Lugalbanda the pure answers him: “Let the power of running be in my thighs, let me never grow tired! Let there be strength in my arms, let me stretch my arms wide, let my arms never become weak! Moving like the sunlight, like Inana, like the seven storms, those of Ickur, let me leap like a flame, blaze like lightning! Let me go wherever I look to, set foot wherever I cast my glance, reach wherever my heart desires and let me loosen my shoes in whatever place my heart has named to me! When Utu lets me reach Kulaba my city, let him who curses me have no joy thereof; let him who wishes to strive with me never say, ‘Just let him come!’”
--Lugalbanda and the Anzud Bird
My new body was the only angelic flesh that hadn’t been shaped by her hands. I knew it would be different than the rest, but I hadn’t expected to be so unsettled by the differences. I woke to find my skin brown and still smooth with youth; I was tall, but lanky, and I found my hair was straight like an angel’s but black like man’s. I finally found my reflection in a riverbank and was appalled to see that I was young, too easily mistaken for a boy of fifteen or less. There was also the matter of my eyes, which were violet, caught somewhere between the red of Sariel and the blue of an earth-bound angel. I didn’t know what she would think of me, looking like this.
“Where am I?” I demanded of my Maker. I was perturbed to hear my voice break; I coughed to hide it.
In the mountains, He said, ever cryptic.
“Am I going to look like a child forever?” I snapped.
Your form is young to allow your mind to shape it. It will become what you need it to be. When you are done growing, you will be more at home in your body than the angels who were given their adult flesh.
“Damn it all...”
I slapped the water and cringed at the bitterness of the cold against my hand. I had never endured the sensation without fur. I fell back clumsily, cutting my bare ass on a sharp rock, and cursed louder. I swear that Father was laughing, though I didn’t hear a sound.
You are Lugalbanda. It will come to mean ‘great king,’ before your end. For now it means nothing; it will adapt as you do.
“I don’t need to be king,” I said. “I just don’t want her to laugh at me.”
He said nothing more until I picked myself up off the ground, testing my body. I admit, it was different than the form I was used to in Heaven. It was easy to maneuver that one, where everything felt light and disconnected. Here, flesh was heavy. I could feel every muscle stretch and contract, uncomfortably dense in a landscape that felt like it was smothering me, making me taste dust in every breath I took. Maybe He was right, and I needed the time to adjust.
Nearby is a hut, where a man and a woman reside apart from humanity. They brew beer and trade it in the city for supplies. They are gone. Go there, take clothes from the cupboard, a dish, and a skin of beer. I will replenish their stock tenfold in the days following the theft. Never again will you need to break the laws of man, in this lifetime.
“I don’t see why you can’t just summon me some clothes,” I muttered.
That would break the rules.
“You made the rules.”
Why else would they matter to Me?
I grumbled, resigned to it. I crept along the brush, eventually coming upon the hut He spoke of. Strangely embarrassed by my nudity, I kept to the trees until I could sneak into the back entry of the home, which was a mess. I found a pair of trousers and a stained shirt in a heap of clothes by the door, not far from the dishes. The beer skins were hung sloppily over hooks along the wall; once dressed, I grabbed one, and a dish, before I went back out the hole in the wall that might have been a door.
Go to the edge of the cliff. Pour the beer into the dish and sit before it. You will be visited by an anzud bird, which has a taste for human drinks. He will arrive, drink, and fly back in the direction of the city. Follow where he goes.
Again, I did as I was told, pouring beer in the dish and sitting on my bleeding ass while I awaited the bird. I thought for a second about drinking what remained, but I didn’t want to push my luck. I was clumsy enough as it was.
In time, a large black bird swooped down to land on the dish. It sized me up with its beady eyes, ruffling its feathers, before determining that I wasn’t a threat. (This pissed me off, but I clenched my teeth, deciding that it was best I get used to it.) Pecking at the bottom of the dish, it drank. Happy, it flew off.
Go on, Lugal.
I stood, then slid down the edge of the cliff after it. I kept it in my sights, warming up to my legs as I ran through trees, vines, weeds. I tripped more than once, as if I didn’t know where my feet ended. For now, I was glad there was no one to see me, stumbling like a newborn deer through the jungle.
