Saturday, April 7, 2012

"Man of Red Clay: A Novel of Adam" by Jonathan Hooper, Chapter 8

Chapter Eight

The clay hut was abandoned, its dusty interior strewn with broken clay pots and rusted bronze tools. Lemekh had to clear the straw bed of scorpions before he could rest. The water in the well was stale, but he gulped it down with gratitude. After he had washed the desert from his body, he sat in the shade of the entrance and surveyed the valley. Scrawny sheep roamed on the slopes; as many had given up the fight and their carcasses lay between the juniper bushes. The desert was trying to reclaim this valley, once the home of a shepherd. The stream that had fed the once-fertile bed was now a channel of dry, dusty rocks and clay. The owner of the hut had moved on, fleeing perhaps the rumours of a land in the east where the people of Cain lived.

After he had rested and the sun was beginning to set, Lemekh followed the dry stream bed to the head of the valley, climbing beneath sharp, overhanging cliffs and over steep banks of rock. Near the top of the valley there was a flat stone outcrop and a crude path leading to it, perhaps made by the shepherd who had kept the place. There he found a huge stone slab, an altar it seemed, for the rock was stained with dried blood. He sat down next to the altar, seeing the sun fall with a last burst of fiery red; the wind was picking up, shaking the thorny bushes and the outstretched arms of the olive trees that grew nearby.

The sun, it seemed to him, had turned the colour of blood; he heard the sheep bleating and thought about the shepherd and his sacrifices to Yahweh; lambs had been held down on the slab and their throats cut, to ensure the return of life to the valley, and the abundance of crops. Was this a holy place? Did their god listen to their timid souls speaking out from the wilderness, imploring him to receive so modest a sacrifice? He wondered this as he took a handful of berries in his hand and began to eat.

He knew he would have to go back to the hut to sleep, but the altar and the setting sun held him in thrall. So he sat there, contemplating the sleeping valley from this high place, until the noise of the sheep roused him from thoughts about a shepherd's toil; they were calling out in distress. His first thought was that a wolf had entered the flock, so he picked up a stone and went towards the source of the disturbance.

There was a cleft between the rocks, and a narrow ravine, half hidden by shadow: in the middle of this ravine, a ewe was running to and fro, darting between one steep bank and the other. And there was the wolf that hunted it: an old man, his aged body stooped and half-starved, white, untamed hair covering his face. He was dressed in a ragged robe and he wielded a long shepherd's crook, with which he was trying to catch the ewe by the neck.

After chasing the ewe around futilely for a little longer, he looked up to where Lemekh was watching, at the mouth of the ravine. "Who's there?" he called, shaking the crook defensively. "Are you man or spirit?"

"I am a man," Lemekh answered.

"Then come down here at once. Help me catch this cursed sheep."

Lemekh obliged him. He took the crook from the shepherd and drove the sheep against the wall of the ravine, breaking the crook on its head. Its legs gave way and he stopped striking it.

"I drove the thing over the cliff," the man said. "But the fall didn't kill it."

"Well, it's dead now. Are you hungry, old man?"

"Oh, yes, I'm hungry. That goes without saying. But this sheep isn't for me."

"Then who is it for?"

"Yahweh. An offering. What's the matter, have you forgotten how to make an offering?"

Lemekh just frowned. He'd noticed the old man's eyes. They were cloudy and white, as if he was used to seeing beyond his physical surroundings.

"Will you help me up out of this ravine? I can't manage very well on my own. Perhaps I could ask you to lift the sheep out of here too; there's an altar on that rock nearby."

Lemekh led the old man out of the ravine, and left him waiting at the altar while he brought the sheep. It was heavy to carry, but he managed to lift it up to the slab, taking slow, steady steps.

"I am grateful to you, whoever you are. Now's a good time, perhaps, for you to tell me who you are and what you are doing in the desert."

"Wandering," Lemekh said vaguely.

"Merely wandering? In this land, few wander for long. Where are you headed?"

"I'm going back to Adam."

"Adam? Ah, we all go back to him at some point. The patriarch, eh? The father of us all. Listen, brother, do you mind telling me what you were doing out in the desert in the first place? One has to be careful in these days. There are a people to the east with the mark of Cain upon them."

"I am a shepherd," Lemekh said. He looked at the white eyes of the old man and wondered if they could see him. "I've had enough of the desert. My flock have dwindled away, and I wanted to see Adam before it was too late."

"Ah, so the rumours are true. The patriarch is dying. I was one of the first generation of his sons, you know. I had thought he would outlive us all. God will preserve him for another thousand years, I told myself. You'll go down into the ground long before he does, I said. But it is true? He is finally ready to leave us?"

