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David Alexander 

The Tower 

 

He could not claim to have built the tower. It had been there, many years before, when he had first come to the desert to fast and do penance and to purify himself in the eyes of God. He still recalled his name from the time before he had become a hermit. Joshua, he had been called then, which meant "beloved of God" in the tongue of his people.

How misnamed he had been! He had been a blasphemer, whoremonger and cheat, and after that, a killer who had fled his native Jericho for one of the cities of the plain, those called cities of refuge whence murderers could not be taken by force. It was a rough place, populated by men and women such as himself, a place of corruption in the sight of the Lord, and yet it was there that the scales fell from his eyes and he saw the way to salvation. By then years had passed since his flight from Jericho and his crime had been forgotten.

And so he left the city by night and passed into the wastes of Sinai where he wandered for many days beneath the burning sun, until he was caught in the midst of a sandstorm and sought refuge behind some rocks. When the clouds of yellow dust cleared, he saw the tower and he knew that God had sent him to this place so that he might make find deliverance in sight of the Lord. Giving thanks, he ate the last of his provisions and mounted to the top of the tower and sat beneath the baking sun.

In time travelers through the wasteland brought to their destinations reports of the holy man who had taken up residence upon the pillar in the Sinai. As word spread, parties from caravans, Bedouin nomads and residents of nearby villages came to his tower, bringing him alms and asking his blessing. When they did not come he ate locusts and wild honey, or ate nothing for days on end.

Years passed, and beneath the merciless eye of the sun his flesh grew emaciated around his bones. His reputation as a miracle worker also grew, until it was known that the Hermit of the Sinai -- for that is what he was called -- had found favor in the sight of the Lord and had been granted the power to work miracles.

Had they but known the anguish Joshua felt they would have believed otherwise. For although many of those who sought his help received it, Joshua himself did not. He knew that it was through the Lord alone that the miracles had been worked. He had nothing to do with them. For his years of atonement had availed him nothing, and far from finding salvation, his sins multiplied with each day that passed.

In the day, beneath the blistering rays of the sun, his mind was tormented by visions of his failure. Demons of Satan flew around him on leathery wings, mocking him as a sinner who would be snatched to hell, there to suffer eternal torments. In the night, Satan's minions filled his thoughts with all manner of evil thoughts. They sent down succubi to entice him to commit acts of lasciviousness, and though he tried to resist, in the end he succumbed, copulating with them by twos and threes as they flew like huge, mating wasps about this pillar.

Wishing to die, yet fearing the terrors that awaited him on the day of his death, Joshua cast about for a means to escape the certain damnation that awaited him. It was then that he chanced to hear, from members of a passing caravan who had stopped to ask his benedictions, about another holy man who lived in a cave in the Golan, many miles from his tower. It was said that this anchorite had healing powers exceeded only by the awe in which he was held by his supplicants. Because he was of fierce mien and harangued those who came to him in harsh, ringing tones, he was called by the name of Hammer.

Fearing that one more night spent on his tower might see him spirited to hell by the victorious spawn of the devil, Joshua climbed down from his perch in the heat of the afternoon. Eating the meager alms that had been left him, he refreshed himself and began his journey eastward across the Sinai to where it was said Hammer would be found. Making his way on foot, begging for his food, and sleeping wherever he could find a place to lay down his body, it was many days before he reached his destination.

And yet he knew that he had not made his journey in vain, for one night he dreamed a dream in which he saw his tower in the Sinai. In his dream, the tower extended to the roof of heaven itself, and upon the tower the angels of God were ascending and descending. And as the angels went up and down the length of the tower, Joshua heard a music of such sublime beauty that no mortal ear had ever heard before. And the number of the angels he counted as three hundred and twenty, which was a number deemed of great portent in the eyes of the Lord.

