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Episode 77 is part of the Autumn 2018 issue!

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The Quiet Realm of the Dark Queen

by Jenny Blackford

 

 

Dumuzi—my beautiful brother Dumuzi, lovelier than the first green shoots of barley rising from the dark mud of an irrigated field—Dumuzi was dead.

Father had not spoken for six days. Not long ago, he’d been a great king in the fullness of his manhood, but now he was hobbling around the halls of the palace like an old grasshopper waiting for death. His hair was gray; his face was grayer still.

Mother was quiet at last. For six full days and nights she’d wailed and screamed on her wide bed of gold, tearing her soft face and her lovely breasts with her nails, pulling great lumps of curled and scented hair from her luxuriant head, berating all the gods for their cruelty to her. The people said that she was no mere mortal beauty but a goddess walking on earth with us, and she did not disagree; but even if this were true, it did not diminish her fury against the other gods.

[Full story & transcript after the cut.]


 

Hello! Welcome to GlitterShip Episode 77 for the longest March, 31st, 2020. This is your host, Keffy, and I’m super excited to be sharing this story with you. Our story for today is The Quiet Realm of the Dark Queen by Jenny Blackford read by Marcy Rae Henry and Amber Gray.

Before we get into the story, I’ve got a few things to say. First of all, much love to everyone out there in the world as we face this pandemic together. Love to all those who are suffering, whether from the virus itself, from loss of or fear for loved ones, from financial uncertainty, or from the fear of what the next day will bring. As in most times of extreme disaster, we’re seeing both acts of extreme sociopathy and extreme kindness. Please do what you can to stay safe. Once you’ve got your own oxygen mask on, see what you can do for others.

GlitterShip was originally going to run a full-sized Kickstarter in an attempt to increase our rates, but a combination of finances, time, and the magical world of Keffy-is-still-working-on-a-PhD made that deeply unfeasible, which only became moreso when the pandemic started really ramping up in the States.

That said, we are running a much smaller Kickstarter at https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/keffy/glittership-a-queer-sfandf-magazine-going-for-year-4 in order to fund the next year of GlitterShip through the end of 2020. The much smaller amount is designed to get us through the year and pay off some previous incurred debts. That said, there are also a few stretch goals just in case. If we go considerably over our goal, we’ll pay authors more, yay! As of this recording on March 31st, the Kickstarter is about 2/3 of the way funded. The Kickstarter is live until 9pm United States Eastern time on Friday, April 10, 2020.  Thank you so much in advance for helping me keep GlitterShip going.

Finally, this episode is from the last issue, but there’s going to be a new issue released extremely soon as we get back on track!

And now, onto “The Quiet Realm of the Dark Queen” by Jenny Blackford, read by Marcy Rae Henry and Amber Gray.

Jenny is an Australian writer and poet. Her poems and stories have appeared in Cosmos, Pulp Literature, Strange Horizons, and more. Pamela Sargent called her subersively feminist novella, The Priestess and the Slave, “elegant”. She won two prizes in the 2016 Sisters in Crime Australia Scarlet Stiletto awards for a murder mystery set in classical Delphi, with water nymphs. You can find her at www.jennyblackford.com.
Marcy Rae Henry is a Latina born and raised in Mexican-America/The Borderlands.  Her writing and visual art appears or is forthcoming in FlowerSong Books’ Selena Anthology, Thimble Literary Magazine,  New Mexico Review, The Wild Word, Beautiful Losers, The Acentos Review, World Haiku Review, Chicago Literati, The Chaffey Review, Shanghai Literary Review, Damaged Goods Press/TQ Review.  Her publication, The CTA Chronicles, received a Chicago Community Arts Assistance Grant and Cumbia Therapy, her collection of Spanglish stories, received an Illinois Arts Council Fellowship.  Ms. M.R. Henry is currently seeking publication of two novellas.  She is an Associate Professor of Humanities and Fine Arts at Harold Washington College Chicago.
Amber Gray is a theatre artist and lover of stories. She enjoys mimicking and creating character voices, especially in song, for her own amusement and the annoyance of those around her who have to put up with it. Thank you to Marcy for being such a good friend and neighbor, and for inviting her to have such a fun time with this project.

 

The Quiet Realm of the Dark Queen

by Jenny Blackford

 

 

 

Dumuzi—my beautiful brother Dumuzi, lovelier than the first green shoots of barley rising from the dark mud of an irrigated field—Dumuzi was dead.

Father had not spoken for six days. Not long ago, he’d been a great king in the fullness of his manhood, but now he was hobbling around the halls of the palace like an old grasshopper waiting for death. His hair was gray; his face was grayer still.

