It doesn't sound good, said Marguerite.
And, frankly, it doesn't sound plausible.
This is an orchestrated campaign,
The scare tactics designed to keep
The Ninevites timid, eager to buy
Excess stocks of emergency supplies,
Designed to justify higher taxes
And tighter State control of daily life.
This is the beginning of the end, I said.
The hole sackcloth opened up has closed
Or grown so large we can't see the sides.
The point of no return has now been passed
And now Nineveh will become watchword
For the phrase here today, gone tomorrow.
Now's the time, Ninevites, to assemble
The traffic wardens, grief counsellors and lifeguards,
The fire marshals, cops and paramedics,
The cub scouts with pocket first aid kids.
And I am put in mind, unaccountably,
Of that barbarian lord Tamberlaine.
Tamberlaine! she said. He's still up north
And still at work decimating pagans,
Flaying open the false but comely beliefs
They think, wrongly, will defend against harm.
He's not much threat, if that's what you think,
To this city that Assur's legions guard.
But let me tell you, then, of Tamberlaine,
A sociopath from early childhood
Among nomadic Scythian horse-clans,
Who's climbed to absolute domination
Over large tracts of civilized lands,
Who rose from backwater petty gangster
To world-famous genocidal despot.
His foul career began quietly enough,
An ordinary rapist, thug and thief
Torn by sundry conflicting impulses,
With altruism possibly included,
Until appetite laid bare his course
And guided his infamous trajectory.
And here's the lesson history best learns,
Or else repeat its mistakes to eternity
And never achieve final civility:
Emphasize customer service, if you can,
And open up tills when gunmen ask.
Learn this, else suffer decline and fall.
Do not attempt to discourage rage
Or deflect a half-clad savage with signs
That read No shirt, No shoes, No service.
Certainly one should never interpose
A slow and surly convenience store clerk
Between a customer like Tamberlaine
And purchase of a screwtop wine-jug.
Wise management, alert for risk factors,
If not already sunk in that torpor
That overcomes after too much norm,
Too much mean, too much status quo,
Would not have failed to race around displays
Of candy bars and motor oil and beer,
Would not have failed to activate at once
An express checkout just for the youth,
And thus forestalled the ensuing bloodbath.
A barbarian just hates standing in line,
And, worse, handing over cash to jerks.
And once you've taken out scimitar,
Why not go on and complete the swing?
Once you've killed one clerk, why not all?
And why not gather like-minded men
And take whatever you like, and smash the rest?
It's thus that Tamberlaine was launched.
And since these first victims were pagans
He earned from Nineveh's short-sighted press
The epithet 'Tamberlaine, the Scourge of God'.
In fact, he would only slaughter infidels
Because those were people he came to meet
On the path charted by the Will to Power.
He laid waste the realms of unbelievers,
The Hindus and Turks, Persians and Egyptians,
Because they were the only peoples he knew,
The only nations that he'd so far met.
There is no point in feigning complacency,
No point in smug self-satisfaction,
No point to thanking God for this grace,
That Tamburlaine hates their heathen beliefs
Because they're substandard, wanting in truth,
That he's reasoned all the arguments through
And found only Assur's creed makes sense.
For what does he know of Assur, or reason,
Or what facts had persuaded those he slayed
To adopt views of so little merit?
And do you think he took his scimitar
And gave victims little nicks on the neck,
Tentative probes, experimental pokes,
In case they weren't fit for full beheading,
In case their faith didn't warrant attack,
That he'd read one chapter or page or word
Of any philosophy not too damp,
Not too tightly bound to use as fuel?
He torched pagan temples and sacred books
Only because they would produce nice flame,
A flame that, once set, would catch on thatch
And leap from one roof to next, too fast,
Too elusive, too insistent to thwart,
A flame too hot to stop once it spots
The thoughts to nest and host its hot coals,
Flame that made incense of pagan forms
And failed to acknowledge or credit its source.
There's no point to think your town's exempt,
That these temples, these books, will fare better,
That thousands of grinning oafs will show up
And find these beauties too fine for rape.
There's no point to give welcome to scourge
That can't read a word of scripture it burns,
Unless, of course, you value arson itself,
Or admire a wildfire just for its warmth,
For light its blaze will shed on those who watch.
Holy Nineveh has been spared thus far
Only because it has not yet been reached.
Do you think he'll turn back, or stop short,
Suddenly pine for sheep pastures up north?
Do you really think Tamberlaine will tire
Of that wild, brutish, barbarian life,
Tire of long hours of rapine and pillage,
Or tire of the sex, sorcery, intrigue,
And treasure, incredible piles of treasure,
And choose instead a more sedate career,
Enroll perhaps in a business college,
Take word processing courses by night
And wash dishes or drive a cab by day?
And ask yourself how likely that is.
Ask a bookmaker what odds he'll take
That God sees our peril, sees and relents,
That God grows alarmed and comes to our aid,
Strikes Tamberlaine down a mile away,
Just outside of the city's north gate,
So that all will know just whom to thank.
What are the odds God roots for Nineveh
And can't stand to see the brutal succeed?
Ask a prophet, my friend, any prophet.
Ask me. There's no one more savvy,
More street-wise, more with-it than me.
There's no one who knows a gall bladder,
Even at this distance, better than me,
No one who knows better how diseased,
And how large, how necrotic one gets.
This scourge won't stop although his piss
Turns murky and thick with red sediment,
Although his staff quack, that sullen Turk
Who can't tell a gall bladder from a toe,
Will advise a rest, perhaps a brief nap
In early afternoon to escape the heat,
Give up fags or else chew them unlit,
Cut back on fat gravy dumped on fries
And buckets of red rotgut guzzled with meals,
Go for short swims in epsom salt baths,
Take two grains of opium per diem,
And read Thomas Hardy, slowly, aloud.
But Tamberlaine won't listen, won't stop.
He'll still lash, still kill, despite the signs
That spell out how far his death's progressed
That more alert of Ninevites will read
As he leads looting warriors down their streets.
He'll go in the north gate, out the south,
And those who see him come, and give greeting,
Will fail to stand by and wave farewell,
No matter how alert they once were.
He'll expire far from here, and long after,
Gall bladder grown large, a canteloupe,
His liver melon, testicles kiwi fruit.
No person has ever profited much
From reading God's handwriting on the wall
Unless pain cures his illiteracy,
Unless torment rebukes his each mistake.
No one wants to make moves too soon,
Or look too close, until it's too late.
None ever gain true belief in death,
Even if they witness every sign
And hear every word the prophets speak,
Until they see the scourge itself descend,
Whereupon the scourge and flesh converse
On how dwindled now their distance has grown,
On how little there is or ever was
That's not, really, completely understood.
Liber Jonae Contents