The old man pressed the heel of one hand hard against the small of his back and levered himself up from where he had been kneeling to trim the last suckers and unwanted tendrils from one of his grapevines. He had been carefully and lovingly trimming his vines since just after sunrise and his joints and muscles were now painfully cramped; but it was not the ache in his back that made him look up from his work. Poking his head between the upper two of the three trellis slats on which the vines had been trained to grow, he looked westward, up the rocky rise toward the top of the low hill. There, standing behind a chest-high wall of stone, mud brick and thorn bushes stood his wife, and she was calling to him. He waved one hand above the trellis before cupping it to his ear, indicating that he could not quite make-out what she was saying.
“I said, it’s past mid-day and your lunch is ready.” Making a broad, beckoning gesture with one arm she added, “Come in out of the sun before you roast your brains.” She only waited for him to wave an acknowledging hand before turning away, muttering to herself and shaking her head, before disappearing from view.
Pushing himself up from the dry, sandy earth with his knuckles, the old man stared down at himself as he dusted bits of soil and vine trimmings from the trailing ends of his hair, his stomach-length beard and the coarse-woven homespun cloth of his dun-colored gown. Before turning from his work he made a quick, final survey of his vineyard. It covered almost half an acre and had taken him nearly ten years to cultivate - collecting wild vines from the slopes of the eastern hills and replanting them on the hillside east of his home where they would be exposed to the soft, nourishing goodness of the morning sun. He had nurtured them, trained them to run along the neat rows of wooden trellises, carefully pruned away unwanted shoots and suckers, leaving only the best, fruit-bearing branches to flourish. He had no way of being certain, but as far as he was aware no one else had ever tried to cultivate the wild grape vines from the mountains and it was an accomplishment in which he felt a justifiable pride. He was grateful that his two oldest sons had taken over the woodworking and blacksmith shops; only when he had been freed from the constant demands of work could he make his long-held dream of taming the wild grapes a reality. He rubbed the palms of his hands together one last time, clearing them of the last, tiny specks of dirt, smiled to himself and turned toward the house and his wife.
On his way up the gently rising path toward home and food he surveyed his own tiny kingdom as it revealed itself from the crest of the hill. The little compound covered just over an acre and a half. Safe inside the protective stone wall was the home he had shared for over thirty years with his wife, Nin. It may not have been grand by the standards of people who lived in a city but with two commodious rooms, a serviceable mud brick floor and a good, solid roof strong enough to serve as a sleeping platform during the heat of the summer, it was as nice as any house in Eridu. Together, he and Nin had raised three fine sons here…well, he admitted to himself with a sad shake of his head, they had raised three sons and two of them were very fine indeed. Ham, however, was a slightly different matter. Also inside the compound stood the house of Shem, his eldest, which he shared with his wife Utap – who was a good, strong woman – and their seven year old daughter Beni. Ham’s house was there too, as was his long-suffering spouse Shallat. Poor, sweet natured Shallat with her dark, wounded looking eyes; she deserved better. The three houses shared the compound with a small kitchen garden, an orchard containing a stand of mature pomegranate and apricot trees, the communal well, the chicken yard and a small sheepfold. There too, was the open-sided building where he and the boys stored their precious supply of timber after it had been split into planks and neatly stacked for drying. Trudging up the path toward the woven willow gate leading into the compound, he passed the workshops. The carpentry shop was empty as was the smithy; both of the elder boys must have gone home for lunch. Certainly Shem had done so and he could only hope that Ham had done likewise and not wandered off with some of his rowdy friends or gone to the tavern.
Approaching his house, Noah saw the wooden door standing open on its leather hinges, as usual. Dusting himself off one final time and straightening his coat and gown, he crept to the edge of the threshold and peered around the doorpost like a small boy spying on his parents. Across the dimly lit room Nin crouched in front of the low, open hearth of the stove. After chucking a few patties of dried ox dung into the flames she laid another flat, unleavened loaf of manna bread onto the flat surface of the cooking stone.
“Hey, lady, can a starving stranger come in for a bite to eat?”
Rising from where she knelt, Nin brushed the flour from her hands and moved briskly toward the door to give her husband a peck on his whiskery cheek. “Absolutely not. But if you see my husband, tell him that if he doesn’t come home soon I am going to skin him alive.” Noah smiled and returned her kiss.
“I’m sorry if I’m late. I just got so involved with the vines and…”
“Husband, you always get involved with your vines.” Nin shook her head, turned and moved back toward the baking manna. “Sometimes I think you care more about them than you do about your own wife. I saw more of you when you were running the shops than I do now that you’re retired.”
“But you like the wine, don’t you?” Gently, he teased her, shadowing her steps until he was close enough to where she knelt that he could bend down and nuzzle her neck with the bristly ends of his mustache.
“I never said I didn’t. You make the best wine in Eridu. Now take your seat before the stew gets cold and the manna is burnt to a cinder. I even melted some goat cheese into the stew, just the way you like it.”
In passing, Noah gave his wife’s bottom a playful swat. “Of course I make the best wine in Eridu. I make nearly all the wine in Eridu.” Then, craning his neck to look into the loft occupying one wall of the house’s main room, he scratched his chest and mumbled, “Where’s Japheth?”
Japheth, their youngest, still lived at home, but Noah knew he would probably not be there for long. He and the girl Merimda had been spending more and more time together over the past six months and all the signs pointed toward marriage sooner or later. Probably sooner.
“You were so late that he finally ate and left. He and Shem are working on something in the shop and he went over to Shem and Utap’s place. Before he left he told me to ask you to go down and give them some advice when you’re done eating.”
“I missed him in the vineyard this morning. One day soon he’ll be getting married and…” Noah shrugged, bit off a piece of the chewy manna after sopping up some of the succulent, spicy gravy, redolent of dill and coriander, and chewed on it resignedly.
“And we will extend the walls so he and Merimda can build a house here in the compound and you will see him every day just as you have for the last eighteen years.”
“I know. But he’s my last.”
“No, husband. He is my last. I’m nearly forty-six years old and way past child bearing; you, however, can always repeat the process - indefinitely if what I hear about you is true.” She had moved across the room to stand near the table and now she drove a knuckle into Noah’s ribs, making him wince and pull away with a grunt.
“Thank you for your confidence wife, but no more children, no more families. I’ve grown too old for such frivolities.” Waving his wooden spoon in the air expansively, he shoveled the last drops of stew into his mouth and spluttered, “From now until I die it is just you, me and the grapevines.” Swallowing the last morsel and washing it down with a final swig of heavily watered wine, he hoisted himself up from the three-legged stool. “And since we are about to be left to shift for ourselves in this lonely house, I think I should wander down to the shop and spend a few moments with my sons before going back to sweat in my fields.”
“You are welcome to go see what the boys are working on, old man, but after giving them the wisdom of your council you are going to come straight back here and take a rest before you go back out there in that hot sun.”
“Yes you are, and it’s my job to see that you stay that way.”
“Don’t you start, Noah. Now be off with you. Go. Go.” Grinning like a child, Noah ducked around the door to avoid having his back-side flogged by the hem of Nin’s skirts, which she was now waving at him as though she were shooing an errant chicken out of the house.
Strolling across the courtyard toward the gate and the workshops beyond, Noah could hear the sound of voices coming from Ham and Shallat’s house. As usual the sounds were loud and angry. Noah shook his head sadly and hoped it would not be Ham who inherited the strange gift of unnatural longevity that seemed to bless – or afflict – one male child in each generation of his family. According to Noah’s father, Lamech, the oddity of their long lives began with his great-grandfather, Enoch, whose life had spanned more than five times that of a normal man, and whose U-shapti statue now held pride of place on Noah’s family altar. Noah had never held any great faith in the vast pantheon of gods from which individuals, towns and villages each chose their patron deities, but anyone who bestowed a gift of nearly eternal life certainly deserved the deepest respect and the occasional offering of honey and wine. Still, sometimes Noah wondered whether living for centuries was more of a curse than a blessing. What does it say for a man when he has to bury everyone he has ever known and everyone he loves - wife, children, grandchildren – and repeat the process time after time, down through the centuries until he could hardly even remember the names and faces of his first half-dozen families?
Noah did, however, remember vividly when his father had told him that his grandfather, Methuselah, had been nearly nine hundred years old when Noah was born; naturally he refused to believe it, who would? But by the time Methuselah died, Noah himself had celebrated nearly ninety birthdays. And so it went through one generation after another of his family. Almost certainly the same strange condition would afflict one of his own sons, but which one there seemed no way to predict. Time, undoubtedly, would tell. How many times over the centuries had he wondered about this? A hundred? A thousand? Who knew? What he did know, was that he had never been happier. Despite Ham’s problems, Noah had a fine wife and two of his boys had grown to be all a father could ask for; fine, responsible, hard-working Shem and dear, sweet, loving Japheth. Noah knew it was wrong to favor one child over another, but of all the children he had fathered over all the long centuries, Japheth was beyond doubt the dearest to his heart…maybe because he would be the last.