Mother was quiet at last. For six full days and nights she’d wailed and screamed on her wide bed of gold, tearing her soft face and her lovely breasts with her nails, pulling great lumps of curled and scented hair from her luxuriant head, berating all the gods for their cruelty to her. The people said that she was no mere mortal beauty but a goddess walking on earth with us, and she did not disagree; but even if this were true, it did not diminish her fury against the other gods.

“My life is nothing without him,” she’d screamed again and again. “Why did you not take me instead, or my husband, or my worthless, thankless, useless daughter?”

I was the useless daughter, of course. I had failed to save my brother from the demons that hunted him to the Underworld. My mother would never forgive me.

Finally, Mother swallowed enough sweet wine laced with poppy juice and honey from the alabaster cup I held to her lips to bring merciful sleep. Death would perhaps have been more merciful for her.

As I put down the cup and smoothed her hair, my mother woke herself just enough to hiss, “Far better that you had been taken, daughter, than him, Dumuzi, the beloved of my heart. Why did you not give yourself to the demons instead? Why did you let them take him? Why? How could you let them take him? My Dumuzi!”

And, truly, I understood. My brother Dumuzi had been more than beautiful, when he had walked this earth.

My suitors—brought by my father’s wealth and my mother’s beauty—had been enthusiastic enough, over the years, until each in his turn had seen my brother. Only a few men are immune to the charms of a pretty boy, and will always prefer the soft roundnesses of woman to a boy’s firm flats and hollows. Even those men, those devoted lovers of women, wanted my brother more than they wanted me, once they had met him. But all left the palace disconsolate: Dumuzi had eyes for none but peerless Ishtar, daughter of the Moon, queen of heaven and earth, goddess of love.

 
 

I had not always been in second place. I was the firstborn child of our parents; when I was a toddler, I was my father’s delight, my mother’s plaything. Father ordered his artisans to make me golden carts with silver wheels, and dolls carved from fragrant cedar with eyes of lapis lazuli and hair of gold. Mother dressed me in tiny versions of court ladies’ dresses in blue and purple, fringed with silver and pearls, tinkling with the myriad silver moon-crescents sewn to them. But in my fourth year, my mother’s belly swelled again.

Even as a newborn babe, Dumuzi shone tender as the spring sun on a field of emmer wheat. I was forgotten. Kings and wise men came from the ends of the earth with gifts of jewels and spices, merely to gaze on my brother’s shining face. The peasants bowed down to him; the slaves openly worshipped him as a god.

But now that Dumuzi was dead, now that the demons had taken him to the Underworld in exchange for his lover, the goddess Ishtar, no man could bear to look upon my face; they turned their heads in angry grief for my brother. Women screamed and wept, tearing at their cheeks and their clothes. If they had dared, they’d have attacked me with their bare hands.

Even the sheep, which Dumuzi had loved above all other beasts, refused to walk to their grassy fields. The noises that they made were so full of grief that they would have brought sorrow to the heart of the most joyful stranger. The sun was hot in the sky, burning the crops, and the fertile irrigated fields were cracked, dry mud. Only the old vizier came to my room and wept with me for my brother’s death. Perhaps the people were right; perhaps it would have been better if I had died, instead of him.

But it was not my fault that Dumuzi was taken from us as ransom for Ishtar. Only the gods knew why the goddess had challenged her sister’s power in the Underworld and been trapped there. I had done my best to protect my brother, as an older sister must, when demons were sent to drag him to the Underworld to take mighty Ishtar’s place.

The demons had threatened me with death when they searched for him; they even tried to bribe me with precious water and with fields of grain. But my brother was my river of precious water; he was my field of grain. I could never have betrayed him. It was not me who gave him up to the demons, but his childhood companion, his dearest male friend, who took the bribe. But no one cared. They loved my brother Dumuzi so much that they loved his friend for his sake; my less lovely face reminded them too much of my beautiful sibling.

After another night of evil dreams, I could not bear it another moment. A little before noon, I went to the Field of the Winged Bulls.

 
 

The life-sized sculptures of the human-headed bulls that guarded the entrance to the palace, strong golden wings tucked against their massive basalt flanks, made all who saw them catch their breath in fear and awe. Though the bulls’ magic protected the city, few other than the members of our family had ever seen the models for those sculptures in real life.

The winged bulls and their mates, in the flesh, were more glorious in appearance and in power than words could tell, but they detested the eyes of human strangers. A plump, bejeweled dynasty of blond slaves from the north tended to all their needs: combed their glossy blue-black hides, polished their golden hoofs, fed them the figs and dates, sweet grapes and honey cakes that they craved; but I was the only living human, other than their slaves, whom they permitted to enter their compound.

