Thursday 30 June 2016

Pillar of Salt

Lot's Wife. Mount Sodom, near the Dead Sea.

(Fiction. TW for horror, gendered violence.)
For the longest time, this pillar of salt has been a landmark. I have, it goes without saying, visited it myself. It stands on the side of the hill of limestone, clay and salt on the corner of the Dead Sea, overlooking the plain, vaguely human in aspect. Shoulders. Half of a head if you look at it from some angles. It's maybe thirty feet tall. It used to look more like a human, be smaller, but the salt from the saturated breeze builds up over the centuries, has collected around it, made it higher, wider, with an unnatural speed as if every urge of nature is to hide what lies beneath.

Lot's Wife, they call it.

I remember standing in the evening sunlight —  I still remember sunlight; why would I deny that?  — in the stripes of red and orange light, and breathless from the climb I put the palm of my hand against it and felt the roughness and dryness of the salt against my skin, felt it almost leach away the sweat. I imagined I heard, deep inside, a scream.

I snatched my hand away, looked at the tiny crumbs of red-brown rocksalt attached to my palm. Then I brushed them away, urgently rubbing the hand on my pants.

A very old manuscript fragment, Greek and Syriac, had passed into my hands. I had acquired it a few days before from an artifact seller down in Cairo, one of those men who scour the detritus of the petrified rubbish dump at Oxyrhynchus for treasures before the archaeologists get there, a little goat of a man, I remember, with round, wide-set eyes and a sparse tuft on his chin.

He asked for American dollars for it, eight hundred. It is so ancient, he said, and important.

I said, eight hundred for this old scrap? Look, it has nothing of value on it. Two hundred.

See how dense this writing is, how much is there, he said. I would not part with it for less than seven.

And so on. He got me to five hundred and fifty. I would have given thousands for it.

You think we dig for our finds?

The draft of a letter in Greek is on one side, three times, not terribly of interest, family news. My children are well, my daughter is of marriageable age, and so is your son, and would you consider a match, the sort of thing that people would draft on the cut up scraps of old books, papyrus being what it was. The Syriac, though, cramped and crabbed and minute, full of holes, there is the interest. The man didn't know. But he saw the light go on in my eyes. Those five hundred and fifty dollars American probably meant he could have a holiday.   

It must, I have surmised, have been part of some miscellany. A book of traveller's tales, perhaps, or a collection of wonders of the sort that grew in popularity during the later Roman Empire, Like the Florida, perhaps, or one of the Geographies. This part, beginning mid-sentence, describes the pillar of salt it as it was in the time of the Israelite Kings. In the story, it was about six feet high. It used to have an eyeless, noseless face, turned as if looking over a pair of shoulders, and a round hole like a mouth, that seemed to have a terrible darkness inside it, which screamed when the wind blew, high-pitched, grieving, the mindless howl of one who could do no other than stand and lament forever.

The fragment describes how a traveller, a Greek of the time of Kleisthenes, visited the pillar, and found that he could not bear to hear the pillar screaming in the wind. He took an axe, the fragment say, took an axe and knocked the head clean off, and the clouds boiled red in the low afternoon and sticky trickles of blood ran from the parts of the rock formation that suggested a neck and down the side of the pillar, the smell of salt and sweat and metal in the air that hung in the back of the man's throat.

The fragment says that the traveller was offered no respite, but — and it cuts off there, end of a page, story unfinished.

I imagine the nameless traveller there, looking down at the eyeless face on the ground, with its gaping round darkness, still screaming up at him, the howling still audible above the Canaanite wind. I imagine him returning to his lodging, twisting in the dark on the rope-sprung bed, the dust vibrating with the scream from an eyeless face.

He returns to the pillar the next day, axe in hand, intending to smash the face to dull brown rock-salt shards. It is of course gone; the pillar has grown, has lost definition, become colossal, looks like rocksalt, nothing more. The scream continues, over the whistle of the evening wind. Red sky. Boiling, roiling clouds. He clutches the sides of his head, the axe falling to the ground, the bronze head clanging against the rock, harmonizing with the endless scream. He walks, as if shoved by an insistent hand, down to the Dead Sea, into the buoyant waters, and walks, until the waters buoy him up, and he floats face down on the surface, until the screaming stops.

