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.”


  1. (Irene passed a knowledge roll and an idea roll. She also passed a library use check and two archaeology checks.)

    Flemming Bixby was a Danish archaeologist, not of Irene's acquaintance. While his claims of having found a ruined city in Bahrain in 1923 were questionable, his team (made up almost entirely of British students, and funded with a grant from the Museum) had uncovered a number of interesting artifacts as well as evidence of early trade between Near Eastern civilizations.

    There were parallels between the goddess described in the inscription and two other deities, whom Irene knew very well. The goddess's warlike character and the image of heads hanging on her belt both suggested a connection with Kali. Kali, however, was likely a much more recent invention. On the other side of the Old World, the scene of destruction and the moment where Lop Mudr wades in blood are reminiscent of the fury of the Egyptian goddess Sekhmet, who ran amock destroying armies until she was quelled by the other gods with a potion.

  2. As Irene read the inscription in her head—for some reason, she felt compelled not to say the words out loud—she found herself slipping into the past. For a moment, she was no longer in the twentieth century, but was thousands of years in the past…back in India once more. Could she ever get away from that wonderful and dreadful place? When she looked down, the palette was like new. She was its owner; it had been made specially for her. It was coloured in gentle pastels and there was freshly prepared kohl lying in the shallow valley of the lady’s lap. Irene could even smell the hint of sandalwood that still lingered in the black powder and, so deep had she sunk into this illusion, that she even reached out to dip her finger into the mixture so that she could apply it to her face. Though for that she would need a mirror…

    That thought and the images that it evoked—that cursed silver mirror, Peter’s troubled state, John Daniel’s death at Peter’s hands—were enough to snap Irene out of whatever fantasy or daydream she had fallen into. She had only been out of it for a few seconds, but it felt like a lifetime. But one glance up at Katharine told her that the other young woman had not noticed anything odd. She was too busy studying the object to have noticed the faraway look in Irene’s eyes.

    I’m losing my mind, Irene thought, for what felt like the hundredth time in the past month.

    “So many clues and no resolution,” she murmured, the corners of her lips dipping downward into a deep frown.

    Desperately, she wished that Peter were there. She could tell him exactly what she was thinking, even about the stupid mental journey into the past! It would be so much easier to communicate if he were right at her side…a letter would not do this discovery justice. In fact, she was rather worried about passing information in such a manner. Anyone could intercept a letter, after all. Oh, but she was being too paranoid, surely! But she had to face the facts: she had no idea who might be involved in this cult. If John Daniel, a respected gentleman and scholar, had been entrenched in such murder and treachery, then who else? It was not likely that anyone in a very high position with a great deal of power was involved in this fiasco, but it was possible. Irene really didn’t want to take chances. Even scouring the British Museum was a risk, but it was a necessary one. She had to do this research and therefore she had to be seen. Hopefully, all her worries were for naught and no one was paying the slightest bit of attention to her, other than the amount she’d become accustomed to receiving. Men always reacted to seeing a woman who obviously knew what she was doing in such places; sometimes the reaction was favorable and sometimes quite the opposite. Oh, it could be so frustrating at times!

    Looking down, Irene considered the palette again, this time in a different light. While Lop Mudr was no doubt a terrifying goddess, one that had certain parallels in Sekhmet, the lioness-headed warrior from Egypt and Kali, the Hindu lady of blood, death and destruction, there was something wondrous about such a powerful and terrifying female figure. Irene, as she stared at the palette, could not help but be just a little bit proud of her sex. Here in the present, five thousand or so years after this object had been fashioned, an Englishwoman of Irene’s age still could not vote. So much for a so-called superior and advanced culture! But women had once held so much power over men, even if usually only in the imagination and spirit world. Today that seemed rather silly and unimportant, but back then the gods had been very real. Sure, this might only be playing on men’s worst fears and exaggerations of women, but still...that was something there that resonated with Irene a little bit.