The human-headed bulls lazed with their herd in the shade under the date palms, in the vast enclosure that they had requested a thousand years ago, when they’d taken up residence in the city. The huge twin males, rulers of the herd, lay perfectly still, not moving a feather or a shining hair, while the three queen females slowly fanned them with their wide golden wings. Six or seven smaller beasts, close to fully grown, lay quietly around them. Even the frisky calves, their wings mere buds on their shoulders, were relatively placid in the heat, scuffling quietly in the grass for fallen dates.

The two great bulls spoke steadily to one another, their deep voices strange and sonorous to human ears. Their faces looked human, but the sounds that they could make in those deep chests were beyond the reach of any man or woman, or ordinary animal, alive. No human had ever learnt more than a few words of their language. They far preferred for us to speak to them in courtly Sumerian or everyday Akkadian, rather than to hear their ancient, sacred speech distorted and defiled by human mouths.

They would not tell us—not even me, their longtime favorite—where they had come from before they took refuge in our palace, except that it was somewhere long ago and very far away. “You wouldn’t understand, child,” they’d said when I’d asked them, when I was young. “It was our destiny. It was in the stars. We are here, now. That’s all you need to know of where we came from.” They’d looked so sad, as they answered me, that I never dared cause them sorrow by asking again.

The deep poetry of the twin bulls’ ancient voices as they conversed in their own language was strangely soothing. I stood leaning against the warm stone wall of the huge enclosure listening, not comprehending anything they said, but slowly growing calmer, until they spoke to me.

“You are unhappy, Geshtinanna,” one of them said. “Is it your brother?”

I nodded.

“Of course,” the other said. “How could things be otherwise, when humans are involved? And the people blame you, though you are surely blameless?”

I nodded again. I did not want to burst into tears in front of the bulls.

The first one said, “Even we were powerless to prevent this fate from falling upon your brother. How could your people believe for a moment that you had the power to challenge the will of the gods?”

I squeezed my eyes tight shut, but fat tears ran down my cheeks nonetheless.

The three dominant females spoke together for some time, after that. I wiped my tears on the hem of my dress and watched their grave conversation. Their voices were like the sound of great bronze bells, sweet but dangerously strong. The males listened, silent like me, as the massive females spoke, each in her turn.

At last, the largest of the females flicked a golden wingtip against my hand, gently as a kiss, and gave me their decision: “You must go to the wise woman, child. Go to Siduri, the woman who brews her beer and keeps her tavern at the end of the earth, by the shores of the Waters of Death. She will advise you what you must do.”

Mother had told me tales of Siduri, of course. Siduri’s tavern, with its peerless beer-vat made from pure gold, stood by the fabled Garden of the Gods, full of vines hung with gems, shrubs with jewels instead of flowers, fat gemstones in the place of fruit. Mother described it endlessly, greedily. Perhaps the people were right; perhaps Mother was a goddess in truth and belonged there in the jeweled garden. Perhaps she would have been happier there. But the place held dangers as well as riches. A single drop from the deep abyss of the Waters of Death could kill in an instant.

“But how do I travel to the ends of the earth, to consult Siduri?” I asked the powerful inhuman creature lying on the grass in front of me. “I am a woman virtually alone, ignored now in my parents’ own palace, though I was born a princess here. Even with the strongest men from my father’s army, I could not hope to travel through the well-armed kingdoms and the trackless wastes between our city and Siduri’s tavern. Even a hero would surely die in the attempt.”

The human-faced female who spoke now for the herd spread out her golden wings in a graceful gesture. “You see my children, and my sisters’ children, all about you. The oldest of them was born some centuries ago, now, and they are almost full-grown, though still young by our standards. We have taught them all we know: astronomy, astrology, cosmogony, theology, geometry, mythology and more.”

I just nodded. What could I say?

She went on, “We will send Kalla with you on your quest, child. She is not much more than three hundred years old, or thereabouts, but she is wise for her age, as you also are.”

One of the young winged cows lifted her head, then and looked at me. Her eyes were the hard, pure blue of the best lapis lazuli, but fierce intelligence shone in them. But did her mouth tremble with suppressed fear? I tried to smile bravely at her. I was a princess. A princess might know fear, but she must never show it.

The older female spoke again. “You and Kalla will do well together, we believe.” She sighed. “We hope so. This quest could be more dangerous than any that we have attempted for many years.”

