BROTHERS


1.

They’re showing me the video tape again. They’ve brought me out of my room to show me the video tape. But it’s hard for me to pay attention—I have an itch on the back of my neck, but my arms are locked in this damn straight jacket. I’m rolling my head around and trying to scrunch up my shoulders. I’m snorting a bit, too, in my frustration. The doctors are eyeing me suspiciously. I guess I must look pretty insane right now. But it’s just a damn itch. They probably think I’m losing mental cohesion over seeing the videotape. Damn that stupid video tape. I’ve seen it three times now. I don’t know what else they expect from me. I’ve told them all I know. I know it sounds crazy. It is crazy. That’s why I’m here. So why don’t they just leave off with the tape already, and figure out what’s wrong with me?

“Do you remember anything new, Dr. Ludke? Does this bring back any memories for you?” God, these stupid doctors! If I didn’t have this straight-jacket on I’d deck them all right upside the head. Right in the nose. I’ve told them everything I can remember a dozen times. They and the police keep interrogating me like I know what happened but won’t say. But I keep telling the truth—I don’t know what happened. If I knew I probably wouldn’t feel insane.

“Dr. Ludke?”

I’m still lolling my head and snorting, but I think I’ve made progress. The itch has subsided a little. Memories? They want memories? I’ll tell them again my most vivid memory of that day.

“It was hot.” I can’t hide my smart-alec tone. Those joker jackasses are just begging for some smart-alec behavior, with their calm, smug, farcical “analyses.” They don’t even blink at my comment. I suppose they inspire this type of behavior in many people with their incompetent, incessant, irrelevant questioning. And it was hot that day. Murderously hot. Ah ha ha! Oh dear. I really am cracking up. How can I laugh at that? These jerks are making me more insane than I already am. They’ve dried up all my emotion with their long, straight, stoic faces, their illusion, their delusion that they’re being analytical and scientific, and ha! ha! My god, the humor, the irony! They think they’re being helpful! I wish they were sitting in front of me instead of to the side of me; I’d kick them each in the back, in the head. I’d kick their lousy, stinking heads right off.

He was my brother! My brother, for god’s sake. I loved my brother. Sure I was mad at the little punk for not getting to a doctor sooner. But I loved my little brother. They’re trying to play up our fraternal competitiveness. They’re dragging up stolen girlfriends and all kinds of crap that’s long been forgotten and over. We were just brothers, you know. Like any two. My brother …

“Dr. Ludke.” The pudgy, bald one is poking my leg. “Dr. Ludke?” It appears that a tear is rolling down my cheek, but I can’t wipe it away. “Dr. Ludke, we’ll take you back to your room now.” They pause the tape. I wish I knew the freak that took this tape. I’d like to film him in his darkest hour and play it back to him. My god, what was he thinking? Fire trucks and police cars and ambulances and me running around in a state of hysteria, and he thinks, “Oh there’s my neighbor, let’s film him and this morbid scene.” There I am frozen up there on the TV screen. My face is so contorted with a thousand emotions. I wouldn’t have even guessed that face was mine. It looks very foreign to me up there on the TV. It’s spooky. Eerie.

My god, that was a hot day.

They’re shuffling me down the sterile, white hall now back to my own private room. I wonder, as I pass other doors, how many other private hells exist in this fortress? My room is not so hellish as the company of those “doctors.” At least here I can cry. I can mourn, I can think, try to piece things together. I haven’t had any luck though. Everything is just a haze. I look back and I remember the heat, and I remember my actions and my thoughts up to a point. And then … Then I’m outside the house out of my mind—confused, dazed, horrified, in shock—on some freak’s video camera. God knows how or why this loony bin purchased it and why they’re torturing me with it.

People do go crazy in the heat, you know. I … I don’t know how it could happen to me, but it does happen to people. And Christ, it was hot that day. I’d never treated so many people for heat stroke and heat exhaustion in my life. The hospital was packed. Patient after patient, collapsed from the heat. Anything outside just withered. The drought we were experiencing in heat like that was just brutal. Fatal. Plants died. Animals died. People died. Three days of this. I mean, Baghdad is usually a mighty hot place, but this was just unreal. True I have only been here a year on this doctor’s exchange program; maybe this isn’t so unusual. But I’m from Arizona; I thought I would be able to handle this. But damn if this heat wasn’t like anything I’d ever seen.

It was on the second night of this heat wave that Simon called me. Lord, I was so mad at him. Calls me from god knows where, “I’m coming to see you in the morning.” He didn’t need to say his next sentence for me to know it. “I think I’m sick,” he said. I could just barely make out his words. He sounded so weak, he could hardly speak. Then he just hung up. Hung up! The little toad! He sounded more than just sick. He sounded deathly. God knows what he could have picked up down by the river, digging around for pottery and bones and dead bodies and whatever else archaeologists look for.

I fumed and worried all night. Tossed and turned; didn’t sleep a wink. Where was he? What was wrong with him? Why didn’t he come over right now? How much longer ‘till morning? And I knew he used the term “morning” loosely. The only thing it told me was he’d be here before nightfall. But would he come here to my house or to the hospital? Ugh! You can see how tortured I was all night. And always the heat. It was unusual to stay so warm at night.

When it came time to go to work at the hospital in the morning, I called another doctor to cover for me and to call me if Simon showed up there. I sat and sweltered at home all morning. I was too worried and too anxious to do much of anything. Simon finally arrived on my doorstep, held up with one arm by the taxi driver who held his other hand out to me. Typical Simon. I paid the taxi driver and literally dragged Simon inside. He didn’t have the strength to walk.

I’d never seen him look so terrible. I asked him, “What’s wrong with you? How long have you been like this?” but he just sat slumped over on the couch, breathing laboriously, blinking slowly like each eyelid was a brick.  I went over to him; I could tell nearly right away what had happened. His skin was very dry and hot and his pulse rate was sky high. I wiped sweat from my own damp brow and told him we needed to get to the hospital. But he suddenly surged with energy and shook his head vigorously.

“For god’s sake, Simon, you’re seriously ill. I think you’ve had a heat stroke. You need to get fluids in your body. You need to get an IV in you. We need to get your heart rate down.” But he stubbornly shook his head.

I couldn’t believe it. Two years it had been. Two years—and I knew that’s what all this had to be about—since his particularly ugly breakup with Dr. Sara Jansen. I tried to reason with him. I said, “Simon, you might not even see her there. And it’s been a long time. The next nearest decent hospital is a hell of a ways away. It’s not like America here, you know. This one is just next door. I’m not going to let something so stupid prevent your treatment. Now cut the crap. We’re going now.”

I suppose I should have thought better of my words—“we’re going now” was just an open invitation for him to defy me. My brother is very strong headed and he’ll do anything to contradict me. We Ludkes are very confrontational in our family. It’s amazing we’re still so close. But we are, and don’t forget that.

So I tried to pick Simon up to drag him out to my car, but he summoned up what must have been every last ounce of energy in his sick and wasting body, and struggled against me tooth and nail. He didn’t have any strength left over to speak, or I know he would have been cursing me as well. Finally he managed to grab a book off the coffee table and he clocked me in the head with it.

