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 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

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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

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

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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Jeremiah: He Who Wept–Chapter 42

TWO WEEKS LATER they staggered into Tahpanhes, on the northeastern frontier of Pharaoh Hophra’s domain. The pitiful troupe stared around them in wonder at the fine stone buildings, their courtyards festooned with date palms and other greenery. The richly hued murals of Egypt swarmed across the walls in brilliant grandeur. Everywhere stood obelisks and statuary, raised to the glory of the gods and of Pharaoh, the son of the sun.Image

A handful of Hebrews had fled to Egypt during the siege, and these were able to offer shelter to some of the refugees. The others did the best they could. Those who had some skill or trade set up makeshift shops and booths in Tahpanhes and the other cities of Upper Egypt. Within six months the immigrants had gained a foothold in the land.

As she had for so many millennia, Egypt began the absorp­tion of yet another layer of humanity, the latest of so many which had washed up on the shores of the Nile. And the descendants of Israel had, at last, come full circle.

Jeremiah’s eyesight was failing. Squint still managed to find work to do, and Baruch acquired a few students. The three old men leaned against each other in these waning days. They had few other friends.

 

BARUCH DISMISSED his last pupil of the day. The boy was named Isaac. He was the son of one of Johanan’s band and a woman who had been one of the royal consorts abducted by Ishmael. The lad was bright—Baruch had entertained thoughts of teaching him the scribe’s art, once he had mastered the fundamentals of reading and writing. He fancied the boy had some small interest in the prospect. As he closed the door and turned around, Jeremiah, who had been dozing in the cor­ner of the small room, started and woke.

The prophet blinked and strained his eyes, trying—in the dim shadows that were all that remained of his vision—to dis­cern the form of Baruch. “Baruch,” he called, “where are you? I cannot find you.”

“Here, my old friend,” said the scribe, gripping Jeremiah’s waving hand. “You are awake at last. My last three students could hardly bear the suspense—they were afraid you might stir while they were here.”

“Am I become so fearful in my dotage, that young boys dread my awakening?” queried the feeble prophet.

“Ah, but they do,” assured Baruch. “You see, I told them you were a prophet. You are rather mysterious to their imagina­tive young minds.”Image

“Mysterious!” scoffed Jeremiah. “What is mysterious about a blind old man who sleeps in the corner?” They chuckled to­gether.

“Baruch, I had the strangest dream just now,” said Jeremiah, after a moment’s pause.

“What was it, my friend?” asked the scribe.

“I dreamed I stood on the causeway outside the royal resi­dence, here in Tahpanhes. I had pried up several stones, and dug a hole in the pavement. Then I took large stones and mor­tar, and set them in the hole I had made, forming a sort of pedestal. A crowd—all Hebrews—was gathered about, watching me.

“And I turned to them and said, ‘One day the king of Baby­lon will place his throne upon these stones, and will spread his canopy above them. He will bring death to Egypt, and he will burn the temples of the gods of this land. So says the Lord of Hosts … ’”

His voice faded, and his eyes searched the dimness for Baruch’s face. “Could it have been a word from the Lord?” he asked, more to himself than to his friend. “But how can I, an old man nearly blind, go to the royal residence and dig the stones from the pavement?”

“Softly, friend, softly,” soothed Baruch. “You will do no stonemason’s work today. Wait here and I will fetch my pens.”

“Tell me,” asked Jeremiah when Baruch returned, “how do the people behave, now that they have been here for awhile? Do they remember anything of the Eternal?”

Baruch answered sadly, “Old friend, they do not. Hardly an evening passes without my seeing some Hebrew wife burning Ashtaroth-cakes in the fire. All the years and all the calamities have not taught them anything.”

“Then write this,” said the prophet, his voice firming slightly as he pushed himself up, sitting as erect as his stooped shoulders would allow. “This is what the Lord Almighty, the God of Israel, says: ‘You saw the great disaster I brought on Jerusalem and on all the towns of Judah. Today they lie de­serted and in ruins because of the evil they have done. They provoked Me to anger by burning incense and worshiping other gods that neither they nor you nor your father ever knew.

“‘Again and again I sent My servants the prophets … ’”Image

 

BARUCH SHADED his tired old eyes against the harsh glare of the Egyptian sun. He peered down the dusty village path to see the figure of Isaac striding toward his house. The boy was com­ing for his lesson.

Isaac walked in, greeting his teacher. “Honored Baruch, I am here.” Respectfully he bowed to the ancient scribe, who smiled at his favorite pupil.

For a moment Baruch looked Isaac up and down. The boy was rapidly becoming a man, he thought. How long was it? Three years now he had been coming here. Baruch had intro­duced him to the intricacies of the written word. Subtly he had tried to pass on the culture, the essence of respect for the writ­ten word—and the urgency of keeping a record, a history, that those who came behind might remember …

“Did you bring the scrolls I gave you last time?” inquired the stooped elder.

“Yes, teacher, I have them right here,” said Isaac eagerly, producing the documents from the kit he carried on a strap over his shoulder.

“Very well,” said Baruch, “and where are your copies?” “Here, master,” said Isaac, nervously displaying his as­signed handiwork.

For long moments the old man sat quietly, studying the young man’s work. Isaac shifted from one foot to another in an agony of apprehension. He had striven scrupulously to make exact copies; laboriously he had sat by the window in his house, carefully holding his pens as Baruch had taught him, painstak­ingly etching the ink onto the papyrus in exacting mimicry of the old master’s calligraphy. Each time he encountered the rep­resentation of the name of Yahweh, he stopped, just as Baruch had taught him, cleaned his pen, wrote the word, re-cleaned his pen, and continued.

Again and again as he worked, he heard Baruch’s ubiqui­tous admonitions running through his mind: “A scribe’s work must be perfect. Each jot and dash must be the exact duplicate of the original manuscript. How else can the words be pre­served for our descendants? We have an exceedingly grave trust, we scribes.”Image

Baruch looked up at Isaac, his face unreadable. Isaac felt the hot flush of anxiety rush from his cheeks to the pit of his stom­ach. Then Baruch smiled at him.

“This is excellent work, my boy,” he was saying. “The best I have ever seen.”

Isaac’s knees felt weak with relief. He allowed himself to smile. “Thank you, teacher. I have tried very hard.”

“So you have,” nodded Baruch. “Well then, sit down. I have something special for you—something I believe you are now ready to attempt.”

Curiosity wrinkled the boy’s brow as he sat on the mat fac­ing Baruch. While he arranged his pens and other materials around him, Baruch rose creakily to his feet and hobbled over to a corner of the room. As Isaac watched, the old man carefully raised the lid of a clay pot, reached within, and slowly drew out a scroll wrapped in a soft leather sheath. He flipped open an end of the sheath, glanced at the scroll, grunted in satisfaction, and returned to the mat and his pupil.

Groaning, he seated himself again, then raised his eyes and studied the face of the boy across from him.

“Isaac, I want you to make a copy of this scroll.” With an undecipherable expression on his face, Baruch handed the scroll reverently to his student.

Confusion still registering on his face, Isaac unwrapped the scroll. Carefully he unrolled it to the opening lines, his eyes scanning right-to-left as he quickly read the beginning words.

“This Jeremiah; is he—?”

Baruch nodded. “Yes. He was my friend, now dead these two years past.”Image

Isaac looked from the scroll to his teacher. “And this scroll contains his prophecies?”

Again Baruch nodded, waiting for the next questions. “Was he a very great prophet?”

“Very great,” assured Baruch with quiet intensity.

“Did he bring down fire from heaven, or cause floods, like Elijah?” asked Isaac eagerly.

Quietly Baruch smiled and shook his head. “No. The fire he brought was in men’s hearts, not in the sky.”

Isaac looked slightly disappointed. “But I thought you said he was a very great prophet!”

“And so he was,” said Baruch. He peered intently at his pupil, carefully emphasizing his next words. “He was called by the Eternal  and for more than seventy years was faithful to that call. It is his only claim to greatness, my boy, but mark you”—he tapped Isaac’s leg with a forefinger—“it is claim enough.”

