Saturday, April 7, 2012

"Man of Red Clay: A Novel of Adam" by Jonathan Hooper, Chapter 9

Chapter Nine

It had been three years since the last locust plague. By this time, I knew the rhythm of the seasons, nature's heart, quickening in the spring and summer and then slowing to a leaden beat during the months of cold. When I put my hand to my chest, I felt a pounding there too; my passions, excited in the springtime and cooling in the winter. In the spring, the branches of the trees reached up to heaven for blessing, reconciled with the sun's warmth, asking for manna from the skies and the cool nectar of the mild spring rains. How rich our land seemed in spring and summer, in spite of the desert's heat, swollen with fruits and decked with blossoms, the leaves resplendent in their fiery reds and angelic golds. But autumn was a reaver, stripping the land of all it possessed, impoverishing our valley in the Jordan, making the bare trees ashamed of their barrenness. We too learned to be humble in winter. Amidst the dying of nature, how could we be proud?

What bitter loss we felt as the leaves fell and were scattered. The ground made us feel estranged; each winter, God left the land withered and dying, the divine breath expiring in all living things. Winter instils forgetfulness: it makes our hearts cold and impoverishes our prayers. Who would have thought, from the first time, that nature's heart would continue to beat during the winter's cold; that its spirit would survive the decay of its earthy body; man's spirit and nature's both. Yet my passion stirred in the young months, my faith was refreshed by the first rains. Then, thankful to survive, I thought faith a flower sown in bitter soil: it takes root amidst the stones, it is frail before the frosts and the winds; but, weathering the long months of cold, it is eventually reconciled with the spring. Such is man, I believed. We are either broken and scattered by the winds, or we cling to our faith. What is a single flower next to the winter storms? A frail thing.

“The farmers in the north say there are two gods: the first is like a gentle zephyr, warming all created things. The second is like a withering gale, destroying everything in His path. They say that God cannot be one because He acts contrarily. When we think He loves us, He turns His back, and when we think ourselves abandoned, He brings unexpected blessings. What are these two faces? Can we be blessed and cursed by the same god? Can the God who feeds our children watch them starve when the harvest fails? I sometimes think that He has other worlds to take care of, that His face is turned away as much as it is watching. Sometimes our supplications are swallowed by the desert, or lost in the spaces between the stars. He does not listen.

“Remember what I once believed about the flower of faith, Seth - it is a delicate thing, yet it weathers the storms. The winds may beat against it, but its green veins are infused with spirit; it cannot die. You ask why God is cruel as well as merciful. I have laboured over the same question for nine hundred years of my mortal life. I buried Abel in the ground and cast Cain into the wilderness; I thought God had no mercy at this time, yet with your birth cries, I went up into the hills and made an offering. You were blessed by God, made in His image, the replacement of my sons Cain and Abel - for I lost two sons the day Abel was murdered. When I was younger, I came to understand that there is a divine-demonic rhythm to this fallen world: on the one hand, we suffer; on the other, we praise. I contemplated this for many days; I asked God why it must be so. I arrived at an answer of sorts - I do not know if God planted the knowledge in my mind, though it seemed a revelation after hours in the darkness. By bearing the pain of loss, or offering thanks to God, we are brightly, fervently alive; what a life would be the middle way, denied both grace and affliction; our hearts would sleep if it were so. By suffering, we are made into great souls. A blessed mouth makes bitter bread taste sweet. I decided that labour and strife are the blessings of a fallen world. If I am made to confess, I will say that now, as an old man, I have come to doubt this. I need some greater purpose. Perhaps it is because I am about to die.

“I cannot follow your thought, father. My labours are as much as I can think about. But it seems to me that you despair at what you lost, and are full of curses for this world.”

I do not see nature as a blessed thing, but suffering has made me strong. The spirit is now the dwelling place of all my contemplation. I know that my body must die. Why then has my spirit so much strength, even now?

“The spirit? This is the darkest area of knowledge for all of us. What is the spirit, the breath? It is hard for a man who labours in the fields to dwell on invisible things.”

I will tell you about something that happened to me some days ago, whilst you and your brothers were sleeping. At some time during the night, a voice came into my ear and told me this: “That which is immortal, which cannot die, dwells inside you, Adam. It is the enemy of nature, the opponent of the flesh. In the Garden, I gave you freedom and you forfeited your right to it - therefore the spirit is not free: it labours all day and night. Fallen as you are, you are no longer the image of God. The spirit is the image of God. That part of you which would commune with Me, which spoke with Me in the Garden, is your spirit, the breath I gave you - it has taken refuge in the cave of your breast; it breathes not in the mortal air, but faith is its living breath. Come to Horeb, Adam, in your last days, and I will impart to you the purpose of all your labours. I will give you water in the desert, I will plant seeds where no flower grows.”

So you see, Seth, I must go to Horeb to receive God's teaching. All the questions that have troubled me since I first entered the wilderness will be answered there. God has not turned His back on us. I feel we are approaching a new understanding of the world. I have prayed for answers to these questions: why do we suffer, what purpose do our afflictions serve if not punishment? God will answer me on the mountain's peak. I want to set off tomorrow, quietly mind, just you and I and two of your hardiest sons. It is time to go.

