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"A Good Day to Join the Hittite Army"
It seemed like a good day to join the Hittite army. I’d seen the advertisements at the trading-post – “Every day is a good day to join the Hittite army!” – and we were all great joiners at home. I come from a long line of persuadable men. My great-grandfathers had joined up with the Sumerians, the Akkadians, the Amorites, the Old Babylonians, and the Hurrians, depending on whomever was sweeping down out of the mountains with terrible swift swords, or flashing unexpectedly out from the sea on terrible white ships, or flaring out of the desert on lightning raids, at the time.
People are always flashing unexpectedly into this part of the world, which is likely why those of us who live here year-round pride ourselves on our amenability. Some might call it easy conquering, but we prefer to think of ourselves as flexible hosts. If someone gallops into the town square to announce that he serves the greatest king the world has ever seen, who deals death from his fingertips, we always applaud and offer to send him a little something for his trouble. No one likes to flash all the way down from the valley of the moon with tidings of the new King of Kish and the Four Corners of the World only to hear, “Is that so?” followed by a polite silence. Whenever these messenger types feel slighted they’re apt to start burning things for emphasis. Everyone likes to feel appreciated.
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At this point there was very little to be done at home. Some of the local boys had joined up with the Phrygians, getting those nice little red wool caps with the flaps that hang over the ears in the process, and set out for points west. Some of them were dead and buried, of course. Some were off raiding our own neighbors in the hopes of catching them out of the house while they went on the road to raid us, and maybe even re-requisition some of our lost property in the process. And of course quite a lot of us had been led off in chains to Babylon.
Usually at this time of year I could be found in the fields with my brothers, preparing the barley harvest, but the most recent messengers from Hattusa had been really insistent about harvesting the barley themselves. There is such a thing as being too generous, but after all they had traveled a very long way, and really seemed to have their hearts set on it. So I thought that if the barley was going with the Hittites, that I might as well, too. I worried my mother might not be able to spare me, but she seemed to think she’d be all right. “Every day is a good day to join the Hittite army,” she said. My mother can read a sign as well as anybody, provided there are a lot of pictures and arrows, and that sort of thing, on it.
Besides all of these excellent reasons, the Hittite army had horse-drawn chariots. We had horses too, of course, but not in exactly the same way. What I mean to say is that we had heard of horses, and every once in a while might happen to see one. We are not yokels in this part of the world. There were two or three scrub-colored animals that sometimes grazed on the cliffs just beyond the fields back home. They were very good at running away, which you wouldn’t know just from looking at them. Grandfather Alaksandu insisted that horses made good eating, and in his later years sometimes had to be restrained from chasing after them with a winnowing-hook, especially in the evening after the sun had gone down, when his mind was likelier to start traveling. Not that he could have done them much harm, I think. If anything he stood to lose more than the horses did, because they had excellent footing and were mean-spirited.
There was, however, something a little dispiriting in having so near a relation so far from au courant. There were a lot of other families with the stray uncle or aunt who never took to barley farming, who hissed at the almanac-salesman, and threw snakes at the tax collector, and who sometimes fled the family home in the middle of the night to return to the old cliff-dwellings, feeding off of vultures’ eggs and stray cats. They usually came back down again, which was almost more embarrassing than having the good grace to die quietly on the rocks. The type who is forever fighting City Hall and progress, I mean, who thinks every time the river floods that the Anunnaki have returned to fight a war against the new gods. I tried to tell Grandfather Alaksandu that the water was good for the crops, but he only ever made sigils in the air and muttered darkly about an ill wind that blows no good in response.
