October 15, 2010



by Bryan Henery

Hundreds of campfires are strewn along the Jordan River like sparks scattered from the greater blaze burning in the west. It still smolders, a gaping pit of hot coals, all that is left of the walled city of Jericho. The flickering lights illuminate the horizon with an eerie, pulsing glow. It has been burning all day and into the night. Every building, every tree, every shrub, every stitch of cloth, and every corpse feeds it. Upon putting it to the torch, Joshua claimed that this festering sore in the flesh of the Promised Land has been cauterized. Now all that remains is a great, blazing tribute to the glory of Yahweh.

Stone faced warriors sit around the campfires, silent and brooding. The grime and gore of this morning’s work is mixed with the waters of the Jordan now, but many of them still do not feel clean. Joshua says it will pass. He says the memories will fade, the screams, the smell of burning flesh, and the sticky feel of blood clotting in the crevasses of their hands; he says Yahweh will cleanse their minds of these shadows. Yehuda is not so sure.

He sits by the fire with his back to distant Jericho, but it is no use. It haunts him and it is all he can do to keep his guilt hidden behind his dark eyes.

Cronos, a burly Canaanite with the thick black beard characteristic of his people, sits across from him staring into the fire. He has even more reason for guilt than Yehuda. The corpses smoldering in the blackened dust of Jericho’s streets were his people. It was his home. Cronos has never explained why he turned on them and came to Joshua. None of the Canaanites, the Amorites, or any of the foreign converts in the army has said why. Joshua doesn’t care. As long as they swear devotion to Yahweh and obedience to His will, they are accepted and proclaimed to be among the Chosen. Many of the Hebrews do not agree, but none will challenge their chieftain’s will; at least, not openly.

Cronos looks up from the fire and asks “How long are we to remain here?”

“Until our minds are clear,” Yehuda replies.

Cronos’ chuckle is humorless. “So we are to remain here forever.”

“Three days,” Yehuda sighs, “three days to cleanse our spirits. Joshua would not have us bring our demons home to infect our wives and children.”

A third warrior, Gideon, drags a broad bladed knife across a flat stone, recovering its edge. His focus was entirely on the task, but, at Yehuda’s words, he looks up and smiles.

“I am clean,” he says, “untroubled…at peace.”

Gideon is a huge man with crisscrossing scars forming a mosaic over his powerful frame. A fresh one traces a jagged path from his cheekbone to his ear. Other warriors generally avoid him; for rumor has it his mind is broken. He has been seen mumbling into his chest as if he were arguing with himself. If not for his legendary fits of rage he would be mocked openly, but none would dare. He fights like a horde of angry demons and the intensity of his stare can strike fear into the bravest of souls. Cronos, however, is not intimidated.

“You are untroubled because you are sick in the head,” he says. “You don’t know what it means to be clean in mind or spirit.”

Gideon gestures with his knife towards Cronos, but speaks to Yehuda. “Joshua commanded us to take nothing from that cursed place. Why didn’t we leave this Canaanite dog to burn with the rest of them?” Gideon turns with a sneer. “That’s right, Canaanite…I see you. I see the taint in that dusky hide of yours; the evil laughing in your eyes. You are not one of us.”

“Be still, Gideon,” Yehuda says. “Cronos stood with us in Yahweh’s name. He…”

“He is a jackal,” Gideon cuts in, “picking at the bones of his own people. Tell me Cronos, did you have any friends among the dead? Any family? Did you drive a spear into the back of a son?”

“Only enemies,” Cronos replies. “Only the lost and the damned…like you?”

Gideon laughs. “I am Chosen, Canaanite. Yahweh has proclaimed that I am to live long enough to grind your kind into the dust.”

“Why not start with me, ben znunim? I am right here.”

Gideon’s grip on his knife tightens as he rises. “Yes, why not?”

“Enough!” Joshua’s voice, level but commanding, turns all three of their heads. His eyes are tired and his face is blank. His voice has the tone of a teacher and father, but there is still the hint of a threat. “We are not savages, we are Yahweh’s people. We are not Canaanites, Philistines, or Hebrews. We are His Chosen. It is His law, His word that binds us, not our homelands.” Joshua’s gaze focuses on Gideon. “No one is above His word.”

“Forgive me, chieftain.” All the menace is gone from Gideon’s voice. He visibly trembles when Joshua’s hand comes to rest on his shoulder. “Forgive me I…forget myself.”

