Monday, April 20, 2015
The entire record of the human race has been falsified, it has been made up by bad governments to suit themselves, by kings and tyrants to make them look good. This idea of history as made by great men is quite nonsensical, when you look at it from the point of view of the people. The real heroes are those who have resisted tyrants, and it is in the nature of tyranny not only to kill those who oppose it but to wipe their names out of the record, to obliterate them, so that resistance seems impossible. Resistance to tyranny means oblivion. I will embrace that oblivion. My name will vanish from the page. History is fiction.
Posted by mcw at 6:19 PM
There was a dead guy
sitting on the bus
in front of me tonight.
He was calling the office
on his cell phone
giving some last minute
instructions to some poor
bastard who worked for him.
He was talking in such a loud,
obnoxious voice I turned
to look if he was disturbing
anyone else. But the woman
across the aisle reading
the NY Times was dead
too and so were the couple
chatting behind her. In fact,
it seemed as if I were the only
living person on the whole
fucking bus. Naturally,
I began to get worried.
I was speeding down the
turnpike in a busload of dead
folks passed a landscape
of petrochemical drums and
mobster swampland. And
then I made the mistake
of looking in the rearview
mirror and seeing the bus
driver’s eyes looking directly
at me. I knew right then I
wasn’t going home alive
that night. It didn’t make a
difference whether he drove
off the bridge or slammed into
a cement mixer. I looked at
my pale reflection in the
darkening window and saw
what he saw: another pale-
faced dead commuter on
her way home to her apartment,
her cat, her microwaved dinner,
her tv, and moonlit sexless bed.
I wanted to laugh but the dead
don’t laugh they just sort of
unhinge their jaws in mute surprise.
Besides, even among the dead
I didn’t want to seem insane.
Saturday, April 18, 2015
Spirit in the Sky
Gilgamesh is dead. His story ends like all the others. Did you really think it would be any different? Do you think yours will? Or your children’s? Or your children’s children? It all ends the same. Death. And if you can’t accept that, if you can’t deal with the car accidents, the heart attacks, the strokes, the metastasized esophageal cancers and the Alzheimer’s that are barreling your way right this very minute, if you can’t ultimately say “yes” to the blood clot with your name on it, then you’ve got no business calling life a “precious gift,” you’ve got no business reproducing, because that’s all part of the price of admission to this playground, that all comes with the ticket. Death is what birth buys you. It’s written in stone.
That was Gilgamesh’s problem. He didn’t see the point of life if he had to die. He didn’t see the point of it if his friend, Enkidu died. Because he thought, like most people think: Okay, death. But for someone else. Death. Okay, but someday, a long way in the dim, distant, hazy never-quite-arrived-at future. Death, a horizon line you walk towards but never quite reach. Death. I know, but when I’m so very very old I’ll hardly know any better and even then, peacefully, as they like to say (whatever that means) in my sleep, when I won’t hardly even know what hit me, with my family and loved ones gathered around.
No one wants to envision the way death usually comes. They may give a nod to the inevitability of death, but they don’t mean dying in the prime of life, or as a teenager with, presumably, your whole life in front of you. Don’t you understand? You never “have” your whole life in front of you? You don’t “have” anything. You don’t want to think that you’ll be burying your wife or husband at forty, or standing at the grave of your children. You want to impose an order on death, a schedule. But death doesn’t work according to any schedule. It takes people willy-nilly. There is no natural order to death. There are no rules. Whether you smoke or eat bean sprouts, whether you’re king or your homeless, good or evil, old or young, innocent or guilty. Death reaps. Anytime. Anyplace. That’s what makes it all so fucking terrifying.
Can you deal with that? Can you say “yes” to that? Can you explain that to your potential children in a way that you think will convince them? That convinces you? Then proceed. This story wasn’t for you.
But if any of this troubles you, listen:
Gilgamesh is dead, just like you’re going to be dead. It’s not a theory. It’s a fact. It can be tomorrow or it can be today. No one’s considering your opinion on the matter.
Gilgamesh is dead and he died at the time and place set for him by fate. He probably died of some miserable illness, not quite ready for it, before he was completely done living, like most of us will die, with something still left in the tank, something left undone, unsaid. He died, all but certainly, afraid.
Enlil said, or so it is said that he said: “Beneath the earth, a light will be left on for Gilgamesh. He was a helluva dude, not without his faults, but no one will compare with him, no matter how many come afterwards. Who else ruled with such might and power?”
