A History of the World in 10 1/2 Chapters (4 page)

One of Noah’s sons came to check up on the noise as our stupid cousins, hopelessly in thrall to erotic publicity, struck their jaws against the wall of their burrows. Fortunately, the offspring of ‘the Admiral’ had only a crude understanding of the animal kingdom with which they had been entrusted, and he took the patterned clicks to be a creaking of the ship’s timbers. Soon the wind rose again and
xestobium rufo-villosum
could make its trysts in safety. But the affair left the rest of us much more cautious.
Anobium domesticum
, by seven votes to none, resolved not to pupate until after Disembarkation.

It has to be said that Noah, rain or shine, wasn’t much of a sailor. He was picked for his piety rather than his navigational skills. He wasn’t any good in a storm, and he wasn’t much better when the seas were calm. How would I be any judge? Again, I am reporting what the birds said – the birds that can stay in the air for weeks at a time, the birds that can find their way from one end of the planet to the other by navigational systems as elaborate as any invented by your species. And the
birds
said Noah didn’t know what he was doing – he was all bluster and prayer. It wasn’t difficult, what he had to do, was it? During the tempest he had to survive by running from the fiercest part of the storm; and during calm weather he had to ensure we didn’t drift so far from our original map-reference that we came to rest in some uninhabitable Sahara. The best that can be said for Noah is that he survived the storm (though he hardly needed to worry about reefs and coastlines, which made things easier), and that when the waters finally subsided we didn’t
find ourselves by mistake in the middle of some great ocean. If we’d done that, there’s no knowing how long we’d have been at sea.

Of course, the birds offered to put their expertise at Noah’s disposal; but he was too proud. He gave them a few simple reconnaissance tasks – looking out for whirlpools and tornadoes – while disdaining their proper skills. He also sent a number of species to their deaths by asking them to go aloft in terrible weather when they weren’t properly equipped to do so. When Noah despatched the warbling goose into a Force Nine gale (the bird did, it’s true, have an irritating cry, especially if you were trying to sleep), the stormy petrel actually volunteered to take its place. But the offer was spurned – and that was the end of the warbling goose.

All right, all right, Noah had his virtues. He was a survivor – and not just in terms of the Voyage. He also cracked the secret of long life, which has subsequently been lost to your species. But he was not a nice man. Did you know about the time he had the ass keel-hauled? Is that in your archives? It was in Year Two, when the rules had been just a little relaxed, and selected travellers were allowed to mingle. Well, Noah caught the ass trying to climb up the mare. He really hit the roof, ranted away about no good coming of such a union – which rather confirmed our theory about his horror of cross-breeding – and said he would make an example of the beast. So they tied his hooves together, slung him over the side, dragged him underneath the hull and up the other side in a stampeding sea. Most of us put it down to sexual jealousy, simple as that. What was amazing, though, was how the ass took it. They know all about endurance, those guys. When they pulled him over the rail, he was in a terrible state. His poor old ears looked like fronds of slimy seaweed and his tail like a yard of sodden rope and a few of the other beasts who by this time weren’t too crazy about Noah gathered round him, and the goat I think it was butted him gently in the side to see if he was still alive, and the ass opened one eye, rolled it around the circle of concerned muzzles and said, ‘Now I know what it’s like to be a seal.’ Not bad in the
circumstances? But I have to tell you, that was nearly one more species you lost.

I suppose it wasn’t altogether Noah’s fault. I mean, that God of his was a really oppressive role-model. Noah couldn’t do anything without first wondering what
He
would think. Now that’s no way to go on. Always looking over your shoulder for approval – it’s not adult, is it? And Noah didn’t have the excuse of being a young man, either. He was six hundred-odd, by the way your species reckons these things. Six hundred years should have produced some flexibility of mind, some ability to see both sides of the question. Not a bit of it. Take the construction of the Ark. What does he do? He builds it in gopher-wood.
Gopher-wood?
Even Shem objected, but no, that was what he wanted and that was what he had to have. The fact that not much gopher-wood grew nearby was brushed aside. No doubt he was merely following instructions from his role-model; but even so. Anyone who knows anything about wood – and I speak with some authority in the matter – could have told him that a couple of dozen other tree-types would have done as well, if not better; and what’s more, the idea of building all parts of a boat from a single wood is ridiculous. You should choose your material according to the purpose for which it is intended; everyone knows that. Still, this was old Noah for you – no flexibility of mind at all. Only saw one side of the question. Gopher-wood bathroom fittings – have you ever heard of anything more ridiculous?

