PLAIN AND PRECIOUS PARTS FROM
A QUOTIDIAN BOOK OF SCRIPTURE
CONTAINING, BUT NOT LIMITED TO,
THE JUICIEST PORTIONS OF THE
—sans, for obvious reasons, Judges 19—
translated through means of memory and nightmare
out of the pre-translated tongues (being mainly English):
and with the former translations ignored,
or—in special cases—
dictated but not read,
by His Fobbiness’s
special command, in perpetuity,
worlds with very definite (and sometimes good-looking) ends,
albeit of a feminist bent in places,
with far too many references to behemoths and leviathans,
and thus, being indebted to the grace of your most gracious progenetrix,
published in the year of the FOB seven
(using the Jepsonian calendar for its ease of dates).
Fully Authorized Fob Version
Eric W Jepson
Sarah E. Jenkins
El Cerrito, CA
* * * * *
115 Ramona Avenue
El Cerrito, CA 94539
an imprint of
9754 N Ash Avenue, #204
Kansas City, MO 64157
* * * * *
PLAIN AND PRECIOUS PARTS FROM
THE FOB BIBLE
Eric W Jepson
A. Arwen Taylor
Samantha Larsen Hastings
William C. Bishop
* * * * *
Eric W Jepson
Sarah E. Jenkins
* * * * *
Paul Gustave Doré
* * * * *
All rights reserved
Published May 2009
* * * * *
Without limiting the rights under copyright reserved above, no part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in or introduced into a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form, or by any means (electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise) without the prior written permission of both the copyright owner and the above publisher of this book.
The opening of the King James Bible is simple yet supernal: “In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth.” There is an understatement in the phrase that approaches transcendence, and one wonders if the transcribist of the tale isn’t being slightly self-referential to his own translation when he concludes: “And God saw that it was good.”
It is the genius of the Bible that it is a story which provides its own frame and its own apology; all the resultant confusion and chaos of the ages is simply the process by which we mortals return to the sublime simplicity of that opening statement: the procreant urge of creation, the Edenic peace of a world without contradiction. Should humanity fit the terms of one divine prearrangement, so the story goes, then that moment of creational joy can once more touch our tired telestial lives.
Little wonder that, ever since, mankind has earnestly tried to recast that moment of creation into something a little more palatable to those of us left alone with the million inconsistencies of our mortal struggle. Thus, we have the Lilith mythologies of the middle ages, the awkward but beautifully worded epics of Milton, the scientific explanation of a “mitochondrial Eve”—each an example of humanity trying to include ourselves in a narrative that minimizes the uncertainty of our experience.
Fob begins its history in Utah Valley, 2002, when chance meetings in college courses and writers conferences prompted Fob founders Kari Ambrose (then Hullinger), Ben Christensen, and Eric W Jepson (the W silent even then) to set up a regular writing group to discuss their writings and ambitions. As the first meeting was arranged by Ben Christensen, they eventually came to call themselves the Friends of Ben (providing an acronym that, considering the alternatives, was probably the best available at that time). From there, the group grew—perhaps even metastasized—bringing in poets, artists, linguists, and scientists, and garnering a small but dedicated fellowship. Today, members of Fob are located across the United States and England, and continue to meet to share ideas and writing across a wide range of genres and perspectives.
It is not puzzling, given the Mormon heritage of the group, that they would have an urge to reexamine fundamental assertions of their culture—some from positions of orthodoxy and others from points far removed. Fob from the beginning was a meeting of misfits, a place for those who felt somehow outside the day-to-day realities of modern pragmatics. Often, members of Fob might turn to the poetry of the Bible or other scriptural works as they worked out their own understanding of how they fit into a larger spectrum. As is inevitable among talented individuals, these examinations often flowered into creative works.
This book is the result of these examinations, and the fruit of those creative works. And—though we do say so ourselves—we see that it is good.
CAPITULATION: FORBIDDEN SQUIRMING
HOW LONG TILL TWO TIMES
ISAAC AND ESAU
JACOB, TO ESAU
A TRAVEL AGENT’S DESCRIPTION OF EGYPT, CIRCA MOSES
MOSES UND ARON
OF THE BLESSED DEAD
FROM THE DESK OF BAAL’S SECRETARY
THE AFTERMATH OF EXPLOSION
FROM THE BOOK OF DANIEL
THE DANGERS OF IDOLATRY
THE FAITH OF THE OCEAN
The sun’s ten fingers came unfurled.
He gathered struts and made a world.
With careful breath the sphere was blown:
a hollow ball of molten stone.
And with the glass-sharp stars in thrall,
he spun the geodesic ball.
The moon stretched out her oyster hand
and on the struts she lifted land.
In mercury streams the valleys bled:
the mountain shook its hoary head.
She set the rain in silver sheets
upon the ocean’s stormy streets.
The sun shook out his golden beard
and with its heat the land was seared.
The gold-gray ash, ’neath greening rain,
bristled up in heads of grain.
The trees grew up at his approach,
and closed their gowns with emerald brooch.
The moon unbound her swelling womb
and scattered the world with ruby bloom.
She shrouded its eyes with birds in flight
and veiled its face with silky night.
Then balanced the sphere on a silver scale
and lined the seas with fishes’ mail.
Then the sun and the moon
set the world in a swoon
and clothed it in meadow and wood.
And with bashful glance
began to dance
. . . and called it good.
Satan and the snake had watched each other for a long time before either spoke. It was mid-morning—it was always mid-morning—and the breeze was pleasant and warm in the thick tangles of shining dark leaves. The snake, a long purple shadow, was hanging in negligent coils from a branch of the tree hanging with blue-spotted white flowers and dark red fruit. Her large head rested on her casually muscled form and she watched Satan, who was sitting on a rock in a dusty clearing, rubbing his shoulders where his large black wings sprung, grimacing from time to time and keeping a close eye on the snake.
It was Satan who spoke first, after his grimaces and rubbing had finished. “You are very beautiful,” he said.
The snake stirred, blinking. “How can you know what beauty is?” she asked. Her voice was low, and modulated. “Only the gods know that.”
Satan shrugged. “I don’t know how I know, snake. I only know that I know—and you are very beautiful.”
“Are you a god, then?” Her voice was cool and musical, like a brook, and she regarded Satan with cool eyes.
He laughed, leaning back into his wings and grabbing his knees. “Do I look like a god to you?”
“You look like half a bat,” said the snake as she eased down from the tree. “The other half might be monkey, might be man. You have more hair than the other two-legs in this part of the tree-place.”
“Not a god though. That’s a relief,” said Satan. He leaned forward slightly and studied her as she moved from under the shadows of the trees. “You are beautiful—look at you in the sunlight. You’re like a living bruise.”
“What part of creation is a bruise?” asked the snake.
“A very beautiful part.” Satan’s mouth twitched into a smile.
“Only the gods know beauty,” repeated the snake. “When this tree-place was created, the gods called it Beauty, but no creature may know what that means. Beauty is a mystery of the gods.”
“It’s a mystery, I will grant you that,” said Satan. “To be honest, I’m trying to figure it out myself. It’s one of the reasons I dropped down here—I thought it might give me some ideas.”
The snake regarded Satan with deep interest. “Do you know beauty? Can you see it?”
Satan’s smile was long and white. “Everywhere, no-legs. This is a beautiful garden.”
“I see you are playing a game with words, then, because this tree-place is Beauty—and therefore beautiful.” The snake twisted herself back upon her mighty loops to rise to Satan’s seated height. “And I am part of Beauty, and therefore beautiful—this is what you mean?”
Satan laughed. “I did not expect you to coil me in my own words. But here, I’ve given you a compliment and I expect it repaid—do you think I’m beautiful?”
The snake shook her head. “I don’t know beauty. It is a mystery of the gods. I do know you are made well—as the gods made you—and therefore you must be beautiful.”
“A true compliment. Yet I can’t imagine that anything—least of all myself could be more beautiful than you are,” said Satan.
The snake blinked. “This is a new thing you have said.” She thought for a moment. “How can something be more beautiful than something else? Both things are made by the gods.”
Satan shrugged. “Personal preference, I suppose. I’m sure the gods think everything is as beautiful as everything else. I just find you more beautiful than—say, that rock over there.” Satan pointed to a rock jutting from the muddy earth, crumbling and charred-looking as a burned stick. “It looks as if it tumbled from Heaven, doesn’t it?”
“I don’t feel more beautiful than the rock,” said the snake.
“That is because you are a woman,” said Satan, “and—innocent or not—some things breed true.”
The snake blinked at him.
“Don’t worry,” said Satan. “It’s just a joke. And not a very good one, either.”
“You use words I don’t know,” said the snake. “What is a joke?”
“Just—” Satan waved his arms helplessly. “Something that doesn’t mean anything.”
“Why say it then?”
“Well—rather, something that means only the pleasure of saying it.”
The snake thought this over for a moment, sinking back into her coils. “Sometimes I follow a monkey, quietly, as silently as I can. I try to see how close I can come before he notices I am there. Sometimes I think of catching him in my coils. There is no reason for this that I can see, but it is pleasant to me. Is this what you mean by joke?”
“That seems close enough.”
“So, you follow me with words, telling me things that don’t matter, and aren’t really, because it is pleasant to you?”
Satan smiled. “Hopefully, it’s pleasant to you as well.”
“The sun is pleasant,” said the snake. “I don’t know about words.”
Satan laughed again. He had a warm voice, round and full. “Perhaps words don’t know about you either.”
The snake shook her head and tasted the air. “Know of me? Is this another joke?”
Satan stirred. “Beg pardon?”
“‘Perhaps words don’t know about me’? Can words know? Do words know about you?”
Satan scraped his tongue between his teeth. “No. Words do not know me. I only speak them.”
The snake stuck her tongue at him, tasting the air uncertainly. “You say things I cannot understand. You say only what you are not.”
“I am not more things than I am.”
“That may be. I have never considered what I am not.”
“Why should you? You are beautiful, and beauty—at least, for me—is its own argument.”
The snake turned away at this, and for a minute there was silence. Together they watched a mouse run through the snake’s coils, pick up a small seed from the ground beneath her mighty loops, and run off again.
“What are you then?” asked the snake. “Do you spend your days looking for beauty the way that mouse scampers about to find her food? Is beauty like food?”
