Jeremiah: He Who Wept–Chapter 13

NEWS OF JEREMIAH’S dire speech to the village elders ran on a hundred tongues through Anathoth.

When he had gained the will to stand, Hilkiah left the mulberry tree and trudged home. There he closed himself in his room, winding himself tightly around the shame inflicted upon him by his son in front of his peers. Every whisper of the wind, every creak of the tree branches sounded to his ears like accusing voices. “There is old Hilkiah,” they said, “the priest who raised a wicked son with a tongue like a jailer’s scourge. He lacks even the respect due a father from his son.”

The old priest began to decay from inside. He wanted to die for disgrace.

Libnah, for her part, felt torn between the opposing camps within her breast. She was wounded by the pain of her husband; Hilkiah was a good man who had always done his best. He did not deserve such dishonor in the days of his old age.

And yet—with a mother’s certainty she knew Jeremiah would not say such terrible things solely for effect. His feelings always lay too close to the surface to let him gratuitously tread upon anyone, much less his own father. She felt anger at her husband’s plight, but also fear that her son’s oracle was true.

That night’s dinner gathering was a desert of resentment, a sterile plain of closed glances and words left unspoken. Hilkiah concluded the benediction in a voice devoid of inflection or vitality. And so supper began: his family shared a room, yet was divided by barriers harder than stone, higher than the walls of Jerusalem.

Of all those gathered around the cheerless board, only Lemuel felt anything other than confused anger or distress. It was about time, he thought. About time that everyone else saw what a foolish, selfish, muddle-headed dreamer Jeremiah was. Lemuel’s face wore a sardonic smirk as he saw with satisfaction the mess Jeremiah had managed to make of things.Image

Yes, it was about time.

He glanced at his wife. Hannah’s face was indrawn. She wished deeply to retire from this field of battling wills, but could not decently do so.

She raised her eyes to look directly at Jeremiah, who brooded in his place, unaware. He appeared to be studying the table before him with great concentration.

In her puzzled sorrow, she lost her customary caution, forgetting to hide past and present feelings beneath a drab, dutiful exterior. In her gaze now was a ghost of the old look, mingled with a knit-browed confusion at the distress caused by one she knew to be tenderhearted and true in his deepest self, despite the hurt he had cost her.

A slap across her face from the back of Lemuel’s hand sent her sprawling onto the floor, bloodying her lip.

“You whore!” shouted Lemuel, leaping to his feet in a frenzy. “You sit there making moon-eyes at this … this … ” He pointed angrily at Jeremiah, stuttering in his wrath. “ … this idiot?”

Shocked out of their solitary grief, the family sat roundeyed and aghast as Lemuel stormed on.

“You’ve never forgotten him, have you? Despite all the hurt he caused you, despite the way he deserted you, knowing full well how you felt; despite all that, it is still he you love, and not me! Do you deny it, you ungrateful wench?”

Hannah sat silent, her eyes wide with fear, blood running down her chin.

“Is it he you think about in bed?” screamed Lemuel, his face purple in fury. “Do you lie with him in your mind, while I feed you and shelter you and clothe you? What is the charm of this wretch, that those on whom he inflicts the most harm willingly offer him sanctuary? By the names of all the gods, it shall not be so with you!” He started toward Hannah, raising his fist to strike her again.

Joash leaped from his place, grasping Lemuel’s arm as it descended toward Hannah’s unprotected face. The sinews bulged on his sun-darkened forearm as he squeezed Lemuel’s wrist, forcing him away from the now-sobbing Hannah. Lemuel grimaced and strained, trying in vain to break his older brother’s iron grip. At last he won free and bounded from the room and out of the house with an animal cry of frustrated brutality.Image

Joash stood panting, looking after him for a moment. Then he turned to stare at Jeremiah in bewilderment and distrust.

“WHY, LORD?” Jeremiah prayed, sitting outside in the starry autumn evening, chilled by more than the cool air. “Why do I spread distress and woe at every turn? Why do my words fall like sword blows on those I love?”

The house was dark. The family had drifted away from the meal in a dazed, uncomfortable silence. No one spoke to him, no one looked at him. It seemed they wanted only to be out of his presence.

He was more lonely now than when he had walked the roads and byways of Judah. He felt turmoil inside like a storm cloud, whipping his heart in a cold swirl of doubt and anguish.

He slid off the rough stone wall and wandered into the night like a lost soul, absently pulling his cloak tighter. The breath of impending winter whispered about him, and winds of apprehension wafted treacherously through the open windows of his mind.

“I’M TELLING YOU he ought to die!”

Lemuel’s face was livid as he brought his fist down on the table of the dimly lit room. His voice had by now risen far above the conspiratorial whispers in which the conversation had begun, and the four others in the room glanced nervously at the door and windows, hastily motioning their overwrought colleague to keep quiet.

“Lemuel!” one of them hissed, “he is your brother—your own flesh and blood!”

“Aye,” murmured another, “and he preaches in the name of Yahweh. If Josiah’s agents learn of our complicity in his death, we are dead men!”

“You are all old women!” sputtered Lemuel, getting louder again. “He is a disgrace! He has no support! He insults the elders of Anathoth, my father among them, and threatens the worship of Chemosh! Do you wish to stand idly by and allow this troublemaker to stir up more noise about what we are doing, we who have remained faithful to the gods of the earth and the sky?” Lemuel held their unwilling eyes with his dilated, angry look. “Why should this muddled wanderer, who goes off for years at a time, be allowed to upset our way of doing things? I say we take care of this misfit now, and I care not a fig whose brother he happens to be!”

“And I say there is more to your words than jealousy for the reverence toward Lord Chemosh,” said another of the men. “Your ire burns hot toward your brother for something else—a woman, perhaps?”

“That is none of your concern!” shouted Lemuel, his fingers curling into claws at his side. “What matters is silencing this fool, and soon! Or do you wish to share the fate of the priests and worshipers of Ashtaroth at Nob, just up the road?”

The group fell silent as they remembered the chilling event: Josiah’s guards had slain thirty men and women with the sword, then burned their bodies and scattered the charred bones on the ruined high places of the gods. Such a desecration was frightening to contemplate. Since then, devotees of the baals and asherim had been careful to conceal their religion from any not known to be sympathetic. The worship went on, but discreetly, amid hope for better days.

“Well,” conceded one of them finally, “it may be that your counsel is sound, however flawed its motives. Very well—I will support this action. Who will stand with Lemuel and with me to slay the troublesome preacher?”

Slowly and quietly, all three of the others placed their hands atop those of the speaker and of Lemuel, who wore a hard, glittering grin of triumph.

Just outside the house where the plot was being laid, the wandering Jeremiah had stopped, hidden in the darkness. Hearing the incautious voices, he stood frozen in dismay. For as long as he could remember, Lemuel had despised him. Now, for the first time, he knew why: It was the night in the soul of his brother which hated the light of the Eternal in his own heart.

Each of the brothers was an instrument, a tool. And there could be nothing but enmity between them forever. Their hostility was born of the ancient war between the ruling forces of the two brothers’ lives—one good, the other evil.

Jeremiah remembered the words of his calling: “1 chose you while you were still in your mother’s womb … “ Could the dark architect of Lemuel’s malevolence also make such a summons?

He did not return to his room that night, cloaking himself instead in the darkness among the ravines of the surrounding countryside, seeking some word, some counsel to aid in treading the ever narrower and more treacherous path he walked.

THE NEXT MORNING the house of Abiathar gathered for breakfast in apprehension, feeling in different ways the brittle tension in the air. Lemuel sat in his place, looking even more dour and disgruntled than usual. Hannah, her eyes red-rimmed and dark from lack of sleep, sat downcast, afraid to look up.

The door slammed open, and in strode Jeremiah, his clothing still wet with the dew of the autumn morning. Without a break in his step he paced directly up to Lemuel, whose slack, open-mouthed stare bespoke his surprise at the change in his younger brother. Jeremiah had none of the defeated, brooding demeanor of last night, but rather a hard, set look, a talisman of urgent purpose chiseled across his face. With his accusing finger pointed directly between his brother’s wide eyes, his voice rang out:

“I know of the plotting in your heart. I know you have laid plans to take my life, because of the words the Lord bade me speak. I had no blood on my hands toward you, my own brother, but you have conspired with evil men to kill me, to blot out my memory from this place.

“Now, therefore, listen to what the Eternal, the Lord Most High, says about you and those with whom you devise your wicked schemes: ‘I will punish you. Your offspring will die by the sword and by famine. Your memory will be completely erased from the land, and I will bring disaster upon you in the time when I judge this nation.’”

For a moment he held his pose, his finger aimed at Lemuel like a thunderbolt from the hand of God. Then he turned on his heel and walked out, slamming the door behind him.

He had gone perhaps twenty long paces from the house when he first felt the fire in his veins begin to cool. His nostrils ceased flaring, his heart slowed its angry, racing gait. The pain of what he had said began to wrap his chest in dull, aching cords of regret. Another twenty paces, and he felt tears running down his face.

He had thought it would bring him fierce joy and a sense of vindication to pronounce the Lord’s judgment on Lemuel and the men of Anathoth. But the scene burned into his mind was not the death of Lemuel, deserving though he was. Nor was it the punishment of the baby-slaying idolaters. Instead, the faces of Hannah and his mother wavered before his tear-veiled vision, and the faces of children and families caught in the winnowing fork of God’s wrath. Prophesying judgment brought no satisfaction, nor did it lighten his burden. But he could do nothing else.

He walked into the broken country east of the village until the middle of the morning. Weak from his overnight fast and soul-weary from the questions in his mind, he crawled beneath the shelter of a heavy copse of scrub cedar and lay on his belly, his face in his arms.

“O Lord God,” he moaned, “I am cut to the depths of my spirit by the pain I carry. Why must the wicked do as they like, despite Your warnings and Your displeasure? Why, instead, do the righteous suffer at the hands of sinners?

“I am pinned beneath Your will; I feel it crushing me between You and my enemies.

“I cannot ignore the fire You have kindled within me—it blazes, and no matter how I try to hold it in, I cannot. But when I speak, my enemies gather round like wild dogs. I am a lost lamb surrounded by a hungry pack whose only wish is to tear and rend. Hear my cry, O Lord! Deliver me from the teeth of those who oppose me! Fulfill Your promise, which You made when You called me, saying, ‘I will make you like a bronze wall against your enemies.’”

His words spent, he lay silent, overcome with grief, and with longing for—he knew not what.

The wind, sighing through the pungent green cedar branches, slowed and stopped. Even the sparrows in the brush ceased their busy chatter. And the Voice was within him.

Jeremiah. “

One word. His name. Never before had the Voice spoken his name. And in those few syllables, resounding repeatedly through the hallways of his soul, he heard his entire being described, known, spun out like a thread of flax in the hands of a master weaver—seen through and through.Image

Jeremiah. Yahweh knew his name—and everything else.

The Lord God knew his hurt, his anguish; knew the pain of pronouncing death on those he loved; knew the sorrow of being alone; knew the lash of unjustified hatred; knew the piercing misery of being abandoned by those closest to him.

And He knew more. He knew Jeremiah’s pride, his self-will. He knew the dark, secret places where Jeremiah imagined himself a lofty figure on Judah’s landscape—a seer, a tower; perhaps even a Moses. The Lord God Almighty knew the traces of contempt that sometimes peeked from the corners of his vision as he beheld the sin of the people. He knew the unholy, blood-red lust for revenge that sometimes made his thoughts crawl like snakes in a vat of excrement.

Yahweh knew. He knew. And Jeremiah cried out in silence with a wail beyond weeping. He flung his arms over his head as if to hide from God’s face. He was unworthy—wholly unworthy. Yet again the Voice was within him.

“If you have raced with men on foot and they have worn you out, how will you compete with horses? If you stumble in the plain, how will you manage in the thickets by the Jordan?”

Jeremiah’s inner cry was cut off now, abruptly hushed by the power of the knowing One.

“My beloved will be given into the hands of her enemies. My inheritance has become like a wild beast—therefore I despise her. I will bring others to spoil My vineyard. My beautiful fields will become like a wasteland, because no one cares.

“So bear your shame, Jeremiah. My anger will cause this bitter harvest. But know that after the time of tearing down will surely come a time of building up. After I uproot Judah, I will again have compassion on her. If she will turn and renew her love for Me, I will bring her again to her own land, each family to its own home. In this hope, you may find your hope.”Image

His senses numbed, Jeremiah fell into the deep sleep of utter exhaustion. When he awoke, feeling hungry, the sun was dragging its gold-and-purple train down the western sky. He slowly sat up and looked below the colors, back toward Anathoth. He could think of but one place there where he might find shelter and comfort.

He crawled out from under the cedars, and set out for the hut of Mahseiah the scribe.

This chapter is from the novel Jeremiah: He Who Wept by Thom Lemmons, copyright © 2013 by Homing Pigeon Publishing. If you’d like to download a full version of this book for your smartphone or tablet, please visit www.homingpigeonpublishing.com.

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Daniel: The Man Who Saw Tomorrow–Chapter 14

THE LAMP FLAME SPUTTERED unsteadily, signifying a lack of oil in the reservoir. For the third time that night, Azariah rose to fetch additional fuel.

Daniel, Hananiah, and Mishael, gathered in a worried knot around the table on which the lamp sat, watched Azariah leave. The four friends had been huddled in a corner of the main room of the house on Adad Street. Ephratah and the children had long since retired for the night. Indeed, the moon had risen and half-traversed the night sky since the apprehensive discussion had begun. But for these four, sleep fled.

Agitated anxiety shouted in quiet desperation from Daniel’s eyes, danced in nervous twitches along his face. He looked about at his lifelong friends as Azariah returned with the oil and carefully poured it into the lamp’s basin. “I tell you, brothers, my fear is less for myself—it’s too late for that anyway—than for what may happen to this city if the emperor listens to the wrong advisers. If those whom I suspect gain his ears … ” A long, brooding silence followed.

“Adad-ibni cloaks himself in a new smugness these past weeks,” agreed Azariah. “Even my own master, the prime minister, is changed in his demeanor toward the emperor. Like you, Daniel, I believe dark work is underfoot in the court. I cannot see the direction of the tide, but I feel the pull of the current.”

“When a king asks counsel from one who knows nothing,” muttered Mishael gloomily, “it is usually safest to tell the king what he wishes to hear.”

“Precisely!” agreed Daniel vehemently. “What benefit are advisers who only parrot the opinions already in the emperor’s head? He will hear nothing save his own thoughts, parlayed back to him in words calculated to please his palate. And I … when I was with him and had the chance … ” Shamed by the memory of the paralyzing terror that had seized him when he was closeted with the emperor, Daniel fell silent.worried

“It accomplishes nothing to blame yourself,” insisted Azariah, seeing the chagrin on his friend’s face. “Who knows whether, given your burden, any of us would have done any better?”

Daniel looked up at him, the slow tread of an accusing memory crossing the careworn track of his face. Azariah looked down, shaking his head. Still he has not forgiven himself, he thought.

“Is Nebuchadrezzar’s memory so short that he has no fear at all?” asked Mishael. The eunuch shifted uncomfortably, then went on. “How many omens and signs must the Eternal send before the emperor learns to heed such warnings?”

Glancing sharply at his friend, Hananiah softly hummed the opening phrase of a psalm. The two musicians’ eyes locked, then Mishael smiled and nodded.

Azariah stared from the round, smooth-cheeked face of Mishael to the withdrawn, ascetic features and shadowed eyes of Hananiah. “What passes between you two?” he demanded a trifle testily.

“Hananiah reminds me of the song of the prophet Hosea,” replied Mishael. “The Lord says,

When Israel was a child I loved him,

and out of Egypt I called My son.

But the more I called Israel,

the further they went from Me … ”

Azariah contemplated these words a moment, then looked up again at Mishael, puzzlement still creasing his brow. “Unravel your riddle for me, Mishael. I haven’t the mind of a poet—I cannot fathom your meaning.”

Again Mishael smiled, looking at Hananiah. Patiently he explained. “I believe Hananiah means this: If the Almighty One, after so many generations of teachers and prophets and plagues and blessings, could not cause Israel and the kings of Samaria to heed His voice, how can we expect Nebuchadrezzar to be mindful of Him after two mere dreams?”

Azariah nodded appreciatively at Hananiah. Looking at the quiet musician, he said, “He who speaks fewest words strikes the most telling blows.” After a few moments’ reflection, he continued soberly, “The burned ruins of Jerusalem give eloquent testimony to the stubbornness of hearts that should have known better.”

As Daniel nodded in agreement, the shadows of trepidation deepened across his visage. His forehead furrowed with the weight of the burden in him, and he stared darkly into the steadily burning lamp flame. “There you have it, my brothers,” he said. “I know, as surely as I breathe this moment, that the Unnamed One shall again send His shafts toward the soul of Nebuchadrezzar. If the Eternal did not spare even the House of His Name, what dire consequences may attend the awakening of the emperor of Babylon? And when that happens, what may become of the rest of us?”

His worried glance took them in, each in turn. Failing of any fit answer, the three dropped their eyes to the table top, where the lamp flame flickered, a tiny light lost in the great darkness of the night and the city.

SNIFFING IN DISDAIN, Gaudatra, governor of the Medean province of Elam, looked down the main street of Parsagard. It was not a street really—more a dirt path. Simple, gable-roofed houses of wood and rough-cut stone cluttered randomly about the haphazard, unpretentious village, the Camp of the Parsis, as if the herdsmen led by this Kurash person had simply allowed their stick-and-hide tents to ossify where they sat in this small valley among the Zagrash highlands.

Accustomed to the grandiose scale and permanence of the walled cities of Medea, Gaudatra found himself wondering: Could this disorganized hamlet—without walls or planning or architecture, and with yard fowl, dogs, and urchins chasing each other noisily between the unpainted dwellings—could this really be the capital of the great leader he had been hearing so much about?

He arrived in front of another of the tent-shaped houses, distinct from the others only for its size. That and the contingent of armed Parsis guarding the bronze-sheathed oaken doors were the only hint that Gaudatra had reached the palace—if such a dignified term might serve—of Kurash, King of Anshan and of the Clans of Parsis. Of course, since these highland cousins of the Medes were illiterate, no legend or motto endorsed the emissary’s supposition. Shaking his head in disgust, he stepped from his palanquin.

His bodyguard parted to make way for him, their mounts tossing their heads and rattling the bits in their mouths. Striding to the leader of the guards, he said in a bored voice, “Announce me to your master. I am Gaudatra, lord of the province of Elam and servant of the emperor Asturagash, monarch of the Medes.”

Without glancing at the finely dressed emissary, the commander replied tersely, “My lord Kurash is in council. He may not be disturbed at this time. When he commands me, I shall be pleased to escort you into his presence.”horsemen

Astounded by such arrogant, unjustified audacity, Gaudatra was speechless. He stood gulping air like a beached fish, uncertain where to begin in berating this bumpkin for such presumption.

A day and a half of tedious, wearying travel—most of it uphill—had been required to reach this insignificant, out-country settlement. They had wound through tortuous mountain passes, along narrow, twisting trails hardly suited to comfortable passage. A few times he had been obliged to descend from his sedan and walk along the flinty, rough-hewn paths, so crude was their fashioning. He was tired, annoyed at being so far from his comfortable home, and thoroughly nettled at the prospect of such rude accommodations as this pathetic mountain village must surely offer. And now this insolent minor functionary of some mountain-goat pretender to royalty had the cheek to ask him to wait, like a common peasant, on the pleasure of the ruler of this horse-kingdom!

Just as he was about to lash the guard with his wrath, the twin doors were flung open upon their stone-socketed hinges. The guard bowed, gesturing Gaudatra toward the opening into the hall of the mountain king.

The Medean noble crossed the threshold, indignation still smoldering in his breast. He paced the length of the high-raftered hall, four great wooden pilasters supporting the central beam of the roof. His eyes were drawn toward the end of the large, airy chamber, to a skylit dais where some person—presumably the king—waited. Gaudatra’s eyes were still unaccustomed to the dimmer light offered by the high, narrow openings in the walls of the chamber, and he stepped a bit uncertainly toward the throne.

Arriving at the foot of the dais, he made a proper bow—more than the upstart deserved, he thought—toward the youngish man seated on the ceremonial seat. Gaudatra’s vision had finally adjusted to the interior lighting, and he took in the scene: Kurash’s startling amber eyes were fastened on him in a measuring gaze the more disconcerting for its frankness. The king of Anshan sat on a carved mahogany chair covered with the pelt of a lion. The beast’s mane hung off the back of the throne; its forelegs—claws still attached—draped off the arms of the chair on which rested the hands of the monarch of this place.

Kurash wore little jewelry. A plain silver circlet nestled amid the straight, straw-colored locks of his head. His clothing, though well fitted and finely wrought, was of spun wool and tanned leather. He wore the breeches of a horseman rather than the robes and gowns of the more sedentary nobles of the plains.

Hanging behind him on the wall of the throne room was a woven tapestry depicting a lion slaying a gold-hoofed bull. This ancient heraldry of their shared Aryan heritage, little remembered by the Medes, proclaimed the differences between their lionbullrelated peoples. The Medes had gone on to greater pursuits, reflected Gaudatra, using more sophisticated means to achieve their ends. The Parsis, meanwhile, still lived in backward recapitulation of their more-recent nomadic past. In Gaudatra’ s opinion, they longed for the nonexistent splendor of days better forgotten.

“Be welcomed, Lord Gaudatra,” pronounced Kurash finally. “I trust your journey from Elam was smooth and unhindered?” Gaudatra glanced at the king sharply. Did he detect a wisp of irony glinting within those amber eyes? Without replying verbally, he made another small bow.

“I believe you may know my adviser and bodyguard, Lord Gobhruz?” The king gestured to an older man seated below his right shoulder.

Gaudatra scanned his memory. Ah, yes; this fellow had at one time lived in Shushan. He had been a military commander, if Gaudatra’s memory served. His odd manner and old-fashioned notions had gradually alienated him. No one was sorry when he emigrated from Medea. The emissary gave Gobhruz a bow that stopped just short of being derisive.

“If the king will permit me,” began Gaudatra in a patronizing voice, “the king should consider directing some of his subjects to construct a wall around his … city. Surely in these wild parts one would sleep better behind a strong fortification. And, might I say with all due respect”—realizing the irony of his last words, the Mede could not suppress a tiny smirk—“that one who is so late in sending the emperor’s tribute of horses should spend less time conferring with expatriates”—he sneered at Gobhruz—“and more time considering the security of his own future.” Gaudatra made a sardonic bow.

