Merlin the Archer: The Faith of Abraham and the Cold Desert


The Faith of Abraham

Time had run out for us in the snow-bound village. The rest of the people forced their way to Abram’s overcrowded compound. They had wrapped their blankets around themselves and carried whatever they could in rag bundles. Mtombe, Urartu and I, along with the other men and boys of the village, broke a trail through the head-high drifts towards the edge of the cliffs that marked the lower part of the village. Below lay a deep valley between steep-sided mountains. If we could get down the mountain we could survive. But it would have to be done in one day, and it looked like it was a longer march than that even during the warm months.
Abram had the word spread that God would open the way for us, but from my view, Mtombe’s strong muscles and our hard work cleared the path. I already knew that Abram would only say to that, that “God works in mysterious ways”. There would have been no reply that would have undone this pronouncement, so I didn’t even think of stating what was to me obvious. Men, not gods, determined their own fates through their actions. I just trudged in the deep, wet snow and did my part of Abram’s God’s work. There were more than a hundred people, everyone in the village, many old and feeble, who trundled in the drifts like weary old spiders. I knew we wouldn’t all make it. The able-bodied men and younger boys, of whom there were few, made several trips to the edge of the cliff, carrying the last sacks of grain and other bare necessities. There wasn’t much food left and we would have no way to cook it, anyway. Sarai and Lahalit and the women had made as many barley cakes as they could and carried them wrapped in skins.
We started out in the darkness before dawn. The winds had died somewhat and the snowfall was light as we set out. Old Abram walked stiffly in the knee-deep snow of the trail, which was a slot we had cut through drifts that stood head height. He carried a long staff with him. He came to edge of the cliff, where the trail cut back and froth down the mountainside and raised his arms and shouted to the sky.
“God is my staff!”
He then put his hand on Mtombe’s shoulder and the huge black man led him down the treacherous way. The others tumbled and fell as they came through the freezing drifts. An old crone cried out that her feet were freezing, so I lifted her on my back as you would carry a child; she wasn’t much heavier than one. The trail zigzagged back and forth across the cliff face. As we descended, I could see that here and there avalanches had left frozen scars where they had raced down the ice-bound mountainsides. I knew that at any minute we could be swept away. At the bottom of the first ravine, the snow was deep and heavy. Mtombe, who cursed continually in his own strange language, plunged along at the head of our line, breaking the drifts with his broad chest and huge hands. Almost everyone made it down to the first leveling-off place. We were all wet and freezing. I looked back up the cliff. I saw three dark specks at different points along the trail. I knew they must be people. But there was no going back. Or so I thought.
Abram had looked back, too, and waved his long arms for us to halt.
“Someone must go back!” he cried out, “God has told me that none must perish or all will!”
Others took up his call, and I left my frozen old lady in the care of Urartu and went back up the trail with Mtombe and two young village swains. It took us half an hour, but we brought down the three stragglers; one a toothless old man who all knew had long since lost his mind to old age. I would have left him, as much to end his pointless, raving suffering as to not hold up our progress, but Abram had pledged to follow the word of his God.
Abram then waved us forward again. Hours had passed and still we were only down the first of many hills from the village. We’d never make it below the snow before nightfall. The whole party would freeze to death. There was nothing to be done but to trudge ever on in the crusty drifts. Sometimes the icy surface would bear your weight for a few steps and then crack and break, pitching you into waist deep snow. The women and children , being lighter, fared better than the men and made better progress, especially as the men carried the bigger loads on their backs. The hours crept by and we went ever further down the mountains. At one point an avalanche roared past us, but swept thundering into a deep ravine below the side of the defile we were on. The light began to fade from the sky. I looked for any kind of sheltered place where we could huddle together against the cold. But Abram kept walking on, tall and with a certain stalking grace, like a great, stately heron, calling on his God to make a path for his servants. I thought it was madness to go on after dark. Someone would slip and others would catch at them and slide and fall with them into the rocky snow and ice -choked abysses below.