“It can be.” Satan sighed and gazed at her as he considered a reply. “I’m not much like a mouse, though.” He rubbed a hand through the hair on his neck. “Do you know the lions with their great curved claws, their heavy coats, their sharp teeth?”
“They are creatures of the far-tree place.” The snake tipped her angled head and regarded him.
“Yes. Have you seen them eat? Snapping at the straw, losing most of it because their teeth are too sharp?” He sighed. “That is what I am, I guess—a lion with teeth too sharp to be satisfied with the food I am given.”
“But how could the gods make a creature that isn’t built for itself?” asked the snake. “Surely that is a very large joke.”
“Yes,” said Satan. “Very large.” He sighed again. His face distorted into a grimace and he returned to rubbing his shoulders.
“What is different?” asked the snake, confused at his expression.
“I’ve been flying a long way, and I’m tired and sore.”
“Tired I know,” said the snake. “One time I went from one end of the tree-place to the other, where the lions are. It was marvelously stretching.” She flickered her tongue at him. “This sore, though—that I don’t know.”
“I can show you, if you like,” said Satan, smiling. “But I have to warn you, you won’t like it.”
The snake hissed with laughter. “You’re full of new words! What is like?”
Satan laughed along. “Let me explain, if I can. Is the far end of the tree-place much different from this end?”
The snake nodded. “Yes, far different. The flowers there are blue, and the trees have no fruit for eating, and there are more grasses. The creatures have long legs and great necks and they run in straight lines, in the way birds fly.”
“So, if you were there, you might wish to be here?”
“Why, I suppose,” said the snake. “But if I wished to be here, I would come here.”
“And so you would,” said Satan. “But say you were trapped there and couldn’t come here?”
“That would be vexing,” said the snake. “Like being caught on a rough tree branch, or in a too-small den under the earth, with all your muscles jumping to move forward?”
“Just so,” said Satan. “But it would be the muscles of your inside that would be straining to move.”
“You say things I’ve never thought of before,” said the snake. She coiled at Satan’s feet and rested her chin on a loop of her mighty spine, looking up at him with her black eyes. “There are muscles below muscles, and so a feeling deeper than feeling?”
“I think so,” said Satan. “At least, it is the case with me. It’s how I know I want to stop and see what is in this place and not in that place. My muscles don’t know it—I know it, without my muscles. I simply like it.”
“This is a very new thing,” said the snake. “I’ve never heard it said before, not even among the birds, and I thought they new everything. And so sore is like being trapped on the far end of the tree-place, unable to return where I like?”
“Perhaps,” said Satan. “A bit.”
“I think I should like to know what sore is, even though it sounds disagreeable,” said the snake. “It seems that it would help me understand the far tree-place, where the creatures speak a quicker language I don’t always understand.”
“If you ask me, then,” said Satan, and reached down and gathered the snake into his arms, the great purple coils draping his arms and shoulders. Grabbing at the snake’s wide body, he gave it a vicious twist with his wrists, turning the smooth skin about on the layers of muscle. The snake snarled in a wide hiss and opened her hood at him, and Satan dropped her hastily.
“That’s sore,” said Satan, climbing back up on his rock and looking wary. “I said you wouldn’t like it.”
“I don’t,” said the snake, her hood still half-raised. “How unpleasant! And, quite the strangest thing, I wanted to bite you for showing it to me!” She nuzzled the offended section of her body. “Does sore make creatures forget what is food and what is not?”
“If you bit me, I would have been very sore indeed,” said Satan. He was balanced on the triangular top of the rock, his wings outstretched for flight. “It might have been the last thing I ever felt.”
“If this is how your wings feel, then I—think it should not be,” said the snake, sounding confused. “Did you know your wings would feel this way if you flew here?”
“At about the seventh day, I knew,” said Satan with a half-smile.
“I do not understand you,” said the snake. She unfolded herself with a little shake, her hood falling loose. “Why would any creature want to feel sore?”
“What if you knew that feeling sore would help you understand beauty?” asked Satan.
“Oh, you make another joke.” The wind swelled slightly and the glossy green leaves billowed out among their trees. “Only the gods know about beauty.”
“That may be.” Satan sounded tired. He eased himself back down upon the rock, sat facing the far-off sun. “But the gods made beauty to be enjoyed, surely.”
The snake nodded, but her eyes were uncertain. “Only the gods know Beauty.”
“Yes, but they created the world for you—and all creatures—to enjoy. And the world is beautiful.”
“Yes. Beauty is its name.”
“Precisely. But sore we do not enjoy. We enjoy beauty, but we do not enjoy sore. We do not like sore. We are not meant to like sore.”
The snake tasted Satan on a passing breeze. “I think I understand.”
Satan touched the snake where he had twisted her. She flinched briefly, but the sore feeling had changed. With his other hand, Satan gestured behind her. “The fruit is very red, isn’t it?”
The snake turned her head to look. “That is what tree-fruit is,” said the snake simply. “It is given us to eat.”
“You eat the fruit?” asked Satan, looking surprised.
“Of course. I eat what all snakes eat: fruit, berries, the seeds of the wide trees.”
“How does the fruit taste?”
“The feeling—in your mouth. Is it like? Is it sore?”
The snake pondered, the only sound the slight, wet flick of her tongue. “It is food—” She hesitated. What has it to do with like? It is not sore . . . .”
“What would it take to make it like?”
A shadow passed over the snake and Satan turned his eyes up. As he watched, an eagle flew by again, its black eyes upon them.
“I think,” said the snake. “I think I wouldlike the fruit, if it were warm, like the sun, here, on my scales.”
“Yes,” said Satan. “I think I feel what you feel.”
“And I feel more for you, half-bat. It is as if you are more of a snake, now that I know sore. Perhaps I like you. Is that very strange?”
Satan laughed softly. “No. It is the most natural thing in the world.” Hs stroked the heavy rounded scales between her eyes with a long finger. “Do you understand the far tree-place better, too?”
The snake shook her head. “There are not many snakes there. The creatures have great hooves of stone and we let them roam the flatter lands alone. There is room enough in the trees and in the smaller grasses.”
“Yes. The garden is large. There is a place for almost everyone.” Satan’s gaze lingered on the horizon. “Tell me—if you were to build your own garden, what would be there?”
“Is this a joke?” asked the snake, winding around Satan’s arms so that she could rest on his shoulder and look into his eyes. “No, I see it is not a joke, though you talk about something that may be and yet isn’t. My own snake garden, is that it?”
“If you like. Everything for you.”
“Why would I think of another place when this place has everything there is? But I see your mind likes to see things that are beyond what is really there. Does that come from flying above the earth?”
“That might be,” said Satan. “Sometimes I fly too high, or too far.”
“Then you should be careful not to be too sore,” laughed the snake. “But if I were to make a snake garden, then the snakes would also fly, so they could see the things the birds see.” The snake’s head slid into the hollow of Satan’s throat, lay heavily near his heart.
“Do you want to fly?”
“There is another word, want,” said the snake. “Does want mean a stretching of the inner muscles?”
“Yes. I think so.”
“Then yes, I want it,” said the snake, unwinding herself to loop back and around Satan’s shoulders. “I would like to see the far tree-place and this tree-place all on the same day, and have the eagle’s sharp eyes to see the smallest creatures under the trees. But it cannot be, since I have no wings, so it is a joke and nothing more to think of it.” The snake hissed merrily. “How pleasant, to think of a snake with wings!”
Satan laughed. “It’s strange that the gods did not think of it.”
The snake regarded him, her black eyes sharp. “But the gods thought of everything, they say.”
“And yet—” Satan said with a wink— “they never thought of a snake with wings, for surely they would have wanted to create such a very pleasant thing.”
The snake laughed. “I see now that you’re trying to trap me in my own words, like clever briars. But still, the thought of a snake with wings is a more pleasant thing to me than anything I have ever seen in the real world.” The snake sighed, and felt the edges of Satan’s shoulders beneath her belly. “Is this what is meant by beauty?”
“You would be very beautiful with wings,” said Satan. “Great purple wings, dripping with warm feathers and long, strong pinions to ride the swelling wings with.” His hands ran along the snake’s spine as would around his torso and legs. When they passed along the spot he had made sore, she noticed that the feeling was new.
“You say such very pleasant things,” said the snake. “I very much like listening to you. I would rather be here with you than anywhere else in the tree-place.”
Satan smiled. “It has been a long, long time since that was said to me.” Cupping the snake’s head in his hands, he said, “I think I become a little more snake, as well.”
The snake tasted his nose with her tongue. It smelled of something warm and sharp.
“Your smell reminds me of sore, but makes me feel like,” she said. “How is it that you make me feel things as quickly as you give me the words for them?”
Satan shrugged. “Perhaps the feelings were always there, and you just needed the words for them.”
“And you will tell me more words?”
Satan smiled. “I’m afraid I haven’t the time. I was just resting my wings.” He turned his neck to rest his cheek on her scales. “I am going to build my own garden, and I wanted to see what beauty was here first.”
“Your own garden? For half-bats?” asked the snake, rising to look at him, nose to nose.
Satan nodded. “For whatever ones will want to be there.”
“I see now that want is another word for sore,” she said. “You will not be here, and I want you to be here. That makes my inner muscles feel like sore.” She thought for a moment, her tongue flicking in and out. “I do not like this sore. It makes me want to bite you in your inner muscles.”
“I’m sorry you’re sore,” said Satan.
“What is sorry?” The snake untwisted herself from Satan and pooled on the rock beside him, watching him earnestly.
“Another word for sore, I suppose,” said Satan. “My inner muscles are sore because yours are.”
“So much sore! Can there be an end to it?”
“I hope not,” said Satan quietly. Leaning forward, he tasted the snake’s head with his tongue, and blessed her. “Little snake, I must leave you—but I do hope we’ll meet again.”
“What is hope?” asked the snake, but at that moment the wind came up and Satan spread his wings and leapt into it, laughing.
“Hope is marvelously stretching!” he called, and then with a “Goodbye, no-legs!” he sped across the sky, his great, sore wings pulling at the air.
The snake sat on the rock for a long time, watching where Satan had flapped away to his new garden.
