1 ~ The Announcement
“You can’t just buy the Garden of Eden!”
“Why not?” Michel replies, looking out from the summer palace in Ctesiphon at the Tigris.
Michel is seated on a marble bench and leaning back on the west balcony wall with his hands behind his head.
“Yes,” Mongol Yasib says. He pulls on his wispy gray beard. “Tell us, Dushatra, just why he can’t buy the Garden of Eden.”
“It’s not logical,” Dushatra double checks his own beard to make sure none of the curls have come out in the evening breeze.
“Ha, ha,” Indus Kumar interjects. “Since you, Dushatra, and I still have not found perfection so we can stop being reincarnated, perhaps re-establishing the Garden of Eden with all its perfection will help us on our way.”
“Kumar, don’t go trying to mix my religion with your strange Hinduism,” Dushatra says, standing and pointing his finger at Kumar. “Besides, we know nothing about this garden Michel’s Jews believe in.”
The three friends pause and look back at Michel who has said nothing since his announcement.
“You three don’t even believe in the Garden of Eden,” he finally says, still grinning, “so why should you care?”
“To be honest,” old Yasib says, “we hate to see you waste your money.”
“Yes, just how much is this, this garden going to cost?” Dushatra inquires, sitting back down.
“I don’t know yet. But I’ve got people down there trying to find the present owners.”
“Where did you say it is?” Kumar asks, double checking his finely coifed beard that even the king would be proud of.
“Well, it doesn’t really exist any more,” Michel says, leaning forward with his elbows on his knees. “But it was where the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers meet.”
“Ha, ha! He wants to buy a garden that isn’t there,” Yasib announces.
“Probably out in the middle of the desert where no one lives,” Indus Dushatra says.
“I was down there a few months ago,” old Yasib says, “and you’re right about that. Well, at least part of it.”
“Which part?” Kumar asks.
“It’s where no one lives, but not because it is desert. It is all marshland.” He throws his head back and guffaws.
“So, you want to buy worthless land because it used to be a garden your Jews believe in. And how long ago was it a garden, may I ask?” Dushatra shakes his head while watching an ant skitter across the marble tiles.
“A few thousand years. Don’t know exactly…”
“A few thousand years?” Dushatra interrupts. “Have you become a mad man? We’re going to have to report this to King Phraattes. You may not have your head by your next birthday.”
“Leave the man alone,” old Yasib says. “You get too serious sometimes. Michel has his dreams. He has always been a dreamer. The king knows that. We all know that.”
Michel forms a broad grin. “Indeed, I am a dreamer. Just like my ancestor, Daniel who…”
“Not again,” Kumar says with a half grin, waving his hand at Michel, and standing. “We know all about your Daniel and his kings. The sun is getting low. I am going home. My wife promised to fix my favorite sauce tonight. Oh, uh, and good luck on your underwater garden, my friend.” He chuckles on his way to the steps leading to the courtyard below. On his way down, he makes sure the hem of his silk dhoti is firmly tucked into his waist.
“No wife for me,” Dushatra says, walking behind Kumar. “I do whatever I want.”
“Nor me, but not out of choice,” Yasib says as both he and Michel stand. “Her name was Ji and she was my heart. Ah, well, appreciate your wife while you have her, my friend. Appreciate her while you have her.”
“Yes, sir,” Michel replies.
With that, Yasib turns, lifts his colorful appliqued scarlet skirt, and manipulates his ruby-topped cane to start down the outer steps.
Michel watches the old Xiongnu Mongol man with the top of his head shaved except for a knot right above his forehead. The hair allowed to grow from the bottom of his head is as gray as his beard.
Michel lingers on the balcony alone. He looks up into the western sky. The red sunset is too harsh on his eyes, so he turns and looks the other way. He sees a star.
“Oh, Jehovah. As sure as you made the stars, you also put a plan in my mind. Okay, a dream. You want me to restore the Garden of Eden and draw all men to it. Will you walk with us again there? Will you walk with us through the garden as you did with Father Adam and Mother Eve so long ago?”
