The Sagursags

22 Sep

Who is that stranger with the peaked river cap watching me so intently? wondered the temple scribe named Akus.

After hours of concentration copying clay tablets, it was a relief to drink the sweet beer brewed here in Eridu. But this was a time to be wary of unknown persons due to four disappearances at night on the streets of the Sumerian seaport. Persons were never seen again.

A priest, a city guard, a merchant, and a dockworker had vanished, with no trace of what had happened to them.

Akus saw that the watcher had realized that he had been spotted and had risen to his feet and was approaching. When he reached the table where Akus sat, the river man spoke.

“Pardon me, but you are a scribe at the Temple of Enki, our water god, are you not?”

“Yes,” nodded the young man. “Do I know you?”

The stranger sat down across from the surprised scribe without asking permission. He started explaining why he had acted the way he did.

“I am Gatum, a Tigris river captain,” said the short, fat man who wore a brown sailor’s kilt. His almond eyes had a bright shine to them.

“My name is Akus,” said the temple worker.

The uninvited visitor lowered his voice.

“I must speak to someone in a position to advise me. It has to do with an unusual tablet that has come into my possession. I do not know how to deal with the thing.”

“What is so unusual about the object, sir?” cooly asked Akus.

“I am nearly illiterate. And there is something dreadful on the tablet. I do not know what to do with it. Can you come with me and have a look at what it says?”

“Can you tell me what the text is concerned with?”

The river man looked down at the table top.

“I am gravely concerned,” he murmured, his eyes rising to meet the green ones of the scribe. “I mean to say that the words deal with the story of how Enki created our human race. As everyone knows, his role was the crucial one. But the tablet contains a very unique version of the story, unlike any I have ever heard before.”

As several patrons approached near with cups of beer, their noise distracted and disturbed Gatum.

“Would you like me to get some more beer for you?” he asked the scribe. “I could use a drink myself.”

Akus ignored the offer.

“Can you tell me more about the narrative on this clay of yours? What about it bothers you so deeply?”

All at once, the fat man jumped out of his chair.

“They are everywhere, those wicked killers,” he trembled. “They plague our dreams and our waking hours. You must see and decipher the words for yourself. Come down to the dock at twilight. I will take you to where the tablet is hidden.”

Akus thought a few moments. “Very well, then.”

That was all he was able to say in response.

The other man turned and rushed out of the tavern, toward the harbor.

Confusion filled the mind of the scribe as he also left.

Odakon, High Priest of Enki, had amassed more power than any predecessor in Eridu. All the civilian authorities, including the king, depended upon him for guidance. Tall, lean, and muscular, he looked like an athletic warrior. Piercing gray eyes held overpowering force. He was a man both respected and feared.

Akus had learned that the priest demanded complete obedience.

The scribe had just returned to his cubicle in the temple scriptorium when Odakon appeared in the doorless entrance.

The priest wore a gleaming golden sacerdotal robe.

Akus rose from his stool in surprise.

“Your Holiness! Welcome to my work station. I did not expect you.”

Odakon moved closer, till he stood only an arm’s length from the scribe.

“Something has come to my attention concerning your behavior. I decided to take care of the matter myself.” He paused, studying the face of the younger man.

“A timely warning can keep you out of serious trouble.”

“Trouble?” questioned Akus. “What sort of trouble?”

The High Priest leaned forward.

“There is a suspicious boat captain named Gatum. The city watch has kept its eyes on him for a considerable time. It appears that he deals in false historical records. Traveling the two rivers, he is at the center of illegal commerce in antiquities. I have learned that he is attempting to sell forged tablets here in Eridu. In the past, people with money have bought such objects from him.

“The man has even tried to sell to our temple archive, but I have averted such fraud in good time. But now, the trickster has returned.

“Did you meet with him at a dockside tavern this afternoon? Tell me if the report from the watchers is accurate.”

“Yes, it is,” confessed the scribe with his inborn honesty.

“You should have come to me at once. I would have unmasked him as a criminal who takes in the gullible. What was he trying to sell you?”

“He did not give me details, sir. There is a tablet in his possession with what he terms startling contents. That is all I found out. The man was highly nervous. He was unwilling to reveal much about what he has. I saw great fear in his eyes.”

“Gatum is afraid the city guard will arrest him. Severe punishment hangs over him. Arrest, trial, and death threaten the criminal, I have heard from those who know about such matters. They suspect him of complicity in the disappearance of people at night.”