He held Isaac’s eyes, then dropped his gaze. “You should begin now. When you have copied two sheets, I will inspect your work.”

Looking from Baruch to the text, Isaac carefully spread the scroll before him and reached for his pens and a sheet of pa­pyrus. Baruch laid a hand on his arm.

“Wait. For this, you should not use papyrus.” The old man reached behind him, handing Isaac a fresh sheet of vellum. “This task warrants parchment.”

Never before had the master allowed him to use the more durable medium, and Isaac felt a thrill of exhilaration. Quietly he smiled, gratefully accepting the warm-smelling sheet from Baruch. He arranged himself and began to write:

 

The words of Jeremiah, son of Hilkiah, one of the priests at Anathoth in the territory of Benjamin. The word of the Lord came to him in the thirteenth year of the reign of Josiah ….

 

Baruch hoisted himself slowly to his feet and walked over to a window, his back to his pupil. He could hear the boy be­hind him—the busy scratching of the stylus on parchment. He looked out across the sun-washed landscape to the pile of rocks standing alone perhaps a bowshot from the house.Image

“Very well, my old friend,” he muttered. “It is completed. And begun.” 

 

 

 

This is the final chapter  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.

 

Coming soon from Homing Pigeon Publishing: Daniel: The Man Who Saw Tomorrow

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Jeremiah: He Who Wept–Chapter 41

THE NEXT MORNING Johanan knocked on the door of the prophet’s house. Squint opened the door, then walked away, leaving the commander to enter or leave as he wished. Jeremiah and Baruch squatted before their small hearth, tearing pieces from a loaf of matzoh. Johanan thought the prophet wore a knowing look, as if the strange old man who now beckoned him had been Imageexpecting his visit.

“Come and be seated, Johanan,” said the prophet. “Have some bread.”

The commander took a small portion from the loaf, holding it nervously in his hand. Jeremiah made him uncomfortable. Jo­hanan always felt that the old man’s eyes stared directly through him. He shifted in his place, then said, “Holy man, I have come to ask your advice.”

Jeremiah studied him, thoughtfully chewing his bread and waiting for the soldier to continue.

“Ishmael has slain the Babylonians—not to mention Gedaliah, whom Nebuchadrezzar himself appointed to govern this territory. I . . . I fear that the emperor will be angered by this and will come and destroy us.”

“Why should he do this? You are not to blame for the deaths of the Chaldeans. Why would the emperor kill innocent men?”

Diffidently the commander looked away from the prophet’s face. “Perhaps he will not believe in our innocence. Perhaps he will wish to make an example of us for others to learn by. Gedaliah stood before him and won his favor, but I … I was in Jerusalem when the city fell. I saw what the emperor does to those who oppose him. I cannot speak well, as did the governor … ” His fingers shredded the bread as his hands twisted in his lap.

Jeremiah placed a hand on Johanan’s shoulder. “Commander, you must listen to me. The Lord has shown me that we will be safe if we stay here. Here the people can build a new life; here they can stay in the land of their inheritance and learn again the ways of the Eternal. The emperor will not harm you, as you be­lieve, if you will trust in the words the Lord has given me.

“But if you turn your face toward Egypt—”

Johanan’s face came up sharply; he had not mentioned where he intended to flee.

“—and if you go down to the Land of Bondage,” continued the prophet, “it will not go well with you. How many times has the promise of Egypt proven false to our people? Think, Jo­hanan: Since the days of Moses, the Pharaohs have afflicted the children of Abraham. From Rameses to Shishak, and so with Psamtik, Neco, and Hophra, the rulers of Egypt have been a curse upon our people.

“And what is worse, Johanan, if the people go down to the land of Egypt, they will forget the Lord and His commands. In this place they might turn again, and learn to rely upon His promises. But if they go down there they will see the golden im­ages of Egypt and will be drawn ever more into the worship of worthless idols. You must not lead them down there, Johanan. To go there is to die.” His eyes glistened with intensity as he waited for Johanan’s reply.Image

The soldier stood and walked to the nearest window. His back to the disturbing eyes of the holy man, he said, “I know lit­tle of such things as you say. I am a soldier, not a seer. You claim to see things that yet may be … ” He turned and faced Jeremiah. “But I see only what is—here and now. And I fear for my life and for the lives of the people for whom I am now responsible.” He held Jeremiah’s eyes a moment, then strode from the house.

Jeremiah exchanged a look of disappointed resignation with Baruch, then slowly tore off another piece of bread, his eyes on the doorway where Johanan had exited. Squint stepped over and closed the door.

 

SQUINT WALKED back and forth across the small room, mak­ing bundles and tying packages together. “Squint,” called Baruch, busy at the back of the room, “do not forget the scrolls.” The scribe motioned toward the leather satchel he had made for his treasures; lighter to carry than the clay pot. Squint nodded and turned again to his work.

The order had come only a day after Johanan’s visit to the prophet. The leader sent word that the remnant of Mizpah should gather their belongings and prepare to leave for the south. He sent a special envoy—Jaazaniah, his second-in-com­mand—to advise Jeremiah that he would not be allowed to stay in Mizpah. Though the prophet’s words might not be pleasing to the ear, Johanan was loath to incur the anger of Jeremiah’s god by leaving the holy man behind. He would come with them. Perhaps he would bring them luck.

Jeremiah sat glumly by the door of his house, taking no no­tice of the hurried activity of the other two. He knew he would never again see the borders of Judah. After all the indignities he had suffered, he would not even be allowed the austere solace of dying in the land of his birth. The thought of this last affront galled him sorely. In his mind, he wrestled with the Lord.

“Why, Sovereign Lord?” he moaned silently. “Is it not enough that I have carried Your words to an unwilling people for these two score years and ten? Have I flagged in my devotion to Your calling, that You now carry me from the land of Judah to a country of strangers and strange gods, to die there?”

The confused, wounded questions twined endlessly in his mind, but no answers came.

 

THEY SET OUT at midday, a long, straggling line of dejected refugees escorted by the small band of Johanan’s men. They carried with them pitifully few possessions. Few of them looked back.Image

They camped that night near the remains of Bethlehem, the ancient birthplace of King David. As the embers of the cookfires faded, Johanan once again sought out Jeremiah.

“Will you not pray to your God for us?” he beseeched. “It may be that He will hear you, and for your sake will give us guidance. Seek a word from Him … ” The soldier’s unspoken wish was plain to Jeremiah—he wanted a blessing pronounced upon this misbegotten undertaking. The prophet’s eyes turned away from the commander to stare into the darkness.

Johanan persisted. “I beg you, holy man. Pray to your god. And I … In return,” he said hesitantly, “I will do as He directs you. I will listen to his words, and do accordingly. Will you not do this for us?”

Jeremiah sighed, and bowed his head. Enough silence crawled by that Johanan thought the old man had fallen asleep. Then Jeremiah turned to him.

“Very well. I will seek a word from the Lord. But you must wait here until He has spoken to me. I will go up into the hills to seek His face … ”

“I will come with you,” said Baruch.

“No!” said Johanan, quickly. He glanced from Baruch to Jeremiah, evaluating. Perhaps the holy man and his friend would use this as an opportunity to leave the party. He could not allow this. “No,” he said again, “Baruch, you may not go. You will wait here, with the rest of us, for the return of the holy man.”

Baruch looked at Jeremiah, who nodded slowly. Then the prophet got wearily to his feet and trod off into the night.

The Voice was within him that very night.

“If My people stay in this land, I will build them up and not tear them down. I will plant them, not uproot them, for I am grieved over the disaster I have inflicted upon them. They should not fear the king of Babylon, for I am with them and will deliver them from his hand. Because I have compassion on them, he will have the same, and will restore them.

“But if they persist in going to Egypt, thinking to escape war and the battle trumpet’s call and hunger, the very sword they fear will come down to Egypt and overtake them, and famine will come upon them. Just as My wrath was poured out even upon Jerusalem, the city of My Name, so shall My anger be kindled against them in the land of Egypt.”

Even as he heard within his spirit the very word he ex­pected, Jeremiah strove with the Lord.

