Assyrian Machinery

When I was ten, Tashlutum gave me a granite birdcage with a hinged door, which opened and shut with a soft grinding sound. She was newly queen, and had beautiful crafts within reach at all times, but the birdcage, she told me, was made specially for me. She wanted me to catch laughing doves from the courtyard and put them inside.

“It will be lonely,” she said, “without a sister. The doves will be your sisters.”

I wondered what I could get Tashlutum that could serve as a replacement for myself. I was no longer confident that, as queen, she was allowed to like the things we both always loved as children: music at mealtimes, limestone carving, story-lamps. Though she was now a goddess and a regent, the most obvious differences in my sister’s life, as far as I could tell, were that she ate more fruit, drank more beer, and wore a more pungent pine perfume. And that I saw less of her.

“I’m learning to write,” I told her. “I’ll write something for you.”

“Write something useful,” Tashlutum said. She rose from the floor, her handmaidens helping her up.

The two doves I caught came from the courtyard of the temple where I began studying the next day. They were pink and blue—beautiful, gentle things that milled around the cage, chuckling, while I practiced writing with my tutors. I fed them seeds between lessons, studying the carved geometry of the cage, the perfect metal cylinder slotted through the frame and the door to make the hinge.

When I saw my sister next, she had two sons and a newly born daughter. Both of my doves had died; I buried them in the temple crypt, arranging seeds by their nearly weightless bodies. The cage had been empty for four years, but I cleaned and dusted it often, applying oil to the hinge and sketching my own design for improvements.

The queen’s daughter, my niece, was two months old. Tashlutum let me hold her: Ninzuana. Tiny and warm, trembling with life, she too smelled of pine. I wanted to wrap myself around her and turn to stone, protecting her soft form.

“She looks like you,” I said to Tashlutum.

“Through my eyes, she looks like you,” Tashlutum told me. She was sipping a cup of beer, watching me hold her daughter. In Tashlutum’s mind, I had remained a child over the passing years, and to see me with a baby in my arms, she told me, was strange. I held Ninzuana, thinking of the birdcage her mother had built for me, thinking of the wonders I could make for her to play with. After a few moments, she began to wail; her mother took her back and gave the rest of her beer to me.

Two years later, Aduanna, the second princess, was born. I was in Erdun, recording the production of flour using a new milling process I had designed. She was a month old before a messenger traveling from the palace told me: Tashlutum was dead. She had been ill after Aduanna was born and died from a fever. Her body was interred in the royal temple’s crypt, which I could visit in Ur to pay my respects when my documentation of the new technology was done. The high priest of Ur was interested in my mechanical improvements to the milling process; my recent induction as a priestess meant I was beholden to him.

I did not return to the hanging gardens of the palace ziggurat, nor its crypt, for another three years, when I was invited to design, test, and document mechanical instrumentation there, which had become a genuine fascination of mine in Erdun. After my success creating the water elevators for the wheat fields of Erdun, the high priest had commanded that all priests and priestesses study mechanics. I had been assigned a young acolyte who recorded my research and designs.

When I visited the palace tomb to pay my respects to my sister, I brought a bronze box with me. Her crypt had been sealed; the king, though upset at his wife’s death, was done with her. There would be no entering the inside of the little structure around her body, though it had been heaped with flowers at some point after her passing. Brittle brown stems were still stuck in the alleys on the tomb’s reliefs.

I thought about leaving the box I’d constructed at her tomb, but curiosity won, as it often did with me—I asked my acolyte to find someone who could introduce me to my nieces.

Ninzuana was six; Aduanna was three. They both played in the gardens during the day. Their brothers, busy with their studies and the relative freedom of being slightly older, no longer found them to be interesting company. I introduced myself to Ninzuana, wondering at how the infant I’d held had turned into a walking, speaking being.

“I brought you a gift,” I told her, leading her over to where her sister sat on a handmaiden’s lap. She followed, still not certain who I was or what my intentions were. Her dark eyes, her pine scent, Tashlutum leapt from her daughter’s face—accusing me of being absent and useless, of failing my nieces.

“What is it?” Ninzuana asked, looking at the bronze box, which I held at the sides. I crouched down so she could look at the etchings, the relief of the mourning doves on the top and bottom.

