"Milk?" Ninsun, the goddess of the wild cow in the enclosure, held out a pitcher of milk, rich with cream, to Lugalbanda as she had each day.
He ducked his head and held the paint brush in his hand very tight. He whispered, "No." He longed to say yes to her.
Ninsun cast down her eyes and she held the pitcher of milk close to her chest.
Alani, Lugalbanda’s eldest brother, called out, "Come away from the little prince. He only drinks water, while we drink milk. That is why we grow tall and he is so puny." Alani punched Lugalbanda in the arm with affection. Affection and no little trouble given that Lugalbanda was painting a mural for King Enmerkar. Lugalbanda sighed at the cross eyed Anzu bird.
Lugalbanda’s seven older brothers held out their cups and they each drank from the pitcher until it was empty.
Ninsun, who had been charged with the hospitality of the hall, chewed on her lower lip. She put down the pitcher. She held out a tray covered in bread made from the golden wheat that grew in the fields. She offered it to Lugalbanda as she had each day. "Bread?"
He stared determinedly at the mural he was painting to Enmerkar’s glory on the palace wall. He whispered, "No." He longed to yes to her.
Ninsun cast down her eyes and she held the tray close to her waist.
Melammu, Lugalbanda’s brother closest in age, laughed and said, "Come away from the little prince. He eats only roots, while we eat strong bread. That is why we are mighty and he is so weak."
The twins, Mulki and Mulka, stood close to Lugalbanda. Mulki whispered, "There’s at least one thing she would offer and that you could take," and elbowed him in the ribs. Lugalbanda stumbled with the force of the blow. But then, he stumbled at the force of any blow. Mulka whispered, "She really wants to give it to you." Mulki snickered, "Then again, you might be too weak for that too."
Lugalbanda’s face grew hot, even though he had no idea what they were talking about.
His mother, Urac, goddess of the wild goat on the mountain, said, "Now you boys leave your little brother alone." She spoke as if they were not generals with many men each under their commands. She took bread from Ninsun. "Thank you dear, but Lugalbanda’s not allowed to have any of this. Makes him awfully gassy." Because, Lugalbanda thought that this was what this moment had lacked; his mother talking about how Lugalbanda could neither eat nor drink the things that made a man strong.
With his brush, Lugalbanda fixed the eye of the Anzu bird on the wall so that it looked as it were winking, as a king in a joyous mood might do.
King Enmerkar, the son of Utu, was in a very jolly mood having just risen from his mid-day sleep. His arm wrapped around Inanna’s waist, who had rested with him in the hot mid-day hours. "Levy the men. We’re going to war against those rebels in Aratta. We’ll snap them like twigs. How about it, my Queen? Will we snap their twigs?"
Inanna, who was the Queen of Heaven and the goddess of love and war, laughed and tossed her long hair. "Perhaps." But she did not remove her a-an-kara weapon from her waist. "You won’t need it if they are that weak."
Lugalbanda’s brothers stared at her.
Lugalbanda kept painting. His heart longed to be of service to his king, and this was all the service that he was fit for, small and weak as he was. Suddenly, he snapped the reed of his brush. "I will go. I want to help snap the twigs of the rebels, who," he wasn’t actually sure what the people of Aratta did that was so bad, but it must be bad for the good King Enmerkar to march on them, "um, do bad things."
His mother said, "Lugalbanda, son of my age, what do you think you’re doing. You’re not going on this," Urac glanced at King Enmerkar. "You’re not going."
King Enmerkar laughed. "The rebels of Aratta are so weak that even Lugalbanda could defeat them with a brush." This wasn’t exactly what Lugalbanda had been going for.
However, when the day came to march, Lugalbanda went with the army. He had no troop of men following him. He was one of the troops. He struggled under the great pack that his mother filled with treats for him and under her admonishments to stand at the back of the army and let his brothers do the fighting.
Ninsun stood at the city gate as they left. She held out a wrap woven from wool. "I made this for you."
His hand reached out and took it without a thought passing through him. He wrapped it around him, even though it was a hot day. "Thank you." He swallowed. "I wanted you to know that you are as beautiful as an Anzu bird."
"What? I’m as beautiful as a monster." She glared at him and ran from the gate.
"Wait! No!" He called after her, but he couldn’t go back into the city. The army marched on.
