His sister Ningirsu saw him first
and brought both palms to her mouth,
trying not to scream.
Such amazement and happiness were in her eyes
that, despite his dreadful tiredness, he smiled.
He had entered a while ago, quietly, and stood by the door,
looking at his family about to have supper.
The wind howled outside. It had rained.
The rustle of the huge chestnut tree he had planted as a boy
still stood in his ears.
There were drops of rain on his face,
some of them still streaming down, along the deep livid scar
on his left cheek.
Yet here, inside the house, all was calm,
only the shutter, still not fixed,
waved to and fro, aimlessly, like a broken wing,
Ningirsu screamed, dashed towards him, across the entire room,
and fell on his chest. She tried to embrace him,
but his convex breastplate prevented her.
She tried again and again, and then, realising it was impossible,
just stood, clinging to the polished bronze, her arms around his neck.
He lowered his head and smelled her hair.
He always liked the smell of Ningirsu's hair.
She did put some fat on it, like every other girl in the village,
but she always added lots of rose petals to this simple ointment,
and the smell of her hair was very pleasing.
He heard sobbing. He lifted his eyes.
Mother stood by the table, unable to move,
her palm pressed under her left breast.
In the five years that he hadn't been home
she had turned grey. Almost.
There were still patches of black hair here and there,
but the silver that was present before only as thin unconnected threads,
had taken possession of her head.
Ningirsu, too, had some grey in her hair.
He kissed her crown and gently pushed her aside, his hands still in gloves.
Utu! It's you, Utu!
His mother kept sobbing and, as he moved towards her, stretched out both her arms.
She was so small and shrivelled now, dear mother, so small and feeble.
Utu, Utu, she kept saying, as if singing a song.
Yes, mother. I have come home.
He felt he would himself start crying now. Tears welled in his eyes.
He was happy his face was still smeared with rain, so they would not see his tears.
He noticed how quiet the room was.
The shuffling of Ningirsu's feet as she fluttered around the table
setting plates and clearing room for him,
and the sobbing of his mother, though slowing,
stood out in the deep silence.
They were thick, almost tangible sounds,
he could feel them brush past his face.
A little girl sat at the table and stared,
her mouth wide open. His armour evidently frightened and fascinated her,
the large lion-faced buckles on his shoulders,
and the helmet with a scarlet bulb on top, which he had not taken off,
and the long sword dangling on his left hip,
and the dagger under his broad leather belt,
and that scar on his face. He must have looked terrifying.
Ningirsu finished with the table and took the girl in her arms.
She looked at her brother with unabashed pride and smiled.
He noticed that one of her teeth was missing.
Look, Utu, this is Nani. Nani, dearest, this is your uncle Utu!
Nani, don't be afraid! Come, Nani, come!
The girl still kept back, unsure.
Finally, urged by her mother, she approached him
and, as he crouched in front of her,
pressed his cheeks with her palms.
He tried to speak, but his tongue was pressed between the insides of his cheeks and couldn't move. The child's hands were remarkably strong. There was no softness in them.
Is she? He pointed with his eyes at the girl and looked at Ningirsu.
Yes, this is my Nani.
Ningirsu was pregnant, when he left with the army.
The child had grown up in his absence. She must be five or six now.
He wanted to calculate how long the war had lasted, but he was too tired and gave up.
No one knew who Nani's father was. Even Ningirsu.
She remembered her pregnancy, her belly bulging under the gown embroidered with green birds. She was happy. The child must have been divine, hence her name, Nani,
for she was conceived in Inanna's temple. Ningirsu dedicated her virginity to the goddess. All girls had to drink a brew of tansy at dawn, to avoid becoming pregnant, but Ningirsu refused. Nani's father could be a beggar, or a god, or both.
He looked around. It showed that there had been no man in the house for a long time.
The table stood on three legs, the fourth replaced with a stack of bricks. The bull bladder was torn on one of windows and some rain spilled into the room. There was a rug under the window, in the pool of water. Ningirsu was making fire from a few logs remaining on the floor. The fire was for him, of course. Had he not come, they would have eaten in the cold.
Ningirsu must have never found a husband.
Mother was helping her to set the table. She did her best, poor thing,
but he could see how frail and uncertain her hands had become,
her narrow shoulders drooping. Even the weight of her flax cloak was too much to bear.
The russet, irregular bricks of the walls gleamed,
light seemed to come from inside them.
Two heron-shaped lamps, which he had himself bought a long time ago, stood on the table. The birds stuck out their little tongues of fire. One of them was now missing half a beak, and fire rose straight and around its badly charred, elongated head.
Surely these lamps were not enough to illuminate the room. He searched for the source of light, but couldn't find it. A silvery, undulating radiance permeated the air. He could see every wrinkle on his mother's face, every cranny in the bricks. The wrinkles and crannies looked exactly the same.
And those curtains... He remembered them well. Two lions chasing an antelope. His mother made it as a part of her dowry. The curtain was torn and mended in many places. The lions were all scarred. Some divinity must have come and cut them with his serrated sword, to save the antelope. She alone was intact as before, fleeing the torn beasts, running somewhere. As a boy, he so wished the antelope would reach the silk river and swim away. A hot wave of pain rose from his chest, with an intense, almost wet glow, like the orange-red splash of light on the horizon at daybreak, which lasts only a brief while and then spreads into more regular ardour diluted by the first ultramarine. He turned away, as his heart struggled with its fatigue, its muteness.
