In a Milk and Honeyed Land by Richard Abbott @MilkHoneyedLand

Posted on Tuesday, November 12, 2013



O dry-boned lady let me pour your last libation,
oil and wine to cleanse this buried room,
light little lamps beside your gilded bracelets,
shake once more your timbrel’s lonely bells.

TWO YEARS LATER, IT was the late evening of another Etanim day, and the days were unseasonably hot. The family had eaten, and the full moon had risen a short way above the eastern trees. The house was hot and airless, and Damariel, seeing his father’s heated mood, began to consider how best to make himself scarce. His younger brothers were loud in the corner, and Sosanneth was sulking having been told that her years of being a child at the stream were now over. His mother spoke.

“No-one has gone to pour water at the tomb of my family this month.”

She looked around the room at the others. Baruk and Bashur glanced at each other, then at their father. There was a little silence, filled by Damariel.

“I’ll go, mother.”

Shomal frowned.

“Someone must pad down the roof. Someone must carry up the bedding and the screens. Someone must help me with the tools. Someone must gather the hens.”

“I can do them, father, all of them.” Baruk had spoken from his place in the corner, and Bashur nodded and stood up beside him. “I can help him, father.”

Shomal nodded and waved his hand at Damariel in dismissal.

“You go and see to the dead, then. My sons will help me here. Take whatever your mother has prepared for the offering.”

A little later Damariel walked out into the night air and turned up the ridge towards the high place and the seer’s house. He passed between two of the stones and left several flat bread rounds and some onions on the doorstep. There was an oil lamp flickering in one of the windows, and he stopped for a moment to look at it. The house was large, with an extensive enclosed and roofed area on the upper floor as well as an open hot weather area. Behind the vine with its dangling bunches of grapes above the door frame, the central area rose up into a little lath tower standing higher than the rest. Attached to this, a carved wooden panel faced him. The reliefs shone silver in the moonlight, and Damariel looked up at them, trying to puzzle out which parts of the carving were pictures and which were writing.

As he stood there, the seer’s wife Qerith suddenly appeared from behind the upper room and the carving, carrying a bed roll and a bundle of sheets. He smiled and thought of his brothers doing the same at his own house, well able to imagine Baruk taking the lead over his brother. Qerith bent to pick up some stray wind-blown leaves from the flat roof and tossed them over the edge. As they fluttered down she saw Damariel and lifted her hand in greeting. She was not wearing a kef, and her unbound hair spilled over her shoulders. Embarrassed, he lowered his eyes and carried on across the crown of the hill. He heard her call after him, once, twice, but the night air swallowed her words and he carried on.

He went down the next part of the ridge and then up a little to the caves, the part of the town where the dead lived. He was well aware that they also lived around his house. He had helped his mother three summers ago to dig a little hole in the hard-packed kitchen clay, and put some of her mother’s hair there. As woman of the house, his mother was responsible also for the monthly prayers for the dead, and until Sosanneth was of an age to take the responsibility on, Damariel was called to help. But this was where they rested all together, this is where they were gathered. This was their domain. He thought back to the day that his mother’s mother had been set to rest here, the whole village gathered to lament and honour her, even the households that as a rule kept themselves apart from the family. He could remember very little except for a shower of sudden rain. He wondered briefly how many generations lay here, what they spoke of in the whispering dark, whether they were pleased with him and his family, whether they were able to commune with their remote ancestors buried so far to the north. How much did they see of what their descendants were doing, and how far were they really still interested?

He scrambled up beside the great rock that closed off the entrance, past the crag that jutted out like a tower, to the little fissure behind it that led back down into the body of the tomb. The fissure itself was small, too small for his hand, but the top part had been flattened by former generations into a shallow bowl, chiselled out and then smoothed to receive offerings.

He retied his plain white kef into the solemn pattern, covering his mouth and nose as well as his hair leaving only his eyes exposed. He sat cross-legged beside the little bowl. He poured some water and a little mixed oil and wine into the crevice, then scattered some crushed spice and barley seed into it, and finished with another splash of water. The liquid stain was dark on the stone bowl, and he thought how the mixture was trickling through the rocky channel and dripping into the echoing vault below. The liquid and its seed was working its way through the little channels, he felt sure, and he wondered what fruit it would bear in the earth’s silent belly.

He sat back and recited as many of the names of his ancestors as he could remember, starting with his grandmother and working back. He recalled his mother’s brother who had fallen in the mountains, then Kunor’s wife Kalit, and the child Walud who had died with her during the birth, through to others who were only names to him, empty of living details. Then he turned to the north and called on the kings of the dead to protect them all, and finally sat watching the moon for a while, huge over the highland hills.

He loosened his kef back into its normal pattern. A breeze had sprung up from the west, cool on his side, and he sat for a while enjoying it, leaning against the rock pillar at his side, in no hurry to make his way back home. Eventually he rose, clambered back down to the ground, brushed the worst of the dust from his smock, and set off. He did not want to go near the seer’s house again, nor to venture too close at this hour to the households that his mother disliked, so he headed a little south, to his left, skirting the hill’s crown, away from any of the houses. At first he was among low scrub, fragrant with juniper and rosemary. Little night animal noises rustled around him, and cicadas sang in the brush to either side, falling silent as he came near and resuming once he had passed.

