Elijah’s Balm is a literary/historical novel about the relationship between the biblical prophet Elijah and Jezebel, the Queen of Israel during the divided kingdom. I imagine a connection between them that goes much further than the one described in the Hebrew Bible. In the first Book of Kings, God tells Elijah to go live with a widow, and the widow has a son. The boy in this opening chapter is that son.
I’m not your father, says Elijah. The widow's son says, I forgot. I forgot, I forgot! Then he tells himself that anger doesn't work with this child, remove the knife from your voice. He pulls at his chin. He assigns himself an interest in the thin pink flowers, wilting and anemic, and the small lobes and curling tendrils that have beguiled the boy. The boy asks, What’s it called? Goat-mallow, he answers. To himself, he notes that the tendrils are snake curls, they like to twist around the bunch grass. Their small exposed roots are just squirts of spit and soon they’ll harden, snap off, and roll across the yellow sand that looks finer than spice. Finer than dust, finer than new sand filling the ripples and gullies in old sand. The sparse shrub of flowers stands alone in sand and rock, alone in the rock that scrapes sand off itself. Surrounding their campfire, the barren ground they squat on, he and the widow’s son, lies in shadow now. He commands himself: Look, Elijah, look! I’ve been looking all my life. And what have I been looking for? Only these puny flowers still bloom. This canyon bottom receives a pittance of sunlight. Further away, the fan-shaped knife-plant, the nettles and bunch-grass, give way to a tree bent over entirely, its great black cavity beneath a skirt of yellow leaves oozing black resin like a mouth chewing tar. Shattered strips of bark curl off its trunk like barrel staves. And yet this tree lives–and it thinks that it’s a menace! The poor devil-tree can’t even stand up. It guards tamarisks and horse tails springing from a water pocket at the base of the cliff, and its bluster was feeble, its peril impotent, when Elijah and the boy first stepped across it to gather the crayfish. Some god dumped them there because he knew they were coming. Some unfledged god poured the crayfish out of his sack because he knew they were hungry. Now the crayfish boil in a pot on the fire. Above the pool the cliff stands, neck-snapping high, its scarred and weathered face reaching to the blue sky. In one wide slanting gash the sun paints it red near the top. Opposite that cliff, however, across the canyon floor, the rock has given up–it’s been fractured in columns and massive blocks that rolled down toward this bottom in the time of the giants. The water’s boiling, Abba. Wait until they float to the surface. Don’t call me Abba, boy, I’ve already told you. You’re not my blood, I’m not your father. Call me Elijah. Mother said to call you Abba. Your mother’s wishes are in vain. You call me son. I call you boy, boy! Sometimes you say son instead of boy. Not if I can help it. Beside the fire sit their baskets with the pointed bottoms, each packed with jars of balm. Elijah’s balm. He makes good balm because he knows every plant and tree in the desert, knows how to extract their glue and resin, how to distill it and what to mix it with. They’re taking the balm to Ahab’s fortress for his queen, Jezebel, and her attendants. A spider appears on the boy’s shoulder and drops to his leg. What’s the pig-mallow for, Elijah? he asks. Goat-mallow, child. The leaves of the goat-mallow, taken in water, relax the bowels. Used as a paste, they guard against snake bites and scorpion stings. Remember to shake out your clothes in the morning–scorpions like to sleep in their folds. Or we could strew the folds with these leaves, that would work. The goat-mallow's flowers are orange and scarlet. Where the sun has more room to lean down with his cruet and pour in his essence they’re more colorful and vigorous. It takes a field to make bright flowers, not an abysmal canyon like this one. Goat-mallow cures splinters. The crushed stems, mixed with saltpeter, extract thorns and splinters without effort or pain. A single root of a stem cures a toothache as well. I have a toothache, Elijah. Women in labor deliver more quickly if they lie on mallow leaves. Dig up the roots before sunrise and wrap them in wool taken from an ewe that has just given birth then bind them on sores and they heal the sores, even those that have suppurated. Which tooth? This one. He opens his mouth and points inside. Elijah bends down and peers into the mouth. He seizes the boy’s shoulders and faces him toward the light. I can’t see it very well. It hurts. See that tamarisk? he says. We have one at home behind the vineyards. Tear off a bough and shake it. It shakes out disabilities like toothaches. The boy tears off a branch and sweeps the grey-green frond away from himself and toward their fire. Is this what Mother does? he asks I’ve never seen your mother do it. He keeps shaking the bough, waves it away. It still hurts, Ab–. It still hurts, Elijah. Pay attention, look!