At long last, I came to the walls of a city. I was spotted by the guards at the lookout, who pounded a spear as they hollered down at me.
“Who do you belong to, boy? What business have you in Kulaba?”
Well-spoken for a human, I thought. They had evolved since I had last walked this plane.
Tell them the truth.
“I belong to no one,” I called back, hating the sound of my voice. “I have no parents or siblings and no home to go to. I seek shelter.”
I expected them to laugh and mock my plight, but vaguely hearing their mutters to one another, they seemed to feel pity. Perhaps my young face served some purpose after all.
The gates were opened to me, some armored men coming to guide me inside. They clasped my shoulder--was it a gesture of friendship?
Here I leave you, Son, my Maker said. I trust you will find your way in this world. Be well, be wary, until we meet once more.
His presence quieted, leaving me with the profound weight of sadness. Lacking the strength of the beast I had been, I felt unprotected on this plane, and alone. I looked behind me as the gates closed, my fists closed tight at my sides. I couldn’t let my fears overwhelm me now. I had come too far.
Before me stretched the city of Kulaba, its brick buildings tall, its marketplace colorful and bustling. Soldiers lined the streets, strong and armed. Here was my beginning. Here, I would become what she deserved.
They gave me a bed in the guards’ barracks, since they thought I had potential to be threatening. Having just come from a world of weapons and warring, I was a quick study. At first they let me only tidy the quarters for my keep, then let me polish the armor, then the weapons. They let me practice with them alone, before bringing me out to spar with the other recruits. I quickly outgrew my clumsiness. Soon, only the best of their men would fight me.
“Boy must have been a soldier in the last life,” I heard the captain mutter.
Unfortunately, my free room also meant I had stable duties. I spent an absurd amount of time shoveling shit, those first few years. I resented it, at first, thinking it would be easier if they just let them out once a day to shit in the jungle like Rig had done with me; I gradually accepted that not all kept animals were capable of taking orders, and it was better for them if they weren’t made to stand in their own waste day and night.
Turns out, I had an affinity for animals. I understood them, simple as they were. They wanted food, shelter, and respect. Respect looked different for horses than it did for cattle, different still from dogs or chickens, but once you found the thing that made them calm, they responded. It was like tuning into a frequency. Shoveling their shit humbled me enough to care about them; I imagined Michael might have been similarly humbled by such duties, if he hadn’t regularly used terrified human laborers to avoid getting his hands dirty.
When I became accustomed to my duties enough to do them quickly, I had time to learn other things. After overcoming my initial dislike of humans outside the barracks, I came to appreciate their way of life. In particular, it was their music that won me over; then, it was their stories. When a troop of the queen’s soldiers came through town, they would light a bonfire at night and tell of their adventures: what monsters lay in the jungles, tales of the amorous gods, how many men they had felled with the might of the empire. Most of it was lies--I could still tell lies by scent, even in this shape--but it didn’t matter. To those who listened, it was truth. When those stories were spoken with the pounding of drums, or the whooping of pretty girls, they sounded all the more true.
Music and stories. Apart from war, which was in my nature, that was what called to me. I learned all their stories, sitting in the shadows where old women gossiped, or buying the drunks a meal at the tavern with coin the captain tossed me at the end of each week. I learned all the epithets: Anu god of the heavens, distant and just; Enlil, god of displeasure, who came to threaten mankind--or was it Enlil who betrayed Heaven, who laid with Ninlil and fell? They confused their gods. They did not know the name Yahweh, or Michael. Ninhursag, who birthed all of man--they did know Enme, then. My beloved.
I laid awake in the barracks late at night, repeating the tales silently to myself. I learned that anything could be true about these gods, conflicting legends just shrugged away as the unknowable mystery of Heaven. I could invent my own stories, once I knew enough. Anu of Heaven, Enlil the betrayer, Ninhursag the mother. They spoke of a horned one as well, Enki; I smiled to think that might be I.
Eventually, I saved enough coin to toss at a drummer in the street, so that he would let me have his drum. More coin still bought me time with him, so he could show me the technique. This process I did again with a lute player, and a traveling sitarist. I became brave enough to play for the guards in the barracks, pleased when they applauded and slapped my back, which apparently was a sign of affection. Father was right--I did find my way.
