Anne Rice is world-famous for her “Interview with the vampire” series but from her came a few other stories – like Belinda, the erotic series “Claiming of the Sleeping Beauty” and now, I found “Servant of the Bones”, a story placed half in ancient Babylon and half in today’s world. Structured in three parts, this confessional / memoir of a spirit with tremendous power opens up a gate through which we can glimpse at the riches of Babylon, its rulers and gods, and also at the life of Hebrews, the Chosen People.
The spirit, before he became the “Servant of the Bones”, was called Azriel, a child of a scribe family living in Ancient Babylon. Well read, of the Chosen People, Azriel took liking to a God of the Babylonian people, Marduk, and he started worshipping him, in addition to Yahve to whom his family prayed to. This God, soon started speaking to him, following him around and shortly, people started seeing him with Azriel through town.
I’m not angry with you, Azriel, it’s just I don’t trust the priests of the temple. There are many, many old and conniving priests, and you never know what they will want of you. Now listen to me. I have some things to tell you before we get deeper into this, before you do, that is, for I am as deep as I can get. Let’s go to the public gardens. I like to see you eat and drink.’ “
We went to his favorite place, a huge public garden right on the Euphrates, down away from all the docks and the shipwrights and the commotion. In fact it was where one of the many canals came in, and it was more on the canal than the river itself which was always busy. This garden was filled with big drooping willow trees, just like in the psalm, you know, and there were a few musicians out there playing their pipes and dancing for trinkets.
The elders were enraged and so were the God’s own priests, as the child was Hebrew and the God Babylonian!
Marduk is trying to warn Azriel that a terrible future awaits him and he can choose to walk with the spirits or die forever – and that this choice will be made shortly and cannot be avoided. He speaks of his own becoming of a spirit with less enthusiasm, claiming that his origins are shrouded in the fogs of time.
“Look, I am going to tell you the truth and you pay attention. I have no memory of my beginnings. I have no memory of slaying Tiamat the great dragon and making the world out of her belly and the sky out of the rest of her. But this does not mean that it didn’t happen. I walk most of the time in a fog. I see the spirits of the gods and the roaming spirits of the dead and I listen for prayers and I try to answer them. But this is a dreary place where I live. When I retreat to the temple for the banquet it’s a great pleasure because the fog clears. You know what clears it?’ ”
‘No, but I can guess . . . that the priests see you, that powerful seers see you.’ ”
‘That is it, Azriel, I can become solid and visible for witches, for sorcerers, for those who have eyes to see, and then I drink up the libations of water, I inhale them and inhale the fragrances of food and this puts me in the mood of life. Then I go into the statue, and I rest in darkness and time means nothing to me, and I listen to Babylon. I listen. I listen. But the myths of the beginning, I don’t remember, you see what I’m saying?
The plot that Marduk was expecting, soon happens as the Persian king Sirius comes to town and asks for the town to be given to him and his empire, and him to be crowned king. Azriel is to become a living statue of gold as a live Marduk and place the crown onto the king’s head to show the divine selection and appointment by heaven to the Babylonian people. In exchange for his sacrifice, his people, the Jews, would be let go out of Israel and into their chosen land.
” ‘Alive, covered with gold.’ I was amazed. ‘And then?’ “Asenath spoke up. ‘By then the gold will have hardened and you will be dead. You will see and hear for a while, but you will die inside, and when they see that your eyes are rotting, they will take out your eyes and replace them with jeweled eyes, and the statue of Marduk will be your shroud.’
And the poison in the gold is what will kill you. You’ll die slowly as the gold penetrates, as it reaches your heart and lungs, and then … as they say, you will at last be at peace
Azriel agrees to this slow and painful death for the good of all his people and just before his three days are up, an evil witch and a sorcerer steal him and throw him into a pot of boiling gold while chanting the incantations to bind his spirit and soul to the golden bones and give the caller the power over this all-powerful spirit.
“I felt myself heaved backwards, and thrown into the boiling gold. I screamed and screamed. It was unthinkable. It was not possible that I could know such pain. It was not possible that such a thing could happen to me, that boiling gold should choke my mouth and cover my eyes! “
And when I thought I would go blank mad, blank mad with horror and pain, with nothing of human thought left, I shot upwards out of the cauldron, free-floating above the body that was slumped and boiling in the pot, with only one open eye above the bubbling gold. The body that had been mine! And I was not in it.