He wore her gift across the wide plains and his brothers laughed at him. He wore it into the mountains. It was hard going and the sweat poured from him. He painted on the rocks as they went to show that they had been there. He wanted to make the rocks beautiful. His heart beat fast as he painted, but he would not stop. He ate from the communal pot of the troops. He ate the food that made men strong. He held his teeth firmly together and struggled to keep the food down.
One day, high in the mountains, he fell to the ground and jerked in the dust like a snake dragged by its head with a reed. He couldn’t hold anything in his hands. His belly rose up against him. Far from being able to walk, he could not lift up his hand.
Melammu said, "I should take him back to Kulaba where our Mother can make him well again."
King Enmerkar stood tall over the brothers and said, "You are generals in my army. You will go forward or not at all. We all go forward."
Lugalbanda’s brothers talked together. None of them could stay. No man in the army could go back.
There was a cave above the camp, which they filled with food and drink. They put Lugalbanda in the cave wrapped in blankets and left him with sorrowing eyes as if they were burying a dead man.
Alone, Lugalbanda prayed. "Please, don’t let me be sick anymore." He looked at the dim light at the cave opening. "It’s dark here. There are no streets. My mother is not here. There are no neighbors. The walls are empty. Ninsun is not here to offer me things that I cannot accept."
In his sickness, the goddess Inanna appeared to him and granted him sleep. In his sickness, the god Utu appeared to him and granted him the strength to lift his head. In his sickness, the god Suen appeared to him and granted him the power to stand on his feet. There may also have been a part where they danced on his head a little, but then again, he was very sick.
Eventually, he was able to walk again. He went outside the cave and blinked at the light. He said, "I have no idea where I am."
Still sick and trembling, he shouldered what goods he could and made his way. He could have followed the painted rocks back home, but he wanted to be of service to his king. He went forward, high into the mountains.
He saw in the distance the great eagle tree of Enlil and he said, "It’s the nest of the Anzu bird. Maybe they can tell me the way to go. They fly wonderfully high." The Anzu also breathed fire and wind, had the teeth of a shark and the head of a lion. When they roared, the ground shook and the gods took shelter. Lugalbanda didn’t think about that. He loved to paint the Anzu birds as they drove the storms across the sky.
He climbed higher still. He came to where the Anzu birds made their nest of Juniper and Box wood, but the Anzu were not there. All that was in the nest was the chick of the Anzu, which mewled at him sadly. "Hungry. Alone. Stranger."
Lugalbanda’s heart squeezed and he sat down with the chick. "You’re not alone now." He fed the chick salted meat. He made a mash of rice and honey, which he fed to the chick with his own hand.
It burped. "Full now."
He painted the Anzu’s eyes with Kohl until it preened. "Yay, am I beautiful?"
Lugalbanda said, "Of course you’re beautiful. You’re an Anzu chick." The chick preened.
Lugalbanda dabbed white cedar scent on its head and it crooned. "I smell good."
Lugalbanda strung garlands around the bower. He painted a rock with the image of the Anzu and his wife as they chased the wind across the sky. "That’s my daddy and mommy," cried the chick.
Finally, Lugalbanda strung a twist of salted meat from the top of the bower so the chick would have something good to play with.
He looked around and was a little embarrassed, because the Anzu might not like what he’d done. He went to a rocky space where no cypress grew. He waited.
The Anzu and his wife returned. They each carried an ox in their claws. They called out to their chick, but the chick had fallen asleep and did not answer. The Anzu said, "Woe, our child is dead." They roared it and any gods in those mountains crawled into little cracks and did not come out for seven days. But when they went into their nest, they saw that it was beautiful and that their child was safe asleep.
Anzu called out in a voice that echoed in the mountains. "Whoever had done this, I will bless your fate."
Lugalbanda came out of the bare place, and felt the heat rise in his face. "I did this. Oh, wow. I always thought you’d be beautiful, but your eyes are like the sun and your feathers are more beautiful than the sky."
Anzu and his wife looked at each other and they looked at Lugalbanda. Anzu said, "I can honestly say that I’ve never gotten that reaction from a human." Anzu said, "How can I help you? Whatever it is, I have the power to fix that fate on you. Do you want riches? I can see to it that your fate is full of riches. Or Invulnerable in battle? Done. Or maybe invincible in battle, which is slightly different? Done. Or, oh, I know, do you want Dumuzi's holy butter churn, which is a popular wish. It’s to have the fat of the world, which is like riches, only more about good buttery food."