"He is dying, yes," Lemekh repeated. The words sounded sweet in his mouth; he hoped they had not sounded so to the old man. "Your eyes, old man. What happened to them?"

"Ah, yes. Why do you think I was having such difficulty with the sheep - I'm blind. I cannot see you, I cannot see the sunset, though my senses tell me it is beautiful. Is it?"

"The sunset? Well, yes. The west is on fire. The colour of blood. But why can't you see it? I had heard of some old men whose sight began to fade, so that they slipped into darkness; who cursed you thus, old man? Can you really see nothing?"

"Nothing at all. Only darkness. But external darkness - there is enough light inside me to guide me. Don't pity me - it is not really a curse at all."

Lemekh assented, but really he felt no pity. The old man seemed pathetic, talking about the loss of his sight without any bitterness for his god. He would question him thus; test him a little.

"Didn't you ask Yahweh for pity? Why sit humbly there when your sight is taken away from you?"

"I have lost sight, and I have gained sight. I brought the blindness on myself. I wanted to see God - wanted to look at him with my own eyes. Oh, the ardour of the young. Yes, this was many years ago. I've been a hermit since a young man - never took a wife. I've been married to the soil, I've raised crops in this valley - always alone. And each spring I'd take the first born lamb and sacrifice it on the altar with prayers. I don't know how many lambs I've killed - one for as many years as I've been here.

"Anyway, Yahweh would answer me by making the crops grow, though sometimes there would be drought or a blight on the harvest. I put this down to my lack of faith: when my faith was strong, the harvest was bountiful, but when my faith wavered a little, I would lose the crop. And I would go hungry for the winter, and have to live off my flock."

Lemekh felt his passion stir. He twirled the crook in his hands, stared at the old man's dumb white eyes. "You think it a failing of your faith. You do not blame Yahweh for letting you go hungry?"

The old man stirred; he seemed to stare at Lemekh in an odd way. "As one living in the desert, you should know not to question His will. My faith alone was at fault. What do you think this is, an unfallen world, where we were not made to suffer? Didn't the stories of the patriarch reach you? Adam forfeited his right to plentiful things. We are all inheritors of the same thing - we cannot expect to fill our mouths with ambrosia all the time. We suffer here - this is the wilderness. Sometimes God listens, sometimes He doesn't. It is more than we should expect. And as for the blindness - well, what did I expect? One day, I asked God to reveal Himself to me as the blood ran on the tablet. He became angry and revealed a single aspect of His glory, one glimpse that scorched the sight out of my eyes. Oh, I am humbler now, yes."

The old man was upset. Internally, Lemekh resented his preaching, his blind adherence to his God, but he bit back his tongue.

The old man spoke again, having calmed down a little. "The ewe is ready. There's a knife over there - I keep it in a cleft in the rock. Since you are my guest, I will give you the privilege of sacrificing the ewe. Sing a prayer for my crops and my ailing health. And for the patriarch, too, that I may see him before I die."

Lemekh brooded silently after the old man had made his request; the old prayers were forgotten - Cain had brought none of them with him to Enoch, and consequently, Lemekh had never learned a word of their devotional tongue. What was he to do, now that the old man had given him the honour of sacrificing the ewe?

He thought of Sammael, secretly sought the guidance of the god. Perhaps it was better to kill the old man and have done with it; to take the sacrificial knife and slit his throat. He talked too much anyway. Hadn't he done it enough times? What was the taking of a life? - a single blow brought down on some pathetic, pleading head; the mere thrust of bronze into skin. Yet he would rather sit out the night with this old man, learn his secrets. Lemekh had never been beyond Enoch - he didn't know the paths of the desert, this man did. And he had known Adam - he had said himself that he was of the first generation of Adam's sons.

Lemekh found the dagger in the cleft and brought it over to the altar. He still didn't know what he should do. The old man was listening, that was clear. He was waiting for the prayer that would precede the sacrifice. How difficult must it be to utter the words to a god - to sing them before the fiery skies?

And the whole valley now seemed washed with blood: the moment was ripe for the slaughter. He held the sheep by its neck and poised the dagger ready to strike. Where were the words of a prayer? - what feigned supplication could he offer to the god of the desert dwellers, the farmers, the mad prophets? He spoke slowly and awkwardly, waiting for the old man's reaction.

"Merciful God, accept this sacrifice that the harvest may be full..."

"The words are bitter bread on your tongue, shepherd."

The old man had stirred; he was standing erect, his back no longer seeming stooped, the crook in his hands. "Do you think me a fool as well as blind? There is not an ounce of faith in your heart. The mark of Cain is upon you."

Lemekh let the head of the ewe fall. He felt the rage boil up inside him. "Old man, you are mad. I have no mark. If you had eyes, you would see for yourself."

"I do not need them - I can hear it in your voice. Your words are branded with the mark too."

