The Man Who Burned in the Fire
After one of the lesser tales of Gilgamesh. Original here.
These were the early days of the world, when everything was new.
The oldest people still recalled when men had ceased to be the slaves of the gods. Some even claimed to remember the painful time when the sky first split from the earth; in their earliest childhoods, they said, everyone had dwelt mindlessly in a heap of dim, sodden chaos, and Tiamat had made her scheming roost within it. In places, they said, the wounds of the creation had yet to heal, and they claimed that the earth itself was pained on the days when Ishkur threatened to storm.
Those of a certain age remembered the first fires, and the wheel, and the tools they first made from nothing but flint and bone. They remembered the first stone dwellings, the notion of planting seeds to watch them grow, and a way of counting with knotted cords that the young people didn’t use anymore. Things moved quickly after that.
The middle-aged remembered when stylus first met clay, and how it had stunned the gods to find men writing — a secret they thought they’d kept. The backs of that generation still ached from building the great cloud-towers where the gods had mostly retired, and from constructing the temples and palaces where men who were only half-godly — and sometimes a good bit less than that — ruled in their stead.
The young did all the rest: The gods hardly blinked when the new generation replaced clay tablets with parchment and ink, and later with movable type. Glass and charcoal, bronze and steel, gunpowder and steam engines and locomotives. The telephone and the skyscraper; refrigeration and silicon. And so we came to these, the last of the great old days.
It was on one of these days, on a dewy, crystal-clear morning, that Anna found the halub tree.
Now Anna was a goddess, and a beautiful one, and modern. And when she wished to travel from city to city, she mounted her Harley-Davidson and set off at top speed down the highway, her long blonde hair whipping in the wind behind her. Wherever she went, a train of virile young men attended upon her every wish. (What, you ask, no eunuchs? Well, not for Anna.) Her men all thought themselves fortunate: While they had abandoned all hope of family or children, still they kept the company of a goddess, and most of them did not notice that they were growing old.
Anna and her consorts were riding by the banks of the Euphrates that day, when she the tree’s tiny, broken form. She stopped, dismounted, and crouched by the river; her companions slowed, and stopped, and formed a half-circle some distance ahead, fidgeting with the straps of their helmets, joking with one another, or pretending to rearrange the gear in their saddlebags. The Euphrates was still up over its banks a bit, and the air still smelled of storms and of flooded irrigation trenches.
There had been a tempest the day before, and the tree probably washed downstream from the mountains, from which the uncouth things of the earth still came. Its leaves were tattered and its trunk had snapped. Anna saw the foam of the Euphrates glistening in the branches of the halub, and she knew immediately that she had to take it to the sacred grove of her temple at Uruk.
She was about to pluck the tree tree from the refuse, when a sudden thought entered her mind. So she removed her sandal, lifted the tree from the river with her foot, and deposited it gingerly in her saddlebag. Graceful as always, even when paying her respects to the uncanny.
Her men, lacking all appreciation for such things, whispered and groaned among themselves. Anna, who was a goddess, noticed their mutterings and knew what was in their minds — women, they were thinking, can’t live with ’em, can’t live without ’em — but she just quietly got back on her bike and rode off. The men were quick to follow.
When the party next stopped by the roadside so that the men could relieve themselves, one of them asked Anna, “So why did you take that tree? And why with your foot?”
“It’s a sacred tree,” Anna answered. “You can’t treat it the same. Maybe I’ll make a bed and a chair out of it, one day when it’s grown.” And he shuddered and felt small at the casual though of a time long after his death. But Anna knew perfectly well that this last was a ridiculous boast.
When the riders arrived at Uruk, Anna sent them all away for the evening, disappointed. In the moonlight, she extracted the halub tree from her saddlebag with her toes. Also with her toes, she placed the tree in the hole that she had dug with her heels. Then, still working with her feet, she covered the tree’s roots with earth and gently sprinkled a pitcher of water over it. That night, she slept beside the tree, still in her riding gear.