“There you are, father.” As though his appearance had been cued by Noah’s thoughts, Japheth came darting out of the wood shop and grabbed him by the hand. “Shem and I thought you got lost. Where were you?”
Throwing an arm around the boy’s shoulder, Noah gave him a lop-sided squeeze and leaned his forehead against his son’s long, shiny black locks, inhaling the fresh, clean scent of youth. “I’m sorry, I just lost track of time. If your mother hadn’t called me in for lunch I would still be out there trimming suckers and lashing stems to the lattice. Tomorrow you have to come down with me and see how well the new white grapes are coming along.”
“The ones you and I built the new arbors for?”
Noah was about to tell Japheth about their new vines, but he was pre-empted by the sound of Shem’s voice.
“You need to be careful; it gets too hot out there.” A few steps inside the big double doors of the shop, Shem was speaking to his father while wrestling awkwardly with the frame of a plow he had been building.
“Thank you, Shem; now that your mother has reminded me of that fact, and you have so dutifully reinforced it, maybe my poor old mind will be able to remember.”
“Don’t joke about it, Papa. We’re just concerned about you.”
“I know, son, but I think I can still take care of myself.”
“Good. Then see that you do.”
“So, boys, tell me what is so fascinating about Raneb’s plow that it has managed to become your sole concern and topic of conversation for the past, what, three days now?”
Shem laid down the tongue of the heavy plow, brushed the sawdust from his leather apron and came to the door of the shop where his father and brother were still standing. Motioning Noah toward a stump of wood, Shem leaned his back against a workbench and crossed his thick, hairy arms over his broad chest. Japheth was perfectly happy to drop cross-legged onto the dusty, hard-packed earth floor.
Shem prodded the long, heavy tongue of the newly built plow with the toes of one bare foot as though being in physical contact with his work helped him concentrate. The plow was as neat and carefully built as everything that came out of his shop. Nearly half again as long as a man was tall, its main shaft and tongue were hewn from a timber five inches wide and nearly twice that thick. At the front end a heavy iron ring had been attached to the wood by means of a wide metal band. Through this ring would be passed the plaited rawhide ropes that would, in turn, be attached to the ox yoke and thereby allow the great, placid beast to drag the plow across the fields. At the rear end of the plow two handles rose in a ‘V’ shape, providing a means of steering and keeping the plow upright as it burrowed its way slowly through the sandy soil. Immediately in front of the point where the handles joined the main shaft, a five inch square arm of wood jutted downward toward the ground at a sharp forward angle. The front and bottom edges of this arm had been hewn to a crude point: this was the share, which served as a blade, digging into the earth, breaking up the clods, shaping the soil into water-retaining furrows and turning it to provide aeration. It was toward the share that Shem was now waggling his finger as he tried to explain Raneb’s demands and his own thoughts on the matter.
“Raneb says he’s tired of replacing broken shares. He is only having this new plow built because he had to replace so many shares on the old one that the socket it fits into finally wore out.”
“Raneb is an old woman; he complains about everything. Shares wear out, they break, you replace them. So what makes Raneb special?”
“The point is that Raneb told me he wanted me to make the share for the new plow out of iron.”
“That’s ridiculous. Even Raneb, rich as he is, couldn’t afford that much iron; and even if he could it would make the plow so heavy it would dig itself straight into the ground until it was buried. It wouldn’t work.”
“Yes, but listen to Shem’s idea, Father, its fantastic.” Japheth’s eyes had lit up and he was bouncing up and down on his whip-thin rump.
“Ah, your big brother the genius.” Noah smiled and turned back to where Shem stood, but gently squeezed Japheth’s knee cap just hard enough to make the boy wince. “So, genius, what is your big plan?”
“I was wondering why Ham couldn’t forge some kind of an iron skin for the cutting edge of the share - some kind of a curved, wedge-shaped plate that had swept-back sides and a good, sharp edge so it would cut through the soil the way the blade of a knife cuts through meat.”
Noah slowly took this in. Shem knew his father had taken the suggestion seriously because he had begun twisting the end of his beard into little ringlets the way he always did when he was deep in thought. “This knife blade - or should we call it a plow blade - it would have to be relatively thin, otherwise it would still be so heavy it would pull the plow deeper and deeper into the soil until it bogged down. It’s going to be hard for Ham to beat the metal that thin and not have it become so brittle it breaks the first time one of Raneb’s plowmen slams it into a rock. If it breaks, Raneb will be right back where he was before and he will blame you for the broken plow.”
“Yeah, Raneb is really good at complaining, especially when it costs him money.”
“Right, Japheth, and the less we see of Raneb and his complaining, the better.” Again, Noah turned back to Shem and stared at him quizzically.
Shem nodded silently and began pacing slowly back and forth across the dusty shop floor. At twenty eight years of age he was not only the oldest of the three boys, he was also the cleverest as well as the broadest and brawniest. Even though Ham worked as a blacksmith, it was Shem whose body was covered in thick, ropey muscles. “I think if we use the best grade of iron, and shape the wooden share behind it so that only two thumb’s breadth of the plow blade extends beyond the bottom edge of the share; it should be stable enough to turn over the soil and rocks without breaking.”
“Why leave so much of the bottom edge exposed? Why not just a single thumb’s breadth? Why any at all?”
“Because the iron will dull with use and need constant sharpening. If it’s too close to the share to start with, Shem won’t be able to sharpen it after two or three years.”
Noah nodded thoughtfully. “It sounds good. Very clever, Shem. I think you should tell Ham to keep the bottom edge a bit thicker than the rest of the blade; that will give the cutting edge some extra strength without adding too much to the over-all weight. I think this blade idea of yours may well make the plow work better. Good job, son. This is a far cry from the way it was when I was a boy. There wasn’t any such thing as a plow back then; we had to till the earth with a short-handled hoe. It was back breaking work, I can tell you.”
“Papa, you may not have had plows where you grew up but, honestly, I think there were plenty of them around. The plow has been around almost forever.”
“Laugh if you want, son, but I’m telling you I can remember when word of the first plow came to my village and it amazed everybody.”
“And when might this have been?” Shem raised one skeptical eyebrow, a half-smile playing at one corner of his lips.
“Oh,” Noah rubbed his chin in thought, disarraying the silvery thickness of his long beard, “at least five hundred and fifty years ago, maybe a little bit more. It gets hard to remember.”
Noah had already raised his hand and was about to open his mouth to protest, when Japheth injected himself into the conversation.
“Hey, Shem, could these iron blades be put on old plows, too? You know, so somebody could make their old plow work better without having to buy a whole new plow.” Japheth’s eyes had taken on a far away, dreamy look.”
“I don’t see why not; do you, Papa?” In response, Noah only pursed his lips, shrugged almost imperceptibly and shook his head.
“Then we could make plow blades for everybody. We could take them to Shuruppak and Ur and Uruk and Nippur and Jericho. We can sell our plow blades to everybody in the world…”
“And get rich?”
Japheth knew Shem was teasing him. Shem always scoffed at his brother’s ideas and now the best Japheth could do was to pick at the dirt and mutter, “Well we could.”
Noah scratched the back of his neck and leaned toward Japheth. “I think there might just be a market for these plow blades, son, but first we need to see if they really work. Why don’t you go find Ham and bring him down here so you and Shem can explain all this to him?” Noah heaved himself up from his log with a small grunt and took a step toward the door. “I think I’m going up to the house and lay down for a little while.”
Japheth jumped up and started toward the door but paused, whirled around and gave Noah a small hug. “Thanks Father.”
“For what?” Noah opened his eyes in mock confusion.
With the single word “everything”, Japheth shot through the door and up the path toward his middle brother’s house.
Stifling a yawn, Noah turned in the same direction and waved off-handedly at his remaining son. “Later, after supper, we should sort through the wood pile. I know some of the acacia wood needs turning. Would you mind helping me?”
“No problem, Papa. Bring Japheth along, too. A third hand never hurts.”
“I will if I can. But I’m afraid the charms of stacking planks and beams are no match for those of young Merimda.” Behind him, Shem laughed as he started to roll the plow onto its back so the share was standing upper-most, pointing at the ceiling like the leg of a dead animal. Sweeping the dust of the floor smooth and level with the edge of one foot, he squatted down and began sketching out a broad, gently flaring wedge-shaped design in the dirt; adjusting and changing it as he went along. Not that he would ever admit it to the kid, but maybe Japheth was right. Maybe he could sell one of these plow blades to ever farmer in the world.
* * *
Eridu was no different than a dozen-dozen villages scattered across the semi-arid plains and fertile river valleys of Mesopotamia. Unlike larger towns, it had no main street or market area; instead it was comprised only of a maze of narrow, twisting lanes that wandered through a collection of walled enclosures, each one containing the houses and out-buildings of an extended family. In the case of those few residents who had businesses - like Shem’s wood shop, Ham’s smithy, Kurda’s pottery and flint knapping shop or Esnan and Solana’s tavern - the businesses were located near the main gate of the family compound. The compound walls’ primary purpose was to keep out predators that roamed across the desolate wastes beyond the village; human violators of property and livestock were nearly unheard of. But out there, in the vast space between the tiny flecks of civilization - as separate and isolated as the stars in the sky - it was still a world where men were just as much prey as they were predator. Wolves, lions, jackals, leopards and hyenas may have hunted at different hours and in different ways, but they were often just as happy to attack a human as an antelope or a rabbit. Only the compound walls kept the sheep, goats, cows and humans safe and the night-hunters at a comfortable distance.
