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Uriah

by Robert Walton

“I rose through dead bodies as if from the bottom of the sea. Black blood covered me, but most was not my own. Crows scattered as I burst free of the dead.”

“Grandfather, why are you telling me this?”

The old man turned his head and looked steadily at his grandson. “The world is cruel and you must live in it. I have hopes that you will learn something useful from my experiences.”

The boy nodded silently, his curly, dark hair bobbing additional confirmation.

The old man continued, “I advanced with the King’s guard and we joined battle. Dust billowed in choking clouds. Flashing swords circled me like whirlwinds. A man in black armor, a good soldier, swung his blade at my head. I ducked, slipped my point beneath his shield and plunged it deep into his leg. Then something hit my head from behind, or so I suppose. An ax? A mace? Something. I fell and was covered by the dead.

“I know not how long I lay senseless – perhaps a day, perhaps two. Limb by limb, I clawed my way up from the embrace of the dead. Finally, I stood dazed on a ruined plain where nothing moved among rocks and dust except feasting birds. I felt the back of my head and found a crusted wound.

“Grandfather?”

“Yes?”

“Who won?”

“I don’t know.”

“You don’t know?”

“Grandson, it may be your fate to become a soldier, though that is never a grandfather’s wish. If you become the sword in a great man’s hand, you will find that swords do not have memories. I paid little attention to anything other than my weapons and my companions. I went where I was told and fought when it was time.”

“What did you do then, Grandfather, after you won free of the dead?”

“I walked south and east without thinking, deep into a wasteland of more sand and more stone. I walked until day’s end and lay down on warm stones. Jackals called from rocks above me and great thirst gripped me. Water is the greatest need, grandson, and the greatest gift. Any soldier will tell you that. I could not sleep from thirst, yet a fever came over me and I was not wholly awake. Sometime before dawn, I drifted into blackness.

“I awoke with cool water upon my lips. I swallowed. That trickle of water sliding over my swollen tongue and down my throat was the greatest bliss I’ve known.

“Then a calm voice spoke to me, ‘Slowly, friend, too much will harm you.’

“I drank again and fell again into darkness. I passed through fever for some days and the stranger nursed me, trickled more water into my mouth and placed dabs of mashed figs and pine nuts upon my blistered tongue. I was on a knife’s edge between death and life, but I was young. Life pulled stronger.

“Days passed. I recovered and on a morning when I was nearly well, my benefactor brought me tea. As he handed me the warm cup, I asked, ‘Are we near a town?’

“He shook his dark head. ‘No, we are in mountains above the desert.’

“I studied him for a moment. ‘How do you live out here? Where do you get food?’

I sipped tea.

“He shrugged slender shoulders. ‘There are good things in these mountains and travelers bring me gifts.’

“‘I brought you nothing. What if the travelers don’t come?’

“His brown eyes met mine and he smiled as if he’d heard a joke I’d missed. ‘I don’t worry. Tomorrow takes care of itself. It always does. Sit up. It’s time you tried to walk a bit.’”

 

“More days passed and I became ever stronger. On my last night with my friend, we sat together beneath pines as the moon filled the world’s cup with silver light. An owl hooted behind us.

“He shifted beside me. ‘Was it a great battle?’

“I shrugged.  ‘A battle is a battle. We fought the Philistines. Some fool with a mace tried to separate me from my head. I’d like to meet him again.’

“‘And kill him?’

“‘What else?’

“He sighed, ‘Why not spare him?’

“‘Bah! That’s ridiculous.’

“‘He was a soldier like you, only doing his job.’

“I shook my head. ‘War is not about sparing the enemy.’

“‘Where does it end?’

“‘War? When one side no longer moves.’

“Wings flashing moonlight, the owl dove below us on its hunt.

“He laced his fingers behind his head and stretched. ‘I treat men as I would have them treat me.’

“‘That’s silly!’

“‘Is it? Often – not always – I receive kindness in return.’

“‘What of murderers? What of tax collectors?’

“He looked at me. ‘Do you wish your children to honor you?’

“‘I have no children!’

“‘You will someday.’

“I shrugged.  ‘Perhaps.’

“‘Show mercy. Your children will see this and grow to your credit and theirs.’

“‘That may be true – if I also beat them enough.’

“He laughed. ‘Your father beat you?’

“‘Sometimes more than I needed, always more than I wanted.’

“We both laughed until a jackal on the desert yapped an answer.

“I looked at him. ‘I have never met a man like you.’

“He smiled. ‘There is no other like me, nor lives another like you. Among all the stars, we are both unique.’

“‘You believe this?’

“‘I do.’

“‘Is that why you cared for me? You think I’m important?’

“‘You are important. All are important.’

“‘Bah!’ I spat on the sand. ‘A slave is worth less than a pebble between my toes.’

“‘I don’t agree.’

“‘All the years of slaves are worth less than King David’s least breath.’

