She went to the bath
And dressed in a fine robe,
and allowed him to catch a glimpse of her body.
He gave in to his heart’s desire to do what men and women do.
The two embraced each other
And went passionately to bed.
They lay there, queen Ereshkigal and Erra, for a first day and a second day.
They lay there, queen Ereshkigal and Erra, for a third day and a fourth day.
They lay there, queen Ereshkigal and Erra, for a fifth day and a sixth day.
--The Marriage of Nergal and Ereshkigal
That strange man wasted no time weaving his way around my heart. The warrior, the musician, the suitor, Lugalbanda did nothing halfway. Although his primary use was as a lute player, able to repeat beautiful melodies from across our empire, he was the first to volunteer whenever the guards needed an extra hand. If someone suspicious managed to get too close to me, it was always Lugalbanda who broke their face against the wall. Although I was loathe to admit it, I did feel safer when he was near.
He proved himself a capable entertainer, putting together elaborate spectacles to amuse me and my advisors each week. I had had the occasional storyteller in the palace now and then, who tried to impress me with some memorized woes of the ‘gods’ in hopes for coin--this was different. He would craft fine masks out of whatever materials were provided, switching between them as his tale called for it; he always had at least three drummers with him on stage, who he whipped into a frenzy as he pretended to be heavenly bull Gud-gal-ana, callous Enlil, the wild Enki. Lugal could be anyone, and it was never absurd. And when he took off the mask, he returned to himself: that withdrawn, powerful man who hid a devilish smirk.
Once, he came upon me in the palace gardens, where I found relief from my duties. It wasn’t Eden, nothing would ever be Eden, but still they pleased me. Rosebushes as far as the eye could see, stretching high along the walls, the sight of which moved me like nothing else could. I was trimming dead leaves when suddenly he was there, dressed in an open shirt that knowingly invited me to explore his physique, as he leaned against the exposed brick like a vagabond.
“Do you tend to all this yourself?” he asked, always far too casual with me.
“Do you always sneak up on royalty?” I asked.
It wasn’t that I felt I deserved the fear and adoration given to a monarch, it was that if I didn’t demand it, the office would hold no authority and the tenuous hold we had over humanity would fall to pieces. As an angel, Lugal should have understood that.
“I wanted to see you. I hadn’t seen you yet, today.”
He reached up into the foliage, to the iron mesh along the wall, and snapped a thick stem with one hand. I was baffled when he extended a rose to me--a fine one, admittedly, fully in bloom and rich of color--smiling like he had done something grand.
“What are you doing?” I asked.
“Giving you a flower,” he said.
“Look around,” I said. “I have many. Put that down.”
“Even if I ventured far outside these walls and plucked a flower just as fine from the wild brush, all these lands are yours, and that flower would still be from a bush that belonged to you. I may as well offer you one close to you.”
I can’t say why his manner made me blush so. The flower was indeed beautiful, and I couldn’t bear to have him drop it on the ground. I accepted it, despite myself. He grinned--he had a wolfish grin, wide and mysterious. So much about him was canine in manner, the way he snapped his head to a noise, how he carried all his tension in his shoulders, the way he gnashed his teeth behind closed lips when Ningishzida’s manner began to grate. Yet strange as that was, it was stranger still how that was so often the cause of my blush.
He chuckled. The sound rumbled in his chest, like thunder.
“Forgive me. I have little I can offer that would be worth you.”
“You needn’t offer me anything,” I said, setting the rose on the rim of a planter as I returned to my task. “You’ve seen me, now. Good day, Lugalbanda.”
This disappointed him.
“You don’t like being alone,” he said, “yet you keep sending everyone away.”
I stopped. My stomach had twisted itself into a knot, though it had no cause. Why did his words speak to me, claiming to know my heart? He didn’t know anything. I had never told anyone how much I hated being alone, while still hating the feeling of people around me, judging me in silence.
“You shouldn’t assume things about someone,” I said, trying to forget him.
