C L O U D S
But Noe found grace before the Lord.
Noe glances toward the heavens, something he does a lot these days. Scanning for clouds. None visible amid the stars, so he finishes urinating, shakes himself dry and makes his way back to the house. Inside, the wife pokes desultorily at a pot of stew hanging over a fire. It is late for supper: the others have eaten already and retired to the sleeping room. Noe squats against one of the rough limewashed walls and points at a terracotta bowl. He's roughly six hundred years old: words are unnecessary.
The stew is thick with lentils and goat. Noe slurps contentedly. A little salt would improve it, but salt is in short supply of late.
Noe finishes the stew, sets the bowl aside, clears his throat. The wife recognizes this as a signal of forthcoming speech and offers her attention. Noe says, I must build a boat.
--A boat, she says.
--A ship, more like. I'll need the boys to help, he adds as an afterthought.
The wife squats on the far side of the fire, paddle-like feet set wide apart, forearms poised on knees. She fiddles with the wooden ladle and says, You know nothing much of boats. Or ships either.
--I know what I need, he says.
--We're leagues from the sea, she says, or any river big enough to warrant a boat.
This conversation is making Noe impatient. --I've no need to explain myself to you.
She nods. The olive-oil lamp throws a soft yellow glow across them both. The wife is sturdily built, short and broad, and much younger than Noe: perhaps sixty. She was barely adolescent when wed to the old man, already white-bearded to his navel, with crow's-feet sunk into his temples like irrigation ditches. Still a vital old corker, though, and randy enough to rut her into three sons. Nowadays a stranger would have trouble guessing which of them was the senior.
--And when you're done, she says carefully, we'll be taking this ship to the sea somehow?
As usual, Noe's impatience fades quickly. --We'll not be going to the sea. The sea will be coming to us.
She's banked the fire and taken the pot off already, but stirs it now out of habit. Her fingers are long and tapering. --It's one of your visions?
--Yes, Noe says quietly.
There is a pause.
--So that's it then, she says.
The wife looks up with a sad smile. For a moment she appears thirteen again, fourteen, and Noe glimpses the oval-faced girl half-hidden behind her brothers, eyes down, brought out to the front yard for his approval before he took her away on his mule. Something stirs in him then, simple and tender, and briefly he is regretful for all the anxiety he knows she will face. But it can't be helped. He has been called. More than that: he has been chosen, and there is something he must do.
The wife says, I guess you'd better get started.
--I guess I'd better, Noe agrees. But there is a small sad glitter in his wife's eyes, and he looks away while he speaks.
This is what happened when Noe received the vision.
He was in the mustard field, yellow flowers in all directions so bright they seared his corneas. Zephyrs ruffled them like silks on a line, like the surface of a pond. Dazzled by the shimmer, Noe strode through the patch, walking staff clutched in his gnarled right hand. His mind was busy with thoughts of trade, of what he could get from Dinar the peddler in exchange for a few hundredweight of mustard greens, of olives from his grove, of goat's milk and hen's eggs and sheep's wool. Some wine, perhaps, to fend off the midwinter dankness; or a few bolts of eastern cloth; or some salt, yes, definitely some salt. Doubtless the wife would have suggestions too, a copper pot, a better loom. Always there was something. Thank Yahweh he had no daughters to marry off and no dowries to accumulate.
He heard the bleat of a lamb nearby. The sheep were supposed to be far to the east, on the hillsides with Japheth. Had one strayed?
The voice did not come from outside his head so much as inside. He staggered, but kept walking.
His hands were pressing against his forehead without his knowing it. --Who -- ?
--Noe. He felt a physical pressure behind his temples, a gentle swelling against the inside of his skull. Though disconcerting, it felt in no way alarming. --I am here.
--Yes Lord, he managed to stammer.
--Noe, you are a good man. There are few such.
Noe said nothing.
--I am pleased with you and your sons. There are many I am not pleased with. Do you understand what I am saying?
--Not exactly, my Lord.
--The unbelievers shall be destroyed.
Little more than a whisper: --Destroyed?
--They shall be drowned in a flood of righteousness and brought before Me for judgement.
Noe felt his bladder loosen, and hot urine streamed down his thigh. --As you wish, Lord. I pray that you will look with mercy upon my sons and myself, though we deserve it not.
--Fear not, Noe. I have plans for you.
Noe had long since stopped walking. Around him the hallucinatory vision of burning golden flowers filled his eyes with tears.
--You are going to build a boat, Noe. Not just any boat. Something enormous, hundreds of cubits, big enough for you and your family and their families. Do you understand?
--When it is complete, you will collect every animal you can account for, male and female, as many as possible. Put them on this boat, and provision it well, because you know not how long you will be afloat. There will be a deluge.
--I'll do as you instruct.
--When the rain stops, you and your families and the animals you save shall go forth and fill the land again. All else shall perish.
Noe nodded. It was either that or fall over. If he hadn't pissed himself already, he would do so now. --Lord, about this vessel.
--Make it big, advised Yahweh.
--A hundred cubits?
--Three hundred. Fifty wide, and thirty tall. With three decks, and tar inside and out, and a pair of doors set into the side tall enough for three men.
Despair chewed through him like a maggot. --My Lord, that is immense indeed. It will take time. And wood, he thought to himself, but didn't say aloud.
Not that it mattered. --Time I will give. And timber others will bring you, if you but have faith enough. And then Yahweh, the Lord God of Noe's ancestor Adam and Adam's son Seth, evaporated from Noe's mind.
No answer. Noe's thoughts alone were present in Noe's head. He blinked. Tears tracked down his face and dry urine tugged stickily among the hairs on his calf. The sun toiled down relentlessly, reflected back by a thousand thousand tiny mustard blossoms. In their midst stood a dirty gray-white smudge: one of Noe's lambs, far astray and bleating furiously.
Noe took this as a sign. He took many things as signs. He rushed the lamb, who stood riveted as if too startled to jump away. The old man scooped the animal and murmured, You're coming with me. You'll be the first.
--Baa, answered the lamb.
With purpose now, Noe made for the farm buildings, square whitewashed things like cubes of dirty chalk in the distance. His bony, bowed legs pumped vigorously, belying his great age. Noe knew that great age was not an obstacle to great deeds. Fatigue could be overcome; stiffness could be chased away. Forgetfulness could be managed or even turned to one's own advantage. Yahweh's words rattled in his ears as he hurried on.
If you but have faith enough.