••• The International Writers Magazine: Ancient Stories
Melchizedek (For Tamar)
“And Melchizedek king of Salem brought forth bread and wine; and he was the priest of the most high God. And he blessed him, and said, ‘Blessed be Abram of the most high God, possessor of heaven and earth….’”
(Genesis 14 vv 18-19)
Melchizedek walked out of his chamber, and his subjects knelt before him in adoration. King and High Priest of Salem, he looked about him with stern eyes and saw that all was well. His six bodyguards were in attendance; one of whom he did not recognise, a rather beautiful boy who met his eye briefly and then looked away. Strictly speaking he could be executed for such presumption, and in his father’s reign undoubtedly he would have been, but Melchizedek was a far kinder and more tolerant ruler, and let it go.
As was ordained, before any food had touched his lips Melchizedek headed for the temple for the first ritual of the day. His secretary Abbadon detached himself from the king’s entourage, and walked a step behind him. He read a list of the King’s appointments as they made their way. Four times a day Melchizedek had to go to the temple to perform the sacred rituals which kept Salem safe and beloved of their god Yahweh, and most of his waking hours were similarly prescribed; he had to attend court and make judgement, speak to the wise men, spend time with his new queen Talitha, and as it was the seventh day, he had to oversee the sacrifice.
As he left the palace and walked towards the Temple, his bodyguards a discreet distance away, Melchizedek could smell food being cooked, and his stomach rumbled quietly, more out of habit than because he felt hungry. Abbadon’s voice spoke quietly just behind him as they moved through the city, but his secretary’s words were disregarded as Melchizedek’s thoughts were elsewhere.
Foremost amongst his worries was the tribe who had settled in front of Salem, as if waiting for something. Abbadon had told him that they were just a group of wandering people who had settled down to rest; but then why had they not asked for admittance and hospitality? Where did they come from and why did they leave him feeling so unsettled? He would like to have gone to see them, but as the king they should come to him. Perhaps within a few days they would be gone, swallowed up by the desert. And then there was the strange smell that had started to come from the Temple itself, and which only Melchizedek seemed to be aware of. A smell of blood and decay; as if from the land of the dead.
“Is that strange tribe still outside?” he asked Abbadon.
“Yes my Lord. They just eat and pray. They are just desert scavengers, like…” he was going to add “like your new wife” but suspected that would be a foolish thing to say and just coughed, hoping his king had not noticed his slip.
Melchizedek said nothing, it would not do show fear or worry. And yes he wondered if Talitha was one of these people, possibly come to spy out the land. He was aware that many tribes eyed the city of Salem with envy, but so far Yahweh had kept them safe from such predators.
Abbadon then left him as Melchizedek reached the steps that surrounded the temple, only the king and his direct family could enter the temple itself, as only they could be priests of Yahweh, the one true God. The Temple was a large square building up high and simple in design. Deep inside the temple was the Holy of Holies where Yahweh dwelt. According to his father, Dishon, the Temple had been there before any other building in Salem, but it still looked awe inspiring and dominated the city. And now Mechizedek was the only man alive who had been inside.
As Melchizedek walked up the steps of the Temple, the smell which he had been aware of since he awoke became stronger, and he had to stop himself putting his hand in front of his mouth, surely everyone else could smell it and were wondering it signified. But of course they dare not mention it, not even Abbadon, especially not Abbadon whose life was based around being tactful and not offending the king.
There were soldiers at the foot of the stairs in case anybody had the presumption to try to enter the temple; even to walk up the steps was punishable by death. Apart from on High Feasts the populace gave the temple a wide berth, not wanting to even touch the bottom step. Melchizedek stood at the top looking down on the people below; as well as the soldiers, there was a small gathering of civilians who had come to watch their king, but farther out he could see his people doing their daily tasks, at peace knowing that God was in the midst of them and that all was safe. On the hill at the edge of the city he could see the seven polls on which last week’s sacrifices still hung pinned. They would be taken down in time for today’s ceremony. And out in the distance, past Salem’s walls, he could just make out the smoke from the campfires of these strange people, just waiting, maybe waiting for him.