It was probably a premature thing to say, what with Napoleon and Augustus Caesar still to come. But you get his point, I hope. Enlil was talking more about the total package; he was talking about the whole arc of King G’s turbulent biography, the internal struggle even moreso than the outer, the conquering, not only of lands and peoples, but the overcoming of his own troubled nature. He was referencing not so much the stone walls of the cities King G Sacked, but the metaphorical walls he had to storm in order to finally come to peace with the existentially shitty way things are.
Now that he was gone it was perceptible. Everyone agreed. Without Gilgamesh, the world was noticeably a little darker, a little duller place. That was probably the best memorial to the man of them all.
“You were an example,” Enlil continued, “to mankind everywhere. Not everyone can be the ruler of nations, but each human being must go on the hazardous mortal journey that you’ve traveled. Each man, woman, child, and created thing was given life, but not forever. But don’t be sad. Don’t be oppressed in spirit. Don’t rage against these limitations and take that rage out on those around you. Show them mercy. Show them how to be a human being in the face of this grim imperative. That’s the purpose of you Gilgamesh. That is the fulfillment of the prophecies that accompanied your appearance on earth. In that, your immortality, such as it is, relies.”
Well, that’s as good as it gets. Easy for Enlil to spout such platitudes, but although they are platitudes there isn’t much else to say. There was a time that King G would have said, “But that’s not good enough!” And maybe you’re saying that, too. Who could blame you? Not the philosophers. Many of whom, after a lifetime of deep and heavy thinking, have concluded, “Better not to have been born at all.”
But here you are, whether you like it or not, whether you chose to be here or would have refrained if given the choice. What were your parents thinking? Probably, not much at all. Ask them. Except you’re not supposed to ask. You’re supposed to be grateful to them. Are you? Are you really? Are you grateful for the broken bones and broken hearts, grateful for the leukemia and drug overdoses, the traffic fatalities and midnight stabbings, the sudden infant death syndromes? Are you? Because that’s all a part of life, you can’t separate them from the sunrises and the sunsets, the orgasms and the weddings. It’s all wrapped up in the same enchilada.
The King laid down one day and never got up.
The King laid down one day and will not get up again.
He did many unforgettable things which are still spoken of today.
He was a loveable badass unlike any other,
but he’s gone and he’s not coming back.
He was an idiot sometimes, he’d admit it himself,
but he was never beyond learning from his mistakes.
He was buff and beautiful and he lived out every fantasy
but his day is done, he’s gone over the mountain,
and he will never rise again.
This is the song they sang at Gilgamesh’s funeral. A real five-star affair, it was. The people of Uruk mourned his passing, mourned it hard. That much is written, that much we know. Though trouble he often was, King G never lost that iconic luster. People dug him, for good and ill. They liked hearing about his exploits over and over, sordid as they often were; they never got tired of a good King G story, the more sordid and fucked-up the better. One thing you had to hand Gilgamesh, they always said, he was never boring. Another thing you had to hand him: he did it his way.
They filed past where he lay in state and knew that life in the world as a whole had been diminished. Everything looked a little dimmer. Maybe it was just the tears. But no, it wasn’t that entirely. Things really were a little dimmer. Someone had dialed down the sun. When night came, it was harder to see in the dark.
Destiny had the last word, as always. He lay there like a great fish hooked and pulled from the sea, glassy-eyed, out of his element. He lay there like a deer strapped across the hood of a pick-up. Namtar, that foul stinking ghoul from the Underworld, the heaviness of death itself, crouched on his unmoving chest, claiming possession of him, snarling at anyone who came too close. Namtar made sure that King G would never breathe again.
He had a wife. He had a son. He had concubines and musicians and jesters and servants. He had his friend Urshanabi. They all came to pay him homage, to cry at his open casket. They all loved him in a way that mere words could only cheapen. There is nothing to say in the presence of death that wouldn’t be trivial. Silence here is inadequate at best, but it’s still the best response to what we cannot know. Silence here is eloquence.
They made the proper offerings, followed the prescribed rituals. Pointless things are done to make people feel a little better when death comes. To make them feel they have some control over the situation, even if they don’t. So much of life is just charade, living “as if.” If you don’t understand and accept that, you’ll never make it here.
Thus, they made offerings to Ereshkigal, the High Queen of Death and to the rest of her motley skeletal crew. They prayed to Namtar, a representative of the evil destiny we all share, namely, mortality, who usually arrives in the form of disease. They prayed to Neti, who monitored the gates of death along with Ningizzida, the serpent god of fertility, another of Inanna’s ill-fated hubbys. A strange place, you might be thinking, for this pair to show up, but a clue perhaps? To what, who can be certain? Some things must remain a mystery—or simply wishful thinking.
