Jan/Feb 2021  •   Fiction

The Nameless Wives Aboard the Ark

by Elisabeth Hewer

Earthscape artwork by Andres Amador, Twisted Glyphs, 2019, California

Earthscape artwork by Andres Amador

This corner of the hold is dark and hot. The spiders flatten themselves into the wood by my hand. If I am still enough, I see distant light catch 16 eyes. My shoulder blades press into the breathing planks. My right arm into the flank of him-rhinoceros. He turns his head to me, and the centipedes flow down his horn and face. Their many feet rattle like the endless rain against the floor, lost too soon in the subdued cacophony of three thousand restless, living things.

The ceiling is high above to give the giraffes space to stand up straight. Last week we rotated them closer to the door to take their turn with the fresh, warm air. It is a long way from where I sit to where they lip placidly at the hay. A dozen temples. Two dozen fields of rye.

The trees we felled to build this ark. Each one groaning down like a calamity, a war cry.

In one pen, her-wolf is singing again. I match her paean with a low, rough hum. My husband had the chance to marry a girl who sang like the birds flew, brave and beautiful and soaring. When he chose me, even my parents were surprised. Would she have survived this, I wonder? With her hardworking hands and her laughing eyes? Could she have borne my husband sons and loved their wives and kept three thousand animals fed and clean and dry and as happy as it is possible to be when you are the last and only of your kind?

Around the donkeys steps a woman. Girl. Fourteen when she wed my son, fifteen when the rains came. Sixteen now, and already old-eyed.

Mother, she says, and one roughened hand pushes him-rhinoceros aside so she can arrange herself on the floor beside me. She does everything with such fastidious care, my almost-daughter. Sometimes, when the floodwater rises inside my head, I sit and I watch her work. To see her lay out the beans in their neat rows before another almost-daughter adds them to the pot orders my thoughts in a way they have not been ordered for a century or more.

The stories will not remember her name any more than they will remember mine.

She begins to wind her fingers into the hem of my simlah. She says, I had the dream again. The cloth pleats around her nails and catches on her callouses. Her voice is low. Mine must match. There is nobody else left for God to watch. So we save the necessary conversations for the animal hold, my almost-daughters and me. We wait until the wolves are singing, and then we press our heads together and say what must be said.

I dreamed R—— great with child, she whispers. I dreamed her laboring above the fathomless depths. I dreamed rain on her dying face. I dreamed us offering her body and her lifeless child to the flood.

My body is taut as the string of a psaltery, everything in me wound tight. I am no midwife, I remind her. I have warned you girls of this.

I know, Mother. We know the risks. For a year we did not give in. But your sons are not so easily dissuaded. And I love my husband, Mother. I want to give what he asks of me in the night.

You must resist. They must resist. I will speak to my husband, I say. Both of us knowing he has resisted no more than his sons.

Mother, she says, and her hand fists tight by my hip. We cannot allow this dream to come true.

She is only a child still, when I see her this way. Her dark eyes wide, her curls loose. If I had had a daughter of my own, I might have asked that she turned out like this. I reach out and I put my hand to her cheek. Her skin is as soft and ripe as a peach.

I have had everyone I love taken from me, she tells me in the darkness. I will not give up the sister I gained in recompense.

So I take her hand, and we climb to our feet. My knees crack. The sound is muffled in the furry sides that surround us. We trail straw as we leave the rhinoceroses behind, offer a pat to her-cougar as we close the gate behind us.

This ark is an undivine miracle. A million tiny pieces of human brilliance brought together to keep us alive, from the hinges of the gates to the interlocking channels Japheth's quick hands devised to bring water to every creature corralled here at the simple pull of a lever.

I hate it more than I have ever hated anything. More I than I thought a human heart was capable of hating anything.

K—— follows me, silent. The bangles at her wrists tinkle quietly when she slows to scratch at the ear of him-horse or her-lemur. She loves the creatures we carry and tend to as fully and fiercely as she loves my clever son Ham.

Close to the doors, the air is so fresh we can taste it on our tongues. My lips crack open, and I make myself turn back before I ascend. I meet every longing eye, and with my whole body I say to them, I am so very sorry. We are doing this to save you.

Mother, says K——, halfway up the ramp. Come on. Hurry.

I come on. I hurry.

The sun is blinding. It reflects off the endless waters. I shield my eyes with one brown arm, tears on my cheeks from the brightness.

