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 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

Categories: Fiction | Leave a comment

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

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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

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

Daniel: The Man Who Saw Tomorrow–Chapter 4

STILL IN SHOCK from what he had witnessed in the court that morning, Daniel walked with Lamech, his superior, along Aibur Shabu—the Processional Way. At fifty-pace intervals, sputtering oil lamps burned atop ten-cubit poles. Months ago, the emperor had decreed that the broad way from the Ishtar Gate to Esagila, the temple of Marduk, should be kept illumined throughout the night—out of reverence for Marduk, Lord of the Sun. Frequent grumbling could be heard among the common folk about the expense of maintaining the scores of lamps with oil. Lately, oil seemed to rise in price daily—to the chagrin of all but the temples, who had vast holdings of olive groves and herds to supply the need. Of course, no one complained to the emperor.Image

“Lord Lamech, it is wrong for the emperor to order such a bloody deed!” Daniel was insisting. “The mages and seers are indeed a vain and supercilious lot, but they have done nothing to deserve this!”

Lamech, accustomed to allowing his young protégé to express himself frankly, shrugged as they walked beneath a smoking lamp flame. He stared at his feet, where the flickering light reflected from the deep blue glazed-tile walls on either side of the roadway. “He is the emperor, Belteshazzar,” Lamech said, as they strolled slowly past one of the inlaid yellow lions, replicated every hundred paces or so along the walls. “It is so ordered. There is nothing we can do, no higher authority to which we may apply. And besides, this matter does not concern us.”

“But don’t you see?” pressed Daniel. “It does concern us! Suppose the barley shipments fall short unaccountably. Or what if the levies received from a province do not match the entries on the tablets prepared by the governor’s agents? Will the emperor not do to us as he has done to the mages? Will we not feel the edge of the sword if we fail to perform satisfactorily?”

As they wandered along, Lamech raised his hand to rub his neck, uncomfortably contemplating Daniel’s words. “Belteshazzar, it is the business of mages and seers to mind the hidden things,” he rejoined finally. “What right have we to mingle in such affairs?”

Daniel snorted. “The mages and seers have always, I think, known far less than they allow it to seem.”

Lamech glanced sharply at him. “Our astrologers are some of the most respected men in the world! Sages have come from Egypt and even the islands of the Greeks to study at their feet! How can you accuse them of fakery?”Image

Carefully Daniel looked into the eyes of his mentor, then away. They walked on a few paces, then the younger man said, “Lord Lamech, there is a God who grants visions, who causes men to dream dreams. He is the same God who raises up kings, and debases them. And it is He who gives true visions—not the stars, which He Himself created, nor the spirits, who are in submission to Him.”

“More of that Hebrew strangeness,” muttered Lamech.

Daniel smiled. “Yes, I suppose it does sound strange, my lord. But I have seen and heard things … ” His voice died away as an old, blind beggar approached. Lamech turned and watched as the aged mendicant, his stick tap-tapping in front of him, moved in mincing steps toward them from the darkness beyond the lamplight. Five paces away, then four … three.

He stopped.

The beggar looked directly at Daniel—or so it seemed to Daniel. He felt those sightless sockets upon his face as if he were being examined from the inside out. And he felt again a strangely familiar tug within his breast; again that faint voice … then silence. The old man nodded to himself, then picked his way carefully past them, without speaking, without asking for alms. Daniel had the strange sense that instead of begging, the old man had given him … what?

“Is something wrong?” asked Lamech, as Daniel stared, transfixed, at the departing, ragged back of the old man.

“I … it’s … nothing,” said Daniel slowly. Then he looked up at Lamech. “I must go to the emperor. I must cause him to reconsider this thing he has decreed.”

Image“Daniel! You are out of your mind!” the chief counselor hissed. A passing foot soldier glanced at them strangely, then walked on. “If you place yourself between the emperor’s wrath and its target, why do you think you will escape with your life? Don’t do this mad thing! Stay out of it!”

Daniel looked away, and up—to the dark places between the stars, out and over the walls, to the west. Then he turned to face Lamech. “My lord—it is a thing I must do. I cannot explain.” He turned and walked quickly back toward the citadel.

Lamech stood staring after him. “Belteshazzar,” he muttered. “If ever that man needed his name to be true, it is now. Bal-atsu-usur,” Lamech whispered in Chaldean. “Lord Bel, protect his life.”

 

HANANIAH ALLOWED the final tones of the harp to vibrate in the chamber before damping the trembling chords with his fingertips. He closed his eyes for a moment, then looked up at Mishael. A silent smile passed between them.

The music had been good. Song, singer, and player were welded into a single entity—borne aloft, to be lost in the diverse oneness of melody and phrase. The smile signified their communion, their appreciation of the selfless congruence of the music—they knew how rare are the times when the artist is privileged to feel himself a conduit for the creation of true beauty. For the brief time while they performed, beauty had lived, shimmering and evanescent, in the chamber of Nebuchadrezzar.

Even the emperor, accustomed to such nightly concerts, was moved by the simple elegance of the ancient song. He stirred from his reverie to ask, “What was the tune you performed just now?”

Mishael bowed his head in respect. “My lord, it was an ancient song of our people. The melody is called ‘The Death of the Son.”’

“Did you invent this melody?”Image

“Oh, no, my lord!” Mishael gave a small, downcast smile. “I could never compose a thing of such radiance. This air was conceived many, many generations ago by the first great king of our people—David, the Lord’s Anointed.”

Nebuchadrezzar peered closely at the musicians as he drummed his fingers on his thigh. “Ah, yes! You are of the Hebrews!” Mishael and Hananiah bowed their heads in acknowledgment.

Nebuchadrezzar shifted on his cushion to glance at Nebuzaradan, the field commander of the armies of Babylon, seated behind his right shoulder. “Do you remember these fellows, Lord Zaradan? They must have come here at the same time you brought that young boy—what was his name? The son of that fool Jehoiakim?”

“Jeconiah, my lord,” answered the commander.

“Yes, that’s the one.” The emperor looked from beneath his eyebrows at the two musicians, waiting to be commanded either to leave or to play another song. “You!” Nebuchadrezzar asked, looking at Hananiah. “What’s your name?” The harpist shifted uneasily. He was far less comfortable with words than Mishael. He preferred to speak with his fingers on the strings. Finally he mumbled shyly, “Shadrach, my lord.”

“Tell me this, then, Shadrach: That frightened boy-king of your people who sits in my dungeon—was he anointed by this silent god of yours? What about Zedekiah, his ingrate uncle who now pretends to sit on the throne in your tiny homeland? Has this god of yours chosen him, as well?”

Hananiah turned red with consternation, his face firmly downcast as he searched within himself for an answer at once true and inoffensive. But the emperor didn’t wait for his reply.

“And what good does it do them—this anointing? Will it save them from my anger? Does this god of yours do anything to preserve his precious ‘anointed ones’?”

Nebuzaradan shifted uncomfortably on his cushion. The emperor was working himself into one of his bloody moods. It was frightening to be about when he was like this. Far safer, in fact, to be on the field of battle.

