Saturday, April 7, 2012

"Man of Red Clay: A Novel of Adam" by Jonathan Hooper, Chapter 15

Chapter Fifteen

Between mankind and God, this was the crooked stair; between Heaven and earth, the towering abyss. Once again, Adam looked, though now through aged eyes, at the dreadful, holy peak. He shuddered with awe, strove to purify himself of distractions. Here was Horeb at last, the highest of the mountain chain that crossed the desert like great, slouching beasts; a treeless plateau of rock, beaten by furious winds, where once God had descended to man.

Yet he was possessed by doubts: what have I come for? said his weak flesh. When I hear voices, can I bear sure that God is speaking to me? Perhaps it is the madness of my decaying mind. Perhaps I am long abandoned by Him and prey to my own vanities. Or else it is Satan, goading me towards a lonely death, taunting me with the silence of the desert.

As if sensing the moment of weakness, Seth gave his arm as support to his father, becoming the steady rock upon which the old man could rest.

Vast granite cliffs vaulted towards the sky as they climbed, and cypress trees provided shelter from the sun and the winds. Before long, they had left the desert, and were in the hill country, with Horeb's peak high above them. Seth did not know how Adam managed the climb, whether it was simply his will that kept him going or whether it really was spirit that lifted him up.

"There is a settlement beneath the mountain," Seth said. "As we thought, there are shepherds living here. They will be highly honoured."

"Honoured to host a dying man," Adam said. Seth did not answer.

There were several crude wooden huts lying in the shadow of Horeb, and goats cropped the grass on the mountain's lower slopes. The village, if it could be called such, had a character of obstinate asceticism: these were people who fought with the desert daily, far away from the abundant crops provided by the Jordan. Moreover, they had the all-seeing eye of Horeb to watch over them each day, ensuring that prayers were not far from their lips each time a small victory was won against the elements.

Young women were the first to meet them face to face, the mysterious, dark-skinned daughters of these shepherds, offering them water from a well shaded by fig trees. The eldest was the only one to speak: "I am Anna," she said, "and you are welcome in our village. The men will want to talk to you, no doubt about matters of God and other such things."

"They speak of God, here under Horeb?" Adam asked.

"They speak of little else," the woman answered him. "We women are burdened with the daily chores: the meat, the bread, the wool -  all are our responsibility. The only time the men sweat is when they pray."

"You dishonour your masters. Aren't you afraid?"

"Afraid for what? They never listen to us complaining. Too busy, you see, with God to do man's work. So we do it for them. If it wasn't for us, the desert winds would have dried up the well and scattered the sheep. Let the men carry on with their deep thinking, I say. Let them see visions on the peak and come back babbling. It is us who plant the seeds and keep their prophet bellies from hunger."


"That is what they call themselves. They say that God unfolds the future for them. But they see terrible things. I don't know how they get to sleep. How do they manage with all that madness in their heads? Now they're all in a rapture because a man has come to us from the desert. He says he's walked as far as Eden. He says that he actually saw paradise, with his own eyes; he saw the angels guarding the gate, and now he's blind, because, he says, we are forbidden to see these things. You should speak to him if miracles satisfy your hunger more than bread. My sisters and I will prepare something to eat for the evening. Anyway, I shouldn't scare you away. You are welcome in Horeb."

Adam took the others aside before they entered the hut. "Did you hear?" he said. "A man, a prophet, who claims he has seen Eden."

"Maybe he's lying," Seth said.

"Why not?" Enosh said. "You say it exists, grandfather. You have told us where it lies, and that it is forbidden for us to enter. But this man has seen it with his own eyes. He advocates your tale of our origins. He is blinded for the privilege - a small price to pay, perhaps, for seeing paradise. These are your sons, Adam, who talk to God on Horeb. It is His will that you should come here, that you should meet with this new prophet. Perhaps he could lead us through the wilderness, so that we can petition God and re-enter the Garden."

"I cannot go back," Adam said flatly. "The punishment is absolute. Nor can my sons ever enter that place. I would not wish to see it, even now."

"Well, perhaps you are right, but God has led you to Horeb for a reason, and why not to converse with this man? It seems to me that Yahweh has designated this peak, this holy mountain from where you spoke to Him in exile, as a place where man can learn His will. From now on, we may not have to labour in vain. This may be the beginning of a new age of the world, an age of prophets."

"I can say nothing until I climb Horeb myself."

"Then let's climb it together, but first speak with this man."

"This talk of prophets disturbs me," Yered broke in; he spoke as if he was thinking aloud. "It is better that some things remain hidden. When a plague blights my sheep I do not think about whether God willed it; I can see no benefit in knowing that the next harvest will be poor. Remain in ignorance, I say, or else let despair enter. What hope can be gleaned from knowing the things to come? It is a foolish business."

