The Ark of the LORD remained in the house of Obed-Edom the Gittite for three months, and the LORD blessed him and his entire household.
The first death was accidental, I promise. A simple series of slips and braces culminating with two fingers touching the base of the chest, where the veil had ceased to shelter its golden form. The fingers belonged to Hana, daughter of Raviv. She was a servant in charge of cleaning the rooms, specifically the large circular room in the center of the house of Obed-Edom, where David’s men had placed the Tabernacle to house the Ark. I remember passing by in those first two weeks, finding her at every hour of the day, upon her hands and knees, scrubbing the white tile, ever careful to clean just up to its edge, where the beige of her everyday life met the rich colors and textures of God. She took such satisfaction in her scrubbing, probably fooling herself into the belief that He was watching from beneath the blue and purple silks and would someday step out and congratulate her.
I thought about her pride as they carried her through the middle yard, and I wondered about the ox man who had fallen delivering the Ark to this house. His story had been watered down by the time they had arrived: he was struck dead on the spot. But that was not the whole of it, at least not for Hana’s part. There was no grace of a soul exiting the body peacefully, but rather every soft point in her body had instantly decayed, and she resembled a rotten sack of fruit with a few branches from a tree shoved into it. A thick, black, mud-like puss oozed from the holes where her eyes once were, and the men were sickened by the smell. Her mouth was turned down in the most horrifying manner, somewhere between sorrow and pain, as if the whole of her were still suffering and that suffering stretched beyond death and back into her physical form. The household was embarrassed and made her the example. The oldest of the eight brothers forbid the waste of rags to cover her face.
And then it was my turn to tend to the room. When the housemaster told me of my new assignment, I admit I hesitated. I had been Sacar, the fourth son’s, keeper for some time, and I believed he was pleased with my work, and the whip was not once laid upon me. But his temperament had darkened over the past year. He had taken a wife, Meiri, who was sullen-faced, and she seemed to regard me as doting too closely on her new husband. She would often openly comment that I was a bad omen to keep around because it was past my twentieth birthday and had not yet borne a child. It was not my place to argue though, so I took my new position and Sacar’s eyes did not linger on me ever again.
My new task was not difficult, only endless. In the first month the Ark was kept in the house an endless parade of guests arrived to stand in the room where it stayed, to bow near its base, to be closer to God. Between every viewing I would be back on my knees, scrubbing the scuff marks and washing away the dirt until my back ached and my fingers grew stiff and my knuckles cracked.
“You belong there, whore. On your knees.”
The voice belonged to Neta, the bread maker. She told others she’d watched me, years ago, dancing wildly to the music in the market. She told others I had lust for the silver merchant, and would stay too long at his cart when I had work to do. The truth was that I loved the market. I loved the deep colors of dyed silks that contrasted the pale linens and whitewash of the house. I loved the music that flowed from the pipe. But I did not watch the merchant with a coveting eye! I watched Neta, with her deep eyes and deeper curves. I wanted things from her that I knew no man would approve of, and maybe she knew this, and that was why she reviled me, but I forgave her daily for her harsh words and kept even her sharpest barbs within my heart.
When I looked up, she was still staring down at me. Her expression swayed somewhere in between disgusted and amused. I did not know how to reply.
“So this is it, the Ark,” she said caressing the Parochet, as if she were not impressed at all.
“That is just the veil,” I replied, sitting up onto my knees like a begging hound. For a moment the cloth fluttered from her hand, and I caught a flash of one of the gold cherubs that adorned Its cover. I had not realized how close the Ark came to the veils that surrounded it. The room had seemed so much bigger since It had arrived.
“Of course it is, you worthless….Meiri!” Her expression flipped from scowl to joy as she embraced Meiri, who had entered the room quietly. They took turns admiring their braids, and Meiri’s hair that had been dyed a deep red.
My body thrust itself downward, back to work, and I hid my flushing face deep in the cracks in the white tile. The two women whispered to each other and then looked down at me and laughed and left the room.
When I was little my mother would walk me through the village where I was born and people would laugh in a similar manner at her. She should have drowned the child, I would hear them sneer as we passed. Whore. I remember their clean faces and arms adorned with sparkling jewelry. I wanted my curly light brown hair to be straight and black like theirs. My mother would scold me if I looked too long. You cannot let your eyes linger, she would snap. You will never be one of them.
She died a few years back, and it was only after I moved away and went to where no one knew me that they put me to work in the house. The other servants would barely acknowledge me. I had escaped the slave trade and the torture they had endured. I had wanted for so long to have someone acknowledge me, to befriend me, to love me, that except for hurtful moments with Neta, my heart had gone numb.
