The Child Bride of the Lost city of Ubar
by Catherynne M. Valente
Ubar, also called Iram, established around 3000 B.C. on the Arabian Peninsula, was once the center of the frankincense trade and the wealthiest city in the world. Tradition holds that it was punished by God for its faithlessness and decadence, and the sands of the desert rose up and swallowed it whole.
Once I bathed in a basin of frankincense
once I drank a resin–tea both red and clouded
once hojari flowers wove through my hair:
Such was the wealth of Ubar in days long dim,
when we did not know what gold was.
Once the streets were slick and fragrant;
every alley–crack was filled with hard sap and gleaming.
My sandals used to slip on the gloss, rich as yolk,
in the summer when the sun was a long white shriek
I used to go out into the dust–green groves
the tree–cleavers swung me laughing between them.
Once I licked the slashed sap from the hojari —
it tasted bitter, like old glass.
Like sweat, amber pooled in my navel,
as though I were a tiny cup,
filled up to brimming with the blood of Ubar.
II: Iram of the Pillars
Into the bases of seventy–two pillars was poured the al–luban,
the milk–sap of vivisected trees. From these heights
long fern–strands hung like wet linen, tipped in sapphire
which had puddled and run in the heat — even our houseplants
had their regalia.
It used to fall to the waxen curb–side,
drop by drop — that slow gem–melt
was then our only rain.
The great market: a platform between towers,
eight–sided; shaded in red yellow–silk. The air hung like draperies,
and no scent was there of myrrh or cinnamon —
frankincense held us all by the wrists, and permitted no alloy.
In the great market: a cistern, bronze, bright
as a seraph’s immolation. A slow simmer of the cloud–stitched sap
bubbles all the hours of night and noon —
into this seethe of sweetness, each man dips his ladle.
Such was the wealth of Ubar
when we minted coins in resin
and chewed mint leaves rubbed with palm oil.
They chose me for my hair, I think. When my mother
was as full of me as a barrel of uncrushed grapes,
she leaned over the rim of the cistern —
it burned her belly in a long red line
so well did the sun bake the metal to glowering —
to fill her diamond ladle with incense. She fell
like an onion into stew, her fast–sinking fingertips
caught by my father, (a maker of shoes cut from emerald
and porphyry), who would not lose his wife to the boil.
A portent: she did not burn skin from bone
under the sap–liquor. They scraped it from her like honey,
and the glimmering mire that sloughed from her
made the finest perfumes of the year. But when I was born
my hair was the color of frankincense, and my eyes:
Such was my strangeness
that marked me among all children
beneath the pillars’ blazing shade.