“Jo.”

The voice came the first time —  smooth, silky, gliding through dampened air. It was God’s voice for sure, bound to not come off as forceful or brash. But Jonah was, amongst several other things, a heavy sleeper. So he did not hear. The voice came a second time, maintaining the same nature, not rising in tenor or timbre, not flattening. Yet, Jonah did not rise. He only yawned, his lips parting to a gaping hole, the entire length of his body stretching as if it would snap in two. He mumbled gibberish, his left eye slightly open, he fell back to his sleep.

Now God was standing by Jonah’s window. He had no need to knock, he did not even consider it. Jonah had no door. Was it not two nights ago that Martha, sturdy Martha with the wide hips, who baked bread next door, broke down Jonah’s wooden door with two hard kicks?

What happened was, Jonah had returned from his usual missionary sojourns, understandably exhausted. He’d trekked the whole of three cities in a day and a half to return to Joppa. Famished, Jonah made to prepare porridge to quell his rumbling stomach.

He’d barely set the pot on fire, in the small adjoining room that served as a kitchen, when he staggered to his bed, and zap! he was already snoring. The choking smell of Jewish pepper and fumes dragged Martha out from her bakery, screaming Jonah! Jonah! When no response came, she, covering her nose with her veil, peeped through the window  to see Jonah, covered in a thick smoke cloud, spread like worn cloth on his spring bed, snoring, saliva drooling from a corner of his mouth like from an uncorked sluice. The door was locked from inside. Leaving Jonah would mean the entire neighborhood being gutted by fire. So Martha did what she had to do. She pulled her gown up to her knees, raised her leg, and kicked down the door. Inside, she quenched the fire, now leaping out of the beyond-repair pot, with a full bucket of water.

The room was engulfed in smoke, the walls blackened, Martha’s eyes a veld red, she was choking. Jonah did not move a muscle.

The Lord’s voice came a third time, firmer now, more resolute with a tincture of exasperation: “Jonah, son of Amittai, for God’s sake, wake up!”

And Jonah, who for the sake of his porridge turning to char, for his house almost burning to rubble, didn’t stir, forced his eyelids open  —  for God’s sake.

“Jonah, son of Amittai, I have got work for you.” The Lord now stood by Jonah’s bed.

“Not again, Lord. Not again,” Jonah protested, still groggy with sleep. “I have just returned from the shores of Antioch, do I not deserve rest, too?”

“Do I not know you have just returned from a journey? Was it not I who sent you?” The Lord asked.

“Was just saying…”

“Jo, get up and go to the great city of Nineveh…”

“Whoa..whoa,” Jonah interrupted, stumbling out of bed, wide awake now. “Hold up, Lord. Nine…what?”

“Nineveh, Jonah. Now do not cut my speech, pay heed.”

“No. Lord,” Jonah fell flat to his face, “I will not go.”

“Why?”

“They are a sinful people, Lord, unworthy of your holy messenger.”

The Lord scoffed, a liquid-like glint of amusement trapped in his eyes. “Well, worthy or not, Jo, that’s not for you to decide. I am full of mercy. Nineveh is a great city, their fathers served me, and exceedingly well. There remain a few people who fear me. I will not perish the whole city.”

“Then save the few, good Lord!”

“They are not of hardened hearts, Jonah. I am sending you to announce my judgment to them. Tell them I, the God of their fathers, have had enough of their wickedness. You will go, no more excuses.”

“Yes, Lord,” Jonah bowed his face, “I will go.”

Then the Lord left. But Jonah got up and went the opposite direction, to get away from the Lord.

 

He went down to the port of Joppa. It was close to midnight, the ship bound for Nineveh wouldn’t sail till the temple bells chimed. “However,” the port guard said to Jonah, a bit eagerly, “the ship to Tarshish leaves now. A merchant ship, plenty room for a man your stature.” Jonah was on the huge side, with matted ginger hair, and almond eyes. “Doesn’t cost much.”

Jonah did not even want to sail to Tarshish, why was the guard telling him this? Suddenly, as though he’d received a revelation, he remembered his maternal cousin, Amran, who was said to wed the coming week, in the city. Wouldn’t be a bad idea, Tarshish. Plus, the chasm between the last time they held each other’s face had widened so much so Jonah could not recall if Amran was the cousin who stuttered a lot, or the one with a limp in his gait. He counted twelve copper coins, thrust it into the guard’s cupped palm, in exchange for a ticket.

*

An array of smells hit Jonah the instant he climbed onto the Alia; vinegar, varnished lumber, grapes, fresh silk, dead fishes, and the sea. The ship’s captain, a stout, egg-headed man with a thick, curled up mustache, shook his hand, held his gaze and said, “looks like you are fleeing from somebody, tell me, eh. A rude master, a nagging wife? Killed someone, eh?” The captain had really rough palms Jonah felt tiny packets of pain coursing through his veins as the captain shook his hand violently.

Jonah, sensing the man would give it no rest, managed to wriggle his hand from the man’s, gave a rueful smile and said, “I am not fleeing from anyone.” The temple bells struck for midnight. Jonah’s heart skipped two beats.