“Well, Shadrach?” demanded the emperor into the awkward silence. “What about this god of yours who places imbeciles and traitors on the throne of his little kingdom?”

Hananiah’ s heart pounded in fear, and Mishael’ s eyes were round and white with trepidation. Almost of their own volition, Hananiah’s fingers went to his harp, plucking out the first few notes of a melody. Helplessly, his eyes pleaded with Mishael to join in. His was the music, the melody, but not the words. He desperately needed his friend to assist, to complete the message that was the only answer he knew to this moment of mortal fear.

Hesitantly, glancing back and forth from the emperor to his friend’s face, Mishael began singing. It was another of the psalms of David:

 

Listen to my prayer, O God, do not ignore my plea;

hear me and answer me.

My thoughts trouble me and I am distraught at the voice of the enemy, at the stares of the wicked;

for they bring down suffering upon me and revile me in their anger.

My heart is in anguish within me; the terrors of death assault me, fear and trembling have beset me; horror has overwhelmed me—

 

ImageAbruptly they stopped as Nebuchadrezzar vaulted to his feet, his face white with fear. Covering his face with his hands, he turned away from the startled musicians and the confused general.

How could they have known? the emperor asked himself. How could this harpist’s fingers pluck from his instrument the very essence of my dream-terror? How could this alien eunuch speak the very words that are the quivering center of my nameless dread?

This song, composed by a long-dead king of an insignificant people, had gripped his heart like a mailed fist. How was it possible?

 

DANIEL CAREFULLY DESCENDED the stairs leading to the dungeon. At the bottom, seated on a straw mat in a shuddering circle of torchlight, was Uruk. The Sumerian commander glanced upward as he heard the footsteps coming toward him.

“Belteshazzar!” he greeted Daniel. “What errand brings you to this dismal place?”

“Lord Uruk,” Daniel began, after swallowing several times, “I must speak with you about the emperor’s decree.”

“Which one?”

“The one concerning … ” He took another deep breath. “Concerning the mages and seers. Your lieutenant told me I would find you here.”

Uruk stared sidelong at Daniel, then glanced toward the massive doors behind which the chief mages and seers were being held. “And what have you to do with these charlatans?” asked the commander.

Daniel paused again before answering. “The emperor will sin greatly if he does this thing. I must tell him. Where is he?”

Uruk stared at Daniel as if he had just uttered gibberish. “You … you had best reconsider, Belteshazzar. You are not known for being a fool; don’t begin acting that way. The emperor is the regent of Marduk. Their wills are one. Don’t go in to Nebuchadrezzar with your Hebrew notions of right and wrong; he is not constrained by them.”

Daniel shifted nervously on his feet before locking eyes with the commander of the guard. “My Lord Uruk, I must go to him. If it is the will of the Lord that I live, I will live. If not, I will die.”

“The lord will most certainly order your death, if you speak to him as you have spoken to me,” retorted Uruk.

“You misunderstand, Lord Uruk. In Hebrew we have a word—Adonai Elohim—it means ‘Lord of gods.’ It is this Lord’s will that preserves my life, or takes it. The emperor is but His servant, as are we all.”

Uruk’s hand strayed to his sword. He should summarily execute this young Hebrew for such treasonous talk of the emperor. But even as he gripped the haft of the weapon, his hand stilled. He studied the earnest, unswerving face of the counselor for ten, perhaps twenty heartbeats … then looked away. “The emperor is in his private chamber,” the commander husked. “Go to him, if you dare.”

 

IN THE SILENT CHAMBER, Nebuchadrezzar sat back heavily upon his cushion. Warily he looked again at Meshach and Shadrach, their heads bowed in fear. He thought back to the time when his edict had summoned the best and brightest of the newly subject Hebrews to Babylon. Hardly had they arrived before they were creating consternation in the palace. Nebuchadrezzar remembered the nervous face of old Ashpenaz, his chief eunuch, now dead these three years. The man had come trembling before the king because he could not persuade his young Hebrew charges to eat the same ration as the other boys in training for the royal service. It was always something like that with this kind: They were bright, responsive, adept at almost any task given—and quietly adamant about the strange scruples of their nameless god. One might punish them for their obstinacy one instant and in the next instant feel oddly unclean, chastised by their silent fidelity. They obeyed, but always in a way that reminded the emperor that, in their eyes at least, his was not the final word.

Mishael spoke softly. “My lord, it is not we who are of any account. It is our God, the Lord of heaven and earth, who kneads the hearts of men, who judges between the guilty and the innocent.”

Nebuchadrezzar’s nostrils flared, but he said nothing as Mishael went on.

“What Shadrach has attempted to say,” the singer said, glancing at his friend and then back to the emperor, “is that our God humbles men who do not perform His will—even … ” —Mishael took a deep breath— “even kings,” he finished quietly.

At that moment Daniel entered the room, prostrating himself in the doorway.Image

Nebuchadrezzar glanced up. “Enter, Belteshazzar. For some reason, I am not surprised to see you.”

Daniel stood, a slight smile quickly crossing his face as he recognized his friends kneeling in front of the emperor. Then his expression resumed the worried look of burdened purpose. “My lord,” began Daniel, “I have come to you to beg for the lives of the chief mages and seers.”

Nebuchadrezzar stared at his counselor in disbelief.

 

 

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 3

THE HIGH WINDOWS of the imperial throne room framed hard, blue squares of Chaldean summer sky, and sunlight glistened on the glazed bricks of the facade behind the dais. Inlaid in the brick in vivid yellow were rampant lions that seemed to prance and lash their tails, and stylized palm trees that swayed in the rippling glare.Image

Uruk, the commander of the palace guards, stood on the lowest step of the dais awaiting the emperor’s entrance. A tiny smile played about his lips in anticipation of what might transpire when Nebuchadrezzar convened the court.

The mages, beaten at their own game, were to sue for mercy. So his sources had informed him, and he had little reason to doubt the story’s truth. For three days now the upper hierarchy of the mages and astrologers had been closeted in dire council. No one had seen more than a glimpse of any of the bald-heads since Adad-ibni’s ill-fated interview with the emperor. As the hours passed and their fearful incantations and prayers proved ineffectual, their faces, said those few who had glimpsed them, grew longer and longer. Today, Uruk felt sure, they would crawl before the emperor and admit their inability to meet his demand.

Uruk was Sumerian. His ancestors had lived in the marshlands between the Two Rivers and along the Gulf of the South. His were the people who had built the ancient cities of the First Kingdom: Eridu, Ur, Lasar, and the ancient place which had given him his own name, Uruk. Almost instinctively, Uruk mistrusted the Chaldeans, a people who had settled to the north of the Sumerian territory and gradually usurped control over the whole region—even the cities built by his own people.Image

Despite his wariness of them, this was the age of theChaldeans. Was not Nebuchadrezzar himself a Chaldean? But the mages were not, to Uruk’s mind, of half the measure of the emperor. The emperor spoke a word, and it was so. He said a thing, then performed it. Like Uruk, the emperor was a man of the open air, the light of day.

