Saturday, March 24, 2012

"Man of Red Clay: A Novel of Adam" by Jonathan Hooper, Chapter 5

Chapter Five

I held the blade in my hands and, putting the strength of my shoulder into the swing, brought it down into the earth. Its teeth bit the soil and cleft through a piece of hard rock that had been lying just under the surface. With a heave, I brought it down again; it cut the ground a second time. Gritting my teeth, I attacked the earth; I tossed out the stones or broke them with the blade of metal; I sifted through the dirt, I separated the impurities from the soil. In the end, the square I had marked submitted to me, and I knelt down in exhaustion, the sweat dripping from my back.

The secret of the metal had been divulged to me: I'd had a dream in which I stood on the bare side of a mountain, on a steep rocky crag far above a green valley. All at once, I heard a thunderous noise; as I was standing there, the ground began to crack, and it seemed I would fall into the widening abyss, until a strong hand held me firm. I saw that an angel had appeared beside me, whose countenance was like the first beams of morning, and he lifted me up and took me down through the crack in the rock into the belly of the mountain. With the light that shone from his form, I saw, in the rockface, veins of a greenish-blue substance, flowing through the mountain's entrails. I had seen metals before - silver and gold - adorning the angelic messengers, but this metal I had not seen before - this was a new creation of the earth itself.

And I asked the angel: "Are you Gabriel, or Raphael, that you would disclose these secrets of the ground?" But I knew as I asked that he was not they; he spoke a name I could not recognise, the name Sammael, as he broke off a piece of rock and closed his hand around it.

Before I could speak, he lifted me up again and took me to another chamber in the mountain. This time, he set me down next to a shallow pit, in which a bed of coals glowed brightly. First, he tossed the lump of rock into the pit and it quickly became hot and began to change its shape. Then, without hesitating, he plunged his hand into the coals and drew out the white hot mass: the rock itself had fallen away, leaving a lump of the strange metal. Placing it on a shelf of rock, he took a heavy tool and began to pound the lump into a new shape; now I noticed that there was another pit close by, filled with water from an underground stream, into which he immersed the lump. A crude tool came dripping out of the water, which he handed to me: it was cold, but hard, brittle.

"Time passes swiftly here," he said. “Already the sun has run its course and the moon hangs in its place. The labour will take you longer." I saw that he had fashioned a tool, a thing that I could wield, but for what task?

"With this, you will conquer the ground," he said. "Bind it to a handle of wood with thongs and prepare the soil for sowing. The metal is a lesser metal. It belongs to man, not to the angels. It is copper, but its kind will make you a god of this world."

I looked at the angel, at Sammael, and took the blade reluctantly. The dream ended, but when I awoke, its secret process remained in my mind.

And the ground was ready now, as I bent down, desperate and weary, leaning next to the blade. I had to rest before I could continue with my task: to plant the seeds, and bring water from the Jordan. I was ready to rage against our second winter, the offspring of that one that had caught us unprepared for the freezing ground, the death of wild plants, the hunger of a season that bore forth neither fruit nor herb. Winter had taught us to be like the lion; we had to kill in order to arrest our own death.

First, when we were hungry, we had herded sheep into the Jordan valley; their milk quenched our thirst, but not our hunger. The animals had started to move together, in flocks, pitting their numbers against the cunning of the wolves; and they scattered when I came close. Before long, I realised that I could drive them where I wanted them to go, taking a branch  and cracking it against their sides.

In time, they grew accustomed to us; they cropped the grass in the valley, and the ewes became swollen with milk, which I learned to tease out, collecting just enough to drink. Later, when the wolves attacked, I saw a great black wolf throw its weight against one of the weaker ewes, clamping its jaws onto the sheep's throat while the animal struggled for a few minutes before dying. I crept close to where the wolves were feeding; the smell of blood and meat stirred a vague longing in me. The wolves growled when they saw me, and I was forced to hide behind one of the tall clumps of grass. I saw them devouring hungrily the pieces of meat, shaking the lumps down their throat in a frenzy of hunger.

