We knew he was from the city, this stranger who appeared in our midst. My father thought he might be a tax collector, but no high official would have entered our village alone and on foot, tunic and sandals begrimed from the road. The man stood in the centre of the square, swaying slightly. He looked this way and that, eyes darting like a bird without a branch to settle on.
It fell to my father, as headman, to deal with him. As he approached, the outsider reared back, as if expecting a blow. My father extended a hand, but the man sank to his knees and clutched at his feet instead.
“I ask for aid, for succour,” he cried.
My father raised the stranger up and led him to our doorway, talking to him all the while in the low, gentle tones that he employs when coaxing a stray sheep back to the flock. As they crossed the threshold, he gave me a pointed look. I knew what it meant. I have been a widow for some time now, and people have started to mutter. The men of the village are not to my liking; I have the same fellow-feeling for them that a whelp has for its litter mates, but none of them would suit me as a spouse. My father has started to look farther afield, but without much zeal, for he is loath to lose me. This outsider might afford him the fulfillment of a double duty: to provide shelter to one who seeks it, and to furnish his daughter with a husband.
“Our guest is Namtar, son of Haya. He is a scribe and he brings news of the city, but that can wait. Attend to him first.” As my mother and I hastened to obey my father’s command, I watched the stranger out of the tail of my eye. Weary and dishevelled though he was, he was young and not uncomely. I am as shrewd as my sire and bold when I need to be, so when I handed him his mug of beer, I let my fingers rest against his for a moment. His palm was hard and callused, not soft as I had imagined. I would have pressed his hand again, had he not snatched it back.
We hung back as our guest fell upon his food. My mother is used to bustle and cheer at table, so when she could endure the silence no more, she spoke. “Is there trouble in the city, son?”
The man looked up. “Trouble?” He let out a laugh, a harsh, terrible sound like the bark of a dog. “The city’s fallen.”
We looked at the stranger, then at each other. How could the city fall? The city was something eternal, like the sun or the gods. As our murmurs rose, my father lifted a hand to check us. “We will speak of this further, but not now.”
For ten days, Namtar was treated as an honoured guest. He spent much of that time cloistered with my father. I was not privy to their talk, but it must have been decided that the scribe would stay. He was put to work with the men, but, city-bred as he was, he could not match them in their tasks. The plough wavered in his hands; the axe, in his grip, would not hit its mark. Finally, he was sent to serve among us women. If he found this humiliating, he did not show it. He shadowed us as we baked bread and brewed beer, fetching and carrying as he was bid. I think he would have even tried his hand at weaving, had my mother not outright forbidden it.
We seldom see a new face in the village, and I quickly learned that I had rivals. Nin fixed her great ox eyes on him, while Asharru never missed a chance to let her sleeve brush against his. These advances made Namtar blush and turn aside, which the men found amusing.
“Tell me, Namtar, are all the men of the city as modest as maidens?” Enmul asked this while lounging against the grain house.
His friend Luga laughed in response, while his gaze roved over Nin and me. “There aren’t any modest maidens in these parts.”
Indeed, all Namtar’s eccentricities were put down to him being from the city. Namtar would not strip off his tunic, even when the sun fell upon him like a scourge. Nor would he bathe in the river; he washed in a shadowed alcove of our house, using a basin and ewer that my mother had supplied. When they learned of this, people shrugged and said, “Namtar is a city man. His ways are not our ways.”
I would not say that he sought me out, but he preferred me to the other women. I was older and less giddy, and perhaps that pleased him. His heart did not truly turn to me, though, until he heard my stories.
I am not the only storyteller in the village, but I am the most esteemed. I speak of the gods, as all tale-spinners do, but I draw them close as no one else can. On the day that I won Namtar’s favour, I was recounting, to the gathered crowd in the square, a quarrel between Enki and Ninhursag. When I spoke of those high, unfathomable ones, I clothed them in the aspect of Enmerkar, the oldest man in the village, and Shiptu, his worthy spouse. By word and gesture, I imbued the god with Enmerkar’s self-importance and occasional bewilderment, and to the goddess, I gave Shiptu’s sharp tongue and soft heart.
A ripple of mirth moved over the listeners, Namtar among them. At dinner that night, I felt his eyes upon me. He had always regarded me with kindness, but now there was something new in his gaze—interest, perhaps even respect.
The next day, he waylaid me as I was running an errand for my mother. “Lady Elutil, if you would permit me, I can teach you to write.”
“Writing isn’t for women.” I don’t know where I came by that notion. Everyone knows ploughing is for men and weaving is for women, but what did I know of the scribe’s art?
Namtar smiled. “Not so. Words belong to women just as they do to men.”
We arranged to meet by the water. When I arrived, Namtar was waiting for me beneath the shade of a cypress tree. He had plucked two reeds from the riverbank; one, he held out to me. “This is to be our tool.”
