Azazel stood alone on the edge of the Great Desert. The guide from the Meeting Tent had led him here and promptly left him. In front of Azazel there were only two colours: tawny dunes of sand swimming under the blue sky. The air felt empty and dry, like a great waiting, an intake of breath in anticipation of God only knows what.

Azazel knew, as his father Aaron had taught him, that life abounded even here in the silence of the desert. Reptiles kept house in burrows deep under the sand. Great monitor lizards were hiding from the heat in their shaded dens under rocks. A diverse kingdom of insects found shade around the few straggly trees in the landscape. The termite nests looked like Lot’s wife and her companions who looked back and were turned to salt.

All these lives huddling in the shade were waiting for the new morning when the sparse dew would provide enough water for another day.

He, Azazel, could not go back to the camel-skin tents which had been his habitat for the twelve years since his birth. Now he had been deliberately abandoned to the desert by his community. He was chosen by lot. His twin brother, Ithamar, favoured by the same drawing of lots, was free to go on living.

There were two sheepskin bags over Azazel’s shoulder. Both were empty. They had given him no survival rations, but at least the bags gave Azazel the opportunity to scavenge and survive. He began scrabbling for kindling and larger pieces of wood, thrusting each stick over his shoulder into the bigger bag. The other bag would stay empty until nightfall.

Azazel was gratified that his survival instincts had begun to kick in, because, apart from the urge to plan a fire for warmth and cooking, his whole body was numb. Numb with the shock of being cast out. He could feel the blood on his face where his father had sprinkled the goat’s blood, and he could smell the iron taste of it, but apart from the stickiness of the blood, he felt nothing.

Azazel thought of his father earlier that day, dressed in the holy clothes, the white linen leggings, the embroidered tunic, the turban, and the weight around Aaron’s neck of Urim and Thummim, the stones for soothsaying. All the regalia in the world and he would still be the paragon, his father, the man who was there, loving, caring, correcting, singing from before Azazel could remember: the man who had made Azazel’s world safe.

Now standing alone, Azazel remembered the strong warmth of his father’s arms and chest as Aaron picked him up and threw him in the air, catching him again and holding him tight. Azazel’s toddler’s legs wrapped around his abba’s waist. The rough kiss of his long beard; the earthy scent of his body; and the games with the twins, with Ithamar and Azazel, with slingshot and ball made of camel’s bladder.

And on Aaron’s tongue there was always a joyful song.

They were tight in love, the three of them, Aaron, Ithamar and Azazel. Azazel knew that he and Ithamar, Aaron’s only sons, were Aaron’s precious family.

The sun was nearly gone now, and the desert was beginning to cool. Azazel hugged himself. The sky was the deepest of blue, and the yellow sand had turned beige in the fading light. Azazel’s stomach growled with hunger. He hadn’t eaten since the bowl of camel’s milk and bread which was his breakfast.

But there would be no warm stew tonight.

Azazel climbed down a small rock and put his hand under a ledge and tightened it around the neck of an ornate mastigure. As he pulled out the green lizard, it squealed and scratched at Azazel’s clothes. Azazel took care to avoid the sharp claws. He quickly killed the lizard against the rock and placed it in the smaller of the empty bags.

He made a fire, cooked the lizard, and ate. The meat in his stomach felt warm and nourishing. Azazel stoked the fire and put bigger logs from his bag onto the blaze. He wrapped his cloak tighter around him, lay down and gazed into the flames.

He thought of Ithamar and Aaron in the warmth of their big tent, his mother coming and going with food from the room behind, and the shy appearances of his betrothed Adah, her head covered and her pert face smiling at him as she brought dishes and drinks to the men. The smoke stung his eyes, and the black desert lay huge and silent around him. The bright eternal stars above were the only lights.

Then he remembered Adah’s absence these past weeks.

Azazel knew that he was meant to die. From infancy, Aaron had stressed the dangers of the desert. No man on his own could survive the harsh conditions. This morning’s ritual was a casting out unto death. As he watched the flames flicker and die, he wondered whether he would beat the odds and survive, and, if so, for what? He knew that the ritual signified he could never return to his own community, and any other nomadic tribe he approached would surely kill him on sight.