“You open it,” I told her, pushing the top up with my finger so that the lid lifted by its hinge a small bit.

Ninzuana pushed the lid open and the gold bird sprung out, unfolding its wings and uncovering its head from its resting place in its metal plumage. Ninzuana screamed and fell backwards; Aduanna shrieked with delight, and her handmaiden wrapped an arm around Aduanna’s body so that she could cover her own laughing mouth with the other hand. My acolyte, behind me, was silent, though she too had jumped as the bird emerged.

“You tricked me,” sobbed Ninzuana, from the ground.

“No, no,” I assured her. “Look.” And despite having no reason to trust me, she looked as I closed the lid of the box slowly, the metal bird folding back into itself, fitting its head back into its chest, then tucking its wings back beside its body.

“Is it real?” Ninzuana wanted to know. She sat back up and cautiously lifted the lid, watching the bird begin to unfold.

“It’s not a real bird,” I told her. “It’s made out of metal.”

“But it moves like a real bird,” Ninzuana said. She opened the box all the way, peering at the bird and hunching her shoulders as if it were about to fly at her face.

“It’s a present for you. And for Aduanna. To play with.”

Aduanna had recovered from her laughter and was also looking curiously at the bird in the box, reaching out her hand to touch it.

“She’ll break it,” Ninzuana told me.

“I’ll make another if she breaks it.”

“You made this?”

“Yes. Do you like it?”

“I didn’t like it at first,” Ninzuana admitted. But when I held out the box for her to take, she closed the lid and put it under her arm, using her leg to keep the heavy box steady against her chest. “I like it now, though.”

“Share it with your sister,” I instructed.

I stayed at the palace for a few months. It would have been better for me to leave, to go back to the farmlands and oversee the creation of the sowing technology, but the high priest asked me to stay and practice with him. He was curious about my mechanical designs; he admitted that, besides himself, the other priests and priestesses showed none of my passion for them. He was an exceptional engineer, and though abrupt in manner and intimidating, he seemed to find kinship in the mechanical nature of the machinery we designed despite seeing a more individual application for them. Together, we rigged the king’s Temple of Ninurta with enormous sliding doors; the heads of the lamassu on either sides of the entrance bowed when they were opened.

My sister’s husband did not remarry. He was mourning, the high priest told me. Servants and acolytes verified this for me, defying the sealed door of my sister’s tomb and the long-wilted flowers. He was disturbed by the swiftness of his wife’s death, how powerless he had been as she succumbed. He began to curtail Ninzuana and Aduanna’s time with others, especially if he perceived their companions to be unhealthy; the metrics by which he measured this were clear only to him. With my proximity to the high priest, I was perceived as a beacon of fitness. They were allowed all the time in the world with me, and they began to linger around my workshop after their midday meals, watching my acolyte and me work.

I thought at first that it must be tedious for them, but it was thrilling for me. I would show them the tiny models we made, of thin reeds and wood, meant for larger-scale production of mills powered by the water flowing down farming hills. I let them trickle little streams into the tiny mills, and they pointed out how the system worked to me, from the force of the cogs to the milling wheel that crushed the wheat. I reveled in their interest—it was everything to me that the daughters of my sister could see how knowledge could be applied to create, to improve. They recommended alterations and additions: what else could the mill crush? Grapes? Rocks? Could I make a device like this that they could use in the bath, to spin the water around? Could I make something that made the water stay warm? Could I make something that made more water?

Aduanna’s hearing was very bad, and not being able to communicate with the ease of her sister frustrated her. She was not above crushing the models if left alone with them, especially if her sister had been teasing her. I began to let her play with things we were planning to throw out anyway. She would rip the blotched papers apart and crush unusable materials into dust, then look at me, daring me to tell her to stop. She would pound a single rock on the ground of the workshop for half an hour, making a ruckus that drove her sister into teary fits.

She had a fury that had not existed in her mother and that her sister also lacked. When our gazes met, her eyes scrubbed mine, challenging me, as if I were an object whose design was innately imperfect. Perhaps it was a trait from her father, the living deity, who I had never seen.