The years passed faster than they made themselves known. I was startled when the captain approached me with the offer that I might train to be his successor, not realizing I had been there so long. I looked in the mirror that night, alarmed to see that I was a man: years of sparring and difficult labor had thickened my arms and chest like they had been in Heaven, my hands tough with scars, dark stubble lining my jaw despite having shaved that very morning. I nearly resembled Michael, yet not--Michael had been pale, and clean, while my features were rough to behold. It was as though Michael had been forged with lightning, and I from base fires of coal.
I wanted to see her now, Ninsun, the queen they spoke of in reverent whispers. I could surely reach her now, I thought. But I had no way to travel to Uruk where she dwelled, not without hoarding a year’s pay to bribe some passing merchant. Besides, I had nothing to impress her with then. Did I expect her to fall to her knees in light of my presence? No, surely I had to do more to be called worthy.
I was puzzling over this, halfheartedly considering the captain’s proposal, when my answer rolled into town. I recognized beak-nosed Penemue as soon as he stepped out of the caravan, standing in the middle of town in a painfully colorful scribes’ gown, something I knew only from stories.
“I come with a great challenge from our queen herself,” he declared. “This great challenge is a matter of great greatness, for before me lies a journey into the terrible city of Arrata. Yes, I, the scribe Ningishzida must venture forth unarmed into Arrata now, but if you might give me some of your good men to guard me from the warlord Bayak, the queen will reward those men handsomely indeed. For wherein there is danger, there must be reward, and in the case that the reward cometh from the queen, the reward must certainly be handsome.”
I remembered now why I shared no time with the spokesman of our army. He pretended he didn’t know what he was saying, managing to twist ordinary words into something puzzling by the time he was through with them, all the while gleaming pleasure from the confused faces of those foolish enough to keep listening. He was a man who purposefully drowned himself in absurdity. In short, I found him exhausting.
“Now I do know that Arrata has many spears, and swords, and molten rocks whereby they doth make war upon any person who set foot upon their territory, but fear not, for behold: I bring with me tools of Magic from the heavens. See here, fire!”
He revealed two sticks from his long sleeves, which he struck together. The tips burst into flames. The villagers stared in awe, whispering among themselves. I tried not to groan. Obviously, they were coated in flammable paste and set aflame by the friction of two strips of metal where he had struck them. But only an angel would know that, so I said nothing.
“So hear, who here is brave enough to march with me into Arrata, to reclaim beautiful child Inanna from the clutches of evilest evil? Step forward and receive the blessing of Uruk!”
To my surprise, there were volunteers. Untrained boys, mostly, so distracted by his miracle of fire that they were willing to forget Arrata’s history of brutal assaults against Kulaba’s walls and risk themselves going into the fray. However, the guard captain stepped forward, unimpressed with Ningishzida’s display.
“We of Kulaba are few in number, and have few resources to provide foolish boys willing to rush into a warlord’s territory for the sake of some child. We happily serve the queen when there is a threat to our empire; however, I’m not about to surrender valuable weapons without cause. The boys can go with you, but they will not be armed.”
“Surely some coin ought to alter such a grim proclamation?” Ningishzida said, passing the torches to a stoic assistant to reveal a heavy bag of clinking jewels.
The guard captain shook his head.
“Coin won’t speed the time it takes to replace lost armaments. We have but one blacksmith who can’t work miracles. We won’t arm a boy in his suicide wish, so unless I see among your recruits some warrior with a prayer of returning alive, send the queen our regrets.”
Ningishzida was lucky I was there. Or else, I was lucky he was there. I rose from my place, easily towering above the crowd.
“I’ll go,” I said.
The guard captain had a look of regret about him; I don’t think he wanted to see me go. Ningishzida, however, appeared markedly relieved.
“A-ha! A nephilim among you! Certainly he would be worth your arms?”
“I’m no nephilim,” I said.
“No shame in being a Child of Anu,” Ningishzida said, as if he hadn’t heard me. “If anything you have all the more cause to seek the queen’s gratitude and reward--blessings to your father, whosoever he may or may not be! The child Inanna will yet be saved.”
The guard captain regarded me in a way that reminded me of Enme, the way she watched me as she chained at the end of the night, not wanting to leave me to a grim fate but knowing it was where I belonged.