"Um," Lugalbanda spoke from the heart, "Um, no, no, no and really no. But thank you for offering."
Anzu sat back on his haunches. "Well, what do you want? I want to give you something."
Anzu’s wife licked Lugalbanda’s face. "We really want to give you something." She looked at the painting on the rock. "Look at this. Most men run in fear from us and you decorated our home."
Lugalbanda said from the very deepest part of his heart. "I want to be able to run across a field and get to the other side without sickness of breath. I want to be able to pick something up without having to put it right back down, because I’m so small and weak. I want those who make fun of me to see me and say, ‘Welcome.’ I want," he shrugged, "I want to be useful."
"Oh," said the Anzu’s wife. She licked the side of his face. "Come on. Sit down and have some ox. How do you want it cooked?"
Lugalbanda sat down while Anzu considered how to fix his fate. At the end of the meal, Anzu and his wife insisted that Lugalbanda sleep with them in their nest. The chick mewed happily and that night, Lugalbanda slept well without fever dreams.
In the morning, Anzu said, "I’ve decided how to best fix your fate. But you may find it a little unpleasant as I am tying it to you."
Lugalbanda looked at beautiful Anzu with his black mane and fire ember eyes. He looked at Anzu’s wife with her wide brown wings that could block out the sky. He said, "Nothing as wonderful as you could do anything unpleasant."
After Anzu and his wife had a moment after that statement, Anzu had Lugalbanda take off his sandals and his clothes. They vomited oxen on him, which should have been unpleasant, but smelled like lightning strikes and charred cinnamon. He burned and itched, but far less than his illness had done. They licked him clean and when they were done, he felt a swiftness force fill him. He ran around the nest in an instant. As he thought it, his feet made the motion. He laughed. "This is wonderful."
Anzu said, "Now let’s go find your good for nothing brother abandoning brothers. Not that I’m judging humans that I’ve never met or anything."
Anzu flew overhead and Lugalbanda easily kept up running through the mountains below. They went along the mountains until Anzu saw the army of Enmerkar camped at the walls of the city of Aratta.
Anzu landed on the ground and he said, "If you follow this valley, you will reach the dust that your army has thrown into the sky. But when you get to them, don’t tell anyone about the force of swiftness that has been given you and don’t tell anyone about your meeting with the Anzu."
Lugalbanda scratched the side of his head. "I’d think it’d be hard to hide. Will telling them make my swiftness vanish like a pebble in a pond?"
Anzu said, "The fates that I fix, stay fixed. However," here Anzu looked sharply at Lugalbanda, his head tilted to one side, "people don’t always understand what is different."
"Oh. Then I won’t tell. I wouldn’t want anything bad to happen to someone as wonderful as you." Lugalbanda smiled at Anzu, who laughed and licked Lugalbanda’s face goodbye.
Lugalbanda ran to where the army was. He stepped from the cypress trees as suddenly as a god descends from the sky. His brothers embraced him. "We thought you were dead. It’s been a year. How did you get here?"
It hadn’t seemed like a year, but Lugalbanda had been sick for a long time. He shrugged. "I walked." He smiled at his brothers and at the soldiers. "If it’s been a year, is the war over?"
"No." Alani, his eldest brother, slapped Lugalbanda on the back, but for the first time in Lugalbanda’s life, he was not knocked forward with the force of it. He pulled the swiftness into himself and was still and did not move. "We came to surround the city of Aratta, and they surrounded us. The city rains down javelins on us like rain."
"A year’s worth of rain," said his brother, Dayyani, with a shake of his head.
"A hundred years worth of rain," said his brother, Baraqu, with his eyes up to the sky.
"It’s a lot of arrows, said his brother, Belum, with his arms crossed.
"How did you get through them?" asked Alani. "They’ve summoned dragons from the thorn bushes to surround us. We can’t get back. At home, our fields must be yellow with disuse."
Lugalbanda thought about the Anzu and he said, "I snarled like a wolf at the dragons and they let me by."
"Snarled like a wolf." Mulki shoved him from the left and his twin, Mulka, shoved Lugalbanda from the right, but Lugalbanda did not fall. He gathered the force of swiftness into him and was still.
King Enmerkar came out of his tent. He called out to his troops. "Inanna has abandoned me. I am far from her bed and the goddess of love and war has forgotten me. Who will go for me to remember me to her?"
Of all the army, none of the soldiers stood up. Lugalbanda looked around. Of all his mighty brothers raised on milk and bread, none of them stepped forward. Lugalbanda raised his hand. "I’ll go."