When Neta entered the room again several hours later, she seemed upset. She walked right over me, which was not unusual for a free person to do to a servant, but her breathing seemed quick and unsteady. I glanced past her to the hallway and could see the daylight had diminished, and the entire room was now bathed in flickering firelight. I’d worked so deep in troubled thought that I had lost time completely.
She clutched the neck of her gray linen tunic, and leaned up against the wall, staring into the hallway. I could see the torn and frayed material starting from where her fingers shook desperately connecting the pieces all of the way down to her breast. She held her breath and the house went silent. When heavy footsteps started down the hall, the color from her face rushed out. Her eyes fell to me and for the first time they weren’t full of hate but instead it was like she was noticing me, and my being there made her unafraid. I strain to recollect the exchange now, as if I only dreamed it. Before I could speak, she turned and ran out.
I did not know the name of the man who walked through the doorway from the hall. He had a thick nose and his dark beard and heavy cloth told me he was no servant. He stumbled forward, smelling of wine, continuously grabbing at his groin area and grunting. I thought of Neta running from this man, and I suddenly felt afraid for my own self. No one would come running to rescue me, and if he descended upon my body it was I who would be punished. I sank deeper into the floor, wishing I could become the tile. He stumbled forward, and I closed my eyes and waited for his foul hand to grab my hair.
But I had taken my silence for granted. His foot caught under my ankle and he fell forward, grabbing out into the air and onto anything that might stall his descent, including the veil. The rip was fast, like someone shushing a secret escaping, and even as he hit the ground the severity of what he had done occurred to him and he released his clasp.
I stood up immediately, but did not move. Should I help him? Should I run? Would he blame me? I had no answers, and instead I pulled the torch from its place on the wall and held it near to him. He was shaking his head, as if trying to loosen something from his brain, and rubbing the back of his neck. I moved the flame from him to inspect the veil. Despite all of the commotion, I could not find a tear among the layers.
His punch hit my gut with such force I dropped the torch. He kicked it down the hallway, and the light left us, and his eyes became darkness itself.
“You stupid dog!” his voice grumbled low, and I realized he was holding back his rage as to not alert the household.
“Forgive me, I did not mean to be in your way,” I said, a little too loudly. The shock was leaving my body and I could feel my insides start to churn.
“Shut up!” A stab of pain beneath my right eye blurred my vision and sent me back to my knees. His hand flew upon my face so swiftly that between the wine, his fall, and his rage, his body started to work against him. He became winded and stepped away from me. His hand carelessly searched behind him for something to brace himself.
And it landed perfectly between the corners of the veil and right onto the golden cover of the Ark.
I waited for lightening to strike down, or fire, or some Godly act that would finalize his fate, but it did not come. In the dark I could not discern if this cruel stranger had realized the consequence of his mistake before it happened, or if he felt pain as his jaw seemed to detach itself. His chin fell, making his face appear stretched down to almost his mid chest, and a noise came from inside him like a moan of air reversing itself, and I stepped back as far as I could, afraid that he would somehow suck me into him.
There was no smell yet, but I could make out his fingernails dripping with the same black ooze I remembered from Hana’s eyes. His body stayed erect for another few heartbeats, but when he collapsed to the ground like a building caving in, all of his bones were gone, and what was left was a mound of cloth and flesh, like a rotten squash holding back the juices with its wrinkling yellowed skin.
My mind raced, and I could tell you that my next decision was based on fear and the trauma of his beating, but I would be lying to do so. I also could have fled. I should have been sleeping hours ago, and they might have never guessed that I had been a witness to his end. But I thought of Neta’s fear and how easily he’d hurt me, and suddenly his body no longer looked like a horrible tragedy, but a simple mess. A mess I could clean up and the entire city would be rid of him.
I worked swiftly, fetching the torch and illuminating the room, so I could see what I had to work with. A black puddle began to trail from his heap, and my first act was to grab as much of his unsoiled tunic as I could and cover the spill. I leaped over him, and on tiptoes, fleeted down the hallway and out into the courtyard closet where the groundskeepers stored their carts, shearing utensils, and woven bins. Everything was waiting for me, as if I were meant to find it.
Back in the room, I pushed his putrid tissue into the containers like rain-soaked cloth. Every time an elbow or leg or hip would threaten to overspill the edge of the wooden trough, I would use the sharpest blades of the shears and cut the remnants to fill another vessel. His skin cut so easily, like a knife through a muskmelon. If it weren’t for the black oil that oozed, I would have forgotten I was destroying something that was living only an hour ago. If I had more time I daresay my task would have been enjoyable, and as I neared his lower extremities I thought that I might miss the simple pleasure of snipping something so soft and pliable to bits.
The throbbing in my face and gut acted as rhythm to keep me on mission. Once the bins were full, I loaded them carefully onto the bottom of the cart. I ran and fetched hay to cover them, and then placed a cloth over the entire thing. The smell of decay was starting to permeate the space, so before I got to work quickly scrubbing the tile clean of his seepage, I ran again to find some incense to burn.
