David: A Novel (Excerpt)

David: A Novel (Excerpt)

 

 

I have under 2 weeks left here in Wales, and then a last week in England before I return to Canada. My main project here has been to write a novel on the life and times of King David. It is nearing completion, and will likely weigh in at around 400 pages or more.

 

Here's a sample, the two opening chapters. Throughout the book, I've woven together four narrative voices – two third-person accounts, one telling David's story, one telling Saul's, and two first-person accounts, Michal (David's first wife to whom he becomes estranged) telling her side of the story, and Joab (David's nephew who becomes his military commander) telling his. The juxtaposition of these four voices creates much of the dramatic tension in the novel.

 

The novel opens with Michal as an old woman. The second chapter shifts to a portrait of David as shepherd boy.

 

I hope you enjoy.

 

Alone

(Michal)

 

If he called me, even now, I would come. I see him most days. He looks young enough from a distance, but not near up. Within striking distance he is withered and ashen, and when you are close enough to whisper, or to kiss – though I only imagine this – he is a ruin of wizened flesh, of crumbling bone.

His voice is still strong.

But he never speaks to me, hasn’t in years, though that terrible hateful silence that stood between us so long has worn to almost nothing. But not a word in my direction. Sometimes he seems to smile at me without looking at me. Some days the shadow that passes between us is almost an affection. But I will tell you this: everyday I bear my emptiness. That has not gone away in all this time – maybe it has grown – and now I must carry it to the grave. And lay it down there, I pray.

            Even now, too late to cure this emptiness, if he called I would come. I would put my withered body beside his withered body and remember when we were other than this, completely other. He was sleek and swift like a deer, handsome and quick to laugh, and I too was not hard to look at, to be with. His muscles were not like some men’s, fists roiling in a sack of leather: more like open hands moving beneath silk sheets. I have not forgotten what I felt then and think one touch from his hand, dry and papery as it is, could wake it.

            I have been bitter. I am bitter. I do not hide it. I live in memories. I dwell in another time. And honestly, I cannot tell you whether memory is refuge from bitterness, or its breeding ground.

Maybe both.

Sometimes there is dark consolation in bitterness. It has a sour pleasantness. It is like the taste of your own blood.

            But I will have to take you back there to make you understand.

 

 

Evensong

 

He loves this time of day. The sun is down, but darkness still crouches beneath the horizon. The sky brims with color. Wind sweeps the fields and drives out the day's wilting heat. And everything wakes up. Birds burst with one last chorus, one last flourish of flight. Insects in grass and sky whirr and click. Creatures that move on the ground scuttle and slither. The sheep rouse with fresh hunger.

And he rouses, too. The langor of mid-day falls off him in a rush. He is quick and light again, keenly watchful. 

            Which is good. Which is needed. Because the lions rouse, too. 

            But he loves this as well. The alertness in himself. The air ecstatic with presentiment, like angels about to sing. He feels in himself prayer and sinew join, God’s wild presence and his own sheer aliveness fit together tight and supple as laced fingers. It steadies him, readies him for come what may.

            He rubs the pocket of his slingshot warm, and cradles in it one of the stones he’d plucked from the stream that morning.  It’s so round and smooth and green, it will be a shame to lose it. Never mind that. An instinct, sharp and urgent, tells him he’ll need it, soon.

 

*****

Jesse is angry again. Angry at him. At some task poorly performed. Some chore neglected. Something, always something. His anger is never explosive. More a low steady seething, a frustration that shows itself in the tightness of his voice, the abruptness of his gestures. A hissing of words spoken through clenched jaw. He puts things down, words and wood and mattocks and adzes, with sharp hardness. That’s his way of yelling.

            Jesse’s squatness is a mystery: that from his loins sprung seven tall men. Though that look, the strong angular bones embossing all seven faces, the tumble of dark hair falling in wild curls, is evident enough in the father. When he was younger, before his wife grew sick, he must have been dashingly handsome. But the burden that befell him on her illness – all those boys, and a farm to tend – has worn him stumpish and churlish. Worry has plowed his face like oxen, in deep furrows, but without the neatness of rows.   

            “David!”

            “Father?”

            “What is this, boy?”

            Jesse stands over a sheep that looks perfectly normal. 

            “Father?”

