It began with a wind murmuring in an ancient and new voice; the sea nations heard, and only one man who told his wife. She said, "Ah, you're drunk again." His sons thought the same. Their wives said nothing and listened. Then, they, too, heard the voice of the wind, and gathering close their garments, grew quieter still. They carried cool water to their father-in-law as he, in obedience to the voice, hauled rough-cut planks of cedar—hard labor for a six-hundred-year-old-man.
His sons watched their wives and then began to help their father. The old man's wife never heard the voice; nevertheless, she cooked, washed, mended their clothing, and dreamed of being a grandmother.
Poised in twilight, she quivers from nose to tail. He steps out of the blackness of the trees. Utterly still, they fathom each other and the wind. Delicate, polished black adamantine hooves tamp ground. With gracile limbs powered by iron-sprung haunches, and chests deep and wide for drinking the wind, they leap together into the wind-tide, eastward—the stag and his mate.
The wind furrows the backs of the pack lounging outside their den, digesting their kill and watching pups stalk and maul each other. It is not the alpha wolf who rises, shakes himself, pricks his ears, and begins to lope east, moon rising in his eyes, but a young dog a year before his prime. The sloe-eyed she-wolf running northeast converges with him. Matching strides, they cover ground their huge feet seem not to touch, running swiftly for days on end, without rest, without weariness, as if borne on the wind itself.
The matriarch weeps and flings her head from side to side, swaying and stamping in grief. Caressed by her sister, she will not be comforted. A wind has swept over them at the watering place. The young one lifts her trunk to read it and closes her eyes. Helpless to affect some terrible thing she knows is coming, the matriarch watches her daughter leave the family, trotting into the wind. (The bull sees her coming, tiny by his measure, and his eyes fill with tears.)
Gold, with green eyes, she waits. He approaches. Among twigs and leaves, across vines and loose stones, huge paws land and break nothing, disturb nothing, make no sound—a step he can maintain at all but his top speed. He moves, shadow among shadows, knowing she is there. A growl, begun by instinct, surges from his belly. He ignores it. She, who before the wind would have feared him, now whirls and without caution begins to run. He is a loner, but he will go with her. They have been chosen.
Thus, the wind—the wind of doom, the reckoning wind, wind of the Lord's own sorrow—sweeps the earth, Destroyer and Preserver; for as it summons the clouds and churns the waters it chooses some to cipher its message. Antennae throb, whiskers maneuver, tails twitch, and sticky red tongues snap out to taste it. Guard hairs stand erect, muscles tighten and release in speed or lumbering strength, in stealth or ground-close scurrying, each according to his nature, each according to her kind. From dens and aeries, balmy plains and the murky depths of jungle and swamp; from blazoned snow-lands, dappled forest worlds, and shadowless deserts, they come. Answering the wind, each in his own way, each in her own time, they come.
The old man stands at the threshold of the ark. In spite of the heat, chills shoot up his spine. His knees shake and his eyes stream. (He is always maudlin in his cups but he's had nothing to drink for weeks.) He built the ark in obedience, on faith, not knowing for whom he was building it. Now he knows it was for them—and seeing them—in their numbers, in their unbearable humility, in their strength and fragility—he weeps.
The first to come are the birds, alighting on the roof —from little brown birds, so plain they disappear against the rough wood, to birds of such bright plumage they take his breath, he has never seen such glory. Such ones exist in the world! He hadn't dreamed.
They come without fear two by two. The horizon flows rivers of beings: multitudinous forms, shaggy and sleek, scaled and smooth.
They come hopping on twos, prancing on fours; feet padded, flippered, clawed, webbed, hooved; or they slither on none.
They come, shells on their backs, pouches on their fronts, horns on their heads or protruding out their mouths; in colors of rainbows and of old leaves. The clowns. The majestics.
They come, eyes like moons or setting suns, like mossy pools sunlit from below, like fire-lit ice or haunted brown of unknown depths.
They come with fingers and toes, grasping tails and old-man-like faces, scampering up the ramp like wizened children.
Lizards of a size that could only have been spawned from his most drunken nightmare, steadfastly plod up the gangplank.
Tiny, many-eyed, many-legged creatures float by, or cling to the backs and heads and tails of larger folk possibly unfelt by them. (There he sees a spider with her mate—he fat and sleepy, looking forward to her spinning them a silver traveling berth; she deigning not to eat him for the present.)
They come, fantastic, beloved of God. The old man quakes at his responsibility and wants a drink.
For days and nights they come, and the old man's sons take turns holding him up as he greets each one who enters the ark. Finally the last two arrive: a small white dog and a small brown one. The old man does not know which is he and which she.
The clouds boil white froth that congeals into a black tide and rolls from earth's edge to earth's edge. Light and color drown in a sea of black. Lightning screeches through the heavens like pain; the earth roars in anguish as she opens. Her fountains gush from the deep.