It was not until long after that she noticed that another creature had wandered into the clearing—another two-legged one, like the half-bat, though without his great wings, and smelling of female. The snake regarded the creature evenly. The creature stood awkwardly but purposefully, her head to one side, her gaze gently scrutinizing the tree the snake had so recently hung from. With one finger, she stroked a dark red fruit and watched it swing slowly from its branch.
The snake saw something she had never seen before. “You are very beautiful,” she said.
Eve turned to face the snake, startled. “How can you know what beauty is?” she said, ducking her head with a slight blush. “Only the gods know that.”
In the beginning, there was he.
He plucked his rib and gave us she.
She plucked the fruit the snake recommended;
and thus all peace on earth was ended.
Now wars and trials crimp the mirth
of all the hes and shes of earth.
Yet not one of the hes suggest
to keep his rib inside his chest.
In sorrow shalt thou bring forth children. Right.
It’s not your fault, and I will here resolve
to not blame you for blasphemy and blight
and mindless war and problems to be solved
by children we’ll give birth to. (Ouch.) Unwise
misogynistic God did this, and sex
could have been fun without! but thirty Y’s,
who never can tell what to do with X,
prefer me to unsquirming here remain,
their masculine embarrassment respect.
(I have not seen you till the earth in pain,
so why must ours be socially suspect?)
If hearing me speak of the Feminine Mistake
makes you uncomfortable—well. Try to ovulate.
The angel was having a hard time explaining the concept of a year to Adam & Eve. Having lived so long in a place with no time, the idea of things changing with the passage of what? What do you mean passage? was as foreign a concept as death or childbirth or burnt sacrifice, concepts the angel had tried to explain on earlier occasions. He sighed and looked heavenward, but he knew that they were his problem—at least for the moment.
“Okay, it’s like this: right now I’m saying lalala. Now I’m not. Time has passed.”
Adam & Eve looked at each other. “Uh-huh.”
“Do you understand?”
“Sure . . . .”
“Look, now I’m here with you. Soon I won’t be.”
The angel sighed. It had been much easier before they ate the fruit. Back then he’d only had to check up on them, make sure they weren’t choking on bark or anything. Easy. So far the only advantage to come of the fruit that he could see was that they could finally have a conversation without an accidental bump leading to a groping session. The modesty thing was wonderful.
“Okay,” said Adam, “so when you say lalala, that’s now; when you’re not here that’s soon. Got it. But when is a year again?”
Sort of have a conversation.
“No, no, no. ‘Now’ is whatever we’re doing right . . . now.”
“So now is just so long as you’re doing something? What’s when you’re not doing something?”
“That’s soon,” Eve reminded him.
The angel uttered a brief prayer. “Look. Now is what is happening while it is happening.”
“But it’s always now then, because things always happen when they happen.”
The angel wasn’t sure whether or not this meant she understood. He decided to be optimistic. “Right. It is always now.”
“So when you said what you said, that is now.”
“That was now.”
“But you did it when you were doing it!”
“Yes, but I’m not doing it now.”
“But it was now.”
“Right, it was, but it isn’t anymore.”
Eve looked to Adam for help, but he just shrugged.
“Let’s try year again,” offered the angel. “Now I’m here, later I won’t be, later yet I will be again.” He paused to let them consider that. “Either I’m here or I’m not. As I come and leave, time passes. After, say, a hundred times, that might be a year.”
“Hundred . . . ” said Adam.
“Ten tens,” said Eve.
Hundred had been hopeless until the angel had hit on the ten tens explanation, and once that clicked they were able to grasp the idea of larger numbers with ease. The angel had, however, given up on zero.
“So,” said Adam. “A year is a hundred times all together. A time is you coming and going. So, as you come and go, times pass. After a hundred, that’s a year.”
“And,” said Eve, “when you’re here is now and when you’re gone is later. So each time is made up of one now and one later.”
Adam & Eve looked very satisfied with themselves, and their construct could be useful in explaining the passage of time, and the counting of days and months and years, but it was still wrong. “Well,” he said, “not exactly, but close. We’ll fix it later. Now let’s talk about counting time.”
“Like the rocks?”
“Basically. We’ll use the same numbers, but, of course, you can’t see time.”
“Yes you can,” said Eve. “Either you’re here or you’re not. We can see that.”
“Right. You can . . . Okay, look. Let’s call now zer—one time.”
“But we know it’s now. You’re right there.”
“Just listen, all right? It’s one time. Then I leave.”
“Sure, later, whatever. Then I come back and that’s two times.”
Adam & Eve nodded, but the angel knew from experience that of itself, nodding meant nothing.
“So if at two times I say, ‘Look, at ten times it’ll stop raining for five times, so you need to gather water to drink,’ what would that mean?”
Eve raised a hand. “Why would you tell us at two times? Why not at nine times?”
“That might not give you enough time—times—to get all the water.”
“Well, just don’t come back till we have it. You can see us.”
Again, the angel wasn’t sure whether to call this progress.
“See, that’s the difference between me and real time. Real time goes on and on at the same speed no matter what I do or you do or anyone does.”
“I . . . don’t know.”
Eve looked smug.
“Anyway, take the sun. No, the moon! That’s better. You’ve noticed it’s getting larger?”
“Yes, ‘the lesser light to rule the night.’”
“Right. Well, after a while it gets smaller again. And it does that getting larger and smaller the same speed all the time. So! From the time it goes from big to small and then all the way back to big again, that’s a time. Er, a month. We call that . . . that kind of time a month.”
Eve nodded. “So when the moon’s getting big, that’s now, and when it’s getting small, that’s later?”
“Wait,” said Adam, “why did you go on and on about you coming and going if you aren’t time? What’s it called when you come and go then?”
“Me coming and going.”
“I don’t get it.”
“I do,” said Eve, “Now and later aren’t time at all, see? Now just means to be coming and later is what it is to be going.”
The angel sighed. How could they be so clever at figuring things out so wrong? “Please pay attention. You really need to understand what a year is, because in a few months it’s going to get cold.”
“Cold is . . . never mind about cold. Just know it’s something bad. And everything’s going to get it.”
Adam frowned. “Get what?”
“But if cold’s bad,” said Eve, “we just won’t let it happen. God put us in charge here.”
“No, no, no.” The angel pushed the heels of his hands into his eyes. “Cold’s not bad like sin, I just mean you won’t like it. Like when you dropped that rock on your hand, Adam. The rock wasn’t evil. Cold’s like that—it’s not evil, it just happens.”
“Not if I’d known to move my hand first.”
“You didn’t know,” consoled Eve. “But now we know about cold, so we don’t have to let it fall.” She turned back to the angel: “How do we keep it up?”
“Keep it up? The cold? You can’t!” He pointed at the sun. “You see that? You see that sun? It’s going to get farther away! You know what it’s like to sit in the sun? Well, when that feeling’s gone, that’s—”
“Later,” said Eve.
The angel nodded. “I’ll be back . . . soon.”
“Later,” corrected Eve.
“Right. Later. I’ll be back later. I just need to go . . . think for a while.”
Adam & Eve watched the angel ascend, then sat down next to their altar.
And wondered how long till two times.
“Father,” said the boy, grasping Abraham’s shoulder. “Wake up. The sun has risen and I see the mountain in the distance. We’re here—we’re in Moriah!”
Sharp pains stabbed at Abraham’s back as he sat up. He was too old for this. They had been travelling for two days and had not stopped to set up camp last night until late, too dark to see how far they’d come. He had neither the strength nor the heart to go on. The boy’s enthusiasm only made it worse.
Isaac grinned. “Come, Father, it’s not far. We’ll get there by noon if we leave now.”
The men had already prepared breakfast, but Abraham didn’t eat. He feared he wouldn’t manage to keep anything down. While Isaac ate, Abraham gathered wood for the burnt offering. He laid a pile of faggots atop two small logs and tied two cords around the bunch. One of the servants began to ready the donkey, but Abraham stopped him. “Abide ye here with the ass; the boy and I will go yonder and worship, and come again to you.”
“Just you and—” Isaac grunted as he strained to lift the pile of wood. “—you and I?”
“No,” said Abraham. “Never just you and I, Isaac. You and I and the Lord.” He turned away to hide the quivering of his bottom lip. Please, Lord, Abraham thought as he lit a torch in the campfire, please let it be so. He slid the sacrificial knife under his belt and they were off, Isaac bouncing at his side despite the heavy load of wood.
“Father?” said Isaac after they had walked a ways.
“Here I am, son.”
“You have the fire, and I have the wood, but where is the lamb?”
“My son,” Abraham said, “God will provide the lamb.”
Three hours later, Isaac lay on a slab of stone, a log along each side of his torso, as Abraham tied the boy’s hands and feet down with the twine that had held the wood. The boy did not struggle; he only looked up at his father, his eyes filled with tears and questions. “Father,” he said, “I don’t understand. What’s happening? Why are we doing this?”
Abraham did not speak, did not look at the boy. He focused only on tying the knots. Please forgive my weakness, Lord. Forgive my fear and my doubt.
Please give me strength.
He lay the knife against the boy’s neck and cut.
When it was done, Abraham knelt before the burnt body and wept into blood-stained hands.
“Father,” said the boy, grasping Abraham’s shoulder, “wake up. The sun has risen and I see the mountain in the distance. We’re here—we’re in Moriah!”
Sharp pains stabbed at Abraham’s back as he sat up. He was too—
“Isaac?” Abraham wrapped his arms around the boy and squeezed. “Isaac!”
Isaac pulled back, his cheeks flushed red. He smiled sheepishly. “Good morning, Father. I just wanted to tell you that it’s not far at all. We can get there by noon if we leave now.”
“Leave?” Abraham covered his mouth and turned away as he realized what morning it was, what he must do.
Three and a half hours later the boy cried as Abraham fastened twine around his wrists. Please, Lord, Abraham thought, please give me strength.
He placed the knife against his son’s neck and cut.
“Father,” said the boy, grasping Abraham’s shoulder, “wake up. The sun has risen and I see the mountain in the distance. We’re here—we’re in Moriah!”
Abraham stared at the roof of the tent. How many times will you require this of me?
Four hours later, he placed the knife against his son’s neck and cut.
“Father,” Isaac said on the fifth journey to the mountain, “you have the fire, and I have the wood, but where is the lamb?”
Abraham did not answer.
“Father,” Isaac said on the eighth—no, the ninth—journey to the mountain, “you have the fire, and I have the wood, but where is the lamb?”
