A Biblical retelling
It wasn’t a great place to grow up. They say you can get used to anything, and in fact I found the earthquakes kind of fun. but the meanness of the people shocked me. I’ve always had a hard time believing that my father would choose it as a place to raise his family. He said it was for the opportunities.
Before I was born, my parents and my older sisters traveled with my uncle Abraham, but then they had some kind of fight, over business, and went their separate ways. I was born in Sodom; until it was destroyed, I knew no other home.
There were four of us girls; I’m the third. We came in sets: my two older sisters first, a couple of years apart, and then there’s a gap of six years, My little sister and I were born within a year of each other.
Father pretended to be disappointed over not having sons, but I think he actually preferred girls. The older girls married as soon as they could, and it upset him. Most fathers of that time were pleased to marry off their daughters, and my brothers-in-law were quite suitable, so he had no real reason for his displeasure, at least none that anyone could guess.
Mother hated Sodom, and longed to return to the nomadic life. This enraged Father. They fought about it constantly.
He would point out how much we had, how we lived in the best neighborhood, in the biggest house, how she had fine clothes and jewels. “You’d have none of this if we had stayed with Abraham,” I remember him saying, “just some sheep, and our daughters would be hard and brown like dirt, and married to some filthy shepherds.”
Mother would weep. “But maybe we’d be happy! Maybe we’d have some friends! These people don’t like us, and i don’t like them. They’re not good people.”
And then Father would order her to be quiet, and tell her she was making a fuss over nothing.
My older sisters agreed with him. They remembered their life before Sodom, and they said it was hard and dreary.
“Never anything to do. No theater, no dressmakers, no fun. lust sheep and more sheep.”
So Mother washed her hands of them, and concentrated on us. She constantly told me and my little sister that we were different, better than the Sodomites, and not to have anything to do with them.
Well, we were different, but the things that made us different didn’t really please her. For instance. Father is famous, to this day, for his hospitality. Now, in Sodom, it was actually against the law to feed the hungry or house the homeless. Some say that is why it was destroyed, and I agree. The sin of Sodom was greed, and hard-heartedness.
So, in theory, Mother, being a good woman, approved of Father’s generosity. In practice, however, it meant more work for her, a lot of work in fact.
He liked to drink with his guests, and stay up all night, listening to their tales. And they’d be hungry, and Mother would sometimes have to serve food and drink right up until the light broke over the mountains.
“Why is it up to us to feed the world?” she’d yell at him the next day. “You can’t bring home everyone who passes through here. It’s not fair to me, or to your children.”
But Father would just go all pious on her, and talk about the ways of the desert, and of uncle Abraham, and she would be quiet, falling into a brooding silence that frightened me.
I don’t know how long they would have gone on like that. Maybe forever. But one day, my oldest sister Pilotis broke the law, and it changed everything.
By law, anyone found feeding a beggar could be put to death. If a man starved, the Sodomites reasoned, he must have displeased the gods in some way. To feed him would therefore be tantamount to sacrilege. But our God was not that of the Sodomites. Our parents taught us to share what we had with anyone, especially anyone in need
So on that particular day, when Pilotis went to the well, and found a man near death from hunger in its shadows, she slipped him a little food from our midday meal. Seen, however, by an informant, Pilotis was tried and sentenced to the usual punishment for charity: they stripped her naked, smeared her body with honey and hung her by her heels in the square until the bees stung her to death.
We heard her screams all day and well into the night. With her dying breath, she begged God to avenge her. Mother wept one final time. I never saw her cry again.
Like I said, that seemed to be the beginning of the end. After Pilotis died, there was an earthquake almost every day. Mother became nervous; she thought it was a sign from God.
“We should leave now, and go back to Abraham,” she said to Father. “These people have killed your daughter, what more are you waiting for?”
“I still have business here,” was his only reply.
Mother didn’t answer him. She just muttered under her breath what sounded like either a prayer or a curse. I never did quite hear.
One night, shortly after that. Father came home with two strangers. I liked them right away. Neither of them smiled. Though not quite thirteen at the time, I’d already learned to be wary of men who smiled too much.
Mother didn’t smile, either, but she didn’t argue when he said they’d be eating with us and then spending the night. All the fight had gone out of her by then.
She didn’t go out of her way to fix anything special. “We’re just having bread,” she told them. “You’re welcome to some, but it’s all we have.”
The men said it would be fine, but Father scowled. I hoped they weren’t going to fight. But before he could open his mouth to say anything. Mother fled out the door.
“I need salt from the neighbor,” she said. Sometime later she returned, and we sat down to eat our meal. We ate in silence. For some reason, I felt a terrible sense of dread, and tried to finish as quickly as I could. I wanted to busy myself with chores, and not have to sit there and witness my parents’ bitterness.
But before I could excuse myself, I became aware of a rumbling noise outside the house. At first I thought it was an earthquake, or thunder. But it grew, and soon it was obvious what it was: voices. The voices of the Sodomites, who now surrounded our house, demanding that we hand over our guests.
“Send out the strangers,” they cried, “that we may know them.”