    Oh, if only she could find a way to purloin this palette…but that would just be taking this too far, surely! Did she really want to embark on a life of crime so early in her life? And while Kathleen had been very understanding thus far, Irene didn’t want to pick this moment to test the extent of their budding friendship. But she wanted this. Not only because she had felt a strange connection to it, for that was surely only her mind playing tricks on her, but because the writing on it was different than anything else she’d read this long day. It reminded her of the flow and feel of some of the ancient Egyptian texts. To be specific, it reminded her quite strongly of certain spells that she had read in the past.

    “Kathleen, I think that this is a spell,” Irene said slowly, the wheels turning and gears clinking gently together as she made several connections in her head.

    She retrieved her notebook and began to write down her translation. When she was finished, she passed it over for her friend to look over.

    Now, Irene had never considered the Egyptian spells to be anything more than superstitious, yet fascinating, verse. But now after all she had seen and what Peter had told her of, she was inclined to take such things much more seriously.

    “The mention of the jackals cannot be a coincidence,” she said, and she could not suppress a shudder that ran violently through her body as she recalled the sounds those creatures had made and also what they had done to Mumbles.

    She sighed softly and ran a hand through her hair. It was getting a bit long, but Irene had not really noticed. “I was inclined to think that this was merely a lady’s trinket, but now I think it may be more,” she said quietly. “If this is a spell, then perhaps I should speak it.”

    Irene was well aware that this was not the brightest idea she’d ever had. But she could think of two ways this could go: first (and most likely) nothing would happen and they could laugh about Irene’s wild ideas, or, second, something would happen…whatever that might be. Potentially, it could be something quite bad. Yet, Irene didn’t see how she could pass up this opportunity! Perhaps the palette was needed in conjunction with the spell? If that was the case, this might be her only chance! Or perhaps the mirror was somehow involved? Makeup palette and mirror…that made sense. These items had been found in different areas of the world, but that did not mean they might not share a common origin! The writing alone was enough to convince her that this was an important addition to their collection of artifacts. She’d have to find way to take it, that was that.

    “Should we give it a try?” she asked, a small smile on her lips. Really, she was quite sure that nothing would come of it. Still...

  3. There was only one way the words could come out. "Dadu gal beyuley marmar dawas . . ." Irene began.

    She stopped, realizing that she was speaking Harappan, in front of Kathleen nonetheless.

    The student's ears were indeed pricked. "You can read those marks?"

    Irene could do nothing but tell the obvious truth. "Yes," she said, and she restrained a smile. It was though she had been caught doing something that was as clever as it was naughty, and that smile was because she knew she could get away with it.

    "Irene! What is it? Is this something you've yet to publish on?"

    You could say that, Irene thought. She took a breath and began the inscription again.

    "Dadu gal beyuley marmar dawas,
    "Dadu aga yat, gua pornoi ou chor so hawas,
    "Sinder su tapatas, gua ganga: Jhayse, sornogon, hehey payu,
    "Magpi, lippi, beney dhare karkar . . ." Those were the words, Jackals, vultures, drink from my hands, chicks, pups, do honor to your sister. Irene had to sing Lop Mudr's song.

    "Smudran su lokey marmar dambadas,
    "Samaros-Rayan su aamey nashadas,
    "Ot-hernath su falaney marmar tutas,
    "Wrandey sarey-ka longas.
    "Sinder su tapatas, gua ganga: Banane, sirrushgon, hehey payu
    "Magpi, lippi, beney dhare karkar . . ."

    The second verse of the song was completed, and Irene felt something stirring in her, something like fascination, a frisson that crawled in her chest and her shoulders. It was elating.

    "Wasey rak yat chawalas,
    "Man so fallaieye hans, beyuley marmar motas.
    "Dadu aga yat, gua praaney so karkar dasas
    "Sinder su tapatas, gua ganga: Bofos, sushgon, hehey payu
    "Magpi, lippi, beney dhare karkar"

    The third verse completed - an honest to goodness shiver ran up her back. Her muscles contracted in waves, as if sending some smooth object upwards along her spine. The short hairs on her neck stood on end, and sent the sensation over her scalp and down her forehead. Her irises contracted.