Not so with the mages. For Uruk, their influence represented the worst things of Chaldean society. Their power lay in the concealing darkness of a nether reality, in the occult practices of their midnight arts. Their stargazing and muttering over ancient, dusty texts, their incantations, their air of mystical conceit—Uruk found all of these profoundly suspect. And through the temples they maintained a stranglehold upon the economy of the empire. It was no coincidence that the houses of the gods, through their lending activities, controlled the lion’s share of the slaves, land, and commerce of Babylon and her tributaries. Adad-ibni might whisper comforting oracles in the ears of the king, but Uruk was convinced that the good fortune that the chief seer was mainly concerned about was his own. Uruk was anxious to see the shave-headed reptile get his comeuppance.

Glancing down a connecting passageway, he saw the bodyguard detail filing into formation before the door to the emperor’s private chamber. Uruk knelt face down on the floorthe signal for all the courtiers milling about the throne room to make obeisance.

Flanked on all four sides by bodyguards, the emperor paced slowly down the hallway. Entering the huge room, he strode slowly to the dais and seated himself on the throne. The ceremonial seat was of cedar wood overlaid with gold. Its sides were carved into the shapes of dragons, the emblem of the god Marduk. The beasts were fashioned so that the emperor’s palms rested on their heads, andImage the jeweled facets of their eyes stared out from between his fingers. Beneath, their mouths gaped in a perennial snarl. Thus seated, Nebuchadrezzar was displayed as the Son of Marduk, earthly emissary of the god—his regent who reigned with his blessing and assistance.

Only when the emperor had taken his place did Uruk, as commander of the guard, announce to the prone assembly, “The Emperor Nebuchadrezzar, Ruler of Lands, Master of the Two Rivers and all the lands to the Great Sea; Beloved of Marduk, the King of the Gods.

“Let those who desire justice approach,” continued Uruk. “Let the innocent trust in the wisdom of the emperor, and let the guilty tremble before his face.”

When the commander had finished the formulaic invocation, Nebuchadrezzar announced in a ringing tone, “Come forth, chief seer!”

Adad-ibni and three other bald, perspiring men lifted themselves slowly from the floor and drew near to the throne, their faces downcast in submission. Uruk covered his grinning mouth with his hand—Adad-ibni’s gowns clung to his sweat-sheathed body. The commander glanced quickly from the emperor to the four. Nebuchadrezzar’s face was like a stone—impossible to read. Then the chief seer was speaking.

“O most gracious and merciful Nebuchadrezzar, a deputation of your humble servants comes before you, begging your clemency—”

“Will you now, before this august court, disclose and interpret the dream we propounded to you, in accordance with our command and your terms, as set forth these three days past?” Nebuchadrezzar’s voice lashed across the wheedling voice of the chief seer like a Imagewhite-hot scourge. Still his face showed no emotion.

Uruk shuddered, despite his dislike for Adad-ibni. The emperor fairly burned with authority—as if Marduk truly allowed his glory to shine from the face of Nebuchadrezzar. The gold crown on his head blazed like a sun against the dark blue tiles of the facade. Even those who were accustomed to the imperial presence were breathless with foreboding.

Adad-ibni’ s mouth moved, but no sound could be heard. His three attendants had already dropped to their knees infright, unable to control the trembling of their legs. At last, the chief seer managed to croak out a pathetic answer to the emperor’s query.

“Your Majesty, the gods have … have not revealed to your humble servants the secret of the emperor’s distress. The dream remains hidden from us.”

A vast cloud of silence filled the hall. Uruk could fairly hear the beads of perspiration running down the necks of the miserable mages huddled before the throne. The only visible sign from the emperor was a tightening of the knuckles as he gripped the arms of the throne. The eyes of the dragons seemed to bulge in anger toward the four wretches as they waited for the voice of doom.

At last, Adad-ibni could endure it no longer. Falling headlong at Nebuchadrezzar’s feet, he blurted, “My lord! Have pity on your humble servants! No man could do what my lord the emperor commands! None but the gods can discern the weavings of dreams, and they do not walk upon this earth! For the sake of the years of my loyalty, do not slay me!” The last phrase of Adad-ibni’s plea dissolved into a blubbering flurry of kisses rained sloppily upon the feet of the emperor.Image

Nebuchadrezzar allowed the spectacle to continue for perhaps twenty heartbeats. Then he turned his face the slightest degree toward Uruk. Seeing the emperor’s slightly raised finger, the commander of the guards strode forward, his lips curling in contempt. He gripped the chief seer’s tunic and yanked him roughly backward, tossing him in a wretched bundle beside his three assistants.

“We are angered with you, lord seer,” rumbled Nebuchadrezzar. “You have failed to perform the service we require, and yet you come before the court in an unseemly attempt to beg more time to accomplish your failure. We are not minded to be lenient.”

Again Uruk shuddered inwardly. Nebuchadrezzar’s face was as cold as the point of a spear.

“It is our wish,” continued the emperor in an eerily flattone, “that all the mages and seers in this city be slain, and their corpses ripped asunder by wild dogs. They are not useful to us, and we see no need for useless men to be maintained or tolerated.”

The audience gasped silently in helpless empathy for the fate of the mages.

“Further, all their houses shall be torn down, and their wives and children sold as slaves. Lord Uruk,” said the emperor, without shifting his gaze from the abject forms of the four condemned men, “your guards shall be responsible for carrying out the judgment rendered this day. So let it be done.”Image

Uruk bowed in reluctant acceptance of the bloody burden. The emperor rose to exit the hall, and the bodyguards instantly formed around him. The courtiers flattened themselves against the floor in obeisance, as if each one wished to become one with the flagstones of the throne room—each perhaps with dread of being swept into the net of fate that just closed around the mages.

 

AND THUS LED by the fravashi,

those benevolent spirit-servants,

good King Hakhamanish came here;

here to the land of the Parsi;

here to the shining mountains,

to valleys of fresh sweet water.

He lifted up his voice

to praise Ahura Mazda;

to laud the name of the Wise Lord

who led him on his journey;

who brought him past the dangers

and gave us this land forever.Image

The storysinger’s last refrain—all about Hakhamanish, or Achaemenes, founder of the Persian royal dynasty—died away on the fading firelight in the Great Hall of King Kanbujiya. Most of the old men were already snoring softly into theirbeards, their ale cups slipping from their somnolent fingers.

But Prince Kurash, sitting raptly at the feet of the minstrel, stared into the darkness above the old man’s head as if reading some vital message there, as if the flickering shadows whispered a message just beyond the threshold of his hearing.

“Arvanya,” the young boy asked, “from where did the people of Hakhamanish journey to come to this place?”

“The songs do not say, my prince,” said the grizzled old singer. He reflected a moment, then added, “Some of the old ones say our people came from the great grasslands of the far north. And certainly the Nisayan, the great treasure of our people, were bred for the endless vistas of the steppes, that their legs might reach out and devour the miles. But I cannot say for certain, young lord. It lies beyond my knowledge.”