To his surprise, when he looked up, Kurash was smiling at him. Those brass-colored eyes again gripped him in a cool, appraising gaze. Gaudatra had the uncomfortable sense that the expression on this man’s face had less kinship with a smile than with the bared fangs of a crouched beast of prey. Somewhat concerned, he thought of his bodyguard, waiting outside the now-bolted doors of this chamber. He was not afraid—not yet. After all, he was the protected envoy of Asturagash, the overlord of these parts. Kurash realized this—did he not?cyrus

“Asturagash will not be receiving horses from the Parsis this year, or any other,” announced Kurash in a voice as flat and dangerous as the blade of a sword. He sat very still, apparently waiting for Gaudatra to reply. Swallowing drily, the lord of Elam carefully considered both the tone and wording of his rejoinder.

“My … my lord surely realizes the … the gravity of the situation? For many years the Parsis have sent to their kindred and protectors, the Medes, a levy of the Nisayan chargers for which these lands are famous. To withhold from the king what he has every right to expect … My lord cannot be seriously considering such a course.” Despite his best intentions, Gaudatra could not avoid a weak, interrogative inflection in his words.

Kurash made no answer. There was only that smiling, perilous amber stare, the same shade as the lion’s hide, relentless as a stalking cat.

Choking on the apprehension rising rapidly in his throat, Gaudatra stammered, “My lord Kurash leaves me no choice … but to report such words to his king and mine, the Emperor Asturagash—”

“As you made your way here,” cut in Kurash, “I hope the mountain passes gave you no difficulty. I instructed the lookouts in my outlying territories to watch most carefully for you.” Kurash allowed the import of his words to absorb slowly into Gaudatra’s consciousness. “I gave them most specific instructions,” the king continued, “about the description and numbers of your entourage. So often in the ravines and narrow trails of the Zagrash mountains, rock slides can block the path, boulders can break loose and slide down into the restricted gorges through which one must travel … ” The silence stretched to the breaking point.

“You dare not!” breathed Gaudatra in horror. “I am a protected envoy of—”

“And then there are the avalanches,” continued Kurash smoothly. “In these mountains one must constantly be watchful.”

landscapeThe lord of Elam could not speak. His chest rose and fell in great spasms of fear. Once he made as if to sprint toward the locked door of the chamber, to beat upon it and call for his guards to break in and save him from this madman. But when Gobhruz slid his hand along the hilt of his throwing-knife, the Mede thought better of any such attempt.

“Good Gaudatra, you seem overwrought,” observed Kurash drily. “You will sleep in my house tonight, and perhaps the weariness of the road will be abated somewhat. Tomorrow, when you are rested, we will discuss these matters further. I believe you will see,” he finished, peering carefully into Gaudatra’s widened eyes, “that I have more to offer than a few horses.”

“AND SO, MY LORD,” finished Adad-ibni, “the portents signify the need for caution.” The mage glanced surreptitiously toward Nabu-Naid, who was seated at Nebuchadrezzar’s side. Seeing the prime minister’s tacit approval, Adad-ibni went on. “The lion is in the house of Marduk, which is all to the good, but the moon drifts between Nergal and Ishtar. Lord Sin the moon god requires placation just now. It would be better to give him no reason for anger.”

Nebuchadrezzar shifted in his seat, now cupping his chin in his hand, now drumming his fingers on the table beside him. He grew impatient with Adad-ibni’s long-winded circumlocutions. After all this time, he thought, surely Adad-ibni did not think his rumblings about signs and portents frightened his emperor. Let him state what he wanted and why, and save all this self-justifying blather for the more easily impressed. Nebuchadrezzar was old; he didn’t have time for such nonsense.

Nabu-Naid could see the emperor’s pensive expression. “What my lord the High Mage seems to be pointing toward,” he interjected, “is that the great temple of Sin, the House of the Moon Lord in Haran, still lies in disrepair and disrespect. Surely something can be done.”

Nebuchadrezzar glared at his prime minister. “Again, Nabu-Naid? Still you bait me about the wrong done to your family, and ask me to risk the anger of our respected ally, King Astyages of the Medes. That’s the point of all this … ”—he searched for a suitable word—“all this astrological gossip, isn’t it?” He gave a scoffing laugh, shifting his scowl to Adad-ibni. The shaven-headed seer dropped his eyes, fumbling awkwardly with the hem of his robe.

“You two are quite a pair,” scolded the emperor. “When hints and importuning don’t get a result, you bring the gods into the fray—don’t you, Nabu-Naid?”advice

The prime minister made no reply.

“Such advisers I have!” moaned the aged king. “Such counselors! Who cares a fig about the empire? Who troubles himself about the benefit of the provinces and their affairs? No one!” Nebuchadrezzar rose from his chair, hobbling angrily back and forth before the two abashed courtiers. “Every sniveling one of you in this court cares only about his own advancement, his own wants!”

Whirling upon them, he shouted, “There are no men of vision left in Babylon—only men of appetites!” His shoulders slumped as the stiffening anger leaked from him. “You are all leeches—good for nothing but sucking the life out of an old, tired man,” he muttered. “Leave me, both of you! I’m bored by the sound and sight of you!”

When the door closed, the emperor stood, leaning against the arm of his chair, panting with exertion and annoyance. In these graying, dimming days, he became ever more aware of the niggling voices at the back of his skull—wheedling, teasing, accusing. They mocked him, baited him. And now the voices were beginning to speak to him, the voices of Adad-ibni, Nabu-Naid, and the others. But they weren’t really speaking to him; only to the idea he represented for them, only the potential benefits he might bestow. That was what they curried favor with, made obeisance to. Not him. No one cared for Nebuchadrezzar the man. Only Nebuchadrezzar the ruler.

He felt a familiar, stifling panic rising within him. Out! He must go out somewhere. He must breathe freer air, hear cleaner, less stagnant sounds. To the garden—yes, he would go to the sky-garden. He would see more clearly there. Finding a favorite cane, he hobbled as quickly as he could from the chamber. Soon he was climbing laboriously toward the pinnacle of his handmade mountain. A gentle spring breeze rustled the leaves of the miniature fig trees. Gratefully he breathed the green, growing life-smells.

Even now, at night, he could feel the eternal energy of the plant life around him. Standing here in the peaceful evening he could even imagine this as a real, tree-clad mountain: It was possible to forget about the slaves down below, hidden by layer upon layer of earth and stone and archway, endlessly turning the mechanism which lifted water from the Euphrates to the artfully hidden irrigation ditches crosshatching the sky-garden. He could fancy this his own forest—brought here as if by incantation from the lush lands of the north—where he might find solace from the nagging importunates of his court.

At last he neared the highest point. He stood beneath the date palms, not yet in their fruit-bearing season. The dark, flat expanse of the city stretched at his feet like a shadow-woven carpet. Here and there a light glowed. He could sense the resting, steady pulse of this metropolis he had called forth from Assyrian dominion. Babylon slept; but even in repose she was mighty indeed. Even at rest Babylon was a matchless monument to the things he had done correctly, an incontrovertible endorsement of the power of his vision and his dominion.

And then the voices spoke. No, not the voices, but a Voice—a distillation of an infinite majesty, a Reality which cast this paltry village of streets and canals into such insignificance that Nebuchadrezzar’s soul cowered in the farthest corner of his mind. He could not escape this Voice, nor hide from it, though he were to climb to the top of the world’s tallest mountain. Thundering into his shivering consciousness with undeniable authority, with world-shattering immediacy, the Voice uttered words like crushing tablets of stone.

This is decreed concerning you, Nebuchadrezzar of Babylon

Hearing his own name uttered by the Voice, he quaked all the more. He was known! Known to the very core—to the naked center!

Your kingship is stripped from you. You will be driven away from people, and will live with the beasts of the field. You will eat grass like the cattle eat. Seven times shall pass, and you shall be as a dumb animal until you acknowledge that the Most High is sovereign over the kingdoms of men, and gives them to whomever He pleases.mad

Like some furtive night-thing, the emperor of Babylon crouched down to the ground. His panicked mind darted into a cleft hidden deep, deep within him. On all fours, he crawled into the bushes of the night garden, to hide from the hostile, all-seeing eyes of the bewildering, tiny world he now inhabited.

This chapter is from the novel Daniel: The Man Who Saw Tomorrow, by Thom Lemmons. The entire novel is now available for your smart phone, tablet, or other e-reading device at HomingPigeonPublishing.com. Please visit the site to purchase this book and also for more information on other books by Thom Lemmons

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Daniel: The Man Who Saw Tomorrow–Chapter 13

AT MIDMORNING Daniel returned to the palace. As he passed over the bridge spanning the Zababa Canal and on through the wide, guarded gateway of the imperial residence, his eyes met with those of a messenger who was nervously scanning each face that entered or left the palace grounds.

Seeing Daniel, he hurried toward the vizier, a relieved expression becalming his troubled face. “Lord Belteshazzar, you must hurry! I am commanded to take you straightway to the emperor!”

Foreboding balled Daniel’s stomach into a cold fist. Nodding, he said to the page, “Lead on.” Quickly they passed into a nearby corridor.

 

NEBUCHADREZZAR SAT by a high window overlooking the clustered buildings and the wide, straight thoroughfares of his Babylon. In the middle distance, directly in his line of sight, soared Etemenanki, within the walls of the Esagila complex.

But the emperor saw none of this. His chin rested in his hand as he sat by a small lacquered table, the fingers of his other hand mindlessly sifting leaves of aloe, dried and crushed, from a small carved-ivory bowl. The rich aroma of the spice leaves failed to penetrate his consciousness any more than the sight of his city’s energy stimulated his eyesight. Blindly he stared out the window, his vision turned darkly inward. Restlessly, vainly, he pondered the enigma of this latest omen that had invaded his sleep.

Behind him a door opened and closed. Gradually, he became conscious of another presence in the chamber, and turned to look behind him.etem

Belteshazzar was there, kneeling by the doorway, his eyes fixed in a sad, knowing gaze on the face of his emperor. For as many as thirty heartbeats, the two men beheld each other. The emperor sensed it was not necessary to tell Belteshazzar why he had been summoned: The vizier’s eyes exhibited comprehension, pity—and perhaps too much knowledge. It was only needful to fill in certain details. Nebuchadrezzar opened his mouth to speak.

“They could not help me.” Nebuchadrezzar’s tone was neither angry nor resentful. The emperor was not accusing, not condemning. He was pleading.

Daniel’s chest pounded. As He had to Joseph in the most ancient chronicles, the Eternal had given into his hand the secrets of another man’s innermost passions. It seemed indecent to know such intensely private things as another man’s dreams—let alone an emperor’s! Even now, before hearing Nebuchadrezzar’s words, Daniel felt the Lord’s message burning within him like a white-hot key eager to find its lock. He did not want to hear what would come next, yet knew it could not be avoided. The burden lay before him like the blazing summons of Moses. He could not walk away.

Daniel sighed deeply. “Tell me, my king.”

He did.

By the time the emperor had finished speaking, his vizier was trembling visibly. Seeing Belteshazzar’s ashen face, his dry swallows, Nebuchadrezzar demanded, “What’s wrong? Speak, Belteshazzar! Do not spare my emotions, for I have walked in nothing but fear since this night-specter came to me.”

Still Belteshazzar could not speak. His mouth moved, but his voice was mute, swathed in the gauze bindings of dismay.

“Surely knowledge cannot be worse than this dreadful uncertainty!” said Nebuchadrezzar, his voice rising in alarm. “Speak!”

But it was not the emperor’s apprehension that clamped Daniel’s jaws in a vise of panic. He knew the words he must utter, and a chaotic fright gripped him in its cold, ruthless fist: a fear for the wrath he knew his interpretation of the king’s dream must engender.

Again he stood divided within himself, as if still young and alone and half-mad with anguish, helplessly pondering two untenable alternatives. Once more the rending agony of choice tore him screaming asunder—Adonai’ s axe cleanly clove him body from soul, husk from center. This day no apothecary, no cleverly concocted ruse could save him. The heartbreaking loyalty of his deceived friends would not avail now. He balanced on the diamond-sharp point of a sword, and all steps led to doom.

Through the thick, cloying fog of his dismay, he heard the imperative voice of the king: “Speak, Belteshazzar!” In this moment, he fancied Nebuchadrezzar’s voice echoing Adonai’s command: “Speak!” Looking at the aging monarch, his eyes began to betray him. No longer did Nebuchadrezzar sit in the chair, staring urgently at him. Now his place was taken by an old, blind beggar, peering intently into the abject, quivering center of Daniel’s torment, shouting with a silent, deafening voice: “Speak!”

Falling on his face, he heard his words tumbling out in a blubbering rush. “My king, I would to God that the interpretation was directed at your enemies! I beg you, my lord: Consider your ways, and turn, lest the things the Lord has shown me come true!”

Nebuchadrezzar sat absolutely still. His voice came in a low, inflectionless murmur. “What things?”

Blindly Daniel rushed over the precipice of his panic. “The tree, O my king—the tree represents yourself. Your power is great, your rule vast. Many nations and peoples rest in your shade, O Nebuchadrezzar, and your dominion nourishes the whole earth … ”

Nebuchadrezzar did not move or speak. His eyes narrowed to slits as he waited wordlessly for Belteshazzar to continue.

“The holy one you saw, my lord, and the command he gave concerning the tree—” A fear-induced palsy clasped Daniel’s throat. After several moments of ragged panting, he was able to go on. “This word means that you will be brought down, my king.”

Nebuchadrezzar stiffened in his chair. Without looking up from the floor, Daniel felt the icy blast of the king’s indignation prickling the nape of his neck. Rushing helplessly forward, he said, “You will live like a beast of the field. The dew of heaven will drench you and your mind will become like that of an animal, until seven times pass. When you acknowledge that the Eternal, tellingand He alone, is sovereign over all creation, then your kingdom and your mind will be restored. This is why the stump and the roots of the tree remain in the ground.”

The emperor felt stabbed to the very heart by the graceless words of his vizier. He had humbled himself before Belteshazzar—practically begged! In return he had hoped for the slightest comfort, the smallest crumb of assuagement. Instead, at his most vulnerable moment, Belteshazzar chose to humiliate him with this simpering polemic, wheezing the same tired theme: the power of his nameless god, the sad state of the “chosen” Hebrews. Here sat his king, real and alive and in the room—in need of balm. But did Belteshazzar bring words of healing? No! He moaned and whined about his Almighty!

“So,” growled Nebuchadrezzar, “the stump remains, does it? How benevolent.”

“My king, I beg you,” sobbed Daniel, his face mashed into the cold oaken planking of the floor. “Take heed! Consider the error of your ways and turn, that the wrath of the Almighty might be avoided! Lift up the weak, and do justice to the oppressed, and perhaps—”

“Enough!” hissed the emperor, thrusting himself angrily from his seat and pacing to the window. He spoke without turning his head. “I protected you. I shielded you from the jealousy and wrath of those who could not allow themselves to see your worth.” He snarled over his shoulder toward the cowering vizier: “I brought you into my own house, elevating you above those who had served me far longer. I trusted you, Belteshazzar. And this is how you repay me?”

Galvanized by his wrath, Nebuchadrezzar stood spear-straight, his eyes flashing sparks as he flung verbal coals upon the humped back of Belteshazzar. “Why is simple loyalty so difficult for you Hebrews? Why must your every profession of allegiance be offered alongside the galling, high-handed demands of your invisible Almighty? With one hand you offer service, and with the other you slap the king’s dignity in the face!

“Well?” he demanded, wheeling suddenly. “Have you nothing to say, no defense to give?”

Daniel, prone and trembling on the floor, made no response.

“Get out of my sight, and out of my palace,” gnashed Nebuchadrezzar in contempt. “For the sake of your past service I will spare your life. But I will not tolerate two-minded advisers in my presence. Leave me at once.”angry

Turning back to the window, he heard the rustle of clothing as Belteshazzar limped forlornly out of the chamber. The door closed, and he was alone with his anger.

 

KURASH ALLOWED the Nisayan gelding to pick its way slowly among the loose stones of the steep trail. The way to the shrine was serpentine, twisting back and forth across the mountainside like water seeking the easiest path to the sea.

The early morning sun splashed crimson and gold along the craggy heights of the Zagrash range. Across the jagged gorge, four peaks reared their heads above their brethren. Kurash studied the scene, appreciating the quadrilateral symmetry that was such an integral part of Parsi symbology: the four winds of earth, the four legs of the horse, the four walls of a house. Perhaps one day I shall rule four kingdoms, he thought with a smile.

Turning his head slightly, Kurash asked, “What did you learn in your latest foray among your plain-dwelling brethren, Gobhruz?”

The Mede, his mount carefully following behind that of his liege, thought long before replying. “There is much discontent in Shushan, and elsewhere in the Medean kingdom,” the older man said finally. For some moments the only sound was the squeak of polished tack, the clacking of hoof against stone, and the snorting of the horses. “In Ecbatana, of course, King horseAsturagash maintains iron-fisted control. His profligacies are not much commented upon, as long as the nobles have enough new territory to divide among themselves. Elsewhere … ” The unfinished sentence shrugged with possibilities, with conjecture. Gobhruz knew Kurash too well to suppose the inflection would go unnoticed.

Glancing at the peaks above them, rearing saw-toothed against the azure sky of the Parsis, Kurash spoke thoughtfully: “The walls of the clans of Hakhamanish. For long years his children have desired no other fortification. They have dwelt in relative peace and security among their high valleys, content to send their horses and their sons to fight the fights of the Medes, their cousins.

“What will they think,” the king of Anshan asked, more of himself than Gobhruz, “of the wide world beyond these mountains, the world of which they know so little? What will they think of the one who leads them forth from this tiny realm into the broad lands of the earth?”

He turned his gaze to the path climbing ahead. ‘Will they go gladly forth and take their place among the kingdoms of men? Or will they hate the one who invites such an irrevocable birthing?”

 

HEARING THE APPROACH of the two horses, the priest glanced up from his contemplation of the flame on the altar. Assuring himself the fire had sufficient fuel to burn for some time, he rose, dusting off his tunic and woolen breeches. He bowed as Kurash dismounted, receiving in return the salute of the king of Anshan.

“Greetings, Diravarnya,” called Kurash. “And may Ahura Mazda preserve your life.”

Bowing toward the fire on the altar, the priest replied, “May the Divine Flame preserve us all to the Day of Testing.”

altar“Do the worshipers provide adequate sustenance for your needs?” asked the young king, handing the reins of his horse to Gobhruz.

“Well enough, my king,” replied the priest, his gray eyes never wavering from the face of Kurash. “I am sustained by my service to the Wise Lord. I do not require much.”

For several moments the only sound was the sighing of the wind through the desolate crags round about. Kurash and Diravarnya locked gazes in measured silence. Finally the young king tore his eyes away from the calm, unmoving stare of the holy man.

Clearing his throat a trifle too loudly, Kurash said, “I wish to make a gift to the shrine—in the name of my father.” In a ruffled, jerky manner, Kurash fumbled in his saddle pouch, fishing out a wallet. From inside it came the muffled clinking of silver. Avoiding the priest’s cool gray eyes, he held out the offering. “In the memory of King Kanbujiya, my sire and your protector.”

Slowly reaching out to take it, Diravamya said quietly, “I accept your gift, King Kurash, with thanks, and I am grateful for your memory of me. But my protector is Ahura Mazda, the One Lord, whose flame I guard. As long as it is his will, I shall live; when he wishes it, I will die. So it must be.”

With difficulty, Kurash again raised his face to peer at the holy man. After a false start, he stammered, “Diravarnya, I … I would ask a blessing … ”

The priest inclined his head, silently waiting for the king’s next words. His expression was an odd mixture of curiosity and cognizance—as if he knew what Kurash would say, and only wondered in what words the request would be couched. The detached, self-possessed manner of Diravarnya the priest rattled Kurash. He was not accustomed to eyes with such long, beyond-seeking focus. Unnerved, he struggled for words to make his petition. “I … I have certain … plans,” stuttered Kurash. “Ambitions. Dreams. Will you … could you beseech Ahura Mazda on my—on our behalf?”

A tiny smile pursed Diravarnya’ s lips. He nodded slightly, as if Kurash’s words had merely confirmed what he already suspected. He turned his head to peer into the heart of the flame on the altar.

Turning back to the waiting monarch, he said, “Before our ancestors ever came to this place—indeed, since the beginning of all things—the Wise Lord, Ahura Mazda, taught men to worship him. In fire, sky, and water—in the stars and in the clouds of heaven—in all life and all creation, his hand can be traced. Few are those who hear his voice, Lord Kurash. Fewer still are those who follow.zoroaster

“All the times and fates of men are in the hands of Ahura Mazda, and have been forever. It is he who raises up kings, and he who abases them. It is he who places song in the heart of the victor, and he who silences the tongue of the vanquished.” Looking carefully into the widened eyes of the young ruler, the holy man continued: “Your days are in his hands, King Kurash, whether you acknowledge him or not. He has already determined your course according to his own designs, and these are the paths you shall surely tread. I believe he calls you forth from Anshan for a purpose—though my poor vision does not extend so far as to see its end. I am not so great a seer as others have been … ” The priest looked away wistfully, over the heads of Kurash and his bodyguard, then back again. “If in these words you can find some comfort, Lord Kurash, it is well. Further counsel I cannot give.”

Turning away from the king, the holy man went back to his place by the altar. Carefully he added fuel, his attention absorbed by the service he rendered to the flame. He did not glance up when Kurash and Gobhruz remounted, leaving the way they had come.

 

ADAD-IBNI RUBBED HIS PALMS together in delight, an oily cackle issuing from between his smirking lips. News of Belteshazzar’s disgrace had trickled down from the highest levels of Chaldean society to the lowest, but it was especially here in the palace that its import was felt. The void created by his dismissal brought quick adjustments in the convoluted web of loyalties and alliances by which the courtiers of Babylon lived and died. Spaces were filled, modifications made. Some who thought themselves well-placed experienced a sudden, unwelcome reversal in their prospects; others on the periphery suddenly discovered themselves closer than ever to the dizzying centers of influence. Belteshazzar’ s great misfortune set off a whole series of sympathetic misfortunes or happy chances, depending on one’s prior allegiances.

Adad-ibni himself was one of the primary beneficiaries of Belteshazzar’s unexpected humiliation. The mage sat now in his chamber, congratulating himself on his good fortune, and glanced up as a knock came on his door. Motioning with his eyes toward his servant, he watched as the slave went to the entryway.face

A page entered the room and bowed, holding out a small scrap of parchment. The servant took it and brought it to Adad-ibni. Quickly the seer scanned the note. It was autographed with the sign of Lord Nabu-Naid. Showing no reaction, the mage dismissed the courier. As the door closed, his eyes narrowed in calculation. He rapidly sifted back and forth through the probabilities created by the invitation he held in his hand. Arriving at a decision, he stood.