“What should I do, then? The river captain wishes to show me the clay tablet he talks about this very evening.”

Odakon peered into the green eyes of the scribe, calculating and considering. His quick mind reached a decision at once.

“I believe you can be trusted to find out what the scoundrel is up to. Meet with Gatum and see what is on his false tablet. Then we can go to the civil authorities. Do you understand?”

To become your spy, thought Akus. To incriminate the boat captain and destroy him. The intent of the High Priest was clear as could be.

“I shall meet with him tonight, sir.”

Odakon, satisfied with that, turned about and moved out of the cubicle.

The scribe was left alone to think and worry over the secret assignment given to him.

Crimson sunset filled the harbor with rays of fire. Nothing moved along the Tigris or on the sea. Sumerians knew better that to risk the water at such a transitional hour. There were shades and shadows that the wary had to be on the watch for. Forces that hid from both the day and the night were abroad. No one dared to confront them.

From out of the murky dusk, a voice spoke to Akus.

“Beware of Oannes.”

The scribe whirled about, finding that Gatum had crept up behind him without a sound.

“I know what you refer to,” replied Akus. “The Oannes is said to come out of the water at sundown. It has the shape of a man, but is in reality a fish. I have come across the name on many tablets. This creature of Enki is dear to the inhabitants of Eridu, though.”

“The Oannes first taught writing to our kind,” muttered the river captain. “It should be especially close to the scribes of the temple of Enki, I believe.”

“It is, it is,” said Akus with a voiceless laugh.

Gatum, a step ahead of him and to his right, led the way into a dark narrow alley. The two proceeded into what soon became a labyrinth. Akus realized the he would never be able to retrace their path back if he tried by himself.

Nor could anyone be following then without their being aware.

All of a sudden, the captain halted. He turned to his companion and pointed to a dilapidated cube dwelling. “I keep the tablet with a friend who lives there. He is an old boatman who has retired from active work on the river. I have total trust in the man.”

Gatum went to the door and knocked. Akus followed him.

After a moment, a short man holding a lantern appeared. He recognized his former employer, then looked with curiosity at the stranger behind him.

“This young man can be trusted,” whispered the captain. “He came with me to see the clay tablet.”

The resident of the cube moved out of the way, letting the visitors enter his one-room hovel.

Gatum guided the scribe to the rear wall where a pile of what looked like debris filled one corner. He began to remove the odds and ends, placing them closer to the center of the cube. At the bottom of the refuse pile lay a large tablet covered with cuneiform writing.

Akus watched as Gatum lifted it up, leaning the piece of clay against the back wall.

“Can you make out the wedges?” asked the captain. “Simur, bring the lantern closer.”

The green eyes of the scribe grew large. An inner sense, a result of experience with such tablets, told him that this one was genuinely ancient. Not a copy, but old and original. Not a counterfeit, but what it appeared to be, a true record from the past.

Akus felt his pulse quicken. He gasped for breath as the symbols grew visible. This was the story of the creation of humans, but in an unfamiliar style and manner. The narrative was clear, simple, and fascinating as the scribe read it.

The gods of heaven and the earth complained that there was insufficient bread for them and their consorts. Their unsatisfied hunger led to the creation of men and women to serve the food needs of the divinities. Enki, the god of water, was sleeping in the sea when his mother, Nammu, awakened him and related the complaint of the needy gods to him. She herself was the primeval sea from which heaven, earth, and all the gods came. Nammu brought the tears of the gods to her son, asking him to fashion human servants for them.

Enki summoned heavenly potters to help him make human bodies out of clay. Mud was mixed with water, shapes were molded, then baked in gigantic ovens. The form of the new creatures was made to resemble that of the gods as much as was possible.

Ninmah, goddess of the earth, assisted him in the work. When they were finished, Enki invited all the gods to a great banquet to celebrate the success. As the feast proceeded, both Enki and Ninmah drank a lot and grew inebriated. The two took some of the clay that was left over and fashioned six humans unlike the previous ones. Enki was sober enough to take away these imperfect models. He fed and sheltered them, until he discovered that they were monstrous freaks, not true humans.

The first one was a woman who could not give birth. The second was a neuter without male or female sex organs. The third had no hands, the fourth lacked feet. The fifth one no eyes or ears. The last was a soulless creature who did not die a natural death as humans do. It could only be killed by brute physical force.

