It is 550 years before the common era.
“I wanted to cleanse you, ” Mylitta says. Her voice is soft, distracted, and dazed. “I wanted the power in our love to rise and consume us both. I wanted it to take away your pain and make you clean. It could be sacred. It could fix this. The world could still make sense, Elli.”
Nabonidus only shakes his head. His voice is sorrowful and certain. “We are hero and monster,” he says. “We dare not be that close.”
“I dared,” she says.
572 years before the common era, Nabonidus creates his first god. He is six years old, very earnest, and attempting to escape from the governor’s palace at Harran.
No one’s eyes are on Nabonidus. A great field of barley is near the castle wall. Each passing second, it grows a little nearer. It spreads across the road. It reaches the wall. The wall dissolves at its touch. The field spreads inwards. The guards assigned to Nabonidus turn to look and give a shout, but it is too late. Instead of playing in his room, the boy is in a field of barley, wriggling away on his stomach and elbows, invisible in the grain. Soon he is outside, and beyond mortal capacity to discover. He rests for a moment, and sits up.
“Ninlil,” he says. His goddess appears. She is the first god of his emptiness, the first creature wrested from him: a goddess of the grain for the house of Harran. Her hair is the color of straw, and she is smiling.
“Nabonidus!” she says. She hugs him.
“We must run,” he says. “We must run far away.”
Ninlil makes a face. “You will be more powerful,” she says, “for staying.”
Nabonidus flops his head back and forth. He’s somatizing an internal conflict. “I know,” he says. “But it really hurts. So I want to run away.”
“If you stay,” she says, “your Mom will hollow you out. Then you’ll fill up with gods. You’ll have lots of company. And we can do stuff for you! It’ll be neat.”
“No,” he says.
So they run.
“Send Enlil,” says the monster. She is the monster of 572 BCE. Her name is Adad-guppi and she is Nabonidus’ mother. “Send Enlil, and he shall hunt them down.”
“How will he track them?” asks her servant, Nusku.
“Nabonidus is a young boy,” the monster says. “He will use his power. Where people were starving, there will be harvests. Where people laugh at him, grain shall grow from their ears and nostrils. Where he passes, he shall make the world more orderly with his god. By these things Enlil shall find them.”
Nabonidus travels. Where people are starving, Ninlil makes the harvest. Where people tease the young and ragged boy, grain grows from their ears and nostrils. Where Nabonidus passes, the world grows more orderly. At last he and Ninlil reach the sacred river.
“I wish to bathe,” Ninlil says.
The naiad of the river rises before them. “O Ninlil!” the naiad cries. “Do not bathe here.”
“But I wish to bathe,” Ninlil says.
“O Ninlil!” says the naiad. “Do not bathe here. Lord Enlil comes!”
“But I wish to bathe,” Ninlil explains. She strips off her garments and shakes out her hair. She bathes herself. The sky above thunders with Lord Enlil’s wings.
“Ah!” Lord Enlil says, landing. “You are beautiful.”
Enlil flops his head back and forth. He’s somatizing an internal conflict. He looks around for a moment. “I do not see the wayward boy,” he says, in an exaggeratedly loud and clear voice. “Perhaps, while I consider how I might best find him, this bathing maiden and I could make love.”
Nabonidus is pale and unhappy. He does not have good associations with these words. He whispers from the grain abutting the river’s banks: “Tell him no. It hurts. You are too small and do not know how to stretch. You are too young for kissing. Also, your mother would be upset.”
Ninlil looks down at herself. She is a fertility goddess and somewhat uncertain as to how she can best present this argument. She opts for a deadpan delivery. “My parts are little,” she says. “And you would be uncomfortable. Also, I am too young. My mother would slap my hand if she saw us making love. My father would shake my shoulders.”
She looks at the naiad, who has buried her face in her hands.
“Also,” Ninlil says, “think of the naiad! You have embarrassed her.”
“I will build a boat,” Enlil declares gallantly. “In the water, our making love might embarrass her. But not in a boat! Inside the boat is outside her proper jurisdiction!”
Nabonidus looks at the naiad, who shrugs.
“Just refuse,” Nabonidus says.
Enlil, busily, begins assembling a boat. Ninlil, noticing Enlil’s distraction, ghosts quickly over to the bank and dries off. She sits down next to Nabonidus.
“I don’t want to refuse,” she says. “He’s hot. Besides, if he gives me his seed, then I’ll have power over him. It’ll help us get away!”
Nabonidus looks down. “But I don’t want to do things that way,” he says.
Ninlil sighs. She pats his hand. “I’m sorry,” she says. “Sometimes we don’t get the answer we want when we’re hurt. I’d be an angel if I could, for you, but I’m not. I’m just Ninlil.”
“But it doesn’t work,” he says. “Helping them hurt you—it doesn’t give you power. Even though it should.”
“It’s not always about hurting,” she says.
Nabonidus frowns. Then he shakes his head. It is a gesture of negation, but his words are: “I won’t stop you.”
