by Terry W. Ervin II
part 1 of 2
Whenever Raanan managed time away from mopping and general maintenance around the spa, he took his motorbike into the hills not far from the Dead Sea coast.
His father had warned him of the dangers exploring the barren hillsides, so Raanan always carried an old but well-maintained Beretta, with an extra clip. Useful for snakes and similar human vermin that prowled the traveled routes and occasionally the more rugged areas.
Raanan always left his grandfather a map the night before his excursion, detailing where he’d be. Raanan’s elders counseled him, stating his ventures were a waste of time.
When Raanan’s grandfather was a teenager, archeologists and treasure seekers had already spent decades combing the hills, digging at every ancient settlement no matter how small, exploring every crevice or cave that might contain ancient treasures. There were no more artifacts of value, only a few pottery shards. No more ancient scrolls to be found. But Raanan knew his elders were wrong.
As on every other time out, Raanan hid his motorbike, pulled out his flashlight, and examined his meticulously drawn map against the pre-dawn landmarks and the wooden stake he’d driven into the hillside during his last visit.
A few minutes later, the teenager began climbing toward what he’d labeled grid section 197. Raanan shivered with enthusiasm, imagining the fame and fortune he’d earn. And the satisfaction of proving his grandfather wrong.
As the sun rose the heat increased. Raanan took another sip of water from his canteen and surveyed the rock-strewn hillside. He spotted a change in the color scheme, probably in grid 198. Experience told Raanan it suggested a minor landslide, possibly uncovering something new. With a practiced eye, he studied the terrain and planned his approach.
The footing was treacherous, and the sun continued to climb higher in the sky. The resulting heat began to sap Raanan’s strength. Fist-sized rocks tumbled down as he angled his way toward the site of the slide, all the while reminding himself to make a special note on his map so he wouldn’t waste time exploring the same territory twice.
Raanan’s heart raced. What at a distance appeared to be a narrow fissure, housed a hole roughly 70 centimeters in diameter. Raanan calmed himself; he’d been disappointed by similar finds. He adjusted the beam of his mini-flashlight and shone it in. A cave, and deep!
He slid off his backpack and took a steadying breath. With the flashlight clenched between his teeth, and the wooden stake in hand to fend off any snakes or scorpions that might have taken up residence, he climbed in. The walls were solid and unlikely to collapse. Beyond the opening the tunnel widened and angled upward. Raanan had to push some rocks aside before crawling past them.
After fifteen feet his flashlight’s beam terminated on a wall, announcing the cave’s end. The explorer let out a depressed sigh but, determined to finish the job, he climbed forward on his elbows for a final inspection. There, in the back, rested something. Rounded, gray with hints of brown. A clay pot? And topped with a lid!
Raanan reached ahead to push a dust-covered rock aside. It was lighter than he expected and his fingers curled into two holes. He spun it around and stared into a pair of dark orbs. Several seconds passed before it registered, causing Raanan to drop the dead man’s skull.
* * *
Tsivyah crept up on his older brother, Nadab, as quietly as his sandaled feet would allow. The morning sun brought warming air, and Nadab faced the closed window as if praying for a breeze to blow upon his lightly bearded face as he sat perched on his stool. Since Nadab was practicing on rectangular cuts of parchment instead of scrolls, he leaned over the square wooden table instead of the long stone one.
After stretching his fingers and closing his eyes for several seconds, Nadab dipped his stylus into the terracotta inkwell and continued writing.
Tsivyah inched closer and held his breath while peering over Nadab’s hunched shoulders, squinting to read what his brother had written. Tsivyah’d guessed right about transcribing, as he could see the section of exposed scroll and what his brother inked. He couldn’t yet read Greek, which his brother had recently begun translating under their father’s watchful eye.
Tsivyah skimmed the Hebrew lettering his brother meticulously practiced, striving to improve his control and clarity of script. The intense concentration always left Nadab oblivious to all else, except the infrequent patrols by Roman soldiers, men he hated. Those always distracted him and left him in a bad mood.
Tsivyah scanned the parchment and immediately caught sight of the first letter combination he’d learned to recognize: Yod, Shin, Vav, Ayin. Y’shua. He even knew the oral translation into Greek: Jesus.