The little tree grew faster than she expected: Its stripped foliage promptly regrew, and its trunk healed almost as quickly. In only a few months, the halub was taller than all the other trees in the grove.
The snake, though, caught Anna by surprise. There stood the goddess, perched on one foot, clasping a garden hose in the other, just as she had done on so many mornings. And there was the snake, black and glistening in the early sun, twisting among the exposed roots of the tree.
“What are you doing here?” she asked it. Silently, in the way of the gods, she set an incantation upon the creature to drive it off.
“I have come to live in your halub tree,” said the snake, “and I am immune to your incantations.”
Anna spoke furious words of power at the snake, dread things from before the parting of the heavens and the earth. But the snake kept right on sunning itself and paid the goddess no heed at all. They went on this way for several minutes, Anna cursing and the snake basking, and only once did the little creature offer any reply: “Get out of my light,” it said, exactly at the moment that Anna bent over it to utter her last and most awful curse. Anna was in the elevator to her bedchamber when she realized the ferocious power of the snake’s incantation, which had driven her out of her own grove without her even realizing it.
She spent the rest of the morning in secret tears. What could she do down there, except to repeat herself ineffectually? She was alive, true, and not dead; but she was helpless, and this is the closest the gods ever come to death.
The next day, however, Anna forgave the halub tree for sheltering the snake. She returned to watering and tending it, just as she had always done. The habit had so grown within her that she felt herself more at ease when she indulged than when she struggled against it. She and the snake made efforts — earnest on both sides — not to speak to one another, but Anna scowled darkly at it from time to time, always wondering about how she might evict her unwelcome guest.
It was some days later that Anna discovered the Anzu bird that had made a nest her in her precious tree. Half animal, half machine, the Anzu perched malevolently amid a knot of wire and bone, high above the rest of Anna’s grove, raising loathsome hatchlings on bits of discarded mufflers, rusty crankcases, and roadkill torn from the sand-baked highways of Sumer.
“You there,” she called up to the bird. “Get out of my tree.” Bolts and cogs ground in the Anzu bird’s mechanical gizzard, but the creature made no reply. As if to underscore its perfect contempt, the Anzu set about preening itself. A dull orange dust drifted down from above.
“Your power is wasted on the Anzu bird,” said the snake, who had crept up unnoticed again. “She is my guest, and she will stay as long as I do.” The hatchlings squeaked for their next meal; the Anzu bird’s crystalline eye glinted in the sun; and Anna walked away, again defeated. She waited until the sliding glass doors were firmly shut behind her before cursing the Anzu bird in primitive tongues.
Still, she watered the halub, whose trunk had grown thick and majestic. It would make a fine chair and an even finer bed one day, she thought bitterly: a bed upon which Anna, the eternal virgin, the eternal whore, could consummate her sacred marriages. That’s what she told herself, anyway.
The dryad gave Anna the nastiest surprise of all, and surprises, among the gods, are invariably a sign of trouble.
It happened one night that Anna went to the bedchamber of the man who was then her favored consort, a ruddy, hairy, muscular youth with whom she had often and lustily cavorted. Usually, she invited the men up to her room — one, two, or a dozen at a time. But sometimes, just for variety’s sake, she came down to one of them in the quiet of the night, where they would make love gently, slowly, and silently, so that the others would never notice — a secret favor from the goddess, one that the men would discuss later in tones of reverence and quiet envy.
Yet Enmerkar was not alone that night. The sounds from his chamber were shameless, and all the men in the dormitory would surely have heard them. They all were in on it, Anna realized bitterly. They knew about this other woman, whoever she was, and they had said nothing. Damn them.
She saw in a flash that her rival was no mere human; Enmerkar, panting and startled, lay wrapped in the legs of woman whose hair was a mass of leaves and twigs. A dryad, as the people of later ages would call her. But no matter: Anna would extract a punishment all the same.
“Who are you?” Anna asked the creature.
“My name is Leila,” said the dryad, untangling herself from Enmerkar’s embrace. “And I live with the snake, in the trunk of the great halub tree.”