He crossed over a small dry wadi, heavy with herbed scents, and paused on the other side to gather his bearings. Lost in his thoughts, he had wandered a little too far to the south, and he angled slightly right to pass by the house of Ethan the shepherd, who was away with the flocks up in the higher ridges for another few weeks.

He stopped abruptly. Ethan’s door had opened and voices came from inside. A woman laughed softly and then spoke. He could not hear the words, but heard her voice lift up in question. It was Isheth, Ethan’s wife. Damariel moved a little to one side, into the shadow of a cypress, as a man came out of the door and paused by the trunk of Isheth’s snowbell tree. The two embraced and kissed, until the man turned, their lingering hands keeping contact as he stepped away. He came towards Damariel, wrapping a particularly large kef over his head and shoulders. Damariel realised with sudden insight that it was Iqnu the seer who was approaching. He caught his breath, and some dry twigs under his feet crackled and snapped. The village priest gave a great start.

“Who is that? Come out of the shadows, you, come here. Who is there?”

Damariel, heart pounding and speechless, took a few steps away from the tree into the moonlight. He pushed his kef back from his forehead so the older man could see him clearly.

“Damariel! So it’s you! Well, lad, it has been too long since we talked. How long have you been there? How long, I wonder?”

Damariel shook his head and stammered in reply, “Not long, great sir. Not very long to be sure. I just came down from the chamber of my mother’s ancestors, up there by the crag. Mother sent me there to pay our respects and give our gifts.”

He waved behind him. The other man nodded and looked at him for a long moment, hands on hips. “How long, then? You know that I must be out at night for the sake of the village. Did you see where I came from?”

Damariel looked up at him, and then across at the shepherd’s house. The door was shut again, and there was no light at the window. He thought about Ethan and his wife Isheth, thought briefly about the things that his mother had said about that household, and then said, quite slowly, “Honoured sir, I am not very sure what I did see now. The night is dark. Perhaps you would help me remember what happened?”

The seer laughed a little and then put his hand on Damariel’s shoulder.

“Come up and sit with me on the ridge, lad. Sit with me for a while. I think a lot about you, all of you, of course, Qetirah and Kothar too, and little Mahur who passed beyond. And Galmet, and little Yad-Shalim since then. But just now, most of all you. It is past time I did more for you. I wonder what you should most like? They tell me you like to sing?”

“Yes indeed, great sir, and I have made up some words myself. Mostly though I listen around the fire and try to remember and sing again what I have heard the next day.”

The two sat side by side on the pine scented ridge. In the distance a stag called out.

“I think it is time you learned more, lad. You should learn it from me, it is me you should be listening to about such things. Don’t get involved in little tales. So many people will just tell you anything. But you can trust what I tell you: you understand that, don’t you? Come to me every month, on this full moon night, and I can teach you the poet’s art. How should you like that?”

His eyes were very intent on Damariel, and a great desire clutched at his heart, but the picture of Shomal’s stern look drifted through his mind.

“Sir, I do not think that my father will allow it.”

The seer laughed again, differently this time, and put his arm around Damariel’s shoulders as he replied, “Your father, hey? I don’t suppose Shomal would allow it without some inducement. But let me speak with him about the matter. I may well be able to persuade him. Your mother, now she will certainly agree. But you, what should you like?”

Damariel paused, thinking a while, and before he could speak the other man went on in a great rush of words.

“It’s not just singing, you know. Let me teach you other things. And perhaps we should meet twice a month, not once. There’s all kinds of things I could tell you. Do you know how we remember the way north from here to Damaseq, or down south through the Nagb to the border forts of the Mitsriy?”

He shook his head, intrigued. He only knew of the local tracks and their destinations just a short distance away, the four towns themselves, and in more general terms the whereabouts of their immediate clan allies and neighbours. The seer nodded and continued, “Let it be settled, then. Come to my house tomorrow around sunset, and we shall make a start. No sense waiting for next month, we must make a start right away.”

He stood and held out a hand to help Damariel, facing him and suddenly quite serious.

“As for tonight, you know, I was up on the northern fell and found one of Ethan’s chickens. I took it back to his house. That was all. No need to tell anyone, no need to remember it, is there? People will talk about all sorts of things, and there’s no need to listen to them. Just a lost chicken. Is that clear?”

Damariel thought of the couple coming out of the house door, the kiss shared in the moonlight, the lingering hands, the lack of chickens, and weighed it all against poems and journeys to distant places. He nodded, took the older man’s hand, and stood up.

“Surely it is as you say, honoured one. I am sure I can remember it as you say.”

“Good. Then speak no more of it. Just think of all the things I can teach you. Now, go home, greet your family from me, and tell them I shall visit tomorrow, in the middle of the afternoon.”