            “This.” And with that, Jesse presses his stubby hands, spread wide, into the back of the sheep’s woollen coat, just above one shoulder, and parts the wool so the skin shows. A muddy sore emblazons the pink skin. It is browny red and creamy yellow, and bugs spot it like currants. The sheep flinches beneath Jesse’s roughness. 

            “I didn’t see that.”

            “That’s what I mean. You didn’t see it. You were sitting in your shady oasis composing your little poems, singing your little love songs to the sky, and you didn’t see it. David, listen: to see you have to look. Huh? This is basic. No looking, no seeing. You get that? Look, David, look. Your head is so far up in the clouds you can’t see what is straight in front of you. Ah!”

            Jesse tosses up his hands and walks away. “Take care of it, boy,” he says.

            David sits on a rock and gathers the sheep to him. It trembles, and so for several minutes he just holds it to calm it, whispering in its ear. Then he takes his bag of wine and oil, and cleans and treats the wound. 

            He’d wanted to tell Jesse about the lion. 

 

****

The sun-starched land has turned blue with shadow and David rises to gather his sheep. As he steps down from his perch, he sees a deeper shadow move swift and furtive between rocks. A lone sheep is just beyond the fastness of those rocks. The sheep’s neck is bent to a lush tussock of grass. It is oblivious to danger. David runs down the steep incline, zigzagging like a loom shuttle, and when he reaches the valley floor he sprints straight. The lion is still crouching, he guesses, behind the rock. The sheep is still grazing. When David is a hundred paces, the lion bursts from its cover, quick as thought. David knows he can not catch it. He begins the rapid switching motion in his wrist that makes his sling loop faster and faster, its motion a transparent whorl of air. He moves the sling from his side to above his head, and then slightly behind it. The lion is so locked in its bloodlust it doesn’t hear him coming. The sheep has raised its head, petrified, suddenly aware of death thundering down.

            David can see the lion slowing slightly, coiling up on its haunches for its lunge. He picks a spot where he reckons the lion will be in a few seconds, stretches his left hand to steady his aim, and looses the stone. It streaks across the gloaming like a dark star shooting. The lion is nearly crouched back on its hinds, ready to take air, when the stone finds its mark: the back of its skull, just behind the ear. It staggers sideways with the blow. The sheep, snapped from its stupor of terror, bolts. The lion turns to see David, still running toward it. It stands wavering, confused. It takes a few massive leaps toward the sheep’s retreat, then wheels and starts coming at David. 

            He tucks his sling into his pouch and, still running, unsheaths his knife. The lion has regained its strength. It is running full-out but in a rearing up motion, ready to sail at him. This is what David is counting on, this preciseness of the beast’s reflexes. He runs harder. When he and the lion are almost on each other, the lion does what he’s hoped: leaps, its body eclipsing sky, consuming David in its shadow. He dives under it, spins on his back, and plunges his knife in its stomach to the hilt. He holds on, feels the massive body shudder through his blade. The lion’s belly opens like tent flaps. The insides rush out hot.

            The lion hits the ground on its shoulders, and rolls. It tries to get up, but can’t.  David walks behind it, sprawled in its own lake of blood. He is ready to finish the job.  The lion turns its head and bares its teeth but no sound comes out. Its yellow eyes grow dim. It flops its great head to earth, panting, chest heaving. It closes its eyes and stops breathing. David places his hand on the warm flank of its body. A sign of honor. A sign of affection.

            He walks over to where he first hit the lion. On the ground, as though waiting, is his green stone. He picks it up, rolls it in blood-warm hands, and then washes both in the stream. 

            He gathers his sheep and heads home.

Happy to have his stone back.

 

****

That night he writes a song, his longest yet. And the next morning, as sun leaps up from behind rocks and throws its arms wide across the earth, he sings it aloud to his sheep, who graze unperturbed.

 

Praise the Lord, O my soul.

O Lord my God, you are very great;
   you are clothed with splendor and majesty.
He wraps himself in light as with a garment;
   he stretches out the heavens like a tent
and lays the beams of his upper chambers on their waters.
He makes the clouds his chariot
   and rides on the wings of the wind.
He makes winds his messengers,
   flames of fire his servants.