Leila smiled fiercely, then wrapped herself in a sheet and walked silently out of the room. Helplessly, Anna watched her disappear into the elevator; moments later, in the sacred grove, Leila stepped into the solid bark of the halub, leaving the sheet behind her on the ground. Then she was gone. Anna turned to face Enmerkar.
“Well?” she asked.
“Well what? You caught me. No sense denying it now.”
“I’ve been so good to you,” said Anna. “You’re the one I should punish, not her.”
“Do you think it’s easy, being a mortal? Do you have any idea what it’s like to be tempted?”
Anna recoiled. Truly, she had no idea. “Can’t you simply say ‘no’? What’s so hard about that?” she asked.
“So says the temptress herself!”
Enmerkar had a point.
“But in any case,” replied Anna, “happy are those who live so that temptation is never a question.”
“How can I put temptation out of the question? By always giving in to it? Or never?” asked Enmerkar. “Somehow, I don’t really see you expecting either one.”
Of course, Anna didn’t expect either of these things, which made it all the easier when she at last forgave her favored consort. But Enmerkar’s answers sank heavily in Anna’s mind, and she soon realized what she had to do: Somehow, she would indeed cut down the halub tree, cost what it may. Her anger burned anew, not just against the little strumpet who had been seducing her pack of kept men, but also against the snake, the Anzu bird, its loathsome, creaking young, and even the halub tree itself, which, Anna thought, had been the real source of her miseries, and which would have been better left at the mercy of the swollen Euphrates. They all had to go.
At sunrise, Anna went to the abode of Utu, her brother. Utu lived at Uruk as well, high atop a great steel skyscraper surrounded in radiance. He was indolent as always, tanning himself beside a pool while finishing off a tall mojito. Anna doubted that it was his first. Utu removed his headphones, lowered his sunglasses, and raised an eyebrow.
“Why, Lady Anna,” he said. “such a pleasure. What brings you here?”
“It’s business, I’m afraid,” said Anna. Utu replaced his shades, leaned back in his chair with his arms behind his head, and pressed his lips briefly together in distaste.
“What’s the deal then?”
“I want you to cut down the halub tree in my sacred garden.”
“Now why should I do a thing like that?” asked Utu.
Anna told him about the snake, and the Anzu bird, and the dryad. Yes, even about the dryad.
“But it’s still a halub tree, and therefore sacred,” said Utu. “Surely you haven’t forgotten what that means.”
“Yes, yes, I know, some things are not to be disturbed; they come from a power even higher than our own. But what if I don’t want it anymore? Am I not divine, and do I not have some say in my own garden of all places? It shouldn’t be hard at all to cut down the tree. It’s just wood, after all. We’ll be free of the curse, and we can do as we wish.”
“We?” said Utu.
“Come on,” Anna said. “Can’t you just do me this one favor? I ask so little of you, Utu, Lord of the Sun. As you know all too well, the better part of my work takes place when the sun goes down.”
“That’s well and good,” said Utu. “But I will not help you.”
Before even half a plaintive look from Anna, Utu was disappearing into his shades, his earphones, and the alcoholic fruit-salad remnants of his mojito.
Anna knew exactly where she would go next.
She found Gilgamesh in his palace — Gilgamesh, that awkward man-god, who had built the walls of Uruk and who had befriended Enkidu, whom the great gods sent as his would-be assassin. Gilgamesh, who tamed Enkidu, and Enkidu, who tamed Gilgamesh — but only just. Restless Gilgamesh, he would be the one. She found him at a banquet, typical of him, and she strode — protocol be damned — directly to the head of the table, where King Gilgamesh was dining with his immortal mother, the goddess Ninsun, who gave Anna a wary look.
“Gilgamesh, King of Uruk, I have a favor to ask,” Anna began.
“Sit down, have some wine, and we’ll talk,” he replied. Anna explained her difficulties. Not going into too many details about the dryad.
“I want you to cut down the halub tree,” she said.
“You ask a forbidden thing,” said Gilgamesh. “Has it ever been done before?”
