A Dance for the Fallen

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Prince

And he answered, I am a Nephilim, and by the mighty strength of my arm and my own great strength (I can defeat) anyone mortal, and I have made war against them; but I am not (strong enough for our heavenly opponent or to be) able to stand against them, for my opponents . . . reside in Heaven, and they dwell in the holy places. And not (on the earth and they) are stronger than I.

Then Ohya said to him, I have been forced to have a dream and the sleep of my eyes vanished in order to let me see a vision. Now I know that on Gilgamesh (our futures rest).

--Fragment from the Book of Giants


Gilgamesh

My earliest memory is of following behind my father as he patrolled the outer palace wall. He was so absorbed in his task that he didn’t notice his three year old toddling behind him; he had nearly completed the circuit when he finally turned and looked down, catching me mimicking his guard-walk. In a beat, he scooped me up and put me on his shoulders, continuing on. He was so tall, taller than I would ever be, and my height is a thing of myth. From his shoulders, I could see far over Uruk below--the bustling and the gold, all the serenity of peace among Mother’s people.

“Ours?” I remember asking, tugging on his black hair.

He gave his short, grunt of a laugh.

“Yours,” he said. “Someday.”

Father never took credit for being king, but he was a man who could only have been a king. His skin was a rich brown, like the trunk of a great tree; his chest was sturdy like an iron shield, his arms like beams, and when he spoke it was a rolling of thunder. When we visited herding villages, surveying the growth of the populace, men fell to their knees for fear of seeing him. His name was Lugalbanda, but sometimes they called him the Great Hunter, Ninurta, because none could fell great beasts like he could. He always said it didn’t matter to him what he was called. Yet, I think he liked most when I called him ‘Abu.’ Those fleeting days when my infant tongue couldn’t yet handle ‘Abum,’ our word for Father.

For as long as I can remember, I idolized my father. He seemed to be the very pinnacle of masculinity, stoic and strong, even as he did things that should not have been masculine. I grew up at the foot of the stage with the other children where he told stories for the palace, sometimes even sang for the gods, and for my mother, pounding at the drums or strumming on instruments only he could play. His tales frightened us, made us smile and laugh, and all the things in between. My favorite were of Enki, the god who was clever as he was silly, as much an animal as he was nearly a man. I think now that he seemed some mythic form of my father, and that’s why I always wanted him to choose that mask.

Most are surprised to know that it was my father who put me to sleep at night, when I was small. My mother had a hard time hearing me cry--I heard if I cried long enough, mother would give up and cry with me, as if it were somehow her fault I was miserable and not just that I was a cranky, entitled little whelp--and I made a great fuss when I realized I had to be apart from her for the night. So after I had nursed, Father forced her from the room and picked up his duduk. Stubborn, he sat beside me and coaxed all the melodies of Sumer from the reeds, until I was so distracted by the sound I forgot why I was upset. When I got a little older, I was so used to hearing him play that I would request it of him nightly. I must have been nine years old when I tugged his sleeve at the end of the day and, with a gleam of remorse, he told me no.

“You’ll be a young man, soon enough,” he said, though I was still small enough that his hand covered the whole span of my head, playfully tilting it this way and that. “You shouldn’t need your father to put you to bed.”

“Then I don’t want to be a young man yet,” I whined.

“Time doesn’t much care what we want.”

Although he ignored my protests, he kissed my forehead before he sent me away. That may have been the last time he did that, too.

My mother--it is hard for me to speak of my mother. My love for her is...powerful, and difficult to express. I remember playing in her skirts and looking up to find that beautiful face smiling down at me, her hair gold as sunlight, a halo around features that must have been shaped by Heaven. When she lifted me into her arms, into the warmth of her breast, I buried myself in her so that I might smell that faint aroma of apples and roses and all the sweet nectar she drank. She made me feel safe, whole in myself. Golden hair draped around me, tickling my arms, as her soft lips brushed the top of my head--she was love, made real.

I was often by my mother’s side during the day, especially when I was young. I recall early years of her holding me in her lap while she took reports from visiting generals, me somehow having enough sense not to whine until they had gone. When I was too big for that, she still let me sit beside her while she met with Lord Asasel, who brought her maps and grain counts, and news of the mines, or with Lord Semes, who charted the heavens and helped her prepare when storms were coming. There were always things to be done. Too many things.

