OldEarth Ishtar Encounter—Chapter Forty-Four

You’re Not God

Ishtar entered Jonas’ dwelling and peered through the slanting rays of golden light. His attention wandered from a half-eaten meal of barley bread with roasted fish to a sharp carving knife resting on a piece of wood. No wood shavings littered the floor.

Tobia slept curled up on his pallet, his chest barely stirring, though his bruised face still showed the marks of recent events. The bandages wrapped around his hand and arm told the tale of wounds he took in the battle.

Jonas tiptoed up to Ishtar and lifted a finger to her lips.

With a nod of understanding, Ishtar backed over the threshold.

Jonas followed.

Strolling to the shady side of the house, Ishtar perched on the bench. “Where’s Obed?”

Flicking a glance to the distant hills, Jonas wrinkled her brow. “He’s helping a shepherd who can’t keep track of his sheep.”

Amusement coursed through Ishtar as he remembered his own flock on the other side of the distant mountains. “Sheep are not always as compliant as one might think. There are some…” His gaze drifted away.

Jonas drummed her fingers on the stout framework of the house. “Something is upsetting Tobia.” She jutted her chin toward the hills. “Anxiety weighs him down.”

“Even when we live beyond a trial, the horror still clings to us.”

Squinting, Jonas shaded her eyes from the bright sun. “But you defeated your enemy when you killed your father and again when you killed Chai.” She bit her lip. “Tobia suffers from an enemy he can’t defeat.”

Irritation flushed through Ishtar. “I didn’t defeat my father or Chai. They succumbed to the evil fate they created for themselves. I merely endured their self-destruction.” He rose and paced in front of Jonas. “Tobia faces the same enemy we all face: despair.”

Coming to a halt, Ishtar pointed to fresh grave mounds. “Men died defending us. Women lost their husbands and children lost their fathers. Though slaves were freed, many have no families to return to.” He glanced at Jonas. “Homes and villages can be repaired, but lost innocence can never be found again.”

Setting her jaw in a firm line, Jonas scowled. “You think I don’t know that?” She pointed to the great lake. “I lost Tobia’s father and my eldest son in the battle with the giants. Tobia was there. He’s known both evil and courage.” She shook her head and turned away. “But this time…”

Ishtar frowned. “What about his carving?”

Jonas shrugged. “Obed gave him a new knife and a beautiful piece of wood, but Tobia hasn’t touched them.” She flung her hands in the air. “He seemed so excited when he heard that Remy was here, asked to see him and smiled when they met. But then—”

A sudden memory riveted Ishtar in place—the first time he beheld a beautiful woman. He pursed his lips. “Tobia once mentioned that Remy has a very kind sister.”

Jonas met Ishtar’s gaze. “A woman?”

“Tobia is a man.”

Swallowing, Jonas leaned on the wall and slid onto the bench. “You think—?”

A shout in the distance turned their attention.

Eoban stood between Obed and Barak, calling, “Ishtar, Jonas, come say goodbye to Luge, the man who made our success possible!”

Ishtar held Jonas’s eye a moment and tipped his head.

