O Silent Listeners! Let me tell you of the destruction of mankind and of lost, glorious Eridu; its strong walls of brick, its wide avenues, and its splendid gardens filled with fragrant pomegranate trees, blossoming jasmine, and singing birds. I, Tagtug, am a man of but modest abilities and ill-favored by the gods. Yet I am the last of the Apkallu, and it is my sacred duty to proclaim these events, for the Chief Singer of Lamentations can no longer do so. His body, which I have prayed over and shrouded in the fish-skin cloak of our kind, washed onto the platform of this high ziggurat four days ago and has lain near me ever since. It is poor company.

Once, I was the caretaker of the artificial ponds of Eridu. I fed the carp, removed debris from the water, and battled influxes of string algae, which always threatened to choke the life from the ponds. In return, I was allotted four loaves of bread each day. My wife, Sharaku, worked as a weaver in the palace, and she was allotted two loaves of bread each day. My house was made from reeds instead of brick, and I had only one goat, four chickens, a daughter, a son-in-law, and a grandchild, although these last three no longer shared my home. But I had barley to trade and brew beer with, which Sharaku flavored with dates and, on festive occasions, honey. And on some evenings a breeze would come down from the mountains of Akkad and cool our skin like a lover’s caress. Our lives were also sweetened by festivals—those days and nights when Eridu was garlanded with flowers and we danced to the ringing of bells and the clashing of cymbals. It was not an easy life, nor lucrative, but we took our pleasures where we found them.

My neighbor Ziusudra, in contrast, was a rich man and well-favored by the gods. His house was made of brick and covered in white plaster that gleamed in the sun. He had two wives—for the first was barren—five strong sons, and grandchildren too numerous to count. His flock was the largest in all of Eridu, for his ewes bore twins and his she-goats bore triplets. Ziusudra himself was broad-shouldered and hairy, with a beard that fell in oiled and gleaming curls down his chest. He anointed his head with spikenard and amber, and his skirt was woven from the finest wool. All considered him to be the most righteous of men.

In the month of Sesdagu, the carp in my ponds began to sicken and die. They became infested with lice, which—as you know, O Silent Listeners—cause wounds in their flesh that grow putrid and spread disease to the other fish.

On the day I discovered the carp’s affliction, two priests descended from the House of the Aquifer on its high ziggurat to inspect the ponds. They came in a great procession, preceded by twelve bare-chested attendants who swept the street before them and burnt incense to cloak the disagreeable odors of the city. I recognized these priests at once as Apkallu, servants of Mighty Enki, for they wore the heads of giant carp as hoods, and around their shoulders they wore fish-skin cloaks that dragged behind them on the ground. Truly, Silent Listeners, they resembled fish-demons of Abzu. The first was tall and severe while the second was short and round, with a benign, almost vacuous expression. I never learned their names, but in my mind, I called the taller priest Lamentation, for he was the Chief Singer of Lamentations, with the sacred duty to proclaim events of great import and consign them to posterity, and his every utterance seemed a lament. The shorter priest I called Butter Tub, for he reminded me of the little clay pot my wife, Sharaku, stored butter in.

I hoped the Apkallu would not address me, but my hope was in vain, for after they inspected the ponds, two of their attendants seized me and brought me before them. The taller of the two priests—Lamentation—delivered a kick to my ribs and admonished me, crying:

“Miserable Tagtug, keeper of the artificial ponds of Eridu, why have you allowed evil to afflict these ponds, which are the property of the temple and sacred to Mighty Enki, Lord of Watery Abzu and Progenitor of Mankind?”

“Most merciful Apkallu,” I said, trembling in fear. “I do not know what evil has afflicted these ponds, but spare my life and I will cleanse them.”

“Miserable Tagtug,” Lamentation cried again. “You shall have forty days and forty nights to cleanse the ponds. But if you fail, you will be condemned to die in the most shameful and wretched manner, trapped inside two wooden boats lain one on top of the other like a clam, with your face and limbs left exposed to bake in the sun.”

His words filled my heart with terror, for this manner of death was considered by all to be the most shameful and wretched, although none had ever seen it carried out.

As soon as the Apkallu and their retinue were gone, I set myself to finding a solution. I decided to seek help from the magician whom Sharaku consulted when our grandchild was born covered in hair. This magician had advised us to cast out the child and its parents and afterwards to purify our house. We had done as he instructed, and as we suffered no further misfortune, Sharaku and I were satisfied with the service this magician provided, although very sad, of course, to have cast out our family. The magician lived near the southern gate of the city, and this was where I now went.

O Silent Listeners, the city of Eridu was the most glorious city in all creation; all marveled at its strong walls of brick, its wide avenues, and its splendid gardens filled with fragrant pomegranate trees, blossoming jasmine, and singing birds. All trembled before its high ziggurat, which towered over the city like a mountain. But as even the most beautiful bride does not exist without blemish, so too did glorious Eridu contain within its walls certain unsavory neighborhoods, where the homes were hovels and dogs defecated in the street. The magician I sought lived in a neighborhood such as this.

The magician was an old man, and bald, with eyes heavily lined in kohl and drawn-on eyebrows that met over his nose like the wings of a raven. His bare torso was covered in hundreds of amulets pinned through his flesh, and when he moved, they jangled and flashed in the sunlight like the scales of a fish. I did not like to look on him. He listened intently as I told him about the evil afflicting the ponds and asked many questions, including whether any of the fish had spoken in the voice of a woman and whether any new and unpleasant smells emanated from the ponds. When I finished answering, the magician rubbed his bald head for a moment in contemplation. Then he told me that the ponds had been possessed by demons. He instructed me to draw a circle of flour around each pond and recite the words sag ba sag ba thirteen times as I marched around the circles. If I did this, he said, the demons would be driven from the ponds and the health of the fish would be restored.

In return for this advice, I paid the magician three shekels of barley, an exchange that cost me dearly.

I returned to the ponds, my heart filled with great urgency. I thought that if I could cleanse them in one day, all would know me to be a man as righteous as my neighbor Ziusudra, and my fortunes would greatly increase.

Following the magician’s instructions, I drew a circle of flour around the first pond and recited the words sag ba sag ba thirteen times as I marched around it. But as I did this, people and animals trod on the circle and broke it, scattering the flour in the dust. I repaired the circle and spoke the incantation again, then hurried to the next pond. Soon my labors attracted a crowd. People began driving their sheep and children over the circles on purpose, and it was a source of great amusement to these jackals and snakes when the sheep baaaed as if they too uttered the incantations. After many hours running back and forth between the ponds, repairing the circles, driving off sheep, and uttering the incantations, I gave up in despair. Many dead and disfigured fish floated on the water, and I observed that the lice were more numerous than before.

I returned to the magician’s hovel and demanded the return of my barley and, moreover, that he find another way of cleansing the ponds. I seized him by the neck as I spoke, emphasizing my great seriousness by plucking several of the amulets from his flesh. The magician howled and told me he now understood that a witch had cast a spell on the ponds. He made a votive figure of the witch out of wax, covered it in black bitumen, anointed it with blood from his body, and burnt it, this time singing the incantations himself.

I went to bed well satisfied at the return of my barley and happy that the ponds would be cleansed. But when I returned to them in the morning, many dead and disfigured fish floated on the water, and I observed that the lice were more numerous than before. I sent a boy to find the accursed magician, but the boy returned and told me the magician had been seen leaving the city by the southern gate.

O Silent Listeners! My heart filled with terror because I thought I would not be able to cleanse the ponds. In desperation, I decided to seek advice from my neighbor Ziusudra, for he was a rich man and well-favored by the gods. He and his five strong sons slept under linen sheets, and he was rumored to have a secret chamber under his house filled with gold and silver. All considered him to be the most righteous of men.

Because I had neither amber nor spikenard, I anointed my head and my beard with cooking oil, and I dressed in the skirt I saved for festive occasions. I went to my neighbor Ziusudra’s house and called out for him, saying:

“Most righteous Ziusudra, your neighbor Tagtug seeks your counsel!”

Ziusudra came to his doorway, and I was struck with awe, as I so often was, by the broadness of his shoulders and the hairiness of his chest. I humbled myself before him by casting my gaze upon the ground and waiting for him to speak.

“Tell me what you want, miserable Tagtug,” he said, not bothering to invite me into the cool of his house as was customary.

“You know that I am the caretaker of the artificial ponds belonging to the temple,” I said, “and that these ponds have been afflicted with an evil, which causes the carp to sicken and die. I must cleanse the ponds or else be put to death between two boats, as you have doubtlessly heard. I sought help from a magician, but his magic did not work, and now I do not know what to do, for if I do not understand the source of the affliction, I cannot cleanse the ponds. Righteous Ziusudra, because you are so favored by the gods, I think you must know what evil afflicts the ponds. Please tell me what I must do to cleanse them.”