Among the more obscure of the lesser Midrashim, the apocrypha of the apocryphal, you can find this story. Here is Abraham the Patriarch, alone, sitting cross-legged on a mountainside, and he is waiting to begin a conversation.  

He will come up here quite soon and prove that he is a man obedient enough to agree to murder his own begging, crying child on a word, but this comes before that particular story. It comes after the story where, named only Abram, he stands on a plain and is told his descendants will outnumber the stars by the same voice that will tell him to murder his son; that one is significant to this account, because of the way this particular version of the story is told. 

In that version, Abram stands alone and it is as if the wilderness becomes a threshing floor and great bronze-handled grindstones, as if from some colossal mill, descend and rise, two pairs from the sky, two pairs from the earth, the base of each inscribed with one letter of a language he cannot read, one letter of the Tetragrammaton, the Name. And it is as if he sees the inner workings of the world. Each of the grindstone pairs has a voice, or part of a voice, made from the rasping impact of stone on stone, inhuman, implacable. In unison they call his name. The noise of that one word is more than his body can take, and blood begins to flow from his ears, his eyeballs, his nose. But he cannot move, cannot even fall to the ground and when the rotating stones descend upon him and draw him in, blind, deaf, mad, by the corner of his robe and grind him into paste he can only allow it. He doesn't even scream.
And the stones rise into the air and descend into the earth and the ground opens into an oven and from the oven, like a clay pot comes Abraham, replaced, remade inside and out, working sperm in his testes and a brain reordered to accept the word of the stones. Ready to be father of a line whose traces will exist in three thousand years in every human in Europe and the Middle East. Ready to obey the Name.  

And it is this Abraham, crafted from raw material called Abram, soon to get a new name to go with his new mind and his new body, who sits on the mountain waiting for the stones to come and grind out the words he will obey, the Bronze-Age nomad crafted for progress.

The stones come from the sky and rise from the ground around him, and he does not bleed for inside he is as much leather and bronze and rocksalt as he is man and he clicks and asks what the stones will of him. And in the low rumbling, the grindstones tell him that it serves that Sodom and Gomorrah will be destroyed.

Abraham is still, the text explains, though obedient and remade, a man, and he bargains with the grindstone Tetragrammaton. His nephew, Lot, lives in Sodom. He states the logic that this man is his family, and hence protected, for the Name cannot be inconsistent.

He asks, are there fifty men who would be worth serving the Name? And the stones descend into the ground and rise into the sky, and all is quiet for a time; and presently they return and say that no, fifty men worthy of being remade as Abram cannot be found.

And so Abraham asks if there are forty, and again the stones withdraw, and return, and respond in the negative, as they do when he asks if the city of Sodom houses thirty worthy men, as they do when he asks if the city has twenty, as they do when he asks if the city has ten.

Then the stones say that Lot will be saved for Lot is of his line and part of a Plan, and Abraham accepts, and the stones tell him to go home, and he does, for he obeys the Name. He has been made to obey.

So much for the part of Abraham in this story. This particular Midrash has much to say of him, and of his descendants (its version of the Ladder of Jacob is worth an essay of its own) but here we concentrate on Sodom. We concentrate on Lot.

The canonical Bible (and it is worth remembering that no one authority decided on the Bible canon we have — we naturally chose that version that comforted us, that frightened us the least) has Abraham asking the Name to find righteous men, good men. And no, God can't find ten good men. And this is important, because the Bible does not tell us that God can find any good men. Lot escapes because God had promised protected status to the family of Abraham. Lot, as even the canon tacitly accepts, is not a good man, as we will see.  

So two nights hence, Lot receives visitors, he receives them because the grindstone Name has earmarked him as of the same blood — and the same raw material — as Abraham. The Name chooses to preserve him because of some character in his bloodline that suits the machine. That's all. Goodness, in this version of the tale, is not a consideration.