But as the very last light of the winter’s day was fading away into a cold darkness like the breath from the land of the dead, we suddenly came to the end of the snow. I couldn’t believe it. How could the old man have known? We went from drifts three feet deep to just patches of snow within a half mile and came to a place along a frozen stream where there stood a broken, dead tree. Wood! We quickly gathered fallen branches and struck flints. Before long we had a huge fire burning. No one had died, which was astonishing to me. We gathered around the fire and slowly warmed our frozen feet. Some had black toes. The elders said these would fall off in time, but no matter. The warmth hurt my feet as much as would a red-hot iron in the hand of one of Sargon’s torture masters. But they finally began to thaw and feel normal. Abram sat, wrapped in his cloak. Sarai and Lahalit bustled around, making the old people comfortable and giving out barley cakes.
I looked across the fire at the old man, sitting serenely, crossed legged, a slight smile on his thin lips, his eyes gazing into the leaping sparks.
“God rewards his flock, “I heard him mutter.
And Abram is their shepard, I thought.

We came out of the mountains and into the wide desert east of the river valley of the upper Purattu. Cold still gripped the land. The scattered fields among the rugged, low hills were stripped and dry, only spiky rows of stubble that crunched underfoot and then blew away on the sweep of the constant north wind. We carried our small loads of grain and a few remaining barley cakes with us, and goat-skins for water, though the small rivers soon ran dry as we dropped into the plains.
We came upon a village at the mouth of a wadi, where the stream coming down from the ice-bound mountains petered out. The villagers were starving here, and they cried out to Abram to save them. They were Amurras, a kind of Hurrian tribe, like him, but he was taller than most, and he made an impressive figure with his white hair and long beard and rough staff, walking like a giant scarecrow staking the word of his God among the wretched folk.
He sat, wrapped in a his long cloak against the freezing wind, in meditation on a high rock at the mouth of the wadi for a day and then declared to the assembled folk that we should move on across the desert, though there was no way of knowing if we would find food or water ahead. But the people of Ehru and the local villagers placed great faith in this old man. Sarai moved among them with her gentle kindness and brought them calm.
“She’s like you, “I said to Lahalit.” The people believe in her.”
“No, “said Lahalit softly, “my people fear and worship Enheduanna the Goddess, not Lahalit the girl. Sarai has genuine compassion for her flock. I usually feel, “she paused and looked down, as if ashamed, “I feel a little more cynical and angry with my people.”
She had a little wetness to her big brown eyes. I wrapped my cloak around her shoulders and held her in the cold wind. She pressed her head sideways against my chest, as if to hide her face.
Urartu thought the old man was losing his mind.
“The way to Harran is long and dry, even in the spring. If any of the wells are frozen or empty, or if the locals are against giving up their water or grain, we’ll never make it!”
I was walking with Urartu and Mtombe out in the sands beyond the mouth of the wadi. The way west was flat and featureless.
“The way to my homeland lies that way, through Egypt, “said the huge black man. “ But my job is to serve my mistress. I will go if she goes. But if she chooses to go back to Ur…then, I don’t know.”
Urartu said, “If we stay here, among my people, spring will come and the land will bear fruit again. The sheep will fatten on the new grass and have their lambs. The reach of Sargon doesn’t extend to these regions. We will serve him for our own good and for his pay, but we can always escape his armies by going up into the mountains. The old man is crazy.”
I couldn’t offer much in the way of counsel. I didn’t know the land, and couldn’t tell if Harran would be better than this wretched village. I knew it was on a branch of the Purattu. There could be forces of Sargon there. If Lahalit meant to escape, it would be better to stay here with the Hurrians. Perhaps she didn’t know her own mind; she wouldn’t tell me. I could see the logic of Urartu’s thought. But I also knew he was blind with desire for Sarai.
Sarai was truly a thing of grace and beauty in a cold, desperate world. Urartu was a little older than I, but still in his prime. Sarai was still in her twenties, I thought. But Abram was a truly old, old man, so old that there was almost no one of his age anywhere; certainly no old man with his vitality. . Why did Sarai stay with him? Sometimes he called her his daughter. Other times, his sister, though that was absurd. The old man had his ways, to be sure; he had been very handsome and still was, and he had a twinkle in his eyes and the ability to face you down with his supreme sense of confidence. He said all things came from the Lord, whatever god that was. I had heard much the same thing from many priests of many gods. But Abram definitely had a personal power, and the beautiful, dark-haired Sarai was in his thrall.
