I’m tired. The insistent, repetitive motions of my work, the heat of the spinning tool, the exertion required to press upon the stone – these things are beginning to wear me down. But it’s more than that. Something is migrating through me. Its movement causes the tremor in my hand, the heat on my face. My eyes feel as though they no longer quite touch the world. I’m worried about completing the work. My energy feels diffuse, lethargic, diminished to the point that when I take the kids cycling I can hardly keep up. The forestry road that we ride on winds along the shoulder of a mountain, keeps going far past the spot where we turn back. I want to know what’s at the end, just as I want a glimpse of the finished stone, an indication that indeed I will get the work done. A bit of prophecy would go a long way right now. And it occurs to me, back in the shop with the dusty bikes hanging on the rear wall, that I have a means of accomplishing this, of seeing what the work might bring.
I experiment with a slurry of corundum powder on the polishing wheel of the rotary carver, trying to create a preliminary view of the stone’s final surface. Along a rounded edge where the jaw fades to follow the contours of the rock, I press with the felt wheel, slick and black with abrasive. Corundum is a common abrasive material – about two hundred times harder than tool steel – used in polishing wheels and sandpaper. After diamond, it is the hardest known natural substance. In one of its mineral forms, corundum yields gemstones in a variety of colors: red rubies, blue sapphires, yellow, pink, green, and white stones. If corundum contains a sufficient amount of two forms of iron oxide – hematite (bloodstone) and magnetite (lodestone) – the result is a black, blue, or brown stone with vitreous luster. Such stones provide outstanding wear as abrasives. On the island of Naxos, in Greece, and in Turkey, which is the world’s main producer, corundum mixed with iron oxide has been used by craftsmen since before history.
I push the slurry of corundum back and forth across the stone’s edge, remembering my previous experiment with hand polishing. But this time I have the advantage of a spinning wheel whose revolutions reproduce, in a few seconds, what might take a day using my own mechanical force. I watch for a change in the surface texture. It takes a long time for anything to happen.
The common name for the mineral combination of corundum and iron oxide is emery. The word has an interesting etymology. The English form derives from Old French, emeri, which in turn descends from a Latin word, smericulum. The lineage continues back into Greek, with smiris, and finally to Hebrew: shamir.1
The shamir was the relic that Noah bore upon his brow during the sea journey. It was a stone book, inscribed with black fire on white fire. Its letters, perhaps its one letter, peeled away the skin of the world to reveal a well, and old voices singing, and a mountain rising from the depths.
This mountain was sought by Noah after the deluge. The land would rise again there, as it had in the beginning. And since the raven had departed, Noah chose instead a dove to fly high above the waters, searching. She flew out from the ark, far into the gray morning, circling wider and wider. Eventually, when she could no longer see the ark on the horizon, the dove discovered the peak of the foundation stone – an island in the midst of an infinite sea. Calm waters lapped its shore of dark pebbles.
The dove followed the crest of a ridge, found an old tree growing, brought a single branch back to the ark. Noah, who had kept watch for the bird, saw her flying low in the northeast, and when she returned with the branch, he turned the ark in that direction. He first saw the summit of the island, a smudge on the horizon, then glimpsed the dark shore, then saw the beach widen, as though a tide were ebbing.
But Noah was unsettled, even after the ark had slid onto the beach and its inhabitants were released. The flood had been an unfathomable calamity. Seven hundred thousand people – among them Cain, the first human child – had perished. The burial cave of Adam and Eve had been inundated by the waters. In the heavens, which had been opened to release the waters, the stars themselves had been changed. The deluge had been so fierce that the Unnameable was forced to remove two stars from the Great Bear and use them as plugs to shore up the leaking Pleiades. “That is why the Bear runs after the Pleiades,” says the Jewish folklorist Louis Ginzberg. “She wants her children back.”2
Noah prayed for solace, for a token of safety. Would not the flood, which is the herald of the end of every age, return to drown the world again? The ancestral spirits, the hosts of the Unnameable, listened to Noah’s supplication. And they resolved, although the cycles of the ages cannot be stayed or reversed, to grant Noah a talisman. As he walked along the shore of the island, he looked up to see a roiling sky. The clouds turned, spun upon themselves, and formed the shape of a bow. This was the bow that had been created, along with the first words, the well, and the radiant shamir, at twilight on the sixth day. It lay brightly within the clouds. And as Noah gazed upon it, he understood that the earth would persist through travail, that its creatures would flourish as long as the clouds speak in such shapes.3
Exiled from the old lands, Noah set up a new altar on the summit of the island. It was here that the stone had risen from the waters in the days of the earth’s creation. Here Adam was formed from dust. Cain struggled with Abel upon this flattened peak. Abraham would later come to weep for Isaac in this clearing. And Jacob, dreaming of a ladder, would raise up the stone here, long after Noah’s altar had fallen.
Noah returned the radiant book, itself a fragment of the foundation stone, from its long exile. He placed it within a natural enclosure in the rock, entrusting its care to Shem, his eldest son, a priest in the manner of the ancients.4 The book descended through Shem’s family: to Abraham, to Jacob, to Levi, to Moses, to Joshua, and finally to Solomon, who would build the Hebrew temple.
The oldest book in my inherited collection, the 1790 Robinson Crusoe, tale of the shipwrecked mariner, traced its way to me through the generations of my family. Working backward along the track, the names of the book’s previous owners are Eileen, Merrill, Alexander, and Solomon, whose name means “the peaceful one.”
The front cover of the book, mottled brown leather with a golden filigree stamped around its perimeter, has cracked off from the rest of the binding. The spine, ornamented with botanical designs, is stripped to the underlying backing along the top. This damage, I imagine, is from three centuries of my ancestors pulling on the edge of the spine and easing the book from the shelf. The back cover is speckled with the hues of parched leather, scraped in one spot, dented near the bottom by some sharp, small object.
Inside the front cover, where crimson facing pages are thick with the grain of handmade stock, someone has pasted a family crest unfamiliar to me. It shows griffins, a ram, and three sets of white wings. The Latin motto reads Spes Sibi Quisque: “Let each man’s hope be in himself.”
The frontispiece shows young Crusoe before his departure, in counsel with his aged father, the two men clasping hands gently. A leaf of tissue paper separates the engraving from the title page, the contents of which are considerably detailed: “The LIFE and Strange Surprizing ADVENTURES of Robinson Crusoe, of York, Mariner, who lived eight and twenty years all alone in an uninhabited Island on the coast of America near the Mouth of the Great River of Oronoque, HAVING BEEN CAST ON SHORE BY SHIPWRECK, wherein all the Men perished but himself. With an account how he was at last strangely delivered by pirates. Written by himself. VOL. 1.”
Through how many hands has this book passed? How many sea journeys has it undergone? I wonder if its faint smell, of aged leather and dust and long-ago damp, still preserves some of the scent from its passage across the prairie, from the mountains where my grandmother was born, from the eastern shore where my great-grandfather was run down by the charging bull. I close my eyes, place my nose against the stacked pages, dark with age, and wonder if there’s anything left of the fragrance of this book’s first home, the library of the Old North Church in Boston, or of that night in 1775 when Paul Revere’s lanterns hung from the steeple to signal the Boston patriots of the British approach: “One if by land and two if by sea.”
I turn the pages of the book, past the advertisement for the publisher, the list of illustrations, the catalog of booksellers (“Ogilvie and Speare, 3 copies”), and the request for orders of an edition of Shakespeare (“In the Press, and speedily will be published: Price Five Guineas, in boards”). I find the beginning of the text, set in elegant type still clear and black against the white paper. I leaf through the following pages, looking for Crusoe’s definitive calamity. I find it on page 55.
For the sea, having hurried me along as before, landed me, or rather dashed me, against a piece of rock, and that with such force, as it left me senseless, and indeed helpless, as to my own deliverance; for the blow, taking my side and breast, beat the breath as it were quite out of my body; and had it not returned again immediately, I must have been strangled in the water: but I recovered a little before the return of the waves, and feeling I should be covered again with the water, I resolved to hold fast.
I drifted toward the dark, listened for the sound of the returning boat, wondered if I had the strength to swim to shore. The water was cold, and though the light from the setting sun was gone, the depths below me seemed to glow. Traumatic experience often evokes such hallucinatory shifts in perception, though the mythological cultures of antiquity would have offered a different explanation. For them, such experiences offer a glimpse of the world’s true face.
I saw a slender mast rocking in the swells. As it approached, I glimpsed a white hull and several small figures: one on the deck, peering ahead, another at the wheel, two or three clustered in the cockpit. They came forward, I raised my arm, and they found me drifting. The skipper turned the wheel, the boat slowed as it approached, and I climbed on board from a ladder at the stern.
Hours after my rescue, when my boat had run out of gas and drifted at the center of its spiral, the Coast Guard towed it back to the dock. The night was well gone, and I lay in the hospital – safe, but cracked open, caught still in the brightness of that rough opening. Caught in it now, all these years later.
