It had been a long, dry summer.
The arid wind that blew across the parched earth brought no relief from the searing sun. City dwellers sweating at their toil cursed the heat. Farmers turned worried faces toward the sky, searching the deep azure surface for the slightest wisp of a cloud.
And the distant rumbling that came rolling across the plains was not thunder, but the roar of battle.
On a small hill overlooking the battle, a man stood and watched the sweat-soaked, blood-stained solders below hack and slash at each other.
And the man wept.
He wept for the men of his city, and he wept for the men of the enemy city. He wept for the wounded and he wept for the dead. He wept for their wives, and for their children. He wept and wept until he thought he had shed enough tears to wash away the blood that had showered the battleground.
Then Noah stopped crying and wiped away his tears. Turning his back on the fighting he returned to his duties at the makeshift hospital tent, which he had insisted be erected to house the casualties of the war.
What the battle was about, neither side could say with any certainty. The Cities of the Plain had been at war with each other far longer than any of their current inhabitants had been alive. Some of the warriors believed they were fighting over vital water rights. Others were convinced the war was begun to defend essential trade routes.
But Noah knew the truth was far simpler, and much more horrifying--the two cities were at war simply because their inhabitants enjoyed the killing.
And they were good at it.
Their crude weapons--rough hewn swords, massive clubs, sharpened sticks, jagged stones--were designed to mangle flesh and crush bone, inflicting maximum pain while drawing maximum blood.
The two armies surged forward. Where the two opposing forces met they formed a snaking line, a clashing, swinging, churning, foaming mass. Arms were cut off. Chests were hacked apart. Gaping wounds were torn open, spewing blood. As bodies fell they were trampled underfoot.
Noah stared at the results: rows of broken bodies lay on the ground around the hospital tent. There were too many wounded for one man alone to care for. And he was not a practitioner of the healing arts, but a simple dyer of linens and wool. Still, Noah had insisted that he would only accompany his citys military expedition if he were allowed to act as a care-giver.
The city fathers had looked at Noah in astonishment--no one had ever before suggested caring for the wounded. They either died of their wounds or healed on their own. Although the city fathers were reluctant to allow this experiment, they finally agreed when Noah pointed out the tactical benefits of keeping seasoned soldiers alive to fight future battles.
"How goes the war," a grizzled old soldier asked, wincing in pain as Noah applied a simple bandage, trying to stop the flow of blood.
Noah shook his head. "I couldn’t tell," he said, then moved on to the next injured soldier, a youth.
Noah hadnt explained to the city council where his pacifist convictions had come from. He didnt think this would help his case. And, in fact, there were whispers going around the city that Noah was growing odd. That he had been touched in the head. Even that he was raving mad. Noah had to laugh when he heard these rumors. Because, he thought, maybe they were true.
For Noah had begun to believe in the existence of a higher power such as no one else in the City had ever conceived--a supreme being who was responsible for creating the earth and all the living things in it. A caring and omnipotent force who Noah called Lord.
Although he had never seen this force, nor touched it, nor spoken to it, Noah was convinced that He existed. And Noah was equally convinced that He did not want Noah, or any other man, to kill.
"Noah!" a familiar voice growled behind him.
Noah turned, and saw a man with a neatly trimmed red beard limping toward the tent. "Lot!" Noah shouted, rushing toward his old friend. "What happened?"
Lot grimaced, more in anger than in pain, "A coward stabbed me in the back!"
Noah gently turned his friend around to examine the injury. He was relieved to see no blood soaking through the back of Lot’s shirt, but puzzled as well. "Where in the back?" Noah asked him.
Lot grinned sheepishly. "Where I sit down."
"Oh," Noah said, and looked lower. A small slit was torn in the rear of Lot’s breeches. Noah lifted the flap of cloth, then let out a sigh of relief and patted Lot on the shoulder. "It’s only a flesh wound, my friend."
