Eye for an eye

And there was – all of that, and more; though not everything that day was for Baal-Peor worship. Caught up in the wonderment of boyhood’s first taste of abandonment, Akai allowed himself to be pulled inside a public tent where the fragmented multitude unite to carry the current of ecstasy onward and upward. “Let him be,” I thought, “who cares?” Thing was, I had my secret fetish. Sheba, cropping grass and buttercups in the stockade where the animals of worshippers were confined for the day, had a devoted master in me. Writing of this, confined to my womanless cot by a lapse of health, I feel the two currents carrying me along: desire on the one hand – reckless desire after the surprise wore off that a man could find fulfilment in bonding with a quadruped – and something close to self-contempt on the other hand. Correction! On Mount Peor that day, aroused by the brute of an assault on the gentle creature, a wave of tenderness displaced my degraded conscience.

Correct, ever since that day on the mount, I have put my head down at night in Sheba’s homey barn, ever heedful of an explanation that will liberate me from a fantasy and a fixation. For a normal attitude in love, reflection tells me, two parallel feelings ought to come together: tender affection and sensuous feeling. Sad to think – the marriage of the two is an all too rare occurrence. When we love we have no desire, and when we desire we cannot love. Am I to consider myself the average torn and tortured man? Plain and simple, are my sensuous yearnings fixated to my debauched fantasies? I think about it often. What explains my pre-occupation with a browsing beast? And please don’t tell me I ask for trouble by bowing to idols. I Balaam, a son of the world-first God-fearer and his lot, have dedicated, do you really think, my growing up to believing in blocks of wood and metal! ‘A pagan!’ you ridicule, ‘A primitive merely!’

I do see that defecating with primitive pagans before a handmade figure is indeed an incriminating act. Yet I do it for God. You are amazed; but then I am not, you see, one of your scared to hell landowners at the mercy of the elements, or your shaky king fearing for his throne. I’m a God-fearer who grasps that everything is in the Creator and He is in everything. The Divine energy is in that Baal idol just as it is in my cot and in my donkey. Right now my body is lying on God (whom I love because I fear Him) and through God I love my Sheba snorting in her sleep in our quarters. Why would I take her for a wife unless I felt that confluence of different currents when we are together? I know Sheba feels it as well! In her own way she told me so.

What did it for me was that day I took brother Akai to the mount of worship and left him in the tent where homage to Baal-Peor is paid with sexual abandon. If the girls in our family (Rebecca and Rachel were striplings when they began married life) were ready, physically and emotionally, to explore the facts of life, well – so did my brother of eight years. Meanwhile I strolled over to the paddock to check on our two animals; in time to catch the dirty bony Midianite who earned tips from caring for the transports, tormenting three donkeys with his whip. Their sin, it looked, was to have strayed into some lush area he had reserved for the steeds and ponies of worshippers of means. As the cutting throngs of the whip landed about the necks and heads of the hapless creatures, they brayed in distress even as they tried to back out of the way of the cruel throngs brandished with obvious  relish which only grew with every cut that landed on target. For a moment I could do nothing but stare. Then one animal – God! It was my Sheba! – opened its mouth in supplication for the wounding to stop. The next crack of the whip curled throngs into and around her open jaw.

I thought I knew what I would do. I meant to grab the weapon and whip its wielder and push him to the ground and whip him, and land kicks on the prone pain-lover, and so on until he had learnt a lesson. I would lead off my Sheba and Akai’s Seth, fetch my brother, and ride off home.  The first thing I did was to hail as loud as I could. It brought a sudden halt to the game. A smile filled with good teeth marked my unhurried approach. It was not a bothered smile.

“Is the young lord going off now?” asked the bold fellow, smiling like a toothy wolf.         “Yes – and I’ll take this!” I panted, jerking the whip out of his hand. I knew what I meant to do, but I didn’t know about myself, because in all my life I had never protected anybody, nor been loved unconditionally. I thought I only meant to punish the scoundrel.