He got it, as I say, from his role-model. What would God think? That was the question always on his lips. There was something a bit sinister about Noah’s devotion to God; creepy, if you know what I mean. Still, he certainly knew which side his bread was buttered; and I suppose being selected like that as the favoured survivor, knowing that your dynasty is going to be the only one on earth – it must turn your head, mustn’t it? As for his sons – Ham, Shem and the one beginning with J – it certainly didn’t do much good for their egos. Swanking about on deck like the Royal Family.

You see, there’s one thing I want to make quite clear. This
Ark business. You’re probably still thinking that Noah, for all his faults, was basically some kind of early conservationist, that he collected the animals together because he didn’t want them to die out, that he couldn’t endure not seeing a giraffe ever again, that he was doing it for
us
. This wasn’t the case at all. He got us together because his role-model told him to, but also out of self-interest, even cynicism.
He wanted to have something to eat after the Flood had subsided
. Five and a half years under water and most of the kitchen gardens were washed away, I can tell you; only rice prospered. And so most of us knew that in Noah’s eyes we were just future dinners on two, four or however many legs. If not now, then later; if not us, then our offspring. That’s not a nice feeling, as you can imagine. An atmosphere of paranoia and terror held sway on that Ark of Noah’s. Which of us would he come for next? Fail to charm Ham’s wife today and you might be a fricassee by tomorrow night. That sort of uncertainty can provoke the oddest behaviour. I remember when a couple of lemmings were caught making for the side of the ship – they said they wanted to end it once and for all, they couldn’t bear the suspense. But Shem caught them just in time and locked them up in a packing-case. Every so often, when he was feeling bored, he would slide open the top of their box and wave a big knife around inside. It was his idea of a joke. But if it didn’t traumatize the entire species I’d be very surprised.

And of course once the Voyage was over, God made Noah’s dining rights official. The pay-off for all that obedience was the permission to eat whichever of us Noah chose for the rest of his life. It was all part of some pact or covenant botched together between the pair of them. A pretty hollow contract, if you ask me. After all, having eliminated everyone else from the earth, God had to make do with the one family of worshippers he’d got left, didn’t he? Couldn’t very well say, No you aren’t up to scratch either. Noah probably realized he had God over a barrel (what an admission of failure to pull the Flood and then be obliged to ditch your First Family), and we reckoned he’d have eaten us anyway, treaty or no treaty. This so-called covenant had absolutely nothing in it for us – except our death-warrant. Oh
yes, we were thrown one tiny sop – Noah and his crowd weren’t permitted to eat any females that were in calf. A loophole which led to some frenzied activity around the beached Ark, and also to some strange psychological side-effects. Have you ever thought about the origins of the hysterical pregnancy?

Which reminds me of that business with Ham’s wife. It was all rumour, they said, and you can see how such rumours might have started. Ham’s wife was not the most popular person in the Ark; and the loss of the hospital ship, as I’ve said, was widely attributed to her. She was still very attractive – only about a hundred and fifty at the time of the Deluge – but she was also wilful and short-tempered. She certainly dominated poor Ham. Now the facts are as follows. Ham and his wife had two children – two male children, that is, which was the way they counted – called Cush and Mizraim. They had a third son, Phut, who was born on the Ark, and a fourth, Canaan, who arrived after the Landing. Noah and his wife had dark hair and brown eyes; so did Ham and his wife; so, for that matter, did Shem and Varadi and the one beginning with J. And all the children of Shem and Varadi and the one whose name began with J had dark hair and brown eyes. And so did Cush, and Mizraim, and Canaan. But Phut, the one born on the Ark, had red hair. Red hair and green eyes. Those are the facts.