“You, my precious son, are the purest lamb there could ever be.”
Isaac did not understand what his father meant until he lay on the stone, his hands and feet strapped down.
“Father,” Isaac said on the tenth—Abraham was sure it was the tenth—day, “you have the fire, and I have the wood, but where is the lamb?”
“My son, you are the lamb.”
Isaac frowned. “What do you mean?”
“There is no lamb. The Lord has commanded me to sacrifice you. Do you understand?”
Isaac nodded as tears welled up in his eyes. He went willingly, but didn’t stop crying until Abraham had completed the horrible task. His sobs echoed on even as his lifeless body burned, then through the long journey back to the camp and late into the night while Abraham stared with defeated eyes into the last burning embers of the campfire.
“Father,” Isaac began on the eleventh day, but Abraham shushed him.
“No questions, boy.”
Please, Lord, don’t make me do this.
I beg of you, release me from this hell.
Please, not again.
Abraham had lost track of how many times he’d relived this day. It felt like months, perhaps a year. He was not sure which he dreaded more—waking up the next morning to kill Isaac yet again, or waking up the next morning to find his son was truly gone.
Abraham wept beside his son’s burning corpse and cursed God. He knew, though, that he would continue to obey as long as it was required of him. There was no other choice.
Why do you still test me, Lord? Haven’t I proven my loyalty a hundred times over?
Isaac walked beside his father, humming a tune his mother often sang.
Is this why you blessed me in my old age, only to see if I would destroy that blessing in your name?
Abraham remembered life before this hell only as a dream. He began to wonder if he had really been commanded to sacrifice his son. Had it been the Lord speaking to him, or had he imagined it?
Surely it was the Lord.
But had the Lord really meant for him to kill his son over and over like this? Perhaps God had required it of him only once, and now the abomination was on Abraham’s bloody hands.
Abraham held the knife over his weeping son and begged the Lord to release him. Please, no more. Send me a sign. An angel, a bird, anything to tell me I can stop.
There was no sign.
Once again, Abraham lifted his knife and tried to ignore the fear in his son’s eyes.
The knife trembled.
“I’m sorry, son. There is no other way. We must obey the Lord. We—we must—” No.
I will not.
Abraham lowered the knife to his son’s wrist and cut the twine. Above Isaac’s grateful sobs he heard a rustling in the bush.
Three days later, Abraham arrived home with Isaac and the servants.
Sarah sat in her tent, red-eyed and pale. She refused to look at him. “Did—did you do it? Is my son dead?”
Abraham smiled for the first time in what seemed like years. “No, my love. The Lord provided a ram, caught in a thicket by his horns, in Isaac’s stead.”
Outside, Isaac chatted excitedly with the servants’ sons about the adventure he’d had. His laughter was justification enough.
My father, his shoulder touching mine,
reaches into the black coiled innards of my golden, crouching car.
With darkened doctor fingers he traces
the corrugated lines of gasoline umbilicals,
the flat bright bones of car metal,
the delicate electric tendons
branching from the asthmatic engine. His voice
thrums like the aching roar above, calls out
his litany, his grimmerie, of broken valves.
Under the heavy tutelage of his godly tone, I find
my car’s rancid heart, wrapped in its clots
of oilsweat and grime.
I twist. Oil rains down
on head and breast and loins, while my father,
sudden high priest, speaks his blessing.
I bite, again, my cross-scarred tongue,
and hear, heart-hear,
unchilled by pain or fright
the nature of my all-too-lambent
but not too late, birthright.
Brother Esau, I can tell you now
no angel has a sense of humor;
just a light-licked sense of small
roses unfurling from toothlike buds,
lizards skittering clawfirst over baking stone.
At this, he may smile, as at a toddler’s stuttering words.
You will not doubt my chin curled around his holy bicep
and felt at home, so often had it locked
around your red and hairy muscle
as a child, as a youth, as a frightened and furious man.
Strength was, I always thought, your true and unpurchaseable birthright.
You would not
have buckled in the searing hasp
the glare with human hands
the body and bone of light.
You would not have unraveled in the joints and limbs
when his knowing fingers stroked your iron thigh.
But I was ever, ever the sham of you; and my only hope a wriggling slide away.
Of me, our father might have said once Truth leaves no handhold for conniving fingers.
To which I add this wisdom: When they wrestle
angels do not laugh
the frightening, familiar
well-loved laugh of my brother Esau.
The roadways are muddy,
the water is bloody,
the landmarks half-started,
the pharaoh hard-hearted,
the cows have disease
and the people have fleas
—and lice in their hair—
there’s frogs everywhere,
the rain is alight,
people die in the night.
So, if in your vacation,
you long for elation,
before viewing the Nile.
And so it was that God gave us Aaron
for Moses was slow of speech
and didn’t look right in a business suit,
for we yanked on his bulrush-bred beard
and mocked him,
mocked him, the man who would that we might meet God,
lab-coated, sulfury-smelling and steaming-mad down from Mount Sinai.
The master of the shape-shifting serpent pen—
rejected, returned the manila envelope,
advised to apply at the library.
And so it was that God gave his genius to Aaron,
the great dilutor, p.r. man of the Pentateuch,
to trim that burning bush into topiary
and punch-up the prose with a little sports metaphor,
and a little golden calf.
And so it was that we came to prefer the spokesman
while the prophet was buried in an unmarked grave
and was not permitted into our Promised Land,
where we would burn the fat of rams
and would ask God for a king.
Oh, women cannot handle tools,
says chauvinistic grammar
forgetting all about Heber’s wife
and how she used a hammer.
Goliath’s mother loved him.
Goliath’s mother cared.
When Goliath went to Israel,
she wondered how he fared.
She worried he was hungry,
or getting bitter-browed.
She wished he were not far away.
He really made her proud.
So, when you talk of David’s faith,
how he was always true—
remember, please, Goliath’s mom,
and that she loved him too.
He comes doubting
after the dreams
and the prophets,
after the silence.
He comes doubting
will you fail me?
He comes doubting
will you wake me??
He comes doubting
out of the earth.
Hello? Yes, hello? No—I’m sorry:
I’m afraid Mr. Baal is not here.
An emergency? From where are you calling?
Out near Mt. Carmel? Well, I fear
Mr. Baal is engaged and he can’t get away
from all of his business at hand.
It’s a lot of work—well, you try being
the recognized god of the land.
What’s that? Come again? I can’t hear you.
You say you’ve constructed a pyre
and you’re hoping that Baal will light it
with some of his patented fire?
Well, to process your order you’ll need first
a pyrotechnician’s permission.
One second, I’ll transfer your call to
our fireball service division.
You don’t want the transfer, you tell me?
It’s Baal himself, or else naught?
Honey, believe me, a transfer
is all of the help that I’ve got.
I’m not going to break up Baal’s meeting
to ask for a measly eruption.
You don’t know, as I do, what he does
to the ones who create interruption.
Don’t scream at me. Carmel’s your problem;
Mr. Baal can’t be used as a shield.
We don’t have time or the money to float
representatives out in the field.
But there’s competition there in your city
who can deliver them fire, you say?
Well, perhaps you should use their suppliers
and not bother me with your whining. Good day!
Astronomy reminds us how in each and every day
One thousand, four hundred forty little minutes pass away.
And yet, I have o’er fifteen hundred wives under the sun—
that leaves me only seconds to see each and every one!
All day they walk before me in a strict and single file
They say “Hello” and then “Goodbye” while smiling all the while.
They all are sweet and beautiful, exotic, warm, and fun—
but oh, I wish I had more time to spend with only one!
The finale comes so bright
we stop seeing, awed
by the clap and thud,
by the thudding clap,
the thud that shakes
you past your shoes,
that shakes your shoulders
searching for your wings
for your wingblades.
I gave you my wings—
I gave you my wings to keep
until the finale ends.
It is not so much
that you are cradling your face
in your fists, your forearms
swelling out of split sleeves
like indecent thighs,
not so much
your cleft-chin grin,
nor even yet
your eyes as still as ice
on the pond, wrinkled at the corners
and shielded by twin sheets of Plexiglass—
but a single hoop of whitened gold
that scratches a holy fingernail
on the wall of my heart:
mene mene teke upharsin
The princes didn’t like Daniel.
No, they didn’t like him a lot.
That’s why all his friends with the strange-sounding names
were thrown in the furnace, so hot.
They needed a way to destroy him.
They wanted something that would stick.
So they got the poor king to declare himself God.
They thought that just might do the trick.
Daniel, you see, was a good man.
It wasn’t the king that he feared.
(He mostly just thought it was odd to be praying
to a man who had just permed his beard.)
So the princes accused him of treason.
They complained to the king—oh, and how!
So the king, having no better option,
decreed Daniel was now lion chow.
So, Daniel went in to the lions,
who hadn’t been fed for a week.
That would have been curtains for Daniel
if an angel was not there to speak.
So, the story, it ended up happy.
To the lions the princes were threw—
but whom did they pray to when the den doors were closed?
I don’t really know.
Jonah’s brother Abiezer got a pet herring for his seventh birthday. They named it Tiglathpilasser. His brother kept it in a pot on the floor between their sleeping mats and fed it grass, ants, horseradish, leaven, and, of course, dirt. Naturally, it committed suicide within a few weeks.
It was a rather shallow pot for a herring to live in but Tiglathpilasser was usually so undernourished that, from his fishy perspective, the possibility of jumping out barely existed. He resorted to that only when all the other methods by which a captive may traditionally resist its captors—political fasting, refusing to speak, occasionally playing dead—had failed.
Jonah was sleeping on his side, facing the herring pot, mouth open, drooling just a little. Tiglathpilasser, who had been shocked by the scorched, airless void in which he discovered himself, wriggled forward in relief upon discovering this open refuge of damp.
Jonah swallowed, awoke for an uncomfortable moment, squirmed over onto his other side, and was asleep again before he knew he had been awake. The muddy water in the vacant pot moved back and forth in silent, miniature waves. In the morning, Abiezer cried.
The herring lived for three more days. They never figured out what had happened to it.
Abiezer was brilliant. It was well-known. He was forever in the back room, hunched over their father’s Torah, muttering to himself. He fasted a lot, and was always having intense conversations with the scribes from Capharabis. The town elders of Meded-shobai loved him. The girls of Meded-shobai preferred Jonah.