“Being Chosen is not a privilege, my brother, it is a duty. The duty to bring the laws of Yahweh into this world. We are his vision, his voice, and sometimes…” His gaze drifts towards the west and the dimming glow that was Jericho. “Sometimes we are his sword.”

* * *

The great ark rode the backs of bent and sweating priests at the head of the army. Their laws, delivered by Yahweh and carved onto stone tablets by the patriarch, Moses, were housed within. This vessel of their covenant with God, this symbol of their strength and His power, led the army on its seventh circuit around the city of Jericho. Six more priests surrounded the ark, blowing long curved horns that sounded low, ominous, notes. The braying of the horns and the shuffle of sandaled feet through the dust was the only sound the army made. Joshua forbade them to speak for the last seven days.

Cronos marched in the shadow of the ark, near the front of the column, but his eyes were focused on Jericho’s broken walls. It was once his home, but no longer. Now he lived on the soles of his feet, content wherever they took him. His home was the kingdom of Yahweh and it existed in every grain of sand, every drop of water, and every breath of man and beast. He was chosen and it was a wonderful thing. Yahweh’s laws gave him his life back after Jericho’s blood-thirsty goddess had taken everything he ever loved.

The ground rumbled for several seconds, making the sand tremble and dance beneath their feet. Warriors cast nervous glances all about, but Cronos smiled. The earth was always restless around Jericho. It is why her walls lay broken and incomplete with large gaps filled with crumbled stone. He remembered when he was a boy, sitting on his father’s lap at dawn, watching the last of the stars fade away. The rumbling began in the distance. He heard it at least five seconds before it struck. A calm peaceful morning was transformed into a chaos of cracking stone as the ground came alive and rolled underneath them. He remembered the screams of the people and the groans of the city being shaken to its foundations. After he was thrown from his father’s lap, he clutched at the earth seeking security in the very thing that rebelled against them. And then, as quickly as it had begun, it was over. As the dust cleared, he looked up at the section of wall in front of his family’s house, a section that had been erected no more than a season past. All that was left was rubble, another tumbled monument to the frailty of the goddess and her slaves. Amidst the jagged broken rocks he spied a red stain. An arm, no bigger than Cronos’ own, was hanging limply from the pile of stones. It was broken and twisted like a dead branch. Sometimes, the image returned to him in his sleep and he was forced awake drenched and wild eyed with terror.

Now, he welcomed the quaking of the earth. It made him smile because he knew it is a sign that Yahweh had damned this place. They build their walls in the name of their goddess and He tears them down, but they do not see. This day, the Chosen would show them. There was only one God, one power, and it was Yahweh.

Chronos gazed at the walls and wondered if his father was still alive behind them. He wondered if the old man was huddled behind broken masonry, clutching a spear in his wrinkled hands, trembling and taunted by each note of their horns. He wondered if his father was one of the mice hiding in Jericho, still and petrified, while this great cat stalked around them, playing with its prey. He hoped not. He hoped his father’s ashes were scattered in the gardens to feed the goddess. It was his only regret; that his father might live to see his son betray his own people.

He wondered if his wife was in there. Was she watching them? Waiting for the end? “Where is your goddess now?” he thought. “She is as dead as Jericho. No soul, no love, no reason, and no mercy. We are the Chosen and we live by laws, not the whims of some cruel mistress.”

Thou shalt have no gods before me.

Thou shalt not steal.

Thou shalt not murder.

Thou shalt not offer our daughter to the slab to be gutted like a pig.

He pictured her cold impassive face. She wouldn’t cross them when they called, cloaked priests demanding his beautiful child as tribute. Cronos’ wife bowed her head, silent in her complicity. He resisted so they made him watch. They bled her slow, dark red rivulets running down the grooves in the altar, dripping onto the floor of their foul temple. Her screams, the screams of a child, were poisoning the air; her pain, the agony of an innocent, feeding their bitch goddess.

Thou shalt not kneel before leering priests and thank them for putting your child to the knife.

They would have killed him too, claiming his blood was needed to calm the earth, but he escaped. Now, he was back. “Are your there my dear?” Cronos thought, wringing the shaft of his spear. “Are you huddled with your divine priests?”

The army completed its seventh circuit and Joshua gave the signal for the procession to come to a halt. He moved before them and raised his spear, scorn in his eyes, his lips trembling. Cronos was savoring breaking his silence, itching to give voice to all he had within him; all the pain, the anger, the hatred he felt for his home.