The fictional Robinson Crusoe was rescued from his island, after much travail and adventure, in 1686. This was the year of my ancestors’ exile from France, the year that we were fractured. The Huguenot branch of the family set sail for Holland, thereby avoiding massacre, along with thousands of other Protestants whose faith was no longer sanctioned by the church. They were deprived of their lands – forests and farms and châteaus whose foundations were a thousand years old – and banished from the country.
But not all my ancestors departed. A few were Catholics, which conferred upon them the right to claim the holdings of their exiled relatives. In this way, Jacques-René de Brisay, tutor to France’s royal family, patriarch of my Catholic ancestors, gathered to himself a legacy of wealth and favor. But like the fleeing Huguenots, he too set sail from France; in a ship called Diligente, on a sea crossing during which half the passengers were lost to storms and fever, west toward the New World. There he took up his post as governor of New France, in what is now Quebec City, then a desperate outpost along a knife-edge of wilderness. Exile, it seems, was his unavoidable fate.
To the west, south, and north of the colony, the landscape could not have been more foreign to the European sensibility. It might as well have risen from the oceans, pristine and terrifying, inhabited by ghosts and strange gods and men of the forest – who could tell the difference? Jacques-René took up residence in ramshackle quarters, spent his first years navigating the labyrinth of relationships: between the French settlers and the Iroquois, the Iroquois and the Mohawk, the Mohawk and the Seneca, the Seneca and the English, the English and the French. They were all enemies, and all allies. In such a labyrinth, he knew, there must be a center, a place of beginnings and endings. Accordingly he initiated construction of Notre-Dame-des-Victoires, the first cut-stone building in Canada. He laid its foundation stone, of black basalt, on May 1, 1688.
The stone rises from the center, beckons the god. For the Kem, the site of this rising was the Temple of Horus at Edfu. In Hebrew cosmology, the Unnameable was (and still is) beckoned from the temple of the mountain in Jerusalem. Nothing is now left of that first temple, but the structures built upon its foundation – an old wall, a dome, an enclosure of scattered buildings – still exert memory’s gravity.
The site of the god’s manifestation is never a fixed axis; it moves, as cultures and families migrate in their long wandering. The site of the first Kem temples was not at Edfu but farther north, along the sweep of the Nile Delta. In Hebrew culture, the spiritual center was first located at a now-forgotten mountain – perhaps in the Sinai Peninsula, perhaps in what is now Jordan – but not at Jerusalem’s Temple Mount.5 In each culture, in each family, the well and the stone of origin exist at the site of memory’s farthest grasp. But these locations are temporary. They are rolled under and forgotten by the living. Only the dead remember the first days.
In my own family, the first nexus we remember is the Château Anet, constructed in the Middle Ages and decorated with symbolic motifs ultimately derived from the Kem. For the exiled Huguenots and Catholics who came to Canada, that nexus became the church of Notre-Dame-des-Victoires. Later still, in my own generation, the spiritual center was moved again: to the residence of my grandmother, of which no trace now remains.
The corundum powder spins upon the stone, mixing with the water droplets that I scatter on its surface. The slurry is thick and dark, like clay – of which, in the oldest tales of Sumer and Egypt, the first human being was made. Almost every subsequent culture of the Middle East has cribbed that motif. I work the edge of the stone first, refining my technique – hold, skim, return, twist – then move toward the right cheek and nose. I want a glimpse, an opened patch of finished stone, before I move on to the work of shaping the eyes. Beneath the layers of slurry, I feel the polishing wheel speed up as the surface smooths out. I hear it too; the motor notches up its cadence, the vibration quickens. I stay on the cheek, drifting across the surface, grateful that I don’t have to work too hard. “Let the tool do the work,” the common refrain of modern craftspeople, is something of a myth – most craft work, even with power tools, is accompanied by grunts and swearing and strained muscles – but for the moment, my exertion does indeed almost vanish. The wheel slides, and I follow.
When I can no longer feel any resistance beneath the polishing wheel, when it slides over the stone as though it were oil on water, I stop. I put the rotary carver down, clean the slurry from the stone, and look at the cleared patch on the right cheek. The color is darker than elsewhere on the surface: a deep blue, scattered with fragments of black and aquamarine. And flecks of white, now bright with reflection, hard-edged and crystalline. They contrast with the dark background like stars in a depthless sky.
The Hebrew exiles came across the sea, from the land of the Kem, bringing with them only the most practical of their belongings. They wandered, nomads and travelers not yet reconciled to their destination. At the foot of a mountain in the desert, on a day when the sun failed to set, they waited as their leader conversed with the Unnameable. He descended from the summit, carrying sacred stones inscribed with laws like ones they knew from the Book of Illumination.6 On his forehead, a radiance burned, and his face was scorched by it.
The people crafted an enclosure for the tablet stones, called the tabernacle, and an ark in which to carry them.7 The ark consisted of three nested boxes: gold, wood, and gold.
They meandered during the period of their exile, transporting their relics and stories, adapting myth into history. They were led by a pillar of cloud and a pillar of fire: “For the cloud of the Lord was upon the tabernacle by day, and fire was on it by night, in the sight of all the house of Israel throughout all their journeys.”8
They related tales, as refugees and wanderers will do; to preserve their memory, to understand the past which had brought them out of themselves, to shape the future with fables to redeem the catastrophe. At night, when the pillar of fire swept the horizon, when the sentinels huddled with wonder at the edge of the plain, they told one another the old tales: of a lost garden, of a stone hidden in paradise, of a burning man. They spoke often of the burning man, Jacob, and of his night odyssey, which in many ways was like their own.
Jacob came from the south, wandering a long track of travail, following the river. Along his right flank, the shoulder of the mountain rose toward a dark and flattened peak. The sun rode across the mountain’s highest ridge, flashed in and out of hollows shaped by the serpent’s hide. Jacob saw a stand of fragrant cedars high on the hillside; lower down, the twisted trunks of olive trees stood skeletal against a background of black earth. A falcon screeched far off – ka, ka, ka, ka – and Jacob thought of the spirit double, the ka, which is always calling the self. He turned, seeking the source of the sound, and saw a flash of wings low against the western tree line. Jacob looked back toward the mountain; blunt shadows, high up, hollowed out cracks in the stone.
It seemed to him that as he watched, the sun moved with unaccountable speed. Within the span of a single breath, it rose into the expanse of the sky, sped across the face of the world, and slid toward the horizon. Then, where Jacob stood, the night descended.
There was a black and radiant stone; of this much he was certain. It lay at the summit, wrapped in tales: a man holding liquid fire, a roiling ocean calmed by a living star, a book with words so secret not even the gods would whisper them.
Jacob climbed. Long into the night, scrambling for signs of a trail, backtracking, hearing the sounds of the river near. He peered into the dark, searching for direction, for a footprint. His father, Isaac, must have felt this way, coming here all those years ago, led to sacrifice by the eldest one, Abraham.9 Jacob thought of his father and grandfather on the mountain, their feet finding the same holds, their hands grasping the same branches on the slope.
Father, make haste, bind my hands and feet securely. For I am a young man, and you are old. When I behold the slaughtering knife in your hand, I may begin to tremble, and push against you, for my desire of life is strong.10
Jacob pushed through a thicket, ambled across a meadow of high grass, and lifted himself onto a stony ledge. He rested for a moment, searched the indigo sky for a trace of the falcon he had seen earlier. In the north, the Great Bear chased after her children. Jacob remembered his father telling him that tale, and many others. Isaac had spoken of a sacred stone kept by Abraham, called the Kaaba, that could cure any ailment. Isaac had tried to explain to the child Jacob why he had been willing to die at his own father’s hand.
I implore you, father, make haste. Delay not. Stand fast, and after you have slaughtered me, burn me until I am fine ashes.
The ground cover was growing sparse, and Jacob came upon wide tracks that blended, ever upward, into other paths. The tumbled scree underfoot was peppered with sandstone, feldspar, and basalt. He heard the bird call again, this time from ahead, up where the broad summit leveled out. River sounds echoed softly across the terrain, and the smell of moisture was in the air.
As Jacob climbed, he remembered the story of the angel’s tears, falling onto Abraham’s knife, and the intervention of the Unnameable in the firstborn sacrifice. Jacob knew that he would not have been able to untangle the threads of his love – Whom do you love more, your creator or your own son? – but Abraham, perhaps wise and perhaps blind, had followed the old edict into the well of his own suffering.
Jacob crested the ridge, cantered down the slope, gathered momentum, and rushed up the far side. The summit lay just beyond. Through a cleft in the ridge, he saw the river for the first time since he had left the valley. The waters were subdued, somnolent. He stepped down to the bank and cupped his hand into the moving waters. The water was cold, as though it had flowed up from deep inside the earth. It tasted – faint and subtle – of wildflowers. Jacob drank.
