Elizabeth Barrette (ysabetwordsmith) wrote,
Elizabeth Barrette
ysabetwordsmith

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Poem: "The Uruk Uncertainty"

This poem is spillover from the February 3, 2015 Poetry Fishbowl. It was inspired by a prompt from [community profile] trope_bingo fest. This poem was selected in an audience poll as the free epic for the April 7, 2015 Poetry Fishbowl. It belongs to The Time Towers series, which you can find via the Serial Poetry page.


"The Uruk Uncertainty"


It was strange to see
the Middle East so green,
with the Tigris and Euphrates
ribbons of rushing blue between
fields of lush tall grains.

The Fertile Crescent now
lived up to its name, Sumer
a thriving civilization supported by
the rivers it called Idigina and Buranuna.

The city of Uruk stood on the shore of the Buranuna,
a throng of so many people that it is counted
the largest city in the world at its time.

Arthur and Eleanor parked their time machine
in a cave not far from the city, walking
along a road flanked by wildflowers.

"We should pretend to be married again,"
Arthur said as climbed a low hill.

"Yes, I suppose we must," Eleanor agreed.

They had been unpleasantly surprised
to discover just how much weight
the roles of family possessed in the past --
in many cultures, you could not do anything
without some kind of family connection or context.

At least if they had each other, they could
vouch for the existence of some fictitious family
in a distant city, long enough to get the job done.

It had come as even more of a shock that
the gender roles and expectations were not
always what history had made them out to be,
so that in about one out of three times they visited,
it was the husband who relied on the wife
to secure some semblance of freedom.

They had to do something, because assignments
often required them to infiltrate cultures
for weeks or months at a time.

A thousand little things tripped them up,
because no matter how much they studied,
so much was missing that they always made mistakes.

There was the time that Eleanor
was assumed to be a sworn virgin
because she went drinking in a bar
and spoke with men about the mission.

There was the time that Arthur
was mistaken for a gay male prostitute
because he did not wear a beard.

This time they managed to collect
an appropriate (hopefully) assortment of
clothes and jewelry with a combination
of robbing drunks, stealing from clotheslines,
and in Eleanor's case decking a rude man who
refused to remove his hand from her backside.

Arthur grumbled about his clothes again.
"Bad enough I had to wear a dress
last time," he said. "This time it isn't
even a dress. It's just the skirt!"

Eleanor would have sniped back at him,
but her mouth was still filled with
half of the twenty silver pins
for putting up her hair.

On this occasion they were trying to prevent a war
between Iraq and Iran, which scholars thought
might have been avoided if certain aspects
of language had survived from earlier times,
so they needed to find materials that would
aid translation in the future at minimum, and
if possible tweak history toward a better direction.

Privately the time travelers wondered
if they could prevent the whole morass
of disaster that the Middle East had become
over most of the last millennium or two.

They had spent over a year (subjectively)
in this line of pursuit, rambling through
different civilizations in an attempt
to wiggle loose other events so as
to free up the piece, here, that
they actually wanted to change.

The Temple of Inanna held scribes
who recorded the religious business and
the myths and all manner of other things.

"We may have a problem," Eleanor observed.

The priests ... priestesses? ... clergy
of the temple consisted of a strange jumble
that included maybe-men in stately dresses,
probably-women with bound chests above
long tiered skirts made with many colors,
and others whom neither Eleanor nor Arthur
could guess what they might be under veils
and robes and several pounds of jewelry.

"The best I can think of is for us to trade disguises,"
Arthur said. "I suppose I'm back to wearing a dress."

It took a bit more skulking to find one of the bands
used to wrap the chests of the people
who were most likely women,
so Eleanor could change.

Then they slipped through the temple,
trying to fit in but feeling out of place anyhow.

Eleanor met someone called Luninni,
whose small breasts were obscured
by a linen band and whose narrow hips
barely flared the line of the man's skirt.