Mother, says K—— again, and her hand closes around my wrist and pulls me forwards. Her voice is low, urgent: She's over here. She's hanging out the laundry.

The planks of the deck are warm against my bare feet. I roll with the swell, practised. I think that when the waters recede, I'll be walking like this for the rest of my life, rolling with the swell that remade the world beneath me.

A flash of white catches my eye, and I look up, still blinking against the glare. An angel is circling high, high above us, the way a gull might have done once. They must be liking this, the angels. A whole world to carouse over. No humans left to spy them where they ought not to be.

We find R—— singing as she pegs the laundry to the line, her straight hair parted down the middle, her hips swaying with the melody she's making. The way Shem is watching her, his eyes so bright, robs me of my voice for a moment.

Shouldn't you be tending to him-leopard, says K——, rich with swallowed laughter. There you were last hour promising his tail would be fixed and bandaged before I went back to look, and yet I find you here making eyes at your wife instead. As though you haven't a hundred thousand days to look upon her.

I like the way he looks at me, offers R——, an undergarment of mine slung over her shoulder. He can look as long as he wants.

You see, Shem says, and leans back on the coil of ropes he's made a seat out of, his whole body laughing up at them both.

Psh, says K——. Get on.

And he does, my tall son, unfolds himself like a net until he towers above us both, his curls casting a sea-monster shadow on the deck behind him.

I'm going, he says, though I'm telling Father we brought a third hyena aboard without knowing it.

Ha, says K——, and flicks a sodden cloth at him. He dodges, roaring now with laughter, and kisses R—— on the forehead. Then he slides out of range and sight. My handsome son. The gentleness and good humor of him. A mother cannot have favorites, but Shem is mine.

Sister, says K——, once Shem is far enough away. Come down to the animals with us.

R—— gestures at the laundry, the draping white shirts. The golden chain we gave her for a wedding gift dribbles around her ankle, catching the blazing sun.

The laundry will wait, I tell her. This other matter will not.

She follows willingly enough. Trusting, Shem's wife. More trusting than a beautiful girl should be. We pass the wooden walls that close our bedrooms off from the sky. The heavy curtains that divide our spaces up. At night, I lie beneath my husband and listen to my sons at work. This small sacrifice I asked of them before we began to drive the animals in. We cannot deliver babies on the open waters, I told them. Begged them. Have the patience the Lord asks of you. They told me, Yes, Mother, of course, Mother. And I heard the nights they gave in, one by one by one.

It surprised me that their father held out the longest.

We duck back into the darkness. My third almost-daughter is holding still some broken thing in the feeding system for Japheth to fix. Her eyes track us, shrewd. K—— blinks at her with calculated lethargy. K—— likes her, but she does not like Japheth. I am a coward because I know she has a reason, and I cannot bear to find out what that reason is.

We press onwards into the heat and black. Lamps flicker dimly, suspended from the beams. They rock as the ark rocks with the swell. It makes the light slant and turn, distorting our familiar shipmates, turning them fearsome and unknown. I put my hand on him-eagle's feathers to remind myself they are still what they were when we drove them two-by-two up the ramp.

In the rustling darkness beside the camels, the girls press their heads together. Wasteful, I strew as many dates as I can lift across the floor of the pen. The camels confer with each other, delighted, and then dive down. As their busy groans rise up, I slide into the space my almost-daughters have left for me.

R—— is shaking her head. Her cheeks are blooming the color of that sweet scarlet flower Dam Hamakabim. Red Everlasting. She's saying it's not possible. What K—— sees is a dream, nothing more. Prophecy is the curse of other cultures, other gods. It is not for women like us.

Do you, asks K——, and her eyes slide to me and then back. Do you let him? She makes a crude gesture with one hand and does not look at me again. Her nostrils flare. She stares at a spot behind R——'s head and announces, jaw set, I make Ham finish outside of me. No matter what he says.

R—— and I look away, too. The shame boils away inside us all. I should not allow talk like this. Their goodliness, that is my responsibility.

But the camels are burbling to each other as they eat their illicit dates, their contentment loud enough to drown us out. So I keep my gaze on the floor at my feet and say, I make Noah do the same. But you should know it is not enough. Sometimes a child will take all the same.

R—— has had enough: Then what? What are we supposed to do? God must know we cannot risk this. He would not put us through it.