“Fetch my robe of office,” he ordered his servant. “I must pay an official visit to the emperor.”

 

This chapter is from the novel Daniel: The Man Who Saw Tomorrow, by Thom Lemmons. It is now available for your smart phone, tablet, or other e-reading device at HomingPigeonPublishing.com. Please visit the site to purchase this book and also for more information on other books by Thom Lemmons

Categories: Fiction | 1 Comment

Daniel: The Man Who Saw Tomorrow–Chapter 12

THE NIGHT WAS CLEAR, the moon so full and brilliant that Nabu-Naid felt he might almost hear the singing of Sin as he passed overhead in his pearl-white chariot. The prime minister paced along the wall of the citadel overlooking Aibur Shabu, where only weeks before Marduk had ridden in his victorious processional and the emperor had made his annual penitent passage.

But the moon god Sin, not Babylon’s Marduk, was the patron deity of the prime minister. His mother was a priestess of Sin in Haran, the northern city now under sway of the barely civilized Medes. Even now, with the temple of her god in shambles, the ancient matron clung tenaciously to life. Perhaps it was only the stubborn will of this shriveled, defiant old woman that maintained one stone of the moon-lord’s temple upon another. It grated upon Nabu-Naid to remember the temple of Sin in Haran and the indignities heaped upon it. In better days the moon-lord had been revered and widely respected—unlike now, when blatant Marduk held his brassy sway over the hearts and minds of the people. It galled Nabu-Naid that Nebuchadrezzar could not be troubled to redress the injustice done to Sin. In these, the emperor’s waning days, he could not be bothered by so trivial a matter as the liberation of the disgraced temple of Nabu-Naid’s mother and the moon god she served so faithfully.moongoddes

It would not always be so, the prime minister promised himself. Hearing footsteps, he turned, smiling and opening his arms to greet the one whom he had come here to consult.

“Greetings, most excellent Nergal-Sharezer,” the prime minister gushed, gripping the forearms of the emperor’s son-in-law as he made a small bow.

Nergal-Sharezer gave a curt nod, returning the salutation. “And health to you, honored Nabu-Naid,” clipped the younger man. “You wished to speak with me—somewhere private, you said?” The prince gestured about him. “We are alone, as you can see. What did you wish to say?”

“The young lord says so much in so few words,” said Nabu-Naid admiringly. “Certainly, your humble servant is grateful for the prince allowing such an imposition as this meeting.”

Nergal-Sharezer looked away, bored, tapping his fingers on his crossed arms.

“If the prince will permit me,” hurried Nabu-Naid, “I will speak more directly. Although … in such matters as we must discuss this night, one would be wise to tread carefully.” The prime minister allowed the phrase to hang in the air, glistening invitingly in the moonlight.

“Careful of whom?” said the prince finally, unable, despite his air of affected ennui, to endure the suspense.

Smiling inwardly, Nabu-Naid leaned toward the prince. “Of those who wish the downfall of Babylon.”

Nergal-Sharezer’s nostrils flared, his eyes widened. “Is there rebellion afoot?” he demanded.

“Oh, no, no, my lord,” assured Nabu-Naid, “nothing … quite so—obvious.” The prime minister, knowing the fish was now hooked, caused the inflection of his denial to belie the surety of its words.

“Well, man? What, then?” queried the prince, his voice rising in impatience.

“There are those,” answered Nabu-Naid, “who would like nothing better than to see one seated on the Dragon Throne who would be, shall we say, less than vigorous in his prosecution of the affairs of the kingdom. Those, perhaps, who would benefit from the … ”—Nabu-Naid affected a look of careful consideration—“the distraction of him who wears the mantle of Nebuchadrezzar. Those, for example, who might stand to gain from the encroachment of the Medes.”

Nergal-Sharezer stepped away from the prime minister, thoughtfully rubbing his beard as he gazed out over the city, silvered by the lustrous moon. Slowly he nodded. “Since you have broached the subject, good Nabu-Naid … I too have sometimes thought the crown prince did not have the necessary … discernment for the task of governance. And it is true that Astyages the Mede creeps ever closer to the heart of the empire. Today Haran—tomorrow, who knows?”

“My lord’s eyes are truly keen,” oozed the prime minister. “A pity that one with such penetrating vision should not inherit the crown—especially with the vital interest my lord has, as prince consort, in the ongoing prosperity of this great empire … ”

“Perhaps,” agreed Nergal-Sharezer, turning again to face the older man. “But the honored prime minister knows that our father the emperor has already decreed—”

“Yes, yes,” groaned Nabu-Naid, shaking his head in saddened resignation. “A pity, that.” For several moments the two men stood silent, contemplating the unfortunate, apparently insurmountable difficulties of the situation. “Still,” intoned Nabu-Naid finally, stroking his cheek in deep study, “perhaps … ” He allowed a long hush.

“Well? What now?” asked Nergal-Sharezer, his eagerness pathetically obvious in his voice. Again the prime minister sternly suppressed a chuckle.

“I was just thinking,” muttered Nabu-Naid, outwardly lost in thought. “There are a few wiser heads among the court: men who might be persuaded to see reason …” He allowed the sentence to ramble into silence. He fancied he could hear Nergal-Sharezer panting with anticipation. “Yes,” Nabu-Naid went on, whispering reflectively, “it is just possible … ”

“What should I do?” prompted the prince at last.cuneiform

Nabu-Naid started as if he had forgotten he was not alone. “Oh, my lord prince,” he stuttered, “forgive me. When an old man gets lost inside his own head—”

“Never mind that,” urged Nergal-Sharezer. “What is to be done?”

“Nothing for now,” cautioned Nabu-Naid. “One must not forget that while our father Nebuchadrezzar lives … ” He watched as the prince finished the thought for himself.

“True,” conceded Nergal-Sharezer. Peering directly into the older man’s eyes, he said, “I am grateful to you, honored Nabu-Naid. It cheers the heart to know there are minds as wise as yours in this city. It gives one hope.”

Nabu-Naid bowed humbly. “I am your obedient servant. My only wish is the good of Babylon.”

“I must go now,” said the prince. “Shall we speak more of this later?”

Nabu-Naid nodded serenely. “In the fullness of time, my prince.” He watched.Nergal-Sharezer whirl about, striding across the roof and down the stairway. Then Nabu-Naid gazed upward into the gray-white orb of the full moon.

“Like you, my lord Sin,” he said, smiling, “I shine brightest when most men are asleep.” Chuckling to himself, he followed the prince toward the stairway.

 

A SWORD-BRIGHT SWATH of moonlight fell through the window and across Nebuchadrezzar as he tossed on his bed, moaning and muttering. His eyelids fluttered, his fingers twitched as he chased night-phantoms through the dark halls of the dream-world.

He stood beside the Euphrates, the sky above him the exultant blue of summer. A huge tree rose up before him, the mightiest and most magnificent tree ever seen—a king of trees. Its branches spread wide as if to embrace the entire world. Even the splendid cedars of Lebanon could not compare with this leviathan, the girth of its trunk as great as the base of the Etemenanki treeziggurat itself.

As he looked up into its branches, every bough was a chorus of birdsong, every leaf a hymn of joy. He laughed with delight at the beauty of the fruit hanging in profusion from its limbs—so abundant that it seemed this tree, of itself, could feed the whole earth. Beasts of the field and forest lay down in its shade, lulled into peace by the cool tranquility of its overarching shelter.

Even before he looked up into the sky, he felt the heat of holiness raising the hair on the nape of his neck. Afraid to raise his eyes, yet unable to avoid doing so, he looked into the sky to see one coming down from the blue vault whose brightness made the midsummer day darken to twilight by comparison. Beholding the frightful messenger’s descent, the emperor had no doubt of his source: He came from the awful presence of the gods themselves—or beyond. Then the holy one spoke in a voice like thunder and storm.

“Cut down the tree and hack off his branches! Strip his foliage and scatter his fruit! Let the beasts flee, and let the birds in the branches scatter to the four winds! Leave him only a stump and the dead roots in the ground, bound with iron and brass.

“Let the dew of heaven drench him, and let the beasts of the field be his companions. Let his mind leave him, and let the consciousness of an animal be given to him. The holy ones have declared this verdict: ‘This shall come to pass, so that all living beings may know that El Illai, the Most High, is sovereign, that His hand extends over all the kingdoms of men from the utmost ends of the earth, and He makes such disposition of them as pleases Him. He sets over them such as He wills, and exalts even the lowliest of men …, ’”

stumpNebuchadrezzar’s eyes snapped open, staring blindly into the darkness of his bedchamber. His hands, stretched on corpse-rigid arms to either side of him, gripped the fabric of his couch like the throat of an enemy—or a lifeline.

 

AT THE OTHER END of the palace, Daniel shifted uneasily in his sleep. A voice not heard since—when?—called out to his spirit. Groaning in his slumber, with a knowledge beyond sleep or waking, he recognized the voice of his summoner. Then he slept on, perhaps realizing he would need all his strength to bear the burden of the vision being placed within him.

 

A HAGGARD, DROWSY GROUP of astrologers and mages shambled into the council chamber of the emperor. Outside, the cocks still slept, yet these men had been rousted from their predawn beds to assemble here at Nebuchadrezzar’s command. Mutterings about the emperor’s irrational behavior and his possible dotage ceased abruptly when Nebuchadrezzar himself hobbled into the room.

Even allowing for his advancing age, the emperor looked feeble. His appearance was that of a man aging swiftly, beyond the bounds of time’s normal passage. The drooping skin under his eyes told the tale of sleeplessness; the harried, haunted glimmer within the eyes told of something else. The wizards and seers genuflected, each wondering what new terror stalked the emperor’s soul.

“I have suffered great fear from a dream I have had,” the emperor began.

Adad-ibni stiffened. To the wizened mage, this had the unpleasant ring of familiarity.

 

DANIEL PASSED THROUGH the portal of the house on Adad Street, nodding to the gatekeeper. As he entered the courtyard, he saw Ephratah, the wife of Azariah, gathering water for the morning meal from one of the standing urns along the far wall. As she straightened and turned, he bowed respectfully toward her.

“Peace to this house, and to its mistress,” he said.

“And peace to you, friend of my husband,” she returned, smiling in greeting. “Azariah is with the children, washing for the meal. Will you break your fast with us, Daniel?” Grateful to hear his infrequently used Hebrew name spoken aloud, Daniel made a small gesture of appreciation. “Nothing would please me more.”

Azariah, though well advanced in the imperial service and thus entitled to quarters in the palace complex, insisted instead on living in this house in the New City where he had spent so much time. When Azariah took Ephratah to wife, Hananiah—like Daniel, a confirmed bachelor—continued living in the house at Azariah’ s invitation. He had become like an uncle to Azariah’s two sons and daughter, a beloved member of the household. Mishael lived at the palace, as Daniel did, but the four friends maintained close contact, frequently gathering in this house which they had shared as younger men.friends

This morning Daniel felt a vague sense of foreboding, as if some task faced him for which he had no stomach. He craved laughter, familiar faces, and the warm glow of shared memories as antidotes to the nagging premonition that tapped at his shoulder like an unwelcome guest.

Passing into the family’s common room, he passed Caleb: ancient, gnarled, impossibly still alive. The aged servant squatted by the doorway of the common room, awaiting the arrival of the family and the food. Though Azariah and his wife begged him to rest, the dried-up old one—deaf and devoted and stubborn—insisted on continuing to serve the patrons of this house. He shrugged off their entreaties with no more notice than a dumb beast, persisting in the duties that had framed the daily rhythm of his life for more years than anyone else in the house could calculate. It was as if he himself were part of the furnishings of the place; as long as the house lived and functioned, so would he.

Daniel leaned near Caleb’s face. In his great age, the old man’s vision had begun to fail, even as his hearing had long ago. “Good day, Father Caleb,” Daniel shouted, touching a bony shoulder in greeting. “Why don’t you return to your couch? Azariah’s children can manage the serving duties.”

Caleb’s eyes, their rheumy orbs enfolded within a face as wrinkled and creased as ancient parchment, flickered over Daniel’s face. “Good morning, young master,” croaked Caleb. “Please make yourself comfortable. I will bring you food.”

Daniel smiled and shook his head. He straightened and turned about just as Azariah entered the room, one hand steadying his daughter on a hip, the other interlocked with that of his youngest son. Seeing the familiar figure standing beside Caleb, Milcah fought free of her father’s grasp. She raced across the floor, holding out her hands in a plea for Daniel to pick her up.

Laughing as the little girl toyed with the graying hair about his temples, Daniel hefted Milcah playfully. “Oof,” he grunted, “you are too heavy for such games, young maiden.”

In response, Milcah twined her arms about Daniel’s neck, pressing her cheek against his beard. “It tickles,” she smiled.

A young servant bore in a large board, heaped with freshly baked wheat cakes, honey, dates, and soft, white goat’s cheese. Ephratah came in, carrying a clay jar filled with water. Joel, Azariah’s older son, entered from the direction of the sleeping quarters, still rubbing his eyes blearily despite the vigorous scrubbing his father had administered to his face. Dragging cushions and straw mats into place about the board, Daniel and the family of Azariah gathered for the morning meal.

Before anyone touched food, all eyes turned to Azariah, the master of the house. Closing his eyes and raising his hands palm upward in supplication, he intoned, “Blessed art Thou, Eternal God, King of Creation, who has blessed us and given us the fruit of the earth to eat … ”

The benediction concluded, each person helped himself to the foodstuffs on the board. Caleb hobbled to his place behind Azariah’s left shoulder, ready to fetch and carry or render such assistance as might be needed. The servant who had carried in the food retired unobtrusively to a nearby position where he might see Azariah’ s discreet hand signals, unobserved by the revered yet feeble Caleb.

“So then, Vizier Belteshazzar,” began Azariah in a teasing, pompous tone, “to what do we owe the unexpected delight of your presence at this, our humble house?” Licking the honey from his fingers, he waited, eyes twinkling, for Daniel’s reply.

“Why, to this excellent bread, of course,” rejoined Daniel. “If the bakers in the Avenue of Enlil knew of its existence, they would kill one another to possess the secret of its making.”

Ephratah smiled, rolling her eyes wearily. “Lord Belteshazzar jests, I fear,” she said. “Is there no bread in the royal house, that he should be driven so far from his quarters in the palace of the king to this poor board?”meal

Daniel smiled, a hint of melancholy tugging at the comers of his eyes. “Alas, good mistress, it is distance from the palace I seek this morning. Distance, and the companionship of good friends. The rich foods and veiled hostilities of the imperial court are an inauspicious combination for a settled stomach.”

“What is wrong in the court?” asked Azariah, his tone sombered by the dour tone of Daniel’s response. “Is the emperor so near death?”

Daniel sighed, toying with his food. “No, it isn’t that. In fact, it’s nothing I can name. Only a feeling; a sense that something is—about to happen.” His eyes locked with those of Azariah, a meaningful communication passing wordlessly between them.

Azariah knew the concerned, burdened, knowing look in Daniel’s eyes. He had seen it before, in their youth—in the court of a humiliated, powerless king in Jerusalem, when they were summoned to appear before the cold, evaluating eye of a foreign conqueror’s official. He had seen it again when, as frightened boys in this strange new city, they were told they must consume a diet not compatible with their religious scruples; and again, a few years later, when an angry emperor made threats against seers powerless to interpret a troubling dream; and once more, when a decree had gone out concerning a ceremony, an image, and a furnace …

“My friend,” said Azariah, “don’t borrow trouble. Perhaps you worry about nothing. Let events unfold as they will—there will be time enough then to deal with them.” Even as the words left his lips, Azariah knew he spoke nonsense as far as Daniel was concerned.

“What’s going to happen, Uncle?” queried Joel, the oldest child. His eyes were wide, his face advertising absolute acceptance of Daniel’s intuition. From the lips of a child, Azariah thought to himself, looking down at his son.

Daniel smiled, ruffling the hair of the round-eyed boy. “Perhaps nothing, Joel, as your father says. Perhaps I allow the cares and problems of the court to intrude upon me too much.” Daniel looked away, over the heads of those seated at the table, his manner far louder than his words.

“Daniel, don’t think too much about … the other time,” ventured Azariah into the uneasy silence, as the pain of a festering memory clouded his friend’s countenance. “A man does what he must, and none of us may reach backward in time to undo what has been done.”

Daniel’s eyes narrowed, but he said nothing.

“Leave the past in the past,” insisted Azariah, sallying once more into the breach of his friend’s remorse. “This is a new season, and the mistakes of yesterday need not burden today.”

At last Daniel looked at Azariah, a smile of gratitude testing the surface of his lips. “Thank you, old friend,” Daniel said. “My heart is warmed by your concern.” Looking about him at the other quietly anxious faces at the table, he went on. “In truth, this is what brought me to your house this morning, not the taste of your excellent bread.”family

Ephratah smiled demurely, inclining her head toward Daniel. “Our home is always open to you,” she said. Milcah, seated beside her mother, nodded vigorously.

A low, rasping snore was heard. The eyes of everyone went to Caleb, still seated at his station behind Azariah. The ancient servant had fallen asleep where he sat, his head lolling on his chest. Through his open mouth he sucked noisy draughts of air. The children giggled, covering their mouths to avoid waking the beloved old man. Amid broad smiles, the family resumed its meal.

 

This chapter is from the novel Daniel: The Man Who Saw Tomorrow, by Thom Lemmons. It is now available for your smart phone, tablet, or other e-reading device at HomingPigeonPublishing.com. Please visit the site to purchase this book and also for more information on other books by Thom Lemmons

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Daniel: The Man Who Saw Tomorrow–Chapter 11

THE COUNSELOR’S VOICE droned drily on, drearily reciting statistics gleaned from the tablet he carried, his finger carefully tracing the mud-baked characters as if they were a lifeline, a tether to a cherished reality. His hand cradling his chin, Babylon’s Crown Prince Awil-Marduk leaned his elbow wearily on the table in the council chamber, making no effort to hide his boredom.

With the fingers of his other hand he drummed on the tabletop, barely enduring the arid matters of state to which his title had chained him. Far better, he thought, to be on patrol along the Lydian frontier, breathing the crisp mountain air of the Cilician highlands. Or perhaps in the harem, enjoying the music, the incense, the languid eyes and accommodating bodies of the perfumed courtesans. Anywhere but here, listening to this insufferable talk of wheat harvests and droughts, of river traffic and military levies.trade

Nebuchadrezzar watched his son, bridling with frustration at the boy’s complete disregard of his responsibilities. No doubt he would prefer to be gambling on some foot race or trying the latest vintage from Syria. Never mind that he was the designated heir to a domain bestriding not just one, but two of the greatest rivers in the world and enfolding the great seaports of Phoenicia besides. It was an empire comprising scores of peoples and languages, and commanding wealth beyond the wildest dreams of ordinary mortals. This was Babylon, the repository and treasury of the most ancient civilizations of man, and all her future king could think of was his next dalliance with some sloe-eyed concubine.

Nebuchadrezzar was infuriated. He thought of the dangers and uncertainties that he and his father, Nabopolassar, had overcome to raise Babylon again to her just place among the kingdoms of the earth. Painstakingly they had forged the alliance with Cyaxeres the Mede and his Aryan horsemen. Cautiously—it was years in the planning!—they built their organization, courting the favor of this or that diplomat, soothing with flattery the resentment of this or that disaffected governor. Only when the time was right had they sounded the war cry. And Marduk had granted them victory. The hated Assyrians had been destroyed, their capital ransacked. For fifty years now Nineveh had been an abandoned, haunted ruin, while the bounty of the world flowed into Babylon. But what did Awil-Marduk know of this? There he sat, for all the world like a truant schoolboy being force-fed his lessons!

Though having grown up in the imperial court, the boy’s attention had ever tended away from the convoluted affairs of government and politics. Nebuchadrezzar wondered if his son had managed, for all his years of luxurious upbringing, to actually avoid the thought of taking responsibility for that which provided the bounty he thoughtlessly enjoyed. The burden of leadership—grimly earned at great risk and with absolute dedication—seemed repugnant to Awil-Marduk. As well might the plow harness be offered to a wild ass of the plains. Did his son think, unconsciously perhaps, that there might be some way of avoiding the mantle being readied for him?

Nebuchadrezzar rose from the table, able to stomach no more. Hastily the courtiers in the council chamber fell from their seats, making obeisance. Out of the comer of his eye, the emperor saw his son rise to leave with him. Whirling, he thrust his finger in Awil-Marduk’s face. “You will stay,” he grated through clenched teeth, “and discharge your duty as crown prince. Even I will not live forever, boy, and I did not build this kingdom as your personal plaything. Sit, listen—and by the gods’ teeth, learn to be a king!” His eyes lashed Awil-Marduk as the crown prince sullenly returned to his place. Still glaring at his recalcitrant son, the emperor spoke to one of the kneeling advisers. “Belteshazzar, do what you can with him. As he is, he is unfit to lead children, much less a kingdom. Perhaps your Hebrew god can open his ears. Apparently I can’t.”

Daniel’s face was burning, as much with embarrassment for such public humiliation of the crown prince as with fear of the wrath of Nebuchadrezzar. Along with the rest of the prostrate courtiers he remained as still as death until the sound of the king’s rapid, heavy footsteps had faded into the distant reaches of the palace. Carefully they all resumed their places about the table. Daniel looked up without expression at the crown prince, and remained silent.

Finding his place on the tablet, the counselor resumed his droning report.

Seated at the far end of the table, Prime Minister Nabu-Naid carefully sifted through the scene just ended. Shifting, replacing, recalculating. Pieces of the puzzle clicked into place.

NEBUCHADREZZAR STALKED THROUGH the palace, meeting not a single soul in his angry march—as if his ire plumed out before him like the bow wave of a Phoenician trading vessel, warning all in his path to hide and avoid contact with him. He strode to a courtyard giving access to the huge staged garden he had built so many years before—still the wonder of all who saw it. Passing quickly into the foliage, he climbed to his place of refuge, the place he sought in times like this, when the burden of empire became insufferable. Sometimes he found it odd: He had commissioned the construction of this extravagant sky-garden to please his earliest wife, a maiden from the hill country of Medea—in fact, the mother of Awil-Marduk, the very son whose intractable lack of vision had driven him here. Weary of the unrelenting flatness of the river-lands, hanginggardensshe had wished for some small reminder of her homeland. So he had built this artificial mountain for her and planted its terraces with all manner of trees and bushes. And yet, he found its green, lofty isolation comforted him more than it did the wife for whom it was intended.

