Swallowed

Artwork by Enrique Quinteros

Artwork by Enrique Quinteros

by Alex Myers

Up on deck, it was a regular Tower of Babel. A dozen sailors plus the cabin boy, cursing and praying, everyone in his own wretched language, everyone to his own wretched God. I’d been below in the ship’s dark belly, calmly pounding my head against a beam. But then, the captain had come, footsteps clunk clunk on the ladder, and shouted, “You! Up above for lots.”

I don’t know how he saw me in that nightfall gloom, but next I knew he’d got the back of my tunic and dragged me towards the ladder. In the light by the hatch, he saw my face and lost his grip.

“Ish-tar.  What happened to your head?” he asked.

Gesturing vaguely to the side of the ship, I said, “I hit it.  Several times.”

He dragged me up into the howl of voices and storm. “Now why would you do a thing like that?”

Given his tight grip, I didn’t bother to explain that I was knocking my head in hopes of driving out the damned Voice that kept at me, day after day. All it said was:

Go to Nineveh.

The captain hauled me into the midst of all the jabbering and wailing. I saw one fellow with his teraphim in hand, another kissing an amulet. The storm swirled, pitching the boat down, until the sea licked over the rail. A beat of thunder shook the deck beneath me. The wind screamed past. At least it’d blown the Voice out of my head.

“Lots! By my uncle’s beard. Take them,” the captain screamed, waving a fist of straws.  Hands grabbed for them. I plucked one out and examined it. The captain’s fist was empty. His uncle is probably clean-shaven.

“Mighty Ishtar,” he prayed, eyes closed, the rain streaming down his upturned face. “Tell us which one brought on your wrath.”

He lifted his hands over his head, saying, “Show by the lots how to settle the storm.”

His hands fell heavily to his sides. I gave him credit for theatrics.

“Lots out,” he said. A dozen grubby hands, plus the cabin boy’s, plus mine, held out bits of straw.  The captain seized my wrist. “Yours. I ought to’ve known.”

The others drew away, as if proximity might curse them. The captain got me by the tunic again, even though it wasn’t like I could run anywhere.

“Who let this man on?” he called, the wind rushing through his words, pushing the tail of his beard against my neck.

A sailor stepped forward and the captain yelled, “You – Meral? What’d he pay you?”

The sailor held out the silver nose ring I’d offered for passage from Joppa to Tarshish.

“Give it to me,” the captain screamed, and he took it with the hand that wasn’t holding me. Faster than Cain on Abel, he tucked the silver in his sleeve, swapping it for a button or something, and then he was at the rail, flinging the worthless substitute over the side and into the raging water. “For the forgiveness of Meral, who let this woebegone stranger on board?

The captain yanked tight on my tunic. “Now, Meral. His feet!”

Next I knew, I was hoisted up over the churning sea.

“Nothing personal,” the captain said.  And then he pitched me over.

*

I knew I hadn’t been a good person, but I didn’t deserve this – didn’t deserve the demon’s voice goading me, didn’t deserve to die in a tempest-tossed sea. The wind shrieked around me and the ship bobbed away like sparrow’s corpse in a cistern. And then, it came again, screaming over the storm:

Go To Nineveh.

And me in the ocean, with nothing to bang my head against.

Go to Nineveh.  Go to Nineveh.

“How do you expect me to get to Nineveh?” I cried. “I’ll just swim there, shall I?” I flailed my arms to demonstrate my aquatic incompetence. “Might take a while. Just be patient.”

*

I felt it before I saw it: a humming, the ocean vibrating unpleasantly against my skin. I started to swim in earnest before remembering that I hadn’t been pretending: I really couldn’t swim.  So I began to drown in earnest.  “So much for Nineveh,” I gasped.  “I really meant to go.  Just got on the wrong ship.  I hear the city’s lovely this time of year.”

The humming grew more intense, and a dark hulk emerged from the tangle of storm waves: a leviathan, lashing its tail, propelling itself towards me, its jaws gaping, a hollow hole that swallowed me.