 - - -

Seth could not prolong his protests; silent and resigned to the patriarch's will, he put together four bundles of food and blankets that would sustain them in the desert. He called aside the two sons in question - Enoch and Yered - and told them to cease their work and prepare for the journey to Horeb. They were to leave the valley before the first crowing of the cock, and not to spread word of their departure. Adam spent the remainder of the day offering prayers for safe passage through the desert - he knew that the desert could rob them of life, that the air was infused with spirits and demons prone to lead them astray. He knew that the adversary dwelt there also, amongst his elemental hosts; when last he had confronted the devil, he'd been many days in the wilderness, and the devil had appeared to him in dreams. He prayed that his sleep would be untroubled, that they would be protected. But there was no sign in answer to his fears.

Seth decided to herd goats with them, so that they would not go hungry if the desert did not proffer food. He had listened to Adam's stories of sustenance through eating desert creatures: small, shrew-like animals, lizards, locusts. He wrapped a scarf of cloth around his head to protect himself from the sun's savage heat, and placed a bronze dagger in his belt.

Enosh and Yered looked up to their father, but before Adam, they were fearful; no matter that the patriarch's form had withered in recent years, that his skin sagged on his frail bones. His eyes were full of remote mysteries, his voice set in stone what was rumoured about miracles. He was severe and yet also gentle. He spoke of confrontations with the devil in the remoteness of the desert, but even these did not instil fear like his encounters with God: his visions on Horeb, his witnessing of miracles and his tendency to appropriate the commanding voice of God when he spoke of his visionary states. Yered especially felt that this voice was God's, speaking through the vessel of Adam. So, whilst night came to add a listening peace to their prayers, Yered asked that they be protected from miracles and visions, mysteries that could dwell with the patriarch alone.

Yered was afraid. Horeb was a fearful place, the seat of myths and nightmare stories, a severe, God-trodden peak that had menaced him when he'd brought his herds southwest from the Jordan lands. Adam caused a tremor in the heart of this simple man with tales of God and His manifestations; they were shepherds, after all, not divine, chosen ones. Adam, however, commanded them all: fear and respect for the patriarch stretched as far as the borders of the village of Enoch, perhaps even beyond.

Yered found it hard to say goodbye to his flock. He moved to and fro in the pen, petting the well-fed sheep and reserving most of his attention for the proud ram, Mahalalel, named in honour of his brother. The ram, meanwhile, stamped the ground stubbornly, as if it resented all the fuss.

"I am going away on the morrow, Mahalalel," he said, his voice forlorn. "It's all right for you, with so much grass to eat and a flock to look after. Have some pity for me, going off to the desert with the others. You know how I feel about miracles. I'm a shepherd, not a visionary - I belong with my sheep. But Adam insists that I go. He doesn't care that I serve God by my own modest means. He's not satisfied at all. No, he would rather I climbed that God-trodden mountain with him. I'm afraid, Mahalalel, because our God is not always merciful to simple shepherds. Sometimes He is cruel, sometimes He makes us suffer without warning.

"I don't know if I'll come back the way I am. Horeb has a way of changing men; even on its slopes, the shepherds who live there tend to be fervent men, full of stories of visions and strange sights. They make a poor plains dweller like me fear God more than the spirits in the desert. Well, I came to say goodbye. The meadow is yours now; if I don't come back, look after them all for me."

The ram, indifferent to his master's sorrow, gambolled over to the rest of the flock and began frisking with the ewes. Yered took a last unhappy look and made for his hut.

Enosh, meanwhile, was in the forge, finishing a copper bracelet for his wife; it would be his way of saying farewell. Unlike Yered, the thought of going to Horeb filled him with passionate expectation, the realisation of a dream he had moulded and shaped like the bronze in the furnace. Though the patriarch's God-ridden speech touched his own fear, nevertheless he had an impulse inside him to confront these mysteries face to face. He and his wife had lost two children to the famine; on Horeb, he would put God to the test, he would willingly go in search of miracles. Against the hardships of the desert and the temptations of spirits he would be firm; like the stone anvil upon which the bracelet was hammered, he would stand fast, until his questions were answered, by God, or the answering silence.

"I do not know what we will come in contact with, out there in the desert," Adam had told him that morning. "Because of our sacrifices, no spirits or devils can enter the valley. But in the desert, we are open to all sorts of inflictions and temptations. I am telling you this so that you will be ready."

"I am already prepared for strange events," Enosh had told him. "I take the raw metal and hammer it into shape - I can make sense of the impossible in the same way. But most of all, I would know what God's purpose was in making us suffer the famine."