“Sovereign Lord,” he moaned, “do not make me go back to the people with this word. All my life I have been an object of cursing and loathing because of the hard message You have placed on my lips. Now, in my old age, I beg of You, my God, ­do not place this burden upon me. Let Your servant die, and know an end to the conflict!”

For ten days he contended with the Almighty—pleading for rest, for a halt to the grinding, endless turmoil. But the an­swer was the same.Image

The Eternal’s will was adamant. He could rebel if he chose, but he could not win amnesty from the pain of his call. And so, at the end of the tenth day, Jeremiah arose from the ground, wiped the dust from his face, and went down from the hills to Bethlehem—to face Johanan and the people.

Baruch was the first to see him coming. He hobbled out and gripped the arms of his friend. “You have not eaten anything for all this time!” he gasped, looking into the haggard features of his friend. “Before anything else, you must take food … ”

Slowly Jeremiah shook his head. “I will not die—not yet,” he said sadly. “I must go to the people.”

“What will you tell them?” asked Baruch, knowing the answer.

“I will tell them … what the Lord has said,” said Jeremiah simply.

 

THE CROWD CIRCLED about, coughing, shifting, growing quiet. The strange old man stood, leaning on the shoulders of his two friends in the center. Just inside the ring stood Johanan, who now addressed the prophet.

“Tell us, then. What word has come from the Lord?”

Before answering, Jeremiah looked slowly around the gath­ering. As his gaze rested on each face, most of them glanced away, discomfited by his piercing eyes. A few returned his look, pity, and confusion sketched on their brows. All were silent.

At last he spoke. “O remnant of Judah,” he said in a voice surprisingly strong, given his appearance, “you made a fatal mistake when you asked me to inquire of the Lord!” Now the prophet’s eyes locked with those of Johanan. “You said, ‘We will follow the word of the Lord, whatever it may be!’ Very well. Hear then, what the Lord, the God of Heaven, says to you:

“‘Do not go to Egypt. Stay here in this land, and I will estab­lish you, and have mercy on you. Nebuchadrezzar will not harm you, for I will be with you,’ says the Lord.

“‘But if you go to Egypt, against My word, I will seek you out, and slay you with the sword and with famine—’”

 “You are lying!” hissed Johanan, stung by humiliation at having his leadership belittled in front of all the people. “You!” he shouted, pointing angrily at Baruch, “you have told him to say these Imagethings! You wish to stay here, and so you poison the people against me! You want us to die at the hand of Neb­uchadrezzar!” An angry buzzing rippled among the throng, fol­lowing the harsh words of the leader.

“Go back to your places, and prepare to march!” com­manded Johanan a moment later. “We have heard enough of the dodderings of these two old ones! They are addled with age! Go, all of you!” His face flushed with fury, Johanan stared about at them until the crowd slowly began to break apart and wander away, each one muttering quietly to his neighbor.

When they had all left, Johanan turned again to Jeremiah.

“You will not speak again to the people, as long as we are on this journey,” he said. “You will remain silent, or I will have you bound and gagged.”

The soldier turned on his heel and strode away. 

 

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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Jeremiah: He Who Wept–Chapter 40

JOHANAN AND HIS MEN had been on patrol for three days. They topped the final rise before coming into Mizpah, and the first sight greeting their eyes was a column of circling carrion birds. ImageThe grim sight sent a chill down Johanan’s spine, and he began jogging down the path toward the town.

The guardpost at the entry of the town stood open and un­tended.

“Halt!” commanded Johanan to his men, and with quick, practiced motions he deployed them in a defensive for­mation. Nostrils flaring, ears and eyes tuned to the keen inten­sity of impending attack, they slowly edged toward the streets of Mizpah, eerily silent in the midmorning sun.

Johanan motioned to two of his nimblest scouts to reconnoi­ter the Babylonians’ barracks, a large house just beside the main road into the town. The two scampered off and returned scarce moments later. Gravely, they signed to their commander that all inhabitants of the barracks were dead.

House after house told the same grisly tale. Whole families had been slain, apparently in their sleep. They lay in dried pools of their own blood, with throats slashed or stab wounds in their chests. Caution began to give way to dread—fear that they would find not a single survivor of this horrible, as yet un­explained massacre.

When it became evident they would not be ambushed, Jo­hanan divided his troops into three parties. They would search the town and meet back before the guardpost when the sun had just passed its zenith.Image

“Josiah, Elihu, Jachin, Benjamin,” Johanan commanded, “you come with me. Let us examine the quarters of Ishmael and his ruffians,” he mumbled. “I would wager my right eye we will find no casualties there.”

They gathered back at the appointed time.

“We found no one living,” reported Jaazaniah, “but some appear to be missing from their dwellings—some women, and a few elders.”

Grimly Johanan nodded. “It was Ishmael, that’s certain. Not a drop of blood anywhere about his area. And Gedaliah was slain—in a most treacherous fashion.”

The men clenched their jaws, appalled and deeply sad­dened by the loss of the fair-minded, if too trusting, governor.

Just then, the third search party returned, with three extra members in tow.

“We found these three in hiding just above the town,” ex­plained Keriah, the lieutenant in charge. “They were here the night it happened. I thought you’d want to talk to them.”

Johanan approached the elders, carefully looking them up and down. He peered closely at Jeremiah, then asked, “Aren’t you the prophet from Anathoth? The one who kept preaching about the fall of the city?”

Mutely, Jeremiah nodded.

“How did you escape with your skins?” queried Johanan, suspicion poking through the silences between his words.

Image“I was awakened by my friend,” explained Jeremiah, point­ing with his chin at Squint, who stared at Johanan with a one­-eyed scowl.

“And what was it that roused you, Patch?” pressed Johanan.

Squint shrugged and made no other answer.

“Surely you cannot think we had any part in this slaugh­ter,” interrupted Baruch. “Think, man! What gain would three old men such as we have in murdering an entire town, then hiding nearby until caught? We feared for our lives. We hid, and would have continued hiding, fearing the possible return of the murderers, except that your patrol found us.”

Johanan pretended to mull these thoughts, but had already decided for himself the innocence of the three. “Perhaps what you say is true,” he muttered. “Then tell me: Did you see any­thing or anyone which might tell me where to start looking for the killers?”

“Yesterday,” said Jeremiah, “a group of pilgrims came up from Samaria. There were … perhaps four score. They went into the city, but only ten came out, and these with a handful of armed men—presumably those who did the killing. Some time later, the armed ones came back, carrying bags of provi­sions. I don’t know what happened to the ten pilgrims.”

“You didn’t see the armed men leave?”

The three shook their heads and shrugged. “Perhaps they left during the night—I don’t know,” said Baruch.

A scout came running up. “Commander, I have struck the sign of a large party, leaving the city within the past day! Their track leads south—toward Gibeon.”

“Gibeon! You are certain?” asked Johanan. The scout nod­ded solemnly.

“Perhaps Ishmael thinks to gain an advantage by going in an unexpected direction,” mused the commander. “But soon or late, he will try to get back to Ammon. And I will be waiting for him”

The commander pivoted about, motioning to his men.Image

“Eliezer! Jacob! Run about and gather such provisions as re­main! The rest of you, prepare to march. And you three,” he fin­ished, turning his attention once again to the old men, “come with me. I want to ask you more questions about what you saw … ”

 

ISHMAEL WIPED HIS MOUTH with the back of his hand, tossing the last crumbs of the barley cake into the glowing coals of the cookfire. He stood, wiping his hand on the back of his leg, and leered at the captive women huddled fearfully in the darkness beyond the ring of light, under the watchful eyes of three of his henchmen. Slowly Ishmael stalked toward them as they cowered away from the malice in his eyes.

“Yes, I believe Baalis will be pleased with you,” he smirked.

“Such delicacies as these are rare enough in Ammon, eh, fel­lows?” He grinned at his men, who guffawed in approval. He leaned over and seized a handful of the hair of the nearest woman, roughly pulling her head backward, so that she stared, her eyes rolling in fright, up into his jeering face.

“You’re a fine piece of merchandise, aren’t you? What is your name, girl?”

Her mouth moved in fright, but terror froze her voice. An­grily he yanked her head about. He shouted at her, “I asked your name, wench! Loosen the tongue in your head or I’ll cut it out!”