    And relaxed. There was a mouse, sitting between a pair of boxes on the shelf facing Irene. He had only just arrived. He had meant to be foraging, and Irene knew this because his stomach was growling. Irene understood, for the first time really, how big she was, and how frightening such a big mobile thing as herself was to a being a fraction of a fraction of her size. But she also understood that she was interesting to that tiny being, and she understood all this because it was clearly what was on the mouse's mind. It was in his nose, lifted so high that his lip pulled away from his incisors, and in his paws. A little less in his eyes. His tail twitched.

    Irene intuited a singular inquiry from the scattered tells that made up the mouse's face. In so much as he had been interrupted from his search for crumbs - or well, whatever it was that was edible here, papyrus? - it was a reasonable inquiry:


    Kathleen echoed the mouse. "What is it Irene?" She laughed, or hiccuped. "Did . . . did something actually happen?"

    (In casting, Irene has sacrificed a few points. -1 sanity and -3 magic points. Magic points recover like hit points.)

  4. This was the singular most exhilarating experience of Irene’s life. It was better than reading a good book, more fulfilling than a gourmet meal and more unpredictable and exciting than sex. Somewhere deep inside her, the bits that weren't involved in the impetuous spellcasting (common sense, for example), were crying out that this was dangerous, addictive and not a substitute for mundane human experience. But right then Irene was not interested in listening.

    Kathleen’s voice usually brightened Irene’s mood, but now it raked across her ears, almost causing her to flinch. But she held back, took a deep breath and took a few seconds to decide what to do about it.

    A conclusion reached, Irene's eyes then focused on the mouse and she replied silently to his inquiry: Wait. She was sure he would understand her, but not so sure that he would indeed wait. But surely this situation was new and different for him, was it not? Or was she bestowing upon him more intelligence than he possessed?

    “I’m not sure,” Irene lied, glancing only briefly at Kathleen lest she sense the lie. She was quick to feign a cough, lowering her head and covering the lower half of her face. “Excuse me! My goodness, I believe I have something in my throat. Do you think you could get me some water, Kathleen? I’m sorry to ask, but—”

    And the coughing overtook her once more, though it ended abruptly once Kathleen had left the room.

    The unwanted element taken care of, Irene turned her attention back to the little creature who had so brazenly questioned her moments earlier. Things were beginning to fall into place now. Hadn’t Lop Mudr been made out of various animal parts? Not surprising, then, that this tablet of hers allowed contact with animals. Is that how the jackals had been commanded? By a spell like this one? She could not be certain yet. It would have to be put to the test.

    Irene slid off her chair and placed her hand palm up on the floor. She then locked gazes with the mouse and said, calmly, invitingly, “Come here.”

  5. The mouse darted behind the books. With a few thrilling drops, he came to the floor and ran directly into Irene's hand.

    It tickled! He was tiny and warm, and there were such fine points on those little claws pressing into Irene's hand. The mouse's heart beat rapidly – hours must have been going by for him as Irene held him to her face and inspected his features. He seemed to be a perfectly normal mouse. Up close, his pelt was actually quite attractive, not unlike an agouti-furred rabbit. Was it right to draw the little thing away from the labours of its short life? Nibbling inconvenient bits from food stores, chewing buildings to pieces, filling surprising places with droppings, making more mice . . . those were the mouse things that everyone knew about, but it was a little different when one was sitting in your hand, waiting for you to do something.

    Irene quickly noticed that the mouse had a habit of grooming the top of his head in a particular sequence – left, left, right, right, both – but whether this made him more like Descartes' machine-like dog or more like a little person with predictable foibles . . . who knew?

    The distant boom of a door falling into place alerted Irene to Kathleen's impending return.