At first Eleanor thought that he was
a transman bereft of modern options,
then that she was more like a butch lesbian,
and finally that modern labels mattered less
than whether Luninni knew the way to the archives.

Arthur met someone called Gemekala
who gently pulled him aside and explained
that it was best to knit breasts from lambswool
instead of simply stuffing one's dress with rags.

At first Arthur thought he was a transvestite,
and then that he might have been a gay man;
only later did it occur to him that she might
have been a transwoman or that Arthur himself
could have asked instead of making assumptions.

Eventually Eleanor and Arthur floundered their way
into the heart of the temple, where the archives
were doubtless somewhere to be found.

They were stopped by a veiled person
who lowered a lapis staff and intoned,
"I am Ninniursag, servant of Inanna and
Erishkegal, guardian of the archives.
Who seeks to enter with faces I do not know?"

"I am Elutil," said Eleanor.

"I am Anbir," said Arthur.

"Are you kurgarra or galatur?" Ninniursag asked.
"Both male and female, or neither of the two?"

"We are trying to prevent a war," Eleanor said,
which was the truth, if not the whole truth.

"If you cry out with Erishkegal, Queen of Great Below,
and seek to avoid swelling her sore belly with more souls,
then surely you are kurgarra and galatur of the temple,
for you are doing that work," Ninniursag declared.
"Come with me, and I shall help you find whatever
you need in the archives, for I have dreamed of this."

"We need things written in two tongues,"
said Eleanor, the voice of logic
"words of peace if you have them."

"We need things to teach reading to those
who are not yet literate," said Arthur,
whose gift was that of intuition,
"lessons for children or novice scribes."

Then the servant of two goddesses filled a basket
with tablets of clay, crisp and new with no chips in them,
and covered them with a linen cloth embroidered
in bright thread that showed the Descent of Inanna.

"It moves," Arthur whispered to Eleanor. "Can you feel it?"

But it was Ninniursag who replied, "Yes, I feel it.
Will you turn time like the stream of a canal,
to water a different field than it would have done
had you not meddled about with the levers?"

"We will," said Eleanor. "It is why we were sent."

"Good," said Ninniursag, threading the lapis staff
between the handles of the basket to hold it shut.
"Go now, and take down the corpse that hangs on the wall."

Arthur and Eleanor went back
to their time machine in the cave, and
thence to the future, carrying with them
the basket of clay and blessings.

They were uncertain whether the future
would change in the ways they wished for,
if their contributions of ancient words
would help or hinder in avoiding the war.

They were uncertain if Ninniursag
had been male or female or something
altogether other and inexplicable,
and even whether their own natures
had remained unchanged after passing
through so many different social roles
and most especially one in which
peacemongering was gender performance.

The motes of golden pyrite in the lapis staff
glittered like stars but gave no answers.

So Arthur and Eleanor completed their assignment
according to their orders, handing over
the artifacts they had retrieved.

It was only the next morning that they realized
in talking over breakfast that each of them
had dreamed the same dream about someone
clad in robes and veils, holding a lapis staff,
and whispering words they only almost understood.

* * *

Notes:

The Tigris and Euphrates form a river system defining the Fertile Crescent. This poem uses older forms of their names.

The Uruk Period of Sumer featured the goddess Inanna (and to some degree, Erishkegal) in the city of Uruk.

The Galatur and Kurgarra are two artificial creatures which appear in "The Descent of Inanna." They have variously been interpreted as asexual or transgender or other things, but in any case, clearly genderqueer. Inanna and Erishkegal are goddesses of alt sex/gender folks in general.

Throughout history, many cultures have included various atypical sex/gender roles. Albania has sworn virgins, women who live as men. Beardless men appear in the Bible.

Enjoy reading about Sumerian fashions and fabrics.

The entertainment trope Mugged For Disguise pops up in many genres.
Tags: cyberfunded creativity, fishbowl, gender studies, history, linguistics, paganism, poem, poetry, reading, science fiction, spirituality, writing
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