28, 2022 at 14:05
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    This is it! Thank you so much, this has been bothering me for years!!! Commented Apr 28, 2022 at 14:59
  • From the title I was hoping it was The Gunslinger, when they find the ruins of an amusement park. Roland says we don't know what it is. The kid says, yeah no, it was an amusement park.
    – Mazura
    Commented Apr 30, 2022 at 1:22

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