THE BOOK OF MUTATIONS 2/16: WORKS

Today they counted forty-nine fish in their fishing-net and there were still more after that, they need new numbers: later the king and his men will meet to decide what comes after forty-nine.

“We,” says Noah, “are civilised. It is our job – our destiny – to civilise,” everyone around him nods, they continue their inspection of the huge clay pots at the edge of their territory. The men are satisfied: the urns are in good condition, the rainwater inside is safe until they need it.

The group turns back, walks back over soil, these fields: in half of them men are working, some hold large sacks while others take seeds from those sacks and throw them onto the mud, they step forwards then throw again and again…

“I,” says Noah, “have an idea.” He tells the group that more crops could be grown if all the fields were utilised instead of only half of them: more farmers could be…

The Overseer of Food waits for him to finish then tells Noah a lesson they learnt the hard way, tells him about the fields on the other side of their city, the soil they overworked and which is now useless.

Noah nods: “I see.”

Past the farmers, then past a different kind of worker, men with tin-and-wood shovels are digging a ditch. Behind them other men stand watching. “They,” says the Overseer of Water, “shall make a canal from here to the river.” Noah already knew that but he pretends he didn’t:

“I see.”

Blunt tin shovels thud into the earth; those men standing watching are armed with whips and copper daggers. Noah’s group walks awkwardly past.

Noah reads their minds: “But,” he says, “these barbarians attacked us once, we caught them and reasoned with them and let them go, they attacked us again! What can we do? We could kill them but this is better: they’ll learn our skills and our ways, they’ll live among us and see that we are superior. Then, when it is time, we shall free them and give them some land on which to build a house.”

The Overseers keep walking: the fields end at tough huts where more armed men stand on guard-duty, they nod deferentially as their bosses pass, walking now on cobbled streets, past squat homes and shops made of reeds and timber, past people: more and more people. Mostly when they see the Overseers they humbly lower their eyes, keep their distance, a few men and women come close though and smile and congratulate Noah on his newborns, the twins: a boy named Noah and a girl whose name is a secret.

Noah smiles back: “Thank you,” he says.

In the doorways of houses mothers wipe snot from children’s noses and give them toys to play with, wooden shapes with string threaded through, as sheep- and goat-herders clop with their flocks out to the plains to graze them or into the market to sell them; across the market vendors shout, their customers haggle and maybe buy meat and barley and date-palms, figs and wheat and jewellery, fish caught this morning in the sea to the south or the lakes all around, there are stonemasons and plasterers, metalworkers, leatherworkers, builders and musicians and priests: some are dressed in sheepskin cloaks or fine linen tunics or robes, others wear rags and scraps. Within workshops around the market’s edge men hammer boats into shape or burn things in furnaces to see what happens, there are word-workers too, sitting at desks drawing up contracts and inventories with scratchy markings on clay tablets.

A basket-weaver whacks his earnest young clod of an apprentice over the head then smiles apologetically at Noah and his associates as they keep on, through the market, towards the city’s centre: they pass men pushing their produce or their purchases on carts, on one of those carts is a wooden cage with a goat in it, the goat headbutts the wood trying and failing to get out. Noah says: “The chaotic old dances and rituals have been tamed; men’s energies have been focused on what is good and right; our stories have been catalogued and aligned into a common continuity.” They walk: here: a stone bowl filled with holy-water, each man dips his hands in it before he proceeds.

Here: the temple. The only building in the city built of bricks, the bricks are all the same size and the same grey colour, they form this gateway, this narrow dark chilly tunnel which opens into a not-quite-so-dark chilly hall decorated with emblems of Hwu and Ua, the Sky Lord and the Queen of Heaven, the god of possibility and the goddess of making-babies. The space within these limestone-brick walls is occupied today by the king’s council, the master-craftsmen and the high-priests and the Overseers. Later they’ll enjoy a ritual-feast of shellfish but first there’s work to be done: “We,” says King Noah, “need new numbers.”

The council debates the matter and comes to a conclusion: the head scribe records this new word, it will be added to the official list.

“There’s more,” says their ruler. He tells his men he’s been thinking: he wants to create a written record of his kingly wisdom.

“I,” offers the head scribe, “will set down your words if you wish to dictate to me the…”

“No: I have dabbled in the art of writing all my life, I can…” He looks across at the head scribe and then down, looks down at his own hands, he says: “No, you are the best writer, of course you must write,” soon Noah is speaking as the scribe makes markings on clay tablets, spelling out the king’s lessons:

“MISTAKE. NOT. TWICE.”

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