Stick and carrot

As Beor stared into the cage with two grown, lively specimens his ideas took form. With a prodder of wire wrapped in a wad of wool he poked the male to rage until it attacked and killed its mate. He moved the survivor in his mitt to a bust of hardboard and positioned it on the collarbone within reach of the ear. He agitated the bust little by little. The critter stirred. Beor stooped to look. His tongue played with a plug of hemp as though whirling his pent up fury and memories and hopes around and up and down in his mouth. He waited an interval before agitating the bust again and then again, imperceptibly harder each time. He noted the growing intensity of movement. Suddenly  there was a flash of tail. A grayish drop slid from the earlobe of the bust, and Beor rubbed his hands. “It works,” he said aloud. “Now for a tutor. Then …” He gripped the scorpion in  the mitt and caged it.

Beor took a night and a day to come up with the person. He had looked forward to this moment. Bringing the project to life would cure his irascible conduct with people. He pressed his hands to his eyes until specks of colored light drove to his head. Then he got up and went to visit Zadoc in his cave dwelling a league or so from Ar.

The herbalist received him on his lookout of rock halfway up a cliff face which overhung  this hollowed out platform. The lockout gave Zadoc protection from all weathers. He had carpeted the rock floor with animal hides. A small fire burnt, and on a hearth of flat stones blackened pots steamed. The cave mouth at the back was shallow. This was Zadoc’s living quarter, and inside hung a perpetual dusk. The floor was covered with sheepskin rugs. Zadoc’s bed against the stone wall was an affair of sacking filled with dried moss.

“Figured I’d get a visit from you, though you’ve surprised me,” he greeted Beor.

Throwing off his shoulder bag, Beor said, “Brought a leg of venison for you,” He shook out the wrapped leg. “My boys dropped a buck on the hoof the other day. The oldest one’s coming on fine,” – alluding to what had brought him here.

Zadoc understood what Beor did not: the giver of gifts is more indebted to the receiver than the other way round. He had a brace of guinea fowl on the boil. “Interesting,” Zadoc said, as he put the meat out of reach of prying eyes and noses. He chuckled quietly at catching Beor sniffing a thin steam of broth drifting his way.

“Don’t want to keep it too long.” Beor jutted s his head at the venison in the cave. “Mighty warm walk it had on my back.”

Zadoc said, “No fear of that. It’s a while since I eat fresh-killed animal.” He went to the fire and ladled broth into calabash bowls. Beor blew over his while he plucked up courage. Fennel and something tart intrigued him.

“I never eat soup like it,” Beor observed. “Ever try stewing locusts?’

“Time when there was a plague of them I did. Kind of peppery.”

Zadoc, Beor saw, had enough of his beating around the bush. “I don’t like to disturb your peace and quiet or anything,” he said.

“What is it you need, brother?” Zadoc said. “Say, thanks for the outing. I was just sorry you got  no specimens for the trouble.”

“What did you think of my boy?”

“Oh – the older one,” Zadoc said. “Different, isn’t he? Can’t see him following in his father’s footsteps.”

Beor leaned forward excitedly: “Nor I. Balaam’s not one who’ll follow in anyone’s footsteps.”

“So,” Zadoc said, “Here you are on account of that.”

“Well – it’s like this….”

“No.”

Beor, “No? What’s no? Why no? You see…”

Zadoc interrupted, “I will not subject any boy to such a thing.”

“Hang on my friend, it’s not what you think. I’m not here to ask you to do  – that. I want you to fill the boy’s head with knowledge. Nature, genealogy, spells – things like that. Nothing dangerous, you understand.”

“I don’t think I do. Genealogy? Spells? Well – maybe spells.” He tapped his long brown forehead “My brother, nothing in here except plants and cures. Can’t see how it’ll  help the lad. You need to get him learning a whole lot of things.”

Beor aimed a finger.“Just so, brother; just so. He’d get that from the two of us. From you, nature, rituals, spells, God, the family story. .”

“Wait a minute!” Zadoc cried.  “God and your family?”

Beor said, “Don’t worry – you’ll get knowledge of that from me. How’d you think I came to advise kings and what not?

Both knew they were avoiding one subject, talking of minor subjects to avoid the major one. And Zadoc, dying for his late noon nap, “I don’t think I entirely follow. Where do you fit in?”

Beor, with the effulgence of a boiling geyser: “My dear man, knowledge and instinct, instinct and knowledge. The eternal conflict, not so? You give him the knowledge; I give him the instinct.”

“Right. And the purpose?”

“Why, to bring out the powers troubling the boy’s guts. I can tell what’s inside Balaam as clearly as you can tell a storm brewing inside dark clouds. You know God spoke to my father?”