Before walking through the doorway into the Holy of Holies he glanced down and saw the new member of his bodyguard and again their eyes met. Funny that he had not noticed him before, but he had many soldiers, albeit not as many as his father Dishon, perhaps he was new, replacing someone who was too old or who had died. There was something about him that was different, and Melchizedek realised that it was because he showed no fear; there was respect but he looked at him as if he were just a fellow man.
He walked between the two main columns and into the main body of the Temple. At the far end was the altar with a blank space for God, who has no image. Before the altar was the pool of Hershon. And it was from the pool that the awful smell emanated, a smell that threatened to overwhelm the city. And it was getting stronger, waking him in the morning, and following him about all day. Even when he came to his new wife Talitha, the smell was there; inside her rooms and in her mattress. From when he had first entered the Temple as a boy, the water had always smelt sweet and looked pure and clean, but now it was stagnant and dead.
Melchizedek let drop his robe and, naked stepped into the pool. The water was cold and he shivered as it went up to his shoulders. He stood still for a few moments letting the water flow over him, making him pure. Dishon had shown him the rituals along with his elder brother many years ago. Perhaps he had forgotten some of them now, or had not followed them properly at the time, after all it was so long ago and he had been too scared of his father and his brother to take it all in. Even then he had known that when his brother came to the throne he would be executed along with his friends and servants. Now he stood in the water gazing up at the altar waiting. There were a few insects on top of the water, some dead others still struggling to stay alive. He squashed one between finger and thumb almost without thinking about it.
He strode up out of the pool and said a prayer facing the altar as his body dried in the sun; it was a prayer in an ancient language that nobody spoke or understood and only these few words remained; a hymn of praise to Yahweh. He chanted the words and for a few moments was at one with God. He imagined the populace of Salem doing their daily tasks as he prayed to keep them safe; without these daily rituals the people who he had charge of would have perished many years ago; swallowed up by the tribes of the desert and their strange gods.
Melchizedek lit incense, and candles, and then knelt in front of the altar. He spoke aloud in his own tongue.
“You are the one and only God
From the Philistines and the Amelakites, protect us
From the Ammonites and Moabites, protect us.
From the plague from the East, protect us.
From famine, protect us.
From locusts protect us
From the desert protect us
From witchcraft and demons protect us.
Tear down our enemies and their gods. Look after us, your children and guide us in all things.”
He then said a private prayer, as he often did.
“Oh Lord, make me wise and make my people happy. Help me root out the evil in our midst. Let me reign a bit longer, and let that tribe outside our gates depart in peace.”
He stood there in thought, and then his mind strayed to Talitha, and hoped that she would conceive. He longed to have a son to show these rituals to, who he could pray with and who could share the burdens of priesthood and kingship.
Dressed he walked out of the temple and down the steps towards his people, his duty done. The smell of Salem rose up to meet him; humanity, meat, perfume and incense. But over all of it was the smell of death and decay from the pool of Hershon.
As was ordained, seven people were sacrificed every seven days, seven being the Holy number. Usually the seven were chosen from the prison; people accused of plotting to kill the king, witches, adulterers and those who were possessed. Yahweh demanded blood and in return he protected his people and so far he had not let any harm come to them. At times of great danger the number of those chosen to be sacrificed was seven times seven, and the innocent were called down to lay down their lives as well as the wicked, but during Melchizedek’s reign that had not been necessary, so far.
Melchizedek stood silhouetted on the hill whilst his soldiers pinned the seven sacrifices to the polls. He caught a smell of perfume and Talitha, his new wife, was at his side. She had entered the city last year, from the desert, with her father and servants. They had come to him to ask permission to stay and he had granted it and then subsequently married her, struck by her beauty but mostly by her intelligence and her self-possession. And he was very happy with her; although her ways were not his ways and at times he found her very strange and longed to understand what she was thinking when her eyes were vacant and her heart seemingly elsewhere.
As was ordained, each of the king’s marriages lasted a year and if his wife became with child during that time she was looked after until the baby was born and then had an honoured place in the household for the rest of the king’s reign. If his wife did not conceive during the year, she would be executed for treason, which is what had happened to his first two wives. Disappointingly, because he liked her and because he longed for a son, Talitha was showing no sign of being with child, despite his coming to her every night.
“My Lord”. They stood and watched the seven sacrifices wriggling on the poles; four women, a man and two children. He felt Talitha gulp. There were people around them, but Melchizedek spoke to his wife as if they were alone in the bedchamber.