Father and sons close the ark, huddle in the lower deck and listen to the wrath of God. The boat trembles and bravely stands the scathing wind wielding the sword of purgation—water: sustainer of all life, now become destroyer. The ark shudders as if to break apart as the ground is lost, and the old man prays, Please let this thing float. It does. Still he cannot rest. He thinks he hears the wailing of all mankind. He weeps bitterly and covers his head and cannot hear the singing and does not notice the silence of the animals both inside and outside the ark.
His daughters-in-law quietly roam the vessel stroking soft noses, scratching ears, filling troughs, mangers, and bowls. The small, hairy creatures with their old-man-faces embrace them, play with their earrings, steal their bracelets, chatter and make them laugh. The two little dogs trot after them, fearing no one, not even the old bull elephant (wisdom having its place in the ark along with fecundity) who is the resident giant, even beside the mammoth female (of whom he is greatly solicitous for she misses her mother), for he is good and always looks before he steps. The birds of every kind, each with his own song, fill the decks with music. The cats lap milk and purr and lick themselves all over until they gleam in the torch-lit hold. The wolves and bears munch heavy cakes made with every kind of grain and oil and herb, lick each other and doze in beds of straw. The cows, ewes, and she-goats mother the voyagers with their milk and chew their grasses in the shadows of proud bulls and rams. Creeping things spin themselves into pods and dangle from the rafters.
After forty days and nights the wailing ceases, wind and rain withdraw; the singing subsides. The ark comes to rest on still water. The old man uncovers his head. He opens a window and peers out. Everywhere is water and nothing, nothing else. The young women climb to the outside deck, breathe hungrily, loosen their hair and bare their arms to the sun. They scan the watery world for the singers. What kind of beings are they? Angels? They must, of course, be angels. Will they show themselves?
Now they see a blackness shadowing swift and strong from the depths of the sea. They hear a mighty rumble and swoosh! as the waters part. Before them rises Leviathan—first of creation. She cleaves the water—an impossible ascent from liquid to air, the only solid thing, herself, whirling and falling on her side in a sea-displacing splash. Her hieroglyphic flukes smack the surface as she dives. In the distance, two more such ones of a size they can scarcely comprehend, never having seen mountains at play.
The women have no fear. As if to reassure them anyway, the little shepherds of the sea appear, dancing around the boat. The women begin to clap and dance. Their men join in. Even the old man's wife stares in awe at the smiling behemoths and the small ones frolicking about their tiny ark in the great vastness of the spangled waters. The survivors of God's anger behold the beings who flourish beneath the waves, and wonder, and feel at peace.
For the sea nations had not suffered the Lord's regret. They gleamed like shining lights in God's eyes. The small ones asked, in pity for their earth-bound brothers and sisters, that they might, with dolphin mind and agile corporeal forms, encompass and surround them to ease their passage. This the Lord allowed. The giants of the sea, too, felt compassion for the creatures of land, for the terror that was theirs to come. What can we do? they prayed. We are so large, we will add to their terror if they see us coming at them through the waves. The little ones among them won't even be able to see us as we are. We will be to them like walls, like mountains, like dark moons. Give us a means to comfort them.
The Lord heard their prayer and gifted them with song. And when the rains came they began to sing and filled the earth and skies and waters with their songs, and the animals stopped scrambling in fear and listened and were comforted and waited as the waters rose. The spheres resounded with song from the little blue planet for an awesome thing was happening there. And as the waters rose the shepherds came—the dolphins—leaping and laughing, beaming serenity to guide them in joy and peace; compassion filled the stormy seas as they surrounded each dying creature with love, easing her or him into the next world.
Be not afraid. Nothing dies. All is spirit. All is reborn. Be at peace.
But men fought each other for higher ground, lost their senses, wailing and cursing, so they could not hear the whales singing them hope and comfort, nor feel dolphin mind ready to guide them safely from the disappearing earth to the infinite realm of light and spirit. Drowned in the maelstrom of their own lamentations, mankind passed over into darkness in needless anguish and wandered till their rage was spent and their fear dissolved. It took a long time for them to find their way to the light.
The ark floats on. The whales sing now to comfort the survivors who sometimes howl in anguish over lost tribes, or trumpet in grief for memories of wrinkled faces and loving eyes, or pace, restless for a territory to study and conquer. And the old man says his prayers morning and evening and fondles the seeds in his pocket that hold the promise of new vines. His wife soothes him and keeps a close eye on the bellies of her daughters-in-law. His sons repair the boat. The young women nurture and are nurtured by the creatures on the ark. Mother Wind rises again and rocks the ark like a cradle. The sky stays bright, the sun hot, and the waters recede.
The birds leave first.
The sea of water turned to a sea of mud and none but the birds could go far, but the wind sucked the mud dry, and the earth became firm and even green, and the rainbow appeared, sign of the covenant he had made, the Lord God, with the race of men and the species, every one, he had saved on the ark. And to the minds in the waters who had served the earth's creatures in their dying hours, the Lord God said You will save and shepherd mankind and sing for the peace of all living things. This is your covenant, first of my children. But you will pay dearly, for the riders of the ark have inherited corruption. You will have to sing them back again and again.
The singing hasn't stopped.