‘There, see? Stay low, keep quiet and watch her flight.’
Ishkun turned his friend so he could see the path of the bird. ‘Doves fly straight to water. On the way back they take a more cautious path.’
This Banipal could see, this difference in behaviour he understood along with the need to stay downwind of quarry.
‘I will make a hunter of you yet,’ Ishkun said when they knelt beside a doe gazelle struck down by their arrows. Ishkun’s arrow lay deep in its chest close to the heart, a near-perfect shot. Banipal’s lay further back behind the ribs, a respectable strike.
‘A killing blow,’ Ishkun congratulated Banipal as he carefully cut the arrow free. ‘She would have bled out within a few minutes from that alone.’
‘I aimed for her heart, but she moved.’
‘You must aim for where she will be when the arrow arrives, not where she stands when you fire.’
‘I feared I would miss altogether and slay another tree.’
‘You are not that bad,’ Ishkun said. ‘Accept my praise for a decent shot.’
Despite his protests Banipal was pleased with himself. This trip he was surprised to find himself enjoying the hunt almost as much as he enjoyed his friend’s company. Ishkun was right, he would have slain this doe on his own, though it would have run for a while. Ishkun’s own arrow, striking the doe a fleeting moment after Banipal’s, had dropped the gazelle to its knees and saved them the chase.
At first the liquid black eyes and long lashes of these beautiful animals had summoned difficult emotions in Banipal’s heart. Their first kill, less clean than this one, required Ishkun to sprint forwards and cut the kicking animal’s throat. They had tracked it half the day and it had taken all of Ishkun’s bantering good humour to maintain Banipal’s enthusiasm through the long hours of heat and dust.
Thinking to see reproach in the death-gaze Banipal knelt beside the creature, placed his hand over its face and closed the eyes.
Ishkun mistook Banipal’s actions for piety. Chastened and impressed he had sacrificed that first beast to Ninurta and burnt it on a great pyre of brushwood they gathered over the rest of the day.
It seemed Ishkun’s decision had been the correct one. Ninurta blessed the hunt and the following day they killed a yearling wild ox they separated from its herd.
With their beards salt-stained with sweat and arms red to the elbows after gutting the animal, Banipal sacrificed to Ea while Ishkun again made offering to Ninurta.
Some minutes later a young man from a local village appeared and offered them the hospitality of the guest-house in exchange for some of the meat.
Banipal and Ishkun exchanged a shared look of agreement.
‘We gift you the entire animal,’ Ishkun said.
The villager bowed, delighted. ‘You are blessed.’
Ishkun made the sign of Ea. ‘We are all blessed.’
That evening Ishkun and Banipal floated naked in a covered stone cistern inside the villages small temple complex – in reality a God-house shared by all the deities.
‘This is the life,’ Ishkun said. ‘Mankind, with the blessings of the Gods, is born to hunt. There is little better than the company of friends.’
Two members of the sisterhood of Inanna entered the room, their heads covered by opaque grey veils, their bodies in white cotton robes. They stood at the door until Ishkun and Banipal knelt in the water and made Inanna’s sign of The Shared Gifts. They returned the sign, knelt beside the cistern and began to comb and oil the men’s hair. Beakers of beer were to hand, the tantalising smell of roasting ox drifted in from the oven pits outside.
Playfully Ishkun splashed water over the priestess beside him. Already wet from washing Ishkun’s hair and beard, her white linen shift clung to her body, translucent with water.
The priestess gave a low laugh and filled a bowl of water from the cistern. She dumped it over Ishkun’s head and pushed him under the surface.
He surged up, his face contorted with mock outrage, and seized her wrists. He pulled, she resisted, a gentle tug of war followed, one that she easily won. Ishkun released her and bowed in acknowledgment of her free will. In return she lay her palm on his brow. He knelt in the water and again made the sign. The priestess removed her shift but not her veil and stepped into the water beside him.
’I cannot fault you,’ Banipal said quietly as he watched them join together. He drank deeply from the beer, still thirsty from the long, hot hunt. As he did his eyes met those of the other priestess.
Banipal knew he lacked the boisterous charisma of his friend, and his own body was slighter and less heavily muscled. He had never considered himself handsome. None of these were reasons to refuse Inanna’s gift, yet he felt shy. Banipal bowed, pressed his hands together and made the sign. The priestess stood still for a moment, then disrobed. Banipal marvelled at the sleek curves of her beauty, that he could be so blessed, that Inanna blessed his own body in return. Gifts to be shared. The veiled priestess stepped down into the water to join him. They held each for a moment while she studied his face through her veil. Then she embraced him. He was more than ready and she welcomed him. Together they joined in Inanna’s holy embrace while Ishkun and the other priestess celebrated beside them.
Later that night Ishkun found Banipal sitting alone, pushing slivers of wood into a pomegranate.
Banipal held up the round fruit, turning it in the fire light. ‘There is something I just don’t see, my friend. Something here I cannot work out.’