"Then your mind is gone. You've been too long alone, and the bleating of the sheep has made you mad."

"I am not mad. Give me the dagger. I will kill the sheep myself. And you will go, at once, from my valley. Go back to your village and leave me be."

Lemekh stared at him bitterly, this fool standing proudly with his crook; a self-righteous judge in rags. Stepping towards him, he caught the old man by the edge of his robe and pushed him down onto the altar, next to the ewe. With his other hand, Lemekh raised the dagger. But when he tried to strike, an invisible force held him back; a last ray from the sinking sun fell on the altar, not red like the others but brilliantly white. Lemekh fell back in pain and fear. Before he knew what had happened, he was scrambling back down the rocky path, the dagger having fallen from his hands.

Still descending the slope, he looked over his shoulder at the rocky outcrop. The old man still lay on the altar, his face hidden by his robe, but a second figure was standing above him; Lemekh could not look on the figure for more than a second, but in that short space of time, he thought he saw wings enfolding the old shepherd, and a glittering form bending over the body, a flaming sword in one hand.

Lemekh fled down into the valley; the wind was whistling before him, sweeping across the juniper bushes like a fleeing spirit. He came to the mud hut; it was almost dark and a sable net hung over the valley: the altar could not be seen. Shunning the hut, Lemekh kept walking towards the valley's mouth, back into the cold of the desert.

It was there he slept, wrapt against the cold by his cloth robe.

He didn't sleep long. He was awakened by a strange noise, the breathing of the desert wind perhaps, but whatever it was, it made him sit up and stare into the deep blackness that encircled him. The thorny tree under which he'd sheltered was palely lit by the faint stars, but the cloud of darkness all around was impenetrable. When he heard the noise again and discerned its whispered words, recognisable as little more than an echo, he could see nothing, but knew that his god spoke to him.

"The shepherd lies dead," the night voice said. "His heart gave out before you could lower the dagger. So fret not, Lemekh - your wrath paid off after all."

"Did it?" he called, though he knew his voice shook with fear. "Then what did I see, standing above him at the altar?"

"Worry not, Lemekh. Don't concern yourself with the powers you cannot see. There are conflicts in the sky and in the air around you; battles that need not concern the mind of man. Concern yourself with your own kind, with flesh and blood. Leave the rest to me. I will protect you when I must, you know that. Your domain is the heart, Lemekh; the mind, the senses. That which cannot be discerned by the ordinary power of the senses should be dismissed. If you spend too long looking for the things that should be invisible to men, you will end up like that old shepherd - blind. Content yourself with the visible word."

"I had no wish to see the invisible. Yet when I looked back, I saw -"

"Saw what? An angel? What you saw was Raphael, Raphael with his flaming sword, come to protect the soul of his servant from my devouring hands. For I too was there, Lemekh, standing over the blind man; it was I who would have put strength behind the blow, though the choice was yours. The old man had the seraphim to guard him, just as I guarded you."

A thought entered Lemekh's mind that made him speak up at once. "You are there constantly, whenever the choice should be mine? How then can I make a free choice, with these powers that I cannot see directing my will? Do the spirits decide our fate, do they clash over souls all the time while we deceive ourselves that we are free?"

The voice took some time in replying. "I will tell you again, Lemekh. Trouble yourself not over the invisible things, but the visible. The One who exiled us, the One who dwells in Heaven - He knows your fate and has decided whether you will flourish or die. Do not let that knowledge enslave you - the choices are still yours, in this finite space at least - that is all you need concern yourself with. Understand how sweet this ignorance of man really is - think of the immortal beings, the fallen ones, enclosed in the finite realm of time and space, yet cursed with the knowledge of the infinite; bounded above and below by what is perishable, yet possessing the knowledge that they existed before all finite created things. Before this world was created, I was, yet I am bound by its laws. But that is enough of these mysteries - they are for another time. Raphael, Gabriel, Uriel - perhaps you will meet their kind again. Do not let the desert conquer you, Lemekh. Adam is sickening even as we speak."

Lemekh found himself confused by the things the spirit had said. It did not seem to be the guide who had brought him from Enoch. "Who are you? Are you Sammael, who brought me in to the desert?"

"Sammael? Azazel? Baal? Lucifer? Sometimes the desert speaks with many voices, at other times there is only one.

"Now heed my words: Adam is about to start on a journey to Horeb, a mountain beyond the great limestone desert. When you find him, wrath will not serve you. Submit yourself to my will; I will speak for you, and remove the sign of the mark. Might did not win in Heaven; guile may win in its place."

Lemekh heard the words fade away. Disturbed, he lay down on the ground again and tried to sleep.

The next morning, his mind still filled with the powers of the air, he resumed his march across the desert.

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