Fear touched me with its black wing, then, but what could I do? My life in the palace, or anywhere in Father’s kingdom, was insupportable. Each moment pricked me to the heart like a sharp bronze dagger. A quest to the ends of the earth and perhaps beyond with a wise, if young, winged beast could hardly be more painful, or more difficult. It was more than likely, I knew, that I would die; but Dumuzi was already dead. What was my life worth now?

“Thank you,” I said, not knowing what else to say. Father’s elderly vizier had coached me well in diplomatic language since my toddlerhood, training me to be a good queen when the time came, but this was not one of the endless number of situations that he had covered.

“Go now, child,” the old female said, “and prepare yourself. This will be no ordinary journey. Pack a little food and water, yes, but other things too. And return soon. It would be best for you to leave before the sun is low in the sky.”

I made a formal gesture of thanks, as the vizier had taught me, and rushed back to my room. To my relief, I reached the room before I burst into flooding tears.

 
 

After I composed myself and packed, I went to say farewell to my family.

In my mother’s room, the chief of her women barred the way to her bed, hissing like a snake in an irrigation ditch.

“Geshtinanna! Who do you think you are,” she said, “coming to torment the Queen? You let Dumuzi die, you slut, you useless bitch. Do you think she ever wants to see your face again? Do you think she will ever again call you daughter, after what you did? Go!”

I went, saddened but dry-eyed.

My father, in his throne room, looked at me, then away. The vizier by his side, his hands shaking, pulled at my father’s elbow. “It is your daughter, my King,” he whispered. “It is Geshtinanna. She comes to speak with you.” But Father’s eyes, and mind, were somewhere else, somewhere not good.

The vizier followed me to the door. “I am sorry,” he said. “Your father the King…he is not himself, these days. He will recover, in time. The doctors say so. We must wait patiently.”

“Yes,” I said, then turned to leave.

He looked stricken. “It was not your fault,” he said, in a rush. “The gods know, it was not your fault. The people are like silly sheep. Even their leaders are like sheep. It was not your fault.”

I gave him the formal embrace of sincere thanks which he had first tried to teach me when I was a clumsy four-year-old princess. We were both in tears when I left the room.

Soon, though, I stood again in the Field of the Winged Bulls, this time with all the pieces of my old life that I intended to take with me when I left the palace. Around my neck I wore a necklace that Mother had given me when she still loved me, flat red-gold links with a cow carved from lapis lazuli hanging down from the central point, and from my earlobes dangled crescent earrings covered in golden granulations, also her gift. On my hands were three rings set with hunks of carnelian, sapphire and emerald, all from my father, each given to mark an auspicious birthday. My right wrist bore a bangle of bright beads from the Indus Valley, a gift from Dumuzi, and my left ankle held an anklet of heavy gold inscribed with the signs of the greatest gods, the symbols of the Sun, the Moon, Venus, Mercury and Mars.

There were gold and less precious objects—brooches and pins and other small gewgaws that I could exchange for what I needed on the journey—in a soft leather sack concealed under my dress, and another one, flashier, with less gold in it, tied to my belt. In a bag strapped over my shoulder I had a water-skin, plus soft cheese and juicy half-dried figs; they would last maybe two days. The journey could take months, or never end; I would get more food and drink when I needed it, or not at all.

Kalla was at one end of the compound, alone. I walked over to her.

“You must settle yourself behind my wings,” she said, flicking her tail nervously. “I will carry you where the elders say you must go.” Her blue eyes glanced at the herd at the other end of the compound, then looked back down into my face.

I was going to ride on her back?

“Oh,” I said, looking at that glossy expanse of hide, higher and wider than my father’s royal throne, almost as wide as my bed.

But what had I imagined? That we would walk together sedately through the palace gates, with the people waving us on our way, and proceed on foot to the ends of the earth?

Kalla’s tail flicked again. I could feel her anxiety overlaid on my own. This would be her first time away from her herd, and it would be no easier for her than for me. But she was too stressed to understand that I—a princess, but all the same a puny human female—could not vault onto her back, higher than the top of my head. What could I say, that would not cause her shame in front of the herd?

What would the vizier do, that consummate old diplomat, in my position? His daily lessons had almost become second nature: I must let Kalla work out the problem for herself. I put up my right arm, tentatively, and touched her high on her ribs, barely brushing the glossy blue-black hairs. Her head turned and her eyes followed my movement and the extension of my arm. She blinked in what must have been a mixture of dismay and amusement.

“I’ll kneel for you,” she said, and settled gracefully onto the grass.

