And now did the Elders of Uruk offer this supplication in aid of Gilgamesh, “May Shamash the Sun God grant you success in your endeavor. May He grant that your eyes witness the consummation of the words of your utterance. May He open for you the path that is blocked. May He cleave a road that you may tread upon it. May He level the uplands for your feet. May nightfall gladden you and may King Lugalbanda, your father, stand beside you and shelter you in your quest.”
--The Epic of Gilgamesh, Tablet III.
I am her beast. A punisher--horned, vengeful. I know the bow like it is my body, the arrow’s tip like the claws I once bore. I watch the oxen, bumbling, stupid, venture closer to the river. My horns were taken from his brother, draped upon my head by his fur, disguising me as friend in the bush.
I worry for him. Has he family now, same as I? Does he too have a mate sedentary with child--does he worry for her, as I do mine? Will I take him from his son?
It is him or I. I draw the string, aiming for his tender neck. I release; he looks at me. I realize then his eyes are mine, that this monster is my origin, but it is too late to call the arrow back. Yet even as it pierces him, blood sighing down his neck, he remains standing--staring at me, always.
I loose another arrow into him, and another. Defiant, he takes in every arrow until he is a dripping red carpet, that horned beast staring into me, the brother who has disowned him. I reach for another arrow, only to feel one pierce my shoulder. My fingers return bloodied.
Another pierces my calf, and I fall. The horns on my head won’t come away, sinking into my skull again. I’ve forgotten who I am. I’ve forgotten...something.
Sunlight warm against my eyelids. The window greets my blinking haze, black dots of birds flitting in and out of frame. I must have fallen asleep on the couch, waiting for her. My queen works herself too hard in her condition, no matter how I tell her the world will wait when she wishes to sleep.
I raise my hand to the ceiling, flexing my fingers in the rays. Still human. My skin brown, nails short and groomed--shameful habit, clipping them constantly, unable to stomach any sensation like claws against my palm. I feel my temple, finding only black hair, and my skin. Still human. Checking, constantly.
I sit up, stretching, standing. Everything aches. Dim memory of some meeting with some former comrade in the hours prior, who had wanted to know how “strange Lugalbanda” fared now that the unknown warrior had gotten everything he wanted: that is, the hand of the queen. They must assume I wanted her for the title, but I care not that marrying her has made me King. I only wanted to be bound to her. Whatever that entailed, that was what I wished.
I’m not alone, I realize. She’s by the curtains (she wanted to replace them but couldn’t find the time, they weren’t heavy enough to shut out the sky), tangled up in thoughts and silence. The sight of her sleeping gown distracts me: the fabric is sheer, draped down her strong back and clinging to the curve of her hips. Beneath, I glimpse the white linen wrapped around her womanhood, cheeks of her round rear--made rounder by her condition, I try not to smile--peeking out beneath. Her golden hair braided over a shoulder; a letter dangling from her hand.
She doesn’t regard me. Still, she knows I’m awake.
“It was going to be good news today,” she says, quieter than a queen’s address. “Why can’t it ever be good news?”
“If there were no bad news, you wouldn’t need me,” I reply.
I sense her smile, but still she hesitates to see me. Concern deepens. I approach, cradling the small of her back before slipping the letter from her hand. She allows this. I don’t recognize the scrawl, which grates on me all the more as the content becomes known.
“Our brothers call him an abomination,” she whispers. “Threaten to end him before his birth.”
I’m still learning what to do with anger. It was easy as a monster, when I could snarl and bay and no one would bat an eye. As a man, there’s nowhere for the emotion to go. I stand as still as she, turned to stone as my teeth clench, punishing my jaw for my inadequacy. We knew this would happen, our coupling a stress on her nation--yet still I feel responsible, as if by my weakness I allowed this threat to pierce our joy.
In light of my silence, her manner changes. She turns into my arm, one hand pushing back my hair like a child as the other looses the letter from my hand, letting it fall. Her eyes are blue as the Euphrates. As I drown in them, I grow numb even to my own rage, leaning near as her hand guides my neck to bend. I breathe her name as she kisses me.
The people have given her many names this time, yet that one feels most like hers.
“Don’t fret,” she says, and pinches my neck. Ridiculous punishment, hardly painful. “If you’re fretting, and I’m fretting, which of us is going to convince the other to sleep?”
She has a way of diffusing things, even difficult things. The annoyance of the stinging skin where she pinched me, the calm in her eyes, releases my thoughts in a breath. The threat against our unborn son is dire--I gaze at the swell in her middle that grows more each day, my quiet pride and my greatest concern--but she is right that in this moment, nothing can be done. If we let it pull us into despair, our brothers will win. I know the sword isn’t the only way to fell an empire.
Her white hand covers my brown one, holding it against her womb.
“The good news I wanted to tell you...”
She’s nearly bashful. My heart warms, amused by her elusive gaze.
“He moved, today. If you’re still, he might move again.”
I’m hot with excitement I can’t express. I can only stare dumbly at her belly, pressing my palm tight against it, for now feeling only her taut skin and a vague thudding I’ve become certain is our son’s heartbeat. I wait, still as death, hoping. I’ve nearly lost faith when suddenly I feel something press into my hand, and then away. Ninsun jolts as well, unprepared; I can’t stop grinning. Mine, I fill with pride. Alive and mine.
The threat is forgotten, my heart burning for her anew. I take her in my arms, her lips in mine, and she doesn’t resist. When my hand lifts her skirt she wraps her leg around mine, letting me easily untie the linen from around her womanhood, so that I may cup her folds as she bites at my lip. We’ve come together so often now that there is no fumbling--we move as if dancing, each motion with its pair, complementary. She must guide this dance, because I grow drunk with lust, and though she is strong she must still be careful, for I am stronger.
I don’t remember when I cast the drapes aside, pushing her onto the bed, because when I next come up for air she has decided to pin me to the sheets. A month ago I might have fought her, but her fragile belly has become her protection. She will have her way with me today, and I will never admit how much I love it.
When we're done, she lays in my arms. She always sleeps so soon after release. I’m hardly tired. I watch her as she begins to drift, my fingers lifting strands of her hair as though it is spun gold. My other hand rests upon her shoulder, which feels so small in my palm, too small to hold the burdens she has always carried. I remember when I first laid eyes on her in the garden, in Eden, and knew that she would be my everything.
She doesn't know. She doesn't remember that we were like this before, when she was an angel, and I was her beast. She doesn't know I was the monster she protected from his bitter master--that she made me all I am. I will tell her, someday. When my courage is gathered. But not today.