Now he ascended to its highest point, where, from the shade of carefully tended palm trees and tamarisk saplings, he could gaze out over his city—the crown jewel of his empire. It comforted him to come here and remember all that had been accomplished. He liked the early mornings best, when the city was yet dewy with the repose of the night. But any time was acceptable—especially now, as he heard the rustling leaves whisper solace in his ears and felt the cool shade caress away the heat of his frustration with Awil-Marduk. By degrees he allowed the seething in his breast to recede, exhaling the stale breath of irritation as he inhaled the calming, cool-scented air of the garden. Picking a handful of ripe dates from one of the miniature palms planted nearby, he chewed the sticky-sweet fruit and contemplated his Babylon.

Surely all this could not be wiped out easily. Yet such was his greatest fear: that all he had so painstakingly forged would be forgotten, and his name be swept aside by the winds of time like dust in the waste places. This—although he could admit it to no man—was the true source of his impatience with his son, his adamant insistence upon the boy’s assumption of responsibility.

With each passing year, the shadows in the corners of the king’ s consciousness testified to the encroachment of his mortality. During the early years, the time of building, he had been too busy to attend to the messages murmuring in the silences of the night. The din of battle and the exhilaration of victory had drowned out the quiet, insistent doubts that waited, catlike and self-contained, in the undusted corners of his mind.

In these days, however, those soundless voices kept up an incessant din within the chambers of his soul. However he might crave permanence, regardless of the magnificence of his monuments, the voices inexorably reminded him of the ruins of ancient kings, of their stone-carved decrees, fragments of which lay like so much rubble in the study of Nabu-Naid, his prime minister. Lately Nebuchadrezzar had begun having his stone-carvers and masons inscribe his statues and obelisks in the archaic Old Babylonian tongue. Perhaps by evoking the ghosts of history and bygone glories he might somehow create a connection, a bridge of perpetuity, between the forgotten dust of the past and the undreamed-of aspirations of tomorrow.

But the voices still chittered in his ear, mocking his vain, temporary efforts at staving off the inevitable. Here, at the summit of his garden, he could almost forget the voices. How could this vast metropolis, this seething network of diverse tongues and customs held together by his authority and governance, vanish into the sands of time? How could the world forget Babylon? Such was not possible—was it?

Popping another date into his mouth, he chewed as noisily as he could, praying to the rustling leaves and their green shade to again give him soothing enchantment.frieze

EGIBI SAT IN THE VAULT of his counting-house, once more tallying the day’s take. Rubbing his snow-white beard in satisfaction, he reached for his bowl and swallowed a cool draught of beer. He wiped his mouth on the sleeve of his linen robe, nodding slowly to himself.

Two hundred mana of silver lay before him. The flickering lamplight reflected softly from its lambent surface. Astyages had been as good as his word—not that Egibi had to rely on the Medean king’ s word overmuch. Astyages had at least as much reason to desire Egibi’s discretion as Egibi had to want the interest on his principal. After all, if it became known in certain quarters that the lord of the Medes pawned his household gods to finance his army’s rationing and wages, there would surely be trouble for the son of Cyaxeres. Egibi smiled to himself. How would Nebuchadrezzar like it, he wondered, knowing that a banker within his own capital supported the lifestyle of the Medean monarch?

He took another swallow of beer, allowing his mind to roam along the path of possibility. He had lived a long life and had seen kingdoms come and go. He recognized the signs: Astyages had allowed his desire for personal comfort and lavish living to overwhelm his judgment. And now he must hock the most cherished totems of his house to prevent disaffection within the ranks of his host.

The banker wondered: How long could Astyages maintain the charade? Already one heard rumblings of change in the east: Generals entertained notions of empire, vassal kings plotted revolt. What was the name of that Parsi cousin or nephew of Astyages? Kyrus, perhaps, or Kurash, was it? Yes, traders talked. One heard things.

And yet … Egibi’s fingers caressed the strips of silver stacked in orderly piles next to his scales, a small frown dragging at the corners of his mouth. Through the years he had gained handsomely from Astyages’ inability to deny himself. He would regret to see the Mede overthrown. Where would he find another customer as profitable?scribe

A knock on the door interrupted his rumination. The head of his servant Jozadak appeared in the opening. Egibi’s eyes sent a silent query toward his overseer.

“Master, the accounts are tabulated and the valuables secured,” Jozadak announced. “Is there anything else you require before the doors are locked for the night?”

Egibi squinted at the ceiling a moment, mentally running through the nightly checklist that over the years had become as ingrained in him as the routine by which he dressed himself in the morning. He glanced back at his overseer, about to shake his head in dismissal, when his eye, as acute as ever, discerned some indefinable something in Jozadak’s manner: an evaluating, almost unapproving look that gave Egibi pause. Seeing Egibi’s eyes lock with his own, Jozadak looked downward quickly, but too late.

Egibi studied his manager more carefully. Jozadak, conscious of being captured in the act of assessing his employer, stared fixedly at the floor, the color rising in his cheeks. The silence between the two men swelled huge within the small chamber.

“Close the door and sit down, Jozadak,” said Egibi quietly. The manager complied. A moment more the older man regarded his overseer, then said, “The way you look at me, Jozadak—as if you don’t quite approve of what you see. I have noticed this before.”

“I’m sorry, master—”

“You are a fine employee, Jozadak,” cut in Egibi. “You have been with me since your youth. What is it in me that you find objectionable? Do I treat you unfairly?”

“No, master,” said Jozadak, after an uncomfortable pause, his hands furiously kneading a fold of his robe. “Your employment is agreeable, and I hope my service has been—”

“Exemplary,” Egibi finished for him. For several moments he allowed the quiet to gather force. His insight into human nature had not diminished with his years, and he was perceptive enough as a businessman to realize Jozadak’s worth to him: The overseer’s honesty and industry made him a prized commodity in the firm of Egibi and Sons. Besides, he genuinely liked the man who sat across from him, sweating profusely in the cool vault. And after all, were they not distantly related kinsmen, if the legends were true—the stories about the tribes around Samaria and Jerusalem having once been a single, glorious kingdom?cuneiform

Finally Egibi’s voice pierced the pregnant hush. “Jozadak, I hire scribes and bookkeepers to read my accounts and tell me what I must know, so I do not concern myself much with scrolls and tablets. Instead I have learned in my long life to read people—as carefully as ever you examine the tallies each evening. What I see in your eyes—in those moments when you believe I’m not watching—disturbs me. I am disturbed precisely because I value you. I am not sure whether you perceive something in me that compromises your respect, or are merely analyzing your chances of stealing from me. In either case, I must warn—”

“No, master! It’s nothing like that. You must believe me!”

Egibi was taken aback by Jozadak’s interruption. After peering at the younger man’s insistent face a few surprised moments, he asked quietly, “Then what?”

Once more Jozadak’s eyes dropped, his fingers wrapping themselves tightly within the wrinkled creases of his robe. “It’s … I can’t help thinking … ” Chest heaving, Jozadak looked up at Egibi, then away. “Once your people, like my own, knew the Lord of Hosts,” he said, unable to look directly at the older man. “Once the people of Israel and Judah were alike in their devotion to the Eternal. But now … ” Jozadak gestured helplessly, unable to finish. Wishing he had veiled his feelings more carefully, berating himself for giving occasion to this wretched conversation, he fell miserably silent, waiting for Egibi to dismiss him from his presence, and probably his employ.

“Ah … I see,” came Egibi’s soft response, after he reflected a moment on Jozadak’s words. “I do not care what gods a man prays to if he keeps his word. I have never concerned myself with the religion of my patrons—or my servants, for that matter. As long as—”

“But it makes a difference!” blurted the overseer. “It matters very much, master! A man can be no better and rise no higher than the gods he serves.” Jozadak, seeing his employer’s puzzled, surprised look, groped for a way to clarify his assertion. “These gods of stone and wood and metal—they are only thinly disguised versions of the desires and grievances of their makers!”

Egibi stared into the intense gleam of Jozadak’s eyes. Despite his sophistication and—he had supposed—his indifference to such intangible ideas as gods or the lack of them, he felt something stirring inside him. He was drawn in despite himself by the almost embarrassing candor of the younger man across from him.

“When men pray to Shamash,” Jozadak went on, “they really bow to notions of their own strength and radiance. When they worship Ishtar, it is only their own lusts and covetousness that they adore. All these gods are made only by men themselves, and they consist of no more than the fancies, fears, and aspirations of their creators. Men use lifeless images of molded clay and hammered gold as an excuse to applaud themselves.”

Egibi shifted uncomfortably. He did not much like the tenor of Jozadak’s remarks. They seemed, if not sacrilegious, at least disloyal. He thought of the New Year Festival just concluded and of his own participation in the celebration, along with that of all the most respected merchants and tradesmen in the city. Like the vast majority of the wealthy citizens of Babylon, he had allowed his servants and employees much free time during the festival days in honor of Marduk’ s homecoming.coins

“But the Lord God,” pressed Jozadak, his face glowing with the earnest heat of conviction, “is above all such limitations. He is above all understanding. He alone is the true God! And He calls His people to be holy, set apart from this city’s trappings and its false gods and its—”

“Enough,” pronounced Egibi, standing abruptly. “Jozadak, I have heard you. I suggest you keep your opinions about the religions of Babylon to yourself. I do not wish to be without your services, but if your scruples will not allow you to work for me, I will give you high recommendation to others whose employ you find less distasteful. In the meantime, we may consider this interview concluded.”

Jozadak, brought up short, made a small bow toward Egibi. “Master, I … I do not wish to leave your service. But I…” Observing Egibi’ s stern look, he swallowed the words on his tongue. “I will see that the doors are secured,” he finished quietly, turning to leave.

“Thank you,” said Egibi. “And Jozadak?”

The overseer paused, his hand on the latch of the vault door. His shoulders tensed, as if in anticipation of a blow.

“In the morning,” said Egibi, “make sure we have adequate stores of oil on hand. I have heard some of the traders say there may be a shortage soon.”

“Yes, master. I will see to it.” Then he was gone.

This chapter is from the novel Daniel: The Man Who Saw Tomorrow, by Thom Lemmons. It will soon be available for your smart phone, tablet, or other e-reading device at HomingPigeonPublishing.com. Please visit the site for more information on other books by Thom Lemmons

Categories: Fiction | Leave a comment

Daniel: The Man Who Saw Tomorrow–Chapter 10

PRINCE KURASH STOOD BESIDE the tenant farmer’s field, near the place where the qanatsurfaced, bringing life-giving water from springs in the faraway mountains. Again he pulled in his faraway thoughts, trying valiantly to listen carefully to the old man’s rambling complaint.

“And so you see, my prince, that my crops cannot thrive as in the past, as long as those thieves farther up the qanat steal more water than they need. I know my levies have been less of late, but I hope you will tell your gracious father, the king—may the fravashi preserve him—that my loyalty and my skill are as great as ever, but I cannot feed my herds dust, which is all I shall have in a few years if those dog-sons up the qanat don’t change their sorry ways … ”farming

An impressively tall man now and fully bearded, Kurash nodded thoughtfully, even as his awareness resumed its prodigal wanderings, following the direction of his gaze toward the far horizon.

He realized presently that the old farmer’s voice had stopped. His eyes met those of the farmer, who waited, plainly expecting some answer to his grievance. Kurash rubbed his beard, studying the craggy, windworn face of this man of the earth. Presently he turned to his bodyguard. “Gobhruz, have you made note of this man’s predicament?”

“I have, my prince,” answered the older man dutifully.

“Very well,” the young lord pronounced decisively. Turning away from the farmer, he swung himself up into his saddle. Looking down upon his subject with what he hoped was a benevolent, wise smile, he said, “Ulaig, your problem will be brought before the king. Justice will be done.”

The farmer turned away, apparently satisfied for now—or,if not, afraid to say more.

Kurash and Gobhruz reined their horses away from the place, the prince sighing pensively.

“Do these squabbles among the people never end, Gobhruz?” he complained as they rode away. “Is this all a king has to do: arbitrate controversies over water rights, stolen goats, and whether the horse was lame before or after the trade?”

“My prince,” shrugged Gobhruz, “the affairs of state are beyond me. But I have observed,” he continued, “that a ruler who spends more of his time assuring full bellies for his people usually spends less of his time protecting his neck.”

Kurash glanced sidelong at his mentor, grinning from ear to ear. “So the affairs of state are beyond you, are they?” Gobhruz again shrugged, the tiny smile on his lips hidden by his great bush of graying beard.horsemen

They rode into the outskirts of Parsagard, yard fowl and dogs scattering before the hooves of their horses. Those who chanced to glance up long enough to see the prince passing made the small, deferential bow of respect. Kurash had long since become inured to the display; not since childhood had he felt the small tingle of pride when his elders bowed before him.

“Don’t you find it odd, Gobhruz,” Kurash asked as the horses slowed to a short, choppy trot, “that Parsagard, the capital city of the Parsis, has no walls? The Medes erected great walls around Ecbatana and Shushan—not to mention the huge, thick walls that the Chaldeans built around Babylon and the cities of the plain. I have heard it said,” he continued, “that two teams of horses can be driven abreast along the top of Babylon’s walls! Can you imagine such a thing, Gobhruz?”

“The mountains of Parsis are our walls, my prince,” replied Gobhruz after some thought. “When the Medes began to enter greatly into the affairs of the world, only then did they begin to build walls. That is what greed does to a people—creates the need for walls.”

“You speak harshly of your own kin,” observed the princequietly.

“Aye,” nodded Gobhruz. “That is why for these many years I have cast my lot with your father and the clans of the Parsis, why I chose to live in Parsagard—the Camp of the Parsis. The tongues of the Medes and Persians may be much the same, but their hearts are not. As long as our peoples wandered together—with the sky of the world as our roof, its grasses our carpet—the need for armies and taxes was not so great. A man with a sound-winded horse was rich. An antelope taken in the chase was a banquet.

“But then,” mused the older man as the horses walked through the streets of Parsagard, their hooves kicking up dry spurts of dust in the late summer morning, “the Medes settled in the plain, beside the rivers of Elam. Their eyes began to desire more—and then more still.”persians

Gobhruz’s voice fell silent as they reached the stable. The two men dismounted, handing their reins to the attendants who rushed to serve them. Walking along the path toward the gable-roofed house of the king, Gobhruz mumbled, more to himself than to Kurash, “Uvakhshatra learned well from the Chaldeans. To build, and to burn. To fortify, and to hoard. To write down what is said so that one need not face his opponent, need not remember a man’s face nor the sound of his words—only the dry mud-tracks of the words themselves. Uvakhshatra learned well, indeed. His son Asturagash has inherited all his father’s greed, but none of his imagination.”

Suddenly Gobhruz stopped walking and glared hard at the prince. “Thus it is with those who build empires,” he growled into Kurash’s startled eyes. “No matter how grand, how noble the original dream, rarely does it outlive the son of the dreamer. Kings are but men, my prince—mark it well.”

Scowling at the ground, thinking he had perhaps said too much, the Medean pushed open the heavy wood-plank door of the great hall of Parsagard. Kurash stared thoughtfully at the lowered head of his servant and friend. Then he stepped acrossthe threshold into the house of his father, the king.

Kanbujiya sat upon the throne of his hall—or, rather, within the throne, as if it were a chalice to gather and hold his frail, wasting body. The aged ruler’s life flickered like a candle guttering in a breeze. Sometimes Kurash believed his father’s face was becoming transparent, as if he might eventually disappear. The frail carpet of flesh covering his tired old bones grew more and more worn and threadbare, though the eyes of the ruler of Anshan were as keen and piercing as ever. Kurash approached and knelt, kissing the hand of his father.town

“My son,” came the tired, husky voice, “what will you do now?”

Kurash tilted his head quizzically toward Kanbujiya’s wrinkled face, the king’ s clear amber eyes lancing him with a query he did not understand. “What do you wish me to do, my lord?” the son asked. “I have just come from inspecting the fields and hearing the petitions of your faithful subjects. If you wish,” Kurash went on, “1 will present the cases for your judgment. Or, if the king is too tired, I will—”

With a feeble wave of his hand and a turning of his head, Kanbujiya cut short his son’s speech. With his eyes closed and his head leaning against the back of the throne, Kanbujiya wheezed, “It is far too late in the day to waste breath on humoring a dying old man, my son.”

“Father!” protested Kurash. “Do not speak so! Let me get something for you.”

“No,” whispered the king. “Nothing you can bring will benefit me now, boy.” Kurash winced at the last word, but said nothing.

“I know you have been rendering judgments in my name for several months,” continued Kanbujiya, his breath coming in shallow, jagged draughts. “What else is to be done, when the king must use all his strength to hold his head upright?”

“No, Father—”

“But what will you do, my son,” Kanbujiya persisted, againlocking his son’s eyes with that stem gaze, so disturbing for its unexpected strength, “when your time soon comes to sit in this seat and command in your own name? What will become of this valley of Anshan? What will happen to the peaceful way we have lived for the years of my stewardship?” As the eyes of his father bored in on him, Kurash dropped his head upon his chest.

“I know what courses in your blood, boy,” said the dying king. “I know how poorly tranquility sets with you. And I know, as surely as I hear the beating wings of the fravashi who come to bear me to the Undying Flame, that you dream of glory, and of power, and of conquest. This valley of Anshan can no more contain your ambition than a wicker basket can hold live coals. I have seen it in your face since the day they brought you to me for naming.”

For several moments the only sound in the hall was the ragged sound of the old man’s breathing. Then he roused himself once more. “Kurash—‘Shepherd’—is what you are called, my son. Never forget that you are the shepherd of this flock, this house, this land. Be careful where you lead them. Be careful of other pastures, other herds. Be careful … ”deathbed

A long silence followed, punctuated by the distant, outside sounds of children, birds, dogs—of life in Parsagard. When at last he could raise his eyes, Kurash looked again at the face of his father.

The keen eyes of the king were fixed in an unblinking stare toward the raftered ceiling, a glassy, translucent sheen gathering slowly on their drying amber surfaces. Kurash knew. Tenderly he reached up and pressed his father’s eyelids closed. Turning to Gobhruz, kneeling silently by the door through which they had entered, he said in the tongue of his homeland, “Shah mat—the king is dead.”

 

IT WAS THE WEEK of the New Year Festival in Babylon, and the streets of the capital thrummed with the frenetic jubilation of her two hundred thousand residents as they celebrated themost important high day of the year. Many merchants’ shops were closed in observance of the feast. Young sons of noblemen and wealthy merchants, emancipated from the strict lessons of their tutors, ran giddy beside the canals and along the avenues, drunk on the freedom that accompanied the celebration. Even the riverside Karum district—its docks, quays, and exchanges usually bustling with commerce until late at night—was largely abandoned during these days. In the month of Nisan, as the sun crossed the midpoint of his journey back from his southern winter quarters, Babylon gave herself wholly to celebrating Marduk’s homecoming.marduk

Today was the climactic day of the festival. With great pomp and ceremony, the image of Marduk would parade down the Processional Way, from the Temple of the New Year Festival just outside the Ishtar Gate to the huge temple complex of Esagila. For several days now the god had been sequestered outside the walls of the city in the closely guarded temple, as secret rites were performed to consecrate the city and thank Marduk, Lord of the Sun, for his rebirth and return. Today, with fanfare and flourish, the glittering image, dressed in regal purple linens and resplendent with flower garlands, would proceed along Aibur Shabu while the people showered their praises and adoration upon him. His palanquin would be heaped with grain offerings and the choicest fruits, and a host of brilliantly clad priests would solemnly accompany him to his sanctuary in Esagila.

But this was not the end. Once Marduk was ensconced in his seat of power, the emperor, dressed in the drab costume of a supplicant, would come out of his palace, humbly traveling afoot—with no crown, no gold-threaded linens, no gaudy display of rank or power. The crowds along the way would watch in somber, hushed reverence, in stark contrast to the earlier loud celebration for the passing of Marduk. With only a handful of bodyguards surrounding him, Nebuchadrezzar would make his annual pilgrimage, tracing the god’s route along Aibur Shabu to the judgment seat of Marduk. Here he wouldprostrate himself before the Father of All, as was proper for the earthly regent of Marduk.

After making the prescribed obeisance and taking part in the sacrifice of a sacred white bull, Nebuchadrezzar would grasp the outstretched hands of the god, and a representative of Marduk would bestow upon the god’s earthly prince a scepter, the badge of his favor and authority.mardukNeb

Having thus received his charter to rule for another year, Nebuchadrezzar would throw off his drab cloak to reveal beneath it the splendor befitting the chosen regent of Marduk. A crown of gold would be placed on his head, and a torque of silver about his neck.

By then the late evening shadows would be falling across the broad boulevards of the capital city, but not a soul would stir toward home. They would be crammed as a solid mass into the huge plazas of Esagila and along every approach to the temple complex. Breathlessly, all Babylon would watch as the emperor, no longer displayed as supplicant of Marduk but as his earthly manifestation, passed the portal of the god-house and promenaded toward the ziggurat of Etemenanki, the Foundation of Heaven and Earth. He would ascend the steps to the very topmost platform. To the gaping masses the emperor seemed to climb, like a glittering god, to the roof of heaven itself. There, perhaps two hundred dizzying cubits above the heads of the eagerly waiting masses, Nebuchadrezzar would raise the scepter in a salute to the setting autumn sun. This was the signal for the revelry to begin in earnest.

 esagila

IN THE DECLINING SUNLIGHT outside the city walls, beneath a grove of palm trees on the river’s eastern bank, a few dozen devout Hebrews gathered in a small huddle. This sunset would also mark the day of shabbat, although scant few inside the walls of the city would have known or cared. These few under the palm trees did know and care, however, and chose to be here rather than partaking in the merrymaking of the NewYear Festival.

A few groups like this one were now clustered in other meeting places—beside a remote stretch of canal, or at an unfrequented section of the riverbank. The Hebrew faithful sought such unobtrusive places for their weekly gatherings because of the unofficial censure and private rancor of much of Babylon’s populace. No one, however, dared open hostility toward the Jews; the emperor’s edict in favor of the odd religion of Vizier Belteshazzar and his fireproof friends had been in place for almost a score of years.

Despite the resentful mutterings toward the Jews of Babylon, many of them clung tenaciously to these weekly gatherings as the only available means to retain a grip on their identity. The destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple had caused a profound shift in the way these Chosen Ones saw themselves and their God.