It was my turn for dismay. How could I sit on so wide an expanse of back? Kalla was three or four times the size of the asses and wild donkeys that men rode. The dress I wore was practical and simple, plain linen, well designed for dusty travel, with no golden fringes, no tinkling ornaments. Nonetheless, it was too tight for me to stretch my legs so far.

There was only one real possibility. I bent down to my right ankle and ripped the linen of my dress up to mid-thigh. I could pin it together when I needed to be respectable again. Then I lifted my bared right leg over Kalla’s shining back—when I touched her hide, it was like silk from the fabled Orient, beyond the sunrise—and sat. My legs were wide stretched, and it would be painful in time, but for the first time in my life I was grateful for the tedious stretches and long poses of the lessons that I’d been forced to take, for the sacred dances day and night before the gods in their solemn festivals.

“You will not fall,” Kalla said, but her voice sounded a little nervous to me. “Don’t be afraid of that. The elders have arranged for an attachment spell to keep you safe. If you want, through, you can put your hands under where the wings connect to my shoulders. They tell me that you can hold firmly there without hurting me.”

I felt thick muscle under my hands, sunwarmed and strong as stone. I grasped as tightly as I dared.

Kalla stood up onto all fours so carefully that I scarcely shifted, though I was seated so precariously there on her flat back. She turned then towards the herd, which had carefully been ignoring us. The winged beasts were better diplomats even than Father’s vizier.

Kalla cried out to them in her own language, in her voice like a well-tempered bell. Her wide golden wings had already started beating.

“Farewell,” I called, more softly, and waved. “Thank you.” By the time I’d finished speaking, we were in the air above the palace, then flying south-east along the River.

 
 

It was as if my gilded silver bed with its duckdown-stuffed mattress had taken wings and started to fly through the sky. I felt as safe sitting on Kalla’s back as I would have on my own bed, and no more likely to fall off. Kalla’s passage through the air was stately, but, even if she hadn’t told me, it would have been clear that a magical force was operating to keep me safely positioned on her shiny-smooth skin. Luckily so: a tumble would have seen me dead, smashed and drowned in the great river which was our kingdom’s life. Mentally, I thanked whichever of Kalla’s herd it was who’d thought to use the spell.

The river Buranun—our land’s lifeblood—was even lovelier from the air than from the earth. I gazed down on its turns and bends, the reedy marshes full of waterbirds, the farmlands irrigated with its water, and the great stone temples of the gods. Sometimes, when we were high or it was close, I even caught sight of our river’s eastern twin, the Idigna. The vizier had taught me the names of the cities there, and their various strengths and weaknesses, in case Father chose one of their foreign kings as my husband. I’d never thought to see it from the air.

No one down below took the least notice of us. “I’m flying high enough that even the sharpest-sighted won’t be able to see anything distinctly,” Kalla said. “They won’t understand how big I am; they’ll think me an eagle, or something of the sort. And they won’t see you at all, Geshtinanna. You’re much too small, you tiny human. It would take two or three of you to make one of our newborn calves.” She laughed deep in her massive chest; after a moment, I laughed too.

We flew for many days, or perhaps months, stopping in the evening only when Kalla sighted a small town, a few isolated farms, where she could stay concealed in the shelter of trees or rocks while I found a farmer’s wife who would be happy to give me food and fill my water-skin for a small piece of gold, even though I was a woman travelling alone. When it grew dark, I slept curled against Kalla’s warm back, comforted by her firm bulk. Her quiet snores made my sleep sweet.

On the first evening it could have been pure luck that I was met with nothing but kindness by a woman busy in her farmhouse. No threats, no violence, no greed at the sight of my gold. But I had learned too much of human nature, both in theory and in practice, to think it normal or natural, after three nights.

“I don’t know,” Kalla said, when I challenged her about the mystery. “It’s not magic, or if it is I’ve never learnt it. The places I stop in just look right, feel right. They call to me.”

“Snakes and dogs know when an earthquake is coming,” I said. “Birds fly north from our marshes, every year, and back again, and winged butterflies build themselves from creeping caterpillars in their cocoons. The wise men call that unknown knowledge instinct. Perhaps you have an instinct for kindness.”

“Perhaps,” she said. “Kindness is good. It is worth seeking.” She looked thoughtful, after that, until she slept.

The next night, as we lay together in the grass under some fig trees, and I apportioned her the larger share of the dates that I’d received from yet another pleasant woman, I asked the question which had worried me since my childhood, when I used to watch the blond slaves tending to the herd’s needs: “How is it that your people are so large, and yet you eat so little?”