Jonah was barely literate, but he was a good-looking kid. This was what his father told the elders every time he did something wayward: “Well, he’s no genius, but he’s a good-looking kid.” Jonah himself was fairly certain that there was something amiss in his father’s logic, but generally didn’t say so.
He was good at camel racing. Also stoning people. Not that he had ever actually stoned anything except a stray goat that he and Giloh, the son of a fishmonger across town, found wandering through the town square when he was fourteen. Gil had decided that it was probably an adulteress goat, and should be punished. They tied it up to a boulder behind Jonah’s house; it keeled over with only a few good shots to the head.
“What was all that noise?” Abiezer asked when they came in after the goat was dead.
“We were stoning a goat,” Gil said frankly.
Abiezer’s eyes waxed very large. “You stoned a goat? What goat?”
“Just one we found.” Jonah hung over Abiezer’s shoulder and peered at the tiny characters. “Whatcha reading?”
“Do you know the punishment for slaying a goat not for food or sacrifice? Or for stealing a goat? Or for slaying your neighbor’s goat? You’ll be—”
“I suppose,” Jonah said doubtfully, still staring at the scroll, “we could go and bury it. What is this about locusts?”
Abiezer snapped the scroll closed and favored him with a disapproving expression. The adulteress goat subsequently became an Assyrian queen, and they gave her a sumptuous funeral, well outside of Meded-shobai. Gil dug the hole and Jonah wrapped the poor beast in a sackcloth and pushed it in. They both beat their chests and wailed.
“Are you going to tell?” Jonah asked Abiezer that night as they lay in bed. His brother was itching to notify the authorities, Jonah knew.
“I don’t know,” Abiezer said stiffly.
He never did tell. Jonah concluded that this meant the fraternal consciousness in his heart just slightly outweighed his sensible knowledge of good and evil, and was a little nicer to him after.
Abiezer talked to God a lot. One day, God talked back.
“I’m going to Nineveh,” Abiezer announced that night at dinner. It was a few years after the goat incident.
His mother dropped her spoon with a clatter. “You are not,” she said.
Abiezer tried to look defiant. The effect was distasteful. Jonah thought he looked constipated. “Can I come too?” he asked.
“Nineveh is a city of sin, and the Assyrians have set at naught the will of the Lord,” their mother continued calmly, ignoring her younger son. “What do you propose to do there?”
“Nineveh needs a prophet,” said Abiezer very piously, “and I think it is to be I.” Abiezer always spoke in very proper Hebrew.
“They’d kill you just for being Israelite.”
“Then they can kill me.” Abiezer’s spoon, too tightly held, rattled a little against the table.
“I don’t want to go to Nineveh, really,” Jonah explained, “I want to go to Tarshish. The Frenklian-Kuhve International Camel Cup finals are being held there this year.”
“They’re not really in the same direction,” their mother said. “When Nineveh grows up and stops whoring, Nineveh can have a prophet. And even then, who says it should be you? God?”
“Well,” Abiezer said. “Well. I don’t know. I mean—God? It wasn’t God. It was—well. It was a significant . . .”
Their mother looked at him, waiting.
“. . . kind of a feeling,” Abiezer finished at last, his voice sharp and low.
“Maybe you should be the prophet to Tarshish,” Jonah suggested.
“You are not going to Nineveh,” their mother said firmly, “until God sends your mother a significant feeling, too.”
“All right,” Abiezer said.
Jonah thought the ex-prophet looked a little relieved.
“Go to Nineveh,” said the voice in Jonah’s head.
“Don’t you mean Tarshish?” Jonah muttered sleepily. He had been dreaming about camel racing.
“Nineveh,” the voice repeated.
“Abiezer?” Jonah whispered. “Ab, no one’s going to Nineveh. Do you want to go to—”
“Abiezer who would have been my servant has denied my voice,” the voice in his head told him. “Go to Nineveh and call my children back to me.”
“You have children in Nineveh?” Jonah said aloud.
“My children in Nineveh will forever endure the torments of hell and the desolation of severance from their God, because they will not hear my voice.”
Jonah sighed and forced himself into real consciousness. “I thought the children of Israel were your children.”
“I have many children.”
“Yeah, many Israelite children.”
“There’re twelve tribes of us!”
There was no response. Jonah groaned and struggled to his feed. “Okay,” he said, pulling his ketonet over his head, “but you know, I’ve never even read the Torah. I mean, I know the parts that Abiezer quotes a lot, but—”
“You will have my word and my voice. It will be enough.”
“Yeah, but Abiezer knows all about abominations and plagues of locusts, too. Are you sure I wouldn’t make a better prophet to Tarshish?”
The silence in his head as he finished dressing and slipped out of the house was deafening.
He arrived at the port at Joppa six days later. “You know,” he said under his breath, “I don’t really have the money for this.” He had taken what little money he thought he could get away with from the spare honey jar in the storeroom, and had sold his shoes to a tired merchant outside of Gezer just to feed himself on the journey. He had nothing left to sell and resisted the idea of stealing, since he didn’t want to go the way of the adulteress goat.
“Any suggestions?” he asked the blue sky above.
There was no response. He stood leaning against the railing on a platform raised up from the dock. Three large wooden vessels, one of which was to go up to the port of Nineveh in only two days, swayed on the water, dark and gold-rimmed in the late afternoon light. Passage on it would cost fifteen shekels, at least.
“Any time,” Jonah said. “Any time at all. I’m just—ya know. Just waiting. On you. Yeah.” His voice raised a little in volume. Two scribes walking near him squinted at him distastefully and adjusted their direction.
Half an hour later, his scowl had deepened considerably. A passing mother whispered to her children that that was what they would look like permanently if they didn’t stop making faces at each other. The sun was setting and the dock was clearing. At last, Jonah straightened up and away from the rail. He charged off toward the town, torn between fury that God had picked him up from his nice warm bed and dropped him in Joppa without a shoe to stand on, so to speak; and shame that he, a second-rate prophet who had never read the Torah or stoned a real sinner, couldn’t figure out what to do next. It was a little comforting that he couldn’t imagine Abiezer doing any better, no matter how much Torah he had read.
“Bet on tomorrow’s race?” a large man with a northish accent called out to him from a doorway near the road. He was leaning lazily against the frame, swinging a small leather bag that Jonah assumed to be heavy with coin.
Jonah snorted. “Bet what? My hair?”
The man shrugged. “Just asking. You’re a good-looking kid.”
“What race is it?”
“South Gaza Finals. The top three go to Frenklian-Kuhve in Tarshish.”
Jonah could hardly contain himself. “Camel racing?”
“What else?” The man gave the bag a little toss and caught it in his other hand. “You follow camel sport?”
“Oh, I’ve been camel racing since I was old enough to do it,” Jonah breathed. “Is it too late to enter?”
The man gave a short, harsh laugh. “You want to race? Zabeh the Midianite is racing tomorrow. He’s won every race this side of Shechem for the last six years. Zalmuna of Midian is racing. Obil the Ishmaelite.”
Jonah dismissed the names with a wave. “Obil’s never even placed at Frenklian-Kuhve.”
The Northerner shrugged. “You can put your name in at the west gate. But you’ll never come near the Amalekites. Their camels are without number.”
Jonah could beat any of the boys in Meded-shobai, on any camel. The girls he wasn’t sure about, because he had seen some of them take their camels at a pretty good clip, but the elders said that the Torah forbade girls from camel racing. Fortunately, there would be no girls, Jew or Gentile, racing in Joppa.
He sat astride his borrowed camel uneasily, waiting for the start of the race. Zabah the Midianite was only two camels down from him, looking menacing. Obil, at the far end of the row, had fallen off once already, but seemed to be sitting his rather brittle mount more comfortably since his harnesser had kicked it.
“And— L’khu! They’re off!”
His camel took to the course almost without him having to tell it to. Within seconds he was well ahead of everyone but Zabah, whose camel’s nose stayed consistently near his camel’s shoulder through the whole race, and the largest of the Amalekites, whom he could hear swearing a few feet behind him. Once it got started, the race was almost boring. He crossed the finish line in a storm of dust and camel sweat.
The cheers of the Joppa crowd and the continued profanity of the very large Amalekite were entirely drowned out by a placid line of thought which seemed, to him, almost smug. “It is conceivable,” the voice said, “that my prophet have more than my word and my voice at his disposal.”
“Jonah son of Amitai of Meded-shobai is twenty shekels richer!” the chief arbitrator bellowed to the crowd, “plus free passage on a ship leaving for Tarshish today!”
“Don’t you think you’ve double-booked me?” Jonah growled under his breath.
He lingered at the dock, watching sailors and passengers boarding the Tarshish-bound ship and the third, headed for Zaraphath. Zabah the Midianite walked by and slapped him on the back. “Coming boy?” he called. “The ship leaves in twenty minutes. I’m looking forward to seeing you on the course in Tarshish.”
“Right with you,” Jonah said, leaping after him.
“You are not going to Tarshish,” came the response.
“You sound like my mother,” Jonah said.
“Excuse me?” Zabah slowed down and turned to stare at Jonah.
“Oh—not you. I’m just—you know — talking.”
Zabah looked uneasy. “Um . . . anyway . . . you raced well, young one. I look forward to meeting you again in Tarshish.”
“You don’t listen to your mother either.”
“Look, it’s not like Nineveh is going anywhere,” Jonah hissed.
“Is everything all right?” Zabah asked.
“Oh yes, I’m just—you know—practicing. A speech.”
“For what?” Zabah was staring. “I mean, you’re really good and all, but—don’t you think it’s a little arrogant, maybe, having a victory speech ready? Already?”
“I’m warning you.”
“Oh, get off,” Jonah almost shouted.
“Okay,” Zabah said. “Okay.”
The first three days on the way to Tarshish were beautiful. The sun played in a sky ornamented with the most delicate of cirrus clouds, and the water was a fortune in blues, purples, and greens, shot with gold where the light tumbled into it. Zabah lounged on the starboard deck, in a chair which he had specially constructed to recline and fold back up, sipped olive wine, and composed chiastic poetry to his favorite harlot back in Midian. The Amalekite who had come in third sat in his cabin sulking because he had lost to a crazy Israelite. Jonah paced the deck, distracted, usually in the way of the ship’s crew. Fortunately Zabah, with the very best of intentions, had inquired about a bit as to whether the Israelite camel champion might not be a bit insane, and so word was had around the ship that he was crazy.