He started up the ridge towards the high place, and after a few moments Damariel continued his own journey, round the edge of the hill and past a few outbuildings to go between his aunt’s house and his mother’s. Baruk and Bashur were both up on the roof, arranging the wicker screens and bedding. Inside, Sosanneth was asleep on her mother’s lap. Shomal looked up at him as he pushed the door open. The cross edge had faded a little from his voice, but still hovered in the background. Damariel closed the door quietly, warily.

“All done? You were gone a long time?”

“I met the seer on the way back, just down below the high place. He says he will visit tomorrow in the middle of the afternoon.”

Shomal and Yeresheth looked at each other across Sosanneth’s sleeping body, then Yeresheth looked down and brushed the girl’s hair back from her face. Shomal stood up and rearranged his tools in the corner, facing away from the others. In the silence the voices of the two brothers could be heard from the roof.

“Did he say why? What did he say?”

“No, mother, he did not say all that was on his heart. He said he had not seen as much of me, all of us I mean, as he would wish. Surely he will tell you rather than me?”

Yeresheth looked up at him again, her eyes suddenly moist and sparkling in the oil light’s flame. Shomal seemed finally satisfied with his tools and sat down again.

“Of course he will. Do we have something to set in front of him when he comes?”

His wife glanced around at the kitchen stocks and nodded, and he stood up again, restless and impatient.

“Make sure that he feels welcome here, Yeshith. That should certainly be easy enough for you. Damariel, tell your brothers he is coming and get them to bed. You as well, get to bed. Here, take Sannah with you.”

There was bustle for a few moments. Sosanneth woke at the movement and cried in protest until Damariel settled with her on the roof and rocked to and fro with her while speaking to the brothers. All four children settled down to sleep. Parental voices drifted up from the main body of the house. He strained to hear but could not make out the words. Shomal was doing most of the talking, long trails of speech mostly ending in questions. Yeresheth was quieter and shorter in her replies.

Shomal came up first, and with a wordless heavy sigh unrolled his bedding and lay down. Much later Yeresheth came up. She bent down by Damariel as she passed, and kissed his cheek softly before moving further on to lie down near Shomal. Damariel looked up at the moon through the woven screen branches and wondered what had happened.

Iqnu came down the next day in the late afternoon. At the time, Shomal was down at his olive trees with Baruk. Bashur, under protest, had been inside watching Sosanneth while Yeresheth baked some bread rolls with honey. Damariel was outside the house moving the chickens around so he could search for stray eggs and clean their area, but hearing the seer’s voice he straightened up, abruptly noticing the straw and feathers scattered across his smock. Iqnu nodded to him gravely and went to the door, and as Yeresheth noticed him she smiled, warmly, a little shyly, brushed her hands clean of flour, and then kissed him on both cheeks. Bashur was sent running to fetch Shomal, and Damariel hurried to finish his work, aware that the two adults were watching him as he did so. Yeresheth had her hand on Iqnu’s arm and leaned in to him as she talked, so Damariel could not hear her words. Iqnu shook his head and laughed aloud, and she smoothed back her kef and smiled happily. Looking up, Damariel saw that Shomal was outside, about to arrive, and was frowning heavily at the sound of Iqnu’s laughter. Yeresheth moved quickly away from the seer and tended to the bread buns as her husband turned the corner of the wall and came across the open area to the door. He looked impatiently at Damariel.

“Leave that now, lad, leave it till later. Get yourself cleaned up and join us.”

When Damariel joined them he found the three adults sitting on stools. Sosanneth was out of sight in the side room. Catching his mother’s signal, he picked up the tray of warm bread pieces and served them to the seated adults. Looking around, he gauged that he was not supposed to eat any himself, so stood by the door and waited. Shomal had just finished formally welcoming the seer to Yeresheth’s house. Iqnu, seeing he had finished, thanked him properly and then gestured at Damariel.

“Your boy is a credit to your household.”

Yeresheth smiled. Shomal said, “As are my other two sons, sir.”

“Of course. But for today I am thinking of Damariel. I have a mind that he should learn something of the work of a singer. You know that the son born to Qerith soon after our marriage was taken by sickness three years ago.” He paused, and there was a moment of silent remembering prayer. “And our daughter Asherith is now married to Mahur-Baal, first son of the great chief Yad-Nesherim, victorious over his enemies and glorious in battle. She now lives up at Giybon and has chosen not to walk our path. So I have no-one here to assist me and Qerith with the songs, and we have a duty to find those who are able. I have heard that Damariel has a talent, and I wish to train him in it. Who can say where that might lead?”

Shomal looked at Damariel, then back at Iqnu. “It is a great honour, sir, but you must know how useful the lad is. He works here and down at the olive patch. I am not sure how we could manage without his help. Perhaps some times of the year, but surely not at harvest.”

Yeresheth made as if to speak, but Iqnu made a little movement of his hand and she remained silent. Shomal saw the exchange, and his eyes narrowed a little.

