THERE WERE FOUR CHILDREN of the god that year. I remember hearing that, many times over, through all my growing years, though it was a long time before I understood what it meant. That year was a unique year, a unique time to be alive. There were more of us then than any other year, before or since. Perhaps such a year will never come again, not now the hill country is changing and the new houses are leaping up in little clearings everywhere. Indeed the whole land is changing. Had I wanted, they would have built for me one of these houses in whatever village I chose, as a reward for all my efforts. Some would once have said that this would have been the reward for betrayal rather than the wages of labour.
But even these newcomers could see that my place was in the great house beside the high place of Kephrath, among the families of my birth. The place where I lived and laboured, loved and learned loss. So, whether through gratitude or pity, here I live still. I am at home among my people to be sure, but I am also a stranger in the eyes of these strangers. They even tie their kefs differently to us, bundled oddly around their head. I have not troubled to learn their style. I am strange here to them, though I have lived here my whole life, and the land is becoming strange to me, though I know every hill and valley in it. They still need us to uphold the new alliances, but the need sits uncomfortably with some of them.
I feel, however, some kinship with them. They have had something of an uncertain, shifting childhood, and have chosen to be here, to live here in this place that is beautiful but not overflowing with wealth. They have been brought up singing one song, and then have tried to learn another. They have found themselves willing to unite with people who they had not planned to meet, and who they came upon by chance. Though their customs are odd, their yearning is not. They feel, like me and like my own people, the hunger that comes with displacement, and the thirst that impels one to find a home.
This story tells of we three who lived past infancy, and the things that we did and said in those days. Although there were four of us born, Mahur was a sickly boy who died before the year of his birth had turned. Then there were three, for a little while. Then there were only two. We were the linen sashes that tied up all the leather-bundled tales of our village life. I remember those bundles that were carried on the backs of the Mitsriy scribes. They still travel the roads down near the coast, still with their escort of bowmen, but they have not come up this way now for many years. The traders who brought little caravans of donkeys up and down the great ridgeway road, or across the rough hillside tracks still come to us, but less often now, and at erratic intervals instead of every season.
I have been seer to my people, and sung the songs of the great cycle around the stones of the high place. Now I tell tales. I have watched over the threshold that divides the living and the dead, and although I am still doorkeeper in my own house, it is becoming a different house, a different life.
There were four children of the god that year. We were reckoned as once-orphaned, living each in the house of our mothers, brought up as foster child by their husbands, with half-brothers and half-sisters according to the overflow of life in that family. We did not understand what it was to be a child of the god for many years—the words that had meant so much to empty wombs passed us by in the silent air. The words meant nothing, but some of us grew familiar with estrangement as we grew up, looks of darkness and rejection from unwilling surrogate fathers, a sense of displacement amongst our peers, mixed pride and disdain. Others found happy acceptance. We still clung to each other. This is our story.
In a Milk and Honeyed Land is a novel about everyday life about 3,000 years ago in the hill country of Canaan – now called Israel and Palestine – close to the end of the time of Egyptian rule of that province. It explores how the vast changes in lifestyle, politics, religion and music that occurred in that area between what archaeologists call the Bronze Age and Iron Age might have been mirrored by individual people’s words and actions. The large-scale actions and military campaigns of the Egyptian pharaoh and other great kings are nowhere in sight; this is a story of the resources and people available within four small allied communities.
It is set close to the end of a long period of comparative stability in the hill country of Canaan. The Egyptians – the Mitsriy of the story – have governed the region with a fairly light hand, on the whole. Population has declined, and towns and villages have dwindled in size as the occupants have moved out into the more prosperous lowlands. Within a hundred years or so, the political landscape will be quite different again, with the Mitsriy gone and small kingdoms arising to compete over the territory. For the time being, communities continue in their traditional ways, with local priests and chieftains chosen from among the people by merit rather than dynastic ambition. The book follows the life of a village priest in one of the towns as he struggles with timeless issues of life and love, loyalty and betrayal, greed and generous giving.
The First Part of the Story
Damariel is apprenticed as a young man by the village priest, whose reckless actions lead to his disgrace. Damariel manages to avoid becoming implicated in the matter and carries on his training, marrying his childhood friend Qetirah shortly before they begin their shared ministry in the town. Feeling ashamed of their continuing inability to have children, Qetirah becomes pregnant by the chief of the four towns, but the pregnancy is difficult. Damariel’s anger and outrage spills over into the marriage. He holds the chief responsible for the situation but cannot see how to get either justice or revenge…
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Genre – Historical Fiction
Rating – PG13
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