House with a difference

 The body cart had jerked away over the baked clods, and we looked on as the workers pounded the site level with their spades. The palace had sent a prince to represent it. In thrall at a notable’s violent death he blew his lips and stamped muck off his kidskin boots and flicked specks off the lapel of a spotless tunic. After the interment we three stood about on a morning dark with lowering clouds. I had lent Zadoc my father’s old army cloak and his black beaver cap, and he bobbed intermittently over the grave like drops of tar. The prince, with a rough face from a youthful case of acne, collected the royal ensign used to drape the body carts conveying heroes to their rest, doffed his cap at the grave and to us then sauntered off to his pony grazing on one of the old graves reclaimed by tumbleweeds and briars.

“Well – Beor’s gone to his hate,” Zadoc said grimly to me.

“He had the grace to exit quickly,” I said. It would not leave me, my outrage and humiliation when I learnt how my father paid the price he deserved. I hurled a metaphorical brick at Zadoc for the way he maintained a neutral deportment, neither of sympathy nor of satisfaction. “Beor’s carcass should’ve been left in the street for the rats and dogs.”

“Correctly, your father deserved no burial rites. You have a right to hate him.”

“Sir, he lived as he died.”

My one support in the world bent his head. “The end was ugly.”

“He took my money. My father spent what I earned before I saw it. He drank and engaged in a sick profanity. That little prostitute paid the price.”

Zadoc flicked with his boot at a lump of dug earth. I did not bother to ask why he held back, why he refused to condemn his partner in my punishment. I knew it was for my sake.

“An angry spirit has gone out of the world. Son, don’t let your heart rejoice – it’ll warp the powers you learnt from cruelty. Beor got what he deserved. Leave it there – feeling good at a death isn’t the way.”

“I don’t feel good, I feel free. I never hated my father – mostly he scared me. When I was too young to know I admired him. When Beor returned from wars I believed he had fought in them. I compared him to legendary Abraham – a fearless trailblazer who fought and won against all odds. Call me naïve, I was playing with toy armies at that age. When I grew up I understood that my father hero went to war for money. No, he didn’t – he saw no combat. He got paid for giving advice! Mostly his payment was in kind: he got a share of the loot. I doubt Beor went near enough to a battle to run away from it.”

Prior to Beor’s final disgrace, Zadoc, who would not hurt a fly, had tried to bend my spirit away from physical conflict. “No one in your family engaged in combat,” he would remind me. Old Lot, great grandfather Besuel and grandfather Laban – none went to war. This is how they fought – from up here.” I can see him tapping the cliff face that was his forehead. I dig back in the debris of my youth for the mentor’s words, and his face when he said them. “Balaam, your father once told me that his ancestors put together won’t amount to the powers of your mind.” Zadoc had cast a furtive look at the swollen lip and cut cheek I got from asking my dreaming father why I could not get circumcised. “It is hard being a father’s sacrifice to a god. But you think other sons don’t have fathers who treat them like half slaves, half scapegoats!” Zadoc’s scolding was as naked and ruthless as love. I heard myself saying, “Thanks, but I survived and he’s dead. What’s your lesson?”

“You already know that. You paid the price when I agreed with your father that you have a destiny. I didn’t know of a painless way for you to realize it.”

I was in the time of life when the later action of heredity begins, the blemishes of ancestors appear – a spot of vanity, or the lick of greed, or touch of cunning, making me prise flattery out of Zadoc. He took the bait and talked of my potential and Abraham the legend in one breath – feared, elevated, turning whatever he touched into gold. As we talked over the fast despatched remains of my daydreaming father I felt nostalgic knuckles kneed my collarbone. Zadoc told me the world was ready for new explanations and alternative realities. “To give Beor his due, it made him proud just to dream to me what you’d become.”

I clicked. “Proud!  I never saw it in him.”

“You didn’t have to. After his father’s humiliation by Jacob, Beor lived to see you rebuild the family reputation. He had a wistful hunger for glory, even if it had to be glory from sadistic acts.”

“A sadistic act killed him, sir. Anyhow, the glory he dreamed for me and the glory I want are far apart.”

“But a friend to me, Balaam. Rooted in himself. But a driven heart. Like your stepmother. You got it from them.”