It occurred to me that I could drive the wolves away with a branch, like I had herded the sheep, so I broke a suitable one off a nearby tree and approached boldly. I called to them in threatening tones, and waved the branch in my fist; I realised later that fire would have scattered them for sure. Their language was lost to me; it was the language of hunger and fierce killing, with no sounds I could understand. It was clear, though, that their kill was threatened and they snarled with each step closer I took.

A wolf started to come at me, with fangs bared, and I retreated again. I looked across the valley, to where the rest of the flock had gathered. A few had begun to climb the slopes of the hill. Whilst I was watching the wolves, I realised that I would have to do the same myself. So it was that I cornered a ewe on the edge of a high cliff later that same morning; though it tried to break past me, I hurled myself against it and it went over the cliff.  

We cooked the meat over the fire, according to another dream I had, again with the angel Sammael, which had become our guardian. We were silent, not daring the consequences of discussing what we had done. I was the first to taste the cooked meat, and it seemed my eyes were opened; it nourished my fallen body, and soothed the pain in my belly, though afterwards I felt guilty, worrying whether we had become little more than hunters, like the lions and the wolves.

Afterwards, when the stars lit up the valley, I made a prayer to Yahweh and buried the bones of the ewe in the ground, so that they might bless the soil.

"It is His will," I told Eve, "that we live from the animals that serve us. The fruit trees are all bare; the ground gives us nothing. How else can we live?"

Still, it felt strange to be like the wolf, and to kill these creatures made by God; that evening, I thought much about what we had done, how we took the life from His creations like the fallen creatures of the forest and field. The meat, however, was blessed, and kept us alive, and so it seemed fit that we should offer thanks to Him, by taking one of each animal and slaughtering it, at the beginning of each season, in His honour.

We herded the sheep then, keeping them sheltered in the valley and driving the wolves and lions away, but the ewes' eyes revealed new fear. When the spring came, we saw the newborn lambs; during the nights, I could hear the ewes bleating in pain, possessed of the terrible spirit of birth.

I called for Eve to come as I saw the first lamb of that spring being born, spilling out of its mother's womb covered in blood and a milky ooze. Out of the ewe's pain had come new life, its eyes blinking at the world for the first time. We both laughed; was it possible that hope could come from such a fall as ours? The lamb tried out its legs, it balanced unsteadily, delicate but with a heart that clung to life. That spring, we watched our flock multiply, though occasionally our happiness was blackened by lambs that were born dead.

One morning, after I had tilled the ground on the lower slopes of the valley, I sacrificed the first of our spring lambs to Yahweh, so that the blood might enrich the soil, and make possible the growth of the plants. I cut its neck with a blade of copper and sprinkled the blood over the soil where I had planted the grain. Eve reclined beneath the fig trees, still lulled by the warm spring weather; above her, the slopes of the hill, and the cave where we slept.

I met Eve beneath the thick tangle of the boughs; the skin of a ewe covered our nakedness, because the spring wind was still stiff and cold.

"The first flowers are in bloom", she said. "Rest from your works for a while, Adam, and come walk with me."

"I can't think of such things. I have to bring water for the grain. I will have to work the crops all through the spring and summer if we are to face the winter again.

"We could just continue to slaughter the sheep."

"And live on meat all winter long? We might live on olives too, but if we are to survive, we have to cultivate the land."

"What difference would a little time make? You've earned your rest, Adam. Walk with me, keep me company in the meadows this one time."

"I cannot - I fear the winter. I have a presentiment that hard times are coming. And there is something else, something other than the change of season that dwells in my dreams. A dark cloud, perhaps, from the southwest; an alien sound carried on the wind. The wheat seems to hear it coming, and bends to listen. Do the angels warn me when I sleep? Though dreams are the dwelling place of devils too."

"Then let me help you when you till the field, husband."

"It is bitter toil, especially when the sun conspires against me. I am stronger. Later, when my strength has run down, you will help me."

"What was it like to kill the lamb? It makes me cold to think of it."

"I don't feel bitter any longer, as I did when I killed the ewe. Hunger has hardened my heart. And when I toil in the field, my heart is a stone."