Urartu was edgy and restless. He spent much of the time in the village prowling about the scrubby, sandy wastes with a bow in his hands, looking for game that wasn’t going to be there. I worried that an arrow might find Abram. No matter what I thought about the old man’s God, I knew that without Abram the people would feel lost. Though they also believed in Inanna and Enlil and some of the Hurrian and Hattusan gods like Tar-Hunt, and the witch goddess Ti’amat, mother of demons, easy to believe in in this forsaken land, they kept their main reverence for the prophet of the nameless one that guided Abram through the wilderness.
I could also see the fear and doubt welling up every day closer to the surface in Lahalit. One late afternoon, I found her standing on a hillock on the southern edge of the wadi, gazing off into the plains to the south, her homeland.
When I asked her what she was thinking about, she looked down and said simply, “nothing.”
I took on these different factors and tried to balance them in my mind. My way led to the west. I half hoped that Lahalit would come with me, but when I thought it through, I realized that she couldn’t come to Achaea with me. Where would she go? Not to Hedra. I felt a strong kinship with her, and a deep connection and our bodies still collided with unbridled passion, perhaps fueled by our desperation. I struggled to keep Vila and Aon in my mind, though Vila’s fair face was blurred in my memory and Aon was an unformed toddler, imbued with qualities fueled by fantasies of my own making. I hoped that they were still somehow alive. I also nurtured my anger for Brukos and Andros and the other petty hill-lords. They were nothing compared to the kings I had now served and fought against. I let my hatred of them smolder in me like ash-covered embers, unseen, but still hot. No matter what had become of my family, those men would pay with their lives.
But first we had to make our way west and there seemed to be no way to start without Abram saying the Word from his God. He sat meditating on the rocks above the village or out in the wind-blown cold desert, wrapped in his cloak, just his staff rising like the last branch of a dead tree sticking out of the sand. He said he was waiting for a sign from the Lord.
A track came to the village from south along the base of the mountains that rose behind us. My guess is that if you followed it you’d finally reach the great fortress city Mari on the Purattu. I kept watch on it with Mtombe. I feared a force from Sargon coming to search for His Enheduanna, my Lahalit. Perhaps Sargon was dead by now, supplanted by Lipit-Sin. Ambition is the doorway to murder and conquest. Lipit-Sin wanted Enheduanna, but would his reach, if he were now king, extend this far?
On the ninth day, when our stores were beginning to get low, a line of riders was spotted coming from the south along the mountains. Urartu, Mtombe, Lahalit, and I hid ourselves up in the rocky outcroppings east of the village, where we could escape back up into the mountains if we had to. But it was a caravan of Bedu’ traders, with fifty of those odd, humped-backed animals called camels, which only they employed instead of onagers or oxen, heading towards Irfan, in a little river valley on the road to Harran, and then on to Harran itself and finally to the coast near Ugarit. They knew Abram. He promised them sheep and a portion of next year’s grain crop wherever they settled for help in reaching Harran. They haggled on the amount of grain and number of animals for a time, but in the end agreed. They carried ample water for the desert trek on their camels. They said that Irfan, three days out, would have some water and food, but not much. Harran was another seven days beyond Irfan.
Abram roused the people with his call to travel west. None opposed him, not even Urartu, though he told me that he would turn around at Harran most likely. I still worried he might try something with Abram to win Sarai away. She was childless, and Urartu had whispered to some villagers that the old man was too old to make babies. Strangely, this was the main thing that Abram’s God had promised him; that he would have generations of children beyond counting. Still, they had no child and he was an old man. Perhaps his seed had failed. It does so happen in some men.
We set out, a long, drawn-out caravan of refugees of all ages and states of health. Once again I saw death would walk with us, though Abram did not seem overly concerned. We were going the Lord’s way, and no harm would befall a soul that died while doing the work of the Lord, the nameless, jealous God of Abram.
I asked the Bedu for news of the kingdom of Akkad. They told of civil war between Sargon and Lipit-Sin. Young Naram-Sin had won a battle over Lipit-Sin’s forces at Sippur, but Lipit-Sin had driven the attackers back and then sacked Babylon, the new city. They told us Sargon blamed the war on the disappearance of Enheduanna. The proclamations read that she had taken the blessing of Inanna with her, and without those blessings, the Kingdom would be destroyed by war. It was likely true to a certain extent. Some rebel cities may have followed Lipit-Sin’s lead, since with no Enheduanna, who also represented Sin- Sin being the same God as Inanna-, the people thought the gods were themselves torn in two and so couldn’t figure out who to support.