Tsivyah’s eyes darted from the scroll to the parchment and back. The youth was sure he was comparing the corresponding section of the scroll with the lines his brother had just inked. The words transcribed didn’t match. Tsivyah’s gasp betrayed his presence.
Nadab jumped to his feet and stood between Tsivyah and the table. “What are you doing? You should be bringing up water.”
Tsivyah stepped to his left, trying to catch another glimpse of the parchment on the table. “I’ve finished that task.”
Nadab slid do his right, blocking his ever curious brother’s view. “Father assigned other chores.”
“He sent me to get you.” Tsivyah stepped back and crossed his arms. “I saw what you wrote. The Messiah never spoke those words to the Pharisees.”
“You don’t know that, younger brother.”
“I do. I have listened to Father, and to Uncle Boaz. And I can read.”
“You are too young to know.”
“I am not.” Tsivyah pointed around his brother, from parchment to scroll. “What is written there you did not copy from there.”
Nadab gritted his teeth. “It is what he should have said.” Responding to his brother’s wide eyes, he added, “It is just practice anyway.”
“It is wrong,” accused Tsivyah, sensing now, for once, he had the high ground on his brother.
Looking down, Nadab’s eyes narrowed. “You will say nothing of this to Father. Ever!”
“I should and I shall.”
“If you do, younger brother, I shall let it be known that you have gazed upon Adva from afar when you should not have.”
The statement stunned Tsivyah. Ovadia’s eldest daughter was the most beautiful woman he’d ever seen. And he had spied upon her when he shouldn’t have. How did Nadab know?
Nadab smiled. “It is difficult to guess who would be more angry, Father or Odvadia, Adva’s father.”
Tsivyah didn’t intend to give up the high ground without a struggle. “Just because I have sinned, does not make your sin any less.”
“I have not sinned,” said Nadab.
“Then show Father what you have written.”
It was Nadab’s turn to cross his arms. “Father does not care what I write so long as my skill improves.”
Tsivyah stomped his foot. “What you have written should be burned.” He guessed Nadab would keep the false transcription, hiding it in the box Grandfather had given him.
“Your oath, younger brother, that you will not tell anyone of my writing. And you will not destroy my writing either. Any of it.”
“Or?” asked Tsivyah, his voice beginning to lack confidence.
“I have already told you, younger brother.”
Tsivyah’s head hung in defeat. “It is wrong that you have written what you have, older brother. But I will not say a word to anyone. And I will not burn or destroy what you have written.”
* * *
In the end, Tsivyah knew what he must to do.
Nadab would forever have the moral high ground; he could reveal his younger brother’s sin at any time. And even though Nadab claimed there was nothing wrong with his false transcriptions, Tsivyah knew Father would not approve. But Nadab could destroy them at any time, abolishing evidence of his wrong. Tsivyah wasn’t sure how Nadab knew of his desire for Adva, and the dark path it had led him down, but he needed to keep Nadab’s tongue restrained.
Because of his oath, Tsivyah could not mention or destroy his brother’s writings. That didn’t prohibit taking and hiding them. Tsivyah could secure the wrong his brother had scribed while keeping his oath.
As Tsivyah prepared and set his plan into action, his heart felt heavy, as if stained by the same black ink his brother had used. Even so, he hid a clay urn behind sacks of wool in the stable. The urn selected was rarely used and not likely to be missed or sought after by his mother. He also obtained a beeswax candle stub from his uncle’s home.
Then, the morning Father, Nadab, and Uncle Boaz set off north for two days and one night to trade wool blankets for grain and wine, Tsivyah raced through his chores. When Mother and Aunt Avigayil were busy preparing food, he took the writings from the gifted box. He carefully rolled them in a fold of goat skin and secured it with a leather thong before stealing out to the stable.
Father had taken both the ox and mule, so the stable was empty and Tsivyah worked undisturbed. He placed the wrapped papers within the urn and sealed the lid using candle drippings. Then, after bringing up more water in the afternoon, Tsivyah snuck off into the nearby hills with the sealed urn tied securely in a sack slung over his shoulder.