She drove both the acolyte and her sister away one afternoon with her destruction. I knelt down beside her after I realized she was rubbing her hands raw, scraping stones along the floor of the workshop.

“What are you doing, Aduanna?”

She looked at me and stopped scraping. The brown dust from the stones had turned her arms gray up to her shoulders. “Nothing.”

“Are you making something?”

“No,” she said. She cracked the rock at the ground.

“Your sister left because of the noise. Do you want to go find her?”


We stared at each other for a moment. Then, Aduanna lifted a dusty hand and grabbed my nose, twisting.

I swiped her hand away—she lifted her other hand and hit my face with her open palm.

“Aduanna!” I held both of her hands down. She looked shocked at the anger that rose on my face. “Why did you hit me?”

She wouldn’t answer, but tears pooled in her eyes. I felt her arms slacken, and I let them go; she sat back onto the floor and cried. Eventually, I left her and went back to my work. She fell asleep on the floor, red-faced, until a handmaid came to look for her.

Was it a stranger’s anger that I saw in her face, or my own? I thought of the lamassus’ heads that bowed when the king entered his temple. I thought of my sister’s tomb, a monument to her fertility.

I left a few weeks later, to the relief of my acolyte. There was a tension between the princesses and I now that I did not want to name. I was not their mother—I had never been like their mother—and they were too young for me to explain that to them. I repaired the mills in Erdun, which broke or rotted easily. I began to work on a design for a lightweight plowing drill. I sent the princesses messages each month illustrating the tools I worked on—it was more correspondence than I had with the high priest, who would have coveted such information.

After four years in Erdun, I received a message from the palace in Ur. The princesses were dead. Their brother had killed a visiting dignitary’s son, and the dignitary had requested a sacrifice from the king: his son, or both of his daughters. The two girls had been poisoned after a lavish meal—a painless death, the messenger assured me, and one that their divine father could control, which meant everything to his peace of mind. The high priest was overseeing the construction of their tomb in the palace crypt, which would be as beautiful, if not more, than their mother’s. The king had loved them dearly.

I did not pack much, and I did not finish my work in Erdun. I thought of what I would do upon entering the castle, what I would tell the king.

I returned to the palace with the messenger, a sleepless journey of a week, going directly to the crypt late at night. A sandstone structure was being erected directly beside my sister’s tomb, larger than my sister’s and showing ornate trappings motivated by a guilty father: a pink limestone stele with story carvings of gods and children, seven feet high, and matching reliefs wrapping around the tomb’s perimeter like a scroll.

I stepped inside—the tomb was still open, construction ongoing. Torches were lit around the chamber inside, their heat amplifying a ferocious stench. A small trench of water flowed around the dais in the middle of the chamber, which did nothing to condition the scent. On the dais lay the small corpses of Aduanna and Ninzuana, embalmed, bloated, arranged in sleeping positions, thin ropes tied around their limbs. I recognized miniature versions of my latest water mill design in the trench below the dais, lifted so that they were not yet operating.

The high priest and an acolyte were at work inside, and the priest lifted his head as I entered the chamber. It seemed every study, illustration, and manual he had ever glanced at was inside. A library of scrolls and carvings were stacked up on the wall behind him, around a desk where he and the acolyte had constructed the mechanism before me. I recognized in a glance, drawings I had sent to the princesses.

The high priest stowed the paper he and the acolyte had been studying, greeting me warmly. I said nothing—I was certain I would be sick. I did not look at the princesses.

“You have come to mourn them,” the high priest surmised. “Their father is also grieving. He asked that we prepare a special presentation for their bodies, and we have indeed. We are hoping that he will be less melancholy when he sees the wonder we’ve created here.” The priest swept his hand toward the girls, but I did not look. A fabrication occurred to me; a lazy, deadly lie.

“It is a machine,” the priest told me, somehow interpreting my silence as curiosity. “To reanimate the princesses. To show how they were in life. That is what their father requested we do: show them as they were in life. It is because of mechanics that we are able to do so. Look at this.”

He gestured at the acolyte, who adjusted and opened the spout of the cistern near their desk. There was a rush of the water stream into the trenches on the ground, and the priest lowered the mills into the water around the dais.

