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       Forty Days: Neima's Ark, Book One, p.1

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Forty Days: Neima's Ark, Book One


  Neima’s Ark: Book One


  Stephanie Parent

  Copyright © 2013 by Stephanie Parent

  Image copyright © 2013 by Najla Qamber Designs

  All rights reserved. This book or any portion thereof may not be reproduced or used in any manner whatsoever without the express written permission of the publisher except for the use of brief quotations in a book review.

  This book is a work of fiction and any resemblance to any person, living or dead, any place, events or occurrences, is strictly coincidental. The characters and story lines are created from the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously.

  Author’s Note

  Many cultural traditions include a flood myth in which a deity or deities send a great flood to destroy the earth and all humankind; the biblical story of Noah and the Ark is one of the most famous of these stories. While the tale of Noah’s Ark is, at its heart, a metaphorical one, I have chosen to retell the story as realistically as possible.

  Most biblical scholars agree that the flood would have taken place around 2300 BCE, during the Early Bronze Age. While there is less agreement about the location of Noah and his family prior to the flood, I have chosen to set the story in what is now Turkey—specifically, the region of Turkey known as Eastern Anatolia—for two reasons. First, according to the Bible, the Ark came to rest on the “mountains of Ararat,” which many scholars believe to refer to Mount Ararat, a dormant volcanic cone located in Eastern Anatolia. In addition, two of the rivers described in the Bible as flowing out of Eden, the Tigris and Euphrates, have their source in Eastern Anatolia. Therefore, it’s reasonable to assume that some of Adam and Eve’s descendants, including Noah, might have settled in the region.

  In my story, both Noah and his son Shem are bronze smiths; as bronze tools were essential to the people’s livelihood during the Bronze Age, Noah and Shem’s profession would have earned them a powerful status in their village. Readers may also be interested to learn that early bronze smiths worked with an alloy of copper and arsenic rather than copper and tin, and over time, many smiths developed arsenic poisoning. Arsenic poisoning can cause both physical tremors like the ones Noah experiences in his hands, and mental confusion and delirium.

  Readers might also wonder why Noah and his family don’t observe Jewish traditions such as honoring the Sabbath and following kosher dietary laws. Most religious scholars date the origin of Judaism to around 1800 BCE, when Abraham denounced the worship of idols; a more organized version of Judaism developed around 1300 BCE, when Moses received the Ten Commandments. My heroine Neima and the rest of her village, living around 2300 BCE, would most likely have practiced some form of multi-god and goddess worship. Archaeological excavations of Bronze Age Turkish sites such as Alacahӧyϋk have uncovered goddess figures and deer and bull figurines that may have represented deities. Noah’s conviction that only one God existed would probably have seemed strange and unseemly to Neima and her family. Overall, as I was most interested in the human relationships behind the flood story, I chose not to focus on Neima’s and the other villagers’ religious beliefs before the flood arrived.

  Readers may also have questions about the animal species that are and aren’t present on the ark. Working on the assumption that Noah would have believed the animals he knew of to comprise all the species in the world—or at least the only ones he could reasonably get hold of—I chose to include only animals native to Turkey on the ark. As a result there are no African animals such as zebras, giraffes, hippos, rhinos, and monkeys on my version of the ark. A more well-traveled trader, like the one Neima befriends, might have seen the rhinoceroses and monkeys he describes to her in India or even Africa. And to answer the many horse, dog and cat-loving readers who might be wondering why those animals aren’t on the ark: while these animals may have been domesticated prior to or during the Bronze Age in various parts of the world, I could find no definitive evidence that they existed in Turkey around 2300 BCE, so I chose not to include them. Smaller wildcats such as the lynx, however, do appear on the ark in my novel.

  While I’ve done my best to root my novel within a realistic historical framework, Neima’s Ark is ultimately a work of imagination. All errors are my own.