For a moment Ziusudra said nothing, and he appeared to be in great contemplation of the matter. Then he said:

“Miserable Tagtug, it is you yourself who spread impurity to the ponds, for you allowed your son-in-law to lie with your daughter on the third night of Dimmar, when intercourse is forbidden.”

O Silent Listeners! These words did not please me, for I did not consider myself to bear responsibility for that impure act. I had drank too much beer on the evening in question and would not even have known about it had the child that resulted not been covered with hair. However, by now my heart was filled with great urgency, so I said:

“Tell me what I must do to remove this impurity.”

“You must make a burnt offering of your goat to Mighty Enki,” said Ziusudra, “and scatter its ashes in the ponds.”

O Silent Listeners, these words pleased me even less, for I had given Ziusudra five shekels of barley for the goat only a fortnight earlier, an exchange that cost me dearly, and I did not wish to slaughter it. So I ignored Ziusudra’s counsel and returned to the squalid part of the city, hoping to find another magician to help me. But many of the magicians of Eridu had by that time been driven from the city for failing to cure the governor’s palace of a demonic possession that made the furnishings shriek and ooze black blood, and so I found no succor there.

I exited the city gate and searched frantically among the encampments of merchants and travelers for any with the shaved head and pompous mien of a magician. Alas, I found none. In despair, I wandered into the marshlands, intending to join the thieves and murderers who inhabited that foul and reeking place. There I saw a strange reed in the canebrake that was as black and as shiny as obsidian. I recognized it at once as a sign and my heart rejoiced, for the reed had given me an idea of how I might cleanse the ponds and thereby save my life. I cut down the reed with the little knife my father gave me when his fingers grew too old and tremulous to use it, and I returned with it to the ponds.

Many people had gathered there because they had heard of the evil afflicting the ponds and the terrible fate awaiting me if I failed to cleanse them. Public executions were a source of great entertainment for the people of Eridu, and no one had ever seen this death by boats, although all had heard of it. Ignoring these onlookers, I removed my woolen skirt and waded into the largest pond. The water was murky and foul with decomposing fish, and many lice swam freely, seeking fresh meat to consume. Soon a great number of lice found my flesh and bit me, sending stinging fire through my veins. Those fish that yet lived thrashed and rubbed against the rocks lining the edge of the pond. I took one up in my arms and held its writhing silver body against me. It was difficult to hold, for it flexed and struggled in my arms like a naughty child. Looking closely, I saw five lice attached to it. They were tiny, evil-looking creatures; flat, oval, and almost translucent, like grains of sesame. I could not remove them, for my fingers were too large and clumsy. But even grains of sesame can be plucked from the pod with the right instrument, and this, O Silent Listeners, was what I fashioned from the black reed. It was very strong and flexible, the reed; about the length of my outstretched arm. Using the little knife my father gave me, I cut off a section and whittled it into a small pinching tool.

I returned to the water and took up another carp in my arms. This one had seven lice attached to it, with many wounds on its body. I plucked off a louse with the pinching tool and crushed its body between the two sides. When I dropped the louse into the water, it no longer swam. O Silent Listeners! You may feel horror at its death, but at that moment my heart rejoiced, for now I knew it was possible to cleanse the ponds and thereby save my life, although at the cost of great labor. Perhaps, I thought, I might even win the gratitude of the Apkallu, thereby increasing the esteem in which Ziusudra and other men would hold me.

I did not yet understand that I was but a mayfly on the water, gazing at the sun one moment and gone the next.

I spent many days in the ponds, dispersing the dead fish and de-lousing the living ones. I worked ceaselessly, not stopping to receive my allotment of bread. Sharaku came in the evenings, wading into the pond to feed me from her allotment with her own fingers so I would not have to put down the fish in my arms. At night, when I closed my eyes, I saw darting lice and squirming fish. My skin became white and bloated like the underside of a toad, and I received many stinging bites. But I endured these torments willingly because I knew that if I did not, my suffering would be greater.

News of my activities spread. The families of important city officials began picnicking by the ponds, drinking beer and eating lamb stew as loin-clothed attendants fanned them, while humbler men would stop and observe for a few moments on their way to the brick kilns or coming home from the fields. Much of the curiosity centered around a second instrument I fashioned from the black reed, consisting of a small section joined at an angle to a longer section, bonded and sealed with tar, plant resin, and animal blood. This instrument allowed me to draw air while keeping my head underwater, something I often had to do, especially while ministering to the largest fish, which were too big to hold in my arms above water. I strung the breathing tube and the pinching tool to a long cord around my neck, and I would not allow anyone to try them, although many asked. Indeed, I did not have the luxury of paying attention to these onlookers, who came in greater numbers every day and placed wagers on my success. My mind held within it only one purpose: to cleanse the ponds and save my life. In this manner I cleansed first one pond, then another, and then another. Finally, after forty days and forty nights, I had removed all the dead fish and destroyed all the lice, and the artificial ponds of Eridu were cleansed of the evil that had afflicted them. That was the day the Apkallu returned.

Sharaku, who had come to the ponds to share her bread with me, screamed when she saw them approach, for she had not seen the Apkallu the first time they had come and was not accustomed to their strange raiment, which made them resemble fish-demons of Abzu. I threw myself on the ground before them and begged for mercy. Had I not done as they commanded and cleansed the ponds of the evil afflicting them? But Lamentation pulled me up by my arm and cried:

“Arise, for now you must follow us to the high ziggurat in the center of this city and climb its many steps to the House of the Aquifer, sacred temple of Mighty Enki, who raised the city of Eridu from the abyss and made it float like a mountain!”

O Silent Listeners, even you who are so humble are familiar with the House of the Aquifer, which stood, until recently, on this high ziggurat on which I now lie. Only priests and powerful men were permitted to enter, but occasionally sacrifices were made there, and so I was afraid I was to be one of these.

“O why,” I inquired most subserviently, “must I follow you to the high ziggurat in the center of this city and climb its many steps to the House of the Aquifer, sacred temple of Mighty Enki, who raised the city of Eridu from the abyss and made it float like a mountain? I am a man of but modest abilities, and ill-favored by the gods.”

“Silence!” Lamentation cried. “Your fate will be revealed at a time of the gods’ choosing.”

“Will you not take this woman instead?” I said, pushing my wife before me. But the Apkallu would not take her, and so I had no choice but to comply.

They led me along Eridu’s wide avenues, past the stately homes and palm gardens of important officials, to the centre of the city where the sacred temple stood on its high ziggurat. People had gathered to watch the procession, and I spied my neighbor Ziusudra and his sons among the crowd. Sharaku followed behind me, wailing and clutching the hem of my skirt. But Lamentation turned and struck her across the face, and after that she followed us no further.

At the base of the high ziggurat, I threw myself on the ground once again, and once again I begged for mercy. But Lamentation pulled me up by my arm and cried:

“Arise, for now you must climb the many steps of this high ziggurat and stand before the House of the Aquifer, sacred temple of Mighty Enki, who opened the blessed furrow and bestowed barley on men.”

“O why,” I inquired most subserviently, “must I climb the many steps of this high ziggurat and stand before the House of the Aquifer, sacred temple of Mighty Enki, who opened the blessed furrow and bestowed barley—”

“Silence!” Lamentation cried. “Your fate will be revealed at a time of the gods’ choosing.” And so I had no choice but to comply.

O Silent Listeners, the ziggurat was as high as a mountain, and its steps had been worn to a greasy sheen by many thousands of feet. The higher I climbed, the more I feared I would lose my footing and crash to the bottom, where my shattered body would lie like a smashed pot. Yet, although my legs trembled and my heart was filled with terror, I did not fall. I ascended all seven platforms until, at last, the House of the Aquifer was before me.

I expected to be dragged inside the temple immediately and therein sacrificed like an ox. But Butter Tub was very winded from the climb, and we were compelled to wait for him under a solitary date palm while attendants fanned him. During this interval I gazed down at the city below. The rooftops of Eridu were spread out like the sea; some of gleaming plaster but most fashioned from woven reeds like my own. I could see into the lush and verdant gardens of important officials, normally hidden behind high walls. I could see the artificial ponds, sparkling like jewels in the sunshine. I could even see my house, and beside it the house of my neighbor Ziusudra, which was far larger than mine and covered in gleaming plaster. Surrounding it all were Eridu’s strong walls of brick. For a moment I forgot my unhappiness and rejoiced to see the most glorious city in all creation laid out before me. But soon enough, Butter Tub recovered, and Lamentation raised his arms and cried: “Now you must follow us into the House of the Aquifer, sacred temple of Mighty Enki, Grandiloquent Lord of Heaven and Earth.”