“Well, then,” the captain said, “welcome aboard. Hope you find Alia comfortable.” The captain spoke with a pride-tinged voice about his ship. And at the door to Jonah’s cabin he said with bared yellow-brown teeth, “Happy sailing, eh!”

*

The cabin had a tiny window overlooking the sea. Jonah stood, a calm breeze in his face, and watched as the ship receded from the port, he watched as the lamp burning bright on the port’s tower dimmed in the distance. He watched the soft, foamy white rippling the ship made as it floated, humming noisily, and he felt a barely-there rumbling in his stomach. How long had it been since he felt this way, seasick? I am not fleeing from anyone. The words mulled over and again in his head he willed himself to believe it was true.

He’d lost track of time that it took loud thudding on the cabin’s feeble wood door to jolt him back to the present.

“Aye!” A gravelly voice at the door beckoned, one of the sailors maybe. “It’s going to be a long, cold night out here. Rum in the upper deck, captain’s courtesy, there’s warmth, too. Joining us?”

Jonah turned to the door and bellowed, “no, thank you. Too wasted, will catch some sleep instead.”

The moon cast an enchanting shadow on the water surface, and save for its dreamy reflection on the hardwood floor, the cabin was terrifyingly dark. Jonah did not notice the round oil gallons stacked secure in a corner. He arranged his cloth sack on the bed and laid his head. Boisterous, manly cackling and the loud clinking of beer cups wafted into his ears from the gathering above him. A short while after the loud conversations had stalled, one of the men raised a shanty, a voice that left a tinkling in Jonah’s fingers. The others joined in, a fine blend of baritones, honeyed, inebriated, yet with splendid buoyancy. Jonah did not recognize this one from all of his sea voyages, but the tune had a melancholic ring about it, and the lyrics told of a place where there would be no work, where beer mugs grew out of trees, and refills itself from an endless fountain of beer. A place where pretty maidens danced to the sound of a fiddle that never ends. Jonah tried imagining the scenery but ended up imagining cousin Amran’s bride behind a veil. Kohled eyes, lined lips, henna-tatted hands and feet. How pretty she would be whining to the fiddle music. How graciously pretty. How did cousin Amran find her? Perhaps he, too, would find a suitable woman for a bride. An endless stream of thoughts as the sailors’ shanty lulled him into heavy slumber.

*

One of the stacked gallons in Jonah’s cabin toppled, rolled over the floor spilling its content. Two more followed. In swift successions, with heavy thuds. The moon had retreated into the heavens and there was a gross, silvery darkness around the sea, except for the faint glow of hand lamps hooked to walls. The upper deck was quickly thrown into a concert of commotion; the captain had lost control of his ship. Alia now swayed of its own accord to the madness of the waves, great water poured into the dock, flooding the ship. Heavy lightning heaved through the vulva of the skies threatening to split the ship in two. The sailors ran about screaming incomprehensible words and commands. The captain gripped with utter fear, reeking of it, reached for the dagger in his waist, cut two twine ropes holding the lumbers tight and watched in sheer horror as each log plopped into the sea. The rest men took cue, lifting boxes, gallons, sacks, and threw the cargoes overboard; a bid to lighten the ship. But it seemed, with each cargo they dropped, each weight they shed, the storm grew twice as violent. So each sailor, hopeless and scared to their wits, cried out to their gods. Some for help, others that their spirits be not sea hoverers, but granted a place in the fiddler’s green, or whichever paradise there was.

But all the while, the raging storm above and his bed afloat in inches of water, Jonah was sound asleep. The captain broke into his hold to find him, drowning. For a moment he thought Jonah dead but for the slow-paced movement of his chest he knew he was only asleep. And this infuriated the captain. He gripped him by the neck, slapped him thrice across the face before Jonah awoke.

“How can you sleep at this time?” The captain thundered. “What kind of man are you, eh? Wake up and pray to your god, perhaps he’ll hear you and spare our lives.”

When the storm didn’t cease, the captain gathered the crew to cast lots to see which one of them had offended the gods and brought the terrible storm. The spinning cup rested at Jonah’s face, as did the crew men’s judging stares. Jonah heard his heart drop to his stomach.

“Who are you?” The men asked.

“Where are you from?”

“What have you done?”

“Why are you running?”

And Jonah answered them. He was running from the Lord who made land and sea. The Lord’s anger was on him, so he sent the storm upon them. The men groaned. “What do we do to quench the storm?”

Jonah said, “throw me into the sea and the storm shall cease.”

But the men thought he was out of his mind. They rowed harder to get to land, but they struggled and the storm raged even harder.

“For your sakes,” Jonah pleaded, “throw me into the sea. Let I alone perish for my sins.”

So the men, distraught, lifted their hands heavenward. “Lord, don’t let us die for this man’s sins. Don’t make us responsible for his death. You sent this storm upon him, you alone know your reasons.”Then the sailors picked Jonah and cast him into the sea. And the storm ceased the instant Jonah’s body plopped.

Meanwhile the Lord had arranged for a great whale to swallow Jonah. And Jonah was inside the fish, three days and three nights.

 

 

“Nineveh” is a contemporary reimagining of the Bible story of the runaway prophet, Jonah. First published on Medium by Daniel Ogba. 

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