If you're one of my Facebook friends, you may have seen me posting status reports about this chapter reaching 7,200 words (or about 22 pages in a standard mass-market paperback). Yeah, I expected it to be shorter. I mean I'm only re-telling part of Genesis 19 and it's only around 1100 words. I do reference Genesis 14 (the war in which Lot was taken prisoner) and 17 (when God commanded Abraham to remove some excess skin), but I took 6.5 times as many words to tell the tale than the King James Version of the bible does.
Anyway, 7,200 words was too long, so I found a good break point and split it. You'll get approximately half today and the other half next Monday. I hope by the time we reach the conclusion of the tale of the destruction of Sodom next week, you'll feel it was worth the longer journey.
Hell on Five Dollars a Day:
Sodom All Over Again
A Novel By Greg Bulmash
Copyright © MMIX - Greg Bulmash - All Rights Reserved
Prologue - Part II
Shemhazai expected God to take action after Azazel had caused such rampant death and destruction, but God was oddly silent. As he toured the devastation, trying to render aid where he could, Shemhazai ran into men who had built boats just in time, who had moved to high ground just in time, and they told of how the gods or the spirits spoke to them. Some had even been warned of the Nephilim's part in causing the flood. But in traditional human form, they had confused the message. One man, Noah, told people that God caused the flood to rid the earth of the Nephilim and their progeny. Shemhazai was not going to correct him. Better the people thought that the Nephilim and their children were gone.
Each sentient race in God's universe existed to produce special souls that manifested an extreme level of holiness, but the gene for this holiness could not be woven into the building blocks of life on a planet. It could not be chanced that it might manifest too soon or in an inappropriate animal. Thus, when the sentient race reached a certain level of development on a physical and sociological scale, God introduced the holiness gene. Two hundred angels would go to live among the race, take their forms, and take wives from among their females. They would father children, and those children would become the patriarchs and matriarchs of bloodlines that would produce kings, saints, and madmen.
In every instance, whether by chance or design, 200 of God's angels would find themselves irresistably drawn to the females of that species. Shemhazai himself had been smitten with human women. He found them not only surpassingly beautiful, but he was fascinated with their capacity for deep and powerful emotions. He had seen no being that could love as deeply as a human woman. Yet her capacity for love was matched by her capacity for anger. Her capacity for joy was matched by her capacity for depression. Humans were an emotional tightrope act, trying to balance on thin wires of equilibrium, and they fascinated him. When God requested angels to volunteer to go live among the humans, Shemhazai was among the first.
As Noah and those like him spread the word that the flood had killed the children of the Nephilim, it protected all those who survived, ensuring that they passed the holiness gene to continuing generations, and that it spread out throughout the human population. Gradually it would become so diffused into the human genome that the only way to truly eradicate the descendants of the Nephilim would be to eradicate humanity itself. Although, if Azazel had his way...
The one benefit of the flood, if it could be called that, was that Azazel and his cohort of disgruntled angels had chosen to keep a low profile, at least for the time being. Word got back to Shemhazai that Azazel had not intended all of the collateral destruction the sinking of Atlantis would cause, and God's unusual silence on the matter induced more fear than relief. Azazel and his accomplices saw nothing wrong with not attracting attention for a century or two while this whole thing blew over.
In recent years, the city had become debauched. Following the unfortunate military campaign that resulted in the death of its king and the kidnapping of prominent citizens, the new leaders of the city turned their attentions to building their power through wealth, and they had no ethical or moral boundaries in their pursuit of it. The city grew in reputation and lucre by the year. Men and women from far and near flocked to it, seeking to make their fortunes. Whatever weakness a man might have was catered to here, whether it was for wine, or gambling, or fleshly desires that most dared not even put into words. And the constant influx of new residents provided fresh meat for Sodom to grind.
The wealthiest residents lived outside the city in the nearby kingdom of Gomorrah; also defeated in the past military debacle, now joined with its nearby city-state by a king from the royal houses of both Sodom and Gomorrah who united the two in commerce but kept their populations separated by walls and wealth.