To me, this sounded like good, old fashioned bullshit hill – politics; leaders using any excuse to form alliances to take power. But it made Lahalit brood even more. She agreed to go west to Irfan, but after that, she didn’t know.
“I feel I’m abandoning my people. I’m taking their god away when need her most.”
I had no answer. It was true that ordinary people need Gods and goddesses; otherwise they lose heart and faith in the world. I still thought such stuff was nonsense, but I could see how it played itself out among the people. In Sumer and Akkad, only a few were scribes or nobles. Most people were simple farmers and laborers, who thought only of survival and a better day the next than today; storms, floods, war, famine, pestilence, plenty: was all in the hands of the gods and their incarnations as Kings and priests and priestesses. Lahalit was Enheduanna to them. She spoke with the God on their behalf. They couldn’t do it.
People! I spat, but not to ward off the evil eye, just to signal my contempt for the insanity of it all. Thunder-throwers, plague-bringers, earth-shakers, chariots of fire. Nonsense! People were stupid and gullible beyond my reckoning. The god-kings and priests were imposters who full well they deceived the people.
We crossed a severe desert, with high, flat-topped bluffs and lowlands of scrub-bushes and thorn plants. The weather was warming for the first time in months, and the first of the hares and the snakes were out. We had good hunting and ate well enough, if you like serpent, that is. The men claimed it made your manhood long and strong. The older women tittered at this. I certainly didn’t notice any bad effects from eating horned vipers!
We reached Irfan, in a desert valley with a mostly dry tributary of the Purattu winding along a wide and sometimes deep watercourse that would soon be awash and uncrossable with the flood-born runoff from melting snows in the distant mountains. An enormous bridge had been built over it in a canyon. No one knew who had built it; it had been there from before time. The locals claimed that giants or Jinnu had lifted the huge stones into position. At places, there were communities built into natural rock caves. Carved, narrow steps led upward to mean, semi-walled hovels stuffed into clefts in the cold cliffs.
We journeyed on beyond the great bridge and camped on the river. Nearby there was an encampment of the strange people they call the Rummas. They were reputed to be great thieves and fortune tellers. One old lady came to our camp at night fall, carrying a ball of pure crystal, like a tear from a god’ eye. She tried to get our group to pay her with food for a fortune.
Finally, Lahalit spoke softly, “I’ll trade you these for a reading, she said.”
She pulled off her long lapis ear-rings and handed them to the woman, who turned them in her bony old fingers and eyed them carefully.
The old Rumma woman asked her, “Did your man give you these?”
“No, they are mine.”
The old woman looked around with a wary eye at our camp. She said, “Come with me a ways, little sister.”
When Lahalit came back, she had a quiet air about her. I thought about asking her what the old woman had told her, but decided against it.
In the middle of the night I woke and stirred. Lahalit was sitting up, wrapped in her blanket near our little fire. She was poking at the coals with a long twig. Tiny sparks drifted up in the cold air and winked out like dying stars.
Without even turning towards me, she said very softly, “You must leave us tomorrow or die.”
“What?” I said.
She twisted around and put her finger to her lips. “Take Urartu and Mtombe with you, “she whispered,” they are coming for me. And they are coming to take you back, too. The King will kill you slowly. You must go and return to your country, to your wife and child.” She turned back to the fire. “I must go back to my people. They need me.”
“I won’t let them take you, ‘ I said.
She looked back at me. “You are a king. You know the needs of the people come first, before your own. I should never have left. But it took leaving to know. Mtombe must go back to his own land. Urartu must flee. Mata told me so.”
“Who? Was that her name?” I asked, startled.
Lahalit was startled by my reaction.” Why? What does that mean to you?” She asked.
I laid back on one elbow and was silent. “Nothing, “I said after a moment. “Come here.”
She crawled over and we got under our blankets together. We lay there for a long time without speaking, but we found each other for the last time.
I got up well before dawn and woke Mtombe and Urartu. They didn’t seem surprised.
“It was just a matter of time, “said Mtombe. He went and bid a tearful farewell to his mistress. Urartu said nothing.
I went back to her and we held each other for a few minutes. She finally pushed me to arm’s length.
