by Sonya Taaffe
The house of darkness, smothered in the dust: the last stair of descent, where the dead gods lie. My hands on the flute were sliding with sweat, lapis sheened under salt like a weeping eye. I had tried wearing the ring, carnelian carved tightly with seated gods and winged demons, and even on my thumb it dangled like a stolen safe-conduct. But the shadows rustled with the dry-mouthed dead, and defense was no more than another delusion to be stripped; I would have bowed before the judges, but their minister met me first.
On his hands, my brother, dragged down screaming in his finery, and the hounds had bayed to one another in mockingbird imitation. On his hands, the blood of the ones I had killed, too few and too slow, that ran milk-white and faintly luminous and dried tautly as semen, but nothing sprang up from its shedding: among crocus and aconite, I had cleaned the knife on the cold earth and known how it would tear itself open for me; who would greet me in the desolate courts below. He wore agate on every finger like a lidless stare. The lenses of his glasses were blind. His wry and weary, hieratic face that could still have been a stranger’s, but he called to me, softly, “Martu,” and I was never any daughter of his.
I could have said, They laughed at you in the halls of heaven. I could have said, You are not a dead god, who cannot die. But my mouth tasted like beer, burned bread, a smoke of incense; fear; and no other words would have brought my brother back. I held out the only ones I had. “I will drink. I will eat. Let the mourners come up with him.”
The ring, the flute, myself that descending had torn as bare as bone: all I had brought with me, and he took it from me, name-sealed, the last circle of law. In my right hand, a pitcher of dust. In my left hand, a platter of clay. Between the mud-cracked lintel and the threshold without garlands, I swallowed and there was only dryness in my throat before the darkness bowed me down.
It is there still, like an unopened door; shadows settled on me like a sediment of time, one feather for each year that my brother did not walk in the light. Which of the bird-faced ghosts he had been, I do not know. Perhaps I wear his discarded death, gathered up from the dust like the treasures I did not ransom him with: the love-gift of a ring, the flute he played as he left, already like a shepherd in springtime. But someday there will be pursuers and no one to flee to, a dark man with pale hounds, and all the earth will gape thirstily for him. All death’s children are corpses. And in my father’s house, I will wait for his son, until I am mortal again and it rains.
When the hounds of spring are on winter’s traces… —Algernon Charles Swinburne, Atalanta in Calydon
Author’s note: This flash fiction is a reworking of Dumuzi and Geshtinnana with guest appearance by Namtar, but I like to think it still works as a story of katabasis and exchange without any knowledge of the Sumerian epic whatsoever.