Everything had astonished God. Making all of creation de novo, from nothing. He even liked the sound of it, murmuring “de novo” to himself.
He first created nothingness, a deep blue robe and covered himself with it, his neck and thighs, down to his ankles, then the sky and the stars, over 243 species of turtles alone. And last, to see himself more clearly, he created man, male and female, all of his intimacies, his genitals, torso, his breasts and thighs, to never die. Seeing that it was good, God espoused himself to it like a young groom, binding himself as with a vow, to love his espoused forever. Exuberant, he gave his bride every herb bearing seed, every beast, every fish and fowl and crawling thing, dominion over all he had made as a wedding gift, a dowry.
But when they multiplied on the earth, instead of love, like himself, he saw wickedness and it grieved God. He had trouble seeing himself in the breeze, in the pony’s hide, in the daffodil and most of all in man, where the heart was so powerful for ill. It afflicted God, recalling that wedding union, that shower of rice. The more he paced and searched, the more he could not find himself, not in man and not in the mountain or glacier, the forest or the rivers, so that in time he recoiled at the thought of looking, and came to hate what once was magnificent, and to hate himself for making it and espousing himself to it.
He dreamt of drowning with his own hands everything in the sea and on the dry land. Giraffe and lemur, every hive of bees, every plant that pollinates, every fruit in decay, every bird in flight, every mammal suckling its young. And when he considered man, his anger was unstoppable. “You always want one more thing. But I don’t have one more thing! There’s just me. If I gave you myself, you’d find fault with me, too.” He imagined drowning all that belonged to man alone, every embrace and dream, every memory, every idea and regret, every instance of laughter and relief. And God calmed himself this way, soothed by the violence of it, the erotic charge of destruction.
Noah felt the anger of God and waited to see what he already sensed. A great wind came and bent the trees to the ground, snapping them, then the night sky bright with lightning, the stars disappeared. “All this might be severed,” he said to his wife as he looked at the sky, sheltering his eyes. In the bellowing cattle, he heard the anger of God. In his neighbor’s argument. For many nights he was frightened and could not sleep. “The minute God stops forgiving us,” he told his daughters and sons, “all of this,” he gestured in an arc, “will come to an end.”
He beckoned God but heard nothing. He lost his appetite, his sense of direction. His wife, hanging out clothes, watched him and remembered what she’d seen when they first met, that he was unlike other men, a visionary, his eyes full of a future. He spoke of what they could make together, a shared life. It was what she most loved in him, so that she said, “Make it of gopher wood,” because sometimes her suggestions brought him back to himself, and it did. He rose and paced, marked out measurements in the yard, drove in stakes with white flags, 300 cubits by fifty and determination returned to his face. He raced and hammered, outgrowing one ladder then the next, his teeth grinding as he slept, never fast enough. He ordered his sons to gather all that was beautiful on the earth, kumquat and alligator, hen, lizard and magpie.
When her sons were gone weeks then months, leaving behind wives and small children, the wives becoming despondent, frantic, then despondent again, her grandchildren forgetting the names of their fathers, his wife grew bitter. As he hammered, Noah wept for all he could see, animals, neighbors, bushes and trees so that she wondered how thin the line was between vision and madness.
When his sons returned, seeing the assembly, he wept again, for all that was strange and lovely, leopard, hyena and whippoorwill. Ferocious animals collared and tied to stakes, makeshift cages held in place by ropes. Bulbs and ferns gathered in boxes, and saplings.
Some of the pairs already mating, neighbors protested the noise, smell and commotion. Some moved away. The sound of hammering was constant, the awkward vessel casting its enormous shadow over the garden and the house so that she had trouble keeping hold of her affection for Noah, and thought, if this continues, he will strip everything I care about away.
When the first raindrops jangled the wind chime outside their bedroom window, Noah woke and pulled open the blind, sickened. Grey drops, a mist, hovered over the fields, the horses pawed the ground. Again, he called out to God but heard nothing so ordered his sons to lead the animals in two by two. His wife walked apart, not with him up the ramp, hoping, in the noise and confusion, he wouldn’t notice.