He crawls back to hide in the field. He watches. Beside him is a fiend in a blank brass mask.
“I think he’s done,” Nabonidus says, after a while.
“It’s horrible,” says the fiend. “We’ll seize him and throw him out of the city.”
“Yeah,” Nabonidus says. He smiles. The fiend divides itself and becomes legion. It grasps Enlil’s arms from every side.
“I will be certain to look you up later, fair maiden,” lies Enlil in a loud, clear voice as the fiend drags him away. “Or you can find me. My name is Elli.”
The fiend returns. Its hands grasp Nabonidus’ arms from every side.
“You are also horrible,” the fiend says to Nabonidus. It hurls him from the river’s banks and he finds himself at home.
570 years before the common era, he escapes again.
No one is watching him. The moon is bright in the sky. Moonbeams pour down into his window. Suddenly, Nabonidus jumps onto a moonbeam and runs up into the sky.
“After him!” shouts the captain of the guard. The other guards look at one another. One tests the moonbeam with his foot. It makes his foot highly visible, even though it is night time, but it does not support his weight. Nabonidus is beyond mortal capacity to catch.
“Sin!” Nabonidus says. His god appears. He is the third god of Nabonidus’ emptiness. He is the moon god, terrible and powerful, an old man whose beard is made of lapis lazuli and whose cap has bull’s horns. He takes Nabonidus’ hand and leads him into the palace of the moon.
“It is good that you are safe,” says Sin. He is grave, and seems disturbed.
“I will never go back,” Nabonidus promises.
Sin strokes his beard. It clanks. “Is that wise?” he says.
“I will stay in the palace of the moon, and no one will ever hurt me again.”
“And will you be happy?”
Nabonidus hesitates. He clenches and unclenches his hands.
“I am the gate of honesty,” the moon god says. “I am the guarantor of the word of kings. Do not lie to yourself here.”
“I don’t want to go back,” Nabonidus says. “When I am bad, I am hurt until I can’t stop screaming. And I don’t want it to happen again.”
“But it is cold on the moon,” Sin says, “and we have a limited food supply. And you do not think it is right to evade punishment by running away.”
Nabonidus curls up. “I don’t want to go back.”
Sin considers the matter. “Then one must ask, how is it right to evade punishment?”
There is a long quiet. Then Nabonidus looks up. “I am to become a monster,” he says. “If I am a monster, then other people can be hurt instead.”
“Will that make you happy?”
Nabonidus shakes his head. “No,” he says. “It’ll just mean that I can’t be bad any more. To be happy—”
He gestures. It’s a gesture of uncertainty. “There is no path from here that leads to happiness. I’m not supposed to be happy. All I can be is pure.”
“I will give you aid,” says Sin. He walks to his window. Nabonidus follows. He can see events that are very far away. Sin’s light shines down on the husk of Ella. The servants who tend her, fearful lest someday the hero awake, draw back in terror. They watch as Sin fills the hero’s womb. Her water breaks. Two children are born. “Go down before your mother kills them,” Sin says. “Claim the girlchild for your own.”
Nabonidus hesitates. “How does it work?” he says.
“I have named you her guardian,” says Sin. “Her protector. Her god. It is your destiny to care for her, and watch over her, and set an order to her life. There is no one but you who may judge her. There is no one but you who may do her harm. What you must achieve, you must achieve through her. If she chooses, she can kill you. When you accept this duty, you will become a man beyond the monster’s capacity for harm.”
Nabonidus looks down at her.
“I want her,” he decides.
It is 550 years before the common era. It is quiet, in the temple of Sin.
There is a fiend in the temple, wearing a blank brass mask. The fiend is weak and dare not act, but still it mutters to itself. “It is not possible that he has the right to do such things,” it says. “I look to the universe and its laws. They say: he may! But what of my personal morality? He tramples it so carelessly!”
Ninlil is gentle. She is smug. “Oh, my lord,” she says, in softest tones. “You have made the future of this land.”
The light of Sin shines full into the room. There is moonlight all around the ruin of Mylitta. It shows every bruise and every mark. The moon shines on Nabonidus as he clenches and unclenches his hands. He cannot decide between exultation and despair. Moonlight pools around the child-god Belshazzar, who has formed by the altar as the answer to an unanswerable circumstance.
“Belshazzar,” Nabonidus says.
The god looks uncertainly between Mylitta and Nabonidus. He smiles, and it is an unhappy smile.
“I shouldn’t exist,” Belshazzar says. “The world is in agony that I am alive.”
Nabonidus tilts his head to one side. “Can you stop Kuras and save Babylon?”
“Maybe,” Belshazzar says. “I don’t know. I’ll try.”
Mylitta looks up. She stares at Belshazzar.
“What are you?” she says.
“I am a god that devours,” Belshazzar says. “I am the answer to your emptiness.”
He rests his hand on her forehead.
“I will free you from your nature.”
The hero ends.