‘The world is much bigger than a pomegranate.’ Ishkun took the fruit from Banipal. ‘I wish I could help you, but my mind is unsuited to the task, tired or rested, drunk or sober. You will find it easier to think about this in the morning and I will be better able to listen.’
‘You are right.’ Banipal took back the pomegranate and tossed it into the fire.
‘It will come to you one day, if it is meant to be.’
Banipal stared into the fire. ‘Explain something to me, Ishkun. I know you love this life and I know trying to understand what I do frustrates you. Why, then, do you keep returning to it?’
‘Ninurta is a wise God. Although he is Lord of War and delights in combat he wishes to be entertained by more than unskilled hacking and slaughter. To honour the Gods we must strive to be complete. I believe each one of us needs three challenges: one for the hands, another for the spirit, a third for the mind. Therefore, I hunt and make weapons, I bend my knee and my will to Ninurta, and I try to follow your numbers.’
‘It is a good philosophy,’ Banipal said, struck by Ishkun’s wisdom.
‘We are not always fated to succeed, but we must try.’
Banipal nodded with growing understanding. ‘This has done me a deal of good, Ishkun. I hear the truth in what you say. This is a right life and from now on I shall not neglect it.’ He filled two shallow bowls with the village’s cloudy beer, handed one to Ishkun and raised the other in salute to his friend. ‘Thank you for taking me away from the temple and my own fascinations.’
Ishkun touched his cup to Banipal’s and they drank. ‘You are welcome. Though I am also thinking you will soon wish to return to Esagila.’
Banipal heard the disappointment in Ishkun’s voice and told a white lie. ‘I am not ready yet. Let Ninurta decide when the hunt is over.’
In the morning Ishkun borrowed a pair of asses from the headman, promising to return them along with meat and hides in payment for their loan.
The days of the hunt passed, days of heat and weariness, frustration and laughter, stealth and sudden action. Banipal found himself less troubled by the eyes of the animals they killed. Reduced to hides and cuts of meat the beasts had no ability to haunt him. After each kill they would skin the animal, light a fire, cut the meat into strips and hang it to dry. Ishkun showed Banipal how to strip and prepare gut and sinew for their bows, and how to rub the ash of the fire into the flesh side of the skin, a crude tanning that would preserve them until they could be properly treated.
Boys from the village came to guard the meat, listen to the men’s stories round the fire at night, and take the laden asses back to the village.
One day Banipal and Ishkun were on the trail of a magnificent white Ibex. They were a good hour behind their quarry when Banipal found his mind wandering.
’Ishkun, do you remember the cistern at that village temple?’
Ishkun grinned, ‘How could I forget?’
‘Did you not notice how the level rose as the priestesses entered the water?’
‘Thinking back, I cannot in all honesty say that I noticed.’
‘I’ve just realised something. If you measured the rise you would know how much space she occupied.’
Incredulous, Ishkun stared at his friend and roared with laughter. ‘Truly, I shall never understand you.’
The trail was clear, they took after the ibex at an easy jog and began to gain on it. The wind shifted, the ibex caught their scent and began to run. Ishkun raised the pace and they settled into a fast trot he knew would wear the swift beast down.
Late in the afternoon they came to a stand of wild palm. High grasses and thorny acacia lay across their path. Thinking the ibex may have gone to ground Ishkun lead them towards the palms. Suddenly he dropped to a crouch and motioned Banipal down beside him.
Swiftly Banipal knelt and gave Ishkun a questioning look.
Moving very slowly Ishkun unslung his bow and nocked an arrow. He nodded towards the tall grass a few yards ahead of them.
‘Lion,’ Ishkun mouthed.
Then Banipal saw it. A huge male, bloody muzzled, crouched over the body of the ibex. It watched them steadily and rumbled long and low in its throat.
‘He thinks we’re after his kill,’ Ishkun whispered. ‘Draw your bow.’
‘Will he attack?’
‘He’s thinking about it.’
‘What good will these demon-buggered arrows be?’
‘None whatsoever unless you can put one in his eye.’
Banipal felt a dead weight in his belly. ‘Marduk preserve us.’
Ishkun took a deep breath. ‘I am going to stand. When I do, rise slowly with me.’
Smoothly Ishkun rose to his feet, keeping the tension on his bowstring. Banipal followed, silently cursing the trembling in his legs. Now he could see the lion clearly, see its back legs shuffling and its haunches twitching with tension. It glared at them, and lashed its tail.
Tipping back his head, Ishkun laughed lightly. His hand pressed on the small of Banipal’s back and moved him along. ‘Tell me about the cistern again.’
Ishkun laughed again. ‘We are going to walk slowly away. I am going to be amazed and fascinated by your tale. The lion will see we do not fear him. No, do not look at it.’
‘All right,’ Banipal said doubtfully.
Slowly they walked away, Ishkun regularly exclaiming in wonderment at Banipal’s revelations.
To be continued…