Noah's Daugh­ter

New England Review - - Table of Contents - Fic­tion Lore Se­gal

There is a kind of book in which the clever child pro­tag­o­nist is des­tined to be­come a writer, the au­thor, in fact, of the story in which the child is the pro­tag­o­nist. David Cop­per­field is such a child, but not in­fre­quently it's a girl. The Bi­ble does not say that be­sides his three boys, Shem, Ham, and Japheth, Noah had a daugh­ter who would have been a writer had she not lived be­fore the in­ven­tion of writ­ing. It was sev­eral gen­er­a­tions be­fore scribes like Ezra set down the sto­ries that had been told by authors like Noah's daugh­ter.

There are peo­ple, of course, who be­lieve that the au­thor was God, who (as it says in the sto­ries) had made the peo­ple. Male and fe­male cre­ated he them and com­manded that they be fruit­ful and mul­ti­ply, and the women con­ceived and bore men and, of course, women, but they, ex­cept for Eve and a cou­ple of oth­ers, did not get to have names. Noah's wife was called Noah's wife, and the wives of Noah's sons were called the wives of Noah's sons. Noah's daugh­ter, we take it, was called Noah's daugh­ter. “The men were off be­fore sunup,” Noah's wife said to the four younger women. She was look­ing through the tent's open­ing and could see Noah, Shem, and Japheth some way down the hill, cut­ting lengths of gopher wood for the third of the ark's three floors; Ham had gone to fetch the pitch with which to pitch it within and without. “I don't know why he has to get the boys up so early.”

“Don't you?” said Noah's daugh­ter. She hap­pened to have been born with the tal­ent to ob­serve and to con­nect, along with a ten­dency to see­saw be­tween self-con­grat­u­la­tion and self-dep­re­ca­tion. “Fa­ther is the kind of man who thinks if any­thing can go wrong, it will, so when God says he is go­ing to make a flood, Fa­ther takes to it like a duck to wa­ter.”

“Go and start the fire,” replied her mother. “When the sun stands over­head, the men will be in for their lunch.”

“Why can't Ham's wife do it?” said Noah's daugh­ter, and Ham's wife said, “Why can't you?”

“Be­cause I'm in the mid­dle of some­thing,” Noah's daugh­ter said. “I'm work­ing on a prayer—more like a memo— to God. I'm de­vel­op­ing the ar­gu­ment against the flood.”

“We have been hear­ing about this memo ev­ery day for a week,” Shem's wife said.

“Why do you think God needs your prayer to be so all per­fect?” asked Japheth's wife.

“Per­fect is not the point. It's that I my­self don't know what I'm say­ing un­til the right word is in the right place.”

“All right, all right!” Noah's wife said. “One of you wash the gourds, one of you knead the dough, and some­one start the fire. And you go fin­ish your memo.”

The rea­son this memo was tak­ing so fa­tally long had to do with her modus lab­o­randi, over which Noah's daugh­ter had lit­tle con­trol. She could never help go­ing back to the be­gin­ning to cut any word that a sen­tence would be clearer, sharper, bet­ter without. It trou­bled her to think that she might bore the Lord who, af­ter all, had the whole world in his hand. She was al­ways chal­leng­ing ev­ery word to hit the nail on, in­stead of next to, the head. And she was search­ing for the tone that would star­tle God's at­ten­tion without get­ting him an­gry. This is what she had got down on the tablets of her mind so far:

Dear God, I won­der if you have ever never asked your­self why whether the Flood might not be such a good idea might be a re­ally bad idea might be use­less not be use­ful.

The memo was fated not to get done that af­ter­noon. It was one of those days when Noah's daugh­ter might have pre­ferred chop­ping wood to words. “Maybe I need to get out and do some more re­search,” she told her mother.

Pass­ing the ark, she called up to her fa­ther and broth­ers who were get­ting the side door set in the up­per deck. “I'm go­ing over to Great Grand­fa­ther Methuse­lah's.”

“I have been warn­ing ev­ery­body that the Lord will bring a flood to de­stroy both man and beast, and the creep­ing things, and the fowls of the air,” Noah called down to her. “If Great Grand­fa­ther has not got started on his ark, it is go­ing to be too late.”

The widow woman who lived in the next tent was putting her wash­ing out to dry over the back hedge. Noah's daugh­ter re­minded her about the com­ing flood. The widow hoped the rains would hold off till to­mor­row. Seven sons, she said, was a lot of laun­dry.

To Ab­ner, stand­ing among his flock of sheep, Noah's daugh­ter also men­tioned the Lord's drown­ing man, beast, creep­ing things, and the fowls of the air. Ab­ner said he was think­ing of mov­ing his an­i­mals up to higher ground.

Noah's daugh­ter liked to drop in on her Great Grand­fa­ther Methuse­lah. His con­ver­sa­tion, at age 969, was more con­ge­nial to her than that of her im­me­di­ate fam­ily. “I've been think­ing,” she told him. “Again!” said he fondly. “Have you got any new sto­ries to tell me?” “I'm think­ing of writ­ing the one about my fa­ther, Noah. Why is he the only

hu­man of all mankind to be build­ing an ark?”