But he could not understand why his father had convoked the ritual. Certainly, Moses had ordained it, and Azazel hated the influence the old man had over his father. But why had it been necessary at all?

Azazel cast his mind back three months to the night visitors who had so unsettled their camp. Three strangers on camels had come requesting hospitality. Despite the late hour, Aaron had roused the men and women of their tent to receive the guests. A huge steaming bowl of stew, rice, spices and bread was produced. The guests had pride of place on the rugs around the bowl and they ate, as was the custom of all nomads, with their hands. Hot fermented camel’s milk was offered and imbibed.

‘Sing to us,’ the guests had requested, and Aaron had been happy to oblige, accompanying the songs with his bow and rebab.

Azazel and Ithimar had taken the strangers’ camels to the spring, watered them and tethered them in the sweet grass that grew there.  

Then everyone had gone to bed. The men and boys in the main room of the tent made space for the three visitors. The women and girls slept beyond the beaded curtain in the kitchen. The lamps were extinguished. Azazel remembered a few murmurs of conversation in the darkness, then all was quiet.

Azazel woke in the early hours, when the moon was nearly over the horizon. Azazel was vaguely aware of the little wheatears beginning their dawn chirping. Azazel’s father was shouting; Azazel did not know at whom, but Aaron’s voice drowned out the little birds’ song. 

In the confusion, Azazel thought his mother was there in the main tent, and Adah, his betrothed, but that could not be. He thought he could hear both crying. Azazel sat up on his quilt. His father turned to him. ‘Back to sleep, my little twins,’ he urged in a softer voice. ‘There’s no need for you to be concerned.’

Azazel had lain down again, but was aware of more movement in the tent, and the clank of camel harness just outside.

Next morning when he and Ithimar woke, the three strangers had gone. His father refused to explain anything. The 12-year-old twins were no longer young men, but little boys denied knowledge of momentous secrets in the family.

What Azazel knew was that, from that night on, his father had stopped singing.

Six weeks later, his mother told him that Adah could no longer be his betrothed. She was being sent back to her family.

‘But why?’ Azazel asked reasonably. He knew that for a family to break a betrothal brought great shame.

 Elisheba gently grasped Azazel’s arms. ‘I can’t tell you,’ she said. ‘Your father… Your father has forbidden me.’ Her moist eyes beseeched her son not to question further.

Days later, Azazel and Ithimar bounced around the outside corner of the tent. Moses and Aaron were speaking to each other quietly and intensely. For a moment they were not aware of the boys.

Moses was saying earnestly to Aaron, ‘… a scapegoat to take the shame out of the camp.’

Aaron started, ‘But that’s superstition…’ He caught sight of his boys and stopped. Azazel thought his father looked guilty and frightened. ‘Another time, Teacher.’

‘No,’ continued Moses, ‘it may prove to be God’s way of dealing.’ He marched off, his head high, towards his own tent next to the Meeting Tent.

In the desert, the fire died down. Azazel reached into his bag for the last log, and watched the flames dampen down, then take again with greater warmth.

In Aaron’s tent, Ithimar lay silent. His twin had gone. Earlier in the day, he thought he had escaped, but now he was beginning to feel in his gut what he would pay for their father’s actions.

In the women’s part of Aaron’s tent, Elisheba sobbed. Such a huge price, she thought, and such a terrible crime. Her sobbing reverberated through the tent.

Aaron lay quietly listening to his wife’s disconsolate cries and his son’s ragged breathing.  Something heavy lay on his chest, a guilt and grief that would never end. As High Priest, he understood the ritual. Moses would counsel that there’s no going back without incurring God’s wrath for eternity.

But his wife’s loud distress and his son Ithimar’s silent grief and his own heavy heart were too great to ignore.

He lit a lantern, and gently prodded the other twin.

‘Come, Ithimar,’ he said, ‘We’re going to find him and bring him home.’

As Aaron harnessed the camel, Ithimar was astonished to hear his father sing.


Azazel was first published by the Writing Quarter, the winning story for September 2018


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