While the thirty-eight walled enclosures that made up Eridu were unquestionably private property, there were no prohibitions against a person expanding their compound as the need, or whim, arose, as long as the extension did not encroach on a neighbor’s space. Those who lived at the center of the village could only expand by staking out a separate plot beyond the edge of town. Noah, who was located at the edge of a shallow defile along Eridu’s southeastern boundary, was lucky. When he had decided to cultivate his vineyard he simply staked out a hillside plot to the east of his enclosure and started planting the wild vines he gathered from here and there in the neighboring hills. That had been nearly ten years ago, and now the well-tended vines were producing a full crop of grapes every year. There were few days when he would not prefer to be cutting and trimming the vines, picking the grapes or tending to a new batch of wine than doing anything else he could think of. It was not that he had any complaints about taking his turn with the rest of the gardening; the melons, cucumbers and onions, the garlic, mustard and herbs, the pomegranate and apricot trees all needed tending, and it was especially rewarding when he could teach Beni, his granddaughter, how to identify the different kinds of plants and how best to care for each of them. But the vines were special. They were his alone and needed constant and loving attention if they were to be coaxed into producing the juiciest, most succulent grapes. When Noah was not physically husbanding his vineyard, at least one corner of his mind was always working on ways to improve it. Tonight, however, there was wood to be sorted and re-stacked. If the broad planks were not properly aerated, or not rotated often enough as they dried, they would warp and twist, and good wood was far too rare and expensive a commodity to be lost through heedless lack of care.
Shem had wandered from his house to his parents’ shortly after dinner. It was summer, there was still plenty of daylight left and he felt in no particular hurry, so he allowed his seven year old daughter to accompany him. Now, she sat comfortably snuggled up next to her grandmother, chewing contentedly on a sweet sesame, honey and date cake while her father licked the last of Nin’s gloriously rich confection from his fingers. “You about ready, Papa. That wood won’t sort itself.”
Rising from his stool, Noah nodded his head and looked at Japheth. “Are you going to help your brother and me or do we have to lift all the wood in the world ourselves?”
“Can I go down and see Merimda later on?”
Noah exchanged glances with Shem, who only nodded once and stroked his short, curly black beard. Dealing with Japheth in matters of work was always delicate; technically he now worked for Shem, but Noah was still his father and the family patriarch. “I’ll tell you what; you help us un-stack the wood and Shem and I will sort through it while you run down and say ‘hi’ to Merimda. But I want you back here in time to help us restack it.”
Rising from his seat, Japheth grinned. “I guess that’s fair. So what are we waiting for?” Together, the three headed out the door and toward the wood yard.
* * *
“These planks down here on the bottom; how long have they been here, Papa? Two years?”
“Oh, at least that long, son, maybe three. They should be as dry as they are ever going to get. I think we can set them aside and you and Japheth can move them into the workshop tomorrow.”
“And these newest boards, the ones that were on top, I think we should put them on the bottom of the pile and forget about them for a season or two. Don’t you agree?”
Noah nodded his head sagely, looking from left to right, taking in the scattered mounds of planks, boards and heavy timbers littering the courtyard in every direction. He was about to make a suggestion on how it might be more efficient if they stacked the wood not only by how long it had been aging, but also by dimension, when his train of thought was broken by the appearance of Shallat. She was coming up the dusty path from the center of the village, wiping her eyes with one hand and holding the side of her head with the other. Even at a distance it was obvious that she was terribly distressed and crying. Both men hurried through the gate to meet her and Noah gathered her into his arms, stroking her back and shoulders, shushing her gently.
“Don’t cry daughter-in-law. That won’t help anything. Now tell us what’s wrong.”
“Oh, Noah, you know what’s wrong. The same thing as always. My husband.”
Shem took a step forward and gently laid a brawny hand on Shallat’s shoulder to get her attention. “I didn’t see you leave. I thought you were still up at the house.”
The girl shook her head, looked up and wiped her tear-stained face with the back of one hand. As her hand passed through the salty water it mixed with the road dust clinging to her face and left a broad, dirty smear across one cheek. “You three were busy with the wood when I went to find Ham, so I didn’t bother you.”
“And where is Ham?” It was a rhetorical question and Shem knew it, so he answered it himself, only expecting Shallat to verify his suspicions. “He’s down at Esnan and Solana’s tavern again, isn’t he?”
In response, Shallat only nodded and added, “He’s been down there since late afternoon. He didn’t even come home for dinner. So I went down to get him and…” At this point she broke down into tears again, burying her face in Noah’s shoulder.
“Son, you look after Shallat. I’ll go down and bring Ham home. I won’t be…”
“No, Papa.” Shem’s voice was firm. “You always bring that little weasel back from wherever it is he gets himself off to. You’re too easy on him. This time I’ll go, and by the gods I won’t be nearly as easy on him as you are.” It was obvious Shem was in no mood to argue the matter, so Noah said he would take Shallat up to Nin. “No. Don’t trouble mother with this. Take her to my house and let Utap look after her. I’ll get Ham and be back in a few minutes.”
Noah knew this was a matter best left to the brothers and only nodded. They were fully grown men and had to deal with their own lives in whatever way worked best for them. As he steered Shallat toward the houses, he turned his head toward Shem's receding back. “Don’t hurt him, Shem.” Shem never halted in his march toward the center of the village and all Noah heard was the last part of his muttered response, “…break his fool neck”.
* * *
“Esnan. Hey, Esnan. We’re all dying of thirst over here; can’t you hurry your fat bottom with that ale jug?”
Eridu’s only tavern - owned by Esnan and his wife Solana, who were publican and brewer, respectively - was almost indistinguishable from the rest of the village’s buildings. A simple, one-room box made of mud bricks plastered inside and out with a mixture of dung, mud and straw. In size it was almost identical to the main room of Noah’s house; the only notable exception being that instead of a cooking hearth there was a small bar counter along one wall and the hard-packed dirt floor was filled with small tables and stools. The room could comfortably accommodate two dozen customers. If, for any reason, more than that number congregated, some of them always wandered outside to escape the closeness and permeating odor of stale beer and sweat that were the habitual perfume of taverns and ale houses everywhere. Tonight there were only seven customers and they were all regulars. Ham was setting at the main table with the same crowd he had been hanging out with since his mid-teens, and in the decade since then none of them had matured in the slightest. They were all married and many of them had children of their own, but their humor and attitude toward the responsibilities of life remained those of juveniles.
“Hey, Esnan,” Ham’s voice was as slurred as that of his companions, “I think you need to tell Solana to say more prayers to Ninkasi when she makes the next batch of beer. This stuff has so many dregs in it it’s as thick as one of my wife’s stews.” Turning back from the bar, he leaned forward conspiratorially, addressing his friends in a mock whisper. “Of course, I could also say that my wife’s stew is as thin as Solana’s beer.” As he slapped his hand on the wet surface of the table, the other three burst out in loud, raucous laughter.
As Esnan made his way across the room to refill the men’s beakers, the front door slammed open with a crash. In the broad, low opening Shem stood with his arms outstretched, braced against the door jambs, blocking entrance to, and escape from, the tavern. Allowing himself a minute for his eyes to adjust to the dim light of the room, Shem spotted his brother and said his name in a clear, even voice.
“Oops,” Ham giggled to his friends, “I think my big brother has come to walk me home.”
In five long strides Shem made his way across the room and planted himself no more than an arm’s length from where his brother sat. “I think you had better go home now, baby brother, your wife is frantic.”
“I know she’s frantic,” Ham belched loudly, interrupting himself. “She’s always frantic. Why do you think I come down here to be with my friends? I’ll tell you why, because I can’t stand being around frantic, hysterical women.”
Ignoring Ham’s comments and his friends” drunken, sniggering response, Shem continued. His tone remained even, but had Ham been just a little more sober, he would have heard the hard edge creep into his brother’s voice. “Are you aware, that while you and your drunken friends have been down here making yourselves stupid, your father and little brother are up at the woodshed re-stacking all the timber stores by themselves.”
Ham turned his flushed face around, cocking his head upward and closing one eye slightly so he could focus on his brother’s face. “No! Why Shem, that’s terrible. They shouldn’t be doing that alone. I think you should go right back up there and help them.”
Without another word, Shem’s right foot shot out, catching Ham hard in the side, just above the point of his left hip. As he toppled to his right, Ham made a desperate clutch for the table top, but his coordination was as dulled as his other senses and in a few seconds he was laying on the floor, his rump and left shoulder in the air, his face pressed into the dust. Without saying a word or giving his brother a chance to say anything, Shem’s foot shot out a second time. This time it slipped deftly between Ham’s buttocks, allowing the hard, bony surface of his arch to connect firmly with his brother’s groin. As Ham grunted loudly, vomited up a vast quantity of beer, gasped for breath and shoved his hands between his legs, Shem spoke again.
