Sunday, 17 January 2021

Down Among the Reeds and Rushes...


Yeah, you've got that song in your head now, right?

Well, I'm a failure as a writer. My ability to tell a story appears to have died alongside 2020. 

I was on a roll before Christmas, now that roll has rolled off.

I've got more time than ever to write and it just isn't coming. I need Senokot to squeeze out a thousand words. Not sure what broke. Maybe whinging about it in a blog post will help?

In the past two weeks, I've gone from 50,000 words to 54,000 words. 

Maybe that's a bit harsh... I did bash out 5,000 on writing competitions, but that's not the novel I was supposed to be writing. 

It all made so much sense when I was writing a love story, but now I'm starting a war and - gods, the research. It's running away from me and I'm still worried about the wordcount. It's definitely two books. No way you can have a 50,000 word introduction to the main story. I accept that. Now it's just a question of whether I can get all of Sargon's story into a sensible number of pages.

Blah. All questions for the edit, not now.

Now, I actually have to keep writing those words. What happened? Where did the magic go? I usually love killing off characters. There's a big murder scene on the horizon. Why am I not running towards it? Currently fumbling around the Ebla/Mari conflict. One kingdom, Ebla, had access to the Mediterranean Sea and all the trade routes, the other, Mari, owned the inland waterways and restricted trade. I didn't know anything about the conflict, but the moment I saw their positions on a map, I guessed exactly what it was about. Went on for generations. 

Incidentally, the Mari people were called the Mariotes... and now own a global chain of hotels. 

But that's why you're getting so many book reviews at the moment, in case you were wondering. Which you probably weren't. I would never go so far as to say that a book is a distraction, but they've certainly been occupying my time more than writing at the moment. 

As I haven't got much new worth posting, I thought I'd take a step backwards. Last time, you got to meet Baby Sargon. This time, here's an excerpt from the very beginning, explaining how it all went down... 





Akki stood, lost in the mist of early morning. He placed his hands on his hips, as much to keep them warm as anything else. In less than an hour the sun would break the horizon and the world would turn from white to dark emerald. For now, though, he could hardly see a cane’s length in front of him, and what he could see caused him to frown.

Surely, this was not the great and holy Puzur-Suen’s plan.

Even as he hoped, he knew the truth. Of course it was. Puzer-Sheun was great and holy precisely because his plans spanned the heavens and the earth. He was as wise as Enlil, as radiant as the sun god Utu, and as unrelenting in his ambition as Nergal, god of plague.

Akki sighed and scratched the back of his head. The canal was little more than a shallow stream. The bullrushes grew so thick they almost met in the middle, where water, black as tar, congealed in a foul-smelling concoction. These waterways had not been dredged in his lifetime. It would take all his men, and all the surrounding villages, many months to open up this channel. It never ceased to amaze him that the flowing waters of the magnificent Euphrates, that life-giving mother of creation, could pool and still in such a forgotten pasture as this.

It was a matter of some pride to him that he should be the one to guide her currents, to shape the course of her fertile presence, transforming this little backwater into a centre for trade and agriculture. He would bring plenty where once there was famine and coax the barren earth to throw forth its feast. Akki loved being a canal inspector. His father had been one before him, and his father’s father had been one of the first to irrigate the clay pits of Kish. The soil turned the water to rivers of blood. That clotted earth had been shaped into bricks to form the Red Ziggurat at Uhaimirt.

Whereas the sight before him was unfortunate, it was also a challenge, and Akki never shied away from one of those. Already he was counting the number of picks they would need beneath his breath, calculating the hours in the day it would take one man to widen the channel by a forearm and three fingers. Just as he started to contemplate the issue of poisonous river snakes, Koru began to bark.

He tensed, reaching inside his robe to place a hand on the pummel of his knife. It slid out again when he saw the familiar, lurching figure of Sepu approach. His foreman materialised like a shade from the underworld, holding one fist to his mouth as he coughed.

“Cursed weather,” he said, spitting into the reeds.

Koru was close on his heels, the only one of their party who seemed genuinely pleased to be up at such an hour. She sniffed about Akki’s boots before bounding off into the wilderness.

“What do you think?” Akki asked, already knowing the reply.

“I think it’s a mad man’s job,” Sepu said. “What even is the point? We’re leagues from Kish. These people choose to live out here, that’s their business, but I don’t see as anything’s to be gained by digging them a canal. Who’s going to come here to trade? What are they going to trade even if they do? The soil’s hardly good for growing scrub. I just don’t see the point.”

“The point is, we don’t have a choice,” Akki replied, patiently. Sepu raised the same objections whether they were five leagues from Kish or one. Anything beyond the city gate was too rural for him, but he was the best overseer Akki had ever known, so he went through the ritual. “Our gracious and rightful king wants a canal here, so a canal he shall have.”

“Does he want it in this lifetime?”

Akki shot him a warning look.

“Well, if you don’t need the money, Sepu–”

“I didn’t say that.”

“Right, then we start work next month. Though, first, we need a full survey of the tributary canals feeding into these ditches.”

“I’ll put Gadalu and Purkullu on it.”

“Not Gadalu, that boy brings bad luck.”