“O why,” I inquired most subserviently, “is my pitiable presence required inside the House of the Aquifer, sacred temple of Mighty Enki, Grandiloquent Lord of Heaven and Earth? I am a man of but—”

“Silence!” Lamentation cried. “Your fate will be revealed at a time of the gods’ choosing.” And so I had no choice but to comply.

The temple’s roof was supported by great beams and pillars of cedar clad in sheets of gleaming copper. Its walls were adorned with murals of gold, silver, and lapis lazuli, depicting scenes of heroic exploits that seemed to move in the flickering torchlight. Because it was a place of offering, the temple overflowed with food—stacks of cakes, bowls of honey, mounds of dates, pitchers of milk, and loaves of bread piled like the heads of enemies. Oxen and sheep milled about the vestibule, lowing and bleating, while peacocks hopped and strutted over every surface. The smell, a mixture of frankincense, rancid fat, ripe fruit, and animal ordure would have caused me to empty my stomach were it not already empty.

The Apkallu led me past the offering tables and into the sanctuary. As we approached the holiest of holies, the floor grew crowded with statuary: half-sized men and women with hands clasped before them in supplication and immense, vacant eyes staring out in rapturous devotion.

Finally, we arrived at the very heart of the temple, Mighty Enki’s altar. It was constructed from oven-baked bricks, glazed so vividly blue that I felt as if I were gazing into heaven itself. I looked to the niche behind the altar, expecting to see the statue of the god, which—as all know—houses the god’s essence and protects the city from harm. But the niche was empty.

O Silent Listeners! The absence of the god filled my heart with terror, for—as all know—when a city’s god abandons it, that city is doomed. I summoned my courage and inquired most, most subserviently, “O Worshipful Apkallu, why is my piteous presence required in the House of the Aquifer, which has been abandoned by its god?”

“Silence!” Lamentation cried. “Mighty Enki, Lord of the Sweet Waters, yet presides over this temple and protects the city. Now you must follow us behind this altar, for the time has come for the gods to reveal your fate.”

And so I had no choice but to comply.

I expected to see a secret niche behind the altar where Mighty Enki’s statue had been concealed. I envisioned him as a broad-shouldered man with a kingly bearing and a beard falling in sculpted curls over his powerful chest, much like my neighbor Ziusudra. But there was no secret niche, only a dark and narrow stairway descending into the very bowels of the ziggurat. My heart filled with terror, for I did not wish to go into that place. But Lamentation pushed me before him, and so I had no choice but to comply.

The stairs were steep and slick with moisture, and the air grew disagreeably warmer the further down we went. O Silent Listeners! I was certain we were travelling to Abzu itself. At last, however, we reached the bottom, and although my eyes had not yet adjusted to the gloom, I perceived through my other senses that we stood on the edge of an enclosure of water. Condensation plinked and echoed through the chamber, and the air smelled of leeches, crushed clams, and snails.

“O why,” I asked most subserviently, “is my pitiable presence required in this watery chamber, which resembles Abzu itself? I am a man of—”

“Silence!” Lamentation cried, pushing me to the ground. Then he addressed the dank echoing chamber. “O Mighty Enki,” he intoned. “Primordial Teacher and Begetter of All Mankind, we have delivered you a devoted servant to attend to your every need.”

These words filled my heart with such terror that I clung to Lamentation’s fish-skin cloak and awaited some doom to consume me from out of the darkness. But nothing happened; the surface of the water remained still, and the only noise was the plinking of the droplets and a repetitive grinding I realized was the sound of Butter Tub chewing.

Lamentation repeated the prayer, crying: “O Mighty Enki, Divine Craftsman and Master of the Deep, here is a devoted servant, to attend to your every need!”

Now there came a new noise, the terrible sucking of something rising from the watery bowels of the deep, and the surface of the pool swirled into a churning vortex. Lamentation kicked me free of his cloak and hastened up the stairs. Butter Tub, unhurried, deposited a small pile of dates on the ground beside me and also departed.

“Most merciful Apkallu,” I called after them, trembling in fear. “Spare my life! I am a—” But before I could finish, something breached the surface of the water in a roiling mass of muscle and slick grey skin, upon which lurid pink wounds blossomed like poppies. At first my mind could not make peace with my eyes, and I did not understand what I saw. But then I realized that I looked upon Mighty Enki himself, and that he was a sturgeon of colossal size. And—O Silent Listeners!—he was infested with lice!

I am certain you have seen a sturgeon, O Silent Listeners, although perhaps you have not seen one from any distance. They are strange, fearsome fish—smooth-skinned and scale-less, with bony plates protruding from their spines and sides like armor. Because they are bottom-feeders, their mouths resemble a carp’s—sucker-like, with fleshy barbels hanging beneath the lip to stir up creatures in the sediment. Many sturgeons grow to prodigious sizes, but Mighty Enki was colossal, almost filling the entire pool, which, as I perceived from the echoing of the dripping water and the reflection of the flickering torches lining the chamber, was roughly the size of the smallest of my ponds.

The moment I gazed upon Mighty Enki’s flesh and saw the wounds that blossomed there like poppies, I understood why the Apkallu had brought me to the House of the Aquifer. Yet it took me untold hours to work up the courage to attend to Mighty Enki. During this time, he roiled and thrashed, as if impatient for my ministrations, and Lamentation cried abuse at me from the top of the stairs, extolling me to enter the water or die in the most shameful and wretched manner, by being trapped inside two wooden boats with my face and limbs left exposed while forced to consume great quantities of milk and honey until my body bloated and excreted filth inside the boat. I was no longer certain I believed the Apkallu would execute me in this manner, however, for I had not seen any boats inside the temple, so I cried back that I preferred such a fate and that those torments could, moreover, be visited upon on my wife if only I were permitted to leave the watery chamber. But Lamentation would not relent, and even though I now suspected his threat was empty, I had no choice but to comply.

I stepped into the water and went forward with great care. I suspected the ledge must be narrow or else the pool would not be deep enough for Mighty Enki, and I was correct in my reasoning; it lasted only a forearm’s length before falling off steeply. I thus determined that the only way to proceed was to climb onto Mighty Enki’s back. But who climbs atop the back of a god as if he were an ass? Certainly, I thought, I must at least obtain his permission. So I addressed him most subserviently, attempting to pay him proper respect as Lamentation had done, although, in truth, it was difficult to remember his many titles.

“O Mighty Enki,” I cried, “Lord of Wisdom and... Goats, may I mount you?”

In response, Mighty Enki shimmied impatiently.

I removed my skirt and set it up on the side of the pool, patted my chest to ensure I yet had my tools on their cord around my neck, and slung myself onto the god’s back, in the process almost unmanning myself on one of his bony protrusions.

I labored for untold hours without pause. Because it was dark in the pool, and lice are almost invisible even in daylight, I worked by feel, running my hands over Mighty Enki’s cold skin, creeping along his colossal body as if I myself were a giant louse. I used the breathing tube to sip air when I worked on the parts of Mighty Enki’s body that were under the surface. I received many stinging bites, but my skin had toughened from my time cleansing the ponds and I was accustomed to this torment.

In this way, I labored for untold days, plucking lice from Mighty Enki’s cold, scale-less body, from between his sharp and terrible gills, from the edges of his flat, all-seeing eyes, and from the creases of his lipless mouth. During this time, I did not see sunlight, nor talk to another living being. But I endured it all because I thought that if I could cleanse Mighty Enki of the evil afflicting him, I would receive the blessing of the Apkallu and all would know me to be a man as righteous as Ziusudra. I even fantasized that I might be ordained into the Apkallu’s sacred order and that my days would be spent eating dates and praying instead of laboring in the ponds and doing the bidding of others.

I listened carefully to Lamentation’s prayers echoing down the stairs and memorized Mighty Enki’s many titles so that I would be ready when the time came. Each night I ascended the stairs, my skin as white and bloated as the underside of a toad, and made a bed for myself along the warm flank of an ox or within a clot of sheep. When I closed my eyes, I saw darting lice, and my dreams were filled with Mighty Enki and the dark, sweet water of Abzu.

On the fortieth day of my labor, as I was removing the final lice from the four long barbels that trailed from the god’s mouth like worms, Mighty Enki, Guardian of the Tablets of Destiny, spoke to me, saying:

“Prepare yourself for the destruction of mankind!”

O Silent Listeners! My heart filled with terror, for when Mighty Enki, spoke, I released the reed from my mouth and sucked in a great quantity of water and lice. I would have drowned had I not chanced upon the bank amid my thrashings. It took many moments for me to recover. I determined my mind was playing tricks on me, for I had neither eaten nor drunk for untold hours, nor seen sunlight, nor talked to another living being. I went back into the pool and resumed my work, removing the final lice from the great god’s barbels. Again, Mighty Enki spoke, saying:

“Prepare yourself for the destruction of mankind!”

