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Authors: Richard; Clive; Kennedy King

The 22 Letters

BOOK: The 22 Letters
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The 22 Letters

Clive King

Illustrated by Richard Kennedy

Foreword

When this story begins the world has still to wait fifteen hundred years for the coming of Christ. Europe, Greece, and Rome are not yet names. The War of Troy has not been fought, and as yet there are no Ten Commandments, for Moses has not been born and the writing in which they will be written has not been invented.

But in Babylonia, Egypt, and on the island of Crete people lead lives of civilized luxury. They have highly organized governments and disciplined fighting forces. Each of these nations has its own religion, and also its own system of writing which only a few educated men ever learn.

In the middle of the triangle formed by these three Great Powers stands a small City-State. It is called Gebal—in modern Arabic speech it is still Djebeil. Its people are Giblites. It is to become known to the Greeks as Byblos, “the place of the book.”

When Resh, the master builder, lived there with his daughter Beth and his three sons, Zayin, Nun, and Aleph, it was already an ancient city where people had been living for four thousand years. The legend is that Time himself built its walls.

 

CLIVE KING

1

The Mountain of Cedars

The journey of Aleph, the scribe—Mount Lebanon and the myth of Khumbaba, guardian of the cedar forests—Palestine, the prehistoric site of Jerusalem, and the legend of Abraham and Isaac—Aleph tells of the invention of the alphabet

“Go and count the trees!”

Aleph lifted his eyes from the ground and looked up at the mountains that towered behind the city of Gebal. Above the narrow plain that ran between the foothills and the sunlit sea, above the terraces of olive orchards, above the pinewoods and the escarpments of bare rock, the cedar forests stretched from North to South, covering the slopes and valleys with dense green, and reaching up to the bare peaks with the white caps of snow that still lingered on the heights.

“Count the trees, Father?” said Aleph in bewilderment. “But there are so many!”

His father let out an exasperated breath like the sound of wind through the branches. “My son,” he sighed, “I think you have intelligence. I know you are idle! And you are rightly called the Ox, because you are certainly slow. But never before have I had reason to suspect you of actions that may bring disgrace upon your family. No!” he said quickly, holding up his hand to prevent Aleph from interrupting. “I do not want to listen to your explanations. As apprentice scribe at the temple you are entrusted with knowledge which is shameful and improper to impart to your young sister. You say you have done no such thing, and I hope with all my heart that this is true. I am only saying that it will be better for you to spend your time on a useful errand. And when I say count the trees, do not pretend to think I mean number all the trees in the forest. You are not as foolish as all that. I wish you to go up where the work parties are felling the trees, find out how many they have cut down, and return to me with the information. Is this too difficult an errand for you?”

“No, Father,” said Aleph. He felt relieved. He was satisfied that he had done nothing wrong, but he had not been sure whether he would be punished. He was glad enough for the opportunity to go up the mountains by himself, and the responsibility was not too great.

As he prepared to leave the house he was waylaid by his sister. “I'm not to speak with you,” he said. “Father is angry.”

Beth pouted. “We were doing nothing wrong,” she said. “And Father can't mean you to go up the mountain with no food.” She was holding a bundle, and a birdcage with a white pigeon in it.

“Am I to eat that bird in the mountain?” asked Aleph.

“This is your food,” said Beth, handing him the bundle. “And this is
my
game, since yours has been interrupted.” She gave him the birdcage. “Take him up the mountain with you. When you get to where you are going, let him go. He'll fly back and tell me you've got there. Good-bye, Aleph!” And she darted, away.

Aleph walked through the streets of the city to the landward gate, passed through, and set off for the mountains. He was not in a hurry. He was no mountaineer, but not so much of a townsman as to set an impossible pace for the first half-hour and collapse when the going got hard. With the help of his staff he picked his way up the stony ass-tracks through the terraces of olive trees. Above them he came to the pines. The track was now sandy underfoot, but there were thorns to scratch his legs if he wandered off it. In each round pine tree top the cicadas sang, and Aleph wondered idly what these invisible singers were that made this music. It might almost be the voice of the trees themselves sizzling in the sun, though he was of the opinion that on the whole trees did not sing. But life was too full of things to waste time on a mere insect, or whatever it was.