*

Flushed down the throat, I clung to something that floated and kicked, keeping myself away from the nether end. I could tell the front from the back: the former was marked by occasional splotches of light, and the latter, by the sickening squelches that issued from it.

Now and then, the belly let loose its own juices, gurgles that smelled vomitous. One excrescence splashed down near me, and I could feel it burn, like lye, against my legs. I couldn’t stay down here. Frantic, I flung myself towards the taut walls of the belly, reached up and felt around for any sort of hold. At last, I found a bit of texture, like a tremendous wart. I pulled myself up on it and flopped there, exhausted.

I woke to darkness. But that didn’t mean anything. It wasn’t like the sun’s would rise in a fish’s belly. That’s when it dawned on me. There was no Voice in my head.  No constant call to – No. I wasn’t even going to think about it. For the last week, that Voice had been badgering me, relentlessly, the same command, over and over again. There in the fish belly, I listened as closely as I could. Nothing. Yet, I hadn’t gone deaf. (Believe me, I’d considered that as a solution when I’d first heard the Voice; I’d been busy shoving straws down my ears when my mother found me: “Oy.  Go play with the other boys.”) I could hear not just the slosh and gurgle of the stomach’s inexorable tide, but also a deeper sound, like someone knocking on a massive door.  Hollow and resounding. Beseeching. Maybe the Voice couldn’t reach me here. Maybe I’d escaped whatever demon had taken up residence in my mind.

I shivered and hugged my knees. Why had the Voice descended upon me? After my mother had prevented me from puncturing my eardrums, I had tried the following: dunking my head in water, yelling to drown it out, filling my ears with mud, beating my head with my fists, and probably worse, though my memory becomes fuzzy at that point. What I do recall is this: when I was revived from the self-induced lapse of consciousness, the Voice droned on. In the blinks of thought I could manage, I tried to recall others who’d been possessed by demons: the fits, the rants. How the village always cast them away, setting the dogs on them after having beaten them bloody. I didn’t need to wait for that, so I’d fled. The Voice followed right along.

Apart from the demon-possessed, the only other types who heard voices were prophets. But surely, surely, the voice of God wouldn’t be so unpleasant and relentless as the Voice that had hounded me for days. Surely God would speak in tones dripping with honey. Or at least God would announce himself.

For instance, you have Moses. Burning Bush. Easy commands (take off your shoes; pick up that staff). Direct identification (I am the God of Abraham and Isaac, etc., etc.). Or Samuel: the kid gets three chances and all he has to say is, “Here I am.”

If I wasn’t crazy. If I wasn’t beset with a demon. Then the Voice could be God. But, if it is God, then why had I been locked up in this belly? Maybe I needed this darkness to think, to recognize. To repent. And nothing says repentance like a prayer.

“Lord God, our king and father. No place on earth is beyond your reach, not even the belly of this fish. For you who created the world can surely reach down into the dark bowels that keep me from the light of your presence and pluck me forth. Deliver me, Lord, that when I reach dry land, I might hear your voice.”

A modest request and a promise of nothing. For the record, hearing does not mean obeying.

Then I waited. The fish’s ribs creaked. Its heart thumped on. Maybe, outside, it was night. Maybe, out there on the ocean, a boat with a wicked captain was stalking this fish now, wanting to lance it, winch it aboard, and sell its meat to the army of Babylon. And when he caught it, he’d cut it open and find me inside, and I’d be the miracle of the sea, carried to Nineveh in a golden chair. Maybe I was growing delirious.

I was certainly growing cold. I stood on the shelf and jumped up and down, trying to get my blood flowing. I sang a little song my mother had taught me, about Noah and the Ark and how the animals went aboard. But, I’d barely reached the second verse when the stomach waters began roiling and pitching. In an instant, the belly walls gave a mighty heave, puckering up around me, wrenching me loose and sending me up on a gout of water.