“Why do you have to do all of this?” I asked one day, after Asasel left her with a list of villages facing drought. I might have been seven, able to read the names on the list but barely able to hold interest until the end of it.

“Because humanity needs a leader,” she said. “They can do many things, but leading isn’t something that comes easily to them.”

“But why does it have to be you?”

She laughed. If Father’s laughter was like thunder, then hers was like wind in the trees, light and distant.

“Because I love them most. They’re my children.”

“But I’m your children,” I huffed.

She smiled then, amused.

“Then love them as your brothers and sisters. No matter what strange, selfish things they do, they’ll always be your family. And family is to be nurtured and protected, so that they can be the best they can be.”

I didn’t interact much with mankind; I assume that’s why Father took me to survey neighboring villages, when that job should have been left to a lesser general. I thought them primitive creatures, who laughed at strange things and enjoyed too often running about naked. In truth, I wasn’t all that comfortable with the idea of becoming their leader.

“Will I have to do all this too?” I asked.

“Someday,” she said. “I’ll teach you.”

“What if I’m no good at it?”

She shook her head, hardly concerned by what was surely my greatest fear.

“Humans make poor leaders because they’re selfish. When they’re given power, they forget that they need to use their power to help those they have power over. They spend all their time fighting to hold onto their power, making it no good to anyone but themselves. Angels are power, and have no need to fight to maintain it--therefore, as leaders, they focus on helping their people. As long as you remember that your power is for your people, you’ll be a good leader.”

“So a leader is just a servant?” I asked.

She gave pause. After a long moment, she nodded.

“In a way.”

I can’t say this sat well with me, at the time. I was never particularly arrogant--neither of my parents were boastful, and so I grew up resisting the urge--yet still I couldn’t picture myself a lower class than those primitive creatures that cleaned the palace and ran the streets of Uruk. That my beautiful mother, called a Goddess by all, considered herself subservient seemed somehow unnatural. Perhaps I sensed this was wisdom yet beyond me, so for many years, I chose not to think of it.

For all they told me, there were secrets, too. Many secrets. My parents told me they were born of Heaven, but would not say why they could not go to Heaven now. I was not allowed to ask how they had met, nor why my father and I were the only angels with violet eyes. Father started training me with a sword as soon as I was old enough to hold one, “to defend myself,” yet he would never explain what it was I was training to defend against.

Then, there were the constant accidents around me: I was almost crushed by a suit of armor when I was four, nearly trampled by a runaway horse and cart when I was six, even attacked by an eel in the river when I was nine, despite nets all around that should have prevented the incident. Then, there was the day I was nearly bitten by a snake in my own bed. Only ten years old, I was sound asleep when I felt something moving my sheets, enough to rouse me. I opened my eyes, threw off the covers, whereupon I saw the brown python slithering its way around the edge of the cot, large enough to swallow me whole.

I recall it was rage, not fear, that gripped me. I snatched it up, crushing its windpipe with my bare hand and using my other grip to rip its body in two, tossing the wriggling bloody heap to the floor beside me while the top half withed and hissed away the last of its life source. My father burst into the room, my mother in tow. I don’t know if it was the snake’s hissing or my guttural noises during the act that brought them, but I remember staring at them with this out of place feeling of shame, like they had caught me with my hand down my pants.

Father disposed of the carcass. Mother cleaned my hands and changed my sheets. I found it odd that neither of them seemed surprised by the feat, nor did they ask me how a snake had come to be in my room, though of course I couldn’t have answered them. In fact, they didn’t look at me at all for a few days afterwards. It was following that incident that Father got me a great black dog--despite his odd discomfort around such creatures--and said I wasn’t to go anywhere without him by my side.

I called him Enkidu, because he was wild and clever. I taught him to play fetch with the cooks’ spoons and spears from the guards’ armory, which Father did not find as amusing as I thought he would. After he caught me in the act, he took one of those spears and cracked me across the rear so hard I couldn’t sit for days. (My father was loving, but he disciplined like a wartime commander with a penchant for bruises. I was nothing if not well behaved.) Enkidu and I then found common sticks worked just as well, and would spend days running around the courtyard trying to find ones he hadn’t yet chewed to pieces.

For all my joy in him, my need for Enkidu was another symptom of a world that wished I were not in it. I had a difficult time making friends, because human children of servants were told they weren’t worthy enough to touch me, and the nephilim children from the city all regarded me with this same discomfort, like I was some incompatible element in their pool. I was always friendly, always showing them things I learned--but my spear-throwing was met with indifference, my artwork with shrugs, my alphabets and pottery with scoffs.