The shepherd Dumuzi came to pay his respects, another god of fertility (you can’t have too much fertility especially where someone or something dies), along with Enki and Ninki, which sounds like a comedy team, but aren’t. Ninki is Enlil’s mom. I don’t know exactly what Enki does. There are Endukugga and Nindukugga, who are also listed as parents of Enlil. How many parents does Enlil have, anyway? Is your head spinning yet? Mine is. Who are all these people? It’s confusing. Enmul and Ninmul and many of the ancestor gods milled about; they are among the ones who came before Enlil who showed up. When someone dies, friends and relatives seem to come out of the woodwork.
There was a feast afterwards thrown in the name of Shulpae, who is, appropriately enough, the god of feasting. For Samuqan the god of herds, because without the herds there is no feasting, and life must go on. It must? Why? Let’s not get into that again!
Just so, there’s a feast for the universal mother Ninhursag, who is said to be the creator of all vegetation, without whom we couldn’t exist either. Are we forgetting anyone? If so, just to be on the safe side, they made general prayers any god could claim at the door. You didn’t want to piss off anyone when death was so close. You didn’t want to take any unnecessary chances at this point. Not that it really matters. Really, haven’t you been paying attention? Haven’t you learned anything by now?
Gilgamesh is dead. He’s been dead so long now it seems hard to believe he ever really existed at all. That he wasn’t just a story made up, a myth like all the others. Did he actually write down his life story on those stone tablets or was he just a figment of some poor hack’s febrile imagination? It’s impossible to say for certain. Let’s just say, to borrow a phrase, if Gilgamesh didn’t exist, it would have been necessary to invent him.
He’s been dead so long it doesn’t even elicit a tear from anyone now. Until you stop to consider, we are all Gilgamesh.
Gilgamesh is you. You, too, have your Huwawas to hunt down, your Bulls of Heaven to slay, your Inannas to resist—or not.
Listen, the take away is this: if there is any point at all in you being here, it is to be yourself. Gilgamesh is memorable because there was no one else like him. That doesn’t mean you should be like Gilgamesh. That would be the kind of mistake almost all of us make. Modeling ourselves and our lifestyles on someone or some set of values we’re told is admirable. If there is any point in our being here it is in the deeply felt conviction that we are some unique expression of the universe, a piece of the puzzle that cannot be replicated ever again, not even by our children. No one has ever been like us before; no one will ever be like us afterwards. Therefore, we have a duty, a heroic duty you might even say, to be what we are and everything that we are, no compromises.
The universe would not have been complete without you.
Don’t waste your life trying to be a piece that already exists.
You don’t match anyone else, but you do fit in—someplace—even if no one, not even you, can possibly see where or how.
A hero always does the hard thing. Do the hardest thing. Be yourself. Sounds pretty facile, until you understand: Be yourself, no matter what you are. The world needs Hitler, Nero and Cheney every bit as much as it needs Socrates, Mozart, and Gandhi. Doesn’t sound so facile now, does it?
Trust in this. Or fool yourself into believing it.
It’s not much.
But there’s a chance that it will be enough, that it’ll help you wash down the bitter pill of death.
So concluded Gilgamesh, King of Uruk.
So we conclude this tale.
As the pig says, That’s all folks.
Friday, April 17, 2015
Thursday, April 16, 2015
( a working draft)
“Well there it is, Gilgamesh. That’s my story. The one you killed and pillaged and raped your way here to hear. I hope it was worth the trouble, though I can hardly see how. I mean, what good will it do you? Who among the gods is going to speak for you? What hand is going to come down, touch your forehead, and lead you up to heaven? Let’s face it, such things are beyond the grasp of man to achieve on his own. I was a special case, not to be repeated. I don’t even know why it happened to me. It was through no special effort or talent on my part. I’m not just being modest either. Lord knows, I wasn’t even a particularly good man. Ask my wife.”
Ziusudra’s wife, who had just come up to call the boys to lunch, confirmed , “You can say that again.”
“There must be some way,” Gilgamesh said, having repaired to the gazebo with the elderly couple where a table had been set with a light repast. He munched meditatively on a Cobb salad and insisted that if Ziusudra had done it, there was no reason he couldn’t, too.
“You’re missing the point, as usual, boy. I didn’t do anything. And my immortality came as the result of an apocalypse and worldwide genocide. Is that how you’d get to heaven, at the cost of the entire human race?”
Gilgamesh drained his wine glass and wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. “I’m not particular.”
Z shook his had sadly. “That’s hardly becoming a true hero, Gilgamesh. Besides, you’re out of luck on that account. The gods have made a pact not wipe the board clean again. Sort of.”
“I’m just saying. If it happened once surely it can happen again. Somehow. Someway.”