Anyhow, neither Grandfather Alaksandu nor anybody else could ever get the wild horses off the cliffs and into the fields to do anything useful, so that was another point in the Hittites’ favor. Their horses had hides of burnished copper and could do all manner of tricks, like walk in a straight line, follow their fellow without trying to bite his hindquarters, or carry a rider without ducking them off by running under the first low tree branch. Some of them even wore leather caparisons studded with bronze, and had ribbons woven into their tails. Not to put too fine a point on it, but many of the Hittite war-horses were better dressed than the sex-priests in the shrine of Ninlil, which is really saying something. So between the barley and the horses, the Hittite army really had every possible argument on their side. At home we had a pig my mother swore could tell the difference between Friday and Saturday, which if true was more curious than useful. My father said it wasn’t that the pig could tell one day from another, but that Friday being a market day meant everyone was wearing their best tunic, to which Mother argued a pig that could distinguish between an everyday tunic and a market-day tunic was just as impressive as a pig that knew the difference between Friday and Saturday anyway, but of course that’s not really the same thing. Besides which, the pig had succumbed to hoof-rot in the last rainy season, so if Mother thought she was able to spare me, there was really no reason to stay at home at all.
The poster hadn’t said much about how a fellow was supposed to sign up for the Hittite Army, only that he ought to, so I paced about a bit outside of the trading post for a while, in the hopes that whoever had hung the sign in the first place might come back later to see what sort of interest he’d managed to drum up, but he didn’t. After a few hours of this Naram the Trader asked me if I had anything I wanted to trade, and if I didn’t, would I mind pacing in a single, continuous direction, instead of just back and forth in front of his door like a stork.
“I wouldn’t mind at all,” I said, “only I’m waiting for someone who’s supposed to meet me here,” which was not precisely the truth, I know, as it suggested to Naram the Trader that I had previously arranged to meet a representative from the Hittite army at this particular place, at this particular time of day, instead of having seen the sign and arrived at my own decision about it. But Naram the Trader is such an overbearing person that I could not resist the chance to get one over on him. I wonder if the traders are like that in your village? I suspect this is because they get used to having things people want in their storehouses. They begin to mistake themselves for an ingot – that they too must be something everybody wants.
“Oh,” said Naram the Trader, “that’s another thing entirely, of course, if you’re having a meeting out here. I fall at your feet seven times and seven times in pardon, I’m sure. Tell me, what does this other party look like, whose arrival you pace like a ship in the middle of the sea awaiting? I will keep watch with you.”
You see what I mean about Naram the Trader? He would try even the patience of the king’s high commissioner of patience, sitting in the great house of composure. But I can wear the mask as well as anyone.
“The name of this great man, the king’s right hand, the master of horses and men, deputy of Tarhunna-thunder, is not to be bandied about in the street like the price of fish,” I told him, “which by the way, my mother sends word has grown like certain men in the village these days – too high.”
Naram the Trader merely shrugged. “Do I set the nets that raid the waters of Aruna? Do I ride over the abyss in boats of reeds, at the mercy of Tiamat? Do I salt the silver carcass of the perch, or smoke it over a shorefire, to pack in the fish-jar? Do I protect the nation’s catch as it travels on the backs of ten thousand slaves and mules on the king’s highway? I do not. I simply set aside room in my storehouse, pay the man from Tarshish for my share when he comes to town, and try not to lose money the rest of the year. Your mother is welcome to deal with the man from Tarshish herself, if she thinks she can get a better price out of him,” which I thought was taking things a bit too far.
“Please,” I said with pained delicacy, “Let us leave my mother out of this.” To which he said it had not been Naram the Trader who had introduced my mother into this conversation, and that if any man (meaning me) thought that he (meaning Naram the Trader) was in the habit of introducing a man’s mother into a conversation about business, that man (meaning me) had another thing coming, because he (meaning Naram the Trader) had better things to talk about.
To which I (meaning me) did not deign to respond, considering it beneath the dignity of a soldier in the Hittite army, subject only to the Lords of the Bridle and Lord Šuppiluliuma II himself to trade aspersions and insinuations with a civilian. It is for this reason only that I moved several paces further from the doorpost of Naram the Trader, to await the return of the Hittite quartermaster in peace and quiet.
When next I saw him, he was closing up shop a few minutes after sundown, and confined his remarks to a respectful “Peace to your feet” before walking around the corner to his living quarters on the other side of the trading-post, where I could see through the window that his second wife, Tarhundawiya the Ahohite, had a stew-pot nestled in the hearth-coals, and also hot wine. I began to wonder if the sign I had seen (“Every day is a good day to join the Hittite army!”) had been intended more in the way of an aphorism than an appeal to action. Perhaps it had been intended spiritually, or metaphorically, even though I wasn’t quite sure how it might work as a metaphor. After all, was it really likely that the quartermaster of the Hittite army was going to personally return to stand under each recruiting poster, in every village outpost in Mitanni?