As I sat on the ground holding my hand to my pounding head, I realized I had to play his game. That stupid little punk would fight me to his death to stay out of that hospital. Christ, do you know how many establishments my brother won’t step foot in because of all his bad breakups? Of course, now he can’t step foot in any of them at all …

“Jesus, Simon,” I said to him. “What do you want me to do? Cure you in the old Mesopotamian tradition of exorcism? You’re really tying my hands here.” But he just looked at me sullenly. Man, those ancient Mesopotamians must have had a time of it the way they thought the gods and demons could just intercept their lives at any moment and rearrange them. Wizardry and black magic: the world must have seemed so scary, so haunted.

Well, so, I thought about what to do and decided I could get treatment to him quicker by bringing equipment over from my hospital than by driving to another one. They were so busy over there, I figured probably no one would even notice me no matter what I walked out of there with. So I helped Simon into my bed and put a cold, wet towel around his neck and chest, and told him I’d return soon. He looked very relieved and I wanted to hug him just then. I don’t know why. I guess … I guess maybe it was a mixture of feeling sorry for him and worrying for him and being glad that he was in my care now. I was going to take care of him. And as he lay there on my bed, he was just so … so Simon. I mean, this was all just like him, just so typical.

Now I wish I had. That was the last I saw, that is to say, the last I really, truly saw of my brother. The last that I as I know myself, my sane self, saw him. It was my one last chance to reveal some of my true feelings for him, to let him know all his indiscretions toward me in the past were forgiven. But instead …

Instead, I rushed off. I went to the hospital and gathered up an IV needle and bags, various pills, sedatives and antibiotic shots—anything I thought Simon might possibly need; who knew what closer examination might reveal. It was ungodly hot. Just walking from my car to the hospital almost made my legs buckle under me. It was so oppressive, absolutely mind melting. Once I got inside it took me a minute to recover and get straight what I was doing there. I knew people went crazy from the heat all the time, but I never really had any empathy for them until then.

When I got back to the house, I brought one load of stuff in and set it hastily inside the bedroom door. Simon called out meekly but I didn’t look up; I was going to go get the other load of stuff. The most important thing was the IV needle and bags. Simon desperately needed hydration.

“The clock,” he croaked out. It caught me off guard. What an unexpected thing to say. So I glanced quickly up at the clock hanging on the wall opposite the bed. It was a hideous little clock—a college graduation gift from an old, odd uncle. But it kept accurate time. Something had gone screwy with it and the pendulum was swinging about crazily out-of-rhythm. The hands twisted backward, then forward, then backward. It was so crazy that I didn’t really believe it. I don’t actually know whether what I saw was true or not—although Simon obviously saw something strange, too. But I thought to myself at the time that the heat was getting to me, and I quickly left the room to retrieve the second load from the car.

And here’s where things go odd.

I stepped outside, back under the piercing sun; I mean it was just boring into my head right then. As I gathered things from the car, it was like five-inch screws were being twisted into my brain. I closed the car door, I think, but then I couldn’t even move. I stood motionless outside my front door. I couldn’t even focus my eyes; and as I tried to, I suddenly saw something right in front of me. It wavered and shimmered like a heat mirage; you know how things look all distorted through the heat coming off of pavement on a hot day. I thought I must be seeing an illusion or even a hallucination, for I could swear that there was a man standing right in front of me. And as I saw this, I felt somehow cast into a spell of immobility. It was as if something was preventing me from moving. This man, perhaps. I tried to speak or twitch or do something to break this spell that had come over me, but my body felt incredibly odd, like each of my molecules was independently and individually immobilized—I don’t even know if I was breathing or if my heart was beating.

Then suddenly the man turned toward me and he saw me! He saw me!  He looked as shocked and terrified as I must have. And as I tried to figure out what was going on, I felt my consciousness melting away. I remember feeling somehow that this man was me, but yet he wasn’t. I had thoughts about my brother, about his being sick. But all these thoughts and feelings were fragmented and distorted in some crazy whirlwind in my head. I tried to hold on to a thought or feeling, just one, just something to help me get a grip. I felt like I was free-falling off a cliff and I was grabbing at rocks and trees—thoughts and feelings—as I flew by, down towards some abyss. I knew vaguely, intuitively, in a wordless thought, that I was somehow fading away, that I was being sucked into … something … something terribly unknown.

*

2.

My real name is Anku, citizen of Babylon. I am writing this confession while I await my execution in hopes that somehow this written truth can exonerate my soul. No man will help me now. I have spoken the truth, I have prayed to my god to help me. I have no power over this most evil of demons who has possessed me; I do not know its name. And because I have been convicted of this most heinous crime, no exorcist will help me. Forsaken by men and gods, I am a man without a name; I am nothing. I spend my final hours investing hope in the sacred and immutable power of the written word.

I can find no satisfactory justification for the evil set in motion against me—and against my brother. We have both lived our lives well and true to the gods, we have tried to offend no other. So how? Tell me how my destiny has been guided here, when I have spent my life following the prescriptions I believed were guiding me in the opposite direction. What is the explanation? I have been a righteous man by all definitions I know of man and god. I, and my brother as well, committed one grave sin. Is one sin worthy of this kind of total retribution? Are our lives to be destroyed because of this, when others sin repeatedly with very little consequence?

I don’t understand. Could it be that the gods are deceitful? All this time, what I thought I knew was good and adequate by the eye of the gods, could I have been wrong? There have been others who have asked similar questions in the literature I have copied. I never once suspected that one day I would come to wrestle with these horrible questions myself.

It is ironic that only a few days before, I had finished a copy of the poem, “The Righteous Sufferer.” It is a poem most beloved by our king. I have copied it several times in my few years as a palace scribe. Perhaps such a thing is an omen. Perhaps the demons have been plotting against me all this time, just waiting for the right time to pull off their grand, elaborate scheme. What if this was my destiny from the very beginning and nothing I have ever done, no prayers I have ever said have been of value to the well-being of my soul? What if the demons had possession of it from the day I was born and all the events of my life have merely conspired to create this final drama of horror for their amusement? I could not bear such a horrid world! Come executioner! Take my life!

My brother Nebukkar—that is his real name; he was called Iluramu for his public name—was my closest companion. We have shared a special closeness all our lives, and when we are alone with each other, we call each other by our real names. Not even our mothers or our wives were permitted this privilege. Nebukkar’s wife has just recently died during the birth of their first child. The child died also. Nebukkar was in the middle of arrangements to marry his wife’s sister. I myself was to marry my second bride as well, the sister of my wife who died of illness, only 3 days from today. But now none of this will happen. Everything seemed to be going all fine until a few days ago.

A fierce heat had begun that morning, like no heat I had ever endured before. It was after work, and I had just broken the seal on my door and was about the enter when Nebukkar came racing down the street towards me. He was such a blur, I could hardly even tell it was him.

“Open your door, brother!” he waved frantically at me. I opened it and he rushed inside, pulled me in after him and shut the door. He leaned against it, hands down on his knees, panting heavily. As my eyes focused on him, I noticed big bruises and cuts all over his arms and legs. His clay identification tag was hanging from his neck and he suddenly grabbed hold of it and tore it off. I stared, aghast. I couldn’t believe what this looked like.

“Brother?” I inquired. But he continued staring at the floor and panting. “Brother, you didn’t,” I begged. But he glanced at me from the corner of his eye, without turning his head, and I knew he had. Nebukkar slumped down to the floor, sliding his back against the door, and put his head on his knees. His body began to shake, almost imperceptibly.

