It was some time in the summer of the year when Midian was taken by the Seirites – or about twelve years after my father decamped from the broken up House of Laban in order to lay the foundation of a haphazard career and a family in the country of Moab; when he was one day getting our dinner with me sitting behind him at a table observing his lame attempts at frying quarters of fowl. The place had never been gay. Now, lived in only by the two of us it took on a forsaken, dingy decay. The stone floor had grown sticky and damp. The kitchen walls were lacquered with grease. The lamp hanging by its chain from the rafters cast a yellow circle over me. A good fire in the hearth was all the proper light. The once brilliant pewter pots hung upon the chimney were tarnished and dusty. Weekly scourging by Orpah had kept the dirt down, and after her departure I had swept the floor and wiped here and there, and left the kitchen none the cleaner.
A father and son living alone will be always on the verge of fighting, as well I know. We saw too much of each other and not enough of anyone else. The clipped words we exchanged, though civil, dripped with malice and were fraught with peril.
“How’d the woman keep it clean the way she did?” Beor asked me. “Can’t we get it the same?”
Respectfully – “The dirt settles down, father. A bucket of lime, another of boiling water and scrubbing wire should remove it.”
“So – give it a try why don’t you.”
I nod, pursing my chapped lips (I have grown not just slovenly but none too careful with hygiene.) My father grimly – “I ought to look around for someone. Even if I’m no bargain there’s women could do worse than this place.”
“No word from Orpah?” I ask, knowing there had been none, but keeping away from another squabble caused by the housekeeper departing one morning; with a bundle on a pole, to sell at the market, so we thought. Beor grumbled his feelings about this.
“Father — run away, ill or dead: until we take steps to track her down we’ll never know.”
He moved like a caged leopard in front of the pan. “Fates like that take everyone – what’s it to me?” He shovelled the overcooked, crisped quarters onto plates.
“You don’t miss her?” I said close to condemnation. “Have you made a plan for someone to look after yout?” – Contempt welled in me when I looked at the palsied wobbling of plates. “I hope you’ll hink about it.”
“Hand me the iron.” He knocked ashes out of a fiery log and settled the plates on them to warm. Then he broke four eggs into the hot grease. The eggs spluttered and fluttered their edges before settling down.
I went to the open doorway and stared out. It had never been a pretty place. Scraps of wood and tin lay scattered on the ground. The door of the outhouse hung on its hinges. The iron lean-to for storing the marrows and melons growing wild behind the stalls, doubled as a woodlot. Our rundown, unkempt place which Beor thought would attract women was built for cooking and for shelter. By now we had given up using linen and slept between blankets. Our slovenly ways got us up when the sun was halfway up the sky. Only on the nights we went tavern crawling did we bathe and put on clean clothes. It was a place and a life unloved and unloving, and Beor remembered, quite fancifully, the time before his young boy died as the happy time, and he wanted it back.
What a chapter of chances, I thought at the end of the day, do events lay open to us. What a lucky chapter of chances this day turned out; for Israel never would have known the power of my blessing and cursing; and the story of that blessed and cursed nation would 1not be the story I made for it. We were despatching the bad dinner when the door was knocked at and opened one after the other, to admit the landlord of a tavern we visited more than its rivals. He had come for help with a difficult patron who’d had a bad dream.
“I think he is of the army,” the landlord said. “He took to bed in my upstairs room three days since and has never got up, after a dream which apparently upset his balance of mind.”
It is not my role to dip my quill in the landlord’s opinion – much could be written on both sides of it. In my history, all that concerns me is to relay matters of fact and let readers decide.
Beor wanted to know how the devil could he know anything about dreams…which by the by, begged a different question: what could make a dream so particular for a landlord to make a visit in the middle of the day when he could’ve waited to ask Beor that night in the barroom?
“Sire,” said the landlord, deaf to these insults, “I am prepared to pay for your son if he could help the raving gent occupying my room. His wandering words make me think of the safety of my family.”
“Balaam?” said my father with a new interest.
“I believe,” the landlord added, “the poor fellow might rally were his dream interpreted. I’m thinking it might set his mind at rest. I entertain, mister Beor, a high opinion of your lad. I felt there was something more than common in Balaam when I overheard him discoursing at the bar one night. He was explaining Philistine behaviour – how they plugged up the wells they relied on just out of hate for your family ancestor.”