“In all my knowledge, no,” said Anna. “Neither man nor god has ever cut down a single one of these sacred trees.”
“Perfect,” said Gilgamesh. “I’ll do it.”
The next day, Gilgamesh hefted his chainsaw and went to Anna’s sacred grove. There he found the snake, coiled about the roots of the tree; the Anzu bird, perched in its greasy nest; and Leila, who regarded him coolly from the colonnade, wearing only a diaphanous green sarong. The snake was the first to speak.
“I am immune,” it said, “to all your incantations.”
“Delightful,” said Gilgamesh, “But I don’t use incantations.”
The snake opened its mouth to speak, no doubt to utter the powerful magics that it had used on Anna. But Gilgamesh, who was quick to act, and who was thus in one sense immune to incantations himself, got there first: He flipped the ignition, and his chainsaw sliced instantly through the snake’s neck, silencing it forever.
If the heavens cried out, no one noticed. But Leila departed forthwith to the wilderness of the north, and the Anzu bird and its young flew off to we know not where.
“May you get what you ask for,” the Anzu bird said as it departed. It was the first time it had ever spoken.
That same day, Gilgamesh cut down the halub tree and stacked the logs in the courtyard.
“I have done as you asked,” Gilgamesh said to Anna. “And now I would like to ask a favor of you.”
“Anything,” she said, putting on a sultry smile and looking the warrior in the eye.
“I have given you the heart of the tree, the trunk and the branches, to make your chair and your bed. If I may, I would like to keep the roots,” said Gilgamesh.
She’d misjudged his desire, and there was no question about her disappointment, but she could not argue with the request.
“By all means,” she replied.
Gilgamesh took the roots of the halub tree back to his palace. There he fashioned them into an ellag, sawing, chiseling, beveling, sanding, and lacquering the sacred wood. Day after day he worked on it, thinking only of the time he would spend playing the new game he had envisioned, the game of ellag. Gilgamesh suspected that the halub had more magic in it yet, and he was right.
When he was finished, Gilgamesh took the ellag to Enkidu, explaining to him the play and the nature of the thing. It was a physical game, rough enough to engage the body, yet imbued with a strategy that proceeded from the harmony between man and ellag.
And the more you thought about it, Gilgamesh and Enkidu discovered, the more the game seemed to take on new dimensions. New vistas of possibility yawned forth, but the paths within them were forever uncertain. It was a harmony not known before in all the universe, because the world was young at the time.
The two of them taught all the men of Uruk how to play ellag, and they played together, the highborn and the low, those whose parents were gods and those who knew not their parents’ faces. At night, beneath the street lamps, the brawny among them tried to prevail by strength; the intelligent, by wits; the crafty, by guile. Ellag satisfied all and none of them.
At first they were clumsy, as everyone is in learning a new thing; their strategies were childish; their feints, obvious. But these were the first days, when mastery came quickly to mankind. Soon there was not an able-bodied man in the city but fancied himself an expert on the game — and indeed, many of them were.
Most were so absorbed in the new world that they had discovered that they did not notice the Anzu bird’s return. It liked to perch atop a telephone pole whenever the men played ellag. Enmerkar and the rest of Anna’s consorts abandoned their motorcycles, their carousing, and their nocturnal visits with the goddess. Consumed by ellag, even they forgot their devotions. Night after night, Anna lay alone and sleepless on the bed she had crafted, uncertain of what to do next. When she did sleep, she dreamed only of Leila, the snake, and the Anzu bird.
On those same evenings, the cries could be heard throughout the city of Uruk: “Ellag! Ellag! The day has ended; the factories and offices are closed! The time for ellag is here!” The downtown streets all closed; the streetcars stopped; whole city blocks were shut off so the men could play ellag on the empty pavement.
“In all modesty,” said Gilgamesh to Enmerkar, “I have the sense that I have done something truly magnificent — I can’t see the end of it; I can’t reduce it to flatness or simplicity.”