“Today my line ends and I am happy for it. Have you made your peace with your goddess? I’m going to send you to her…on a plate.”

Joshua dropped his spear and a great shout rose from the Chosen. Forty thousand voices exploded into the dry desert air, echoing through the valley, and striking fear into the hearts of the Canaanites. Cronos’ eyes were mad as his voice joined in. He was filled with a rush of passion, the lust to spill blood, the power of collective hate. In his mind, his wife and the goddess had become on bloody, cringing, cackling, murderous hag.

“Can you hear me, my dear? I’m coming.”

* * *


* * *

The voices, those mad gibbering voices in Gideon’s head, were mercifully silenced by the shout of the Chosen. Tears of joy and gratitude streamed down his face as he joined the call for blood. For the first time he could remember, he was alone in his mind. “Silence—oh blessed silence. Is this the voice of God?”

It must be God, for the demonic laughter faded and the whispers urging him to commit foul, perverse acts were gone. He was free of the tingling under his skin, the raking of their claws and fangs as they gnashed, ripped, and struggled to tear through his flesh and be free. In the past, he tried to let them out. He cut himself, savoring the pain, but every mad cackle or hissing suggestion that bled from his wounds, from his soul, was replaced by two more voices that mocked him and goaded him to excess. He had squeezed the life from harlots in the hope of satisfying their hunger. He found hermits in the hills and dashed their brains upon the rocks. He stole, raped, and maimed; he has done everything to satisfy their lusts, but their appetites only grew upon being fed. But on the field, amongst the Chosen, under the light of Yahweh’s power, they were silent. This empty, quiet peace must be the voice of God.

Still shouting, Gideon and his brothers surged forward, moving as one across the plain. A sharp knife in his left hand, a heavy club in his right, his eyes were fixed on Jericho. The sky was turning red behind the city and its walls pulsed and writhed like a dying heart. He saw, he understood, he knew. Yahweh was revealing Jericho in all its decadence to him.

Before his eyes, the walls were losing their sharpness. The whole city was wavering, becoming insubstantial, unreal. Yahweh was showing him the truth, that nothing man made was real. It was like his nightmares when dark, monstrous things closed in, laughter, scorn and pain; when, in the dark of night, he was beset by monsters. He felt this same kind of menace, but now Joshua’s strength flowed through him and he was not afraid. Gideon was now the monster and he hungered.

They were close now and he could see figures moving in the gaps of the towering stone walls. The demonic voices were rising again, but no longer from within his head. They were coming from Jericho. A smile spread across Gideon’s scarred face, for those voices that usually taunted him were screaming in terror. Judgment was coming and with it, his inner world was calm, determined, and silent.

He was free.

Demons from within the walls loosed their barbs, flights of arrows arcing through the air. Gideon heard them hissing towards the Chosen, serpents intent on stinging the righteous. They struck all around him, piercing the throats, eyes, and torsos of his brothers. Chosen were falling in sprays of their own blood. They were hurdled by the living who rushed on, closing with Jericho’s walls.

An arrow grazed Gideon’s cheek, ripping away skin and flesh, but he didn’t notice. All that mattered was the wall that protected these subhuman devils who would deny the Chosen their destiny. The voices were loud now, assaulting Gideon’s senses. The laughter, the gnashing of teeth, the bestial growls, and the screams were pounding at him from the city, from throats that could be crushed and ripped, from plague bearing vermin that could be silenced.

Gideon hurdled the first piles of rubble and leapt into their midst. His club crushed the skull of the first defender before he could drop his bow in favor of a spear. Gideon spun and drove his knife deep into the chest of another. The warm rush of blood gushing over his hand thrilled him. The knife was lodged in the sternum so he let it go as the man fell and grasped his club with both hands.

At his back, he felt his brothers pushing him forward while ahead there was a sea of demons. Their lips did not move, but he could hear their taunts, their lewd blasphemies against the Chosen. He saw their eyes narrowing, their faces contorting into demonic visages that their human masks hid. Gideon was laughing as his club dealt death indiscriminately, crushing bone and ending lives. Organized resistance faltered before the fury of the Chosen. The lines broke as the Canaanites fled and the real killing began.

Gideon picked up a blood-smeared bronze sickle-sword for his off hand and joined the hunt, for Joshua proclaimed that no living thing would be spared. Gideon no longer heard their laughter: only their pain, their screams, and their deaths. It was euphoric.