With the force of the water, the mills began to spin, pulling at levers beneath the dais. The ropes attached to the levers creaked—they began to spin, tugging at the ropes around the corpses’ legs, hips, and arms. After a few moments, the corpse of Aduanna sat up, raising an arm at us. I saw the movement, but I could not focus on the body—my eye would not lift to the face of the corpse, they would only see the individual motions of the parts, where the ropes connected to the more mechanical features of its body. Ninzuana’s corpse struggled to move—it shifted slightly on the table—one leg came off the dais, then dropped again.

“We are still working on Ninzuana,” the acolyte assured me.

“This is the greatest application of mechanics we have yet discovered,” the high priest said. “This is what technology is for. What do you say? This is a great honor for your nieces and for you. You have brought them a second life.”

I made myself look at the face of the sitting corpse. Gray-blue skin puckered around the nose, mouth and closed eyes. The head was tilted back a little, propped up by a board that ran from the back of Aduanna’s head along her spine. Her hand was still lifted in a greeting to us. “This is not life,” I said to the priest. “This is use.”

He muttered something as Aduanna’s head turned towards me. For a moment, I remembered the slap she’d delivered to me after crushing rocks on the floor of my workshop. The corpse’s hand lowered slowly to the dais.

I heard the priest mutter beside me, asking the acolyte to lift the mills. The acolyte obeyed, and in the moment both he and the priest were focused on the water trench, Aduanna rose from the dais and took a step towards us, a soft thump sounding as she landed on the ground. She was slow but solid, and much stronger than she had been years ago when I saw her last. The decomposition of her face seemed to amplify the rage I’d seen in it.

The machinery on the dais creaked with strain at this new movement, and the high priest and acolyte looked up from their work. The princess took another step towards them and the level beneath the dais snapped—the ropes holding her left leg went slack. Another snap broke the right leg’s restraints.

We were frozen. The corpse approached us, lifeless, rotten eyes observing all three of us at once. The levers on the dais broke one by one, until she was just a footstep in front of us.

“Princess Aduanna, our machinery has given you movement!” The high priest declared. He was shaking. “You are stronger now in your second life. Praise the gods and the king!”

She plunged a hand at his stomach. At first I thought she was only striking him with her fist, not causing much more damage than when she’d slapped me across the face years before. As she withdrew the hand, I saw that she was holding a thin metal rod.

The priest gasped in pain and the acolyte rushed forward, attempting to bat the rod from Aduanna’s hands. She sliced at his face, once drawing a red line from his forehead to his mouth, then again, across his neck. She stabbed into the priest’s chest, six times, unbottling screams. When the acolyte was silent, she cut the ropes around her sister’s body. Then she set the tomb aflame, starting with the designs.

Even when I ran out of the tomb, yelling for help, it took a few moments for anyone to come to my aid. Smoke was billowing out of the entrance, smothering the stars in the night sky. Soot covered my hands and feet and I stumbled across the courtyard to the wall of the ziggurat, coughing. Eventually, people came, drawn to the smoke and the cracking sound of flames. The ceiling began to cave in as I was drawn away by guards.

This is what I told the king, a few hours later, when I found myself in his presence. I had never seen him before, and I was relieved that there was nothing familiar about him. He shook his head after I told him of the abuse of his daughters’ remains.

“It is true, I told the High Priest to show them as they were in life,” the king said. His voice was deep but dry, like an empty well. “But my power disturbed the gods, as it always does. They are not ready for one more powerful than them.”

I was shaking. Smoke and my bitter perspiration had soaked into my clothes; I was aware how unimpressive I looked, how lost. It dawned on me that he did not doubt any part of my story; that to him, it was reasonable his daughters would return from the dead. It was a testament to his power, that he might make the dead return to life.

And a second realization: that everything I had ever made, had made his belief in his own power grow.

“You look so much like my wife Tashlutum.” The king gestured at me. “You will stay here, and bathe. You are grieving, like me.” He rose and approached me, jewels rustling as he stood. When he was close to me, he lifted my chin to look at him.

“My poor girls,” he said. “I wanted them to live.”

I dug the rod out of my sleeve. I stabbed him, too, sinking the weapon into his soft belly, then ripping it out, and sending it into his throat.