“What ails you my queen?”
Talitha shrugged, “It disturbs me a little. I am sorry.”
“Do you not have sacrifices where you come from?”
“We sacrifice oxen and other animals, but not people my Lord. “
“Not even your enemies?”
“It is forbidden.”
Melchizedek and his wife watched the seven sacrifices as they shouted, cursed and prayed. All would be dead by the following morning, although the younger ones sooner. Talitha turned and vomited discretely and Melchizedek pretended not to notice. He spoke to her to help her regain her countenance.
“Do you know the people who lie outside our gates?”
“They are my people.”
Melchizedek had wondered if that was so.
“I would like to meet them? Who is their leader?”
“Abram is our father.”
“Go with a soldier and ask him to come to me.”
Melchizedek walked back to the palace with Abbadon, his prescribed one step behind. He thought about his wife; she who refused to eat the same food as him, but just ate vegetables and fruit. He hoped that she would bear his child; any child that they produced would be a mighty king. She had such dignity and strength and was a worthy queen. Sometimes he wondered if the sacrifices were wrong; but it was ordained and no king could change tradition, and if the sacrifices were stopped then Salem would be engulfed by her enemies. As Melchizedek walked down from the hill he could smell the pool of Hershon, and was almost overcome by nausea.
Talitha approached him after his fourth visit to the Temple, as he headed back to the palace. The day was at an end and it was dark and cold, thus he wore his purple robe with long sleeves. His new wife was trembling; was it cold or fear?
“My Lord, he will not come.”
Melchizedek looked at her in amazement.
“Well not yet. He will come soon. He is praying to our God. He is fasting.”
Melchizedek felt angry, but had no idea what to do. For some reason he did not trust his soldiers to bring this man to him. Perhaps the problem would be resolved by the morning. He led Talitha to his bedchamber and once more tried to create a child.
They pushed him over and kicked him. He had walked out of the Temple after the first ritual of the day, and there were three soldiers, waiting for him, where nobody other than Melchiedek should stand. They seemed a little in awe of him, but they clearly meant to kill him or to overpower him. He knew that many eyes were on him from below, as he fought for his life. One of the soldiers was the young man he had noticed yesterday; he looked directly at him, he had his sword out, and as their eyes met, the soldier hesitated. Melchizedek, in one movement, pushed himself up onto his feet and then jumped backwards into nothing.
He lay on the ground, bruised and bleeding. He thought that if he just lay there without moving he would be forgotten or perhaps they would think he was dead. As he came to his senses he noticed that the city was quiet; there was just the noise of animals, but even they seemed muted. Was everyone dead? Had the intruders at the gates come in and slaughtered everybody as he was at the temple immersed in the poisonous waters within? He ached everywhere, but he had a calmness about him now, he was himself.
He was picked up by strange men from whom emanated a peculiar, foreign smell, and they dragged him along as if he were an animal ready to be slaughtered. Everything felt flat and it was as if there was no distance between him and the sun which bore down into him and burnt everything inside, leaving no moisture. As he was taken he noticed Abbadon being pulled away in another direction, bleeding and seemingly unconscious, he would like to have saved him, but he knew that, at least for now, he had no power over anything.
He stood in his palace, facing the throne where he administered justice, facing him and above him stood Talitha looking just the same as ever, her eyes hiding endless depths. Next to her, sat an old man who looked at him quietly and with contempt, presumably Abram. Melchizedek thought to himself, by the time the sun sets, and the coldness comes and the wild animals come out I will be dead, but somehow he did not quite believe it. He remembered all the people he had condemned to death in this very place and he wondered if they had felt the same.
Melchizedek had learnt that not speaking is often as powerful as shouting. When he had had his father and his brother put to death, and all their families and servants, he had stood without a sound as they wept and begged, even his father, the great king reduced to a craven beggar. Eventually they had become silent, even the children and then they had been killed one at a time in front of him, and he still did not say a word. That was the way it had to be, but sometimes it came back to haunt him, and he wondered if there was a better way.
The smell from the pool of Heshron had engulfed everywhere, and the interlopers fanned themselves to waft away the smell.
“You are the king of this bloody people.” The voice was powerful and despite the different dialect he could understand it. He stood for a moment, recognising someone who was used to power and somebody who had conversed with God.
