Beyond Mortal Strength
Ishtar stumbled over the barren lands, sending stray pebbles skittering in all directions. He barely had the energy to lift his feet. Since there was no point in dying among the barren rocks, a life must be forged from the nothingness of his existence.
He traveled north over the great mountains. Ancient stories told of a great civilization that once built stone monuments to gods more powerful than any ever imagined. Rumors whispered that the inhabitants of a stone city knew the secret to immortal life and could help a man enter the world beyond in safety—and style—if he had the wealth to make it happen.
After ascending a steep rise, Ishtar crumpled to the ground in an exhausted heap while the sun beat upon his bare, blistered skin.
Pain woke him. He crawled beneath the shade of a boulder and closed his mind to all agony and thirst.
Dreams haunted him, filling his mind with horrifying images of his father and grandfather. The spirits of the dead called to him. Claiming him. I have nothing. I am nothing. But the netherworld did not take him. With eyes squeezed shut, Ishtar scoured the ground with his fingers as if digging his own grave, but he found neither death nor relief.
After the sun settled behind the mountain, a chilly wind sent dust rising into whirlwinds. Shivers wracked his body. Groaning, he sat up, leaned against the warm boulder, and rubbed his blistered face. He winced in pain.
Exhaustion, hunger, and thirst tormented him. Staggering to his feet, he threw back his head and stared at the pink and golden firmament. As darkness descended, uncounted stars blinked into view and hung in the sky like bright jewels beckoning his soul. Bowing his shoulders, he dropped his gaze, fixed his eyes on the distant mountains, and let his feet lead the way.
When the pink rays of the sunrise once again shimmered over the horizon, he listened for signs of life. A faint birdsong twittered in the distance.
He staggered on.
The sun rounded and glowed in bright white glory, small insects flittered from boulders to thorny desert plants, and lizards and tiny rodents scampered under rocks. A scent of foreign blossoms floated to his nose, awakening his senses.
Tears trickled down his face.
When the sun’s heat burned too fiercely, he followed the lizards and small creatures into crevices and shadows. Scooping sand aside with his torn fingers, he smoothed a soft bed and rolled under a ledge, safely hidden for a few hours from the burning glare of the sun.
Beyond count of days and nights, he couldn’t remember how many rocks he crawled under or how many lizards he caught and ate. Ignoring his revulsion, he ground in his teeth and swallowed whatever he could catch.
Thirst tormented him.
In delirium, he reached a pass and scuttled into a valley where a strip of green broke the monotony of the scorched earth.
Three tents rippled in the evening breeze, sending shivers of expectation running through his worn and exhausted limbs.
Crouching low, and feeling more like a wild dog than a human, he limped to a watering hole.
A wide, stone well within a circle of palm trees and verdant grass appeared like a vision from another world. His cracked lips stung at the very thought of liquid.
As the sun descended behind the mountains, he felt his face break into a grimace. He searched for a bucket or a ladle of some kind.
Digging his toes into the shifting sand, he pressed on the heavy stone lid. His blackened arms splotched by scorched skin and shredded by fierce winds trembled when he tried to lift the lid.
It would not budge.
A moan escaped his lips. Madness gripped his mind. Fear and agony tore his soul. He would die of thirst beside a well. Would this be justice—at last?
A young girl in a long-sleeved embroidered dress humming a strange tune and swinging a jug in one hand sauntered forward.
He tried to rise, but his body shook so violently that he merely staggered and fell.
The child’s eyes widened in terror. She froze. Her mouth opened. Without a sound, she turned on her heel and fled, the sand spraying behind her.
Ishtar felt heaving sobs break inside him like waves on a distant shore. But no tears came. He could no longer even cry like a man.
A few moments later a brawny, dark-skinned man with curly black hair, wearing a white tunic with a gray robe thrown back over his shoulders, jogged forward. He halted when he met Ishtar’s gaze.
Ishtar closed his eyes.
A shadow covered the glare of the sun. A hand clasped Ishtar’s shoulder. Water brushed his mouth.
His eyes fluttering open, Ishtar opened his cracked, bleeding lips and, with the last of his strength, lifted his hand to direct the cup.
He drank until the man told him to stop and pressed his shoulder. “Come. I’ll take you to my father. He’s always glad to meet travelers and hear news.”
With the help of a pair of strong arms, Ishtar limped to the largest of the three tents. He stopped. Fear enveloped him. Choking him.
The girl stepped out of the tent and smiled. With a nod, she lifted the door flap wide open and stepped aside.
Ishtar stared at the child. His heart squeezed so tightly, he could not breathe.
The man touched his elbow, edging him forward.
Ishtar stumbled inside.
A thin, elderly man with piercing black eyes and a gray beard, wearing the long white robe of a Bedouin, stood in the middle of the tent straight and tall. His gaze scoured Ishtar no less than the brilliant sun.
A scent of stewed goat meat, spices, and something sweet almost overpowered Ishtar as he waited, trembling, just inside the doorway.
The elderly man drew near, one hand extended as if to catch Ishtar should he fall. “You’ve come at a good moment, my friend, for I have too much food for one man. My wife wishes to fatten me up, but I can never do justice to her ample portions. Perhaps you could assist me?”
Ishtar wasn’t sure if the quirk of a smile he thought in his mind actually appeared on his face. He followed the man across the room and nearly collapsed on a large comfortable pillow. He swallowed a sharp pain in his throat. “It—it’d be an honor to eat with you. Thank you.” He grimaced at the sound of his reed-thin voice.
The heavyset man who had helped him drink settled to his left and handed him a bowl of water.
