"I have what you need," the little man said in reasonably good English. The bartender looked at him with a disapproving eye but did not chase the vendor away.
"I doubt that," I said, sipping my third beer of the afternoon. The dust of the hard-baked village still clung to my throat, and I was sweating despite the fan turning lazily over my head. A good day for cold beer. And here, improbably, was a bar, inconspicuous in a kind and pious town that still somehow remembered its Babylonian heritage. Somewhere nearby the first beer had been brewed, and civilization had been born.
They didn't see many foreigners out here, far from fancy hotels and paved roads. I was an object of curiosity, and by then I must have shared tea with almost everyone in the village.
"Just see, just look," the old man said and pulled a carved wooden figure of a serpent out of his bag. "Very old," he said.
There was a burgeoning industry in stolen antiquities in that region and I wanted no part of it. "That will get me arrested," I said. He looked at me blankly. "Trouble. Police."
"Ah, no, no," he said. "I make. Very old. Just look."
I took the carving from him despite my better judgment. The figure was maybe a foot long and twisted seductively. The wood was nearly black and surprisingly heavy. In the low light it was difficult to see the detail but my fingers told of intricate carvings all along its length. As I moved my hand along the sinuous form it seemed to curl around my fingers.
"I make for you," he said. "Is the thief. Steals secret while Fire of the Torch sleeps."
That got my attention. Not many people would have translated the name Gilgamesh from Ancient Babylonian into English. It was more a symbolic translation than a literal one anyway. No one would ever expect the translated name to be recognized. But he had used it, and I had known it.
I set the carving on the bar and regarded it once again. Gilgamesh had pulled a plant from the bottom of the sea that bestowed eternal life. The serpent had caught the legendary hero napping -- quite literally -- and had stolen the plant away. There seems to be some dispute whether the serpent ate the plant or simply ran away with it.
I didn't know that much about antique art, but the carving in front of me seemed too realistic and too detailed to be ancient. I knew I was going to buy it. If I was stopped, would I be able to prove it was not a stolen treasure? "Is your name on it?" I asked him.
He looked at me, confused. "Not me. I am not snake," he said.
I decided to buy it and take it to the university in the capital. If it was a precious artifact I would be rescuing it, and if it wasn't I would have a document to protect me. "How much?" I asked. I didn't have a lot of currency, and no way to get more.
The old man must have been anticipating the question, but he shook his head slowly. "No money. You forget."
Now I was worried. There was something going on here. Maybe he was just trying to drive up the price, but I was starting to suspect some deeper con. Perhaps he was trying to use me to smuggle the piece out of the country. "Forget what?"
"You forget who you are, wanderer."
I'd forgotten my fair share of things, but as for who I was, "wanderer" summed it up pretty well. That didn't leave much to forget.
"You forget what you seek." the old man added.
"I've never known that."
The man smiled, revealing crude dentures. "Snake knows."
"So what is the price?"
"You free him. Then he give you his secret."
"How do I free him?"
The old man shrugged dramatically. "I don't know." He said it like he assumed I would know.
"OK, then," I said. This was getting nowhere. I reached for my wallet. If I offered money we could start the haggling. When I looked up the man was gone. I turned in time to see him vanishing into the harsh sunlight.
"Don't worry about him," the bartender said. "He's crazy man. Every town has crazy man, yes?" I nodded. He gestured into the glare of the sun outside the door. "He is good..." The bartender mimed carving wood. "Nice snake. You lucky."
The serpent sat on the bartop, head raised, watching me. I didn't feel lucky.
I left it there while I had more beer, waiting for the sun to release the land from its tyranny. This time of year the dramatic cooling after sunset was welcome, leaving the land habitable.
It was a beautiful carving. I couldn't help but run my fingers down its length, feeling its texture and understanding its curves. I had always imagined the creature that had thwarted the great god-king as being a mighty beast in its own right, but the serpent was not victorious by meeting force with force; the serpent had bested the warrior by exploiting the weakness of his opponent. Great Gilgamesh had more than once been caught sleeping on his quest for immortality.
In the end the mortal king had returned home and had accepted that his eternal life would be in the songs of those that followed. This wisdom allowed him to become more than just a mighty hero. No one seems to know what became of the serpent. Some say it went peddling its ill-got knowledge in the Garden of Eden, not far away. Some say it burrowed down to the center of the Earth. Some say it took the secret back to the Mountain of the Gods, and the Old Ones breathed a sigh of relief.
No one thought the spirit of the serpent had been captured in a piece of wood by an old man who knew Gilgamesh by name. So what was I so worried about?
Finally it was time to go. I slipped the carving into my bag and paid my tab. As I stepped out into the darkness I knew I had had more to drink than I should have. I could feel the heat in the ground, cooking my feet through the soles of my shoes. It was a small town and I had no difficulty finding my way home.
The desert people have raised hospitality beyond an art form to a way of life. When I arrived back at the home of my hosts I accepted tea, exchanged courtesies in their language, and listened to stories I had no hope of understanding. Before I left, I would have to find an appropriate gift for the house. The serpent in my bag was not it. They would not expect a gift from me, but none of them would ever have left my home without making a gesture of thanks.