Now I was certain I had not imagined it, and Mighty Enki’s message filled my heart with terror. But I summoned my courage and replied, speaking through the reed so my words sounded muffled and strange.

“O Mighty Enki,” I cried, “He Who Ascends the Mountain of Sunrise, what do you mean?”

Bubbles streamed once again from Mighty Enki’s mouth, and he said, “The gods will send down death from the skies in a great and terrible Deluge.”

“But Mighty Enki,” I cried, “Lord of the Chalice and the Blade, why?”

“Because mankind clamors like a wild bull and disturbs the gods’ sleep.”

“But Mighty Enki,” I cried, “Bestower of Knowledge and Giver of Life, shall all men die, along with the animals of the land—the oxen and sheep and the fearsome predators of the forest, and the creatures that crawl in the dust and burrow in the muck; the worms, toads, serpents, and beetles—and the great cedar forest, and the flowers that blossom when the waters come down from the mountains of Akkad?”

“All shall die,” burbled Mighty Enki, “mankind, along with the animals of the land—the oxen and sheep and the fearsome predators of the forest, and the creatures that crawl in the dust and burrow in the muck; the worms, toads, serpents, and beetles—and the great cedar forest, and the flowers that blossom when the waters come down from the mountains of Akkad. All except for the one anointed to survive.”

“But Mighty Enki,” I cried, “He Who Commanded Utu to Bring Forth Water from the Earth to Feed the Streams and Lakes and Oceans, who is this man?”

But Mighty Enki spoke no more. He clamped his fish mouth closed, and even though his eyes had no lids, his great sturgeon face assumed a restful expression, and I believe he fell asleep.

I waited three days for Mighty Enki to stir. During this time, I did not tell the Apkallu I had completed my labor, for I did not wish them to send me away until he spoke to me again. Each morning before dawn I descended into the god’s chamber and tried to wake him. I prodded his armored sides, tickled his gills, and spoke to him through my reed, placing its end against the side of his head where I imagined his ears might be. But Mighty Enki did not stir.

Finally, I could wait no longer. My skin was as white and bloated as the underside of a toad, and I dreamed of seeing sunlight and talking to another living being. And, Silent Listeners, even though Mighty Enki had not revealed the name of the man anointed to survive the Deluge, I thought I knew his identity, and my heart filled with great urgency to share my tidings. I thought that if I could yoke my fortune to this man’s, I could thereby seek survival.

I did not yet understand that I was but a mayfly on the water, gazing at the sun one moment and gone the next.

That night, I ascended the stairs as usual, returning to the temple from Mighty Enki’s watery chamber. But I did not make my bed along the warm flank of an ox or within a clot of sheep. I waited until Lamentation, Butter Tub, and the other attendants slept, then I crept from the temple, descended the stairs of the high ziggurat, and entered the city. I went to the house of my neighbor Ziusudra, for I had determined that he must be the one anointed by the gods to survive the Deluge.

I knew there was a crack in the wall of Ziusudra’s house at a secret place because I had put it there myself when Ziusudra traded me a chicken that would not lay. Such cracks allow the rain to seep behind the plaster and penetrate the bricks of a home and if left unrepaired do great damage. I crept to that part of the wall and slipped my breathing tube through the crack, determined to speak to Ziusudra in a manner that would conceal my identity—for he had only grudgingly attended my words in the past—and in a manner that would trick him into thinking he was addressed by a messenger of the gods. I knew from stories that such messengers often spoke in strange and indirect ways, and I resolved to do so myself by addressing the wall instead of Ziusudra.

“Wall, O listen brick wall!” I cried. “Tell this man of Eridu, most righteous Ziusudra, that he must heed these tidings. The gods will send down a terrible Deluge! Ziusudra must build a boat and seek survival! He must put on board his kin, his livestock, and stores enough to sustain them over a long voyage: baskets of barley, vats of beer, and containers filled with olives, dates, and figs. And he must also put on board his neighbor Tagtug, Tagtug’s kin and property, and stores enough to sustain them too.”

“O master,” Ziusudra replied. “I shall do as you command and build a boat and seek survival. But how should I construct this boat?”

In truth, I had not given any thought to this, and so I named the kind of boat the fishermen of the marshes used.

“Let it be a makurkurru-boat, interwoven entirely of reeds. Roof it over with a strong covering and seal its openings with pitch.”

“O master,” Ziusudra replied, “I shall do as you command and make this kind of boat, and roof it over with a strong covering and seal its openings with pitch. But where shall I gather the reeds?”

In truth, I had not given any thought to this either, and annoyance crept into my heart, for I felt that Ziusudra, being so well-favored by the gods, should be able to solve this matter for himself.

“Let him find the nearest source of reeds,” I cried, “and let his five strong sons gather them and tie them into bundles, and in this manner Ziusudra will have what he needs to build this boat.”

“O master,” Ziusudra replied, “I shall do as you command and gather reeds from the nearest source. But why must I save Tagtug and Tagtug’s kin and property along with my own? This man is accursed and impure. He let his son-in-law lie with his daughter on the third night of Dimmar when intercourse is forbidden, and he has done many other wicked things.”

O Silent Listeners, then a great anger filled me, for it was not my fault that my son-in-law lay with my daughter on the third night of Dimmar when intercourse is forbidden. I almost said this to Ziusudra, but then I remembered I was not Tagtug but a messenger of the gods. So I cried out, “Listen, wall! This man of Eridu, most righteous Ziusudra, must do this because the gods command it. Otherwise, Ziusudra and his kin shall perish, and fill the ocean like fish.”

At that very moment, the skies roared with thunder and the earth heaved, and there came a stillness over the night that felt like death. I knew it was a sign and that Ziusudra would do as I commanded. I withdrew the reed from the wall and hurried back to the temple, where I made a bed for myself along the warm flank of an ox. That night I slept soundly, well-satisfied I had found a solution for saving myself from the Deluge.

But when I woke in the morning, the temple was in turmoil. The oxen lowed and stamped their feet, the peacocks shrieked and hopped about in great agitation, and every time the skies roared with thunder, one or two of the sheep fainted. Lamentation and Butter Tub stood on the platform counting the rolls of thunder, seeking to divine their meaning. I, of course, knew what the thunder portended, but I did not convey its meaning to the Apkallu, because I did not think they would believe me, and in any case Mighty Enki’s message had not been for them.

I descended to Mighty Enki’s watery chamber, feeling certain he would speak to me and perhaps even praise me for discovering the identity of the one anointed by the gods to survive. But when I peered into the water, I realized that he had returned to the deep bottom of the pool. This too seemed to be a sign, but whether it portended good or ill, I did not know.

Having nothing further to do, I resolved to leave the temple and return to my home to await the Deluge, trusting my salvation to Ziusudra and his boat. But Lamentation descended into the chamber before I could creep away and cried:

“Miserable Tagtug! Why do you stand idle on the side of the pool instead of attending to Mighty Enki?”

“Mighty Enki has returned to the depths,” I replied, “and I can no longer attend to him. But I have cleansed him of the evil afflicting him, and now that my task is complete, I wish to return home.”

“Silence!” Lamentation cried. “A terrible misfortune has fallen over the city. You must descend to the bottom of the pool and deliver Mighty Enki our prayers and petitions.”

O Silent Listeners! My heart filled with terror at this prospect, for I did not like the deep water. But Lamentation said that if I did not do as he commanded, I would be condemned to die in the most shameful and wretched manner, by being trapped inside two wooden boats, with my face and limbs left exposed and anointed with milk and honey while forced to consume great quantities of milk and honey until my body excreted filth and vermin crawled inside my bowels and flies laid their eggs in my eyes. I was now certain that this death by boats was an invention, used to scare men into doing the Apkallu’s will. But I also knew I would not be able to leave the temple if Lamentation and Butter Tub wished to stop me, and so I had no choice but to comply.

Butter Tub brought bricks into the watery chamber, fastened one to my ankle, lifted me like a sack of barley, and threw me into the pool. O Silent Listeners! I sank so quickly that I despaired of ever seeing sunlight or talking to another living being again. Just as I thought my lungs would burst, I settled on top of Mighty Enki, who lay as still as death. I remembered the prayer Lamentation told me to say and I expelled it in one breath, speaking through the breathing tube, which I had thought to clamp in my mouth before entering the water. Then, fearing for my life, I unfastened the brick from my ankle and kicked wildly until I reached the surface, sputtering and choking. Truly, I felt as if I had been drowned and then brought back to miserable life.

The Apkallu sent me to the bottom of the pool six more times that day. Yet Mighty Enki did not stir.