I was beginning to feel a little foolish, and more than a little hungry (rightly do they say an army travels on its stomach!), when it occurred to me that Naram the Trader had taken Tarhundawiya the Ahohite as his second wife when the Ahohites had been driven from their homeland by the Hittite army, which had been in need of some level ground for chariot races, only a few years earlier, and that if anyone was likely to know the movements of the Hittite army, it would be Tarhundawiya. Besides which, it was well known that Naram the Trader had no children, not by Tarhundawiya the Ahohite his second wife, nor by Puzzi Gray-Eyes his first, which meant that whatever was in that stew-pot was almost certainly too much for two people. With me, to think is to act; no sooner do I resolve upon a particular course of action but I immediately carry it out, which the Hittite quartermaster is sure to respect, as a fellow military man; therefore I found myself around the corner at Naram the Trader’s kitchen window almost before I had finished the thought.
“This is a remarkably well-beveled window-ledge, Naram the Trader,” I said, so as not to startle the two of them at supper (I have an unusually quiet tread, as my mother is often given to remark when she does not realize I am standing behind her in the kitchen), “worthier of a window-beveling craftsman than the keeper of a shop, meaning no disrespect.”
“It is a fine window,” Naram agreed from within, “and beveled to an admirable degree.” He addressed his remarks to Tarhundawiya, but I knew he was speaking to me, and that he was not going to hold that crack about craftsmen against me. “If a man admires the beveling of my kitchen window,” he continued, “he will also admire this fine dish of spring onions and lamb fat,” and once again I sprang into action, seating myself between Naram and his second wife Tarhundawiya and rubbing some of the hearth-ash between my hands to wash up.
“The smell of onions and fat is admirable at all times,” I said in reply, and I wasn’t just being polite, either. I really meant it. “I wonder if my gracious sister Tarhundawiya the Ahohite can clear up a mystery that troubles my peace.” She served me an additional spoonful of spring onions, which I took as a good sign. “The signs for joining the Hittite army I have seen around the trading post – where should a man who wished to join them go?”
Tarhundawiya looked slightly conflicted. “I would not further trouble the peace of anyone who sits at my table,” she said, “although for taking my mother’s sheep, my father’s copper, and my sister’s best scribe, their horses should wither beneath the Hittite army, their skin peel off like garlic, the ground should swallow their tents, palsy and rabbit-fever should take their women, and death, like a bad smell, follow them wherever they ride. Still it is true there is very little to do around here, now that so many have been led off in chains to Babylon, and it is also true that my mother acquired her sheep when we raided the Chaldeans, and that which is stolen once can be just as easily stolen again. And so I think that I will tell you where they are to be found, although I should also warn you that in joining the army of the king of the Hittites you will make yourself a thousand enemies, the first of which shall be myself.”
To which I said all that was polite and expected, of course, but privately I thought to myself that while Tarhundawiya’s cooking was excellent, her magic could not be very strong, or the Hittites would never have been able to take her mother’s sheep from her in the first place. So I would not worry myself over much about being her enemy, if being her enemy also meant riding in a chariot, or carrying a gold spear and traveling with the king’s household, and when she had finished her description of the army’s movements this time of year, thanked both her and Naram for the excellent onions, urged them both to take anything in my room that caught their eye now that I was leaving to join the army and would no longer be in need of the sort of childish trinkets that had held my attention until now, and made my farewells.
If I had it to do over again, I would have asked Tarhundawiya if I could take some of the spring onions with me, for she was not my enemy yet and this was to be the last meal that crossed my lips for almost a week. But I had never left home before and did not realize quite how big the world would be when I first went out into it. I imagined it would only be a matter of jogging down the road a few paces, looking for a massive column of dust thrown into the sky by the marching of ten thousand like-minded feet, and throwing my lot in for a friendly welcome. The Hittite army already had all of our village’s barley, along with that of a few of our neighbors. Besides, how much barley could one army eat?
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