He began tracing lines in the sand while I watched. As he worked, I came to the realization that the writing instrument was his plough, his shepherd’s crook. How painful it must be, to have fetched up in a place that had no use for his gifts.
Once he had made ten signs, he straightened and bade me copy them. He would not name them until I had produced a reasonable facsimile of each one. Some of the meanings were easy enough to discern from the shapes—the sign for mountain was a set of jagged lines, the sign for star a dot with spokes radiating out from it—but others were beyond my grasp.
Namtar was not content until I could reproduce the original signs perfectly. He only allowed me respite when no difference between his work and mine could be discerned. He smiled as I bade him farewell. “A good start, Lady Elutil. Shall we meet again tomorrow?”
And so my tutelage began. We met almost every day, only abstaining when my duties called me elsewhere or heavy rain turned the sand of the riverbank to sludge. At first, we talked of little but the signs during these lessons, but our conversation soon ranged farther afield.
I must admit that Namtar listened more than he spoke. In spite of our growing familiarity, he was still close-mouthed, not given to the sharing of confidences. He lent his ear attentively when I spoke of my childhood and laughed when I regaled him with stories, but he would offer nothing himself.
I was patient. I tried to draw him out, but I didn’t press. On one occasion, I asked him about the illustrious personages he must surely have known in the city. I expected he would tell me about great lords and ladies, perhaps even the king himself, so his answer surprised me.
“I knew a woman scribe once. The daughter of my head teacher. Her name was Gemenanna.”
The blood rose in his cheeks as he spoke. Nin or Asharru would have feigned a fit of jealous pique, but I knew better. I said nothing, content in the knowledge that I had opened a door for him, and when he wished, he would walk through it.
My lessons continued apace, but, in time, I came to the gloomy certainty that I would never master the signs as Namtar had. There were too many of them; my head couldn’t hold them all. Namtar could sense that I was struggling to keep abreast. “Don’t be disheartened, Lady Elutil. I was much younger than you when I went to the scribe house. The younger you are, the easier it is to learn.”
I was glad of the distraction. “How old were you?”
“Seven. Old enough not to need my mother, but not so old that I didn’t want her.”
I remained silent. It seemed cruel for city folk to send their children away so young. True, our boys and girls are set to work at much the same age, but they are always in sight and underfoot.
Namtar continued. “We made the signs on clay. That works better than sand.”
I could see why. Clay is hard and enduring, sand is not. It was no wonder that the signs were impressed on Namtar’s mind, while they could find but little purchase in mine.
“We would copy the same sign over and over, hundreds of times. Those were long days indeed! When we were done, we gave our tablets to our father and elder brother.”
My bewilderment must have shown on my face. “Father and elder brother?”
“The head teacher and his assistant. They checked our work over for mistakes.”
“And what happened if they found them?”
“They beat us.”
I was stricken. I had thought city life soft and easeful, but apparently it was not so. Namtar touched my hand, as if to comfort me. “Do not fret, Lady Elutil. I’m grateful for my training, hard as it was. In the city, we had a saying about the scribe house: ‘He who enters it is blind; he who leaves it can see’.”
I cannot say precisely when Namtar became my wooer. Perhaps it was when he began addressing me as Elutil, without affixing an honorific before my name. Perhaps it was when he scratched out the words, You are honey-sweet, in the sand.
I did not copy the signs, as was our wont. For the first time, I wrote something new. As are you.
In courting me, Namtar did not cease to act as my tutor. When he wrote, You are my apple, my doe; I seek you in the orchard, in the thicket, my delight, and his, lay as much in my comprehension of the words as it did in the words themselves.
When Namtar proposed that we wed, though, he employed a mere three signs, ones he had taught me as a novice. Man, woman, and home: their meaning so bare and stark, even a child could have apprehended them. I am no child, I am a woman who has been espoused before, and my answer was assured.
All that remained was for us to receive my father’s blessing. To my surprise, it was not given unconditionally. My father had pressed for the match, but he demanded that Namtar prove himself before offering up my hand.
The opportunity came the next market day. Enmul and Luga, friends though they are, had a dispute over a bushel of wheat and a brace of piglets. Their voices floated over the crowd, and they almost came to blows. Finally, they were compelled to appear before my father. Namtar sat in the corner, seeming to fiddle with a knife that my mother had lent him. No one paid him any mind until he spoke.
“Brothers, let me help.” He held up two scraps of bark, each of which bore a single crude sign, repeated over again: twelve bundles of wheat, half a dozen piglets. “When you make a trade, exchange these as well. That way, there can be no mistake.”
Luga came forward and took the bark. He understood its import at once. Enmul, more hotheaded than his friend and less quick of mind, was harder to convince, but in the end, even he was brought around.