“Of course, I understand how much you need him. But Shomal, we are not talking about him coming to be with me every day. To begin with, one day each month, or perhaps two at most. Sometimes just evenings as the light fades. Of course he would be free to work with you at other times. If he shows he has talent, perhaps I could apprentice him in time, but he must be proved first. And then we would come to some proper form of arrangement. Shomal, if you were willing to do this, I think you would find me extremely grateful to you. Very grateful indeed. Now, I think you have a dispute with Emeq about where the wall should go around your olives? For a start, then, I could smooth things with Emeq, talk to him, help him to see your side of things. Perhaps you would find my gratitude more useful than a few hours work from Damariel.”

Shomal put on an expression as though thinking carefully, but all of them, including Damariel, had seen the quick look of satisfaction that crossing his features.

“Ah, well sir, though it will be hard to lose Damariel for those hours, I see that your need of assistance is greater than mine.” He paused, and the silence stretched a little in the house. “Yes, I agree to this. Let it happen as you say.”

Yeresheth had been looking at him with a careful lack of expression, and in the little pause before his final words she glanced at Damariel and rolled her eyes a little in exasperation. Damariel kept himself from smiling, feeling conspiratorial. Iqnu nodded expansively and looked at Damariel.

“So, lad, it seems that the arrangement is acceptable to Shomal. And, no doubt, to your mother. Are you still content with it?”

“Yes indeed, great sir, with all my heart.”

“Excellent. Be up at the high place just before sunset tomorrow and we shall make a start.”

He rose, accepted farewell blessings from the house, took one more of the bread buns, and left. Damariel, seeing the look on Shomal’s face, kept quiet, picked up a broom and began to sweep the doorway. Yeresheth had likewise engaged herself in putting cooking equipment away. Shomal shook his head.

“Speaks as though he owns the boy. Throws me little bits and pieces to make up. Not that I don’t appreciate the help with Emeq. Of course I do. But in this very room to put me in a corner like that. It’s not right.”

Yeresheth stopped working, glanced briefly at Damariel and then turned to Shomal.

“Perhaps Damariel could fetch his brothers while we talk about this, Shomal? I expect you left them working down at the olive field?”

“That’s where my sons work, to be sure. Yes, alright. Damariel, go and fetch them back here.”

Damariel turned to go, but Shomal continued, “But make sure you’ve cleaned everything there before you leave. Close it all down for the night properly. I don’t want to have to go back down myself.”

By the time the three boys got back a meal was nearly ready. Sosanneth had woken up and was putting bread on the plates. Shomal was doing something noisily up on the roof. Yeresheth’s face was very red and her expression very set. She hugged the three boys as they came in, and sent Bashur up the stairs to fetch Shomal. When he came in, he exchanged glances with Yeresheth, sat down on a stool near the door, and then called Damariel to him.

“Learn what you can from the seer, lad. Make us proud of you. Just make sure it does not get in the way of your work for me.”

Baruk and Bashur looked at each other. Baruk spoke first.

“What’s this, Damari? Father, what’s this talk about the seer?”

“The seer wants Damariel to learn some of his songs and what have you. One or two evenings a month he’s to go to the high place and learn all that.”

Baruk clapped his older brother on the shoulder. “That’s wonderful, Damari.” But Bashur pulled a face. “How come he gets to do that? What about his work here? Will we have to do that for him?”

Shomal turned to Bashur, took his hand, and sat him on his knee. “Nothing unfair will happen to you because of this, son. Damariel knows that he must do his share. I’ll see to it that the work is shared out fairly.”

Sosanneth was watching the four of them, clearly not very sure what was happening or why. Yeresheth put an arm round her and sat her down before ladling stew onto the plates. Baruk started to ask Damariel what he would be learning, but in truth Damariel had no very clear idea, and Shomal started talking at length about what the olives would need in the next few months. Much later, as they settled for sleep on the roof, Baruk asked him again. The two boys spoke for a few minutes until Bashur started to complain at the noise they were making, and their mother came up from the room below to make sure they were settled.

Damariel found, month after month as he spent time with Iqnu, that the seer was well intentioned, and diligent so long as the effort did not take him out of his way, but was inclined to make large promises that he had no intention of keeping. That very first evening, the day after Iqnu had been to their house, he spoke to Damariel of the lands and peoples living nearby. Damariel listened with fascination at the size of the world and its variety, though Iqnu seemed to have actually visited very little of it. Seeing Damariel’s open mouth, Iqnu laughed and said that by the next spring, if Damariel would learn the way-list, he would take him down to Shalem and show him the great high place there, or maybe they would go beyond that to follow the desert trails down to the Mitsriy home land. Every night through the winter, Damariel recited the route names to himself as he fell asleep, strange places that had no meaning to him but spoke of lakes and ruins, hills and clefts, an exotic terrain inhabited by strangers. His dreams kept him wandering all around these distant places, where people spoke in a way he could not understand.

The spring came, and there were reasons why they could not go. In time Damariel became used to the offer of promise, the failure to deliver. But the learning itself, the songs and the poems, the reading and the writing, the glimpses into other places and other times; all this he loved, and revelled in the expanding sense of his place in a mighty world. By careful choice of words over a few months, he had managed to persuade Iqnu to see him regularly twice a month instead of erratically. Iqnu in turn had persuaded Shomal that his gratitude was worth the absence of Damariel on these evenings. The weeks skipped past, with Damariel impatient for the passing of time in between the evenings with the seer. They always met at the high place, or in a rough lean-to shelter near the caves of the ancestors if the weather was poor, never in the seer’s house. Damariel hardly ever met Qerith, hardly even remembered that Iqnu had a wife.

