Thursday, March 5, 2009

Smasher of Cities

Before the Eiffel Tower was completed in 1889 all the tallest structures in History had been tombs, buildings meant to bear the body of a dead man towards the Heavens. First, the pyramids, then the cathedrals, and finally the Washington Monument in 1884 served this purpose until the Eiffel Tower came and broke away absurdly from this history. Ugly and metal, it had been called cage-like by its detractors. The Eiffel Tower bore no body. Now it was only a matter of time before one of the American skyscrapers reached even higher than the Tower, finalizing the transition: no longer will enlightened society bear dead men up like gods! The new monuments would be empty or would hold common men and women, working

Indeed, the most massive artifacts of human life had always been those that spread across the face of the Earth by mundane forces. Endless tracts of cultivated land, centuries old terraces cut into the sides of Chinese mountains, the sprawl of industry, the open of the marketplace, the Great Wall. Grand in their ways; but they were all useful structures, dominated by quotidian interests like population, commerce, and the drawing of lines.

The ceilings were low in the basement of the British Museum. Irene could touch them. It was scarcely a marvel of architecture, and though it was a massive building in its own right, the Museum wasn’t marvellously tall. But, moving about the warren of aisles, crates, and cases, Irene was sensible to the museum’s unique kind of grandiosity. Over its life, the institution had been collecting, cataloguing, and converting into British common property nothing short of the entire history of the human race. The halls and vaults of the Museum were filled with precious jewels, rare specimens, ethnographic collections, mundane bits from far-flung lives. Slowly, slowly, for more than a hundred and fifty years, the British Museum had been concretizing the scattered relics of humanity, as cement binds sand, and shaping a different kind of monument. Perhaps the greatest of the Empire’s gifts back to the world, the British Museum was a monument to Mankind; and that most ungainly, cobbled-together gift was Man.

A monument to a species! “Someday this place will make such wonderful ruins,” Kathleen said idly as she met Irene at the desk where they had set up an outpost among the holdings. “There will be so much to find here.” She placed two tiny crates, the spoils from her most recent foray, onto the work table before Irene.

Inside one box: a few more bull coins. Attractively struck, fairly old things, but Irene had already seen thirty-four just like this handful. She closed the box up and pushed it to the side. There was already so much digging for a place so far from ruins! Such was the real body of the Museum: if it was a monument, it was a monument constructed from the brick-a-brack of thousands of lives, most of which came into the world and passed without ever catching History’s eye. How many pieces here had been recovered from tombs and graves of some kind? How many of these pieces belonged inside some ruined monument?

“I also found a tablet, I think. I didn’t open it to check.” With a quick jerk of a screwdriver, Irene pried the top from the uncatalogued box. Inside, amidst a nest of hay and shredded Urdu newspaper, lay a tiny palette, about the size of her hand. Irene was faced with a figure of a standing woman. There was, actually, no face on the piece at all, but the general outline of the figure, as well as the accentuated cleft of her genitalia, marked her as feminine. In her lap, a concave space for preparing powders or make-up. Above the figure, a name, Lop Mudr.

Oh yes, there was plenty of Harappan inscriptions for the reading. Irene could not say that she was unsurprised by herself – only that she had found her new skill quite useful over the past few hours. Most examples of Harappan letters were merely initials, marks of ownership, and Irene was unsure whether the piece in her hand had anything to do with the Lop Mudr of the cult, or if, perhaps, Lop Mudr was simply a lady’s name. Were there not hordes of Maries, Lakshmies, and Fatimas in the world? “Where is it from?”

“Ah,” Kathleen looked to a stencil pad. “Bahrain. It’s . . . at about 3200 BC. Your people’s era, I believe. What is it? Is that Indic script?”

Irene nodded. “I think it’s a name – weren’t we were looking in the Indus?”

“We were – we are – there were just so many bulls and rhinoceroses I was getting dizzy from them all, so I decided to spread out a little to someplace else in the same era, rather than just keep digging and digging in one spot. I thought, ‘Dilmun has a little bit of everything, let’s look there.’ It’s from Flemming Bixby’s so-called necropolis.” She craned around Irene to get a better look at the palette. “Is this useful to you?”

Lo, she gives battle in the black city.
Lo she comes, wafting in saffron and coriander.
Painted in kohl, she sings: Jackals, vultures, drink from my hands.
Chicks, pups, do honour to sister.

She slaughters the people of the sea;
She destroys the men of Sumer.
She shatters the altar of Ot-Hernath.
She hangs heads on her belt.
Painted in kohl, she sings: Dragon, sirrush, drink from my hands.
Chicks, pups, do honour to sister.

She wades in blood to her thighs.
Heart full of laughter, she smashes the city.
Lo she comes, retained by animals.
Painted in kohl, she sings: Dogs, lions, drink from my hands.
Chicks, pups, do honour to sister.

Lo, she gives battle in the black city.
Lo she comes, wafting in saffron and coriander.

“I think it might be.”