“Who – Laban?”

“Before my father caught up with the runaway Jacob, God came to Laban. Warned him not to lay a hand on the scoundrel. Father told me and brother Chazzer. What did God have in mind, I always wondered? You know, that was the last occasion the Almighty appeared to a non-Israelite. After my father, it never happened again. Not a cross word or a vision to anyone since that time. God’s stopped speaking to our people.”

Zadoc grunted and went to the overhang of rock to relieve himself. Beor resumed. “It’ll happen again one day soon. I feel it in my bones. The nations need a prophet.  They’re panting to have their prophet.”

Zadoc asked, “You don’t think there’re enough prophets from your family? I’d kind of thought the families of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob are full of prophets blessing and cursing till their souls can’t take more.”

Beor jumped up as though burnt by the rock under him. He combed his scrappy beard through with his fingers. “Exactly! Only Israel can produce prophets. I’ve heard say their scholars claim Israel’s exclusive right to receive divine visitation. The yichus must come from Abraham, they say. You got to be a descendant and you got to be circumcised. Friend, they tell us you got to be born into the family to have prophecy.”

Zadoc listened calmly. Like most people he knew about the brotherhood of Abraham. And he  chuckled caustically. “I can see a wife’s finger in that muddy pie.”

“What do you mean?”

“Abraham’s concubines, remember. Their offspring got circumcised. And are they part of the brotherhood?  Not. There’s Ishmael who got circumcised by Abraham. The family didn’t admit him to the brotherhood. And all the children of his concubine Keturah? Not circumcised, but Abraham’s seed? Sarah was known to be a jealous wife. Could’ve been her that dictated who’s in or out the brotherhood. ”

“Oh,” Beor said, “No doubt of it. Sarah hated Abraham putting himself out for his nephew. My forefather Lot was no favorite in her household. The clan’s devilish adept at understanding God’s mind to suit them. Well, let’s see them complain when the nations get Balaam for a prophet. I want to see the Israelites then, my god!”

“Beor – Beor. Your family had no one circumcised. And what did God tell Abraham? ‘From Isaac will your seed be called.’ Jacob was Isaac’s seed. Israel come from Jacob’s seed, which you’ll admit, your family do not.”

Beor looked out at the hillside, and a jagged vindictiveness speared him through and made him feel better than he remembered feeling. “Never keep the story straight, do they? Always make it so they come out on the right side of God, he said. Isaac, Jacob, Rebecca, Rachel – they twisted meanings to come out as God’s own. Always they doing God’s will. I was right there when Jacob, doing God’s will of course, played my father dirtier than he got played. ”

Zadoc wondered when his uninvited guest would leave him to his retreat. “Anyway,” he said,  “hatred never does anyone any good.”

“Putting wrong to right and seeking justice aren’t hatred.”

“And revenge?”

“Nor that. We’ll raise a prophet in their face. Zadoc, don’t miss the boat. Our Balaam’s the chance of a lifetime – of lifetimes without end.”

“Our? I tell you what, every instinct tells me to stay out of this. Other hand, every impulse drags me to get into your dreamings.”

What made the herbal healer agree to dream a venereal wracked sadist’s dream? Why, little by little, did the vision of me trampling on the Chosen People capture Zadoc as surely as it captured my lip foaming father? Why, in the following months did Zadoc dedicate himself to the fantasy of all disappointed men – of making their offspring take the burden?

Perhaps Zadoc feared what Beor would do without his moderating influence. Perhaps the legendary golden touch of Abraham’s clan aroused even temperate Zadoc to envy? Or maybe it was Beor’s flattery – “Your wisdom and my rigor, Zadoc; a great combination for bringing out the talents of a boy. You teach, I motivate.” But what difference could it make to me, the subject of their wild folly to make genius look average?

A live peril on your shoulder is a wonderful thing to fire the brain. You want a quick head on you, not a grave head. Zadoc my interrogator and Beor my tormentor between them made me as quick as a lightning bolt. A scorpion skulking near enough to tickle my ear lobe added to the fruits of their labors.  I took the burden of stick and carrot. The effect, I need hardly tell, was electrifying. The barn rang with my furious attempts at difficult questions. Some indeed had no right or wrong answers, only good or bad ones. My father decided whether good or bad. Employing an actual rod in a schoolroom is hurtful and insulting to master and scholar alike. A beating makes for mutual hatred. Fear, to be effective, must unite teacher and learner, not drive them apart. Thanks to a full grown stinger sensitive to movement of my head or body, three of us went through torment together, sweated like pigs in unison, learnt together, and rejoiced together after mornings without mishap.