He screamed with all his might, raising his stained weapons to the heavens, “We are Chosen!”

He saw a serpent’s tail disappear behind a mud hut and bolted after it. Demons! They were small and clustered in the shadows, hiding from judgment. He saw them changing, imps and salamanders, hissing in fear. Knee high, they dodged and squirmed, but could not escape his rage. Gideon ripped into them, his weapons tracing arcs of gore as he struck again and again, silencing their cries. He saw only red and heard only one voice in his head.

“We are Chosen.”

* * *

For Yehuda, it was all too much.

He dry-heaved but his stomach was empty. He turned away from the screams of the children as Gideon butchered them, but it made no difference. Everywhere he looked, it was the same. He imagined his own daughters under the blade of that mad man and the thought staggered him, sending him reeling with a fresh wave of nausea. He knew this was coming; he knew they were to kill every man, every woman, every child, every beast, but he did not expect it to be like this.

He expected a battle, a glorious pitched battle, where their glory would be proved through acts of valor against a wicked foe. The battle was over almost before it began. Now, there was only atrocity at every turn. The Chosen were racing through the streets with torch, blade, and mania in their eyes. Canaanites scattered, but there was nowhere to flee. The city had become a trap.

An old man was being kicked to death in front of his hut. He begged, but his attackers only laughed and redoubled their attacks. A girl was being dragged screaming behind a wall by two warriors. One was cutting away her clothes while a third grabbed her by the jaw and stuck a knife in her mouth to cut out her tongue. Another warrior had a child by the leg. He bludgeoned the body against a stone wall relentlessly. Those that ran were chased down and torn apart. There was no mercy among the Chosen. They were in the frenzy, state described by Joshua as a gift from Yahweh that allows them to defeat their foes. Yehuda did not feel it, could not. Children were dying.

Everywhere it was the same. Screams and laughter, smoke and blood, cruel grunts and the sick sound of blades cleaving flesh. As the sun climbed, Yehuda tried to find a corner where he could hide from the carnage, but it was like trying to avoid sand in the desert. So many little nightmares played themselves out. Every scenario belonging to the landscape of Hell was painted into the mosaic that was Jericho’s death. Yehuda’s hands were sticky with blood and he wondered if it was, as Joshua claimed, the blood of the damned. Is it so different from his own? It is thick and flows freely before clotting in the dust. As it drains, eyes go dim and struggles cease. It is red and the sight of it drives men into this lust that shatters reason. It is the paint that decorates the underworld and everywhere he looked, the Chosen were swimming in it. It was their wine and they were drunk and reveling.

Yehuda ducked through a shimmering curtain painted with odd signs. He just wanted to be away, alone, anywhere but on the streets. The chamber was long and the walls were lined with murals of the finest cloth. Each one depicted a woman, voluptuous and haughty, with dark probing eyes. The detail was amazing and Yehuda was so caught up in her beauty that he forgot what was going on outside. He stared into those eyes, the eyes of their goddess. She was in a dozen poses: some regal, some sensual, some suggestive and lewd. He looked around the chamber, but froze when his eyes reach the altar at the far end and the man splayed out upon it.

The priest’s mouth was locked in a silent scream. His eyes were dark holes that leaked foul fluids. His hands stretched down each side of the altar to the floor where they had been nailed into the ground with heavy stakes. It seemed his arms were not quite long enough, for both shoulders were badly dislocated, stretched to accommodate his lack of reach. Broad bladed knives pierce the body in at least a dozen places. He had been gutted and his insides draped around the altar in a decorative fashion. Someone took their time with the man.

Yehuda approached slowly. The scene was gruesome, but not as appalling as what was happening on the streets. He knew what had been done in these chambers. He wondered if the priest had time to appreciate the irony in dying on the same slab on which he took so many lives. These priests and their foul goddess were why Yehuda was here. But why the rest? The priest was wearing a necklace of human teeth and his bald head was tattooed with intricate runes. His death was as his life; an abomination. But why the children?

Yehuda was about to leave when he spied the glint of silver behind the altar. They were piled neatly amongst bolts of fine cloth: shining, clean silver coins. Joshua’s voice came back to him: “All the silver, and the gold, and vessels of brass and iron are consecrated unto the Lord: they shall come into the treasury of the Lord.”

Yehuda’s palms itched. He could trade. He could leave the fighting, the death, the pain, the wandering. “Is it stealing to take my share?” he thought. “What need does God have with a treasury?” He could put up the sword.