When Jonah had said to get off, it appeared that the voice had taken him at his word, and stayed behind in Joppa. “I’m sorry,” he growled into the silence. “Look, as soon as I get to Tarshish, I swear, I won’t even race, I’ll turn right back around, I’ll swim to Nineveh if I have to.” His head stayed quiet.
“I don’t know,” Zabah told the sailors. “I’ve heard some strange things about the interior of Judaea. But still, he’s a phenomenal camel racer.”
“I know, I didn’t even win that race, you won that race, I’m sorry!”
“You’re no better than Abiezer,” a voice in his head told him, but it was only his own mind. He didn’t know how he knew the difference. His own thoughts were oranger, somehow. The other thoughts came in darker, and blue.
“There may be something in the water there,” Zabah had said. “But he’s a good-looking kid.”
“Damn nutty Israelites,” the Amalekite said.
“I’ll go to Nineveh right now, just give me a way!” Jonah shouted to the ceiling of his cabin on the night of the third day, and promptly fell asleep.
The storm came up from nowhere. Zabah was nearly thrown off his chair by the wind and the Amalekite spilled ink on the angry epistle he was writing to the camel-racing commission. The ship rose high on a sudden swell of water. The rain came slamming down on deck like wheat dumped from a sack. Sailors swarmed and bounded from all corners to tie down the sails and bail water off the side. Zabah, in a hurried retreat below deck, chair in hand, heard them crying every man to his god, and went to find Jonah.
“Hey Jonah,” he said. “Sleepy boy. Jonah!”
Jonah woke with a start. “What? I won’t go to Tarshish!”
Zabah took his shoulder and shook him a little. “Is it your god you’re always talking to?”
“You talk all the time, to no one. Are you talking to your god?”
Jonah shook his head. “God doesn’t talk back,” he said sadly. “I didn’t go to Nineveh.”
Zabah took a step back. “Your god is angry with you?”
“My God has left me,” Jonah said. “Or I left him.”
“Well, I think he’s back,” Zabah said.
Jonah took in the violent tossing of the room for the first time. “There’s a storm?”
“You might say that.”
A sailor burst into the room. “You!” He launched an accusing finger at Jonah. “Who are you?”
“Jonah son of Amittai,” Jonah said. “I am a camel racer.” He shook his head. “No, I am a Hebrew, and I fear the Hebrew God, who made the earth and the sea.”
“You’re fleeing the god that made the earth and sea,” Zabah pointed out.
“You’re fleeing your God? You’re bringing us to destruction!” the sailor shouted. “We cast lots, and it fell on you! Come on deck, both of you.” He wrapped a burly hand around Jonah’s wrist, lest he try to resist.
“How could the lot fall on me if I wasn’t there to draw one?”
The sailor shrugged. “That Amalekite camel racer stood in for you.”
“Convenient,” Jonah muttered.
“My will may be done even through an unreliable man of Amalek,” the voice said.
On deck, the sailors were busily heaving various barrels and chests overboard. The ship’s captain saw them emerge and ran over to gram the arm that Jonah’s first captor was holding. “What do we do?” he shouted against the wind.
“It seems the Hebrew god is angry,” Zabah told him.
“So how do we calm him down?” The captain was staring around wildly. “I mean—what do you Israelites do, child sacrifice?”
“No!” Jonah snapped. “Eeeeewwww. Strictly pure animals.”
The sailor who had apprehended Jonah below deck had noticed the chair Zabah was still carrying. “This is going to have to do,” he said, taking hold of it.
“Don’t!” Jonah put a hand on the chair. “Throw me overboard.”
“Right,” the captain bellowed. “Yes, absolutely, let’s throw the angry god’s only present constituent overboard. That’ll definitely make him feel better!”
“I’m serious,” Jonah said. “Cast me into the sea. The tempest is for my sake. I disobeyed my God.”
“Can you even swim?”
“No,” Jonah admitted. The rain against his face was turning to hail.
“Then forget it. Row harder!” the captain shouted.
“We’re not going anywhere,” one of the sailors shouted back at the captain. “The wind is too much. We’re&emdash;” His voice was muffled by the rising wind, which was punctuated by the deliberate snapping sound of the lesser mast cracking.
“God will not lay my innocent blood on you,” Jonah shouted at the captain. “Throw me overboard!”
Zabah dropped his chair, lifted Jonah from behind, and hurled him into the ocean.
The captain was somewhere far to the north of shock. “How could you just&emdash;”
“I believed him?” Zabah said shyly.
Did I mention I couldn’t swim? the orange voice in his head was howling as he sank, flailing, through the ocean. I’m not going to Tarshish now. But what about all your precious Ninevite children? Do you love them more than me? What is Israel to you, anyway? We’re easy. We always come back. You don’t even have to work for us—send one Midianite army into Joppa, and we’re lighting dead animals on fire in a matter of minutes. You tell me to go to Nineveh, and I get up and go to Nineveh! You stop talking to me and I jump into the ocean, and now I’m drowning for you, and maybe I got it wrong, but in the name of Moses, I tried!
He was so alive with his righteous indignation that he didn’t notice he wasn’t in the water anymore. He was falling still, but he was grounded, tumbling down a soft, unpleasantly moist slope. A moment later he slid to a halt, and he realized he could breathe.
“You will be returned to the earth in three days time,” the voice said.
Jonah sat very still, exhausted and breathing hard and trying to ignore the ungodly stench assailing his lungs. “You might have spoken up a little sooner,” he whispered. “How in the name of all your dead prophets was I supposed to know what to do?”
“It’s called faith,” the voice said. “ Go to sleep.”
“Where am I?” Jonah asked when he awoke. The air was foul, so putrid that it was painful to breathe, and he was very cold.
“You’re inside an ichthyosaur.”
“A great fish has swallowed you.”
“It has lived sixty million years beyond its time in preparation for this event.”
“And it stinks.”
“So did your intestines, according to that herring.”
There was no answer. Jonah bit his lip to keep the bile down. “Sixty million years? You knew sixty million years ago that I was going to disobey you and go to Tarshish instead of Nineveh?” Still no answer. “How can you say it’s my fault? You could have stopped me.”
Jonah exhaled loudly. “Okay. Sure. Have it your way. I don’t suppose you prepared a nice fire or a heavy coat for this event along with your fish? Maybe some flatbread and avocado paste?”
There was something in his head he could only think of as a blue smirk. “You could have been on a nice warm boat. I told you to take the nice warm boat in Nineveh.”
“But you knew I wouldn’t!”
Time didn’t pass inside the fish. It didn’t move. Time was a place, a soft, wet, horrible place, wrapped in the stench of ancient fish innards. Time was a trap, insidious, deceptive, and unreal. He felt that he was always on the verge of vomiting, which was made worse by the hunger consuming him from the inside out. It was impossible to lie, sit, or stand comfortably, as the cavernous stomach rolled and spun him with the ichthyosaur’s movements through the ocean.
He was cranky. He tried not to be, because really he knew that God had saved him after he had disobeyed, done really no better than his spineless brother; but he was tired and hungry and irritated with himself for being stupid and irritated with God for being right. The voice, he discovered, rarely answered him when he wasn’t polite. Unfortunately, talking to the voice was really the only thing he had to occupy himself, and the silence the voice left when it went away for too long was unbearable.
“How long have I been here?” he asked finally.
“Two days have passed. In one day more you will return to dry ground.”
Jonah snorted, refusing to believe in a god with a sense of humor. “What am I supposed to do in Nineveh once I’m there?”
“Bring my children back to me.”
“You’ve mentioned that. How?”
“You have my word and my voice.”
“You’ve mentioned that too.” No response. Jonah took a deep breath. “I’m terrified, you know.” It was not something he had admitted to himself up till this point. “They stone the prophets in Nineveh.”
“You fear Nineveh more than me?”
“Oh, I’d say the two of you are running about neck-and-neck.”
“It is not wrong to fear. But your hope must speak louder than your fear, and your faith must be greater even than your hope.”
“Hope gets a lot louder when it’s metal-plated.”
“Nineveh will not be what you think. Do you believe in a God who would truly leave you alone?”
“I believe my God put me in a fish for three days to teach me a lesson.”
“Three days could be spent in harder places, and for greater purposes.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“The children of your children’s children may live to know.”
“Great,” Jonah said. “I’ll tell the Ninevites that. Maybe they’ll just put me out with the lepers.”
The experience of being belched out of an ichthyosaur was one Jonah found he had no way to describe, and wanted intensely to forget anyway. It was the smelliest five minutes of his life.
He lay on the sand of a warm beach, drenched in sunlight, enjoying the relatively stenchless air. The ichthyosaur lay in a similar position a few yards away, basking in the sun and the warmth, barely moving, a good ten feet away from the water’s edge . . . It took him a moment to realize that it was dead.
“You didn’t have to kill it,” Jonah said, surprised by his own feeling for his digestive-tract captor of the last three days.
“Arise,” said the voice, heedless. “ Go to Nineveh, and speak there the words that I shall give unto you.”
“I was just on my way,” Jonah sighed. He trudged out of the water and pulled his ketonet back on. “What direction is it? How far inland am I going? How long is this going to take? What am I supposed to eat? I still don’t have any shoes. You’d think they would have given the winner of the South Gaza Semi-Finals a new pair of shoes, since he couldn’t accept their very kind invitation to go to Tarshish and become a celebrity. Seriously, though, what am I going to eat? Don’t you usually just rain pita bread when the prophets ask for it? I’ve been inside a fish for three days. I’m hungry.”
“North and west.”
“Don’t you mean east?”
There was no answer.
The thing he was not prepared for was the sheer enormity of the city. He stood on a hill overlooking the east gate, and found that he could not find an end to the metropolis in any direction. It was like looking off the edge of one world and into another. Another world where they sinned a lot and blasphemed the Lord and stoned the prophets and probably ate beasts of undivided hooves, the pigs. He began to pick his way down the hill, more carefully than he needed to.
