Amuse bouche

The old ones are patient, and not so easily fooled.

After the death of Solomon, wisest of rulers, the kingdom of the Hebrews was distributed equitably among his heirs, who distrusted each other as mightily as their father was wise. Swiftly they fell, with many other lands, to the conquerer, Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon. As was his practice, the new king took hostage every male youth, both high-born and . . . . . . were marched east to study the Chaldean sciences—what the Hebrews called ‘the black arts’—in the hopes that a whole generation would be converted to the Babylonian faith and return to the lands of their ancestors to marry, multiply, and so to erase without bloodshed the famously fanatical cult of Yahweh. For above all, Nebuchadnezzar desired a Babylon eternal and would brook no rivals.

It was one of these sons of Abraham, a boy named Daniel . . . with  . . . excelled at his studies above . . . and was allowed to interpret the king’s dreams, an honor normally reserved for the High Priest of the Temple of Marduk. So impressed was Nebuchadnezzar that he dismissed his ministers’ objections and kept the young man’s counsel day and night, walking with him through the hanging gardens he had built to please his fickle queen . . . had barely noticed them. The king no doubt disliked what he heard, for Daniel referred to him as ‘the destroyer of nations’ and said Nebuchadnezzar’s own kingdom, his great and unprecedented legacy which surpassed even the mighty empires of Sumeria, would crumble and fall and be supplanted by mightier empires still, over and over, until at last a pinnacle was reached, a precipice from which the world itself would tumble back into darkness. Such was the arrogance and folly of the course the king charted.

The Book of Daniel is full of prophecies like that, some as opaque as a pale mirror. It’s only with . . . You can believe Daniel was a charlatan, or you can believe that his vagary was intentional, that he had witnessed something so terrible, so frightening, he dared not say it outright. For in truth, Nebuchadnezzar was vexed by visions beyond reason . . . He prayed to his gods first, as all men do. He prayed to the sky god Marduk, who had slain the many-headed dragon and so forged civilization out of chaos. He prayed to Enki and Ishtar and Enlil. But the gods and goddesses of Babylon were as silent as their stone-walled temples, as still as their marble-faced statuary, and the king despaired.

In righteous anger, Nebuchadnezzar demanded his priests call upon different gods, older gods still whose names had passed from memory but whose crypts could still be found deep under the twice-ancient cities of Ur and Uruk. And so archaic seals were broken and relic hymns were sung and fresh sacrifices made numbering in the . . . of thousands, and a narrow portal was forged, no wider than a pinprick such that no evil could slip through, and across it, the old gods, whose names were blighted by men, were summoned in parlay.

After a gap of thirteen days, they answered, and a deal was struck. The Nameless, the ancient lords of the earth, promised the king that his beloved Babylon would never die. He had only to record a tome, which would be whispered to him, one chapter at a time, over a period of six days and six hours and six minutes—a gift to all mankind from the emperors of the high dun.

The king agreed and set . . . as an infliction . . . But Nebuchadnezzar was no fool. He knew that which was whispered to him was nothing less than a return to ancient bondage, the architecture of eternal night. So he locked himself inside his treasury, the most secure vault yet constructed, there to trick the tricksters. He honored his bargain but recorded the tome in a language that had never been spoken: its alphabet, his own devising; its grammar, allegory; its syntax, so recursive and arcane that he had hope it might never be deciphered. And when finally he emerged, shrunken and disheveled, to test his invention before the wisest men of his court, he found there were none who could decipher it, not even the brilliant Daniel, and Nebuchadnezzar rested, believing he had . . .

But even a king is human, and in the years that followed, Nebuchadnezzar could not easily forget the murmurings he had heard in the dark, nor the strange and abominable recipes he had transcribed into a stillborn tongue. In the end, history records that King Nebuchadnezzar went mad and took his own life and . . . There is no mention, by Daniel or any others, of the book he composed while locked away, feverishly scratching until his reed split and his fingers cracked and his own blood flowed as ink. . . . but they knew of it, and its dark purpose. That is why Daniel had called the king ‘the destroyer of nations.’ It was why he filled his eponymous chronicle with cryptic warnings about the end of days. For he dared not speak the truth. He dared not reveal to the world that such a book existed. For in the king’s madness, the Book of Shadows, as it was called, had disappeared . . .

As for Babylon, she is the name long given to decadence, which rules everywhere.


—translated from the German by Reinhardt Stolz