Daylight was just coming into the courtyard as I pushed the covered cart across the cobblestone. While the sight of a disheveled, bruised woman pushing a cart that seemed to bear such a weight might have given some pause, no one was yet awake to see my journey. I pushed and shoved away from the walls of the home and into the town, where I braced myself for the early risers to take notice of my peculiar task.
“Do you need help?” the male voice came from behind and startled me. It was Abner, the blacksmith.
“No thank you,” I replied, trying not to let my voice croak. I had no idea how I looked. Was there black slime on my face? Did I stink of death?
“Hard morning?” he asked, motioning to my face.
I nodded, looking away. The dust blew around my feet and into my eyes. The pale wash of dawn iced my fingers and toes.
“Where are you going?”
I tried not to appear annoyed, to arouse his suspicion. “To the waste dump. I’ve been….. killing…um… rats. I need to toss their bodies.” I’d really had no plan before then to go to the dumping ground, but it sounded like a perfectly good place to take a dead man.
He looked to the cart and back to me.
“You’re the girl who cares for the Ark.”
“Just..just the tile around it, sir,” I answered.
“I heard it killed the girl before you.”
“She touched it?”
“And died right there?”
I looked around at the clay buildings shoved together and wondered how far I could run before they caught me. “Yes,” I said again.
“You know what I do with the ash from my fire on some evenings?”
My face flushed with confusion. I shrugged.
“I spread them on the ground before I close up for the day. I look for the footsteps of the Shedim in the morning.”
“Why would demons be outside your workshop?”
“Because the fires burn like Hell itself. Hot enough to destroy the dead, and Shedim follow the dead.”
My eyes had no choice but to meet his. I felt a chill fill my blood and fought the urge to shiver. No other words were exchanged between us, but he looked toward the square and mumbled something about spending an hour at the bathhouse, and he walked off. I followed the deep brown of his clothing and the red of his hair until I could not see him anymore. I looked to his workshop. The door had been left open and a giant, roaring fire waved to me from inside a massive oven of brick.
I rushed against the rising sun back into the house, stopping only to dunk the bins in the animal troughs to rinse them. I quickly put my makeshift death instruments away, and returned to the servant quarters where I changed into a new tunic, cleaned and refilled my bucket and fetched new scrubbing cloth. By the time the house was alive again, I was back to scrubbing the floor, fighting exhaustion and yet smiling that no one seemed to know what I had accomplished. By the end of the day, even the trace amounts of black that went unseen in the night were vanished. No one asked about my swollen, bruised face.
A week went by before I learned the name of the man whose body I flung in bins into the blacksmith’s fire: Shauwl. I overheard that he was a son to a winemaker, but had a reputation for being a gambler and a cheat, and it only took a few days for his name to drop completely from conversation, and every day in the direction of the Ark.
God helped me, I thought, but he had also rid the earth of a wretched man. And I had helped God do that! I couldn’t help but wonder how else I could help God while the Ark was in my care.
I got another opportunity a few days later.
Around noon three Rabbis had visited the home and prayed for hours at the Ark. By the time I was allowed back in the space, their footprints, spilled candle wax, and dirt had snuck into every crevice in the room. I tossed myself into my work and once again failed to notice the call to dinner or the fading light.
Meiri kicked my heels. I did not start; I could have smelled her perfume a house away, and I was hoping she would simply walk over me.
She always tried to make her voice sound so low, so sultry, but it always sounded like a bleating lamb to me. “I know you still look at him,” she said.
“Look at who?”
She took her foot and pushed my head down toward the soapy water. “Don’t act like a fool to me. Pig. Whore!” Her spit landed upon my cheek.
I stood with my head still down, and apologized. Of course she meant her husband, but Sacar had long been out of my mind.
I stood up straight and raised my face to hers. I looked up and down her skinny arms and searched for something good, some reason she should be allowed to be who she was and hurt people like me.
She laughed at me, and then I pushed her right into the Ark.
I knew her absence wouldn’t go as unnoticed as Shauwl’s, but as I carefully cut her flesh and dispersed it into the buckets, I didn’t really dwell on the details. Her body was lighter than his had been and only filled two containers. She even managed to fall in a manner that the bulk of the black ooze soaked into her garments. Once again, I thought, God was making things easy for me.
The blacksmith was gone when I reached his shop. Perhaps he did go to bathe every morning, but I suspected he was willed to. I tossed her, wedding ring and all, into the fire and did not look back.
They never questioned me about Meiri, and I never offered information they didn’t ask for. I know Neta wept at the disappearance of her friend, but she did not confide in me.