“His mother is my brother’s wife.”

Akki pinched the bridge of his nose and was about to argue when he heard Koru barking again. At first, he wasn’t sure. The dog had only just left them, yet she sounded far away. As her barks became whimpers, he turned in the direction of the noise, calling her name.

“Koru? Koru, come here. Come here girl.” Her yelps of distress only got louder. “Shed, where is she?”

Akki began stumbling in the animal’s direction, Sepu limping along behind. His leg had been crushed when a cart overturned in his youth. He could still walk, but not very fast, and the cold air caused him pain. Akki was caught between wanting to race ahead to find Koru, and not wanting to lose Sepu in the mist.

“Go on,” Sepu said, as though reading his thoughts. “Go find your dog. I’m right behind.”

Akki squelched across waterlogged land, picking up his feet so as not to stumble on the tussocks. “Koru,” he kept calling. “Here girl!”

With no sense of bearing, it felt as though he was walking an age. When he finally came upon her, he couldn’t understand what was wrong. She didn’t appear trapped or injured. She simply raised her slender face to look at him, then let out another loud whine.

“What, Koru?” he asked, annoyed. “Why have you brought me all the way over here?”

She looked down and began to yap.

At that moment, a faint breeze shifted the fog and he saw that they were standing on the edge of another drainage ditch. If he hadn’t stopped, he would have fallen right in.

“What is it? What’s she found?” Sepu asked, coming to stand beside them and breathing heavily in the moist air.

“Don’t go any further,” Akki said. “It’s another tributary. Sounds like it’s flowing a bit faster than the others.”

“Ah, it’ll just be a snake then?”

“Yes, or a water rat or something. Come on Koru, we really need to get back.”

“Nintinugga didn’t birth that one with any sense,” Sepu said of the goddess of dogs. “She’d lead us right to the underworld if we let her.”

Akki smiled and bent down to cusp Koru by the neck. She resisted and he wrestled with her, but she stubbornly refused to move. “Fine, have it your way,” he eventually said. “You stay here in the cold whilst Sepu and I go back to the village for baked fish and bread. You’ll be sorry to miss that.”

As they turned and began walking, a sound made them stop.

The two men looked at one another, and then back.

“Hush now,” Akki commanded, silencing Koru’s whimper.

“Is that what I think it is?” Sepu asked, reaching for a bullrush and pulling its thick stalk free of the mud. He pushed it into the river.

“How fast is it flowing?”

“Not too fast.”



Akki took a stalk of his own and they edged closer to the water, gently tapping the surface. Just as they began to doubt themselves, the sound came again, and Akki’s stem tapped against something hollow. Sepu stepped into the water. It was deeper than he had expected, reaching to his waist, but he did not hesitate. His fingers closed around the box and passed it up to Akki, who placed it on the ground before reaching back to help Sepu out of the water.

The two of them fell to their knees beside the casket. It was a short wooden box not much longer than his arm. It had been sealed shut with wax and painted with tar to prevent the water from entering. A handful of holes had been poked in a neat circle around the top, and the two men covered their mouths as they caught the scent of something.

Koru began yapping and chasing her tail, until Akki, in a moment of uncharacteristic impatience, snapped at her to be quiet. She obeyed, laying on her belly between them and resting her head on her paws.

Akki reached into his robe and drew his knife. It was a heavy skinning knife with a thick bone pommel. Sepu felt behind for a rock and handed it to him. He slipped the blade into the wax seam and began hitting the pommel with the rock. As flakes of wax fell away, they listened for the sound again, but nothing came. When at last the seal was broken, Sepu placed a hand either side of the lid and pulled it away.

The smell launched itself at them like an attacker. Both men fell back, pinching their noses and fighting the urge to wretch. Sepu recovered first and thrust his hands into the box, pulling its occupant free of the stench.

“Oh! Lord Ishum,” Akki began, “do not let this child die. Bar the gates of the underworld that he may not pass. Goddess Mami and Lady Nintu, you birthed this child as you birthed us all, let him live that he may honour your names.”

He continued to recite a litany of praise and appeasement to every god of childhood protection as he leaned forward to inspect the infant. It was a boy. The most fragile thing he had ever seen, the child’s head no larger than Akki’s clenched fist. His lips bore the faintest tinge of blue, and for all the world he appeared to be dead. What horrified Akki most was that the tiny thing was covered in his own excrement.

Without thinking, he sliced a corner from his robe and reached forward to take the child from Sepu. He sat on the bank, with the boy across his knees, and dipped the cloth in the cold water. With tears streaming down his cheeks, he began to wipe him clean. This little one would face Ereshkigal with dignity. The Queen of the Great Earth would not flinch as she swallowed him whole. He would taste as sweet as freshwater, as easy to eat as an apricot.

Akki bit back a sob as he reached again into the stream and rubbed the cloth across the boy’s chest. He was so distraught that he did not feel the slight intake of breath. The spark igniting in the child’s lungs. The body coming to life.

A scream erupted that shook the world.

Koru began to bark as though an invading army were bearing down upon them, Sepu sprang to his feet as though both his legs still worked, and Akki almost dropped the boy in the water.

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