Kurash’s eyes sparkled momentarily at the mention of the horses—always his first love. Then his young face grew thoughtful again. “Arvanya, did our cousins the Medes make the journey at the same time as our father Hakhamanish?”

The old minstrel chuckled deep in his throat. “So many questions, young lord! Doesn’t that head of yours ever tire of thinking up puzzles for a tired old storysinger?”Image

The prince grinned, shaking his head.

“Ah, well,” sighed Arvanya, “I suppose if you don’t ask, you won’t ever know.” He scratched his head, looking up into the darkness, toward the center beam of the gabled hall. “Long ago, so long ago that the songs have almost forgotten, the Medes and the Parsi were one people—the Aryani. And I suppose it is likely that they journeyed into the land east of the Two Rivers at about the same time. But for scores of scores of years the Medes have kept to the plains of Elam, to the north of our mountain valleys. Though they still call themselves Aryani—just as we call ourselves—that is about all our peoples have in common. In the generations since, we have grown apart. Better answer than that I cannot give.”

A shadow crossed the face of the prince. “And for how long have our cousins lorded it over us, demanding theiryearly tribute of Nisayan steeds and riders?”

“Enough, boy,” called the king from his high seat at the head of the hall. “You have asked questions a-plenty for one night. Let Arvanya go to his well-deserved bed.” Kanbujiya half-rose from his throne and beckoned toward his son, whose chagrined face was averted that his sire might not see the mouth he made. Reluctantly, Kurash rose from his seat, handing the old minstrel three silver pieces.

“Thank you, young lord,” the singer nodded gratefully. “And may the fravashi guard your sleep.” The singer rose, bowed toward the king and then toward the prince, and hobbled off toward his house. Prince Kurash turned to face his father.

“Father,” he piped impatiently, “why must we pay tribute to Asturagash? Why must we drive the best of our horses and men to the hot plains of Shushan? We are as good as they, are we not? Why should we play the bumpkin to them, and meekly surrender what belongs to us?”Image

Several of the graybeards were awakened from their doze by the insistent voice of the young prince. Wisely, they gave no sign. Instead, they waited cautiously for the king to answer his son’s harsh query.

“My son,” began Kanbujiya slowly, “I have told you before: You should leave such matters to me and my counselors. You are too young to trouble your head—”

“But my head is already troubled!” shouted Kurash impatiently. “I have been to Ecbatana with the yearly tribute! I have seen the way they look at us! Even the foot soldiers on the walls of the capital city gloat over us! ‘There they are,’ they say among themselves, ‘those hayseed cousins of ours, who can neither read nor write! Let them bring us our mounts, and we will overlook their stupidity for another year.’” The young prince gritted his teeth, his nostrils flaring in indignation at the bitter memories. “All of them are not worth a single regiment of Nisayan horsemen. They are not worthy to pick up the droppings of our herds!”

“Kurash, I have told you,” the king warned, raising his voice. “Though a prince, you are not of an age to say such—”

“Was not Mandane, my mother, a daughter of Asturagash? Did you think that because she died on the bed where I was birthed, I would not know this of her?” the child shouted, stamping his foot. “I am the son of a king, heir to the blood of kings, by sire and dam! Why, then, must I be treated like a colt too young to crop his own grass?”Image

“Kurash!” shouted the king, leaping to his feet, “I do not wish to listen to any more diatribes from you this evening! Now go to your bed!”

For ten breaths, the father and son glared at each other. At last, with a disgusted snort, Kurash stomped from the hall.

“My king,” ventured one of the old men quietly, after Kurash had gone, “for one so young, strange thoughts run about in the head of your son. I fear … ” The courtier paused, searching for words.

“Out with it,” muttered Kanbujiya. “Most likely I have thought it myself—give it utterance.”

The graybeard looked at his king, then away. “My lord … that boy is trouble.” The old man waited, head down, for the king’s reply.

“Indeed,” agreed the king, staring into the patch of darkness where his son had been. “But … for whom?”

 

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 2

“HAS LORD URUK informed you of why you are here?” Nebuchadrezzar asked.

Adad-ibni nodded, a beatific smile gliding across his smooth features. Nebuchadrezzar felt a comer of his lip curling downward.Image

“My lord Nebuchadrezzar,” the seer intoned in an unguent voice, “the interpretation of dreams is a study to which, as my lord knows, I have dedicated a considerable amount of time. Frequently dreams can tell us much about the disposition of the gods and of what may come to pass. And in the dreams of the Emperor … “—the mage made a slight bow— “messages may be read that will greatly alter the landscape of the future.” Again came the honeyed smile, the deferential nod. “And now, if Your Majesty will be so kind as to describe the dream,” the mage continued, “I will give such comfort as may be possible.” Adad-ibni waited intently for the emperor to begin.

Nebuchadrezzar felt disgust clamoring at the back of his throat. This simpering, spice-anointed leech sought to pacify him with fancy phrases and erudite jargon! Had Adad-ibni stared, cowering, into the unknown? Had he felt his identity slipping away like desert sand through the fingers of a skeleton? Now the dandified bookworm wished to traipse about among the images of Nebuchadrezzar’s terror, sorting through them like a collector, picking and choosing such elements as might fit the story he wished to concoct! The thought galled and angered the emperor. He would not willingly permit such offhand, avaricious gloating over the dread within his soul.

“Very well, mage,” sneered Nebuchadrezzar, “since you are an expert, tell me this: What—exactly—was my dream? What were its images, and what did they mean? Tell me this, chief seer, so that I shall be comforted, and you shall be richly rewarded.” Nebuchadrezzar crossed his arms on his chest and waited, his lips pulled back in a smile more akin to a snarl than a laugh.

Adad-ibni’s comforting beam faded, evolving slowly into a wide-eyed look of panic. “My … my lord jests. Please … tell your servant the dream, and a true interpretation will be made.” The mage’s brow began to glow with sweat, though it was still early in the day and the summer heat had not yet penetrated the massive brick walls of the palace. Adad-ibni’s blooming fear stank in the room.

“Perhaps the chief seer does not grasp my meaning,” grated Nebuchadrezzar in barely concealed mockery. “I wish you to describe to me the dream—what it was, what transpired, what I saw—and then give me its interpretation. Thus I will truly know and appreciate the vast reservoirs of your skill and learning.”Image

By now Adad-ibni was breathing rapidly, his fingertips trembling as he rubbed his hands together. Nebuchadrezzar saw his eyes twitch to and fro as thoughts scrambled furiously about beneath the bald pate of the the chief seer. “My Lord Emperor,” stammered Adad-ibni at last, “what you ask your humble servant to do is without precedent. My studies indicate that such a feat has never before been performed—”

“Ah, but my lord mage,” interrupted the emperor, beginning to take a perverse enjoyment from the wizard’s discomfort, “you yourself have told me that my kingdom, my dynasty, was to be without precedent: ‘Like no other king before you—so it is written in the stars.’ Were those not your words?” Nebuchadrezzar paused significantly, allowing the pathetic seer to nod weakly. “Therefore, does it not follow,” pressed Nebuchadrezzar, “that my chief seer’s abilities should be also without precedent—like no seer before or since?”