 He set the earth on its foundations;
   it can never be moved.
You covered it with the deep as with a garment;
   the waters stood above the mountains.
But at your rebuke the waters fled,
   at the sound of your thunder they took to flight;
they flowed over the mountains,
   they went down into the valleys,
   to the place you assigned for them.
You set a boundary they cannot cross;
   never again will they cover the earth.

He makes springs pour water into the ravines;
   it flows between the mountains.
They give water to all the beasts of the field;
   the wild donkeys quench their thirst.
The birds of the air nest by the waters;
   they sing among the branches.
He waters the mountains from his upper chambers;
   the earth is satisfied by the fruit of his work.
He makes grass grow for the cattle,
   and plants for man to cultivate—
   bringing forth food from the earth:
wine that gladdens the heart of man,
   oil to make his face shine,
   and bread that sustains his heart.
The trees of the Lord are well watered,
   the cedars of Lebanon that he planted.
There the birds make their nests;
   the stork has its home in the pine trees.
The high mountains belong to the wild goats;
   the crags are a refuge for the coneys.

 The moon marks off the seasons,
   and the sun knows when to go down.
You bring darkness, it becomes night,
   and all the beasts of the forest prowl.
The lions roar for their prey
   and seek their food from God.
The sun rises, and they steal away;
   they return and lie down in their dens.
Then man goes out to his work,
   to his labor until evening.

How many are your works, O Lord!
   In wisdom you made them all;
   the earth is full of your creatures.
There is the sea, vast and spacious,
   teeming with creatures beyond number—
   living things both large and small.
There the ships go to and fro,
   and the leviathan, which you formed to frolic there.

 These all look to you
   to give them their food at the proper time.
When you give it to them,
   they gather it up;
when you open your hand,
   they are satisfied with good things.
When you hide your face,
   they are terrified;
when you take away their breath,
   they die and return to the dust.
When you send your Spirit,
   they are created,
   and you renew the face of the earth.

May the glory of the Lord endure forever;
   may the Lord rejoice in his works—
he who looks at the earth, and it trembles,
   who touches the mountains, and they smoke.

I will sing to the Lord all my life;
   I will sing praise to my God as long as I live.
May my meditation be pleasing to him,
   as I rejoice in the Lord.
But may sinners vanish from the earth
   and the wicked be no more.

   Praise the Lord, O my soul.

   Praise the Lord.

 

A ewe and a lamb look up. The lamb bleats pleadingly, as if for him to sing again. So he does.

Golfing In Hades

 

 
 
 
 
My new friend Tony – ethnically Chinese, culturally Welsh – has managed what I thought no man could: lured me back into the game of golf.
 
It's a hateful game. A soul-wrecking, aggravation-stirring time-waster. It plays to all our basest instincts: pride, delusion, anger, pettiness, rivalry. That a fellow Scotsman first concocted this awful sport and inflicted it on the world is to my everlasting shame. The idea of spending several hours snookering a ball around a booby-trapped field is inherently absurd: to call it fun, and pay exorbitant amounts to engage it, hare-brained.
 
There. I got that off my chest.
 
It didn't help that I was mentored in the game by a father who fumbled away at it his whole life but, maybe to compensate, was a stickler for the rules. So I know that you don't touch the head of the wedge to the sand before hitting the ball out of a trap, but never managed to hit it well anyhow. I know that even to nudge the ball before laying into it is counted as a stroke, but rarely make the shot count all the same. I know all the intricate arcane rules of putting – there are dozens – and still can't putt. 
 
I'd given the game up years ago. When anyone asked if I'd like to play, I'd politely decline. In my head I reckoned it would be cheaper, faster, and provide roughly the same sensation to just to buy a box of straight pins and stick them in my arm. 
 
Then Tony – he who cooks like an angel, he who regales me with stories of God's astonishing healing power, he who, along with his wife Marian, has embraced us bedraggled displaced Canadians like we're long-lost relatives – asked me to go golfing. Tony loves golf, and I love Tony, and besides, I have a lot of time on my hands these days. So I said yes.
 
And I like it. 
 
I still play like a fool. I still torture the ball, just never into submission. I still can't drive, can't chip, can't putt. I still hear my father's pedantic lectures and stern rebukes every time I break the rules, which is pretty much constantly. But darn if it ain't fun.
 