I decided to go get some water, to clear my head. I couldn’t believe what was happening. I went to the courtyard to dip out water from the jugs, and I sat for awhile against a wall. I believe during those moments I was even oblivious to the heat. This! This was just terrible. Both Nebukkar and I were in grave danger. Concealing a runaway slave is grounds for severe punishment, as you might know. While I was angry at Nebukkar for bringing this danger on both of us, I knew he had to have good reason, sufficient enough to justify this danger, for running away.

I returned to Nebukkar with water for him. Sweat was pouring down his body in rivers. He looked so hot and miserable, I could not but pity him.

“Drink,” I said to him and he drank all I offered. “Tell me,” I said.

Nebukkar began with a huge, heavy sigh, and I knew from that sigh alone, even before he spoke a word and even if he had never, I knew that he was justified—I knew he felt he had no other choice. By running away like this, he was forfeiting his new marriage, his business, most friendships he had made, and was putting me in danger as well. My brother would not trivialize such things as these, would not take such things lightly at all. I knew his heart was very heavy. When he sighed, it was as if he exhaled the weight of the world, as if a stone was crushing his lungs and he would never breathe in again.

But then he spoke. And he began to tell me of his owner’s cruelty. I asked why he had not mentioned this to me in all of the previous three and a half years for which he had been enslaved for our father’s debts. He replied in his characteristic, selfless way, “I did not want to worry you.”

Oh, Nebukkar. Nebukkar, my poor, sweet brother! He told me how he’d been beaten repeatedly—and now I realized the true reasons why he would not visit for days at a time sometimes and why his wife had sputtered such curses against his owner. The final breaking point, he said, was finding out through the confidence of a witness to the crime, that the owner had just stolen a fair sum of money from his business the night before. Nebukkar and his wife ran a small sandal business. His owner only worked him during the day and gave him one day off each week, as many owners do. Nebukkar, as most native slaves are, was permitted to run his own business on his own time. He had just sold 6 pairs of sandals to his owner to outfit his family two days before. Then the owner broke into Nebukkar’s shop and stole that money back! It was so wicked and underhanded! Who could be expected to continue working for such a man?

At last this day Nebukkar showed me the brand on his shoulder he had hitherto been so careful to hide from me. Most slave owners brand their slaves with relatively small brands and aid in their healing. But my brother’s brand was huge and hideous, and the scarring showed lack of proper healing. Despite these obvious abuses, I could not help but exclaim—though I felt guilty for doing so—“But you only had six more months left! Three and a half years you gave to this man, and now to ruin your life with only six more months to go.” It was such a shame. But then I looked at his cuts and bruises and wished I hadn’t spoken such cruel words. Nebukkar was sold for the full legal limit of four years into slavery for debts incurred by our father. That alone made me weep for my brother, but to have such a wicked owner as well!

“He made us work harder than ever today,” Nebukkar said sadly. “Just because it was so hot. Two men passed out. I felt I would too if I did not escape.”

We sat up together well into the night, drinking wine to calm our nerves. Every sound we heard outside inspired our hearts to race. We tried to eat supper but were too nervous to digest our food. So we sat and drank, speaking only occasionally in low voices, until sleep mercifully overtook us.

We had spawned a plan. I would charade as Nebukkar’s owner and the next day we would travel and I would sell him into a foreign market—perhaps in Egypt or to the Hittites. He could stay there for a few years and then return. According to the law, a slave sold into a foreign market, when he returns to Babylon will be a free man.

“We will leave tomorrow,” I remember Nebukkar saying even as sleep had already claimed me. Perhaps I said “yes,” or perhaps I only thought it.

#

I awoke when the sun was already well across the sky. Nebukkar lay still. We had not even bothered to crawl upon our mattresses or even move to the sleeping room. We had slept cramped up in the little front hallway, Nebukkar’s back against the door. The first thing I thought as I awoke was by all that’s named, it’s hot! My clothes were wet with sweat, as were Nebukkar’s. We awoke as if in fever. Then it fully dawned on me how late in the day it was and realized I would be missed at the palace. I must not arouse suspicion of any nature! I had to go or send a message. Quickly I dressed in fresh clothes, drank some water and hurried out the door to the palace. I realized as I ran down the street I had not sealed my door. I prayed with all my might that no one would notice my unsealed door. Someone might try to call on me, thinking I was home, or wonder who else was there that I didn’t seal the door.

When I reached my scribal quarters in the palace, my peers were hard at work. I put on a dazed look, as if I might be sick, and stumbled in. Everyone turned to stare, and they looked at me with disdain.

“I guess by your looks, you and your wine stayed up together too late,” they all said in one form or another. I decided to play it up. I nodded my head and goggled my eyes a bit. I tempered my conscience for the lie with the fact that I had indeed drunk quite a lot of wine. What did it matter anyway, I was harboring a fugitive slave—a much worse crime and therefore much worse sin. But I would suffer any crime, any sin, for my dear brother. In fact, I took a certain pride in my deceit, for I pulled it off so well.

“Did you not take the cure before sunrise today?” someone asked.

“No,” I said. “No, I was out of two of the herbs. I’ll have to get more.”

I muddled around for awhile, making sure everyone knew I felt bad. I purposefully made many mistakes until finally I was sent home, practically kicked out the door. It was so hot outside as I tried to walk home, I could hardly think. I have never felt the sun be so intrusive before, as if it was scalding my very insides and scorching my thoughts. It was so hot I became confused on the way home and almost took a wrong street. When at last I crossed my threshold and closed the door, I slid to the floor much as Nebukkar had done the day before. He was no longer in the hall. He was not in the courtyard nor the north room, where I thought perhaps he might be eating. I found him on my mattress, face down.

“Nebukkar?” I prodded him, and he opened his eyes but did not look up at me. He gave a soft moan. Suddenly I was concerned.

“Are you all right, brother?” I asked him, and he moaned back. I knelt down, then, and looked into his face. He looked pale and pasty and his eyes seemed unfocused.

“Is it the drink?” I asked, although I doubted it, for we drank the same amount and I had not been poisoned.

“I don’t know what it is,” he despaired. “I feel so sick. I’ve vomited and my head aches and my whole body aches. One minute I’m cold and then I’m sweating, terribly, terribly hot.”

“My brother, you must indeed be sick. How could you be cold on a day such as today? It’s so hot out I almost lost my way home.” And then, suddenly, I realized the full implication of my brother’s situation. “You don’t suppose,” I began, but Nebukkar was already nodding.

“Do you suppose it’s your master? Or do you think it’s a demon punishing your sin of running away?”

“I don’t know,” Nebukkar sobbed, his great muscular body heaving in spasms of despair. “What have I brought upon myself?” he cried. Then suddenly he bolted up and staggered to the courtyard and vomited on one of my trees. Oh my poor brother. Such misery.

“We must summon the ashipu,” I called out to him.

“Are you crazy?” he called back from the tree, then staggered back over to me and took me by the shoulders. “Brother, are you crazy? We can’t let anyone know I’m here. We must leave right away. I must be sold as quickly as possible.” This was true, of course. But it was also true that I would never be able to sell a sick slave, and Nebukkar knew this too. Nebukkar flopped down on the mattress and closed his eyes. “I am sorry to bring all this upon you,” he mourned.