“Miriam!” came the frightened wail. “My name is Miriam.”

“Ahhh … Miriam.” In his mouth, it sounded vulgar. “I like that name. Perhaps I should sample the wares I bring to Baalis, hmmm?” His hand slid down her neck, even as she cringed away from him.

A muffled shout came from the darkness, a cry of warning cut brutally short by the thud of a blade and the sound of snap­ping gristle. Ishmael jerked around, his hand immediately going to the hilt of his sword, his voice calling the guard. “Gaz­zam! Gazzam! Speak, you fool!”

An arrow struck the chest of another of Ishmael’s hench­men with a hissing thump, and he fell dead into the laps of the shrieking women.

Johanan and his band raced out of the shadows, yelling and whirling their swords above their heads. Seeing Ishmael, Jo­hanan drove straight for him, eager to avenge the shameful death of Gedaliah.

Ishmael reached down, and with a grip of iron dragged Miriam to her feet. Violently he shoved her in front of him, to­ward the charging Johanan. The hapless girl collided with the soldier, and they fell in a tangle of arms and legs. By the time Johanan extricated himself, Ishmael had melted away into the night, with his eight remaining lackeys.

 

WITH A GRUNT of weariness, Johanan placed the last stone atop the cairn marking the mass grave of the victims of Mizpah. It had taken them three days of back- and heartbreaking labor to Imagecover the bones of the murdered ones. He and his men had arrived back at Mizpah on the day after they left in pursuit of Ishmael, and drearily began the grim task, assisted by the res­cued hostages and the three old men who had escaped the car­nage.

As sunset pushed its long shadows across the plains, the survivors of Mizpah gathered about the stark pile of stones. In­stinctively they looked toward Johanan, by default their new leader, to explain or at least enunciate the dismal burden of grief that bore upon them. But he was not given to eloquence. Uneasily he shifted the duty to Jeremiah. “Holy man, can you give us words for our dead?”

The prophet closed his eyes, reaching within himself, trying to get his fingernails under the edge of this fresh pain, so lately and unexpectedly cast upon them after all that had gone before.

What came to him was a lament—a mournful wail for these slain and for their annihilated nation, the murdered spirit of a people, killed by their own hand. It was an elegy for them all—the dead, the exiled, and those who struggled on in this present misery in a world where there was no escape.

With bowed head, the tall old man began speaking, sway­ing slowly in time to the doleful rhythm of his dirge.

 

Remember, O Lord, what has happened to us; look, and see our disgrace.

Our inheritance has been turned over to aliens, our homes to foreigners.

We have become orphans and fatherless, our mothers like widows.

We must buy the water we drink;

our wood can be had only at a price.

Those who pursue us are at our heels; we are weary and find no rest.

We submitted to Egypt and Assyria to get enough bread.Image

Our fathers sinned and are no more; and we bear their punishment.

Slaves rule over us, and there is none to free us from their hands.

We get our bread at the risk of our lives because of the sword in the desert.

You, O Lord, reign forever;

Your throne endures from generation to generation.

Why do You always forget us? Why do You forsake us so long?

Restore us to Yourself, O Lord, that we may return; renew our days as of old—

Unless You have utterly rejected us

and are angry with us beyond measure.

 

THE LAST PLAINTIVE phrases of the prophet’s funeral hymn floated away on the breeze, and the people were about to go back into the city, when Jeremiah’s words halted them.

“This,” he said, pointing at the cairn, his voice like a whip, “this is what Israel has done to Zion.” His fiercely glowing eyes swept the circle, pinioning each of them in place as he contin­ued. “A prince of Judah has, with foul hands, slain his own brethren, and you have angrily sought revenge. With loud wails you have mourned those slain by their own kindred.

“Yet look what you have done to the nation! Is your guilt any less than that of Ishmael? For years the Lord sent prophets among you; prophets who cried out against the persistent evil in your hearts—a plague of lust, of adultery, of idolatry and dishonesty—which throttled the soul of Israel just as surely as the sword of Ishmael has slain those buried here. But it was a slow poison, a lingering death that Jacob’s children died. You would not see it. You preferred sickness to health, and now Jerusalem lies atop ruined Zion like stones piled on a grave.

“Look at Jerusalem,” he shouted, pointing his finger like a blade at the cairn. “Behold the monument you have built to your own sin!”

No one stirred. The breeze blew silently past, sighing drily among the stones of the tomb. Slowly they began to drift away, back toward the empty houses of Mizpah.

And then it was night.

Jeremiah leaned against the wall of the house, staring up­ward into the night sky. The three stars in the belt of Nimrod the Hunter twinkled merrily down at him. At this time of year, the Hunter stalked the southeastern quadrant, his bow pointed across the sky to the west—toward Egypt.

Baruch walked up quietly behind him, laying a hand on the prophet’s shoulder. “It is late, my friend. You should rest.”Image

Jeremiah sighed. “There is a weariness which denies sleep.” The scribe moved along beside Jeremiah. His eyes traced the path of the prophet’s stare, up into the radiant host of the heavens. “The Hunter is brilliant indeed, tonight.”

“His bow is aimed toward Tahpanhes and the land of Hophra,” commented Jeremiah. “Even across the night sky, Babylon harries Egypt … ”

Baruch carefully studied his friend’s face; etched in shadow by the dim light of the stars. “Something troubles you—some­thing besides the latest tragedy.”

Jeremiah looked down at the ground. “I thought His wrath would be spent by now, Baruch,” he groaned. “But still He has not emptied the deep vats of His anger. Yet once more He will punish us—even this tiny remnant which gasps for breath among the dregs of the destroyed land—because the people still harbor evil in their hearts.”

Wordlessly, Baruch looked away, down the nearly deserted street. Upon a rooftop at the far end of the dusty avenue, a tiny flame flickered. A dimly lit figure made obeisance before the blaze, spreading arms upward, toward the starry host of heaven.Image

 

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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Jeremiah: He Who Wept–Chapter 39

JUST PAST MIDDAY they prepared to leave Anathoth. Hannah sat quietly, staring out a window as they gathered their meager bundles. Baruch would not look at her; Jeremiah could do noth­ing else.

At last he could keep quiet no longer. He went to her, squat­ted in front of her, and looked earnestly into her face.

“Hannah … ” He said it gently, as a mother sings a lullaby.

Her lusterless eyes turned from the window to him, their depths blank as slates.

“Hannah, won’t you come with us? Soon you will have no food. You will starve.” He begged her with his eyes to answer, to relent.

In a lifeless voice that cut him like a lash, she replied, “I am dead already. I died while still a maiden—along with my dreams. You consigned me to the life of a slave. I was scarcely more than a childbearing drudge to Lemuel. He took me to wife only to spite you.

“Isn’t that odd?” she went on. “Even in your rejection of me, you were responsible for bringing me into this house.” She looked about her, at the sagging roof beams, the cobwebbed corners. “Everything that was precious to me, I lost here. My love … my hope … my children … Don’t you see, Jeremiah? This house has always been my tomb. I cannot leave it.”

He tried once more, in a voice barely audible through the grief that stifled him. “Why? Others in the land have lost as much as you—yet they do not abandon life. Why has your bit­terness chained you to this darkness?”

For the first time, emotion showed on her. Her nostrils flared and her eyes widened in anger as she glared at him. “Well might I ask you the same question, prophet,” she spat. “Why,” she grated, “after all the curses you rained down upon the people of this land, including your own flesh and blood—after the trail of malice you have trodden for so many years, after seeing all your hateful words come true—why do you come here to gloat over an old woman you killed long ago? Why must you come again before my face? Why can’t you let me die in barren obscurity, just as I have lived, thanks to you?”Image

The venom in her voice yanked a gasp from him. He stared at her, panting in horror at the self-portrait she had painted on the canvas of her life—a bleak scrawling of dark colors and hateful images, drawn in acrid desperation from the forced soli­tude of her own despair.

Finally he was able to answer.

“All my life,” he said, half-choking, “I have listened to the voice of the Eternal … ”

She snorted, looking again out the window.