“I assume nothing.”
I felt his gaze on me, not quite wanting, though not quite innocent. I glimpsed how his hand reached towards me before he pushed it into his pocket, denying himself.
“I won’t talk, if you don’t want me to,” said Lugal. “But blushing suits you.”
That impossible man.
“You’re very strange,” I said, lashing out, defensive. It rolled off him with a shrug.
“Marry me anyway,” he said.
For the second time he caught me off guard, startling me enough that I dropped the knife into the planter.
“How can you ask me that?” I demanded. “Why are you so determined?”
“I love you,” he replied. “That’s all.”
My heart seized. Had he said this the first time, I could have laughed at it, but he had been in the palace long enough now that I had seen its truth. Since the day he had arrived he had served me without question, a model servant in whatever manner I needed him to be--all the while watching me with those knowing eyes, locked on me, so aware of my presence that he responded to threats moments before my own guards. I knew that he loved me. The question was, why.
“I’ve shown you no affection I wouldn’t give another subject,” I said.
“I know,” he said.
“Do you want land? Power? I’ve no interest in being overshadowed by a husband who has no business running the affairs of my people.”
“I’m trained a guard and make my living as a storyteller, neither of which are suited for or furthered by ambitious power grabs. Run your kingdom. Let your husband protect and entertain.”
“You’re really set on this, aren’t you?” I asked, exhausted, quickly running out of things to be suspicious about.
“Tell me no and I’ll leave. But you haven’t told me no.”
I gave a great sigh, gazing past the tall tower at the setting sun. This was the time when Saraquel used to visit me, in Eridu. Maybe that was why I was being so patient with this insanity, for in my weary mind, Lugalbanda nearly resembled him. Persistent, devoted, gentle beast.
“Say I entertained this notion of our union,” I said, slowly. “What have you to offer me?”
“My heart,” he replied. “It’s the only one of its kind.”
“I doubt that’d be of any use.”
“You’d be surprised.”
My thumb traced a red petal on his flower where it lay, allowing myself a moment of contemplation. How was it he had already begun to sway me? I could not tell him yes, yet neither could I forbid him from asking again. He made a better suitor than Michael, I’d admit that much. When I imagined kissing him, my body didn’t retch; subtly I glimpsed him, my thoughts strayed to the idea of undressing him, revealing the bulging musculature I saw from the stage and curious what measure of manhood he kept concealed.
“May I speak my mind?” he asked suddenly, breaking the silence.
“You are beautiful throughout the day, yet I find you glow most profoundly at sunset.”
I must have been beet red for how fast heat rushed to my face. I couldn’t look at him anymore, snatching up the knife and quickly trying to be busy, cutting away a branch that was still alive and green. He chuckled and made me even clumsier.
“Who even are you?” I snapped.
“An amnesiac who charmed a magical anzud bird, who granted him many talents.”
“Oh shut up, leave, I’m tired of your nonsense,” I waved the knife at him.
“I don’t believe you,” he said, and his grin made me melt. “I will leave, though, at your command.”
He bowed low to me, hiding that infuriating smirk.
“Lord Asasel has asked me to perform for Inanna’s entertainment, tonight. I imagine the rest of the palace will be in attendance as well. I hope that you will be there as well, if I have not offended you too greatly.”
I sighed. Still unable to look at him, I offered a nod.
“I’ll be there. Now, go.”
A twinge of regret surprised me when he left, without a word. I didn’t want to think he had been right, that I truly didn’t like being alone--how had he gotten in my head? No one paid much attention to me, besides accepting me as their leader. I believe everyone had an idea in their mind about my manner, and I worked hard not to contradict those ideas, so that none could say that Queen Enmerker was not as powerful or influential or queenlike as they had imagined I’d be. It was more important that I be their queen than for them to know my heart.