“Yes I am king and high priest of Salem. What have you to do with us?”
“I am the father of a new nation. I have smelt the stench from this city, and I have come to purge it.”
“What gives you the right to do such thing? Do you speak for God?”
Abram looked at him. “Yes I speak for God. I have spoken to him. Yours is a paltry kingdom and soon it will be no more, and your people dead or slaves. You are nothing in the eyes of the Lord.”
Melchizedek was beaten with rods in front of Abram and Talitha. Afterwards he lay on a heap on the floor, but he was outside of the pain, although it would hurt later on, if there was a later.
“Tell me about your god” demanded Abram. “What does he call himself? How does he protect you?”
“Our God is the one God, he is called Yahweh. He came to us his people time beyond knowledge. Ever since he has looked after us.”
“He did not protect you against us” Abram spoke matter-of-factly, as if he was puzzling over this subject, and wondering why this was.
Melchizedek spoke not another word. Every part of him now ached, but there was a fire within, and for the first time he felt at one with his God. Yahweh might still triumph, although not necessarily in the way this foreign invader imagined.
For the next two days the people of Salem were slaughtered. Abram and his people spared some of the women and children, leading them out of the city tied together with rope, but those who resisted were killed with the men; often they were killed where they stood, whilst others were dragged to the temple and were beheaded at the foot of the steps which Melchizedek had so often walked down. Melchizedek was left alone, free to watch his people murdered and his city despoiled.
On the third day Abram and his tribe left, taking their few captives with them and leaving Melchizedek in an empty city bereft of sound and with only the smell of blood and death. Talitha had disappeared, presumably back with her own people, heading out into the desert to wherever Abram was leading them.
The pool in the temple had been desecrated; there were bodies in there and other filth, and smell was worse than ever. Melchizedek was high priest and so it was his job to keep the temple clean, something he had neglected for too long. Each morning, when the day was still cold, he went to the temple and purified it and when the night came falling he returned to the palace and slept on the floor on robes and other soft materials that had been left. He prayed to God, out of habit despite the fact that Yahweh had left and his people were gone.
He felt that once the Temple was clean and pure then the rest of the city would follow. Sometimes he looked over the city, as had always been his wont; everywhere he could see blood; he was almost surrounded by it. Some animals had been left, who their conquerors had been too lazy to capture, and Melchizedek could hear them throughout the day, the only background noise that there was.
The polls had been taken down and the hill of sacrifice was empty. Beyond the walls the desert stretched far away, somewhere in that wilderness were the remains of his people and his wife. He yearned for her, but with a hopeless yearning that he knew would never be answered, and so got on with his priestly duties.
And then Talitha was with him; she came up to him as he lit incense at the altar of Yahweh.
“I have come back to you.” She told him. “I am with child, your child.”
“Why didn’t you stay with your people?” he asked “they destroyed us, took everything. I am all that is left of Salem.”
“I don’t want any part of this slaughter. They are just wanderers with their god who is swift to anger and slow to forgive. I want something new.”
He held her close, and knew that inside her was the first of their children; the beginning of something new. A new people, holy and distinct.
The smell from the temple had gone now and the pool was pure and sweet. Slowly those who had left Salem returned, often bringing their captors with them, and Salem became a city again. Melchizedek heard that Abram was still out there in his tent with his wife and children whilst his people left him. Melchizedek knew that he would go to him, and bring him back to Salem; this man was as hard and unforgiving as the desert, but he had conversed with God and was chosen and for that he was necessary to them all.
Melchizedek knew that in the future soldiers would come and persecute his people; drag them through the mud, beat them and burn them, but they would survive and grow stronger and more beautiful. And whatever happened to them they would continue to give their all to a remote and ungrateful god who took and took and then turned his face away as his people prayed for an end to persecution and an end to the harshness of life itself.
© Andrew Lee-Hart Feb 2017
fridge2 at hotmail.co.uk
It was weeks until I heard him speak more than a couple of words, and by then I had probably told him my whole life story, which he had swallowed whole like a whale eating plankton, with only the occasional “yes” or “hmm” to encourage me in.
The Maestro in Six Movements
The Maestro looked at the green gardens of Harrogate and saw that they were good. “This will be my home” he said aloud in German, “after all my troubles I have found somewhere I can lay my head.”
more fiction in Dreamscapes