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Surviving the Flood
By Stephen Minot
The Permanent PressCopyright © 1981 Stephen Minot
All rights reserved.
SWEEPING THE DECKS
Already there are many who find our voyage hard to believe. Not surprising. We ourselves had little faith during the building. Imagine the sense of absurdity, laying down a keel as long as a temple out there in the dusty fields. Miles from the sea. Picture what it was like for a boy my age, eager to make friends, just beginning to notice the musk of girls, yet set to cutting planks all day in the heat of the sun, enduring the taunts of classmates.
I'd been uneasy from the start. I remember feeling a certain tension in the air the day our father announced that we would not work on the new temple with everyone else; no, we would work on a great wooden barge. The whole family. This during a drought, mind you, vineyards shriveling, the land turning to powder. I could tell then that we were in for some dark days.
Even my older brothers had their doubts as we got well into it. There was the night Shem and Japheth decided that the old man had lost possession of his mind, decided to finish walling up the sides of that crazy barge, roof it over, and then lock him in it, let him rave from there. Cage him like some wild leopard. Toss meat in through the upper port. Protect the village; save the family name. We didn't have the nerve, of course; but just discussing it was dizzying. It was the kind of night a younger brother thinks he has come of age, has broken through into the stuff of adulthood. Not that I had. One never breaks through entirely, never leaves behind all trace of innocence. Even now, in my 900th year, I am still losing my virginity, grain by grain.
It got no easier when I was set to gathering the beasts and the birds and the rodents and all the rest, me and a gang of locals who helped for pay and for laughs. I'd had no proper training for it. Try putting camels, asses, wild dogs, geese, imported leopards, mice, pigs, serpents, vultures, desert weasels, and slugs in adjoining pens on the outskirts of town and figure out how to feed them, how to keep them from kicking out, gnawing out, climbing out, leaping out, flying out, slithering out, burrowing out; and then guarding against the town jokesters, wit brimming with wine, trying to loosen the cage doors, terrorizing the village with wild creatures—even at the time it was hard to believe.
For me though, the real start, the turning point, was later. It was when I had to sweep down the decks. I was the youngest son, not yet married despite what you may have read. I hadn't seen much of life. True, I'd been callused by the building and learned a thing or two about animal husbandry, but I had a long way to go before understanding the complexities of adulthood. That sweeping and scrubbing turned out to be a beginning for me—and for this account as well.
But first, an introduction. I am Ham, youngest brother of Shem and Japheth, youngest son of Noah—all dead now, each in his own way. Ham I am, youngest grandson of Lamech, youngest great-grandson of Methuselah. Youngest in my 900th year.
I swore I would never write my memoirs. I am no scholar. I rely on my reflective nature and an old man's memory. I have no causes to defend. I leave those to my sons and grandsons, those leaders of men, founders of cities and fortunes, shapers of history. Me, I have tended my vineyards in rocky lands and have kept to myself. Even now, returned of necessity to the city, cared for by descendants, I am concerned only with the events. Simply a witness. Yes, I was there, I lived through it; but the whole flood affair is far behind us, an old and fading crisis drifting back into history along with its veterans, subject to doubt already and all the tired jokes of sceptics.
We were a year in the building, a dry time beyond memory. We used to dream of cooling rain. But it wasn't much better when the weather finally did turn. A few days of novelty, and then we came to detest that steady drizzle. Two months of it, slogging about in the wet, caught between relief and fear every time the sun broke through, imagining what it would be like if the skies cleared again for good, leaving our edifice as a world-renowned joke, our father forced to sell tickets to pay off the workers, conduct tours, wear a silly hat.
No, not until at last the waters rose in the streets, not until townspeople, our neighbors and friends, began piling possessions and their aging relatives on the roofs did we begin to breathe easy.
A terrible sight, of course—the water, dark and putrid, running through the town, chickens, lambs, and dogs swirling toward death. Alarming. But exhilarating. With that same swift current we felt respect for our father come flooding back.
You should have seen him that day—seized with a drunken energy without so much as a drop of wine, made young and lusty again for all his 600 years. We doing the brute work, of course, escorting the last of the beasts from the pens to the barge, trying to avoid the sullen stares of the villagers, violence poised in that dank and humid air; and all the while he was urging us on.
He was standing by the ramp, water swirling around the hem of his robe, hair and beard saturated, grinning and snorting like some great goat in rut. Shem led a donkey by and the old man's hand went thwap! on its rump. Japheth tugged at two baulking camels. Thwap! One beast kicked and the other nearly slid from the ramp. Our father whooped with glee.