These two men have round, blank eyes of a deep blue, that glitter in the sunset like Egyptian faience. Their skin is dull and pale like doeskin, their faces like leather stretched over stone images. They have no hair. They wear no beard.

Lot sees them in the square. And something breaks in his brain. He goes outside.

Come. Eat with me.

We will stay in the square. The man's voice grinds. It shrieks.

He repeats himself. Come. Eat with me. 

Lot takes the strangers in. has his slaves wash their feet, offers them wine, which they do not drink, and bread and freshly killed lamb, which they do not eat. They sit around the fire, and his wife, his sons-in-law and his twin daughters, none of them permitted names in this or any other version, sit beside them at the table as the slaves of the house, taken from far away, serve food uneaten.

A slave boy looks too hard at the face of one of the strangers and cries out; his hand shakes and the wine spills. Lot backhands him so suddenly and so hard he falls to the ground and his head bounces off the stone, and he crawls to the room whimpering. The host apologises, and the twin daughters, nameless in this version of the story as in all the others glance at each other and then look at their mother, who averts her eyes from them and, unconsciously, pulls her robe closer around herself, as if to conceal the discoloured patches of skin on her chest, on her throat.

Lot apologises to the strangers for the carelessness of his property and assures them that he will punish the slave himself. For their part, the strangers ignore that the incident ever happened, and unison explain that the Name will destroy Sodom, Gomorrah and the surrounding cities of the plain, for they have no suitable material; Lot and his daughters have the correct material in their bodies and they must leave.

What of his sons-in-law?

They will die.

Lot's wife keeps her silence. The sons-in-law protest, loudly, declare it an insult. Lot never really liked them anyway, considers his dowry wasted. He laughs in their faces. The two men storm out of the house. Lot's unnamed daughters do not try to stop them.

The screeching voice of the blank-eyed strangers continues: they must prepare to leave, the three of them, for destruction will come this very night. Lot snaps his fingers and tells his wife to prepare provisions for him and his daughters, suitable for the farthest trip they can. Knowing his humours, the younger women do not object, but they share looks with their mother, and she nods, and they go to help her, leaving their father alone with the strangers.

I will come, she says. I will not leave you alone with him.

In the other room, she packs for four. In her own bag, she packs a knife.

Lot sits with the strangers. You have the blood of Abram, one says.

Lot wipes a trickle of blood from his nose, stares at it. My uncle is no friend, he says.

The dull-skinned men stare at him with their unblinking faience eyes. You will leave, they say. Leave the plain this night.

It isn't possible, he says. I wouldn't be able to get further than Zoar.

You will go to Zoar, then.

Lot cannot engage them on any other subject of conversation; they speak of the urgency of leaving, and they will oversee the escape of Lot and his daughters, and only those three.

The girls in the other room quietly, frantically plot with their mother; Lot will not make it as far as they do. They will dispatch him in his sleep on that first night and travel to Zoar — it is as far as they can travel reasonably, they decide — as widows, and there they will survive by gleaning the corn, which is the right of the widow, and will be better than a life in Sodom with Lot. It will be better than a life anywhere with Lot.

A tumult outside. The sounds of chanting, shouting. Lot comes to the door. Men, thirty, forty. Lot's sons-in-law at their head. They are reeling, slurring, wine stains down the front of their robes.

Lot has stolen their wives. Lot has listened to strangers, outsiders. Lot, also a little drunk by now, yells back. They are his guests. His right of hospitality. A fleck of Lot's spittle lands on the forehead of one of the sons-in-law. 

Bring them out, shouts someone in the crowd. Bring the outsiders. Give us the outsiders. You've taken my brother's wife from him, so give us them instead. We'll all make wives of them. The Midrash doesn't spell out what the other men are shouting now, only that it quickly becomes obscene, threatening. 

Lot is silent. He becomes aware that the strangers are standing behind him. He is quieter now, regains a little dignity.