How was it possible, they asked, that the covenant God made with Abraham and Jacob, and reiterated to David and Solomon, could be so disastrously and completely revoked? That the Holy One could prove false was unthinkable. Therefore the fault must lie within His people.

This line of reasoning spurred them into meticulous compilation and assiduous study of the Books of the Law and the Prophets. The warnings and pleadings of Isaiah and Jeremiah came to have a retrospective meaning they had never before apprehended. The codes handed down during the Exodus gradually became the measure of faith and practice for a generation of exiles learning to see with new eyes.jews

As the glowing disc of the sun touched the featureless rim of the western horizon, the middle-aged Levite who presided over this assembly rose to his feet before the group. With eyes closed, swaying to the rhythm of the ancient language of Judah, he led the congregation in the singing of the Shema:

 

Hear, O Israel:

The Lord our God, the Lord is One.

And thou shalt love the Lord thy God

with all thy heart,

and all thy soul,

and all thy strength,

and all thy mind …

 

As the last tones of the age-old hymn faded in the gloaming, the teacher took up a scroll. Unrolling it to the place he sought, he began reading.

 

All who make idols are nothing,

and the things they treasure are worthless.

Those who would speak up for them are blind;

they are ignorant, to their own shame …

The blacksmith takes a tool

and works it in the coals;

He shapes an idol with hammers,

he forges it with the might of his arm …

The carpenter measures with a line

and makes an outline with a marker;

He roughs it out with chisels

and marks it with compasses.

He shapes it in the form of a man,

of man in all his glory,

that it may dwell in a shrine …

 

Far behind him, a great shout went up from Etemenanki and its environs as Nebuchadrezzar’s ritual salute to the sinking sun released the tightly wound anticipation of Babylon’s celebrants. The heads of the teacher’s listeners shifted toward the huge sound, plainly audible even here. For a moment, just outside the walls and a world away, they pondered the vast difference between the quiet, reflective mood in the grove and the raucous, pagan spirit that possessed the vast majority of the empire’s citizens on this day. Then their eyes returned to the reader’s lips as he went on:

 

Half of the wood he burns in the fire;

over it he prepares his meal.

He roasts his meat and eats his fill.

He also warms himself and says,

“Ah! I am warm; I see the fire.”

From the rest he makes a god, his idol.

He bows down to it and worships,

He prays to it and says,

“Save me—you are my god.”

They know nothing, they understand nothing.

Their eyes are plastered over so they cannot see,

and their minds closed so they cannot understand …

Remember these things, O Jacob,

for you are My servant, O Israel!

I have made you; you are My servant.

O, Israel, I will not forget you.

I have swept away your offenses like a cloud,

your sins like the morning mist.

Return to Me, for I have redeemed you …

 

Carefully the teacher placed the scroll aside, his eyes lowered in reflection for several heartbeats before he faced his audience. “On this day of all days, my brothers, these words of the blessed prophet Isaiah should remind us that we dwell here, like latter-day sons of Moses, as strangers in a strange land. This place is not our place, and it was not for nothing that the Eternal called our most ancient father Abraham out of this same land, with its false gods and innumerable idols.

“Remember the Lord, my people,” he said, his eyes punctuating his words with quiet fervor. “Do not forsake His ways. Keep yourselves according to the covenant He gave us at Mount Sinai. Because our kings and people broke faith with Him when we lived in Judah, He has allowed these calamities to befall us; we are captives here because of the iniquity of the past.

“But the past is not the present, nor the future,” thepreacher insisted, a faint hope blushing in his cheeks. “The Almighty One is faithful, and He will remember His people. We, for our part, must be faithful to Him.”

The rabbi sat down, inviting comment or discussion of the reading. In the lull, the sounds of flutes and tabors, of clapping hands and dancing floated above the walls of the city and down to them on the wind.

One of the younger men rose to speak. “What you say is true, Ezra ben-Seraiah. The people of this place, even its king, do not revere the One. My employer, Jacob the son of Uriah, whose people once knew the Lord—even he does not do righteousness. Babylon has turned aside Jacob’s face from the Lord, just as Babylon seeks to do to us all—just as it has done to people of all places for ages beyond remembering. Why then, Teacher, must we continue to pray for the welfare of this place?” The speaker looked about him for support, and saw several heads nodding. Even beyond, in the circle of women and children who sat apart, yet within hearing, his words found acceptance.

He went on: “Like you, Brother Ezra, I am of the tribe and lineage of Levi. I was born in Babylon, and my son is now almost old enough to receive the Law. From the time I can remember anything, I have gathered with the faithful, shabbat after shabbat, to hear the Law and receive its instruction. Is this all my son may look forward to—an uneasy truce with a king and people who do not know the Living God? How long must we wait for the fulfillment of the word of the Lord, according to His servant Jeremiah? When will the time of return come?”

The young man sat down, having aggravated in each heart present the constant, unspoken question pondered by every Jew in Babylon: Will it be too late? Will we, or our children’s children, be subsumed by the dragging, ever-present seduction of the glittering culture surrounding us? When the Lord calls, will anyone still desire to listen?

Ezra stared at the ground, unable to frame the words for a reply. How many times had he asked himself the same thing?How often had he felt the pull, the desire to surrender to the easy blandishments of life within the majority? His own unease tied his tongue, preventing him from giving the quick denial he knew his listeners wanted to hear.

He heard the rustle of robes—someone else standing to speak. Raising his eyes, he saw Daniel looking carefully around the circle of faces. A deeper silence fell as the respected, powerful noble gathered his thoughts.

“Brother Jozadak,” he began, addressing the man who had just spoken, “you have well said that this kingdom and its king do not worship the Lord. Who can know this better than I?” This was accepted silently, each hearer rehearsing his own memories of the career of Daniel-Belteshazzar—interpreter of dreams and confidant of the emperor. Sometimes quietly, often openly, he had interceded on behalf of the people of Israel. What Hebrew did not rest easier at night knowing Daniel sat at Nebuchadrezzar’s right hand?jews2

Daniel, for his part, had other memories: of the abandonment of friends and the embracing of falsehood … of the rapping of a beggar’s cane, and an inward, certain choosing … of the sickly sweet taste of a lie, and the nausea of guilt. As recently as today, he had fought the old fight with fear—it was not an easy thing for such a highly ranked one as himself to be absent from the New Year Festival.

Taking a deep breath, Daniel went on. “And yet, I believe Adonai has a purpose for this place—perhaps even a love for its people.”

Jozadak’s expression plainly advertised his skepticism.

“Don’t you see, my brothers and sisters?” Daniel asked, his arms spread wide, taking them all within his embrace. “He is the Creator of the whole world, of every living thing, every rock and river. Marduk did not build Babylon! Nabu didn’t trace the path for the Tigris and Euphrates! The One God, El Shaddai—it is He who has made this and all other places, and who has brought His people here for a season, for purposes of His own.”

A few more faces seemed to be listening, turning over these words, strange-sounding though they were.

“Don’t you remember,” said Daniel, leaning firmly into his plea, “what was spoken by the Lord through the blessed prophet Jeremiah? ‘I made the earth and its people and the animals that are on it, and I give it to anyone I please. Now I will hand all your countries over to My servant, Nebuchadrezzar … ’” Daniel allowed the last three words to hang in the air, allowed the silence to shout it in their ears again and again: My servant, Nebuchadrezzar

“A time is coming, my people,” said Daniel, “when God shall kindle a light to be seen by all the nations.” Something ignited in his voice with those words; a deep, strong radiance spread within him, wafted him upward, giving bright tongue to a beacon-glow better known by the heart than the eyes. “He shall draw unto himself a holy people called out from every tribe and tongue under heaven,” intoned Daniel, his voice like a father’s comfort. “And every king, every prince, every power shall serve Him, just as this very day the emperor of Babylon serves Adonai’s purpose, though he knows it not.”

A few heartbeats longer Daniel stood, staring avidly up through the gently swaying leaves of the palm trees, wrapped deep within the potency of his vision. He remembered the turbulence of words he had uttered on another day, a day when a young man stood in the court of the emperor and spoke of things taught him by a Source beyond. Has it really been so long ago? he wondered. Passing a hand over his eyes, he sat down.

A reflective silence softly enfolded the congregation beneath the palms. As the last gold-and-rose streaks of evening ebbed past the threshold of the west, Ezra picked up his scroll and read softly Isaiah’s comforting words of Judah’s future, with their mysterious reference to a chosen one called “Kurus” in the Hebrew tongue:

 

“I am the Lord,

who has made all things,

who alone stretched out the heavens,

who spread the earth out by Myself …

who says of Jerusalem, “It shall be inhabited,”

of the towns of Judah, “They shall be built,”

and of their ruins, “I will restore them … ”

who says of Kurus, “He is My shepherd,

and will accomplish all that I please … ’”

 

This chapter is from the novel Daniel: The Man Who Saw Tomorrow, by Thom Lemmons. It will soon be available for your smart phone, tablet, or other e-reading device at HomingPigeonPublishing.com. Please visit the site for more information on other books by Thom Lemmons

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Daniel: The Man Who Saw Tomorrow–Chapter 9

THE DAY WAS OVERCAST—rare enough for the Chaldean plains. A cool breeze swirled about the great assembly gathered nervously in the plain of Dura at the command of the emperor. On the northwestern horizon the ziggurats and towers of Babylon reared above the flat sweep of the plain. Countless eyes glanced anxiously back toward the city. Many participants silently wished to be back within the comforting walls of their normal routines, rather than standing in the open expanse of Dura, chilled by the winds of winter. Only Adad-ibni had the look of unmitigated satisfaction plastered across his pudgy features. He cast another glance over the assembled nobles, officials, commanders, and advisers.

Everything was proceeding smoothly. The last few stragglers were arriving; to be absent when the emperor came would be tantamount to a death sentence. The chief seer chuckled inwardly with satisfaction, remembering the ashen looks on the faces of Nebuchadrezzar’s Hebrew lap-dogs when he’d described his “vision” of this ceremony.Image

It was simple in concept. He had appealed to the emperor’s basic vanity, coupled with his impatience at the series of nettlesome revolts staged by this or that petty monarch or tribal leader. He had described “seeing” such a nascent rebellion about to take place, and “hearing” the instruction of no less an authority than Marduk himself explaining how such trouble might be avoided. The god had “told” Adad-ibni to cause to be erected an image of himself—here, on the plain of Dura. Nor was it lost on the emperor that the seer had described a figure amazingly similar to that of Nebuchadrezzar himself, endowed with a godly aura befitting the earthly regent of the King of Heaven.

Once the emperor had seen the logic of such a plan, had tasted the gratification of ordering such a public display of loyalty to the god of the state—and to himself—the rest of the arrangements were a foregone conclusion. The necessary decrees were drafted, the artisans and musicians commissioned, and the entire enterprise presented to the Privy Council as a plan complete in every detail. By the time Belteshazzar and his Jews knew anything of the little party on the plain, it already had the force of an imperial decree.

Adad-ibni well knew what this meant to the Hebrews and their precious notions of their invisible hill-god. How often he had noticed their reticence to lend support to any enterprise that depended upon the advice of the seers and astrologers. How frequently they managed to be absent from the court on the high-days of the gods. And—most irksome of all to Adadibni— how difficult it proved to find them when the offerings for the temples were collected. Because of Daniel’s beginner’s luck in the matter of the emperor’s dream, Adad-ibni had been powerless to redress these grievances—until today.

The image towered above the uncomfortable crowd, soaring sixty cubits into the gray sky. During its construction two workmen had Imagefallen to their deaths from the scaffolding about its shoulders and head—a small enough price to pay. The statue was of wood, with thin sheets of gold hammered to an intimate fit with each carefully carved feature. But the edgy glances of the crowd shifted from the imposing image of Marduk- Nebuchadrezzar to another new construction, one less pleasing to the eye; some fifty paces to the east it rumbled with ominous interior fervor. Even from this distance the heat from the kiln could be felt, teasing the skins of the crowd with its intimations of warmth as if cajoling them, wooing them to seek refuge from the cold within its fiery embrace.

The decree called for the swearing of a loyalty oath and obeisance before the image. The penalty for failure to comply was consignment to the blast-furnace constructed here simultaneouslywith the statue. This, too, Adad-ibni had “seen.” None of the Chaldean nobles and officials could imagine anyone being so idiotic as to defy the emperor’s edict. None, that is, but Adad-ibni, and a certain group of decidedly uncomfortable Hebrews standing yonder.

The chief seer smiled at the thought of their dilemma: Either deny Nebuchadrezzar and die instantly and horribly, in public disgrace—confirming the truth of Adad-ibni’s “vision” —or deny their god, the private totem of their queer race. Either way, Adad-ibni knew, this day would see the humbling of that troublesome young pup, Belteshazzar. Surreptitiously, the chief seer flicked a look toward the Jews—and felt his eyes bulge with consternation. Belteshazzar was absent! Teeth grinding in frenzy, the mage stared about the crowd, wondering madly at the absence of the very rival for whom this whole set-piece was staged. The emperor’s train was nearing the site; where was Belteshazzar the Jew?

 

DANIEL SAT SLUMPED upon his couch, his insides a miserable, churning broth of shame and fear. For the hundredth time he rose and paced to the grille in his east wall, peering uselessly through its thin gaps toward the southeast. There, beyond the walls of the city, his three friends faced dishonor and death. In cowardice, he had abandoned them.

He had rapidly grasped the intent of Adad-ibni’s subterfuge. As he sat in the council chamber and listened to the seer unfolding the details of his thinly guised oracle, he had immediately apprehended the choice Adad-ibni intended to force upon him: Yahweh, or Nebuchadrezzar. The Lord of heaven, or the lord of Babylon. Adad-ibni had carefully crafted the trap so that no concealment of convictions, no compromises, no alternatives were possible.

Faced with such a terrifying prospect, his mind rushed to and fro within his skull, like a trapped beast making ceaseless, futile rounds Imageof its cage. During the weeks that the image and the furnace were being built, he had frantically sought theLord, hour upon hour. He had scanned the scrolls of the prophets given him by Ezekiel and had earnestly sought the council of the brittle-faced prophet himself—all to no avail. Adonai, the scrolls, and the prophet, alike and equally, stared blankly back in the face of his impassioned pleas, as if to say: Yes, this is what you must choose. And what, O Daniel-Belteshazzar, will be your decision? From all his prayers, all his frenzied reading, all his anguished questionings, he gained no comfort, only confrontation. No deliverance; only dread. It became clear to him that his future lay between two stark, uncompromising options. Unable to withstand the dire, gray hopelessness that oppressed him, he had lied.

He had resorted to trickery even more base than that of Adad-ibni. Two nights ago, shamed into seeking the cover of darkness for his deed, he had slinked into a certain sidestreet, sought out a certain apothecary. Silver changed hands.

In the morning, a worried Azariah had sought out the emperor’s chamberlain. Belteshazzar, it seemed, lay sick abed, his face a ghastly hue, his breathing labored, vomiting great dry gouts of nothing from bowels twisted like serpents into writhing knots of pain. Surely the lord Nebuchadrezzar did not expect his faithful servant Belteshazzar to attend the ceremony on the plain of Dura, lying, as he did, at death’ s very doorstep? An official had been dispatched, an examination made. It was concluded that Belteshazzar indeed would be unable to attend the loyalty-swearing. The emperor, well-apprised of the longstanding faithfulness of Belteshazzar, would gladly exempt him from the edict; indeed, he would send his own physicians to care for the highly regarded Belteshazzar.

Daniel had watched his friends leave this morning, with many a backward glimpse at him—perhaps as fearful for his condition as they were for their own difficulties. The effects of the drug abating, Daniel lay on his bed, alternately burning with shame and cringing in fear. What had he done? Why had he allowed his friends to walk toward judgment on the Dura plain without him? His lip curled in disgust.Image

He knew at this moment the irony of his dual identity. He was Daniel—“God-is-Judge”—and he was Belteshazzar—“Bel-protects.” Would the lie he had practiced upon his master and friends protect him from the final judgment of Him Who Sees? He hid his head in his arms in an agony of inner torment, suspended between his names over the chasm of his guilt.

 

 

NEBUCHADREZZAR STEPPED from his palanquin, amid the prostrated figures of his nobles and officials. He peered out over the scene, nodding to himself. Yes, this all appeared quite satisfactory. Then he looked at the image he had constructed. The dream! The same gray blankness of the sky, the same featureless, flat terrain as in the night vision that had tormented him not so many months past. Involuntarily his face tightened, his shoulders knotted. He expected at any moment to hear the threatening rumble of the overpowering, unearthly stone. Fear prickled along his spine in a rush of unreasoning panic, and his nostrils flared in a sudden flash fire of alarm.

Just as he felt he must leap back into his palanquin and order his servants to return him to his fortress, he managed to gain some measure of control over the runaway horses stampeding through his mind. He looked about: His people, hissubjects, prostrated themselves in acknowledgment of his power. The statue stood as open endorsement of the blessing of Marduk on himself and his reign. Drawing several deep breaths, he willed himself into possession of his emotions. When he could do so, he strode firmly to the ceremonial seat prepared for him at the front of the assembly, at the very feet of the glittering gold image.

As he seated himself, the crowd rose, on cue. A herald faced the throng, unrolling a sheet of parchment. Clearing his throat, the announcer read into the expectant silence: “In the name of Marduk the great and powerful, and of Nebuchadrezzar, his son and heir, most beneficent emperor and father of our land: Let all who approach this day swear undying loyalty toMarduk and to Nebuchadrezzar, Imagehis regent on earth. Let the sound of the pipes and tabors be heard, the stringed lyre and the voice of the singers. Let a song of praise for Marduk and for Nebuchadrezzar his son be heard, and at that song let all those faithfully gathered here fall down at the feet of Marduk and Nebuchadrezzar his son and do reverence to them..So be it, that the peace of the land may be preserved, and that Marduk the great and powerful may grant long life and clear vision to Nebuchadrezzar, his son and regent. Now let all the faithful give ear to the song, and let the name of Marduk and Nebuchadrezzar be praised upon all lips and in all hearts.”

The herald rolled up the parchment with a crisp snapping sound and marched back to the front ranks of the assembly. For a moment, the only sound was the muted roaring of the flames inside the nearby furnace. Then a chorus of musicians struck into the praise ode to Marduk/Nebuchadrezzar that had been specially composed for this ceremony.

As one, all the assembly fell to the ground, worshiping Marduk and his prince Nebuchadrezzar, who sat, regal and serene, on the seat at the base of the imposing image.

All except for Mishael, Azariah, and Hananiah. The three stood, abject yet unbowed, a blunt, upright, defenseless promontory among the sea of prone figures. When the emperor’s eyes fell upon them, he vaulted from the seat, his voice a sudden, heart-stopping roar. “Stop!”Image

The knife-edge of his command silenced the musicians as abruptly as the snuffing of a lamp. Once again, the only sound was the avid, hungry growling of the flames in the furnace. Into the awe-struck silence of the assembly crawled the sniveling sound of Adad-ibni’s voice, accusing the Hebrews in mean, pleased tones. Mercilessly delighted by the success of his stratagem, his desire to gloat overcame his abashment before the emperor’s anger. He could not resist the temptation to smirk over the snare he had constructed for the friends of the hated Belteshazzar.

“My lord, these three did not worship your image as the decree commanded!” he accused needlessly. “These infidels have inserted themselves into your most trusted councils, yet they have no loyalty toward you or toward the gods of your royal house! These three, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abed-Nabu, friends of Belteshazzar … ”—he paused, for effect—“landless aliens whom you have sheltered in your own house, are plotting evil toward you, O great Nebuchadrezzar. Surely it is this treachery which my vision warns against!”

A low mumble of amazement and· approval endorsed the mage’s words. Feeling quite pleased with himself, Adad-ibni bowed toward the emperor, the very picture of humble, faithful service. He could almost forget, in this moment of triumph and vindication, that he had failed to capture Belteshazzar. Besides, there was plenty of time to attend to the last of the despised foursome, now that a wedge of suspicion had been firmly inserted between the emperor and his Jews.Image

The emperor’s eyes were glowing coals. “Bring them to me,” he snarled. Uruk, waiting behind Nebuchadrezzar’s left shoulder, made a small signal. Three burly bodyguards strode toward the Hebrews, yanking them forward by their tunics. Unresisting, the three were pushed and shoved toward the waiting Nebuchadrezzar.

Nebuzaradan, commander of the host of Babylon, watched through narrowed eyes to see what would happen. Again the Hebrews brought trouble on themselves by their indiscreet zeal. Though the three did not show themselves violent, they would not yield. He had seen this seemingly suicidal behavior before, in Judah—in the oddly proud words of a starving noble-turned-deserter … and in the burning eyes of an old man, a prophet …

Kneeling before the enraged king, Abed-Nabu’s eyes sought out those of Nabu-Naid, his master. The prime minister waited quietly at his place on the emperor’s right. His bird-black eyes glimmered toward his most able and trusted servant, reflecting a look as stony, as vacant as if he beheld a complete stranger. Abed-Nabu turned away. Nabu-Naid would not intercede for him this day.

Then the emperor was speaking. “Again I find you before me,” he hissed in a voice as quiet and menacing as the sound of a lion unsheathing its claws. “And again you, in your stubborn Hebrew way, refuse to give honor and respect to your king! Though you were children of my own body, I would be forced to punish you for this, this … ”—his teeth gnashed as he searched for a word—“this outrage! Have you anything to say before I pronounce your doom before this assembly?”Image

The three looked at each other, their eyes pulsing with fear. By tacit agreement, Mishael, the eunuch, singer, and wordcrafter, opened his mouth to reply.

“My king,” he said in a near-whisper, unable to raise his head, “we have no defense to offer. If you cast us into the furnace … ” Speech failed him for a moment; he swallowed dryly several times before he could continue. “Our God is able to rescue us from your hand, my king. But even if He does not see fit to do so … ”—more dry swallows, and visible trembling— “you must know, my king, that we cannot bow before your god or worship this image.” There was a long pause. “It … it would be sacrilege.”

“Enough!” thundered Nebuchadrezzar, no longer able to contain his fury. “1 will hear no more of such idiocy! Yonder is real fire, fools!” he raged, his eyes flashing as he glared at their bowed backs. “I, your king, stand here before you now, with real power and real authority! Do you imagine this—this god of yours will save you from me? Where is it, this god?” The word was a sneer. “Let it show itself, if indeed it has any power!”

Nebuzaradan winced, glancing upward involuntarily.