That night, I waited until Lamentation, Butter Tub, and the other attendants slept, then crept from the temple, descended the stairs of the high ziggurat, and entered the city. I did not go directly to the house of Ziusudra, for I wished to see my wife and bid her prepare for the Deluge. But when I went to the place where my house once stood, I saw only Sharaku, sitting among scraps of reeds and surrounded by our possessions; our beer mugs and our bowls; our clay pots and our butter tub; our table and our chairs; our festival clothing and her loom; our chickens and our goat.

“O what has happened to our house, miserable woman?” I cried.

“Ziusudra’s five strong sons came in the morning and took down the reeds from the walls. They took away the wooden door frame and the rushes from the roof, and they took our reed sleeping mats. My husband, they were like the whirlwind, and I could not stop them.”

“Why did they do this?” I cried.

“My husband, they said a messenger of a god commanded it.”

Then a great anger filled my heart and—O Silent Listeners!—much was directed toward myself. I realized I had not chosen my words carefully when I commanded Ziusudra to take reeds from the closest source. But I was also angry at Ziusudra and resolved to punish him, even though he was well-favored by the gods and considered by all to be the most righteous of men.

Taking care to stay in the shadows so none would see me, I went to Ziusudra’s house. He had followed my command and begun building a boat, lashing together the bundles of reeds that had once formed the walls and roof of my home. As before, I spoke to him through the crack in the wall.

“Wall, O listen brick wall! The gods command that this man of Eridu, most righteous Ziusudra, go into his cellar and remove the gold and silver he keeps hidden there. He must bring these riches to the woman Sharaku in exchange for the reeds he took with his five strong sons, for these reeds are worth more than gold and silver.”

“Why, O master,” replied Ziusudra, “must I bring my gold and silver to that woman? Her husband is accursed and impure; he let a pregnant bitch enter his home and it gave birth to a mongoose, and he has done many other wicked things.”

Then a great anger filled my head. It was true that a bitch had entered my house and given birth, but I had not known about it until it was too late. And while one of its puppies did resemble a mongoose, I do not think it was one. Still, Ziusudra had seen the puppy and spread rumours, and many of my neighbors shunned me after that, because a bitch that whelps a mongoose foretells great calamity.

I almost told Ziusudra he had been wrong about the puppy, but I remembered I was not Tagtug but a messenger of the gods. So I cried out, “Listen, wall! This man of Eridu, most righteous Ziusudra, must do this because the gods command it. Otherwise, Ziusudra and his kin shall perish and fill the ocean like fish.”

At that very moment, the skies roared with thunder and the earth heaved, and there came a stillness over the night that felt like death. I knew then that Ziusudra would follow my command. I withdrew my reed from the wall and hurried back to the temple, where I made a bed for myself along the warm flank of an ox. That night I slept soundly, well-satisfied I had found a way to punish Ziusudra for destroying my house.

But when I awoke in the morning, the temple was in turmoil. The oxen lowed and stamped their feet, the peacocks shrieked and toppled the cakes, and every time the skies roared with thunder, great numbers of sheep fainted. Lamentation and Butter Tub stood on the platform observing the flight patterns of birds, seeking to divine their meaning. “Miserable Tagtug,” Lamentation cried when I went and stood beside him, “what does your neighbor Ziusudra build?”

“Perhaps he builds a house for his relatives,” I said. I did not wish to tell the Apkallu that Ziusudra was building a boat, nor that a great Deluge was coming, because I did not think they would believe me, and in any case Mighty Enki’s message had not been for them.

The Apkallu sent me to the bottom of the pool seven times that day. Yet Mighty Enki did not stir.

That night, I waited until Lamentation, Butter Tub, and the other attendants slept, then crept from the temple, descended the stairs of the high ziggurat, and entered the city. I went directly to Sharaku, for I wanted to see if Ziusudra had done as I commanded and delivered his gold and silver to her. But when I arrived at the spot where my house once stood, I saw only Sharaku, bleeding from a cut on her face and weeping. There was no gold or silver around her, and all our possessions were gone.

“O what has happened, miserable woman?” I cried. “Where are our beer mugs and our bowls and our cooking pot and brewing pot? Where is the little tub we keep butter in? What has become of our table and our chairs and our festival clothing and your loom? What has become of our chickens and our goat? And where is the gold and silver Ziusudra was commanded to deliver to you?”

“Ziusudra’s five strong sons came in the morning and delivered Ziusudra’s gold and silver, saying a messenger of a god had commanded it. But when it grew dark, they returned and took it back. The neighbors saw that I was being robbed and joined in, taking away all our possessions. My husband, they were like the whirlwind, and I could not stop them.”

Then a great anger filled my heart and my head and—O Silent Listeners!—much was directed toward myself. I realized I had not chosen my words carefully when I commanded Ziusudra to deliver his gold and silver, for I had not told him he must give up these things forever. But I was also angry at Ziusudra and resolved to punish him, even though he was well-favored by the gods and considered by all to be the most righteous of men.

I went to his home, taking care to stay in the shadows so none would see me. Once more I spoke through the crack in the wall.

“Wall, O listen, brick wall! The gods command that this man of Eridu, most righteous Ziusudra, gather the seed of all creation. He must send his four oldest sons into the mountains, the desert, the forest, and the steppe, and gather the wild creatures that live there so they may be saved from the Deluge.” And then, because I wished to punish Ziusudra further, I added, “The gods further command that this man, most righteous Ziusudra, sacrifice his goats before this venture to ensure its success.”

“O master,” Ziusudra replied. “I shall do as you command and send my four oldest sons into the mountains, the desert, the forest, and the steppe, to gather the wild creatures that live there. But why must I sacrifice my goats when you have instructed me to put the seed of all creation on the boat? Are goats not also part of creation?”

Great annoyance crept into my head, because Ziusudra was correct and I did not like him being so.

“Listen, wall!” I cried. “This man of Eridu, most righteous Ziusudra, may keep one he-goat and one she-goat and put them on the boat, along with himself, his kin, his possessions, and Tagtug and his kin—” I almost added, and all his possessions, but then I remembered that I had none— “and stores enough to sustain them. Otherwise, Ziusudra and his kin shall perish and fill the ocean like fish.”

At that very moment, the skies roared with thunder and the earth heaved, and there came a stillness over the night that felt like death. I knew then that Ziusudra would follow my command. I withdrew my reed from the wall and hurried back to the temple, where I made a bed for myself along the warm flank of an ox. I slept soundly that night, well-satisfied I had found a way to punish Ziusudra for taking back his gold and silver.

But when I awoke in the morning, the temple was in turmoil. The oxen lowed and stamped their feet, the peacocks shrieked and upended jugs of milk, and every time the skies roared with thunder, great numbers of sheep fainted. Lamentation and Butter Tub stood on the platform casting dust to the wind, observing the patterns and seeking to divine its meaning.

“Miserable Tagtug,” Lamentation cried, “why does Ziusudra build a boat so far from the sea?”

“I do not know,” I said. “Perhaps he has gone mad.” I did not wish to tell the Apkallu that Ziusudra was seeking salvation from the great Deluge that was coming, because I did not think they would believe me, and in any case Mighty Enki’s message had not been for them.

The Apkallu sent me to the bottom of the pool seven times that day. Yet Mighty Enki did not stir.

That night, I waited until Lamentation, Butter Tub, and the other attendants slept, then crept from the temple, descended the stairs of the high ziggurat, and entered the city. When I reached my neighborhood, I was astonished to hear great keening and to see burnt offerings before every house.

I found Sharaku sitting in the place I had left her. She had taken the scatterings of reed left from the destruction of our house and begun weaving a basket. She had finished only its base, but I could see she was taking great care over it, for the weave was as fine and tight as in the baskets used to carry water.

“O what is happening, miserable woman?” I said to her. “Why do you sit weaving a basket as if our neighbors were not keening and making burnt offerings in the street?”

“A great misfortune has befallen Ziusudra; he sent four of his sons into the mountains, the desert, the forest, and the steppe, and three of them have been killed. The first was gored and trampled by a wild bull, the second was bitten and poisoned by a snake, and the third was killed by Humbaba, guardian of the cedar forest. Only the fourth son returned, dragging with him a lioness he captured in a net. But it escaped from the net and devoured Ziusudra’s second wife, the mother of his children, and now it runs freely through the city like the whirlwind, terrorizing the people and foretelling great calamity. Ziusudra has sacrificed his goats so he will be spared further sorrow, and others have made burnt offerings, too, for they also fear the wrath of the gods. I do not have anything to offer the gods, and that is why I sit weaving this basket, for it gives my hands work and comforts me.”