  Noah and His Descendants

  Part One: Before the Rain

  The Lord saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every intention of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually. And the Lord regretted that He had made man on the earth, and it grieved Him to his Heart. So the Lord said, “I will blot out man whom I have created from the face of the land, man and animals and creeping things and birds of the heavens, for I am sorry that I have made them.”

  --Genesis 6:5-7

  Chapter One

  My grandfather is a madman, and the entire village knows it.

  We’ve watched the skeleton of his madness rise from the ground, bones and joints of wood fastened together until they’ve grown higher than the tallest cedar tree in our valley and longer than all the cottages of our village placed end to end. As each gap in the skeleton is filled with more wood, we’ve watched his insanity gain flesh, becoming a solid, hulking beast that looms above us. It is an ark, two sides sloping down to a rounded base, like the coracles that carry fishermen down the river bordering our village. But my grandfather Noah’s ark is broader than the river at its widest point, even when the waters swell at the height of the rainy season, and I cannot imagine a body of water large enough to hold it aloft.

  We watch the sun rise over the ark’s peaked roof every morning, and now, as I carry a basket of soiled laundry to the river, I watch the ark grow larger before me. It sits on the far side of the river, just outside the village border, where the villagers can’t rightly complain about its presence. Though they do so regardless. I move closer still, juggling the basket that threatens to spill shifts and shirts and shawls with every step I take, until I can make out the outlines of the men standing atop its deck. Most are hired men, nomads who will work for grain or livestock, pottery or tools, but one of those men is my grandfather Noah. Two of them are my uncles. And one is my father.

  Now that the ark’s construction is complete, Noah has ordered my uncles, my father and all the laborers he can find to coat the ship’s surface with pitch. The black, sticky stuff has crept its way up the wood with each passing day, until only the open deck and the rectangular, slant-roofed structure atop it remain uncovered. And worst of all, the pitch’s stink has woven its way through the village, noxious and smoky and oily, coating the insides of our noses and throats with each breath.

  It is no longer enough for us to witness Noah’s madness; now we must smell it as well.

  “Neima!” It’s a young voice, just behind me. Male.

  I clutch the basket handles tighter, frozen in my tracks now, not ready to turn toward my pursuer. Not one of the village boys come to harass me again, to pluck at my skirts or tip my basket into the dirt. Not today. It’s too hot, the air too thick and foul, and I can’t take it. I should ignore their taunts, walk fast and keep my back straight, but my curiosity gets the best of me. I turn my head—

  —and breathe a sigh of relief when I see it’s only Jorin. Relief—and annoyance. Jorin is always following behind someone or other, like a lost lamb scampering after the flock. He even sounds like a lamb, his voice high and bleating and—

  “Neima. You dropped this.”

  I’m perplexed to find my body still frozen as he approaches, one of my linen shifts in his outstretched hand. It’s Jorin, all right—but when did his voice grow so much deeper, so strong and assured? I blink, shake my head, wondering if I’
m seeing things—but no, a new width broadens his shoulders, and he stands nearly a hand’s breadth above me, though we are the same age and have always been the same height. How did so much change without my realizing it? Jorin is no longer a boy, and I can no longer compare him to a lamb.

  “Well?” He holds the shift just out of my reach, crumples it in his dirt-stained hand, waves it from side to side. “Do you want it or not? I’ve been thinking our goat needs a dress. She shivers at night, and she would look quite becoming in your—”

  “Surely your goat would be offended by my simple garment,” I say, reaching for the fabric with one hand. Only when I let go of the basket do I realize I’ve been gripping the handle hard enough to rub my skin raw. “You should raid my aunt Zeda’s laundry instead—her clothes are much finer. But you’re not brave enough for that, are you?” Jorin lowers his head, avoiding my eyes as he finally hands back my shift. “I thought not,” I say, a touch of victory in my voice.

  Jorin may not be a boy any longer, but he has a long way to go before I will call him a man.

