Ziusudra & the Black Holes: Rereading ‘The First Essay’
Somewhere, at some specific moment, someone wrote the very first sentence.
Ancient Mesopotamia, a small settlement somewhere along the banks of the Euphrates, in a time before time is marked and the past is the home of goddesses and gods. Today, the sun is pleasantly warm, the sky blue. Entering the courtyard after your morning ablutions you notice a falcon sweep the low hills to your right, scanning for gazelle. A good omen. After a breakfast of goats milk and eggs, you enter the rear of the house and seat yourself on the floor by a low window where the light is good. In your hands is a reed stylus. Before you, a slab of damp clay into which you begin to press lines and shapes, tallying the quantities of items in your household for accountability, as is your daily task. The reed slips, slits open the skin on the side of your hand. Blood comes redder than any fruit, rushing and dripping to the ground. You suck the wound, stemming the flow, while the blood on the dirt dries black and hard.
Later, as darkness moves over your household, you fall asleep with the shapes from the day’s clay floating out above you, pointing to something in your half-conscious mind. In the loop of your dreams you remember your mother, and in the loop of your dreams, the shapes, repeating, become like her name, and like your name, taken from hers—sounds that spoken together in the air refer to you.
Perhaps the goddess touches your mind or perhaps time was always going to dictate that when you wake you feel something collide inside you and, half asleep, take the sounds of your name and try to cut something that approaches them into the clay, and with them, something else, a line of characters stating who you are, who your mother was—an introduction. You are reaching for something in the future, you realise as you cut, for your voice echoing forward in time, announcing you not only now, but then too, making you a little like the goddess, enduring beyond a sound.
Maybe that is how writing started out, a tiny etching unravelling all the way to this white tablet into which my mind and fingers command silent sounds. Maybe not at all. We’ll never know. But in this imagined scene, is the protagonist male, female or neither?
Full essay forthcoming in Strong Words 2: The best of the Landfall Essay Competition, to be published by Otago University Press in 2021.