My sister drowned eight months pregnant, hisses K——, the quietest and most venomous I've ever heard her be. She never did a thing wrong in her life, never even thought a thing wrong, and He filled her lungs with rainwater and drowned her with her child still inside her. Don't you tell me what God would put us through. Don't you ever tell me that.

R—— reaches for her and K—— permits it, leans into the gentle touch of her fingers.

I cannot lose you, my fearsome daughter whispers. Please. I cannot lose you, too.

What is there that I can do? pleads R——. If you've seen it, the child has taken. I will lose my life on these cleansing waters.

It's my turn to reach out and touch. I lay my hands on the soft expanse of her abdomen. It's flatter than it used to be. We ration ourselves so carefully now.

It's so new there's no sign of it, I tell her, the truth beneath my hands. It will not take much to tug it loose. There is an herb I know of. We may have it in the store. But we will need a story for it. A reason for having taken it when Noah takes inventory.

This is the gravest of sins. I promise it without a wobble in my voice. I love my God, of course I do. But I love my almost-daughters more.

K—— pushes to her feet: No. We will not need a story.

She slides out of sight into the cacophonous darkness. R—— watches her go, smooth forehead crumpled.

She's such a fire, R—— says. Sometimes she burns so bright, I can barely look at her.

You are a fire, too, I tell her, and put my arm around her shoulder. The sort you warm your hands over on cold nights. The sort that brings a family together around a hearth.

She leans into me with a smile. Trusting, always trusting. This girl would be on her knees before Beelzebub himself if he told her he wanted good things for her. It frightens me and it awes me and I think it is what led my husband to select her for my son. She will be mother to a dynasty, a whole new people. And they will have this goodness in their blood for all eternity.

But I will not allow her to be a mother yet.

The camels snort and snuffle as somebody draws near. K—— comes back into the light. She has brought the third of my sons' wives with her. L—— is placid, serene. The deep still water to K——'s inferno.

Her skirts billow out as she kneels down with us. Before the rains, she had the softness and curves of sweet ripe fruit. Now, like us all, she has grown lean and spare like a wolf three days into the hunt. I miss the merry way she used to laugh, her hands folded over her stomach.

Here, she says. Her voice is no louder than a sigh. Her hand comes out from a pocket of her dress, and she uncurls her fingers for us all to see. The herb lies there, dried and flaking.

Make a tea, she tells R——, let it steep for 20 minutes and then drink it fast. You will cramp and bleed, and perhaps you will cry. Weather it, and there will be no more risk of a child.

L——'s eyes come up, find mine. She has such arresting eyes. Blue like the skies before the rain. She looks straight at me, and she says, I know this is a sin, wife-of-Noah. But if God did not mean for us to have this choice, why did He make this flower? Why did He allow my mother to teach me how to use it?

I swallow. And I say to her, to the three of them, these precious girls of mine: I take the sin upon myself. The three of you are made clean. Drink the tea, my daughters. Today and every morning until the last of the floodwater recedes.

They look back at me. Three women whose names will wash away like the country we lived in, like the world that went before.

And then K—— says, No. I keep this sin, Mother. I will hand it down to my daughters, and they to theirs. To create life is a wonder, a marvel. And with the miracle comes the responsibility. With the power comes the choice.

L—— looks at me, so steady: Where we live, whom we marry, what we do with our time – that choice is made by others. The only choice we ever make is when our children come into this world. So I keep my sin, too.

And I, says R——, her dark eyes shining. The sin and the miracle are one. I want the miracle, so I keep the sin, too.

I reach out to them, all three of them. My left elbow cracks and groans, but I put it around R——'s strong brown shoulders and I pull her into me. K—— and L—— lean in, their bodies hot and familiar. Our faces press together, our breath shared like holy water.

I hold them close to me, and we breathe together, the nameless four of us. Somewhere beyond us, her-wolf begins to sing again. Him-indri calls his mournful cry, and the giraffes continue to lip at their hay, long necks rising and falling in the hot, yellow afternoon light.

One day the floodwaters will retreat and the mountains will rise again, and we will drive our animals from the depths of this ark, and I will look back into the darkness, and I will know—only I will know—that on the farthest beam from the daylight, four names are carved into the salt-warped wood. Four names to say we were here. You do not have to remember us, but we were here. We made our choices. We survived this, too.