by J. Scott Hardin
part 1 of 2
Ezra heard the voices dimly. At first, he paid little attention to their faded tones. He had been sick lately, too sick to get out of bed during the last two or three weeks. His wife, Myrah, had looked after him as always, with compassion and a soft tenderness that made him smile when he thought of their marriage-day. That seemed such a long time ago.
He was a man who had seen more than sixty summers, a man with three fine sons. The children of his sons were more than he could count on the fingers of both hands. The youngest, a little girl with curly brown hair and Myrah’s playful smile, had not yet seen her fourth summer. She often came into his room after the morning meal. He could hear her bold and awkward steps approaching the room each time, careless and fearless steps of innocence. When he had had the strength, he would reach out and tickle her, but he was always afraid that his family would hear and take her away.
He felt much more tired this week, and it had been all he could do to put his hand on Giza’s windblown hair when she appeared. Now that he thought about it, he had not remembered her coming in during the last few days. He suspected Myrah’s hand behind that, but he lacked the strength to put up an argument.
Sometimes in the mornings, he could hear Giza and the other children outside, running about and feeding a generous stock of chickens. He sighed in joy whenever he heard this daily merriment. Then Myrah would come with a servant and take the children down to the market.
Ezra counted himself a fortunate man. He was prosperous and respected in his community. He attended Sabbath except when travelling to Jerusalem to sell his livestock or collect from the moneylenders he occasionally employed there. He had a fine and loving family, and his sons were good and reputable men who tended his lands and interests in the same way he had always done before them.
He feared God and prayed for his salvation, and he had remained faithful to all the commandments since he was a boy. He was a hard worker who gave out advice, charity and kindness in equal proportion. All who cared for his fields and lived in his dwellings followed and abided in the teachings of the Lord.
Though he had been weary and sick for many days and nights, Ezra felt just now his strength returning. He did not hurry to awaken completely and rise, but listened peacefully as the noises around him became more distinct. He thought he could hear soft weeping and the voice of his oldest son.
“Care for you as we would our own wives, and we will honor you as we have always honored him. In a fortnight, my brothers and I will bury him, and all shall know that he is with the Lord. Come now mother, let us go and pray together.”
Ezra heard a woman cry out, an anguished shudder, and he realized that it had come from his wife. He wanted to reach out and comfort her, and his arms felt of a lightness he had not known in a long while. There was no pain in his body, and he opened his eyes to see what was happening around him.
When he did this, he was surprised to discover that he was not in his bed at all but standing fully clothed near the doorway to his room. His son stood near the bed upon which the weeping woman sat.
Though Ezra could not see her face because it was hidden behind trembling fingers and matted hair, he knew immediately by her shape and the sound of her tears that it was his wife. She had been leaning over his bed and now began to rise slowly. Their son held her arm to help her get up.
“He has gone forth to the Lord,” Myrah whispered quietly, “and he takes...” Her voice caught at that moment.
“Come away mother,” he insisted in a gentle voice. “Let us prepare for vespers so that we may fast and pray to Him who knows all things, that we may also remember joy in the midst of our sorrows.”
Myrah buried her face into her son’s chest, and her words could barely be heard. “He takes my heart with him.”
Once his wife had moved away, Ezra could see that the form lying still on the bed was himself, and he conceived that he must be dead. The form looked sickly and wasted, but his gaze quickly returned to his wife. He wanted to comfort her, but when he lifted his hand, a sudden and strange feeling came over him. Although his limbs had a power in them that he had not felt since his youth, he could not bring himself to touch her. Something seemed to call him from outside in the distance. It sounded like a song, but it was unlike any he could recall. He felt an impenetrable urge to follow, so he left his room and walked out of his house.
Outside, the first thing Ezra noticed was heat. He was dressed for desert travel, in layered robes and sandals and an elaborate headdress to hold out the sun. The song that called to him was faint from the East, and he looked out upon the gentle rise of dunes in that direction. Turning his head aside for a moment, he surveyed nearby landmarks, — the village barely noticeable to the south, his herds of sheep not far away, his lands on both sides of the dirty road.
As he observed these things, he noticed Myrah and his sons and their wives walking down that road to the tabernacle. Their shapes were imperfect and unclear as they moved steadily away from him. In fact, everything around him seemed shrouded in a thick haze. The desert lands were lighter yellow and mixed browns, but the colors blended together in an unnatural glow which was different from anything he had seen before. Even the cloudless blue sky above had shrouded itself in portents of mystery.
The whole scene reminded him of a glass his father had let him use when he was a boy. Actually, the thing had two glasses in it, one larger for pointing outward and the other much smaller for holding to the eye, both pieces attached by a taut leather canvass. Only today it was as if the glass in front of his eye had been misshaped and poorly made. What he did not consider was that his eyes were too misshapen to yet transcend the reality from which he had so recently departed; what he could not grasp was that they had been too poorly made to understand the world that surrounded him now.
As he looked at the dunes to the East, Ezra felt the heat rising from all around, and he grew uncomfortable in its unyielding oppression. His elaborate robes clung damply to youthful skin, and his sandaled feet chaffed under the glare of the sun’s constant lashing. Still the strange song called to him, and he started walking a lonely path toward it.
