Saturday, April 7, 2012

"Man of Red Clay: A Novel of Adam" by Jonathan Hooper, Chapter 10

Chapter Ten

In the desert, there were hills and jagged ridges of limestone. The ground beneath the feet of these first pilgrims was lacerated with cracks; in places, a few weak plants lifted their heads up thirstily, bending towards the scent of the Jordan. As they made their way across this first stretch of desert, the already scattered ranks of these plants dispersed completely, giving victory to the rock and the thorn bushes, and to their merciless general, the sun. With Yered herding two goats before them, progress was slow but steady, checked by the teeth-like rocks that punished the soles of their feet. But, to Seth's amazement particularly, Adam moved boldly on thin, surprisingly nimble legs, falling back only occasionally on the support of one of his sons; the thought of reaching God's mountain, plainly, had had a miraculous effect on his body, weakened these last restful years. This is not a man ready to die, Seth thought.

Only Yered looked doleful, as he let his eyes stray from the goats and onto their desolate surroundings. Enosh, on the other hand, seemed fascinated by the parched ground and the intense heat, as if reliving the stories of Adam in his mind.

"I wonder what makes the tribes want to live out here?" Enosh remarked after they had gone some distance towards evening. "Do they wait for visions in the desert?"

Seth looked at Adam and, seeing him preoccupied, answered his son. "There are places where they can live. Valleys with enough green grass for their flocks, pools with date palms. Some prefer the lonely life. I'm not sure whether I could bare it myself. And as for visions, I am sure they do not wait for God's intervention."

"Sometimes it comes to them unexpectedly, whilst they are sleeping next to a sheltered pool, or in a mountain cave," Adam interrupted, having woken from his contemplation. "God reveals Himself to desert dwellers, to those in solitude. At the same time, they do not go seeking miracles."

"I'm not sure if I would have the patience for this life," Enosh admitted. "My work is not passive work. And I can't tolerate being alone for long. I like to have company. I like the companionship of my brothers, just as Yered likes the companionship of his sheep. Perhaps the hermits are in no hurry to encounter God. I wouldn't wait so long."

Adam spoke up, his face was stern and resolved, but his eyes fiery. "Before you talk with God, you must purge yourself of earthly things. There are no shortcuts. Town dwellers will never see Him; you must come out here, to the desert, to witness His works; to where the distinction between the natural and the spiritual life is at its weakest. When I first entered the wilderness, an exile, I thought this place Godless and utterly abandoned. Until, in time, I learned to listen for His voice. The human world keeps God away; rather, we should go to Him, to where there is nothing between us and the heavens except a thorn bush or two. Always, in the desert, we are vulnerable to the attack of devils, but that is because we are so close to God."

Enosh tramped on thoughtfully; he was thinking about the shape and countenance of these devils, about what they would look like if they came to tempt them during the night. His mind filled with grotesque, bestial images, monsters still wearing angelic armour, cast in the silver and gold of his forge: terrible yet somehow magisterial, fanged and clawed, but human-eyed and intelligent. Finally, he banished the image from his mind of a huge, winged devil, its heavenly clothing mocked by its serpentine form; its face a hissing snake. The image went away, but left Enosh startled by its vividness.

Hardly affected by the desert's heat because of his long toil in the flames of the forge, he looked restlessly towards the east, hoping to get a glimpse of the far away peak. Part of him was not afraid of devils, but the images nevertheless brought a certain fear. Tired of the complacency of their life in the Jordan, but equally repelled by the hermit's life, he sought to bring back faith in God into the communal life; work through me, he said silently, make me the vessel of Your miracles and I will stir up the people of the plains. Miracles to inspire the scattered tribes and unite them. That is, if You have not abandoned us; if You are not deaf to our sufferings.

Yered, driving the goats on with his crook, was oblivious to their talk; he was thinking of his flock, of how it would get by without his gentle mastery. He thought of Mahalalel coming to greet him in the morning, standing noble and proud next to the gate. The wise, hardy ram would seem to say to him: “I have kept the wolves away during the night; I have put fear into their cowardly hearts with my terrible horns. The flock is safe, thanks to us.” He felt that Mahalalel regarded him not as the master, but as an equal; together they guarded the weak ewes. It had been so ever since Yered's wife had died during childbirth, the labour killing mother and child both. His flock was his family now, and Mahalalel the ram his true brother. The goats were Seth's, but he took the charge of protecting them very seriously indeed. Only occasionally would he speak to them, when the others were out of earshot.

Seth, seldom given to contemplation, was mindful of Adam; sometimes the great patriarch would stumble and Seth would rush to help him; Adam, however, walked on with grave determination. He did not reproach Seth for trying to help him, perhaps because he loved him more than any of his sons, but he insisted on coping alone with the difficulties of their journey; he would not submit to the weakness of his flesh. "The spirit will lift me if I fall," he said. "The spirit will render the scorpion's sting harmless, and block my ears if the devil tries to tempt me. God has willed that I reach Horeb, and I will reach it."