O Silent Listeners! At that moment my mind was filled with many confused and unsettled thoughts. I had told Ziusudra to sacrifice his goats before sending his sons into the wilderness, but he had not done so and had been struck with calamity. This, I thought, was proof I conveyed the wishes of the gods. Yet doubt also cast a shadow on my heart, and I wondered if Ziusudra was truly as righteous and as favored by the gods as all considered him to be.

I did not go to Ziusudra’s house but returned to the temple and made a bed for myself along the warm flank of an ox. That night I slept unsoundly.

When I awoke in the morning, the temple was in turmoil. The oxen lowed and stamped their feet, and the peacocks shrieked and plucked the inlaid silver and lapis lazuli from the walls. I found Lamentation and Butter Tub under the date palm, slaughtering a sheep.

“Calamity!” Lamentation cried, poking at the sheep’s entrails. “Calamity and devastation!”

The Apkallu sent me to the bottom of the pool seven times that day. Yet Mighty Enki did not stir.

That night, I waited until Lamentation and Butter Tub slept, then crept from the temple, descended the stairs of the high ziggurat, and entered the city. But the city was much changed, for not a single reed home still stood in all of Eridu. Men, women, children, and livestock milled about on the streets in great confusion, and everywhere there was a great clamor of prayers and lamentations.

I found Sharaku in the place I had left her, weaving her basket. She had made much progress on it, for its sides were now taller than a goat.

“O what is happening, miserable woman?” I said. “Why do you sit weaving a basket when all the buildings in Eridu have been demolished and people mill about in confusion?”

“A great fear has settled over the city, for all know a messenger of the gods came to Ziusudra with tidings about a great and terrible Deluge. Now the people of Eridu have demolished their homes so that they too can build boats and seek survival. I do not have enough reeds to build anything but this basket, and that is why I sit weaving. It gives my hands work and comforts me, for the whirlwind is almost upon us.”

O Silent Listeners, at this moment my mind was filled with yet more confused and unsettled thoughts. I believed that if others built boats, the prophecy of Mighty Enki might not be fulfilled, and I, in turn, might perish in the Deluge. I went to Ziusudra’s home and once more spoke through the crack in the wall.

“Wall, O listen brick wall!” I cried. “The gods remind this man of Eridu, most righteous Ziusudra, that only he has been anointed to survive the Deluge, and only his boat must breast the wave. He must fill his boat with his kin and the seed of all living creatures, and stores enough to sustain them during the voyage; baskets of barley, vats of beer, and containers filled with olives, dates, and figs. And he must also put on board his neighbor Tagtug, and Tagtug’s kin, and stores enough to sustain them as well.”

“O master,” Ziusudra replied, “I shall do as you command. But how do I stop my neighbors, these snakes and jackals, from building boats and seeking survival?”

In truth, I had not given this much thought, and great annoyance crept into my heart and my head, for I felt that Ziusudra, being so well-favored by the gods, truly should be able to solve this matter for himself.

“This man of Eridu, most resourceful Ziusudra, must find his own way to stop the others,” I cried, “for only Ziusudra has been anointed, and there must be only one boat.”

At that very moment, the skies roared with thunder and the earth heaved, and there came a stillness over the night that felt like death. I withdrew my reed from the wall and returned to the temple, where I made a bed for myself along the warm flank of an ox. That night I slept unsoundly.

When I awoke in the morning, the temple was in turmoil. The oxen lowed and stamped their feet, and the peacocks shrieked and smashed the statuary. But no sheep fainted when the skies roared with thunder, for Lamentation and Butter Tub had slaughtered them all. The attendants, too, were gone, and no fresh offerings had been brought for many days. The jugs of milk were upended, the stacks of cakes were toppled, and the loaves of bread piled like the heads of enemies were moldy.

Lamentation stood before me and cried, “Miserable Tagtug! Pull down this pillar of cedar and with it make a boat, for the whirlwind is almost upon us.”

O Silent Listeners! This command filled me with misgivings, for I thought I would incur Mighty Enki’s wrath if I pulled down one of his sacred pillars.

“Shall I not instead deliver your prayers and petitions to Mighty Enki,” I said, “who lies slumbering at the bottom of his watery chamber?”

“Now it is too late for prayers,” cried Lamentation, “for the portents all tell the whirlwind is almost upon us.”

I put two oxen under a yoke and tied them to the pillar and in this manner pulled the pillar down. The walls and ceiling of the temple groaned, and I thought the ceiling might collapse on us, but it did not. Then Butter Tub indicated that he, too, desired a boat. I did not understand why they did not combine their efforts and share a single boat, except that they now seemed to loathe each other or perhaps Butter Tub planned to fill his boat with dates. But I pulled down a second pillar, and once again the temple groaned, and this time some bricks fell from the ceiling.

That night, I waited until Lamentation and Butter Tub slept, then crept from the temple and stood on the platform overlooking glorious Eridu. O Silent Listeners! My heart filled with terror, for many fires burnt in the city and the air was filled with smoke and the smell of burning. Yet I summoned my courage, descended the stairs of the high ziggurat, and entered the city. Men, women, children, and livestock fled through streets that were on fire, and everywhere there was a great clamor of prayers and lamentations. I found Sharaku weaving her basket, which was now as tall as a man and as wide as four men standing beside each other.

“O what has happened, miserable woman?” I cried. “Why do you sit weaving this basket while glorious Eridu turns to ashes around you?”

“Ziusudra and his two sons went through the city setting fire to the other boats. Now fire has spread everywhere, even onto the silos and the storage houses, and all the food in the city is lost. Moreover, the lioness wanders freely, ravaging at will. This day she devoured three children, twelve chickens, and a palace guard. My husband, she is like the whirlwind, and no one can stop her. Now I sit and weave my basket while I await the lioness’s return, for it gives my hands work and comforts me.”

O Silent Listeners, at this moment my mind was filled with ever more many confused and unsettled thoughts, for I had not foreseen that Ziusudra would set fire to all the other boats in Eridu, and I worried that the fire would destroy his boat, too. I hurried to Ziusudra’s home and once more spoke through the crack in the wall.

“Wall, O listen brick wall!” I cried. “This man of Eridu, most righteous Ziusudra, must post a guard to protect his boat from destruction, and tomorrow he must fill his boat with the seed of all living creatures, along with himself, his property, and his kin. In the evening Tagtug will present himself, and Ziusudra must allow him and his kin to come aboard. Then he must seal the entrance of the boat with pitch and await the storm, for the whirlwind is almost upon us.”

“I understand, O master,” Ziusudra replied, “and I shall do as you command.”  

At that very moment, the skies roared with thunder and the earth heaved, and there came a stillness over the night that felt like death. I withdrew my reed from the wall and returned to the temple, where I made a bed for myself alongside the warm flank of an ox. That night I slept unsoundly.

When I awoke in the morning, the temple was in turmoil. The peacocks shrieked and alighted on the oxen, driving them into a panic, and every time the skies roared with thunder, bricks fell from the ceiling. Moreover, the piles of rotten fruit had attracted great numbers of flying insects, and these swarmed throughout the temple and caused the oxen further torment with their stinging bites.

Lamentation thrust an axe at me and cried, “Now you must make planks from the pillars and boil pitch, and in this manner build our boats.”

“Shall I not instead deliver your prayers and petitions to Mighty Enki, who lies slumbering at the bottom of his watery chamber?” I said.

“Now it is too late for prayers, for the portents all tell that the whirlwind is almost upon us.”

I spent that day hewing planks from the pillars, first for Lamentation, then for Butter Tub. I boiled a tremendous cauldron of pitch, which I used to seal together the planks. My back ached, great blisters formed on my hands, and the boiling pitch burnt me, causing welts to rise on my skin. But I had no choice but to comply.

By now the temple was in great disarray. The floor was littered with smashed statues, rotting food, and clotted milk. The oxen, tormented by the peacocks and the stinging flies, moved about in agitation and pierced each other with their horns. The disorder and the lack of space made it difficult for me to assemble the boats, and Lamentation began to grow angry and impatient. Seeking to resolve the problem, I hoisted Butter Tub’s boat atop the altar, thereby creating more space for Lamentation’s boat. But the peace was short-lived. An ox, seeking to dislodge a peahen from its back, trampled Lamentation’s boat, knocking apart planks joined with pitch not yet cooled. Lamentation’s fury was terrifying to behold. He bellowed like a wild bull and commanded me to drive the oxen from the temple—nay, not just from the temple but from the high ziggurat itself!

Have you ever seen oxen driven over the side of a ziggurat, Silent Listeners? It is a terrible sight.

