Short fiction

One of the groups that I belong to has a monthly contest to come up with a story in under 600 words. There is a theme and one or two things that the story must contain. Apart from that, you can do whatever you can fit into this short form.

It was a good exercise in being essential. I had to try to convey the whole story as quickly as possible without being too cryptic. Here is the result.

Ali took another photo of the fragment. “OK,” he said, wiping his brow. “You can take it out now.”

His assistant carefully brushed the dirt away from its edge and gently lifted the small clay tablet up and placed it in an artefact bag. The artefact was then put on the tray with the others as Ali moved on to the next object.

Back in the relative comfort of the site lab, Ali sat and examined the day’s finds. This part of the temple complex had been particularly fruitful. The artefacts were enriching their understanding of the Babylonian god Nergal .

He picked up the first artefact. It was the tablet fragment. For a long time, he looked at the writing, trying to decipher the tiny cuneiform script. It was clearly a part of a larger narrative.  From what he could make out, the fragment said that a mother fears for her daughter. She does not want to lose the daughter to Meslamteada, the local name for the god Nergal, so she gives her daughter a mirror to not forget herself. Meslamteada then takes the daughter to his heavenly home, which Ali assumed meant Mars, the planet the god was associated with.

Ali could find no reference to the story and no other fragments of the text had been found. Not knowing what to make of it, Ali finished cataloguing the piece and moved on.

A few weeks later, Ali was relaxing in the café near the bus depot at Tell Ibrahim waiting for Dr Rudi Gottsheim to arrive. Since the Pergamon Museum started funding the dig, Rudi came out once a month to see the site and get a progress report. Ali did not really mind these visits. Dr Gottsheim was an archaeologist, not an administrator, so he was more interested in the artefacts than in the budgets.

“Dr Sayyid,” a deep bass voice rumbled across the café.

Ali got up, “Rudi, good to see you again.”

As they drove out to the dig site, Ali briefed his colleague on the progress they had made. “I found something that I think will interest you a great deal.”

“What’s that?” Dr Gottsheim asked.

“It’s a fragment of a story about Nergal that I have never heard before.”

Dr Gottsheim turned expectantly, “Well? What is it?”

Ali laughed. “I’ll let you read it for yourself.”

When they got to the lab, Rudi demanded to see the fragment first. Ali pulled the tray out and placed the bag with tablet on the workbench. Rudi carefully removed the fragment and held it under the magnifying lens mounted on the table.

Ali watched Dr Gottsheim’s expression change from excitement to shocked wonder. Slowly Rudi set the fragment down and turned to Ali. “I don’t believe it,” he muttered.

“Don’t believe what?” Ali said alarmed.

Dr Gottsheim looked at him oddly. “You mean you don’t know?”

“Know what, Rudi? What are you talking about?”

Dr Gottsheim got up and walked over to the laptop sitting nearby. He opened a browser and typed in URL. “You mean to tell me you haven’t seen this?”

Ali looked at the video of the Mars Curiosity rover arm extending. It picked up something that looked like a flash of light. The arm retracted and turned so that the camera could get a better view of the object. Ali gasped in surprise. Between the grips was a familiar disc of highly polished brass, like the ones from the dig. At a loss for words, he turned to Rudi, who nodded.

“Yes, it is a Babylonian mirror.”

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