Gomorrah was pristine. Only the wealthiest of merchants, the priests of the most powerful gods, and the most noble families lived there. If a resident of Sodom were found on the streets of Gomorrah without a special chit from his master, he would be beaten.
Sodom housed the caravanserai, the pleasure palaces, the gambling halls, the abbatoirs, and the market spaces. The gates of Sodom enclosed the modest houses of the higher workers and lesser merchants, the temples of the small gods, and the offices of the tradesmen's guilds. The remaining residents of the city lived in a haphazard tumble of shacks and tents downwind of the city's eastern wall.
In Sodom, everything not wanted in the buildings was dumped in the streets, and the League of Merchants paid a crew of men to patrol daily, removing the worst of it. Primarily the crews removed the carcasses of animals and people that had been tossed into the street or had just crawled there to die. The foreman of one of those crews was a man named Lot.
He had brought his family to Sodom years ago after a conflict with his uncle, Abraham. He did well for a while, until the kings of Sodom and Gomorrah joined with the kings of Admah, Zeboiim, and Bela (also known as Zoar) in a war against five other city-states including Elam, Shinar, and Ellasar. When the kings of Sodom and Gomorrah both fell on the field of battle, and the men loyal to the other kings were in retreat, the enemy kings swept through the cities, taking Lot as a hostage to ransom and as much as his flock as they could drive with them, because an army needs to eat.
Lot's hands and feet were bound, and he was driven through the plains like a slave. Word got back to his uncle Abraham, who raised an army and pursued Lot's captors, harrying them until he finally won a decisive victory, reclaiming the hostages and what little of their goods remained. But rather than try to make Lot whole and help him regain his standing, Abraham turned Lot over to the new king of Sodom along with the other rescued hostages and the meager reclaimed goods. The king had been so grateful to Abraham that he promised to Lot that he would never be without food or shelter so long as he lived. And that is how Lot found himself working on a city crew, removing the worst of the filth and bodies from the streets and dumping them outside the city's eastern gates.
Lot liked to take his supper at the western gates, watching the sun begin to fall behind Gomorrah, because he believed that someday he might still rebound, might somehow find success as a merchant and build a great walled estate in Gomorrah. Despite the low station he now found himself in, he would look upon Gomorrah and promise himself that a walled estate was not yet out of his grasp, that an opportunity would arise.
Sodom and Gomorrah lay on opposite sides of a caravan route. The horsemen, camel tenders, guards, and stewards could stop and partake of the wares of Sodom, while the masters of the caravan could stop over in Gomorrah and be entertained in the homes of the merchants. That day, as Lot looked out upon the caravan path, he saw two lone travellers walking upon it. He watched with interest as they approached the gates of Sodom, wondering what kind of men might undertake such a journey by foot. His question was answered when he saw he knew both men.
Vikiel was an old friend of Lot's family. He had hunted often with Lot's father, Haran. When Haran died while Lot was still young, Vikiel shared the duties of surrogate father with Lot's uncle Abraham, helping to teach Lot the skills of hunting, or caring for animals, of building and repairing tents, and those other things a man needed to know. When Lot married, each man had given him three pregnant ewes as a wedding gift, and Lot had built his flock from there. Of course, Abraham had only promised Lot a single ewe, but when Vikiel promised him three, Abraham was not to be outdone. He would not let someone who was not blood, not even of their tribe, give his nephew a greater wedding gift than his own.
Vikiel travelled with Samyaza, a wandering scholar Lot had met three or four times in Vikiel's company. Lot got up from his seat and walked down to the gate, waving to the two men. Vikiel smiled and waved in return.
