The Man in the Lion’s Skin
(from The Faithful Son, a novel by Laura Valeri)
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The man woke up on the banks of a river, freezing water lapping the top of his head, and pebbles poking his hands. Someone was probing him, urging him to wake up, the thrum of a river mixing with the echoes of a dream. A ray of sun exploded over a rock outcrop, blinding him. The man shaded his eyes with his hand.
A shadow hovered over him, reaching to him with a long stick: “Wake up, man. Wake up.”
The man scrambled to his feet, his arms folding to protect his face and chest, his fists clenched and ready. But the shadow turned out to be only a barefoot old shepherd covered in ragged skins, and clutching a crook that he now held out, perhaps in an effort to help him get up.
The man slowly released his breath. He glanced at the outlines of the banks where he stood, the jagged rocks steep behind him, and the long wide curve of the river snaking through the passes. He was muddy and wet, and the state of the loincloth he wore was even worse than the old shepherd’s skins. He plucked an insect from his tangled, yellow beard, only to find more.
For a heartbeat he had an urge to dive underwater and not come up until his lungs exploded. He didn’t know why. Certainly not for this old man who still poked him with a crook, a scraggly beard lifting with each tuft of wind.
“Come, man. The tide is rising, see?”
A cluster of goats bleated from the safe perch of their rock outcrops. It was day. There was no one around but the old man and these goats.
“Where am I?” His own gravelly voice startled him, a croak that seemed to scrape itself together over spit and dry throat.
The shepherd gave a startled “Ha!” He squinted at him, studying as he might study an old horse, and cried. “What are you? You look most peculiar, so tall and …You’re not a Gutian, are you? We have no loot for your bands here. We barely even have food.”
A few of the goats bleated and scattered a short distance, hopping from outcrop to outcrop.
The man shook his head, though his hair was perhaps like Gutian hair, the color of dark sand. And not just on his head but also on his arms and legs.
“I am not Gutian,” he waved his hands before his face, surprised by his own certainty. He tried to remember how he’d gotten here, where he’d come from, but his mind was a fog. “I maybe mostly dead.”
“Bah! Nothing that a warm cup of tut-broth couldn’t revive.“ The shepherd observed. He pointed his crook at him. “What’s that on you? Not a Gutian mark?”
The crook pointed at his calf, where, under the crusted mud, a diamond-patterned coiled tattoo emerged, looking like the tail of a snake.
“I must have been drunk when it happened.”
“Ah,” the old man sighed, as though he recalled a few such mysteries of his own. He kept nodding, his eyes lighting up. His mouth opened up, black and nearly toothless, in something that might have been a smile. “What is your name, then?”
The man searched his mind for a name, but it didn’t come; it kept hiding behind the turns of his probing thoughts. The few fragments of memory that surfaced blurred together: his wading through shrubs and creepers, or crossing deserts, or climbing mountain passes, in search of something that eluded him, a wild feeling between rage and terror pushing him onward. But he couldn’t remember what it was that he was searching for, or why it was urgent.
“Maybe I just woke up into this life,” he said. He lifted his arms to inspect himself: true enough, he was muscular, and much taller than the shepherd, but he was also lean and lithe. Because he was mostly naked, there was no clue he could examine, but for his scars, old and fresh both, which told him only that, for a long time, he must have been a fighter. “Maybe you can tell me what I am. They say old shepherds are wise.”
“Who says? Goats will teach you nothing, those secretive bastards.”
His black mouth gaping, the old shepherd hooked the man’s elbow and growled, “Come, son. My brother passed away from sickness last year. My wife has prayed for help. You look like you need help, too. Maybe the gods dropped you on these banks for a reason.”
The man followed the old shepherd with the instinct of a starving cat: down the banks of the river, along a narrower tributary to a scatter of conical reed huts that the old man called a tell. A path beaten out by the trampling of donkeys snaked through a few fruit trees and opened to some fields cleared for pastures; a well stood at the end of this path, where women gathered as they came out of their homes, countless children crowding them, the small ones clutching a mother’s skirts or hanging from her breasts, while the older ones scampered and galloped towards him, chiming unintelligible words, a small dog yapping at their heels. This was a tell.
The shepherd waved the crowd off and nudged him toward a mud hut with barely enough room for some straw to sleep on and a hole at the center fortified with stones for a fire. A cauldron hung from a rig of wood and rope. Above it gaped a wide hole out of which the smoke billowed.
“Bring this man something to eat,” the old shepherd said to a stooped, lumpy woman, his wife or his daughter. When the shepherd’s voice cracked, she scurried to the cauldron with her head hanging low.
The hut was tight: nets weighed down with dry meat and a water jug, and a naked child, dirty as a wild dog crouched in the dark, a string of snot dangling from his face. Nonetheless, when the woman handed him his cup of broth, he felt grateful and said, “I wish to make myself useful here, to earn my food.” He leaned to the broth with a painful hunger. He swallowed the contents of the meal in a few droughts. It tasted mostly like flavored mud, but its warmth filled his belly.