Enki decreed the destruction of all these abnormal monsters, but some of those that came to be called sagursags without souls managed to escape and hide in the netherworld among the asag demons. There they still work, mingling at times among the human inhabitants of the earth without the latter being aware of them.

These sagursags serve the evil demons as their slaves and agents. They cause terrible harm to the people of Sumer. They pose as humans, abducting and taking people away to the netherworld in the night. The victims were never again seen.

The wise must always be watchful for signs of treacherous sagursags, concluded the clay tablet.

Akus said nothing until Gatum had taken him back to the docks. He stopped near the dark waters and looked directly at the boat captain. The only light came from the overarching roof of stars above.

“Where did you obtain the tablet?”

Gatum whispered his answer. “In the north, while on a merchant voyage. I thought it might have value when resold in Eridu. But then the contents caused me to tremble with dread. That is the reason I came to see you today. My way is not clear. Who would believe the terrible warning of the story? The people of today prefer to laugh at all such tales of non-human monsters. I need your help and advice. That is why I came to you.”

The captain waited, yet no reply came at once. Akus was in deep thought.

“I, too, feel the shadow of danger,” finally said the scribe. “Both of us must be careful. For the present, the tablet must be kept where it is. We dare not go to the public authorities until we can prove our argument.

“We should meet again tomorrow evening. I will be at the dock again.”

“It is good night, then,” murmured Gatum.

The pair parted, Akus heading for his room near the city’s center.

He had planning to do. What was he to report to the High Priest?

The following morning was one of intense searching in the archives of the temple.

Nowhere did the scribe find any reference to soulless sagursags. With furious energy he lifted up and moved clay tablets to his cubicle and searched for anything pertaining to what he had read about sagursags in the riverman’s cube. But there was nothing in the archive tablets about such monstrous beings.

It was almost noon when the High Priest came to the scriptorium to see Akus. The latter looked up from his reading table in surprise, realizing he was not prepared to face the holder of power in the temple.

“You are working very hard,” smiled Odakon. “What is so urgent that it makes you labor with such ardor?”

The tall, athletic visitor came forward till he could see the tablet that Akus had been studying. “Is it something connected with the boat captain and his secret? What have you learned about the tablet he has for sale?”

The scribe decided it was necessary and justified to lie at the moment.

“We meet and talked. That was all that happened. He described what he is offering to sell. Nothing beyond that, sir.”

Can the priest see through these falsehoods? wondered Akus. Does my face turn red, do my eyes widen? Can he decipher any small physical signs?

The gray eyes of the questioner fell to the tablet on top of the table.

“Asags!” he exclaimed. “Why are you so curious about underground demons?”

He glared sternly at Akus, demanding to know what he was up to.

Feeling the pressure on him increasing, the scribe responded with a question of his own.

“Can humans be made to serve the asags, sir? And what would such person be?” In the back of his mind was the concept of the sagursag, one that now haunted his thoughts.

Odakon’s face twisted into a reptilian grimace.

“Only a horrid monster, I would guess. No normal human is capable of that.”

“But how about an abnormal person?” persisted Akus. “One, for instance, lacking an important component, like a heart or a liver?”

“No such men exist, I assure you,” said the other with aroused anger. “Such organs are vital to life. Existence without them is impossible.”

“How about the soul, sir? Can there be people who lack that, yet continue to move about and act?”

Akus, sensing the agitation of his supervisor, became silent.

“You must meet again with the man,” ordered the priest. “Find out precisely what he is offering and report that to me. At some point, I intend to bring in the city guards and watches. But I need clearly incriminating evidence against him.”

The cleric turned and left. Akus continued reading about asag demons.

Twilight that evening was pleasantly warm. The heat of day was rapidly dissipating. Laughter came from the taverns along the dockside. There was no moon in the darkening sky, only the stars lighting the harbor that night.

Akus had less fear than on the previous visit. This trip was going to be the decisive one, he seemed to know. A secret voice inside his mind told him that this business would soon be over. It could not go on much longer.

Suddenly, the now familiar voice of Gatum addressed him from out of the dark.

“I see you are on time,” he said. “What is your decision? Will you take the tablet from me? There is no need for any payment. You are the one who can make the best use of it.”

The two began to walk beside the shore of sand. The flow of the Tigris was an empty silence. Light was rapidly disappearing from the sky.

“You must promise to keep it from falling into the hands of the evil ones.”

“The sagursags?” whispered Akus.