Adad-ibni saw with terrifying clarity the trap Nebuchadrezzar had constructed for him with his own pronouncements. There had to be a way out of this box—yet his brain was addled by the absurd demand being placed upon him, and by the sudden, icy winds of the emperor’s anger. To enter into the very mind of a man—no, of an emperor! Who could imagine such a thing?

“My … my Lord Emperor,” he stuttered, “this … this will be very difficult. I shall require much more preparation for such an attempt than for a normal reading. Will your majesty permit his humble servant to retire for three days to prepare and fortify for this … this journey into the … the realms beyond?” Adad-ibni crossed his forearms on his chest and bowed his head, waiting in giddy panic for the words that would either seal his fate immediately or give him time to think of a way out of this tunnel into nowhere.Image

Nebuchadrezzar laughed within himself. Perhaps this blubbering hanger-on thought he, the king, actually believed the feat might be accomplished! He would allow time for this folly to ripen, and then Adad-ibni would taste the wrath of the emperor for such chicanery. “You have your three days, Lord Seer,” the emperor growled. “Go and prepare … ” Adad-ibni bowed and scraped his way out of the chamber.

“ … to die,” finished Nebuchadrezzar under his breath, as the door closed.

 

 DANIEL LAID ASIDE the clay tablet and looked out the window, tiredly rubbing his stiff neck. He had risen early this morning to resume work on the accounts of the date harvest in the northern provinces—Lamech, his supervisor, wanted his report in two days—but the cuneiform columns had begun to look like tracks made by bird’ s feet. He massaged his eyes with his fingertips, then looked again out the window.

From his alcove in the citadel Daniel gazed out over the brown, sluggish Euphrates and the honeycombed streets of the New City sprawling beyond its western bank. He lived there, in one of the myriad tan, sun-baked brick houses that squatted in the harsh sunlight of the Chaldean plain. But this morning his eyes roamed past the streets and canals of Babylon, past the western wall of the New City, and far across the sparse landscape to the very horizon, and beyond.

Out there, he thought. Out there calling silently with the urgency of a searching mother, with the constancy of a father whose son is lost, lies Judah. Even now—after ten years in this bustling city, this throbbing center of empire—Judah still beckoned him with the voice of his own heart.Image

Daniel remembered a night in Syria, and a campfire. Again he heard the voice of a prophet retelling the legends of his people. Once more he felt within his breast the jarring sobs of a homesick, heartsick boy, heard the question: How long, Jeremiah? How long will we be in the land of this foreign king? A servant shuffled into the room and waited, silently, for Daniel to acknowledge him. With difficulty, Daniel pulled his eyes away from the dim line of the horizon and turned in his seat. “Yes, what is it?”

“Honored Belteshazzar,” the page began, “I was sent by Counselor Lamech. He wishes—”

“I have been working on the figures,” interrupted Daniel, a trace of irritation in his voice. “Please tell the honored counselor that I will bring him the report as agreed.”

Nervously the page bowed his head and shuffled his feet. “It is not a report from you that Counselor Lamech desires. I am to bring you to him, as soon as possible.”

Puzzled, Daniel stared at the top of the messenger’s bowed head for several heartbeats. “Thank you,” he said finally. “You may tell the honored counselor that I will come to him before the day’s end.”

Still the page did not take leave. “Honored Belteshazzar, forgive your humble servant,” he began, more uneasy than ever, “but Counselor Lamech wishes you to return with me—immediately.”

 

 DANIEL FELT HIS PULSE QUICKEN when he realized the messenger was taking him not to Lamech’s offices—down in the lower reaches of the citadel, near the huge storage magazines—but rather to the chief counselor’s private suite. Lamech, who had been in the emperor’s highest circle of advisers since before Daniel came to Babylon, lived in lavish quarters in the upper level of the Citadel, overlooking the Ishtar Gate. It was a mark of his prestige that the emperor allowed him to reside within the very walls of the Citadel.

They reached the doorway. The messenger bowed himself aside, and Daniel walked forward into the silk-hung, myrrh-scented rooms of his overseer.Image

Lamech had his back to Daniel, staring out a window with his hands clasped behind him. Hearing the sound of Daniel’s sandaled feet, he spun about. “Ah, there you are, Belteshazzar! Please, sit down!” Lamech beckoned hastily toward some cushions. “Would you care for something to eat?” Lamech motioned toward an alabaster bowl full of various sweetmeats. Daniel shook his head. “Very well, then,” said Lamech, peering intently at his younger assistant.

“Belteshazzar, a situation of gravest import has arisen. Unfortunately, it is also completely unfamiliar. In other words, we have no idea how to proceed. That is why I need your help.”

Daniel felt strangely fearful, despite the high praise he had just received. His brow furrowed as Lamech continued. “I believe you know the chief seer.” He motioned toward a comer of the room, and Adad-ibni stood there, partially concealed behind a silk drape. Daniel involuntarily stiffened.

“Lord Adad-ibni had a frightening interview with the emperor. It seems that His Majesty has had a dream that has disturbed him profoundly.”

Daniel felt something stirring deep, deep within him: a voice too faint to be heard. Then it was gone.

Adad-ibni spoke. A sheen of sweat was evident on the chief seer’s brow—an unaccustomed show of emotion on the part of the normally composed mage.

“Belteshazzar, the honored Counselor Lamech tells me you are one of the best and brightest of his young men. He says you have often succeeded where others have failed. You must exploit all your contacts in the palace and the city—anyone who might have the information we need.”

“My Lord Seer,” Daniel asked quietly, “what sort of information do you seek?”

 

 TWO HUNDRED LEAGUES to the east, in the land of the Parsis, Kurash, crown prince of Parsagard, laughed with glee as he vaulted to the back of the snorting charger. It was not yet midmorning in the valley of Anshan, but already the air had lost the coolness of the night. Long before noon, the heat would shimmer in translucent sheets against the rugged, mountainous backdrop of the Parsi homeland.

The child waved away the attendant who rushed forward with a saddle, gripping the bare-backed Nisayan steed with his knees as he leaned forward onto her neck and clicked his tongue. The high-bred mare vaulted forward at an immediate gallop, and Prince Kurash gave the horse her head as they raced pell-mell down the long clearing toward a small creek near the stable.

Gobhruz, the prince’s Medean bodyguard, stood with the stable lackey, staring after the vanishing horse and her rider. Gobhruz shook his head as he shaded his eyes against the bright sunlight. “That boy will not live to become king of Anshan,” he said dourly. “He will cheat the lances of his enemies, but only by getting himself trampled to death.”Image

“King Kanbujiya should take his son in hand,” observed the stable attendant.

Gobhruz snorted. “That boy has not been ‘in hand’ since the day of his foaling.” Grudgingly he smiled at the faint clouds of dust rising at the far end of the clearing—all that was now visible of Prince Kurash’s progress. “Perhaps he is destined to take matters in hand, rather than be taken. Perhaps he spurns the halter the world would place about his neck.”

The servant looked up at Gobhruz with a calculating squint. “If that is so,” he observed to the bodyguard, “may the gods have pity on the world.”