He awoke from this dream refreshed, and walked throughout the day without stopping. Presently he came to a small wadi, lined with a few date palms, where he washed his face and ate of the dates lying plentifully on the sands. In the midst of his eating, Joshua looked into the pool of water in the wadi and saw the reflection of another traveler. Raising his head, he knew a moment of shock, for the face of the man was fierce, and the long beard and gaunt cheeks marked him as an anchorite like himself.

"I am called Joshua," he said to the traveler.

"And I Nehemia," the other man replied. "Where are you bound?"

"I seek the one called 'Hammer,'" he replied. "Have you any notion of where he may be found?"

"Why do you seek Hammer?" asked the other man, his eyes glittering as he studied Joshua's face.

"I wish to become his disciple," he said.

"I see," replied the other man. "As it happens my path lies near to where Hammer dwells. Come then, if you would find him who you seek, for the day is growing hot."

And so they went out together and sojourned in the desert. In time they came to a village where the older man was recognized by the townspeople who asked blessings of Nehemia and gave him and Joshua alms and places to sleep. In the morning they again departed. By evening, they had temporarily joined a caravan where Nehemia's counsel and benedictions were also sought. In the heat of the afternoon of the following day, they finally reached a cave on the heights of a mountain overlooking the valley of Megiddo, where Nehemia bid Joshua to take his rest.

"Then it is you who are called 'Hammer,'" Joshua said to his companion.

"Ask fewer questions," was the only reply the old man made.

It seemed that Joshua had slept only for the space of a few minutes when he was awakened by Nehemia and told to come outside. The night was dark but a short distance from the cave a patch of ground glowed a fiery orange.

"Walk upon the coals," Nehemia told Joshua.

Joshua obeyed the older man unhestitantly. Without uttering a word, he stepped barefoot across the first of the coals, feeling the searing heat scald his flesh. Crying out in agonizing pain, Joshua succeeded in crossing the burning carpet, only to collapse upon the ground. The old man placed a jar of honey by his side.

"Rub these on your feet, and when you can walk, return to the cave." Saying that he turned his back on Joshua.

Joshua lay crying out in his agony, finally succeeded in rubbing honey on his badly burned and blistered feet. The honey attracted insects which ate the flesh and made his wounds fester. For several days, he lay unmoving where he had fallen, unable to get up. From time to time Nehemia came by and looked at him but did nothing, nor gave him any food nor drink.

When he was finally able to walk, he limped back to the cave on his burnt feet to find Nehemia sitting eating bread dipped in honey and drinking from a pitcher of wine. Nehemia offered Joshua nothing.

"Do you still wish to continue?" he asked.

"Anything is better than being condemned to an eternity suffering the tortures that await me in hell."

"So be it, then," Nehemia said and tossed Joshua a scrap of bone on which a few shreds of chewed meat hung. Though his hunger was ravenous, Joshua did not fall to his scrap but ate as slowly and as sparingly as possible while Nehemia filled his stomach, belching and farting loudly as he became more and more drunk with wine.

Days passed, in which Nehemia asked nothing more of Joshua than the performance of simple chores. He fetched water and swept the floor of the cave, or brought kindling from the foot of the mountain and tended to the cooking fires. Slowly his feet healed and the small amount of meat he was provided by Nehemia made the strength return to his limbs.

Then one morning, Nehemia told Joshua to prepare to accompany him on a journey into the valley below. This he did, helping the older man descend the steep and treacherously rocky slopes of the mountain, until they came to a place of salt marshes and fenny bogs filled with a nepenthic stench of malign gases. Nehemia told Joshua to wait and walked ahead a little, probing the ground with his staff. Presently, he stopped and Joshua could see him turning over some rocks. Nehemia gestured for Joshua to approach him. When Joshua drew near, he saw that Nehemia had found a pit full of vipers, on the edge of which he stood.

"Go down into the pit and walk amidst the serpents," he instructed his disciple.