Utu, sit down! Why do you stand there? Come to the table, come!
His mother's voice became almost cheerful, like a plant coming alive, as if the drops of rain absorbed by her cloak when she embraced him watered her soul. That's how her voice had always been. He began to remember.
He made a step towards the table and hesitated.
Utu, come! Take off your helmet!
He did not take off his helmet. He sat at the table cautiously, trying not to touch anything, as if afraid to break a cup of milk or a plate of thin soup. His mother saw how pale he was, how tired. His face was bluish, and his eyes bloodshot. Again she wanted to urge him to take off his helmet, but he made an impatient move, apparently guessing her intention, and she decided to be quiet, lest he got angry.
He said with an effort:
I cannot stay, mother. I have to go soon.
His words hurt her. He could see it.
What? To go? But you have just come home! Where to, Utu? You want to see Eanna? Eanna?
No, mother. I am not going to see Eanna. Please don't ask.
She looked at him, baffled, her cheerfulness completely gone. Ningirsu stood by her side, her eyes so like her mother's. Only Nani chewed a slice of grey bread and stared at the hilt of his dagger, decorated with a ruby-eyed dragon.
Why don't you eat with us, Utu?
I am not hungry. I had a meal before leaving the camp.
Will you be gone long?
I don't know.
But you will be back by sunset, won't you, Utu? Your aunt will want to see you, and her new husband...
I don't know, mother. There are things to do. Please don't ask me. I don't know anything.
Things to do? What things? The temple is closed until tomorrow... I am sure it is Eanna! Don't be so shy! You can tell your mother. She hasn't married, Utu! She must be at home now.
Mother! Stop! Stop!
There was such agony in his voice that the woman froze. Looking carefully, she noticed a red spot on his forehead, almost completely covered by the front plate. Ningirsu followed her mother's eyes and saw the red spot, too.
Utu, are you hurt? Is it blood?
She made a move towards him, but he prevented her with a movement of his palm.
It is nothing. I am all right.
The women looked at each other in bewilderment. The room sank in silence again. Only Nani kept chewing her bread, her mouth making splashing sounds of water poured in a metal dish.
Utu, did you see Babylon? Ningirsu's voice was faded and dull.
Yes, I saw Babylon.
Is it beautiful?
Yes, it is beautiful.
How did you live, Utu, all this time? Was it hard?
Yes, it was.
I see you are not a soldier any more. This armour...
Our captain was killed at Larsa.
She was trying to think of other questions, but nothing came into her head. She lowered her face and began to cry.
So they sat quietly, the rain pouring outside.
He no longer knew whether it was the sobbing of Ningirsu he heard,
or the rain that became audible.
Then mother straightened up and looked at her son with different eyes.
She understood something.
Utu, tell me, how did you come here? Where is your horse? Her voice was cautious, rustling, like the leaves of his chestnut tree.
I didn't need a horse, mother.
Have a slice of bread, Utu. Tears stood in her voice, tears streamed down her face.
I can't, mother. I must go now.
He rose from the table. His scabbard clinked as it hit the wooden board.
The women no longer asked where he was going or how soon he would return.
They held each other's arms. Ningirsu was so distressed that she seemed of the same age as her mother.
Neither approached him. There were fear and reverence in their eyes.
Good-bye, mother. Good-bye, Ningirsu.
Bye, dear Nani. The child didn't look at him, busy with her meal.
He went towards the door. Something tightened more and more in his throat, until he could hardly breathe. At the door, he turned around and looked one more time.
The two women and the child gleamed strangely, with a greenish tint. Clods of light, tepid, diluted in rain water, dappled the walls.
He could no longer hear them. The sound of rain filled his ears now. He stepped out.
He left the small room curtained with dark velvet. A trough in front of it was filled with running water. He took off one of his gloves, scooped some water and again washed his face. He was so exhausted he could hardly move.
It was early morning. A woman was brushing the relief of a winged muscular deity with a basket and a pine cone. A small lamp in front of it spread thin smell of olibanum. A couple of peasants stood by the front door, their hands raised.
A man in a whitish robe approached.
Were they shown to you?
Yes, warden. Thank you.
You didn't eat or drink anything?
No, I remembered.
He put two coins in the man's hand.
I wish I hadn't done it. I only upset them.
Never mind. They will forget. They all do. The goddess is merciful.
I meant to go see them last year, but I couldn't leave the army. And then this plague... I am very grateful, warden. I will send you those goats tomorrow.
He left the temple. At the market, in front of him, traders already began to lay out long golden melons and red apples. They shouted to each other from time to time, but their voices were muffled and sleepy, or, maybe, he didn't hear them well.
He began to walk along the empty, sand-strewn street. The sun already appeared far away, behind the hanging gardens. Cold light filled his face like a cup. There was also some breeze, a real blessing. He took several deep breaths.
He began to walk towards his barracks, but remembered something, sat down on somebody's threshold and took off his helmet. A gilded amulet, a sun disc, lay on top of his bandaged head. He removed the disc. It was covered with blood. The wound had opened again. He sat for a while, adjusting the bandage.
A night bird whizzed through the greenish air with a piercing, disconsolate cry.
It lasted only a brief moment, but that cry continued to resonate within him,
as if his heart had found a voice, at last.
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