Well, there's Tony to liven things up. And there's Hades, not once but twice, to get the adrenaline pumping.
 
Hades I and Hades II is what Tony calls hole 6 and hole 8 on The Cliffs, a par-3, 9-hole course in Gwbert, just north of Cardigan Bay. Both holes involve treacherous shots across wide chasms over churning water. But that only begins the test. Both holes have greens – especially Hades I – that sit on a narrow plate of earth: undershoot, overshoot, shoot to far to the right, and your ball is gone, swallowed in outer darkness.
 
I would happily play those two holes, over and over, all day. I would, of course, go through a mountain of balls (on Wednesday, Tony and I together lost about a dozen). But there's something compelling about matching your wit and skill, modest as these things are in my case, against the abyss. It is grievous pain to lose at it. But it is joy unspeakable when you win. One good shot over Hades is worth a thousand brilliant ones elsewhere. 
 
Surely God is speaking through such things.
 

In the Eye of the Beholder

My Painting of a stream flowing under a stone bridge.

 

Nicola's painting of an Island in Cardigan Bay

 

I wanted to push myself creatively during my sabbatical. In one sense, this plan was built into my time in Wales: I assigned myself the task while here of writing a novel (which hums along nicely, now nearing 300 pages – but more of that in a future blog). And, as I bragged about in an earlier post, I have been trying my hand in the kitchen. But my efforts there, though edible, are neither aesthetic nor culinary masterpieces. They fall yards short of being creative. I throw myself wholly on the mercy of a recipe, and even then reproduce something that bears little resemblance to how the original looks or, I suspect, tastes.  
 
So I needed something more. And I found it a mere skip and a jump away, in the tiny village of Henllan, next to our tiny village of Pentre-cwrt. There, in her little one-room studio beside her home, artist Diane Mathias plies her trade, with oils and pastels. She hangs a sign by the roadside inviting all passers-by to stop in for a peek at her art and a cup of tea. So we took her up on it. One thing led to the next, and last Friday Nicola and I signed up, with 3 others, for a 5-hour art class with Diane, using the medium of pastels. 
 
It was both hard work and pure fun. She got us down to the task right away, no preliminaries. We each chose a photo from a thick pile she had on hand, and within minutes we were wrist-deep in the chalky residue of pastel crayons. Our hands look like we'd smeared them in buckets of condiments – mustard and ketchup and guacamole and refried beans. Diane walked around, said encouraging if vague things ("Well, that's coming along, isn't it?"; "My, that's colorful!" "That's an interesting way of depicting that tree!"), and gave pointers. Slowly, our smudges and blobs emerged into something half-way recognizable, rough facsimiles of the photographs we were working from.
 
The results, as you can see, are clumsy and amateurish. 
 
But something woke up in me during it. As I struggled to capture the shapes, the shades, the hues, the textures of the picture I was trying to render, I realized how much the visual is its own language. It wants to tell a story. It wants to articulate, not just what things look like, but how they feel, what they mean, why they matter. I know that my pastel drawing captures none of this. But I sensed it. I felt its pulse. I glimpsed what skilled artists are able to convey: the deeper reality beneath the surface reality, the inner beauty that gives the outward form its mystery and its potency.
 
In some ways it's like worship. Art is taking the world as we find it, transforming it through sustained attention, and offering it back. It is rendering the everyday into the everlasting. It is an act both of surrender and of thanksgiving. 
 
My first attempts at this are childish. 
 
But I don't think the Father minds.
 

Working All Things Together For Good

I am learning to cook. 
 
One of the rules Cheryl laid down before we came to Wales was that she was only preparing a meal every third night. If we were to eat the other two nights, Nicola and I would have to figure our way around a kitchen. Slowly, clumsily, with growing daring, we're managing.
 
It's more pleasure than I imagined. There is an artistry to cooking that I've long admired but feared to attempt. A tasty dish from raw ingredients is like a poem from a pile of words, or a sculpture from a lump of clay, or music from a violin, something that in less skilled hands can be wince-inducing, but with a master's touch can evoke heaven. 
 
I haven't made anything yet that would rank as a culinary masterpiece, and I'm almost slavishly bound to recipes (though learning to be adaptive since I can't always get the listed ingredients), but so far I've not food poisoned anyone, or even made them crumple their napkin on their untouched mound of food and push their plate away. Sometimes, they even have seconds.
 
