Sunday, February 19, 2006

The Judgement

It was the night of the moon festival, and the villagers were all sleeping peacefully in their beds. This was unusual, because sleep, especially sound sleep, was a luxury few could afford in a desert land torn by strife and civil war. Tonight was a night of indulgence: the large flagons of wine earlier in the evening had been just a prelude, it was a good night's rest that was the true intoxicant. Even the village dogs were drunk on it.

The man stood in the shadow of his doorway listening for the slightest sound that might suggest another waking soul. There was none. He was the only one still awake in the village, the only one who had not partaken of the night's festivities. Oh, there were the sentries, of course, but they were too far away to matter, lost in the dark mystery of the night, in its essential otherness. There were four of them, four lookouts placed at the four corners of the village, watching for any movement across the great plain that might signal the coming of an enemy. Though come to think of it, even they might be dozing on a night like this. Not that it mattered.

Looking out from his doorway, he studied the familiar layout of the village. It wasn't much of a place - just a few dozen houses crowded together haphazardly in the middle of the desert, as though in drawing back from the world the huts had bumped into each other. Four streets crossed through in ragged perpendiculars, one of them traveling an extra quarter of a mile to the covered well that made the inhabitation of this village possible. By day the houses were dusty and sagging, but the night had lent them the magic of silhouettes, and the faint starlight trickled among them like spilled mercury.

Far away, on the other side of the village, the great ash heap that had been the night's bonfire died its slow lonely death. The faint glow of it sparked an explosion of outrage in the man's breast. So they wouldn't let him come to the festival, eh? Called him a brute and a pervert, spat at him on the street? All because he tried to show that pesky little girl from next door a good time - it was just a game, after all, what did she have to go crying to her mother for, the stupid slut? They all thought they were so smart, so superior. Well he'd show them. He was going away tonight - it was the only thing to do - but he wasn't going to give them the satisfaction of thinking that they had made him slink away like a beaten dog. No sir. Tonight was the night he paid them back for all the insults of the past year, the beatings they'd given him, the way they'd convinced his wife to leave him. Tonight he'd show them that you can't treat a man like that and get away with it.

Once he was absolutely certain that everyone else in the village was asleep, he stepped out into the street, gesturing for the bandits to follow. There were six of them - dark swarthy men cloaked in blackness and violence, their greed palpable in the clear night air. They had been hidden away in his house for a long time now (as long as three days for the some of them), and their movements were a little stiff from the confinement, but already he could see them taking on the deliberateness of purpose that comes from long practice.

His deal with these bandits was simple. He would give them shelter in his house and lay the village open to them so they could loot and plunder at will. In return, they were to spare his life and allow him to leave unmolested with his possessions. And no one, not a single soul other than himself, was to be left alive in the village. These were strange terms, and the chief of the bandits had stared at the man who had come to offer them with a suspicion that was tinged with disgust. But these were hard times and the chief was not a man to pass up on easy pickings. He had given, reluctantly, his word.

And so it had gone forward. The men had arrived singly, or in twos, some sneaking their way past the sentries in the dead of night (the sentries kept watch for large bands of armed intruders, a man alone could slip past easily), others arriving with the wagons of merchants and staying behind, unnoticed, when the wagons left. Two of them had actually come up to his front door in broad daylight. This had excited some comment in the village, and a delegation of neighbours had come to check who these men might be, but he had told him that they were kin from distant parts, come to visit, and the villagers had been too caught up in their preparations for the holy festival to pay much attention to such trivial matters.

Now the six men fanned out, daggers drawn, swords at the ready. The first order of business was to kill the sentries, but this was easily done, partly because the sentries would hardly be expecting an attack from within the village, and partly because he had told them the exact location of the sentry posts, so that the guards, though hidden, were easily found. With the guards put down, he watched in fascination as the men fanned out, each picking the door of a hut seemingly at random, then stepping swiftly through the door (doors were not locked in the village - crime was unknown here) only to emerge five minutes later with a bundle of valuables clenched in their fists. These bundles they deposited at his feet, leaving them there for safekeeping while they returned to rob another house, then another one. When they came close to him to drop off the loot, he could see the blood staining their hands, smell the death on their clothes. He threw his head back and saw the stars winking at him and he wanted to laugh.

As the men went about their murderous business, careful to let no cry of warning escape from their victims (though here are there there would be the sound of a scuffle, of something falling, of something broken), he sat and thought about what he was going to do when this was all over. There was a camp of the Imperial army some 12 miles off to the east, he knew. He had decided to head for that, figuring that where there was war there was always opportunity. But what would he tell them? How would he explain? His initial thought had been to tell them that his village had been attacked and destroyed by bandits (which was true, after all) and that he had been the only one lucky enough to escape. But would they believe him? Would they not rather suspect him of having conspired with the criminals? And what if they pursued the bandits and caught them, as the army was known to do, and the bandits talked and implicated him as well? No, that would never do.

But what if the men destroying the village were not bandits but angels? Farishtas of destruction sent down to punish the townspeople for their villainy? His heart warmed to this idea, the natural justice of it, the rightness of condemning his accusers, recommending it strongly to his mind. Yes, a judgement had fallen upon his village, and he and he alone had been spared because he was a righteous man and had kept God's covenants. He pictured the scene where the angels gave him this message, and it brought tears to his eyes. Of course, his audience might be a little skeptical of such a miracle, but he would tell them that the angels had also prophesied certain victory to the Imperial Army. That should win the commander to his side.

By now the men were almost done with their slaughter. There were only the last houses left, the ones where the young maidens of the village lived, which he had carefully pointed out to the men earlier in the day. There was little need for secrecy now - everyone else in the village was already dead or dying - and soon the screams of the girls split the silence of the night air. He stood listening to them, picturing in his mind the things that were being done to the girls, rubbing his hands together with glee at the thought of it. That'll show him, he thought. That'll teach them to make fun of me.

When the last screams had all died down and the men had gathered around the plunder, he helped them load the loot onto the horses from the village stable, then took them over to the oil merchant's hut, where they broke open a cask of oil and proceeded to douse the houses with it, carrying it in the big stone jugs they found lying in the merchant's shop. Not that a spark set off among these thatched houses would lack for fuel, of course, it had been a long summer and the roofs were dry and ripe for fire. Still it didn't hurt to make sure. While the men went about this business, he went inside his own house for one last time, and carried out the baggage he had kept packed and ready there. Then he headed out of the village, walking east at a brisk pace, not even turning back to look when the smell of smoke and the crackle of the flame told him that the village had been torched. The glow of the fire danced all around him, lighting him on his path. Shadows flickered on the edges of his consciousness. For a moment he considered what would happen if the bandits decided to turn on him, decided not to let him go as a witness to their actions. He listened for a sound on the path behind him. There was none. The leader of the bandits had kept his word. As the first hint of dawn began to creep into the sky his heart lightened, and he went on his way with a steadier air. Behind him, the houses of Sodom burned to the ground.


Okay, so this is getting a little obsessive. Forgive me. It's just that after yesterday's story, I simply couldn't resist this one. The thing that's always intrigued me about the Sodom and Gomorrah story (Genesis: 18 - 19) is the fact that, since Lot was the only survivor, logically we only have his word for what went on in these towns. Call me a cynic, but you have to be at least a little suspicious, I think, when only one man survives a cataclysmic event and then it turns out he was the noblest, most righteous man of them all. It sounds a little too much like the plot of a M. Night Shyamalan film.



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