After two lashes the whip was not enough. I dropped it to the ground and used my fists on the cowering bent form. My breathing came out in squealing whines. The coward did his best not to fall. He tried to duck my threshing fists, or at least make them ineffective; but then fear overcame him and he tried to run. I leapt on him and brought him down, and by then my fists were not enough. My frantic hand found a stone on the ground, and a roaring red wave burst through my reserve.

Later I looked down on the beaten face. I bent to listen for a heartbeat, but heard nothing over the thumping of my own. Two separate thoughts ran through my head. One said, “Have to bury him. Have to dig a hole and put him in it.” And the other cried like a child, “I can’t stand it. I couldn’t touch him.” Then the sickness that follows rage overwhelmed me.  I ran from the place, leaving the whip, leaving Sheba and Seth. I blundered away up the hill, wondering where I could hide my sickness for a while.

No question was ever asked of me. For days on my supposed sickbed I continued to act like an invalid. Dear Orpah, who sat dutifully beside me when not cleaning and cooking, made me drink cups of hot limewater with honey. Beor in a voice like a broken vow told me, “So, you have told the woman you want to die. Very well, good; then do it and stop bugging me and everyone.” And Akai rushing in with cloudy eyes, “Never mind, big brother, you’re going to be just fine and better than ever, just come back inside your head.” And later on, “Never – never PLEASE! not tell our father about the grownup’s tent I went into!”

So it was not long before I went back to being tutored and tested by Zaidoc and tormented by Beor to think lighting fast on my feet. Never more did I let temper come near me. Anyone who can’t learn from experience is a fool, I told myself. Ever afterwards I felt a kind of self-respect. I had never known that the impulse to kill was in me. I told Akai nothing, blaming a thorn bush for the cuts around Sheba’s neck and head. Under Zaidoc the healer’s supervision we applied aloe nectar to her wounds, and the harmless affectionate creature healed within a week.

But I cannot half tell what a dismal house we shortly had. My sprite of a brother caught a cough (from intimacy in that infernal tent I let him enter?). Zadoc ran fingers over the tortuous breast heaving like a frightened bird. “Damn unlucky, but let me get some boiled roots into the little man,” he said. In the passageway I overheard him tell Beor, “No doubt of it, the lad’s got spoilt lungs.”

“By heaven and hell!”father cried out. “What dark angel has dropped, sir, upon my house?” I dragged myself out of my guilt and pressed cold cloths to brother’s forehead. Orpah hummed spells and spooned broth into her darling’s mouth. He looked at her with a wan wistful face, “Don’t fret, mother, indeed I am quite happy!”

But the day came when Zadoc stepped up to my father and croaked, “My friend, your woman bore you a beautiful gift. Now, I must tell you, the pulse is nearly gone. This night will probably finish him. Don’t make yourself mad. It’s the will of powers beyond our ken.” The poor soul; till an hour before my brother expired, the gentle mien and happy heart never failed him.

From then on, father let me fall wholly into the hands of the tutor. Provided he saw me being taught and never idle, Beor was contented, as far as he thought of me. For himself he grew more morose by the day. It was black sorrow of the kind that will not lament. He neither cursed nor prayed. It was clear enough that he was defying God and man to do their worst. He had plenty of wickedness to prove; it seemed, and gave himself up to reckless dissipation. Orpah had to bear his tyrannical conduct, for she had not the heart to leave me alone. Beor’s bad ways drew bad companions. Rarely did they enter our door; mostly they joined company in a popular tavern. These were desperate men who worked the trade road from Tyre to Ramses and drove their caravans through our city market.

Beor once gave me the honour of meeting some of his companions. On a dreary night as I kept Orpah company in the kitchen, with our supper pots bubbling over a peat fire, heating us into a semi coma, the door banged open, admitting Beor with a pelt of cold air and stinging rain. He hadn’t the mind to shut the door after him; she got up to do it.

“Agreeable entertainment!” – stamping boots dry but letting his cape drop puddles on the stone. No time for removing it, he displayed a wild beast’s fondness by jerking me up by the arm.

“You can warm yeself at the inn. Time you mixed with men, and I want you should hear what’s being talked of.”

