Excerpt: 'The Lost Civilization of Suolucidir' by Susan Daitch
There was the risk that once the cylindrical case was opened, and its contents exposed to the atmosphere, the parchment would completely disintegrate. Because the thing was stolen, I didn’t want to take it to the Metropolitan or any other institution which would ask questions about the object’s provenance, but if it stayed in the case, no one would ever know what was written on it. I put on white gloves, and working quickly, unscrewed the lid of the black enameled cylinder, its top and bottom rims rusty and corroded, marking my hands with stains and red rings that remained for days. The parchment could so easily crumble into nothing. I began to translate.
According to their legal code, the Suolucidiri took literally the concept eating your words, although their language didn’t include that idiomatic expression. Neither could a Suolucidiri talk about eating his hat, crow, or swallowing his or her pride. A burglar had to eat a clay tablet bearing the words for thief and as well as a description of his crime; a killer was compelled to consume the word for murder and a narration of the circumstances leading to the crime; an embezzler, and apparently the crime existed even then, had to chew the phraseology for cheat, and so on. Depending on the chemical composition of the clay, and the length of the crime’s description which could be extensive, the felon might be lucky enough to get off with just a stomach ache, but fatality was also a common outcome. Swallowing your words could kill you. Those falsely accused and convicted might protest, declaring the tablet before them represented neither their words and nor deeds, but the satraps who ruled Suolucidir enjoyed absolute power within the city and their inedible words were final. There was one advantage to the Suolucidiri penal code. This wasn’t even the age of incunabula, and obviously since there were no presses or means to reproduce copies, each piece of parchment or tablet remained essentially unique. Once consumed the record of the crime disappeared as well, so if the perpetrator lived, he was more or less granted a clean slate. Forgiveness was an important moral concept in Suolucidiri life, but the scribe who made the words that were to be eaten was enormously powerful. Since few could read, he could write any story whatsoever.
Specific examples followed the legal code, and here I began to wonder if the scribes did, from time to time, make things up. For example, and I translate loosely, Citizen Q is accused of making unwanted overtures towards Citizen L. Q makes suggestions. It would be easy for them to meet in the alley around the corner from the baths. L states she finds Q repellent: his vanity, self-absorption, lack of control. (He exposes himself in the middle of a crowd, he deliberately makes loud sucking noises when women walk by.) On one occasion he suggested what he claimed was a primo location for trysts, promoting its virtues by saying: the noise of running water covers all sound, it’s a part of the city no one ever goes to, and so on. Q now says L is imagining things. He never uttered a remark more suggestive to her than have a nice day. Maybe a wink once in awhile, but that’s it. No law against that as far as he knows. Although Q annoys her no end, the commentator reports L has the cynical composure of someone who’s sure she’s facing a liar who will only choke himself given enough time. L accuses Q of stalking her, of laying in wait outside her house to the point where she felt she was a prisoner in her own home. Liar! Whore! Q shouts. Why would I do such a thing? You’re not worth that kind of effort, that kind of desire and scrutiny – you’re not worth it by half. The city is full of women just like you. What makes you think I would give you a second glance? Q continues to deny the charge shouting: you can’t make me eat words I never uttered. There were no witnesses who could say L was in the prostitution business. There were no witnesses to Q’s alleged stalking her, although he had often been seen in the vicinity of her house. L seems at Q’s mercy, overpowered by the accelerating rock slide of his accusations, but Scribe X notes that Q does seem obsessed with L. She isn’t just anyone. She has something Q covets, something he wants to possess. Scribe X chuckles behind his glass of wine. With the bat of an eye he can have white clay fed to both of them. He writes, don’t vomit on my feet and tell me it’s a divine sign. Scribe X, they may not realize, is a god, at least for the moment. The clay tablets found in Suolucidir still smelled 3000 years later. Eating them must have been a frightening and nauseating experience. Perhaps so few of the clay tablets survived because everyone was a criminal, and so everyone had to eat his or her words. Maybe that was the true apocalypse for a city in which every citizen was guilty of something.
Citizen Q declares it’s L who has a history of lying. Nobody takes her seriously. She, in effect, fucks everyone and anyone like crazy. Q is told enough already, you’ve made your point. This command could not have boded well for Q. L asks for it, he barges on. Look at her! Look at the way she dresses and stands. Q imitates L swishing down the street, his sandals flapping. He’s a complete clown. Unfairly, I imagine him acting like Mel Brooks’ very confident Thousand Year Old Man, and L’s laughter, like a sucker punch, stops Q in his tracks. He’s baffled, no longer so confident. L’s laughter at his mimicry disarms him, leaves his defense in ruins, makes him look like a liar or a fool, a role that doesn’t advance his case at all. Fools were the first to be fed white clay, choking on their words, their comic routines reduced to bile.
Images of the chemical warfare flickered on my television screen. The concept of retribution, to the isolationist Suolucidiris, was an embarrassment, something you didn’t talk about very much in public. If you ignore something long enough, their legal system seemed to say, it will depart.
Excerpted from The Lost Civilization of Suolucidir, by Susan Daitch, forthcoming from City Lights Books, June 2016. Republished with permission of the author.