“Lugalbanda is a fine warrior,” he admitted. “If it’s his decision to go with you, it’s not for me to stand in his way. He will have what he needs from the armory. If he wants the help of the boys, they too will be armed.”
“That won’t be necessary,” I said.
The boys cursed and spit at me, mocking my arrogance, like gnats hovering about my feet. Still, even Ningishzida regarded me warily.
“Now I have no doubt that you’re a force to be reckoned with,” said the queen’s messenger. “But like the lone wolf who finds himself tracking in a pack’s paw-prints, a good soldier doesn’t deny help when it’s available to him.”
“You want to go without me?”
“That said sometimes lone wolves are the right tool for the job,” he clapped his hands. “We shall leave at your say. Uruk thanks you, brave soul, for your fighting spirit.”
I was given a sword and armor, the same that I’d have worn had I become an initiated guard of the walls. I said I would return with them when the task was done, but the guard captain told me to keep them--one set missing would do no harm. He embraced me before I climbed onto the caravan; for the first time, I embraced someone in return. My heart ached to leave him, who had cared for me almost as well as my Father above. I had seen in him the goodness of mankind that Michael had never let me see. In leaving that place, I was left a bit gentler towards humanity, who might have some worth beyond their being my queen’s legacy.
“Lugalbanda, hm?” Ningishzida said to me, as I took my seat beside him. “Never heard that name. Has a honorable ring to it.”
I shrugged. It would mean nothing to me until I heard her say it.
What happened in Arrata was laughable. Despite Ningishzida’s offers of coin, land, or the removal of his own presence from the room, the warlord Bayak stubbornly refused to hand over the child. Yet when I felled three of his men without drawing my sword, he was so impressed he offered me the girl Inanna and two other child brides. Ningishzida wanted to debate with him about the ethics of being able to offer helpless children as one offers cattle, but I accepted his gift of Inanna and brought her back to the caravan. One doesn’t debate with unbalanced humans--Michael was right about that much.
“How did you do that?” Ningishzida asked me.
“Men who want power understand power,” I said. “You put them in their place, and they give you what you want.”
The child in question was only faintly tan, thin, with hair long and straight and eyes of bright blue. I had never seen a nephilim, there were none in Kulaba, but looking at her I could not doubt her heritage. Half-human, wild-eyed, already older than her age; I wondered why then she reminded me so much of Anatu, the woman I had judged for Uriel. She should have been a distant memory, yet, I couldn’t stop remembering her as I saw this child. I’m sure I was a sight for her, my fists bloodied and my cheek sliced after narrowly missing an arrow to the face. But if she was frightened, she didn’t show it. She appeared only sad.
“Lord Asasel will take good care of you,” Ningishzida soothed, wrapping a blanket around her shoulders as he sat her on the seat beside us. “You’ll see, little one. You’ll be much happier soon.”
She shook her head, saying nothing. I felt a twinge of pity, though I didn’t know how to act on it. For all I had learned in my short-lived adolescence, I had no experience with children. My instinct was to draw her close to me, but I couldn’t know if that was wrong to do. For now I kept my distance, arms folded and eyes closed, focused on ignoring the stinging in my cheek until we stopped and I could stitch it properly. Ningishzida said it would be three weeks’ journey to the capital. I would see that I was healed before then.
The journey felt longer than those weeks, though that was all it took. We quickly ate through the rations brought with us, then an unexpected rainstorm ruined the roof of the caravan. They were lucky I could hunt, and that a bear could give us enough meat to last the remainder of the journey and the right pelt to patch the roof.
The driver with us marveled at the feat, saying that he had never met a man who could take down a bear alone. Inanna giggled when I put the bear’s empty head over mine and growled, pretending to be as fearsome as I used to be. Even Ningishzida, wordsmith of the palace, was impressed by the stories I told as we roasted meat over the open fire. Socializing and survival were not so different, I decided.
“I should think to call you Ninurta,” Ningishzida decided one day. “The great soldier-hunter who saved a princess. Yes, I think that’s how this story will go.”
I didn’t protest. I had learned that one does not have a hand in the names they are called, anyway.
