Asklepios was gone. Unbidden, a tear welled in Banipal’s eye. He laughed at his own self-pity.
Praise the Gods for the gifts they give, he chided himself. Don’t weep because you wanted more.
He would go to the temples and seek understanding. Ishkun’s philosophy came back to him: head, hand and spirit – all must be provided for. Of late Banipal’s days had consisted of little else but his work, the hand of Marduk showed strongly in the pattern of his life. He had not kept his promise to Ishkun and neglected his physical aspect. It was obvious which deity he should petition for help.
The courtyard below his workrooms opened onto an open plaza. On the far side, flanked by double rows of squat oval pillars, the high bronze-banded cedar doors to Inanna’s temple stood ever open. There the priestesses offered their own bodies to honour the goddess. For a lesser donation they would bathe, oil and massage the supplicant’s body. For less still they would dance. For nothing at all they did as they pleased.
At the doors Banipal removed his sandals, washed his feet in the ceaseless stream that flowed from the twin cisterns and went inside.
The interior of Inanna’s temple was cool, pooled with light and shadow from small oil lamps burning here and there. Banipal made his way through the silence to the purifying rooms. There he gave over his offering, a nugget of natural gold, and was admitted.
Alone in the peace of a cool-water pool he stripped, bathed, then floated for a while in the dim silence. He rose from the water, dried himself and walked naked into the next room, where a muscular male priest oiled and scraped his skin with a strigil carved from the shin-bone of a lioness.
The priest departed. Banipal lay face down on a low wooden couch padded with cushions. The chill of the pool and the rough tingle of the strigil faded to a pleasant glow. He tried to clear his mind and seek Inanna’s peace. It wasn’t easy, his thoughts kept returning to the ghosts, Asklepios, the geometries on the table.
Warm hands pressed on his shoulders. Unheard and unannounced one of the celebrant priestesses had entered the room. She began to massage his back.
She was strong and skilful, kneading and pushing the muscles and tendons under his skin. Banipal groaned as she found a knot of tension above his shoulder blade and was rewarded by a satisfied, feminine laugh, relaxed and easy. Shoulders, spine, hips, thighs and calves all yielded to her skill. She pressed her palms onto his kidneys, her hands burned like hot bronze and sent warmth deep into his entrails.
She touched his shoulder. Banipal turned onto his back.
The priestess was a woman neither young nor old, still in her prime. The grey veil of the celebrant covered her face. Her oiled skin gleamed copper red in the lamp light.
Her hips were wide, her breasts full and heavy. She had given birth at least once, her belly marked by a spreading fan of pale stretch-scars.
Banipal admired all the aspects of her beauty, each one emphasised by the shadows pooling in the hollows and curves of her body: her female form; her mother-marks; that carrying and giving birth had altered her body. He felt a pang of envy, her whole body was Inanna’s gift in ways he would never know.
This he knew he must accept. Her gifts also brought great risks. Men too had their gifts, their lives held different dangers.
‘This evening I am weary,’ he informed her politely.
The priestess understood. She laid her hands on his brow, his heart, his stomach. ‘I am a vessel of Inanna’s peace.’
‘I am in need of that peace’ Banipal said.
‘What is your offering?’
‘I am my own offering.’
‘Now, and always. My whole self.’ Banipal said, completing the simple ritual.
He closed his eyes. A gentle breeze moved across his stomach and thighs but he felt no arousal. The priestess pressed her palm onto his brow again and he exhaled. As he did he felt his entire body loosen, limbs sinking, spine settling, all sinking towards the supporting wood beneath him. Peace filled him – Inanna’s first and last gift. He felt her presence beside him, within him. The warmth of her body, the soft pressure of her stomach against his scalp.
So Banipal slept, and dreamed the strangest dream of a city with streets, of buildings without doors or windows. Mud brick dwellings stood crammed together like eggs in a nest, each with a single entrance in the common roof, both door and smoke hole. The whole city was built upon the ruins of an earlier age. Beneath that lay older ruins, and older still. Over the centuries a great tel of rubble had risen above the surrounding grasslands with the current city on top.
He stood above the entrance to what he knew to be his own home. Storm-light flickered ominously. Every other inhabitant was safe in their homes, safe from the storm and the creatures that made it. He was the last, and alone.
Banipal climbed down a single-rail wooden ladder into the darkness of his single room home. Lightning flashed and a few heartbeats later thunder rolled across the plain. He blew the embers of the fire into life and added a little kindling.
As he built the fire two people dropped into the room, a lean young man and an old woman. Strangers seeking refuge, they knelt with palms upraised until Banipal touched their shoulders and accepted them as his guests.
