ISSUE 3 · FALL 2009




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Copyright © 2009

Deborah Walker

Nebuchadnezzar's Legacy

DEBORAH WALKER

 

 

I fashion a stone mushussu. She will spatter my enemy with deadly venom. Her claws will rake their flesh and drive them forth.

“I once saw a king go mad, you know,” said Mushussu.

“Really?” said Jane. “D’ya fancy a cuppa?”

Whenever Jane spoke to Mushussu she found that her accent changed, broadening and thickening as if to keep the average strength of the conversation at a middle-class level. It annoyed her—the way in which she reacted to Mushussu refined upper-class speech. It wasn’t as if Jane disliked her Derbyshire accent. She liked the softening sounds, the blurring rhythms, the odd phrases and unusual words. But she disliked the fact that she was an unconscious foil to the cultured voice of an ancient dragon.

Jane waved a cup in Mushussu’s direction and repeated “Cuppa?”

“No, thank you,” said Mushussu, stretching out her front legs. “It’s the paws you know, it makes holding a cup so difficult.”

“I could put it in a dish for you and you could sip it,” said Jane.

“No, I think not.”

Jane felt guilty. Yet, it wasn’t her fault that Mushussu was the way she was. As Jane busied herself in the kitchen preparing a hot cup of sweet tea, she glanced at Mushussu standing on the sofa in the living room. Mushussu’s snake head moved in time to the flickering reflections of the TV in the darkened room. Her body was a striding lion’s covered with serpent scales. She had a lion’s front paws and her back legs were the talons of an eagle. They grasped the sofa’s cushions.

Perhaps it was Jane’s fault. She really should stop visiting the British Museum.

“It was Nebuchadnezzar wasn’t it? Why did he go mad?” asked Jane, spinning out the gambit into the increasingly embarrassing silence between them. She came into the living room sipping her tea.

“Yes, it’s always about Nebuchadnezzar isn’t it?” Mushussu turned to face Jane and for a moment her body disappeared with the change in Jane’s perspective. Mushussu was a stone carving and her aspect could be quite two-dimensional. “It wasn’t Nebuchadnezzar, but one of his successors—King Nabonidus—who went crazy. Nabonidus goes to all the trouble of going mad, and who gets the credit? Nebuchadnezzar—again. It’s always about Nebuchadnezzar. Nabonidus went mad because history got his name wrong.”

Jane thought for a while. “Was that a joke?”

“It was a small attempt at a joke. I can’t seem to get the humor of this millennium.”

“Why do you worry about such things? Such unimportant things? They’re both long gone, centuries dead.”

“But the memories linger, my dear. History is important.”

“Only to historians,” said Jane.

“That, I find, is the trouble with the modern world.”

Jane wondered what it would be like to live alone. Would she be content, performing the small actions of her life in solitude? Somehow individuals seemed to gravitate towards her, a talking mask, a man and now Mushussu.

The telephone rang and Jane stared at it. It hadn’t rang for days, weeks even. She moved over to the telephone table which was piled high with unopened letters. Her hand hovered over the ringing phone.

In a flash, Mushussu was besides her. “Don’t answer it,” she said. Her tongue flicked out and brushed Jane’s cheek.

“But, it might be . . .”

“Who? Who might it be? The Quetzalcoatl mask asking you to perform the blood rituals again? Demanding that you seek his truth with the smoke ceremonies? Or your husband, phoning to say that he made a mistake? That he loves you after all? Do you think it’s Peter crawling back on his knees, begging your forgiveness?”

Mushussu’s talon tightened around Jane’s arm. “Is it likely?”

“No,” whispered Jane.

“Quite so. Don’t answer it. You don’t need them—you’ve got me now.”

The phone stopped ringing.

“You’re right,” she Jane. “I don’t need them.” She reached out to pat the stone flank of Mushussu. “Thank you.”

“You’re welcome. Now what’s on TV tonight?” asked Mushussu changing the subject.

Celebrity Big Brother.”

“Are there any royals on that?” asked Mushussu.

“Not this time, but Prince Joseph was seriously considering it, but the money wasn’t right. Maybe next year.”