The lowly grass was the first to disappear, the cats and mice floated on the streams between houses. A dog swam in the current, a chest of drawers. Noah’s daughters shielded the eyes of their children, ordered them away from the windows, their friends and playmates frantically swimming then screaming then going under. Rocks and boulders, fences, rooftops, people on the roofs screaming, people in trees leaping to the ark, the thud of their bodies and others leaping to their deaths. The water rose and the ark rose until just the uppermost leaves of the trees were visible, the giant hawks waging war against it. The footpaths on the hills disappeared then the tops of the hills and then the water crept up the mountain sides, the goats stampeded straight up, leaping across rocks and ridges, terrified. Noah thought, surely God’s holy mountain will not disappear, but then it did, and there was nothing left to see but water and sky and Noah thought, God has brought the waters of the flood over his head like a cloak.
When the dog floated by, Noah said to himself, love is stronger than this. And he clung to that one sentence as to a plank floating on the water, a single plank, repeating it to himself again and again.
As white caps formed on the water, slamming into the ark from all sides, the giant swells, the sea creatures, great whales calling their distress, “This is how much God loved us,” Noah told himself, losing balance, grabbing the ledge. Somehow a bird cage bobbed upright before going under, that parakeet frantic on the swing.
Days passed, weeks. Noah rationed the food more strictly, put the animals on half-stock, the grain for mules. Afloat, isolated, Noah’s wife saying, “What made you think we were a seafaring family?” The children had nightmares, months became a year then two until, finally, the children forgot what they’d seen and composed new rhymes and games and hand-slaps, the girls jumped rope to the sound of it. Horses, goats, sheep gave birth, the still-born thrown into the sea. Wives grew hungry for new touch, experimented, co-mingled.
Fighting, grumbling, the ark became a floating prison without destination or purpose. “You brought us here just to die!” his wife accused. One child already thrown overboard. Animals restless to fly, to run. The children’s legs shrunk, their arms grew crooked, their vocabularies became crude. They spoke to each other in guttural sounds and Noah turned away thinking, this is the death of language.
He wanted to touch his wife but she withdrew, so he slept in the storeroom, the key around his neck. Tied himself to the shelf now empty, where grain had stood in bags and made his bed there, the smell of pitch near his face. He bumped against the inside wall of the ark, rubbing against it like fire, combustible, while the anger of God slammed the side of the vessel again and again without cease, the slamming waves then thunder.
When his wife banged at the door complaining of cow dung and shortage, ants, the multiplying rats, he ignored her, tied the straps tighter, binding himself to the anger of God whom he also cursed for drawing him into life in the first place, for making the moon and the stars, for making his wife, so beautiful when she was young, the trees that sung when he walked her home. He cursed God for the primrose, the flesh of the date, the smell of crisp meat, loganberries and wine, the shade of the pines, so that his body, his senses, flailed at the memory of it. Most vehemently he cursed God himself whom he once loved more than his wife, his family, his flocks and fields.
He recalled the night his good neighbor stood at the door saying, “It was a mercy killing,” and handed Noah the pillow he’d put over his wife. He relayed how he’d sat at the edge of the bed telling her a story from his childhood, a happy story that made her mouth smile, the side that still moved, then reached for the pillow and pressed it to her face. “A large pillow,” he emphasized, asking Noah to burn it for him. Large enough to cover not just her face but her chest, shoulder to shoulder, so that nothing was left to chance.
Some nights Noah wondered if he should have done the same thing. His wife and family senseless on the water, the life they had, obliterated, their future would be what? To throw each other overboard when it was time?
He practiced telling himself, this is not the absence of love but love broken, love is stronger than death, love perdures. Telling himself this when his oldest son knocked reverently but firmly on the door saying, “Father, come out. Mother died last night and we need you. We are throwing her into the sea.”
Noah loosed the straps and unlocked the door and saw that his grand children were adults, his own body too frail to walk unassisted, his wife’s hair grown down to her feet. They took off her wedding ring and gave it to him, then wrapped her in a linen cloth, and lifting her body over the rail, let her go.
As he watched her body disappear, he put the ring to his lips and tongue to taste her salt there and recalled how his wife had for many nights beseeched him to come out but he’d refused, and when, through the door, she asked his forgiveness he withheld it from her. He had needed her to be with him when they walked up the ramp, had needed her all of the time, and when she lingered behind, shuffling in the rabbits and butterflies, he told himself, this is the beginning of the end.
Unforgiven, she’d passed years carrying a candle behind her cupped hand, speaking to him through the door saying, “Come back to our marriage bed, please come back to me.” But he did not unlock the door. In their bed alone, she’d imagined her husband returning to her, to the little rope strung bed he’d made for them, the maroon blanket, the flickering lamp, their arms around each other, speaking soft words with tenderness. “We were a couple, we were a pair,” she would remind him, rubbing the red marks on his ankles and wrists where he’d bound himself to the shelf, his bruises, splinters in his back and on his feet. He would watch her pluck them out, her hair grown coarse, not as soft to the touch. He would notice this and she his haggard face. They would lie side by side, her back inches from his face, the mole near her backbone, between her shoulder blades, the sag of her skin. “We’re still alive,” he would remind her. “And we have each other,” she would add, bringing his wrinkled hand over her shoulder to her breast.