  6. Irene was not quite to the point of questioning what was going on here. She wondered how this was possible, of course, but those thoughts were in the back of her mind. Above all the emotions she felt rose the awareness that she was truly enjoying this moment, perhaps too much so. Maybe she was being seduced by magics that were beyond her understanding and her control…but right now all she could think about was how darling and delicate this little creature was, that he was a tiny miracle. He was like her in that there was a spark of life in him and certain uniqueness, for he was different than any other mouse in the world. But she was bigger than him and she was, she knew, better (was that the right word…she was not sure) than him in a way she could not put into words. She supposed that this is how a hunter felt when stalking his prey. He knew that he was in the position of power, authority and intelligence on a different plane than that of the animals, and therefore felt that he had a right to control their lives and deaths. Irene didn’t feel that way. Instead, she felt an overwhelming urge to protect the tiny thing.

    “I wish I could take you home with me,” she murmured. She put one finger on the top of the smooth white fur right in-between the ears and very gently let it trail down towards the tail.

    Footsteps alerted her to Katherine’s imminent reentrance, so Irene had to move quickly. The mouse still balanced on one hand, she reached up with the other and felt around until until she found her purse on the tabletop. She pulled it down and placed it on its side. Then she angled her hand and slid the mouse onto the floor. “If you want to come, you can go in there, okay?”

    It wasn’t meant as an order; Irene wasn’t sure if that mattered, if the creature could tell, if the spell (if it was still in effect) turned requests into commands. All she knew was that she was lonely, despite being surrounded by friends and family, and this little creature offered her some sort of companionship. And she didn’t care if this longing was sad and pathetic because it was real.

    She just made it back into her chair as Katherine came in, bearing the requested water. “Thank you,” Irene said with a big smile, clearing her throat loudly. “You’re wonderful.”

    Her eyes focused on Katherine’s face as she took a long sip, though she kept her eyelids as low as possible so that the other woman wouldn’t notice the stare. Irene needed to know what Katherine thought of this whole adventure and whether she had noticed anything out of the ordinary. But she could hardly ask, seeing as she was not eager to share this experience with anyone except Peter. And even then she would likely exclude her innermost thoughts, some of which she was not proud of.

  7. "No trouble at all." Kathleen replied. She gave Irene only a moment to take in her composure, to guess from her brightened eyes and her nervously clutched hands that her interest had been piqued by Irene's spellcasting - though whether or not she actually suspected that the spell had been effective . . .

    Her even facade broke quickly. Excitedly, she asked, "Irene - is everything okay? You seemed to have a bit of a chill when you were reading . . . and Irene! Really that's so wonderful that you can read that! Your career is made, isn't it! You must show me!"

    Glancing under the table, Irene took note: the mouse had moved out of view.

    There was another distant thud, followed by footfalls. The watchman appeared from between the far end of two shelves. "Miss Kenyon, Miss Howell. It's past midnight now. I won't be staying much longer, if you please."

    "Of course Henry, we'll be finishing shortly," replied Kathleen familiarly.

    "Thank yeh." He turned and left; letting his footsteps and the latch of the door mark his exit.

  8. “Oh, everything is fine. More than fine,” Irene assured Kathleen with a warm smile.

    Thank goodness the watchman interrupted them, for that spared Irene having to answer to Kathleen's eager interest.

    Past midnight? That really was a revelation to Irene. She felt more invigorated than ever, but perhaps she was still sailing high after the spell.

    “Let’s not keep Henry waiting,” she said quickly, already beginning to gather up her notebook and any stray papers or writing utensils.

    She reached out towards the palette, but then paused, hand in midair. After a few seconds of hesitation in which she furiously weighed her options, she completed her arm extension and took the miraculous palette in her hand, bringing it towards her. She could not let it go. That was simply no way that she could leave it to rot here. In fact, she wasn’t even sure that she could let it lie here even for one more night. She wanted it, and she wanted it now. And for all Irene's humility, she felt that she was entitled to have the palette. In some way she could not explain, it was hers and hers alone.

    “Do you think that I could borrow this? I would really like to make a copy of it. It is such a fascinating piece and I just cannot close my eyes tonight until I have studied it a bit more! Do you think your father would mind terribly? I would be happy to sign it out properly, of course,” she added hopefully.