“I have listened to Him,” Jeremiah went on, “and I have tried, with all that is within me, to heed. The cost has been terri­ble. I have known pain. I have seen more death than any man ought. I have lost the love of almost every person who was ever dear to me.” She glanced quickly at him, then away.

“But one thing He has never taken completely from me,” continued Jeremiah, his chest heaving with the effort of control­ling his voice, “and that is hope. I have not been able to afford the dry comfort of bitterness.”

Slowly, unwillingly, she turned again to look at him.

“The tiny spark of belief, which not even the burning of the Temple could quench, has kept my heart vulnerable to pain.” His eyes glistened as he looked into hers. “When the heart can no longer feel pain, then hope is truly gone. And with it, life.

“I did not come to gloat, Hannah. In your heart of hearts, you know this. I came to remember. And to grieve. And … ” He struggled over the next words. “ … And to hope for what is yet to come.”

Hannah shook her head uncertainly.

“This,” he said, “is what your bitterness has caused you to forget: that affliction and faith are sisters in the same house.” He pulled himself painfully to his feet. “And know it as truth, Hannah: Bitterness and despair are thieves who worship at the altar of Self.”

ImageHe stood leaning on Baruch, still looking upon her. For a few breaths she returned his gaze, a war being waged across the terrain of her soul. But the darkness had mastered her too long, and her face closed, never to reopen.

She turned and stared again out the window, seeming to dwindle before their very eyes. Sadly they turned and left the house, leaning upon each other as they limped toward Mizpah.

 

ONE DAY in the early autumn a shout came from atop the an­cient stone watchtower for which Mizpah was named. A small armed band trooped toward the place from the east. Hastily those in the fields dropped their gathering-baskets and rakes and rushed to the town, grabbing their swords and homemade weapons. They assembled in front of the closed gates, rein­forced by the handful of Babylonian regulars still stationed in Judah. Nervously Gedaliah stood at their head.

The men who marched in haphazard order toward them had the same patched-together look as most of those who had come to Mizpah from out of the surrounding countryside. Their eyes shifted this way and that, taking in the assembled militia, the walls, the fortifications, the looks of those who barred their way into the city. Here and there the odd piece of equipment or patched armor showed the Judean military origins of the small squadron.

At the head of them strode one with a wolfen, hungry look.

Gedaliah instinctively mistrusted him, but resolved to offer this company the same hospitality he had extended to all the others who had ingathered to the land of their birth. He hailed the chief, taking two steps out from the front of the militia.

“Greetings, brother! I am Gedaliah son of Ahikam, ap­pointed governor of the province of Judah by the Emperor Neb­uchadrezzar. Be welcome. You may live here without fear under the protection of the emperor and his governor. There is room for all who will take the land to live in and work upon. How are you known?”

The leader of the newcomers made no immediate reply. In­stead, he slowly looked Gedaliah up and down, a sneer on his lean, dusty face.

“So … A scribe rules in the emperor’s place! How amusing! I had heard the tale, but I did not believe it until now.” A low, evil chuckle rattled from his chest.

Standing with his men behind Gedaliah, Johanan felt his grip tightening involuntarily on the hilt of his sword as the amused troubler gave his name: “I am Ishmael, son of Netha­niah, son of Elishama.” The prince quoted his semi-royal lin­eage with a haughty lift of the chin. And by the look of him, the rumors were true that said the former prince had hired himself and his men out to Baalis of Ammon. The signet ring on Ish­mael’s left hand seemed to confirm the tale. Johanan asked him­self why this one, untrustworthy even in better times, had survived the sack of Judah.

Now Ishmael spoke again to Gedaliah. “These,” he contin­ued, motioning to the ten men behind him, “are my servants. We have returned to Judah. Just in time, it would appear,” he finished, with a sardonic smirk.

Gedaliah ignored the barely veiled barb. “Come in, then, Ishmael! You are in the homeland of your fathers, and are wel­come.”

Johanan stared unbelieving at Gedaliah. Was the governor blind? The bad blood in this surly renegade would be obvious to a child—yet Gedaliah greeted him with open arms. Johanan resolved to speak sternly to the governor at the first opportu­nity.

Gedaliah continued the ritual greeting by inviting Ishmael to his house two evenings hence to sup and discuss events in the surrounding countries. Until that time, he was to feel free to inspect Mizpah and the surrounding country, with an eye to se­lecting an agreeable place to settle.

The prince made a mocking bow and accepted. At a signal from Gedaliah, the ranks of the militia grudgingly made way as Ishmael and his band slouched into the town.

As the militia disbanded to return to the harvest fields, Jo­hanan drew up beside the governor and whispered urgently in his ear. “Gedaliah! Are you mad? Can you not see this one is evil? He has blood on his mind as surely as the sun rises tomor­row. And if I don’t miss my guess, he intends to replace you as leader in Judah.”

Gedaliah walked stolidly onward, as if he had not heard the desperate warning. “That will not happen,” said the governor quietly. “The emperor has appointed me as his regent here. Ish­mael cannot undo that.”

“What are you saying?” insisted Johanan, his voice rising and his legs moving faster to stay up with Gedaliah. “When you are dead, what difference will it make what Nebuchadrez­zar has decreed? Don’t you understand—”

“I have no proof of what you allege,” Gedaliah interrupted calmly. “I will not judge Ishmael on the basis of unsubstantiated rumors.”

“And why not?” shouted the soldier, losing patience. “What I say is true! Ishmael was worthless on the day of his birth, and he has gotten worse with age!”

Gedaliah stopped and turned slowly to the red-faced Jo­hanan. Fixing a firm stare, he said slowly, “They said that also about me when I left Jerusalem. They called me traitor, coward, and worse. Yet some of those same ones now live under my protection, and they learn firsthand the error of their earlier opinions.

“I will not judge Ishmael by what others say he may have been,” Gedaliah continued. “Until he acts in a way that forces me to do otherwise, I intend to receive him in good faith.” The governor turned and resumed walking. Johanan caught up with him, and made one more desperate try.

“Tomorrow morning my men and I leave Mizpah to go on patrol,” he began. “Let me eliminate this threat to the security of the people of this place.”

Gedaliah halted again. Now it was he whose face was crim­son with anger. “Has there been insufficient bloodshed in this land that we must now turn our swords on our brethren?” His jaw clenched. “If you do this thing, I myseIf will order you killed! Do you understand?”

Johanan stalked away in frustration, the governor staring sternly at his retreating back.

 

IN THE AUTUMN AIR, sound carried farther. Gedaliah heard his guest coming long before he could see him striding out of the early evening shadows.

The governor stood, took a deep breath, and carried a lamp outside to greet his visitor by the front door.

Ishmael came alone, without his henchmen. Gedaliah was relieved. Johanan’s warning still rang in his ears, but any sym­bol of accommodation on the part of this latest arrival was a welcome contradiction to the soldier’s ominous assessment.

The prince made a bow as he approached. Gedaliah thought the gesture lacked the cynicism of the display at the city gates two days before. And Ishmael’s next words con­vinced him even further.

“I must bow twice, brother Gedaliah,” said the prince meekly, making a second obeisance. “Once for gratitude at your hospitality, and a second time to beg your forgiveness for my indelicate manner of two days ago. Please, let me explain—”

“No, no … ” began Gedaliah.

“I must insist,” interrupted Ishmael firmly. “My men and I have seen difficult days, my brother. Difficult indeed, since … ” The prince’s voice wavered. Taking several deep breaths he went on: “ … since the destruction of our home. Our people have lived in this land for hundreds of generations, Gedaliah. Hun­dreds! And now, it is gone. All gone.”

He finished in a dismal voice: “So I was somewhat over­wrought. It is a poor excuse, I warrant, for the harsh words I gave you, but it is my only defense. Please do not hold this mo­ment of poor judgment to my charge.” The prince bowed his head humbly, awaiting Gedaliah’s response.

“My brother! Of course I will not blame you,” replied Gedaliah warmly, laying a hand on Ishmael’s shoulder. “Who in these last years has not felt the lash of desperation? Who has not been driven by necessity to means previously unthinkable? No, I will not count your words against you. Come inside. Food is prepared.”