Hard as Zadoc tried I saw my father as he had been in the final years – sullen, impotent, resentful, remote, cruel. In his pain Beor wanted to bite everyone near, even himself, like a dog in a trap. Meanwhile I took the lesson and made gold from it. My idea of glory set me on a road Beor would have despised because it was beyond his talents and powers. He was a man of strong impulses and perhaps faith, but he lacked clarity of vision – something I would prove I had, in abundance. Now I lost no time deploying it to advantage. Two moons after Beor was gathered to our people I was in the business of giving men a taste of paradise. The cruelty I had suffered for my father’s crude vision gave me the flight of fancy, the inspiration, to build a business that minted money.

Before my fifteenth birthday (I was a late developer when set beside the girls in our family, Rebecca and Rachel, who married and were doing God’s work shortly after they could walk) I had grasped that my father’s delight in driving the little prostitute mad with a scorpion was a surrogate for the sexual fulfillment denied him by the symptoms of his gonorrhea. Cruelty allowed Beor to escape his pain for a while. And this made me think. How was it different from worship? It would have horrified Abraham, Isaac and Jacob to think of holy devotion and whoring as two parts of one thing: escapism. Gods are worshiped to forget hardships, to make fraught lives bearable, and how is visiting prostitutes different? Devotion and copulation give release to the body and the spirit. For that matter, nearly all men worship or copulate in nearly every place nearly every day, and it is a funny thing, but they seldom like to do them at home. I think back to the fateful day I took my dear brother to worship Baal on Mt Peor. Had I not tackled and taken the life of that cruel herd boy, my brother would not have disported in the tent for group copulation. Then he would not have died from a lung infection. Then our father would not have dunked his sorrow in drink; and drink would not have led to his whoring, which led him to take revenge on the prostitute; which led to his murder. Did everything go back to my fault?

But you know the brothels? They are in every town and city today. I invented the business of quiet, orderly houses where men can pay to evacuate the sexual energy that makes a man, whether crook or paragon, jittery and do it discreetly, and keep his doings private and reputation intact. There are benefits for girls that choose to work in my houses. They are fed and clothed and taken care of until they are too old, when they are kicked out. There are rules and discipline. Everyone wins. At the end of the day there is money for the girls, a wage for the tough, fair madam I put in charge of each house and, at the end of the day, a percentage for me. Everyone served and satisfied.

The Israelites were. They flocked to the establishments I set up for them in the dessert. In forty years of wandering and sinning and punishing and repenting, fed by the manna and led by the Shechina or Cloud of Glory, the liberated people complained and hankered for the fleshpots back in Egypt. They had escaped from bondage. Who would not fall, in that bleak and boring dessert, for the allure of another escape? Clients were mainly the airev rav, the quick converts who had bunked out with the two million Israelites pouring through the gates of Egypt. Mainly but not all.  Not a few proper Israelites were tired of subduing niggardly individuality to the new commandments and traded the wrath of God for what the whorehouse offered. Pharaoh had broken their backs for two hundred years. Liberated they wanted their private space and license to go with it. Cometh the need, cometh the service – what could be more businesslike?

For now dream-explanation kept me busy. Living alone should have given me freedom to cut loose, but I was mesmerized by the transformations taking place in my life, and doing whatever I wanted seemed hard to do. I looked different and I thought differently. I denied that tears in my eyes were for the death of Akai’s pony Seth, the last living memory of my brother. No: curse that I said. Not for Akai. They were for his pony, mauled one night by a Caracal. I had a tender heart but looked rough. Light orange fuzz appeared on my chin which, like my broad face and beetling forehead, looked brutal. Protruding upper teeth made my lower lip almost disappear beneath the upper. My large, dark, spirited eyes simmered like the broth of my soul. With long arms and a stumpy figure I had a sense of absurdity, walking with mingled desperation and high style, covering the town in my swing as I called on clients who were tormented by dreams.

As a dream merchant I met more competition than I met as a whoremaster. Actually, I was the first and only operator of brothels in the east. On the other hand I was one of many seers using the bird method. By manipulating the forces of tum’a or ritual impurity, we make birds from a mix of metals to reveal secrets of the future. After interpreting the dream of the old soldier at the inn, through a prophetic state reached by meditation, I turned to the simpler art of bird-making. I got a smithy to fashion a bird’s head from gold, the beak from silver, the wings out of copper, and legs and feet of brass. The separate parts were quickly assembled. Each time you need the bird to speak you insert in its mouth the tongue of a real bird.

