This is based on a dream I had last night. It seems to be part of a dream I had a while back.
I watched the shadows of the bluffs grow deeper in some places and lighter in others as we took the trail between the two great formations. It was here I remembered most from my childhood, that winding path down from the mountains that led to the plains. I had waited for this moment since we had left the temple, childish of me, I know, but if my memory served me correctly we would round one more sharp turn and there would be the structure I waited for. There! At last! It was an odd looking thing, for it looked as if the gods had piled stone upon stone, each giant and flat and terrible, one upon another, until they reached halfway up the bluff’s side. Even though my face was covered I felt like the entire caravan could feel my grinning. I held my arms out and threw my head back and began to sing a song for praise to the gods of allowing me to see this sight again. It was against the rules of the caravan, surely, to make such a noise this close to the hills, but no brigand or untamed tribe from the wilds would dare to attack us, or so I felt. The caravan master held out his hands in supplication and he too, sang. Everyone joined in the song and we could hear our chorus echoing behind is from the walls of the bluffs.
How is it, I wondered, that the flower of a common lily could be plucked from the muddy waters of a slow mountain stream and be placed into the hair of a princess of all to see? I saw this happen, you know, I saw the princess from the Great City, whose name we were not allowed to utter, pass through our village, and she stepped into the stream for the flower. Her guards were dismayed that she would do such a thing, but she did not seem to notice them. Her brother, who was not yet a prince but would be by the time I made my second journey, was there also. I had no idea that they were there because of me and because of what we had begun in my tiny village, nor did I know that they had come to have me killed. I was something that was not supposed to have happened at all, something that could not have happened but I, and three more like myself, had learned to read.
This may sound odd to you, as someone who is reading my story, but the truth is that for many years there were two forms of writing. The first was the earliest form of writing which was no more than a system of accounting. It worked well because all the shipments of trade into the Great City could be kept outside of human memory. Each trader was given a symbol and each quantity was given a symbol of its own as well. But soon the language of the merchants began to evolve into something quite different. Now, collections of smaller symbols could be interchanged and their meaning modified as they were grouped. The priests in the temple began using these symbols to help them remember the holy chants but soon they began to use them in very ordinary ways.
It was quite by accident that I happened upon one of the priests who regularly visited our village as the Order required. He was explaining to our resident priest how writing worked and how it could be used. He bid me to watch and to learn also and so I did. For many hours and for quite a number of days he stayed and taught us, but it was mainly I who learned. The symbols we etched in wet clay were to be nothing short of a gift from the gods themselves.
Each time the priest returned he and I would sit and speak of this new tool and I had already began to record some of the learnings we were taught. He thought it just less than a miracle I had absorbed the art so quickly and he vowed to tell the High Priest of the Great City of me. That led to members of the royal family, minor that they were at the time, to come to order my execution, and perhaps destroy the village itself and everyone in it. But before they could carry out the order a messenger arrived with a single word upon his lips, “Stop!”
There were two forces at work whose existence I knew nothing about. First, the princess was opposed to my destruction and that of the village. Hers was a simple and very moral objection and nothing more. A gentle creature who cared little of the workings of religion or for that matter, little else, was there to offer her death to be accepted with ours. It was a gamble that might have, or might not have worked, but the other force was that of her cousin, who cared nothing for her at all, but when he heard of me and what was happening, urged that the order be rescinded. His occupation was that of Major-General of the Army. He saw in writing an idea.
Of course, I knew nothing of this at all. I thought the gods had favored me and my journey to the Great City was their blessings upon me. I knew my ability to both read and write had something to do with all this, but after all, was not writing of the gods themselves? Later, much later in my life, I realized I had been, at least twice, very close to a horrible death. But my faith as well as my ignorance carried me forward. I often wondered why these two seemed to be the same.
We sang as we left the shadows of the mountains behind us and even as the sun began to heat the earth until the air shimmered we sang still. Some rested while others lifted their voices and even the camels seemed to enjoy the sound. I certainly did. My camel was a mild creature who was less noisome than the others. Its eyes seemed half closed in pleasure of the song. As the heat grew more intense the braided cords around my neck became itchy but I cared not at all for this. Before I left three such small ropes were wound around my neck and then liquid wax was poured over the ropes. The wax had been infused with the scent of some tree I had never smelled before but it was exceedingly agreeable to the nose. This, I was told, was the seal of the Great City, and I was not to touch the wax nor allow anyone else to at all. There was a man, covered from head to toe in bright red cloth who carried the standard of red with him at all times. With this one at the head of the caravan there was none who knew its value who would approach us. A dozen or so heavily armed men, each carrying a red shield and a heavy club, traveled with us and when one sang they all sang together. Loud and strong their voices were! The songs of praise were lifted higher when these dozen carried the words! But the heat made me drowsy and I nearly slept upon the saddle when all voices ceased and the caravan halted. In front of us, shimmering in the heat, lay the Great City.