It had been three summers since Grandfather had fallen, unable to move his left arm and leg. Earlier that day, a Roman centurion had knocked him to the ground for not stepping aside quickly enough. Later that night, the family’s patriarch lost the ability to speak and before morning’s first light he was dead. Each day for a week after his grandfather’s passing, Tsivyah had wandered into the hills. On the seventh day he came across a cave, a thing he kept secret, especially from his brother.
Tsivyah trotted into the hills toward his secret cave, constantly looking over his shoulder. Guilt, more than the prospect of his mother or aunt, or even a shepherd looking for a lost sheep, cried out for vigilant caution. He ran along an old goat path, watching the steep hillsides before stopping at the base of a particular one. Tsivyah wiped sweat from his brow and scanned the area one last time before beginning the climb up to the crevice that held his cave.
About halfway up Tsivyah stopped. Chewing his lip, he considered his deceitful actions. No, he’d gone too far to change his mind now. He would hide the urn containing Nadab’s false writings. In his cave they would be safe, and he could bring them forth as proof of his brother’s wrong should Nadab ever speak of his younger brother’s sin.
It wasn’t a difficult climb for Tsivyah; he’d made it many times. The sun had long begun to drop in the sky and, despite the cave tunnel angling slightly upward, weak sunlight penetrated its depths.
Tsivyah caught his breath while perched on a small ledge to the right of the crevice. Not a cloud in the sky, nor a soul in sight. He leaned over and looked into his cave. The small pyramid of rocks he’d set had been disturbed: knocked over but not scattered. Once, the previous year, a young wildcat had taken up residence. Then, Tsivyah had noted tufts of fur near the entrance, and a stone tossed into the cave earned a snarling response. A week later, Tsivyah found the wildcat’s carcass at the base of the hill.
He chucked one of the pyramid stones into the cave and listened to its clatter. A second toss gave the same result. Checking one last time around the entrance, he slid the sack from his shoulder and placed it in the cave mouth ahead of him.
When he first discovered the cave, Tsivyah found it much less confining. He’d even been able to turn about by slinking his body around in the knob-like alcove to the right near the cave’s end. Not anymore with three years of growth. Tsivyah crawled into the cave, pushing the urn-holding sack ahead of him. His body blocked much of the light, so he stopped and allowed his eyes to adjust. While waiting, he untied the sack and pulled out the urn. By touch more than sight, he could tell it was still sealed and uncracked.
Tsivyah considered the cave’s shadowy contours. At some time in the past, someone had widened and smoothed it. Probably a thief or renegade, someone seeking to evade Roman soldiers.
Tsivyah was near the cave’s end when the sound of wind caught his ear. He froze. The sound wasn’t coming from the cave’s mouth behind him, but just ahead, to his right. He recognized the chilling, rasping noise. Ef’eh — viper!
What could he do? Pushing the urn ahead of him, Tsivyah’s right arm was extended and exposed to the venomous snake in the alcove. He could just make out the dark shape undulating and rubbing its scales across one another, sounding its threat.
Sweat poured from Tsivyah, some of it into his eyes, stinging them. The saw-scaled viper continued its agitated threat. The boy didn’t know what to do: try to draw his right hand back slowly and creep back out of the cave, or yank back and scuttle away as fast as he could?
What would his father do? His father would never have gotten himself in such a position. His brother, Nadab? He would shove the urn at the snake and then try to get away. But if he missed the snake, he’d have swung his hand left into the serpent’s venom-filled fangs. Tsivyah decided his best chance was to yank his right hand back; his left was protected by the urn. And then back out fast.
Tsivyah counted to five, paced by his racing heartbeat, then jerked his right hand back. The viper shot forward, missing. Instinct cried out for Tsivyah to jump away, and he did, slamming his head against the cave ceiling.
White lights flashed before Tsivyah’s eyes and he felt dizzy. Then, the viper stuck again. The bite, injecting a deadly neuro- and hemotoxic cocktail, sent fiery pain into Tsivyah’s left wrist. His thoughts were clouded as he shook his arm free of the snake. He unsteadily began crawling backwards, the white light closing into gray. He dropped, unconscious, with a prayer asking forgiveness on his lips.
* * *
Copyright © 2009 by Terry W. Ervin II