"I’m done for Noah!" another voice bellowed behind them, and both Noah and Lot turned to see a big-bellied man with a full black beard staggering toward them. Noah recognized Lot’s next door neighbor, Micah. A deep gash slashed across his forehead. Noah and Lot both leapt forward to catch Micah as he began to topple forward.
Noah and Lot turned to see a big-bellied man with a full black beard staggering toward them. Noah recognized Lots next door neighbor, Micah. A deep gash slashed across his forehead. Noah and Lot both leapt forward to catch Micah as he began to topple forward.
"It’s death and darkness for me," Micah moaned, allowing his friends to support most of his considerable weight. "I’m a cold shadow--throw me into the nearest pit!"
"Let me see how badly you’re hurt," Noah told the large man.
"Tell my wife good-bye," Micah continued, ignoring Noah. "No, don’t tell her anything--she doesn’t deserve it." Noah glanced toward Lot, who was trying to hide a smile. They both knew Micah’s well-deserved reputation for complaining.
But Noah had no time for Micahs nonsense, not today, not with hundreds of wounded men to care for.
He skillfully wrapped a bandage around Micahs forehead, ignoring the larger mans winces and moans.
"Lie down over there," Noah began to say, when he was cut off by an abrupt burst of loud cheering from the battlefield, followed by the ear-splitting blast of triumphant horns.
The three men looked at each other, as all the wounded men about them momentarily stopped groaning.
"It’s over!" Noah cried, "the battle’s over! Thank the Lord!"
"But who won?" Lot asked anxiously.
"And more important," Micah began with a shudder, "who lost?"
The horns grew louder, the cheering swelled. Noah, Lot and Micah looked across the battlefield.
The flag of their city was being raised high on a pole. Not far away, they could see their citys general lifted onto the shoulders of his top lieutenants. He was holding something in his hand. Noah squinted until he could make out--
--a human head. The head of the enemy citys general.
"We won!" Micah roared, and slapped Noah hard on the back. "How do you like that?" he laughed.
Noah nodded grimly. "Yes, we survived another battle."
Lot looked at him surprised. "We didn’t just survive, Noah," Lot said. "We won." Noah looked at him blankly. "We won," Lot repeated. Noah continued to look blank, as if he didn’t understand the meaning of the word, so Lot felt compelled to add, "That’s even better."
"Is it?" Noah asked, a harsh note creeping into his voice. "I wonder if it makes much difference to the Lord."
Lot smiled quizzically at his friend. All these years, and he still couldnt figure Noah out.
Micah bellowed with delight. "It’s a miracle! I’ve been healed! I feel as strong as an ox!" Micah loped toward the battlefield, where the victory celebration was already beginning.
"Come Noah," said Lot, "let’s celebrate."
Noah shook his head, pointing to the wounded men, who had renewed their groaning. "I have too much to do here."
Lot began limping toward the celebration. He turned back and looked at his friend. "Give a cheer, Noah. It’s a great day to be alive."
But Noah, already tying a tourniquet around the shoulder a dying soldier, didnt hear him.
# # #
The sun was setting when the festivities began in earnest.
The wine flowed as freely as the blood that had spilled earlier in the day. Food which until now had been carefully rationed was available in abundance. Revelers sang coarse songs loud and long until their voices went hoarse. Women in skimpy costumes were roughly kissed and passed from hand to hand.
Outside the hospital tent, Noah bent over to place a damp cloth on the burning forehead of a feverish soldier. He knew there was nothing more he could do for him, or for any of the other wounded men for that matter. They would die or heal as the Lord saw fit. Noah had done all that could to comfort them. Now it was time for him to go home.
As Noah straightened up, he caught a whiff of a strange smell. It was not an odor he recognized. He breathed in deeper.
The dead had yet to be buried. The victors seemed in no hurry to do this duty--they clearly preferred festivities to funerals. But it was not the stench of decomposing corpses that Noah smelled. He had been in enough battles to recognize that odor.
This was something far worse.
Noah staggered back a step. Where was the smell coming from" Why had he not noticed it before. The odor pervaded the entire battlefield. How long had it been there, he wondered" Noah knew he had to get away.