It was during this time that Damariel became acutely aware of isolation. His younger brothers, especially Baruk, seemed to find it easy to win acceptance from most of the other families. For his own part, especially with households linked more closely to Shomal than Yeresheth, or which for some reason were at odds with Iqnu the seer, he experienced a hesitation, a blockage in the easy flow of community life. It was never an overt rejection, more of a withholding or drawing aside.

He found himself spending increasing amounts of time with Qetirah and Kothar, who found the same difficulty of relationship. It was as though these two were more truly his family than Baruk and Bashur, and their company was more satisfying than that of the others of his own age. Sometimes these others, or more commonly their parents, would treat them with a kind of awe, but there was often a faint sense of being made fun of, of words spoken behind their back that they could not comprehend. The three friends could no longer meet and play down at the stream, but they found other ways to be with each other as often as they could. Damariel also found that their households were places where he found peace more easily than his own. Yeresheth clearly loved him deeply, but Shomal’s mood and attitude were unpredictable.

In contrast, Kothar’s parents, Labayu and Tamar, made him as welcome as if he was Kothar’s own brother. Labayu tried for a time to teach them both skills of hunting and trapping, but while Kothar absorbed them with ease, Damariel fumbled in the making of traps and snares. They had no other children, and from time to time Damariel and Kothar would come in from outside to find their mothers in close conversation, with Tamar’s eyes intent, fixed brightly on Sosanneth as she moved about the kitchen area. The two boys grew very close at this time, until Damariel felt that he had three brothers rather than two. But one of the three was his own age, and felt with something of the same intensity as himself the isolation of being a child of the god, and Damariel found himself naturally gravitating more into his company. As time went by, Kothar developed his own strategies for dealing with the situation, cultivating a rather bold and brash exterior.

So it was that Damariel spent a great deal of time at Tamar’s house, enjoying the easy company of an adult man who welcomed him around the table instead of seeing his presence as criticism. He had less opportunity to go into Qetirah’s home, but when he did Caleb would usually invite him into the long extra room that contained his little smelting furnace. There he would see scraps of metal melting in the heat and transmuting into a multitude of shapes—brooches and animal traps, tools and arrowheads. Caleb and Kinreth were both as deeply attached to Qetirah as to their joint daughter Laylah, and Damariel never once heard issues of birth held up between them. Then he would go back to Yeresheth’s house, and feel all over again the difference that lineage could make.

By the time late spring was turning into early summer, Damariel realised with absolute certainty that he was not going to see Shalem with Iqnu. He also started to notice that life at home was deteriorating. During the summer Yeresheth started to talk to him how in the autumn he would be declared a boy no longer, but rather a young man. Baruk wanted to listen in, as he was only a year and a half younger. Then Bashur would want to be part of the conversation, and complain loudly to Shomal if not accommodated. Before long, Yeresheth began to find places and times to talk to Damariel outside the house, on the way to and from the high place, or in Nerith’s house across the way. Bashur tried then to find covert ways to listen in, and reported back to Shomal what was said. Several times a month the children would try to settle to sleep against a background of raised voices and anger. Yeresheth’s face was more often tinged with red, and her lips more often pursed with frustration. In any kind of conversation, Yeresheth would support Damariel and Sosanneth, while Bashur could be expected to side with Shomal. Baruk found himself in an uneasy middle ground, drawn towards both sides for different reasons, and an object of competition and intense diplomacy. More often than not he would find himself yielding to Bashur’s sibling pressure.

There was a time late the following summer, when the festival of the new wine was only days away and the community was preparing itself for the celebration, that Damariel later looked back on as a turning point. It was one of the preparation days, a day of fasting followed by a gathering of the whole community up at the high place. There had been a sacrifice of a pigeon with some oil and wine, and then a time of singing. In an unusual time of family togetherness, all six had sat listening while several different people had stood to offer contributions, and then Iqnu and Qerith had related one of the stories from the dawn of the world.

Away from your word the oceans fled back—

from the voice of your thunder they hurried away—

up over the mountains down into the valleys,

back into the place you established to hold them.

By the end, the sea had been tamed by the lord of all the earth, and tied back within its shores as a mother would swaddle her baby. There it could froth and roar, but no longer spill over the tops of the hills. At the end there was an appreciative clamour, for whatever other opinions people held of the seer, all agreed that he and Qerith were excellent at delivering the songs. After that someone called out,

“Seer, tell us how we came to be living in these hills.”

Iqnu turned to acknowledge the speaker, and then stood up to look round at all of the assembled people.

“I could tell that story, Issi, but tonight I am not the one who should be recounting it to you all. There is someone here who has a better right to tell that story than I. It is Mahiram, father of Danil, if he is willing. Mahiram, honoured in years, will you speak to us of that story tonight?”