The east gate was crowded with merchants and harlots and travelers of a general nature, camels and chariots going in and out of the city, and he didn’t expect to be given any particular notice. The tunic and ketonet he had set out in were filthy, and he looked and smelled not just like a beggar, but like a beggar who had bathed in ichthyoid digestive juices. He expected to be ignored entirely.
“Hoo boy,” said the first harlot who saw him. She was draped in red, reclining languidly against a boulder near the road, watching the comers and goers and slinking lazily to her feet when the richer merchants noticed her. “Need a place to stay tonight?”
“I might,” he said, “but I don’t have any money, so I was thinking maybe I’d find a—barn or something that someone wasn’t—”
“A barn?” she said. “In Nineveh?” Her smile was slow and delightfully lethargic. “Where do you come from?”
“Meded-shobai,” he said.
“Never heard of it.” She smirked and stretched her sinuous neck. “The second street from the square. Look for the Vintage House, west of the gate.”
“Yes,” he said. “I can stay there?”
“Ask for Rizpah.” Her eyes slid from his face downward. “Don’t worry,” she whispered, “I won’t make you pay.”
He nodded. “Thank you,” he said, and turned back toward the gate. The flow of people entering was prodigious, and so well-mixed that he expected he would do all right remaining inconspicuous, fish-stained clothing and all.
“You!” a sharp voice summoned his attention. “Here.” Jonah paused and turned toward the sentry, wondering if the smell on his clothes was more effective than he’d realized. “You have never been to Nineveh,” the sentry told him. It was not a question.
“No,” Jonah said, “is it that obvious?”
“I know everyone who passes through this gate,” the sentry told him. “And,” he added in a more confidential tone, “you do seem a little hickish.”
“Oh,” Jonah said.
“But you’re a good-looking kid,” he continued. “Just get some new clothes and you might even find real work. Begging is not permitted in the upper district, or on the hill of my lord’s house. My lord taxes seven percent of all proceeds, with a two percent increase per thousand shekels over four thousand shekels of income in the year. If you do not pay your taxes, my lord’s guards will find you and quarter you. My lord’s guards do not answer to beggars and will not protect you. If you need help, bribe someone. And stay south. If you die in the lower north district, no one will notice.”
“Thank you,” Jonah said uncertainly.
“Of course,” the sentry added as Jonah was about to continue into the city, “you are not of Israel.”
Jonah turned. He had neglected his Torah, but he had never denied his god.
“I didn’t think so,” the sentry said, rather as if he had through so, but wished to think otherwise. “I saw you speaking with that harlot. The men of Israel are usually more—private with their harlotry.”
“What harlot?” Jonah said.
“And I’ve never seen a Jew so ill-clothed.”
“These are nice clothes,” Jonah objected. “I had a little trouble getting here is all.”
The sentry shrugged. “All right,” he said. “Just be careful. The Hebrews are not prospered in Nineveh.” He hesitated. “You just seem a little—Israelitish.” He was already turning his attention back to the road. “Something in your voice?”
Jonah stepped through the gate and found himself in a city full of people who wanted to stone him. “Now what?” he asked.
No answer. He walked forward.
There were two women watching him. They paced him exactly, a few feet to the left, but nearly perfectly parallel. They both stared shamelessly, their necks stretched forth to keep him in view. There was a tinkling as they walked. He realized after a moment they were wearing bells on their ankles. He had thought only lepers did that.
At first he thought it must be the fish smell. A lot of women stared at him as he went by, and the ones on the road with him adjusted their pace to stay near him. A few even switched direction to walk with him.
One young woman stood up from the yard where she was crushing grain and leapt into the road to seize his wrist and walk alongside him. “Hi,” she said.
“Hi,” he said.
“You’re not from around here?” she said.
“Apparently not,” he said. She was pretty, although she wore her hair uncovered and her robe swung above her ankles when she walked quickly, which made him uncomfortable.
“So what’s your name?” she asked.
“Jonah son of Amittai,” he said. “Can I help you?”
“She tilted her head charmingly. “Do you have a wife?”
He pretended not to have turned and stared at her. “I don’t.”
“I think you’re really cute.”
“Oh,” he said.
They walked on a few minutes in silence.
“Is that,” Jonah said at last, “why all these women seem to be following me?”
The girl nodded, eyebrows drawn. “Yeah,” she said hesitantly. “Or something.”
“Are you hungry?” asked a woman selling stuffed eggplant and olive kebabs.
“I don’t have any money, exactly,” Jonah said.
The woman, who was middle-aged and looked as if she had probably borne several children already, seemed to melt at the sound of his voice. “Have a kebab,” she breathed. She had bells on her ankles too.
He was just walking. He had been for hours. The city never ended, through it changed constantly, from market squares, to rich houses and chariots, to poor districts brimming with barefoot children. The parade of women behind him had attracted their own parade of men, boys who wanted to know what was happening, husbands following their wives and fathers their daughters, frequenters of the harlots who were just accustomed to following harlots, men who were simply intrigued by this migration of women. Jonah kept his eyes straight ahead, continued at a marked, rapid pace, and spoke to God the whole time. To his followers he was perfectly calm, self-possessed, and seemed to know where he was going; and for some reason, they were going there too. They were citizens of a city that knew only fear and pleasure, pain and wealth, death and lechery. They knew no god, but they found his evident calmness riveting. Jonah had never been so terrified in his life.
“It’s not that I don’t have faith,” the orange voice was going on, “it’s just that I don’t really know how this is all going to work out, when I start preaching in the name of Israel’s god, and they try to kill me, I don’t see how that will really save any of their souls, and I’m just a little skeptical about you having kind of, you know, gotten off somewhere else for the moment. Okay, maybe I don’t have faith. But it seems to me there’s a time for testing a person’s faith, and there’s a time for sending down the lightning and tempests and all that. You were okay sending in the tempests to get me all repented up and ready to preach. I mean, I’m just saying. ’Cause there are getting to be an awful lot of them, and I think that actually it wouldn’t take nearly this many to kill me straight up when they figure out about this whole Hebrew thing, so—”
“Here. Now. Speak.”
Jonah halted so fast he stood swaying on one foot for several seconds before he regained his balance. “Okay. Okay. I’m all set. What do I say?”
The crowd of women slid to a halt behind him, and the men came sliding in behind them, and the two groups began to mingle, until at last there was no crowd of women and no crowd of men, but just one very large congregation of sinning Ninevites, waiting to see what this handsome young man from Judaea, who muttered to himself a lot, might do next.
Jonah turned slowly to face the Ninevites. They did not look angry. Nor, however, did they look repentant. They looked curious. They looked like they might try to kill him, but they also looked expectant, like they were waiting for instructions. Or for the starting gun, to launch the Hebrew-slaughtering fest.
“Yet forty days,” he cried, “and Nineveh shall be overthrown!”
The silence that followed was prodigious.
“That’s it?” he asked under his breath.
Jonah’s teeth began to grind just a little.
The crowd stood very still, swaying a little as will any human being standing on one spot for more than a moment, staring at him, and staring past him, and not seeming to really see anything. There was no sound. The air was warm and thick and light, and unsettled, as if something were hanging just above them all, something huge and prolix and fiercely blue. He could hardly keep his eyes on them. They were going to all start picking up stones at any minute.
Jonah turned around, teeth clenched, and kept walking. The crowd stayed behind. By the time they began to whisper, to speak, to cry their sins to the Lord and plead for his mercy, he was entirely lost, looking for the Vintage House. Even if Rizpah was a harlot, maybe she had a barn. He wasn’t sure of how things worked with harlots, and if you could rent the barn without renting them, but Rizpah had been nice enough.
“ Only because you’re such a good-looking kid,” said a voice in his head, but he was too tired to decide what color it was.
He found Rizpah farther into the low district than the Vintage House was, surrounded by thin, barefoot children. She was sitting on the ground, distributing loaves of bread and honey candies.
“What on earth are you wearing?” he asked.
“I sold the garb of my harlotry to buy bread for the orphaned, and to dress in the manner of the Hebrew prophet,” she said demurely, and turned her eyes up to him. Recognition flooded her face and she scrambled to her feet. “You!”
“You repented,” Jonah said, incredulous.
“Yes,” the harlot told him, not meeting his eyes.
“I heard the voice of God.”
Jonah shook his head. “You heard me, Rizpah. Are you insane? You heard me. One sentence.”
She just stared at him. “Weren’t you there?”
He didn’t really have an answer to that.
“I was looking for a place to sleep,” he said after a moment. “I thought I might be able to stay with you.”
“I don’t do that any more, you Hebrew pig!” she yelped. “Get away!”
“No,” he said, “no! For the love, I’ve been walking for about six days now, and I haven’t eaten very much, and although I’m sure the fasting and self-abuse is making me extraordinarily holy, I’m just tired, all right?” She was staring, and he was fairly certain he was not behaving like a prophet. “Never mind.” He turned and breathed. “I don’t get this.”
“Don’t get what?”
“I’m not talking to you.”
“Don’t get what?”
“Not talking to you, either. Unless you have more threatening eight-word sentences you’d like me to wield against this sinful nation, I just want to go somewhere and sleep.”
“I think that you could use a nap.”
The sun was long set and most of the streets were not very well lit, but he found as he worked his way back toward the east gate that he was observing the most peculiar phenomenon. He was fitting in much better than he should have. Gone were the sumptuous clothes, the rich turbans, the ankle bells. Everyone he passed was dressed, as Rizpah had been, in the most ungainly, filthy, shapeless clothes he’d ever seen.
He found himself, as he drew nearer the edge of the city, walking alongside some non-descript, maybe-male-maybe-female sort of person. She was leading a cow wrapped in burlap.
“Why?” he asked as he drew alongside her, “is your cow wearing that?”
She turned to look at him, and he recognized the girl from earlier, who had thought he was cute. Her hair and face and hands were streaked with soot, as if she had been lying in the fireplace, and her robe was torn and dirty. And, he noticed, of a modest length.
“The manner of the Hebrew prophet,” she whispered. “The humble riches of a man of God.”
At last it dawned on him. “You’re all—this is—how you think I dress?” He stopped walking and gazed down at his clothes. Some acid in the stomach of the fish had turned the brown wool of his tunic and ketonet thin and brittle, and faded the color to a dirty grayish. The tears and stains were exceptional. It looked like he was dressed in the stiff weave of sackcloth.
