The Room of Wood

3113 BC — Kesh, Sumeria

Until this evening, he has never in his life worn a tunic. Te-Nen stops in the anteroom to look down at the unfamiliar garment covering his upper body. It is of fine bleached linen, similar to something the master himself might wear, although of course shorter. The feel of the cool fabric on his shoulders makes him feel like he is going to a temple observance—not a feeling he ever expected to have. The house servant who dressed him firmly declined to add Te-Nen’s clay-bead necklace to the ensemble.

Now the man bows himself back out of the simple entry room, refusing to meet Te-Nen’s gaze. This is the way he has seen people treat the young slave women who are admitted to the house. As though they will never be seen again. As, indeed, they are not.

Fingering the cloth, Te-Nen thinks again of the rumors. In his heart he knows that the master is indeed a Gi-Dim, or something like one. What other explanation can there be for the disappearing girls? This fine tunic is too small for the master’s unusual height. Was it meant for one of the girls?

Has he, Te-Nen wonders, allowed himself to be dressed as a sacrifice? He looks up at the cloth-hung doorway before him, the entryway into the master’s dining room that Te-Nen has never before been allowed to see. The fabric in the doorway is the same as the tunic. Will he find, though that door, the end of his life? He stares at the hanging fabric. It is at least well-lit from the other side. The room is apparently not dark.

The end of his life may wait beyond this door, or it may not. But Te-Nen knows very well what awaits if he turns his back on it.

If he is allowed to resume his previous duties, then he will spend the rest of his days as a scribe, recording this or another master’s purchases. Maybe he will grow old, and become fat. Maybe from time to time he will again borrow the story-tablets and re-read the tale of Bil-Gam-Esh and his adventures with mad En-Ki-Du and deathless Ut-Na-Pish-Tim.

Or perhaps he will be cast out, and will return even unto his life before entering this house. How would he have lived these last three years if the buyer had never arrived at the orphan-house? Would his feet be rotten by now from trampling barley mash? Would his back be striped by the overseer’s whip?

Given a choice between the certainty of a life of drudgery and the possibility of something else, something other, even if it is strange, perhaps even if it is terrible—young Te-Nen has no doubt which he will prefer.

He steps forward, pushing the white curtain aside, and enters a different world.


Every other room in this house, as well as every room that Te-Nen has seen in public buildings that he has visited in the course of his duties over the last three years have all been floored and their walls surfaced with clay. Sometimes the clay is red, sometimes it is tan. In important buildings it may be glazed in other colors, but even then only for decorative accents. Kesh is a great city, certainly taking its place as one of the three greatest cities in the world alongside Babylon and Ur. Kesh draws tribute in all manner of goods from a great area. But Kesh has little in the way of building materials, except for clay taken from the banks of the Euphrates. The clay is used not only for building, but also in the vessels that store wine and beer, in the walls of ovens, and even in the tablets that Te-Nen uses in his daily work. He has never before given a single thought for the ubiquity of the substance, no more than he would remark that there is dirt on the ground or that the sky is blue.

For the first time in his life, Te-Nen now sees a room that is made of wood. Even the fact that his master Mu-Ta-Lu is seated at the room’s table cannot draw the young man’s eyes away from such a wonder.

The room’s floor is made of close-set boards of varying widths, boards of wood so dark it seems nearly black. There is wood of a lighter hue on the walls, in finely wrought panels that reach nearly to the height Te-Nen’s shoulders, polished to show all the complexities of its grain. The top half of the walls are made of plaster, but bleached to a fine gray-white, so that the paneling seems like the low wall and railing of a ship looking out toward a mist-gray sky.

And given pride of place on the wall is the ship itself, in the most finely-wrought artwork that Te-Nen has seen in his brief life.

The mural is a yard wide, made of small squares of stone of many soft colors, all of them translucent. There is tourmaline and sodalite for the cerulean and indigo sky, aventurine and amethyst for the jade and purple depths beneath the waves of a storm-tossed ocean, white and gray alabaster for the terrible storm clouds and the ship’s straining sails, yellow amber and brown citrine for the wood of the vessel that, Te-Nen feels certain, he stands upon and sees in the room around him even now. The entire mural is lit from behind, with lamps set into a space behind the wall, so that the picture glows with its own light.

For the stricken young man, it is not a work of art at all. It is a window into a distant time that lets him smell the salt water, and hear the groaning of the ship driven before the great storms. It is the portrait of the ending of a world, and the few who survived.

As the young man stands, staring, the ancient man speaks.