“That’s faulty reasoning,” Z said. “It’s beyond the striving of men. Simple as that. For instance, I’ll bet you couldn’t even stay awake for a week straight if it were a matter of life and death.”
“What do you mean? I killed the monster Huwawa, I overcame the Bull of Heaven, I kept it in my pants with Inanna. Besides, what would it prove even if I could stay away for a week, which I’m sure I can?” the king replied.
“Well, for one thing, if you want to be immortal, you should at least be able to stay awake for seven days, right? There are biological limits to what a man can accomplish. Point is, a man isn’t made for eternal consciousness.”
“Nonsense. I’ll take your challenge. I’ll prove you wrong.”
But the combination of the lunch, the wine, and the warm sun, not to mention the exertions, physical and psychological that Gilgamesh had undergone over the last months conspired with the pleasant conversation and calmness of the old folks to subdue his wild despair and tranquilize him to a soporific laziness. In other words, before he could catch himself, the words barely out of his drooling mouth, he was already dozing.
“Look at the big talker,” the old man said to his old wife, pointing at the snoring king. “The big strong hero who conquered Huwawa and the Bull of Heaven, chopped down the sacred cedars, who’d build a ladder and climb to Heaven, yadda yadda yadda. Look at him slumped there sawing wood like a baby after his bottle.”
“Wake him,” Z’s wife said. “Poor thing. Send him back home wiser and humbler than he came. Surely he’ll acknowledge his error now. Surely he’s learned his lesson.”
“Not yet. Men are full of shit, you should know, having lived with me all these centuries. The big oaf. Dollars to donuts, he’ll claim he wasn’t sleeping at all. Only resting his eyeballs, or thinking, or some such bull. Instead, let him snore away. In the meantime, bake a loaf of bread for each day that passes. When he wakes up, we can show him a shelf worth of stale bakery goods as proof of his folly.”
So that’s just what Z’s wife did. Every morning she baked a loaf of fresh bread and set it by King G’s head. One morning passed and then another and another and another. Instead of staying awake seven days, Gilgamesh slept straight through the week. By then, Ziusudra figured enough was enough, his point was proven. He shook Gilgamesh awake. “Come on sleepyhead. Come on heroic lazybones. Come on you mythic goldbricker. Rise and shine and be like a ball of fire. You don’t want to sleep your entire life away, do you?”
Gilgamesh moaned and rubbed his eyes. “Huh? What happened? Where am I? Ummm…”
“You fell sound asleep dumbass.”
“Nonsense,” Gilgamesh said, snapping awake. “I had barely closed my eyes when you shook me. I wasn’t sleeping. I was awake the whole time.”
“Oh yeah? Well just take a gander at the bread piled on the table. One loaf for each day you slept in.”
The loaves told the tale: the seventh was warm and fresh, it smelled delicious. In fact, he’d been dreaming of that smell when Z shook him. Gilgamesh had to hold himself back from tearing it apart and cramming it into his mouth; he was suddenly starving. It was the other six loaves, though, that damned him. You probably could have made a decent French toast with the three-day loaf but the earlier ones, forget it. Completely inedible. One had collapsed into a soggy blue-green jungle mold. Another was like a brick; you could have used it to brain a man. Ziusudra’s point was proven. Gilgamesh lowered his head. When he lifted it again, resignation had at last replaced ego in his once-mad eyes.
“What am I to do now, Ziusudra? You were my last hope and now there’s no hope left. Where can I go? Already I feel the fingers of Death on my collar, rummaging around inside my chest, probing my guts. He’s got his whole arm up my rectum. He’s taking a good grip on my liver. Fuck. I feel like I’m sitting in a dark room and somewhere in the room there’s a poisonous snake. That’s what my life is like. Every step I take, every place I put my foot, that’s where I touch my grave.”
“Have your bread Gilgamesh,” Z said, ignoring the melodramatic rhetoric. “It’s good stuff. Mrs. Z makes a mean loaf. In the meantime, I’ll call Urshanabi and he’ll float you across the river back to the side where you belong.”
* * *
So while Gilgamesh fell to upon the bread, stuffing his face, Zuisudra went down to the dock to have a few choice words with his ferryman. Without much ceremony, he sacked Urshanabi then and there.
“I want you to pack up your poles and your anchor-stones, your tackle and sails and whatever other personal shit you’ve got and clear out. Whatever you leave behind is going straight into the trash.”
“No buts. This job isn’t for you. The rules are pretty simple. They were stated in no uncertain terms. Simple. No mortals. No exceptions. Period.”
