By Jacob Hanley
I sit muddy and broken. Chained and damaged in a small, dark, dry room. My only comfort a small hole drenched in light, opened by time in the roof above my head.
It wasn’t always like this.
I was young once, beautiful, skin smooth and eyes filled with the hopefulness that a woman of my station associates with a future filled with family and love. A brood of children running gleefully around the home, I’d smile and tend to them and know my duty had been fulfilled.
Unlike my friends and cousins, I didn’t ask for much, I didn’t require a great deal just normality. The life my parents lived would have be enough. Expensive fabrics, slaves, chattel, fine wines and silver had never interested me. I just wanted a full belly, a warm bed and family.
I was surprised when father, a successful merchant, presented me to a priest. I was to marry his son. The date had been set, the contract drawn, the gifts presented, and the dowry and bridal price paid.
I’d heard stories as a growing girl. Stories of cruelty, of pain sung softly around the roasting pits and ovens. Tales of struggle and malice hummed quietly by slaves and serving girls. Stories of blood, of discomfort. Maybe I was too young to truly understand but when my time came, I knew I would feel not fear nor would I waiver, I was ready.
He stood tall and proud; his eyes conveyed a kindness not seen in most men, a sweetness if you will. He veiled me and held my hand and claimed me as his wife.
My happiest memory.
That night, although painful he treated me with tenderness. Each night following, week after month after year, kindness and love, gifts and praise, kisses and closeness yet Enki, Enlil and An have seen fit not to bless me with child.
The women of the city, women I once called friends, once jealous of my happiness looked on and smiled and wished well but whispered and jeered and mocked my shame. I can hear their whispers, crude and cruel they float into this dark cell even now. “How sad must the father be? She’s only half a woman. How can she live with her shame?”.
My Husband knew a man spiraling deeper and deeper into debt, a friend of his father. He had a daughter. Her long silky hair when hit with warm rays of mid-morning sun tinted with a hint of purple. She was petit and young and bore a smile uniquely able to captivate with an ease I could never muster.
He looked upon this girl in a way I hadn’t seen since our first night. The nights we spent together lessened. I would hear faint pleasurable moans and hushed laughter radiating from her chambers and would clench my fists, nails bit hard into palm and I’d howl as quietly as I could.
This child, her child, my child… I looked upon it with love, but a voice crept cautiously along the sun-baked bricks and slid maliciously into my ear “An Udug demon sent from Nergal, God of death, pestilence and plague will bring only these three horrors to the world.” A seed which once planted can prove impossible to weed.
I’d prayed daily to Ninhursag for fertility and Inanna for the power and strength I needed but I’d been tricked. The gods fickle in their promises have cursed me, they test me, to see if have the strength needed to make my home whole again.
His son, my son, her son grew quickly, strengthening with each passing day. As was custom, the child was legally mine, so I tried to love it, to hold it and to treat it with compassion but how am I able to show a demon tenderness? When I look deep into its eyes, I see nothing but the darkness instilled by Nergal, the plague and the suffering yet to come.
With each day my conviction grew, he a demon and her a vessel for evil. I tried my best to explain the darkness they would bring, the evil inside them both but he brushed it off as ramblings and has grown further distant with each attempt. Is my body no longer to his liking? She’s bewitched him! Gifted him a demon hidden within human flesh, taken his eye and placed it upon her nakedness.
Nanshe visits me in dreams and shows me visions of the future. My son, his son, her son would grow as tall as a tree, as wide as the river and consume. He would grow and bellow and burn and blanket the world in darkness.
Morning came and I walked sleepily to the river at the edge of the city. I kneeled down and submerged my hands in the crisp cold water. A large carp floated a short distance away, bubbles rose, steam fizzed the water and the Carp transformed into a man.
He told me his name was Enki, his beard was long and neat and he wore a small horned cap. I was to bow and bask in his greatness. He told me the child and the Harlot mustn’t be allowed to plague this land or darkness with envelope the heavens and the earth!
I walked back to the house, pride compounding each step with a newfound sense of purpose, the gods themselves have chosen me to undertake the holiest of quests.
She sat, this harlot, this usurper, this demon’s acolyte still and patient on the hard earth floor and held the child in her arms. She smiled at me, the insincerity of it strengthened my resolve and reinforced my calling.
I caressed her hair and thanked her, distracted her and held her eyes with mine. I unsheathed a long sharp knife from my woolen belt and drove it under her chin and up into her head.
She gargled and coughed and choked on the blood but not for long.
Day turned slowly to evening and my husband returned from his usual long day working at the temple.
I greeted him knife in hand. Blood drenched my skirt and shawl. I held the child, lifeless and limp, neck split from ear to ear and presented it to him. My gift to my love.
So much pain nestled itself within his screams. He took the child from me, held it close and cried.
‘But I’ve saved us’ I didn’t understand why he couldn’t see that. The crisis had been averted and the darkness had been washed away with the light of my actions.
A harrowing feeling sunk deep into my stomach. Two questions burned at the forefront of my mind. If this was the right thing to do… Why does seeing him in so much pain hurt so much? Has Enki, god of trickery and mischief played one on me? No. He can’t have…
They came for me, the men of Sumer. Armed and angry and hate filled they dragged me away, beat me, maimed me and condemned me to die for saving them. A cruel twist of fate. Have the gods abandoned me? Cast me aside? Bidding done and now forgotten.
My cries of innocence, of righteousness, of perseverance in the face of evil fell on deaf ears.
I prayed for salvation, for savior, for Anzû the divine storm-bird of the southern winds to swoop down, destroy the walls of my captivity and take me to An’s kingdom. To an immortality spent dining with the gods. I heard nothing, only the chilling screams of other prisoners, whips against flesh, the scraping of metal and the crying of those soon to reside within Nergal’s domain.
His child, her child, my child… Gone.
Now I sit muddy and broken. Chained and damaged in a small, dark, dry room. I await my fate brazen with the knowledge that my martyrdom, although rewarded with torture on earth shall be sung about for generations to come in the kingdom of the gods.
I shall not fear. I shall not waiver… I am ready.