“Nor can I,” said Enmerkar. “Turn it every way you can; ellag is always something new.” A pile of orange dust and iron filings lay on the asphalt at his feet. He ground it with his toe. It seemed familiar, but he couldn’t place it.
Every night, when the referee whistled that the game was over, the men marked the spot in the street where the ellag fell. The following day, they began the game again, always taking up from the place they had marked. The women were pressed into service as referees, scorekeepers, and water-carriers; they provided the hasty between-game meals, the bandages. The workday was shortened, then shortened a second time, and then abandoned.
Little by little, the women stopped cheering for the teams of their husbands and brothers. Anna, in the form of a crone, went whispering among them, telling of how the game had denatured the men who played it, how, while their bodies grew strong, their souls were rotting away. The women grew worried and took to scolding and frowning when their menfolk were in earshot. Which, not coincidentally, was less and less often. And at last in the evenings the women plotted darkly in their quiet homes.
In those days, there was not so much distance between our world and the Underworld. Sometimes a powerful curse — or a powerful desire, which amounts to the same thing — could open a portal between the one and the other. Some say that Anna had a hand in what happened next Perhaps, they say, she was not content with bitter grumblings from the shadows.
Whatever the case, the women’s reproach put a powerful curse upon the spot that had been marked for the ellag, and as Gilgamesh set it down early the next morning, the Underworld opened itself up and swallowed the ellag in one awful gulp. A smudgy gap yawned in the middle of the sidewalk, real and yet unreal, as though all creation were drawn in ink, and this last bit had spilled surreally from the inkwell itself.
A team captain, Gilgamesh saw the ellag fall in. He reached with his hand, and he could not retrieve it; he reached with his foot, and he could not retrieve it. His limbs came out cold and tingling. The ellag was gone. All that day the men tried to reach into the Underworld, but the entrance grew shallower and shallower until at last it disappeared into the shadow of a gloaming streetlamp and was no more. Rather than scrabbling at nothing in particular, the men went back to their homes and slept coldly beside their long-abandoned wives.
The next day, though, they gathered at the place where the ellag fell in. There they wept, openly and unmanfully. And they continued to meet there every day, quietly hoping for the ellag‘s return.
“It seems to me,” Gilgamesh said, “that if only I could have played ellag just a little while longer, I might really have understood the game. I might have known what it was all about. As it is, I was never more than an amateur.”
“I stop every once in a while,” said Enmerkar, “and I ask myself, ‘Isn’t there something I really should be doing, something grand, and wonderful, something that I have not done for a very long time?’ Always the answer comes back ellag, and I am ashamed.”
“We must have it back,” said Gilgamesh.
“Can you make a new one?” asked Enmerkar.
“Even if I could, every ellag would be different,” Gilgamesh answered. “That one was ours.”
“I know what I must do,” said Enkidu. Enkidu, who had been created, not begotten, sent as a destroyer and become a friend, a man who knew the world both savage and civilized, who had drank at the watering holes of animals just as he feasted at the tables of kings, and who had been comfortable at both — Enkidu now spoke: “I will go through the Gates of Ganzer outside the city, and into the Underworld.”
“You don’t know what you’re proposing,” said Gilgamesh, whose goddess mother filled his childhood with stories about the twitching horror that lay beyond the Gates of Ganzer.
“I will go,” said Enkidu, “And I will bring back the ellag.”
A cheer went up among the men, and Gilgamesh, who was more than half a god, advised his friend on how to comport himself in the Underworld.
“Beware of Ninazu’s mother, the Queen of Air, who blows through the Underworld with fingers like pickaxes. Take care that you do not offend her, and that you obey the laws of the place,” he said. “Wear no scented oils. Wear no finery. Take no weapons. Beware the dead, who live in the Underworld after they die. Their rules are many, and they are easily offended.”
Stout shoulders carried Enkidu to the Gates of Ganzer. The men of Uruk would hear nothing of humility and draped him in cloth of gold. They anointed him with sacred oil and pressed upon him his dogwood cudgel. When the men bid the Gates of Ganzer to open, they immediately and noiselessly obliged, which never before had they done. Enkidu strode proudly into the Underworld, into the ink-smudge of the abyss, with the cheers of the men reverberating in his skull.