I herded the beasts from the temple onto the platform. Then I ran at them, waving my arms and shouting, seeking to drive them over the edge. But the beasts were shrewd and resisted. They clustered in a knot and emitted strange panicked bellows. Some of the oxen tried to run back inside the temple, but Lamentation barred shut the cedar door. Others attempted to escape by descending the stairs of the ziggurat. But the steps had been worn to a greasy sheen by many thousands of feet, and the oxen who sought escape in this manner lost their footing and toppled, turning somersaults all the way down to the base of the ziggurat, where their shattered bodies lay like smashed pots. Still others grew enraged and charged me, roaring and lowering their heads to run me through on their horns. O Silent Listeners, this filled my heart with terror! But it had given me an idea. I positioned myself near the edge of the platform, removed my skirt, and waved it in the air, urging the beasts to charge me. Each time one did, I stepped nimbly aside and it plummeted over the platform to its death. In this manner, all the oxen were driven off the ziggurat, except for the ones that took the stairs.

But even the slaughter of the oxen did not satisfy Lamentation, who accused Butter Tub of plotting to steal his boat in the night. To prevent this from happening, Lamentation made his bed in the boat, lying with his head, arms, and legs draped over its sides. Butter Tub, in turn, was greatly offended by the accusation and made his bed on the opposite side of the temple.

That night, I waited until Lamentation and Butter Tub slept, then crept from the temple, descended the stairs of the high ziggurat, and entered the city. My heart was filled with great urgency, for now it was time to present myself to Ziusudra and seek survival on his boat. But a stillness like death hung over the city. The evening air, once as sweet as pomegranate and blossoming jasmine, now held within it smell of ashes. I saw many corpses heaped on the streets, and it seemed to me that not a single man, woman, child, or animal was left alive in all of Eridu.

Yet I found Sharaku sitting beside her basket in the place I had left her. The basket, lying on its side, was now finished, and in the absence of other standing structures, it appeared almost as big as a house, although a very small one.

“O what has happened, miserable woman?” I said to her. “Why do you sit beside this basket when the city lies in ruins around you, and not a single man, woman, child, or animal is left alive in all of Eridu?”

“My husband, starvation seized the city, and then a great madness. Neighbor fought neighbor for a handful of barley or a cup of beer, and each sought to take what they needed with whatever weapon was at hand—axes, adzes, knives, and slings. The streets ran red with blood, and not even women and children were safe. The people of Eridu slaughtered each other in the streets like wolves and lambs, and those who killed were killed in turn.”

“How then are you yet alive?” I cried.

“My husband, I hid inside this basket.”

At that very moment, the skies roared with thunder and the earth heaved, and there came a stillness over the night that felt like death. “O miserable woman,” I cried. “We must make haste to the home of Ziusudra, for he has promised to save me, my kin, and my property on his boat, and you and this basket are the only kin and property I possess.”

“My husband,” Sharaku said, “Ziusudra is no more. He sealed himself, his kin, and his possessions inside his boat this morning, seeking protection from the mob. Yet he found no safety there. All blamed Ziusudra for the calamities that have befallen the city, and the people came and tore apart his boat with their hands. When they saw the great quantities of food stored inside; the baskets of barley, the vats of beer, and the containers filled with olives, dates, and figs, the crowd was overtaken with madness, and they fought over these things. Brother slaughtered brother and father slaughtered son. In the midst of this madness, the lioness returned and devoured Ziusudra, his two remaining sons, and his last remaining wife. Now all are lost, dead, and dispersed, and Ziusudra’s boat lies in ruins. You see, I gathered some scraps from it to weave a lid for this basket, and I also found two goats—a she-goat and a he-goat—and a cock and a hen that by some miracle survived. I hid them inside my basket and in this manner kept them safe.” At this Sharaku opened the lid of her basket, and I saw the animals inside, which had indeed belonged to Ziusudra.

“Calamity!” I cried. “Calamity and devastation!”

Now I knew that Ziusudra was not the one anointed by the gods to survive the Deluge, and my heart despaired for my own salvation. But then I remembered the boats inside the temple, and I realized not all was lost.

“Come with me up the high ziggurat to the House of Aquifer,” I said, “for now the whirlwind is upon us, and there we might seek survival.”

But Sharaku said, “My husband, I will stay here with these goats and chickens and shelter inside my basket, for it gives me comfort to be where our home once stood.”

“Very well, miserable woman,” I cried. “Stay and perish!”

O Silent Listeners! If only I had stayed with Sharaku and made a bed for myself inside her basket, among the goats and the chickens once belonging to Ziusudra. But alas, I did not. At that very moment, lightning smashed the ground and death began pouring down from the skies. I fled through the city, along streets that had become great torrents of water filled with the bodies of the dead. When I reached the ziggurat, my heart filled with terror, for water streamed down its sides, and it seemed to me that climbing it would be like climbing a waterfall. But the water was quickly rising, and I knew I would perish if I did not reach a higher place. Several times I almost lost my footing. But finally, I attained the highest platform of the ziggurat and found shelter inside the temple.

Because there were no longer any sheep or oxen, I made a bed for myself alongside Butter Tub. That night I dreamt that a terrible earthquake made the mountains of Akkad rain stones upon the earth.

When I awoke in the morning, the temple was in turmoil. A great cedar beam had fallen during the night and knocked Butter Tub’s boat from the altar. Now it lay atop Lamentation’s boat like a clam. And—O Silent Listeners!—Lamentation was trapped between the boats, with his head and limbs exposed. He cried out for us to free him, but the great beam lay atop Butter Tub’s boat and we could move it, for there were no longer any oxen to do the pulling.

Outside the temple, the storm raged on. Clinging to the date palm, I surveyed the city. The mighty Euphrates had spilled its banks during the night, and flood waters had risen to the first level of the ziggurat. Bodies filled the water like fish.

That day, I went to Mighty Enki’s chamber, tied a brick to my ankle, and sank to where the great god slumbered. I spoke to him through my reed, delivering prayers and petitions. I hoped he would give me further tidings that would allow me to survive the great and terrible Deluge. Yet Mighty Enki did not stir.

The next morning, the second day of the Deluge, the temple was in turmoil. The peacocks had knocked a bowl of honey from the altar during the night, and it had flowed over Lamentation’s face and limbs. The air around him grew thick with stinging insects. Butter Tub and I spent many hours listening to his shrieks and cries.

Outside the temple, the storm raged on. The flood waters had risen to the second level of the ziggurat during the night, and bodies filled the water like fish. That day, I went to Mighty Enki’s chamber and spoke to him through my reed. Yet Mighty Enki did not stir.

The next morning, the third day of the Deluge, the temple was in turmoil. Lamentation cried out for us to feed him, but neither Butter Tub nor I wished to share our meager food, so we scooped rotten milk and honey from the temple floor and dribbled these into his mouth.

Outside the temple, the storm raged on. The flood waters had risen to the third level of the ziggurat during the night, and bodies filled the water like fish. That day, I went to Mighty Enki’s chamber and spoke to him through my reed. Yet Mighty Enki did not stir.

The next morning, the fourth day of the Deluge, the temple was in turmoil. Lamentation no longer cried out for us to feed him but moaned piteously, and a terrible smell emanated from between the boats. I drew close to examine him and saw a maggot wiggling inside his nostril. By now all the food in the temple—the stacks of cakes; the bowls of honey; the mounds of figs, olives, and dates; the pitchers of milk; and the loaves of bread piled like the heads of enemies—was either eaten, spoiled, or defiled by the peacocks. Summoning my courage, I left the shelter of the temple, climbed the date palm, and harvested the unripe dates hanging from its branches. Butter Tub and I devoured these, even though they made our insides roil and caused us to contribute to the befoulment of the temple.

Outside the temple, the storm raged on. The flood waters had risen to the fourth level of the ziggurat during the night, and bodies filled the water like fish. That day, I went to Mighty Enki’s chamber and spoke to him through my reed. Yet Mighty Enki did not stir.

The next morning, the fifth day of the Deluge, the temple was in turmoil. The peacocks, having now upended every jug of milk and toppled every statue, turned on each other, pulling out each other’s feathers and bloodying one another with their beaks and talons. Butter Tub and I sheltered behind a wall we constructed from fallen bricks and pelted the peacocks with pieces of smashed statuary when they drew too near. I think Lamentation yet lived, for once or twice I heard him groan. But I dared not approach him, for had I done so, I am certain the peacocks would have torn me to pieces.

Outside the temple, the storm raged on. The flood waters had risen to the fifth level of the ziggurat during the night, and bodies filled the water like fish. That day, I did not go to Mighty Enki’s chamber because of the peacocks.

The next morning, the sixth day of the Deluge, the temple was calm. The peacocks had slaughtered each other during the night. Now only one remained, and it contented itself by feasting on the worms and maggots that had that had newly erupted from Lamentation’s nostrils and eyes. I think, then, that he was dead, and I was relieved, for the manner of his death was truly the most shameful and wretched.