“ Abraham!” Beor exclaimed.
“Sire – favour me by letting your son come now – do, sir. If Balaam can help my lodger with his dream, I’ll make it worth his while – to get the lunatic out of my house. Patrons are keeping away.”
“Sir, your cause is worthy. We’ll drink the poor fellow’s health in your barroom. Allow us to get dressed, and you may expect us in no time.”
“Son,” Beor said after the landlord had shut the door, “Bind up your unruly hair, get on a clean robe, and we’ll pay a visit.”
On the way to the tavern I asked, “How shall I manage it I wonder? What if the dream is quite as raving as the dreamer? If I can’t get the meaning, what then? If we’d only asked the landlord to tell us the dream –”
“Son, leave it.” My father tapped his forehead. “You got a power up there. Under that dirty mop lie talents, my boy, faculties bursting to be put to good use. My bones tell me that our visitor will be a godsend.”
Not since that day have I encountered fear and disbelief in myself. When we arrived at the tavern it was, I admit, with a faint heart. What if, after hearing the description of the dream, no vision came into my head? What if I could not enter a man’s demented head? My discomposure grew on being admitted into the room by the landlord, wherein a ghastly countenance met us. The occupant clutched the bedclothes and our entry made him draw them up to his wide-open eyes. The landlord drew up two chairs to the bedside before he bowed out, taking us and, by the looks of it, the dreamer by surprise.
Trembling, the bewildered fellow stuck a hand from under the bedclothes in a half-greeting. As the horror passed from his face it gave way to a pall of shame. Beor encouraged him to take a drink from a flask on a bedside table. Whatever it contained, he gathered enough wit to recount the dream which had immobilized him for three days.
‘A mild coming we had two days out from Nineveh. It was the best time of year for journeying. The road was dry and the weather mild. Summer palaces sparkled from slopes. A free and easy time we had of it. At noon on the third day our camels ascended to a cliff looking down on a valley. We had looked forward to this part of the journey, to friendly villages and familiar taverns. The camel drivers had got themselves up. They were scrubbed and dressed and ready for their liquor and their women. Such were the expectations we had. Then…”
His troubled eyes moved to the window. His hands dropped and he fell silent. Before my father could speak harshly I leaned out and touched the poor fellow’s arm. He turned his head back to me.
“Oh dear, I thought I was at home,” he sighed. My brain’s confused.”
I made an understanding nod.
“So,” he continued, “we looked down on a beautiful valley. Then – before our eyes it changed to – to a commotion. The devil’s work!” he moaned, wringing his hands. I don’t know the words to tell what we were looking at. Baal can be my witness: one moment our road down there ran through a peaceful, verdant valley; the next moment it changed to the netherworld. That carpeting in the valley could be nothing else. Well, what was there to do? There was no way else to journey. On getting to the bottom our road along the valley turned into a writhing heaving mass. There are some sights that the brain refuses to transmit to the eye. It was a good while before we understood what was there. Blindness then would’ve been a rich blessing. The valley bottom was a sea of crows – birds of black and red. And in every spare space four-legged scavengers were running in and out of the commotion of birds. On the air we caught such a flapping and a yapping there never was. All the while, the prospect undulated and heaved. The devil, we thought, had cursed the earth with pestilence.”
I cast a glance at Beor seated beside me. He was white and staring. By now the distraught man in bed had exhausted himself. He blew his lips like a sea urchin which the surf washes up.
“Friend, take more of this,” I said, offering him the flask on the table. He dispatched the contents in a gulp. He dabbed his forehead with a sleeve, and prepared to martyr himself again.
“You can imagine, our beasts were as reluctant as we,” he said. What could we do? We had to journey on. There was no skirting that furious feasting through the length and breadth of the valley. I could do no more than trust that the feasters and scavengers would give way to our caravan. They did – dropping away right and left. ‘Gag!’I cried wildly to my riders behind me. I reigned my horse as if the stench was a wall in front of me. It was. I felt the impact. ‘Gag, gag!’ I dismounted to get a robe out of my baggage I wrapped my head around up to the eyes. A right foolish thing to try. I might as well have waved a palm frond at the putrefying human remains. A thick wet rag to the mouth and nose would not have kept that stench at bay. One inhalation could fell a man like an axe.” He fell back on the pillow, his mouth open, breathing in quick gasps. Beor mumbled into my ear, “Bit his tongue I vouch.”