“Now, you useless piece of hyena crap, I want you to crawl home and sleep it off. Shallat will be staying with me and Utap tonight and if I ever have to come down here and get you again, I’m going to break your jaw. Do you understand me?” In response, Ham only moaned and nodded his head in the dust and vomit before dragging himself toward the door. Once he was across the threshold he turned around far enough to use the door frame to pull himself to his feet and take the first, unsteady steps on the long stumble homeward. Behind him, Shem surveyed every face in the room one by one, his eyes finally lighting on Esnan.
“I don’t want you to serve my brother a single drink in here until the moon has come full circle. Do you understand me, Esnan?”
“Hey, I don’t want any trouble with you, Shem,” Esnan said, wiping hands nervously on his dirty apron as he stared wide-eyed at Shem’s broad frame. “I just mind my own business and sell beer.”
“Not to my brother you don’t, not for thirty days and not if you want me to mend the wheels on that ox cart of yours. You understand me?”
“Absolutely, Shem. No beer for a full turn of the moon. Oh, and since you mention it, when can I bring that cart up to you?”
“Thirty days. Not one minute before. You help me keep my brother sober and then I’ll be willing to help you keep your cart on the road. Right?”
“Right.” Esnan nodded furiously. “Now you take care and have a nice night, Shem. Give my best to your folks.”
Shem only grunted before stalking toward the door and out into the freshening breeze that had come up with the sun’s passing and the beginning of twilight.
Taking his time going home, Ham ambled along the erratically winding lanes - set deep between the stone and mud brick walls of the family compounds - that served as Eridu’s streets. When a herd of bleating goats came tripping their way toward him, their tiny copper bells tinkling softly, Shem smiled as he stepped aside, hoisting himself to a setting position on the edge of a wall to avoid having his feet trod on by dozens of sharp little hooves. For these few moments he allowed himself the luxury of forgetting about life’s responsibilities long enough to relax and soak-in the beauty of the evening. The sun had just disappeared behind the horizon, its dying rays washing the clouds with reflected red, pink and amber light. The clouds, in turn, were returning the light to the earth in such a way that it painted the far-off hills, the dun colored plains and even the mud-brown houses and enclosure walls of Eridu with a dozen shades of pink, violet and blue. It was as close to real color as the dull, brown existence of Eridu and its residents were ever likely to come.
Finally, when the goats had passed and Shem had slid down from the wall, he quickened his steps. It was late, he was tired and he had a long day ahead of him tomorrow. He needed to finish re-stacking the wood that Noah and Japheth could not possibly have finished themselves; he would have to get Ham sober enough to explain to him again about the plow blade and finally he had to catch up on work in the carpenter’s shop. There was never any lack of work for those willing to do it, and Shem was one of life’s workers.
As Noah wandered out of the bedroom, scratching the sleep from his gown, seven year-old Beni skipped up to him and threw herself at his thighs, shouting “Grandpa, grandpa”. The main room was a whirlpool of activity. Kneeling at her hearth, Nin gingerly removed two piping hot manna breads from the cooking stone, piling them on a growing stack and replacing them with two more flat discs of raw dough. At the front door, Utap came in lugging a basket brimming with fresh melons, apricots and pomegranates which she handed to Shallat, who was repacking a mountain of food into another basket. Wandering to the table, Noah had to push aside a pot of soft goat cheese and a large crock of olives to make room at his accustomed place.
“What in the world is going on?”
“How many times do I have to remind you, husband?” Nin never looked up from her work as she answered. “Today is Ea’s harvest festival. It happens every autumn, we always go, and you always conveniently manage to forget about it.”
“Oh, that. Do you plan on feeding the entire village yourself this year?” Noah surveyed the sea of food littering the room in apparent confusion, the shadow of a smile playing across his mouth.
“There are eight of us to be fed, unless of course Merimda joins us, in which case there will be nine. And I am taking my olives, mustard sauce and sesame date cakes to sell at the market. It may look like a lot, but I assure you there can never be too much food.” To Nin, like mothers everywhere, cooking for her family was a physical display of her love.
Leaning across the table to snatch an apricot from Utap’s temporarily unguarded lunch basket, Noah slowly surveyed the glossy, ruby and gold fruit before taking a bite from it, lifting a hand to wipe a drop of juice from his lower lip before it dribbled into his beard. “Food is good. So what are my fine efficient ladies bringing for our lunch?”
Shallat looked up from her basket, her sad, limpid eyes taking on a rare, almost happy expression. “We have melons, goat cheese, manna, some of Nin’s pickled cucumber and onion salad, and apricots…provided you don’t eat them all before we go.”
“Noah looked up at his daughter-in-law, his eyes wide. “No meat? How can an old man be expected to survive the rigors of a day of religious insanity without any meat to sustain his poor withered body?”
“Husband, you know full well there will be meat from the sacrifices. It will, as it has always been, be shared out among the faithful after the ceremony. In your case, however, they may make an exception and let you have some despite your sacrilegious attitude.” Nin shook her head ruefully and pushed back a strand of errant hair with the back of one flour-covered hand. “You know you really should be more respectful of Ea; she has given us a bountiful year. The garden has been as plentiful as I can ever remember it, Raneb had a bumper harvest of emmer wheat which assures us of bread and beer for another year and your grapes are the envy of the village. So how do you think this would all have happened without Ea’s blessings?”
“The same way it always does, Mother, through hard work and the sheer luck of having enough rain to keep the plants watered.”
“Sometimes I just don’t understand you, husband.” Nin shook her grey locks from side to side, flinging them over one shoulder with a shake and twist of her head as she shaped another stack of unleavened dough into the round, flat cakes that would become manna once they had been baked on the hearthstone. “You don’t seem to have any problem making sacrifices to your great-grandfather, Enoch, but you steadfastly refuse to recognize the gods themselves. Why is that do you suppose?”
“Nin, my love, it is eminently simple. Enoch I know. He was my ancestor and brought a great, if strange, blessing of long life to his tribe and descendants. These other gods are the creations of men’s needs and fears. Each town, village and city worships its own favorite gods and goddesses as the necessity, and convenience, arises.”
“Father-in-law, you know that’s not exactly true.” Utap looked up sharply from where she was now helping Shallat pack the picnic basket across the table from him. “Everyone accepts all the gods; it’s just that different towns pay special homage to the ones whose blessings they most need. We are a farming community, so we pray to Ea because she is the goddess of fertility and bounty. I’ve never been there, of course, but I understand that in Ur they worship Nana, the moon goddess, because the king needs her wisdom to help him rule. What’s so complicated about that?”
Noah surreptitiously reached for another apricot, but Utap smacked his fingers before he could get them over the edge of her basket. “There isn’t anything complicated about it, daughter-in-law, maybe that’s why I have a problem with it.” Noah shrugged, “It’s all just a little bit too tidy and convenient.”
“How do you mean, father? I don’t understand.” From above Noah’s head, came the voice of Japheth as he began making his way down from the sleeping loft which was his own, small, private domain.
“Now, Noah, I don’t want you filling our son’s head with your heretical nonsense.”
“I wasn’t talking to Japheth, but since he’s here it’s time he learned to keep a healthy skepticism. It’s the only way he’ll be prepared to face the harsh realities of life.” Nin only sighed and turned back to her baking. Taking this as a sign of surrender, or at least acquiescence, Noah canted his head back to look up the ladder toward his son. “All I was trying to say, Japheth, is that it’s strangely convenient that new gods seem to come into existence to suit whatever occasion happens to arise.”
“No they don’t.”
“They do, Utap, and if you give me a minute I will attempt to explain myself.” Now addressing himself to everyone in general, but no one in particular, Noah continued. “When I was a boy…”
“Oh, may the gods save us, here we go again.”
“Please, Nin, let me finish.”
“When I was a boy, the brewing of beer was a completely unknown art.”
“You mean beer didn’t exist?”
“That’s exactly what I mean, Japheth.”
“I wonder what Ham would have done back then?”
“I’m sorry mother. Sorry Shallot.” Japheth averted his eyes from his sister-in-law who was obviously upset, but only shook her head and buried her face in her work.
“What I was trying to say, Japheth, is that it wasn’t until somebody figured out how to malt the grain, bake it into bappir loaves, break down the loaves and mix them with warm water that beer was invented. Then, and only then, did the goddess Ninkasi magically appear to become the patron goddess of brew-wives everywhere.”
“So where was Ninkasi before that?”
“Maybe I’m just stupid, but I still don’t understand what you’re getting at.” Japheth scratched sleepily at the matted ends of his long, tousled hair and rubbed his eyes.
“What your father is trying to say, Japheth, is that somebody only invented Ninkasi to explain the discovery of brewing.”
“Oh, so like, Ninkasi didn’t really tell people how to invent beer, beer sort of invented Ninkasi.”
“Very good, son.” A mischievous twinkle had crept into Noah’s eye and he winked up at his son.
“Are you happy, husband? Our son is becoming just as bad as you are.”