 

 DANIEL WALKED QUICKLY along the crowded Thoroughfare of Shamash. It was midday, and the Chaldean sun beat down in a merciless, brazen blaze. Every scrap of shade along the street was occupied, either by beggars, street vendors hawking their wares, or temple prostitutes conspicuously displaying the tattoo of their sponsoring deity. Even in the brutal heat of summer, commerce continued unceasing in Babylon. Though the wealthy merchants were in their houses, napping through the hottest part of the day, still there was business to be done, and the denizens of the streets of the imperial city lost no opportunity to get their share.Image

Daniel crossed the bridge over the Northern Canal and turned to his right, along the Street of Adad. Hurrying down the steps by his door, he heard a clear, high voice singing a familiar melody. The words to an ancient Hebrew hymn pealed bravely from the walls of the inner courtyard. Good, he thought. Mishael has received his summons, and is already here. Passing through the vaulted doorway, he nodded at the doorkeeper and paced quickly into the sun-washed courtyard. Mishael broke off singing at Daniel’s entrance. He turned and gripped the forearms of his friend in welcome.

“Whom were you serenading?” smiled Daniel, looking about quizzically. “I see no one else here.”

Mishael chuckled. “I must sing at the court this evening. I was practicing.”

“You will give them a song of David, then?”

“I sing for a king—so why not perform a song composed by a king?”

Daniel nodded approvingly. The four young men, friends since boyhood, lived together in this house. In their own minds, and when they were together at home, they clung stubbornly to their Judean names and culture. Always among themselves they were Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah—never Belteshazzar, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abed-Nabu. They might live in Babylon, but their hearts were tenaciously Hebrew.Image

“Are Hananiah and Azariah here yet?” Daniel asked.

“No. I received your message and came back from the court as soon as I could get away. I didn’t see either of them on my way here.”

An old man ambled from the kitchen with a bowlegged gait. “Will the young masters desire meat?” he asked in a tremulous voice.

“Yes, Father Caleb—please bring me some dates,” said Daniel. “And stop calling me ‘young master.’ I have told you time and again, you are not a slave in this house!”

The old man stood a moment, nodding thoughtfully. “Very well, young master,” he said as he turned back toward the doorway. “If you wish to wait, I will bring food when you ask.” He shuffled back the way he had come.

“Caleb, I didn’t say ‘wait!’ I said … ”

The old man disappeared around the comer. Daniel gave Mishael an exasperated look. Mishael only shook his head. “Deaf as a stone, and no mistake,” he said.

Daniel’s face creased in a wry grin. “Well, if Caleb is determined to deny us food, at least we have plenty of water.” He went over to a large clay urn standing in the shade by the northern wall. Taking a bowl from a wooden peg, he dipped it in the water, first pouring it on his head and neck, then taking a long, deep draught. As he offered the empty bowl for Mishael’s use, Azariah and Hananiah walked through the doorway.

“Why is there no food ready?” roared Azariah after he had greeted the others. “If I must leave the palace just before the midday meal, why may I not eat in my own house?” Daniel and Mishael looked at each other and shrugged. Azariah snorted and strode into the kitchen. “Caleb!” he shouted. “You sly old cur! Have you eaten everything in the house?”Image

Minutes later, seated in the relative coolness of the main room around a low table and a huge bowl of dates and almonds, the three other friends listened as Daniel quickly related the story of the urgent meeting in Lamech’ s quarters. “No one has any idea of the king’s dream?” asked Hananiah.

Solemnly, Daniel shook his head.

“Even Adad-ibni is fearful?” asked Mishael.

“It appears so,” Daniel nodded, “to the extent that anyone can read that one’s thoughts from his words.”

“I tell you this, my friends,” mumbled Azariah around a mouthful of food, “these truly are uncertain days. In some of the dispatches we receive in our department, evil things are spoken of our homeland.”

The others watched him as he swallowed, then continued. “Nebuchadrezzar’s agents have perceived hints that Zedekiah is aligning himself again with Egypt.”

“The fool!” hissed Daniel. “Will he never learn?”

“He will—one way or another,” intoned Azariah ominously.

“The ones left behind in Judah—they haven’t seen what we’ve seen here. They still don’t fully understand the emperor’s power, his determination … ”

The four friends fell silent, pondering sadly the fate of their longed-for native land.

“What can we do about the immediate problem, Daniel?” asked Hananiah, returning their thoughts to the present.

“Keep your ears and eyes open,” replied Daniel quickly. “Observe the courtiers, the guards, and especially the servants and … ”  —he continued, looking at Mishael—“the harem.” As a eunuch, Mishael was frequently called into the cloistered, tightly guarded women’s quarters to sing for the wives and concubines. He nodded in understanding.

“Why should we assist Adad-ibni?” demanded Azariah. “What have we to gain or lose by the emperor’s nightmares?”

Daniel remembered the faint tug within him as he had listened to the chief seer’s predicament. His brow furrowed, and he sat silent for so long the others began looking at each other in misgiving.

“I … I’m not sure, Azariah,” he answered finally. “But I cannot escape the sense that this summons from the highest circles of the court has some … meaning. And who knows?” Daniel finished brightly. “We may be witnesses of wondrous things. Who can say what the Eternal has in mind?”Image

The four friends fell silent, pondering the things they had heard. Azariah reached into the bowl for a last handful of dates. 

 

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 1

Part I: Dreams

THE KING AWOKE wide-eyed and sweating, just as the last echo of his dream-shout dodged around the comer of his hearing. He sat bolt upright, panting with the terror of a night vision that evaporated even as he struggled to recall the alien images that had so frightened him.

 The concubine, trained to deal with such matters, rolled over and gently stroked his chest, seeking to soothe the royal discomfort. Nebuchadrezzar impatiently pushed her hand away. “Leave me,” he growled. He did not turn to look at her as she left the couch and quietly padded away, back to the harem.

 Again the same dream, he mused. As his breathing slowed to normal, he pieced together the dim fragments of this strangely horrifying vision that taunted him night after night with its incomprehensible meaning.

 He stood on a wide, open plain—much like the countryside round about Babylon—and the air was still. The sky was not blue with the fierce azure of the hot summer days, nor cloud-covered and heavy with threatened rain. Rather, it was oddly neutral—of no particular color or composition—as if the place in which he stood were not really the earth he knew, but a region somewhere between the kingdom of the gods and the nether world of the demons. It seemed a vast, silent hall with ceilings beyond the reach of his vision and walls so far away the horizon hid them from view. A waiting place. And that enormous sense of waiting filled him with a nameless dread.