“Hmm,” Kalla said, flicking the tips of her wings in amusement. “No one has dared ask us that before. But the answer is simple: we eat merely for pleasure, not out of physical need. We need no food as you humans do, or your animals. Would you like more of the dates?”

“Thank you, but no,” I said. I was blushing with embarrassment. All my childhood, Kalla’s herd had lazed in the compound at the palace, flicking away flies, munching slowly—but they were not mere cattle. Far from it. I said, “I should have known better. I was taught better. You are not mortal, as we are, but guardian djinn, more akin to the gods than to us.”

“Yes, it’s something like that,” Kalla said, laughing the strange, deep laugh of her kind. “We absorb the energy from the sun, as plants do. But it’s too complicated to explain. Push those delicious-smelling fresh dates closer to my mouth, human, and stop worrying about it.” She grinned, then, and used a golden wingtip to brush my head softly.

I tried to treat Kalla more deferentially after that, more as one ought to treat an immortal guardian and less as a friend, but I kept failing. It was like water in the desert, after all my lonely years, to have someone to talk to.

One evening towards the end, as I dismounted, Kalla told me to get all the food I could carry, when I went to the farmhouse nearby.

“Can you see those mountains in the distance?” she asked. “Those little bumps on the horizon? They’re the Mountains of Mashu, the boundary of your human realm, higher and wider than you can imagine. Some say they’re impassable, that they stretch to the heavens. We will come to them tomorrow. There will be streams of pure water, but no farms—no human beings who eat the food that you do.”

After that, we flew not over fertile river plains or even desert but over the rocks and boulders of the mountainside. In the evenings, Kalla refused any of my stores of fruit and cheese.

“I’m not sure how long this will take, trying to skirt around the side of these mountains,” she said. “You need those good-smelling edible things, and I don’t. No, don’t argue, human. I’m older than you. And much bigger.” Her face was serious; only the twitching of her tail told me that she was teasing.

After nine days of mountain flying—cliffs and ravines, springs and cataracts, stands of tall pines and regal cedars—the stocks in my food-pouch were almost gone. I tried not to worry. I had enough for tonight, just barely.

“Look,” Kalla said, around noon. “The glitter, below us. It is the Garden of the Gods, I’m sure it is.” She sounded relieved. Surely my guide and protector had not doubted that she could find it?

I looked down, and gasped.

I had grown up in a palace, surrounded by the riches of men and gods. I used to eat from silver plates, and drink from a golden cup set with gemstones. Mother glittered like the stars in the night sky when she was hung about with gold and jewels for state occasions, and Father’s green alabaster throne set with carnelian and chrysoprase glinted in torchlight.

But this was a garden as big as our city, or larger, with each shrub, each tree, each lush vine scattered with bright jewels in place of fruit and flowers. It was just as Mother had told me, but larger, brighter, more real—and more divine. This was indeed the Garden of the Gods. How had I dared come here?

My awe and wonder at the jeweled garden only increased as we flew closer and I could see more and more gemstones encrusting the plants. And then I saw the sea. It was like our River in flood, but impossibly wide. It stretched to the far horizon and beyond. And then the truth hit me: the Mountains of Mashu, the Garden of the Gods, the wide blue sea—I was where Kalla’s elders had sent me, the fabled ends of the earth. I must find Siduri and ask her advice.

 
 

As it happened, I didn’t need to find Siduri. She came to meet me while I was still scrambling down from Kalla’s back.

“We must talk, girl,” Siduri said to me, then looked at Kalla. “You—guardian being—what is your name?”

My massive mount said, “I am Kalla, Goddess.”

Goddess? Of course, I thought. People called Siduri a wise woman, but how could she live here, brewing ale in a vat given to her by the gods, unless she too was one of them, a goddess in her own right?

Siduri nodded. “Kalla, you may now graze on the fruits of the Garden of the Gods.”

Kalla bowed before Siduri. Her human-seeming face was almost impassive as that of the carved bull statues that guard my father’s palace, but I could see the suppressed joy around those stony blue eyes. Kalla moved sedately towards the glowing jewels, her body a picture of restrained decorum.

“The jewels of the gods are a delicacy for Kalla’s kind,” Siduri told me. “They give them strength and wisdom.”

I just stood there helpless before the goddess, my knees trembling, my mind almost blank. Siduri took me by the hand, led me to a bench in front of her tavern, and gave me a silver cup of ale, also pouring one for herself from a golden jug.

“But now,” she said, “you must drink my ale. I have few mortal visitors, here at the ends of the earth, but my ale is excellent.”

I sipped; it was the best I’d ever tasted, better even than the finest of wines in the palace.

“It is excellent indeed, Goddess,” I said. “Thank you.”