“Really what? We aren’t arguing on the morning of Ea’s festival, are we?” In the doorway stood Shem, his arms loaded with home-spun blankets; behind him Ham waited with a large jar of Noah’s wine in his arms.
Relieved by their appearance, and the possibility that it did, indeed, prevent the family’s banter from escalating into something potentially harsh, Nin rose, strode across the hot, crowded room, dusted off her hands and kissed each of her sons in turn.
“No, we were not arguing. Your father, bless him, was doing his heathen act again.”
“Wait, don’t tell me,” Ham stepped forward, shifted the pot of wine, thrusting out a free arm dramatically. “A million years ago, when I was a boy, back before the gods were invented and the rocks were still soft, long before beer was born…” With that, the entire family broke down in near hysterics, diffusing any tension that might have been building up; even Noah nodded his head enthusiastically, grinning and laughing like a hyena.
“So you will be civil enough to go to the festival, won’t you, husband?” When the laughter died, Nin turned to look at her husband, hands planted firmly on her hips.
“Of course I will, my dear. I always do, don’t I? Just don’t expect me to slit some poor, stupid goat’s throat because I had a good grape crop.”
“Fair enough, just don’t expect to get any of that juicy goat meat later on.”
“Oh, Nin, that’s not fair…”
“Life’s not fair.” Whirling around in a three hundred and sixty degree pirouette to survey the room, Nin asked firmly. “Is everybody ready?” Heads nodded and no one dissented so, taking the bundle of blankets from Shem and surveying the room one final time, she told everyone to grab something, motioned toward the door with her head, and led the way into the early morning sunshine.
“What are you taking, Pomegranate?” Noah leant down, his face close to that of his granddaughter.
Grabbing hold of the skirt of his gown, Beni answered, “You…and Beazley.”
“Me and who?”
“Beazley, my dolly.”
* * *
The temple of Ea had been built as a community project far in the past, beyond anyone’s earliest memory, long before even the oldest stories about life in Eridu. Originally built in an open field at the southwest corner of the village, it was now the sole occupant of a spacious enclosure situated between two family compounds. The goddess’ shrine was similar in size and construction to most of the other buildings in Eridu; a single-story mud brick box about fifteen feet square with a flat roof. But rather than the traditional four walls punctuated by a door and one or two small windows, the shrine had only one solid wall. The remaining three sides remained open except for a column at each front corner and another column at the center of each side. As the first of the supplicants made their way toward the temple yard, they could see the life-sized, carved wooden statue of Ea – her abdomen and breasts massively distended in pregnancy as a sign of her fertility – seated on her throne in the shadowy depths of her little temple. Her thick-hipped figure sat on a low pedestal with its back against the center of the rear wall. Two paces in front of her stood the altar, a heavy stone slab supported by two stone columns. Except for the image of the goddess and the altar, the temple was entirely empty and devoid of decoration. Standing alone at the center of its walled enclosure, it projected a curiously imposing, stark grandeur.
As the celebrants made their way from every corner of Eridu, small groups converged into larger ones like small streams joining to form a great river, until the narrow walking path leading toward the temple yard was a solid throng of humanity more than two hundred and fifty in number. Joking and jostling, they laughed and chatted as though they had not seen one another in years when, in fact, in such a small community it was difficult not to see everyone in town at least once every week or two. But today was different. It was a time of celebration when the cares and petty rivalries of day to day existence were neatly tucked away and everyone shared their gratitude for another successful year with their friends, relatives and neighbors. Nin and the girls had been joined by several of the other women, including the widow Madi whose only son had abandoned her for the excitement of the nearest large city, Shuruppak, some years before. While Shem herded the family together and kept an eye on Beni and Ham, Noah fell into conversation with several men whose small vineyards had been planted next to his own and which he tended for them in exchange for a share of their wine.
“I’ll never know how you get the grapes to grow so much bigger and juicier than they do in the wild, Noah. Is it some magic; do you know some secret sorcery? Are you in special communication with Ea?” The wizened, one-eyed old man cajoled his friend and the others chimed in, desperate to know his secret.
Noah laughed and shook his head. “No, believe me, it’s nothing as inexplicable as that. It’s a simple matter of learning which new growths to cut off and which to leave. If there are too many shoots all the plant’s energy goes into growing new branches. You just have to channel the energy and sap into the grapes, instead.”
The men shook their heads in wonder, not sure whether to believe Noah or if he was just misleading them because he was unwilling to share his real secret.
“Father. Excuse me, father.”
Noah turned from his friends, laid a hand on Japheth’s shoulder and smiled. “What is it son?”
“I’m sorry to interrupt,” He nodded his head in polite apology toward the three sun-wrinkled, grey haired men walking with his father, “but I saw Merimda and her family behind us and, um…”
“And now you want my permission to abandon your family, who have loved and nurtured you since the day you were born, and fight your way through that heaving, sweaty crowd just so you can stare at her like a moon-struck calf. How long has it been since you saw her? Not since last evening if I recall.”
With the awkwardness common to all teenagers, this gentle ribbing made Japheth roll his eyes and look away in embarrassment. The only thing the boy could manage to say was, “Aww…” As Noah’s friends smiled and bit back their amusement, the old man slapped his son on the arm and said “Go. And tell her she is welcome to join us for lunch; we don’t see enough of her and her family must be getting sick of feeding you, particularly that ill-tempered father of hers.”
It was all the encouragement Japheth needed. In a flash his slim form disappeared into the crowd, the only evidence of his passing was one waving hand raised above the throng and a single word shouted repeatedly into the air: “Merimda, Merimda.”
Noah had just turned back from his son’s receding figure with a smile, and was about to resume his conversation, when Shem elbowed his way through the crowd. “Papa, I hate to disturb you, but Mother has a nice spot picked out near the temple and wants us to help her and the girls set things up.”
Noah offered a shrug to his companions. “Duty calls, boys.” Starting to turn away, he halted long enough for a final word. “But you all know you are more than welcome to come out to the vineyard any time you want and help me with the vines. Who knows, you might even learn enough so you can tend your own vines next year.”
“So then we can stop sharing our wine with you, right?”
“There is always that to be considered.” Smiling and shaking his head, Noah waved goodbye and wandered off through the crowd to join his family.
By the time Noah and Shem picked their way through the aimlessly milling mass of humanity, stepping gingerly over the blankets and shawls that had been placed on the ground to mark individual plots, constantly excusing themselves, careful not to tread on anyone’s belongings, Nin, Utap, Shallat and Madi had almost finished their preparations. At one edge of the blanket stood the picnic basket and wine jar, along with Madi’s own small bundle of food. Arranged along another side was the pile of goods Nin intended to sell at the trade fair that would follow the formal services. Shallat was still busily arranging things on the blanket while Utap minded Beni and several of her little playmates who had wandered by to join her. Nin and Madi had already begun catching up on the local gossip with their friends and were about to make their way to where another middle-aged woman was hailing them, when a piercing blast on a ram’s horn trumpet split the air. The ceremonies in honor of Ea were about to begin.
In front of the main entrance to the temple, the corpulent, ornately robed figure of Gebeline held up his arms for attention; the ringlets of his dyed and heavily tallowed hair and square-cut beard glistened in the brilliant morning light. Gebeline had amassed vast wealth by trading his animals for far more than they were worth to those in desperate need of livestock. This, and the fact that - with the exception of Noah - he was the most senior of the village elders, had made Gebeline the unofficial headman of Eridu; and he took every possible opportunity to promote himself in that capacity. Although, as a male, he could not serve as head of the local cult of Ea he officiated at both the spring planting festival and the autumn harvest festival. He also called village meetings on those rare occasions when they were necessary, and did his best to settle disputes among the locals; particularly if he could find a way to line his own pockets in the process.
With the endless, boring hyperbole of self-important men everywhere, Gebeline worked his audience for all he was worth. He extolled the bountiful harvest and fine weather which the goddess had sent to bless the fields and pastures of Eridu over the past year, and the increased number of nearly everyone’s flocks and herds. As further testimony of the goddess’ blessings he named each of the three new children born to local families since the previous spring, which officially marked the beginning of the new year. He carefully neglected to mention that there had also been three deaths over the same period and that, as a result, the village had failed to grow in size. He bemoaned the fact that Eridu was not large enough, nor rich enough, to support a full-time priestess and that Larsa, wife of prominent, local farmer Raneb, would once again be serving in that capacity. In closing, he pointed out that, thanks to their continued dedication to Ea, Larsa and Raneb’s lives had been blessed with seven children and the finest and most extensive fields of emmer wheat that had ever been seen in the entire Kingdom of Jericho. Finally, after assuring everyone that following the formal sacrifices each family would have a chance to make their own sacrifice to the goddess - and exhausting every possible avenue to keep himself in front of his audience - Gebeline turned the ceremonies over to Larsa.