He slept for a while then, exhausted from his sickness, while I tried to think how I could summon help for him. The day wore on in miserable fashion. I tried to keep cool enough to think straight. I tried to feed Nebukkar water but he just threw it back up. I just knew this had to be the work of Nebukkar’s owner; he was just the sort of man who would be a wizard or a black magician. I had a physician friend who could administer herbs and baths, but I knew that would do no good without exorcising the demon and breaking the spell that had been cast upon Nebukkar. No, we needed an ashipu to release my brother from the sickness.

The day wore on. Nebukkar slept fitfully and bolted occasionally for the tree in the courtyard, and I sat mourning our situation, dazed by the heat, and drifted in and out of an uncomfortable sleep. It hardly seemed like we were living life. It was such an odd day, like we were part of a dream, part of another shadowy, languid world. We were like wax melting in the heat.

After the sun went down, I felt a little more alive, a little more real. And Nebukkar at last slept soundly. I had just fixed myself a bite to eat when suddenly I remembered—the heat must have kept me from thinking of it during the day—my wife’s other sister, not the one whom I was soon to marry, the husband of her husband’s sister was an ashipu and so was his father. I did not know them well, in fact I had only met them once. But perhaps, just perhaps the family connections between me and them were close enough at each junction that they could be trusted. It seemed an impossibly unlikely turn of fortune, but I prayed to my god to help me and to make this work out.

I decided I would take it one step at a time. First I would ask Urshullani, my bride to be, if she felt her sister could be trusted. If so, then the sister would have to be confident her husband could be trusted before confronting him, and so on. I had no choice but to take a chance on Urshullani, but I felt fairly confident she would be sympathetic. She already knew me and knew I had been a good and kind husband to her sister, and I think perhaps she was relieved to know she, too, would have a good husband. Therefore, I hoped she would justify my trust. So I gulped down the rest of my meal and went straight away to see her. She in turn went to her sister, who spoke to her husband, who visited his sister. His sister then consulted her father, whom she apparently felt was more trustworthy to my cause than her husband. At last, late into the night, when I had nearly fallen asleep, a messenger came and said, miraculously, “You will receive a guest at sunrise.”

#

Sunrise towed behind it another cloak of intolerable heat. I don’t ever remember such heat in all my life. I wonder what inspired the gods to subject us all to such torture. The diviners were sure to be busy.  I woke Nebukkar to tell him of the good news of our expected visitor. Nebukkar rubbed his eyes and sat up and said he felt much better. He had slept soundly through the whole night. I told him I had found an ashipu who would help us and could be trusted.

“But brother, I feel quite fine,” he told me. “Just a little weak and hungry and perhaps still tired. But brother, I do not feel sick anymore.”

This must be a trick of the demon or spell, I tried to tell him. Demons don’t just leave and spells don’t just get lifted without the ashipu. “It must be a trick to make you avoid the ashipu only so it can overtake your body completely,” I said and Nebukkar looked worried and lay back down on the mattress.

“Perhaps you are right,” he murmured. Then there was a knock at the door and I led the ashipu to my brother’s side. The ashipu was quite elderly; I wondered if he still actively practiced. He pulled out some tablets from his bag and began questioning my brother. He consulted his texts. He inspected Nebukkar, held his wrist, felt his skin. Then he recounted the omens he had seen on the way to my house. They were not so good; he had seen a black pig, which he said meant that recovery would be difficult for Nebukkar. But I took this optimistically that he would indeed recover, unlike my wife who died of illness. I thanked the ashipu for coming and for being discreet about our situation. “I can see your brother was ill-treated,” he said to me.

“What is to be done?” I then asked.

“I must exorcise the demon that has possessed your brother. I will find out its name and release your brother from its grip.”

“Is it his owner?” I asked confidentially; I didn’t want Nebukkar to hear. “Did he do this to my brother?” The ashipu looked to the ground and said solemnly, “I believe so.” He gathered his tablets, accepted another drink of water and said, “I will return. The ceremony must be performed before the sun hits mid-sky. Will you help me gather my things from my house?”

“Of course, ashipu, of course,” I said. I was ecstatic. There was hope for my dear brother now. He could recover and we could execute our plan. Maybe even in the next day or two. We had to move quickly, for surely slave hunters would be at my door at any hour.

“I will return,” I told Nebukkar.

“But brother,” he tugged at me and whispered, “I feel much better; I don’t feel sick anymore.”

“It’s a trick,” I assured him. “Your owner is just trying to trick you. His witchcraft is most evil! Trust me, brother, his demon can’t leave you without the help of the ashipu. The ashipu has seen this demon and he knows your owner has cast him on you with a wizardry spell.”

Poor Nebukkar! To be the victim of such mean witchcraft! As if being beaten and robbed weren’t bad enough. How I wished with all my heart to rid my brother of all influences of his evil owner. Oh, for him to be well and to leave Babylon!

I left him, then, and stepped outside into the blazing heat. I was careful this time to seal the two rope ends in front of the door with clay. The ashipu was already several steps down the street. I thought to sprint that small stretch to catch up to him, but the heat was so intense it seemed to turn my legs to mush. I felt I could hardly move at all, let alone quickly. The streets were peculiarly sparse. I think people must have kept inside because of the heat. And to think of Nebukkar laboring harder than ever in this. I wondered how far it was to the ashipu’s house. The mere distance from me to him, several footsteps down the street, seemed infinite, uncrossable. I squinted my eyes and tried to turn off my thoughts, to not think about the heat. I caught up to the ashipu and we walked in heavy silence to his house. I didn’t even pay attention to the streets; I didn’t know where we were when at last we reached his house. “Don’t worry. No one is here,” the ashipu said to me.

Upon entering, we both breathed a heavy sigh and wiped our brows. “I’ll get some water,” he said. And I realized then, for I hadn’t before, that the heat was hard on him too. It wasn’t just me. My focus had been so narrow on me and my brother. The world had been reduced to the two of us. Now there were three of us. We drank, then he spent some time rummaging around throughout the house, and finally he presented me with a bag, quite large and heavy. He carried a similar one and we stepped outside again, to make the brutal journey back to my house. Only this time, the old ashipu took my arm and leaned heavily against me as we trudged through the nearly empty streets.

The walk was interminable. I thought surely we would melt right into the ground. Just melt like lard. It was now I … I… well, I must contend a certain craziness. It was the heat. By all that’s named, I swear I meant in my heart no unkindness. But for those few moments my mind was spinning in insanity. The heat was so cruel and I bent, I broke and I returned the cruelness in my thoughts. I began to curse the ashipu and his clinging weight, which seemed to amplify the heat somehow: his sweaty arm on mine, his old, feeble panting beside me. I don’t really know what caused things to turn out the way they did, but I wonder now if my unkind thoughts toward the ashipu at this point caused the things that happened. Could he read my mind, my thoughts screaming out and cursing his slowness, his weight pulling down on me, his feebleness and old age? Could he have inspired the events that were soon to take place? Who is more evil: the gods or men?

I don’t know.

But when we reached my house, my sanity returned. We rested and drank water. I found Nebukkar sitting on my mattress. It was cooler inside, yes, but it was still hot. Hotter than I ever remember.