Soon his clothing became a burden to him under the sweltering of heavy light. First beads, then patches and finally trickles of sweat began to wind down his body. It seemed a long journey, but after a time, he noticed a flashing in the dunes coming from the area where he heard the inexplicable song and toward which he had been drawn all along. He maintained a steady stride, and as he drew slowly closer, the shiny glint sparkled more often in the expanse ahead.
The headdress he wore was crafted in a heavy material. It prevented the sun from touching his face when he turned his head downward, and he walked in this fashion except to glance up occasionally at the metallic apparition farther on. The song became much more insistent and sounded like a twisting of far-flung winds that drifted to him through the air. Ezra wished he could feel the wind instead of merely listening to the wind-like song that had spirited him away from the peace of his home.
Presently, the salted waters that came from his efforts, as well as from those of the fiery sun above, began to sting his eyes. When he held up his hand to wipe his face, he was startled to find a thin, cracked leather strap in his palm. He stopped suddenly and looked about. The strap trailed loosely behind to the neck of a healthy, tan camel. Unlike Ezra, the animal showed no signs of fatigue. Instinctively, Ezra touched its sturdy back, but when he took his hand away, he wondered why it gave off no sweat and no heat. Its hair was certainly rougher than that found among the better breeds, but he was nonetheless grudgingly impressed by the animal’s endurance in the midst of such scorching travel.
Quickly searching over the rest of the camel, unconsciously appraising muscles and stance with an experience that belied a second nature, he noticed a small leather pack on its opposite side. He loosened a neat knot on top, reached inside and found a moderately-sized jug. After working off the plug, he poured a little of its contents into his other hand.
“Water!” he rejoiced. “All things the Lord provides.” He drank deeply from the container and pressed the sleeve of his robe to his steaming face. “Though I know not where you come from, I thank you my friend,” he said, patting the animal’s back thoughtfully.
The water was not cool, but tepid and rather stale, as though it had been setting for some time. Even so, it was a relief compared to the heat that seized at him from sands and skies and sun. The tracks of man and beast trailed off behind as far as Ezra could see over the shifting desert floor.
In silence, he gave praise to God for his many gifts. Urged onward by the sonorous call from the sands beyond, there was nothing for him to do but to lead his newfound companion into the light. He felt a tingling in his parched throat and so took modest draughts from the jug as they went along.
At first he hardly noticed, but after a while, the tingling spread to his stomach and bowels, and tiny pricks crept up along his limbs. The sun never waned in its scalding watch, and Ezra hoped he would soon reach the strange notes that never ceased to drive him on. The tops of his feet had reddened where the sandal straps did not cover, and he felt as if his insides as well as the surrounding air pushed at him from two sides like a conspiracy from within and without.
As he reached the crest of another dune, Ezra noticed a small hill not far away. The desert was breaking off into more soiled land, and he could see a group of men sitting down and listening to a figure who spoke to them from under a twisted tree. A familiarity about the place tugged on the memory of the traveler, but it was difficult for him to approach that hill because the old song was not far to the East by then. The flickering was from that direction, and it shone more brightly and often than before. In that way led his true path.
Compelled to approach the group by an uneasy curiosity — uneasy because he knew that it was not his calling — he began to make out the faces of some of the men assembled. He counted thirteen men all together, and they looked a poor lot. The one standing beside the tree was apparently the leader, and he had the compassionate look of an infinitely patient teacher trying to convey an important point.
The seated men shrugged shoulders, sometimes looked to one another in confusion and occasionally responded to what must have been a question. As he moved in closer, Ezra could hear their voices but not well enough to discern the words.
Either the desert cauldron had finally managed to seep into his imagination, or the nearer he got to the hill the more reluctant the camel was to follow him. He felt as though he had been pulling at the animal for a while, but just when he could make out the conversation of the men up ahead, the camel would not budge at all. For his part, Ezra was too tired to force it to move further.
“Perhaps you are right my friend,” he told the animal. “While I cannot abide your willfulness, I think we must be going the wrong way as well.”
As soon as he uttered these words, his heart felt more at ease. Somehow, this really was the wrong way. When he thought to turn aside and head eastward again, however, his eye caught on someone running up the side of the hill to the one addressing the others from his tree. The man who appeared was young and wearing fine, decorative robes. His back was turned, so Ezra could not see the fellow’s face. The man knelt down before the Patient One and began to speak in a deep and healthy voice.
“Good teacher,” he asked, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?”
Perhaps because he could not help listening to the song nearby, perhaps because the Patient One’s voice was too soft, Ezra could not hear the reply, although he continued to look upon the group intensely.
After an exchange, the young man rose and walked away, his shoulders slumped in a manner that bespoke a terrible sadness. As he went back down the hill, Ezra wished he could see his face. He did not know why, but he sympathized with the man’s disappointment. Whatever had been said, the young man moved as if he had been broken by something.
Copyright © 2010 by J. Scott Hardin