Adam was thoughtful. "Perhaps God would have us know only so much. He is all powerful. He knows the consequences of our actions. He can warn us against error; perhaps Enosh is right: He is calling the tribes together in this way, uniting them through some new revelation."

"Let us speak with them, then, father," Seth suggested, gesturing towards the hut's entrance.

The doorway was covered in goatskins, and the room inside draped in shadow. Half a dozen men were sitting on blankets on the floor, dressed in the plain robes of shepherds. Their beards were as thick and tangled as goats' hair, and their skin like old leather. They looked up as the men entered the hut, regarding them with deep, probing stares.

One man, of gaunt, hawk-like appearance, was seated at a distance from the others; he looked truly wild, like a man who had been misshapen by the desert. Whilst his hair and clothes were dishevelled, his eyes were strangely placid, and his manner, as he welcomed them, warm.

"My friends," he began, "if you have come seeking divine wisdom, join us. Here beneath Horeb, we do not speak of the mundane, of the management of farms or the sowing of crops. And if you are afraid of the unknown and the terrible, you would do better to pass us on. For we speak the secret things, as we hold the knowledge of a great suffering decreed long ago. I am talking about man's relationship with God."

Sitting down amongst the shepherds, Adam bade his sons follow his example. He did not say anything, correctly assuming that the orator would continue.

"Ah, good. I see that there are some left who do not quiver at such things. As I was telling you, do not fret about your cattle and grain. Nature gives with one hand and deprives with the other. Attune your blood to such things if you must, but leave your mind free for greater mysteries."

"We do not care for the land," one of the shepherds said. "We are not possessed by such earthly things."

"That is good. Nature is fallen, is it not? Reconcile yourselves with breath, not with flesh. Do you believe in the God of Adam, who expelled our forbearers from Eden?"

The shepherds assented eagerly.

"I tell you that I have seen Eden for myself; that is why my sight is now dimmed. I was walking the desert, searching for the land of our forefather, when the desert suddenly vanished at my feet! Before this, I had seen a desolate horizon, but now my eyes burned with the sight of some previously unsuspected place. It was some kind of vast and teeming oasis, its borders thick with trees and plants - olive trees as tall as mountains yet declining to earth with all their rich fruit; foliage of colours brighter than I'd ever seen. Just as it is impossible to see God with human sight, so it is forbidden to see the unfallen with fallen eyes: so I lost my sight, but when I close my eyes, these images remain, making me mad with desire to see them again. I know now why Adam and Eve did not look back, could not look back, once their eyes were filled with the expanses of the desert.

"What else did I see before my eyes were scorched out? With great humility, I came to the border of Eden, and walked the length thereby; not once, however, did my eyes penetrate the dense foliage, not once did I see into the heart of paradise. Nor could I enter, because the plants were too densely intertwined. Trembling with reproach, I plucked berries and leaves from the nearest plants, and brought them with me on my journey through the desert. I did not eat them, even though death was close, and I wandered blindly. They are here."

The man unwrapped a leather skin and revealed a handful of dull grey berries, wrapped in a couple of faded leaves. The shepherds were disappointed.

"What about their lustre? Are these the colours that your eyes had never seen?"

"No, they are not. I took these prizes with me into the fallen world, back into the desert. They wither because they have become part of fallen nature. Yet something of their property remains. Look."

Taking a single leaf, he rubbed it against the back of his hand. His skin, weathered, veined, became visibly smoother; the wrinkles slowly faded and the skin seemed like that of a much younger man.

"A miracle!" one of the shepherds exclaimed. The others consented, though Adam and his companions remained silent.

"So, friends," he said to them all. "Do you deny what your eyes have just witnessed? Do you deny the miraculous?"

"We do not deny miracles," Adam said; the others looked at him, it being the first time he had spoken.

"That is good. Miracles defy even the flesh. They defy the natural process; they defy age and even death. Will you ask me what else I saw on the borders of Eden?"

"You will tell us, I do not doubt," Adam said.

"It is my vocation to speak of mysteries, friend. I saw, though my sight was almost gone, a fabulous gate made of branches covered in white flame, branches that should have turned to ashes because of the fire. On either side of the gate were two archangels, set to guard it it seemed, clothed in bright armour of silver and gold, winged and dreadful. This last glimpse extinguished my sight completely; I saw, for a brief moment, the regal faces of these angels: magisterial, yet somehow terrible, their looks held in some kind of balance between love and vengeance. I collapsed, and when I came to my senses, I was lying in the desert once more, for I felt its sands in my mouth. My sight, and Eden, were gone.