The stomach spewed me out in a rush of partially digested crabs and squids, shrimps fighting valiantly for their lives, leggy seaweed and foggy, gooey, whaley liquid. My flesh burned, scorched by the stomach’s fluids, scratched by the intestinal debris, and raked by the salt of the sea. I passed once more through the mouth and was bombarded by blessed daylight.

“Thank God,” I gurgled, splashing my way to the surface.

The sea lay calm for once, no waves crashing over my head.  And there – not a mirage, please don’t be a mirage – the gleaming shore. Too bad, I still couldn’t swim.

“I can’t swim,” I said, meekly, to God, sputtering salty water as I spoke. Then, when I realized the excitement was over, I grew tired, so tired, and sank.

*

I washed up somehow and stretched flat in the sand. Dry land. Salvation. Already, I could imagine running home, how relieved my mother would be, how she’d cook me lamb with raisins to celebrate my return, how I’d tell them the story of my time in the whale’s belly, or maybe not, they might think me insane.

Go to Nineveh.

I’d almost forgotten.

Go to Nineveh.

The sand’s soft.  The sun’s warm. I’m awfully tired.  I think I’ll just stay here for some time.

Go to Nineveh.

Could I have just a little bit of sleep?

Go to Nineveh.

I lay there, blinking, tilting my head to scan the horizon nervously. Based on previous experience, I expected a scouring wind to blow away my soft sand, dark clouds to obscure the sun, snow to fall, and a pair of vultures to peck at my feet until I moved. But nothing. I rolled over in the sand, pulled a strand of fishy slime from my leg, and watched the mild waves trot up the shore.

Go to Nineveh.

I’d been saved from a storm by being swallowed by a fish. I’d been vomited back up on dry land when I prayed to God.

Go to Nineveh.

And the voice of God was speaking to me. To me. God. To me.

Go to Nineveh.

That last one was loud.

“Okay,” I said, aware that I was, ostensibly, talking to no one. “If I go to Nineveh…what’s in it for me? And you are God, right?”

Go to Nineveh.

I pushed myself up, first to my knees, then standing, and took a few steps. The warm sand dragged against my feet. For a moment, I reeled, light-headed, dazzled by the sun and weak from lack of food. Then I got an idea.

“But maybe the Good Lord will provide, eh?” I said.

Go to Nineveh.

“Fine! Look, I’m going. Okay?” I said. I took another slogging step. I’d reached the edge of the sand, where grass-strewn dunes undulated towards a cluster of shacks. God. In my head. Not a demon.  A direct divine line. To me.

I accosted an old codger mending nets in the shade of an overturned boat. “Pardon.  Which road goes to Nineveh?” His eyes widened. I tried to imagine how I appeared: racks of seaweed still coiled about my limbs, fish-belly slime draped here and there, my hair hung with scales, not to mention a general malodor that grew more pronounced the longer I stood in the sun. I started walking, drying quickly in the blazing sun. The Lord is my shepherd and all that.

*

The track ran away from the village, with here and there a date palm curling up at the margin.

“May I point out,” I said, raising an admonitory finger as I walked, “that I never doubted Your existence.  I just didn’t recognize your voice.  Can I ask one thing? Why me?”

Just go to Nineveh.

A donkey cart passed me, the driver making the ward sign to protect himself from the evil eye as he drove by. Hey buddy, I wanted to call after him, I’m the one God’s talking to.

But maybe that’s something you keep to yourself.

Up ahead stood a few yellowy buildings, their brick formed from the local clay so that they appeared to have sprouted directly from the soil. In the shade of a wall, two men sat sipping at straws stuck in an amphora. Beer. Saliva gushed into my mouth just watching them. I stepped towards them. One inch off the road and the voice started up again.

Go to Nineveh.  Go to Nineveh.

 “I will, I will,” I muttered through clenched teeth and stepped closer to the beer-drinking men. “How far,” I asked, dimly aware that I was yelling, so I could hear myself over the Voice, “to Nineveh?”

The men bolted, one making a hasty ward sign as he backed away from the amphora, the other jabbering in a language I didn’t recognize, as he clutched an amulet that hung around his neck.