Eve lounged against the tree trunk. The sun threw its beams on the pale skin of her neck, on her changed face, on her weariness. Yet still she was beautiful. What had changed though, to turn my brute strength, so lately spent, into fascination? Part of it was that her mind belonged to the spring, and she longed to wander through the fields, among the olive trees and the wild flowers. I wondered what else was in her mind, and what drove her; where her thoughts had taken her when, by her look, she was farthest away.

"You still long for Eden," I said to her. "Is that where your mind dwells?"

"I had you all to myself," she replied. "There was no labour to take you away from me."

"I am trying to make it easier for you, to lighten the burden. We cannot remake Eden from the wilderness, but neither will I submit to nature, or starve like we did in the beginning".

"You would master it, as you were the master of all things once?"

"I will try. Even if it means I have to strive, to suffer."

My words, as it happened, were prophetic; perhaps they were a test to the powers of this new world. The first locust plague saw to that.

I heard them first, whilst I was standing amidst the young corn, hoping for rain, praying that the desert would not reclaim the Jordan's banks. The sound was like the howl of a sandstorm, like the great dry winds that had burned us in the last days of our crossing. I thought I heard voices, perhaps the voices of devils, screeching at each other as they rode at the storm's front, voices that were getting louder and louder, mad and hungry, looking to destroy us once and for all.

I stretched out my hands, scarred from the toil, and offered a hurried prayer to Yahweh before dashing through the long green stalks, driven mad as the sound got louder and louder. Finally, coming to the edge of the field of corn, I searched the sky for signs of a coming sandstorm. Nothing. Turning, I realised then that the sound was coming from the southwest, from out of the unknown stretches of desert, and that it was more than a sound. It was a vast, devilish black cloud, swarming towards our home.

They blackened the sky like a storm, the clash of their wings like thunderheads, howling out of the desert from lands strange and undiscovered. Before I could flee, they had swept like a blight through the young corn, insects with thin, bony bodies, hungry mouths eating everything I had worked for. I went on through a night full of wings and demon voices, battling my way towards the centre of the corn, already devoured though it was, crying in despair at Yahweh to protect my crop. But I could only fall under that storm, blinded by their sheer mass, though convinced, beyond doubt, that they were a force driven by a single will, not a plague at all: perhaps some new spirit of the air. I thought of the lamb's blood that the soil had drunk, and knew that my sacrifice had been futile. I watched this hungry spirit, this demon that possessed the locusts and drove them as one mind, pass from my desolated field and drive them on into the desert.

The harvest was lost. The next morning, I slaughtered two more lambs with rites for Yahweh and vainly sprinkled the blood on the soil. The winter caught us weakened, starved for food; and in the spring, the ritual began anew: fresh lambs for Yahweh, fresh lambs to bless the soil.

But then the demon, this plague of corn eaters, returned in the early summer before the harvest, when the corn was almost ripe, and devoured my work yet again.

“Lord,” I prayed, from the bare hill above the plain, “we will starve. I have the curse of work upon me, yet for all that I labour with my hands the locusts devour everything. Tell me a way I can bless this ground, and keep it from the spirit that dwells in the locust swarm, so that we can eat.”

God did not speak to me, as he had done in the Garden. The following spring, in His absence, I sacrificed four spring lambs by burning their bodies in a firepit I had dug in our cave, and tended the corn as usual. I watered the field, I watched and waited, soothed Eve when I returned to the cave by saying that perhaps this time they would not come.

Spring turned to summer without a sign of the locusts. With light hearts and mouths full of prayers, we harvested the ripe corn and brought it, bundle by bundle, to a cave set aside for our stores. My sacrifices, apparently, had finally appeased Yahweh. Later, I would see that He would respond with a hand that was sometimes open, sometimes closed, no matter how many offerings were burned. It is because He does not want me to rest, I reasoned. Because I have inherited loss, and it is my lot to suffer and to toil always?

In later years, I harvested barley, wheat, and the other grains we farm here today. How many are the years that I laboured against the earth and the spirits of the air both, my hands bleeding, my spirit sagging, though always fighting on? This is the curse of labour, Seth. I pray that you too will fight till the end, that the times when you are hungry will be seldom.

No comments:

Post a Comment