I avoided Orpah’s look, those great hollow eyes fixed on me in terror, her mouth trembling and her hand wandering to her throat. Yet I let myself be bullied – except to throw an oilcloth over my coat and step into lined boots, of which Beor tried to deprive me.

They were a strange assortment gathered in the tavern, grouped around a scruffy Hittite in the bar room. They straddled the stools and sprawled and leant against the wall, or slouched beside a table; and one or two, of heads or stomachs weaker than the rest, lay full length in vomit on the floor. Behind the smoky drifts they were phantom figures having no place in the day-to-day world with their ragged shrouds for clothes and their heads of matted hair. What with the stale drink smell and the reek of tobacco and the air of crowded unwashed bodies, I felt a disgust rising in my throat; I felt it would come out and pass my lips shortly. After the first hilarious outburst, the first stare, the shrug of a shoulder and a faint chuckle, Beor introduced me. Luckily, given a chair on his far side, I avoided sniffing the worst of the toxic chemistry.

Beor slapped down pieces on the counter; the barman, wordless as well, poured toddies all round. ‘Drink it as hot as you can stand it,’ the barman told me. ‘That’ll take the chill out of a man-midwife.’

To your health, young sir!’ a grizzled Chaldean saluted me. I felt a nudge from Beor.

“He came way down, son – Alexandria,” he said to my ear. Then in my ear in a lower voice –  “I been there – on King of Midian business; watched army movements.”

“A city on the make,” said a sunken-eyed Hittite. You can hear a Babel of tongues in Alexandria.”

“Surely, sir, not Hebrew?”Beor said in the thrall of his hot obsession. “Heaven and hell, you didn’t hear that spoken! Not Jacob’s family up there?” Always Jacob; all the Jacobs, and nothing but the Jacobs kept father going. In his quest for unattainable vengeance he would bring Israel into the remotest topic – like now, to the raucous amusement of his companions. Over the din I heard the fellow who had seemed occupied with his own circle, shout to Beor, “Come on mister; leave the Israelites and make happy like the rest of us fellows.” Beor confronted the idea; then he boomed above the din, “No dammit, go to the devil and leave me to my game!” Others, who had never met such singleness of purpose, clapped at his vinegary temper.

“There’s the man you must ask about that,” said the Chaldean, pointing at a man who regarded him with a glint in the eye. “He’ll tell you tales that’ll redden your ears more than they are now. A terrible liar, a really bad type, so don’t let him talk too long. He’ll make your head spin with scurrilous accounts.”

Yisro (I learnt the name later) had a mop of silver hair and a nose like a hornbill. He looked as if he might be someone, and so it turned out: he was the High Priest of Midian.  He came up to Beor.

“Mister, so you want to know what the Israelites do in Egypt? Well, I can tell you; they are getting close in numbers to the Egyptians born and bred. When Jacob came with his family of seventy, he settled in Goshen. Three generations have gone by. Pharaoh wanted to know what he could see by looking. He ordered a census to be taken. What do you think the Israelite population is today? Go on – make a guess at the number.”

I saw that it did not need the medium of a number, or a guess at it, to make Beor sick. The statements were quite enough to make his ears burn and his face to go deadly pale. Overcome by anguish he hazarded a number. “Seventy times seventy hundred?”

The hornbill nose scoffed, “Take a breath of air, mister. Forget your hundreds; the census counted a thousand times a thousand thrice. On top of that number the Israelite women grow it by ten to fourteen each time they give birth.”

Beor’s ashen look and stunned muteness emboldened the informant to fire up my father with an exorbitant summation. “It’s war by numbers, sir, you mark my words.  They’ve got Egypt in their sights.”

I was to meet Yisro again – in Egypt this time. And with one other – a wealthy Israelite by the name of Job – we met in the palace, the heart of Pharaoh’s seat of power, and he, the God of Egypt, sought our council: what should he do about the Israelite problem. It was left to me to give his idea the thumbs up; I was all for dealing with Egypt’s peril by means of enslavement.

But I race ahead. Events must be recounted in their proper place, and at their proper time. Because how I got to be advising Pharaoh the mighty, post-dates the ugly, but to think of it, the poetic death of my unloved, tortured father.

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