    Since no one knew that this piece existed and therefore would not miss it, Irene hoped that Kathleen would be amenable to the suggestion. Besides, it was not as if she meant to keep it and never tell anyone about it! Thank goodness that Kathleen was so interested herself in what had gone on; that would surely make her more willing to dare her father’s disapproval.

    “And perhaps you can come to tea very soon and we can discuss it further,” Irene added, shamelessly using any possible hook to get the young lady to agree to this near-thievery.

    Of course, she had no intention of letting Kathleen know anything more. No, she had already made up her mind: she planned to purloin the palette and to join Peter in Berlin within the next few days.

  9. Kathleen was hesitant, too. "I don't think my father would mind – I mean, if he were to know about it. What I might find worrisome is taking it without Doctor Bixby's permission. It is uncatalogued, and I'm sure he wants credit." She put a thoughtful finger to her chin. "Of course you don't mean to take credit away from him."

    Flemming Bixby. In British archaeological circles he was known as energetic scholar with a knack for uncovering unique sites. Even though his penchant for exaggeration had more than once exceeded the parameters of responsible empiricism, he nevertheless remained in good standing with the British Museum, filling its closets with bits from across the Near East faster than they could be properly recorded.

    "It'd just be a pity, I think, for it not to be examined by a real expert . . . and I suppose that no one can blame you for wanting to keep your findings to yourself for now." There: Kathleen was in, Irene knew it. "The log should be at the front desk on this floor . . ."

    Perhaps Irene could explain her situation to Bixby? But, would he agree? And how much of her own purposes would she have to reveal to him to gain his permission?

    "Why don't you go ahead and sign it, Irene?"

    Irene knelt and retrieved her purse from the ground. An unpleasant sort of calculation came to mind: how much trouble was Bixby capable of making for her if he learned about the palette's removal and disapproved? Irene was unhappily aware of her own limited standing in the British Museum community, moreso since the unpleasantness with Howard. Could she thwart Flemming Bixby?

    "I'll put these bull coins back with the other two hundred and meet you in the lobby. Don't take too long looking for it, I'll be right there," Kathleen said. Was she actually intentionally giving Irene an opportunity to remove the piece without even going through the formality of signing it out?

    At this moment, Irene felt a vibration beneath her elbow. The mouse had found what he was looking for after all. Any guilt Irene might have been feeling for drawing the creature away from its run was thereby alleviated – and with it, no small amount of her misgivings about taking the palette, here and now.

  10. Irene said a silent prayer of thanks to Kathleen. Bless her heart, that was one clever, brave young lady! And foolhardy, of course. She’d be in quite a lot of trouble if anyone found out that she had allowed Irene to make off with the palette. Though Irene hoped that she would plead ignorance, if there was ever a case made of it. But given how much there was in storage and how long it had been there, it would be the height of bad luck if someone just so happened to try to properly catalogue that particular box while she was in possession of the artifact. And really, it was not so strange when things went missing. It was actually expected these days, what with so much packing, unpacking and moving around, often by those inadequately trained or of questionable morals. Perhaps no one would think anything of it at all! Well, no matter. It was worth the risk and that was that.

    Moving quickly, Irene retrieved the plain paper that the palette had been wrapped in and carefully folded it around the artifact once more. She just managed to tie the brown string securely around it and slip it into her purse—careful not to squash her little passenger in the process, of course—before Kathleen returned.

    “I decided not to take it,” Irene informed Kathleen with a smile. If Kathleen wanted to know the truth, she could ask; if she wanted to be kept in the dark, Irene was not going to force her to be an accessory to the crime. “Perhaps I will write to Dr. Bixby and discuss the piece with him. No doubt he will wish to be informed as to my progress.”

    She adjusted the strap of her purse on her arm and then stifled an unexpected yawn. “My goodness, it is late, is it not? I do hope that your family will not be worried about you. I should hate for them to think me a bad influence!”