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27 October 2017

Our short story winner: Yirmeyahu

Our short story winner: Yirmeyahu

We had more than 100 entries in our short story competition launched back in April and were thrilled with the range of stories you sent us. Chris Greenhalgh from Glasgow won the over 18's category. Read on to enjoy his story about Jeremiah.

Picture the city of Jerusalem, broiling under a vicious sun. It's so dry it seems it may catch fire at any moment. A hot wind from the desert scours the wall, imperceptibly eroding its baking stones, crumbling them to dust. On the dusty wall, a watchman watches. He surveys the thousands of men camped in formation, poking fires and peering impatiently back. His eye picks out a commotion to the north; a boiling pot has tipped over; the men leap back, crying out, a camel takes fright and bolts, casting up plumes of dust in her wake. The watchman fingers his almond rod. It is a sign, he thinks, portentously. You are a swift she-camel, running here and there. In the end, it was caught with an iron yoke.

A broken wooden yoke lay discarded by Malkijah's cistern. That afternoon, Shephatiah had stumbled over it on his way to the king. In irritable mood, it seemed in a moment that all Israel's misfortunes could be traced to the prisoner who had smashed it. Transfixed and grinding his jaw, Shephatiah had stormed into the king's court with a new solution to the nation's troubles; 'This man must be put to death' he had announced. The king had replied, 'He is in your hands…'

And he really was in those hands. Hands grasped him, beat him, bound him and hauled him from the court. He banged his shins on the steps, gasped at the impact, felt nausea rise, blood flow and the scrape of gravel into his wounds. He scrabbled as they manoeuvred him toward the cistern's mouth, burping its evil smell. There he had hung, ropes chafing his wrists and pressing against his glands, limbs bumping against the walls of the chamber. He spiralled down; they let the ropes go and he fell. And Yirmeyahu sank down into the mud.

The mire stank. It caught at Yirmeyahu's breath. He gagged. At first, he held his hands above the muck, but quickly they grew weary and he submitted to folding them into the sludge. It oozed over his fingers. He spread his hands out and grasped at something. Its smooth surface was suddenly cut off by a rough scar; it felt like a shard of pottery. He recalled the day at the potter's wheel when he had smashed a clay jar as God would smash the clay city, and the long night afterwards locked in stocks and neck irons outside the temple. There, he had surveyed the cooling stones of the Benjamin Gate and wondered at their disregard. 'O Lord, you deceived me, and I was deceived…'.

At that same gate Irijah's hot breath had accused him, 'You deserter! You Babylonian'. Soldiers had dragged him angrily inside the city. The beating had been a shock; blow after blow struck him as if he were a Chaldean upon whom all their hatred and frustration were discharged. They had abandoned him to an underground dungeon. Its dank air and gloomy corners felt like Sheol, the place of the dead. Ashamed, he had petitioned the king, 'Do not send me back there, or I will die…'

How pleasant the court of the guard seemed now. He had observed court officials shuttling to and fro on king's business. He had gazed wistfully then at the distant smoke spiralling like prayers above the city. He had considered the calls and whistles echoing from dawn to dusk; was this the sound of invasion, was this the breaking through, was this the end? He had tasted loaves baked in the royal ovens until the day no bread had appeared. The guardsman had turned his face away afraid rather than explain that even the king had none. He had prayed, 'I would speak with You about your justice'. 

Miniscule flies flitted across his brow. He wanted to itch his lip, and could only do so by smearing slimy fingers across his face. They left an oppressive smell around his beard, and he had to spit to clear his lips of hanging trails of rancid mud. The night brought an absolute, terrifying darkness. They called him the weeping prophet, and he wept now, his head a fountain of tears. Images of Anathoth, his home town, rushed at him in the dark as his neighbours had in those early days when God's word had been like a fire in his bones. They had conspired against him; he saw their faces now, darkening malevolently, sneering spitefully. Oh, the heart is deceitful above all things; who can cure it?

Yet justice would come. Yirmeyahu the seer did not yet see Ebed-melech the Ethiopian running to the pit to drop ropes and rags in rescue. He did not yet see his return to the court of the guard. He did not yet hear the cry as the baked walls were breached, and Babylonian hordes poured through. Yirmeyahu was bound; bound to His people, bound to the hot words of God, bound to a fate he would not have chosen. He would be bound in chains when Nebuzaradan the Babylonian captain found him in Ramah. He would be liberated, returned to his land under the protection of Gedaliah, and bound again. Johanan the Hebrew rebel would take him forcibly to Egypt in a futile escape from the wrath of Babylon and the word of God. If you go to Egypt, there you will die. 

In Tahpanhes, Yirmeyahu would sit on the brick pavement outside Pharaoh's palace, fastening his linen belt. He would look north. North was a field in Anathoth whose deeds lay in a clay jar for his descendants. North was the Benjamin Gate, its charred timbers tumbled and ruined. North was a cistern, once a spring of living water, but now a dark putrefying mire. He would bite into a ripe fig, raise his eyes and say, 'I know, O Lord, that a man's life is not his own. It is not for man to direct his steps.'

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