“Enkidu,” said the old shepherd, who had been studying him quietly the whole time. “That’s a good name for a strong man like you.”
The sound of that name cut the man’s senses like the edge of a blade.
“Enki, the snake god,” the shepherd explained through a mouthful of food. “God Enki answered our prayers, sending you when we needed you, and so we shall call you Enkidu after him. He marked you with that snake so we would know you. That’s what I think, anyway.”
The man kept his head down, his nose still smelling the empty cup. Enkidu. Enkidu. A bitter bite sent a strange poison through his heart.
In the morning, the shepherd climbed a rock for drama, and banged two coconut shells together to get the attention of his tribesmen. “Enkidu will guard the sheep. He’ll keep the lions at bay.”
The tribesmen murmured to each other, squinting at him in the sun. One spat, and another grinned. A lad with eyes that shone like riverstones, gave him a crude knife and walked him up the steep slopes of rockface to a high plateau where the grass was tall, and the goats who didn’t know how much more dangerous he was to them than the lions, went about their business, all but ignoring the old dog who barked an old dog’s bark and sniffed his crotch.
The man slept in the fields that night and thereafter, clutching a crude spear to his chest that he had fashioned out of an obsidian stone and a long stick. It was better for killing than the wooden knife the lad had given him. How he knew to make a spear was another mistery. He found a long stick and began to shape it with the knife without much thought, until he noticed that he’d made the edges sharp and notched so they could lodge into an animal without falling off.
Later he also learned that he could throw hard enough to break through tree bark and animal skin. He could break bone. He could slide a vein in the neck of an animal in flight. He could slice through bone and find a tender spot just under the ribs. He ate what he killed, snake, lion or wild boar. The blood and meat satisfied him better than the thin slices of unleavened spiced bread and the dry, crumbling flatcakes that the people offered in return for his work, baked nothings that could hardly feed a dog, let alone a man like him. The women, young girls, with bright teeth and shiny eyes, said, “Son of a wild ass, learn to eat bread. That’s the food of a civilized man.”
He had a sense of people fearing him, spying him from a distance — and even a stronger sense of his own savage indifference, knowing that he was capable of turning on them as easily as he turned on the young male lions that sniffed out the herds.
He was a nameless man, born whole and naked from the Diyala river, a man that people called Enkidu. He accepted the name only because he knew no other.
The hours passed too slowly for him. He was waiting for something, always on the alert for it. What was it? A clever predator, like age, like death: it was biding its time, stalking him, waiting for him to drop his guard. If he whistled, or napped, or talked to the goats out of boredom, a branch might snap, or a bird might flutter away, and then he’d sense it, a broad shadow darkening the pasture. There was no one, of course: a vole, a wild cat, a throbbing in the pulse of his instinct, but it was something. He was on his feet, speark at hand, ready, ready.
It disturbed him, this fog in his mind preventing him from understanding why — why he could move so quietly that even lions seemed startled to be discovered, their amber eyes glowing in the tall grass.
The wind brought scents of things he knew to kill and eat. Small things like snakes and mice, but if he killed a lion, he slung it over his shoulder and brought it back to the tell, the people wide-eyed with wonder at his strength.
Women made a tunic for him out of the lions’ pelts. They gave him string to wear the fangs and laughed and nodded when they passed him by. But when he killed a bear, one late evening, the villagers gathered around him in agitated silence. They helped him drag the corpse to the tell, but when they turned it over and saw that it was pregnant, some cried out while others jumped back and spat. He watched the belly of the dead bear pulse slowly, groggily. He cut her open and the cub slithered wet onto the ground near his feet, wriggling and pawing in a puddle of blood. The stench shot out of the wound and into his mouth. A woman grasped her own face and cried, her fingers moving fast over the dying cub. She pointed her curse finger on him when he leaned over to stab the cub.
That night, he slept with the cattle as always, but woke out of a snooze surrounded by fire, the sky echoing cries of Lilu demon. The fields crackled. He ran, at first, in the direction of the voices, towards the silouettes of men bent by the waves of heat, but when he stumbled into a clearing a man swung a torch at his face, shouting, “Here he is!”
From behind him others shouted as well. They lit their arrowheads. Flaring shafts stabbed the ground near his feet. He ran, then, holding the long end of his loincloth over his mouth, his lungs itching and filling with smoke.
He couldn’t see much, but he sensed the goats moving, and he moved after them into the pitch dark, away from the flames and from the mob. He climbed after them up the steeprockface, cutting his hands and feet as he grappled for hold with vines. Welts formed on his skin and his hair was singed and smelled like pitch.
Days later, he skulked back. It wasn’t enough to steal their weapons. He had to set the tribe’s grain stocks on fire, then he climbed up the roof of a hut, and standing over the flu-hole cursed them in a nonsensical language that he spoke with a gravelly voice.
