Sunday, 6 December 2020

The Rose Garden


Okay, I realise the last excerpt was a little bit murdery. I would like to prove to people that this is not my only writing style. My default, yes, but not my only one. 

Most of the book is not that. 

The MS has flown past 30k now, so here's a chapter introducing Baby Sargon. He's like Baby Yoda, but with a slightly healthier complexion and smaller ears.

I made the mistake of titling this chapter The Rose Garden, and now I can't get Lynn Anderson out of my head.

It's an issue.

Anyway, as ever with a work in progress, this is rough as a pair of Dura-Gold pants.



The Rose Garden


Akki reclined on a leather cushion beneath the wide branches of a hawthorn. Its delicate petals peppered the ground, lending a sweet fragrance to the afternoon. Little Apsu stood a few feet away, unsteady on his young legs. He was peering into a pail of freshly drawn water that Akki had lifted from the well. After laughing at his own reflection, he dipped his tiny bucket into the pail and tottered off amidst the flowers. He spilt more of the water down his tunic than he did over the plants, but the look of joy on his face prevented Akki from interfering.

It had been five years since he had found the boy sealed inside that casket, caked in his own waste. The next morning, a girl had returned the child to him when he woke, along with three skins of fresh milk for the journey home. Zilittu had disappeared with the morning mist, and he could not find her to thank her.

Leaving Sepu to begin preparations for the work, he strapped the boy to his chest and climbed aboard his cart. It had two wheels and two donkeys, and swayed nervously whenever it hit a rock, but it was still a little faster than walking. Each time the child became restless, he stopped to feed it or to hold it gently beneath each arm whilst it watered the earth. As the high walls of Kish came into view, the boy began to wriggle and kick. His tiny face wrinkled and Akki thought he might scream, but he settled again as they passed below the archway, a woollen shawl hiding him from view.

“Welcome back, sheshama,” one of the guards greeted him. “How was your trip?”

“Very productive,” Akki replied, touching his hand to his nose in greeting. He felt bad that he had not stopped to speak with the guard, who was a distant cousin of his wife’s, but the child needed a quiet place to rest, and so did he.

They took the back streets, avoiding Temple Square with its busy market, and turned onto a quiet track that wound through the date groves. Most of the trees had already been harvested, so he loosened the reins, allowing his donkeys to eat of the forgotten fruit that had escaped the women’s baskets.

It was cool beneath the palms and Akki was pleased to see that the boy had fallen back to sleep. The road they were on led to a fine summer palace that belonged to Puzur-Suen, the King of Kish, but they turned off some way before that. His own modest estate lay on the edge of the king’s grounds. He had dug many of the irrigation ditches for the palace himself, and the plentiful supply of water allowed Akki to grow beautiful gardens. His wife, Kasiru, had a fondness for roses, so he had devoted an entire garden to them. In the evenings, they would sit in that garden, sipping sweet wine and breathing in the heady scent of the buds. Sometimes they spent the entire night there, making love until the horizon turned as pink as petals.

They had not yet been married a year when he returned from the village with the boy. Kasiru ran out to greet him, but stopped when she saw what he carried. The child did not wake as she came forward to study him, nor did he wake as she lifted her questioning eyes to Akki.

“What is this you bring me?” she asked.

“It is a long story,” he replied, stroking her cheek. “May I wash, and explain once the wine is poured?”

She nodded, though her frown followed him into the house.

Five years, he repeated to himself. Five years that had flown by like swallows. In less than a year, their own son, Luadu, would be strong enough to join his brother at the well, helping to water the parched earth and make the flowers bloom.

It had been Kasiru’s idea to name the boy Apsu, after the deep-running water that had birthed him into their care. Akki had wanted to name him something more military, to reflect his warrior spirit, having fought so hard for life, but his wife felt his choices inappropriate for an infant. Watching him now, dipping his bucket with a look of giddy pleasure, he had to agree.

That first day, he had been so afraid when he sat down to tell the story of how he found the boy. In his heart, Akki had already claimed him for his own. A gift from the river goddess. Yet, it was too much to ask Kasiru to feel the same. She had not yet fallen pregnant with their first child, how could he ask her to raise a stranger’s? He had thought on this all the long ride back to Kish, and formulated a plan. They would ask their neighbour, Huziru, to raise the boy. All of her children were grown and her husband in the ground. They would pay her to feed him and clothe him, and later for tutors to provide him an education.

Akki opened his mouth to suggest all of this, when the child woke and began to cry. Immediately, Kasiru rose to her feet and went into the house to fetch him. She returned carrying one of the skins the old woman had given her husband, and sat beside him, cross-legged, whilst the infant suckled from the leather teat.

“He will need a name,” she said, “and tomorrow we will have to send for a wetnurse, a crib, and fresh swaddling.”