–the crayfish are done! Scoop them out, wretched boy! No, I’ve changed my mind, pour out the water. Leave them in the pot. We’ll eat from the pot. Pour it out, pour it out! They’ll turn to jelly if you don’t. Where shall I pour it? Over there, in the tamarisk. And take care not to pour any crayfish out. The boy’s sleeves are long enough to serve as pads with which to grasp the pot without burning his hands. Elijah unrolls the mat, folds his lean legs beneath his buttocks, and sits. The boy squats facing him, the steaming pot between them. How do I eat them? he says. He holds one up in his fingers. Its color has gone from dun to bright red. You’ve never eaten crayfish? No. Put that back. Put it back! Say the prayer first. Blessed be Yahweh, our God, King of the world– Not that one! The one I taught you, the one not to tell your mother. She knew it already, he says. May you bless us, O Bull, El, my father, he recites. Beautify us, O Creator of Creatures, O Father of the years and Rider of the Clouds. Good. Now pour the oil over my hands. The boy stands, unstoppers the vial that sits beside the fire, and leans down before Elijah, who holds up his long fingers. The child pours a thread of oil across those claws; they root around inside each other’s palms, through the webby yokes, across the boney knuckles. They were stiff but the oil softens them to tentacles. Now the rouge, he says. From a small flat jar, the boy swipes the red ointment and stands and gently rubs it on Elijah’s cheeks. Good. Now eat. The boy reaches in the pot and pulls out a crayfish and opens his mouth. Not like that! Break off the tail! Discard the head! Like this? Yes! Now peel off the bands of shell. Squeeze if from the bottom to the top and pull the meat out with your teeth. That’s right, yes. Eat the meat, discard the rest. The boy eats the crayfish, Elijah eats his, and soon a pile of leavings crackle on the fire. Elijah asks, Why do you smell? What? You should stay away from that Hittite. You smell like manure. He lets me feed his horses. And his daughter? Do you feed his daughter, too? Something other than lentils? They eat as they talk. Elijah likes to suck on the heads and spit them into the fire. If you didn’t feed his horses you wouldn’t have to shovel shit, he says. If I didn’t feed his horses they’d starve! How much does he pay you? To smell like manure? The boy looks away. Nothing, eh? Instead, you’re living off me. Off my balm. Did you collect the resin yesterday? Yes, I did. And you don’t pay me either. It’s your duty. You’re old enough now. Will you pay me for this trip? You wanted to come. You’ve begged me to let you come every time I go! The only way to stop your endless wheedling was to allow you to come. And see what you bring with you–the smell of manure. Why do we go this way? the boy asks. Through abysmal canyons? If it takes a field to make bright flowers, why don’t we go through the fields? Because the fields and plains are full of cutthroats and thieves. People will pay anything for my balm but if they can steal it that’s better. We’re safer here, boy. You wanted to come. Didn’t you want to see Jezebel’s fortress? Yes. When he first came to live with the widow, Elijah sold his balm at the market each week. It was good balm, he knew, made from the resinous gum of balsams, collagen from sheep’s necks, honey from bees, and oil from the desert flower that he called the sagacious plant. He cultivated the yellow flowers behind the widow’s house and dried them in her stone barn. He raised the goats and sheep, penned them, shaved the wool. He boiled the skin, tissue, and sinews of the sheep’s necks to obtain the velvety collagen, taught the boy to incise the balsam fruit to collect the drops of resin in a horn, and with the child’s help cooked and strained the balm and poured it in little pots and sealed them with wax. Each week at the market he sold every jar, he and the boy. He always set one aside for the beggar, even though his preference would have been to send the filthy wretch on his way with a kick. His preference would have been to kick a lot of people; the market was full of quarrelsome hags and cheating farmers. They set up beneath awnings, their wagons smelled of shit, their grains were full of sand. Mules and servants stirred up dust in the sun and the most popular stall was the one that sold water skins. The boy was younger then, with curly hair tinged red and the radiant, innocent face of an angel. Every bird-chested boy thinks he’ll be