  I turn once more, walking faster toward the river. Jorin scrambles ahead, swivels to face me, and lopes along backward so the morning sun frames his form. All the men in our village have dark hair, but Jorin’s always grows lighter in the summer months, and even now, more than a moon since the harvest ended, his hair shines the same bright bronze as the carving knife my father made for me.

  I shake my head again, as though I can cast out that ridiculous thought. What is wrong with me today?

  “You’re not angry with me, are you, Neima?” His eyes widen, and I glimpse motes of gold dancing within the brown. “Not that I can blame you for being out of temper this morning. That pitch smells worse than the shit of a hundred hogs—”


  He falls quiet and turns, allowing me to lead again, but he continues to trail me. Finally I must ask: “Don’t you have work of your own to do?”

  “I’ve fed all the animals already,” he says, “and I want to rest my feet in the river.”

  “If only we all had time to rest our feet,” I say, although truthfully I am looking forward to the cool water as well. The rainy season is late in coming this year, and the dry heat that sucks moisture from the air, from our skin, from our very bones has lasted so long I sometimes forget what it feels like to be cool, to pass a day without my dry throat aching and the dust rising in clouds around my calloused feet. I walk faster, anticipating the first gasp of chilly river water against my skin; but then I spot the gaggle of squealing, half-naked children coming our way. They aren’t watching where they’re going, and one boy nearly collides with us. That is, until he realizes just who he’s approaching—Noah’s granddaughter—and trips over himself in his hurry to shift course. He even yelps, and when some object falls from his hand, he doesn’t stop to pick it up.

  Then I see what the boy has dropped, and his fear no longer bothers me so much.

  It’s a scrap of cedar wood, twice the length of my hand and thicker than my thumb, neatly sawed at both ends. A remnant from the ark. After a quick glance around to make sure no one’s watching, I rest my basket on the ground and pick it up, caressing the planed wood, smooth as river stone.

  “The boys are still daring each other to bring home the cursed wood from the ark, I suppose,” Jorin says with disdain in his voice.

  “Don’t be so superior.” I keep my voice light. “I seem to remember you doing the same, just a year or two ago.”

  Jorin scowls, kicks a clod of dirt free with his bare foot. “No,” he says. “I might have fetched the wood, on a dare. But I never believed those foolish superstitions. I always brought the wood all the way home. Or to you.”

  I blush at the reminder that Jorin is the only member of our village, besides my parents, who knows my secret: I carve miniatures out of wood. Animals and people, cottages and coracles, carts and wagons, all small enough to fit in the palm of my hand. It is a strange hobby, especially for a girl, and Mother was not happy when Father taught me and even gave me a carving knife of my own. She forbade me to speak of my craft or to do it outside our cottage—Noah’s behavior brings enough attention to our family without my adding to it—but Jorin once ran into our kitchen during a rainstorm and caught me whittling before the fire.

  Even now, out here where anyone can see, I can’t resist running my fingers over the wood for a moment, feeling the warmth it holds inside after a morning in the sun. I wonder what creature lies beneath the smooth surface, waiting to be freed by my carving knife. But then I shake my mind free of its daydreams, tuck the wood under my laundry, and continue toward the river. I have work to do.

  Jorin has never revealed my strange secret, but he often asks what I’m working on and if he can see it. I can sense the usual question on the tip of his tongue now, in fact, so I head him off: “I’ll show you someday, I promise. Just not yet.” Jorin only shrugs in response, as though he expected as much. I always find some excuse to put him off, since my efforts never live up to the images in my mind—at least not yet. I am improving, though, and I haven’t given up hope that one day I’ll make something beautiful.

  Speaking of beautiful, here is the river before us now, low from the lack of rain, but still cool and clear and glinting in the sunlight. I throw down my basket and dip my feet in the water, and for a moment, if I look away from the ark and hold my breath to avoid the stench, I can almost believe I’m in paradise.

