“Come on lad, get a move on, rain’s starting.”
“Ouch! It bit me!”
“I dunno what it is dad.”
“Just stick it in a crate and get in.”
Ham carried the small, shelled animal at arm’s length. Its tiny, pointed mouth waving to and fro snapping the air.
A final check all were on board and everything that needed tethering was, and the doorway was hauled shut. Blackness. Murmurings, rustlings and bleating’s filtered through the darkness. When the eyes adjusted, a tiny patch of light could be discerned some thirty odd cubits above.
“Let’s get a couple of lamps lit.”
“Yes dad.” Came the three voiced response. Ham, Shem and Japheth busied themselves with lighting the tiny, clay lamps. Three flames, no longer than a little finger, glowed in the immediate darkness. Noah looked at his sons yellow lit faces. They were nervous, he didn’t blame them. Japheth scratched at his neck.
“How long will it take dad?”
“Forty days and forty night’s lad.”
A collective groan went up. Noah chivvied his sons away and went to survey the collection, his fragile flame illuminating only the nearest sections of the interior. His hand found a warm muzzle, something snorted. Noah jumped.
Noah’s head sagged a little as a tiny grumble escaped his lips. Then as another flame closed in he bucked up.
“Ah Naamah, light of my life, honey on my tongue, sunsh – “
“Yes, yes.” Snapped Mrs Noah. “Where are we supposed to sleep? I’m not sharing with Shem’s wife, you know how she snores. And where am I supposed to hang the laundry, never mind how it’s going to dry. And washing and, the other. How does that work? Did you think of that? Eh? I bet you didn’t did you? Did God give you any instructions on how to go about that? It’s all very well building an ark for the animals, but what about us, the people? I hope you don’t expect me to feed the tigers and I’m certainly not clearing out their –“
Noah slunk off, scratching his stomach, leaving his wife shouting criticisms and grievances at his back. He bumped into something in the darkness.
“Oo, sorry Mr Noah.” A female, one of his son’s wives, he couldn’t tell which one it was and didn’t recognise her voice instantly in the strange environment.
“It’s alright love. Listen, could you just go and have a little chat with the missus. Got herself in a bit of a tizzy.” He gestured about him with his hand. “All this, it’s a bit, you know –“
“Different?” she offered quietly, helpfully. Ah, it was Adataneses, Japheth’s wife. She was a good girl, she’d keep his wife quiet. For a while.
The rain pounded like rain had no right to. Noah, his wife, their sons and their son’s wives huddled amongst straw covered in blankets. A female voice cried out as something creaked ominously.
“It’s alright lass.” Quavered Noah. “God’s watching over us.” He pressed his wife’s hand tightly as he continued to mouth his silent prayers.
After what felt like an endless wait, the boat creaked and tipped as it was lifted from its temporary crib. A chorus of exclamations, bellows and shrieks filled the vessel.
“Bloody hell!” exclaimed Seth. His mother slapped him smartly across the head,
“Mind your language.”
The animals were making a cacophony. The smell of fart and faeces rolled through the decks until reaching the family, who covered their noses with loose clothing, headscarves or straw. Noah struggled to his feet, “Best check on them.” He sighed, itching his armpit.
While the women tended to the living quarters and the birds, Noah and his sons made rounds of the stalls that contained the larger animals.
“Dad.” Said Japheth, scratching at his nether regions. “What do we feed the Oryx?”
“What about the antelope?”
“And the snakes?”
“For goodness sakes Japheth! Use your head. What did they eat in the wild?” They worked in silence for some moments then.
Noah sighed heavily, closing his eyes. “Yes son.”
“Why have we got so many sheep?”
“Weren’t you listening at the meeting? God said two of each sort that were unclean, male and female, and seven of each sort of clean.”
Japheth seemed to give this some thought, shrugged, scratched his head and bent to the task of putting straw and grass into the nets hung against the walls. It took the whole of the first day to feed the animals. By nightfall the family were exhausted and fell into each other’s arms, almost oblivious to the rain thrumming on the roof.
The following morning, Noah stuck his head out of the window on the top deck, he needed some air, and he needed his ears to have a rest, even if he did get wet. Pulling the shutter down, he returned to the task of the day; which meant not only feeding the animals, but shovelling up huge quantities of waste. They scooped it into buckets and carried it all the way to the top deck in relays, then tipped it from the window. Sometimes the wind caught it and dragged it off into the floodwaters, sometimes bits blew back into their faces.
“Ptah!” Spat Ham. “There must be an easier way to do this dad.” He moaned.
“Shut up son and keep shovelling. I think one of the camels has the shits.”