He found his pack where he had left it days earlier, and began stuffing it with provisions for the journey home.
Lot, taking a long swig from a jug of wine, came up behind him.
"You’re not staying for the orgy?" Lot asked, wiping his mouth on his sleeve. "This is the best part of fighting."
Noah shook his head. "I’ve stayed too long already. I only came to do God’s work as best I could."
Lot dug at the ground with the toe of his shoe. Then he looked up and stared levelly at his friend.
"Who is this God?" Lot asked finally.
Noah didn’t look up. "The God of us all," he answered simply.
Lot snorted a laugh. "He’s not the God of our city."
But Noah didn’t smile. "I know," he said softly. "And we may have to pay for it in the end."
Noah turned and began to walk away. But Lot was not about to drop the subject, not after theyd finally begun to discuss it.
"Where is he?" Lot asked. "Where does he dwell?"
Noah looked over at his friend, wondering if he was being mocked. No, he decided, it seemed the questions were sincere.
Where is He" his friend had asked. Where does He dwell" Noah had never been asked this before, and he didn’t know quite how to explain it in words.
"He’s in the earth..." Noah began tentatively. "And in the sea...and the sky," Noah said. "He’s all around us. He’s everywhere."
Lot took a long look around. He squinted, and stared, then shook his head.
"I can’t see him," Lot said finally.
Noah nodded and said, "Nobody can."
"Except you, I suppose," Lot chuckled.
"No," Noah sighed deeply, shaking his head. "Not even me."
Lot rocked back, surprised. "Then how do you know He even exists?" Lot asked.
Noah gazed into the distance. He eyes were clear, and they shone brightly, as though his soul were on fire. "I know, Lot, I know. As surely as I know you are standing before me, I know God exists. One day a fire began to burn within me, and I woke to Him. He has been with me ever since."
Lot shook his head slowly, smiling at his friend. "You’re my oldest friend, Noah. And I love you like a brother. But you’re crazy."
Noah picked up his pack and turned to go. "Shall I tell your wife you’ll be home in a few days?" he asked.
"Yes," Lot said, eyeing the young ladies in the midst of the festivities, as freely available as the wine. "Tell her I have to rest up--no, no, tell her I’m wounded."
Noah put his hand on his friend’s shoulder and squeezed tight. "I don’t suppose," Noah asked firmly, "it would do any good to ask you to mend your ways and lead a more righteous life?"
"Lord, no!" Lot exclaimed, and laughed until his entire body shook. But then his expression changed, and he looked at his friend earnestly. "But keep asking," he said sincerely. "Because I’ll try, Noah. I promise I’ll try."
Noah sighed in relief. "That’s all God asks."
Lot handed Noah the jug of wine, saying, "For the road ahead."
Noah lifted the jug to his lips, and took a deep swallow. The wine, quickly made and harsh on the tongue, was bracing, and tasted good. It almost, but not quite, made Noah forget the foul odor that lingered over the battlefield.
Noah took another swallow, then handed the jug back to Lot.
"Take care, friend," Noah said.
"And you," Lot answered.
Then Noah turned and started toward home.
Lot watched him go, and thought about what the man had said. An invisible God who no one has ever seen or heard" Ridiculous! And yet...
Micah, absently fingering the bloody bandage on his forehead, joined Lot. He squinted down the road at the quickly diminishing figure. "Noah’s not staying for the fun?"
Lot shook his head, and Micah grunted and spat. "He’s missing the best part," Micah said. "He’s a strange one."
Lot turned on the larger man, grabbing the collar of his shirt. "He’s the best man you’ll ever know!" Lot shouted up at him. "If you ever say another word against him I’ll rip your heart out!"
Micah raised his hands to placate his friend. "I’m sorry. Forget I said anything."
Lot nodded fiercely. "Good," he said, pushing the big man away. "Now let’s join the party and do every sinful thing we’ve ever imagined!"
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