By Charlie Britten
I expect him to be more discreet. In the circumstances. Yet there he is, as usual, stretched across the floor, backside in the air, nose to the carpet and facing Jerusalem. With the window open. “God of our fathers, God of Abraham, God of Isaac, hear your servant, Daniel.”
I sneak a glance at the street below. “Dad. Don’t. Please.”
His gold and silver jewellery jangle around his wrists as he draws himself into a sitting position. “Judith,” he says in his dead serious voice, like he’s telling me off for using Babylonian swear-words. “I’m praying for the freedom of the Children of Israel.”
“Dad, puh-leese… Not now. Not after King Darius’s decree.”
He raises one eyebrow. “What decree?”
“Dad. Don’t be like that. The one about praying to any other gods except him.”
“Now my little Judy doesn’t need to worry her pretty little head about Darius and his decrees,” he says, pulling himself to his feet.
“But he’s put it in writing, in accordance with the law of the Medes and Persians, which-“
“…Cannot be changed. Yeah, yeah, yeah.”
“Dad, you’ll get thrown to the lions.”
He laughs as he slips his feet into his leather sandals. “Will I heck?”
“It’s only for thirty days, Dad. Can’t you not pray for thirty days?”
“Office politics, pet. I work for His Majesty, don’t I? It’s all done to impress the satraps and the other administrators. And they, my little flower, report to me.” He leans over to kiss my cheek. “Off to work I go.”
“Mum wouldn’t have wanted you to put yourself into danger like this,” I say, as he turns to go downstairs.
“Your mother, bless her, was of the tribe of Benjamin, and she feared the Lord,” he replies, wagging his finger at me. “She’d have done the same.”
“No, she would not,” I shout back. And, if she were alive, he would’ve listened to her.
* * * * *
He’s at it again at midday, farting as he prostrates himself. He had a good lunch.
That afternoon, I hang out with the other girls as usual, but I set off for home later, meaning to avoid Dad’s next pray-in. As I approach our street, I hesitate at the corner. Everything’ll be all right, won’t it? I don’t dare look.
I can’t stand there all day. I walk on. A crowd is milling around by our house, but there’s always somebody waiting about for Dad, wanting him to petition Darius about something. Two soldiers are leading a man through our gate, his legs in irons and his torso trussed up with rope. Oh no, I think to myself, we’ve been burgled.
“Excuse me,” I say, as I push through the crowd, running through in my mind what might’ve been taken. “Excuse me.” But they are making too much noise to hear my girly voice. “Let me through. Please. I live here.” Nobody even turns around. I have to shove my way into a place where I can see over people’s shoulders, losing one of my sandals, by the way, but I really don’t care.
The soldiers are nudging the burglar forward with their spears but there he is, nodding at the crowd and thanking them for coming, as Dad might’ve done. “All a big mistake. See you all later,” he says in Dad’s voice. The evening sun catches his heavy black hair, highlighting every fleck of flint grey and the shiny bald patch on top.
“Dad,” I cry, “Dad.” I run towards him, throwing out my arms, but the sharp points of the soldiers’ spears crash and clatter, iron upon iron, as they cross in front of me. More words well up in my throat, tumbling over each other, jamming at the base of my tongue and striking me speechless. Yet, inside my head, “I told you so, Dad” rings out loud and clear.
I stand on one leg then the other, the dust and rubble of the street pressing in between my bare toes.
“Judith,” he calls across the baying crowd. “Judith. Go to the palace. Now.”
I stare at him, his words jangling in my head without meaning.
“Listen to me, Judith. Go to Darius.”
Behind me the rabble are shouting, “Lions, lions, lions.” As the soldiers lead him away, their cry changes to “Hebrew. Jew. Yid.”
* * * * *
The servants, watching and listening in our courtyard, fall away when I rush in. My father’s cloak lies over a chair and his wine cup sits on the table, half-full, as if he’s coming back to drink it. I study the marble pillars in the hallway, counting them, five on the left and four on the right, then the carpet, following its whirly pattern with my eye. In this city of Babylon where I have lived all my life, I am quite alone.
Someone clears his throat.
I start, my broken heart juddering inside my body.
“You’d better be getting yourself off to the palace, Miss.” It’s Hassan, my father’s manservant, squatting in the corner.
He says nothing.
“If you don’t, I will. Though Darius’ll more likely listen to Daniel’s daughter than to a servant.”
I listen to the unnatural stillness in the house. I realise that silence has a sound of its own. I nod a slow nod.
“I’ll come with you,” he says, scrambling to his feet. “Shall I find you another pair of sandals?”
“Yes please, Hassan.”
We walk beside the River Euphrates, where the mosquitoes hover in black clouds, buzzing around our sweaty faces. On we go, past the temples of Shamash and Marduk, amidst the ordinary city folk of Babylon doing normal things like eating, drinking, and telling off their children in the warm evening sun. How I wish my today was ordinary.
At the palace, every obstacle is placed in my way. His Majesty – may he live forever – is taking a bath, in conference with the satraps, at dinner.