“I said no buts. I meant it. Don’t let this get ugly, Ursh. Let’s keep it professional. I’m not interested in your excuses. I don’t want to hear your explanations. You sealed your fate when you carried this kook over the water. You’re terminated. Case closed.”
“Can I use you for a reference?”
“Urshanabi…” Z said warningly.
“Okay okay. Just asking.”
“But this you can do. Take Gilgamesh to the cleaning place and have him wash up. The guy stinks to high-heaven. We can’t send him back to the land of the living the way he is now. Get him properly turned out. Go into the wardrobe and find him something decent to wear. Even wasted by travail, he’s a big son-of-a-bitch, but there’s got to be something that’ll fit him. I mean, we’re not talking Halston or Bill Blass; it doesn’t have to be tailor-made. He doesn’t have to look like a runway model. Just put him in something that makes him look halfway presentable and less like a disreputable bear. Surely anything is better than the filthy, sodden, lice-ridden animal skins he’s wearing now. Burn all that shit. Bring him back to me looking something like a human being. Do that much, at least, and I’ll consider the reference.”
“You got it boss.” Urshanabi shrugged and smiled obsequiously. “I guess I mean, former boss.”
He was already trying to put the best face on his prospects. Maybe it really was time to move on. He was stagnating here at the river of death. Anyway, as the old saying goes, when one door closes, a window opens.
Or somesuch as that.
* * *
Gilgamesh came back from the washing-place looking like a million bucks. His duds weren’t new, but they were clean. He was shaved and perfumed. His hair—well, in a word, it was perfect.
“Looking good, King,” Ziusudra said, giving him the thumbs-up. “Now I guess there’s nothing more but for you to be on your way. Thanks for stopping by. Don’t come again.”
Just then Z’s wife came yoo-hooing down the path. The old lady had fixed up a care package for the king. Some cakes and sweets for the long trip back to the other shore. She had in the meantime fixed herself up, too. Did something with her hair that Ziusudra couldn’t put his finger on and was that lipstick she was wearing? What had gotten into the old ball-and-chain now?
She blushingly handed the goodies over to the king and Gilgamesh thanked her kindly, truly touched. His own mom, being a goddess and all, never had done much baking. Sure she could change the direction of the sea, turn a salt-shaker into a dove, and other supernatural shit like that. But just once he would have liked to come home from his lessons in battlefield slaughter like the other kids to the smell of fresh-baked chocolate chip cookies. Gilgamesh kissed the old dame’s powdery cheek and winked, having lost, in spite of all his travails, none of his semi- sociopathic charm with the ladies. Mrs. Z’s heart beat like it hadn’t in centuries and fluids moistened parched parts of her that hadn’t known a drop in twice as long.
“Come on boss,” Urshanabi said in his new role as the king’s valet and chauffer. “If we don’t hit the river soon, traffic will be murder.”
They climbed aboard the newly renovated skill and pushed off shore, King G waving from the stern. “Good bye! So long! I’ll write!”
Mrs. Z., tears in her eyes, said “I’m going to miss that boy.” Inside she was thinking, What a hunk! If I were only fifteen hundred years younger. She implored her hubby: “Isn’t there something more you can do for him? He came such a long way. It seems a shame to send him off with so little.”
Ziusudra knew he’d never hear no end of it otherwise, and he wasn’t really a mean-spirited, spiteful man at heart, not when all was said and done. “Okay, okay,” he said. “Maybe there is something I can do for the poor bastard.” And he waved the king back to shore.
“It’s against my better judgment,” Z said, standing close to the water, where Gilgamesh brought the boat ashore, the pole still in his hand. “But the Mrs. has prevailed upon my better nature. Fact is, you came here a man worn out and beaten. Dead in every sense of the word, but the literal. But I feel a kind of fondness for you, boy. God knows why. This is the place where I say something corny like ‘you remind me of when I was your age,’ but that’s not true, thank god. I was never so fucked-up crazy as you. Man, you’re a completely different breed of animal altogether. I was never such a….well, let’s not go into it any further. In fact, where was I?”
“You were going to give the boss something,” Urshanabi said helpfully.
Z shot his ex-employee a cross look. “Right. There’s a plant. Well, it’s kind of a plant. Looks sort of like a rose, but don’t let that throw you off. Don’t take every thing I say so goddamn literally. That’s not the way it works. Anyway, it’s a plantlike thing s covered in thorns, quite possibly poisonous, something like a rose, but a lot harder to grasp. This isn’t the kind of thing you grow from a Burpee seed packet. You don’t find this in a flowerbox. It lives deep underwater. I mean, real deep. Where those fish that look like monsters live, the ones that don’t need oxygen. The ones that no one’s ever seen because they explode on contact with our world. They breathe methane. They live in the subzero cold at pressures that would crush an ordinary man flat as a tin can. Don’t ask me how you’re supposed to get hold of this plant. I’ve no idea. Sounds impossible to me. Another fool’s errand. But there you are. I’m just passing along the intel, the scuttlebutt I’ve heard tell. Do with it as you will—or not, I don’t care. Either way, good luck to you. Take care. Hasta le vista.”