How it worked. Put the artificial bird on the sill of an open window, to face the sun by day and the moon by night. Wait seven days, and the tongue begins to make a tinkling sound. Then pierce the tongue through with a golden needle, and the bird begins to talk. It can be used to interpret a dream or divine what the future holds. Before putting my bird to use I pilot tested it on the dream of my first client, the demented army officer. Sure enough, .my bird came up with the interpretation I had given, word for word. I tell you no lie, a lot of satisfied clients spread the word about the validity of my interpretations which, by the way, did not come cheap.

As happened with Jacob’s favorite son imprisoned in Egypt, my powers eventually came to the attention of a King. And this was odd. Because Balak ben Tzippor (the name implies, “King Balak, who can divine the future by means of a magic bird”) was more expert than anyone at using bird magic. His bird revealed to him secrets no one else knew, among others, that he, a Midianite, would one day be crowned King of Moav. And it happened. Yet one day the king seer was stumped for meaning. While bowing to his creation and offering it incense, the metal bird spread its wings and flapped out the window. No bird had ever used its wings. As if this was not mad enough, Balak’s bird returned, not like Noah’s dove after forty days, but after three hours and a half. It flew back in ahead of a fiery flame and settled on the window sill. At the window the flame did an about turn and swept up to the sky. When the king touched the bird’s tail he burnt his fingers on the metal. What did it all mean!

As Pharaoh of Egypt had done when he had a troublesome dream, Balak summoned his wizards to the palace. Each gave a different interpretation of the miraculous event. Vexed,  the king asked around. A palace official knew another official whose future I had prophesized correctly using my bird. The king sent for me. I arrived with it under my arm, and had him repeat the behavior of his bird. “A week, Sire,” I said getting to my feet. “No later, Mr Balaam, I shall have your head if you are.”

I went home, selected a quail from the aviary, wrung its neck, removed the tongue, and inserted it in the beak of my metal bird. On the seventh day after the tinkling sound the oracle spoke. “The king’s bird,” it chirped in a lower key falsetto, “flew away and came back two hundred and ten minutes later with a burnt tail. So it will be in the days of King Balak. He will feel threatened, two hundred and ten days hence, by an army beyond his borders. Should he dispatch his army to do battle, he will not prevail and his army will flee back like his bird, damaged and disabled.”

By now, though behaving oddly, I felt confident, clairvoyant and cheerful. I had a mean old woman in to clean the house, to clean it to the bone. To let her get on with it, I moved into the tool shed and got the farm worker to fire up the old forge. I found that I could cook my boiled and fried meals quicker on the forge than I could on the kitchen stove. I did not have to wait for the coals to heat the stove. The bellows forced quick flaring heat from the coke. I wondered why I had not thought of it before. And I laid a bed of straw wide and long enough to sleep my Sheba and me. In the vacated house, the woman dug grease out of the stove that had cumulated since my brother died. She leached the walls of a brown shiny nastiness deposited by cooking fat and oil lamps. She pickled the floors with lye and soaked the blankets in soda, complaining the whole time to herself.

“Men – dirty animals. Pigs is clean compared. Rot in their own muck. Look at oven – lard from Methuselah.”  When finally she grumbled away from the shining house I stayed in the shed and lived in a kind of savage filth, taking satisfaction in allowing her work to turn back to dust and decay. What I had vaguely in mind was to offer the house to Zadoc for the winter. I mentally composed him a letter.

Dear sire, Of course you have to be loyal to me. I was your experiment. You and Beor said I was going to be great. I was tortured but also flattered by your heartfelt commitment. You gave me what I deserved. I am overcome with happy pride from my late ventures. It means my life as an abused boy did not ruin my talents or sympathies. Where does greatness come from? How do I get some? I long to give you what you and my father wanted. For your attentions to me I want to repay you with human sympathy and greatness.   

As it turned out, I wasn’t far from doing so. The commission is almost upon me and great things await.          

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