“Hey,” I called after them, “mind if I have some beer?” But they were long gone.

Go to…

I grabbed the amphora and stepped back on the road. Ah. Silence. Sucking at the straw, I continued on.

*

The evening heat and the beer conspired to make me woozy. “I think,” I slurred to no one, though I sensed that the Voice, though quiet, was still there, “those guys were scared of me.”

For some reason, this had started to bother me.  Sure, it was partly the itching.  And the smell. That must be it. The smell.

“Any chance of a bath?” I asked the sky.

A hasty scurrying of clouds and a drenching rain soon descended. The rain pelted until I could barely see, so it was a miracle that I kept myself from falling headfirst into the muddy torrent that had washed out the road. I stared down at the sandy-colored water with a sigh: my bath. In the end, I exchanged seaweed and fish scales for mud and gravel. I needed to work on my praying skills.

Dusk turned to darkness; I paused by a shrub to let the last of the beer run out of me, willing God to start up his old burning bush routine (more for the heat than anything), but no luck, so I wandered off the road to find the softest patch of desert to sleep on.

go to nineveh

Did the Voice sound tired?

“Nineveh tomorrow,” I replied.  Stretching out on the pebble-strewn ground, I tried to muster a feeling of properly prophetic gratitude. But I was cold.  And a rock was digging into my back. And the beer had left my stomach sour. “Any chance of a meal?”

go to sleep

“Oh, so now sleep is fine? I’m walking all day, trying to get to stupid Nineveh and you, the creator of the entire world, can’t cough up an evening meal?”

Overhead, the rush of wings and, low against the starry sky, a gray owl swooped towards me.  I gave a yelp of surprise (owls being an omen of illness). The feathery beast let its mouthful drop into my lap. A slightly eviscerated mouse. Delicious. Glad I asked for a nibble.

*

Unrefreshed by such a repast, not to mention a night spent al fresco, I decided the next morning that I needed some answers. The road was empty, so I bantered aloud as I walked.

“All right, God. I’m doing your bidding. No questions there. I had my moments of disbelief, but I’m certainly on track now. And, given that we’re partners here, I just want to know: why do you need me at all? Don’t you have angels to do your bidding?”

Nothing.

There were many questions that had always bothered me. Why let humans have free will if they’re going to be such pains? Why keep giving us second chances if all we do is mess up?  What use was God’s  imminent presence if that didn’t make us good people?  If I had the power to create and destroy, I’d be squashing people left and right.

I paused to pull a rock from my sandal. “Okay, how about a more relevant question: Why Nineveh? And what am I going to do there?”

Go to Nineveh and proclaim what I tell you.

 “That’s it? A proclamation? You couldn’t find someone who lived there, eh?”

Sometimes only a stranger will be listened to.

All I knew about strangers was that they were usually regarded as suspicious and were also easier to do away with. I trudged up a hill and, reaching the crest, the walls of Nineveh loomed ahead, shimmering in the midday heat. Two gates were visible in the wall, and the guard towers of another one hovered in the far distance. Even from here, I couldn’t see the entire span of the city.

Walk the length and breadth of this city and tell…

“About how long will that take?” I said. I knew I was being rude, but by this point I was annoyed.

It is a walk of three days.  Tell them that the Lord is displeased…

“You know, it’s a tremendous relief to hear you say that.  I was pretty sure you were the Lord, but some confirmation is nice.”

Displeased with their wicked ways and that within forty days their city will be destroyed.

“Great. They’re going to really happy to hear that. They’ll stone me. Never be a prophet, my mother used to tell me.”

She’d actually said no such thing, but I could imagine that would’ve been her advice. “Any other details about the destruction?” I asked. “Are we talking fire? Army? Mudslide?

Flood?  Oh, wait, that one’s off the table.”

Nothing.

“And forty days… you want to tighten that up? Because if it’s going to be some really good destruction – like Sodom and Gomorrah good – I’d like to watch. But forty days is a long time for me to sit around. I bet my mother is really missing me.”