You can't have them.

We're not going, says a man in the crowd. We'll be satisfied.

I'm obligated, says Lot. Hospitality. They've got my hospitality.

Take my daughters, says Lot. You can have my daughters. If these two want them, fine. You can all have them.

The canonical Bible, the nineteenth chapter of Genesis, doesn't disagree on this point.

He turns, meaning to drag the girls out and throw them to the mob. The strangers block his way.

The women inside, their bundles packed, hearing this, seethe, shake. One of the daughters starts to reach for the knife; her mother puts her hand over the girl's. Not now. We'll have him. But not now.

One of the men says to Lot in that grinding, screeching voice, You and your daughters will leave now, by the back. Lot can see a crack across the faience glaze of the stranger's round, empty eye.

The strangers walk out past Lot, shoulder past him like they're stone, into the crowd. The light of torches reflects on their skin, their faience eyes. Someone reaches forward to grab a shoulder, and the stranger's robe falls off and the skin of his shoulder with it, and both men, in front of Lot's terrified, blurred eyes, somehow unfold into something of bronze and stone. The reaching hand, still grasping the stranger's skin, gains a spreading covering of white-brown rocksalt, and then breaks off at the elbow, crumbles, blows away on the wind.

The strangers or the things that were the strangers are huge now, shapeless conglomerations of brass blades and wooden posts and granite stones that tower over the panicked crowd that reduce men to crumbling salt statues with a touch, that stamp on men and crush them to a pulp unawares, that drag them screaming into grindstones and reduce them to paste, just as Abram was, but bring nothing back.

Lot looks for a moment, and then turns, rushes through the house headlong, to the rear room, the women's room, screams at his daughters in a way that he has never screamed at them before in the most drunken of furies, and the four of them, the man and the three women, Lot's wife allowed to come because in the panic Lot does not think to forbid her.

They do not look back, do not stop running, stumbling, pressing on; around them great machined stones rain from the sky, wreathed in flame, which then, grotesquely, stand up and walk through the streets, touching, treading, crushing.

A dog runs headlong into them almost, stops dead, its yelps cut short as it becomes salt and crumbles in the wind. A house collapses across their path in flames, its occupants' cries of anguish cut short, cut dead. One of Lot's daughters says, the slaves.

Damn the slaves.

They double back, noting that their house has already gone. Around them walking things of stones and bronze crush and grind, reduce houses to dust, liquefy men and women who although flesh rather than stone cannot outrun the Name's monolithic agents, who perform their task without anything resembling wrath, in this version of the story at least.

Outside of the city walls, which they hear crumbling behind them, though they do not look back, the plain shakes. They cross a narrow crack in the earth that behind them opens up into a chasm the moment they pass it. A stream nearby bubbles and hisses and boils away. They can hear the salt sea, miles away, complaining, bringing an unaccustomed storm to bear. Everything is tumult. Ears ring. Heads pound.

And now up the great rock overlooking the plain, and the women and Lot breathe a sigh of relief, and fall to their knees on the stone.

They can hear the screams from the cities of the plain behind, as if the women and the children, the animals and the slaves, cry out in unison as the messengers of the Name erase them from the earth in fire and gravel and salt. Ground into nothing.

And then the screams stop, and the roaring of stones. And the noise subsides, leaving the loudest thing the ringing of ears. Everything smells of salt and sulphur. It's on their clothes, on their tongues, in the dust coating their skin.

None of them look back. And then a voice, grinding, screeching. Three of you are to be saved.

Lot is on his hands and knees, staring at the ground. His wife begins to cry, his daughters holding each other's hands, wide-eyed, breathing heavily, more horror etched on faces that thought they couldn't see any more. Something snaps, something behind the eyes.

None of them turn around.

No noise now, no sound save the far-off crackle of fire and sulphur in the distance. None of them turn around still. A minute passes, or an hour. The first ray of sunlight flashes over the ridge.
The tension passes. Slowly, the twins' mother turns round, glances over her shoulder.

A creak, like stone cracking. And then nothing.