Mother grew pale and still, while Father’s face reddened with anger. I expected to see fright on the faces of our visitors, but they looked sad instead.
Father went to the door.
“I can’t send these men out,” he shouted. “They are guests under my protection. I have two daughters who are virgins. Take them instead, I beg you.”
At this my mother shrieked.
“Silence, woman,” growled Father. “I know what I’m doing.”
“You have never known what you are doing,” she snapped back at him, “and now is no exception. Give up the men, and let your innocent daughters live. Or do you want the deaths of two more on your head?”
He turned, then, and made a move towards her. His arm was raised, and I shuddered. He’d hit her before, and it had been terrible to see.
But this time the blow did not connect. One of the men grabbed his arm.
“Lot,” he said, “do not sin on our account. You cannot trade your daughters’ lives for ours. God will deal with the mob.”
But their voices grew louder outside, and still they demanded the men. The house started shaking as they tried to batter their way in. My younger sister burst into tears, and Mother grew pale. I put my head down on the table, covering my eyes.
Then there came a flash of light so bright I could see it through closed lids. Wailing and screams of terror rose from the crowd. The banging stopped; soon all was silent.
It still seemed unnaturally bright. Cautiously, I opened my eyes. A ribbon of light surrounded our two visitors. It almost appeared to be emanating from their skin! I shuddered.
“Lot,” said the one my left, in a low, authoritative voice. “Take your wife and your daughters and son-in-law, and leave Sodom. Tonight.”
“There must be no delay,” said the other. “This place will be destroyed, and everyone in it will perish.”
“Do as they say,” said Mother. “We must leave here, or we will be killed. God’s vengeance is upon the Sodomites.” Father opened his mouth to speak, then closed it. He left the house quickly. “He’s going to get your sister and brother-in-law,” said the man on my right. “But he won’t be able to convince them to come.” I nodded. Whoever this man was (if he was even a man at all), he seemed to understand my sister very well.
“You better help your mother pack up,” he added. “It will be quite late when Lot returns.”There really wasn’t much to pack. We had prospered in Sodom, but my family was not particularly acquisitive. My mother and little sister trembled as they hastened to throw together our few belongings. I remained steady, hoping that I could calm them as well as myself.
Then we waited for my father to return. Our visitors sung to us, to help us rest. Mother, exhausted, soon fell asleep, but I lay awake. Even though these men seemed kind, I didn’t want to go to sleep without my father to protect us.
At dawn, he returned. Alone.
“Your sister and brother-in-law will not listen,” he said to me. “In fact,” he continued, turning to our guests, “I’m not so sure that I should listen to you. What proof do I have that you are telling me the truth?”
“Up!” said one, in a terrible voice. “Take your wife and your two remaining daughters, lest you be swept away because of the sin of Sodom.” His voice rumbled like thunder, waking my mother and sister. Finally, I couldn’t help it. I began to cry.
But still my father hesitated.
Then it seemed like a strong wind rushed through our home, and I found that one of the men had grabbed my hand. In his other, he held my mother, and on his shoulders, my sister. My father and our belongings were carried by the other visitor, and, although it seemed we were moving faster than any man or beast I’d ever seen, I was not afraid.
As the very first light appeared over Sodom, we were deposited just outside her gates.
“Now run! Run for your lives!” said our friends. “Don’t look behind you, or stop anywhere in the Plain; flee to the hills or be swept away!”
Believe me, I was ready to run, because there already hung over Sodom a black cloud the likes of which I’d never seen.
But my father, shrewd to the end, begged them to spare Zoar, so we would have a town to settle in, and not have to live in a cave in the hills. The men, or the angels, or whatever they were, agreed, and told us to hurry, because they could do nothing until we were gone.
lust as we got to Zoar, there was a terrible shaking of the earth, unlike any I’d ever felt before. It was as if the earth was actually trying to shake Sodom and its inhabitants off itself, and out into the heavens.
Then there was a stench, of sulfur and something else: burning flesh. Remembering the warning of the angels, I didn’t look back on Sodom, even though I desperately wanted to see what was happening. My sister buried her face beneath my father’s arm. He himself shook; I’d never seen him so palpably frightened.
But my mother! She wailed and tore at her clothes like a madwoman. The tears that had been stopped up since the murder of Pilotis now came in a torrent, as she mourned the deaths of both of her older daughters. Then in her anguish, she looked back at Sodom. She babbled now, saying something about saving my sister. And, as she turned, she froze. The life went out of her body, and then her body itself left this life. All that remained was the salt of her tears.
Zoar was very different from Sodom. It was a small town, peopled by simple folk, industrious and kind. But we only stayed there a few days.
Father, driven mad, it seemed, by grief, reacted to the Zoarites as if they were the Sodomites.
“We must leave this evil place,” he said to me, early one morning, “lest God destroy it as He destroyed Sodom.”
I pointed out that Zoar was nothing like Sodom, and reminded him of the angel’s promise to spare it.
But he wouldn’t, or couldn’t listen. He said he was afraid the men of Zoar would rape me and my little sister, and spoil everything he had left in his life. His eyes clouded over, and I knew he was thinking of Mother.