“It’s time,” I said to Nebukkar. I could tell he was brimming with anxiety and he looked at me with a pitiful expression I shall never forget.

“But brother,” he began, “Anku …” But then he dropped his head and was silent.

“It’s all right Nebukkar,” I comforted him and put my arm around him. The ashipu called to us and we joined him in the courtyard. I remember thinking, please not here, not out here.

“We will perform the ceremony here,” he said. Nebukkar and I exchanged brief glances of dread, but I remembered how the ashipu suffered from the heat as well, and I knew he must be unhappy also.  This is what the ceremony dictated, and this was how it must be performed. It wasn’t the ashipu’s fault the weather was as it was.

“You will do as I say,” he instructed us. We nodded. He paced a long oval on the ground while reciting an incantation. He was invoking the help of the fire god and the sun god and others. Then he instructed Nebukkar to lie down on his back in the middle of the oval he had traced out.

“Now,” he said to me as he began pulling candles from one of his bags, “we must place these all around his body and light them.” Oh how ludicrous this seemed. Lighting sixty candles in the middle of the hottest day! As I surrounded Nebukkar with the candles, the ashipu fashioned a wax figure in the shape of a man; I took it to be an image of Nebukkar’s wizard owner, the one who inflicted this demon of sickness on him. Poor Nebukkar, to be surrounded by these hot flames. It must have been unbearable. But Nebukkar was brave and he lay perfectly still. And as the ashipu began another incantation, something incredible began happening to me.

At first I thought it was a mirage—a vision seen in the heat. I had seen them before a few times in the sand; this type of vision was not uncommon. But this was right in front of me, and it didn’t shimmer or move the way a heat vision does. I soon concluded this was definitely something different. A ghost? A demon?

When I realized it was not just a heat vision, I was so paralyzed with fear I couldn’t move or speak. The apparition was a man and he appeared to be staring at me. Then suddenly, he looked terribly startled and he dropped a load of odd-looking things from his arms, and in that same instant, I could almost feel things dropping from my own arms, and my head began swimming, my thoughts were swirling around my head incoherently. I vaguely remember thinking of a strange sort of contraption that, yet, I had never seen before. I feared this was a demon who had something to do with my brother. That’s really all I can remember of my confused and disjointed thoughts. How to describe the madness in my head? I remember reaching out toward the demon, and it reached out for me. I think perhaps our hands touched, and that is all I remember. I was swept into oblivion under the power of that awful demon.

*

3.

Dr. Harold Ludke dropped the load of supplies he had in his arms and staggered backwards, tripped and fell down. He lay on the ground like an animal just shot with a stun gun. He tried laboriously to move, and his eyes darted back and forth in a look of confusion. Finally he pulled himself up from the ground and staggered through his door, closed it and flung himself on the couch.

His brain was all muddled and he was just trying to sort out thoughts on such a fundamental level as who he was, what he was doing, when a thudding sound jolted him from his sorting. He followed the sound to the bedroom. Simon Ludke lay in bed gasping, pounding the base of a lamp on the nightstand.

“Wha…s go… on?” Simon wheezed. Harold stared at him. Through him. He shook his head as if trying to dislodge something from its top. Harold displayed a look Simon had never seen, and it chilled him to the bone.

“Harold?” Simon shivered.

Harold’s expression was changing constantly from one second to the next. It was almost comedic. But surely Harold wouldn’t be playing a joke at a time like this, Simon thought. Finally Harold’s face stopped still, his eyebrows knitted together beneath deep furrows in his shiny, sweaty forehead. His mouth hung open, his lower jaw crooked over to the right. Then he looked at Simon and half-said, half-questioned, “Demons.”

“What?” Simon felt suddenly like he was beginning to fall into a bad dream—one of those where everything’s going along fine and then all of a sudden, out of the blue, something weird and sinister happens and then the whole dream cascades down into a nightmare. Harold had straightened his posture and his face began to clear to an icy blankness.

“There are demons in you,” he stated matter-of-factly.

“What?” Simon cried again.

“Demons, S… Si… Simon.” It was as if Harold couldn’t quite recall his brother’s name, or was unsure of what it was.

“Are you crazy?” Simon cried incredulously, adrenaline suddenly surging through him. “Have you lost your mind?” This was an unexpectedly provocative question, since, frankly, Harold was not sure. His grasp on reality and his control of his thoughts at this moment was tenuous at best. Simon could see his brother struggling mentally, but before Simon could speak again, Harold strode over to his brother’s side and put his hand on Simon’s forehead.

“I must decide what to do,” Harold dazedly muttered.

“You made it sound pretty straight forward,” Simon said.

“I… I can see it,” Harold said, and his gaze was far away as if he were peering right through Simon into an entirely other place.

“See what?” Simon ventured nervously.

Harold began to pace the floor. He moved like a man with purpose and vision, but his mind was in a delirious state. Crazy thoughts were invading his brain, and while part of him knew they were crazy, all of him knew he would follow them. It was like he was drugged and could see himself through a thick haze but did not have enough control to do anything but watch himself be driven by these maddening thoughts. His motivations escaped comprehension and yet he was powerless to stop them.

He came to his brother’s bedside and looked lovingly upon him. Simon found this look rather creepy and squirmed under the gaze.

“I will release the demons,” Harold announced. Simon stared at him in utter disbelief. He searched desperately for signs of jesting but found absolutely none—and he could always read a prank on his brother’s face. But he laughed anyway. He didn’t know what else to do.

“Funny … Harold,” he said and laughed breathlessly some more.

“Shhh, Simon, I have to think. … I’ll need some candles, and…”

“That’s it. I’m outta here.” Simon mumbled. Enough was enough. If this was Harold’s demented way of getting him to go to the hospital, then fine. He wins. To the hospital. Simon struggled to raise himself from the backboard of the bed and to swing his legs to the ground.

“Simon!” Harold cried and pushed him heavily back on the bed. “What are you doing? Lie still. You’re sick.”

You’re sick, Harold!” Simon screamed. “This is a sick joke. I don’t know what the hell’s wrong with you, but I’m not staying with you any longer. This is pure insanity.”

Just then all hell broke loose from the hideous little clock on the wall. The face was trapezoidal with numbers painted garishly in alternating colors: green, yellow, red, green, yellow, red. A small, silver pendulum hung from the bottom and swung back and forth with a conspicuous ticking sound, and at the top was a small door which thankfully kept shut except for 24 times a day. Many startled guests of Dr. Ludke witnessed the hours when the green-headed mallard duck was spat forth from the little door and uttered an unexpected “quack” and then was pulled back inside the door. Harold finally moved it into his bedroom to avoid any more tiresome conversation over it … he didn’t feel right just throwing away the gift. But now it looked more hideous than ever, and downright spooky as the pendulum swung way out wide in an irregular rhythm and the minute hand oscillated back and forth between two numbers, then jerked forward and hovered around another number for a few seconds before jerking again backwards.

Now suddenly the mallard duck sprung out of his door and cried his offensive quack. Simon flinched. The bird retreated then sprang out again, “Quaaack.”

“Harold,” Simon pleaded, “take that damn thing down.” Harold was looking at the clock, but seeming not to notice it.

