On the hot and dreary summer nights, as Amma slept after a hard day’s work, I would sneak out to the backyard and look at the stars. It was the only time I felt alive; as if the chains that bound me throughout the days dissolved away to let me live, truly and freely, for a few hours of solitude. Nighttime meant peace and a well-deserved break from the heat and the hardship of daily chores.
Amma would get really upset at first. “The dark brings bad luck Aanki,” she would say. Sometimes, she would scream and slap to invoke discipline. On other days, she would embrace me in tears and cry “The neighbors will call you a witch!” When none of these worked, she reluctantly dropped the issue with a warning to be discreet.
The summer nights would be full with the whispers and sighs of people tossing and turning in their sweaty beds, rejuvenating themselves for the next day. These mixed with the dull lashing of the scanty waters of Euphrates against her stony banks. Distant shrieks of jackals and other nightly creatures of the surrounding desert often disturbed the monotone. But the people disregarded them, for the great walls of Uruk negated all outside threats. The fortifications surrounded the entire city, parting only for Euphrates as she flowed peacefully along the middle of Uruk, dividing it in half. The east wall rose a few yards away from our house. It was where our world ended. The sun was born from it every morning, yellow and bright, from where it continued its journey across the heavens, till it disappeared behind the smoke of the western metalwork factories. Most of us had never set foot beyond the confinements of the city. Only selected traders were allowed to enter and leave — it was Lord Gilgamesh’s way of protecting the secrets of Uruk from foreign spies.
But Uruk didn’t refrain from showing off its assets to the outside world. The White Temple, the highest structure known to man, stood at the center of the Anu district. It was said to have risen on its own accord from the ruins of another giant temple in order to move closer to the heavens and to Anu. This pedestal of rubble held it above the walls for the entire world to see. During the day, the temple’s white stone reflected the sun like a mirror and the blaze reached all four corners of Earth. Under the softness of the moon, it radiated a pearly aura that made the streets and buildings glow.
On one such night, in this very aura, a figure caught the corner of my eye. It was crouching behind the fence! Must be a thief, I thought.
“Who’s there?” I called out in alarm and reached for the bell. At this, the person frantically raised his arms and whispered with urgency: “Wait! It is Kishar!”
It indeed was Kishar, the blacksmith’s boy.
“What are you doing here?” I asked suspiciously. Kishar had a reputation; in the past he had been caught stealing from a merchant and was publicly flogged as a result. Amma had asked me to stay away from him, as did the parents of all others. Nowadays, he could be seen roaming the streets by himself, sometimes transferring logs for his father, sometimes playing with a string and a top. He also carried around a sword that he claimed to have made himself. At sunset, he would swing it at a hay-filled sack that he had hung from the dead willow tree by the river.
“I was just passing by,” he said. But the pace of his breath and his drenched clothes gave him away — he had been running, most probably from the guards.
I unlatched the gates and let him in after making sure no one was observing us.
“You may stay here till daybreak,” I said.
To be honest, I was a little pleased to have some company. It was not every day that I got to talk to a person shunned by society. Whatever his faults were, I knew he was harmless, for there was a sense of simplicity to his being.
Sitting down in our yard, Kishar set down a sack that he was carrying, and from it, he produced an entire loaf of bread. Then, tearing it neatly into two, he offered me half.
“How did you steal this?” I inquired as I took a bite. The bread was cold, but it was stuffed modestly with dates and had a pleasant taste.
“I know a place where you can climb the baker’s wall,” he replied without remorse.
The head priest had said: even the gravest of sins seem commonplace when repeated enough number of times — a murderer can kill without fear and a thief can steal without guilt — yet they do not realize that each consecutive crime puts a heavier burden on their souls. The sudden recollection of these words made me feel sorry for the boy. Moreover, repeating offenders were often punished severely; some had their hands chopped off and were reduced to beggars.
“Why do you steal, Kishar?” I asked.
“Father spends all our money on ale,” he muttered through a mouthful of bread.
“Why don’t you find some work at the market? I hear they need more cart-bearers.”
“They will not employ a thief. But I will be old enough to join the army this harvest season!”
“Good.” It was probably for the best. The soldiers lived fairly luxurious lives compared to the common folk; they got a share of the city’s best yields of fruit and crop and had personal servants. Perhaps the nobility of the profession could also balance out some of his present sins.
For a while, we sat in silence and munched happily. I tried not to think of the inappropriateness of the situation or what Amma would say if she found a boy in the backyard after dark. I kept a fair amount of distance between us, just in case.
Kishar was tall and broadly built, but his hollow cheeks and tattered clothes betrayed poverty. His dark hair fell loosely over his tanned face that still held the innocence of a child. As he sat in the moonlight, lost in some distant thought, he seemed nicer than most people I knew. I wondered what it felt like to be him; to spend all day by oneself, getting nothing but frowns and hostility from everyone around. How unfair it was to condemn someone to a life like that. But I decided not to burden him with my pity.
“What does Kishar mean?” I asked, trying to divert myself from sad thoughts.