a boy forever. His olive skin was smooth, his beautiful eyes as dark as a woman’s, his voice sweet and clear. Even now those impossible, imperishable traces, as though Adam’s sin had shunned him at birth, lingered like a perfume and (in unguarded moments) balmed Elijah’s temper. One day in the market a rival seller of balm set up across from Elijah and the boy. The widow’s son pointed out that he was doing good business, Joab just bought some. Didn’t he always buy from you, Abba? Elijah was furious, he almost slapped the boy, and fought the urge to attack the new seller and kick his jars and scatter their broken pieces and inferior balm all over the place. He knew the man’s balm was inferior, the pots weren’t even sealed, he could smell it. Rancid! The new seller had set up before he and the boy had even emptied their baskets. Elijah was livid and found the overseer and spittle flew from his mouth. Who is this interloper? How much did he have to bribe you to give him a place across from me? He’s not even from our village! Then this happened: a tall, stately man he’d never seen before, dressed in white linen with a gold pendant around his neck and bracelets and a high cylindrical cap, appeared before the rival seller. He examined his balm, they spoke, and after a while the seller pointed at Elijah. The man crossed the marketplace and asked Elijah if he was the one who made Elijah’s balm. Still furious, he gestured at his jars. What do these look like? My name is Elijah! What else could they be? Oil of Foolatum? The man ignored his manners and introduced himself as Ahab’s steward, Obadiah. Ahab’s queen Jezebel knows about your balm, he said. She’s tried some; her maid bought a jar from a merchant in Jezreel, who bought some from you in this market. It’s the best balm she’s ever used, he said. She wants you to supply her household with balm, not only for her but for all her attendants and for the king’s harem. She doesn’t want others to use your balm, only she and her followers, they’ll be the only ones. She’ll give you thrice what you charge for your balm at the market if you deliver it to her. She’ll buy thirty jars if you bring them once a month and stop selling them in markets. I’ve spoken to the overseer, Obadiah said. He’s found another man to sell balm in the market; that’s him across the way. What’s your answer, balm-maker? Will you do it? Elijah was astonished. He was ashamed of snapping at this man, the more so because he’d ignored it, as though Elijah were just a piece of wood–as though carved wood couldn’t possibly insult someone as lofty as Obadiah. He swelled with anger, deflated with humiliation, glowed with self-satisfaction, and wondered what the Lord would want him to do. The Lord God had told him to go and live with the widow and he’d puffed up with pride–that the Lord his God would tell him anything. Was this a part of His intention, too, that he sell balm to Jezebel? She was King Ahab’s wife but she wasn’t even an Israelite. What should I do? he’d asked. O Lord my God, where are you? he’d asked. For one thing, I’ve never seen you. I don’t know who God is. I’ve searched the horizon, looked under rocks, explored canyons, hills, and towers, crawled through caves, climbed mountains. It is well known that God appears on mountaintops but he’d never appeared when Elijah climbed one. It made him furious; then mortified. His messengers, the angels, had told him what to do. They were God’s intermediaries, they delivered His instructions. But he found them maddening, even childish, because they were only messengers and only said what they insisted they were told to say by God. And they’re sassy, they giggle, they break into song, they comb each other’s hair and gossip like birds, and they’re only messengers! Lackeys! Sometimes they garble or just forget the message. And the messages are for whom? For me, a balm-maker? The angels were beautiful and sweet but especially aggravating, and lately they’d been absent. They’d ignored him. They didn’t care. He prayed for an answer. Why are you hiding? he asked God. What should I do? He’d often asked the widow, What does the Lord God want from me? Why did He send me to you? She said, God doesn’t want anything from you, fool. I was doing fine without you. So was He. He doesn’t care about you. Admit it, Elijah, she said–His indifference offends your sense of self-importance. Across the way, he watched the new balm-maker pouring coins into his purse. He was surrounded by customers–pigs crowding each other to get at the garbage. He told Obadiah he would accept his offer. In this way Elijah became the exclusive supplier of balm to King Ahab and his Queen, Jezebel. It meant trudging through a lion-infested desert, a wilderness of sand, wadis, canyons, cliffs, buttresses, towers, leaping