  And then I notice the group of women washing their own laundry a bit downriver. They glance from me to the ark with narrowed eyes, whispering and clucking their tongues and even wrapping cloths over their mouths and noses as if my appearance has made the odor twice as unbearable.

  No, this village is no paradise, and those women will not let me forget it.

  I grab one of Father’s tunics, plunge it in the water, and begin to scrub the dirt out much more vigorously than necessary. “You’ll exhaust yourself before you’re halfway through,” Jorin warns, and I flick some water in his direction. Accidentally, of course.

  “Would you like to help, then?” I ask, and Jorin grows suddenly silent.

  We work quietly for a short while—or rather, I work while Jorin rests—with only the soft swish of river water and the women’s distant whispers to accompany my scrubbing. And then the circle of women cracks open, and out of their midst comes my best friend Derya, flouncing toward us with a basket of soaking-wet laundry dripping in her arms, her long black braid swinging at her back. When she reaches us, she dumps her laundry in the river and continues washing as if nothing has happened.

  “Well, good morning to you too,” Jorin says after a moment.

  Derya just shakes her head. “Those women are insufferable,” she says. Anger turns her green eyes into sparks against her golden skin, and as usual, I feel dull as river mud beside her. But I’m grateful for her support. “As if it’s your fault,” she goes on, “that Noah believes a great flood is going to destroy the world!”

  And there it is: the reason Grandfather has devoted himself to this interminable project, has forced my father and uncles to neglect their own duties in order to help him. Thanks to Noah, our village is now a destination for unsavory nomads in search of work, and with all the trees felled to build the ark, mudslides plague us throughout the rainy season. In any other man, such behavior would never be tolerated. But my grandfather was once one of our village’s most respected members, and his madness grew slowly, over years, plank by plank as the ark rose higher, until suddenly it was too large to ignore and too late to act against it.

  I still remember the day I first heard about the rains that would supposedly fall till our cottages were submerged, our animals drowned, though I can’t recall who told me, or whether I simply overheard the gossip. But I will never forget the way I tore through the village, heading straight for my father at work in the smithy, and I will never forget how I ran inside without calling out first, even though I was forbidden to do so. Father was
pouring molten bronze into molds, but to my young mind and eyes, it was as if he held liquid fire just a few hands’ breadth from his body, at the end of a long, precariously thin wooden handle. If he was a more excitable man, a less steady one, there might have been a terrible accident. As it was, I suffered only a scolding once Father put the smoking-hot pot down on the smith stone and led me back outside, away from the open flame and molten metal. And even his reprimand was light, once he realized how frightened I was; he never could be harsh with me. I remember how he gathered me in his arms, so close that I rested my cheek against the warm leather of his apron and breathed in the smoky residue that lingered there. He told me that there would be no flood, that old Noah wasn’t right in the head, though I should never say so aloud.

  “But how can you know?” I whispered into his chest.

  He breathed out, long and deep, and I bit my lip as I waited for him to speak. “I suppose nothing in this world is certain,” he said at last. “But I promise that if you, if any member of our family is ever in danger, I’ll do everything I can to protect you.”

  Now, as I wash Father’s tunics in the river, I realize I can’t remember the last time I visited him at the smithy, or even exchanged more than a few words with him over supper. The ark has kept him busy, I suppose.

  It takes me a minute to notice Derya is no longer chattering beside me, and I crane my neck to see her standing beside Jorin, facing away from the river. “Can you imagine,” she says softly, “all of this, just…gone?”

  I turn and follow her gaze, taking it all in: the mud-brick cottages, the bits of straw embedded in their walls and roofs gleaming golden in the sun; the fields of wheat and barley, low and parched now that the harvest has ended; the pens of grazing goats and cattle and sheep; the forested hills that cup our valley in their protective hands. It may not be much, in the scheme of the wide world I’ve heard tales of but never seen, and I may not always feel welcome here. But this is the only home I’ve ever known, and no, I cannot imagine it destroyed.

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