“I was there above, arms outstretched, staring down. And I saw the face of Asenath upturned. ” ‘Yes, Azriel,’ she screamed, ‘watch, watch the gold boil, watch the flesh fall from your bones, watch the bones become the gold, don’t take your eyes off it, lest you be drawn back down into agony and death.’
This is when Azriel decides he wants to live. All that was left of him were his bones covered in gold and a strong power like no other cursing through him. He rebels and kills the two sorcerers immediately and then heads for the king’s chamber. As he’s walking, his memory of who he is and what he wants begins to fade as spirits have no memory, but he manages to last long enough to have the king promise he would be sent to his greatest wizards that will teach him how to be good.
This teacher is Zurvan. One of his only masters, the only one he remembers clearly. This and the one from Strasbourg. And of course, the modern day adventure.
He put his foot down on the floor, turned his folded arms, and then stood up. He was dressed in the looser, more naked Greek manner of clothing without fitted sleeves as we always wore, and he wore sandals. He studied me fearlessly as my father might have studied a piece of the silversmith’s craft. ” ‘Where are you fingernails, spirit?’ he asked. ‘Where is the hair on your face? Where are your eyelashes! Be quick! Hereafter you need only say “Bring to me all those details which I require at this moment” and nothing more. Fix an image and you’ve finished your work. That’s it. That’s it.’
He clapped his hands.
‘Now you are plenty complete enough for what you have to do.
This part of the book I loved most. Zurvan’s teachings apply to modern culture as well as ancient one and I must say it resonated with me as a very Zen way of thinking.
From Zervan, the spirit has other masters but he slays them all with little exceptions that he barely remembers. His bones are kept sealed in a gold box, chained with rusty iron and which bears inscriptions in three different ancient languages asking the people not to open the box as a great Demon lies inside.
The second part of the book deals with Azriel in the modern world, where people fly from place to place and where there are people richer than the old kings of Persia or the Pharaohs of Egypt.
Everywhere were dramatic contrasts which could both confuse and delight the eye. The holy men of India walked naked beside the roaring automobiles in the teeming streets of Calcutta. People in Haiti lay on the ground starving to death as they watched planes fly overhead.
He is drawn into a mystery of Eshter Belkin’s death – the daughter of a rich magnate – who whispers his name on her death bed.
She knew of him and she recognized him – but did she call him forward? His strength increases and he finds himself with a corporeal body. He finds Gregory Belkin and he slowly realizes that he killed his own daughter and also his wife, Rachel, by slowly poisoning her.
PS: there is a sex scene between the bereaved mother and Azriel which I found a bit hard to swallow – if a woman is going through the grieving process, she will not pay any attention to the desires of any man (I speak from experience).
Azriel confronts Gregory Belkin and he finds out that his new religion needed a miracle and a plague. In his ultra-secret laboratories, he designed a virus that will wipe out mankind.
“What you don’t know is that Europe would be a desert now were it not for that plague. You don’t know how many died in the flu epidemic early in our century. You don’t know that AIDS was meant. You don’t know that it takes courage to learn from nature and rise above it, rather than simply tamper with it, and make chaos out of it as you destroy it.”
“What countries of the world; you speak of Asia?”
“Oh, yes,” he said. “Definitely. Asia, the Orient, all of those people will be wiped off the face of the earth. All of northern Russia. Only some of eastern Russia will be saved, and even on that score I haven’t entirely made up my mind. There will be no more Japan.”
He didn’t want to stop for breath, he went right on, excited now. I could swear that a light emanated from him.
“You haven’t been here long enough to know the logic of it. First and foremost, everything in populated areas on the African continent will be wiped out. Think of it. Emptying Africa. Villages have been targeted, all areas where men and women live. The only animals who will survive are those which are far from populated areas. It’s brilliant. You see, the filovirus won’t affect most animals anyway, and the gas will dissipate soon enough for most animals to survive it. Oh, it’s very complex. It has stages. But everything has been done to avoid panic or pain or knowledge among those who are dying. They will not suffer, no, they will not endure the absolute agony of our parents and others in the German camps. That was hideous, beastly.”
I will not spoil the ending of the book but I must say it’s quite a good read. Keeps you interested even if the story slows down in parts and seems to repeat itself.
Have a read and leave a comment below if you liked it!