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Sand Dunes

Mother of Words

My father was the greatest man that ever lived. From the saffron fields of Azupiranu, to the Red Ziggurat at Kish, he took the world. The Lullubi tribes respected him, high up in their mountain forts. The horsemen of the steppes sent a hundred thousand hooves in tribute. Kings were so afraid that they sprinkled their legs with blood at the mere mention of his name.

Yes, my father was great indeed.


He had the love of Inanna.


Yet, if his mother was a goddess, his father was a simple man. Akki, the canal inspector, whose nails were caked in clay and who walked barefoot so that he could always feel the soil beneath his feet. Kind Akki, generous Akki, good Akki. He plucked my father from the Euphrates when he was but a babe, broke open the tarred casket, and washed him clean in the current. Akki lifted him out of hell, and loved him. Raised him as one of his own. Never knowing that one day, that tiny, frail infant would storm half the heavens.

He should have known from my father’s wails that there was a warrior within.

I am not a warrior.


I am a writer.


My father conquered men’s flesh with steel and fire, but he needed my help to conquer their minds. After my father became sargon, the legitimate king, wielding his will over city states and bureaucrats, he took my hand and raised me up. Dressed in fine woollen robes that looked like the folded wings of an eagle, he placed me upon the altar of the gods. I served the Moon with all my heart, dutiful as a daughter ought to be, though, in my soul, I loved Inanna just as my father had. Who could be a woman and not? Inanna was the wild in us all. She had stolen knowledge and culture from wise old Enki, she felled empires with a simple twist of her hips. Her bare breasts caused men and women alike to fall to their knees and beg. She was freedom itself. A flash of lightning, the fire at the heart of the volcano, and the simple, soft fleece of a new-born lamb. She glutted herself on every emotion, yet never felt full. Only a simple shepherd could win her love, and, even he, she discarded in the depths of the underworld for Ereshkigal to swallow whole.


As enheduanna, the highest priestess of the land, it was my job to travel between cities. To sooth the sharp words of my father’s enemies with softer ones of my own. I was there to sing them to sleep. Forty-two temple hymns, to forty-two gods. I composed these on tablets of wet clay, dredged from the depths of the river. I wrote my poems on the bones of those who had gone before: the soldier whose blood had wept into the water, the widow whose tears had salted it, the children who had stepped too deep whilst playing one long summer’s day. I cut their flesh with a reed stylus, and baked them beneath the beating Akkadian sun.


In return for my songs, each temple presented me with gifts: mica to brighten my eyes, kohl to darken them like thunder, both presented in seashells shimmering with nacre; precious jars of balsam and myrrh; beer made by the women whose duty it was to serve Ninkasi, goddess of brewing; gold, and lapis, and pearls fat as figs.


You cannot imagine my wealth.


From one city to the next, a trail of poetry and rose petals marked my progress. Yet, in the evening, when no one was watching, I would rest beside the fire and spell out my love for Inanna. I worshipped her in words, and gave over the secret spaces of my mind that she might walk them like a palace.


And how was I to know?


How could I ever have known?


Had I the ability to step into a boat, and traverse one of Akki’s great canals all the way to the future, four thousand turnings of the year…


For I was the first, you see.


The very first writer with a name.


No, let me correct that.


I am the only one. 


The only one whose name survived.


Many wrote their names, yet their names did not weather the all-engulfing depths of time. They sank beneath the desert sand and never resurfaced.


But you know me.


You know my name.


Even though we have never met.


And what might I have thought, to reach my journey’s end and disembark to find those great goddesses, those women whose thighs parted to birth the stars, all but forgotten. And worse yet, my own name reduced to author, a word derived from father, that assumes creation as a male act. Well then, is it amusing or sad that the first ever father of words should be a mother?


To watch my sister, Shikibu, write the first novel, whilst other women of her time were forced to sew nushu into their dresses and paint it on fans, disguising their words as birds and trees, for fear men would know they could read.


Oh, the anger.

How many women have been forced to call themselves by other names, whilst I wrote mine so proudly? How many men have shunned a work because its author bled more than ink?




For all that is said, should a boat appear on the Tigris tomorrow and invite me to step in, I would not. It is for you to live in the world of your creation, and me to live in mine. For the years have not yet passed, and I still hold a stylus in my supple hand. I have not yet been cast from my temple, Naram-Sin has not yet come to cut me down, and my father is still at the height of his power, never knowing how his sons will eventually devour themselves as a snake chokes on its own tale.


I hold the pen.


I write the words.


And for as long as I have power over my own story, I will write myself here. Where I am safe, where I am loved, and where nothing yet has crumbled to dust.

This story won the Bet Tuppi Ancient Near Eastern Historical Fiction Prize 2021. 

You can read all entries on their website.

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