At long last, we were greeted by the gates of Uruk. They were three times the size of Kulaba’s, their guards in armor plated with glistening gold. Their streets reminded me of Eridu’s, if they had been grander. The buildings were tall, the dyes somehow more refined than any I had seen before. And the music--the music in the streets there was far more beautiful than anything I had learned from the drummer or sitarist. As I heard it, I went out to sit on the back of the caravan, where I might listen until it faded into the distance.
The palace guard greeted us stoically. Ningishzida exchanged a few words with them, calling me the “Hero of Kulaba,” which was accepted with nods. We were brought through many layers of the castle, past kitchens and dining halls, through a vast room of scrolls, on our way to some unspoken destination. At the top of the last spiral of stairs, Inanna, who had been holding my hand, was guided away from me. I watched her disappear down a hall, going to meet her new guardian. I must have looked sad, because Ningishzida tried to cheer me.
“We’re off to meet with the queen herself,” he said. “Surely you must be glad. You’ve come all this way and you’ll have your reward. Though, interesting that you’ve never once asked what that entailed...”
“I don’t care,” I said.
“Even if I told you it was a helmetful of diamonds?”
“What would I do with that?” I asked.
He was incredulous.
“A bounty-earner with no interest in his bounty. Likely sanest of the un-sane pursuits. Not that the queen’s treasury will mourn, but that does pose a question: what do you want?”
I shrugged. I owed him no answer, so I would give none, and having become accustomed to my long silences, Ningishzida sighed and allowed me another.
“Strange, quiet Ninurta,” he muttered. It was becoming my epithet.
The meeting was to take place in a small room, which had no windows and no adornments, aside from a few pillows arranged for sitting. It was both informal and imposing, somehow fitting for an arranged meeting between strangers and a monarch. We were there first. Ningishzida sat cross-legged on a red pillow, then pat the yellow one beside him, a gesture for me to sit. Although I had fought him when he said I had to leave behind my armor in the caravan, I was now glad I hadn’t worn it--no one could sit on the floor while in chest plates. I assumed the position, trying not to look as anxious as I was. I chose a single place in the wall to focus on, a break in the design etched along the stone, and waited.
“Queen Enmerker, arriving,” the guard announced.
It is hard to describe what it was like, seeing her again. She was just as beautiful as she had been when I saw her breathe anew, her hair longer and still as golden, her visage reserved of emotion, each movement befitting a woman who brought order to an empire. Yet I worried to see she was thinner than she had been, that the grief of the battlefield still clung to her like a shadow, shrouding the warmth she had had in the days of Eden. But it was her. Stunning, lovely Enme, looking at me again.
“Ninsun, I bring you the fascinating Hero of Kulaba,” Ningishzida greeted, as the queen sat across from us. “Killed three men without a weapon and shocked a warlord into docility, now claims he wants no reward for his miracle.”
“Every man wants some reward,” she said, Ninsun now--I saw how her eyes flickered when it was said. “Does this hero have a name?”
She looked at me, but she didn’t know me. I wanted her to know me.
“Lugalbanda,” I said, before the scribe could speak for me.
“Lugalbanda, then,” she said, giving my name purpose. She observed me more closely; I could feel each place her gaze settled, from my waist to my broad chest, finally to my eyes, the color I knew would give her pause. Though she could not recognize who I had been, she had to know that I was different.
“Are you nephilim?” she asked, suspicious.
“No,” I said.
“Then you are a man?”
“I’m not human.”
“You cannot be like us,” she said, growing defensive. “I do not recognize you.”
“I’m of Heaven, my soul is of the same stuff as yours,” I replied. “Whatever that makes me is what I am.”
Ningishzida choked with surprise, now forced to absorb Ninsun’s horrified, accusatory response.
“You picked up an unidentified angel and you didn’t warn me?” she said, finally breaking her queenly tone. “What is this, Gish?!”
“He didn’t say any of this the whole way here, how was I supposed to guess one of our brothers would materialize out of the thin air? I mean, after the rest of the materializing, that is.”
“Did you fight in the war?” Ninsun demanded, rounding on me. “Were you of Light? I won’t shelter an enemy soldier, no matter what brings you here.”
“I was on your side,” I promised. “I can’t remember who I was.”