I put a finger to my lips. The patient summoned the will to go on.
“I tell you, misters, our trials got worse. When the sun dipped behind the mountain darkness came quickly. Half the night we traversed that valley of death. The gore was impossible to avoid. Our animals had to be coaxed over pieces of torso or lengths of intestine or mangled limbs and what else I don’t know. I – I dread falling asleep. I fear the dream will continue. It won’t stop tormenting me.”
“Mister, a sound sleep would do you good,” said Beor tapping my arm, I suppose to start me on working out the meaning.
I despaired of being able to give the demented fellow some intelligence that would bring him rest. This much the landlord had told us on the steps. His guest was in the King’s army; he had arrived at the tavern on a borrowed horse – which too ill to proceed, (to join, I suppose the regiment) he had dismissed the morning after the dream. It presented no problem for me to divine that the dream had to do with a conflict, past or to come. I whispered this to Beor.
“You’re right to think of that, son,” he said; upon which he left the room and stepped down, I guessed, to fill time in the barroom.
I sat on, with not a word good or bad, to comfort the stricken man. Then reflecting on the ways of Uncle Abraham, the one true prophet before my time, I understood that clarity was the reward of contemplation. Only when the mind has been prepared to allow the light of pure intellect to enter, can a man think with clarity – prophetic faculty, some call it. If I was to interpret a dream of such evil I would need prophecy – a vision, a union of the human and the divine intellect. Dismaying my client, I asked to borrow the bedclothes. I spread them on the floorboards and sat with the body posture I had heard was used by the mystics of my day. Shutting my eyes to all sights and sounds, I exercised the lungs and commenced a rhythmic breathing. After a passage of time I felt as if bolts had been shot back and seals taken off. A door opened inside my head to let in sheer light. The vision began, the symbolic value of the dream. I babbled, not to the fraught man in bed, but to no one and everyone in that room. I heard him shift his weight.
“What are you talking?” I heard him ask. “That is magic talk; what’s it to do with me?”
Born and raised in a family with visions (grandfather Laban, chasing after runaway cousin Jacob, had a visitation from God) I found myself telling the bed-confined man what his dream meant. “This is the interpretation of it. The three days on your journey mean three moons in time. After three moons Babylon will storm Canaan and wage war. The valley of human remains stands for the unprecedented extent of fighting. The birds of prey gorging on cadavers mean that Babylon will render Canaan desolate. Hyenas and jackals running in and out of the feast stand for the victorious soldiers taking spoil, sparing not a man, woman, child and beast on the defeated side.”
Beguiled and comforted by the interpretation I offered, the captain burst from his bed and took my hand before I had time to come back from the vision, and pumped it with both his hands while I stared up, bewildered, from the floor. “Mister, who are you! Where’ve you hid yourself! All the fake seers are not your equal. You have saved our king and country! Long live the Moab people.”
To have actually saved my king!.But from what! Whom…? Well, who was I to argue. Gold was better than getting visions, for now.
“Is that him?” Beor asked, as bleary eyed as I remained. “Coming down the steps? He looks better.” My father forgot to ask what happened. He only breathed on me and turned back to his companions propping up the bar. The breath nearly felled me; it was a distillery in one.
I never got the chance to ask him for my promised gold.
I staggered home and into my stale blankets. I woke with the sun, and with appetite for a wholesome meal to celebrate my achievement. The house was quiet. I peered into my father’s dank room. He wasn’t in his cot; there weren’t the clothes he’d worn the night before, strewn about the floor. Perchance he was outdoors, I looked. In the storeroom there was the same pile of wood, sacks of meal, and implements, But something was different: on the shelf stood the square cage which housed Beor’s specimen stingers. Normally he kept it in the shed by the stalls. For some reason he had moved it here. And the aperture gaped open – there were no creatures to keep in. The cage was empty.
This vexed me greatly. Were the scorpions loose indoors? I waited till midday for the tavern to open, and went to ask the landlord. The man was entirely different from our visitor the day previous. I found him supervising a servant in the barroom, cleaning up from the night previous.
“You want your father, mister!” He sizzled – turning on me with lips like a rabid dog.