Seth, for his part, was calmly resolved towards starting the journey. He knew that Adam's secret departure would make his other sons bitter; at the same time, he'd made a decision to honour his father's wishes and lead them all to Horeb: Yered, the dreamer, his mind always on his sheep, timid-hearted but honest; Enosh, the maker, the broad, muscular youth, passionate  but grim since the death of his children. Seth wondered whether Adam would find the answer to his nine hundred years of toil on Horeb; but he believed he would, and that was enough. No matter what doubts he had, Seth was ever the dutiful son and mindful parent, seeking the best for those in his care. Only one thing troubled him: the root cause of Adam's journey - the savage face of God. It was then that Seth realised that he too needed a revelation as much as his father: he wanted to know why their kin had been punished so much. But he could not ask God himself, not directly. He would leave the miracles for his father. I am not for visions on mountain peaks, Seth thought. I am for labour and the management of our land.

Later, the spirit lifted Adam up and he walked, though awkwardly, out of the hut. With each step, it seemed that he was becoming stronger, so that any who witnessed it would have declared it a miracle. He went alone through the olive grove, and it seemed as if his eyes brightened with visions already. His mind was flooded with light and spirit, lifting him above the scent of the first fruits and the musky smell of the earth. Night had already fallen and the moon hung like a far off, watchful eye. Letting his frail legs carry him beyond earshot of the huts, he revelled in the spiritual light of evening.

Whilst he was walking, he was thinking to himself: I was created a man of clay, yet what I am is more than dust and earth. Whatever is divine in me exists beyond the reach of the earth and beyond time's efforts to wear me down. The angels called it spirit, but truly, it is the same breath that infused all living things in the Garden. When I die, will it pass away, or will it return to God, or to the bowers of Eden? Perhaps this mystery too will be resolved on Horeb, before I die, that I might relate it to Seth. It is what I would have my children know after my death: something to make meaningful all their labours. This is what I will ask God for: the knowledge that their generation's suffering is not in vain; that they are not simply being punished because of me, because of my fall.

The moon seemed to cast the light of the angels down upon the earth, just as in the Garden, the sun cast God's light. The wavering shadows put Adam into a trance and deepened the pool of his thoughts. Despite the pain in his body that had plagued him through the day, he felt that he could step light-footed through the grass, and cast off the heavy bones and aged flesh. Spirit lifted him up, and he wandered content. Perhaps it would also carry him through the desert the next day.

After a time, when the thick ranks of trees obscured the Jordan's glimmering body, he heard soft footfalls behind him. When he turned around, he saw Eve, her hair dishevelled, her face distraught, moving towards him down the dusty path. The contemplative spell was immediately broken; he greeted her, his spirits sinking with the thought of loss - Eve, his mortal love from the beginning, to whom belonged the sole part of his heart that was made of earth.

"I had a terrible dream," Eve began, wiping tears from her sleep-haunted eyes. She noticed that Adam's form seemed lighter, his body more agile, and this stopped her momentarily; when she went on, it was with great anguish in her voice. "I dreamt that you died on Horeb, that you were buried there, and your body crumbled into dust. My husband, Seth was putting your body into the ground. The earth swallowed you up like it swallowed Abel, leaving nothing behind. And, oh, Adam, I was so afraid. I realised, at last, that you were leaving, and that you were going there to die. We were the first born, my husband. Would God finally let us die, as He promised in his wrath?"

Adam did not answer her. He put forth his hand and stroked the hair from her eyes, contemplating her noble, aged face, still possessing the remnants of her beauty, encircled by her white locks. Her mouth was trembling, her matriarchal bearing fled. Eve had seldom cried before their sons, she had never shown weakness even when their suffering was great. The last time she had wept had been at Abel's death: then, Adam had seen her wail and tear out her hair before the body of their son, her grief expressed in a great, deep-wrought cry that went on for whole minutes, as if she were emptying all the grief from her heart. And afterwards, as if her tears were exhausted, she had been silent and sullen, returning to the duties of the farm with grave concentration.

Now, he saw her crying, and it shook his reserve. He comforted her, for the first time since before their grandsons were born. For years, she had watched him drift away into the darkness of his meditations, remote from her feminine beauty, even from their life on the farm. But on this night in the olive grove, Adam did, if only for a few brief moments, remember the original ardour of his love for his wife, the love they had shared in Eden, before the wilderness had hardened their hearts. When they kissed, it was as if she was preserving some of his spirit inside her.

"What has God called you for?" she implored then, leaning against him. "Is it true that He has called you to die?"

Again Adam did not answer. His melancholy seemed to fill their surroundings, deepening the already dim light of evening.

"Would He leave me without you? Would He separate us at last? And you? Would you go willingly to His calling, when you would not abandon me to my fate in the wilderness because you loved me? Will you go to Him, then? Or will you ask why His will is unbending, why His wrath has not lessened in all this time?"

"He has summoned me," Adam said flatly, moving slowly away from her, burying his love for this woman in a remote recess of his heart. "I must go. This is my fate, but it is also the answer to my yearning. There is more than death waiting for me on Horeb."

Adam saw her slight, pale form fade away between the olive trees. She belonged to their daughters now, and they would care for her. Again, it was a consequence of the Fall: in death, husband and wife would be cloven apart.

In the morning, at the time appointed, Adam and three of his sons set off into the desert. Eve, lying amongst her daughters in the women's hut, was alert to the sounds of their going. When she heard the last sounds die away, she submitted to a sleep long delayed.

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