That was a lie. I expected that telling one might give me a chill, or a sense of dread, but instead I felt nothing. It was the same as pretending I didn’t understand my lord-master’s orders, or telling a tall tale to an unwitting audience. I didn’t want to lie to my queen, yet I knew I could not yet say the truth. If she knew I was her general, she would treat me like her other generals, who she gave a title and expected to keep their distance. I couldn’t let that happen.
“Perhaps Father has given a body to one of the lost soldiers you didn’t know you passed over,” Ningishzida said, hoping to calm her. “That would be a good omen, no? A sign of pity from our silent Creator.”
“...perhaps,” she agreed.
She held her head in her hand, a gesture I recognized from Eridu. She had a headache. I held my tongue, not wanting to contribute to it. A blurring of former instincts made me long to kiss her neck.
“Leave us, Gish,” she said, composed again. “I will speak to our new brother alone.”
“Yes, your highness, of course--so sorry, terribly sorry about all this.”
He left in a hurry, making me wonder if the generals had come to fear Ninsun, who did indeed have great power over their continued existence. Then again, I had heard no stories of her cruelty. Now that she was alone before me, that distance about her was all the more vast; she was a stranger, in this time. I felt a barrier between us that had never been there when I was a beast. It dawned on me slowly that although I had scaled the cliff dividing us, I had not anticipated the chasm on the other side.
“Angel or not, you have done a noble thing, bringing Inanna to her new home,” she said at last. “Name your price, and we will try to fill it.”
Perhaps she was not entirely the woman I had known; I was not the beast I had been. And when I looked at her now, I still felt that warmth spreading from my heart, filling me with purpose. I was home, with her.
“I want to marry you,” I said.
She stared. There passed a few minutes of motionless processing, her brain no doubt sputtering as it tried to hear what I had said. I worried that I had broken her--at last, she blinked. A smile stretched across her face, trembling. She pressed her hand to her mouth.
Finally, she burst into laughter. She laughed, and laughed, and my face grew red with shame. I stood, wanting to escape, but she grabbed my hand.
“No no, don’t go,” she managed, and pulled at my palm. “Sit...”
Her laughter was quieting, but still she smiled. My shame faded as I realized she wasn’t mocking me--I saw the tears in the corner of her eyes, the same that had sprung when I had brought her flowers.
Slowly, I sat. She released me, folding her hands in her lap, regaining her composure. But her smile remained.
“I’m sorry,” she said. “It’s that...you can’t think I was expecting this.”
“No,” I admitted.
“You’re bold, Lugalbanda. Maybe that’s a good thing.”
She looked away from me, her manner already softened as she had given up all attempt at formal speech. Her hands kneaded together, illustrating her thoughts.
“I don’t know you. You don’t know me,” she said. “But I admire a man so upfront with his intentions.”
Ninsun hesitated, until at last, our gaze met once more.
“Do you have talents?” she asked me.
“Yes,” I said. “I play music.”
She smiled, and my heart sang.
“Then I offer you a place in my court. You’ll have your chance to make yourself known to me, and you’ll be near enough that I might accidentally make myself known to you. Would that be acceptable, Lugalbanda of Kulaba?”
I realized I was smiling. I hadn’t noticed before that I was adverse to smiling because as a beast, it was unflattering (to put it mildly). With her though, I had always been able to. Those instincts were so engrained in me that even now, with the body of a man, she was still the only one I smiled for.
“Acceptable,” I replied.
We remained there, near each other, moments longer than was appropriate. She was so close I could have touched her, her hair, her cheek, caressing her the way I had always dreamed. My hand tingled with phantom warmth left by her grasp, that I would savor now long after she had gone. I longed to close that distance between us, somehow.
She stood, breaking the spell.
“I will have someone bring you to guest quarters for the night,” she said, her regal manner returned. “A permanent room will be prepared for you shortly. So long as you do not do anything absurd, I imagine you will be allowed to stay here until you grow tired of us.”
“That won’t happen,” I said.
She bowed to me; I’m unsure if that was proper, but she seemed eager to find a way to excuse herself from my company.
“Until next time,” she said.
With that, she was gone. I stood then, finding my own smile had only grown. Maybe it was coincidence, what she had said, but my gut told me that it wasn’t. She remembered my words; she said them back to me. All at once I could see across the chasm, and I knew I could cross it.