Mahiram, sitting off to one side, looked up and nodded. There was a pause while Danil helped his elderly father forward. He sat on one of the stones, leaning on his staff, and there was an expectant silence around the gathered people. Damariel had seen the old man a few times before, but had never heard him speak more than a few words. To his surprise Mahiram’s voice, though quavering from time to time, carried strongly around the circle, was confident in the thread of the story.

There was a holy silence as he prayed aloud, before launching into the tale, speaking it instead of singing. It was one that Damariel had heard before from Iqnu, and in simplified form from his own mother, but on this occasion there was a great deal more to hear. Mahiram spoke as though he had himself been one of the settlers that came down from the northern hills, surviving marauders and the winter cold to found the four towns here in these happy hills. He knew that, in fact, the migration had been at least four generations before the old man’s time, perhaps more, that Mahiram was as much a native of the hill country as he was himself, but during the telling Damariel was caught up in the movement of his people as though he held his own mother’s hand on the mountain passes, gathered food with his brothers, carried his sister as she slept, and waited hungry in the camp while his father hunted for game with the other men.

When he had finished there was a long, profoundly appreciative silence. Sosanneth had in fact fallen asleep, although in this world she was on Yeresheth’s lap. As Mahiram moved slowly back to his place in the circle, before the next recitation started, Shomal picked Sosanneth up and chivvied the other children along. They went back to their house down the path, with Baruk and Bashur running ahead, racing to see who would arrive first. There was a bustle of activity, and as Damariel settled to sleep he heard Shomal go out again, back up to the celebration.

The next day started slowly, and all four children were up and about well before either of the adults. They began making noise, so Yeresheth gave them some food and water, and then sent them away down to the olive field with some instructions how to spend their time usefully. They ran about for a while in the sunshine, deciding that was the best way to scare birds, then started to fit some of the loose dry stones back into place in the low surrounding wall where they had become dislodged over the summer. After a while Baruk, who was in charge of the water skin, called a halt and they all sat leaning against the wall of the little hut.

They started talking about the celebration of the previous night. After a while, Baruk suddenly turned to Damariel.

“Look, Damari, you’ve been learning all this time with the seer. When are they going to get you doing something?”

Damariel shook his head.

“It’s not like that, Baruk. Not yet. Maybe if he takes me on properly as his apprentice some time. But just now he won’t let me, I know he won’t. He’ll say I don’t know enough to do it right.”

“But that’s not fair. I bet you’d do it better than some of them. That Pirizzi, now, he was really boring.”

They all laughed. Bashur broke in, “What else would you expect from someone from that family. Mum always says they’re no good”. He pulled a face that was just remotely like the expression Pirizzi had had as he had been singing last night, and they laughed some more.

“Alright, Bashur, he surely was boring. Truly. But that old man, now, Hanna Taliy’s grandfather, he was really good.”

They nodded, each remembering the old man telling the migration story. Baruk spoke first again after the memory-filled pause.

“What did the seer mean when he said he shouldn’t be the one telling that story? How come Hanna’s grandfather got to do it?”

“Well, you see, in the circle like that then the one who everyone agrees knows most about the story gets to tell it. If the seer had started to tell it himself, lots of them would have disapproved. So he avoided that by looking around for someone he knew would tell it better than he would.”

Sosanneth looked at him with wide eyes.

“What do you mean, disapproved? Would they all have got up and shouted at him to make him stop?”

“Oh no, Sannah. Nothing like that. But they’d have showed him he’d done wrong to tell it himself. Maybe some would have wandered off before he finished. Or maybe they’d just listen badly by laughing at the wrong time, or something. He’d know what they meant. He knows that the best person should always be the one to tell the story.”

“Are you best at telling any stories?”

Damariel shook his head.

“Not yet, Sannah. Maybe one day. But not yet, not in a circle when the whole village is gathered together.”

Baruk jumped up with excitement and cut off Sosanneth’s reply, “Damari, look, you’d be best at telling stories here, just with us four. We don’t know anything like that. Tell us something you’ve been learning.”

Damariel looked at him. “Well, I suppose so. I don’t know. The seer hasn’t said anything about that.”

Bashur shook his head. “I don’t think it’s right, Baruk. Dad hasn’t said anything to any of us about this. Even if the seer had said something, we can’t just do it. I mean, he isn’t our father, is he? He can’t tell us what to do on dad’s land, it’s not his place to do that at all.”

Sosanneth looked up at him. “But it’s mummy’s house, isn’t it, not daddy’s?”

Bashur looked annoyed with her. “That’s not the point. The seer can’t say what we should do here. I don’t think Damari should do this, Baruk.”

“Well, I do. Come on, Damari, tell us something. You’ve got to do it better than Pirizzi did last night. What do you say, Sannah?”

Sosanneth nodded, looking from one brother to another in turn. Damariel scratched his head, wondering what, in fact, he did know well enough to tell them. Deciding on something suitable, he sat up in readiness. Bashur stood up.

“Don’t you dare. If you do, I’m going to get dad. He’ll stop you.”