With a grateful glance, Ishmael entered the governor’s house. By the standards of the days since the exile, it was a sump­tuous repast. On the board were bowls of boiled lentils, chamets bread made with yeast, the unleavened matzoh, roast fowl, and even dried figs from the last harvest.

“I am sorry I cannot offer you wine with your food,” said Gedaliah as they seated themselves. “This past year was a poor one for the vines. But there is plenty of water.” He motioned to a large urn in the corner.

“Please!” protested Ishmael. “With such an excellent board, how can I cavil over drink?” The two men grinned at each other, and began to eat.

Later they took council together, reclining on plain woven woolen rugs in a corner of the room.

“So you see,” Gedaliah was saying, “Nebuchadrezzar has left us largely to our own devices. He does not expect large tax levies from us for many years to come. It is his desire that the people cultivate the land, become settled, and—What is it?”

Ishmael was peering over Gedaliah’s shoulder, out a win­dow that opened onto a darkened street of the town. Quickly he looked back at his host. “Nothing—forgive me. I thought I saw someone walk past your window, but it was nothing.”

“The hour grows late,” observed Gedaliah. “Perhaps I tire you with my constant talking—”

“No, no!” protested Ishmael. “It is I who tire you! You have many duties other than entertaining latecomers to Mizpah. I should leave, so that you can rest.”

“Well … perhaps we might continue our discussions at an­other time.”

“Yes, of course.” Ishmael stood. “Brother Gedaliah, I must thank you sincerely, once again, for hospitality undeserved. I want to give you a gift.”

“You need not do such a thing!”

“Oh, but I think I must,” said Ishmael. He reached into his linen girdle, smiling at the governor, and drew a small dagger, displaying it upon open palms, as if offering it for Gedaliah’s in­spection. With a puzzled expression the governor leaned closer.

Catlike, Ishmael plunged the dirk into Gedaliah’s throat.

The governor fell to his knees, then onto his back at Ishmael’s feet, his life draining in a pulsing red tide from his severed flesh. As he died, his face still wore the puzzled expression.Image

Ishmael motioned toward the window, and three of his men leaped from the darkness into the room. “Is everything quiet?” he demanded in a low voice.

One of them nodded. “Most of them sleep. The streets are empty.”

“Very well,” said Ishmael. “We will start with the Babyloni­ans. Once they’re gone, the rest should be easy.”

“Will we kill them all?” asked another of the henchmen.

“All—except some of the women,” said Ishmael with an evil grin. “We will make an example of this miserable dung heap of a village. They will think twice before resisting, when we return at the head of Baalis’s army.”

 

WITH A START, Squint awoke. He stared at the ceiling above his pallet, then all about, blinking from side to side. The other two were asleep. He could hear their heavy breathing on both sides of him in the darkness.

What had stirred him so suddenly from sound slumber, without the usual prelude of a dream? Squint was too much a creature of instinct to remain in bed. There was an explanation, and he would not be able to sleep until he found it.

Odd—it had seemed to him that someone in the room had spoken his name. With a soft grunt of perplexity, he rose from his pallet and walked quietly through the small house.

The light from the moon lay in pale oblongs on the packed­ clay floor. He walked to a window and looked down the nar­row, quiet midnight street—and stiffened.

A shadow had just slipped soundlessly from the window of a dwelling a stone’s throwaway, and then behind a corner, out of his sight. As he continued to scan the street, a similar figure furtively opened the door of a house on the opposite side of the street. As the dark silhouette sidled through the opening, Squint saw the silver flash of moonlight on steel.

He had seen enough. Quickly and silently he went to the others. The violent shaking woke them quickly. Just as quickly they rose to follow Squint as he glided to a window concealed from the street by the wall of a neighboring building. They made no noise as they went through the window and into the stillness of the night.Image

They passed the hours until dawn nervously crouching under an overhanging rock in the hills above the town. 

 

 

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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Jeremiah: He Who Wept–Chapter 38

TOWARD NIGHTFALL they came winding down the dusty road from Jerusalem to the village. Some of the outlying vil­lages had suffered less than the main walled towns. Anathoth was one of these. The houses crouched silently—intact, but seemingly vacant. No lamps illumined the windows, no cook­ing fires curled upward into the purple dusk. The place had a furtive feel, as if trying to avoid notice.Image

Jeremiah involuntarily dropped his voice to a murmur as he spoke to Baruch, pointing out landmarks. “There was the house of Jephaniah, my boyhood friend. Our house was on the other end of the village—just beyond this rise.”

They passed the jagged, broken stump of a long-dead tree.

“This,” commented the prophet, “was the gathering place of the town’s elders. It was a mulberry … “He fell quiet, remembering a long-ago day of hard words and wounded eyes.

“Where was I?” he resumed after a moment’s thought. “Oh, yes. This was the potter’s house—I used to love to come here and smell the wet clay!—and there was my favorite climbing tree. After all these years, that tree is still alive! And there lived—” Again his voice fell silent, ambushed by a memory so strong it took the breath from his body.

“What? You were saying?” prompted Baruch. He looked at Jeremiah. The prophet stood staring at a house not much differ­ent from any of the others. His mouth tried helplessly to frame words, to, explain, to tell … but no sound came out. Confused, Baruch looked from the house to his friend—attempting to un­derstand, unable to guess.

It was the house of Gershom the miller—and of Hannah his daughter.

Jeremiah turned away, resumed the walk. “Come,” he said. “The night falls. Let’s find some shelter.” He trudged away into the quiet darkening, toward the dwelling of his youth.

They spent the night in the hushed halls of the house of Abiathar. To their surprise, the ashes on the hearth were warm, though they could find no other sign the place had been re­cently occupied. Baruch managed to dig about in the ashes and find a weakly glowing coal. Soon they had a small but comfort­ing blaze kindled.Image

As they sat before the fire and pulled pieces of dried meat from the supply in their kit, Jeremiah said to Baruch, “Tomor­row I will show you the place where your grandfather lived.”

Both of them stared quietly into the heart of the flames, each wrapped in his own reminiscences.

During the night, Jeremiah awoke, feeling sure he had heard footsteps. He looked about in the darkness, but saw noth­ing, heard nothing. Lying before the hearth in this house, he heard faint whisperings of the past, voices just beyond the edge of his hearing: loving voices, stern voices; taunting voices, pained voices. They crowded about him now, murmuring mute questions into the echoing caverns of his soul. He felt as if he were being examined, spied upon. Again he imagined the re­mote scuffing of surreptitious feet. Again he saw nothing. At last he slept.

In the morning they walked out into the fields—once im­maculately husbanded by Joash, now overgrown with weeds and clumps of scrub oak. Apparently the Babylonians had pas­tured some of their livestock in this field, for piles of dried droppings were scattered about, the ground cover gnawed down to the dust, as if by sheep. Here and there the stone divid­ing walls had fallen Imagehaphazardly, leaving gaps. It appeared to matter little, since no one tended the fields of Anathoth any­more, and all the cattle had been slain to feed the armies of Nebuchadrezzar and Zedekiah.

Behind them they heard the click of stones striking together.

They turned around.

An old woman stood there. Her foot had inadvertently tumbled one loose wall stone against another. She looked as if she were about to turn and flee. Then Jeremiah recognized her.

Hannah.

Baruch looked from the woman to Jeremiah. Then back.

“You know her?”

Dumbly Jeremiah nodded.

Her words floated down to him on the breeze, coming from years and miles away: “Jeremiah? Son of Hilkiah?” The words sounded raspy, weak, but he heard the lilt of a maiden’s voice. Again he nodded.

For another moment she regarded them warily. Cautiously she said, “I … I have wine and oil hidden in the house. Come.” She turned and led them back inside.

As they entered again where they had slept, she was com­ing from the back rooms of the dwelling, carrying a skin of wine and an urn. With a grunt she set down the urn on the rough-hewn plank table. She offered them the skin.

“When the Babylonians came,” she said, “I hid some provi­sions in a place in the wall outside. They used this house as a barracks for their herdsmen. They made me serve them food and drink. I was able to stay out of their way—most of the time.