“My name, as I say it in this language,” Mu-Ta-Lu says quietly, “means He describes the nature of men. But in the language of my youth, I was called Moatallao, which meant Who will travel far. Both of my names will be true tonight. I have indeed traveled far, and tonight I will tell you the nature of men.

Te-Nen looks at the pale man, who seems tall even when he is seated.

“Please sit,” the man says, his long hand gracefully indicating the chair across the small table from him. There is a third chair at the table, on the side that faces the mural, but it is empty. The table also is made of dark wood like the floor, but its edges are inlaid with winding lines of lapis and silver. Soft light within the room comes from lamps of green-rusted copper and rose quartz set around the walls.

Slowly, the young man sits.


“Long ago,” the old man begins, “the wise men of my race learned the truth of life.” He speaks softly, occasionally touching his pale lips to the wine in his cup. A cup has been brought for Te-Nen as well, and he also sips from it: the first wine he has tasted.

“They learned that the power that sustains our lives comes to us in two way: as the energy of the body, that we take from food, and as the energy of the spirit.”

As Moatallao speaks, Te-Nen looks away from him to the glowing mural of the ship, it great high prow reaching above the threatening waves. From what distant land did this man come? And from how distant a time?

“Just as your people have learned to store up the food of the body in granaries and warehouses, so did my people learn to store up the food of the spirit, embedding it within crystals from the Earth, and by other means. In the years before the end of my race, the wise men learned how to use this power to prolong life, and for other purposes.”

Hearing a change in his voice, Te-Nen looks at the old man. His face has become hard.

“What were the other purposes, master?” the young man asks.

The old man pauses long enough that Te-Nen begins to think that he was wrong to ask a question. But then he replies.

“Weapons,” Moatallao says quietly. “We made terrible weapons.”

For long seconds the ancient man’s pale eyes watch the events of a remote and strange past, but finally he blinks and looks at Te-Nen.

“Sometimes,” he says, “I believe that is why the Gods smote us.” He shakes his head slowly. “I do not know. I do, however, know that that knowledge has been lost, utterly.”

This, however, has not.”

He puts his long hand into the folds of his elegant robe, and withdraws a crystal no larger than his small finger, but perfectly shaped, six-sided in its body and and tapering to a point at either end, fitted with the finest silver work so that a chain can be attached and the crystal worn as a pendant about the neck. The silver filigrees are shaped like tiny vines, and leaves.

Te-Nen stares at the crystal in Moatallao’s palm. There is something odd about it, as though the light of the lamps plays among the facets differently than it should.

The pale man looks at the lamps on the wall and they dim, one by one. Young Te-Nen stares at him in sudden terror, but Moatallao only frowns minutely, a trace of irritation briefly touching his features.

“Look at the crystal now,” he says.

Te-Nen looks, and now in the dimmer light he can see: the crystal is glowing faintly with its own cyan light.

“This is the power of life, stored in the structure of this rock crystal,” the tall man says. “I invited you to dine with me. This is the manner in which I dine. Your body requires the coarse material of food, but it also requires the pure power of life, which living things receive from the Sun and store. If food could be made without that power, your body would survive on it for a time, but poorly, and your spirit would soon weaken so that age would claim you quickly. However, it is quite possible to survive on this power alone, with little coarse food, for long periods.”

“How long, lord?” Te-Nen asks suddenly. “How long have you survived?”

Moatallao’s skin is not wrinkled, and even his white hair looks as though it may be natural for those of his unknown race, rather than a result of age. But there is a calmness about him, a stillness that seems to affect everything near him, and that speaks of vast spans of time.

The man’s gray-blue eyes focus on Te-Nen.

“Longer than you can understand,” he says at last. “Long enough to learn that even the raw force of life cannot sustain a man forever. Not if that man should lose the desire that must accompany life.”

“What desire is that, lord?” the young man asks.

Moatallao’s old eyes look at the beautifully wrought table top for a time, then back up at Te-Nen. In his short life, Te-Nen has already learned that many people prefer to make little contact, gaze-to-gaze, unless it is between lovers, or is expressing a challenge. It is apparently not an attitude that Moatallao shares.

“Simply the desire for life itself,” he says quietly. “The joy in seeing a new season, and a new chance. The desire to learn what another day will bring.”

“More and more I find,” he says slowly, his eyes drifting to the glowing portrait of the storm-driven ship, “that my heart yearns only for the past.”

“Aged men may envy a youth such as yourself for your health, your energy. I, who can have the vitality of youth as I wish—” the ancient eyes turn back to Te-Nen, “I envy you also. But in my case, I envy you for what you do not know. For the memories that you do not have.”