The track was really steep now, leading over piles of rough rock, and he had to help himself up with his hands, passing the birdcage and the bundle from one to the other. He was taking a deep breath with each step, and his throat felt dry. He scrambled to the top of a rocky outcrop and sat down to rest, looking out toward the sea. He set the birdcage on the rock, and felt sorry for the pigeon, a prisoner in the free mountains. But it was not time to let it go yet.

Down below, the town of Gebal was already shrunken by the height he had climbed. The harbor was a little blue rock pool, its rim lined with nutshells that must be boats. The city wall was like something a child might build with sand on a beach, and the palace and the temples and houses were like chippings in a mason's yard. But this thought reminded him that he was indeed looking down on the busy city of Gebal, where traders chaffered over cargoes on the quays, where the priests plotted in the temple, and where his father was in a continuous state of fuss and anxiety as to whether he had enough stone and timber in hand for the King's latest building project. And that was why he, Aleph, was here in the mountains. He had trees to count. He stretched himself. Heigh ho! it was so peaceful up here, with the wind and a nameless bird singing in the tree tops, but there was business to be done, even here.

He stood for a moment on his rock, suddenly doubtful if he was going the right way. The mountains looked simple from the coast, a great wall rising straight up along the whole of the eastern horizon. But when you were up in them they were more complicated, made up of ridges and watercourses and deep valleys and false crests. If you did not know the mountains, every now and then you would say to yourself, “A few more steps and this
must
be the top!” But of course it was not. When you got there it was an isolated outcrop or a minor peak, and above rose the higher ranges and at last the true peaks which held their covering of snow late into the summer. Not even the cedars grew at that height, and so he had never had occasion to go so far. But he had heard that beyond the range there was a flat and fertile valley, and beyond that more mountains, and beyond that the desert, and beyond that—he supposed the edge of the world. Some said a final mighty mountain range, some said merely a precipice into nothing, some said a great sea which poured over in a ceaseless waterfall for ever and ever. He would like to go beyond the mountains, but not perhaps as far as the edge of the world.

He decided that he would have to go along the edge of a slope toward the valley where the timber was being cut, and he set off, walking on the edges of his sandals, glad every now and then of a solid rock to stop him slipping down the slope. He struck a goat track that showed like a scratch along the thorny hillside and followed it thankfully, still gaining height. The sun beat down on the exposed slope, the lizards darted away from the stones before him, and though the air was no longer heavy and sticky he felt he was broiling like a piece of meat on heated hearthstones. Then over a crest appeared a dark green feathery shape. It could be a single pine or a scrub oak—but no, as he approached he could see that it was a cedar. A small one, fighting for its life on the stony edge of the forest. But it meant that he was there. There was always a special feeling about reaching the cedar-line, and if he had been put there blindfolded he would have known immediately where he was.

Soon he was in the shade of the trees, and he rested again with his back against one of the trunks. Out of the sun the air was cool and fresh again, and the breeze among the needles of the cedars was making its peculiar music. It was only a grove of young trees, or perhaps they were old but had never grown much because it took all their energy to cling to this stony slope, so steep that Aleph had to crawl or pull himself up by low branches to get up it.

He sat and looked out through the dark bars of the tree trunks toward the sea—the sea that was always with you in this land, whether it was roaring in your ears on the shore or climbing with you as you climbed. As it was now, the straight line of its horizon seemed to be halfway up the sky and truly looked like the edge of the world, so hard and definite was it. And yet he knew that beyond it, to the West, lay islands and coasts where people lived whose kings were even richer than the great King of Gebal. It was difficult to believe, but it was his own brother Nun, the sailor, who had told him, and, indeed, his ship went out loaded with this very cedar-wood and returned with wonderful things of gold and bronze that must have been made by very clever people—unless Nun traded with demons. Aleph liked looking at the sea, but he had no great desire to entrust himself to it.