Both were weary and far from home, exhausted by a long and arduous journey. The fire caught and in the growing light Banipal saw the tattoos on their bodies – patterns of the clustered dots and lines, circles, arrows and angles. Numbers, he realised with a start, they had numbers even in these ancient times. They understood the abstract and measured things beyond the seasons.
The storm circled the city. All three curled beside the fire and slept. Dreamers within a dream inside a dream.
Down to a time before legends–
Where tall ships lay at berth in a grand harbour beneath a city of pillared domes and bright spires. A city unwalled, where a roofless temple of marble steps and gilded columns stood in the green foothills of a towering, cloud-bannered mountain. A city that glowed with light at night, where machines had minds, and winged platforms slid across the sky. The kingdom, the city, of many names: Thule, Ys, Atlantis…
The three of them stood on the sweeping quay under the shadows of marble gods and saw the city was past its glory days. The harbour breakwater was a tumbledown ruin, one city quarter was abandoned, another had been smashed to rubble by something enormous that had rampaged through it.
Beyond the harbour a titanic segmented creature was being towed out to see by a flotilla of three-masted ships. The creature was alive and strove mightily against the massive chains that bound it tight. The flotilla headed towards the cold heart of the ocean. There, the beast would sink. There, like all the others of its kind, it would die.
Only one living thing could be so gigantic.
The word beat inside Banipal’s mind as if spoken by another voice.
The name broke his dream. Startled, he hovered in the formless darkness of his own mind. Who is there? Who spoke?
A crone voice came. ‘Wake up, bachgen. I see the way home.’
Instantly Banipal was wide awake on the couch. Above him the veiled celebrant pressed down on his breastbone with the heel of her hand. Between his legs his manhood was achingly erect. He could only have slept for moments.
The priestess sensed his confusion. ‘What is it?’
In one graceful movement she swung her leg across his hips and mounted him. ‘Tell me,’ she said.
The sensation of her engulfing him was incredible.
Tim’s eyes jolted open at exactly the moment Mrs Woosencraft’s leg jerked and sent her stool flying across the room.
She returned Tim’s wide-eyed gaze with aplomb. ‘Well, that takes me back. Not the kind of ride I imagined. Very impressive.’
Foxy and Tim spent the rest of the day with Mrs Woosencraft. First Foxy insisted on hearing about their dream journey while it lay vivid in Tim’s mind. He told her of Asklepios and the nightmare winds, the tattooed men and women from the honeycomb city of manmade caves, and the bright city and the beast on the ocean.
They discussed what it all meant. Mrs Woosencraft summarised: ‘Warm waters have woken something from the first great days of mankind. Something that was supposed to die. The ancients created it, then they tried to destroy it.’
‘That creature controls minds and changes bodies,’ Foxy said. ‘Deep magic cannot do that, nor can your numbers. It knows things we don’t.’
‘Sea Cucumber is lost, the crop destroyed. Koponen didn’t know what was going on,’ Tim said. ‘He was trying to save the world, now he might not be alive. I feel sorry for him.’
‘Part of the world doesn’t want to be saved,’ Mrs Woosencraft said gloomily.
Tim shared her mood. ‘So much has happened so fast. I really feel out of my depth.’
Foxy burst out laughing. ‘That’s such a funny thing to say.’
It relieved the tension in the room. Things night not look good but Foxy and Mrs Woosencraft were becoming friends. The old witch gave Tim her best advice:
‘You’ve started to find a way through the veils we wrap around ourselves. I do it one way, Foxy uses another, now you’ve found a third. I’m sure there’s a part of us that doesn’t want to see things as they actually are, it prefers to make up its own rules and pretend they are true. It’s strong but when it’s confronted by things that it can’t explain some people break free and cast about for new ways, new answers. The veils grow thin, an open mind glimpses a new way.’
‘You think that’s what happened to me.’
‘Stress is kind of a crash course to open your inner wossname.’
‘It’s hard to realise I actually went to those places,’ Tim said.
‘You did, and in a way you didn’t,’ Mrs Woosencraft said. ‘Like all magic there are limits you shouldn’t push past, dangerous ones. You took chances and I let you. Worse, I encouraged you. I should have known better.’
‘We found out a lot. Where do you think we were?’
‘More a case of when,’ Mrs Woosencraft said. ‘That first was Babylon, the second – somewhere very old, but the third, that golden ruin on the island was older still.’
‘Foxy, that’s where you’re from, isn’t it,’ Tim said.
Mrs Woosencraft settled herself down in her chair. ‘It’s where we all came from.’
To be continued…