For a second time, goodbye’s were said, and Urshanabi pushed the boat off shore. Mr. and Mrs. Z. watched them from the shore, going, going, until they were gone.
“That was nice of you,” Mrs. Z. said. “Thank you.”
“I just hope it doesn’t come back and bite me in the ass.”
“Oh don’t be such a grumpy ole bear.”
The old couple turned away from the now blank sea and headed back to the house. Mrs. Z reached down and grabbed a handful of Mr. Z’s sagging backside; she gave it a suggestive squeeze.
Mr. Z. turned to her with surprised plastered all over his face. It looked like this:
Mrs. Z grinned and responded by mouthing him a tonguey kiss.
* * *
Gilgamesh was stoked. “This is just the sort of thing I’ve been waiting for! Finally! I’ve got it.”
“You haven’t quite got it yet, boss,” Urshanabi reminded him.
“No, I don’t,” Gilgamesh acknowledged. But he was brimming with heroic confidence. He was the old Gilgamesh again, except even better. He felt like he had the world by short-hairs at last. No one could piss on his parade now. A great certainty descended upon him; it smelled like…victory. “The cure for death is not in my hand right now, but I can feel it within my grasp already. Driver, take me to the deepest place in this Ocean of Death. If this plant-thing is growing anywhere, that’s where it would be.”
Urshanabi shrugged. “You da boss.”
He changed direction and poled them to the deadest place on the whole sea of dead waters. No one came here. No one could. Birds didn’t even fly overhead. They’d drop like stones from the sky. There wasn’t a craft on any horizon. Cold, deep, supernaturally still. It was the black hole of the ocean. If you went down here, you never came up. Gilgamesh sat strapping large stones around his shins.
“I don’t know about this boss,” the ferryman said, considering the plan, which struck him as pretty crude. A bathysphere would probably have been better, he thought. But it hadn't been invented yet and there wasn’t time enough to wait until it was.
“Don’t worry,” the cocksure King said. “I’ll be up in a jiffy.”
He took a deep breath.
Over the side went Gilgamesh, a knife between his teeth. Straight down into the depths he shot, streaking like a comet. It took him light-years, or so it seemed. At last his feet hit bottom. He was already out of breath. His lungs were close to bursting. He had turned blue though there was no light to see blue when you were down this deep. No light to see anything except for the light you made yourself. Speaking of which, one of those nightmare fish came propelling past, a small phosphorescent bulb dangling from the end of an antennae emerging from his brutal hatchet face. And in that wan unearthly glow it cast, Gilgamesh saw it: the plant Ziusudra had told him about.
The cure for death.
Gilgamesh almost cried out for joy, which would have caused him to drown instantly, ruining everything. Instead, he recalled the gravity of the situation and the near-bursting of his lungs and applied himself to cutting the plant loose from its roots, which had a stranglehold on the bottom of death’s ocean. Then he sawed through the ropes holding the stones around his legs and with the knife between his teeth again and the cure for death in his fist, he shot back to the surface twice as fast as he went down. He spluttered and spit and coughed out death’s water.
“I’ve got it Urshanabi! I’ve got it,” Gilgamesh shouted. “I’ve got the motherfucker!”
With Urshanabi’s help, he flopped back on board. He brandished the plant like he once brandished the heads of his enemies. He marched up and down the length of the skiff, detailing just how he managed the coup, how fast he sank, how fast he rose, how close he was to running out of air, the strange creatures he’d seen, the toughness of the stem.
“You’re hand is bleeding,” the ferryman said. “You better attend to it.”
Gilgamesh regarded his bloody fist. “The thorns,” he said. “Huh, go figure. I’d forgotten. I hardly even noticed.” But now that he’d remembered, painfully, he wasn’t putting that plant down, not for a second, not for nothing. “This plant is my salvation. Not my salvation only. But all of mankind’s. I’ll take it back to Uruk and give it to all the old men to eat. The old bags, too. Bingo—instant hotness! Better than the Fountain of Youth! Better than Botox or HRT! They’ll be afraid to take it at first, especially as it comes from my hand, from which they’ve never known anything but a beating. They’ll be thinking something’s up, that it’s a trick. So I’ll have a bite first so they can see its miracle effect on me, see me change right before their very own eyes. Yup. By virtue of this miracle seed a man may win back his youth, set his life on rewind, and do it all again. By virtue of this plant, a man becomes immortal. That’ll show them! They’ll be sorry they ever called me a no-good rotten bastard. They’ll be sorry they cursed me behind my back, called me a war criminal and a profiteer in blood, a rapist and a murderer and whatever other mean things they muttered. I’ll be a hero forever. Bigger than Prometheus, Jesus, Mohammed and Buddha! Greater than Alexander the Great! I’m talking bigger than Elvis-Fucking-Presley! I’m gonna call it ‘The Gilgamesh Plant.’ It has a certain ring. Don’t you think, Ursh?”