He turned and saw a huge image. It stood like eternity upon the plain, and when his eyes fell upon it he felt joy and pride flooding into his breast. Its head, with fierce-staring eyes and noble chin, were cast in purest gold. He looked upon its face gazing bravely out over the plain, and knew the visage to be his own. A crown was set on the head of the statue; it was the crown of an emperor. Adamant dignity exalted the image, and he raised his fist in a fierce salute to this icon of his own majesty. Forgotten was the anxious suspense of moments ago, for now his eyes were filled not with the vast, humbling expanse, but with this noble monument to himselfImage

 He admired the rest of the statue. Surely a master workman had fashioned such a brilliant creation! Its chest and arms were cast in shining silver and the right hand gripped a gleaming scepter of power. The torso and strong thighs were crafted of burnished bronze, the lower legs of iron. As he allowed his vision to drop to the feet and pedestal of the statue he was vexed to notice that the workman had apparently not planned adequately, for the bottom-most portions of the image were cast of iron mixed with clay. But again he raised his eyes to the heroic face, and soon forgot his momentary displeasure.

 As Nebuchadrezzar recollected the rest of the dream, he felt his hands begin trembling. Sweat broke out anew upon his brow. He rose from his couch and paced nervously to the window of his chamber. Reluctant to rehearse the final, dreadful sequence, yet unable to resist its hypnotic power, his mind was pulled frantically forward.

 As he stood smiling up at the statue, he heard behind him a rumbling sound, like thunder from a forgotten yesterday. Vaguely disturbed, he turned—and gasped.

 A dazzling, shimmering rock the size of a fortress rolled toward him across the vast tableland. No cloud of dust accompanied its progress—in its purity it stirred not so much as a grain of sand as it wheeled with dire purpose toward where he stood. Nothing obscured his view of the juggernaut. And he felt it was coming … for him.

 “No!” he heard himself scream. “Not me!” He began running away. “Not me! Take this,” he shouted, pointing at the statue. “Take this as an offering, but only spare me, I beg you!” He tried to invoke Marduk, Nabu, any and all of the gods and demons, but the names stuck fast in his throat before the irresistible onslaught of the rolling harbinger of fate.

  The glittering rock struck the statue with the force of a hundred thunderclaps. Before his horrified, cowering eyes, the mighty statue, the proud royal monument, collapsed and disintegrated. He felt a searing pain within his chest, as if his heart were being ripped forcibly from its cavity. Miniscule fragments of the once triumphant image rained down like dust. The wind of the rock’s passing blew the fragments away like empty husks of grain.

 He fell down, sobbing. From beneath his fingers he peeked abjectly at the rock. It grew—or did he shrink before it? It now appeared to him as huge as the snow-capped mountains of northern Lebanon, as vast as the searing dunes of the Arabah. The hugeness of its presence, the world-filling aura of its being, made him feel as insignificant as a speck of dust. He cowered before it. He screamed …Image

Nebuchadrezzar, Emperor of Babylon, Ruler of Lands, Master of the Two Rivers, huddled in a corner of his chamber, panting like a trapped bird. He hid his face in his hands, but the dream-terror exploded with relentless force inside his mind. He slept no more that night.

 

 ADAD-IBNI FELT A KNOT of apprehension gather in the pit of his stomach. Uruk, commander of the palace guard, stood in the outer chamber, bearing a message from the emperor. In other times this news would not have been particularly distressing, but in these days it was cause for some concern.

 As chief seer, Adad-ibni enjoyed a high degree of access to the imperial presence. His was the responsibility for apprising the emperor of the disposition of the signs and portents of heaven, earth, and the netherworld. Heavy was the charge laid upon him, for Nebuchadrezzar’s decisions affected the whole world, and Adad-ibni’s counsel affected Nebuchadrezzar’s decisions. Scarcely any event in Babylon—from reading the entrails of a sacrificed ox to the birth of a malformed child, from the tallies of the harvests to the formations of migrating birds—was overlooked by his agents or exempted from his calculations. Even the temple astrologers, perched at their posts atop the Etemenanki ziggurat and the lesser temple towers, dutifully reported their carefully logged observations and deferred to his interpretations. His post was the heart and soul of all planning and administration for the empire, and no one enjoyed higher prestige with the emperor than himself.

 Or so it had been until the last few months. The emperor had grown increasingly difficult to deal with. Since the successful conclusion of his campaign to the Great Sea, he had seemed withdrawn, distracted. At times, when Adad-ibni had been closeted with him, Nebuchadrezzar had given the impression he was not listening at all—or, rather, listening to some other voice than Adad-ibni’s. For the past several months his meetings with the emperor had been characterized by impatience and curtness from Nebuchadrezzar, and increasing frustration on the part of the chief seer. He very well knew what the emperor was capable of if his ire was aroused—but he felt helpless to eliminate, or even to understand, the source of Nebuchadrezzar’s malaise. The emperor was not a man who allowed easy access to his inner thoughts—even to a seer.Image

He glanced a final time at the notes he had made from the information brought to him since his last meeting with the emperor. He had a bad feeling about this unexpected message from the imperial chambers. But failure to respond was a certain promise of doom, especially now. Sighing deeply, he straightened his shoulders, arranged his robes, and slowly paced into the outer chamber.

 Uruk watched with a carefully neutral expression as the chief seer sauntered toward him. Inwardly he shuddered. He could never look on Adad-ibni’s face without thinking of a sand lizard or a serpent. The chief seer’s pate was clean-shaven, after the fashion of the mages and seers, and his face looked as if it had never sported a human emotion. His eyes were perpetually half-lidded, and his eyelashes so light they were invisible. Like a reptile, his expression never changed. If he was nervous or angry or elated, the smooth, cool exterior never allowed a hint.

 Though he moved among the highest circles of power, the chief seer was a relatively young man—disconcertingly so, as far as the commander was concerned. For one so young to have attained such influence, his abilities needed to be great indeed. Yet the soldier couldn’t help wondering if the mage’s advancement in court was due less to reading the stars than to divining the endlessly shifting winds of the emperor’s favor. Uruk didn’t trust Adad-ibni out of his sight. Unlike himself, a man of action and movement, the chief seer seemed to move entirely in a realm of thought and ideas, of muttered incantations and arcane knowledge. The bald one wielded words rather than swords.

 “Good morning, Lord Uruk,” intoned the chief seer smoothly. “I trust you rested well last night.”

 Thinking to himself that the mage might actually know the answer already, Uruk replied, “Yes, thank you. And good morning to you, Lord Adad-ibni. I hope I have found you well and happy.”

 Adad-ibni nodded serenely. A moment of silence ensued as the two powerful courtiers resumed the genteel feud—the ceaseless, polite war of attrition fought by the great and neargreat in the imperial court of Babylon.

 Uruk cleared his throat and said, “His majesty wishes to see you without delay.”

 Adad-ibni’s stomach tightened another notch, but his face did not so much as twitch.

 “He has not rested well of late—his dreams trouble him,” finished Uruk.

 Adad-ibni’s mind began spinning. So—this was the trouble. This could explain the emperor’s being out of sorts these last months. The apothecaries should be consulted. A potion, maybe …

 “What is the nature of the emperor’s dreams?” inquired the chief seer. “What has he seen—dragons flying, perhaps, or dragons reclining?”

 Uruk held up his hands, shaking his head. “Lord Adad-ibni, I know nothing about such matters. The emperor has told me only as much as I have told you. What he has or hasn’t seen you will have to ascertain for yourself.”