On the peak, where Isaac and Noah and Adam had come before him, where the sea had parted for the risen land, Jacob wandered a spiral track toward the stone. He saw its enclosure, out of the corner of his eye, but he did not wish to approach it directly. There were too many secrets here, a weight of memories and dreams. He moved slowly, as though in a reverie. He gazed at the still sky.
Abraham sprinkled the blood of the ram upon the altar and said, “This is instead of my son, and may this be considered as the blood of my son before the Unnameable.” And whatever Abraham did by the altar, he said, “This is instead of my son.” And the Unnameable accepted the sacrifice of the ram, and it was accounted as though it had been Isaac.
Jacob remembered his father telling him the prophecy: of a temple built upon the mountain’s summit, its destruction by fire, the many exiles and wanderings of his people, the horn of the ram blowing as a trumpet on the day of redemption. On that day, Jacob’s father had told him, whirlwinds will appear in the sky.
As a falcon gyres ever inward, Jacob’s path tightened in upon the stone. But weariness began to overtake him, and he slowed. Ghosts washed across his vision, and by their reflected light he saw many things: a well ringed by a dark island, a man walking in a library of stones, a fierce woman hunting in a forest of wolves. As though from far above, he saw two figures perched at the edge of a precipice, gazing down a cliff of black lava into a ravine of rushing water. He glimpsed something red and round, climbing into a sky of terrible brightness.
Jacob was consumed by the fire of these visions. He surrendered to them, allowed himself to be taken into the womb of the earth’s dreaming. He came to rest, finally, at the feet of the relic.
In the span of a single night, he dreamed the world’s story. He saw two angels, twins as it seemed to him, ascending into the sky. They were departing, as the old gods had departed. But they called to him, saying, “Lift up the stone of fire. It will be the foundation of the temple, and though the temple will burn with its flame, will be lost and forgotten, the stone – which cannot itself be lost, but is made anew with each generation – will remember your true home.”
He opened his eyes from the dream. There, before him, lay the golden box. It was too bright to bear, and he turned his head to look upon it sidelong, as the magician Hardjedef had done. Here was the relic, source of all prophecy.
Jacob, foreseeing that this stone – the shamir, fragment of the world’s foundation – would be used in the construction of the temple, lifted the box from its enclosure and placed it upon the summit. Fire ran through the seam where the lid and the base joined. Knowing that he would not have another chance, remembering his father’s tale of the name of God written upon the stone, Jacob reached with tender fingers – slow, fearful – and removed the lid.
I look down into the layers of the stone, black and blue and radiant in the afternoon light. The face I’ve sculpted on its surface – rudimentary and robust, emerging from rock made by fire on the mountain – is eyeless and intriguing. The stone does not move, but the elements within it constantly vibrate at the pitch of their atomic signatures. The stone’s solidity is, in fact, an illusion caused by this vibration; like images on film, rendered by frames clicking by twenty-four times each second. Nothing is actually solid; at the quantum level, even the most dense materials are mostly empty space.
In myths of the stone, a radiant fire burns away the masks of the world. Behind those masks lie the ancestral well and the archaic ocean – mostly empty space, hanging on the backbone of the void. In this respect, the old tales are not much different than the new. In both cases, one who touches the elemental stone is burned: by radiation, by a pillar of fire, by the experience of coming face to face with the numinous.
I start in with the work of the eyes, so that I might free that burning gaze.
Jacob heard someone approaching in the night: a skitter of pebbles, a snatch of indrawn breath, the muffled slap of a heel coming down on the flat top of a boulder. He replaced the lid of the box, called out into the darkness: “Who are you?” A man came into view, suddenly, as though he had just crested the final ridge that Jacob had climbed long after the sun had set. The figure came closer, and Jacob called again. The man slowed, paused a dozen yards from Jacob, and, without speaking, touched his finger to the earth. Fire blazed from the ground, and by its light Jacob saw a young man’s face. The firelight pulsed across it: bright eye, dark chin, flicker of playfulness on the brows. Jacob held the golden box with the stone secreted inside and sang back to the crouching figure: “Do not seek to frighten me, for I am made wholly of fire.”
The man laughed, turned his face toward the sky. But when he brought it down again, he rushed forward. He caught Jacob at the waist and spun him to the ground. Jacob, surprised and angered, fought back. He rolled to the side, and, using his oldest trick (the name Jacob means “he takes by the heel”), caught the man’s heel, and pulled.11 Then they were both on the dusty ground, scrabbling and struggling. They tumbled across the scree, tripped each other in the dirt, locked elbows and knees and shoulders. Neither of them prevailed.
The night wore on. The trickle of water from the river and the breathing of the contestants – labored, hushed, and held – were the only sounds on the mountain. But travelers far away, restless in the night, looked out from their encampments and saw a pillar of fire burning on a distant peak. They were amazed, and they were comforted. Since the sun had gone down at midday they had sought to buoy their hopes of a new day to follow. Surely this, the fire in the night, was a sign of divinity at work in the land. Fire, bringer of the light, is also the faith keeper.
The combatants, twinned fires circling each other in the dark, beckoned the sun with their struggle. It climbed into the eastern sky, suffused the indigo horizon. Seeing this, the laughing man paused, and asked that Jacob let him go. Jacob said, “Are you a thief, that you should fear the daylight?” The man did not reply but instead struck Jacob on the inside of his hip. Jacob fell, and the struggle was over. Then the man spoke, saying, “I must go. My companions are singing the old songs. Do you not hear them?” He offered his hand to Jacob and helped him from the ground. Jacob saw, by the glow of oncoming dawn, that the man’s features remained dark. His body was a living shadow of concealed radiance. Jacob remembered the midrash taught to him by his father: “The Lord has said he shall dwell in thick darkness.”
The sun’s light swept down the mountainside and across the desert to the east. In the valley grove, falcons were waking and leaves uncurled from sleep. The day rolled forward with momentum. Jacob, falling into the world but sustained by the night’s wonder, asked the man his name. The man laughed and blessed Jacob instead, saying, “You, who struggled with me, who were consumed but not destroyed by fire, shall be called the God wrestler.”
Jacob felt the warm sun, turned toward it. Footprints, left by the struggle in the night, lay across the open summit of the mountain. Whorls of settling dust, ocher in the light, made interweaving patterns on the ground. The sky was clear. Jacob turned back, knowing the man was gone, and walked toward the valley.12
My lethargy grows, but the work continues. The dreams and memories evoked in me by the stone are becoming thick. They fall over and around me, growing in size and substance as I carve, their ephemeral forms resolving. I move through liquid air, shaping the eye sockets, smoothing the temples (where the anatomy of mysticism is made manifest), forming the eyeballs. This requires careful attention: the sockets taper inward, but the eyeballs bulge outward. Blending the ridges and hollows of that terrain keeps me busy for two careful weeks. The background expanse of blue and black seems to stretch itself taut, like a settling sea. Flecks of microcline drift across the matrix like flotsam upon restless waves. I read Jewish folklore, in which the ocean is identified with the white of the eye, land with the iris, and Jerusalem with the pupil. The Hebrew temple, now destroyed, is the elusive image mirrored in the pupil of the eye.
By the time the eyes are shaped to their preliminary proportions, I ache all over, all the time. My body feels too warm, fevered. In my dreams, I see fire: stone and fire together, tumbling and reshaping the world. I dream of my exiled ancestors, and the Hebrew refugees, and the temple to which all wandering peoples are drawn. This temple is always the center of the new land, the crossroads from which all subsequent journeys are navigated. It is dreamed into form by those who relate the old tales; at night, while the pillar of fire burns on the horizon, as quiet settles upon the broken ground.
In the autumn of 1918, at the field hospital where my grandfather and his wounded brother spent the night, in a tent with a red cross on its roof, they spoke into the darkness: of future visions, of home, of the means by which two young men – my grandfather was only twenty-three, his brother twenty-seven – might make their way in the world. While the sounds of artillery fire thundered across the river, my great-uncle spoke of his romance with learning. As it turned out, he would spend the rest of his life as a teacher and scholar. My grandfather, by contrast, was more practical; he wanted to raise a family, to fashion for himself a home of refuge. When such a conversation – of dreams and goals and hopes – takes place under the shadow of the world’s duress, every word is absorbed by fleeting and persistent spirits, by the ghosts of what has not yet been. And it happened that both my grandfather and his brother were granted their most pressing wishes.
They wandered after the war, in the way of their ancestors. They traveled west, as far as they could go, to a seashore fringed with mountains. My great-uncle walked, for the length of a long summer, then returned to Vancouver. He taught in the Soldier Civil Re-establishment program at the new university. There was as yet no permanent campus for the eight hundred students; classes were held in tents, churches, and a cluster of ramshackle buildings adjacent to the hospital. On the other hand, students paid no tuition. (Sixty years later, when I was a student at this university, thirty-five thousand students were enrolled, and the campus grounds covered many square miles. Tuition, however, was still cheap.)
My grandfather went into business, married my grandmother, built a Tudor house on a tree-lined street and raised three children: two daughters and a son (my father). This sanctuary, in which I spent much of my childhood, was the center of our family life. It was a temple crafted by exiles forging a new home.
This is how I remember my grandmother, with twelve-year-old eyes: in her quiet den, overlooking the front garden. The fire on the hearth is low. She sits in repose, her head reclining on the back of the sofa. Her white hair – wispy, coiffed with care – lies against the embroidered fabric, brought from India in the days of her traveling. Her face is in profile, the webbing of lines soft and deep. Light from the window streams across the contours of her nose and left eye. Her face looks both regal and simple, like a worn and ancient statue. She laughs gently, but in my memory I cannot recall the reason for her laughter. The sound is like green leaves in rain. And in the moments of my watching, my grandmother becomes what she has always been, what her ancestors made of her: the huntress, the old woman, the keeper of aged secrets.
When I was a boy, I’d remain at home when things were stable between my mother and me, then escape to the safety of my grandmother’s house when the situation got out of hand. When, for example, my mother (drunk, upset over an altercation with my father) retrieved a set of Dresden blue teacups (delicate, translucent, a wedding gift) and methodically smashed them with a hammer in the kitchen sink. Those teacups were among the most beautiful objects our family owned. My mother needed to destroy the past; it was, after all, the source of her despair. Had the archaic books been in our home, the volumes I later inherited from my great-aunt, my mother might well have burned them. Today my brothers and my father and I – the scattered survivors – possess not a single object from my mother’s past that is more than a generation old. No heirlooms, no memories, no tales.
My grandmother’s home, built from a nocturnal reverie of wartime, filled first with children and then with grandchildren. It became my own true refuge. My grandfather died when I was an infant, and my grandmother lived alone. The house was well kept, its bedrooms maintained as though children might soon return. I slept in my father’s old room, with its dark furniture, poor light, and aura of safety. The east window looked out toward a wide expanse of yard and a trellis of grape vines along the garage. In the far corner out back, a rose garden lay desolate in winter and fragrant in summer.
More than the bedroom, or the grounds, the comfort I felt there derived from my grandmother’s careful nurturing. Every day, late in the afternoon, we’d sit in her den and drink tea. She told me all the things I desperately needed to hear – that the turmoil would end, that I would be all right, that it wasn’t my fault. Often my great-aunt Eileen would come to visit, and the three of us would play card games: two old women and a child of twelve, playing spite-and-malice. It was Eileen who brought the books. In this, as with so much else in her life, she showed tremendous instinct. She herself had no children, but seemed to know exactly what would ignite my imagination: Arthurian tales, science fiction, fantasies of other worlds and times. She also brought Poe and Conrad and Blake, Buddhist sutras, and poems from Taoism. Our library at home consisted of National Geographic, a couple of coffee-table books, and the Hardy Boys. Eileen’s books helped me create a world for myself in the rarefied air of the imagination. Those volumes, many of which she gave to me, rest now on my own shelves, beside the books I inherited from her.
Between books and tea and gentle care, my grandmother and her sister saved my life. The den in which we played cards, read books, in which I cast off my confusion, became my innermost temple of celebration.
When they settled beneath the peak of Jacob, Noah, and Adam – the summit wrapped in protective magic long ago by the Shebtiw – the exiled Hebrews were an old people restored to new life. But the land required consecration, and this task fell to Solomon – who knew the tales of his forebears, who wandered the mountain paths in search of the footprints of Jacob and the stranger. Solomon found the old tracks, walked beside the river splashing toward the valley. Upon the summit, where he slept and dreamed, Solomon found the shamir.13
He did not open the golden box, knowing the tales of what it might bring. Not yet. Though he knew, from the ribbon of radiance around its seam, that the shamir was inside. He cradled it in the crook of his arm.
On the heel of the dusty plain, he called the craftsmen of his people, those who worked in stone and wood and bronze. They were led by Hiram, the exile from Tyre, and they followed Solomon up the mountain.14 On the summit, Solomon brought out the shamir from its nested enclosures: wrapped in wool, within a lead box, surrounded by barley bran, hidden in the golden case. None of them could look upon it. Solomon closed his hands around the stone’s brilliance and walked among the tumbled scree of the summit. His hands and face burned. The radiance broke him open.
He passed the stone over the surface of a boulder, and the rock was cleaved through. While the craftsmen watched in fear and wonder, Solomon lifted his hands again, drawing a horizontal circle in the air above the bedrock. Beneath him, a column of stone was split from the ground. Wherever he carried the stone, whatever movements he inscribed, the shamir followed. It sliced through wood and stone and metal, manifesting the precise vision of its carrier. The shamir was a shard of creation; it embodied Unnameable fire.
In the hands of Hiram the craftsman, the shamir fashioned Solomon’s temple of celebration. The stone made no sound. It cleaved the foundation blocks for the walls, carved the hollow pillars of the vestibule, smoothed the surfaces of the inner sanctuary. Hiram used it to craft the bronze basin to hold sacred waters from the well. Inside the sanctuary – the holy of holies – the shamir made guardians, gilded angels with wingspans of a dozen feet. These would protect the foundation stone, and the ark which would come to rest here. The sanctuary itself, sliced cleanly into a cube stretching thirty feet in each dimension, was lined with sheets of pure gold.
When the work was done, when the temple became a temporal symbol of celestial paradise, the summit of the mountain had greatly changed. The dust whorls of Jacob’s struggle were gone, the shrine of Noah was replaced by temple walls. The pinnacle of the mountain was still visible, as a base for the ark in the sanctuary, but the niche that Noah had found for the shamir, after the flood, was buried. It now lay beneath the base of one of the hollow pillars Hiram had placed in the vestibule. The temple covered the well and the clearing upon the summit. Bare rock and flowing water, symbols of divine genesis, were woven, by the shamir, into the fabric of a new creation. The well of souls lay beneath the sanctuary.
Together, Solomon and Hiram placed the radiant stone beneath the left-hand pillar. In the hollow space of the right-hand pillar, they concealed the oldest documents of Solomon’s people: their tales of origin, of exile, of prophecy. The two pillars housed stone and word.15
An arched entryway made of two columns of cherry wood, joined overhead, led from the vestibule of my grandmother’s house into her den. Inside this sanctuary, which occupied the northwest corner of the ground floor, a fireplace fashioned from smooth river stones covered most of the east wall. On either side of the stonework, on shelves and in cabinets that climbed from floor to ceiling, my grandmother stored her library. In front of the hearth, on a round table with a shelf beneath, oversized books were stuffed wherever there was space. A long couch occupied the north wall. Two easy chairs – beside the entrance and along the west wall – completed the seating. A single window, crisscrossed with diagonal leaded seams, looked past a holly bush and onto the street.
A tall clock in the hall chimed the hours as the three of us – my grandmother, her sister, and I – read books and talked. They spoke of their youth, of the wars, of family. I was told the precious myths that I never would have known to ask about: riders in the sky, exiles sailing across the sea. These tales bolstered the foundation of my belonging, shaky as it was, infused with doubts and fears and a pervasive yearning to find my true home. The old fables, made vibrant by books and conversation, built up around me, enclosed me within their cocoon, gave me secure footing as I wrestled with my own gods upon the mountain.
I did not know, and did not learn until much later, after my grandmother died, that the den had burned, along with most of the adjoining house. It happened when my father was fourteen, the age I was when I lived for almost a year in that house, in his room. For me, that year had embodied the white fire of the god’s script: myths, ideas, the awakening heart. But for my father, though he never spoke of it, that year of his youth carried the black fire of the god’s script: death, loss of the old, a return to origin.
It began late at night. A spark of fragrant cedar from the embers shot through the lattice of the fireplace screen and ignited the fabric of the couch. The flames consumed the den, roared out its door, climbed the stairs toward the bedrooms. It burned through the ceiling, lofted through the attic, and lifted off the roof. A policeman on patrol two blocks away saw flames reach into the sky, and radioed for help.
My father heard the sound of rushing fire, of his own father racing down the hall, banging on doors to wake the family. But when the bedroom doors were opened, the flames sensed fresh and beckoning air from upstairs windows propped open for the breeze. My grandmother and my aunt, then a girl of nineteen, ran through the conflagration – down the stairs, across the vestibule to the front door. My aunt seized the iron handle of the door and pulled. The knob, almost molten, came off in her hand. The skin of her palm sizzled. The door opened. They ran into the street. The crackle of timbers and crash of exploding glass could be heard above the fire’s bellow. The remaining family members – my father, my grandfather, my great-grandfather, my great-aunt Eileen – barricaded themselves in my father’s room. My grandfather pushed a cabinet across the door, barring the flames from entry.
My father clambered out the open window – later, I would look out that window in late summer at grapes bursting with juice – and slid down the roof. He jumped onto the back porch, rushed to the driveway, and ran to the garage. There he found the ladder. He hefted it to beneath the north window of his room and lifted it as high as it would go. His father climbed out the window, grasped the sill, lowered himself slowly. He hung full length from the window, stretched his toes downward, and touched the top of the ladder. He came down, but the distance from the window to the ladder – and the exertion required to find the toehold – was too much for my great-grandfather, ill as he was with cancer. Eileen, the mountain climber, who could have descended from any window in the house without a ladder, stayed in the burning home with her father. My father and grandfather, helpless, watched them from below. Their faces were silhouetted against a brightening glow from behind.
The fire smashed open the bedroom door, flung the cabinet across the room, and ignited the drapes. One moment the faces were there, shadows against the light; then flame filled the room, and they were gone.
Solomon’s temple was desecrated and reconsecrated in a series of ethnic and religious conflicts lasting four centuries. Finally, in 586 BCE, it burned. Hebrew folklore speaks of an angel heralding its destruction: “Let the enemy come and enter the house, for the Master of the house is no longer therein.”16
Babylonian invaders set fire to the sanctuary. Flames spread to the four corners of the temple. The intruders seized the high priest and his daughter and set fire to them between the pillars. The shamir, concealed since the time of Solomon, lay beneath the left-hand pillar. The priest and his daughter fell burning upon the flagstones.
Father and daughter looked out toward those who had been saved, saw the faces clamoring with despair. Then a pillar of flame rushed over and past them, flaying them with its heat. They heard their own screams as their clothes caught fire. Smoke seared their lungs, halted their breathing. Their skins cracked, and blood sizzled on the burning floor. With terror, with relief, they surrendered to the fire’s embrace.
By the time the fire truck came, my father had lost hope. But the firemen had a long ladder, and they thrust it quickly up the side of the house. Two of them went up, snaking a broad hose behind them, and they brought Eileen down. They went up again – twenty seconds, maybe, had passed – and they carried my great-grandfather out. Both survivors were badly burned. Eileen would carry a web of scars on her back and shoulders for the rest of her life. My great-grandfather did not survive the night.
When I was a boy, my older brother and I set so many unsafe fires with gasoline that today we would be earmarked for the therapist’s office. My brother made gunpowder bombs. I set the beach on fire at our summer home. And I remember, with equal parts horror and chagrin, that as a child of about ten I once set fire to a stack of old newspapers in my grandmother’s basement. I ignited bits at a time, seeing how far I could let the flames go before they got out of hand. Every time I put out a sheaf of flame, a puff of smoke wafted up, and this is what my grandmother smelled from upstairs. She came running, calling my name, feeling the basement door for heat. She opened it to find me at the bottom of the stairs, sheepishly holding a lighter.
She soaked the newspapers with water. For the first and only time, I saw her tremble. In a voice too soft, utterly unlike the sternness I was accustomed to in her reprimands, she told me that I could have burned the house down. Ashamed and jittery and filled with false bravado, I couldn’t understand why she was so upset.
I’m not working the stone much. I feel too uncomfortable, too hot. The kids have picked up chicken pox from one of their playmates, and I’m starting to worry that this may be the cause of my malaise. My older brother contracted chicken pox when I was a boy, but I managed to avoid it. I assume that if I evaded such a virulent illness earlier in my life, I probably have natural immunity. Besides, no spots have appeared on my skin. But as I get weaker, more fevered, I wonder.
The primitive face on my workbench – broad, rough features like a spirit of the volcano – is almost complete. I’ve finished the eyebrows, mouth, and nose. The cheeks and forehead are more coarse, and the eye sockets require final shaping. But there’s not much left to do. The days are uncomfortably warm, and stone dust seems to hang in the humid air of the shop.
I work the eyes, deepening their sockets and shaping the ridges of the eyelids. A tiny crack in the stone, invisible except when I’m working close to the surface, runs from the right brow, across the contour of the right eye, and down toward the lips. When I study it with a magnifying glass, I see that it’s streaked inside with a filament of red. Not the dull ruddiness of rusted iron, but brighter, almost crimson. I’m not sure what it is. Orthoclase maybe, or some kind of zeolite. It’s a small incursion, slender as a thread. It merges with the landscape of the face like a blood vessel beneath the skin.
I shift my working position frequently; not only because I’m uncomfortable, and shifting around seems to help, but because I need to check my perspective on the shape of the features, and this requires that I step back for a wider view. Working in this way – up close, then lifting my head to look from a distance – I begin to have two distinct impressions. When my focus is tight on the eye sockets, my face a couple of inches from the surface, I perceive only the stone and the diamond cutter, whirring away. But when I straighten up to assess my progress, I feel I’m peering down at someone who is reclining on my workbench. The stone face is starting to look real – old and weathered and rudimentary, but real. Once, when I scan the forehead to see how its shape blends with the ridges of the brow, I have the impression that the eyes open, momentarily, then close again.
Maybe it’s time to stop for a while.
The captives were taken from the temple of ashes. The foundation stone of the sanctuary was blackened by heat. The ark was gone. The shamir and the scrolls of origin, secreted within the fallen pillars, had vanished. The prophecies of folklore say that in the end time the well on the mountain will overflow, cascade into the valley, and follow the path of the captives eastward. It will roll away the sediment and the scree as it flows, revealing the location of all the treasures buried by the angels on the day of the temple’s destruction.
The captors and their exiles threaded their way, five hundred miles across an indifferent desert, to the city of Babylon (fifty-five miles south of what is now Baghdad, in modern Iraq). The captives shuffled in chains, their heads bowed by the hammer of the sun. The Babylonian king – the mystic and savant Nebuchadnezzar – watched the horizon for the dust trail of their approach.17
Near the end of the long march, the column of travelers came to a meander of the Euphrates. The captives, deprived of sustenance for a fortnight, kept alive by bare rations of water, fell down the bank to the river’s edge. They drank, long drafts of succor and lament.18
That night, a cloud descended onto the plain. On the confused and foggy ground, several captives saw a pillar of fire whirling southward, and they followed. The cloud concealed their escape. They ran, desperate and stumbling, suddenly and inexplicably freed from their chains. The pillar of fire guided them until morning, when they came to a territory bordered on three sides by the sea. As they crossed into this land, a river swollen with tumbled boulders plowed across the desert behind them, sealing off the fourth side and protecting them from pursuit. These refugees, fresh with the vigor of escape, stayed in the land of their salvation. They vanished into what is now Saudi Arabia, what was then the southern desert.19 Eventually, after a thousand years, their tale would wander back to Jerusalem.
There were some that night who saw the pillar of fire but – whether out of fear, loyalty, or destiny – did not follow. Among them were four companions, one from each corner of the Hebrew kingdom: Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah. They were secured together by a single loop of chain during the desert journey, and they resolved – come what may – to remain with the captives. On the night the pillar appeared, Daniel gazed upon it, as though transfixed, and fell to the ground, seized by a vision. Later he told his comrades that they must endure their captivity until its conclusion; but what he had seen, he would not say.
When they reached Babylon, its avenues festooned with images of strange gods, the captives were led into a courtyard beneath the terrace of the pagan king. Nebuchadnezzar, supine on a litter, gazed down at the captives with mingled disdain and hope. He was a man haunted by dreams. His own sages and magicians had been unable to interpret his visions or to provide him with medicine to allay his restless nights. Haggard and forlorn in his palace, Nebuchadnezzar had heard of wonders from the west: a man wrestling with a god upon the mountain, a stone that could build as well as heal. Perhaps there was one among the captives who might be pressed into useful service.
Nebuchadnezzar ordered the prisoners freed from their chains. He provided food for them, the first they had eaten since their bondage. It was fine food: dates shiny with olive oil, figs, sweet cucumbers, almonds roasted with honey. They ate grapes and yellow melons stuffed with pearl barley. Many wondered that their situation had turned from captivity to seduction; but such speculations were washed away by the flow of goat’s milk spiced with cinnamon.
When the Hebrews had finished and rested in the palm shade of the courtyard, Nebuchadnezzar invited them into his own temple. Inside the sanctuary stood an idol of Marduk, conqueror of the serpent, lord of creation. Marduk brandished a thunderbolt, and his tunic was adorned with stars. The Hebrews were instructed to bow down before this god of storms, for Babylon would henceforth be their home and Marduk their lord. They knelt, some from fear, some from weariness, some from the wonderment of their survival. Some complied because the god of their ancestors had clearly abandoned them or had been defeated by the invaders. How else to account for the destruction of Solomon’s temple? Singly, in pairs, in groups of families, the Hebrews knelt. Their silence, and the rustle of their ragged clothing, whispered through the colonnades of the temple.
Four men remained standing: Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah. From the altar, where Nebuchadnezzar stood shakily beneath the thunderbolt of Marduk, he again asked the rebels to kneel. Instead, Daniel called out to Nebuchadnezzar, “We respect your kingship, and we surrender to our captivity. But we do not surrender our spirits, which are sworn to the allegiance of the Unnameable.”
The Babylonian king gestured to the guards and replied: “I am told that you worship a god of fire. I will send you home to him.”
Behind the temple, facing east, from where the mountain wind hurtled across the desert, Nebuchadnezzar maintained a coliseum of fire. Its flames were nurtured by the trunks of Lebanon cedars thrust in from high scaffolds. Sheets of flame twisted up from the burning ground, curled higher than the ziggurat adjacent to the temple. The fire pit glowed with massive coals, crackling and humming with heat.
The four companions remained quiet – resigned, perhaps prayerful. The guards prodded them toward a platform high above the fierce heat. When they reached it, they looked back toward the summit of the temple, from where Nebuchadnezzar watched. The king lifted his hand, in greeting and dismissal. The guards pushed Daniel and his friends forward, over the precipice, into the fire.20
My body temperature climbs: slowly at first, over several days, then rapidly, frighteningly, until chilled sweat runs off me in rivulets. My skin begins to blister. Definitely chicken pox, the “creeping disease,” as it was once called. The first twenty or so blisters – on the back of my neck, on my face, scattered across my rib cage – are dime-sized; the skin on their flanks is swollen and sensitive. The kids, for whom this illness was merely an inconvenience, didn’t get many blisters, and I’m hopeful that my symptoms will be similar. They’re a couple of weeks ahead of me, well past the fever stage. For them, only a few vestiges of the largest pox remain.
But the course of my illness is different.21 My skin erupts alarmingly; by the end of the second day, I count three hundred pus-filled blisters on my face alone. The rest of my body is similarly tattooed, in archipelagoes and chains of red affliction spreading across my skin. Dozens of pox emerge in my mouth and down my throat. It becomes difficult to swallow. Each of these hundreds or thousands of blisters – who could count them all? – is an outpost of discomfort: hot, sensitive, insistent.
The chicken pox virus attacks nerve endings in the skin. The blisters are the body’s response. Only the soles of my feet and my palms are spared. Everywhere else is a mess of heat and pain. When I try to cool myself by splashing a little water on my face, the sting is instant and electric.
I cannot sit or lie down; the pressure is too much. So I walk, for a full night. Through the dark halls of our home, circling from kitchen to living room, wandering, saturated with fatigue. By morning, more blisters have appeared. Ruefully, I wonder if I have the same number of marks on my skin as there are fragments of white microcline in the stone.
There’s no mistaking what this is all about. I may have been infected by blind chance, but mythological tales of fire have set me alight. How could I immerse myself so deeply in the fiery stone, in the lore of burning ancestors and pillars of fire, without being so affected? Early on, I resolved to let this endeavor guide me in its own way; had I known of this eventuality, I’m not sure I would have signed on. The pain grows, coming in waves of burning heat that migrate up and down my body, scorching me with every pass. I once worked as a pain management counselor, but by the third day my coping is threadbare.
Not since Edfu, I realize, have I been this ill; not since many years ago, after I visited the Temple of Horus, where the oldest tales of the Kem are inscribed, and soon succumbed to an ailment that almost killed me. It took me more than three years to recover; and I have not, since that encounter, struggled with anything remotely as scary. But as the fatigue of rambling around the house and the pain become altogether too much, I experience the same feeling as I did then: the impulse to fight crumbles in the face of an imperative to surrender.
I must sit down, collect myself, try to show some appreciation for my wife and kids, whose ministrations I’ve been unable to receive during this long slide. I choose a spot in the living room, on the raised marble hearth of the fireplace. The stone is smooth and cold; its coolness is a balm, almost, upon my fractured skin. The irony of my position – in front of the fire screen – is a sliver of torpid humor. It seems I cannot avoid the fire after all; I must go into it, through to the other side. I wonder if my grandmother felt this way, when she dreamed of a fire, then was woken the next night by the clamor of flames devouring her house. I wonder: Is fire the agent of the soul’s purification, as the Kem myths claim? “And Isis, queen of all magic, put the child Horus in the fire, that he might become immortal.”22 What am I to make of Margaret Laird, burning at the stake, or my ancestor Henrietta DesBrisay, consumed when she fell into a cooking fire? Or my great-grandfather, huddled and dying on the floor of my father’s boyhood room? Or Daniel, tossed into the flames by a desperate king?
I burn upon the hearth, wondering what unfinished dreams I have inherited.
Daniel rolled through the burnished air, tumbling, falling into the fire. The roar of flames entered him, consumed him. Out of the corner of his eye, as he spun down toward the fire pit, he saw the jumbled forms of his friends somersaulting behind him. The fire enclosed them all. They fell and fell.
But they did not burn up. They descended, realizing with wonder that the flames were not destroying them. The blaze brightened around them, forged a cocoon of fire in which they settled, gently, onto black coals white with heat.
Unharmed, clothed in flame, the four companions met at the center of the conflagration. The intensity of the fire had shaped a clearing occupied solely by sheets of brilliant flame. The ground was blasted smooth. Each of the company came into this clearing from the direction in which he had fallen from the scaffold: Hananiah from the north, Mishael from the east, Azariah from the south, Daniel from the west. They were quiet, each knowing the source of their protection, each glimpsing fragments of Daniel’s vision at the riverbank. They stood, an illuminated quaternity within the fire’s core, then walked eastward, out of the flames, onto the dark plain rushing with wind. Their cocoons of fire remained with them, surrounded them with radiance. Deliberately, slowly, they made their way far out onto the russet ground of Babylon, and waited for Nebuchadnezzar.
The king watched with terror from the summit of the ziggurat. Now he came, summoned by the mystery. He climbed – with shaky and resolute steps – down the terraces of the temple, between the gardens hanging from its flanks, across the courtyard. He took the trail that meandered onto the plain. Ahead, four signal fires blazed in the twilight. Nebuchadnezzar walked until dark, until the blaze of his furnace had dwindled behind him and the beacons in front were his only illumination. Then, his terror mellowed by weariness, he came upon the comrades. He stood at the threshold of their circle. Daniel motioned to a natural rise of the ground at the circle’s center; Nebuchadnezzar moved forward and took his place there. His legs crumpled under him, and he sat on the hard ground. The four companions also sat – as though the king were an honored guest and not a tyrant, the Hebrews hosts and not captives.
Daniel spoke. “You dream of a creature, a colossus of terrifying stature.”
“Its head is crafted of gold,” said Hananiah.
“Its chest and arms are silver,” said Mishael.
“Its belly and thighs are brass,” said Azariah.
“Its legs,” said Daniel, “are forged of iron, and its feet are made of clay. But not wholly clay. The bones of the feet are forged of iron.”
Nebuchadnezzar’s vision blurred, and he was suddenly aware of the cold ground beneath him. He could manage only a whisper: “How is it you know of such things?”
“We have passed through fire,” Daniel said.
“We are now the four,” continued Hananiah.
“Each of us is one letter of the sacred, unnameable name,” said Mishael.23
“Nothing is hidden from us,” said Azariah.
The four companions – clockwise around the circle, each delivering single phrases, each following the previous speaker without pause – told Nebuchadnezzar the rest of his dream.
They spoke to him of the stone: radiant, spinning, polished like a jewel but not shaped by human hands. This stone approached the dreamer, filled his vision, showed him shapes of darkness and light swirling. But Nebuchadnezzar could not make out the meaning of these simulacra. The stone turned, retreated from him, and whirled toward the creature of the dream, the colossus of metal and clay. Above its silver flank, the golden head turned, as though in defiance. Nebuchadnezzar heard the thunder of earthen feet with their core of iron. The stone hurtled into the feet of the colossus, destroying them. The beast roared and crashed to the ground. Its monstrous anatomy – clay, iron, brass, silver, and gold – shattered as it fell, exploding into shards that mixed together like chaff on the summer threshing floor.24 Then the dreamer saw a wind coming, over the dark plain. It lifted the scattered remains of the colossus and carried them away.
The stone remained. It spun, languid, in the mind’s eye of the dreamer. Then it began to grow, expanding across the plain. It broadened into the earth, spread to the four quarters of the horizon, lifted its shoulders and summit heavenward. The sun was blocked from view, the sea pitched with turmoil, the air was heavy. All around the dreamer, darkness prevailed. He stood at the base of the mountain, looked upward, and screamed.
Nebuchadnezzar gazed across the clearing at Daniel, whose face was serene, though flames crackled everywhere upon him. The king tried to listen for the background warble of night birds that he so often heard in his garden. The landscape was quiet, rapt by the spectacle of four fiery beings and a beggar. The recounting of his dream had been exact. Were these men angels? He paused in this speculation, but only for a moment. Knowing that he must complete the ritual, must know, he asked his burning question: “What does the dream mean?”
“It is a prophecy,” said Daniel.
“An omen,” said Hananiah.
“An augury,” said Mishael.
“It is not only for you,” said Azariah.
The speakers told Nebuchadnezzar of the ages of the world indicated in the dream: golden, protected by the circle of time; silver, heralded by the tumult of tongues; brass, crafted with hammer and forge; iron, shaped by the yearning eye; and clay, during which the yearning eye turns back upon itself. Their voices flickered in the dark, sent out tendrils of flame into the clearing, wrapped Nebuchadnezzar in a dream of which he was only a fleeting fragment.
“The stone,” said Daniel, finishing, “cannot be forgotten or destroyed. It shall break apart the collected reveries and visions of every age. They will be as wind upon the mountain. And the mountain itself will be what it has always been: the ceaseless transformation of the world’s becoming.”
Daniel’s fire brightened. Above him, flames twisted heavenward. As Nebuchadnezzar watched, sparks from Daniel’s corona gathered and jumped, like fireflies in the dark, across to Hananiah. The fiery cocoon of Hananiah blossomed; sparks arced around to Mishael and Azariah. The four companions grew in brilliance, yet Nebuchadnezzar could not shield his eyes. A ring of fire encircled him. It raced around the clearing, scorched the air, spiraled into the sky above. The ring became a column, the column a pillar, and the pillar a radiant cyclone whose distant aperture – opening to the heavens, perhaps – Nebuchadnezzar could just make out, tiny in the far distance overhead.
He could no longer see the companions; they had merged with the fire – if ever they were anything else. His clothes smoked, his skin blistered. But the nightmare had fallen away, and Nebuchadnezzar was again the king he had been. For that, even if these were his last moments, he was thankful. But the conflagration did not consume him. It lifted off into the west, leaving a circle of blackened earth and a lone man, bewildered, on the plain of his homeland.
Notes to Chapter Five
The mythological, radiant shamir appears in the myths of Judaism, but it may have an older origin. At the Temple of Horus, in Egypt, on the walls of which the last learned priests of the Kem wrote down as much of their legacy as they could recall, dwindling as it was with the slow demise of their culture, there is a reference to a protective deity. The god is embodied in the spear of the falcon lord, Horus the warrior, and was thought to have existed in the waters of Nun, before the creation of the world. The spear was a mythopoeic instrument, sentient and indomitable (though it was defeated, at least momentarily, in the first serpent battle). It was capable of cutting through anything. In Reymond’s Mythical Origin of the Egyptian Temple (p. 97), the name of that spear deity is transliterated as Shm-hr. ↩︎
Ginzberg, Legends of the Bible, p. 76. ↩︎
Differing versions of the myth concerning the appearance of the bow describe it variously as an arrangement of clouds, a rainbow, or a military bow. The rainbow motif is resonant with modern sensibilities, particularly in The Wizard of Oz, which is a contemporary retelling of numerous myths. For the ancients, a military bow would have been the symbol of choice in establishing the covenant between Noah and the hosts of the Unnameable. As Richard Wilkinson has shown (Symbol and Magic in Egyptian Art, pp. 200–3), the bow held backward, or held aloft, was a gesture of submission and surrender in many cultures of the ancient Near East. For the Kem, among whom the turned-bow gesture may have originated, the bow possessed its own symbolic dialect: as arbiter, as indicator of status, as mediator between the human and the divine. ↩︎
Kem priests were given the title Sem (Sem is the Greek name of Shem, and it is the origin of Semite, meaning “the descendants of Shem”). The Bible clearly indicates that Moses was a priest of the Kem: “And Moses was learned in all the wisdom of the Egyptians, and was mighty in words and in deeds” (Acts 7:22). In From Fetish to God in Ancient Egypt (p. 8, n3), E.A. Wallis Budge describes Moses’ probable background: “All that the Bible tells us about Moses indicates that he had studied the various branches of Egyptian magic, and that he was a skilled performer of magical rituals and was deeply learned in the knowledge of the accompanying spells, incantations, and magical formulas of every description… The miracles he wrought in Egypt, and in the desert, suggest that he was not only a priest, but a magician of the highest order and perhaps even a Kheri Heb [high priest] of Memphis.”
Although Hebrew folklore does not specifically indicate that Noah’s son Shem was a priest of the Kem, a particular fable may hint at this designation. On the sea journey, Noah neglected to feed the lion; in its hunger, the lion struck Noah lame. Thereafter Noah’s infirmity prohibited him from conducting priestly service. Shem undertook the offering when the ark found refuge. Noah’s physical lameness, brought about by a failure of relationship with the lion, suggests a mythological association: Shem has earned the priesthood by meeting the lion’s challenge, as the Kem priests fulfilled the challenge of the panther (they wore panther skin robes). Lion and panther (and jaguar, in South American shamanism) are essentially the same mythological animal, the predator whose fierceness and resolute clarity must be brought to the work of illumination.
Noah had two other sons, Ham and Japheth. Ham was the mythological patriarch of the Canaanites, of whom it is said in Genesis: “Cursed be Canaan! The lowest of slaves will he be to his brothers” (9:25, New International Version UK). The Canaanites, in turn, are the fabled ancestors of the modern Arabs. Shem, Noah’s eldest son, was an ancestral patriarch of the Israelites. Already in the first chapters of the testaments, this enmity between brothers and peoples was well under way. But the Bible is not its only source: the Qur¸an (17:4–7) returns the prophetic favor.
And We gave (Clear) Warning to the Children of Israel in the Book, that twice would they do mischief on the earth and be elated with mighty arrogance (and twice would they be punished)!
When the first of the warnings came to pass, We sent against you Our servants given to terrible warfare: They entered the very inmost parts of your homes; and it was a warning (completely) fulfilled.
Then did We grant you the Return as against them: We gave you increase in resources and sons, and made you the more numerous in man-power.
If ye did well, ye did well for yourselves; if ye did evil, (ye did it) against yourselves. So when the second of the warnings came to pass, (We permitted your enemies) to disfigure your faces, and to enter your Temple as they had entered it before, and to visit with destruction all that fell into their power.
Unless stated otherwise, Qur¸an quotations are from the translation by Abdullah Yusuf Ali. ↩︎
The location of Moses’ encounters with Yahweh upon the mountain, during which he received a set of commandment tablets, broke them in anger at the pagan instincts of his people, and subsequently received a second set (how does one smash a gift of the divine and then sheepishly ask for another?), has traditionally been assigned to a mountain – no one knows exactly which one – in the Sinai Peninsula. It has also been suggested (by the Danish scholar Ditlef Nielsen as early as 1902, and more recently by Andrew Collins and Graham Phillips) that the divine mountain was al-Ma¸daba, located in what is now southern Jordan, near Petra. In terms of myth, the location matters hardly at all; but in terms of the history of religion, the site of divine revelation is an essential element in the formation of Jewish identity. The exodus, as numerous scholars have shown, is still the prevailing myth of Jewish culture. ↩︎
Many scholars have noted the similarity between the Ten Commandments and several passages in the Kem “negative confessions” from chapter 125 of the Book of the Dead – which is itself an adaptation of the earlier Pyramid Texts, or the Book of Illumination. ↩︎
The nature, contents, and fate of the ark of the covenant constitute one of the most intriguing mysteries of the Bible. Ceremonial chests from the age of Tutankhamun, almost identical to the biblical description of the ark, can be seen in the Egyptian Museum in Cairo today. Originally the ark was placed upon the summit of foundation, the Shetiyah in Jerusalem; but it disappeared some time after construction of the first temple – possibly destroyed by invaders or apostates, perhaps hidden by high priests.
The ark lay at the center of Hebrew religion. Its loss would have been the cause of monumental sorrow. How does one deal with the disappearance of gifts from the hand of God? But curiously, the ark vanished from later scriptures, without comment. A shift in Hebraic consciousness, away from idols and toward the abstract numinous, probably accounts for some of the ark’s obscurity. But its complete erasure from tradition is an enduring mystery (remember the first Indiana Jones movie?). Possibly the exiled Babylonian authors of the Old Testament, generations removed from the temple’s destruction in 587 BCE, had no idea where the ark had gone. They were faced with the difficult challenge of rebuilding a religion without its central sacred symbol. But they had returned to the temple, at least, and this – a rebuilt stone structure with a foundation of bedrock at its heart – became the source of much subsequent Jewish mythology.
Aside from the foundation stone, nothing is left of the first temple (Solomon’s temple) on Jerusalem’s Temple Mount. The second temple, rebuilt after the Babylonian exile, fared little better: it was plundered and desecrated by Antiochus Epiphanes in 169 and 167 BCE, and later plundered again by the Roman Crassus, in 54 BCE. The Jewish revolt against the former desecration is celebrated today in the rituals of Hanukkah. The temple was renovated and enlarged by Herod the Great in stages beginning in 20 BCE; but it was destroyed again by the Romans in 70 ce. All that remains today is the Western Wall, or Wailing Wall. No definitive archaeological evidence links this wall to the original structure of the first or second temple.