“I do hope so,” said Mushussu.

“Hmmm,” said Jane. Mushussu’s obsession with royalty was beginning to get on Jane’s nerves. It was just because she was a royal symbol herself. Jane began to think of her as very one-dimensional. No—make that two-dimensional. Jane smiled to herself, then she felt guilty again; it wasn’t Mushussu’s fault that she was a stone carving. Jane shouldn’t really laugh at her, not even in the privacy of her own mind.

To atone, Jane said, “What about this king, then?”

“What? Oh yes. It was before I was, ahem, real.”

“Real?”

“You know able to converse directly with you people.”

It’s not her fault, thought Jane, she doesn’t even know that she’s being rude.

“Yes, it was a terrible sight to see a king grow mad, to see him lose his grip on reality, and slip away through the layers into the fabrications of his mind. Until at last his despair overwhelmed him and he was pushed down on all fours like an animal, barking or mewling as was his fancy, letting his hair grow wild and his nails grow into sharp claws.”

“We’ve got pills for that, nowadays,” said Jane.

“That was the end of the Neo-Babylonian Empire. The Persian King Cyrus entered the city and he was welcomed by the people. Nobody likes a mad king.” Mushussu sighed. “New images were created. I was the last of my kind.”

“Cyrus was on the X-factor, wasn’t he?”

“You’re getting confused, Jane. You’re thinking of Darius,” said Mushussu. “The Empire was gone, but the city went on. It faded in importance, eventually, and I was forgotten. When I was rediscovered, the historians re-created me and placed me in museums all over the world, copying and recopying my essence, for the enjoyment of the common folk. It’s not really right.”

Jane wondered if Mushussu was growing dissatisfied with life here in Palmers Green. Maybe she would be gone soon, like the Quetzalcoatl mask that used to tell her strange things, like Peter who Jane had thought would stay forever in her life.

When you live with someone, even with someone you love, that closeness magnifies your flaws. And slowly their love turns to irritation, and then to hatred and finally to indifference. And then they leave you.

Soon Mushussu would be gone. Perhaps she would fade like the mask, becoming less substantial each day despite Jane’s ministrations. Perhaps she would find a new lover, like Peter, who would leave clues to the infidelity that Jane would steadfastly ignore, until at last they would overwhelm her and confrontation would come.

Then, Jane would . . . would . . . What would she do when Mushussu left her?

She would visit the British Museum and spend her days wandering though the ancient artifacts looking for something that would fit into her life.

But, perhaps she should try to live on her own for a time. Other people did it. Why should Jane be so different? But the void rose up, the specter of isolation rose, and already she could feel the need in her. Even the thought of being alone was such a frightening thing. Already her mind was turning to the old cultures, imaging who would be the next foil for her life.

“I think, Mushussu, that you will leave me soon.” Jane’s voice trembled.

Mushussu looked at her. The snake’s head turned towards her and stared deep inside her.

“Jane,” she said. Her voice was gentle. “I will stay with you forever.”

“They all say that,” said Jane bitterly.

Mushussu’s claw raked against Jane’s arm.

“I will never leave you.”

Mushussu’s head wavered in a hypnotic patter. She hissed and opened her mouth so widely. Wider and wider: Jane felt that she would fall into those unhinged jaws. Inside her mouth was the pink flesh of an animal. So strange. Jane had imagined that Mushussu was stone all the way through. It just shows that you never really know anyone, even when you live with them.

Mushussu spat an acrid stream of venom. Jane tried to pull away but her Mushussu’s talons held her arm. The venom permeated the porous barrier of Jane’s vision. And Jane saw madness and the isolation of being stone; endurance and acceptance; ceremony and loneliness.

The venom coursed through Jane’s mind, the essence of history. The unreal poison was Mushussu’s ancient kiss.

“I will never leave you.”

“It’s nearly time,” said Jane. She turned over the TV to Channel Four. Jane and Mushussu settled down together to watch Celebrity Big Brother.

In the solitude of her room Jane settled down to watch Celebrity Big Brother; a thin line of blood bloomed on her arm and venom flowed from her eyes.