Damariel and Sosanneth looked at each other, then at Baruk. They knew that he was the only one with any chance of changing Bashur’s mind. Baruk held out the water skin to Bashur. “Come on, Bashur, just for a few minutes until we start the next job mother told us. She’d want us to have a break sometimes. We’ve already scared off the birds and fixed those bits of the wall. The next thing is gathering up the fallen bits of wood and that won’t take us long. We’ll all do that together after Damari has told us something.”

Bashur sat down again, refusing the water. He said nothing, but he looked unhappy and made sure he was facing angled away from the others. Damariel launched into the story of how the first man and woman were made in the meadow of flowers, how they walked together in the morning and named the beasts as the gods paraded each of them in turn. He knew there were parts of the story that Iqnu had never taught him, would not tell him until he was older, but he knew enough to make it sound complete in itself. He did not try to sing it, but kept something of the great rhythms alive in his words. The others were listening closely to him—even Bashur was leaning in to catch the unfolding drama—when they heard Shomal’s voice calling to them as he approached. Bashur jumped up and ran round the corner of the little hut towards him. Damariel and Baruk looked at each other, wondering what he would say, but they heard only normal happy greetings. Hastily, before Shomal came into view, they both retied their kefs into a fashion he would consider decent. Sosanneth ran after Bashur, and the older boys collected the water skin and tools and followed her. Shomal had picked up Sosanneth and was holding her over his head. He was obviously in a good mood.

“Ah, my pretty Sannah’s here as well. How’s my most beautiful daughter?” He lowered her to the ground again and saw the boys coming. He glanced around here and there, saw some places where the wall had been fixed and nodded approvingly at them all. “You’ve been working well, I see. Just having a rest were you? That’s what your mother and I have been doing, having a rest.”

“Yes, father,” chorused the children together, and Bashur added, “but Damari was doing some song that he heard from the honoured seer. I didn’t know if we ought to be doing that.”

Shomal shrugged. “No harm done, so long as you’ve done the work first. It’s only a bit of fun. Nothing serious. You were right to tell me, though, Bashur. Good boy.”

Baruk and Damariel exchanged quick glances, both relieved at the outcome, though Damariel had inwardly seethed at the dismissal of part of the sacred memory of the community. Bashur grinned at them both. Then Shomal sat in the shade of the hut while the four children collected twigs and larger pieces of fallen wood and piled them together.

Much later they all walked back up towards the house. As usual, Baruk and Bashur ran on ahead. Sosanneth held Shomal’s hand as they climbed the ridge, and Damariel walked a couple of paces behind. Before they were in sight of the house, Shomal stopped and turned to Damariel.

“Look, lad, I know you’re doing this with the seer. That’s fine, he’s seen to it that I don’t lose out because of it. Quite useful, in fact. But I don’t want you getting my boys all mixed up with that. They’re going to do a proper day’s work on my land, or learn a skill. A trade of some sort. It’s all right for you to do these songs and all that. But don’t you get my boys all confused. That’s not the road I want my sons to walk. Understand?”

Damariel could do nothing but nod in reply. Sosanneth, who had let go of Shomal’s hand when they stopped, took hold of Damariel instead as they went the last few steps up the track to the house. Back indoors, Baruk and Bashur were reciting a long catalogue of all the work they had done in the olive field to Yeresheth, who was sitting mending some clothes of Shomal’s while the bread finished baking. They paused after a while, trying to think what else to weave into the telling, when Sosanneth suddenly spoke up.

“Mummy, then we all sat together and had a drink of water and Damari told us a story about how people first happened that the seer had taught him and Bashur didn’t like it and then we came back here and daddy said Damari mustn’t tell things like that any more because it would mean Baruk and Bashur wouldn’t do jobs he wanted them to do when they grow up. But I liked it and Damari was good.”

Yeresheth looked at Shomal. He shook his head. “Yeshith, it wasn’t like that.”

Sosanneth went over to Yeresheth and sat on her lap, looking up at Shomal.

“But daddy, you said to Damari that he could sing with the seer but you didn’t want your sons getting all mixed up in it because you had other work for them.”

Yeresheth smoothed Sosanneth’s hair behind the ribbon she still wore sometimes in and around the house instead of a proper kef. “All right, Sannah, hush now.” She put the needlework down beside her and glanced briefly at Bashur, who stood off to one side, watching her. “All four of my children will do me honour in their own way. All four of them will use the talents they were given when the Seven Ladies watched over their birth. I’ll not hear that one of them is more blessed than another, or of more value to the village.” She held Bashur’s gaze until he nodded once, and then looked at the others in the room in turn, ending with Shomal. “I’ll not hear that from anyone.”

She sat Sosanneth beside her and turned to look at the bread in the oven. There was a little silence in the room, until Shomal noisily rearranged some tools in one corner, saying something not quite audible about believing a daughter who was barely able to talk, instead of a husband who could speak for himself. Bashur went over to help him, and they moved some things outside and some other things in. Yeresheth ignored the whole burst of activity, told Baruk and Damariel to clean and flatten the roof where the wind had caught it during the night, and showed Sosanneth how to recognise when the bread was cooked.