Inanna, Lord Asasel’s daughter, was the first person I confronted over it. I was eight, and she was fifteen. Before my dog, I didn’t have anyone to distract me from my loneliness, and Inanna was the sort of girl who I wished could be my friend. She was beautiful, tall and slender like my mother, though her hair was dark and wavy and her face somewhat rounder. She liked to decorate her eyes with powdered lapis, so that her lids would be as blue as her irises. Her lips she stained with beet juice, so that they were always redder than they should have been. It gave her a haunting look, more striking than her actual personality.

“Why don’t you like me?” I asked her, one day. I had found her sitting in my mother’s garden, combing her hair with a comb made from a lovely shell her father had brought home from his travels. Even when I spoke to her, she didn’t look at me, her gaze focused instead on a little bird pecking for seeds amongst the gravel.

“I don’t feel anything about you,” she said, using her sandal to gently pry up a few stones. “You’re the prince. You get to be king just because you came out of your mother’s snatch. That’s fine, but it doesn’t mean I have to care about you.”

It felt like my heart had burst a vessel, and now it was just spewing blood and oxygen into my ribs where no one could fix it.

“That’s not a fair thing to say,” I managed. “I can’t help I’m a prince.”

“Life’s not fair. Go cry about it.”

She’s lucky I wanted life to be fair. Because I had been taught to value life, to be fair, I was able to suppress my bestial instinct to slam her into the gravel, smashing her face into stone until there was nothing left of it to ignore me with. I could never imagine saying something so horrible to anyone--and yet she said it, without a thought. I began to feel then the wall that separated me from the other children, the one that they saw, resented. I wasn’t like them. Not in blood, not in mind. They smelled it, like wolves of a different pack, and turned from me.

In time, I did make a friend. Perhaps it helped that I stopped trying, after I had Enkidu. Whatever the case, I meant to take Enkidu into the forest for a run when another nephilim, Lord Semes’ son Ohya, blocked the narrow passage through the servant’s quarters. He was four years older than I, on the cusp of manhood, but at eleven I already rivaled his height. He didn’t scare me, his lanky build thinner than mine; still, the intensity of his look gave me pause. I tried to get around him, but he blocked me left and right, refusing to back down when Enkidu started to growl.

“I heard you killed a snake with your bare hands,” he said at last.

“From who?” I asked, irked.

“My dad. He knows everything.”

As much as I avoided speaking to Lord Semes, that apparently didn’t prevent him from finding out far too much of my life. I was chronically annoyed with the angels discussing me behind my back, something I knew even my parents were guilty of. I felt more like the village freak than a king in training.

“What’s it to you?” I snapped.

“That’s kickass,” he said (basically). “How big was it?”

Startled by this way of speaking, I pulled Enkidu back from snapping at Ohya’s hand.

“You mean...you don’t think it’s strange?”

“It’s fucking strange. But it’s kickass. I want to know how big it was.”

“I...don’t know,” I said, mind reeling. “Big enough to eat me.”

“Shit, are you real?”

Ohya was grinning ear to ear. I stared at him, unaccustomed to conversing with peers.

“You should give it a name, like Humbaba,” he said, “and you should say it was half lion and bigger than a village. Then you can be Gilgamesh the Monster Slayer. That’ll be so fucking cool.”

“...yeah.”

“You want to go throw rocks at birds?”

I hesitated, wondering if that was the sort of thing I was allowed to spend my time doing. In the end, however, I couldn’t come up with a good enough reason to say no.

For the rest of my childhood, I spent my time divided between my noble duties--hunting and sparring with my father, observing politics with my mother--and being a nuisance with Ohya. He was less inhibited than I, which I’m unsure if a nephilim trait or some accident of his birth. He always had something for us to do. We would scale the palace walls between guard shifts, put fish in laundry baskets, harass the horses. My father did a number on me whenever we got caught, but I carried those welts like badges of honor, because now I had a friend to show them to.

We laid in the grass together one night, he and I, staring up at the constellations that had yet to be named. I was fifteen, an uncomfortable age where I was beginning to look like an adult, yet my thoughts were split more between the mystery of my daybreak erections and how much I hated wearing wool than they were on any upcoming responsibilities. People said I looked more like my father all the time, when a part of me wished I could look more like my mother.