“So tell me, girl,” Siduri said. “Why are you so sad?”

That much was simple. “Demons dragged my brother, beautiful Dumuzi, down to the Underworld.”

“Ah, I heard about that. So you are the sister, valiant Geshtinanna, who tried to protect him.”

Unshed tears made my throat hoarse. “I failed.”

The goddess shook her head. “Whether you had failed or not, your brother would have died soon enough. He could perhaps have had ten more years, twenty, maybe even fifty, but death comes to all mortals. It is best if you accept it. Take joy in everyday pleasures: warm baths, clean clothes, good food and drink, making love with your husband, feeling your child’s hand in your own.”

Wise men and poets had said the same thing since the dawn of time. It didn’t help.

I said, “That is excellent advice, Goddess, I have no doubt. But my city is falling to ruin. My mother has had no rest since her son was taken by the demons, and my father the king will not speak even to his closest advisers. Even the slaves and the sheep lament him. The sun burns the crops, and our fields are cracked, dry mud. To escape the sorrow of my brother’s death, I would need to leave my city and my people, never to see them again, and still I would feel their grief and anger.”

Siduri poured herself another cup of ale. “But, Geshtinanna, to leave her family is the lot of all women, whether peasant, noble or goddess. Every woman of marriageable age must leave her father’s house and her mother’s rooms and live instead in a house of strangers. The more exalted the family, the farther the woman must travel from her home.”

I sipped cool ale from my cup before I replied. “That is all too true, Goddess. Indeed, if any of my suitors had paid my bride-price, he would have taken me far from my parents’ palace. His mother would have become my mother, and his father my father. Perhaps, indeed, I would never have seen my own parents again, nor the place where I was born.” Still, it did not help.

The goddess gestured around her. “So why are you here?”

The words came unbidden to my lips. “I must find Dumuzi.”

I hadn’t known, until that instant, what I was going to say. But it was true: the purpose of my quest was to find my brother—in the Underworld. Everything in my life pushed me towards that destiny.

The goddess sighed. “I was afraid of that. Your mortal race finds it so hard to accept death, though it is your lot.”

Death is not the lot of the immortal gods, I thought. Why must it be our lot? Why must we accept it? But I did not speak.

Siduri drained her cup. I looked down and found that mine, too, was empty. The goddess said, “If that is what you want, you must go to the Dark Queen, Ereshkigal.”

Ereshkigal, the Queen of the Underworld, the Queen of the Dead. Ishtar’s sister.

For a moment, the world went hazy-white around me. If I had not been sitting on the bench, I might have fallen. But I remembered the vizier, and how he had trained me. I took a slow, deep breath, and lifted my head high.

“How do I find Ereshkigal?” I asked.

“Ah, that’s an interesting question,” the goddess said. “For mortals, there are many paths to the quiet realm of the Dark Queen. I could slip a simple poison into your cup, or touch you with a single drop of the Waters of Death out there—” the goddess pointed to the sea, moving blue-green against the shoreline in front of us “—or merely wish you dead.”

Gods! I took another deep breath.

Siduri touched my hand, gently and kindly, and said, “But you are fortunate, Geshtinanna. Kalla will take you to the Underworld.”

My heart shuddered at the thought of exposing Kalla to that danger. “Can I ask that of her?”

“Perhaps you could not,” the goddess replied, “though she is no mortal creature. But I will ask her, and she will not refuse me.”

 
 

Soon I sat again on Kalla’s broad back, my heart hammering, my fear-cold hands gripping the muscles below her wings. Siduri’s kiss of farewell burned on my cheek.

This time I took no fruit, no water-skin. There was neither eating nor drinking in the Underworld.

Kalla said, “It would be best if you closed your eyes, Geshtinanna. Your kind is not designed for a journey such as this.”

I squeezed my eyelids shut and felt a sudden sensation of dropping through the void. My bowels were cold. There was darkness and confusion all around me: first whirling heat and pressure on my head and body, then a windy emptiness and a searing cold. I heard cries of terror, whimpers and moans. It could have lasted a moment or a year.

Then all was still and quiet, and I opened my eyes. I was in a great cavern, naked as a newborn baby, and stripped of my seven pieces of jewelry, gifts from my family and reminders of my past. Kalla stood beside me, shining blue-black in the light of the torches on the rough-cut walls.

In front of us stood the Queen of the Dead, Ereshkigal, incomparably lovely in her nakedness. A horned crown sat on her glistening hair. Strong dark wings hung behind her, from shoulders to knees. Her hands were almost like human hands, though her nails were talons, but her feet were the strong claws of a bird of prey. Those terrifying feet gripped the backs of twin lions, and two great owls, each as tall as a ten-year-old child, flanked her. She was as beautiful and as terrible as an army arrayed for battle.

