The Counting Room

3113 BC — Kesh, Sumeria

The moment he starts to write, the ‘apple’ starts to roll. Te-Nen drops his stylus and grabs the clay sphere with both hands, feeling like he would rather throw the stupid thing across the room than catalog its contents. Couldn’t they at least be made with flat bottoms? The young man looks around furiously, but there is nothing suitable in the bare scribing room to use as a stop for the eight-inch clay sphere.

Te-Nen frowns at the ‘apple’ and sees by its author’s seal that it has come from Gu-lam-sag, a Maradian farming estate. Which means that it would probably save everyone a lot of trouble if he did indeed simply smash the damned thing and conceal its shards in the household trash. Except for the fact that Master Mu-ta-lu would undoubtedly know, and most likely have his guts torn out by demons.

“Ah!” An idea occurs. There is indeed something useful in the counting room, but the scribe can’t see it because it is hanging around his neck! Te-Nen takes his necklace off. It is a pretty thing of yellow, blue, and red beads, but they are merely glazed clay rather than the gold, lapis, and carnelian that they imitate. You can get six of them to the half-shekel at any market in town. Today, however, this humble servant’s bauble is beyond price, because today it will save its owner’s guts from being ripped out by demons.


The ‘apples’ in the counting room of Mu-ta-lu are hollow clay spheres, from four inches to a full foot across. They contain anywhere between one and several dozen variously shaped clay tokens, each token representing some quantity of commodities, such as flax or barley, or metals such as copper, tin, and bronze, or occasionally more abstract goods such as some number of days of the effort of skilled laborers.

A list of each apple’s contents is also invariably written on the outside, which confused Te-Nen when he first achieved this duty more than a year ago. Mu-ta-lu himself taught Te-Nen the meaning, using, as always, as few words as possible, waiting to see how much the boy would discern for himself.

Rather than explain directly, the master merely pointed out that the surface of the apple would be re-inscribed every time it changed ownership, to show the name of the new owner.

But—the boy had frowned—why have a record of contents on both the outside and the inside of the sphere? And, moreover, an inside that can only be examining by destroying the thing?

After puzzling for a moment, Te-Nen realized that a sufficiently skillful scribe might be able to add to or otherwise alter the apple’s external list of contents. It seemed doubtful: words cut into dry clay look very different from those that have been impressed before the clay was fired. But with sufficient care and skill—yes, it might be done.

“It is in case of a dispute, lord?” he asked Mu-ta-lu. “If the debtor says that the apple has been altered? Then you break the apple and see the tokens?”

“Yes,” the old man smiled. “But that must be done in the presence of a judge. Such disputes are rare. And costly to the loser.”

The young man saw that his master had been pleased.


Removing his necklace leaves Te-Nen feeling uncomfortably bare. Few men wear garments on their upper bodies, aside from priests, the very old, or foreigners, but only the lowliest go without any adornment. Te-Nen’s modest single necklace is already uncomfortably slight for a young man acutely aware of his status. Without it he feels like a kitchen slave, or a field hand. Still, a few minutes of humility are better than even one second of having a demon ripping out your guts.

Te-Nen smiles at the thought: the silliness about demons in the service of his master is just a joke among the house servants. But—it is not entirely in jest. There are many rumors concerning Mu-ta-lu, both within the house and among some of the more superstitious of the vendors who sell to the household. People always like to talk, but in this case young Te-Nen admits to himself—they might have some good reason to talk.

Chief among those reasons would be the fact that young girls, invariably foreign slaves, are sometimes seen entering the house in the night—but are never seen to leave.


Laying his necklace on the surface of the large trestle table with one hand, Te-Nen arranges it as several concentric rings. He settles the clay apple into the nest thus created and smiles, seeing it rest peacefully.

He begins his task of copying the apple’s tally of goods to the clay-painted slate tablet.

Apples have long been used to record what a shipment should contain that arrives by ship or caravan from Kemt, Byblos, or distant Bharata. But, more recently, wealthy traders have also begun to use the clay spheres to record transactions among themselves. The apples, which may represent substantial sums of debt, are often traded from one owner to another many times before they are ever “broken”: converted into the actual commodities they represent.

The apples have become, in themselves, a way to store wealth, rather than merely account for it.

Against the wall of the counting room, across from the table where Te-Nen does his work, stand great shelves of almond wood with holes cut in the planks, each hole containing its own clay apple. There is enough wealth stored in this room, Te-Nen has long since realized, to buy a good-sized army for the lord Mu-Ta-Lu, should he so desire. But the lord of Te-Nen’s house does not seem to need the protection of men at arms.

The young man concentrates as he copies the symbols for fifteen gur of wheat, seven gur of spelt, and three of barley onto the tablet.


The rumors among the more superstitious servants and suppliers to the house say that Mu-Ta-Lu is a Gid-Im—a spirit being who drinks the blood of the living to survive. And has Te-Nen himself not seen the young girls who arrive in the night?

What a dreadful thought! What a horror, to discover that for the last three years you have been serving a demon of the underworld masquerading as a man! How any normal young man would tremble to learn this truth!

Te-Nen stops his work, sets down his stylus again and remains there, staring at the wet clay for long moments. No matter how much he tells himself he should tremble at such a thought—the trembling does not come. He has berated himself over this lack of propriety. For some months he tried to convince himself that he did feel fear like a person ought to when confronted by such possibilities. But finally he has decided that he wants truthfulness with himself more than he wants to be a slave to propriety, even in his own mind. Or, worse yet, to whatever people may decide to say is proper.