trees, and rolling fields of rock. The canyons zig-zag through the earth like cracks in a pot and are designed to drive you mad. But gradually he learned the best way to Jezreel. He made ladders and notched poles to climb out of one canyon, tramp through a formless confusion of house-sized rocks, dwarf trees, grass and shrubs, and climb down into the next one. Crossing ridges he saw a mountain in the distance so impossibly high and so oddly severed at the top that it had to a remnant of Babel. He saw brown plains, too, traversed by canals whose bleary green strands stained the brown on either side. Beyond them, closer to the mountains, were line after line of what must have been vineyards. Climbing back into a canyon erased this outer world. The canyon-bottoms were hot but over time he found a route with reliable water-pockets and marshes, even intermittent streams whose unseen currents ruffled the green froth on pools. Trees blocked the sun and made the going easier. Shade and water, all the same, also drew wolves and lions, he saw their prints in the muddy sand bars. Once, he saw a lion; it stood on a high barrel-shaped tower looking down with fierce eyes and dripping mouth and clicking teeth. What was terrifying, though, was not seeing him standing there staring hungrily down, but watching him leap off his knobby stack of rocks and vanish from sight. Then Elijah ran, ran with the heavy basket on his back, ran like a child, because the beast, he knew, he imagined it vividly, was weaving down through brush, across rocks and through ditches, was racing, skidding over thorny shrubs and grass, across cactuses and nettles and down steep gullies and finally to the canyon bottom, where, with lolling tongue and dripping teeth and steady gaze, he’d have a clear path to a lean and stringy . . . imbecile. Fortunately, the creature never showed up. He must have had a fresh kill hidden in the brush and rushed there to protect it from Elijah. Even more upsetting, he’d also seen a man in a black tunic on an overhanging rock high above the canyon bottom staring down at him. This had happened several times and in different canyons. This man was more frightening than the lion, Elijah didn’t know why. Was he the one who whispered in his ear, Elijah? Elijah. What did he want? There are voices in the desert, sometimes choruses, choirs, but they’re voices without mouths, whispers without bodies. Except for this man, whose stare pierced his heart. Only his hooded head moved, his eyes following the balm-seller as he trudged past below him. My tooth still hurts, Elijah. He looks at the boy. Clean out the pot, he says. Get more wood for the fire. But I have a toothache! The tamarisk didn’t work. What can I do about it? It will be dark pretty soon. Do those things I told you. The boy slumps off with the empty pot. When he returns Elijah stands and says, let me see it again. The boy opens his mouth, the man bends from his waist, a swag of stringy hair falls across his face. He seizes his jaw, squeezes it hard, lifts it into the light. Paugh! What a cess pool. Rub sage across your teeth when you finish a meal. I do at home, he says. Elijah says, Come. They walk up the canyon, cross a shelf of dried rushes. Look, boy‒yellow nimbus. They’re passing a bower watered by the stream. Yellow nimbus, purple hat. Look at the purple hat, boy. Late flowers like these tell you what time of the year it is. We already know what time of the year it is, Abba. Of course we do. But suppose you . . . suppose . . . His suppositions aren’t cooperating today. Annoying child, he thinks. At a place where two bulging rock-faces meet and expose a low opening shaped like the entrance to a tent, he breaks a branch off a bush; its tiny flowers are green and red trumpets, and its thorns are black daggers. He removes his knife from its scabbard and peels the bark from the branch and snaps a thumb-sized piece off. Here, chew on this. The boy puts it in his mouth. It tastes like mint, he says. It will dull the toothache, kill the worm. The worm? Yes. They return to the fire. The canyon’s in shadow but the unnatural light from above makes everything glow. It will be dark soon and the canyon’s silent now, even the birds. He says, After El created heaven, heaven made earth, earth made the rivers, the rivers made the marsh, and the marsh created the worm. Then the worm went weeping before Baal. His tears flowed. What will you give me for food? he asked. What will you give me for my sucking? Baal said, I shall give you the fig and the apricot. Of what use are they to me? said the worm. He was angry. Lift me up among the teeth. Place me on the gums. I’ll suck the blood of the tooth, I’ll gnaw the roots of the gum. That’s what it felt like, says the boy. Is it better now? Yes. The air is cooler now, the widow’s son feeds the fire, Elijah watches him, he’s still an innocent boy. Then he thinks: there’s no such thing as innocence. Could he, Elijah, have done what Abraham did–agree to sacrifice his own son? Would he have obeyed the Lord God? Would he have led this boy up a mountain, would he have ordered him to carry the very wood that would immolate him, would he have pulled out his knife to cut his throat?