Under the eye of my father, Namtar and I sat together and devised a set of signs for the village’s use. I myself conceived the sign for fish: a plump oval with two slantwise lines to signify the tail. It fell to me, too, to convince our neighbours of this new practice; some took to it right away, others were suspicious, but, under my father’s directive, the signs were adopted by all.
It took some time for the benefits to show. A less astute man might not even have noticed, but nothing escapes my father’s attention. When agreements are sealed with a smile or a clap on the shoulder, profit can dribble away, but Namtar’s markings held the village’s wealth as snug as a wineskin. One evening, my father remarked, “My son-in-law will make us rich.”
Everyone turned out for our wedding. No one wished us ill, not even Nin and Asharru. In the general round of carousing, before we were to receive my father’s blessing and retire to bed, Namtar sought me out and caught my hands. His voice was low, urgent. “Elutil, I will strive to be a good husband to you. I ask of you only one thing. You must not look upon me unclothed, either by night or by day. I cannot explain why, but it must be so.”
I gave my assent readily enough. Another woman might have suspected something, perhaps that her husband was cursed or else monstrously misshapen, but I trusted that he had not played me false.
A new house had been erected for us. My mother had insisted on it; a married woman cannot reside under her parents’ roof, she said. Twilight was coming on when Namtar led me to it. Beneath the stars, he removed the cylinder-shaped pendant that he wore around his neck and rolled it against the newly daubed clay. I had thought it a mere ornament, but I saw now that it bore my husband’s name. I scratched the characters of my own name beside his with a fingernail, then we went in.
The marriage bed is not new to me, and I was ready for him. In deference to his request, I closed my eyes and let my hands play against his back. His flesh was strangely ridged beneath my palms. He said that he had been beaten, but surely his instructors wouldn’t have left scars on the son of a wealthy family? I didn’t ask him; it was his secret to keep.
As I drifted off to sleep, with Namtar curled around me, I fell into a curious dream.
I was in the scribe house. The light was slanting through the narrow windows, and I saw, to my horror, the mistake I had made in my exercises, repeated on every row. My elder brother was beside me; he took up the tablet. I expected a flick on the ear, or worse, a blow from the cane, but he handed it back with a smile. “Keep at it, Namtar. You’ll learn in time.”
We were well suited as husband and wife, so people said. I was eloquent, he taciturn; I spoke words, he wrote them. Spouses come to understand each other even without speech, and so it was with us. We had an additional source of closeness, too; after we lay together, in my dreams, I slipped into his skin. I saw the scribe Gemenanna through his eyes, tall and graceful, the only girl in a sea of boys. I wondered if, in his own dreams, he ever wore my face.
I had every intention of keeping my promise; indeed, I did keep it for the greater part of a year. If I were to weave a story, I would tell of a wife afflicted with insatiable, burning curiosity, a wife determined to flush out her husband’s secrets, but it was not so. I simply burst in on him without thinking while he was performing his morning ablutions.
I stopped short. My husband was stripped to the waist, and there were words on his skin.
I thought he must have been burned or scarified in some way, but as I moved closer I saw that the characters lay beneath his flesh, not upon it. What is more, they moved. They rippled and heaved, came together and broke apart.
I laid my hand on his chest—
And then I understood.
That evening, I gathered everyone together. They all thought I had a new story to tell, and so I did, but it would be like nothing they had heard before.
I started with the city at the height of its splendour. I spoke of the narrow, crooked alleys, and how they would open onto a vista of unexpected loveliness—a walled garden, a broad gracious boulevard, a gleaming canal. I spoke of the market, piled high with goods of every shape and description—lapis lazuli and carnelian, cedar and incense, hailing from all four cardinal directions. I spoke of the ziggurat and the palace, home to gods and kings. On festival days, imperial officials would stroll in the streets, their wives and daughters by their sides. Beer and wine flowed freely; the torches wouldn’t be extinguished until dawn.
And then I spoke of the end.
It began with weevils in the granary. They ate up a quarter of the store and burrowed their way into the rest, so that the bread was dotted with their casings. With hunger came illness; a fever erupted in the weavers’ quarters and spread outwards like a flame fed by kindling, consuming young and old alike.
The auguries flowed thick and fast after that. A blood moon hung in the sky, squat and malevolent, portending evil. The ground rumbled and juddered like some great beast beginning to stir. Finally, it gave way in places, enveloping buildings and trees and the occasional hapless citizen. The skies opened and torrential rains fell, churning the streets into mud. The harbour boiled and overflowed.
