Noah’s had lots of jobs, he’s harvested and sold sesame-oil for women to be anointed with, he’s smelted metals to make weapons for men to fight with, he’s fought, he helped dig the sewage-works, he’s been in gangs and armies, he’s planted trees and chopped down trees, he’s been a guard, long cold nights up in the watchtowers with shooting-stars and hyenas for company plus occasional spikes of adrenaline. He’s been an orderly at the hospital during outbreaks of swamp-fever, he’s dug graves for the casualties, he’s been a builder: yesterday he and his crew finished work on the biggest bridge ever, a new route open to the northeast; the king himself came to the opening-ceremony and sacrificed a bull. “Our king from Heaven!” mutters Noah, imitating the prancing bards: “Our deathless king!”
The man in front of him in the queue turns around: “Pardon?”
“Nothing. Thinking out loud.” That man turns back, he stands, they all stand, in silence, obeying the unwritten rule that everyone must be miserable while waiting to collect their wages. Occasionally Noah gets to shuffle a few feet forwards. To one side of him is a wall, his boss’s huge house; at the other side is a busy street and above him’s the sun, no shelter or shade, the only retreat for Noah is into his mind, his bridge, the bards and priests introduced the king:
“Your great-grandchildren,” King Noah told them, “will cross this bridge and think of you! Men from distant, ignorant lands will travel by this road and worship our gods at our temples and learn what civilisation is: because of you.” The king applauded his subjects. That was one of only half-a-dozen times Noah’s seen the man whose name he shares. Sometimes he hates his parents for that, sometimes he loves them for it, naming him after the kings: it’s brought him good luck and bad, and some of his fellow subjects, his brother citizens, have never been happy with it.
Noah shuffles forwards, towards the door into the grand house, into it, into a room decked with ornaments and artworks; the boss lounges on his couch: “Ah hello.” He wears a long dark robe, his hair is in plaits, beads have been sewn into his beard; he says the same words he says every week: “And what is your name?”
“Of course! …Yes. The boy who would be king, eh! Should I bow, should I kneel?”
“My parents meant only to pay their respects to the ruler.”
The boss frowns: “Yes, perhaps that’s only what they meant. Well, never mind! Here,” he gestures: on the carpet in front of Noah is a disposable earthenware tub filled with bread and grain and metallic coupons which can be exchanged for beer or wine. “Your wages. Minus taxes, we’ve done all that for you. Excellent work, incidentally; I was hoping the king would name the bridge after me but he didn’t, did he.”
“Our new bridge, named after… what’s his name… who sailed beyond the edge of the world and was never seen again. Perhaps he found the land where the gods live, as he desired. Or perhaps he drowned: maybe he is a great man, maybe he was a fool.” The boss shrugs. “There’s more work if you want it.” Noah nods obediently. “Something a bit different. The filthy Amurru have overrun Mari, they’ve slaughtered the natives and occupied its buildings, every one of their shrines is now a shrine to the secret god of those bastard fucking Amurru. They killed my brother, you know.” Noah nods. “They’ll kill each of us, given time, given the opportunity; it’s all they know. Their raids and their kidnappings, their sick rites; Mari should belong to us, to the good not the evil. That’s the plan, anyway: and there’s a part for you in it. I won’t lie, the chances of your personal survival are slim, but if you die on this mission we’ll guarantee you safe and direct passage to Heaven, you’ll be a god among gods and everyone shall sing of you as such; of course your family will be provided for.” Noah nods.
Mari, evening gloom: most men are slaves now, they hurry through the dank littered streets from one workplace to the next, they prostrate themselves when their Amurru masters pass, they wonder where their wives and daughters have gone.
Prostrate themselves: men fall to their knees on the dirty pavement, the pavement with grass growing through its cracks, men bow down as seven priests walk past, they wear dark cloaks and are hooded, their faces must never be seen but their voices can be heard as they walk solemnly through their town: “Our god has eaten your gods and spat them out. Our god is the Horrible One in all of us: he rules, whatever you think.” They walk, they reach their destination; the rest of the holy-men stay silent as their chief continues: “The rite of the Sick Spirit will take place shortly: we will receive your offerings.” The hooded men stand between thick stone columns under a stone roof, here where earlier today the latest batch of criminals and subversives were disfigured and crucified; the citizens line up carrying grapes and garlic and chickpeas and lentils and lettuce, onions and eggs and mint, cress and coriander, it all goes on a pile of timber which is set alight: “This is sustenance for the dead to eat; otherwise your ancestors would have nothing but dust to consume for eternity, eternity alongside hideous demons who punish you for what you did and did not do.” The priests don’t just take, they give too: the high-priest listens to men’s dreams and tells them what they mean: “In the future people will live shorter lives and will eat less. There shall be too much rain or not enough rain.”
Their offerings taken, the men of Mari depart; the priests leave too, they walk past the ruined courts and overgrown gardens, through the wastelands on which representatives of the town’s clans fight one another for prizes, by the offices where accountants work out how much everyone owes, along past the grain-silos, empty but there are always more territories for the Amurru to take. They walk to the cemetery: they’re alone, just seven hooded men and all these corpses under their feet; headstones and treasured trinkets have all been looted.