That was why Lugalbanda troubled me so, I realized. I felt naked when I was with him. He was calling my bluff, like he knew that despite all I said or did, that behind it all I was reclusive, and indecisive, and pretending I wasn’t always afraid. I let no one close enough to know I wept for our fate, late at night. Not for myself, who no longer deserved to know Heaven, but for all my brothers trapped here, paying for my mistake. If I let someone lay with me long enough, they would see me weep and know I was a fraud. That my queenship was an accident of fate, teetering on the edge of collapse, the fate of my brothers and the nephilim and the empire of Sumer reliant on how long I could uphold this facade.
This understanding made me forget my hesitation. I had been amused by his first proposal, but no longer. I could not let Lugalbanda any closer--I would find out who he was, so I could hate him. Then, all would return to how it was.
I had Asasel conduct a census of the fallen angels throughout Sumer. He was to report to me before Lugal’s next performance at the end of the week, in honor of Ohya’s birthday. Unfortunately, our brothers had taken their time in their responses, and Asasel had yet to make his report. I waited beside his empty seat as the performance was prepared, resigned to the delay.
The four-year-old guest of honor sat in Semes’ lap at the base of the stage, laughing as the storyteller squatted at the edge and bowed his masked head down to him, so the child could reach its horns. The drummers were preparing a fire in a stone basin at the center of the stage, at Lugalbanda’s request. He didn’t tell us beforehand what the story would be; I knew by the mask though that this was to be a tale of Enki.
I found Enki to be a curious god-construct of the people. They were inconsistent with him, going between him as a vengeful personification of the elements and a benevolent creature of the earth, but they were always certain that he was horned. That image I was sure came from the tales their forefathers told of judgment in Eden, enacted by a great horned beast, who served a brooding master--I feel that Michael’s temperament survived in their Enlil, despite the fact that the true En-lil, Asasel, had never been cruel. The human memory was distorted by time, it seemed, the facts blurring as the feelings lingered.
Asasel sat just as Lugal withdrew from Ohya, preparing to begin. He whispered to me.
“I have a report,” he said.
“All two-hundred twenty responded?” I asked.
“Two hundred soldiers, nineteen generals,” he replied. “I hadn’t realized--the one general whose origin we didn’t know, who never appeared here on earth, we never thought to ask what became of him.”
Sariel. The memories coalesced from a fog: the violent general with burning red eyes, whose spies had brought us valuable information, his soul had been missing when I awoke. Somewhere along the way, I had forgotten his existence entirely. Everyone had. Even when he had appeared in Heaven, none of us could remember ever coming across him before the war, and he never seemed close with anyone. But the war had made us all less trusting. In a battle between beings with no need for food or sleep, there had been no time to question such things.
I had little time to contemplate this revelation, as Lugalbanda stood behind the fire roaring in the basin, his mask donned. Two drummers sat to his right, two to his left. I noticed he had a small sack of seeds on his hip, as well as a wineskin. He raised his arms, ready to begin.
“Enki ate from a dinner that was meant for tempestuous Enlil, and that dinner made him ill. He went to the desert, mourning his fate.”
“The mourning of Enki,” a drummer called.
“Enki mourned,” repeated another.
“He laid there pathetic, waiting to die, but there the goddess Ninhursag came upon him. She said, ‘why do you mourn here? Spit out what you ate and be done with it.’ He did so, and from him came all the greenery and all the brush that is in the world, which had been meant to be consumed by Enlil, where it would rot forever in his great black stomach.”
“Enki brought the trees,” a drummer hollered.
“The vines! The leaves!”
Lugal crouched at the corner of the stage, a sprig of fern drawn from the back of his belt, waving it over the small audience of children nearest the platform. Ohya blew towards it, laughing as the leaves shuddered; his baby sister, in her mother’s arms, batted at it when it tickled her nose.
“Enki was relieved. He returned to Ninhursag and overcome with gratitude, he said, ‘let us lay together, and I will make you mother to all the creatures that walk this earth.’ Ninhursag was hesitant. She said to him, ‘what proof have I that you will not eat what we make? For your appetite is great, and I will be too heavy to move.’ Enki said, ‘I will pull out my teeth, and therefore I will not be able to eat what we make.’ And Enki pulled out his teeth, and they became the Zabu mountains, rising high into the heavens.”
