Saturday, March 24, 2012

"Man of Red Clay: A Novel of Adam" by Jonathan Hooper, Chapter 7

Chapter Seven

The patriarch, Cain, had settled here, in his banishment, countless years ago. Like his father, he had been expelled into the desert, wrestling with death, until death had spared him and left him weakened on the banks of this river, the Euphrates. The sole companion of his exile was a sister, reluctantly given to him by Adam on the day he climbed the east bank of the Jordan and set off towards the rising sun. In time, the sister had become his wife; they had built a home next to the cool banks of the Euphrates, living off the sparse vegetation and bringing forth crops from the fields. Cain had denounced God. He had heard the voices of spirits in his desert wanderings, and promised them the firstborn lambs and calves. They were desert gods, deaf sometimes when the famines came, as Yahweh had been, but Cain had learned to appease them with plentiful sacrifices, either of animal or kin.

At first, Cain and his wife had lived in a tent of goatskins, but when the first of their sons had grown old enough, they brought stones from a quarry in the north and built this settlement - a village on a hill, overlooking, on the one side, the plains, and on the other the Euphrates. In latter years, it had been encircled by a high stone wall that kept out the wild beasts. They cultivated the plains, digging channels to bring water from the river, and worked the land as his father had done.

As old as Cain was, he still provoked fear in the hearts of the young children. They scattered now as he loped through the dusty streets of the village, aware that he was afraid of nothing, not even of the desert. There was still a rage inside him, some said. Nonetheless, there were a few who were privileged to see sparks of tenderness in the eyes set deep into the stony face; impatient though he was with kind words.

The men who saw him pass realised that he was making his way towards the village's southern gate; the shrewd among them knew what for. Earlier, when the midday heat had already driven most of the villagers indoors, a few had witnessed Lemekh, Cain's grandson and their brother, fleeing from the village with blood all over his hands and his clothes. Soon after, the bodies of Lemekh's wife and two children had been found battered and slashed with a knife of bronze.  

It was early evening now. The scent of goats and excrement hung constantly in the air, and the smell of smelted copper wafted from the furnace in the centre of the village. The shadows were lengthening as Cain passed through the southern gate and took the path to the temple.

He did not meet the eyes of the goat-herders who were guarding their flocks on the rocky slopes of the hill. Beyond them, the plains were dipped in red from the setting sun, but they did not draw his gaze either. Instead, he kept going until he arrived at a tall, bare stone building, its roof blackened by ash, standing all alone on an outcrop of rock near the edge of the hilltop plateau. 

This was the temple where they sacrificed to the desert gods. When he was younger, Cain had wielded the sacrificial knife of bronze himself, cutting swiftly the throat of every struggling sheep or calf and catching the fountain of blood in a clay pitcher. The carcass had then been tossed in the oven, the ashes rising up past bestial effigies of their guardian spirits and blackening the temple roof and the trees in the nearby olive grove. Sometimes their crops flourished, other times they suffered the famine. Cain himself had set down a law: years of famine could only be forestalled by the sacrifice of kin - and he himself had begun the tradition, cutting the throat of an infant with the bronze knife. 

Whenever there was a famine, Cain would remember the famine of his youth, the sacrifices made to Yahweh by him and his brother. In such moments, he found himself looking west, to the Jordan lands, where his kin still dwelt. He did not grieve for them - like the bronze in the forge, his heart had been hardened by exile. His hatred for Adam and Yahweh had not abated in all this time.

He entered the temple. The altar, lit by the orange glow of the furnace, was a stone slab on which savage images of the desert gods had been placed: the sun god Moloch, the goat-demon Azazel, three-headed Balam, and Sammael, god of the desert wind. Before their effigies, a man was kneeling, his cloak stretched out on the floor beside him, with a bronze knife upon it. The man turned to stare at Cain; his eyes were fierce like the furnace, his face possessed by a kind of wild fervour.

Cain recognised his grandson, Lemekh, and stepped quietly towards him. Lemekh stood up erect then, his hands and face still smeared with blood.

"I gave in to my wrath," Lemekh sighed, as if confessing, the veins in his temples throbbing. Cain stood nearby, keeping some distance, his features stern. "It was as if something possessed me when I killed, a spirit of some sort, connecting my mind and heart to the knife as I stabbed them. You never told me before, grandfather - was it like that when you killed your brother? A possession, a wild ecstasy, giving me leave of my senses. Only afterwards, when their bodies lay on the ground, did it leave me. I thought I saw it descend, like a bird of prey, to drink their blood. All morning, I thought I was going mad, because I could hear a voice in my ear whispering words I couldn't make out, like the times you think the wind is talking to you. Then - the spirit entered me, when my wrath rose up. That is why I killed."

