The Messenger had fallen asleep in the shadow of a miracle—a stalk that had sprung out of arid ground and spread a dark green canopy over him. But when he woke, the shade was gone, and the brutal sun seared his bald head. He rose, drew a deep breath, and tasted sand.
He shed his outer cloak and pressed a hand to his thin woven inner garment, which clung damply to his chest. He took a single drink from the waterskin slung around his neck. Then he shaded his eyes, searching for the gourd that had sheltered him before he slept.
Ah, there it was: a desiccated bit of stalk and a shriveled leaf, with a loathsome desert creature twined around it. The Messenger watched the multi-legged thing for a moment; then he ground it into the earth with the sole of his worn sandal. It writhed and struggled briefly, then curled up into a lifeless ball, as lifeless as the plant it had destroyed.
The Messenger looked up at the blazing sun, and the sky that mocked him with its emptiness.
How many indignities must you inflict upon me, Lord? How many times must you punish and humiliate me?
Now let me die...
* * *
It had been folly to run away—he had known that when he fell asleep in the foul-smelling hold of a disreputable cargo ship. He had known it, too, when he waked suddenly, jerked to his feet by rough hands. They thrust him onto the deck, where he clung to a bit of rope while the ship pitched and rolled. The sky had darkened to a deep, unhealthy greenish black, matching the furious sea.
He watched while the sailors cast lots with the rough wooden pieces they used for their games of chance. Long before the deadly game ended, he knew what the verdict would be. He could not deny it, nor could he defend himself. He knew what he had done.
Then the sickening plunge, the shock of cold waves, the acrid taste of salt water. He had prayed for death then, too, and hoped it would come quickly.
But something worse came, instead.
A yawning mouth had jutted out of the waves and enclosed him; and he had tensed, preparing for the agony of the monster’s jagged teeth. But he had slid down, down, into a tight, enclosed place: a slimy cave, rank with the smell of half-digested sea creatures.
And since death had not come to him—not even then—he had prayed instead for mercy.
* * *
He had heard that Nineveh was a mighty city as well as a wicked one. But when he saw the great square towers and the legions of men that guarded them, he had almost turned back. Only the certainty of his message kept him on the road toward the massive fortress that straddled the hills.
The Lord is mightier than these towers. They will melt under his judgment, and my words will declare it.
So he had not trembled when he stood before all of them, even the king himself, and delivered his message of doom.
Never had he spoken so well. His voice thundered and raged, calling down the wrath of God upon the wretched heathen... and as he spoke, he watched their faces. He saw skepticism become confusion; confusion become concern; concern become fear; fear become terror.
And then, while he watched, one by one they fell prostrate on the ground. They groveled in the dirt, tearing their garments, heaping ashes on their heads. And he did not understand—could not understand—how God could accept the obeisance of these vile children of false gods, children whose sins were worse than Sodom’s.
How could God turn away his wrath for this show of mourning?
He been called to preach death. Why, then, had God granted them life?
* * *
Waves of heat radiated from the sand. The Messenger shaded his eyes and looked toward the City of Nineveh. Its great towers—solid, unchanged—mocked him.
Why, O Lord? He cried out silently. Why have I suffered all of this? The cold of the waves, the smell of rank fish, the bitter tastes of sea salt and desert sand...
And the answer came on the breath of a hot east wind:
O my son... because you will not HEAR.
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