And then proud Athaliah, Shem's wife, carrying a cage of finches, head high as if she were going to temple. Thwap! A puff of spray and a hand print on her rump. Down went the cage, a yelp from her. But he hardly noticed. He kicked at the roebucks, hollered at the fallow deer, pummeled the chamois, starting a stampede up the ramp, animals pounding the planks, squealing, defecating in panic, dividing left and right around Athaliah there on all fours, crouched over her up-turned cage of hysterical birds, her rear heavenward.
His attention swung to workmen struggling with a crate of snakes. She dragged herself up from the slimy planking and gestured toward his back, her palm out and five fingers spread, the obscene curse reserved for the crudest of men. Oh, I could see then it was going to be a lively cruise.
Luckily, our father missed the insolence. He saw nothing save his own success that day. There was no questioning that.
Those two months of drizzle were better for the townspeople than for us. For them it was a welcome relief to the drought, a confirmation of their decision to build a new temple; it was life as usual. No sign of danger. Lord did I tire of "Well, the fields need it," and "Wet enough for you?" No more of those now. It was a true deluge now. A true disaster. What a relief!
Whether it would ever be deep enough to float that great barge, I didn't know. It seemed doubtful to me. But not to the old man, our father. No, he knew it would float, knew the town would die. And nothing could have pleased him more. For a prophet of doom, only doom will suffice.
Perhaps the scoffers had goaded him more than we had realized. It had seemed for months that not a joke, not a taunt, not even the rebuff of the priests could reach his heart. Like the time when the Temple Elders barred him from the Sabbath Service, pointing to our great wooden edifice, suggesting that he had made that his temple. Not a word from our father. He merely turned, crossed the town square to our barge, climbed the ladders to the upper deck, and bellowed his prayers from there, his voice drifting across the town, a crosscurrent to the priest's own chanting. They didn't try that again.
And then the time the young wastrels lured him early one hot morning under the great cyprus which gives—gave—shade to our village square. They'd told him some story about having captured for him a wart hog and a mountain cat. A gesture of confidence, they said. But instead of live animals, they'd rigged an ox-hide in the limbs of that great tree and filled it, bucket by bucket, with urine gathered over the course of weeks at our tavern. As soon as he stepped within range, down came the deluge, stinking and slimy, and the crowd screaming "Flood! Flood! Save us!" Then rolling in the dust, howling like gibbons in laughter.
Not a word of rage from our father—he who could curse the whole family for the length of a meal when an ant fell in his wine. No, not a word—though I expected at any moment to see arms, legs, and head fly in all directions from the pressure. But no, hold it in he did. And when the laughter died he said with deep solemnity, "Thank you, neighbors; you have given me the best portion of yourselves."
But now the rains were his, not theirs. The joke was his. Fair enough. No doubt it confirmed his sense of divine justice. In any case, his joy was unmistakable once the heavens made it clear that they meant business. Made it clear to him, that is. There was no question in his mind as soon as the waters had become knee-deep.
I, cursed by doubt from childhood, carried the last two boxes on, shaking my head, seeing that great barge not as a boat which would actually rise but more as a kind of fortress which would, at best, protect us against the rising waters from below, shelter us from the rage of heavens above. Oh, we'd seen floods from time to time; but never one deep enough to float a wooden palace.
I had the yoke across my back—the device with which we had carried buckets of pitch, two by two, for months. This time my cargo was two crates: on my right, a flock of spiders and on my left, a gaggle of filthy green slugs. Ungrateful and purposeless creations, both. One could only imagine that the Great Yahweh had been practicing his creative talents, a rank beginner, turning out error after error before working toward his more meaningful creatures. And here I was, weighed down with two crates to house these errors—them and their food. Preserving them for what? To torment man for the rest of time? But tote I did, never really believing that the waters would rise beyond a height of one cubit at the most, doing my job as I had been ordered to, acting like some common servant as I, the youngest despite what some reports say, always had.
And could our father read thoughts? He cursed me as I plodded up the slippery gangplank, urging me on, chastising me for being late, for almost forgetting the two boxes, for almost leaving slugs and spiders to the rising waters. And was he cursing me also for my doubts?
"Run," he was saying. "Like the winds, boy. Quickly."
Quick, I thought, to save slugs and spiders?
A noise behind me—muffled in the rain, yet distinct—made me turn. Men and women stood there, dark waters up to their knees, some coughing, a child crying. They were speechless until I turned, but my motion, my hesitation sprung their minds, released them.
"And us?" one of them shouted.
"What right have you?"
"We, your brothers."
First one by one, like drops, then a clutter of shouts, a deluge of protest. Arms raised. Fists clenched.
