The Thief

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  • Published: 31 May 2015
  • Updated: 31 May 2015
  • Status: Complete
The story of a girl living in ancient Mesopotamia under the rule of the legendary Gilgamesh.


2. News

I often saw Kishar around town, going about his usual ways. He dragged logs to the factory in the morning while I fetched water from the well. He practiced his swordsmanship while I washed clothes by the river. We didn’t dare to speak during daytime, but whenever no one was around, he would give me a nod to acknowledge our secret friendship. I half expected him to turn up at our house again in the middle of the night, but he didn’t.

Several months passed by and life was normal. Every morning, the others and I would climb the steps of the White Temple where the head priest would lecture us about morals and teach us how to keep count of the family provisions. We would offer our prayers at the feet of Anu and revel at the unending sight that the temple allowed us in all directions. The rest of the day would be full of dull chores, and before a drop of rest, it would be time for the stars again.

One day, as I was returning from the riverbank, news came that Ugula Gishkim had called a district meeting at sunset. Gishkim was the chief governing commander of Anu district, his main function: to spread and enforce the orders of the king. A district meeting could only mean trouble and rumors started flying around about the announcement of another war.

Uruk had been at war thrice since I was born. The city proudly claimed to have protected its civilians from the bloodshed throughout history. The great walls were impenetrable. But in reality, no amount of fortification could keep out the venom of war; it seeped through in the form of increased taxes and overwhelming demands for weapons and medicine. While soldiers butchered one another outside, the people inside died of starvation and fatigue.

The crowd had already gathered when Amma and I made our way to the marketplace. The air was tense with speculation and everyone was nervous. The previous meeting had announced laws limiting the amount of riches individual families can possess; the one before that had marked the shutdown of a silk factory, putting hundreds out of work. The good always happened silently, but the bad had to be announced and enforced.

Soon, Gishkim took his place on the pedestal and addressed the crowd with a brief message: “Lord Gilgamesh, our king and savior, is in need of a new mistress. All unmarried girls who have come of age must present themselves for this occasion at noon, tomorrow.”

There was a collective sigh of relief, but my heart puckered as if caught in a knot. The king had taken his first mistress the previous year. I was too young to participate then, but I clearly remembered the girl who had been chosen; she was the daughter of a wealthy merchant, very pretty and well endowed. She had squealed in joy on the day she was picked and had sailed off in the golden chariot smiling. No one ever saw her since. Even the repeated pleas of her parents to meet her were declined at the palace gates. I had often wondered what became of her. Now at the thought of having to be a contender for the same fate, a deep and unsettling fear clouded my brain.

“I will not go,” I informed Amma upon returning home, but was only met with silence.

Later at night, as I sat in our backyard, I could not hold back the tears. There are dozens of others, I tried to remind myself; I haven’t been chosen yet. But no amount of consolations could negate the dread of the possibility of having to leave everything behind. What will happen to Amma? There’s no way she could manage on her own with her bad hip! And what fate befalls of a mistress when the king gets tired of her? What happened to the previous mistress? My head swam with several dark thoughts as I cried myself to sleep.

I woke up to find a loaf of bread lying on a piece of paper near the fence. If only he were king, I thought.

I spent the entire day convincing Amma that there must be a way out.

“I’ll tell them I’m not old enough!”
“I’ll feign illness!”
“I’ll scar my face! The king surely wouldn’t want a scarred mistress!”

But Amma didn’t relent. I could see she was fighting hard to be strong herself. She didn’t want this any more than me, yet she kept muttering about how good an opportunity this was.

“Foolish child,” she said, trying to keep her voice from trembling, “think of all the riches you will have! You will live in the palace and you will never work a day in your life!”

Two royal servants were sent to prepare me for the event. I struggled while they rubbed their herbs and pastes on my skin. But they were firm and adamant and got their job done. After three grueling hours of cleaning, beautifying and dressing, I was declared ready.

Amma embraced me one last time, as I was being led away from my house, finally in tears.

“The king always gets what he wants, Aanki,” she whispered, planting a wet kiss on my forehead.

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