In that moment, ring to his lips, the endless sea before him, Noah saw God abscond down a marble corridor without end, his blue robe flapping at his heels. He watched God walk away until he came to an empty throne, seraphim and cherubim carved in linden wood, plated in gold, and instead of seeing him mount the throne he watched him crouch behind it, hidden.
It frightened Noah. The rocking stopped and a great silence swept through the ark. The animals, silent, the children in their play.
In time, after the waters shrank and the dry land appeared. His sons opened the door, released the animals and the children, grandchildren and great grandchildren, while Noah stayed in the empty ark. The Almighty has exhausted himself, that is all. He doesn’t even want his anger anymore.
Noah rummaged for berries on the floor, the abandoned pot long cold, the barley and lentils rotten, the tallow gone from the lamps. He would stay in the ark until he at least felt grateful that there was a limit to God’s anger, no matter how long that took.
He saw the long white hall, God crouching there year after year, without majesty, emptied, only the sound of his own breathing, magnified, the inhalation and exhalation falling off the walls, echoing without interruption. He saw the throne sprinkled with blood, the blood of all the animals and children and men and women who had been drowned, and those who had died and were thrown overboard, his wife. And so he rose, shut the storage room door, descended the ramp and slowly gathered stones. He lit a fire and watched the smoke rise as it always had in the world he had known. He called his children, grandchildren and great grandchildren all dispersed taking the llama and parrot, the salamander in its shallow dish and they came. In the white hall, the throne sprinkled with blood, he could smell it, he could hear the breathing of God, slow and deathlike, and Noah spoke the new word in a language he did not know. “Hilasterion” he said to the sand and the worn hem of his robe, and Noah pitied God and came to love his fragility because he was like man. “Mercy seat,” he said again, place of propitiation.
And God heard the word thinking it a dream, and he opened his eyes.
To his children and their families, a great gathering, Noah said, “There are times when even the marriage vows cannot be kept. Times when extraordinary conditions make it impossible.” The small children were quiet, so he continued. “Your mother and I deserted each other,” he looked at his daughters and sons. “But God is merciful.”
When Noah spoke these last words mercy itself made its way into the ear of God and quickened him. Noah continued. “The holiness of God is boundless and his love is without limit. So we must forgive ourselves and starting again, here. For God’s love is greater than any form in which it dwells.”
In the white glistening hall without end, God heard Noah and stood, remembering himself and his power. He smoothed his hair and remembered that he alone was the source of all holiness. He felt the fullness of his royal power and draped himself again in the imperial robes, his embroidered cope and stood on the exuberant foliate pattern that appeared on the rug, gold armlets on the sleeves of his tunic, his chest lavishly decorated with strings of pearls. “I will espouse myself again,” God said and put on the palladium of the defender of the walls. He walked toward the opening of the hallway full stride then ran, taking with him the new gift he created for his betrothed and, breathless he stepped, magnificent and noble, out of the palace of memory.
Noah looked up to the holy mountain and seeing a great nimbus of light, fell to the ground and the congregation with him. Something on the surface under his fingertips was changing. He turned his head. The same was happening to the hills and the sky.
“What is this?” he asked God, trembling.“I made it for you.”
“But what do you call it? It is everywhere and so beautiful!”
And God said, “Color.”
When God asked Noah to name the colors, he protested, “I’m not good with words. My wife was the one.”
But God said, “Please. Do it for me. ”
Looking at the nearby tree, the smooth fruit as it was changing, the leaves one color, the trunk another, the branches and the birds, each its own, Noah thought of his wife’s smooth hair when she was young, that it would have been the same color as the smooth fruit of the tree, and so he called the color “chestnut.”
“You came back,” Noah said. And God answered, “You made me anew.”
Then Noah named the different bands of color around the face of God, an arc, and called them “red”, “orange”, “yellow”, “green”, “blue”, and “indigo.” The last he called “violet,” and told God, “This will be your color. The color of penance and royalty.”
Enrique Martínez Celaya
The Guest, 2012
©Enrique Martínez Celaya. Courtesy of the artist