She’s not.  Go into the city.  Walk its length and breadth and proclaim that the Lord…

I clasped my hands to my ears. He’d really cranked the volume on that one. “That the Lord is displeased, will destroy, forty days, be less wicked. Got it.”

*

I straggled down the road to the gate where guards stopped each traveler to inspect the contents of carts, bags, and persons.

“Whaddya have?” One of them accosted me, pushing me brusquely in the chest.

“Nothing,” I said.

“Money?” he asked.

“Nothing,” I said.

“We don’t need any more beggars in Nineveh,” he said.

“I’m not a beggar. I’m, uh, an ascetic. I live on air and what the Good Lord provides,” I said, giving a (hopefully) ingratiating smile. “May the Lord be gracious and bless you.”

He waved me off with a sneer. Sucker, I thought. Forty days and you’re toast.

*

I had suspected it before, but by walking down Nineveh’s broad boulevards, in the shadows of its temples, I confirmed that my village is a tiny dung heap. I gaped in awe. How do you build a tower that high? How many years does it take to construct such a temple? And then I remembered: this whole place was doomed.

And I – Jonah son of Amittai, from a dust-strewn nothing village – was the instigator (in some way) of Nineveh’s downfall. Enough gaping. Enough awe. I didn’t need the Voice to prompt me; I’d yell it of my own accord.

“Oh you wicked, scabby people.  You malingering sinful oafs.  You who have scorned the Lord and gone out fornicating in your lusty bestial ways, who have…”

Proclaim to them that in forty days their city will be destroyed.

But I had just gotten going.  “You idolatrous whelps, who make your sisters whores, the Lord, the God of Israel is going to pull down every wall!”

I noticed that my harangue had drawn a crowd.  A few looked queasily amused, most looked offended, and a few – luckily lurking in the back – looked hostile. One of these men began to shove towards me, saying, “I’ll show you who’ll be pulled down…”

I ducked, squirmed, and slipped through the crowd. Nineveh’s alleys zig-zagged me to safety, and I leaned against a winged lion to catch my breath. Maybe the Voice had a point.  Keep it simple. So, I sauntered off down the wide avenue.

“Forty days and Nineveh will be destroyed,” I said, a little less emphatically. Some stared. “That’s right. Forty days. No more city.”

Tell them to repent.

A nice touch, I had to say.  Get them to weep and wail a bit and then smoosh them anyhow. “Repent from your sinful ways.  Nineveh will be destroyed in forty days.”

*

Footsore and hungry, by sunset I was looking for some place to sleep. I’d proclaimed in the bazaar and been paid with rotten produce hurled directly at my person (or maybe that was God’s way of providing sustenance). I’d proclaimed mid-way up a ziggurat’s steps, only to have a priest shout down curses on my head. I’d also prayed for the Earth to swallow the priest then and there, but nothing happened.  For the record, I still think that would have been a dramatic warning.

In fact, the Voice had been quiet for most of the evening.  And the longer it remained silent, the more questions I had. For instance: Why answer some prayers but not others? Why bother to warn the Ninevites of destruction? What exactly was the pay-scale of an average prophet?

Packs of stray dogs roamed the night streets. “Forty days, fellows,” I told them. But they attended more closely to the debris on the margins of the alley. Would even dogs be destroyed?

Yes.

“See! Now you answer.  Why dogs?  What have they done wrong?”

No reply. And you wonder why people lose faith.

In the end, I slept curled up in the stairwell of a watchtower, where I dreamed of that fish – my fish – except this time, I sat astride its massive back, sword in hand, and together we plied the waves, scooping up the wayward and the woebegone. I dreamed of Nineveh’s tangled streets and a voice echoing through them – forty, forty, forty, it called – and I couldn’t tell if the voice was my own.

The toe of a soldier’s sandal woke me, and I huddled into myself, stabbed by a moment of disorientation. Where was?… what did I?… my body unfolded from sleep, my mind lagging after. “Do you have any bread?” I croaked.

“No begging.  That’ll get you a swift kick through the gates,” he said.