Shemhazai had mixed feelings about Vikiel. The angel didn't tend to think ahead and often made what seemed to be bad decisions, such as impregnating the wives of old Terah three times over a period of sixty years and letting the ancient man think the babies were his, even the boy Abraham, who was born when Terah was 130 years old. If he had been caught, it would have been yet another of his messes for Shemhazai to clean up. But he wasn't caught, and not only that, Abraham had manifested the greatest level of holiness yet seen among humans. Abraham had eventually discerned the nature of God and they had spoken a few times. Unfortunately, besides being abnormally intelligent and abnormally holy, the man was also abnormally mad in a frighteningly functional way. As his holiness manifested and he discerned more truths about the world, he delivered his interpretation of those truths as commandments from God, often in ways that made being around him something of a gamble.
Circumcision, for example, did provide certain health benefits in a culture where water was not plentiful and bathing was infrequent. But when Abraham realized that, he pronounced it was a commandment from God and immediately ordered the mass circumcision of himself, his son, and all his male household slaves. That was not a day of joy in the house of Abraham.
"Lot," Vikiel called, smiling as they approached the gate. Lot was a handsome man in his forties, though he appeared to be a decade younger, and stood a few inches taller than the average Sodomites around him. He looked more like a patrician than a garbage collector. Being the grandson of an angel had some advantages.
Whenever Shemhazai saw Vikiel with one of his descendants, he tried to look for the family resemblance. Aside from being a bit taller than average, maybe being a bit sprightlier around the eyes, he couldn't see it. If he looked closely, he could see the holiness gene manifesting in their DNA, but there was little about them that specifically said Vikiel.
Once they passed through the gates, Lot approached and hugged Vikiel, giving him a hearty thumping on the back. "What are you two doing here," he asked with joy in his voice.
"We were travelling to Zoar. There is a caravan there leaving for Uruk and Samyaza plans to join it," Vikiel said, indicating Shemhazai and using the name he preferred to use among mortals. "They are building a great library in Uruk and have called for scholars to come contribute knowledge. We planned to stop here for the night and rest at Barhalomech's famed inn. It is said Baharlomech gets all the best spices from the caravans, and his food is unmatched."
Lot smile disappeared. "I thought you would come stay at my home. It is modest, but we would make you comfortable. My wife is a good cook."
"Is she as good as Barhalomech?"
Lot's features drooped further. "No."
Vikiel put an arm around his shoulders and gave him a friendly squeeze. "Then we shall lodge with you, but dine with Barhalomech!"
That seemed to raise Lot's spirits, and despite a questioning look from Shemhazai, Vikiel kept a genial smile plastered to his face. "Show us to your home so we may wash, then Samyaza and I shall buy dinner for you and your family at Barhalomech's."
"No, no," Lot protested. "You are my guests. We shall buy dinner for you."
"If you say so," Vikiel said. "Show us to your home!"
Lot's home clustered in with 10 other homes to form a U-shaped plaza around a well. He raised twenty buckets of water that late afternoon so his guests could not just wash, but bathe and clear the dust of the road from wherever it had gathered. He brought them fruit oils for their hair and a salve for their feet. While they bathed, he washed himself from head to toe with a cloth, liberally annointing himself with oils to erase the smells of garbage.
When everyone was cleaned and refreshed, Lot led his guests -- along with his wife, his two daughters, and the two boys they would marry at the spring festival -- to Barhalomech's. The family walked in a large group, Lot and his guests leading and talking, while the women and the young men trailed. Lot's wife and daughters talked quietly among themselves, but his future sons-in-law would not be seen making small talk with women in public, and they had not been asked to join the conversation with the older men, so they walked in silence.
Barhalomech's inn was one of the few inns in Sodom that Lot felt comfortable taking his family to, although he could rarely afford it. Unlike the dark enclosures where rough men took strong drink, the public area of Barhalomech's was a large open courtyard with tall canopies and long tables. Even some of the patrician families of Gomorrah would come to dine there, though Barhalomech had a special section reserved for such clients.
Lot and his guests were seated at one end of a long table which was already half full. A jug of a honeyed lemonade was brought with enough cups for the party. Baharlomech had been a customer before the war, buying lambs from Lot's flock, and he always treated Lot as a friend. When the party raised their glasses, they found they had been given a jug of Baharlomech's special rosewater lemonade, normally only served in the special section reserved for the Gomorrites. Lot would have to find Baharlomech and thank him personally for this little extra luxury.