Upon meeting new people, I often asked the meanings of their names. Our names hold some power over us throughout our lives and say a lot about our personalities. At least, that is the logic I use to explain my fascination with stars. Aanki is the child’s word for the universe, or more precisely, the feeling a child has when it sees the sky in all its glory for the first time. I was in love with my name and constantly searched for people with more meaningful names than mine, perhaps just to feel superior when I couldn’t find any.
“Kishar is the place where the heavens meet the earth,” he informed. His mother had christened him on her deathbed, shortly after his birth. “After all,” he had said, “that is the only place where the dead and the living coexist.”
He went on to describe memories from his childhood. I showed him how to form figures in the sky by joining different stars. We talked about a lot of things that night, the details of which skip my memory now; I was heavy with sleep and, in hindsight, it all feels like a dream. But I will forever remember the story behind his name and the soft yearning in his voice as he spoke of his dead mother.
“You’ll catch your death, sleeping outside like that!” Amma said, as she shook me awake the next day. The sun was already high and I noted, with both relief and dismay, that Kishar had disappeared.
I often saw Kishar around town, going about his usual ways. He dragged logs to the factory in the morning while I fetched water from the well. He practiced his swordsmanship while I washed clothes by the river. We didn’t dare to speak during daytime, but whenever no one was around, he would give me a nod to acknowledge our secret friendship. I half expected him to turn up at our house again in the middle of the night, but he didn’t.
Several months passed by and life was normal. Every morning, the others and I would climb the steps of the White Temple where the head priest would lecture us about morals and teach us how to keep count of the family provisions. We would offer our prayers at the feet of Anu and revel at the unending sight that the temple allowed us in all directions. The rest of the day would be full of dull chores, and before a drop of rest, it would be time for the stars again.
One day, as I was returning from the riverbank, news came that Ugula Gishkim had called a district meeting at sunset. Gishkim was the chief governing commander of Anu district, his main function: to spread and enforce the orders of the king. A district meeting could only mean trouble and rumors started flying around about the announcement of another war.
Uruk had been at war thrice since I was born. The city proudly claimed to have protected its civilians from the bloodshed throughout history. The great walls were impenetrable. But in reality, no amount of fortification could keep out the venom of war; it seeped through in the form of increased taxes and overwhelming demands for weapons and medicine. While soldiers butchered one another outside, the people inside died of starvation and fatigue.
The crowd had already gathered when Amma and I made our way to the marketplace. The air was tense with speculation and everyone was nervous. The previous meeting had announced laws limiting the amount of riches individual families can possess; the one before that had marked the shutdown of a silk factory, putting hundreds out of work. The good always happened silently, but the bad had to be announced and enforced.
Soon, Gishkim took his place on the pedestal and addressed the crowd with a brief message: “Lord Gilgamesh, our king and savior, is in need of a new mistress. All unmarried girls who have come of age must present themselves for this occasion at noon, tomorrow.”
There was a collective sigh of relief, but my heart puckered as if caught in a knot. The king had taken his first mistress the previous year. I was too young to participate then, but I clearly remembered the girl who had been chosen; she was the daughter of a wealthy merchant, very pretty and well endowed. She had squealed in joy on the day she was picked and had sailed off in the golden chariot smiling. No one ever saw her since. Even the repeated pleas of her parents to meet her were declined at the palace gates. I had often wondered what became of her. Now at the thought of having to be a contender for the same fate, a deep and unsettling fear clouded my brain.
“I will not go,” I informed Amma upon returning home, but was only met with silence.
Later at night, as I sat in our backyard, I could not hold back the tears. There are dozens of others, I tried to remind myself; I haven’t been chosen yet. But no amount of consolations could negate the dread of the possibility of having to leave everything behind. What will happen to Amma? There’s no way she could manage on her own with her bad hip! And what fate befalls of a mistress when the king gets tired of her? What happened to the previous mistress? My head swam with several dark thoughts as I cried myself to sleep.
I woke up to find a loaf of bread lying on a piece of paper near the fence. If only he were king, I thought.
I spent the entire day convincing Amma that there must be a way out.
“I’ll tell them I’m not old enough!”
“I’ll feign illness!”
“I’ll scar my face! The king surely wouldn’t want a scarred mistress!”
But Amma didn’t relent. I could see she was fighting hard to be strong herself. She didn’t want this any more than me, yet she kept muttering about how good an opportunity this was.
“Foolish child,” she said, trying to keep her voice from trembling, “think of all the riches you will have! You will live in the palace and you will never work a day in your life!”
Two royal servants were sent to prepare me for the event. I struggled while they rubbed their herbs and pastes on my skin. But they were firm and adamant and got their job done. After three grueling hours of cleaning, beautifying and dressing, I was declared ready.
Amma embraced me one last time, as I was being led away from my house, finally in tears.
“The king always gets what he wants, Aanki,” she whispered, planting a wet kiss on my forehead.
Gishkim lined us up by the palace boulevard. All the girls were dressed in extravagant clothes that they did not own. Most of them shifted nervously on their toes. Some looked happy, but most, like me, were full of worry.