“Then when the Chaldeans left, the bandits began coming.

“That is why you found no one in the village last night. The nights are worst. Many of the people sleep in the ravines and copses, for fear of the wandering marauders. I thought that’s what you were at first. So I hid. Then I heard you talking, and I started to wonder…” She paused, glancing at Jeremiah, then away. She took a little meal from a clay pot in the corner, mixed it with some oil from the urn, and began to knead bread.Image

Since he had first seen her, the prophet had not uttered a sound. He sat spellbound, staring at her as if at an apparition.

Her hair, once raven-black, was now a dirty gray. Her jowls were heavy and loose, and skin hung in folds from her neck and the backs of her arms. And her face—the wrinkles and liver-spots of age had not changed it so much as the weight of the years that dragged at her eyes and the corners of her mouth. Time had broken her; diminished her from what he remem­bered her to be. Time and sorrow. He was surprised now that he had ever recognized her at all.

Finally he was able to speak—a single word. “Lemuel?”

Again she glanced sideways at him. “Dead. Years ago.” She made it sound as if he should have known. And perhaps he had. Not a shadow of grief showed on her.

“Your children?”

Her hands stopped their restless motion as sadness dragged a long, shuddering breath from her. Then she resumed knead­ing.

“My sons died in the fighting. My daughter was taken by the Chaldeans.”

Baruch felt his heart bleeding toward this woman. She was pressed like dough between the swift, uncaring hands of cir­cumstance.

“You should come with us to Mizpah. A friend of ours has gone ahead of us there. And Gedaliah is there, the appointed governor. He is a good man, and a wise one. Many people are coming—”

“No.” Her answer was curt, decisive. She did not look up at them as her hands pressed and folded the dough. ‘‘I’ll remain here. This is where I was born, and where I grew to woman­hood … ” Her voice flickered with a momentary sadness, as a breath of wind from the past blew by. “ … and where I shall die.” She turned from them, spreading the dough onto a long, flat stone, and went to the hearth to rekindle the fire for baking.Image

When she left the room, Baruch looked at Jeremiah, seeking some explanation for the bitterness that was the constant, un­spoken backdrop to this woman’s life. Something inexplicable hung in the silences between her and his friend—something unresolved that had bound them through all these years in an invisible tether of melancholy. Baruch’s face was creased in per­plexity and concern as he looked at Jeremiah, who sat, head bowed, at the plank table.

In answer, the prophet rose and slumped outside, as if he dragged a millstone. Baruch found Hannah to tell her they would soon return, then stepped out to follow Jeremiah.

They walked wordlessly up the main path of the village.

When they had gone a stone’s throw away from the house, Jeremiah cleared his throat. “Would you like to see the place where your grandfather lived?”

“Yes, I would like that very much,” answered Baruch, He could feel other words straining for birth around the edges of his friend’s restless quiet—words that Jeremiah could not yet say.

They turned from the main path down a side trail, over­grown and disused. Descending a gradual slope, the trail wound around a bend and past a small, young stand of scrub oaks. Jeremiah paused, looking about in momentary confusion.

“This is the place, but … these trees—they have grown up since … ”

Baruch was peering intently among the tangled growth in the thicket. “I believe I see the remains of woodwork.”

Jeremiah looked where Baruch pointed. “Yes,” he agreed after a moment’s study. “Yes, this is it.” Parting the branches of the squat saplings, he stooped and entered the thicket, Baruch following.

Among the branches and undergrowth, the remains of a small mud-and-wattle hut slowly crumbled into dust. The two men looked about them in quiet reverie—the one remember­ing, the other wishing.Image

“Look there,” said Jeremiah, pointing at a small, rudely fashioned oaken table standing off to one side. Made of sturdier stuff than the house that had contained it, the table reared up amid the decay of the dwelling, stubbornly resisting the erosion of the years. It stood like a sentinel—as if guarding some trea­sure that gave it immunity to the passing of time.

“Beneath this table he concealed the scrolls,” explained Jeremiah. “The same ones you now have.” The prophet mused quietly for a moment, then said, “How well I remember the first day I came here. He pulled from beneath this table the scroll of the prophet Isaiah … ”

Unbidden, the words of the prophet whispered in Jeremiah’s ear—a voiceless sound as dry as old parchment:

 

A man will seize one of his brothers at his father’s home and say, “You have a cloak—you be our leader! Take charge of this heap of ruins!”

But in that day he will cry out, “I have no remedy. I have no food or clothing in my house; do not make me the leader of the people ...

 

No remedy. No remedy …

Baruch’s voice intruded into his musing.

“Who is she?” the scribe asked gently. “Why does a bond of pain stretch between you?”

Hesitantly, the prophet looked at his old friend, then away. In a voice that echoed from long, tired years, he said, “She was Hannah, daughter of Gershom the miller. I … Once I … ”

He swallowed several times. “We had planned to marry,” he finished, simply.

Brushing the branches aside, he left the thicket. 

 

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.

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

Jeremiah: He Who Wept–Chapter 37

WITH FURTIVE GLANCES and animal stealth, the small band of men crept among the crags and gullies until they came at dusk to the cave. The day’s take had been fair. They had man­aged to scrounge some grain from a broken bin on the outskirts of Bethel. Most of it was edible. And the oil, though slightly rancid, would also be welcome.Image

Almost a hundred men were banded together in the cave, ragtag remnants of the host of Judah. Some had deserted from units stationed in the outlying cities; others had fled from the sack of Jerusalem, somehow escaping amid the chaos. Together they survived as roving scavengers in the hills of Ephraim and northern Judah.

To a surprising degree the old disciplines and loyalties still held forth in the strange, orderless world they now inhabited. Johanan, their leader, had been an officer in the infantry. He had been at Jerusalem. It was he who had patched together a sem­blance of order among the escapees and given assignments and duties. In the societal vacuum, anything familiar was to be grasped, clung to. This slight comfort was all they had left.

Word had lately come, trickling through the valleys and down the byways, of other bands. Like Johanan’s men, they were loosely organized groups that had eluded the Babylonian search-and-destroy sweeps. A rudimentary network between the bands was being formed, new alliances forged. The king­dom of Judah was a charred tapestry, but—cautiously—stray threads were being collected together once again.

Those on watch near the cave entrance greeted the return­ing reconnaissance party with nods and quiet monosyllables. The inside of the cave smelled of animal grease and smoke. While the others carried the provisions to a storage area at the rear of the main chamber, Jaazaniah, the leader of today’s scav­enging party, sought out Johanan where he squatted just inside the entrance.

Johanan was staring out absently across the broken, rocky ravine that faced the hillside where the grotto was located. Evening shadows had already climbed the flinty slope. Only the topmost portion reflected the orange light of the setting sun.

Jaazaniah squatted beside him. Without ceremony, Jaaza­niah passed on the intelligence he had gathered that day.

“A ragpicker in Bethel says the Chaldeans have made Gedaliah, son of Ahikam, governor.”

Johanan made no reply, no sign he had heard. After several more moments of silence, Jaazaniah continued.

“His place is in Mizpah. Quite a few have gathered to him.” More silence.

“It will be winter soon,” Jaazaniah observed.Image

The orange light thinned atop the opposite ridge, with­drawing slowly before the advancing shadows of night. When the entire hillside was cloaked in darkness, Johanan looked for the first time at Jaazaniah. In the graying light of dusk, he nod­ded slightly at his aide.

“Gedaliah is a fair man,” said Johanan.

His companion nodded in agreement. Across the ravine, stars began to blink in the night sky.

 

NIGHT FELL at Mizpah. Jeremiah and Baruch sat in the door­way of the small, single-roomed, mud-brick hut that sheltered them. Perhaps a handful of words had passed between the men over the last few days. They partook of each other’s silence with an understanding beyond speech. Words were superfluous to the tacit strivings in the deep quiet places of their spirits. It was enough to be together, to know without speaking.

Baruch raised his eyes to the sky for a moment, then started to his feet, staring intently.

“What is it?” asked Jeremiah, rising slowly to stand beside his friend. Wordlessly, Baruch pointed to an orange glow wax­ing on the southern horizon—from the direction of Jerusalem.