“Hmm, I don’t know boss,” the ferryman said, trying for once to be diplomatic. He was still on probation, after all. “Apropos it is, no doubt of that. But maybe something a little more botanical and just a tad little less…oh I don’t know…less egocentric?”
The king was in too good a mood to take offense where offense wasn’t intended; in truth, he was in that rare state of a euphoria where a man would fail to notice offense even if it was intended.
“Well, maybe you’ve got a point. Let’s just call it ‘The Old Men Are Young Again Bush’ for the time being. A working title. It’s kind of clunky, not as euphonious, but it makes the point. There will be time to tinker with it later. We’ll get the marketing people on it when I get back. But for now, let’s be off. No more tarrying. Pole this heap as fast as you can! Hey ho, let’s go! Back to Uruk, man!”
* * *
So Urshanabi poled and poled and poled and poled some more. Eventually they made it across the Sea of Death and came to the other shore, the shore to which no man before the King had ever returned once he left it. The shore of Life, that is.
They didn’t bother to secure the skiff for they didn’t intend on using it ever again. No need for it frankly, since Gilgamesh never intended on dying again.
Now it was a matter of walking. They traveled back the way the King had come and boy it was a lot longer than he remembered. ‘What a mess I was back then,’ the King though to himself as he trod the scarred landscape of his past grief. ‘I can hardly believe that guy I recall was really me.’
They traversed incalculable distances over inestimable days when at last they stopped for a night in a green and shaded glade. Gilgamesh spotted a well of cool water not far off and while his trusty manservant Urshanabi set up camp and got a fire started for dinner, the King decided to freshen up. He took the plant, still stapled by its thorns into his palm, down to the water with him. He hadn’t been separated from it since he tore it from the ocean bottom and no way was he putting it down now. He stripped off his clammy clothes and waded into the water and with his free hand started splashing water at his underarms and crotch.
But deep down in the pool, hidden there in the sucking mud and vegetable debris, as if it were just waiting for this opportunity since the beginning of time, a serpent stirred to life. It heard the splashing, slit open it’s eyes, and saw, from below, the mighty form of Gilgamesh hovering above.
“This is my cue,” said the serpent.
And from the big murderous hand leaking mortal blood it saw the cumbersomely-named plant dangling like bait, a temptation not to be resisted.
Up rose the snake and before the King knew any different, the plant was ripped like barbed wire from his fist, and the serpent away once again, like an arrow to the green darkness of the abysmal well.
“Fuck!” Gilgamesh shouted and back at camp Urshanabi could pretty much guess what had happened.
“Boss ain’t going to be so happy-go-lucky now,” he said to himself. “Still I made my bed. I’m just going to have to make the best of it. It’s not like jobs for Death’s Ferrymen are growing on trees nowadays.”
The King didn’t take it as badly as might be expected from what’s gone on before. Yes, he sat down on the banks and put his face in his hands and carried on a bit and wept most bitterly. But his heart wasn’t in it. Almost in spite of himself, it seemed, he’d grown philosophical and detached. For all the drama-queen antics of his self-operatic past, he took this latest and greatest catastrophe with more of a stoic resolve. He’d had his chance, hadn’t he? What more could a man ask? If he fucked up, he had no one to blame but himself. And, in truth, could he even blame himself? Name me one other fellow who’d done any better? Go on. Just one.
“Urshanabi,” he said, when the ferryman came down to the well to call him to supper. “I tried. I gave it my best. Was it for this last and bitterest of disappointments that I toiled so hard? That I wrung out my heart?” He held up his bruised hand, upon which the stigmata of the thorns remained. “That I bled the blood of my own veins? What did I do it all for?”
The ferryman shrugged. “I dunno boss.”
Well, what could he say?
Gilgamesh grunted. “I gained nothing and that fucking lowlife snake snatched the prize right out of my grasp. Stole it away in an eye-blink! Gone—the snake, eternal youth, immortality, the whole magilla, the comlete shebang, the full monty. Just like that! Who’d believe it? I found the cure for death and now I’ve gone and lost it. Well, what are you gonna do? C’est la vie. No use crying over spilled milk. It is what it is. Let’s have dinner. I’m famished.”