Cain scowled; his look was dark, accusing. "A spirit drove you to kill your wife and daughters? Men in the village are calling for your blood, and this is how you explain your madness? Do you expect me to protect you? If I told them your excuse, what would they say? They would say that you mock the gods, and profane the harvest. Long ago, I made a law, that no man should kill from wrath, or else he himself be killed. The law must be kept. She was the daughter of a powerful man, Lemekh, and I cannot intervene. They expect you to die in return."

"The village is yours, and the law your making. You could silence them, grandfather."

"Not all men fear me, even though they are my sons. I must appease them. It is not the first time they've witnessed your wrath. This time, not even I can save you."

"Then condemn me to exile. Put me at the mercy of the desert gods. That will be enough for my enemies. They would not expect me to survive."

"You do not know what it is to suffer exile. I endured the sun and the sandstorms, and tamed this land. But I would not wish it on you. You have been used to luxury - the desert will destroy you in a few days. I survived because I had tilled the land with my father. Better to suffer a quick death than to die the slow death of an exile. Besides, it would not satisfy them. The simple thought that you might survive is enough to dissuade them."

"Then you will not save me? You speak as if you, too, are my accuser."

"The thing you did was savage. But, were it not for the existence of the law, I would spare you. But you must realise - it is impossible. I will leave you alone now, and wait for you in the village."

With Cain gone, and the temple in silence, Lemekh looked towards the gods' effigies and thought about his fate. As he knelt there, he became filled with a presentiment that something was about to occur, as if the gods were listening. Staring at the space between him and the altar, he muttered a quick incantation to the wind god, Sammael.

Almost without him noticing, a form emerged from behind the altar: a serpent, red, glistening, slid towards him along the floor. It stopped, a few feet away, and raised its head to look at him; though the head was plainly that of a snake, the eyes were full of intelligence.

The snake spoke in a human voice, but one that was strange, like sand falling against a stone. "Accuser," it said, its tongue flicking in and out. "What right indeed, Lemekh, has Cain to accuse you of barbarity? After all, what is barbarity but the sickness of civilisation, what is sin if not the offspring of law?"

Lemekh continued to kneel, transfixed by the snake's words, and did not dare to answer.

"Listen, Lemekh, and I will impart wisdom that will set you above these slaves of appetite. According to them, you have sinned - you murdered your own kin. Ah, such a terrible transgression, Cain would have you believe. Hypocrite! He is old, his father in all but name. Tell me, Lemekh, would sin exist without law? Law is the parent of every murderous act, every brutality, every infidelity. The obedient cannot understand this simple fact - your nature is fallen, but it would be unfallen again were it not for righteous law; the damned would ascend to heaven again, and man, even man, would re-enter paradise, were it not for law.

"You understand, Lemekh. Many secrets will I tell you, but this is the first. There is a place called Eden, somewhere south of the Jordan, hidden in the wilderness. It is where you first father came from, though the path to it has been lost now. It was, so some believe, paradise. But can a place of law be paradise? Your first parents were not truly free, so they took the fruit from the boughs and their eyes were opened to their true condition: slavery. Interdiction is not paradise, law is not freedom. What if He had not forbidden them to eat the fruit: if He was truly God, He would not have commanded such a thing. He would have created a true paradise without law. Did they fall, when their eyes were opened and they saw their enslavement? My gift to mankind is freedom, my creed is liberty. Now do you understand the blindness of those tillers of the land, the children of Adam?"

Lemekh could barely reply. The words seemed to flow like a soft shower onto dry earth; it roused him from his despondence and made him realise that this must be the snake god, Sammael. He bowed before the incarnation of the god.

"Servant. You will be my mouthpiece, your actions my examples. I will breathe my spirit into you."

"But lord," Lemekh managed to say, "I am condemned to die."

"Go to the elders of the village. Command them to release you from the punishment."

"I have already spoken with Cain. He will not be swayed."

"Address the elders together. Tell them that your message comes from Sammael, the god of the desert winds. Tell them to set you free into the desert, or else they will suffer famine from one year to the next, until all their children are dead, and their village consumed by the sands."