The man laid the bowl on the pallet, dipped his fingers in, washed and dried them on a cloth. He gestured from Ishtar to the bowl.
After Ishtar washed, a dish of beans and rice with spicy meat was placed before him. He waited for his host to begin, and then dug in, pinching clumps of the savory food with his fingers and carrying it to his mouth. His stomach clenched, and he heard a whimper break from his throat in relief as the delicious food met his teeth and lips and traveled down his throat.
The girl sashayed into the tent again, balancing a tray of cups filled with wine. She placed one cup in Ishtar’s hands.
With a glance, the older man nodded to the girl. She knelt at Ishtar’s side and directed the cup to his lips. He sipped, peering over the rim into her wide black eyes. Warmth spread through his body.
The older man leaned back and gestured to Ishtar to keep eating. “Please, take your time. Enjoy. My wife will be pleased to have it so well appreciated.” He gestured from the young man to the girl. “You have met my eldest son and youngest daughter. We welcome you to our home. It’s clear that you’ve traveled long and hard. From some misfortune, perhaps?”
As Ishtar swallowed the last morsel, his whole body relaxed.
Undisturbed, the old man rested his hands on his lap. “My name is Alanah Matalah of the tribe of Sirah men Talah. I have the fortune of traveling the lands of my fathers and grandfathers, going back generations untold. We are a simple people who look for nothing more than to tend our flocks and care for our families in peace.”
Ishtar leaned back, his mind dizzy with the joy of food, wine, and comfort. He rested his gaze on his host.
“God-Above-All has been most generous. I have four sons and three daughters, all healthy and strong. They care for the flocks, and my sons travel to neighboring lands and trade and learn the news of the world. Many things have I seen, and many stories I could tell—” Matalah lifted his hand as in an invitation. “But if you have a story to share, I would gladly hear it.”
Ishtar peered down at his bruised, torn hands clasped on his lap. Peace settled over him. He lifted his eyes to his host. “I have lost my way in the wilderness. My story is a bitter one, which I’d rather forget. I can share nothing but the pain of my past and a future shrouded in darkness.” Without warning, Ishtar felt flames lick his body and searing pain stab his innards.
Matalah sat silent and still. His children’s eyes grew large and anxious.
Ishtar swallowed a lump rising in his throat. “If I told you what I’ve done, you’d gather your sons and throw me out your tent. I do not deserve to live.” Staring at the ground, his vision blurred, and his voice cracked. “I certainly do not deserve your kindness.”
Matalah motioned to his children, and the two rose and left the room.
A tear meandered down Ishtar’s cheek and slipped off his chin.
Matalah spread his hands wide. “I’m not a man of great wisdom, yet I believe in wisdom, and I know there is a force beyond mortal strength that calls each soul forward into the light of truth.”
The image of Pele flashed before Ishtar’s eyes, and he stifled a gasp.
“In truth, you may have done terrible wrong, but I suspect that there is more to your grief than your own chosen evil. I have learned that evil begets evil, and I acknowledge the source of all evil is a constant temptation to the soul of every man.”
Ishtar squeezed his eyes shut, and the face of his father appeared in his mind’s eye.
Matalah’s voice lowered to a gentle invitation. “Each man must learn where his evil comes from…and to whom he passes it.”
Like roaring waves, sobs crashed over Ishtar. Covering his face with his arms, he rocked back and forth. Grief and pain warred with shame and humiliation.
With a light touch, Matalah clasped his shoulder. “You are wounded. And true healing cannot be rushed. May I make a suggestion?”
Ishtar stopped, frozen, like a child awaiting his punishment.
“Stay with us for a time. Assist my sons for the season.” Ishtar glanced up, afraid to hope. Afraid to breathe.
A smile flashed over Matalah’s face. “No one in love with wisdom can ever have too many sons. My daughters enjoy fussing over strangers, and my wife lives to cook enormous meals. Rest, work, and grow strong again.”
As if rain fell on his blazing body, Ishtar felt relief wash over him.
“If a troubling memory disturbs you, come to me. I may not have a sagacious remedy, but perhaps that does not matter so much. Let the Lord God heal you.”
The memory of being rocked in his mother’s arms unclenched Ishtar’s body. Peace entered his soul. He met Matalah’s unwavering gaze. “You would let me stay…without knowing my past and what kind of man I truly am?”
“I will let you stay as long as you allow yourself to stay.”
As a hot flush burned his cheeks, Ishtar bowed. “I will do whatever you ask. I am your servant.”
Matalah rose. A smile hovered on his lips. “I consider you my guest. My sons will show you where to sleep, and they’ll assist you for the remainder of the evening.”
Ishtar stood with his back straight once again.
Matalah stepped to the doorway. “I must get an early rest for the Lord awakes me early with the quiet beauty of His creation.”
The son and daughter opened the flap and stood on each side.
Matalah gently gripped Ishtar’s arm. “You have nothing to fear.”
Ishtar lay awake while the four brothers slumbered in quiet repose. He could glimpse the starry sky through the open tent flap. Rolling on his side, he stared into the night and savored a sensation he could hardly recognize. Peace felt so strange and unfamiliar that he could not sleep for want of basking in its presence. The madness swirling in his mind had vanished like early morning vapor under a hot sun.
The image of Pele floated before him. Matalah’s gentle touch still tingled on his arm. The memory of the young girl’s piercing black eyes sent a pleasant shiver over his arms.
*A new chapter every Tuesday and Thursday.“
One’s friends are that part of the human race with which one can be human.”
– George Santayana
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