“Are you saying he may live with us?”

“Well, where else would he live?” she replied, with the same wifely authority her mother had taught her. “He can hardly provide for himself. And look at those sweet little lips. Who will kiss him and hold him if we do not? Who will sing him to sleep and warm milk for the morning?”

Akki loved his wife then more than he ever thought possible. Under her watchful eye, the child grew strong and gentle. He had refused every wetnurse they sent for, only accepting the milk of a donkey. Kasiru worried when she fell pregnant that the boy might resent a rival for her attention, but from the moment he saw Luadu, he loved him. Apsu was constantly bringing back gifts from the garden: snail shells and cherry pips, feathers, fat caterpillars, and the elegant latticework of decomposing leaves.

Kasiru accepted each with a smile, often with Luadu asleep at her breast, and vowed to save them for when he woke. Satisfied, Apsu would climb into his little alcove and fall to dreaming with his thumb in his mouth. When Akki came home from inspecting the city waterways, he would carefully collect the bowl of offerings and place them for a moment in front of the shrine of Khepat, before depositing them behind a fragrant cedar bush.

Kasiru lived in fear that their son would ask what she had done with his gifts, complicit in her husband’s nightly crime, but by the time Apsu woke in the morning he had already forgotten they ever existed. Akki made it their first ritual of the day to light the lamps on Khepat’s shrine. The simple act of scraping butter into clay lamps, rolling wool for the wicks, and watching the flame melt its solid mass to a puddle of gold, enchanted his son. They filled the censer with cedar sap and hung it above the shrine, then cleaned the water bowl and placed fresh fruit on the tray.  

Every house in Kish had a shrine to Khepat. She had been the mother of the present king, known as Queen Kubaba when she lived. Puzur-Suen had loved his mother dearly, and the entire nation fell to mourning when she passed, for she had liberated Sumer from the Mariotes. The Mari kings held rule over Sumer for generations, until Kish rose up against their leader, Sharrumiter. Now, it was they who played slave and the Sumerians who stood proud upon their native land.

Queen Kubaba of Kish had been a humble alewife when the war began. She had served beer to the occupying Mariotes with the same hand she served her own people. Some say she suffered brutally beneath their rule, locked in a basement and ravaged when the wine went to their heads, others say she lost three sons to the resistance and broke like a pot from grief. The truth of the tales none shall ever know, for who dare ask a queen to explain anything of herself?

What is known, is that she took up arms against the Mariotes in that final battle. She rode with the fury of Nergal in her breast. Her battle cry drew men like a storm summons waves. They fought for a day and a night, and when dawn broke, her enemies lay as corpses at her feet. All who remained standing bent the knee and bowed their heads, not a voice spoke out against her.

She reigned peacefully over her people for many lifetimes. She bore a harvest of healthy sons, yet never took a husband. Her favoured son, Puzur-Suen, became king on her passing but refused to administer his duties for he said that his heart was breaking. He spent all of his time at the temple. He paid half the city to kneel and pray, every hour of every day, in her honour.

Eventually, the high priestess of the temple offered the sleep of the poppy. He was so exhausted that he closed his eyes for three whole days. When he finally awoke, he spoke of having seen his mother in a dream. She had appeared to him, shining like the heart of the sun, smiling beatifically and stroking his cheek. He said that her touch brought peace to his very being and that, all about, the dry deserts of Sumer bloomed with flowers, ripe fruit and butterflies.

“Your mother has been deified,” the priestess told him.

“You mean she is not trapped in the darkness of Kur?”

“That is correct. She has been plucked from the underworld and lives in bliss amongst the gods. They have done this because she saved our people from Mari tyrants and restored the gods to their rightful thrones.”

This answer satisfied Puzur-Suen. The priestess told him that his mother’s name would now be Khepat, Goddess of the Sun and Mother of all Living Things. And so, each house was ordered to erect a shrine in the east and to worship the rising of the sun with golden ghee and ripe fruit. This would ensure his mother’s benefaction of the city of Kish.

That done, Puzur-Suen set about his business as ruler.

Beside the well, Apsu had dropped his bucket and was now smashing his palms against the surface of the pail. Fat droplets of water hit the dirt and quickly began to fade in the heat.

“Apsu, it is almost time to eat,” Akki said, rising from his cushion.

“No, play!” Apsu replied.

“Come now, your mother is waiting.”

“No!” the child said again, with the granite tone of determination.

“Very well, have it your own way, but you will go hungry.”

Apsu ignored his father entirely and set about scooping water in his hands and trying to carry it to his bucket, but he was not yet coordinated and most of it trickled between his fingers. Akki considered this for a moment, and then walked away, smiling. The boy had absorbed stubbornness rather than strength from a diet of donkey milk, and he knew that they were too soft on him. He did not respond to threats, because he and his wife never carried them out. Of course there would be a plate of food waiting for him when he was ready to come inside.