On the roof, Baruk glanced over into the courtyard where Shomal and Bashur were sharpening some of the tools, then came back to Damariel before speaking.

“Look, Damari, I don’t know what’s going on. What’s got into mum and dad?”

Damariel, feeling wise with the benefit of his extra eighteen months, shrugged and packed down some of the loose roofing.

“Mum likes what I do. Dad doesn’t. He says I’m not really his son, that you should have the rights of being his firstborn. So really he doesn’t want anything to do with me. The only reason he lets me go to the seer at all is so he can get better deals for his olives, or get someone else to give him something for nothing.”

Baruk sat beside him and helped him work some loose straw back into place where the wind and weather had teased it away from the rest.

“I’ve heard that from some of the older boys. You and Qetirah and Kothar, all the same, they say. And Galmet. And that younger boy, what’s he called.”


“Yes, him. What is it about you all?”

“I don’t know, Baruk. They won’t tell me. But you see it, don’t you? And the others in the town too. Mostly they don’t talk about it at all. Then if it comes up they either back away and go all strange, or they make fun of us.”

Baruk nodded, and after a brief pause continued.

“But you are my brother, Damari, aren’t you?”

Damariel carefully let go of the springy wooden lath and made sure it stayed in place.

“Yes I am, Baruk. But by mum, not dad, if I’ve heard people right. He never forgets it, won’t let her forget it either. It’s different for Qetirah and Kothar, both their dads are pleased with it.”

“How come? Weren’t they . . .” he paused and looked cautiously about, dropping his voice even quieter, “weren’t they married when they had you? But so what? That girl up the street, Niri-Shadday, you know she’s about to have a baby and everyone says it was Nesher, but they’ve never been married up at the stones.”

He glanced round briefly, left and right. “Have you heard what some of the other lads were saying about her, you know, like Yusuf?”

Damariel nodded quickly, and the two brothers grinned at each other before Damariel sobered again.

“I don’t know, Baruk. I asked the seer once but he wouldn’t tell me. Said I could know when I was older. They all say that. Same with some of the songs, Iqnu won’t teach me some of them yet. Keeps saying I have to wait until I’m older to get to do them. I hope they’re worth the wait. But I feel like I have nothing to do with Shomal at all, like he’s just some kind of uncle or something. The older I get, the worse I think it gets. Look, Baruk, you and Bashur look like him, same hair, same eyes, same hands, whatever. Sosanneth has a bit of him, even if she’s more like mum. But I don’t. It’s like every time he looks at me he sees a foreigner.”

“Like one of those Mitsriy we saw last year?” His eyes widened. “You don’t think that mum, I mean, maybe she . . . Before she married dad, I mean, maybe, do you think . . .”

He trailed off as Damariel put a finger to his lips.

“Baruk, don’t even think of saying that downstairs. Especially not to Bashur, he’ll just spout it to someone else and who knows what will happen. Anyway, I don’t think that’s it at all. I just don’t know. No-one ever tells me. Look, we have to go down or he’ll think I’m teaching you something I shouldn’t. Baruk, look, thank you. But you need to keep with Bashur when he’s around. Don’t get into trouble because of me.”

Baruk pursed his lips, then finally nodded. They went back down, to where Yeresheth had baked bread and gathered them all around the little table to eat.

Milk & Honeyed Land

The Background
In a Milk and Honeyed Land is a novel about everyday life about 3,000 years ago in the hill country of Canaan – now called Israel and Palestine – close to the end of the time of Egyptian rule of that province. It explores how the vast changes in lifestyle, politics, religion and music that occurred in that area between what archaeologists call the Bronze Age and Iron Age might have been mirrored by individual people’s words and actions. The large-scale actions and military campaigns of the Egyptian pharaoh and other great kings are nowhere in sight; this is a story of the resources and people available within four small allied communities.

It is set close to the end of a long period of comparative stability in the hill country of Canaan. The Egyptians – the Mitsriy of the story – have governed the region with a fairly light hand, on the whole. Population has declined, and towns and villages have dwindled in size as the occupants have moved out into the more prosperous lowlands. Within a hundred years or so, the political landscape will be quite different again, with the Mitsriy gone and small kingdoms arising to compete over the territory. For the time being, communities continue in their traditional ways, with local priests and chieftains chosen from among the people by merit rather than dynastic ambition. The book follows the life of a village priest in one of the towns as he struggles with timeless issues of life and love, loyalty and betrayal, greed and generous giving.

The First Part of the Story
Damariel is apprenticed as a young man by the village priest, whose reckless actions lead to his disgrace. Damariel manages to avoid becoming implicated in the matter and carries on his training, marrying his childhood friend Qetirah shortly before they begin their shared ministry in the town. Feeling ashamed of their continuing inability to have children, Qetirah becomes pregnant by the chief of the four towns, but the pregnancy is difficult. Damariel’s anger and outrage spills over into the marriage. He holds the chief responsible for the situation but cannot see how to get either justice or revenge…

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Genre – Historical Fiction

Rating – PG13

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