An old woman ran out of her mud hut screaming, “A demon is in the fire!”
Petty people, shadows that fed on superstitions, not worth the effort of vengeance. Their weakness of mind was beneath his contempt in the end.
He worked his way east, up through the mountains. He followed the oryx to rain, the lions to prey, even if what the lions left for him was rotten and half-cooked by the sun, and he had to fight vultures to eat the scraps.
And then he woke up, one morning, startled, haunted by the shadow of a dream he could not recall. He was straddling a tree branch, staring at a blanket of black clouds. Birds scattered overhead. He rubbed his eyes and slowly took in his surroundings, as if what had haunted him in sleep was still lingering, stalking him through the crags of the mountain face, behind the thick foliage.
He climbed slowly, warily, down from his perch in the trees. It was cold and the oncoming storm looked dangerous. There were steppes ahead, but here in the foliage, it was hard to see. He moved through with some effort, the wind spitting hard into his face, thorns scratching his skin. He couldn’t remember how long it had been since he’d eaten: a rodent a few days ago, berries and seeds. Soon he’d be too weak to hunt.
The sky seemed about to crack open. Grit blew in his mouth. He sniffed the air and under the smells of oncoming rain, he detected blood. He stalked his way slowly towards the smell until he heard the thrashing.
A trapped ibex, desperate already, tossed its head as soon as it smelled him. It was caught in a hunter’s trap, upside down, her hind legs strangled by the rope that tightened harder with each of her attempts to escape.
“Sorry, girl,” he said to her, slipping the knife from his girth belt. After he ripped her open with one slash, he cut the trap, and also the trigger-rigged stakes just below it.
He studied the handiwork: it was a double snare, one for the ibex, and the other for bigger game, perhaps for lion. He pulled the stakes one by one and broke them on his knee. He hacked the heart out of the ibex and ate that first, then went for the liver. Satiated, he cut strips of her flesh and hung them from a rope around his girth, then hastily covered the rest with snow and dirt.
The wind rose suddenly and so fiercely that a large tree branch fell at his feet with a thump. He heard voices float his way. Hunters must have been coming to check on their traps, and they must have heard the noise.
He listened for the direction of their movements, and when he was certain they were coming his way, he sprang to his feet and ran, holding his breath. He felt the grip of a rope tighten suddenly around his ankle. He was pulled up and hung upside down. He raged as he tried to reach for his weapon. The axe fell on the groundcover of pine needles and loam, just beyond the reach of his fingers.
He swung his weight back and forth, hitting the bole of the tree and bracing it so that he could climb up. The voices of hunters floated so close he could make out the clipping of tongues against their palates.
He moved across the branches until he grasped the limb that held the triple knot of rope and pulled. He pulled so hard he felt his voice slip out between his teeth. The branch was strong enough to support a sizable animal. He was strong, though, and desperation made him stronger.
Soon after he’d started to haul and tug, he heard the first heartening crack. He pulled harder, tying the slack of the rope around the bole of the tree and leveraging his weight until he felt the limb give a little more, another hopeful crackling resounding under the sudden roar of rain.
When the branch gave, he fell to the ground. Just in time to stare in the face at a squat, dark man who wore a hunter’s scarification marks on his shoulder and cried out some kind of curse at him.
The hunter’s girth and thigh were strapped with blades of various sizes, his hands clutched a bow, and already he was reaching for an arrow from the quiver strapped to his back.
So he grabbed the loose end of the tree branch that was still attached to the rope, and swung, at the hunter, grazing the side of his face. The short man lunged for him, howling words in an odd dialect. The other hunters — they must have been looking at the trap he’d dismantled– responded with their cries.
The hunter struck his jaw, a good hit that might have knocked a smaller man unconscious – but not this man. This man was already swinging with his right and left, fast, efficient hits that protected his face and chest even as they swung out to bleed his opponent. He feinted to get under the man’s flailing fists and struck his opponent under his chin, knocking him back unconscious into the loam.
He studied a moment his bleeding knuckles and grinned as he wondered at his own speed and at the skill with which he’d dispatched this hunter. He then grabbed his axe, cut himself from the rope, and ran, crashing through the bushes.
Arrows zinged past him, voices closing the distance. A spear grazed his heel. But the storm was a gift. The wind and the falling leaves and limbs would probably confuse and erase his tracks as well as throw off his scent. He rushed down a steep slope, and heard, farther back, the calling of the hunters, their bird whistles pitched to signal something.
It couldn’t be him, at this point. He couldn’t be that important to them.
Then a rich rumbling sound vibrated overhead, deeper than the thrum of rain, louder than the crack of thunder. His body recognized it before his mind could catch up. He gasped and fell to his knees as he looked up.
A small spark of light blazed above him and expanded quickly in a whirl. He threw himself to the ground. He had the presence of mind to cover himself with mud and loam and crawl near a rock. He bit down on his cries, smothering them in his fist. Here was the thing he’d been running from. It had found him. Even here.