Ham gagged. His mother came up with two fat mugs of tepid tea. Lifting the end of her apron, she licked it and applied it to her son’s face. “You’re covered in muck son.”
“Mu-um.” He gently pushed her hand aside.
By the end of the first week, the family had settled into a tolerable routine. The smell became a background accompaniment to their daily lives of feeding, cleaning, prayers and sleep. The constant drumming of the rain lulled them to sleep at night. The rocking of the boat was the cradling of God’s arms. The flash of lightning was occasion to see their surroundings lit bright.
At the end of the second week the wives began to bicker.
“It’s mine Sede!”
“No, it isn’t, yours is the pale blue one, this is grey.”
“How can you tell!” screeched Nelatamuk. “They’re all the same colour in this light.”
“I cleaned the hens yesterday.”
“No you didn’t, you collected the eggs.”
“I cleaned them too!”
“If that’s what you call clean, then I’ll eat my scarf.”
“Who let the genet out? It’s trying to eat the guinea pigs?”
“Well somebody did and it certainly wasn’t me.”
“Put it back then.”
“You put it back!”
“I’ll bite you if you carry on whining.”
“Me?! Whining?! You’re the queen of whining.”
Noah sat on a bale of hay, head in hands, thumbs pressed over his ears. He didn’t know how much more he could take. He looked up beseechingly. “God, give me strength.”
“Is it nearly over dad?”
“How much longer dad?”
“Seven days Shem.”
“And then can we go home dad?”
His sons looked sharply at him. Noah regarded their tangled hair, muck streaked faces, arms and legs. They were good boys, he told himself. Not too bright, but well meaning. And their wives, well they could screech as well as the caged birds, but they too had good hearts. Noah itched his head and took a breath.
“Listen lads. When the rain stops, then we’re going to be in the middle of a huge flood. Water everywhere. Understand? There won’t be any land, there won’t be any homes, there won’t be any people, and there won’t be any animals. There won’t be anything except water as far as the eye can see.”
“So, we’re not going home?” said Japheth.
Noah groaned, raised his eyes heaven wards and took a breath. “No son. We have no home. There’s nothing left. There’s just us.”
Someone sniffed a wet sniff. Noah stood and wrapped his arm around Shem’s shoulder. “Come on son, it’s not that bad. New beginnings and all that.” He gave Shem’s shoulder an encouraging squeeze. “Just think. God chose us. Us. Out of all the people in the world, we get to live and start a fresh new life. There’ll be a new land with loads of space. You can have your own land to farm with Sede, raise children and live a ripe old age.”
Shem sniffed, “Like you dad? How old are you now?”
“I’m five hundred and ninety nine son. And you’ll live longer.” Said Noah proudly.
“What about me dad, can I have a farm of my own?” wheedled Japheth.
“Farms for all!” Noah shouted, spreading his arms wide. He did a mad little jig. His sons laughed.
“What’s going on here?” called Mrs Noah, ducking adroitly beneath a wooden beam draped with damp laundry.
“Oh look out.” Noah said as an aside to his sons.
“Have you cleaned the cattle deck today?” She said.
“Yes my love.”
“Did you brush the camels?”
“Yes, oh blossom of the dessert.”
“How about those mad dogs?”
“All sorted, oh light of the moon.”
“And stop scratching!” she reprimanded.
“You were, while you were expounding. You were scratching your –“. She pointed.
“Well, my love, if you washed the clothes properly, then we wouldn’t get so itchy.”
There was a sudden, chilly silence. Ham, Shem and Japheth lowered their heads and sidled away between straw bales and beams, into the shadows beyond.
“I beg your pardon?” Naamah said deadly and low. Noah raised both hands, about to apologise but she beat him to it, she often did.
“If I washed the clothes properly?” her voice higher. “If I washed the clothes properly?” higher still.
“Now now, my queen of the night.”
“Don’t you ‘queen of the night’ me! I’ll have you know that me and the girls work hard keeping everyone’s clothes clean. How do you think we warm the water? Eh? Eh? God doesn’t do that Noah! Oh no, it’s, gather unto me all the animals and, I am not finished speaking, all the filth and the stink and the spillages. We work our fingers to the bone scrubbing your pants and this is all the thanks we get.”
“My love. I did not mean to upset you. I know you work hard, you and the daughters, and we do appreciate it, I appreciate it. It’s just –“ He paused.
“Go on, what were you about to say?” Noah pursed his lips and watched her.
“You just scratched.” He said.
“No I didn’t.”
“Yes. You did, Look, you’re doing it again.” He pointed. She was indeed having a good old belly scratch.
Mrs Noah stared in horror at her husband. “Two by two did He say?”
Noah stared at her.
“Oh, bloody hell.”