Now we sat in silence and now we did not move. My memory was not sufficient for this sight. Lo! There was a vast wall rising out of the earth brilliantly white and nearly impossible to look at directly. There were the towers on the wall and before the city lay a collection of roads and building that could have swallowed my world a hundred times over and a thousand times more than that! We sat still and I wondered why we waited but then out of the city came horsemen, riding fast and sure. There were so many of them I could not count, but they circled around us and led us forward. Now a great song was sung by these men and now our guard sang with them and I realized this was to announce to everyone in the city we had arrived at Sumer.
Sumer had grown even more than I had in a decade. It was much larger than I remembered as if the walls and building themselves had become adults and were childish as I were long ago. There were many more people lining the streets and there were colorful banners; some in the same style of red which I bore at my neck. People sang and shouted and the camels seemed unaware of the din. I was brought to a tunnel and I was ordered to dismount. A man in red came and herded me away from all the others and led me down a stairway that was hidden behind a thick door. Down, down, down, into darkness we went and he guided me as if he knew my steps before I did. Soon we came to a room that was dimly lit by torch light. There was a man dressed only in a loincloth there, bald and decorated in paint of many colors and it seemed to me his skin was truly those colors. Later I learned that the man had been pierced many times with a small blade and the tones on his skin would never leave him. He put his face to my neck and inhaled deeply. Thrice he circled me and took in the scent of the cords around my neck. Another man who looked as if he were the twin of the first came out of the shadows. He examined the rope and the wax his finger moving along the wax as if he were a blind man in dark searching for a lost coin. They both retreated and as I wondered what would happen next the man who had led me down the steps unsheathed his knife and before I could blink cut the cord from around my neck with one swing. I did not flinch, I am happy to tell you, but it was more because of fear than the lack of it.
I was led to a room with a bath and two women bathed me. The man who led me down the stairs never left the room and he never took his eyes off of me. The dressed me in the clothing that I had seen priests from the city, and here I was allowed to utter its name, Sumer, and I was brought to a man in a room with nothing in it at all, except two windows. He bid me to sit across from him in the middle of the room.
“Has he spoken to anyone since he arrived?” the man asked my escort.
“He has not spoken at all,” my escort replied. “My Lord, he is a silent one.”
“That will be all.” The man said and he dismissed my escort from the room.
“You understand what I say when I ask you if you can write?” the man asked.
“Yes.” I replied.
“And you were taught this by one of our own priests?” he asked.
“And there are three others in your village who have an understanding of this writing, but you understand it better than they do?” the man asked but his tone changed and was sharper.
“Yes” I replied and offered nothing more for there was no more than I knew.
He clapped his hands three times and instantly a servant girl brought out a clay vessel, the type that held wine. On its side was marking very similar to the writing I knew but no words formed and no meaning was held there.
“Read this writing” the man commanded.
“I cannot.” I said and I felt as if I might be thrown from the window now.
“Oh?” the man asked, “and why is this?”
“I do not understand it. There is no meaning in this writing.” I felt no fear, oddly, even though I sensed I may have failed him.
“Oh?” the man clapped his hands again and once again a girl brought out a clay vessel. “Then read this.”
After the first vessel I feared that somehow the gods had forsaken me and my understanding was lost. But as I turned the vessel in my hand I could read it and then I understood even more what this man wanted and who he was. My mind went into a state of turmoil for I knew what I was being asked to do now.
What was I to do? My gift from the gods was surely meant to serve the city of Sumer, whose very existence was blessed by the gods. It was here there was a great temple to the gods and it was here the priest came and was sent from, and it was here and only here, that the gods spoke to those who would hear.
“There is a place by the river, where they keep forty horses and forty men,” I read aloud, “and these men sleep without guard at night for they do not fear attack.”
“It is true.” The man whispered. “By the gods this is a magic I have never expected.” He stood up.
“I am not convinced entirely.” And with that he shouted and two men came into the room leading a young man who was clothed as I.
“Have you ever met this boy?” the man demanded of the young man.
“No” the young man answered.
“Show him your writing!” the man demanded and two women came into the room carrying two tablets.
I read: “I, Major General of the city of Sumer, demand that you write my words as I speak them. If you fail me in this I will have you burned alive and the false prophet who claims that he can read the words. The day is the first day of the new season of heat and the last day of planting. No one else is in this room so no one else can know these words.”
“We cannot be stopped now.” The Major-General whispered. “We will rule over them all.