“Be­cause he is a right­eous man in his gen­er­a­tion,” said Methuse­lah. “For your fa­ther, lis­ten­ing and obey­ing are syn­ony­mous. If God says to Noah, `Go and make an ark out of gopher wood,' Noah goes and makes an ark out of gopher wood.” “Yes, and what ex­actly is the rest of mankind say­ing to it­self?” “Mankind, you mean, like me?” That was what Noah's daugh­ter meant. It is in­ter­est­ing that she should have been puz­zling over hu­man pas­siv­ity in the face of im­mi­nent catas­tro­phe at a time when most in­stances had not yet oc­curred. Gen­er­a­tions would pass be­fore Lot's sons-in-law, warned about the de­struc­tion of Sodom and Go­morra, would fail to get their fam­i­lies out of town; two and half mil­len­nia later, the Jews of Europe were not go­ing to leave while it was still pos­si­ble.

“Habit?” sug­gested Methuse­lah. “It's eas­ier to con­tinue do­ing what you are do­ing than to con­sider chang­ing. My tent is noth­ing to boast about, but I love my bed. No post­dilu­vian straw would ar­range it­self un­der my back in just the right way.”

“I know what you mean,” said Noah's daugh­ter. She wor­ried that she would never find any other place that suited her so well as her cor­ner of the tent where, six morn­ings out of the seven, she sat and worked on her sto­ries.

“I may not look for­ward to nudg­ing yet an­other sac­ri­fice up to the high place for an­other burnt of­fer­ing—and al­ways with the same peo­ple!” went on Methuse­lah. “But we pre­fer the hills we know than to climb oth­ers that we know not of.” “That is a truth!” said Noah's daugh­ter with that lit­tle thrill of recog­ni­tion. “And then,” con­tin­ued Methuse­lah, “we tell our­selves that it may not be all that se­ri­ous. I've fixed— that is, I'm go­ing to fix—the stakes that hold my tent in the ground, and then I'll sit tight and wait it out. I mean, how bad can it be? The au­gurs are al­ways telling us there's go­ing to be this weather and that weather and af­ter­wards it is no such thing. And any­way, how would I even know how to build my­self a live-in ark?”

“Nei­ther did Fa­ther, un­til the Almighty spec­i­fied the di­men­sions: 300 cu­bits in length by fifty by thirty, with a win­dow above, the door set in the side, and a se­cond and third deck that will house all flesh to keep each kind alive.” And low­er­ing her voice, she said she hoped it wouldn't oc­cur to God that the flood was not go­ing to af­fect any­thing that swims. “Where in the ark would Fa­ther fit a tank to ac­com­mo­date a male and fe­male le­viathan?”

It has been said that Noah's daugh­ter was an ob­ser­vant girl. She could see that in spite of his protes­ta­tions, the dear, an­cient man was afraid; he had the look of one star­ing into the end times. “Fear not, Great Grand­fa­ther,” she said to him. “I'm go­ing home to fin­ish my memo to the Lord. There isn't go­ing to be a flood.”

Whether it was her re­as­sur­ance, or be­cause the hu­man mind is not ca­pa­ble of sus­tained ter­ror, old Methuse­lah looked up, his smile a lit­tle sickly, and said,

“You do that. You go home and fin­ish your memo be­fore it starts rain­ing.”

But the small rain had started by the time Noah's daugh­ter reached the parental tent. She stepped over a great pud­dle and stood a while to watch the an­i­mals as­sem­bled at the ark's en­trance be­gin to ar­range them­selves into what looked like an end­less line of two-by-twos—a good thing they were used to be­ing rained on.

Then she went in­side the tent and got to work, go­ing all the way back—she couldn't help it—to the open­ing salu­ta­tion:

Dear God, I won­der if you have never asked your­self why mak­ing the a Flood might turn out to be use­less. I can sym­pa­thize with the temp­ta­tion to drown ev­ery­body and ev­ery­thing (ex­cept the fish) the lot of us and to start over from scratch, but how will this solve the prob­lem of man's evil?

She heard—she could feel—the rain drum­ming on the tent over her head. It was re­ally com­ing down. At this junc­ture (a mar­vel, surely, con­sid­er­ing that writ­ten lan­guage had yet to be in­vented), Noah's daugh­ter came up with the idea that was to change fu­ture us­age. She started over from the be­gin­ning, em­ploy­ing the up­per case for all pro­nouns re­fer­ring to the Lord, be­fore con­tin­u­ing:

That You are Your pre­serv­ing one male and one fe­male of each species (in­clud­ing my fa­ther and my mother) means that You are go­ing to will mean to restart the earth without hav­ing to re­design ev­ery­body from scratch.

The tent rat­tled with gust af­ter gust and she went to stand at the open­ing. There were so many new pud­dles. Noah's daugh­ter watched the stately rock­ing mo­tion of two no­ble ele­phant be­hinds dis­ap­pear into the ark, fol­lowed by the crowd of cat­tle—such a lot of ears, a for­est of legs. There went the white tails of a pair of jackrab­bits, skit­ter­ing un­der the hind­most billy goat, to avoid hav­ing to queue up in the rain.