“I’ll wait,” I say in a firm voice that surprises me. I sit on the ledge around the fountain in the entrance hall. Hassan lowers himself on to the dusty floor a few feet away, watching me through half-open eyes. Officials speak in hushed tones, their footsteps becoming softer and fainter as they vanish down long, stone corridors. Every time I hear a new voice, I start on my hard stone seat. When Darius appears, surrounded by torchbearers and busy courtiers, everyone leaps to their feet. Uncertain of protocol, I hesitate, but, when I realise that his royal progress isn’t going to pass by me and my fountain, I race after him crying, “Your Majesty, your Majesty.”
He has to stop because I’m standing right in front of him.
“Oh… um… May you live forever. I’m Daniel’s daughter.”
“Er,” he says, flicking at a minute speck on his purple robe and not looking at me at all. “Er… You look very like him, my dear.” He’s really old, his face all wrinkly and wizened.
“Please, please… My dad served you well, your Majesty. Didn’t he? He was an honest and a good administrator. Don’t do this to him. Please.” I sound feeble, even to my own ears.
Darius steps around me. “The laws of the Medes and the Persians can never be changed,” he says, his voice filling the corridor ahead. A courtier moves his head up and down in enthusiastic nods.
“All he did was pray.” I take huge strides to keep pace with him.
“Well, we’ll see what his invisible Hebrew God can do to save him now,” says Darius. A servant swings open big embossed doors. In a moment they’ll close behind him and he’ll be gone.
“He led the Jews out of Egypt,” I cry after him, ignoring the sniggers before, behind and beside me. “He divided the Red Sea.” More titters. “He brings thunder and lightning.”
“All gods do thunder and lightning.” The courtier who’d been bowing shoves me aside. “Run away, girl.”
“Take my advice and get out of Babylon,” he adds. “His Majesty’ll seize all Daniel’s property, you know, and his servants… and as for you yourself… Do I need to spell it out?” His tone’s kindly. I think he may have visited our house.
With slumped shoulders, I return to the fountain. Darkness has fallen outside, total blackness except for the torches leading down the palace steps. For the whole night, I sit and pray. Oh yes, I pray. “God of Abraham, God of Isaac, hear this daughter of Zion. Free your servant Daniel now. Please, please, Lord. Free Daniel… Daniel… Daniel. Free Daniel, please.”
Hassan sleeps on the stone floor. Guards stand by every doorway, leaning on their weapons and shuffling their feet. From time to time, they cast a cursory glance at the Hebrew girl gazing into the fountain, intent upon clear water tumbling into a boiling pool.
“Oh God of Abraham, please, I beg you, free Daniel now. Oh Lord, close the lions’ mouths. Oh Lord, oh Lord, free Daniel, please.” There I am, breaking the laws of the Medes and the Persians all night long, in Darius’s own palace. If only Dad could’ve done it this way.
I must have slept awhile, my body balanced upon the narrow ledge around the fountain. I awake to see forks of lightning bringing the palace courtyard into harsh white daylight for an instant, then dropping it back into black night. Moments later, mighty thunder rips through Babylon, rumbling, gurgling, slashing the sky asunder, then grey lines of rain beat upon the palace roof like pebbles.
“Praise the Lord,” I dare to mouth. “Praise God in his sanctuary.”
A servant, his soggy clothes clinging to every contour of his skinny body, rushes over to Hassan. “Come on, Miss,” says my father’s manservant, jerking his head towards the main entrance. “Darius’s gone to the lions’ den.”
The din upon the roof has ceased, the storm finished as suddenly as it started.
Dawn breaks as we go back through the city, me in sandals struggling to keep up with Hassan’s long, barefoot strides. On our arrival, the first thing we see is Darius’s litter, then the king himself, still in the purple robe he wore yesterday evening, its sleeves torn as if in mourning. He paces around the boulder blocking the entrance of the den, barking laconic commands at the soldiers attempting to move it, hardly drawing breath before he starts again. “Come on. Come on. What’s the matter with you?” He places his chubby hands on the sandy rock, as if he himself is about to push, but he doesn’t. Instead he runs round to the other side, calling, “Come on. Come on.”
“Come on. Come on,” I say after him.
At last the rock shifts, crunching gravel underneath it and revealing the mouth of the cave. I strain to look inside, but see nothing, because – to my shame – I dare not venture any closer, even though I know my dear father lies within.
My eyes upon Darius, I wait. He waits. We all stand there, sneaking glances left and right, our sweat hanging like dew in the arid desert air. Once more, I pray in my head. “Oh Lord God, bring back Daniel. Daniel, Daniel, Daniel.”
On my last syllable, I spot his hand. With my dead mother’s ring upon his finger, it claws at the coarse dry grass around the black den entrance. Another hand, then his blue, gold-braided mantle, as clean and fresh as when he put it on yesterday morning. “Dad,” I cry. “Dad.”
“Judith, watch where you put your feet,” he snaps, as I rush over to hug him. “There’s lion crap everywhere.”
I have to back off as Darius also falls upon him, promising him honours and riches, and the services of His Majesty’s own physician.
“I’m fine,” says Dad, stretching out his arms. “You know what, Judith? I saw an angel down there. A real one. Wearing a white frock and with proper wings.”
“But Dad, the lions-.”
“Pussycats, my little flower. Just pussycats.”
Charlie Britten has contributed to FictionAtWork, Every Day Fiction, Mslexia, Linnet’s Wings, CafeLit, and Radgepacket. She has also written a couple of book reviews for Copperfield Review. She writes because she loves doing it.