"So, friends, have you come to Horeb to make offerings to God? Have you come to keep the locusts from your crops, and the blight from your corn? I tell you now that there is a new age beginning, an age of prophets, when man will not offer grain or lambs to Yawheh but much greater sacrifices. Does it make you afraid? Do you shudder that you must leave your farms and your sheep? Are you upset that our tribes are becoming strange to each other? The prophet is strange to all men; he has no kin. He does not weep when the earth takes his mother or his father. His only commitment is to divine revelation."

Yered was plainly unsettled by all of this, Adam could see. Enosh, on the other hand, was rapt. Still, Adam chose not to reveal himself; he waited for the food to come, brought in by the silent, dutiful shepherds' wives and daughters. The blind man was quiet whilst they ate: hungrily, he devoured the cooked lamb, which was only to be expected since the desert had left him hungry for such a long time.

Before he could be questioned by the shepherds, who seemed, because of the food, to have been released from the man's enchantment, Adam went out to sit alone on a grassy bank near the well. His vision too was dimming; the burden of his old, age-wearied body was heavy, and he felt a new weight on his heart after hearing this man's words. All this time, he had become estranged from the management of the land; he had spurned the mastery of nature as he got older. Yet lately, in his final years, he had wished that Seth unite the tribes, and bring them back again to God. This new doctrine, spoken by the prophet, was somehow bitter bread in his mouth. It awoke feelings of melancholy, though he didn't know why.

"Do you know what I see, on God's mountain?" one shepherd had asked him as he made his way to the well. "I see the pain that will come to pass, the sickness of our sons and daughters. It is a sickness that can only be cleansed with God's wrath. All men will suffer, and God will take vengeance on every one for their iniquities."

Adam did not debate this vision with the shepherd; he quietly passed on to the seat by the well. Sitting himself down, he saw the woman, Anna, drawing water from the well.

"Are you thirsty? Then drink."

Adam thanked her, putting a brimming cup of water to his mouth.

"Will you join them? Have you come to find God?"

"I have," Adam admitted. "But I am not certain whether He is the god whom they serve."

"What do you mean? Do you worship the gods of the desert?"

"I serve the one God of the desert, the God of Adam. But I hear too many strange things, things that trouble me. I would know more myself, when the time comes to climb the peak."

"So you will go, then, in search of prophecy. Men are cursed to be prophets, it seems to me, and they invite these visions upon themselves. I want to know only the things of this earth, the simple pleasures. Perhaps the love of a man…"

"Through such hearts will my kin continue," Adam whispered kindly.

"Your kin?"

"Our kin. I am sorry. The mountain distracts me. It has a terrible grandeur in the evening."

"The peak is forbidden to us. Only the men may go there."

Adam nodded. After a while, he said, "Tell me, Anna. Will you remain here, out in the desert, away from the other tribes? Are you content with such a life? What about a family of your own? Serving the shepherds is a hard business; the desert does not provide much."

Anna noticed the tenderness in his voice; he spoke to her like a father, and this was soothing. "I don't know. I am the eldest. If I had wanted to see the world beyond Horeb, I would have gone by now. I suppose I will marry one of my brothers and remain here. I will tend the sheep, draw water from the well, and prepare their food."

"Yes, thank you for giving me water. The kindness of women knows no bounds. Such things would keep me on this earth, make my heart younger than it is."

"You are dying?" Anna asked. She seemed to sense from Adam's voice that it was so.

"It is my time. But I would ascend Horeb and talk to God this last time before I am dust."

"You have seen Him, then. You are like the other prophets."

"He revealed my fate to me, if that makes me a prophet. But yes, I am an old man, and I remember many things. Perhaps the story will reach you one day."

"You are a man of some importance?"

"Here in the desert, I am another seeker of God."

There was silence between them for a time. She bent down by the old man and brought more water to his lips. Adam peered at her through his calm, paternal eyes. "You are a kind man," she said to him. "I will serve you faithfully whilst you are with us."

Later that evening, after Anna had left him alone and the moon had begun its circle around the mountain, Adam heard footsteps approaching the well. He looked around, tried to see who it was in the moonlight; part of him became anxious, for in the Garden angels had visited him on such nights.

"Who's there?" he called.

A voice, though strange in its tenor, nevertheless answered: "Your son."

"Who claims to be my son?" Adam tested.

The figure came into view. He was the man from the hut, the prophet who had glimpsed Eden and been blinded for it. Now, in the moonlight, he saw that this was a much younger man than he had first suspected.

"I am your true son, Adam," the man said. "I too have walked with angels. The night is still young. Let's talk a while, away from the others, here under the shadow of the peak."

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