Enkidu did not return, and that Gilgamesh now had a second reason to weep.
Perhaps because he was feeling a trifle guilty, and perhaps because Gilgamesh was, after all, a god as well as a man, sunny Utu finally roused himself from his indolence. When it became clear that Enkidu was not merely taking a long while at his errand, and that he might be in serious trouble, Utu arrived at the palace with an offer to help the despairing king.
A god of the sunset as well as the sunrise, Utu opened himself to his powers. The sun was obscured; the electric bulbs went dim; the boundary between the worlds grew thinner than usual. Utu pulled at the thinness, and a rift opened to the Underworld. Stumbling and panting, Enkidu emerged. His arms were wrapped around the ellag.
Enkidu’s skin was the color of ash; his eyes looked like they would melt. At the sight of familiar things, he dropped the ellag as though the referee had just whistled that the game was over. It rolled aside, forgotten. Gilgamesh embraced his friend, the one whom the old stories say he loved as he would a wife.
“What was it like?”
“If I told you, you would wish that I hadn’t.”
“I must know.”
“You mother told tales not to frighten, but to comfort you. I have seen what is in store for us — we the first of the mortals. It’s worse than hatred. It’s worse than the petty rules we follow lest the dead turn against us. It’s worse than the punishments feared by the pious.
“The Underworld is the great Indifference, the forgetfulness that corrodes everything it touches. The dead are no more, and all we do will be forgotten.”
“You did not obey my rules,” said Gilgamesh.
“No one would have cared if I did,” Enkidu answered. “The dead are nothing. So was I.”
“What of the man with many sons? Surely he will be remembered and loved — and he lives on! The Underworld won’t be so bad for him, and, to escape the awfulness beyond the Gates of Ganzer, we need only follow his example.”
“The man of many sons will be remembered well for a generation. He will be half a man at the second, and hardly a man at all by the third. He is merely a name at the fourth and an echo at the fifth. By the sixth, he means nothing to anyone, and he envies the man who died without issue. Far better to have no illusions.”
“What of the man who died gloriously in battle, defending his homeland? Will he not win eternal life?”
“His mother and father will be far from him. His wife will weep, and he will not hear. In a few generations, he too will be forgotten. And in time, even the homeland for which he fought will be swallowed up, like the ellag, except for when people sneer at it in the history textbooks.”
“What of the man who is buried among treasures and spices? How will he fare in the Underworld?”
“His eyes will be rotted out; the spices will be dust in his nostrils.”
“And what of the man who is buried with nothing?
“He will eat indifferently, with the dogs and the pigeons, subsisting on the crumbs left in the street by careless passersby.”
“What of the man who died penitent, praising the gods and walking in their ways? Won’t the gods reward him in the next life?”
“He will sleep on the bed of the gods. But he will never wake up. Forgotten, on the scrapheap, and the gods he worshiped soon join him.”
“What of the littlest ones, who are born only to die, and who never know the fullness of life? Won’t the powers of the Underworld take pity on them?”
Enkidu wept in anger. “All day long they play at a table of gold and silver, eating naan with honey and ghee. What do you expect, my king? They are forgotten as well, and sooner than most to be honest.”
“I don’t want to believe you,” Gilgamesh said.
“Of course,” said Enkidu, “and I do not want to believe it either. But I have seen, and it is real. Where I went, no contrivance, no circumstance, nothing availed.”
“What of the man who burned in the fire, and whose body goes not to the Underworld?”
“His story is our own. The man who burned in the fire is no more. He is all of us, seen up close. His body is turned into smoke, and the smoke rises into the sky and disappears. And that is what becomes of us. That, my love, is what I saw beyond the Gates of Ganzer.”
That night, Gilgamesh and Enkidu built a bonfire, upon which, with great solemnity, they burned the ellag. It turned into smoke, and the smoke rose up into the sky and disappeared.