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The Woman Who Waited

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1.

Many lives past Baranamtarra who ruled the heavens cast his sister Gemekala, who oversaw the wide rivers and all they contained, out of the house of the gods, for Gemekala had insulted him and his children. But Gemekala thought Baranamtarra raged over nothing, and spoke to the other gods, saying her exile was unjust. And mayhap it was, for Baranamtarra was quick to anger and quicker to judgement, but none who now live can say what the truth was. All that is known was that there came to be a rift between the gods, and Baranamtarra and Gemekala went to war. Then there was great violence and anguish, and much blood shed.

Ninbaradari wife of Baranamtarra, whose charge was war and the first breath of newborn infants, came from her dwelling-place where she stayed cloistered and silent to aid her husband. And Ninbaradari came to look upon Gemekala, who was fairer than a night sky scattered with stars, and came to love her.

So she repudiated her vows to Baranamtarra and knelt before her king and cast off her crown. And she went to aid Gemekala as Gemekala’s consort.

But Ninbaradari’s brother was Mageshgetil the trickster god, Baranamtarra’s lover. And Mageshgetil followed Ninbaradari to Gemekala’s host, for as much as he loved Baranamtarra he loved his sister more. And by error or design, he did not take leave of Baranamtarra before he left.

Then there was a great war, and all the heavens raged, and the rivers flooded high across the Crescent so that all of the green land was covered. Many stories sing of that war which no mortal ever saw. But at long last, Baranamtarra emerged the victor. But he was generous in his victor, and did not kill any further once their weapons were resheathed.

Then Gemekala was banished to the underworld, to tend to the hosts of the dead. And so it is that the dead travel down the rivers to their final sleep. Ninbaradari he forgave, and gave her back her throne, though he did not take her again as his wife. But the deepest of the punishments he gave was to Mageshgetil.

For Baranamtarra loved Mageshgetil more than he loved his own life, and his betrayal hurt all the more because of that. But he could not bring himself to cause him pain, so instead he banished him and consigned him to mortal realms.

So Baranamtarra decreed that Mageshgetil would be trapped under the mortal sky until all of humanity forgot his name. And then, he proclaimed, only then, would a willing sacrifice of blood restore Mageshgetil to his former glory.

But Ninbaradari felt some stirrings of guilt. And so she begged Baranamtarra to be allowed to join Mageshgetil in his exile.

Baranamtarra allowed her plea, for he did not love her since she fled him to join Gemekala. He gave to her not all, but some, of her former powers. And he allowed Mageshgetil to make one shade of himself to talk to Ninbaradari, freeing his soul for a few days every cycle, for she could not stay in his mountaintop prison with him.

And then he cast both Mageshgetil and Ninbaradari out of the heavens. And so it is that, to this day, they dwell among us even as we make statues in their likeness and pray to them. They linger, waiting for us to forget them.

 

2.

Everyone warned them against Zimu, told them not to go play near her house, set apart as it was from the rest of the houses.

But it’s the last place they’ve not played in. It’s the stretch of empty time between harvest and ploughing, and they don’t have anything to do. Their hands aren’t safely occupied doing some job.

That’s why they wander into Zimu’s little boxed-off house with its own small garden.

The two of them are barely still children. They’ll be men next season, and they’re enjoying themselves as they can for the last time.

Except just as they’re making to do—something (even they’re not sure what), giggling together, there’s a strange, thundering sound, and then a horse arrives.

Zimu’s Guest!

It’s always a man, always on a white horse, and oh what a horse it is. It’s a horse that people say kings ride, though neither of them have seen the king in the city so they can’t say for sure. All they know is that even from where they’re hiding out of Zimu’s view, the horse is big, and beautiful.

Zimu’s Guest dismounts the horse, and knocks on Zimu’s door. Zimu opens it (one of them nudges the other aside to see better).

Her scarf is around her head, as always, and she doesn’t look happy. She just shakes her head, once, and Zimu’s Guest takes a step back.

And whatever happens next they’ll never know, because Zimu turns sharply towards them and calls “Get gone now or I’ll tell your mother the two of you were running around poking your noses in where they shouldn’t be.”

How did she know they were there?

But that’s a question they’ll as themselves later, once they’re out of here. Zimu always make good on her threats, and usually twice over, so for now, they flee, running from the house as fast as their feet can take them.

 

3.

At the edges of the great city, and outside many of the smaller compounds that encircle it, there is a small house.

This house is not a hut. It is a proper house, with plaster walls and a sturdy roof which has stood the test of time.

Zimu has lived in this hut for as long as people can remember.

Not Zimu as in one person, of course, but Zimu has been the mother’s name, people say, and the daughter’s name, for time immemorial. Zimu, some say, lived in that house from the time Baranamtarra looked upon the first humans. She lives alone, always, no family to keep away all the unsaid things, and no-one says anything.

She has a scant few friends from places around her. None of those friendships last very long, for one reason or another. And, too, Zimu never entertains men, except once every year a man who thunders in on some great white steed.

Some say she holds divine power, or that she is a descendant of the daughter of the very first king in the city, who was Baranamtarra’s mortal son. Other say she is a demon in the guise of a human, though what her purpose is none can guess. Some even say that she is a goddess walking the Earth, Innana or Ishtar or even Ninbaradari herself.

Whatever Zimu is, whatever people whisper about her, there is one certainty: her house would last longer than living memory. Kings rise and fall, and the city gows and shrinks, and still there is Zimu, mother and daughter, and her house alone outside everything. And there, people whisper, she will be forevermore.

 

4.

She waits.

Year in and year out she waits.

Sometimes she has people she could almost confide in, if not for who she is. Once, one disastrous time, she had a family (but a family is something she will never, ever try to have again). Sometimes, she is bitterly alone, and the people she talks to for her purposes never even come close to touching her heart.

Still, she waits.

The seasons change. The kings in the city change. The city itself changes, is destroyed and rebuilt, is taken over by hosts of invaders who are fought back or become the next settlers.  And eventually, when enough lifetimes pass, the city disappears. She has to walk afar to find out what she needs, sometimes even to the bounds of the rivers and beyond. The world outside her house, even the world beyond the rivers grows, and changes, but she does not.

She waits.

There are many generations of people rising and falling around her. They all have stories of her, and she knows what all those stories are. She listens to all of them, listens to all the stories with a sharp ear, for her trade is in stories. Stories that change and grow with time, and people that change and grow with time, until at last there is no-one around her, just the bare desert sand. Except there are still stories.

And so she waits.

The shade of her brother comes to visit her every year, once a year. It is a short visit, and their parting is always bittersweet, but it is the one flash of her old life she gets, and the one constant, unchanging thing. She measures time by the changes in his steed. It is almost always a white horse, but there are also almost always differences in the horse each visit. Each visit stretches into eternity and is her whole life and yet not enough. But she has power over very little, these days.

All she can do is wait.

Someday, she hopes (and it is a bitter hope for a goddess, the curse of her husband), all the peoples in the world will have forgotten her.

Until then, she waits.