A sound of something vanishing, withdrawing.

A pillar of salt, shaped roughly as a human, its eyeless noseless face devoid of any feature save a deep black maw, like a mouth caught in a scream.

Zoar is a full day and a night away on foot.

The news got there first on horseback; a scout, a watcher, and plumes of smoke in the distance.
They barely get past the outer circle of the settlement before the first stone lands in front of their feet, a warning shot. Men and women advancing in rows now. No one from Sodom is going to come here. Not now. Not with the curse of the city rising in the sky behind them, black and glowering.
Back to the rock is the only place left to go.

No one talks. The girls, younger, fitter, stay out of the old man's reach. Only a couple of the flailing blows from his stick land, enough for his daughters to descend into wordless plans, silent exchanges of glances beneath knitted brows.

The cave is dry; hollow white needle-thin stalactites hang in clusters from the ceiling. The floor marks their filthy robes and near-worn through sandals with white.

He sits against the crumbling wall, and rants. He is ruined. He has no son, no heir, only these useless daughters, who could not give him grandchildren, who did not understand discipline. They brought the curse down on him. His uncle brought the curse down. His wife brought the curse down, she never should have left with them.  

He can't stand. He can barely raise his staff to swing feebly at them. Oh, but when he gets his strength back, then they'll know, then he'll beat them to death and die here himself. He takes the wineskin and drains it. He falls into a stupor.

Soon he is lying on his back.

The girls look at each other.

Slowly, Lot's two daughters begin to undress him.

He sleeps for another day and another night and if it looks like he'll wake they ply him with more wine, and one time when he tries to open his eyes they batter him over his head with a piece of rocksalt that shatters against his skull and leaves its remains in his matted hair, glued in place with the dark trickle of blood born of the impact. 

And the two nameless sisters cry out with a kind of wild-eyed glee as they take their revenge against him.

When he finally wakes, he knows. He knows. He is red-eyed, aghast, silent. And they are there, as naked as he, on hands and knees, finishing each other's sentences. Now he has sons, oh yes, and they'll be the only sons he has, because no one will take him, knowing what he has done, and no one will ever take them either, they'll never have to be wives again and beaten again. For they are free now, and oh he is welcome to be the patriarch, but to strike them anymore, to abuse them anymore is the end of his line, they'll assure it, and the faience-eyed strangers wanted the line to carry on, didn't they, and oh, isn't he afraid of them, isn't he, isn't he, isn't he, and oh, here it is, here is the line, right here. 

One rocks back on her haunches, points to her stomach. Here is your future, Lot, the future you wanted. The one you deserved.

Oh Father, you are ours now. Give us to the drunken mob, would you? Offer us up over strangers who would murder everything we ever loved? Oh Father, we are not even begun with you.
They advance on him, eyes feral beneath matted hair. 

In the Bible canon, the editions that sit in church pews and which are never read in their entirety, the daughters of Lot rape their father for his own good. He needs a son, so they both take him, and he thanks them, and they found kingdoms apart from the Hebrew children of Abraham. The blood of Lot, I believe, is spread far now, and anyone of Middle Easterrn or European descent probably has a trace of it. 

I wonder what that means, as I read my papyrus genealogies, my Oxyrhynchus fragments, my apocryphal Midrash. I wonder what sort of cull the Name may yet inflict on us, now there are so many more of us, and I wonder what God has become like now, since the Bronze Age is so far behind us. There are so many transformations a God like that might inflict upon the people of earth. There are so many deaths that the artifices of a Tetragrammaton might bring. 

I returned on three separate research trips to the site of Lot's Wife, hoping, perhaps, to find her face. I never found it, but as I placed my hand on the rocksalt that last time I heard it, on the wind, screaming. I closed my eyes. Opened them. It went away, I thought.

I took the scream home with me. It comes and goes. I can hear it now as I compile the papers, shuffle photographs of stones. I hear it still. It sings to my blood. I wonder how long it will be before I walk into the salt myself, and float face down until I am free.