“Noah—oh, for the love of Ishtar—Noah! Wake up!”
I had been walking in a sunny vale, chasing after yellow-golden butterflies; I could not catch them, though I swear, my feet felt as light as when I was a little boy: the breeze ruffled my hair, I heard birds singing sweetly; not too far-off, there, amid the trees, there was a little mountain stream—perhaps I could take off my broken sandals, and bathe my poor, aching feet in it. Ah, what bliss! I—
I woke, pulling my beard out of my night-sleeping- mouth, to see Xantippe, my wife of—forty? Fifty? Years, her hair done up in those—those—ribbon-things, she puts on every night; they make her look like a startled mugwump. The breezes and birds flew away, and I squinted at her in the half-darkness; she didn’t look happy. I tried to smile through my foggy-headedness, trying to speak without mumbling; she hates when I mumble—
“Yes, my dear?”
“It’s those people.”
“Yes, across the way. Loud, they are. Always fighting, drinking, complaining. Now GO, Noah. Tell them you can’t sleep. Go, and tell them. Now.” She flounced back down, under the eiderdown, there in the black Nippurian night, leaving me in my stocking feet, hunting for my robe, scratching, half-awake, and thinking: O no, my girl, my lovely onetime love, it’s not you can’t sleep; it’s me now, and that’s what I was doing—sleeping, I was, that is….
“Well, what are you waiting for?”
“Waiting, my dear?”
“Yes, yes, go and tell them!”
And so, I sighed, got up, wrapped my shawl around me, took my stout, knotty terebinthy-wooden walking-stick—who can tell what manner of man or beast one meets at night here in Nippur, with the king’s guards all abed? And as I creaked along, knees and elbows crackling, I heard Him talking to me—He talks best at night, He does:
“Noah,” He said, and I replied, “Yes, Lord?” for that’s how He likes to be addressed, He does. No one can hear Him but me, and He told me that’s how He prefers it; He says I’m the only one who deserves to be spoken to, anyway….
“Noah,” He said again, and, as I opened the door, trying not to make it creak—the Boys—my Sons, that is—and their wives all live with us, now, on the ground floor—couldn’t make it in the Big World, apparently, and have all come home, with their wives and kiddies, all moved in with us—
“Noah, you must build an Ark; for such is My command.”
This was something big; He had never asked me to build anything before. Build what? How? Before, all He’d done was complain to me: bellyaching about the neighbors, the government, stuff such as I could agree with. Yes, the neighborhood has gotten worse; that’s true. But it wasn’t always that way. When Xannie and I moved in, years ago, people were friendlier; they said hello. But now, people don’t even care where their dog makes dirt. It’s just too bad.
As I left our door, and went across to—what’s his name? Amibaal the cobbler, I believe; we met last month at the big autumnal orgy, the one where Xannie warned me not to join in; I could watch, but mostly make sure that everyone there had a taste of her potato salad—they did seem to like it, there amid everything else they were doing—and I knocked on Amibaal’s door. There were musicians there; I could hear them, and some young girl’s voice, going on and on, starting off low, and then louder and louder—perhaps a song; perhaps she was just very happy about something: I couldn’t make it out. Screaming, yelling. It’s all the same to me; I’m just an old man needs his rest is all.
The door opened. Face with a beard. Smell of barley beer.
“Hm?” the voice.
“Hello there,” I began, in my most neighborly tones, “I’m Noah, live across the way. I believe we met, last month. Are you Amibaal?”
“His son. Help you?”
Man of few words, that one. Someone’s hands around his neck: too dark to see. Candles in back, there, with the music. Incense-smell. Meat roasting, barbecue. Made my mouth water.
“Yes, well. Think you can keep it down a bit, folks can sleep? Work in the morning, and all….”
The door was already closing.
As I turned to cross over to my side, I almost tripped over a cat. Poor thing: I bent over and picked it up. Scrawny little beastie. I tried to stroke its fur, calm it down; I could feel its tiny heart beating, beating. And I heard His Voice again.
“You see, Noah? That is not how neighbors should behave. Its reek has reached Me, yea, to My nostrils is the stench therefrom; I think, therefore, that I should wreck it, upset it, end it all, start over.”
I was petting the poor little thing, didn’t quite hear Him. Hard to pay attention all the time.
“Say again, Lord?”
“A flood. Big rain. No invading armies, no host of Babylon, no enemy sweeping down like a beast on the fold. Leave no mess to pick up. Your thoughts?”
“Kind of drastic, no?” I was opening my door. There was Cham—fine boy, that one—and his wife—what was her name?—snoring away in the corner. I covered them up; too much of them was showing. I wish they could afford their own place, but this Nippurian recession is killing—
“That’s it. That’s what I’ll do.”
“End them all. And start over with you.”
“Shouldn’t we talk about this some more?”
I held the kitty under one arm, went to the pantry—didn’t Xantippe have some goat’s-milk there? Poor beast was meowing so loudly, and trying to scratch at my shawl—and then, Himself kept talking, talking there in my ear:
“No help for it; no help at all. You must save—two—no, seven. Seven is My Command. Of the unclean beasts. No, the clean; yes, that way you can make offerings to Me afterward….”
“Will there be an Afterward, Lord? What with this flood-thing, and all—“
He was off again, silent; thinking, I suppose.
Back to the bedroom—I realized how bone-tired I was, and had to get up early the next morning; off to that construction site: Prince Nimrod wanted that tower built—big ‘un, too. Wouldn’t tell me what for. Ne’er mind; he paid on time, and that was the important thing. Imp(yawn)tant thing. Stretch out—arms crackling, again—so tired!—im—por—tant—thing. Ah,z-z-z….
“Lord? Who’s that? That tall drink of water in your office? I swear by Ishtar, Noah, if you ever—“
“Oh, Xannie—no, I was just thinking—of course—not of her, my dear—what, my love?”
“Did you talk to Amibaal?”
“He wasn’t home—his son was.”
“And I asked him to keep it down.”
“Hmph,” she said, and turned over, and moved away from me. I shrugged—it was late—we could certainly settle this in the morning which, judging from the early-light-rays coming in under the windowshade, wasn’t that far off….
Blessed Marduk! Will this night never end?—“Yes, Lord?”
“That will be—I’ve decided—seven clean beasts, and two unclean.”
“I’ll write it down. Soon.”