“Not begging,” I said hurriedly. “Just asking.”

I shuffled towards a well, drank my fill, and began the day’s sojourn.

“In thirty-nine days Nineveh will be destroyed,” I said.

Just say forty.

“But a day’s passed.  Shouldn’t I be accurate?”

I like forty.

I pushed through crowds, competing with the cries of vendors.

“Forty days and…”

“Hot biscuits!”

“The city of Ninev..”

“Ripe and Juicy!”

“Will be destroyed…”

“Cheap, cheap, cheap!”

No matter. No matter, even the bucket of night soil tossed out a window, splattering me. I felt buoyant amid the crowds. I, unlike them, would survive. I, unlike them, knew what the future held.

I grabbed a woman’s shoulder. “Forty days and you’ll be dead. Shriveled up. Ashes.”

Her eyes widened and she wrenched herself away.

“Repent repent repent repent repent.”

I found myself at the palace steps, where one guard stood, leaning wearily on his spear.  “Kind sir,” I asked, summoning every ounce of unctuousness I could, “where might a starving man find a bit of bread?”

He pushed himself upright, the better to look down at me. I cowered with what I hoped was appropriate subservience.

“Haven’t you heard?” his voice dripped disdain. “The king’s declared a fast. Ashes and sackcloth.”

“Why so, majestic sir?”

“He heard a voice. It came to him in a dream and said that in forty days the city would fall, unless we repented. So we’re repenting. Even you. I don’t want the whole of Nineveh brought down by one pissant beggar gnawing a loaf of bread.”

“What kind of voice?”

“What?”

“What kind of voice did the king hear?”

The guard gave me a fierce look. “A great voice that spoke to him from above.”

“Oh,” I said. “So not at all like my voice?”

“Not like you at all, beggar. Go find an ash-heap to sit on, and make it far from here.”

I took up my march again, calling out, “Forty days until the Lord destroys Nineveh.”

Soon, though, my cries were outdone by the fleet of heralds (or is it a herd of heralds?) dispatched by the king. In every square, they yelled out, “The king decrees that no one shall eat!”  (Their diction was admirably emphatic.) “No man! No beast!  Let no food or water pass any lips! Let everyone by covered in sackcloth! Both man and beast! And let everyone cry out to God and repent of his evils that our city might be spared!”

Crowds gathered before the heralds, muttering. Perfect. I made a quick grab into a basket, gaining a handful of dates. A few steps, and I had one – honeyed and soft – at my lips.

Thwack.

The herald’s baton cracked across my knuckles, and I dropped the dates.

“Did you not hear the king’s proclamation?” he asked.

I cradled my hand; the bastard had nearly shattered it. He had a lot of strength for a herald. “No one is to eat.  Do you want to cause Nineveh’s ruin?”

I opened my mouth to say yes, I very much wanted to cause Nineveh’s ruin and, by the way, I’d request that God have you be the first frizzled, and make it a slow frizzle. But instead, I gave him a dirty look and turned away.

“Forty days,” I crowed, “and Nineveh will…”

You can be quiet now.

“What? I haven’t walked the length and breadth. I think there’s a few streets I missed.”

That’s fine.  You’re done.

“Done? Is the destruction coming soon?”

No more proclaiming. Take a break.

That didn’t sound like the Voice I knew.  But as my mother never said, (she might have under different life circumstances) don’t look a gift donkey in the mouth. So, I made my way to the nearest gate and hurried out.

*

Wanting a pleasant perch from which I could watch the destruction, I walked up a slope planted in grape vines, pausing to find the ripest bunch and pluck it.

Below me, all of Nineveh stretched out. I settled onto the ground. The sun, well past its zenith, fell hot upon me, and I ate my grapes. Ooooh. Sour. They could use another week of ripening. Still, better sour grapes on a bare hill than fiery destruction in the city below.

“It will be fiery, won’t it?” I asked hopefully.

No.

“Something new, eh?  Freezing them? Dropping a piece of the firmament on…”

No.  Look at them.