Suppose Mu-Ta-Lu truly is a Gid-Im. What of it? Everyone knows that such things exist, as well as many other wonders: men who can become animals, or fly in the air, women who can heal or curse. Although, on the other hand, Te-Nen has always noted that these stories always seem to have happened to a friend of an uncle long ago in Eshnunna or some such place, and are usually told late in the night during Ne-Izi-Gar, the Month of Ghosts.

Looking at the lord Mu-Ta-Lu, it is not hard to see how he might attract such children’s stories to himself. But even if such things could ever be real in waking life, why should propriety require that a young man quail at the mere thought? Why should good folk shun any thought of congress with such beings? Should life be nothing but tallies of grain and sheep? Should our brief time on Earth consist only of birth, strife, procreation, and death, with a few days of pleasure sprinkled across years of boredom and pain like a handful of spangles on a drab cloak?

Outside, a team of workmen are wrestling an ox cart through the crowd of pedestrians. Their cart is filled too high with the big twelfth-gur beer urns protected by ropes of woven grass. Those on the top of the pile are threatening to tip off every time the wagon’s wheels hit a rut or pothole.

Te-Nen is surprised to find that, in his reverie, he has left his seat and gone to stand near the room’s long slit-windows. He stands here sometimes to peer at the city, to listen to its sounds, to smell its air.

At least that is one reason he stands here sometimes. The other reason is that the slit-windows are next to the room’s other set of shelves, this one holding the catalog tablets that he and his predecessors have completed. And it is here, among the stacks of completed tablets, that young Te-Nen has hidden his life’s only treasure: the one special bunch of tablets that he looks to when he is sick of copying lists of goods.

His treasure is a movable, changeable kind of treasure, and not something that Te-Nen actually owns. It is a book, consisting of eleven tablets not unlike the ones that he himself is creating. But these tablets hold something far finer than his coarse tallies of market goods. Over a space of months, he has carefully filched each of the eleven tablets from the master’s library. Rising very early on those mornings he judges to be safest, he goes down to the house’s ceramic shop to retrieve a new tablet. If anyone were to encounter him in the hall, what would he have to explain? Is it surprising that a scribe requires tablets? Not at all!

It might be more difficult to explain why he is always carrying two tablets after passing the master’s library. Why does a scribe require two fresh tablets at once? But the distance between the library and the counting room is not great, nor are those passages much frequented in the early mornings. Fortunately, the problem has never arisen.

So, every week or so, he has acquired a new portion of his treasure.

Instead of simple lists, these wonderful tablets contain, written in an astonishingly fine hand, a tale greater than any that Te-Nen has ever heard told by some fool on a Ne-Izi-Gar evening.

Now that he has thought of the tale, his desire for it burns hot. He touches the edge of the final tablet, concealed among his own, then frowns uncertainly at the doorway. It is later in the day than he normally dares to indulge his secret vice. Yet, he has not heard a footstep in this whole wing of the house for an hour or more.

Te-Nen’s face hardens. His life will not consist only of tallies of grain and sheep. Carefully extracting the precious tablet from its hiding place, he steps to the trestle table and places it gently on the surface, in a spot where he imagines he could quickly conceal it under a legitimate tablet if he hears someone coming.

He is already reading before he resumes his seat.

Uplifting their torches the An-Nu-Na-Ki

With blazing fire lit the land.

The heavens shocked at Adad’s deed

Darkened to night the brightness of day

Over shattered land broken like clay.

The South Wind howled in the noon darkness

Towering waves drowning the mountain

Overwhelming as an army.

Not one man could see his fellow.

None could see in that torrent.

The gods themselves feared that flood

Ascended to Anu fleeing it.

“You enjoy such stories?” Mu-Ta-Lu’s voice comes from only a few feet behind him, and Te-Nen jumps as though cold water had been poured down his back. Turning on his seat, he gapes at the tall foreigner, with his pale skin, eyes, and hair. Is he truly a Gid-Im, then, to be able to walk through walls? The room’s door is closed and Te-Nen would swear on his life that it could not have opened without his awareness. Could he have been that engrossed in the tablet?

Mu-Ta-Lu seats himself in a chair, its back against the cool wall.

“Yes. Yes, lord,” Te-Nen blurts. “I was going to return the tablets to their place as soon as—”

Mu-Ta-Lu holds up one long, pale hand for silence. Te-Nen feels himself under the scrutiny of the master’s gray-blue eyes like—like a pullet might be scrutinized by a cook? His heart hammering, the young man desperately hopes not. But at this moment it is possible to believe anything of the master of the house.

“You have done well in your work,” Mu-Ta-Lu says. “But you wish for more.”

It is not a question. The young man, transfixed by pale eyes, only nods.

“Remind me of your name,” the ancient man asks quietly.

“It is Te-Nen, lord.”

“Interesting,” the pale man says. “It means He meets great ones. I wonder. Will that prophecy prove true?

“I have met you, lord,” Te-Nen answers immediately.

The tall man laughs suddenly, explosively, his head thrown back. He calms himself just as quickly, and looks at the boy. Te-Nen has never heard the master of the house laugh before.

“Perhaps once, boy,” he says. “Perhaps I was. But not now. Now I am old, and I have lost—” The tall man looks out the window-slits at the bustling city, the greatest of the modern world, and beyond it. His eyes are the color of a distant ocean.

The old man returns his gaze to Te-Nen.

“You will dine with me,” he says. “Tonight. Three hours past the sunset.” He stands and looks down at the young man.

“One of the serving women will bring you new clothes,” he says.

When the master has gone Te-Nen looks down at himself, frowning.

What is wrong with his clothes?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: