The Third Wife of Jonah
The Birth of Christ X Jacob and the Daughters of Laban
He was unwilling, when he wooed, to settle for a mere woman. (Or to settle, as some of his brothers had, for one of the prettier ewes.) His passions were more ambitious, and more spiritual.
At night, he stared into the heavens, fixated by the stars. They burned and quivered...for him? for another? He simulated, with his own hands, the pleasure he might obtain in them.
When he was old enough, he ascended into the sky. With him, he carried the whole of his inheritance—half sheep, half gold. The way was difficult. He hiked over dark mountains. He breathed a new air (excessively thin), which bloodied his throat.
Upon arrival, he confronted a grim king—the proprietor of many daughters. He bowed. He groveled. In a fiery language (which burnt his mouth) he negotiated a bride price.
After fourteen years—a mere fourteen—he returned, triumphant. His wife, beside him, was exquisite. (At least, he presumed it was so.) She was too bright to view, and so he protected his eyes from her, using a dark cloth.
During the marriage consummation, his manhood was burned away, and, with it, all subsequent desire. It was, however, enough. Against her belly, he felt his seed, usably transmuted—to infant hands, to infant feet. He smiled, perceiving the kicks, though his hands were invariably scalded.
The birth, of course, was violent and awful—as the birth of stars must be. In a crackling supernova, which destroyed much of the valley, two daughters were ejected. They were lovely and luminous. As they breathed—as they cried—they expelled new flickers of light.
Amid the devastation, he wept. He touched the cinders of his wife—now black and harmless. He choked on the fumes (mutton and singed wool), which had resulted from the flocks' incineration.
He held the babies close. They were abnormally warm, though not quite hot enough to burn him.
David and Goliath X Jonah and the Whale
For many decades, the sea monster had misused Jonah's people. Each spring, it expelled masses of half-digested plankton, which flooded the villages. From these piles, poisonous fumes arose, which killed the old and sick.
Each autumn, after the grain harvest, the monster demanded a ruinous tribute. On the beaches, emaciated villagers presented it, packaged into bushels. As the monster devoured the grain, it laughed mockingly. Into the villagers' faces, it spat back the inedible chaff.
Although the monster was itself vegetarian, it had a bloody spiritual life. On selected festival days (dedicated to its depraved gods), it demanded a cull of the villagers. Into underwater offering bowls, the monster spilled their blood and viscera. Their flesh, however, remained uneaten.
When Jonah was chosen for the cull, he was only an adolescent. An unnatural belief animated him (coupled with an unnatural lung capacity). His eyes were bright and hard.
He survived the descent (though he should have drowned). When the monster, believing him dead, lowered the knife, he adroitly dodged it. Lunging to the side, he snatched a handful of pebbles and a rubbery shellfish. Then, as the monster roared, he dove into its mouth.
Inside, the tongue thrashed. With one hand, Jonah clung to its upper ridge. With the other, he stretched and reshaped the shellfish meat, so that it would serve as the strap of a sling. Into its base, he loaded the first pebble. He aimed upward, at the vulnerable braincase. He sought, in particular, a series of black, cracked places, which seemed to indicate previous injury.
He cast five shots. Afterwards, he could not say which had been mortal. As the monster shuddered, it opened a new orifice (a sort of perverse nostril), which was located at the top of its head. Through it, Jonah leaped again into the water. The corpse, still twitching, began to fall away beneath him.
With a quick motion, Jonah reached back, in order to grasp the upper fin. As he ascended, he dragged the monster behind him. With each upward kick, he ululated savagely, releasing bubbles. "My people!" he repeated. "My p-people! My p-peop-pl-le!"
The Garden of Eden X The Coat of Many Colors
As companions, none of the animals suited him. He tried (when urged) to speak and play with them. Over wine, he made many attempts—with rhinos, who snorted indifferently, then stomped away; or with little voles, who seemed, at first, to stare with soulful understanding, before casually upturning their glasses. ("Try again," said the Zookeeper.)
With chess or dice, the results were just as unsatisfying. During their (abortive) games, many animals instituted their own maddening conventions. They hoarded the play pieces unstrategically. They gnawed on the board. Others, less inclined to play, simply defecated.
Meaningful friendship seemed impossible. ("Try harder," insisted the Zookeeper.)
In some (at best) he found a superficial satisfaction. He admired the color of their feathers, or the luster of their pelts. With others, he shared physical touches. (Nothing sexual, of course. His genitals—so far as he knew—served no function beyond urination.) He identified a few favorites, which he petted very vigorously. Against his hand, he generated a pleasant friction.
In that early era, murder did not exist. He had, consequently, no framework by which to understand his own inclinations—or, in the beginning, his own actions. As he worked, he simply sought a deeper connection.
With a sharp stone, he sliced through the animals' exteriors. Afterwards, he extracted the parts that most pleased him. From a trout, he cut rainbow scales; from a cockatoo, he hacked a pretty scalp. He skinned a rat, attracted by its speckles. He pried away a turtle's carapace, admiring its grooves. During these surgeries, the animals' sounds (and their struggles) somewhat disturbed him. Afterwards, their hacked-up remainders (so bloody! so still!) seemed significantly more disturbing. Once he had taken what he wanted, he felt rather nauseous. Cradling his treasures, he hid himself behind a bush.
For several hours, he crouched, engaged in careful stitchwork. He connected the pieces—fur to feather to reptile skin. Using his own body as a frame, he molded a loose gown.
When he had finished the garment, he admired it under the light. It was gloriously diverse. There were deep black patches, drawn from a feline's pelt; there were iridescent patches, drawn from insect wings.
Fastening the buttons (whittled from aurochs horn), he closed it about himself. Against his skin, it produced a remarkable array of sensations. It prickled and tickled. It stimulated and soothed.
Encased in the fabric, he arched his back. He rolled his shoulders. He pivoted, with small flourishes, so that the lower hem swirled about his shins.
With the coat, his insides also seemed to shift, towards something languorous and soft. Feminine, he might have said, had the concept existed.
Noah's Ark X The Resurrection
When the waters receded, the animals began to wash ashore. They were swollen and mis-colored. The forty days—and nights—following their deaths, had been deeply unkind.
On land, their corpses were abused in new ways. The sun baked them. Sandstorms scoured. Insects employed them as food.
In the clear sky, following the rain, a modified structure appeared. It was a semi-circle, composed of light. By the prolonged storm, it had been badly mauled. Its flesh—once white—now consisted of seven stripes. Each indicated severe injury. They graded from red (fresh blood) to violet (bruising). A green stripe, at center, evidenced gangrene.
Dragging its wounded body, the light gradually encircled the world. As it passed over the floodlands, it observed the heaps of dead. In them, it recognized a kindred suffering. They, too, were victims of the storm.
In its own (deeply lonely) heart, the light entertained a hope of friendship. (Perhaps...? it thought.)
Reaching down—tentatively at first—it stroked the animals' faces. Into their ears (or what remained of them), it whispered a tender exhortation.
Wake up, it said to the stinking unicorns; Wake up, to the rot-encrusted hippogriffs. Wake up, to a host of other exotic dead, which were too badly decomposed to be identified by name.
The Birth of Christ - Jacob and the Daughters of Laban X David and Goliath - Jonah and the Whale
Into the valley, the kings descended, attracted by the light. They came from many countries. With them, they brought exotic gifts—perfumes and oils, derived from trees; and cunning statuettes of gold.
Each hoped to marry the two girls. They longed for them, in a general way, for the sake of their great beauty. Though not quite women, the girls laughed light and sang light. They kissed light, perhaps. Their sex, also, presumably contained it.
The kings longed for them, also, as status symbols (a wife of Heaven, tinged with fire!)...and as high-grade wombs, which might shape great princes.
Each king, kneeling, petitioned the girls' father. For the most part, the father was very gruff with them. He scarcely noted their gifts. "If you wish to impress me," he spat, "then help me with the sheep."
Many kings, startled and offended, returned home. Others, more deeply committed, donned shepherds' garb.
Into this bright valley, Jonah—King Jonah—came also. He had ascended, years ago, as ruler of his own oceanside principality, following his defeat of the sea monster.
As gift, he brought the monster's vast skeleton. (A retinue of sixty villagers bore it, huffing and sweating.) In vases, he brought blubber and lamp oils, which had also been harvested from his great kill.
As a shepherd, Jonah worked very hard, determined to earn the girls. With his sling, he cracked the skulls of poachers and predators. About the flocks, he generated a whirring wall of protective pebbles. With it, he virtually eliminated nighttime losses.
During the breeding season, Jonah stroked the ewes with a fertility potion, prepared from the sea monster's testicles. The lambs, born afterwards, were enormous. They produced massive quantities of meat and wool. From their heads, in addition, curious oils could be harvested, which fetched great price.
After seven years, the father sent the other suitors home. Some grumbled, a little. Most, however, recognized that they had been beaten.
When the valley was empty, the father beckoned to Jonah. With a sigh...of reluctance? of nostalgia?...he led him into his daughters' bedchamber. Here, the girls sat demurely at their sewing projects. One girl was tinged with a blue glow, the other with a red.
Remembering his wife, the father began, again, to weep. With a gruff gesture, he said, "Take them both."
The Garden of Eden - The Coat of Many Colors X Noah's Ark - The Resurrection
From the bush, the man observed a disturbing pageant. It was divided into three acts. Each was successively more terrifying: (1) the Zookeeper, stumbling upon the corpses; (2) the Zookeeper, screaming in grief; (3) the Zookeeper, hunting for him.
Wrapped in his garment, the man scuttled secretly up the side of a tree. Here, he crouched for several awful minutes. With leaf dew (and his own spittle), he scrubbed his bloody skin. When he was physically clean, he closed his eyes...but he could think only of death.
Eventually, the guilt became too terrible. "Here I am!" he cried. Holding his breath, he jumped down.
As he descended, his garment crackled and shimmered. Its outer flaps, buoyed by the breeze, served like a set of gliders. His landing was slow and controlled, like that of a bird.
Once on the ground, his movements became more chaotic. Struggling with a sense of his own femininity, he half strutted, half stumbled.
At first—unable to meet that awful gaze—the man simply stared at the Zookeeper's feet. At the same time, however, his magnificent cloak billowed about him, imparting an irrational confidence. Finally (feeling almost drunk) he threw back his head.
"I am beautiful!" he cried. His tone was lush. He felt, at once, sensuous and dreadful—as if he contained all the world's sin.
As he spoke, the Zookeeper watched him quietly. In His arms, He cradled a skinned corpse. His lips were smudged with blood, from the many farewell kisses He had imparted.
"You are hideous," He said simply.
Grabbing him by the hair—not touching the cloak—the Keeper dragged him to the Zoo's outermost wall. With a terrible whoop, He flung him over the side.
Outside the Zoo, the landscape was very harsh. Flood had recently ravaged it. Great puddles still stood, stinking of fish. Where the soil was dry, it was crusted with salt.
As he walked, the man lamented. He beat his face. He gouged his skin. He wailed, in a raw voice, the loss of everything.
In the distance—too far, at first, for the man to correctly perceive them—a horde of zombie animals shambled. As the man approached, they pricked up their ears. They gazed at him curiously—some with eyes, half-rotted away, and some with just the sockets. Intent upon his grief, the man tried to ignore them.
Soon, several (a small herd) began to shuffle towards him. Occasionally, their lips contorted, as if to neigh or moo. From their mouths, pus and seawater emerged, in place of sound.
When they were very close, a few poked him with their noses, as if to sniff. (At this distance, he in addition perceived that each head was surrounded by a faint nimbus—a sort of grotesque halo—which consisted of multi-colored light.) Nervously, he tried to push the animals away. To his profound disquiet, pieces of their faces rubbed off on his hands.
Beyond this herd, there were others...and yet others. At last, feeling sick, he decided to escape them. Beating the flaps of his cloak, he ascended into the sky.
Above the cloud cover—almost immediately—he was confronted by a strange light. It consisted of seven colors. It reminded him, rather strikingly, of the zombies' haloes, but it was far larger, and much more vivid. The light in addition seemed to be mumbling to itself (Wake up...Wake up...) "Perverse..." the man murmured, and tried to change course. He was, however, unable to out-fly it.
When the light touched him, his cloak shuddered. Each patch—jolted by the light's exhortation (Wake up...)—regained a sort of life. "Blue," mooed the buffalo pelt. "Indigo," hissed the snake scales. "Orange," croaked the frog skin.
About him, the fabric contracted. Its rougher bits—teeth and claws—stabbed rather deeply. Bits of fur, composing the hood, scurried inwards, until they covered his nose and mouth.
He screamed, though the cloth muffled it. At first, out of an old instinct, he cried for the Zookeeper ("My Lord! My Lord!"). Soon, however, despairing of help, he simply cried.
Afraid to die, he struggled to free himself. He fumbled with the buttons (which bucked as he touched them). He shook his arms from the sleeves (which cawed and wriggled).
Abruptly—and to his mixed relief—the coat released him. In sudden free fall, he managed to grasp a lower hem. Here, the fabric was lined with insect cuticles (which seemed less inclined to reproach him). "Yellow," it chirped sadly, in many voices.
Above him, flapping wildly, the coat continued to fly. As he dangled beneath it, the wind flayed his nakedness.
"I am sorry," he said. "I am just so sorry."
The Birth of Christ - Jacob and the Daughters of Laban - David and Goliath - Jonah and the Whale X The Garden of Eden - The Coat of Many Colors - Noah's Ark - The Resurrection
Exterminating a monster is very different from taming a wife. Pebbles may bruise a woman. Short, however, of killing her, they will not improve her behavior.
Jonah tried very hard, as he always had. But his wives were difficult.
Half-star (and very vain), they objected to many of the rules of his court. If ever Jonah reprimanded them (or, occasionally, raised his hand to strike them), they always stopped him short. "You have won us..." they said, in a withering tone, as if daring him not to be grateful.
At state dinners, they were horribly rude. When dinner guests attempted to speak to them, they often simply stiffened. About them, a corona flared, which charred their would-be conversation partners. Once, to Jonah's profound embarrassment, they maimed a foreign ambassador.
They insisted, in addition, upon taking frequent walks along the beach, singing strangely to one another. Here—for hours at a time—they would evade the honor guard that Jonah had assigned to them. These trips inspired a series of wild rumors about the women's infidelity—with sea men, with sea creatures, with rocks. The common people repeated them salaciously. (Though, Jonah did not, himself, believe these rumors, he was nonetheless humiliated by them.)
Eventually, Jonah felt forced to confine them. He chose a room at the top of the castle tower. It contained a single window (a narrow slit) which faced the sea.
Through this opening (to Jonah's annoyance), the women continued to receive visitors. All came by way of the air. Most were birds—zombie birds, from the distant floodlands, who had died by drowning. Their plumage was limp and half-rotted. From their beaks, maggots emerged, in place of song.
Though gross, the birds seemed rather innocent. (What real harm could it cause, if his wives were to stroke and whisper to them?) Choking back his nausea, Jonah decided to tolerate them. Other visitors, by contrast, were much less acceptable.
One evening, for instance, a naked penitent arrived, accompanied by a flying carpet. The carpet writhed in an uncoordinated way. In it, many animal voices growled and chirruped. The penitent himself, crazed with anguish, rocked on his heels. Pointing to the carpet, he shrieked, "I killed them!" With long nails, he gouged at his own skin.
For several weeks, the wives tended to the penitent. Jonah, furious—as close as he had ever come to killing them—cried, "You cannot host a man in your bedchamber!" ("He doesn't identify as male," the women explained. "We regard him as a sister.") With defiant smiles—as if Jonah had said nothing—they continued their ministrations. To his/her body, they applied fire-based medications—tinged blue, tinged red. They also spent many hours sewing a new garment for him/her. They used strings of little pebbles (eschewing even shells) so that it would disadvantage no animal, living or dead.
In some ways, however, the Rainbow may have been the most disconcerting visitor. With it, the imprisoned wives held almost constant conference. It hovered outside of the tower slit—through day, through night, and almost all weather. The common people, viewing it from below, regarded it as a particularly foul omen. "Light should be white..." they grumbled. In their coarse way, they echoed Jonah's own feelings.
In retrospect, of course, the women's departure was inevitable. (In years after, once the sting of it had faded, Jonah would wonder whether it actually saddened him.)
In secret, over several months, the women directed the construction of a ship. The Rainbow (their foreman) relayed their messages. Zombie animals (stationed at an obscure section of the beach) did much of the building.
As a framework, they used the bones of Jonah's prize monster. About it, they wrapped the penitent's flying carpet. The fabric served as a living mantle—complex and beautiful.
Along the skeleton, each patch was positioned to serve a different function. Semi-transparent sections, from insects, served as windows; long side appendages, from racing animals, served as self-powered oars.
When the ship was completed, the zombies poured into its belly. ("Earth did not want us," they murmured, in gushes of saltwater. "And the Sea tried to kill us.") Some, who had assisted with the ship's construction, cried with pride. Others, too physically weak to have helped, simply cried in gratitude.
Up the gangplank, they filed in, shambling and stinking. In decay-softened voices, they sobbed excitedly: "To the Stars..."
To power the ship, the women used two sources: (1) jars of oil, originally harvested from the sea monster's head, and (2) the Rainbow itself.
They absconded one morning, just after dawn. From his bedchamber, Jonah perceived the oily smoke. Its stink elicited many memories. For a moment, he again believed himself to be a young man, just chosen for the cull.
As he awoke—still disoriented—he reached for his favorite weapon. "My people!" he cried, as he rushed from the chamber.
On the beach (as if in confirmation of the dream), Jonah re-confronted his monster. This time, however, he was unable to swim to it. Instead, rooted in the sand, he watched it ascend into Heaven.
Outlined by the sunrise, the monster was more grotesque—more magnificent—than he had ever seen it. Hundreds of animal appendages protruded from it. Behind it, in a streak, the perverse light formed an arc, pushing the ship forward.
Jonah launched pebbles—part in fury, part by reflex. Into the ship, they tore sizable holes. Over each puncture, however, the Rainbow immediately stitched a bright web, which forestalled any meaningful harm.
Perched on the monster's back, the wives waved a mocking goodbye. One of them screamed out something, perhaps by way of explanation. From the beach, he could only make out a fragment: "...to our mother's people..."
On earth, the penitent remained behind. To Jonah, he...she...served as a great comfort. On the beach, over many mornings, they spoke of spiritual things—of blood, of regret, and of a vision for the future. She was an attentive listener. Her own reflections (when he invited her to share them) were passionate, yet exceedingly humble.
When they were both ready, they made a great a pilgrimage, back to the primeval Zoo, in order to seek the Keeper's consent. It was a terrible journey, dominated by deserts and sterile floodplains. Their affection, however, sustained them.
When they first arrived, the Zookeeper was very grim. At Jonah's gift, however, His eyes softened. It was a herd of immense animals—half sheep and half sea monster. Their fleeces were lustrous...and entirely intact.
In the end, He proved to be entirely forgiving. Donning His sacred robes, He even agreed to officiate.
During the ceremony, Jonah lifted the penitent's veil. It consisted of a meshwork of minute stones. Each shimmered, grey-green or silver, as the light touched it. It suited her face perfectly.
"You are beautiful," he whispered.
Rachel Rodman is a science and fiction writer, based in the American South.