Curving stone steps lead downwards: down to a candle-lit crypt, red and black walls, sacrifices: disembowelled geese, water-snakes starving in cages, and there among them on the stone floor is a boy. “This child,” says the high-priest, “must die so that night follows day.” The high-priest has a knife; the jagged-walled pit is small, damp; the candles rise like phalluses from rock ledges. The high-priest lifts his knife; a naked little boy, hands tied behind his back, ankles strung tightly together, whimpers; the high-priest smiles: “Fear nothing. Fear nothing.” A swish of his arm: “I am Nothing,” the blade enters the boy’s throat again then again, the wide-eyed boy gurgles, spasms, the high-priest reddens his hands: “I,” he hisses at the ceiling, “shatter-God God-killer in the Darkness, I coil inside you, I plot inside you.” There’s a cup, the priest sips from it, a mouthful of old wine: instead of swallowing he spits it in the face of the child, the last sensation the kid will feel, these are the last words he’ll hear: “There is a Light which comes not from the sun nor from flame nor moon nor stars: I will extinguish it. My children shall suck up the Earth’s blood. Enemy of everything; soul-eater.” The high-priest hacks with his knife at the dead boy’s throat: “I, master of the east and west! I, lord of the within and the without! Commander of all, I war against all; I torment even the dead, there is no peace.” He holds up the decapitated dripping head, he screams. “All-choking, all-poison! My name… is… Apep. That which is to be denied shall be denied; that which is to be trampled on shall be trampled on; that which is to be spat on shall be… ggrgkll…”
A knife in the guts of the high-priest: a knife, another knife, blur of arms and blades, screams, falling bodies: then only two cloaked-and-hooded men remain standing. “Did you get that?” asks Noah, as he and his comrade sheathe their weapons. “‘Apep.’ Let’s get out of here: we’ll go different ways, hopefully one of us will make it.” They climb the stone steps, out into the evening, Noah walks, back onto Mari’s broken streets, if anyone challenges him he’ll kill them then run but none of these citizens notice anything’s wrong, they bow down as he passes. Noah reaches the outer-wall, slips through, it’s dark when he reaches his army: he tells his superiors the name of their enemy’s god.
A squadron led by Noah heads back to Mari, to the gate: they say they’re here to undertake Apep’s business and the way is opened for them, the gatekeeper is killed and the rest of the army arrives, storms through on foot, men in bronze breastplates and helmets, men bearing bronze swords and spears, torches and slingshots, they cry: “Apep is shit!” as they slaughter every last Amurru they find, “Apep is shit!” as they occupy the temple, “Apep is shit!” as they take the streets. “Apep is shit! Mari belongs to us!”
A few days later Noah’s home, he collects this week’s wages and accepts next week’s work, he’s allowed a few days to celebrate first, everyone is. A festival: Noah drinks himself into a blessed delirium and listens to the music, the speeches, listens to his high-priest declare: “Praise our lord, praise the king, praise our godly king! His parents were not of this world; he’s been places nobody has been. He owns all of us and all the land.”
“Praise,” mutters the man next to Noah, “Apep.”
The priest continues: “The gods are just like us: they try as hard as they can and then they fail. Let’s kill the old king to make space for the new!” The people cheer.
“Apep!” they cheer, Noah laughs, the priest says:
“New taxes on everything: a tax on birth and a tax on death.” The whole city seems to be here, in the city’s central-square, another cold evening, fires to keep them warm; the men drink and drink and when they’ve emptied a mug they throw it in a random direction then grab more from anyone who’s got more; the priest continues: “Let’s grow crops on all the fields all the time, let’s not ever leave them empty. Twice as much work for everyone! The old ways were wasteful.”
The priest stands at the centre of his men, they cheer. Except Noah: through his pleasantly-awful spinning inebriation he formulates a thought then says it aloud, “No that, that doesn’t work. The soil, you can’t…”
Not loud enough: “Let’s forget everything we used to know. Life was better when we knew nothing at all!” Noah tries to stand up but he falls down. Around him men start chanting:
“A-pep! A-pep! A-pep!”
“Yes!” The end of evening: the priest lifts a flaming stick out of the fire nearest him and holds it high: “Apep! Exalt the stupid and the vicious; glorify the barbarian! Apep!” Everyone follows the example of the authorities, everyone grabs burning wood and waves it and shouts: “Only sacrifice! Apep! Shit in the wells and canals; trash the irrigation-pipes; call plagues and drought on ourself! Apep! Let the dead rot where they fall; spend our wages on Apep. Apep! Smash babies against rocks; make women cover their faces. Apep!” Noah stands, adrenaline overrides alcohol, he grabs his friends and shakes them, tries to shake sense into them but they screech and giggle, dribble, listen to their holy-man: “Everyone fight everyone all the time; sell yourselves into slavery. Apep! Burn down the cedar-trees, burn down the prisons! Apep! Destroy the calendars, smash the windows! Apep! Build more prisons! Who is king, who is not king? Apep! Apep! Apep!”
Noah dashes towards the priest but he sees it’s too late: flames lick wooden tables and chairs. “Apep! Apep!” Noah turns and runs, away from the central-square but not away from the flames, in all these streets men and women are calling their new god’s name and setting fire to anything that will burn, they proclaim Apep’s empire and force poison down babies’ throats. Noah runs past, they try to grab him, they throw things playfully-viciously but he dodges every attack, sprints past the palace where the king’s loyal followers are having him eviscerated with hot spikes, Noah passes statues of the heroic ruler’s heroic ancestors, passes the royal stables and apple-trees and the fountain and… Noah stops running, turns back, dashes back to the stables, he frees a terrified horse, climbs awkwardly up onto it, he tugs the horse’s hair and slaps its flanks to get it moving, points it towards the city’s wall, the gate is wide open, the watchtowers deserted: Noah gallops from the burning screaming Apep city out into the night, there’s stone underneath the steed’s hooves then soon just soil and soon only sand, only the encroaching desert.
TO BE CONTINUED…