In a Milk and Honeyed Land by Richard Abbott

Publisher: Trafford Publishing

Book rating as per the author: PG-13 (questionable content for children under 13)

Book contains: One scene of descriptive writing about sexual acts between consenting adults. ( What is your book about?

Richard Abbott (RA): In a Milk and Honeyed Land is set close to the end of a long period of comparative stability in the hill country of Canaan. The Egyptians – the Mitsriy of the story – have governed the region with a fairly light hand, on the whole. Population has declined, and towns and villages have dwindled in size as the occupants have moved out into the more prosperous lowlands. Within a hundred years or so, the political landscape will be quite different again, with the Mitsriy gone and small kingdoms arising to compete over the territory. For the time being, communities continue in their traditional ways, with local priests and chieftains chosen from among the people by merit rather than dynastic ambition.

The book follows the life of Damariel, a young man in one of the towns who struggles with timeless issues of life and love, loyalty and betrayal, greed and generous giving. He is apprenticed in youth by the village priest, whose reckless actions lead to his disgrace. Damariel manages to avoid becoming implicated in the matter and carries on his training, marrying his childhood friend Qetirah shortly before they begin their shared ministry in the town. Feeling ashamed of their continuing inability to have children, Qetirah becomes pregnant by the chief of the four towns, but the pregnancy is difficult. Damariel’s anger and outrage spills over into the marriage. He holds the chief responsible for the situation but cannot see how to get either justice or revenge… How did you pick the topic for In a Milk and Honeyed Land?

RA: The very brief account of this episode in the biblical book of Joshua has fascinated me for a long time. I was convinced that there must be an interesting back-story, and wanted to write it. The book of Joshua concentrates on national events and outcomes – I wanted to explore personal motives and choices. How is In a Milk and Honeyed Land different from other books that cover the same or similar information?

RA: I have written the book not from the perspective of the Israelites (which many people have done) but from that of the Canaanites who were living in the land already. Why would this particular group break ranks with former friends and allies in order to make a covenant with a group of strangers?
I also wanted to portray the intimate social and religious life of a small community of ordinary people, rather than the affairs of great kings or a temple priesthood.
Finally, I have read several stories in which Canaanite religion is portrayed as dark and terrible – I wanted to present it as a natural and enjoyable expression of their lifestyle.

Richard Abbott

Richard Abbott What did you like most about writing this book?

RA: I really enjoyed blending poetry in the ancient middle eastern style with narrative, and trying to make both sound as though they could credibly be based on the words and thoughts of people of the time. I loved creating a small community of people with their own particular loves, losses and personal struggles. Having finished the story, I miss them and want to revisit them in other stories.

An excerpt from In a Milk and Honeyed Land:

After a long time there came complete silence, and he looked up at the drape, wondering what was happening. Then Yeresheth’s voice came again, raised high, wailing for the dead, and the others joined her in turn, woman after woman. Damariel felt himself shake, transfixed to the spot with tears in his eyes as the sound slowly swelled and then faded as they left the house. He sat there for a few moments, letting the death moment build in his mind as the keening had done. Then he got up, straightened his clothes, and left the house, walking blindly up to the high place.

He went by the shortest route, past silent household doors each draped with their own garlands of leaf or flower. He was aware of the sound of women mourning across to the west of the village and knew the men would be gathering to the east. He came into the open space above the last house, seeing Saniyahu there alone with the bodies. He had cleaned the wounds, arranged the limbs in the proper way, and dressed both boys in white tunics tied with a rope belt. They lay across one of the stones, stretched out like a sacrifice, each on a wicker bier. Saniyahu himself was in his full regalia, with long embroidered gown, wide sash, and an elaborate kef tied into a tower on his head, clothing Damariel had seen only twice before. He was briefly dazzled as the low sun threw golden reflections into his eyes from the thick bands at the seer’s throat and groin. He felt shabby beside him, and then saw that the older man was holding something out. He blinked the brightness away and realised it was a woven shawl and sash. He wrapped and tied them to the priest’s satisfaction and drew himself up, feeling able now to play his part in the ceremony.

There was no time now, and Damariel stood where the older man told him, to the left of the bodies, just behind the seer, looking towards the sacred north. The sound of the women grew closer from his left, and he knew without looking that Yeresheth and Sosanneth would be leading the rest. To his right, the men approached in a silent group. He tried to see if Shomal was there out of the corners of his eyes, not wanting to turn his head, knowing that to do that he would have to look over the stone with the bodies. He did not trust himself to do that without being overcome with emotion. The women’s wailing seemed to go on for ever, treading endlessly up the rising ground towards him. Then it stopped, and there was only the sound of the day breeze whispering in smock and tunic.

Until some years later, when Damariel was himself responsible for such an event, he never knew how long they all stood there to help Baruk and Bashur make their passage to the land of the dead. Looking back, he knew it could not be long, but on that day it seemed an age of the world, as the preparatory words of the seer flowed across the empty space between the stones, between this world and the next, between the men and the women of the village standing either side of the empty space and the two bodies. The words he had to say kept rolling around his mind in rehearsal as he listened to Saniyahu working through the liturgy.

He heard the priest ask where the bodies were to be laid, and heard Yeresheth step forward and offer the chamber of her ancestors and the little flat cakes she had made that morning. He heard him accept the place, and then ask what gifts were to be sent on with them. He saw Sosanneth, her face pinched tight, lay a spinning top beside them for their childhood. He saw Danil step forward with a short knife for each of them for their manhood, which had never been, and place it on their chests, tucking it under the loose cords they wore for belts. He saw Shomal put a nail and trowel between them for their place in the community. Saniyahu nodded and stepped back, and it was time for Damariel to sing.

He stepped up to the two bodies, his eyes fixed in the north, watching the far away cloud shapes like temples or palaces piled on the hilltops, with roofs open wide to the sight of the endless sun, and he sang as he bloomed in the sun, in the wind, in the sight of all those who were living and singing on high. The words Saniyahu had taught him all poured from his mouth just like showers in the spring or like streams in the desert, his word and his song springing out from his soul, washing over the village and filling the high place, poised there between sky and earth. He forgot the people standing there listening, he forgot the two bodies at his feet, and felt something opening inside him, as though he was being swept along on the current of a song that had started long before him, melody and poetry that flowed round the homes of mortals and gods to inspire them all. It was him, then, him who stood for the whole community, who stood between the living and the dead and sang to both, and he felt all their eyes on him as he did so.

He finished, the moment passed, and after all that he was still Damariel, and he had still lost both his brothers in a single day.

Let them be welcomed within,
Let them rest in their pavilions
So proclaimed most mighty El,
So spoke the lord of the earth:
His judgement is true.

He stepped back again, feeling Saniyahu’s hand firm on his shoulder, and looked around. Shomal was a face in the crowd of men, looking somewhere into the valley. Yeresheth was kneeling in front of the other women, looking at nothing but the bodies, with Sosanneth’s hand in hers. But Qetirah had her eyes full of the day’s brightness as she looked back at him, and Damariel felt a different kind of future stirring in him as she kept his eyes for a long moment until the deeper voice of the seer came across them all, releasing the boys to go on to their ancestors and calling on the dead who had gone before to accept them.

Copyright© Richard Abbott.

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