By Roman South
It was the month of Tammuz; Lord Shamash lingered vigilantly in the sky in those days, warming the skin with his solar radiance, leaving the dust so hot that one could not walk across it barefoot, but only dance to the next patch of shade with red toes and aching heels.
Kuri rested in the shade offered by the Dimtu-Tower, cooling his throat with water drawn from the old well, and ignoring the slightly earthy odour that bothered his nostrils when he lifted the cup to his lips. The shadow was growing longer and the day darker as it left the noon behind, but the breeze was weakening and offering less relief. He sighed with all the air in his chest; nothing ever went perfectly right in the forgotten village of Gina.
Today’s work had gone well enough; his repairs to the tower hadn’t immediately fallen to rubble, at least, and his labourers had only spent two-thirds of their time grumbling. He’d sent them away early, but did not yet have the energy himself to walk the path down the hill to home.
It was a surprise to see the wiry figure of the honey-tongued merchant Rimut coming up the slope towards him, followed by his Median servant, who was leading two very robust-looking cows by the nose.
“Shulmu!” Rimut called, and Kuri stood and returned the greeting.
He changed his assessment of the cattle as they came closer. Both were muddy– filthy, in fact, and their eyes and hooves were sore. There was a deep weariness in the way they held their heads.
“What’s this?” Kuri asked. “Did you find them in the river? Whose are they?”
“Oh, they’re mine, though they spent this morning among the reeds. I’m going to Nabu-kishir to sell them, actually. There’s a debt I need to repay. I don’t have much time, and I’m short several shekels.”
“I’d suggest you spend a few gesh dressing them up a bit better,” Kuri said, frowning. “You won’t get much for them in that state.”
“Time’s just what I don’t have,” Rimut said apologetically. “Say. You wouldn’t be interested, would you? I was going to try and sell them for seven, but… how about three shekels each? I am in a hurry, after all.”
“Oh, I don’t– just three?” That was remarkable. They looked like they’d be productive animals after some mildly improved treatment.
“You must be feeling kind today, Rimut.”
He gave Kuri a beneficent nod, and they made the deal.
Kuri was all smiles when he brought the cattle home. Anagalshu was sitting outside with their son, and they both watched him sceptically.
“I saw your workmen go past hours ago, Kuri,” she said. “Are you avoiding me?”
“Oh, I just had some small things to sort out. All is well.”
“Whose are these?” She asked, motioning to the cattle.
“They’re ours now. I bought them from Rimut, dirt cheap. It’s hard to judge their value at the moment– shall we go and wash them off?”
It was only two hundred paces to a pleasant and shaded spot by the stream. The cows stood knee-deep in the cool waters, enjoying the sensations of cleanliness spreading from their heads to their tails, which had begun to flick happily.
“It’s really caked on here,” said their son, scrubbing hard at a stubborn brown patch on one animal’s flank.
Anagalshu brought them a hard brush, and the job became ten times easier. Kuri was nearly done when he noticed a pale and hairless mark on the cow’s rear flank; he knit his brow and pressed his lips together as he worked to fully reveal it.
It was a branding mark– an eight-pointed star.
“They’re temple cows,” he breathed. “Of Ishtar of Uruk.”
He was faced by his wife’s furious and accusing gaze.
“I’ll take them back. I’ll do it now. Neither of you saw a thing, did you?”
But others had. Kuri had not exactly hidden them on his return home.
Loud, angry voices came from the direction of the village. Kuri glimpsed the flash of a spearpoint between the backs of the houses, and his stomach tied itself up with three different kinds of knot. Must be men from the temple.
He took the cows by their nose-leashes and splashed across the river, into the dust, taking the long way round towards the temple’s fields.
It was evening when he arrived, and he was breathing harder than he had done in years, with an unfashionable quantity of ruddy-coloured dust over his garments all the way up to his knees.
The temple herd had already been enclosed for the night, and there were men with torches wandering about around the wooden fences of the cattlepens and sheepfolds, perhaps to ensure that no thief could make a fool of the temple twice.
Nothing was ever made easy for him, was it? He muttered an urgent request to his personal god and goddess to show him how to get out of this one, while casting his gaze about for some place to hide these seven-times-regretted purchases where they’d only be found long after he’d left the scene.
There were a pair of small, abandoned buildings out on the edge of the temple’s land, each barely eight cubits tall and wide. Cautiously, he followed the boundary markers towards the shelter they offered, thanking a different deity with each step that he had not yet been noticed.
On the back of the first building he found a wooden loop, and he nearly broke out into relieved laughter at the sight of it. Carefully, he tied the cows up there, ensuring they had plenty of slack if they wanted to wander a little distance here or there, or if they felt inclined to lie down. He gave each
a gladdening scratch on the neck as he prepared to make his silent escape.
The second building, just twenty paces away, lit up from the inside. Someone had been watching, and now they had set their lamp aflame and would be coming for him.
A thin linen curtain hung across its doorway, thin enough to be translucent to the light, and something between lamp and fabric cast a human-shaped shadow there.
Hairs pricked up across his arms and his shoulders, his eyes widened, and his hands came involuntarily together across his chest.
“It wasn’t my fault,” he babbled. “I didn’t know what I was doing. I’ve brought them back now. Surely, I haven’t committed any great sin?”
The lamp swayed back and forth, making the shadow move darkly from one side of the curtain’s breadth to the other. Kuri wanted so badly to run, but his feet were fixed solidly to the ground.
“The gods saw me buy them from Rimut, ignorant and greedy man that I am. I’ll swear it before anyone you like. I’ll make amends for my wrongdoings. I’ll replace two cows with sixty. Please!”
As quickly as it had flashed into life, the lamp went out. Kuri was left standing in his own aura of fading terror, sweating and panting in the darkening night. His eyes slowly adjusted from the brightness of that artificial flame to the colder, whiter lights of the evening star that watched from the horizon and the remote, fixed stars of the upper air.
Kuri waited until morning to sneak home. After a night listening to the owls and frogs and his own breathing, he was shattered; if they were waiting outside his house, he would let them take him in without any argument. There was no fight left in his heart or his liver.
He was greeted by Anagalshu at the door; she threw her arms around him and told him off at length, pulling no punches and leaving no part of his dignity unharmed.
“The men from the temple were here for half the night, making a fuss, asking about you and making all sorts of threats,” she said. “But then someone came with the news that they’d found a body on the road near Nabu-kishir’s place. One of the priests recognised the man as one who had been seen leading two cattle away from the temple, and then they heard that the two cows had mysteriously turned up again.”
“So the case is closed?”
“It seems so.”
“Huh.” He slumped down against the wall, rubbing his brow with his left hand. “We’re alright, then. Mostly alright.”
“You’re covered in dust and your clothes are torn. There’s muck and leaves in your hair. You look like a real supplicant, Kuri.”
“It could be worse,” he said distractedly. “Six shekels. That’s what I’ve lost us.”
“Six shekels and a good night’s sleep, actually,” she told him. “Unless you found yourself a warm bed in the desert.”
“Just cold and misery, dear.”
“You’ll be lucky if you haven’t caught some sickness out there. Who knows what kinds of night-spirits might have been watching you?”
He didn’t know for sure; he just shrugged and smiled.