Sucking in a deep breath, Jonas marched forward.

~~~

Tobia stirred and rubbed his bleary eyes. His stomach rumbled, and as he scratched his head, he became aware that someone else was in the room.

Ishtar sat in the doorway, carving a piece of wood. His piece of wood. Tobia sat up and frowned. “Obed gave that to me.”

Nodding, Ishtar’s gaze fixed on a long wood shaving that curled around the knife. “Jonas told me.”

Tobia bit his bottom lip. He glanced at the dish of bread. “I’m hungry.” He licked his lips. “And thirsty.”

With a shrug, Ishtar continued his work. “There’s wine in the jug and bread on the table.”

Mild complaints issued from his joints as he stood, but Tobia ignored them and hobbled to the food. He swiped the jug from the shelf, pulled out the stopper, and took a long swig. He eyed Ishtar. “What’re you making?”

“A boy.”

After smacking the jug on the table, Tobia ripped off a broken piece of flatbread and took a bite. He talked around a chew and stepped closer. “Why?”

“I am going to replace the son that Matalah lost.”

Tobia stared at Ishtar’s bowed head of shining black hair and snorted. “Matalah won’t laugh at your joke.”

Ishtar glanced up, his eyes wide with wonder. “I’m not joking.”

Tobia scowled and bit off another piece.

“I only want to heal a terrible injury. Is that wrong?”

Dropping the bread, Tobia slapped the wood out of Ishtar’s hand. “You can no more make a man than I can.”

“I made my sons.”

“Not from wood! And you didn’t make them. Your wife conceived them by the will of God.”

Picking up the wood with a disinterested shrug, Ishtar appeared to inspect it for flaws. “After I make Matalah a son, I’m going to make a new Vitus.”

Hot fury flushed Tobia’s face. “Damn you!”

After laying the wood and the knife aside in slow, precise motions, Ishtar stepped into the evening air.

As if pulled by a cord, Tobia followed. His breath jerked at the coolness, and he flushed with hot shame. “I—I didn’t mean that.” He stopped on the threshold. “You don’t understand. Nothing is funny to me. Everything hurts too much.” He closed his eyes. “I’ll never laugh again.”

A hand pressed on his shoulder, and Tobia opened his eyes.

Ishtar met Tobia’s gaze. “You’ll never love again?”

Shoving off the frame, Tobia hobbled across the compound toward the grave mounds by the rolling river.

Ishtar followed at an even pace.

When Tobia halted, a shiver spread over his body. “I’ve died inside. I’m old. Too old. I can’t marry and have children…because I already know how it’ll end. Some invaders will come. I’ll do battle and die. My sons will die. My wife and daughters will become enslaved or die of sickness or starvation—”

Ishtar clapped his hands together and gasped. “Tobia! Stop. You’ll depress the fish in the river, and I’ll want to kill myself before nightfall.” A grin played on his face.

Burning in rage, Tobia flung himself on Ishtar and beat his chest. “It’s not funny! Damn you—I mean it now. How can you joke?”

Ishtar grappled with Tobia. Clutching his arms to his chest and shoving Tobia’s back against a tree, he stilled his raging fury. “I’m not laughing at you, Tobia. Only at the horror that you must leave behind.”

Tobia writhed, attempting to free himself. “It won’t leave!”

“It will—if you let it go.” Ishtar held Tobia’s gaze and tightened his grip.

Gulping air, Tobia calmed into a shaky acceptance. “Let me go.”

“Stop fighting your pain. It’s making you mad. You think you’re doomed because pain blinds you to any other possibility.”

“What other possibility is there?”

“Evil is only one option, Tobia.” Ishtar let go and turned away. “I know what you fear, for I’ve feared it too. Even when I turned from Neb’s evil ways, I could not really succeed because I never accepted the truth.”

Rubbing his arms, Tobia spat his words. “What truth?”

“That there’s more to life than this world and the evil we must endure here. I’ve passed through madness into a new hope. Life does not end there.” He pointed to the grave mounds. “Aram does not live in the dirt. There are more worlds than the ones we see.”

Burning indignation rose from Tobia’s middle. “I never deserved to suffer like I did.”

“And I never deserved forgiveness.”

Tobia’s rage tripped and fell, but questions still pounded his mind. He looked Ishtar in the eye. “And Vitus?”

“How do we know what he deserved?”

Tobia dropped his head onto his chest with a sigh.

“The beginning of wisdom is to realize—God exists—but you are not Him.”

Ishtar stepped over to the doorway and picked up the piece of wood and the carving knife. He held them out.

With the last flicker of his anger dying like a flame in summer rain, Tobia accepted them.

“Darkness is part of this life, but so is light.” ~Millie Florence

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OldEarth Ishtar Encounter—Chapter Eight

—Wilderness—

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.

Nothing.

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.

Ishtar frowned.

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.

He trembled.

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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Brave Smile

I met a brave smile yesterday, and my faith in humanity flickered back to life. I had recently met with a painful disappointment, and I believed that a piece of my heart was broken beyond repair.

But I discovered that even a broken heart responds to a brave smile.

At the time, I was sitting between two young women I hardly knew, making light conversation with a few heavy topics thrown in for variety. The woman on my left was as innocent as the dawn of creation, but the one on my right smiled through sad eyes. Perhaps I read more in than was there…perhaps I saw myself reflected in her gaze. But that was what amazed me. I dared to care.

As I drove home from Mass tonight, a storm flickered in the northern sky. There isn’t usually lightning this time of the year, but the weather has been oddly mixed up. Probably just matching humanity’s mood swings. From the CD player, a violin rose and fell in wild cadences and on the horizon clouds loomed like mountains. I drove through the black night with rustling trees swaying and dried corn stalks swirling from the barren fields like remnants of ghosts.

At Mass Father had mentioned that life expectancy in the US has dropped the last few years, partially because of “diseases of despair”—addictions and suicide. This reality struck me as especially terrible in a generation with more technological and medical advancements and greater wealth, education, and entertainment opportunities than ever before. I guess the old saying is true: You can’t buy happiness…or even a ray of hope. Later as the priest held up the Host, I more clearly understood the reality of perfect God coming as food to a starving and imperfect human race.

And loving us anyway.

I rarely know the deep grief of those around me, but I still find it comforting to remember a young woman with sad eyes smiled at me.

The wind blows, rattling the windows as the threatening storm arrives, bringing freezing temperatures. Soon, the kids and I will watch part four of a series on John Quincy Adams, and I’ll be reminded once again that humanity has faced mighty trials both personal and societal yet lived to tell the tale…despite our hurts and broken hearts.

Despair is not the only option to pain, grief, and fear. Courage and endurance are still possible. No doubt, you, too, have known your share of grief. Just a quick scroll through any social media platform or the news of the day is enough to make a person want to crawl under a rock. Forever.

But a brave smile offered me encouragement and solace when I needed it. I doubt she’ll ever know. But you and I know.

A brave smile can enkindle a spark of hope in a world that needs it badly. Even if your heart is breaking…smile anyway.

Dare to care.

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