The ark is reputed to be in Axum, Ethiopia. It is kept from public scrutiny by devoted priests and protected by a garrison of the Ethiopian army. Without access to the relic, it has been impossible for scholars to establish the veracity of this claim. ↩︎
Exod. 40:38. ↩︎
In Hebrew, the past is denoted by the word avar. The Hebrew letters used for this word are ayin, vet, and resh. In the Book of Genesis, Abraham is called Ivri, and the Hebrews are the ivrim. These appellations, which are variants of avar, connote Abraham and his people passing into a new life, land, and set of beliefs. The defining aspect of this new life is its prohibition against human sacrifice. ↩︎
The four italicized passages in this section are adapted from Ginzberg’s Legends of the Jews, vol. 1, p. 101. ↩︎
This connotation, interpreted either as “he takes by the heel” or “he supplants,” derives from the legend of Jacob’s birth, in which it is recounted that Jacob, who was born the second of twins, “took hold on Esau’s heel” (Gen. 25:26). This event follows the prophecy (given to Rebekah, the mother of the twins) that has contributed to the enmity between Palestinian Arabs and Jews: “Two nations are in thy womb, and two manner of people shall be separated from thy bowels; and the one people shall be stronger than the other people; and the elder shall serve the younger” (Gen. 25:23).
Jacob is the patriarch of the Israelites, whereas Esau is the putative patriarch of the biblical tribe of the Edomites, an Arabic people who lived in what is now southwestern Jordan. According to tradition, the Edomites battled the Hebrews several times in antiquity; they were defeated by Saul and by David, and subsequently allied themselves with Nebuchadnezzar in the sack of Jerusalem. Later the Edomites were conquered again – by the Nabataeans – and many of them migrated to Judaea, a region that today is called the West Bank. ↩︎
There are two traditional versions of this fable. The first, the biblical version (Gen. 32:24–28), is straightforward:
And Jacob was left alone; and there wrestled a man with him until the breaking of the day.
And when he saw that he prevailed not against him, he touched the hollow of his thigh; and the hollow of Jacob’s thigh was out of joint, as he wrestled with him.
And he said, Let me go, for the day breaketh. And he said, I will not let thee go, except thou bless me.
And he said unto him, What is thy name? And he said, Jacob.
And he said, Thy name shall be called no more Jacob, but Israel: for as a prince hast thou power with God and with men, and hast prevailed.
The folkloric connotation of the Jewish people as “God wrestlers” derives from this tale. Israel means “he who strives with God” or “God strives.” The word possesses a suitably ambiguous meaning. Ginzberg tells a more complicated version (Legends of the Jews, vol. 1, p. 384) involving a wizard, sheep crossing a stream, and a business deal. In both versions, the site of the fable is at Mahanaim, “the place of encounter with the angels,” which adjoins the ford of the Jabbok, a small stream. Neither version involves the primordial mountain, though the elements of the story also exist there: stream, angels, nighttime encounter. In mythological terms, the mountain must have been the site of the struggle: the angels ascended from its summit, God spoke from its holy seat, the prophetic vision of Jacob transpired beneath its stone altar. The ritual naming offered to Jacob as a result of his wrestling with the angel could not have taken place anywhere but upon the holy mountain (which is every mountain).
I have changed the timing of the wrestling match. In both the biblical and folkloric versions, Jacob encounters the angel – the archangel Michael, to be precise – later in his journey, after he leaves the mountaintop. Otherwise, I have preserved the narrative style (if not the structure, exactly) of the folkloric version told by Ginzberg. ↩︎
The tale of Solomon’s search for the shamir is part of a complex myth cycle in the Hebrew tradition, but one that appears only indirectly in the Bible. Tradition relates that Solomon required the shamir as a means of circumventing the prohibition against the use of iron tools, as the Torah explicitly prohibits their use in creating an altar: “And there shalt thou build an altar unto the Lord thy God, an altar of stones: thou shalt not lift up any iron tool upon them” (Deut. 27:5). The traditional reason for this prohibition is that iron is the metal used for making weapons; the temple, by contrast, is an object designed to evoke peace. This is an odd rationale. During the exodus, the weapon used to vanquish the enemies of the wandering Hebrews was the ark of the covenant, the embodiment of the Lord, most holy of sacred objects. The battle for Jericho is the most famous instance of the ark’s use as a weapon, though it was used with great efficacy as the scourge of every enemy of the Hebrews. By the agency of a pillar of fire that emanated from it, or by means of a deadly, suffocating cloud surrounding it, or simply by its proximity to an enemy, the ark was a veritable avatar of destruction. The ark itself and its contents were the tangible symbols of the covenant between the Hebrews and the Unnameable. That covenant, as Akenson illustrates in Surpassing Wonder (p. 102), “is not primarily intended to bring peace, but victory.” The Hebrews were not averse to sacred objects as weapons of war.
I take the view that the temple construction was intended to reflect a consciousness oriented toward the future, as though the temple itself was the earth rough-hewn and elemental, new and suffused with promise. The Bible provides an excellent description of the temple and its construction. It was, by all accounts, an elegant building. But the stone work was entirely distinct from that of the Kem. The craftsmanship was undertaken by Hiram of Tyre (see next note), who was brought in specifically for the task. I wonder if this distinctive work was intended to symbolize the Hebrews’ break from the past, an abrogation of the past they shared with the Kem, the world’s greatest stonemasons. The origins of the Hebrew culture, after all, are wrapped up with the Kem. The stonework of the temple was, perhaps, another instance of the Hebrew insistence on their own uniqueness. In the Hebraic cosmogony, their culture has no ancestor. ↩︎
Hiram of Tyre is a figure of tremendous importance in the Masonic tradition. The fact that a non-Hebraic craftsman was used as the chief architect and builder of the temple seems peculiar, though it’s in keeping with the argument put forth in the previous note: that the Hebrew people distanced themselves, perhaps intentionally, from the high craftsmanship of the Kem. ↩︎
These pillars, while not central to Hebrew folklore, have inspired a persistent mythology in Freemasonry. In the Masonic tradition, the pillars are called Jaquin and Boaz: “According to the ‘old ritual’ [of Freemasonry] these two great pillars had been hollow. Inside them had been stored the ‘ancient records’ and the ‘valuable writings’ pertaining to the past of the Jewish people. And amongst these records, the Freemasons claimed, had been ‘the secret of the magical shamir and the history of its properties’” (Hancock, The Sign and the Seal, p. 369). ↩︎
Ginzberg, Legends of the Jews, vol. 4, p. 301. ↩︎
The name of this king was actually Nebuchadrezzar, though he is better known by his incorrect designation. ↩︎
The folkloric record relates that some drank too much, too fast, and the shock of it killed them. The most dangerous act for someone near death from dehydration is, in fact, to drink a substantial amount of water. The resulting bodily reaction frequently results in death. The Bedouin tribes of the Arabian Peninsula, conditioned to the arid environment with all its attendant dangers, have long been experts at dehydration recovery. Their prescription involves drinking a small amount of water, washing the body, and slowly acclimatizing oneself with tiny sips over a long period.
The Hebrew captives had lost much already, and they rose up in a chorus of grief at the catastrophe of more death among themselves. Their anguish and exhaustion later inspired psalm 137 and, more than two thousand years later, the lines of a half-lame radical poet:
We sat down and wept by the waters
Of Babel, and thought of the day
When our foe, in the hue of his slaughters,
Made Salem’s high places his prey;
And ye, oh her desolate daughters!
Were scattered all weeping away.
(Byron, “By the Rivers of Babylon We Sat Down and Wept,” stanza 1) ↩︎
In Hebrew folklore (see Ginzberg, for example), the redeemed captives are identified as the sons of Moses (Eliezer and Gershom, names meaning “God is my helper” and “stranger in a strange land”). Historically, this identification is problematic. In the traditional chronology, Moses probably led the exodus around 1200 BCE (this is by no means a consensus view); the Hebrews were led captive to Babylon about 600 BCE. If the sons of Moses were among the captives, they would have to have been at least six hundred years old. Although this presents a chronological problem, it is not a conundrum for myth, in which characters frequently endure for centuries. In the Hebrew tradition, enviable spans are attributed to many sages and patriarchs: the famous Methuselah, grandfather of Noah and the son of Enoch, is said (in Genesis 5:27) to have lived for 969 years. ↩︎
In alternative versions of this tale, it is Abraham instead of Daniel who is alone tossed into the fire. Or Daniel is absent from Babylon when his companions are punished. Or the angel Gabriel takes the place of Daniel. ↩︎
Chicken pox is typically more serious in adults than children. The disease can be fatal in any age group, but most deaths (55 percent) are in the adult population. In North America, chicken pox is the leading cause of adult death by a viral illness that can be prevented by inoculation. ↩︎
Adapted from Budge, Legends of the Egyptian Gods, p. 222. ↩︎
In Jewish mysticism, the four letters of the personal name of Yahweh – YHWH – are called the tetragrammaton. The combined letters are the source of a large body of esoteric material, but to my knowledge this symbolism has not previously been used in the context of the companions in the fire. ↩︎
Dan. 2:35. “Then was the iron, the clay, the brass, the silver, and the gold, broken to pieces together, and became like the chaff of the summer threshing floors.” ↩︎