On the first few nights, as they made a fire in a cave or in the shelter of a rocky ridge, it seemed that the desert wind was full of infernal whisperings. Beyond the circle of the fire and the shadows thrown by their huddled bodies, beneath the starry blackness of the sky, there was always a thick, nebulous darkness, and a faint whispering, which seemed to be speaking to them in a strange, half-discernible tongue. Occasionally, they could make out words in Hebrew, but the babbling wind seemed, for the most part, to speak in the language of the angels. Seth passed round the water and the bread whilst the others were silent, listening. After a time, the whispering died away, and they were able to settle down to sleep.

Once, during the night, Yered woke the others with cries of panic; the goats had wandered away and there was a faint roaring on the other side of the ridge under which they were camped. Sleepily, the others followed him, skirting the ridge until they came to the entrance of a cave. Yered stopped before the cave, his crook held defensively; to him, it seemed that there were demonic yellow eyes staring out from the black depths, and the smell of fresh meat and blood. Seth managed to lead him back to their fire, away from danger. "The goats," Yered kept saying. "There were lions in the cave. They must have eaten the goats. We've lost them."

For the rest of the night he could not be consoled. Enosh held a branch of fire watchfully, but the lions did not come, nor did the expected visitations by devils. Before they slept, Adam chanted in the old angelic tongue, the words seeming to draw a blessed circle of warmth around their sleeping place. The fire kept the cold away, and the song whatever spirits dwelt in the desert.

In the morning, the cold was replaced by scorching heat as they set off again, striking steadily southwest, occasionally glimpsing the blue glint of the sea, guided by the memory of Adam alone. Eventually, the limestone hills were behind them, and a shimmering wilderness of sand before. Their wandering brought them to a pool skirted by palm trees; to Yered's delight, the two goats that they had thought food for the lions were found there, chewing the lush plants that grew next to the pool. Yered took charge of the goats at once whilst the others refreshed themselves. After eating and bathing, they spent a day of rest there, just as Adam had done near the end of his exile, perhaps in this very place. Still, Seth could not believe the strength that now infused his father, driving him on despite his age. Perhaps this, at last, was God at work.

The journey was difficult, but, apart from the strange whisperings they heard at night, the expected dangers did not emerge. For the moment, their only adversaries were the heat and the cold. Seth couldn't help thinking that these were enemies enough. It seemed to him that the night, with its cold, clasping fingers, was the devil, and the sun an unforgiving, merciless god. His mind didn't need to dwell on spirits.

 One afternoon, whilst they were walking, a snake darted out from beneath a rock and tried to strike Enosh on the foot, but he cracked its head with his staff. He dangled the body - yellow, diamond-backed - between the two forks of his staff, showing it to the others.

"It is no devil," Adam said. "A simple serpent. After the Fall, God cursed the snake and now it lives on its belly."

"Devil or not, it would have poisoned me, had I not struck it so soon."

"Poison can be sucked out. The flow of poison that enters the mind, from the devil's mouth, cannot be checked. The low spirits like to take the form of snakes. It reminds them of the transgression."

Enosh let the snake drop to the ground. "We haven't had a single sign yet. No devils, and no God. I am beginning to think the voice we hear at night simply is the wind after all."

"Do not ask for signs, if you are not ready to receive them. When God does send you a sign, and you are afraid, you might wish that He had spared you after all. It sours your taste for mortal life. That is why the hermits neglect their farms and come here. So they can be free of nature's futile rhythm, its growth and decay."

Passion, suddenly, had broken out on Enosh's face. He gripped his staff tightly and struck it on the ground. "I lost two sons, father. I have seen enough suffering. I am ready for signs. I will climb Horeb with you without fear."

Adam did not answer him; instead, they resumed their walking. Through the rest of the day, Yered led them through a country increasingly wild and hostile, their direction set by Adam; the dust from the ground, blown by a hot southwest wind that assailed them without respite, scorched their faces and got into their clothing. By now, Seth had come to resent the bitter, dry taste of the desert; he wondered how far it was to Horeb.

There was no answer to his worries: the landscape did not change, and gave no hint of the mountain they were looking for. The next night, they camped in a low valley with a bed of loose stones, penetrated by the occasional stunted bush. This time, Yered was to keep a watch over the goats, and the others to relieve him in their turn. First though, as they settled around the fire, there was talk. Adam, seeming reluctant to converse with them, eventually led Seth away from the fire, at a distance from the others.

"Yes, Seth, I have things to tell them too. But these first things I say to you alone."

"It is cold, father, and the fire is so warm."

"My words will warm you up. Sit here with me for a while, because this next thing shouldn't be shared with the others. I want to speak about your mother, and how the angel brought me to her, in the fourth year of our exile."

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