Here Lugalbanda took a handful of seeds into his mouth, then spat them into the fire. They popped and sparked, delighting the children.
“Mountains for Ninhursag!” A drummer whooped.
“For love of the Mother!”
“Ninhursag was pleased, therefore they laid together in the great river. She grew large and birthed all the things that roam the land, the cattle and the birds, all that live in the sea.”
He poured water from the skin into his hand, which he tossed in a sweeping motion over the children, sprinkling them and bringing squeals of joy.
“Last of all there was man, who lingered long in her canal. After their deliverance, Ninhursag rested by the river, trusting Enki their father to see that they were well.”
“By the hand of Enki!”
“Life for all!” The pounding continued.
“Enki took each of these creatures to their right place in the land, then returned to be with Ninhursag. The two of them sat together atop the mountains that had been his teeth, seeing the world they had made. Enki watched all he had created, all he had stolen from Enlil, all he had made with Ninhursag, and though he could not speak anymore, he was made glad to watch it all with her.”
“The eyes of Lord Enki,” was the call.
“Sees the eyes of Lord Enki!”
“Such is the tale,” said Lugalbanda, removing his mask. “Remember and be well.”
He addressed us all, but at the end of a performance, his eyes always settled on me. Again I felt exposed to him, lost in a gaze that somehow knew too much of me. I was relieved when Semes let Ohya jump up onto the stage to bother the drummers, prompting the rest of the children to storm it, distracting Lugal enough that I could breathe easy. I can’t explain why my heart pattered to see him lift and swing young Inanna when she ran towards him, both of them smiling like old friends.
“What do you make of him, Asasel?” I asked at last. “Lugalbanda...Sariel. What kind of person do you think he is?”
Asasel was watching the storyteller entertain his ward, always protective of her, yet calmer than he might have been if she had been with anyone else.
“He’s different than most,” he admitted. “Both the simplest and most complicated man I’ve ever spoken with. He means well, I believe. It’s up to you how much that’s worth.”
“Do you trust him?” I asked.
“He fought to the end with us. He brought me Inanna. Who’s to say how much he’s not telling us, but when judged by actions alone, he is...good.”
Asasel regarded me curiously, making me uncomfortable.
“I heard he proposed to you,” he said.
“He might have.”
“What did you say?”
“Nothing, it’s ridiculous,” I said.
He went on, to my distaste, surprisingly thoughtful concerning my affairs.
“The fact that he is one of us may make things complicated; Semes believes there is already tension in Heaven regarding the nephilim. Introducing a full-blooded angel child might be enough to provoke action from the Sons of Light, for whatever reason they construe. That said...you must sense how different you are when he’s around. You’re happier. I haven’t seen you happy in a long time. And seeing as he already cares for you enough to serve you without complaint, perhaps this is the match you’ve been waiting for.”
I wrung my hands, not wanting to think about this. I stood abruptly, deciding it was time to leave.
“Forgive me, your highness,” Asasel sighed. “Have a pleasant evening.”
“You as well.”
I could barely remember Sariel from the war, despite him being one of my generals. He was like a gap in my mind, and the harder I tried to remember him, the more elusive the memories became. I couldn’t judge him from that. However, I could judge him for lying to me. I would approach him that night and see if I could press him to admit he remembered the war. When he did, I would make him leave. I had no patience for a liar in my palace, no matter how handsome they were, or how my breath stopped every time he leaned too close, near enough for me to smell the aroma of the jungle about him, where he hunted for the cooks. He had to go, or else I might let him kiss me, and I didn’t know what I would do when he came that close.
I waited until it was dark, so I might take him off-guard. I wore a plain dress, my hair still braided back, not wanting him to misconstrue the visit. I knocked on his door, waiting.