Akki removed his sandals at the entrance of his home, and lifted his skirt over the step, allowing the heavily embroidered hem to fall back about his ankles. As a family they were wealthy, yet chose to live modestly. Akki had been his father’s only surviving son, four others having died in childhood and one, his brother Mitu, having drowned in a dredging accident two moons before he was due to marry. As such, Akki had inherited his family’s possessions and his father’s not-insubstantial savings. His own wife came from a family of Assyrian wool merchants. Although he had paid a substantial bride price to her father, she had brought with her the deeds to a large swathe of pastoral land on the outskirts of Kish. They hired her brothers to continue the family tradition of raising sheep. The textile industry was lucrative if you knew what you were doing, and they did, so Akki and his family were always well dressed and well fed.

After his father’s death, he had found suitable husbands for his sisters. His mother had gone to live with her eldest daughter, and Akki and his wife had relocated from the bustling town house of his youth to the tranquil pastures of the city outskirts. Their land was still within the protected boundaries of the city, but it was far enough from the market and the temple that they could sleep soundly. The house had once belonged to a servant of the adjoining palace and was modest for the current age. There was a small inner courtyard quartered by flowerbeds, with a fountain in the centre. Kasiru had grown jasmine up the inner alcoves and the scent soothed them to sleep at night. Smooth, whitewashed walls surrounded the courtyard. The entrance arch was studded with carnelian and jasper. Three smaller openings led off in each direction to other parts of the compound: the kitchen, the bathhouse, and their private quarters. The kitchen had an upper floor where the cook slept, surrounded by supplies, and their private quarters also had an upper level where he and Kasiru slept, with a balcony looking out across the rose garden. There was a separate building for the servants, at a respectable distance from the main house.

As he entered their private quarters, he found his wife already on the floor, their evening meal spread out before her. Their son, Luadu, had barley porridge glued to his fist and was about to wipe it on his mother’s dress, so Akki raced forward to stop him. Their infant daughter, Susanu, was asleep in her cot, already full on her mother’s milk.

“Should I call for more bread?” he asked.

“No, I think we have everything here. Where is Apsu?”

“I could not tear him away from his games. He will come in when he grows hungry.”

Kasiru nodded and passed a cushion to her husband. He seated himself opposite and reached forward to dip his fingers in rosewater before plunging one hand into the mound of vegetables and goatmeat that sat between them. Kasiru opened a pot of cream and coated a leaf of bread with it. She placed a piece of meat in the centre, rolled it up and delicately put it in her mouth. They washed down their meal with fermented wheat juice and chewed honeyed apricots once the savoury food was finished. They spoke about a deal her father had made to purchase more land for his flock, and about Akki’s latest expedition to the countryside to see how Sepu was progressing with an irrigation project. The sun slowly crept down between the date palms and one of the servants entered to light the lamps. It was only then that Kasiru sat up with worry in her eyes.

“My darling, where is Apsu? He still has not come in to eat. Please go and fetch him.”

“Of course.”

Akki rose to his feet and went in search of his sandals. Apsu was such an independent child. He wandered as he pleased by day, getting in the way of the gardeners and stalking cats through the undergrowth. He knew every inch of the estate and regularly stayed out playing until dusk, when his stomach called him home.

Akki became less certain when he reached the well and found his son’s little bucket beside the empty pail. Glancing around, he held his fingers to his lips and made the kissing call of the rock partridge, which was their secret signal. He waited and then made it again. When there was still no reply, he cupped his hands and called Apsu’s name.

He set off through the roses and over the wooden bridge into the poppy garden.

“Apsu?” he called, over and over.

As he entered the vineyard, beneath a tangled archway of vines, he caught sight of Haddis, the head gardener.

“Are you all right, master?” he asked, seeing the look on Akki’s face.

“Have you seen Apsu anywhere? He hasn’t come home for supper.”

“No, I’ve not seen the little mite all day. Let me help you look.”

The two of them set off in different directions, both calling his name. The last of the light was fading and the stars looked down with scorn. The boy had stayed out late before, but he always came when called. Akki’s heart thumped heavy in his chest as his eyes searched the undergrowth.

At that moment, he pushed through a tall frond and came upon a sight that made him stop. There, in the little grove before him, sat a young girl, no more than seven years old, dressed in a simple white tunic and sandals. She was twisting a blade of grass between her fingers. Beside her sat Apsu, staring up with a wide-eyed look of wonder. Akki drew back to observe, a flush of relief coursing through him. The boy was alive, nothing bad had happened. But who was this strange girl who sat telling stories beneath the crescent moon? He knew all the families in these parts, but he did not recognise her.