I stood up and craned my neck. “Can’t say I see much.  But then, your vision’s probably better than mine.”

They are repenting.

“Don’t be fooled. Once a sinner, always a sinner. Besides, what good is repentance if it comes at the point of a sword?”

They are sincere. They’ve turned from their wicked ways.

“It’s been two hours! Anyone can be good for two hours. You’re not going to let them off, are you?”

In the vineyard below me, two ravens squabbled. I pelted them with my sour grapes.  “You dragged me all the way here and now you forgive them? Don’t do this to me. In fact, just kill me now, God. I’d rather die than live.”

Are you so grieved?

“Yes, I’m that grieved, you archaic-sounding deity. I’m that sorry I was ever born, ever chosen by you, ever swallowed by that fish.”

Overhead, the sun angled, glaring off the walls, beating against my face. “And it’s really hot.”

A brief gasp of shadow passed over me: a raven. I flinched, expecting retributive talons or some unpleasant repayment for my selfish thoughts. But the bird gave a dispirited quark and let fall a seed, which bounced off the ground and rolled to the side of my foot.

The seed gave a husky little rattle.

I moved my sandal away, wary by now of such “offerings.” Another rattle and the seed burst open, thrusting shoots towards the sun, tendrils stretching and waving. The stem thickened, vines reached skyward and crawled along the ground, weaving a dense thicket. The leaves unfurled, deep green, bathing me in their shade. A perfect wall, a personal canopy. I sat in the coolness, Nineveh below me.

Was the plant a sign? Was God showing his favor to me?

Shifting, I made myself comfortable, stretching out in the shade, my face towards Nineveh, my head cradled in my arms. Beneath the scent of greenery, I could still smell the fish, the brine, the guts.

Sultry air. Now and then, a warm breeze pushed through my shade. My eyelids refused to stay aloft. I drifted off, dozed. A deep slumber must have settled on me, for when I lurched awake, it was not to cool darkness, but the sun of a new day. Heat shimmered off the ground, and I licked my parched lips, raising a hand to shield my vision. My vine! Its leaves rattled in a hot gust. Rattled! They’d all dried up, curled and brown, dangling desiccated twists. Squinting, I gazed at the city below, tranquil in the just-born light. A thin wail sounded from the sentry’s horn as day’s first rays hit the Dawn Gate.

“Awake Nineveh! Your sins are forgiven!” the sentry shouted. “The king has declared an end to the fast. All who are hungry shall eat.”

Up on my barren hilltop, the breeze stirred the dust at my feet. Listless, I saw crowds at the palace, imagined the raisin-cakes, the wine, the honeyed dates and loaves of bread. They had a new prophet, no doubt, one who didn’t come from a fish’s belly, and he was, even now, declaring the Lord’s forgiveness and beneficence. Meanwhile, I was yesterday’s prophet, full of misspent doom and pestilence. I didn’t bother to hope that the Lord was gathering them together only to squash them in their joy.

But never mind, I’d just sit up here and wilt in the sun. I seized the vine in my hand, its tendrils – only yesterday supple and new – now a dusty crumble beneath my fingers. My poor vine.

“Why bring things into the world only to ruin them? Why create life only to bring about its end? It would be so easy for you to sustain it, to let it live. But just to spite me, you make it shrivel. Have a little mercy, why don’t you?”

I did.  On Nineveh.  Should I show more mercy to a vine than to a city?  Shall I kill one hundred and twenty thousand people to please just one?

The wind tossed up a billow of dirt, spinning the remains of my shade-plant away. “What about me? What about your prophet? Didn’t I do what you asked of me? Didn’t you bring me here?”

The wind battered at my ears, and I turned my head, spitting grit from my mouth, holding my hands before my face. But it kept lashing against me, pushing sand in my ears, my nose, stinging against my cheeks. Pulling my tunic up to guard my face, I stumbled away, blindly, hoping for shelter, not knowing which way I headed.

“Lord?  Lord?” I called.

But the wind, rising up higher now, blotted out my voice.

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