“Keep yourselves from the accursed thing, lest ye make yourselves accursed.” Yehuda reached trembling, driving Joshua’s voice into the back of his thoughts. “When ye take of the accursed thing, and make the camp of Israel a curse, and trouble it.”

No…he had earned it.

* * *


* * *

Joshua lets the words hang in the air before he repeats, “Sometimes we are his sword.”

He leaves the three warriors to their thoughts and their dying fire. Gideon stares after him with all the longing of a lover. When Joshua has disappeared amongst other fires and other warriors, Gideon turns back to Cronos and nods. “I am sorry, brother. It is as our Lord says. We are all Chosen.”

He gets up and leaves Yehuda and Cronos alone. Yehuda stirs the fire and looks up tentatively. “Did you find what you came her for, Cronos?

“No. I couldn’t find her.” He pauses, his face dark. “I found a priest. I made him pay. But I am…unsatisfied. Revenge is empty I think.”

“It’s just as well. Revenge has two edges, my friend.”

“Yes. I have had my fill of death, of dark thoughts. I’ve had my fill of the past.”

Yehuda frowns. “For today, maybe. But we are not done. There will be other Jerichos, other purges before this Promised Land is ours. I can see it in Joshua’s eyes. We are not done.”

“Do not be so glum, my friend. In two day you will see your wife and your daughters. You can forget much of this.”

“Maybe,” Yehuda sighs. “What will you do now, Cronos? Now that your revenge is a thing of the past.”

He smiles. “I am too old to start again, but at least I can carry on. Jericho, with all her demons, is behind me my brother.” He gathers his things and heads off to find some place to sleep. “No longer will it haunt my dreams.”

Yehuda is silent. He closes his eyes and prays for the same.

* * *

Once cleansed, the army returns to their families, their lives, and their peace. It is over, it seems, until a week later, the shouts ring through the camp. “Thief! Betrayer! Cursed!” Cronos pushes his way to the front of the circle that is forming. Before he can get within view of the spectacle, he hears Joshua’s booming voice over the crowd.

“You would dare to steal from Yahweh himself? You would break our covenant and bring down his wrath? Look upon this wretch, brothers, this fiend deserves no pity.”

Cronos finds his way to the front and sees Yehuda sprawled in the dust, blood from his broken nose flowing down his garment. His hands are bound and before him lays a small pile of silver shekels and two bolts of fine Canaanite fabric. Joshua grabs him by the back of his neck and shoves his face into the silver.

“These were found under your tent, do you deny taking these things from cursed Jericho? Do you value this more than our covenant?”

“No, my lord,” he whimpers. “I was weak, please forgive me.”

The other side of the circle breaks and a woman, wide eyed and terrified, is pushed to the ground followed by two dark eyed little girls. Yehuda sees them and groans trying to struggle to his feet.

“No, my lord, please! Punish me…Punish me!”

Joshua ignores his cries and stares coldly at Yehuda’s wife and children. “He has broken the covenant and angered Yahweh. All flesh of Yehuda must be purged.”

Cronos stomach churns and he wants to retch as the Chosen around him mutter curses and begin to pick up stones.

“It is not a privilege to be Chosen, it is a duty. Yahweh demands of those he draws to his bosom and he will cast us all out if we allow one to thwart his will.”

Cronos mind is screaming, “No, we aren’t like them, we are Chosen!”

For a moment, one of the little girls locks eyes with him. The world slows and he feels everything through that look. She doesn’t understand. She doesn’t want to be here. She is scared. And then the first rock smashes into her head with a sick crunch.

Joshua’s voice rises above the throng of angry hisses, “Let Yahweh’s judgment rule us, let his will be done.”

“Not again.”

The stoning goes on for hours, even after the family is long dead. The Chosen continue to pelt the bodies until they are unrecognizable. Joshua orders that more stones be piled atop them until a monument has been formed. A pile of bloody stones commemorating the glory of Yahweh’s will.

No one sees Cronos slip away from the crowd. The next morning a sentry finds a sword discarded at the edge of camp and a set of footprints disappearing into the sandy wastes, alone.

* * *


* * *

Bryan Henery is graduate student in California State University's inaugural MFA program in creative writing, focusing on poetry.

What do you think is the most important part of a historical fiction story?

I think the most important thing to keep in mind when writing a historical fiction story is to not let the historical details overwhelm the story itself. The setting and context are important, but it is still well rounded characters and strong plotting that will draw the reader in.