“Have you seen Inanna’s bastard yet?” Ohya asked.

Enkidu padded over to me, dropping a stick on my chest. Lazily, I lifted it, tossing it across the field for him to slobber after.

“I don’t care what that bitch does with her life,” I muttered, harsher than I should have been.

“He’s kind of cute, with his smushed up face. Smells like shit,” Ohya mused. “She named him Cara.”

“What kind of a name is that?” I asked.

“What kind of a name is Gilgamesh?” Ohya laughed.

“Shut it, Mother made it up,” I said.

“Guess that’s fine then,” he murmured. “Your mom is hot.”

I sat up and punched him in the stomach, hard enough that he choked out his breath and rolled over, moaning. He sputtered, cursing even as he managed a laugh.

“Sorry, Your Majesty,” he said, never all that serious when he respected me. “Just telling the truth.”

“No one looks at my mother.”

“Yeah, not with two bloodhounds guarding her day and night, damn. You’re just like your dad.”

“So what if I am? Respect your queen, dick.”

“Yes, Sir.”

I resisted the urge to punch him again when he rolled back over, gasping into laughter. He never even tried to hit me back, anymore. Though he was one of the strongest nephilim in Uruk, I was stronger.

“You know, you should be nicer to me,” he said, still smiling as he caught his breath. “When we die, we’ll have to stick together, you and I. There’s no peace for us on the other side.”

“One of your father’s ramblings?” I guessed.

“He just says this stuff. He says nephilim can’t go to Heaven, so we’re all going to have to sit around the veil trying not to lose our minds, waiting to find a body. It’s really dark shit.”

“That can’t be right,” I said, trying not to let Semes get to me, like he got to everyone. “I thought only Ligeia was that much of a drag.”

Ligeia was Ningishzida’s apparent soul mate, whose grim, androgynous face and soulless eyes perplexed everyone around her. Ohya and I had a running joke that she was actually a man, until one day she pushed out nephil twins, and we felt rightfully ashamed of ourselves.

Ohya chuckled, but quickly faded into an uncharacteristic silence. He stared into the heavens, absently tugging grass out by the roots. Enkidu dropped the stick in my lap, ignorant to the mood until I set the stick aside and scratched his ear. He whined, settling down to sit with us.

“We should make a pact,” Ohya said, finally. “Whichever of us dies first, we have to watch over the other one until we’re born again. That way, we don’t have to be all sad if we outlive each other. We’ll always know where the other one is.”

I was still young. I didn’t much think of death, what lay beyond that final moment of awareness, until that moment. I saw then Ohya, more a man than I, face shadowed and his neck thick, eyes gleaming and his smile broad, everything about him the image of vitality--I saw a man who would die, as I would die, all that vitality gone in an instant. All at once, my sheltered mind felt the chill of reality.

“...a pact,” I agreed, as Enkidu licked my fingers. “Let’s do it.”

“Always at each other’s back,” Ohya said. “Here and beyond. I’m not training in the king’s guard for nothing.”

He sat up, holding his arm to me. With my clean hand, I grasped it. It was as binding as blood.

“King and his guard,” Ohya smirked.

King and his guard. That’s how the story should have gone.


I mentioned before that it’s difficult for me to talk about my mother. I wish I could blame the whole of my reluctance on grief; unfortunately, nothing in my life could ever be simple.

The stirrings of male awakening began at fourteen, but they never had any focus for their existence, content that year to give me a vague unease around women and more aggressive outbursts when I was occasionally denied something frivolous. It was the next year that need arose in me. It was as though my loins had suddenly synced with the rest of my biology, realizing that I was tall and virile and now it was time to sow those useful seeds in some fertile valley. That would have been fine, had I been content with the sight of any nephilim or servant girl running about. Yet even Erua, Ohya’s elegant and sharp-spoken sister, held no particular appeal to me. When she caught me in the hall and kissed me with dry lips, I let her do it. I tasted her desire for me, my crown, my land. I can’t say she made me feel much of anything; therein was a symptom of my greatest fault.

My darkest memory was the day I retreated from Erua’s company to the baths beneath the palace, hoping for silence to purge my thoughts. No one was ever here after the sun went down, since that was when the queen bathed, and it was believed to see the queen naked was to draw the wrath of the gods. Naturally, I didn’t care about seeing Mother nude--we had bathed together plenty while I was growing up, so I hardly feared the wrath of Heaven--but I thought that she wouldn’t be there that night, as she usually spent the full moon on the balcony with my father, doing whatever it was they did that night. It was honestly the last thing on my mind as I came down the steps, before I saw her.

