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In the House of Dust

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When the doctors start to catch each others' eyes and whisper together, Gilgamesh knows he's going to die. He tells the steward that he wants to be carried to the roof of the palace. The doctors don't like it, but Gilgamesh, even too weak to stand, is still the king.

It's hot, barely past noon, and he can smell the sweat pouring off the slaves who fan him and hold the sun-shades. It's hard to breathe, and the city below is quiet and still. Sundown would have been better, but he wanted to see the walls.

He built these walls around Uruk. They're thicker than two men are tall, and higher than a palm tree. They took three years to raise, with half the men in the city working at it. By the end the treasury was bare and the people taxed almost past endurance. Gilgamesh remembers asking the chief clerk if the bricks were made out of gold.

He laid the very first brick himself, to please the gods. The clay was solid in his hand, heavy, but when he set it in the ground it seemed small and fragile. It made him think of war, and how easy it is to kill a man. Clay, like flesh, is weak for the tasks it's put to.

How many bricks, now, in the walls? There must be records. A lot of them, noting such-and-such number of bricks for such-and-such a month, by such-and-such a maker. But Gilgamesh doubts the clerks could ever total them all. These walls are greater than anything they could scratch on a tablet. And every brick of them is stamped with his name.

He used to hope, after he'd held the flower of immortality in his hands and lost it, that he could live forever through these walls. His name would be spoken, his kingship remembered, while the city lived. But what are cities, what are walls but mortal things, doomed as the hands that build them? On his travels, he's seen shapeless mounds that once were palaces. Their forgotten kings are nameless among the dead.

Far beyond the walls, Gilgamesh can see a flock of gazelles on the hillside. Beasts live unknowing and die without fear. A man could envy them.

***

When he was a child, he used to watch his mother, Ninsun the goddess, reading. Petitioners sent her letters full of praise and supplication. Sometimes she would read one out, giving voice to the strange marks that looked like the tracks of birds. Mostly the letters came from herdsmen, asking for healthy lambs and no foot-rot in the flocks. Gilgamesh used to imagine the passage of the words, from some shepherd's toothless mouth to a scribe's clever fingers, to a priestess, to the goddess herself. Impressions in clay voyage farther than most men.

Ninsun wrote, too, sometimes. Letters to his father--not his divine father Lugulbanda, her husband, but to his other father. Gilgamesh knew only his name, Namtar.

What she wrote, he never knew. She didn't read those letters aloud, but she let him watch her press the stylus into the soft clay. The words bloomed under her hands like flowers.

When a letter was finished, she dried it in the sun. And then she smashed it to pieces and ground the pieces to dust in a mortar and pestle, using her own hands like a servant. Afterwards, she buried the dust.

By the time Gilgamesh understood that Namtar was in the land of the dead, he was old enough to spend his days with the warriors. If his mother still wrote letters, he never saw them.

***

At first, Enkidu used to weep from loneliness for the gazelles. When he hunted with Gilgamesh, sometimes he would throw down his bow and his arrows, his long spear and his dagger, and call out to the prey. He made a horrible din, roars and coos and the syllables of stillborn words. Every wild beast in earshot would run terrified, and that was the end of a day's hunting.

"I could speak to them once," Enkidu said. "Truly. They were my family, my friends. And then I lost myself for a fuck with a city whore. Paint and perfume and love-words. Animals have more sense."

"You live in the city now, too," Gilgamesh answered. "With a king."

Isn't that enough? he wanted to ask, and never did. Isn't it better to be with me than in the wilderness?

***

In the land of the dead, there's nothing to eat but dust, and nothing to drink but dust.

If Ninsun's letters came to Namtar, what were they but more dust to fill his dry mouth?

After Enkidu died, Gilgamesh spoke to him sometimes as though he were still there. In bed, he whispered into the pillow. But he wrote no letters.

***

One night in their youth, after Enkidu's grieving had eased, Gilgamesh asked him what the difference was between beasts and men.

"Clay," said Enkidu.

Gilgamesh considered, stroking Enkidu's hairy arm, and then asked, "What do you mean?"

"You build--we build--houses and cities with clay bricks. Animals sleep wherever they find themselves. We press words into clay and keep them. When the animals speak, the wind blows the words away."

Years later, when Enkidu was sealed in his tomb and Gilgamesh was wandering, uncombed and desolate, he thought that for "clay" Enkidu could have said "suffering." No man builds a wall unless he has enemies. No man writes a letter unless the man he wants to speak to is gone.

***

Not even the most ancient old men of Gilgamesh's boyhood could recall a time before writing.

Ninsun could, of course, but when he asked her, she smiled like a mother enjoying an infant's babble. "You might as well ask about the time when men and women walked naked and ate their meat raw," she said. "There's nothing about those days worth remembering."

***

The first time Gilgamesh lay with Enkidu, it was like travelling through open country. With a woman, what to do was as obvious as the road from Uruk to Babylon. But this took guesswork and luck, and maybe the blessing of some god.

Afterwards, smiling, Enkidu said, "Well, this is a new thing we've done."

"New enough," Gilgamesh answered. The taste of Enkidu's seed lingered on his tongue, heavy and strange. He wanted wine to rinse his mouth, but didn't care to leave Enkidu's side and look for the wine jar. "New for us. I don't suppose we're the first in the world to think of it."

"I never thought of it, before you."

"You did it with the gazelles. Savage." He held Enkidu's head, fingers in his long hair, and kissed him.

"City boy." Enkidu licked his throat, ran a hand along his hip, and then they spent a long time rolling around on the wide bed. "It's not so bad, the city," Enkidu whispered, his lips wet against Gilgamesh's ear. "I like the beer. And this."

***

Until last winter, when he grew too sick for much walking, Gilgamesh used to visit Enkidu's tomb. He offered honey and sweet new milk, and then sat remembering, there in the quiet where even royal business wouldn't follow him.

It was a fine tomb, better made than much of the palace. Only the statue marred it. A beautiful thing, with its gold skin and lapis eyes, but the face was wrong. Too coldly serene, like a god's face. The sculptor never saw Enkidu alive.

Gilgamesh looked at it as little as he could. It muddied the image of Enkidu's true face in his mind. Instead, he used to run his fingers over the characters of Enkidu's name, cut into the door. En-ki-du.

Gilgamesh had never bothered with reading--what else are clerks for?--but those three signs, he learned by heart.

***

The city wakes in the late afternoon, raising noise and dust. It sets Gilgamesh coughing, so he has himself carried back into the palace. He calls for wine and soup, and lamps so that he can see the painted walls and hangings. Soon enough he'll be in the land of the dead, missing the light.

Last night he dreamt of it. He'll be a judge there, or so the great Anu promised. And Enkidu awaits him. They can eat dust together.

The ever-living gods eat honey in a garden of flowers. Gilgamesh has seen it, when he walked the earth looking for immortality. But honey without Enkidu would be more bitter than dust.

The woman who brings the wine has a tearstained face. He thinks he slept with her once. Long ago, but here she is weeping, and he not even dead yet. "Cheer up, girl," he says. He can't remember her name. "Nothing lasts in this world. Not even kings."

Kings are clay, and then dust. So are cities.

Writing tablets go to dust, too. But words on clay can be copied, and copied again, outlasting memory. The dead can speak in clay voices.

"Bring me a scribe," says Gilgamesh the king. He'll see his story written before he dies.