“His shaggy curls swayed as he shook his head in negation. ‘No, all lives are important, sometimes the least are most important of all. He looked at me. ‘Time is not as you think it is.’

“‘What do you mean?’

“‘Have you seen the ocean?’

“‘Of course.’

“He shook his head again. ‘No, you haven’t.’

“‘I tell you, I’ve seen it.’

“‘You’ve seen one bit of coast or one stretch of water. You haven’t seen it all, not all at once.’

“I scoffed, ‘It’s vast. No man can see it all.’

“He smiled. ‘You’re right. No man can. Time is the same as the ocean. It’s all there, though we see only small bits of it. Sometimes we share small bits of it. Our lives are only fragments.’

“I looked at him with great perplexity. ‘You make no sense! Days and nights follow each other like camels in a caravan. That’s the way of the world. That’s time.’

“His face lit with a great smile then, but he made no further comment.

“We looked out over the desert and silence settled between us like an old dog.”

 

“Well, grandson, what do you think of this man who saved me and, in so doing, saved you?”

The boy’s round, soft face grew serious. “He believed in justice for those who have none.” He looked up. “This was a very great man, grandfather, wise and kind.”

The old man slapped his skinny hands together. “No, no, no, no! He was a foolish man! Nothing is so destructive as a man who believes in justice. Justice is the most terrible word of all. Think about it, grandson! What might justice be between a master and a slave? Between a cruel landlord and a poor tenant? Between a proud husband and a meek wife? Would you end slavery? Would you end wealth? Would you give a wife mastery over her husband? The thought of justice truly apportioned causes fear among the least of the powerful. Justice would topple kings! Justice would destroy empires! God preserve us from justice!”

The boy shook his head doubtfully. “I don’t know, grandfather. Wouldn’t life be better with justice?”

“Not at all! Rivers of blood would flow, my grandson, rivers! Listen to my parting from this man.”

 

“The next morning, I took my leave. My friend prepared food for me, gave me a full water bag and a hat. He drew a map for me showing a path between springs in the desert that led finally to lands I knew.

“When preparations were done, he said, ‘It is a fine day.  I will walk with you for a time.’

“‘There’s no need.’

“He nodded. ‘None at all. You are well. Amazingly, I now have time for walking and looking again.’

“I shrugged. ‘Please yourself.’

“We walked in companionable silence, the morning wide around us. At the foot of the last hill, we stopped. ‘I will part from you here.’

“I took his hand, gripped it hard. ‘You saved me. I thank you.’

“He squeezed my hand in return and asked, ‘Have you seen a fig tree, heavy with ripe fruit?’

“‘Who has not?’

“‘You know its goodness by its fruit?’

“‘Of course.’

“‘Believe me, men are so as well. Go now, friend. Be fruitful.’

“He made to release my hand but I held him. ‘Wait. I have been with you for many weeks, yet you have not told me your name. I should know you before we part.’

“‘You do know me.’

“‘Yes.’ I released his hand. ‘I should also know your name.’

“He thought for several moments. ‘Call me Filos.’

“‘Friend?’

“He shrugged. ‘I am yours, no?’ He looked up and smiled. ‘What am I to call you, soldier?’

“‘My name is Uriah.’

“He smiled again. ‘Farewell, Uriah. We may meet again.’”

 

The boy considered this. At last, he asked, “Did you meet him again, Grandfather?”

“Not yet.”

“Do you think you will?”

“Anything is possible. Now, I trust that you’ve learned what I intended to teach?”

The boy looked at his grandfather in puzzlement.

The old man offered, “You must give no mercy to beaten enemies, or anyone else, for that matter.”

“Grandfather, I don’t believe that!”

“You don’t?”

The boy shook his head. “You like Filos and if you did not respect what he said to you, you would never have told me how he saved you.”

The old man sighed, “Perhaps you are right. I do like him and am grateful to him, but his thoughts disturb me still.” He laughed. “They disturb me exactly as Filos intended they would.” He patted his grandson’s head.

“Have you more to tell me of Filos?”

The old man shook his head. “No, and my other stories, I must say, will afford no such serious lessons.”

The boy’s dark eyes came alive with thoughts. “Where did you go next, Grandfather?”

“What?”

“After you were healed and when you left the man in the desert, where did you go?”

“Ah.” The old man leaned against the shady wall. “I traveled north and west to Tyre. In Tyre I became a sailor. I sailed for ten years, more, and had many adventures.”

“What kind of adventures?”

The old man shrugged. “Storms, pirates, sea monsters, the usual.”

“Tell me!”

“Another afternoon, Grandson, I’ve talked enough today.” He rose and his bones creaked like dry branches in a wind. “Bah! Storytelling is thirsty work.”

“Yes, grandfather.”

The old man patted the boy’s shoulder. “I keep a jar of cool water always, for passersby and for grandsons. Come, let us drink together.

 

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