She was waded deep enough into the pool that the torchlights didn’t fully illuminate her, far enough away that I might see her, but concealed somewhat by the stairway, she couldn’t see me. Her milky white skin was glistening, shadows dancing with the orange light over the curve of her spine, down over her round cheeks. Her golden locks were tangled, splayed over soft shoulders, almost long enough to touch the small of her back. She arched back as she poured clear water from cupped hands down her neck, eyes closed while the droplets traced her breasts, lingering on the peaks before trembling away.

What a curse it was for my mother to never age, to always be at the pinnacle of her beauty while her baby boy grew into his own wanting. Our lives should never have crossed in this way. I should never have realized that I could not have desired the emptiness of nephilim or humanity when I was born of Heaven, and she was the touch of Heaven on earth, the only woman in this desolate world like me. My arousal was greater than Erua’s touch had ever coaxed. Unable to stop myself, I had grasped my manhood beneath the cloth, wanting to peel my eyes from her but weakened by the sight.

I didn’t know my father’s presence until it jerked me back by the shirt, throwing me back to the top of the stairs where he kicked in my gut--I would have howled, had he not next gagged me with his belt, hoisting me back to my feet and slamming my head against a wood banister, because he would have killed me had it been stone.

“Boy,” he growled, tightening his grip on the two ends of the belt behind my head, choking my tongue against the leather. “I better not have seen what I just saw.”

I couldn’t have responded if I wanted to, gasping futilely around the strap. He finally let me go, throwing me back to the ground as he whipped the belt free.

“Speak,” he demanded.

I managed to prop myself on one arm, coughing stale air. I saw finally that my father was shirtless, obviously having meant to join my mother in the baths below. My shame grew.

“I didn’t mean to,” I whispered.

“Say words that mean something,” he said, and I could tell how his hand tightened around the belt that he wanted it around my throat.

“I didn’t mean to see her,” I pleaded. “Forgive me, Father, please.”

He grabbed me again by the shirt, shoving me against the wall, his elbow in my sternum. I couldn’t move for fear he’d crush my lungs. My father had never been shy with physical discipline, but never had he looked at me like this--like he truly wanted me hurt.

“We are not animals,” he said, each word a pulsing snarl. “Just because you’ve grown does not mean you’re entitled to a shot at your sire’s mate. You do not get to challenge me, not in this life, not ever. Do you understand me?”

“Yes,” I stammered. “Yes, I understand.”

“Your mother never hears about this. Ever. Knowing you ever looked at her the way you did tonight would break her, and I will not let that happen. So go to your room, lick your wounds, and keep your eyes to yourself.”

He released me, pointing me in the direction of my quickest escape. I knew better than to stay around him as he stood there, shaking with rage, restraining some terrible part of himself. I must have lost all sense, because I hesitated. Stinging from the fall, gripping a shoulder I knew I would have to pull back into place, I was standing my ground against him.

“It isn’t fair,” I said. The words just came out, sounding angry before I was, because my emotions had yet to overcome my pain. “You two have each other. I have nothing. Am I just supposed to accept that?”

“Are you ready to die, boy?” he snarled.

“No, but if I don’t make it to tomorrow then I’m sure as fuck going to talk now,” I pulled my shoulder back into its socket, clenching my teeth through the pain like he had taught me. “I’m not nephilim. I’m not anything. I’m just a freak. Maybe freaks just eventually go after their mothers, there’s not exactly a precedent. That makes this your fault.”

“Gilgamesh.”

“I’m going,” I snapped, wrapped up in my righteous fury. “I’ll go fuck Erua and Inanna and whoever else changes their mind about me because they realized if they pretend not to hate me long enough, I’ll make them royalty. I’ll fuck them so hard I’ll forget how fucking alone I am. Bet that will make you proud.”

Perhaps those words had always been simmering in me, needing to be said; perhaps they rose then because I knew I couldn’t possibly make my father any angrier in saying them. I took my chance immediately and left, only glimpsing how suddenly his rage began to melt into something else. Guilt, I thought. Hoped. Because I didn’t want that day to be my fault. I didn’t want to be the curse that everyone held at arm’s length, pretending I wasn’t their ruin.

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