How the system worked: The purpose was partly to instruct their protégé and partly, by torture, to quicken his mind. The learning was helped by torture, and the torture helped the learning. The two intermingled and made the whole greater. All credit to my father. Beor recognized that reward, one half of the cycle, must be commensurate to penalty, to complete the cycle. Where the penalty is terrible the reward must be wondrous. It was a system meant to condition me to reward and punishment. These were the counterparts, and Beor understood them as well as he envisaged the end product. Four weekly sessions over ten moons equipped me with an army of knowledge: geography, nature , rituals and pagan gods, origin of the Hebrews, encounters with God and, best of all, the pot luck generations on whose bent shoulders I climbed into the world to fulfill some yet unknown though great purpose .

It all happened in the barn shed beside the pig pen on one side and the mule and pony stalls on the other. For a school it was a damp barn. And you could hear skittering life going on beneath the piles of soggy straw. The way I acquitted myself, though, with neck in dire proximity to a lethal threat, made my two coaches proud. I developed the habit of thinking on my feet at an age when friends were still pants-wetting pups. Before long I could turn a bellicose mind to anything, and do it at heartbeat speed from the peril of hell.

Pain fills my head, obliterating  thoughts of  gratitude, when I recall Beor and Zadoc putting me through my paces. I sit like a block of wood on a hard chair. Beor, gloved, stands at my elbow; Zadoc, in a frightened scraped voice puts the questions from a pumpkin crate acting for a dais. My father, eyes narrowing in anticipation, calls me to order. “”If you learnt what you had to,” he says. “Balaam, look at me!”

My eyes had squinted to my left shoulder. I look Beor in the face.

“If you learnt what you had to,” he says, “if you attend carefully to Zadoc and got the answer to  mind, say it loud, say it quick. Don’t let that something near your neck scare your mind empty. Don’t fidget more than you have to.  Balaam – curse if you will. If it helps, curse loud and ugly. Your father wants to remove that thing you hate and fear. So give Zadoc good quick answers.”

Zadoc had listened to this advice with a turned up face sharp with guilt at the cold, hard  obsession he was aiding and abetting.

“How Moab got its homeland,” he announces.

“Ready!” I shout.

Zadoc forlornly peers at me and warns, “Careful, son.” Then tugging his robe back onto his thin shoulders, begins: “Balaam, who dwelt in our land (Moab) afore our nation took it over?”

My hand nearly shooting up – “Emim! The Emim, sire.” The dour face tells me I must try again. I wrack the mind for an answer for the sake of Zadoc. Silent seconds go by. In the cold damp, sweat trickles by my right eye. Zadoc prompts, “But what name were the Emim known by?

“Oh – giants! The Refa’im, sire.” Zadoc’s shoulders lift. I take a sweet breath. Through a thin robe I’m aware of the scorpion on my collarbone. Zadoc nods at Beor as if to say, “See. You see what we’ve got here!”

Zadoc goes on. “The Refa’im had previously dwelt in the land of Ammon. What name did Ammon give these giants?”

This one I remember well. “Zamzumim! Og who survived the Flood outside of Noah’s Ark was the chief of the giants.”

My interrogator swallows a great gulp of water. It’s possible to observe his damp hairline; to watch the unsteady hand on the water bottle. I felt I was through the confidence-building part. Sitting on my right, Beor breathes warm winey breaths onto my head.

“Balaam, Abraham was promised whose lands? And which people came from Kaftor to take the lands from them?”

“Sire, again the Refa’im. God promised Abraham all their lands. Then the Avim conquered those lands, Sire, and then came the Kaftorim and took the lands from the Avim.”

Zadoc snaps up straight as a victor does after landing the fatal blow. Confidently now – “And, Balaam,  you know that Abraham made an oath to Avimelech. Abraham promised that his family would never take the land of Avimelech’s Philistines?”

“Sire, I do know.”

“Well then – listen boy. How will it change Abraham’s oath now that the Kaftorim have taken the land from Avimelech? Is the oath in force? Balaam?”

“”I’m thinking, I’m thinking!” Agitated I sway a little. Then it came to me – a good answer. At the same moment I remember what I’ve got on my collar bone. My eye had caught a movement down there. Zadoc’s eye caught my terror, and my father caught Zadoc’s frozen silent language. His mitted hand was poised by my ear. With the deftness of a striking adder Beor had the scorpion clamped in his mitt.  He hurried it through the cage door.

“Well, boy!” Zadoc’s voice was heavy with love. “Your answer, if you please.”

“Sire, it would annul the oath. Abraham’s descendants can take the land because a different people live on it.”

Thus we entered a state of affairs which was nothing less than evolutionary. Its effect on mankind would be damn startling.

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