The boat captain turned away from the water, toward the alley his companion remembered from the night before.

It was as they took their first steps toward the shadowed labyrinth that the trap fell upon them.

A silk-like net of nearly invisible fibers fell down on the pair of walkers. All of a sudden, the night was solid darkness. Human eyes were useless to anyone caught under the unnatural fabric. Both men attempted to escape, fighting with arms and feet against the sinewy material holding them captive. Neither could speak or call for help. They were caught like prisoners of a spidery insect weaving an inescapable web around them. There was no way out. They had become prisoners of spidery threads.

Akus made out strange shapes circling about the entrapping net. Were they sagursags? They had to be, the flailing scribe decided. Who else could make such fiendish filaments as these? Who else had reason to fear what they were doing?

They appeared to have arms and legs, hands and feet. A half dozen came nearer, making odd clicking noises in their throats. Their unearthly faces were dark, iridescent masks, the eyes empty choroid membranes of tapetum. How could such a creature see anything? Akus asked himself in wonder.

A deadly purpose had to be inferred from all that was happening. The end could not be too far off now. The sagursags intended to keep their attack concealed in darkness. The two victims were to have no way of escape.

A sound of splashing water reached the ears of Akus. Several of the sagursags turned toward the harbor. A large object was coming out of the water. Its smell was overpowering, a pervasive stench of fish that was loathsome to the human nose. The stink was horrible. It made Akus feel nausea.

All at once, the sagursags turned away from the net and withdrew toward the shore in order to deal with the unexpected invader from the water.

Something the monsters had not foreseen was happening.

Akus, still on his back, had only a partial, obstructed view of the battle between the unnatural creatures and the phantom that opposed them. Was it man, fish or amphibian? A sudden recognition struck the scribe. This had to be the Oannes of the Great Enki. It was not a natural, worldly being.

One of the sagursags fell to the ground overpowered by the man-fish attacking it. A glutinous substance exuding out of the attacker touched and immobilized it. This gooey ooze soon enveloped the unnatural being from under the earth. There was no way to break out of it.

Instantly, the fight ended as the soulless gang found an opening and ran off into the night’s shadows.

The two men caught in the fine net saw the Oeannes approach them.

With one movement of its fishlike arm, the water-being removed the trap holding them down. Then, it turned and hurried back to the harbor, disappearing into the dark liquid surface.

Shaken and exhausted, Akus managed to crawl over to the captain. The latter raised his head and spoke. “The Oeannes stopped the breath of one of the sagursags. Let’s have a look at the creature.”

The two carefully moved over to where the fallen freak lay.

It had a tall, strong body. The thing’s leathery eyes were still open, looking up at the stars. The sagursag that had been killed was the High Priest Odakon.

The scribe experienced an enlightening insight in that single moment of discovery.

All of Sumeria, all the earth, was full of evil monstrosities that wore masks that made them appear ordinary human beings. Things were often not what they claimed to be.

Sagursags were everywhere and anywhere.

He must never forget that terrible lesson.

Gatum convinced Akus he must go north with him in his boat, taking the tablet with them. Only when they were far from Eridu did they look back together on what happened that night.

“The priest meant to have both of us done away with,” groaned the captain as the two sat in the bow of the vessel. “He posed as something he was not in order to infiltrate the temple of Enki. His cunning raised him to the top position there. But the sagursag really served the evil demons, the asags. He had learned the craft of impersonating normal human beings, a skill taught him by his clever masters in the netherworld, the demonic asags.”

Akus looked out at the slowly flowing Tigris.

“It was impossible for me to remain in Eridu. The other sagursags know who I am. You have saved my life, Gatum.”

“Not I, but the mighty Oannes accomplished that. Do you understand why all of this happened? At the beginning, Enki erred when humans were shaped and baked. He had too much beer, and abnormalities like these sagursags resulted. But the beneficial water-god is always trying to correct that ancient mistake of his. That is why he summoned the Oannes to come and save us.”

“But the soulless ones continue to exist. They can pursue us wherever we may go,” moaned the scribe.

Akus looked troubled, burdened with concern for the future.

“We must pray to Enki that he remain our protector,” declared Captain Gatum in a resonant voice.

Akus smiled wryly. “And always remain close to the water, where it is safer for us. That is where he can send his protector.”

The rowers kept the craft floating away from Eridu and the scene of the confrontation with the vile, malign sagursags.

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