Nor was this disturbance confined to the heavens and the earth. A spirit of crookedness and dissention invaded the humblest of homes. Mothers and fathers waxed tyrannical, children grew fretful and peevish. Servants cheated masters; masters smote servants. The king himself should have put this trouble down, but his own household was afflicted. A concubine attempted to stage a coup and install her son on the throne. She failed, of course; the times might have been disordered, but the king was still in command of himself. The incident merited barely a line or two in the official chronicles. In the scribes’ account, there was no mention of what a bloody business it was—the woman was cut down in her bath, her son cornered and butchered like an animal. The scribes also neglected to mention that the young man had been keen and far-sighted, not mired in complacency like his father. Perhaps with him at the helm, the city might have survived.
As my tale unfolded, I could see that the end had not come all at once. Rather, the city was like an earthenware jug; one day, a crack appeared in it, thin as a spider’s thread. Another crack followed, then another, until, seemingly without warning, the jug broke apart.
When the invaders encamped outside the city walls, it came almost as a relief. The city’s denizens knew that their fate was soon to be decided, for good or ill. People spoke of the outsiders in the same way that they might have remarked on fluctuations in the price of grain. There was speculation as to their size and complexion, whether they were dwarfish or colossal, dark or fair. It was only when they broke through the city’s defences that it was revealed that those without and those within were much the same—lean, spare, with oval faces and black hair.
When foes look like they could be cousins or brothers, the most stalwart heart can falter. The city’s defenders laid down their arms instead of fighting to the death, as they had once sworn. For their part, the conquerors were inclined to show mercy. Rather than being put to the sword, a good many of the vanquished were allowed to leave. They exited the city in streams, with nothing but the clothes on their backs, in penury and disgrace, but with the breath of life still within them. My husband was among their number.
When I finished speaking, nobody stirred. When I glanced over at Namtar, tears were standing in his eyes, but dusk was coming on, and no one saw them but me.
That night, he allowed me to remove his tunic. The striations that had once covered him were gone, leaving his skin as unblemished as a newborn babe’s. I had expected nothing less; I had taken his words into myself, and then I had sent them out into the world again.
There were but a few marks left, forming a cicatrix at the base of his throat. I knew what the scar meant. It was the token of a memory that I would share with no one. My fingers shrank from it, but, as if in assurance of his faith in me, Namtar grasped my hand and guided it to his breast.
I was before the city walls, among those who would be permitted to go. Gemenanna was beside me, but she was not of our company. Scribes were still needed in the city, and a female scribe was a novelty that the new ruler would not part with. I knew this was to be our leave-taking. I knelt, and she passed her hand over me in benediction. As her lips moved, I could feel the words sprout up within me, pressing against the underside of my skin as if eager to escape. “Tell them of us,” Gemenanna commanded. “Tell them of the city, my love.”
I hope I have proven a worthy vessel for my husband’s tale. He will never be a man much given to levity, but since he passed the story of the city’s fall on to me, he seems lighter, less burdened. He is quicker to speak, and he has taken to sitting with the other men as evening slides into night. My father claims they are discussing important village business on these occasions, but I know they are indulging in idle chat as they pass a beer mug from hand to hand.
I have not recited the scribe’s lament again. It is too precious for constant airing; like festival clothes, it is to be packed away and brought out only once a year. And yet it resides within me. I live, now, with the certainty that all things meet their end. The stars might fall, streaking, from the sky; the gods themselves might cease to be. This knowledge might have brought despair, but instead it has lent me a strange sort of calm. I will never again experience the heedless gaiety of my girlhood, but I have won a deeper peace.
I have been quickened by more than just my husband’s words. I am with child by him. When I told Namtar that he was to be a father, he didn’t let out a whoop, as a village man might have. He embraced me and kissed my hands. That night, as he lay beside me, he asked that if we have a daughter, she might be named Gemenanna. His voice was barely raised above a whisper, as if he knew that he asked for too much. I agreed, nevertheless. Perhaps I should be jealous, but I am not.
Boy or girl, I vow that our child will be taught to write.
Story copyright © 2022 by Bindia Persaud
Artwork copyright © 2022 by Kat Weaver
Bindia Persaud was born in Georgetown, Guyana, grew up in the north of England, and now resides in Ontario, Canada. Her work has appeared in, among others, Gone Lawn, The Colored Lens, Humanagerie, and is forthcoming in Chromophobia. She is interested in the intersections where myth and reality meet.
Kat Weaver is an artist who sometimes writes and a writer who sometimes makes art. Her written work has been published by Neon Hemlock Press, Timeworn Literary Journal, Lackington’s, and elsewhere. She is currently one of the Senior Fiction Editors at Strange Horizons. In addition to previous issues of Lackington’s, her illustrations can be found in Metaphorosis, the World Fantasy Award-winning She Walks in Shadows anthology, and Crossed Genres: Hidden Youth. She lives in Saint Paul, Minnesota with her wife and their two birds.