She was telling him the story of Inanna and Dumuzi. The goddess Inanna, granddaughter of the Sky and daughter of the Moon, was promised to Enkimdu, the Great Farmer, who made the lands fertile and filled the bellies of his people. He sowed seeds, ripened crops and ensured the harvest. Under his protection, Inanna would want for nothing. He was plump, with strong arms and a thick head of hair, dressed in the finest fabrics. All the gods were looking forward to the wedding feast, for it would be the most bountiful ever attended.

Yet, one day, as Inanna was inspecting Enkimdu’s lands, she came across Dumuzi, the shepherd. He was slim and tall, dressed in a simple woollen kilt. His hair was cut short and his face clean-shaven so that he looked more like a boy than a man. Yet, when he turned, as though sensing her presence, his eyes held the world within them. Inanna was lost for words and retreated to the safety of her betrothed’s fine palace. For Inanna was the Queen of Heaven, and never lost for words. She wielded lightning and made the earth tremble. She commanded the hearts of men. Nothing made her blush.

Each evening, she would wander down the valley looking for Dumuzi, but she could not find him. Then, one night, not long before the wedding, she turned to find him following her. The light of the moon haloed his head, washing away the shadows from his smooth skin. He held his shepherd’s rod in one hand and held his other hand towards her. Instead of taking it, she drew back, turning her face from the light.

“Beautiful Lady Inanna, is it not I you have been searching for these past nights? Well, here I stand before you. Take my hand.”

“Don’t be foolish,” she snapped. “Why would I be looking for you? You’re nothing but a shepherd, and I am to marry a fine lord.”

“Oh, is that so?” Dumuzi asked, running his tongue behind his lip. “If that be true, I wonder why you come walking out here, alone, at night?”

“It is warm in the house and I wish to feel the cool air on my skin.”


“Yes, indeed. I do not like the way you look at me, common herder. You stink of mud and dung. Get out of my sight, before I tell my husband of your impertinence!”

“And what would your husband do?” Dumuzi asked, taking a step towards her.

“Why, he will withhold his bread, so you starve. He will withhold his beer, so you become sober. He will withhold his flax, so you have nothing to wear and must go naked about the fields–”

“I wear wool,” he pointed out. “Though I would be happy to remove it if that is what you prefer?”

She glared at him. “I’m warning you, Enkimdu would not find that funny and neither do I.”

“Oh, Inanna. Why do you speak of the farmer? Why do you speak about him? If he gives you black flour, I’ll give you black wool. If he gives you white flour, I’ll give you white wool. If he gives you beer, I’ll give you sweet milk to drink. In place of his bread, I offer you honeyed cheese. How could he starve me? It is I who will offer him my leftover cream, my leftover milk. I ask again, why do you speak of the farmer? What does he have more than I do?”

“Shepherd,” she spat. “Do you know who my mother is? If it weren’t for her favour, your sheep would have nothing to eat. If it weren’t for my grandmother, they’d have nothing to drink, and you’d be driven to the steppes in search of water. If my father, the Great Moon God, did not shine above, you would have no roof beneath which to shelter, and don’t even get me started on my brother Utu, who blazes brightly all the year long...”

Demuzi held up his hand to hush her. “Inanna, do not start a quarrel,” he said, softly. “My father, Enki, is just as wise and strong as your father, Nanna. My mother, Sirtur, is as beautiful and knowing as your mother, Ningal. My sister, Geshtinanna, is just as radiant and hardworking as your brother, Utu. Oh, Great Queen of the Palace, let us talk it over.”

And so it was that Inanna shed her superiority as she shed her robes, and fell in love with a simple shepherd.

The little girl lent forward and placed a kiss on Apsu’s forehead.

Akki chose this moment to reveal himself. He stepped out from behind the frond and spoke softly. “Do not be alarmed. I am here searching for my son. Apsu, it’s time to come home, the stars are out.”

The girl stood up but did not look frightened. Apsu had placed his little hand in hers and was looking at his father with some reluctance.

“You are his father?” she asked, doubtfully.

“Yes. And who are you? I thought I knew all the children hereabouts.”

“I live just over there,” she said, pointing absently over her shoulder into the undergrowth. “I must be getting back now. My mother will wonder where I am.”

She let go of Apsu’s hand and hurried off before Akki could call to her. The look of abandonment on his son’s face was almost comical, it was as though his favourite toy had been taken away.

“Come on, little warrior,” he said, hoisting him onto his shoulder. “It is well past suppertime and you should be sleeping.”

As he turned for home, his son twisted to look back over his shoulder at the place where the girl had disappeared. He swore he heard him whisper the word, ‘Inanna.’


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