The Dead and Their Language by Wythe Marschall

Qabbu qabalitishu, the pair of aged scholars murmur, synching up their sounds to the unfaded triangular cuts in the black stone. The scholars’ tweed muffles a syllable here and there, but still the stone seems to amplify the flow of words, generating a dead marsh of sound wherein I lose myself for a moment. And how long is a moment? How can I be sure a moment has ended, can ever end?

The Hall of the Basket-Mouth Mummies in the Mesopotamian Studies wing will be filled with these sounds if you, too, bend your ear close to decipher the stone’s algebra, listening in your chorus not for meaning (…if a man and a sickness in the thighs, given 60 bushels of millet, then the sacrifice of a lamb’s kidneys… praise to Marduk… Marduk Who Has Made My Bones Become Strength…), but for shape—not for the single leaves within the topiary, but for the lion, the elephant, the pagoda. Then you may see the skeleton of that world buried far away, between rivers, hemmed by dunes, where the civil projects are still to be finished, exactly as they were at the End, before Saint Augustine abandoned the pleasures of the flesh for the flesh of the page, before Caesar smiled or Christ wept.

If you listen for the hammering of brick upon brick, and the carting away of such-and-such a quantity of river-mud in the name of the High Lord Anu, or the killing of a pretty slave for Tammuz so that the killer may relieve his gout—then your ears buzz with the stuff: Mammuratu helet gul dnishu qabbu—if you will lend me your myrrh and pot of balm, I will to you a boon. We will defeat together the silent Enterer-Into-Houses who stalks the newborn and the best goats, who is at their throats, closing them like a whisper hissed out into silence, into forever,waiting at the black shore beyond which the gods will not sail.

For the language of the dead is not dead itself but lives on in the throats of the scholars who command the stone to speak, who give the stone new life. The black stone is voiceless and has always been: In ancient Uruk, later in a half-ruined temple to Inanna-Ishtar in superstitious Akkad, and north with the steppe-trained armies of the Conquerors, they who followed Ashur. The codex has always been what it is—a stone, dead thing, thing of death. For to write, to inscribe, is to kill the vitality of breath, to quench the fire of rhetoric, to dilute the sweet sap of love poems. The dead did not speak death but life; they wrote death so that it could be made back into life, later, by their children’s children. This is the alchemy of writing itself.

This is the project of the shaman who first pressed into place the triangles on the stone. The work is seen by Marduk and by his brothers who see all. The Fiery Eagle from the Forest of Years will not destroy the work. Take many strong men and move the work into a high place. There it will stand as black medicine for the people of our city. Ours is the highest, widest city, with the most gardens. The work girds our city like lightning I have captured with the power of Marduk, and so shall it forever be…

Who speaks now? The scholars, the stone, and I each wonder. Who speaks these words as they trace pale fingers over divots and hashmarks and a tiny image of a mourning woman? The Conquerors, even, could not speak more loudly than this—and yet, for all the names it speaks, for all the titles and instructions, the recently unearthed black stone does not name itself, giving no procedure for its own proper burial. The stone says only that there will always be a time before this moment. The already-there will always speak.

In time, if the black stone is buried again, still its language will live, distributed, forced out awkwardly over foreign tongues that have never tasted the nectar of the hamaqu flower that glows like ember in the summer dusk, just beyond the last wall of Shin-Namash. The black stone flies weightlessly and laughs without cheeks or lips. The revenge of writing upon the world is not death, but an eternal resurrection of breath, in new and unpredicted times and places. The final defeat of death, in fact, is this—the defeat of the royal astrologers (he will pass on such-and-such a day, in the Street of the Water Carriers, panting like a dog whose heart wants to come up through his suddenly dry nose).

When I leave the Mesopotamian Studies wing this afternoon, for example, will I not hear the same once-hieratic phrases on the lips of the twelve-year-old girl at the mall, the one excitedly relating what happened at the bus stop to her sister, glancing everywhere for confirmation of her delinquency (though all she did was kiss a boy’s cheek)? I mean, will I not hear the same work of the stone in the way the girl checks back through her text messages—what exactly did the boy say to her? The black stone travels everywhere now, limitlessly bidding us vomit forth those sounds—qabbu qabalitishu—and guess at their meanings, again and again.

He had called me a “ice prin-cess,” Josephine. (The syllables quite differentiated; the other girl concernedly nodding, hands on hips.) So I had to do it. Lend me your myrrh and pot of balm. The eyes of the peacock’s tail see into the soul. He jumped when I had did it like I slapped him! They laugh. I know, I know, he crazy, he always playin. I know—to pay someone else to mourn a dead father is only proper in this city, which is so high and wide only Marduk can walk it in one lifetime. And there beyond the walled gardens and the Quarter of the Foreign Clerks you will see—he wrote it all down for me—just before he died—how to get to his house—it’s right off the bus, you know the one on Merrick?—lammishu knephket hel-shinab mugub, I mean, it is no surprise the dog has expired today, mourning with us this passing of a builder of houses and reaper of wind-sewn millet and also of rich dyes. Okay, girl, let’s go. If a baker, call him by his longest name. But I mean, listen, Nya, Kevin funny, but he stupid. I ah-gree, but anyway come on, let’s go-oh, the bus leavin!

And so the stone becomes the link between life and death, which we call time. The magic of the shaman’s invention is that it transmutes death into life and vice versa, and returns the high city to its place, crowning all cities, enveloping all walled gardens and handball courts. The caravanserai is packed with interpreters and scribes. You may hire one, but you will want to select carefully. The dead do not wish to speak badly, since now they must speak (must) like a soundtrack to the passage of moments down into history (pass). Passage, change, alchemy—the only firmness is in flux. The stone knows this. The stone silently bids the scholars good night. I pretend not to be listening in.

 

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