“Harold!” Simon shouted as best he could with his failing strength. The bird sprang out again.

“Quack!” The pendulum was swinging so hard Simon thought it was going to fly off.  Simon moved to try and get out of bed again, but Harold, trance-like, moved to block Simon as if he were some robot programmed to protect the clock. “Harold, for god’s sake pitch that clock. It’s gone mad,” Simon screamed in a whisper, panting with the effort of trying to move. Everything was going drastically wrong. It was all mad.

“Simon, you must lie down, you’re sick.”

“Harold!” Simon croaked. “Unplug the fucking clock!”

“Quack!”

Suddenly Harold twitched and a particularly deranged look crossed his face. He picked up a brass bookend from the dresser, coiled his arm way back behind his head, then smashed the little door with almost superhuman strength. Simon jumped at the impact. Again Harold coiled and struck like a snake. Again and again Harold struck at the mutilated little bird until Simon, painfully unsettled at his brother’s extreme behavior, cried out from the bed and begged him to stop. Harold lowered his hand and turned to Simon and Simon shivered slightly at the unnerving blank look in Harold’s eyes. It was like Harold’s brain had just wandered off from behind his eyes and left them to stare all by themselves. If the eyes are the window to the soul, Simon was sure Harold’s soul had just checked out.

“H-Harold. Calm down. It’s … OK.” Simon’s mouth was parched dry and he felt very dizzy. He was fully scared of his brother now. If he could just get him to leave the house, he could then call another doctor or the ambulance to take him to the emergency room. He tried to lift himself from the bed, but his body felt glued down. His muscles protested then failed. He lay flat on his back on the bed, breathing heavily. What kind of nightmare is this? he thought to himself. This is out of some demented b-grade movie. A doctor and his clock gone mad while the doctor’s patient dies from neglect.

My god, I really feel like I’m dying, Simon thought. I’ve got to get some help. Simon’s mind raced trying to figure out how to get his brother to leave and how to summon help for himself. He didn’t even care why Harold was acting this way anymore. He just had to get out of there.

But Harold was a man with a vision. And he was not a man to be tampered with once he set down a track. His brother, most of all, was the last person he would let derail him. It was this character trait—one might say character flaw—that prevented him from being able to capture any rays of rationality that might have slipped into his head. He stood now in the corner of the room, leaning heavily against the dresser. Tiny beads of sweat lined the creases in his forehead, outlined his nose and pooled on the top of his upper lip. He watched his brother warily from the dresser, out of the corner of his eye, as if Simon might be the one dangerous, possibly about to spring out of bed and attack. When Harold finally lunged toward Simon and knocked him over the head with the brass bookend, he did so in eerie silence.

*

4.

“Sacrilege!” screamed the ashipu as he ran over to where Anku stood, rummaging through the ashipu’s bag, strewing things all over the ground.

“What are you doing?” he cried and pushed Anku away. Hastily he tried to gather his sacred, secret tablets and herbs and candles and incenses.  “Have you gone mad? I come here at great risk to help you, and this is …” Anku had regained his footing and continued emptying one of the bags, without hardly a look toward the enraged ashipu. It was as if he had not even heard or seen him. The ashipu realized this now, and came to Anku and stood before him.

“Naru,” the ashipu said timidly. Then again louder, and at last, upon no response, he shook Anku by the shoulders and shouted his public name, “Naru!”

Anku was startled at this and looked vaguely at the ashipu, as if trying to see him through a thick fog. But he spoke nothing. At last, after running through a series of confused expressions, he turned back to the bag and mumbled in a dazed and questioning tone, not quite audible to the ashipu, “I see the cure. I know it. How … how …”

Upon seeing this behavior, the ashipu gasped and his eyes widened and his heart quickened as he reached the only conclusion available to men of the region at that time.

“Demon!” he whispered, first to himself, then again at Anku. “You evil demon,” he said in a low voice to Anku. “I will find your name; I will exorcise you,” he spat in a whisper, and chills rose up his sweaty back. He had never seen such total possession before. Two brothers possessed on either side of him! He felt overwhelmed, alone and frightened.

He had never been frightened of possessing demons before, he had always felt in control, superior. But this one was different. This one could be seen point blank, right in the victim’s own eyes. The victim had been completely displaced, it seemed; possession was complete. The old ashipu had never encountered such a powerful demon. Now he was torn between exorcising this new demon and finishing the exorcism on Nebukkar. He knew he needed to finish Nebukkar’s ritual, but he was scared to turn his back on Anku. He invoked his personal god to protect him. Anku seemed fairly occupied with emptying his bags, so the ashipu decided to finish with Nebukkar.

Nebukkar had been told not to move his body until the ceremony was over. But now he was dying of curiosity and anxiety over what was happening outside his constrained field of view. Something had happened to Anku. Why was the ashipu whispering, “Demon?” He struggled to move his eyes to some impossible position where he could see what was going on. He had been told not to speak until the ritual was over, but the suspense was unbearable; he must know what transpired beyond his candle-lit oval. “Brother!” he cried out.

“No!” yelled the ashipu and he rushed over to Nebukkar. “You must not speak! You must lie still!” The ashipu was now frantic and looked from one brother to the other like a cornered animal deciding which way to run. Anku still looked preoccupied. The ashipu was worried he would read the texts for his exorcism and devise some shield against it. But the tablets lay ignored on the ground; the demon did not seem interested in them. The candles were burning steadily around Nebukkar and the wax was melting from both the flame and the sun—they would not last much longer. He decided he must deal with Nebukkar first. He would have to start all over, for Nebukkar had broken the spell with his cry. He steeled his nerves and turned his back to Anku and began his incantation again.

“Nusku, great offspring of Anu,

The likeness of his father, the first-born of Bel,

The product of the deep, sprung from Ea,

I raise the torch to illumine thee, yea, thee …”

Meanwhile, Anku in the corner of the courtyard seemed oblivious to the ongoing ritual. He had emptied both of the ashipu’s bags and now sat as if in a stupor, gazing off into the far away distance. “I will help you brother,” he murmured, without wavering his steady gaze. “I must find … must find …” Then suddenly he stood up and looked about, then silently left the courtyard and left the house. He headed down the street, looking like a man who was sleep walking.

The ashipu continued the ritual,

“I raise the torch, their images I burn,

Of the utukku, the shedu, the rabisu, the ekimmu,

The labartu, the labasi, the akhkhazu,

Of lilu and lilitu and ardat lili,

And every evil that seizes hold of men.

Tremble, melt away, and disappear …”

As he bent to touch the torch to the wax effigy he had carved, he could not help but glance back behind him. He gasped in fear as he saw the empty courtyard. The evil demon was now running amok somewhere in the city! Who knew what it was capable of. The old ashipu’s heart was racing and sweat poured down his body like rivers. “May all the gods help me,” he prayed.