He sighs and heads down the steps to the courtyard. At the bottom, he turns west toward the Tigris River and the Citadel of the Seleucids on the other side. The outer-most courtyard is long. It is at least one hundred man-lengths to the outer gate on the banks of the river. I must measure it some day, he reminds himself once again.
The great veranda housing the outer gate is said to be the most imposing in the world being ten man-length deep and fifteen man-lengths high. The walls on either side have six levels, all with barracks in them. The top of the wall over the barracks is wide enough for ten chariots to ride side by side.
Although the front is completely open to the public, there is only a double door in the back through which the elite are allowed to exit and enter the palace grounds.
Honor guards clad in blue with gold breastplate, shield and helmet on each side of the door salute Michel and open the door to the outside for him.
Michel watches the vendors along each side wall close up for the evening and waves to his favorites. Ceiling and walls of the structure are lined with tiles of every imaginable color, though blue is more predominate than the others.
He walks out, notices the red of the sunset now reflecting in the river, and turns left toward the section of the city where high officials are allowed to have estates. He arrives at the first street, but passes it. He goes on down to the fourth street and turns left again. The second estate down on the right belongs to Yasib. The third estate down on the left belongs to Kumar.
Arriving at his own estate, he knocks. The gate is covered with copper and has a silver replica of the candlesticks that stand in the Holy Place of the temple back in Jerusalem.
He hears scraping of a bar on the other side, then the squeaking of hinges as the gate keeper opens up for his master.
“Good evening, Anu,” Michel says.
“Good evening, Master,” Anu says. The gatekeeper is short and bald, and very attuned to his master’s desires. “Welcome home. The mistress is up on the roof and Freni will have dinner ready shortly.”
Michel ascends the steps to the roof, taking off his turban as he goes, and walks over to his wife.
Meira, five years younger than her husband, having seen three decades, looks up from the rabbits she had been watching down on the ground. “Aren’t they cute?”
“Aren’t what cute?” he says, kissing her on the forehead. He seats himself opposite her. “I told them.”
“I fear asking you for clarification.”
“I don’t really care what they think,” Michel says. “I’m going to do it anyway. I have to. For the sake of everyone in the world who worships idols and imaginary gods. I must bring them back to Eden.”
“Number one,” Meira responds, pushing her black hair away from her dark eyes, “we haven’t decided for sure, and number two, you had no reason to tell them. They are just co-workers.”
Michel takes hold of both his wife’s delicate hands and smiles.
“Sweetheart, you may not have decided, but I have. This is something God wants me to do.”
“How do you know God wants you to do it?”
“Well, I have this burning in my heart. I just know it.”
Meira lets go of his hands, stands, and walks toward the steps. “You have had so many burnings in your heart over the past fifteen years, I have lost track. Each time you swore God told you to obey your burning.”
“This is different, Meira.”
“They all were,” she says, starting down the steps.
“Okay, let’s make a trip down there and see if we can find whoever owns the land where the Garden of Eden used to be,” Michel says following her down. “If we do and the owner is willing to sell it, that’s our sign God wants us to buy and restore it.”
“And what if we don’t have the money?”
“I’ll sell the estate.”
She turns and stares up at her tall, handsome husband with the simple beard, high cheek bones, straight nose, and serious eyes.
Her brows furrow. “You’ll what?” She walks toward the kitchen area of the courtyard calling over her shoulder, “Never.”
The evening meal is eaten in silence. The servants walk softly through the estate doing their chores, and keeping their voices low. Even the moon above the wide courtyard hides behind a cloud.
The night is not spent well for either. Sometimes Michel hears Meira crying and prays to God for strength.
The next morning, no one speaks. Just before Michel leaves, he turns to his wife, now with reddened eyes. With his heart wrenching between the two he loves most, he speaks one last time.
“If I don’t do it, it won’t get done. God needs me.”
Michel turns toward the gatekeeper. “I will take my chariot this morning.”
Anu nods to his master and walks over to another gate facing the street where the stable is. While Michel waits, he looks up into the heavens. “If Daniel is up there with you, tell him his son is taking up the banner.”