” You are a good king and a good man.” She had tears in the corners of her eyes. I could just tell in the glow of the fire.
I found no words. I let loose her soft hands and I turned and went out of the camp and joined Urartu and Mtombe and we set out in the dawn darkness for a nearby flat-topped ridge that overlooked the river valley. We found a place where we could watch the camp while not being seen.
It was common for the caravan to be on the move right before sunrise. As the animals were being loaded and the people were stirring there came rising up from the south a large group of armed horsemen. I could see Lahalit walking out to meet them. Abram was nowhere to be seen. The horsemen dismounted and moved among the camp, knocking over fires and pulling bales of goods from the camels. The travelers kneeled and bowed their heads. None were killed, but the horsemen looted their meager belongings. My anger flared up. I wanted to split their skulls with my flint-tipped arrows. After about an hour, the men mounted up, Lahalit with them, and rode away the way they had come, leaving a trail of rising dust as they passed out of the river valley. She was gone forever.
I heard the sound of rock falling behind us and spun around, knocking an arrow and drawing my bow taught. It was Abram, coming down the slope to our hiding place from above.
He put up his big bony hand and I lowered my bow. He sat down with us.
“The Lord told me there would be no trouble for his flock.”
I had nothing to say. Lahalit was truly not of his flock; that was for sure. But neither was I or my two companions. Crazy old man. Wily as a desert fox, though. The caravan slowly reorganized and started moving moved west along the dusty track.
“I’ll have to get down there, “He said as he solely stood up and stretched his long arms.” Are you coming?” He walked away quickly for an old geezer. He shouted back over his shoulder, “Beyond Harran is Damas. From there a man may take many roads.”
Off he went with his crane-like gait. His confidence was amazing. I looked to where the last of the dust cloud of the riders was fading away in the north winds at the far south rim of the valley. The garbage-strewn camp of the Rummas lay below, strung out along the riverside.
“I need to talk to that Rumma woman.” I said, nodding at the unkempt encampment below.
“No you don’t, my friend, “said Mtombe.” That’s for women.’ He spat to ward off the evil eye.” A man knows what he has to do. It’s in his heart.”
I knew he was right. I stood and picked up my bow and quiver and set off down the cliff-side toward the moving caravan.
“My Land of Punt!” laughed Mtombe. He was now a free man!
“Back home for me, “I said, though I had a foreboding feeling that my words were empty.
Urartu said nothing but came along. He was following Sarai for now.
The Rumma woman Mata was standing alongside the trail as I came down out of the rocks, my cloak drawn up in a hood around my fair hair and long beard.
“It’s the name of the Goddess, “she said, “You have known that from birth. You are Mata’s son.”
I looked at her angrily. I could have struck her, but I held back. I don’t hit women.
“She had to go back. She couldn’t come with you. The man-gods of this land seek to destroy the goddess forever. They say she breeds with demons and gives birth to worse. Lahalit gives voice to the real goddess, the woman who is lover, mother, and grandmother.”
“I have no belief in Gods, “I said.
She waved her palm to ward of the evil eye. The she leaned in to me and whispered, “It’s not the gods that matter, my king; it’s the people. The gods live through them. People are like rabbits, scared of the shadows of doves.”
“I don’t care about people anymore either, “I said, “they can all go to one of their Sumerian Hells as far as I’m concerned.”
She reached out and grabbed by hand. “Don’t turn away from your duty. To some are given talents that are meant for others. Your own feelings aren’t that important. Be a good king wherever you end up.”
Her eyes kind of glazed over. She seemed to be staring somewhere distant. He hand her felt mine, probing with her fingertips lightly.
“You have a great task in this life, and you don’t know what it is and you don’t have the skill to accomplish it yet. But you will learn, and you will make something that will last until the end of man’s time on earth.”
“I pulled back my hand in anger. “ I don’t want anymore mumbling of from seers and witches. I’m going home.”
“Yes, you are, “she said quietly. She turned and walked away a few steps, then stopped and looked back and said simple, “I’m so sorry.” The she quickly walked away, vanishing into the warren of ragged tents and lean-tos of the Rumma camp. I could hear the great voice of Abram calling his flock to move. I fell in, hood still up, and stumbled along with the rest of the faithful across the barren lands.

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