I admit, there was a lingering feeling of guilt in seeing Neta so upset. But I remembered the housemaster saying that once you’ve successfully done a thing twice, you’ve learned it. And I had taught myself to get rid of those who made me unhappy, and my feelings of guilt for Neta’s loss subsided in that feeling of accomplishment.
In the next few weeks, I had the opportunity to use my newfound skill several more times. First I lured a jewelry maker from the market under pretenses of seeing the Ark and having me alone to himself. After him was a woman who I had suspicions of stealing from our household, and in her ignorance she did not know that the free food I’d promised her was not just under the lid of the Ark. She was followed only a day later by a fellow servant who looked at me in a manner I found disagreeable. The second night of no sleep was difficult, but the more people I tricked into touching the Ark, the easier it was.
I lost count of the bodies I tossed into the blacksmith’s fire. It was only the heavy ring of ashes that I had to maneuver over to cross the threshold that told me he might have had suspicions about my doings. No one else did though, and while there was a small murmur in conversations about the number of healthy adults that had gone missing, I continued my days scrubbing and my nights cutting skin. My final accomplishment was the silver merchant. No one would ever accuse me of lingering too long at his cart ever again.
I heard that seventeen people had mysteriously disappeared from the city, specifically from the area that surrounded the house where the Ark was kept. By the time the men came to remove it, I had forgotten its place in the room was only a temporary situation. I was roused early by the housemaster. A bucket was shoved into my hands and I made my way into the room, and I nearly dropped it when I saw the space.
It looked so much smaller. Gone were the fabrics and hides. The blues and purples and golden threads spun into poetry. It was now a plain beige space, empty and meaningless as if the Ark had never been there. There was no color except in the tiles that lay beneath where the Ark had been placed. The color was black. A rotten black. The rotten black that had flowed from many bodies and through the spaces beyond where my scrubbing could reach.
Sacar walked into the room. He was still clothed in mourning garments, but his face seemed cheery. I bowed.
“I guess you couldn’t be expected to clean everything,” he laughed.
I fell to my knees. “I will get right to it, master.”
“Strange, this mess. So much left from Hana.”
He walked over and stood at my feet and reached down to the cracks between the tiles and slowly pulled his finger across. He held his fingers up and studied them.
“Still wet,” he observed.
“Strange that there would be so much freshness here. Like someone else had touched the Ark.”
I held my breath.
“But I would have been told. And you would have had to clean up.”
“I would have,” I managed.
“You keep things very clean.”
“Yes. Very clean.”
From the tiles he pulled up a single hair. Deep red and long and there was no question it belonged to Meiri. I looked up at him and he knew. He knew.
I immediately stood and began walking outside. The men were preparing to leave with the Ark. God would be gone. He would not protect me anymore. I thought of the stoning or the whip or any other terrible thing they could manage to do to me. The sun flooded into my eyes and I only knew I was walking out, toward the men, toward the Ark, toward my own death with a single swift gesture.
“Henye!” I heard Sacar yell my name, but I ignored him.
My stride quickened to match my pulse, rushing into the town and after the convoy. Finally I could see the golden cherubs sparkling in the sun, blinding me. I held out my arms to it.
I failed to notice the soldier coming to stop me. He threw me to the ground and immediately drew his whip. I hid my face in my hands, sobbing. The Ark continued onward, away from me.
The next thing I knew, Sacar stood between us. “Wait!” he yelled, and the soldier stood down. Sacar picked me up, and helped me to my feet. I felt dizzy and my limbs dragged at the ground and I struggled to wipe the dirt from my eyes.
“She did such a good job cleaning the room of the tabernacle; I promised her she could see the Ark.” His words hit me like cool rain on the hottest day, and he said nothing more as he walked back toward the house. The soldier snorted and turned away.
“Thank you,” I called out.
He did not turn to face me, but slightly crooked his head so I could see the slight smirk on his lip. “You see to the mess,” he replied. “The stains I cannot remove myself.”
I watched him until his body was black waves in the heat, but suddenly I became aware that I was being watched. It was Neta. I could not tell from her expression if she was amused or disappointed, but I thought of all I had accomplished and suddenly the idea of her scorn bothering me seemed so silly, so trivial. I would never be like her. I would never be one of them; I was the one who saw to the mess. I wiped the last of the tears from my face and began to walk back to the house. Even though my Ark had left, I had so much more to clean.
Natalie Wood is a writer, photographer, and designer living near Portland, OR with her husband and two gigantic Muppets who pretend to be cats. Her writing has appeared in Stories of Oregon, the 2011 Crypticon Anthology, and Fate Magazine. You might have also seen her work on the web via Offbeat Home, Ephemera Magica, and The Killer Blog. She is a member of Willamette Writers and the Zeitgeist Writers League.