I've made jambalaya, and pear-pancakes (with homemade syrup), and Cajun haddock, and roasted parsnips tossed in olive oil and fresh garlic, and apple muffins, and a dozen things besides.
 
It amazes me, cooking: the alchemy of it, the way flour and baking powder and raw eggs – things inedible or unpalatable by themselves – combine to make something tasty and nourishing. Every time I go into the kitchen now, I'm newly excited by the possibilities (please keep this to yourself – I don't want Cheryl finding out and expecting the Wales ruling to apply to Canada). 
 
I think this is how God works. He takes things in our lives that, by themselves, are hard or impossible to swallow. And he mixes them in such a way, and puts them in intense heat for just the right amount of time, that what comes out bears no resemblance to what went in. What goes in can be revolting. What comes out might be delectable. And yet, it wouldn't be this way without all the ingredients, even or especially the ones we'd never consume by themselves. 
 
Are you going through an ordeal right now, or a time of deep loneliness, or the sting of a loss or a failure? On its own, it's disgusting, and hard to swallow. But see what God does with it, what he mixes it with, what fire he refines it with. 
 
It may turn out to be your best meal yet.
 

Sojourn in Wales

View from our Bedroom.

 

We arrived Wednesday night, exhausted and disoriented, at our temporary home in Wales, and awoke Thursday morning to a panorama of jaw-dropping beauty: a paradise of woods and streams and patchwork fields rolling down deep folds of hills. In the pasture above us a half-dozen horses, muddy and shaggy in their winter coats, nicker and clomp, and all around us sheep, waddling fat in their winter wool, bleat and graze. The house looks down upon a valley, vibrantly green and cut by the silvery currents of the Teifi river, and across to the tidy tiny village of Pentre-Cwrt. It's as if we've been transported into a rustic shire somewhere in Middle-Earth, and any moment Gandalf will rap on the door with urgent and secret business.

            But I think few visitors, wizard or otherwise, venture this far. It is so rural that the house doesn't have a street address – it's simply called Murmur Teifi, named thus because one can hear from this flank of the hill, if the wind is right and the water's running high, a thin whisper of the river's voice.

            It's here we'll stay for the next 4 months. The plan is for Cheryl to complete 2 of her courses toward a masters degree in Spiritual Formation, Nicola to finish her grade 11 course work online, and me to write a novel. And we will explore, and read, and ponder, and pray, and walk, and talk. We will make new friends, and visit a few old ones. We will play more board games then we have in the past decade. I will cook more meals, and wash more dishes, than I have in my lifetime. And we will become still, and quiet, and attentive.

            It's a sojourn. I've always liked that word, though I think this is the first time I've ever written it. It's a good biblical word, at least in the language of the King James: that version is thick with sojourns and sojourners. Sojourn means, literally, to rest a day (just as journey means to travel a day), but more colloquially it means to stay a while. 4 months qualifies for a while.

            I've travelled a lot, but never really sojourned, never really stayed a while – at most, I think, I've hunkered down 2 weeks in a single place. I've never abided elsewhere long enough for the place to feel like home, to become part of me. A sojourn is different: it's time enough to match your internal rhythms to the world you inhabit, time enough to learn some of the quirks of that world's language and gesture and ways (though Welsh is a mouthful, thick as a barley loaf, with long snarls of impossible combinations of consonants sprinkled with the occasional vowel, and I'll be lucky to pick up more than the odd word).

A sojourn is time enough to change.

            I guess that's what I'm hoping. I'm hoping to change. I want to be more thoughtful and less reactionary, more prayerful and less judging. I want to see further and deeper, and be more filled with wonder and thankfulness. I want to be quicker to listen and slower to speak. I want to laugh more, and play more, and take much longer to become angry or anxious. I want to take more risks, but be less reckless. I want to soak in word and Spirit, and the company of others.

            It's a bit embarrassing that I need 4 months and a refuge in the Welsh hillsides to accomplish this, and perhaps I don't. But it's what I've been given – a fact I'm deeply grateful for – and so be it.

            Sojourns are rare these days. I embrace this one with joy and thanks, and resolve to make the most of it.

            Keep posted.

 

Shalom

 

Mark