The king would pass by in his carriage and he would choose the one that is most pleasant to his eyes. Amma stood at some distance, among a large group of onlookers, her lips moving in prayer. Everyone could’ve heard the thumping in my chest if it weren’t for the noise of the impatient crowd.
The palace gates opened with a loud screech as soon as the bells announced midday. The royal carriage was led by two magnificent white horses and few soldiers marching behind it as escorts. It rolled by slowly with red curtains drawn over its windows. The king observed us through the thin fabric, and even though I couldn’t see him, I felt fully conscious of his gaze.
Lord Gilgamesh rarely presented himself in front of the people, in fact, I knew him only by description. People called him the golden king — for he had golden hair and was quite fond of gold and treasures. He had spent most of his life conquering and looting kingdoms to accumulate the largest treasury in the history of mankind. I imagined him now, measuring us critically, about to change one of our lives forever with a mere command.
The carriage turned around as it reached the end of the line and began retracing its path. It made three such painfully long passes while we held our breath in crippling anticipation. Finally, it came to a halt — a little distance away from me! A soldier walked up to the windows and having heard the king’s voice, signaled me to step forward.
My world came crashing down.
“The mistress has been chosen!” I heard him shout through the ringing in my ears. The crowd responded with a half-hearted applause.
The reality of my fate hit me full on for the first time. Until then, I hadn’t really believed that I would be picked. There were over fifty girls after all — what were the chances? Everything began to swim in my vision as tears filled my eyes. I considered running, but it was, of course, pointless.
In my distress, I didn’t see a figure silently emerging from the crowd and taking a stand in the middle of the street, nor did I hear the several gasps as he drew his sword. But the words that followed silenced the world and hastily pulled me out of the recesses of my mind.
“I challenge the king to a duel.”
Kishar tried to keep the sword steady in his trembling hands. After a brief pause, a dozen soldiers fell on him and disarmed him.
“I challenge the king!” he screamed again, through the struggle.
The carriage door opened with a soft click, and immediately all soldiers fell to their knees, their heads lowered. Even the ones restraining Kishar released him in haste and followed suit.
The person who stepped out of the carriage was huge, bigger than any man I had ever seen. His face was covered with a bushy beard and his long hair and bare chest gave him the appearance of a caveman. Could this be Gilgamesh? He was completely different from my mental image!
Another followed him, instantly clearing my doubts. The reflection from his jewelry momentarily blinded anyone who dared to look at him directly. Even his white kilt was embroidered with gold, matching the hair that hung over his bare shoulders. He was pale and slender, but the grace with which he carried himself radiated strength and command. His face held no discernible expression as he fixed his gaze on Kishar.
“Kneel,” Gilgamesh commanded.
But Kishar, stubborn as he was, raised his sword once more. Gilgamesh waited for a moment and gave a sigh of resignation.
“Bring me my sword, Enkidu.”
The wild man disappeared into the carriage once again and retrieved a crimson blade. So this was Ea, I thought, the legendary weapon that had slain a thousand kings. What chance did a blacksmith’s boy have against such an opponent with such a sword? My heart broke as I struggled not to predict the outcome.
The duel began without another word. Kishar attacked with all the ferocity he could muster. But Gilgamesh sidestepped and dodged all his blows with ease, while occasionally giving Kishar a lick of Ea’s blade, opening up gashes on his tanned skin. It was evident to all that Gilgamesh could hack Kishar into two whenever he wished, but he didn’t. Instead, he let him bleed slowly. Before long, Kishar’s feet began to buckle. His cheap sword shattered with the final blow and he fell to the floor, unconscious and drained. He hadn’t even landed a single blow.
The one-sidedness of the duel took no one by surprise. No one applauded, nor did Gilgamesh’s stony face show any sign of pleasure. There was only an unbearable silence, as the king raised his blade to deliver a final blow.
I ran forward and fell at his feet, unable to watch any longer.
“Have mercy, my Lord!” I begged. “Let him live!”
Gilgamesh lowered his sword and pulled me up. He placed a tender finger under my chin and raised my face, as a lover would. But in those pupils, mere inches away from mine, I discovered nothing but cold indifference.
“Not even the fiercest warrior of Uruk would dare to challenge me. The boy’s bravery is commendable,” he said. “But only a thief eyes that which does not belong to him.”
He drove Ea through Kishar’s defenseless chest in one swift movement. There was a twitch as the soul left the body, taking with it whatever emotions I possessed.
“Come,” he continued, gesturing me towards the carriage.
Two soldiers dragged away the corpse to clear the path. As the wheels carried me through the palace gates, I embracing my Lord as a good mistress should, carefully studying the contours of his spotless neck. Some distance away, a pack of hungry dogs fought over a loaf of abandoned bread.
Note: I’ve referred to a concise version of the original ‘Epic of Gilgamesh’ for descriptions of Uruk, but the character of Gilgamesh is mostly based on his portrayal in Fate/Zero.
Debapriyo is a member of LSD. This short story was originally written for his blog (Scintilla: https://rijusarkar.wordpress.com/) and was later published on figment.