Taken aback I mumbled an apology. “You see, he didn’t come home. I came –”
“Does he treat you the way he treated my establishment? I try to keep an orderly place. Beor’s riding for a fall mister interpreter of dreams. What do you know about the events here last evening? One incident? Two maybe?”
Before I could ask his meaning – “What gives your family the right to use my house, that’s been good enough for people of higher standing than you, for twenty years – what gives Beor the right to make bedlam, up there (he jerked a thumb) and down here?”
I turned my back on him to look at the furniture and floor – by way of commiserating with him. “I can’t see of what you speak; and, sire, I’m sorry but your anger, doubtless from good cause, doesn’t mean I have to be its target.”
My appeal to victimhood, in the way it usually works, pacified my adversary somewhat; his colour toned down from livid scarlet to washed pink; and he began to explain his ire. As a landlord of long standing he knew two ways of looking at a quiet drinker: either the drinker was a wise man or he was a dangerous one. In Beor’s case he picked the second type. The way Beor’s hand had kept creeping to a pouch on his belt, hidden by his coat, caught the landlord’s eye more than once. “You see, mister Balaam, I got a room up there for patrons if it’s more than drink and talk they’re wanting. Regulars know I get damn fine girls, very young, very clean; not like other taverns – unhealthy places with dirty girls, sick girls. Also no rough business in my house, you understand.”
I did; but when would he come to the whereabouts of my father? I started to remind him.
“Mister, mister…listen to me. Your father, God bless him, took the five pieces I paid for your kind and professional help with that pitiful lodger; he bought time with the fair creature doing duty last night.”
It was my turn to go livid scarlet. I formed words my lips refused to utter. My dumbness allowed the landlord to come to the point sooner than he would perhaps have done.
“I showed him up and took his order – for late hours my patrons like a basin of mulled wine.’ The landlord, being one, would also have his patrons like a basin of mulled wine for early hours.
“Well, going out with another request, a Hubble-Bubble pipe, I went back down. Being a very busy night for my servants, I was not surprised when your father came down after an hour, yelling at me for his order. Before I could apologize he told me to go to blazes, and he stormed out.”
“Yes, okay!” I intervened, finally out of patience, and also ashamed to hear of Beor’s behavior. “But, you see, he never came home. Sire, look, I came sire, to enquire of Beor’s whereabouts.”
To my consternation the landlord searched my face closely. I asked what he thought he was doing. God – I should not have spurred him on!
“Sorry that you have to hear this mister Balaam. Not quarter of an hour after Beor left my place, this room echoed to a stampede down those steps. A demented shrieking followed. A body tumbled to the bottom of the steps. I ran there; at my feet the girl was clutching and tearing at her head, moaning softly.
‘Hallo, you,’ I heard men around me shout, “what in thunder’s going on?”
What black art did he play on the girl?” I said, half to myself. Men wanted to know who I meant. The poor thing lay on the floor, writhing and clutching her hair. To look for some scalp wound I knelt down to part her tangled locks. My fingers touched something hard. With a yell of horror I snatched my hand away. A braver man took it upon himself to search the thicket of hair. When he got to the scalp there it was – a large grey scorpion, In dumb terror, I watched him take a piece of cloth from his pocket and dislodged the critter. A new commotion surrounding the girl brought everyone there. The demented girl tore at her hair as though she would yank it out by the roots.
‘God spare ye, girl” I heard, “Oh, let God spare ye.” People stood on tables to get a better sight. “Where’s the devil who did this?” men were screaming. “Gone out not ten minutes ago,” I told them.
“Who is he and what’s he look like?” they demanded. Mister Balaam, I described your father. Some rushed out to look for him in the roads. Well, lad, we got the girl into a chair and someone with a pocket knife cut her hair all around to expose her scalp. I saw it was very red and swollen. Someone came up with the idea of rubbing spirit onto the spot. It seemed to add to her pain. How the girl screamed! I got her to swallow some brandy. When the shock of it wore off a little we carried her up. She fell asleep on the bed. There she is now, quiet and perhaps better. You’re not to go up, though. Let her be. And that’s been my painful duty to tell you, mister Balaam.”
I make no comment. Beor was found the next day in a side alley off the market. His head was crushed in. I needed the strength of an ox to remember and put this all down.