Baharlomech's cooking technique was to use a secret spice rub of his own concoction and then cook the meat slowly for hours, not over the smoking fire, but next to it. Even the toughest cuts came out tender and infused with the flavors of spices, smoke, and the meat's own essence. It truly was the best food in Sodom. And as the inn's courtyard filled, so did the special section reserved for Baharlomech's most favored clients.
Neither Vikiel nor Shemhazai had been paying it much attention. They had little use for the social stratifications humans created and thought those who self-segregated based on an overinflated opinion of themselves weren't worth the energy to despise. But as happens with any diner at any establishment, Shemhazai's eyes wandered around the courtyard, and as they passed over the exclusive section, his attention was grabbed by the neck. Sitting in plain view, eating and socializing with a group of humans, was Gadreel, Azazel's second-in-command. He wore a blood red tunic, his hands, wrists, and neck adorned with gold and silver jewelry. If Azazel was not in Sodom, Gadreel would know where he was.
Lot and Vikiel sat next to each other, opposite Shemhazai. "Lot," Shemhazai called, "be inconspicuous if you can, but peek over your left shoulder very briefly and tell me if you recognize that man in the red tunic."
Rather than peek over his shoulder inconspicuously, as requested, Lot turned in his seat and stared openly. "That's Gali. He is the right-hand of Shemhazai, the president of the League of Merchants."
Shemhazai clenched his fists. Gadreel was too proud to work for a human, and even if it was possible he had changed in that respect, no human he worked for would coincidentally have the name Shemhazai. It was almost flattering that Azazel had been hiding out under his name, but more importantly, it was gratifying that Azazel had been found... sort of. Azazel was not in the courtyard, but if Gadreel did not recognize them -- and why would he bother to pay attention to commoners -- they would be able to follow him to Azazel.
That thought had not been finished in Shemhazai's mind for more than a blink of an eye when Lot waved. "What are you doing," Shemhazai barked through clenched teeth.
"Oh, don't worry," Lot said, waving again. "He is the paymaster for the crews employed by the League of Merchants. He likes me because I laugh at his jokes."
"Are they funny," Vikiel asked. Shemhazai looked daggers at him, but he just shrugged.
"No," Lot said, still smiling and waving, "but he is the paymaster. Oh, look, he saw me."
Shemhazai tried to duck his head down as if absorbed in his plate, but before he had, he was sure Gadreel had seen him. The look of recognition on Gadreel's face had not just been that of an inconvenienced employer seeing an underling outside of work. There was more than mere contempt in it. There was outright hatred. Slowly, Shemhazai raised his head again to see Gadreel looking directly at him. Gadreel nodded slowly in his direction, then a smile broke through the baleful look and Gadreel was engaged with his companions as if none of it had ever happened.
Lot turned back to the table, pleased with the acknowledgement he believed "Gali" had given him with the nod. Shemhazai raised an eyebrow at Vikiel, silently sharing with him a vision of the man in red. Vikiel's face fell. There would be no chance of surreptitiously following Gadreel to Azazel now. When the meal concluded, Gadreel would make his excuses to cut the night short and go running to Azazel.
Shemhazai was sorely tempted to return at once to the colony of Nephilim he had assembled atop Mount Olympus in Greece. But running off now would only make matters worse. Azazel would now know they had found him and the ball would be in his court. Shemhazai and Vikiel would accompany Lot back home, and when the family had settled in for the night, one of them could pop back to Olympus to alert the others.
Shemhazai tried to settle back into his meal, but knowing Gadreel sat just yards away took all the joy out of Baharlomech's most excellent roast meat.
[To Be Continued May 25, 2009]
Hell on $5 a Day: Sodom All Over Again is a work of fiction, serialized by its author on Brainhandles.com. Excerpts may be used for blog posts or articles about the novel. The length limit on excerpts is 4 paragraphs. Any more extensive usage requires permission.