Tall, willowy and solemn countenanced as she was, even Noah had to admit that Larsa looked every inch the priestess. Striding forward she faced the crowd and in a loud, clear voice intoned the opening hymn to the goddess - thanking her for her bounty and blessings and praying that she would see fit to continue smiling on the people of Eridu throughout the winter ahead and again with the spring planting that would come with the dawn of the new year. Then, turning her back to the congregation, Larsa moved into the inner sanctum of the temple, bowed deeply before the altar and prostrated herself on the packed earth floor, chanting the appropriate hymns and entreaties to the wooden figure. After completing the appropriate purification rites, she called for the first of two sacrificial goats to be brought forward.
Guided through the crowd with much ceremony by Larsa’s eldest daughter, the beautifully bathed, perfumed and beribboned animal calmly allowed itself to be led into the temple and lifted gently onto the altar. After again calling on Ea to hear her prayers and accept this offering on behalf of the people of Eridu, Larsa pulled an ornately engraved copper knife with a long, wickedly-curved blade, from deep within the folds of her gown. In one swift, practiced movement she drove the dagger deep into the animal’s throat, allowing the fountain of blood to gush over her gown and run across the altar stone where it was collected in a ceremonial bowl. As the terrified animal thrashed out its life, Larsa turned again to face the crowd, holding the bowl high in her uplifted hands, displaying the front of her blood-soaked gown for all to see. After yet another prayer had been sent off to the ears of Ea, Larsa brought the bowl to her lips and drank the still-warm blood, allowing it to trickle down the sides of her face to mingle with the ruby liquid spattering her gown, which had already begun drying into a brown, scabrous stain in the heat of the sun. When the ceremony was finished and the cheering had died down, the dead goat was hauled from the altar to be, as Larsa was at pains to explain, skinned and gutted before being spit-roasted, so that everyone in the audience might share in Ea’s bounty. Immediately after the altar stone had been ceremonially washed and cleaned, a second goat was brought forward and the entire process was repeated. When the general, communal sacrifices had been solemnly and dutifully completed, Larsa invited anyone who wished to make personal sacrifices and offerings to come forward.
By prearrangement, and in deference to his status, the first in line to make sacrifice to Ea was Gebeline. With great show and pomp he announced that thanks to the goddess his herds had enjoyed the best year ever and, in gratitude, he was sacrificing one of his finest young cattle, whose carcass would then be cooked along with the ceremonial goats and offered for the enjoyment of the good people of Eridu. To universal expressions of appreciation, awe and wonder, Gebeline’s eldest son led forward a beautiful white bullock which had been born during the past spring’s calving. Too large to be hoisted onto the altar, it was simply maneuvered into place so it stood parallel to the front of Ea’s altar, its snowy left flank facing the audience. When Gebeline and Larsa were happy with its positioning, Gebeline and his son held it firmly by its budding horns and pulled its head back, exposing the tender flesh of its throat to Larsa’s knife. In seconds the creature had dropped to its knees, thrashing its head from side to side, struggling against its captors and blood-loss to right itself, until it finally collapsed to the temple floor, which had now become a blood-slickened swamp of dark red mud.
Next to come forward was Solana, who bore a symbolic bowl of her latest batch of beer. Extolling the mysteries of the brewing process, she begged Ea to accept her gift which could only be produced thanks to the bounty of the grain fields from which came the wheat that went into its production. She acknowledged that only through Ea could the grain be grown, but begged the goddess’ indulgence while she sang the hymn to Ninkasi, the patron goddess of brewers everywhere. Lifting the votive bowl of beer heavenward, Solana began to chant slowly and rhythmically, her stout body swaying gently from side to side as she sang:
Borne of the flowing water,
Tenderly cared for by Ninkasi,
Borne of the flowing water,
Tenderly cared for by Ninkasi,
Your father is Enki, Lord Nidimmud,
Your mother is Ninti, the queen of the sacred lake.
Ninkasi, your father is Enki, Lord Nidimmud,
Your mother is Enki, the queen of the sacred lake.
You are the one who handles the dough and with a big shovel,
Mixing in a pit, the bappir with sweet aromatics,
Ninkasi you are the one who handles the dough and with a big shovel,
Mixing in a pit, the bappir with date honey.
You are the one who bakes the bappir in the big oven,
Puts in order the piles of hauled grains,
Ninkasi, you are the one who bakes the bappir in the big oven,
Puts in order the piles of hauled grains.
You are the one who waters the malt set on the ground,
The noble dogs keep away even the noble potentates,
Ninkasi, you are the one who waters the malt set on the ground,
The noble dogs keep away even the noble potentates.
“So what do you think of the festival so far, Papa? Gebeline certainly made a big splash with that bullock.”
Shem and Noah had been standing off to one side of the family gathering, both of them with arms crossed over their chests, staring impassively at the proceedings. The only notable difference between their stances was that while Shem watched with apparent, mild respect, Noah alternated between obvious boredom and the occasional wry shaking of his head.
“What I think is that I noticed it was a bullock and not a cow that he offered. He already has two mature bulls and that’s all he needs to service his herd and every other cow in the village. He also has six or seven oxen of his own and has sold Raneb all the oxen he will need for years to come; he hardly needs one more bullock. Cows, on the other hand, produce both milk and more calves and he was not likely to kill one of those and hand out its meat to everyone in the village.”
Shem raised a hand to hide his smile, pinched his nose and mumbled, “That’s very cynical.”
“So is Gebeline.”
“Okay, granted, but Gebeline aside, what do you think of the festival as a whole?”
“What I think, son, is that I find the harvest services only slightly less embarrassing than the orgy they insist on holding every year at planting time and try to pass off as a religious service.”
“Oh, but Papa,” Shem’s tone was simultaneously joking and mocking, “The spring festival is the most popular thing that happens in this town all year.”
“Son, there is something about having two complete strangers come down from Shuruppak simply so they can copulate on that altar like a couple of stray dogs, that makes me nauseous.”
Nudging his father in the ribs, Shem whispered slyly “Would you rather it was someone from here in the village who performed the fertilization ceremonies?”
“Don’t be impertinent, son.”
When the offerings, prayers of thanks and sacrifices were completed, the crowd rearranged itself to prepare for the market fair and the haggling, drinking and neighborly chatting that would take place over the next five or six hours, until the goats and bullock were roasted and could be divided among the celebrants as part of their evening meal. Noah and Shem wandered back to the family blankets to offer their help and found, to their amazement, that Ham already had things well in hand. He had carefully set aside the picnic basket and wine jar and was rearranging his mother’s trade goods along the front edge of the blankets under Nin’s strict guidance, positioning everything so it was displayed to its best advantage.
“Are we too late to help, Mother?”
Straightening up from where she had been readjusting the crock of olives, Nin smiled and nodded absently to Shem and her husband. Placing her hands firmly on her hips, she muttered, “I think we have everything under control here. Why don’t all of you take some time and wander around and see what you can find. I’ll be fine on my own for a while.”
“I can stay and help you out, Nin. Once people get moving it will be more than you can handle on your own.”
“Oh, that’s sweet, Utap, but Beni will get bored sitting here.”
“I’ll tell you what.” Noah scratched his beard idly. “If Utap wants to stay here, I can take Beni with me. You wouldn’t mind walking around the market with your old grandpa, would you Pomegranate?”
“Can I Mama?” Beni’s eyes lit up as she dropped her doll on the grass and rushed around the blanket to clutch possessively at Noah’s hand. “Can I go with Grandpa?”
“Are you sure she won’t be any trouble, Papa?”
Noah reached down and grabbed his granddaughter under the armpits, swinging her high in the air before returning her to a comfortable position against his chest. “Never. My favorite girl will be as good as gold for her grandpa, won’t you Beni?”
The child’s face broke into a broad grin as she bobbed her head emphatically. “You bet.”
“Good. That’s settled then. You girls take care of business and the rest of us will make ourselves scarce and leave you alone.”
“I’ll be back to see if you need anything, or to give one of you a break in a little while. I won’t be long.”
“Take your time, Shallat. Utap and I can manage on our own for a while. You just have a good time.” Nin smiled sadly at her youngest daughter-in-law before turning her attention to Ham. “Are you going to walk Shallat around the market stalls like a dutiful husband, Ham?”
“Yeah. In a little bit. Right now I have to go talk to Fayu.” Then, after a pause and a hard, steely look from both his parents and older brother, he added, “But I’ll be right back.”
“See that you do.”
Ham nodded sullenly and wandered off through the crowd.
“Come on, daughter,” whispered Noah as he took Shallat’s elbow with his free hand. “You come with Shem, Beni and I and your husband can catch up with you later.”