Lancing an arm toward the furnace attendants, the emperor shouted, “Fan the flames! I want a fire as hot as the very sun-chariot of Marduk!” The servants began raising and lowering the huge bellows devices, forcing air into the bottom of the furnace. With each Imagestroke the inferno inside roared more angrily. Soon hungry tongues of fire could be seen spurting from the cracks about the heavy baked-clay doors. Here and there among the seams between the cubit-thick tiles, bits of melted mortar ran in rivulets down the sides of the furnace.

The emperor turned to his bodyguards. “Truss them up like birds for roasting! I will not permit such traitors to die with the dignity of men!” Guards wrapped thongs of rawhide about the limbs of the three, pulling them so tight that blood could be seen oozing through the folds of their clothing, seeping from the cruelly creased flesh of their arms and legs. Two guards then picked up each condemned man, carrying them like sacks of grain toward the waiting embrace of the death-kiln. Even Adad-ibni cowered before the tempest of Nebuchadrezzar’s wrath, while watching in morbid fascination to see the fate of his enemies.

The doors of the kiln stood at the head of a small landing, reached by four ascending steps. Two slaves stood on the ground on either side of the platform, holding long poles by which to pull back the doors. As the guards reached the top step, the doors opened. A searing blast of superheated air rushed out, instantly roasting the lungs of the soldiers carrying the Hebrews. They fell limply, toppling the bound Hebrews to the platform like man-sized cocoons shaken from the low limbs of a tree. Even those on the farthest edge of the assembly felt the greedy heat of the furnace—the cold wind of Dura Plain suddenly seemed less an enemy.

With the long poles, the slaves poked and prodded the three prisoners roughly through the blazing doorway into the furnace, then slammed the thick hatchway closed.Image

No screaming was heard, no last gasps of agony. The three had been alive before being thrust inside, for all had seen them moving helplessly about as the slaves shoved them into the kiln.

Nebuchadrezzar paced slowly to the furnace, ascending the landing. A thick block of Phoenician glass was set in one of the doors, and the emperor now approached this viewing-port, wincing from the heat coming through the massive doors. Hepeered intently inside until the temperature drove him back. Staggering down the steps, he held out his hand to receive the skin of water from the attendant who rushed toward him. When he had soothed his face and neck with the water, he stared toward the commander of his bodyguard. “Uruk! Come here!”

Quickly the commander strode to Nebuchadrezzar’s side. The emperor asked in an urgent, low voice, “Three? That’s how many there were?”

The commander, puzzled, studied the alarmed face of his king. Had the heat addled the emperor? “Yes,” he answered hesitantly. “Of course there were three of them, my lord. Why—”

“Go and look!” whispered Nebuchadrezzar, pointing a shaking finger toward the door of the furnace. Taken aback, Uruk stared at the contorted visage of the emperor.

“I said go and look!” Nebuchadrezzar shouted, gripping the front of Uruk’s clothing and all but hurling him toward the steps of the landing.

Uruk felt the waves of smothering heat striking him with physical force as he cringed toward the hatchway. Blinking rapidly, his eyes Imagepouring water, he peered through the glass. The interior of the kiln looked like the abode of Pazuzu, lord of demons. It was a blinding frenzy of white-hot flames. Uruk squinted into the interior, the sweat pouring from him in sheets in his body’s futile effort to cool his flesh. Then he saw, and a chill ran down his spine, despite the terrific heat from within.

The king was not mad after all! There were the three Hebrews—impossibly alive! Their cords burned off, they knelt in the midst of the chamber, bowing before a figure whose brightness made the kiln’s flames fade into impotence. The figure seemed to be giving some sort of benediction to the three, who now rose and started toward the door. Uruk felt the eyes—or, more properly, the knowing—of the bright figure upon him.

And then his mind snapped.

Adad-ibni gasped with the others when the commander of the guard staggered back from the door of the furnace, his hands across his face. He fell backward down the steps and rolled about on the ground, gibbering and writhing as if possessed.Image

Making the sign against the evil eye, Adad-ibni nevertheless felt cold dread slicing into the very marrow of hisbones. Something other than the heat had smitten Uruk. Something incalculably more potent.

“Open the doors!” commanded the king.

As the slaves hooked their rods into the door-handles, the crowd began to back away from the furnace—and not for fear of the flames. The attendants pulled, and the thick-tiled doors swung heavily on their pivots.

The three Hebrews stepped forth to the entrance. Their clothing was not so much as singed by the crucible they had entered, their faces not even reddened by the heat! Spontaneously, every knee bent before this fearsome, utterly inexplicable, unlooked-for conclusion to the ceremony on the Dura Plain. The three, who had refused to bow the knee before, now received the awed respect of the highest and mightiest of Babylon.

Nebuchadrezzar, his face in the dirt, recognized at once the resonance within his panting breast. The dream—it lived! All his carefully cultivated and strictly enforced control crumbled into ashes before his very eyes. Perhaps the statue still rose behind him, but its self-important grandeur was made pointless as wind-blown dust by the unimagined, unassailable miracle he and his entire court had just witnessed. He, the King of Lands, might order his entire populace into the furnace—but how could such paltry, transitory dominion compare with the power to preserve life where life could not exist? Any common bandit could take a life—only an Almighty One could give it. With the dream-fear rising in his throat, he cried, his face still bowed to the ground, “Come out! Come out, you who are servants of—” His mind stalled. What should he call this Almighty One? Nebuchadrezzar could think of no title worthyof such overcoming, absolute power. Not for nothing was He nameless among the Hebrews! “Servants of El Illai, the Most High God, come forth!”

The three, their faces glowing not with the temperature of the kiln but with the lingering glory of the One who had saved them, approached the king and knelt before him who knelt before them.

To Mishael’ s mind came, almost unbidden, a psalm from the days of David the King:

 

            For You, O God, tested us;

            You refined us like silver …

            We went through fire and water,

            but You brought us to a place of abundance …

 

The throng made its cautious way, by ones and twos, toward the Hebrews, fingers longing to verify the unbelievable evidence of eyes. Adad-ibni inched to the rear of the crowd. He turned, alone and unnoticed, to retreat to his house—cursing this day by the name of every demon he knew, even as his teeth chattered in fear.

 

AN ICY BLADE stabbed Daniel’s heart when he heard the sound. Tap-tap … tap-tap. The beggar’s cane!

He vaulted to his feet, standing in the middle of his chamber, eyes stretched taut on the rack of his nerves. He knew in his soul why the blind man sought him out. The stench of his disapproval was in Daniel’s nostrils. He who had once chosen Daniel to speak to the king now came to bring reproach—or worse!

Tap-tap … tap-tap. Again! It was not his fevered imagination; the sound was real. Daniel remembered the sightless perception, the careful way the blind man had peered inside him that night on Aibur Shabu. The sense of being summoned, considered, and ratified by the nod of the beggar’s head—all these feelings carne back to Daniel in a rush, with the sound of wood tapping stone.

Shuffling steps could be heard just outside the door. Danielwanted to hide but somehow knew the stain of his faithless cowardice would be as a scent to a tracking hound, leading the ancient messenger directly to his place of concealment. A shadow fell across his threshold.

“Young master, is there anything I can—What is wrong?”

Caleb had halted in mid-stride, just inside the doorway, his face wide with alarmed concern for the strange expression on Daniel’s countenance. He held a stick in his hand, one end bloodied. Seeing Daniel staring at the strange implement, he explained, “Oh … this. There was a rat in the scullery—I killed it.” Caleb held up the weapon, smiling hopefully. “I came to see if I could bring you something—some broth perhaps, or a cold cloth?”

Daniel passed a hand over his eyes, sighing deeply with guilt-laced relief. “I’m sorry Caleb, to behave so. You frightened me. I thought you … Never mind, Father Caleb,” he finished, a weak smile fluttering along his lips. “You were kind to attend me, but I don’t need anything just now, thank you.” He gave Caleb what he hoped was a convincing smile, and returned shakily to his couch. The old man shrugged and turned to leave, but not before Daniel heard him mutter, “Not so sure about that.”

When Caleb’s steps had turned the corner into the main room, Daniel leaned his head upon his arms. Caleb was right. There was indeed something he very much needed just now. “Have mercy on me, O God, according to Your unfailing love … ” He quoted the Imageancient words of David’s confession, the words springing from his heart as if fresh-minted there. “For I know my transgressions, and my sin is always before me … ”

 

 

This chapter is from the novel Daniel: The Man Who Saw Tomorrow, by Thom Lemmons. It will soon be available for your smart phone, tablet, or other e-reading device at HomingPigeonPublishing.com. Please visit the site for more information on other books by Thom Lemmons

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Daniel: The Man Who Saw Tomorrow–Chapter 8

THE DAY WAS CLEAR and warm, though without the debilitating scorch of summer. It was late autumn in Babylon, and though the days still became hot, the nights brought refreshing coolness to soothe and comfort the residents of the imperial city.

Most of those residents were gathered along the great street Aibur Shabu and on the rooftops nearby. Today was the day of the emperor’s triumphal procession, his victorious return from the military campaign in the west, along the shores of the Great Sea. The foolish rebellion of the tiny vassal state of Judah had been put down, and the armies of Egypt’s Hophra had been taught a stern lesson as well.

The city buzzed with excitement. Necks craned all along the wide thoroughfare, each vying to glimpse the pomp and pageantry of the conquering Nebuchadrezzar. His glory was Babylon’s glory, and today Babylon was an eager mirror, reflecting the regal image of her conquering lord. Jugglers, conjurers, and not a few prostitutes—official and otherwise—feverishly worked the throngs on either side of the avenue.processional

Confectioners and bakers vended their wares with loud cries, and children ran laughing to and fro among the legs of smiling, indulgent parents.

On the roof of the citadel stood Daniel and Azariah, looking out over the Processional Way. Their faces and bearing were in marked contrast to the melee of celebration taking place below them. An invisible, impenetrable wall of gloom separated the two friends from the general merrymaking. Lost on them were the carnival atmosphere, the joy and pride of the city for her lord and his conquest. For they knew that below them would soon pass—displayed for public humiliation—Zedekiah,last king of the lineage of David. Today, for all to see, the pride of Judah would be ground into dust under the heel of Nebuchadrezzar.

The two years of the emperor’s campaign had been a cruel time for the Hebrews of Babylon. Not only was there dire uncertainty for the fate of kinsmen still in Judah and the dread of the inevitable slaughter that would surely be precipitated by the emperor’s vengeance, but there was also the stigma of being blood-kin to a rebellious people. The transplanted Hebrews had not been long in Babylon and had had neither time nor inclination to meld with the general populace. Indeed, one of their queerest traits, in the view of many citizens of the empire, was their separatism, their pathetic, arrogant resistance to intermarriage, even with the most desirable of Chaldean families. Many of the more stringent Hebrews had come in for severe ostracism for this insolent peculiarity. The name of the land of their birth, Yehudah, had metamorphosed into a commonly employed term of derision. In the variant pronunciation of the Aramaic language, they were called Iudd—Jews. In the mouths of their detractors, the syllable sounded like a curse.

Now the disgrace of their nation would be complete. The winnowing fork of Nebuchadrezzar had all but depopulated the land of Judah, leaving behind only such poor souls as could evade his net or were beneath notice. An entire nation was being ripped from the territory it had held since the time of Joshua. Its people were being driven like cattle before the prods of Nebuchadrezzar’s spearmen and deposited on the banks of the Euphrates like so much dilapidated baggage.ruins

Not all children of Judah were objects of scorn, however. Despite his frequent wish for a return to the relative obscurity he had known before his now famous dream reading, Daniel had slowly but surely ascended into the small, closely guarded circles of the near-great in Babylon. No one to whom the all-powerful Nebuchadrezzar had done such public honor could be easily excluded from the councils of leadership. Indeed, in his dispatches from the campaign the emperor had frequently made specific inquiry as to Belteshazzar’ s opinion on this or that matter. The shimmering aura of the emperor’s sponsorship had placed him on a dizzying pedestal. Without his desiring it, Daniel’s words began to have a weight and import far beyond that expected of one so young. In the intricate, mercilessly efficient marketplace of the palace, where the only recognized currency was the favor and regard of Nebuchadrezzar, Belteshazzar daily gained greater credit in the eyes of his peers—to the pleasure of some, the vague unease of others, and the jealous spite of a few.

With a brazen shout, ranks of trumpeters brayed the beginning of the triumphal procession. As they marched through the dragon-frescoed Ishtar Gate, followed by the drummers, a great shout went up from the multitudes lining Aibur Shabu. Sunlight flashed from the polished brass of the trumpets as they sang their harsh, warlike anthem. As if animated by a single spirit, the drummers pounded out the steady, martial beat, sternly insistent in its hypnotic regularity. Soon, even the heartbeats of the crowds along the way seemed to thump in unison with the pulsing tempo of the marching feet.

Behind the trumpet and drum ranks marched the infantry battalions, their lances polished and honed to a dangerous gleam, the tip of each spear singing a glittering paean to Marduk—and to Nebuchadrezzar, his earthly regent. Carrying their lances proudly, perfectly upright, they resembled a parade of straight-pointed, deadly saplings. The foot soldiers of Babylon displayed the strict pride of the victorious host; their eyes were fixed as rigidly ahead as their spears were braced toward the skies.processional2

A detachment of Scythian cavalry came next, in immediate juxtaposition to the severe discipline of the Chaldean infantry. The ponies of the steppe-dwellers capered haphazardly, skittish of the sound into which their riders forced them. Each Scythian carried a recurved bow of carved hom slung across his back and a short scimitar at his side. The half-wild mercenaries, dressed in their individual, garish notions of martial finery,stared about them in fascination. Many of them had never actually seen the fabled city of Babylon whose battles they had fought so ably.

There was a gap then, a space to allow the adoring multitudes to catch their breath for what came next.

Through the gate came a band of harpists and singers, all dressed in faultless white linen garments. In unison they sang and strummed a praise ode to the Mighty King Nebuchadrezzar.

Daniel and Azariah traded a glance. Mishael and Hananiah surely paced among the band below, singing and playing forthe glory of the emperor—paying musical tribute to Nebuchadrezzar from a throat raw with weeping, and with fingers numb with shame for the fate of Jerusalem. Far above them, on the roof of the citadel, Daniel and Azariah’s hearts went silently toward their friends. They knew each phrase and each plucked note must have been like a dagger thrust into the musicians’ souls.

Behind the musicians came a mob of children, dressed alike in blindingly white tunics. The youths scattered lotus petals in the avenue as the noise of the crowds built to a thundering crescendo of anticipation for the imminent appearance of the emperor.

Nebuchadrezzar burst through the Ishtar Gate in a golden chariot drawn by three white, snorting chargers. The Regent of Marduk wore a white linen robe, interwoven with filaments of the finest gold. On his head was the imperial coronet of Babylon, clustered with precious gems of every type imaginable.

The sunlight sparkled from the emperor’s raiment and diadem as if Marduk, passing high overhead in his own golden chariot, rained benediction upon his blessed one.

Like a god, he received the adoration of his city. Bowls of flower petals had been placed on the rooftops along the Processional Way; the spectators around Daniel and Azariah now eagerly grasped handfuls of the petals and tossed them outward to flutter down in a perfumed cascade on the heads and shoulders of those below. Dutifully, Daniel took up a handful of thepetals, dropping them limply over the parapet of the citadel. Without joy, he watched them fall—like the hopes of Zion—at the feet of his emperor.ishtar

Oxcarts trundled through the gate: brightly painted wains heaped to overflowing with the plunder of Judah. Daniel gagged in distress, and felt Azariah’s fingers digging into his forearm as they watched the sacred golden utensils of the Temple tumble to and fro in the spoil-wagons. Like so much common loot, the censers and urns, the tapers and candlesticks—some fashioned as long ago as the days of Solomon—rode on their way to the storage bins of Marduk’s temple. The enormity of such sacrilege was lost on the cheering multitudes along Aibur Shabu. They were completely insensible to the fact that unclean fingers had pawed through that which was sanctified to the Almighty Lord: holy treasure meant to be handled only by the reverent hands of the consecrated sons of Levi. Nebuchadrezzar might just as well have paraded the mothers of Judah, decorated as temple harlots, through the streets of Babylon. But the indignity of the looted Temple treasures was surpassed by what came next.

Tied by a neck-chain to the rearmost wagon, a pitiful, unclothed wretch stumbled through the gate; a pathetic, mocking coda to the sumptuous splendor that had preceded him. His eye-sockets were a pinkish webwork of scar tissue, and his hands waved weakly before him to ward off the unseen obstacles in his path. Zedekiah, last king of Judah, was displayed as a half-starved, naked, dirt-caked object of contempt. Daniel’s eyes followed Zedekiah in horrified fascination, remembering the fair young prince he had so admired as a Judean youth. That which now limped along behind the wagon was a mere wraith, a deplorable echo of that memory. Daniel heard the jeering and watched with tortured vision as filth and rotten fruit pelted down upon the helpless Zedekiah, replacing the flower petals that had greeted Nebuchadrezzar.blinding

He could not cry aloud, could not release the black wail ofanguish that swelled like a storm cloud in his breast, for that would be a mark of disrespect toward the emperor who had justly punished this rebellious fool. The only words he might be permitted were taunts, to be flung like stones at the disgraced enemy of the emperor. So he stood, trembling and silent, gripping the stones of the parapet so tightly that the pads of his fingers bled from the abrasion of the rough surface.

Unheeded, Daniel’s blood stained the walls of Babylon while Zedekiah, the Blind King of Jerusalem, the Nakedness of Davidreceiving his tribute of ridicule, made his final, misshapen way along Aibur Shabu.

Just down the wall from Belteshazzar, Adad-ibni’s eyes followed the pained gaze of the emperor’s favored one. So. The fool weeps for his disgraced kinsman, does he? A surly smile smeared the mage’s face. So much the better, he thought. He looked down to study the comic figure of the disgraced king, then slyly peered back to the wounded face of Belteshazzar. If this upstart boy still harbored such strong feelings toward his rebellious homeland, perhaps some use could be made of it. Adad-ibni’s mind began to spin, weaving a dark tapestry of swift return to the emperor’s good graces—and Belteshazzar’ s downfall.

 

IN THE SPACE—perhaps ten paces broad—between the river’s edge and the steep outer wall of the imperial residence, a small garden grew … a green island of exuberance afloat between the fluid brown of the river and the fixed brown of the palace. Here, along the white-pebbled paths that wandered among the exotic plants tended by the emperor’s gardeners, Daniel walked, searching for Mishael. He quietly parted the fronds of a young palm tree, peering toward the edge of the palace garden, where it bordered the turgid waters of the Euphrates. Beside the river sat Mishael, gazing across the expanse of brown water. Then he etched a few marks in a clay tablet he held in his lap. He studied what he had written, then stared again across the river, toward the tan walls of the New City. The look on his friend’s face—of pained remembering, of helpless, heartbroken longing—speared Daniel’s heart with a poignant thrust, wrenching a soft gasp involuntarily from his lips.

Mishael jerked around, then relaxed, recognizing his friend. “So you have found me,” he said, smiling guiltily.

“The council meets at midday,” said Daniel, glancing at the sun’s position. “1 need your presence; decisions will have to be made … ”

“Yes, I suppose so,” sighed the singer. “And yet, Daniel…” He paused and looked away. “I am honored by the trust you place in me, and I am sure the others feel the same way, but … ” The shadow of regret flickered across his face before he continued. “But I scarcely have time to sing anymore … ” Where words ceased, silence and expression completed Mishael’s thoughts.

Several replies died, unuttered, on Daniel’s lips. Walking out into the clearing beside the river, he seated himself beside his friend. Nodding at the clay tablet, Daniel asked, “What are you working on?”

“Oh … this.” Mishael glanced at the tablet, then away. “It’s not much. A few lines, the suggestion of a tune which came to me. Undeveloped, as yet.”

“May I hear what you’ve done?” asked Daniel.

Mishael looked at Daniel. “Oh, it’s not that much. Perhaps, when I’m finished with it.” His face hid something; Daniel decided to press him.

“Please, Mishael. I’d like to hear what you’ve done. Just a little?” Daniel gave the eunuch a playful shove on the shoulder. “Why so reluctant? I remember when Azariah would have to threaten you so you’d pipe down long enough for the rest of us to go to sleep.”

Mishael smiled at the memory, then looked down at the ground. Sighing deeply, he took up the clay tablet, glanced at it, then placed it beside him on the sand. For a long moment the only sound was the soft lapping of the river’s wavelets on the shore. Then Mishael began to sing.

 

By the waters of Babylon we sat and wept

            when we remembered Zion.

There on the poplars we hung our harps,bywaters

            for there our captors asked us for songs;

our tormentors demanded songs of joy.

They said, “Sing us one of the songs of Zion!”

How can we sing the songs of the Lord

            while in a foreign land?

If I forget you, O Jerusalem,

            may my right hand forget its skill.

May my tongue cling to the roof of my mouth

            if I do not remember you,

            if I do not consider Jerusalem my highest joy

 

The melody’s long, lilting currents flowed past Daniel. Laden with the silt of a nation’s grief, it was slow, like a procession of mourning women, and as plaintive as the cry of an abandoned child. It lifted and sank, it swirled and rose, and Daniel heard within it all the soul-deep, death-moaning sadness of a burned city, a desolated land, a broken covenant, a rootless people.

Unbeckoned, the image of blind, naked Zedekiah reared up before his mind’s eye: The broken shamble of a dying king now stood as the true image of all that Jerusalem and Zion had become. The bottomless anguish of his bereft people, and their deep yearning for home that could never again be satisfied—all this surged into Daniel’s throat like a clot of ancient blood. tributeWhen he could speak, he whispered to Mishael, who held his face in his hands. “It will not always be thus, my friend. The Almighty has surely not forgotten us, even here in this strange place.”

Mishael raised his tear-streaked face to Daniel’s. “And to what should we return?” he asked. “What is left that draws us back, Daniel? Zion is a charred stump, and the hills of Judah are barren with shame.” He laughed a short, scornful laugh. “Jacob’s seed is come to this, my friend: His line is preserved by eunuchs, vagabonds, and beggars.”

Now it was Daniel who stared blindly across the Euphrates. Slowly he shook his head. “I’m … I’m not sure, Mishael,” he said finally. “But I feel it here … ”—his hand clasped his heart —“that the Lord is not yet done with the children of Abraham. Some purpose, some future promise … ” He wrestled vainly with the vague, unutterable wisps of premonition in his mind.

Mishael stood, briskly rubbing his face with both hands as he took several deep breaths. “Enough talk. We should go, should we not? What will the counselors do without their prophet to consult?” he asked playfully.

Daniel smiled weakly, reaching a hand to Mishael for assistance in rising. “Not a prophet,” he demurred. “Not yet, anyway.”