After a few minutes, he answered. He must not have expected me, because his hair was tangled from his pillow and he was blinking sleep from his eyes. I would have smiled, were it not for my purpose.
“How many spies did you lose before we took the southern approach?” I asked.
“Three didn’t report back after I sent them to count the fighters crouched behind the wall of fire.”
He responded mechanically, as though we were back in Heaven, the next battle moments away. I had remembered enough of Sariel’s nature to know that he would. Direct questions were met with direct responses; all else he considered a waste.
His eyes grew wide as he realized he had been caught. His calm shattered as my anger took hold.
“Pack. Leave,” I demanded.
“I was going to confess,” he said.
“Before or after the next time you proposed? What if I had married you, would you have told me then?” I was livid, doing as much as I could to keep my anger inward. I felt betrayed, more than I had ever felt. “I want you to go, tonight.”
“Haniel--Ninsun, please let me speak--”
“You’ve said enough. Go.”
I know it was out of desperation that he grabbed my hand as I turned; as for why I didn’t call for a guard, or throw him against the wall, I can’t say. I froze there, feeling the heat of his grip, not wanting to leave it.
“Yes. I was Sariel,” he said, quiet. “If I had told you that at the beginning, you would have treated me like him. I didn’t want that. I wanted you to see me as a man, not your general--I needed a chance to let you see me.”
I was silent, my resolve already dissolving in his words. I had exposed him as a liar, a trait angels weren’t supposed to have, and yet there I stood melting like a lovesick girl as he held my hand.
“Please, look at me, Ninsun.”
Despite myself, I turned. I saw him as he was: hair tangled, clothes rumpled, unshaven and unkempt. He was a mess. How then were his eyes still so powerful, filled with that steady longing that gave me such peace. I thought another name when I saw him, and it wasn’t Sariel. When I found myself, my hands were on his cheeks; he leaned into them as Saraquel had, desperate for my touch. It was cruel of Father to do this--to take away my only friend, then offer me a lying stranger as his replacement, all the while melting my heart so that I could hardly tell the difference.
“I’ve loved you for a long time,” he said, his hand pressed over mine. “Even before the war, I watched you in Heaven, loving you, unable to know that was what I felt. After I perished, my soul was nearly lost, before Father gave me this shape. Like this, I finally knew what I wanted all those years. That’s why I came here.”
“Why?” My breath caught. I was already losing myself to him.
“Because you’re the Angel of Life. Mother of creation, touched by Father Himself. You’re the most beautiful thing I’ve ever laid eyes on, and I never want you to be alone again. You who gives everything to your creations deserves to be loved as deeply as you love them.”
My tears spilled over; I began to cry, and I couldn’t stop. No one had ever seen me cry. Horrified, I tried to leave, but he took me into his arms.
He was warm. His heart beat powerfully in his broad chest; his arms were large, dense, like the columns that held the ceiling. When he tucked me close, I blushed to find how perfectly my head fit beneath his chin, how nicely his arms wrapped around my waist, firm but not suffocating. He said nothing, even as my sobs devolved into a horrible sound, and my nose ran because I was unused to everything gushing out at once. He let me cry, questioning nothing.
When I calmed, he took off his shirt, which I had already ruined. He folded it, and pressed it against my nose.
“Blow,” he muttered, as though I were a child.
Maybe it was because I had already humiliated myself so thoroughly I couldn’t possibly sink lower, but I pressed my hands over it, and I did. I used the clean sleeves to wipe the tears off my face. I looked up to find he still regarded me with that same gentleness.
“Burn it,” he said. “And everything you were afraid of before now, whatever made you start crying, that’ll burn away with it.”
I was afraid of being alone. I stepped back as flames sparked from my hands, slowly consuming the material. I was afraid that no one would ever care to know me. Afraid that he loved only a reflection of me that would break the moment he saw me up close.