Boarding the elegant silver and copper chariot, Michel clicks his tongue and the mighty Nisean horse, king of battles, makes its way up the street. He goes past Yasib’s estate and out onto the main street along the Tigris leading to the lofty arched veranda and the palace complex.
Along the way, he sees Kumar who waves at him upon stepping aside to the curb. Michel forces a smile and waves in return.
Once through the veranda and the doors in the back, and inside the courtyard leading to the palace, Michel leaves his chariot in the hands of the royal stable and stands before the front gate into the palace itself.
Easily recognized as one of King Phraattes’ honored magus, the guards with gleaming gold breast plates over their blue uniforms and pointed gold helmets open the way for Michel to enter.
He has never gotten used to the opulence of the grand entry hall, fully ten man-lengths wide and high, and twice that to the other end. The floor is of blue and white marble tile with coral columns rising on each side.
The walls are colorfully frescoed with triumphs of King Phraattes since taking the throne fifty some years earlier upon assassinating his royal father and brothers. Many a battle are depicted with the Romans to the north, while a variety of other scenes are of battles with the Indos to the south, Syrians to the west, and Chinese and Xiongnu Mongols to the east.
The scenes on the ceiling of the great hall are of King Orontes which Phraattes left in honor of his father, possibly to assuage the guilt he perhaps feels on rare occasion.
Separating each scene is wood molding plated with both gold and silver, but mostly gleaming gold.
Along the walls and coming down from the ceiling on chains are golden oil lamps—enough to keep the palace lit at night and kept warm on cool evenings in the Zagros foothills.
As grand as all of this is, it can never surpass the natural God-planted Garden of Eden, Michel thinks. God, you are going to get your garden back and the world will flock to it so you can once again walk with us in the cool of the evening.
The magus passes the inside stairway to the observatory on the roof of the great hall, and on through an arch leading to the inner palace with the usual guards on each side. On his left is the throne room. He continues past that, and finally arrives at his destination: The war room.
The golden doors with large agate handles are opened for him by doormen wearing blue multi-folded pantaloons, short matching vests wrapped both ways across their chest, and white long-sleeved and billowed shirts under that. They wear white turbans on their head attached with large rubies.
Just inside, Michel pauses to see who has arrived thus far. He moves over toward Dushatra with an empty chair beside him. He thinks back on his illustrious ancestor, Daniel. In his day, they sat on regal cushions on their king’s regal floor.
He forces a smile. “Good morning, Dushatra. Have you heard what mood the king is in today?”
“No, but Queen Musa is said to have ordered one of her ladies in waiting beaten for blaspheming her yellow hair,” Dushatra responds. “I feel sorry for anyone working for that Italian viper.”
“Augustus must have sent her to the king to torment him,” Michel responds with a slight grin, his head close to Dushatra’s but not looking at him. “Oh, here come Kumar and Yasib,” he adds.
Standing, he motions for his other two best friends to join them. Servants clad in the same uniforms as the doormen hold chairs out for them as they do all members of the council.
“Looks like we’re the last ones here,” Yasib says, handing his ruby-tipped cane to the servant.
Trumpets are heard. Everyone of the seventy-member council rises, backs away from his chair, and bows his head to the floor.
Moments later they hear loud footsteps leading from the private entrance and to the war-room throne. A single trumpet sounds and everyone lifts his head, rises and reseats himself. Michel on one side and Kumar on the other help old Yasib up and to his chair.
“Heard any more about the Garden of Eden?” Yasib whispers while his eyes concentrate on the king. He does not receive a reply.
“I hope things will run smoothly today,” King Phraattes announces, handing his alabaster staff to his closest man servant. “It has not had a good beginning.”
The king does not wear a crown which would hide his black hair carefully curled and matching his short beard. Instead, he wears a long blue sash across his forehead and tied in back. A servant has held the sash out so he would not sit on it, and it flows down to the floor behind his throne. Everyone knows the coif is artificial from horse hair, thus covering his thinning gray hair.