Cedar wood! Once again he reminded himself of the work he had to do for his father—trees to be counted. No use starting to count just yet. He had another moment of doubt, as he stood up, whether this was the right part of the range, the right valley, the right grove. If it was, he should be able to hear the sounds of the woodcutters' axes. He stood still and listened. There was nothing but the same sound of the wind in the branches, and somehow it seemed less friendly now; as if it did not care about human matters, about whether Aleph was lost or not. He realized that he was cold, and also that he would have to think instead of dreaming.

It would have been better if he had come up the bullock track down which the logs were dragged to the coast, but he had deliberately chosen this short cut, relying on his sense of direction. That was his way of doing things. He preferred to keep off other people's tracks. If you knew where you were starting from and what you were aiming at, you usually got there all right. But now the thought came to him that he had been depending on following the noise of the lumber camp for the last part of his journey. Timber felling is usually a noisy enough process: the shock of axes, the rending of branches, and the cries of the loggers and bullock drivers can be heard from valley to valley. But here there was silence.

What had happened? Were they all just sleeping in the sun? If so, he would have to scold them for their laziness and tell them they would be punished. His father was always doing this, but he hated having to do anything of the sort. Had the slaves revolted against the overseers and run off? This was a situation for his brother Zayin, the soldier, not for him to deal with. Had they all been carried off by mountain lions, or mountain spirits? He shivered again. A tale came into his mind, told him by a foreign slave from the East he had once known, of the giant Khumbaba who lived on the Mountain of Cedars, whose roar was like the torrent of the storm, whose breath was like fire, and whose jaws were death itself. He was the watchman of the Forest and could hear even the wild cattle stir, sixty leagues away.

Aleph forced himself to stop thinking of such things. He took up the birdcage, grateful for the companionship of even a white pigeon. He moved off again along the hillside, keeping to the lower edge of the grove. The timber teams naturally always nibbled at the forest from the bottom edge, so if he continued along at this level he must eventually meet signs of humanity. Unless he should have been going in exactly the opposite direction, and that would just depend on whether this was his lucky day or not.

He skirted along the edge of the trees, often holding the fingers of the great lower branches to stop himself from sliding down the slope. As he came round the spur the whole of the next valley came into view, its upper slopes covered with cedars. On the far side of the valley he could now see the track, scarred by the passage of great logs dragged by the bullock teams. The disturbed earth and rocks were red compared with the usual grayish-white of the hillside. Where the track met the forest a great bite had been taken out of the dark green mass of the trees, littered with discarded tops and branches, and by the track were piled the trimmed trunks and usable limbs, the freshly hewn ends showing a rich orange-red in the sunlight. Smoke rose from bonfires of trimmings. But there was no sign of life.

Aleph made his way cautiously round the valley, clambered over the dry watercourse at the head of it, and approached the site. The red scarred earth and the severed cedar limbs made him think of a battlefield, though he tried to tell himself it was absurd to feel that way about earth and trees. He was hoping desperately that there would not be signs of human slaughter when he got there. He was not sure what was best to do—keep inside the forest so that no one could see him coming, or keep clear of it in case someone was waiting in ambush. Both considerations were equally upsetting, so that he went suddenly cold with fear in the hot sun. He thought of turning round and going back the way he had come. But it was absurd, even for him, who did not pretend to be a hero, to run away from an empty space.

He reached the clearing. There stood rough shelters in which the workers slept, thatched with withering cedar branches. Outside them were a few cooking pots, some of them broken, and some piles of garbage. He made himself go up to one hut; it was empty, except for couches of leaves and branches. He looked in the others. Nothing but one or two pieces of ragged clothing. By the track was a place where signs clearly showed that the draft bullocks had been tethered. But now there were none.

They must have gone home. He strained his eyes down the mountainside, but though the winding track was visible for much of the way down toward the coast, he could see nothing moving on it. Oh well, he could do the job he had been sent to do, count the marked trees and the felled trunks, and go back to town himself and report. And he had better be quick about it: he did not fancy staying the night alone in the camp.

BOOK: The 22 Letters
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