Shallat cast a last, lonely glance at her husband’s receding back and fell in line beside the others as they threaded their way through the milling clutches of buyers, gawkers and sellers. The market had only been open for a few minutes and already people were clustered around the stalls, staring, pointing and discussing the items on display. Working the gathering crowd, the sellers hawked their wares at the top of their voices, entreating everyone to examine the quality of their goods and promising the best deals to all and sundry among their potential customers. Cash was always the preferred means of exchange, but only those who were as rich as Raneb or Gebeline were likely to make their purchases in coin; for the others, a mutually advantageous bargain would have to be struck so that each party traded something they had in excess for something else which they needed. It was a slow, complex and laborious process that involved much haggling, shaking of heads, waving of arms and, occasionally, raised voices as one party accused the other of trying to rob them of their livelihood, if not of their very existence. Wending their way through the mass of shuffling, shouting humanity, Noah and the others stopped by the stall where Kurda the potter had set out a display of his latest drinking beakers, bowls, cooking pots, jugs and jars. The skill and detail exhibited in his ware spoke of the five year apprenticeship Kurda had served in Shuruppak before travelling south to set up business in Eridu. Each piece was well formed and finished to a satiny smoothness; on the exterior of the beakers and jars, and on the interior surface of the bowls, were intricate geometric designs painted in a soft black that both high-lighted, and contrasted with, the mellow tan earth color of the vessel itself.
“Oh, Grandpa, look, that man is making little serpents.”
Noah knelt down beside Beni who was pointing at the curl of clay which Kurda was carefully rolling out on the board in front of him. With each pass of his skilled hands the rope of clay became longer and thinner, its sleek, moist circumference always remaining perfectly even and symmetrical along its ever-growing length.
“You see these pots and drinking beakers down here? When Kurda has enough of those serpents made, he is going to coil them around on top of each other so they make one of these shapes. Then he will wet his fingers with water and smooth the surface so the snakes disappear and all he has left is a bowl just like this one.”
“Wow.” Beni’s eyes grew large and round at the explanation of this apparent magic. “Can I make serpents into bowls too? I can make some new bowls for Mama.”
“Well, when we get home I’ll see if I can’t find you some nice clay and you can make all the serpents and bowls you want to, but before your mama could use them they would have to be cooked in a fire.”
The potter looked up from where he had been forming the base of a large jug, smiled and nodded. “Yep. I have a really big oven and I put all the bowls and things into it and get them really hot so they get hard and don’t fall apart when people use them.”
“Can I cook my pots too, Grandpa?”
Noah laughed and rubbed his granddaughter’s back. “I’m sorry, Beni, but we don’t have an oven like Kurda’s.”
The potter shifted his gaze from the child to Noah. “I can build you a kiln for a couple of large jars of that wine of yours, Noah.”
“Then I would have to go into the pottery business to recoup the cost of the oven and I don’t want to go into competition with you.” Kurda shrugged and was about to turn back to his work when Noah added, “But I might consider a small jug of wine in exchange for a dozen drinking beakers. We seem to be running a bit short; somebody keeps dropping all of ours and breaking them. Don’t they Pomegranate?”
“I’m sorry Grandpa, they just slip out of my hand.”
“That’s all right, Beni, don’t worry. Somebody has to keep Kurda in business.” Moving his eyes from the girl to the potter, he queried, “So what about it, Kurda, do you want to make me some beakers?”
“How much wine?”
“I’ll tell you what, I’ll fill each beaker twice with wine. That is two dozen beakers full of wine in exchange for twelve beakers.”
“That is a great deal of wine for twelve beakers, Kurda.” The potter only shrugged again and returned to applying another curl of clay rope to the upper edge of his jug. “Two and a half times.”
“All right, two and a half times.”
“I’ll bring the beakers around to your place next week.”
Noah nodded in agreement and started to rise when he felt Shem bending down to meet him. “I think we have company.” Shem motioned with his head in the direction of Noah’s right shoulder. When he turned his head in response, Noah saw the broad figure of Raneb striding purposefully toward them, arms outstretched as though he was about to embrace the whole world in a massive bear-hug.
“Ah, friend Shem and his esteemed father, are you enjoying yourselves this fine day?”
Noah stood up, dusted off his knees, and handed Beni over to Shallat as he nodded a greeting.
Raneb smiled, returned Noah’s nod, and shook Shem’s hand forcefully. His dirt encrusted paw of a hand seemed to be in a contest of strength with Noah’s son. Past experience had taught Raneb that the best he could hope for was a draw and he finally released the pressure and offered a gap-toothed smile, shaking his head as he did so. “I never thought I would say this, but that new plow is the finest piece of equipment I’ve ever seen. I might never need to replace it again.”
“Well,” Shem said modestly, “the blade will need sharpening at least once a year; oftener if you hit too many large stones, but it should give you good service for a very long time.”
“That’s what I wanted to talk to you about, Shem.” Raneb rubbed his greasy beard and cocked his head as though unsure what he was going to say next, but both Shem and his father knew Eridu’s richest farmer well enough that they exchanged swift, knowing glances. “My other plow will be in need of a new share before long and I was wondering if we could come to some kind of arrangement on replacing it with a new one; one that has one of those newfangled iron blades.” Shem nodded encouragingly; hiding the smile he could feel building up inside him. “Now, I can’t really afford to buy two new plows, but if we could work out something…after all, you don’t get that many orders for new plows, and work is always hard to come by and…”
“I think I can save us both a lot of time here, Raneb. Why don’t you bring in your old plow and let me fit it with a new share and a metal blade? That way you won’t have to buy a whole new plow.”
“Can you do that?”
“I don’t think it will be a problem.”
For the second time in less than five minutes Raneb’s huge hand shot out to grab Shem’s, pumping it up and down as though they were best friends who had just bumped into each other for the first time in decades. “That’s wonderful, Shem. And all I have to pay for is the new share?”
“The new share and the iron plow blade.”
“Oh, yeah, well, I knew that. But that’s all?” Raneb seemed somehow disappointed at the prospect of paying for more ironwork, even if it saved him the cost of an entire new plow.
“Yes, that’s all.”
“Ah, well, that’s great then. I’ll bring the plow around in a few weeks, right after the threshing is done and I’ve had a chance to turn over the field stubble.”
“Or,” Shem offered, surreptitiously nudging his father in the ribs with one elbow, “you could bring it in now, before you turn the fields, and the new blade would save you a lot of struggling.”
Raneb took this all in, nodding and mumbling to himself as he turned and wandered back into the crowd.
“You think he will buy the new share and blade, Papa?”
“Oh, yes. Absolutely. If for no other reason that he knows it will save him a huge amount of expense and hard work in the long run. Of course, he will try to get you to throw in the new share for free as part of the price of the iron work.”
“Well he won’t get it.”
“Of course not, but he may make you wish you had given it to him by the time he’s done haggling with you.”
Shem shook his head in surrender. “Wouldn’t you think, Papa, that a man with his wealth could at least afford a clean gown to wear to the festival?”
“Gowns cost, son, and Raneb is too in love with his gold to waste any of it unnecessarily.”
“At least he could wash his hands and hair, that wouldn’t cost him anything.”
“If he washed his hair he would have to oil it, and then he might have to pay for the tallow.” The two of them laughed and began moving slowly down the line of traders and merchants to catch up with Shallat and Beni.
The day passed quickly amidst the hustle and buzz of the crowd. Neighbors greeted neighbors and old adversaries either avoided each other in the most obvious way possible, or openly confronted each other, their strident voices rising with the sun’s heat and the amount of beer they consumed. Shallat finally gave up waiting for Ham to join her and wandered back to relieve Nin at the market stall. Beni, who had done all the walking her seven-year-old legs could handle for the moment, was happy to follow her and quickly curled up behind her mother and went to sleep. Eventually, just as Nin finished striking a bargain for a small quantity of lovely blue dye in exchange for a beaker of olives, the corpulent figure of Gebeline paraded himself toward the center of the compound and raised his arms skyward, clapping his hands for attention. In the intense afternoon sun, the tallow in his hair and beard had melted onto his shoulders and chest, taking with it much of the soot he used to keep his rapidly whitening locks an even, glossy black. The smudges of his artificially enhanced youthfulness were now little more than dark stains on his gown and the large, elaborate string of beads that hung around his neck.
“People of Eridu, hear me”, he called, repeating himself when his first cries went unheeded among the chattering crowd. “Thanks to the bounty of Ea there is now meat for all to enjoy. Please make your way to the rear of the temple and partake of the sacrificial goats and oxen. May Ea be praised!”
“Papa, why don’t you and Mother go back to the girls? I’ll go down and get us some meat and join you as soon as I can.”
“Are you sure, Shem? I can come and help you, if you want.” Nin smiled, wiping her hands on her apron.
“No, Mother, you and Papa go ahead; he’s looking a little peaked anyway.”
“Husband, have you been out in the sun too long?” Nin studied her husband’s face critically, lifting one hand to his forehead to check for signs of fever.
“I’m fine, mother. Let’s go back and set out lunch and leave Shem to hunt down some well-cooked game.”
“Oh, all right, I just…Oh, look, here comes Japheth, and he has Merimda with him.” Nin grinned, raised one hand and waved it wildly in greeting, motioning Japheth and Merimda to follow them.
By the time the four of them made their way back to the family camp the trade goods had already been laid aside and the bowls and beakers set out. The jar of wine had been moved forward, but it had been left for Noah to do the honors and dispense the first cups of his vintage. Only when everyone was settled, and Noah had a chance to take an appreciative sip of his wine, did Nin comment on the continued absence of Ham.
“I haven’t seen him since he left us this morning Mother.”