 

THEY ENTERED THE COUNCIL CHAMBER and found the other members already seated, staring at them. If they were impatient at being kept waiting, they deemed it unwise to let the emperor’s latest favorite see their feelings in their faces. Nearest them as they entered, Azariah cleared his throat, glancing from Adad-ibni, seated across from him, to Daniel.

“Belteshazzar, Lord Adad-ibni has just come from the emperor. He has made a suggestion, accepted by the emperor, that—”

“Perhaps I should inform Lord Belteshazzar of the emperor’s wishes in this matter,” interrupted the mage, smugly. “Lord Belteshazzar, will you not be seated?” Adad-ibni gestured toward an empty cushion.eyes

Daniel was under no illusions about the solicitous tone of the chief mage’s voice. Whatever Adad-ibni was about to say, Daniel doubted its portent was favorable to himself. Slowly, never taking his eyes off the seer’s smirking face, Daniel lowered himself into a seat.

 

 

 

This chapter is from the novel Daniel: The Man Who Saw Tomorrow, by Thom Lemmons. It will soon be available for your smart phone, tablet, or other e-reading device at HomingPigeonPublishing.com. Please visit the site for more information on other books by Thom Lemmons

Categories: Fiction | Tags: , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Daniel: The Man Who Saw Tomorrow–Chapter 7

DANIEL PECKED NERVOUSLY at the door, half-hoping no one was home. He looked about. The sluggish water of the Zababa Canal oozed past, fetid with the heat and stagnation of midsummer. Ezekiel’s house was a rundown, patched-together affair situated in a less-than-desirable corner of the Old City. Not many of the Judean importees had become prosperous, and the relative squalor of Ezekiel’s circumstances attested to this. As priest of a non-favored people, he could hardly command the respect and tithes he might have received in a better place and time.

Following the forced march from Judah, Ezekiel had originally been settled in Nippur, many leagues south of Babylon in the flat plain between the rivers. Following the death of his wife, however, the prophet had relocated to the capital city, where a few of his kinsmen lived. The door creaked, and Daniel turned, startled. Standing in the open portal was Ezekiel.

The priest-prophet’s face was drawn, his eyes dark sockets of almost unbearable anguish. His beard, though still dark, showed at its edges the early hoarfrost of impending autumn. He wore a soiled, threadbare cloak of rough-woven wool—much mended, though none too skillfully. He radiated such an air of fatigue, of utter exhaustion, that only the unyielding urgency of his inner vision seemed to be holding him upright. From Ezekiel’s haggard, resolute bearing, Daniel had the impression of a man who had been worn away, like a plowshare dulled and abraded by too many seasons of struggle against rocky soil.Image

Only his eyes showed life, and these burned with an exigency made the more disturbing by juxtaposition against the weariness in his other features—as if something inside him burned too hot to be quenched, undiminished even by the shell of spent flesh that housed it.

The voice of the prophet glowed just as hot as his eyes. “You are Daniel—the one they call Belteshazzar.”

It was not a question. Daniel shuddered. “Yes, rabbi. I have come—”

“I know why you are here,” interjected Ezekiel abruptly. His words issued forth in a tone full of bright light and sharp edges; they were impossible to ignore, like the cry of a hunting bird.

Ezekiel turned about and went back inside, leaving the door ajar. Daniel was uncertain whether he had been dismissed or allowed—certainly not invited—inside. After an uncomfortable moment or two, he hesitantly entered the house of the prophet.

The interior was dark and not much cooler than the afternoon street. Lacking the niceties of heat-conscious design, Ezekiel’s house provided shelter, nothing more. There was no entry hall to shade the inside from the invasive heat of the sun. The door opened onto the west, which made for greater and greater discomfort as the afternoon’s rays became more and more direct. The dwelling was constructed of mud-brick, the most plentiful and inexpensive material in the riverine lowlands,but Daniel noticed light—and heat—seeping through gaps in the roof wattle.

If Ezekiel was aware of the slovenliness of his estate, he showed no sign. In fact, the prophet’s ramshackle hovel was matched by his appearance and manner. Daniel sensed that the affairs of daily life held but a tired disinterest for Ezekiel, as if he would rather be in another world, where one had no need of houses. Perhaps the darkness and nothingness of Sheol was more suited to the care-worn rabbi’s tastes.

Daniel remembered what he had heard of Ezekiel’s reputation: of his exotic, mystical visions of flaming wheels and frightening creatures of the air, and of how he had endured the death of his wife with no more weeping than if she had been a stranger to him. On that occasion he had indeed proclaimed an oracle upon his bizarre behavior: In the same fashion, he declared, the Lord would take away from Israel the delight of her eyes and the joy of her heart. Daniel thought of this, and of Azariah’ s news from Judah, and shuddered.Image

Daniel also found himself remembering another prophet, another message. Jeremiah, too, had seemed forever weary; the sadness of his burden had dragged at the comers of his eyes, thickened his steps with a mourner’s heaviness. Yet there was also a tenderness about him, Daniel recalled: Jeremiah had been able to summon the strength to tell stories to a group of frightened boys.

Ezekiel appeared beyond the ability to give such solace. He sat now, staring a challenge at Daniel. Or perhaps his eyes were those of a man who, having seen too much, craved only rest, resenting those who intruded upon his solitude. Then he broke his own silence with a pronouncement.

“You have seen, Daniel son of Kemuel.”

Daniel sucked in his breath—he had not heard his father’s name spoken aloud in the decade he had been in Babylon.

“You have seen,” continued Ezekiel in his cawing voice, “and now you cannot go back, cannot live as if you knew nothing.” For twenty breaths, Ezekiel peered into Daniel’s soul, nodding slightly at what he saw. “You have seen,” he mused, in a softer voice, “yet yours is not the burden of a prophet.”

Daniel looked quizzically at the older man. With the same type of surety with which Ezekiel gazed truly into his soul, he knew he had seen. Adonai had shown him, if only for a moment, the disturbing, immense shapes hidden beneath the tidal surges of days to come. What had he done in the court that day, if it was not prophecy? “What is the difference, Rabbi Ezekiel?” he asked.

A mirthless chuckle grudgingly escaped Ezekiel’s lips. He looked away. “The difference? What is the difference?” His eyes bored in on Daniel, giving him the uncomfortable impression he had offended in some unintentional way. “To be forged upon the anvil of God’s purpose, to be at once His hammer, His tongs, and His molten iron; to hear words that rend the heart, see visions that pierce the chest; to be emptied like an urn, again and again and again until one desires only rest, only an end to the refilling—and to know one cannot live without the refilling. To be given words that one dare not speak, and to feel those words churning and boiling in the belly until one must speak them aloud, or die. To be despised, soon or late, by everyone except Adonai—and to desire it so, while hating it. This is to be a prophet.” Ezekiel’s eyes misted over. He withdrew from Daniel, from the present. For several moments the past claimed him—or the future.

Then his fever-bright gaze snapped back to the young man who sat in his house. “When you were granted your vision, did you receive a call, a sending?”Image

Daniel’s face tilted again in uncertainty. “A call … ?”

“No, I thought not,” snapped Ezekiel decisively. “When the Eternal summons a prophet, always the prophet is commissioned: summoned to a task and a people. And the people, it seems, are foredoomed to be heedless.”

Again the faraway look stole over the prophet’s face. Daniel felt deep pity stirring within him for the inexpressible sadness that cloaked Ezekiel. He searched for words to bring comfort, to signify sympathy.

“Rabbi, I . . . I cannot believe that the Hebrews in this place have been entirely ungrateful for your—”

“You think not?” barked Ezekiel. “You think they hear, really discern what the Lord says?” He stared at Daniel a moment more, then snorted in disgust. “Your easy words don’t comfort me, boy. I have seen too much, drunk too deeply of the Eternal’s anger toward those faithless impostors. No,” he continued, shaking his head in tired resignation, “they merely attend. They gather in their little groups on the day of shabbatand listen politely to the reading of the Law only because they are nostalgic for the trappings of the simpler times. Their hearts are not there. As long as the Temple still stands in Zion, they will not listen with the ears of their souls. As long as they can delude themselves into thinking the covenant remains unbroken … ”

The prophet stared vacantly past Daniel into a comer even darker than the rest of the disheveled room. He was quiet for so long Daniel began to quietly gather himself to depart and leave Ezekiel alone with the broken, jagged edges of his pain. Then the prophet spoke again, in a voice tempered into mellowness by the ancient bludgeoning of grief.

“A healing time will come, son of Kemuel. It will be too late for me, but it will come. This, too, I have seen. The dead bones will again be covered with flesh; the city will be rebuilt.” He looked carefully at Daniel. “And I think it may be your destiny to be an agent of renewal for Israel. Perhaps it is for this that the Eternal has placed you here—for this moment in history.”

Daniel slowly turned these words over in his mind. “But rabbi, if I am not to be a prophet—?”

“Not only to prophets are visions vouchsafed,” Ezekiel said, “and not only kings achieve conquests. Adonai is Lord of all, and His providence may not be denied. His victory is sure.”

Daniel felt his chest throbbing with the implications of Ezekiel’s words. He was not certain he wanted to hear more, but the prophet was not finished.

“He is molding you into His tool, Daniel-Belteshazzar. He is fashioning you for His work. But beware! Stumbling blocks lie before you, and many trials will seek to entangle your feet.” The dark, smoldering eyes of the prophet lanced toward him; he felt the force of their impact pinning him to the place where he sat. It was too much. He scrambled to his feet, afraid of staying here another moment. Here in Ezekiel’s hut he felt as if the cords that bound him to the earth were stretched thin, frayed to the breaking point. He had the dizzying sensation that he might snap loose at any moment, careening away into another reality, one for which he knew he was not prepared yet.

As Daniel backed toward the door, Ezekiel held up a hand.

“Wait! There is something you will need!”

Despite himself, Daniel froze, his hand on the latch. The prophet scrambled to a comer of the hovel, scratching through piles of dirty parchment and writing utensils until he found what he sought. He stalked toward Daniel, who waited, heart hammering, by the doorway. “Here. Take these.”

Daniel looked down. In Ezekiel’s hands he saw two scrolls covered by lambskin sheaths. Slowly, tentatively, he reached out and accepted them. “Rabbi—what are they?”Image

“The book of the prophet Isaiah,” replied Ezekiel, his eyes lovingly caressing the scrolls he had just given away, “and the letters of the prophet Jeremiah.” His glittering eyes sought Daniel’s. “Read them. Carefully. In them lie the keys to your destiny.”

Despite his desire to yank the door open and run away from the otherworldly eyes of the prophet, Daniel tarried a moment more. Staring at the scrolls, his mind formed a timorous query. “R—Rabbi Ezekiel,” Daniel stuttered. The prophet, who had half-turned away, halted, his head cocked in a listening attitude. His tongue sticking to the roof of his mouth, Daniel continued, “Rabbi … if you please … Where is the scroll of your words? May I be favored with your teachings as well?”

Ezekiel appeared lost in thought, swaying on his feet. Once Daniel thought he was about to fall. Then the prophet turned full about, those hawk’s eyes peering again into Daniel’s soul. Something that might have been a smile flickered, ghostlike, across his lips. “That scroll is not yet ready for you, Daniel-Belteshazzar,” Ezekiel whispered. “When it is time, you shall have it.”

With that, Ezekiel wheeled about and returned to his seat, dismissing Daniel with a wave of his hand. Daniel threw open the door, gratefully soaking up the comforting reality of the outside world, despite its hot torrents of yellow sunlight. Quickly he distanced himself from the house of Ezekiel the prophet.

 

KURASH STROKED THE HORSE’S NECK, slightly comforted in his anger by the familiar sounds of the animal’s chewing and by the rich, salty aroma of the gelding’s hide. Not for the first time, he quietly chanted his grievance to his bodyguard. “They have no right, Gobhruz. No right to treat a king’s son this way. I am not their valet nor their stable lackey.”

Gobhruz, seated behind his young charge, carefully cleared his throat. “My prince, your father warned you: ‘Do not expect special treatment from the patrol leader.’ Surely you knew how it might be.”

Kurash wheeled upon Gobhruz. “In Anshan I am a prince! Is my father any less a king when we ride beyond its borders? Even outside the valley of my father’s vassalage, the clans of the Parsis know how to treat a person of royal birth! And my mother was a daughter of the house of their cursed king himself!” Choking on the potent wine of youthful anger, he turned again to the horse. Hiding his tear-stung eyes from his bodyguard, he reached up to twine his fingers in the coarse hairs of the beast’s mane. “I tell you, Gobhruz, Indravash mocks me! He snickers behind his hand each time he orders me to fetch and carry for him, because he knows I am helpless, so far from my own people. If we were within a day’s ride of Anshan … ”Image

Kurash left the rest of the threat unuttered, but Gobhruz, familiar with the prince’s temperament, was in little doubt of its tenor or intention.

“My prince,” said the older man, seeking to placate the boy, “you must not allow your impatience—”

Kurash made a sound like the snorting of a charger.

“—your impatience with the leader of this mission to blind you to the chance to learn. Look about you!” Gobhruz waved his arm broadly. “We are in Babylon, one of the oldest cities in the world! When our ancestors were still trekking across the grasslands of the north, men were already building huge monuments to the gods of this place. Babylon has much to teach, my prince. See that you take advantage of the opportunity. Perhaps,” the bodyguard continued in a lower voice, his eyes carefully averted from the prince’s, “it was for this reason that your father allowed you to persuade his permission for this journey … ”

Kurash stared hard at Gobhruz for several long breaths. Picking up a saddle cloth, he clambered up onto a hayrack standing beside the feeding animal and began rubbing the horse’s back. “I’ll tell you this, Gobhruz,” the boy muttered as he scoured the crusted salt from the animal’s hide, “the next time I come to Babylon, it won’t be as saddle drudge to some arrogant Medean horse-captain. Your cousins may insult me with impunity now, but they had best look to themselves.” Gobhruz knew better than to laugh.

 

EVENING GATHERED as Daniel trudged homeward from the palace. The day had been long and his emotions were a ragged tangle of apprehension and faith. He felt Ezekiel’s troubling, hopeful words dragging at the heels of his mind. “An agent of renewal,” the prophet had called him. Daniel worried at the fabric of his uncertainties, tugging this way and that. He tried vainly to surmise what might lie behind the enigmatic veil ofthe future.

Turning the corner onto his home street, he sidestepped a swine that was rooting greedily through a pile of refuse. Hundreds of the semi-wild beasts roved the streets of Babylon, scavenging for offal and trying to avoid capture by hungry beggars searching for a free meal. Daniel aimed a kick at the flank of the pig, which scuttled squealing into the purple shadows of twilight.

Night fell, but the heat of midsummer lingered on like an unwelcome guest. Daniel reached his doorway, longing for a drink of cool water from the courtyard urn. As he passed through the portal, he saw lamplight flickering in the doorway of the main room.

Mishael, Azariah, and Hananiah huddled there, their faces drawn and creased. They looked up when Daniel entered. His eyes widened in anxiety, and he involuntarily took half a step backward, so great was the distress traced upon the features of his friends. “What? Is something wrong?” he asked, as the heavy feet of dread pounded up the stairways of his breast. Azariah stood, his shoulders slumped as if he had just received a public flogging. “The emperor has called for the armies,” Azariah announced in a voice of mourning. “Within the month they will depart on a campaign … ”—he wavered on his feet, then went on—“to Judah.”Image

Daniel’s eyes searched the face of his friend. “Is it as you feared, then?” Dismay clamped its talons about his throat as he remembered Ezekiel’s words concerning the Temple and the hearts of the people of Judah.

Slowly, Azariah nodded. Unable to meet Daniel’s gaze, he covered his face with a hand. His answer came in a voice scarcely audible, a threadbare rasp of grief. “The end has come,” he said. Then he turned and walked away.

 

 

This chapter is from the novel Daniel: The Man Who Saw Tomorrow, by Thom Lemmons. It will soon be available for your smart phone, tablet, or other e-reading device at HomingPigeonPublishing.com. Please visit the site for more information on other books by Thom Lemmons

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Daniel: The Man Who Saw Tomorrow–Chapter 6

THE TALE OF DANIEL’S FEAT ran from the palace throughout the city like a million scurrying ants. In the shops, in the bazaars, even in the temples of the lesser gods, the name of Belteshazzar of Judah was whispered in tones of awe. The young counselor’s reputation took on the aura of a talisman, a wisdom-charm to be rubbed when one didn’t know what else to do.

Within the Hebrew community Daniel’s deed was a source of pride and a cautiously quiet boasting. His name even found mention in an oracle on the fate of Judah spoken by the wild-eyed prophet-priest Ezekiel. Overnight, Daniel’s foreknowledge had become proverbial.Image

Daniel himself was placed in a peculiar position by his new-found notoriety. Lamech, his mentor, now looked at him askance, with a wary mix of malaise and respect. He felt this was not at all the same young man whom he had grown to like—even to value. A new and unsettling dimension of Belteshazzar’s character had come to light in a way that left him unable to see his protégé with the same eyes. He found himself unsure whether to, as before, dispatch Belteshazzar on this or that errand, or to bow before him and receive orders from such a messenger of the gods.

Uruk the Sumerian was also confused. The commander of the guards had seen the Hebrew youth act the part of a mage and perform duties in the fashion of a mage—yet Daniel did not claim to be such. Uruk felt he ought to place this young prodigy in the same category of mistrust in which he held the abashed Adad-ibni and his ilk, but something about Belteshazzar’s openness, his lack of pretense, made this impossible. The commander even heard that the boy refused to be consulted bythose who now eagerly pressed him for advice on other matters. Hardly a day went by when Belteshazzar was not accosted by some young functionary who wished the Hebrew’s input on whether he should take this or that post, or by some aging, anxious merchant who wanted the meaning of a troubling dream or imagined omen. Belteshazzar steadfastly refused to be dragged into such matters, on the grounds that his eerily accurate vision of the king’s nightmare was a special dispensation by his god, not a freshly tapped reservoir of augury, to be turned on and off like the spigot of a beer cask. Nothing was so sure a passage to the topmost levels of Chaldean society, if not of the royal court itself, as being recognized as a new seer—but Daniel did not deign to play such a game.

Such refusal of proffered advantage lay beyond Uruk’s experience. In the imperial court of Babylon, one did not ignore such opportunities. One grasped the mantle of influence whenever it was available—ripping it off another’s shoulders if necessary.

Even among his friends, Daniel felt himself adrift on a raft of strangeness in a sea of sidelong glances. Whatever Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah thought of recent events, they did not feel at liberty to discuss it with him. He heard the quiet conversations that ceased suddenly upon his entering the room; he felt the back of his neck itching from the thoughtful stares when he walked away. He longed to talk to Imagethem as before, without the unseen barrier of intimidation that rose up involuntarily when he approached. He began to resent the heavy gift the Eternal had placed upon his shoulders.

One day he sat alone in the main room, halfheartedly picking at a meal of salted lamb and dried figs. The other three friends’ duties kept them away. His old servant Caleb shuffled in, carrying a bucket of dates for sorting. He had been working in the courtyard, but the midday heat had driven him to a cooler place.

Thoughtfully Daniel observed the slow, patient toil, the wrinkled old hands of Caleb. He had not seen Daniel, who wasseated in a far corner of the room, leaning against an inside wall to savor the lingering night-coolness within the two-cubit-thick walls. Quietly the old man worked, inspecting each piece of fruit, tossing the spoiled dates aside, saving the good to be stored for later use. Daniel, starved for human conversation, began talking softly at the deaf old man.

“Once, when I was a boy, my father told me the story of Joseph,” Daniel mused. “Have you heard that story, Caleb? No, of course not. You haven’t heard anything in such a long time I doubt you’d even remember. In any case, I remember that my father—this was in our homeland, Caleb. In Judah. Do you even remember Judah? My father often told me how Jacob’s youngest son had dreams. And those dreams drove a wedge between Joseph and his brothers … ”

The old longing, the aching sorrow for Zion, fell about his shoulders with its well-worn, familiar creases of poignant loss. He thought of his father—he of the strong hands and easy laugh—whom he hadn’t seen since the last, lingering glance over his shoulder as the hostage-train departed Jerusalem. He remembered his mother, too—her soft hands, her ready lap. And he remembered her raw wails as he walked away from her under Chaldean guard. Her face that day was an open wound, as if her life bled away through her weeping eyes.Image

Daniel watched Caleb’s patient hands as they sorted and sifted—tossing this brown, wrinkled lump aside, placing this one in the storage jar. “Do you ever feel that way, Father Caleb? Do you sometimes sense the chasm of silence dividing you from the world through which you move so slowly and quietly? Do you ever wish for better hearing, Caleb? Do you wish to be able to respond to something other than shouts and gestures?” A moment more Daniel watched Caleb contentedly dividing the good from the bad. “Or do you enjoy your solitude, your apartness?”

Daniel sighed, turning his head away from the servant and his task. “I never wanted apartness, Father Caleb. I wanted only to do the will of the Eternal. Yet it seems that apartness is the fruit of such labor.” Daniel closed his eyes, listening to the soft plop-plopping of the good and bad dates. Then the sounds of Caleb’s toil ceased. Daniel opened his eyes and looked back toward the old man. Caleb was returning his stare. Apparently Caleb had just noticed he was not alone in the room.

“Young master!” he crackled in his liver-spotted voice, “I didn’t know you were here!”

Daniel smiled at the wispy old man. “I carne in here to take some food,” he half-shouted. “I was eating when you came in out of the heat,” he said, gesturing toward the courtyard.

A slow, considering look crossed Caleb’s face, and Daniel grimaced inwardly. He knew the signs: He was about to get one of Caleb’s nonsensical replies to the question he thought he’d heard. Caleb began nodding sagely.

“Yes, young master,” the old man opined carefully. “Perhaps you should speak to the Teacher. Ezekiel is a wise man, besides being a prophet of the Most High. Yes,” Caleb finished rnatter-of-factly, as if the matter were settled, “I think it would be a good thing for you to speak with Ezekiel.”Image

Daniel began to chuckle, then caught himself up short. Hadn’t he been longing for counsel, for guidance through the bog of confusion in which he found himself? Who would know better how to advise him than one who had felt, at least as keenly, the burden of the Lord? With new eyes, Daniel studied Caleb. The servant sat as before, studiously sifting through the pile of fruit. The good here, the bad there. Who really knew what went on beneath the thinning white hairs of that old skull?

Shaking his head and smiling sardonically, Daniel rose to take his dish to the kitchen. Caleb glanced up as he passed, giving Daniel a quick smile before returning to his work.