He tried to continue with the ritual but found fear had erased his mind. Where was he? What had he just said? He knew he was not in an acceptable state of mind to continue the ritual, but he had no choice. The effigy had been lit. Nebukkar needed this exorcism. The sun was practically at mid-sky. He must continue. He breathed in deep and tried to collect his thoughts. “May your smoke rise …” he faltered, “to heaven … may Shamash destroy …” he continued, as Anku ran headlong now through the streets, panting like a rabid animal. At each place he entered he was feared, and people cowered under his nearly maniacal sense of purpose, his confusion, his disjointed speech. Everything about him seemed all wrong, like a man walking in a dream, as if he were living in another world but walking and talking in this one, as if his mind functioned in one place and his body in another. But he was zealous in his sense of mission, and the strange and vague requests he put forth were met as best as possible. Shopkeepers and friends were afraid to ask questions of this man who seemed so alien; not knowing his unexplained purpose, they filled his hands with all manner of things which might possibly conform to his mysterious purpose. They would watch anxiously from the door as Anku, his arms growing fuller at each stop, made his way down the street, headed they knew not where.

#

The ashipu finished Nebukkar’s ritual. He apologized for the interruptions as he moved around Nebukkar extinguishing what was left of the candles.

“I’m afraid your brother has become possessed by a terrible demon,” he told Nebukkar. “Your owner is a most powerful wizard. I must find your brother immediately and exorcise this demon.”

“I will help you,” Nebukkar said reflexively as he lifted himself from the ground.

“You can’t be seen! Have you forgotten your predicament? No, you must stay here. Do not answer any knocks at the door. Go inside now out of this fierce sun. You must drink this special herbal tea I have made for you. It is the final step of the exorcism. Then lie down on the mattress and rest. I will return when I have found your brother.”

Reluctantly Nebukkar complied. He lay down on the mattress, racked with fear for his brother’s well-being and guilt over his being the cause of all this. He lay as still as he could so as to hear any knocking or disturbances. The ashipu left, careful to seal the rope ends in front of the door so as not to give the impression that someone was home, since Anku was running around somewhere in the streets.

Nebukkar lay in a space where time seemed to stand still. He watched a spider climb the wall. This was the only indication that the world existed outside his own tortured, guilty and fearful self—the only indication that time was indeed moving. Then the spider reached the ceiling and scuttled off somewhere Nebukkar couldn’t see. All was silent under the weight of the heat. Am I even breathing? he wondered. Is the world still here? He began praying to the gods as the only means he could think of to keep his sanity. How long he prayed, he had no idea, but suddenly now the world out there merged with his own world at the sound of the front door opening and closing. He was abruptly pulled into a tangible reality where one could measure time moving again by the calculation of intervals between events. The door opened. Then closed. Then a face appeared in the doorway.

“Anku?” sounds penetrated the heavy air again, though they sounded muted, as if the wall of silence was too thick to push through; the sound merely pushed a bulge in the wall, like a ball thrown into a net, but it couldn’t break through. Nebukkar tried to free the stifled sound.

“Anku,” he repeated much louder. This time the sound cut through and hit the walls and bounced back. It seemed like the only real thing in the room. More real than Anku, who stood as if stunned, holding mysterious items in his hands.

“Brother,” whispered Anku, as if about to divulge a secret. Anku approached the bed. Nebukkar, haunted by the ashipu’s words about the demonic possession, cowered against the wall on the corner of the mattress.

But Anku was very docile and seemed very much like his beloved brother, not some evil demon. He sat down at the foot of the mattress and dropped the things he had been holding onto it. He turned his back to Nebukkar and pored over his collection.

“What are you doing?” ventured Nebukkar. Anku did not answer. Nebukkar asked again. And yet again, “Anku, brother, what is it you’re doing?” But Anku remained silent and mysterious.

“The ashipu is looking for you,” Nebukkar said. And indeed he was—looking through all the streets and shops of Babylon, staggering through the heat, a valiant crusader, feeling the responsibility of his post as exorciser of demons to be unforsakeable. He would not stop until he had found Anku. But by the time he found the places Anku had been and traced his steps back to the house, it would be too late.

For perhaps an hour, maybe even two, Anku sat ominously, mumbling occasionally, trying to create a mysterious instrument. Once he cried out, “Ai! I don’t know! I don’t know what to do.” Nebukkar tried to talk to him then, seizing the moment of opportunity where there seemed to be a bridge between Anku and the rest of the world. But Anku was very vague, talking as if in his sleep, saying only, “I see it. I saw it. You… you must get well,” and his eyes rolled around as if he were trying to visualize something hopelessly complex. And that was all Nebukkar could get from him. He let his brother be in silence.

Anku continued tinkering on the mattress. He seemed like a child enraptured with some toy. But yet, he exuded such a sense of … of a kind of desperateness. There he was, trying all manner of combinations with the array of things he had collected, now spread out on the mattress before him. The longer Nebukkar sat silently in this scene, the more lunatic it all seemed. He felt as though they had fallen into a funnel; the room seemed to be spinning—faster and faster, and the world outside was gradually falling away until only he and Anku remained, and as soon as Anku accomplished his secret, crazy mission, they would pour into … Where? Back to saneness and reality? Would everything be explained and seem normal once Anku finished what he was doing? Or would they fall into some even crazier abyss? Where are we going? Nebukkar cried out to the gods. He couldn’t take it anymore.

He jumped off the mattress and screamed out, “My brother! What are you doing?”

Anku seemed as solid as stone; he wasn’t even startled at this sudden outburst. He steadily worked with a silent conviction that he was performing with sacred purpose upon the instructions of his vision.

“Brother! Answer me!” yelled Nebukkar. “You have not spoken to me since your return here and yet you carry on fashioning some mysterious tool. I don’t like the look in your eyes, brother. Please …” and with a voice now soft and desperately pleading, “speak to me!” At this, Anku suddenly looked up, startled now by the faint voice of his brother as though it were a great thunder. He stared at him blankly.

“Brother, I am going to help you,” he said, looking down at the strange contraption on his lap. “I have seen a powerful vision.”

“A vision? What is it?”

Anku answered now in the one moment of lucidity he would have under this strange spell: “It is impossible to explain. I can only tell you that I have seen a device which I know, somehow, will make you better. Something inside me is driving me to build this thing. It’s not a voice, though, not even really pictures. It’s just in my head somehow.”

“But what is this device?”

Anku answered timidly, “I don’t know.”

Nebukkar remained silent. He truly feared his brother now. He did not want to ask any more questions for he did not want to hear any more unsettling answers. His brother’s ominous presence was unnerving. Nebukkar wished to be left alone in peace, but he felt he dared not dismiss his brother or himself from the room.

And so time continued to wear on tediously. Nebukkar took to praying silently again. He prayed the ashipu would return quickly and exorcise this demon from his poor brother.

Then suddenly Anku stood up with almost violent abruptness, and things went crashing to the floor off the mattress. Nebukkar, startled, saw several small vials roll across the floor. Anku turned to face Nebukkar with a zombie-like stare in his eyes.

“Anku!” cried Nebukkar. “What are you doing?” Anku wielded a large, pointed object; it looked somewhat like a giant needle. Nebukkar didn’t get a good look at it, for he was compelled by the steady, blank stare of his brother to meet those empty eyes, to search his brother’s face for any clue which might reveal or explain his impending actions. But he found nothing, and Anku moved closer, stealthy, like a hunting cat.