The ashes fell, and I realized he was still there, bare feet near enough that the ashes dusted them. I looked up and finally noticed his bare chest--I knew it would be muscular, begging for my touch, but I hadn’t realized it would also be scarred. My thumb traced the raised skin of a long mark along his side, before shifting to a short, deep one against his abdomen. He let me explore, while his hands slowly came to rest on my hips, drawing me nearer to him.
“What happened?” I asked, regaining my voice.
“Life,” he said. “I’ll tell you about them, over the years. If you want to hear.”
Lugalbanda lifted my chin and leaned near, and I didn’t stop him. We were both a mess, when we had our first kiss. I know he could still taste the salt on my lips; on his, there was the taste of meat, and spice. I tangled my hands in his hair. He pulled me into his room, closing the door, so he could press me against the wall and kiss me again. As his confidence grew he was rougher, hungry for me, as I was for him. I might have kissed him all night--he was the one who pulled away.
“I know what I can offer you,” he said.
“What?” I asked, my fingertips following the sharp line of his collarbone.
“A child. Marry me, and I’ll give you a child.”
Fresh tears sprung, though these I managed to hold back. It was wrong of me to want something so simple, a child of my own, when I had already made so much. I should have been happy letting creation live outside myself, knowing I had had a hand in it, that its life was a result of my own. Yet Lugalbanda saw into me, he saw that I was desperate to feel life quicken in my own womb, to bear a child that would be mine and something more like me. I was so tired of being separate from the world, convincing myself that it was wrong to want.
“We can’t,” I whispered, my last defense. “We shouldn’t. It will change everything.”
“Then let it change. Let me give you what you want.”
He kissed my neck, my throat, as my heart pounded. I gripped him, as he loosened my braid.
“Will you love our children?”
Lugal wiped away a tear that escaped me.
“I will love them as I love you.”
I hardly had a choice. I ached for him, in spite of all my fears, which he quelled far too handily. I untangled his dark hair, regarding his fine face: his high cheekbones and wide jaw, his nose that was just a little too big. This would be the face of my son. I knew that now; perhaps I had always known it.
“Then I will be your wife,” I said. “From now until the end of time.”
There came that enormous grin--he kissed me suddenly, arms wrapped around me tight, and I almost laughed as I kissed him. His joy was catching.
“Need we wait until a ceremony?” he asked, parting enough that I might see his impatience.
I shook my head. He smirked.
He wasted no time undressing me, and I him. We were exposed to one another, my nipples tightening in the chill, though he was hardly disadvantaged by the cold. I wasn’t disappointed in Father’s handiwork. He was large, growing larger between my thighs as he pushed me against the wall again, one hand cupping what he could of my breast while the other thumb slid between my round cheeks, guiding his fingers to tease my wet folds apart. He eased the tip inside me, spreading me enough that I moaned.
“Bed,” I whispered.
“As you wish,” he muttered, and kissed my ear.
Lugal scooped me suddenly into his arms, carrying me to and then tossing me on his low bed. I slid my back against the wall and he spread my legs, sinking in deep. Though I had never been penetrated before, my body accommodated, my walls so slick with wanting that they groaned apart to accept his startling girth.
He thrust inside me, and like an animal I pulsed back, my fingers deep in his flesh as I moaned and screamed. He kissed me to smother the sound, despite how hard he grew inside me as I cried out. When he kissed my breasts I arched back, letting him lick them, suckle them, even bite at their mass. He squeezed my ass with both hands and stuffed me tighter, as I dripped into his sheets.
The moment his seed spilt within me, my walls quaking around his shaft, he was made king. Although the ceremony was yet to come, it would be but a formality to help the empire accept this moment. I was his, and he was mine. I laid my head on his chest, the sheets tangled between my legs as I felt the remnants of him within me, soon to fill my once empty womb.
“I’m sorry for waking you,” I murmured, sleep starting to take me.
He chuckled, softly kissing the top of my head.
“Rest, my queen.”
I smiled, closing my eyes. I never imagined those words could be so comforting.