–this boy not even flesh of his flesh? Well, that would make it easier, wouldn’t it? The boy’s blood-father was sleeping with his fathers, and Elijah was now his protector. All boys walk in their father’s sins, Elijah did, too, but what kind of God orders a man to sacrifice his own son? Do we walk in God’s sins? I could never do it, never, and he’s not even my son. And I’m a miserable sinner who can’t even find God to beg his forgiveness for thinking these thoughts. Abruptly, Elijah pictures them both wandering through the wilderness, he and Yahweh. Elijah calls, Father, where are you? and Yahweh calls, Elijah, where have you been? but neither one finds the other. He can’t understand it; looking at the widow’s son. Only by sacrificing him could Abraham prove himself worthy to have Isaac as his heir. What demonic thinking!–thinking that eats its own heart. I’ve eaten my own heart all my life yet I couldn’t agree to what Abraham agreed to. Then why is he revered? You’d think he’d led his people out of captivity, you’d think he was Moses; instead, he never questioned the command to slit the boy’s throat and let the blood pour out while he held his twitching body and listened to his screams growing weaker and weaker. Perhaps he would have gagged him. What a terrible story. So terrible that he can’t stop thinking about it. And why does the widow’s son always want to hear it, why does he like it? Because God played a trick? Perhaps he wants to believe that God toys with humans, or likely he identifies with Isaac, not Abraham, maybe he wonders what he would have done if he were Isaac. He would have bravely accepted his fate, God willing. Boys think like that, it was a boy’s adventure story. Was it true? No one likes to tell it, everyone believes it. But Elijah feels now that belief is God’s cruel prank, it’s a trap. Belief is a game in which blindfolded idiots search for nonexistent treasure, belief loves questions that have no answers. The questions gnaw like worms deep inside his bowels. Will there be a life after this one, or will I be wholly annihilated? Will I remember my existence after I die or will the boundlessness of time consign everything to oblivion and silence? And when was the world made? And what came before it? What God or gods made the world and the stars and the sun, and if they made it will they also destroy it, and which is the true God?–the maker who makes and exists in his creation, or the one who hides? These questions dwell inside a pit of anxiety that Elijah can drink from whenever he wishes. The canyon has darkened and the boy is curled up asleep on his mat. I should have told him not to sleep yet because the undigested food in his body will overload his mind. As it has mine. The crude spirits it produces will confuse and disorder the boy’s inner sense. Yet, Elijah sees, he appears to sleep peacefully. He’s a good boy, he thinks, I shouldn’t be so hard on him. The masticated branch has fallen from his mouth and lies there beside his whistling nose. The same spider, could it be the same? scuttles across his face. Above the cliff a wolf howls, another one answers on the other side, and the howls feel like a knife scraping his spine. Are they planning an attack? One from the east, one from the west? Why are there no stars, only blackness above? A voice whispers, Elijah. Yes? he says. What? Elijah, Elijah. He decides to stay awake even though he’s exhausted, and attempts to sit up straight. With shaking hand he feeds the fire, stirs it with a stick, throws the stick in the flames. Everything has meaning but the meaning is hidden; did the stick prepare its own destruction? The twin sister-gods, the gracious sisters, Shahir and Shalim, daughters of El, come at dusk to torment human beings with their diluted existence. The gods gracious and lovely but gluttons from their day of birth, hungry for everything even as they fade. They suck at the teats of the world, the frail ones, the daughters, the brides of Day and Night. They put one lip to the earth, one lip to the sky, and suck the birds from the sky, the fish from the sea, the mice from the ground, the little babies from their families, nervously flitting from one morsel to the next without being satisfied. They languish and wilt, they weaken, they faint, and finally they lie in the beds of Day and Night and open their legs and cease to exist.