“And stop calling me ‘young master,”’ muttered Daniel as he stepped into the glare of the courtyard.

 

AT THE ENTRANCE of the counting-house stood Jacob bar-Uriah, or Egibi as he was known in the Aramaic dialect of the empire. As was his habit, he was watching the faces of Babylon passing in the street. He and his sons ran a moderately prosperous lending and buying trade, and the counting-house was located on a street just off Aibur Shabu, in the financial district that centered around the Esagila temple complex.

Egibi, unlike the latecomers making the trek from Judah with Daniel and his peers, had lived in Babylon for two score of years. His people traced their roots to Shechem in Israel, not far from Samaria, capital of the mostly forgotten northern kingdom of Israel. Since the conquest of Sargon the Assyrian almost three generations past, Egibi’s clan had been Babylonians—first as subjects of the kings of Nineveh, then as citizens of the kingdom of Nabopolassar and his son, the great Nebuchadrezzar.

In his youth Egibi was a traveling merchant, plying the trade routes from the spice kingdoms of the Arabah to the bustling seaports of Phoenicia. He had finally grown too old for such wandering, settling here in this thriving metropolis on the banks of the Euphrates. Like his father before him, he decided Babylon was where he belonged. He took to wife a Chaldean girl; then, as his fortunes expanded, he took two more. Truth to tell, he rarely thought of himself anymore as Jacob bar-Uriah, son of Israel. For many years now he knew himself mostly as Egibi, merchant and lender of Babylon.Image

The temples had the bulk of the money-changing trade, but Egibi and Sons managed to make a more-than-adequate living from their particular niche of the business—lending to those who were either unwilling or unable to approach the temples’ agents. Perhaps the borrower had already defaulted on a debt to one of the god-houses. Or perhaps, like the pious among the Hebrews, they were loath to obligate themselves to an agreement with one of the deities of the imperial city. Though gods from a myriad lands had found a home in Babylon, still some folk felt disloyal to their upbringing or customs if they literally or figuratively indebted themselves to the gods of Babylon. ToEgibi it was all the same—business was business.

Egibi had a shrewd eye for human nature. By observation he could usually tell if a prospective borrower presented a potential collection problem. Where another banker might be misled by fine clothing, the flash of jewelry, and a confident facade, Egibi could study such an applicant and decide he would not allow his silver to leave the counting-house without a significant security pledge—a slave, perhaps, or a yoke of oxen, depending on the size of the loan desired. Egibi had rarely been left with a bad debt he couldn’t turn to profit by selling repossessed property.

As Egibi continued watching the street, one of his scribes touched him lightly on the shoulder and held out a clay cylinder. The merchant turned to take the ochre, sun-baked article. It fit easily in his palm, being of about equal length to the span from his fingertips to the heel of his hand. He turned it over, studying the cipher scrawled about the outside of the cylinder. “Whose loan is this?” he asked, squinting at the cuneiform crow-tracks scribbled all around the document. “Either your handwriting is getting worse, Shatak, or my eyes are.”

The Chaldean scribe smiled. “It is the loan of Sin-malik, the weaver. He is two cycles of the moon past due.”

Egibi grimaced. He sincerely liked the weaver. This loan was one of the very few he had allowed himself to make in violation of his instincts. The tradesman had borrowed up to his limit with several temples, and had even had property remanded to the house of Sin, his namesake deity. But then he had approached Egibi with a proposition: He had secured an agreement to provide a Tyrian linen merchant with a large quantity of finely woven cloth. The partner would then dye the cloth with the coveted Phoenician purple, and ship it back for resale. The profit, it was assumed, would be enough to repay Sin-malik for the cost of materials and provide a generous return for himself and the partner in Tyre.

Alas, the Tyrian merchant proved less than trustworthy. He had originally agreed to pay a substantial deposit for the cloth,enabling Sin-malik to build larger looms to accommodate the increased volume of production he must undertake. Then things started to go awry. Sin-malik had already commissioned and begun the construction of the looms when word arrived from Tyre that the partner would not be able to make the initial earnest payment. Then he wheedled Sin-malik into accepting smaller and smaller shipments. It seemed the market for purple linen was much stronger in the cities of the north, and the partner assured him they would both benefit more handsomely.

The final upshot was that Sin-malik had come in desperation to Egibi for ten manaof silver to pay the craftsmen who had built the looms. The fellows were getting dangerously impatient for their money. Because of his personal regard for the hardworking, if too trusting, Sin-malik, Egibi had agreed to the loan.

“Break it open,” Egibi now said to the scribe, handing over the clay cylinder.

In Babylon, business contracts and almost everything else were written on tablets of dampened clay, the arrow-shaped characters inscribed with pointed sticks. Both parties to the agreement affixed a name or totem to the pancake-shaped tablet, which was then carefully rolled into a cylinder while still moist. This was then sun-baked, then wrapped inside another clay tablet on which was inscribed with identifying and descriptive information. This second, outer layer was then baked into place around the actual contract. This method prevented tampering with the original document.

Egibi watched as the scribe carefully cracked the clay envelope surrounding the loan agreement. Glancing at it to ascertain that it was undamaged, the scribe offered it without comment to his employer.

Egibi scanned the cylinder, then looked away, clucking his tongue and scratching his beard in consternation. It was as he had remembered. He had given Sin-malik the silver with no security other than the weaver’s solemn oath to repay. Such cases could get Imageunpleasant, usually involving litigation of the matterbefore a mutually recognized authority. In this instance, the situation was further complicated by Egibi’ s reluctance to take Sin-malik to law. He asked himself which he wanted more: the continued friendship of Sin-malik, or the return of the ten manawith an additional two manain interest that the weaver owed him. It would be difficult to have both.

Egibi was roused from his quandary by the clopping approach of a squad of horsemen. He looked up and saw six Medes approaching, the reins dangling loosely from the necks of their statuesque mounts. The horses moved with loose-jointed grace, their ears flickering eagerly this way and that. From the orange-hued dust on their gear and the crusts of dried sweat on the horses’ flanks and withers, Egibi surmised the riders must have traveled hard, perhaps day and night, from the Medean capital of Ecbatana, more than a hundred leagues to the north and east.

Possibly it was their fatigue that allowed the riders to ignore the uneasy glances of the passersby. Asturagash, heir of Cyaxeres and now king of the Medes, was, in name at least, an ally of Nebuchadrezzar, like his father. But the Medean hegemony arched far along the eastern border of the Chaldean lands, and away to the north. Like a fat serpent it lay along the frontiers of Akkad and the old territories of Assyria, reaching to the edge of the Lydian domain of King Croesus. It was said that Ecbatana controlled unimaginably vast tracts to the east, stretching over endless ranges of rugged, desolate mountains.

The emperor’s announced purpose for the recently completed fortifications along the Tigris River between Opis and Sippar was defense against the steppe-dwelling nomads who periodically made incursions into the rich cities of the alluvial plain, but few were under any delusions about the real threat. Nebuchadrezzar doubtless felt the ominous weight of his supposed ally leaning against his eastern flank.

The leader dismounted, grimacing at the kinks in his joints, and approached the merchant. “Peace to you, Egibi,” he said in eastern-accented Aramaic, bowing slightly in greeting.

Egibi returned the salutation. “And peace to you, worthy Indravash. I trust the road was kind to you?”

“Not so kind that a cup of beer would be unwelcome,” responded the Mede.

“Of course!” Egibi motioned to a slave who had materialized just inside the doorway. The boy wheeled and dashed off to perform his errand. “Please come in,” continued Egibi solicitously, motioning toward the interior of the counting-house. “It is far cooler inside, and one of my servants will attend your mounts.”

“No,” said the Mede firmly. He turned to one of the members of his party. “Kurash,” he called, “you will stay with the horses. See that they are watered and fed.”

A rider, startlingly young to Egibi’ s eye, swung down nimbly from the back of his steed. Egibi thought he detected the merest flash of resentment in the youth’s bearing as he gathered the reins tossed at him by the other dismounting riders, and it struck the merchant as odd. One seldom if ever saw such in the strictly disciplined corps of the Medes … Then Indravash was talking, and Egibi’s attention shifted away from the young boy with the smoldering eyes.

“I come on an errand for my lord Asturagash,” the captain remarked as they strode through the entrance court of the banker’s Imageestablishment. lndravash paused, seeking Egibi’s eye. “I can, as always, depend on your discretion?”

Egibi shrugged nonchalantly. “Of course.” The servant he had dispatched earlier was beside Indravash, pressing into his hand a clay cup of beer fetched from the cool storage vaults below ground. The Mede took three deep, long draughts, swallowing noisily. “Ahh … “ he sighed gratefully. “Much better. Lead on, Egibi.” Wiping his mouth with the back of his hand, he followed the banker into a private alcove.

Egibi turned to the servant. “See that we are not disturbed.” The boy nodded, stationing himself firmly outside thedoor.

The Mede was speaking again. “How much can you give the king for these?” The rustle of parchment was heard. Then the door closed, cutting off the sounds from inside.

 

This chapter is from the novel Daniel: The Man Who Saw Tomorrow, by Thom Lemmons. It will soon be available for your smart phone, tablet, or other e-reading device at HomingPigeonPublishing.com. Please visit the site for more information on other books by Thom Lemmons

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Daniel: The Man Who Saw Tomorrow–Chapter 5

DANIEL LAY TOSSING on his couch, restlessly watching the stars crawl slowly past the cracks in the ventilation grille just below the wood-planked ceiling of his bedroom. For the hundredth time since he lay down, he breathed a prayer: “Sovereign Lord, grant me the vision which will turn aside the emperor’s wrath.”Image

Nebuchadrezzar had heard him out, somewhat to Daniel’s amazement. Again Daniel heard himself before the emperor, requesting time to ask the Lord of heaven to reveal to him the dream that was causing the emperor’s vexation. Mishael and Hananiah had sat in slack-jawed shock as they heard their friend offer to ferret out the king’s dream. They heard as well the dreadful certainty in Nebuchadrezzar’s voice when he made his response.

“Belteshazzar,” he had said, with a solemnity more fearful than open anger, “you have dared to reproach your sovereign. You have presumed to sue for the repeal of a decree that I have made and sealed with my own hand. You have come to me and spoken of the displeasure of this god of yours. Had you made such a disrespectful request in the public court, you would already be dead.”

Again, lying on his bed, Daniel felt fear stinging his face as he remembered: The chamber had swirled about him while he awaited what he thought was certain and instant doom. Thoughtfully Nebuchadrezzar had studied the bowed heads of Mishael and Hananiah. Daniel felt sure the pounding of his heart had been audible in the chamber.

“But I know of your service to Lamech, and of your wisdom—a wisdom beyond your years,” continued the emperor, more to himself than to them. He had looked at the three of them, studying each whitened face carefully, as if seeing them for the first time—or the thousandth.

His eyes returned to Daniel then, and he pronounced the next words in a ringing, ceremonial voice. “Know this then, Counselor ImageBelteshazzar: I will grant you one night. If on the morrow you cannot bring me the solution to my problem, you … and you, and you,” he said, pointing at Mishael and Hananiah, “shall suffer the same fate as the mages. Since you have taken up the cause of those I had determined to punish, you shall share their punishment if you fail. So let it be done.”

The three had returned home with numb steps. When they told Azariah what had happened, the friends knelt, bound together in a fervent prayer for deliverance. Then, each dragging his own personal shackle of fateful resignation, they had gone to their beds.

Daniel rose now from his pallet. He paced toward his doorway, then back again. Why? he asked himself. Why did I feel so strangely compelled to go to the emperor? What was this maddening voice within, calling so insistently, yet impossible to hear with clarity?

He remembered the blind beggar on Aibur Shabu, and the chilling sensation that the old man’s sightless eyes were actually seeing him in a way he could not see himself. An intuition of choosing had flowed from the seedy presence of the beggar; when the bedraggled old man nodded his head, Daniel felt he had passed some unknown, unfathomable muster. He would suit the purpose, the old man’s nod seemed to say. But what purpose? Whose choosing? And after tomorrow morning, would it matter?

He flung himself back onto his bed, burying his face in his arms. “O God of my people,” he half-sobbed, “I beg for deliverance, for knowledge—and for rest.”

After what seemed ages, he drifted into a troubled doze.Image

 

He stood in a lofty place, though his feet rested on no surface he could see. Like a hovering bird he felt himself suspended above the terrain—a familiar landscape, and yet as alien as the bottom of the Great Sea. The air was still, hushed. He was waiting for something unknown. Oddly he felt no fear, but rather a tingling in the pit of his stomach, a nervous anticipation, like that of a child waiting in the crowd at the edge of a wide street for the beginning of a royal procession.

Below him was a statue, and a man. The man was looking at the statue and smiling—admiring the image. Daniel looked closer, and felt his heart skip a beat. The emperor! He wanted to cry out, to warn his lord of whatever awaited. For he knew—how, he wasn’t sure—that whatever came would come in awesome and irresistible change for the man and the statue below. Absolute destruction—or rebirth.

But he was mute. In the tableau played out below, he was intended to be a witness, not a participant. For a moment he struggled against the numbness in his throat before feeling a gentle, infinitely strong hand laid upon his lips. He ceased struggling, waiting in chest-pounding passivity for what would happen next.

When he heard the sound, he knew, with a knowledge beyond vision, what it was. Looking up with a grimace of fear, he saw the glittering stone rushing toward the figures below. He found himself nodding in recognition, even as he trembled to see the impossibly huge, white-hot gem bludgeoning its way toward the mark.Image

He heard screams from the tiny figure of the emperor, saw him flee in panic, cringing like a cur as the stone struck home.

 

“Daniel! Daniel!”

He snapped awake in a rush of half-choked cries. Azariah stood over him, gripping his shoulders and staring into his face with the intensity and concern of a worried brother. The rosy pigments of dawn collected on the grille above his bed, barely illuminating the shadowy outlines of his still-dark room.

“You were shouting, thrashing about,” said Azariah in answer to Daniel’s disoriented, questioning look. “You must have been fighting a demon in your sleep.”

In a flash, it came clear. A bubble of excited joy lodged in his chest, and he smiled broadly at his friend. “Yes, Azariah!” Daniel exclaimed, sitting bolt upright. “I fought a demon—and won!”

 

TOYING PENSIVELY with the ivory hilt of his dagger, Nebuchadrezzar sat in his private chamber, awaiting the gathering of the court. The handle was carved from the tusk of one of the strange, huge beasts living beyond the cataracts of the Great River in Egypt. The design was of a rampant lion—an echo of the device in the throne room facade—and the beast’s eyes were tiny emeralds. The butt of the weapon was of filigreed silver, the blade etched with mystical characters the smith had assured him would protect its royal wielder.

He pressed the tip of the blade into the heel of his left hand, drawing a tiny bead of blood. Indeed, he thought, the great Nebuchadrezzar bleeds like any other man. He smirked: What would happen if this became public knowledge? With the flat of the blade he smeared the blood across the pivot of his thumb, wiping the dagger on his sleeve and returning it to its sheath.

He bled—and dreamed—like all ordinary mortals. The three Hebrews, acting in unaccountable, unplanned consort, had reminded him Imageof this. Had he been wrong to pronounce certain doom on them? They had not set out to offend him—he knew this deep in his heart. Almost, last night, he had been moved to clemency, and nearly to outright belief in Belteshazzar’s mad promise. Even this morning he felt in his heart a tiny spark of fear: Perhaps the Hebrew could succeed. Nebuchadrezzar was not sure he really wanted the oracle of his dream proclaimed.

Belteshazzar and the two others had held up to his face the unwanted mirror of his own mortality and weakness. Without knowing it, each of the three had shoved him harshly against the cold reality of a huge, unrelenting Unknown. Though he did not taste in the Hebrews the conceited, self-serving air of the mages, still they, like those despised conjurers, had forced him to contemplate the unseen, uncontrollable tides of destiny and eternity. If they had no answers to offer, he thought, theydeserved the same fate—however fair their words and music.

A discreet rap on the door told him the nobles and scribes were assembled in the throne room. He rose, gathering his purple linen robes about him, and paced to the door.

Tension crackled in the throne room of Babylon as the emperor seated himself. To one side, his left, crouched the chief mages and seers, rumpled and bedraggled from their sleepless night in the dungeon. To the rear of the hall were the nobles and attendants to the court, each waiting in stiff-faced uncertainty to see which way the wind would blow the blaze of the emperor’s anger. Perhaps their apprehension was the reason for the wide, empty space before the dais.

On the other side of the hall, in a small group, were Belteshazzar and his friends. Their demeanor radiated an amazing air of calm, thought Nebuchadrezzar as he took his seat. It was odd—no more than a trick of perception, surely—but a beam of light from one of the windows appeared to fall upon the Hebrews as they prostrated themselves before him.

Commander Uruk uttered the customary invocation, and the throng raised itself slowly from the floor.

“Hear the word of the emperor,” began Nebuchadrezzar. “The mages remain under the sentence of death.” A muffled whimper could be heard from the wretched group on his left. “Nevertheless, for the sake of Belteshazzar, our counselor, we have agreed to stay the execution of the sentence until today. Belteshazzar, come forth!”

Lamech, standing rigidly in the back of the hall, felt his heart thud leadenly as Daniel strode forward to stand before the emperor. A knot of grief swelled in his throat: This good and honest young man did not deserve death. He murmured a fervent prayer to Adad, his patron deity.

“Belteshazzar has petitioned us for a hearing before this court. He has said that he will interpret for us the dream which these—” Nebuchadrezzar waved deprecatingly toward the mages— “could not.” The court buzzed with amazement at this unexpected development.

“Very well then, Belteshazzar,” said the emperor, bringing his gaze to bear upon the fair, confident face of the young Hebrew. “Are you able to describe and elucidate our dream, according to your word?”

The court fell so silent that Lamech fancied he could hear a beetle scurrying along a window ledge high overhead.

Adad-ibni peeked from between his fingers, holding his breath. Who was this impetuous stripling, and why should he place his neck on the block alongside the mages? The chief seer found himself praying that this upstart might actually succeed —then, despite himself, hoping he would not.

The eyes of Azariah, Mishael, and Hananiah were glued to their friend. Daniel had always been the one they looked to, more than any other, for direction. Each found himself wondering, even as he beseeched the Eternal: Was Daniel about to blunder off a cliff, pulling them after him?

Nabu-Naid’s black eyes flicked to and fro from the mages, to the emperor, and to Azariah, his aide. Could he rescue his own Abed-Nabu from the guilt of association with his foolish friend, this brazen interloper who now opened his mouth to speak? The prime minister rued the thought of losing so able an assistant.

“No man can read the signs of dreams, my lord,” said Daniel in a clear, strong voice. Lamech felt his heart falling into his stomach. He saw Uruk’ s hand go to the hilt of his sword.

“No mage, astrologer, or diviner can explain to the emperor this mystery that confuses. But,” continued Daniel, pausing as he drew a deep breath and squared his shoulders, “there is a God in heaven who can reveal mysteries.”

Adad-ibni glanced about at his cronies. To what god did this boy refer? Which totem, which altar had been neglected in their feverish rush through the pantheon? A silent shrug passed among them as they turned to hear the Hebrew’s next words.

“Your dream, O great Nebuchadrezzar, concerns the things that shall be: The Lord of Hosts has partly drawn aside the veil of the future, and has favored the king with a glimpse of years to come. As you lay upon your couch, my lord, this is what you saw … ”Image

The visions tumbled from Daniel’s tongue in a bright and terrifying cascade of splendor and awe. Every person in the court stood entranced as the young Hebrew described the flash of gold, the dull stolidity of iron, the telltale weakness of clay.

As one man they sucked in their breath, fairly hearing the inexorable rumble of the rock as it bore down on the image like the fist of a god. Each felt his knees weaken as the stone shattered the image, each longed to cover his face and hide from the fearful grandeur of the stone which filled the whole earth.

When Daniel finished his depiction of the dream, the shadows had moved the length of a man’s arm across the glazed brick floor of the throne room. Yet during the narration, not a muscle had moved, not an eye had stirred from the face of this young Hebrew. No one needed to observe the emperor’s white-knuckled grip on the dragon throne or his amazed, unnerved stare to know the truth of Daniel’s telling. Each one present felt its truth, its inevitability resounding within his soul.

“And now, O great king, I will give you the meaning of these things,” said Daniel. The words were filling his mind, cramming themselves eagerly to his lips. He felt himself to be a funnel, a sluice-gate for a torrent from the very mind of the Eternal. He began to shake, to reel with the effort of expressing the vast sweep of time—of kingdoms, lands, and peoples portrayed in the king’s dream. It was like trying to capture the fury of the desert wind within a clay jar. And when he spoke of that final kingdom—that realm which would encompass the whole world, and even more than the world—he felt his heart would burst from the joyous and worshipful astonishment he felt toward the Eternal, the God of the Universe, El-Shaddai. Who else but He could bring such things to pass?Image

Daniel finished speaking, passing a hand wearily over his eyes. He wavered on his feet from the exhaustion of the oracle, and Azariah rushed forward to steady him. When he regained his breath, he stared into the emperor’s eyes, his face blazing with the potency of his message. “The great God has shown the king what will take place in the future,” he said in a voice like a battle trumpet. “The dream is true and the interpretation is trustworthy.”

With the gait of a crippled old man, Nebuchadrezzar rose from his throne. The court stood transfixed as the emperor of Babylon shuffled toward Daniel, his gaze locked onto Daniel’s eyes like a lodestone. Slowly, almost in fear, Nebuchadrezzar approached this one who had just spoken aloud the stuff of his innermost soul. When he was an arm’s length from Daniel, the emperor halted, looking at Daniel with an expression that defied description. And all Babylon would forever remember what happened next.

The emperor did obeisance to his servant. Nebuchadrezzar, King of Lands, Emperor of the Two Rivers and the Shores of the Great Sea, bowed low before Daniel—Belteshazzar, and paid him reverence. One by one, every knee in the throne room bent in silent acknowledgment of the naked power of the words of this young Hebrew.

Adad-ibni raised his eyes from the floor just enough to see the feet of Daniel. Like a thieving dog who hears the steps of his master in the gateway, the chief seer was afraid—and resentful.Image

Nabu-Naid, for his part, surreptitiously studied the face of the Hebrew boy. The prime minister squinted, pursing his lips. Another piece of the puzzle, he thought.

 

 

This chapter is from the novel Daniel: The Man Who Saw Tomorrow, by Thom Lemmons. It will soon be available for your smart phone, tablet, or other e-reading device at HomingPigeonPublishing.com. Please visit the site for more information on other books by Thom Lemmons

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