Joshua did as he was ordered and almost immediately was bitten upon the feet. As the poison took effect he felt an excruciating pain in his heart, followed by a wave of intense cold. His last sight before blacking out was of Nehemia's face above him, dispassionately regarding him. How long he had been unconscious or how he had emerged from the pit, Joshua did not know. But it was night when he returned to the living once again, and he was lying on the edge of the viper pit while wet, slimy things crawled over his body and insects swarmed around his nose, ears and mouth.

Although Joshua believed that he would die, he did not. Days later he found the strength to sit up, and in doing so he knew why he yet remained among the living. The slimy things he had felt crawling upon his body were blood-sucking leeches. He was now covered with them from head to foot, their bodies fat with the blood they had sucked from his veins. With the blood had come much of the otherwise deadly poison from the vipers' fangs.

It was much of that same day before Joshua had the strength to rise and go to where the salt marshes had formed small pillars of white, caustic matter, chunks of which he broken off and rubbed upon the blood-gorged bodies of the leeches. Soon they dropped off and Joshua made his way back up the mountain again, reaching the cave of the anchorite by nightfall. Within he found Nehemia eating and drinking. The older man did not even acknowledge Joshua's presence as he crawled into a corner and fell into an exhausted slumber.

When he awoke again some time later, it was morning, though the morning of the next day or of the day after the next day he could not say for sure.

"Do you still wish to continue?" Nehemia asked him.

"Compared to what awaits me in hell, these torments are as nothing," he replied. "I will do as you command."

Again, the older man threw Joshua a few scraps of food and allowed him to perform simple, menial chores for a few days while he regained his strength. And again, soon thereafter, he subjected Joshua to tests of endurance from which he could not possibly emerge alive, and yet somehow managed to. Time passed in this way, and the weeks spent with Nehemia became months and the months became years. Eventually the older man's tests became a matter of indifference and he was content for Joshua minister to him as a servant.

And then one day, as Joshua accompanied Nehemia into one of the villages in the valley below, Nehemia bid Joshua wait while he entered into consultation with the leaders of a caravan of merchants, one of whom approached him, looked him up and down, asked him to open his mouth and show his teeth, and then returned to his camel. Joshua saw the merchant cross Nehemia's hand with silver coins, and was soon bound from head to foot and forced to march alongside the caravan, tethered to one of the camels. After having sold his companion into slavery, Nehemia had taken the money and wandered off, not even giving Joshua a backward glance.

After several days of ceaseless marching, the caravan brought Joshua into the road leading to the Nile, and then into Egypt on the banks of the river. Clapped in irons, he was immediately put to work in a gang constructing the jubilee monument of the reigning Pharaoh. Fed nothing but a thick gruel of turnips or leeks and crusts of unleavened bread, many of the men died and were buried within the huge edifice. During the months of Joshua's captivity, he saw scores of his fellow slaves die in this manner, their broken bodies disappearing beneath hundreds of tons of massive granite slabs. How he survived, he did not know. But survive he did.

One day, in the fifth month of his captivity as a slave of Pharaoh, he heard his overseers discussing the dream that the Pharaoh had dreamed on a night long before. It was said that the dream had so frightened the Egyptian ruler that he offered a king's ransom to whosoever could interpret it for him.

Risking a severe lashing, Joshua reached out and touched the overseer as he passed before the bars of the slave pen he shared with dozens of other workers. As the overseer raised his whip and prepared to strike it across Joshua's face, Joshua spoke quickly.

"Stay your hand," he shouted. "For I alone among the Egyptians can interpret the Pharaoh's dream."

The overseer's hand remained raised, but the whip was not brought down. In another moment, it would strike the cur who had spoken, but not until the Egyptian made answer.

"How would a lowly slave such as you interpret that which mighty Pharaoh has dreamed? Answer well, for if you do not, you will surely die by my hand this day."

"It is true that I am a slave in Egypt," Joshua replied. "But before I was a holy man known as the Hermit of the Sinai and was deemed from near and far as one skilled in the interpretation of dreams."