Noah's daugh­ter knew that she needed to get her memo fin­ished in a hurry, and now she knew what she wanted to say:

What I don't see is why Why do You think that mankind af­ter the Flood will be any dif­fer­ent from bet­ter than mankind be­fore the Flood? My fa­ther is re­ally right­eous, and Shem and Japheth are nice good men, but my brother Ham—i don't want to snitch, but I've seen him do stuff things. . . . God, You know. The thing is that I mean that You won't be start­ing over from scratch.

Noah's daugh­ter thought she heard her mother shout­ing, but it was the voice of the widow woman hol­ler­ing the names, one af­ter the other, of her seven sons, while, body bent, her arms out­stretched be­fore her, she chased a white tu­nic that looked to be swim­ming away and get­ting far­ther and far­ther down­river where there had been no river. The wa­ter cataract­ing from the higher ground brought a sheep wheel­ing heels over head, and a se­cond and a third,

tum­bling over and over and Ab­ner try­ing to find his feet, swal­low­ing the wa­ter that was swal­low­ing him.

That was the day the foun­tain of the great deep broke up and the win­dows of heaven opened. Noah's daugh­ter saw the cat­tle not des­tined for a place in the ark, saw all the dead creep­ing things and many fowl car­ried down the roil­ing rapids that cov­ered the place where Methuse­lah's tent used to stand. Now it was her mother shout­ing for the women to get their stuff, right away.

“Just as soon,” cried Noah's daugh­ter, “as I do my memo over. This is the fi­nal draft!” But her fa­ther stood in the open­ing of the tent say­ing “NOW!” and there was noth­ing to do but fol­low him out, cross­ing the pud­dles that had joined into a se­cond wa­ter­way. They stood in the down­pour wait­ing for what had to be the last of the an­i­mals: two naked, pink earth­worms inch­ing up the ramp into the ark. But here came the two wa­ter bugs and two mos­qui­toes, a male and a fe­male; and the mag­gots who, sans sex, sans color, sans legs, mouths, or eyes, al­ways know when to turn up and where; and those black mites, like the liv­ing dots in the bag of all-pur­pose flour that you have kept in your kitchen past the “best used by” date, they too went into the ark to keep their kind alive; and be­hind them must have queued the myr­iad in­stances of life which no eye, male or fe­male, would see un­til the in­ven­tion of the mi­cro­scope; and when the least of these had gone into the ark, Noah and his sons with him, and his wife and his sons' wives went in as God had com­manded him, and the Lord shut them in.

And now it was for­ever too late to pre­vent the catas­tro­phe. Never, in the over­pop­u­lated ark, would Noah's daugh­ter find a cor­ner of her own. It was in the tablets of her mind that she in­scribed the story of the Flood as we read it to this day, how the wa­ters in­creased and bore up the ark and it was lifted and went upon the face of the wa­ters, and the wa­ter pre­vailed. All the high hills and the moun­tains were cov­ered. All flesh died upon the earth, both of fowl and of cat­tle and of ev­ery liv­ing thing that creeps on the earth, and ev­ery man died.

It says that when the wa­ters had cov­ered the earth for one hun­dred and fifty days, the foun­tain of the deep and the win­dows of heaven were stopped. Noah's daugh­ter notes the date (it was in the sev­enth month) on which the ark came to rest on Ararat. She tells the story of the raven and the story of the dove and the olive branch, and records the day in the tenth month, when the wa­ter had so far re­ceded that Noah and his wife and his sons and their wives came out, and so did ev­ery one of the cat­tle and ev­ery creep­ing thing and all the birds that had been in the ark with Noah.

We won­der and we worry: Which of ev­ery clean beast and ev­ery clean fowl, of all that had been in the ark all that time, did Noah pick for a burnt of­fer­ing on the al­tar that he built to the Lord?

When the Lord smelled the sweet sa­vor, He said, “I will not again curse the ground any more for man's sake,” for He saw what Noah's daugh­ter's memo

(oh, if she had only fin­ished get­ting it writ­ten!) could have told Him—that the imag­i­na­tion of man's heart would go right on be­ing evil from his youth; that Ham was go­ing to sneak a peek at his fa­ther's naked­ness—ev­ery­body go­ing right on be­ing who they were!

The Lord made a covenant with Noah and set His rain­bow in the sky as a sign that He would not again smite any more ev­ery­thing liv­ing, as He had done. What the Lord must have meant was that He was never again go­ing to de­stroy ev­ery liv­ing thing all at one and the same time, be­cause ever since the Flood, the tsunamis, the avalanches, the mud­slides and bliz­zards, the plagues, the droughts and famines, the world wars and geno­cides, and the Holo­caust have hap­pened only here and there and now and then, and seed­time and har­vest, cold and heat, sum­mer and winter, and day and night have not ceased, while the earth re­mains.

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