Large bags are under the king’s dark eyes. His nose is wide and long and straight with a hook on the end. His cheekbones are high, and what teeth he has left are yellow, but partly hidden by his moustache.
“First, I want to hear from my military spahbed. Is Suren here? Ah, there you are.”
“Reports from all borders are good, Your Majesty,” Suren begins, rising as he talks. “The Romans, to our north are behaving for the time being, as well as the Syrians to our west. Our forts along those borders have reported no problems.
“Your vassal king, Gondophares of the Indo southlands, is having his usual local wars to maintain his power, but I believe he will keep his disputes there and not bother us with them.”
Suren seats himself.
“Not so fast, sir,” King Phraattes interrupts.
Spahbed Suren rises again.
“You seem to have left out the Chinese and those pesky Xiongnu Mongols to our east.”
Suren clears his throat.
“Well, Your Majesty, one of our forts along the wall between us and the Mongols did report some activity.”
“How much activity, Suren? Speak up,” the king bellows. “How much activity?”
“Well, a hundred of them scaled the wall we erected there and burned the fort.”
The king’s face turns red. “Do you mean the longest and highest wall in the world running from the Caspian Sea up into the Pishkamar Mountains was torn down while the greatest warriors in the world slept?”
“Well, not exactly, Your Majesty. They scaled the wall while our soldiers slept.”
An undertone of groans and snickers flows through the room except from the chair of Michel. Oh, God, how the world needs the peace of your kingdom. Help me help you establish it.
“But I have sent masons up to the Gorgan River to rebuild the fort,” Suren adds. “Soldiers from nearby forts are already there working on the foundation.”
“And I suppose that Chinese Emperor Ai has noticed a dearth of activity in our forts south of there.”
“No, Your Majesty. I sent more soldiers to reinforce the troops already there.”
“Sit. I don’t want to hear more. But tomorrow, your report had better be one worthy of your position, or you are likely to be a meal for my wife’s pets – her hungry lions.
“Next? Oh, I see you were able to make it today, Yasib, my friend,” Phraattes says, his voice lower. “How are your knees? Any stronger than mine? What do you think of your Emperor Ai? Not much, I’ll bet. Probably glad you’re not there right now.”
“Dushatra!” he continues without giving Yasib time to reply. “You’re from Kandahar that ole Gondophores claims to have founded, which everyone knows isn’t so. Anyway, what is your impression of him? Is he going to cause me any trouble?”
Dushatra rises. “No, Your Majesty. He is good to his subjects, and loyal to you.”
“I heard he’s Buddhist now. Is that what you are?”
“Yes, Your Majesty, though I know your Zoroastroism is very fine also.”
The king smiles, then turns his attention to Michel.
“How are the signs of the gods these days? Do you see any trouble stirring in the sky?”
“Your Majesty, Kumar was on duty last night.”
Kumar stands. “All is quiet among the gods, Your Majesty. Well, there was one star that raced across the heavens, then out of sight. But I believe that was an omen of the trouble with the Xiongnu Mongols racing toward our border. The star is gone now, and we will have peace with the Mongols again soon.”
“How do you do that, Kumar? And you other magi? How do you determine what the stars mean? How many are there of you?”
“Thirty-one, Your Majesty,” Kumar replies.
“Yes, yes. One for each night.”
Following is the treasurer’s report, the palace addition report, the shipping report, the war-horse-breeding report, the mining report, and reports from mayors of various cities in the kingdom.
Some time after the sun has begun its descent from the pinnacle of the sky, the king leaves, and the assembly adjourns.
Michel and his friends file out of the palace. He says goodbye to them at the stable.
“Ha, ha. Keep us informed of the progress on your underwater garden, my friend. Ha, ha, ha,” Kumar says as he turns to walk home.
“He’s a fool,” Dushatra calls out as he joins his other two friends.
Michel is met by the stable keeper.
“Sir, a message was sent to you earlier today. Here is the tile it was written on. The messenger was in a hurry and said he just came up from Uruk. That’s where you are from, isn’t it?”
Michel takes the tile. It has only two words on it.