“What do you want, mortal woman?” Ereshkigal asked. Her voice was that of a lion calling in the night, or of a huge owl hunting before moonrise. My breathing quickened at the sound, despite my fear.

I could not lie to her. “I have come to seek Dumuzi,” I said.

The goddess bared her teeth, and the hairs bristled at the nape of my neck. She said, snarling, “Are you sent by my treacherous sister Ishtar? Are you one of her devotees?”

I trembled. “No, Goddess. I have no love for mighty Ishtar. I am Dumuzi’s sister, Geshtinanna. My brother was Ishtar’s husband, then her ransom to leave this place. The demons sent to free your mighty sister snatched my brother Dumuzi and brought him here, to your dark realm, in her stead.”

The goddess settled her glorious wings against her back. “Surely my sister sent you. All men and women who walk on the earth serve the Goddess of Love and Battle.”

I shook my head. “I do not do the will of Ishtar, no matter how great she is, and how much adored. If it were not for Ishtar and her love for my brother, he would still walk on the earth, living and breathing. Why would I do her bidding?”

“Then why are you here?” The goddess glowed with unearthly beauty. Her breasts were like ripe pomegranates, her eyes the color of the night sky. I felt myself falling, helpless, into that deep, starry sky.

I took a breath. “Truly, Goddess, I am here for my own sake, and my mother’s, and my father’s, and my city’s. My parents are mad with grief. Our city falls to ruin. The sun burns the crops, and the fields are dry. Even the slaves and the sheep lament him.”

The goddess Ereshkigal asked, “Do you desire to come here, as his ransom, to take his place? Do you wish to live here in my kingdom?”

I gasped and knew that this was what I had sought without understanding: to live forever in Ereshkigal’s dark realm, in her fearful presence.

I bowed my head, ashamed. “My brother Dumuzi’s beauty made him a god, or equal to one. He was beloved of a goddess. He was enough to ransom Ishtar, great goddess of the earth and sky, from your power. I am a mortal woman. Am I enough to free my brother, and take his place?”

Ereshkigal frowned. On her face, even a frown was glorious. “Perhaps not, my mortal Geshtinanna,” she said. “But I will beseech the gods on high that they might allow the exchange, if that is truly what you wish.”

She gazed into my eyes, into my soul. I fell into her darkness, and stars swirled around me.

“Yes,” I said. “Yes. It is truly what I wish.”

The goddess put out a sharp-taloned hand to my right breast—was she going to kill me now, slash me with those glittering claws? I held my breath, waiting for pain and death.

Instead, Ereshkigal pinched my nipple, tenderly. Fire ran through me, but it was the fire of pleasure, not of pain. Again, I gasped, and blushed.

The goddess smiled in delight. “You tell the truth, mortal. Truly, you do wish to dwell here with me.”

“Yes,” I said. I watched her hands, her eyes. I needed her to touch me again.

“You and I have something in common,” the dark goddess said. “We are both sisters of siblings beloved by all.”

“Yes,” I said. Touch me.

“Beautiful Dumuzi, lovely Ishtar.” She stroked my ear, my throat, with those clawed fingers. I shivered, but I was not cold.

“Yes.” Please, touch me.

The goddess kissed my hair, my cheek, my lips. “To me, you are more beautiful than Dumuzi.”

“To me,” I said, catching my breath, “you are lovelier than Ishtar.”

 
 

The gods on high decreed that I, a mortal woman, would not suffice to ransom Dumuzi entirely, but that I could take his place in the Underworld for half of every year; for that time, my brother would walk the earth.

It was enough. Our city rejoiced, the sheep jumped in the fields, the irrigated soil abounded with crops, and Mother and Father were filled to overflowing with happiness. I was pleased for their sake, but I could no longer live there, with them, after all that had happened.

For half of each cycle of the sun, now, I dwell in Ereshkigal’s dark realm, sharing her fierce pleasures. No woman knows greater bliss. But when Dumuzi returns underground and the sun is hot in the sky, I am compelled to return to the world of the living. I travel the earth, then, with Kalla, best of companions. If you look carefully enough at the hawks and eagles that fly high in the sky, one day you might be startled to see her golden wings flashing in the sun. Look for me riding on her back.

END


 

“The Quiet Realm of the Dark Queen” was originally published in Dreaming of Djinn, edited by Liz Grzyb and is copyright Jenny. Blackford, 2013.

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