At this point we leave the harbour of facts for the high seas of rumour (that’s how Noah used to talk, by the way). I was not myself on Ham’s ark, so I am merely reporting, in a dispassionate way, the news the birds brought. There were two main stories, and I leave you to choose between them. You remember the case of the craftsman who chipped out a priest’s hole for himself on the stores ship? Well, it was said – though not officially confirmed – that when they searched the quarters of Ham’s wife they discovered a compartment nobody had realized was there. It certainly wasn’t marked on the plans. Ham’s wife denied all knowledge of it, yet it seems one of her yakskin undervests was found hanging on a peg there, and a jealous examination of the floor revealed several red hairs caught between the planking.

The second story – which again I pass on without comment – touches on more delicate matters, but since it directly concerns a significant percentage of your species I am constrained to go on. There was on board Ham’s ark a pair of simians of the most extraordinary beauty and sleekness. They were, by all accounts, highly intelligent, perfectly groomed, and had mobile faces which you could swear were about to utter speech. They also had flowing red fur and green eyes. No, such a species no longer exists: it did not survive the Voyage, and the circumstances surrounding its death on board have never been fully cleared up. Something to do with a falling spar … But what a coincidence, we always thought, for a falling spar to kill both members of a particularly nimble species at one and the same time.

The public explanation was quite different, of course. There were no secret compartments. There was no miscegenation. The spar which killed the simians was enormous, and also carried away a purple muskrat, two pygmy ostriches and a pair of flat-tailed aardvarks. The strange colouring of Phut was a sign from God – though what it denoted lay beyond human decipherability at the time. Later its significance became clear: it was a sign that the Voyage had passed its half-way mark. Therefore Phut was a blessed child, and no subject for alarm and punishment. Noah himself announced as much. God had come to him in a dream and told him to stay his hand against the infant, and Noah, being a righteous man as he pointed out, did so.

I don’t need to tell you that the animals were pretty divided about what to believe. The mammals, for instance, refused to countenance the idea that the male of the red-haired, green-eyed simians could have been carnally familiar with Ham’s wife. To be sure, we never know what is in the secret heart of even our closest friends, but the mammals were prepared to swear on their mammalhood that it would never have happened. They knew the male simian too well, they said, and could vouch for his high standards of personal cleanliness. He was even, they hinted, a bit of a snob. And supposing – just supposing – he had
wanted a bit of rough trade, there were far more alluring specimens on offer than Ham’s wife. Why not one of those cute little yellow-tailed monkeys who were anybody’s for a pawful of mashed nutmeg?

That is nearly the end of my revelations. They are intended – you must understand me – in a spirit of friendship. If you think I am being contentious, it is probably because your species – I hope you don’t mind my saying this – is so hopelessly dogmatic. You believe what you want to believe, and you go on believing it. But then, of course, you all have Noah’s genes. No doubt this also accounts for the fact that you are often strangely incurious. You never ask, for instance, this question about your early history: what happened to the raven?

When the Ark landed on the mountaintop (it was more complicated than that, of course, but we’ll let details pass), Noah sent out a raven and a dove to see if the waters had retreated from the face of the earth. Now, in the version that has come down to you, the raven has a very small part; it merely flutters hither and thither, to little avail, you are led to conclude. The dove’s three journeys, on the other hand, are made a matter of heroism. We weep when she finds no rest for the sole of her foot; we rejoice when she returns to the Ark with an olive leaf. You have elevated this bird, I understand, into something of symbolic value. So let me just point this out: the raven always maintained that
he
found the olive tree; that
he
brought a leaf from it back to the Ark; but that Noah decided it was ‘more appropriate’ to say that the dove had discovered it. Personally, I always believed the raven, who apart from anything else was much stronger in the air than the dove; and it would have been just like Noah (modelling himself on that God of his again) to stir up a dispute among the animals. Noah had it put about that the raven, instead of returning as soon as possible with evidence of dry land, had been malingering, and had been spotted (by whose eye? not even the upwardly mobile dove would have demeaned herself with such a slander) gourmandising on carrion. The raven, I need hardly add, felt hurt and betrayed at this instant rewriting of history, and it is said – by those with a
better ear than mine – that you can hear the sad croak of dissatisfaction in his voice to this day. The dove, by contrast, began sounding unbearably smug from the moment we disembarked. She could already envisage herself on postage stamps and letterheads.

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