Softly came the prophet’s voice: “Zion will be a plowed field; Jerusalem will become a heap of rubble … “

“Surely Micah wept, to have foreseen this day,” said Baruch.

“I must go there,” said Jeremiah, decisively.Image

“But … why? What is left that you should—”

“1 must bear witness,” said the prophet firmly. “For all those who shared the vision of this abomination, this destruc­tion. For all those who drank the bitter cup of the Lord’s calling, and felt the scalding oil of His anointing on their heads. For Micah, for Hosea, for Obadiah, for Habakkuk …”  He looked in­tently at Baruch. “For Isaiah, and for Mahseiah, his scribe … ”

Baruch dropped his eyes to the ground.

“I stand in a long line, Baruch. For all of them—I must go. I must see.”

 

THE RUBBLE WAS STILL burning two days later when they arrived. The summit of Zion, once the glowing jewel in the signet ring of God, was now a charred heap. Here and there carrion birds pecked at flesh that had escaped the flames. Even above the smell of burning, the stench of death lay thick on the place like flies on a corpse.

Nebuzaradan’s troops had been thorough. Scarcely one stone had been left joined to its mate. The walls of the city—once her pride and the boast of her kings—had been broken asunder. Not a house was left standing, not a cistern unfouled, not a street left clear. Jerusalem, born in the days of David some nine generations ago, was dead.

As Jeremiah picked his way among the debris, he felt a grief roiling within him that could not be named in words. A dirge tolled in his mind, called forth from the lifelong pain of his avo­cation by the scene of total desolation which lay before him:

 Image

How deserted lies the city, once so full of people!

How like a widow is she,

who was once great among the nations.

She who was queen among the provinces has now become a slave.

Bitterly she weeps at night, tears are upon her cheeks.

Among all her lovers,

there is none to comfort her.

All her friends have betrayed her; they have become her enemies.

After affliction and harsh labor, Judah has gone into exile.

She dwells among the nations, she finds no resting place.

All who pursue her have overtaken her in the midst of her distress ...

 

They climbed Mount Moriah. The walls of the Temple courtyard lay open like gashes in the chest of a murdered man. The Temple was a black, charred derelict.

“I have heard them say the Chaldeans took everything back to Babylon—even the Bronze Sea and the pillars of Jachin and Boaz,” said Baruch, gazing at the sacrilegious waste that was once the House of the Eternal.

Jeremiah, son of the line of Aaron, could not stay out of the Temple, even in its ruined condition. Almost in a trance he stepped past the tumbled, wrecked wall, across the courtyard, and slowly up the steps. He walked through the gaping hole that had once been the doorway to the Outer Sanctuary.

Inside was the scene from a nightmare. The cedar paneling, so renowned for its exquisite joinings and seamless workman­ship, clung here and there to the walls in charred fragments. Some of the tapestries and drapes had been left behind, and these too were now a smoldering ruin. The interior of the cham­ber was soot-blackened. Great burnt-edged holes gaped in the roof, and every so often half-consumed pieces of the support beams gave way, spilling a clattering cloud of masonry down into the room. The prophet’s eyes, however, were fixed on the west end of the sanctuary, on the blackened remains of the wall that delineated the boundary of the Holy of Holies. Slowly he approached. Even in its present state, after having been utterly despoiled by pagan hands, the place evoked awe in Jeremiah’s heart. Here was the place where God Himself showed His glory to the high priest on the Day of Atonement. His soul resonating with the enormity of the act, Jeremiah went inside.

But he found only another, much smaller, burned room. The glory and terror had departed. God had renounced Israel, and no more would He hear the call of the high priest. The final Day of Atonement had come on the edge of the swords of Babylon.

Jeremiah looked down. A small pile of burned wood and ash was all that remained of the Ark of the Covenant. Presum­ably, the gilding and ornamentation had been pried loose and taken to Babylon, a trophy for Nebuchadrezzar. Tears drained from his eyes as the dirge groaned again from the tortured darkness in his soul.Image

 

The enemy laid hands on all her treasures:

She saw pagan nations enter her sanctuary­,

those You had forbidden

to enter Your assembly …

Is it nothing to you,

all you who pass by?

Look around and see:

Is any suffering like my suffering that was inflicted on me,

that the Lord brought on me

in the day of His fierce anger?

 

A numbness creeping into his chest, Jeremiah left the Tem­ple and went out to the courtyard where Baruch waited.

They passed through the rubble-strewn streets like restless shades through a valley of tombs. A pack of wild dogs, growl­ing over some prize, was frightened by their approach and skulked away, tails between their legs. Their backward glances at the two men had a look of guilt, as if even the dumb beasts knew they feasted in what had once been a holy place.

Drawing closer to where the dogs had been, they saw the carrion on which the animals had gorged—the torn, burnt body of a child. A sob tore from the prophet’s throat.

 

My eyes fail from weeping.

I am in torment within.

My heart is poured out upon the ground

because my people are destroyed,

Because children and infants faint

in the streets of the city.

They say to their mothers,

“Where is bread and wine?”

 as they faint like wounded men in the streets of the city;

As their lives ebb away

in their mothers’ arms ...

 

He felt the yawning chasm of sorrow threatening to over­whelm him, to swallow him in its endless blackness. He stood, swaying, as the world seemed to twist away from him. Baruch grasped at his shoulder, trying to steady him.Image

“Come,” the scribe said. “We should sit down awhile. You are tired, my friend. Let us rest in the shade of this wall.”

Baruch helped him sit down and lean his back against the partially standing wall of a building that might once have been part of the palace. Jeremiah panted with an exhaustion that was more a fatigue of the soul than of the limbs. As he looked about him, he realized they sat in the courtyard where he had deliv­ered his oracle against the alliance of Zedekiah. He remembered the strident crowing of the street-corner preachers, each one has­tening to be the first to congratulate the king on his political coup. Jeremiah felt a tide of anger rising in him—indignation at the false voices who had led astray those who were only too eager to believe their fair words.

 

The visions of your prophets were false and worthless;

they did not expose your sin

to ward off your captivity.

The oracles they gave you

were false and misleading ...

 

The anger blunted the sharp edge of grief that had almost bettered him. Jeremiah felt some of his strength returning. “Let us go,” he said, reaching out to take hold of Baruch’s shoulder. “Come—help me up.” The two men levered themselves to their feet, and resumed their doleful inspection.

They left the abandoned city by what had been the Horse Gate and descended into the Vale of the Kidron. Halfway up the opposite slope, Jeremiah stopped. He stared ahead at the olive groves surmounting the eastern heights above the Kidron. The heat of summer was giving way to the cool breezes of au­tumn, and the trees were in their fruit-bearing phase. He could plainly see the olive berries clustering in rich profusion among the pale, silvery-green leaves.

Then he looked back, from where he had come. The derelict city lay behind him, across the ravine. In front, life and suste­nance. Behind, death and emptiness.

The contrast bore in on him with the force of an epiphany, and again he felt words struggling for birth within his spirit. But these were words of hope—of the gleam of light following tedious darkness.

 

I remember my affliction and my wandering, the bitterness and the gall.

I well remember them,

and my soul is downcast within me.

Yet—this I call to mind

and therefore I have hope:

The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases; His mercies never come to an end.

They are new every morning.Image

Great is Your faithfulness.

“The Lord is my portion,” says my soul, therefore I will hope in Him …

For men are not cast off by the Lord forever.

Though He brings grief, He will show compassion ­so great is His unfailing love.

For He does not willingly bring affliction or grief to the children of men ...

 

“My friend,” said Jeremiah after several more moments of quiet contemplation, “I have suddenly a desire to see again the place of my birth.”

“Are you sure?” asked Baruch in a concerned voice. “Surely Clfter what you have witnessed here—”

“Ah, my friend,” soothed the prophet, “after this, what harm can come?” He gave Baruch a look of calm assurance. “Besides,” he continued, “I have bought a field there. Should I not go and inspect my property?”

Baruch nodded. “Very well,” he assented.

They started north along the rim of the ravine, picking olives from the trees as they went. 

 

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.

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

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