That night I was able to slip out of the conversation quickly. While none of them would ever imply I had done something as impious as getting drunk, it was tacitly accepted that I should be allowed to sleep before I did something that no one could ignore. I was grateful for the courtesy; I felt even more light-headed than I had when I left the bar.
In my room at last, I pulled the serpent out of my bag and set it on the low table next to my bed. Finally able to see it well, I was stunned by the detail and intricacy of the carving. Part of me -- the drunk part of me -- refused to believe it was a carving at all. It was the serpent. It was beautiful.
I lay back on the bed. No worries about the serpent robbing me while I slept; I had nothing to steal. As I closed my eyes I felt it looking at me.
What are dreams but a jumble of thoughts best unremembered? Yet I remember my dreams that night. Fragments, anyway. I was in a large room, my footsteps reverberating off the massive stone walls. I felt the weight of the stone over my head. In the dim light before me was a massive door, guarded on each side by a creature, half lion, half bird. They stood on their hind legs, pulled the portal open, and bade me enter.
As I stepped through I saw in the center of the sanctum, bathed in radiant light, a pair of vipers entwined in a double helix around a rod. Four eyes regarded me as the two slowly unwound, leaving darkness in the violated space between them.
"See what your priests have done, Wanderer," Ningizzda said though both her mouths. "They have forgotten the lesson of Gilgamesh and they pry from me the secret I protect." The two vipers were completely separate now, and the darkness grew. One of the snakes came toward me while the other vanished in the gloom. The darkness engulfed me and I was in the bar again, the snake sitting watching me as it had that afternoon, its dark wood seeming to become part of the bartop itself, as if it had been carved out of the rough wood of the bar. I reached out to touch it, but before my hand reached it the bartender spoke.
"Has the serpent returned, then?" It was a powerful female voice and I saw the bartender was a woman, regarding me with laughing eyes from over her veil. Her body was voluptuous, ripe. Siduri, I knew, goddess of beer and wine, daughter of Ishtar. "I tried to tell them," she said to me. "Has it come to this again?"
The serpent, black and sinuous, the length of my forearm but reaching back five thousand years, turned its head to her. "Man must always die," it said.
"But mankind must live," she said with a trace of alarm.
The serpent didn't answer, it just turned and regarded me with its unblinking eye. "Do you remember, Wanderer? Do you know my secret to life eternal?"
"You shed your skin," I said.
It reared up, tiny ebony fangs dripping black venom. "Rebirth, Wanderer." It slid toward me with mortifying grace. "Are you ready to be born again?"
After I woke I couldn't remember what answer I had given. The serpent sat on the nightstand, fangs sheathed, staring at me in mute appraisal.
It was still dark outside, but I knew I would not be sleeping any more that night. The breeze stealing in through the open window was delicate and cool, chilling my sweaty skin. I climbed out of bed and went to the window. I looked down on the walled garden, alive with motion in the cool silvery night, and I listened to the chaos of the creatures below in their own dance with mortality.
Many of the families in town would be sleeping on their rooftops tonight, fleeing the heat trapped in their houses and witnessing the glory of God's creation above them. They were the progeny of Gilgamesh but no longer did they send their prayers to Ano, god of the firmament, whose symbol meant atom. Their prayers went to a different God, one more loving and far less capricious. A rational God whose actions could be explained, who entered into contracts with mankind and rewarded the faithful. As man's mastery of the world increased, his Gods had become more reasonable as well.
But now Atom walked the Earth again, and man was reaching deeper into the mountain of the Gods. "Mountain" had been a ruse; cleverly the Old Ones had hidden not in the grand but in the unimaginably small, and had dwelt there unseen. But man had found them at last, found where they kept their secrets, and this time it would be the fire of Atom rather than flood, and the fire would spare no one, for Ano would not allow the final secret to fall into the hands of man.
I felt the chill again, but my skin was hot and dry and I knew I had a fever and I understood. I was the serpent, and once again the ancient gods had sent me to steal back the secret of life everlasting, to forestall the fire. The God-King had the secret in his grasp; it was not a magical plant this time but man's ability to transform life itself. The heat in my body was increasing and I knew that the venom of the snake was in me. I was the venom, and humanity was the body.
But mankind must live, Siduri had said. I knew the gift to leave my hosts. I dressed quickly and made my way out of the house and into the moonlight. As I passed down the street I saw the works of man, the simple and the astonishing, paving stones beneath my feet, satellites passing overhead. For generations each Gilgamesh had added to the legacy of mankind. Some must live. I staggered as I walked; my skin was burning, peeling away, and beneath was something breathtakingly radiant that hurt to look at. In the darkness it took me a while to find the butcher's shop. I banged on the door, waited, and knocked again. Finally someone called down from above. "What is it?"
"I need lamb's blood," I said back in his language. "I need all you can give me."
Article © Jerry Seeger. All rights reserved.
Published on 2005-02-06