The overseer regarded Joshua a long moment, and then nodded. Lowering his whip, he unlocked the bars and roughly pulled Joshua out of the slave pen. Before long, newly bathed and dressed in clothes suitable for presentation before Pharaoh, Joshua bowed reverently before the throne of Ra upon which Pharaoh sat.

"Rise and approach me," he was told by the king. Joshua stood and approached the throne with head bent, as Pharaohs' men at court had counseled him. Pharaoh looked him over. "I am told you claim to be able to reveal the significance of my dream. Is this true?"

"Yes, sire," Joshua said. "It is true."

"Then sit beside me and I will tell it to you." Joshua took a seat at the feet of Pharaoh and listened as the king began the recounting of his dream. "I dreamt that I walked along a path in the desert and came to a parting of the ways. From the left fork, a beast of many colors bearing the head of a lamb approached.

"From the right fork, an angel with the tail of a fish and the wings of a dove approached. I sought to run back the way I had come but from my loins sprang a serpent which first devoured the beast of many colors and then swallowed the angel and would have devoured me had not a swarm of bees suddenly appeared which sent it disappearing back within my loins. Upon this, I awoke in a fear and trembling.

"Explain this dream to me, and I will make you rich beyond your wildest imaginings."

Joshua composed himself for a moment, and then replied as follows.

"Sire, there is no cause for fear, for in truth the dream you have dreamed is one betokening a great joy and triumph. The beast of many colors stands for those of the tribe of Amalek who would make war upon Egypt. The angel with the tale of a fish stands for those of the kingdom of Ur of the Chaldees, who worship the fish god Bel, and who would strike on the right while Amalek strikes on the left.

"But the serpent which springs from the loins of mighty Pharaoh shows that the might of Egypt will annihilate her enemies even before the setting of the sun on the first day of battle."

"And the bees, what of them?" asked Pharaoh.

"The bees, oh king," replied Joshua, "stand for the heads of Pharaoh's enemies, as numberless as a swarm of those which populate the aviaries of the Nile, which shall be laid at the feet of Pharaoh on his day of victory."

And as Joshua had spoken to Pharaoh, so it came to pass. And the tribe of Amalek, striking on the left, and the tribe of Ur of the Chaldees, striking on the right, smote Egypt. But Egypt smote them twice, then thrice and routed them into the Nile and the heads which were laid at the feet of Pharaoh were indeed as numberless as the bees in the aviaries of the Nile.

And Pharaoh rewarded Joshua for making the significance of his dream known to him on the eve of battle, and Joshua grew rich and powerful and took the daughter of Pharaoh to wife. And from the loins of the daughter of Pharaoh sprang the sons and daughters of Joshua who were the fruit of his loins and the flesh of his flesh, and Joshua was content in the land of Egypt. The years passed in this way, until the old Pharaoh, reaching the age at which his ka ascends to heaven, made ready to venture to Ra, and with his dying words anointed Joshua as his appointed heir to the throne of Egypt.

The funerary rites that Joshua arranged for the departed Pharaoh were outshone only by the coronation rites inaugurating his own reign. A vast treasure pyramid was constructed for the old Pharaoh, and his entire palace retinue, including harem girls, wives, councilors and retainers drank from a poison cup before the crypt was sealed, so that they could accompany their ruler to the kingdom of Ra and serve him ever after. For the coronation of the new Pharaoh, a thousand prisoners from Amalek, Ur and other nations of the plain were beheaded and their corpses fed to the crocodiles of the Nile to sanctify the new reign with their blood. So did all of Egypt understand that a new and powerful king ruled over heaven and earth.

Time passed, and one day word came to Pharaoh that a slave working in the salt mines had begged to be permitted to be brought into his presence. This slave was said to be an old man named Nehemia. Pharaoh summoned Nehemia before him and saw that it was the same anchorite who had sold him into slavery long years before. He smiled at the old man who cowered before his throne, beseaching him to spare his life.