The girl turned her eyes up to his. “We are a repentant people.”
“You’re an unbalanced people,” he said. “Who came up with this?”
“My lord the king,” she whispered. “Who can tell if God will turn and repent, and turn away from his fierce anger, that we perish not? It is the law of the land.”
“The king wasn’t there to hear me today, was he?”
“No,” she said, “but my lord sent out the decree the moment my lord’s guard arrived at his house to tell him of the working of your miracles. My lord has ever been a wise king.”
“One sentence!” Jonah shouted, throwing his arms out to either side. “This is not a miracle. This is eight words! This is not wisdom!”
The girl smiled. “You’re cute when you’re indignant,” she said, and then, no more solemnly, “It’s the will of the Hebrew God.”
Jonah dropped his arms and strode away from the girl and her cow, furious. “I knew they were blasphemers here,” he shouted, “No one mentioned that everyone in the city, starting with the king, was totally cracked.”
“At a certain point,” said the voice mildly, “ you asked for a statute on unrepentant goats.”
“Can goats sin? I don’t really think goats can sin. I don’t really know how they can be repenting.”
“They believe they are doing my will.”
“And are they?”
“Does it matter, so long as they believe? They are acting in the fear of God.”
“They’re acting deranged.”
“Why are you so angry? They are acting converted if, perhaps, undiscerning.”
“And so they’re all just forgiven now?”
“Would that be so terrible?”
“Well, I suppose I should have known. You’re gracious. You’re merciful. You’re slow to anger. Sometimes. Not where it concerns large fish; you’re pretty quick with the large fish. If only everyone could be so easily converted, with just the one ambiguous sentence, no one would ever need to stone a goat again. Or travel three days in a fish. Why am I even here? I could have gone to Tarshish. You could have sent anyone. You could have just written your sentence in the dirt. You could have plucked a good-looking kid from anywhere in Assyria.”
The voice was definitely gone.
“I’m blaspheming!” Jonah shouted to the sky, “Why don’t you kill me where I stand? Why can’t I just die, now you’ve spoken your sentence through me?”
The east gate was closed. A sentry wearing what looked like raw camel skin stepped forward as he approached. “Gate closed at sunset,” he said rotely. “No one in or out. Come back in forty days.”
“It won’t open tomorrow?” Jonah said.
“No one in or out,” the sentry repeated. He sounded remarkably convinced, considering how little his voice changed pitch. “Nineveh is fasting and praying, that we perish not. We have but forty days to appease the Hebrew God. Who knows whether he will turn and repent?”
Jonah groaned. One of the other sentries moved forward and whispered something in the first sentry’s ear. They both scrutinized him, and the first sentry leaned closer. “Are you him?” he asked.
Jonah sighed, “Yeah,” he said. “I’m the guy with the fashion sense.”
The other sentry reached forward and grasped Jonah’s arm. “I knew,” he said. “I knew, this morning, that you were Hebrew. I knew.” He looked at the row of burlap-clad men behind him. “Let him out.”
There was some uncomfortable shifting. “Order of my lord the king,” one of them pointed out apologetically. “Forty days.”
“Oh, get off,” the sentry said. “My lord the king bows to the Hebrew prophet. Open the gate.”
There was no shelter on the hill which he had come down that morning. He found some passable branches and used his ketonet to set up a two-sided shelter that would spare him the worst of the rising sun. He was asleep within moments. His dreams were terrible. In the morning, he pretended not to remember them.
He sat inside his half-shelter and gazed out at the city. Only a day before he had stood here and imagined it reduced to a smoking crater. Now they were all more righteous than he was, and were dressing like him to boot, and he was running away from God again.
A leafy shadow fell over his face, as if he were sitting under a tree, which he was not. He turned his head around slowly, uncertain what new ordeal to expect. There was an enormous, unreasonably thick vine hanging over him, growing straight up into the air and heavy with long, rounded, dark green fruit.
He stood up uncomfortably. The vine offered more shade than any fine should have, but then, it was ridiculous in a lot of ways. It was at least twenty feet tall, and braced by nothing. A fruit snapped off one of the lower trailers and tumbled to the earth next to him.
“Breakfast?” he said doubtfully.
He sat all day in the shadow of the vine, eating watery fruit innards and indulging in periodic indignation. Nothing remotely blue entered his head. He watched the city. No one entered or departed through the gate, and he could see very little movement inside. He could imagine a lot. Sometimes he imagined them all fasting and beating themselves and rolling in ashes. Sometimes he saw them returning to their sin, and the wrath of God blowing the whole place sky-high. He preferred the second vision. He was pretty sure it was not at all the case. Sometimes he talked to the plant. It was, right at the moment, his only friend.
The night was cool, but he pulled some of the lower leaves off the vine, which were very large, and slept under those. He awoke reluctantly before sunrise, to the sound of large wings flapping. He opened his eyes slowly and uncurled his wound-up limbs, indisposed to return to a world in which he was a bad prophet and God did things that made no sense. The sky was dismally colorless and the leaves had blown off of him and were scattered across the hill. He was colder than he had ever been inside the fish.
There was something large in the sky above him. He leaned his head back and squinted into the grey light. It was a great flying reptile. As he watched, it flew down just above him, bit off the vine a few feet above his head, and flew away with the top three-quarters of it in his mouth, trailing behind the worm and liberating large green fruit-missiles across the landscape. Jonah felt robbed.
“My—plant,” he said helplessly. The beast disappeared into the distance. “You didn’t have to kill it,” he sighed, for the second time that week.
The sun was rising, and with it a bitter wind kicked up. Jonah pulled his legs up and wrapped his arms around them. “Are you going to kill me now?” he asked.
“No,” said God.
“You’re killing everything else.”
“I don’t often kill people.”
“You killed my plant.”
“It was mine. Zucchini.”
“Slightly modified. A very sturdy stock.”
“Yes. You do seem to go for the very large things. Fish and—”
“You don’t pay attention to small things.”
“I know,” Jonah said quietly.
“Why are you so angry?”
He had missed several pages of the story, the part where the Ninevites spat upon him, and he cursed them in the name of the Lord, and they laughed and tried to stone him, and all they that mocked were struck by lightening or eaten by rabid she-bears or turned into rock formations, or something, so that everyone who stood near came to fear the Lord their God, and the miracles could be remembered forever in the nation of Israel, and Jonah could be praised for his courage and spirit of revelation. Somehow the unexamined rage of it seemed more justified without the admission of his broken expectation.
“I don’t understand,” Jonah said at last.
“What don’t you understand?”
“The Ninevites. Why did they repent?”
“Because they heard my word and my voice.”
“One sentence,” Jonah said.
“Did you think so little of my word and my voice?”
“It never works that way in Israel! Why them?” Jonah was gripping and tearing the dead zucchini leaves in his trembling hands, oblivious to the violence on the already-slaughtered plant. “We’re supposed to be the chosen ones! We’re supposed to be the—I don’t know, the special ones, the inheritors, the first-born—why is it easier for the Ninevites? Israel is yours. Israel has strayed, and always come back, but here it’s Nineveh that—” He groaned and flopped backwards onto the ground.
“I bear different covenants with Israel and with Assyria.”
“I know! We’re your children. And they were all converted with one sentence. They found you like they find a cockroach in the meal. Barely had to have their eyes open.” He crossed his arms over his eyes. “I was born a Hebrew, into a covenant with my God, and I have never read the Torah, and I—”
“Jonah,” the voice said, and the blueness in those two syllables was excruciating. “Do you think that you don’t know me?”
A dead zucchini fell from the crumbling vine and rolled past his feet, down the slope and toward the city. Jonah sat up and watched it go. “You killed my zucchini plant,” he said, uncertain whether he was being recalcitrant, and whether the voice would leave again.
“Is that why you’re angry?”
“Yes.” Jonah turned to give the zucchini plant a lukewarm kick. It leaned distinctly sideways and did not spring back up. “You might as well have killed me too.”
“Was it your zucchini? Did you labor for it? Did you make it grow? It came up in a night, and perished in a night. What difference is it? Do you pity it?”
“You didn’t have to kill it.”
“As you pitied the ichthyosaur.”
“Well, it stank, poor thing.”
“I have pitied Nineveh.”
He stood and gazed at the city, silent and rapturous in the morning light. “There was more sin here in a day than in all of Judaea in a year.”
“They did not know me. They have repented.”
“I know. They came to you. No lightning. No floods. No pillars of salt. Not a single stoning. No retribution at all. It is so easy for them, and they are not Israel. They are not your elder children. Why is it harder for Israel?”
“Do you think that you don’t know me?” the voice asked again.
Jonah had no reply. The wind had died; the sun was hot and he missed the zucchini.
“I spoke to you in the night,” the voice said, “ and you arose. Do you truly believe I could call anyone at all to be my prophet?”
“I think anyone could have spoken eight words.”
“Your brother reads from the Torah every day. He searches and believes that he prays, and every night he falls into sleep again having still failed to find me. He prays to a scroll, not to a god. He cannot find me in the words that he has not learned to believe. I spoke to him, and he could not tell whose voice it was that he heard, and so could be prevented from my will. Your brother could not do this for me.”
Jonah sank back into the ground, pulled his knees up, and wrapped his arms around them. “Abiezer does what he thinks is best,” he said weakly. “He tries.”
“But you, who have never read the Torah, could not be restrained,” the voice went on, ignoring him. “I told you to go to Joppa and you walked there barefoot. You disobeyed me once and so terrible was your desolation at having been abandoned of your God that you threw yourself into the storm and the sea, never believing that you would die.”
“I was terrified that I would die,” Jonah objected.
The voice continued as if he had not spoken. “You were afraid to approach Nineveh, you stepped through the gates of the city in dread, you opened your mouth to speak in fear, but never did you hesitate, and your hope was greater than your fear, and your faith was greater than the ocean. You never doubted your God, until he accomplished the thing that he promised: until his children were called back to him. Why do you doubt me now?”
“I never had faith,” Jonah said. “I never thought this would work.”
“Faith is a choice,” God told him. “ You chose my will even when you did not understand it.”
There was a very long silence.
“Do you want a challenge?” God asked.
“Certainly,” Jonah said, “although not particularly if it involves travel by marine monster.”
“Arise,” said the voice, “and go forth to Judaea, and speak there the words that I shall give unto you.”