Butter Tub sat near Lamentation’s terrible sarcophagus and wept. At first, I thought he grieved for his colleague, but when he held out his empty hands, I realized he had eaten the last of his dates and that this was why he wept. Remembering Butter Tub’s kindness to me, I offered him the dates I had concealed in a fold of my skirt to enjoy later. Butter Tub ate them with relish. Then he stood, removed his fish-skin hood and cloak, draped these over me, and exited the temple. I did not wish to be left alone with Lamentation’s corpse or the corpses of the murderous peacocks, so I followed.

Outside the temple, the storm raged on. The flood waters had risen to the sixth level of the ziggurat during the night, and bodies filled the water like fish. I watched as Butter Tub descended the stairs and stepped into the churning waves. That was the last I saw of him.

Now I was Apkallu. Yet rather than joy at my turn of fortune, a great sadness fell over me. Butter Tub seemed like the best and most loyal of friends, and I even mourned for Lamentation, for now that he was dead, I thought of him with fondness.

That day, I did not go to Mighty Enki’s chamber.

I awoke on the morning of the seventh day of the Deluge to the sound of lapping waves and a great thumping and rumbling that resonated from the very bowels of the ziggurat itself. O Silent Listeners! My heart filled with great urgency, for I realized that Mighty Enki finally stirred.

The flood waters had risen during the night and now filled the stairs halfway. Holding the cloak of the Apkallu around me, I descended into the watery chamber. Mighty Enki writhed and roiled in a mass of muscle and slick grey skin, and I was certain I would drown in the deep water or be pinned against the wall. Yet I summoned my courage and addressed him, speaking through the reed, for I did not think he heard me without it.

“Mighty Enki,” I cried. “Great Lord of Abzu and Father of Men. The people of Eridu have burned the city and slaughtered each other like lambs. Ziusudra, who was well-favored by the gods and considered by all to be the most righteous of men, is dead and his boat destroyed. Now the Deluge has come and bodies fill the water like fish. Why did you not save the city, which it is your duty to protect? Why did you not allow righteous Ziusudra, his property, his kin, and the seed of all creation, to survive the whirlwind? Why did you deliver me your message, O Mighty Enki, if you did not intend also for me to survive?”

Mighty Enki opened his sturgeon mouth and released a great torrent of bubbles around me. I waited with urgency for him to speak, but he did not.

O Silent Listeners, then a terrible doubt crept into my heart, for when I had heard Mighty Enki speak before, I had neither eaten nor drunk for untold hours, nor seen sunlight nor talked to another living being. It is possible I only dreamt he spoke. None of my carp ever uttered a single word during my time as the caretaker of the artificial ponds of Eridu, and it now seemed likely to me a that fish lacked this ability, even if it were a god.

I might have let myself drown then, so great was my despair, but suddenly there was a terrible rumbling and the ziggurat itself trembled. Mighty Enki began ascending the stairs, drawing himself along on his pectoral fins in the manner of the fish we call a mudskipper, with which you, Silent Listeners, are perhaps familiar. A great wave surged behind him. Without thinking, I clung to Mighty Enki’s tail fin and in this manner was drawn up into the temple.

Water rushed behind us in a great wave, snapping the cedar pillars and scouring the gold, silver, and lapis lazuli from the walls. It swept away the ordure, the rotting food, the upended jugs, and the smashed statuary. It swept away the carcasses of the murderous peacocks, and dashed the beams and the boats into tinder. Lamentation, freed at last, was also swept away. The cleansing was terrible and complete.

I would have drowned had I not breathed through my reed, for I could not keep my face above the water, and my limbs would have snapped like chicken bones had I not clung to the Mighty Enki’s tail fin with all my strength. Mighty Enki rode the wave out of the temple and onto the platform, and I was drawn along with him.

The flood waters had risen in the night to the seventh level of the ziggurat and now surged in great waves over the platform. But the sturdy date palm still stood, and so I released my grip on Mighty Enki’s tail and clung to it. I looked out at the scene of devastation before me, and at first my mind could not make peace with my eyes.

O Silent Listeners, glorious Eridu was no more! Where once stood its strong walls of brick, its wide avenues, and its gardens filled with fragrant pomegranate trees, blossoming jasmine, and singing birds, now there was only ocean. I wanted to call out to Mighty Enki one final time to ask why he had allowed the most glorious city in all creation to be scoured from the earth, but I did not do so, for he had not answered me since that first fateful conversation, and I knew he would not speak to me now. I watched as Mighty Enki, King of the Abyss, drew himself to the edge of the platform and disappeared into the waves, and that was the last I saw of him. 

At that moment there came a terrible heaving and groaning from the bowels of the earth, and the temple collapsed into rubble. The House of the Aquifer, abandoned by its god, had become like a smashed pot.

Over the hours that followed, the storm quieted and the seas calmed. The waters receded from the platform, yet I did not release my hold on the date palm, for it seemed the last living thing on Earth aside from myself, and being near it gave me comfort.

Over the days that followed, the bodies of men, women, children, and animals began washing onto the platform. I pushed these back into the water, for I did not wish to share my small patch of ground with festering corpses. But when the waves deposited Lamentation’s body three days after the destruction of the temple, I did not push it back but rather prayed over it, and when his cloak washed up shortly after, I shrouded it over him. For I was Apkallu—had not Butter Tub adorned me in his raiment?—and I had resolved to carry out my duties while I could.

During these days, I stayed near the date palm. It shaded me from the blazing sun during the day and provided me with shelter at night. I came to think of it as my companion and protector. Each day I climbed its trunk and gazed over the water, searching for a distant mountain peak or a raven or a dove that had found some dry patch of land to alight from. Yet I saw none of these things, and the waters showed no signs of abating. I grew weak from hunger, and many times I thought of following Butter Tub’s example and ending my suffering.

But on the fifth day after the destruction of the temple, I climbed the date palm and discovered clusters of ripe fruit among its fronds. O Silent Listeners! This seemed to me a miracle, for the fruit was not in season. I believed it was a sign from the gods signifying that they would not seek to annihilate mankind again so long as men took pains not to disturb them. My heart rejoiced at the blessings I was certain the gods would bestow on me, and I banished all thoughts of joining Butter Tub in death.

On the seventh day after the destruction of the temple, I was awoken by the distant crowing of a cock. My heart filled with great urgency, for I was certain it was a sign. I climbed the date palm so I might gaze over the water and discover its source. As the sun breasted the horizon in the east, I saw Sharaku, floating by in her basket. Her expression was serene, and she looked many years younger than I remembered her, like a bride travelling to the house of her beloved.

O Silent Listeners, how my heart rejoiced at the sight of my wife! I waved and called out to her, but the sun must have been in her eyes, for I do not think she saw me; nor do I think she heard me over the lapping of the waves and the crowing of the cock. I climbed higher still, gesticulating and shouting from my tenuous perch. But alas, Silent Listeners, this action was my doom! As Sharaku and her menagerie floated off toward the rising sun, the frond supporting me snapped and I plummeted to the platform below. Now I lie beneath the date palm, and my body has become like a smashed pot.

Now there is no one left to hear of the destruction of mankind, nor of lost glorious Eridu; its strong walls of brick, its wide avenues, and its gardens filled with fragrant pomegranate trees, blossoming jasmine, and singing birds. There is only you, O Silent Listeners, who crawl among the folds of my cloak and torment me even as I lie dying, sending stinging fire through my veins. I might crush you with the instrument I fashioned from the black reed, but my fingers are now too tremulous to use it. Indeed, I would not so do even if I could, for your bites remind me of sweeter times, when I was the caretaker of the artificial ponds of Eridu and Sharaku—happiest of women!—shared her bread with me. If only I had made a bed for myself inside her basket, among the goats and chickens once belonging to Ziusudra. She was the supple reed that bends in the storm, while I sought to withstand the whirlwind and was broken.

Now I have lost everything except for these words, and they are as fleeting as dust cast on the wind. Yet it is my sacred duty to proclaim them, for although I am a man of but modest abilities, and ill-favored by the gods, I am the last of the Apkallu, and I have resolved to carry out my duties while I can. But know, O Silent Listeners, that nothing endures; neither words, nor breath, nor glorious cities surrounded by strong walls of brick. We are all—and ever have been—but mayflies on the water, gazing at the sun one moment and gone the next.

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Jennifer DeLeskie (she/her) is a reformed lawyer living in Tiohtià:ke/Montreal with her family and their destructive cat. Her short fiction can be found in Canadian journals such as Exile Quarterly, Soliloquies Anthology, and The Dalhousie Review. You can follow Jennifer on Twitter and Instagram at @jdlskie.