* * *
Well, that’s pretty much the end of the exciting stuff. I could go on about how many more miles Gilgamesh and Urshanabi walked, how many fires they lit, how many rivers they crossed, how many partridges they killed for their supper, but it wouldn’t tell you anything else you needed to know. There were no more monsters to slay, no more slutty goddesses to fuck or not fuck, no more dreadful temper tantrums and resultant genocidal slaughters, no more apocalyptic mayhem. In other words, nothing really worth retelling. Just two guys walking through the forest, seeing a lot of trees and sparrows, doing a lot of soul-searching, getting to know each other.
Suffice it to say, it took them some time to get back to Uruk and in that time Gilgamesh came to appreciate Urshanabi as a true friend. He was no Enkidu, that was true, nothing can replace your first love, and we’d have to think less of the King if his passions were that fickle, but Urshi wasn’t chopped liver either. He was a good guy, loyal and true, and in the middle of the night, when a man most needed comfort, he was right there where you wanted him.
Just because you could love again didn’t mean your heart wasn’t still broken, just because you could laugh didn’t mean you’d ever stopped crying inside. What King G understood at last was that everyone carried these unhealed wounds inside. You didn’t have to make a big freaking scene about it like you were the only one who ever felt these things. You still had to get up the next morning and go about the business of life. You still had to put on your boots, saddle your horse, eat your breakfast and find something constructive to do with your day. That’s what a hero was when you came right down to it.
In the distance, they saw the walls of Uruk rise up above the plain.
“There it is,” King G said. “Home sweet home.”
And the miraculous thing was, he rather thought he meant it.
When they got closer, Gilgamesh said to Urshanabi, “Take a good look. That’s the city of my birth. That foundation was laid down by my ancestors. Those walls you see have never been breached. Examine the brickwork. Not bad, eh? Those towers, pretty impressive, but maybe they could be higher. I intend to try. There are cultivated fields that grow our food, gardens growing every kind of plant and flower, and temples to the gods and goddesses, even Inanna, who I really should make my peace with; it’s unseemly not to. Do you think you could be happy here?”
Gilgamesh smiled. “Good.”
They passed through the city gates without much fanfare, but collecting a respectful crowd in their wake. Word went quickly around Uruk that Gilgamesh had returned and the people came out to see their king and the new friend he’d brought back with him. One glance and they could see the man had changed, though exactly how they didn’t yet know. One thing they could tell right off that was different, however. He didn’t instinctively scare the living shit out of them anymore.
“He’s back,” they said in respectful tones to one another. “Our King is back. Our Gilgamesh.”
Gilgamesh and Urshanabi walked at the head of this quiet procession back to the palace where the crowds were left gathered at the threshold.
“So what’s next King?” Urshanabi asked.
King G thought a while, but he already knew the answer.
He said: “I have gone as far as any man has ever gone. I’ve seen many things in my wandering, many mysteries, many secrets that no one else has ever seen or is likely to ever see again. It is time to make an accounting of them all. Something tells me that I’ve got one helluva story to tell.”
Then he called for a stack of stone tablets tall as a hero and had them carried up to a secluded room at the top of the palaces highest tower. He got his scribing chisel out; he held it in hand wounded by the thorns, the wounds of which hadn’t quite healed and never would. It would hurt to write. So be it. He’d survive that, too.
He bent over the first fresh unmarked stone. I am Gilgamesh, he hammered, King of Uruk. This is the story of my life.
“Keep the tablets and the coffee coming, Ursh,” he said. “I’ve got a feeling that I’m going to be at it for a while.”
Wednesday, April 15, 2015
=Hilary Mantel on the ecstasy of writing (as channeled through her character Camille Desmoulins in her novel A Place of Greater Safety)=
When it was time to write, and he took his pen in his hand, he never thought of consequences; he thought of style. I wonder why I ever bothered with sex, he thought; there's nothing in this breathing world so gratifying as an artfully placed semicolon. Once paper and ink were to hand, it was useless to appeal to his better nature, to tell him he was wrecking reputations and ruining people's lives. A kind of sweet venom flowed through his veins, smoother than the finest cognac, quicker to make the head spin. And, just as some people crave opium, he craves the opportunity to exercise his fine art of mockery, vituperation and abuse; laudanum might quieten the senses, but a good editorial puts a catch in the throat and a skip in the heartbeat. Writing's like running downhill; can't stop if you want to.
Posted by mcw at 3:32 PM