Me, standing there at the doorway, soaking wet, chilled, weighed down by my responsibility to slugs and spiders. What was I to say to questions like that? Somehow these issues had never been raised in our Sabbath classes.
Behind me, a great hand on my shoulder. "In or out?" my father roared in my ear. Not one for subtlety, he repeated himself, "In or out?"
I thought for a moment he was giving me a true choice, a moment of ethical awareness. Then I felt a tug—inward. I fell back, into the Ark and heard my brother shout, "Up the plank." In the confusion, I took this as an obscene oath—as he was wont to offer. But no, it was the gangplank he meant. Just as the crowd surged forward the winches whined, the chains ran taut, and the great walkway rose, groaning, spilling water and neighbors to left and right.
"Perfect," our father bellowed as the gangplank thundered into place, forming the door, wedged shut with cross planks and looking now like a continuation of the wall. "Look, look!" he commanded, peering up and down the crack, searching for a chink of light. Shem came down from the winch loft and slapped the door as if testing its strength, aping his father. "Workmanship. A perfect fit. Perfect!" He had to shout over what I first thought was rain beating against the outside hull but then realized was hands—hundreds of them.
The place smelled, of course. Little did we know what real stench could be like, but even then the wet fur, the unclean pens, the dung everywhere hit us hard. We fled up to the Main Deck, the one with the promenade, as if expecting the warm wash of sunlight.
Zillah, our father's mother, was there at the door with the rest of the family. She was shaking her head and muttering. I'd heard that she was once a beauty, the younger and more vivid of our late grandfather's two wives. She was known for her willfulness and her inclination to converse with spirits. Widowed now and bent with age, forced to lean on a staff like some ancient prophet, she had gone a bit strange—heard voices, saw fragments of past and future.
"It's a dark day," she said, her voice deep and throaty.
"Dark?" my father roared. "Dark, did you say? What do you expect with all this rain?"
"A dark day for you, I mean." She leaned on her staff and stared intently at her son. In such moments you could see the beauty she once was, see the past behind the ravages of the present. "They'll come back to you—all those faces out there. They'll come back to stay with you."
"Plenty of room." She tapped her forehead. "Here."
"I'll not clutter my head the way you clutter yours, Mother."
"It'll all be there. The people. The town. Your old vineyards. Even their new temple."
We all shuddered. For over a year we had been careful not to mention the new temple. The very word set him off like an old war horse in need of exercise.
"Temple! Temple did you say? That pile of dung-bricks? Do you think that's what He wants? Do you?"
He seized his mother by the arm just as he had seized me. He was forever grabbing, clutching, grasping, shaking his listeners. Words were never enough. Finger to the chest, hand to the shoulder, a fist full of garment—the man argued the way lesser men rape.
Cries of protest. Even brother Shem put out his hand to restrain his father. He was brushed off like a cur. "Come. Look," our father said, dragging his mother out into the rain, that lean old crane of a woman slipping on the wet deck. "See that pile of brick and clay?"
Zillah nodded. What else could a captive do? We all looked. When our father said Look, you looked. You couldn't not look. And indeed, the waters were swirling in through the windows and out through the hole which was once the door. The altar must have been covered. Soon the clay would dissolve, the tile roof would collapse. For over a year they had been hard at it, starting when we had, way back before rains. It was the drought that had us worried then. The priests thought they could end it with a new temple and for a while it seemed as if they had the answer. Their faith was never higher than when those drizzly months began. But the wet never stopped. Now all their labors and their faith were sliding away into the waters, about to be lost even to history. It's a slippery business, guessing divine pleasure.
"Turning to slime. To slime," he roared. "While we are lifted. Raised up. Who has answered the Holy Word? Who?" She must have been off on one of her reveries for she did not answer. "Who?" our father kept bellowing, "Who?"
"For God's-sake, you," I said.
"Right. Right!" So relieved was he to hear the answer to his question that he did not catch my profanity. On any other occasion it would have cost me a clout across the mouth.
My Uncle Tubal shouldered his way through the throng at the door and confronted his only brother in a way no one else could. He was a blacksmith and ironmonger, a man not gifted with subtleties, but strong on certain homey values.
"What's this, dragging Mother out here in the rain? Killing her too? It's not enough drowning the town, you have to kill your mother as well?"
He grabbed Zillah by the other arm and tried to wrench her from our father's grasp. She swung first one way and then the other like an old birch in a gale. I was sure she would snap.
Excerpted from Surviving the Flood by Stephen Minot. Copyright © 1981 Stephen Minot. Excerpted by permission of The Permanent Press.
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