 Adad-ibni rubbed his chin and stared thoughtfully into the middle distance. This was important. He sensed that this dream of Nebuchadrezzar’s would have far-reaching implications. Surely there was a way to turn this circumstance to his advantage.Image

 Presently he looked up. “Very well, Lord Uruk. Take me to the emperor.”

 

 AZARIAH CAREFULLY LAID the tablet on the cedar-planked table before his superior, bowing in deference. The older man squinted at the cuneiform characters and asked, “Which dispatches are these, Abed-Nabu?” As always, he used Azariah’s Babylonian name.

 “These are from the western district, my lord Nabu-Naid,” answered Azariah. “They concern the cities and territories of the Philistine plain, Syria, and … ”—his voice hesitated ever so slightly—“Judah.”

 His master grunted, pursing his lips as he perused the summary tablet Azariah had prepared. It was Azariah’ s task, as his secretary, to digest the information contained in reports received from the emperor’s agents scattered across the far-flung territories of the realm, from the edge of the plain of Elam to the shores of the Great Sea. From these reports, Nabu-Naid in his role as prime minister would formulate plans and strategies for the emperor’s approval or disapproval.

 Azariah’s importance was compounded by Nabu-Naid’s inclination to indulge himself in pursuit of his hobby. Descended from a long line of semi-royal priests and scholars, Nabu-Naid appeared to greatly prefer poring over musty potsherds to attending the affairs of state. When Azariah had a report to present, Nabu-Naid could most often be found where he was today—locked in his study, surrounded by souvenirs of antiquity dredged from the refuse heaps and dung hills of long-dead cities. Thus the prime minister allowed Azariah considerable latitude, not wanting his musings on the past to be too often interrupted by the annoyances of the present.

 Still, no one made the mistake of thinking Lord Nabu-Naid was unaware of the realities of the court. Old was his family, and deep his connections. He was not, despite his outwardly quaint eccentricities, a man to be trifled with. Now he aimed a crow-black eye at his aide. “The reports from Judah are not good, are they?”

 Azariah allowed his face to show no emotion. “Apparently not, my lord.”

 Nabu-Naid allowed his intent gaze to settle on the stoic face of his assistant for several long breaths. “These are your people, are they not, Abed-Nabu? You don’t feel concern for what may happen to them if this information proves true?”

Azariah’ s gaze flickered downward for an instant. He glanced at the noble, then returned to his impassive study of the air above Nabu-Naid’s head. “I serve the emperor and my lord Nabu-Naid. My duty is to report the information given to me.” Azariah paused a moment. “A prophet of our people has said we should seek the welfare of this land in which we live. This I have done, and this I will do.”Image

 A corner of the noble’s mouth turned up, and his eyes flickered in the barest hint of a smile. “Well said, Abed-Nabu. Well said.” He glanced back at the report, quickly noting the gist of its contents. “Everything seems to be in order here,” the prime minister announced at last. “You may leave.”

 Azariah spun on his heel and left the chamber, closing the door behind him.

 Nabu-Naid, locking the door behind his aide, quickly went to his table. Raking the potsherds impatiently to one side, he avidly scanned the summary report, his mind rapidly adding and subtracting columns of political fact and supposition. He squinted upward in calculation.

 So the western territories were not so well in hand as the emperor had hoped. Could this be an opening? Probably not; they were too weak to create any appreciable rift in the pattern of probability. But it is another piece to add to the puzzle, thought the prime minister, idly sifting among the fragments of old pottery he had been studying so ostentatiously when Abed-Nabu entered. Another piece to the puzzle.

 He was a man who possessed that most dangerous combination of attributes—patience and craftiness. He had a great deal of time at his disposal, this he knew. And one day, when the time was right …

 

 NEBUCHADREZZAR SAT PENSIVELY in his private chamber, scowling at a hanging on the far wall. It depicted the god Marduk, represented by a dragon, slaying a winged bull. The hanging was intended to celebrate Nebuchadrezzar’s victory over the Assyrians—the victory that had ushered in the Babylonian Empire. It had been achieved by means of an alliance forged with the Medes of King Cyaxeres—Uvakhshatra, as he was known in the outlandish tongue of his people. He remembered the lancers of the Medes, the way they rode laughing into battle on their majestic chargers, the Nisayan horses of the high eastern plains. He also remembered the cousin clans of the Medes—Parsis, they called themselves. These restless Persians seemed to chafe under the overlordship of Cyaxeres.

 Staring at the wall tapestry, the emperor remembered the days of his triumphs, mentally tallying the cities and lands he had laid under tribute: Assyria and the wealth of Nineveh, the rich seaport city-states of Tyre and Sidon, Philistia and the coastal plain beside the Great Sea, Jerusalem …

 And then the dream. What good was this empire, stretching from the Gulf of the South to the Great Sea, if he was held in thrall to the restless night wanderings of his own mind? Nebuchadrezzar recalled how he had huddled in his bedchamber, trembling like a slave before the tyranny of the horrific vision. Above all else, he hated weakness—in himself or in others. Yet this dream had brought him face to face with the stinking rot of fear within his own soul. And for that fear, that trembling frailty, he despised himself.

 Try as he might, he could not dismiss the dream as a random occurrence. The vision was too fraught with awesome, inaccessible meaning. It inserted itself past his sleep into his waking, with the force of a knowing entity. It had about it the aura of something sent from the gods, yet his prayers—to Marduk and his son, Nabu; to Ishtar; even to Sin, the bringer of dreams—brought him no comfort. His armies, his wealth, his absolute authority—none could relieve his suffering. Even the Emperor of Babylon could not command a dream to cease. He heard the sound of silk rustling, and looked up to see Adad-ibni prostrate himself before him. For a moment the emperor studied the prone form of his chief seer. This was the man who had predicted Nebuchadrezzar’s rise to world dominion.Image

 He remembered the countless smooth words with which the seer had convinced him that his conquest, his dynasty, was assured. And Adad-ibni had benefitted handsomely from his foresight. But Nebuchadrezzar had begun to wonder: Did the chief seer’s prescience have about it the scent of pandering? Had the mages and astrologers ever averted a flood? Had their advice alerted him to the rebellious commanders whose uprising he had been forced to quell so violently some seasons past? What actual benefit had Adad-ibni ever been to him, other than as a flattering voice echoing the praises and aspirations of the masses?

 It sometimes seemed to the emperor that mages invoked the heavens only to endorse the plans that kings and princes made. The astrologers and mages claimed to commune with the gods, yet often the visions they produced were no truer than praise odes sung by a paid minstrel. How often had a mage, acting upon his supposed knowledge of the gods, countermanded an undertaking of the king’s? Nebuchadrezzar could not think of a time when Adad-ibni’s reading of the signs didn’t underwrite the plans he already intended to carry out. Was the authority and vision of the mages any greater than his own? A nagging doubt that had been gnawing at him for some time suddenly found words within his mind: Had the gods truly created men, or vice versa? Abruptly he closed his mind to further speculation of the sort—that way lay madness.

 “Rise,” he commanded, and the chief seer rose gracefully to his feet.

 

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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