"Rise, old one," Pharaoh commanded him, and ordered his servants to bathe Nehemia and anoint his flesh with fragrant oils and put pomade scented with myrrh in his beard and hair, and attire him with robes of finest silk and shod his feet with sandals, and bring him to dine with Pharaoh that evening.

So it was done, and old Nehemia sat on cushions before a banquet of choice viands, and lacked for nothing to eat and drink. Pharaoh and he talked of many things, and shared many a jest.

"And now, I have a surprise for you," Pharaoh said and clapped his hands and two of his guards seized Nehemia by both arms and bound him tightly to an iron chair whose legs were sunk in a huge brazier full of coals. At Pharaoh's command the coals were ignited, and soon the chair became red hot, searing the flesh of the old man whose cries of agony echoed through the palace.

In the midst of his agonies, Pharaoh caused a crown of bronze to be heated over another brazier, and, holding it by heavy tongs, placed it upon Nehemia's head, hearing the flesh sizzle and watching it form bubbles as it split and bled over the bone. Before the old man was dead, Pharaoh drew his own dagger and cut the entrails from Nehemia's stomach, forcing them into his mouth upon the point of the blade and watching the life go out from him. Then he ordered the corpse thrown to the crocodiles in the dead of night and was no longer troubled by thoughts of the man who had sold him into bondage.

One night, after the passing of several years more, Pharaoh was troubled by a dream of strange portents as had the Pharaoh before him. Unlike his predecessor, however, the new Pharaoh upon awakening required no assisstance in determining the meaning of the visions that had visited him during sleep. The seven-headed locust which devoured the jackals of Set mounted upon the back of the crocodile, Sebek, betokened the coming of a plague year, one so severe that countless of his subjects would die and Egypt would grow desolate and a prey to its enemies.

So it came to pass, despite every precaution and every effort to propitiate the gods, and in the process the Pharaoh's queen and his boy child and his girl child were all struck down by the plague. In his hands Pharaoh held the limp body of his queen before the idol Neter and begged the goddess to remove the pustulant blisters that covered her flesh. His pleas were to no avail. So it had been decreed and so it would be done. The bodies of Pharaoh's wife and children burned on the funerary pyres as did those of humbler subjects all over the city.

Yet there would be no sumptuous funerary rites for his queen and his progeny, there would be nothing but continuing death and greater destruction. For as the plague ravaged Egypt from Luxor to the cataracts of the Nile, so her enemies, grown stronger over the years, knew the time was ripe to attack. They did so without mercy, overrunning the kingdom and toppling the altars of its gods as they put the temple priests to the sword. Amid the carnage, Pharaoh cast off his robes of state and put on the humble attire of a beggar.

In this way he wandered in a delirium through the smoke of battle and the flames of carnage. Days or possibly weeks later, he found himself alone in the wastes of the Sinai where he had started years before, and before him stood the tower from which he had come down from the torments of hell. Exhausted from his travails, Joshua fell into a deep slumber at the foot of the pillar. When he awoke, he found that someone -- perhaps bedouins or other dwellers of that region -- had placed honey and dates nearby. He ate ravenously, filling his belly, and then, without thinking further about it, ascended to the top of the tower and sat down beneath the blazing sun.

In the night, the old demons beset him once again. In the day, he was visited by devils heralding the eternal damnation that would soon be his lot. And again at night, as they had done half a lifetime before, the succubi came and mocked the hermit, offering themselves to him for coupling. But this time Joshua laughed at the devils of the day and the demons of the night, and at the succubi as well, and offered himself to them all, and on the next day and the day after that he still sat beneath the blazing eye of the sun and thought of nothing and was nothing and wanted nothing and knew he would become nothing for he cared nothing for nothing in the nothingness of the world he had finally and forever become in the nothing of the nothing of the nothing that was the nothing of nothing, forever and forever and forever again.

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