Nin leaned over and put a solicitous hand on Shallat’s arm. “I’m sorry, dear. I don’t know what’s wrong with that boy. He just won’t learn.”
“It’s all right, Nin,” Shallat said with a forced smile. “We’ll just have to have a good time without him.”
As though it had just occurred to him, Noah looked around and asked where Madi had gone. “She went to sit with Tana. She just lost her husband and Madi thought she should keep her company; kindred spirits in their loss and things like that.”
As they spoke, the general noise and hum of activity around them suddenly took on a more strident air. Above the normal shouts and loud conversation that accompanies celebratory eating and drinking, there arose a disturbing new sound. Loud shouts and muffled curses rolled across the field, accompanied minutes later by a woman’s scream. Noah shot a glance at Shem and they both rose simultaneously, the younger man jumping to his feet before Noah managed to hoist himself to his knees.
“You stay there, Papa. If that idiot brother of mine is involved in this I swear I’m going to break his neck. If he’s not, they still need someone to deal with whatever it is and it looks like I’ve been appointed.”
“Shem, please don’t hurt him.”
Already on the move, Shem turned back at the sound of his sister-in-law’s voice. “Shallot, you of all people should know that he needs some sense knocked into him.” Then, after a pause he added, “But I promise I’ll bring him back in one piece.”
Not waiting for a response, Shem raced across the temple compound, elbowing his way through the gawping crowd gathered at the far, rear corner of the shrine. Once he made his way near enough to the front to see what was causing the clamor, his gaze was met by a scene of complete pandemonium. Next to an overturned table four young men were rolling around on the ground, fists flying while blood from split lips, bloody noses and nicked ears splattered faces, fists and clothes. Only inches from the edge of the brawl three entranced teenage girls watched; one of them laughing and hugging herself, one grinning from ear to ear and the third screaming mindlessly at the top of her lungs. All three of them were covered with dirt and two had long rips in their gowns. Around this debauched display dozens of villagers were looking on in various stages of amusement. It only took Shem a matter of seconds to take it all in and even less time to recognize one of the combatants as his brother. Wading into the melee, Shem made a snatch at the first person he could reach, grabbed a fist-full of greasy black hair and yanked the young man to his feet.
“Hey! What do you think…”
“Shut up and don’t you move, Fayu, or I’ll rip a piece out of your hide and shove it down your throat for you.” Having had their fun interrupted, the remaining three ceased punching and biting each other long enough to look up into Shem’s glowering face. “Now! The rest of you, get on your feet.”
Reluctantly and with much grumbling and spitting, the three men extracted themselves from the tangled ball and rose, one at a time, wiping the blood from their faces and dusting themselves off. From the way they were swaying and stumbling it was painfully obvious that all four of them had been drinking heavily.
“I don’t know who you are,” Shem pointed an accusing finger at one of the men, “but I want you to get out of here this instant and go back to where ever it is you came from. And you,” He swung on the second of the three who had just risen, “You’re one of Raneb’s little brats, aren’t you? You get back to your parents and I’ll deal with you later. And you, Fayu, you’re as useless as my brother, but the two of you are going to explain to me just exactly… Hey, I don’t want to see even one of you move until I’ve sorted this thing out!” Realizing that the three girls had been in the process of trying to slink off through the crowd, Shem called them back on no uncertain terms.
“Hey, don’t you talk to them that way!” It was the first words Ham had spoken and they were not the ones Shem wanted to hear.
“And why not? They obviously had something to do with this; they are having way too much fun to have been innocent bystanders who just happened to get caught up in your drunken brawl.
“They are going to Jericho to study to become fertility priestesses.”
“Don’t tell me, let me guess. And you four louts thought you might get a little taste of their wares before they put them out on the open market, but there were only three of them and four of you so you decided to fight over them right?”
“There is nothing wrong with that, they’re priestesses.”
“No they aren’t. They’re nothing but three sleazy little tarts who thought they would get in some practice with the big boys. You ought to be ashamed of yourself, Ham; your wife has been looking for you all day and what are you doing; trying to dip your wick into these stupid little bits of fluff. You’re worse than animals – the lot of you. Now get back to the family while I see how much damage you have managed to do.”
“Maybe I’ll just go to Jericho too.”
“Yeah, brother, you do that. You’d make a great little priestess.”
At this last exchange the crowd started to snicker and point their fingers at Ham and his disheveled friend, Fayu. Realizing that those who had been cheering him on only moments before had now turned against him, Ham stormed off, tripping over his feet and swaying from side to side, bumping into people and angrily shoving them aside. Almost immediately Fayu also stumbled away through the crowd. Scowling at the swarm of faces around him, Shem clenched his fists, gritted his teeth and went in search of Esnan and Solana.
“I told you not to give my brother anything to drink for a full turn of the moon. It’s only been three weeks and he is so drunk he can hardly find his feet.”
Esnan made a shrugging motion with his shoulders but it was Solana who spoke. “Shem, now you listen to me. We are celebrating the bounty of the goddesses, including Ninkasi, and it is expected that people should share in her blessings to show their gratitude.” The brew wife paused in her tirade to gather her thoughts and flick an invisible speck of dust from her copious bust line. “If you spent more time respecting the gods and less time listening to your father, the atheist, you would know that people are supposed to have a little fun now and again.”
“You leave my father out of this. This is between you, me and that useless brother of mine; and in the future, if I see him in that condition again you will have to answer to me for it.” Without waiting for an answer, Shem turned on his heel and strode off to shepherd his brother in the right direction.
Later, after having the whole, sorry tale related to him, Noah’s only comment was “And that is exactly my argument against the gods. It’s all just an excuse to pander to human frailty and answer the desires of the moment.” Turning to Shem, he had only one question to ask, “Did you recognize any of the girls?”
“Only one. It was another of Raneb and Larsa’s kids. The one who led the goats to the altar.”
“Ah, the junior priestess, I should have known.” Noah shook his head in disgust. “And her own brother was one of the boys?”
Nin let the men discuss the fight and how they might keep Ham in line, while she and Utap comforted the distraught Shallat. Only when the men had finished did she approach Noah.
“It’s been a long day already, and you don’t look well husband. I think you have been standing in the sun too long. Did you have enough to drink?”
Noah snorted ironically. “Not as much as Ham, obviously, but I have to admit I do feel a little dizzy.”
“Why don’t you see your father home, Japheth? Shem and the girls can help me pack up and we’ll be along in a little while. I just have to collect a few things I traded for and then we will all come up to the house.”
“I can go myself, Mother. I’m not an invalid just yet.”
“It’s ok, Father, I’ll walk with you. I haven’t talked to you all day.”
“Thank you, Japheth, but you should help your mother and I don’t want Merimda to feel abandoned.”
“It’s not far and I can run back in plenty of time to help.”
Merimda saw that Noah was exhausted and made whatever small gesture she could to help. “I don’t mind if he’s gone for a little while. I have to help my family pack up too, so I’ll hardly have time to miss him.”
“All right. I surrender. Help this poor old man to his feet and then lead him home, son.”
* * *
“You don’t usually sleep this late, husband. Are you feeling all right?” Nin looked up from where she had been sweeping out the hearth and stared into Noah’s face with a concerned frown.
“Maybe you were right, Mother, maybe I did get too much sun yesterday. I didn’t sleep well at all.”
“I already know that much. I heard you tossing and turning and muttering to yourself half the night. Bad dreams?”
Noah dropped heavily onto his stool and poured out a beaker of well-watered wine. “Not bad, just weird. Very weird and very intense.”
Nin put down the hearth broom and the small wooden shovel, dusted off her hands and moved across the room to sit next to her husband. “Tell me about it. Dreams can be very important. Now don’t give me that look, Noah. Dreams are the gods’ way of talking to us and only a fool ignores their warnings. Now out with it. What did you dream about?”
Noah let out a great, long sigh, took a deep draught of his wine and folded his hands in his lap. “I don’t know, Nin, maybe you’re right.”
“I am? I never expected to hear those words come out of your mouth, especially when it has to do with the gods.”
Noah cocked his head and raised his eyebrows in a half-shrug. “I can’t remember it all that clearly…”
Noah rubbed a weary hand across his face, sighed again and leaned forward. “Enoch appeared to me, but I could hardly see him through this blinding light.”
“Your great-grandfather?” Noah only nodded in response. “How do you know it was him?”
“He told me who he was.”
“What did he say? Did he have a message for you?” Nin was now leaning as far across the table as she could, her hands reaching out to touch those of her husband.
“I can’t remember; it’s all fading away. But he was saying something about God.”
“Which god? He was probably trying to tell you to be more respectful toward them.”
“No. It wasn’t like any of the gods. It was something else. Like…” Noah pulled his hands free and spread them wide in an all-encompassing gesture. “It was like GOD. Does that make any sense?”
“Not to me, my love, but then again, it wasn’t my dream. Obviously he was trying to tell you something.”
“I know. I honestly think he was. It was all so plain and real at the time; not all jumbled up like most dreams. He said something about…I’m sorry, I just can’t remember.” Noah shook his head despondently, “I just wish I could remember what it was he was trying to tell me.”