Dayanni snorted. "You can’t go. You’re too slow and weak."
Lugalbanda shrugged. "I got here and I will try to go there." He rocked on his feet, which hummed with a longing to run.
Enmerkar sighed, "If you are all that will go, maybe that will inspire sweet Inanna with pity. Tell her if she will help us get home, I will cease to thrust with my spear in other places. I’ll break my spear for her. Do you understand?"
Lugalbanda bounced on his feet, eager to go. "Got it. You’ll stop stabbing people. You’ll break your spear if she gets the army home."
Enmerkar sighed and made a gesture with his hands. "No, I will break my spear."
"Um," said Lugalbanda, who wasn’t sure what he was missing.
Enmerkar made another gesture low and close to his belly. "I’ll break my spear for her."
"You’ll break your spear," said Lugalbanda very slowly.
"Just go and tell her that my tent is empty." Enmerkar sighed.
Lugalbanda nodded. He walked through the camp and when he came to the thorn bushes full of dragons. he waved at them as he ran by them, but they couldn't see him. He ran that fast. He ran across six mountains as soon as he looked at them. He ran across the range of mountains and into the flat land beyond. Almost as soon as he started his journey, he stood at the gates of Kulaba. He walked then, because he wasn’t supposed to tell anyone about the force of swiftness in him. He went to where Inanna lounged on her couch. He bowed and said, "King Enmerkar begs that you help the army. If you do, he’ll stop stabbing other people with his spear and break it for you and his tent is empty."
"My couch has not been empty." Inanna tossed her long hair over her shoulder. "I don’t want him to break his spear. That’s his charm to me. He should fill his tent." She stood up and poured water into a cup. She said, "At the place where my river begins, there is a clear lake where the suhurmac fish eats the honey-herb. To win the battle, Enmerkar must have the fish caught and prepared for me and I will give him my battle strength." She walked to the window and leaned against the window frame. "But it is a god among fish and impossible to catch."
"This fish?" Lugalbanda held up a cypress wood bucket that he’d fashioned on the shores of the clear mountain lake. His feet were muddy from where he’d run to the lake and gathered dust on the way back.
"Uh," said Inanna. She looked in the bucket. "That’s the fish." She looked up. "How did you get there and back?"
Lugalbanda looked at his mural on the wall. "An eagle brought it. In a bucket. Which the eagle made." He looked again at the mural. "With the help of a gazelle."
"Right." Inanna raised her brows. "Yes. Have the fish cooked and if I like it, I will give you my a-an-kara weapon that can win any kingship." She smiled softly at Lugalbanda and she winked at him. "My couch is empty now."
He said, "That’s great. I’m sure King Enmerkar will win the battle if he has a weapon like that and come back to fill your couch with good things."
Lugalbanda went down to the kitchen with the bucket. Ninsun stood by the fire and she cried out when she saw him. She wrapped her arms around him and said, "I was sure that you were dead."
Lugalbanda breathed in and held her holding him. He showed her the wool wrap that he still had. "It kept me warm when I was sick." Then, because she wasn’t just anyone, he told her what had happened. He finished when he said, "But as beautiful as the Anzu birds were, I was wrong. You are more beautiful."
"Oh," she said. She gave him a kiss, which was something that he could say yes to.
Later, much later, the next morning in fact, Ninsun cooked the fish and Inanna ate it. She said, "This is a meal worthy of the Queen of Heaven as may be provided by a great King." She unslung her a-an-kara weapon from her waist and handed it to Lugabanda, who said, "Thank you very much."
Lugalbanda ran to King Enmerkar. He carried the a-an-kara weapon very carefully because he didn’t want to destroy any of the mountains that he was running on. He gave it to King Enmerkar, who held it up. The dragons from the thorn bushes became thorn bushes. The rain of javelins became rain. The Lord of Aratta laid down his weapons and offered King Enmerkar his metal smiths and his stone workers and the city of Aratta besides.
Lugalbanda smiled brightly, because that had worked out fairly well. He walked back with the army to their home. It was very slow, but he didn’t mind, because he didn’t get out of breath. He could eat from the communal pot without sickness. When he went home, Ninsun greeted him and offered him a cool glass of water. He drank it and he offered Ninsun his hand in return.
She said, "Yes," and took all that he offered and gave him much in return, which he gladly accepted.