So he took us up into the hills. He’d purchased provisions in Zoar, and we planted as soon as we got up there, but little grew. Father had no energy. He spoke of building a house, but never did. Instead, we lived in a cave that was damp, cold and dark.
Little sister spoke no more. Her grief for Mother was deep, but she seemed to fear making any sound. Perhaps she was afraid of collapse.
We’d bought many kegs of wine in Zoar, and Father started drinking every day. He’d look off into the distance, muttering to himself. I tried to keep our family going: I tended the garden, prepared meals, kept the cave as clean as possible. But Father’s moods became more and more erratic, while Sister had no mood at all except somber and still.
It was a very lonely existence. Sometimes I wished, God help me, that we’d been destroyed along with Sodom. There didn’t seem to be much reason for us to keep clinging to our lives in this cave.
One night, after Father had been drinking all day, I woke to a rough hand clapped over my mouth and a heavy body on mine. Although it was too dark to see, I knew it was him. It was his smell, and the stale acrid stench of the wine.
“Don’t cry out,” he whispered. “You’ll wake your sister, and there’s no one here to help you. Lie still, or I’ll have to hurt you.”
So I lay still, because he was so much bigger than I was, because I didn’t want my sister to wake up and be frightened, and because nothing seemed to matter any more, anyway. My life was cold and bitter and full of pain; a little more pain would hardly be noticeable.
I let him do what he wanted, even though I knew it was wrong. And I wondered why the angels had saved us. It occurred to me that perhaps they were not angels, but demons, and my mother and sisters were better off having perished quickly with the Sodomites.
It went on like that for a long time. He would drink all day; he would rape me at night. Sometimes he threatened, sometimes he wheedled, but he always got his way. After a while, my belly started to swell, and I knew there would be a child. I hoped it would be born dead.
Meanwhile, my sister grew more and more listless. I saw Father watching her, and I tried to hide my condition from him. I didn’t think she would survive his attacks.
But eventually, when I was heavy with my baby, he turned his attentions to her. She would lie there, unblinking, unmoving. He didn’t even have to threaten her. She was little more than a stone.
I thought things couldn’t get any worse, but they did. My sister’s belly began to swell, too. I wept, knowing that I soon would have three children to care for, one nominally a woman. but with no understanding of what that meant.
The birthing of Moab was long and difficult. I had no help. My screams went unheard by anyone except Father, who spent my whole labor in a drunken stupor, and Sister, who stared, as usual, at the wall of the cave.
But once he was born, some of the bitterness left me. I took care of him the best that I could, and began hiding rations so that I could eventually leave that place. I was determined to go as soon as my sister gave birth and could travel; I wouldn’t leave her behind, mad as she was, for Father was madder still.
When Ben-Ammi was born it was winter. She bore him in silence. As if to make up for it, he cried loudly and often. Father, who had taken little interest in Moab, took some negative notice of little Ben. He began to threaten to kill him if he wasn’t quiet. I knew it was time for us to go.
One night, while Father snored drunkenly, I took the two babies and bound them to my back. I woke my sister, and motioned for her to follow me. She just stared.
“We’re going to leave this place,” I whispered. “We’ll take the babies and go far away, and we’ll never have to see him again.” I took her hand.
“I’ve hidden some rations in the cave,” I continued, as if she was no longer mad and could understand me. “We must go in and gather as much as we can carry for the journey.” To my great astonishment. Sister nodded, and slipped silently into the deepest part of the cave. A few minutes later she emerged, with the rations carefully bundled on her back.
I looked at her long and hard. I wanted to say so much, but I knew there was no time for it. Father had begun to mutter curses under his breath. It was usually a sign that he was about to wake up.
As we stole out of our home, Ben began to stir. When we’d gotten no more than a hundred paces, he woke up with a wail. We quickened our pace, knowing that my Father would now be conscious. How long would it take him to figure out what was happening?
Despite the heaviness of the children, I began to run. I let go of Sister’s hand, but she managed to keep up with me. Tears ran down my face, and hers too. All through the night we ran and cried, cried and ran.
We reached Zoar at dawn. Out of breath, grimy, with two howling infants, we must have looked madder than we both were. Fortunately, an old woman, living alone on the farthest edge of town, found us and welcomed us into her home.
We stayed with her for many months. I hoped my sister would regain her voice, but she never did. Finally, we took leave of the kind woman who rescued us and moved to a small tent, apart from town but near enough to draw water.
The townspeople never fully welcomed us, and my sister died young, silent, gentle and broken.
As for Father, I don’t know if he tried to follow us that night. He never came to Zoar, and after a while I no longer dreamt of him. The father I’d known perished in Sodom; the man in the cave, bedeviled by his own sin, was a stranger to me.
But I often dreamt of the night we ran away and how, as we stumbled through the woods, I heard the voice of my mother guiding us and warning us not to look back.
I am old now, and Ben and Moab are gone, with wives and children. I will die soon, without rancor or regret. I know that I have not sinned against my God, Who commands me to bear witness as the only actual survivor of Sodom.
Lori Ubell lives and writes in San Francisco.