After a long silence, the ancient man looks again to the crystal in his hand.

“We will use this crystal, which is weak,” Moatallao says, “nearly drained, because it is your first. It is safer.”

“Take it into your hand,” the man says.

Te-Nen accepts the shining stone in his palm, and feels a shock, as though cool air had moved in the room.

“You can feel the power,” Moatallao says, smiling faintly. “It is good. I wondered whether you might.”

“Now,” the man says, placing his hands under Te-Nen’s, “I will show you how to take the crystal’s power. Watch its light, and still your thoughts. I will guide you.”

At first there is only the feeling of the old man’s dry hands underneath his own, and the weight of the cool crystal in his palm, and stillness.

Then Te-Nen thinks a thought, or perhaps has a memory, of finding an unexpected delight. A tree has dropped a date in his path, ripe and sweet. There is an old box, hidden in a crumbling wall, and it contains coins of bronze and silver. He is an archer whose lucky and difficult shot has just brought down a stag, and now he will be able to eat at last. There is a feeling of reaching, finding, opening, and then a rush of energy and well-being like Te-Nen has never felt before, but originating, surprisingly, not in his hands. The tingling power originates from a place in the center of his head, behind his eyes, and spreads like chilling fire running through his blood.

The feeling is like love with the kitchen girls, like the first rain after a dry season, like the strength of his arms, like a soft bed after a hard day, like fruit from the beginning of the world and fire-cooked meat dripping with juices, like growing taller, like seeing farther and hearing clearly, like escaping danger, like music, joy, hope, healing, victory, beauty, understanding, meaning, desire. It is life.

Te-Nen shudders, draws a long breath, opens his eyes to see the ancient face of Moatallao across the small table from him, the man’s pale eyes watching him.

“Now you know,” the old man says quietly.

Te-Nen only breathes until he trusts himself to speak.

“How—” he manages one word before needing to breathe again. “How is this done?”

“How is the power stored?” the old man asks. “How is it harvested?”

The young man nods.

Moatallao is silent for some time, watching Te-Nen. At last he speaks.

“Fruit is harvested by gardeners and orchardists,” he says. “They help the trees to grow, and as payment, take the fruit. Meat is harvested by the shepherd. He tends the flock, and takes from it as his payment, from time to time, the meat of a few animals.”

“In both cases, the more exalted being—the man—takes his sustenance from the lower being.”

As the old man speaks, Te-Nen looks down at the table’s polished surface, because he cannot bear the directness of Moatallao’s gaze. But he continues to feel that gaze.

“It is the same with this power,” Moatallao says. “But this most perfect of foods must be harvested from human beings. Harvested by, and for the benefit of, the shepherds of men.”

After a few seconds of silence, Te-Nen looks up at the man—the being—across the table.

“But, master,” he says, “there are no shepherds of men.”

“So the sheep believe,” Moatallao says. “Except in the moments when they come close to, or glimpse what they do not understand, nor wish to. Then they tell each other stories, or invent names. Names like Gi-Dim.

Te-Nen looks into the man’s eyes, that are as old as the sea.

“But the time is past for you to listen to their stories,” the ancient man says. “The time is past for you to be among them. You are not as they are. Now,” he continues, “you will learn how the power of life is harvested. You do not yet have the training or the strength of will to accomplish it, but I will guide you with my thoughts as I did with the crystal.”

Turning aside, Moatallao speaks a few words toward the curtained door in a language Te-Nen has never heard. The servant who earlier brought the wine now enters the room of wood again.

But this time he is leading a girl.

A slave girl, like those the rumors say enter the house but do not leave. The girl appears to be drugged, walking slowly, sitting when the man guides her to the chair that is between Te-Nen and Moatallao. The seat faces the beautiful mural, and her eyes drift up to it dreamily.

In his right hand, the servant carries a wide silver bowl, which he places on the table. It contains a knife with a silver blade, its handle made of opalescent shell.

The man bows out of the room.

“Now,” Moatallao says, “take the girl’s hand while I place mine under yours.”

So the rumors are true, Te-Nen thinks, but they are too small. Common people—people who have not felt what he has now felt—cannot understand. They can only babble about ghosts and demons, like children, and fall asleep in their dirty beds.

Has he already tasted, then, the food of the Gi-Dim? Te-Nen takes a deep breath and looks at Moatallao. If so, the young man thinks, then so be it. I will not spend my life writing figures in clay.

Te-Nen reaches out and takes the drugged girl’s hand. Moatallao again places his dry hand, palm up, beneath both.

“My thoughts,” the ancient man says, “will guide you.”

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