In the Study

3115 BC — Kesh, Sumeria

During his first three months in the priest’s household, Te-Nen does not even catch a glimpse of the man again. He sees a great deal of other functionaries: a rotund but quiet housemaster, an aging woman who is the mistress of the grounds and gardens. Several others. But the priest’s household is not numerous and all of them seem to be as quiet as he is himself.

What the boy does see is a lot of water, and buckets.

Water must be carried to half a dozen different basins and tubs every day. There is one large tub on the second floor that feeds a small fountain in the back garden through a silver tube. Others are used so that guests of the house can step into a water-room and wash or simply cool themselves at any time they wish. The level of wealth that this luxury implies made Te-Nen dizzy, when he first understood it. And even the servants are allowed to refresh themselves! The Mistress of Gardens, who appears to be from the same country as the priest, does it frequently when she is inside.

On one hot morning Te-Nen dared, when he was certain that no one was nearby, to take in his hands water from the wall of the water-room and cool his face with it. The feeling, as though he himself were a wealthy man, took his breath away.

But mostly Te-Nen carries water so that he can scrub the tile floors. Two buckets: one with water and the stiff brush, the other holding sponges to dry with. He empties the old and carries the new water in the morning, scrubs the second floor in the afternoon, scrubs the first floor in the evening, and dreams about scrubbing at night.

To the third floor he has been told never to go. That is the abode of the priest Mu-Ta-Lu.

~

In the early evening of one day in his third month Te-Nen is scrubbing tile on the second floor of the house, when he turns and sees that a man is in the room with him. It is Mu-Ta-Lu.

Shocked, the boy drops his stiff brush and scuttles backward, then stands wide-eyed, wondering how long the white-haired priest has been watching him in perfect silence.

Te-Nen looks fearfully into the tall man’s ice-gray eyes.

“Come,” says the priest Mu-Ta-Lu. “Bring your bucket and brush.”

~

The boy follows the tall foreign man up the stairs to the forbidden third floor, then down a wide, richly paneled hall into a large, high-ceilinged room.

Te-Nen has seen wealth many times in his short life. The flowing water in this great house has given him a taste of it. On the streets of Kesh he has seen well-dressed men with horses, women wearing silver and gold. But standing in this room, carrying his implements of cleaning, Te-Nen feels that he is seeing true wealth for the first time in his life.

Against the high walls, there are tall shelves of scrolls with binding straps of leather, and silk, and cloth-of-gold, their spines of olivewood and carob, copper and amethyst, their cover wrappings tan, crimson, and saffron.

Te-Nen has also seen writing many time before, on tablets used by counters in the markets. Yet in his life he has seen only three actual scrolls. He remembers each time: one displayed on an altar of Nin-Tud, one at market in the hands of the servant of a wealthy merchant, and one, opened, in the hands of a lady in a sedan chair, he only glimpsed though fluttering gauze.

But the rich wooden racks in this room contain scores of the beautiful scrolls. A scent of antiquity wafts down from them to the boy as he stares. Te-Nen knows, as though the magical things are whispering to him, that some of them come even from the remote past before the waters rose. Those are the best of all. They whisper most clearly.

In his mind’s eye, the boy sees a great city in flames, coal-black clouds rushing across the moon’s face, people and animals fighting through hip-deep water in torch-lit streets, and a rich man struggling toward the city’s piers, carrying a heavy leather case.

As the rich man comes within view of the docks, he sees sailors on a long ship stabbing down into the rising water with pikes. They are stabbing at people in the water who are trying to climb aboard. As the rich man runs, sloshing through the deepening flood, a soldier on the boat sees him and shouts, pointing. Archers on the boat begin shooting at the people who are chasing him.

Only after they lift him on board does the vision show how tall the man is. Although his hair is long and black, his identity is clear: this is Mu-Ta-Lu in his youth.

Setting the leather case carefully on the deck behind the ship’s ornately carved railing, the young man looks back toward shore. As the sailors of his household unship oars to drive the boat into deeper water, the man—his true name is Moatallao—looks back at the great city. As far as he can see into the dock district, the broad avenues are thronged with carts and crowds. In the greater distance smoke is rising everywhere as accidental fires burn out of control.

A great metropolis, a city of millions of souls, cannot be emptied in less than several days, and that only with careful organization. But the people of Moatallao’s city do not have several days, nor any trace of organization.

The unnatural tide is rising quickly now. Even across the distance that is rapidly opening between his boat and the docks, even above the sound of the time-keeper’s drum and the oars striking the waves, Moatallao can hear the masses nearest the dockyard district beginning to panic. He can imagine the scene repeated a thousand times throughout all the streets and warrens of the city, stretching for miles inland. The masses are beginning to understand that this tide of death is showing no sign of abating its rise, and there is no high land for many leagues inland. The city will be inundated. No more than one in a hundred will escape the waters, clinging to the tops of towers. Even the fires will not have time to claim many more victims before they, too, are quenched.

By morning, Atlantis will lie ten fathoms beneath the waves.

~

Trembling, the boy reawakens to his present surroundings and finds himself facing the tall priest. Te-Nen knows that what he has seen is impossible. The events of the vision are thousands of years in the past. Yet, looking into the tall man’s ice-gray eyes, Te-Nen sees all the sorrow of two worlds: his own, and the one that was lost long ago beneath the waves.

The tall man stands as motionless as a statue, while Te-Nen’s heart hammers in his chest.

“You like the scrolls,” the tall man says.

Though he is trembling, and though he now fears the man before him more than ever, Te-Nen finds the courage to nod.

“Would you like to know their secrets?”

The boy’s eyes widen. In his mind he sees the long-ago city of blue and white towers, burning and drowning. After a time, he nods again. With his tired gaze the priest examines Te-Nen expertly yet casually, as a man might a donkey. The white-haired priest regards him for a long moment before he, too, nods.

“You will be taught to read,” the priest says at last. “But first, clean.” He gestures with a long-fingered hand beyond the rack of scrolls, toward the end of the room that holds a spacious bath, and sumptuously tiled walls. Te-Nen turns and carries his bucket toward the bath. Near it, on the white-tiled wall, is a single red streak: a long, thin spray of blood. The blood is only partially dried.

Te-Nen looks back toward the priest, but the man has gone. Kneeling, the boy takes his brush from the water bucket, and begins to scrub.

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