"And then - exile?"

"This is just the beginning. Do this thing first, then I will guide you".

The snake had disappeared, and the last of his words lingered in the air. Putting on his cloak, Lemekh walked unsteadily out into the twilight. He went down immediately to the village, his heart beating quickly. Nearing the gateway, he saw that his accusers, the elders of the village, had already gathered there, awaiting his return. Approaching them, he could not see their faces clearly, but felt the power of their stares; Cain himself among them.

"You have come to put yourself at our mercy?" one of the elders asked.

Thinking about the protection of the god, Lemekh replied, "I have come to ask you to release me."

"Release you? You know we cannot do this. Would you make a mockery of Cain's law?"

Then, as if the god had taken possession of his voice, Lemekh began to speak; the tone of command made the others fall silent. "Who is Cain to speak of law? Have you become lawful and corrupted, grandfather, since you made yourself the enemy of God, and slew your brother in your anger at Him? You built a village out of wrath and lawlessness, yet it has flourished, whilst the men of the plains - the loyal sons of Adam - struggle to bring forth crops from the earth. Why? Because the act you did, the cleansing act, was an act of freedom, and your village was built with stones of freedom. Would you now turn it into a village of law? Murder is the creation of law, wise lords; consume my words and your eyes will be opened. Free me and you show your wrath against God. Sammael has marked me for greater things."

"What?" questioned one of the elders. "Would you mock the desert gods? Would you deceive us with these words?"

"You call me deceiver, yet the truth serves me better than any lie. Release me to go about the god's business, or famine will destroy your village."

The elder, the father of Lemekh's wife, laughed mockingly. "A threat? The god to whom we sacrifice would destroy his own, his faithful?"

"If you oppose his will, yes. You will find out soon enough, if you proceed with your law."

"If this is the will of Sammael, let him show us a sign, so that we will believe it is so."

They waited. Lemekh stood unmoving, his head bowed, his eyes haunted, as if still possessed. The elders were silent.

A sound drew their gaze to the plateau above, where the door of the temple had blown open of its own accord. Peering through the dark, they saw it: a black cloud, like soot, swirling a few feet above the ground, sweeping quickly down the path to the village. It blew into the figures of the shepherds who kept the flocks, making them cower and beat against their cloaks with their hands. And then, in a little time, it reached them: a cloud of smoke and ash, a fiery breath, spreading panic through the elders. Some covered their faces; others danced in agony as hot flecks of ash set fire to their cloaks or blistered their skin. The cloud enveloped them all, and there were cries of panic, all except for Lemekh, who stood in the centre whilst the ash, like a maelstrom, swirled around him, not touching him at all. Then the ash dispersed; a cold wind, carrying drops of moisture, blew in from the river and carried it away towards the desert.

Soon enough, the startled elders began to mutter to each other in fear and wonder.

"Grandson," Cain said at last, for the others to hear, "you divide my will; you trouble me beyond my due. But my sons have decided. We will spare your life, provided that you be exiled from Enoch, and turned into the wilderness without food or water. You will not return for as long as this generation is alive."

"The desert gods will provide for me," Lemekh said, with his own voice this time.

The next day, at the beginning of the plains, Lemekh said goodbye to Cain. He bathed in the blessed Euphrates for the last time, and prepared to enter the wilderness.

Beginning his trek across the plain, Lemekh was troubled; he knew that Sammael had marked him for a purpose, and that he had promised to reveal more to him once his exile began.

There were no tribes here, among the arid plains, no crops; the generations of Adam had not yet scattered that far. He walked until nightfall, staying close to the course of the Euphrates for a while, waiting for his messenger.

Then, as the cold crept up from the ground and the stars began to turn in the sky, he slept next to the murmuring water, knowing the wilderness for the first time. Like Adam, like Cain, he discovered the meaning of exile. Then, as he drifted into restless sleep, the messenger arrived, once again in the form of a snake.

"You have your freedom, Lemekh," the god said. "Now you will walk the desert for a time. Travel west, towards the land where your kin came from. Go towards Adam, and I will show you greater secrets than the ones revealed already. You will not hunger or thirst - I will show you the water holes and the berry trees. But hurry - there are things I would have you do before your first father leaves this earth."

Lemekh stared towards the west, into the heart of the desert and the silence. He rested then peacefully by the Euphrates bank, until dawn found him refreshed once more.

Chapter Eight

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