Nebukkar tried to flee from the room. My brother is completely mad! he thought. But Anku had the steady strength of a man possessed. At this moment he was almost superhuman as he was completely taken over by a single purpose and believed with zealous fervor that this was the right thing to do. Anku caught Nebukkar’s eyes and held them with a terrible force, as all of his conviction focused itself into a sharp point that pierced Nebukkar like a dagger and held his entire body motionless; it was as if he were hypnotized.  Anku reached out and easily grabbed his brother’s arm. Holding it in his left hand, with the other he arched the giant needle high in the air, its wet tip glistening, and in a moment of violent intensity he poised, in a dramatic, gothic pose, like an arch-villain over his helpless victim, and without a word, Anku drove the needle into his brother’s arm. Nebukkar drew in a sharp breath and could not let it go for the intense pain that racked his arm and then his whole body. At last Anku withdrew the needle-like instrument and released his grip, and Nebukkar fell limp. He slumped against the wall and then slithered onto the floor.

Anku stood motionless. He awaited his brother’s triumphant leap to his feet in perfect health. But the room stood still and eerie. Nothing. Finally, as if slowly awakening from a dream, Anku began to take notice of his surroundings: the bed, the floor, the discarded needle, little vials strewn across the ground, and finally, his brother lying on the floor. Somewhere in the back of his head he discerned a screaming. An intense, horrific screaming that made his head pound fiercely. He pushed his hands to his temples. He felt unsure of things now.

“Nebukkar?” he whispered. “Nebukkar?” Anku was suddenly overwhelmed by foreign feelings of uncertainty as he saw his brother’s contorted expression. He had been so absolutely positive in his mission, but now the feelings of uncertainty were flooding him and he felt like he was physically drowning.

“Nebukkar!” he shouted. “Nebukkar, get up. Get up!” he screamed and jumped up and down as in a tantrum. Nebukkar’s eyes were turning red, he seemed to be choking. He did not get up. Anku knelt down to him and cupped his brother’s face in his hands. His brother looked at him from eyes clouded with confusion and pain.

“Why, Anku? Why, my brother?”

“Brother, you should be healed. I don’t understand. I healed you,” Anku whined. But Nebukkar began breathing laboriously. “My...” he struggled to speak “ blood ... on your hands...brother.”

“No!” Anku shouted fanatically. “No! I would not kill you, brother. You will be well!” But even as he said these last words, doubt was clouding them, for his eyes were beholding a man slipping away from the living world. Oh gods, what have I done? he thought fearfully as he saw the needle and the little vials on the floor and realized in horror that he knew not what these things were. What had he done?

“Nebukkar, believe me, I... I love you, brother, I...” but he suddenly realized that Nebukkar was completely still.

“Brother?” Anku said into the silence, blinking in disbelief. And then Nebukkar’s eyes rolled back in his head and a long, tortured breath hissed from his mouth. “Brother?” Anku asked again, his words like the stick a child uses to timidly poke at a dead animal he’s just found.

“Hear me! I love you brother! Nebukkar, hear me!” He shook his brother violently, screaming his name. He began wailing in mourning and disbelief, and when the ashipu finally returned to the house, he heard the sorrowful noise and he found Anku, weak, still trying to shake his brother.

*

5.

Slowly, very slowly, Simon came into consciousness. The first sense that clicked on was smell. He smelled something peculiar. He tried to open his eyes, but they were so heavy, they fluttered for a minute before he was able to hold them up enough to see. He thought he must be dreaming, for he could see candles lit all around his body. There must have been 30 of them around his legs alone. This must be one of those weird dreams where I know I’m dreaming, he thought. But that smell. It was so strong, so real. Suddenly Simon blinked his eyes open wide and realized he was awake. He could feel the hard floor beneath him. What on earth am I doing down here?

The windowless room was lit only by the candles which completely encircled his body on the floor. What the hell is going on, Simon wondered, even as a creepy feeling was rising through his body. He tried to raise himself up, but his body was leaden. There seemed to be a whirlpool forming inside his head. Intuitively, in the wordless language of instinct, he knew he must leave. But his body was not obeying his mind’s plea. He continued to lie on the floor, breathing heavily with the effort of trying to move. He could feel his heart pumping furiously. He strained to hear a sound—any sound that might clue him in to what was going on. He could see the broken clock from Uncle Frank on the wall and knew he was in his brother’s room. And this knowledge spurred his adrenaline. He knew now without even thinking the words that his brother had gone mad; who knew what he might do. You must escape, Simon articulated to himself.

With great effort he hoisted himself up on one elbow and carefully turned over on one side, but his knees bent and his foot kicked out uncontrollably and several candles fell over, hot wax spreading over the floor.

Suddenly, a wrenching pain struck the arm his weight was on. And in that surreal moment, he felt as if he were sharing this pain with someone else, and yet there was only himself, and a very vague and distant thought was knocking at the back of his brain, almost like a memory trying to resurface through years and years of neglect. Simon’s arm gave way under the pain and he fell over forwards on top of the circle of candles. Most of them simply extinguished under his weight after burning his flesh. But the ones near his neck and head were not crushed and some spread their flame to his golden hair and others rolled over to the flimsy bed sheet hanging off the bed. Despite the pain and the deathly dehydration, Simon now flailed about frantically, and burning candles went flying everywhere. And in the dry, dry heat, the bed and the books and the clothes all accepted the fire willingly and joined it without resistance.

Harold had lifted his strange herbal concoction, thrown together from various resources in his house, from the kitchen table and was just heading towards the bedroom where his brother lay awaiting, unaware, his exorcism. Harold had tried to figure things out as best he could even as he succumbed to the mysterious forces that compelled him to act in this most absurd manner, but it became harder and harder to focus, and his thoughts just became so confused and jumbled that the effort was too much. He gave in and functioned merely by way of compulsion. He hadn’t tried to understand why he took out of the cupboard every one of the candles that he kept for when the electricity always went out..

As he walked toward the bedroom, his soft, nonsensical chanting was interrupted by a shrieking scream of blood-curdling proportions. Harold suddenly snapped to, then, as if he had been sleepwalking. His mind was groggy, and as he rushed toward the sound he tried to shake his thoughts out of the fog that had enshrouded them all afternoon. He wasn’t sure what was going on, what he was doing, or even where he was. But the scream, the bloody awful scream. He ran to the room from which it came and burst open the door. The room was in flames. Harold shrank in fear. Everything was on fire, and horror of horrors, a man was rolling around frantically on the floor amidst the flames, slapping hysterically at his scorching body.

Harold was frozen in shock and horror as the man shrieked and squirmed. Then, for the briefest of instants, Harold’s eyes were caught, ensnared in the eyes of the burning man, whose eyes widened in a look of terrified recognition as if the final piece of a puzzle had suddenly fallen into a gruesome place. And hanging in the air, embedded in the delicate folds of space, weft between the infinite warps of time and suspended now between the horrified, anguished brothers, was a shocking … Was it a memory? A glimpse? A vision? Something somehow familiar but hitherto devoid of context and depth. As the dying brother continued squirming and slapping and burning, he cried out in the voice of the tortured and betrayed, “Brother!”

Harold Ludke’s face drained of blood and he fell to his knees, whispering in disbelief, “Simon!”

______

End notes: Having had a long-time interest in ancient history, I did a lot of research for this piece of fiction. I envisioned part of the story taking place in Babylon because of my existing knowledge of it, but once I committed to writing the story, I read up a lot more. The ashipu’s incantation is a real text and all of the details of life as a Babylonian are historically accurate.